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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, StrangerThings, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you live in the US (and you don’t live in a cave), I’m sure you know by now that this Sunday (May 14) is Mother’s Day. It’s hard to escape the ads for jewelry, and chocolate-covered strawberries, and flowers, and yes, free glass vases. And there aren’t many stores you could walk through without seeing some display or other of sentimental greeting cards and “World’s Greatest Mom” tee shirts or coffee mugs.
That’s all well and good. I’m sure many of you will pick out something like that to give to your mother to honor her on the special day, and I am certain she’ll appreciate the thought. But for me (and I suspect for a lot of mothers), it’s kind of a strange holiday. I hate to say it, but I don’t really look forward to it all that much.
Here’s the thing. Moms do a lot of stuff. And we’re pretty good at it. No, most of us are probably not born that way, but when we become mothers, we gain more than a child. We gain a desperate longing to do everything we can to ensure that child’s well-being. That’s challenging, and there’s a pretty steep learning curve, requiring some big adjustments, like:
Accepting that the bathroom is the only place you will ever again have any privacy (a luxury that is by no means guaranteed).
Learning to eat the yucky flavors in the popsicle box because that’s all that’s ever left.
Managing to function, more or less, in a constantly exhausted state.
Understanding that at no point will you be able to honestly say the laundry is done, unless you have convinced your family to go naked for a while.
Feeling guilty if you don’t prepare a nutritious, balanced meal for your kids, while acknowledging that if you do, there is no way they’re going to eat it.
Tolerating that your actual name will rarely be uttered anymore, but you will hear “Mom” at least 10,000 times a day, often several times in the same sentence, because I guess your kids assume if they don’t remind you who they’re talking to, your exhausted mind will wander.
Knowing that no task (like writing a blog post) will ever be something you can complete without interruption by a kid who is learning about Scott Joplin in music class and desperately needs to use the computer to look up the “Maple Leaf Rag” on YouTube before he goes to school.
Okay, that last one might just be me, and it really did happen this morning. It was kind of awesome. But in a more general sense, the struggle is real.
So you might think that what moms really want for Mother’s Day is a day off, maybe even some time alone. I think I can speak for a lot of us when I say, yes, that is definitely something we want. The trouble is that the moment our children go away and leave us alone, we miss them. And then we kind of resent them a little because we can’t even take a break without thinking about them. And then we feel guilty because we feel resentment toward some of the people we love the very most in the whole world. And we’re sad that we’re missing the day with them, when all they wanted to do was to make us feel special.
You see why I don’t really look forward to Mother’s Day?
But I have given this a lot of thought lately. I’ve looked at some of the things said by and about famous mothers in the past, and I think I’ve finally figured out what moms want.
First, I read about Hoelun, mother of Genghis Khan (a fact which, according to some historians and geneticists, makes her the most successful grandmother in human history). She overcame a lot of tough challenges as a mom. Then when the successful Genghis rose to become a great conqueror and threatened to kill his own brother, Hoelun put her foot down. Out of respect for her, Genghis let his brother live and his mother became one of his most trusted advisors.
The second example I found interesting was Nancy Edison. When as a young boy, the eventually wildly successful inventor Thomas Edison was deemed mentally incompetent by his teacher, his mother Nancy began homeschooling him. Later he would say of her, “She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”
Another great mom, Alberta Williams King worked hard to instill a sense of self-respect in her children, teaching them that segregation was a construct of man and had nothing whatsoever to do with any kind of natural order. It was a lesson her son Martin Luther King, Jr. took to heart, making it the cornerstone of his life, and not forgetting to give his mama the credit she deserved.
And of Abigail Adams, one of only two American women to have been both a president’s wife and a president’s mother, her son John Quincy Adams had this to say:
My mother was an angel upon earth. She was a minister of blessing to all human beings within her sphere of action. Her heart was the abode of heavenly purity… She was the real personification of female virtue, of piety, of charity, of ever active and never intermitting benevolence.
Actually that might be a tad bit over the top. Because I would bet that even Abigail Adams didn’t feel like she always deserved such high praise. The lesson here, though, for those of us who are mothers and for those of us who have mothers, is that what Mom probably really wants is for you to love your family, to know that she is behind you, cheering you on, even in the really tough times, and to understand that regardless of what you look like or what the world thinks of you, you are precious.
But go ahead and get her some flowers, too. Because she also wants you to know that she appreciates that you appreciate her. And it’s nice, once in a while, for a mom to hear that she’s an angel upon the earth. Because she’s exhausted and her shower got interrupted when somebody needed something RIGHT NOW, and the laundry is piling up, and she never feels like she does enough, even when she feels like she does it all. And just this once, maybe you could insist that she chooses first, so she doesn’t get stuck eating the grape popsicles.