Friday, December 18, 2009

A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich

For all of you who a) fell asleep in history class or b) didn't fall asleep but cannot seem to remember if the Crusades came before or after the Spanish Inquisition, this book is for you.

Gombrich's title is exactly what this book is, a little history of the world from the Dark Ages up until just after World War I. The main focus is Western history, notably that of Europe, however, Gombrich spends time flying across the world to Asia so that the reader can understand what was going on during the same time period. The chapters are short and written in a conversational format to a child. However, although this sounds like it would create a contrived tone, this book has been much beloved of adults around the world since its publication.

One of the most pleasant aspects of this book is how Gombrich handles some of the more delicate aspects of history. He doesn't shy away from speaking of the horrors that have been committed by multiple nations (both existing and not). It's difficult not to shake one's head at the things that have been done for power, religion and money. Even sadder is with this compilation of history, it's easy to see how easy history repeats itself.

The artful, story telling way in which this book is written makes it difficult to remember that this isn't a work of fiction. However, only the ardent history buffs will know everything that is presented. For everyone else, surprises abound. It's a great springboard for those who haven't been introduced to some of the turning points in history, and is written in such a way to encourage the reader to seek out more.

Whether you read it to a child, give it to your teenager, or read it yourself, this is a must for anyone wanting to understand a little history of the world.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Pizza Toppings Around the World

Nothing seems to bring the greater portion of the world together than a good pizza. Found in almost every country, whether by the country's design (such as Italy), or by force (such as Scotland), the pizza is a favorite food of many. One of my favorite things to do is to pop my head into the local Pizza Hut or mom and pop pizza shop to find out the toppings of choice. I've been pleasantly surprised at the way different countries (even my own) have managed to integrate their local ingredients as toppings on the pizza. Pizza has come a long way from melted cheeses. Here are some of the items I've experienced on pizza, and some of the toppings that I have yet to try (or maybe stay away from):

Tried and True:
Corn (Scotland- Edinburgh)
Paneer (India - Agra)
Vegetable Tikka (India - Agra)
Marscapone (Italy - Rome)
Arugula (Italy - Rome)
Apples and Sultanas (Canada - Montreal)
Peaches (USA - Michigan)
BBQ Sauce (USA - Michigan)

Other Toppings from Around the World:
Minced Ginger (India)
Mayonnaise (Japan)
Green peas (Brazil)
Eel, squid and other seafood (Japan)
Red Herring (Russia)
Curry (Pakistan)
Coconut (Costa Rica)
Asparagus (Germany)
Fried Eggs (Brazil)
Bananas (Sweden)
Sweet potatoes (Korea)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves by Sarah B. Pomeroy

Pomeroy's book "Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves" was originally published in 1975 and since then has become a standard read for anyone interested in the lives of women in classical antiquity. With a new forward by the author, it was republished in 1995. Where typical books on women in ancient history tend to focus on women in the noble class (where a great deal more of our knowledge rests), Pomeroy takes time to focus on the lesser known, portions of women's lives, that of the wife and slave.

Pomeroy's work starts in the dark ages and travels through the days of the Roman matron.
This is a long timeline to navigate, and Pomeroy does an excellent job of stating when there is a sketchy amount of research on a subject, and stating multiple theories when they exist. She always takes time to draw parallels between her current topic and her previous chapters, especially drawing parallels, and breaking them, between Greece and Rome. At one point, she sums up this difference by saying that Roman women, unlike Greek women, were allowed to attend dinner parties.

The book is clear, concise, and readable for anyone not versed in ancient history or feminist theory, and a wonderful addition to those who are versed in the same old subjects. Pomeroy covers classical marriage contracts (and how to break them), legal and medical texts, women in politics, prostitution, the debate on female infanticide, women as seen in classical literature (by male and female authors), and the importance of religion to woman, especially the cult of Isis.

"Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves" would be a great read for anyone interested in feminist studies, ancient history, or would like to challenge their worldview on the role of women through the ages.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Balkan Heritage Field School

One of the single most important things you can do in order to further your passion is to take a step towards it. With my dream of archaeology and studying the classics under my belt, and a great deal of soul searching, instead I took a step back. Was archaeology something I truly wanted to pursue, or did images of Indiana Jones swim through my head? After quite a bit of research, I decided that a beginning step (and an important one if I decided to pursue archaeology either full time or as a volunteer on digs) was to attend a field school.

There are a lot of options for a field school, depending on the nature of your interests. As I'm primarily interested in Mediterranean archaeology from the Late Bronze Age to the Late Roman Empire, where I would like to go is quite limited. Luckily I stumbled upon the Balkan Heritage Field School.

Established in 2003, the Balkan Heritage Field School is a part of the Balkan Heritage Foundation which is a public, non-governmental, non-profit organization that helps to restore, excavate, educate and protect cultural landmarks. The BHFS happens to have quite a few projects scheduled for 2010, including the one I fell in love with - excavation of Heraclea Lyncestis. This beautiful site still lies mostly hidden from the world, but contains Hellenic, Roman, and Byzantine finds. It was founded in the 4th century by Philip of Macedon and was one of the key trading locations between Asia Minor and Rome.

BCHS was kind enough to accept my application yesterday and I plan on attending next July. What is it about archaeology that makes it such a romanticized profession? In the next six to seven months as my research of the site and culture begins, I look forward to finding out.

To visit the Balkan Heritage Field School's Website, click here.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Art of Complacency

Complacency is an art form, and one that many of us have PhDs in. Every day in the business world, I am bedazzled by the number of people who have taken their dreams, patted them into a nice compact lump, and stuffed them away where they will no longer see the light of day. So many of us start out childhood with a dream of being an astronaut, or a paleontologist. Yet somehow, so many of us end up sitting behind a desk in a standard gray cubicle doing paperwork. When I mentioned to a few co-workers that I am applying for archaeological field school for next summer, the resounding response was one of "I wish I could do that too". My response was, "Well, why don't you?"

Take a moment to jot down those childhood dreams and what you would like to do more than anything. I'm not speaking of your bucket list, but those hidden passions that have died out over the years because they aren't seen as lucrative or safe if you want to raise a family. Yet there are shades of gray that allow everyone to enjoy their passions. Take archaeology for example. You don't have to be an archaeologist as a full time profession, but nothing is stopping you from signing up for a volunteer dig as a type of alternate summer vacation.

There are choices, but first you must start at the beginning and identify those passions. And the first question you should ask yourself is, "If you could do anything in the world, what would you do?"

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Live Like a Hamster in Nantes, France

When I travel, I like to eschew the traditional American idea of staying in a hotel in favor of renting an apartment, or better yet, staying in a bed and breakfast. Bed and breakfasts let me absorb the spirit of a place, taste the flavor of a culture through their cooking, and experience the owners' excitement to show me their city. It's a far cry from a lot of hotels which can seem too clean and where I am just a nameless face.

A hotel in Nantes, France, however, may just change my view on hotels. Focusing on human affection for the cuddly hamster, the owners of this hotel have decided to let their guests experience a different type of flavor: the life of a hamster. Living in a room designed to mimic a hamster cage, guests eat grains, sleep on straw, and even have a wheel to run on. What's more, is guests can participate in all of this activity complete with fuzzy hamster hat.

Check out a short article on the hamster hotel on metro.co.uk here.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The New Seven Wonders of the World...of Nature

In an age where our culture thrives on the ability to take quizzes, vote for their favorites, and ultimately insert our opinion everywhere it is needed (or not), one of the latest, and more interesting polls is on the New Seven Wonders of the World - of nature. On 7.7.2007 in Lisbon, Portugal, Vote7.com unveiled the New Seven Wonders of the World, taken from millions of votes around the world. Due to its success, the newest New Seven Wonders of the World is underway, this time focusing on natural phenomenon. The finalists have been chosen, and those who visit the site are urged to vote for their top seven which range from the Matterhorn (or Cervino as it is known to the Italians) to the Galapagos Islands, many of the sites you will have heard of, and many you may not. For those that are a mystery, more information is offered on each finalist in order to bring you up to speed. A ranking system allows you to see which finalists are gaining ground, losing ground and holding their own. The only downside of the system is In order for your vote to count, you must register on the site. Whether or not you believe that this is news in the making, or a publicity stunt, the site is certainly interesting to look at. Furthermore, this site offers a reminder of how many beautiful places there truly are in the world, and should inspire you to pack your bags and set out to visit all of them.

Vote for your choices of The New Seven Wonders of the World of Nature here.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Samurai Sword Fighting Makes a Comeback in Japan

One of the latest crazes to hit Japanese natives and tourists alike isn't new at all, but the ancient art of samurai sword fighting. For 12,000 yen, you too can take a course in Tokyo where you will learn to wield a sword by the sensei who not only appeared in "Kill Bill Vol.1" but also choreographed the fight scenes for film, training the movie's two biggest names: Lucy Liu and Uma Thurman. If the world can embrace the ancient art of samurai sword fighting (even as only a form of exercise), can Spartan warrior classes be far behind?

Read Metro.co.uk's article here.
Or see the cultural section of the See Japan website here.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sirena by Donna Jo Napoli

Sirena, the narrator of Donna Jo Napoli's young adult book "Sirena", longs for what her sisters want - immortality, and she is told that the only way to obtain it is by loving a man and having him love her in return. Unfortunately Sirena carries a terrible curse. Half fish and half human, she and her mermaid sisters are oddities to humans and fish alike, not fitting well in either world. What's more is as a siren, her beautiful voice can captivate and enchant a man forever, but since her and her sisters live within the rocky crags near Crete, her voice also spells their doom. Sadly, in Sirena's world, most of the silly sea-faring humans are unable to swim, so even if their boat crashes near a hospitable island, they drown in the salty waters, their last vision of land and the beautiful creatures that lured them there.

Unhappy with her lot in life, Sirena strikes out on her own one day and happens upon an injured young human male being left by his shipmates on the deserted island of Lesbos. Bitten by a sea serpent, the man is dying and Sirena nurses him back to life, and falls in love with the process. This is a tragic tale of love, and the reader knows that their love cannot last forever, however it is that tragic love that tugs at our inner longings to find love in unexpected places and hope that all will turn out for our heroine in the end, though perhaps not in the way she wishes.

Napoli's writes in the present tense, which at first can be disarming, but with the tense choice, she immerses the reader in the tumult and beauty of the sea. One can feel every squeak of the passing porpoise and every prickle of the starfish as Sirena makes necklaces to make herself beautiful. The novel is lush with feeling, imagery and Greek mythology, and the reader will not only enjoy the story, but will learn a lot about Hera, Heracles, and the creatures that inhabited the ancient Grecian ocean in the process.

Being a fan and student of mythology in all its forms, I enjoyed this novel immensely. But hopefully books such as this one will inspire readers to seek out the timeless tales such as "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" and will inspire a new generation of Classicists in order to keep that part of our history alive...and swimming.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Michigan State University Threatens to Remove Classics

On October 30th, Kim Wilcox, provost of MSU recommended the elimination of the Classics Department at MSU in a "focused budget reduction". The Classics Department isn't the only department on the hit list, and as the letter reads "as many as 30 academic majors, specializations and other programs could be affected". This is only one of many higher learning institutions to make these kinds of reductions, but the hit to the Classical education, and to arts and humanities in general, is one that sadly, many people are starting to become all too familiar with. Classical Studies have long helped students and non-students alike gain a fundamental foundation for understanding the modern world through analytical thinking, philosophy, art and language skills. As a side note, if MSU removes its Classics Department, it will be the only one of the Big Ten without a Classical Education. It will also lose a department that makes it able to stand toe-to-toe with other notable universities around the world.

An online petition is going strong. Sign it to show your support by clicking here.


Monday, November 9, 2009

Linear B & Related Scripts by John Chadwick

An earlier form of the Greek language which died out with the fall of the great Myceanean civilization (estimated 13-15 B.C.E.) Linear B has remained a mystery until fairly recently. Interested in ancient scripts, I happened upon this little treasure of a book in the Classics section of a used bookstore. The author, John Chadwick, is a key player in the decipherment of Linear B, and helped crack the code in the 1950s. Only 68 pages, it is a treasure trove of the basics, from its discovery on clay tablets, to its decipherment and relationship to other ancient languages.

One of the most difficult parts to follow, and rightly so, is a bit about how Chadwick cracked the code. Yet once I was on board with his methodology, the book was a very interesting and enjoyable read. Due to Chadwick's involvement with this language, he takes great pains to teach the reader about the many difficulties involved with deciphering and reading this script, notably the largest is the comparatively small sample size found (though archaeologists are finding more as time progresses). Included in this book is a list of the currently known symbols - the signs, ideograms, and numerals, making it a valuable addition to any ancient history buff's library, both amateur and expert. It is also a part of a series put out by the British Museum called "Reading the Past". As they can be difficult to find, I hope to discover more.

To learn about Linear B, see Wikipedia's article here.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Villa Hermes in Vienna, Austria

The Villa Hermes can be difficult, but well worth its rewards, to reach. A tram and a bus ride later, you find yourself at the entrance to Lainzer Tiergarten. The grounds itself were the imperial hunting grounds of Emperor Franz Joseph I, and walking through the equivalent of a large national park, one can easily imagine wild boars crashing through the woods. And this is still an image that lucky visitors will come upon, for wild boar still roam the woods of the Lainzer Tiergarten. Much more docile, however, are the deer that are fenced in and incredibly receptive to visitors, though you are asked politely not to feed or pet them.

Ten minutes through the park nets you a brief glimpse of Villa Hermes and soon after you are upon it. Franz Joseph I gifted his wife Empress Elisabeth, affectionately known a
s Sissy, with this villa as her private retreat. Mythological statuary populate the grounds, including a beautiful one of Hermes itself, after which the villa is named. The inside of the villa contains numerous exhibitions and visitors are allowed to walk through many of the rooms and take pictures. The most impressive room is arguably the Empress's Dormitory. One can view her fascination with Titania here, as the room is a menage of A Midsummer Night's Dream paintings and furniture.

Hermes Villa and the associated Lainzer Tiergarten are currently open from Tuesday through Sunday from 9am to 6pm. Their website is only in German, but you can visit it here.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Hedgehogs: Drunken Menaces or Simply Misunderstood?

Every autumn my husband regales me with stories of the hedgehog, an animal that makes many British people avoid the time-honored tradition of jumping into large piles of leaves. So when I happened across this short bit on Metro.co.uk's weird section, it brought a smile to my face. Apparently a hedgehog found its way into a cache of fermented apples and got a bit tipsy. To make the story even cuter (and sadder), it was a legless hedgehog. Read the story here, while I try to work out the greater significance of this story which must be here somewhere...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Intute Virtual Training Suites - Free Online Research Education

One of the most confusing and difficult aspects of research is finding exactly what you are looking for. With the explosion of web-based content, thousands (if not millions) of scholarly journals that can be difficult to access, and limited funds, researching can be a frustrating endeavor and one that leaves many people from pursuing their dreams. While researching learning opportunities in archaeology (a field that sadly my university did not have), I stumbled across the Intute Virtual Training Suite: Internet for Archaeology. This tutorial, which takes an average of an hour, is designed to teach the budding archaeology student how to perform research online. Written by lecturers and librarians in the UK, it's designed to take you from start to finish. It also includes a current list of resources for the archaeology student, and encourages you to click on them and create a "link basket" for future use.

For those who are not interested in archaeology, but would benefit from some modern day research training (short of going into an ancient library with a candle), there are approximately 60 other research tutorials to take advantage of.

Best of all? It's a free learning opportunity. To visit the Internet for Archaeology tutorial, click here. To choose another tutorial, click here.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Curing Headaches the Persian Way

Having a headache for ten days that refused to respond to conventional medicine or alternative methods made me wonder, what did the ancients do to relieve their pain? I'm familiar with ideas from willowbark tea, the staple of any fantasy novel and something that is well versed in fact, to Zeus's last resort of having Hephaestus take an axe to his head, thus bringing forth the fully formed goddess Athena. Since neither of those two ideas seemed plausible for the moment, I decided to do some further research and stumbled upon this article from 2003, written after a German report showed that ancient Persian techniques are starting to prove effective in treating migraines. While some of the techniques used (ie the method of administration) may need to be altered to today's more...cultured audience, some of the plants mentioned can be found in your everyday pantry such as garlic. Others, such as rose oil, can be found in any health food store or wherever Indian groceries are sold. Not only did the Persians study plants and their effects, but they also took catalogued different types of headaches and which remedies were the most effective.

Read the full article written on ABC Science Online back in 2003 here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Black Chalice by Marie Jakober

The Black Chalice plummets the reader back to an age where Crusaders arrive at your doorstep for uttering a false word against the one God and the Holy Roman Empire has its claws into every portion of Europe. It is a tale full of Christian knights and squires, as well as Pagan sorceresses and veelas who haunt the German forests. Jakober doesn't explain fully what a veela is, much less delve into veela mythology. However, the reader is able to draw a conclusion from scenes such as Raven's keening for her veela kin to come to her, while mortal blood runs cold at the very sound.

The main narrator is Paul von Arduin, a squire turned monk who is forced to write the tale of his beloved count Karelian Brandeis, count of Lys and his turn from light into dark, though frequent changes to third person for Karelian and the Lady of Car-Iduna (ie the Sorceress) help to even out the emotions that come from such a powerful novel. Particularly impressive in Jakober's novel is the interplay of religious customs and thought, between Christian and pagan. The common people waffle between their ancient pagan traditions and their new Christian lifestyle, seemingly embracing both. Yet, as always, there are people on each pole, those who seek to stomp out the pagans once and for all and those who wish to be left in peace (and these same fear the destruction of the earth). Jakober's novel also doesn't shy away from topics which would offend the intolerant. Themes of sexual preference and longing, spirituality differences, and betrayal carry the story through to its end. It is through these themes that the characters scrutinize themselves. This only adds to Jakober's ability to make the reader one with their characters. She did such a brilliant job of thrusting the reader into the closed mind of Paul that even I became uncomfortable under his scrutinizing gaze.

But underlying all of the sex and treachery was the main theme: the need to be understood and for some, the desire for tolerance. Nothing made me smile more than seeing characters with different viewpoints come together as one. It is a lesson that this book gives well, and one that should be well thought upon by all of us.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Lincoln, Nebraska's Pioneers Park - Bison Galore

Before heading out to Lincoln, Nebraska last week for a conference I attended, I heard a plethora of people tell me, "But what's in Nebraska?" It sounded like a challenge to me, so between seminars, I spent time researching and heading to a few of Lincoln's notable parks. I had a myth to unravel, are there any bison still left in Nebraska?

I spoke with a park ranger at Pioneers Park to find out. Most bison left in Nebraska are on ranches, with the specific purpose
to be used for meat (or possible for their milk). Unfortunately wild bison have left, and most reside in more northern states such as South Dakota. However, Pioneers Park is home to a bison sanctuary, and we were fortunate to catch a glimpse of these magnificent creatures by parking our car and walking only a couple hundred feet. The bison can be viewed in this manner, or by taking a hiking trail that leads around their enclosure; it may be up to a mile before they can be spotted (thus our luck).

The park is also home to elk, muskrats, various types of snakes, wood ducks, white tail deer and herons, making it a nature lovers paradise. Nature trails are carefully maintained and guarded in order to keep the animals safe and the humans from intruding on their natural habitat. Their staff is knowledgeable and friendly, and their interpretive center has impressive displays on local wildlife as well as a shop and other activities. The park is free to visit, though donations are always welcome.

Click here to learn more about Pioneers Park Nature Center and to visit their website.

2009 Reading List

One book, which might be thought of as trashy or drivel to one person, is another person's treasure. My reading interests are varied, and I'm not afraid to delve into other genres or topics, though I tend more to fantasy and non-fiction. I'm always open to hearing suggestions as to what I, or my blog readers, should read next. Below is a running list of what I've read since the inception of my blog.

Starred books are books that I particularly enjoyed and will (eventually) have a book review on my blog. Please show these authors some support by purchasing their books, or visiting their websites. As a side note, if it appears here, I enjoyed it enough to finish it, so even if it wasn't my favorite, you may want to check out the non-starred ones as well.

February 2009
The Tower of Ravens by Kate Forsyth
*
The Acharnians by Aristophones
The Shining City by Kate Forsyth *
The Heart of Stars by Kate Forsyth *
Lysistrata by Aristophones
Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski *

March 2009
The Jigsaw Woman by Kim Antineau
Bacchus: A Biography by Andrew Dalby *
Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore by Bettany Hughes *
Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips *
Etruscan Myth by Larissa Bonfante and Judith Swaddling

The Stepsister Scheme by Jim C. Hines
Dead End Dating by Kimberly Raye
Athene: Virgin and Mother by
Karl Kerenyi

April 2009
White Witch, Black Curse by Kim Harrison *
Out of Time by Lynn Abbey
The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan *
The Silver Wolf by Alice Borchardt *
Living With the Dead by Kelley Armstrong *
Alphabet of Thorns by Patricia McKillip
Through Violet Eyes by Stephen Woodworth

May 2009
Hades' Daughter by Sara Douglass *
Grave Surprise by Charlaine Harris
The Gift: Creativity and the Modern Artist by Lewis Hyde *
Banewreaker by Jacqueline Carey

June 2009
Gods' Concubine by Sara Douglass *
Dead and Gone by Charlaine Harris *
The Awakening by Kelley Armstrong *
Deus Ex Machina by Maria Aragon *
So You Want to Be a Wizard by Diane Duane
Secret Book of Venus Book 1 by Tanith Lee

July 2009
Secret Book of Venus Book 2 by Tanith Lee
The Other Side of the Story by Marian Keyes
The Book of 1000 Days by Shannon Hale *
Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius *
The Buried Pyramid by Jane Lindskold *
The Grammar of Fantasy by Gianni Rodari *

August 2009
Darkwitch Rising by Sara Douglass *
Druid's Sword by Sara Douglass *

September 2009
Exit Strategy by Kelley Armstrong
Warrior Rising by P.C. Cast *
Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon by Stephen R. Wilk *
Magic Kingdom for Sale: Sold by Terry Brooks

October 2009
The Black Chalice by Marie Jakober *
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Cape Storm by Rachel Caine *
Mistress of the Art of Death by Arianna Franklin *

November 2009
Linear B & Related Scripts by John Chadwick *
Memory & Dream by Charles DeLint*
Sirena by Donna Jo Napoli*

December 2009
Wolf's Blood by Jane Lindskold
Goddesses, Whores, Wives & Slaves by Sarah B. Pomeroy*
Tempest Rising by Nicole Peeler*
The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Website Recommendation: Best German Web Sites

It's great to know that there are people out there willing to compile a large list of useful websites on a subject. Jim Becker has created one of the most prolific collections of links on the German Language and German culture that anyone could hope for. Whether you're looking to study the German language, research German culture, or you're looking for the website for a German newspaper, start your journey by clicking here.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Finding a Place to Stay When on Holiday

Many people would love nothing more than to spend an adventure abroad. Fear of language barriers, custom differences, and finding a place to stay, however, often keep the would be traveler at home. If you're willing to try something a little more daring than the local Mariott or Holiday Inn, sometimes finding what you want can be a frustrating experience. So here are a few websites that I use to find bed and breakfasts and apartments that I've stayed at in Europe.

Venere.com
This site lists hotels, bed & breakfasts and apartments around the world. If you're looking for somewhere a little more authentic to stay than the local Mariott or Holiday Inn, this is your site. You can browse the reviews or post your own once you've gone on your trip.

Smooth Hound.com
This site specializes in hotels and guest houses in the UK, however offers the ability to find them worldwide. Contact information for the properties are listed and you can press a single button to send an email to the owner.

Active Hotels.com
This site is a Priceline.com brand and was founded in Cambridge, England to be a site specializing in hotel reservations catering to those from Europe. Availability is shown up-to-the-minute, and the reviews and ratings are particularly helpful.



Sunday, September 27, 2009

Traditional Cretan Dancing: The Pentozalis

One of the most enjoyable things about having a blog is finding new topics to learn about and then share. Archaeology Magazine's website directed me to this video on YouTube showing The Labrys Dance Group performing the Pentozalis, a traditional war dance done on Crete. It is believed that this danced descended from a much earlier Minoan or Kourite version where the dancers were protecting Zeus from his father Cronus.

The dance is traditionally high-spirited and involves very timed rhythmic movements accompanied by jumping. Men and women both perform this dance, though men are able to move much more freely in trousers and thus handle the more high-energy portions of the dance.

View The Labrys Dance Group's presentation of the Pentozalis here.

View information on the Pentozalis and other traditional Cretan dances on the Cretan Music website here.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Alexander the...Sexy?

Alexander the Great has now become Alexander the Sexy, according to a new find in Israel this week which shows a young, virile Alexander portrait carved into a brilliant red gemstone. This gemstone is a rare find, for while Alexander used his image as a marketing tool, the gemstones have habitually popped up at auctions and in people's "junk" collections, making their authenticity questionable.

Read about the exciting new find courtesy of Discovery News here.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Pirates: Go On and Talk Like Them Today

September 19th was dubbed "International Talk Like a Pirate Day" by an enterprising couple of louts (John Baur and Mark Summers) playing racquetball one sunny afternoon who eventually enlisted the help of syndicated columnist Dave Barry. But what were Ancient Roman pirates like? Who did they target?

The much quoted Piracy Law of Ancient Rome was a 100BC document in the form of a tablet inscription at Delphi. It reads that Roman citizens should be able to "conduct, without peril, whatever business they desire". This was sent to Rome's allies (notably Egypt, Cyprus, and the like) with the order that pirates shall not use those countries as a home base. There were many attempts to reduce the number of pirates on the Mediterranean, but many were half-hearted and most met with only a limited amount of success. Even if the Senate managed to calm piratical activity, during the many wars that Rome embroiled herself in, pirates became bolder and more numerous.

Read more about Ancient Roman pirates as well as tidbits of pirate history on the Pirates! website here.

As a side note, if any of you have access to Minerva - The International Review of Art and Archaeology, try to pick up a back issue of the May/June 2009. They did an excellent review of ancient piracy, complete with comparing it to the Somalian pirates of today.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

King Tut's Tomb - Closed Forever?

I should have seen this article a few weeks ago when it came out on Discovery News. When visiting the Valley of the Kings we were told that only a handful of tombs were ever open to the public at any given time. Going into King Tut's tomb in particular is an additional fee that you pay when going through the gates. However, due to the humidity and fungus eating away at the carvings and decorations, these tombs are scheduled to be closed.

When, you ask? That has yet to be determined. Currently experts are using laser technology in order to build replicas that would be open to tourists. So if you've always wanted to step inside the cursed chambers of King Tut, you had better head to Egypt quickly.

See the entire article here.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon by Stephen R. Wilk

Stephen R. Wilk set out with a daunting task, to solve the mystery of the gorgon: how it has been portrayed through the centuries and across cultures, to more importantly, where the myth originated. The structure of this book makes it an easy read, even for those without knowledge of Greek mythology. Wilk begins with a retelling of the myth of Perseus and Medusa as it is commonly known today and then delves deeply into multiple cultures around the world to present parallels. One of the most entertaining portions of this book is his discussion of the current theories surrounding the gorgon (including the belief that the gorgon was an octopus). I had no idea that so many theories existed, much less how diverse they were. Wilk patiently discusses them, and respectfully talks about which points he agrees with, and which points he does not, taking the time to point out why. From there, he leads the reader through enough astronomy to make anyone who has a telescope immediately toss it in their front yard. He also includes a treatise on ancient building techniques, including the history of gargoyles, before finally landing at his hypothesis. Since this book functions as a non-fiction detective novel, I do not wish to spoil his hypothesis, but I will offer that regardless of whether or not you believe with Wilk's conclusion, he offers enough supporting evidence to make it an entirely believable and acceptable. He then takes time to visit Medusa today by taking a brief foray into Medusa's rise to a figure of female rage and power, and movies/comics/pop culture. For a book which took a glimpse into many facets of the gorgon and Medusa myth, he then brilliantly wraps-up his book as well as twenty years of his love and research in a single chapter entitled "Synthesis".

A must for those interested in mythology, astronomy, or those interested in comparative ancient history.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Joy of Ligurian Farinata

Liguria, home of pesto and Christopher Columbus. Home of one of the largest aquariums in the world. Home to some of the most sparkling blue-green water I have ever laid my eyes upon. But most importantly home to farinata, a cross between a pancake and a pizza made predominantly of chickpea flour. Farinata can have many toppings, but the most common are pesto, rosemary, and fresh ground pepper. After tasting this delicious food while walking the cliff-side paths of Cinque Terre, I tried making it for myself. Simple to make, it's a nice accompaniment to any Italian meal, and also delicious served up as a snack. Try my recipe below and try substituting olives, rosemary or your other favorite ingredients.

Sun-Dried Tomato Farinata
1 cup chickpea flour (ceci or garbanzo bean flour are other names for this ingredient)
1 cup water
1 tsp salt
2 Tablespoons + 1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1/8 cup chopped sun dried tomatoes

1. Combine the chickpea flour and water. Whisk until smooth.
2. Add salt, olive oil and sun-dried tomatoes. Stir.
3. Cover and let sit one hour.
4. Oil a 12-inch pizza pan and preheat the oven to 425 F with the pan inside.
5. When the oven is ready, remove the pan, and spread the batter onto the pan in an even layer.
6. Cook for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Archaeology News Tid Bits - September 1-8, 2009

**NEWS**
The past few days have yielded a large amount of impressive discoveries for the human race, from a double-edged stone axe in Spain, to a Colossal Apollo statue in Turkey. Since most of us only have a few minutes to search the web, here's a few links to some of the highlights.

Colossal Apollo Statue Unearthed in Turkey from Discovery News
Colossal statues are rare indeed; only a dozen exist to our knowledge, and now we have a new one to add to our collection.

Fossil Find in Georgia Challenges Theories on Early Humans from guardian.co.uk
Early humans may have taken a quick jaunt into Eurasia before traveling to Africa.

Giant Statues Give up Hat Secret from BBC News
Anyone loving the mysterious statues from Easter Island should appreciate that the statues were an ancient equivalent of the red hat society...

Europe's Oldest Stone Hand Axes Emerge in Spain from ScienceNews
Although arguments ensue as to the actual age of these hand axes, it is agreed that these hand axes may be the oldest ever found in Europe.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Taking Ancient History Too Far

I am certainly the last person to rebuff someone for having hobbies that are a tad bit eccentric. Historians and history buffs beware, however, before you take your hobbies a bit too far.

Read the story as reported by Tom Phillips for Metro.co.uk on Friday below or click here.

History buff fires cannonball into neighbour's house
By TOM PHILLIPS - Friday, September 4, 2009
A Pennsylvania history buff who recreates firearms from old wars accidentally fired a two-pound cannonball through the wall of his neighbour's home.

Fifty-four-year-old William Maser fired a cannonball on Wednesday evening outside his Uniontown home - which then ricocheted and hit a house 400 yards away.

The cannonball, about two inches in diameter, smashed through a window and a wall before landing in a closet. Authorities say nobody was hurt.

State police charged Maser with reckless endangerment, criminal mischief and disorderly conduct.

Maser told local news station WPXI-TV that recreating 19th century cannons is a longtime hobby of his. He added that he is sorry, and he will now stop shooting the cannons on his property.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Irish Butter: An Ancient Food Source

Ah, Irish butter. Rich and creamy (and loaded with calories), there are few substitutes as a toast topper for your breakfast. Apparently the ancients thought so too, and a recent article in Discovery News may put an end to the age-old question of how butter should be stored, and should it be refrigerated, or merely buried in the local peat bog?

A 3000 year old oak barrel has been discovered in Ireland containing what appears to be fairly well-preserved iron age butter. Found buried in a peat bog by peat farmers John Fitzharris and Martin Lane, the butter has since turned to what could only be described as a white wax. When asked what to do with the barrel, the two men told reporters:

"It's a national treasure. You can't be going hacking bits of it off for your toast."


Read the entire article here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Slovakia's Devin Castle (Hrad Devin)

If you're visiting Vienna and are itching for a day trip, it is almost effortless to hop the border into Slovakia by taking a train to Slovakia's capital Bratislava. While Bratislava is certainly charming, it's worth leaving Bratislava for a short bus or car ride (10 km) to visit Hrad Devin, a ruined castle straight out of a fairy tale. Perched upon the confluence of the Morava and Danube Rivers, the visitor is treated to quite a hike to get to the top, complete with haunting statues and views of the Slovakian countryside. But once you step foot inside Hrad Devin, you will know exactly why you came.

Due to its strategic location, Hrad Devin occupies a spot that has been settled, fortified and fought over since the Iron and Bronze Ages. Celtic and Roman fortresses once stood here and from the 8th century on, castles were built here and added to (including the construction of a palace). The history of Hrad Dev
in is somewhat uncertain; it changed hands many times, including that of the Moravians, Ottomans, Hungarians, Austrians, Germans, and the French. It is said to have been finally destroyed by Napoleon I of France during his retreat in 1809. Now this castle stands as a monument to Slovakia's past; it was even used at a certain point to watch for people trying to escape the communist east into Austria.

A beautiful 55 meter deep well stands in the center of the courtyard, and visitors are free to explore every nook and cranny of the castle grounds, which winds and sprawls, taking every advantage of the cliff on which it rests. Some argue that the design was taken from the Byzantines, and there is even evidence of Italian Renaissance frescoes. On Castle Hill there is a 9th century church, and nearby the ruins of the Renaissance additions in the 15th and 16th centuries. One of the buildings houses Roman ruins that were recently excavated and can be viewed by descending a steep passage.

Possibly the most striking is the Virgin Tower, complete with the story of a knight and damsel in distress. It stands silent vigil for Margaret, a Carinthian, who lies in a watery grave at the foot of the tower. Read the full tale here.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Health Care and Medicine - In Ancient Rome

All the debates about health care reform in the United States made me feel as if I had to weigh in on the topic of health care as well. However, I am putting my thoughts and preferences aside to focus on a much more colorful time in history, that of Ancient Rome. For Rome, cultural change came as much from without as from within. Ancient Rome eagerly devoured Ancient Greece's medical practices and cures and learned from their renowned doctors. Some of these practices are long out of date, but surprisingly to many people, some of these ideas are still used today.

Some Fun Advice from the Ancients:
* Pliny the Elder offered this cure: "
bathe the eyes with a decoction of the liver and to apply the marrow to those that are painful or swollen". Perhaps this was the predecessor to the cooling cucumber.

* Celsus gave this widely used piece of health advice: "[A man] should always make sure that he gets enough exercise especially before a meal."

* Cinnamon was used to boost brain power, control bleeding, and hide the stench of decaying bodies - all all around spice that was considered more valuable than gold by many of the ancients.

* The most famous doctors of ancient Rome were not Romans, but Greeks. One of the most famous was Galen of Pergamum who lived from 131-201 AD and worked with injured Gladiators before beginning his career as a teacher of medicine. In particular, Galen focused on clinical observation, a step away from many Romans who believed most medical recoveries to be in the hands of the gods.

* Over 40 Roman medical instruments were found in Pompei. They were double-ended, making it easier for doctors to switch from one to the other. When patients could bleed to death quickly, time was of the essence.

* Herbs and flowers were the most common "drugs". Violets, for example, were used to cure hangovers, and cherry kernels were used for arthritic pain.

If you're interested in reading more about Ancient Roman medicine, take a look at one of the following links:

Ancient Roman Medicine
A primer in Ancient Roman Medicine. Particularly noteworthy is a list of common flowers, herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables used for medical purposes.

Medicine & Surgery in Ancient Rome
A history and primer on Ancient Roman Health Care. At the end are pictures of a terrifying array of ancient medical instruments, designed to keep you awake at night.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

German Style Board Games - My Top Three

German-style board games have made their way to North America and these games focus on strategy as well as social interaction, unlike their typical North American counterparts, which often focuses on silent contemplation of the next move.

While in the past only comic and gaming stores carried these games, they have slowly made their way into chain stores. Unlike their counterparts, these games won’t grow old quickly. Many of these games offer expansions and different versions that can be later added to the basic version, and many use tiles instead of a board for a different experience every time. They’re also visually appealing, from the artistically crafted boards and tiles to the wooden pieces that will stand the test of time. Even more exciting is their inclusion of many places around the world that are unfamiliar to many people.

If you're unfamiliar with German style board games, check out one of the following games below. All three are international hits, and you might discover the joy of board gaming all over again.

Carcassonne
Named after a medieval city in France, players place a tile adjacent to other tiles on the board. By placing followers on roads, in cities, in cloisters, and on farms, players score points immediately or by controlling a larger area than other players at the end of a game. Terribly addictive due to its ever-changing layout and multiple expansions. One even adds a fairy and a dragon! (Players: 2-5, Time to Play: 60 minutes, Basic Edition Cost: $20-25)

Ticket to Ride
Players place train tokens on a board and attempt to secretly complete routes on the map while other players are doing the same. Multiple strategies are in play and you can choose to add more routes or have fun trying to thwart your opposition. The European edition even includes the names of the cities in their native languages around the year 1910. (Players: 2-4, Time to Play: 60 minutes, American or European Edition Cost: $30-40)

Settlers of Catan
Players attempt to dominate the island by collecting and trading resources to build settlements, cities and roads. A winner emerges when someone possesses ten victory points. With plenty of trading (and back-stabbing), SOC is a social game but is best played when you have more time. The first board game to gain widespread popularity outside of Europe. (Players: 3-4, Time to Play: 60-90 minutes, Basic Edition Cost: $25-35)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Animal Photos: Blue Butterflies, Rhino Models, and Squirrels Gone Wild

Despite there being larger points of cultural interest nearby, I am always drawn to zoos in the countries I visit. During a recent trip to Vienna and Frankfurt, I visited two zoos. In most circumstances, these animals offer beautiful photo opportunities (short of these animals hiding in the tree or behind large, bushy plants). Yet the true travel photographer is always armed with his or her camera, ready to snap a picture at a moment's notice of an animal in the wild. I spotted this beautiful, blue butterfly on a mountain in Slovakia, not too far from Bratislava. I'll write more about the castle on this mountain and how to get there in a future post.

Here's another one of my favorites, but this one is from the zoo in Frankfurt, Germany. I've never seen a rhino look so in need of a modeling contract.





So when I saw the story and picture below, I couldn't help myself. On holiday, their photo was invaded by a curious ground squirrel. See the photo and the story here - for animal lovers, this is not to be missed:
Banff Squirrel Invades Photo

May a ground squirrel find a way into your travel photos too!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Buried Pyramid by Jane Lindskold

In a shift from her Wolf series, Jane Lindskold's Buried Pyramid reads like a adventure story: a warning is given (several, in fact), but the heroes plunge ahead, dubious of the threat's veracity and determined to discover a long lost archaeological secret, the buried pyramid (resting place) of Pharoah Neferankhotep.

The heroine is young Genevieve Benet (Jenny) whose parents have recently passed on, leaving her in her uncle's less than capable hands. As a British archaeologist, her uncle is far more concerned with retracing the path to lead to this great treasure, unsure if he seeks its treasure, or just the fame to follow. He grudgingly agrees to take his niece to Egypt where they are followed by the beautiful, cunning and dastardly Lady Cheshire.

The book alternately takes place in Victorian England and Egypt, and the historical details are near flawless. Twists and turns abound, as well as a brilliantly researched and integrated grasp of Egyptian mythology into this setting. Lindskold spares no detail, and infuses old morals with humor - Jenny is, of course, shamed away from wearing trousers, and yet, she is a product of the Wild Wild West with a sharp-tongued American mouth and guns on her hips. She's an enchanting addition to the other three scholarly and potentially stuffy British men without her company.

The group finds that the legend of the good king
Neferankhotep may be truer than they thought and it's secrets are guarded by a secret society reminiscent of something from The DaVinci Code. The group will be judged, not only by themselves for their ability to find the tomb, but by something far greater, and they might just learn something about themselves in return.

Lindskold's writing is as crisp as usual, and one cannot help but become embroiled in her character's struggles. As usual, romance doesn't play a strong part in her novels, but if you are looking for a good read, full of action, intrigue, and history, take a chance with The Buried Pyramid. Not only will you enjoy the read, but you'll learn something too.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Grammar of Fantasy by Gianni Rodari

I expected this book to be a treatise on the fantasy genre. Happily, I was wrong.

The Grammar of Fantasy, lovingly translated by Jack Zipes, is a treatise on everything that goes into creating a perfect story and fostering imagination in children and adults alike. Meant primarily for teachers, this book is divided into over thirty exercises and lessons from dissecting folk tales, picking words at random, and changing much beloved fairy tales to the art of the puppeteer, limerick writer and comic book aficionado. The lessons are full of Rodari's charm; he withholds nothing about his opinion, and occasionally he spouts off a comment such as "enough has been said on this topic" leaving the reader chuckling. Also not to be missed in this book is the strong attention to generating laughter in children, and he even goes so far as to justify jokes and stories about such things as "poop".

Rodari's philosophy holds up with my original premise of continuing education. Whether continuing, or learning for the first time, he states, "The idea that the education of a mind must be a dismal affair is among the most difficult things to overcome". It reminds me of a NPR interview with a famous scientist who teaches science by throwing a bag of magnets into a room with children and seeing what they do with them instead of giving them textbook exercises. Laughter and creativity can be the only result.

The exercises in this book can be used with children if you're a teacher, a parent, or if you are an aspiring writer seeking to come up with new and fresh ideas for your next story. After all, what would have happened if Little Red Riding Hood didn't carry fresh baked goods to her grandmother, but ingredients for a time capsule, and she, her grandmother, and the wolf proceeded to travel around the universe.

But that's a story for a different time...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Mythology in Video Games

Mythology can be found in the most unexpected places. Lately it has permeated pop culture in the form of video games. Three games that I've played lately on the PS2 offer a glimpse into myths of the world with stunning colors, staggering action scenes and stories that will draw you in and then take your breath away. Try these three games for a myth-packed challenge:

1. God of War series(Greek):
With a focus on Greek mythology, this actino/adventure game focuses on Kratos, a man with a vendetta and determined to topple Ares, god of war and perhaps all of Olympus. Enemies include Greek mythology favorites such as gorgons, harpies and cyclops. The gods and goddesses, just like Greek mythology, are fickle, and sometimes they can shower you with gifts, and sometimes they are your worst nightmare on the battle field.


2. Okami (Shinto):

If you've ever wanted to play a Japanese sun goddess, here's your chance. Playing Amaterasu, you roam Japan as a wolf, using your controller as a paintbrush to interact with the environment. Your quest: to restore faith in the gods by creating miracles and de
feating demons - traditional goddess fare. This game is visually stunning and looks like a traditional Japanese painting, complete with cherry blossoms and rising suns. Even the soundtrack sounds traditional and you feel like you are in the middle of ancient Japan instead of in your living room.

3. Odin Sphere (Norse):
This game is often so beautiful to look at that it can be hard to remember that you have enemies to fight. A RPG, Odin Sphere offers a story comprised of five characters which all play important parts in the fight for the Cauldron which leads to Armageddon. With the ability to mix potions, cook meals, and plant various trees that give you items, Odin Sphere has a healthy dose of strategy. It's only drawback is the frequent slow down during large battle scenes.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Pasta Sauce Primer

I cannot count the number of times that I have heard people planning trips to Italy who say that although they cannot speak Italian, they will be able to read the menu because they know words such as marinara and alfredo. The truth is, most Italian restaurants in the USA cater to the Italian-American appetite. You are much more likely to find pasta sauces called al sugu and quattro formaggi than these two standard American favorites. I always urge these travelers, and first-time travelers to any country, to bring a small phrase book, or even a few printed pages, of more frequent menu terms. If you're one of those individuals who will eat anything, and sees eating as an adventure, then perhaps the information below won't assist you. But if you're a vegetarian, if you have a food allergy, if you simply would like to know what you're about to consume, then it's important to know your sauces before you make a mistake. It's impossible to list them all, but the below is a primer of the more common sauces you'll find in Italy. If you look closely, you may also see them popping up in your local grocery store. So dig in!

Bolognese - Also called ragu, this comes from the Bologna. It typically contains tomatoes, onion, milk, vegetables and meat (usually beef or pork).

Pesto - Originating in the Liguria region of Italy, pesto is typically fresh basil, pine nuts, garlic and other herbs. For the best taste this sauce is prepared by mortar and pestle.

Vongole - Clam sauce which is typically made with fresh clams, olive oil, garlic, parsley and pepper.

Carbonara - Originating in Rome, this sauce contains egg yolks, meat (typically guanciale which is cured fatty pork cheek), pecorino and parmesan cheese.

Quattro Formaggi - This means four cheeses. Depending on the region of Italy, it is made with different cheeses, and therefore can have a completely different taste.

Alla Salvia - This means with sage. Fresh sage, olive oil and garlic are regulars, but sometimes it also includes anchovies.

Con Panna - This means with cream and can be a basic cream sauce, or it can also be included with a basic tomato sauce.

Arrabiata - This literally means angry quills. If you have a heat tolerance, watch out for this one. It can have pork or beef or be meatless, depending on the region and on the restaurant, but it always includes red pepper.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius

Why do evil men seem to be rewarded in life and good men punished?
What do all men strive for in life?
What is the greater good?
What truly makes a man happy?

These are some of the questions addressed by Boethius in his The Consolation of Philosophy. Written by a Roman statesman condemned to death in the sixth century, it is medieval humanism at its finest. Boethius is visited by Philosophy a quasi-Greek goddess and angel hybrid who is determined to lift Boethius's spirits and carry him from his wallowing into the light (of philosophy and reason, of course). The book is divided into five sections, with alternating prose and poetry. It reads as a discourse between man and spiritual mentor, one who doesn't hesitate to chastise him when needed.

This manuscript should be required reading for any philosophy student, but it is also a welcome addition to anyone struggling to understand the human psyche and the larger questions at play in the world. Although written from an ancient viewpoint, after reading this classic, it is clear that for some things, human haven't changed at all. We are still muddling through, we are still seeking to understand, and perhaps Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy will provide that consolation in this seeming upended world.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Book of 1000 Days by Shannon Hale

While in England, WH Smith ran a stellar sale where I was able to buy one book, get one 50% off. Of course this encouraged me to take a chance on a British author, and I happily selected The Book of 1000 Days by Shannon Hale. Entranced by the cover alone, I hoped that this book would deliver a solid fairy tale, where the hero (or heroine, in this case) takes all. I was not disappointed.

Taken from a Grimm's fairy tale, and set in a fantastical Mongolia, Hale has lovingly named all of her characters with fragments of Mongolian words for who they represent. The heroine Dashti, for example, means good luck, and the main squeeze Tegus, means perfect. It starts when Dashti, and the princess she has just agreed to serve, are thrown into a tower for seven years, all because the princess refuses to marry a brute of a prince, and prefers another. Dashti, happy with more food than she could ever want, keeps her spirits up, but when rats start devouring the food, and howling is heard from outside the tower, things can only get dicey. A journey ensues, and Dashti, forced to impersonate the princess, gets into more muck than a mucker maid ever has before, as she begins to fall for Khan Tegus, the princess's soon-to-be-betrothed.

The writing is charming and Dashti instantly likeable for her lower-class naivete and her desire to be a good person. She constantly tears herself between her duty to the princess, her duty to the ancient ones, and her duty to her own heart. Convinced that something is wrong with the princess, Dashti sings to her regularly, songs of healing, though the heroine is never quite sure what she needs to heal. A lovely treat is that the princess also grows as a person due to Dashti's never wavering loyalty and friendship, and the trouble that the two girls get into.

This is only one of several fairy tales retold by Hale, and was pure fairy tale charm. After all, sometimes you need a book where a hero isn't born a hero, but claws her way through to make the world a better place, no matter what that world may be.

Visit Shannon Hale's website here.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Upholders of Ancient Greek Morality: The Furies

To say their name invites disaster. Dogs bark and howl to announce their arrival. The stench of poisonous gas fills the air, and then you see them. With hissing snakes writing on their heads, and large bat wings extending behind them, here are three of the foulest creatures of Greek Mythology - the Erinyes, or more commonly known as the Furies. Yet, despite their horrifying appearance, the Furies are one of the most significant factors in the ancient Greek's decision to abide by a moral code. Created out of the blood in the sea when Cronus castrated his father Uranus, or alternately from Nyx, the Greek deity personifying Night.

Although beliefs vary by sect, Christians follow the ten commandments as a guideline for morality. To break one of these commandments is sin. Depending on the sect, forgiveness can be found, the sinful deed forgotten, or reversed, frequently with humility and admission of guilt.

The Furies, however, were not interested in admission of guilt.
Alecto ("unceasing"), Tisiphone ("avenging murder"), and Megaera "grudging" particularly sought out crimes against ones kin, especially when murder was involved. Once the deed had been committed, the Furies punished the evildoer by driving him or her insane, often to the point of suicide. It is said that when they were not punishing kin-murderers on the surface, they dwelt in Tartarus, torturing its residents. However, although they were renowned for being cruel, they were also upholders of justice, and said to be fair. They often interceded on behalf of the law when the crime was that of ethics by protecting beggars and strangers. Due to this, they were often called "The Kindly Ones" in order to avoid invoking their name, and their wrath.

Clearly, the Furies provided great incentive to be kind to women, strangers, and kind alike. Ancient Greeks were taught stories of the Furies, much as children today are told to be good or they will be snatched away by the bogeyman. They are the exemplification of the behavioral concept of avoiding an aversive condition. So if you hear hissing, or the sound of dogs barking, perhaps someone has broken the law, and the Furies are in pursuit.

Painting Above: Orestes Pursued by the Furies, 1862, by Adolphe William Bouguereau

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Lucca's San Michele in Foro

Located in the heart of Tuscany, Lucca is often missed for the greater tourist sites of Florence and Pisa nearby. Founded by the Etruscans, and later turned into a Roman colony in 180 BCE, Lucca played an important part in Italian history, being the site of a conference in 56 BCE which established the First Triumvirate. Much later, Napoleon gifted Lucca to his sister Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi and named her the Queen of Etruria.

Lucca is one of the most preserved walled cities in the world, and a favorite pastime of locals and visitors alike is walking or biking the circumference of the wall and enjoying lunch at one of the many parks located at intervals along its path. Lucca also offers more impressive vistas than the wall, for it is peppered with towers, a few of which are climbable, and the mountains and Tuscan countryside are more than visible and can take your breath away.

In the heart of this beautiful city, however, once used as a way station for pilgrims, lies San Michele in Foro, a church to rival the most beautiful in Europe. The church is mentioned as early as 795 AD, however, its current incarnation is a result of Pope Alexander during the 11th century. In typical Pisan-Luccan fashion, its facade is a fusion of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The front of the church looks sadly incomplete as it is a flat panel adorned with a flattened statue of St. Michael. The most curious part of this church is seen when one starts to walk around the church to view the backside of the front facade. Stairs stretch towards the statue of St. Michael, and it is said that priests would climb the stairs to orchestrate St. Michael's wings springing to life, thereby showering Lucca with its very own "miracles".

Friday, July 3, 2009

A Short History of the Wedding Dress

As my neighbor came out of her house last weekend, white wedding dress complete with beading, tulle, and satin flouncing around her, it reminded me that wedding dresses have not always been white. Wearing white (for western brides) did not become fashionable until Queen Victoria donned one (she was probably not amused). This flamboyant gown made people note her status, and soon after brides began to copy her. It was certainly not a virtuous color, and was seen as a symbol of wealth since you would not have to wear the dress again.


In ancient times, here are some of the customs that were followed:
  • Roman women wore a dress similar to the robes of Juno, goddess of marriage. They were modestly draped and would cover their heads with a red square of cloth to appear pale and statuesque.
  • Grecian women would wear long, elegant dresses (like the peplos). Their dresses were closed with two clasps, and the more expensive and ornate the clasps, the more wealthy the family. They covered their heads in gold to symbolize virginity, joy and happiness (the color of the sun).
  • Russian women wore red to symbolize joy and beauty. The dresses were similar to today's sundresses and they wore their hair plaited with ribbon.
Today many cultures continue to wear colors other than white (Asian cultures still prefer bright colors), and with a move towards non-traditional marriage, weddings and lifestyles, perhaps in the future of western weddings, we may begin to see a rainbow of possibilities.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Deus Ex Machina by Maria Aragon

For anyone passionate about Greek mythology, prepare for a fun romp with Deus Ex Machina. Stewart Dunk, a socially inept young man under the thumb of his overbearing (and lusty) mother, finds out that his new neighbors are none other than a group of the Greek gods. Ares, Hermes, Aphrodite, Athena and Medusa all play their respective parts and Aragon has clearly done her research (by stating Medusa's Libyan ancestry, for example). However, the Greek mythology scholar should also prepare for a hearty dose of suspension of disbelief as Athena and Hermes become quite an item through Aphrodite's meddling and manage to produce divine offspring. Full of a sense of what would happen if you let Aphrodite handle the cooking (fish soup, anyone?) and Ares handle home redecorating (provided you don't need any walls left), a mythology lover will have a lot of laughs along the way.

The writing itself, however, often speeds along at too fast a clip (much of the book is dialogue and slapstick comedy), and could have benefited from a better sense of pacing. But if you manage to lend the author some patience, you will find a gem of a story and a rip-roaring good time.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Taameya: Falafel, the Egyptian Way

One of the things I enjoy bringing back with me from Egypt is recipes. Unfortunately, often I travel to countries where it is difficult to purchase a cookbook in English. The best Egyptian cookbooks are written in Arabic, and the small vegetarian Egyptian cookbook I managed to bring back is full of odd spellings, enough so that I am determined to try the recipes a few times before sharing.

With that said, people have asked me what the food is like in Egypt. Needless to say, I was a very happy and full vegetarian on the entire trip. Falafel that melted in my mouth, hummus that could be prepared at least a dozen ways, and koshari, a mix of pasta, lentils and crispy onions in a tomato sauce were all my downfall.

Falafel, or Taameya in Egypt, is ground up chickpeas or fava beans mixed with spices and fried until they are a golden brown. These morsels are delicious on their own, or in a pita with chopped tomato, cucumber and sometimes hummus. Most American grocery stores sell falafel mix in a box which requires a few wet ingredients, shaping them into balls and frying them. Like many other good things in life, an entire article is devoted to Falafel at Wikipedia.

However, if you're up for making them from scratch, head over to Cooks.com for a falafel recipe that's sure to be a winner. If you're up for a real adventure, head over to Lizabetti's blog "Cool Stuff You Can Do" , which contains pictures and a step-by-step guide for a delectable Egyptian falafel feast.

Picture courtesy of the Falafel article at Wikipedia.org

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Trip Report: Market 101 in Egypt

Our final day in Egypt landed us in Cairo where we had a couple of choices: visit the City Stars Mall, the largest mall in Egypt (though it would not surprise me to learn that it's the largest in the Middle East), or venture to the labyrinthine Khan el Khalili Market. Of course, we had a full day and so we opted for both. We had only spent one hour shopping previously in the Aswan market (picture on left).

The City Stars Mall is a short distance from Le Meridien Heliopolis, where we stayed for our final night in Egypt. The bottom three floors are for parking, and the other seven or eight are for shopping and eating. Large glass elevators plunge through the center of the mall, and staircases wind up as far as the eye can see. This mall takes itself seriously - like the temples and tombs we visited, we were treated to a bag security check upon entering and signs posted everywhere said to hang on to your receipts for security purposes. Most of the stores and signs are either in English or in English and Arabic, though we found that many of the people running the stores did not spe
ak English. A small section in this mall is devoted to the Khal el Khalili market, and where we hoped for no hassle shopping (the regular shops behaved like a western shopping mall), the shopkeepers in this section of the mall behaved only a little less forward than those at the Khal el Khalili market themselves. Restaurants and cafes are everywhere - whatever your fancy, whether it be western or oriental style food, you will find it here. We chose to eat at Abou el Sid, a traditional Oriental style restaurant where the entire table was moved out for us as we sat down. Not knowing any better, we ordered enough food to feed a small army, but the falafel and hummus once again were mouth-watering. We also had an opportunity to try koshari, a traditional vegetarian Egyptian dish consisting of rice, difference pastas, lentils and crispy onions topped with a delightful spiced tomato sauce.

The actual Khan el Khalili market was a completely different experience. Wall-to-wall tourists and Egyptians strolled through the markets, some carrying large packages of unknown goods on their heads, or on their backs shouting "Excuse me" in multiple languages. There were no landmarks, no way to navigate other than to lose ourselves in the labyrinthine alleys and shops. Different areas of the market appeared to specialize in different items: clothes, jewelry, gaudy tourist items, sleepwear, towels & linens, and kitchen appliances. The most terrifying section was the fireworks vendors - I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if one of them became lit.

For fun, I took inventory of the most colorful sayings that were shouted out to us:
"You are a queen!" (Well, all women like complements!)
"Hey Shakira!" (Must be my blonde hair, but I'm not Spanish...)
"No hassles!" (Interestingly enough, this never meant no hassles.)
"Everything is free!" (I never had the courage to find out what this meant.)
"I have what you want!" (I'm sure you do!)
"You are a very lucky man!" (To my husband - also nice to hear!)
Interestingly enough, no one seemed to think I was American. All shopkeepers assumed I was British (by quoting in British pounds) and then Italian (apparently I speak too much with my hands). This happened in our brief shopping stint in Aswan as well, however here, our favorite phrase became "Trust me, I'm a Nubian!"

Welcome drinks were almost always offered as a the beginning bartering phase. Most often this consisted of hibiscus tea, a safe drink due to the fact that they boil the leaves first. Once the bartering began, the research we did prior to our trip gave us the opinion that we should expect to buy the items for 20-30% of the initial price, and this tended to be accurate, although sometimes vendors refused to barter lower than their initial price due to us being tourists. We did have fun, however, despite a cat knocking over a wooden ladder that crashed down a foot in front of me and a hashish pipe that fell over behind me starting a fire. When I asked the vendor I was bartering with if fires happened often he shrugged and said "No. Must be a dragon."

On that humorous note, I concluded a wonderful trip to Egypt, and if someone asked again, I would do it again in a minute.