Tamias

Let me tell you about the word tamias.

Tamias is a word in Ancient Greek. It was the title of the official in charge of the Athenian state treasury. It is related to the verb temnō, which means to cut something up into pieces, especially used of carving meat.

Now, meat was not always easy to come by in ancient Greece. Most people would not have eaten meat on a regular basis, at least not from land animals—bird and fish meat was probably a little easier to come by, but meat from animals like cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs was a rarity. In fact, meat from these animals was almost always consumed as part of a sacrifice. When the ancient Greeks offered an animal to the gods in sacrifice, only a small representative portion of the animal was usually burned for the gods. The rest of the meat was cooked and consumed by the community.

Since sacrifice was a religious act, there were important rules about the procedure. One was that the portions of meat shared out among the participants had to be of equal size. To do otherwise would be to suggest that the blessings of the gods invoked by the ritual should come down unequally. The carver who prepared the meat for cooking therefore had a job that required both expertise and a solemn devotion to the good of the whole community.

When the Athenians were organizing their state and assigning one official to responsible for managing the state finances, it makes sense that they would invoke the image of the old sacrificial carver for an official who would take on a post of such weighty responsibility, but this is not where the saga of tamias ends.

A treasurer’s job is not just to share out funds equitably but also to store and guard valuable goods so they will be available in the future when needed. This is the idea invoked by the scientific name Tamias striatus (literally ‘stripey treasurer’) for this fellow. The chipmunk carries food in its big cheek pouches and stores it for the winter in its burrow.

From food to gold and back to food again: that’s the history of tamias.

Image: Eastern chipmunk, photograph by Cephas via Wikimedia

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The Curious Case of Cambyses and the Apis Bull

The Persian king Cambyses has a bad reputation. He has come down in Western histories as a prototypical mad emperor: arrogant, violent, and contemptuous. The centerpiece of this narrative is his treatment of the Egyptian Apis bull, but the evidence does not match up with the stories that have come down to us.

Cambyses ruled the Persian Empire from 530 to 522 BCE. Under his rule, Persia expanded westward to conquer Egypt. Egypt was a valuable prize for Persia, phenomenally rich and well organized, with strong trade connections to the larger Mediterranean and Africa. The Persian conquest of Egypt went swiftly and easily. Holding the territory was another matter.

The Persian Empire was the largest empire in the world, indeed the largest empire that had ever existed up that that point in world history. Persia owed a large part of its success to a policy of cultural accommodation. Conquered peoples were left alone to follow their own cultures, speak their own languages, and worship their own gods; Persian culture was not imposed on them. Persian kings took steps to ensure continuity of local traditions and present themselves according to local ideals and expectations.

Cambyses followed this same policy in Egypt. He officially ruled as pharaoh under the Egyptian name Mesutire and he carried on the traditional religious and military activities of Egyptian kingship. Among those activities was providing for the Apis bull.

Egyptians believed that an aspect of the god Ptah came to Earth in the shape of a black bull, known as Apis. Apis was cared for in a special temple and lived a life of luxury. When one Apis bull died, it was believed that the spirit of Ptah was born again in another calf, somewhere in Egypt. The death of an Apis bull was therefore an occasion of important ritual: the old bull became identified with the spirit of the god Osiris and had to be mummified and ceremonially interred, meanwhile the hunt was on up and down the Nile for the next calf to be born with the proper signs. Since the new Apis bull could not be born until after the previous one’s death, properly recording and commemorating the event was crucial. The finding of the new Apis was also the occasion for a major religious festival, which was joyously celebrated throughout Egypt.

An Apis bull died during Cambyses’ time in Egypt. The precise timing of its death and the ceremonies for its burial are not entirely clear, but it was given a full and proper burial under Cambyses’ authority, as attested by the inscription on its sarcophagus:

Horus, Uniter of the Two Lands, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Mesutire, Son of Re, Cambyses—may he live forever! He has made a fine monument for his father Apis-Osiris with a great granite sarcophagus, dedicated by the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Mesutire, Son of Re, Cambyses—may he live forever, in perpetuity and prosperity, full of health and joy, as King of Upper and Lower Egypt eternally!

Translation by Amélie Kuhrt, The Persian Empire (London: Routledge, 2007) 4.13

The cult of the Apis bull was closely connected to kingship in Egypt and this inscription shows Cambyses fully engaged in his role as Egyptian pharaoh. He associates himself with the royal falcon god Horus and shows filial deference to both the sun god Re and to the spirit of the dead Apis bull. Whatever Cambyses may have personally believed, he was making sure that his public behavior was irreproachable as a king of Egypt.

Which makes it strange to turn back to the Greek sources and find a dramatically different account of Cambyses and the Apis bull:

When Cambyses returned to Memphis [after an unsuccessful military campaign in the south], Apis (whom the Greeks call Epaphus) appeared in Egypt. When Apis appears, the Egyptians at once don their best clothes and hold a celebration. Seeing this, Cambyses was convinced that they were celebrating his misfortunes, so he summoned the rulers of Memphis. When they came before him he demanded to know why the Egyptians were behaving in this way, which they had not done before, just when he was returning having lost so much of his army. They answered that a god had appeared, one who only came to them after long stretches of time, and that it was the custom for all Egyptians to rejoice on such an occasion. Cambyses replied that they were lying and he put them to death for it.

He next summoned the priests, who told him the same thing. He replied that if a tame god had come to Egypt, he would know about it. He then ordered the priests to bring Apis before him, so they fetched him. Apis, or Epaphus, is a calf born of a cow which then cannot become pregnant again. The Egyptians say that a ray of light from heaven strikes the cow, and this is how Apis is conceived. The calf called Apis has these signs: he is black with a white triangular mark between his eyes and the shape of an eagle on his back, the hairs of his tail are double, and there is a beetle-shaped mark under his tongue.

When the priests led Apis in, Cambyses—who was a little disturbed in the head—drew his dagger and stabbed Apis, aiming for the belly but hitting the thigh. Laughing, he said to the priests: “Are these your gods, fools, of flesh and blood who can feel the bite of iron? This is a fitting god for Egyptians, but I will teach you to make a laughingstock of me!” Saying this, he ordered the priests whipped and any other Egyptians celebrating to be killed. So the festival ended and the priests were punished. Apis lay in the temple wasting away from the blow to his thigh. When he had died of the wound, the priests buried him in secret without Cambyses’ knowledge.

– Herodotus, Histories 3.27-29

My own translation

How did Cambyses go from a king properly honoring Apis to a tyrant mocking and killing him? The answer is: Egyptian resistance.

No matter how much Cambyses tried to behave like a traditional Egyptian pharaoh, he wasn’t one. Egypt had a strong sense of national culture, with a strain of isolationism. There were also internal conflicts within Egypt that the Persians did not manage with much success. Over time, as resentment against Persian rule built up, the memory of Cambyses the conqueror was adapted to suit Egyptians’ attitudes towards contemporary Persians. By the time Herodotus was traveling in Egypt asking questions about history—about a century after Cambyses—popular opinion had thoroughly rewritten the king’s reputation.

Herodotus and other Greek and Roman historians had no idea about Cambyses’ actual behavior in Egypt, and their own anti-Persian prejudices inclined them to accept any negative story about a Persian king. Thus Cambyses the arrogant bull-stabber became a fixture of Western history, even though he was only ever a figment of lurid anti-Persian rumor.

Image: Funerary stela for an Apis bull, photograph by Rama via Wikimedia (found Serapeum of Saqqara, currently Louvre; 643 BC; painted limestone

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Visual Inspiration: Two Birds, a Snail, and a Mushroom

A few more possibilities for speculative writers and artists looking to break out of the Eurocentric worldbuilding mold, this time from among the Earth’s birds, snails, and mushrooms.

The male pink robin (Petroica rodinogaster) has a bright fuchsia chest and belly; the female looks drabber, with merely pinkish-tinged underparts. These small birds live in the cool temperate forests of southeastern Australia.

Flickr Dave Curtis Pink Robin

The many-colored fruit doves (Ptilinopus perousii) live on islands in the south-west Pacific Ocean (Fiji, the Samoan Islands, and Tonga). The male is yellow on the wings and back, red on the head and neck; the female is greener, darker on the back and greyer on the head and breast.

Flickr Tom Tarrant Many-colored Fruit Dove

The violet snail (Janthina janthina) is a small purple mollusk found floating on the surface in tropical and temperate seas worldwide.

Flickr Ian Jacobs Janthina janthina Cropped

Indigo milk cap (Lactarius indigo) is a species of generally blue or blueish mushrooms found in eastern North America, East Asia, and Central America. The milk that oozes out of a cut or broken mushroom is also indigo blue, but slowly turns green upon exposure to air. According to Wikipedia, it’s edible and sold in rural markets in China, Guatemala, and Mexico.

Wikipedia Dan Molter Lactarius indigo
Flickr Arthur T LaBar Indigo Milk Cap

Aren’t they all incredible?

Images: Pink robin by Dave Curtis on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Many-colored fruit dove by Tom Tarrant on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). Violet snail cropped from photo by Ian Jacobs on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0). Indigo milk cap by Arthur T. LaBar on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0) and by Dan Molter via Wikipedia.

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?

Why I Won’t Be Eating Porgs– I Mean Puffins

A news and culture writer Andrew Husband writes in “Porg Recipes For The ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ Fans In Your Life” on Uproxx that us Nordics eat puffins:

“[…] we’ve put together a short recipe list — consisting of hors-d’oeuvre, entrées, and entremets based on traditional puffin and poultry dishes — for your perusal.

“Yes, you read that right. Despite being protected by several national and international conservation organizations, puffins are considered a rare delicacy in Nordic countries. And seeing as how The Last Jedi‘s porgs are based on the puffins writer/director Rian Johnson saw while filming at Skellig, it makes sense their preparation would be similar.”

As a source for his wild claim, Husband offers all of one link, and that goes to a CNN Travel article Iceland food can be unusual; check out these 10 dishes”.

Here’s my official response as a Nordic person:

Yeah… nope. Nopety-nope-nope-nope. So much NOPE!

While Iceland is unquestionably one of the Nordic countries, it’s ludicrous to claim that the existence of a practice in one country (or even two) equals its existence in all five.

Now, had Husband talked for instance of reindeer, he would be more correct, but still not entirely so. The Sami herd reindeer in the north of Finland, Sweden, and Norway, so we three nations tend to eat reindeer meat. In fact, sauteed reindeer or poronkäristys was one of the regular dishes at my elementary school cafeteria in Northern Finland, so I personally couldn’t call it a delicacy even though I’ve eaten it less often since. In Denmark and in Iceland it’s an import, and apparently they hardly eat reindeer at all (or so the all-knowing Internet tells me).

But puffin? I’ve never even heard of eating puffin before, although it sounds like the practice does have long roots in Iceland and Norway (judging e.g. by the existence of lundehunder or puffin dogs in the latter) and some other areas like the Faroes. And now that I know Atlantic puffins are considered vulnerable, I wouldn’t eat them even if I happened to be in a country where hunting them wasn’t banned. Not even if you paid me.

“Porg Recipes” arcticle found via File 770.

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

Ancient Clay Cup Animation

Oh, wow: quite possibly the oldest attempt at animation ever comes from some four thousand years ago. It’s a depiction of a goat jumping up a tree to eat the leaves:

The sequence laid flat looks like this:

Wikimedia Burnt City Iran Clay Cup Reproduction

And here’s a photo of the cup:

Wikimedia Burnt City Iran Clay Cup

Found via The Real Iran on Tumblr. My Tumblr source doesn’t unfortunately give any more info, but it sounds like the cup was found in the Bronze Age site of Shahr-e Sūkhté (or Shahr-e Sukhteh) in Sistan, southeastern Iran.

Just reading the Wikipedia page for Shahr-e Sūkhté makes my imagination run—a large trading route hub with connections to Mesopotamia, Central Asia, and India with rich material culture would make an excellent setting for historical or speculative fiction. (For example, among the archaeological finds from the Burnt City is apparently the world’s first artificial eyeball.)

Finding real-world inspiration like this is when I really wish I was a writer!

Images: Animation via Wikimedia. Reproduction via Wikimedia. Cup photo via Wikimedia (Shahr-e Sūkhté, Iran; late half of 3rd millennium BCE; clay).

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?


Paleolithic Siberian Unicorn

Besides being an awesome name for a band, paleolithic Siberian unicorn is an apt description of an animal otherwise known as Elasmotherium.

160630elasmotheriumElasmotherium was a prehistoric relative of the rhinoceros that ranged across central Asia and eastern Europe. It stood over 2 meters tall at the shoulder and its body was as long as 4.5 meters. Its distinguishing feature was an enormous horn on its face. The exact size and shape of the horn have never been determined, since no horn remains have been found, but the bony basis for the horn can be clearly seen on preserved skulls.

Elasmotherium was long thought to have gone extinct over 350,000 years ago, but recent work on a skull found in Kazakhstan has shown that the animal survived until at least 29,000 years ago. That puts living Elasmotheria in the middle of the upper (more recent) paleolithic (40,000-10,000 years ago). Humans certainly lived alongside them and may have depicted them in cave art.

Some have speculated that Elasmotheria survived even longer and may have been the inspiration for fantastical animals including unicorns, as described by eastern European legends, and the Chinese qilin. It’s impossible to verify such ideas, but they’re fun to think about.

Image: Elasmotherium via Wikimedia (c. 1920; painting; by Heinrich Harder)

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

Connections: Rome and the Arctic

160314glassFrom the city of Rome to the Arctic circle is a distance of about 2,750 km. At its greatest extent, the northernmost tip of the Roman empire was more than 1,000 km from the Arctic. Even across such a distance, however, there were connections. A couple of little pieces of evidence show us how knowledge of Rome could reach the far north, and how knowledge of the far north could reach Rome.

In Føre, Nordland, on an island in far northern Norway, is an ancient burial site. Over several centuries in the late iron age around 10 mound burials were raised of earth and stone. (The number is uncertain because some of the mounds have been destroyed by erosion and farming.) Not all have been excavated, but those that have have yielded the evidence of extraordinary wealth by local standards, including a Roman drinking glass buried in the only female grave so far known at the site. (The glass pictured is of a similar type, but not from the same site.)

It is very unlikely that Føre had any direct connection to the Roman world. Rather it was at the northern extreme of a network of trade and alliances that spanned Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea region which used Roman imports as high-status trade goods and diplomatic gifts. The people of Føre may have had very little idea of what the Roman empire was, but they had some access to Roman goods and valued them as precious objects.

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What If There Was White Moose Cavalry for Fantasy Winter Warfare?

What if there was a fantasy world where moose were tamed and selectively bred for cavalry? I spent some time pondering it after a couple of things found online collided in my head.

First, there’s this animated gif of a moose rushing through a deep snow-filled field:

moose rushing through a snow-filled field

Their size, speed, and ability to gallop through deep snowbanks make moose fearsome and pretty near unstoppable. Imagine a line of ginormous moose thundering at full tilt towards you across a field – that’s a truly frightening thought! Also bogs don’t slow them down by much, I believe, which might conceivably tip the scales in the right kind of a campaign.

Then, I saw this photo of an albino moose:

Yle Antti Terava valkoinen hirvi

Natural snow camouflage. Hmmm.

It’s not that far-fetched an idea, apparently. The Soviet Union attempted to build a moose cavalry in the first half of the 20th century, but they were unsuccessful. In our world, the solitary habits of moose seem to be standing in the way of domestication. If we’re talking about a fantasy world, however, I don’t see why not.

Images: Rushing moose gif via Crazy Hyena. White moose by Antti Terävä via Yle

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?

Travel: Animals

160222reindeerFrom the grand howdah-backed elephant to the plodding pack pony, from the solitary stallion to the caravan of a thousand camels, animals are often a part of how our characters get around. In previous entries to the travel series we’ve considered small and large groups traveling on foot. This time we bring animals into the mix.

Animals can be useful for travel, but they also bring their own challenges with them. The first thing we need to consider is what kinds of animals are useful for long-distance travel. Then we’ll look at the three main ways of using animals for travel: riding, pack, and draft. Finally, a word on the care and feeding of transport animals. As usual in this series, we are looking at real-world history: no griffins or dragon-drawn chariots. Take the information here and adjust as necessary for whatever setting you happen to be writing.

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Ostrich for Breakfast, Ostrich for Lunch, Ostrich for Dinner

Or: Some History behind Ostrich Riding, Part 6 of 7

Background: I ran into two historical images from California with ostriches used as transportation. That got me wondering about the history of ostrich riding. And that lead me down quite a rabbit hole.

I’ve divided my findings into separate posts (find them with the ostrich riding tag). Warning: serious early history and language nerdery ahead in Serious Academic Voice.

TL;DR – Tracing ostrich riding to a 3rd century BCE tomb find (a statue of Arsinoe II) from Egypt doesn’t hold up. The use of various ostrich products in human material culture dates back thousands of years. A few ancient depictions involve humans handling ostriches; however, extant sources don’t tell us whether ostriches were merely hunted or whether they were also tamed in the ancient world. The most promising source seems to be a description of a magnificent parade put together by Arsinoe II’s husband-brother Ptolemy II. This Grand Procession included eight chariots drawn by pairs of ostriches, and the ostriches may have been ridden by boys in costumes.

I had hoped to find a nice, neat selection of ancient texts putting the Greek word for ‘ostrich’ in context, but even a cursory look reveals that the history of the word strouthos is complex. At best, we can say that there are no immediate red flags either in the original Greek or modern English translations for Arsinoe II’s statue or Ptolemy II’s Grand Procession. The poem Berenice’s Lock was said to contain further evidence of ostriches as mounts in Ptolemaic Egypt after Arsinoe II’s death. Instead, what we seem to have is a case of poetic ambiguity translated with poetic license and taken uncritically as evidence.

Some centuries after Arsinoe II and Ptolemy II, ostrich riding may appear in the Roman Empire. Claims in some secondary sources turn out unverifiable, however. Researching primary sources helps but a little: on one hand, many of these texts either have problematic histories or their authorship or accuracy may be questionable; on the other, ostriches tend to appear in context of fighting in gladiatorial games, not being ridden or raced. Surviving visual art only confirms the appearance of ostriches in hunting and arena scenes the Roman territories, not riding or chariot-pulling. A description in the life of Emperor Firmus comes closest, but Historia Augusta, the source of his life, is considered unreliable.

Below is the long story.

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