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There's a thin line between saintliness and madness. Here are inspiring tales of holy folly that laugh in the face of human wisdom... and also breathtaking examples of religious stupidity that fly in the face of common sense.

As told by Stephen Tomkins

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18: From Russia with debauchery
E CERTAINLY HAD SOMETHING going for him, Grigory Yefimovich Novykh, the holy man of Russia, but it equally certainly wasn't holiness. Hence his nickname, "Rasputin", which means, "the debauched".

At 18, with a scandalous past already behind him, he was converted, and fell in with a sect of monks who whipped themselves to subdue their passions. Rasputin agreed with their aims but improved on their methods. He found that his passions were at the most subdued after a long night of carnal abandon, and so took to "sinning away his sin".

His powers of healing and prediction gave him upward mobility. In 1908 he healed the Czar's only son of haemophilia, buying him an influence over the throne that was both phenomenal and disastrous.

He developed a theory that women were purified by bodily communion with himself, and they fell for it in droves. Rumour said that the Queen, her daughters and even the Czar tried it.

The royal reputation suffered so badly that the nobility arranged Rasputin's execution. The Czar's nephew offered him a date with his wife. While they waited for the lady, Rasputin tucked into cakes that were pumped full of poison. He put away enough to kill a regiment, without suffering so much as indigestion.

Eventually the terrified prince gave up on the cakes and shot him in the front from point blank range. The noble gang laid his corpse in the basement and started celebrating.

This was premature. Seized by an odd desire, one of them went down to beat up Rasputin's corpse for a bit – he really was very unpopular. But Rasputin started fighting back. Overpowering the count, he crawled upstairs and ran out across the courtyard.

Now the aristos panicked. They ran after him, shooting four times. Two shots missed, two hit him square in the back and took him out properly – again. They tied him up, wrapped him in a carpet, and made a long journey to the river, finally dropping him into the icy waters at 5.00am.

When the police found the body, the autopsy showed he had drowned.

Now this is no urban myth or neo-medieval legend, but extremely well-documented. And the weirdness isn't over yet.

On 7 December 1916, nine days before his murder, Rasputin had written to the Czar. "I feel I shall die before January 1," he announced. "If I am killed by peasants, you have nothing to fear. If I am killed by the nobility, a 25-year civil war will follow. But if I am killed by one of your own family, not one of your relations will live longer than two years."

Rasputin was killed by the Czar's nephew on the night of 16-17 December 1916. The royal family were executed in the Communist revolution 19 months later.

Now tell me that's not spooky.

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