Legendary 17th century letter from Satan to a nun finally deciphered

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There is a legend that dates back to the 17th century, about an Italian nun who claimed to have written a number of letters during an episode of demonic possession.

The nun, Sister Maria Crocifissa Della Concezione, believed that the Devil himself wrote the letters while attempting to steal her from God. Only one of Sister Maria’s letters has survived.

Nobody at the time could translate the 14 lines of writing because it was apparently written in unknown language.

And for more than three centuries, nobody could decipher the letter. Eventually, academics, cryptographers, and occultists joined forces to decipher it with a code-breaking software found on the Dark Web.

The Dark Web is that place on the Internet where you find anything and everything that might otherwise be forbidden, such as cybercrime, drugs, and other shady matters.

But there are also brilliant applications that can be used for productive aims such as deciphering a 17th-century letter.

Daniele Abate, director of the Ludum science museum in the Metropolitan City of Catania, Sicily, told The Times of London that thanks to an intelligence-grade code-breaking system they could finally learn the meaning of the mysterious jumble of archaic script.

“We heard about the software, which we believe is used by intelligence services for codebreaking. We primed the software with ancient Greek, Arabic, the Runic alphabet and Latin to descramble some of the letter and show that it really is devilish,” said Abate. “The letter appeared as if it was written in shorthand. We speculated that Sister Maria created a new vocabulary using ancient alphabets that she may have known. We analyzed how the syllables and graphisms [thoughts depicted as symbols] repeated in the letter in order to locate vowels and we ended up with a refined decryption algorithm.”

Sister Maria had joined the Benedictine convent when she was 15. She was well known and liked by the other sisters and the abbess.

And then, one August day in 1676 when Sister Maria was 31 years old, she was found on the floor of her quarters, her face covered in ink and the letters clutched in her hands.

When she woke up, the nun claimed that she was possessed by Satan, who made her sign the letters but she resisted and wrote only “Ohimé” (oh me), for which she was later blessed.

And although the letter has recently sparked people’s curiosity worldwide, the research team at Ludum science museum hasn’t released the complete text yet, saying that it speaks of the nature of God’s relationship with man.

They have confirmed that the letter says: “God thinks he can free mortals … this system works for no one.” It also speaks about God and Zoroaster as inventions of the people; of the River Styx, saying, “Perhaps now, Styx is certain.”

In Greek mythology, the River Styx separates the world of the living from that of the dead. And it was Charon, the ferryman, who took the souls to the Underworld where they waited to be born again.

Charon was happy to do his job if the dead paid the fee to cross the river. According to the myths, when somebody died, their family buried them with coins laid on their eyes so that the soul of their beloved ones would safely cross Styx.

Abate did try to discover more logical explanations about the nature of the letter. In his opinion, Sister Maria was intelligent and well educated, but she probably suffered from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

The mishmash of languages she used to write the letter were ones that she is likely to have learned during her time in the convent. As for her claims that voices spoke to her and told her what to do (write the letters), this supports Abate’s theory that the nun suffered from a form of schizophrenia.

Alex A

Ancient GPS – Viking sunstones

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There is a lot wrong with the popular History Channel series Vikings. There is a lot right with it, too. Much of what you see on screen falls in the middle somewhere.

An example or two of the wrong: If there even was a Ragnar Lothbrok (the series’ main protagonist in its first four seasons, and who some historians consider a conglomeration of many Viking characters), he did not live at the same time as his series’ brother, Rollo.

In the series, the character Rollo (in reality, “Gangr Hrolf,” or “Hrolf the Walker” for his long legs) lived 50 to 75 years before the man was actually born and he received land in France, which became “Normandy,” meaning “Land of the Northmen,” perhaps 100 years after the series begins.

After agreeing to help the King of France repel any further invasions by his brother, Rollo proceeds to use French troops to kill his Viking compatriots who complain. Why then is Rollo needed? Now he is just a lone Viking.

In the Season 5a finale, we see Rollo coming to the aid of his nephews Ivar and Hvitserk at the head of a massive fleet. If the French had a massive fleet capable of reaching Norway, it’s news to virtually everyone, and history would likely have played out much differently than it did.

Those are just a couple of things wrong with the character Rollo and the timeline of the program.

However, the series does get much right. Much of the everyday life of the Vikings depicted in the series is correct, with the popular exception of the semi-Mad Max leather costumes.

We know too that Viking men were frequently tattooed and wore somewhat elaborate hairstyles. We are told this by Arab travelers who documented their visits among the Northmen. Most of the rituals depicted in the series fits outside contemporary accounts as well.

It seems also that Michael Hirst, the shows’ creator and writer, got the idea of female warriors right. While “shield-maidens” had been loosely mentioned in some texts following the Viking era, there had never been definitive proof. We don’t have it now, but it’s beginning to look like some women did take part in Viking warfare, and/or at the very dangerous game of Viking politics.

In 1889, Viking-era remains were found in a grave in Birka, Sweden. 128 years later, they were identified as female through DNA testing. In the grave with the female skeleton were typical warriors goods. Though nothing points directly to her being a warrior–she may have been a high-status warrior’s wife, given his expensive goods as a token of love, or perhaps the high-status female was anticipating joining the Valkyries in the afterlife. We are not 100 percent sure.

However, when taken with tales from the sagas (whose details, not theme, should be taken lightly), we know that women played a significant role in the political world of Iceland.

We know that women in Norway and Iceland enjoyed rights that few other women of the time could even dream of, such as divorce and inheritance.

The series’ first episode revolves around Ragnar Lothbrok and his brother yearning to try their hand at raiding in the west, not around the Baltic Sea as they apparently have for years. This is another of the show’s errors–the Vikings knew full well there was land to the west.

10 Things you may not know about the Vikings

Trade had gone on sporadically for centuries throughout the breadth and length of northwestern Europe, including the British Isles. Still, many British trade goods arrived via Denmark over land from France, and not every Ragnar, Rollo, or Ivar would know how to get there over the open ocean.

Ragnar lets his brother in on a little secret. He has gained a “sunstone” from a wanderer, and this will allow them to successfully navigate even if the sun is obscured with cloud and fog, as is common as dirt in the North Sea.

Here’s the trouble. No one is sure that sunstone (which is the nickname for certain types of feldspar, and other stones, such as calcite and tourmaline) was used in the Viking era, or as early as Ragnar Lothbrok was said to have lived. Icelandic sagas written in the 12th and 13th centuries mention “sunstones” but are vague about their use.

Later Christian texts mention them as well, but we do not know whether the Vikings of any era used them for navigation. Until archaeologists find one in a Viking grave or other yet undiscovered site, we may never know for sure.

Recent studies at the Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary have shown that it was possible to navigate using a sunstone. As reported in the journal Royal Society Open Science in April 2018, two professors, Dénes Száz and Gábor Horváth, knowing the measurements and traits of Viking-era vessels, weather patterns in the North Sea and currents, ran 36,000 computer simulations of Viking voyages.

They found that if a navigator used a sunstone to monitor the sun’s position at least once every three hours he would reach his target exactly 92-100 percent of the time (and this period includes just before sunrise and just after sunset, as sunstones can magnify the suns light on the horizon before its truly visible to the naked eye).

In one of their simulations, the professors used a different type of sunstone, and departing from Norway in their simulation, found that if they checked their stone for the sun once every four hours instead of three, they would blow past the United Kingdom, Iceland, Greenland, and end up in…Canada.

 Matthew Gaskill


Matthew Gaskill holds an MA in European History and writes on a variety of topics from the Medieval World to WWII to genealogy and more. A former educator, he values curiosity and diligent research. He is the author of many best-selling Kindle works on Amazon.

Chasing the Sun: The woman forgotten by science

Annie MaunderImage copyright RAS/DORRIE GILES
Image caption Annie Maunder: A pioneer of solar astronomy

On the far side of the Moon lies the Maunder crater, named after two British astronomers – Annie and Walter Maunder.

Annie worked alongside her husband at the end of the 19th Century, recording the dark spots that pepper the Sun.

The name Maunder is still known in scientific circles, yet Annie has somehow slipped from history.

“I think the name Maunder is there and we have all rather forgotten that that’s two people,” says Dr Sue Bowler, editor of the Royal Astronomical Society magazine, Astronomy and Geophysics.

“She was acknowledged on papers, she published in her own name as well as with her husband, she wrote books, she was clearly doing a lot of work but she also clearly kept to the conventions of the day, I think.”

The ‘lady computers’

Annie Scott Dill Russell was born in 1868 in Strabane, the daughter of a Reverend.

Clearly of fierce intelligence, she won a scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge, and became one of the first female scientists to work at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.

In the courtyard of the observatory, looking over the park, curator Dr Louise Devoy, tells me what little they know about her work.

The Royal Observatory, GreenwichImage copyright NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, LONDON
Image caption The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, in 1933

“She was one of what we now call the ‘lady computers’ employed in the early 1890s by the then Astronomer Royal, William Christie,” she explains.

“I believe she came from Northern Ireland and she worked here for several years on very low pay just like many of the computers here, both male and female.

“In terms of what she actually did here, we have very little concrete record or photographs.'”

‘Grit and devotion’

Female scientists were hindered because of their gender until the 1920s and 30s, despite superb skills and experience, says Dr Devoy.

At Greenwich, employing women with a university education in mathematics was an audacious experiment.

Women were only considered because the Astronomer Royal needed skilled assistants but could afford only lowly computers – historically, schoolboys on a wage of £4 per month.

Annie Maunder on an eclipse expedition in Labrador, NewfoundlandImage copyright ALFRED JOHNSON/ANNIE MAUNDER’S FAMILY
Image caption Annie Maunder on an eclipse expedition in Labrador, Newfoundland
Walter MaunderImage copyright MAUNDER FAMILY
Image caption Walter Maunder met Annie after the death of his first wife and collaborated with her until his death

Maunder was offered a post as a lady computer, which meant a huge drop in pay for someone who had been working, briefly, as a school teacher.

Letters show that she appealed for more money but was turned down.

The lady computers would carry out routine calculations to turn raw observations into usable data. They were also trained to use telescopes.

At times, this meant walking through Greenwich Park at night without a chaperone, an activity that was frowned on at the time.

“In an age when many middle-class women were still chaperoned, the grit and devotion of these young women astronomers, clad in their clumsy long gowns as they worked at their telescopes or in the laboratories, were surely remarkable,” wrote the science historian and astronomer Mary T Brück.

In 1892, the names of Annie Russell and fellow Greenwich astronomer Alice Everett were put forward to become fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society.

However, they failed to gain enough of the popular vote in a secret ballot and were rejected.

The RAS had long argued that since the pronoun “he” was used in the charter, women could not be admitted alongside men.

Instead, Annie Russell and Alice Everett, who had studied together at Cambridge, joined the amateur British Astronomical Association (BAA).

Alice Everett grew tired of the low pay and left Greenwich, eventually developing an interest in the new field of television. Annie Russell stayed on.

“She was clearly very tough and wanted to follow her science,” says Dr Bowler.

“She sat the [difficult] mathematical Tripos at a time when women couldn’t actually be awarded a degree and there were even protests at Cambridge against the whole idea of giving women degrees.

“So she was clearly tough enough to do that and to do it well and to succeed then in getting employment as a scientist, which was fairly rare anyway – astronomy was still very much a gentleman’s pursuit.”

Studying the Sun

Annie Russell married her colleague Edward Walter Maunder in 1895.

Under civil service rules, as a married woman, she was forced to give up her paid position, bringing the age of lady computers to an end.

“She did come back as a volunteer during the First World War and then she was taken on as a paid employee later in the 1920s,” says Dr Devoy.

On board ship: Annie and Walter Maunder can be seen sitting togetherImage copyright MAUNDER FAMILY
Image caption On board ship: Annie and Walter Maunder can be seen sitting together
Family photos show preparations for observing an eclipseImage copyright MAUNDER FAMILY
Image caption Family photos show preparations for observing an eclipse

Annie worked alongside Walter taking photographs of the Sun, laying the groundwork for a modern understanding of solar activity.

“They would take photographs of the Sun every clear day just to note where the sunspots were and to sketch where they were,” says Dr Bowler. “But she also, as a trained mathematician, put quite a bit of effort into analysis. She wasn’t just writing things down; she wasn’t just Walter’s assistant.”

Annie Maunder went on many scientific expeditions to observe eclipses around the turn of the century, often as the only woman. She travelled to Lapland, India, Algiers, Mauritius and Labrador.

She even designed her own camera to take spectacular pictures of the Sun, including the first photograph ever of streamers from the Sun’s outer layer, or corona.

“She particularly caught an extremely long ray – a streak of the corona – coming out from the Sun, while it was eclipsed, that nobody had ever seen before – a feature of the corona that people just didn’t know about,” says Dr Bowler.

“I’ve seen photos of her adjusting the instruments. She’s taking her photographs. She’s not at all a passenger.

“It may have been only socially acceptable for her to go because she’s travelling with her husband but she was on official scientific expeditions and her photographs were acknowledged as among the best.”

The Heavens and Their Story

The conventions of the time meant that Annie’s photographs were published under her husband’s name and she could not speak at scientific meetings.

However, she was eventually made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1916, 24 years after first being proposed.

Annie Maunder medal Image copyright RAS
Image caption The RAS has set up the Annie Maunder medal

She was involved with promoting astronomy to a general audience as vice president of the BAA and edited the in-house journal.

In 1908, the Maunders published the book, The Heavens and Their Story, which was aimed at popular science.

The book was released under both their names, but her husband acknowledged in the preface that it was almost all her work.

The Maunders are also well known for the butterfly diagram, which shows how the number of sunspots varies with time, and the Maunder Minimum, a period in the 17th Century when sunspots all but disappeared.

Much of their work still holds true today.

Annie’s legacy

This year, Annie’s name is being remembered through the inaugural Annie Maunder Medal, to recognise public engagement in science.

“She is an ideal person for that medal to be named after,” says Dr Bowler. “That’s largely what she was doing, certainly later in her career.”

Annie Maunder died in 1947, long after her husband.

On a leafy street near Clapham Common I find the Victorian terraced house where she spent her final years.

From the outside there is nothing to speak of the pioneering scientist.

Yet, despite perhaps not getting the recognition she deserved in her lifetime, she clearly left her mark on science.

“From her letters which are in the Royal Astronomical Society archives she was a very strong-minded, very decided personality,” says Sue Bowler.

“She didn’t mince her words. She’s really quite amusingly rude in some of her letters and very precise.

“I really admire her – she’s one of the people I would definitely have at my dream dinner party – I think she would be extraordinarily interesting.

“And her thoughts, her opinions about the paper based on her observations are very modern and form the basis for solar physics through a lot of the years following.”

UK’s forgotten woman astronomer honoured

TelescopeImage copyright TOM KERSS, BRENDAN OWENS
Image caption Professional astronomers through to school children will get to use the new telescope set-up

The Royal Observatory Greenwich (ROG) is to start studying the sky again after a break of 60 years.

British astronomy’s historic home has installed new telescopes in its Grade II listed Altazimuth Pavilion, which has also undergone a restoration.

The new facility is to be named after Annie Maunder, one of the first female scientists to work at the ROG and who made key discoveries about the Sun.

Professionals, amateurs and school children will use the instruments.

MoonImage copyright  NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, LONDON
Image caption  Today’s technology, combined with new processing techniques, can achieve great results

Why is this important?

The new telescope is named after a forgotten giant of UK astronomy, Annie Maunder, who had to battle the prejudice and conventions of her time (the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Century). The move should help highlight her contributions for a new generation.

In addition, our cleaner air and better tech is making astronomy possible again in our cities.

As urban centres have expanded, the artificial glow of buildings and street-lights – along with smog – has drowned out the faint objects in the night sky that astronomers want to study.

So, in the last few decades, stargazing has moved out of town where you can get darker skies. But a combination of new technology and cleaner air means that astronomers will be able to use the Royal Observatory Greenwich again.


SunImage copyright NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, LONDON
Image caption  The new set-up will look at the Sun – just as Annie Maunder did in her day

Charles II founded the Greenwich site in 1675. Its purpose was to map the stars and compile tables that could then be used for navigation at sea.

It was a working observatory until 1957, after which serious science retreated to the countryside to get away from urban smog and light pollution. But with cleaner air and new technologies, it is now possible for telescopes to take very decent pictures again from the capital, says ROG astronomer Brendan Owens.

“We can use what are called narrow-band filters to get around the light pollution, and then there are the new processing techniques. We can take very fast frame-rate snapshots and use only the steadiest shots to build the final result. It’s known as ‘lucky dip imaging’,” he told BBC News.

The Annie Maunder Astrographic Telescope (AMAT) is actually a four-in-one instrument.

It comprises three smaller refractors around a top-end, 14-inch (35.5cm) aperture Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope.

Users will be able to study the Sun and the planets in our Solar System, but also look beyond to more distant stars and planetary nebulae (great clouds of gas and dust).

For the system to be used to look at the Sun is particularly apt in the context of Annie Maunder.

ScreenImage copyright TOM KERSS, BRENDAN OWENS
Image caption The ROG plans to start slowly but over time will ramp up activities

Who was Annie Maunder?

One of the “forgotten giants” of British astronomy, she got a job at Greenwich in 1891 working as a “lady computer”, doing supporting calculations for male scientists. But she became an adept observer in her own right, and with her husband, Walter, broke new ground in our understanding of how the Sun goes through its cycles of activity.

Given the times, all the credit went to Walter. That has changed in recent years with reappraisals finally – and properly – recognising her enormous contributions.

“She remained on staff here in Greenwich until 1895 when she had to resign because, as per civil service rules back then, she couldn’t be married,” explained Dr Louise Devoy, the Curator of ROG. “But she remained very active, particularly with the British Astronomical Association, and indeed she came back to Greenwich in WW1 as a volunteer because of the shortage of staff when all the men joined up.

“The new telescope set-up will have a huge capability to image the Sun, with a special hydrogen alpha filter so you can really see activity such as flares (big outbursts).”

Annie Maunder on an eclipse expedition in Labrador, NewfoundlandImage copyright ALFRED JOHNSON/ANNIE MAUNDER’S FAMILY
Image caption Annie Maunder pictured on an eclipse expedition in Labrador, Newfoundland

The new installation comes thanks to a successful appeal for funds.

ROG museum members, private donors and the public gave £150,000 towards the project.

The money has finally enabled proper restoration work to be completed on the Altazimuth Pavilion, which was in urgent need of repair.

“It’s a beautiful Victorian building that suffered major bomb damage. Half the building was obliterated during WWII,” said Brendan Owens.

“It was reconstructed by the time the ROG became a museum, but it was never perfect and over time, brick work crumbled and damp had crept in. When we decided on the restoration, we could have included just museum space but we saw a wonderful opportunity to make it a multi-purpose, 21st-Century observatory.”

Mr Owens said it would take a while to get the new facility running at top speed. Conversations are being held now with universities to see who would like to make use of Greenwich in their studies.

As ever, the ROG wants the public involved as much as possible. Images taken by the AMAT will be streamed online, and content shared with schools through the Peter Harrison Planetarium. There will be workshops at the observatory as well.

The ground floor of the pavilion will have an exhibition space, with a section dedicated to telling the story of Annie Maunder.

Altazimuth PavilionImage copyright GETTY IMAGES
Image caption Altazimuth Pavilion: An exhibition on the ground floor will tell the story of Annie Maunder

The $5bn tech boss who grew up without electricity

Stewart Butterfield is worth an estimated $650m

The BBC’s weekly The Boss series profiles a different business leader from around the world. This week we spoke to Stewart Butterfield, the founder of technology companies Flickr and Slack.

It is not the sort of upbringing you’d associate with one of Silicon Valley’s heavyweights.

But Stewart Butterfield spent the first five years of his life living on a commune in remote Canada after his father fled the US to avoid serving in the Vietnam War.

The young Mr Butterfield and his parents lived in a log cabin in a forest in British Columbia, and for three years they had no running water or electricity.

“My parents were definitely hippies,” says Mr Butterfield, whose mother and father had named him Dharma. “They wanted to live off the land, but it turns out there was a lot of work involved, so we moved back to the city.”

After the family relocated to Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, Mr Butterfield saw his first computer when he was seven, and taught himself to programme from that very young age.

An Apple II computerImage copyright GETTY IMAGES
Image caption A young Mr Butterfield learned to programme on an early generation Apple computer

Fast-forward to today and 46-year-old Stewart Butterfield – who founded both photo-sharing website Flickr, and business messaging service Slack – has an estimated personal fortune of $650m (£500m).

But perhaps in part due to his unusual upbringing he says he tries to live frugally.

“In truth I feel guilty spending too much money,” he says. “As a Canadian that world seems very strange and alien to me.”

Mr Butterfield also puts much of his success down to luck.

Mr Butterfield says that his seven-year-old self was fascinated by the first wave of personal computers.

“I was around seven in 1980, it must have been an Apple II or IIE that my parents bought,” he says. “I taught myself to code using computer magazines.”

Mr Butterfield – who changed his first name to Stewart when he was 12 – learned to make basic computer games.

However, he lost interest in computers while at high school, and ended up going on to study philosophy at the University of Victoria. From there he did a masters in the subject at Cambridge University in the UK.

In 1997 he was about to try to become a professor of philosophy when the internet “really started to take off”.

Flickr's home screenImage copyright FLICKR
Image caption Mr Butterfield sold Flickr for just $25m

“People who knew how to make websites were moving to San Francisco, and I had a bunch of friends who were making twice as much, or three times as much, as what professors were making,” he says. “It was new and exciting.”

So Mr Stewart decided to give up academia and rekindle his love of computers.

After working as a web designer for several years he launched an online game in 2002 with future Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake, Mr Butterfield’s then-wife.

The game – called Game Neverending – failed to take off, and the pair were running out of cash. Frantically looking for a plan B they hit upon the idea of Flickr, going on to build the photo-sharing platform in just three months.

“The first camera phones were also coming out, and more and more households were getting internet connectivity, and then stuff happened so fast,” says Mr Butterfield.

Launched in 2004, Flickr was the one of the first websites to allow people to upload, share, tag and comment on photos.

Just a year later the founders sold the firm to internet giant Yahoo for $25m – although Mr Butterfield has since said this was the “wrong decision” as waiting longer could have meant a much bigger deal.

Nevertheless he moved on to bigger things with Slack.

A screengrab from a Slack chatImage copyrightSLACK
Image captionSlack allows colleagues to easily communicate as a group

It was 2009 and he and some partners had set up another online game, and again it failed. It did, however, spark a brainwave.

“As we were working on the game we developed a system for internal communication that we really loved,” says Mr Butterfield. “We didn’t think about it, it was very much in the background. But after a few years we thought maybe other people would like it too.”

It formed the basis for Slack, a service that today boasts eight million daily users, three million of whom pay for the more advanced features, and more than 70,000 corporate clients.

Slack enables employees to communicate and collaborate with each other in groups at work, and it has grown rapidly. IBM, Samsung, 21st Century Fox and Marks & Spencer are just a few big names to have signed up. Following a number of investment rounds Slack is now valued at $5.1bn.

Chris Green, a technology analyst at consultancy Bright Bee, says it is rare for an entrepreneur to create something successful out of the ashes of a failed project, and “almost unheard of to do it twice”.

“But if you look at Stewart’s career, it’s not just luck, he’s always been innovating in the background and looking for ways to bring order to chaos,” says Mr Green.

“That’s what Flickr and Slack have both done in their own ways.”

Slack's headquartersImage copyright SCOTT SCHILLER
Image caption Mr Butterfield says he would be happy for Slack to pay more in taxation

Slack does have competitors, though. Microsoft now offers a rival service for free with its Office 365 package, and start-up Zoom boasts a more expansive offering for about the same price.

“There is immense competition from some big well-funded companies so Slack will need to keep evolving,” Mr Green says.

Big tech firms have found themselves in the firing line for not paying enough tax – but Mr Butterfield says he would be happy for Slack to pay more taxes.

“I’d also like to see a more equitable tax policy. I have no problem paying tax. I don’t think companies are taxed enough, or critically, in the right way.”

Regarding the future, Mr Butterfield says that, unlike Flickr, he has no intention of leaving Slack.

“So many things had to go right get to this position – amazing luck was involved – and I am not so smart that I can just make it happen again,” he says.

“So if I ever wanted to see how far I could take it, this would definitely be the time to do that.”

The real-life superhero who saved 20 people and ruined his career

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A champion is someone who certainly exceeds expectations–a person of tremendous motivation striving for victory. The term applies not only to sports but also to fields such as science, human rights, and politics. There are many champions in the history of civilization.

Then there’s Shavarsh Karapetyan.

Even though this lavish introduction sounds a tad exaggerated, bear with me, for when you learn about this man’s achievements, you will certainly agree that he deserves it.

After all, Karapetyan, an Armenian-born Soviet finswimmer, won the world championship 17 times.

He is also a 13-time European champion, and a seven-time champion of his homeland, the USSR. Apart from this, Karapetyan broke the World Record 11 times.

One might say that he is the embodiment of finswimming itself.

However, what makes Karapetyan more than a champion fin swimmer are not the medals on his wall, but his relentless sacrifice for others.

In 1976, he personally saved 20 people from drowning after a trolley bus flew off the road and into a frozen lake near Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.

But in order to understand his act of courage, we first need to take a peek into his life and career.

Perhaps the crucial experience that led Karapetyan to turn to professional swimming was his narrow escape from death as a 15-year-old. He was beaten up by a group of hoodlums who tied him to a rock and threw him into a nearby lake.

By strength alone, he managed to tear the ropes off his hands, liberate himself from the stone that was dragging him to the bottom, and swim out victorious. After this incident, he took up swimming, but due to petty rivalry was denied the right to compete on his national team.

So he switched to finswimming and quickly rose to prominence, winning a number of state-level competitions. By the age of 18, he was already the champion of the Soviet Union and just two months later, he became the European champion by breaking the World Record.

Envy followed him wherever he went, and there was even an attempt on his life by a fellow competitor who sabotaged his oxygen tank during a championship in Kiev. Even with this handicap, which nearly cost him his life, Karapetyan won the race.

He had another brush with death in 1974, when a bus he was riding on almost fell off a cliff. In the midst of panic, the swimmer took the steering wheel and carefully rode the bus into reverse, until reaching safety. Thirty lives, including his own, were saved on that day, thanks to his initiative.

But what followed defined the rest of his life. Two years after this incident, Karapetyan was conducting his usual morning exercise of running beside Yerevan Lake when a trolleybus hurtled past him and fell right into the frozen reservoir.

Due to the sheer power of the impact, most of the 92 passengers aboard lost consciousness, while their transport-turned-death trap was sinking to the bottom of the freezing lake. Without hesitation, the professional diver knew what to do.

He jumped into the water, broke the glass window of the trolleybus with his bare feet, and started pulling the people out.

The bus settled on the lake bed, 33 feet underwater and 80 feet from the shore, and Karapetyan had to make 30 consecutive dives in order to pull out as many people as he could. In the end, 20 of the passengers were saved. He managed to pull out more, but for some, it was already too late.

Even though the incident was a complete disaster, if it weren’t for his heroism, it would have been much worse. As for Karapetyan, the price was high. After his 30th dive, he lost consciousness himself, as a result of a lack of oxygen.

Later, the consequences of such a superhuman effort took hold─the swimmer was diagnosed with pneumonia and blood contamination from the polluted industrial water.

After a 46-day coma, the hero of Yerevan Lake finally woke up. Still, his career was over due to the extreme nervous exhaustion which took hold.

Even though one would expect that instant recognition was the least he deserved, the story of his heroism remained largely unknown until 1982, when an article was published in the state-wide newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, to commemorate his extraordinary feat.

Until then, the fact that it was the champion himself who saved all those people was known only to the locals of Yerevan.

After the article titled The Underwater Battle of the Champion, Karapetyan received 75,000 letters of praise and thanks and became a household name in the USSR.

Modest by nature, he never saw it as heroism. Rather, he was frustrated by the fact that so many others died in the crash that day. When asked in an interview about the event, he replied:

“I knew that I could only save so many lives, I was afraid to make a mistake. It was so dark down there that I could barely see anything. On one of my dives, I accidentally grabbed a seat instead of a passenger… I could have saved a life instead. That seat still haunts me in my nightmares.”

Since then Shavarsh Karapetyan had been celebrated and awarded a number of times, including two medals bestowed upon him by his own government, a UNESCO “Fair Play” award, and the honor of having an asteroid named after him: 3027 Shavarsh.

In 2014 he carried the torch for the Winter Olympics in Moscow, where he currently resides as the owner of a shoe shop called The Second Breath.

Karapetyan leads a quiet life below the radar, but the memory of his heroism remains as vivid as ever, for people never forget a champion.

 Nikola Budanovic


Nikola Budanovic is a freelance journalist who has worked for various media outlets such as Vice, War History Online, The Vintage News, and Taste of Cinema. His areas of interest include history, particularly military history, literature and film.