A Roman Holiday (with Crocodiles)

When you go on vacation, you want to make sure you get the best experience. If you’re rich enough, other people will do it for you. That was just as true in the past as it is today. Here’s a fragment of a letter that has survived on papyrus from the Ptolemaic period in Egypt about preparations for a tour of the Faiyum oasis.

A Roman senator, Lucius Memmius, was touring Egypt in the late second century BCE. Someone in Alexandria wanted to make sure that Memmius had a good trip, so instructions were sent on ahead to make sure everything was ready for the important guest.

From Hermias to Horos, greetings. Attached is a letter to Asclepiades. Make sure that these instructions are followed. Be well. Year 5, 17th of Xantikos, 17th of Meikheir (March 5, 112 BCE)

To Asclepiades.

Lucius Memmius, a Roman senator who holds a position of great worth and honor, is making a grand expedition from the city [of Alexandria] to the Arsinoite nome to see the sights. See that he is properly welcomed, and take special care to see that lodgings are furnished along with landing places at the proper locations […] Make sure that the welcoming gifts listed below are ready to be handed over to him at the landing places, and that the furnishings for the lodgings, the usual morsels for Petesouchus and the crocodiles, the equipment for visiting the Labyrinth, the […] and the offerings and supplies for the household sacrifice are provided. In all respects, take the greatest care that everything should be prepared for his enjoyment, and be zealous […]

P. Tebt. (Papyri from Tebtunis) 1.33

(My own translation)

It looks like Memmius’ itinerary included watching crocodiles being fed and visiting the Labyrinth, a sprawling ancient temple complex whose walls and passageways were famous in antiquity.

It’s also interesting to note that, although Hermias wanted to make sure that special care was taken for Memmius’ visit, Memmius was evidently following an established tourist route. Hermias does not need specify where lodgings should be prepared for him or what equipment is needed for visiting the Labyrinth. The crocodile feeding was apparently a customary spectacle. Asclepiades clearly knew what to do to receive an important visitor, Hermias just wanted to make sure he did it. Faiyum tourism was evidently an established practice at the time.

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


A Greco-Scythian Gorytos

Here’s a beautiful work of art. This is a golden decorative panel from a gorytos, a combination quiver and bowcase that was used widely among ancient peoples of the steppes and the Iranian plateau. This example was found in Melitopol in southeastern Ukraine.

Gorytos, photograph by VoidWanderer via Wikimedia (found Melitopol, currently Kyiv; 4th c. BCE; gold)

Scythian artisans were expert metalworkers, and the Scythian elite valued high-quality metalwork, especially in gold, as emblems of status. This panel was made by Greek crafters serving the Scythian market. The central panel shows scenes from the life of Achilles, a Greek hero whose legends were sometimes associated with Scythia and whose warrior prowess was appealing to Scythian tastes. The outer panels feature decorative scenes of animals hunting, a popular motif in Scythian metalwork.

This piece is not just a beautiful work of art, it’s also an example of how art and artisans in antiquity crossed boundaries and bridged cultures.

Out There highlights intriguing art, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Cha Cha Cha in English

This week Käärijä is represening Finland in the Eurovision Song Contest with Cha Cha Cha. Here’s his performance at the Uuden musiikin kilpailu (New Music Competition) where the song was chosen.

Käärijä – Cha Cha Cha | Finland | National Final Performance | Eurovision 2023 by Eurovision Song Contest via YouTube

Here’s a link to the Finnish lyrics. I’ve tried my hand at translating them into English in a way that fits the rhythm and rhymes of the song:

What a week it’s been, the days behind have just been crawling.

Pina coladas and the open road are now calling.

The night is young, so listen, it’s time to get plastered.

This frozen shell around me has got to get shattered.

Grab my drink with both hands and get loaded, I’m like

cha cha cha, cha cha, cha cha!

Blow off tomorrow, just go out and get totaled, I’m like

cha cha cha, cha cha, cha cha!

I wanna lose my mind, forget all my cares, I’m like

cha cha cha, cha cha, cha cha!

And I’ll keep going til I’m out of my chair, I’m like

A couple pina coladas are down already.

Still my face is like a mask, unmoving and steady.

The night is young, so listen, it’s time to get plastered.

This frozen shell around me has got to get shattered.

The floor is calling me, my inhibitions need numbing.

I’m like cha cha cha, watch out, I’m coming!

Grab my drink with both hands and get loaded, I’m like

cha cha cha, cha cha, cha cha!

Blow off tomorrow, just go out and get totaled, I’m like

cha cha cha, cha cha, cha cha!

I wanna lose my mind, forget all my cares, I’m like

cha cha cha, cha cha, cha cha!

And I’ll keep going til I’m out of my chair, I’m like, woah.

And now I’m dancing free,

I’m like cha cha cha,

and I’m not afraid of this world, you see,

I’m like cha cha cha,

when I pour champagne all over me.

Cha cha cha, and it’s getting hard to see,

and now I slur my speech when I hand the keys to this other me.

Cha cha cha, and you know that I’m not like this usually,

oh no, but I am today, but I am today.

And now I’m dancing free,

I’m like cha cha cha,

and I’m not afraid of this world, you see,

I’m like cha cha cha,

when I pour champagne all over me.

I’m like cha cha cha,

cha cha cha, cha cha, cha cha-ah-ah

I’m like cha cha cha,

cha cha cha, cha cha, cha cha,

cha cha cha, cha cha, cha cha.

Here’s hoping we’ll see Käärijä go all the way to the final!

An occasional feature on music and sound-related notions.

Star Wars: A Personal Reflection

Star Wars Day is coming soon (May the Fourth be with you!), so I’ve been thinking about how I got into that universe. My route in was a bit odd.

I’m a little bit too young to have been caught up by the original movies. I wasn’t even born yet for the first one. I vaguely remember when The Empire Strikes Back was a thing. Return of the Jedi is the first movie trailer I can actually remember seeing on tv. Even if I had been old enough to go to the movies, though, I wouldn’t have gone to see Star Wars then. It just wasn’t a thing I was interested in.

That doesn’t mean I wasn’t aware of Star Wars. Star Wars merchandise was all over my childhood. Friends had Star Wars lunchboxes and t-shirts. I saw the posters and the toys. Before I was reading on my own, I could recognize Darth Vader and Yoda. Some of the neighborhood kids staged a recreation of a scene from Return of the Jedi. (As the youngest of the group, I was cast as an Ewok. I had no idea what that meant, but all it required me to to was run around and scream unintelligibly, which was about the limit of my acting ability at that age.)

Star Wars lunch box (not mine). Photograph by jeffisageek via Flickr under Creative Commons

When I did discover science fiction, it wasn’t Star Wars but old reruns of the original Star Trek that lit up my young brain. I was completely hooked on Star Trek and, with the stubborn, stupid loyalty of the very young, decided that there was only room in my life for one Star franchise. For years I scoffed at the Star Wars memorabilia around me and snootily dismissed anyone else’s interest in the movies.

I was nearly in junior high before I finally decided to give Star Wars a try. Oddly enough, though, my first experience of Star Wars was not with the movies themselves. In my school library I found a set of picture books that told the story of the original trilogy movies (the only movies there were at the time) illustrated with stills from the films. My memory of the books is hazy, but at a best guess they were The Star Wars Storybook, The Empire Strikes Back Storybook, and the Return of the Jedi Storybook. I decided to give them a shot.

To my surprise, I enjoyed them, enough to hop on my bike, ride over to the local video rental shop, and check out the movies themselves. It was a weird experience. In a sense, I felt like I had always known these stories. I certainly couldn’t remember a time when I hadn’t known that there were heroes named Luke and Leia who fought a villain in a black helmet while accompanied by a couple of shiny droids. Reading the books filled in the details of a story that already felt familiar. By the time I actually saw Star Wars on screen, I knew who the characters were and what was going to happen. Watching those movies for the first time already felt like revisiting old friends.

Weirdly, one thing that wasn’t spoiled for me until I read the books was the Skywalker family tree. I can still remember the shock of finding out that Darth Vader was Luke’s father and then that Leia was his sister. That may be hard to believe in today’s world of fan sites and social media, but I made it through more than a decade of knowing who those characters were without knowing how they were related. Somehow, in all the years of my childhood, I never heard any of my friends who were into Star Wars put on a deep voice and say “Luke, I am you father.”

Star Wars has a special place in modern pop culture because it is special. It is one of the few stories we all know, even if we’ve never seen it. Whether you love it or not, and however you may feel about the prequel and sequel trilogies or any of the vast outpouring of other media in the Star Wars universe, it’s a story that we all have our own stories about.

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

Are You Aware of National Velociraptor Awareness Day?

Were you aware that tomorrow—April 18—is National Velociraptor Awareness Day? I wasn’t, but now I am. So, consider today National “National Velociraptor Awareness Day” Awareness Day.

In case you were worried that we would not be taking this important holiday with the seriousness it deserves, let us put those fears to rest.

And that’s all we have to say on the subject.

Cartoon by Erik Jensen

Some things are just too silly not to share!

Visual Inspiration: Steller’s Sea Eagle

Here’s a bird of prey with a different look. The Steller’s sea eagle has white bands at the front of its wings, on its legs, and on its tail. It also has a short, thick yellow-orange beak.

Steller’s sea eagle at rest on ice, photograph by Michael Pinczlits via Wikimedia

The normal range of this eagle is along the coasts of northeast Asia from the arctic to Japan, but in recent years there have been sightings as far away as Texas and Nova Scotia.

Steller’s sea eagle hunting, photograph by Julie Edgley via Wikimedia

I’d love to see more birds like this in media, not just the usual suspects like the bald eagle and red-tailed hawk.

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

Tolkien Reading for Tolkien Reading Day

Saturday of this week, March 25th, is Tolkien Reading Day, and what better way to celebrate than with Tolkien himself reading one of his favorite passages from The Lord of the Rings?

Before The Lord of the Rings had a publisher, Tolkien was visiting a friend who had a tape recorder and encouraged him to record himself reading a selection from his work. Tolkien chose to read one of the most powerful moments from the novel, the charge of the Rohirrim against the Orcs of Mordor at Minas Tirith. Here that recording plays over the same scene from Peter Jackson’s movie version of The Return of the King, for extra powerful effect.

Tolkien narrates the Ride of the Rohirrim by Sîdh Aníron on YouTube

This moment is one of my favorite pieces from both the novel and the film. What a rare treat to hear it in Tolkien’s own voice!

Story Time is all about story-telling and how stories work, and what makes us love our favorites.

Quotes: By Her Efforts She Learned Writing

The lives of women in history are so often invisible to us that we become accustomed to not seeing them. Sometimes even when we do see them, we don’t always realize what we’re seeing. The ancient Greek antiquarian Plutarch certainly didn’t know what he was seeing when he quoted this poem (probably composed to be inscribed on the base of a statue) by the Macedonian queen Eurydice.

Eurydice, daughter of Sirra, dedicated this to the local

Muses when she had seized her soul’s desire.

For as a mother of young men, by her efforts

she learned writing, the record of knowledge.

– Eurydice, quoted in Plutarch Moralia 1.20 (=14a-b)

(My own translation)

Plutarch praises Eurydice for learning to read in order to help educate her sons (all of whom went on to become kings of Macedon, one of them the father of Alexander the Great). But although Eurydice does mention her sons, there is much more to this poem.

Eurydice identifies herself in relation to her mother, Sirra, not her father or husband, as would have been typical in ancient Macedon. She directs her praise to the Muses, nine female divine figures, not to Hermes, Apollo, or another male deity equally connected with learning and writing. She does mention her sons, but as an attribute of herself: she does not say (as Plutarch assumed) that she learned in order to teach them, but rather positions her achievement of learning as noteworthy for someone who has undergone the rigors of childbirth and is old enough to have sons on the cusp of adulthood. Eurydice describes her learning in a context that is defined by women and women’s experiences, not men.

While Eurydice makes her accomplishment a feminine one, she uses typically masculine language to describe it. Her language in the original Greek is active, even aggressive. When she says that she accomplished her goal, she uses the same word that other writers used to describe an army capturing a city; when she speaks of her efforts to learn, her words echo those used to describe men training for battle. She positions her learning as the work of a woman surrounded by women, both human and divine, but equal to the work of the male warrior kings in her family.

Eurydice was proud of her learning, as she had every right to be. Literacy was a rare skill in antiquity, and to have learned by her own efforts as an adult shows intelligence and determination. She was doing far more than setting a good example for her sons.

Like Plutarch, traditional history is accustomed to seeing women only in the background of men’s lives, but the records of women’s lives are still there, some of them speaking directly to us if we are just prepared to listen. Many more women like Eurydice have left a “record of knowledge” for us to learn from.

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

A Writing Rabbit

There’s an interesting character in this scene from a Classic Maya vase. In the main scene, an aged underworld god is enjoying the company of a bevy of young women, but below him a rabbit scribe is keeping its eyes out and its ears perked while taking notes.

Scene from the “Princeton Vase” via Princeton University Art Museum (found Nakbe, Guatemala, currently Princeton Art Museum; 670-705 CE; ceramic with painted stucco)

None of the rabbits I’ve ever known in my life have been so practical!

Out There highlights intriguing art, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

A Little Martial for Those Sick of the Dating Game

If this Valentine’s Day has you feeling bitter about romance, take some heart in knowing that love has always been a rough ride. Here are a few deliciously nasty little snarks from the Roman poet Martial to laugh at over your dinner for one.

Truth Comes Out

He used to be your lover, Paula, but you said there was nothing between you.

Now you’ve married him. Can you still claim there’s nothing between you?

Martial, Epigrams 1.74

Left on Read

I wrote to Naevia. She didn’t write back. So she won’t have me.

But I think she read what I wrote. So she’ll have me.

Martial, Epigrams 2.9

Too High a Pedastal

You want to be revered, Sextus; I wanted to love you.

You’ll get what you demand, Sextus, and be revered,

but if I revere you, I won’t love you.

Martial, Epigrams 2.55

In Vino Veritas

Lyris wants to know what she does when she’s drunk? The same thing she does sober: she sucks cock.

Martial, Epigrams 2.73

Slut Era

You don’t say no to anyone, Thais, and you’re not ashamed of it.

You should at least be ashamed that you don’t say no to anything.

Martial, Epigrams 4.12

Hard to Get

Say “No,” Galla. Love gets cloying if its pleasures come too easily.

But don’t say “No” for too long.

Martial, Epigrams 4.38

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