A Bit of Fun

The Historical Background to Zombie Mythology

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I have been watching the TV show The Walking Dead, excellent by the way, and I came to wonder the specific historical background behind the Zombie character. It is fairly well known that there are origin stories in the traditions of South America but as a Graeco-Roman historian I wondered also about European origins.

Zombie comes from the Haitian Creole ‘zonbi’ or the North Mbundu ‘nzumbe’ expressing the idea of an animated corpse being brought back to life. However, originally it was used in the metaphoric sense to describe someone bereft of consciousness. West African Vodun tenets explain that a corpse can be reanimated by a sorcerer to whom they remain in control with no personal will. Funnily enough there is also the idea of a zombie astral where these animated beings are kept in bottles to sell for luck quite like the idea of a genie. South Africa also has the idea of zombies where some places believed that one can be created by a child through the use of the right words of power. The Tibetans have the idea of a Ro-Langs meaning literally a corpse that rises up created by a spirit or magician which cannot bend at the joints. The Chinese interestingly also have the idea of the Kiangshi which was known as a ‘hopping’ vampire or zombie.

Let us now look into Greek mythology; the idea of the undead becomes more varied throughout time and locations, in the case of Greece the closest we get are probably the Keres who were female death-spirits. They were the daughters of Nyx, sisters of fate, death and sleep among others. While in contrast to other ideas of zombies, the Keres were wilful creatures, they express the similar and time long idea of the dark and frightening side of death and the end of humanity which is personified throughout history and literature. For instance, the dead rising from their graves in Revelations. The Keres had that thirst for flesh and blood that we see in popular fiction, brought death with an association with Cerberus and are mentioned throughout Greek literature including: Homer’s Iliad IX.410ff and the Odyssey XII.158. Additionally the Keres had connection to battles as deities of war choosing those who shall meet their doom. Some have chosen because of this to compare them to Valkyries but where as Valkyries are benevolent, Keres are definitely depicted as malevolent and this idea is where the Keres get their name from; Keres ‘choice’.

In Roman mythology we see the Lemures who again were spirits of the malignant dead personified in the likes of Horace and Ovid’s Fasti. Again though the Lemures are willful creatures, rather than the will-less undead of the Haitian and African traditions, being vengeful. They were believed to be created when an individual was not afforded a proper burial or mourned by the living or given tomb offerings. Additionally though Ovid expresses them as ancestral gods or spirits of the underworld.

The Norse traditions have the Draugr who shares many traits of the modern fictional character. They were literally ‘ones who walks after death’ or spirits that inhabited the graves of the dead and animated the bodies. Like in much of popular culture they carry the stench of decay and retain only some sense of intelligence only in the suffering that they cause, devouring the flesh of the living and being immune to weapons. Strangely though the Norse believed that Draugr could increase their size at will and had superhuman strength and some maintain more intelligence with magical abilities. Examples of binding spells have been found on Norse Runestones to keep the dead in their graves.

There are many other examples of similar ideologies and traditions relating to both the Zombie and Vampire myths, often overlapping. In fact there are far too many to list and discuss here. But it is always interesting to explore origin stories in order to understand the human side in the supernatural; the natural and evolved fears and dreads embedded in the Human psyche that have exhibited themselves in similar but varying ways throughout the world.

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Welcome to GraecoMuse!

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This site is aimed at similar people who are interested in archaeology, ancient history, philology and epigraphy. Interesting stories, archaeological tidbits and blogs will be put up as I partake in digs myself and come across things to share.

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From Pole to Pole: The History of Pole Dancing and Fitness

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This post is just a bit of fun after a very long week. Recently another PhD student and I decided to branch out a bit and do something a unconventional and fun, so at the start of the year we started taking a pole fitness class at a local dance studio. And before anyone asks, we wear gym clothes and it is nothing that you would see in a strip club. Pole can be a sport; a combination of dance, gymnastics and body-building and it is part of the International Body Building Association. But it got me thinking that there must be traditions behind the idea going back into my favourite subject: Ancient History. Lo and Behold I was correct.

So let me introduce you to the origins and traditions of pole fitness just because I can.

Mallakhamb

Mallakhamb is a traditional Indian sport which is made up of gymnastics and poses undertaken on a vertical wooden pole or rope. The word Mallakhamb comes from the terms ‘malla’ meaning a ‘gymnast’ or ‘man of strength’ and Khamb meaning ‘pole’. Essentially it translates as ‘pole gymnastics’. The earliest records of the sport come from the twelfth century when it was mentioned in the Indian classic Manasollasa written in 1135 AD by Somesvara Chalukya. In the Manasollasa it is called by an earlier form of the term ‘Mallastambha’.

Mallakhamb lost popularity over the centuries before being the subject of a revival in the early nineteenth century in India. It was revived and recorded by Balambhatta Dada Deodhar who was the fitness instructor of Peshwa bajirao during the reign of Peshwas. Nowadays, twenty-nine states in India participate nationally in competitions demonstrating three main types of Mallakhamb; hanging, rope and fixed Mallakhamb. Also forms of Mallakhamb are predominantly male and was originally introduced as a supporting exercise for wrestlers in order to develop and maintain concentration, speed and flexibility. Modern studies have even begun to appear showing the benefits of the sport to health and strength. P.Nande explains for instance that it causes a decrease in body fat percentage and an increase in lean body mass.

The video below shows just how much skill and strength is required in Mallakhamb. It also demonstrates the types of moves that are performed in pole fitness. This video is not sped up…which is a bit scary actually…

Chinese Pole

Chinese Pole is an amazing feat of strength and gymnastics which is today associated with the likes of Cirque du Soleil. It dates also to around the twelfth century in the literary evidence with it being performed by circus professionals using 3-9m tall poles laced with rubber material. The rubber material is not always used because it had the potential to cause painful friction burns. Yet again Chinese Pole is predominantly male activity and hence friction burns would be even more painful to certain areas. Full body costumes were and are worn often by performers requiring even more skill on the behalf of the performer.

Chinese pole is still a popular sport which is often performed with at least two participants or many more. They display climbing, sliding, stretching and holding positions with acute strength usually performed with two poles. Performers hop from pole to pole displaying gravity defying tricks.

Just watch the link below. If you thought Mallakhamb was amazing, this is just ridiculous!

European Pole Dancing

Image from A Little Pretty Pocket-book
Image from A Little Pretty Pocket-book

The western world had its own types of pole dancing with influences from Druid, Pagan and Roman traditions. The most famous of these is Maypole dancing which dates back in the record to the twelfth century as well. Maypole dancing was essentially a pagan celebration of fertility (hence the pole as a phallic symbol).

It was performed by young girls performing circle dances around a pole decorated with garlands of flowers and emblems. The younger girls involved danced in the inner circle while the older danced in the outer circle, all holding ribbons. The dancing itself involved circular steps which allowed the ribbons to intertwined and plait round the pole and then be unravelled while the girls retraced their steps. The festival, in which the maypole dance was performed, marked the beginning of the pastoral summer or Beltane. It is also connected to the Roman worship of Flora and the festival of Floralia which was celebrated at the same time.

The Ancient Greek’s also had their own form of maypole like dancing in the Daphnephoria. Eutychius Proclus discusses the pole in the Daphnephoria in his Chrestomathy written in the second century AD:

(74) This is the daphnephoria: They wreathe an olive-wood pole with laurel-branches and colourful flowers, and on top of it they fasten a bronze ball, and from this they hang smaller ones. And, onto the middle of the pole, they attach purple fillets of wool, and put them around a ball smaller than the one at the top. And they wrap around the [bottom] end-parts of the pole with saffron-dyed material.
(75) To the people the highest ball represents the sun (with which they also associate Apollo), and the one lying beneath [represents] the moon; the hanging balls [represent] the planets and stars; and, indeed, the purple fillets [represent] the yearly cycle – for they even make exactly 365 of them.
(76) A boy with two living parents starts/leads the daphnephoria; and his closest relative holds up the wreathed pole, which they call the kōpō.
(77) And the daphnephoros himself follows and holds onto the laurel, with his hair let down, wearing a golden crown, bedecked in bright clothing down to his feet, and shod in epikratides; a khoros of parthenoi accompany him, holding out sprigs in supplication [and] singing hymns.
(78) And they escort the daphnephoria to the temples of Apollo Ismenios and Khalazios.

(Translation provided by my dear friend A.Cox from Sydney University)

African Pole Dances

There is little information on the history of pole dancing in Africa but it certainly existed in some forms. Tribal rituals in certain areas involved betrothed women dancing around wooden poles as a type of fertility dance. Again the pole represented a phallic symbol with the connection to fertility.

Panjat Pinang (Pinang Climb)

Panjat Pinang is a traditional game played in Indonesian which was introduced in the era of Dutch colonialism as a form of entertainment. It is essentially a climbing game performed at events like weddings using traditional areca nut trees. Participants compete to climb the poles to reach a variety of interesting gifts. It is also performed as a way of celebrating Indonesia’s Independence Day when the pole is covered in oil or lubricants and young men are invited to climb and compete to reach the prizes at the top.

Influential Origins

Obviously western pole dancing is largely associated with exotic dancing which has its roots far bar in ancient history. The exotic dance dates back to at least ancient Sumerian times when dances like that of the seven veils was used in association with the goddess of love Inanna. The dances were used to tell stories as a form of interpretive dance. The dance of the seven veils for instance represents the seven gates which Inanna had to pass through to find her lover and partner Damouz.

Pole dancing also has influences in Belly-dancing and Latin inspired dancing such as the Rumba and the Tango. Nowadays it still relates to the ancient forms as a hybrid dance and fitness form.

Want to see what modern pole is like as a hybrid of all these historical and international influences? Just watch the video below of the amazing pole fitness and art champion Oona Kivela:

Wilde/Chase Books 1-4: Andy McDermott

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The problem with being a fast reader is that this happens: Reviewing several books at once…But fortunately Andy McDermott’s series, starting with ‘The Hunt for Atlantis’, allows one to do that because each book runs nicely on from the previous while having self-contained plots that are easy to read and very entertaining. Historians and archaeologists tend to look at fiction concerning their general area and pick out all that is wrong with it. Hence why its difficult to watch 300 with out wanting to rip apart the cinema screen. However, McDermott manages to allow one to look past the historical inaccuracies and enjoy the story itself by choosing subjects that we would dream of finding in archaeology but already know they likely don’t exist. By doing this he isn’t stepping on anyone’s toes.

McDermott’s first book ‘The Hunt for Atlantis’ tells the tale of the intelligent and obsessive Nina Wilde, doctor of archaeology, and her body-guard, former SAS agent Eddie Chase, as they search for the legendary lost city while being thwarted at every turn by an evil villain set to destroy every trace of the Atlantean culture (this particularly made one angry and rooting for the good guys, the horrors of vandalising archaeology!). With a topic such as Atlantis, straightaway even the historically obsessed such as myself can accept that this is just fiction and enjoy it as such without picking at its faults.

The best book in the series so far, McDermott allows us to identify with the characters and doesn’t fall into the trap many writers do in making the characters larger than life. Nina Wilde is no Lara Croft, she is simply as academic with an idea, drive and determination, and that’s what makes one like her. Eddie Chase is no James Bond, he is a mid-thirties Yorkshireman, slightly balding, who likes action movies and scuba diving in addition to beating the **** out of bad guys. Crude, simple, effective.

Eddie Izzard once said that he would read more books if they were a bit more like action movies and had acceptable car chases. Well here is one! I was rather impressed by the successful writing of a car chase into a book and the mix of Indiana Jones like action without it seeming corny or unrealistic.

The only problem with this book is that you can’t stop reading it and then you have to go on and read the next book, and the next book, and here I am finishing book four after starting the first less than a week ago!

While book one sucks you in and doesn’t let go, book two ‘The Tomb of Hercules’ had its faults which did

contrast to the exceptionally well written first book. The background story is altogether well written though with Nina and Eddie heading up the first major exploration of the newly devised organisation to safeguard the ancient mythical places

that turn out to be reality as well as archaeological remains around the world. The hunt for the tomb of Hercules is interesting and entertaining but its merits are unfortunately overshadowed by the air contributed by the characters. Its like one is witnessing a domestic. The bickering and all sometimes all out bitch fights between characters in the first twenty odd chapters becomes slightly unbearable though the wish to find out about the tomb of Hercules, the villains and Eddie’s strange ex-wife does spur you on to finish the book.

The ending does make up for the beginning though with wonderful fight scenes, nuclear warheads and crazy chases across the world which appeals to ones love of the unexpected. So you get to the final chapter and all is good, you are relieved by the outcome of the characters and plot, especially since the end of the domestics can’t really continue into the following books so you can read them…and then all goes a little screwed up again with appearances of former characters. Oh well, this book was not the best by any means, I can only vindicate McDermott because I have read the next two books which are worth reading. So advice here is read and move on.

McDermott’s third book ‘The Secret of Excalibur’ brings back the charm of the series as Nina and Eddie explore the legend of King Arthur to find the legendary sword Excalibur and the lost tomb of Arthur and Guinevere themselves. Unlike the first two books I am pleased to announce that no archaeological ‘formerly mythological’ sites were destroyed in the making of these book. The character relationships are back on track which is relieving and it takes a while to work out who are the true baddies which is nice because you can’t really guess the end at the beginning.

McDermott did well by changing the character dynamics to parallel those in the first book a bit more closely. The secret of Excalibur includes more well written fight scenes and secondary characters who parallel archaeologists in reality; slightly mad, often at the pub. I was also fond of the Monty Python references but they should have stopped after a while or been spaced out more because in the end there were a few too many. This book wasn’t as memorable as the first or the second because the first was brilliant and the second is mostly memorable for the wrong reasons, but having down played from the second book it was a pleasure to read with a happy and successful ending.

Now quickly we come to book four ‘The Covenant of Genesis’. This was my second favourite book after the first for several reasons: You don’t actually know what they are looking for until half way through the book because they aren’t even sure so it’s different from the previous and keeps you guessing, it gets your emotions up as you are annoyed by the destructive nature of the human race, the artefacts and ideas are new and unique, dealing with ancients beyond ancients, lost knowledge that all archaeologists wished then had and hope exists buried somewhere in the world for them to some day dig up, and lastly you really don’t expect it when McDermott does explain the secret of the covenant of Genesis.

I don’t think it was necessary though to bring back certain characters from the second book but book four did suck you in more with the hope that for once everything goes to plan for the main characters. Unfortunately though the plot is great in general the character interactions again become a bit much at times and you really start to think that it would be better for the ancient world and its artefacts if Nina and Eddie just stayed at home and watched television instead of accidently leading horrible religiously based covenants of destruction to sites real archaeologists would likely die to protect. Crossed fingers for the survival of all sites mentioned in these and future books. McDermott stop killing them!!! But I love the Top Gear references…

Oh well, over all despite the ups and downs you can’t stop reading these books. Trust me, I just got book 5 on kindle…

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To Pass Knowledge on to the Younger Generations

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I swear that the scariest audience when presenting is kids. They ask odd questions and seem to know a lot more than you realise. In a way they are rather like academics which makes them good practice. Last week I spread my wings a bit and took archaeology to a special education school at the university. It was eye-opening and the feedback heart lifting so I thought I’d share it with you while showing why it is important to teach the newer generations about history and archaeology.

These kids suffer from a range of severe learning and behavioural disabilities and yet seem to have a wish to learn like no other. Some university students could learn from them.

Here is the evidence to make one smile (complete with spelling mistakes):

“On Tuesday an archaeologist named Dr. J [came to visit]. She showed us some of the preveos artefacts she found. Dr J told us about Pompeii in Italy and now it is an archaeologist wonderland. Dr J named all of her diging tools. My faverote is the trowel.”

“Yesterday J came for a visit. We looked at some artefacts. We looked at the pictures in the white board. J had been to many countries. J told us about Italy, Greece and Egypt. She used a trowel, brush, spade and a shovel. I liked her visit.”

“On Tuesday Dr J came to our school. She told us about Greece, Egypt and Italy. J told us about the olden day toilet. She showed us some tools that she used for digging. She showed us a trowel, a brush and a leaf trowel. It was fun.”

Seeing the enthusiasm on the faces of these kids reminds me why it is important to teach them about new and exciting things. They will struggle more than any other students and yet so many of them want to be there. By showing them some of the fantastic things in this world they can aspire to continue learning despite their disadvantages. I’m no primary school teacher, but I’d happily go back and talk to kids because not only are they interested in what I’m talking about, they remember it and take it in.

An “archaeologist wonderland” was came up by the kid herself by the way. That’s pretty cool! And to remember something as obscure as a leaf trowel. I’m impressed!

So spread the word fellow historians and archaeologists! If you get a chance to talk to children, take it because they might be our successors one day and it really is fun.

Relic Hunter: Common Misconceptions of Archaeology

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When one first volunteers on an archaeological dig there are a range of thoughts that may go through one’s head. Typically one thinks of, or at least hopes for, gold and silver, adventure and danger, the things brought to one’s mind by modern cinematography and the increasingly romaticised view. Advice for you: if you go on a dig thinking you are going to find the tomb of King Thingymajig filled with golden statues, treasure and lost books of power, prepare to be quite disappointed. But yet again don’t be mistaken in thinking you won’t find anything of value. The smallest of artefacts could turn the history of a place around. Take one dig I participated on in Australia. The one thing the director did not want to find was evidence of children because it would completely recreate the ideas concerning the site. What did we find five minutes later? Marbles! Whoops…children’s toys…so with this discovery we had to completely rethink the ideas we had about who lived there, why they were there and what they did!

Let me dispel a few more myths for you. When one says ‘I’m an archaeologist’, I have found that generally one is asked first one of two questions: Have you found any dinosaurs? And have you found any gold? I suppose they are fair questions if you have no idea about archaeology but sometimes even people who take the time to go on digs leave after one day after finding out that the answer to both of these questions is typically ‘No’. Actually yes I once was on a dig where they uncovered a gold coin but anything of financial value is pretty rare, and when they do turn up its not like we can keep them or even when they are displayed are they appreciated. In the British Museum there is a wonderful display of golden torques which were dug up by a number of British archaeologists several years ago. Amazing, beautiful, very rare, once in a life time discovery! And yet in the British Museum they are subject to silly statements like *American Accent* “My those ancient Englishmen had tiny waists!” Oh dear…When I mentioned this statement to one of the archaeologists that found them I think he almost had a heart attack.

In regards to dinosaurs, the closest I’ve ever found is a cat skeleton and a century dead cow under an old pub…It would be cool to find one yes but its not what we look for, thats left for the paleontologists.

Besides these common myths among the common folk, there are myths that even creep into the amateur mind. Still believed by those of theoretical studies of archaeology in universities around the whole. It doesn’t seem much but if you are planning to go on a dig it is a good thing to realise. This myth involves tiny tools and sitting doing small actions taking a long time. Sounds boring so its a good thing it isn’t true. The work involved on an archaeological dig is immense, it helps to be very fit! Occasionally we use tiny brushes, dentist tools and little spray cans of water but far more likely you will see us with shovels, mattocks, pick axes and even the occasional piece of heavy machinery. There is a reason why one needs a construction health and safety certificate to work on a dig in Australia. Hard hats, work boots, trowels and a hard days work followed by a cold beer, that is the life of the archaeologist. Certainly more work than you see Tony Robinson do in ‘Time Team’ (Though he is such a lovely fellow).

So if you want to go on an archaeological dig remember these things: No gold, no dinosaurs, small finds, lots of nothing, large tools, keep fit, need beer, small and seemingly insignificant finds or no finds at all can be the most significant in the whole dig. This last point almost caused a mutiny in one dig I was involved in when the director forgot to mention that we were actually trying to proof that there was nothing there…on the seventh day of nothing we were planning to hijack the van and drive to France but in finding nothing in that area we proved a very important thing: The extent of the whole site.

All archaeologists have one thing in common, apart from the wish to end the day with a pub dinner, they love the experience in itself and do not concern themselves with the trivial romaticised views set about by the movies but rather the nature of the human past and condition, the possibilities. May the search continue!

But if you ever do uncover a Stargate please do tell me!

Note that this Blog can be followed by pressing the ‘Follow by Email’ option on the right hand side of the screen :)

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Confessions of an Archaeologist: Live Free and Dig Hard!

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First of all i am particularly pleased that I managed to fit two movie puns into the one post title 🙂

When students start studying archaeology and ancient history they tend to always think of one thing: Indiana Jones and Tombraider. Okay technically that is two things but they amount to the same, the romaticised view. So here is what really happens to the professional archaeologist! Live free and die hard is actually an accurate way of describing time as an international archaeologist. In my time I have had an absolute ball but I have had to work ridiculously hard to get where I am and get the opportunities to play hard.

Honestly, if you love history as much as I do then the hard work can’t help but come with some fun. I have cliff jumped in the Peloponnese, got drunk in ancient temples of Apollo, played rock cricket with internationally acclaimed academics and then played beer pong with them in university libraries. Every dig i have been on has had its theme song from Dr Horrible’s Bad Horse in Scotland to The Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up in Greece (The mp3 player got stuck during pottery analysis with that one). I have discussed Doctor Who with Orthodox nuns, found a TARDIS and gone on a Doctor Who hunt through the British Library, flown planes over active volcanoes, chased thieves off ancient sites and had conversations with Romanian strippers about their shoes. And note that none of these few things were planned!

Life as an archaeologist has been awesome but I’m an eccentric and outgoing person so who knows, this could have happened with any job I chose to pursue. These are the things I do not confess to my students because they are only a small part of the whole. But admittedly I love the other side just as much though often stressful and tedious!

On my last dig season in Greece I went through so much pottery and got so desensitized that I thought of drowning myself in the wet sieve.  I had to give up going to Olympia the first time to finish reading and reviewing a dissertation on Roman drainage pipes. The reality of the archaeologist is many hours of finding nothing in stifling heat or marsh land in the pouring rain or sitting in an isolated room for forty hours a week sorting through hundreds of Greek inscriptions to find the one one that is useful. Eight years of university to get a PhD (and it is taking forever). The reality of archaeology is a lot of repetitive research and analysis, lesson plans and bad weather. But you know what? I still love it! The opportunities are amazing if you are proactive even though the pay is virtually non-existent. The history one has in their hands is inspiring and never boring in the long run.

So if you are thinking of starting a career in archaeology remember the two sides to the coin. Its bloody hard work but it’s worth it if one loves what they are doing as I do. Plus its kind of fun saying that you can read several ancient languages and seeing someones jaw drop. Archaeologists are not by any means boring people. They are generally eccentric and quite mad (I’ve associated with Hawaiian shirted underwater experts and former smugglers turned archaeologists)

Also remember that one needs the languages. Its what students often find the hardest part but it really is necessary, who knows one day you could end up in my class or could be teaching a class of your own.