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Let’s talk about the First Punic War, the great contest for the Mediterranean between Rome and Carthage with rulership of the known world as the prize. The Punic war was a battle between a lion and a whale—the Romans were peerless at fighting on land, whereas the Carthaginians had unrivaled skill as sailors. To win the war, the Romans had to learn to sail, and they spent enormous sums of money building a fleet. Unfortunately, having a fleet is not the same as knowing how to sail and, in 255 BC, after an unsuccesful invasion of Africa, the whole war fleet was sent to the bottom by an enormous storm (along with the 90,000 sailors and soldiers aboard). This was a disheartening setback, but the Romans weren’t going to give in so easily: they built a second fleet and placed it under the command of Publius Claudius Pulcher.
Pulcher decided to launch a sneak attack on the Carthaginian fleet which was at anchor in the harbor of Drepana. He had the element of surprise on his side, but he also had a problem—chickens!
The Romans were great believers in reading auspices before battles. The most important of these auspices came from the sacred chickens which were kept aboard the fleet flagship. If the sacred chickens ate their grain on the morning of combat, the day would be a martial success. On the morning in 249 BC when Pulcher was moving his ships into position to sweep unexpectedly into Drepana the chickens were decidedly not peckish. To the frustration of Pulcher (and to the superstitious horror of the crews of his 120 quinqueremes), the chickens refused to eat anything at all. Pulchher’s augurs suggested he abort the battle.
But Pulcher was not about to let some poultry ruin his chance for everlasting glory. He took fate in hand and he took the chickens in hand too…and then he threw them overboard. “If they will not eat, let them drink!” he said. The sacred chickens drowned and Pulcher’s fleet proceeded to take the Carthaginians unaware…except the Carthaginians were not unaware. They were expecting something and they weighed anchor in record time and escaped the harbor. Pulcher ordered his fleet into battle formation, but the Carthaginian navy of 100 boats was better at maneuvering, and the sharp rocks of Sicily were behind him. By the end of the day, the Romans lost 93 of their 120 ships. The Carthaginians did not lose a single ship in the Battle of Drepana. Forty thousand Romans perished. It is one of history’s most lopsided naval disasters.
Pulcher survived the battle, but maybe he should have followed the chickens into the waves. The Roman senate convicted him of blasphemy and sentenced him to exile. Thus ended his political and military career. The terrible losses at Drepana broke Roman naval morale utterly, and for seven years they stayed ashore, arguing about whether it was even worth it to rule the world. But of course, in the end, the Romans were not quitters and they built a third fleet. I guess the lesson of this story of ancient naval battle is to never give up. However pantheists (or chicken lovers) might draw different conclusions.
A century ago the Battle of Verdun was taking place. This was a battle between the French and the German armies during World War I which began on February 21st 1916 and lasted until the 18th of December 1916. It is famous for being one of the worst battles ever: a complete catastrophe where poor leadership, innate human savagery, and industrial warfare combined to destroy countless lives.
The battle started when the German high command abandoned its attempt to smash through the French lines and achieve a quick victory (the central plan of their war efforts up that point). Instead the German generals felt that they could “bleed the French to death” in a costly war of attrition if they attacked in such a place that the French could not retreat from for reasons of pride and necessity. They chose to attack an ancient fortress on the Meuse River–Verdun. The town had a long history of war. Attila the Hun’s armies were driven back at Verdun in the Fifth Century AD. The town traded place between France and The Holy Roman Empire in the Dark Ages. There was also a modern fortress there, although it had been denuded somewhat of weapons at the beginning of the war (because it was not thought to be of high strategic importance).
The Germans built ten train lines (and twenty new stations) to quickly provision the battle. Yet the French had done a better job of (re)fortifying the area on short notice than the Germans had expected and the German attempt to seize advantageous tactical positions was not entirely successful. But the battle had begun. The German meatgrinder began to pulverize the reserves of the French army.
As it turned out, the German generals were proven right: the French army refused to retreat or surrender. They remained in place and defended Verdun at a terrible cost. However there was a second part of the German strategy which the Field Marshalls had initially overlooked: it turned out that for reasons of pride and necessity, the German army could not retreat or surrender either. The huge modernized armies armies were trapped locked together in a few square kilometers for 11 months. During that time they fired 10,000,000 shells at each other: a total of 1,350,000 long tons of high explosives and shrapnel. The new weapons of the day—poison gas, flamethrowers, grenades, airplanes, and machine guns all made frequent appearances.
Spent shell casings at Verdun
I cannot give you a blow by blow account of the battle. More than a million men attacked and counter attacked again and again and again. You can read a synopsis online, or look up the details in one of the many books about Verdun.
What we can say is that Verdun was a nightmare of mud and mechanized death. The year was wet and the local clay quickly became a treacherous landscape of mud filled with war debris and human waste and remains. Trenches and shell holes became slimy drowning pits filled with barbed wire and metal shards. The living and the dead alike rotted in place as millions of shells rained down along with the ever-present rain.
Historians disagree on the full cost of Verdun, but total casualties (men seriously wounded to the point they were lastingly removed from combat) for both armies numbered between 750,000 and 960,000. An appallingly high number of these casualties were men killed outright. There were tens of thousands of combatants who went missing in action and have never returned.
During the Battle of Verdun, the French army came perilously close to coming apart entirely. Desertions began to run high (though deserters who were caught were summarily executed by firing squad for cowardice). Men went mad and became completely unhinged. Antoine Prost wrote, “Like Auschwitz, Verdun marks a transgression of the limits of the human condition” A French officer who was there (and who died there before the battle ended) wrote ” Hell cannot be so terrible.”
The battlefield today (still scars upon the land)
And in the end the result of the internecine battle was…stalemate. Both sides lost more than they could afford and neither gained a real advantage (although strategists grudgingly grant victory to France for not breaking). The war moved on—soon an equally large battle was taking place at the Somme 125 miles to the Northwest. At any rate there was a second battle of Verdun in summer of 1917…not to mention a whole second world war a generation later.
Katsushika Hokusai is probably Japan’s most famous artist. His woodblock print of a wave breaking in the foreground with Mount Fuji in the background is almost universally known and has been reproduced everywhere (and his erotic print of two octopuses dallying with a nude pearl diver is almost as famous). Today however, we feature one of his woodblock prints about drama at a smaller scale. A snake and a pheasant are engaged in a mortal battle beside a canna flower. I will let the swirling, slashing drama of the composition speak for itself and only add that the snake is a mamushi (Gloydius blomhoffii) a highly venomous pit viper of Japan. Pheasants generally eat snakes, but the contest does not seem to be going that way in this tableau and the sinister mamushi seems to be gaining the upper hand.
A billhook is a sort of agricultural/forestry tool which was used for pruning vines, fruit trees, and shrubs. It consisted of a heavy blade which twisted into a cruel sharpened steel hook (like a parrot’s bill), all of which was, in turn, attached to a wooden handle—or sometimes to a long staff for pruning hard to reach branches. At some point in the late middle ages, it was noted that this alarming tool could be used to prune a wider range of targets than just unruly fruit trees: suddenly the billhook evolved into a sinister polearm (admittedly, the Chinese had some similar cavalry hooks, but we are talking about the European/English bill in this article).
The bill was a powerful weapon with the range of a spear and the brute chopping power of an axe. It could be used like a pike to stop a cavalry charge (or hack/stab swordsmen before they reached the wielder) it also had a hook to snatch horsemen from their mounts or take enemy combatants’ legs out from beneath them.
The bill came to prominence in the 14th and 15th centuries as the Middle Ages waned. Soldiers using bills were called billmen and usually wore chainmail or plate armor. Often they also wore sallets, the helmets of the day, which could be open faced or have visors. Generally billmen also were attired with colorful tabards over their armor (often with all sorts of heraldic emblems) and bright tights or leggings. High status soldiers would have big dyed feathered plumes on their helmets. These were some impressive & flamboyant foot soldiers!
In continental Europe the early 16th centuries saw armies moving towards the pike and the arquebus (a sort of nightmarish early musket), however the English preferred to rely on the rapid fire of their hallowed longbow. And for infantry, they still favored bills over pikes—a choice which turned out to be a good one. In the Battle of Flodden, which occurred in 1513, an army of approximately 26,000 English billmen chopped apart a larger army of Scottish pikemen. The Scottish king, James IV was hacked apart right along with his soldiers and was the last monarch of the British Isles to die in glorious combat (so far).
Sometime in the early 1980’s my family got its first computer–the amazing Apple II. Although making bespoke cards for grandma on the daisywheel printer and struggling unsuccessfully with the grammar of DOS was exciting, nothing about the high-tech wonder was as thrilling as the promise of epic medieval adventure! Somehow, I obtained a pirate copy of Ultima II and soon I was off to save the minimally rendered realm!
Unfortunately, as a computer pirate, I lacked a map or any instructions, and my piteous little pixelated knight died naked and unarmed many a time before I finally figured out how to enter a town and haggle with a virtual arms dealer. Then, with my meager stock of gold, I was able to purchase a bargain level mace…but I had no idea what that was.
“What’s mace?” I asked my mother.
“It is a spice used for fancy cookies” she responded. However, after giving away my precious 3 GP for such a thing, I was entirely unsatisfied with the answer.
“No, it’s supposed to be a weapon. I want to know about mace the weapon!” I desperately begged.
“Hmm, I guess it’s also a sort of spray that women use to fend off muggers.”
The graphics of Ultima II relied heavily on the power of imagination: combat was rendered as a momentary glowing halo, but the finer details of carnage (and weaponry) were not pictured. As I imagined my fearless warrior spraying pepper spray in the eyes of marauding orcs, the joy of the game was greatly diminished. I nearly gave up on role-playing games altogether before I remembered the huge and fraying Webster’s unabridged dictionary (the ultimate vessel of human knowledge in those dim pre-internet days when we lived far from any library or bookstore).
Webster’s saved my faith in computerized role-playing games: it turns out a mace is a war club, typically with spikes or flanges (as well as also being a “rod of office”…and a spice…and a spray). In fact the primitive brutality of the concept has appealed to humankind for a long, long time. Some of the most ancient weapons from the palace-cities of Mesopotamia are maces, and, as our mastery of materials improved, so too did our spiked clubs.
Although it has been a long time since I saved the world from the wicked sorceress Minax (or even played any computer game at all), my love of all things gothic remains unabated. Here therefore is a gallery of fancy gothic maces which should satisfy any eldritch death knight or priggish paladin.
I must say they look quite formidable! My ten year old self would have been delighted to know how scary and pretty the mace could be. But the years have mellowed me greatly. Now I might be tempted to try baking some of those fancy spice cookies and offering them to the orcs first….
Wyandottes are a classic American breed of chicken which first appeared in Wisconsin in the years following the Civil War. They are known for their winter hardy nature (thanks to short rose combs), their brown eggs, and their showy feathers. They are a dual purpose breed farmed both for meat and eggs.
Wyandottes are supposed to be a docile breed, but things don’t always go as planned. My parents obtained a straight batch of silver lace Wyandotte chickens via post, in order to restock their farm with chickens (“straight batch” means that the gender of the chicks was not determined by a trained chicken sexer—a highly experienced but deeply unlucky professional who determines whether chicks are male or female by, um, squeezing them). Because of the luck of the draw my parents obtained a surfeit of male chicken, which, in the course of adolescence, turned into roosters and set out to fight each other for absolute dominance. For a while, the farmyard became a miniature reenactment of ‘Highlander” with desperate roosters fighting to the death everywhere. In the meantime the inexperienced adolescent Wyandottes became the favorite prey for foxes, owls, hawks, and weasels which infiltrated the poultry yard from the surrounding forests and grabbed the distracted fowl.
The Wyandottes had beautiful plumage, but by the time a single rooster emerged as the sole male survivor of their insane battle rayale, the flock was sadly attenuated. Worse yet, the rooster (whom my parents whimsically named “Rooster Cogburn” after the movie character) had been rendered insane by PTSD and dark memories of dueling. It was only a short while until Rooster Cogburn brutally slashed my mother (either to protect his hens, or, more likely, because he was unable to differentiate other living things from rival roosters). This in turn aggrieved my father who grabbed a pair of electric shears and snipped the rooster’s fighting spurs. Rooster Cogburn vanished shortly afterwards, presumably a victim of the many creatures with glowing eyes who live in the woods.
I would have to say that Wyandotte chickens are very pretty (and good at egg laying) but they are not always the ideal chickens for southeastern Ohio. My parents switched over to buff Orpington chickens (large delicious-looking yellow-orange chickens from Southeastern London) which are bigger, prettier, and have a gentler temprament, and the state of affairs in the poultry yard has greatly improved.
The largest body of fresh water in China is Lake Poyang in Jianxi Province. The size of the lake fluctuates tremendously between the wet season when the lake’s surface area is 4400 square kilometers and the dry season when it shrinks down to 1000 square kilometers. So every year Lake Poyang shrinks from being the size of Utah’s Great Salk Lake into being the size of Lake Champlain. Lake Poyang is the southern wintering ground of a huge number of migratory birds. It is also the site of what was reputedly the world’s largest naval battle. The north side of the lake is treacherous to navigate and it is said that more than 100 ships have vanished there in the past hundred years. There is a temple on the northern shore of the lake named Laoye Miao (temple of the Old Fellow) and locals call the waters near the temple the “death area” and the “demon horns” because so many ships are lost in that area.
Lake Poyang did not always exist. In 400 AD it was an inhabited plain along the Gan River, however when the Yangtze River switched courses the entire plain flooded. Located halfway along the Yangtze, the lake has great strategic importance.
In the middle of the fourteenth century, the Yuan dynasty had lost control of China. Various groups of rebels fought each other to seize the throne of heaven. By summer of 1363 AD there were two main contenders for control of China, Zhu Yuanzhang, the charismatic but ugly leader of the red turbans, and Chen Youliang, the king of Duhan which controlled the most powerful fleet on the Yantze. The former had a smaller force of maneuverable ships while the latter had greater numbers of men (Chen’s navy was believed to have had more than 600,000 men) and a large number of huge tower boats—literal floating fortresses. The total number of combatants on the lake is reckoned to have numbered over 850,000 men.
Unfortunately for Chen Youliang, the battle started as the lake began to dry out. To prevent the dauntless troops of Zhu Yuanzhang from scaling the tower boats with hooks and ladders, Chen ordered his boats to hold close formation, but this turned out to be ruinous since Zhu launched fire boats into the consolidated line. Hundreds of thousands of sailors died in the horrible fiery battle, and Zhu Yuangzhang went on to found the Ming dynasty, one of China’s greatest dynasties.
Over the centuries, the lake itself kept claiming ships at an astonishing rate. Some of the stories are quite colorful. In 1945 a Japanese ship loaded with plundered treasure sank almost instantly, drowning all 200 sailors and a large treasure. A team of Japanese divers attempted to salvage the wreck but all the divers drowned except for the expedition leader who went permanently insane. After the war, several members of an American team also drowned. On just one day, August 3rd, 1985, thirteen ships foundered or sank.
Some people have tried to ascertain what makes the lake so treacherous. Some experts believe that a huge sunken sandbank tends to cause whirlpools and unexpected currents. Local legend is more inventive. According to myth, an immense capricious turtle lives beneath the lake. Although the turtle often sinks ships, he can also be benevolent. The story of how the Laoye Miao temple came to be built is that the turtle intervened in the great naval battle of 1368 by directly rescuing Zhu Yuangzhang. When Zhu took the title of Hongwu emperor he returned and built the temple to the ancient turtle.Although boats are still vanishing today, it is a less bigger problem than the vanishing of the lake itself. The migratory birds are relentlessly poached and the river fish are going extinct from overfishing and industrial waste. A more direct threat comes from the great three gorges dam upstream on the Yangtze. Because of the immense dam the lake appears to be drying out, and in January of 2012 it only had a surface area of 200 square kilometers. If the situation continues, the enigmatic and treacherous lake may go back to being a dry plain like it was in 400 AD.
In Norse folklore the universe was envisioned as Yggdrasil an immense tree with roots and branches winding through many different worlds and realms. An immense serpent, Níðhöggr, forever gnawed at the roots of the tree thus threatening to bring the entire universe down– however Níðhöggr was not the only gigantic serpent in the Norse pantheon.
Between the chthonic roots of the tree and its lofty branches (at ground level, as it were) lay the world of humankind, called Midgard. Midgard was protected by the gods and, to a lesser extent, by humankind, from the ice giants who were always attacking and from Loki, the strange trickster god, who was forever plotting. Loki knew the ice giantess, Angrboða, and together the pair had three children. One was Hel, who went down to icy Niflheim to rule over the damned and lost (our word “Hell” comes from her name and her realm). Another was Fenris Wolf, the all-devouring giant wolf who was chained by magic fetters to an immense stone thrust deep into the roots of Yggrasil. The last of the three children of Loki and Angrboða was Jörmungandr, a colossal sea serpent also known as the Midgard Serpent. When Odin perceived how quickly the serpent was growing, he cast it into ocean which the Norse believed ringed the whole world. There the serpent grew to colossal size, eventually surrounding the entire world and swallowing its tail. In some ways the monster became synonymous with the world-girding ocean.
Jörmungandr is ever opposed by the god Thor. Twice the two met in the Norse mythical canon. The first time, Thor was fooled into thinking the world-sized ocean monster was a large indolent housecat (it should be noted that Thor was not only drinking heavily but also being magically fooled by a trickster king of the Jötnar). Despite using all his divine strength, Thor was unable to lift the cat off the floor and only managed to heft one paw up for a moment. The seemingly trivial feat of strength was revealed as more impressive when the nature true of the cat was manifested (the entire story is a very amusing one). Thor again encountered the serpent when he was fishing for monsters with the giant Hymir. Thor had struck the head off the great ox belonging to the giant in order to catch two whales. Against Hymir’s protests, the two proceeded farther out to sea, towards the edge of the world. Thor hooked the Midgard serpent and dragged the creature’s head to the surface. The monster’s fanged mouth was dripping with poison and blood and it was moving towards the boat to finish the two off. Before Thor could lift his hammer to kill the serpent (or the serpent could devour the two fishermen), Hymir cut the line and the creature escaped.
Thor is slated to encounter the monster one last time at Ragnarök. When the last battle comes, the serpent will swim towards land poisoning everything it touches and causing huge tidal waves. This will be the signal for Naglfar to sail, bringing the hordes of walking dead back to the world of the living. Thor will finally fight the serpent and, after a great battle, the thunder god will triumphantly kill the mighty creature. Thor will then walk nine steps before dying from his poisoned wounds as the mortally wounded Fenris Wolf swallows the sun and the world comes to an end.
The White Crown of Upper Egypt, known as the Hedjet, traces its roots deep into prehistory. The first representations of the tapered bulb-shaped headdress occur in Nubia around 3500–3200 BC. It is unclear how the White Crown subsequently became the preferred headdress of Egyptian (as opposed to Nubian) rulers–perhaps Nubians conquered Upper Egypt or vice versa early in prehistory–but the crown appears frequently in predynastic iconography from Upper Egypt. The white crown was an emblem of Hedjet, the white vulture goddess of Upper Egypt and she is sometimes portrayed wearing it. Osiris, lord of the underworld is also frequently portrayed in the white crown (albeit in a special priestly version adorned with feathers).
It is unclear when the Red Crown of Lower Egypt (the Deshret) first came into use but it seems to have been a familiar device by the era of the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt around the 31st century BC and it is entirely possible that it traces its origin to some point centuries before that. It is unfortunate that we don’t know more about the origin of the Red Crown because its form is meant to mimic that of a honey bee with the strange red wire curl representing the bee’s proboscis. A bee’s sting was nothing compared with the Red Crown’s other animal association: Wadjet the cobra goddess of Lower Egypt is often portrayed wearing the red crown (which looks very fetching on her hooded head).
The two crowns are first seen together on the Narmer palette (from the 31st century BC) which commemorates the unification of Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt under King Narmer of Upper Egypt. Subsequent to the unification of the two lands, the two crowns are also sometimes shown unified as the Pschent, the Double Crown of Egypt.
Although both the White Crown and the Red Crown are well known images which reoccur throughout ancient Egypt’s 3000 year history, archaeologists and excavators have never found a single example of either one. We don’t even know how they were made. It has been speculated that the original white crown may have been woven of green papyrus and the original red crown may have been made of copper, but this is only speculation. They may have been constructed of felt or leather or something else entirely.
There was a third crown worn by pharaohs, the Blue Crown known as Khepresh. The Blue Crown was originally a battle crown and may have actually doubled as a helmet. It was blue leather or cloth with gold disks. The first pharaoh depicted wearing the blue crown was Amenhotep III of the XVIII dynasty (who ruled from 1380’s to the 1360’s). The Blue Crown became popular during Egypt’s age of empire when some pharaohs were always depicted with the battle crown, but it fell from favor after the conquest of Egypt by Cushites during the XXV dynasty.
In Greek myth the Titan Cronus, was ruler the heavens and king of the gods prior to the ascent of Zeus. Cronus ruled over the golden age of humankind when suffering was unknown and death was but a gentle dream. Yet there was a darkness behind the reign of Cronus, a terrible stain upon the sickle which was his emblem. Even while Cronus ruled heaven, he knew that he would end as a maimed wretch cast down into the underworld. A dread augury had revealed that he would fall at the hands of a son more powerful than he–and his personal history convinced him the prophecy was sooth.
Cronus was the most powerful son of Uranus, the original god of the primordial heavens. At the beginning of all things Uranus ruled as king of the gods and the firmament–but Uranus was displeased by the Hekatonkheires, hundred handed monsters born to him by his spouse Gaia. Despite Gaia’s pleas, Uranus imprisoned these monstrous sons in the dark prison of Tartaros. Incensed by the haughtiness of her spouse, Gaia crafted a great flint sickle from her own bones. Only Cronus had sufficient ambition, nerve, and cruelty to wield the sickle. He ambushed Uranus and cut him into bloody pieces. Gods and monsters were born of the hewn apart body of Uranus. Unfortunately for Gaia’s plans, Cronus saw no reason to free the Hekatonkheires, the Cyclops (one eyed monsters), or the other “undesirables” Uranus had already locked away and thus he, in turn, incurred the wrath of Gaia.
Having committed such an act, Cronus could not rest easy with his own children. Whenever his wife, the Titaness Rhea, bore a son or daughter he snatched the baby away and swallowed it whole. The mighty immortal Olympians, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Hestia, and Poseidon all started their lives as prisoners in their father’s gullet. Just before Zeus was born, Gaia whispered a plan to Rhea. Rhea dressed a stone in swaddling clothes and gave it to her husband in place of their newborn child. Cronus gulped down the rock and was none the wiser. The baby grew to adulthood tended by Nymphs and fed by the divine goat Amalthea. When Zeus had grown powerful he made allies with Gaia and he took a first wife, Mètis, the goddess of wisdom, deep thought, and cunning. Mètis gave Cronus a purgative of wine and mustard which caused the Titan to hurl up the five fully grown siblings of Zeus. Together the Olympians, in alliance with the various sorts of imprisoned monsters, made war on the Titans (except for Prometheus, who could see the future and joined Zeus). This epic battle, the Titanomachy, reshaped the landscape of the world (particularly that of Thessaly), but when it was over, the Olympians were victorious. Cronus was cast down and Zeus locked him in Tartarus along with the other Titans except for Prometheus (and strong Atlas—who suffered his own punishment). Zeus incurred the wrath of Gaia for imprisoning the Titans, who were also her children, and she began plotting against him and bearing further monsters to end his reign.
Thus Zeus became king of the gods, but prophecy whispered that he would one day be supplanted by a stronger son….
What about Cronus? In classical myth, gods are immortal. The maimed Cronus could not die. In some traditions he was imprisoned for a time in Tartaros with his siblings. Mystery cults asserted that he recovered some of his regal glory: the Greek dithyrambic poet Pindar wrote of how Cronus was elevated to be ruler of Elysium, that portion of the underworld reserved for heroes. According to the Orphic poems, Cronus is imprisoned for eternity in the cave of Nyx. In the abject darkness, drunk on soporific honey, he cries out sometimes–for he is troubled by dreams of horrors yet to come.