York Festival of Ideas

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been very busy!  It’s been the Festival of Ideas which is an amazing array of talks, lectures and workshops, the majority of which are free and accessible.  It’s my idea of heaven and came with a book stall…  What more could you want?!?!

There were many interesting topics and I thought an intriguing way to share my experience would be to share titbits from each lecture.

The Magic of Numbers
Children learn number words before they learn the concept and they learn the concept of numbers before the digital representations.  The step after that is comparing numbers but you can see that even just the initial process is quite complicated and I find it amazing that such young children are able to acquire the knowledge as quickly as they do.

Disposing of mass murderers
What happens when mass murderers die?  Should they be entitled to a funeral like everyone else?  Should their wishes be respected even if they violate the wishes of the victims families?  Are the remains of mass murderers toxic, and if so why, and who is toxic and who is not?

Whilst this talk did look at some specifics, the wider questions it raised were very interesting.

The Science of Sin
Why do we do the things we know we shouldn’t?  An interesting kick off example was that we don’t touch ovens because we get instantly burnt, we how many of us go without suncream and later pay the price?

On a smaller scale, each of the 7 sins aren’t that bad and can even be helpful, but anything taken to the extreme seems to turn out awfully… Take pride, it can be a healthy dose of self confidence, or it can be narcassism.  Envy can motivate you to raise yourself up, but can also lead you to tear someone else down.

Write what you wonder
Tackling the idea that you should write what you know, this workshop asked us to look at the world through a lens of wonder, of curiosity and of childlikeness.  Look at what is under the surface.  Be an explorer.  Be open.  Be uncertain.

Love Factually: The science of who, how and why we love
Laura Mucha turned to science in a quest to understand love it all it’s many forms, be it lust, romantic love or companionate love.  She unpicked the idea of love as an object – “the one” – and turned it into a skill that requires us to work at it.

The Gendered Brain?
The myth that there is a female brain was tossed out in this talk, in fact all brains are different and because they are plastic, they are always changing.  Our environment shapes our brains and our brains shape our environment.

Whilst there is no female brain, there are brains that have been moulded by society’s ideas of gender and what women are and aren’t good at.  If you give a girl a test and tell her that it’s ok if she doesn’t do well because girls are bad at the topic, then she will perform worse than if you hadn’t said anything.

This is important because society has scripts for gender and children seek to understand and perform these (on the whole).  They become aware of gender from birth to 2 years old, they detect gender and align themselves with their gender between 2 and 5 and from 5 to 15 they start to or continue to comply with this gender script.  With this in mind, it is so important that we start to unpick and break down the scripts and stereotypes and roles that permeate our society.

Nine Pints: The mysterious, miraculous world of blood
Blood is fascinating.  It is priceless.  And yet it is also disgusting.  Especially if it’s menstrual blood… If it’s blood being donated then it’s the gift of life.  If it comes from a vagina, then at best it tends to be considered dirty, at worst, toxic and contaminated.

Unseen, blood keeps you alive.  Seen, it signals a problem.

The Wonder of Trees
Trees teach us that everything is connected.  They teach us respect and cooperation.  They give and give and we take and take.  Not just the wood that makes their trunks, but the oxygen they give out, the food they provide, the medicines that they create.  And we take and we take.

We plant rows of trees, uniform, in plantations.  But these are not wild trees.  They will not talk to each other, care for each other and nurture each other like a wild forest.

In a naturally grown wood, the trees communicate, they share resources and they share warnings.  They give each other space to grow, they cross species boundaries and they sacrifice themselves for others.

Trees literally make us healthier.  The air around a tree is cleaner, as the tree absorbs pollutants.  Studies have shown that time around trees improves our attention span, our memory and makes us heal more quickly.

When you can, take the time to say hello to a tree, get to know it, and thank it.

Advertisements

Rainbows in culture

Part one and two

Having seen in previous blog posts that rainbows are not universally seen positively, it may not be so much of a shock to find that even within Europe, views have been divisive.

“Rainbow superstitions in Britain and Ireland reveal an ambivalence that is difficult to synthesize or explain.”
– The Penguin Guide to the Supersitions of Britain and Ireland, Steve Roud

Modern beliefs tend to be positive – make a wish on a rainbow, the pot of gold etc – but others are darker, with Scotland and Ireland having a pessimistic view.  A rainbow over a house was thought to be a sign of death.  Some people believe that it is unlucky to point at the moon and the stars and this extended to rainbows as well.

IMG_20190328_181747.jpg

Rainbows are an obvious choice for poetry and it doesn’t take long to find some wonderful lines:

“Be thou the rainbow to the storms of life!”
– Lord Byron

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!”
– William Wordsworth

Similarly, rainbows have featured in art for many many years, right back to 2000-4000 BCE.  However, painting a rainbow was not without controversy.  For a lot of history, there was an idea that rainbows were unpaintable and to attempt one “was often a self-conscious act of mastery – or even of hubris – and was usually seen as such by the contemporaries of those artists who dared to try.” (MacCannell)

Flags are another common place to find rainbows, most famously in the LGBT+ flag.  The original flag had eight colours:

  • Hot pink for sexuality
  • Red for life
  • Orange for healing
  • Yellow for sunlight
  • Green for nature
  • Turquoise for magic and art
  • Indigo for serenity
  • Violet for spirit

Turquoise and hot pink were removed by 1979 for cost reasons.

Rainbows have also been used to symbolise peace and unity.  Since 1921, a rainbow flag has been used to represent the international cooperative movement, with each colour having a meaning.

Today we tend to see rainbows as a scientifically understood phenomena, as awe-inspiring and as kitsch.  To minimise the depth of the rainbow and see them in an emoticon kind of way is to miss out on so much of this incredibly wonder of the natural world.  Rainbows should inspire you to stop, to stare and to wonder.  Perhaps instead of thinking them as light diffracted through a raindrop, we should think of them as miracles drawn on the sky, just for us.  After all, they are uniquely experienced and that is a gift, personalised just for you.

IMG_20190331_131221.jpg

Resources

Rainbows and mythology

Part one

Rainbows feature in a variety of types of myth, and starting with end of the world myths we find rainbows popping up in a number of seemingly disconnected cultures, including northern India, parts of Canada and Argentina.

In Judeo-Christian lore, the rainbow is associated the flood.  After the flood, God set his bow in the clouds as a “token of covenant”.  In medieval Christianity, they were depicted in art showing the apocalypse as well as as a bow (a weapon, not gift wrapping). This rainbow as a bow concept was the case elsewhere in the world, with the Sanskrit word for rainbow literally meaning ‘the bow of Indra’ (one of the Hindu gods).

“The English language cannot describe a rainbow without reference to [the bow]: the ‘bow-ness’ of the bow intractably, implausibly, indestructibly remains.”
– Daniel MacCannell

IMG_20190325_210945.jpg

Elsewhere in the world, the rainbow has been seen as part of a deity, such as a mythical belt, a necklace and so on.  Rainbows as cosmic architectures, such as those in the Norse myths, are also well known but there is also the rainbow pathway that the goddess Iris uses to move between the mortal and the heavenly worlds.

“Among the American tribes, as well as among the Aryans, the rainbow and the Milky-Way have contributed the idea of a Bridge of the Dead, over which souls must pass on the way to the other world.”
Myths and Myth-Makers, John Fiske (1873 hence language used)

Another way we can see rainbows in myth is as rainbow beings such as the snake-monster from the Mbuti people of the Democratic Republic of Congo – a man killer that creates catastrophes and generally inspires terror.  Another terrifying rainbow creature is the serpent Magalim from New Guinea who causes madness and malaria when not busy swallowing people.  Dangerous rainbow serpents can also be found in South America, including the Panare from Venezuela who use the same word to mean both rainbow and were-anaconda…

There is also the rainbow snake found in Aboriginal Australian mythology and that brings us onto the unexpected subject of dragons

Some historians suggest a link between rainbows and dragons and this is investigated in depth by Robert Blust.  He says that the dragon is the end point of a developing concept which began with rainbows and moved through the rainbow serpent to become the dragons we are more familiar with today, especially those from china.  But this link may seem counter intuitive when seen through a Western lens:

“Within the Judeo-Christian tradition the rainbow is the bow of the covenant, a sign of divine promise and hope; by contrast the dragon is a sinister relic of the pre-Christian past.”
– Robert Blust

The rainbow serpent is a giant snake whose body arches like a rainbow across the sky.  They are associated with the gift of blood, controlling the circulation of blood as well as menstrual cycles.

“The rainbow is most commonly represented in one of four ways:

As a celestial bow

As a bridge between heaven and earth

As a belt, scarf or other article of apparel of a deity

As a giant snake.

By far the most common view is that the rainbow is a giant snake which either drinks water from the Earth and sprays it over the sky (this causing it to rain), or that drinks from the sky (causing it to stop).”
– Blust

It is easy to lean into this idea given that rainbows are often associated with the beginning or end of a rain shower.  As our ancestors sought to explain and understand the world around them, natural phenomena were often personified and given the shape of a rainbow, a serpent is an obvious choice.  Understanding the rainbow as a giant snake, it’s not too far of a leap to see why it might have developed into a dragon, especially the more serpentine Chinese dragons.

Resources

Rainbows, a colourful history

Note, this is part one of three as it turned into a rather long post…  Later posts will look at mythology and superstitions around rainbows.

If you follow me on Instagram you may have noticed an abundance of rainbows.  I’m doing a little photo project that was sparked as a result of a gorgeous rainbow selection of tea and a day where I saw multiple rainbows, including one that seemed like we were driving through the base of it – spoiler, there was no gold, no leprechauns, just one Irish carer…

IMG_20190402_201135.jpg

Anyway, alongside that project, I wanted to find out more about how rainbows feature in cultures and how they have been used symbolically, as well as how our understanding of rainbows has changed over time.

One of the things I love about rainbows is how people still view them with awe and how they can bring smiles to tired faces.

If you want to know more about how rainbows are formed, then the Met Office has some brief, easy to understand information.  One of the things I love is that conditions must be just right for a rainbow to be seen, and that feels very special to me.

  • The sun needs to be behind the viewer
  • The sun needs to be low in the sky, at an angle of less than 42° above the horizon. The lower the sun in the sky the more of an arc of a rainbow the viewer will see
  • Rain, fog or some other source of water droplets must be in front of the viewer

Another aspect of rainbows is that no one can see the same one, even if someone is standing next to you, they will not see the exact rainbow you see.  This combined with the specific conditions necessary to create one makes it feel like seeing a rainbow is a personal gift.

“The rainbow that a cloudspotter sees standing in one position is never the same as that observed from another one.  The droplets that are over in the direction of the arc – perhaps a half to one and a half miles away – each sparkle a bit of sunlight into his eyes.  From the drops that fall through the sky off in some directions, it is the yellow-looking part of the spectrum that twinkles at the cloudspotter.  From those in other directions, it is the violet, etc.  This means that, should the observer change position, different raindrops will be the ones sparkling at him.  Hopefully, this will help cloudspotters accept that it is a futile and, frankly humiliating aspiration to seek the end of a rainbow.”
– The Cloudspotter’s Guide, Gavin Pretor-Pinney

Today we tend to think of rainbows having seven colours, we may remember them through a mnemonic like Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain, but the number is actually arbitrary and has changed over time.  Research suggests that the number of colours seen is about the language that person uses, if a language has fewer colour words then they will see fewer colours.

IMG_20190401_202851.jpg

As far back as 3rd to 2nd century BCE, people were trying to describe the rainbow but Aristotle was the first to give a complete description and he identified three colours.  The idea of there being three colours was justified in a number of ways including the three stages of events (beginning, middle and end), the three dimensions of space and the use of the number three in the worship of gods.

Later Newton would claim there were five colours, namely red, yellow, green, blue and violet but he would go on to add orange and indigo.  This created a seven colour scale analogous to the notes in a musical scale.  Despite this being the accepted idea today, it was considered heretical at the time.    Newton would also suggest that all of the colours of the rainbow are found in white light, a concept which provides a great metaphor for humanity.

In my next post I’ll be looking at how rainbows feature in mythology.

Resources

Pigs: beliefs and attitudes

“Pigs in their various forms, from wild boar to domesticated swine, are extremely ambivalent figures in myth, sacred in some contexts, demonic in others, or (in the paradoxical manner so common to magical tales) both revered and shunned at the same time. The pig as a sacred animal seems to belong to the early goddess religions, about which our knowledge is far from complete — but carvings and other artifacts found all across what is now western Europe indicate that the pig was an aspect of the Great Goddess, associated with fertility, the moon, and the season cycles of life and death.”
Terri Windling

The history of pigs and humans is long, intertwined and full of conflict.  As a result, our beliefs, stories and folklore around the pig is very varied.  They have been symbols of wealth and status, as well as derided as animals of dirt and filth.  Perhaps the best known belief around pigs is that certain religions denounce eating them.

Why the pig is seen as taboo seems to be a much debated idea with few certainties and many suggestions.  One of these being that it was because pigs were dirty and they ate refuse.  A first century Jewish writer, Philo of Alexandria, apparently said that pigs were lazy scavengers who would eat human corpses given the chance.  As both the embodiment of vice and potentially having eaten humans, pigs were thus unfit for human consumption.

Whilst no one seems quite sure why pork was forbidden, the kind of meat you ate, or didn’t, could at various points in history get you killed.  The Spanish Inquisition was one such point in time and not eating pork could mark you out as a traitor.  To try and combat this, people would keep pigs but not eat them, or cook pork like food to try and throw off suspicions.

Elsewhere in time and space, pigs were important sources of food as they were economical to raise.  It was possibly because of this that they were popular with peasants, another possible reason for certain groups of society to refuse to eat them.

Pigs were also important in ritual, although not in ancient Egypt where pigs were considered unworthy sacrifices to the gods, with the exception of the Moon and Dionysus.  In ancient Greece, piglets were sacrificed to the gods and men swore oaths on boar testicles.  Likewise, they were important in Roman sacrifices.  Pliny the Elder had some interesting thoughts on pigs, noting their intelligence and observing that a pig whose tail curls to the right hand side are more likely to appease the gods in a sacrifice…

In China we also see the importance of the pig.  It is thought that the pig was the first domesticated animal there which may explain its place of power.  Between 4700 and 2900BC pigs had ritual importance and the dead (humans) were buried with jade or ceramic pig figures as a symbol of status.  Pigs remain important to the Chinese economy and culture and apparently, the mandarin character for family and home is represented by a pig inside a house.  The pig is also one of the Chinese zodiac animals and is associated with fertility and virility.

For the Kaulong people of Papua New Guinea, pigs are important both physically and symbolically.  They are sacrificed and their meat is shared in ceremonial displays such as for a child’s first tooth eruption, as part of male initiation rituals, to mark female puberty and for marriages and deaths.

For some interesting folklore titbits, I return closer to home with what I believe are British or European beliefs about pigs:

  • They were associated with weather in folklore and it was said that they could see the wind approaching and would let you know by rushing around with straw in their mouths.
  • Fishermen considered them a bad omen and wouldn’t go to sea if they saw one.
  • It was bad luck for a bride to see a pig on her way to the church.
  • To kill a certain (but varied) number of pigs, then the devil may appear, sometimes even in pig form. And if a devilish pig were to bite you, it was said you’d get cancer.
  • Confusingly though, pork soup was a remedy for many things and pigs blood could cure warts.
  • If, however, you ate pig brains then you’d lose control of what you said.

Turning to literature, we find some pigs that do their best to break the stereotypes of the species.  There is babe from Dick King Smith’s Sheep pig who overcomes people’s perceptions of the pig as stupid.  Instead of bulling the sheep into action, he politely asks them instead.  There is piglet from winnie the pooh who is a timid, scared little pig who overcomes his worries and fears repeatedly throughout the tales.  There is the pig in charlotte’s web saves the farm.  And of course there are many more.  Some who fit the stereotypical ideas of pigs, and some who defy them.

In language however, we still find the idea of pigs as dirty, lazy and smelly emphasised.  We talk of pigging out, being pleased as a pig in muck, we call people pig ignorant and tell them to get their snout out of things.  We repeat the old adage you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear but we also talk of globetrotters, although for most of us, an image of the well travelled pig doesn’t spring straight to mind.

Talking of language and how the word pig has come to mean much more than a four legged animal, pigs have been used in a derogatory way for hundreds of years to dehumanise certain groups of people, including Jews.  In late medieval Germany, a condemned Jew was led to execution wrapped in pig skin and in some executions, the victims were hung upside down, by the legs in the same manner as the pigs who were hung alongside them.  Commenting on the dehumanisation of minorities, Boria Sax observed:

“Those who wished to brutalise and slaughter other people… would find it psychologically easier if they thought of their victims as swine.”

And finally, we talk of piggy banks, despite them having very little to do with pigs.  The Middle English word pygg referred to a type of clay used to make jars, such as those jars you would keep money in.  Over the years it has become piggy bank and thus we find the pig shaped ones we know today.

Useful resources:

Animal divination

There are many different ways that animals can, and have been, used in divination.  Whilst today we are probably most familiar with animal imagery on oracle and tarot cards, as well as symbolically in astrology, they have been used in a variety of ways:

  • Babylonians studied the reaction of sleeping oxen to having their heads splashed with water.
  • The Hittites watched eels.
  • Dogon, a west African tribe examined paw patterns left by jackals.
  • Polynesian tribal leaders coaxed a beetle to crawl over a murder victim’s grave to reveal the murders name.
  • Plato and Aristotle believed the divinatory insights to be tied to the animals instincts and the stoics considered divination as a way of understanding the world and their role within it.
  • Alectromancy uses cocks or hens to make predictions and tradition states that it should be done when the sun or moon are in Aries or Leo.
  • Felidomancy considers the actions, behaviour and movements of cats.
  • Apantomancy looks at chance meetings with animals, such as the familiar black cat crossing your path, for omens.
  • Myrmonancy discerns the future through observing ants eating food.

Essentially, as far as I can tell, there is a kind of divination that involves virtually any animal that we have contact with.  And that makes a lot of sense.  For our ancestors, and arguably still today, the world was a chaotic, confusing and dangerous place.  It is only natural to try and seek some order, some insight or some guidance to cope with that and where better to turn than the plants and animals that are all around us.  Whilst I’m focusing on animals today, there are many traditions which look to plants for divination – just think of how we view four leaved clovers.

It seems to be that most animal divination falls into one of a few categories; the consideration of the behaviour of the animal, the investigation of organs or other body parts of deceased animals (sometimes killed as a sacrifice), and what the animal leaves behind (tracks, excrement, shells etc).

There is absolutely no way a blog post can cover an extensive look at different methods of animal divination but I would like to focus in on a few.

Today, we snap wishbones but Etruscans believed that birds could tell the future and it’s easy to see how this can be understood; a chicken squawks before the appearance of an egg, a rooster crows just before the new day.  Another method of divination was to sprinkle grain in the ground and see where the hen pecked.  Bird migrations were another way to get a glimpse into the future.

The Etruscans also practiced haruspicy which would eventually make its way to ancient Rome.  This is where a trained person read the entrails of animals such as sheep or poultry and deciphered omens in them to answer yes or no to an enquirer.  The animal would have been ritually slaughtered as a sacrifice, butchered and then the size, shape, colour and markings of the organs (mostly the liver) were examined.  The meat was roasted and shared in a sacred meal.  This dates back to at least 3000 BC and was adopted by the Romans, and was popular with Christians and pagans into the middle ages.  Today, due to issues with slaughtering animals, eggs are often used instead.

Diagram of the sheep’s liver found near Piacenza with Etruscan inscriptions on the bronze sheep’s Liver of Piacenza

Moving to China, we find scapulimancy and plastromancy used to answer questions about crops, war, weather and so on.  In the former, ox bones were used and in the latter it was turtle shells.  In both practices however, questions were carved into the bone or shell and a hot rod was applied to it until it cracked.  The crack patterns would then reveal the answers.  They also sometimes used deer, ox and human skulls in divination.

Slightly aside from divination, animals also appear around the world as amulets and talismans.

“Since the earliest times, animal images have been employed as totems and mascots.  They have also been used in a number of special ways as protective amulets, and this ancient custom is still alive and widespread today.  The animal kingdom offers such a variety of symbolism that there are endless ways in which animal images can be called upon to perform protective duties.”
– Desmond Morris

Scarab beetles have been used as lucky charms.  Rabbits foots, whilst no longer used, are still something we associate with luck.  The beckoning cat from japan is still sold and displayed in vast numbers as protective figures.  Doves, as symbols of peace are especially popular during times of war.  Butterflies are touchstones for change.

Even though we no longer cut animals open and inspect the entrails, we still turn to the animal kingdom for comfort and protection.

It’s a pig’s life…

As we’ve already seen, pigs attract some very conflicting opinions and that theme continues.  Despite their reputation as dirty and wallowing in mud, they are clean animals and instead of smelling bad, they have an amazing sense of smell.  They are paradox after paradox!

Pigs are exceptionally intelligent, very inquisitive and highly social animals that actively interact with their environment when given a chance.  This sense of curiosity and their playful, lively nature combine with their brains resulting in excellent problem solving skills.  They are also emotional and have their own personalities:

“Pigs display consistent behavioral and emotional characteristics that have been described variously as personality. e.g., coping styles, response types, temperament, and behavioral tendencies.”
– Lori Marino and Christina M. Colvin

It is, in part, because of their intelligence that we have been able to work with them, such as in truffle hunting.  They use their snout, which is a precise hunting tool, to rustle out the prized truffles in the leaf litter.  They find the gold in the mud.  If you are reading this because an oracle card has come up, then it might be worth thinking about this in more depth.  Are you missing something because it is hidden? Are you working to find the good in bad situations?

Pigs are also able to detect landmines using similar skills.  They have also been used to cheer people up by visiting retirement homes and hospitals, used in therapy and taken into classrooms to help children learn about animals.  According to the American Mini Pig Association:

“Pigs have been recognized by families of children with autism to help with vocalization and calming. Pigs have been known to detect low blood sugar in their owners with diabetes or detect and warn of oncoming seizures. They can ease anxiety and panic attacks and improve the symptoms of depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in some individuals.”

And the benefits aren’t just to humans.  Pigs have been called the gardeners of the forest.  Their natural behaviour means they turn over leaf litter, rotivating and ploughing as they go about their day.  They also help with composting and spreading seeds, all of which are important to the ecosystem.

Finally, apparently I can’t write blog posts these days without diving into sex… So, when it comes to pigs, here’s a few interesting titbits…

  • At one point in recent history, England was exporting fresh and frozen pig seamen to china to be used to improve their stock
  • Boars produce a lot of seminal fluid, on average about 250ml per ejaculate (humans are a mere 2-4ml) and…
  • because of the amount of fluid being transferred, ejaculation alone takes about 15 minutes and the male can’t pull out part way through because…
  • it’s penis is shaped in such a way that after a few thrusts it gets sort of locked in… Only once the act is over, can he easily remove himself.
  • After all this, the sow will give birth three months, three weeks and three days later. I don’t know how spot on that its but the three times three of it pleases me and makes me wonder about the numerological meaning of three!

Useful resources: