Misleading Archeology Headline of the Week

Pottery Shard May Be ‘Missing Link’ in the Alphabet’s Development

So, according to the article itself, here’s what is really going on:

“… the script represents a “missing link” connecting alphabetic inscriptions found in Egypt and Sinai with later writing from Canaan. The writing uses an early version of the alphabet in which letters bear a resemblance to the Egyptian hieroglyphs they evolved from. The finding appears to overturn a previous hypothesis that the alphabet only came to Canaan when Egypt ruled the area.”

OK, so instead of this particular alphabet being brought directly from Egypt through imperialism, it seeped over much earlier, through cultural influence. That’s a “missing link”? O.K.

Also, note that this shard has been dated to about 1450 B.C., which is much younger than some other systems of writing, including the Vinca signs.

But my favorite line from the article is this: “… the researchers have not definitively determined what the inscription says. Also unclear is whether the writing was meant to be read from left to right or right to left.” So, we don’t know whether to read it right to left, but we have come up with a tentative translation.

Three Logical Fallacies Around “Power”

“Power” is one of those words that is both so polysemous (having multiple meanings) and so emotionally loaded, that I would be just as happy if it was never used in public discourse. However, I am going to be using it a lot in this essay.

1. Misattributing Power to People Who Don’t Have It

It might seem strange to dive right into the first fallacy without stopping to define “power,” but rest assured, all will become clear.

Consider this quote from Ibram Kendi:

One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist.

page 9

OK, let’s skip over the shocking naivete of this statement. (It overlooks the #1 source of “problems”: the sinful heart within every individual human being.) Do you see what he did there? Let us not blame groups of people. Instead, let us blame “power.” But this is obviously a dodge. Power (he is talking about social power) does not float around naked through our cities, towns, and countrysides. It is exercised by people. Hence, locating the roots of problems in “power” is nothing but a sneaky way to locate the roots of problems in certain groups of people … those deemed to have power. I say “groups,” not individuals, because Kendi apparently is incapable of considering individuals. Also, historically, when people have sought scapegoats, they are seldom satisfied with individuals. When getting rid of one individual (or his power) does not cause problems to vanish as anticipated, people who locate problems in power tend to seek to root out an entire villain class, and like concentric circles in a pond, this class tends to widen.

Here are a few historical examples. Witches, in Salem, Massachusetts, were deemed to be a class of people with a lot of power. They were thought to be able to cause sickness, crop failure, bad dreams, sudden sensations of being pinched, and I don’t know what all. This power was misattributed. The girls’ sufferings were caused by their own mental illness (possibly their own involvement with the occult), not by their neighbors. But questioning their misattribution of power meant challenging the accusers’ lived experience, and was likely to get you included in the enemy class.

The Kulak farmers, in Soviet-controlled Ukraine, were prosperous, and so they were deemed to have a lot of power. It was, supposedly, their prosperity that was causing the poverty of the other farmers. They were wiped out, their farms taken, and it transpired that the only “power” the Kulaks had was expertise at farming. They were not powerful enough to stop their own slaughter.

The Jews in Europe, due to being smart and hardworking, were often prosperous. They were wrongly attributed with having a lot of power, even to controlling whole industries and being responsible for nearly everything that went wrong in society. We all know where this led. But despite the horror, this misattribution of power has a ridiculous side too. A recent hilarious example was speculation about a Jewish space laser that was used to set the California wildfires.

What should be clear from these examples is that if we follow misattribution of power all the way to the end of the path, it leads to killing people, sometimes a lot of people.

Unfortunately, it is really easy to misattribute power when we locate it in groups. Even if some particular group has many powerful individuals that arise from within it, it is almost never the case that all members of the group, distributively, have social power.

So let’s take a break from groups for a moment and talk about individuals.

2. Mischaracterizing Power as Always Arbitrary and Unnecessary

Another way to read Kendi’s statement, above, would be that nobody should have any power at all. No social or legal power, no authority. I don’t think that’s what he means, based on his policy recommendations (whispers: he wants power), but let’s set that aside and go with it, because this is actually a position that is very appealing to human beings. When we talk about power as a bad thing, which is easy to do because nobody likes being under it, it is very easy to begin talking as if all power is unearned and arbitrarily given. In short, that every instance of power residing in a human being is synonymous with injustice.

This is the basic attitude of a kindergartener who sees that his parents are controlling his life in a very totalitarian way. They control his wardrobe, his diet, his bedtime, his screen time, and whether he gets to jump on the couch. He figures that this is very oppressive. If all these arbitrary rules were to vanish, his life would be nothing but fun. It never crosses his mind to wonder, Do we actually need somebody to be in charge?

To be fair, we adults can also fail to ask ourselves that question. That’s because we want to be in charge (most of the time). And most of the time, this is appropriate. In an ordinary, non-emergency, non-war type of situation, each adult should be able to govern him- or her-self, well enough to get through his or her day, with little to no supervision. And then it will actually appear as if no one is in charge.

However, as soon as a drastic situation arises, it becomes obvious that someone has to have power, both in the sense of the power to get things done, and in the sense of authority over others. If there are children around, there must be a parent with power. A platoon needs a leader, especially on the battlefield. As soon as an emergency arises, most people freeze, looking about and wishing for someone to tell them what to do. They are usually relieved when someone takes charge.

As these examples show, power is not always arbitrary. Sometimes it is earned. In the best cases, it is earned by competence. (You hope that the person in charge in the operating room has a lot of medical training and experience.) But there are also cases where someone is in power and it is not arbitrary, despite that they are not an expert in the field. It could be that they were put in charge by someone else, or that they were simply the person who was willing to step up and start giving orders, which is in emergency situations is usually a job that no one wants, because once you are in charge, you are also responsible if things go wrong.

Returning to the ordinary situation where an adult can get through their day just fine with no one telling them what to do, we now see that this can happen only in very stable conditions. These conditions are good and we like them. What we may not notice is that one of their prerequisites is somebody still has to be in charge. If you are not living in the Wild West where you have to fight for your life on the way to work, that is because there is some kind of law enforcement out there somewhere, even if you don’t see them. If you are living in a region that is not torn by war, thank your president or prime minister or the local warlord who is keeping things peaceful in your county. He may not be a nice person (quite the opposite), but he managed to get things under control so that, for the time being, you can live a normal life. If not for him, then just to survive and defend your family, you would be forced to exercise a lot more personal power.

And this raises the question of what exactly power even is.

3. Failing to Recognize Complexity

Now let’s finally define our terms.

Power obviously has a cluster of senses in physics that don’t concern us here: velocity, force, pressure, energy, and the like. But even just restricting our discussion about power to human beings, there are several different meanings.

Power can mean social status. A powerful person can shame or ruin another person but not be susceptible to the same treatment.

It can mean authority, the ability to make people do things without having to physically force them. Of course, authority has to be backed up, ultimately, with physical force when it is not recognized.

This brings up physical strength as another type of power. This one is highly relevant because, as we saw in the last section, if you remove all other types of power (legitimate authority, rule of law, etc.), then conflicts between human beings will ultimately come down to who is bigger.

Finally, there is power in the sense of ability to get things done. This is an interesting one, and hugely important to all of us in our daily lives. Being able-bodied is a kind of power in this sense. It enables you to do all sorts of things for yourself in the way that you would like. Money is a kind of power in that it enables us to get things done that we otherwise couldn’t. Competence in various areas is also a kind of power. When I cook a meal for my family, I am able to do so because of the power given to me by the technology of my electric stove, the money with which I buy food and pay my electric bill, my strong legs that allow me to stand in front of the stove, and my competence at food prep. All of these are different kinds of powers.

The ability to get things done, or mastery, is the kind of power that babies lack. When we become toddlers, our whole life is about gaining this power to make things happen. We figure out how to walk and talk, how to flip the light switch, how to get various reactions from adults and other people around us. The more competent we become, the more our sphere of personal power expands.

Seen from this perspective, it is obvious that every person has a sphere of power in their daily life. In Bible terms, these are our “kingdoms.” (I owe this point to writer Dallas Willard.) Our kingdoms vary in their extent and in the shape of their borders. But everyone needs some sort of power in order to live. In the typical case, we have to have a job at which we are competent. We need to be making money, so as to convert our competence in that one area into a form that can get things done for us in other areas. We need to have authority over our own bodies (personal hygiene and the like), our schedules, our property, and (getting more complex now) various kinds of power in our relationships with family, friends, bosses, coworkers, etc. There is nothing wrong with this kind of power. It is a basic part of human dignity. In fact, one of our favorite kinds of stories, that of the underdog, features a main character who has no social status or legal authority, but has a great deal of personal presence and forcefulness, and who may be physically very strong (think Jean Valjean).

But this is a complexity that simplistic power-bashing rhetoric does not take into account. People will often speak as though, if someone has a lot of social status, they also necessarily have a lot of ability-to-get-things-done in every area of their life.

When I lived as an American expat in Asia, I was in this position. As an American, I was very visible and was assumed to have a lot of social status. I was also assumed to have great wealth. (I had plenty, especially compared to the average person in that country, but not as much as people assumed.) Yet, despite all this, my ability to get things done was close to zero. As a foreigner, I couldn’t move house or even take an overnight trip without getting letters of permission from at least two government offices. My visibility and assumed wealth made me a target. My assumed status made people interpret everything I said and did in the most (pardon me) bitchy way possible. And because of government regulations, when it came to the work that I actually went there to do, I was prevented from doing virtually any of it. I never did get most of it done.

I’m not even complaining about all this. When you go to another country, you have to follow their rules. My point is that status (even wealth) and actual on-the-ground power don’t always go together.

Of course, it can work the other way too. People can have lots of advantages in their personal life (like a prosperous farm or business, as in our first section) but not have much social status or legal power. Sometimes when people are prosperous, the kind of power that got them that prosperity was personal energy, industry, and competence, not status arbitrarily leveraged to rob others.

The bottom line is that everyone has power of different sorts and in various degrees at different times in their life, and even in different spheres of their life at the same time. Thus, people who want to draw a line down the middle of the world and declare that people on one side of it “have power” and people on the other side “don’t have power,” are guilty of an oversimplification so gross that it is indistinguishable from a lie.

Seriously, Please Stop Telling Me I Have “Power”

I have some, sure. The kinds I would like everyone to have. I have health, housing, an income, the ability to raise my own children. And let’s not forget the vast intellectual powers, before which you must all tremble.

But I have been reliably informed that because of certain personal characteristics, people like me have an arbitrarily ascribed status that is so lofty that we should be able to get literally anything done that we want to. This is a dicier claim, but I have tested it.

We should be able to walk into any room and get exactly what we want; for example, publishers will beat down the door to publish our books. We will not get pulled over for possible drunk driving because we were driving down the middle of a country road and not down the right side because we wanted to avoid the ditch (not that this has happened recently). And when pulled over by the cops, we are not nervous. Our group status protects us from a variety of diseases such as migraines and “female problems.” Oh yes, and we never experience the normal insecurities that every woman experiences about her appearance, because we embody our culture’s standard of female beauty.

Experience has proven all these things to be false.

That is why I am not very patient when told by a writer or celebrity whose status is so high that they could ruin me with a single tweet that I need to acknowledge and give up my power. Sorry, friends. I don’t have a lot, but what I do have is legitimate and I’m going to try and hang on to it.

A Decent Man Would Never Write “No Irish Need Apply”

Well, I couldn’t stand his nonsense, so aheld of him I took

and I gave him such a baetin’ as he’d get in Donnybrook.

He hollered me the murther, and to get away did try

and swore he’d nivver write again, “No Irish Need Apply.”

He made a big apology, and I bid him then goodbye,

sayin’, “When nixt you want a baetin’, write ‘No Irish Need Apply.'”

Well, some may think it a misfortune to be christened Patrick Dan,

but to me it is an honor to be born an Irishman.

Sure, I’ve heard that in America, it always is the plan

that an Irishman is just as good as any other man.

A home and hospitality they nivver will deny

to strangers here, or ever write, “No Irish Need Apply.”

Oh, but some black sheep are in the flock: “A drrty lot,” says I;

a daecent man would nivver say, “No Irish Need Apply.”

See below

Happy St. Patrick’s Day yesterday!

A Gaggle of Nouns

Photo by Maria Orlova on Pexels.com

English Animal Plurals

Plurals are cute, don’t you agree? There is something charming about a plural, because of what it implies. It implies that these things, whatever they are, belong to a category of things, that in some important sense they are all the same kind of thing. Plurals tell us a lot about the human mind.

English has a charming feature where certain animals, when referred to as a group, have a specific term for the group that has to be used. I guess you could call these animal-specific noun classifiers, but they mostly show up, in English, in animal plurals. (You also get them for vehicles.) Some are well-known:

a school of fish

a flock of sheep/birds

a herd of cattle/elephants

a pride of lions

a pack of dogs

But they get more obscure, and hence more fun:

a pod of whales

a smuck of jellyfish

a gaggle of geese

a gang of turkeys

an exaltation of larks

a murder of crows

a troop of monkeys

a mischief of raccoons

a colony of ants

a gluttony of bears

a brood of vipers

One of these is made up.

Add your own below, in the comments.

These group classes can be used of people if you want to imply that the group of people resembles the group of animals in some way: “A gaggle of middle-schoolers.” And I love it when Sting, in one of his songs, refers to two priests “fussing and flapping in priestly black like a murder of crows.” The two of them (already plural, but barely) somehow resemble a large plural of crows.

Indonesian Noun Classes

Indonesian (bahasa Indonesia) is an Austronesian language closely related to Malaysian. Indonesian does not have lot of grammatical morphology. For verbs, it handles past and future tense mostly by context, and by the use of words such as “already” (sudah) and “not-yet” (belum). It doesn’t have grammatical genders, and in fact the pronoun for he, she, or it, dia, doesn’t indicate sex. (Tellingly, although you cannot indicate the person’s sex with a third person pronoun, there is an alternate third person singular pronoun which you can use if you wish to be more respectful: beliau. There are also more and less respectful ways to say I and you.)

But despite not having grammatical gender, Indonesian has noun classes. These show up when you want to say how many of something there are (our old friend plurals again!), or when you want to use the indefinite article (a/an).

  • Sebuah is the classifier for most inanimate things. For example, “sebuah meja” means “a table.” (Literally, “one-thing table”).
  • You can also say semacam, which means “some kind of.” “Semacam proyek” = “some kind of project.”
  • For people, the classifier is “orang,” which means person. “Seorang perempuan” means “a woman.” (Literally, “one-person woman”).
  • For animals, the classifier is “ekor,” which means “tail.” “Seekor kucing” = “a cat.”
  • For fruit, it’s “biji,” which means “seed.”
  • Sehelai rambut” = “one [strand of] hair.”

There are plenty of others, but these are the main ones that I remember. I think batang (“trunk”) is used for trees, and there are probably specialized terms for boats and other vehicles. Not all of them are used all the time. Learning them all is sort of like learning specialized terms in English. As someone once said, “Never call a rifle a gun, a line a rope, or a ship a boat.”

For plurals and to ask how many, the classifier word is separated from the number.

  • Dia mempunyai dua orang anak” = “He has two children” (“two person child“).
  • Mau brokoli? Berapa batang?” = “You want broccoli? How-many stems?”
  • Kami lihat tiga ekor tikus” = “We saw three rats
  • Dia beli empat biji mangga” = “She bought four mangoes

I hope you find this interesting. Please post your own lesser-known examples of noun classes, or your tongue-in-cheek proposals for new ones.

Anecdotal Evidence for a Worldwide Flood

Photo by Ray Bilcliff on Pexels.com

As I heard a podcaster say, “The plural of anecdote is data.”

Wait. Are We Even Sure It Was Worldwide?

You can make a case that the account in Genesis 7 – 8 is not necessarily describing a global flood. This is because the same Hebrew word can be translated “world,” “earth,” or “land.” How we interpret it depends upon context. There is a case to be made, for example, that the whole book of Revelation is describing the devastation of the land of Israel during the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (hence the frequent warnings that it is going to happen “soon”), and that lines like “one third of the people on the earth died” are better translated as “one third of the people in the land died.”

I have even seen people try to interpret the poetic descriptions of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 as happening from the perspective of a person standing on the surface of the earth, in the land of Israel.

However, getting back to the flood narrative, there are good reasons to think that the text is in fact describing a global flood. This passage is set in very ancient times, before the nation of Israel existed. It’s before Abram was called by God out of Ur. Before Abram was even born. Before the Table of Nations (Genesis 10). So, not only was there no nation of Israel at the time of flood narrative, but we can’t even be sure there was a land of Israel, given the dramatic damage that the flood did to the earth’s geography. (And by the way, yes, I have just revealed that I think the flood narrative was not composed by Moses — even under the inspiration of God — but was passed down to Moses from a much older source.)

Finally, it’s hard to imagine how a local flood could “cover the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits” (Genesis 7:20) … especially for enough of a length of time for Noah and his sons to take soundings so as to estimate this depth.

So, given all this, I don’t think it’s straining the text to say that the flood account in Genesis is meant to be describing a global event.

Like so many sensational things in the Bible, the flood account sounds hard to believe, but the longer we look at it, the better it matches with the world we live in. Here are some features of the world we live, which are features we would expect if the dark millennia of our past concealed a worldwide flood.

Oral Flood Histories from Around the World

I have written before about Graham Hancock. I really enjoyed his book Fingerprints of the Gods, which posits an ancient period of cataclysms that included “earth crust slippage,” a geological upheaval so dramatic that it would have caused catastrophic floods among many other disasters. Hancock keeps changing his theories, and he has his own reasons for collecting the historical data that he does. However, here is some of the data that he conveniently collected about flood legends worldwide:

More than 500 deluge legends are known around the world and, in a survey of 86 of these (50 Asiatic, 3 European, 7 African, 46 American and 10 from Australia and the Pacific), the specialist researcher Dr. Richard Andree concluded that 62 were entirely independent of the Mesopotamian and Hebrew accounts.

Hancock, Fingerprints, p. 193
People Grouppage in Fingerprintssummary
Aztec98“First Sun, Matlactli Atl: duration 4008 years. In this age lived the giants … The First Sun was destroyed by water in the sign Matlactli Atl (Ten Water). It was called Apachiohualiztli (flood, deluge), the art of sorcery of the permanent rain. Men were turned into fish. Some say that only one couple escaped, protected by an old tree living near the water. Others say there were seven couples who hid in a cave until the flood was over and the waters had gone down. They repopulated the earth and were worshipped as gods in their nations …”
Sumerian188 – 189The Noah figure is called Utnapishtim. He later tells his story to Gilgamesh. It almost exactly parallels the Genesis 7 account.
South American tribes191 – 192Hancock mentions flood accounts coming from the following tribes: Chibcas (Colombia); Canarians (Ecuador); Tupinamba (Brazil); Araucnaian (Chile); Yamana (Tierra del Fuego); Pehuenche (Tierra del Fuego); and numerous groups in Peru.
Inuit 192 – 193“a terrible flood, accompanied by an earthquake, which swept so rapidly over the face of the earth that only a few people managed to escape in their canoes or take refuge on the tops of the highest mountains.”
various North American tribes193Lusieno, Huron, Montagnais, Iroquios, Chickasaw, Sioux
China’s Imperial Library193 – 194“The planets altered their courses. The sky sank lower towards the north. The sun, moon, and stars changed their motions. The earth fell to pieces and the waters in its bosom rushed upwards with violence and overflowed the earth.”
Southeast Asia194Flood accounts in: Chewong (Malaysia); Laos and northern Thailand; Karen (Burma); Vietnam; tribes along the northern coast of Australia
Hawai’i194“The world was destroyed by a flood and later recreated by a god named Tangaloa.”
Samoa194The flood is survived by “two human beings who put to sea in a boat which eventually came to rest in the Samoan archipelago.”
Japan194The Pacific islands were formed after the deluge receded.
Greek (Hesiod)195 – 196After a series of races of gold and silver, there is a “bronze race” who “have the strength of giants, and mighty hands on their mighty limbs.” After Prometheus gets them into trouble, Zeus wipes out the bronze race with a flood. Deucalion and Pyrrha float over the sea in a box for nine days and finally land on Mt. Parnassus.
“Vedic India”196 – 197The Noah figure is named Manu. He rescues a fish, which in return warns him of a coming flood. Manu loads a ship with two of every living species and seeds of every plant. The fish turns out to be Vishnu, who pulls Manu’s ship through the flood.
Egypt (Book of the Dead)197Thoth says, “They have fought fights, they have upheld strifes, they have done evil, they have created hostilities, they have made slaughter, they have caused trouble and oppression … I am going to blot out everything which I have made. This earth shall enter into the watery abyss by means of a raging flood, and will become even as it was in primeval time.”
Mayan (Popol Vuh)203“It was cloudy and twilight all over the world … the faces of the sun and moon were covered … Sunlight did not return till the twenty-sixth year after the flood.”
Norse204 – 205An awful lot happens in this apocalyptic tale. First a “hideous winter,” then worldwide war, then Yggdrasil (the earth tree) is shaken, causing the earth to literally fall apart. Then, worldwide fire. And finally, a flood. “The earth sank beneath the sea … Yet not all men perished in the great catastrophe. Enclosed in the wood itself of the ash tree Yggdrasil — which the devouring flames of the universal conflagration had been unable to consume — the ancestors of the future race of men had escaped death. In this asylum they had found that their only nourishment had been the morning dew. Slowly the earth emerged from the waves. Mountains rose again …”

The charming thing about these origin tales is that couple who survive the flood usually end up landing on the local mountain, founding the nation that is currently telling the story, and not moving from that spot ever since. This is similar to how nearly every people group has a local landmark (usually a mountain, terrain permitting) that is believed to be the home of the gods or “the center of the world.”

This is what origin stories are supposed to do. They ground the local community in the great ancient story of the world, and they also give the ancient stories credibility by grounding them in local features “still seen to this day.” This is not to say, however, that origin stories are simply made up out of whole cloth. They are handed down the generations, and though they might get tailored to make human beings look better, and have bits of other interesting stories added to them, they ultimately have some kind of origin in actual events. (Especially since they often come with genealogies that are also handed down.) I can’t imagine the coincidence that would be required for hundreds of peoples all around the world to make up a traditional flood story.

Yes, But It Could Still Have Been Local, If

… if all of these widely scattered people groups were descended from a small number of couples who were once all in one place and who experienced a catastrophic local flood together.

That is true. Could still be true. And, in fact, even if the entire world were experiencing earthquakes, uplifts and sinkings, tsunamis, etc., all at once, there wouldn’t necessarily have been a moment when water was covering all the land on earth all at the same time. On the other hand, there wouldn’t have to be, for events to satisfy the description given in these flood accounts, including the Genesis one. After all, the perspective from which these stories are told, is that of human beings experiencing the flood and associated disasters, not the perspective of an observer looking at the globe from outer space. The mental picture of the whole world sitting under a flat layer of water, while not impossible, is more of a Sunday School stylization of the account, than the actual claim being made.

Buried Beneath a Wave of Mud

In all of these accounts, the flood is sudden, dramatic, and overwhelming, whether or not it is accompanied by other disasters such as earthquake or fire. Even the Genesis account (often simplified to sound like just rain) says “on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened” (Genesis 7:11, NIV).

In a world in which this had happened, we should expect to find the remains of plants and animals that had been instantly buried under huge waves of mud and essentially frozen in time. And that is exactly what we do find. Here is the latest example, which was called to my attention by Google within the last month:

dinosaur fossilized while sitting on her eggs

This poor dino mom, if she had been given any warning that she was about to be buried in an oxygen-free environment that would later prove convenient to future paleontologists, would probably have fled or tried to move her eggs to safety. OK, maybe she would have stayed to protect them. But we also find fossil dinos caught in the act of, say, eating prey. We find mammoths apparently flash-frozen with summer plants still in their mouths and/or stomachs. I can’t imagine how that could have come about, but it can’t have been gradual. (Although here are some fish who appear to be frozen in a wave, but the process was a quite different.)

It’s an odd world we live in, guys. I dunno.

Indo-European Phrase of the Week: “Undying Fame”

Occasionally comparative linguists are able not only to reconstruct individual words in Indo-European, but also whole phrases … Probably the most famous such phrase is *klewos ndghwhitom, “imperishable fame.” The most ancient texts in Indo-European languages, such as the Vedic hymns of ancient India, the Homeric epics, the Germanic sagas, and Old Irish praise-poetry, all demonstrate that the perpetuation of the fame of a warrior or king was of critical importance to early Indo-European society. The preservation of their fame was in the hands of poets, highly skilled and highly paid professionals, who acted both as the repositors and the transmitters of the society’s oral culture.

The phrase *klewos ndghwhitom, (where *klewos is a noun built on the root kleu-, “to hear,” and can be thought of literally as “what is heard about someone, reputation”) was reconstructed on the basis of the exact equation of Greek kleos aphthiton and Sanskrit sravah aksitam. …

Not surprisingly, “fame” is a recurring element in Indo-European personal names. The name of the Greek poet Sophocles meant “famed for wisdom”; the German name Ludwig means “famed in battle”; and the Czech name Bohuslav means “having the fame (glory) of God.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-Europeans Roots, 3rd ed., p. 44

Now, let’s look at this same concept running strongly throughout Beowulf, an epic that is written in Anglo-Saxon, but set in Denmark before some of the Danes left there for England:

The Almighty granted him renown. Beowulf, son of Scyld, became famous in Denmark, and his fame spread everywhere. Thus, while still under his father’s protection, a young prince should by his goodness and generous gifts so manage affairs that later on his companions may give him support and his people their loyalty in time of war. For among all peoples it is only through those actions which merit praise that a man may prosper. (page 27)

Beowulf: “They tell me that in his vainglory the monster is contemptuous of weapons. Therefore, as I wish to keep the good opinion of my lord Hygelac, I propose to dispense with any kind of sword or shield during the combat. Foe against foe, I shall fight the fiend to the death with my bare hands. Whichever of us is killed must resign himself to the verdict of God. … If I am killed in combat, send to Hygelac the coat of mail which I am wearing. For it is the best corselet in the world, the work of Weland Smith, and an heirloom that once belonged to my grandfather Hrethel. Fate must decide.” (page 37)

By the close of that bloody fight the wish of all the Danes was fulfilled. It was thus that the resolute, cool-headed man who had come from a distant land purged Hrothgar’s hall and defended it from attack. The Geat prince rejoiced in his night’s work. For he had made good his boast to the Danes and put right their trouble … When the hero set up the talon, arm, and shoulder — Grendel’s entire grasp — under the great gables of Heorot, the evidence spoke for itself. (page 46)

Hrothgar to Beowulf: “By your exploits you have established your fame for ever. May God reward you with good fortune, and He has done up to now.” (page 49)

“Venerable king, do not grieve. It is better for a man to avenge his friend than to mourn him long. We must all expect an end to life in this world; let him who can win fame before death, because that is a dead man’s best memorial.” (page 60)

Beowulf, trans. David Wright, Penguin Classics

Time-Words in Fiction

Photo by Kris Schulze on Pexels.com

How do you handle expresssions of time when writing about a preindustrial culture that does not use our time divisons?

Not that Preindusrial People Are Unaware of Time …

I’m not meaning to imply that people in preindustrial cultures take no notice of time. This is a notion, sometimes asserted, that goes with the romantic “noble savage” idea that because hunter-gatherers live closer to the earth, they necessarily live a “simpler” life, comparatively free from worries, cares, and conflict. See The Gods Must Be Crazy, the Wild Yam Question, and many others.

In fact, the earth is trying to kill you, so people who live close to the earth have plenty of survival-related worries (besides the usual human sin problem that did not first arise with industrialization). Farmers have to pay detailed attention to months and seasons, as do hunters, who also have to be concerned with times of day. So, no, there are no “time-free” people. In fact, there have been many ancient cultures that were very, very concerned with calendars. See Stonehenge, above, which was apparently a computer for predicting eclipses, and the Maya, who could be fairly said to be obsessed with dates.

But, Seriously, How Do You Deal with Time?

But, of course, it makes no sense to have a hunter-gatherer culture going around talking about the months by the names we give them. Let alone the days of the week, although if you follow Genesis, people have always known that days come in sevens and one day is for rest. Talk of seconds and minutes is even more of an atmosphere killer when it comes to verisimilitude.

Sci-fi writers can make up their own time divisions or draw on terms from sci-fi convention: clicks, parsecs, light-years, cycles, and no, I don’t know what most of these words mean really. They are fun, though. Perhaps in the comments you can enlighten me.

Anyway, here is how I deal with time. I didn’t spend a lot of … you-know-what … thinking about this when I first started drafting. I became more aware of it as my characters moved more into a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. You will still occasionally see the word, for example, “hours” crop up in my books. But when it would not take too much rewriting to get rid of modern time-words, here is what I use:

  • I don’t talk about specific months by name. Rather, I talk about seasons. (Early spring, midwinter, etc.) (However, if you are interested, my character Ikash’s birthday is in April and Hyuna’s birthday is right around Christmas.)
  • I do sometimes mention months in a generic sense, because everyone is aware of lunar months. I don’t say “moons,” because that sounds … well, I just feel like saying “moons” is a minefield.
  • It has never been necessary for me to mention weeks, either.
  • For “minute,” I try to use “moment,” which is less specific and technical sounding.
  • I use “a few beats” instead of “a few seconds.”
  • Nanoseconds, for some reason, have never come up.

Ways to Say “There Is”

It might seem like a boring phrase, but it’s absolutely essential for every language. And, when you start learning a language, it’s often among the first phrases you learn.

  • English: There is. In some dialects, It’s as in “It’s an accident on I-90.”
  • German: Es gibt. Literally, “It gives.”
  • French: Il y a. Literally, “He yuh ah.”
  • Spanish: Hay. Pronounced “ay.”
  • Latin: Est. Literally, “is.” And now, for some island Southeast Asian languages …
  • Indonesian: Ada.
  • Ngaju language: Tege.
  • Siang language: Oko.

There, wasn’t that interesting, actually? Those are all the ones I know. Do you know any more? Leave them in the comments.

Scary Thing: Bears

A Terrifying Bear Attack

So, this month I finally watched The Revenant. (It’s been out since 2015.)

The way the movie usually gets summarized is, “Leonardo DiCaprio’s character gets mauled by a bear, and his companions leave him for dead.”

Well, they don’t exactly leave him for dead. There is a lot of back and forth. There is money involved, and racial tensions, plus the difficulty of carrying a grievously injured man through rough country on a litter. But yes, basically, he does end up getting left for dead at some point, after efforts have been made to save him (and other efforts to finish him off).

Anyway, after watching, the big question in my mind was the same as in everyone else’s after seeing the movie: How in the world did they film the scene where he gets mauled by a bear?

It looks really real. I have embedded a YouTube clip of it at the end of this section, which you can watch if you have the stomach for it. At one point, the bear steps on the supine man’s head, stretches its neck forward, and snuffles directly at the camera. The glass fogs up from its breath.

Please tell me they didn’t use a real bear.

The first step, of course, was to study the credits carefully. Let’s see … Native American and First Nations acting agency … thanks to the Pawnee and Arikara nations … cultural consultants …. this stuff is fascinating. (One thing I loved about the movie was that subtitles, not dubbing, were used whenever characters were speaking Arikara, Pawnee, or French.) Oh, here it is. Animal wranglers. Wolves supplied by. Horses supplied by. Eagle supplied by. Hmm. There were no actual bears mentioned, but there were “animal puppeteers” and tons of animators.

It looks like it wasn’t a real bear.

Next step: Google. I found this article, where I learned that no, it wasn’t a real bear. It was a man in a blue suit. Even so, it took them four days just to shoot the six-minute scene, and then the bear’s muscles, skin, and fur had to be animated in separate layers.

The other disturbing thing was this: the only reason they didn’t use a real bear, was that captive bears nowadays are all too fat to be realistic.

I think that was a good move on their part.

Watch it if you dare.

Yes, in some ways the violent and unscrupulous humans are scarier, but actually … no. They are not. The scariest thing is the bear.

Euphemisms for Bear

It may surprise you to learn that the English word bear is not actually the original Indo-European word. It is a euphemism. The word used by the Indo-European ancestors, on the Ukrainian plains, was something like hrtko. My Indo-European dictionary explains in a sidebar:

The Proto-Indo-European word for “bear,” rtko-, was inherited in Hittite hartaggash, Sanskrit rksah, Greek arktos, Latin ursus, and Old Irish art.

But in the northern branches [of the Indo-European language family], the word has undergone taboo replacement. The names of wild animals are often taboo to hunters … Among the new expressions for “bear” were “the good calf” in Irish, “honey pig” in Welsh, “honey eater” in Russian, and “the licker” in Lithuanian. English “bear” and its other German cognates are also the result of taboo replacement, as etymologically they mean “the brown one.” (see bher-)

The American Heritage dictionary of Indo-European Roots, p. 74

(In case any linguistics purists are reading this, I should note that important diacritic marks are missing from the Indo-European, Hittite, and Sanskrit words in this quote.)

We can imagine that there were a number of terrifying attacks behind this taboo replacement. Or perhaps there was just one, well- (or horribly-) timed one, early in the northern Indo-Europeans’ journey towards their eventual homelands.

So, here are some euphemisms for bear:

  • bear/bruin (“the brown one”)
  • Beowulf (“bee-wolf”)
  • Medved (“honey eater”) (honey = mead)

In my books, the family ends up calling bears “the bad one.”

I like bears. But only as an idea. As actual creatures, they have earned their place on this October’s list of … Scary Things.

Giants II

Photo by NEOSiAM 2020 on Pexels.com

Welcome to October, month of Halloween! Every Friday, we will discuss scary things. This week’s scary thing is giants, and specifically the proper use of the word cannibalism.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post arguing that in both ancient history and folklore, giants are more horror creature than fantasy creature. Part of the reason for this is that they eat people. My question for you is, Can we properly call them cannibals?

But first, a detour about eating blood

In my second book, The Strange Land, the people group whose adventures I am following (I think of them as “my” people) tell stories of giants who eat people and animals indiscriminately. Their euphemism for them is “blood eaters.”

Some religions have a taboo on “eating meat with the blood still in it.” In Indonesia, there is a special word for such meat. If you want to eat, say, a chicken, the word for the animal and the meat is ayam. But that’s only if the bird has been killed properly and bled out. If these rules have not been followed, it is ayam bangkai, which translates as “chicken carrion” or “corpse chicken.” If you are a devout Muslim, you would not eat meat without knowing that it has been butchered in the proper manner. Otherwise, you could accidentally defile yourself by eating ayam bangkai or some other kind of bangkai.

Obviously, this rule goes way back, at least to Leviticus:

“Any Israelite or any alien living among them who eats any blood — I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from his people. For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. Therefore I say to the Israelites, ‘None among you may eat blood, nor may an alien living among you eat blood.’

“Any Israelite or any alien living among you who hunts any animal or bird that may be eaten must drain out the blood and cover it with earth, because the life of every creature is its blood.”

Leviticus 17:10 – 14

There is a similar passage in Deuteronomy 12:23.

Here in Leviticus, God gives two reasons for the taboo on blood-eating. First of all, the blood is important to the sacrificial system that He had set up for the Israelites. “I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar.” This blood was a key part of God’s solution for dealing with the people’s sins. Obviously, to eat such a thing for mere physical nourishment would be to take lightly the evil in one’s own people, family, and heart, and to disrespect the sacrificial system and, by extension, the One who set it up. Note that God does not expect the other nations, to whom He has not yet given this sacrificial system, to abstain from blood, unless an individual foreigner happens to be living among the Israelites, and therefore presumably learning about and also benefiting from that system.

The other reason, which seems to be implied here, is that eating or drinking an animal’s blood shows disrespect for the creature itself. “The life of every creature is its blood.” Even when out hunting, and not bringing an animal for sacrifice, He tells them to bleed out the body and to cover the blood with earth, as if to symbolically give the animal a proper burial before we take it home and eat it.

Apparently, avoiding eating an animal’s blood is the respectful, civilized, human thing to do. This is very different from the usual picture we are given of ancient people, where they club something in the field and then tear right into it with their teeth.

I have described elsewhere how Genesis 6:1 – 4 tells of spiritual beings interbreeding with human women, producing a race of giants who terrorized the earth. This would have been before the Flood (and was probably a major reason for the Flood), which makes the time frame very ancient indeed. The extrabiblical book of 1 Enoch tells us,

“and when the people were not able to sustain them [with agriculture], the giants dared (to attack) them, and they devoured the people. And they began to sin with birds and wild animals and reptiles and fish, and to devour one another’s (!) flesh, and drink blood.” (I Enoch 7:2 – 6, quoted in Giants by Doug Van Dorn, p. 60)

This horrifying practice was apparently common knowledge even as “recently” as the time of the Exodus, which is still ancient history but is now within the realm of recorded history, not just dim memories. When the Israelites arrived on the border of the land of Canaan, having escaped from Egypt, Joshua sent twelve men to spy out the land. They came back and reported “it is a land that devours its inhabitants” (Numbers 13:32 -33). That’s why they were so scared. Even after having seen God’s ability to deliver them from the merely human inhabitants of Egypt, they recommended not entering the promised land for their own safety.

I am not arguing that the Biblical taboo on eating blood was given because the giants ate blood. I see it in reverse: eating blood — like eating people, like bestiality — was just one of many obvious and intuitive taboos in ordinary human morality which the giants either were unable to perceive or perversely sought to break.

This picture of giants as somehow paranormal and as eating humans and/or drinking their blood is well attested in world folklore. Polyphemus, the cyclops who captures Odysseus and his men in the Odyssey, will literally pick up a human and eat him alive. And he’s not hunting them like animals. He is fully aware that the sailors he has captured are persons and can talk, and he doesn’t care. He likes Odysseus, and so promises to eat him last.

Beyond Polyphemus, Van Dorn points out in his book that cultures all around the world have stories about paranormal creatures that seek to drink human blood, though they are not always portrayed as giants.

About the word “cannibal”

Surely, cannibalism has to be one of the last taboos. Even if you have been exposed to the concept before, it never seems to lose its shock value. (“Soylent Green is people!!!“)

On the other hand, the idea of a giant eating people, I believe has lost its shock value, though maybe it shouldn’t have. We associate it with fairy tales. After all, how scary can a character be if he lives in the clouds and goes around saying Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum?

To recover the shock value, I propose using the term “cannibal giants.” But there’s a problem. Technically, cannibalism means eating your own kind. Technically, these giants aren’t human. So, is this hyperbole only slightly less serious than that committed by every earnest 13-year-old vegetarian who calls her parents “cannibals” for eating something was that once sentient?

I argue no, for two reasons. For one thing, giants are clearly humanoid. They look like people (more or less). In Genesis, they have human mothers. Critically, like Polyphemus, they can talk. If they were less human-y, it wouldn’t make sense to call them cannibal. We would call them man-eating, like a man-eating tiger, which would still be scary, but not as much so, because it would be done more innocently somehow.

Secondly, the word cannibal actually has two subtly distinct senses. One, indeed, is the idea of eating one’s own kind. So we can say chickens or spiders are cannibals, or we can talk about someone cannibalizing their own ideas. But the other meaning is just eating people, who are a thing which should not be eaten, and I think this its primary meaning. Once that line has been crossed, humanity itself is now somehow defiled. We have been shown that it’s possible to think of people not as sacred bearers of the image of God, irreplaceable individuals, eternal embodied souls … but as a substance. A food source. We are being invited to change the way we view ourselves and our fellow humans, and this is true whether that ancient taboo is being broken by actual humans, or just by creatures that look sort of human and can talk and, frankly, ought to know better.

Neither one is great.

So I am going to go ahead and call these giants cannibals.