Lao-Tzu was conceived when his mother gazed upon a falling star. Pythagoras bit the deadly snake that bit him first; the snake died and he lived. Zeno of Citium survived a shipwreck. Pharnavaz discovered a cave of treasure while hunting deer. Judah ha-Nasi’s kidney stones were dissolved by Heaven after he prevented a servant from hurting the offspring of a mongoose. Phineas Quimby found that galloping on his horse reduced the pain of his rotting teeth. Joseph Smith composed the Book of Mormon by gazing into a seer stone set inside a stovepipe hat. Hong Xiuquan was robbed by bandits of his demon-slaying sword, the creation of which had been inspired by a dream in which a Heavenly Father, sporting a golden beard and wearing a black dragon robe and high-brimmed hat, had complained that men were worshipping demons instead of him. James White believed that the man who disappeared after aiding him—after having given a sermon during which White was beset upon by a mob that hurled snowballs through the open windows of the church where he preached—might have been an angel. According to Calvin Frye, who served as a personal secretary to Mary Bakker Eddy, the woman was a “slave to morphine.” Helena Blavatsky believed that all religions evolved from one ancient sect and that everything in the universe was an emanation of the divine. Guido Von List, a German nationalist, worshipped Wotan, a Norse god who rode an eight-legged horse, carried a spear, and was often accompanied by two wolves and two ravens. A young Charles Taze Russell, who feared for the eternal punishment that awaited unbelievers, used chalk to write Bible verses on sidewalks. Wovoka, aka Jack Wilson, a member of the Paiute tribe, had a prophetic vision during a solar eclipse, and was said to possess weather-controlling abilities; for instance, he could summon a block of ice to fall from the sky and used the sun to light his pipe. As a young boy, Rudolf Steiner was visited by the spirit of one of his aunts—before his family had learned of her death. Swami Vivekananda had a prodigious memory and was a prodigious speed-reader. Aleister Crowley and his wife Rose spent their honeymoon in the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid; Crowley also once entered into a magickal battle with W. B. Yeats. As a young boy, Edgar Cayce, who would later be known as “the Sleeping Prophet,” fell asleep on a spelling book and woke knowing the answers to all the problems inside. Ruth Norman prophesied that a benevolent band of extraterrestrials called the Space Brothers would visit Earth, and that she had visited the angel Michael in a temple on another planet, where she had been crowned Queen of Archangels; she was often photographed wearing a crown and gown, while holding a scepter. Anton LaVey, who often received mail addressed only to “Satan,” and claimed to have more respect for vegetables than humans, was born with a prehensile tail. The prophet Mani, who died in prison after a 26-day trial, was later said to have had his skin flayed off and his body stuffed with straw and crucified. Ellen G. White, who suffered a head injury after being struck by a rock thrown at her head while walking home from school with her twin sister, once felt impressed to decline to board a train that later derailed. A judge once ordered George Fox to take off his hat in the courtroom, and Fox asked where in the Bible might he find such a rule. Gerald Gardner, the founder of the Wiccan movement, lacked charisma. And of course you remember Jesus, who blew air into clay birds that came to life, and later cursed a child and caused him to die; when townspeople complained to Joseph, and Joseph asked Jesus to knock it off, the boy caused the entire town to go blind.

MATTHEW VOLLMER is the author, most recently, of Permanent Exhibit, a collection of short, collage-style essays. His writing has appeared widely, in such places as Paris Review, Tin House, Ploughshares, The Sun, Epoch, New England Review, Glimmer Train, Storyquarterly, The Collagist, and DIAGRAM. He teaches at Virginia Tech. Read our review of Vollmer's Permanent Exhibit in our new Reviews category.