Sunday, 26 October 2014

history of the catapult...

Published: February 10 2008 on Helium

The catapult answered humanity's need to propel a missile effectively over a great distance with some "mechanical" assistance. It is essentially an offshoot of the crossbow and entails a machine that cannot be carried. Since ancient times, the style and size of this device has varied. But the main usage has always been some form of attack on a target, mostly in times of warfare.

The idea of the catapult comes from the humble sling shot. Some form of "twine" between the fork of a sturdy twig can hurl a stone with deadly accuracy. In the Bible, David's use of such a device against Goliath is only one record of many in ancient literatures.

China has the earliest known record of the catapult. In 3rd-4th century B.C. China, this catapult was much like a crossbow with a swinging arm mounted on a pivot. This appeared in what was known as the Warring States period of China's history. The Greek town of Syracuse in Sicily is another contender, about this time, for having the first catapult. This was in the era of the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta and their allies. It was also the era of the tyrant Dionysios.

At this time, some sources claim that the term catapult referred to a "dart thrower" and a "ballista" referred to a stone thrower, but by the 4th century A.D. the two terms swapped meanings.

The ballista is possibly the first large, siege-like catapult. It comprised "two wooden arms, tightly wound ropes and a cord to assist in the hurling of deadly projectiles, such as spears, at an enemy." Phillip of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great, is credited with its first use in about 358B.C. when, at the tender age of 21, he assembled a formidable military force against the threatening Illyrians in the north. It included a phalanx bearing 6 meter long spears (deadly to run into) and the ballista created for extra destructive impact.

The mangonel or onager is the Romans' contribution to catapult history. The mangonel was not really an efficient weapon, because it could only hurl up to a 6lb weight and lots of its energy was wasted arcing high in the air before hitting the target. They were usually mounted on ships and hurled burning pitch to set fire to enemy ships.
The Romans also added wheels to the Greek ballista.

However, the deadliest catapult of all is accredited to 12th century France and became a popular weapon of choice for Christians and Muslims alike. It was known as the trebuchet. This siege machine used counterweights (up to 20 tons) to maximize the velocity of objects hurled. One dark use of this machine was to use people as missiles. "The trebuchet is also believed to be an early biological weapon, as armies would load the trebuchet with corpses riddled with diseases like the Black Plague and hurl them into areas under siege in the hopes of infecting large numbers of their enemies." Dead animals were sometimes a favored missile too.

France was the first European country to use catapults extensively in warfare. Her wars introduced the catapult to more of Europe. "Catapults history notes that the weapons were introduced to England in 1216 during the Siege of Dover - as were many other types of siege weapons. Louis the Dauphin of France crossed the Channel with a large force and laid siege to Dover Castle making a violent and incessant attack on the castle walls. He used the Catapults against the walls and men of Dover Castle." England adopted the catapult as a war machine shortly afterwards.

By the Middle Ages, 3 main forms of the catapult were in use for warfare. The ballista now looked like a giant crossbow, depending on tension for speed and accuracy. It relied on a straight trajectory. The mangonel and trebuchet relied on greatest area of impact from an arced trajectory. The mangonel launched missiles from a bowl-shaped bucket placed at the end of a long usually wooden arm of the mangonel. "The massive Trebuchet consisted of a lever and a sling and was capable of hurling stones weighing 200 pounds with a range of up to about 300 yards" One version, created by King Edward I's engineer in England, was regarded as the most powerful of the trebuchets. It was called Warwolf.

In the Middle Ages, right up to the wars of Napoleon in the early 19th century, various models of the trebuchet were created and utilized as war machines. The ballista was still used to hurl large rocks into castle walls with dubious accuracy, but with the possibility of deadly effect.

We may like to believe that catapult history officially terminated when cannons and guns evolved. But that is not strictly true. In World War I jungle warfare, bent trees were used as catapults. And in World War II, grenade catapults were utilized. Military aircraft are launched from ships, based on the catapult principle. Enthusiasts of war machines like to recreate working models of catapults.

And catapult amusements still exist. Rides in many carnivals use the catapult concept. In the rural town of Landsborough, 76km north of Brisbane, Australia, one of the tourist attractions is a Bungy Bullet. "Thrill-seekers may enjoy the sensation of being shot 50 metres in the air in just one second on the Bungy Bullet, attaining a thrust of 4 Gs. This is, in essence, an open capsule, securely seating two people, which is literally flung into the air via a huge catapult."

In the U.S. a "catapult car" competition is held annually.

Catapults may appear to be a simple project based on the laws of physics, but through history, the best models have won wars and saved countries. I find it strange though, that the Vikings, a warlike marauding people, have no record of using catapults. And the ancient Egyptian shadouf, used to get water from irrigation channels, is actually a form of catapult NOT used for warlike purposes.


Saturday, 25 October 2014

characteristics of fantasy literature...

Published: February 23 2008 on Helium

Fantasy literature characteristics have "moved" only a little over the years. In ancient times, super heroes like Jason sailing in search of a golden fleece and Theseus slaying a minotaur have become Harry Potter seeking a philosopher's stone. Gods and goddesses have become wizards and genies. Different words cloaking similar imaginative concepts.

Fantasy literature sails the realms of a dreaming soul. It is one of three genres often referred to as speculative fiction. The other two are science fiction and horror. However "the world of fantasy is not a dream world, a never-never land, but a world that matches ours in reality. The characters confront the same terrors, choices and dilemmas that we do." Fantasy literature spins its own reality of landscape, character, chance and circumstance.
All characteristics are built into a dreamscape.

The first dreamscape characteristics evolved with epic fantasy. It claims to be the first recorded genre of humanity. And epic fantasy was born in poetry. There is the ancient world of "Epic of Gilgamesh". It is a cycle of poems, gathered from oral traditions, that has survived from the 3rd millennium B.C. And there is the epic poetry of Homer with his famed "Odyssey" and "Iliad" of about 800B.C. They also sprang from oral traditions. Such poetry is termed a primary or primal epic. But Virgil's "Aeneid" is a crafted (or secondary) epic. It tells the story of Aeneas' Mediterranean Sea wanderings after the fall of besieged Troy. Fate predestines his long journey, over-riding even the interference of the gods. "Fate, to Virgil's Roman audience, is a divine, religious principle that determines the course of history and has culminated in the Roman Empire."

An epic fantasy features a larger than life hero on a larger than life journey bristling with incredible adventure. Often, in classic epics, there are gods and goddesses supporting or cutting down the hero. Often, especially in epic poetry, one of the 9 Muses (daughters of Zeus) is first invoked to bless the telling of the narrative. (More modern epics may replace gods and goddesses with an elemental power from the earth or sun.) And often there is an atmosphere of historical and eternal importance in the telling of the tale. In more modern times, J. R. R. Tolkiens' "The Hobbit" is an example of an epic fantasy.

High fantasy is epic fantasy involving complex worlds and dangerous quests for some form of trophy or for the resolving of monumental chaos. It is a world where diverse heroes share one goal. J. R. R. Tolkiens' "The Lord of the Rings" is an example of high fantasy.

So, the earliest characteristics of fantasy literature involved a super hero, deities and a sense of noble purpose or quest played out in some intricate, long-lasting journey.

But all manner of characterization is possible in fantasy literature. In Frank L. Baum's "Wizard of Oz", a cowardly lion, a scarecrow, a tin man, munchkins, Glinda the good witch and a Wicked Witch of the West are characterized. Yet, Toto the dog remains Toto the dog, with the important role of rocking (with a little help from a tornado) young Dorothy's physical world, on a Kansas farm, into the fantasy world of Oz.

And often such a broad canvas of characterization presents symbolism. "Salman Rushdie draws the connection that Dorothy's last name is "Gale," which is a very strong wind. According to Joey Green's Zen interpretation of The Wizard of Oz, "The cyclone becomes a physical manifestation of Dorothy Gale's inner struggle for self-awareness, the result of the 'gale' winds storming through her psyche." The Wizard of Oz himself has a different appearance for each character. To the Cowardly Lion he is a ball of fire, but to Dorothy, he is a giant head. The Wizard tries to be all things to all people. And Toto symbolizes the enigmatic thread, the "Jacob's Ladder" that connects the human soul with other worlds; even inner worlds.

Characters in fantasy literature could easily be images of anyone in real life. Anyone could be a Dorothy desperately needing some magical joy. Anyone could be the lion longing for some inner strength. Mothers could possibly relate to the wizard.

Sometimes, events in fantasy literature can be a haunting, mythical version of reality. The Yellow Brick Road symbolizes pilgrimage; perhaps like the pilgrims in Chaucer's medieval "Canterbury Tales"; perhaps like the traders on the ancient Silk Road.

Importantly, fantasy literature does not always mean an escapist world. It can be one where we may take some time to see our own world differently; even more clearly.

At this point, it is worthwhile to note that fantasy literature is not restricted to young readers. There is often enough adult theme and symbolism to interest adults, while the storyline can stand magically alone and suit a child's interest. In short, the child-adult classification in fantasy literature is often incidental.

But not all fantasy literature glitters with Baum's idea of a fantastic, symbolic Oz. There are other characteristics of fantasy literature.

Light magic in one fantasy can be the dark, ominous supernatural of spells, curses and potions in another. Or, the two may co-exist in some war of worlds.

The classic fantasy of fairy tale may be laden with elves and pixies; princes and princesses; a talking tree and a horse with wings. But a dark fantasy may have ghosts, zombies, shape changers, werewolves and vampires creating a sense of bold adventure through a world of fear and threat.

Medieval fantasy may be laden with knights, swords, troubadours, castles, grim battle scenes and fair maidens in distress.

And newest to fantasy literature is urban fantasy, where any of these elements may be transposed onto a more cosmopolitan but surreal modern world.

But common to all these genres and sub-genres of fantasy literature is a sense of wonder; almost child-like wonder in those things that could be.

Wonder is a major, critical element in fantasy literature.

Dorothy's song, in the movie version of "The Wizard of Oz", explains the characteristics of fantasy literature well:

When all the world is a hopeless jumble
And the raindrops tumble all around
Heaven opens a magic lane
When all the clouds darken up the skyway
There's a rainbow highway to be found
Leading from your window pane
To a place behind the sun
Just a step beyond the rain
Somewhere over the rainbow way up high
There's a land that I've heard of once in a lullaby
Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true
                                                                         - "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Jane Goodall...

Published: June 2 2007 on Helium

Jane Goodall is primarily known for her 30 years of work with chimpanzees in Tanzania. She was nominated by palaeontologist and archaeologist Dr Louis Leakey of Nairobi Kenya. Her brief, furthering Leakey's own studies on Africa (not Asia or Europe) being the the crucible of humanity, was to explore the link between chimpanzees and humans.

However, there were elements in her earlier life which ensured that the meeting with Leakey was more than just a lucky break for her. She was born in London, England in 1934, just before World War II. Her family moved to France at the outbreak of the war in 1939, but the stay was short. Hitler invaded France and the Goodalls moved to the seaside town of Bournemouth, back in England. Jane adored the outdoors, loved Tarzan stories and was fasinated by the jungle. After all, her father had been stationed with the military in the Singapore jungles. He had some stories to tell.

By the age of 11, Jane made it well known she wanted to live in Africa. She grabbed the opportunity to visit a girlfriend who had moved to Kenya. She needed work and applied to be Dr Louis Leakey's secretary. In fact, it was Louis' lucky break to find Jane. She accompanied Louis and his wife on treks for fossils in the Serengeti plains. Jane had grown up in a Christian household, so she and Louis empathised in their quest to find a link between science and religion. It was then that Louis selected her, based on her meticulous sense of recording details, to do a particular study of chimpanzees.

And so began an incredible adventure for Jane, and for those of us who have learnt of her discoveries. With no credentials other than passion and enthusiasm, she accepted Louis' suggestion to complete a PhD in ethnology from Cambridge University in 1965. She is only one of 8 people to earn such a degree without a bachelor's preceding it. The year before, she had married a Dutch photographer from National Geographic, but the marriage was brief. In 1975, she remarried. He was the director of National Parks in Tanzania. But he died of cancer a few years later. It seemed, her life was her work with the chimpanzees. Her spiritual needs found peace there too.

Today, she has an institute named after her, she supports animal rights and conservation and emabarks on lecture tours. She still lives in her childhood home in Bournemouth, as well as in Tanzania. Jane has been awarded the Albert Schweitzer Award 1987, the Encyclopedia Britannica Award 1989, and the Kyoto Prize for Science 1990.

Some people confuse Jane Goodall with another primatologist, Dian Fossey, who studied the gorillas in Rwanda. Dian was two years older than Jane; she was murdered in 1985. Both women were initially supported by Dr Louis Leakey. In fact, there was a third woman. She was Birute Galdikas, who researched orang-utans in Borneo. They are often referred to as "Leakey's Angels".

But it is Jane Goodall's work that has reached far beyond just a study of chimpanzees. Jane has used her knowledge to help and teach the world to appreciate animals and nature. There are "Wildlife Awareness Weeks" which aid conservation by providing jobs and supporting local economies. Her "Roots and Shoots" program introduces children to respecting and understanding all living things.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

different types of art...

Published: May 11 2007 on Helium

Art is an interpretation of a particular space. It aims to stimulate the senses.
* Clip art
* Card art
* Photography

Art aims to pleasure and heighten and challenge the visual senses.
* Architecture homes and public buildings
* Sculpture
* Painting
* Art galleries

Art may aim to awaken new senses.
* Music
* Dance
* Video clips

Art may attempt to create exacting rhythms.
* Synchronised swimming
* Dressage

Art may renew, refresh and even recreate the self image.
* Hair styles
* Make up
* Clothing fashions and accessories

Art may be a sustained atmosphere for leisure delight.
* Malls
* Atmosphere in restaurants and cafes

Art may be a stylistic presentation on a particular theme.
* Expos

Art may be a subversive connection between marketer and buyer.
* Posters and billboards
* Newspaper and magazine advertisements
* Tourist brochures
* Newspaper and website layouts
* Boutique motels

Art may be an attractive mix of quality material, design, shape and colour attracting a buyer.
* Electrical goods
* Clocks and watches
* Carpet and tiles
* Furniture
* Floral arrangements

Art may be a special sense of feng shui in key rooms of the home
* Bathrooms
* Kitchens
* Bedrooms

Art may be the sense of peace deliberated generated by a power source
* Lights and lighting effects
* Candles and candle glows

So far, it seems art is some kind of manufactured man-made interpretation, some rearrangement of reality, awakening new responses to that reality.
But there is always the art of nature herself; the moody, mischievous, delightful living art of nature.

The art of nature is timeless.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

diet and behaviour of koalas...

Published: June 3 2007 on Helium

Koalas are those lovely grey, fluffy "non bears" that most tourists to Australia must see up close. They are marsupials, closely related to the wombat, and are native to Australia, mostly in south eastern Queensland. There are scattered small colonies in central Queensland and down the eastern seaboard of Australia. In areas like the south of Sydney, colonies are under threat of new estate developments. Many local lobby groups attempt to protect these animals and even try to tempt them to new, less threatened habitats. Major zoos around the world have an example of koalas in the zoo community.

These adorable animals may look fascinating and cute, but to expect equally intriguing information on their diet and behaviour may mean disappointment. There are about 600 species of eucalypts in Australia. The koala selects but a few. And the diet of a koala is totally based on the consumption of eucalypt leaves. Even water is absorbed from the leaves. They rarely drink water. In short, their diet looks bland and poor, and it is.

A poor diet usually means low energy levels. Yes! The koala is a master of leisure. Inactive, sleeping leisure! With rump jammed in the fork of a tree for balance and armchair comfort, the koala sleeps 16 to 18 hours a day. Activity is usually reserved for the sunset hours and that activity means munching on leaves. Considering this must be about the time allotted for more intimate activities as well, the koala seems to have a rather plain old existence.

To try to extend further comment on koala behaviour, the traditional view of koalas is that they live alone or in small groups. But the small group label is a bit misleading. They hardly socialize or interact or help each other. It is more just a small group of existence, perhaps based on sharing the favoured, perhaps rare type of eucalypt leaves in a particular area. Having said that, koalas are territorial because they scratch and scent mark trees. This would be a warning to other koalas to stay away, yet no one has recorded koalas actually fighting over territory.
Perhaps they just don't have the energy anyways.

Young koalas are born into their mother's pouch and are usually about an inch long. They are in the pouch for 6 months and then are carried on their mother's back for another 6 months.
I guess baby learns from a young age to feel the joys of doing nothing.

But occasionally, there are the odd stories that seem to break traditions. I live on a mountain, by the sea, down south of Victoria (where there are supposed to be hardly any koalas in the wild!) While driving home, at sunset, up the mountain, just a few weeks ago, I saw a small group of people pointing cameras at a rather leafless, small tree near the look-out. And, in the tree, calmly "posing", was a rather beefy koala. Everyone took care not to frighten it. But the koala seemed calm anyways, just watching us watching him. And then, after a few good camera shots of his best profile, he calmly ambled down the tree and wandered down the mountain with a "proud, rock and roll" gait.

Koalas might symbolize Australia, yet, perhaps there may still be quite a great deal we don't fully know about koala behaviour and perhaps even diet.
What is in the selected eucalypt leaves that makes them so special?
The koala may appear to be an armchair traveller, but where really does the koala travel?

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Important Women in Medieval History...

Published: july 28 2007 on Helium

From the "Dark Ages" of the 4th century to the awakening of the Renaissance in the 15th century, women dared to go against the patriarchal threads in the social and political tapestry of their day. This was the Medieval era when most rulers and leaders were male, teachers were male and most writers were male. In spite of adversity, the Medieval era gave rise to women of power, enterprising pioneer women, and women who simply dared to be different.

For each century in the Medieval era, there was an outstanding woman, imprinting her mark on time.

In the 4th century, Hypatia of Alexandria, Egypt was a renowned mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, scientist and philosopher in her own lifetime. Her work in mathematics gives us our first, surviving valuable insights into the minds of ancient mathematicians.

The 5th to 9th centuries are significant times for women in power. In the early 6th century, Emperor Justinian I of the flowering Byzantine Empire raised Theodora, a common comic actress, to upper class status so he could marry her. Once her position of power was secured, Theodora became a voice for women's rights. She persuaded Justinian to delete the law forbidding upper and lower classes to intermarry. Also in the 6th century, Suiko became the first Empress of Japan. She is credited with establishing and promoting Buddhism in Japan. In the 7th century, Lady Zac Kuk was on the throne of the Mayan Empire in Palenque, modern day Mexico. In Mayan history, she was one of only two Mayan women to rule alone. The other was her grandmother. And finally, Irene of Athens, in the 8th to 9th centuries was regent for her son. She is remembered mostly for restoring once banned icons to the Christian church. In the Eastern Orthodox Church she is revered as a saint.

The 10th and 11th centuries are marked by the exploits of unusual women. In 10th century Rome, Mazoria managed to get the reigning Pope imprisoned and suffocated. Her 20 year old son succeeded as the next Pope John XI. In the 11th century Byzantine Empire, Anna Comnena recorded details of the First Crusade in 1095, supporting Jerusalem from Muslim control, and she recorded Turkish attacks on the Byzantine capital, Constantinople. Her sister-in-law, Bertha Comnena, overseered the building of a pilgrim hospital at Constantinople. In 11th century Solerno, Italy, Trotula was highly acclaimed for her studies in medicine. And in England, also in the 11th century, Lady Godiva executed her legendary horse ride through Coventry, protesting against heavy taxes on the English lower classes.

The 12th century represents a remarkable wave of important, educated women. Hildegard of Bingen became known as the "Sybil of the Rhine". She founded a convent, composed music, (much New Age music is similar to her melodies), published and practiced the healing powers of plants and was a notable visionary. She has been beatified but not canonized. Heloise was a 12th century philosopher, but is best known for her impassioned letters to her lover Abelard, also a French philosopher. They were separated tragically by her uncle's vengeance. Some say this could have been Shakespeare's inspiration for "Romeo and Juliet". And Marie de France was a famed 12th century poetess.

But it is in the 13th to 15th centuries that we find the giants' among women. Part of the reason for their giant status, admittedly, is we have more recorded biographical detail of their lives. Eleanor of Aquitane became Queen of France AND England. She even accompanied her husband, Louis XVII, on the Second Crusade. Julian (or Juliana) of Norwich became a famed mystic. And Margery Kempe produced the first known, published autobiography, yet she could not read. Her work represents a pilgrimage through England, Europe and Scandinavia. Her journey includes a visit to Julian of Norwich.

The Medieval era closes with two women who seem to represent remarkable, self-driven "woman power". Joan of Arc, or the Maid of Orleans, was a mere peasant girl. Yet, strengthened by visions, she led an army helping the Dauphin secure the throne of France. And Christine de Pisan initiated the first recorded history of women, "The Book of the City of the Ladies".

Important women in Medieval times proved that even under patriarchal social conditions, the individual voice cannot be repressed. There are enough important women in medieval times to remind us that society may have rules, but the unique individual will always find a way to be known and heard, eventually.


Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Great Fire of London 1666...

Published: July 10 2007 on Helium

The early 17th century was the worst of times for the English people. There was civil war in 1642 and King Charles I was beheaded in 1649. Oliver Cromwell's replacement republican government of 1653-1658 was puritanical and now, the new the monarchy of Charles II was not so popular. In 1665, England was "slapped" with the Great Plague. And then, in 1666, came the ultimate "punishment", the Great Fire of London. Medieval superstitions and belief in omens were rampant.
The possible significance of the numbers "666" did not go unnoticed.

Novelist, Daniel Defoe, commented, after the plague, "God had not sufficiently scourged the city" and so sent the fire.

The Great Fire of 2nd September 1666 sparked from Thomas Farryner's bakery in Pudding Lane, inner London, by the Thames River. It had plenty of "fuel" to quickly turn it into a firestorm, lasting five days. This fuel comprised both physical fuel and the "fuel" of poor resources to fight the fire. And the weather helped too.
"After two rainy summers in 1664 and 1665, London had lain under an exceptional drought since November 1665, and the wooden buildings were tinder-dry after the long hot summer of 1666."

The fire ravaged London's narrow, cobblestone, unguttered, undrained medieval streets. Buildings were made of flammable timber, wattle and daub, plaster and pitch; and they were close together. Many 6-7 storey buildings had "jetties" which were upper floors jutting out across narrow alleyways. Often, these jetties were almost touching the opposite building. Inside could be found flammable, everyday items such as straw for floor coverings, tallow and firewood for the hearth. Further, most buildings did not have chimneys to release smoke.

Of particular note, this area was a part of the port of London. Here were warehouses filled with gunpowder, (left over from the English Civil War), stored in wooden barrels. Imports of oil, fabrics, fats, turpentine, coal, alcohol and sugar were also stored here. And in between were the tenements of the poor; just tarred paper or rickety wooden buildings.

London had experienced a great fire in 1220, and had endured further outbreaks since that time. You would think, by now, there would be some worthwhile fire fighting equipment. Some "fire engines" had wheels, but many were mounted on sleds. And the fire engine itself was little more than an inflexible pump that could be connected to a series of elm pipes running from a high water tower at Cornhill. The tower was fed by the river at high tide. Amazingly, 30,000 homes in London were part of the elm pipe system. But connection was costly. There is no evidence, at such a critical time, that the network could be utilized. The water wheels under London Bridge were alight, so river water could not be pumped to the tower. (But surely there would have been some stored water?)

Instead, old-fashioned firehooks were used. (They were stored in every parish church along with long ladders, axes and leather buckets.) Firehooks were selected to pull down burning buildings or to create a firebreak by demolishing an area of buildings.

It is estimated there were only 5 to 17 deaths from the fire. This is incredible considering that London Bridge was the only way out to the south side of the Thames. Already, this was proven a deathtrap in the 1632 fire, for people lived on the bridge. The only escape was through one of the 8 gates in the 5.5m ancient Roman wall surrounding the city. The strength of the heat was horrific. It is recorded that the chains and locks on the gates melted.

And so, in despair, the likes of Samuel Pepys watched the fire burn from the safety of theTower of London, remembering every shocking detail and recording it in a diary for posterity. John Evelyn recorded that Londoners were simply "running about like distracted creatures without at all attempting to save their goods".

After 5 days, the fire finally burnt out at Temple Church near Holborn Bridge. Perhaps desperately blowing up fuel with gunpowder helped. Perhaps the fire simply burnt itself out. But the end result was that four fifths of London was destroyed and poor King Charles had lost his major source of revenue, the customs revenue of the port. He called upon Christopher Wren, the current great architect, to reconstruct London. Wren built 49 churches and St Paul's Cathedral. Future homes were required to be constructed of brick or white stone. Owners insured properties against fire and insurance companies employed people to put out fires. It was a "win-win" situation.

But there was one more twist to the story. Robert Hubert confessed to lighting the fire and was subsequently hanged. Yet he could not describe the bakery or show where it was. Superstition, it seemed, was still rife! Someone, anyone had to be blamed!

Indeed, it seems that the Great Fire of 1666 may not have been so great if there had been more control of many types of fuel. There was too much fuel lying around in enclosed places. There were too many buildings that could become fuel. There was no organized response to fire and little to no worthwhile equipment. And the final fuel, superstition, impelled many who thought this was a curse on the English, to simply run rather than fight. But perhaps, the Great Fire was a blessing. Perhaps it helped to diminish the spread of the plague. Unsanitary, medieval buildings sorely needed demolition.

Unlike the fire of 1212, when about 3,000 were killed, the Great Fire of 1666 claimed but a few lives. Unpopular King Charles took over operations from London's incompetent mayor. He directed firebreaks and used navy rations to feed those who fled from burning homes. Perhaps rather than take life, the fire gave life, even to Charles!


Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Cat in the Art World...

Published: February 9 2008 on Helium

The roles of the cat in the art world mainly range from sacred deity to beauteous role model of dignified indifference.
In more recent years, the cat is also becoming a source of whimsical amusement in art.
This particularly applies to the art of photography, cartoon and film.

In ancient times, a fragment of art from the palace walls of Minoan Crete, dated c.1600-1580B.C., depicts a cat behind a bush stalking a pheasant. And an inlaid bronze dagger blade (c.!600-1500B.C.) from royal tombs at Mycenae depicts a hunting cat. This "royal" art implies that the cat was given a significant level of respect in ancient societies.

But it is in ancient Egyptian art where the cat is given god status.
Many bronze statues of cats have been found in royal tombs. Cats featured frequently in royal hunting friezes on tomb walls. The cat was sacred to the Egyptian goddess Bast, protector of cats, women and children. She was the goddess of the sunrise and of sensual pleasure.
By association, a cat in Egyptian art became a symbol of sacred sensuality.

Perhaps, cat sensuality in art must have its most bizarre example in Edouard Manet's 1863 painting "Olympia". This confrontational view of a nude, reclining female created an uproar in the art world. But interestingly, Manet was inspired to produce his infamous painting "when he saw his lynx point siamese (complete with necklace) sprawled seductively on the sofa and his black-faced sealpoint siamese sitting patiently beside her."

However, it is from the 20th century that "cat art" has taken many forms.

Books combine artistic photographs or sketches of cats with narrative. Paul Gallico published "Silent Miaow". This is a quirky manual for homeless cats, instructing them how to attract suitable owners. The text is combined with 200 delightful black and white photographs. Then there is T. S. Eliot's humorous verse in "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats". Comic, cartoon cat art by Nicolas Bentley accompanies the 1940 publication. My favorite is "Macavity: The Mystery Cat". The illustration is of an Indian snake charmer and snake petrified by a cat rising in the air. And finally, there is "Vavra's Cats" by Robert Vavra. This book is a beautiful, romantic, photographic fantasy of cats dressed up and posing, almost regally for the camera. Apart from Vavra's own reflections interspersed among the photographs, there are quotes from Ernest Hemingway, Paul Gallico, Rudyard Kipling and Joy Adamson.

Eve Riser-Roberts paints "cat parodies". For example, she has replicated the style of Van Gogh's "Sunflower" painting and included a cat, eating the sunflowers. She has parodied Edvard Munch's "The Scream" and painted a screaming cat on a bridge, watched by a couple of "prostitute" cats.

Cats have a major role in the art of the cartoon world.
Felix the cat has been a favorite newspaper cartoon feature since 1919. And Sylvester, always trying to outsmart the elusive Tweetie Pie, has long been a well-known cartoon in the film world, loved by children and adults alike.

Cat art has even entered the more commercial art world.
There are cat calendars, special occasion greeting cards, post cards, stationery, tea towels, placemats and coasters and even cushions and curtains. I even admit to owning an umbrella featuring a range of beautiful cats. In fact, anything that can be printed with a design is likely to include cat art.

For many people, cats bring out a sense of the inner divinity, of feeling at "homey" peace, the inner sensual. Cats inspire and are themselves art. Not too much has really changed since ancient times, where cats and humans are concerned.

In conclusion, I feel my fridge magnet states the all-round "art" of the cat:
"The difference between cats and dogs is that dogs come when called but cats take a message and get back to you."

The cat is an enigma that art never tires of exploring.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Harlem Renaissance...

Published: February 20 2008 on Helium

The Harlem Renaissance, of the 1920's to 1930's in the U.S., celebrated the fact that Harlem existed. Harlem symbolized a concept: the exciting birth of a black cultural space, inspiring other black artists to join. Harlem was, in reality, a city within a city; spiritually, it was a black world within a white world. It was a cultural and psychological oasis. It was an inspiring space, particularly for writers. The Harlem Renaissance symbolized a concept too. It was like a collective consciousness called Harlem, producing a bank of writing and a community of black writers well beyond Harlem.

After years of bondage as slaves, followed by the uncertain times of Civil War, the real Harlem neighborhood evolved as a place in New York City where black people could come together as a community in their own right and say, "We exist. We are proud to exist. We have an identity now. We can be ourselves, free to live, be educated and speak freely". Literature, art, theatre, dance and music (especially jazz) were a means of expressing that newly shaping identity; "a new era of literary and political awareness began: the celebration of blackness. Authors of the Harlem Renaissance broke with earlier ethnic writers whose work mimicked white standards." Black writings symbolized a pride in blackness, unbeholden to and unconditioned by white traditions.

The Harlem Renaissance was fostered by The Negro Literary Movement which emerged earlier in the 20th century. This was a time when there was a notable outpouring of novels by black women, such as Pauline Hopkins. Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and essayists W.E.B. Du Bois and Anna Julia Cooper were legends in their own lifetimes. But the Harlem Renaissance went further. It grounded the movement, offering a sanctuary, a place to for all black artists to be in the company of kindred spirits. And most artists were writers.

Laban Carrick Hill, (in "Harlem Stomp! A Cultural History of the Harlem Renaissance") mainly credits the "come to Harlem" phenomena to the impassioned activities of historian and socialist, W. E. B. Du Bois.
"The story of the Harlem Renaissance is also the story of Du Bois's life. He really set the stage and brought out the issues of what African American's should expect from American society. He was instrumental in bringing people to Harlem. He was instrumental in the founding of the N double ACP. He was instrumental in supporting people who came to Harlem, and getting their work and music published. He was at the core of everything that happened in Harlem." Du Bois directed the publicity and research of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1910 to 1934 and was the editor of "Crisis", its monthly magazine.

Du Bois was part of a group of elite, well-educated black professionals, who collectively contributed chapters in a book called "The Negro Problem," published in 1903. They had a common philosophy that blacks would best secure political, social and economic respect through the arts and letters. Chapter 2 was Du Bois' chapter entitled "The Talented Tenth". The title referred to the percentage of black people who left (or could/should leave) a social or literary mark on the world.

A number of women were notable activists, stirring a Harlem creative spirit. Jessie Fauset hosted evening gatherings for black intellectuals in Harlem and arranged for the first publication of poetry by black poet, Langston Hughes. Fauset also led by example. She was literary editor for "Crisis" and wrote novels. Regina Anderson organized events in the Harlem public library, where she was an assistant librarian.

However, it was Alain Locke's, "The New Negro", published in 1925, which drew public attention to an evolving, very active Harlem Renaissance. It was an anthology of rising black writers, (particularly poets), who were centered in New York's Harlem.

These are just a sample of the community "organizers". Harlem was the hub, the heart, the pulse of the broader black writing community. But the real substance of the Harlem writing community was the "members" themselves. You did not have to live in Harlem to be part of the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance, with its crowd of educated black professionals, inspired a whole new community of black writers with exciting, fresh ideas and a sense of viable identity.

Claude McKay was a prominent inspiration for black writers. He was a Jamaican born grandson of a West African slave. He migrated to the States in 1912; but he continued roaming the world, and was not even a U.S. citizen till 1940. Harlem seemed to be more his spiritual home rather than his actual home. Ballads, sonnets, stories, novels, memoirs and political commentary poured from his pen. His "Harlem Shadows" (1922), is often credited with launching the Harlem Renaissance while "Home to Harlem" (1928), a challenging novel, is often valued as the first best-selling novel by a black man. In his poem "America" he tossed out the confronting words, "I love this cultured hell which tests my youth." Did he refer to America or Harlem? Or both?

"No other writer is as closely linked to the invention of 20th century black literatures across the Atlantic world, from Harlem, to the islands of the English-speaking Caribbean, to Francophone Africa and its New World relations," Maxwell wrote in his introduction to "The Complete Poems" of Claude McKay (University of Illinois Press).

The homey vernacular in McKay's writing inspired Harlem Renaissance writers such as James Weldon, Johnson, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. (In many ways, these three writers represent the diversity of writing presented in the Harlem Renaissance). McKay was "the light" inspiring the break from Victorian, white writing traditions.

James Weldon Johnson's added his contribution to the Harlem Renaissance with three outstanding anthologies: "The Book of American Negro Poetry" (1922), "The Book of American Negro Spirituals" (1925), and "The Second Book of Negro Spirituals" (1926). His work inspired others to be part of collections of black writing. But he did publish his own poetry in 1927 with "God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse".

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) "visited" Harlem for a period of time during the Harlem Renaissance, but did not choose to live in Harlem till 1942. He was a very "local" writer. He wrote about what he knew, not what he was told to know. "Through his poetry, novels, plays, essays, and children's books, he promoted equality, condemned racism and injustice, and celebrated African American culture, humor, and spirituality." Interestingly, he found inspiration for the form of his poetry in the free verse of white poet Carl Sandburg (1878-1967).

Zora Neale Hurston (1891?-1960) offered a different angle to the Harlem Renaissance community of black writers. She combined literature and anthropology. Her four novels and two books of folklore are invaluable insights into Afro-American oral traditions. For her, Harlem was a spiritual concept that could be transposed/mirrored in reality elsewhere. Her "elsewhere" was Eatonville, Florida. "At age three her family moved to Eatonville, Fla., the first incorporated black community in America, of which her father would become mayor. In her writings she would glorify Eatonville as a utopia where black Americans could live independent of the prejudices of white society."

The Harlem Renaissance was closed by the sharp economic downturns of the Great Depression. But many believe it closed in 1934 with the death of A'Lelia Walker, often regarded as the energetic patron of the Harlem Renaissance. "A'Lelia Walker used part of her inheritance to fuel her interest in Harlem's cultural life. She renovated her brownstone on 136th Street, filled it with posh furniture, and invited black and white artists, writers, patrons, scholars, bohemians, and Harlem high society to dance, drink, and converse." Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes numbered among her famous guests. One wall of a room, called the Dark Tower Room, was adorned with Langston Hughes' poem "Weary Blues".

But the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance lives on. Aaron Douglas created two murals for the 125th Street library. The murals are a living history, tracing Afro-American life from African roots to Harlem Jazz Age. He wrote his thoughts in art. They are on public view to all who visit there.

And there is now a national community of black artists, who often draw on the "bank of Harlem" for inspiration. Another spurt of black writing, fired with the a need for civil rights, occurred in post World War II era; it reflected the fresh energy of the Harlem Renaissance. Writers such as James Baldwin with "Go Tell it on the Mountain" continued the pride, determination and sense of creative black identity born in the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem community did not end. It is still alive and growing.

And over the 20th century, Harlem became a distinguished place of pilgrimage for luminaries such as Carl Jung, Max Weber, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and even Fidel Castro. Renowned black writer Langston Hughes commented, "Harlem was like a great magnet for the Negro intellectual, pulling him from everywhere. Once in New York, he had to live in Harlem." In short, "Harlem was not so much a place as a state of mind, the cultural metaphor for black America itself." Many believe Harlem is the "heart of darkness" of the U.S.

The Harlem Renaissance continues to spread inspiration to a community of black writers. But it also awakens the inspiration of all creative spirits, black or white. Laban Hill quotes writer Ralph Ellison as saying, "whatever else the true American is, he is also somehow black." In the literary world, black writers spurred on by the Harlem Renaissance, are now vital threads in the fabric of being American.


Sunday, 5 October 2014

Charlie Chaplin...

Published: April 29 2007 on Helium

Just a funny little man, with a black mo, swinging cane and those dark eyes which could flash from sweet innocence to piercing challenge in a single comic wink!
This man was Charlie Chaplin.
He was a master of mime, satiric comedy in silence.
He was a master of the silent film.

His "first steps" were on the stage. In 1889, he was born in London. His parents were actors. By age 5, he was in a dance troupe. His childhood games were the slapstick acrobatics of vaudeville. By 1914, he had created Charlie, The Tramp, silently wobbling his way through life - stage and film life and the lives of an adoring public in England and the U.S. He became a cult symbol, for all those who could see their own truths, their own identity within the fickle social world, and dared to be different. By 1915, there was a host of Charlie memorabilia from cartoons and poems, to dolls, to songs and dances. An amazing achievement for the "sounds of silence"!

The Tramp trundled silently through World War I, the trendy Jazz Age of the 1920's, the Depression years and the rise of factories and talkies. And, delightfully, there was always the silent little Tramp, keeping true to his own identity. Charlie was a master of stubborn, silent identity stirring a smile in a world of serious change.

However, Charlie Chaplin was not just a master within the silent film, but a master outside. He was a screenwriter, producer and composer of music. By 1915, he had made 35 short films. At age 25, he directed his first film, "Twenty Minutes of Love". By 1919, he formed a studio, United Artists, with such partners as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Perhaps, in keeping with his sense of a public "silent" persona, he did not actually make a film, "Woman of Paris" with the studio until 1923.

Sadly, the smile did not last through the 1930's. A little of Charlie's trademark was lost. A clue to this loss is Charlie's film "The Great Dictator" of 1940. The main character was Adenoid Hynkel. His films already had been banned in Germany by the Third Reich. Perhaps they could see some prickly serious symbolism in the silent antics of a small moustached man long before the rest of the Western world did.

More serious Charlie was to come, culminating in the film "Limelight" of 1952. It is the story of a former, once great dance hall clown, who was also a tramp. Charlie teamed with another great clown of the silent era, Buster Keaton. It was clear The Tramp of old was now a broken Charlie Chaplin up there on the big screen. He bowed, at last, to the new world of talkies.

But "Limelight" had another story to tell behind the scenes. Some saw the film as a silent, communistic weapon. Many theatres in the U.S. refused to screen the film. The slander lasted for many years. It was many years before the film finally won an Academy Award for Best Music.

Charlie closed his life with music. He continued writing music for films. Still, he adopted the silent partner, quietly slipping his "message" into this relentless "talkie era" wih music. But the era of the quirky Tramp had slipped into wistful memory.

Charlie Chaplin will be remembered as the silent star, the silent creator of the silent film.
The silent film stirs the silent uniqueness in us all.
Charlie Chaplin, aka The Tramp, was a master of the genre.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Emily Dickinson...

Published: August 1 2007 on Helium

"The soul has moments of Escape
When bursting all the doors
She dances like a Bomb, abroad,
And swings upon the Hours,"
With just a brush of metaphor, simile or personification, Emily Dickinson, born in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, can create a sense of divine reality, etched with a hint of a smile. There is a wholesome liveliness in the words that is almost magnetic.

For some critics, the only way to find Emily Dickinson is to experience her poetry. Her inner life IS her life. Others have attempted to find another persona behind the poetic page, but the complete, "outer" reality of that other person tends to be a mystery.

Standard facts include some understanding of the community of Amherst, where Emily was born. Features of 19th century Amherst included a railroad and Amherst College, founded by Emily's grandfather, Samuel Dickinson and then her father became treasurer of the college. Of further interest, Amherst was a hub of Puritanism. It has been recorded that by the latter 19th century, Amherst had more ministers per capita than elsewhere in the U.S.

Some biographers claim the Puritanical nature of the community, its "separateness" and the high profile of her family in the community may have driven Emily to the life of a recluse. But her poetry has the answer:
How happy is the little Stone
That rambles in the Road alone,"
The lilt of the lines suggests that Emily, perhaps, was simply happy in her own company.

It is known that her father Edward was a successful lawyer and her mother lived out her final years as an invalid. Austin was Emily's older brother and Lavinia was her younger sister. These are just basic facts. Many biographers have tried to find some family relationships in Emily's world, but most comments are little more than speculation. Emily's home was on the road to the Amherst cemetery. She could have had the opportunity to view many a funeral procession. This may explain the many threads of Death in her poetry.

Information on Emily's childhood is almost non existant. An image of a young 10 year old, shy, and often seen wearing or carrying some flowers, is about all we have. It appears she received formal education at Amherst College and then spent about a year at Mount Holyoke Seminary for Girls. The brevity of her stay here is explained by homesickness. Or was she really baulking at "regimented" knowledge and needed the space of the world of her soul?

It is at this point, when Emily was in her 20's, speculation lapses further into the mists of mystery. She attempted to publish a few poems, but met rejection. She stayed in the family home, for the rest of her life. It seems impossible. There must be more. Many biographers have tried to find more. But there is just the echo of rumour and possibility. Some have tried to find romantic links, even with her sister in law Susan. Some depict her receiving friends to the house and conversing behind a slightly ajar door. Strange behavior! But is it true?

One last fact in her life relates to death. Emily died of Bright's Disease in 1886, 12 years after her father's death and just 6 years after her mother died. And after her death, her sister Lavinia found her poems, about 1700 of them, without order, title or date. They were first published in 1890. The facts of death in her life seem cold. But her poetic lines on death say so much more.
"This World is not Conclusion
A Species stands beyond-
Invisible, as Music-
But positive, as Sound,"

Somehow, it seems Emily did not feel the events in her life were what she was all about. They were not what she wanted for the public memory. She left her poetry, almost like some treasure, waiting for anyone to find the wealth they needed in her "penned" voice. Emily represented a unique woman leading her own revolution for the right to be anyone, anywhere, even in a Puritanical world.
Her poetry explains:
"The Soul selects her own Society-
Then shuts the Door-"

Poetry quotes from "A Choice of Emily Dickinson's Verse" ed. Ted Hughes. Faber & Faber. 1968.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Folk Music and the Civil Rights Movement...

Published: July 21 2007 on Helium

The traditional folk singer was a traveller, sharing old, timeless stories in music. His companion was often the guitar, strumming the murmurings of a wistful soul. With the advent of the American Civil Rights Movement, from 1954-1968, (with the death of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Act is passed), the folksinger voiced the heartaches, the questions, the pleas of minority groups. The folksinger became the musical champion of the oppressed; the "mascot" of the civil rights movement.

1954 marked the time when the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation in schools as illegal. However, not till the 1960's was there a vibrant movement to halt discrimination in all social sectors. In 1962, Bob Dylan released "Blowin' in the Wind". His song symbolized the pain of those who waited for answers to racial, cultural and political injustice.
"How many years must some people exist,
Before they're allowed to be free?"
The small voices were rising against the oppressors. And they were doing it in folk music.

Some emerging folk songs were derived from existing, traditional ones. "We shall Overcome" was derived from Charles Tindley's gospel song "I'll Overcome Some Day" (1900). Pete Seegar added new lines including "black and white together". Ray Charles' "Hit the Road Jack" was re-titled "Get Your Rights, Jack".

After "Bloody Sunday" of 1965, when police attacked marchers in Alabama, Julius Lester formerly offered his voice as the dialogue for, and the tangible expression of, the civil rights movement. He left Nashville in the South for New York, so he could get "a taste of freedom". He believed that discrimination was rampant in both North and South. The South involved blatant segregation in all forms of life, but he believed that segregation was better hidden in the North. Economically, Blacks were oppressed, so were forced to live in ghettos. Economics forced them to be segregated.

And so Lester was one of many folk singers, daring to sing out "freedom" songs, daring to suggest that white society was guilty of biased, dictatorial, moral and social codes.

While Martin Luther King uttered the political injustice of white law, Joan Baez sang Afro-American spiritual folk sings of freedom. Her experience with discrimination for her Mexican heritage drew her towards the civil rights movement.

Pete Seegar was both a folk singer and a political activist.
"If I had a hammer
I'd hammer in the morning
I'd hammer in the evening ... all over this land,
I'd hammer out danger
I'd hammer out a warning
I'd hammer out love between all of my brothers and my sisters
All over this land."
For Pete Seegar, there was no "soft" message. His words in music had all the power of an inflamed, political speech. Peter, Paul and Mary performed this song when Martin Luther King presented his famous "I have a Dream" speech in 1963.

Finally, there was Odetta, herself a Black American, singing out her Afro-American heritage. In 1961, Martin Luther Ling declared her the Queen of American folk music. Perhaps her most renowned song would have to be:
"This little light o' mine
I'm gonna let it shine".

The civil rights movement became a platform for folk singers. Interestingly, while the civil rights movement itself highlighted the huge divide between blacks and whites, the folk music, the voice of the movement, the mascot, quietly drew blacks and whites together in a bid for universal freedom. In the words of Julius Lester,
"Folk was also attractive because it was a racially integrated scene," says Lester. "It was still a very innocent time for the civil rights movement, a time when young blacks and whites 'discovered' each other without a sense of self-consciousness."

Folk music gave political hope that there would indeed be "a new world in the morning".


Thursday, 2 October 2014

Barbarian Invasions of the Early Medieval Period...

Published: July 10 2007 on Helium

The Early Medieval Period is sometimes referred to as "The Dark Ages".
This was a period of chaos and change, beginning as the mighty Roman Empire fell in the 5th century A.D. It lasted until there was clear evidence of some stable, ongoing politics and society. Historians disagree on exactly what dates to assign this period, marked by a complex web of "short and sharp", "action and reaction" events. (In fact, the origins of many invading groups are obscure.) But there is general consensus that it spanned from c. 400 to 900A.D. And it certainly was over by the time Norman invader, William the Conqueror, overwhelmed the Anglo Saxons in England at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

And those invading "barbarians" of this time were not strictly wild cavemen. This was originally a generic term, used by the Romans, to refer to any non-Romans. The Gauls were referred to as "barbarians", even by the mighty orator Cicero. The Romans liked to protect their superior dignity. (N.B. The Gauls were in fact connected by language and culture with those living in England, Wales and Ireland in Roman times. We now call the whole group Celts).

Notable among the invaders were the Huns from Mongolia, north of China. They were skilled herdsmen in their day to day activities, but, when "on the warpath", were fearless warriors skilled in archery. Over the 4th and 5th centuries A.D., their surprise attacks were well known in India and China; they were extended to India and Persia. Finally, their most devastating attacks were made on Europe in the 5th century; and that included Rome. Rome was already split into the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire. Under pressure from the infamous Attila the Hun, the west weakened. (Yet, the eastern empire blossomed into the Byzantine Empire). Attila's death in 453A.D. marked the end of the "Hun era" on European soil. Not until the 13th century, with the rise of the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan, would warriors come out of Mongolia.

But it is the Goths who are given the credit for sacking Rome in 410A.D. They appeared to originate from Scandinavia and hassled the security of the Roman Empire over the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D.

And now some complexities! Other invaders included Goths, Visigoths (settled in Spain) and Ostrogoths (the Huns drove them out of the Ukraine to Italy). Angles and Saxons invaded in England. The Franks occupied old Gaul, and the Vandals occupied Roman territory in northern Africa. All these branches of the Germanic groups of people of northern Europe replaced the areas of the old Roman Empire. And many were Christian communities living in the countryside.

Some migrating and invading groups merged such as the Jutes (from the Jutland Peninsula) with the Danes (originally Vikings) in Denmark and the Angles (from south west Jutland) with the Saxons (from north west Germany) in England.

In the east, in the early 7th century, Serbs and Croats overran Illyria (present day Albania). Yet, within 50 years, the Bulgars conquered most of the Balkan Peninsula and what is now central Albania.

The marauding Vikings from Scandinavia had a unique evolution. Traditionally, they are remembered for their extensive raids on the European coasts and British coasts. This was a feature of the spring and summer months, but, in winter, they generally returned to Scandinavia. However, some Vikings did not just raid and invade. They settled in milder climates. They became known as Norsemen or Northmen when they settled in the northern reaches of Europe. But when they were settled in France, by the 9th century A.D., they became known as Normans, and their area of settlement was called Normandy.

Strangely, in the midst of this invading "mess" from the north, an empire grew in western Europe. It was the Frankish empire of King Charlemagne in the 8th century A.D. His kingdom covered present day France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and parts of Italy and Germany. He unified church and state, creating the Holy Roman Empire. When 4,500 Saxons attempted to rise up against him, he ordered their beheading. His empire was not threatened by "barbarian" invasions. But when he died, so did his empire. And, in the 9th century, the entire area was subject to a range of invasions from tribal groups.

Information on invasions, in the early medieval period, may be fragmented and, at times, frustratingly vague, but a clear trend emerges. The fading of the Roman Empire gave numerous northern groups of people the opportunity for a new life in a new land. Many, like the Vikings, may have invaded to plunder, initially, but many settled and inter-mingled. Only the Huns, after a momentous infiltration into Europe, especially with Attila's exploits, retreated and just seemed to disappear.


Wednesday, 1 October 2014

An Ancient Roman Perspective of Cleopatra...

Published: May 13, 2007 on Helium

Cleopatra VII, born c.69B.C., was a young, intelligent AND beautiful 17 year old when she first came to the throne as the last pharaoh of Egypt. How could anyone not fall to her many charms. Yes, from 48-44B.C., she had a fling with the mighty Julius Caesar. This was only terminated by his untimely death. Yes, she had a fling with Mark Antony until the disastrous Battle of Actium in 31B.C. forced him into a suicide attempt, falling on his own sword, but he died romantically in Cleopatra's arms. However, these men were only two very public figures in the Roman world.
How did other Romans view Cleopatra?
At best, the Romans viewed Cleopatra with suspicion.
At worst, they hated her.

For a time, Julius Caesar was a Roman military hero, until he met Cleopatra. Traditions tell that Cleopatra wooed Caesar, first by getting her slaves to deliver her as a gift to Caesar's camp. She was wrapped in a carpet. These are the actions of a person who enjoys the flair of drama.

Not surprisingly, the Romans saw Cleopatra as a rival for Caesar's attention.

He no longer served Rome while being beguiled by Cleopatra.

The ultimate insult was when Caesar dared to bring Cleopatra to Rome, to her own home in Rome. This seems quite incongruous. A pharaoh wanders away from her own kingdom, to set up house in another? But why? Just for love? The Romans wondered much the same. What could she gain? Rome itself? All too quickly the hatred was brewing. Only a short time after Cleopatra set up house in Rome, Caesar was murdered. Was this far more than some vendetta against Caesar alone? Was this a means of getting rid of Cleopatra?

History shows that Cleopatra subsequently left Rome in quite a hurry; she returned to Egypt.

And now, for her next victim, Mark Antony. By this time, Cleopatra was older and wiser. It was well known she wanted to build a solid, Egyptian kingdom. The Romans knew her connections with Mark Antony had political possibilities in Cleopatra's favour. The Romans saw this bonding as a threat to Rome. And so Romans flocked to a new rising star who was not smitten by Cleopatra. This was Octavian, who was to become the Emperor Augustus. Inevitably, there would be a clash of Roman against Roman, Mark Antony against Octavian; and this was the Battle of Actium. Octavian was by far the more accomplished leader with the more faithful following; he had to win.

In short, Cleopatra had undone the careers of two mighty Roman men and had split Roman against Roman.

As a hypothetical thought, we wonder if the Romans' suspicions and hatred of Cleopatra would have been so visible if there had been no Julius Caesar or Mark Antony, no torrid love affairs. But history tells us, Cleopatra was not the sweetest of women. When she began her reign, it was actually a joint reign with her brother Ptolemy XIII. She was married to him too. Cleopatra enlisted Caesar's aid in having him killed. Cleopatra was a murderer. She used Roman soldiers to murder her brother/husband. All this happened before the Caesar-Cleopatra love affair reached full bloom.

It would seem the Romans had little respect for Cleopatra.

She destroyed their leaders and dragged the Romans themselves into her kingdom-building plans. Little wonder, at the first opportunity, when Octavian triumphed at the Battle of Actium, they hungered to rid Rome of her. They hunted her down in Alexandria, but the wily Cleopatra preserved her dramatic dignity, even at this critical time. She took her own life.

Cleopatra remained beautiful (seductive enchantress) and intelligent (wily) right to the very end.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

how to use plants for good feng shui...

Published: November 24, 2007 on Helium

Plants inside the home and outside in the garden are an easy means of attracting good feng shui. They are also a simple means of improving air quality, enriching it with more oxygen. Indoor plants represent the yin energy and those outside represent yang energy; together they create domestic harmony and balance.

Rounded, arching leafed plants, like palms and ferns, are best for inside yin energies. The Areca Palm is perhaps the easiest to grow, but the Lady Palm is a winner for improving air quality and diluting unsavory aromas. The Boston Fern adds a lush green to the environment, but can be a little temperamental with temperature or light change. For combating negative electrical energies, (especially from TVs), and diffusing stale alcohol aromas, the Peace Lily is the winning choice. And don't forget, there is a bonus of luminous white blooms to add a living accent to the room. For poorly lit areas, Dracaena "Janet Craig" will survive well. It will even tolerate a little neglect. A cactus may be an artist's choice for unusual shape, but is more suited to a "home protector" outdoors.

Indoor plants represent feng shui principles best if they are carefully placed and spaced. You may follow the Bagua quadrant concepts, representing compass directions. The optimum area for plants is the health and family quadrant in the east, the living awakening zone. The only area not recommended for plants is the bedroom. Some feng shui adherents believe the growth element of plants creates chi energy, not conducive for a restful sleep. But I wonder if improved air quality from a plant, in a bedroom that is not regularly aired, may challenge that belief.

A further use for plants indoors is to slow down the rate of chi energy. A long hall from a front door may encourage racing energy. A plant placed halfway down the hall will slow the energy, allowing it to filter more productively through the home.

Outdoors, plants generate a wealth of positive feng shui if the landscaping winds gently through the garden space. There should be no bare, straight, wide concrete driveways or paths. Positive chi energy should move slowly round the home, so none is wasted.

Select plants here with purpose and balance in mind. Take the size of the garden space into account and create visual harmony. Graceful, droopy flowering plants like the white may bush should be contrasted with the vibrant, red of upright tulips. But take care not to create a busy landscape. Well placed single plants are easier, more relaxing on the eye. Or a hedge of one plant creates bushiness without "busy-ness".

It would be worthwhile to check out the traditional meanings of plants before making a final selection. The yew is the traditional symbol of protection and the pine is the symbol of longevity. A eucalyptus minimizes sinuses (great for spring hay fever sufferers!) The gold of the orange tree attracts prosperity and the lemon or lime tree counteracts exhaustion. The magnolia symbolizes honesty and truth. And the lotus enhances creativity.

But the garden is a mini world, reflecting the elements of universal nature. There should be a water element in the form of maybe a round pond, fountain or bird bath balancing the fire element of red or orange colored plants. The wood of plants should be balanced with the metal of a sundial or bronze sculpture. Lacy, delicate plants, capturing the whim of the wind, need to be balanced with strong, tight shrubs.

Minimise clutter, overgrowth and tensions in the garden. Mow the lawn regularly and keep garbage bins hidden in an open ended enclosure. This practice encourages clean, tidy, harmonious lines in the garden, ideal for spiritual serenity. Fragrant flowers (like jasmine) and herbs (like mint) activate a treasure trove of good feng shui; but space them well, so that there is a flow and not a conflict of scents.

The home interior and exterior garden are palettes for the creative mind, wishing to cultivate living energy in the form of plants. The process and the product encourage good feng shui.


Monday, 29 September 2014

Australia's more than kangaroos and great beaches...

Published: February 1, 2008 on Helium

Australia is a lot more than kangaroos with weird names like Big Reds and Greys to wallabies and potoroos or "rat kangaroos". Australia is far more than a string of exciting beaches along her coastlines from the Sapphire Coast in NSW, to Queensland's Gold Coast, to Cable Beach in the far north west of Broome. These are the usual tourist icons. But Australia is also a world of unusual art in unusual places. Try an outdoor art discovery tour!

Broken Hill, in western NSW, is one of Australia's oldest inland cities. It has become a symbol of Australia's outback. A drive here from the capital cities on the east coast is a great way to experience the panorama of changing Australian countrysides. The longest but most scenic route is from Sydney in NSW. Travel from the wonders of Sydney Harbour, across the magic of the Blue Mountains and then drive across the plains to Broken Hill. Melbourne offers the shorter route across the Victoria/NSW border in Murray River country. (Have a ride on a paddlesteamer while you're there!)

Broken Hill is surrounded by desert scrub and red earth. Annual rainfall is about 23cm. It has a strong population centre (about 25,000 in the township) because of the huge silver-lead-zinc deposits discovered there late in the 1800s. The centre of town is dominated by a massive slag heap; what was once the "Broken Hill" has been mined away over time. On top of the slag heap is Broken Earth caf, the Mining Memorial and the Visitors Centre.

Amazingly, here you will find 20 galleries including works by the renowned Australian painter Pro Hart. But just outside Broken Hill is the most incredible gallery of all. Silent, sculptured figures watch the desert and, in the setting sun on burning plains, they look eerily like legendary sphinxes. In 1993, a group of sculptors pooled their skills to create this art in the desert. The artists involved in the 1993 Sculpture Symposium were: 2 from Mexico (one an Aztec Indian); 2 from Syria; 3 from Georgia (in the Caucasus); and 5 Australians. The Australians included 2 Bathurst Islanders and an Aboriginal Broken Hill artist, Badger Bates.

And there is one more piece of quirky art in the desert gallery of Broken Hill. 3 teachers decided to build the Big Bench, right in the desert. It is like a huge park bench, taller than the average human and wide enough to seat at least 10 people. But you have to climb the bench to sit on it!

In Victoria, you can find art in the mountains or on a beach! William Ricketts created a rainforest sanctuary in his mountain home in the Dandenongs. Gracing all the walkways are "indigenous spirits" of the land. Many are carved into and out of the rocks. The atmosphere of peace here can only be described as magical! (More of his work can be found in the Seawinds Gardens atop Arthurs Seat, overlooking Port Phillip Bay!) And, on Rye Beach on the Mornington Peninsula each year, a sand sculpture competition is held. Each year, sand sculptures are created around a theme, attracting sculptors from around the world. Last year's theme was Myths and Legends.

In Western Australia, on a salt lake, north of the goldfields town of Kalgoorlie, stands 51 figures. These figures are the statues of Lake Ballard. They are black abstracted steel figures standing in a 7 square kilometre area of Lake Ballard. The statues were created in 2003 by UK artist Antony Gormley, as a part of the 50th anniversary of the Perth International Festival.

The 51 statues feature the residents of the town of Menzies. A body scan taken of the Menzies residents created a sculpture of the same height, but with only one third of the body volume. According to 'Inside Australia', the entire process of casting one figure took 40 hours of labour. A team of 18 volunteers took four days to install the statues on the lake working in temperatures of 46C.

So, if you'd like to travel Australia, with a particular theme in mind, try an art discovery tour and enjoy the changing landscape of the outdoors at the same time.

(And then there's the "fairy tree" in Melbourne's Fitzroy Gardens, or the Yengo Sculpture Garden at Mt Wilson in the Blue Mountains, or the outdoor art festivals at Caboolture and Mt Tambourine in Queensland)


On my Hub Pages

Australian Desert Art 1 - "Stone Souls and a Big Bench" - Broken Hill, NSW
Artwork in the Enchanted Adventure (aka Maze) Garden at Arthurs Seat
art of Funny, Weird and Wacky "kingdoms" in Australia

On my Panoramio

Montalto vineyard, Red Hill + art work
Egyptian style monument at Point Nepean
art of a natural rocky arch at London Bridge Ocean Beach - Portsea

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Complex Meaning of Namaste...

Published: April 21, 2007 on Helium

As Latin is to Europe and the Mediterranean regions, so Sanskrit is to India and Nepal. Sanskrit is a classical language, an ancient language no longer currently practiced. The word Namaste has Sanskrit origins. The Hindu religion gave birth to the concept of Namaste. And so unveils the first complexity of its meaning. Is it possible to translate the word Namaste into English effectively?

Some of the popular translations include:
* The God in me greets the God in you.
* The Light within me greets the Light within you.
As with Latin, it seems to take a number of English words to represent a single Sanskrit word.
No wonder there is room for variation, and even error?

Namaste is used as a traditional symbol of greeting AND parting in India and Nepal. While the word is spoken, a small bow (the head) is inclined to the receiver. Both hands are closed together in front of the third eye, and then brought down to the chakra or heart. However, there is further complexity. Sometimes, the gesture itself symbolizes the word, so Namaste need not be spoken.

Some hardy etymologists have sought to seek further meaning in the word; that the ma element means spiritual death and, when negated with na-, the concept of immortality is imbued into the word.
Who really knows for certainty whether this could be true.
And what does this all mean exactly?

However, the complex meaning of Namaste does not just focus on the origins of the word and its original meaning. The complexity continues into the 21st century.

Many commercial enterprises have taken a shine to the implied mystery of the word. Yoga businesses are at the forefront. Thousands are called Namaste. There is a Namaste web ring for all Namaste branded products, including natural health and cleaning products. Namaste Cafe is an informative New Age website. In California, there is Namaste Plaza, an Indian supermarket. And the ultimate finding, British Airways staff, in India, say the word Namaste to entice people to travel on their airline!

So how is this range of businesses translating the word Namaste? The interpretation seems to connect to a New Age medley of products, to all things natural, to all things Indian. What is the common denominator?

I wish I could answer succinctly. It seems the 21st century is charmed by the ancient aura of the word, instills it with all manner of rejuvenated life, and doesn't seem to worry too much if the original spirit is a little lost in the mists of time.

And so I say...


Saturday, 27 September 2014

Underground Railroad's Role in Slavery's End...

Published: February 16, 2008 on Helium

The role of the Underground Railroad (UGRR) in terminating slavery in the U.S. is comparable to the impact of a full scale, long running drama production. Imagine a cast of thousands, an orchestra with a rotating musical score, and a stage crew with names that didn't always make the drama programme. Take this drama production on the road; many roads. But then imagine this amazing production is never advertised. It's not on billboards, it's not in bright lights, but you may find a hint of something happening in a church newsletter or from the occasional rebel, drawing a curious crowd round a soap box. Eventually, such a drama, secretive or not, touches the souls of everyone and even can be instrumental in overturning old slave laws.

The Underground Railroad, (or the Liberty Line, or Freedom Line), operated sporadically as early as the 1500s (when the first Africans were brought to the New World Spanish colonies), and gathered momentum about 1800 with Gabriel's Rebellion in Virginia. But it reached a peak of high traffic from 1831, spanning 29 states, when a Virginian enslaved preacher, Nat Turner, and 70 followers went on a rampage, murdering 50 people and destroying property over a 24-hour period. The Fugitive Slave Bill of 1850 added more complications. It was illegal to keep freed slaves in the northern U.S. By 1860, the U.S. was facing a Civil War (with slavery a large cause of tension).

The Railroad was a network of humanitarians and rescuers (Indians, whites, but mainly runaway or free blacks) intent on fighting social injustices. They helped black slaves from the South find freedom in the North, and then further north across the border into Canada. Some slaves took the Underground south to Texas, Florida and the Caribbean. "It is believed that as many as 100,000 enslaved persons may have escaped in the years between the American Revolution and the Civil War, using this network of aid and assistance." The operation was illegal, but continued to the advent of the Civil War, and not politically satisfied until the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865, declaring, "[N]either slavery nor involuntary servitude ... shall exist within the United States."

Slavery may have been a grim side of U.S. history. But in the midst of that darkness emerged some heroic, memorable moments. It was as if a bad light on some parts of humanity had the role of turning a good light on others.

There are so many stories attached to this Railroad; many have travelled through oral traditions before being recorded. But here are some, representing the many roles the Underground Railway played in bringing slavery to an end in the United States.

1. The Underground Railroad Network gave freedom to those who desperately wanted to escape a life of bondage, but the thousands who used its services highlighted to the world just how poor and even cruel conditions were for black slaves. Without the existence of the Railroad, many would have perished with their stories unknown. The U.S. drama was now being played on a stage for the world to see.

2. The role of individuals associated with the Railroad
So many amazing people gave their life to freeing slaves. They came from all backgrounds, including shopkeepers, farmers, ministers and runaway slaves.

One amazing woman, in the latter category, kept returning to the South to help free more than 300 slaves. Her name was Harriet Tubman. And William Lloyd Garrison daringly published the abolitionist newspaper "Liberator" in 1831. Even though so many blacks were illiterate, to even know that someone supported their cause so publicly must have inspired many to keep fighting for freedom via the Railroad.

And "In 1838, the Underground Railroad became formally organized with black abolitionist Robert Purvis at the helm." His tour of England in 1834 had assured that the slavery situation in the U.S. attracted world attention and world disdain. His tour involved presenting speeches and raising funds for the anti-slavery cause. He was then able to orchestrate the Railroad without too much formal political opposition. Through Robert Purvis' efforts, a short future for slavery in the U.S. was assured.

3. The role of the Seminoles
The Seminoles were a group of native Americans living in Florida who refused to align with the U.S. So, by default, runaway slaves from the South found no hostility with the Seminoles. The Seminoles even helped the runaways build houses and plant crops. Even though these times of the Underground Railroad were fractured with several Seminole Wars with the U.S., slaves were attracted to Florida as preferable to bondage in the South. The Railroad, leading here, became a key voice to the world, highlighting further the deplorable conditions of U.S. slaves to world eyes and ears.

4. The role of religious groups
A number of religious groups supported the freedom of slaves at the peak of the Underground Railroad, but the Quakers in particular had a long history of anti-slavery. As early as 1786, Quakers were using their own homes (with hidden staircases and rooms) to help runaway slaves escape. Runaways were moved along from one Quaker house to the next.

Many believe this was the real beginning of the Underground Railroad. The heart of the Quaker community was in Pennsylvania. And it was here that many slaves running from the Maryland plantations were helped on their journey further north to Philadelphia, Lancaster County or New Jersey.

Interestingly, all Quakers denounced slavery, but not all supported the notion of the Underground Railroad. Directly breaking the law threatened the spirit of the Quaker community, even though most agreed that slavery was immoral. Many wrestled with this anomaly. But it was the sacrifice of so many discordant faiths, banding together in the Underground project, that gave the Underground a spiritual strength in numbers.

5. The role of key cities such as Rochester, New York
Many cities had a role to play in the Underground Railroad. Even cities in the south, such as Baltimore, quietly absorbed black runaways with free. But maintaining anonymity in such a hot spot was quite difficult, especially when the runaways sought work to survive. But Rochester, in the far north, was literally the last city in the U.S. before freedom was tasted for real. It had a leading role to play in the Underground movement.

Communities here openly banded together to raise funds for the Underground. Bazaars and dinners were conducted to raise funds; clothing and furniture were donated. And, of course, some simply made large and small donations of money. Rochester helped keep the dream of freedom alive for runaways. But, in some ways, Rochester (and other cities like her) symbolized far more. They gave hope that white and black people respected each other's identity. There was a hope that equality could be possible. Slavery had to end!

6. The role of music
Many songs are associated with the Underground Railroad. But interestingly, they were not so much about the Railroad as they were the Railroad. Songs became a secret code of communication. For example, many of these slave songs talked about "going home" or "being bound for the land of Canaan."

If you just heard the song, you might think the people were singing about dying and going to heaven. However, the people who sang were very clever. They were actually singing about going north to Canada and freedom." Harriet Tubman used the song "Wade in the Water" to warn runaways that slavecatchers were close and they should get off a main trail. So, the songs were a means of warning and inspiring the spirit to keep going.

In summary, the Underground Railroad's role in bringing slavery in the U.S. to an end was huge. It represented social, cultural and spiritual players in the drama of slavery and anti-slavery. Running from slavery was a dangerous business, best done furtively in the dark of night or in holiday periods. But the Underground Railroad ensured the reasons for running were seen, world-wide, in the light of day.

Unity in the face of adversity!
Humanity at its best when confronted with the worst!
Heroes like Robert Purvis ensured the world watched.
And music bound the runaways together in a bond of hope.
Slavery had to end!


Friday, 26 September 2014

Biblical References in "The Handmaid's Tale"...

Published: May 28, 2007 on Helium

When a book relies on illusions to a sacred text, it becomes itself "sacred". Traditional beliefs may be reinforced or disturbingly questioned. A new sense of religious value may be established. Biblical references in "The Handmaid's Tale" (1985), by popular Canadian author, Margaret Atwood, open the imagination to a dark, dystopian "other world" of the Republic of Gilead. Atwood creates a world where the dogged practice of religion may not be morally tasteful or acceptable.

Once, some remote country called the United States, Gilead is now imprisoned in its own apocalyptic rules. All sense of human life, motivated by unique will and purpose, is "stifled" by religious dogma. Only the men in the narrative seem to have a little bit of leeway. Religious dogma rules political and social values, culture and even personal relationships (because there are none! Any offenders are banished to the outer, nuclear wasteland! )

And the Bible told them so! Yes! A controversial premise for a "future worlds" novel, even if it is all imaginary! When reading "The Handmaid's Tale", expect confronting, Bible based scenarios! Expect black, devastating satire!

The title sounds very Chaucerish! Like "The Wife of Bath's Tale"! After all, Chaucer's storytellers were on a religious pilgrimage. But, in Margaret Atwood's world, the pilgrims have reached journey's end. There is no more journey. There is just the duty of living with a "religious habit" (pardon the pun!)

Offred is the handmaid of the title. She wears a red and white "nun-like" attire (very provocative, a challenge to our religious senses), and functions as handmaid and child bearer. The Commander is her third child bearing assignment. (Her original husband, Luke, was lost in the "old" world). Even Scrabble is a forbidden pleasure, because women are no longer allowed to read or write. But Offred dares to try to play occasionally. Offred's plaintive voice weaves the nightmare of the story.

Already, Biblical references are flying. The wonder of Gilead is sourced in the Old Testament. It is a fertile area of ancient Palestine. But notably, one source, in Hosea, is never mentioned:
"Gilead is a city of wicked men, stained with footprints of blood".

Handmaid names are all Biblical names. In Genesis Chapter 30, verses 1-3, we find the functional handmaid.
"When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, Give me children or I shall die! Then she said, Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees, and even I may have children through her.'"
The Rachel and Leah centre, where handmaids are trained, are two names of women in the Bible; they are the wives of Jacob. Greetings between handmaids is confined to religious ritual e.g. "May the Lord open" or "Blessed be the fruit" followed by weather observations. It is against religious law to say more.

The Beatitudes of the Bible are "twisted" to suit the purposes of the Gilead regime. No female, at least, can check on the slight differences. The regime has locked the Bible away. Just as long as Gilead commandments begin with "Blessed be" (as the Bible does), then they must be right!

The Soul Scrolls of Gilead are only prayer machines. They can be ordered, registered, but not read, by females. Offred risks her life praying the Lord's Prayer, with a few adjustments.
"Now we come to forgiveness. Don't worry about forgiving me right now. There are more important things."

Even apparently "small" images are imbued with Biblical connection. In the climactic mating scene, in Chapter 16, Offred notices the sickly scents of lily of the valley. To Offred, the scents symbolize the innocence of female flesh. But, there is the rather erotic verse, in the Song of Solomon Chapter 2, where Christ is the bridegroom and the Church is his beloved. The BRIDE is the lily of the valley. But gospel lyrics perpetuate CHRIST as the lily of the valley, "the bright and morning star". Even small images in "The Handmaid's Tale" are highly electrified with satire.

"The Handmaid's Tale" is a confronting, dark view of where we "may" travel. Here is a sample of a "religious" world with no room for personal freedom of choice. Is this how you thought it would be? It IS strictly based on a wide range of Bible references! Perhaps a few Biblical criteria have been omitted. But is that really important? We can only be thankful that the Biblical references, Margaret Atwood persistently throws at us, all stem from early Old Testament worlds. Hopefully, we have progressed since then.