Sunday, December 4, 2011

Yet Two More Treasures

Today's post details two more treasures, one magical and one not. The first is based on an old folktale, while the second is inspired by a story almost more fantastic than the legend.


The Dead Man's Lantern
An old, old folktale tells of a man named Will, a very wicked fellow. The story has it he lived such a bad life that he was refused entrance to heaven upon his death. Because he had once tricked the devil himself, however, Will was also denied admittance to hell, and thus was forced to wander the earth as a spirit for all time. As a kind of recompense, however, the devil gave him a single coal from the fires of hell with which to light his way.

While this tale is usually dismissed as a fiction, those who have seen the dead man's lantern can wonder that it might be true. The lantern contains a single coal, one that has been burning for years without having anything added to fuel it. It functions with the effects of a continual flame spell, except that it gives off a steady supply of light and heat, just like an actual torch. The flame is enclosed in a bull's-eye lantern, however, making it more portable. This makes it a highly valuable asset, albeit one that must be handled with care—for at least two reasons. First of these is the risk of fire that is always a worry aboard a ship; second is the possibility that, if the folktale is true, one of the previous owners might come looking to reclaim the lantern.

The Sailing Charts of Zheng He
The Chinese admiral Zheng He was born in 1371 and lived during the Ming Dynasty. He was a skilled sailor and navigator, rising to the position of commanding a legendary treasure fleet. This group of ships, of unprecedented size—some of the vessels are described as having nine masts and four decks, capable of holding five hundred passengers or more—visited such places as southeast Asia, India, Arabia and eastern Africa. It carried out missions of trade and diplomacy, bringing many valuable cargoes back to China. Some even speculate that his ships travelled beyond the Cape of Good Hope, venturing into the Atlantic Ocean beyond it. Evidence for this assertion comes from a tablet he had inscribed with a cryptic clue:

“We have traversed more than 100,000 li (50,000 kilometers or 30,000 miles) of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising in the sky, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors...”

Just what those locations might have been remains open to speculation. Some maintain that ships from the admiral's fleet might even have reached the New World, perhaps even places not yet discovered. The admiral did not survive his seventh and final voyage, and was buried at sea. Some of the information form his charts was depicted in a book called the Wubei Zhi, but rumors persist of other charts that were kept secret upon the captain's death, ones that depict even more far-flung locations.

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