Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
In recent years, I have made a point of writing a special blog post the week of July 1, in observance of the anniversary of my departure from the US. Although his blog has been dormant since Covid-19 sent me to New Zealand, this week I must insist on tradition. Sure, I never thought that the fifth anniversary of the beginning of my peregrinations would find me trapped behind closed borders. But is that any excuse to let standards slide?
It was only last week when Maria Konnikova’s excellent new book, The Biggest Bluff, came out. I had been looking forward to it since I heard that she was working on it as long as two years ago. The book follows the author, already a respected science writer and a psychology PhD, as she learns to play to poker as a way of studying decision-making in the face of uncertainty. Within a year, she had studied the game so well as to go from total novice to tournament champion, winning hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money.
In the book’s final pages, underscoring the inescapable nature of chance or “variance,” Konnikova recounts a fable all too familiar to me. Here is her version:
A farmer loses his prize horse. His neighbor comes over to commiserate about the misfortune, but the farmer just shrugs: who knows if it is a misfortune or not. The next day, the horse returns. With it are twelve more wild horses. The neighbor congratulates the farmer on this excellent news, but the farmer just shrugs. Soon, the farmer’s son falls off one of the feral horses as he’s training it. He breaks a leg. The neighbor expresses his condolences. The farmer just shrugs. Who knows. The country declares war and the army comes to the village, to conscript all able-bodied young men. The farmer’s son is passed over because of his leg. How wonderful, the neighbor says. And again the farmer shrugs. Perhaps.
For an atheist, I sure visit a lot of churches.
And mosques, and temples, and synagogues, and monasteries of all stripes, places of worship of all creeds.
In light of the disastrous fire at the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral this week, I have been pondering my love of houses of worship despite my negative attitude toward religion.
As an atheist, all religions are vaguely offensive to my sensibilities. As far as I’m concerned, the primary function that organized religion serves is to insist on obvious falsehoods and to make the populace more gullible to even further falsehoods. Witness the bizarre belief among a great many Americans that, like Cyrus the Great, the current president occupies the White House because God specifically put him there.
In July 1518 in the city of Strasbourg, then a part of the Holy Roman Empire but now in France, one Frau Troffea started to dance.
The hours went by. Then the days. And Mrs. Troffea wouldn’t stop. Then others joined her. Hundreds of Strasbourgers were dancing within a few weeks. None of them cared to stop. They danced until they collapsed or — in many cases — died.
I’ve been reading about the “Dancing Plague” over the last few days, perhaps in part due to my interest in plague narratives from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year to Camus’s La Peste to Jose Saramago’s Blindness. Those zombie movies and shows that are your guilty pleasure? Plague narratives.
Years ago, when I first read Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, a passage instantly jumped out at me.
Dostoyevsky tells a fable through the mouth of one of his characters. But it wasn’t just the story itself that struck me. It was also the fact that I had heard it before.
In Dostoyevsky’s telling, the story is of Russian Orthodox origin, and it goes like this:
Despite my atheism, sometimes I read the Bible.
Over the holidays I started rereading my favorite books, Job and Ecclesiastes. Then I turned to the Gospels. And some passages in Matthew struck me as they never had before — how did I miss them the first time?
For example, did you know that Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech takes its central metaphor from Matthew 12:25? “And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.” (All quotations are from the King James Version.)
In December 1400, just in time for Christmas, the emperor of Byzantium, Manuel II Palaiologos, arrived in England on a state visit.
A professional historian tells the full story better than I can on her blog. In short, Manuel came to Western Europe to solicit aid against the Ottoman Turks who were encroaching upon his territory. He had already stopped in Italy and France, and now he sought the friendship of King Henry IV of England.
Henry welcomed Manuel warmly. But after the emperor’s departure, England (and France and the Italian states) gave the Byzantines very little assistance. The immediate crisis for Byzantium passed because of an unlikely ally: Timur, or Tamerlane, from today’s Uzbekistan, attacked the Turks from the east. But the reprieve was temporary. Constantinople finally fell to the Ottomans in 1453.
This is an old tale, and many of you may have heard it already. But as it is Hanukkah, I can be forgiven for repeating an otherwise well-known story about the Chinese Jews.
Jews might have migrated into China over the Silk Road since as early as the height of the Roman Empire. One tradition states that the first of them left Jerusalem after the Roman emperor Titus conquered the holy city, arriving in China eventually via Persia.
Ethnographers have also previously identified a population in China that they thought might be of Jewish descent. And because they did not observe Hanukkah, it was inferred that they left the Holy Land before the Maccabean Revolt. But this theory has turned out to be questionable.
Thor (the Norse god, not the Marvel character) is remarkably similar to its Chinese counterpart, Leigong, so much so that I intuit a long-lost cultural connection, even though I am unaware of any scholarship establishing it. If the distance between Scandinavia and the Far East makes you skeptical of this possibility, I’ll note that the Hellenistic inspiration for Asian Buddhist sculptural art is well-established.
Leigong, literally “Lord of Thunder,” is an important figure in the Taoist pantheon. He is, like Thor, depicted as a strong warrior type who wields a magic hammer with which he can send thunderbolts. He is a positive but blunt character, broadly on the side of right but sometimes blunders in rushing to judgment. Much as Thor stands opposed to Loki, Leigong is opposed to characters of mischief such as the Monkey King (who, incidentally, has been shown to be derived from the Hindu monkey god Hanuman).
The Inca Empire, more properly called Tawantinsuyu, had today’s Cusco, Peru as its capital. Designed in the shape of a puma, it stood at the center of the ancient road system known as Qhapaq Nan that connected the whole empire from Chile to Ecuador. After the Conquistadors came, Cusco became the first center in the Americas that taught European painting techniques to native and mestizo artists. In the end it gave birth to a new school of remarkable hybrid religious art that sought to combine, or code-switch between, the Catholic teachings of the missionaries and traditional Incan beliefs.
The missionaries wanted these paintings for didactic purposes, to express Christian doctrines to a native population that mostly could not understand sermons. To make these images acceptable to the native Quechuas, the artists incorporated many ideas already familiar to them.
The figures of warrior angels, for example, became extremely popular because they recalled winged deities in traditional Incan religion. Walking around Cusco even today, you can immediately see this artistic legacy. Seemingly every other storefront has a painting of a Michael or a Gabriel or some other angel on the wall. And they are often depicted in a manner distinct to Cusco, for example as Spanish gentlemen bearing muskets, like in this depiction of Uriel, the guardian of the sun (the sun, Inti, being incidentally a chief god of the Incas).
’Tis now the day after Christmas, when the Three Wise Men would have set out to find Jesus. Although Nativity scenes typically show the Three Wise Men alongside the shepherds, the Gospel of Matthew indicates that the men arrived some time later. After all, they had to follow the star and travel for some time before they could reach Bethlehem. Christian tradition fixes their arrival on the Epiphany, thirteen days after Christmas, giving the three men just shy of two weeks to travel, a very tight schedule for the ancient world.
Most of what Christians now believe about the Three Kings do not come from the Bible. In Spanish-speaking countries, the kings are called Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar, representing Arabia, the Orient, and Africa. Others of the Western Christian tradition deem Melchior as being from Persia, Gaspar (or Caspar or Jasper) from India, and Balthazar from Babylon. Traditions relating to the three treat them as largely symbolic, representing three different parts of the world and also three ages of man. But most significantly, they represent the nations who would come to embrace Christ — hence the name “Epiphany,” a revelation of Jesus as “a light to the Gentiles” described in Isaiah 49:6.
But the sole biblical account of the visit, Matthew chapter 2, says none of this. There aren’t necessarily three of them, they’re not said to be kings, they’re not said to be wise, and they’re only described as being from “the east.”
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."