Monday, March 8, 2021
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.
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.
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
Saturday, March 6, 2021
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Much of this material comes from Neil Price, The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia.
Friday, March 5, 2021
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
Gertrude Kingston, 1909
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
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.