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Gods—They’re Just Like Us! (Apollo’s Vacation and the Boozy House-sitter)

July 31, 2014

The gods in antiquity often came under fire for their human-like behaviour. Jealousy, lust, revenge—these are just a few of the traits that were criticized as being less than divine. Xenophanes famously said that if horses could depict their gods, they would look like horses. Of course, this speaks to the question of which came first: the human or the god. The argument here is that when gods do human things, it’s because humans are projecting themselves upon the divine.

Case in point: Apollo.

Despite the obviousness of Xenophanes’ observation, once in a while, I am struck by how the gods do very human things. You know, how they act all normal when they’re not turning into mythical animals or smiting their enemies with lightning bolts. Recently, I found a discussion of the relationship of Dionysus and Apollo which seemed particularly indicative of this humanizing of the gods. In a commentary to the Orphic “Hymn to Dionysos Liknites,” Apostolos N. Athanassakis observes how the epithet Liknites was particular to the worship of Dionysus at Delphi (153-154).

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t Delphi the home of Apollo? And, yes. Yes, it is. But sometimes Apollo goes on vacation, and when that happens, Dionysos watches the house. Gods—they’re just like us!

Like the Canadian snowbirds who head to Florida when the weather turns cold, or those who skedaddle to the Bahamas during Spring Break, Apollo similarly takes a winter vacay. Giving his keys to Dionysus, the god of divination puts his mail on hold and absconds for three months of R&R, presumably to do whatever it is gods do. I assume it involves a sandy beach, a frosty margarita, and being fanned by palm fronds—but perhaps I am reading a bit much into it here.

Actually, I am. Apollo just went north to Thrace to hang out with the Hyperboreans. Which I’m sure is fun in its own way.

Why was Dionysus looking after Delphi in Apollo’s absence? Athanassakis observes that there is a pre-Apollonian link between Dionysus and Delphi, and perhaps a link between Dionysus and the snake, or Python, which Apollo slayed when he took up residence there. Furthermore, it is said by Plutarch that Dionysus was buried at Delphi:

The people of Delphi believe that the remains of Dionysus rest with them close beside the oracle; and the Holy Ones offer a secret sacrifice in the shrine of Apollo whenever the devotees of Dionysus wake the God of the Mystic Basket. (Plutarch, Isis and Osiris 201-202)

Perhaps this is a reference to the belief that Dionysus was ripped apart by the Titans. Or perhaps it refers to the half-god, half-human status of Dionysus (Born to Zeus and the mortal Semele). Either way, there was a belief that Apollo shared his space with Dionysus, either while he was alive or after his death. But most definitely while he was on vacation.

In much of the ancient literature, we often find associations between gods that deviate from the standard stories we know from “mythology.” New genealogies are created and strange alliances formed based on regional peculiarities or how the god is interpreted by his worshipers. The Orphic Hymns certainly fall into this category, and the “Hymn to Dionysos Liknites” underscores the atypical relationships the gods may have with each other. In this case, we meet Dionysus, not as the god of wine, but as the god of house-sitting.


  • Athanassakis, Apostolos, and Benjamin M. Wolkow. 2013. The Orphic Hymns. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Plutarch. Isis and Osiris. Full text can be found online here.

Photo by xymox.

The Linguistic Origins of Sacred Space

July 12, 2014

In the Roman Empire, sacred space was not limited to physical structures—the gods were everywhere, and nearly all facets of life were imbued with the sacred.

There were however, some spaces which were more sacred than others. These spaces were known as templum, a word that looks an awful lot like our modern “temple” but actually refers to a segment of space deemed sacred, rather than a building or something like that (to which the term aedes would apply).

In On the Latin Language, Varro attempts to explain where this term came from. He says the following:

The word templum is derived from the word ‘to gaze’ [tueri], and so likewise is the word ‘to contemplate’ [contemplare]…the notion that a temple [templum] is a consecrated building [aedes sacra] seems to have stemmed from the fact that in the city of Rome most consecrated buildings are temples… (Varro, On the Latin Language, VII.8-10)

Varro’s explanation connects the word “templum” to the actions of augurs, who ultimately determine the boundaries of sacred space. They can do this in many ways, but here Varro details the establishing of sacred boundaries by trees, and how one sees the physical space between them. Basically, the auger eyeballs a specific space, chooses a few boundary points (in this case, trees), and designates that area as holy.  Easy peasy.

But…I think Varro is wrong. Ok, well not totally wrong. But not totally right, either.

Now, before we really get into this, I want to make clear that I am not a linguistic expert. I have a few years of Greek under my belt, but I still have a lot to learn and my translations are usually a bit bumpy. That said, I do know a few things, and I think they are applicable to this dilemma.

In Greek, the word for sacred space is τέμενος, a word whose root is τμ and is related to the idea of cutting or separating (verbal form: τέμνω). According to the most-holy-and-venerable LSJ, this word means “a piece of land cut off II. A piece of land dedicated to a god, the sacred precincts.”

We can see, in this use that a physical space is cut away from regular space, and given a special status. The idea is the same as the Latin one, this is an area set apart for things related to the gods.

Transliterated, τέμενος is temenos. Already, we see a shared word structure with temple—they both have the same “tm” (τμ) root! Furthermore, the act performed by the augurs in Varro’s description, can be seen as a “cutting apart” of sacred space from the secular. The key concept in both words is one of sacred demarcation. The question is: Is this conceptual sharing reflected in the root of the word?

I think it is. I certainly think it tells us more about the conceptualization of space than Varro’s explanation, which seems a bit circular to me. The Greek word τέμενος encapsulates not only the idea Varro is hinting at—that the word templum is related to other words of sacred space—but also shows the linguistic root at the heart of the concept.

Anyone who studies Latin and Greek will eventually notice similarities, despite the different alphabets used. It strikes me as strange that Varro didn’t put that together here. Perhaps there is a political reasoning behind his explanation that has to do with establishing Roman religious autonomy. Either way you slice it (ugh), sacred space in the Roman world was defined as a place physically separated, or cut away from regular space.

Varro’s attempts to determine the linguistic roots of templum show that the word had much in common structurally and conceptually with the Greek word τέμενος, which suggests that the idea of sacred space was similar throughout these parts of the ancient Mediterranean. While Varro may have some good instincts here about what the word templum means, it seems we can get a bit more clarity from going back to the Greek.

Photo by Sharon Mollerus.

Source: Varro, On the Latin Language, VII.8-10

Per Faxneld’s Satanic Feminism: A New Approach to the Dissertation?

July 5, 2014

Satanic Feminism

Some of you may be familiar with scholar Per Faxneld. For those of you who don’t know his work, Faxneld researches the subject of Satanism, specifically the archetype of the female within Satanic currents. For example, his contribution to The Devil’s Party, looked at how negative feminine stereotypes were inverted by Stanislaw Przybyszewski, whose ambiguous portrayals of demonic women could be read as a reversal which imbued them with power rather than inferiority.

When a Satanist writes of woman as satanic, it logically has a rather special meaning and should in all likelihood be considered a form of praise. (Faxneld, 75)

Faxneld is getting ready to defend his dissertation, Satanic Feminism, at Stockholm University. Furthermore, he’s taking a wider approach to his defence. Faxneld has released a companion soundtrack which explores the themes in his dissertation through a merging of music and spoken word. The music is atmospheric veering towards the atonal, perhaps indicative of the disruptive nature of his topic, while the spoken word pieces are performed by a host of up-and-coming scholars, such as Manon Hedenborg-White, J. Christian Greer and Christian Guidice.

This is a really creative presentation of the dissertation, one which certainly challenges new scholars to consider the life of their work beyond the written page. It is great to see how this topic has been re-imagined into a totally different context, one which allows the audience to experience the milieu researched by Faxneld in an accessible and immediate way.


Faxneld, Per. “Witches, Anarchism, and Evolutionism: Stanislaw Przybyszewski’s fin-de-siecle Stanism and the Demonic Feminine” in The Devil’s Party: Satanism in Modernity. Oxford University Press. 2013.

ASE Wrap-Up: Aristocratic Vampires

June 25, 2014

While I’m not going to do a full report on the ASE Conference (other than to say it was a lot of fun and really awesome!), I do want to address a question that came up during my presentation, and hopefully provide some insight into an otherwise dissonant element of my overall argument that the historical vampire was “disenchanted” by vampire literature which represented the Balkans in contrast with western views of itself in the “modern” era. It was a good question, and deserves a bit of space here.

For those of you who haven’t been to an academic conference, this is what usually happens: After a paper is given, the presenter answers questions regarding the paper (or the topic). This is actually a very fun part of the conference in that the speaker has a chance to talk about their ideas with other scholars, get some feedback, and perhaps consider angles they hadn’t thought of previously. The tone is (usually) collegial, though sometimes it can get out of hand.

Now, I prepared in advance for several questions. Here are a few inquiries I did not field, but nevertheless prepared for:

Q: What happened to Arnod Paole?
A: He made several vampires before being staked, at which time he let out a most serious groan.

Q: Why were the Balkans viewed so pejoratively?
A: Their location within Europe made them susceptible to foreign empire, both Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman, and their geographical position held many advantages for the great powers of Britain, France and Russia, who each sought to control access in the region. Thus, by demonizing a peoples they wanted to subject, they could more easily lay claims to power in the region.

Q: Who are you wearing?
A: Kmart Jaclyn Smith Collection…on sale.

But no, I got none of these questions. Instead, I was asked a very astute question which totally complicated my argument that the Balkan peasantry and “primitive” belief in vampires constituted a threat to the west. More specifically, I was asked why Balkan vampires in literature were all aristocrats.

Let me say first, I am not the quickest person on my feet. I think I answered with a bunch of “I don’t knows” and some half-ideas that went…somewhere, maybe. But now that I’ve thought about it, perhaps I can take a stab (ugh) at it here.

Talking about vampires at the ASE.

Stephen D. Arata, I think, provides the clearest reason for the aristocratic vampire. In his analysis of Dracula, he observes how the character of Dracula reverses one version of the orientalist travel narrative (634-639). In brief, this narrative involves a westerner who goes to an exotic locale in the East and “passes” for being a native. However, the converse is rarely true. While an Englishman, such as Richard Burton, can don a headscarf and be mistaken as indigenous, it is unlikely someone from the east could make the opposite journey and move about undetected (Arata 639).

Except in vampire novels. And this is what Arata argues is so terrifying about Dracula. The Count is not one of the backward peasantry, but well studied in the intellectual pursuits of the day. (For some reason, reading train schedules is especially important here.) Even more, when Dracula encounters westerners…he passes. People do not see him as a foreigner, but an aristocrat (Arata 638-639).

In other words, he threatens to break into the existing elite social order. The device of the vampire serves to show how foreign incursions into these areas will drain the vitality—or hegemony—from those currently on top (Arata, 630-632).

While my paper argued that vampires, or more specifically the sort of people who believe in vampires, represented a specific encounter between east and west in the “modern” era, the aristocratic vampire does complicate things. Certainly, literature from the time supports this socio-economic distinction, as western diplomats often accepted their elite eastern counterparts (Todorova 465-466). The vampire designates the sort of threat that can happen within these encounters—meetings which don’t easily stratify into “us-and-them” but rather align along social status. The threat is ambiguous, hard to detect, and undermines the existing hegemony.

We must keep in mind that while these fictional books did encode certain common messages, at the end of the day they were entertainment—and in this case were a form of literature that was intentionally designed to disturb the reader. On the one hand, the Balkan peasants serve as a foil, to remind the reader of how far they’ve come from “primitive superstitions” on the other hand, the aristocratic vampire suggests the threat not only still exists, but is omnipresent, undetectable, and able to infiltrate—and subvert—the highest realms of society.

I hope this helps clarify what is definitely a complicating feature of my argument. That said, the overall message—that the East contains ideas and beliefs that are dissonant with those of the West, I think still holds up, even if that threat is polarized in social status from those who give it credence.

Arata, Stephen D. “The Occidental Tourist: ‘Dracula’ and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonialization.” Victorian Studies 33.4 (1990): 621-645.
Stoker, Bram. Dracula. 1897. New York: Signet Classics. 2007. Print.
Todorova, Maria. “The Balkans: From Discovery to Invention.” Slavic Review 53.2 (1994): 453-482.

Vampires, Ghosts, and the Legacy of Antiquity

May 29, 2014

Next month, I’ll be talking at the ASE about Eastern European vampires. This is a big topic, and while my paper will focus on the vampire’s literary and rhetorical implications, many other issues have been discussed by scholars in relation to the undead. I thought we could investigate some of the more pressing questions which will not be presented in my paper here!

One big area of discussion which surrounds research on vampires is the distinction between vampires and revenants. In historical records, these categories refer to similar, but different phenomena, and much effort has been put into sussing out if they refer to the same creature or not (see pg. 3-4 of the Paul Barber article below for one interpretation). The conflict occurs between the vampire, seen as the stereotypical blood-sucking Dracula-type, and the revenant, which is thought to straddle the line between ghost and un-dead corpse.

Unlike the common spectre which will softly rattle your curtains while cooing “boooooo,” revenants, like vampires, have the very real ability to harm a person. The problem is that some depictions of revenants decidedly look more like ghosts or poltergeists whereas other veer more into full-on reanimated corpses bent on vengeance, pummeling their living ancestors for perceived wrongs and so on (Keyworth 244-247).

But are they a different monster? The distinction, as G. David Keyworth suggests, is more related to chronology than taxonomy (2006). These are not necessarily two different creatures, but rather two sides of the same coin, so to speak. Both come back from the dead to terrorize the living, the distinction seems to be whether or not its goal is to drink your blood.

I want to talk about cases where these distinctions between revenants and vampires overlap in the ancient world. In the following examples, the line between ghost and blood-sucker is similarly blurred.

Let’s start with ghosts. Ghosts held a special place for the living in antiquity, and appeasement seems to be the name of the game here. It was thought that proper homage needed to be paid to one’s ancestors, lest they come back and wreak havoc. There were domestic rites, such as casting beans on the ground to feed dead souls, which were performed in the household to stave off the so-called ‘malevolent dead’ (Turcan 31-32). A peaceful life meant keeping the dead posthumously happy.

What would happen when the dead crossed the threshold and entered the lives of the, well, living? These seemingly benign manifestations of the spirit-world also resulted in placating the dead in some way. When ghosts did speak to the living, it was often to complain about something those still on earth were or weren’t doing, making new demands from the great beyond (Johnston 97-98). In other words, ghosts could nag you from beyond the grave!

We can see how this belief could parallel later accounts of the revenant, a familiar spirit who unleashed woe on its living relatives. But what about blood-sucking vampires? Do we have precedent for blood-thirsty ghosts in antiquity? You betcha.

Our next example comes from the Odyssey, and features ghosts of the dead who feed, not on beans, but on blood. In Book 11, Odysseus goes to Hades, and meets with the ghosts of the dead who reside there. His first action upon entering Hades is to make a sacrifice:

“When with my prayers and invocation I had called on the peoples of the dead, I seized the victims [a cow and a ram] and cut their throats over the trench. The dark blood flowed, and the souls of the dead and gone came flocking upwards from Erebus…With unearthly cries, from every quarter, they came crowding about the trench until pale terror began to master me.” (Odyssey XI)

With the blood, Odysseus summons the souls of the dead and bribes them to answer questions. In fact he does not let them the ‘draw near to the blood’ until they’ve responded sufficiently, only then does he let them feast. This suggests that there is a connection between the dead and blood. These ghosts not only are drawn to fresh blood, but also consume it. This, too, can be seen as a precedent for later depictions of the vampire.

While we don’t see figures like Dracula in antiquity, we do see undead creatures who engage in behaviours similar to reports of vampirism in the pre-modern period. Malevolent spirits, ghosts hungry for blood, and the familial ties between the living and the dead all hint at later folklore about the undead, and serve to complicate the distinction between vampires and ghosts.

So were vampires ghosts? Were ghosts vampires? These days most of us can easily distinguish between a vampire and a ghost and would consider them two very different phenomena. Examples from antiquity, however, suggest a blurring of these distinctions which lasted until the modern era. This overlap in the supernatural has caused much consternation among scholars who study the undead, complicating what would otherwise be neat categories.

If you want to hear more about vampires of the bloodsucking variety, I encourage you to come to the ASE in New York next June. I’ll be speaking at 3:30 on Saturday afternoon and will go over the origins of some of the more famous vampires in early modern literature and their cultural implications. I hope to see you there!


Barber, Paul. “Forensic Pathology and the European Vampire,” Journal of Folklore Research 24.1 (1987): 1-32.
Homer. The Odyssey. Translation Walter Shewring. Oxford World’s Classics, 1998.
Johnston, Sarah Iles. Ancient Greek Divination. Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.
Keyworth, G. David. “Was the Vampire of the Eighteenth Century a Unique Type of Undead- Corpse?” Folklore 117.3 (2006): 241-260.
Turcan, Robert. The Gods of Ancient Rome: Religion in Everyday Life from Archaic to Imperial Times. Routledge, 2000.


Photo by CrazyFast.

Paradox of the Satanic Temple

May 13, 2014

No doubt you’ve heard about the Satanic Temple, the group who petitioned to put a Baphomet statue up at the Oklahoma legislature, and recently made headlines for attempting to hold a Black Mass at Harvard.

While there are many things that can be said about the group’s efforts (not the least of which is how organized they are!), one aspect particularly strikes me about the Satanic Temple’s foray into the public sphere. It reveals a paradox: the simultaneous act of transgression to attain public acceptance.

Transgression and acceptance are two opposite phenomena. Much has been written about the transgressive nature of modern Satanism in much better ways than I can speak to it. For example, Jesper Aa. Petersen observes that transgression “affirms a new order (or even the permanent lack of order) by interrogating the limit…cherished ideals are questioned and unspoken rules willfully ignored” (174).

In other words, transgression is used as a tool of differentiation, one which set the transgressor apart from normative society. It is provocative, both to the society whose values are transgressed, but also to the Satanist, who believes that through such acts they can transcend and harness the power behind these powerful discourses (Petersen, 175).

The Satanic Temple, by so publicly coming forward, is provoking society. Not only are they stimulating discussion about religious freedom and the place of religion in the public sphere, but they are doing so in ways which shock the sensibilities of many. One need only look to the reactions, not just in online comments (which have been virulent), but also editorial dispatches from more level-headed sources. Chris Stedman, writing for Religion News Service, called the Black Mass a direct attack on Catholicism and went on to question the sincerity of the Satanists. I don’t need to emphasize what sort of dangerous territory we are on when we try to assess the sincerity of another’s beliefs! But when smart, educated people resort to moral outrage and mocking (like Drew Faust, Harvard’s President, who called the Black Mass “abhorrent”), you know you’re really pushing the limits!

The fact that much of the discussion about the Satanic Temple is now on the agenda of the general public speaks to the assimilation (or attempts of assimilation) of non-dominant religions within contemporary society (which is, in America at least, mostly Christian). The Satanic Temple, ironically through transgression, is actually pressing their right to be at the table—a decidedly participatory and non-transgressive act! They are not rejecting the government or public institutions, but embracing (or one could argue, exploiting) them.

The shock value of Satanic transgression, ironically—and ideally—will lead to greater discussion about the place of religion in the public sphere. Will it lead to acceptance for marginalized groups? I’m not sure. But it illustrates quite clearly that the laws are for all.

Jesper Aa. Petersen. “The Carnival of Dr. LaVey: Articulations of Transgression in Modern Satanism” in The Devil’s Party: Satanism in Modernity. Oxford University Press. 2013.

Photo by Diego Martínez.


Fumed-Out Pythiai and Altered States of Consciousness

April 24, 2014


The Oracle of Apollo in Delphi is often pointed to as the example of divination in the ancient world. Consisting of a large temple complex, persons from all over the Mediterranean would travel to Delphi to hear the God’s pronouncements on a variety of matters. As Peter Green observes, “what emerged from these operations was not so much predictions, in what we might call the Nostradamus sense, but rather a device, based on what was regarded as the will of the gods, channeled through their interpreters” (28).

Apollo’s words were transmitted, as many of you know, through a temple priestess, known as a Pythia. This woman spoke for the god, acting as the medium through which his messages were delivered. She is often depicted in art as sitting on a tripod, holding a branch of laurel, and staring into a bowl. Her responses to questions were often vague, allowing the prophecy of the God to be interpreted in many different ways (Johnston 51-52).

But how did the Pythia talk to Apollo? Or rather, how did Apollo talk through the Pythia? One famous hypothesis is that the temple at Delphi sat above a gaseous chasm which emitted mind-altering chemicals. In other words, the Pythia was high as a kite.

Sarah Iles Johnston sums up this hypothesis in this way:

“During the final years of the twentieth century, a geologist named J.Z. de Boer, surveying active fault lines in Greece…discovered one running under the site of the Oracle. De Boer teamed up with an archaeologist, John Hale, to investigate the significance of this fault line further; together they found a second fault line that intersected with the first one directly under the aduton, the small room at the back of the temple where the Pythia sat on her tripods. They then consulted a chemist, Jeffrey Chanton, who showed that trace amounts of three gases—ethylene, ethane (a product of decomposing ethylene) and methane—rose up through fissures in the bedrock and through the waters in springs that were in or near the sanctuary. Henry Spiller, a toxicologist with expertise in hallucinatory gases, joined the group and noted that small doses of ethylene produce and altered state of consciousness, during which people feel euphoria and have out-of-body experiences, but remain lucid enough to answer questions” (Johnston 48-49).

On the surface, this method seems very similar to modern methods of entheogenic drug use. The priestess, overcome by fumes, physically puts herself into an altered state, whereby her consciousness become more receptive to, well, whatever it becomes more receptive to!

This view that the Pythia generated her prophecies via chemical alteration has been called into contention, however. Scholars have question how she could coherently speak in such a state and have even suggested that the fumes may not have been as strong as this theory leads one to believe.

Johnston steers a middle course and suggests that the fumes, which have a distinctly sweet smell, do put one in an altered state—but not of the same sort. Rather, it psychologically preps the Pythia to enter into a state of mind conducive to prophecy. In other words, the gas in the temple, acts more like incense, creating an atmosphere which signals the priestess that it’s time to commune with Apollo.

Much of the argument for this view also stems from the nature of the Pythia’s prophecies. Scholars argue that, in order to give a coherent pronouncement, she would have to remain somewhat clearheaded. To wit, L. Maurizio observes that the nature of prophecy in Greek culture (or at least in the models offered by Greek philosophy) necessitates coherent speech, for the ability to articulate clearly is a sign of contact with the gods (79)!

Most scholars agree that an altered state of some kind was necessary to invoke the possession of the Pythia by Apollo. According to Green, “The Pythia was said to enter into an ecstatic or trance-like state, during which she became the vehicle of the God’s utterances. In some way, her function was linked to a mysterious inspirational vapour, or πνεῦμα [pneuma]. However that might be explained, the condition was accepted as what it was purported to be: divine possession” (31).

But Green argues strongly against the idea that the gas was only mildly inspirational. He cites the effect produced by the ethylene gas (similar to nitrous oxide), as being consonant with depictions of the Pythia in ancient literature: the above mentioned state of mild hallucination accompanied by lucid speech (Green 40-41).

In contrast to Iles Johnston, Green suggests that attempts to explain the influence of the vapours psychologically, rather than physiologically, reflects our modern views of such practices and thus should be called into question. The ancients, after all, did not think the same way we did, or hold the same values. Instead, we should use the Delphi case as a way to understand how ancients viewed communication with the Gods at Delphi—as a form of possession (Green 41-42). Thus, we should be looking, not to explain away such experiences, but rather to find the means to explain them.

What do we make of this? Was Delphi lousy with fumed-out priestesses? Well, the evidence seems to point to yes. But this is a fuzzy “yes” with a lot of follow-up questions about the nature of the emissions at Delphi. That the vapors affected the Pythia’s consciousness does not seem up for debate as much as questions about the extent and nature of its influence. We know that the temple of Apollo at Delphi sat on a geological fault-line which allowed subterranean gasses to permeate the temple. And while we know the sorts of effects these gasses could have on a person, we don’t know with any certainty the degree to which they affected the Pythia. What we do know is that the Pythia’s pronouncements certainly held sway with the oracle’s seekers, and perhaps for now that is enough.

Green, Peter. “Possession and Pneuma: The Essential Nature of the Delphic Oracle,” Arion, Third Series, Vol. 17, No. 2 (FALL 2009), pp. 27-47.
Iles Johnston, Sarah. Ancient Greek Divination. Wiley-Blackwell. 2008.
Maurizio, L. “Anthropology and Spirit Possession: A Reconsideration of the Pythia’s Role at Delphi,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 115 (1995), pp. 69-86.

Photo by Dale Kav.



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