Wyrd examples – Wyrd in history

The wyrd is everywhere, everywhen: so it’s existed throughout history, everywhere and everywhen – though rarely recognised as such. Here are some historical examples of wyrd working in its own weird way in real people’s lives, ‘for better or for worse’:

Kekulé (organic chemist, Germany, 19th century)

Kekulé’s discovery of the structure of the benzene ring – one of the foundation-stones of organic chemistry – is one of the classic scientific examples of practical wyrdness. Benzene is a carbon-hydrogen molecule, but one which makes no sense as a chain – the only type of carbon-hydrogen structure understood at the time. In a lecture shortly after his discovery, Kekulé described that all-too-familiar sense of ‘stuckness’, whilst trying to write his chemical textbook:

“But it did not go well; my spirit was with other things. I turned the chair to the fireplace and sank into a half sleep. The atoms flitted before my eyes. Long rows, variously, more closely, united; all in movement wriggling and turning like snakes. And see, what was that? One of the snakes seized its own tail and the image whirled scornfully before my eyes. As though from a flash of lightning I awoke; I occupied the rest of the night in working out the consequences of the hypothesis… Let us learn to dream, gentlemen!

There’s an additional wyrd twist to this story: not only did the image describe the structure of benzene accurately – a chain-molecule linked to itself – but it also links straight back to the older days of alchemy: the image of Ouroboros, ‘the serpent eating its own tail’… weird…

James, Duke of Monmouth (England, 17th century)

One of the best historical examples of a geis – an all too personal ‘ending’, provided courtesy of the wyrd – is the story of James, Duke of Monmouth, a 17th century pretender to the English throne.

Early in his life he was warned by an old woman that he would “meet his end at the Rhine”; so for the whole of his long exile in France he was careful never to cross that river, for fear of meeting his death. Then in 1685 his supporters urged him to try to take the throne: he landed in the West Country, quickly gathered a small army, and headed east towards London. They came across the army of the King (also confusingly named James – James II, to be precise) at Sedgmoor, on the Somerset Levels, and were narrowly defeated; Monmouth himself was captured, hiding beside one of the many drainage canals, and was executed shortly afterwards. So what was all that about “meeting his end at the Rhine”, then? Well, Monmouth didn’t know it, but in that part of the West Country those drainage ditches are known as ‘rhynes’…

Related pages