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Friday, September 16, 2011

Such Cassandras!

Sibyl, oil by Bacchiacca, aka, Francesco Ubertini, circa 1525.

But I to Python and to Panopeus
Of goodly towers shall go; and then shall all
Declare that I am a true prophetess
Oracle-singing, yet a messenger
With maddened soul...
And when thou shalt come forward to the books
Thou shalt not tremble, and all things to come
And things that were ye shall know from our words;
Then none shall call the God-seized prophetess
An oracle-singer of necessity.

The Sibyl, Book XI

"Sibyl" is the name bestowed on a number of women who were prophetesses, which is what the word means in Greek.  Although Homer never mentioned them, Heraclitus did in the 5th century BCE.  There were other prophetesses in ancient times, with other names.  The first sibyls were known by the place where they practiced, such as Delphi. Later sibyls were wanderers.  Sibyls would answer questions, but their value depended on how the question was asked, whereas other prophets would answer in riddles or give answers seemingly unrelated to the questions.

The Prophet Hosea and the Delphic Sibyl from a fresco in the Borgia Apartments,
Hall of the Sibyls, circa 1492.

Plato spoke of only one sibyl.  Eventually there were nine, and then the Romans added a tenth.  By the Middle Ages there were twelve - a symbolic Christian number.  They were a favorite subject during the Renaissance.  Michelangelo painted five of them on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  These sibyls forecast the coming of Christ.  Later scholars claim the pagan religion(s) of the sibyl(s) led to witchcraft, as it was known and practiced in Europe.

The Sibyls, by Raphael, circa 1514, in the Santa Maria della Pace, Rome.

The Persian Sibyl, known as Sambethe, was supposedly descended from Noah - a neat biblical tie-in.  In fact, other oracles have identified her as a pagan daughter-in-law of Noah.  She was also known as the Palestinian Sibyl, the Hebrew Sibyl, or the Babylonian Sibyl.  She was the oracle of Apollo, and she prophesied about Alexander the Great and his deeds.

The Persian Sibyl by Michelangelo.

The second Sibyl is known as the Libyan Sibyl.  Named Phemonoe, or Lamia in classical mythology, she lived at the Siwa Oasis in a desert in Egypt.  She is most famous for having been consulted by Alexander the Great when he conquered Egypt.  She was devoted to Zeus Amon, which she assured Alexander was his father.  Interestingly, that would make them half-siblings, since her father was said to be Zeus, too.  When she died, the grass that grew from where she was buried caused the beasts that fed on it to accurately reveal the future by their entrails.  The face in the moon is considered to be her soul.

The Libyan Sibyl by Michelangelo

The Delphic Sibyl was another oracle of Apollo, and is often confused with Pythia, the priestess of Apollo who gave prophecies at the Delphic Oracle, a separate affair.  She was said to be the daughter of Lamia, who was the daughter of Poseidon.  Some myths say she was an immortal nymph; others the sister of Apollo.  She left Troy in anger with her brother, Apollo, traveled, then died in Troy after surviving nine generations of men.  Later legend has it that her last prediction was of the coming of Christ.

The Delphic Sibyl by Michelangelo.

Carmentis was also an oracle of Apollo, and is known as the Cimmerian Sibyl, a spot in Italy near Lake Avernus.  She was known in ancient times before Hellenism.  Her son Evander was said to have founded Rome in the Lupercal, a cave at the foot of the Palatine Hill in Rome.

The Cimmerian Sibyl by Giovanni Frencesco Barbieri, Il Guercino, 1510.

The Erythraean Sibyl predicted the Trojan War, and prophesied that Troy would be destroyed.  Her prophesies were written on leaves, arranged in an acrostic so the initial letters of the leaves formed a word.  Erhthrae was an Ionian town.  There was probably more than one woman who served as sibyl here; one is recorded by the name Herophile, another was said to be from Chaldea.  According to Christian thought, this sibyl prophesied the redemption of Christ.

The Erythraean Sibyl by Michelangelo.

Samos was a Greek colony and is an island in the eastern Aegean.  The Samian Sibyl was another oracle of Apollo, and she predicted the birth of Jesus in a stable. She lived in a cave of Panagia Spillani monastery, according to modern researchers.  She existed at the time when the city of Byzantium was built, which was later made capital of the empire by Constantine the Great, and called Constantinople.

A depiction of the Samian Sibyl published by Guillaume Rouille in 1553.

The Cumaean Sibyl was located near Naples, and was favored by the Romans. Aeneas consulted her before descending into the underworld.  Christians were impressed with her as well, as she foretells of the coming of a savior whom the Christians identified as Jesus.  She, too, was an oracle of Apollo.  She prophesied by singing and writing on oak leaves.  The leaves she would arrange near the entrance of her cave, but if the wind blew them she would not rearrange them into her original prophecy.  In the Middle Ages she was considered a prophet of Christ, along with Virgil, who was said to have left Messianic prophecy in his "Eclogues" attributed to her.  This is supposed to be why Dante Alighieri chose Virgil as his guide in The Divine Comedy.  Michelangelo featured her prominently, and with favor over the other sibyls.

The Cumaean Sibyl by Michelangelo.

Troy had its own sibyl, known as the Hellespontine Sibyl, who lived during the time of Cyrus the Great of Persia and Solon.  She was a priestess of Apollo, and prophesied the crucifixion of Christ.  The sibylline collection, a series of books, was attributed to her and was originally kept at the her temple of Apollo.

The Hellespontine Sibyl, engraving by Philip Galle,
after a design by Antonius Bloclandt, 1575.

The Phyrgian Sibyl presided over another oracle of Apollo at Phyrgia, in west central Anatolia.  She is often associated with both the Hellespontine and Erythraean Sibyls, and may have been distinguished to later arrive at the all-important number of twelve sibyls.  All of these sibyls were used in Christian mythology to foretell the coming of Christ and important events in his life.

Drawing that was a study for the Phyrgian Sibyl
by Raphael, 1511-1512.

The Romans added the tenth sibyl to the classical ones of Greece, the Tiburtine Sibyl, who lived in the ancient Etruscan town of Tibur, now Tivoli.  Augustus met with her to ask if he should be worshipped as a god, and this meeting was a favorite motif of Christian artists later.  She prophesied that a king named Constans would arise and vanquish the foes of Christianity.

The Tiburtine Sybil by the Master of the Tiburtine Sibyl, circa 1480.
This depicts her meeting with the Emperor Augustus.

The aforementioned books of the Hellespontine Sibyl were preserved in the temple of Apollo.  The collection was then taken to Erythrae, where it became known as the oracles of the Erythraean Sybil.  The collection then travelled to Cumae, then finally to Rome.  One of the great legends of Rome is the acquisition of this collection by the last king of Rome, Targuinius Superbus, who ruled from 535 to 509 BCE.

Tarquinius Superbus, published by Guillaume Rouille, 1553.

As the story goes, the Cumaean Sibyl offered him nine books of the prophesies at an exorbitant price.  He declined, so she burnt three of them and offered the remaining six at the same price.  Again he refused, so she burned three more, and offered him the last three at the same original price.  He bought them and had them preserved in a vault.  The Roman Senate kept tight control over these books, first entrusting them to the care of two patricians, then appoint 10 custodians in 367 BCE - five patricians and five plebians - known as the decemviri sacris faciundis. This was later increased to fifteen - the quindecimviri saris faciundis.  Both of these groups functioned as a collegium with priestly duties, not only guarding but consulting and interpreting the books.  They also oversaw the worship of foreign gods introduced to Rome.  Eventually they were elected.  They were known as flamens.

Marble bust of a "flamen", or priest,  ca. 250-260 CE.

Since only their interpretations of the oracles were made public, that gave them a lot of latitude.  One important change the books brought to Roman civilization was the introduction of Greek concepts to Rome's indigenous religion (which was influenced by the Etruscans).  Since the books originated in Anatolia, they also included concepts of gods and rites from that area.  What resulted was a fusion of deities all across the ancient world, and some significant modifications of Roman religion.  Since the books were written in Greek hexameter, there were always two Greek interpreters for assistance.  When the temple the books were kept in burned down, they were lost, although some scholars think this may have been intentional.  The Roman Senate sent envoys in 76 BCE to seek oracles to replace the ones in the books.  This new collection was kept in the same, now restored, temple.  The priests then culled these and selected only those that appeared "true".  These were also burned in 405 CE.

Ceiling of the right-side nave of the "Sacred Heart" chapel of the
Sant'Allesandro church in Milan, by Guglielmo Caccia, circa 1600 CE.
Called "Angels and Sibyl", you can see sibyls, the pagan seers,
were by then so assimilated by Christianity they are on a par with angels.

The Sibylline Oracles (not to be confused with the books), sometimes called the pseudo-Sibylline Oracles, are a collection of divine revelations given by the sibyls in a frenzied state, later written in Greek hexameters.  Fourteen books and eight fragments of these utterances survived.  These were composed and edited under various circumstances over the 700 years between the middle of the 2nd century BCE and the 5th century CE.  They are a chaotic compilation of various authors, dates, and concepts.  The final arrangement, thought to be the work of an unknown editor from the 6th century, doesn't even try to identify who or why they were assembled.

A treatise published in 1661, available at Open Library

If one can handle reading them, chaotic being a nice description of them, they give valuable information about not only classical mythology, but early Church, Jewish, and gnostic beliefs.  As vehicles for the exploitation of ideas, they have endured countless edits and rewrites.  Christians became so fond of inventing and using oracles that the Greek philosopher, and opponent of early Christianity, Celsus, called them sibyl-mongers.  They have an interesting and involved history.

A Sibyl by Domenichino, circa 1616.

Little did the original sibyls know that they would be lending credence to religious claims for centuries.  Or did they?  Perhaps they should be considered one of the first franchises of early religions, as their words and identities would serve to advertise and legitimize all the new flavors of religious thought.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.
Images by Michelangelo were painted between 1508 - 1512 CE.
Click here for English translations of the Sibylline Oracles.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Big Kahuna


This past Saturday Cliff Robertson died.  He survived his 88th birthday, which was the day before.  He died of natural causes, and was said to be surrounded by family and friends.  The day was ironic, as the next day was the tenth anniversary of the disaster of 9/11/01.  On that fateful day, Cliff Robertson, an avid aviator, had been piloting a private airplane over New York City.  He was directly over the World Trade Center when the first Boeing 767 struck.  He was ordered to land immediately at the nearest airport by air traffic control in a nationwide order to ground all aircraft following the attacks.

Robertson began his acting career in 1943, and made some 25 films before Charly, based on the book Flowers for Algernon, at first a short sci-fi story, then novel, by Daniel Keyes.  This Hugo-winning award for best short story in 1960, and Nebula Award for best novel in 1966, was made into a movie in which he starred and won the 1968 Academy Award for Best Actor.

As Charly with Claire Bloom.  Image courtesy AP.

Prior to that in 1963, he portrayed John F. Kennedy in PT 109, and was chosen by Kennedy himself to play the part.  Among his many, many roles, he also portrayed Hugh Hefner in Star 80.  His last big role was as Ben Parker, Spider-Man's uncle, in Spider-Man, and returned in cameo roles to the next two sequels.

He was blacklisted for several years for his part as a whistleblower in one of the biggest scandals of Hollywood in the 1970s.  He found out from the IRS that his name had been forged on a $10,000 check by Columbia Pictures head, David Begelman.  This was money that was not due him.  His report started a criminal investigation, and Begelman was found guilty, although only sentenced to community service.  Columbia Pictures' own investigation turned up another $65,000 that he had embezzled, but not wanting the adverse publicity they fired Begelman and tried to keep things quiet.

With Rosemary Harris in Spider-Man.

But not Robertson,  He and his then wife, Dina Merrill talked to the press.  David McClintick broke the story in the Wall Street Journal in 1978, and later wrote a best-selling book about it, Indecent Exposure.  Robertson was offered few roles during this period, which he attributed to coming forward about Begelman.

With ex-wife Dina Merrill.

Although he was born the heir to ranching money in La Jolla, California, he apparently had respect for working people.  For ten years he was the national TV spokesman for AT&T, even winning an Advertising Age award for best commercial.  But when he was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at an AT&T stockholders' meeting during a strike, Robertson refused to cross the picket line and did not speak.

But his most iconic role, and favorite of this once little girl, was in the movie Gidget.  Released in 1959, Gidget was the precursor to the "beach party films", and was very influential despite only garnering one award nomination - the 1960 Golden Laurel nomination for Top Female Comedy Performance, which went to co-star Sandra Dee.  Yet the film has been credited since as being the single main influence to bringing surfing and surfing culture to the mainstream.

With Sandra Dee in Gidget.  Couldn't find a pic (except in my mind!)
of his hunky self standing in a doorframe with seduction in mind.

I was five when the film came out, and even though I watched it endlessly through its many replays on TV, I never did see the attraction of "Moondoggie".  But "The Kahuna" - hubba, hubba!  Robertson played Korean War Air Force veteran Burt Vail, who was fed up with rules.  Dropping out before it became a buzz word for the 60s, Kahuna traveled and surfed, working when he needed money.  He was the first sex symbol I became aware of, even though I didn't know what sex was.

Rest in peace, Mr. Robertson.  You were a good actor, a good person, and my first crush.  I will remember you always...

Images, unless otherwise stated, courtesy of his website.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Swing Time

Marine clock circa 1750 by Pierre de Rivaz.

For centuries, pendulum clocks were the world's most precise timekeeping devices and widely used until the invention of the quartz clock in 1927.  The most accurate, called astronomical regulators, were used in observatories for celestial navigation and astronomy.  The Royal Society of London had five longcase (aka grandfather) clocks built for expeditions.  Captain Cook took one on his first voyage, and two on each of his other two voyages.

The Wells Cathedral clock was built in 1392, and has been in continual use
ever since.  In the 1600s a pendulum replaced the foliot balance and anchor
escapement.  It is the second oldest surviving clock in England (first is in
Salisbury Cathedral).  Image courtesy the Science Museum

The first person to conceive of the idea of using a swinging weight to control the speed of a clock was Galileo.  He was blind in 1637; his son Vincenzio and his pupil Viviani helped him develop his idea, but not successfully.  Drawing on Galileo's work, the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens built a working model in 1656, and patented it the following year.

Drawing of a pendulum clock from 1659, that
was designed by Galileo in 1641.  Since Galileo
was blind by then it was most likely drawn by
his student, Viviani.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Until Huygen's invention, most mechanical clocks used a foliot balance and a verge escapement to keep a clock ticking at a steady rate.  These clocks gained or lost up to fifteen minutes a day.  Huygen's clock could run for three hours with a one second error.  Before the pendulum clock, very few clocks were reliable enough to merit a minute hand.  Huygen's had not only a minute hand, but a second hand as well, only he wasn't sure where to put them.  On his pendulum clock, the minute hand had its own small dial near the bottom of the face.  The hour hand was short, and shared a dial with the longer second hand.

A 1647 clock by Salomon Coster.  Image courtesy of here.

The first clocks made to Huygen's design, and under his supervision, were by clockmaker Salomon Coster in 1657.  As news spread of this new design, Ahasuerus Fromanteel, from a London family of clockmakers, sent his son, Johannes, or John, to work with Coster.  When John returned to London he helped his father build them.  The Fromanteels improved on the design and constantly added new features.  Their basic design was used in table and longcase clocks in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Contract between Salomon Coster and Johannes (John) Fromanteel.  It was
notarized by Josue de Putter in the Hague.  Signed when Fromanteel was 18,
in September of 1657.  Image courtesy the Science Museum.

In 1666, Huygen published Horologium Oscillatorium, while director of the Académie des Sciences in Paris.  This classic text gives a complete mathematical explanation and description of the pendulum.  In 1675, he built the first working chronometer using a balance wheel and spring instead of a pendulum.  Balance wheels and springs were used in most watches until the quartz crystal oscillator was invented.

Rare lantern clock by Fromanteel.
Image courtesy of www.brianloomes.com.

Even though Huygen's clock was the best at keeping accurate time, he continued perfecting it.  Since he knew that the swing of a pendulum was not constant, he calculated the motion mathematically.  He discovered by 1659 that a long pendulum worked better than a short one, and spent years producing different mechanisms to regulate the speed.  One invention was a pendulum that swung in circles, which produced a clock without a ticking sound.

The second pendulum clock built by
Huygens in 1673.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

It was found that when a steel pendulum is heated by one degree, it will lose a half second daily.  In 1721, the first pendulum clock with temperature compensation was made.  It had a container of mercury at the bottom of the steel rod.  If the temperature increased, the mercury would expand quicker than the steel, which kept the center of mass in the same place.  Eventually pendulum rods were made of metals that didn't expand.
A precision astronomical
mercury pendulum clock,
1887.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Changes in air pressure also affect pendulums, so complicated systems were made to compensate in the 19th century.  Once pendulum clocks were made to be wound electrically, they could be sealed and the pressure was unvaried.  The most accurately produced pendulum clock was invented in 1921, called the Shortt-Synchronome Free pendulum clock.  It had an error rate of about one second per year.

A Shortt-Synchronome free pendulum clock, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Pendulum clocks did more than keep time, they were objects of status.  Their case styles changed to reflect whatever style of furniture was popular at the time they were made.  They have a solid place in timekeeping history, although now they are kept for their value as antiques and decorative items.


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

An Illuminated Book of Games

Statue of Alfonso X at the entrance to the National Library of
Spain in Madrid, sculpted by José Alcoverro y Amorós, 1892.

Alfonso X of Castile, Calicia and León was a Castilian monarch who ascended the throne in 1252, and ruled until his death in 1284.  He began the Siete Partidas, or "Seven-Part Code", a statutory code, which was followed up to the 19th century in Latin America, and is considered one of the most important judicial works of the Middle Ages.  Besides Latin America, parts were in effect in areas of the United States, such as Louisiana, that had belonged to Spain and used civil law.  Most of its principles can still be found in the civil codes and laws of Latin American countries.  Because of this, he is one of the twenty-three lawmakers depicted in the United States Capitol, in the House of Representatives chamber.

Alfonso X.  Image courtesy of this U.S. Capitol.

But he is also famous for a manuscript on games, Libro de los Juegos, or The Book of Games.  This was an Arabic work he translated into Castilian with added illuminations.  Completed in 1283, he had intended to create the perfect manuscript.  Alfonso had a scriptorium in Toledo, a major cultural center of Europe at that time.  A scriptorium, literally "place for writing" was a room devoted to the copying of manuscripts.  Most of the work in Alfonso's scriptorium was of translations of Arabic, Greek, and Hebrew texts into Castilian.  While a huge number of translations were made, there were very few original works.

Manuscript book mural, part of Evolution of the Book series, by John W.
Alexander, 1896.  LOC Thomas Jefferson Building.  This depicts a scriptorium.

The Libro de los Juegos mainly examines three games:  chess, dice, and backgammon.  It includes some of the earliest known descriptions of these games. It holds that chess demonstrates the merit of the intellect; dice exemplifies that chance has supremacy over intellect; and backgammon is a melding of chance and intellect.

Alfonso X de Castilla (close-up from above).

The original is in the library of the monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial near Madrid.  A later, 1334, copy is in the library of the Historical Academy of Madrid. Because there was only the one copy originally made, this suggests it was for Alfonso's personal use.  This is an important text in the research of the history of board games.

The library at the El Escorial monastery.  It has 45,000 printed works from
the 15th and 16th centuries, and 5,000 manuscripts.

The manuscript consists of 98 leaves of parchment, bound in sheepskin, and is roughly 16" x 11" in size.  There are many color illustrations, and 151 miniature paintings.  It was common for multiple artisans to work on a manuscript in a scriptorium.  Although they were given different assignments, some shared the same task.  This would account for the variety of framing techniques in the illustrations - some are geometric and have embellished corners; others have architectural elements like rooftops, colonnades, and tents.  Facial types and the posturing of figures also differ.

The text is divided into seven treatises, and each deals with a specific category of board games.  Altogether there are 144 games, problems, and variants.  In the first part, "Libro del acedrex", there are 103 chess problems and a variant.  The second part, "Libro de los dados", shows twelve dice games.  The third, "Libro de las tablas", has fourteen versions of backgammon.  The fourth has three related games:  a chess variant; a dice game using seven or eight-sided dice (invented by Alfonso); and a larger variant of backgammon.

The fifth treatise has games designed for four players.  The sixth explains four variants of a type of game called mill, or Nine Men's Morris in English, and describes the boards they are played with.  The last part has elaborate and symbolic variants of chess and backgammon, including a gamed played on a board with concentric circles with radii dividing it into twelve areas, each assigned to a sign of the zodiac, called "astronomical chess".  (In the final section of the book, the games are discussed in terms of astronomy and astrology - "as above, so below".)

The illuminations are an integral part of the manuscript, and the symbolism is explained by the accompanying text.  These have references to medieval literature, art, science, philosophy, and law.  The illustrations show many ethnicities and social classes playing the games.  They reveal a culture with rich communal and religious diversity.

Libro de los juegos is a manual that serves to explain why games are played, but is also thought to be an allegory for leading a balanced life.  While it is not moralistic, it appears that Alfonso intended it to be a tool for teaching how to play the game of life.  Each game, it would seem, holds a clue.  For a long time, this manuscript was considered merely an interesting catalog of 13th century board games with great illustrations, but scholars who have studied it claim it reflects a complex attempt to relate the workings of the cosmos with those of humans.

Playing Mill, or Nine Men's Morris.

There are only two English translations of the book.  The first has been deemed to have quite a few problems, as the 12th century Castilian of the book is difficult to translate.  It is part of the biggest collection of chess books in the U.S., in the Cleveland Public Library's John G. White Chess Collection, and was done by George Fraser, circa 1895.  The second is a PhD dissertation by Sonja Musser, written in 2007.

This depicts the manuscript being made.

With modern methods of reproduction that would not harm the original manuscript, one can only hope that it can be made readily available.  A reproduction printed with an English translation would make this reader ecstatic. In the meantime, a trip to Spain in hopes of seeing one of the two copies there is on my bucket list.
Images of the illuminations only of Libro de los juegos
courtesy of Wikipedia.
Images of illuminations with original text
courtesy of http://games.rengeekcentral.com.