Head Foot Awareness Days

Sometime toward the end of 1873, Newfoundlander Moses Harvey found the bargain of a lifetime. For just ten dollars the amateur naturalist and writer purchased the carcass of a giant squid. Harvey bought his prize from a fisherman who’d caught the creature by accident and I suspect was somewhat relieved to be rid of it. Harvey’s sea monster friend soon set up residence suspended above a tub in the living room where it became the first of its species to pose for a photograph.

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Not that kind of Newfoundlander, but this makes a much cuter picture than a giant squid carcass.

People had been catching glimpses of the strange cephalopod since at least as early as the mid-twelfth century when the first partial descriptions appear in writing. For centuries, this creature served as a source of fear, as the great kraken of legend that pulled large ships to the bottom of the sea and possessed an insatiable hunger for human flesh.

It wasn’t until 1752 when Eric Pontoppidan, Bishop of Bergen wrote his First attempt at a Natural History of Norway (translated three years later into English) that anyone took a stab at a complete description. Even then, Pontoppidan didn’t get it quite right.

He claimed the one-and-a-half-mile wide kraken, with its spiky tentacles, was often mistaken for an island, and attracted its prey by regurgitating a great deal of partially digested fish to lure more into its giant, open mouth. Because of this behavior, Pontoppidan explains many fishermen thought the harvest above a kraken was rich enough to overcome a little fear of becoming a sea monster’s snack. He also reassured his readers the biggest risk ships faced when dealing with the kraken might not be getting pulled to the bottom of the ocean by its many serpentine tentacles, but rather getting sucked into the swirling vortex that followed in its wake.

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The focal point of any good living room design. Public Domain, via. Wikimedia Commons

Though now we know a little more of the sciency details of the somewhat elusive giant squid I think we can probably all admit that it’s a pretty darn creepy-looking animal. Also we’re pretty sure the species probably maxes out in size around forty-three feet long. Don’t get me wrong. That’s super big. But it’s not quite 1 ½ miles.

It does have sharp, spiky feeding tentacles, bringing its total number of appendages up to ten. With these, the squid guides prey, usually deep-water fish, to its sharp beak. To the best of our modern-day scientific knowledge, the giant squid has never been known to suck a ship into its swirling vortex of death and it doesn’t seem terribly interested in eating people.

There is some speculation that a particularly feisty squid could mistake a small ship for a sperm whale, one of its only known predators. Some squid enthusiasts (of which there are apparently a few) suggest this could result in an awesome sea battle that a small ship would almost certainly lose. Still, as long as you don’t set sail on a submarine with Captain Nemo I think you’ll be okay.

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Cephalopod is Latin for “head foot.” Kraken is Norwegian for “that cephalopod is going to eat you.” Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Since most of us will never even encounter a giant squid washed up dead on a beach, or have the opportunity to purchase one for ten dollars, we’ll just have to appreciate them from afar. And today is the day to do it. Established in 2007 by The Octopus News Magazine Online forum (I told you there were squid enthusiasts), October 11th is Kraken Awareness Day, or technically, “Myths and Legends Day,” just one day in the string of days beginning on October 8 that are set aside to for Cephalopod Awareness. Because obviously one day isn’t enough.

I don’t know about you. I’m not about to display a giant squid in my living room or anything. But I suppose it  can’t hurt to be aware.

Yo’ Mama Likes Books So Much…

It’s been about six years since researchers Michael Streck and Nathan Wasserman published in the reputable journal Iraq that they had made a stunning and important breakthrough. The two men had been working to translate an Ancient Babylonian tablet discovered by J. J. van Dijk in 1976. Much to the delight of the world, the tablet turned out to contain a series of riddles and punch lines, poorly written, most likely by a wisecracking youth.

Among the 3,500-year-old jokes is what Streck and Wasserman refer to as the oldest known Yo’ Mama joke. That may require a little stretch of the imagination. Part of the riddle is indecipherable, and what is there goes something like this: “…of your mother is by the one who has intercourse with her. What/who is it?”

Sadly, the answer to the incomplete question has also faded forever from history. But from context, it seems safe to assume that the riddle was not intended to flatter poor mama.

This really may have been the first time someone bothered to chisel an insulting joke about someone’s mother, though I doubt it was the first time such a joke was ever uttered. Writers and comedians and people looking to pick fights have been slinging mud at mothers for millennia, I suppose because they elicit a pretty universal response.

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Moms are pretty awesome.

No matter what our relationship with our mother, whether she is close to us, not so close, no longer with us, or was never a part of our life at all, mothers matter profoundly in the human experience. That truth transcends eras and cultural identities and it makes Yo’ Mama jokes, from the partial ancient ones to the cleverer ones of today, a little uncomfortable. Because most of us love our mamas, or at least know what it feels like to really want to be close to and adore our mamas.

As Mother’s Day comes up here in the US (on May 13, in case you’ve forgotten) I hope you’re thinking about ways to let yo’ mama know how much you love and appreciate how much she loves and appreciates you.

If you’re in need of a last minute gift idea, I’ve got one for you. Until May 13 (again, that’s Mother’s Day), you can follow the “Mother’s Day Book Sale” tab at the top of this post and get a personalized and signed copy of Launching Sheep & Other Stories. It’s even discounted 33% just because Yo’ Mama likes books so much that you should get her one for Mother’s Day.

Puritans Inhaling Swamp Gas

Sometime in late February of 1639, a man by the name of James Everell, along with two of his Puritan buddies, rowed his boat up the Muddy River of Massachusetts and spotted a weird light in the sky. The light appeared as a large flame, about three yards square, and then began to dart around the sky, taking on a different shape, like that of a swine, presumably still on fire.

pig roast
Maybe that fancy, dancy light was just the aliens’ way of inviting the men to a pig roast. photo credit: eric dickman Pig Roast ’05 via photopin (license)

After a few mesmerizing hours of watching the flaming pig streak back and forth across the sky, the three men realized that during that time, they had somehow ended up a mile upstream from where they’d been with no recollection of how they’d gotten there.

But here’s the really strange part. These three pals actually told people they’d watched a flaming pig fly through the night sky. By people, I mean they told John Winthrop, then governor of the Massachusetts Colony and among the puritanest of Puritans. On March 1, 1639 he wrote down the account in his now well-studied diary. It’s clear he found the tale a little odd, but also that he believed the tale-tellers to be credible men who generally made pretty bang-up witnesses.

JohnWinthrop
John Winthrop. If this man told me he’d been abducted by aliens, I’d probably believe him. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There are a few possible explanations, then, for what these reliable men saw. First, and obviously most likely, this could be the earliest written account of a North American UFO sighting and alien abduction. Alternatively, these gentlemen could have been boating to a safe distance away from the stocks before overindulging in their puritanical beer. Or of course the whole thing could just be an example of spontaneously igniting swamp gas reflecting off Venus.

Governor Winthrop proposed another explanation nearly five years later when two similar events occurred. During the second of these later events, a voice accompanied the mysterious lights. Winthrop’s most reliable witnesses said they heard the words, “Boy! Boy! Come away! Come away!”

The governor notes fourteen days later, the same voice could be heard again. The reason, he suggests, is that the colony had recently experienced a nearby shipwreck resulting in an explosion. All the victims’ bodies were accounted for except one. Logically, Winthrop theorized the Devil had possessed the body and was now using it, along with a freaky light show, to terrorize the colonists. Hmm. Maybe.

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This guy knows what I’m talking about. photo credit: c r i s They’re Coming To Take Me Away / 135.365 via photopin (license)

Then again, perhaps a bunch of enthusiastic otherworldly visitors were calling to their human would-be abductees as they have so many times in generations since. Personally, I’m a little skeptical, but perhaps you’re not. Perhaps you, or someone whose story you find credible, have experienced something that to the rest of us might seem a little far out there.

If so, then National Alien Abduction Day, observed in the US on March 20 every year for at least the last decade, may be just the day for you. As for me, I think I’ll avoid the swamp gas and the puritanical beer that day. Perhaps I’ll fashion a nice aluminum foil hat, too, just in case.

Making a List and Checking it Twice

So we’re down to it, the last few days before Christmas. I’m not going to lie. I’m a little stressed, though in a good way. I want the holiday to produce warm, fuzzy memories for my children and the whole family as we gather together to celebrate. And it will, because the celebration is really in the gathering together.

But there’s definitely a certain image in my mind of how it will all go, observing just the right traditions, in a sparkling clean house that is only going to get covered in cast-off bows and scraps of wrapping paper. It’ll be perfect even if it’s not perfect, which it won’t be. I get all that. But I’m still running through my lists.

santa list
This guy gets it.

Because I am definitely a list maker. I’m one of those people who has several lists at once and then to keep track of them, makes a list of my lists. I’m the kind of person who, once I’ve accomplished a task that’s not included on my to-do list, writes it in, just for the pleasure of crossing it off. I think I may have a problem.

Actually, as a team of archaeologists working on a restoration project at a historic 17th century house in Kent, England discovered about a year ago, I might not be all that unusual. What they found under a floorboard in the attic was a shopping list, handwritten in October of 1633, by an obviously somewhat educated servant named Robert Draper. In it, he expresses the need for two dozen pewter spoons, greenfish (salted cod, allegedly), and a frying pan. The discovery is exciting because it’s a glimpse of the mundane stuff of life from the period, which is not always easily accessible information for historians.

It’s a bold list that includes instructions addressed to a Mr. Bilby asking him to send these items, along with some lights from the chamber of the lady of the house and a fire shovel from the nursery, to one of the family’s separate residences. I do tend to shy away from making lists for other people, unless specifically asked to, which occasionally I am, because I live with very non-list-making kinds of people who acknowledge that they sometimes forget things. And lists are handy.

That’s especially true if you’re Santa Claus and you’re tasked with remembering the gift requests of every child you’ll visit on Christmas Eve, and also whether or not they’ve been well behaved enough to deserve them. It sounds like a logistical nightmare to me.

santa cookies
No wonder the poor guy binges on cookies.

But Santa’s got it under control because he’s got a list that he checks twice. He’s had one since long before Eddie Cantor sang “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” in 1934, and even before 1633 when Robert Draper reminded Mr. Bilby not to forget the light bulbs.

It’s true that the American Santa Claus as we know him today comes partially from the stories of the 4th century bishop known as Saint Nicholas, but the character also descends from a more pagan influence, particularly from Nordic folktales that arose in the Middle Ages.

The jolly fat man in a red coat, designed in the late 19th century by artist Thomas Nast, bears a striking resemblance to descriptions of Thor. And the behavior of the dear old saint as reported by Clement Moore is reminiscent of Odin flying through the air on an eight legged horse, delivering gifts through chimneys. With him are two ravens, his constant companions that listen at the chimneys and report on whether the occupants of the home have been naughty or nice.

raven
A harbinger of death, and yet still less creepy than the elf on the shelf.

As Santa evolved the eight legged horse became eight reindeer and the eavesdropping ravens became a master list and, in the last few years, a super creepy elf on the shelf. Frankly, I think Santa should have kept the ravens.

I think it’s safe to assume the jolly old elf is a little stressed out with just a few days remaining before the biggest night of his year. He might even check his list more than twice. And then make lists of his lists, and add to each of them as he goes. Because he wants to make sure the holiday is merry and bright, and he’s probably afraid he’ll forget the lightbulbs. 

What the Cool Kids are up to this Christmas Season

There’s a strange thing happening in my house this holiday season. The delightfully tacky, lighted, multi-colored star that has topped my Christmas tree for more than a decade has been blinking. It never used to do that.

But this year, about a week into Christmas tree season (which for us begins the day after Thanksgiving), the thing began to develop a personality. Every night we plug it in to discover what color it’s going to be. Sometimes two colors switch on, sometimes only one. Other times all the colors come on or the star blinks for a while in a seemingly random pattern.

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Today it’s orange, which is not a very Christmas-y color. I think it wants to tell us a story that would be more fitting for Halloween.

Of course I realize the star must have a short and we need to replace it before our house burns down, but I jokingly said the other day that I thought it must be possessed. And that’s when my nearly thirteen-year-old son said, “Maybe someone from another dimension is trying to tell us something.”

He was making a reference to the Netflix series, Stranger Things, that you either recently binge watched, or you’ve heard your friends talking about how they did. My husband and I fell under the spell of the series shortly after the second season dropped at the end of October this year, when all the cool kids wouldn’t stop talking about it.

In case you’re not familiar with the show, the basic premise is that something has gone wrong at a secretive government lab near a small town in 1980s Indiana, opening up a gate into another dimension. A boy goes mysteriously missing in the first episode. Trapped in the alternate dimension, the boy manages to communicate with his mother through surges in electricity and she eventually figures out that she can paint her walls with the alphabet and string Christmas lights so he can signal words to her. Oh, and the other dimension contains an insatiable, terrifying, virtually indestructible beast that likes to dimension hop and hunt.

stranger things
This could be yours. https://www.ebay.com/i/382304200890?chn=ps

I probably don’t have to tell you that it’s scary. Or that it’s not especially Christmas-y. But that hasn’t stopped Christmastime marketing geniuses from taking advantage of its popularity. Among the racks of ugly sweaters this season, you can find one that includes lights strung above crooked letters of the alphabet, with three that really light up to signal: R-U-N.

Yikes! Merry Christmas.

I suppose the concept of scary stories (and marketing genius) at Christmas aren’t particular to 2017. If you turn on the television at any given time in the month of December, I’m pretty sure you can find at least one version of A Christmas Carol to watch, filled with ghosts, and if you’re lucky, Muppets.

Charles Dickens wrote the original novella in 1843. It took him about six weeks to do it, and his publisher managed to release it December 19th. By Christmas Eve, the first run had sold out.

Dickens was already known as a writer of novels generally published in serial fashion, and with A Christmas Carol, he struck just the right cord with his audience. He rode Victorian surges in both the popularity of frightening stories and in newly imagined secular celebrations of Christmas. He captured people with his project, one that would provide him with a great deal of income through the rest of his life, and in some ways would shape the way Christmas is celebrated even in 2017.

I did (briefly) attempt to determine just how many adaptations of this Christmas ghost story have been made into movies, television specials, operas, radio plays, sitcom episodes, etc. As you can probably imagine, that’s a hard number to tally and I’m not that dedicated, so let’s just agree it’s somewhere around a whole bunch.

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Charles Dickens, penning strange holiday traditions. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When Dickens wrote his book, it wasn’t exactly a new thing, this telling of ghost stories and scary yarns in wintertime when the nights are long and the cold wind howls through barren trees. Such tales are referenced by playwright Christopher Marlowe in the late 16th century. But it may have been Dickens who so expertly associated the frightening winter tale with the cheery celebration of Christmas.

So I am going to choose to believe that it’s not unusual at all that my son is spending time this Christmas season binge-watching Stranger Things, because all the cool kids have been talking about it, and fortunately he’s much less susceptible to nightmares than I am. But I do think I’m going to take a little time out of my busy Christmas schedule to shop for a new, less blinky and more consistent, star for the top of our tree.

Monks Make Wily Guards and Santa Claus is Dead

As we enter into the busy Christmas season with the official start of Advent this past Sunday, I suppose it’s fitting to pause for a moment to observe the day when Santa Claus died. Yesterday (December 6) was recognized as the 1,674th anniversary of the death of one of history’s most widely honored saints.

Celebrated for his gift-giving and kindness, particularly to the children of the poor, and remembered fondly for slapping a heretic across the face during the Council of Nicaea, St. Nicholas is still the hippest 4th century bishop around.

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By Aloxe – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3138918

And no one loves St. Nicholas as much as the people of Bira, Italy, where his remains have been at rest within the Basilica di San Nicola for more than 900 years. But the saint isn’t from Italy originally, and no, he’s also not from the North Pole. He also most likely didn’t make his home with an army of toy-making elves and a herd of magical reindeer. Sometimes, people (like history bloggers) make things up. Sorry.

St. Nicholas actually spent much of his life serving as Bishop of Myra, a Greek town on the Mediterranean Coast, in what is modern-day Antalya, Turkey. Most people assumed that’s where the saint was buried, and he remained there until 1087 when some rowdy Italian elves (or sailors) from Bira spirited away his jolly bones, landing themselves, I would think, permanently on the naughty list.

There are different versions of the story, of course. Italian church historians tend to refer to the theft as the “translation” of the St. Nicholas relics from one place to the other. They favor stories that suggest cooperation of the monks guarding the tomb who stepped aside both in fear for the relics under the threat of Arab occupation, and because they read the signs suggesting Nicholas himself was ready to move. This isn’t quite how the tale is understood by Turkish archaeologists who would like the stolen relics back.

But archaeologists working in Antalya recently claimed they might have evidence that would change the story anyway. Beneath the ancient St. Nicholas Church in Southern Turkey, researchers detected a previously unknown crypt beneath a mosaic floor. Because historic floor removal is a delicate process, it could be a while before the crypt can be fully revealed, and any resting occupants examined.

For now it’s enough evidence for the Turkish archaeologists to publicly claim that the bones stolen away to Bira probably didn’t belong to St Nicholas anyway. They reference records from the time that suggest instead the wily guard monks tricked the thieves and sent the remains of another less well known priest to Italy.

The word from Bira is that they will assume they hold the true remains until world-wide experts reassure them, and this silly Turkish ploy to steal their pilgrimage tourism dollars can be brought to a close (I’m paraphrasing a bit here). I’m not sure what the response has been from the at least three other locations that claim to possess bones of the saint.

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See kids? He’s just fine. And jolly as ever. By Oldschool at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
And therein lies the rub with relics. They’re hard to verify. All we really know for certain is that St. Nicholas is definitely dead. That’s what a lot of traumatized children are learning this holiday season. A friend recently posted on Facebook the contents of an e-mail sent to her by her child’s fourth grade teacher expressing concern that student-written responses to an article about the discovery in Turkey revealed some holiday anxiety. I suspect this was not the only teacher who has encountered this tricky problem this school year.

The good news is that regardless of where he was buried, the spirit of St. Nicholas lives on in an undisclosed magical location at the North Pole surrounded by flying reindeer and wily elves, and no way is anyone going to discover his bones there.

It’s Kind of a Big Deal

First of all, I have mixed feelings about writing this post. Secondly, today, October 12th, is the 525th anniversary of the landing of Christopher Columbus in the Bahamas, representing the most influential event in the “Age of Discovery” and the irreversible beginning of arguably the largest population and cultural shift to ever alter the dynamics of human history.

It’s kind of a big deal.

In 1792 on the 300th anniversary of that day, the city of Baltimore erected what it claims is the oldest American monument to the famous Italian explorer. A couple of months ago the monument was defaced as part of an anti-racism demonstration you can view on YouTube if you want.

Columbus Day has been celebrated in various forms since around the time that monument went up, but Colorado became the first state to adopt the official holiday in 1905. In 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared October 12th a federal holiday in honor of Columbus, a day that eventually came to be observed on the second Monday in October to better accommodate long weekend big deal furniture sales.

Today, that Monday is recognized not only by low, low prices and zero percent financing on five-piece living room sets, but also with large parades, closed banks, and empty mailboxes, because frankly we can all use a break from the furniture store advertisements.

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No more slip covers required. Thanks to Columbus Day. photo credit: Mário Tomé 2013 living room via photopin (license)

But in the last few years, the day has also been marked by protest. In cities across the nation, the debate rages about the value of historical monuments that commemorate any kind of messy history and Baltimore’s is not the only Columbus monument to meet up with vandals.

And this brings me to my mixed feelings about writing this post. I have made no secret about the fact that I don’t want this to be another space of controversy on the Internet. I really don’t. There’s enough negativity out there and it would be nice if there are a few places where we can take a break from all that.

Still, this is a history blog (kind of), and more than that, it’s a blog that claims history as mostly story, directed by a few verifiable facts and a little made up nonsense. So I’ve decided it’s time to explore this highly contentious issue.

Because there can be no argument (well, I’m sure there could be, but to the best of my knowledge no one has made it yet) that upon meeting the natives of the Americas for the first time, Christopher Columbus wrote of them in his journal  that they seemed to be pretty nice folks who would make wonderful slaves.

I sincerely hope that makes all of us feel morally icky.

Christopher Columbus Statue
Christopher Columbus, shifting history and pointing out all the people he hoped to enslave. By Kenneth C. Zirkel (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I also have no problem with states like Alaska, Hawaii, Vermont, North Dakota, and Oregon choosing not to recognize the holiday or to use the day instead to honor Native Americans or whatever feels appropriate to them. In fact, I applaud efforts to re-evaluate the way we view and interpret historical events. I think we learn a lot about ourselves and ultimately become better people when we do that.

But I’m also in favor of furniture sales and of the large celebrations of Italian heritage and patriotism for which many American cities use Columbus Day. Even though our school district does not take the day off, it doesn’t bother me that many still do. Again, Columbus’s voyages ushered in a gigantic shift in the course of world history. It was kind of a big deal.

I think that’s what these monuments that people get so upset about really honor. I think they remind us of the shifts, of those moments in history when the world changed, in some ways for the better and in some ways not.  That’s the thing about stories. They can be told and viewed from different angles and even the ugly ones often contain nuggets of beauty.

Actually I would argue that all of our history contains some ugliness, but much like an individual may look back at past mistakes and be grateful for the way he or she has been changed by them, those big deal moments have also led to a great deal of beauty as the world has moved through and looked back at them.

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That’s better. Beauty and a big deal. photo credit: mattwalker69 Contemporary Rugs Rowsyn Multicolor via photopin (license)

I hope as a society we continue to have conversations about how we view and discuss the stories from our past. It’s probably healthy to re-evaluate the ways we honor or remember or criticize the figures that represent moments of great shifts. And I hope we don’t spend so much time angrily tearing apart our history that we lose our ability to view it from different perspectives.

Instead, I hope we remember to look at all of it, and to take the time to sit down together on our new bargain living room sofas to discuss and consider both the beautiful and the ugly, even if we have mixed feelings about it.