March 2014

Pocahontas only lived for around 22 years, but her short life became an integral part of America's national mythology. A lot of the things we "all know" about her are wrong, or misleading. Even the name we know her by wasn't her real name - more of a nickname, meaning "naughty child" or something of that sort. The three experts who discussed what we actually know about her life on In Our Time were Susan Castillo (King's College London), Tim Lockley (University of Warwick) and Jacqueline Fear-Segal (University of East Anglia).

Pocahontas first appears in the historical record around 1608, when she's described as a girl of about 10. Although that age is just a guess by a contemporary given the rest of what is said at the time she's certainly pre-pubescent (not acting nor dressed like an adult woman), and the experts agreed that a birth date of around 1595 seems plausible. She was the daughter of Powhatan, who was the primary leader of the Native American tribes living in the Tidewater area of Virginia. There were several sub-chiefs below him in status, and he was expanding his empire/area of influence. The society she grew up in was matrilineal, but the chief was always a man. So although she was daughter of the chief she wouldn't convey the right to leadership herself or inherit any power. She was, however, Powhatan's favourite child.

In 1607 the English made another attempt to establish a colony in North America. This was a government encouraged effort, but the English government weren't particularly involved in funding any of the colonisation preferring instead to rely on private investors. North America had been pretty much ignored by the Spanish colonial forces because it didn't have as readily available gold as South America. But the English were beginning to want their own overseas empire (to play with the big boys) and this was available real estate that might be able to be be made profitable. Roanoke, the first colony, had failed and Jamestown (this new effort) also ran into significant trouble. The experts on the programme were pretty scathing about this - they said that too many of the colonists were gentlemen who didn't know what they were doing. So it wasn't just the challenge of farming in an unfamiliar land, it was also the challenge of getting people who'd never farmed before to learn and work hard enough and do it quickly enough to feed the colony. The colonists had to be bailed out more than once by the local Native Americans (led by Powhatan) who provided food that got at least some of them through the harsh winters. In 1610 the remaining few colonists (about 60 out of the original 1000) were in the process of leaving to go home to England when 900 new colonists arrived and forced the original colonists to return to Jamestown to carry on.

Pocahontas is first mentioned by John Smith, who is one of the English colonists. In 1608 he has some sort of meeting with Powhatan (which results in help for the colony and relatively good relations between the peoples). In a letter about that event he mentions Pocahontas. And around that time (afterwards?) she and other children of the Native Americans would come to the English colony to play with the children there (hence the descriptions of her that suggest she's pre-pubescent at the time). She is also the person who comes to bring the gifts of food from Powhatan (as someone who has status but isn't threatening in any way, conveying the peaceful intentions of Powhatan at that time). Writing much later (in fact after Pocahontas's death) Smith elaborates his story and this is where the legend of Pocahontas saving the life of an English colonist comes from. His later account says that he was going to be executed by Powhatan, but Pocahontas put herself between him and her father and persuaded Powhatan to let him go free. The experts were clear that this is most likely to be a later fabrication on Smith's part because Pocahontas is already becoming mythologised. However if it is accurate, then it's actually most likely that Smith misinterpreted a staged ritual scene as a reality and that possibly this was some sort of adoption ceremony. Nowhere in Smith's accounts of his meeting(s) with Pocahontas does he suggest any sort of romantic relationship. At the time of their interaction she was still a child around 10-12 and he was 30 years old, so it seems pretty unlikely. This is a much later addition to the myth - to make it "a better story".

Pocahontas then vanishes from the record again for a few years. On the programme* the experts said that she is thought to've married during this time - to a member of a nearby chiefdom mostly under her father's control. On a visit to her husband's people (in 1613 says wikipedia, I don't remember if they said the date on the programme) Pocahontas was tricked into getting on an English boat at which point she was captured and brought back to Jamestown. During her time in captivity she was converted to Christianity. This is important because one of the rationales given by the English for why it was morally good to colonise North America was that they would then convert the natives to Protestant Christianity rather than let the Spanish convert everyone to Catholicism. This was a goal more talked about than done, unlike the Spanish empire there weren't mass efforts to convert by the English, however Pocahontas was held up as an example of the "good" that could be done here. So that contributed to both her celebrity status when she visited England, and her later mythologisation.

*Wikipedia disagrees and thinks this first husband is likely apocryphal. I'm inclined to go with the experts on In Our Time over wikipedia but as I looked something up on wikipedia for this paragraph I noticed and thought I'd mention it.

Relations between Powhatan and Jamestown fairly obviously deteriorated into fighting after Pocahontas was captured. However peace was restored but Pocahontas didn't return to her people, instead she remained in Jamestown where she married an Englishman named John Rolfe in 1614. Rolfe had been shipwrecked in the Bahamas on his way to Virginia, and his wife and child had died there. When he eventually made his way to Jamestown he brought with him a Bahaman strain of tobacco - which was easier to grow, and more to European tastes, than the native Virginian tobacco. So he played a prime role in the future profitability of the colony. In private letters he talks of his love for Pocahontas, but in more public letters he stresses that he is not overcome by lust instead he's doing this for the good of the colony etc. On the programme they talked about him being a bit of a conflicted man - he was prone to overthinking things. However they agreed that he probably did love Pocahontas, just that in the very racist society of the England of the time (including the colony in Jamestown) it was an almost perverse thing to do to marry a Native American woman. Not just a heathen, but not even white. Bragg notes in his blog post on the Radio 4 blog that there were only three interracial marriages in Virginia in the 17th Century of which this was the first.

Relations between Powhatan and Jamestown definitely improved after this marriage. There's some indication that Powhatan was trying to bring them into his empire as a sub-chiefdom like the others (and this started back with John Smith in 1608). They talked a bit on the programme about how one of the problems with relations between the two peoples was differing views on landownership - not just who owned it but completely different systems. This blew up again (after Pocahontas death) as the English colony expanded. The Native American view was that the land you were using was your land, but all of the towns they had were only semi-permanent. The normal process was that the tribe would settle somewhere and the women would farm and the men hunt in the surrounding forest - once the farmland was exhausted and needed to be left fallow the whole community would up sticks and move. But the English came along and started clearing forests or settling on land that wasn't currently in use because they saw it was "empty" and "unowned" but the Native Americans saw it as not currently in use by anyone but that it would be in future. So the English were reducing the amount of land available for everyone, and later in the century began pushing the Native Americans off even the land they were using as relations between the peoples deteriorated further.

In 1616 John Rolfe and Pocahontas visited England. They didn't talk much about Pocahontas's personality on the programme (because we don't know much) but they did stress that she is thought to've been a curious and intelligent woman. So this trip to England was in part because of her desire to know more about the world her husband came from. However it was also something of a diplomatic mission - she was treated as a foreign princess by the English, and her brother (who was involved in Powhatan's administration) and his wife also accompanied them on the trip. So there was some degree of diplomacy going on and some degree of espionage. There's an anecdote (possibly apocryphal) of her brother bringing a counting stick to count how many of these English there are ... but before they even get to London he's already thrown the stick away as there are too many to count. I think they said that all the people Powhatan ruled over totalled about 15,000 at the time so that's quite a big difference between the two countries. Pocahontas and her husband were presented to King James at court as a part of their trip - Rolfe himself was too low status for this sort of treatment so it's definitely her status that's driving this. It's interesting to wonder what would've happened if she'd lived - this feels like it's shaping up to be an alliance of sorts between Powhatan and the English. If Pocahontas had lived long enough to mediate diplomatically between the two would it have lasted longer? But then again probably not, too much entrenched entitlement on the part of the English colonists I suspect.

Pocahontas and Rolfe were actually on their way home to Jamestown when Pocahontas fell ill. On March 10th 1617 there's a record of a meeting between some English officials and Pocahontas where she's not mentioned as being in ill health. But on the ship from England she becomes ill and the ship returns to Gravesend where she dies and is buried on March 21st. The experts on the programme preferred the theory that she caught something like dysentery - there's no indication of a long decline so some sort of catastrophic illness seems most plausible. Later theories (particularly from modern descendants of Powhatan's people) also include the idea that she was poisoned. But there doesn't seem to be evidence that the English wanted her out of the way, and that seems to be as much a part of the myth as the romantic relationship with John Smith.

Last Thursday we went to the British Museum to go to a talk about Chinese figurines (and we'd hoped to go to another talk later the same day but it was sold out). In this talk Sascha Priewe (a curator at the British Museum) was talking about traditions of figurine making in ancient China and how this did (or didn't) lead to the First Emperor's terracotta army. He started by talking briefly about the Ice Age Art exhibition that had been in the British Museum last year (post). This had several examples of small figurines made in Europe more than 10,000 years ago, and you can trace the development and traditions of these figures (again in Europe and also in the Middle East) through the intervening time. This tradition eventually leads to things like Greek statues. However in China it seems (at least from a Western perspective) that the terracotta army buried with the First Emperor appears almost from nowhere in the 200s BC. So his talk was exploring whether or not this was actually the case, and what evidence there is for figurines before these notable (and large and numerous) examples.

The bulk of his talk was an overview of Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeology in China, looking at sites where 3D figures have been found. There is a tradition of female figurines found in the northern part of the country during the Neolithic - that may be reminiscent of the earlier European female figurines. But he stressed that this could be an artifact of it being the same people discussing them rather than inherent to the figures. Also during the Neolithic there is a tradition of making phallus models, this is in a different geographical area - the Yellow River valley, if I remember correctly. There's no indication that these are parts of whole body representations - instead they appear to've been created as just a phallus. A little later in (I think) the same area of the country you also find what look like pot lids with a modelled human head on them. Again there isn't any indication that these are broken off a bigger statue - they appear to be complete as they are. Priewe then talked a bit about the Bronze Age artifacts. There are some developments of art in the round - like the bronze funerary vessels - but in many ways these seem to be 2D art wrapped around a 3D object rather than inherently 3D. While there are some representations of animals during this period (in some places) there are still not large numbers of human figurines.

So the First Emperor's terracotta army does actually appear to've been the start of this tradition in Chinese art. Priewe next turned his attention to where it might've come from if not growing out of previous traditions. One suggestion, although he didn't seem to think it was terribly plausible for the sole reason, was that the First Emperor and/or his immediate predecessors in the Qin culture had learnt of Greek statuary via trade routes across to the area of modern Afghanistan (which would put them in contact with Alexander the Great's Hellenic empire). His preferred explanation is that the terracotta figures were reflecting a growing shift in funerary beliefs. In the Qin culture immediately before the First Emperor there are indications of human sacrifices buried with leaders. Priewe said that he thinks the terracotta army are a shift from burying your servants to take them with you (which was a recentish development), to burying symbolic figures of your army and your servants. A more cost effective way of ensuring you had the proper entourage in the afterlife than killing a whole lot of trained soldiers etc.

Priewe finished the talk by moving forward in time from the First Emperor showing how this tradition of providing for the afterlife via symbolic figurines and models continued and even extends to the modern day. So he showed us some of the Han dynasty tomb goods (that were on display in Cambridge a while ago (post)) including the toilet for the use of the deceased ... He also talked about the Tang Dynasty figurines a bit. And he finished up by noting that in modern Chinese funerals people will burn model houses and money, and even viagra, so that the deceased can take these things with them into the afterlife.

At the beginning of the talk I was a bit worried that it was either going to be too academic or too disorganised to follow easily. But once he got going it was an interesting talk :)

Those "something buried in the ice comes back to life" horror stories might not be so far fetched - so long as we're talking about viruses anyway.

Suffolk Police warn, for the umpteenth time, about a current scam: the con artist rings up your landline claiming to be from the police or your bank telling you about suspicious financial activity on your account. They invite you to ring them back (using the 101 number or the number on your bank card depending who they're claiming to be) but when you hang up they don't - instead they play you a recording of a dial tone. When you pick up the phone and dial the new number you're actually still connected to the original caller, so they then manage to con people into trusting them with financial info. So if you get that sort of call, ring back from your mobile or someone else's landline (or leave it a while before you call from your own). People are scum :(

Cadence looks like an intriguing game, from the trailer.

"Generation V" by M L Brennan looks like an interesting book, sadly not in the library here tho.

And on the subject of books, I found an excuse for a notebook - I bought a book on Islamic geometric patterns and how to draw them with only a straight edge and compass (and pencil and pen). The first one I drew is this (photo on G+).

TV programmes/serieses I'm starting to record this week:

  • Fossil Wonderlands: Nature's Hidden Treasures - three programmes about fossil beds, presented by Richard Fortey who did Survivors which we watched just recently (post)
  • How to Get Ahead - history series about how to get ahead at court.
  • The Plantagenets - three part series about the Plantagenet kings, presented by Robert Bartlett who's done some other programmes I liked (and I have a couple of his books).
  • Hidden Histories - one-off programme about WW1 photographs taken by soldiers.

Henry & Anne: The Lovers that Changed History was a two part series on Channel 5 - I found out about it because it's presented by Suzannah Lipscomb who was one of the talking heads on the programme about The Last Days of Anne Boleyn that I liked so much last year (post). The first part covered the successful part of Henry VIII & Anne's relationship and the second part looked at the unravelling of that relationship. It had been billed as "part re-enacted" but actually there wasn't much more than you often see in documentaries. They had a couple of actors to do Henry and Anne, and some extras, and several snippets of action (like a court scene, Henry fencing, Anne being dressed or praying). They also had the actors repeat lines that one or the other had written - quotes from letters, or other such things. But all too often that felt like filler, because Lipscomb herself would also read out the quote.

As well as the start of Henry & Anne's relationship the first programme also talked a bit about the earlier lives of the two. In particular Lipscomb visited the house Anne grew up in (Hever Castle) and one of the palaces of the French court where Anne spent several years as a lady in waiting to the Queen of France. One of the main themes of this early part of the programme is how the legend that has grown up around Henry and Anne is both accurate and not. Although later it's true that Henry was something of a cruel tyrant, at the beginning of his reign (and even by the time Anne and he begin to interact) he's a charming, charismatic athlete and playboy. Anne's sometimes talked of as "a commoner" but that's like Kate Middleton being "a normal middle class girl" ... true, but not particularly accurate (both come from significantly wealthier or higher status families than the phrase conjures up). Also Anne's time at the French court is later held up as where she learnt "the arts of love" but actually the Queen's court was known for being virtuous and chaste.

What her time at the French court does do for Anne is make her appear sophisticated and a bit exotic. Combined with her wit & intelligence, that's what eventually catches the King's eye. But Lipscomb was keen to point out that this wasn't at once - actually the King takes Mary Boleyn as a mistress when the Boleyns come to court, not Anne. Once Henry & Anne's relationship begins Lipscomb paints it as a passionate love affair, and says that she believes that the reason they wait and start to look for a way out of his marriage for Henry is that they want to "do things properly". Obviously Henry must've already begun to worry about a lack of heir, and to think about how to change that as his first wife grew older. But Lipscomb doesn't believe Anne played hard to get in order to hold out for marriage, instead she thinks the two fell head over heels in love and wanted to marry from the beginning - this was not just another mistress for Henry. I'm not entirely sure I agree (although obviously Lipscomb knows far more about the subject than I do!). One notable absence from Lipscomb's narrative was any of the other men Anne may've had relationships with. In particular Anne had been bethrothed to Henry Percy, and that had to be formally declared as a celibate relationship (it was broken off because his father did not approve). If it hadn't been a celibate relationship then they would've counted as married before Henry and Anne became a couple - so this was important, but Lipscomb didn't mention any of this is the programme.

The second programme looked at Anne's fall from grace, which really began shortly after the highpoint of their marriage. Through no fault of her own she failed at the primary duty of Henry's Queen. Elizabeth was born, and was not a son. Another pregnancy came to nothing (Lipscomb noted there's no record of a miscarriage either, so perhaps this was a phantom pregnancy). And then not long after Katherine's death Anne miscarried a child that was far enough along development to be obviously a boy. Things were beginning to unravel. Around this time Henry also suffered a fall during a tournament that knocked him out for a couple of hours, and re-opened an old leg wound that would never completely heal again. Lipscomb speculated that this fall might actually have caused a personality change in Henry - and certainly afterwards he was the tyrant we later remember him as. However personally I'm not sure we need to speculate about frontal lobe damage from the fall, and subsequent personality changes, to explain this. Henry's behavioural changes could also be explained by an increased sense of mortality, and the effects of chronic pain. He almost died without an heir, his nightmare scenario. And the ulcer in his old leg wound was now being treated with hot pokers on a regular basis, not something to settle anyone's temperament.

Then we're up to the final fall of Anne - accused of adultery, imprisoned and tried then executed. Lipscomb is firmly on the side of Anne being innocent of the charges, swayed in part by Anne's swearing of oaths to God that she hadn't done these things even once she was condemned to die. Anne was, after all, a pious woman. So Lipscomb's theory (and I'm inclined to agree here) is that Anne's "fault" was to not be submissive enough to the King - she didn't make adultery unbelievable - and to flirt and be witty in the company of the court. The very things that had drawn her and Henry together in the first place were her downfall in the end.

A good series, even if I didn't entirely agree with Lipscomb's theories at all times.


As well as that recent series about the Tudors we've also been watching a series we recorded last year - The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England. The conceit here is Ian Mortimer presenting a sort of handbook to what you'd need to know to blend into Elizabethan England if you were able to go and visit. The emphasis was on the differences to the modern day, and the potential hazards you might run into. I really liked the visual style of this series. Parts of it had Mortimer talking to us in a room that looked like an alchemist's den - lots of bottles and curiosities and old books. In parts he was walking through a computer generated space with old pictures illustrating what he was talking about hanging in boxes in the space. And about half was filmed in real life locations which were then enhanced with white line drawings of the people and objects you'd expect to see there in Elizabethan times.

The three programmes of the series covered different levels of Elizabethan society. We started with the poor - I think because that's what in general one knows least about, and because it would have the most shocking changes. Life really was nasty, brutish & short if you were a peasant - he covered things like the poor living conditions, the diseases, the food, the sorts of work you could do and how much (little) you'd be paid. And also the problems with travelling while poor - people could get in trouble for sheltering the homeless, so unless you could find work you wouldn't find much shelter. The second programme looked at high society. They had many more comforts in life (and probably live a lot longer too), but disease was still an issue. And watching what you said and who you said it to would still be very important if you were visiting - informants and paranoia were not just for the lower classes. The last programme looked at the rising middle classes, and at the growing amount of innovation, exploration and culture coming from this class. Shakespeare is an obvious example, Francis Drake is another. Throughout all three programmes Mortimer also noted how social mores have changed - what we'd find particularly noticeable would be the difference in how women were treated. He talked about how wives were obliged to do what they were told, and could be beaten without that reflecting poorly on the husband. And about the way that it was almost assumed that a female servant would be coerced into sleeping with her master. Of course, if she became pregnant that was then her problem.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this series, but I really liked it. Might pick up the book it was based on at some point.


Other TV watched this week:

Episode 3 of The Great British Year - series about British wildlife and countryside over the whole year. Lots of gorgeous shots of animals, and timelapse sequences of landscapes.

Episode 1 of Inside the Animal Mind - Chris Packham looks at how animals think and perceive the world around them.

Mad Dog: Gaddafi's Secret World - a 90 minute documentary about the rise and fall of Gaddafi, using interviews with people who were a part of his regime in one way or another. Very much had a message, and sometimes you could see just how they were using spin to make him seem as bad as possible (even tho I agreed with the premise it felt heavy handed). Part of the Storyville series.

Captain Cook: The Man Behind the Legend - Timewatch episode from 2008/09 about Captain Cook & his voyages of exploration. I knew surprisingly little about the man in advance (beyond that he existed).

The Physiocrats were members of a French school of economic thought that flourished in the 18th Century, and can be thought of as some of the first modern economists. The three experts who talked about them on In Our Time were Richard Whatmore (University of Sussex), Joel Felix (University of Reading) and Helen Paul (University of Southampton). The programme not only looked at what their economic theory was, but also set it in the context of the politics of the age and looked at the influence it had in its turn on politics.

Someone trying to predict the future at the end of the 17th Century would've thought that France was the rising star and would go on to dominate politics across the world during the 18th Century. But this didn't actually materialise - instead Britain began to rise in prominence. A lot of thought was put into the question of "what went wrong and how do we become great again?" during the mid-18th Century in France, and the Physiocrats were a part of this cultural soul searching.

The big idea of the Physiocrats was that all wealth was tied to agriculture. They divided the world into three classes - the producers (i.e. those who actually worked the farms), the sterile class (or commercial class) and the landowners. This was quite a change from the prior medieval division of people into aristocracy, clergy and "the rest". It wasn't, however, intended to change the social order - they still believed that the landowning class were entitled to the produce and labour of the producing class, as in the old feudal system. They saw the problem of France's decline as being down to regulations messing up the divinely appointed natural economic system - basically if wheat and other agricultural produce was allowed to be freely traded within the country then they thought wealth would naturally increase.

There was a definite anti-British flavour to this theory as well. Relatives of British aristocrats might move into trade (rather than become clergy as was the "proper" idea) - and this was seen as something that detracted from a country's wealth by the Physiocrats. I think the experts were suggesting that this belief was in part caused by not wanting to follow Britain's lead in anything. Which was a shame for the Physiocrats long term aims - after all the British were about to kick start the Industrial Revolution and manufacturing was just about to take over the wealth creation role from agriculture.

One thing that set the Physiocrats' ideas apart from previous ideas about economics was that they were a part of the Enlightenment mindset. They were approaching the problem of how to create and maintain wealth in a scientific fashion (although not entirely - as I mentioned above they saw their theory as divinely appointed). And they took inspiration from other sciences at the time - like seeing the circulation of the blood as akin to the circulation of wealth in the economy.

They were influential on later economic thought, in particular ideas about free trade - and Adam Smith was notably influenced by them. Another influence they had was probably even less to their tastes than influencing a British economist - the idea that the people who worked on the land were the actual producers of wealth fed into the French revolution.

When we started to listen to this programme I thought it was going to be awfully dull (economics isn't a favourite subject of mine) but it turned out pretty interesting after all. The Physiocrats were a curious mix of trying to think about economics rationally, whilst being blinded by their political ideology.

On Sunday Garry Shaw came to the Essex Egyptology Group to give a talk about Egyptian mythology. We'd originally had another speaker booked, but she'd had to cancel at fairly short notice (because she got an opportunity to do some work in Luxor) so Garry Shaw stepped in and gave us a talk related to his new book (The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends which is out on March 17).

He started by explaining to us that the point of his book is not to retell the major myths or list the major gods of the Ancient Egyptians, but instead it is to look at how the Egyptians used their mythology to explain the world around them. And to try and provide a window into the worldview of your average Ancient Egyptian. The book is divided into three sections - "what happened before I was born?"; "how do I explain the world around me?"; "what will happen after I die?". In this talk Shaw was concentrating on the middle section, and telling us about how Egyptians explained natural phenomena and everyday events using their mythology.

First he talked a bit about the nature of the Egyptian gods. He stressed that the gods were not omnipotent, nor were they omniscient. They are also generally not considered to be present in the world with people. He quoted some bits from Egyptian texts that talk about occasions when the gods were actually present, and that always comes with fairly major physical effects. The pictures of the gods that we're used to where they are represented as humans, animals or humans with animal heads are not actually supposed to be what the gods look like. Instead these are symbolic representations of the god in question. Although not actually present in the world (most of the time) the gods do manifest in the world - for instance the sky is a manifestation of the goddess Nut (but is not Nut herself). Pretty much everything in the world around an Ancient Egyptian was seen as the manifestation of one god or another. Each god has a responsibility or sphere of influence - for instance Osiris is to do with regeneration, Min is to do with fertility. And the gods can combine when they need the powers of other gods - for instance Amun-Re is the combination of Amun (god of hidden things) and Re (god of visible things) and is therefore very powerful as he has dominion over all classes of things. But this is not a fusion, it's more like a chemical compound - the gods are the atoms, and the compound can be split back into its atoms at any point.

The stories about the gods are full of drama and conflict, and are all about relationships between the gods or between gods and people. As well as being entertaining these stories explain something about the world (via the manifestations of the gods that the story was about) or something about the rituals of the Ancient Egyptian religious festivals. They also provide "divine precedents" for the magical part of Egyptian life - if you do this thing it will cure that illness or bring about the thing you want because when a god did it this is what happened.

The main part of the talk was about the Egyptian ideas about cosmology. The Egyptians thought that the created world was like a bubble floating in the endless ocean (a manifestation of Nun). So the answer to "why is the sky blue?" is that you're seeing through the sky to the waters beyond. And if something was to go wrong with the manifestation of Nut that is the sky then the disorder of the ocean could come flooding in to drown the order of the created world. Another question is "How does the sun move across the sky?" - and obviously the sun gets in his day boat and sails across the ocean. The Egyptians had stories about rebellions or attacks against the sun, and these correspond to different parts of the day. The story about Sekhmet being sent to kill off all of the people of the world, and being distracted by beer, is one of those stories. Some of these stories correspond to the beginning of the day when the sun is newly born, some to the end when the sun is getting old and vulnerable. And others to that point in the very middle of the day when the sun almost seems to pause in the sky. So obviously Re is dealing with a rebellion at that point.

The stars too were thought to sail across the sky in boats. They also talked about a winding river across the sky, which we now think is the ecliptic, and the planets sail along that. At the end of each day Nut swallows the sun, and in the morning she gives birth to it again. At the end of each night Nut swallows the stars, and in the evening she gives birth to them again. Shaw told us a part of a story about Geb (the land, Nut's consort) being upset that Nut kept swallowing his children - and he's told not to worry because she will give birth to them again in due time. The moon was thought to be the sun's vizier or assistant - after all, when the sun is otherwise occupied it's the moon who sails along the sky to keep an eye on things. It was therefore associated with Thoth who plays the vizier role in various myths. The phases of the moon lead to it being associated with myths about gods being broken into pieces and reassembled - it is both the eye of Horus (which gets split into 6 then mended by Thoth) and Osiris (who gets split into 14 pieces and then reassembled before impregnating Isis with Horus).

An obvious question about the heavens that's not yet fully answered is "where does the sun go at night?". After Nut swallows it and before it's reborn the sun sails on his night boat through the Duat. This is a part of the created world that is just as real as the world you live in while you're alive. Shaw said that where precisely it exists varies from myth to myth but that it's best thought of as a real place that's just very far away - you can't travel there because it's too far away, but you will get there once you're dead. Sometimes it's thought of as within Nut (or rather within her manifestation as the sky), sometimes it's thought of as under the land as a mirror of the sky above the land. The Book of the Dead (and other texts of this sort) are like Lonely Planet guides to the Duat - they tell you where and what things are, who you might meet and what you should eat and drink. Shaw spent a bit of time telling us about some snippets of the stories of the awful inhabitants of this land.

The land itself is a manifestation of Geb, and was disc shaped. Egypt was seen as a narrow stripe of black fertile land (Kemet) down the centre of the disk. This was surrounded first by desert (the red land) and then beyond that were the lands of the foreigners. The desert was where bad things came from - animals, demons, foreigners.

So the Egyptian world was full of beings, not things. The Egyptian calendar was full of commemorations of things that these being did - perhaps you should not leave the house till after dark on a particular day because this was the day when messengers were sent to Re in a particular story and they didn't arrive till evening. And natural phenomena were explained in terms of the interactions of the gods, so if two gods fight then their manifestations will also be in opposition somehow.

Given that the world is made up of manifestations of different gods there might be times when you want to contact the gods to help your life in some way. You might assume that a temple would be the place to go to do this, but Shaw stressed that temples weren't places for ordinary people to worship instead they were houses for the god. Most people didn't get very far into a temple (if at all), and because the gods aren't everywhere that means you wouldn't get close enough to a god for him or her to hear you. Instead you made your petition via making offerings to intermediary statues in the precincts of temples, or maybe in your household shrine. You could also make your request via a stela of ears dedicated to a particular god - the ears would hear and would carry your words to the attention of the god. Gods were also sometimes restricted to particular geographical areas, so you might pray to a different god for the same things in different towns. If you didn't know the god of a particular region then you would make offerings more generically to "the god of the area". But the influence of the gods could be extended using their cult statues - these were regarded as vessels that the god could choose to inhabit, which would let them move outside their area of influence.

One very important reason to interact with the divine was in case of illness. Egyptians believed diseases were caused by demons, sometimes sent by gods, sometimes not. You could lure these demons out of you with foul things (like dung) or protect yourself with sweet things that the demons would find abhorrent. A lot of Egyptian medicine involved going to a lector priest who would perform some sort of spell. Many of these made use of stories where Horus had been ill, and Isis cured him in a specific fashion - and the priest would tell the story and provide the medicine, and it was the two things together that cured you using the divine precedent.

Ghosts were another common point of interaction with the invisible. Because of the belief that the dead lived on in another part of the created world (that you just couldn't travel to as a living person) then it was clear that they would still be real and potentially interactable with. So people would write letters to their deceased relatives, and many otherwise strange (but minor) occurrences would be explained as ghosts interacting with the living world.

This was a fascinating talk, and I think Garry Shaw did a good job at showing us the world from this rather alien viewpoint.

This week I start my next Future Learn course - Shakespeare and His World.

I'm starting to quite look forward to Evolve (the new game from the guys who did the original L4D) ... hopefully it doesn't disappoint when it finally gets here :)

The Writ of Years is a delightfully creepy fairytale-esque short story.

I'm catching up (slowly, slowly) with reading at tor.com - Jo Walton's post on if there's a right age to read particular books caught my eye. I'm in agreement with Walton, I think. Even though I re-read less these days than I did as a kid, it's odd to think that reading a book "too early" would do anything but mean you missed a bunch of stuff that you'd notice on a future read through (or fail to comprehend it entirely but understand it later).

More book stuff: I've set myself up an account on WWEnd which curates a list of authors & books who've won SFF awards or been on "must read" type lists. You can set what you've read and it gives you stats (like I've read 47% of all Hugo award winning books), they also encourage people to rate & review books. I'm about halfway through their list of authors marking what I've read that I remember (although only rating stuff I've read recently). (I was going to link to my account, but I can't seem to find a way to directly link to it, oh well.)

Mass groups of whale fossils found in Chile - probably the result of at least four different mass strandings caused by a group of whales eating toxic algae then their dead bodies being washed up on shore.

10 Facts about Ichneumonidae describes these parasitic wasps near the start of the article as "think chestburster from Alien, but for insects.".

Less creepily here's 37 photos from history ranging from the moving to the "wtf?" (particularly the baby cage for ensuring your infant offspring get sufficient sunlight and fresh air if you live in an apartment block). Thanks to J for that link :)

I think I've seen this before, but it's pretty striking - due to different streetlight lightbulbs you can still see the East/West divide in Berlin.

The only new TV programme I'm setting to record this week is When Albums Ruled the World next Monday - but the BBC's schedule page was a little broken this morning and I've not been able to look at what's showing on Saturday & Sunday.

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