“In the past, He let all nations go their own way”

We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In the past, He let all nations go their own way. Yet He has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; He provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.

Paul, speaking to a crowd of pagans in the city of Lystra, Asia Minor, Acts 14:15 – 17

Quote of the Week: About Social Class

They drove past the grand old Victorian houses just beyond the center of town. There were understated wreaths on their painted doors. There were trimmed pines laced with white fairy lights standing erect on their snowed-over lawns. …

As they got farther from the main road, the houses became more modest. As the houses became more modest, the Christmas displays became more elaborate. Some of the homes were wholly outlined in blinking lights. Outside of one, a life-sized Santa Claus climbed into a sleigh with a full complement of reindeer. “Merry Christmas” flashed boldly in the window of another — as if it were a tavern, [Cameron] Winter thought.

When Christmas Comes, by Andrew Klavan, pp. 67 – 68

So where is your house on this continuum?

Cortes and the Aztec Conquest

Photo by NEOSiAM 2020 on Pexels.com

by Irwin R. Blacker, 1965. A book review.

I picked this book up from our local library. “Oh, I only know the outlines of this period of history. I need to know more.” Then I let it sit around for several weeks. As a history book, it is probably boring, right?


Honestly, I would not put any of this stuff in a novel, because no one would believe it. In the first few chapters, at least once per chapter there was an “I can’t believe that just happened” moment. In the second half of the book, there is such a moment every one or two pages.

This book doesn’t pick heroes or villains. It’s a fairly simple, straightforward account of what happened, from Cortez sailing from Cuba, until the fall of Tenochtitlan. Also, perhaps because this book was published in 1965, it does not go in for the excessively dry, boring writing that academic history sometimes strives for. The writing is matter-of-fact, not sensationalist, and moves along quickly.

History is Full of Surprises

I went in to this with certain pre-conceptions. The general impression I had received from my previous exposure to this topic was that Cortez was awful, and the Aztecs were awful, and they deserved each other. I expected to read a story populated by a bunch of scoundrels, and that was what I got. However, as the book progressed I found myself more and more sympathizing with Cortez, because he is the underdog for literally the entire book. (The harsh ruling and enslaving the Indians stuff came later.) In every battle (not just with the Aztecs, but with the Tabascans, and then the Tlaxcalans), he is outnumbered tens of thousands to hundreds. Many of the I can’t believe this moments were caused by How did the Spaniards not die? and by watching Indian lords and generals snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Here are a few of the things that surprised me, and might surprise you too:

  • Though the Spaniards had a very early version of a gun (the harquebus), a few light cannon designed for ships, and a handful of horses, these things did not allow them to just roll in and conquer Mexico through overwhelming force of technology. They had only about 16 guns and horses, and about the same number of cannons. The horses were surprising at first to the Indians, but they did lose their shock value. The horses and cannons were difficult to transport through the swamps and mountains, and in every battle, as I said, the Spaniards were outnumbered about 100 to 1. The Mexican armor, which was made of padded and starched cotton, was almost as effective as the Spanish armor, and much lighter and cooler. The Aztecs and the other groups were experienced, hardened warriors.
  • With literally every people group Cortez encountered (whether they were allied with Montezuma or not), Cortez initially tried to parley and trade, and they insisted on going to battle. This is not to say that Cortez was there only to trade, merely that this, his opening move, never got past the first step. As he progresses through Mexico toward Tenochtitlan, we see him again and again forced into battles. Finally, after he defeats the very persistent Tlaxcalan Indians, they ask him to ally with them against Montezuma.
  • As per human nature, both sides were internally divided. The Tlaxcalan army, which had been holding out for years against Montezuma, lost to Cortez because their military captains would not co-operate with each other. Cortez, meanwhile, had left on his expedition without the approval of Velasquez, the governor of Cuba. He had some of Velasquez’s relatives in his fighting force, and had to worry about them fomenting mutiny. At one point, he had to leave Tenochtitlan and go fight a battle against an army representing Velasquez that had landed on the coast. With constantly shifting alliances among both the Spaniards and the Indians, this book read like a spy novel.
  • Cortez did not immediately attack Tenochtitlan, Montezuma’s capital city. He first approached as a visitor, and there was a weird period of several weeks when the Spaniards stayed there as guests? Or prisoners? Montezuma, for his part, was divided in his mind. He was not as confident in his role as priest as he had been in his youth, as a warrior. He wasn’t sure what his gods wanted him to do. Thus, he kept giving Cortez evasive answers, but also ended up giving Cortez much more leeway than he should have. He missed many good opportunities to have the Spaniard killed.
  • The great city of Tenochtitlan makes an amazingly interesting setting for a battle. It was built out over the middle of a shallow, salt lake (deep enough to drown in, however), and was approached from other lakeside cities by four long causeways, each of which had bridges that could be taken up, leaving wide gaps that were impassable for an attacking or fleeing force. These tiled causeways were also slippery and disorienting for horses, and anyone caught on them could be attacked by war canoes. Inside the city, the sections were divided by canals which could also be used to seal off the different sections of the city. There were high rooftops, leading up to the temple at the top, from which defenders could spot approaching or fleeing attackers, rain down missiles, and sound the alarm with conch shells and drums.
  • When the Spaniards finally did destroy Tenochtitlan, it was their Tlaxcalan allies who wanted to commit atrocities on the civilians there. “The Spaniards were too few to control their allies” (page 142).
  • Cortez was accompanied throughout by a young woman whom the Spaniards called Dona Marina. “She was a young, highly intelligent princess who had been sold into slavery by her parents” (page 34) and given to Cortez by the Tabascans after he defeated them. Dona Marina spoke both coastal Mayan and Nahuatl (the Aztec language), and she served as an interpreter. Amazingly, Dona Marina survived the entire conquest.

A True First-Contact Story

For me, the overall impression is that what we have here is the meeting of an Ancient Near Eastern style culture, with city-states, bureaucracies, temples, human sacrifice, and a tyrannical priest-king, with a late medieval/early exploration-age Western European culture. This could not be a purer first contact story if Cortez had gotten hold of a time machine and attempted to loot Babylon.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in military history.

More about Ancient Mesoamerican Urbanism

We knew about the Olmec and Maya, but their sites were hard to spot and hard to study because of the jungle. Now, we keep learning more and more.

A train project on the Yucatan Peninsula is uncovering hundreds of Mayan settlements, proving that the area was more densely populated than once thought, as archaeologists have been beginning to suspect.

Meanwhile, Lidar technology is able to peer through the jungle and reveal not only more and more ceremonial sites stretching over the Olmec and Mayan culture areas, but also common layouts that seem to indicate a broad shared cultural (or at least, architectural) tradition dating back to 3,400 years ago.

It looks to me like what we have here is a Central American version of the Sumerian urban/bureaucratic/temple-based civilization, giving rise to a series of civilizations that followed the same model: Akkadian, then Babylonian, and so on. And, if we believe the 3,400 YA date, the same thing in Central America was happening at almost the same time. It’s almost as if people tend to set up hierarchical city-states with temples wherever they settle, almost as soon as they settle there, whenever circumstances permit. Almost as if they were dispersing, and remembering something.

Forest Gardens

So, a member of the Out of Babel research team sent me this cool link. (The research team being blog readers/friends who send me links.)

Apparently, the native peoples of British Columbia made gardens in the temperate rain forests up there. These were patches of forest where they planted edibles such as “hazelnuts, crabapples, cranberries, and hawthorn.” These patches persist to this day. They did not look like agriculture to the Europeans. We are just now realizing what they were, a mere 200 years behind the times as usual.

This article brings to mind the Wild Yam Question, which was raised by an old ethnology professor of mine. Part of the Wild Yam thesis is that people groups who look to city-dwellers’ eyes like hunter-gatherers, may actually be engaging in horticulture, where they plant a staple food (such as sago palm) in clusters in the forest and then rotate where they harvest it, which looks like pure foraging but isn’t. According to the linked article, the forest gardens in BC are the first instance of this kind of horticulture that has been discovered in a temperate climate.

And not to go on a patented Out of Babel rant, but I’ll just note that this kind of discovery undermines the old model of anthropology where people start out as hunter-gatherers and progress to gardens, then large-scale agriculture, and so on, becoming more urban as they go. This suggests that there are a variety of ways to do agriculture and that people can mix elements of different lifestyles to suit their needs. This, in turn, suggests that we can’t just look at whether a given people group has agriculture, and assume that we can infer from this when they lived or what stage of development they were in. There may well have been people groups who went from being farmers or herdsmen to being hunters when forced to do so, either because they were migrating or in response to some disaster. In fact, this is exactly what happens to Enmer’s tribe in my trilogy.

The Dia de los Muertos Book Tag

Jyvur Entropy created this tag with Anna Book Critter, and I got it off Jyvur’s blog.

For a tag, you are given a series of prompts around a particular theme, and you answer the prompts, usually with the names of books you’ve read.

Para que lo sepas, I had to restrain myself from naming one of my own books for almost every one of these prompts. After all, the Scattering Trilogy is multigenerational; life-affirming; about rebirth; includes a fair amount of food, etc. Anyway, that’s en mi opinion. But I will do this tag like a normal person and name books by other people.

Photo by Chait Goli on Pexels.com

The Day of the Dead is all about remembering and honoring past generations.

Name a book with an intergenerational cast or a strong focus on family.

Pavilion of Women, by Pearl Buck. Buck is a master at sliding seamlessly through time in her stories. In the opening scene, Madame Wu is sitting in her chamber on the morning of her fortieth birthday. Her maidservant comes in to comb her hair, and suddenly we are in this same bedroom twenty-four years ago, on the morning after Madam Wu married Mr. Wu, and the same maidservant has come in, and she is nervous as a cat around her new mistress, because she knows that she just had sex for the first time. Now, twenty-four years later again, the servant is much more at ease with Madam Wu, but she does not know that her mistress has decided that as of her fortieth birthday, she will stop living to keep the Wu household running smoothly, and start living for herself. She just has to get through the party.

Dia de los Muertos is an important Mexican holiday. Name a book that takes place in Mexico or includes Mexican culture. 

I’ve been slo-mo bingeing on books about the archaeology of Mesoamerica. Of course, with books like these, which are about as old as I am, you need to supplement them with current articles, since new discoveries and analyses keep being made.

This holiday is often celebrated with vibrant, colorful imagery and sugar skulls. Name a book with a cover as visually-interesting and colorful as a sugar skull.

I will never stop promoting the art of Trina Schart Hyman.

Food is an important part of the Dia de los Muertos celebration. Food is set out on altars for the spirits of departed family members.

Tell us a book where food really makes the story!

The No. Ladies’ Detective Agency books. These are written from multiple perspectives, but arguably the main character is Precious Ramotswe, founder of the No. Ladies’ Detective Agency, the only female-run detective agency in Botswana. Mma Ramotswe is fat (“traditionally built”), and while not unusually greedy, she does enjoy her food and thinks about it fairly often. She always likes to visit the formidable Mma Potokwane, who runs an orphanage, because although Mma Potokwane is sure to ask for some kind of favor for her orphans, she always serves Mma Ramotswe a generous piece of cake, sometimes two.

“Some people very clearly and obviously would like to eat more cake. It might as well be printed on their forehead: Greedy person.” Ah yes, that would be me.

Dia de los Muertos is not only celebrated in Mexico, but also in Central and South America. Name a book that takes place in Central or South America or has a Central or South American author. 

I’ve read a lot of missionary stories, but Bruchko is one of the most remarkable. It takes place among the Motilone, who live in the jungle somewhere along the border of Venezuela and Colombia.

In addition to sugar skulls, flowers and butterflies are also symbols of this holiday. Tell us a book with flowers or butterflies on the cover

Nailed it.

The Day of the Dead is about celebrating life. Name a book that celebrates life. 

The book of Job, in the Bible.

You think I’m kidding? No, listen.

Job isn’t about Job patiently putting up with suffering, proving what a good person he is, and then God rewards him. That’s the caricature, but it’s almost the opposite of the real theme of the book.

The consensus in Ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature was that, since God is just, if anything bad happens to anyone, it must be their fault. This is still, by the way, the essence of human wisdom in many parts of the globe, especially in Hinduism. It is also many people’s instinct when we see a horrible disaster befall someone, to find some way that the unfortunate person brought it upon themselves, or “how this could have been avoided.” It makes us feel a little more in control.

The book of Job exists to subvert this universally accepted bit of “wisdom.”

Job starts out as a model of the good person in the Ancient Near East. He has seven sons (the perfect number!), and three daughters; he offers regular animal sacrifices to God. And he’s rich, as he should be. Everything is making sense, see?

Now we take this model Good Person and visit all kinds of punishments on him. And this must be an expose, right? It must be Justice Falling At Last!

Job’s three “friends” show up, and they proceed to preach some very reasonable, theologically sound sermons just like you could hear in any of the wisdom literature of the day. God is just. He rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. Therefore you must have deserved this somehow. If you say you haven’t, you are defying God! Beat that!

Their logic is flawless. And God sides with Job against them. “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”

If that’s not life-affirming, I don’t know what is.

It is also a day of remembering loved ones who passed on. Name a book that was either given to you or reminds you of a loved one who passed away. 

Let me tell you about Alice.

I can tell you all about her now, because she’s with the Lord. No privacy risk or anything like that. I’d post a picture if I had one, but I don’t.

By the time I knew Alice, she was in her late eighties. (I was in my late teens.) She mentored me for a few years before she got dementia. She was a sweet, little old German-American lady, with a sly sense of humor. She could do impressions, but used this skill judiciously. Once she said to me, “You want to know why I never married?” And then, for an answer, she quoted the King James verse, but with different punctuation: “I would not have thee, ignorant brethren.” Props to you if you get that joke.

The “brethren” that she “would not have” were certainly missing out, because Alice was a treasure. Perhaps they overlooked her good qualities because of a facial deformity. She had been bitten on the cheek by a horse as a child, and it wasn’t until she was an adult that she was able to afford corrective surgery.

Anyway, one day when I was at Alice’s house, I picked up the book The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul. She encouraged me to borrow it. I expected it to be a dry, academic read, because it was on a lofty theological topic. But no, it was written for the layperson, and was very accessible. A page-turner, in fact. To this day I associate that book with Alice.

El flor del Muerto – The flower of the dead. Marigolds are used in massive quantities on the Day of the Dead. These flowers represent the sun and rebirth. Also believe to guide the spirits back home. Name a book about rebirth. 

The Great Good Thing, by Andrew Klavan. Unfortunately, I have lent my copy out, so I can’t show you a picture. This is the story of how Klavan grew up as secular Jew on Long Island, ran away from home, lived as a hobo for several years, became a hard-boiled noir crime writer and a Hollywood success, and then became a Christian at the age of 50. He is now a Christian, Jewish, hard-boiled noir crime writer who also writes YA and fantasy.

If you want to read a novel about rebirth, try Identity Man, also by Andrew Klavan.

Colors are used as a form of symbolism in the decorations and sugar skulls. Some of the colors used in association with Dia de los Muertos are yellow (unity), white (hope and purity), red (blood and life), purple (mourning), and pink (happiness). 

Take a photo of some book spines in the Dia de los Muertos colors!

And a happy Dia de los Muertos to all who celebrate ❤

P.S. Disclaimer about Memorializing Our Dead

If anyone feels uncomfortable with me doing this tag, because, you know, skulls and dead people and paganism, I get it.

Let me reiterate a point I have made before, that pagan practices (especially old ones with deep roots) often fulfill basic human needs that every society needs to fulfill, such as celebration, marking the seasons, etc. In this case, the basic human need is to continue to feel a connection to, and to honor, our loved ones who have died. In a way, it’s part of the mourning process. Modern American society is terrible at this, sorry to say. The only formal time to remember the person is during the funeral and burial, after which the mourners are expected to basically stop talking about the person except to very close friends or relatives. Bringing them up, or continuing to visibly grieve, causes that sin of all sins, social awkwardness. This is pretty harsh, and it does not match well with the way that grieving goes for most people.

There are ways to provide for ongoing grieving, honoring, and remembering that are not ancestor worship. For example, in Indonesia, the Muslims have memorial services at 30 days, 100 days, and a year after the death. The people groups of Kalimantan (pagan and sometimes Christian as well) have a second, larger, funeral ceremony, usually a year later, when they dig up the person’s bones and re-inter them in an ossuary with the bones of the family. The Christians will have about a week or so of viewing services while they wait for people to gather for the funeral; then the graveside service; then that night an additional “comfort” service. Most of these take place at the family’s house, and they mean the house is filled with people, songs, and food. The family is not left alone. The people who attend don’t have to say or do anything special beyond “we share in your grief.” They just have to be physically present. This is also a better social rule than having to come up with something to say.

Christians will also have a vigil at their relatives’ graves on the night before Easter. This might sound creepy – and maybe it is – but sometimes when facing something as awful as death, we have to embrace the creepy and it will actually haunt us less.

So all that to say, while I am not recommending pagan worship, and while Christians are definitely forbidden from trying to contact the dead, I think having something like a Dia de los Muertos is a good idea on a psychological level. And yes, I did get teary-eyed when watching Coco.

I Did Not Expect This (Archaeology Nerd Version)

I have to admit, I expected that the Etruscans would turn out to have been a Hamitic people. But according to this article, it looks like they came from the Pontic-Caspian steppe, just like the early Romans did … and more or less just like historical tradition said they did …

Of course, the sample size is small (only 82 individuals). It may yet be revealed that the Etruscans intermarried with an earlier, possibly Hamitic people, from whom (maybe?) they also got their language and their metalworking skills? But that’s pure speculation on my part. Who knows? Genetics and history both allow for a lot of speculation.

What More Could You Ask in a Reconstructed Face?

He’s a Dutch Neanderthal. Seriously.

As you know, I am both.

Take a minute and go look at his face.

Now come back.

Cute, right? Plus, he’s thought to have lived in “Doggerland, the now-submerged region between the United Kingdom and continental Europe.” If that’s not cool I don’t know what is. I recently saw a theory somewhere that Doggerland was the inspiration for Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth, that his cycle of stories is supposed to be a history of very ancient times before those lands were swallowed up by the sea.

Now, we could quibble about how much this facial reconstruction owes to imagination. We’d need to know how big was the “piece of skull” used in it. Was it just a fragment, or was it a good bit of the skull? But as for me, I’m not going to look a gift Neanderthal in the mouth. (So to speak.) Also, I know someone who looks a bit like this. A little more chin, a little less nose, but still a human face.