Monday, April 24, 2017

The Origins of the Deep Ones



This is a piece of fiction that I wrote some years ago in a somewhat pompous and erudite style designed to imitate Lovecraft's fiction. It was supposed to be part of a scenario for a campaign of the "Call of Cthulhu" role playing game and, as you may imagine, Samuel T. Ellicon was one of the characters in play (h/t Luca Somigli, who developed it). Now that I reread it, I found it somewhat scary. Are the "Deep Ones" really existing? Who knows? (image source)

THE CULT OF WATER DEITIES IN ANCIENT CIVILIZATIONS


By Samuel T. Ellicon, Ph.D., FRS

Curator's note: These pages were written by the late Professor Samuel T. Ellicon shortly before his disappearance in tragic circumstances in 1917, during the great war. The loss of professor Ellicon was a serious blow to science and in particular to studies of ancient mid-East civilizations. The curator has collected these notes and is diffusing them in the belief of carrying out a service for the scientific community, especially in light of the great prestige of the author. The reader is however advised that this text was not originally written for publication and that several points will require appropriate study before they can be accepted by the scientific community.

Among the variegated races of creatures that populate ancient myths, we cannot avoid to remark the large number of those which are in various ways related to the marine environment: Nereid, Typhons, Hydras, and, perhaps the most familiar one, the mermaid, a creature that is related to the one called "Siren" in the classic word. The popular knowledge about these beings was widespread in ancient times, and we may assume that it remains so even to this day. To convince yourself of this, a simple test will show that there are good chances are that anyone, even of the lowest classes, can describe the bodily appearance of a mermaid, a creature with the upper body and the head of a woman and with the lower body of a fish.

Perhaps, the fascination with mermaids and the associated marine creatures is something that is more worth of exploration by those who study the depths of the human mind, rather than by those who deal with ancient myths and beliefs. Yet, some intriguing hypothesis may be put forward even in the present context if we seek to find exactly where and when these myths originated. For this purpose, we must go far back in time. Some events that occurred in Mesopotamia at the age of the Sumerians, maybe as early as during the 3rd millennium B.C., are related by Berosus, a Babylonian priest of Bel-Marduk who lived at the time of Alexander the Great. Among other things, Berosus says that

.. there made its appearance, from a part of the Persian gulf which bordered upon Babylonia, an animal endowed with reason, who was called Oannes. ... the whole body of the animal was like that of a fish; and had under a fish's head another head, and also feet below, similar to those of a man, subjoined to the fish's tail. It had a human voice and it spent the time of the day among men without taking food, teaching the practice of letters, sciences and arts....At night it went back to the waters of the Sea. (1)

Oannes is the Greek rendition of the word that was spelled Aun in Sumerian. According to Berosus, in later times other fish-beings emerged from the sea, one of the last of them being named Odacon and again described as having the shape of a fish blended with that of a man. We find the same name mentioned also in the Bible in a slightly changed form as Dagon, the god adhored by the Philistines. We cannot avoid to remark that the outlandish appearance of these beings seems to be unrelated to any belonging to the known kingdom of marine beasts. However, the mix of human and ichthyc characters strongly reminds us of those mythological creatures (the mermaid, for instance) which shared this feature.

Despite their weird aspect, beings such as Oannes and Odacon seem to have been readily accepted in the Sumerian world. In fact, as Berosus reports, the Sumerians appear to have attributed the very existence of their civilization to their teaching. Clearly, the fish-beings must have been benign deities, quite possibly carrying gifts with them. Yet, we cannot avoid to note how the passing of the centuries brought a substantial change of the attitude of mankind. Already Berosus, writing in Hellenistic times, denies them the status of gods, preferring to define them simply as terion "animals". The Bible clearly shares the same attitude defining Dagon as a false God or a demon. This change in attitude may be linked to the reversals of fortune that the worshippers of these divinities underwent. Both the Sumerian and the Philistine civilizations disappeared, crushed by warlike neighbors.

The civilizations that dominated the Mediterranean area afterwards, the Hellenistic one first, and then the Judaico-Christian one, seems to have maintained only a distorted subterranean knowledge of these ancient deities. For instance, perhaps we could see the story of John the Baptist as told in the gospels as an allegory of the appearance of the water-god Oannes/Aun. It is well established, in fact, that the name "John" (Latin: "Joannes", Hebrew: "Yohahan"), derives from the name of the Sumerian god Oannes. So, it may not have been just a coincidence that John the Baptist appeared most of the time semi-submerged in the river Jordan. Indeed, it is a disquieting thought at this point the one that leads us to recall the importance placed in Christian belief to the ritual submersion in water and to remember that early Christians symbolized Christ as a fish (2). 

However, this line of reasoning would lead us far away from our main points. We can only say that the old marine Gods were not wholly forgotten, but rather transformed into something that had taken an evil taint. In the great mass of myths of Greek lore, marine creatures are monsters and demons that dwell in remote and desolate places. The most widespread and best known of these myths is that of the siren. We shall not here attempt to disentangle the complex iconographic relation that links the ancient Mediterranean siren (originally described as a creature with the body of a bird and the head of a woman) to the half-fish and half-woman being that is nowadays referred to as "Siren" in the Latin world, but that we are more accustomed to describe with the Anglo-Saxon term of "mermaid". For the purposes of the present essay, it shall suffice to say that these two beings are basically one and the same. As described in Homer, sirens/mermaids were capable of luring people by their singing, but they would also devour them. It may well be that this vision is just an allegory of the capability of these creatures to impart some form of esoteric knowledge, something so different from everything normally accepted in the civilized world that it could be practiced only in remote areas. Furthermore, those who would receive it would be so transformed by it that they would not seek ever to return. To the eyes of those who remained, the followers of the sirens were at all effects "eaten".

Let us try now to interpret these facts, and in this I shall be forced to cast away at least some of the natural tendency of the academic to accept only the well proven evidence. However, I trust that the reader will forgive this attitude as it is the result only of a genuine quest for truth. So, let us first of all put forward some reasonable hypothesis about the origin of the Sumerian fish-gods: We know that Aun and Odacon came from a place called Apsu, a term that has come down to us from the Sumerian language as abyss, meaning, apparently, the same thing that it does now. In earlier times, however, "abyss" may have had a quite different meaning than it has in modern English. In fact, it may be possible to identify Aun/Oannes with an earlier deity named Enki, that in later Babylonian myths is referred to as Ea. "Oannes" in fact may derive from the compound word Ea-ghanna to mean "Ea the fish"(3) Now, some early versions of the myths do indicate that Enki/Ea originally came from the sky, apparently from a star. Aun may therefore have been a dweller of deep space before becoming a sea divinity (4).

I shall make now the bold assumption that a race of beings from far away in space traveled to Earth in the remote past, thousands, or maybe tens of thousands, of years ago. They may have been wholly alien to our world and they may have needed elaborate precautions to survive on land (something that may be reflected in Berosus' report, where the fish-god Oannes is described as if wearing some kind of pressure suit). Perhaps they were creatures originally adapted to live under water. But we may also see another, perhaps more important reason for these beings to avoid the land, and that was the presence of mankind. Clearly the knowledge of beings capable of traveling among the stars could not be but immensely superior to that of mankind, then still in the stone age. But the creatures from the stars may have been only few. Possibly, our ancestors of the stone age may have felt a natural revulsion against these creatures and may have fought them effectively even with their primitive weapons.

I shall call these creatures, for lack of a generally accepted word, the Deep Ones (5). We do not know why the Deep Ones left their star of origin, yet if they came all the way to here, their purpose can only have been to live here, and that must necessarily mean to take over Earth for themselves. For this they were fighting not just against mankind, they were fighting against Earth's environment and for this purpose they needed mankind. Theirs was an ambitious plan of interbreeding, where they would use man to create a new race. A race that would be at home both on land and on sea; that would remain mentally kin to the original Deep Ones but use human breeding just as a means of adapting their physical bodies to the conditions of Earth. But it may not have been easy to convince stone age human beings to submit to this plan. Hence, by means of gifts and of teaching the Deep Ones tried to create a society where even their monstrous shape could be accepted, at least in some special moment and aided by special rites. Thus, worshiped as deities, they could mingle with humans and carry on their interbreeding plans.

But before the new race could emerge, something went wrong. Eventually the fish deities were rejected; the civilizations practicing their cult invaded and destroyed, their temples crushed to pieces. The very memory of their teaching distorted into vague tales of evil ritual about demon-like creatures. From the viewpoint of the Deep Ones, it must have been a crushing setback for their plans of interbreeding. But their knowledge and power must certainly far surpass that of human beings. What could then be the cause of their defeat? Certainly we cannot think that puny human beings could have fought them knowingly. Something or someone must have worked to thwart the Deep Ones's efforts. Someone holding a power and a knowledge at least of the same level as theirs. So what kind of creatures walk among men, perhaps disguised as men, that could fight the Deep Ones and chase them back to the sea? We cannot know and we are not in the position of understanding the strategy of beings whose plans extend over thousands of years. And certainly no one can be sure that the defeat of the Deep Ones is by any means definitive, and who can be sure that in this very moment somewhere, maybe not far away from here, they are not actively working to take over some town on the coast there to carry out their interbreeding plans.




1Adapted from F. Lenormant; "Essai de commentaire des fragments cosmogoniques de Berose", Paris 1871

2The fish (ICHTHUS) is commonly believed to be an acronym for Iesous Christos Theou Uios Soter (Jesus Christ, son of God, Savior)

3 H. Winckler "Geschichte Babyloniens und Assyriens". Leipzig 1892

4 Note here how the transformation from a sky dweller to an abyss dweller is mirrored in the change in the popular image of the siren from a bird to a fish.

5 I am indebted for this term, as well as for other precious insights in this matter, to mr. Howard Philip Lovecraft

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Sumerian Humor? On the Origins of Jokes




Sumerian jokes? Well, hard to find any original ones (and the one above, obviously, is not).

There has been a claim that something written in Sumerian on a tablet from 1900 years BC. It says " "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap." Does that sound like a joke to you? Well, maybe. But note two things: the first is that I have seen many cases of Sumerian texts translated in completely different ways by different experts. So, maybe the translation for this one is good, but I wouldn't bet on that. The second is that we have plenty of Sumerian texts surviving. Even if you didn't spend some of your time examining them, you ought to be surprised that, out of so much material, only one joke came out (if it is one). Indeed, Sumeria left us a vast corpus of hymns, narrations, and stories. Most rather solemn and serious, the sense of humor, in those times, was not the same as it is in ours.

A little better is an Egyptian text from some 1600 years ago, said to be about Pharaoh Sneferu (from the same source as above). "how do you entertain a bored pharaoh? You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish." A joke? Maybe. Still, not the kind of joke that makes you go ROTFLMAO.

Instead, the Romans had a jokes similar to ours. One is from the Saturnalia by Macrobius, around 4th century AD, as reported in Wikipedia. 
Some provincial man has come to Rome and walking on the streets was drawing everyone's attention, being a real double of the emperor Augustus. The emperor, having brought him to the palace, looks at him and then asks: "Tell me, young man, did your mother come to Rome anytime?" The reply was: "She never did. But my father frequently was here."
Again, no ROTFLMAO involved, but we are getting a step closer to modern jokes. In our times, when thinking of a Roman joke, we could say something like "A Roman walks into a bar and asks for a Martinus. You mean a Martini, the Bartender asks. The answer is, if I had wanted it double, I would have asked for it." Different kind of stuff, I'd say.

So, the records of ancient jokes are poor, but there seems to have been a slow evolution toward our times. "Jokes" are one of those slow trends that go on for millennia. And I think that jokes have a purpose: they have evolved with the increasing complexity of society. They serve as a tool against the psychopaths who tend to infest governments and rule states.

In the early times, states were still something new, so it took centuries for jokes to be developed. Now they are a powerful weapon against dictators, pompous rulers, and bureaucrats. In many cases, rulers reacted violently: in some places and some times, telling a joke about the local big man could you get you jailed or worse. Fortunately, today things are different. By the way, do you know the joke about Donald Trump......? Hmmmm........ Well, now that I think about that, I see that don't know any, actually.



Friday, April 14, 2017

Ukraine: a travel report written by a ghost



I wrote this piece several years ago about a travel of mine to Ukraine, in 1999. Now, I found it by chance and I thought it was worth publishing. It is titled "written by a ghost" but, after all, a Chimera is a sort of ghost. So, here it is, it has now a curious feeling as it comes from a time when cell phones didn't exist and the Internet still a novelty. Maybe you'll find it interesting. (image Insource)



Travel writers are rather ghostly figures: wherever they go, they pass by so quickly. They don't speak the language, they don't know the local uses, they miss the details, the subtleties, the complex interactions, the love, the hate, everything. The only thing they can glimpse is that, really, people out there are very much like us, or perhaps that they are so much unlike us.

Yet, traveling means, in a certain way, seeking for adventures. Some travelers report of truly dramatic events that may involve even being shot at, and missed. In most cases, however, the adventure consists of much more banal events: being packed in a too hot (or too cold) train, arriving too late to pick up the coincidence, being served awful food, finding yourself in some ugly place, surrounded by people who smell bad and who don't understand a word of what you say.

The story that I am telling you doesn't involve shooting anyone, no physical harm was involved, and the people I met were mostly well behaved and not bad smelling, even though not all of them spoke English. But I think it was much more adventurous than the average travel report by a tourist. So, let me tell it.

First of all, Ukraine. At the time of this story, in the late 1990s, the Soviet Union had gone several years before and when I arrived in Kiev I was told many times that this wasn't Russia. Apparently, it was important for Ukrainians to specific this difference. It was fine for me, except that I had been in Moscow several times already and I can tell you that Kiev at that time looked very much like Moscow, just a bit of a warmer place. The same smell of gasoline pervading everything, the same mixture of new and old, of misery and wealth, the aspect of everything falling apart, and here and there something new springing out, skyscrapers, alien in the gray landscape.

Let me explain you a bit more. My trip to Kiev was part of my job. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many researchers in the West felt that it was their duty to give a hand to their Eastern colleagues who were in trouble, having lost their salaries and their research grants. It was a time when NATO would pay the salary of Russian and Ukrainian researchers. I know that things have changed quite a bit since then, but that was the way it was. So, in Kiev, I visited a number of research centers since I was managing a NATO grant destined to pay salaries to Ukrainian researchers. After the fall of the Union, these institutes had become cavernous places, full of obsolete equipment and where you could see researchers walking aimlessly along empty corridors. Ghosts? Maybe; surely they gave that sensation to me.

Of this trip to Kiev, I have a few recollections such as having had dinner at a MacDonald's where they could speak something that vaguely resembled English and where the girl at the counter asked me if I was American. That had a curiously parallel ring with when, at a MacDonald's in Washington DC, they had asked me if I was Russian. I suppose that ghosts can take many shapes, depending on where they manifest themselves. Then, there was the lady of the hotel where I was staying who was very angry at me because she thought that I had damaged the samovar of my room. There followed a quarrel in Russian and she seemed to find that something I had tried to tell her in Russian was so funny that she went away, laughing. I can also remember the lady of the travel agency who for some reason abused me in Russian for quite some time (or, at least, I think she did; the tone, at least, was unmistakable). Then she looked at my passport, realized that I was Italian, smiled, and said in a dreamy tone something that eve with my very limited Russian I could understand as "Italy, good country".

So, as a travel, my days in Kiev could be described as rather adventurous already. But that kind of adventure was part of the usual trade of travelers: bad food, alien places, people who look like gangsters and who don't speak a word of English. Truman Capote wrote an entire book about his travel to Moscow in the 1950s ( "The Muses Are Heard") where the most adventurous thing that ever happens to him is to witness a fight in the street; he never speaks to anyone except through interpreters. So, I could tell you many more details about my visit to Kiev but my trip to Ukraine would reserve me a much more adventurous time. That was when I took a trip to a town in the East of the country where they had another big research center that I was supposed to visit.

Excuse me if I don't tell you the name of this town; there is nothing really special about that place and I am sure that if you know Ukraine you'll be able to recognize it. It is just that not mentioning the name provides a certain feeling of "never-never land" for it. I can tell you that it is on the Dniepr River, not far from the better-known city of Poltava; where the Russian troops led by Czar Peter the Great defeated the Swedes of King Karl XII. For me, going there was partly because of my job, partly curiosity, partly wanderlust, and partly I don't know what. As I said, ghosts can manifest themselves in many places.

But I have also to tell you that going to that remote place, all alone, not knowing the language, never having met the people who had invited me, well, it was a little too much even for the ghost I felt I was. So, to make the trip a little less adventurous, I teamed up with a couple of Italian businessmen. I had never met them before, but we had a common acquaintance and so I came to know that they knew that town well and that they were going there more or less at the same time when I was going to Kiev. So, I contacted them and they said that, yes, they would have been happy to meet me in that town and so it was agreed. Excuse me if I changed the names of these two Italian businessmen in order to make them not recognizable. But I left unchanged the names of the Ukrainian people I met. It seemed right to do so.

The trip from Kiev took about four hours by car. We followed the Dniepr River, crossing many villages and small towns where old ladies wearing wooden shawls were selling vegetables on the edges of the road. The river was frozen at that time of the year with some people standing on the ice and - I think - fishing. My driver drove an old red Lada, he spoke not a single word of English, and he offered me cigarettes that I politely refused. I remember that he never wore his seat belt but he made the gesture of wearing it every time we crossed a police car; removing it immediately afterward. It was a behavior that was typical of Southern Italy at that time, where drivers refused to wear seat belts. At least, I knew that there was something in common between Italy and Ukraine.

So, I arrived where I was to stay: Vladimir's home, the translator who was hired to help us manage in that place. Vladimir and his wife, Tanya, were renting their apartment to visiting foreigners and the arrangement was that Tanya would also cook meals for the three Italian businessmen sharing the apartment (actually, two businessmen and myself). Tanya was in her 30s, she was nice and helpful, her English was good. I only have to say that her attempts of cooking pasta Italian style were not very successful. But never mind, ghosts are not really affected by bad cuisine. About the apartment itself, I had already experience with Soviet-style apartments in Moscow. In the 1990s, they had this typical aspect of being part of a building that had been bombed just a few days before (I am afraid that some of these apartments in East Ukraine have actually been bombed in recent times, but that's another story). In any case, these apartments are large, warm, and comfortable. Surely not fancy, but they have all that's needed.

In the apartment of Vladimir and Tanya, I met my Italian partners, Giorgio and Alberto (cousins to each other), who had arrived there a few days earlier. Of the two, Alberto was a newcomer; like me, he was there for the first time. Giorgio, instead, was a veteran of the place and he had been there already several times. Over some five years of shuttling back and forth, he had created a lot of business contacts and he had even learned a version of Russian, or perhaps Ukrainian. As the Italian merchants of ancient times, he seemed to have built a small commercial empire in these remote lands. He was surely a man of sharp wits and quick intelligence. At that time, he was 63; a stout man, looking younger than his official age and with the physical built of a fighter. He told me that he had been a Karate master. A man, no doubt, fascinating under many respects, but also one that gave you a certain mixed feeling. But let me go on.

Theoretically, as I said, my trip should have been about visiting a research center, but something went wrong with this idea. The contacts that I had seemed have vanished, just as the research center itself. Whether it existed or not, it remained off limits for me during the whole time I was there. I don't know exactly why that happened; maybe they were suspicious of me; they thought I was a Western spy, a CIA man, or that, maybe, I could call up the NATO headquarters in Brussels and unleash a bombing raid on them. The whole story remained forever mysterious to me, but how could I complain? After all, I was a ghost.

So, I found myself engaged in accompanying Giorgio and Alberto in their business visits. It was fine for me; I took it as a form of extreme tourism. I think also for Giorgio I was some kind of an asset; his prestige of businessman was enhanced if he could take with him an Italian university professor as I was. So, off we went visiting all sorts of companies and businesses. Of two full days of this work, I can tell you a few glimpses. One was that if there ever was a dreary town on this planet, this one was it. It may be hard to imagine a medium sized town (they told me it had half a million inhabitants) which has absolutely nothing that could be of even vague interest for a tourist. For what I can say, it was all the same: rows and rows of tall apartment buildings and large squares of rotten industrial plants. It was an industrial town, one of those "closed towns" that, at the time of the Soviet Union, were forbidden to foreigners for military or strategic reasons, or whatever. Maybe they really had some important military secret hidden somewhere. Or, more likely, they were ashamed to show to me the disastrous conditions of a formerly important military research center. Perhaps, but I had the feeling that the whole thing, the secrecy, the evident diffidence of some of the people we met, was simply part of the logic of this particular place but that it didn't have to be grounded in any physical reality. Maybe they were all ghosts and I was the only real human being in the area. But never mind that.

If I have to be a travel writer, at least I don't want to bore you with a detailed report. Rather, I can just try to convey to you some impression that combines shrewd business and brute force, a movement to build and to rebuild and, at the same, time the immense difficulty of getting rid of the old ways. We visited somebody's office, a large man dressed in a striped suit. He looked exactly like the villain gangster of the 20s in a Hollywood movie. His office was small, nearly empty. It was furnished only with an old table with a plastic top, one of the windows panes was broken, on a little table on a side, there was a bible. Out of the window, we could see the main square of the town: an expanse of concrete full of holes so large that they could have swallowed an entire tank. In the center, there was a larger than life statue of Vladimir Illich Lenin. Later on, Giorgio told me that the man in the striped suit was negotiating with him the sale of 30 harvesters from Italy, a trick that, alone, was worth several million dollars.

As you see, that was not exactly my field, but I went along. It was all new for me and, in many ways, fascinating. Giorgio was looking very professional, dressed in a smart suit and talking softly and convincingly. For these meetings, he didn't trust his Russian enough and it was Vladimir who translated from Italian to Russian and back. So, I could follow the negotiations, too, even though I was not there to sell harvesters or anything else. I have no idea if these meetings resulted in some multi-million dollar business for Giorgio but, again, this is not the point here.

For a travel report, what I have just told you would already be something special. It is much more than what the average travel writer can ever hope to see. I had visited Ukrainians at work, I had stayed in one of their apartments, eaten with them, had business with them. I had this feeling that some travel agency could have organized my trip as an example of extreme tourism, something under several respects more adventurous than touring the Himalayas in a Land Rover. But that was not all. If ghosts can see what happens in the real world, they rarely interact with humans except with howling and chain-clanking. But maybe I was not a good ghost since I tended to speak to people, at least with those who could speak in a language I understood. And one of those people was Vladimir, the interpreter.

Vladimir was a man of remarkable culture, proficient in many languages, and also in many ways a philosopher and perhaps even a sort of prophet. His origins were from somewhere in the great plains once inhabited by the nomads of the East and he had something of the "spiritual" face and the penetrating eyes of Eastern monks. He told me about his way of learning languages. He said it was simple for him: it was just a question of remembering things he had known in one of his previous lives. I think it would not work so well for me but, for him, it seemed to be just perfect. In addition to Russian (actually, Ukrainian) he could speak Italian, Spanish, English, German, Turkish, some Japanese and perhaps some other languages that I don't remember right now. We exchanged a few gifts, I gave him a book by Borges in Spanish that I had taken with me to read, and he gave me one of his Italian-Russian dictionaries. For some reasons, none of the pictures I had taken on this trip came out in print except for one and that shows him.

Besides that dictionary, Vladimir's picture is the only souvenir I have of that remote town. No other material objects that say that I have been there for real, that it was not a dream. Wasn't Borges telling the story of a man who dreamed to have been in Paradise, that he picked up a flower there, and that when he woke up he had that flower in his hand? Maybe something similar had happened to me, though the place where I went was no paradise. Definitely not and there is something more that I can tell you about that place, about a woman called Valentina.

The first time I saw her, I had arrived in town just a few hours before and I was sitting on the sofa in the living room of Vladimir's house, watching Ukrainian TV. It was then that Valentina entered the room and sat in the armchair close to me, smiling at me. And that was an experience in itself.

I have to explain that. You see, Slavic women are often handsome, but some are spectacular and Valentina surely was. It is easy for a writer to say that a woman is beautiful and then leave to the reader the task of figuring her in his or her mind. In real life, often you can say that a girl is pretty, sometimes you say also she is "beautiful" meaning the same thing. A truly beautiful woman, instead, is something you see only in TV or in your dreams. But Valentina was no dream and no literary construction, she was real. Dark hair, a perfectly symmetrical face, a sweet smile, big, dark eyes, a body which was the perfect balance of curves and slenderness. Not that she was actually perfect: whoever had worked on her teeth hadn't done a good job and those first small wrinkles on her face were painful to see in such a beautiful woman (later on, I learned she was 33 at that time). But never mind that. As I said, she was real: a spectacular woman walking in that living room wearing a yellow two-piece dress that I think you could buy for five dollars in any Salvation Army shop in the US.

It goes without saying that my attempts of entering into a conversation with Valentina were doomed from the beginning. She spoke nearly zero English and I spoke very little Russian. During the days that followed, I put together part of her story from what Vladimir and Tanya told me. She was, obviously, Giorgio's lover but, on this point, there was clear disagreement between the two, with Giorgio having lost interest in her but with Valentina still being interested in him. The situation was complex, with Valentina trying, as far as I understood, to convince Giorgio to go back to the apartment where they had lived together while he was in Ukraine during the past five years or so.

All that was, of course, none of my business. Besides, as I said, I was a ghost. I could only watch, and watch from a rather remote viewpoint as I could have no idea of what Giorgio and Valentina were telling to each other, nor what Valentina was telling to Ljudmilla (Ljuba), a friend who always accompanied her in her visits to Giorgio.I was told that Valentina and Ljuba lived together and Ljuba had about the same age as Valentina. A pretty girl, I could say, although in no way as spectacular as Valentina. Surely she had her story, her world, her loves and hates, all the small and big things of a whole life, again something that was wholly inaccessible to a ghost.

The afternoon of the third day of our stay, Giorgio said that our work was almost over and that we could take an evening off. That turned out to be a rather special experience, well worth a travel report written by a ghost. But let me tell you also that I was rapidly getting sick. That year's flu epidemics, which I had escaped while in Italy, had caught up with me in Ukraine. Sneezing and coughing, I considered if it would not have been a good idea for me to stay home that night. But I picked up a box of aspirin tablets and went with the others. Unwise, I know, but that's what I did.

The place we went to was Nina's bar. How can I describe it? It is difficult to imagine this place if you have never been to the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. It had, of course, all the things that a bar should have: five or six tables, a bar, music playing, dim and yellow lights. But the shabbiness of that place is something almost impossible to describe, unless you had been there. If you had, as I did, I guess you would find that the specific shabbiness of it would merge with the general shabbiness of everything else in that town in the middle of Ukraine and hence disappear.

Nina had closed the bar for everyone else; that night was to be our private party. We had a dinner of a rather modest culinary appeal (but not the worst in my life) and we drank wine, vodka, beer, other liquors I would not be able to name. And then there were the ladies. I guess this kind of entertainment must be rather common everywhere in the world for traveling businessmen. Just let me tell you that I was not much used to it, actually not at all. We had two nice looking ladies serving us dinner, and three more sitting at the table with us. There was Ilona, a spectacular blonde who was clearly Giorgio's target. Then Valentina (not the same Valentina), a girl of porcelain skin, red lips, and black hair. She seemed to have been assigned to Alberto. And Svetlana, a young redhead, she sat close to me. There was also another, older, Svetlana who sat intermittently at the table, just as Nina herself. This older Svetlana, not really old but clearly after her prime, seemed to be masterminding the whole business with the ladies.

Of course, given my state, my survival during the dinner was made possible only by aspirin. I swallowed, I think, one tablet every hour and that kept me more or less alive and awake. Maybe the mix of aspirin and alcohol gave me a high, maybe I caused me to became convinced that I was just dreaming of being there, that I wasn't really there, but peacefully asleep at home. Anyway, it prevented me from doing the sensible thing to do: excuse myself and go back home.

So is this part of a travel writer's story? Maybe, and yet sordid bars in the suburbs of a large town must be common everywhere in the world; what is there of so interesting with this specific one? Good question: I have no answer to it, so let's just go on. Dinner being over, we spent some time drinking and in conversation. I discovered that Nina, the owner of the bar, could speak English. She had studied in some technical school; actually, the cases of life; she had been a classmate of Tanya, Vladimir's wife. A nice girl, Nina, also smart and knowing a lot of things of the world. In her early 30s, she had the heavy physical built of Slavic women. It would have been hard to define her as pretty but she was lively, just a smile of her could carry more message than all our laborious conversation in English. Later on, Giorgio told me that he had met Nina a few years before, when she had a kiosk on the street, selling drinks. It was Giorgio who had bought this bar for her. I suppose it had been in exchange for something, but that's life.

Most of the time, Nina was not at the table, she was running the place. So the conversation with the Ukrainian ladies was most problematic for us, except of course for Giorgio who seemed to master Russian/Ukrainian well enough to have a good time with his spectacular blond friend, taller than him of a whole head. Those of us who spoke little or no Russian, myself and Alberto, had a more difficult time. I had Svetlana sitting by my side and my Russian-Italian dictionary in hand. Out of it, slowly and painfully, I could string together concepts, one word after the other. In a way, it was a full immersion Russian lesson. Out of my earlier trips to Russia, I already had in mind a number of simple Russian words: "glass", "dish", "bottle", "knife", "fork"… With that dictionary, I crammed into my mind a series of more complex concepts, including "beautiful girl" (referred to all the ladies present) and "witch" (referred to the older Svetlana). Later on, when I took a Russian class in Italy I found that most of what I had learned that night was Ukrainian, not Russian. The two things were similar but not identical, close enough anyway to cause a lot of confusion for a beginner as I was.

With Svetlana, I could carry out some kind of belabored and grammar-less conversation. I got the impression that she was not very much used to the kind of job she had been assigned to that evening. I think that the initial idea was that she should have been just serving at the table but that, at the last moment, someone had realized that there weren't just two Italian businessmen that night. They were accompanied by someone else, another businessman, or perhaps a professor of some kind. In any case, they had to find a girl for him. And so the job had been assigned to Svetlana in a hurry.

Indeed, Svetlana seemed to be a little out of place at that table, just as I was. Ilona and Valentina were clearly professionals. The way they dressed, their heavy make-up, the way they moved and smiled - it was all studied and performed with class and experience. Svetlana, instead, had no make-up and her gray two-piece suit looked like it was coming from the same Salvation Army shop where Valentina had bought her yellow one. Still, she seemed determined to play her role. She was not very tall, thin, had large gray eyes, the pale skin of Slavic women. In those laborious exchanges made scratching words in Cyrillic on a paper napkin, I understood that she had been born in that town, that she had never been outside Ukraine, that she would have loved to visit Italy, and a few more details which told me absolutely nothing about her. I had sometimes the impression that she was in fear of me, sometimes that she looked at me as if she genuinely liked me. Or maybe she was already an accomplished professional with hundreds of customers. How could I tell?

Everything is an illusion anyway; I just had a glimpse of another human being sitting near me; physically close, but incredibly remote at the same time. She had her story, her family, her place, her things, her way of seeing the world, but all that was completely denied to me. I had the feeling that, actually, we were both ghosts; that if we had tried to touch each other we would have embraced just thin air, as it happens to Odysseus when he tries to embrace the shade of his mother Antikleia in Hades. Would that have happened to us if we had tried? Of course, that was likely to be tested, later on, if things had gone according to protocol; the way these things are supposed to go. But I was spared this test as I'll be telling you in a moment. But let me go on.

It was maybe midnight when Valentina (Giorgio's Valentina) knocked at the door of Nina's bar. That was unexpected. Earlier on, other customers had shown up at the door but they had been politely told by Nina or by the Older Svetlana that the bar was closed. But, when Valentina appeared, neither Nina nor Svetlana could find a way to tell her that she couldn't get in. So, Valentina walked inside together with her usual friend, Ljuba. They were accompanied by two men; Giorgio told me that they were two engineers from a company we had visited the day before. They sat all together at a table not far from ours.

Of what happened afterward, I have a sort of a hazy memory, probably because of the mix of alcohol and aspirin. I wonder if ghosts see "real" people in the same way as we are supposed to see ghosts; that is bluish, translucent, and unsubstantial. My impression of that evening at that point was that I had ceased to be a ghost, but that everyone else had become a ghost instead. I remember Giorgio, in a certain way to be admired, carrying on his conversation with his tall blond friend, totally ignoring Valentina as if nothing special had been going on; as if she had not been sitting at another table in the same bar, but somewhere else, perhaps in another universe. I remember that, at some moment, I found myself sitting near Valentina. I remember her tense face, I remember that she was telling me something in Ukrainian. I got out my dictionary and I started a laborious work of trying to understand what she had told me. Too slow; time was flowing on, inexorably. That weird night was moving on to whatever had to happen.

I don't think that Valentina succeeded in exchanging even a single word with Giorgio. It was, maybe, 3 a.m. when she gave up and left, together with her friends. We were, again, alone with our friendly ladies at the table and the idea was now, I think, to revert to protocol. There was something that was supposed to happen, but I was in a state of near-stupor and I couldn't realize exactly what I should have been doing. Never mind, with or without my intervention, some kind of plans were under way, involving going back to our apartment, I presume, together with the three ladies. But the plan collapsed when someone tried to call a taxi. Apparently, the bridge on the Dniepr river was closed. That was the only bridge that connected this part of the town to that where our apartment was. No way to cross the river and get back home.

Long after these events, I am still not sure if understood correctly what was the problem and if it could be a reasonable thing that there was only one bridge crossing the river and that it would be closed at night. The point was that, anyway, we couldn't leave Nina's bar and we had to stay there until 6 in the morning. Of that time, I have vague recollections and the fact that the night passed was mainly testified by my empty box of aspirin tablets (I gave some also to the older Svetlana and to Nina; they had a hard time that night, too). I remember also that, at around 5 a.m., it started snowing. I was sitting close to Svetlana and we were both looking out of the window at the flakes slowly falling down in the yellowish light of the street lamps; both almost hypnotized. She was not sick with the flu as I was, but she must have been horribly tired, too. I thought that we could have fallen asleep together on a bench as if we were two tired children, but that didn't happen. Instead, that night was too much for the older Svetlana, whom I saw having collapsed into a chair and sleeping like a log. But the other ladies, as I said, were professional entertainers and they made a point to keep entertaining us. They kept drinking and chatting with us no matter what, continuing until the light of dawn appeared. out of the windows. That weird night was finally over.

It was maybe 6 a. m. when we walked out of Nina's bar in a cold and gray morning and we went back home by bus. I must say that Giorgio was to be admired here. He was obviously tired and upset by that sleepless night. But he sorted out a smart suit and a tie, drank some coffee that Tanja had made, and off he went with Alberto for one more day of business. For myself, I just went to bed and I stayed there. Sneezing had been replaced by pain in all my bones and moving any part of my body had become painful.

One of the worst things that can happen to a traveler is to fall sick in a hotel room in a foreign country. I think I'd rather be chased by a band of terrorists than to have to endure that. Fortunately, I was not in a hotel, I was in Vladimir's house and Tanya was very nice to me, inquiring about my health and bringing me hot tea, extra blankets, and a thermometer to measure my temperature. Just the fact of being in a room full of old things, books, clothes, boxes, trinkets, things that clearly belong to someone, makes you feel like being home; no hotel room, no matter how fancy and expensive, can beat that.

It was late afternoon when I felt well enough (more aspirin) to dress up and walk out of my room. I was feeling really like a ghost in that empty apartment. There was a light on in the living room and I walked there. Lying down on the sofa, there was Valentina, her eyes closed, a piece of cloth on her forehead. In a novel, you can say that someone's skin is gray. I don't know if I can say that of a real human being, one whom I saw in front of my eyes. But Valentina's skin color was closer to gray than the skin of anyone else I had ever seen. I remember that I thought I could just turn around quietly and go back to my room, but she opened her eyes and she saw me. She sat up and I had to sit down near her and inquire how she felt.

She felt bad, obviously. It is not difficult to convey the concept of a headache in any language, just touch your head and make the appropriate face. Then, aspirin is also a word universally known, so I gave her some (I had taken two boxes from Italy, I expected that flu to catch up with me). Aspirin seemed to be popular with Ukrainian ladies at that time. Then I sat quietly while Valentina slowly regained some color and finally sat up, not in good shape but at least back in touch with the real world. She was still wearing that yellow two-piece suit.

That afternoon, Valentina told me a lot of things. I sat and listened. How in the world did I understand what she told me, mostly in Ukrainian? Maybe because I knew already part of this story from what I had heard from Giorgio and Vladimir. Or maybe because of that full immersion in Russian the night before. I also remember that Tanja would occasionally appear that afternoon to translate for me and that Valentina had managed to sort out a little English. But, perhaps, I understood only because of some supernatural factor, didn't I say I was a ghost? I don't know; maybe I got it all wrong, maybe what she was telling me were comments on the Ukrainian soccer championship. Maybe. You may not believe me, but I have this feeling that I understood everything right.

Valentina told me that she had lost the best years of her life after that man, Giorgio. He was rich, sure, but it had not been just because of that and because he was a fascinating son of a bitch, and as he was seducing her at the same time he was seducing many other girls, and keeping also a wife down in Italy, she surely didn't know anything, poor woman. Poor Valentina, too: now everyone in town said she was a bitch, that she had sold herself for money, and also for an old apartment and what was she going to do with that? She had a job, yes, just a worker in apartment restoration with her friend Ljuba, and how in the world was she going to scrape a living out of that? And she was getting old, and Giorgio didn't want her anymore, and life had no more purpose, no more meaning, no way out….. I remember that I thought that she was going to weep at any moment, but she didn't.

What could I have told her? Of course, nothing that could have mattered. After all, I was a ghost and, besides, a non-Russian (non-Ukrainian) speaking ghost. I could only sit there, try to tell her something gentle in English, which I don't know if she understood, and that was it. So it goes.

Later on, Giorgio and Alberto came back home and Valentina disappeared in the bathroom to make herself more presentable. I don't know if I myself was presentable at all, but perhaps enough that we could go out for dinner at a restaurant with Valentina, and again Ljuba who had appeared from somewhere. It was one of those places for the "new Ukrainians", fancy, expensive, with glaring lights and bad food. Valentina was doing her best to smile.

The morning after was our last in that remote town. We all were leaving, back to Kiev by car and then from there to Italy. At breakfast Valentina was there, drinking Italian coffee with us. Of her face and expression, it would be hard for me to give you a description; I'll let you imagine it. I'll just tell you that during the return trip we had from Giorgio a description of Valentina's performance in bed the night before.

Look, I am not saying that Giorgio is a worse man than myself or anyone else. We are all human and we all are (or are gradually becoming) ghosts. So, it is typical of human males to boast about their sexual exploits. Who am I to criticize? Who knows what had really happened that night? I don't know, life flows on anyway and, besides, I was a ghost.

Of that trip back to Italy, I remember mostly the pain in my bones. But it passed, eventually, and so this is the end of my travel story. I don't know if you liked it, or if you found it interesting. After all, nobody got killed, nobody got hurt, the most physical damage reported being ordinary headache. Even in terms of feelings, nobody even wept, even though someone got close to that. So, was it worth to write this story? Who knows? There are many more details, more people, more small events that I could have told you, but I have this feeling that, as it was written by a ghost, that all characters in it are ghosts, that a certain degree of vagueness is inherent to this fact.

I don't know if I'll ever go back to that place in Ukraine. Years have passed and I lost contact with everyone, there. If by any chance I'll be there again I wouldn't know how to find Valentina, her friend Ljuba, Svetlana the redhead, or my philosopher and interpreter Vladimir. Even if I could, maybe I wouldn't know what to tell them. Only, at times, I sit back on my chair, and I just wonder what it is that they are doing right at that moment, and if by some chance they happen to think of an Italian ghost which just passed by for a few days in their world and then disappeared forever.





Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Age of Steel of Konstantin Vasiliev and the Age of Plastics



A Post by Kelebek (Miguel Martinez)



This post is extremely dense of concepts and ideas and it may not be easy to evaluate by a non-Italian reader. Yet, I think it is extremely valuable for its approach that tries to examine the historical roots of how, in modern times, the Eastern/Soviet/Russian art has moved in different directions from those that the Western/European/American art has taken. All art is, basically, political in the sense that it proposes a certain view of the world. What we call "propaganda" is a form of art, not different than many others, although more direct in its attempt of presenting a specific view of the world. This post is translated from Italian, the boldface sentences are from the original. 


We are wearily trying to understand the question of the relation of our times with those of The "Age of Steel" and its remarkable disappearance. Konstantin Aleksejevic Vasiliev was a Soviet artist who died at 34 in 1976.

Above, you see how he painted the departure of the Soviet soldiers for the Great Patriotic War against the Nazi invaders, in 1941.

The three figures are the men, the woman and the young girl (but in many similar paintings we find a young boy). It is a triplet that has a specific birthdate: the French Revolution, when the Nation takes the place of God and of the King as Sovereign.

It is good to remember that it is a modern and revolutionary vision, in fact, the first great modern vision.

The new metaphysical entity is a family, biologically built and based on the gender separation with a double sacrifice: blood for the males, sons for the females.

The second element is anonymity. In practice, we see only one of the soldiers' faces and we can imagine that this face is representative of all the others of the marching group that we may imagine as extending all the way to the horizon, characterized by two colors - red and gray - that represent both the foundry and the battlefield.

On a side, this fact guarantees the infinite reproducibility and substitutability of each single element of the group of soldiers, as a sort of immense assembling chain. The first world war, and the subsequent footnotes (Bolshevism, Fascism, Nazism, second world war) obviously needed this illusion in order not to transform this industrial mass slaughter into nihilism.

We know that what concretely makes individuals distinguishable is their physical and psychological weaknesses, that in this painting are totally invisible. Vasiliev was painting after the arrival of the TV age, but there is nothing of the television intimacy, the attention to the individual sympathy of the guest whom we (virtually) accept in our home, nor, either, the interactive intimacy of the Internet age.

The Man of Steel, who is only seen from a distance - in parades, on monuments, in factories - is not supposed to seduce while, in the Age of Plastics, seduction is the first social obligation: those who don't even try are condemned from the start.

In place of personal eccentricities, the Man of Steel wears a mask, that is also a model. One always wants to be the way one is portrayed, it is not by chance that the Steel Age was the "age of forging" metals, character, the physical built, the New Man.

Often, the task is really successful. There exist a true existential difference between the 1942 Soviet eigtheen-year old boy and the boy of the same age in Padua, Italy, in 2012.

The current intimacy, founded on closeness, is an endless chatting. Moments of silence in TV are simply inconceivable.

In the painting by Konstantin Vasiliev, we can imagine the sounds of thunder or of the boots, but not of voices - the Man of Steel doesn't speak. At best, although not in this painting, he sings.

The Man of Steel always lives a dramatic adventure, but he never plays games; there is here an abyss between his contact with that and that - for instance - of the people who practice extreme sports in our times.

We know that this paintings shows the greatest anti-fascist movement in history, seen from the viewpoint of the protagonists. If that wasn't anti-fascism, the very term becomes meaningless.

Yet, any contemporary observer will probably see something fascist in this image.

“Fascist” intended as a sort of global definition, is not necessarily referred to Mussolini's experience. The Italian patriots had the specific problem of never having had a hearth to defend.

D’Annunzio the exhibitionists of Fiume, who enjoyed smothering their cigars on other people's tables [1] are somehow closer to the modern sensibility than the anonymous heroes of Vasiliev, who are neither bold nor daring.

In the modern Fascism, there survives an element of the Age of Steel, but that is linked to a humankind that belongs completely to the Age of Plastics.

Here is a fascinating example, in this case from a fiercely neo-fascist group Forza Nuova.

Don't consider the words for a moment and just look at the image, including the details: the green background and the light.





Konstantin Vasiliev portraits, in the end, a threatened family.

Forza Nuova, in this poster, portraits a threatened family.

In both, there is a connection between family and country.

But, in the first case, the threat is the total annihilation and enslavement; in the second, a few small legislative adjustments that - besides - won't directly affect the family that we presume to be threatened.

But the essential difference is in the seductive engagement of the family shown by Forza Nuova: it is their fully plastic and flexible individuality that we are called to love.

And, if you think about that, the people of the poster by Forza Nuova have faces that are a hundred times more false and unreal than those in the painting by Vasiliev.




[1] Martinez alludes here to an episode that occurred after the end of the first world war when the Italian poet and politician Gabriele D'Annunzio led a militia of war veterans to occupy the city of Rijeka (known as "Fiume" in Italian) in Croatia, claiming that it was part of the Italian state, The story lasted for a couple of years until the rebels were chased away by Italian regular troops in 1920. It made a lot of noise and it may have been seen as a prototype of the Fascist "March on Rome" of a couple of years later. 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Why do we like sphinxes so much? Maybe because of a peculiar anatomic feature of theirs


The Sphinx: truly a fascinating creature, half woman and half lioness. In modern times, this fascination has been linked to a peculiar feature that makes them much unlike lionesses. That characteristic has been well emphasized in the sculptures that litter the Belvedere Garden, in Vienna, as you can see in the picture, above. 

So, here is a series of pictures taken in Vienna this February (BTW, the nice lady you see in some of these pictures is my sweet wife, Grazia). And if you want to know more on this subject , you can read a whole post of mine dedicated to the sex life of the sphinx.





















Sunday, March 19, 2017

Geology of Planet Earthsea.



Earthsea is a fictional universe created by Ursula Le Guin and described in a six-volume corpus. I wrote about Earthsea here.


The "Earthsea" cycle created by Ursula Le Guin is one of those works of art that you can keep admiring forever, finding new elements of fascination everytime you return to it. Few works of fiction gave us such unforgettable characters as Ged and Vecth, shown here in a splendid interpretation by Hchom. And, of course, the more you delve into Earthsea, the more you wonder about what kind of world it is. What makes Earthsea tick?

Nothing would prevent writers from imagining words were the laws of physics are not the same as in our universe but, in practice, that almost never happens. In the case of Earthsea, we have a world that's very much like Earth, but also different in many ways. So, let's see what we know about Planet Earthsea.

First of all, it seems that the gravity field of Earthsea is similar to that of Earth. It means that the archipelago described in the novels is just a tiny fraction of a much larger planet. Then, it is clear that the flora and the fauna of Earthsea are very much the same as they are on the Earth we know. This implies an atmosphere that contains oxygen for animals to breathe and a small fraction of carbon dioxide (CO2) for plants to do photosynthesis. The presence of these two gases tells us a lot about Earthsea beyond the archipelago. Oxygen and CO2 are unstable gases which can exist in a planetary atmosphere only because they are continuously re-created by complex biological and geochemical cycles. These cycles involve at least two characteristics: one is the presence of large continents, otherwise the concentration of CO2 couldn't be kept under control by the process of silicate erosion. Then, it needs also an active plate tectonics, required for cycling CO2 from the atmosphere to the mantle and back. The continents must also be at least a few hundred million years old so that atmospheric oxygen could be generated by sedimentation and burial of organic matter. The presence of oxygen tells us that, somewhere on Earthsea, there exist coal deposits, just as well as oil and gas, even though the inhabitants of the Archipelago have no access to them or, anyway, don't use them as fuels.

The active plate tectonics that must exist on Earthsea also explains a characteristic described in the novel: the fact that people know and use metals. The father of Ged, the protagonist of the first three novels, is said to be a "bronze smith". The stories make it clear that the people of Earthsea know copper, tin, silver, gold, and iron. In one of the stories, we are told of a mercury mine being exploited. There have to exist mines yielding these metals, somewhere in the Archipelago. In turn, if ores of these metals exist, they must have been created by processes of enrichment created by plate tectonics. Another indication that Earthsea is a geologically "live" planet and, indeed, in the novels we are told of active volcanoes and earthquakes.

The size of the Earthsea archipelago is not exactly reported but it may be assumed to be that of a small continent, about the area of Western Europe. The largest Island of Earthsea, Havnor, may have approximately the size of Britain. The local lore says that a divine or semidivine entity (or maybe a mage) called "Segoy" raised the islands out of the sea. It may indicate a volcanic origin of the islands.

But saying "volcanic origin" may mean several thing and some are unable to explain the characteristics of the Archipelago of Earthsea. For instance, let's examine a group of islands that we know are of volcanic origin on Earth, Hawaii.


This chain of islands is the product of a hot magma "plume" that emerges from the Earth's mantle. The islands were generated, one after the other, as the ocean floor slides over the plume. The oldest islands (North-West) are inactive volcanoes, slowly eroded and tending to disappear. The most recent island is the "Big Island"; South-East, where the hot spot is today. In time, the sliding ocean floor will create a new island, off the coast of Big Island.

Clearly, the Earthsea Archipelago is not a small chain of islands: there is no evidence of a temporal sequence as there is for Hawaii. More importantly, in this kind of orogenesis (mountain creation) there is no possibility to generate metal ores. The Hawaii islands are mineral-poor; their inhabitants never had metals until they were able to import them from the continental mainland, in modern times.

Maybe we could think that the archipelago of Earthsea is similar to the Aegean islands or the Cyclades.


These islands are volcanic and they have been created by the energy released by the collision of the plates existing in the region:


The Aegean islands are known to have been rich in metal ores, at least until humans started exploiting them. That would be consistent with at least one of the characteristics of the Earthsea archipelago. But there is also a problem, here: these islands exist only as minor features at the edge of large continental regions. On the contrary, we have no evidence that a large continent exists close to the Earthsea archipelago.

So, we must look for something else and we can find an interesting analogy with the submerged continent that some call "Zealandia", East of Australia.


Zealandia is a "micro-continent" in the sense that it is much smaller than the other landmasses of Earth, but it has all the characteristics of a continent. It is a solid plate, floating above the viscous asthenosphere, below. Today it is mostly submerged, the only part of it surfacing are the two islands of New Zealand but, in the past, it seems to have been in large part emerged.

Zealandia gives us a good model for the archipelago of Earthsea; it has the right size and New Zealand is about as large as Havnor. Its past history of being above the water provides the setting necessary for the formation of ores. Indeed, New Zealand is rich in metals, including gold, copper, nickel and more.

Of course, the Earthsea archipelago is not so nearly completely submerged as Zealandia is on Earth. It is possible that the phenomenon described as Segoy raising up the islands was, rather, a eustatic fluctuation of the sea level. Planet Earthsea may have seen an ice age that lowered the sea level, giving the impression of the islands rising out of the sea. It was the opposite: it was the sea that was retreating. In the process, the mountaintops of the ancient continent emerged out of the waters, creating the Archipelago described in the Earthsea novels.

We see how Earthsea makes a lot of sense in geological terms. It is a planet with large continents, icecaps, a geological history, and many features that make it similar to Earth. It could be something like the image below, although, for some reason, the people who draw fantasy planets always seem to forget icecaps - this one, at least, has a hint of them.


We may also consider a more detailed explanation for the eustatic oceanic movement that created the Archipelago. Let's imagine that the continents of Planet Earthsea were once populated by humans. We said that these continents must contain fossil carbon and it may well be that this carbon was exploited in the form of fossil fuels, coal, oil, and gas, by the humans of an earlier time with respect to the stories of the Earthsea cycle. In this case, humans would have developed an industrial civilization and the emissions of greenhouse gases resulting from the burning of fossil fuels would have generated a rapid global warming; just like what's happening today on our planet.

Let's also suppose that this warming took place a climate situation where there existed icecaps on the polar continental regions of Earthsea. The melting of the icecaps raised the ocean levels and submerged the Zealandia-like region which had been a regular continent up to then. That region would have remained submerged for several tens of thousands of years until the slow re-capture of the greenhouse gases would have brought back temperatures to the earlier values, re-formed the icecaps, and caused the Archipelago to resurface.

So, what happened to the humans who lived on the continents of Planet Earthsea? Their civilization was destroyed by a series of factors: climate change, pollution, resource depletion, soil erosion, and others. The humans of Planet Earthsea didn't go extinct but surely, they must have been enormously reduced in numbers.

A fascinating hypothesis is that the humans of Planet Earthsea tried to remedy to the disaster of climate change and fossil fuel depletion by moving to nuclear fission as a source energy, building several thousands of nuclear reactors. That didn't stop global warming, by then well past the "tipping point", but gave them the possibility to survive as an industrial civilization for a while. But, at some moment, they lost control of their nuclear plants; maybe because they ran out of fissile uranium. Without the necessary maintenance, the nuclear reactors went into meltdown and released prodigious amounts of radioactivity in the atmosphere that returned to the ground in the form of fallout. That killed off most of the surviving humans and animals.

The humans of Earthsea could perhaps have survived in small numbers by moving to the sea to avoid the nuclear contamination that made the land nearly uninhabitable. They may have developed the civilization described in the Earthsea cycle as The "Children of the Sea" or the "Raft People." They would visit land only occasionally to get, for instance, wood for their rafts, but these short visits wouldn't result in a dangerous exposure to radioactivity.

When Earthsea resurfaced, some 50 thousand years after the catastrophe, it was not contaminated by the radioactive isotopes released in at that time. So, the Raft People found it a good place to colonize, even though some of them maintained the old ways and are described in the cycle as still existing in the Southern and Western ranges of the Archipelago.

There remains one feature of Earthsea that makes it very different from Earth: dragons. We don't know very much about them, except that they tend to "fly west," where they probably live in one of those large continents where humans don't live, at least not anymore. Are dragons somehow correlated to the nuclear disaster that turned the continents into radioactive waste? Mutant creatures generated by the last remnants of a civilization engaged in genetic engineering? It is impossible to say but, obviously, Ursula Le Guin knows best:


things change
     authors and wizards are not always to be trusted
           nobody can explain a dragon

Ursula K. Le Guin - "Tales From Earthsea" (2001)




Other posts by Ugo Bardi on Earthsea 

The Magic is Back 
Earthsea: the Soul and the Machine
How we Lost the Silence
The End of Music, The End of Magic.
 





Monday, February 20, 2017

Tegethoff at Lissa: the battle in a flash


Back from Vienna, a visit to the Belvedere museum where everybody goes to see Klimt's "The Kiss". Yes, great painting the one by Klimt, but this one by Romako is simply unbelievable. So much that I had to put it up on the "Chimeras" site.

Consider that it was painted in 1880 and be amazed at how so much action could be packed into a single scene. It is a scene of the 1866 battle of Lissa, a small island in the Adriatic sea, where the Austrian and the Italian fleets squared off against each other. The Austrians were outnumbered and outgunned, but they won the battle by a combination of better coordination and superior tactics. It was, perhaps, the last naval battle in history where ramming played an important role. And the painting by Romako conveys what it must have felt when admiral Tegethoff, commander of the Austrian fleet, led his ships straight into the line of the Italian ironclads.

Note how Tegethoff is shown as the only one in the scene who is not leaning on anything, his hands in his pockets, his legs firmly set on the deck. And the scene breaks completely from all the conventions of battle scenes up to then: it is focussed on human feelings, courage, fear, enthusiasm, pure adrenaline flowing all over. Truly a masterpiece.



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