One of my most pleasant pastimes is reading poetry. For several years now, I have been putting together a collection of poems that I have enjoyed at various times in my life, and I have added some comments about each of them.
I realize that most people do not read poetry. However, on the off-chance that you might like it, the anthology is available in pdf format by clicking on the link below. Once the file is opened you can save it to your own device.
Although the pdf can be read by any pdf reader, it is probably best looked at two-pages at a time (like a book) using Adobe Acrobat Reader DC (free) and a relatively large screen. To do this, follow the instructions given at the beginning of the book. Adobe also allows you to search for particular poems by title or by author.
As noted in the preface, I also have sound-files containing recitations of all the poems, many by the authors, themselves. Early in the new year I shall find some way of embedding these in a larger “text and sound” pdf.
Intimations of Mortality
We have been here before. The coronavirus pandemic has many precedents. Over the centuries various plagues have swept over our world. Many millions of people have died before their time. From 1347 to 1351 the Black Death killed about 30 million people in Medieval Europe: over a third of the population. From 1918 to 1920 the Great Influenza killed about 50 million people: about 2.5% of the world’s population. Each of these pandemics was as deadly as World War I (about 20 million) or World War II (about 70 million). Pandemics are more worrisome than wars: we cannot sue for peace with a virus. Most of us survived even the worst of past infections. Our systems of immunity will likely once again become victorious in this present pandemic. But just like after a war, we shall be severely chastened. How close we will have come to death will change the way we think. Everything will be seen through the mirror of our own mortality and the transience of our species. The nearness of an ending will distort our thinking. We shall have strange dreams and frightening visions.
John of Patmos
Such dreams and visions came to a man named John almost two millennia ago. In the second half of the 1st Century CE, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian, the Christians of the Roman Empire were severely persecuted, the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and the Roman Empire was shaken by attacks from without and rebellions from within. There was no pandemic but life was just as uncertain.
On the island of Patmos just off the west coast of what is now Turkey, a Christian named John experienced disturbing visions of the future. He described these in a manuscript that began with the word apokalypsis (Greek for “unveiling”). This became Revelation, the last book in the Christian New Testament (Koester, 2014; Quispel, 1979). The illustration on the right, from the Bamberg Apocalypse, an illuminated manuscript from the 11th Century, shows an angel telling John what he should write:
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John (Revelation 1:1)
For many years, Christian scholars assumed that John the Apostle, the youngest of Christ’s disciples, was the author of Revelation, the Gospel of John and the three Epistles of John. Most modern scholars consider it unlikely that he wrote any of these works. They suggest three separate authors one for the gospel, one for the three epistles, and one for the apocalypse. One telling point is that each author describes the end-times very differently. For example, the Antichrist is mentioned in the epistles (e.g. 1 John 2:18), but not in the apocalypse. The author of Revelation was probably a Jewish-Christian prophet living in Asia Minor – John of Patmos. He may have written the book over many years. One suggestion is that he began writing as a Jew and later converted to Christianity (Koester, 2014, pp 68-71).
The visions described by John are stunning in their force and detail. The Whore of Babylon, the Seven-Headed Beast, and the Four Horsemen have become part of our collective consciousness.
Revelation is the most interpreted and least understood book of the Christian Bible (Quispel, 1979; Koester, 2014). Some have interpreted the visions as describing the troubled time in which they were experienced. The Seven-Headed Beast could then represent Rome (with its seven hills, or its seven emperors), and the Rider on the White Horse could represent the Parthians who threatened the peace of the Middle East. Others have considered the visions as prophesying the later history of the Christian Church. The Whore of Babylon was the papacy of Rome for Protestants and the heresies of the Reformation for Catholics. Others believe that Revelation foretells the Last Days, that are yet to come, when Christ will judge both the quick and the dead.
John’s first vision was of the Lord seated upon a throne in Heaven. This is illustrated below in the 11th-Century Bamberg Apocalypse, and in the 1498 woodcut by Albrecht Dürer. Around the throne were four beasts in the form of Man, Lion, Ox and Eagle, probably representing the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Around them were four and twenty elders, clothed in white and wearing crowns of gold. In the Lord’s right hand was a book “sealed with seven seals.” The structure of this book is not clear. Perhaps it is made up of seven scrolls one rolled up within the other (Quispel, 1979, p 51). A mystical lamb appears and proceeds to open each of the seals.
The Four Horsemen
As the first four seals are opened four horsemen appear:
And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see.
And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.
And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see.
And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.
And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.
And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.
And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.
And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth. (Revelation 6:1-8)
Only the fourth horseman is clearly identified by John as Death. The color of his horse has been interpreted as “pale,” although the Greek chloros is actually better translated as “green.” Perhaps John envisioned a sickly pale green color. The identity of the other three is unknown (reviewed by Koester, 2014, pp 392-398; and in Wikipedia). The rider of the black horse with his scales for weighing and pricing food was almost certainly Famine. The rider of the Red Horse was probably War. The first horsemen has been interpreted in many ways. Perhaps he is Christ, perhaps the Antichrist. Some have considered him as Conquest though this seems to overlap with the rider of the Red Horse. Pestilence or plague seems the most reasonable interpretation. His arrows could then represent the transmission of infection.
The most famous depiction of the Four Horsemen is the 1498 woodcut of Albrecht Dürer, illustrated on the right. The first three horsemen look like mercenary warriors from the Hundred Year War. Death is a skeletal figure riding an emaciated horse. He clears the world of those who die from pestilence, war and famine.
The 1865 wood-engraving by Héliodore Pelan based on a drawing by Gustave Doré gives Death a more majestic appearance, and grants him the scythe that has become his symbol. The scythe refers the apocalyptic passages in the Gospels that consider the final harvest of human souls. Doré also depicts the dark shades of Hades that John saw following after Death.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider
In 1918 Katherine Anne Porter almost died from the Great Influenza while she was in Denver working as a journalist (Barry, 1963). In 1939 she published Pale Horse, Pale Rider a short novel about that experience. In the novel she calls herself Miranda (from the Latin, “to be wondered at”). Pale Horse, Pale Rider was published together with two other stories – Old Mortality and Noon Wine – and gave its title to the collection.
The novel opens with a dream. Miranda is about to go riding, but she cannot decide which horse to borrow for a journey she does not wish to take. She decides against Miss Lucy “with the long nose and the wicked eye,” and Fiddler “who can jump ditches in the dark,” and choses Graylie “because he is not afraid of bridges.” These horses are those that were ridden long ago by Amy, the wife of Miranda’s Uncle Gabriel. Amy was a beautiful and spirited young woman, who committed suicide before Miranda was born. Her story was told in Old Mortality, one of several Miranda stories.
In the dream Miranda must go riding with a stranger who has been hanging about the place. She mounts Graylie, and urges him on. They fly off, over the hedge and the ditch and down the lane:
The stranger rode beside her, easily, lightly, his reins loose in his half-closed hand, straight and elegant in dark shabby garments that flapped upon his bones. (Porter, 1939, p 181)
Suddenly, she pulls Graylie up, the stranger rides on, and Miranda wakes up.
She remembers the events of the day before, particularly her visit to the infirmary at the army camp, and her tryst with her new boyfriend Adam, a young and handsome soldier about to be sent to France. She is not feeling well, but goes to work and once again meets Adam.
The next day she feels quite ill, and is seen by a doctor who prescribes some medications and says he will check on her later. Adam comes to see her and comforts her. They talk of their love for each other, about the war and about old songs they had heard when they were younger. One of these is a spiritual that began “Pale horse, pale rider, done taken my lover away.” The doctor returns and arranges for Miranda to be admitted to hospital. She has contracted influenza, perhaps from her visit to the infirmary.
While in hospital Miranda comes close to death but survives
Silenced she sank easily through deeps under deeps of darkness until she lay like a stone at the farthest bottom of life, knowing herself to be blind, deaf, speechless, no longer aware of the members of her own body, entirely with-drawn from all human concerns, yet alive with a peculiar lucidity and coherence; all notions of the mind, the reasonable inquiries of doubt, all ties of blood and the desires of the heart, dissolved and fell away from her, and there remained of her only a minute fiercely burning particle of being that knew itself alone, that relied upon nothing beyond itself for its strength; not susceptible to any appeal or inducement, being itself com-posed entirely of one single motive, the stubborn will to live. This fiery motionless particle set itself unaided to resist destruction, to survive and to be in its own madness of being, motiveless and planless beyond that one essential end. (pp 252-3).
She has a vision of a place reached by crossing a rainbow bridge. Graylie was not afraid of bridges. There Miranda sees in the shimmering air “a great company of human beings,” all the people she had known in life. From this apparent heaven she returns to the reality of the hospital. She has miraculously comeback from the dead. She lives up to her name – someone to be wondered at.
In her convalescence she learns that Adam had also became ill, probably having caught the disease from her. However, though Miranda had survived, Adam had died.
Outside the bells are ringing to celebrate the end of the war. As Miranda prepares to leave the hospital, she requests some essentials to begin her new life:
One lipstick, medium, one ounce flask Bois d’Hiver perfume, one pair gray suede gauntlets without straps, two pairs gray sheer stockings without clocks … one walking stick of silvery wood with a silver knob. (p 262).
She will be pale and elegant like the rider she dreamed about at the beginning of her illness, the rider that done take her love away. She has been irretrievably marked by death. As she leaves the hospital Miranda thinks
No more war, no more plague, only the dazed silence that follows the ceasing of the heavy guns; noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow. Now there would be time for everything. (p 264)
Life is now defined by what it is not – no war, no plague, no noise, no light. Porter’s words recall Wilfred Owen’s 1917 poem Anthem for Doomed Youth which begins with the “monstrous anger of the guns” and ends with “each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds” (Owen, 1985, p 76). Much poetry was written about the terrible loss of life in the Great War. Very little is concerned with the great epidemic of influenza that marked its ending (Crosby, 1989; Fisher, 2012).
Miranda’s final claim “Now there would be time for everything” is the tragedy of the book. She is now free to do as she wishes but there is nothing that she wishes to do.
Porter spent many years before she fully recovered from her experience in Denver. She did not publish her first stories until 1930, and Pale Horse, Pale Rider did not come out until 1939. Some sense of Miranda’s feelings at the end of that book is perhaps present in the 1942 portrait drawing of Porter by Paul Cadmus.
The Great Influenza
The influenza that almost killed Katherine Anne Porter swept across the world between 1918 and 1921 (Barry, 2004; Crosby, 1989; Spinney, 2017; Taubenberger & Morens, 2006). No one is sure where it began. The first cases were seen in Kansas, and the disease spread rapidly through the US army camps where young men were being trained before going to fight in France.
The following is the iconic image of the epidemic: the make-shift infirmary at Camp Funston, Kansas. The photograph is strangely still. It should be accompanied by the sound of intermittent coughing. The light rakes across the camp cots, randomly selecting one soldier or another, much as the disease would select those who would die. There was no treatment: oxygen would not be used for pneumonia until after the war (Heffner, 2013). About a quarter of the young men in this photo likely died of influenza. More US soldiers died of influenza than during battle.
The disease quickly spread to the battlefields of Europe. None of the combatant-countries wished to acknowledge that their troops were ill. Since the first officially reported cases occurred when the disease spread to Spain, the pandemic was thereafter miscalled the Spanish Flu. In this posting it is called the Great Influenza.
The 1918 pandemic was unusual in that it the young and healthy were more susceptible to the disease than the elderly. This may have been related to the close quartering of the young soldiers. Or it might have been caused by an overly reactive immune system.
Coronavirus COVID-19 acts similarly to the influenza virus in terms of its spread through airborne droplets, and in terms of how its major morbidity is due to a viral pneumonia. The coronavirus differs from the Great Influenza in that it affects the elderly more than the young. Nevertheless, we should look to the Great Influenza in terms of what might happen in our current pandemic.
A pandemic is characterized by two main parameters. The contagiousness of the disease is measured by the basic reproduction number (R0). This is the number of new people that will become infected from one individual patient. If R0 is less than 1 the disease dies out; if it is greater than 1 the disease spreads exponentially through the population. The virulence of the disease is assessed by the case fatality rate (CFR). This measures the proportion of infected patients that die.
For the Great Influenza R0 was about 2 (Ferguson et al. 2006), and the CFR was about 2.5% (Taubenberger & Morens, 2006). We do not yet know for sure how the present coronavirus COVID-19 compares. Early data from China suggest that R0 is about 2, and the CFR about 5% (Wu et al., 2020). Since we have not yet done sufficient testing to be sure of the number of cases in the population, the CFR is likely overestimated. Most of the tested cases are patients who have been severely symptomatic. If there is a significant number of asymptomatic (and untested) cases, the CFR will be lower (discussed extensively on the World in Data website). It might approach the CFR estimated for the Great Influenza, but it will be at least an order of magnitude greater than seasonal flu (<0.1%).
For those who wish to consider all the other great epidemics of human history, Wikipedia has listed their estimated values for R0and CFR.
The numbers for COVID-19 Pandemic indicate we must be extremely cautious so as not to endure a repeat of the Great Influenza. Since stories are often more convincing than numbers, we can briefly consider the effect of the Philadelphia’s Liberty Loan Parade on September 23, 1918. Despite warnings about the influenza, the city went ahead with a huge parade to drum up support for the US war effort. A few days after the parade, hundreds of people became ill. Soon the number of ill patients increased. Hospitals rapidly became overcrowded and unable to take new cases. By the end of the years the number of cases exceeded 100,000 and the number of dead approached 13,000, over 1% of the city’s population (Barry, 2004, pp 220-227; Kopp & McGovern, 2018)). In contrast after the first recorded cases of influenza in St Louis, that city quickly instituted measures against the spread of the disease, such as closing schools and banning public gatherings. The number of deaths in St Louis per 100,000 population during the epidemic was less than half that in Philadelphia (Hatchett et al, 2007).
In Philadelphia and across the world morticians and gravediggers rapidly became overwhelmed and bodies began to pile up in the streets. In Rio de Janeiro, Jamanta, a famous carnival reveller, commandeered a tram and a luggage car and swept through the city picking up bodies and delivering them to the cemetery (Spinney, 2017, p. 54-55).
Despite its death toll, the Great Influenza was largely ignored by historians until the possibility of new influenza pandemics became real toward the end of the 20th Century. Thousands of monuments memorializing those who died in the Great War exist all over the world. Monuments to those who died of influenza are scarce, even though those who died of the disease outnumbered those who died in battle. The soldiers at Camp Fenton erected their own memorial to their colleagues who had died of the influenza (illustrated on the right, with its designer Henry Hardy). The monument was a simple pyramid of piled up stones with the names of the victims written in smaller stones on the grass. The camp and its monument have been long ago abandoned.
One of the reasons for the lack of attention that the Great Influenza received may have been that it did not fit with any overarching narrative. Though many died, they did not die for some noble cause. The disease was largely random it its killing.
The Black Death
Even though it did not kill so many, the Black Death had a far greater impact on our history. It shattered the society of the Middle Ages, disrupting the feudal system, and questioning the power of the Church. Part of this impact was due to the Bubonic Plague being far more virulent than either the influenza or the coronavirus. The Case Fatality Rate during the Black Death was over 30%. The disease was caused by a bacterium Yersinia pestis, which is endemic in rats and transmitted to human beings by fleas. The infected rats and their fleas came to Europe from the East on merchant ships. The plague began in port cities such as Naples, Venice and Genoa, are rapidly spread throughout Europe (McMillen, 2016; Snowden, 2019).
Nowadays we have antibiotics that can kill the bacteria that causes the Bubonic Plague. Furthermore, we understand how it is transmitted and can prevent this by controlling human exposure to rats and fleas. In the 14th Century there was nothing to do but flee. This flight actually increased the spread of the disease, which was carried by the fleas on all those who ran away.
The Black Death bequeathed us with our most potent image of death as a skeletal figure, often clad in a shroud or black cloak and carrying scythe – the “grim reaper.” Such figures were often portrayed leading various people from all stations of life in a “dance of death.” The statue illustrated on the right is from the tomb in Trier Cathedral of Johann Philipp von Wallerdorff who died in 1768.
Many considered the Black Death as God’s punishment for humanity’s sins, and decided that a great return to God was necessary. Yet the plague had randomly killed both saint and sinner. Others thought that the plague was God’s demonstration that the Church had gone astray and needed to be reformed. Yet both priests and parishioners were equally affected.
And so, a few came to the idea that perhaps there was no God. The only justice in the world was at the hand of human beings. And their only recourse was themselves. And if they could ultimately survive the plague, they could perhaps settle on a different world, where reason ruled instead of faith.
The Seventh Seal
In Revelation after the four horsemen, the fifth and sixth seals are opened. These bring forth to John a vision of the Christian Martyrs, and then a vision of all those who had been saved by faith in Christ. Finally, the last seal is opened:
And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour. (Revelation 8:1)
Christians interpret the silence as representing the awe that occurs when one realizes the greatness of God and his program for the future. Ingmar Bergman considered it differently. Much of his work is concerned with the silence of God. All our prayers no matter how fervent are met with silence. He made this the subject of a trilogy of films: Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963) and The Silence (1963).
The idea is also at the heart of his earlier 1957 film The Seventh Seal. The quotation from Revelation about the opening of the seventh seal and the silence in heaven begins the film. A knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) has just returned to Sweden from the Crusades. He has brought with him a game of chess that he learned in Palestine. All of Europe is in the grip of the Black Death. On a beach Antonius prays to God. After his prayer, Death (Bengt Ekerot) appears. Antonius challenges Death to a game of Chess to decide his fate. The following is a clip from the movie. The sound of the waves goes silent when Death appears.
Bergman based the idea of the game of chess from a 1480 fresco (right) painted by Albertus Pictor in the Täby Church near Stockholm. As the film proceeds, Death ultimately wins the game, and leads Antonius and his family off in a dance of death. The film is not accurate historically: the crusades ended long before the Black Death. However, it is one of our most vivid depictions of human mortality.
Playing Chess with Death
Death is now among us. Not in as the dark figure portrayed by Bengt Ekerot, but in the form of a coronavirus epidemic. The disease is not as virulent as the Black Death. However, it is likely just as contagious and just as virulent as the virus that caused the Great Influenza. How do we prevent what happened in 1918 when Death took millions of people before their time?
How do we play our game of chess with Death? We still have no specific treatment, and there is as yet no vaccine. Unlike in 1918, however, we now have oxygen therapy and, if necessary, artificial ventilation. These procedures can help patients with pneumonia survive until their immune systems can finally destroy the virus. Furthermore, we have monitors such as finger oximeters that can determine when oxygen therapy is needed.
What is most important is to inhibit the spread of the disease in the population. The most powerful means to do this involves identifying all patients with the disease, tracing all people who have come in contact with these patients, testing these contacts, and quarantining both the patients and their contacts (whether or not they are infected) until they are no longer contagious. Since we have tests that are reasonably specific for the virus, this approach is definitely possible, and is being used successfully in China and in South Korea.
In the absence of contact tracing, we can limit the spread of the disease by staying away from our fellows beyond the distance that airborne drops can travel: “physical distancing” (a more appropriate term than “social distancing”). Physical distancing can certainly slow down the spread of the disease so that hospital facilities for treating those patients that develop pneumonia do not become overwhelmed. However, it will ultimately have to be replaced with contact tracing. Or the Dance of Death will continue.
Despite our best efforts many people will die in the pandemic. Though we know we have to die sometime, we generally believe that this will not be tomorrow. Nowadays death is closer. We need to come to terms with it. Through whatever stories, dreams and visions we can muster. We cannot play chess well without equanimity.
Barry, J. M. (2004). The great influenza: The epic story of the deadliest plague in history. New York: Viking.
Crosby, A. W. (1989/2003). America’s forgotten pandemic: The influenza of 1918. Cambridge England: Cambridge University Press.
Ferguson NM; Cummings DA; Fraser C; et al. (2006). Strategies for mitigating an influenza pandemic. Nature, 442 (7101), 448–452.
Fisher, J. E. (2012). Envisioning disease, gender, and war: Women’s narratives of the 1918 influenza pandemic. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
McMillen, C. W. (2016). Pandemics: a very short introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.
Owen, W. (Edited by Stallworthy, J., 1985). The poems of Wilfred Owen. London: Hogarth Press.
Porter, K. A. (1939). Pale horse, pale rider: Three short novels. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
Quispel, G. (1979). The secret Book of Revelation: The last book of the Bible. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Snowden, F. M. (2019). Epidemics and society: From the Black Death to the present. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Spinney, L. (2017). Pale rider: The Spanish flu of 1918 and how it changed the world. London: Johnathan Cape.
Taubenberger, J. K., & Morens, D. M. (2006) 1918 Influenza: the mother of all pandemics Emerging Infectious Diseases, 12, 15-22.
West, R. B. (1963). Katherine Anne Porter: American Writers 28. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Wu, J.T., Leung, K., Bushman, M. et al. (2020). Estimating clinical severity of COVID-19 from the transmission dynamics in Wuhan, China. Nature Medicine26, 506–510.
Hatred is directed anger. Though we can claim metaphorically to hate
unconscious objects or abstractions, hatred is typically directed at another person or persons. Hatred is evoked by suffering that we perceive they caused. Since it leads to actions against these persons, hatred can also be described as “ill
Emotions can overwhelm reason. Passion is not logical. We often hate
without any justification. Hatred must then be maintained by fictions that describe the evil nature of those we hate.
Antisemitism is the most enduring and most unjustified of human hatreds.
The ill will suffered by the Jewish people has lasted for thousands of years, and has led to countless crimes, the most terrible of which was the Holocaust wherein 6 million Jews were put to death by the Nazi Government of Germany (Bauer, 2001; Marrus, 1987). ;
Antisemitism has been inspired by many fictions. This posting considers the unfortunate power of some of the stories that paved the way to the Holocaust.
Some Simple Psychology
Anger arises when we experience suffering, especially when we believe it
to be unwarranted, and when we are thwarted from achieving what we desire,
especially when we believe that we entitled to it. Anger seeks to attack these causes: to hit out at those who strike us; to break those who obstruct us.
We tend to think of events as caused by persons. Even when forces of
nature act against us we may attribute them to a divinity or a devil, or to
those who worship them. Only in that way can anger find a target for its
Sometimes the causes of our anger are too complicated to understand or too powerful to fight against. In these cases, we may vent our anger elsewhere and attack other human beings, while inventing plausible (though fictional) reasons for so doing.
…every instance of suffering, every feeling of displeasure, by whomsoever and in whatsoever way it may have been caused, whether it arises from the guilt or from the lawful activity of another person, or through the sufferer’s own fault, or without any fault, or even without any human influence, tends to transform itself into a feeling of enmity, to direct itself against fellow-humans and if possible to express itself against them. (Bernstein, 1951, p 85)
As we were growing up during childhood, we realized – at about the age
of three – that we can exert some control over our environment. We therefore created a self as the agent of this control. At about the same time we realized that the world contains other agents. These could either help us or hinder us. We became comfortable with those that helped and learned to cooperate with them. We feared the others.
The group appears to be a curious form of extension of the individual. It seems as if under the influence of the necessities of human communal life, human beings who need love and produce hate combine into new, collective and collectively selfish individualities of a higher order; directing their love inwards, their hate outward, their social instincts towards the insider, their anti-social tendencies toward the outsider. (Bernstein, 1951, p 109-110)
Those who cooperated in groups came to have similar desires and modes of
behavior. They followed the same rules and sought the same goals. Those who
were different became isolated. These “others” challenge our group-identification (Chanes, 2004, p 3). In our search for where to vent our anger, we often light upon those that are different from us. Especially if these people are small in number and not inclined to violence.
While for normal group enmity a certain regularity in the mutual expression of enmity is characteristic, the antagonism between a powerful majority and a powerless minority is characterised by a onesidedness of hostile actions which is fatal for the minority. For the latter is exposed to continual attacks and must confine itself to laborious attempts to maintain its existence, without a chance to resist actively to any extent; even its passive means of defense are totally inadequate and its existence often has to rely on nothing but periodical flight from place to place. This onesided relation of
permanent attack and failing defense is called persecution. Weak minority
groups are usually persecuted more or less emphatically. (Bernstein, 1951, p 224)
The actual psychological mechanisms that lead to antisemitism are not
really understood. Some believe that there are personality-types that are more easily convinced to vent their hatred on minorities. The role of authority and power is undoubtedly a factor (Morse & Allport, 1952; Milgram, 1974). Those who seek power or wish to maintain it gain great support by fomenting hatred. Propaganda – invented stories – have a tremendous power. For some reason the more incredible the story the more easily it is believed (Baum, 2012). Dehumanization of the victims serves to attenuate our inherent tendency to help our fellows. (Bandura et al., 1975)
For millennia the Jewish people have allowed us to vent our hatred. For
millennia we have invented reasons for our violence.
The hostility toward a minority exacerbates the feelings that initially triggered. When persecuted, a minority does not fare well in society and often comes to appear even more deserving of denigration and oppression (Beller, 2007, p 5).
Antisemitism is not caused by the Jews but by the inadequacy of those who need to hate them.
…two psychological characteristics are present in the individual antisemite: excessive hostility and the need (and a capacity) to project one’s aggression on other groups. Persons who have these traits generally suffer from feelings of inadequacy and from the feeling that their own personal borders, psychologically speaking, are easily invaded by others (Chanes, 2004, p 7)
We can perhaps conclude this section with two epigrams from Jean-Paul Sartre (1948):
If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him (p 13)
Antisemitism is not a Jewish problem: it is our problem. (p 152)
The People of the Covenant
The Jews consider themselves God’s chosen people. In the Hebrew
scripture Yahweh made a covenant with Abraham, and then renewed the covenant with Jacob and with Moses. The Jews were to worship Yahweh as the one true God and to follow his commandments. The Jews would then serve as an example for the rest of humanity
I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles (Isaiah
In return, the Jews would be considered special
For thou art an holy people unto the Lord
thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto
himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth. (Deuteronomy 14:2)
And were promised as their home the land containing what is now the country of Israel
In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates (Genesis 15:18)
God’s covenant with the Jews was based on their keeping the commandments that he revealed to Moses. Rembrandt’s 1659 painting Moses with the Tablets of the Law shows Moses holding aloft the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments had been written. These were engraved on two separate stones (Exodus 31:18, 32:15). In the painting, only the second tablet is completely visible giving the 6th to 10th commandments (Exodus 20:13-17). These begin with: “Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal:” (Hebrew illustrated on the right).
No one is sure what moment in the story of the tablets Rembrandt is representing. Is it when he first displays these to the Hebrews? or when he is about to shatter them on the ground because the Hebrews had been worshipping the Golden Calf while he had been on Mount Sinai with God (Exodus 32:19)? or is it when he returns to God and brings a second set of tablets back to the chastised Hebrews (Exodus 34:1). Moses’ face is shining with revelation rather than angry. Perhaps, Rembrandt has painted the moment when Moses first displays the commandments.
No group of people is perfect. However, the Jews have contributed more than their share to the human endeavor – in philosophy, science, medicine, politics, art, music, literature. And for the most part the, laws that they accepted as part of their covenant with God have served them well. They are indeed an example to other people.
So why were and are they so often reviled? It is unlikely a reaction to their chutzpah in claiming to be God’s chosen. In the Middle Ages this was called the Insolentia Judaeorum. Yet every one of the world’s many religions claims to be just as special.
One defining aspect of the Jewish religion is that it is monotheistic. The first commandments state that a Jew must obey Jehovah and not even pay lip-service to any other god or idol:
I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them (Exodus 20:2-5).
The Jewish religion thus combines the worship of one god with strict obedience to his commandments. As Prager and Telushkin (2003) have suggested, this ethical monotheism may have offended those who followed other gods. Jews refused to follow the proverbial injunction that when in Rome do as the Romans do. For example, the outburst of violence against the Jews in Alexandria in 38 CE (then part of the Roman Empire) was triggered by their refusal to place statues of the Emperor Caligula in their temples (Goldstein, 2012).
One should respect the beliefs of others. However, respect does not mean obeying rules that go against one’s own moral principles. The Jewish people’s refusal to acknowledge or worship other gods has continued to the present. In particular Jews do not recognize the divinity of Jesus Christ.
In addition to the Ten Commandments, Yahweh’s covenant with the Jewish people involved numerous other rules of behavior. These included strict stipulations about the types of food that they might eat and the methods in which this food should be prepared. Over the ages observant Jews have thus been unable to share meals with those of other faiths. And although some of the ancient Jewish philosophers – Hillel and Maimonides for example – were open to ideas beyond the Covenant, strict Judaism limited itself to the study of the Torah and its interpretations.
The Covenant with Yahweh thus isolated the Jewish people from the rest of humanity. They could not share the beliefs, the food or the thoughts of others. They antagonized others by their claim to be the chosen people.
So we have the idea that antisemitism is in part caused by the very character of the Jewish religion. This would explain why the Jews have been reviled by so many different people in so many different countries. The following was written Bernard Lazare in 1894. He was a Jewish polemicist who wrote the first defense of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. Yet even he thought that the Jews were partly to blame for antisemitism.
Inasmuch as the enemies of the Jews belonged to divers races; as they dwelled far apart from one another, were ruled by different laws and governed by opposite principles; as they had not the same customs and differed in spirit from one another, so that they could not possibly judge alike of any subject, it must needs be that the general causes of antisemitism have always resided in Israel itself, and not in those who antagonized it…. Which virtues or which vices have earned for the Jew this universal enmity? Why was he ill-treated and hated alike and in turn by the Alexandrians and the Romans, by the Persians and the Arabs, by the Turks and the Christian nations? Because, everywhere up to our own days the Jew was an unsociable being. (Lazare, 1894/1903, pp 8-9)
This seems so reasonable. Yet it is false. It does not explain the cause of antisemitism. It is just an excuse. It blames the victim for the crime.
The Crucifixion of Christ
In the early decades of the Common Era, Jesus, a Jewish teacher from Nazareth, brought new insight to the interpretation of Jewish law. He simplified the commandments by expressing them as the need to love the Lord and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. He criticized the rigid adherence to the Sabbath, and the commercialization of the Temple. He proclaimed the idea of a Kingdom of Heaven. Many of the more observant Jews were disconcerted by his teachings. The Romans were upset that he was proposing a new kingdom. Jesus was arraigned before Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, condemned and crucified.
A few days after his death and burial, the tomb of Jesus was found empty. Many of his followers claimed that they afterwards saw him in person. They therefore believed that he had been resurrected. They continued to meet and discuss his teachings. They were either tolerated by other Jews or condemned as heretics.
A learned Jew named Saul was one of those that persecuted the followers of Jesus. However, on the road to Damascus he had a vision of Jesus that completely altered his thinking. He changed his name to Paul, and began to provide an over-arching theory about the death and resurrection of Jesus. His main ideas were that Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah prophesied in the scriptures, that he died to release us from our sins, and that we shall all be saved from death by having faith in Jesus called Christ (the “anointed”).
For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures (I Corinthians 15:3-4)
Paul’s major teaching was that one could never attain salvation by following the Mosaic laws. No one is perfect. Everyone breaks the law. However, Christ offers salvation if we repent our sins and have faith in him.
Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. (Galatians 2:16).
Paul’s letters describing these ideas are the earliest of the Christian scriptures. Written in the years 50-60 CE these predate by 20 to 50 years the four gospels, which describe the life and teachings of Jesus.
The followers of Jesus in the 1st Century CE differed in their opinion about his relationship to the Jews. Some thought that the message of Jesus was for the Jews; others that it was for both Jews and Gentiles. Most of Paul’s teaching was directed to the Gentiles. In some of his letters he laments the inability of many of his Jewish colleagues to understand God’s new covenant.
For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews: Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men: Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost. (I Thessalonians 2:14-16)
Some of the gospels continued this criticism of the Jews (Crossan, 1995). This is perhaps most evident in the gospel of Matthew. He describes how the Jews forced Pilate to crucify Jesus, and willingly accepted the responsibility for his death:
When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children. (Matthew 27: 24-25)
The major event in Jewish history of the 1st Century CE was the Great Revolt of the Jews against Roman rule. This began in 66 CE and culminated in the Destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. The illustration below shows a representation in the Arch of Titus of the Romans carrying the spoils from the temple. Among the spoils is the great Menorah that once gave light to the Tabernacle.
At this time many Jews fled their homeland and settled in other countries. The Jewish people have been exiled at many times in its history – the Assyrian conquest (733 BCE), the Babylonian captivity (597 BCE), the Great Revolt (70 CE), the later Bar Kokhba Rebellion (132 CE). Though some Jews remained in Israel, most lived in the Diaspora (“scattering”) – far from the land that from the days of Moses they had considered their God-given home.
The Destruction of the Temple seemed to many Christians a divine response to the action of the Jews in crucifying their Lord. Though the Romans crucified Jesus, some of the early Christians considered the Jews responsible. The Jews were thus guilty of deicide and should be reviled and cast out from Christian society. Even if they were not guilty, they should be chastised for not recognizing the salvation offered by Christ – for staying with the old dispensation rather than following the new.
These ideas have long permeated the thinking of the Christian Church. Many of the cathedrals illustrate these concepts by contrasting sculptures of Ecclesia and Synagoga. The statues on the south portail of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Strasbourg from the 13th Century CE are particularly impressive. Legend has it that these were created by a female sculptor Sabina von Steinbach, though there is no real evidence for this. Ecclesia with her crown, holds in her hands the cross and the chalice. She looks with pity on Synagoga, who is blindfolded and cannot see the truth. She holds in her hands the tablets of the law and the lance that the centurion used to bring the crucifixion to an end. The lance was shattered by the resurrection.
The following illustration shows the complete portail. Ecclesia and Synagoga are on the left and right sides. In the center sits Solomon in judgement between the old covenant and the new. Above him is Christ, Salvator Mundi (savior of the world). The carvings in the tympanums represent the dormition, assumption and coronation of the Virgin Mary.
The statues of Ecclesia and Synagoga are impressive examples of gothic art. Though superficially beautiful, they obscure rather than convey the truth. The feelings against the Jews that they evoke are a complete betrayal of Jesus, a Jew who taught in the synagogues of Palestine.
One might have hoped that the antisemitism of the Christian Church would have been excised by the Reformation. But this was not to be. Martin Luther was virulently antisemitic. In his The Jews and Their Lies (1543, pp 39-42) he advises Christians to burn their synagogues of the Jews, their houses, and their books, prohibit their Rabbis from teaching, not allow them to travel on the highways, and prohibit them from lending money. Luther was a harbinger of Kristallnacht.
During the Middle Ages people could not understand why life was so often brutal. An easy way to explain the various disasters was to attribute them to the Jews. If the Jews could kill God, there was no telling what other crimes they were capable of.
On Good Friday in 1144 the body of a child called William was discovered in the woods near Norwich in England. The Jews were accused of murdering the child. No credible evidence was ever found. However, a monk who had just converted from Judaism to Christianity claimed that the Jews had decided to sacrifice a Christian child to re-enact the death of Christ. Several Jews were slaughtered. William was declared a martyr. Pilgrims flocked to his tomb. Miracles occurred.
William of Norwich was the first documented case of Jews being accused of ritual murder. As the years went by similar accusations arose in multiple different regions of Europe (Goldstein, 2012). Many of these cases included the idea that the Jews used the blood of their victims to make the unleavened bread used in the celebration of Passover. This particular accusation was called the “blood libel.” It makes no sense. Kosher regulations require that observant Jews never eat food contaminated with blood. Jews go to great lengths to remove blood from meat before it can be eaten.
The Christian Bible contains the Hebrew scriptures in what it calls the Old Testament. Some of these writings described how the blood of sacrificed animals played an important role in the ceremonies of the ancient Hebrews, e.g.
And he shall kill the bullock before the Lord: and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood, and sprinkle the blood round about upon the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. (Leviticus 1:5).
Other ancient Hebrew writings are even more disconcerting. One of the foundational stories of Judaism is the Akedah (“binding”), wherein the Patriarch Abraham, at the request of Jehovah, takes his son Isaac to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him (Genesis 22). Although an angel stays Abraham’s hand at the last moment, this fails to attenuate the story’s horror. The illustration below shows Rembrandt’s 1655 etching.
The Old Testament contains other stories wherein children were sacrificed. To defeat the Ammonites, Jephthah promised the Lord that he would sacrifice whatever came out of his house when he returned from battle. Jehovah gave the victory to the Israelites. When Jephthah returned home, his daughter came to greet him, dancing and playing the tambourine (Judges 11).
There is also a suggestion that King Manasseh sacrificed his son – the wording is “he made his son pass through the fire” (2 Kings 21:6). These events and the idea that the terrible place near Jerusalem called Gehenna or Tophet was actually a site of human sacrifice are discussed at length by Stavrakopoulou (2004). The practice was banned by Yahweh speaking through his prophet Jeremiah:
And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not; neither came it into my heart. (Jeremiah 7:31).
One can perhaps imagine how such stories from the Old Testament might have allowed credulous people to accept the idea that the Jews might sacrifice Christian children and use their blood for their ceremonies. When one’s faith requires a belief in miracles, wild rumors are not easily contradicted.
The main sacrament of the Christian Church is the Eucharist, wherein the congregation partakes of bread and wine that have been especially blessed. According to the church, these had been miraculously “transubstantiated” to the body of Jesus, who was sacrificed to save the world. The sacramental bread is called the host (from the Latin hostia for sacrificial victim). In many places and at many times the Jews were accused of “desecrating” the host. The following illustration shows a 1469 sequence of paintings by Paolo Uccello that tell the story of the Miracle of the Desecrated Host. Both the full sequence and the particular panels illustrating the second and fifth episodes are shown. The paintings were on the predella to the altar in the Corpus Domin church in Urbino. The retable painting above the predella by Justus van Gent presented the Institution of the Eucharist.
The six episodes in the predella show
a woman sells a portion of the consecrated host to a Jewish merchant
when the Jew tries to burn the host, it starts to bleed, alerting the city guards
a holy procession is needed to re-consecrate the host
the woman is burned at the stake; she repents and an angel descends from heaven to save her
the Jew and his family are burned at the stake; no angel intervenes
two angels and two devils argue over the woman’s body
As the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) spread across Europe in the 14th Century, Jews were accused of poisoning wells and spreading the disease. Many Jews were condemned to death by fire fort these crimes. No one noticed that Jews died from the pandemic just as frequently as their Christian neighbors. Nor that burning Jews at the stake had no effect on the spread of the disease. A half century later, Jacob von Königshofen wrote a critical history of these times. The following is his description of the massacre of the Jews in Strasbourg at the height of the Black Death in 1349:
In the matter of this plague the Jews throughout the world were reviled and accused in all lands of having caused it through the poison which they are said to have put into the water and the wells – that is what they were accused of – and for this reason the Jews were burnt all the way from the Mediterranean into Germany, but not in Avignon, for the pope protected them there. On Saturday-that was St. Valentine’s Day, they burnt the Jews on a wooden platform in their cemetery. There were about two thousand people of them. Those who wanted to baptize themselves were spared. Many small children were taken out of the fire and baptized against the will of their fathers and mothers. And everything that was owed to the Jews was cancelled, and the Jews had to surrender all pledges and notes that they had taken for debts. The council, however, took the direct cash that the Jews possessed and divided it among the working men proportionately. The money was indeed the thing that killed the Jews. If they had been poor and if the feudal lords had not been in debt to them, they would not have been burnt. After this wealth was divided among the artisans some gave their share to the Cathedral or to the Church on the advice of their confessors. Thus were the Jews burnt at Strasbourg. (quoted in Marcus, 1938, p.47)
Forces other than the plague were at play. Debt caused as much suffering as disease. As the historian notes, “The money was indeed the thing that killed the Jews.”
The Old Testament contains several injunctions against usury. Originally “usury” was simply any interest charged on loans. The meaning of the term has changed as the relations between religion and commerce have developed. At present, usury is generally limited to exorbitant interest.
In one of the earliest mentions of usury in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Jewish people are forbidden to charge interest on loans to fellow-Jews although they may so charge strangers:
Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury (Deuteronomy 23:20).
In the New Testament usury is only occasionally considered:
But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again (Luke 6:35).
Nevertheless, the Christian Church decided early in its history that usury was a sin (Moehlman, 1934). In the council of Nicaea of 327 CE it forbade clergy to collect interest on any debts. In the Third Lateran Council of 1179, it decreed
Since in almost every place the crime of usury has become so prevalent that many persons give up all other business and become usurers, as if it were permitted, regarding not its prohibition in both testaments, we ordain that manifest usurers shall not be admitted to communion, nor, if they die in their sin, receive Christian burial, and that no priest shall accept their alms. (Moehlman, 1934, pp 6-7)
Thus for most of the middle ages it was difficult for people in business to obtain financial support for their enterprises. Jewish merchants, untrammeled by Christian prohibitions, unable to own land, and often prevented from practicing trades because of exclusively Christian guilds, gradually assume the responsibility for lending money in return for interest (Foxman, 2010). Some kings and princes found the linguistic abilities and financial connections of the Jews appealing and appointed them to their courts. However, most Jews remained poor and unrecognized – traders, shopkeepers, pawnbrokers and minor moneylenders.
In later years the Catholic Church found itself in need of capital to build its churches, and revised its doctrine on usury, founding its own lending organizations called Mounts of Piety (Monte de Pieta). The oldest bank in the world, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, derives from one of these lenders. After the Reformation, Protestants re-interpreted the scriptures and established their own investment banks.
Jewish lenders prospered and some of our current banks have Jewish roots, the Rothschild banks and Goldman-Sachs being two of the biggest. However, almost all of the world’s largest banks were actually founded by Gentiles. The idea that the Jews control international banking is ludicrous. Why one should only consider the religion of a banker when he is Jewish is invidious (Foxman, 2010). One never mentions the Roman Catholic origins of the Bank of America or the Presbyterian origins of Wells Fargo. Yet Jewish bankers have long been game for hateful cartoons. The depiction of “King Rothschild” by Charles Lucien Léandre shown on the right is from the cover of Le Rire, April 16, 1898. Above Rothschild is the Golden Calf that was worshipped by the the idea of Mammon, the idol of wealth condemned in the New Testament:
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:24).
The myth of Jewish greed has become a mainstay of antisemitic thought. Richard Wagner (1850) cannot get away from it even though he is supposed to be writing about music.
According to the present constitution of this world, the Jew in truth is already more than emancipate: he rules, and will rule, so long as Money remains the power before which all our doings and our dealings lose their force.
Even Jewish writers have been convinced of the myth
Thus, by himself and by those around him; by his own laws and by those imposed upon him; by his artificial nature and circumstances, the Jew was directed to gold. He was prepared to be changer, lender, usurer, one who strives after the metal, first for the pleasures it could afford and then afterwards for the sole happiness of possessing it; one who greedily seizes gold and avariciously immobilizes it. (Lazare, 1903, p 110).
The Pale of Settlement
As the Middle Ages progressed, the Jews were expelled from many European countries: England, 1290; France, 1306; Hungary, 1349; Austria, 1421; Spain, 1492; Portugal, 1497 (Baum 2012, p. 18). Other countries required that the Jews live apart from Christians in regions that came to be known as ghettos, from the Venetian dialect word for “foundry” located near where the first ghetto was established in Venice in 1516. Other ghettos were later set up throughout Italy, and then in Germany and in Poland (Goldstein, 2012, p 130)
Many of the expelled Jews moved to Eastern Europe. They settled in the regions that now form the countries of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. Much of this area was then part of the Kingdom of Poland. Polish nobles welcomed the new immigrants. Many Jews were used as tax-collectors. This did sit well with some of the Eastern Orthodox Slavic people who chafed under the control of Catholic Poland. In 1648, the Cossacks in Ukraine rebelled under the leadership of Bohdan Khmelnytsky. During this war, tens of thousands of Poles and Jews were massacred (Bacon 2003). The Eastern Orthodox Church was every bit as antisemitic as the Roman Catholic Church. Ukraine became independent of Poland and soon became part of the Russian Empire. Later Poland itself would be partitioned between Prussia, Austria and Russia and cease to exist as an independent kingdom.
The “Pale of Settlement” was set up in 1791 by Catherine the Great. This was an area in the Western regions of the Russian Empire wherein Jews were allowed to live. The term “pale” refers to the stakes that delineated the area – the word was originally used to describe an area in Ireland under the control of the English crown. Over the years many of the Jews in central Russia were exiled to the Pale of Settlement. As shown in the map (adapted from Wikipedia, originally created by Thomas Gun) the Jewish percentage of the population in these regions was significant. Around 1900, the Jews in the Pale of Settlement numbered almost 5 million (about half the total number of Jews in the world), and formed about 10% of the general population of the area.
The ghettos and the Pale of Settlement separated the Jews from their neighbors. Their resultant isolation of the Jews increased their “unlikeness” or “otherness.” By closing them off in localized areas beyond the reach of normal civil authorities, it also made them more susceptible to random violence.
In 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in St. Petersburg by a group of revolutionaries. The group Narodnaya Volya (“People’s Will”) was composed of Russian-born anarchists, but one young woman was Jewish. The new Tsar Alexander III believed that the Jews were behind the assassination and unleashed a series of pogroms in the Pale of Settlement to avenge his father’s death.
The word “pogrom” derives from a Russian word for storm or devastation. Christians in a community were encouraged to murder their Jewish neighbors – killers of Christ and assassins of the Emperor. The police were ordered not to intervene. These pogroms continued into for several years. Thousands of Jews were killed.
The pogroms returned in 1903-1906 during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II. These appear to have been instigated by members of the Tsar’s secret police. One political rationale for these actions against the Jews was to rally the Russian people around the Tsar and against all those that were promoting the modernization of Russia.
The first pogrom of the 20th Century began in Kishinev, Moldava (then known as Bessarabia), on Easter Sunday in 1903. A child had been found murdered, and city leaders accused the Jews of his murder. Patriotism, blood libel and deicide worked together to create a rampaging and murderous mob (Penkower, 2004). The following is an illustration from the French Journal L’Assiette de Beurre of April, 1903, depicting the aftermath of the Easter pogrom.
The novel The Lazarus Project by Aleksander Hemon (2008), which tells the story of a survivor of the Kishinev pogrom who immigrated to the United States, provides a vivid description of the violence and its far-reaching consequents. The epic poem City of the Killings written in 1903 by the Jewish poet Chaim Bialik to commemorate the massacre begins:
Rise and go to the town of the killings and you’ll come to the yards and with your eyes and your own hand feel the fence and on the trees and on the stones and plaster of the walls the congealed blood and hardened brains of the dead.
At about this time there appeared the first traces of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Nilus, 1906/1922). This document purported to be the secret plans of Jewish Leaders to take over the world. The protocols describe how these elders will sow dissension and confusion amidst the goyim and ultimately step in to rule:
In order to put public opinion into our hands we must bring it into a state of bewilderment by giving expression from all sides to so many contradictory opinions and for such length of time as will suffice to make the goyim lose their heads in the labyrinth and come to see that the best thing is to have no opinion of any kind in matters political, which it is not given to the public to understand because they are understood only by him who guides the public. This is the first secret. The second secret requisite for the success of our government is comprised in the following; To multiply to such an extent national railings, habits, passions, conditions of civil life, that it will be impossible for anyone to know where he is in the resulting chaos, so that the people in consequence will fail to understand one another. This measure will also serve us in another way, namely, to sow discord in all parties, to dislocate all collective forces which are still unwilling to submit to us, and to discourage any kind of personal initiative which might in any degree hinder our affair. There is nothing more dangerous than personal initiative; if it has genius behind it, such initiative can do more than can be done by millions of people among whom we have sown discord. We most so direct the education of the goyim communities that whenever they come upon a matter requiring initiative they may drop their hands in despairing impotence. The strain which results from freedom of action saps the forces when it meets with the freedom of another. From this collision arise grave moral shocks, disenchantment, failures. By all these means we shall so wear down the goyim that they will be compelled to offer us international power of a nature that by its position will enable us without any violence gradually to absorb all the State forces of the world and to form a Super-Government. (Protocol 5)
The reader easily recognizes the confusions of the modern world. Our natural paranoia quickly attributes this to outside agents rather than to the simple complexity of political forces. Human beings have long imagined that our lives are controlled by secret societies such as the Templars, the Rosicrucians, the Jesuits, the Illuminati, the Masons, and the New World Order (Eco, 1994, pp 132-139). The Protocols of the Elders of Zion identified these clandestine agents as the Jews.
The protocols are a complete fiction (Eisner, 2005; Hagemeister, 2008). They were largely plagiarized from a satire against the French Emperor Napoleon II written by Maurice Joly in 1864 entitled The Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu (Graves, 1921). The most widely accepted story is that a Russian exile living in France, Mathieu Golovinski, adapted Joly’s satire into an antisemitic tract at the instigation of the Tsar’s secret police, who wished to impugn the forces of modernization in Russia, and to whip up hatred of the Jews as a distraction from the government’s problems.
Despite being proven a fiction, the Protocols have been republished over and over again. The illustration at the right shows the cover of a French Version published in 1934. The design is loosely based on Léandre’s 1898 cartoon depiction of Rothschild. The cover artist goes by the alias ‘Christian Goy.” In the 20th Century the Protocols are widely published in Muslim countries, where they serve to foster animus against Israel. Why do people still believe that this tract represents the truth? It is easier to believe in a simple fiction than in complex facts. The confusion of the modern world is caused by the interactions of many different political forces. It is simpler to believe it is caused by the Jews than to try to understand the real causes.
During the 18th and 19th Century nationalism became one of the main forces in European politics. As the Age of Enlightenment and the Age of Revolution undermined the legitimacy of divinely ordained dynasties, the people developed the idea of a nation – a community conceived or “imagined” in three ways: shared culture, limited geographic extent, and governance by the people (Anderson, 2016). Inherent in the concept of a nation was the idea that all its citizens should have equal rights. Nationalism gained its greatest impetus from the revolutions in the United States and France in the 18th century, and from the later Revolutions of 1848 in Europe.
According to the ideals of nationalism, no one should be discriminated against on the basis of their religion. As part of this movement Jewish citizens began therefore to be accepted as equal participants in the new nations (Mendes-Flohr, 1996; Barnavi, 2003, pp 158-9). This emancipation occurred slowly: France in 1791; Prussia in 1812; Belgium in 1830; the Netherlands in 1834 the United Kingdom in 1858; Austria 1867; the United States in 1877 (reviewed in Wikipedia).
Although nationalism wants all its citizens, regardless of their beliefs or background to be equal, it would prefer them to be homogeneous, all believing in the same national ideals. Yet no nation is homogeneous. The success of a nation depends on how it comes together despite its differences.
As nationalism progressed, suspicions about the Jewish people remained. This worry was presaged by the Conte de Clermont‑Tonnere in a speech to France’s new National Assembly in 1789. He initially proposed the principle “that the profession, or manner of worship of a man, can never be motives for depriving him of the Rights of Election.” He then listed some of the arguments against giving citizenship to the Jews and declared them invalid:
It is here I am at tacked by the adversaries of the Jews. That people, say they, are unsociable; usury is enjoined them; they cannot be united with us, either by marriage, or habitual intercourse; they are forbidden our meats, and interdicted our tables. Our armies will never be recruited by Jews; they will never take up arms for the defense of their country. The weightiest of these reproaches is unjust, the others are but specious.
However, he then recognized that Jews may have commitments outside of the nation in which they would be granted full citizenship. They have religious and financial ties to colleagues in other nations. They may wish to be governed by their own laws and judged according to their scriptures. They could thus be a nation within a nation. So he suggested that
you should deny the Jews every thing as a distinct nation, and grant them every thing as individuals.
This idea that Jews were still different from other citizens persisted. The very fact of the diaspora worked against them. With their allegiances to other Jewish communities in other countries, they seemed “cosmopolitan” rather than patriotic. They interfered with a nation’s sense of itself. In the Middle Ages the Jew was assailed because he was not Christian. In the Modern Age he was assailed because he was not truly French or German or Russian. In both cases he was not “one of us.”
The idea of the Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans” was (and is) one of the main tenets of Russian antisemitism. It was basic to the foundation of the Pale of Settlement in Tsarist times and it continued in the socialist regime that followed the Russian Revolution. The following is a description of cosmopolitans from Vissarion Belinsky, a 19th century literary critic who promoted the idea of a truly Russian literature:
The cosmopolitan is a false, senseless, strange and incomprehensive phenomenon, a manifestation in which there is something insipid and vague. He is a corrupt, unfeeling creature, totally unworthy of being called by the holy name of man (quoted in Pinkus, 1988, pp 153-154).
Despite Soviet Russia’s professed goal of the brotherhood of man, the idea of the Jew as a “rootless cosmopolitan” persisted after the Revolution. It came to a frightening culmination in the accusations against the Jewish doctors in 1952-3 (Carfield, 2002). It is frightening to note the similarity between Communist thought and the Fascist idea of Bodenlosigkeit (lack of “ground” in the sense of a place to have roots).
The ideas of nationhood radically changed the lives of many Jews (Arendt, 1951). Intent on proving themselves good citizens of the new nations, they relinquished some of their religious beliefs and behaviors. They became secular. Some even converted to the state religion, hoping to become “assimilated” into general society. Despite all these efforts to become involved as a citizen, the Jews continued to be considered alien. Rather than being welcomed as a compatriots they reviled as pretentious upstarts.
And so many Jews began to think that the only solution was to return to Palestine to found their own new nation of Israel. No longer cosmopolitan they would reclaim their homeland. Zionism would provide Jews with a nation wherein they were not alien (Miller& Ury, 2010).
These new developments made it even more difficult for the Jews who remained in the countries of their birth. Would a Jew support Israel against the interests of the country in which he lives? Zionism raised fears about the allegiance of the Jews, and provided an excuse to exile them from the nations they could not be part of.
So arose the idea that the Jews could never really be part of any non-Jewish nation. This concept was presented by T. S. Eliot (1934) in a series of talks about literary traditions. He describes “tradition:”
What I mean by tradition involves all those habitual actions, habits and customs, from the most significant religious rite to our conventional way of greeting a stranger, which represent the blood kinship of ‘the same people living in the same place.’ (p 18)
He goes on to suggest how tradition should be established and maintained:
What we can do is to use our minds, remembering that a tradition without intelligence is not worth having, to discover what is the best life for us not as a political abstraction, but as a particular people in a particular place; what in the past is worth preserving and what should be rejected; and what conditions, within our power to bring about, would foster the society that we desired. (p. 19)
And then he brings up something that is essential to any great tradition:
The population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely either to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate. What is still more important is unity of religious background; and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable. There must be a proper balance between urban and rural, industrial and gricultural development. And a spirit of excessive tolerance is to be deprecated.
The remarks about the free-thinking Jews are strange and terrifying. They are completely out of context in a discussion of the literary traditions of the American South. They clearly reflect the antisemitism of the writer and of his time. In the years subsequent to Eliot’s book, the great liberal democracies of the world refused to accept Jews fleeing from the Nazi regime in Germany for fear that they would pollute their national identities.
Although nationalism fostered the idea of governance by the people, it also promoted war in the pursuit of a nation’s destiny. As Anderson (2016) has pointed out, one of the measures of nationalism’s success is how easily a people will lay down their lives to defend their country. Surely cosmopolitanism is a better ideal.
Human beings unfortunately seem to need to hate. We make an enemy of any one who is different from us. And so we revile those who gave us the Ten Commandments. We need to stop this senseless behavior. The main way forward is to learn abou those who are not us. This will broaden our understanding. With understanding will come tolerance and cooperation. And we should follow ideals that refuse to be limited to one faith or to one nation.
Anderson, B. R. O’G. (1983/2016). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Revised Edition. London: Verso.
Arendt, H. (1951, reprinted 1973). The origins of totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich.
Bacon, G. (2003). “The House of Hannover”: Gezeirot Tah in modern Jewish historical writing. Jewish History, 17, 179-206.
Bandura, A., Underwood, B., & Fromson, M. E. (1975). Disinhibition of aggression through diffusion of responsibility and dehumanization of victims. Journal of Research in Personality, 9, 253–269.
Barnavi, E. (2003). A historical atlas of the Jewish people: From the time of the patriarchs to the present. New York: Schocken.
Bauer, Y. (2001). A history of the Holocaust. Revised edition. New York: Franklin Watts.
Baum, S. K. (2012). Antisemitism Explained. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
Beck, A. T. (2002). Prisoners of hate. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 40, 209-216.
Beller, S. (2007). Antisemitism: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Bernstein, P. (1951). Jew-hate as a sociological problem. New York: Philosophical Library.
Brewer, M. B. (1999). The psychology of prejudice: Ingroup love or outgroup hate? Journal of Social Issues, 55, 429–435.
Chanes, J. A. (2004). Introduction and Overview. In Antisemitism: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO
Clermont Tonnerre, S. (1790) Translation of a speech, spoken by the Count Clermont Tonnere, Christmas-eve last: on the subject of admitting non-Catholics, comedians, and Jews, to all the privileges of citizens, according to the Declaration of rights. Available at Hathi Trust.
Crossan, J. D. (1995). Who killed Jesus? Exposing the roots of anti-semitism in the Gospel story of the death of Jesus. San Francisco: Harper
Eco, U. (1994). Six walks in the fictional woods. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Eisner, W. (2005). The plot: The secret story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. New York: W.W. Norton.
Penkower, M. N. (2004). The Kishinev Pogrom of 1903: A turning point in Jewish history. Modern Judaism, 24, 187–225,
Pinkus, B. (1988). The Jews of the Soviet Union: The history of a national minority. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Prager, D., & Telushkin, J. (1981, reprinted 2003). Why the Jews? The reason for antisemitism. Touchstone Books.
Sartre, J.-P. (translated by Becker, G. J., 1948). Anti-Semite and Jew. New York: Schocken.
Stavrakopoulou, F. (2004). King Manasseh and child sacrifice: Biblical distortions of historical realities. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
Sternberg, R. J. (2003). A duplex theory of hate: Development and application to terrorism, massacres, and genocide. Review of General Psychology 7, 299-328.
Wagner, R. (1850, translated by William Ashton Ellis, 1894). Jews in Music.
Stones of the Picts
With my surname it is inevitable that I should become interested in the Picts, a people who lived in Scotland during the first millennium of the Common Era. They left behind many sculptured stones, which now stand in fields and churchyards in the Northeast part of Scotland. Together with the Scots, the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons, they became the people of Scotland.
of the Picts
The British Isles have been home to human beings for thousands of years. In the Neolithic Period, the inhabitants of Western Britain, Northern Britain and Ireland raised striking stone monuments, the most famous of which is Stonehenge. Scotland has numerous stone-circles and standing stones, particularly in the West and North. The illustration at the right shows a Neolithic standing stone (about 3 meters high) at Drumtroddan in Galloway. Most Neolithic stones are plain, but occasionally they are marked with circular incisions or hollowed-out cups.
Recent archeological evidence has indicated a major
change in the people of Britain during the 3rd Millennium BCE. At
that time the original Neolithic inhabitants of the islands were largely
replaced by Bronze Age people from the continent who brought with them the
technology of Bell-Beaker pots (Olalde et al., 2018). This migration to Britain
was part of the westward expansion of the Celtic peoples (Manco, 2015;
The beakers were molded by hand rather than on a wheel,
and had a characteristic bell shape (Clarke, 1966). They were decorated
horizontally either by cord impressions or by incised patterns. Typical pots
had a diameter of about 10 cm and were used for drinking. Larger pots could be used
for storage or as funeral urns. Some pots were used in the smelting of metals. The
bell-beaker technology began in central Europe but there was much interchange
of both pots and potters among the different peoples and regions of Europe
(Salanova et al., 2016). The illustration shows a Spanish pot on the left and a
Scottish pot on the right:
The people who brought the beakers from the continent to
Britain likely spoke an Indo-European Proto-Celtic language. This then differentiated
into two main branches – Goedelic in Ireland (and later in Western Scotland)
and Brythonic in Britain. Goedelic developed into Irish, Manx and Scottish
Gaelic; Brythonic developed into Brittonic, Cornish, Welsh and Pictish.
The Celts thrived on the British Isles until the
Romans came. Julius Caesar made his first forays into Britain in 55 BCE, and
Roman legions subsequently controlled much of Southern Britain. Boudicca led an
uprising of the Britons in 60 CE, but this was soon put down. Gnaeus Julius
Agricola, governor of the Roman Province of Britannia from 77 to 85 CE, expanded
the area of Roman control northward. He led his soldiers against the inhabitants
of what is now called Scotland, culminating in 83 CE in the Battle of Mons Graupius
(somewhere in Aberdeenshire). The Romans considered themselves victorious.
Agricola’s nephew Tacitus (98 CE, pp 218-239) described the battle, attributing
to the Pictish general Calgacus a rousing speech of defiance before the
But today the uttermost parts of Britain are laid bare;
there are no other tribes to come; nothing but sea and cliffs and these more
deadly Romans, whose arrogance you shun in vain by obedience and self-restraint.
Harriers of the world, now that earth fails their all-devastating hands, they
probe even the sea; if their enemy have wealth, they have greed; if he be poor,
they are ambitious; East nor West has glutted them; alone of mankind they
behold with the same passion of concupiscence waste alike and want. To plunder,
butcher, steal, these things they misname empire; they make a desolation and
they call it peace. … Here you have a general and an army; on the other side
lies tribute, labour in the mines, and all the other pangs of slavery. You have
it in your power to perpetuate your sufferings for ever or to avenge them
to-day upon this field; therefore, before you go into action, think upon your ancestors
and upon your children.
Tacitus described the outcome as a “decisive victory’ for the Romans. However, Agricola returned to the south without leaving any occupying garrisons. The Romans later set up defensive walls to keep out the marauding highlanders: Hadrian’s Wall (122 CE) at the level of the Firth of Solvay and a far less effective Antonine Wall (142 CE) at the level of the Firth of Forth. The sculptured Bridgeness slab in the Antonine Wall, showing a Roman horseman trampling on the Picts, may perhaps refer to Mons Graupius.
warriors north of the walls were called Scots and Picts by the Romans. The term
Scots is of uncertain etymology. It was initially used to describe raiders from
Ireland but it later came to mean those Celts in the Western part of Scotland who
were related by language and trade to the Irish. The Picts were in the North
East. Their name, deriving from picti (painted),
refers to their custom of painting or tattooing their bodies, a custom shared
with the Celts in the more Southern regions of Britain. We have little if any
knowledge of the Pictish language, but it was likely more related to the
Brittonic language than the Gaelic spoken by the Scots.
When the Roman Empire crumbled in the 5th
Century CE, the province of Britannia was invaded by the Anglo-Saxons. The
Celts were driven westward to Wales and Cornwall. Several new kingdoms were set
up, most notably Mercia in the middle of England and Northumbria in the
Northeast. In the 9th Century
the Vikings attacked the British Isles, later settling and governing many
northern regions of both Britain and Ireland. .
Most of what we know about the Picts comes from
historians who were not Picts. Most of these wrote long after the events they
described. There are lists of Pictish kings (e.g., Clarkson, 2017, pp 207-208)
but these are difficult to follow. Pictish kings were often not succeeded by
their sons. This may have been due to matrilineal succession (Woolf, 1988), but
was more likely caused by the kingship switching among the feuding clans. For
the purposes of this posting on the sculptured stones I can highlight three
main events in Pictish History after the Romans left.
First was the coming of Christianity. In the 6th Century CE, St. Columba came from Ireland to Scotland. At that time, the Gaelic people in Western Scotland were loosely affiliated in the Kingdom of Dal Raita. In 563 CE, their king, Connall mac Comgaill, granted St. Columba the island of Iona, on which to build a monastery. Once the monastic community was established Columba moved to proselytize the Picts. In 565 CE, Columba visited the stronghold of Brude (or “Bridei”), son of Maelchon. No one is clear as to its location, perhaps Craig Phadraig near Inverness. According to Adamnan’s Life of Columba (Book II:38)
[W]hen the saint made his first journey to King Brude,
it happened that the king, elated by the pride of royalty, acted haughtily, and
would not open his gates on the first arrival of the blessed man. When the man
of God observed this, he approached the folding doors with his companions, and
having first formed upon them the sign of the cross of our Lord, he then
knocked at and laid his hand upon the gate, which instantly flew open of its
own accord, the bolts having been driven back with great force. The saint and
his companions then passed through the gate thus speedily opened. And when the
king learned what had occurred, he and his councillors were filled with alarm,
and immediately setting out from the palace, he advanced to meet with due
respect the blessed man, whom he addressed in the most conciliating and
respectful language. And ever after from that day, so long as he lived, the
king held this holy and reverend man in very great honour, as was due.
The recorded lives of the saints are ornamented with miracles.
The opening of the door likely had some more natural cause, but the beginning
of the conversion of the Picts can be dated to about this time. An 1898 mural
in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery by William Hole shows Saint Columba’s
mission to the Picts:
A second major event in Pictish history was the Battle of Dun Nechtain in 685 CE (Hudson, 2014, pp 74-80; Clarkson, 2017, pp 121-137). Under the leadership of King Bridei mac Bili (also known as Brude), the Picts defeated a Northumbrian army led by King Ecgfrith. According to Bede (8th Century, Book IV: 26), this was a divine punishment for the Northumbrian incursions into Ireland:
In the year of our Lord’s incarnation 684, Egfrid,
king of the Northumbrians, sending Beort, his general, with an army, into
Ireland, miserably wasted that harmless nation, which had always been most
friendly to the English; insomuch that in their hostile rage they spared not
even the churches or monasteries. Those islanders , to the utmost of their
power, repelled force with force, and imploring the assistance of the Divine
mercy, prayed long and fervently for vengeance and though such as curse cannot
possess the kingdom of God, it is believed, that those who were justly cursed
on account of their impiety, did soon suffer the penalty of their guilt from
the avenging hand of God; for the very next year, that same king, rashly
leading his army to ravage the province of the Picts, much against the advice
of his friends, and particularly of Cuthbert, of blessed memory, who had been
lately ordained his op (preacher), the enemy made show as if they fled, and the
king was drawn into the straits of inaccessible mountains, and slain with the
greatest part of his forces, on the 20th of May, in the fortieth year of his
age, and the fifteenth of his reign.
After the battle, King Bridei had the body of Ecgfrith
interred in the monastery of Iona. Eight years later Bridei died and was
himself buried on Iona. The Battle of Dun Nechtain was not decided by the will
of God, but it did represent the consolidation of Pictish power in Northeast
Scotland. These events also indicate the peaceful relations between the
kingdoms of Dal Riata and Pictavia.
The Battle of Dun Nechtain is recorded on the Pictish sculpted stone in the Aberlemno Churchyard. In the upper part of the sculpture, a long-haired Pictish warrior advances from the left while an Anglo-Saxons with helmet and nose-guard flees to the right. In the middle three Pictish footsoldiers confront a mounted Anglo-Saxon. The bottom of the stone shows two mounted warriors fighting and on the right is shown the outcome with a raven pecking at the dead body of the Anglo-Saxon.
The final episode I shall consider was called Braflang
the “Treachery of Scone” (Clarkson, 2017, pp 178-194). According to stories
recounted much later by such writers as Gerald of Wales writing in the late 12th
Century, Kenneth MacAlpin (Cináed mac Ailpin), King of Dal Riata,
invited the Pictish lords to a banquet at Scone. Unbeknownst to them their
tables were set on boards placed over pits. At a signal from MacAlpin, the
noted their opportunity and drew out the bolts which
held up the boards; and the Picts fell into the hollows of the benches on which
they were sitting, in a strange trap up to the knees so that they could never
get up; and the Scots immediately slaughtered them all, tumbled together
everywhere and taken suddenly and unexpectedly, and fearing nothing of the sort
from allies and confederates, men bound to them by benefits and companions in
their wars. (from Gerald of Wales De
Instructiones Principis, translated in Clarkson, 2017, p 183).
Kenneth MacAlpin (810-858) then became King of the
Picts and the first king of a united Scotland (Alba). The dates of his kingship are generally considered 843-858.
The lurid details of the Treachery of Scone do not appear to represent any
definite event (Hudson, 1991). The massacre is a myth, but it serves to explain
the Scottish assimilation of the Picts. MacAlpin did indeed unify the Scottish
peoples, and there is little historical mention of the Picts after about 900
The history of Scotland thenceforth involved battles
with the Vikings to the North and with the English to the South, with Scotland
continuing as an independent kingdom until the Act of Union of 1706 when
Scotland became a part of Great Britain.
The Picts left no written history. Their sculptured
stones form their main surviving record. On many of these stones are incised or
carved various symbols. Some of the symbols clearly represent animals or birds
or fish. The others are mysterious.
Pictish stones have been classified by Allen and
Anderson (1903) as: Class I, those with only symbols; Class II, those with
Christian iconography (typically a cross) as well as symbols; and Class III
those with Christian iconography and no symbols. Both Class II and Class III
stones often portray people, in scenes of daily life, in battles, or in stories
from the Bible. .
The following illustration shows six of the most
common symbols found on Class I stones (Alcock, 1988, Forsyth, 1995; Jones,
2003; Fraser, 2008, McHardy, 2015; Noble et al., 2018):
No one knows what the symbols represent. Most interpreters
relate the symbols to physical objects or animals; others suggest a more
abstract or spiritual correlation. The double disk could indicate the sun and
its transition from winter to summer. In more abstract terms, it could indicate
a marriage, or the opposition of life and death. The crescent likely has some
relation to the moon. The Z-rod and V-rod might represent broken spears or
arrows. The notched rectangle might represent a chariot. The Pictish beast is
clearly animate, but no one knows what animal it represents or whether the
animal is real or imaginary. My own preference is for a dolphin. The tuning
fork might represent the tongs used in metal work. This would fit with the
Celtic expertise in working bronze. Others have suggested that it shows a
Whether the symbols have further meaning is impossible
to know. They might represent hieroglyphs like those in Egypt, or even a
syllabic alphabet. As such they could have been used to name clans or families.
The number of stones with symbols are far too few to allow easy linguistic
The stones might define territory or indicate a
meeting place. They do not appear to commemorate persons since most stones are
unrelated to burials. An exception is the Picardy Stone (Myreton Farm, near
Insch), which was located above what appeared to be an empty grave. The stone
is 2 meters high and has three incised symbols: a double disk with a
superimposed Z-Rod, a serpent with a Z-Rod and a mirror. The illustration below
compares a recent photograph (by Peter Richardson) with the engraving from
Perhaps the most famous of the Class I stones is located
beside the road in the village of Aberlemno. The stone is known as Aberlemno I
or the Serpent Stone. The front side of the stone shows deeply incised Pictish
symbols: a serpent above a double disk with a Z-rod, and a mirror and
comb. On the lower part of the back of
the stone are small cup marks, indicating that the stone was likely erected in
Neolithic times and later carved by the Picts. The modern photograph from
Wikipedia is compared to the engraving in Stuart (1856):
Another important Class I stone is the Craw Stane at
Rhynie, which has outlines of a salmon and a Pictish beast. In the illustration
a 2016 photograph by Allan Robertson is compared to Stuart’s 1856 engraving:
Class II stones differ from Class I stones in several
ways. First, they are carved on stones that have been roughly squared and
finished to form slabs. Second, the figures on these stones are carved in bas
relief rather than incised. Third, the carvings are more representational than
symbolic, often portraying people and animals. Fourth, they are ornamented with
Celtic designs characteristic of Irish Art. Fifth, the stones include Christian
iconography, typically a cross, but also scenes from the Bible or the lives of
Celtic ornamentation was highly developed in Ireland
(Laing & Laing, 1992, pp 138-196). The Class II Pictish stones were clearly
carved under the influence of Gaelic artists. However, there was also
interchange of ideas between the Celts (both Scots and Picts) and the
Anglo-Saxons. Some of the major types of Celtic ornament are illustrated below
with patterns from Bain (1973):
The Maiden Stone near Inverurie is one of the simplest
of the Class II stones. One side shows a set of Pictish symbols: from top to
bottom a centaur, a notched rectangle with a superimposed Z-rod, a Pictish
beast, and a mirror and comb. The other side shows a human figure surrounded by
two fish superimposed on a cross and a panel with Celtic spirals, now much
eroded. The name of the Cross comes from a local legend about a maiden who was
duped by the devil, but saved by being turned into stone. The notch on the slab
is from the failed clutch of the Devil as he tried to capture the maiden.
I have already considered the cross-slab in the Aberlemno
Churchyard because of its representation of the Battle of Dan Nechtain. The
cross side shows intricate Celtic ornamentation. The hole in the slab was
drilled much later than the carving probably to help move the stone. The
illustration compares modern photographs with the engravings from Stuart
The Hilton Cadboll stone shows a beautifully carved hunting scene with a lady riding side-saddle. The cross side of the stone was erased and inscribed with a 17th century memorial. The stone was transferred to the National Museum of Scotland, and a replica by Barry Groves was erected at the original site. The illustration at the right shows a drawing by Mike Taylor (MacNamara, 1999) and below is a photograph by Stephanie McGucken of the replica.
The Nigg Stone is perhaps the most intricately decorated of all the Pictish stones. The cross side of the stone shows beautifully carved patterns of many kinds. Above the cross is a scene that is said to represent St Paul and St Andrew, each with a lion at their side, being brought a loaf of bread by a raven – food for their meditation. On the other side of the stone intricate Celtic designs surround a central hunting scene. Because of the harp, one of the figures may represent David. However the harp is as much a Celtic symbol as a Christian one. At the top of this side are the symbols of a bird and a Pictish beast. The stone was broken long ago and has recently been put back together. The illustration shows a photograph of the reconstruction and drawings by Mike Taylor (MacNamara, 1999).
With a height of 7 meters, Sueno’s Stone in Moray is
the tallest of the Pictish stones. The name refers to the Sweyn, a Danish king
who conquered Britain and became its king in1013 CE. However, there is no
evidence for any association between Sweyn and the stone, which was likely
erected over a century before his exploits. One side of the stone depicts a
cross and other carvings that have been almost completely eroded. The better
preserved side shows an amazing sequence of scenes that narrate a battle.
The uppermost panel portrays mounted warriors arriving at the battle from the right. The second panel shows the fighting between foot-soldiers, with some of the warriors on the left side turning as if to flee. The upper line of the third panel shows the army of the right besieging a palisade. In the left middle of this panel is a pile of beheaded corpses. On the right the victorious soldiers appear to be blowing the bronze trumpets (carnyces) used by the Celts in battle. The fourth panel shows more corpses underneath what might be a bridge. The bottom strip of the stone seems to show prisoners tied up. No one is sure what battle is represented. Perhaps the Picts were fighting the Vikings; more likely they were fighting amongst themselves. The stone is now protected from the elements in a cage of armoured glass. The photographs in the following illustration are from the Undiscovered Scotland website and the engravings are from Stuart (1856):
The Dupplin Cross differs from almost all of the other Pictish stones. The cross is not a slab upon which a cross has been carved, but a completely free-standing cross. Originally located on an open hillside it is now preserved in St Serf’s Church in Dunning. The cross is beautifully carved with Celtic patterns and a variety of scenes with no apparent narrative relationship. The most striking carvings are the Pictish rider on the front and David playing his harp on the right side. The engravings are from Stuart (1856) and the photograph (2014) by Colin Gould:
of the Picts
The Picts maintained their fierce independence for centuries, defending their territory from Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings. They occur briefly in the records of those who fought with them, but they left no history of their own. They were a people as mysterious as the symbols they left on stones. Toward the end of the first millennium they became assimilated with the other peoples in the melting pot of Scotland. Their stones remain as an integral part of the Scottish landscape (photo Cathy MacIver):
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Woolf, A. (1998). Pictish matriliny reconsidered. The Innes Review, 49 147-167
For over a millennium the Mysteries were celebrated at Eleusis, about 18 km northwest of Athens. The main buildings in the temple precinct were built in the 5th Century BCE, but earlier buildings were present in the 6th Century, and evidence of cult-activity at the site goes back to the Mycenaean period before 1100 BCE (Mylonas, 1961, Chapter II). The Mysteries continued through the Hellenistic and Roman ages until their demise in the 4th Century CE when Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire.
What happened during the Mysteries is unknown. Those who were initiated into the Mysteries were instructed not to reveal their secrets. All we know is that they provided their initiates with a vision of the divine and a way to cope with death.
The Mysteries at Eleusis were based upon Demeter and Persephone (also known as Kore, the maiden). The earliest recorded version of their story is in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter from the 7th Century BCE (Lawton, 1898, pp. 154-179). Persephone was the daughter of Demeter (the Goddess of the Harvest) and Zeus. She was carried off by Hades to rule with him as Queen of the Underworld. While in the realm of the dead, Persephone sometimes assumed the name of Thea, and the Underworld later became known by the name of its king. Bernini’s 1622 sculpture of the Rape of Persephone is the most famous representation of the myth.
On the left is shown a 5th-Century BCE votive tablet found in Southern Italy. The King and Queen of the Underworld sit together: Persephone holds a hen and a spray of wheat stems, and Hades displays a libation dish and a fully leaved tree-branch. Despite the fact that they rule over the dead, they are concerned with life.
Back on Earth, Demeter was grief-stricken. She wandered far and wide in search of her daughter. Ultimately she arrived at Eleusis and accepted the hospitality of its king, Celeus, and his family.
Demeter was the God of fruitfulness, and in her grief the Earth had become infertile:
The Earth did not send up any seed.
Demeter, she with the beautiful garlands in her hair, kept the seeds covered underground.
Many a curved plough was dragged along the fields by many an ox—all in vain.
Many a bright grain of wheat fell into the earth—all for naught.
(Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Nagy 1914 translation, ll 306-309)
Zeus decided that this barrenness should not persist. After much negotiation with Demeter and with Hades, he arranged that Persephone could return periodically to her mother:
Zeus assented that her daughter, every time the season came round,
would spend a third portion of the year in the realms of dark mist underneath,
and the other two thirds in the company of her mother and the other immortals. (ll 464-465)
Thus the land returned to cyclic fruitfulness. The thankful Demeter taught Triptolemus, Celeus’ son, all the secrets of agriculture. One interpretation of the Eleusinian relief at the National Archeological Museum in Athens shows Demeter (on the left) presenting wheat stems (no longer visible) to the young Triptolemus. Persephone lays her hand upon his head in blessing.
In celebration of the return of Persephone, Demeter also proposed that the Mysteries be conducted annually at Eleusis. These rites occurred each autumn just before the wheat was planted. The climate of Greece is such that nothing grows in the summer, ploughing and seeding occur in the fall, and the grain is harvested in spring (Cartwright, 2016).
After a large procession from Athens to Eleusis, a group of several hundred people were initiated each year into the Mysteries. Much more is known about the procession than the actual rites which occurred within the sanctuary, though these are far more important. The rites at Eleusis lasted for two days. What happened during this time is not known since the initiates (mystai or telestai) were sworn to secrecy. We can only speculate based on scattered references and representations from the time. The following narrative combines elements from Mylonas (1961, pp 224-285) Kerenyi (1967, pp 67-102), Clinton (1992, 1993) and Bremmer (2014). A reconstruction of the temple buildings is illustrated below:
The first day was spent in fasting and purification. Outside of the main gate was a well which provided water for cleansing the body. The illustration on the Roman Lovatelli Urn (from 1st Century BCE) shows an attendant holding a winnowing fan (lyknon) over the head of a veiled initiate. A winnowing fan is used to separate the chaff from the wheat. It therefore symbolizes both harvesting and purification. In this particular representation, the initiate is Heracles (as seen from the lion skin of the Nemean Lion on which he sits).
At the end of the day the initiates were given a special non-alcoholic drink called kykeon. This was likely made from grain, honey, and herbs. Wasson et al. (1978) have suggested that it may have contained hallucinogens (also called “entheogens” – drugs that promote the experience of the divine), although it is doubtful that the dose could have been adjusted properly for such a large number of people.
As the night came on, the initiates were ushered by Iacchus into the Sanctuary through the main gate (Propylaia) and then through the narrower lesser gate. In the area now called the Ploutonion they could look into cave in the hillside. Clinton suggests that here they might have seen a representation of Demeter in her grief, seated upon the agelastos petra (mirthless rock).
Then the initiates spent the night in inner regions of the sanctuary. There was likely music and prayers. Perhaps the initiates wandered around, trying to help Demeter find Persephone. There was much confusion due to the darkness, the veils, the fasting, and the kykeon.
Later that night the initiates entered the central Telesterion. Again this was likely dark. After a while a large gong was sounded and the central platform Anaktorion became suddenly lit up with blazing torches. The initiates then saw Persephone brought back from the Underworld by the herald Euboulos to be re-united with Demeter.
Following this, and perhaps only to those in their second year of initiation, various sacred objects were revealed by the special attendant known as the hierophant (from hieros, sacred and phainein, show). Most experts think that these may have been representations of the wheat and the harvest. Others (e.g. Kerenyi) have suggested that Persephone was shown giving birth to a son.
The dawn brought the second day, which was enjoyed in feasting and music.
The only definite contemporary representation of the Eleusinian Mysteries is the Ninnion Tablet found at the Eleusis, dated to the 4th Century BCE and now in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens (Mylonas, 1961, pp 213-221; Clinton, 1992, pp 73-75). The tablet has been interpreted in several ways. The writing suggests that the initiate’s name was Niinnion, but most now accept that that the double-i is a mistake.
The lower and upper sections of the tablet can be interpreted as showing two stages of the Mysteries. In the lower half Iacchus, holding torches, ushers the female initiate (one assumes this is Ninnion) and her bearded male companion toward the Goddess Demeter on the right. Ninnion is bearing a vessel on her head, the contents of which will likely be used as a libation to sanctify the Telesterion. Her right hand is raised in greeting and in wonder. Demeter is seated beside an open seat for her lost daughter.
The upper half of the tablet shows the second stage of the rites. The bearded man, a young boy and Ninnion are now approaching another vison. On the right Persephone holding two torches becomes reunited with her mother. Demeter’s pale complexion in the lower representation has become suffused in the upper with the red of happiness.
Most consider the Mysteries to involve two stages: myesis and epopteia. These may related to the two different visions seen during the rites at Eleusis. Others have interpreted the stages differently. Myesis was one of the words used to denote the mysteries. It may have derived from a simpler word meaning “to close.” This itself may have alluded to the secrecy of the proceedings, the closed eyes of the initiates before the revelations or the mental closure that happened after the revelations. In the last sense, it was similar to another word for the mysteries – teletai, which came from the root telos (goal) and meant something accomplished or finished. The second stage was epopteia, which meant “revelation” or “vision,” deriving from ops, eye. Though many agree that there were two stages to the Mysteries, exactly how they occurred remains unknown. Some have suggested that the myesis may have involved “lesser mysteries” that occurred in Athens prior to the initiates going to Eleusis for the “greater mysteries.” The two stages may also have required attendance at the Eleusinian Mysteries on two successive years.
The story of Demeter and Kore was intertwined with several other Greek myths. The Hermitage museum has a beautifully crafted hydria (water carrier) adorned around its shoulder with relief representations of the various divinities associated with Eleusis. This Regina Vasorum (Queen of the Vases) was found in Southern Italy and dates to the 4th Century BCE. The following illustration shows the hydria and that section of the decoration representing the reunited Demeter and Kore.
The following diagram identifies the various divinities. Both Heracles and Dionysus, though heroes of their own myths, also participated in the Mysteries and became initiates. Athena is present since the Mysteries were conducted under the auspices of the city of Athens. Triptolemus is there to represent Eleusis, and perhaps also to be a symbol of normal human beings. Demeter and Kore are portrayed twice – apart and then reunited.
The Eleusinian Mysteries were but one of many different mystery-cults in the Ancient World (Burkert, 1987; Bowden, 2010; Bremmer, 2014). Each of the cults provided initiation ceremonies. Each was based on its own set of myths.
The cult of Dionysus/Bacchus centered on the life and actions of the God of Wine. Celebrations of this cult – bacchanalia – involved intoxication with wine and frenzied dancing. Most of the celebrants were female; in their ecstasy these were called maenads. The Orphic rites derived from the story of Orpheus who tried to reclaim his wife from Hades. The myths and cults of Orpheus and Dionysus were closely related. Some stories tell of the death of Orpheus from being torn apart by maenads celebrating the rites of Dionysus.
The cult of Isis came from Egypt but was widely celebrated in the Roman Empire. Isis was a Goddess of fertility similar in nature to Demeter. Her life was a search for the dismembered body of her brother/husband Osiris. The rites of Magna Mater (“great mother”, also called Cybele) originated in Anatolia (where the Romans believed they might have originated – as the descendants of Aeneas). Priestesses in her cult, called Sibyls, provided advice and prophecy in early Rome. In later Roman times, the Persian God Mithra was widely celebrated in secret temples.
The foundational myths of the different mysteries have many similarities. Many involve a journey to Hades and/or the return of someone from the Underworld. Dionysus journeyed to Hades to rescue his mother Semele, who had died when her lover Zeus revealed himself in all his glory. Orpheus sought to rescue his wife from the Underworld. Osiris was finally brought back to life and became the god of regeneration on the earth and the judge of all who enter the Underworld. The world has known many cults that revolve around the death and resurrection of a God (Frazer, 1923)
Some of the mysteries (particularly those related to Dionysus, and Orpheus) may have provided the initiates with small gold tablets (Bowden 2010, Chapter 7). These were buried along with the deceased in various areas of Greece. The tablets were inscribed with what are apparently instructions about what to do when the initiate dies. The most important instruction was to drink the water from the Pool of Memory (Mnemosyne) rather than from the River of Forgetting (Lethe). Several tablets indicate that Mnemosyne is to the right near a white cypress tree. Once refreshed, the newly dead could “go on the great Sacred Way along which the other famed mystai and bakkhoi make their way” (Bowden, 2010, p 149). The following is a 4th-Century BCE tablet (approximately 2 by 4 inches) from Thessaly (now in the J. P. Getty Museum in California)
The cryptic inscription requests a drink from the Spring of Memory and identifies the bearer according to some prescribed format likely learned from the Mysteries:
I am parched with thirst and am dying; but grant me to drink
from the ever-flowing spring. On the right is a white cypress.
‘Who are you? Where are you from?’ I am a son of Earth and starry sky.
But my race is heavenly.
The Mysteries were thus one way that the Ancients came to grips with the idea of death. Burkert describes the mysteries as “a form of personal religion, depending on a private decision, and aiming at some form of salvation through closeness to the divine.” (1987, p 12). He quotes Cicero who said that those who underwent the initiations at Eleusis learned “how to live in joy, and how to die with better hopes.”(Laws, II, 36).
Literary Allusions to the Mysteries
Two striking allusions to the Mysteries occur in the ancient literature. The first from Plato’s Phaedrus highlights the revelations that came from participating in the Mysteries. For Plato supreme understanding came from recognizing the eternal forms upon which transient individual things were based. In Phaedrus Socrates likens the mind of man to a charioteer which has to control two winged horses, one striving toward the good and one falling away toward evil. If the mind can control the horses and get the chariot to rise up it might reach the outside of heaven and behold
justice, and temperance, and knowledge absolute, not in the form of generation or of relation, which men call existence, but knowledge absolute in existence absolute (Jowett translation, Section 247)
Before it assumed mortal form the soul understood truth and beauty for which it now has only a faint memory. Sometimes through love or through philosophy this knowledge can be regained. Socrates likens the understanding of the absolute to what happens when one is initiated into the Mysteries:
For there is no light of justice or temperance or any of the higher ideas which are precious to souls in the earthly copies of them: they are seen through a glass dimly; and there are few who, going to the images, behold in them the realities, and these only with difficulty. There was a time when with the rest of the happy band they saw beauty shining in brightness,—we philosophers following in the train of Zeus, others in company with other gods; and then we beheld the beatific vision and were initiated into a mystery which may be truly called most blessed, celebrated by us in our state of innocence, before we had any experience of evils to come, when we were admitted to the sight of apparitions innocent and simple and calm and happy, which we beheld shining in pure light, pure ourselves and not yet enshrined in that living tomb which we carry about, now that we are imprisoned in the body, like an oyster in his shell. (Section 250).*
The second allusion to the Mysteries is by Plutarch, who in his essay On the Soul likens the experience of the soul at death to what happens during the initiation into the Mysteries:
Thus we say that the soul that has passed thither is dead, having regard to its complete change and conversion. In this world it is without knowledge, except when it is already at the point of death; but when that time comes, it has an experience like that of men who are undergoing initiation into great mysteries; and so the verbs teleutan (die) and teleisthai (be initiated), and the actions they denote, have a similarity. In the beginning there is straying and wandering, the weariness of running this way and that, and nervous journeys through darkness that reach no goal, and then immediately before the consummation every possible terror, shivering and trembling and sweating and amazement. But after this a marvellous light meets the wanderer, and open country and meadow lands welcome him; and in that place there are voices and dancing and the solemn majesty of sacred music and holy visions. And amidst these, he walks at large in new freedom, now perfect and fully initiated, celebrating the sacred rites, a garland upon his head, and converses with pure and holy men; he surveys the uninitiated, unpurified mob here on earth, the mob of living men who, herded together in mirk and deep mire, trample one another down and in their fear of death cling to their ills, since they disbelieve in the blessings of the other world. For the soul’s entanglement with the body and confinement in it are against nature, as you may discern from this. (Plutarch from the fragment On the Soul, Sandbach translation, 1969, pp 317-319).
These two mentions of the Mysteries in the ancient literature bring out the two main aspects of the rites: the attainment of understanding through a vision of the divine, and the provision of some way of coping with death.
Relations to Christianity
In the 4th Century CE during the reign of the Emperor Constantine, Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, taking over from the various mystery cults. How much Christianity assimilated from these earlier belief systems is difficult to assess.
Christianity differed significantly from the Mysteries. A primary difference was the lack of secrecy. Christianity was based on set doctrines that were promulgated by the faithful and delineated in scriptural texts. The teachings of the Mysteries were far less dogmatic and heresy was unknown. In addition, Christianity was communal. Believers did not just attend the mysteries once or twice in their lives – they worshipped together weekly and acted on their beliefs daily. A third main difference was the lack of any clear moral teaching in the Mysteries.
The early Church Fathers such as Clement of Alexander (2nd Century CE, icon on the right) both decried the Mysteries as superstition and promoted Christian beliefs as the greatest of the mysteries:
O truly sacred mysteries! O stainless light! My way is lighted with torches, and I survey the heavens and God; I become holy while I am initiated. The Lord is the hierophant, and seals while illuminating him who is initiated, and presents to the Father him who believes, to be kept safe for ever. Such are the reveries of my mysteries. (Protrepticus Chapter 12).
Clement proposed that Christianity was the “mystery of the Word (logos),” the divine truth that was manifest in the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. Clement was using logos in its meaning as “truth.” However, Christianity also differed from the Mysteries in virtue of the other meaning of logos as “word.” Christianity followed scripture; the Mysteries were based on secrets.
The sacraments of Christianity (Baptism, Eucharist, etc.) are often referred to as the Mysteries of Faith. These transcendent rites cannot be understood by reason. The Catholic existentialist philosopher Maritain (1962, First Lecture) differentiated two modes of human thinking. One uses reason to solve problems. The other uses intuition to understand mysteries. Knowledge involves both.
The main story underlying the Christian mysteries is that of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The climax of the story comes with Christ’s statement on the cross as he nears death: tetelestai – “It is finished” (John 19:30). The word is similar to those used in the Mysteries.
The Mysteries dealt with coming face to face with divinity and coping with death. Christianity was more certain of its ability to provide salvation:
Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? (I Corinthians 15 51-55)
What happens to consciousness after death is the great mystery of human life. In the Ancient World this question was addressed by the various Mysteries. As Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, the story of Christ provided the most widely believed answer. “I have met the gods and am prepared for death” changed to “I believe in Christ and have been granted salvation.”
Human experience is not random. Because of memory we recognize when events repeat and discover the laws whereby they recur. Most importantly we find a self or soul at the point where events become experience.
Every morning when we awaken we quickly reassemble this soul and the world in which it lives. Surely we tell ourselves that death will be no different. Just as the world proceeds from winter into spring, the soul will return to life.
We tell stories of what will happen then, when the body dies and the soul survives. The stories are intricate and beautiful. They provide us with hope for ourselves and comfort for those we leave behind.
Yet we all die. Though the stories and the stones of Eleusis survive, the initiates all vanished long ago. There is no golden ticket to heaven. We are born. We tell stories. Some are true and some fanciful. In the end it is finished, and we are buried in the earth beneath the starry sky.
* The words “through a glass dimly” immediately recall “through a glass darkly” in I Corinthians 13:11 (“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”) The idea is similar to that expressed in Phaedrus, and Paul was undoubtedly aware of Plato’s work. However, it is not a direct quotation – though the translations are similar, the original Greek words are different.
Bowden, H. (2010). Mystery cults of the ancient world. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Clement of Alexandria (2nd Century CE, translated by W. Watson, 1885). Protrepticus Exhortation to the Heathens. Available at New Advent
Clinton, K. (1992). Myth and cult: The iconography of the Eleusinian mysteries. Stockholm: Svenska Institutet i Athen.
Clinton, K. (1993). The sanctuary of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis. In Marinatos, N., & Hägg, R. Greek sanctuaries: New approaches. (pp. 88-98). London: Routledge.
Frazer, J. G. (1923). The Golden Bough: A study in magic and religion. Abridged ed. London: Macmillan. Available at Arkive.org
Kerényi, K. (translated Ralph Manheim, 1967). Eleusis: Archetypal image of mother and daughter. New York: Bollingen Foundation (Pantheon Books).
Lawton, W. C. (1898). The successors of Homer. New York: Macmillan. Available at Arkive.org
Maritain, J. (1939, reprinted 1962). A preface to metaphysics: Seven lectures on being. New York: New American Library.
Mylonas, G. E. (1961). Eleusis and the Eleusinian mysteries. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press. Available at Arkive.org
Plato (4th Century BCE, translated B. Jowett, 1892). The dialogues of Plato translated into English with analyses and introductions. Volume I. 3rd Edition. London: MacMillan. Available at Arkive.org
Plutarch (1st Century CE, translated by F. H. Sandbach, 1969). Moralia. Volume XV Fragments. London: Heinemann. Available at Arkive.org
Wasson, R. G., Hofmann, A., & Ruck, C. A. P. (1978). The road to Eleusis: Unveiling the secret of the mysteries. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.
Aspects of Etruria
The Etruscans thrived from about 900 to 100 BCE. Although archaeology has revealed much about their life, even more remains unknown. After the Etruscans were assimilated by the Romans, their written history was lost. Although the Emperor Claudius wrote a 20-volume history of the Etruscans, not a page of this has survived.
Popular ideas that the Etruscans originated in Greece, Turkey or Phoenicia have given way to the idea that they were indigenous to the area where they lived – Etruria. This is the land north of the Tiber River, south of the Po River and west of the Apennine Mountains, comprising the present day Italian regions of Lazio, Tuscany and Umbria.
The Etruscan language was not written down until about 700 BCE when a modified Greek alphabet was used. What little we know, mainly from epitaphs on tombs and inscriptions on pottery, indicates a language that is not Indo-European in origin.
Without a history and with little language, our understanding of the Etruscans remains as fragmentary as the pottery in their graves. We piece together what we can.
In his prologue to The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1962), Giorgio Bassani describes a visit to the Etruscan tombs at the Banditaccia Necropolis near Cerveteri (illustrated above). A young girl, Giannina, asks her father why it is that old tombs are not as sad as new ones. Her father suggests that
‘People who have just died are closer to us, and so we are fonder of them. The Etruscans, after all, have been dead for a long time’ — again he was telling a fairy tale — ‘so long it’s as if they had never lived, as if they had always been dead.’
Giannina thinks about this for a while and then replies
‘But now, if you say that,’ she ventured softly, ‘you remind me that the Etruscans were also alive once, and so I’m fond of them, like everyone else.’
Etruscans often evoke these tender feelings. This post, which follows a visit to Etruria last month in a tour led by Nigel Spivey, considers some aspects of Etruscan culture which have intrigued me. Like Giannina, I have become fond of them.
Most of what we know about the Etruscans come from their tombs. Their cities were destroyed and rebuilt by later civilizations, but the cemeteries remained largely untouched. Some tombs, especially those in the Monterozzi Necropolis near Tarquinia, have striking wall paintings. The Tomb of the Leopards from the 5th Century BCE (illustration below derived from Wikipedia) depicts a banquet (Tathje, 2013). Whether this represents the funeral celebration for the deceased or the eternal feasting to be expected in the afterlife is not known. Perhaps both.
D. H. Lawrence described this painting in Etruscan Places:
The end wall has a splendid banqueting scene. The feasters recline upon a checked or tartan couch-cover, on the banqueting couch, and in the open air, for they have little trees behind them. The six feasters are bold and full of life like the dancers, but they are strong, they keep their life so beautifully and richly inside themselves, they are not loose, they don’t lose themselves even in their wild moments. They lie in pairs, man and woman, reclining equally on the couch, curiously friendly. The two end women are called hetaerae, courtesans; chiefly because they have yellow hair, which seems to have been a favourite feature in a woman of pleasure. The men are dark and ruddy, and naked to the waist. The women, sketched in on the creamy rock, are fair, and wear thin gowns, with rich mantles round their hips. They have a certain free bold look, and perhaps really are courtesans.
The man at the end is holding up, between thumb and forefinger, an egg, showing it to the yellow-haired woman who reclines next to him, she who is putting out her left hand as if to touch his breast. He, in his right hand, holds a large wine-dish, for the revel.
The next couple, man and fair-haired woman, are looking round and making the salute with the right hand curved over, in the usual Etruscan gesture. It seems as if they too are saluting the mysterious egg held up by the man at the end; who is, no doubt, the man who has died, and whose feast is being celebrated. But in front of the second couple a naked slave with a chaplet on his head is brandishing an empty wine-jug, as if to say he is fetching more wine. Another slave farther down is holding out a curious thing like a little axe, or fan. The last two feasters are rather damaged. One of them is holding up a garland to the other, but not putting it over his head as they still put a garland over your head, in India, to honour you.
Above the banqueters, in the gable angle, the two great spotted male leopards hang out their tongues and face each other heraldically, lifting a paw, on either side of a little tree. They are the leopards or panthers of the underworld Bacchus, guarding the exits and the entrances of the passion of life. (Lawrence, 1933/1950, pp 65-66)
Lawrence enthusiastically conveys the feelings of the banquet. However, he did not get everything right. The tomb was constructed later than he thought and the women were likely not courtesans. Although the symposia of the Greeks involved only wine and were limited to males (and occasional courtesans), the feasts portrayed in Etruscan paintings included food and allowed both male and female participants. The relations between the sexes may have been more equal in Etruscan society than in other ancient cultures. Probably the most famous piece of Etruscan art is the Sarcophagus of the Spouses (6th century BCE) from Cerveteri, now displayed in the Villa Giulia in Rome. A married couple partakes of the eternal banquet. The man was probably holding in his right hand an egg as a symbol of regeneration. The woman may have held a small jar of oil to pour onto the outstretched hand of her husband. Their archaic smiles suggest an enviable serenity in the face of death:
The banquet portrayed in tomb paintings and sarcophagi is a recurring theme in Etruscan art. The illustration below shows a fragment of a terra cotta frieze from the eaves of a temple. Three reclining Etruscans enjoy the music of the aulos on the left and the lyre on the right. Beneath the couch, the family pet scrounges for scraps of food:
The painters and sculptors were either Greek immigrants to Etruria or Etruscans whom they had trained. The artists may have left Greece and came west because of war and tyranny in their homeland. In the middle of the 1st millennium BCE, large Greek colonies were founded in Sicily and Southern Italy. Although the Greeks did not colonize Etruria, they had extensive commercial and artistic interactions with the Etruscans.
In the first millennium BCE commercial shipping in the Mediterranean was very active: Phoenicians from both the Levant and Carthage, Greeks from both Greece and Sicily, and Etruscans all traded with each other (Bruni, 2013; Haynes, 2000, pp 62-64; Smith, 2014, chapter 5). Much of the trade involved luxury goods – wine, painted pottery, jewellery.
The central painting from the Tomb of the Augurs (6th century BCE) in Tarquinia shows a closed doorway (see below). This symbol, common in Etruscan funerary art and architecture, likely represents the portal between the realms of the living and the dead.
The symbol recurs in the ruined tombs in the tufa cliffs of the Castel d’Asso necropolis near Viterbo (see below). The tombs were designed on three levels (as diagramed on the right). The top allowed for sacrifices and libations to the gods. The middle level provided a place for the funerary celebrations, and the tombs containing the sarcophagi were below.
The ruins of the Castel d’Asso necropolis evoke the melancholy and mystery that the Victorians found fascinating in the Etrucans. Below is an etching (from British Museum) by Samuel Ainsley prepared for the 1848 book by George Dennis, Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria. Today the site remains little changed.
We are not sure what the two men standing on either side of the door in the Tomb of the Augurs are doing. Perhaps they are bidding farewell to the deceased who has gone beyond the door into the afterlife. Another interpretation, one that gives its name to the tomb, is that they are augurs foretelling the future through the flight of birds – auspicy. Indeed, a bird is seen on the left of the door.
Etruscans also divined the future by examining the entrails of animals sacrificed to the gods – haruspicy (de Grummond, 2013). Etruscan graves have yielded fascinating models of the livers of sheep in bronze and in terra cotta (illustration on right). The bronze version (the Piacenza Liver) is extensively annotated to help guide the divination. The gall bladder droops down in the center; the caudate lobe is raised in the upper right, and the middle upper raised portion is likely the quadrate lobe.
Even during Roman times, Etruscans were renowned for their ability to foresee the future. The seer who warned Julius Caesar to beware the Ides of March was an Etruscan named Spurinna.
Within the tombs, the Etruscan dead were usually placed within sarcophagi. Some of these were sculpted in terra cotta. The earlier sarcophagi – such as the Sarcophagus of the Spouses – have idealized features. Later versions of these sarcophagi present striking portraits of the deceased (Brendel & Serra, 1995, pp 387-400; Carpino. 2013). Greek sculpture tended toward the ideal, but later Etruscan sculpture was far more individual. The following illustrations show a sarcophagus from the 3rd or 2nd century BCE from Tuscania, and several portrait heads.
The tombs of the Etruscans were full of grave goods. These represented prestige objects or keimelia – “things which are to be treasured when plundered or presented, but not cashed in” (Spivey, 1997, p 43). Pottery was abundant. Although some of the pottery was made by Etruscans in imitation of the Greek forms, much of the pottery in the tombs came from Greece. The Etruscans traded with the Greeks for these beautiful objects. Athenian painted pottery was particularly popular, and many striking examples of these vessels were preserved in Etruscan graves. Indeed, most of the Athenian pottery in the British museum was actually found in Etruria rather than Greece.
Nevertheless, one type of pottery found in the graves – bucchero – was specifically Etruscan (Perkins, 2007; de Puma, 2013a). So much so that its presence elsewhere in the Mediterranean indicated trade with Etruria. The name bucchero is of uncertain origin. Some have linked it with a type of black clay from South America named bucaro in Spanish. Most of the Etruscan pottery was discovered in the tombs during the 18th century, a time when pottery from the New World was being imported to Europe, and the Spanish term may have become generalized to denote any balck pottery. Perhaps, a more reasonable suggestion is that the word might come from the Latin poculum for drinking cup.
Bucchero pottery is black or dark grey. Not just on the surface but throughout. The color was caused by decreasing the air supply to the kilns in which the pottery was baked. Due to the lack of oxygen, the iron in the clay became black ferrous oxide rather than red ferric oxide. The surface of bucchero can be burnished to an almost metallic sheen. Depending on the light the black surface sometimes has a faint tinge of brown or blue. Some have suggested that bucchero was made in imitation of more expensive bronze or silver vessels. Yet bucchero is beautiful in its own right.
The earliest bucchero made in the 7th and 6th centuries in the southern parts of Etruria. This thin-walled bucchero sottile was often engraved with simple geometric patterns such as spirals or fans. Later bucchero pesante with much thicker walls was manufactured in the 6th to 5th centuries BCE and was more common in northern Etruria. This type of bucchero was adorned with relief decoration. The following two wine pitchers (oenochoai) illustrate the differences. The decoration on the right pitcher shows a typical Etruscan image of flying horses.
One of the most characteristic styles of bucchero is the kantharos. The design of this particular type of wine vessel (below left) may have actually originated in Etruria. The high handles make the kantharos far easier to hold and drink from than the typical flat Greek kylix, which may have been more frequently used for libations rather than for drinking. The Etruscans also made elegant chalices (from Latin calyx) which are similar to our modern wine goblets. The illustration below shows a kantharos and a calyx from ancient Etruria.
Bronze mirrors were also common in the grave goods of Etruscan tombs from the 5th to 4th centuries BCE (de Puma, 2013bc). The backs of the mirrors were occasionally decorated with relief carvings, but more often they were engraved with drawings. These typically depicted persons from Greek mythology. In the illustrated mirrors below, the top two are very similar ̶ two nude men in the company of two women, one dressed and one not. This image occurs very frequently, and may have come from one particular workshop. Exactly who is represented varies. Sometimes the characters are actually labelled – as Achilles and Chryseis (Cressida) together with Helen and Paris (de Puma, 2013c, p 176). On other versions of this mirror, similar characters may be Castor and Pollux with Athena and Aphrodite (de Puma, 2013c, p 185).
These mirrors indicate a people highly conscious of themselves, aware of what it means to be beautiful and fascinated by stories. The polished side no longer reflects Etruscan faces but the drawings on the back preserve the contents of their imagination.
D. H. Lawrence found in the Etruscans a vitality and honesty that he considered lacking in the modern world (Spivey, 1995, pp 192-194). He ignored the facts that Etruscan society existed on the backs of slaves, and that only the aristocrats were able to enjoy the good life. Lawrence saw what he wanted to see. We all do.
Nevertheless, it seems clear that the Etruscans enjoyed life immensely. Wine, music, beautiful things and good company were central to their lives. Most impressive was their intense self-consciousness. Their portraits and mirrors tell of people who sought to understand themselves. Their sense of self was deep enough to convince them that they would persist after death. We may not have the same beliefs. But we must admire this confidence.
Bassani, G. (1962, translated by W. Weaver, 1977). The garden of the Finzi-Continis. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Brendel, O., & Serra, R. F. R. (1995). Etruscan art. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Bruni, S. (2013). Seafaring: shipbuilding, harbors, the issue of piracy. In J. M. Turfa (Ed.) The Etruscan World. (pp 759-777). New York: Routledge.
Carpino, A. A. (2013). Portraiture. In J. M. Turfa (Ed.) The Etruscan World. (pp 1007-1016). New York: Routledge.
de Grummond, N. T. (2013). Haruspicy and augury: Sources and procedures. In J. M. Turfa (Ed.) The Etruscan World. (pp 539-556). New York: Routledge.
Dennis, G. (1848/1878). Cities and cemeteries of Etruria. 2nd Edition. Volume I and Volume II. London: John Murray.
de Puma, R. D. (2013a).The meanings of bucchero. In J. M. Turfa (Ed.) The Etruscan World. (pp 974-992). New York: Routledge.
de Puma, R. D. (2013b). Mirrors in art and society. In J. M. Turfa (Ed.) The Etruscan World. (pp 1041-1067). New York: Routledge.
de Puma, R. D. (2013c). Etruscan art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Haynes, S. (2005). Etruscan civilization: A cultural history. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum.
Smith, C. (2014). The Etruscans: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Spivey, N. J. (1997). Etruscan art. New York: Thames and Hudson.
Tathje, A. (2013). The banquet through Etruscan history. In J. M. Turfa (Ed.) The Etruscan World. (pp 823-830). New York: Routledge.
Baskets of Glass
Dale Chihuly, the American sculptor in glass, has long been interested in the native arts of the Pacific Northwest. Early in his career he became fascinated by their basketry (Lobb & Wolfe, 1990; Porter, 1990). Native Americans were adept at making basketware in all shapes and sizes for cooking, carrying, storing, clothing, drinking, protecting and preserving. Each basket has a form that derives from its function, and an ornamentation that transcends its ordinary usage. In his book on Indian Basketry, James (1901, pp 121-2) quotes from William Holmes:
[W]hile their shape still accords with their functional office, they exhibit attributes of form generally recognized as pleasing to the mind, which are expressed by the terms grace, elegance, symmetry, and the like. Such attributes are not separable from functional attributes, but originate and exist conjointly with them.
The following illustration from James’ book (p. 119) shows a collection of Native American baskets:
Chihuly was born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1941. After studying sculpture and glassblowing, he returning to Washington State to set up the Pilchuk Glass School in 1971. Chihuly knew the collection of baskets in the Washington State History Museum in his home town of Tacoma. He soon decided to make baskets of glass:
I looked at baskets and thought I would try to make them in glass. I wanted mine to be misshapen and wrinkled like some of the older baskets I had seen in storage there. (Chihuly, 2011, p 44).
I was struck by the grace of their slumped, sagging forms. I wanted to capture this grace in glass. The breakthrough for me was recognizing that heat was the tool to be used with gravity to make these forms (from Chihuly webpage)
With these glass baskets Chihuly began looking at the forms of things. At about the same time, he was creating glass cylinders with superimposed patterns based on Navaho blankets. He was trying to understand the forms and patterns of particular objects by representing them in another medium. The baskets of glass themselves later evolved into sea-forms. Other forms followed: macchia (spots), Persians, ikebana, floats, fiori, rotoli (coils), chandeliers. His work has been shown all over the world, in parks, museums, shopping-centers and casinos (Chihuly & Kuspit, 1998, 2014, Chihuly et al, 2016).
The exhibition of Chihuly work currently at the Royal Ontario Museum concludes with a final display based on the Northwest Room at Chihuly’s Boathouse Studio in Seattle. On one wall are photogravure portraits of Native Americans by Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952).On another wall are examples from Chihuly’s collection of blankets woven with Native American patterns from Pendleton Mills in Portland, Oregon (founded in 1863). The focus of the room is a display of Chihuly’s baskets of glass together with historical Native American baskets that he has collected:
The two glass basket in the following illustration show the way in which Chihuly traced patterns by melting shards of colored glass onto the basic forms. They are similar to the Navaho cylinders, but the solid cylinders have evolved into hollow baskets.
There are clear contrasts between the woven baskets and their glass representations. Flexibility becomes rigidity. The baskets absorb the light and enjoy their shadows. The glass forms interact more dramatically with the light, reflecting it from their surface and letting it into their inner structure:
An impressive pairing displays the brilliance of the glass against the gravity of the woven basket. The princess and her grandmother:
Characteristic of Chihuly’s baskets are that they can contain other versions of themselves. Children embraced by their mother. This illustration shows only one:
The more recent series of Fire Orange Baskets (2016) shows baskets within baskets. The furnace has stripped the baskets of earthly material and leaving only their translucent forms. The reflections change continually like flames in fire:
Yeats was fascinated by how art persists beyond the life of the artist. Art has access to some world of eternal forms that is beyond the transience of human life. His two Byzantine poems (Jeffares, 1946) consider how art persists in the images or forms that it creates.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
Plato thought of art in almost the opposite way (Pappas, 2015). He considered individual objects as transient instantiations of some ideal form. He worried that artistic representations of an object were deceptive since they were twice-removed from the ideal.
Perhaps Chihuly’s baskets, like Yeats’ poems, are creative attempts to represent the forms directly. The medium of glass accentuates the idea of seeing through the object to its true form. But Chihuly’s translucent baskets may not last as long as Yeats hammered gold. Man-made versions of the ideal can be as transient and fragile as glass.
Chihuly, D., McDonnell, M., & Adams, H. (2016). Chihuly on fire. Seattle, WA: Chihuly Workshop.
Chihuly, D., & Hushka, R. (2011). Dale Chihuly: A celebration. New York: Abrams.
Chihuly, D., & Kuspit, D. B. (1998). Chihuly. Volume 1. 1968-1996. New York: Abrams.
Chihuly, D., & Kuspit, D. B. (2014). Chihuly. Volume 2. 1997-2014. New York: Abrams.
Porter, F. W. (1990). The art of Native American basketry: A living legacy. New York: Greenwood Press.
The Counter-Reformation, initiated by the Council of Trent (1545-1563) in response to the Protestant Reformation, promoted art as a way for believers to become emotionally involved in the Church. While Protestants were whitewashing church walls and destroying sculptures, Catholics produced the masterpieces of Baroque Art. For the Protestant, nothing should come between man and God; for the Catholic, the majesty of art could bring man to the mystery of God.
Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) was born as Francesco Castelli in Ticino in the lake district of Northern Italy, which at that time was actually part of Switzerland (Connors, 1999). The son of a stone-mason, he studied in Milan and may have been taught there by the great geometer Muzio Oddi. The young man finished his apprenticeship and came to Rome in 1619 to work for Carlo Maderno, the Chief Architect of Saint Peter’s Basilica and a fellow Ticinese. In Rome Francesco assumed the name of “Borromini” after San Carlo Borromeo (1538-84), Archbishop of Milan, leading force in the Counter-Reformation, and perhaps a distant relative of his mother.
In Rome, Borromini met a young sculptor from Naples, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). Bernini was the most talented and productive of the Baroque sculptors. With his intense creativity and charming personality, he soon became the favorite of the Roman popes. In 1624, Bernini was commissioned to construct the baldacchino over the high altar at Saint Peter’s, and after the death of Carlo Maderno in 1629, he was appointed Chief Architect of Saint Peter’s.
For a brief time, Borromini acted as Bernini’s assistant. They did not get along (Morrissey , 2005). They were of opposite temperaments: Bernini was charming and enthusiastic, Borromini was obstinate and melancholic. Borromini felt exploited, and thought that Bernini was not sufficiently grounded in the science of architecture to warrant his position. He severely criticized Bernini’s proposals for the façade and bell-towers of Saint Peter’s. The criticisms were correct and the plans were revised, but Bernini never forgave him.
Bernini is the acknowledged genius of the Baroque Age (Hibbard, 1965; Beny & Gunn 1981; Wittkower, 1997; Hopkins, 2002). Recently, however, Borromini has become more widely studied (Blunt, 1970; Morrissey, 2005; Conors, 2007). His architecture is characterized by a marvelous sense of the effects of light on curving surfaces. In his geometry one may sense the divine. The Naxos String Quartet No 7 (Davies, 2007) attempts to express in music the emotional effects of his buildings. The movie La Sapienza (Green, 2015) focuses on the visual splendor of his architecture. This posting concerns two small churches in Rome.
San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane
Borromini’s first independent commission (1638-41) was to construct a small church, fittingly dedicated to San Carlo Borromeo. This Trinitarian church was located on a small space at the southern corner of an intersection with four fountains. Borromini’s design was based on an oval, geometrically constructed using two adjacent equilateral triangles, symbolic of the trinity. The long circular curves of the oval (red) were drawn using centers (red dots) at each end of the triangles’ adjacent sides. The short curves (blue) were drawn using centers (blue dots) located at each triangle’s centroid. The following figure shows the construction of the oval and the ground plan of the church.
The façade is shown in the following figure, together with a cutaway perspective drawing. One of the innovations of Baroque Architecture was the use of curves in the façade (discussed in Blunt, 1979, p. 76). Because of funding difficulties, the façade of San Carlo was not finally finished until 1665, but Borromini’s early sketches clearly define its subtle curves.
The oval dome of the church ascends to a cupola that contains the symbol of the trinity – a dove within a triangle within a flaming circle. Light enters the dome through lateral windows and through the cupola. A high resolution version of the following figure can be obtained in Wikipedia:
The coffered decoration of the dome is an intricate geometric mesh of octagons hexagons, and crosses. The design is based on the mosaic ceiling of the north ambulatory in the Mausoleum of Santa Costanza just outside the walls of Rome (see figure on the right). This was built in the 4th Century to house the remains Constantia, the daughter of Emperor Constantine I. Borromini not only adapted the design to a dome but also adapted it to give the dome an illusion of greater height.
Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza
In 1641-1660, Borromini designed and built a church for the University of Rome dedicated to Sant’Ivo, the patron saint of jurists. This was commissioned by Urban VIII (formerly Cardinal Barberini), under whose papacy Galileo had been sentenced to house arrest in 1633. Connors (2007) has suggested that the geometrical purity of its design may have provided a way for the papacy to heal its breech with science. Galileo died in 1642 soon after the church was begun. Urban VIII died in 1644, and the funding for the church fell away. It was only completed in 1660. The breech was difficult to heal.
The church is located at one end of the arcaded courtyard of the Palazzo della Sapienza, built by Giacomo della Porta (1533-1602). The following figure shows the floor plan of the palazzo and the church, together with a photograph from Adrian Fletcher’s Paradox Place.
Borromini based his church on two equilateral triangles overlapped to form a Star of David. This was also known as the Star of Solomon and thus was a symbol of wisdom. By locating circles at the apices of the triangles or at the midpoints of their sides two basic outlines could be obtained:
These two different outlines are evident in the dome and in the floor plan:
On top of the dome, Borromini placed a lantern, and upon that he built a striking spiral staircase that leads to a flaming emblem (Connors, 1996). What this virtuosic construction means has been subject to great debate: Tower of Babel, Lighthouse of Alexandria, beehive (for the Barberini bees) or papal tiara? In essence, the spiral likely indicates the ascent toward wisdom. In the past it was one of the great climbs for the adventurous tourist in Rome.
Geometry did not bring Borromini serenity. Plagued by funding difficulties, paranoid that others might be stealing his ideas, lonely and embittered, Borromini entered old age. In 1667, he committed suicide. He wounded himself with his sword and died a day later, after having written down his own account of his death:
Last night the idea came to me of making my will and writing it out with my own hand, and I began to write it about an hour after supper and I went on writing with a pencil till about three in the morning. Messer Francesco Massari my young servant … who sleeps in the room next door to look after me and had already gone to bed, seeing that I was still writing and had not put out the light, called to me, ‘Signor Cavaliere, you ought to put out the light and go to sleep because it is late and the doctor wants you to sleep.’ I replied that I should have to light the lamp again when I woke up and he answered: ‘Put it out because I’ll light it again when you wake up’; and so I stopped writing, put away the paper on which I had written a little and the pencil with which I was writing, put out the light and went to sleep. About five or six I woke up and called to Francesco and told him to light the lamp, and he answered: ‘Signor, no’. And hearing this reply I suddenly became impatient and began to wonder how I could do myself some bodily harm, as Francesco had refused to give me a light; and I remained in that state till about half past eight, when I remembered that I had a sword in the room at the head of the bed, hanging among the consecrated candles, and, my impatience at not having a light growing greater, in despair I took the sword and pulling it out of the scabbard leant the hilt on the bed and put the point to my side and then fell on it with such force that it ran into my body, from one side to the other, and in falling on the sword I fell on to the floor with the sword run through my body and because of my wound I began to scream, and so Francesco ran in and opened the window, through which light was coming, and found me lying on the floor, and he with others whom he had called pulled the sword out of my side and put me on the bed; and this is how I came to be wounded.(Blunt, 1971, pp. 208-209.)
The violent passions of the dark gave way to an amazingly cool rationality during the light. At his request, Borromini was buried in the tomb of Carlo Maderno in San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. The will enjoined his heir and nephew Bernardo to marry the granddaughter of his mentor Maderno.
The 17th Century was a time of great changes in how we conceived of the universe and its creator. The heavenly spheres were no longer. The planets moved around the sun and not around the earth. Geometry became a guiding principle for understanding the universe. The circular orbits of Copernicus ceded to the ellipses of Kepler. Kepler used the geometry of perfect solids to explain the different radii of the planetary orbits (Hatch, 2002). And in 1687 all was explained by Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation. Science was explaining the universe with geometry. God was perhaps a mathematician. Baroque art, and Borromini in particular, sought for God in the geometrical interplay of curve and light.
Beny, R., & Gunn, P. (1981). The churches of Rome. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Blunt, A. (1979). Borromini. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press (Belknap).
Connors, J. (1996). Borromini’s S. Ivo alla Sapienza: the spiral. The Burlington Magazine, 138, 668-82.
Connors, J. (1999). Francesco Borromini. La vita (1599–1667). In R. Bösel, C. L. Frommel. (eds.) Borromini e l’universo barocco. (pp. 7–21) Milan, Electa.
Connors, J. (2007). The cultural moment at the beginning of work on S. Ivo alla Sapienza. In L. Mochi Onori, S. Schütze & F. Solinas (Eds.) I Barberini e la cultura europea del Seicento. (pp. 581-86). Rome: De Luca.
Green, E. (2015) La Sapienza (DVD). New York, NY: Kino Lorber.
Hibbard, H. (1965/1990). Bernini. London: Penguin.
Hopkins, A. (2002). Italian architecture: From Michelangelo to Borromini. London: Thames & Hudson.
Davies, P. M., & Maggini Quartet. (2007). Naxos quartets nos. 7 and 8. (Sound recording). Hong Kong: Naxos Records.
Morrissey, J. P. (2005). The genius in the design: Bernini, Borromini, and the rivalry that transformed Rome. New York: W. Morrow.
Wittkower, R., (1997, photographs by Guidolotti, P.). Bernini: The sculptor of the Roman Baroque. London: Phaidon Press.
Loss of Paradise
The ancients did not believe in progress (Bury, 1932; Pollard, 1968; Meek Lange, 2011). They had two main ideas of how the world changes over time. One was that an initial state of peace and plenty – the Garden of Eden of Genesis, the Golden Age of Hesiod, or the Arcadia of Virgil – had degenerated over time to our present world of strife and suffering.
The decline from our golden beginnings to the present age of iron might have been simply caused by the passage of time, but more often than not it was attributed to human foolishness. The Jews told the story of original sin and the Greeks recounted the myth of Pandora’s box.
Lucas Cranach (1530) portrayed the Golden Age as a time when we could dance without fear of the lion and eat of the tree of knowledge without concern for the consequences. The word “paradise” means an area enclosed by a wall. Suffering and death remained outside the wall.
Our forefathers’ second concept was that nothing ever really changes. The world may go through cycles of improvement and deterioration, but in the end everything stays about the same. The world is not perfect and never will be. The Jewish preacher Ecclesiastes (3rd Century BCE, 1:9, KJV) claimed that all is vanity:
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (180 CE, Meditations X:I, Staniforth translation) proposed that the soul
… can encompass the whole universe at will, both its own structure and the void surrounding it, and can reach out into eternity, embracing and comprehending the great cyclic renewals of creation, and thereby perceiving that future generations will have nothing new to witness, even as our forefathers beheld nothing more than we of today.
These two ideas of history were often combined. Our original paradise cannot be regained. The beings that began in Eden now find themselves condemned forever to brief lives characterized more by suffering than by happiness, and leading inexorably to death.
Eastern religions adopted a similar view. They conceived of human life as a continual reincarnation into a world of suffering. The only escape was from the ongoing cycle of death and rebirth (samsara) was to remove oneself from the changing world (maya) by abdicating all desire and dedicating oneself to wisdom and charity.
City of God
Into the gloom that pervaded much of our ancient wisdom came the idea of salvation. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ would allow the believer to escape to Heaven at the end of life. Failure to believe, however, would lead to Hell. In the 5th Century CE, Saint Augustine proposed that human beings can choose either to belong to the City of God or to remain in the Earthly City, the one founded by Cain (City of God, XV:1). People of the City of God progress “from earthly to heavenly things, and from the invisible to the invisible” (X:14).
The illustration at the right shows a terra cotta maquette from the Hermitage, a model for Bernini’s 1650 statue of Augustine in St Peter’s Cathedral. Bernini’s sculpture was meant to seen from many different perspectives. So perhaps we are not amiss in interpreting Augustine’s work in ways not intended by the saint.
The idea of Christian salvation, like the benefits of many other religions, is basically mean-spirited and divisive. An elect will go to heaven; all others will not. Membership in the elite is not awarded on the basis of achievement but gifted by the grace of God. Indeed, Augustine believed that since God is omniscient, membership in the elect is pre-ordained.
Great Chain of Being
Augustine’s thinking was embedded in the notion of a Great Chain of Being (Lovejoy, 1936) that he derived from Greek philosophers, most notably from the Neoplatonist Plotinus. God created the world. Within this world everything was arranged hierarchically from inanimate matter at the bottom through plants, animals, man, and angels, to God at the top. This concept was extensively worked out in medieval Scholasticism, but persisted long after, as evidenced by Alexander Pope’s lines in his Essay on Man (1734, Epistle I:VIII):
Vast chain of being, which from God began,
Natures ethereal, human, angel, man,
Beast, bird, fish, insect! what no eye can see,
No glass can reach! from infinite to thee,
From thee to nothing!
The hierarchy also characterized human society with the anointed King placed at the top, the lords and clergy below and the peasants at the very bottom. Society was not supposed to change: one knew one’s place, and did not move between the levels.
All this began to change with the emergence in the Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries of a new way of thinking that questioned the authority of the past. The very idea that we may not have understood the world correctly in the past implied that we might understand it better in the future.
This way of thinking led to the Enlightenment of the 18th Century. The new sciences had shown that we could understand more and more about the workings of the world, derive laws to predict what might happen, and harness energy to change the world which controlled us. Lives were becoming better.
The Enlightenment gave birth to our modern idea of progress. In 1750 Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Baron de l’Aulne (1727-1781) published an essay entitled A Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind. He agreed with the ancients that
All things perish, and all things spring up again; and in these successive acts of generation through which plants and animals reproduce themselves time does no more than restore continually the counterpart of what it has caused to disappear.
This sounds much like Marcus Aurelius. However, Turgot also noted that human beings were different from the rest of the world, since they can accumulate and communicate knowledge:
The succession of mankind, on the other hand, affords from age to age an ever-changing spectacle. Reason, the passions, and liberty ceaselessly give rise to new events …. The arbitrary signs of speech and writing, by providing men with the means of securing the possession of their ideas and communicating them to others, have made of all the individual stores of knowledge a common treasure-house which one generation transmits to another, an inheritance which is always being enlarged by the discoveries of each age.
This allows the idea of progress, whereby
… the whole human race, through alternate periods of rest and unrest, of weal and woe, goes on advancing, although at a slow pace, towards greater perfection (all quotations from Turgot, 1750, p. 41).
Turgot became most famous for his work on economics, his Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Wealth being one of the foundational works of economic liberalism. Nevertheless, it is to him in particular and to the Enlightenment in general that we must trace the origin of our idea of progress (Younkins, 2006; Meek Lange, 2011). The statue of Turgot by Pierre Travaux (1853) illustrated above was appropriately photographed in the bright sunlight. Turgot was one of the giants of the Enlightenment.
Science advanced rapidly the 18th and 19th Centuries and by the beginning of the 20th Century it appeared that everything was within our reach. The study of thermodynamics had led to steam engines and automobiles, the study of electricity had given us artificial lighting and telephones, and the study of medicine had resulted in anesthetics and vaccines.
Society had become more humane. To some extent a belief in progress replaced our earlier belief in salvation.
Humanism is not science, but religion – the post-Christian faith that humans can make a world better than any in which they have so far lived … Christians understood history as a story of sin and redemption. Humanism is the transformation of this Christian doctrine of salvation into a project of universal human emancipation. The idea of progress is a secular version of the Christin belief in providence. (Gray, 2003. xiii)
No one was more enthusiastic in their belief in Progress than the people of the United States. They considered it their manifest destiny to replace the simple life of the Native Americans with the railways and industry of European civilization. The 1853 painting of Progress by Asher Brown Durand of the Hudson Valley School portrayed the changing American landscape. On the left are the Native Americans and on the right the New Americans. The unspoiled wilderness gives way to the glorious future. Both are suffused in sunshine: nostalgia for paradise is balanced by hope of heaven.
March of Progress
The Theory of Evolution inverted the Great Chain of Being. God did not create the world and all that is within it. Rather, the world evolved from inanimate to animate and from simple to complex. Man descended from earlier humanoid species, that themselves had descended from monkeys. The universe developed from bottom up rather than from top down.
Religion generally rejected this world view. However some religious philosophers tried to combine evolution with divine purpose. Man was perhaps evolving toward a perfect being, an Omega Point where everything would be understood, time would cease, and God and man become one. (Teilhard de Chardin, 1959).
The evolution of man was often portrayed as a March of Progress. The most famous of these illustrations was by Rudolph Zaillinger for the Time-Life book on Early Man (Howell, 1965):
The idea of the March of Progress was conceived in much the same way as the Great Chain of Being, although the sequence was temporal rather than heirarchic. Yet it remained a chain, and we often engage in a futile search for missing links.
Zaillinger’s picture suggests a linear sequence, with each humanoid species evolving into the next. This is completely wrong. Evolution has multiple branches, with most of the branches ending with extinction. Evolutionary progress is better illustrated by a bush than by a ladder (Gould, 1989). Furthermore, the evolution of man appears to have depended much more on chance contingencies than on an inevitable path. This does not make progress directionless, but does underline its precariousness.
Brave New World
As the Enlightenment progressed, the Common Man began refused to stay subservient. The Divine Right of Kings no longer held; revolutions occurred; democracy began to flourish. In the 20th Century governments began to grant Universal Suffrage.
However, we may have become too confident. Butterfield (1931) pointed out the human tendency to conceive of past history as necessarily progressing to the perfection of the present. Our present happiness simply confirms that our past policies were correct. The Great War shook this simple faith. Where could one place such terrible carnage in any concept of progress?
The tendency to see the present as the best of all possible worlds persists. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama announced the End of History (1989). Fascism had been defeated; communism had failed; democracy had triumphed:
What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
All that was then needed was to export democracy to the rest of the world. Today we live with the violent results of this idea. The world and human society are far more complex than they appear. Progress may be both desirable and possible, but it will require more foresight than we have shown so far.
Not everyone subscribed to the idea that progress is beneficial. The first half of the 20th Century undermined everyone’s faith. The rise of fascism in Europe, the war that it unleashed, the horror of the Holocaust, and the use of nuclear weapons were strong lines of evidence that history was descending into evil rather than progressing toward good.
Walter Benjamin gave terrifying poetic voice to this possibility by evoking a 1920 painting of Paul Klee:
A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (Benjamin 1941, 257–8)
Benjamin’s warnings were disregarded in the years of peace and prosperity that followed World War II. In recent years, however, the idea that progress can be evil has been reconsidered:
To believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals. This is the hope of nearly everybody nowadays, but it is groundless. For though human knowledge will very likely continue to grow and with it human power, the human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive species that is also one of the most predatory and destructive. (Gray, 2003, p. 4)
If anything about the present century is certain, it is that the power conferred on ‘humanity’ by new technologies will be used to commit atrocious crimes against it. (Gray, 2003, p. 14)
It is not hard to find historical examples of progress leading to problems (Wright, 2006). For example, the invention of flint arrows facilitated hunting but may have also led to the extinction of the very game that early man was pursuing. In addition, arrows provided yet another way for human beings to murder each other. Wright considers this early weaponry an example of a “progress trap” something that initially improves our lives but ultimately makes them worse.
Many of the problems brought on by progress are linked to human failings, particularly to selfishness. Wright considers the discovery of agriculture in this light:
The invention of agriculture is itself a runaway train, leading to vastly expanded populations but seldom solving the food problem because of two inevitable (or nearly inevitable) consequences. The first is biological: the population grows until it hits the bounds of the food supply. The second is social: all civilizations become hierarchical; the upward concentration of wealth ensure that there will never be enough to go around. (Wright, 2006, p. 108).
Modern democracies base their economies on capitalism. As well as being inherently unfair, capitalism cannot survive without continually increasing consumption. This has led to our current ills of pollution and climate-change:
Capitalism lures us on like the mechanical hare before the greyhounds, insisting that the economy is infinite and sharing therefore irrelevant. Just enough greyhounds catch a real hare now and then to keep the others running till they drop. In the past it was only the poor who lost this game; now it is the planet. (Wright, 2006, p. 124).
Though we must properly consider the problems that we face, we must not lose sight of the fact that we are getting better even if the pace is slow and variable. Despite the tremendous loss of life in the two world wars of the 20th Century, we are less murderous now than in the past (Pinker, 2011, 2015). Though governments are far from perfect, the people of the present world have more rights now than in the days of kings. And even if science can lead to such terrible things as nuclear war, it has also provided us with the benefits of modern agriculture, transportation, communication and medicine.
We are right to be careful. Yet we should not do away with progress and retreat to the past. The paradise that we think we remember is not real. The future dystopias we imagine are warnings not necessary predictions.
Temple of Longing
To balance Benjamin’s vision of the angel we might conclude with another of Paul Klee’s paintings, Mural from the Temple of Longing (1922). The colors of the painting come from the desert. The surface is weathered as if by wind and sand. The shapes likely represent a mountain village in North Africa. Klee had been irrevocably changed by a brief sojourn in Tunis in the summer of 1914, and themes from that visit recur in many of his paintings. The blues of the picture suggest twilight, and the circular and semicircular shapes in the upper part of the picture may hint at a moon both full and waxing.
The various vertical constructions terminate in arrows which move away from us, upward and deeper into the space of the picture. Arrows occur many times in Klee’s paintings and mean many things: the passage of time, the movement of things, and the force of desire. Here they may represent thoughts or questions:
The father of the arrow is the thought: how do I expand my reach? Over this river? This lake? That mountain? (Klee, 1925, p. 54)
A faith in progress is necessary. We should not simply accept our present state. We should long for a better world. However, we should always question how we should change the present to the future. And we should proceed with caution.
Benjamin, W., (1940, translated by H. Zohn, 1969). Theses on the philosophy of history. In
Illuminations. (pp. 253–264). New York: Schocken.
Bury, J. B. (1932). The idea of progress: An inquiry into its origin and growth. New York: Macmillan. Available at Internet Archive
Butterfield, H. (1931). The Whig interpretation of history. London: G. Bell and Sons.
Pollard, S. (1968, reprinted 1971). The idea of progress: History and society. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books.
Teilhard de Chardin, P. (translated by Wall, B., 1959). The phenomenon of man. London: Collins
Turgot, A.-R.-J., (1750, translated by Meek, R. L., 1973). A philosophical review of the successive advances of the human mind. In Turgot on progress, sociology and economics. Cambridge, UK: University Press. Much of this is available on Google Books
Wright, R. (2006). An illustrated short history of progress. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.
Younkins, E. W. (2006). Turgot on progress and political economy. Le Québécois Libre. 186. Available on webpage
Person and Memory
Although psychology has become an established science, it still has deep connections to philosophy. This is particularly true when we consider the concept of person that is at the foundation of all psychology. A person exists (and persists) through the processes of consciousness and memory. The following photograph (by Marie-Lan Nguyen) shows a Roman statue of Clio, the muse of history, from the Museo Pio Clementino of the Vatican. Clio records what is happening and recalls what has happened. History ensures that the past persists. The past helps us to understand the present.
Clio, Museo Pio Clementino
The statue derives from the 2nd century CE. Its head and body were originally from different statues. Our knowledge of the person comes from both psychology and philosophy. This posting looks at memory and person from these two viewpoints. The photograph has been modified to provide more space on the statue’s right. There is much we do not know.
From soul to person
The philosophers of the Enlightenment doubted the existence of the soul. Thoughts and sensations were all that could be directly experienced. These required a subject to experience them. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke (1689) proposed the terms “self” and “person” for this subject. A person is
a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself, as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and, as it seems to me, essential to it; it being impossible for anyone to perceive, without perceiving that he does perceive. (Book II, Chapter 27)
As well as consciousness, the idea of person required a memory of one’s past thoughts and actions. Consciousness of both past and present could then support the identity of the person over time. Without memory, each moment of experience would require a different subject:
For since consciousness always accompanies thinking, and it is that which makes everyone to be what he calls self, and thereby distinguishes himself from all other thinking things; in this, alone, consists personal identity, i. e. the sameness of a rational being; and as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards, to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person; it is the same self now, it was then; and it is by the same self with this present one, that now reflects on it, that that action was done. (Book II, Chapter 27)
Locke considered memory as a simple storehouse of perceptions that could be revived at a later time
this laying up of our ideas in the repository of the memory signifies no more but this, that the mind has a power in many cases to revive perceptions which it has once had, with this additional perception annexed to them, that it has had them before. (Book II, Chapter 10).
In this way, Locke considered the human mind as essentially passive: a clean slate (tabula rasa) upon which the world writes through the process of sensation, and an untended warehouse of slowly fading messages from the past.
Personhood clearly requires both consciousness and memory but the relationships are not simple (Behan, 1979). Am I a person when I am unconscious? Am I the same person as the two-year old child who grew up to be me, but whose experiences I can no longer remember? Personal identity must depend on physical as well as psychological continuity (Parfit, 1984; Olsen, 2010). In modern science we might also consider genetic continuity: over time our cells may change but our genes remain the same.
The self as described by the philosophers of the Enlightenment had a definitely moral aspect. Locke proposed that conscious memory must take responsibility for a person’s past actions. The self
extends itself beyond present existence to what is past, only by consciousness,—whereby it becomes concerned and accountable; owns and imputes to itself past actions, just upon the same ground and for the same reason as it does the present. (Book II, Chapter 27).
Whereas the soul had existed in relation to God, the person was much more closely related to society. The Enlightenment was far more concerned with the rights and duties than with sin and salvation. Our modern concept of the person continues this idea of individual responsibility:
A person is a being with a certain moral status, or a bearer of rights … a being who has a sense of self, has a notion of the future and the past, can hold values, make choices; in short can adopt life-plans … a being with his own point of view on things … a being who can be addressed, and who can reply … a ‘respondent.’. (Taylor, 1985, p. 97)
In his Essay on Human Understanding, written in reply to Locke’s essay, Condillac (1746, reviewed by Kaitaro, 2007) pointed out that perception and memory are not simply passive responses to incoming sensation. Attention selects which or our sensations are perceived and remembered, and finds relations among these sensations. Furthermore, attention is purposeful, acting according to our needs.
The association of several ideas can only be caused by the attention which we have given them when they occurred together: as well, things only attract our attention because of their relation to our temperament, passions and state of mind, or, in a word, our need. (Condillac, 1746, Part I, Section II, Chapter 3)
One of the ideas that the human mind creates is that of the self. Condillac proposed that this comes about through a process that compares present perceptions with memories of past perceptions:
When objects attract our attention, the perceptions that they cause are associated with a feeling of self … Consciousness not only is aware of our perceptions but also, if these repeat, informs us that we have already experienced them, and tells us how, despite their variety and succession, they relate to … a being that is always the same. … Without what I call reminiscence, each moment of our life would appear as the first in our existence, and our consciousness would never extend beyond our first perception. (Condillac, 1746, Part I, Section II, Chapter 1)
However, although Condillac considered consciousness as an active process, he came to think that this activity itself could be derived from sensation. In his later book, Treatise on Sensations (Condillac, 1754, discussed in Falkenstein, 2010), he attempted to see how all of our thinking could come from sensation, using the concept of a statue that is sequentially stimulated in each modality. Though he disagreed with Locke about the passivity of the mind, he still decided that active mental processes could be derived from experience. Sensation teaches us to think. Nothing is innate.
However, as pointed out by Donald (2001), Condillac’s statue cannot develop in this way unless it has from the beginning the ability to be conscious of the various sensations that it experiences. Furthermore, the statue would have to be endowed with some curiosity or there would be no motive for it to make any associations between the different sensations that it experiences.
Nevertheless, by the end of the book Condillac’s statue has developed attention, perceptions, associations, memory and desire. Condillac appears to be stating that this statue is equivalent to a human being. Yet, although it has some idea of its own body, the statue does not have any clear understanding of itself. The statue’s final soliloquy includes the haunting comment:
I see myself, I touch myself, in a word, I sense myself, but I do not know what I am. (Condillac, 1754, Part IV, Chapter 8)
This absence of any self-understanding may be related to the statue’s lack of any social experience. Condillac provided it with sensations of itself and of objects, but not of other perssons. The human concept of the self develops at the same time as the concept that there are other persons in the world each with its own consciousness and will (Wellman, 2011).
Competing claims that human mental processes were passive or active played themselves out again in the 20th Century. Behaviorists proposed that all our actions derive from the stimuli that we receive. At mid-century, however, a cognitive revolution occurred: psychologists decided that human perception is an intensely active process, and that memory is far more complicated than a simple repository of experience.
Human memory is presently conceived as having short and long durations. Short-term memories include sensory stores which serve to register modality-specific incoming information, and working memory which selects information from these stores, and transforms it into action according to current needs and goals. Working memory has access to learned procedures and concepts that are maintained in long term memory, and uses various subsidiary stores, such as the phonological loop and the visuo-spatial scratchpad, to hold information while it operates.
The diagram below shows the general structure of human information processing, with the different human memories shown in separate boxes. Current cognitive psychology considers these memories as residing in neuronal networks that are far more widespread and overlapping than the diagram suggests. Attention is the process that selects what information is transferred into and out of working memory.
Long-term memory is what is usually considered as “memory” in everyday speech. Cognitive psychology divides this into explicit and implicit, depending upon whether the recalled information is accessible to consciousness. This distinction is also described as declarative vs. procedural. The memory of how to ride a bike is implicit/procedural; the memory of the capital city of France is explicit/declarative.
Endel Tulving (1972, 1983, 2002) proposed that explicit memory is further divided into two types: semantic and episodic. Semantic memory is the memory for facts. Such facts are recalled without any relation to our experience when we initially learned them. Episodic memories are recalled together with aspects of what we experienced when they were initially stored into memory, i. e., they are recalled as part of an episode in our life. The archtypical episodic memory is that of one’s first kiss, a memory that usually cannot be recalled without re-experiencing many attendant sensations and emotions. The following table (modified and abridged from Tulving, 1983, p. 35) gives some of the distinctions between the two types of memory:
Feature Episodic Semantic
Source sensation comprehension
Units events, episodes facts, ideas
Organization temporal conceptual
Reference self universe
Veridicality personal belief social acceptance
Registration experiential symbolic
Access deliberate automatic
Retrieval queries when? where? what?
Recalled information personal past facts
Reported experience remember know
Episodic memories are associated with a special type of consciousness that Tulving and his colleagues have called “autonoetic” (Wheeler et al., 1997). This allows us to re-experience events from the past without our becoming confused with our present experience. Remembering something is similar to the original experience but is clearly not the same. Autonoetic consciousness provides us with the ability for “mental time travel.” Moreover, as well as letting us remember our past, it allows us to experience what might happen to us in the future.
One experimental technique for evaluating episodic memory involves having subjects recall previously learned associations. They are then asked whether they “remember” these items (on the basis that they also recall what happened when the association was studied), or simply “know” the association (reviewed by Tulving, 2002). Remembered information has the “flavor” of the original experience, whereas known information is simply factual. However, although most subjects can make the remember/know distinction, its meaning is not clear. The “remember” judgment may possibly indicate a larger amount of information or its greater vividness rather than (or in addition to) a different type of recollection.
Imaging studies have shown that recalling episodic memories activates different brain regions than recalling semantic memories. Recalling episodic memories involves the right frontal region of the brain, whereas recalling semantic memories is more left frontal (Tulving et al., 1994; Cabeza et al., 1997). Furthermore, a patient with difficulty in recalling episodic memories showed a focal lesion in the right frontal region (Levine et al., 1998).
Recent imaging studies have implicated that the recall of episodic information involves complex interactions between several different regions of the brain, most particularly the hippocampi, the anterior prefrontal cortex and the left parietal cortex (Vilberg & Rugg, 2009; Rugg and Vilberg, 2013).
Tulving considered episodic memory to be a special development in human beings. Animals
have minds, they are conscious of their world, and they rely as much on learning and memory in acquiring the skills needed for survival as we do … but they do not seem to have the same kind of ability humans do to travel back in time in their own minds (Tulving 2002).
However, human semantic memory, organized in large part through language, is also quite distinct from the memory that animals have for facts. Since it carries with it human culture, art, science, and history, our semantic memories are every bit as special as our memories of personal experience.
Everything that we learn occurs initially part of a subjective experience. How experience becomes memory is not clear. Semantic memories may derive from episodic memories after they have been separated from their personal associations through processes such as inference, abstraction, generalization or consolidation. However, it is also possible that the initial experience is stored simultaneously in the two types of memory.
Autobiographical memory is composed of both semantic and episodic elements (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000; Renoult et al., 2012). I can recall the names of my family members, the important dates of my life (birth, graduation, marriage), and the sequence of places where I have lived or worked in much the same way that I recall the capitals of countries. Yet I can also recall my actual experiences during my wedding or my first day at work. The story of my life can thus be viewed at different levels: in semantic outline or episodic detail.
Episodic memories are generally organized around the idea of a person that persists from one episode to the next (Picton, 2012). As well as linking together what has happened to us into a personal history, our autobiographical memory also contains explanations for why we did what we did. Thus we come to know how we tend to respond in certain situations, what needs and desires govern our actions, and what goals we might be aiming for. Thus we develop a sense of self:
When it comes to our identities, narrative is not only about self, but is rather in some profound way a constituent part of self (Eakin, 2008, p. 2).
This psychological concept of the person shows some similarities to the existentialist view of the man as not being endowed with a soul but as having to create one out of nothing:
Freedom is precisely the nothingness which is made to be at the heart of man and which forces human reality to make itself instead of to be. As we have seen, for human reality, to be is to choose oneself; nothing comes to it from the outside or from within which it can receive or accept. Without any help whatsoever, it is entirely abandoned to the intolerable necessity of making itself be. (Sartre, 1943/1995, p. 485, translation Barnes)
We can be quite creative in how we put together our personal story:
we are all virtuoso novelists, who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behavior, more or less unified, but sometimes disunified, and we always put the best ‘faces’ on it we can. We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character at the center of that autobiography is one’s self. (Dennett, 1992).
Unfortunately, we are sometimes unreliable narrators. When we are happy we can see our lives as the successful outcome of our intelligence, charm and drive. When we are depressed we may misperceive what has happened and exaggerate our personal failures. A good friend or a psychotherapist can help us by listening to our story, pointing out its inconsistencies, and suggesting different interpretations. They help us to be honest with ourselves (Coetzee & Kurtz, 2015). If our version of our life history is more fiction than fact, we can have great difficulty handling the present or coping with the future.
The concept of a personal narrative is often associated with morality. Should we not be responsible for the story of our life in some manner? “Accountable” was the word used by Locke in his discussion of the person. Charles Taylor remarks
[I]n order to make minimal sense of our lives, in order to have an identity, we need an orientation to the good, which means some sense of qualitative discrimination, of the incomparably higher. Now we see that this sense of the good has to be woven into my understanding of my life as an unfolding story. (Taylor, 1989, p. 47)
Alasdair MacIntyre (1984) has also considered personal identity and its relation to ethics:
In what does the unity of an individual life consist? The answer is that its unity is the unity of a narrative embodied in a single life. To ask ‘What is the good for me?’ is to ask how best I might live out that unity and bring it to completion. (MacIntyre, 1984, p. 218)
He goes on to describe the personal narrative in terms of a “quest” for the good. We seek to go from the as yet unfulfilled present person to a future person as he could be if he were to realize his essential nature (MacIntyre, 1984, p. 52).
Recent studies have indicated that some subjects have autobiographical memories that are more highly developed than normal subjects (Leport et al., 2012). These patients can recall much more about what occurred during their lives than normal subjects. When prompted by specific dates they can often recall exactly what they were doing and what was happening in the world. These subjects organized their autobiography using a strict chronological ordering.
Other subjects have a much less developed autobiographical memory than normal (Palombo et al., 2015). These subjects experience much less episodic detail when they recall their past particularly from childhood and adolescence. For the more recent past, the subjects appear to compensate, perhaps by using semantic memory to encode what others would maintain as episodic details. During remember/know recognition-testing, the subjects reported remember judgments much less frequently than control subjects. It is as though they have some deficit in either making or recalling episodic memories. However, it is difficult to evaluate this by asking them about their experience. This would be like asking a color-blind patient to describe his experience of red. On physiological testing, the subjects showed reduced activation in the brain regions normally associated with episodic recall.
These two groups of subjects may represent the limits of normal variability in memory styles. In this regard it is interesting to note some recent contributions from philosophy. Galen Strawson (2004, 2012) has proposed that there are two kinds of self-experience: diachronic and episodic. A diachronic (from the Greek dia through and chronos time) person considers himself or herself as an entity that has persisted from past to present and that will continue into the future. Most diachronic persons consider their past in terms of a personal narrative. An episodic (from the Greek epi in addition and eisodos entrance) person is one who has little or no sense of a past or future identity, and little concern with his or her life story. The memory of the personal past is discontinuous and divorced from the present self. Strawson considers himself as episodic:
I have a past, like any human being, and I know perfectly well that I have a past. I have a respectable amount of factual knowledge about it, and I also remember some of my past experiences ‘from the inside’, as philosophers say. And yet I have absolutely no sense of my life as a narrative with form, or indeed as a narrative without form. Absolutely none. Nor do I have any great or special interest in my past. Nor do I have a great deal of concern for my future. (Strawson, 2004, p. 433)
Strawson’s use of “episodic” is different (indeed almost the opposite) from Tulving’s. Strawson uses it to describe a person who considers the past (and future) as having little relation to the present, whereas Tulving uses it to describe the experiential quality of remembering. The term “episodic” has been used with even other meanings: Donald (2001, pp. 200-202) uses it to describe the temporal organization of experience into meaningful events.
Strawson proposes that episodic persons are not that uncommon. Since such persons would generally not write autobiographies, the historical record may be biased towards the diachronic. Strawson nevertheless quotes others who share his episodic nature. Goronwy Rees (1961) entitled his autobiography A Bundle of Sensations. The title makes allusion to David Hume, who was himself sceptical about the possibility of any person or perceiving subject. He considered each of us to be
nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement. Our eyes cannot turn in their sockets without varying our perceptions. Our thought is still more variable than our sight; and all our other senses and faculties contribute to this change; nor is there any single power of the soul, which remains unalterably the same, perhaps for one moment. (Hume, 1738, Book I Part IV Section VI)
Strawson’s main point, however, is to criticize the idea that a personal narrative is essential to moral development. Indeed because of the way that it is continually revised, a deeply experienced personal narrative may hinder more than help:
the Narrative tendency to look for story or narrative coherence in one’s life is, in general, a gross hindrance to self-understanding: to a just, general, practically real sense, implicit or explicit, of one’s nature. It’s well known that telling and retelling one’s past leads to changes, smoothings, enhancements, shifts away from the facts … The implication is plain: the more you recall, retell, narrate yourself, the further you risk moving away from accurate self-understanding, from the truth of your being. (Strawson, 2004, p. 447).
Eakin (2008) has argued against Strawson’s dissociation of personal identity from any narrative evaluation of one’s past and future. It may all depend on the way in which the memory of the past is organized. Not all stories are told from beginning to end. As Christman (2004) has pointed out the events in a narrative may be linked according to causal connections (from the beginning), teleological directions (toward the end) or thematic relations (interacting foci).
What the condition of narrativity amounts to, then, is the more basic requirement that the person must be able to look upon the factors and events of her life with a certain interpretive reflection, whether or not those factors and events have any particular narrative unity in a traditional sense. Christman (2004).
Person and Memory
A person is an entity with a unique point of view that can be exercised in both space and time. From this particular perspective a person can perceive the present world, remember the past and speculate about the future.
Persons differ on how they view the relation between themselves and the world. Some live mainly for the present and have little relationship to their past. Indeed they may even feel that their past self was a different person from their present self. They may have difficulty recalling the experience of a past episodes in their lives even though they know that they occurred. Others pay particular attention to what has happened to them and how they might approach the future. They are intensely interested in how their life develops over time.
Whether such differences are the result of the normal variability of human memory systems or the result of a deficiency in some neural process or processes remains an open question. We need to find out how episodic memories are generated in the brain and how they differ from semantic memories. How differences in memory style relate to differences in personality also needs investigation. For example, are diachronics more likely to be introverted than extraverted?
The posting concludes with a photograph of the statue of Omphale in the Schönbrunn Garden in Vienna. The photograph was taken by Manfred Werner using a flash, during a summer night-time concert of the Vienna Philharmonic.
For three years Hercules was Omphale’s slave and lover. At times they exchanged their clothing. In the statue Omphale wears Hercules lion-skin and carries his club. The photograph is formally very similar to the photograph of Clio at the beginning of this post. Yet for me they differ in much the same way as semantic and episodic memory. Clio is abstract and put together after the fact. Omphale is an experience.
Omphale, Sommernachtskonzert Schönbrunn 2012
Behan, D. (1979). Locke on persons and personal identity. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 9, 53–75.
Christman, J. (2004). Narrative unity as a condition of personhood. Metaphilosophy, 35, 695–713.
Coetzee, J. M., & Kurtz, A. (2015). The good story: Exchanges on truth, fiction and psychotherapy. London: Harvill Secker.
La liaison de plusieurs idées ne peut avoir d’autre cause que l’attention que nous leur avons donnée, quand elles se sont présentées ensemble: ainsi les choses n’attirant notre attention que par le rapport qu’elles ont à notre tempérament, à nos passions, à notre état, ou, pour tout dire en un mot, à nos besoins.
Lorsque les objets attirent notre attention, les perceptions qu’ils occasionnent en nous, se lient avec le sentiment de notre être et avec tout ce qui peut y avoir quelque rapport. De là il arrive que non seulement la conscience nous donne connaissance de nos perceptions, mais encore, si elles se répètent, elle nous avertit souvent que nous les avons déjà eues, et nous les fait connaître comme étant à nous, ou comme affectant, malgré leur variété et leur succession, un être qui est constamment le même nous. La conscience, considérée par rapport à ces nouveaux effets, est une nouvelle opération qui nous sert à chaque instant et qui est le fondement de l’expérience. Sans elle chaque moment de la vie nous parait le premier de notre existence, et notre connaissance ne s’étendrait jamais au-delà d’une première perception: je la nommerai réminiscence.
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