Sunday, January 31, 2010

Lego Egypt

Just saw this from Al-Ahram via Agade:

In "Secrets of the Pharaohs", Egypt's ancient monuments have been rebuilt in the basement exhibition area of the museum -- entirely in Lego.

Scale models of some of the nation's best-loved ancient buildings have been refashioned in large, colourful Lego bricks and are on display at the cool-lit basement gallery. Here is the Great Sphinx sitting in front of the three Giza Pyramids; here a team of ancient builders construct a temple while artisans decorate its walls and a scribe squats with a sheaf of papers to record the scene. Here is the mask of the boy king Tutankhamun, as well as some of his funerary collection.

The exhibition combines the fun of the famous Lego building blocks that everyone played with as children and the colourful and amazing history of ancient Egypt.

Visitors will have the chance to learn about daily life on the banks of the River Nile in ancient Egypt. There will be opportunities to learn how to write using ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. There will also be lessons about the mysterious Egyptian rituals surrounding death and the afterlife.


El-Seddik says the display is divided into six sections displaying different aspects of the ancient Egyptian civilisation; everyday life along the Nile; kings and their families; religious beliefs; and the afterlife, along with the many deities that were worshipped. At the end of the tour children are introduced to a small workshop where they can explore for themselves the civilisation of ancient Egypt through fabricating their own creation from Lego blocks.


Sounds pretty cool!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Augustine on Male Nipples

I am beginning to wonder if there is anything Augustine does not discuss in his massive collection of works. To the perennial question--"why do men have nipples?"--Augustine as always has an answer:

There are some details in the body which are there simply for aesthetic reasons, and for no practical purpose--for example, the nipples of a man's chest, and the beard on his face, the latter being clearly for a masculine ornament, not for protection. (Augustine, City of God 22.24; trans. Bettenson)

The "Great Artist," as Augustine calls God in his final books of the City of God, made male nipples and beards as ornaments, for purely aesthetic purposes. Indeed, an artist as accomplished as God is not limited to practicalities.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Augustine on Portents

Augustine discusses why seemingly unnatural things--like miracles, omens, and portents--are in fact natural. The argument is based upon the omnipotence of God. God creates all things by willing them. The process of willing is a natural consequence of God's omnipotence. If all things occur by God's will, and all things that occur by God's will naturally occur, then all things are natural: there can be no unnatural occurrences. His argument concerning the naturalness of portents is against his favorite punching-bag throughout the City of God, Varro (he is his favorite opponent, however, because he is one of the most formidable):

For how can an event by contrary to nature when it happens by the will of God, since the will of the great Creator assuredly is the nature of every created being? (City of God 21.8)

While this somewhat recapitulates my summary, it takes things a step further. It is not just that all things willed (created) by God are natural because creation itself is nature, natural, but that God's will is the nature of all created beings: it is not that God's will wills creation, but God's will is creation. This resonates with Genesis 1 where God speaks and it is. God's will cannot be fruitless or without consequence, but always occurs. If God need only speak or will and what God speaks/wills is, then what is is God's will. This, however, is just a mind-teasing introduction to the actual line that caught my attention in this seemingly endless opus by Augustine; a line on the naturalness of portents based upon our own lack of knowledge:

A portent, therefore, does not occur contrary to nature, but contrary to what is known of nature. (ibid.)

A post-Enlightenment rationalist or empiricist could not say it better. What seems as an unnatural occurrence is natural; its unnaturalness merely reflects our lack of knowledge of how the natural world works. This sounds a lot like the modernist scientific (although undoubtedly not a view shared by all) characterization of religion as taking care of what science cannot yet explain, but, most interestingly, it does so from the opposite perspective, since what we cannot know is how miracles naturally work, what laws of nature govern miracles, omens, and portents. While the one perspective uses this to dismiss the miraculous (since in modern definitions, the miraculous is contrary to nature), the other uses it to affirm it as the most natural thing; and these laws that govern nature are, themselves, the very will of God.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Cost of Cultural Ignorance

According to the NYTimes city blogs, a plane had to make an unscheduled stop because of some mysterious straps a passenger had on his person. These mysterious straps evidently were tefillin and the "disruptive passenger" was praying.

Ironic Theft

Ha'aretz reports on the robbery of an exhibit on antiquities theft:
Ha'aretz English Language Edition
January 21, 2010 (Last update - 02:06 21/01/2010)

Antiquities thieves break into Ashdod exhibit on antiquities theft

By Yanir Yagna

In a display of what might be called ironic chutzpah, burglars broke
into an Ashdod museum this week and stole silver coins from the
Hellenistic period and other archaeological finds that were part of an
exhibit called "Antiquities Thieves in Israel."

The exhibit, at the Korin Maman Museum, displayed artifacts that the
Israel Antiquities Authority had previously recovered from antiquities
thieves. Now it seems the authority will have to begin its hunt all
over again.

The burglars neutralized the alarm system Tuesday night and stole a
bronze spear, two gold earrings, some pottery and the silver coins,
which feature the image of Alexander the Great.

"It's one of the weirdest things that ever happened here," said a
museum employee. "Someone actually went and stole the robbers


It is nice to know that there are thieves out there with a sense of humor.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Sacrificing to Zeus

There is news about a mountaintop open-altar dedicated to Zeus that was used for over a millennium!
Zeus' altar of ashes
News from the Archaeological Institute of America's annual meeting in
Anaheim, Calif.
By Bruce Bower

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Excavations at the Sanctuary of Zeus atop Greece’s
Mount Lykaion have revealed that ritual activities occurred there for
roughly 1,500 years, from the height of classic Greek civilization
around 3,400 years ago until just before Roman conquest in 146.

“We may have the first documented mountaintop shrine from the ancient
Greek world,” says project director David Romano of the University of
Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Ritual ceremonies were conducted in a part of the open-air sanctuary
called the ash altar of Zeus. It now consists of a mound of ash, stone
and various inscribed dedications to Zeus, the head god of Greek
mythology. Romano’s team has found no evidence of a temple or
structures of any kind on Mount Lykaion.

Work conducted over the past two years at the ash altar of Zeus has
unearthed material from many phases of Greek civilization. Finds
include pottery of various types, terra cotta figurines of people and
animals, and burned bones of sheep and goats.

Chemical analyses have revealed traces of red wine on the inside
surfaces of some pottery fragments, Romano says.
His team reported initial evidence of ritual activity at the ash altar
of Zeus in 2007. The new discoveries indicate that ancient Greeks kept
returning to the sacred site for a remarkably long time.

So, in short, it is an open-air altar, the only one found so far on a mountaintop, and the material remains indicates that goats and sheep were sacrificed (slaughtered and burned) there alongside votive offerings and libations. It would be interesting if the article discussed what was found in what phases--were sheep sacrificed at the same time as goats, etc.--to trace the development of sacrificial practices over 1500 years on one site and see how it matches other sacrificial practices throughout Greece, both in the immediate surrounding areas and places further afield. Just so not to be confused, 3400 years ago would place the (traceable) origins of this site to about the Mycenean period (Bronze Age Greece), before even the legendary date of the Trojan War. It just goes to show how persistent sacred spaces are!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Tongues of Fire: Omens of Roman Establishment in the Aeneid and Acts of the Apostles

"So did Creusa cry; her wailing filled
my father's house. But even then there comes
a sudden omen--wonderful to tell:
between the hands, before the faces of
his grieving parents, over Iulus' head
there leaps a lithe flametip that seems to shed
a radiance; the tongue of fire flickers,
harmless, a plays about his soft hair, grazes
his temples. Shuddering in our alarm,
we rush to shake the flames out of his hair
and quench the holy fire with water. But
Anchises raised his glad eyes to the stars
and lifted heavenward his voice and hands:
'O Jupiter, all-able one, if you
are moved by any prayers, look on us.
I only ask you this: if by our goodness
we merit it, then, Father, grant to us
your help and let your sign confirm these omens.'"
(Virgil, Aeneid 2.920-937; trans. Mandelbaum; cf. Fitzgerald translation in which the line numbering is 2.888-901)

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like a rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
(Acts 2:1-4)

At the conflagration of Troy, a tongue of fire rests upon Aeneas' son, Ascanius, yet only Aeneas' father, Anchises, recognizes the harmless, holy fire that does not burn for what it is: a great omen sent by Jupiter. It portends the great future of Aeneas as he will journey to and fro across the Aegean and then the Mediterranean--much like Odysseus/Ulysses did--to reach his final fate, his destiny, to provide a foundation for Rome and a found a lineage for its rulers leading all the way down to Augustus (one might recognize the similarity between Ascanius' other name, Iulus, and Augustus' adopted father's, Iulius (that is, Julius Caesar). The Aeneid is full of portents. One can almost open it at random and read a messianic prophecy of Aeneas' destiny and what great things will come from his descendants, especially Caesar--some have noted similarities to Jewish prophecy and have suggested an indirect connection via the Sybilline oracles from the Jewish prophetic tradition and Virgil's near obsession with prophecy.

Yet I am not so interested in the oft-observed similarities between Jewish and Virgilian prophecy, but the actual portent itself. Aeneas finds himself in a moment of stagnation and uncertainty as Troy falls around him. He seeks his family in his own home when he sees this miraculous event unfold. I am ignorant of such an image in Greco-Roman literature, yet the non-burning fire immediately recalls Exodus 3, of the burning bush that does not consume the bush, at least for a reader steeped equally in classical and biblical traditions. The Fitzgerald translation emphasizes the "harmless" nature of the tongue of fire, stating that it did not burn him even though it danced about his hair and the temples of his head. But it more directly resembles another call to action: Acts 2:1-4. There, too, tongues of fire rest upon the head--are there any other works that depict the initiatory omen as a tongue of fire about the head, or are these the only ones? In both the image is brief; if one skims or looks up momentarily, one will miss it. While in the Aeneid there was a singular tongue that rested upon Aeneas' son, the means of descent to reach Rome's glorious future, here they are multiple, divided, and distributed among all the disciples. The tongues of fire turn to fiery speech, as each of them begins to speak in tongues as the Spirit gives them the ability and, subsequently, Peter gives the sermon of his life as his powers of speech heat up. Peter, the rock upon whom Jesus would build his church, traditionally martyred at Rome, traditionally the first bishop of Rome, should shoot a flag into the air of literary memory, however, as we know that this, too, is a foundation story, one that may start a bit further south than Troy, but likewise moves from the Eastern coast of the Mediterranean to Rome, a story that will involve journeys--and similar near-death experiences--upon the stormy seas as the winds and waves rage, but the protagonist Aeneas, Paul will survive to (co-)found the Roman establishment. After their tribulations and trials, after their perilous journeys across the sea, Aeneas will found the city and its people, Peter and Paul will found its church. For both, the first omen to move from waiting and inaction to the circuitous route to Rome was a tongue of fire sent by their highest God.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Temple of Hadad in Aleppo

The Global Arab Network has a nice piece on the Temple of Baal-Hadad found within the Aleppo citadel (via Agade):

Syria (Aleppo) The discovery of the temple of the god Hadad in Aleppo Citadel is considered one of the most important archaeological discoveries in the late 20th century, according to an article published by Prof. Paolo Matthiae of Italy.

The god Hadad was mentioned in texts from Mari, Ebla and most other ancient Eastern sites, as old kingdoms uses to make offering to the god of storms in his main temple at the centre of the Amorite kingdom centered in Aleppo.

Head of the excavations department at the Aleppo Department of Archaeology and Museums Yousef Kanjo said the temple was discovered in 1929-1930, and later a Syrian-German expedition began work in the site in 1996, uncovering most of the temple over 12 seasons.

The expedition found out that the temple dates back to the third millennium BC, and is one of the largest temples of that period to be discovered in Syria and the East in general, and there is a strong likelihood that parts of it remain undiscovered.


Member of the Syrian-German expedition Mohammad al-Miftah the temple was renovated at various points during the middle of the third millennium BC (the Bronze Age), when the Hittite influence began to show in the temple, with sculptures and relief carvings replacing polished stone, in addition to the construction of a large statue of Hadad near the eastern wall.

The temple was vandalized after this and was later rebuilt in the 11th century BC, while the 10th century witnessed modifications and additions to the sculptures, with most of the old stones being used for different purposes. At this point, the temple contained a mixture of Assyrian, Hittite and Aramaic cultures.

The temple fell into disuse afterwards, losing its religious significance by the Hellenistic period when a large hole was dug in it and its stone was used to build other structures. However, the statue of Hadad was left intact and the hole was sealed, preserving many of the sculptures from harm and theft until major digs during the Byzantine caused damage to the eastern side of its main entrance.


Sunday, January 10, 2010

Ur, Abraham's Birthplace, and Archaeology

According to AFP, Iraqi Archaeologists have found a new settlement (with writings) near ancient Ur--Abraham's birthplace and, incidentally, also where the earliest known Gilgamesh tablets were produced (and, in Sumerian, he is called Bilgamesh)-- that differs from other discovered settlements because it is in the desert rather than directly by a water source. I wonder if the writings indicate anything we didn't know before...

Saturday, January 9, 2010

More on Scholarly Tattoos

I recently noted a request in the Chronicle for HIgher Education for scholars tattooed with their work to turn in their photos. Here is the follow-up with pics.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Jewish Food Laws from the Perspective of Fish

As noted in an earlier post, I am reading Jose Saramago's Gospel according to Jesus Christ, and, in a portion when Jesus is with Simon and Andrew telling them to cast their nets again when they had not yet caught fish. Upon having their nets surprisingly full of fish (and, in this version, Jesus is equally surprised, although has some troubling feelings that God--who is not portrayed in a particularly favorable light in the novel--is behind it), Saramago writes about the food laws, but from the perspective of the fish:

...the net may have caught fish, but the law, as elsewhere, is quite unambiguous, Behold what you may eat of the various aquatic species, you may eat anything in the waters, seas, and rivers that has fins and scales, but that which has neither fins nor scales, whether they be creatures that breed or that live in the water, you will shun and abhor them for all time, you will refrain from eating the flesh of everything in the water that has neither fins nor scales, and treat them as abomination. And so the despised fish with smooth skins, those that cannot be served at the table of the people of the Lord, were returned to the sea, many of them so accustomed to this by now that they no longer worried when caught in the nets, for they knew they would soon be back in the water and out of danger. With their fish mentality, they believed themselves the recipients of some special favor from the Creator, perhaps even of a special love, so that in time they came to consider themselves superior to other fish, for those in the boats must have committed grievous sins beneath the dark water for God to let them perish so mercilessly.
(trans. Giovonni Pontiero)

This is a particularly striking (at least to me) way of reframing the kashrut. For the unclean fish, the abominable sea creatures, it is a special dispensation; their neglect is salvation and the acceptance of the fish with fins and scales is a mark of their sinfulness. Perhaps God does have a special place in the heart for those animals rejected by the food laws and that's why they are forbidden to be eaten--that is at least one level of reading. The other level is parabolic: the rejected fish who think they are actually the good, righteous fish are those people who are righteous in their own eyes and yet, in reality, their very survival and seemingly good lives by comparison to other "fish" marks their rejection; those who we see as sinners, the kept fish, are the accepted ones. While in some ways Saramago's gospel could be read as an anti-gospel--in this very scene, Jesus is not in control; he has an intuition and the response troubles him and rightly so, because God is portrayed as a bloodthirsty villain whereas his opponent, Pastor, is portrayed as the one who seeks to save lives--this is a very gospel-like maneuver of reversal: those whom you see as righteous are the rejected; those who seem the sinners are the accepted.

Minoans in Egypt

Although Minoan civilization is a bit before my own period of study (and I even have a fairly wide definition of my period of study), I am often fascinated by examples of intercultural communication and exchange in the ancient world before the Hellenistic period (even though the Hellenistic and Roman periods are more my specialty) when such exchange traditionally seems more common (although as my use of "seems" indicates I tend to think this an illusion--it was always common; thus, my interest in the discovery of Minoan art in Egypt:

One of the most perplexing mysteries that Egyptologists and Aegean
experts are tackling is that of the frescoes of
Tell el-Dab'a, also known as Avaris.

This site was used as the capital of the Hyksos, at a time when they
ruled much of Egypt, from 1640 – 1530 BC. It is on the Nile Delta and
would have provided access to the Sinai, Levant and southern Egypt.

The site appears to have been abandoned for a time after the Hyksos
were driven out. However, by the end of the 18th dynasty (when the
Egyptians were back in control of their land), the site was in use and
sported with three – yes three – large palaces. They were ringed by an
enclosure wall. The whole complex was about 5.5 hectares in size.

There is no question that the frescoes at Tell el-Dab'a are Aegean influenced

Now here’s the mystery –

Two of those palaces were decorated, for a very short period of time,
with Minoan frescoes. These include drawings of bull-leaping scenes –
which are well known from the Palace of Knossos in Crete.

Site excavator Manfred Bietak published a book in 2007 that discussed
these frescoes and compared them with the more famous scenes at the
Palace of Knossos.

There is no question that the frescoes at Tell el-Dab'a are Aegean
influenced, and it seems likely that the artists are from Crete.
Dating them is tricky but from the stratigraphy and pottery they seem
to date to around the time of Thutmosis III.
What are They Doing in Egypt?

Previous theories suggested royal marriage between the Egyptians and the Minoans being the occasion for the frescoes, or perhaps a state visit of Minoan leaders. The newest theory has a current ring to it: artist unemployment:

At a lecture a few weeks ago in Toronto Professor Maria Shaw,of the
University of Toronto, proposed her own theory. Shaw has done
extensive archaeological work in Crete so her background is more from
the Aegean side of the coin.

She believes that the frescoes were drawn by out of work Minoan
artists – who travelled to Egypt as the Minoan civilization was

Professor Shaw’s argument works like this-

Cretan rulers controlled their art extremely carefully. Shaw said that
the bull-leaping scenes are a symbol of the Palace of Knossos and are
found nowhere else on the island. “I stress in no other palaces,” she

Also half-rosettes, the flowery decoration seen on the scenes at Tell
el-Dab'a, are “a sign of royalty... it’s amazing that it was
appropriated and used at Tell el-Dab'a.”

Given that the bull-leaping and half-rosette symbols were tightly
controlled on Crete, it makes no sense that the rulers would let their
artists paint them in a foreign country.

So, again, what are they doing in Egypt?

Shaw believes that the paintings date to a time when the Palace of
Knossos was in decline (ca. 1400 BC). The artists that worked there
would have found themselves out of work and needing a new benefactor.
“Artists must have left from there and went find jobs in Egypt,” said

Also, as the Palace of Knossos declined so did the willingness to
honour its symbols of rule.
“The respect or fear that people had not to imitate Knossos - went
with Knossos,” said Shaw.

It’s also no surprise that Egyptian rulers would sanction the use of Minoan art.

Egypt at that time was open to foreign influences. The Amarna letters
show that Egypt was wheeling and dealing diplomatically in the Near
East. Paintings have been found showing people from the Aegean
bringing gifts to Egypt. Minoan motifs have also been found in
Egyptian tombs.

“There was an interest in Egypt of things Minoan,” said Shaw.

Further backing up her point is evidence from the site of Mycenae in
Greece. Fragments of a bull leaping scene, similar to those found at
Knossos, have been found there as well - further proof that when
Knossos fell, its art and artists travelled far and wide.

In the darkness of our current knowledge of antiquity all is speculation, but the diaspora of Minoan artists seeking employment does sound intriguing.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


I just viewed the movie, Invictus, and, in honor of watching it, I decided to make the poem from which the movie takes its title my quote of the day:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley

Jose Saramago on Job

I'm currently reading Nobel Prize winner for literature Jose Saramago's novel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, a fascinating retelling of the gospel story that delves in and out of dilemmas of morality, etc. A couple major issues are: was the "angel" who appeared to Mary from God or Satan? A second major dilemma is why didn't Joseph warn the rest of the village when he discovered Herod's plans to massacre all the infants in Bethlehem? In the book, the angel (from God? from Satan?) comes and tells Mary that Joseph's inaction in this respect is unforgivable and, in fact, for the rest of his life he will be haunted by nightmares (from God? from Satan?) about this deadly fault of omission. In fact, at points, the novel puts Joseph and God in the same boat: why didn't GOD warn the rest of the people? Both God and Joseph are haunted by their mistake that costed so many innocent lives. In this context, a short reverie on God and Satan's bet concerning Job occurs:

It is true that God compensated Job by repaying him twice as much as He had taken, but what about all those other men, in whose name no book was ever written, men deprived of everything and given nothing in return, to whom everything was promised and nothing fulfilled.
(Trans. Giovanni Pontiero)

In his sorrow and his attempt to overcome his error, Joseph tries to have as many children as possible with Mary and they do have many, but he cannot replace all of the children. In such a context, the narrator of the tale brings in a story of a man who lost all of his children and receives "replacements" at the end of the tale--twice as many sons and daughters. But can they ever really be "replaced"? How can you possibly replace a life, particularly your own child's? Even if Joseph could numerically account for all the children killed by Herod's men, that is not a replacement. But this passage indicates that Job, a special case in righteousness, a special case in suffering, is also a special case in repayment: no one else seems to get repaid double or even equivalent of what was once lost. Promised everything by God, by prophets, by religious and civil authorities, the anonymous ones (those "whose name no book was ever written") receive nothing.

Man for All Seasons: Michel de Montaigne Book Review

I teach selections from Michel de Montaigne's incredibly rich Essays this spring. I love reading Montaigne and I love teaching Montaigne. His writing has a vivacity about it even when speaking of death; he is imaginative in writing on the imagination. A review by Frederic Raphael of Sarah Bakewell's new book on Montaigne, How to Live, itself provides a nice primer. Here are some nice snippets on Montaigne and religion:

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born in 1533 and died (following an attack of kidney stones, like his father) in 1592. His mother was of Marrano descent; her family had been Sephardic Jews, forced into Catholicism. Montaigne himself was always formally obedient to the Church. 'Otherwise', he wrote, 'I could not keep myself from rolling about incessantly. Thus I have kept myself intact, without agitation or disturbance of conscience.' In this respect, he was somewhat the precursor of Evelyn Waugh, who said that, had he not been a Catholic, he would scarcely have been human. Montaigne, however, was a genial man of no officious piety; a dutiful mayor of Bordeaux, unaggressive lord of his modest Périgordin manor, and a courtier without grand ambition.

His essays advocated good-humoured acceptance of the vagaries of human life. For all his formal orthodoxy, he was a manifest sceptic: 'There is', he observed, 'no hostility that exceeds Christian hostility.' In practice, he preferred the Stoic amor fati to religious absolutism and abominated the righteous cruelty of those with undoubting convictions: 'It is putting a very high price on one's conjectures to have someone roasted alive on their account.' Sarah Bakewell takes this to be an allusion to the spate of witch-hunting which accompanied the religious wars, but it is no great stretch to see in it a reference to the ongoing series of autos-da-fé on the other side of the Pyrenees. For those who choose to read him so, Montaigne was a bit of a crypto-Jew.

Fearing 'chimeras and fantastic monstrosities', he recruited reason, wryness and literacy to allay their hold on him. He declined to be engaged on either savage side in the religious wars which were the contemporary signs of that France 'divisée en deux' that first split Catholics from Huguenots, later Jacobins from Girondins, and then Socialists from the Droite classique. He played a key, but diffident, part in bringing the Protestant Henri of Navarre to the French throne and, one guesses, encouraged the king's view that Paris was worth a Mass. At the same time, Montaigne observed that, however lofty the throne, 'we are still sitting only on our own rump'.


How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer is a lively, well-sourced account of the man and the work. Bakewell is tellingly accurate when she comes to the savage instability of sixteenth-century provincial life. Catholics and Huguenots, neighbours and friends, were inspired to slaughter each other with pitiless self-righteousness. Bordeaux was the scene of exemplary massacres and vindictive repressions, in which Montaigne strove, with no little courage and some success, to play a reconciling role.

Courageous but never pugnacious, except in self-advocacy, his sense of his own fragility and his innate tolerance warned him against what Byron (a somewhat kindred spirit, who also pampered his own inner divisions) called 'enthusymusy': over-keen religious partisanship. Two centuries later, Talleyrand (another Périgordin grandee) would counsel young diplomats to avoid 'trop de zèle' and played the Bishop of Bray, so to speak, with similar, but much more cynical, versatility.

Montaigne's want of dogmatic rigour, his willingness to settle for a good life this side of the grave, earned him the ardent reproaches of both Pascal and Descartes and, in time, the anathemas of the Church (once on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the essays were not reprieved until the mid-nineteenth century). He always did his duty, in pious and political terms, but his abiding pleasures were mundane and country-gentlemanly. His contemporary, Justus Lipsius, called him 'the French Thales'; but Montaigne would never, I suspect, have fallen into a well, as Thales supposedly did, while staring at the heavens. Micheau always watched his step with some care.

If you have not read any of the famous Essais, I would highly recommend it.

Tattooed Research

The Chronicle is asking for photos of scholars who tattoo their research on themselves. It is actually a fairly common practice--I have a good friend who has tattooed a symbol of every major research project she has conducted--and makes a lot of sense. When you research and write on a topic so intensely that it becomes a part of you it only makes sense to take the next step and literally make it a part of you.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Thucydides on NPR

NPR has a bit with Donald Kagan on Thucydides the historian, the spin doctor:

Without a man named Thucydides, the chances are slim that we'd know
anything about the Peloponnesian War. A new book about the man
attempts to correct what we know.

For more than a quarter of a century, starting in 431 B.C., two Greek
cities faced off. Sometimes they confronted each other directly, and
sometimes through proxies and allies. Thucydides recorded the details
of the conflict throughout the war and, Yale professor Donald Kagan
tells NPR's Guy Raz, "invented the modern understanding of history."

The war between Athens and Sparta has long since become an allegory of
modern conflicts like the Cold War, Vietnam, Iraq — even
Afghanistan. Historians and students of Thucydides all draw
comparisons back to that ancient conflict. Kagan says Thucydides was
the first person to apply rigorous scholarship in the approach to

Kagan's own four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War is considered
a seminal work, widely cited by students and scholars. His latest
book, Thucydides: The Reinvention of History, delves into the ancient
author and why he may not have always told the truth.

Thucydides was born around 455 B.C. to a noble Athenian family. During
his youth, the Athenian empire was ruled by Pericles, who was
something of a benign autocrat. But after Pericles' death in 429 B.C.,
the governance of Athens was taken over by a group of self-proclaimed
democrats — most likely an affront to Thucydides' family, Kagan
says, who would have had a deep skepticism of democracy.


The Literary Bible

Frank Kermode has reviewed David Rosenberg's new "Literary Bible" in the NYTimes Sunday Book review, although published on New Year's Eve. It is a fairly interesting review, and it helps that Kermode is a good writer in his criticism of the book. First off, the title itself sounds a bit pompous to me. Referring back to the "Book of J," a book that includes Rosenberg's earlier translations of "J" with Harold Bloom's commentary, I would agree with the general spirit of the assessment of "J" as...

a sublime writer, an “uncanny” writer, among the greatest of all writers. She was a “strong” poet — not a religious writer, any more than Shakespeare was. Indeed, she was a comic writer whose powerful and eccentric character, more Kafka than Moses, has been obscured by clerical interpreters in the 3,000 years since she wrote. Part of Rosenberg’s task was to produce a style of translation that might fairly represent the rocky magnificence of J’s language.

But I would say this for nearly the entire Bible as well. It is difficult to agree with Bloom's overly specific hypothesis of the writer as an upperclass woman living in Jerusalem in the court of Rehoboam in the 9th century BCE who was, in fact, Bathsheba (based upon absolutely no evidence). I take the point that there is no evidence for anyone else, but that hardly supports such a strained hypothesis. That period of literature seems to revel in anonymity; we are the ones who seem to have trouble with this. I also personally do not privilege J...or...if there is a J (since, as Kermode points out, Rosenberg sidesteps the issue of the difficulty of separating J and E).

It was a difficult program, and one may say, with some reservations, that on his own terms Rosenberg makes it work. He must have regretted the failure to claim those opening lines of Genesis — “In the beginning. . . . ” — as J’s. His version of Genesis in “A Literary Bible” remains substantially the same as the version in “The Book of J,” but there were problems new and old to deal with. For one thing, some scholars regard J and E as not so readily distinguishable as Rosenberg and Bloom would have liked. The Bible being a collection of sometimes very diverse literary forms, the translator is bound to meet new styles and new problems. The language of the Bible supports, generally speaking, a rhetoric quite foreign to English, persistently and artfully repetitious and prone to untranslatable punning and wordplay — a feature far more natural to Hebrew than to English.

With these reservations, however, I must say that I think "P" or the final redactor of the Pentateuch was an amazing literary artist. Having said this and having promoted reading the Bible in the way one reads Shakespeare--and therefore not saying we read the "Bible as literature" because that sounds condescending (we don't say we read "Shakespeare as literature" because we know it is literature; the same should be true with the Bible), nor should we promote the "literary Bible." That sounds pompous. Was not the authorized version (a.k.a. the King James version) a "literary" translation? Does the Bible really need such help to be "literary"? The title reeks of literary heavy-handedness; perhaps,however, merely a bad editorial decision.

Kermode notes, however, that the results are mixed: that Rosenberg seems more at home in the poetry of the bible rather than its prose:

The results are disconcerting at times. Rosenberg may underestimate the difficulty of representing or imitating the ancient Hebrew; perhaps the entire problem of modern representations of the past eludes him, as when he complains about “sour grapes scholarship” that wants to date J and E to the seventh century B.C., “thereby throwing their historical accuracy into question.” But how can this be? After such a change the book would inhabit a different historical past and its relation to modern perceptions of history would change; but it would be, as it always was, a historical or fictional construct that could not sensibly be accused of falsity to contexts transiently imposed on it.

There is a similar confusion about language in these early passages, odd sentences that seem to belong in neither Hebrew nor English. “To its fruit she reached; ate, gave to her man, there with her, and he ate”: “Who told you naked is what you are?”; “The man named his wife Hava: she would have all who live, smooth the way, mother.” What is intended to illustrate a style like that of J and other ancient writers leaps from one language but is broken as it lands on the other, and we are left with a sort of pidgin.

There is less of this as the narrative advances and story takes over. In fact one forms a general impression that Rosenberg is happier with the poetry of some later books than with the prose of J and E. I felt this in his Isaiah:

all flesh is grass and the
reality of love is there
wild flowers in the field
and all flesh blooms
no longer than a flower . . .

And I felt that the section concerning the Suffering Servant — the prototype of the Messiah for Gentiles as well as Jews, the man called to lead the nations but despised and rejected — benefited from being accorded a verse translation.

now all the world’s kings reside
In their own plush tombs
and sleep at prominent addresses
But you’ve been kicked out of the mausoleum
you’ve been clubbed like
a Nazi collaborator. . . .

The Psalmist, addressing God, prays exquisitely for “the mercy of your attention,” and is made, as in Psalm 22, to sound like George Herbert, an Anglican rather than a Jew, but not a bad model for a pious poetry: “Lord, My Lord, you disappear / so far away / unpierced by my cry.”

Rosenberg says he searched for an English equivalent to “the complex illusion of spokenness in Job’s speeches” and in doing so found it helpful to bear in mind “American poetry’s struggle with natural speech.” He therefore studies William Carlos Williams’s “sense of timing” and the performances of John Coltrane. In the same cause he permits himself “the occasional cliché and idiom of popular culture,” said to reflect Job’s “satiric use of officialese.” The method has its risks, some touched on above, but on the whole it succeeds, and Rosenberg emerges with honor from his long wrestling match with an opponent who goes by the name of J.

Thus the very astute Kermode ends on a positive note, although from his own review it sounds to me that Rosenberg has not successfully wrestled with J, but has done very well with Isaiah. While Kermode's examples of troubling and beautiful translation choices appear apt, to know for sure, we'll just have to read it for ourselves.

Atramhasis' Circular Reed Ark

I'm a little behind on my Agade reading, but since I teach Gilgamesh (where the Noah character is usually called Uta-Nipishti--or Utnapisthim--but once called Atrahasis reflecting the older story of the flood), I thought this article from the Guardian was interesting (at least in parts):

According to newly translated instructions inscribed in ancient Babylonian on a clay tablet telling the story of the ark, the vessel that saved one virtuous man, his family and the animals from god's watery wrath was not the pointy-prowed craft of popular imagination but rather a giant circular reed raft.

The now battered tablet, aged about 3,700 years, was found somewhere in the Middle East by Leonard Simmons, a largely self-educated Londoner who indulged his passion for history while serving in the RAF from 1945 to 1948.

The relic was passed to his son Douglas, who took it to one of the few people in the world who could read it as easily as the back of a cornflakes box; he gave it to Irving Finkel, a British Museum expert, who translated its 60 lines of neat cuneiform script.

There are dozens of ancient tablets that have been found which describe the flood story but Finkel says this one is the first to describe the vessel's shape.


In his translation, the god who has decided to spare one just man speaks to Atram-Hasis, a Sumerian king who lived before the flood and who is the Noah figure in earlier versions of the ark story. "Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall! Atram-Hasis, pay heed to my advice, that you may live forever! Destroy your house, build a boat; despise possessions And save life! Draw out the boat that you will built with a circular design; Let its length and breadth be the same."

The tablet goes on to command the use of plaited palm fibre, waterproofed with bitumen, before the construction of cabins for the people and wild animals.

It ends with the dramatic command of Atram-Hasis to the unfortunate boat builder whom he leaves behind to meet his fate, about sealing up the door once everyone else is safely inside: "When I shall have gone into the boat, Caulk the frame of the door!"

Much of the article tries to frame this in terms of archaeological searches for the artifacts of Noah's ark, seeing this as indications of what to look for--in my opinion an exercise in futility. The significance is not to use in terms of discovering the "facts" of the story, but understanding the development of the legend itself as a story and what the different variations of the story indicate or mean. For example, it is significant that the description of the ship in the (other) Babylonian versions that we know make the ark resemble a ziggurat--an important aspect of Babylonian temple architecture. In the Hebrew version, its spatial configurations recall/prefigure the temple. In both, therefore, it becomes a vessel of the sacred--a vessel that will preserve the sacred or its potential. The circular reed pattern does not tell us about the "real ark" but something about the people passing down this version of the story, something about their lifestyle--and, in fact, a great deal of people living in southern Mesopotamia lived (and still do to this day) among, upon, and from the reeds, building reed homes on reed foundations in their watery surroundings. I am not surprised that their boats may have been circular (as the article notes), but I also wonder about how it relates to their home-building and sanctuary-building. Nonetheless, it is interesting that the article locates those interested in finding the "real ark" as Victorians (in the past) and creationists (in the present).