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I’m off for my summer vacation! During the next week, I might post a little or a lot (depending on internet availability in West Virginia). Before leaving though, I thought I would share this photo of the beautiful hybrid tea rose my munificent otter gave me as a birthday gift. In the background you can also see some morning glories and pink petunias.
An online conversation today reminded me of Plutarch, whose lively biographies provide so very much of our present knowledge of the statesmen and generals of classical antiquity. My very favorite passage of Plutarch (and possibly in the whole canon of Roman history) consists of three throw-away paragraphs from the life of Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix commonly called Sulla (or “Sylla” by 18th century classicists). The whole biography is worth reading, for Sulla was one of the greatest figures of the Roman Republic, a peerless general who lived during the harrowing struggle between the optimates and populares. Sulla assumed the long moribund office of dictator by force or arms (conquering Rome in the process). He used his supreme power to make necessary constitutional reforms, and then, to universal astonishment, he resigned. The following passage is not really about him though.
The first paragraph is a sort of Roman joke where Sulla takes a little vacation and expresses amazement upon coming across some survivors from a town he had exterminated. The second paragraph–my favorite–details how his troop captured a satyr and brought it before Sulla for interrogation (something worth keeping in mind when assessing Plutarch as a source). The third paragraph details the fair auguries and good omens which Sulla viewed as he prepared for combat—a particularly auspicious liver from a sacrificed animal and a pair of magical ghost goats fighting! It then offhandedly describes a great miltary victory Sulla won. Plutarch wrote this in 75 AD and the translation is from the pen of no less a poet than John Dryden. I love the passage for its robust color, its fancifulness, and for the window it provides into the long vanished Roman soul:
Since the moon is the closest celestial body to earth and the most easily observed with a telescope, it was a natural place for Herschel to begin his search for extraterrestrials. In a letter to a friend, Herschel described how he believed the craters of the moon were Lunarian cities and dwellings (laid out like the Roman “circus” meaning a large ring):
As upon the Earth several Alterations have been, and are daily, made of a size sufficient to be seen by the inhabitants of the Moon, such as building Towns, cutting canals for Navigation, making turnpike roads &c: may we not expect something of a similar Nature on the Moon? – There is a reason to be assigned for circular-Buildings on the Moon, which is that, as the Atmosphere there is much rarer than ours and of consequence not so capable of refracting and (by means of clouds shining therein) reflecting the light of the sun, it is natural enough to suppose that a Circus will remedy this deficiency, For in that shape of Building one half will have the directed light and the other half the reflected light of the Sun. Perhaps, then on the Moon every town is one very large Circus?…Should this be true ought we not to watch the erection of any new small Circus as the Lunarians may the Building of a new Town on the Earth….By reflecting a little on the subject I am almost convinced that those numberless small Circuses we see on the Moon are the works of the Lunarians and may be called their Towns….Now if we could discover any new erection it is evident an exact list of those Towns that are already built will be necessary. But this is no easy undertaking to make out, and will require the observation of many a careful Astronomer and the most capital Instruments that can be had. However this is what I will begin.
Of course this spectacular misapprehension becomes more comprehensible considering how long it took humanity to understand the nature of craters (it wasn’t until the 1960’s that work by astrogeologist Gene Shoemaker, brought about widespread scientific consensus that craters were caused by impacts). Yet Herschel was so devoted to his Lunarians that he came perilously close to inventing findings. As he carefully scrutinized the moon for other living things night after night, imperfect optics and his yearning for alien life sometimes got the best of him. Here is a drawing of a shadow which he perceived might be a forest.
Herschel did not believe that the moon was the only other sphere to support life–he believed that life could be found on all heavenly bodies which are spherical from self-gravitation. And Herschel really meant all such bodies: in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions in 1795 he speculated about beings living on the sun,
The sun…appears to be nothing else than a very eminent, large, and lucid planet, evidently the first, or in strictness of speaking, the only primary one of our system….Its similarity to the other globes of the solar system …leads us to suppose that it is most probably inhabited …by beings whose organs are adapted to the peculiar circumstances of that vast globe.
Hershel thought that all of the stars in the universe were like the sun—densely habited and supporting an orbiting network of habited worlds. He wrote “since stars appear to be suns, and suns, according to the common opinion, are bodies that serve to enlighten, warm, and sustain a system of planets, we may have an idea of numberless globes that serve for the habitation of living creatures.” Additionally, Herschel believed that the nebula he observed were other “universes” like our own, each containing innumerable stars—all of which were habited. He was wrong in his interpretation of the particular gaseous nebulae he was looking at, but he was quite right about the existence and nature of other galaxies (although this idea was not proved or accepted until the work of Edwin Hubble).
Poor Herschel’s hunches about extraterrestrial life seem quaint to us now. Couched in boyish exuberance and 18th century idioms, they almost seem risible. Yet Herschel was right about exoplanets and about galaxies beyond our own. He seems to have been the only person of his time to begin to apprehend how vast the universe really is. Thanks to the work of many scientists and explorers we can write off life on the moon and (almost certainly) the sun. However, even with our robot probes and our telescopes, the solar system is shockingly unknown. And beyond the solar system, the large exoplanets we currently know about are strange hot giants we did not expect. The preliminary results of the Kepler mission are beginning to trickle in, and they hint at a profusion of planets (and other things) much more heterogeneous and odd than cosmic uniformitarians might expect. If blogging has taught me one thing, it is not to underestimate Sir Frederick William Herschel (a conclusion I hardly anticipated). So while I chuckle about the perfectly circular cities of the lunarians, I am also keeping an open mind about the immense number of unknown worlds.
Also (as I suspect Sir William felt), I am sad about how many things are simply unknowable.
Today is the 1600th anniversary of the sack of Rome by Visigoths under the command of King Alaric (August 24th, 410 AD). For all of its historical import, the sack actually does not seem to have been particularly violent in comparison with other similar events. Alaric had laid siege to Rome twice before and he had been paid off both times with gold, silver, and pepper. When a rival barbarian faction attacked his tribe, he returned to Rome for a third siege to garner funds for an exodus across the Mediterranean. Unexpectedly, a group of slaves threw open the gate to the Via Salaria, an ancient road which connected Rome to the Adriatic. Visigoths poured into the city, but they were, after all, Arian Christians who thought of themselves as Romans. There was minimal rape, murder, and bloodshed. They stripped some of the public buildings of their lavish trappings and ransacked wealthy households and headed off to repopulate Western Africa (at which task they failed–the Visigoths ended up in Spain).
Although hardly a genocide, the event was a watershed moment for classical society. Rome, the center of thought, government, and civilization—the city that had not fallen to an outside enemy for 800 years—was unable to mount a defense against a ragged group of barbarians and vagabonds. St. Jerome, the man of letters who held such influence over Western thought during the dark ages, wrote:” It is the end of the world, I cannot write for the tears.” The Western portion of the Roman Empire, already reeling from centuries of civil war and widespread agricultural crisis, staggered on for a few decades before being cut apart into sundry vassalages (which constituted the seeds of modern European kingdom states).
Frequent readers of this blog will know my interest in the concept of “gothic”. Although the Goths certainly have their own history prior to the sack of Rome, that event enshrined “gothic” as a broader social concept. There have been plenty of barbarian tribes, but when Alaric looted the eternal city, he ensured that the name of his people would remain infamous. A millennium later, Renaissance writers, enthralled with the glories of classical society, used the word “gothic” to describe aspects of the intervening period which seemed old-fashioned, barbaric, cruel, and unenlightened. Vasari used the word to pejoratively describe art and architecture from before Giotto (or from outside Italy). Once “gothic” had become synonymous with “Medieval”, it then came to be associated with gloom, mystery and the grotesque. Victorian writers, scholars, artists, and architects found reason to celebrate these qualities with spooky novels, pre-Raphaelite painting, and creepy mansions. In the contemporary era, “gothic” can mean any of these things or it can be applied to the contemporary goth counterculture movement. But whatever the word means, it always seems to indicate something in opposition to the Greco-Roman, whig-liberal Western norm.
By showing how strange familiar things really are, the electron scanning microscope provides an uncanny window into a hidden realm. To demonstrate this, here are some remarkable portrait photographs of humble fleas taken by various gifted microscopists. In order to obtain these images, the photographers required not only large expensive electron microscopes (and the training to use them), but they also had to kill the fleas, dehydrate the bodies, and then coat the tiny corpses with microscopically thin gold plating! Additionally it is necessary to place such specimens in a vacuum, since air molecules interferes with the electron beam. But all of that preparation was worth it–look at the amazingly expressive flea faces! Each of these characters could be a rapacious nineteenth century huckster, or a wimpy impresario bent on one last gasp of glory. Among all of the insect world, I believe fleas might have the most interesting faces:
Of course even before the electron microscope, artists and illustrators have appreciated fleas’ distinctive personalities. The image above is an illustration from a German children’s book from the nineteen forties which merits inclusion in this portrait gallery because of the detailed face of the tiny flea and because of the strangeness of the image.
The final portrait here (above) is actually a water flea, Daphneia, which came up in my browser as an accident. The water flea is unrelated to the insect fleas portrayed above except in the most cursory way: they are both arthropods. The image was, however, too good to pass up–so I suppose this blog post celebrates intriguing portraits of things called fleas. The water flea scan makes an interesting point about epigenetics–water fleas do not have a crested helmet (like the one in the photo) except when they live in the same ecosystem as tadpole shrimp. Tadpole shrimp can pray on water fleas but find the shrimp with helmet shaped heads frightening or unappetizing.
When I went to Washington every summer as a child, I always visited the National Museum of Natural History, an organization which I still wholeheartedly love. Every year I was fascinated by the tableau above, a (real) human skeleton struggling with a recalcitrant skeletal goat. This curious sculpture commemorates the domestication of the first farm animals. According to the best available archaeological and genetic evidence the first creature to fall under human agricultural sway was indeed Capra aegagrus hircus, the goat.*
To quote K. Kris Hirst, “Archaeological data suggest two distinct places of domestication: the Euphrates river valley at Nevali Çori, Turkey (11,000 bp), and the Zagros Mountains of Iran at Ganj Dareh (10,000).” Genetic evidence has confirmed that modern domestic goats descend from the Anatolian bezoar ibex, Capra aegagrus. The bezoar ibex, or wild goat, lives in flocks of 50 or so individuals (although flocks can become much larger and range up to 500 if conditions are right). It ranges in size from 150 to 300 pounds and can live up to 25 years on just about any sort of vegetation. It goes without saying that wild goats are clever, strong, and nimble (and have long sharp horns jutting from their thick skulls).
Mesolithic hunter/gatherers were nomads who followed wild game and gathered seasonally available berries, seeds, and nuts. It seems likely that the first herders already lived in tandem with goats before becoming herders. I wonder how the hunter gatherers came to realize that they could take over the flocks and make the animals go where they wanted. Whatever provoked the epiphany, these original animal farmers must have had plenty of hard-headed stubbornness in order to subordinate the unruly wild bezoar goats!
By domesticating the goat, they acquired most of the benefits of domesticated animals all at one go. Goat’s milk is delightfully potable and can be made into cheese and yogurt. Goat meat is delicious (and is still the meat most often consumed by a majority the world’s human population). The renewable hair of goats can be woven or spun into textiles, while its hide makes soft and durable leather. The horns and bones of goats are admirable for tool making and decorative arts while its hooves can be made into gelatin or glue. Even dried goat dung can be burned as fuel. The goat also can be trained for draft work and made to pull a sledge, cart, or plough (although this probably wasn’t terribly obvious in a world which lacked grain farming and the wheel).
Although they were the first animals to fall under human agricultural sway, goats have not fallen so deeply under our thrall as most other farm animals. Goat herding remains goat herding—the animals do much better when they have pastures to graze in. To quote Wikipedia, “stall-fed goat rearing involves extensive upkeep and is seldom commercially viable”. So goats are not raised in factory farms like cows, sheep, and poultry. Additionally domestic goats, like their wild forbears, are clever animals with a natural gift for climbing, jumping, and escaping. Feral goats revert quickly to type and can thrive in most environments. There are wild goat populations dotted around the world in places such as Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean Islands, Hawaii, Ireland, Great Britain, California, Indonesia, and the Galapagos (among others).
*I’m not counting dogs: wolves joined up with us many millennia before we domesticated anything else. Our best friends have been with us since the remote depths of the ice age when we were nobodies. They’ll be with us when we blast off for the stars or fall down dead in the toxic dust.
Once again I am shamelessly trying to seize the attention of the internet’s kitty-loving throngs, this time via the unconventional path of Song dynasty artwork. The Song dynasty flowered between 960 AD and 1179AD. It was a great age for China and the great age for Chinese art. Traditional Chinese painting reached its zenith during this time: all subsequent Chinese painters have looked back to Song paintings either for inspiration or in rebellion.
Although Song artists found antecedents in the styles of Five Dynasties Period and the Tang dynasty, they vastly outdid their predecessors. Their age has become synonymous with exquisite deft naturalism. Here an unknown painter from the twelfth century has perfectly captured the likeness of a little tabby kitten. The painting accurately portrays the delicacy, naïve curiosity, and cuteness of a kitten–and yet there is also an ineffable hint of wildness in the animal’s mien which suggests what a fearsome predator a cat can actually be.
One of the most enigmatic Greek divinities is Nyx, the primordial goddess of the Night. In Hesiod’s Theogeny she was a child of Chaos, but, in other texts, Nyx was present at (or before) creation and had no parents. She is rarely mentioned in classical texts, but the few times she does appear are noteworthy. Some of her children include Death (Thanatos), Sleep (Hypnos), Mockery (Momus), Dreams (Morpheus), and the Fates (Moirae)–they represent various slantwise forces which even the Olympian gods are subject to.
Nyx is mentioned in Chapter XIV of Homer’s Illiad, when the sleep god Hypnos refuses to carry out Hera’s bidding. Hypnos describes the past results of putting Zeus to sleep (against Zeus’ will) and relates how his mother saved him:
“Jove was furious when he awoke, and began hurling the gods about all over the house; he was looking more particularly for myself, and would have flung me down through space into the sea where I should never have been heard of any more, had not Night who cows both men and gods protected me. I fled to her and Jove left off looking for me in spite of his being so angry, for he did not dare do anything to displease Night. And now you are again asking me to do something on which I cannot venture.” [Forgive the Roman names—I used the Johnson translation for ease of citation and copying. Also, obviously, Nyx is called “Night” as she is in the rough Aristophanes quote below. I’ll try to find some prettier translations later.]
Nyx is also mentioned in Orphic cult poetry (certain mystery cult poems were attributed to the demigod Orpheus) where she is portrayed as a bird/woman with black wings who first created the universe. She dwells in a cave at the edge of the Cosmos. With her in the eternal darkness is Kronos, Zeus’ father, who was savagely mutilated by his son. Kronos is unconscious, drunk on magical honey, and he mutters prophecies which Nix then chants. Outside the cave is Zeus’ nursemaid, Adrasteia, who acted as mother for the king of the gods during his boyhood. Adrasteia keens and beats a cymbal to Nyx’s chanting and the entire universe subtly moves to the rhythm of her cymbal.
Aristophanes alludes to the Orphic mystery poetry in a chorus from his play “The Birds”. The chorus is sung by birds who have a different take on creation. In their interpretation, night is a bird and they are descended from her via love and chaos. Here is the relevant portion of their song:
…At the start,
was Chaos, and Night, and pitch-black Erebus,
and spacious Tartarus. There was no earth, no heaven,
no atmosphere. Then in the wide womb of Erebus,
that boundless space, black-winged Night, first creature born,
made pregnant by the wind, once laid an egg. It hatched,
when seasons came around, and out of it sprang Love—
the source of all desire, on his back the glitter
of his golden wings, just like the swirling whirlwind.
In broad Tartarus, Love had sex with murky Chaos.
From them our race was born—our first glimpse of the light
not before Love mixed all things up. But once they’d bred
and blended in with one another, Heaven was born,
Ocean and Earth—and all that clan of deathless gods.
Thus, we’re by far the oldest of all blessed ones,
for we are born from Love. There’s lots of proof for this.
We fly around the place, assisting those in love—
[Translation by Ian Johnston]
Although a few small temples and cults to Nyx existed, she was not often worshiped openly in Greece (nor, for that matter, were her children). However Nyx was in the background of many other god’s temples and ceremonies as a statue or a sacred phrase. Around her name and mythos was an impalpable shroud of ambiguity. To the Greeks, Nyx was older and stranger than the gods they cared about and worshiped–she was the first and original outsider.
The eleventh Emperor of the Ming dynasty, the Jiajing emperor, who (mis)ruled China from 1521 to 1567, was a tremendously devout taoist. During the Jiajing reign, Taoist symbolism became omnipresent in art and culture–especially near the end of the emperor’s reign when his fanatical search for immortality began to bring ruin to China. Jiajing porcelain is distinct in that the robust naturalism of earlier Ming blue and white ware is replaced by increasingly fanciful imagery. Cranes, dragons, phoenixes, immortals, and flaming pearls all float through a dreamlike magical world. Sorcerers and magicians frolic happily through scerene forests filled with deer, pine, fungi, and bamboo (all of which are symbols of immortality or longevity). Frilly clouds complete the picture of whimsical abandon. Even the shape of porcelain became more fanciful: to quote the website Eloge de l’Art par Alain Truong, (which contains many fine photographs of Jiajing porcelain, several of which are used here), “The double-gourd is a popular symbol of longevity and is associated with the Daoist Immortal Li Tiegui, who is depicted holding a double gourd containing the elixir of immortality.” The vase at the top of the article, which shows a lighthearted scene of people playing in a garden is double gourd shaped. Here are some additional examples of Jiajing porcelain:
Another lovely blue and white double gourd vase also reflects the Jiajing zeitgeist. On this vase, an auspicious crane flies throught the clouds above a powerful dragon.
This small jar portrays the four Daoist Immortals Li Tieguai, Liu Hai, Hanshan and Shide dancing in a pine forest beneath swirling clouds.
‘Shou’ is the symbol for longevity. This double vase presents numerous shou medallions of various sizes embedded in a matrix of clouds and flames.
I’m going to take a break from the topic of catfishes to post an overview of the lovely and mysterious oarfish. This topic also serves as an appropriate follow-up to a previous post concerning the largest fish ever, for, in the present era, Oarfish are either the longest bony fish in the world or the longest fish outright (depending on the source). The Guinness Book of Records recorded a specimen of the oarfish Regalecus glesne which measured 17 meters (56 feet) long. If correctly recorded, that fish’s length surpassed the length of the largest confirmed whale shark–which was 12.65 metres (41.50 ft) long. However Regalecus glesne specimens more usually measure 11 meters or less. Other species of oarfish do not attain such great sizes: Regalecus russelii usually measures a maximum of 5.5 meters and Agrostichthys parkeri, the streamer fish, seldom exceeds 3 meters.
Oarfish are solitary animals which live deep in the pelagic zone of the ocean (the pelagic zone is the part of the ocean which is neither close to the shore nor to the bottom). They swim through the great open waters of the oceans frequenting depths of about 200 meters–although they lack a swim bladder and may sometimes swim much deeper into the abyssal portions of the ocean. Like many other ocean giants, oarfish are filter feeders and subsist on zooplankton, tiny crustaceans, and the occasional jellyfish, or squid. Because their regular habitat is so remote for humans, oarfish are seldom seen at all (and those that do get spotted are usually sick, dying, or dead). In days before the internet, their rarity provided fodder for tragicomic tales of yokels mistaking them for sea serpents. Oarfish are covered with irregular blue and black squiggles which fade when they die, as does their silver iridescence. In addition to their great length, oarfish are notable for their beautiful red and pink dorsal fins. The first few rays of these fins are very long and give the fish the appearance of wearing a crown (hence the family name Regalecidae—the regal ones). Oarfish obtained their common name from the mistaken belief that they “rowed” through the water using their elongated pelvic fins. The fish actually move by undulating body-length dorsal fins. Six species of oarfish are known to science, although the creatures are so rarely encountered that undiscovered species or genera may exist.
Like many teleosts, oarfish go through a larval stage immediately after they hatch from the egg. During this time the tiny transparent fry possess an appearance greatly different from their adult counterparts. They hunt among the zooplankton which they gobble up with extensible mouths. Nothing is known of how oarfish spawn. It is also not known how long they live or what their habits are in the great blue expanses of the ocean.