Quotes: When You Keep Harping on about It

You are pretty, Fabulla (we know!), and young (true enough!),

and rich (no one could say otherwise!).

But when you keep harping on about it,

you don’t seem pretty, or young, or rich.

– Martial, Epigrams 1.64

(My own translation)

This bit of grousing comes from the Roman poet Martial, who wrote in the first century CE, but it seems apt for today’s “influencer” culture, too. Some things never do change. Whether the lesson you take from that is “Rich young women will always be vain about themselves” or “Crabby old men will always complain about how young women present themselves” is up to you.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Six Kings

When Islam first stepped onto the world stage in the seventh century CE, it came as a surprise to the great powers of the day, the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire and the Sassanian Persian Empire. A powerful religious, political, and social movement sprang up from among the Arabs, the fragmented desert-dwelling peoples who had been pushed back and forth by the wars between Rome and Persia for centuries.

Muslims of the early Islamic period were aware that they were stepping into a world of powerful forces, and some examples of early Islamic art reflect the desire to stake a claim for Islam’s place in the world. For example, a wall painting from an early Islamic palace, in modern-day Jordan, shows how early caliphs positioned themselves in relation to the larger world.

This painting, known as the “Six Kings” painting, is in very poor condition today, partly because of some European travelers who saw it in the early twentieth century and tried to chisel it off the wall and take it with them. (This is why we can’t have nice things.) Working from the painting in its current damaged state and an impressionistic copy made by those travelers, though, we can get a sense of what the original looked like.

Six Kings painting, photopgraph by Ghazi Bisheh via Wikimedia (Qasr Amra, Jordan; 710-740 CE; wall painting)
Copy of Six Kings painting via Wikimedia (1907; by Alois Musil)

Six royal figures stand together, all gesturing toward the caliph’s throne. The six figures were originally labeled in both Arabic and Greek. While not all of them can be identified now, we can tell that they include the Byzantine emperor, the Sassanian Persian emperor, the Visigothic king of Spain, and the king of Axum, a nation in what is today Ethiopia that was a powerful political and commercial state at the time.

This painting comes from the early 700s, a time when Islam was barely a century old but the caliphate had already become a major world power. By placing these figures on the wall, the caliphs were placing themselves among the great powers of the day, even positioning themselves as leaders of a world whose boundaries stretched from Spain to Persia and Constantinople to the horn of Africa. That was no small claim for such a young polity to make. The message was clear: Islam had arrived and was ready to be taken seriously as a world power.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Syltholm Woman: A Late Mesolithic Individual with Brown Skin and Blue Eyes

Britain’s Cheddar Man has gotten company: a DNA analysis of remnants left in a wad of chewed birch pitch from 5,700 years ago in Denmark showed that the chewer was a woman and likely had dark skin, dark brown hair, and blue eyes.

BBC Syltholm Individual Artists Reconstruction

The pitch was found at Syltholm, a Late Mesolithic / Early Neolithic site, on the southern coast of Lolland island, Denmark. Apart from the human DNA, it contained also microbial DNA (from the chewer’s oral microbiome) as well as plant and animal DNA potentially from a recent meal.

Nature Jensen et al Syltholm Birch Pitch Map
Denmark’s coastline 6,000 years ago and the findsite of the chewed birch pitch at Syltholm on Lolland

Like the Cheddar Man, the Syltholm individual was genetically more closely related to western hunter-gatherers from mainland Europe than hunter-gatherers from central Scandinavia. It’s even possible that some hunter-gatherer groups genetically distinct from Neolithic farming communities survived for much longer than previously assumed, says the study.

The results of the DNA sequencing by Theis Jensen et al. was published in Nature Communications.

It’s very exciting to be able to compare data from DNA analyses with archaeology; maybe one day we can also combine linguistic research to try to tease out even more details about our ancient ancestry.

My only complaint is that the process is so slow—think of how much more we could do in an entirely peaceful world, say, with no military budgets to hog the funding for humanities. (Oh, hey—there might be a bit more of a Star Trek fan in me than I previously thought.) It’s a good time to be an early history geek anyway. 🙂

Found via BBC.

Images: Artist’s reconstruction by Tom Björklund via BBC. Map of Denmark with birch pitch findsite by Jensen et al. via Nature Communications.

Myths Are Fanfiction

If you’re like me and a lot of my students, you grew up with Greek mythology. The monster-filled adventures of Odysseus, the (somewhat bowdlerized) philandering of Zeus, the just-so story of Echo and Narcissus, and others were part of my childhood reading. Myths seemed like any other sort of story, with well-defined characters and plots. But there’s something different about mythology. We can’t think of it the same way we think of other kinds of literature. Mythology, in fact, has more in common with fanfiction than with literature as we usually think of it. Greek mythology is one of the best documented and most widely known mythic traditions in the West, so it makes a useful example. When you dig into the primary sources of Greek mythology you find that it is stranger, more complicated, and less cohesive than it seemed when I was a child.

Defining exactly what makes a story a myth can be surprisingly difficult, but if we take as our starting point stories about fictional characters who are larger than life and more than human, we have a good chunk of Greek literature and art to work with. The literary versions of myths that have come down to us must themselves have been based on oral traditions passed down through generations, retold and reimagined in every new performance. There is no canon of Greek mythology. There is no original text that we (or the ancient Greeks themselves) can point to and say: “This story is the correct one; anything that conflicts with it is wrong.”

The nearest thing to a canonical text in ancient Greek culture was the two epics attributed to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Neither of these epic poems was written down until the sixth century BCE, although some version of them circulated orally for hundreds of years prior. These poems were themselves just elaborated snippets of a much broader oral tradition which encompassed the whole story of the Trojan War and its heroes’ return to Greece. There was, however, some collective sense of how the epics ought to go. We know this because of the scandal caused by Peisistratus, the tyrant of Athens, who was accused of tampering with the Iliad by inserting a line to suggest that the nearby island of Salamis ought to belong to Athens. On one hand, the fact that such a minor tweak to the poem caused an uproar suggests a degree of reverence for the text. On the other hand, it is clear that the text could be tweaked. We have no idea how many changes the text of the epics may have gone through over the centuries that went by unremarked because they were less politically dicey.

If the Homeric epics were viewed with a certain reverence by the ancient Greeks, the same is not true of our other major sources of mythic stories. Our knowledge of Greek myth mostly comes from the literary productions of a few particular places and times. These works were regarded as literature, free to be debated, reinterpreted, or ignored. Apart from the oral traditions codified the Homeric poems, these include:

  • Athenian drama, mostly written in the fifth century BCE at a time when Athens was a major economic, military, and political power in Greece, the leader of an Aegean empire known as the Delian League, and wrapped up in ongoing conflicts with Sparta, Thebes, and the Persian Empire.
  • Poetry and prose composed in Hellenistic Alexandria, much of it by scholars working at the Library, which compiled and retold stories from earlier Greek traditions as part of the Ptolemaic kings’ propaganda program celebrating their links to classical Greek culture.
  • Roman poetry of the late republic and early empire, composed at a time when Roman society was in crisis and different factions within the elite were competing for power.

There are significant works of art and literature not from these times that add to our knowledge of Greek mythology, but much of what we know comes from one of these clusters. Each one represents a time of fraught cultural and political tensions, and these tensions are reflected in the literature of the period. Fifth-century Athenian drama often portrays Athens as a place of wisdom and sound democratic government while painting Athens’ major rival Thebes as a chaotic city of violence and tragic folly. Written at a different time and in a different context, Roman versions of mythic stories, such as Vergil’s Aeneid, position the Romans as worthy heirs to the glory of ancient Greece.

The works of these different periods also reflect different literary interests. Athenian comedy often took heroic figures from myth and put them into ridiculous situations for laughs. The Alexandrian authors liked to show off the breadth of their learning by tying together disparate characters and tales into grand narratives, or retelling familiar stories from the point of view of minor characters. The Roman poet Ovid played to the sexual culture of his day by composing a collection of imaginary love letters between famous mythic couples.

All of these variations on mythic tales depended on an audience who already knew the stories and characters that were being referenced. They could also end up representing wildly different interpretations of the same events or figures. Part of the fun for ancient readers and theatre-goers was recognizing familiar stories told in a new way. In this respect, mythology worked the same way fanfiction works today. Whether it’s a passionately rendered love scene between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, a quippy duel between Batman and Iron Man, or the adventures of Aragorn and Galadriel’s secret love child, the fun of fanfic comes in taking the stories we have in common and doing something new with them—sometimes something inspired by the social and political context around us, and sometimes just for the delight of bringing a favorite character back on the stage for an encore.

The fragmentary nature of the literary record from antiquity means that when we try to put together the narrative of a certain character or event from Greek mythology, we are often cobbling together bits and pieces of sources from many different genres, written centuries apart on different continents for widely varying audiences and purposes. The fact that we are able to make any sense out of these stories at all is a testament to how much the ancient Greeks and those who learned their stories loved their myths and enjoyed retelling them. But whenever we deal with mythology—Greek or otherwise—we have to remember that what we are dealing with is a wonderfully strange mishmash of stories, none of it canonical as we understand the term today, but all of it lovingly retold by generations of people who made the stories their own.

Image: Mosaic of Vergil with the muses of history and tragedy, photograph by Giorces via Wikimedia (currently Bardo Museum, Tunis; 3rd c. CE; mosaic)

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.

First Trailer for Wonder Woman 1984

Good grief, there’s basically a slew of movie trailers out! Just the latest is for Wonder Woman 1984:

Wonder Woman 1984 | Official Trailer by DC on YouTube

Not bad, huh? When I heard the sequel was going to be set in the 1980s, I cringed (I’ve been there once; don’t want a repeat, thank you). But this is actually looking promising—many of the painful bits I remember are hidden away and the period even looks mildly innocuous.

But but but! Chris Pine returns as Steve Trevor?!? I get that this is a superhero movie, but to pretend they can supposedly return people from the dead with 1980s tech? C’mon. Srsly. I don’t think I can suspend my disbelief that much. (Because, if it was mythical Amazon or god tech bringing people back, surely they also would’ve mentioned it in the original and brought back Antiope? Unless they’re also doing that in this film?!? Otherwise it really stinks of a bad case of Deus ex Machina.)

Despite its problems, overall I did like the first WW. Apart from the era and the implausible return of the obligatory heartthrob, I have fairly high hopes of the sequel, too. And apart from Patty Jenkins directing, she also co-wrote the screenplay along with Geoff Johns and Cave Callaham; I’ve seen some of their work and thought it was at least decent. Also, director of photography Matthew Jensen makes a return; along with the first WW, I’ve seen his work in Game of Thrones, CSI, and the 2015 reboot of Fantastic Four, and liked it. Finally, to borrow a line from a friend: “Also they had me at Blue Monday so whatever.” 🙂

According to IMDB, WW84 is expected on June 05, 2020.

Oh, yeah; 2020 is gonna be a pretty good movie year for us!

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Visual Inspiration: Cayuga Duck

The cayuga duck is a breed known for its black to metallic green plumage, and—just like the black squirrels in NYC—to me they look absolutely marvellous!

Flickr Simon Redwood Cayuga Duck

There seems to be disagreement over the breed’s origin, but according to Wikipedia they were popularized around the Finger Lakes region (Cayuga being one) of the state of New York.

Flickr Dana Kee Cayuga Duck

Looking cayugas up also taught me that drake is the English word for a male duck. Live and learn!

Found via Good Stuff Happened Today on Tumblr.

Images via Flickr: side profile by Simon Redwood (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Frontal view by Dana Kee (CC BY 2.0).

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Quotes: The Swan of Tuonela–You Must Have Seen That?

Like I mentioned, I’m reading all of the Hercule Poirot books in English for the first time. I’ve come across one reference to Finland already, but here’s another one:

“Affair with a dancer? But of course, my dear—he had an affair with Katrina. Katrina Samoushenka. You must have seen her? Oh, my dear—too delicious. Lovely technique. The Swan of Tuolela [sic]—you must have seen that?”

– Ambrose Vandel in The Labors of Hercules by Agatha Christie (original emphasis)

The Swan of Tuonela is a tone poem about the realm of the dead by composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), and part of his Lemminkäinen Suite of Four Legends from the Kalevala. Considering his international fame at the beginning of the 20th century, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that he was mentioned in a book published in the 1930s, but I confess I was a bit startled.

Christie, Agatha. The Labors of Hercules. New York, NY: Berkley Books, 1986 [orig. published 1939], p. 62.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

World of Warcraft Views: Northern Lights-esque Sky from Drustvar

My 2020 started less than optimally with a cold / flu (jury’s still out). The good thing, though, about being awake at 5 a.m. and incapable of much else, is that flying around Azeroth at a time you don’t normally see shows a whole different side to things.

BfA Drustvar W Coast Early Morning Sky Lights2

This view is westwards from the northwestern shore of Drustvar. Very Northern Lights-esque and pretty!

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Rating: Elementary, Season 6

Season 6 was originally intended as the final season of Elementary, and it would have been a strong season to end on if the show had not been unexpectedly renewed for a short seventh season. Here’s our take on season 6.

  1. “An Infinite Capacity for Taking Pains” – 6
  2. “Once You’ve Ruled out God” – 8.5
  3. “Pushing Buttons” – 5.5
  4. “Our Time Is Up” – 7
  5. “Bits and Pieces” – 8
  6. “Give Me the Finger” – 7
  7. “Sober Companions” – 2.5
  8. “Sand Trap” – 5.5
  9. “Nobody Lives Forever” – 4
  10. “The Adventure of the Ersatz Sobekneferu” –4
  11. “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” – 5
  12. “Meet Your Maker” – 7
  13. “Breathe” – 8
  14. “Through the Fog” – 8
  15. “How to Get a Head” – 6.5
  16. “Uncanny Valley of the Dolls” – 6
  17. “The Worms Crawl in, the Worms Crawl out” – 6
  18. “The Visions of Norman P. Horowitz” – 7
  19. “The Geek Interpreter” – 7.5
  20. “Fit to Be Tied” – 2
  21. “Whatever Remains, However Improbable” – 3

The average rating for this season is 5.9, which is pretty strong, but also a little misleading, as averages can be. A few bad episodes drag down what is otherwise mostly a good to very good season.

The problem with this season is, as it has been in previous seasons, the ongoing arc story. This time it’s Michael, a fellow addict who befriends Sherlock, then turns out to be a serial killer who is using the cat-and-mouse game with Sherlock as a substitute high to stay off drugs. Desmond Harrington gives an excellent performance as Michael, and the interplay between him and Sherlock is better handled than in most mystery series where the heroic detective faces off against a serial killer, but we are tired of serial killer stories altogether, especially stories about serial killers who have unhealthy emotional attachments to the detectives hunting them. The shadow of Professor Moriarty looms so large over the legacy of Sherlock Holmes that many writers forget that the professor was no more than a convenient plot device to kill off a character that Conan Doyle had gotten tired of writing. Holmes has never been at his best when chasing an enemy but rather when untangling a mystery, and that fact is as true today as it was a century ago.

On the other hand, the non-arc stories this season are some of the best ever written for the series. It looks like the writers pulled out all the stops for what they believed to be their last season. Many episodes are richly complicated mysteries that unfold through surprising twists and turns. Our highest rated episode this season, “Once You’ve Ruled out God,” at 8.5, begins with a murder by lightning gun, ends with a daylight diamond heist, and goes through stolen plutonium, neo-Nazi prison gangs, and terrorist threats to midtown Manhattan along the way. Your average television mystery series would be content to take any one of those ideas and make a whole episode out of it, but Elementary barely slows down to take a breath as this exhilarating episode rockets form one big thing to the next.

Other highly-rated episodes are similarly daring in the inventive problems they offer up for Sherlock and Joan. “Bits and Pieces” opens with Sherlock carrying a severed head with no memory of where he got it, “Breathe” finds Sherlock and Joan investigating the death of a professional assassin, and “Through the Fog” has a suspected biological attack on the police station as cover for a more daring crime. All these episodes come out at an excellent 8.

This season ends with Sherlock banished from the US, but carrying on his partnership with Joan in London, what would have been a fitting end for our characters. We hardly regret getting a little bit more of such an excellent series as Elementary, but if season 6 really had been the end, it would have been a final season to be proud of.

Image: Sherlock, Joan, and Detective Bell from “Sand Trap” via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Top Five Posts for 2019

That’s 2019 done and dusted. Here are this year’s posts that got the most views:

  1. Behind the Name: Erebor Erik’s post about the possible linguistic roots behind Erebor, the Lonely Mountain of the Dwarves in Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
  2. Spring 2019: Tolkien Exhibition at The Morgan in NYC Eppu’s post on the exhibit in early 2019 including letters, photographs, and other documents related to Tolkien’s life and work.
  3. Disney Princess Cosplayers Wearing Mandalorian Armor Eppu’s post sharing some creative cosplay blending Disney princesses with Star Wars bounty hunters.
  4. An Example of the Infinite Possibilities of Writing Systems: Mandombe Eppu’s post on a writing system inspired by the look of bricks in a wall.
  5. The Graceful Curves of the Vogelherd Horse Eppu’s post sharing an image of a beautiful prehistoric carving of a horse.

Some of our old posts remain perennial favorites, too. Here are the overall top five Co-Geeking posts that people viewed in 2019:

  1. Do-It-Yourself Fantasy Place Name Generator Erik’s name-generating technique from back in 2015 still gets a lot of attention. Apparently a lot of you out there are still making up names for things!
  2. Custom is King Erik’s translation of a favorite passage from Herodotus’ Histories, posted in 2017.
  3. Hogwarts Dueling Club Tablecloth Transformed into Wall Hanging Eppu’s post about a home-made version of the moon-phase dueling cloth from Harry Potter, posted in 2016.
  4. Sean Bean on the LotR Joke in The Martian Eppu’s 2015 post on Finland’s Yle News interview with the delightful Sean Bean on the Lord of the Rings joke in The Martian. Such a treat, and still well worth watching today.
  5. Greek Myth, Etruscan Tomb Erik’s post from 2017 about the multicultural connections of a wall painting from ancient Etruria.

Thanks, all, for coming by this year. We hope you’ll drop in again in 2020.

Messing with numbers is messy.