If you like your freedom…

I have spent many hours reading Obama’s major policy speeches, and he is always redefining the ideas of freedom into principles that support authoritarianism. His speech in Cuba is a perfect example of why I will never trust a single word this man says, even though I agree with many of the actual words he speaks.

Too many people listen to his words in isolation. He believes in a kind of “freedom” that would be good for people on the prison-island of Cuba, but in America – a country built on individual rights and a free market – his ideas are making us less free.

He tells Havana, “I’m appealing to the young people of Cuba to build something.” But he tells America, “You didn’t build that.” (If I have to give you more examples, you haven’t been paying attention.)

This is perfectly consistent with his worldview: America is too free, too rich, and too arrogant. It’s all just a zero-sum game, and for other nations to prosper America must come down a few pegs.

Never mind that has no idea how wrong he is. Barack Obama is a good politician, and he may be a good man for all I know. But he is also a man who stands on both sides of history while telling the world that America is on the wrong side.

Vote wisely for Obama’s successor. If you like your freedom, you can keep your freedom.

The Kidnappings that Launched a Thousand Ships

As the process of writing my novel comes to an end, I don’t waste much time on books that lend nothing to the story. I’m making an exception for Herodotus.

In my story, an ancient unreadable manuscript finds its way from Istanbul to the Baltic. (Sorry, no spoilers here. You’ll have to read the book…) In an earlier draft, this manuscript was an ancient version of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which told the tale of an even more ancient migration from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. My fevered author’s brain imagined that my book could mirror a mythic reversal of that epic journey.

Alas, my storytelling skills were not up to the challenge.

But my interest in that ancient world has not waned, and thus I bought a copy of Herodotus: The Histories for fifty cents at a garage sale.

The kidnapping of Helen brought about the Trojan War, but Herodotus tells us what brought about the kidnapping of Helen. And so, without further ado…

“Herodotus of Hallicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds — some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians — may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two people’s fought with each other.

“Learned Persians put the responsibility for the quarrel on the Phoenicians. These people came originally from the so-called Red Sea; and as soon as they had penetrated to the Mediterranean and settled in the country where they are today, they took to making long trading voyages. Loaded with Egyptian and Assyrian goods, they called at various places along the coast, including Argos, in those days the most important place in the land now called Hellas.

“Here in Argos they displayed their wares, and five or six days later when they were nearly sold out, a number of women came down to the beach to see the fair. Amongst these was the king’s daughter, whom Greek and Persian writers agree in calling Io, daughter of Inachus. These women were standing about near the vessel’s stern, buying what they fancied, when suddenly the Phoenician sailors passed the word along and made a rush at them. The greater number got away; but Io and some others were caught and bundled aboard the ship, which cleared at once and made off for Egypt.

“This, according to the Persian account (the Greeks have a different story), was how Io came to Egypt; and this was the first in a series of unjust acts.

“Later on some Greeks, whose name the Persians fail to record — they were probably Cretans — put into the Phoenician port of Tyre and carried off the king’s daughter Europa, thus giving them tit for tat.

“For the next outrage it was the Greeks again who were responsible. they sailed in an armed merchantman to Aea in Colchis on the river Phasis, and, not content with the regular business which had brought them there, they abducted the king’s daughter Medea. the king sent to Greece demanding reparations and his daughter’s return; but the only answer he got was that the Greeks had no intention of offering reparation, having received none themselves for the abduction of Io from Argos.

“The accounts go on to say that some forty or fifty years afterwards Paris, the son of Priam, was inspired by these stories to steal a wife for himself out of Greece, being confident that he would not have to pay for the venture any more than the Greeks had done. And that was how he came to carry off Helen.

“The first idea of the Greeks after the rape was to send a demand for satisfaction and for Helen’s return. the demand was met by a reference to the seizure of Medea and the injustice of expecting satisfaction from people to whom they had refused it, not to mention the fact that they had kept the girl.

“Thus far there had been nothing worse than woman-stealing on both sides; but for what happened next the Greeks, they say, were seriously to blame; for it was the Greeks who were, in a military sense, the aggressors. Abducting young women, in their opinion, is not, indeed, a lawful act; but it is stupid after the event to make a fuss about avenging it. The only sensible thing is to take no notice; for it is obvious that no young woman allows herself to be abducted if she does not wish to be. The Asiatics, according to the Persians, took the seizure of the women lightly enough, but not so the Greeks: the Greeks, merely on account of a girl from Sparta, raised a big army, invaded Asia and destroyed the empire of Priam. From that root sprang their belief in the perpetual enmity of the Grecian world towards them — because the Persians claim Asia and the barbarian races dwelling in it as their own, Europe and the Greek states being, in their opinion, quite separate and distinct from them.

“As to Io, the Phoenicians do not accept the Persian account; they deny that they took her to Egypt by force. On the contrary, the girl while she was still in Argos went to bed with the ship’s captain, found herself pregnant, and, ashamed to face her parents, sailed away voluntarily to escape exposure.

“So much for the what Persians and Phoenicians say; and I have no intention of passing judgement on its truth or falsity. I prefer to rely on my own knowledge, and to point out who it was in actual fact that first injured the Greeks; then I will proceed with my history, telling the story as I go along of small cities of men no less than of great. For most of those which were great once are small today; and those which used to be small were great in my own time. Knowing, therefore, that human prosperity never abides long in the same place, I shall pay attention to both alike.”

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.

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)

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.

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.