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Archive for the ‘The Mediterranean World’ Category

Oh, hi. It’s been what, five months?

ark of the covenant

Moses and Joshua in the Tabernacle, by James Joseph Jacques Tissot

Reading continues apace, although the blogging is way, way, way behind. This is partly for the usual reasons: work, family, long-distance running, laziness. It’s also because I’ve now embarked on the part of the list that contains holy scriptures, stories taken as dictated by the divine in at least three different faith traditions.

So, I’m trying to engage respectfully with scripture wherever possible. I’m trying to rein in my deeply-ingrained tendency to snark on everything, and make an attempt to learn about the people who believe these stories– and the people who may have written them. As I’ve said before, I come from a Roman Catholic background, and was involved in religious education until I was about 13 years old. Since then, I’ve been more or less unchurched (although I consider myself Quaker-curious).  I’ve had to think a lot, in my recent readings, about holiness.

Getting to grips with the concept of holiness is a tough one for most Western people under 40 or so. We’ve been relentlessly marketed at since our infancy, so we’re cynical and untrusting, and furthermore, we’ve been trained to think that “cool” is best. The problem is that “cool” is not enthused or awed or really even moved by anything, unless it’s, like, a totally sweet Vietnamese place near your girlfriend’s work, or the director’s cut of Blade Runner or an original pressing of Blue Monday or something like that. “Holy” is the thing that Burt Ward’s Robin always said in to Adam West’s Batman: “Holy costume party, Batman!” “Holy haberdashery, Batman!” It’s said, like everything else that smacks of sentiment or passion or sincerity, with a smirk.

I think one of the benefits of my religious upbringing was that it taught me to seek out and recognize the sacred and the holy. It is something I have been trying to do every day, although not in a Christianist or Biblically-focused way, per se. For me, holiness is about something being in a higher state than it can be. In humans, for instance, it means putting others first, rather than reverting to the usual animal tribalism.  It can also refer to places or times when one feels connected to everything, as if one is more than a disjointed collection of thoughts and urges.

So the rough-looking teenage boys helping the old woman at the grocery checkout to see her coins properly yesterday were holy. The light on the hills in the morning is holy, and I am sanctified when I see and feel it. The sound of my husband snoring is holy (okay, that’s a stretch, but I’m trying to be less bent out of shape by it).

It’s a little rusty, this holiness detector, but I’m working on making it function properly.

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ZOMG, time to plow!

As you probably gathered from the last post, I found Works and Days sort of hilarious. It’s basically this tract of unsolicited advice, aimed at the author’s no-good brother. It goes off on several tangents about Prometheus and Pandora (whose box was actually a jar), and then details exactly how and when to farm your land.

It all sounds very mystical, with Hesiod telling you to do this when the Pleiades are risen, and this when Sirius is high in the sky, and how to talk to your laborers and which women are best to hire for which bits of scut-work. It is somewhere between a Farmer’s Almanac and Emily Post’s Etiquette, in that it instructs about husbandry and maintaining a well-managed house for yourself, your family, and guests. And, obviously, the references to the stars are not mystical at all, but practical for a time without clocks, thermometers, and calendars (at least, not calendars as we know them).

This is why Hesiod is valuable: not necessarily because of his great writing– it isn’t particularly great, at least not compared to Homer– but because of what we have preserved by preserving his writing: a clear explanation of the cosmological myths and mythological characters many Ancient Greeks held dear. And a picture of rural life nearly three thousand years in the past, with a glimpse of the values and superstitions held by people long vanished.

Time elevates the stilted, quaint, quotidian material into something else. Plenty of current fiction deals with this tendency of ours to spin straw into gold, just because it is vintage straw. I have the feeling I’ll run into this a lot as I progress through the books. Human beings have a compulsion to put things in order and ascribe hugely important meaning to trivia– and they’ve done this since before celebrity journalism.

And it may be a function of higher-order thinking, who knows? Those sentient cockroaches, if they find my 8th-grade diary somehow, may treasure it the way we do this compilation of stories and folk wisdom from a dead farmer.

It would certainly be better for them to study that than, say, the TV series Friends.

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Coin from a Queen of the Sassanid Empire, 630 AD

Coin from a Queen of the Sassanid Empire, 630 AD

Here’s a really fantastic animated map from some folks at Maps of War that takes you through more than 53,000 years of the history of the Middle East and Mediterranean Basin in 90 seconds. It’s a simple, graphic, illuminating depiction of how often that region has changed hands. There were two empires I’d never heard of (Sassanid and Seljuk, being the last pre-Islamic Persian empire and the Medieval Sunni Muslim empire, respectively), and I had not quite grasped the extent of the Macedonian or Mongol empires. Whoa.

In the modern era, it’s pretty horrible to see how Westerners just sort of carved the place up for their own purposes (and still are).

Since this region is so important to the first two sections of the reading list, I thought it was relevant. Found via StumbleUpon.

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Achilles Slays Hector (Spoiler!), Peter Paul Rubens, via Wikipedia

Sorry about the hiatus. I’ve been on vacation– away from home, and away from screens. It was much-needed.

I’d like to point out that my blogging is a lagging indicator of this project’s progress: currently I’m neck-deep in the Upanishads, which is a fair few entries down the list.  Like anyone else with a kid and a full-time job and a spouse I actually like spending time with, it can be difficult to make time to write, especially when I’m enjoying the reading so much.

Well, mostly enjoying it. I wasn’t really wowed by the Iliad. I’m not sure why that is. I’ve been re-reading bits of it while trying to compose my thoughts about it. I’ll assume that the fault lies in the reader rather than in the material. (more…)

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