Helen’s Page

This entry is a departure from my regular headlong plunges into history. Many thanks to Helen’s Page and Instapundit for a nice bit of promotion, which more than tripled my readership over at WattPad.

The tagline over at Helen’s Page is “For Liberty-Minded People.” Freedom and Liberty are themes that run deep in my story. A couple years ago, I ran across a piece by Shelby Steele, and I’ve been referring to it ever since while finishing up my novel.

Speaking in 2011 at the conference “The Perils of Global Intolerance: The UN and Durban III,” Steele said that freedom is “a dicey thing to experience.”

When you come into freedom, you see yourself more accurately in the world. This is not unique to the Middle East. It was also the black American experience, when the Civil Rights bill was passed in 1964 and we came into much greater freedom. If you were a janitor in 1963 and you are still a janitor in 1965, you have all these freedoms and they are supported by the rule of law, then your actual experience of freedom is one of humiliation and one of shame. You see how far you have to go, how far behind you are, how little social capital you have with which to struggle forward. Even in freedom you see you are likely to be behind for a long time. In light of your inability to compete and your underdevelopment, freedom becomes something that you are very likely going to hate – because it carries this humiliation.

About the peoples of Asia Minor, Aristotle wrote, “They are miserable in freedom and comfortable in slavery.”

The two main characters in my novel, teenagers growing up in a violent world of theocratic empires, slavery, and war, must find their way to the truth: despite suffering real oppression, one can still learn to be free.

Almost four hundred years later, it’s a lesson that many have still not learned today. As Steele said in his speech, it’s a tragedy.

The irony and the tragedy of all this is that it keeps these groups in a bubble where they never encounter or deal with the truth. This becomes a second oppression for all these groups. They have been oppressed once, now they are free and yet they create a poetic truth that then oppresses them all over again.

To Tartarus, the furthest limits of the earth and sea?

For the Greeks, Hell was a place called Tartarus, and its three most famous inhabitants were Sisyphus, endlessly pushing his rock up the hill, Ixion, strapped to a wheel for eternity, and Tantalus, forever unable to quench his thirst. For ancient Norsemen, the great abyss that formed the boundary of the ocean and the world, Ginnungagap, was derived from Tartarus and Chaos. Europeans whose lands bordered the mighty Ottoman Empire appropriated the word and used it to demonize their enemies, “The Monstrous Tartar.”

From the British Museum: "Part of a broadside ballad on the so-called horse-headed Tartar reputedly captured by Count Zrinyi in Hungary while fighting the Ottoman army; with a woodcut showing a man with a horse neck, mane and ears, holding in his left hand a bow and in his right an arrow; with letterpress title, text in one column and verses in two columns, and with a column of type ornaments. (n.p.: [1664])"

From the British Museum: “Part of a broadside ballad on the so-called horse-headed Tartar reputedly captured by Count Zrinyi in Hungary while fighting the Ottoman army; with a woodcut showing a man with a horse neck, mane and ears, holding in his left hand a bow and in his right an arrow; with letterpress title, text in one column and verses in two columns, and with a column of type ornaments. (n.p.: [1664])”

Aeschylus, Virgil, Aristophanes, and Homer before them, wrote eloquently about hell. In Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus writes, “Oh if only he had hurled me below the earth, yes beneath Hades, the entertainer of the dead, into impassable Tartarus, and had ruthlessly fastened me in fetters no hand can loose, so that neither god nor any other might have gloated over this agony I feel!”

In Birds, Aristophanes says, “At the beginning there was only Chaos, Night, dark Erebus, and deep Tartarus. Earth, the air and heaven had no existence.”

In the Iliad, Homer writes of the saffron-robed dawn, and Zeus threatening to hurl into Tartarus anyone who dares oppose him.

Now Dawn the saffron-robed was spreading over the face of all the earth, and Zeus that hurleth the thunderbolt made a gathering of the gods upon the topmost peak of many-ridged Olympus, and himself addressed their gathering; and all the gods gave ear: “Hearken unto me, all ye gods and goddesses, that I may speak what the heart in my breast biddeth me. Let not any goddess nor yet any god essay this thing, to thwart my word, but do ye all alike assent thereto, that with all speed I may bring these deeds to pass. Whomsoever I shall mark minded apart from the gods to go and bear aid either to Trojans or Danaans, smitten in no seemly wise shall he come back to Olympus, or I shall take and hurl him into murky Tartarus, far, far away, where is the deepest gulf beneath the earth, the gates whereof are of iron and the threshold of bronze, as far beneath Hades as heaven is above earth: then shall ye know how far the mightiest am I of all gods.”

Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish historian of the 13th century, wrote of Tartarus in The Danish History, saying that the vanquished King Harald would “outstrip those who shared his death in their journey to Tartarus.” The king who slew him, Ring, prayed that “Pluto, the lord of Orcus, [would] grant a calm abode there for friend and foe.”

Grammaticus also told of an expedition to a land of the dead by an Icelander named Thorkillus. Somewhere between the Ural Mountains and the White Sea, this place was known as Gandvik in the Norse, derived from a word meaning “magic.”

Icelanders used to tell incredible stories of enormous riches piled up there, but the way to this place was full of dangers and almost inaccessible to mortals. According to the experts of this route, one had to cross the Ocean that surrounds the Earth, leaving Sun and stars behind, traveling to the kingdom of chaos and finally moving into places without light, shrouded in perpetual darkness.

The place of the dead described by ancient Icelanders, somewhere between the Ural Mountains and the White Sea.

Thorkillus traveled to the place of the dead described by ancient Icelanders, somewhere between the Ural Mountains and the White Sea.

For those Europeans who suffered the geographical misfortune of living along the warpath of Ottoman Sultans, nothing but the most extreme depiction of their enemies would do.

The image above, from the British Museum, explains that Tartars were monsters, no doubt from the pit of hell. The word was first used in this sense in the 13th century, referring to the hordes of Ghengis Khan. “… from Medieval Latin Tartarus, from Persian Tatar, first used 13c. in reference to the hordes of Ghengis Khan (1202-1227), said to be ultimately from Tata, a name of the Mongols for themselves. Form in European languages probably influenced by Latin Tartarus ‘hell.'”

The Online Etymology Dictionary also says that a phrase from the 1660s — “to catch a Tartar” — means “get hold of what cannot be controlled.”

My own purposes for the word Tartarus are more mundane. It only appears once, in what is now Chapter 7 of my novel. Mina and her protector Sa’d, are shopping in Galata for a map of Anatolia. Naturally, they visit the map-maker.

It looked like a bomb had exploded inside. Scrolls, paper, books, twine and dust lay everywhere, on tables and shelves in the front of the store, and Mina could only imagine what might be seen behind the heavy curtain at the back.

“What do you need?” Shouted the owner. “I have it!” He scuttled out from behind the curtain, a small man covered with an apron and bearing a most delicate knife.

“A map of the empire from here to the Caspian Sea,” Sa’d replied.

“Should that include the regions toward Egypt, or the other direction toward the Tsar and his beastly hordes?”

“The beastly hordes.” To Mina, he said, grinning, “You knew there would be beastly hordes, right?”

“Yes, I suppose so, although I hadn’t considered it directly. Are they as bad as they sound?”

“Worse!” said the proprietor. “Their knives are a thousand times the size of this.” He raised the sharp little knife and slashed the air dramatically. “But I use mine to greater effect. I can slice the world in half, while they are limited to slaughtering a few hundred men a day. Where are you going? As far as Astrakhan? Up the Volga River? Even to Tartarus, the furthest limits of the earth and sea?”

“Not as far as that, cartographer.” Sa’d smiled, clearly enjoying the man’s histrionics. “Just the Caspian. A merchant’s route, if you have one.”

I’ve done a fair bit of research on ancient maps, but I don’t know what kind travelers might have actually carried with them. In my mind, Mina acquires something simpler than the map of Natolia produced by Joan Blaeu in 1635, seen below, and Tartarus is (of course) not depicted.

The Atlas Maior or Great Atlas was produced by Joan Blaeu (1596-1673) between 1660 and 1663. It was with no doubt one of the most expensive cartographical productions of the 17th century. It contained 600 maps and 3000 pages with text in Latin. Later editions appeared also with French or German text.

“The Atlas Maior or Great Atlas was produced by Joan Blaeu (1596-1673) between 1660 and 1663. It was with no doubt one of the most expensive cartographical productions of the 17th century. It contained 600 maps and 3000 pages with text in Latin. Later editions appeared also with French or German text.” From the Facsimile Edition of the Atlas Blaeu.

Finally, a shameless plug. If you’d like to read the first two chapters of my novel, head over to WattPad. Criticism encouraged!

APE, Benny Profane, and Me

APE: How to Publish a Book Following some advice from APE, I’ve posted the first two chapters of my novel on WattPad. The “artisanal publishing” experience gets more interesting all the time.

I picked up the Kindle version of the book a few days ago, and I’m about a third of the way through. Most of the mechanical advice is old hat — in former lives I’ve been a reporter, editor, managing editor, professional desktop publisher, photographer, corporate communicator, webmaster, and IT help-desk geek. But it’s all solid advice, and I’m especially enjoying the sections on social media and e-book publishing.

Despite my past experience, I’ve discovered that approaching these subjects as a novelist is strikingly different from consulting for other authors, or putting a newspaper to bed five nights a week — even though the required technical skills are very similar.

One huge difference is that … well, let me stop and consider.

[Stops and considers.]

When I was in college, one of my favorite books was Thomas Pynchon’s V. It was published in 1961, the year I was born. It begins like this:

Christmas Eve, 1955, Benny Profane, wearing black levis, suede jacket, sneakers and big cowboy hat, happened to pass through Norfolk, Virginia. Given to sentimental impulses, he thought he’d look in on the Sailor’s Grave, his old tin can’s tavern on East Main Street. … Since his discharge from the Navy Profane had been road-laboring and when there wasn’t work just traveling, up and down the east coast like a yo-yo; and this had been going on for maybe a year and a half. After that long of more named pavements than he’d care to count, Profane had grown a little leery of streets, especially streets like this. They had in fact all fused into a single abstracted Street, which come the full moon he would have nightmares about. East Main, a ghetto for Drunken Sailors nobody knew what to Do With, sprang on your nerves with all the abruptness of a normal night’s dream turning to nightmare. Dog into wolf, light into twilight, emptiness into waiting presence, here were your underage Marine barfing in the street, barmaid with a ship’s propeller tattooed on each buttock, one potential berserk studying the best technique for jumping through a plate glass window (when to scream Geronimo? before or after the glass breaks?), a drunken deck ape crying back in the alley because last time the SP’s caught him like this they put him in a strait jacket. Underfoot, now and again, came vibration in the sidewalk from an SP streetlights away, beating out a Hey Rube with his night stick; overhead, turning everybody’s face green and ugly, shone mercury-vapor lamps, receding in an asymmetric V to the east where it’s dark and there are no more bars.

I feel like Benny. I’ve been working the district for years, honing my technical chops, telling others how it’s done. Now I’m out of the business, so to speak, coming back to it from a different direction, and it’s all lit up with strange mercury-vapor lamps.

I’m leery of streets like this.

Which is but one reason that APE is such a good resource. If you’re thinking about self-publishing, you can’t go wrong with it. Just ignore the part about buying a MacBook Air.

Whence comes the witch?

So asked Jules Michelet in his 1862 book, La Sorcière. His answer: “I say unhesitatingly: from times of despair.”

In 1971, Henry Kamen, writing in The Iron Century: Social Change in Europe, 1550-1660, put Michelet’s contention into modern terms:

Sorcery, Michelet argued, took its origin in times of depression, both economic and personal. Sorcery would come in times of war, of famine, of economic and social crisis, of loss of faith, certainty and orientation. Hence the great witch hunts during the civil wars in France, during the Thirty Years War in Germany, and during the oprichnina in Russia.

Cover of The Hangman's Daughter, by Oliver Pötzsch

Cover of The Hangman’s Daughter, by Oliver Pötzsch

My interest in the subject is mostly literary. A character in my forthcoming novel watches a young girl burn at the stake for the crime of witchcraft. I also just finished reading The Hangman’s Daughter, a fabulous novel by Oliver Potzsch about a witch scare in the Bavarian town of Schongau in the year 1659.

But today the idea took a dramatic turn as I read of the witch-burning in Papua New Guinea, which reminded me that such incidents are not mere relics of the past.

Assailants stripped, tortured and bound a woman accused of witchcraft, then burned her alive in front of hundreds of witnesses in a Papua New Guinea town, police said Friday after one of the highest profile sorcery-related murders in this South Pacific island nation.

Bystanders watch as a woman accused of witchcraft is burned alive in the Western Highlands provincial capital of Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea. Photo: Post Courier via AP

Bystanders watch as a woman accused of witchcraft is burned alive in the Western Highlands provincial capital of Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea. Photo: Post Courier via AP

Whence comes this witch? In 1998, Gabriele Stürzenhofecker published Times Enmeshed: Gender, Space, and History among the Duna of Papua New Guinea. “Witchcraft,” she wrote, “is conceived of as a predominantly female power, and men see it as threatening their control over women.”

The Associated Press reported that the woman killed on Friday “had been accused of sorcery by relatives of a 6-year-old boy who died in the hospital the day before.” The victim’s husband has been described as “the prime suspect.”

She was tortured with a hot iron rod, bound, doused in gasoline, then set alight on a pile of car tires and trash in the Western Highlands provincial capital of Mount Hagen, Kakas said.

Why such a heinous crime occurred is almost irrelevant. The fact that it occurred at all in the 21st century is revealing. Stürzenhofecker’s findings are academic, but interesting nonetheless. In Chapter 6, The Enemy Within: Witchcraft, Consumption and Agency, she writes:

The overall control of relations between the sexes has become characterized by a pervasive uncertainty, largely created out of the collapse of ritual sanctions that in the past men were able to impose on the actions of women. … [Men perceive] that they now have no means of effectively countering the activities of witches, still less of utilizing them for their local political purposes against their enemies.

She goes on to describe the deep existential fear experienced by the people she studied: that “their very selves, their individualities, may be destroyed by a witch.”

This fear is symbolized by the idea that the witch may eat one’s vital inner organs, such as the heart or the liver. It is signaled even more strongly in the notion that a witch may carry away a person’s tini, which expresses his or her individuality as well as the source of his or her life.

Such ideas are foreign and repulsive to us “enlightened” westerners.

Or are they? As I read about the poor woman burned alive half a world away, I was reminded of something that began less than a day’s drive from where I live: the Kern County child sex abuse scandal.

The National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of Michigan Law and Northwestern Law, describes the case which began in 1980.

From 1984 through 1986 at least 30 defendants were convicted of child sex abuse and related charges and sentenced to long prison terms in a series of inter-related cases in Kern County, California, and an additional 8 defendants accepted plea bargains that kept them out of prison. Over time, 20 of the defendants who were sentenced to prison were exonerated, the earliest in 1991 the latest in 2005.  In most of these exonerations the children who had testified that they had been abused recanted their testimony. In all of the exonerations there was evidence that the complaining witnesses – some as young as four years old – had been coerced or persuaded by the authorities make false accusations.

The Kern County cases are the oldest and largest of several groups of prosecutions that occurred in a wave of child sex abuse hysteria that swept through the country in the 1980s and early 1990s. Some (but not all) of these cases included allegations of satanic rituals. Many focused on day care centers. Nationally, there have been dozens of exonerations in child sex abuse hysteria cases.

In 2004, the New York Times published an account of another scandal that erupted in Bakersfield in 1983.

One June afternoon, a sheriff’s deputy named Conny Ericsson, along with Velda Murillo, a social worker with the county’s Child Protective Services, came to Eddie’s house to talk to him about a possible neighborhood sex ring. … That day, Ericsson and Murillo told Mr. and Mrs. Sampley that they needed to speak to their son alone. As Karen Sampley tried to listen through a heating vent in the kitchen, the investigators asked Eddie about John Stoll. They told him that other boys said Mr. Stoll did something sexual to Eddie and that Eddie had seen Mr. Stoll do bad things to other kids, too. ”I kept telling them no, that nothing happened,” Sampley remembers. ”I didn’t understand what they were talking about.” Murillo and Ericsson described sex acts that embarrassed the 8-year-old boy, and he started crying. ”I kept telling them, ‘No, no,’ but it wasn’t working,” he now says.

From California, a wave of prosecutions swept across the country. Says the Times, “within two years the investigations of Stoll and the McMartin teachers in Manhattan Beach, Calif., were under way. The hysteria began creeping across the country, to Maplewood, N.J. (Wee Care Day Nursery), to Malden, Mass. (Fells Acres), and to Great Neck, Long Island, where the documentary ‘Capturing the Friedmans’ takes place.”

I wonder: Except for the immediacy of Friday’s gruesome death, what separates the hysteria in Papua New Guinea from the hysteria in America? Not much.

In New Guinea a woman, accused of killing a 6-year-old boy with witchcraft, died on a trash heap. In America, men and women convicted of satanic sexual abuse of children died in prison.

Whence comes the witch? Maybe there is no answer to that disturbing question, but I have no doubt that we’ll be asking it again in the future. No matter what anyone says, human nature hasn’t changed much since the dawn of history.

The Times interviewed James Wood, a psychologist at the University of Texas at El Paso “who studies interview techniques used with children.”

Still, discredited child-sex rings like McMartin actually may not be a bogeyman of the past. Some parents, therapists and child-protection professionals continue to believe ritual sex abuse took place at McMartin preschool. “In 10 to 15 years, there will be an attempt to rehabilitate the ritual abuse scare,” Wood says. “You can bet on it.”

Today is February 9, 2013, about eight and a half years since the Times ran their story.

Whence comes the witch?

The Cat-Brokers of Ardabil

From An Ottoman Traveler: Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Celebi.

By God’s wisdom, because cats in Ardabil have short lives, there are very many mice, more than in other regions. The mice chew up the people’s clothing — their woolen cloaks, for example. So this city has a royal auction for hirre, i.e. gurbe, i.e. kutta — i.e. cats. There are professional cat-brokers, much in demand, who sell cats in cages. The Divrigi cat is a particular favorite, fetching a price of up to 100 gurus; still, it does not live long here. When the brokers cry their wares, this is the patter they sing, in a loud voice, in the beyati mode:

“You who seek a feline,
A cat to hunt your mice:
To rats it makes a beeline,
but otherwise it’s nice;
An enemy to rodents,
And yet it’s not a thief;
A pet to share your grief.”

Read more about Ardabil, its famous carpets, and Divrigi.