Sunday, June 18, 2017

The story of Tanetnot, the Egyptian dancing girl

Dancing Egyptian girls from the Nebamun tomb (source)

Some years ago, I stumbled into an Italian translation of the tale of Wenamon, written around the 11th century BCE. The story of the epic of this Egyptian priest made a strong impression on me; so much that I wrote the piece that I reproduce below. Reviewing what I wrote at that time, I think that my interpretation of the story was correct, but it is also true that, today, the Epic of Wenamon (or Wenamun) tends to be seen as a fantasy tale rather than the chronicle of a real travel. That might be, but this little known document remains a milestone of literature. It is, simply, a world apart from anything that was written before (at least for what has arrived to us). Wenamon's story is primarily the story of a human being who - even though a priest - is not a toy for Gods's battles, as, for instance, the protagonists of the near contemporary Iliad are. Wenamon is one of us. And here is what I wrote, trying to retell the story from the viewpoint of the Egyptian dancer whom I call "Tanetnot" here, even though the correct term would be Tentno (tjnt-nw.t). You can find a readable version of the whole story on reshafim 

The story of Tanetnot, the dancing girl
by Ugo Bardi

Of the men of the past, we remember kings, warriors, conquerors, builders, prophets, saints. People of great power, or of great wisdom, or of great riches, or of sanctity. Of those who were not powerful, not wise, not rich and not saints not much is left. Their memory has faded away as their bones crumbled away in some forgotten tomb. But, sometimes, the vagaries of the world and the weirdness of fortune bring to us traces of some were not kings or queens, not warriors, not builders, not prophets. One of them is an Egyptian dancing girl whose name survived the years and was brought to us as "Tanetnot".

She lived long ago, in an age when Pharaohs still ruled the land. We don’t know in which town she was born, nor how she became a dancer. We know nothing about her aspect, and we can only imagine her as one of those figures painted in the walls of ancient tombs. Girls with black hair, large eyes, and sometimes fancy hairdo and makeup. But maybe her blood was not wholly Egyptian, as it is said that at that time in Egypt, as everywhere and in every age, people fancied exotic beauties from far away.

For whom Tanetnot performed, we cannot say. Perhaps it was for the travelers of the barges that went along the Nile; or perhaps for the rich men of Memphis, or perhaps for the foreign seamen of the port of Tanis. At her time, Egypt was no more as great as it had been once. Past were the proud builders of the pyramids and past was the glory of the Pharaohs who had routed the armies of the shepherd kings from the East and of those who had crushed the invasion of the peoples of the sea. Of all this, Tanetnot probably knew nothing, or if she did likely she did not care. But she was perhaps curious to see new things and people, and we know that she traveled. Perhaps she liked to travel, and she must have used a boat, maybe a swift galley, or more likely a slow merchant ship, to leave Egypt. We know that she went to a town that at that time people called Byblos, in Lebanon.

Byblos was a merchant town, a crossroad of trade. At that time it was a rich town, and it may have attracted dancers and performers of all sort. We know that Tanetnot danced for the local ruler, someone whose name has been passed to us as Zakar-Baal. We do not know whether she was a concubine, a slave, or a passing performer for this man who was maybe a king, or maybe just a small warlord. We know, however, that in Byblos Tanetnot met a man coming from Egypt, Wenamon his name, the envoy from the Hall of the House of Amon in far away Thebes.

Now, this Wenamon was a very important man, or at least he thought himself as such. He was there to buy something that was impossible to find in Egypt: lumber for building a ceremonial barge for his temple. His task had not been easy: times were hard and seas not anymore so peaceful and safe as they had been when the great Pharaohs ruled. So, Wenamon had been delayed by storms, robbed by pirates, had to turn pirate himself, and finally had to plea and bargain for months to get the load of wood he needed. Wenamon himself had found all that quite unseemly for an important man as he thought he was. And, as the wood was finally loaded and the ship ready to go, there had come the news that pirate galleys had been seen at the horizon, most likely waiting to pounce on that fat merchant ship as she would leave the harbor. That evening, perhaps as part of the deal that had been worked out, or perhaps to cheer up the worried Egyptian envoy, the ruler of Byblos, Zakar-Baal, sent to him the gift of a ram, some jars of wine, and a dancing girl, Tanetnot.

We do not know how much Wenamon could enjoy his dinner, his wine, and his dancing girl that evening, for he may very well have been worried about the return trip. Nor we know how Tanetnot enjoyed dancing for this priest of Amon, so worried and so self-important. But if she danced, how should we imagine her? In an Egyptian scroll of long ago we can see dancing women. Sometimes, they are dressed in rich attires: transparent linen dresses with ostrich feathers, blue agate bracelets, and golden jewels around their arms and necks. But, sometimes, the dancers are nearly naked, wearing only belts and headbands. How was Tanetnot dressed that night? And what tune did she dance at? Perhaps the envoy watched the dance, or perhaps he paced nervously along the piers instead. We do not know what happened the day after, nor how the Egyptian merchant ship managed to avoid those sleek galleys. But we know that eventually Wenamon made it back to Thebes; otherwise we wouldn't be able to read his report. Most likely, we can imagine, he came back feeling much more self important than before.

And Tanetnot? We do not know whether the gift was intended as a one night lease or more than that. Perhaps she sailed with Wenamon for that uncertain trip back to Egypt. Or perhaps the morning after she just bid farewell to the Egyptian envoy, sure that she would not see him ever again. But when Wenamon was back to Egypt he wrote down a report of his trip to Lebanon. So self important and meticulous he was that he included such details as the ram, the jar of wine, and the name of that girl who had danced for him on the last evening of his stay in Byblos. Later on, he may have remembered Tanetnot once in a while, but quite possibly not very often. As for Tanetnot she, too, may have remembered at times the Egyptian envoy she had spent a night with. Maybe it had been her only chance to get back to Egypt, and she had missed it. But we may be sure that her career during the later years of her life was far from being as brilliant as that of Wenamon. Life is not gentle with fading courtesans.

So, Tanetnot became old and died. She was buried somewhere, her memory forgotten, her tomb lost in the sand, and her bones scattered away. Byblos itself was buried forever in the sand and forgotten, too. And Wenamon, too, important as he was, died. He was buried in some important tomb, but even that tomb was lost in the sand, and with it the memory of that important priest buried in it. But there was that report, a papyrus roll that remained in the temple of Amon in Thebes for many years, perhaps centuries. Then the temple crumbled down, its priests died and disappeared, and the papyrus was thrown away, somewhere in the desert, where it stayed buried for a long time. There, some three millennia afterwards, someone found it. Someone else translated it and published the text it in a book that ended on my desk.

I forget so many names and things that I read. By all means I should have forgotten the story of Tanetnot as well. And indeed I did forget it after a few days. But, this time, something strange happened. One night, while I was traveling in a night train, the name of Tanetnot came to my mind. Maybe it was because the compartment was hot, or because of the noise of the train, or because of something else, but that name lingered in my mind until day came and I found that I had not slept a minute. I had spent the whole night awake thinking of what Tanetnot was like and how she might have danced. It is hard to say how it happened that Tanetnot's ghost came to haunt a compartment of a train of the Swiss railroads going through the Alps three thousands of years after she had died in Lebanon. But maybe, as I said, it was because she liked to travel.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Mata Hari: a Victim of Fake News

Mata Hari was executed by a firing squad on Oct 15, 1917. It is still a little early for remembering her a century after her death. But it is not too early to remember that the news of her arrest were leaked to the press in June 1917 and her trial started on July 24th.

Today, we know enough of this story to be sure that the fame of Mata Hari as spy for the Germans was completely unjustified. She was framed, she was just a convenient scapegoat to blame for the troubles and the defeats of the French army in 1917, during the Great War.

It was a kangaroo court that condemned Mata Hari and, in more than one way, she was the victim of fake news. At that time, propaganda was still a relatively new technology that would see much more development in our times. We haven't seen anything yet!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The True Story of The Fall of Troy

According to my personal fantasy universe, Cassandra was not born in Troy. She was a Babylonian priestess who ended up in Troy after a series of weird circumstances related to the battle of Kadesh. But she was adopted by King Priam and became known as his daughter. If you want to read the details, they are here, but the story that follows doesn't mention Cassandra's real birthplace  and so it is compatible with the standard version.  (image from Marvel Comics)

Over time, I had learned the science of how to summon ghosts from Hell. That required some weird spells and rare materials, but it seemed to work and one of my first attempts resulted in the summoning of Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess, who told me the story of her life. Some time later, I was surprised to see her appearing all of a sudden in front of me without having done anything. 

Oh...Lady Cassandra, it is you! You scared me. 

I am sorry, you see, ghosts normally come unannounced; really, there is no way...

Well, yes, I understand. See, you are all bluish and transparent...

That's the way ghosts are.

Yes, I suppose that's true. But don't worry, it is a pleasure to see you again. 

Oh, well, it is nice to be here again. See, the Goddess seems to like you enough that she sent me here one more time. And she makes me speak this funny language.... you call it Ingliss, right?

Something like that, lady. It is a language I can understand.

But why don't you call me just Cassandra? Do you have to be so formal?

Well, after all you are the daughter of King Priam. You are a princess. 

Hmmm..... there are many stories about me. But when we move to the other side, I mean, to Hades, there are no more princes or princesses.

I think I understand. 

Hades is not a nice place. It is boring, too. So, I am happy to be here. And if you like to call me Lady Cassandra, it is fine with me. But how have you been doing?

Not so well, Lady. 

Still the same problem you were telling me last time, right?

Yes, you remember what we said last time. We call it climate change.

You told me about that. It is really a big problem. And you say it is getting worse?

Much worse.

And your kings are doing nothing, right?

I would say so, Lady. Our, well, let's call them 'kings', are doing nothing. They don't even recognize that the problem exists. 

But you told me that already. Did something change?

Yes, two years ago, something happened. The envoys of many of these, as you said, kings, got together in a city called Paris.....

Paris? Like one of King Priam's sons?

No, Lady Cassandra, not that Paris. It is the name of a beautiful city North of here. And these envoys agreed on doing something against this curse that befell us. To change things; to stop the curse of climate change. And the kings who had sent them agreed on that and they signed a pact that bound together almost all the people in the world.  

That seems to have been something very good, indeed.

Yes, it was good. And also, one of our religious leaders, we call him the Pope, he wrote something about this big problem of climate change we have. 

Maybe the Goddess spoke to him?

I am not sure about that, Lady.

Well, the Goddess speaks to everybody, even to a male priest, although she prefers female ones.

Again, Lady, I am not sure about that. But what the Pope said was very wise. And he also said that people should get together and do something about climate change. That was before the pact of Paris, and some said that it was one of the reasons why the kings agreed on the pact. 

That was good, too. But you said that something bad happened afterward?

Yes, one of our leaders.... let me call him a king. The most powerful king of all. He has carrot-colored hair, and he is burly, arrogant, and obnoxious.

That's the way kings are.

Yes, maybe you know kings better than me. Anyway, this king went to see the Pope and the Pope told him about what  - well - about what maybe the Goddess had told him. But this king said he didn't care about the Pope, he said he didn't care about the pact of Paris. He said that climate change is not a problem and that he will do as he pleases. And that he will make the country he rules great.

You should know that this is the way kings behave.

Shouldn't a good king care for his people?

Should all kings be good?

I guess you are right, Lady Cassandra. Still, I am disappointed. Many people are disappointed. Can it be that this man doesn't understand the danger of climate change? Can he really be so stupid?

I understand you, don't think I don't. See, I have had my share of meeting kings. And they are as you say. Burly, obnoxious, and arrogant. They are stupid, in a certain way, but not so stupid in another.

Lady Cassandra, you are a prophetess. Can you tell me more about this? Why do kings do these things?

Well, yes, but I have to tell you a little story.

I would love to hear it.  

So, let me see.... I already told you something of the story of Troy when the city was besieged by the Achaeans. And I told you of how the Acheans had built that big wooden thing that they had placed in front of the walls. And that the Trojans didn't know what it was and they thought it was a statue of a horse.

This is the story that everyone knows. It says that the Trojans demolished parts of the walls of the city to let the horse inside. 

Well, this is what the story says. Do you believe it?

It is a nice story, of course, but I figure there was more to it than what the story tells. 

A lot more. Let me ask you a question: do you think the Trojans were stupid?

I wouldn't say that. But I guess you know this better than me. 

Yep. And I can tell you that they were not stupid. Oh, well, depends on what you mean. For people who would spend their time all clad in iron or bronze armor and exchange blows with battle axes; well, you don't expect them to be very smart. But not stupid; I mean, how could it be that they demolished the walls to let this thing get in without worrying about what there was inside?

I had always wondered about that.

Well, the answer to the question has to do with what you were telling me.

About climate change?

Yes, about climate change. You were telling me about this stupid king of yours, the one with carrot-colored hair. You said he doesn't understand what the problem is. But I think it is not true. He does - at least his advisers know.

You think so? Why?

I am a prophetess, you know? Seriously, people do a lot of things that look stupid, but if you look carefully they are not so stupid. Let me go back to Troy. So, they say that the Trojans did something that doomed them - letting inside the Achaean horse. Stupid, right? Of course, if you think of "the Trojans" it is stupid. But if you think "some Trojans" then it may not be. But I have to explain this to you.

So, it all started when Hector was killed. He was Troy's best warrior and he was supposed to become the new king, to succeed his father, king Priam. Hector was a good man, overall, but not so smart, either. He was all up to fighting and upholding the honor of the Trojans. So, he went up to fight and he got killed by that big man of the Achaeans, Achilles.

That was bad for the Trojans; very bad, but the war went on. Achilles was killed by another son of Priam, that Paris I was telling you about, the one who had been so idiot to steal the wife of one of the Achaean Kings, this Helen, and so starting the whole mess. And then someone killed Paris, too. So, at this point, the oldest son of Priam took over; I mean the oldest still alive: Deiphobus, another idiot. He had this idea of marrying Helen after that Paris had died. Great idea, sure; and it did him quite some good! But let me go on.

So, after the death of Hector, the Trojans were still fighting; but some of them understood that the war wasn't going so well. But Deiphobus and the other big bosses said that those who were thinking that were defeatists and that Troy was winning. You know, it was not so easy for ordinary Trojans to understand what was going on outside the walls of the city. They only knew what the warriors were telling them. And they kept telling them, 'we are winning, there is nothing to be worried about, just keep on'.

It was the same for me. I was staying in the temple of the Goddess and I was supposed to spend my time making sacrifices and praying for the city of Troy. Boring, indeed. But I was a prophetess, you know, and I suspected that the war was not going so well.

At that time, I had befriended a priest of the temple of Apollo, his name was Laocoon. Nice man and if you ask me if I had been playing a little with him - you known what I mean - I would ask you what can a girl do when she is supposed to be a virgin priestess and there is nothing for her to do the whole day? So, we became good friends, indeed. One day, Laocoon came and he told me that Aeneas wanted to see me. This Aeneas was one of the big men of Troy. He was a warrior, but also a rich man with plenty of gold and slaves. So, I went to see him and we talked a lot. He was smart, I can tell you that.

Aeneas told me about how the war was going and I understood right away that the game was over for Troy. So, he asked me, 'Cassandra, you are a prophetess, can you tell me what we should do?' I told him, 'You don't need to ask a prophetess. We need to parley with the Achaeans before it is too late.' And he said, 'You are right, Cassandra. You will be the one doing that.' I looked at him, bewildered, and he laughed and he told me, 'aren't you a prophetess, Cassandra? You should have known what I was going to tell you.' These big men really have a twisted sense of humor. Anyway, he asked me to contact Odysseus, one of the Achaean kings, said to be the smartest of the lot.

Aeneas was no fool: he could see that I was a good envoy for Troy; a woman, a priestess, I could be seen as sort of neutral. And parleying was not going to be an easy task. The Achaeans were winning, they knew that and they wouldn't be appeased by giving back to them that silly woman, Helen, that Paris had stolen from her husband. No, that wasn't going to work, no matter how beautiful Helen was said to be (and she was much overrated, this I can tell you). And the Achaeans knew that if they kept fighting, they could have had everything: the gold of the city and its inhabitants as slaves. Still there was some space for a negotiation and that was my task. What would the Achaeans want to leave Troy standing and the Trojans alive? If we were willing to pay them a lot, maybe they would have accepted.

So, we freed an Achaean prisoner, officially he escaped, to tell Odysseus that a priestess of the Moon Goddess wanted to speak to him. And there came back a Trojan prisoner - again, officially he had escaped - and he said that Odysseus was waiting for the priestess in a certain place at night, at the rise of the moon. Which I took as a honor, because I was a moon priestess, as you know.

That was how I met Odysseus. I was accompanied by a bunch of Trojan warriors from Aeneas' retinue. It had been a mistake, as I understood later on, but Aeneas had insisted on that. Odysseus was there with some of his warriors, too. On both sides, we had these burly fellows armed to the teeth, looking at each other askance. But never mind that, as I said, Odysseus was a smart person and he wasn't there to fight and we had a nice chat. He understood what I wanted and he said that it was still possible to find an agreement if the Trojans were willing to pay. And that he wanted to discuss the price with Aeneas in person. So, I went back to Troy and I told the story to Aeneas. And he said that he would see Odysseus and that I should have kept my mouth shut about this story.

This is what I did. I told nothing to anybody about having met Odysseus, nor that Aeneas was seeing him at night. Days went by and I expected something to happen. I would have imagined to see Aeneas coming up in the central square of the city, standing on a pedestal, and telling people something like, 'Fellow Trojan citizens, we found an agreement with the Achaeans. If every Trojan is willing to sacrifice some of his wealth, then the city can be saved.'

But nothing like that happened. Quite the opposite: Prince Deiphobus came up in the central square of Troy and gave a speech to the Trojans saying that the honor of the city of Troy was not negotiable, that the Gods were with Troy, that the walls were solid, and that those stupid Achaeans were all but demoralized. Victory was all but certain for Troy, it was just a question of not listening to the defeatists among us. And he said that he was going to make Troy great again. I remember that Aeneas was with him, nodding and smiling as if he agreed on every word that Deiphobus was saying.  It was weird, but what could I say?

It was at about this time that the big wooden thing appeared in the field in front of the city, the 'horse'. So, there was a lot of head scratching with the Trojans and what the hell was that? But I knew what it was: not for nothing I was a prophetess and I had studied the ways of the world. So, I went up to the walls, I looked at the supposed 'horse', and I said, 'look, that thing is a siege engine! We have to burn it down before it is too late." And there came up my friend, Laocoon, and he also said, 'look, you have to listen to Cassandra. She knows a lot of things, and she is wise. We must destroy that thing.' And some people understood what we were saying, because they knew that I was a priestess and I knew many things. And also Laocoon was known to be a smart person and people respected him a lot.

Then, disaster struck. I should have known what was going to happen, am I not a prophetess? But even prophetesses sometimes ignore things they wouldn't like to happen. So, we were in the middle of a public debate on how best to burn the wooden horse when, suddenly, some people came up and accused me of betraying the Trojans: they said that I had secretly met the Achaean king Odysseus at night. Then, they called up some of Aeneas' bodyguards and they testified that, yes, it was true. They had accompanied me to meet Odysseus at night. Laocoon tried to defend me, but people started saying that he was my lover and that we had defiled the temple of the Goddess. We had committed sacrilege and we couldn't be trusted in anything we said.

At this point, Hell broke loose, as you may imagine. I tried to say that it had been Aeneas who had sent me to meet Odysseus, but they took that as a confession of guilt. Things went kinetic, as you say in Ingliss, Laocoon was killed and I was lucky to be able to escape with my life. I took refuge in the temple of the Goddess and  King Priam protected me; he was a good man, even though he was too old to understand what was really going on.

So, I stayed put inside the temple and I can't tell you exactly what happened afterward. Maybe the Achaeans used the siege engine to smash open the walls of the city, or maybe it is true that the Trojans were so stupid to demolish the walls and let the 'horse' in. Whatever the case, when the Trojans understood the danger, it was too late. Troy went up in flames, lots of people were killed, those who survived were taken as slaves, including me; I became the slave of the big boss of the Achaeans, King Agamemnon. Deiphobus, too was killed. In a sense, he got what he deserved: killed by King Menelaus, Helen first husband. You know the story? Helen told Menelaus where Deiphobus was hiding and Menelaus went in and hacked Deiphobus to pieces. And then, Helen undressed in front of Menelaus and she gave herself to him in that same room, with the floor still wet of Deiphobus' blood. At least this is what they told me - but I think it is true. I knew that woman. She was, well, in Ingliss you use this term, 'female dog', right?

It is right, we use this term, Lady Cassandra. We say 'bitch'. 

But those are details. The point of the story is about Aeneas. You know the story, don't you?

They say that Aeneas escaped from Troy when the city fell, yes. 

Not just him. Several Trojan notables; with their families, their gold, their slaves, their weapons. And not a single Achaean would raise a finger against them. Come on, they even had boats waiting for them to take them away from the mess; all the way to Italy. You see? It had been all prepared. It was all planned from the first time when Aeneas met Odysseus, and I came to think that it had been even before I had spoken with Odysseus. It was a trap, a perfect trap. And the people of Troy fell in it so perfectly. They were completely fooled!

You say that Aeneas betrayed the Trojans? How could that be? He was said to be so pious.

Pious, yeah, sure. I think there is a world in your language, in Ingliss... you say 'propaganda', right?

Well, yes. we use that term, propaganda. I didn't know that it could be such an old idea.
Yes, people are always the same, they are easy to sway. I suppose they haven't changed much in your times.

No, Lady, propaganda is still very much used with us. 

Yes, the poor people of Troy were fooled. It was all propaganda, it was all agreed. Even that I was to become the mistress of King Agamemnon. I had been agreed before everything happened. You see? Most of the people who kept saying that Troy was going to win the war understood perfectly well that it wasn't true. But they had to keep saying that Troy was going to be great again if they wanted to fool the Trojans and save themselves.

Well, it is a way of seeing the story that I had never imagined. But it sounds true. And you think it is related to our times?

Yes, you were telling me about this king of yours, the one who has carrot-colored hair. You say that he denies that you have a problem?

That's what he does. People say he is not very smart. 

Maybe he is not so smart, yes. He may be like Deiphobus, I mean, he may really believe that there is no such a thing as a climate change problem. But I bet he is not the only one. Am I right?

You are right. After all, you are a prophetess!

That was an easy prophecy! But I think that the people around him, around that silly king, I am sure they are lying. They know very well what's happening. And they are fooling him and many others. They have to if they want to save themselves.

You think so?

Yes, of course. You have been telling me that because of this 'climate change' a lot of people will die, right?

Well, I hope they won't....

You know better than that. You told me about seas rising, droughts, heat waves, storms and more. Do you think people won't die because of all that?

Yes, it is a possibility.

And those who will die will be the poor, right. Do you think your kings care about the poor?

Well, I guess, really, you are right, but.....

Your carrot-haired king may be part of the plot or not. It doesn't matter. But those behind him are surely planning to move to safer and cooler places. And leave the poor to drown or to starve - or to die of overheating.

I am not sure I believe you, Lady Cassandra.

As if it were something new......

Oh, I am sorry, Lady. I didn't mean to offend you. 

You are not offending me. After all, I am Cassandra, the prophetess nobody believes.

Really, I am sorry. I shouldn't have said that. 

No, no.... don't worry. I understand you. Some things that I say are really difficult to believe.

But are you really supposed to be always right?

It is part of the curse of being a prophetess. You should know that; you told me that you are a kind of - say - prophet, with those 'models' you make. You told me that people don't believe in what you say.

It is part of the job, indeed. So, what should I do?

The Goddess may help you, but in the end it is for the Moirai to decide.

You mean the fate?

Yes, in Ingliss you use that word. There is not much you can do. Fate will decide.

I see.....

You look sad. I am sorry.

You don't have to be sorry, it is not your fault. 

Let's see.... actually, there is something you could do. Why don't you offer me a beer?

A beer? But you are a ghost, Lady Cassandra! 

But I always loved beer. And there is no beer in Hades. I was thinking, well, the Goddess is very powerful and I could pray her a little....

That's strange, Lady Cassandra, you are not bluish and transparent anymore. 

See? I told you that the Goddess is powerful.

Well, you look real now. That much I can say. 

And I think I could drink a beer. Do you have beer, here?

Yes, we do. It would be a pleasure. 

But, now that I think about it, don't you think I am dressed a little strange? Wouldn't people be surprised at seeing me?

Let me see... Linen tunic, woolen cape, golden arm rings, golden bracelets, and leather sandals. No, I don't think people will be surprised. You may be more surprised at seeing how some of my students are dressed! 

So, let's go for that beer! Hades can wait.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Selfie with Galla Placidia

Myself in Barcelona. In the background, the remains of the temple of Augustus. A place where Empress Galla Placidia surely walked in her times, during the 5th century AD. You cannot see her in this photo, but I felt like she was there.

I am not into ghost summoning, of course, but sometimes I think I can hear ghostly voices of people who lived in remote times in my head. One of these voices is that of Galla Placidia, Empress of Rome and queen of the Goths, who lived an adventurous life some fifteen centuries ago. After so many years, her voice has become faint, indeed. But, paying attention, one can still hear it.

Because of the vagaries of life, it has happened to me to go to Barcelona, in Spain, several times during the past few years. And Barcelona is a place where Galla Placidia lived for some years with her husband, the Gothic king Athaulf ("The Wolf") with whom she had a child whom they named Theodosius. It was the name of Placidia's father, Emperor Theodosius "The Great," the last Roman Emperor to rule on both the Eastern and the Western part of the Empire. And by naming the child Theodosius, Placidia's plans were transparent: to create a new state that would have seen the former enemies, the Goths and the Romans, to live in peace with each other. A beautiful dream, but beautiful dreams are often short lived. This one vanished into thin air when the young Theodosius died as a child. He was buried in a silver coffin in Barcelona, then brought to Italy, and finally put to rest in the Imperial Mausoleum in Rome, possibly in the same year when Placidia herself died, in 450 AD.

So, Placidia was in Barcelona, called in her times Colonia Julia Augusta Faventia Paterna Barcino Even though she left little or no physical traces there, it is curious how she left an impression in my mind; an impression of presence. This impression came to me for the first time a few years ago. I was walking in the busy "La Rambla" avenue, full of tourists. It came to my mind that I had read that there was this Augustan temple in Barcelona, even though I had never seen it. At that time, I didn't have a GPS map on my phone, so I walked at random. Not completely at random; I had a vague idea of where that place was supposed to be. And I found it.

I remember how I felt when I went through a small door in front of an anonymous building that led into a large room where three columns of the ancient temple of August are still standing. It is not a really remarkable place, but I remember how happy I was when I found it. It was a place where Placidia had walked. She had seen these same columns. It was like if Placidia herself was there, welcoming me in her palla dress, smiling while wearing her double ringed pearl necklace. 

It was a curious sensation of elation that, now, I feel everytime I happen to be in Barcelona and I find the time to go to visit the great columns of Augustus temple, in the small road called "Carrer del Paradis." I did the same this May 2017 and I took a selfie of myself with the columns behind. You can't see Galla Placidia in this picture but perhaps you can imagine her being there, too.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Is truth a Chimera? The Empire is being destroyed by its own propaganda

A lucid discussion of the "post-truth world" by Casey Williams taken from Deric Bowd's excellent "Mind Blog." The Global Empire seems to be in the process of being destroyed by its own propaganda. (see also my previous post on how the same destiny befell on the Roman Empire)

Has Trump Stolen Philosophy’s Critical Tools?

By Casey Williams

Trump’s playbook should be familiar to any student of critical theory and philosophy. It often feels like Trump has stolen our ideas and weaponized them.

For decades, critical social scientists and humanists have chipped away at the idea of truth. We’ve deconstructed facts, insisted that knowledge is situated and denied the existence of objectivity. The bedrock claim of critical philosophy, going back to Kant, is simple: We can never have certain knowledge about the world in its entirety. Claiming to know the truth is therefore a kind of assertion of power.

These ideas animate the work of influential thinkers like Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida, and they’ve become axiomatic for many scholars in literary studies, cultural anthropology and sociology. 

From these premises, philosophers and theorists have derived a number of related insights. One is that facts are socially constructed. People who produce facts — scientists, reporters, witnesses — do so from a particular social position (maybe they’re white, male and live in America) that influences how they perceive, interpret and judge the world. They rely on non-neutral methods (microscopes, cameras, eyeballs) and use non-neutral symbols (words, numbers, images) to communicate facts to people who receive, interpret and deploy them from their own social positions.

Call it what you want: relativism, constructivism, deconstruction, postmodernism, critique. The idea is the same: Truth is not found, but made, and making truth means exercising power.

The reductive version is simpler and easier to abuse: Fact is fiction, and anything goes. It’s this version of critical social theory that the populist right has seized on and that Trump has made into a powerful weapon.

Some liberals have argued that the best way to combat conservative mendacity is to insist on the existence of truth and the reliability of hard facts. But blind faith in objectivity and factual truth alone has not proven to be a promising way forward...Even if we felt comfortable asserting the existence of something like “truth,” there’s no going back to the days when Americans agreed on matters of fact — when debates about policy were guided by a commitment to truth and reason. Indeed, critique shows us that it’s doubtful that those days, like Trump’s “great” America, ever existed.

For this very reason, these strategies remain useful, however much something like them may be misused, and however carelessly some critical theorists and philosophers have deployed them. Even in a “post-truth era,” a critical attitude allows us to question dominant systems of thought, whether they derive authority from an appearance of neutrality, objectivity or inevitability or from a more Trumpian appeal to alternative facts that dispense with empirical evidence. In a world where lawmakers still appeal to common sense to promote regressive policies, critique remains an important tool for anyone seeking to move past the status quo.

This is because critical ways of thinking demand that we approach knowledge with attention and humility and recognize that, while facts might be created, not all facts are created equal.

While Trump appeals more often to emotions than to facts — or even to common sense — critique can help those who oppose him question the Trumpian version of reality. We can ask not whether a statement is true or false, but how and why it was made and what effects it produces when people feel it to be true. Paying attention to how knowledge is created and used can help us hold leaders like Trump accountable for what they say.

And if we question all ideas — not just the ones we dislike — perhaps our critiques can also reveal new ways of thinking and suggest political possibilities undreamed of by either Trump or his centrist opponents.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

When the Russians came

The monument to the Russian sailors who helped the inhabitants of the Italian city of Messina after the great earthquake of 1908. Maybe it is not a great monument in itself, but it celebrates a gratitude still felt after more than a century. 

"The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!" is the title of a wonderful 1966 US movie that tells the story of a Soviet submarine which runs aground off New England during the cold war. Some sailors are sent inland for help and the result is a series of misunderstandings nearly leading to a bloody fight. Eventually, however, all ends well with the Russians and the Americans cooperating to save a little boy who falls from the bell tower of the island.

The story of the movie is eerily suggestive of a historical episode that saw Russian sailors really landing to help a population in distress. It was after the great Earthquake of Messina, in Sicily, which struck the town on Dec 28th, 1908 and caused maybe 200,000 victims. It was probably the most disastrous earthquake in modern history.

The scale of the destruction caused by the Earthquake was so large that the contacts of the mainland with the city of Messina were lost for a few days and the Italian government was slow in sending a relief force. For at least a couple of days, the survivors of the earthquake were helped only by an international force, mainly composed of the sailors of four Russian military ships that happened to be cruising nearby.

British and German ships also provided help and, subsequently, the Italian navy took over with a large relief effort. Still, it seems that the Russians did a lot and with great good will. We have little detail of the events of those confused first days, but some surviving documents of the time tell us much about the gratitude of the survivors. One note sent to the Russian consulate by the Pira family says, "Jesus is with Russia, thank you!"

The Russian intervention was so much appreciated by the inhabitants of Messina that, shortly after the earthquake, the city enacted a decree that dedicated a square of the town to the Russian sailor and planned to build a monument to them.

It took more than a hundred years to build the promised monument. It is hard to say exactly why it took so long but, eventually, it was done in 2012. Today, it stands, little known outside Messina, but a reminder of a story of human solidarity and friendship.

A curious angle of this story is that my wife's family is from Messina and her relatives told me several times how difficult it was for their grandparents to survive the great quake of 1908. I don't know if they were directly helped by Russian sailors, but it may very well be that my life would have been different if they hadn't been there.

Thank you for having come, Russians!

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)


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