Writer Glenn O’Brien (1947 – 2017) tries to explain the purpose of a strange object in the December, 1979 issue of High Times magazine.
There are a lot of beautiful views in Manhattan, but few are more imposing than that from the Cloisters, where, standing in a 15th-century archway transported from Italy, one can gaze across the Hudson River and see the primeval palisades where monolithic condominiums rise in the sky: steel towers that on a clear day scream, “You’ve had it, Gothic personalities.” That is, if you’re high and a fan of William Blake. Otherwise you might just admire the view.
Inside this wonderful museum, a division of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there are many priceless treasures of religious art. The entire crucifixion carved inside a walnut. A tapestry comic strip depicting the extremely peculiar and horny hunt of the unicorn. But my personal faves are on the lower level in a room that contains lots of small reliquaries, chalices, monstrances, patens, ciboria and other tools of the priestly trade. Many of these items are among the most ancient artifacts in the Cloisters.
The funny thing is that the farther you go back in religious art, the more the tools of the trade resemble what is today called paraphernalia. You should see the gold straws. And the oldest chalice in the collection looks more Bacchic than bloody. But the strangest item of all is an altar tool known as a flabellum. The flabellum looks like a large silver fan, which is what it is. But it wasn’t for air circulation—it was for flying-pest control. But it’s too big to be a flyswatter. You’d never catch a fly with an ungainly silver smasher the size of a tennis racket. It would seem that the idea was just to wave the thing over the sacraments so that the flies wouldn’t alight on the bread and wine that became the body and blood of the Redeemer. But then I got to looking at the center of the thing, which is hollow, covered with basketwork and big enough to hold something the size of a yo-yo.
The museum explains that this container once held relics. But why put relics in a flyswatter? The size of the cage in its center made me guess that this flabellum was designed to hold a fly agaric mushroom cap. The fly agaric was so named because since the Middle Ages it has been thought to have fly-killing properties. In Soma, R. Gordon Wasson cites Albertus Magnus as the earliest expounder of this belief. Albertus Magnus was a 13th-century cleric who also claimed to have discovered the philosophers’ stone. Today the fly agaric as insecticide is almost as much a matter of controversy as the existence of the philosophers’ stone. It seems that, while all of Europe may have at times thought that the mushroom is a fly killer, it may simply inebriate the pests, rendering them easy victims to the slowest swatter.
At any rate. I’m certain that’s what went inside this model of flabellum, and I’m sure Albertus had one similar to it. As Wasson has pointed out, flies weren’t just flies in the Middle Ages, they were the vassals of Beelzebub. So naturally their presence at the Feast of the Lord was most unwelcome. Shoo.