• Adrian J. Boas

On Tall Tales and Short Curses

The Cursed Bethlehem Candlesticks (from Adrian Boas, Crusader Archaeology, Routledge 1999, p. 154, courtesy of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum)

Was there any truth to it? I had my doubts when our guide, who during a recent visit to Australia took us on a tour of the Daintree rainforest north of the town of Cairns in northern Queensland, told us a story about the remarkable place that we were passing by. It was a stretch of beach covered with pebbles that had once been a holy site and a gathering place for aboriginal women. But the more remarkable aspect of this site was, so we were told, the pebbles and rocks along this beach that had a strange and unique property not found anywhere else. They were bouncing rocks. The claim, which we were not given the opportunity to examine for ourselves due to the late hour and the holiness of the site, was that if you were to pick a stone up and throw it down on another one it would bounce up like a rubber ball. This story sounded improbable and there were a few factors that encouraged my doubts. One was my acquaintance with the fact that Australians are notorious tellers of tall stories. It is an art form known in other parts of the globe, but rarely if ever surpassed the Antipodean variety (and particularly perhaps, that of the Queenslanders). Another doubt arose from the fact that our guide had already displayed his leg-pulling propensities when he put his hand in a hollow tree trunk and pulled out a large brown and very realistic rubber spider which he held pinned down on the palm of his hand so that we could in our credulousness gingerly touch it. The tale, as he continued to spin it out, became even more bizarre. Apparently, the exceptional bouncing quality of these stones made this beach particularly popular, and people began to collect them and take them away, by the truckloads apparently, until there were almost none left. But then, so we were told, once they had been removed from the beach these strange stones lost their capacity to bounce. And worse still - they carried a curse. A whole variety of disasters befell those who had removed them. People began to return them in the hope that the curse would be removed, and the Queensland postal service was inundated with packages containing stones and the request that they be returned to the beach.

Now, I admit to a degree of gullibility when persuasively told something by someone with a deadpan face, such as that which our guide very effectively displayed. But as this tale developed, I became increasingly doubtful. He nonetheless insisted that it was all perfectly true and suggested that I Google it. When I subsequently did so I discovered that there were indeed a few references to these famous bouncing rocks, albeit brief and of an unscientific nature. Two short videos purportedly showed people bouncing the stones on the beach, but they are not very persuasive. In one, the person demonstrating this phenomenon always used the same small and perfectly round stone that might easily have been a rubber ball, and in the second, the stones were thrown some distance and you could not actually see them bounce. I came away from this with a stronger than ever understanding that my leg had indeed once again been rather sharply pulled.

No less than the supposed bouncing abilities of these wonderful stones, I was impressed by the part in the story about the curse that befell those who removed them from their beach. There is a slight similarity between this tale and a pair of objects that can be observed today in Jerusalem. In a small but very nice museum attached to the Franciscan Church of the Flagellation on the Via Dolorosa, among a number of remarkable medieval objects that had been found in the grounds of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem (including over two hundred copper organ pipes and a group of fourteen carillon bells, both of twelfth century date) are two very beautiful, gilded silver candlesticks that were discovered on 1869. They have a globular form above the base, each has three lion forepaw legs, and each is topped by a large spike or pricket to hold a thick wax candle. Otherwise they have no decoration other than a line of finely incised Latin text incised around the base. Both candlesticks share this identical text:

Maladicatur qui me aufert de loco Sce. Nativitatis Bethleem’ ('Cursed be he who removes me from the place of the Nativity in Bethlehem')

These candlesticks were, despite the curse, removed from the church and taken to Jerusalem. Unlike those tourists who took away the bouncing stones, whoever removed the candlesticks should have known of the curse in advance. Perhaps it was no longer an effective deterrent for the enlightened nineteenth century discoverer, or possibly he or she was simply not proficient in Latin. But the craftsman who made these objects relied on a gullibility that was typical of medieval society, not all that different perhaps from the gullibility of those who in more recent times believed in the curse of the remarkable bouncing stones from northern Queensland.