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“A Brief History of Inequality” by Thomas Piketty

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Rodin's Burghers of Calais
Burghers of Calais, Rodin

In A Brief History of Equality, Thomas Piketty reviews the distribution of wealth over the last few centuries and draws practical lessons that we can use to shape an agenda for moving toward a more just and equitable world. 

Piketty called his Capital in the Twenty-First Century “as much a work of history as of economics,” and this shorter volume is also deeply informed by historical research. This focus helps explain the author’s surprising popularity – unlike many economists who trade in esoteric equations, he keeps both feet firmly on the ground. 

One danger of ignoring history, he argues, lies in taking our particular forms of economic and political life as timeless and unchangeable. This can lead to the feeling that we’re trapped in a situation of spiraling inequality from which there is no escape. But in his survey of the last few centuries, he shows just how much progress has already been made. 

This is not to deny there is more work to do – far from it. As shown in his Capital, current levels of wealth and income inequality are bad and are getting worse, largely because the historical returns from investment always outpace the growth of an economy. This sets up a feedback loop where the people who have money to invest earn more money more quickly than those who don’t. In the absence of counter-balancing forces like effective progressive taxation and inheritance taxes, wealth tends to accumulate into larger and larger fortunes. 

This may be a natural tendency of growth, but we have more options for dealing with problems like this than we may think, and this is where Piketty kicks into high gear.

The nature of property ownership is not delivered from on high as a kind of natural law, even if that’s how it’s sometimes characterized in legal codes. For example, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which is the basis for the French legal understanding of property, states: 

The goal of any political association is the conservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, safety and resistance against oppression.

The French definition naturalizes its conception of property, declaring ownership to be a universal right that is beyond the reach of political deliberation. Following this definition, French legislatures and courts have tended to favor a strong, expansive reading of property rights, which has limited the reach of redistributive policies.

But not all societies see it this way. For example, Article 14 of the German constitution declares: 

Property and the right of inheritance shall be guaranteed. Their content and limits shall be defined by the laws. Property entails obligations. Its use shall also serve the public good.

This formulation explicitly sets a context and limits for property ownership – it is not an intrinsic, inalienable right, but is legitimate only insofar as it serves the public good. This has shaped the German conception of ownership, sometimes in profound ways. For example, it forms the constitutional basis for laws requiring medium- and large-sized companies to set up a Betriebsrat, or worker’s council, which shares governance rights with shareholders. Imagine how Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter would have been dealt with in a world where that company had such a council that looked after the interest of the company and the workers, and not just the shareholders.

As a matter of history, it is plainly true that “property” is not absolute. Ideas of ownership do not exist in the abstract, but consist in the historically-determined and changing frameworks of laws, norms, and power relationships without which the term has no meaning. How could we otherwise account for the fact that soon after the the Declaration was written and then for many decades, women did not have the right to inheritance or to open a bank account in France?

He doesn’t use the term, but I believe his thinking here is informed by the Marxist critical concept of reification, which refers to the distortions that occur when we view social relations or manufactured objects as though they have no history. It generally serves the interest of the status quo to naturalize certain fundamental conceptions – that is, to treat them as timeless truths, like the law of gravity. That is, of course, why people whose interests are served by the status quo tend to describe property rights as sacrosanct. But a study of history opens up a range of actual possibilities for reshaping these principles when it’s in the greatest common good to do so.

When Piketty looks at the last few centuries of inequality, a lot of the news he finds is good. This is why he called this book a history of “equality.” As he said in a recent New York Times interview, “I’ve always viewed my work and conclusion as relatively optimistic. And I was a bit sad to see that some people had a different reading.” 

I think relatively optimistic is a good way to put it – you could perhaps say, based on his findings, that the global story of equality has gone from “terrible” to “pretty bad.” If we go back to the period beginning with the earliest useful financial records that we have, the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, we find that the vast majority of people all over the world owned almost nothing. In Europe during this time, for example, the majority of the population did nearly all of the productive work, had no real political power, and paid most of the taxes. 

But progress has been made. Today, a far greater share of the world’s wealth is owned by a middle class, though the bottom half of the world’s property owners still collectively own virtually nothing, and wealth is still largely owned based on gender and national origin. But the key lesson of the past is that real change is possible. Sometimes even policies that were considered impossible for a long time can be achieved, like the progressive federal income tax in the United States.

A useful illustration that Piketty examines is Sweden, which showed extremely high political and economic inequality for all of the nineteenth century. But in the early twentieth century, the situation reversed, and Sweden built a successful welfare state. It in fact became one of the most egalitarian countries in Europe for the next century, and a number of related positive outcomes followed. If you had lived in Europe in 1900, you might well have believed that inequality in Sweden was simply a historical fact that would probably never change. But things did change, and they can change now. 

Piketty is under no illusions that a policy will save us. The major changes that have brought real progress have rarely come about by the smooth operation of the system. Progress is largely associated with the major shocks that create windows of opportunity. Some of the key shocks in our recent past have included the Great Depression and the World Wars. Ultimately, the role of the kind of policies he proposes is to inform public debate and to help shape the strategy of political actors. This is the focus of the second half of his book. 

The two primary problems he wants us to take on are economic inequality and sustainable development, both products of our newly-global economy. Under the current regime, both problems are extremely difficult to get a handle on, because our economic tools are not set up to address them.

With respect to inequality, the chief culprit Piketty focus on in this book is the lack of monitoring and controls on money moving across borders, which has dramatically increased since the triumph of neoliberal policies in the 1980s and 90s. Similarly, our ability to handle climate change effectively is limited by the fact that our economic systems are not set up to capture or reflect the social and economic costs of climate damage in any meaningful way. For example, climate-polluting industries like steel and cement manufacturing, which create more greenhouse gases per year than any other sector, themselves pay no direct costs for any adaptation or mitigation efforts that societies make.

Dealing with these issues will take novel solutions which may very well require that we fundamentally rethink our current economic framework, but we have good reason to do so. Unlocking our borders to capital flight has led to a situation in which many developed countries are wealthy but their governments are poor. Many of the largest fortunes evade representative taxation by shady dodges such as incorporating offshore. Companies like Apple or Facebook are able to benefit profoundly from the technical and human infrastructure of the United States, such as its major investments in education, while giving little or nothing back by way of taxes, preferring the favorable tax rates of havens like Ireland.

At the same time, individual fortunes are amassed and cached overseas in offshore accounts, allowing the wealthiest individuals and families to put enormous fortunes beyond the reach of taxation. As he discussed in his Capital, the economist Gabriel Zucman conservatively estimated that 10% of the global GDP is currently stashed away in such havens – this amount is greater than the total official foreign debt of all wealthy countries. 

In order to address such abuses, countries must be able to to effectively monitor and control money flowing out of its borders. This would allow for measures like the exit tax recently proposed by Bernie Sanders, which would assess a tax on assets moved out of the country.

In Capital, Piketty suggested creating an international framework for implementing a nominal global tax on wealth, which would require that we set up a standardized international accounting scheme to monitor such flows. A step like this would go a long way toward cutting down on flagrant abuse.

In this book, he develops a similar idea, but from a national, rather than an international, perspective. He recommends that each country insist on its sovereign rights to manage money as it comes and goes, and to create their own systems for dealing with the problem.  

PIketty suggests a number of additional strategies for dealing with these issues, but his goal is not to provide a manifesto, but to consider a variety of options and to offer them up to feed the conversation. It is ultimately a matter for for democratic deliberation to determine which options to try. He broadly characterizes his framework as democratic socialism, with a strong redistributive welfare system, but without the state ownership and controls found in communist countries, which led directly to terrible authoritarian abuses. 

There is a lot more in this book than I can meaningfully cover in a short review, but this at least suggests some of the major arguments. I found it extremely useful and persuasive, and, like his other works, very well written.

If you’ve been thinking about reading Piketty but were daunted by the subject matter or length of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, this might be a better way to check out his thinking. It is written with the layperson in mind in articulate, accessible prose. And if you’re daunted by the scope of challenges facing the world, it is refreshing to get a sense of how far we’ve already come, and to take stock of what we’ve already managed to do. 

As a final personal note, I’ll say that the challenges posed by inequality and sustainability are severe, but they’re the right problems for our historical moment, because ultimately they are problems about how we exist together, for the first time, as a global community. In a very real way, these problems amount to how we are going to treat each other and the world we live in. There is an opportunity here for us to collectively create an unprecedented framework for co-existence with an emphasis on fairness and stewardship. And if that sounds impossible, well, the progressive income tax was once thought impossible, too. 

Written by Mesocosm

July 13, 2022 at 5:44 am

Posted in History, Politics

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It’s Time for a Reappraisal of Central Eurasia in History

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Camel, Northern Wei

Camel, Northern Wei

Lately I’ve been studying up on the history and culture of Central Eurasia, which has been home for millennia to important settled and nomadic people, including the speakers of proto-Indo-Europeans, the Parthians, Scythians, Huns, Xiongnu, Turks, and Mongols, to name a few.

The story about these peoples has long been told from the perspective of the high centers of civilization. To the Greeks, Romans, ‘Abbasid caliphs, and Chinese alike, these are barbarian invader-folk who periodically amass in sufficient numbers to cause serious problems by raiding and invading past their steppe hinterlands, toppling empires and bringing ruin. Such is the legacy of the Huns and Mongols in particular, who, according to popular conception, surged out of the steppes on horseback to leave smoldering ruins and piles of skulls in their wake.

While this model isn’t without a grain of truth, as usual the truth is more complicated than that. There is a widespread and traditional antipathy between settled peoples and mobile populations, and wherever these two forms of society are found we see similar stories told by the latter about the former. They are thieves, primitive warriors, and bellicose brutes – this is said not only of the Huns by the Romans, but of the Apache by the neighboring Pueblo peoples in pre-modern times.

In the last generation in particular we’ve started to see an important revision to that prevailing conception, which examines history in the light of the Central Eurasians, not as a usually-unimportant people dwelling at the perimeter of history, but as a worthwhile subject in its own right, and that shift in emphasis is challenging a lot of the conventional wisdom. What is regarded by imperial powers as infringement on their rightful borders, for example, often dissolves into complex disputes regarding encroachment into new territory and violation of trade rights by some of the societies in question. And far from the brutish horsemen of their adversaries’ histories, we’re gradually coming to appreciate the complex societies, economies, and cultures of the peoples of Central Eurasia, which has been a key nexus of cultural interchange and transmission for at least six thousand years.

In the 19th century when historians started looking closely at the civilizations of Mesopotamia, the general understanding was that classical civilization and urban culture began in Greece and Rome. It took a couple of generations of looking at overwhelming evidence to the contrary before we collectively revised that understanding and appreciated the degree to which complex urban societies existed in Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Egypt for millennia before the Greek iron age. I think we’re in the midst of a similar revision now with respect to Central Asia, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that these societies cannot be understood simply as a footnote to Roman and Chinese history. They are themselves key drivers of history, and the closer I look at them, the more I see that the history of Europe and Asia simply cannot be understood without a thorough understanding of these cultures.

There is a lot of great information out there on Central Eurasia; one source I recommend to interested readers is Christopher Beckwith’s outstanding study Empires of the Silk Road.


In other news, a great recent discover of mine is the wonderful BBC Radio series In Our Times. Our lively host Melvyn Bragg guides animated discussions of fascinating topics in history, art, science, and culture, typically with three university professor guests. I’ve listened to spellbinding episodes on the Samurai, Sappho, the Venerable Bede, and the An-Lushan Rebellion, and look forward to streaming many more. Episodes are 45 minutes in length.

In Our Times Archive.

Written by Mesocosm

May 9, 2015 at 2:29 pm

Posted in History

Black Elk and the Fabrication of Memory

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Black Elk, wife, and son

Black Elk, wife, and son

Like millions of readers, I became aware of Black Elk through the work of John Neihardt, an amateur historiographer and poet who interviewed the Oglala Lakota medicine man at length about his life. These recollections were fashioned into the classic Black Elk Speaks, a poeticized rendition of the account.

A great many readers have been alerted to Black Elk Speaks by Joseph Campbell, who was especially impressed by one particular episode, which he referred to many times in writing and speaking.

When Black Elk was nine, the story goes, he took ill for twelve days, lying in a coma, in an apparent shamanic initiatory crisis of the kind we have discussed several times on the blog, such as here.

During his coma, Black Elk experienced what he later called his “Great Vision,” an elaborate journey through the sky to the the Rainbow Teepee where the Thunder Beings dwell. The culmination of his vision, to which Campbell glowingly referred, was a journey to the center of the earth, and his discovery that all people are one.

As Neihardt gives it, in Black Elk’s voice:

I looked ahead and saw the mountains there with rocks and forests on them, and from the mountains flashed all colors upward to the heavens. Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy. (1)

As a footnote to the comment that he was taken to the center of the world, Neihardt notes “Black Elk said the mountain he stood upon in his vision was Harney Peak in the Black Hills. ‘But anywhere is the center of the world,’ he added.” (2)

It was the latter comment that amazed Campbell, who marked its similarity to the Hermetical teaching of the late Middle Ages that “God is an intelligible sphere whose circumference is infinite, and whose center is everywhere.” On its face, this does seem to be a remarkable correspondence.

I was sufficiently impressed myself to quote this passage on this very blog, and to pick up a copy of Black Elk Speaks. But when I began to read it, I was immediately troubled.

The book begins:

Black Elk Speaks:
My friend, I am going to tell you the story of my life, as you wish; and if it were only the story of my life I think I would not tell it; for what is one man that he should make much of his winters, even when they bend him like a heavy snow? So many other men have lived and shall live that story, to be grass upon the hills. (3)

Although I was not particularly familiar with the Lakota oral style, I have read a certain amount of world literature, and I was immediately convinced that this is simply not how Black Elk would have spoken. It reads to me like an undistinguished author writing under the strong influence of Goethe’s early work and the American Transcendentalists.

I began researching, and learned that Niehardt transformed Black Elk’s simple speech, dressing it up in free verse and rearranging it into a story format. Purist that I am, I became deeply concerned about the degree of Neihardt’s interpolation – particularly in the above-quoted revelation. Was Campbell’s convergence a true example of like images arising in distant lands, or was it simply Neihardt’s invention?

I was gratified to learn of the existence of Raymond J. DeMallie’s The Sixth Grandfather, a beautifully annotated publication of the raw transcripts of Black Elk’s conversations with Neihardt, as rendered into English to Neihardt by Ben Black Elk, Black Elk’s son, and transcribed by Neihardt’s daughter Enid.

DeMallie’s book immediately confirmed my worst suspicions. Black Elk’s account is far more plain-spoken, though no less engaging. I was not surprised to learn that the introduction passage quoted above was a pure fabrication.

I was, however, quite surprised to learn that the oft-quoted passage about the great hoop of all peoples was not only completely invented by Neihardt, but is, in fact, quite contrary to the actual content of the vision.

The closest we come is this:

They [the spirits] said: ‘Behold the center of the earth for we are taking you there.’ As I looked I could see great mountains with rocks and forests on them. I could see colors of light flashing out of the mountains toward the four quarters. Then they took me on top of a high mountain where I could see all over the earth. Then they told me to take coverage for they were taking me to the center of the earth….

[The] western black spirit said: ‘Behold all over the universe.’ As I looked around I could see the country full of sickness and in need of help. This was the future and I was going to cure these people. … After a while I noticed the cloud over the people was a white one and it was probably the white people coming. (4)

There is nothing about “the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle.” On the contrary, he strongly differentiates between his own people, the Lakota, and the white people. Much of his vision is, in fact, a premonition that he will lead his people to victory against the whites in battle.

In the transcript, Black Elk continues:

The sixth grandfather showed me a cup full of water and in it there were many small human beings. He said: ‘Behold them, with great difficulty they shall walk and you shall go among them. You shall make six centers of the nation’s hoop.’ (Referring to the six cups of water, meaning that the six centers of the nation’s hoop were the different bands or tribes: 1) Hunkpapas, 2) Minneconjous, 3) Brulés, 4) Oglalas, 5) Shihela [Shahiyela, Cheyennes], 6) Idazipcho (Black Kettle)…. ‘Behold them, this is your nation and you shall go back to them. There are six centers of your nation and there you shall go.’ (5)

This passage, which was simply omitted in its entirety from Black Elk Speaks, elucidates the hoop of the peoples solely with respect to the Lakota and Cheyenne. These are not all peoples, they are his people.

As for the comment that “anywhere is the center of the world,” nothing like it is found in the transcript. Perhaps he said it elsewhere to Neihardt, but I have serious doubts.

I’m truly surprised that Campbell was taken in by this. From a very young age, he studied the anthropology, ethnography and lore of the Native Americans, including the Lakota. The stylistic problems should have been immediately obvious. Nobody’s perfect, I guess.

I do not mean to imply that Black Elk’s story is diminished or not worth reading – on the contrary. Anyone interested in spirituality or American history is sure to enjoy his account. But I urge the reader to shy away from Neihardt’s version, and go for The Sixth Grandfather instead. The Lakota, after all, have a right to their history, and Black Elk has the right to his memory.

Update (Dec, 2012): Here are my full reviews of Black Elk Speaks and The Sixth Grandfather.

Update 2 (May, 2020): I’m now of the opinion that Neihardt’s conscious or unconscious source for the supposed vision is Cicero’s “The Dream of Scipio”:

See! the universe is linked together in nine circles or rather spheres; one of which is that of the heavens, the outermost of all, which embraces all the other spheres, the supreme deity, which keeps in and holds together all the others; and to this are attached those everlasting orbits of the stars.

Cicero’s intriguing text received an important commentary by the Neoplatonist Macrobius and was heavily circulated in the Middle Ages. See here for a full translation.


1) Neihardt JG. Black Elks Speaks; Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, As told through John G. Neihardt (Flaming Rainbow). University of Nebraska Press. 1993. pp. 42-3.
2) Neihardt, p. 43.
3) Neihardt, p. 1.
4) ed. DeMallie RJ. The Sixth Grandfather; Black Elk’s Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt. Neihardt, p. 134.
5) DeMallie, pp. 140-1.

Written by Mesocosm

December 11, 2012 at 1:50 pm

Paleolithic Saints?

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Saint Christopher
Image (c) Barnaby Thieme

The gallery of Catholic saints contains some interesting oddities and cases of mistaken identity.

Take the case of Barlaam and Josephat, two fellows who were canonized in the Middle Ages. Their feasts were celebrated until the nineteenth century, when folklorists discovered that they were actually bodhisattvas. Their heroic life stories were told in Ashvaghosha’s Lives of the Buddha, a collection of biographies of the Buddha’s former lives, and they were mistaken for Christian martyrs by European monastic scholars working with a garbled translation.

Another favorite of mine is Saint Guinefort, who was never officially recognized, but was nonetheless widely venerated by a popular cult. Guinefort was a greyhound who was martyred in the thirteenth century after his master, arriving home at night to find the dog’s jaws covered with blood, mistakenly believed that Guinefort had bitten his child. In fact, the loyal beast had slain a deadly viper that threatened the infant.

Saint Christopher is said to have come from the dog-headed tribe of Marmaritae, where he was a cannibal and a barbarian, until he met the Christ-child and was redeemed, becoming an ascetic “athelete of God.”

I was recently alerted to another case of possible misattribution in the outstanding book The Quest for the Shaman by Miranda and Stephen Aldhouse-Green, an archaeological survey and analysis of shamanism that reaches back to the earliest human symbolic cultures in the Upper Paleolithic. The authors credit the librarian Martin Howley for this tale, which I find speculative but plausible. (1)

Our story concerns the patron saints of Milan, Saints Gervasius and Protasius. Their remains were discovered by the church father Saint Ambrose (d. 397) during the construction of the Cathedral of Milan. He had agreed to consecrate the building if any relics of martyrs were found, and in a letter he recounts:

Gervasius and Protasius

I found the fitting signs, and on bringing in some on whom hands were to be laid, the power of the holy martyrs became so manifest, that even whilst I was still silent, one was seized and thrown prostrate at the holy burial-place. We found two men of marvellous stature, such as those of ancient days. All the bones were perfect, and there was much blood. During the whole of those two days there was an enormous concourse of people. Briefly we arranged the whole in order, and as evening was now coming on transferred them to the basilica of Fausta, where watch was kept during the night, and some received the laying on of hands. On the following day we translated the relics to the basilica called Ambrosian. During the translation a blind man was healed. (2)

The “bloody bones” were attributed to the Christian martyrs Gervasius and Protasius, who became the patron saints of Milan. Saint Ambrose himself was interred in a porphyry sarcophagus along with the remains of Gervasius and Protasius. (3) The sarcophagus was lost for several centuries, but is believed to have been rediscovered in 1864, and the cult of Gervasius and Protasius is now alive and well.

Several scholars, including the Aldhouse-Greens, speculate that what was in fact unearthed was a paleolithic burial site dating to the Gravettian period (around 30,000-20,000 BCE). This is the same cultural complex that is primarily associated with the well-known Venus-type fertility figurines of the Stone Age.

Milan lies well within the Gravettian range, and many burials associated with the culture involved decorating the human remains with red ochre, which gives the strong impression of “much blood;” indeed, this was probably why it was used. You can see what such a grave looks like here.

1) Aldhouse-Green M and S. The Quest of the Shaman. Thames and Hudson. 2005. pp. 32-3.
2) Medieval Sourcebook: Ambrose of Milan: Letter 22: The Finding of SS. Gervasius and Protasius. Accessed Nov 11, 2012.
3) “St. Christopher”. The Catholic Encyclopedia. New Advent. Accessed Nov 11, 2012.

Written by Mesocosm

November 11, 2012 at 11:07 am

Edward S. Curtis

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In my last post on the Kwakwaka’wakw winter dances, I included a few photographs taken by Edward S. Curtis. As I’ve continued my study of Native American culture, I’ve been struck many times by his powerful photographs, and wanted to share some of my favorites with you.

Edward Curtis (1868–1952) traveled extensively throughout the west in his efforts to document dozens of Native American peoples. His work has been criticized by some for their artificial character, representing an idealized image of the Indian as noble savage and minimizing the conditions of squalor in which so many of his subjects were condemned to live.

Personally, I would not trade these images for anything. Many of them represent a precious, fleeting glimpse of a way of life that in many cases have been all but destroyed.

Click on any image to begin slideshow.

Curtis was also a filmmaker, and completed one feature-length silent film, In the Land of the War Conoes (available through Netflix). It was the first film to be shot with an entirely Native American cast, and includes extensive footage of Kwakwaka’wakw ceremonials, including the Hamatsa dance.

Written by Mesocosm

November 1, 2012 at 12:28 pm

A Grand View of History

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“History writing today has passed into an Alexandrian age, where criticism has overpowered creation. Faced by the mountainous heap of minutiae of knowledge and awed by the watchful severity of his colleagues, the modern historian too often takes refuge in learned articles or narrowly specialized dissertations, small fortresses that are easy to defend from attack. His work can be of the highest value; but it is not an end in itself. I believe that the supreme duty of the historian is to write history, that is to say, to attempt to record in one sweeping sequence the greater events and movements that have swayed the destinies of man. The writer rash enough to make such an attempt should not be criticized for his ambition, however much he may deserve censure for the inadequacy of his equipment or the inanity of his results.” – Steven Runcimen, A History of the Crusades

Written by Mesocosm

September 22, 2012 at 6:32 pm

Posted in History

Pilgrimage: A Therapy of Distance

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I’ve discovered an author of the highest rank in Peter Brown – his The Cult of the Saint is a masterful study of the character and evolution of saint cults in late antiquity. The clarity, perceptiveness, and synthetic force of his ideas is beautifully conveyed throughout.

I was so struck by this characteristic observation on the nature of the pilgrimage that I had to share it with you:

The cult of relics … gloried in particularity. Hic locus es: “Here is the place,” or simply hic, is a refrain that runs through the inscriptions on the early martyrs’ shrines of North Africa. The holy was available in one place, and in each such place it was accessible to one group in a manner in which it could not be accessible to anyone situated elsewhere.

By localizing the holy in this manner, late-antique Christianity could feed on the facts of distance and on the joys of proximity. This distance might be physical distance. For this, pilgrimage was the remedy. As Alphonse Dupront has put it, so succinctly, pilgrimage was “une thérapie par l’espace.” The pilgrim committed himself or herself to the “therapy of distance” by recognizing that what he or she wished for was not to be had in the immediate environment. Distance could symbolize the needs unsatisfied, so that, as Dupront continues, “le pèlerinage demeure essentiellement départ”: pilgrimage remains essentially the act of leaving. But distance is there to be overcome; the experience of pilgrimage activates a yearning for intimate closeness. For the pilgrims who arrive after the obvious “therapy of distance” involved by long travel found themselves subjected to the same therapy by the nature of the shrine itself. The effect of “inverted magnitudes” sharpened the sense of distance and yearning by playing out the long delays of pilgrimage in miniature. For the art of the shrine in late antiquity is an art of closed surfaces. Behind these surfaces, the holy lay, either totally hidden or glimpsed through narrow apertures. The opacity of surfaces heightened an awareness of the ultimate unattainability in this life of the person they had traveled over such wide spaces to touch.

Brown P. The Cult of the Saints. The University of Chicago Press. 1981. pp. 86-7.


Written by Mesocosm

September 6, 2012 at 8:26 am

Chinese Oracle Bones of the Shang Dynasty

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The Shang Dynasty flourished in the Yellow River valley during the second millennium BCE. It was a period that witnessed the introduction of two important technologies into China: bronze metallurgy and writing. We have no archaeological evidence for any predecessors or transitional forms of written language prior to the Shang era, suggesting that it was probably imported, along with bronze, from the Near East, where both technologies had been in use for over a thousand years.

The overwhelming majority of written material that has come down to us from the Shang Dynasty was preserved in fascinating artifacts called oracle bones, which are bone and shell fragments inscribed with an ancient Chinese script. They appear to have been known to peasants in the late nineteenth century, who were impressed by their evident mojo, and called them “dragon bones.” Unknown numbers of oracle bones were ground up and swallowed as medicine.

By the early twentieth century, they came to the attention of archaeologists, who have subsequently collected tens of thousands of the inscribed bone fragments and have deciphered their script.

Typically made from pieces of the scapulae of bulls or the plastrons of turtles, oracle bones were used some 3500 years ago to consult with the ancestors about matters of urgency. They were inscribed with questions inquiring about topics such as the likely success of the harvest, the need for military action, or fortunes of an expecting mother. In an elaborate ceremony attended by kings and courtiers, a burning-hot poker of some sort was thrust into the bones, and they would crack in characteristic patterns, signifying either a yes or a no answer.

Fortunately for historians, the Shang diviners carried out their art with a scientific spirit. The oracle bones were subsequently inscribed with reports detailing whether or not the predictions turned out to be accurate. Perhaps this was done in an attempt to determine which ancestors could be reliably addressed about which matters.

And so the earliest-known writing system in China is preserved in the form of tens of thousands of bones, used in magico-religious divination, inscribed with questions the practitioners regarded as of compelling interest, and with a record of how things turned out. Just a marvelous, fascinating phenomenon.

Sample Oracle Bone Translations

The divination on day chi-mao was performed by Kuo. The King after examining the crack forms commented that it would rain on day jen. On day jen-wu indeed it did rain. (1)

On day jen-in it was inquired: “There has been another chih of the Moon [an astronomical event of unclear meaning]. A sacrifice is to be made to Earth; should a burnt offering of cattle be made?” On day jen-yin it was inquired: “There has been another chih of the Moon.” The King did not want the disaster to befall on one person. yet again, there is a disaster. (1)

Crack making on gui-si day, Que divined: In the next ten days there will be no disaster. The king, reading the cracks, said, “There will be no harm; there will perhaps be the coming of alarming news.” When it came to the fifth day, ding-you, there really was the the coming of alarming news from the west. Zhi Guo, reporting, said, “The Du Fang [a border people] are besieging in our eastern borders and have harmed two settlements.” The Gong-fang also raided the fields of our western borders. (2)

Crack-making on jiashen (day 21), Que divined: “Lady Hao’s (a consort of Wu Ding) childbearing will be good.” The king read the cracks and said: “If it be on a ding-day that she give birth, there will be prolonged luck.” (After) thirty-one days, on jiayin (day 51), she gave birth; it was not good; it was a girl. (3)


1) Zhentao X. et al. “Astronomical Records on the Shang Dynasy Oracle Bones“. Archaeoastronomy. Supplement to Volume 20. No. 14. 1989. S61-S72
2) Keightley DN. Sources of Shang History. University of California Press. 1978. p. 44
3) de Bary WT, Bloom I. Sources of Chinese Tradition. Columbia University Press. 1999.

Images of oracle bone fragments from the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago, (c) Barnaby Thieme.

Written by Mesocosm

June 29, 2012 at 10:34 am

More Fitting to be Friends: Islam and Europe

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One of the greatest works of European literature to come down to us from the Middle Ages, or indeed from any age, is Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Arthurian Romance Parzifal, written early in the thirteenth century.

We don’t know much about von Eschenbach, though he identifies himself as “something of a Minnesinger” in his book. Minnesingers are the German equivalent of the troubadours of Provence, those famous composers of verse and rhyme who filled Europe’s coffers with splendid poetry celebrating love and its virtues.

Here is a bit of verse written by the Occitan troubadour Arnaut Daniel, whom Dante referred to as “the better craftsman.” In this translation of L’Arua Amara, Ezra Pound rendered his Provençal into English:

Shield of Parade, c. 1500
Image (c) Barnaby Thieme

The bitter air
Strips panoply
From trees
Where softer winds set leaves,
And glad
Now in brakes are coy,
Scarce peep the wee
And un-mates,
   What gaud’s the work?
   What good the glees?
What curse
I strive to shake!
Me hath she cast from high,
In fell disease
I lie, and deathly fearing. (1)

This excerpt exemplifies the themes of nature and the open road that properly belong to the troubadour’s heart, along with mortal concern for his idealized beloved, whose lack of favor is worse than icy death.

We can see in this poem an unambiguous shift in emphasis from Europe’s tradition of poetry praising God and king. Daniel holds nation and piety to be of less import than a glance from his beloved:

Pope and Emp’ror I count asses;
Let See and Domain combine them;
From them to her I’d revert
    Who doth burn my heart and frost it,
Yet if she mend not her paces,
Kiss me ere New Year and melt
For my death to hell she’s fleeting. (2)

The poetic imagination of the troubadours, combined with the rich heritage of Celtic imagination, swept through Europe in the High Middle Ages, transforming its art and literature forever. In Arthurian romance we can see these two influences blend, with the troubadour lending Guinevere and Isolde to the idiom, and the Celt supplying fairydom, imperiled queens in enchanted castles, dragons, elves, and dwarves.

This genre of Arthurian romance reached its apex in the hands of two German masters, Gottfried von Strassburg (died c. 1210), who left us the story of Tristan and Isolde, and Wolfram von Eschenbach (died c. 1220), who supplied Europe’s greatest account of the quest for the Holy Grail in Parzifal.

Early thirteenth-century Europe was a lively place. In 1210, the Franciscan Order was established, and in 1216, Saint Dominic founded his order of Friars. Frederick II Hohenstaufen, called by Nietzsche the “first European,” was king of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor. He was a powerful force for the secularization of European polity, and a generous patron of the arts. He would briefly recapture Jerusalem for Christendom, after its knights had been driven out in 1189, by Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, known to Europe as Saladin.

Kneeling Knight
London, c. 1350

This was the landscape in which Parzifal was composed. Its story is primarily concerned with its hero’s spritual transformation, as he seeks for the Holy Grail to bring renewal to the land. It is a wonderful and profound story, but here, I’d like to focus a bit on Parzifal’s family.

His father Gahmuret, the story goes, was king of Anjou in France. After establishing himself as a great knight, he traveled east as far as Baghdad, where he came into the service of the Baruch, or ruler, and distinguished himself greatly during the siege of Alexandria.

After leaving Iraq, Gahmuret wandered the Middle East until he came to the fictional land of Zazamanc, which was encircled by a hostile army. In true courtly fashion, Gahmuret came to the aid of Belacane, the Moorish queen of Zazamanc.

Gahmuret and Belacane fell in love and married, and their son, Feirefiz, combined his mother’s dark hue with his father’s whiteness. Von Eschenbach describes him as a blend of dark skin and light, mottled, like a magpie.

Now, through the course of many adventures, Gahmuret eventually returned to France, where he would marry his second wife Condwiramurs, and father Parzifal. He died, leaving Parzifal in his mother’s care, and the boy grew up ignorant of his heritage.

In time, Parzifal became a knight like his father, and served in the court of King Arthur, where he became involved in the quest for the Holy Grail. And much later, near the end of our tale, Parzifal came to face the army of his brother Feirefiz in battle, with each unknown to the other.

They met in solo combat on the field. Their battle raged and raged, and for the first time, each had met his equal. At length, Feirefiz threw his sword into the forest and called for parley, and they learned that they were brothers. At the discovery of their common heritage, “Parzival found treasure trove, the most precious he had ever lit on.” (3)

Recall that Feirefiz is the son of a Moorish queen. In von Eschenbach’s time, the Islamic Moors still ruled Spain, as they had centuries. The tide turned against the Muslims in Europe only at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, around the time Parzifal was written. And here we have a great European hero, whose father served the ruler of Baghdad, around the time the Crusading Knights were expelled from Palestine, and his beloved brother is a Muslim. This is really quite extraordinary.

Conference of the Birds (detail)
Manuscript Cover, painted by Habib Allah
(click to enlarge)

If we take a closer look at the tradition from which von Eschenbach sprang, we will see that he is himself, in a sense, a half-brother of a Muslim tradition.

In the early thirteenth century, far from Germany, another great poet was setting down his own masterwork. The Perisan Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar was then composing The Conference of the Birds, in which a collection of fowl travel together to a far-off valley, in search of the King of Birds, the mythical Simorgh – a kind of phoenix, if you will. This wonderful allegory describes the Sufi path to union with God, with each valley along the way representing a stage of the contemplative path.

Like the troubadours and Minnesingers, Attar had little use for piety. In a long anecdote related in Conference, Attar tells the story of the Sheikh Sam’an, who lived a good Muslim life until he fell in love with a Christian girl in his travels. In many ways, the story is a mirror image of the story of Gahmuret in Parzifal.

In one shocking turn, the Sheikh’s friends and students urge him to return to his religious life, and he replies “Where is her face / That I may pray toward that blessèd place?” (4) He is actually suggesting that instead of praying toward Mecca and the Kab’aa, he will pray toward the face of his beloved.

In Europe, we find a close parallel to this episode in von Strassburg’s Tristan. The young lovers Tristan and Isolde bravely face death and damnation in the name of their love. In one episode, the two flee into the woods, and make their conjugal bed into an altar, substituting their erotic union for the sacrament of communion.

Now, I do not want to overstate the degree of toleration shown in the thirteenth century. The tale of Sheikh Sam’an is a cautionary tale, and he not only ends up returning to Islam, but converts his Christian love as well. Likewise, Feirefiz converts to Christianity before taking a bride in Parzifal.

Nevertheless, the sense of these episodes is unmistakeable. Parzival’s reconciliation with Feirefiz plays a decisive roll in the climax of the work, and much is made of his dual coloration, converging in a single man like a yin yang. In Attar’s Conference, the love of Sam’an for the Infidel is described at far greater length, and with far greater vitality and attention, than his perfunctory return to religious norms at the end.

In both cases, there is a sense of passing through your opposite and returning to yourself at a higher stage, and it involves the heart’s recognition that something is different, and something is the same.

Attar holds that the true love of God leads the aspirant past piety, through the gates of blasphemy, and into actual communion with the holy source. Piety is rooted in our socially-constructed idea of what God must be like, and it leads to the socially-consecrated image of God. True love for God, like the love of Tristan and Isolde, dares all, even damnation, in its ravenous hunger for the divine. He writes:

Islam and blasphemy have both been passed
By those who set out on love’s path at last;
Love will direct you to Dame Poverty,
And she will show the way to Blasphemy.
When neither Blasphemy nor Faith remain,
The body and the Self have both been slain;
Then the fierce fortitude the Way will ask
Is yours, and you are worthy of our task.
Begin the journey without fear; be calm;
Forget what is and what is not Islam;
Put childish dread aside – like heroes meet
The hundred problems which you must defeat. (5)

Compare this to Arnaut Daniel’s verse, which we saw above:

“Pope and Emp’ror I count asses;
Let See and Domain combine them;
From them to her I’d revert.”

This dramatic similarity is not a coincidence. The points of contact between the Muslim world and the world of Christendom were many and varied, and the encounter with the Sufi Dervishes left a deep mark on the European imagination. The celebration of love by the troubadours and Minnesingers may well carry the stamp of the Sufi poets. Anyone who has encountered Jalāl ad-Dīn Rumi knows him to be the very voice of love’s song:

You are my life, you are my life, my life; you are my own, you are my own, my own.
You are my king, worthy of my passion; you are my candy, worthy of my teeth.
You are my light; dwell within these eyes of mine, O my eyes and fountain of life!
When the rose beheld you, it said to the lily, “My cypress tree came to my rose garden.”
Say, how are you in respect to two scattered things! your hair, and my distracted state?
The rope of your hair is my shackle, the well of your chin is my prison.
Where are you going, drunk, shaking your hands? Come to me, my laughing rose! (6)

Compare to Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan:

When the two lovers perceived that they had one mind, one heart, and but a single will between them, this knowledge began to assuage their pain and yet bring it to the surface. Each looked at the other and spoke with ever greater daring, the man to the maid, the maid to the man. Their shy reserve was over. He kissed her and she kissed him, lovingly and tenderly. Here was a blissful beginning for Love’s remedy: each poured and quaffed the sweetness that welled up from their hearts. (7)

The links between the courtly tradition of the troubadours and the Sufis have long been remarked, and it is in fact possible that the word “troubadour” itself is derived from an Arabic root tarab, meaning “to sing.” The thirteenth century appears to have been a time of love’s glory in much of the world, for it was then that Jayadeva wrote his sumptuous Gītagovinda in India, which we considered in an earlier post.

Not only were the crusading knights in frequent contact with Islamic ideas – a historical reality visible in mythopoetic guise in Gahmuret’s trip to Baghdad – but many of the greatest Sufi masters lived in Andalusian Spain. Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240), widely regarded as the greatest Sufi philosopher, lived in Spain while von Eschenbach was writing. His work would come to exert a tremendous influence on Dante. In his comparative study The Legacy of Islam, R. A. Nicholson catalogs some of the features of the Divine Comedy that correspond to Ibn ‘Arabi’s descriptions, including “The infernal regions, the astronomical heavens, the circles of the mystic rose, the choirs of angels around the focus of the divine light, the three circles symbolizing the Trinity – all are described by Dante exactly as Ibnu’l-‘Arabi described them.” (8)

The knowledge of classical antiquity was alive in Arabic translation when it had been forgotten by Europe, and it was largely through contact with the Muslim world that the intellectual worlds of Greece and Rome were rediscovered in the West, triggering the Renaissance. For example, Thomas Aquinas (died 1274), one of the most important theologians in the history of Christianity, relied heavily on the Muslim philosopher Ibn Roschd (Averroes) for his interpretation of Aristotle.

Cowl worn by St. Francis
Santa Croce, Florence

Saint Francis of Assisi (died 1226) was a troubadour before he became a renunciate and founded a new monastic order. The Sheikh Idries Shah has made a persuasive argument that Francis used Sufi poetic imagery in many of his writings, including his famous “Canticle of the Sun,” written in 1224. Francis tried three times to travel to the East – first to Syria, then to Morocco, and last to Damietta in Egypt, where he met with and greatly impressed the Sultan Malik el-Kamil. (9)

Our cursory review here could be dramatically extended, but I trust the point has been made. Many of the masterworks of the European tradition were written in dialog with the world of Islam. The poetical, narrative, and religious imagination of the High Middle Ages, which established a legacy that continues to underlie European culture to this day, is of mixed heritage.

It is more important than ever to keep this in mind, when so many forces are at work in the United States and Europe that dehumanize Muslims in the cultural imagination. The image of Islam evokes for many Europeans and Americans the shadow of the West, appearing as the embodiment of the irrational, the totalitarian, the fanatic, the Terrorist – the barbarians at the gates.

But as von Eschenbach saw and sang 800 years ago, Muslims are not evil, or good, but a blend of the dark and the light, like everyone else.

There is always the possibility that if we throw off the sword, and take off our respective masks, we may find that we are brothers and sisters of the same father. We may find, as Parzifal and Feirefiz saw at once, “It was more fitting for them to be friends than bitter enemies.”

1) Pound E. “L’aura Amara,” from Pound; Poems and Translations. The Library of America. 2003. pg. 489.
2) ibid., pg. 493.
3) von Eschenbach W. Parzival. trans. by Hatto, AT. Penguin Classics. 1980. pg. 372.
4) Attar FUD. The Conference of the Birds. trans. by Darbandi A, and Davis D. Penguin Classics. 1984. pg. 61.
5) Attar FUD., pg. 57.
6) Rumi JAD. Mystical Poems of Rumi 2. trans. by Arberry AJ. The University of Chicago Press. 1979. pg. 50.
7) von Strassburg G. Tristan. trans. by Hatto, AT. Penguin Classics. 1960. pg. 200.
8) Nicholson RA. op. cit. Campbell J. Creative Mythology; The Masks of God. Penguin Books. 1968. pg. 129-30.
9) Shah I. “The Sufis and Francis of Assisi.” Retrieved April 16, 2012.

Written by Mesocosm

April 16, 2012 at 10:59 am

Early Indian Religious History: Severe Problems of Chronology

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I’ve been reading Geoffrey Samuel’s outstanding book The Origins of Yoga and Tantra, and I’ve been astonished by his criticisms of scholarly chronologies of the Indian subcontinent prior to 300 CE. Samuel observes that “a series of conjectural datings adopted as working hypotheses by the great nineteenth-century Indologists and Buddhologists had become a kind of received doctrine. It is now clear that many of the details are wrong and that the scheme as a whole is quite shaky and problematic….” (pg 12).

This amplifies the uneasiness I feel when I encounter historical dates for early India without rationale, with the authors frequently referring to “scholarly consensus” in a vague sort of way.

I knew the chronology was conjectural, but I am startled by how bad the situation actually is. “For the whole of the first millennium BCE there is only one reliable fix point,” he writes, “the invasion of Alexander in 329 to 325 BCE, which coincided with the rise to power of Candragupta, the founder of the Mauryan empire. Everything else – the datings for Aśoka (including the dates of the Aśokan inscriptions), the Buddha, Mahāvīra, the Upaniṣads and the guesstimates for the Vedic texts – is inference and guesswork on the basis of this one figure.” (pg. 22)

Samuel G. The Origins of Yoga and Tantra. Cambridge University Press. 2008.

Written by Mesocosm

March 19, 2012 at 8:46 am

Posted in History