Posted in people, Uncategorized on September 8, 2010 by kimber

Lemuria, the Roman festival of the dead, takes place on the 9th, 11th and 13th days of May. Unlike other Roman feasts of the dead, which tended to invoke a nostalgic atmosphere, the days of Lemuria celebrated the more frightening aspects of those who had departed the land of the living.  Ancestral phantoms, called the lemures, would return to seek vengence on those who had wronged them.

On the nights of the Lemuria, the paterfamilias rose at midnight to walk, barefoot, to a basin filled with water. After wrapping his fingers around his thumb and washing his hands, he would fill his mouth with black beans and stroll through the house. He took great care to look straight ahead as he spat the beans out, after which he would say nine times, “With these beans I redeem me and mine.”

Because spirits in many cultures appear to suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, the lemures had to collect the beans before they could wreak havoc on the household. The paterfamilias then washed his hands again, picked up bronze pots and pans, and smashed them together throughout the house, repeating nine times, “Paternal ghosts, get out!”

What the spirits would do with the beans has yet to be discovered. Perhaps a celestial recipe for chili?

** I’m afraid I’ve been negligent in my kwurkiness, but I’ve also been away and enjoying the fruits of summer.  Now that the dark nights of autumn are closing in, I expect to be back with a little more regularity.  *wink*

A Woman of Many Talents

Posted in people, Uncategorized on August 24, 2010 by kimber

Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets…. courtesan, dancer, enigma & troublemaker, Lola Montez lived a remarkable life of turbulence, sensuality and a fiery temper.

She was born either in Limerick on June 23, 1818, or in Grange, County Sligo on February 17, 1821.  In 1823, the Gilbert family moved from Ireland to India but, shortly after arrival, Lola’s father died of cholera.  Lola’s mother married another officer and remained in India, but Lola grew more and more mischievous and, eventually, she was sent back to Britain to attend school.  She quickly became known as a trouble-maker.  While she was known as “an elegant and graceful child,” with eyes of “excessive beauty”, an “orientally dark” complexion and an air of “haughty ease”, Lola also possessed a wicked temper and a lack of decorum.  She ran naked through the streets and, at the age of 16, eloped with a lieutenant.

When the couple separated five years later, she became a professional dancer under the stage name, “Lola Montez, the Spanish dancer.”   Despite great success as a dancer, in June 1843 she was recognized as a married woman — one who ought not be dancing on stage.  This caused a scandal and, eager to continue her career,  Lola Montez departed for Europe.

After performing in various capitals, she settled in Paris, where she was introduced to the Bohemian literary society of the time by Franz Listz.  She then moved to Munich in 1846, and soon became the mistress of Ludwig I of Bavaria, but she was deeply unpopular with his subjects.  She was arrogant and haughty, and she unabashedly used her influence over the king to sway his decisions. To make matters worse, documents were revealed that showed her attempts to become a naturalized Bavarian citizen, and subsequently elevating her to the nobility. The Bavarian population resented her but, despite their opposition, Ludwig made her Countess of Landsfeld.  In 1848, under pressure from a growing revolutionary movement Ludwig abdicated, and Lola fled Bavaria, her career as a power behind the throne ended.

After a sojourn in Switzerland, where she waited in vain for Ludwig to join her, she made travelled to France and then to London in late 1848.  She met and married a young cavalry officer, but the terms of her divorce did not allow either spouse to remarry while the other was living.  Lola and her cavalry officer fled Britain to escape a charge of bigamy, and lived in France and in Spain.  However, within two years, their relationship was finished. In 1851, Lola departed for the United States, where she reinvented her image as an actress.

Lola’s tour of Australia in 1855 brought her great notoriety. She became known for her erotic ‘Spider Dance’, which was called “utterly subversive to all ideas of public morality” by the Melbourne Argus.  She insulted unappreciative audiences, chased respectable families from the theatres, and even attacked the editor of a newpaper which dared to give her a bad review.

She returned to the US and moved to New York.  In 1860, a stroke partially paralyzed her, and she died of pneumonia six months later.

Twenty-first post

Posted in salamagundi, Uncategorized on August 15, 2010 by kimber

“The number 21 is the number of destruction or, rather, of universal termination…” – Louis Claude de Saint-Martin, French philosopher

As this is Kwurki’s 21st post, and as I have fleeting fondness for numerology, I figured it was fitting to gather together a bit of trivia about the number 21.  I considered waiting until my 23rd post to talk a little about the number 23, but that movie with Jim Carrey took all the fun out of the 23 enigma for me.

So… here’s what I found about our friend twenty -one…

The soul weighs twenty-one grams, according to Dr. Duncan MacDougal.  In 1907, he attempted to prove that the soul was a physical part of the body by weighing six tuberculosis patients on their deathbed.  As 21 grams was the average loss of mass of the patients after death, Dr. MacDougal determined this to be the weight of the soul.  Other scientists took his methods and applied them to mice and sheep with similar results.  MacDougal then measured fifteen dogs but saw no change in their weight after death, thereby ‘confirming’ that dogs must not have souls.  (Apparently, heaven will be filled with people, mice, and sheep.)

‘Number 21′ was the name of the plane flown (allegedly) by Gustave Whitehead  two years before the Wright brothers’ first flight.

Louis XVI became engaged on January 21, 1770, marries on June 21, 1770. He promulgated the suspension of a tax on January 21, 1782 and on January 21, 1784 an enormous obelisk of snow was raised for him on the place Louis XV. Louis XVI is arrested to Varennes on June 21, 1791 and goes up to the scaffold on January 21, 1793. Finally, the 5 letters of his first name added to XVI gives 21.

There are 21 spots on the standard die.

And now, some bovine trivia…

Posted in animals, nature, salamagundi on August 6, 2010 by kimber
  • Most cows give more milk when they listen to music.
  • Cows have an acute sense of smell, and can smell something up to 6 miles away.
  • Cows can’t vomit.
  • Three herds of White Park cattle – two in England and one in Scotland – date to the mid-1200s when the herds were enclosed.
  • It’s possible to lead a cow upstairs, but not downstairs.  A

    cow’s knees cannot bend properly to walk back down.

  • Cows do not bite grass. Instead, they curl their tongue around it.

  • Cows can live 25 years. You can guess the age of a cow that has horns by counting the number of rings on the horns.
  • Cows have almost total 360-degree panoramic vision.
  • A cow that weighs 1000 pound can produce an average 10 tons of manure every year.
  • More than 100 medicines, including insulin and estrogen, come from cattle.

Girls Versus Boys

Posted in art on August 3, 2010 by kimber

“Judith was left alone in the tent, with Holofernes stretched out on the bed, for he was overcome with wine (Judith 13,2)… She went up to the post at the end of the bed, above Holofernes’ head, and took down his sword that hung there. She came close to the bed and took hold of the hair of his head, and said: “Give me strength this day, O Lord God of Israel!”. And she struck his neck twice with all her might, and severed his head from his body (Judith 13,6-8)… After a moment she went out and gave Holofernes’ head to her maid (Judith 13, 9)”.

When it comes to the mechanics of dialogue, one wonders what words were exchanged between maidservant and mistress when Judith slipped under the tent flap into the night and plopped a bloody head into the woman’s outstretched hands. “Here, get rid of it,” she might have said, “And here, wash my apron while you’re at it. Maybe some baking soda will do the trick.”

The Old Testament makes an interesting read, what with all the gore and the debauchery and the turning of people into pillars of salt — truly a moment of inspired creative thinking in the field of retribution.  It’s provided centuries of inspiration for artists; Judith and her maid appear in a number of paintings, and it’s interesting to compare how different artists have interpreted the above passage.

Judith Beheading Holofernes, by Caravaggio

Caravaggio’s Judith looks a bit prissy, hanging back to keep her crisp white frock out of the path of the spray. She looks hesitant, delicate, and unsure, while the maid at her elbow, a haggard old woman with sack in hand, seems to be urging her on. Holofernes looks startled, surprised, and shaken, but come on — look at those bright, comprehensive eyes. He could knock the sword out of Judith’s hand, if he just gathered his wits together. The picture, with its soft light and gentle death, seems out-of-place. Caravaggio had skill, there’s a romance to the painting that appears at odds with the nature of the tale. Holofernes doesn’t seem true to character, Judith looks like she’s slicing through a stick of butter, and the maid waits patiently for everyone to finish up so she can go home.

Judith Slaying Holofernes, by Gentileschi

Meanwhile, Gentileschi has portrayed Judith as a get-things-done sort of girl, throwing her back into the job, and using a little elbow grease to slaughter Holofernes. It’s full of savage butchery. The maid isn’t hanging back, passively watching.  She’s holding the victim down. These girls know, you don’t kill a man at arms’ length; you’ve got to get your hands dirty. Holofernes doesn’t look as afraid as he ought to, but who knows — he was drunk.  Maybe he’s almost dead by this point. The effort portrayed in this version is wonderful, and apparently a poor restoration job smoothed out the wrinkles on Judith’s head, meaning that the original painting’s face held even more strain, emotion and violence.

Gentileschi created “Judith Slaying Holofernes” while undergoing her trial against Tassi for his rape of her in 1612. Court records show that Gentileschi was required to give her testimony voluntarily under extreme torture, for the prevaling attitude of the time was, if you could make the same accusation in agony as you did in good health, then it must be true. Imagine, testifying against your rapist while your thumbs are being crushed, then coming home and painting — yes, a little eesy-weesy tiny bit of rage might leak onto the canvas.

It’s interesting to compare the maids, who are represented quite differently, and yet who (in the Old Testament) are not present at all for the murder. Caravaggio uses his maid to juxtapose Judith’s youth and beauty, and the old woman becomes a passive reflection of mortality cast alongside Holoferne’s dying gasps. Gentileschi, however, uses her maid as a comrade-in-arms, equally young and strong, equally determined, equally embroiled in the drama. Caravaggio’s maid would have said something like, “Now, you give me the head, dearie, and I’ll take care of it, and I’ll make you a cup of tea afterwards,” while Gentileschi’s maid would have said, “C’mon, let’s feed the bastard’s brains to the dogs.”

Never let it be said that art is boring. People who think art is boring are just looking at the wrong pictures.

Let’s conclude with one more painting: Gustav Klimt’s version of the beheading. How many people look at this image, and see only the come-hither smile of a seductress, instead of the severed head gripped in her fingers?

Resurrection versus Extinction

Posted in animals, nature, science on July 31, 2010 by kimber

The last auroch died in Poland in 1627. While they were the ancestor to domesticated cattle, aurochs were much larger, weighing between 600 and 1000 pounds. Attempts were made in the early 20th century to re-create the auroch by selectively breeding more primative breeds, such as Highland cattle, and they managed to make animals similar in appearance to aurochs, but of course, true auroch genetic material vanished in the 1600’s.

The thylacine, or Tasmanian Wolf, has only been extinct since 1932. Despite the name and similar appearance, the thylacine wasn’t a canine at all, but the largest carnivorous marsupial and related to kangaroos and wombats. While its extinction has been recognized as the result of the introduction of dogs to Tasmania, there have been claims of thylacines spotted in more remote areas of the island. The Australian Museum had hoped to clone thylacines and reintroduce them to the wilds, but the project was dropped when DNA samples proved to be too poor for cloning.

Quaggas, named for their distinctive cry, were killed off because they roamed through grassland used for farming. These lovely equines were exterminated in the 1870’s, with the last quagga dying in captivity in the 1880’s. The quagga was the first extinct creature to have its DNA studied, and a breeding project was started in 1987 to recreate the quagga by selectively breeding zebras. Criticism of the project includes the sad point that these animals are not quagga, but zebra who only look like quagga; in other words, the genetic material which was unique to quaggas — their quagganess, as it were — is gone forever.

Numerous projects are underway to resurrect extinct animals. If it’s dead, someone somewhere wants to bring it back. This is all well and good, but there are thousands of living species who teeter at the edge of oblivion, and who have organizations in desperate need of funding to save them.

Should scientific resources be channeled into recreating approximate curiosities, fake aurochs and fake quaggas and fake thylacines, or could these resources be better used to save existing pools of genetic material? Is it be better to salvage the authentic species, or to Frankenstein a close approximation once the last specimen is dead and on display in a dusty museum?

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What is a snickelway?

Posted in places on July 27, 2010 by kimber

I hold a great fondness for word, especially those with obscure origins and rare uses.  And so, with delight, today’s post is brought to you by the word ‘snickelway’.

What, you may be asking, is a snickelway?

In the city of York, tiny streets and narrow footpaths weave between buildings.  They are too small for vehicles, and most have mediaeval origins.  They possess curious names like Mad Alice Lane, Hornpot Lane Nether and Finkle Street.  In 1983, author Mark Jones wrote a book outlining the lively history of York as a walking tour, and he coined the term ‘snickelways’ to describe these peculiar shortcuts.  The term quickly caught on and became part of the regional vocabulary.

‘Snickelway’ is a portmanteau of the words snicket, a passageway between fences; ginnel, a narrow passageway between buildings; and alleyway, a narrow street.  In other cities, these little paths have garnered other, curious, Harry-Potterish names: in Liverpool, you might find yourself walking down a jigger, while in Plymouth, you’d take a shortcut through an opes.  ‘Jennel’ is local to Sheffield, while in Sussex the term twitten is commonly used. The word jitty is often found in Derbyshire and Leicestershire and gulley is a term used in the Black Country. In Nottinghamshire twichell is common.

Farther afield, alleyways boast a range of names.  In Scotland and Northern Ireland the terms close, wynd, pend and vennel are generally used; the term close has a hard “s” as in sad. In Australia and Canada the terms lane, laneway and serviceway are also used. In the United States and Canada alleys are sometimes called rear lanes or back lanes because they run along the back of buildings.

While I live no where near the lovely city of York, I may start referring to the alley behind my house as a snickelway – there’s a certain magical charm to the title that I adore.

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