Lake Gokcha and the Black Monastery

The Black Monastery sits on a peninsula at the northeast end of Lake Sevan in Armenia. Up and down the lakeshore, remains of ancient towns encrust the landscape. Fifteen miles to the southeast, 900 cross-stones — the largest number of khatchkars in the country — rise out of the harsh soil at the Noratus cemetery.

Brady Kiesling describes the region and the monastery in Rediscovering Armenia: An Archaeological/Touristic Gazetteer and Map Set for the Historical Monuments of Armenia.

The Sevan basin is windswept, treeless and austere, but with stunning skies, an ever-changing lake surface, and a rich history.  All around the lake are the tumbled stone remains of Bronze and Iron Age fortifications and towns, and little boulder clumps marking vast fields of prehistoric burials with superb burnished pottery. …

Continuing straight past the Sevan city turn-off, passing various hostels, one crosses the Hrazdan river and, about 2 km later, reaches a wide parking area with the road (right) leading to the Sevan peninsula.  Ignoring the red “no entry” signs and bearing right, one comes to the parking area and restaurants at the foot of the steps to Sevanavank* (once also known as Sevank, “Black Monastery”).  Here on the then island, Princess Mariam Bagratuni sponsored construction of a monastery, first post-Arab example of an important religious/architectural regional school, under the spiritual guidance of the future katholikos Mashtots.  As the 13th c. Bishop/historian Stepanos Orbelian describes it,

“In that time, the venerable Mashtots shone for his amazing virtue on the island of Sevan. … He received the order in a vision to build a church in the name of the twelve apostles and to set up a religious community there.  In his trance, he saw 12 figures walking toward him on the sea, who showed him the place for the church.  After this vision and a warning from on high, the great queen Mariam, wife of Vasak of Syunik, came to St. Mashtots and, having persuaded him, built a richly ornamented church called the Twelve Apostles, next a second called the Mother of God. She furnished them abundantly, and made them the house of God and the refuge of pious men, in the year 323/AD 874.”

The monastery fell on harder times, and there is a terrible tale that, in the mid-18th century, the monks were ashamed lest the visiting katholikos see their collection of ragged and water-damaged manuscripts, and so secretly dumped them in the lake.

In ages past, Sevan was called Lake Gokcha. Ancient routes through the region were known to Arab geographers, but according to The Trade and Cities of Armenia in Relation to Ancient World Trade, by H.A. Manandian, they sometimes got the distances wrong. “The Arabs, being plain dwellers covered their distances more rapidly than in the more mountainous regions of the Caucuses where the distances could indeed seem much greater than they actually were. The Arabs rarely had recourse to other means of measuring distances.”

The book is available online, along with an excellent selection of other ancient works, at Robert Bedrosian’s History Workshop. Here is the page which contains a map of old roads around Lake Sevan.

H.A. Manandian, The Trade and Cities of Armenia in Relation to Ancient World Trade

H.A. Manandian, The Trade and Cities of Armenia in Relation to Ancient World Trade

In my novel, one chapter takes place around Lake Sevan, then named Lake Gokcha. A small group of Armenian traders are leaving Erivan Fortress, having received approval from the conquering Murad IV, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

They stopped briefly at the edge of town while the Turks asked questions. Mina heard raised voices asking about the firearms, Khatcheres responding belligerently about the Sultan’s approval, and finally they were waved on. The road rose slowly northeast all day through farmlands and small towns, and what Khatcheres said about pushing hard proved to be true. They ate as they walked, and the snow-covered peaks that were due east in the morning were almost due south as Gokcha Lake came into view.

The word came back from the front. “We stop for the night in Ordaklu!” Mina was glad to hear it. She knew she’d traveled further this day than on any day with the caravan, and the wound sent a pulsing ache through her whole body.

“What’s in Ordaklu?” she asked Vartan, trying to divert her attention from the pain.

“Not much. I’ve only been there once, when I was small. My father worked for the mint in Erivan, and was sent up here on business. He brought me, and I remember playing in the cemetery and the ruins of the fort.”

“Where is your father now?”

“He was executed by the last Ottoman governor of Erivan, just before the Persians took the fort. They accused him of helping to plan the invasion.”

“You said your sister was murdered by the Persians.”

“Yes. Interesting, isn’t it?”

“Interesting!” Mina felt outrage at Vartan’s callousness. “That’s what you call it?” A thousand other threatening words filled her mind, but the look of sorrow in Vartan’s eyes stopped her from speaking.

“That’s what happened. I’ve tried to avoid following my father’s example.” He whistled and urged his beast forward, leaving Mina to fall back into line.

The contrast of beauty and horrible sorrow struck Mina once again. The blue waters of the lake, the rich red dirt of the road, the verdant green hills, and the capes of snow and frost that flowed down from the high mountains. The road was curving back to the south, and the lake was visible view past a trio of hills that marked the border of a small valley. She knew that their way in the morning would take them forty miles in the opposite direction they’d been traveling all day.

The history around Lake Sevan is also rich, beautiful and horrible. Ethnic cleansing has featured prominently in Armenia’s past. But, as Brady Kiesling writes:

But there is another Armenia, a subtly green, richly textured landscape, every corner of which has been sculpted by millennia of human triumphs and tragedies.  There is a gifted and generous population, now mostly cut off from outside stimuli but still desperately eager to demonstrate to foreign visitors its traditional hospitality and pride at its survival.  There is nature, exotic, sometimes heart-rendingly beautiful, now mostly unvisited but far from inaccessible.  And of course there is the basic human truth, that enjoyment of a place or activity is directly dependent on the investment made.  Armenia is still difficult to explore unaided, but the rewards of doing so are commensurately great.

(Updated Feb. 10, 2013 – AGW)

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The Secret Armenians

“Who are you? This is Turkey. Do you know what Turkey is?” a man asked me, his thick glasses magnifying the fear in his eyes.

Thus begins a short article at the independent Armenian magazine Ianyan, by Avedis Hadjian. It’s an excerpt from a book due next year, “A Secret Nation: The Hidden Armenians of Turkey.”

I found the article fascinating. History, intrigue, and journalism mingle. And there’s a missing map. But mostly it’s about the secret Armenians.

In Turkey, there lives a mysterious minority known as the “secret Armenians.” They have been hiding in the open for nearly a century. Outwardly, they are Turks or Kurds, but the secret Armenians are actually descendants of the survivors of the 1915 Genocide, who stayed behind in Eastern Anatolia after forcibly converting to Islam. Some are now devout Muslims, others are Alevis –generally considered an offshoot of Shia Islam, even though that would be an inaccurate description by some accounts–, and a few secretly remain Christian, especially in the area of Sassoun, where still there are mountain villages with secret Armenian populations.

If you find it as interesting as I did, follow the author on Facebook.

Travel theme: Circles

When I was younger I traveled the world, dragged by my family from one country to another, back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean. I hope to travel widely again, in this newer century. Until then, my travels occur only through the vast loops of Internet connections that lead from my computer to the far corners of the earth and back again.

But what a magnificent journey it is! Some of what I find makes its way into the pages of my new novel. Other discoveries wait, scribbled in the pages of my notebook, saved in lists of my favorite sites, deposited in magical magnetic collections of ones and zeroes.

Source: Global Integrity.

“The world’s next great natural resource race will not be the traditional mad dash to mine, extract, and commercialize oil, gas, timber, minerals, or even water. … The prize: the ones and zeros that increasingly comprise the fabric of contemporary society – your data.” Source: Global Integrity.

The idea for this post came from the site, Where’s My Backpack? Although my blog doesn’t treat the theme of travel in same way, I couldn’t resist the temptation of posting some of the magic circles I’ve found on my own adventure.

The main character of my novel is a young Hungarian girl, Mina Ferenci. Captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1626, she is taken from her home town of Mako to Istanbul to be a household slave.

Mina's journey begins in Istanbul, at 41 degrees 00'28.85" N, 28 degrees 58'26.06" E.

Mina’s journey (in yellow) begins in Istanbul, at 41 degrees 00’28.85″ N, 28 degrees 58’26.06″ E.

Viewed from above, Istanbul is filled with circles - the minarets and domes of the mosques.

Viewed from above, Istanbul is filled with circles – the minarets and domes of the mosques.

Excerpt from Chapter 1: The Sublime Porte.

Groups of men were filtering into the courtyard through the four southern gates and Mina slowed to a walk and followed them along a straight wide path lined with cypress, willows and other trees she could  not identify. From the four minarets the call to prayer began, and from within the animosity in her gut she felt the urge to laugh. This time she did not suppress it and her amusement grew as the words spread out into the courtyard and beyond.

“God is most great,” sang the voices from the minarets. “I testify there is no other God but God. I testify Muhammad is the messenger of God. Come and pray. Come and flourish. God is most great. There is no God but God.”

Mina accepted the invitation and entered the inner courtyard through the gate. The shock of beauty almost took her breath away. A plateau of perfectly smooth white marble was walled in by multicolored stone columns supporting windowed galleries. Above the galleries, arches of the same multicolored stone looked like rainbows. A line of domes finished the top of each wall and the four minarets anchored each corner of the courtyard.

You might wonder how a girl could enter the mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent. In real life, she couldn’t. In the novel … well, I don’t want to give away too much of the plot. Mina does escape from slavery (of course) taking with her two maps that describe the trade routes across Anatolia to the Caspian Sea.

Maps have been enormously important throughout history, but a “map” has not always been what we understand it to be today. For instance, the Portolan Charts of the 1400’s, which appeared as Europeans started using the magnetic compass, “were made to get seafarers from home to another place and back again safely.”  Modern viewers, although we can identify certain features, would find them useless for our own travels.

1466 Portolan Chart, Petrus Roselli, Cartographer. "Features that usually appear on portolan charts include: a network of lines made within a circle, coastlines of lands, place-names, scales of distance, a compass showing cardinal directions, and indications of shoals, reefs, and islands along coastlines. Source: James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota.

1466 Portolan Chart, Petrus Roselli, Cartographer. “Features that usually appear on portolan charts include: a network of lines made within a circle, coastlines of lands, place-names, scales of distance, a compass showing cardinal directions, and indications of shoals, reefs, and islands along coastlines. Source: James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota.

Technology advanced, and Portolan Charts were succeeded by the modern map, with all its variations. Other inventions exploded into human consciousness, too, many of them related to astronomy and navigation. The “lead and line” — used by sailors for so long to gauge depth, speed and distance — disappeared from use. The Museo Galileo has some stunning examples of human ingenuity, like this “nautical circle.”

"Designed by Robert Dudley and made by Charles Whitwell, this large disk bears only a superficial resemblance to the astrolabe. In fact, it probably belonged to a more complex instrument described in Dudley's Arcano del mare. A ruler complete with circle also forms part of this navigation instrument." Source: Museo Galileo.

“Designed by Robert Dudley and made by Charles Whitwell, this large disk bears only a superficial resemblance to the astrolabe. In fact, it probably belonged to a more complex instrument described in Dudley’s Arcano del mare. A ruler complete with circle also forms part of this navigation instrument.” Source: Museo Galileo.

Other examples of the circle have no circular images to accompany them. With the invention of the printing press, books spread across empires and some authors sought to catalog all knowledge in a new form. As William N. West points out in Theatres and Encyclopedias in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, 2002, part of the word “encyclopedia” comes in part from the Greek root word meaning “circle.”

The capaciousness of the word “encyclopedia” in the sixteenth century and its almost utopian claims for comprehensiveness, compression, and speed of access, similar in tone and content to modern ones for the World Wide Web, are in part a result of its newness; like the word “theatrum,” “encyclopedia” was a sign for which a referent had to be imagined before it could be realized. From its beginnings, the term was unstable, implying a great deal about totality and mastery but difficult to pin down or even evaluate as serious or satirical. Although composed of Greek elements — enkuklios means “general” or “everyday” and derives from the root kuklos, “circle,” while paideia means “education” or “training” — it is in fact not the product of any Greek-speaking culture, but rather of one that read Greek voraciously, early modern humanist Europe.

With the encyclopedia came the idea of a museum, the Kunstkammer, or “art cabinet.” Elites of the Early Modern era collected treasures —  just like they do today, and for all the same reasons — but the manner of organization was entirely different. The History of the Royal Danish Kunstkammer, a 2002 essay by Bente Gundestrup of the The National Museum of Denmark , tells an interesting story:

Hans Christian Andersen concludes his tale The Princess and the Pea by telling us that ‘– the pea was put into the museum, where it can still be seen, if no one has taken it!’ Anyone who has read the story will probably recognize the ending, but they will almost certainly have been unaware of the allusions to one particular museum, and to a remarkable act of theft.

The absolutist monarchs of Denmark had created a multi-museum in Copenhagen – a Kunstkammer – containing all those things, which nowadays can only be seen by visiting a whole range of different museums. The collection reflected the Universe, with naturalia created by God, and objets d’art created by Man – all arranged and displayed according to an efficient, precise system.

This was the repository for some of the treasures of the realm. Here could be found the exquisite Dagmar Cross, as well as the two famous 5th century Golden Horns – found in 1639 and 1734. It was the fate of these Golden Horns that Hans Christian Andersen was hinting at. In 1802 they were stolen from the Kunstkammer and later melted down. The theft inspired Adam Oehlenschläger that same year to write his poem Golden Horns.

Kunstkammer der Regensburger Familie Dimpfel, 1668, Ulmer Museum.

Kunstkammer der Regensburger Familie Dimpfel, 1668, Ulmer Museum. Source: Kunst- und Wunderkammern.

And here this blog entry comes full circle, because Mina Ferenci, the former Ottoman slave girl, arrives in the Baltic in the company of one Adam Olearius. Therein lies a tale, but I’ll leave you with this final circle, the Great Gottorp Globe, currently owned by the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology.

The Great Gottorp Globe is on display at our museum. One of the first planetariums in the world, it is unique in its size and construction, allowing an external globe with a map of the earth’s surface and an internal planetarium with a map of the starry sky to rotate simultaneously.

The globe was made in 1654-1664 under the supervision of A. Olearius in Gottorp, the resident of the Duke of Holstein. The planetarium globe of 3.1 meters in diameter was given to Peter the Great during the Northern War and brought to Petersburg in 1717. Initially, it was placed in a special pavilion on the Tsaristin meadow (now the Field of Mars). It is known that the Tsar frequently examined the Gottorp globe in the morning, such was the interest he took in it.

In 1717, the globe was moved to the tower of the Kunstkamera building. It was severely damaged in the fire of 1747, and its surface was destroyed. Thanks to the work of 18th-century Russian craftsmen, modern restorers, researchers and curators, visitors to the museum today can share the pride and amazement which this unique globe evoked among the people of past centuries.

The globe was made in 1654-1664 under the supervision of A. Olearius in Gottorp, the resident of the Duke of Holstein. The planetarium globe of 3.1 meters in diameter was given to Peter the Great during the Northern War and brought to Petersburg in 1717.

The globe was made in 1654-1664 under the supervision of A. Olearius in Gottorp, the resident of the Duke of Holstein. The planetarium globe of 3.1 meters in diameter was given to Peter the Great during the Northern War and brought to Petersburg in 1717.

Siege Mentality

Wallenstein Besieges Stralsund, by CA Dahlstrom

Wallenstein parleys with the defenders of Stralsund. Engraving by CA Dahlstrom.

The year is 1628. The war has been dragging on for ten years and Ferdinand II — Holy Roman Emperor, King of Germany, Bohemia, Hungary and Croatia, Archduke of Austria — is scheming against Protestant rulers. In less than a year he will force them to restore more than 500 bishoprics, monasteries, abbeys, and other ecclesiastical properties that had been secularized since 1552. And now the Emperor’s undefeated army is at the gates of Stralsund, Germany, a key strategic port city on the Baltic Sea.

The war had officially begun in 1618 with the Defenestration of Prague, when a crowd of Protestants threw two members of the Catholic government and their secretary out the castle window. Encyclopedia Britannica notes that rumblings preceded hostilities.

The underlying cause for the outbreak of a war that would last 30 years was thus the pathological fear of a Catholic conspiracy among the Protestants and the equally entrenched suspicion of a Protestant conspiracy among the Catholics. As a Bohemian noblewoman, Polyxena Lobkovic, perceptively observed from the vantage point of Prague: “Things are now swiftly coming to the pass where either the papists will settle their score with the Protestants, or the Protestants with the papists.”

Ferdinand is 50 years old in 1628, older, wiser, emboldened by successful policies in his homeland of Styria and determined to carry them out in Germany. C.V. Wedgwood describes him in her seminal work, The Thirty Years War.

Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor

Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor

Ferdinand’s policy combined cunning with boldness; he undermined the Protestants by civil disabilities, seduced the younger generation by education and propaganda, and gradually tightened the screws until the Protestants realized too late that they no longer had the means to resist. …

[He was] a cheerful, friendly, red-faced little man with a reassuring smile for everyone. Frank good nature beamed from his freckled countenance and shortsighted, prominent, light blue eyes. Sandy-haired, stout and bustling, he presented a wholly unimpressive figure …

General and private opinion flattered the archduke’s virtues but not his ability. Kindly contemptuous, the greater number of his contemporaries wrote him off as a good-natured simpleton wholly under the control of his chief minister Ulrich von Eggenberg. Yet Ferdinand’s apparent lack of personal initiative may have been a pose; as a young man he had been taught by the Jesuits to cast the onus of political decisions on to others in order to spare his own conscience. …

Repeatedly in the course of his life he twisted disaster into advantage, wrenched unexpected safety out of overwhelming danger, snatched victory from defeat. His contemporaries, unimpressed, commented on his astonishing luck. If it was luck, it was certainly astonishing.

The Emperor’s general, Albrecht von Wallenstein, says of Stralsund, “The town shall yield,  though it were bound with chains to Heaven.”

It is not to be. A spirited defense is raised by Scots, Danes, Swedes, and native Stralsunders themselves. Wedgwood writes, “The show of violence fluttered the Hanseatic League but still had not the desired effect, for, instead of accepting imperial friendship, the deputies of the Hanse merely offered Wallenstein eight thousand talers to withdraw. He proved incorruptible and on July 6 1628 arrived in person before Stralsund.

An article about the siege by the English Civil War Society of America (which staged a reenactment in 2005) describes the situation.

Imperial General Von Arnim had had provocation enough. He commenced his attack in early May. By day, he subjected the city to artillery bombardment, by night he sent parties to attempt to surprise the garrison. The Stralsunders sent pleas for help to the Northern Kings, and help arrived with surprising speed.

The first help came from the Danes. On the 28th of May (Old Calendar) British troops of MacKay’s regiment under Lt.-Colonel Seaton and Major Robert Monroe made a hazardous sea landing at Stralsund. While approaching the harbor, they came under heavy fire from the culverins (large cannon) in von Arnim’s land batteries. Monroe’s ship had its main mast shot off, and almost grounded in the channel. Despite these dangers the Scots landed safely in Stralsund, accompanied by Hatzfeld’s “Deutch” Regiment . The commander of the relief expedition was Colonel Heinrick Holke, and he became the de facto, if not de jure, Governor of Stralsund.

While Arnim kept up his bombardment and harassing attacks. Wallenstein arrived in mid June, and immediately reconnoitered the city’s defenses. He determined that the defenses before the Frankendore Gate was the best spot for an assault, and prepared several thousand men to attack the outworks.

"Belagerung Stralsunds durch Wallenstein 1628, Kupferstich auf einem zeitgenössischen Flugblatt." - Artist Unknown

“Belagerung Stralsunds durch Wallenstein 1628, Kupferstich auf einem zeitgenössischen Flugblatt.” – Artist Unknown

My own novel is not about the war, but one of the main characters, a boy named James, lives through the siege. He is young, and finds himself on the street with another boy, scrambling to find shelter. St. James Church, near one of the main gates into the city, is close by.

They emerged into a single cavernous room on the third floor, morning light streaming in through twelve very tall, very narrow windows on the eastern wall. The western wall was still standing, but James could not see how. Every window had been shattered completely, and a massive hole in the center of the wall gave an unobstructed view of the besieging army of the Holy Roman Empire.

“Don’t fall through.”

“Yeah,” said James. “What’s your name? I can’t remember.”

“Georg. I’m not surprised. You’re lucky to be alive after that shell hit your house. Anyway, come on! We’re missing the action!”

Georg pulled James to the pile of rubble under the hole in the wall, and they scrambled toward the edge. James pushed a few sharp-edged bricks from under his body and felt a gusty north breeze on his face. He breathed deeply and looked out.

The three western gates were under assault. From behind a shield of thick smoke, moving slowly with the wind across the battlefield, columns of men swarmed across two narrow bridges toward the outer walls. Greater masses of men streamed down the gentle slope and waded across the shallow lagoons. The dead were everywhere, some identifiable only by flashes of color in the churned earth, others in heaps where they had fallen attacking the outer bastions. From the Knipes Gate in the north, to the Tribsee Gate in the south by St. Mary’s, the voices of ten thousand attackers urged one another to victory. Inside the walls, musketeers returned fire, and from every part of town men ran toward the gates.

From the defensive hornworks in the lagoons, musket fire decimated ranks of attacking soldiers. As rows of men fell in the shallow water, those behind stepped on their bodies and continued the charge. The new front row was cut down with the next volley, but it looked to James like an endless supply of men would eventually overwhelm the city walls.

A thousand yards from the city, near the top of the rise, artillery targeted the fortifications between the gates. Some cannonballs bounced off the sloping walls, exploding in the air and raining shrapnel onto defenders and attackers alike. Others detonated inside the walls, throwing dust, bricks and body parts a hundred feet into the air.

Inside the cocoon of his concussion, James was terrified. He wanted to run and hide, but the terror couldn’t find its way outward to his body, and so he lay next to Georg and watched. The other boy had an exultant grin plastered to his face, and every so often James could hear him shout over the terrible sounds of the battle. Time was passing, but he couldn’t tell how long he’d been laying in the rubble. The shadows of the church towers were getting shorter, and the wind had changed direction. The smell of gunpowder dominated the breeze, but underneath it he could taste something dank, moist and almost sweet. From the back of his dazzled mind an image of the local slaughterhouse emerged – he and his friends running, trying in vain to catch the slippery eyeballs of dead cows – and he finally recognized the smell. Fresh blood.

Stralsund in 1652, by Mattheaus Merian

Stralsund in 1652, by Mattheaus Merian

‘The Laughable Stories’

Here are but a few of the 727 “Laughable Stories” collected by John Abu’l-Faraj, more commonly known as Gregory Bar-Hebraeus, the head of the Jacobite Church, or Maphrian of the East, from A.D. 1264 to 1286. The text was written in Syriac, an Aramaic dialect used largely by Christians. After the Muslims took over the region, Arabic replaced Syriac, but the language remained in literary use for centuries.

The book is organized into chapters, each with quotes on a different theme. Saying of the Greek Philosophers, the Persian Sages, the Christian Recluses, etc. Stories of the speech of irrational beasts, of clowns and simpletons, and more.

A certain king was in company with one of his philosophers, and as they passed through a ruined village they saw there two owls; and he said to the philosopher, “What are these birds saying to each other?”

And the philosopher said, “I understand something of what they are saying, and if thou wilt swear unto me that thou wilt do me no harm, I will shew thee.”

And when the king had sworn to him, the philosopher said, “One of the owls hath a son and the other a daughter, and they wish to arrange a marriage between them. The owl with the daughter is willing to give her one hundred ruined  villages as a dowry, but the other one will not accept them and demandeth more. The father of the daughter having no more  to give promiseth his fellow, saying, ‘If this king ruleth his kingdom in the way in which he is now ruling it for one year more, I will give thee a thousand ruined villages.'”

When the king heard this he was rebuked, and he began to work righteousness.

Clearly, folks back then were aware of discrimination against women.

A certain woman asked her neighbour, saying, “Why should a man have power to buy a handmaiden and to lie with her and to do whatsoever he pleaseth with her, while a woman hath no power to do any such things freely and openly?”

And she said to her, “Because the kings, and the judges, and the lawgivers are all men; and they have therefore acted the parts of advocates of their own causes and have oppressed the women.”

Of course, women were not immune from jest, and certain professions are prominently abused.

“The intelligence of seventy women is like unto that of one man, and the mind of seventy weavers is as that of one woman.”

And, as is true today, fools take quite a verbal beating.

A fool owned a house together with some other folk, and he said one day, “I want to sell the half of it which is my share and buy the other half, so that the whole building may be mine.”

Another fool seeing an Arab minaret from which men were calling [the people] to prayer, said to his companion, “How very tall the men who built this minaret must have been!” His friend replied, “O silly man, how could any man be as tall as this. They built it first of all on the ground, and then set it up [on its end].”

Syriac text from The Laughable Stories

Syriac text from The Laughable Stories

Spanking, seduction, pregnancy, violence – and spinning bees

Spanking seems to be making quite a comeback, thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey. Beatings? Not so much. But back in the 16th and 17th centuries things were a bit different. Martin Luther’s complaints against Catholicism in the early 1500’s had led to a religious and cultural Reformation. Printers began to churn out pamphlets and books by the millions. The combination made for some interesting reading.

I’m not going to delve too deeply into the literature. I’ll leave that to you, dear reader. The following illustrations should give you someplace to start. First, German History in Documents and Images notes “the rapidly growing literature on the conditions  of a happy marriage and on codes  of behavior reinforced gender roles.” The following two images are from a woodcut by Abraham Bach, produced in the latter half of the 17th century.

Plate 1:  a man beats  his  wife for being proud, impious , lazy, and drunk

Plate 1: a man beats his wife for being proud, impious , lazy, and drunk

Plate 2:  a woman beats  her hus band for gambling, drinking, gluttony, and chas ing pretty girls

Plate 2: a woman beats her husband for gambling, drinking, gluttony, and chasing pretty girls

Second — and from an author I’ve mentioned before, Alison G. Stewart — comes a treatise on “Distaffs and Spindles: Sexual Misbehavior in Sebald Beham’s Spinning Bee.”

Sebald Beham, Spinning Bee, woodcut, ca. 1524, Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford

Sebald Beham, Spinning Bee, woodcut, ca. 1524, Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford

In Nuremberg, an imperial city answerable only to the emperor, spinning bees served as meeting places for rural girls and women during the fall and winter evenings. Spinning bees were widely called Spinnstuben and Rockenstuben in German, but Lichtstuben in Nuremberg’s Franconian dialect. Despite their ostensibly female nature, spinning bees were also visited by men. Indeed, in the sixteenth century, spinning bees throughout Germany were officially viewed as centers for scandalous socializing and were forbidden under penalty, although forbidding spinning bees was not the same as abolishing them, as we will see.

Here are a few enlargements (no pun intended) of certain portions of Beham’s woodcut.

Sexual Misbehavior 3Sexual Misbehavior 2Sexual Misbehavior 1

Yep, they’re getting jiggy, alright.

Undoubtedly, the sexual behavior characterized at spinning  bees has much to do with the phallic shape of the primary spinning  implements used at the time — distaff and spindle. Just as round forms encouraged association with the womb and the female, the word “spindle” stood for the penis in Late Medieval English, French, and German. For example, in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (ca.  1599)  (1.4.108-10), Sir Andrew Aguecheek looks for a bride. Sir Toby Belch remarks directly that the former’s hair “hangs like flax on a  distaff; and I hope to see a housewife take thee between her legs and spin it off.”  Although spinning was a female activity, spinning tools assumed unquestionably  male shapes. This gender-jumping seems to have appealed to contemporaries.

It might not be Fifty Shades of Grey, but, as Stewart notes, “Beham’s Spinning Bee indicates a chaotic, violent and oversexed world where female sexuality and virtue serve as the point of departure for male desire, aggression, and humor. Beham’s woodcut needs to be  understood within  its  cultural context at a time in Europe when women, as well as men, were viewed as lustful, although women then and since antiquity were seen as the more susceptible sex.”

The Crash of the Sun

Kaali Meteorite Crater on the island of Saaremaa.

Kaali Meteorite Crater on the island of Saaremaa. Source: Tina Gill.

You won’t find much if you search the Web for “the crash of the sun.”

Some of what you do find is less than palatable, unless you’re into the ambient/electronica/experimental music of the Italian band SBPS2. Down at the tail end of the nine Google results, you’ll find a link to Volume 23 of Estonian Folklore.

Estonia is a curious country. Snuggled up against Russia — if one can place such a cuddly word so near to that totalitarian nightmare —  with a frozen coastline on the Gulf of Finland, the country has been fought over by Poland, Germany, Denmark, Germany, Russia and Sweden. In the 1400’s it was part of Livonia, and despite the Christianization of the pagans the country still has its own curious identity.

The Livonian Confederation, 15th century

The Livonian Confederation, 15th century

In 1639, the characters from my novel travel by ship from Reval (present-day Tallinn) to Riga, and are forced to land on the island of Saaremaa to make repairs.

Ulf looked around at the crew members sleeping on the dry sand around him. Others had been sent for construction materials, food and water. From the west, borne on the soft wind, he could hear the bark of seals and the cries of birds. Master Jens turned the carcass of the dead bird over the open fire and continued the telling — the endless telling — of yet another boring story from the dying past.

“The island settlements to the east are ancient, and the place was known to the vikings as Eysysla. Eirik – a bastard son of the Norsk King Haakon Sigurdsson – invaded here 600 years ago, killing everyone he found and taking Danish ships as his own. But today it is a haven for healers. They say massive stones fall here from the sky, trailing fire and bringing magic elements. Don’t be surprised if witches appear to you out of thin air. And whatever they ask of you, don’t do it.”

Ulf wished the old man would just shut up.

As you can see, I am not Ulf. The story of the meteorite is real, and it fascinates me — as do the other stories that Master Jens tells. Volume 23 of Estonian Folklore tells what really happened.

The Kaali meteorite crash is the kind of unique and astounding event that must have become a topic of storytelling and singing for many generations afterward. As mentioned above, it evidently occurred around 2000 BC, on Saaremaa Island in the Baltic Sea. As recent scientific studies have established (Tiirmaa 1994), a meteorite of iron streaked from east to west over the Estonian mainland, broke  apart as a result of atmospheric friction, and hit the island in at least 9 places, leaving craters that can be seen to this day.

Tiirmaa (1994: 63) likens the event to a small nuclear explosion (minus radioactivity). … the amount of energy needed to form the main crater was equivalent to 1-4 kilotons (1–4 million kg or 2–8 million pounds) of TNT explosive. The largest fragment hit the ground and exploded with enough energy to create a crater 110 m in diameter, 22 m deep, with a rim 4–7 m above the ground.

It is hard to imagine what went on in the minds of the humans who saw flaming chunks of the sky fall to earth, heard the sonic boom of the streaking fragments and the ear-splitting crash, felt the ground shudder beneath their feet, and were engulfed by a great cloud of dust and ash. Trees, animals, and dwellings within a radius of 2–5 km from the site would have been destroyed, a forest fire would have been ignited, and the survivors would have had to run for their lives to avoid asphyxiation from the vaporized and pulverized matter and gases. This may have been the greatest meteorite impact ever in a populated area. It was truly a fearsome and spectacular event, more than enough to alter existing world-views and to inspire new tales and songs.

The long-tailed fireball would have been brighter than the sun, visible not just on Saaremaa but as far as 700 km (450 miles) away (Meri 1984: 55; Tiirmaa 1994: 65). Included in the area of direct observability are much of southern Finland and Karelia, the Novgorod area of Russia, the Polish coast, and lower Sweden.

At the end of the dissertation comes a song. The Kaali Meteorite Song. “Each song line is to be sung first by the lead singer [storyteller], and repeated by the chorus [listeners].”

Narrator: The night was dark. The sky-god Ukko decided to shed more light on earth.

Ukko struck to make a fire,
Struck a white-hot lightning fire.
From his flaming sword he struck it,
As the sparks did fly and sputter;
Fire hit against his fingers,
Sputtered sparks from sacred fingers,
High above aloft in heaven,
On the starry plains of heaven.

Narrator: He entrusted the care of the fire to the maid of air, for her to form and shape.

Into a new moon to form it,
Into a new day to shape it.

Narrator: But this did not turn out well.

Imbi rocked the baby fire,
Back and forth the little white one.
On her hands she held the fire,
Put the spark up on her fingers:
Fire fell from butterfingers
From the fingers of the guardian.

Narrator: The catastrophe followed

Heaven torn and lacerated,
Skyvault became perforated;
Fire tore through sky like blizzard,
Sped and crashed along the cloudline,
Through nine heavens it descended,
Through six spangled vaults of heaven.
Evil deeds it then accomplished,
Cruel deeds it perpetrated:
Burning up the daughters’ bosoms,
Tearing at the breasts of maidens,
And the knees of boys destroying,
And the master’s beard consuming.
And of all its deeds most evil:
Burned the baby in his cradle.
Went on burning many uplands,
Many uplands, many boglands,
Crashed at last into the water,
In the waves of Lake Alue:
And the fire rose up flaming,
And the sparks a rose all crackling.
Three times in a night of summer,
Nine times in a night of autumn,
Roared up to the height of spruce trees,
Sprang up high against the shorebanks
With the strength of furious fire,
With the might of angry white heat.
Even threw the fish on dry land,
Heaved the perch across the beaches.

Mass grave from 1632 begins to reveal soldiers’ secrets

History comes to life in this article from Der Spiegel. I’ve been researching the decades of the Thirty Years War for some time now, and I’m writing a chapter that takes place about 60 miles from Lutzen, Germany, as the crow flies. My novel has little to do with the war, but the conflict engulfed most of Northern Europe from 1618-1648, and no citizen was untouched by its horror.

Mass Grave in Lutzen

The morning of November 16, 1632 was foggy, so the mass killing could only begin after some delay. It wasn’t until midday that the mist cleared, finally allowing the Protestant army of Sweden’s King Gustav II Adolf to attack the Roman Catholic Habsburg imperial army led by Albrecht von Wallenstein. The slaughter lasted for hours in the field at the Saxon town of Lützen.

“In this battle the only rule that applied was, ‘him or me,'” says Maik Reichel. “It was better to stab your opponent one extra time just to ensure there was no chance of him standing up again.” The historian and former German parliamentarian for the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) is standing at the edge of a field on the outskirts of Lützen. After the battles here, the ground was soaked with blood. “About 20,000 men fought on each side and between 6,000 and 9,000 were killed,” estimates Reichel, who heads the museum in the city castle.

The battle is important only because it resulted in the death of Sweden’s king. A hands-on leader, he fought with his men at the front. Known as the Lion of the North, it was said that “he thinks the ship cannot sink that carries him.” After his death, the war dragged on for another 16 years, the Swedish forces under various generals directed by Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna.

The Catholic forces in 1632 were led by Albrecht Wallenstein, who was assassinated in 1634, after being charged with treason by the Holy Roman Emperor.

Gustavus_Adolphus_at_the_Battle_at_BreitenfeldGustavus Adolphus
Albrecht_WallensteinAlbrecht Wallenstein

The chapter in my novel occurs in 1639, after the first Battle of Frieburg was lost by Protestant forces under General Johan Baner.

Except for the frost, Uncle Heinrich’s face looked the same dead as it had alive.

“At least death has a sense of humor,” James said. The man’s body was grotesquely animated, much like his face had been during life. It was as if the laughing north wind had frozen him solid, pistol in upraised hand, legs churning toward victory, the moment the enemy musket ball pierced his chest. He’d known since last night that his uncle was dead. The corpse was mere proof.

“Do you want to bury him? It’ll take him awhile to thaw out,” said Conrad.

“Yes,” said James, shivering in the cold dawn air, “but don’t bother waiting. I think he’d rather be buried just as he is, going down fighting. Where are you digging the graves?”

“Grave. Over where we had the fire last night. The ground is too hard anywhere else. General Baner says to dig one big pit and throw them all in.”

“He’s a son of a bitch, but for once I agree with him.” James picked up the cold handles of the wheelbarrow and struggled to push it over the rugged earth.

Conrad grabbed Heinrich’s outstretched arm to steady the wheelbarrow, and laughed. “He always was one to lend a hand!”

James negotiated the rows of dead and their bearers. “Looks like about two hundred. How many more?”

“Five hundred total, or so they tell me. And we didn’t even take the town.”

“Son of a bitch.” He tipped his uncle into the dead regiment. Sweaty men swung picks and swore at the frozen earth. James used his sleeve to wipe the sweat from his own forehead. “Has anyone told Baner how stupid that was?”

“Probably as stupid as trying to dig this pit.”

“So you’d rather just leave these men to rot where they lay?”

“And you’d prefer to complain about orders when the general’s wife is sick? If you thought the attack was futile …”

“Baner just killed five hundred of our men, including my uncle.” James spit the words into the freezing air and pulled the collar of his coat closer.

“He killed five thousand last month. Don’t compound your problems. No good will come of it. Say a prayer for Heinrich and let’s get back to the tent.”

Down the line, men were stripping the bodies of useful gear. James bent over Heinrich and tugged on the sleeve of the dead man’s overcoat. “Give me a hand.”

Conrad giggled, squatted down, and together they wrangled the coat from the contorted body. “Do you want the boots?”

“Yeah. We wear the same size.” James pulled one of the boots, but it wouldn’t budge. “Hold him steady. Damn thing is frozen on.” He pulled again and the boot came free with a cracking sound. The sock remained. He pulled the other one off and stood with it in his hand. The idea of stripping Heinrich to his bare frozen flesh was repulsive.

“That’s it. Leave the rest. ”

“Aren’t you going to say a prayer?” Conrad waited, greatcoat over his arm, the bloody hole staring at the world in condemnation.

“Okay. I suppose it’s what Heinrich would have wanted.” James considered his uncle’s wounds, so bright in life, livid blue-gray in death. He looked up, desiring to see the sky but confronted only by the carnal fog that had followed them since Chemnitz.

“Lord.” The first consonant stuck on his tongue, repulsing the wave of sounds that came after, then collapsing in submission. A rage of angels blew trumpets in his head and a prayer arrived with the attack. “Babylon, you are doomed! I pray the Lord’s blessings on anyone who punishes you for what you did to us. May the Lord bless everyone who beats your children against the rocks!”

James turned abruptly away, hating his shameful tears. The dead regiment lay at attention as a mounted officer rode into the clearing. “Leave the dead! We’re moving out!”

A cry of protest rose from the men.

“The ground is too hard!” the officer shouted. “We’ll bury them after the thaw! Now move out!”