Heard about the Horde Hoard?

Image result for goths city night

In the early 5th Century a horde of barbarians were led by their King, Alaric, to the City of Rome.  These were the Goths.  Just to be clear the Goths did not look exactly like the people in the photograph above, but I looked online for a representation of the Barbarian Goths.  Most of the images of the Sack of Rome are romantic fantasies of the 19th century.  They are about as accurate a depiction of Alaric and his people as the photo above.  So if you can’t be historically accurate then at least be funny.

So you have now heard about the horde, but what of the horde hoard?  When the Goths sacked Rome in 410 AD, it was on August 24th, about 2:30 PM and it was not at all the barbarian rampage that the romantics like to conjure up.  Alaric and his people were largely if not wholly Christian, albeit Arian Christians, who were considered to be heretics by the Niceans.  But let’s not go there.

Anyhow, Alaric told the Romans, and his own folk, that Christian Churches were safe.  Any Romans hiding in a Christian Church were safe.  But private residences and pagan temples were fair game.  So the Goths went methodically through the city and amassed a hoard of treasure worthy of Smaug; the dragon from the Hobbit.

Then Alaric decided to march south to Calabria.  He had the idea to sail his people to Africa and create a Gothic Kingdom there years before the Vandals got the idea.  But he was unlucky with the weather and his fleet of ships was wrecked.  Alaric himself picked up an illness and died shortly afterwards in the town of Cosenza, and here is where the tale of the treaure hoard gets really interesting.

Laden down with treasure the Goths wanted to honour Alaric with a grand tomb.  But they felt that the locals would loot any mausoleum the moment they marched North.  So they hatched a plan.

They enslaved a work gang of local Italians and forced them to change the course of the river Busento.  The riverbed was excavated and a tomb was built into the bed of the river.  Alaric was placed in the tomb with his burial treasures piled high around him.  The tomb was sealed, the river was returned to its course and hey presto the treasure was hidden.

The Goths then slaughtered the slaves to ensure the location of the tomb was never revealed, before marching off to a new home in Southern France.

To this day the tomb of Alaric has not been found.  Where is Indiana Jones when you need him?

Alaric_entering_Athens

Dodgy depiction of Alaric and his Goths

 

The Coyote Who Fasts

Nezahualcoyotl

When the Spanish conquered the New World they did a pretty thorough job of erasing anything good, positive or civilized from pre-Columbian American culture.  The goal was to say that Americans were savages, Spanish were Civilized Christians and the culture of the latter should erase the culture of the former.

From time to time it is possible to catch a glimpse of something else.  If you look very very carefully you can find traces of the rich tapestry and layered civilization that existed before Cortes arrived in Mexico.

Nezahualcoyotl (the coyote who fasts) was a philosopher king, poet and warrior who ruled about 50 years before the Spanish conquest.  His deeds and his poems were passed down through oral traditions.  When the native Indios learned to write they set down the history of Nezahualcoyotl on paper.

We get a picture of a wise and thoughtful king who would have been celebrated in any Western realm.  He ruled the Acolhua people from his capital of Texcoco.  One of his main preoccupations must have been to keep his people independent of the influence of the larger and more powerful Mexica.

As a child his father was killed by the powerful neighbouring Tepanecs, closely related to the Aztecs, who took control of Texcoco.  The young Nezah was taken to the great city of Tenochtitlan where he was educated by the Mexica, learing about their legal and administrative systems.

He worked over the years to build the alliances that put him at the head of an army of 100,000 troops.  On the battlefield he displayed strategic and tactical genius.  His victory resulted in a new ruling order in the Valley of Mexico, the triple alliance of Texcoco, Tenochtitlan and Tlacopan.

He then demonstrated that he was not just a warlord.  He made his capital into a center of justice, learning and creativity.  Spanish friars later described his capital as the “Athens of the West”.  He assembled a library, built fine water gardens and held a court of “wise men”.  He established strong legal systems and the rule of law.  In lake Texcoco he constructed a dyke to separate fresh water from brackish.  He constructed aqueducts to transport the fresh water to his capital.

He rejected the blood thirsty human sacrifice driven religions of his neighbours, which were such a powerful propaganda tool for Christian conversion by the Spanish.   Instead he constructed a temple which was an empty space for an unknown and unknowable God.  He did not permit any sacrifice and worshiped by the burning of incense.  It was clearly in the interests of Spanish propaganda to sideline the legacy of such an evolved philosopher.

The following poem gives a sense of the man.  Given that it was written 100 years after he lived, and that it was originally Nahuatl, translated to Spanish and subsequently translated to English I have taken some liberties with it.  For instance in the second verse I have assumed that the “Eagles stained red” were battle standards, things we know well from the Roman legions and Napoleonic French Corps.  Also in the same verse I say the Princes are scythed down.  The pre-Columbian Americans had no wheat or barley.  They had no scythes to harvest grain.  But I am trying to convey the metaphor for the battlefield as a harvest of lives and the metaphor of the scythe just works.

Finally today is given as his birthday so he gets onto my “Poets’ Calendar”. Born April 28th, 1402.  Read the poem below and take note that this was written around the time when Europe was so civilized that the English burned Joan of Arc at the stake for heresy.

 

A poem by Nezahualcoyotl (Edited heavily by Donal Clancy)

He makes the Eagles and Ocelots dance with him.
Come to see the Huexotzinca.
On the dais of the Eagle he shouts out,
loudly cries the Mexica.

On the battlefield we raise toasts with the divine liquor of war,
where the eagle standards are stained red,
where tigers howl,
where precious stones rain from fine armour,
where rich plumed headdresses wave like fields of grain,
where princes are scythed down.

There is nothing like death in war,
nothing like the flowery death
so precious to Him who gives life.
Far off I see it. My heart yearns for it!

And they called it Teotihulcan
because it was the place
where the lords were buried.

Thus they said:
‘When we die truly we die not because we will live,
we will rise, we will continue living, we will awaken,
this will make us happy.’

Thus the dead one was directed when he died:
‘Awaken, already the sky is rosy,
a new dawn has come,
hear the flame-coloured guans sing,
see the fire-coloured swallows and the butterflies fly.’

Thus the old ones said that who has died has become a god,
they said: ‘He has been made a god there’
meaning ‘He has died.’

Even jade is shattered,
even gold is crushed,
even quetzal plumes are torn.
One does not live forever on this earth.
We endure only for an instant.

Will flowers be carried to the Kingdom of Death?
Is it true that we are going, we are going?
Where are we going, ay, where are we going?
Will we be dead there or will we yet live?
Does one exist again?

Perhaps we will live a second time?
Thy heart knows; just once do we live.

Like a quetzal plume, a fragrant flower,
friendship sparkles.
Like heron plumes, it weaves itself into finery.
Our song is a bird calling out a melody,
how beautiful you make it sound!
Here, among flowers that enclose us,
among flowery boughs you are singing.

The earth is a grave and nothing escapes it,
nothing is so perfect that it does not descend to its tomb.
Rivers, streams, springs and waters flow,
but never return to their joyful beginnings.
Eagerly they rush onto the vast realms of the rain god.
As they widen their banks,
so they carve their own burial urn.

The bowels of the earth are filled with detritus,
once flesh and bone,
once animate bodies of men who sat thrones,
judged cases, presided in council,
commanded armies, conquered provinces,
possessed treasure, destroyed temples,
exulted in their pride, majesty, fortune, praise and power.
Vanished are these glories,
just as the fearful smoke vanishes that belches forth from
the infernal fires of Popocatepetl.
Nothing remains of them but the words of a poem.

Groundhog eve

Spring

Guess what just sprung?

Yes it is Feb 1st, Feast of Brigid, the Celtic Goddess of Fertility, or St Brigid if you are a Christian revisionist.  Celtic festival of Imbolc, thought to drive from “i mBolg” which means “in the belly” where all the spring lambs, calves and babies are.

Outside my window I hear a colt nickering in the field next door, full of the joys of the burgeoning summer.

Spring And All: by William Carlos Williams

By the road to the contagious hospital

under the surge of the blue

mottled clouds driven from the

northeast —

a cold wind. Beyond, the

waste of broad, muddy fields

brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

 

patches of standing water

the scattering of tall trees

 

All along the road the reddish

purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy

stuff of bushes and small trees

with dead, brown leaves under them

leafless vines —

 

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish

dazed spring approaches —

 

They enter the new world naked,

cold, uncertain of all

save that they enter. All about them

the cold, familiar wind —

 

Now the grass, tomorrow

the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined —

 

It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

 

But now the stark dignity of
entrance —

Still, the profound change

has come upon them: rooted they

grip down and begin to awaken

Coup d’Etat

Trump

Currently reading Margaret Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale”.  It is oddly prophetic in describing how the USA is subverted by Christian Fundamentalist Military who suspend the constitution and replace democracy with a police state.  The events set out by Atwood involve a rise in Islamic fundamentalism (remember this was written back in the 1980’s before anyone ever heard of Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden.)

An assassination of the President of the USA and an attack on the Capitol wipes out the Government in one fell swoop.  The question is of course who instigated the attack?  Was it the Islamic fundamentalists or was it the Christian fundamentalist right wing?  The events are a mirror of what happened in Germany in the 1930’s.  Hitler did not have enough seats in the parliament to form a government.  He began by eliminating his main rivals, the Communists.  The Reichstag building was burned down and the event was blamed on the communists who were eliminated from parliament.  Hitler then cut a deal with the Catholic right wing to suspend government by passing the Enablement Act.  Stormtroopers prevented Social Democrat moderates from entering the parliament building for the vote.  Democracy was destroyed by a minority group of bullies.

Atwood uses this as a model for her own military takeover of the USA.  Does it sound plausible that the hard right wing could suspend democracy?  Just look at the rise of the Tea Party republicans!  The rise in Islamic fundamentalism has generated a polarising influence in US politics.  The result is a candidate like Donald Trump who speaks of banning muslims from entry to the USA and building a wall across the Mexican border.  In times of fear and uncertainty voters seek simple answers from strong leaders.  What they get are demagogues and dictators.

The 9/11 attacks targeted the world trade centre, the Pentagon and the White House.  What would have happened if the President had been killed?  US democracy is in a precarious position.  The Handmaid’s Tale is like a manual for suspension of democracy.  It seems to me that some of the hard right have been studying up on it.  No wonder they want the book removed from required reading lists in US schools.

Maybe allowing the US population to own all those guns is not such a bad idea?  What do you think?

 

 

Calendar Wars II

Happy new year!

As most of the people of the world mark 9/11 with commemorations of the attacks on the world trade centre and the Pentagon there are different celebrations under way in the Coptic Christian world.

Egypt and Ethiopia have a unique calendar system which is a hangover from ancient Egyptian religions.  While most of Western Europe found that a four season calendar made sense of the agricultural year a different dynamic held sway along the Nile.

Calendars prosper by their usefulness.  The three season ancient Egyptian calendar was very useful to the farmers of the Nile valley.  The key driver of the agricultural season from Ethiopia to Alexandria was the highland rains which caused the Nile inundation.

The Julian calendar was introduced as the Roman standard by Emperor Augustus in 25 BC.  A modified version of the Julian Calendar was introduced in Egypt.  The first day of the New Year in the Ancient Egyptian calendar, the Feast of the Two Rivers, lands in our calendar on the 11th of September.

In 284 AD Diocletian became Emperor of Rome.   He immediately launched the most savage pogrom against Christians in History.  He tried very hard to wipe out the Christian religion.  His pogrom was especially harsh in Alexandria and the Egyptian World.  The Coptic Christian calendar takes 284 AD as its Year 1, Year of the Martyrs.  The Ethiopian church has followed the Coptic lead and also celebrates today as New Year.

Fact or Anecdote?

How the Religious Right use Anecdotes to undermine scientific argument.

When it comes to debating issues there are two broad strategies you can employ.

  1. Use facts to prove your case.
  2. Tell a good story.

An anecdote is simply a good story, usually one that is personalised to make it highly emotional.  In many cases those who use anecdotes present them as pseudo-facts and call them by scientific sounding terms such as “anecdotal evidence”.

The human brain is programmed to relate to stories.  Behavioural economists have demonstrated how humans default to “type 1” and struggle with the “type 2” thinking that is required to correctly assess complex quantitative data (Thinking, Fast & Slow.  Daniel Kahneman, 2011).

Anecdotes play to our Type 1 thinking.  We can place ourselves in the story and empathise with a situation far more easily than we can digest a plethora of bland numbers.  Politicians have long known this.  Former US Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, famously told us that “all politics is local”.

Many will remember how John McCain and Sarah Palin latched onto “Joe the Plumber” as the poster boy for Republican Party credentials to serve small business.  Tony Blair led the British Labour Party to power after years in the wilderness by targeting the middle ground swing voter that they called “Mondeo Man” after the Ford car so favoured by sales teams in the UK.

Many technical professionals argue with hard facts, detailed statistics, “boring” numbers.  They bog their audience (and interviewers) down in Type 2 diatribes.  If they are in an argument with an anecdotist they will lose.  One of my favourite lines in debate, delivered by an Anecdotist to a Statistician;

Ah sure you can prove anything with statistics, I want to talk about the facts.”

The very best technical experts know that they must convert their cold, hard, impersonal statistics into a warm, engaging, human story.  This is the realm of the “Insights” professional.  It is something I call #tainment such as teachers putting the fun in teaching and making it Edutainment!

 

What has all this to do with Religion?

One of the primary roles of the religious community is to take a long (very long) view of the impacts that changes have on society, societal mores, community health and general spiritual wellbeing.  This position serves a vital role in counterbalancing short term profit motivated interests.  The various churches will always drag their heels on rapid change.  Experience has shown that it takes many years to understand the full impact of a change, and their preference is to delay and postpone rather than move and regret.

HPV vaccination is a perfect illustration of this position, as it is an area fraught with ethical issues.  These are neatly summed up in this quote from Patrick Hayes MD, a Catholic Doctor.  It was originally published in Health magazine, and is also available online here:  http://www.catholic.org/news/health/story.php?id=51576

Dr. Hayes says “ …as HPV is a sexually transmitted disease (STD), the success of a ‘medicine’ that appears to remove the consequences of sin, by preventing genital warts and cervical cancer in persons who have one or multiple sexual partners who have had multiple sexual partners, leaves persons of faith and chastity questioning the motives and wisdom of governments, pharmaceutical companies and doctors.”

He also says “The vaccination should not be mandated, because in the absence of sexual contact, unvaccinated students pose no threat to others. “

Overall Dr. Hayes writes a fair and balanced piece.  The latter statement is straight out of the Catholic playbook.  Let’s face it, in the absence of sexual contact girls will never get pregnant.  This is the Catholic position on the use of contraception!

The Irish Government introduced a vaccination programme for schoolgirls from age 12/13 (first year in secondary school) using Gardasil, the HPV vaccine developed by Merck.

We are now seeing the anecdotal machine getting into gear.  Ireland is a backwater, but an important one for religious issues.  If Ireland takes a backward step on HPV vaccination this sets a precedent for pressure groups in the USA who are opposed to vaccination.  They are prepared to invest money and resources into Ireland to see such an outcome.

Some of these groups are opposed on religious grounds, others are opposed to “big government” setting up mandatory healthcare.  They all prey on the concerns of parents for the health of their children.

Their key arguments are:

  1. Here is a girl (anecdotal evidence 1) who became ill or died after receiving the vaccine.  If you give the vaccine to your daughter she will become ill or die.
  2. Pharmaceutical companies know this is a dangerous poison, but they are making big profits on it, so they are covering up the facts (conspiracy theory 1)
  3. Doctors involved in the clinical trials were bribed by the Pharmaceutical company to falsify the results (conspiracy theory 2). Here is a case of such a doctor (anecdotal evidence 2)
  4. We have given the pharmaceutical company all the information and they have ignored it (anecdote 3: the cold hearted corporate machine)
  5. The FDA (local medical approvals board) were fed misinformation on this drug by the pharma company (ergo they are incompetent fools) and certain key officials were given payoffs in the form of money or business trips or jobs (ergo they are corrupt). The bottom line is that you can’t trust government.

Let’s address these arguments one at a time:

  1. Any government sponsored vaccine must pass through a rigorous testing and selection process.  It must go through extensive and detailed clinical trials.  Every drug or vaccine carries side effects and risks.  These are detailed and quantified as part of the trials process.

In statistical terms these negative outcomes represent a tiny fraction of the population.  The benefits of the vaccine far outweighs any negative outcomes.  However, if you are the parent of one of the girls who dies then the statistics are cold comfort.

When Gardasil was rolled out in Germany two girls in the first vaccinated cohort died as a result of the drug.  That is 2 in 1.5 million, which represents 0.0001%.  The incidence is miniscule in statistical terms and devastating in personal terms to the families involved.

Yes there are cases where girls became ill due to the vaccine.  They tend to fall within the limits established by the clinical trial.

There are also many cases where girls become ill shortly after they receive the vaccine.   The anecdotists seize on these cases to boost the fear factor in relation to the drug.  Just because condition B followed condition A does not prove causality.  Anti-vaxxers don’t care about such niceties.  They don’t need to prove their points.  They simply have to throw doubt upon the opposite position.  This is classic “fear marketing”.

I am not a fan of fear marketing techniques.  It is most effective with people who worry the most, and with those who don’t have the education or intelligence to carry out proper research.  Fear marketing preys on the weak and that is not nice.  It is not Christian.

  1. The conspiracy theory that the Pharma companies are knowingly selling poison for profit.  There have been cases where pharma companies have behaved dreadfully, so I won’t apologise for them.  The Tamiflu scandal by Roche pharma is a perfect example, where they withheld information.  The drug was not a poison, it was just useless.  Merck with Vioxx, Bristol Myers Squibb with Abilify and GSK with Avandia.  They may not be selling poison, but they are manipulating the data for profit.  That is despicable.
  1. Doctors manipulating data? Yes, the evidence is there.  It happens.  Doctors, it seems, are no more immune to corruption than any other group in society.  Some manipulate results because of poor research practice, where they screen out data that does not meet with their preconceptions.  Others do it for cash.

I think we need to look at how we recruit and train doctors.  At present, in Ireland, medical schools select medical students on academic excellence.  If we selected on empathy and care for others I suspect we might attract fewer high wealth seeking individuals.

  1. The cold hearted corporation anecdote also holds true. We have all seen Erin Brokovich!  Look at the Ford Pinto scandal, where the bean counters preferred to pay death and injury damages rather than recall and fix faulty cars.  Such a cavalier attitude to the lives of humans represents a real concern about the kind of people who lead large companies.  The corporate ladder appears to reward executives who are amoral and unempathic.
  1. Incompetence and/or corruption in medical approvals officials.  Given point 2, that pharma companies manipulate the clinical trials data, it is no surprise that government officials have been caught out.  They have been lied to, repeatedly.  Also, like the doctors, they are not immune from corruption.  There are enough smoking guns out there to fill an arsenal.

So when you look holistically at the arguments put out by anti-vaxxers there appears to be more than enough smoke to suggest a fire.  When you put all the pieces of disinformation together you come up with a pretty compelling conspiracy theory.

The only way to debunk the conspiracy theory is to tear it apart, step by step, using cold hard statistics.  No audience is going to hang around for that.

The upshot of all of this is that the medical and pharmaceutical industries are personally and collectively responsible for the mess they have made.  In modern Ireland we have outbreaks of Measles and Mumps in teenagers who were not vaccinated back when the MMR was blamed for Autism.  Study after study has disproved any link existed.  The doctor who originally made the link was found guilty of falsifying his results.   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Wakefield  And still the story continues to spin and be believed.  Now we see exactly the same arguments being rolled out in relation to HPV vaccines.

St John’s Eve

Bonfire

Last night was St John’s Eve.  In rural areas of Ireland it is  bonfire night.

This is a classic case of a pagan festival that the catholic church tried to muscle into the Christian sphere by shoehorning a Saint into the mix.  It is remarkable in that it celebrates the birth of St John the Baptist.  Most Saints and Martyrs are commemorated on the day of their death.

St John’s day replaces a Celtic Summer Solstice festival which honoured the Goddess Áine.  She was a goddess of light, fertility and kingship.  The concepts of fertility and kingship were inexorably linked in the Celtic pantheon.  The Lammas Kings (also known as Corn Kings) were “married” to the land (and celebrated at Lughnasa).  They lived the high life as long as the land produced.  But they typically reigned for only seven years.

In some traditions the king was sacrificed for the continued fertility of the land.  In other traditions young clansmen could compete for the opportunity to challenge the corn king in single combat to the death.

It is easy to see how this ancient tradition of Kings tying their lives to the fate of the people could be molded and replaced with the central mystery of Christianity, a saviour who dies on our behalf.

The festival of Áine was marked by bonfires lit on the solstice, the shortest night of the year.  The Christian festival shifted out three days.  Who knows why? Maybe to separate the Christian and Pagan traditions?  To identify those holding on to the old ways, so they could be targeted for conversion?

In the Pagan Lammas tradition the Solstice might have represented the last celebration of the existing Corn King, before he faced sacrifice or replacement.  Indeed the bonfire tradition may have originated from the sacrifice of the Corn King.  There are many details of Celtic religions lost to us because they were not documented, and they were expunged by Christian proselytisers.

If you go to the cities in Ireland nobody will know that this is bonfire night, especially in Dublin.  But rural people live close to the land.  They retain old traditions, especially those linked to the fertility of the land.  Always good to have a backup deity on standby 🙂

So if you want to celebrate with a bonfire on St John’s Night go to the most rural areas of Ireland.  Go west!

Bonfire 2