Courage to face despair.


Tim Severin’s reconstruction of The Odyssey Ship

Jessie Redmon Fauset was born this day, April 27th in 1882 and was one of the contributing poets to the Harlem Renaissance.   More importantly her work portrayed images of African-Americans as working professionals, challenging embedded racial stereotypes.  As literary editor of the NAACP magazine “The Crisis” she promoted the work of writers including Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Claude McKay.

She taught a generation of African-Americans to honestly represent their racial qualities and to celebrate them; to be black, and be proud.  She challenged the inbuilt racism of African-Americans themselves where lighter toned people looked down upon the darker and few drops of mongrel white blood were valued over pure black ichor.

She tried but was arguably less successful at teaching women to represent their gender qualities and to celebrate them.  She is now recognised for her work as a feminist and her promotion of feminist writers.

The poem below derives from Homers Odyssey and the tale of the Lotus Eaters.  But it appears Fauset has taken her cue from Alfred Lord Tennyson who wrote of Ulysses as opposed to Odysseus and used the ‘Lotos’ spelling in his poem “The Lotos-Eaters”.

Let us swear an oath, and keep it with an equal mind,
in the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined
on the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind.


‘Courage!’ He Said; by Jessie Redmon Fauset

ULYSSES, debarking in the Lotos Land,
struck the one note that the hapless Ithacans
travel-sick, mazed, bemused, could understand,
and understanding, follow.

‘Courage,’ he said, ‘remember, is not Hope!’
He left the worn, safe ship, spume-stained and hollow.
‘To be courageous is to face despair.’
And through the groves and ‘thwart the ambient air
resounded reedy echoes:
‘Face despair!’
But this they understood.
And plunging on prepared for best, and most prepared
for worst, found only in their stride
a deep umbrageous wood,
and grassy plains where they disported; eased
and bathed lame’ feet within a purling stream
and murmured: ‘Here, Odysseus, would we fain abide!’
But neither the stream’s sweet ease
nor the shade of the vast beech-trees,
nor the blessed sense
of the sweet, sweet soil
beneath feet salt-cracked and worn
brought to them even then,
(still fainting and frayed and forlorn),
such complete recompense
as the knowledge that once again
facing the new and untried,
they had kept the courage of men!

Good or not good?

Richard Harris

These days he is best known in popular culture as portrayed by Richard Harris in the film “Gladiator”.  Marcus Aurelius was born on this day in 121 AD during the reign of Hadrian.  He lived his life under the Pax Romana in the glory days of second century Rome.

He became Roman Emperor in 161 AD and ruled until 180 AD.

Marcus Aurelius is traditionally seen as the fifth of the five “good emperors”; Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius.  But there is a view at large that he should not be in that club.  What marked out the good emperors was their replacement of dynastic rule with a meritocracy.

Dynasties often begin on merit with a great emperor, like Augustus who was first Emperor of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, and Vespesian who was first of the Flavians.  They tend to end badly with an idiod.  The last Julio-Claudian was Nero who was replaced by Vespasian.  The last Flavian was Domitian who was replaced by Nerva.

There is another trend in family dynasties that leads to the rise of a terrible emperor or ruler.  Disaster generally follows the appointment of a headstrong teenager to the top job.  Sometimes they can survive their teenage years if they listen to their mothers, but most are doomed to ignomy.

The “good emperors” built a meritocracy quite by accident.  There was a procession of childless emperors.  Each handed the baton to a successor who was already well proven.  Until we get to Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus Aurelius had 13 children with his wife Faustina of which one son and four daughters survived.  The Emperor appointed his son Commodus as co-emperor in 177 AD when the boy was 16 years old.  If Marcus Aurelius had lived longer perhaps Commodus would have been a better emperor, but the father died when the boy was still only 19 years old.

He liked to fight in the arena as a gladiator and styled himself a demi-God in the likeness of Hercules.  When a fire devastated Rome he had the city “re-founded” seeing himself as the new Romulus and renamed Rome after himself.  He also renamed the months of the year after all his own names.  He replaced the head of the colossus of Nero with his own head.

Commodus was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard and his death led to the era of the barracks emperors and the crisis of the 3rd Century.  All legitimacy disappeared from the imperial office.  The Roman Empire entered a period of decline which might have been its death knell if not for the arrival of Diocletian.

With this in mind can Marcus Aurelius count as a “good emperor”?  Do we blame the father for the sins of the son?



A flute girl plays at a Symposium

Lysander sailed into Piraeus, the exiles returned, and the walls were pulled down among scenes of great enthusiasm and to the music of flute girls. It was thought that this day was the beginning of the freedom for Greece…. Xenophon from “Hellenica”.

So ended the great Pelopennesian War between Athens and Sparta and their various allies, on April 25th 404 BC.  And there Xenophon paints a very interesting picture.  The walls in question were the long walls which linked Athens to the port of Piraeus.  The power of Athens was the sea, and access to the sea.  Admiral Lysander wanted to break that power forever.

Tearing down those walls “with enthusiasm” is understandable.  Without the long walls Athens could be severed from the sea by a competent land army like the Spartans.

The presence of the flute girls adds a rich and complex symbolism to the event.

I have heard people refer to the flute girls, the aulêtrides as prostitutes.  To do so is simply wrong.  Their role in Greek Society is far more nuanced and complex.  Athens had a formalised and taxed system of prostitution, introduced by the great lawmaker Solon.

At the bottom of the Athenian sex worker industry were the brothel prostitutes.  Called pornai they were generally barbarian slaves, the property of pimps, working under tight control, with no rights.

Marginally above the pornai you had street prostitutes who were ostensibly self-employed but in reality probably operated like modern street hookers.  They had some right of refusal and more freedom than the brothel prostitutes.

At the very top of the sex worker industry were the hetairai who were the equivalent of Japanese Geisha, courtesans or “escorts”.  The hetairai had long term and often exclusive arrangements with wealthy men.  They were expected to be cultured and somewhat educated.  There are references to relationships where the intellectual companionship was more important than the sexual contract.

Between the high level and very expensive hetairai and the low level street and brothel pornai was the shadowy world of temple prostitution, flute and harp girls.

When looking at the sex industry from a modern western perspective it can be difficult to conceptualise the role of sexuality in Greek religion.  Temples of Dionysus, Demeter and Aphrodite had sex workers who participated in rites.  But while there is widespread lurid speculation about these rites there is very little actually documented about them.  Dionysian rites involved intentional drunkenness as a path to attaining catharsis, and may also, in the manner of drunken people everywhere, have involved consenting sexual activity.  Whether actual Dionysian temple prostitutes participated in such activities is unknown.

I suspect the situation in the temples of Demeter and Aphrodite were entirely different.  The eleusinian rites of the temple of Demeter lasted until Christianity attained supremacy in the Roman Empire.  Every senior Roman of note appears to have participated, but again the rites themselves are undocumented.  There is great speculation that they involved low level rites of drunkenness and sex, and the higher mysteries.  These higher mysteries may also have involved an ancient form of LSD derived from ergot, a mould that grows naturally on wheat.

Activities in these temples likely involved issues such as contraception, child birth and fertility.  The problem of male infertility is easily remedied by a visit from a fertile “deity”.  The economics of prostitution depends upon avoiding conception, or having knowledge of abortion practices.  To this day these are issues that society struggles with from an ethical perspective.

But back to the flute girls!  Solon’s laws included a structure for the management, appointment and control of fee structures for Flute and Lyre players.  These “entertainers” were assigned to attend symposiums.

Today a symposium is a conference, often with academic connotations.  In Ancient Greece the symposium was an event that took place after a banquet.  It could range from an intellectual debate to a debauched party.  Several writers refer to the importance of ejecting the flute girls from a symposium if you wanted a serious debate.  This gives the impression that the flute girls acted in the role of party facilitators.

When the girls played their instruments it called a halt to “serious” conversation and signalled a relaxation phase of the night.  The image of the girl above is taken from a Krater, a large urn that was used to mix the wine and water for a night of drinking.

The flute girls were paid to attend the symposium and play music.  This did not mean they were necessarily prostitutes, although many of them were.  They clearly had the right to pick and choose their situation, and negotiate any “extras”.  They probably bribed the city officials to be selected for the better quality of symposium with the wealthier clients.

In his play Wasps Aristophanes character Philoclean abducts a flute girl from a party and tries to persuade her to have sex.  This is not the act of someone who has power to simply take or pay for a prostitute.  High status flute girls probably had more in common with courtesans like actresses or performers such as Nell Gwyn, Lily Langtry, Mata Hari or Lola Montez.  The luckiest might attain hetairai status.

While the pornai are clearly used for sex, the flute girl brings a skill set to the table which makes her role and presence more nuanced.   In the image on the Krater above she is fully clothed and the men appear to be listening to the music, waving arms in time.   The music may have had an important set of roles.  As already alluded to it served a boundary function moving the night from sober debate into relaxation.  The music itself, if loud enough, may have precluded further debate.  Music is a pathway to abandonment and a road to catharsis, especially when combined with wine.

For the ancient Greeks the balance between logic and emotion might be shifted through the use of music.  Many ancient Greek writers questioned the place of music education in the classroom because the school should be devoted to the mind and not the heart.

So Lysander probably hired the flute and lyre players to attend the destruction of the long walls.  These days it is difficult to decode his motivations, but it was not simply the provision of base prostitution to his soldiers.  Pornoi would have sufficed for that.

Did he want to signal a boundary, to mark an end to the pain of decades of war and a move to a happier time of relaxation?  Were there specific religious rites attendant upon the destruction of the walls?  Did the music serve a role in the appeasement of the Gods?  Or was he trying to appease the Athenians with “bread and circuses”?

President Planck


Planking Craze of 2008-2011

Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck is famous for many things, but he had nothing to do with the Planking craze that swept the globe in the late noughties.

Born on April 23rd, 1858 Max Planck was the foremost German physicist of his day.  Nobel prize winner in 1918 for his work in quantum theory.  He was a president of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, the German Physical Society and the Kaiser Wilhelm Society which became the Max Planck Society which operates 87 Max Planck Institutes for research into the sciences.

It was Arthur Conan Doyle who said: Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius.  He could have directed it at Planck.  When Albert Einstein published his three epoch defining papers in 1905 Planck was one of the first to recognise their worth.  With the influence he carried in German academia it guaranteed recognition for Einstein.

He kept company with the premier quantum physicsts of his day, often hosting them in his own home.  The Copenhagen set of Bohr, Heisenberg and Pauli and the opposing team of Schrödinger, Laue, and Einstein with whom Planck aligned.

Religious fundamentalists love to quote Planck.  He said “As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent spirit. This spirit is the matrix of all matter.

He also said: “Both religion and science require a belief in God. For believers, God is in the beginning, and for physicists He is at the end of all considerations… To the former He is the foundation, to the latter, the crown of the edifice of every generalized world view

But the fundamentalists avoid this one: “.. ‘to believe’ means ‘to recognize as a truthand the knowledge of nature, continually advancing on incontestably safe tracks, has made it utterly impossible for a person possessing some training in natural science to recognize as founded on truth the many reports of extraordinary occurrences contradicting the laws of nature, of miracles which are still commonly regarded as essential supports and confirmations of religious doctrines, and which formerly used to be accepted as facts pure and simple, without doubt or criticism. The belief in miracles must retreat step by step before relentlessly and reliably progressing science and we cannot doubt that sooner or later it must vanish completely“.

Happy Parilia


Parilia is an ancient Roman spring festival which came to mark the founding of the City in the late Roman Republic.   It was held to fall on April 21st and legend says Rome was founded in the year 753 BC.

Parilia was a spring festival which is said to pre-date the foundation of Rome.  Pales  was a rustic deity and a patron of Shepherds and their Flocks.  It is no accident that a festival for shepherds falls at this time of year when most of the lambs are born.  The shepherd can count his likely wealth from this moment.  It is time to offer thanks for a fertile flock and healthy lambs.

Parilia was a purification festival, absolving the shepherd and the sheep from any sins they may have committed by unintenionally trespassing on sacred ground, drinking from sacred wells or in any way falling afoul of higher authorities.  Sweet cakes were consumed and the night ended in rowdy drinking of boiled wine and milk (fresh from the newly purified sheep).

There are nascent elements of later Easter celebrations in the rituals, which involved making wreaths of foliage, setting them on fire and leaping through.  Stepping or leaping through a hoop or circle is a common trope in ceremonies of renewal and rebirth.  These days the sweet cakes and the flaming hoop are reduced to a chocolate egg.

This innocent bucolic festival was given two gory elements by the Republican Romans:  the Fordicidia and the Equus October.

The Fordicidia involved the slaughter of a pregnant cow to the Earth Mother Tellus as a plea for continued fertility of the cattle, the fields and the state.

The October horse was the head cut from right hand horse of the pair who pulled the winning chariot in the races in the previous years Ides of October.  The head was taken in a ritual battle honouring Mars and displayed for winter in the winning neighbourhood.  Remnants of this festival live on in the Italian town of Sienna which stages the Palio twice a year.  Palio / Pales / Parilia?  Sound alike?

The ashes of the unborn calf and the blood from the October Horse were mixed by the Vestals for the final offering of the festival.

Over the years the dedication of the festival moved from the old rural deities Pales, Tellus and Vesta to celebrate Roman Republican deities Jupiter, Mars and Venus until ultimately it celebrated the God Roma himself.


Telling Lies #15: Non-denial denial

Washington Post bids farewell to office where it broke Watergate ...

Immortalised by Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee the non-denial denial was the foundation of the media strategy of Nixon administration attorney general John N. Mitchell.  Bradlee was played by Jason Robards in the hit film “All the Presidents Men” based on the Watergate Scandal memoir by Woodward and Bernstein.

A non-denial denial is a very carefully worded phrase which appears on the surface to refute an accusation.  But when closely analysed it is not in fact a denial, but rather some form of accusation or qualification.

A story breaks that a politician has had a child with a mistress.  The politician is asked if the story is true.  In response he says “That accusation comes from a tabloid, a cheap trashy rag which prints nothing but lies“.  So it sounds as though he is saying the story is untrue….but he never actually did say that.

In reality a non-denial denial is a pre-meditated approach to spin control.  It is crafted to diffuse a current scandal without giving away hostages to fortune.

When Bill Clinton said “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky” he meant that he did not have full penetrative intercourse with her, at least according to what he said later when the case would just not go away.  Clinton maintained later that the above statement was not a lie.

Two athletes are asked “Did you ever take performance enhancing drugs”.

The first says “Never, any drug I took was prescribed by my Doctor for medicinal reasons”.

The second says “I have never taken anything in contravention of the rules of the sport”.

That second statement allows for someone who has taken a peformance enhancing substance which was not specifically banned by the sport at the time it was taken.  The first statement allows for blood doping.

Happy Birthday Michael D. Higgins

Happy 77th birthday, President Higgins - Top 10 Michael D moments

Michael D. Higgins was born on this day in 1941.

He is the 9th president of Ireland and is in every way the polar opposite of the chimp in chief who currently serves as President of the U.S.A.

Higgins, a son of Limerick,  is a successful Galway University academic with post-graduate degrees awarded in the USA.  He is a fluent speaker of English, Irish and Spanish.  He gave up his academic career to concentrate on politics in the 1970’s.  He served the Labour party in Ireland and is a lifelong socialist.

He served as a Senator, a TD (Irish Member of Parliament), Government Minister and  Mayor of Galway before being elected President of Ireland.

He uses his time in the presidency to address issues of justice, social equality, social inclusion, anti-sectarianism, anti-racism and reconciliation. He made the first state visit by an Irish president to the United Kingdom in April 2014.  He has welcomed the British Royal Family to his home in the Phoenix Park.  He is famous for his two beautiful dogs who seem to participate in every state occassion at the Park.

As president he demonstrates understanding, leadership, care for the common good, tolerance, inclusion and collaboration – as I say the exact opposite of POTUS on every measure.  He is modest, accessible and approachable.  He casts a very long shadow for a man of small stature.  He is the very best of Ireland.  And he is a poet.

Take Care; by Michael D. Higgins

In the journey to the light,
the dark moments
should not threaten.
that you hold steady.
Bend, if you will,
with the wind.
The tree is your teacher,
roots at once
more firm
from experience
in the soil
made fragile.
Your gentle dew will come
and a stirring
of power
to go on
towards the space
of sharing.
In the misery of the I,
in rage,
it is easy to cry out
against all others
but to weaken
is to die
in the misery of knowing
the journey abandoned
towards the sharing
of all human hope
and cries
is the loss
of all we know
of the divine
for our shared
Hold firm.
Take care.
Come home

Michael D Higgins Reveals His Dog Died And Was Secretly Replaced