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U.S. Winter Olympic Team Woes: Could the magical forces of Turin be the reason?

Rotating Compass & Square

Mercury News - San Jose California

Sat, Feb. 18, 2006

Could the magical forces of Turin be the reason?

Knight Ridder Newspapers

TURIN, Italy - There has to be something in the air here.

The Winter Olympics opened with the best-known U.S. athlete, Michelle Kwan, withdrawing after being injured in her first practice session.

Then came skier Lindsey Kildow's frightening crash, snowboarder Jayson Hale's blown knee, the wipe out by lugers Mark Grimmette and Brian Martin.

Big names - Bode Miller, Jeremy Bloom, Johnny Weir - keep coming up small.

Snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis turned a gold medal into silver by showing off a little too soon. To make matters worse, the U.S. women's ice hockey team endured a reverse Miracle On Ice at the hands of Sweden.

It's almost as if someone had cast a spell on the U.S. team, as if there were something more going on here than random events.

You can be practical and say that injuries are just part of the risk, or analytical and conclude some of the hyped stars simply caved in to the pressure of expectations.

Or you can blame it all on witchcraft, black magic and malevolent unseen forces. It turns out Turin is the perfect place for that. There is magic in the air here, even if you can't see it for all the smog.

The way the story goes, Turin is a city divided between White Magic and Black Magic, between the forces of Good and of Evil.

"I didn't feel like my aura is white," Weir said after dropping from second place to sixth with a sloppy free skate Thursday. "I was black inside."


Turin, they say, is one point of a Black Magic triangle that includes Prague and Lyon, France. But it's also one point of a White Magic triangle connecting Turin with San Francisco and London.

The opposing forces are at work within the city, which is said to have two hearts. The white heart is near the Piazza Castello, where the Sacred Shroud is stored. The dark heart is in Piazza Statuto, location of the Gate of Hell.

Fittingly, that's where Somewhere Turin begins its Magic Turin tour.

"We will begin in the darkness and move toward the light," guide Marinella Caligaris explains.

The two-and-a-half hour tour covers everything from Nostradamus (who lived here briefly) to Leonardo Da Vinci, from Baroque castles to Freemason door carvings, from the Shroud to the Grail to Dan Brown.

Yes, Caligaris tells our small English-speaking group, those familiar with the tour suspect the author of the mega-bestselling "The Da Vinci Code" might have ridden on this very bus.

Indeed, walking the narrow, crazy-angled streets of Citti Centro, beneath the menacing or anguished faces of the grotesque stone carvings on many buildings, you half expect to see one of Brown's rogue clergymen or skilled assassins appear from a doorway.

So what's the deal? Is Turin truly magical?

Haverford College professor Darin Hayton, who teaches a class called History of the Occult and Witchcraft, spent some time Friday researching the city's magical resume. He didn't find much.

"This may be much more present invention than historic tradition," Hayton said. "There is no reference to the Gates to Hell or the white and black magic triangles in the scholarly works I checked. In medieval and early modern times, Turin doesn't come up in any particular way."

As it turns out, the Somewhere tour is much more matter-of-fact and informative than scary or fantastic. There is history behind all the superstitions. Like most old European cities, Turin has a bloody past. The Inquisitions, plagues, witch hunts - a lot of bad stuff happened here.

The Piazza Statuto lay outside the original Roman walls of the city, on the West side. There were no cemeteries, so bodies were simply dumped outside the walls.

"We are on a carpet of dead people," Caligaris says.

She talks about the places where public executions took place and how they continue to have a bad vibe for the locals. When the bus takes us further to the East, inside the now-fallen walls, the talk turns more toward Freemasonry and the centuries-long battle between the Catholic Church and non-believers.

Many of the old Baroque palaces still stand, but have been converted for other uses. In the financial district, many of these are banks. And that brings us to the Devil's Door.

Actually, the enormous wooden door was carved as a hostile gesture by the owner of the palace - kind of a Baroque spite fence. There are carvings of two sweet children, with a rat behind them, plus other evil looking faces and figures. But it's the door knocker that has people lined up to take photos.

The solid brass goat's head has two tongues, which upon closer inspection are intertwining snakes. The goat has horns, so it's clearly You-Know-Who.

That chill down your spine isn't just from the cold night air.

Caligaris takes us to another bank's door. On either side, a metal devil is chained to the wall, holding a lamp. The devils appear to be trying to break free and push off the wall, to jump forward.

Across the street is a cathedral.

"When the bishop looked out his window in the morning," Caligaris explains, "they wanted to make sure this was the first thing he saw."

She quotes an old Italian saying, "Money is the rubbish of the devil," and explains that Piemontese people, perhaps because of ancient occupation by the Celts, love word play and irony.

One building has two dog heads carved into the wall, facing a monastery. The visual pun: "Domini canis" or God's dogs, is a play on Dominican.

The Freemason stuff is a little more "Da Vinci Code." Caligaris shows us holes near the base of a building that look like eyes. They are supposed to signify the building housed a Masonic temple. Door carvings contain various symbols.

It is said the Holy Grail may be buried in the hills near Turin, that it was brought here in the late 16th Century along with the Shroud. Freemasonry scholars Robert Lomas and Christopher Knight have concluded the Shroud was more likely used on the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Jacques de Molay.

One Freemason symbol can't be accessed on the tour. It is temporarily within the fence around the Olympic sponsors plaza in Piazza Solferino.

The White Heart of the city, the Piazza Castello, is where the medals plaza has been set up.

So that may be the only connection to the Games. Magic may not explain what's happening to the U.S. team.

"Magic," Haverford's Hayton said, "comes from the fascination we have in finding and attributing magical properties in certain people and places. " I wouldn't want to dismiss the importance of that."

But wait. Something Caligaris says about the statue that looms back in Piazza Statuto resounds.

The pile of boulders, strewn with the bodies of suffering men, is topped by a single angel. The angel, Caligaris says, could well represent Lucifer.

"He was the most beautiful of the angels," she says. "But he was punished for his arrogance, for his hubris. There are many stories where the protagonist is punished for trying to go beyond human limits."

Sound familiar? How much did you hear about Miller and Jacobellis, Bloom and Kwan and Weir before these Games? They were marketed to us as America's stars. So far, they have been outshown by Ted Ligety and Toby Dawson and Hannah Teter.

The big stars were in the spotlight, the lesser-known in their shadows.

Light and dark. White magic and black magic.

"Wherever there is light," Caligaris says, "there must also be shadows."

Further Reading:

Freemasonry in Italy