Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sushi-A Brief Tour

I’m Sushi and I Know It

10,000 years ago in Japan, people had to find a replacement for the meat of large land mammals that disappeared along with the Ice Age. Archaeologists think that they may have been eating acorns.  Not exactly my idea of a great meal.  Maybe that is what drove them to learn to make canoes so that they could reach the better fish further from the coast.  Of course, they didn’t have refrigerators, so they dried the fish.  This first version of sushi was not raw at all, and there was no rice in sight. 
 Inuit Men Drying Fish

And what about the rice?  Rice wasn’t readily cultivated in Japan until 400 BC.  The hull around the rice grain was difficult to remove, and so a system using mallets was created.  This also removed most of the bran, which makes rice brown.  The early Japanese people probably ate a kind of beige colored rice, not really brown, not really white. 

In Southeast Asia, another piece of the sushi puzzle was coming together.  Along the Mekong River in Thailand, Laos, and southern China, the people ate freshwater fish.  The fish weren’t always around though, and the people found a way to preserve fish for the seasons when the fish were gone.  They would pack them in jars full of salt and let it ferment.  Viola, fish sauce, which usually makes first timers want to vomit.  And speaking of vomit, some people couldn’t get the salt to make fish sauce, and others wanted fish, not mush.  Experimentation led to packing a cleaned fish in cooked rice.  The sugar would turn to alcohol, preserving the fish.  However, the liquid was disgusting.  One 12th century Japanese source describes it as, “no different from the vomit of a drunkard.” Hence the suggestion that the word sushi actually means something like sour fish.  Even so, by 718 AD, sushi could be used to pay taxes.
Villagers Making Fish Sauce

Making Sour Fish

Around 900 AD. the wealthy people of Japan  began to feel that they were too refined to eat miso, another result of fermented rice, but this time mixed with the mold Aspergillus oryzae and soy beans.  At the same time, Buddhism was spreading the idea of veganism, and people were trying to enhance the taste of meat free meals.  The solution was a brown liquid that was a by-product of the miso making process.  This liquid became known as soy sauce, and it could be used to make rice and vegetables taste better.  Later, it could also be used to make fish taste better.  Sometime around 1500, a slight modification in the process of making soy sauce led to the discovery of rice vinegar, which is another step closer to modern sushi.
 Making Miso

In Japan, there was a growing wealthy class by 1600.  This group of people owed their status to a powerful warlord who united Japan. It was during this time that several different things happened that led to sushi as we know it today.  The warlord banned the Samurai from carrying swords, and so craftsmen turned to making kitchen implements, including knives that are still among the sharpest in the world.  So much money flowing made it more profitable for fishermen to bring their fish in from the ocean, and people began to eat sushi earlier and earlier in the fermentation process.  Eventually they were eating fresh fish and fresh rice. 

Sushi in the late 1600s and early 1700s was a kind of fast food.  It was sold from street stalls.  Chefs pressed cooked rice into bamboo baskets and topped it with sliced fish.  They would cut pieces out, like cutting a cake, and serve them to people who would eat them with their fingers while standing in the street.  In Kyoto, people liked their rice sweet, while in Tokyo, they liked their rice tangy.  So two distinct types of sushi developed.  It was in Tokyo, then called Edo, that sushi rolls were first served.  In 1818, a chef named Yohei Hanaya wanted to make and serve sushi even more quickly.  He started rolling the rice and fish by hand.  He called the pieces nigiri.  There is even a poem from the time.

                          Crowded together, weary with waiting
                          Customers squeeze their hands
                         As Yohei squeezes sushi.

In 1849, gold was discovered in California, and Japanese men began to flock there along with everyone else.  They began as laborers, first on the railroads, and then in the produce fields that began to supply the country with fruits and vegetables.  By 1910, more than 40,000 Japanese lived along the west coast.  In Los Angeles, Little Tokyo was still growing.  Discrimination was high, and jobs were limited to mostly low paying labor.  Few people had the money for sushi.  Field workers subsisted on discarded fruits and water from irrigation ditches, with flour dumplings as a treat.  Railroad workers lived on canned fish and rice.  However, these immigrants were resourceful, and began to open produce shops and small shops selling imported Japanese foods.  They also opened restaurants, though most of the customers were white.

Through careful planning, the Mutual Trading Company was formed.  Originally it was intended to provide affordable Japanese food for those who were homesick.  WWII put a hold on the business, but the kindness of some Catholic nuns kept the business from going under.  When the war ended, Noritoshi Kanai joined and decided that the company needed to appeal to Americans to be able to continue.  He traveled Japan trying to find the right products.  On one trip in the 1960s, he brought along an American businessman named Harry Wolf (insert snicker here).  Harry went with Kanai to a sushi bar and fell in love.   The two men decided America needed sushi. 
  Noritoshi Kanai

In 1966, Kanai brought a sushi chef to L.A., and installed a sushi bar in a restaurant called Kawafuku.  The place was a hit, but with Japanese businessmen, not Americans.  Sushi bars did begin to open in Little Tokyo, and the Japanese businessmen began to take their American colleagues.  When that first sushi chef went back to Japan, he told his friends about the money to be made in L.A.  There was a rush to America to open sushi bars.  It was 1970 when things really began to change.  A sushi bar was opened near Beverly Hills, and the stars came out.  Celebrities jumped on the exotic meal and it became trendy.  Then restaurants opened in New York and Chicago.  Sushi was on the rise, and the timing was perfect.  Congress announced the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, and the harmful effects of red meat.  Americans began to look at sushi in a whole new way. 
From fish jerky with acorns, to vomit inducing fermented fish, sushi has changed dramatically to become the elegant meal we know today.  It is mass produced by robots and packed into tidy plastic packages now.  In larger cities, you pick your preference from a conveyor belt.  Since 1999, women have been able to go to sushi bars, which were formerly the realm of men.  Women are also crossing to the other side of the bar as chefs, despite the attitude that real sushi chefs are almost like the Samurai of the past.  The training is rigorous, and often involves a lot of yelling, slapping, and stress.  Traditional sushi chefs expect perfection, and there are tons of hidden rules to follow.  And just like with everything else, Americans have changed sushi too.  Wasabi is meant to be eaten only with plain raw fish.  Ginger is meant to clean the palate between different types of nigiri.  We eat our sushi with a lot of sugar added to the rice. And to most Japanese sushi aficionados, American sushi is inside out.  Still, sushi is a food that has always rolled with the punches.  If you haven’t tried it yet, why not take a chance!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Eggs and Bunnies and Crosses, Oh My!

Easter-Another Mixed Up Holiday

First, let me apologize for not posting last week.  We had company from out of town, my daughter had her first track meet, and time ended up getting away from me.  I'm sorry!

Second, let's talk about compromise.  You may be thinking, "What does that have to do with Easter?"  Like some other holidays we have already discussed, Easter is a a compromise between Christianity and the various "pagan" holidays that pre-date Christ. 

Winters in Northern Europe are long, dark, and very cold.  Thousands of years ago, winter meant that many people would die before spring.   The plants looked dead, many animals migrated or hibernated, and the sun was rare.  Spring marked the return of life.  People celebrated the arrival of spring with feasts and bonfires.  They showed their thanks for all the newborn animals, the blooming flowers, and the return of the sun to grow crops.  There was even a goddess of spring.  Eostre was her name, and the hare was her favorite animal.  Eggs were also an important part of spring.  They were a symbol of new life, and were given as gifts.

When Christian missionaries began to make their way north, they encountered these long held traditions and faced a dilemma.  If they forced people to give up their traditions, resentment would spread and few converts would result.  Instead, they decided to compromise.  They simply incorporated the traditions into Christianity.  Instead of celebrating the return of spring, they were now celebrating the resurrection of Jesus.  Instead of the egg being a symbol of new life in spring, it was dyed red to represent the blood  of Jesus.  Eventually, most people forgot about Eostre, and the new holiday spread far and wide. 

Compromise was occurring elsewhere during the early years of Christianity.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all recorded detailed accounts of the events leading up to Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection, but no one recorded a date.  Early Christians, in secret of course, celebrated according to the timing of Passover, since this was the meal Jesus shared with his disciples the day before his crucifixion.  The first official record of Easter, which wasn't yet it's name, is from Irenaeus around 200 AD.  He wrote about fasting and a sunrise service, but that was the extent of the holiday.

I wasn't until 325 at the Council of Nicaea that the Church settled on a way of setting the date for Easter.  It was decided that everyone would celebrate on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox, and that the date had to fall between March 22 and April 25.  It seems confusing to modern Christians, but at the time, most people relied on the moon to plan their daily events.  The Council also decided that the forty days leading up to Easter would be a time of fasting and personal sacrifice.  The fast would end on Easter Sunday with a feast.  This period of fasting did not gain the name Lent (Latin for suffering) until Pope Gregory released his calendar over a thousand years later.  Gradually the Holy Days were named, beginning with Ash Wednesday.  The rules for fasting were hammered out after centuries of trial and error. 

When the Reformation spread across Europe, many Protestant churches dropped the Christian holidays, including Christmas, Easter, and Lent because they felt that there was too much  paganism involved.  Martin Luther, however, did not recommend this course.  He actually said, "Lent, Palm Sunday, and Holy Week shall be retained, not to force anyone to fast, but to preserve the Passion History." Despite his efforts, the holidays were discouraged by Protestants, and eventually faded out in many areas.  The traditions were kept in Germany  though, and when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840, Easter returned to England.  Celebrations of the holiday quickly spread around the world. 

Today, when many traditons are losing ground, Lent actually seems to be gaining in popularity.  It is one of the most heavily attended church services of the year.  Easter has survived a lot of the commercialism of other holidays, perhaps because of its floating date.  Families join for feasts of ham or lamb.  Children go to Easter Egg Hunts or egg rolling races.  There are parades and baskets full of candy.  The ancient symbols of new life are still used to celebrate today. 

There is so much information about Easter that I have topics for years to come!  As I leave you to prepare for your visit from the Easter Bunny and your trip to church in your new clothes, I want to share some lines from my two favorite songs associated with Easter.  Enjoy!

Lo in the Grave  Robert Lowry
  1. Low in the grave He lay—
      Jesus my Savior!
    Waiting the coming day—
      Jesus my Lord!
    • Up from the grave He arose,
      With a mighty triumph o'er His foes
      He arose a Victor from the dark domain,
      And He lives forever with His saints to reign.
      He arose! He arose!
        Hallelujah! Christ arose!
  2. Vainly they watch His bed—
      Jesus, my Savior!
    Vainly they seal the dead—
      Jesus my Lord!
  3. Death cannot keep his prey—
      Jesus, my Savior!
    He tore the bars away—
      Jesus my Lord!


Easter Parade  Irving Berlin

In your easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it,
You'll be the grandest lady in the easter parade.
I'll be all in clover and when they look you over,
I'll be the proudest fellow in the easter parade.
On the avenue, fifth avenue, the photographers will snap us,
And you'll find that you're in the rotogravure.
Oh, I could write a sonnet about your easter bonnet,
And of the girl I'm taking to the easter parade

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Yoga and Christianity

A Very Brief History of Yoga

Wow!  When I decided on this week’s topic, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  A fellow teacher suggested I blog about something related to India because her class is currently studying the country.  I readily agreed.  When I started thinking about what to research, I remembered an incident from my own classroom.  Several years ago I was teaching girls at a small private school.  One of my responsibilities was to teach P.E. twice a week.  The girls enjoyed yoga, so we did it at least once a week.  One day I had a student tell me she couldn’t do yoga because it was against her religion.  I was speechless.  I had no idea why she would say such a thing, and didn’t have a clue what to say to her.  She explained to me that her grandmother told her that yoga was part of another religion, so she shouldn’t ever do it.  I have to admit I was stunned.  I had taken several yoga classes, and had never heard any mention of anything remotely related to religion.  After the request from my fellow teacher to include India in my blog, I decided yoga would be perfect to research.  Now I’m not so sure.  I never imagined the subject would be so complex, but I said I would take it on, so here goes!

Should my long ago student have been concerned about yoga conflicting with her Christian beliefs?  The answer is that it depends.  Most Western yoga is Hatha yoga.  It is focused on the physical aspects of yoga.  Participants learn asanas, or postures.  They learn to breathe properly, and learn techniques to relax and gain flexibility.  Most of these classes don’t mention religion at all.  They are simply fitness classes, and people of any religious background should be comfortable in such a class.  This was the type of class I was offering to my students. 

What might have been the motivation for my student’s grandmother to say what she said is the history of yoga.  Yoga has its roots in the earliest practices of Hinduism.  Written records from India extend back to the Vedic period.  The oldest information about yoga is a 4000 year old seal with a person in a classic yoga pose.  There is a heated debate about what happened before the Vedic period, and even about who the  Vedic speaking people really were.  Some say they originated in the Indus Valley, while others believe they were Indo-European invaders. Either way, it is clear that yoga has been practiced for centuries.

The first textual mentions of yoga come from the Vedic period of Indian history.  The Upanisads are texts which discuss a variety of topics related to Hinduism.  Their main focus is understanding Brahman (the Absolute Truth) through gaining knowledge, but yoga is discussed as one path to the Truth.  As yoga developed, it took many directions.  This is referred to as The Wheel of Yoga.  Raja-Yoga is the royal yoga, or the superior yoga.  It is intense in the training of the mind, not just the body, and is for practioners seeking true spiritual transcendence.  Hatha-Yoga is the type of yoga most practiced in the West.  This type of yoga is more physically based.  In India, Hatha is the beginners yoga, with the purpose of preparing the body to with-stand the more intense practice later.  Jnana-Yoga developed a bit later, and is first mentioned in the Bhagavad-Gita.  It is practiced by those who wish to focus on Krishna.  Many Jnana practioners actually study Proverbs chapter 4 in their practice.  Bhakti-Yoga is based on developing love for the Divine.  It is all about devotion.  Bhakti practioners study the works of St. Augustine, and learn to devote themselves to their chosen path.  Karma-Yoga was taught in the Bhagavad-Gita too.  This type of yoga is about thoughtful action, and how every movement, or lack of movement has an impact on everything else.  Those who practice Karma-Yoga today look to the example of Mahatma Gandhi.   Mantra-Yoga is about sound.  Mantra followers speak verses, poetry, hymns, and other forms of inspiriational material during their practice.  Much like certain sects of Catholic and Buddhist monks chant, Mantra is a type of chanting.  Laya-Yoga is a practice of using yoga to erase reality and join as one outside of the physical body.  Laya is against individuality because its practioners believe that promotes selfishness.  Integral Yoga was envisioned by Sri Aurobindo to deal with the influx of Western thinking in the modern age.  This school of thought believes that all paths of yoga are forgetting about the ability of the Divine to dwell in the human mind. 

 Rishikesh, India, the Yoga Capital of the World

Now that your head feels like it might burst with all this information, I will move away from definitions, and take a look at what was happening in India before, during, and after the Vedic Period.  Between 6500 and 4500 BCE, cities arose along the Indus and Sarasvati Rivers.  One such city, Mehrgarh, was the size of Stanford, California.  Culture was beginning to form in those cities which would eventually become the culture of India.  The Vedic Age was between 4500 and 2500 BCE.  During this time writings developed the ideas of wisdom, mathematics, and hymns.  It was also a time in which the great Sarasvati River dried up and many towns were abandoned.  From 2500-1500 BCE, the Brahmaniacal Age saw people moving east to the Ganges Valley.  The social system became increasingly complex, and Sutras were written.  Brahman priests rose to the top of society.  The Post-Vedic Period was from 1500-1000 BCE.  This period saw the writing of The Upanishads, and the beginnings of more intense spirituality.  During the Pre-Classical Age (1000-100 BCE), the Mahhabharata was written.  Jainism and Buddhism arose during this time.  The Ramayana was written in this period as well.  The Classical Age marks the time of the Gupta dynasty.  The six schools of Hinduism (next week’s topic) tried to outdo each other.  The Yoga Sutras were written, validating yoga as a path to the Truth.  A Chinese pilgrim named Fa-hien visited India and was impressed with what he saw.  He returned home and wrote about his time in India.  The Tantric/Puranic Age of Indian history happened between 500 and 1300 CE.  This period doesn’t change much philosophically.  Rather, it serves to solidify the ideas which had been growing for thousands of years.  It was during this time that the Puranas were written.  This was a compilation of historical, philosophical, and spiritual knowledge, including information about yoga.  The time between 1300 and 1700 is known as the Sectarian Age, and is a time when many Hindus became monotheistic and branched into sects that followed a single divinity. 

After 1700 begins the Modern Age.  This period is marked by colonialism, western influence, and the flow of Indian spirituality into the west.  This is the time when yoga began to travel outside of the areas dominated by Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism.  Westerners seeking spiritual fulfillment either went to India, or sought out specialists who they thought could provide guidance.  In America, yoga became popular in the 60s counter-culture.  In the 1980s, fitness experts and recreation therapists focused on the more physical aspects of Hatha yoga.  This is the primary type of yoga practiced in fitness centers, gymnasiums, and Mommy and Me yoga classes today.  The more serious yoga centers still offer the more spiritual based yoga classes.  There are even classes and videos of PraiseMoves, which incorporate yoga poses with Biblical scripture specifically for those Christians who fear the influence of other religions, but want the fitness or relaxation benefits of yoga. 
 Fitness Yoga

Yoga comes from the root word yuj, meaning to unite or harness.  Etymologically, it is related to the Latin word ligare, which means to bind or connect.  Ravi Ravindra, Ph. D.
says that this means that yoga is is about making a connection to the Spirit.  Its purpose is to escape the slavery of our own selfish natures and get rid of impulsiveness.  He especially refers to the Gospel of John in his understanding of yoga and the connection with the Spirit.  He looks at the Sanskrit word sharira meaning mind, body, heart.  Ravindra directs his students to John 1:14 The word became flesh and dwelt within us.   Of this verse he says the Spirit is above the human mind and body, and through yoga people should work towards such a connection.
 Ravi Ravindra

Yoga has a long history with numerous paths.  I was surprised to find that many Christians avoid yoga, and just as surprised at how many yoga philosophers study the Bible.  It seems that colonialism has inextricably connected the two practices in India, but in the West there is still a dichotomy.  What would I tell my student if she said the same thing to me today?  I would probably give her a very shortened version of what I have just written.  I always feel that people should be armed with as much information as I can give them.  After that, it would still be her decision about what she would feel comfortable with.  I guess my conclusion for myself would be that like many things, yoga is what you make of it.  If you feel it is a spiritual path, that is what it will be.  If it is about fitness, then that is what you take from it.  Of course, I could be completely wrong.  That wouldn’t be the first (or last) time!!!!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

St. Patrick-One Man or Many Myths

St. Patrick-International Man of Mystery

While you are wearing green, or getting pinched this year, it may cross your mind to wonder why we even celebrate this holiday.  Who was St. Patrick, and why do 21st century Americans drink green beer in his honor?  A friend of mine asked me a variant of this question, and I will try my best to give a good answer.

The first thing that has to be done is to sort the facts from the legends.  St. Patrick was born some time between 387 and 416 A.D. in Wales.  His birth name was Maewyn Succat.  When he was a teenager, he was taken captive by Irish raiders and made a slave.  He was bought by a man named Milius and became a shepherd in the mountains.  It was while he was alone with the sheep that he began to feel a connection to God.  His own accounts claim that he prayed upwards of one hundred times a day, even in the rain and snow.  Then he says an angel spoke to him in a dream and told him to escape and find a ship.  He did what the angel in the dream said, and found a ship.  At first the captain denied him passage, but after praying to God for help, Succat was allowed on board.  A storm left the ship stranded on a rocky shore, and the men wandered, lost.  They were hungry, but Succat never lost hope.  More prayers brought a herd of wild pigs and full bellies.  Then the group was attacked by raiders, and Succat was again a prisoner.  This time he was set free and made his way to a village where he learned he had walked all the way home.

Soon, Succat began to feel that God wanted him to move on.  He couldn't stop thinking about it, so he left Wales and traveled to France.  There he entered a monestary and became a monk.  After much study, he became a priest, and got his new name, Patricius, which is Latin for Patrick.  Patrick continued his work for the church, and in 432 he was named a bishop.  Despite his success, he was not content.  He couldn't get the other slaves he left behind in Ireland out of his mind, and all of the non-Christian people still there.  Much of Ireland still followed the Druidic tradition.

He traveled back to Ireland and began teaching about God.  At first the people were either resistant or afraid. Patrick found ways to ease the transition from Druidism to Christianity.  He was a natural teacher who understood that heritage and tradition were important, and so instead of telling the Irish people that they were bad, he slowly convinced them that he served a kind God.  Gradually, more and more Irish people began to accept Christianity. 

Patrick died on March 17, 461.  Not long after, he was named a Saint, and his life began to be celebrated with feasts, dancing, and parties.  St. Patrick’s Day became an official holiday in 1607, more than a thousand years after he died.  As other Irish saints were forgotten, Patrick was more and more widely celebrated.  His legend grew.  By the late 1700s, the symbols we now associate with St. Patrick began to become common, including the shamrock. 

Because of the wide gap between Patrick’s death, and the creation of an official holiday, many scholars believe the Patrick we know today was actually several Christian teachers pieced together into one man.  We do have records of Succat, so we know who he was and that he existed.  However, many of the stories and legends are impossible to prove or disprove.  Miracles, such as the healing of a blind man when Patrick was only a baby, have endured, but no written records of those events from that time remain. 

The practice of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day traveled across the Atlantic Ocean with the Irish immigrants in the mid 1800s.  The Great Famine was forcing many Irish to leave their homeland to avoid starvation.  There was little to celebrate in Ireland, but those who made it to the United States were proud of their heritage.  They were also angry at the British for what they felt was a lack of help, and so many celebrations were also forms of protest.  Even in their new home, all was not well.  Irish immigrants faced outright discrimination and a lack of work opportunities.  Still, these proud people held St. Patrick’s Day parades in which Irish-American political candidates campaigned, in hopes that if they were elected there would be better treatment for Irish-Americans.  Slowly, as success came their way, Irish-Americans became more accepted, and St. Patrick’s Day became a holiday for everyone.  It has spread all over the world, and now, on March 17, we are all Irish for a day. 

St. Patrick’s Day today is a day for wearing green, talking about leprechauns, and possibly enjoying some green beer.  In the past, it was a day to treat oneself during Lent.  Children made special crosses to wear to church, and sang special songs.  They got to eat sweets that were forbidden during the rest of Lent.  After Mass, they would all go on a shamrock hunt.  The adults would have a feast and then dance and tell stories.  Until very recently, this was still the way the holiday was celebrated in Ireland.  In the United States, however, St. Patrick’s Day became more elaborate and boisterous every year.  It changed from a day of protest and pride into a day of huge parades and parties.  March is now Irish-American Heritage Month. 

And what about the symbols we use on St. Patrick’s Day?  Snakes and crosses are associated with a legend that says St. Patrick got rid of all the snakes in Ireland. The legend is actually a symbol itself.  It stands for the “pagans” that St. Patrick cleared away with Christianity.  The Shamrock, or seamrog, is an ancient Celtic symbol of spring and a charm against witches.  St. Patrick later used it in a lesson about the Trinity.  Green is for the “Emerald Isle” of Ireland with its lush green grass. Leprechauns have long been a part of Irish fairy tales, but in 1959, Disney connected them to the holiday in Darby O’Gill and the Little People.  The green-clad elves and their gold at the end of the rainbow became a symbol of the Irish spirit.  Irish music, dancing, and food have become popular at celebrations around the world.  People flock to parades, attend pub crawls, and buy soda bread and corned beef and cabbage.  School children search for the leprechaun’s gold coins. 

The symbols are supposed to remind people of the way the Irish people have faced their challenges and emerged successfully.  They are also a way of holding onto a heritage for people who are scattered around the globe.  So whether you are searching for chocolate coins, watching a green dyed river flow by, or watching a parade, remember that St. Patrick, whether he was one man or many, was a gentle person who became a success despite spending time as a slave far from home.  He wasn’t Irish, but he cared about the Irish people deeply.  On March 17, let’s all remember the resilience of St. Patrick, and the Irish people. 

An Irish Blessing
May your heart be warm and happy
With the lilt of Irish laughter
Every day in every way
And forever and ever after.

Some Jokes Just For Fun
How can you tell an Irishman is having a good time?  He’s Dublin over with laughter.

What’s the best month for a parade?  March

What is green and stays outside?  Paddy O’Furniture

And Finally, Two Clean Limericks By Edward Lear

There was an Old Man of Kilkenny,
Who never had more than a penny;
He spent all that money,
In onions and honey,
That wayward Old Man of Kilkenny.

There was an Old Man with a  beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!”

Erin go Braugh!!  (Ireland forever in Gaelic)

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Beware the Ides of March

What are the Ides?

When I was in Mrs. Welch's sophomore honors English class, way back in 1992, I remember reading
Shakespeare's tragic play Julius Ceasar.  Now, unlike most sophomores, I actually liked it.  I will never forget her telling us the meaning of the famous quote, "Beware the Ides of March."  Every year as we approach March 15, I think about that quote, and I wonder if March 15 is really supposed to be an unlucky day.  So, like last week, I will be exploring something that interests me.  I promise, next week I will be back to answering questions for other people. 

If, like me, you had to read Julius Ceasar in high school, then you probably remember the soothsayer telling Ceasar to, "Beware the Ides of March."  You may also remember that this was the date that Julius was betrayed and assassinated.  This event was recorded by Plutarch.  He wrote that 62 men, including Brutus and Cassius, were part of the conspiracy to assassinate Ceasar.  He also wrote that Ceasar had been warned by a seer that he would be harmed by the Ides of March.  Plutarch says that Ceasar joked that day that nothing had happened yet. 

Shakespeare dramatized Plutarch's comments in his famous play.  Most versions of the play have a side note or footnote that explains that the Ides of March was the 15th day of the month in the Roman calendar.  In a previous post, I explained some of the history of the Roman calendar, and that March, May, July, and October all had 30 days.  Ides, from Idus which means half division in Latin, were the middle point of each month, so for those four months, the Ides fell on the 15th.  The other months were shorter, and the Ides fell on the 13th. 

The ancient Romans said their calendar was created by Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome.  While no one knows if he actually existed, much less created the calendar, what we do know is that the Roman calendar was complex.  The first day of each month was named a Kalend (where we get the word for calendar!).  The seventh day of March, May, July, and October were called Nones.  The 5th day of the other months were Nones.  And of course, the Ides fell in the middle. Just like Roman numbers, which use I, V, X, C, and M and then count forward or backward from those, the days of the months worked the same way.  So just like VIII is three forwards from 5 to make 8, May 3 would be V Nones, or 5 days before the Nones. 

This system was confusing, and as we learned before, easily corrupted.  When the Julian calendar was adopted, this system remained, and was used well into the Middle Ages, and in some places until the Renaissance.  People in Shakespeare's time would have known about the Ides of March.

But did the Romans think the day was unlucky?  Not especially.  Actually, the 15th day of March was dedicated to the god Mars.  Mars was the god of war, and the day was celebrated with festivities and military parades.  So in reality, it seems to have only been unlucky for Julius Ceasar.  A quick look over the historic events occurring on March 15 shows that there isn't a lot of support for the day being any more unlucky than any other day of the year.  I also checked births and deaths for the day.  Nothing amazing stands out to me.  In short, March 15 is just a regular day.  Audiences in Shakespeare's time would have known it wasn't a day to fear as well.  He was only writing about one event, not suggesting that the day in general was unlucky.

On the other hand, the ancient Romans might have felt the Kalend of March was unlucky.  Just like today, bills were due to be paid on the first of the month.  I'm sure no one looked forward to that except the bill collectors!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Legend and Mystery-The Queen of Sheba

Queen-  1. a: the wife or widow of a king  b: the wife or widow of a tribal chief
2. a: A female monarch  b: a female chieftain 
3. a: a woman eminent in rank, power, or attraction  b: a goddess or a thing personified as female and having supremacy in a realm c: an attractive girl or woman
 A partial definition from Merriam Webster

(An Arabian Queen)

I Kings 10:1-13 (NIV)
1 When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relationship to the LORD, she came to test Solomon with hard questions. 2 Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan—with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones—she came to Solomon and talked with him about all that she had on her mind. 3 Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too hard for the king to explain to her. 4 When the queen of Sheba saw all the wisdom of Solomon and the palace he had built, 5 the food on his table, the seating of his officials, the attending servants in their robes, his cupbearers, and the burnt offerings he made at[a] the temple of the LORD, she was overwhelmed.
 6 She said to the king, “The report I heard in my own country about your achievements and your wisdom is true. 7 But I did not believe these things until I came and saw with my own eyes. Indeed, not even half was told me; in wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard. 8 How happy your people must be! How happy your officials, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom! 9 Praise be to the LORD your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the LORD’s eternal love for Israel, he has made you king to maintain justice and righteousness.”
 10 And she gave the king 120 talents[b] of gold, large quantities of spices, and precious stones. Never again were so many spices brought in as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.
 11 (Hiram’s ships brought gold from Ophir; and from there they brought great cargoes of almugwood[c] and precious stones. 12 The king used the almugwood to make supports[d] for the temple of the LORD and for the royal palace, and to make harps and lyres for the musicians. So much almugwood has never been imported or seen since that day.)
 13 King Solomon gave the queen of Sheba all she desired and asked for, besides what he had given her out of his royal bounty. Then she left and returned with her retinue to her own country.

(The Arabic interpretation of King Solomon)

       The Queen of Sheba.  Never has a name been so legendary, so contradictory, and so mysterious.  Who was she?  Did she even exist?  I have to admit this week's topic is one of my own choosing.  I've been thinking about this one since Sunday.  I was looking for something totally unrelated in II Chronicles, when I stumbled across the story of the Queen's visit to Solomon.  Of course, as a kid in Sunday school, I often heard the story, but the 25 verses in the Old Testament were all I knew (13 in I Kings, 12 in II Chronicles).
When I came across the story last week, my curiosity was renewed.  That led me to head to the library, and I will share with you what I learned.

     The Queen of Sheba (Saba in Hebrew) shows up in the holy texts of Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Rastafarians.  She is mentioned in the histories of several countries, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt, and even Nigeria.  Makeda, Bilqia, and Nikaulis are some of the names that have been attributed to her.  She is the inspiration for stories spanning a great romance with Solomon, her possible heritage as half djinn (genie), and even as a demon.  The story in the Bible was written down by an anonymous scribe of King Solomon, the sixteenth son of King David.  It is the only direct evidence of her existence that has been discovered to date.

                   (the ruins of the temple at Marib, called Bilqis Temple)

 Claimed by many countries, the Queen of Sheba has long been a source of fascination to historians who wanted proof of her existance and heritage.  What do we know for sure?  Her name was not Sheba.  That is the name of her kingdom in southern Arabia.  She must have lived and ruled sometime around the 10th century B.C. because that is when Solomon ruled.  Her country was known for trading.  It was wealthy in gold, incense, and spices which were much in demand in the known world.  Most accounts show she was strong, confident, and wise.  Here is where the rest becomes speculation.

     In recent years, archaeologists have begun to explore previously untouched areas.  In Yemen, where it is believed the Queen of Sheba ruled, they are beginning to excavate the ancient city of Mirab, and a temple there is promising.  There are also records from Ethiopia of a queen named Makeda from Ophir.  Scholars believe this was the name for Saba.  The dates are close as well.  In Ethiopian history, Makeda became a queen when her father died.  She is said to have had a child with Solomon named Menelik.  This child became king, and his descendants ruled until the Italians took over Ethiopia. 

(Menelik I)

     Some historians suggest that the Queen's great legend comes from her being a combination of several women rulers, and that the stories have solidified into one great queen.  There were many strong female rulers in Egypts, Ethiopia, and Arabia between 800 and 1050 B.C. so this is a possibility. 

     There is a great deal of debate surrounding the queen's appearance as well.  While she clearly wasn't European as many paintings depict, it isn't certain if she was Arabic or African.  Many accounts describe her as beautiful.  Some describe very hairy legs.  There are some more outrageous stories that say she had a donkey's hoof or goat's hoof.  Aside from that, little is mentioned about her appearance. 

(An artist's rendering of the Queen of Sheba)

     The kingdom of Saba is only recently of great interest to archaeologists, so not much information is available.  We do know that Yemen is located on the tip of the Arabian peninsula, on the Red Sea.  Across the sea lies the horn of Africa.  Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Djbouti, Sudan, and Egypt are all nearby.  Travel by sea was easier than travel by land in those days.  This allowed goods and cultures to flow easily between those countries.  In the 10th century B.C., Saba was a new kingdom.  The capital was Marib.  Historians estimate around 20,000 people lived there, and that a series of dams on the Wadi Adana allowed them to farm enough to feed everyone.  Marib is located in the mountains at the edge of the Arabian desert.  It is about 100 miles from the sea.  They had trade goods which were in high demand.  They had camels, and saddles, a written language, a wealthy elite, and several smaller cities.  Saba was well placed and ready to gain power.
 (Map of the Middle East.  Note the locations of Yemen, Israel, and Ethiopia)

     The next question many scholars ask is, would it have been possible for the queen to have learned of Solomon, and then to travel to Jerusalem?  Even at that time, traders and travelers moved throughout the Middle East and North Africa.  A trader or messenger could well have brought the news of Solomon.  Some even think a man named Timran could have been that messenger.  The queen would have had the means to travel to Jerusalem.  She may have been motivated by curiosity, the prospect of trade, or reasons of her own.  The journey would have been long, dangerous, and difficult, but not impossible. 

(A camel caravan in the Arabian Desert)

     Her caravan likely followed the Incense Road some 1500 miles through the desert.  It would have taken at least 75 days one way, with a long rest in between.  Her arrival in Jerusalem at the time was probably not impressive.  It was a small city of about 2000 people sitting on top of a hot, dry hill.  Solomon's palace was impressive, but Jerusalem wasn't. 

(An artist's rendering of King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem based on excavations)

     And what of the questions she asked Solomon when they met?  The Biblical account doesn't say.  Hebrew legends give a variety of riddles, often numbered at 22.  Most likely, the questions were trade related, but we will probably never know.

     What about the great romance?  This is based on the last verse of the story.  "King Solomon gave the queen of Sheba all she desired and asked for, besides what he had given her out of his royal bounty."  Many felt this was code for intimate relations.  It is possible that they sealed trade deals with intimacy, as that was not uncommon at the time, but it's just as possible that his bounty was in the form of food or other goods.  Some later accounts try to make the queen into a schemer, a gold-digger, or even a tempting demoness.  Those accounts probably come as a result of a woman who traveled alone such a long distance to have intelligent conversation with a man. 

     At this point it seems like a lot of speculation and very little fact.  Unfortunately, that is what I have learned about this ancient queen.  Much of what we "know" about the Queen of Sheba is based on oral history, legend, and those 25 verses.  My research left me with more questions than answers.  My next stop is to read Sheba by Nicholas Clapp.  Maybe I will revisit this topic with more information some day.  It's always possible that a big discovery could happen in Yemen or Ethiopia.  In the meantime, this legendary queen will remain a mystery.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Intolerable, Horrible, and Derisible-Measuring Time

Intolerable, Horrible, and Derisible

     Somehow, I ended up answering two seperate questions from two different people when I started my research for this week's blog.  My husband wanted to know why some months have 30 days, and others don't.  Then my mother asked me why the date of Easter changes every year when most holidays have a set date.  When I started looking for the answer to my husband's question, I inadvertently fell upon the answer to my mother's as well.

     Most of the world today follows the Gregorian calendar, but how did we end up with this way of measuring time?  And what did we use before?  Why did we switch?  You may have noticed in previous posts that I mentioned the Julian calendar.  Before we began using the current calendar, much of western Europe used the Julian calendar.  We need to examine the history of the Julian calendar to understand the Gregorian calendar, so here goes.

     The early Roman calendar was based on the moon.  It had 304 days broken into 10 months.  Mars (March), Maius (May), Quintilis (July), and October had 31 days, and the rest had 30.  The year started in Mars and ended in December.  No one is sure what was done about the other 60-61 days .  Around 715 BC, King Numa added January and February, though in reverse order.  He also changed the number of days in each month to bring the total to 355.

     The Roman calendar was deeply flawed, and became even more so over time as the pontifical college ( the officials elected to manage the calendar) manipulated it to benefit themselves.  Julius Caesar spent some time in the pontifical college before he became caesar.  He knew about the flaws and corruption, and made the calendar a priority of reform.  He called on the Alexandrian mathematician and astronomer, Sosigenes, for help.  Sosigenes recommended switching from a lunar year to a solar (sun) year, setting the year at 365 1/4 days, and adding a day every four years.  Unfortunately, Julius was assassinated before the reforms were fully instituted, and there was some confusion.  It wasn't until 9 B.C. (some 30 years after Julius), that Augustus fixed the calendar. 
     As Christianity spread from the Middle East into Europe, new flaws in the Julian calendar began to show.  Some Christians objected to the "pagan" names for the days and months.  Others felt that the ever shifting dates of holidays were a problem.  Many objected to the new year starting in March because this was also a "pagan" tradition. Still others felt that the way we numbered years needed to be changed to reflect the birth of Christ.  An Abbot named Dionysus Exiguus was the leader of this movement.  After much research, he felt he had discovered the exact date of Christ's crucifixion, and could also determine the exact date of his birth.  He then set the date of his birth as 1 A.D. and changed the way years were recorded before that date to B.C.  Dionysus didn't realize that his calculations were off by about 4 years though.  Christ was actually born in what we now call 4 B.C.  By the 11th century though, this method was commonly accepted, and still used today. 

     Despite the various flaws in the Julian calendar, it was the most widely used in Europe, and it was accepted by the church, which was all important at the time.  One major flaw became more apparent over time though.  Sosigenes set a year as 365.25 days, when it was actually 365.24219 days.  A little over 11 minutes in the course of a year isn't much, but over time it can really throw things off.  Even with a leap year every four years, the calendar was ending up a whole day off every 128 years.  More importantly, Easter was getting later every year.  Scholars began to send suggestions to the Pope, including Roger Bacon in the 1200s.  He called the Julian calendar, "Intolerable, horrible, and derisible."

     As astronomy became more accurate, the appeals for reform increased.  Various attempts at reform failed though, until Pope Gregory XIII in 1572.  He hired astronomer Ignazio Danti, and studied the work of Lilio, along with many of the suggestions scholars had been sending.  Armed with the information he collected, he set out to have a new calendar created.  On February 24, 1582, after 10 years of study and debate, Gregory signed the new calendar into effect.  There were still complaints, especially with the calculation of the date for Easter, but the Gregorian calendar slowly began to catch on.  I say slowly because some countries didn't adopt the calendar until the 20th century.  The American colonies switched in 1752. 

                                                         Thirty days hath September,
                                                         April, June, and November.
                                                         All the rest have thirty-one
                                                         Excepting February alone,
                                                         To which we twenty-eight assign
                                                        ‘til Leap Year makes it twenty-nine.
                                                                                   Anonymous 1500s

     So what did the Gregorian calendar change?  It set the dates for the equinoxes and solstices.  January 1 became the date of the new year.  Most holidays were given a specific date.  Leap year added a day to February to years that were divisible by four, except for years that end in 00, which must be divisible by 400.  While not perfect, the flaws are minor, and will only be obvious 10,000 years from the beginning of the calendar. 

     But what about Easter you say?  Well, it's not a simple explanation, and it involves a lot of math and astronomy, and even a little spirituality.  I will go a little deeper into Easter in April, but for now, here is the basic way of figuring out the date for Easter in the Gregorian calendar system: Easter must occur between March 22 and April 25.  It happens on the first Sunday after the full moon on or after the spring equinox.  Here is the catch though, it doesn't have to be a real full moon.  The date of the full moon is decided by an table of ecclesiastical numbers, and may not coincide with the real phases of the moon.  This was one of the problems that the church had with Gregory's calendar, and is still very confusing to people today.  For more about Easter, check back on April 7. 

From the Roman calendar, to the Julian calendar, to the Gregorian calendar, attempts to measure time have revealed that it's not a simple task.  Many other types of calendars have been used around the world.  Some are lunar, some are solar, and some use their own unique methods.  What is clear is that people like to keep track of time.