Three Notable Eccentrics From History

We all love a bit of gung-ho eccentricity, don’t we just? It can take many forms and be either hilarious, frightening, or just downright bemusing. “So-and-so did WHAT!?!?!” we could squeak, but it matter nary a jot for the oddball lunatics who carry out the weird and wonderful deeds we are about to mention. So, what ho Jeeves, it’s time to get merry with the maniacs and find out what it takes to beat the oddest of the odd. Here are three of the finest oddballs in history! It is left to you whether you want to decide if they are truly mad or not – maybe they had it right after all. For one, they have attained a place in history – they have become immortal! Even if by achieving that it meant getting killed. Ho hum.

I use some book extracts here from the really rather wonderful A Little History of the World (Yale University Press, 2005) by one E.H. Gombrich. Really this is a book you should all read.

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Pythia (a.k.a Jabbering Volcano Woman) – Now this unfortunate woman had her disposition forced upon her, so it is more down to the eccentricity of the time as opposed to her being a bit of a nut case. Here is the first extract from the mentioned book. Mr. Gombrich can put it in a far better way than we ever could:

“It wasn’t the Olympic Games that brought all the Greeks together. There was another sanctuary which they all held sacred. This one was at Delphi, and belonged to the sun god Apollo, and there was something most peculiar about it. As sometimes happens in volcanic regions, there was a fissure in the ground from which vapour issued. If anyone inhaled it, it literally clouded their mind. It was as if they were drunk or delirious, and nothing they said made any sense.

The very meaninglessness of these utterances seemed deeply mysterious to the Greeks, who said that ‘the god himself speaks through a mortal mouth’. So they had a priestess – whom they called Pythia – sit over the fissure on a three-legged stool, while other priests interpreted her babble as predictions of the future.”

Seems as good a method as any we can think of, at any rate.

Diogenes (a.k.a. Barrel Man) – Hanging around the court of Alexander The Great, Diogenes was more into Buddhist/Taoist concepts of minimalism and restraint than the heady excess and grandeur of Alexander’s schemes. Once again the rest is best described from a passage from this most excellent of books:

“According to him, possessions and all the things we think we need only serve to distract us and get in the way of our simple enjoyment of life. So he had given everything he owned and now sat, almost naked, in a barrel in the market square in Corinth where he lived, as free and independent as a stray dog. Curious to meet this fellow, Alexander went to call on him. Dressed in shining armour, the plume on his helmet waving in the breeze, he walked up to the barrel and said to Diogenes: “I like you. Let me know your wish and I shall grant it.’ Diogenes, who had until then been comfortably sunning himself, replied: ‘Indeed, Sire, I have a wish.’ ‘Well, what is it?’ ‘Your shadow has fallen over me: stand a little less between me and the sun.’ Alexander is said to have been so struck by this that he said: “If I weren’t Alexander I should like to be Diogenes.’ ”

Maurice Wilson – “Who?” I hear you ask. Why it’s none other than the man who, in 1934, attempted to summit the then unconquered Mount Everest by himself. With no mountaineering experience whatsoever. A true British eccentric if ever there was one! Stiff upper lip, sir!

After a few flying lessons he, illegally, made a flight from Britain to India. He hiked across Darjeeling (and no doubt a few spots of tea), into Tibet and then, with the help of some ever handy Sherpa guides, began his assault on the mountain of mountains. Not being a climber he had no equipment at all and believed he would reach the summit through divine intervention (he believed all of the world’s problems could be solved by fasting and a staunch belief in God). On reaching the peak he planned to signal to the monks at the Ronbuk Monastery with his shaving mirror that he had succeeded.

After several half decent attempts (reaching almost 23,000ft at one point) that almost killed him, his final assault saw him never return. His frozen body was found a year later by a British expedition (who retrieved his diary as a record of his attempts). His body was buried in a nearby crevasse where, due to the constantly shifting nature of ice and snow on mountains, it has been rediscovered on a couple of occasions. Mr. Wilson – we admire your lunatic attempts but, really, it was not wise!

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