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Happy Birthday to Mary Anning (21 May 1799 – 9 March 1847).  Mary’s life was a difficult one.  Her father was a poor cabinet-maker in Lyme Regis (a coastal town in Dorset, England) who supplemented his income by selling strange petrified shells and stone bullets which he pried out of a nearby sea cliff.  Mary’s parents had ten children, but only Mary and her brother survived past early childhood.  Her name was a hand-me-down from an older sister who had burned to death at the age of four.  When Mary was 15 months old, she and three neighbors were under a tree when it was struck by lightning and only Mary survived.  Her father died while Mary and her brother were young and they kept the family afloat by selling curiosities pried from the sea cliffs.  This was dangerous business: Mary’s beloved terrier Tray was crushed in a rockslide (he’s up there sleeping with the ammonites in the painting) and Mary narrowly avoided this fate herself on multiple occasions.  Additionally, living so close to the sea carried further perils: the family nearly drowned from a flood during a great storm.  Mary Anning died of breast cancer at the age of 47.  Her final years were marked by agonizing pain from the condition which she self-treated with laudanum (which caused the community to gossip about her morals).

This is a pretty bleak biography (although in no way atypical for a working-class woman from early industrial Great Britain).  So why are we writing about Mary 172 years after her death anyway? Mary Anning was a great pioneer of paleontology, geology, ichthyology, ecology, and invertebrate zoology.  The luminaries of the English geology community relied on her indomitable fieldwork to frame their conclusions about the history of living things and to stock their museums with specimens. Mary was a religious dissenter and the daughter of a cabinet-maker in an age when geology was the near-exclusive preserve of well-to-do Anglican gentlefolk (the Geological Society of London did not even allow women to attend meetings as guests).  Yet she kept informed of the scientific literature of her day and she dissected fish and invertebrates as to better understand the nature of her excavations and discoveries. Above all, Mary Anning actually discovered the fossils which others wrote about–so she had insights and knowledge which were occluded from armchair scholars. Charles Lyell (the father of geology) wrote to her asking her opinions about cliff erosion.  Mary proposed a theory to William Buckland that some of the fossils she discovered were ingested by ichthyosaurs and the remains excreted (a concept which fascinated Buckland and became the central focus of his work). In a fair world she would have an alphabet of letters after her name and be immortalized as a statue on a plinth beside the statues of Darwin and Lyell.  Even in our fallen world, she is revered as one of the founders of the natural history and life science disciplines (although many biographies about her concentrate on the sad exigencies of her life rather than on the extraordinary discoveries she made, a tradition which I have somewhat followed).

The cliffs which Mary relied on for specimens were part of a geological formation known as the Blue Lias. These layers of limestone and shale were a shallow seabed of the Tethys Ocean during the Jurassic period (about 210–195 million years ago).  The curlicues and stone bullets were fossil ammonites and belemnites, but Mary had a knack for finding the much rarer remains of hitherto unknown creatures such as ichthyosaurs, pterosaurs, plesiosaurs and other ancient marine fauna.

In the early 19th century a debate was raging between learned churchmen who knew for certain that God’s perfect creation could never be diminished and gentlemen geologists who believed that there had once been animals which were gone from earth…”extinct” as they called this new concept.   Mary’s fossils of bizarre giant sea crocodiles and lizard dolphins gave concrete evidence to the ur-paleontologists (who were indeed proven right).  Her discoveries were seminal for the discovery of paleontology itself and paved the way to the understanding that the world’s ecosystems were once very different indeed from what they are like now.   These pieces of knowledge helped towards an understanding of the true age of the Earth and ultimately made Darwin’s discoveries possible.

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Here is another painting of Mary, by the greatest living fish-artist, Ray Troll.  Troll shows Mary with fleshed-out versions of the creatures she discovered (note the ichthyosaur swallowing an ammonite).  We owe an enormous debt to Mary Anning.  Her contributions were under-appreciated in her day (when only the most learned gentleman scientists…and Mary… had inklings of the real nature of natural history and what her super sea-monsters connoted ), but those discoveries undergird our understanding the nature of the planet and of life itself.

 

Today’s news has been quite troubling.  The republic rots from within as grifters and fraudsters the treasury secretary and attorney general ignore Congressional oversight and mere national laws and wholeheartedly dedicate themselves to protecting Dear Leader President Trump’s dirty secrets.  Meanwhile, in even more troubling news, the U.N. released a report projecting the imminent extinction of more than a million species of plants and animals due to human activities.  The decline of our republic makes me so furiously angry that I feel like my teeth will break, but that feeling is nothing compared to the bone deep sadness which I feel contemplating the extinction of so many living things for our frivolous and corrupt economic system.

There is no way I could write about either of these things without spending all day at it (and spending a lot of time screaming at the heavens).  Is this what life is going to be like from here on out? Increasingly emotionally devastating headlines as ever more corrupt figures vie for power and the web of life slowly dies? Almost certainly.

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Please accept my apologies for not publishing the promised Good Friday post when I said I would.  I am afraid I had a spring cold, and was just struggling to get through the day.  Now that it is Easter Sunday, we can put any sort of Jesus-themed artwork we want, though and we don’t have to have a ghastly crucifixion scene.  So behold: this is “Triptych with the Miracles of Christ” by the Master of the Legend of St. Catherine and his (?) workshop.

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The piece is a superb vision of the life and miracles of Jesus…and of day-to-day life in late Medieval Flanders.  It was completed sometime between 1491 and 1495 (and it is worth imagining some team of earnest painters toiling over it at the exact time that Columbus and his crew were making their way across the Atlantic.  There are nearly endless things to see in the picture (like all the endearing and strangely modern pet dogs in the foreground) but I am afraid I could not download a high-res image, so you will have to visit this link if you wish to pore over the composition (and you really should wish for that).  The background is as interesting as the foreground!  Look at this exquisite Flemish city (which also looks strangely modern).

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Anybody interested in Gothic art is mourning today, after a fire gutted Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris, one of the luminous cultural treasures of the world.  The devastation is particularly cruel since it took place during Holy Week.  As I write this, the fire has only just been extinguished and a comprehensive reckoning of what was lost in the flames has not yet emerged (and may not for some time).  It seems likely that the giant ancient pipe organ is lost as is the wooden interior (much of it dating back to the 13th century), and a good deal of the large, immovable religious artwork.  Additionally the mid-19th century spire was completely destroyed. Yet the crown of thorns (a medieval relic which may date back to late antiquity) survived, as did the great church itself.  Like the Frauenkirche of Dresden, Notre Dame will be back. It will have some blackened stones and some new plaques about reproduction and restoration. It will be missing some irreplaceable artwork, yet it will be restored to full heart-lifting beauty.

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The Seine and Notre Dame in Paris, (1864, Johann Jongkind) Oil on canvas

The cathedral sits on the site of two previous churches, which themselves were built over the ruins of a temple to Jupiter (which is a reminder that nothing is immutable).  Commissioned in 1163 by King Louis VII, the great cathedral took nearly two centuries to build and it was not completely finished until 1345.  Hopefully reconstruction will not take so long.  940.jpg

 

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Messier 87 (M87) Galaxy

Messier 87 is a strange and extraordinary galaxy.  For one thing it was discovered and named in 1781…even though the nature of galaxies (and the fact that there are more than one such “island universes” was not understood until 1923).  Messier 87 was discovered by the great Charles Messier who was cataloging weird celestial blobs that could confuse comet hunters.   The galaxy lies near the center of the Virgo supercluster of which our own lovely (albeit provincial) galaxy, the Milky Way, is a part. Formed by the merger of multiple galaxies, M87 is huge and contains more than a trillion stars–4 times the number of stars in the Milky Way.  Additionally M87 is surrounded by more than 12,000 globular clusters (the Milky Way has perhaps 200 of these miniature satellite galaxies).  Whereas the spiral Milky Way is “blue and new” with ample quantities of hydrogen to form new stars, the globular Messier 87 is “red and dead”: new star formation has slowed and the great elipsoid mass of stars is slowly dying (insomuch as galaxies can be said to live to begin with).  The stars visible now are mostly middle aged main sequence stars or tiny long-lived red dwarves (tiny for stars…still not something you could pick up and put in your hatchback).

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47 million year old Adapidae fossil from Germany

Messier87 is approximately 53 million light years away.  The light that we can observe from it today originated during the Eocene, when the first little primates evolved on Earth and those photons have been streaking toward us through the great emptiness at 300,000 kilometers per second since when our direct ancestors were anxious lemur-squirrel guys staring pensively up at the stars.

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A artist’s conception of such a black hole

The center of this monstrous astronomical entity is a  supermassive black hole 6.5 billion times the mass of the sun (for reference, the sun is 333,000 times the mass of Earth–so this black hole has the mass of 2,164,500,000,000,000 Earths). A horrifying & beautiful relativistic jet of ionised matter 1.5 kiloparsecs (5000 light years) long is emerging from the black hole.

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Why do I bring this up?  Because we photographed the black hole!  This is the first time we have accomplished such a feat.  You can read about the esoteric details of how astronomers achieved such a thing by clicking on today’s Google Doodle (so I guess today’s blog post will not be a completely original/unique subject),  I suspect you have seen the picture already. Yet even the eye-of-Sauron glory of this image (which was taken by a pan-global network of radio telescopes) does not exactly capture the scale of the black hole.  My imagination is equiped for may things, but is not really much good for processing numbers bigger than a few thousand.  The diameter of this black hole is roughly approximate to the orbit of Uranus and it has the mass of a small galaxy.  So I guess keep that in mind when looking at the little orange eye. Now I am going to go lie down and hold my pet cat.

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Porch ceilings in the American South are traditionally a pale blue green and they have been for centuries (which is amazing since our nation has barely even been around that long).  The evocative name of this traditional color is “haint blue” and the roots stretch back to before the revolution when pigments choices were limited.  In the Gullah culture of low country South Carolina (a culture created out of West African tradition, colonial greed, New World wetlands, tropical disease, and rice), blue was a special color which was anathema to spirits or “haints.”  According to tradition, ghosts either thought it was the sky (problematic) or running water (impassable) and left it alone.  There was plenty of indigo pigment to tint the whitewash, and so doors, casements, window frames, and ceilings all became haint blue.  And even robust materialists inured by reason against the perils of the supernatural can still agree it is a lovely & calming hue.

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But the use of haint blue didn’t stop along the Florida and South Carolina coast.  The tradition was admired and emulated throughout the south, and it has even continued to spread beyond North of the Mason Dixon Line and west of the Mississippi in the modern era.  I wish I had the time to select a whole “Southern Living” pictorial spread of exquisite southern porches (for, although we are better off without the ways of the old South, those porches are delightful and should be adopted everywhere), but I think these pictures convey the idea.

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Do you remember when “Thriller” came out?  It was electrifying. A gifted young man who can dance and sing extremely well transforms into a nightmarish predatory monster before our eyes.

Alas, that turns out to have been the actual life story of Michael Jackson, who has been back in the news a decade after his death, because an HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland” has circled around to shine an unsavory light on the entertainer’s  misdeeds.  People are honestly shocked by the horrifying abuse described by Jackson’s now grown-up victims.  This in turn is shocking, because we pretty much knew all of this back in the early nineties…and then society just sort of shrugged and moved on.  It turns out Jackson was simply rich enough and beloved enough (then) to groom and rape children at his weird palace.

What happened?  How did the authorities and everyone else mess up so badly?

Obviously, the main problem was Michael Jackson himself, who may have had his own demons, but actively chose to commit these horrible crimes.  The remaining blame is nugatory in the face of this prime culpability, but, until there are no more molesters,we must look to society to stop them.

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There is plenty of blame to be portioned onto the police and courts who must surely have been able to see what was going on but were unable to bring Jackson down. Likewise we can blame all of Jackson’s enablers who were making money off of him.  We can blame the families of the victims who were clearly benefiting in ways which made them close their eyes.

A huge portion of blame belongs to our twisted society which worships celebrities and will let them get away with anything.  Why is this?  I feel like if we are going to give celebrities infinite license like they are ancient Celtic godkings, we need to finish the deal and sacrifice them in a wicker man or drown them in a bog after a set period of time (although it could be argued that this is exactly what happened to Jackson).

Anyway all of these things problems, but they are difficult to address so I am choosing to vent my spleen at something we could possibly change: non-disclosure agreements.  Apparently the estate of Michael Jackson has been making noise about suing his victims for what they said in the documentary because back in the day they (or their guardians???) signed non-disclosure agreements about all of this in exchange for astronomical sums of money.  Non-disclosure agreements are the same ilk of restrictive restrictive covenants as non-compete agreements which we find depressing national wages because they prohibit flunkies from jumping from one employer to another.

These are obviously a tool by which the strong abuse the week and flout the law. They are restrictive covenants. They make people into slaves in exchange for money. How is everyone fine with this?

Let’s get rid of these things.  There is no reason any non-disclosure agreement anywhere should be binding in any capacity to anyone unless one of the parties is the Federal Government of the United States.  Congress should proclaim that all other NDAs are instantly void forever and all of their terms and conditions are dissolved.

As always, important processes and technical know-how would be protected by patents.  Creative work would be protected by copyrights. Truly important matters of national security would remain the purview of the vast canon of laws and procedures which govern such things (although if we have Jared Kushner snapchatting and whatsapping our national secrets to his Kremlin handlers maybe we could stand to freshen up those protocols too).

All of the victims of pop stars and crummy billionaires can tell their stories to the police and to the press.  People can leave Burger King to work for a nickel an hour more at Arby’s.  We can’t stop the next Michael Jackson unless we stop worshiping these people, but maybe we can make it impossible for survivors of sexual abuse to be abused again by restrictive covenants.  They can get huge payouts the old-fashioned American way–with lawsuits!

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We are living in a glorious new era of super marketing. Usually the results of this are rather hideous: our livelihoods are hostage to “keyword position metrics” and “analytic toolbars”.  Every day the press is filled with histrionic drivel about threats which are statistically unlikely to hurt us (but which clearly drive hits). Yet there is a silver lining of a sort: in order to keep people’s attention, quotidian phenomena are being lavished with grandiloquent new names (or old poetic names which have been rediscovered and given new prominence).  Speaking of which, don’t forget to check out tonight’s spring equinox super worm moon!

These days, the full moon on each month is given a sobriquet which is reputedly derived from ancient Native American lore. Here is a table of these names:

January: Wolf moon

February: Snow Moon

March: Worm Moon

April: Pink Moon

May: Flower Moon

June: Strawberry Moon

July: Buck Moon

August: Sturgeon Moon

September: Corn Moon

October: Hunter’s Moon

November: Beaver Moon

December: Cold Moon

Now I don’t remember any of this from when I was growing up (although this is possibly because I was playing Pacman rather than hunting migratory elk).  The first time I remember hearing anything like this was in Disney’s “Pocahontas”.  Yet the names have an obvious and evocative allure which speak to ancient annual rhythms.

The “Worm Moon” of March is called that because the ground softens and worms start to appear  (although, come to think of it, the pinkish brown earthworms we all know so well are actually comparatively recent Eurasian invaders), but I like to imagine that it is the WORM moon when Lord Nergal, the God of Pestilence decides whether to winnow the overpopulated Earth.  Or perhaps it is the Wyrm Moon, when dragons come out of their winter eyries in the south and fly off to their accustomed fantasy realms…

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Ahem. At any rate, tonight marks an unusual occasion when the vernal equinox occurs at the same time the moon is full and at its perigee.  This will be the final super moon of 2019 so go outside and enjoy it while you drink traditional spring spirits and discuss beautiful nomenclature.

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The Euthydikos Kore, ca. 500 BCE

I have been fretting about the post I wrote last week concerning the polos, a minimally-adorned cylindrical crown which was worn by certain goddesses of the Greek pantheon.  One of several mysteries about the polos is how it went from being normal (?) feminine headwear of the Mycenaean world to something worn only by goddesses from the 5th century onward.  Mycenaean civilization was swept away by cataclysm around 1100 BC.  The 5th century occurred in, um, the 5th century BC. So was anybody wearing these things during the intervening 600 years? It is as though one noted that Western women of the early 15th century AD wore hennins but nobody wears them now except for magical fairytale beings (which, come to think of it, is completely true).

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There is no fashion guide of Archaic Greek ladies’ style to answer this question, but we do have a mighty trove of data in the form of korai statues.  The kore was a sort of idealized statue of a perfect Greek maiden wearing heavy draperies and an enigmatic empty smile (“kourai” is the plural of the word “kore” which means “maiden”).  There are many of these statues in existence, since the Greeks apparently presented them to great temples as a sort of religious tribute (and as a status competition between leading citizens).  Additionally the statues were esteemed by collectors of subsequent ages so they didn’t suffer the same level of destruction as some other sorts of statues from two-and-a-half-millenia ago.

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Kore of Lyons (540s BC, Athens)

Unfortunately, contemporary classics and art scholars have some big unanswered questions about the korai statues.  Were they meant to represent goddesses outright?  Some kore statues have garb or items which were later regarded as symbolic of divinity (like the polos, as seen in the “Kore of Lyons” above).   Yet, the statues have a somewhat different tone than votive statues of the proud goddesses of ancient Greece.  They are softer and less assertive than the goddess statues and, even though the korai represent perfect female beauty as construed by an Archaic-era Greek sculptor, the statues are less concerned with fertility and nudity than are goddess statues.  Perhaps they are statues of a transitional goddess such as Persephone or Semele (both of whom had mortal aspects).  Another school of thought holds that they are divine attendants which embody general maidenly ideals–as would a group of priestesses or votaries.  This explains why they sometimes have divine accoutrements but lack more specific iconography or identification.  There is also a school of thought that the statues are simply “maidens” from a time when the more rigorous traditions of the Greco-Roman pantheon were coalescing.

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So I have failed to answer any questions about the polos (maybe there is a reason nobody talks about these things), however we have looked at some lovely statues from a looooong time ago and we have learned something about the figurative sculpture of Archaic Greece in the era leading up to the Golden Age.   This in turn is relevant, because the Kourai (and their male counterparts the kouros/kouroi statues) are arguably the main antecedent to Western figurative sculptural arts.  European Sculptors have lingered for long centuries in the shadow of Ancient Greece.  Whatever these statues are, we are indebted to them.

 

 

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Figure of Ceres with a Polos on her head (2nd century A.D, Roman)bronze

Greco-Roman civilization featured many objects and icons which are instantly familiar to us today.  We know all about cornucopias, tridents, and the fasces (Hey! Why are those on the official seal of the U.S. Senate, anyway?).  Yet other common symbols from that world are perplexing to us today–like the lituus which represented augury in classical mythology.  Today’s post features a symbol which may or may not have made sense to the Greeks and Romans, but which was instantly understood in the context of their religion—the polos.  The polos was a cylindrical crown worn by goddesses of supreme importance: Rhea, Hera, Demeter, Aphrodite, and Artemis (though not Athena, apparently), however it was seemingly not worn by queens or high status women in the real world after the 5th century.   We know what it looked like, but we are perplexed as to what it was made of (insomuch as it was an object of the physical world at all).

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Archaeological finds from the Mycenaean era (1600BC-1200BC) indicate that living women of the ancient palace kingdoms of Greece and Crete once wore these headdresses. You can see a polos above on a Mycenaean figure—yet by the classical Greek era, these do not seem to be worn in the real world.

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Examples from statues of Cybele and Rhea make it seem almost as though it was woven or carved out of some organic material.  Perhaps the Polos was a symbol of fertility and abundance (which would expliain why the virginal Artemis of Ephesus wears such a thing yet the virginal Athena does not.

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Artemis of Ephesus. Statue from the Amphitheater of Lepcis Magna

It is possible that the polos was a cultural object which came into Greece from the near east (there are certainly equivalent crowns in Mesopotamian and Persian art) and existed in religion but not in common culture (Christianity is filled with such symbols, when you think about it).  However it seems more likely to me that the polos was important to the Greeks because it was ancient and mysterious.  It had the same place in their culture that their gods and symbols do in ours—a venerable symbol of otherworldly power

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Seated Aphrodite wearing a high polos (4th century B.C.) terracotta

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