Monday, March 8, 2021

The Flying Yachts of the America's Cup

The 2021 America's Cup is being held in New Zealand. The "boats" this year are a new class called AC75: monohulled, with soft rather than rigid sails, and of course hydrofoils. One distinctive feature is that when the wind is strong enough they can all lift one of the two paired foils into the air to reduce drag.

Team New Zealand says their machine can hit 50 knots (56 mph or 91 kph).

Truly remarkable devices, but a long way from "sailing" as it was once done. This is about the future, not the past.

CNN video here.

Dothraki Hordes vs. Actual Hordes, or, Human Societies as Multi-Species Communities

Mongolian archer on a steppes pony, 1895

One of my favorite bloggers, Unmitigated Pedantry, has put up a multi-post series on the way the Dothraki are portrayed in Game of Thrones. He has many complaints, but I want to focus on one: how few animals appear in either the books or the TV series.

Khal Drogo's horde on the move appears like this. One horse per person, and no other animals.

Whereas an actual Mongolian community looked more like this. There would be five to eight horses per adult, plus hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands of sheep.

George R.R. Martin actually says that the Dothraki incorporate ideas from both Eurasian steppes peoples and Indians of the Great Plains. But that doesn't help much, since Lakota, Comanche, etc. also had many more horses than people.

Even when going on a raid, Mongol warriors typically took along 5 horses each. This was partly because their horses were small –see the picture at the top – and tired out quickly when carrying a man. They were small because they had to subsist entirely on grass; the larger horses bred in settled regions have to be fed grain. The humans also depended on their horses in other ways. While on a raid Mongols liked to take along at least two lactating mares; two mares produced enough milk that a warrior could live off it for two weeks with no other food.

Thinking about this, it dawned on me that what I always thought of as a human community, whether Mongol or Comanche, was actually a multi-species community in which humans were very much outnumbered by other animals. And this has been true in many different cultures.

The traditional communities I know the most about were medieval villages in northern Europe and plantations in 17th-century Virginia. In both, humans were by far the minority among the large mammals. One Virginia inventory I happen to have on my desk, from 1752, lists nine horses, four colts, 30 sheep, 14 swine, eight cows, five calves, and 13 "small cattle." If I am reading this right, the farm had four human inhabitants, who were thus outnumbered 20 to 1. That's without getting into dogs and cats, which were ubiquitous but for obscure reasons were never listed on estate inventories.

We shouldn't single out Game of Thrones for not getting this right; after all there are lots of recreated medieval village that look like this. Nice thatched roofs, but something important is missing.

As in this still from an "educational" video. These folks would have gone hungry trying to subsist off two chickens.

And it wasn't just peasants. I recently read a scholarly article about Norse kingship that said the objects most associated with royalty in our sources are animals, especially hawks, horses, and herds of cattle. I mean, anybody could have a crown knocked together, but if you had a mews full of goshawks and a pasture full of champion milkers, you were the boss.

One of the ways my life differs from those of my ancestors was that they lived very intimately with livestock – lots of livestock. Their lives were deeply intertwined with their animals; how well they lived depended on how well their animals thrived. So they cared a great deal about their animals and would go to much effort and expense to treat their illnesses and so on. Of course, they also ate their animals. It's a relationship I find difficult to understand, and which of course continues for farm folk in our own time. Think about how we encourage 4-H kids to throw their hearts into raising a lamb or pig that is sold for slaughter after judging.

But that has been the human way for many people across much of history. We lived with animals in intense, mutually dependent relationships, knowing them better than we knew all but a few people, but also eating their flesh and wearing their skins.

When we recreate the past without animals, and the feelings people had toward them, we miss a great deal of human life.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Meanwhile in Catonsville

So, the cat. You have to imagine him scrabbling at the window, his little claws scratching across the glass, yowling the whole time. Not sure what this was about, but this is my home office space, so it was a bit of a distraction.

And not just once but repeatedly. If I could see something happening outside I might understand better. but I don't. This is the cat my wife just brought home one day.

So, there's a thing about having several children. A while ago I got a birthday-related request for a hummingbird cake, except not with cream cheese frosting. I agreed. But this generated a chorus of complaints from the pro-cream cheese frosting faction. So I said, ok, I'll just do one layer with cream cheese frosting and one with buttercream and not put them together. No, they said, having the alternating layers of cake and frosting is half the point! You see the result.

My son Ben, now 18, poses by a break in the Patapsco mill race created by a small stream.

I demonstrate my manly lack of fear of bigfoot.

Thursday Ben came home from a walk in the woods bubbling about frogs. He stumbled across a pond full of them, he said, all splashing around and singing their little hearts out. I had to work, cursed be that hated word, so I could not go straight down. By the time I arrived Friday afternoon things had settled down a lot. You can see that this "pond" is actually just a segment of the mill race.

I did see several frogs and hear them singing all around me, but these masses of frog eggs show that I was late for the main event.

On the way back I ran into our old friend the mostly white deer, now nearly grown. I have to think that if we had any predators this guy wouldn't have lived nearly this long.

The beavers also made it through the winter. In this picture you can see the little dam they built, two sections on either side of the island.


Spent time in the garden this sunny weekend, cleaning up from the winter. Lots of little green plants coming up. I just ordered a new rose bush and some other plants, and I can't wait to get my hands into the dirt.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

The Sorceress of Fyrkat

Fyrkat Grave 4 by Thorhallur Thrainsson

Those of us interested in past beliefs about magic do a lot of hoping and wishing. Like, it's true this text was written two centuries after the events it describes, but maybe it is based on earlier sources or a strong oral tradition. Or, yes, there are other possibilities, but isn't the most likely explanation that this body was a victim of human sacrifice?

But sometimes the evidence is pretty much irrefutable, and can say with very little doubt that we are reading about or looking at an actual witch or wizard, someone who was deeply learned in an ancient, arcane tradition. One of those cases is the woman I will call the Sorceress of Fyrkat, although technically she is the occupant of Fyrkat Grave 4.


Fyrkat was one of the fortresses built by the kings of Denmark, probably around 980 AD. There are at least two other nearly identical fortresses from the Viking age, and two other possible ones. The best guess is that kings had them built as part of preparation for a major campaign. In this case the king would have been Harald Bluetooth, and the campaign was his successful war to regain southern Jutland from the German emperors. Note that Harald Bluetooth had by this time converted to Christianity and required all of his followers to do likewise.

The street that ran out Fyrkat's northeast gate led to a graveyard. Outside the gate the street was raised on a wooden walkway supported by posts, and the graves were laid out neatly along its sides. One of the graves held a woman of exalted status and very strong magical associations. She wore a blue dress with accents of red and embroidery in gold thread. Over it was a linen garment that has been seen in various ways; the Danish National Museum interprets it as you see here, as a shawl so thin as to be nearly transparent. This would have been a highly stylist get-up at the time, just like those worn by noble women in the German empire. Rich Norse women usually held their attire together with a lot of fancy pins and brooches, but this tailored dress needed no such fasteners. She was laid in the bed of a wagon. Wagons like this were standard coffins for high status women in this age, showing that while alive they did not have to walk but were driven everywhere.

She was not buried with a huge quantity of grave goods, but the select items placed with her tell a remarkable story. Near her head was this box brooch, which was filled with what seems to be white lead makeup. This is highly unusual for the Viking world, and the substance was probably imported from the Mediterranean.

On her second toes were two silver toe rings, of which these are replicas. These are the only toe rings known from the whole Norse world and they probably came from the Middle East or Central Asia.

Near her feet was this bronze cup, also probably from the Middle East. This is a more standard object for a rich Norse or Anglo-Saxon burial; Byzantine or Arab bronze and brass ewers, bowls, and so on seem to have been common luxury items in the north.

A group of objects was concentrated around her waist. They are thought to have been suspended from her belt, as shown here in a drawing by Hayo Vierck. There is a knife, its sheath bound with silver, and a slate whetstone. Since Vikings and Anglo-Saxons had a thing for fancy whetstones, which we often find in graves or other ceremonial contexts, we should probably imagine that a sacrifice was preceded by a dramatic sharpening of the killing instrument. (Imagine this act accompanied by chanting and drumming, as the tension builds.) Item 5 in the drawing is a guess about the origin of numerous tiny pieces of thin glass, which may represent a small ampule of this type. This was a common form of protective amulet in the classical world and their use continued into Christian times, when they were filled with water used to wash saints' tombs. Item 2 is a hypothesized bag that contained a pile of henbane seeds. Henbane can give you strong hallucinations, and it is one of the plants most commonly associated with magic in northern Europe.

Item 3 is this "duck's feet" pendant, probably from Russia. Only one other example is known from the Norse world, from another grave that might be a queen.

Item 4 is this chair-shaped amulet. These are one of the items most strongly associated with Norse magic, known only from the graves of women suspected of being seers or sorcerers. They probably represent the "high seat" on which a völva sat to make her prophecies, as described in several Norse sources.

You may be wondering why I haven't called Fyrkat 4 a völva, since that is how modern writers usually refer to Norse magical women or prophetesses. But the Old Norse terminology of magic and magical practitioners is one of those topics that, once you dive into it deeply, you wish you hadn't. There are several terms that all shifted meaning over the centuries. It is quite possible that this woman considered völva such an unbearable insult that she would have had her men cut your tongue out for calling her one, before prophesying ruin for your whole family. (Like "witch.") So it is safer to avoid Norse terms altogether and use something generic and English. Incidentally you may think you know why a Norse wise woman was called a völva, which looks like an evocation of feminine mystery. Really it means "staff bearer". Which brings me to the other incontrovertibly magical item from Fyrkat 4, a badly corroded iron staff or wand with bronze fittings.

About thirty of these are known; this image is from the British Museum. Some of them, like these, have ornamentation that sets them apart, but others look pretty much exactly like cooking spits. And indeed some of them may have been cooking spits, although in burials they are associated with fey women. So likely they were used for a different purpose.

The chest at the feet of Fyrkat 4 was old and had been repaired multiple times with different sorts of wood, which is an odd detail. It contained mostly clothing, of which all that survived was a quantity of gold and silver thread. So very fancy clothes. There also a set of the standard objects buried with Viking women: shears, a spindle whorl, another whetstone.

The Fyrkat sorceress must have been a formidable woman. Rich, she spent much of her money on exotic goods from far away, favoring in particular fashions that had not been adopted by her peers. And she was, in an allegedly Christian kingdom, a devotee of an ancient magical tradition.

Bronze bowl from Fyrkat 4, Item 1 above

That tradition had many elements. The best known and probably central was prophesying. The sagas tell us that seers regularly traveled through the Norse lands, calling at each prominent farm. There they were lavishly welcomed and they and their followers provided with a feast. They presided over a ritual that involved chanting and, in pre-Christian times, animal sacrifice. They then dressed up in an elaborate costume –was this when the Fyrkat sorceress painted her face white? – took their place on a chair atop a platform and prophesied what the year would bring for the household. According to our sources, they usually provided good news. Again according to our sources, they could be bribed, and would issue better prophecies for those who fed them better. This same accusation was of course made about oracles in the ancient world and is still made about modern shamans, often by other shamans, so this debate seems to be part and parcel of the whole business of prophesying.

The "Pagan Lady" from Peel Castle, Isle of Man, Viking Sorceress buried with a Swan's Wing. By Thorhallur Thrainsson.

Notice that the saga sources say little about the seeress going into trance or ecstasy. But henbane is no trivial drug, and anyone who took enough might go very far indeed past the rational state. Plus ecstasy of one kind or another is almost universally part of the prophetic tradition. So I think we should imagine that Norse seeresses at least sometimes drugged themselves into a trance state to seek answers to pressing questions. One thing we have learned from modern shamans is that they are capable of working in multiple modes, giving pat answers to standard questions – yeah, sure, you'll have a great harvest, what are we eating? – while also drugging or otherwise driving themselves into very dangerous trance states when confronted with a real crisis.

I have also refrained from calling Fyrkat 4 a seeress, which is how the Danish National Museum titles her. I did this because the Norse magical tradition also included other elements besides prophecy, among them the standard repertoire of cunning folk: healing, finding lost objects, making protective amulets, and so on. They were also said to summon storms and curse their enemies to death. I assume that the Fyrkat sorceress engaged at least in healing, and it is fun to imagine that sometimes King Harald sent his bishop away and asked his sorceress to curse his enemies or seek a vision of how his upcoming wars might go.

The "Staff Wielder" or "Weapon Dancer" figurine from Birka in Sweden

Much of this material comes from Neil Price, The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Links 5 March 2021

Stone bowl with lion's head, Syria, 900-700 BC. Now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The Dragon Witches of Renaissance Germany: "In 1652, a woman from Saxony who claimed to be  able to identify witches explained to the authorities that she’d seen a number of women from her neighborhood having sex with a flying dragon." Seems to have been an explanation of why some people were richer than others.

High-resolution 360 degree panoramic photo of the Perseverance landing site on Mars.

Threatened by a long-term drought, some people in late Neolithic China responded by improving their irrigation systems and diversifying the crops they grew, leading to a major rise in population in the early Bronze Age. People have been adapting to climate change for as long as we have existed, sometimes with great success.

Kevin Drum does some math, estimates that 700,000 American women have dropped out of the workforce to take care of children during the pandemic.

The "darkness to light" festival at Salisbury Cathedral, delightful photographs from 2014.

The thing to wear for winter outdoor social distancing, at least for the rich, is a jacket from Norwegian Wool (New York Times)

The saga of 2,4 dinitrophenol, a "mitochondrial uncoupling agent" that can either cause weight loss or kill you.

Delightful photographs of firefly mating season in Japan.

Why are young adults in the US having less sex? "Among young women, the decline in the frequency of drinking alcohol explains about one quarter of the drop in the propensity to have casual sex. Among young men, declines in drinking frequency, an increase in computer gaming, and the growing percentage who coreside with their parents all contribute significantly to the decline in casual sex."

Review of Jordan Peterson's new book (The Atlantic). Not very interesting about the book but more so about Peterson's life.

Pondering Elon Musk's plan to settle people on Mars, Shannon Stirone  says this is a ridiculous way to help humanity: "Mars is a hellhole. . . . Mars will kill you." (The Atlantic)

How Jeff Bezos and Martin Baron transformed the Washington Post from a struggling regional newspaper with a shrinking subscriber base to a global news website with more than 3 million subscribers. (New York Times) Honestly I think that while Donald Trump was a disaster in most ways he was the greatest gift the news industry has received in a generation or two. The appetite for crazy conspiracies certainly grew, but so did the appetite for serious reporting, and I suspect most of the people who bought new subscriptions during 2020 will keep the habit.

The Worshipful Company of Glovers of London has a web site with photographs of their historic glove collection.

Ice on wind turbine blades, and how to cope with it.

Making Heidelberg, Germany a car-free city (New York Times)

The "charter city" of Prospera is being launched on an island off Honduras; the backers are hoping to create a business-friendly, international hub.

Computer modeling confirms the old theory that the deaths of nine Russian hikers in the 1959 Dyatlov Pass Incident were caused by an avalanche. (National Geographic)

Thursday, March 4, 2021

John Singer Sargent's Charcoal Portraits

In 1907 John Singer Sargent announced that he was through painting portraits in oils. After all he was already rich beyond reason and saw no need to keep doing work that bored him. But he did continue to do portraits in charcoal, many of them subjects he chose himself because he admired their work. Last year the US National Portrait Gallery tried to host an exhibition of these portraits, but instead the epidemic broke out and the museum closed. Above, Lady Helen Vincent, 1905.

Gertrude Kingston, 1909

William Butler Yeats, 1908

Moorfield Storey, a noted civil rights attorney, 1917

Henry James, 1912

Ruth Draper as a Dalmatian Peasant, 1914

Lady Diana Manners, 1914

Ernest Schelling, 1910

Charlotte Nichols Greene and Her Son Stephen Greene, 1924

Dr. William Sturgin Bigelow, 1917

Germany's Crazy Monarchists

 At Bloomberg, the sad and crazy story of Germany's self-proclaimed king:

Presented with a recorder, Peter talks and talks. He talks about how he healed an ex-girlfriend who was abused as a child by Satanists, using only his hands. About how a cabal of shadowy elites, including Rockefellers and Orthodox Jews, spread Covid-19 to boost drug profits and compel Germans to accept implanted biosensor chips. How a sniper once shot his car on the autobahn, but divine intervention caused the bullet to only nick the windshield. (He knows what you’re thinking, but a policeman friend told him there’s no way it was a rock.)

King Peter’s subjects are adherents of the Reichsbürger movement, whose members believe Germany doesn’t exist. The republic, they contend, is a limited liability company controlled by the Allied victors of World War II—and, according to the more anti-Semitic, the Rothschild family. Reichsbürgers print their own passports, often refuse to pay taxes, and clog courts with paperwork, along the same lines as the U.S. “sovereign citizen” movement.

And like their other American kin, QAnon, the far-right conspiracy theory alleging a “deep state” plot against Donald Trump—they’re products of the digital age of unreason. Reichsbürgers are indoctrinated by low-budget YouTube talk shows hosted by the likes of Jo Conrad, who says Freemasons, lizard people, and child-murdering cults have overrun Germany. Converts protest outside the Reichstag, which some say is guarded by a laser cannon. For fun, they stream Reichsbürger hip-hop. In 2018, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency identified about 19,000 Reichsbürgers, nearly double its estimate of two years earlier. The true number, officials say, is likely far greater.

So the weird notion that the government is actually a corporation has crossed the Atlantic; do you suppose they copied that from American crazies, or is it somehow just an obvious notion in our world?

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Today's Place to Daydream about: Merida

I've been in a Roman mood, so today my thoughts take me to Emerita Augusta, known to moderns as Mérida, Spain.

Today Mérida is a modest little city of 60,000 not far from the Portuguese border, the capital of Extremadura. But nobody from outside cares about its modern incarnation; people go to see the amazing remains of Rome.

Emerita is the word more familiar to you as emeritus, meaning retired; this was a colony of Roman veterans, founded by Augustus in 25 BC. At that point Augustus was one of the richest men in history, and he gave his veterans everything good Romans needed to feel at home.  A circus,

An amphitheater,

A forum, 

Temples,

And a theater, about which locals tell a wonderful story. The lore has it that over time the theater had gotten almost entirely filled with rubble and dirt, so that the only thing visible above ground was the damaged uppermost tier of seats. Seven sections of seating were visible, and people called them the Seven Thrones and said seven Muslim kings had sat on them to judge the populace, deciding whether to destroy the town or allow it to continue under their rule.

A wonderful Roman bridge crosses the Guadiana River, still open for foot traffic.


Several private villas have been excavated in the town.


For those interested in history the National Museum of Roman Art is a must visit; this was the first museum outside Madrid to be designated "national" by the Spanish government, and you can see why. The building was designed by Rafael Moneo, its stone arches evoking the construction of many local Roman buildings.



Inside the museum.

But what really fascinates me is the surviving Roman waterworks There are three aqueducts, and substantial sections of all three survive. This is the Proserpina, the last to be built, in the time of Trajan.

And this dam, also built in Trajan's time, which created a reservoir that fed the aqueducts. The dam has of course been maintained and repaired over the centuries but its core is still stones laid by Roman masons 1900 years ago:

The Proserpina aqueduct is based at a dam which is located about 10 km north of Merida. It is the youngest of the three aqueducts of Merida and was build in the time of Traian at the beginning of the first century AD. A feeder aqueduct brings additional water into the reservoir of the dam, which collects the water from the Proserpina aqueduct. The dam is 427m long, 21.6m high and at the crest 2.3m wide. It is a earthen dam supported on the inside by a 6m thick retaining wall. This wall is built from a concrete core and granite masonry facing. The dam is built from three segments of slightly different orientation. On the inside nine buttresses support the retaining wall of the dam when the water is drained from the reservoir; without these buttresses, the retaining wall would collapse due to the pressure of the wet earth in the dam embarkment behind it. It has been suggested that is was the collapse of another similar dam, that of Alcantarilla for the aqueduct of Toledo, which brought the Roman engineers to build this safety feature into their design. On the outside, there are also buttresses, 16 in total, supporting the retaining wall, but these are covered by the earth embarkment and only known from drilling.


Astonishing, that so much survives from so long ago.