Thursday, November 23, 2017

Damn, Girl--Catherine the Great

Czarina Catherine II was enlightened, and she was a despot, but she was not an enlightened despot, no matter what the stories say. Though she embraced the ideals of the enlightenment, her laws and reforms kept  Russia under her autocratic thumb. She strengthened the institution of serfdom, and conquered most of the Crimea region. That aside, she was one boss lady.

Image result for catherine the great
Young Catherine
Born Prinzessin Sophie Friederike Auguste, Catherine was the daughter of a minor Prussian prince. Living in the principality of Anhalt-Zebst, Catherine was mainly ignored by her parents until she grew to a marriageable age. When Catherine was old enough to marry, her mother took her around Europe shopping for a suitable husband. In 1744 Catherine and her mother went to Russia, then ruled by the Empress Elizabeth. Elizabeth had a young heir and nephew, Peter, to dispose of, and she decided that Catherine would be an ideal bride.

Catherine had to give up a lot to be considered a suitable future czarina. She was required to convert from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodoxy, and learned Russian in order to fit in with her people better. She was successful, and in 1745 she and Peter were married.

Peter and Catherine were not a good match. Catherine was intelligent, vivacious, and ambitious, while Peter was immature, antisocial, and dim. Peter felt threatened by his wife, and was often cruel to her in private and public. It wasn't long after their marriage that Peter began to take lovers. Hurt, Catherine spent a lot of time reading, and took lovers of her own. During their entire marriage Peter and Catherine had two children--a son Paul and a daughter Anna. It is highly unlikely that either of them were Peter's child.

Image result for winter palace inside
The Malachite Room of the majestic Winter Palace--a residence
that Catherine had a large hand in building
In 1761 Empress Elizabeth died, leaving Peter in charge. Crowned Czar Peter III, Peter was a terrible leader. He pulled out of a war against Prussia, decided to invade Denmark, and made friends with Russia's long-time nemesis--Frederick the Great. He was widely unpopular among the nobility and the clergy, and it wasn't long before there were many groups plotting to overthrow him.

Fortunately for Catherine, she had an in with the Russian Guards. She and her lover, Grigory Orlov, had Peter quietly arrested, and Catherine proclaimed Empress. Catherine had planned to have Peter live out his life in imprisonment, but eight days after his arrest he was quietly strangled.

Unlike many other royal women who's husbands died before their heirs had reached majority, Catherine didn't even pretend to be a regent, she outright had herself proclaimed Empress, and only had her son Paul declared as her heir as an afterthought. She didn't much care for her son, and she didn't much care for a man to tell her what to do. Catherine had some very definite ideas about how she was going to run Russia, and she wasn't going to be stopped.

Image result for catherine the great
An older Catherine the Great
Catherine was very fond of Enlightenment principles. She had read extensively, and was determined to be the model of an enlightened monarch. She believed that by applying the principles of the enlightenment to her rule in Russia she could make a nation where life would be fair and just for everyone. Catherine had a lot of ideas, and in 1767 she convened a commission of people to frame a constitution for Russia. The commission was comprised of people of all social ranks (except serfs), and representatives from all major and minor ethnic groups. Catherine had very firm instructions on how the commission was to proceed, and detailed them in a letter that was, reportedly, so scandalously liberal it was banned in France.

Despite all of her ideals, Catherine knew she couldn't do without the support of the nobility. The commission failed to produce a working constitution, and in 1785 Catherine released her 'Charter of the Nobility', which granted the nobility more powers than ever before, and essentially made all peasants into serfs. This act was especially damning, because Catherine had spoken out privately and publicly about the evils of serfdom.

When she wasn't reforming the laws of the land, Catherine was trying to get more land. Thanks to Peter the Great, Russia had a port on the Black Sea, but Catherine wanted to solidify her position there. Through three partionings, she gradually ate away at Poland, and took the entirety of the Crimea from the Ottoman Empire.

Image result for grigory potemkin
Gregory Potemkin, Catherine's lover and
advisor
What Catherine is most known for is for her love affairs. As with almost all women of power, rumors of her intense sexual appetites have been grossly exaggerated, though in Catherine's case the rumors aren't entirely unfounded. While Catherine the Great didn't engage in bestiality, she did have some 12 lovers throughout her life, many of whom were quite a bit younger than her.

Catherine's memoirs reveal a woman who was lonely and desperate for love. However, in order to maintain her position Catherine couldn't remarry, and even if she could have it seems unlike that she would have. Catherine wrote in a letter to Gregory Potemkin, one of her most loved and longest lasting lovers, that her passions cooled quickly, and that as soon as a man was out of her site she forgot about him.

Though very popular, Catherine did inspire one of the largest uprisings in Russian history. In 1773 Yemelyan Pugachov, a former Cossack officer, started traipsing around claiming to be Peter III. According to Pugachov, Peter had not died, but had instead been in hiding, and he was ready to lead the serfs and peasantry to a better life, and to throw off Catherine's tyranny. He gained some 200,000 supporters, and marched down along the Volga river, slaughtering nobles along the way. He was within attacking distance of Moscow before he was finally captured, and his force dispersed in 1774.

At age 67, Catherine had a stroke and died in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Though controversial, she is often regarded as one of Russia's greatest rulers, and as one of the greatest female rulers of all times. Catherine had lofty ideals and unbounded ambition. While she didn't manage to live up to her ideals, she brought Russia into an era of political stability and expansion that led to Russian prosperity in the 1800s.

Sources
Catherine II
Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia
When Catherine the Great Invaded the Crimea, and Put the Rest of the World on Edge
Catherine the Great: Biography, Accomplishments, and Death
Catherine the Great


Sunday, November 5, 2017

Erik the Red and His Green Land

Erik the Red was a larger than life dude who knew how to leave a mark. He got kicked out of Iceland, and settled a previously uninhabited¹ island. In the world's first documented PR stunt, he named the icy wasteland 'Greenland' to entice people to move there, then proceeded to name every geographical feature he came across after himself. Erik was one hell of a dude.
Image result for erik the red
Erik the Red. What a handsome dude. Look at that
mustache. Hipsters kill for mustaches that
glorious.

Erik was born in Norway, but moved to Iceland after his father, Thorvald, was exiled for 'manslaughter' (read as 'probably murder'). He was called 'The Red' because of his fiery hair, beard, and temper. Also red was the color of the blood on his hands after he continued the family tradition of murder.

While living in the north of Iceland, Erik's thralls inadvertently created a landslide which destroyed the neighboring house. Erik's neighbor was, understandably, irritated. Less understandably, said neighbor decided to kill Erik's thralls. This aggravated Erik, who murdered his neighbor in return. Because of this, in 980 Erik and his family were banished.

Next, Erik moved to the island of Oxney, and picked up the pieces. He restarted his homestead, and all was going well, until he had more troubles with his neighbors. In about 982 Erik lent his setstokkr to his neighbor. Setstokkr were large, rune inscribed beams that held particular religious significance. It was pretty cool of Erik to loan them to his neighbor, but unfortunately his neighbor was rather uncool, and didn't give them back. In retaliation, Erik killed him², and was once again banished. This time he was banished from the entirety of Iceland for three years. Erik was left with two choices. He could sail back to Norway, or he could go somewhere else. Erik chose the latter.

Now, Erik wasn't totally sailing blind. Other vikings had been around the coasts of Greenland before, though none had ever gone ashore. Erik knew that Greenland was out there, so he packed his family in his longship and went. He spent several months navigating around the southern tip of Greenland. He went ashore at Tunulliarfik, and spent the two years after that exploring the country, and naming everything in sight after himself.

Image result for Tunulliarfik
Tunulliarfik fjord, where Erik came ashore
In 985 Erik's exile was up, and he was firmly of the opinion that his new home would be a pretty dope place to start a colony. He named the place 'Greenland' to attract settlers, and sailed back to Iceland. Erik was fairly successful, and managed to convince some 400 people to make the move. 25 ships set out from Iceland in 985, and within a few months, 14 had arrived on Greenland's shores (the rest having wrecked or turned back to Iceland.) They settled in two groups--the Eastern Settlement and the Western Settlement, with Erik elected leader of the Eastern Settlement. Erik died about 15 years later after a fall from his horse.



¹By Europeans
²Quite frankly, after the number of pens, pencils, bowls, and spoons I've lost to a neighbor, I do not consider this an overreaction on Erik's part.

Sources
Erik the Red-Biography
Erik the Red-Britannica
Erik the Red-Maritime Museum

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Damn, Girl--Queen Seondeok of Silla

Seondeok was the first of three queen regnants of the medieval kingdom of Silla. She was a skilled diplomatist, devout Buddhist, and prolific builder. During her reign, Seondeok managed to get Tang Dynasty China on her side, promote Buddhism as the national religion, and lead Silla into a golden age of art, science, and literature. She was a smart, strong woman, and is still celebrated in Korea today.

Image result for seondeok
Queen Seondeok. Probably. I've had trouble
finding pictures of her that aren't from the popular
K-Drama named after her.
Silla was located at the bottom of the Korean peninsula, in modern day South Korea. It was a very internally stable kingdom, ruled by one of the longest continuous royal houses in the world. Silla would later conquer the kingdoms of Baekje and Goguryeo to unite the peoples in the Korean peninsula. However, at Seondeok's time Silla was still viciously warring with their neighbors.

Seondeok was born somewhere in the 580 CEs. Her father, Chinpyong was a reasonable ruler, but couldn't seem to have a son. Like all men of the era, he blamed his wife, Ma-ya, and sent her away to a Buddhist nunnery. Though he remarried, he was unable to have another child, leaving him with the three daughters he had with Ma-ya.

Seondeok was probably the eldest daughter, but even if she wasn't she was hand picked by her father to succeed him. From an early age Seondeok showed great wisdom, and her father believed her the most fit of his children to rule. A traditional story says that when the Chinese emperor sent Chinpyong some peony seeds, along with a picture depicting them, the young Seondeok remarked that the flowers were pretty, but it was a shame they didn't smell¹. When asked what she meant, she told her father that if the flowers had a good scent, surely they would be surrounded by bees and butterflies. When the flowers were revealed to have no scent, her father declared that she was wise beyond her years, and that she would succeed him.

Image result for map of silla 632
Map of Silla during the 400s. By Seondeok's
time, Silla had swallowed Gaya.
Now, you may be wondering why Seondeok was able to succeed Chinpyong at all. In most Western societies had Chinpyong died without male issue the throne would have passed to his brother or nephew. This was the prevailing pattern in Europe, as well as in neighboring China. Silla, however, had different requirements for a ruler. To rule Silla, you had to come from the 'Sacred Bone' class--the class that encompassed the ruling family, and those who married the ruler. Seondeok and some of her (female) cousins fit into this class, but there were no males in the Sacred Bone class other than Seondeok's father.
In 632, Seondeok ascended to the throne. Though there were some members of the True Bone Class (the class right below Sacred Bone) who protested, many of the people of Silla were more than happy with Seondeok being in charge. Having a woman in charge of medieval Korea isn't as revolutionary as you might think. Though the people of Silla still operated inside of the traditional gender roles, women were respected and placed in positions of power. There had been Queen Regents before, and women were usually in charge of the family. Though these attitudes changed later when Confucianism seeped into the country, a female ruler wasn't too objectionable at Seondeok's time.

Like many rulers, Seondeok had a craze for building. She was famous for building Buddhist temples, including a nine level pagoda. Her temples are directly credited for making Buddhism so popular in Silla. Seondeok's most famous building, however, is the observatory. The Tower of Moons and Stars or Cheomseongdae is the oldest observatory in eastern Asia. The observatory is a little taller than 9 meters, and has 27 layers of brick to recognize Seondeok as the 27th ruler of Silla. It is the only remaining structure definitely built by her (the rest were made of wood, and have since vanished), and is a national Korean symbol.

Image result for seondeok observatory
Cheomseongdae
Though Silla was very peaceful internally, they were almost constantly at war with their neighbors--Baekje and Goguryeo. Goguryeo was the real problem. They were a large country, and they were just as determined as Silla to conquer the whole peninsula. Baekje, though smaller, was just as hostile. However, on the other side of Goguryeo was Tang China, and since Tang China was Goguryeo's enemy, they were one of Seondeok's best friends--diplomatically speaking.

Seondeok had to walk a fine line with Tang China. She needed their help, but they were a strictly Confucian nation, and Confucianism just wasn't down with a female ruler. The Chinese Emperor offered Seondeok generous aid, but it was  on the condition that Seondeok would step aside, and let a Chinese prince rule in her stead. Seondeok, of course, refused, though still managed to win the Tang's support.

Seondeok died of illness around 647, leaving the throne to her cousin Jindeok. Jindeok was the last Silla ruler of the Sacred Bone class, and the throne passed to her nephew. Though Seondeok died more than a thousand years ago, she's still a pretty big deal. Her observatory has been designated a national wonder, and rites are still performed at her tomb every year.



¹Not all peonies have a scent. Many of the single and red varieties of peonies do not have a scent. While I haven't done extensive research into the history of Chinese peonies, it is reasonable to assume that one of those varieties was the one sent to Chinpyong. (source)

Sources
Sondok, Queen of Silla
Queen Seondeok
Queen Seondeok of Silla
Chemseongdae
Royal Tomb of Queen Seondeok



Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Greenland Goes Rogue

You wouldn't think that Greenland would have been a source of contention during World War II. While Greenland may be the world's largest island, it's sparsely inhabited, freezing cold, and just not a big player in world affairs. Quite frankly, Greenland's pretty unprepossessing. However, control of the island was heavily contested between the United States and Germany during the first half of the 1940s.

Image result for greenland
Uummannaq, Greenland
Greenland has been a Danish colony since 1814, and is still a part of Denmark. While Greenland is largely self-governing today, in the 1940s the island was under the strict control of the Danish government, specifically the two Danish governors--Aksel Svane and Eske Brun. These men answered directly to the government in Copenhagen, but were also responsible for representing the interests of Greenland. This left them in a bit of a bind when the Nazi's took control of Denmark in April of 1940.

While the Danish government was nominally in charge of their country, they took their orders from the Germans, especially where foreign policy was concerned. Formerly neutral, Denmark was dragged into the war, and Greenland wasn't too keen on being dragged along with them. The Danish government in Copenhagen no longer represented Greenland's interests, and Greenland didn't feel particularly loyal to the Nazi puppet government. So, drawing on previous legislation, the governors declared Greenland to be a self-ruling country, free of Nazi Danish law.

As might be expected, Nazi controlled Denmark, wasn't too pleased about the Greenlander's getting uppity. Though unprepossessing, Greenland was important to the Germans, and they hadn't anticipated a fight. Greenland was essential to Nazi plans in North America and Europe for several reasons, namely:

  1. Like much of the arctic Western Hemisphere, Greenland was a good launching place for air invasions. It would be an easily defensible and convenient place to build an air base that could launch attacks on Europe and North America. 
  2. Both the Axis and the Allies wanted to establish weather stations on Greenland. I'm not 'That Meteorology Nerd', so I don't pretend to understand this, but apparently all the weather headed for Europe goes through Greenland. Prior knowledge of the weather was important for strategic planning, and the Germans wanted that knowledge.
  3. Image result for cryolite
    Cryolite
  4. At the time Greenland had the world's largest supply of cryolite, a rare and important mineral used in making aluminum¹. Whoever possessed the cryolite mines would have a serious leg up when it came to manufacturing aircraft. Greenland wasn't making their own aircraft, and their cryolite was coveted not only by the Germans, but by the British and Norwegians as well.
Without the Danish army to protect them, Greenland was put in the awkward position of having to beat off foreign invasions by itself. Despite not being invited, the Germans were sneakily establishing their weather stations, and the British, Canadians, and Norwegians were also making attempts to establish themselves on the island. This was becoming a bit of an issue, and given that Greenland had no army to speak of, they went to the only major world power that was still neutral--The United States.

While the United States later went on to be a major player in WWII, in 1941 they were maintaining a strict stance of absolute neutrality, a stance that Greenland was 100% down for. Because of Greenland's position politically and physically, it was advantageous for Greenland to seek help from the United States, and it was advantageous for the US to help them.

Image result for greenlandAgainst explicit orders from Copenhagen, Danish ambassador Henrik Kauffman, in the name of King Christian X,officially signed a treaty with the United States in April of 1941, giving the US full authority to station troops and build military bases in Greenland for mutual defense purposes.

Kauffman was widely condemned in Copenhagen, and his treaty with the United States was denounced as treason. Kauffman had, essentially, allowed US military to set up shop on Danish land, and the Danes weren't too keen on this. However, there wasn't any real backlash for this 'treason'. The condemnation came from the German controlled Danish parliament, and did not reflect the feelings of the actual Danish parliament. Kauffman made it known that he was acting on behalf of King Christian X and the true Danish government, and experienced no consequences for signing a treaty with the US during or after the war.

Now, people familiar with the United States Constitution might say that the occupation of a colony of a foreign nation seems very contrary to the principles of the United States. The US had sworn not to have colonies (though they sometimes flirted with that line), and not to invade foreign countries for their own land gain. Everything they did in Greenland seems contrary to that. However, the United States had one major out--The Monroe Doctrine.

The Monroe Doctrine was a statement released in 1823 by US president James Monroe. This singularly arrogant document was put out after most of the Latin American countries had gained independence from Spain, and stated that the United States would fight any European power that tried to intervene in the Americas. The doctrine was considered to mostly protect the countries south and east of the United States. For years Greenland hadn't really been a concern where the Monroe Doctrine was concerned, because for all intents and purposes Greenland was part of Europe. However, in order to justify their interference in Greenland, the US declared Greenland part of North America, and told the Germans, Canadians, British and Norwegians to piss off.

Image result for bluie west one
Bluie West One
Once they made the decision to go to Greenland, the US had to walk a fine line. They were still maintaining a policy of neutrality, and couldn't send armed forces because of the possibilities of clashing with the Nazis and inadvertently drawing themselves into the war. To circumvent this, the United States sent their coast guard to protect Greenland.

Once there, the coast guard spent most of their time patrolling Greenland's shores, and keeping an eye out for more Germans trying to establish weather bases. Along with patrolling, they also built two military bases-- Bluie West 1 and Bluie West 8, as well roads and improved harbors.

This arrangement was particularly advantageous for Greenland, because not only did they get new roads and improved infrastructure, but the United States was also leasing the land that they were building on. Greenland was being paid for the land that the US was so helpfully developing. At the end of the war, Greenland was left with some decent roads--and they hadn't paid for any of it.

However, don't imagine that the Greenlanders just sat back and let the United States do all the work. Svane and Brun were adamant that Greenlanders should be helping in the defense of their nation, so they established the Sledge Patrol--a group of 15 men who patrolled the northern and most remote reaches of Greenland by dogsled. The Sledge Patrol more than pulled their weight. They found several German weather stations, and had multiple skirmishes with the German soldiers. After driving out and capturing one group of German soldiers, the Sledge Patrol was declared the 'Army of Greenland'. To this day, the Sledge Patrol is an elite part of the Danish Armed Forces.
Image result for sledge patrol
Sledge Patrol camp

When the United States entered the war in late 1941, Greenland officially entered the war as well. Greenland's entrance into the war wasn't particularly significant; for the most part, Greenland continued doing what it was already doing, rebuffing German attempts to build weather stations.
After the war, Greenland went back to being a Danish colony. However, relations between Denmark and her colony had dramatically changed. The Danes had always had the goal of eventually giving Greenland self rule and independence, but before WWII they were unconvinced that the Greenlanders could govern themselves. The events of the 1940s changed that, and in the 21st century Denmark granted Greenland home rule and their own parliament.

While Greenland may not have played an enormous part in WWII, it's undeniable that they were incredibly brave. For a sparsely inhabited, mostly undefended nation to openly defy the Nazis, risking their lives and sovereignty to maintain their own independence was admirable. Greenland had a lot to lose, but through a series of smart diplomatic decisions they survived WWII mostly unscathed.



¹I'm not 'That Geology Nerd' either, so I don't entirely understand how Cryolite works, but you can find more information here.

Sources
FDR Sends Troops to Occupy Greenland
Greenland During and Since the Second World War
Greenland's War
Greenland During WWII

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Bnei Menashe-A Lost Tribe of Israel

Claiming descent from Menashe (or Manasseh), the Bnei Menashe are a community of Jews living in the eastern state of Manipur in India, and over the borders in neighboring Bangladesh and Myanmar. Though they hadn't lived in the Levant area for more than 2000 years, these people are slowly making their way back to Israel, and reclaiming their Jewish religion and heritage.

Image result for Bnei Menashe
Bnei Menashe heading to Israel.
To understand the Bnei Menashe, you have to understand a bit of Jewish history. After the death of King Solomon, his son, Rehoboam, took the throne. Rehoboam was a bit of a dick, so United Israel had itself a little war. Ten tribes, under the leadership of Jeroboam, split away from Rehoboam, leaving him with two. These two kingdoms became Israel and Judah respectively. With the tribes of Levi¹, Judah, and Benjamin in the Kingdom of Judah.

So time went on, and in about 722 BCE Assyria conquered the Kingdom of Israel, enslaving it's people, and deporting them to other parts of Assyria. Judah was left alone, and most modern Jews claim their descent from those Judean tribes.

So when Assyria fell in 612 BCE, the Menashe escaped. Leery of being enslaved again, the Menashe went east, avoiding major cities. They went so far east, that in 240 BCE, they ended up in China. They started in Tibet, but later moved to the city of Kaifeng. Unfortunately, while in China they were enslaved again. The Bne Menashe were forced to assimilate, and killed in large numbers. Not being down with that, a number of them escaped to live in caves. They were safe in their caves, but in 100 BCE they were expelled from China. That's when the majority of them settled in the Manipur-Myanmar-Bangladesh region.
Image result for kingdom of israel and judah
Kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the 800 BCEs
The Menashe lived in this region for several thousand years without too much disruption. They intermarried with the locals, and adopted some local beliefs, but maintained many of their traditional religious practices, such as a festival where unleavened bread was eaten, and songs about crossing through a large body of water that split in two.

In 1894, Christianity arrived. Recognizing their own oral history in some of the tales from the Old Testament, many of the Menashe adopted Christianity, and practiced for nearly 100 years.

However, in the 1950s some of the Menashe started to question if their ancestors had practiced Christianity at all. Further research lead to the idea that their ancestors may have been Jewish instead of Christian, and while this was just fine with some of the Menashe, several of the Menashe decided to reclaim their Jewish past. They applied to join the new state of Israel, but were denied because they just weren't Jewish enough.

However, in the latter half of the twentieth century Israel changed its tune. While the Menashe are still required to undergo halachic conversion, they are now allowed to immigrate freely to Israel. In April of 2016, DNA testing proved that the Bnei Menashe share Jewish ancestry.



¹"Wait, that's three tribes!" you say. Well, kinda. the Levites were the designated priests of ancient Judaism, so the were set apart from the whole 12 tribes thing. If you include the Levites, there's actually 13 tribes: Ephraim, Manasseh, Levi, Judah, Simeon, Ruben, Issachar, Asher, Dan, Gad, Benjamin, Naphtali, and Zebulun.

Sources
After 27 Centuries of Exile, 102 Bnei Menashe Head to Israel
Bnei Menashe
Does Push for India's 'Lost Tribe of Menashe' Signal New Interest in Far-Flung Jewish Communities?
Over 100 Members of Indian 'Lost Jewish Tribe' To Make Aliya
A Long-Lost Tribe is Ready to Come Home
These Incredible Photos Show Members of an Indian-Jewish 'Lost Tribe' Moving to Israel
Who Are We?
With DNA Tests, Mystery of the 'Lost Tribe' of Indian Jews Finally Solved

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Root Of Man Found in Canal

You may have noticed, but I love prehistory. We know so little about where man actually came from, and because there's so little archaeological evidence surrounding early man every time something new is discovered it's very exciting. So, as you might guess, I was super stoked when earlier this week archaeologists announced that nearly a year ago they dug up two 9.7 million year old teeth in Germany that changes all previous theories about the origins of man.

Before I start, I have to say that these teeth weren't actually found in a canal, they were found in the Rhine Riverbed. Which makes it even more amazing that despite being buried in dirt for millions of years, the teeth were in good condition. According to the scientists on the project, they look like they could have been pulled yesterday.

9.7 million year old human tooth germany
One of the teeth. Kinda gross, but really cool.

According to Herbert Lutz, the lead author for the study, these teeth show similar characteristics to teeth previously found in hominids, the generally supposed precursors to man. What makes these teeth so interesting is their location. All previous bones and fossils of this age have been found in Africa or the Mediterranean areas. There aren't a lot of fossils found in Central Europe, and certainly not near the Rhine. It had been previously supposed that hominids were centralized in Africa and the Mediterranean area, but the finding of these teeth suggest hominids may have lived farther north as well.

Though two teeth might not seem like a big find, they're a big deal when it comes to learning about early man. The wear marks on the teeth will be able to help historians guess at the diet of these early people, and analysis of the enamel can help guess the age of the owner.

The reason that archaeologists waited so long to release their find is because these teeth completely overthrow everything previously known about the evolution of man, and they wanted to be 120% sure before telling McGraw-Hill to start rewriting their textbooks. However, a year later they are confident enough in their dating to release the find.

This article leaves me with many questions, and, I'll admit, I've been having fun speculating about the answers. My biggest question though-- why have this primate's teeth have lasted for 9 million years, when I have 357 new cavities every time I go to the dentist?¹


¹I'm just kidding, of course. Obviously those teeth are fossilized, and the differences between the prehistoric diet and the diet of a modern day chocolate addict are vastly different.

Sources
Prehistoric Teeth Dating Back 9.7 Million Years 'Could Rewrite Human History'
9.7 Million Year Old Fossilized Hominin Teeth From Germany Set To Take a Big Bite Out of the African Human Origin Theory
9.7 Million Year Old Teeth Fossils Raise Questions About Human Origins

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Damn, Girl-Sammuramat and Semiramis-The Woman and the Legend

Ancient Assyria was brutal. Warmongering and conquest was an enormous part of the culture, and women had no place in war or political leadership¹. Queen Sammuramat, however, had a place in both.

Image result for Semiramis
Semiramis Hears of the Insurrection of Babylon
by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri
Unfortunately, there's not a lot of definitive, reliable information about Sammuramat. She lived before 1000 BCE, and it's difficult to retrieve written, official records from that era. However, it's a pretty good bet that Sammuramat was something special, because she's the basis for the legendary Semiramis, and legends don't usually spring out of nowhere.

But first the facts. We know that Sammuramat was the wife of king Shamshi-Adad V, and that after he died in battle she took the throne as regent for her son, Adad-Nirari III. She was involved in invasions of Armenia² and India, and she was a great builder. We also know that she held her throne for between 30-40 years--pretty impressive for a ruler of that time period.

And that would be about the end of the stone cold fact for Sammuramat, the rest is guesswork based off the myths of Queen Semiramis. There are enough similarities between Semiramis and Sammuramat to presume that Semiramis is based off of Sammuramat, Hellenization of her name aside.

According to the myths, Semiramis was the the daughter of Derceto, a Syrian fish goddess, and a handsome youth who served Derceto. Ashamed at having done the deed with a mortal, Derceto killed the youth, and abandoned Semiramis on the banks of a river to die. Luckily for Semiramis, the local avian community decided to keep her alive. Doves brought her food and milk, and covered her for warm. They nourished her until the keeper of the king's herds--Semmis-- found her and adopted her. All of this demi-goddess and dove nonsense later led to Semiramis being associated with Ishtar/Inanna/Astarte after her death.

Image result for map of the assyrian empire
Map of the Assyrian Empire
Semiramis possessed, or course, an unearthly beauty, and so when Onnes, the governor of Syria, saw her, he immediately asked for her hand in marriage. Semmis agreed, and the pair married. According to legend, they were quite in love, and had two sons together. Legend also claims that not only was Semiramis really attractive, she was also really smart. Smart enough that Onnes consulted her before doing pretty much anything. So when the king asked Onnes to go to war, it wasn't long before Onnes asked Semiramis to join him.
The Assyrian army had been unsuccessfully attacking the city of Bactra in modern day Afghanistan when Semiramis turned up. She had been wearing long robes that covered her skin and made it impossible to tell if she was male or female³. When she arrived on the battlefield, she saw Assyrian soldiers besieging the city from every angle except at the raised acropolis, which was  undefended. Choosing a group of soldiers skilled at climbing, Semiramis led the men, and captured the acropolis, bringing down the city.

Shamshi-Adad was, understandably, intrigued to see who had captured the city he'd been going after for forever. When Onnes introduced him to his lovely wife, Shamshi-Adad fell instantly in love. He ordered Onnes to let him have Semiramis. Though the king said that Onnes could marry his daughter as recompense, Onnes wasn't too keen on that, and he went and hanged himself. Semiramis' feelings are unknown.

Image result for van armenia cuneiform
Cuneiform on a rock near Van, Armenia. This writing
is sometimes attributed to Semiramis in myths
Sources disagree upon how exactly Semiramis came to the throne, but the most common story is that she convinced Shamshi-Adad to let her have power for five days. He agreed to do so, and in the biggest power move of the BCEs, Semiramis had him executed, and declared herself regent.

Next Semiramis started engaging in the traditional hobbies of kings--conquest, building, and sex. According to the legends, she was a master of all three. She lead a successful invasion of Armenia, kept stability in the restless Assyrian empire, and led an invasion of India that may or may not have gone well depending on who you ask. Semiramis for sure built the embankments at Babylon, but she's also credited with building the city of Babylon and the famous hanging gardens. (Spoiler alert, she didn't do either of those things) According to Armenian legends, she carved wisdom on the unbreakable stones near modern day Van.

And, of course, the most lurid myths about Semiramis are the myths about her insatiable sexual appetites. Wherever famous and powerful women go, myths about their voracious lust follow them. In Semiramis' case, the myths are that she never remarried in order to preserve her power, but instead took lovers from an elite regiment of guards in her army. After one night of passion, she had her lover executed to prevent endangering the political stability she worked so hard for.
Image result for semiramis degas
Semiramis Inspecting the City of Babylon
by Degas
Sammuramat, while definitely a colorful character, could not possibly have done all the things that the mythical Semiramis did. Historical dating of the ruins of Babylon prove that it existed long before she did, and the writing in the caves above Van, while written in Cuneiform, is not written in the Assyrian language. What is true, however, is that myths and legends grow up around powerful and exceptional people. A woman holding power, and for that long, in ancient Assyria was completely unprecedented, it only follows that myths would spring up around her, if not only to justify the status quo. By making Sammuramat a demigoddess with superhuman skills the Assyrians guaranteed that she would be the exception, not the rule. By making Sammuramat the exception, it was ensured that it would be incredibly difficult for another woman to hold the throne.

¹Enheduanna, remember, was Sumerian. The Sumerians and Assyrians, though they share a homeland and are often lumped together under the term 'Mesopotamian', are different civilizations.
²The Armenians aren't too fond of her
³Some myths attribute Semiramis with the invention of the chador.

Sources
Semiramis
Sammu-ramat
Sammu-Ramat and Semiramis: The Inspiration and the Myth
The True Story of Semiramis, Legendary Queen of Babylon
Sammuramat


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Tory Island

Tory Island is a remote island off the coast of Ireland. Separated from County Donegal by a little more than seven miles of ocean, it is the last remaining part of Ireland to have a King. Tory is known for it's art, culture, scenery, and mythic past. According to the stories, Tory used to be home to the Fomorians-- massive one-eyed giants with a thirst for human blood.

Image result for dún bhaloir
Dún Bhaloir
According to legend, Balor, the king of the Fomorians, lived in a gigantic fortress on Tory Island. He had locked his daughter Eithne in a tower, because of a prophecy that said he would be killed by his own grandson. Balor did end up being killed by his grandson Lugh, the son god, but the ruins of the fortress where Eithne was supposedly imprisoned stands on Tory Island today as the Dún Bhaloir, a narrow, rocky natural stone wall that juts out dramatically into the sea.

Ancient legend aside, Tory Island's history is defined by the arrival of Colm Cille, or St. Colombcile. Colm arrived on Tory sometime in the 6th century, prepared to spread Christianity. He encountered only pagans, but in a surprising turn of events, there was no hostility from either side, in fact, an Islander named Duggan asked for Colm's help. Tory was being raided by pirates all the damn time, and Duggan was, understandably worried about trifling things like his home, family,  life. Colm was so impressed by this man who took the initiative to share his problems, he declared Duggan king of Tory Island. He told Duggan to challenge the pirates. Duggan did so, and the pirates never bothered the island again. Impressed, the entire island converted to Christianity, and Colm built a monastery. Colm also gave Duggan a pot made of magical clay that drove all the rats out of Tory. While many people may be skeptical of 'magical clay', there are no rats on Tory, and the pot rests in the possession of the Duggan family to this day.

Image result for tory island cross
Tau Cross, erected by Colm Cille, is one of
the few T shaped crosses in Ireland
St. Colombcile's declaration of kingship became one of the island's most cherished traditions, a tradition that carries on to this day. In modern times the king is elected, and his kingly duties include things like greeting tourists at the docks, seeing tourists off, maintaining the cultural integrity of the island, and politely refusing the Irish government's offers to resettle the people on Tory on the mainland. The current king of Tory is one Patsy Dan Rogers. Rogers, like many of the inhabitants, is an artist.

Art is another thing that Tory is famous for. The Islanders have a style of 'primitive painting' unique to the island. It was started in the 1950s when artist Derek Hill stopped by, and was saucily told by local James Dixon that he, Dixon, could paint much better than Hill. This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and the beginning of a new school of painting devoted to capturing the beauty of island life. You can see the contents of the local art gallery here.

Today, Tory is a summer home for artists, and a short stop for tourists. The permanent population is rapidly shrinking in growth, with only four children being born on the island in the last eight years. The Donegal government has, more than once, offered to resettle the islanders on the mainland, but the few islanders that live on Tory can't be bought, and remain faithfully on the island.

Image result for tory island king
Patsy Dan Rogers, King of Tory


Sources
History of the Irish Race by Seamus MacManus
Round Ireland With a Fridge by Tony Hawks
History of Tory
A Visit to Tory Island
Tory Island, the Secret Kingdom
The Last King of Ireland
Balor

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Milk War

The Russian-Belarusian 'Milk War' of 2009 lasted a little over two weeks, and during those two weeks no shots were fired. One of the pettiest wars of all time, the only victims were Belarusian wallets and Russian dairy consumers.

Image result for belarus map
Belarus and Russia are neighbors, and have traditionally
had good diplomatic relations.
This war started when Russia banned all dairy imports from Belarus, supposedly because Belarusian dairy didn't meet Russian health standards, but more likely because Belarus wasn't doing what Russia told it to. Russia has a history of banning imports from countries that make it made, and they were pretty upset with Belarus for a few reasons.

  1. Belarus refused to recognize the breakaway states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia had assisted South Ossetia and Abkhazia in declaring independence from the country of Georgia. The only other country than Russia to have recognized those countries was the Central American country of Nicaragua. Russia wanted some support, but Belarus just wasn't there for them.
  2. Russia depends on a Belarus pipeline to pipe its oil to the rest of Europe. Russia tried to buy this pipeline from Belarus, but Belarus refused to sell.
  3. Belarus had become decided more pro European, releasing political prisoners, and trying to make good with the rest of Europe. This angered Russia, who isn't very friendly with Europe.
Image result for belarus vs russia
Russian and Belarusian military marching together
on parade in 2011, two years after the end of the milk war
Belarus responded in a spectacularly mature fashion by imposing stricter border checkpoints on the Russia-Belarus border, and by refusing to attend the meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a confederation of former Soviet states. The meeting had been to solidify a confederation wide military union. Belarus, formerly one of Russia's biggest supporters, not being present really infuriated the Russian government.

You can essentially envisage the Milk War as an argument between two particularly passive-aggressive teenage girls. Belarus won't give Russia what it wants, so Russia won't let Belarus bring its stuff over to Russia's house. This upsets Belarus, who decides that Russia can't come over to their house either. There had been a party planned for Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and a whole bunch of other people, but Belarus was still pissed off at Russia, so Belarus decided not to show up, which made Russia mad. A couple weeks later, they realize they need each other, and talk it out.
Today, dairy products pass freely through Belarus and Russia. Belarus still doesn't recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and continue to make pro-European overtures. Russia isn't very happy about this, but for the sake of regional security, they bite their tongues.

Sources

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Damn, Girl-Enheduanna, High Priestess of Ur and the World's First Author Known by Name

Living more than 2000 years before the common era, Enheduanna was, without a doubt, one of the most important religious and political figures of ancient Mesopotamia. Not only was she one of the first women to serve as high priestess to the moon god Nanna, but she successfully integrated the Sumerian and Akkadian pantheons, uniting the Sumerians and Akkadians into one people under the rule of her father, Sargon the Great.

Image result for enheduanna
Alabaster disk depicting Enheduanna and three unknown
males. She is the second from the left, and the largest
figure, showing her importance. 
To really explain why Enheduanna is such a remarkable woman, I need to explain the political situation of her era. Enheduanna was born into ancient Mesopotamia--arguably one of the most bloody and turbulent civilizations to exist. Located in modern Iraq, the ancient state of Sumer was in the process of being unified (read as 'conquered') by an upstart, fatherless Akkadian named Sargon. Sargon was eventually successful, but he didn't just want to conquer unify all of Sumer. No, Sargon dreamed big, Sargon wanted the impossible; he wanted peace.

The Mesopotamians had a whole pantheon of violent and angry goods whom they relied on very much. Being located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers might have given them lush farmland, but the rivers were wildly unpredictable, and violent floods could happen at any moment. To try and keep the rivers, as well as more bloodshed, at bay, the Sumerians were devout worshipers. Their lives depended on it.

The Akkadians worshiped a different set of gods. Sargon came to the conclusion that to unite his people, he should unite them under one religion. That's when he asked his daughter, Enheduanna, to step in.

Now, before I go further, I must note that Enheduanna may not have been Sargon's literal daughter. Sargon may have designated her his 'daughter' as a symbolic gesture to link his kingship with the gods. However, if Enheduanna was Sargon's literal, biological daughter, it would certainly explain the Sumerian tradition of appointing princesses as high priestesses.
Image result for enheduanna poems
Clay tablet of Enheduanna's poetry

Sargon appointed Enheduanna as high priestess to the moon and creator god Duanna. It is presumed that Enheduanna changed her name to Enheduanna to reflect her position. Enheduanna's job was to unite the Akkadian and Sumerian gods into one pantheon; a job Enheduanna set to with relish. To do this, she picked up her scribe, and proceeded to dictate several hundreds of hymns and religious texts.

Though Enheduanna was priestess to Duanna, she was much more interested in Inanna, goddess of fertility, love and beauty. She seemed to have considered Inanna her goddess, and most of her surviving works are devoted mainly to Inanna, not Nanna.

Enheduanna was also quite interested in the Akkadian goddess Ishtar. Ishtar was similar to Inanna--goddess of love, fertility, etc.--but she was also the goddess of war. In her hymns to Inanna, Enheduanna started to slowly combine the aspects of Inanna with the aspects of Ishtar--depicting Inanna on the battlefield, sword of judgement in her hand.

Enheduanna was briefly exiled from Ur during a coup d'etat orchestrated by political enemy Lugal-Ane. Lugal-Ane overthrew Enheduanna's father Sargon, and forced Enheduanna out of the city. Enheduanna had proclaimed Lugal-Ane unworthy and ungodly because of his treatment of the priestesses. It was in response to this exile that Enheduanna wrote her seminal work.

Inanna with a lion.
The Temple Hymn, Enheduanna's most famous work, was preserved in stone on pillars in her temple. It is a poem starting in the third person, then gradually moving to the first, praising Inanna, calling Inanna to rid Enheduanna of her enemies, telling the story of Enheduanna's exile from Ur, then telling the story of Enheduanna's triumphant return. In reading of the poem, Enheduanna seems to take on the place of Inanna as a goddess herself. Unsurprisingly, there is evidence saying that Enheduanna may have been worshiped as a deity after her death.

Despite having lived more than 4,000 years ago Enheduanna is well known because of the many copies of her works that exist today. Hundreds of clay tablets have been excavated that contains copies of her poetry. Additionally, in 1929 an alabaster disk containing Enheduanna's image was found. This disk portrays Enheduanna as the central character, and confirms that she held a great position of importance in Sumerian society.

In addition to the many great things she did politically, Enheduanna has quite a few literary firsts to her name. She is the first (known) author in the world. While there are certainly texts written before Enheduanna's hymns and poetry, all are written anonymously; Enheduanna was the first to claim credit for her work. In addition, Enheduanna is the first (known) author to have written in the first person.

Enheduanna was an exceptional woman for many reasons. She effected tremendous change in the politics, religion, and literature of her time, and those changes made history. Sumer wouldn't have been who it was without her contributions to their religion. Though she isn't well known, Enheduanna life's work is still taught in schools today.

Sources
Enheduana-Ancient History Encyclopedia
Enheduana-Dr. Roberta Binkley
Enheduana-New World Encyclopedia
Enheduanna, Daughter of King Sargon. Princess, Poet, Priestess. 2300 BC