Magic, incarcerated
June 17, 2008 12:34 PM   Subscribe

Help me find real-world magic items.

I'm looking for real-life items that have strange histories, weird reputations, or just plain creep people out. One example is the pair of pistols made of meteoric iron that made the news recently. Any object which can be viewed as having a magical nature will do, the weirder the better.

Historical curiosities, medical oddities, anything that incites a sense of weirded-out wonder will be considered. Extra special bonus points if the objects existed in North America in 1914.

I realize that this is a very broad question, but I wanted to tap into the vast reservoir of odd and arcane knowledge that MeFites seem to have.

(This is for a role-playing campaign. Do not be alarmed. The premise is that these items are charged with a magical energy, which can be harvested. Quests ensue.)
posted by MrVisible to Grab Bag (46 answers total) 97 users marked this as a favorite
Not sure if they're "magical" or not, but there are tons of medical oddities in the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, PA. The original collection went on display in 1858.
posted by LolaGeek at 12:42 PM on June 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Put Wunderkammer into google and see what you get.
posted by 517 at 12:46 PM on June 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

The Magic Switch
posted by phrontist at 12:48 PM on June 17, 2008

How about the Spear of Destiny?
posted by dersins at 12:51 PM on June 17, 2008

Of course, there are those crystal skulls.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:53 PM on June 17, 2008

Well, there's a whole wealth of stuff from Christianity, like splinters of the True Cross and other relics. Likewise there are a wealth of other religions that have similar items.
posted by lekvar at 12:54 PM on June 17, 2008

The fingerbones of Saints are another common relic, often said to have miraculous properties.
posted by lekvar at 12:57 PM on June 17, 2008

Well, you got your famous "haunted painting" sold on ebay.
posted by The Bellman at 12:59 PM on June 17, 2008

Lava, or just about anything else, it seems, removed from Hawaii is supposed to be accursed. Fairy stones might be worth including, too, and fairy rings, if the items don't have to be portable.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:00 PM on June 17, 2008

Best answer: The Hope Diamond is cursed. In 1914, it was owned by Evalyn Walsh McLean, wealthy socialite and bon vivant, of Washington, DC. Good luck getting your Unknown Armies crew past security.
posted by SPrintF at 1:14 PM on June 17, 2008

The Shroud of Turin. The 16th century Piri Reis map, which some believe shows the coastline of Antarctica - under the ice. Beautiful Klerksdorp Spheres.
posted by peachfuzz at 1:16 PM on June 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

The many purported relics of the buddha, with this one being the most interesting.
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:24 PM on June 17, 2008

Best answer: The Voynich Manuscript was acquired by Wilfred Voynich in 1912. In 1914, Voynich emigrated to the US and opened a rare book store in New York.

The manuscript may have been written by Roger Bacon (as Voynich believed), forged by Edward Kelly (friend of Dr John Dee), or scribbled by Abd Al-Azrad. So far, the manuscript has defied all attempts to decipher it and likely contains Secrets That Man Was Not Meant To Know. It is currently kept under lock and key at Yale.
posted by SPrintF at 1:34 PM on June 17, 2008 [3 favorites]

The Hope Diamond. Even the era is good.
posted by coffeefilter at 1:34 PM on June 17, 2008

The Willamette Meteorite is sacred to the Native Americans in the region where it was found in 1902. I believe they used to dip their arrow points in rainwater which had gathered in its many hollows to imbue them with magical accuracy. The tribe still uses the meteorite in a ceremony at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York.
posted by steef at 1:36 PM on June 17, 2008

Best answer: Some of the works of Aleister Crowley were written before he spent the years 1914-1918 in the USA. Perhaps a personal copy (or even an unabridged copy) of one of the occult books he originated?
posted by Jakey at 1:38 PM on June 17, 2008

Best answer: There's some good magical places too that can produce artifacts. For example, a door taken from the Winchester Mystery House could be used as a gate to the spirit world. Since the house was still being built (as it was for almost 40 years) in 1914, that'd be a nice stage setting for some PC theft or maybe some sort of grim rite.

You can import a setting like the Pitt-Rivers museum and stuff it with artifacts from around the world. Take a look at the virtual tour on their site to get an idea of the shear madness of Victorian museum collecting. Big case of Japanese funeral masks? Sure! They're right next to the Malaysian sacrificial daggers. White explorers loved to loot and bring back oddities, so who knows what terror lurks in the museum?

If you want to take a Tim Powers-esque view of the secret history of the USA, then objects that figured in history can take on a magical meaning. The golden spike that joined the Transcontinental Railway? That was the last bolt in the shackles placed on the Spirit of the Land by Europeans, thus bending even the earth to their will.

Heck, you can begin to invent your own magical relics from the history of the US. Bones of the Founding Fathers treated as saintly relics? Franklin's Key, still humming with the power of that first lightning bolt? The first signed (and then broken) treaty between the US and the Native Americans? The first musket ball fired at the Boston Massacre? If you treat the birth of the US like some sort of magical event (little colonials somehow beat the world's biggest Empire; the Masonic leanings of many of the Founding Fathers; etc) then you can come up with a slew of stuff that your players won't expect.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 1:54 PM on June 17, 2008 [4 favorites]

How about thundereggs?
posted by Class Goat at 2:34 PM on June 17, 2008


How about thundereggs? I love the name, and I've always thought that there was something a bit magical about them.
posted by Class Goat at 2:35 PM on June 17, 2008

Bezoars [warning: kinda gross picture] have a long-established reputation for extra-normal properties.
posted by lekvar at 2:36 PM on June 17, 2008

Response by poster: These are amazing suggestions. Just what I was looking for. I'm particularly blown away by Aleister Crowley's role in WWI; I had no idea. That's going to be a plot point. And the Hope Diamond is absolutely going to be the target in an elaborate heist.

The game isn't Unknown Armies; it's a Savage Worlds campaign. Nice guess, though, SPrintF.

Keep them coming, if you please; this thread is turning into Ask MeFi's own little Wunderkammer.
posted by MrVisible at 2:37 PM on June 17, 2008

Best answer: It is currently kept under lock and key at Yale. special collections at the Beinecke where they will let you look at it if you ask. I did. You can see it here, type "MS 408" into the search box. True weirdness.

The bullet that shot and killed President Lincoln is in the Army Medican Museum at the Walter Reed Center. It's likely that the bullet was there then, in a box someplace.

Fiji Mermaid may be almost too prosaic for this. Not necessarily magic but deeply weird. You may find some other interesting stuf fon this pseudoscience list on Wikipedia.
posted by jessamyn at 2:44 PM on June 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

Could you do real props with fake magical associations? I'm thinking of a "4 elements" thing with earth from the SF quake, a flame that's been kept burning since iy was part of the Chicago Fire, etc. So-and-so magical person's bottled last breath is just an empty jar.
posted by bartleby at 2:50 PM on June 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Phineas Gage's iron spike
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:01 PM on June 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Any of a million things having to do with the 1893 World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago. Lots of innovations on display, and some insanely high percentage of the US population came to the fair over the six months it was on - which makes it one of the first really mass-culture events in the US. So if an item was available at the fair, you could expect people in widely separated corners of the country to hear about it/ see the one brought back as a souvenir by someone in their town.

The death of Ambrose Beirce would have been a topic of interest in some circles at the time of your scenario. Outside of being a famous journalist and cynic, writer of the Devil's Dictionary, Beirce was a mobile cartographer during the Civil War as a young man, and at the end of his life disappeared into revolutionary Mexico. One of his maps might be a suitable object.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:17 PM on June 17, 2008

Wrigley Field - built in 1913, charged with magical energy.
posted by Stylus Happenstance at 3:19 PM on June 17, 2008

Best answer: The Stone of Scone is really freakin' cool. It was used to crown Scottish kings at least as far back as the 7th century. Some legends say that a piece of it was given by Robert the Bruce to the Irish for their support at the Battle of Bannockburn, where it was installed in Blarney Castle and became the Blarney Stone (which itself is another potential object).

In 1296, it was stolen by Edward Longshanks as a spoil of war. The British made several promises to return it, but they never did. It remained in Westminster Abbey and nearly every British monarch was crowned upon it. However, on Christmas Day in 1950, a group of Scottish students stole the stone and returned it to Scotland. It was hidden for about four months until it was given to the Church of Scotland and ultimately returned to Westminster. In 1996, it was officially returned to Scotland but under the provision that it will return to Westminster when needed for coronations.

Now, there are countless rumours about the stone. Some say that the stone was hidden and the one captured by Edward I was a fake. Other rumours say that when the stone was stolen from Westminster in 1950, the one that was returned to the British was a fake. Any number of groups are rumoured to be responsible and possible currently in possession of the stone, including but not limited to the Knights Templar.
posted by Nelsormensch at 3:25 PM on June 17, 2008

Best answer: The Three Sacred Treasures of the Japanese Imperial Family probably count - their origins are lost in the mists of time, and they're still considered so sacred that the actual location of each treasure remains unconfirmed.

On the Crowley theme, you might want to check into the Stele of Revealing, the Egyptian artifact that apparently inspired the "revelation" of the Book of the Law. That's probably the most notable of Crowley-related objects, but there are all sorts of ephemera floating around that were, or are alleged to have been, owned by Crowley and/or used in his mystical workings.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 3:27 PM on June 17, 2008

It is rumoured that Skull and Bones (specifically Prescott Bush, grandfather of G. W. Bush) stole Geronimo's skull in 1918.
posted by mhum at 4:00 PM on June 17, 2008

Best answer: Ok, I won't win points here for creativity or difficulty, but Houdini and his water-torture box might offer some narrative possibilities, as might Mina Crandon and her teleplasmic hand. There's a whole circle of interesting figures around Houdini who might prove to be of use.
posted by washburn at 4:29 PM on June 17, 2008

This is exactly the kind of thing that the Museum of Jurassic Technology is for. Here's their current exhibit page.
posted by jasper411 at 4:30 PM on June 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Antikythera mechanism is an ancient mechanical calculator (also described as the first "mechanical computer") designed to calculate astronomical positions. It was discovered in the Antikythera wreck off the Greek island of Antikythera, between Kythera and Crete, in 1900 ... Technological artifacts of similar complexity did not reappear until a thousand years later.
posted by jammy at 4:39 PM on June 17, 2008

hmm... just noticed your post title - magic incarcerated?

did you mean incarnated?
posted by jammy at 4:45 PM on June 17, 2008

don't forget the Mystery Stone of New Hampshire, discovered in 1872...
posted by jammy at 4:58 PM on June 17, 2008

If I were you I'd have my players taxed with stealing the staircase built by Saint Joseph. That should be nice and taxing and the staircase was long-built in 1914.
posted by Kattullus at 5:11 PM on June 17, 2008

There's a lot in John Hodgman's The Areas of My Expertise that points to your idea of magical things. Stuff like the two libraries that are smaller than the book, or the roving fifty-first state of Hohoq (nicknamed "Ar").

Worth a read just for the sheer silliness of it, but you may find inspiration therein.
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:23 PM on June 17, 2008

A stick stepped over by "Patty" the subject seen in the Patterson-Gimlin film of an alleged Sasquatch.

Also, I highly recommend the website of Madame Talbot and her framed curio exhibits.
posted by Tube at 6:42 PM on June 17, 2008

This thing.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:58 PM on June 17, 2008

Best answer: You must peruse the archives of the Athanasius Kircher Society. It is an encyclopedic collection of oddities, the arcane, and the curious.

Here's a good wikipedia article on the society's namesake.

Another great source for these kind of oddities is Cabinet Magazine. In fact, Cabinet is also coincidentally the best magazine ever.
posted by extrabox at 7:21 PM on June 17, 2008

Best answer:
The Baghdad batteries.
posted by bhance at 9:59 PM on June 17, 2008

Best answer: Orgone accumulators and cloudbusters.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:00 PM on June 17, 2008

Best answer: The cursed Delhi Purple Sapphire is the first thing that springs to my mind.

From the article: "This stone is trebly accursed and is stained with the blood, and the dishonour of everyone who has ever owned it,” said the note, which had been written by Edward Heron-Allen, a scientist, friend of Oscar Wilde and the amethyst’s last owner. It carried a curse and had left a trail of bad luck and tragedy.
posted by daisyk at 2:56 AM on June 18, 2008

Best answer: I'm sure there are loads of things you could come up with associated with the United States' "mythical" Western heroes: think Davey Crockett's cap, Wyatt Earp's Peacemaker, and so on. Then you can go a step further and add things like, I dunno, Wild Bill's (now-)cursed playing cards, or Doc Holliday's boots, which kept him from dying with his boots on, or something like that.
posted by synecdoche at 6:34 AM on June 18, 2008

Jeremy Bentham's body is on display at University College London, though the head is a reproduction and the real one is in a vault deep in the building. Apparently he's wheeled into every meeting of the university's governing body.
posted by patricio at 11:22 AM on June 18, 2008

This probably isn't mystical enough, but I got to actually see this in the archived collection at the Smithsonian, so I've always been fond of the first computer bug. It pop'd into my brain with the phrase "historical curiosities."
But the Mutter Museum is really perfect for historical+curiosities+disturbing.
posted by batgrlHG at 3:32 PM on June 30, 2008

She who watches
posted by Tenuki at 3:51 PM on July 8, 2008

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