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Friday, December 23, 2011


However you choose to observe a winter celebration, may you do so in peace with goodwill toward ALL!

All of which (even the FSM and the teapot indirectly) came from:

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Amazon - The Ancient Wonder Woman

Amazon and Centaur by Franz von Stuck.
Image courtesy www.paleothea.com.
Amazons were fierce female warriors, described by the ancients as independent and powerful women.  One of the many myths about them states that men were not allowed to live in their territories or have sexual relations with them, except for one night a year.  At that time they visited an all-male tribe, the Gargareans, who lived in the south Caucasus.  The male children that resulted from this night of union were either given to the Gargareans, killed, or left in the wild.  The female children were reared and taught the art of war, hunting, and agriculture.  Some stories say they captured the finer specimens of men they conquered and used them as slaves and for breeding purposes.

Currently in the Louvre, this mosaic depicts an Amazonomachy,
or battle between Greeks and Amazons.  This is from Antakya, now
Antioch, in Turkey, dated second half of the 4th century CE.

But the most salacious myth about Amazons is that they cut off or burnt their right breasts, the better to use a bow with or cast spears.  There is no evidence of this in any extant artwork, perhaps because of a squeamish reluctance on the artist's part, however the right breast is often covered.

The legend of the Amazons even inspire more
modern artists, as this statuette by Erté proves.
Image courtesy of www.paleothea.com.

The etymology of their name is debated.  The Iranians have an ethnonym, "ha-mazan", meaning "warriors".  Another theory states the name came from a different ethnonym, "Amazigh", which refers to what some Berbers call themselves, meaning "free people".  An interesting idea is that the name came from an Iranian word meaing "virility-killing" or "ama-janah".  The most popular explanation is that the name came from the Greek "amazoi" or "breast-less". Herodotus called them "androktones" or "killers of men". In the Iliad they were referred to as "antianeirai" - "those who fight like men".

An Amazon in battle.  Image courtesy of www.spauda.it.

Even more perplexing is trying to figure out where they came from geographically. Although they mostly are said to have been from the Pontus area, near the Euxine (Black) Sea, some ancient writers attest that they originally came from Scythia. They were claimed to be the founders of many cities, including Ephesus, Smyrna, Sinope, Cyrene, Myrina and Paphos.  There is a possibility that there were several groups dispersed geographically who were known as Amazons.

They worshipped Ares, the god of war, and Artemis, the goddess of hunting.  They were born of Ares and an ancient goddess, Otrera.  Otrera is also considered the founder of the temple of Artemis at Ephesus.  Sometimes she is mentioned as the daughter of Ares.  They were excellent on horseback, and this fact is attested to by use of "hippo" - "horse" in Greek - in some of their names.

An Amazon surrounded by griffins.  Attic red-figure (and
black-figure) pottery gives us much of what we know of
 Greek society as few paintings survived except what is found
on everyday earthenware.  Attica is a historic Greek region.

Their most famous queen is perhaps Hippolyta, she of the girdle given to her by the god Ares, and the taking of which became the ninth labor of Heracles.  Some versions of the myth claim Heracles killed her.  Others claim that his friend Theseus, who had accompanied him, married her and had a son named Hippolytus.  In other versions Theseus marries her sister, Antiope.  Another notable Amazon queen was Penthesilea, also a sister of Hippolyta along with Melanippe.  Penthesilea had accidently killed Hippolyta while hunting, and although she wanted to kill herself the only honorable way for an Amazon and queen to do that was in battle, so she fought in the Trojan War on the side of Troy. She was then killed by Achilles.

An Amazon, by Franz von Stuck.

The saddest queen was Thalestris.  She was the cream of the crop of Amazons, and lived during the time of Alexander the Great.  Since he was the best of the best of men, she talked him into having sex with her in order to give birth to a superior child.  He agreed as long as a male child would be given to him.  Alas, despite spending 13 days (a sacred number) together hunting and having sex, she did not conceive.

Achilles killing Penthesilea on the tondo of an Attic
red-figure kylix from Vulci, circa 470-460 BCE.

Amazons were said to have invaded areas from Scythia to the northern coasts of Africa, including some Aegean islands.  Their existence was even debated by ancient authors, and it is posited that rumors of women from the some of the tribes of the Caucasus, who performed duties traditionally done by men, gave rise to the idea of an independent race of warrior women.  The concept of Amazons may also have come from the priestesses of Artemis, who like many priestesses of very ancient times, were somewhat autonomous, going back to a time more matriarchal (if there ever truly was one!) than patriarchial.

Side B of an Attic red-figure amphora circa 420 BCE featuring an Amazon.

There is evidence in the archaeological record of warrior women.  Whenever an ancient burial of a warrior is found, it has always been assumed that it was a male. But there are modern archaeologists who are looking at going through the evidence from all of those burials and sexing the skeletons to ascertain if any of them were women.  In the Altai Mountains of Siberia there have been mummified burials of women found in kurgans, some of them buried with the gear of war - weapons, headgear, etc. - with legs bowed from riding and with battle scars.  These ancient people - the Pazyryk culture - also buried horses, some of which had been sacrificed.  This culture goes back to the approximate time that Herodotus wrote of Amazons.  Warrior graves on the lower Don and lower Volga from the Scythian-Sarmatian Iron Age culture are about 20% women, buried with weaponry and saddles.

This Pazyryk mummy is known as the "Ice Maiden".  She was found in
1993 by archaeologist Natalia Polosmak, along with six sacrificed
horses.  This is from the 5th century BCE.  Note the tattoos.

But much as modern women would love to claim them as role models, most likely their purpose was the opposite.  For they were everything that a "good woman" ought not to be in ancient Greece, and in all their battles, particularly against Athens, they were the losers.  A lesson, for sure, but one that is a cautionary tale against stepping out of assigned gender roles.  But it must have been an exciting idea for the ancient Greeks; even more exciting to vanquish them.

An Amazon in front of an altar.  Attic
red-figure lekythos, circa 475-450 BCE.

However, there are tales of great warrior woman in many cultures.  Celtic legends have many strong and warring women.  The Irish hero Cúchulainn was sent for warrior training with the woman Scáthach.  This leads to another problem - either few women in ancient times wrote, or else their writing has not survived.  There is the slimmest of hopes that some writings attributed to men were authored by women.

At any rate, the concept of strong, independent, capable women has survived and beguiled up to the present time.  Although the thought of taking up arms, not to mention cutting off the right breast, may not appeal to modern women, Amazons are still a symbol of the once and future liberated and emancipated woman.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Holy Holly

Holly has been associated with spiritual rituals since Roman times.  The type that most people are familiar with is commonly called English or Christmas holly, but its formal name is Ilex aquifolium.  The Romans called it ilex because of the leaves' resemblance to oak (Quercus ilex).

Holly leaves can be bright, shiny green or have edges tinged with white.

Because the holly is an evergreen, it became a symbol early on in every kind of winter celebration for the renewal of life that would occur in spring.  In fact, many of the plants that now play a part in winter holidays and observances were evergreen, such as coniferous trees and mistletoe.

Part of a Tunisian mosaic showing
Dionysus with an evergreen tree.
Image courtesy of www.artehistoria.jcyl.es.

In this capacity of rebirth, holly was associated with Dionysus in ancient Greece, and later with some pagan sun gods.  The ancient Romans used it in their Saturnalia observances, and associated the plant with their god of agriculture and harvest, Saturn.  Early Christians in Rome hung Saturnalian holly to avoid persecution, and later just kept the tradition.

Image courtesy of Photobasket.com.

Druids are said to have hung it to ward off witches and evil spirits.  It was hung on walls, especially near beds to insure sweet dreams.  It was a pagan protection device, most likely because it stood out in the cold winter months when everything else was dormant and gray.  It was considered bad luck to chop a plant down.  The Celts believed in the Holly King, who ruled death and winter, as well as the Oak King, who ruled life and summer.  In the Middle Ages the Holly King and the Ivy Queen were honored, especially in mummers' plays.

Thor's Battle Against the Jötnar, 1872, by Mårten Eskil Winge.

In Norse mythology the holly was associated with Thor and Freya.   Thor used lightning as a weapon, and Freya was in charge of weather.  This led to the practice of hanging holly in one's house to protect against lightning.  Holly trees conduct lightning into the ground better than most trees and with little injury to the tree itself.

In Japan there are several legends that feature holly.  One features a Buddhist monk named Daikoku.  Once when he was attacked by a devil, his companion rat ran off and brought back a holly branch, which devils will not go near.  Thus, similar to European pagans, in rustic areas of Japan there is a tradition to keep devils away by hanging a holly branch on the doors of houses.

An engraved shell cup.

Archaeologists of the American southeast and southwest have found ritual shell cups with holly residue dating to 1,200 BCE.  This speaks of a long tradition of using holly, a type called Ilex vomitoria used to induce vomiting and hallucinations as part of a ritual.  The Cherokee and Creek tribes held it sacred even a century ago.

The smooth-leaved Ilex vomitoria.

The word is thought to have come from the Indo-European qel, which means prickly.  The name "Holly" comes from Old English holegn, related to Old High German hulis.  The French took hulis and called it houx.  It has no connection to the word "holy" despite its use in religious affairs.

While the holly became associated with men, women's counterpart was ivy, hence the Christmas song.  When all the winter traditions were coopted into Christmas, so was the holly plant.  Later it became used in Christian iconography to symbolize the crown of thorns (the sharp leaves), blood of Christ (the red berries), and the innocence of Christ (the white flowers).  There are claims that the tree from which the cross where Christ hung was a holly tree.

...and flowers.

Although the prickly leaves are the first image that comes to mind when most people think of holly, there are smooth leaved varieties.  (The smooth ones are associated with women - apparently more dainty.)  The plant can be either a shrub or a tree, and though the popular one that comes to mind is an evergreen, there are deciduous types as well.  The ilex aquifolium is found in Asia, Europe, and North America.  While both male and female plants boost white flowers in the late spring, only the females produce berries.  They depend on pollinators, like bees.  While toxic to humans, the berries are an important food source for birds.

Ilex paraguariensis where Yerba Mate tea comes from.

Unlike the berries, the leaves are used in herbal concoctions to treat dizziness, fever, and hypertension, and are a popular purgative.  The leaves are also a source of caffeine, and the herbal tea Yerba Mate comes from a type of holly.  The type called Ilex Gauyusa has the highest known caffeine content of any plant.  The roots can be used as a diuretic.  The wood from the holly is hard and excellent for carving, sometimes used for walking sticks, chess pieces, and at one time for bagpipes.

Great Highlands bagpipes were often made with Holly wood.

Whatever you celebrate this winter, if you deck the halls with boughs of holly you are keeping a tradition with an ancient and multinational pedigree.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Long Before the Internet: The Mundaneum

An institution was opened in 1910, with the lofty goal of collecting all the world's knowledge on 3x5 index cards - then considered "state of the art" for data storage. Called the Mundaneum, it eventually amassed a total of 12 million cards, each classified according to the Universal Decimal Classification system.  This system was the brainchild of two Belgian lawyers - Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine.

Paul Marie Ghislain Otlet.  Image courtesy of www.infoamerica.org.

Paul Otlet is considered one of the fathers of information science, a field once known as (and what he called) documentation.   He devised the Universal Decimal Classification, one of the best examples of faceted classification.  It is based on the Dewey Decimal System, but uses auxiliary signs to indicate special aspects of a subject, and that subject's relationship to other subjects.  It is commonly used in specialist libraries.  It is used for varied media, from film and sound recordings to maps and museum pieces.  A list of the number codes for this system can be found here.  Otlet is also known for promulgating the adoption in Europe of the standard American 3x5 index card, which was used in library catalogs worldwide until replaced by online public access catalogs (OPAC).  He was also influential in developing the ideas of the forerunner of UNESCO, the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation.

Henri La Fontaine.

La Fontaine was the president of the International Peace Bureau, and was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1913.  He proposed a world school, university, and parliament.  He also promoted women's rights and suffrage. Together with Otlet he founded the Institut International de Bibliographie, which later became the International Federation for Information and Documentation, or FID.

This and next two images courtesy of the Mundaneum.

Documentation was once a field of study whose name was changed to Information Science.  There are movements seeking to reintroduce documentation as a separate field, as it pertains to storage and retrieval.  The word is well-known in French-speaking countries where there is a difference between libraries and documentation centers, and the personnel employed at both have different educational backgrounds.

The Mundaneum was visualized as the center of a new "world" city.  Otlet dreamed that someday people would access it from their own homes.  Today it is considered a forerunner of the internet, and so his dreams, in a sense, have come true.  In a lecture in 1908, Otlet mused that the most important transformations in the future of the book would not take place in the book itself, but in substitutes for it.  He predicted that wireless technology would affect the most radical change, transmitting sounds and images unlimited by physical location and direction.  At the time he was hopeful about experiments with electromagnetic waves, although the radio and television had not been invented yet. It is in this sense that he can be considered to have "foreseen" the internet, or at least he had mentally conceived of it.

In 1895, Otlet and La Fontaine sought to collect data on every book ever published.  They also decided to amass a collection of magazine and journal articles, photographs, posters, pamphlets, and the like, which were beyond what libraries then collected.  They put this data on the 3x5 index cards.  Once housed in their first building, Otlet established a fee-based research service whereby anyone in the world could snailmail or telegraph a search query.  He got more than 1,500 a year from all over the world.  As the process became unwieldy, he realized that paper would have to be eventually replaced by something better.  He wrote a book, Monde, in 1934 which outlined his vision of a mechanical, collective brain housing all the information in the world readily accessible via a global telecommunications network.  Just as this idea began to form, the Belgian government lost interest in the Mundaneum, the collection was moved to a smaller space, and it eventually closed due to financial struggles.  In 1939, the Nazis destroyed thousands of boxes filled with the index cards, and Otlet died in 1944, most likely discouraged and heartbroken.

Card division of the Library of Congress, circa 1900-1920.

Tim Berner-Lee, acclaimed as the inventor of the World Wide Web, has said he "married" hypertext and the internet.  Although this wasn't foreseen in Otlet's day, both hypertext and the internet were concepts at the end of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries.  Otlet's reigning ability was to conceive of architecture not just for physical structures, but also as a frame for information.  In 1934 he sketched out plans for "electric telescopes" which would allow one to search and browse through interlinked media, send messages, and share files.  He called it a "réseau", which has been translated as "network".  Ex-editor of Wired Kevin Kelly called Otlet's idea "a Steampunk version of hypertext".

Originally the Mundaneum was housed at the Palais du Cinquantenaire, part of the Royal Museums for Art and History, in Brussels.  It closed for good in 1934.  The architect Le Corbusier was to design a project to be constructed in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1929, which was never built but was the cause of a theoretical argument known as The Mundaneum Affair.  Le Corbusier was intrigued enough to want to design an international "city of intellect" around it.

This image and one below of Yale's Sterling Memorial Library.

In 1968, a young graduate student came across the remainder of the original Mundaneum collection while researching Otlet.  He led renewed interest in Otlet, which in turn led to the development of the current Mundaneum, housed in a converted 1930s department store in the city and municipality of Mons, Belgium. Full-time archivists are cataloging the collection.  Although the current Mundaneum has been able to attract funding, it needs to attract more visitors.

Today Otlet and his ideas have been largely forgotten, even in French-speaking countries like his native Belgium.  A man born too early to have his concepts meet the technology they required, it's hard to estimate his influence on today's information accessibility, but clearly he was a visionary.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.
For the official Mundaneum site in English, click here.