Aug 12, 2017

Myths And Superstitions About Solar Eclipses


On August 21, 2017, much of North America will witness a relatively rare phenomenon:  a solar eclipse.  The last time North America saw a solar eclipse was in 1979.  After this year, North America will not see one again until 2023.  However, this year's eclipse is special because it will cross the U.S. from coast to coast.  The last time that happened was in 1918.

As one might expect, eclipses, both solar and lunar, have been the subject of much myth and superstition.  To ancient peoples, the sun was a constant, predictable force in their daily lives.  Many (if not most) ancient cultures worshipped the sun or had a god devoted to the sun.  When solar eclipses occurred, they struggled to explain what was happening.  In most (though not all) instances, solar eclipses were viewed as a bad omen, a time of great turmoil and disturbance.  For example, the ancient Greeks believed that a solar eclipse was a sign of angry gods and that it marked the beginning of disasters.

Many cultures sought to explain solar eclipses by reference to mythical animals devouring the sun. In Vietnam, for example, people believed that a giant frog devoured the sun; the Vikings believed it was wolves.  Some Native American cultures believed it was a giant bear.  In ancient China, a celestial dragon was responsible for eating the sun.  In fact, the oldest known word for an eclipse comes from China - chih or shih - which means "to eat."

Perhaps, the most unusual myth about solar eclipses involves the Hindu demon Rahu.  Rahu disguises himself as a god so that he can taste a nectar that grants immortality.  The sun and the moon spy Rahu and tell Vishnu.  Vishnu cuts off Rahu's head, and it goes flying across the sky, consuming the sun and the moon.

Because they tended to be viewed as disruptive events, predicting solar eclipses became an important skill to ancient people.  Existing records show that the Chinese and Babylonians were able to predict solar eclipses as early as 2500 BCE.

Even today, some cultures continue to view solar eclipses as a dangerous time.  Some believe that solar eclipses are dangerous for pregnant women and unborn children, so pregnant women are encouraged to stay indoors during a solar eclipse.







Jan 16, 2017

Are You Triskaidekaphobic? The Enduring Belief In "Unlucky" Friday The 13th


This past Friday was Friday the 13th, a day that casts fear and dread in the hearts of some 17 to 21 million people just in the United States.  Some people are so fearful of this day that they develop a phobia about it - triskaidekaphobia.  People who suffer from triskaidekaphobia may refuse to transact any business on Friday the 13th, go to work, or even venture out of their homes on Friday the 13th because of the belief that it is such an unlucky day.  Where does such a profound fear originate?  Why does it endure even in our modern age?  How does it manifest itself in the world around us?


Beginnings of a Belief in the Unlucky Day



Many theories attempt to explain the origin of the belief that Friday the 13th is an unlucky day.  One theory suggests that the belief is rooted in the Bible.  For instance, it is well known that Jesus was crucified on a Friday, making that day particularly ominous among the weekdays.  In addition, Judas, Jesus' betrayer, has traditionally been considered the 13th guest at the Last Supper.  Some biblical scholars also believe Eve tempted Adam on a Friday, and that Cain slew Abel on Friday the 13th. The 13th Psalm in the Bible also concerns wickedness and corruption.

However, others suggest an even older origin.  The ancient Romans cursed the number 13 due to their belief that witches gathered in covens of 12 members; the 13th member of their group was the Devil. So did the ancient Persians who believed that chaos would reign in the 13,000th year.

Moreover, according to Norse legend, the Viking gods hosted a huge feast at which 12 gods attended. Loki, the trickster god, showed up uninvited as the 13th guest and tricked one of the other gods (the blind god Hoor) into killing Balder the Beautiful (the god of joy and gladness) with a mistletoe-tipped spear. As the story goes, when Balder was slain the Earth fell into darkness and mourning.  A very unlucky day, indeed.

More modern explanations include the killing of the Knights Templar, which occurred on Friday the 13th in the year 1307.  It certainly was an unlucky day for them.

Numerology Weighs In


In addition to historical references supporting the belief that Friday the 13th is an unlucky day, numerologists also believe that 13 is an unlucky number.  12 is viewed as a "complete" number because there are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 gods of Olympus, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 disciples of Jesus, 12 tribes of Israel.  You get the picture.  13 is viewed as being outside of this "completeness," and therefore, an unlucky number.

For the numerologists out there, you may have noticed that this year's Friday the 13th was even more unique than in year's past.  Consider the fact the calendar date was 1/13/17.  1+1+3+1+7=13. Spooky, right?

Other superstitions echo this belief in the unlucky nature of 13.  For instance, there is an old superstition that, if you have 13 letters in your name, you are cursed.  Sounds silly, right?  But consider this - Charles Manson, Jack the Ripper, Jeffrey Dahmer, Theodore Bundy, and Albert De Salvo all have 13 letters in their names.  Adolf Hitler was born Adolfus Hitler...13 yet again.

An Enduring Belief


Whatever its origins, the belief that Friday the 13th is an especially unlucky day endures in spite of our modernity, and the belief manifests itself in the world around us.  Because so many people refuse to transact any kind of business on Friday the 13th, U.S. businesses lose almost $1 billion - that's with a "b" - every Friday the 13th.  80 percent of all high-rise buildings in the U.S. do not have a 13th floor.  Hotels and hospitals frequently do not have a Room 13.  Many airports do not have a Gate 13.

So is there anything to all of this uproar over Friday the 13th. Probably not.  It is a conflation of beliefs in the unluckiness of Friday and the unluckiness of the number 13.  Put together, the two are a powerful combination for those who are superstitious or have a tendency to believe that fate is a matter of luck rather than free will or determination.  For instance, many consider Dan Marino, quarterback for the Miami Dolphins to be one of the best quarterbacks who never won a Super Bowl.  Guess what his jersey number was...13.

For those who suffer from triskaidekaphobia, the fear of Friday the 13th is all too real, and it can be crippling. Those folks are breathing a sigh of relief that we are past Friday the 13th...for now.  Only one more to go this year - Friday, October 13, 2017.  Good luck!

May 30, 2016

The Great Library At Alexandria

Artistic rendering, Library at Alexandria, Britannica.com


 

Alexandria's Wealth Of Knowledge


The city of Alexandria in Egypt was founded by Alexander the Great at the end of the 4th century BCE.  The Great Library of Alexandria, also known as the Royal Library of Alexandria, (the Library) became one of the city's crowning achievements.  The Library also became the most famous library in antiquity.  Established in the 3rd century BCE, during the reign of the Ptolemies, the Library - at its height - is estimated to have held over 700,000 scrolls.  These scrolls covered everything from poetry to mathematics, astronomy to medicine.  According to one article from Ohio State University, the Library housed the ancient learning of Assyria, Greece, Persia, Egypt, India, and many other nations.

In addition to its vast collection of written knowledge, the Library also housed over 100 scholars from all over the Hellenistic world.  They engaged in research, teaching, inventing, and discovering.  Among these scholars was Euclid.  He wrote his seminal work on geometry at the Library.  Eratosthenes, another mathematician, learned how to measure the Earth's circumference.  Herophilos, whom many claim was the world's first anatomist, wrote at the Library about the human body, including works on how blood flows, the phases of childbirth, and the role of the brain in human thought.

Due in large part to the presence of the Library, Alexandria became the center of scholarship and learning in the Hellenistic world.  The Library helped establish Alexandria as the period's most cosmopolitan, culturally diverse city.


Sketch, Ancient Alexandria
Sketch, Ancient Alexandria

The Library's Organizational Structure


The contents of the Library were, as noted above, works written on scrolls.  According to Britannica.com, these scrolls contained the work's title, author's name, editor's name, its place of origin, length (in lines), and whether the manuscript was mixed (containing more than one work) or unmixed (containing a single work).  The Greek poet and scholar, Callimachus, also created a bibliographical survey of the Library's contents, fragments of which survive today.  These fragments show that the Library was divided into subject areas, including rhetoric, law, epic, tragedy, comedy, lyric poetry, history, medicine, mathematics, natural science, and miscellaneous.

What is also known is that the Library was part of a much larger complex that housed shrines dedicated to each of the nine muses, lecture areas and living quarters, observatories, and even a zoo.


The Library's Destruction

The most commonly accepted account of the Library's destruction occurred in 48 BCE.  At that time, Julius Ceasar occupied Alexandria.  When he attempted to leave the city by boat, a fleet of Egyptian ships blocked his exit.  Ceasar ordered his men to set fire to the ships, but the conflagration raged out of control, setting fire to the Library.  This account is not entirely reliable.  While the fire set by Ceasar did destroy a part of the Library, Marc Antony subsequently gifted 200,000 volumes to Cleopatra from the library at Pergamum to make up for these losses.  This gesture indicates that the Library was still in existence after Caesar's time.  In truth, the Library appears to have succumbed slowly to neglect and the upheavals that occurred in the Roman Empire as Christianity spread to Egypt, and not from a single, destructive event.

What Was Lost?


No one knows for certain what may have been lost when the Library was destroyed.  Undoubtedly, the Library housed important works we will never know even existed.  Today, all we have are tantalizing clues that hint at the extent of humankind's loss, but those clues suggest the loss was extensive.


Biblioteca Alexandrina:  The Modern-Day Library Of Alexandria

Bibliotheca Alexandrina Aerial View
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Aerial (Public Domain)
Officially opened in 2002, Alexandria boasts a new, culturally significant library known as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.  According to Wikipedia, the location of the modern-day library is "close" to where the ancient Library once stood.  However, this description cannot be verified because the original location of the Library is not known with certainty.

Bibliotheca Alexandrina is a vast complex consisting of a main library with shelf space for 8 million books plus a specialized library containing all the works by Nobel laureates in literature since 1901.  There is also a specialized library for children as well as one for the blind or visually impaired.  The collections at Bibliotheca Alexandrina were donated from all over the world.

In addition to its impressive library collections, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina has conference space, four museums (including an antiquities museum), four art galleries for temporary exhibitions, 15 permanent exhibitions, a planetarium, and a manuscript restoration laboratory.


Nov 29, 2015

In Search Of Queen Nefertiti

In 1922, Howard Carter discovered the entrance to the tomb of King Tutankhamen, the "boy king" of Egypt's 19th Dynasty. Tutankhamen - "Tut" for short - ruled Egypt for only 10 years.  He died in approximately 1324 BCE.  When Carter peered inside the tomb, his benefactor, Lord Carnarvon, asked, "Can you see anything?"  Howard famously replied, "Yes, wonderful things."

According to Egyptian officials, King Tut's tomb may not yet have given up all its secrets.  Based on infrared scans of the tomb, archaeologists confidently believe they have discovered a hidden chamber behind the north wall of Tut's burial chamber.  For reference, the map below shows the layout of King Tut's tomb.

As if the discovery of a secret chamber inside King Tut's tomb was not, by itself, tantalizing enough, Nicholas Reeves, a professor of archaeology at the University of Arizona, believes the hidden chamber is the final resting place of none other than Queen Nefertiti.

Nefertiti remains one of Egyptian history's most famous figures.  In life, Nefertiti was known not only for her striking beauty as shown by the well-known bust below, but also because she ruled alongside her controversial husband, the pharaoh Akhenaten, who regarded as the "Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt."

In death, Nefertiti has proven to be elusive.  Despite past claims to the contrary, her remains have never been found.  If she is discovered interred in King Tut's tomb, the find would be one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time.

Discovering Nefertiti inside King Tut's tomb would also raise interesting and provocative questions about the tomb itself. According to am article in the New Yorker, when Howard Carter first descended the stairs into King Tut's tomb, he did not think the tomb was very kingly, despite the fact it was filled with treasure.  For example, relative to other pharaohs' burial chambers, Tut was laid out in a small room.  Moreover, the room was oriented to the right of the tomb, not to the left as was customary at the time.  Facts such as these lead some archaeologists - including Reeves - to suspect that the tomb may, in fact, have been constructed for Nefertiti, with Tut laid to rest in it as an afterthought when the "boy king" died suddenly and unexpectedly at age 19.

"If I'm wrong, I'm wrong,"  Reeves has said of his theory.  "But, if I'm right, the prospects are frankly staggering."

Others urge caution.  They point out that, even if there is a hidden chamber inside the tomb, the chamber might house another mummy, contain more treasure, or simply be empty.

For now, Reeves' theory - far more tantalizing than an empty room - has lit up the Internet and excited Egyptophiles around the globe.  You can read more about this story at the links provided below.

Nov 28, 2015

Chateau de Guedelon: Modern-Day Castle Building In France

Chateau de Guedelon, partially completed, showing building techniques
Castles occupy a special place in the hearts and minds of many, particularly those interested in medieval history. In addition to being marvelous examples of period architecture, castles bring to mind images of chivalrous knights, kings riding into battle, feasts, royal intrigue, jesters, and jousting tournaments.

Residents of Treigny, France are watching this history and architecture come to life. Beginning in 1997, a team of archaeologists and some 50 laborers started building a 13th-century castle in Treigny, called Chateau de Guedelon.  But here's the catch: they are building it using only materials and techniques that would have been available to castle builders in the 13th century.  The workers even wear period clothing.

Treigny, which is located in the Burgundy region of France, was chosen as the site because of its close proximity to the materials and resources needed to build a 13th-century castle, including the availability of a nearby stone quarry, a water source, and a forest. The map to the right shows the location of Treigny:
According to the official English language website for the project, in 2016, Chateau de Guedelon will be open for tourism from the 14th of March until the 1st of November.  The castle already draws some 300,000 visitors per year, according to the UK Telegraph's online travel magazine.

You can watch this short YouTube video clip, showing just a few of the many painstaking steps involved in the project:


You can also learn more about Chateau de Guedelon from its Facebook page or Wikipedia.

Jul 14, 2015

Owls In Mythology, Folklore & Superstition

When it comes to birds, one must admit owls rank at the top of any "most fascinating" list.  Is it their wide-eyed look, giving them that all-knowing gaze?  Maybe, it is their nocturnal hunting habits, lending them a predatory reputation.  Then, of course, there is their "hoot" - a signature call among all bird species.  Without question, the owl's call has the ability to capture our imaginations while, simultaneously, sending a chill down our spines.

For whatever reason, owls have a certain air of mystery about them.  Consequently, throughout history, owls have been the subject of many beliefs.  Sometimes, these beliefs venerate the bird; others deride them.  This article looks at the different ways in which owls have been characterized in Classical mythology, folklore, and superstition.

Owls In Greek Mythology


Owls on ancient Greek pottery, 4th century BCE
According to Greek mythology, Athena favored the owl above all other birds, particularly the Little Owl (Athene noctuna) which inhabited the Acropolis.  For the ancient Greeks, the owl represented a protector, especially for Greek armies.  It was believed that, if an owl flew over an ancient Greek army during battle, the army would be victorious.  The Greeks depicted owls on coins and many other items, as shown here.

Ancient Greek coins depicting Athena on one side, the owl on the other


Owls In Roman Mythology


Although the Romans borrowed much of their culture from the Greeks, they did not embrace owls.  Sometimes the owl is depicted alongside Minerva; however, owls were generally seen as an omen of bad luck.  Romans believed witches transformed themselves into owls in order to suck the blood of babies.  To dream of an owl meant especially bad luck for travelers.  Finally, unlike the Athenians who protected the owls of the Acropolis, Romans believed that, if you nailed a dead owl to your front door, you would avert the birds' evil.

Owls In Other Legends & Folklore


The Greeks and Roman were not the only cultures to form beliefs about owls.  Owls occupy places of both reverence and revulsion across the world.  In English folklore, for example, owls - being a night bird - epitomized death and evil.  Similar to the Romans' belief, English folklore dictated that nailing a dead owl to the door of a barn warded off evil.  English poets wrote about the owl as the "bird of doom."

According to Indian mythology, however, the barn owl is associated with the Hindu goddess of wisdom, Lakshmi.  By associating the owl with wisdom, Indian mythology bears some similarity to that of ancient Greece.  In certain parts of India, however, owls were not always revered quite the way they were in ancient Greece.  In southern India, for example, the hoots of an owl could spell good fortune or ill, depending on the number of times the bird cried.

On the African continent, the owl is frequently associated with wizards or sorcerers, as seen in the Bantu and Zulu cultures.  As such, the bird has a generally bad reputation.  In Morocco, the cry of an owl is especially potent, capable of killing an infant.  Similarly, the Swahili believe that an owl can bring illness to children.

In Indonesia, the owl is thought to be very wise.  Similarly, to the Aborigines of Australia, consider the owl sacred because it is believed the souls of women become owls (men become bats, incidentally).

In the ancient cultures of the Americas, not surprisingly, one finds differing beliefs about the owl.  For the Aztecs, the owl was associated with an evil god.  However, the Incas venerated the owl.  For most Native American cultures, however, the owl symbolized death; hearing one's hoot was considered an unlucky omen.  You can learn more about many Native American legends related to owls here.

Owls In Modern Pop Culture


Much of the mythology, folklore and superstition surrounding owls continues to influence the way these marvelous birds are depicted in modern pop culture.  Like the ancient Greeks, we associate owls with wisdom.  Many remember the wise - if not somewhat cunning - "Mr. Owl" from the vintage Tootsie Pop commercial.  For those of unfamiliar with the commercial, check it out below to see how "Mr. Owl" is referred to as the "wisest" of all the animals.



"Owl" in Winnie the Pooh
Similarly, in Disney's Winnie the Pooh series, "Owl" often gives the other characters advice.  You can see him depicted at left.  According to Disney's Winnie the Pooh page, Owl "is considered a bit of a know-it-all, though his friends...always seek his advice.  Unfortunately, he often misses the mark."

"Hedwig" in the Harry Potter series
Most recently, we have seen owls appear in pop culture through the "Harry Potter" series.  In the stories, owls accompany many of the student witches and wizards attending Hogwart's.  In fact, Harry Potter, the main character, has a pet owl named "Hedwig."  Hedwig was played by the Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), pictured right. 

Depicting owls as the associates - and protectors - of witches and wizards reveals a modern-day link to the beliefs of many ancient cultures.  You can read more about the owls of "Harry Potter" here.

If you are interested in the myths, folklore and superstitions about owls, you will find a wealth of information about these birds at Owl Pages.  It is a must-read site for anyone keen on learning all there is to know about owls.  For those of you interested in owls in popular culture, check out this site here.





Jul 9, 2015

Does Egypt Plan To Resurrect The Lighthouse At Alexandria?

Pharos Lighthouse Lighthouse Of Alexandria
Pharos Lighthouse, Lighthouse At Alexandria, Image courtesy of Wikipedia



History & Construction Of The Lighthouse At Alexandria


The Pharos Lighthouse, or Lighthouse At Alexandria (the Lighthouse), was built in Egypt during the reign of the Ptolemies.  The Lighthouse was the last-built of the "Seven Wonders of the Ancient World."  Completed by Sostratus of Cnidus in about 280-279 BCE, the Lighthouse towered above Pharos Island in the harbor at AlexandriaSome estimates say the Lighthouse was 350 feet high (110 meters).  Others place its height closer to 377-443 feet high (115-135 meters).  Regardless, for its time, the Lighthouse was the tallest man-made structure on Earth except for the Great Pyramid at Giza.

The Lighthouse stood for some 1,500 years, surviving the ravages of time and even a tsunami which struck the Mediterranean in 365 CE.  Unfortunately, Egypt is an area prone to earthquakes.  Over the years, tremors caused damage to the Lighthouse, requiring restoration in the 10th century.  Finally, in 1303, a massive earthquake badly damaged the Lighthouse.  Egyptian records tell us that a further and final collapse occurred in 1375.  Ruins of the Lighthouse remained at the site until 1480 when much of the stone was used to build the Medieval fortress, Citadel of Qaitbay, still standing on the site today.
Citadel of Qaitbay, Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Thanks to the detailed writings of Moorish travelers Idrisi and Yusuf Ibn al-Shaikh, however, we have a rather precise description of what the Lighthouse looked like.  For example, we know that the Lighthouse was built in three sections, more closely resembling early skyscrapers than the slim, single-column style lighthouses of today.  The first section was a stone pedestal, shaped like a massive box.  On top of the pedestal sat the second level, an octagonal-shaped tower.  Perched above the tower was a cylindrical structure reaching up to an open cupola where a fire burned, emitting light.  Finally, based on recent archaeological finds in the Mediterranean Sea, it is believed that a giant statue of Poseidon adorned the top of the Lighthouse.

Much more could be said about the extraordinary construction of the Lighthouse.  There are even legends which claim the Lighthouse was used not only to light ships' way, but also as a weapon, its giant mirror capable of setting ships ablaze.  You can read more about the history and construction of the Lighthouse in this excellent article here or this article from Wikipedia.

Resurrecting The Lighthouse At Alexandria?


Recently, Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities announced in a privately-owned, Egyptian
newspaper, Youm7, that comprehensive studies and a final building plan for the new Lighthouse project had been submitted to Alexandria's governor for approval.  At the present time, however, little is known about the details of these studies or plans.  According to one source, the new Lighthouse will be built on a parcel of land a few meters to the southwest of the original Lighthouse.

Another source - critical of the new Lighthouse project for lacking financial accountability or public transparency - reported that the project included not only the building of a new Lighthouse, but also a residency hotel for tourists as well as other structures.

With the current unrest between Egypt and the Islamic State, coupled with Egypt's own internal economic and political challenges, it will be interesting to see if this new Lighthouse project actually gets underway.  For it to succeed, Egypt will need to attract substantial investment.  This may not be easy to pull off given Egypt's current circumstances.

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