Magic

An Introduction to Lucian of Samosata: Ancient Science Fiction?

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Long before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon in 1969, Lucian of Samosata and a band of heroes were travelling in outer space, encountering alien life-forms, interplanetary war and artificial intelligence. Lucian’s ‘True History’, and successive writings like Kepler’s ‘Somnium’, illustrates that dreams to reach the moon and beyond have long been in the minds of humanity. Lucian calls his work ‘The True History’. He claims it to be false and yet is there some truth after all? Where have Lucian’s claims come from? Is there mythological and ideological basis behind Lucian’s imagined journey? And has this fake ‘true’ history acted in any way to inspire humanity to make their dream of moon landing a reality?

At first appearance the True History appears almost absurd. Wine flavoured fish, talking trees, horse-vultures, sun and moon inhabitants at war, Ostrich-slingers, catapulting of huge radishes, winged acorns ridden by dog headed men, pirates sailing in giant pumpkins, cloud centaurs…etc. The story is certainly a bit different. After a war between the races of the Sun and Moon, on his subsequent trip to the underworld, he is put on trial for being alive in the land of the dead, and he meets a myriad of famous characters: the most famous of these being Homer. Lucian’s account claims the ‘true’ reason why Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey…basically why not?…

Lucian’s view of truth

Lucian opens his history by stating that “Men interested in athletics and in the care of their bodies think not only of condition and exercise but also of relaxation in season; in fact, they consider this the principal part of training. In like manner students…after much reading of serious works may profitably relax their minds and put them in better trim for future labour.”

Lucian’s main concern is the relationship between truths and lies. He associates lying with the poets, historians and philosophers who ‘wrote many marvellous stories’, such as Ctesias of Cnidos and Iambulus. He asserts that his own work will allude to these ‘liars’ in an approach which is mocking and amusing. Lucian from the very start confesses that he draws satirically on the fashionable tales of the past, but what is more imperceptive is the way he draws off the very truth of human character to look to certain things and ask questions as many a scholar and poet which he draws on has done previous. Lucian admits that he himself has turned to lies but defends his choice to tell them by admitting that there is nothing worth telling that has happened to him in his monotonous life. He justifies this by claiming he will be far more reasonable in his lies that the others. Lucian continues on a tradition of illustrating the human condition through fiction.

In his declaration and following introduction, Lucian parodies the preliminary works of Socrates at the commencement of his apology and Ctesias who claimed to be telling the complete and unvarnished truth. Lucian uses authorial and narratorial voices and in doing so exemplifies the way in which the truth and fiction are constantly threatening to coalesce. So Lucian is looking to show how the falsehoods can be presented as truths. But in doing so he is still presenting us with human truths which are the foundation of natural thought processes and with cultural ideologies in his context.

The journey – reasons and significance

The journey in the ‘True History’ is indicative of imaginative expressions, expressions of our desire to give shape and being to change. Lucian uses his writing to explore topics such as generic transformation, the construction of both individual and communal subjects and the contemporary sense of an ending. Augustine of Hippo explains this concept of expression and need for explanation well in his sentiment that “it is the mind that looks for things that are being looked for by the yes or any other sense of the body (since it is the mind which directs the sense of the flesh); and it is the mind that finds what is being looked for when the sense comes upon it.” Lucian is essentially displaying a sense of self and a questioning of life’s questions by developing the enquiries already laid out for him in myths and history.

The trip across the sea

Lucian’s voyage across the sea illustrates the journey, the physical portraying imaginative and inner thought. The physical outward journey of the travellers and our narrator is used by Lucian to present the inward mental journey. In doing this Lucian is presenting truth as well as fiction. It echoes the works of Homer in the Odyssey as a parody of the search for philosophical truth. McKee attests that the sea voyage embodies many of the elements of the tradition of allegorical interpretation of the Odyssey. I argue that this attestation has merit as Odysseus’ wanderings are paralleled in the major stages of the voyage in Lucian through successive episodes of peril and discovery. In Lucian however they are in the form of the moon journey, the whale and the Land of the dead.

The Sea had become a natural association with the philosophical journey by the time Lucian penned his so-called history. It had also become a standard symbol for Homer and epic poetry. Romm makes a fair analysis of the the analogy between Homer and the Oceans concluding that it was an especially popular concept in the late first and second centuries AD, when Lucian of Samosata was composing his works. Many of Lucian’s contemporaries use the image of the sea journey in their works. Longinus, On the Sublime. 35.3-4[1] and Quintilian, Inst. Orat. 10.1.46 to name but a few.[2]

Lucian’s voyage also demonstrates myth being used to parallel narrative to create symbolic readings. Lucian draws on the images and cultural understandings of myths such as the labours of Heracles to display his truths and questions. Lucian starts by travelling through the pillars of Heracles in 1.5 and arriving at the island of the Vine-women where the voyagers find an inscription recording the visit of Heracles himself in 1.7. This voyage across the sea has also been suggested as another part of the trip to the underworld imagery where the voyage across the sea is reminiscence of the river Stix. And the three-headed horse vultures in 1.11 who guard the moon are parallel to the Cerberus character of myth. The Whale episode in Lucian 2.1 when the travellers are trapped inside and escape by setting fire to the innards, killing the whale is reminiscence again of Heracles’ adventures in the rescue of Hesione by killing the sea-monster from the inside. I argue that this is a paragon of the Heraclean ideal of virtue where fighting from inside represented battling against illusion and falsehood itself. The whale episode has also been compared to a form of ‘descent for knowledge’ which is paralleled in Plato’s allegory of the Cave and Plutarch’s cave of Trophonius in de Genio Socratis 590A-592D.[3] This is a kind of journey for truth which is a search for knowledge in relation to an escape from a prison-like space of darkness where one is isolated from reality. The episode ends when knowledge has been gained and the voyagers escape back into the real world. This entrapment with eventual resolution is a recurring theme in the True History which is seen throughout Graeco-Roman epic. It illustrates how the mind searches for truth through knowledge and experience but only at the presentation of an intellectual torpor of lack of genuine original knowledge.

Lucian also parallels Plato’s use of initiatory journeys of the mind and soul which comes from a long tradition of mythical episodes. Plato’s Republic, for instance, relates the myth of Er in 614B-621D where Er recounts how his soul left his body and travelled to a place of judgement where the souls of the judged were separated between the good and the bad. The good souls went right and up and the bad went left and down (614B-E). This episode in Plato parallels Lucian’s account of the Isles of the Blessed and the Wicked in 2.29-31.

The journey to the moon

The journey to the moon illustrates the natural instinct that humans have to look up and wonder. It is a caricature of the human imagination as Kerslake puts it. Lucian’s portrayal of the moon and the sun at war partly illustrates the disagreement between the various groups of philosophers. Again Lucian presents far more truth in his fiction. The trip to the moon parodies the soul’s journey to the beyond, an idea that has obsessed the human mind since the beginning of time. It could even be related to the boarding of Charon’s boat, if indeed the idea is that the voyagers are all ready dead as some scholars have suggested. I argue that Lucian may have been echoing the journey to the afterlife but that he was doing it in the sense of the wonderings of the living and hence the voyagers are not dead. Death does not work as well with later parts of the narrative where they cannot remain on the Island of the Blessed because they still live. The war between the sun and moon peoples also satirises the wars of the Homeric tales.

Trip to the underworld

The trip to the underworld in the True History further demonstrates Lucian’s wish to find truth and the human desire to learn what comes after death. The Isles of the Blessed and the Wicked are an imaging of the afterlife as well as a way of posing questions to the dead which stayed at the forefront of the intellectual mind in the period. McKee asserts that Lucian here parallels Plato’s dialogue Phaedo which described the final hours of Socrates’ life when he tells his followers that he does not fear death because the soul of a moral person ‘departs to the place where things are like itself – invisible, divine, immortal and wise; where on its arrival, happiness awaits it, and release from uncertainty and folly, from fears and gnawing desires, and all other human evils.’ This theme of thanatology illustrates Lucian’s conscious and unconscious need to explain the hereafter. It is a theme which still overwhelms the modern consciousness. We just need to look at modern media to see that it is a part of human nature to search for such truths. For example Philip K Dick’s novel Ubik which presents the afterlife as a strange and unnerving limbo, or Logan’s Run.

The underworld instalment includes the Isle of the Blessed, where the travellers are told that they cannot remain because they still live. Thus they can only stay seven months before they must leave and later be judged for their life’s actions upon their actual death. The episode shows what is termed by Holliday as, the ‘journey of the soul.’  This subsidiary journey of knowledge also includes the meeting of Homer and many of the philosophers whose writing’s and ideals Lucian is parodying in the True History. Ctesias and Herodotus also appear suffering punishments on the Isle of the Wicked because of their habit of lying so seen by Lucian.

The journey to discover the truth of life and death is continued in the concluding shipwreck episode of the True History. At the beginning of the narrative, Lucian tells us that the voyage’s goal is to reach the telos of the sea. Telos has many meanings in the Greek language but is also associated strongly with death and finality. The shipwreck episode has this sense of finality the equivalent of death and signifies the ending of the voyage and thus the end of this particular search for truth and knowledge.

Significance

We see that Lucian of Samosata was influenced by sources which he used to portray the ideas of truth and falsehood but have Lucian’s narratives stemmed from a deeper ideology and influenced later ones. We can see why many scholars have previously focused on how close Lucian’s True History is to modern day science fiction as science fiction is both symptomatic of cultural disruption and an expression of our desire for advancement and knowledge, using the future and the surreal to comment of the present and familiar as Lucian does.

The True History is also significant as it continues a theme very close to Lucian’s personal values. This theme is vastly seen in his earliest pieces such as his ‘Instructions for writing history’ where he bade the historian first to get sure facts, then tell them in due order, simply and without exaggeration or toil after fine writing. Lucian’s quest for the truth continues as he advises that the historian should aim not less at an enduring grace given by Nature to the Art that does not stray from her, and simply speaks the highest truth it knows. The dialogues of Lucian also aim at protecting against false opinions by bringing the satire of the likes of Aristophanes and the sarcasm of Menippus into disputations that sought to dispel false idols before setting upon discovering the truth.

You can see why it isn’t generally mentioned among the classics. The ‘True History’ seems a bit far-fetched for any audience. But if you want to read something different, written way back in the second century before the advent of Stargate, Mars Attacks and Independence Day, then I suggest you give it a look. And as we have seen, there is much truth behind Lucian’s fantasy. The basic structure of the True History deals with the concept of separate worlds between the living and the dead which is analogous with religious ideals. Parody and allusion are used constantly to create Utopian visions combining history and myth to answer questions of the mind and soul.[4][5] The True History is a means of commenting on the existing or potential conditions of Lucian’s field and society in fantastical settings. This is not so far removed from the political and social criticism of modern Science Fiction, for, in the ancient context especially; philosophy incorporates not only metaphysical, but also political and scientific concerns.


[1] Therefore even the whole world is not wide enough for the soaring range of human thought, but man’s mind often overleaps the very bounds of space. When we survey the whole circle of life, and see it abounding everywhere in what is elegant, grand, and beautiful, we learn at once what is the true end of man’s being. 4 And this is why nature prompts us to admire, not the clearness and usefulness of a little stream, but the Nile, the Danube, the Rhine, and far beyond all the Ocean.

[2] I shall, I think, be right in following the principle laid down by Aratus in the line, “With Jove let us begin,” and in beginning with Homer. He is like his own conception of Ocean,which he describes as the source of every stream and river; for he has given us a model and an inspiration for every department of eloquence.

[3] “He said that on descending into the oracular crypt his first experience was of profound darkness; next, after a prayer, he lay a long time not clearly aware whether he was awake or dreaming. It did seem to him, however, that at the same moment he heard a crash and was struck on the head, and that the sutures parted and released his soul. As it withdrew and mingled joyfully with air that was translucent and pure, it felt in the first place that now, after long being cramped it had again found relief, and was growing larger than before, spreading out like a sail; and next that it faintly caught the whir of something revolving overhead with a pleasant sound.  When he lifted his eyes the earth was nowhere to be seen; but he saw islands illuminated by one another with soft fire, taking on now one colour, now another, like a dye, as the light kept varying with their mutations.

[4] Utopian visions – utopian philosophical schemes, such as Plato, may also have been an important source for Lucian; these are parodied most extensively in the visit to the Isle of the Blessed, but some of the details of the life of the moonmen seem to be drawn from utopian visions – (ferguson (1975), Doyne Dawson (1992)

[5] Swanson (1975) suggests that Lucian’s VH ‘exposes philosophy, ostensibly a mode of inquiry into truth, as being patently effective, once it has come to a terminus in belief, only to the degree that it serves falsehood’ and proposes that the narrative can best be categorized as “philosophical science fiction”. P.230-231

 


 [A1]The man in the moone – Page 135

  books.google.com.auFrancis Godwin, William Poole – 2009 – 176 pages – Preview

Appendix B: From Lucian of Samosata, The True History [The ironist Lucian of Samosata (c. 125-c. But it is in Lucian’s True History that the moon is properly explored. The translation excerpted below is that of Francis Hickes,

Collected Ancient Greek Novels – Page 619

  books.google.com.auB. P. Reardon – 2008 – 827 pages – Preview

LUCIAN A TRUE STORY TRANSLATED BY BP REARDON Introduction The name of Lucian is well enough known, but usually one thinks of him not as a writer of romance but as a satirist. He did, however, write some works that we should characterize

Lucian and the Latins: humor and humanism in the early Renaissance – Page 187

  books.google.com.auDavid Marsh – 1998 – 232 pages – Preview

Lucian, True History. 1.3. For the Odyssey as “lying” model for Lucian. see Dane 1988, 70-73, “The Traveler’s Tale and the Lie”; for the Odyssey as the primordial hypertext of Western literature, see Genette 1982, 200-201. 20.

Lucian‘s True history

  books.google.com.auLucian (of Samosata.) – 1902 – 117 pages – Snippet view

LUCIAN: HIS TRUE HISTORY. EVEN as champions and wrestlers and such as practise the strength and agility of body are not only careful to retain a sound constitution of health, and to hold on their ordinary course of exercise,

Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: a sourcebook of basic documents – Page 471

  books.google.com.auThomas K. Hubbard – 2003 – 558 pages – Preview

10.11 Lucian, True History 1.22 The True History was a kind of science fiction novella, based on fantastic voyages to faraway places populated by strange races with unique customs. I should like to describe the novel and unusual things

Trips to the Moon – Page 33

  books.google.com.auLucian of Samosata – 2007 – 100 pages – Preview

Lucian’s True History, therefore, like the Duke of Buckingham’s Rehearsal, cannot be half so agreeable as when it was first written; there is, however, enough remaining to secure it from contempt. The vein of rich fancy, and wildness of

Utopian thought in the Western World – Page 103

  books.google.com.auFrank Edward Manuel, Fritzie Prigohzy Manuel – 1979 – 896 pages – Preview

Virtually all the major Utopian themes of the novelistic Greek Utopias are parodied in the True Story of Lucian. This second-century rhetorician and satirist had served as an administrator for the Romans in Egypt, and in the spirit of

The library of wit and humor, prose and poetry: selected from the …: Volume 4

  books.google.com.auAinsworth Rand Spofford, Rufus Edmonds Shapley – 1894 – Snippet view

THE TRUE HISTORY. (Translated by W. Tooke.) [LcciAN, a classic satirist and humorist of the first merit, Lucian was one of that class of men who do not readily embrace any form of religion — men whose sharp critical eyes see too

Lucian‘s science fiction novel, True histories: interpretation and … – Page 5

  books.google.com.auAristoula Georgiadou, David Henry James Larmour – 1998 – 254 pages – Preview

Allegory was well-established as a literary and philosophical technique before Lucian’s day and was current at the aim is to propagandize social change, imaginary voyages like Lucian’s The True History, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

 

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.

Philology: Introduction to the Significance of Language Analysis

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When you first enter an ancient history or archaeology degree you are introduced to several sets of material evidence. Notably, the archaeology, material evidence, and philological evidence. But the philological side is more often than not rarely mentioned again. This is quite a shame considering some of the most interesting and revealing information comes from the ancient written sources. People generally fall into the trap of ignoring the writing in favour of the archaeology and artefacts and frankly you can’t really blame them because humans are naturally attracted to pretty visual things. I see this every day with the likes and shares on my Facebook page. But philology is all important too and if students can learn even a little about ancient writing and textual criticism, a whole new side to history and analysis opens up to them as it should.

DSCN0428BB - Clay Tablets with Liner B Script
DSCN0428BB – Clay Tablets with Liner B Script (Photo credit: archer10 (Dennis))

Philology is derived from the Greek terms φίλος (love) and λόγος (word, reason) and literally means a ‘love of words’. It is the study of language in literary sources and is a combination of literary studies, history and linguistics. Philology is generally associated with Greek and Classical Latin, in which it is termed philologia. The study of philology originated in European Renaissance Humanism in regards to Classical Philology but this has since been combined to include in its definition the study of both European and non-European languages. The idea of philology has been carried through the Greek and Latin literature into the English language around the sixteenth century through the French term philologie meaning also a ‘love of literature’ from the same word roots.

Generally philology has a focus on historical development. It helps establish the authenticity of literary texts and their original form and with this the determination of their meaning. It is a branch of knowledge that deals with the structure, historical development and relationships of a language or languages. This makes it all the more significant to study as language is one of the main building blocks of civilisation.

There are several branches of philological studies that can also be undertaken:

Comparative philology is a branch of philology which analyses the relationship or correspondences between languages. For instance, the commonalities between Latin and Etruscan or further flung languages of Asian or African provinces. It uses pre-determined techniques to discover whether languages hold common ancestors or influences. It uses comparison of grammar and spelling which was first deemed useful in the 19th century and has developed ever since. The study of comparative philology was originally defined by Sir William Jones‘ discovery in 1786 that Sanskrit was related to Greek and German as well as Latin.

Cognitive philology studies written and oral texts in consideration of the human mental processes. It uses science to compare the results of research using psychological and artificial systems.

Reconstruction of the missing Greek text on th...
Reconstruction of the missing Greek text on the Rosetta Stone

Decipherment is another branch of philology which looks at resurrecting dead languages and previously unread texts such as done and achieved by Jean-Francois Champollion in the decipherment of Hieroglyphs with the use of the Rosetta Stone. And more recently by Michael Ventris in the decipherment of Linear B. Decipherment would be key to the understanding of still little understood languages such as Linear A. Decipherment uses known languages, grammatical tools and vocabulary to find and apply comparisons within an unread text. By doing so more of the text can be read gradually as similarities and grammatical forms become better understood. The remaining text can then be filled in through further comparison, analysis, and elimination of incorrect solutions.

Textual philology editing is yet another branch of philology with includes the study of texts and their history in a sense including textual criticism. This branch was created in relation to the long traditions of Biblical studies; in particular with the variations of manuscripts. It looks at the authorship, date and provenance of the text to place it in its historical context and to produce ‘critical editions’ of the texts.

Significant Examples:

The importance of philology is exhibited in its use and achievements. Without philology the bible translation would be even more wrong, trust me read it in the original Greek. We would not be able to translate hieroglyphs, Linear B, Linear A, Sanskrit, any ancient language. Our entire written past would be blank, we would not have the information we have now on mathematics, social structure, philosophy, science, medicine, civilisation, transport, engineering, marketing, accounting, well anything really, knowledge would not have been rediscovered or passed on without the ability to study texts and language. Understand the love of words.

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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:

Recommended Reading: Blum and Blum, Health and Healing in Rural Greece

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Blum, R. and E. Blum (1965). Health and Healing in Rural Greece: A Study of Three Communities. Stanford, Stanford University Press.

This study of rural healing traditions in 1960s Greece is an excellent starting point for those historians who wish to read into the anthropological field. The aim of the book is to provide an understanding health beliefs in the rural societies of Greece by looking at two peasant communities called Dhadhi and Panorio, and a shepherd encampment in the region of Doxario called Saracatzani.

Blum and Blum provide an interesting and complete study of each community based on personal experience in the areas, interviews, statistics and histories. In doing so we are presented with comparison of ancient and modern methods and traditions concerning healing practices. Comparisons are drawn from the ancient literary evidence in relation to homeopathic forms of medicine and beliefs concerning modern technological and rational medicine. Blum and Blum highlight the mutual obligations seen within the traditions and the communities’ cooperation.

Unlike many modern scholars dealing with medical traditions in the modern world, Blum and Blum move beyond the herbal and scientific aspects and into discussions of magic and ritual, superstition and midwifery. The study is filled with illuminating figures concerning health practices including issues with water supply, cleanliness and focus on ancient herbal methods over modern medicine. The examples of cures in these communities are particularly interesting and illustrate the uniqueness of the environment and their beliefs. My favourite being the use of mouse oil to cure basically anything. (One takes a mouse, drowns it oil in a jar, leaves the mouse in the jar of oil in the sun for one year, take and apply to affected areas. My only issue is that if you haven’t got any handy you will be waiting a very long time for your cure to mature. And I’m also against the drowning of the innocent mouse!!! Poor thing.)

Blum and Blum focus on a range of folk healers and practices specific to both the male and female sexes. The information that they find draws certain conclusions that ancient traditions have been maintained and transferred into the modern rural healing traditions.

For someone who has not read widely on anthropology it was an enlightening introduction to modern scholarship and the links between traditions. Additionally it allows one to clearly see the types of studies undertaken by anthropologists in different environments and how those techniques relate to other disciplines; including archaeology, history, psychology and sociology.

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Kepler’s Somnium (The Dream)

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It seems that the human obsession with the stars, sun and moon spreads far and wide throughout history. And it is because of human creativity and curiousity that we are fortunate to have some of the most interesting and slightly wacky works that we have today that represent the other side of the serious scholar in the historical corpus. With Lucian of Samosata we received his True History including his famous trip to the Moon! From the seventeenth century we have received yet another strange and fascinating moon based work, Kepler’s Somnium, Latin for ‘The Dream’.

Kepler was an astronomer and a mathematician who clearly was looking for an alternative form of output in his Somnium which parallels Lucian in its obscurity and science fiction like nature and characters. Who would have thought that such a serious astronomer would write this! Daemons? Magical potions? Islands in the sky? People living on the moon?! Come on thats all fantastical! Especially in the 17th century! It must be worth the read! And it certainly is…

Let me begin by relating some of the key events and chapters in the Somnium:

The poor icelandic boy Duracotis is cruelly sold by his mother (a herbalist and magic worker) to a sailor who he travels with to Denmark to deliver a message to the Dane Tycho Brahe. Duracotis stays with Brahe for many years and learns to read the star and the moon. He then decides to return to the mother who sold him who oddly enough greets him with open arms and who wishes to impart her knowledge of the heavens and acquaintances with spirits. It is here that we are introduced to the Daemon from Levania (aka. THE MOON!). Levania being an island 50 thousand miles up in the sky and yet only a four hour trip (If only it took that long in reality!) Kepler goes on to reccount the lives of the peoples of the two hemispheres of the moon: The Privolvans and the Subvolvans.

It does strike one that despite Kepler’s wild imagination there are points quite close to the truth which understandably make ones view of Kepler a bit higher. This was clearly a man of logic and knowledge. For instance, Kepler relates that in order to travel the ‘four hours’ to the moon one must be shot aloft by gun powder. From a 17th century standpoint thats not far from the truth. He also relates that while in transit one can not breath and would experience extreme cold. A simplistic description but again true to what we now know about space. In fact Kepler goes into many astronomical features of the moon in some detail throughout his record of the life of the imagined inhabitants. Such as that the dark side of the moon would be of extreme cold while the light side would be more temperate.

Its an interesting combination of theoretical 17th century astronomical knowledge and the preludes to todays science fiction movies. Actually I think they should make this into a movie, much better than some of the scripts we get on our screens these days. And so I raise my glass to the slightly peculiar Kepler and his dream of moon people, space travel and magical beings. His work is certainly unique to the period and a very interesting read. Who would have thought it with a work originally in Latin by some astronomy nerd in a 17th century back room.

Its a shame its so hard to find this book. So here it is for you:

Kepler’s Somnium