Leda

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The latest addition to my family, my grand-niece Leda.

My first concern is that she not get too friendly with Swans.  Last time that happened a pretty little girl was born, and married Menelaus the Mycenean King of Sparta.  Helen of Sparta is not how we remember her, for Paris, son of Priam, stole her away to his home city.  And so we remember her as the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Illium.

Illium was the ancient name for the city of Troy, so Helen of Troy was daugher of Leda.  But who was the father of this child with the dreadful fate?  It was Zeus himself, who raped Leda, in the guise of a male swan.

And the brother of Menelaus?  The dread Agamemnon King of Mycenae itself, ruler of all the Achaeans as the Greeks called themselves in those days.  From this followed ten years of war.  Ajax and Achilles, Hector and Aeneas, wily Odysseus and his Trojan Horse.  Death and destruction as the Gods themselves engaged in the battle of the great Homeric Epic.

Calling a daughter Leda can come to no good I say.  But I am Cassandra and they shall not listen.

Leda and the Swan; by W.B. Yeats

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
by the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
the feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
but feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
the broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
so mastered by the brute blood of the air,
did she put on his knowledge with his power
before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

cecil-ffrench-salkeld-leda-and-the-swan

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Cavafy Birthday

Cavafy

Born in Alexandria, Egypt to Greek parents on this day in 1863 Constantine Peter Cavafy is 100 and a half years older than me.  Below is a poem inspired by the Odyssey an enduringly favourite theme of mine.  It reads a little clunky because of course it is a translation from the Greek.

The theme is important and a lesson in a philosophy for life.  All life is a journey to a destination, the ultimate destination.  Make sure you stop and listen to the birds, smell the roses along the way.  Don’t rush headlong into your coffin and then complain that you missed out.

Ithaca; by Constantine P. Cavafy

When you set out for Ithaca
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – do not fear them:
such as these you will never find
as long as your thought is lofty, as long as a rare
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – you will not meet them
unless you carry them in your soul,
unless your soul raises them up before you.

Ask that your way be long.
At many a Summer dawn to enter
with what gratitude, what joy –
ports seen for the first time;
to stop at Phoenician trading centres,
and to buy good merchandise,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
sensuous perfumes as lavishly as you can;
to visit many Egyptian cities,
to gather stores of knowledge from the learned.

Have Ithaca always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don’t in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to give you wealth.
Ithaca gave you a splendid journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn’t anything else to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca hasn’t deceived you.
So wise you have become, of such experience,
that already you’ll have understood what these Ithacas mean.

Mermaid or Siren?

Odysseus

Odysseus tied to the mast

This morning in work a lady was singing softly as she filled her water bottle from the ever so slow water filter in the office.  It reminded me of the passage below.  Do Mermaids really sing?  I thought it was just Sirens.  I thought the Sirens lured you onto the rocks with their singing, and the Mermaids saved you from drowning, if you were good looking enough!

 

—————————-

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
 
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

…………………..From: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: by T.S. Eliot

Human Sacrifice

Human-Sacrifice

Yesterday morning I came across an interesting study which shows that the practice of human sacrifice is more prevalent in highly stratified societies.  Study on Human Sacrifice

In equal societies people tend to work together for the good of the commune.  Where a society develops a ruling class the position of that class is maintained by the labour of the low status individuals.  In many societies the position of the ruling class is supported by organised religion.  One facet of this religion is the act of human sacrifice.

The victims of sacrifice tend to be those from the lowest strata of society, especially slaves or captives.

There is a positive counter argument to all of this.  A highly stratified society is one that can be planned.  Specialist workers can be supported by the labour of the peasant class.  As a result you can have architects, scribes, taxation etc and build a civilization.

The greatest monuments ever constructed by mankind were the products of civilizations that were highly stratified.  Mesopotamian ziggurats, pyramids in Egypt, central America and Cambodia, Harappan step wells etc.  In one sense the subjugation of a peasant class was a pre-requisite for the creation of civilization.  Human sacrifice as a religious act is simply one mechanism for protecting the position of the ruling class.

It is interesting to look at the modern workplace and observe the stratification that exists.  Serfs, peasants and slaves have been replaced with minimum wage workers on zero hours contracts, or unpaid interns.  Partners in law and accounting firms and senior medical consultants all earn large salaries by harnessing the work of their juniors.  What are the modern equivalents of human sacrifice?  Workplace references?

*Spoiler Alert:  Walking Dead Season 6 Finale*

Last night in the Walking Dead we were finally introduced to the character called Negan, leader of the Saviours.  In his speech to Rick Negan laid out all the elements of the new world order.  And it sounds very much like Bronze Age civilization.

The Saviours are a warrior class.  Like the Spartans of ancient Greece they specialize in fighting and killing.  Like the people of the “Iron Isles” from Game of Thrones their motto could be “we do not sow”.

The Saviours need food to survive, but farming is hard work.  So they are outsourcing the farming to a new peasant class.  The peasants need only sufficient weapons to protect themselves from the walkers.  Negan will round up all their projectile weapons and leave them with only knives and spears.

This further cements the position of the Saviours as the warrior elite, as they become the only ones with guns.

Finally, to cement his position of absolute control, Negan practices Human Sacrifice.  It is a raw and powerful demonstration of the mechanism that underlies the academic study into sacrifice in Pacific Island societies.  We see them engage in a manhunt with fatal consequences.  At the end of the episode Negan practices a highly ritualised form of sacrifice.  He has named his weapon, a common feature of bronze age warrior societies.  The demonstration of raw power is aimed not at Rick and his group, but rather at the Saviours themselves.

Of course the question everyone is asking……who did he choose?  Season 7 bait!

The Greek crisis exposes how the European Union has taken a wrong direction.

OXI

The European Union was founded on principles of social democracy.  Rooted in the Christian principles of “Rerum Novarum” the European experiment used to sit comfortably between the extreme worlds of US Capitalism and Russian Communism.  It offered a particular type of bargain, with protections for those at the bottom of society, and controls on rampant exploitation of people and workers.

In any politically led economic system we find politicians struggling to make sense of the complex interplay of economic factors.  A populist politician is unlikely to have a PhD in economics.  When politicians run into a capability gap they rely on specialist advisers.

Ideally these advisers should be free of vested interests, and should give dispassionate counsel.  At the most senior levels of the EU, and the respective national governments, we are seeing a different dynamic at play.

In the USA the nickname for the Treasury Dept in the Whitehouse is Government Sachs or the “Goldman Sachs” dept, referring to the large number of treasury secretaries from that investment house.  If you recruit stockbrokers to run government they create policies that favour the interests of big finance.  They push for lower corporate taxes, they cut welfare, government spending and reduce government regulation of industry.

These are exactly the forces we are seeing now in the European Union.  The post 2007 austerity programme was a philosophy designed by bankers for bankers.  For the average European the austerity programme has been a failure.   For bankers it has been an unqualified success.  The banking sector has recovered from near collapse, and the recovery has been paid for by ordinary citizens.

At last the Greeks have called time on the troika of the IMF, ECB and the European Commission.  Syriza was elected into power in Greece on an anti-austerity ticket.  That should have been a warning signal to the troika.  Instead of heeding the warning they blithely drove forward with their programme to steamroll the Greeks into paying banks back for bad loans.

The troika have tried and tried again to bully Tsipiras and his party into submission.  In response the Greek premier pulled out the most potent weapon in his arsenal “Democracy”.  He is resorting to the will of the people to gauge their support for his non-cooperation with the austerity agenda.

This does not sit at all well with the “Goldman Sachs” style banking & stockbroking mandarins who currently drive EU economic policy.  They are not accustomed to having their policies questioned even by politicians.  The concept of populist support is anathema to them.  They have no time for debt forgiveness or for wishy-washy neo-Keynesian economic policies.

The democratic prerogative should be no stranger to the politicians in the European Commission, the Council of Europe and the European Parliament. These are the people we have elected and appointed to guard the interests of the ordinary people of Europe.  These are the people who are failing.  They have given over too much power to the vested interests.

A thin understanding of economics is no excuse for the abrogation of responsibility that we see in the politicians in Europe.  The Greeks will speak on Sunday.  I expect them to come back with a resounding no, OXI!

Then we need to understand how we can help the economy at the bottom of our EU society.  This is Europe, not the USA.  This is about unification and inclusion, not about punishment and exclusion.

It is time to fix the EU model.

If you fancy an addition good read on this subject check out this link:  The Austerity Delusion

Armegeddon

Thutmoses

Har Megiddo or Tel Megiddo are names for the Megiddo city mound.  Har Megiddo gave us the word Armageddon, the supposed site of the end of world battle from the book of Revelations in the Bible.

A Tell or Tel, is the usual name for the structure.  What looks like a natural hill is in fact the remains of human occupation.  A town is built on the plain using mud brick.  Over time the bricks crumble and new houses are built on top of the old ones.  After centuries of occupation the town rises above the plain.

Megiddo was the site of the first reliably recorded battle in history on this day in 1457 BCE.  The Egyptians, led by Pharaoh Thutmose III defeated the Canaanite army led by the King of Kadesh.

It is the first battle to record a casualty list.  The first recorded use of the compound bow.  And the first recorded battle in the area that has recorded the greatest density of battles of any place in the world.

The land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and from Antioch in the North to the Sinai and Aqaba in the South.  This narrow corridor is the primary highway for land movements between Africa, Europe and Asia.  Anyone controlling this land can benefit from imports, exports and innovations of three continents.  They can strategically control access from continent to continent.

Amenhotep fought campaigns here.  The Israelites fought the Canaanites.  Ramses the Great fought the Hittites here in the huge chariot battle of Kadesh.  The Egyptians sacked Jerusalem in the reigns of Pharaoh Sheshonk and King Rehoboam.  Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon besieged Jerusalem.  Alexander the Great besieged Tyre.  The Seleucids fought an elephant and phalanx battle against the Ptolomies at Raphia in the modern Gaza strip.  The Maccabees fought the Seleucids.

The Romans fought there, including emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Vespasian and Titus.  The Arabs drove out the Byzantines.  The Crusaders drove out the Arabs.  The Mamelukes drove out the Crusaders.  Napoleon fought the Mamelukes here.  Then the Turks drove out the Mamelukes.  The British drove out the Turks in World War 1.  They fought the Vichy French in World War 2.  The Israelis then drove out the British.  The Egyptians, the Syrians, the Jordanians, the Palestinians, the Iranians, the Iraqis and the Lebanese have all tried to drive out the Israelis.  They fought the war of 1948.  Then the British and the French invaded Suez.  This was followed by the six day war, the Yom Kippur war, the South Lebanon war, the Intifada, the second Intifada.

If you Google the name of a town in this area of the world with the words “Battle of” in front of it, Google will ask “Which Battle?”

The battles I have mentioned here are only the really famous ones.  There are many, many more.  Armageddon indeed!

Oriental Democracy

Last year it all seemed so positive.  The people of Egypt rose up as one and demanded democratic rights.  The army found itself in an untenable position and ceded control.  Elections were held.  The right wing did not like the result.  They gave Morsi one year as president, and now he has been deposed and arrested.

 

Where have we seen this before?  Spain in the 1930’s is a good example.  A stagnant traditionalist and impoverished state.  The people demand democracy.  The vested interests must concede to elections.  They don’t like the result.  In steps the army.  Civil war.

 

Same thing in Chile with Allende.  It has happened in numerous African states.

 

So what is the problem?

 

Well, the problem is that democracy is a very imperfect solution.  Good solutions tend to be ambiguous, slow, evolutionary.  Democracy works well when you have already had democracy for a long time.  The problem with Egypt today and Spain and Chile in the past is that they tried to use democracy to solve a state of national crisis. 

 

When you have a national crisis what you need is simple, fast solutions delivered by strong, unified and aligned interests.  You want a demagogue, a benevolent dictator.  You want a Nasser  (before he lost the 6 day war).  You want Mussolini (before people learned he was stupid).  You want Hitler (up until 1940 when his success turned him into a megalomaniac).

 

Arabic nations in particular seem to venerate autocracy.  They seem to see the world the way Europe did back when Kings had the divine right to rule.  Power flows from Allah to the Prophet and down to the Leader.  In Europe we are astounded by the strength of trust and loyalty generated by people such as Gaddafi, Nasser, Saddam Hussein, Bashr Al Assad. 

 

I have come across a theory that the difference in nature between oriental and occidental rule is founded in the difference in the land between Persia and Greece.  In Persia the lands are broad and relatively easy to traverse.  Tribes can migrate with relative ease.  Peoples moved freely westwards from the Asian steppes, northwards from Arabia and southwards from the Russian steppes.  To defend your lands from intruders you needed a strong centralist authority which could depend upon the unity and support of the people.  As a result the first great bronze age civilizations rose in Mesopotamia.  Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, the Hittites etc.

 

By contrast Greece is a land of rocky valleys and islands.  Each valley and each island is a land onto itself, with its own lord, its own army, its own economy.  It is very difficult for invaders to move across Greece.  Passes are few and narrow, and the locals use them effectively for ambush.  As a result Greece developed into a plethora of fiercely independent states.  Different states experimented with different forms of government.  They had single kings as in Macedonia, dual kings as in Sparta.  There were tyrants, ruling councils, democracies, republics, oligarchies and theocracies.  Through trial and error some of these systems were found to be better than others, and they evolved into the modern federal style of republic that is most common today.  We incorrectly call it democracy.

 

When Europe and America went through the throes of religious wars, the dissolution of the Roman Empire, the rise of feudalism, the emergence of the nation state, the rise of free thinking, the age of revolution and the First World War, the Arabic world was blessed with the stable and benevolent rule of the Ottomans.  They had the only ruler in history to earn the epithet “Magnificent” and Suleiman truly was magnificent.  Under his rule the Turks, Arabs, Greeks, Balkan peoples and Persians had a legal system far surpassing anything in Europe for centuries.  They were clean, well fed and secure.

 

To a Turk in the 1550’s Europe seemed a dirty and dangerous place.  By the 1900’s it did not seem a whole lot better.  Loyalty to the Sublime Porte seemed far superior to the disunity of English and French parliaments.

 

It is really only since the end of the First World War that the West has prospered and the Middle East has reeled from crisis to crisis.  And why has the Middle East failed?  Well, because the Western Nations dismantled the central control of the Ottomans.  We broke up their Empire, divided out the lands and handed them out to western flunkeys.

 

Eventually the people of those lands tire of the western approved rulers and throw them out.  The people who lead the throwing out tend to be strong characters with good support either from the military or from tribal structures.  The nations of the Middle East have no history of success with democratic government.  When they look back into history they equate stability, peace and wealth with unity, loyalty and autocracy.  They do not have the western appetite for deontology and individualism at the expense of the state.  They value utilitarianism and teleological sacrifice of the individual’s desires to the common good.

 

Is it any wonder that the Arab spring has stalled?  It will take a number of evolutions and revolutions before these nations “get” democracy.  The West must be patient.

 

Ozymandias; by Percy Bysshe Shelley

 

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’