African American Beauty

Black Beauty

199 years old today Anna Sewell is the famous author of Black Beauty, one of the ten best selling childrens novels ever written.  Born to a Quaker family in 1820 in Norfolk in England.

In 1807 the UK parliament passed the Slave Trade Act which banned slave trade but not slave ownership.  In 1833 the UK parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act which banned slavery in the British Empire.  Sewell lived to see the emancipation proclamation in the USA in 1863.  She also lived long enough to see the Jim Crow laws passed in the USA ushereing in an age of apartheid to replace the age of slavery.

As a child growing up in Ireland in the 1960’s and 1970’s I was oblivious to the problems with the word “Black”.  In that Ireland we did not have black people.  Irish people left this island for opportunity abroad, nobody came here.

Besides, in the Irish language the black man “An Fear Dubh” is a nickname for the Devil.  People with black skin were called Fir Goirme (Blue men).

Over time we have seen people struggle with how to address the issue of skin colour.  The word Negro has fallen out of fashion, and yet the “N” word is used prolifically in Hip-Hop culture when people of colour refer to each other.  It is only banned in the mouths of whites.

People of colour.  African-american.  Black african.  They are all terms with issues.  I heard a white American refer to a Black British work colleague as “African-American” and the British guy laughed when he heard.  He said “I’m neither African nor American mate, I come from Birmingham”.

British black people, who were emancipated in the 19th century, appear to have fewer hangups than Americans.  Ditto for the French black population.  As far back as WW1 American Negroes who wanted to fight had to enlist with Canadian or French regiments.  Those who enlisted with the French were astounded when they were treated as equals.

Black americans have never been treated as equals and quite rightly struggle with the word black.  Black carries many negative connotations in the English language. Gloomy, dirty, angry, evil and wicked are all meanings of black.  White by contrast represents purity, cleanliness, goodness, honesty, all the good stuff.

So the word black has developed many deep and symbolic meanings.  Black power.  Black lives matter.  Black and proud.  Blacksploitation.

I suspect if Anna Sewell wrote her book today the publisher might toy with the title.  After all there is no “official” colour for horses that is black.  A black horse is usually either a Grey or a Bay or even a very dark Chestnut.  After all, look at the problems caused by the name of a dog in the Dam Busters movie.  It has caused huge difficulties with a remake.  It raises the important question: “Do we change historical facts to assuage modern PC sensibilities?”  The danger is that we begin to rewrite history to suit modern attitudes, and that leads us to a 1984 dystpoia of alternative facts and post-truth.

 

 

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Harun al-Rashid

Sinbad

Born on St Patricks Day, some 300 years after St. Patrick lived, Haroun al-Rashid is considered by many to be the greatest Caliph of the Islamic world.  He presided over the Abassid Caliphate in its golden age when it was the centre of learing, enlightenment, literature, arts and science.

He corresponded with rulers as far away as France, presenting Charlemagne with a clock that was so ingenious the Franks believed it to be possessed, so many and complex were the chimes it sounded.  A good an generous friend he also proved a stern and powerful enemy.  He brought the Byzantine empire to heel and his name was feared throughout his own empire.

His name may translate as the “orthodox” or the “right guided” and for Sunni Muslims he represented a powerful bastion of the islamic faith.  So powerful indeed that the Christian world suffered the crisis of iconoclasm at this period.  Seeing the success of the armies of Islam orthodox christians questioned if religious icons, images and statues were in fact idols.  Heads were smashed from church altars, icons were thrown onto fires and emperors were dethroned based on their belief.

Legend has it that al-Rashid would don a beggars cloak and walk the streets of Baghdad or Raqqa and eavesdrop on the conversations of the ordinary folk to better understand how they perceived him and his rule.

In the West we know of this great Sultan because of a book.  “A thousand and one nights”, or the “Arabian Nights” is a collection of tales from the Asian world, originating in Arabia, India, China and Persia.  They include characters known by every Western child, The seven voyages of Sinbad the sailor, Aladdin and his magic lamp, Ali-Baba and the forty thieves, magic flying carpets and many many more fantastic and magical tales.

At the heart of the tale is the evil sultan, thought to be modeled on Al-Rashid.  Each night he takes a bride from his harem and after taking his pleasure has her killed.  The interlocutor of the 1001 nights is Sheherazade, the wife who beguiles him with storytelling instead of pleasures of the flesh.  Instead of killing her he spares her for one more night, for one more story.  And so the tales unravel over the course of many years until he of course falls madly in love with her.

From this book we have a wealth of art, music, dance and not a few pantomimes.  It was the inspiration for hundreds of childrens authors from E. Nesbit to J.K. Rowling.  Poetry of Yeats, Longfellow, Tennyson and Archibald Macleish stories of O. Henry, James Joyce and Charles Dickens.  Al-Rashid is a thread that runs trough every weave in the fabric of literature.

Fountain of youth

OLAY

About 80% of the cosmetics industry is based on selling a version of the fountain of youth.

María Rosalía Rita de Castro, the Galician poet, was born on this day in 1837.  Writing in Galego, the Galician language, whe was one of the leading lights of the highly nostalgic Galician romantic movement.

The theme of the poem below is the need to dream of eternal life because the despair of inevitable age, death and the void are too stark to face.  We know we delude ourselves, but we are happy to do so.

The concept of a fountain of youth is very old.  Herododus, the father of history, wrote about it, and every time mankind has explored a new land we have hoped to find there some secret to eternal youth.  Eternal life is not something you want, without eternal youth.  Someone who made that mistake was poor Tithonus, the better looking brother of king Priam of Troy.  He was so good looking he attracted the attention of Eos, Goddess of dawn.  Eos begged Zeus to make Tithonus immortal and Zeus did so.  But the youth aged and then became and old feeble man.  Eventually Eos shut him away in his room, and there he made scratching sounds until Eos turned him into a cicada.

The cosmetics industry sells 2 basic concepts.  For brevity we can call them “Eternal Youth” and “Up for it”.  The latter is focused on the market for women who want to find partners.  When women are at the most fertile part of their monthly cycle, most likely to get pregnant, the body naturally displays this with visible cues for potential mates.  Lips plump up.  The skin clears up and glows.  Breasts become fuller.  Pupils of eyes expand.   All these cues are replicated by the cosmetics industry to make you look your best for your big night out.

This is not to say there are no cosmetics for men, but lets face it, the big money is in the female market.

So “Up for it” dominates the market for 20 something females.  “Eternal youth” dominates the market for females, and for males, as soon as you spot that first grey hair, that first wrinkle or crows foot, that first laugh line that no longer leaves the face when you cease to smile.  The big money in cosmetics is in “eternal youth”.  And when it comes to selling this proposition there is a whole lot of snake oil out there masquerading as science.  There is an entire industry out there known by the term of cosmeceuticals.  According to de Castro below we know the dreams are just dreams, but we are happy to fool ourselves.

Dicen que no hablan las plantas; de Rosalía de Castro

The plants don’t speak they say, nor springs, nor birds,
not the rumour mongering wave, nor the twinkling stars,
so they say, but it’s not true, for always as I pass
they mutter and call out:
There goes that mad dreamer
believing in a fountain of youth, a land eternal,
but soon, very soon, her hair will grey,
and she will tremble, stiffen, a frigid winter meadow.

-Here are grey hairs on my head, there are frost meadows,
but I continue dreaming, poor deluded sleepwalker,
the eternal spring of my life dries up
perennial rebirth of fields and souls,
ages or burns away.

Stars and springs and flowers, don’t mock my dreams,
not needing them, how can you appreciate what is is to live without them?

From Apollo to Pavlova flieth the swan.

Cygnus

When Apollo entered the world, sacred swans circled the island seven times for it was the seventh day of the month. At once Zeus lavished many gifts upon his son including a golden miter, a chariot drawn by swans, and a lyre since legend has it at birth Apollo said, “Dear to me shall be the lyre and bow, and in oracles I shall reveal to men the inexorable will of Zeus.”

Apollo is the Greek God of music and poetry, arts and archery amongst other things.  Swans were held to be sacred to him.  The most common swan in Europe was the mute swan, not quite mute, but not a renowned singer.  But legend held it that at the moment of death the Swan, finding itself moving closer to an afterlife with Apollo, would erupt into a beautiful funeral song.

So it is that we give the term swan song to a final performance.  One last great moment before retiring to anonymity.

The wild swan’s death-hymn took the soul
Of that waste place with joy
Hidden in sorrow: at first to the ear
The warble was low, and full and clear; …
But anon her awful jubilant voice,
With a music strange and manifold,
Flow’d forth on a carol free and bold;

The words of the Poet Laureate of Britain and Ireland, Alfed Lord Tennyson above inspired the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns to write Le cygne which is the central theme to the ballet, The Dying Swan which was performed by Anna Pavlova from 1905.  The Russian ballerina toured Australia and New Zealand in the 1920’s and sparked off a 90 year row between the two nations.  The argument was over which country invented the eponymous Pavlova dessert.  Oxford English Dictionary ruled in 2010 that based on analysis of cookbooks the dish originated in New Zealand.

And so to Gernald Stern, who celebrates his birthday today, sharing it with another great American poet; Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Swan Song; by Gerald Stern

A bunch of old snakeheads down by the pond
carrying on the swan tradition — hissing
inside their white bodies, raising and lowering their heads
like ostriches, regretting only the sad ritual
that forced them to waddle back into the water
after their life under the rocks, wishing they could lie again
in the sun

and dream of spreading their terrifying wings;
wishing, this time, they could sail through the sky like
horses,
their tails rigid, their white manes fluttering,
their mouths open, their sharp teeth flashing,
drops of mercy pouring from their eyes,
bolts of wisdom from their foreheads.

Imbolc Eve

imbolc

February 1st is St Bridgets Day in Ireland, celebrated by school children making St. Bridget’s crosses, like all good little catholic children do in Ireland.

Only it is a pagan celebration, a pagan symbol and a pagan goddess.  Brigid was an Irish Celtic Goddess long before the Christians came.  The “St. Bridget’s Cross” is in fact a pre-Christian pagan sun motif, celbrating the arrival of spring.  Brigid was a goddess of fertility.  Imbolc is the first cross quarter day of the Celtic calendar, lying halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.

Brigid had a sanctuary in County Kildare where an eternal flame was kept forever burning.  The sanctuary was surrounded by a hedge.  Any man who attempted to enter the precinct could not pass through the hedge without becoming confused, being driven mad, or dropping down dead.

Irish Celtic women never needed a feminist movement.  They were boss.

Brigid was also the Celtic goddess of smiths, healing, midwifery and poetry!

 

 

Wyrms

White Worm

Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, also wrote “Lair of the White Worm”.  This is based on the old English word Wyrm.  The Wyrm was a giant legless and flightless serpent.  A cross between a Dragon and a Snake.

In Gaelic a Wyrm is called a Péist.  Pronounced like the English word “pest”.  Ireland is a country with no snakes, but many placenames suggest that they were once home to mighty Wyrms.  Poulnapeasta translates as “Hole of the Beast/Worm” and idiomatically translates as “Dragons Lake”

In the tale ‘Hunting of Sliabh Truim’ there is a péist with ‘ears as large as the gate of a  fort’ and ‘tusks as big as a tree’.

Irish mythology is full of warriors slaying dragons in lakes and Monks destroying dragons with the power of Christ.  Scattery Island in the Shannon Estuary, St Senans Isle, was home to a beast slain by St. Senan.

The story of St. Senan describes his encounter with the Wyrm as follows:

and then they went to seek the monster, to the place in which it abode.

When the monster heard them it shook its head, and its hair stood up upon it, and its rough bristles, and it looked at them hatingly and wrathfully. Not gentle, friendly, mild was the look it bestowed upon them, for it marvelled that anyone else should come to visit it in its island. So it went to them strongly and swiftly, insomuch that the earth trembled under its feet. Hideous, uncouth, ruthless, awful was the beast that arose there.

Longer was its body than Inis na h- Urclaide. A horse’s mane had it ; an eye gleaming, flaming in its head, and its mien savage, forward, angry, edged, crimson, bloody, cruel, bounding. Anyone would think that its eye would go through him when it looked upon him. Two very hideous, very thick feet under it ; behind it a mane. Nails hard as iron on it, which used to strike showers of fire out of the rocks of stone wherever it went across them. A fiery breath it had which burned like embers. A belly it had like the bellows of a furnace. A whale’s tail upon it behind. Hard, rending claws upon it, which used to lay bare, on the path they came, the surface of the ground behind the monster. Equally did it traverse sea and land when it so desired. Then the sea boiled from the greatness of
its heat and from its virulence when it entered it.

Now when the monster came savagely to the place where Senan was standing, it opened its maw so that, as it drew nigh the cleric, its entrails were clearly seen over the maw. Thereat Senan lifted up his hand and made the sign of Christ’s cross in its face. Then the monster was silent, and this is what Senan spoke to it :

‘ I say unto thee,’ saith he, ‘ in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, leave this island, and hurt no one in the district over which thou wilt go, nor in the district into which thou wilt come’.

The monster went at once at Senan’s word out of the island till it reached Dubhloch of Sliabh Collain. And it did no hurt to anyone till it came here, nor after arriving ; for it
durst not oppose Senan’s word.”

Was Ireland a nest of Dragons in ancient days?  Or is it possible that the Early Christian Church used serpents and dragons as metaphors for Pagan Gods?

 

Emily Dickinson: Scientist

Hangnail

On the Birthday of Emily Dickinson I am delighted to learn that she was a fan of science.  Like another great write, Roald Dahl, she will tell you to vaccinate your child.

Many of the anti-vaxx brigade see themselves as people of faith.  They cleary never learned the lesson that God helps those who help themselves.  If you believe in God why is it so difficult to believe that he created in us the ability to understand the scientific precepts of our world?  Why is it so difficult to believe that God would have created in us the ability to heal ourselves through science?

If you don’t believe in God you belive the same thing, not through blind faith, but through reason.

Either way, why would anyone ignore the best evidence of science in favour of irrational actions motivated by hearsay and anecdote?

Fear.  That’s why.  Try to live a life devoid of fear.

 

Faith; by Emily Dickinson

“Faith” is a fine invention
when gentlemen can see –
but microscopes are prudent
in an emergency.