Living Vicariously Through Social Media: Dragonfly in Morning Dew

I can’t say I’m a night owl, but I nevertheless am definitely not a morning person. That makes me a little wistful sometimes, since mornings can be beautiful.

Case in point: nature photographer David Chambon’s dew-laden insect photos. They are. Just. Stunning!

[Content note: extreme closeups of insects!]

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Read the whole post.

Slavery Was Always Wrong

Slavery was integral to the societies and economies of the ancient Mediterranean, so much so that discussing almost any topic in ancient history will end up touching on it at some point, and as historians we do not always take the time to address slavery as an institution in itself. The practice of slavery in Greece and Rome also differed from the modern American version in significant ways, which we often have to explain. The combination of these facts can sometimes leave the impression ancient slavery was in some way less wrong than modern slavery.

So this is me as an ancient historian taking the time to say: it was not. Slavery is, was, and has always been wrong.

The practice of slavery—that is, treating some people as possessions who have no rights to autonomy or claims to humanity and who can be exploited for labor without their consent and without compensation—is common across many cultures in history. Almost every pre-modern society (and many societies in the modern period) complex enough to have a division of labor had some mechanism for forcing a particular class of people to labor against their will. In many cases, this class of people came from outside that society or were the descendants of people who had, but local people could be among the exploited as well. Cultures that did not practice slavery have existed in history, but they are rarities. Just as different cultures in history varied widely in their ways of life, they also varied in how they practiced slavery, but inherent in all slave systems is the violence—whether actual or implicit—that comes of treating people as things.

In all slave societies, those who benefited from the exploitation of others generally found ways of justifying the practice. The voices of the rich and powerful dominate the historical record, especially as we look farther back in time. The voices of enslaved people themselves are often missing from the sources (at least until more recent centuries), and we should not suppose that they shared the opinions of the people who were exploiting them. If our image of ancient slavery is not one of violence and horror, that tells us more about whose stories we are hearing than about the actual experience of slavery. We are never on solid ground making judgments based on what the rich and powerful think is okay for them to do to other people in order to stay rich and powerful.

Slavery played an important role in the economies of both ancient Greece and Rome, more so than in some of the other cultures they lived alongside. Greeks were major players in Mediterranean trade for centuries, and trafficking in enslaved people was a significant part of that trade. The islands of Delos and Rhodes were major centers of the trade in enslaved people, as documented by numerous inscriptions found in both places left by the traders. Slavery was particularly important in the Roman economy because Rome was an expansive empire. Enslaving war captives was one of the most direct ways of profiting off the near constant warfare that marked the growth of the empire.

There are important ways in which the practice of slavery in the ancient Mediterranean was different from that in modern-period America. For example, enslaved people were not distinguished by race from those who exploited them. Greeks and Romans did not have a concept of race as we understand it, but even so, enslaved and free were not distinguishable by physical appearance (a point made clear by numerous legal and literary sources about enslaved people passing themselves off as free). In Rome, there was a custom of granting freedom to some enslaved individuals after a period of time. These freed people gained some legal status in Roman society (either citizenship or a lesser status as “Latins,” depending on the time period) and they and their descendants could integrate themselves into Roman society.

Still, the fact the Greek and Roman slavery was different does not make it less wrong. The exploitation, violence, and dehumanization inherent in slavery are always wrong. The experiences of individuals may vary between times and cultures—and even within the same time and culture—but those variations are not a defense of slavery, neither as a general practice nor in any particular case.

There has never been a time when slavery was morally defensible. It has always been wrong.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Rating: Deep Space Nine, Season 7

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ends on a high note. Here’s our ratings for the seventh and final season:

  1. “Image in the Sand” – 5.5
  2. “Shadows and Symbols” – 5
  3. “Afterimage” – 4.5
  4. “Take Me out to the Holosuite” – 10
  5. “Chrysalis” – 2
  6. “Treachery, Faith, and the Great River” – 6.5
  7. “Once More unto the Breach” – 2
  8. “The Siege of AR-558” – 5
  9. “Covenant” – 1
  10. “It’s Only a Paper Moon” – 8.5
  11. “Prodigal Daughter” – 3.5
  12. “The Emperor’s New Cloak” – 6
  13. “Field of Fire” – 4
  14. “Chimera” – 2
  15. “Bada-Bing Bada-Bang” – 8
  16. “Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges” – 5
  17. “Penumbra” – 4.5
  18. “’Til Death Do Us Part” – 3.5
  19. “Strange Bedfellows” – 7
  20. “The Changing Face of Evil” – 5.5
  21. “When It Rains…” – 5
  22. “Tacking into the Wind” – 6.5
  23. “Extreme Measures” – 6
  24. “The Dogs of War” – 7
  25. “What You Leave Behind” – 7

The final season comes with an average rating of 5.4, a solid way to end and the best season of the whole series. This average comes from a whole lot of episodes the decent-but-not-stellar range of 4-6. This season has only one real standout, but only a couple of clunkers, too. The final ten episodes of the season make up an arc covering the conclusion of the Dominion War, and these mostly hold up well (apart from “Penumbra” (4.5) and “”Til Death Do US Part” (3.5), which are a bit weaker as both mostly serve to set up plotlines for later episodes to pay off).

Nicole de Boer joins the cast this season, playing the next host to the symbiont Dax after Jadzia’s death. As the newest addition, she gets a fair number of episodes focused on her and her struggles to reconcile herself to her new memories without the years of preparation usually given to Trill host candidates. We’re sad to lose Terry Farrell and her swashbuckling smart-ass science officer Jadzia, but Ezri Dax is a worthy addition to the crew.

The weakest episode this season is “Covenant,” in which we discover Gul Dukat leading a cult of Bajoran pah wraith worshipers in an abandoned Cardassian station. Marc Alaimo is as brilliantly slimy as ever in his performance, but he can’t save an episode that feels both predictable and hollow. The pah wraiths had potential as an inscrutable foil to the equally inscrutable prophets, but the writers decided to turn them into standard-issue evil gods and never put much effort into thinking about their relationship to Bajor.

At the other end of the scale, though, we get the wonderfully warm and silly “Take Me out to the Holosuite,” a full 10, in which Sisko goes a bit off the rails trying to beat an old rival who challenged him at his favorite game: baseball. It’s charming to see how the crew rallies around Sisko, even as he gets too caught up in the competition, and utterly heartwarming to see him finally realize how his obsession with winning had blinded him to what made him love the game in the first place. This episode is a refreshing break from the ongoing Dominion War story, and the best realization I’ve seen of the old adage that “It’s not whether you win or lose that matters, but how you play the game.”

A couple of other episodes are worth noting. “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” at 8.5, deals with the consequences of Nog losing his leg a couple of episodes earlier in “The Siege of AR-558.” This episode rests on the performances of Aron Eisenberg as Nog and James Darren as the holographic singer Vic Fontaine. Both pull the episode off with subtlety and depth, and it is a tribute to the series that it trusted such a weighty episode to two side characters. Vic also features in “Bada-Bing Bada-Bang,” (8) a light-hearted holosuite casino caper that gives us a nice breather before the plunge into the final arc.

Thanks for being with us for our Deep Space Nine rewatch. Feel free to share your favorite episodes and memories!

Image: The Niners celebrate a manufactured triumph, from “Take Me out to the Holosuite” via IMDb

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

Mini-Opinion of Torghast in WoW: Shadowlands

I’ve been meaning to post about my first impressions of Shadowlands, the latest World of Warcraft expansion, but there’s such a high demand for my spoons this spring that I haven’t gotten it done yet. (In fact, I’ve barely had time to play, never mind writing about it!)

One thing I can mention, however, is Torghast. I simply LOVE the fact that it was designed as either solo or group content. Erik and I can either group up just the two of us or run it separately as mood or moxie mandate.

Blizzard Watch shadowlands-icecrown-torghast-cinematic

Being constrained for time and energy (both physical and mental) AND living through a pandemic, with the stress it places on people everywhere, I find I have very little tolerance for energy-wasters. If a project or person turns out to be more trouble than it’s worth, out it goes! It’s already been years since I’ve run PUG dungeons; this spring I really don’t have the patience for random idiocy. Ergo, only carefully curated groups in game.

And because of the layers to determine the difficulty, I can decide upon entering whether I want to just crash through everything for a bit of destruction therapy, or whether I’m in a good brainspace for a more strategic approach. Not only that, the random selection of anima powers keep the runs unpredictable and new every time. The multi-prong approach to flexibility works really well for me this year.

As if that’s not enough, the funniest thing in Shadowlands so far is found in Torghast: the Scroll of Elchaver anima power. It doesn’t proc often, but I have seen a mob turn into a chair, and others report boots, crates, or even a porkchop. (Someone even said if the mob was a skinnable type pre-transform, you can still skin them after.) What a hoot!

I’ve only had the power come up for me once, though. Here’s hoping for more!

Image via Blizzard Watch

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

Living Vicariously Through Social Media: 60 Seconds of Mars

While aimlessly browsing social media, I stumbled upon a 60-second video clip from Mars. Below’s a screencap, since I was unable to find a video to embed:

Twitter NASA360 60 Seconds of Mars

(Sorry for not including more details of the area; the NASA Twitter account didn’t provide any, and I can’t find a corresponding video on their YouTube account or website, either. Perhaps it’s from Curiosity?)

Isn’t it amazing, when you think about it, that we as a species have not only sent multiple vehicles to space, but our technology is good enough that we have high-definition photography from the surface of our neighboring planet that we can just casually scroll through. And not just Mars, but the outer solar system as well.

(This video of Cassini’s grand finale at Saturn seems to have been computer-generated on the basis of Cassini photos, so not really qualify for the high-def photography category, but it’s very pretty nevertheless.)

Not bad for ugly bags of mostly water, eh? It is a very good time to be a space geek. 🙂

Found via NASA 360 on Twitter.

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

Superheroes and Fascism

There’s an idea that sometimes raises its head in pop culture discussions that superheroes are fundamentally fascist. (Here’s a version of the argument from a few years back, some pushback from the time, and some more recent reflections on the same idea.) The essential argument is that superheroes are a version of the might-makes-right ideology of fascism, grounded in the idea that the only way to solve problem is to look to a single, nearly (or actually) superhuman individual who reshapes the world, often with violence. Superhero stories portray a world incapable of coping with injustice without the intervention of such a superior individual, which is the same claim made by fascist movements, whether past or present. Others have objected to this idea, pointing out that while fascists seek power, superheroes traditionally reject it, many of them even hiding behind secret identities to avoid even taking credit for the good they do.

As with many challenging ideas, there may be some merit in both sides of the argument, but I think it helps us make sense of the debate to look at it from a greater distance and think about both superheroes and fascism in the deeper context they both draw on: heroes. I’ll speak specifically about the heroes of Greek mythology—in part because they are the ones I know best, and in part because they were particular points of reference both for the fascist movements of the twentieth century and for the creators of early superheroes—but similar patterns can be found in cultures throughout the world.

Heroes in ancient Greece were not just figures of myth and story; they were surrounded with religious, cultural, and political significance. Their significance varied, though, with time and context.

Some of the earliest signs of the veneration of heroes is archaeological. In the 800s and 700s BCE, there is evidence for religious rituals at tombs dating from the Mycenaean period hundreds of years earlier. The people of the ninth and eight centuries had very little understanding of the realities of the Mycenaean kingdoms, but they seem to have associated those tombs with heroic figures from their mythic past. These characters first appear to us in literary form in the Homeric epics as warrior kings like Achilles, Agamemnon, and Odysseus, but their legends must have been circulating in oral tradition for generations before.

In the eighth century, these heroes were claimed as literal, direct ancestors by aristocratic families around Greece. These families maintained the ceremonies at the Mycenaean tombs and sponsored the poets who performed epics like the Iliad and Odyssey. The claims they made to descent from such famous heroes were political, part of how they competed for power against rival families. The epics reflect the way in which heroes were perceived as the exclusive property of the aristocrats—when the rank-and-file soldier Thersites dares speak up against Agamemnon in the Iliad, the hero Odysseus gives him a dressing down for daring to challenge his betters and threatens to strip him naked and beat him with Agamemnon’s scepter. When Odysseus returns home to Ithaca, he comes home not as a leader of the whole community but as an avenging warlord defending his own property against rivals. (Homer, Iliad 2.212-277; Homer, Odyssey 22)

But heroes did not remain the sole property of the aristocrats. In the volatile politics of the seventh and sixth centuries, those who agitated to wrest power from the entrenched aristocrats and create more inclusive democratic governments also laid claim to the heroes. Figures of myth were reinterpreted not as the literal ancestors of specific families but as part of the shared heritage of whole communities. Some heroes were claimed by cities in the regions they were historically connected to, such as Theseus in Athens or Orestes in Sparta. Other heroes, like Heracles, were more wide-ranging, and could be invoked by the Greeks who traveled and settled throughout the Mediterranean.

The process of making these heroes the collective heritage of a community rather than the exclusive property of aristocratic families had many aspects. Unlike the private tomb cults of the ninth and eighth centuries, heroes and their worship became part of communal religious practices, including public shrines and festivals. The stories of heroes were reimagined; unlike the Homeric heroes, who behaved as larger-than-life aristocrats defending their own private interests, heroes of the later archaic and classical periods were defenders of their homelands and peoples who stood for justice. Theseus, for instance, is portrayed unifying the people of Athens by journeying through Attica and around nearby coastlands slaying dangerous monsters and subduing bandits and murderers—a long way from Odysseus slaughtering his wife’s suitors to defend his own home and property. Heroes were often physically incorporated into the life of the community through the practice of collecting and preserving what were believed to be their bones. Herodotus recounts how the Spartans brought the bones of Orestes back to Sparta from neighboring Tegea to give them victory in war and how Greek preparations for the naval battle against the invading Persians at Salamis included sending a ship to the island of Aegina to retrieve sacred images of the hero Aeacus and his equally heroic sons. These relics belonged to whole communities, not to single families. By these means, the exclusive, aristocratic heroes of early Greece became the collective, democratic heroes of the classical age. (Herodotus, Histories 1.67-68, 8.64, 8.84; Plutarch, Parallel Lives, “Life of Theseus”)

The tension between these two kinds of heroes—the exclusive ones who justify the power of a narrow elite and the inclusive ones who stand for the best qualities of a whole community—is not unique to ancient Greece. We can see it repeated in cultures throughout history up to the present day. The “heroes” involved need not be figures of myth and legend, either; historical figures, celebrities, and political leaders can receive the same treatment as well.

Fascism and superheroes both draw on this history, but they apply different aspects of it. Fascism looks back to the exclusive, aristocratic kind of heroism that claimed a connection with great figures of myth and history to justify the power of a limited group, whether defined by class, ethnicity, family, or political affiliation. Fascist leaders of the twentieth century claimed the heritage of a semi-historical, semi-mythical past as an exclusive property of their followers. Modern quasi-fascistic movements have a similar obsession with jealously gatekeeping their own chosen semi-historical models, from the inhabitants of medieval Europe to the Founders of the United States.

Superheroes, by contrast, represent the inclusive, democratic response that makes heroes represent not the interests of a self-defined elite but the aspirations of a broad community. Superman is the immigrant experience in the US writ large. Captain America stands for the courage and integrity of Americans at their best, while Iron Man represents Americans rising to do the right thing despite the arrogance and materialism that defines them at their worst. The “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” is the neighborhood Spider-Man for a reason.

So my answer, in the end, is: no, superheroes aren’t fascist, even if they draw on some of the same roots. Fascism is the modern world’s darkest kind of heroism; superheroes are our answer.

Image: A version of Captain America’s shield, photograph by ze_bear via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Bounceback Boys Parkour Their Way Through Wintry Helsinki

Parkour! In Helsinki! In the winter! Jumping into mounds of snow!

HELSINKI WINTER TAKEOVER (PARKOUR) by Bounceback Boys on YouTube

Wow! Lots of impressive stunts here; I admire the Bounceback Boys’ skill. (My fear of heights, however, would like a word with the young men… LOL!)

Found via Helsingin Sanomat. (NB. Finnish only.)

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

Ancient Egyptians Knew How to Party

Here’s how the ancient Greek traveler and historian Herodotus describes the festivities surrounding a great festival held every year in honor of the goddess Bast, popular with both native Egyptians and foreign residents like Greek mercenaries and traders:

When they celebrate the festival in Bubastis, they do these things. Men and women sail there together, huge numbers of them in every boat. Some of the women shake rattles and some play flutes the whole way there; the rest sing and clap their hands. Whenever they sail by a city, they put in to shore and do the following: some of the women keep doing what I described, some call out tauntingly at the women in the city, some dance, and some stand up and hoist up their dresses. They do this at every city along the river.

– Herodotus, Histories 2.60

(My own translation)

Now, Herodotus was an outsider describing customs he didn’t entirely understand, and he certainly got some of his facts wrong. Still, many of the details he recounts of daily life in Egypt seem to have come from his own observations, and more than a few hold up on comparison with Egyptian literature and art. In any case it sure sounds like the ancient Egyptians knew how to have a good time!

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

The Valley of the Whales

In the western desert of Egypt is a valley known as Wadi al-Hitan. Like some of the other famous valleys in Egypt, such as the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, this valley is a kind of graveyard, but this one is for whales. Not that people buried whales here; rather, the desert preserves the fossils of a wide variety of sea life from millions of years ago, when this region was under a shallow sea. Among the most striking and important fossils at the site are the remains of several different species showing different stages of the evolution of ancient land mammals into the whales we know today.

Wadi al-Hitan is today preserved as a UNESCO site in recognition of both its stark natural beauty and its paleontological significance.

Images: An excavated fossil skeleton of a prehistoric whale, photograph by AhmedMosaad via Wikimedia. Spine and skull of a Dorudon atrox, photograph by Christoph Rohner via Wikimedia. Vertebrae on the desert sands, photograph by Jolybook via Wikimedia.

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

Daisugi Allows Log Harvesting without Killing the Tree

Daisugi is a forestry management technique reminiscent of pollarding and bonsai that produces straight logs without killing the tree. Developed some 600-500 years ago in Japan, it’s still being used to harvest sustainable, durable logs.

Basically, some of the top shoots are pruned so that they’ll grow straight up, and the shoots only are collected when they reach the desired height. It’s not a fast method, as it takes decades to be able to produce logs, but reportedly they come out stronger, more flexible, and knot-free. And the tree stays alive.

Also, the daisugi-managed cedars make amazing shapes in the woods! They would be so interesting in a speculative or fantasy story—or any story, really. Below are a few examples.

Spoon Tamago Yusuke Narita Long Shot
Spoon Tamago Ai Hirakawa Daisugi in Fall
Wikipedia Bernard Gagnon Ryoan-ji Garden

Just another example of how ingenious we people are in manipulating our environment. 🙂

Found via Good Stuff Happened Today on Tumblr.

Images: Long shot by Yusuke Narita via Spoon & Tamago. In the fall by Ai Hirakawa via Spoon & Tamago. Ryoan-ji garden, Kyoto, Japan by Bernard Gagnon via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

In Live and Active Cultures we talk about cultures and cultural differences.