Quotes: The Things We Have Had on Our Minds During the Day

People have long been fascinated by dreams and seen them as potential sources of meaning and insight. While today we focus on dreams as potential windows into our unconscious minds, ancient peoples often thought of dreams as a potential channel to the supernatural. Ancient Greeks produced complex manuals for interpreting the symbolism of dream images as a way of understanding the gods and predicting the future.

In that context, it is interesting to see evidence for a more rational, grounded approach to dreams. This passage comes from Herodotus’ account of how King Xerxes of Persia decided to invade Greece. After debating the merits of the proposed campaign with his court and deciding against it, Xerxes repeatedly dreamt of a shadowy figure that demanded he carry on with the attack. When Xerxes brought up this dream to his uncle Artabanus, Artabanus offered a level-headed interpretation:

Now when you have come around to a better way of thinking, you say that although you have decided to abandon the expedition against Greece, you are visited by a dream from some god forbidding you from giving up on the plan. But there is nothing divine in this, my boy. I have many years on you, so I’ll teach you what recurring dreams like this are about: the things we see in our dreams are usually the things we have had on our minds during the day, and in recent days we have been concentrating on this campaign.

Herodotus, Histories 7.16b

(My own translation)

Now, in Herodotus’ narrative, it turns out that Artabanus was wrong and Xerxes really was being visited by some divine force prompting him to carry on with the invasion plan, but the fact that Herodotus could put that argument into Artabanus’ voice tells us that the idea was part of the contemporary conversation in the Greek world. Indeed, Artabanus generally figures in Herodotus’ work as a wise and perceptive counselor whose advice Xerxes would have done well to heed. Giving this argument to Artabanus gives it a significant weight as an idea, even in a cultural context where people were inclined to see dreams as messages from the gods.

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Quotes: Being Awesome While Female

Sam Hawke guest posted at Fantasy Book Cafe about tomboy protagonists for the blog’s annual Women in SF&F feature in 2019:

“There is a particular kind of character in SFF. You know her. She’s smart and tough, determined, decisive, and she can kick the collective arses of any takers. She comes in a few varieties—in better stories she’s an Alanna of Trebond or a Brienne of Tarth, with depth and history and more than one dimension; in weaker ones she’s an empty Strong Female Character™ who has no real contribution to the plot other than Being Awesome While Female—but either way it’s her prowess at fighting, particularly against men, that sets her apart. […]

“Instead, I wrote a woman, Kalina, with a chronic illness who couldn’t fight to save her life. Literally. I wrote a book in which the main characters’ problems couldn’t be solved by the strategic and entertaining use of violence even if they had the skills to deploy, and I did it purposefully. I did it in part in response to my own sewing test.

“Let me explain.

“The sewing test is failed when a book deploys a lazy code to tell me how much better, more interesting, more deserving, the female character is than those silly other women by making a point of having her hate sewing or embroidery or [insert other feminine-coded activity or trait of your choice—but you wouldn’t believe how often it’s sewing]. These days, if a book does this, I’m out. It’s not just lazy, it’s not just a cliché, it’s a statement by the author that I’m expected to cheer on one woman by disparaging the rest of them. […]

“Basically, there’s a nasty underbelly to over-reliance on this very limited model of ‘strength’, and it’s rooted in the same insidious patriarchal BS that gave us the old style women-as-objects-to-be-rescued stories: here are traits which are traditionally coded as masculine, which you have been taught are more valuable than traits which are coded as feminine. See how you should cheer on this woman because she’s different and better than those other women, who are weak and shallow and worthless. Reward her for those traits, and punish those who lack them.”

author Sam Hawke at Fantasy Book Cafe blog, 2019
Hawke City of Lies

Hawke is perfectly right, if you ask me. As awesome as ass-kicking women are, other ways of being awesome exist and should be recognized more widely. Because the variety of life skills to be excelled in is much, much wider than merely physical prowess, fighting skill, or attitude.

Moreover, as we all know, there are situations where the application of know-how or just the right tool will create such a better outcome than anything else that at best it’s not even fair to compare them. Why should genre literature forget these skills when women stand in the protagonists’ shoes?

I’m going to be adopting the phrase “being awesome while female” for all kinds of amazing things that women do. It’s just that awesome. 🙂

P.S. I just read City of Lies, Hawke’s book with the female protagonist who has a chronic illness. I thoroughly enjoyed her strategic and entertaining use of her brain—and ditto for the male protagonists, Kalina’s brother and his best friend.

Image by Eppu Jensen

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Quotes: No Man’s Faculties Could Be Developed without an Extensive Acquaintance with Books

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s speculative work The Last Man starts very much like a run-of-the-mill regency-era novel with its three-book structure. You even start to wonder whether much of interest is ever going to happen.

And then a plague hits. Book three, especially, where people drop off like flies, felt rather grim even before living through a pandemic myself. (I read it a few years ago.)

Shelley The Last Man

Since the plague aspect is a little too on the nose, I’m going to skip all of that for now. Instead, below is what the protagonist thought about reading:

“I felt convinced that however it might have been in former times, in the present stage of the world, no man’s faculties could be developed, no man’s moral principle be enlarged and liberal, without an extensive acquaintance with books. To me they stood in the place of an active career, of ambition, and those palpable excitements necessary to the multitude.”


– Lionel Verney in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man

Sounds astonishingly like Mr. Darcy’s line about a truly accomplished woman who must improve “her mind by extensive reading” in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, doesn’t it? It must’ve been very much in the air in the early 19th century.

If you’re interested, a free e-version of The Last Man is available on Project Gutenberg.

Shelley, Mary. The Last Man. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 2004 [originally published 1826], p. 124.

Image by Eppu Jensen

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Quotes: No Call for Nastiness

The Roman orator Quintilian has a thing or two to say about making jokes at the expense of groups of people:

I have already noted, when talking of jokes, how unworthy it is to go after someone’s circumstances in life, and there is no call for nastiness against classes, ethnicities, or nations, either.

Quintilian, The Institute of Oratory 11.1.86

(My own translation)

Now, Quintilian is specifically speaking here about how to comport oneself as an advocate in court, and he goes on to say that if your opponent comes from a group whose moral qualities might seem dubious to a Roman jury, like soldiers or tax farmers, it may sometimes be appropriate to make a joke at their expense. His advice is tactical, not moral: this is how you sway a jury and win your case. Still, it’s good advice in general that “just joking” about people’s ethnicities, origins, or life circumstances is not a great way to get people on your side, in ancient Rome or today.

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Quotes: Even Just One New Language Infects You with a Radically Different Way of Thinking

The embodiment of the Enemy in The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin, the Woman in White, says of the catalytic effect of human cities:

“You eat each other’s cuisines and learn new techniques, new spice combinations, trade for new ingredients; you grow stronger. You wear each other’s fashions and learn new patterns to apply to your lives, and because of it you grow stronger. Even just one new language infects you with a radically different way of thinking! Why, in just a few thousand years you’ve gone from being unable to count to understanding the quantum universe—and you’d have made it there faster if you didn’t keep destroying each other’s cultures and having to start over from scratch.” [original emphasis]

To me, one of the most fascinating features of my native Finnish is that the negator ei (‘no’) can be conjugated in personal forms, as if it were a verb: en, et, ei, emme, ette, eivät. For example, a one-word answer “En” to a question (e.g. “Would you like some tea?”) translates as ‘[I do] No[t]’, while “Emme” means ‘[We do] No[t]’, etc. And this is just one little, tiny detail of the amazing linguistic variety that exists on Earth. There are times I wish I had studided linguistics even further.

Anyway.

Obviously for the Enemy us petty humans had better stay petty and not learn anything new ever. She’s not wrong, though: we’ve come a long way, and human ingenuity can be astounding. Unfortunately, so can the human cruelty. If only we could stop the needless hate and reach for more amazing heights…

Jemisin, N.K. The City We Became. New York: Orbit, 2020, p. 342.

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Lion-Slaying Women in the Roman Arena

Performing in the Roman arena, whether as a gladiator, a beast-hunter, or some other kind of violent entertainer was mostly a man’s job, but that doesn’t mean women never took part. The poet Martial celebrated a woman (or women, Martial is vague on the details) who slew a lion as part of the games put on the emperor Domitian.

Warlike Mars, unconquered in arms, serves you, Caesar,
but this is not enough: Venus herself serves you, too.

Martial, On the Spectacles 7

Fame used to sing the tale of how great Hercules
laid low the lion in Nemea’s wide valley.
Enough of that old legend: now after your games, Caesar,
we have seen such things done by women’s hands.

Martial, On the Spectacles 8

(My own translations)

Some scholars think these are two separate poems, others that they were originally one poem and the first two lines got accidentally split off at some point when manuscripts were being copied out. In any case, it seems pretty clear that women also took up arms to perform for the crowds in Rome.

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They’re Good Dogs, Xenophon

The ancient Greek author Xenophon is best known for writing about the life of the philosopher Socrates and his own experiences in a company of mercenaries in the Persian Empire, but he also wrote a handbook on hunting, full of practical advice for youngsters taking up the sport. He devotes a fair amount of time to the proper care and handling of hunting dogs. Here’s his advice on keeping your dogs in good shape:

It is a good idea to take [dogs] into the mountains frequently, but not so much into farmed fields, for in the mountains they can hunt and track game unimpeded, but fields are not good for these exercises because of the paths. It’s good to take your dogs into rough ground even if they don’t find a hare, for this sort of terrain helps develop their feet and bodies. In summer, let them run out until noon, in winter throughout the day, any time apart from midday during the autumn, and in the evening in the spring, since this is when the temperatures are moderate.

Xenophon, On Hunting, 4.9-11

(My own translation)

Having grown up with a dog and having a number of friends who keep dogs, even if we never used them for hunting, I can’t argue with this advice.

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Quotes: I Wouldn’t Want to Suddenly Make a Fool of Myself

How nice that you feel so sure of my affections.

I wouldn’t want to suddenly make a fool of myself

Go ahead, chase that cheap, wool-spinning

whore rather than Servius’ daughter Sulpicia.

I have people who care about me, and their greatest worry

is that I might fall into bed with some worthless nobody.

– Sulpicia, Poems 4

(My own translation)

Sulpicia is among the few female writers whose work has come down to us from antiquity. She was a Roman poet writing in the late first century BCE. Her surviving poems chart a tempestuous love affair with one Cerinthus. Like the lovers described in poetry by her male contemporaries, we cannot be sure whether Cerinthus was a real person or just a literary invention.

Sulpicia’s poetry relates in interesting ways to the major philosophical movement among Romans of her time: Stoicism. Stoicism was an originally Greek school of thought that emphasized emotional steadiness through the ups and downs of life. This idea appealed to Romans, who traditionally valued discipline and dispassionate self-control. Many Romans among the elite espoused versions of Stoic philosophy as a guiding principle.

Controlling one’s emotions first requires observing and understanding them. This is where Sulpicia’s poetry fits in. Her poems are like little gems of precisely observed emotion. This one captures the cold, controlled anger that comes of holding in a rage that is about to explode. Another poem expresses the exasperation of a young person at well-meaning but clueless relatives.

While other Romans were exploring Stoicism as a philosophical idea, Sulpicia was turning it into art.

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Quotes: Time Belonged to a Higher Realm

There’s a lot (a lot!) I liked about Karen Lord’s scifi novel The Best of All Possible Worlds. This snippet, for instance, puts words to a childhood wonder I remember from elementary school when learning math:

Karen Lord The Best of All Possible Worlds

“Standard Time was invented by Sadiri pilots. Most Sadiri procedures and quantification followed straight lines and linear progressions, created for the convenience of the ten-fingered. But Time… Time belonged to a higher realm. It could not be carried in human hands, not while it constantly carried human minds. It was all circles, wheels within wheels, a Standard year of three hundred sixty Standard days coiled up in twelve months, which in turn were composed of the small whirlings of twelve hours day and twelve hours night, tiny spinning minutes and seconds, ever-cycling breaths and blinks and beats.

“To be described as having a pilot’s mind was both curse and compliment; it could mean being unable to tell the difference between prophecy, memory, and mere déjà vu.”

– Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds

I just couldn’t fathom why the decimal system is different from time measurements, and remember that for a time trying to reconcile them was very confusing. But time—heh, heh—helped with that, of course, along with more advanced classes, in addition to a certain amount of shrugging and just getting on with life.

It’s intriguing when a book serendipitously reminds you of thoughts you thought were long buried, isn’t it?

Lord, Karen. The Best of All Possible Worlds. New York: Ballantine Books, 2013, p. 40.

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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!

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