Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Wacky Weeds and the Waggery of Nature

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.”
-William Blake

"...keep them under confinement, and destitute of all society for several months, giving them no other sustenance but the infusion, or decoction, of some poisonous, intoxicating roots...thus they unlive their former lives, and commence [to be] men by forgetting that they ever have been boys..."
-Robert Beverley

How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resigned...

-Alexander Pope

Sometimes psychedelia pops up where it is least expected.

I would be more than hesitant to consume any part of the plant Datura stranomium, cheap thrills or not.  But some people ingest it and survive.  I found not one but two instances of such a thing from the early years of the Virginia colony. 

A Colonial Fighting Farce

In The History and Present State of Virginia (1705), Robert Beverley eavesdrops at the doors of perception and reports on the highs and lows of adventures with Jimson Weed.  In 1676, conflict in Virginia erupted with Bacon's Rebellion and soldiers were sent in to tamp down the unrest. However, one group of hungry soldiers from Jamestown foraged for wild greens despite their apparent deficits in plant identification:

The James-Town Weed (which resembles the Thorny Apple of Peru, and I take to be the Plant so call'd) is supposed to be one of the greatest Coolers in the World. This being an early Plant, was gather'd very young for a boil'd Salad, by some of the Soldiers sent thither, to pacific the Troubles of Bacon; and some of them eat plentifully of it, the Effect of which was a very pleasant Comedy; for they turn'd natural Fools upon it for several Days:

One would blow up a Feather in the Air; another wou'd dart Straws at it with much Fury; and another stark naked was sitting up in a Corner, like a Monkey, grinning and making Mows at them; a Fourth would fondly kiss, and paw his Companions, and snear in their Faces, with a Countenance more antick, than any in a Dutch Droll.

In this frantick Condition they were confined, lest they should in their Folly destroy themselves; though it was observed, that all their Actions were full of Innocence and good Nature. Indeed, they were not very cleanly; for they would have wallow'd in their own Excrements, if they had not been prevented. A Thousand such simple Tricks they play'd, and after Eleven Days, return'd to themselves again, not remembring any thing that had pass'd. 

And that is how the "James-Town Weed" earned its name, shortened later to "Jimson Weed."  Supper turned into an 11 day trip to Neverland.  Actually, when used properly, it created the antithesis of Neverland. 

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Among the native people of the colonies, the coming of age ceremony for young boys involved a drink called wysoccan, a drink containing Jimson Weed.  The objective of the huskanaw ritual was "taking away the release the youth from all their childish impressions."  As early as 1612, Captain John Smith (1580-1631) described this rite of passage.  Again, from Beverley's 1705 work:

The Indians have their altars and places of sacrifice. Some say they now and then sacrifice young children; but they deny it, and assure us, that when they withdraw their children, it is not to sacrifice them, but to consecrate them to the service of their god. 

Smith tells of one of these sacrifices in his time, from the testimony of some people who had been eye-witnesses. His words are these:

"Fifteen of the properest young boys, between ten and fifteen years of age, they painted white; having brought them forth, the people spent the forenoon in dancing and singing about them with rattles. In the afternoon, they put these children to the root of a tree. By them all the men stood in a guard, every one having a bastinado in his hand, made of reeds bound together. They made a lane between them all along, through which there were appointed five young men to fetch these children: so every one of the five went through the guard to fetch a child each after other by turns; the guard fiercely beating them with their bastinadoes, and they patiently enduring and receiving all, defending the children with their naked bodies from the unmerciful blows, that pay them soundly, though the children escape. All this while the women weep and cry out very passionately, providing mats, skins, moss and dry wood, as things fitting for their children's funeral. After the children were thus past the guard, the guards tore down the tree, branches and boughs with such violence, that they rent the body, made wreaths for their heads, and bedecked their hair with the leaves.

"What else was done with the children was not seen; but they were all cast on a heap in a valley as dead, where they made a great feast for all the company.

"The Werowance being demanded the meaning of this sacrifice, answered, that the children were not dead, but that the Okee or devil did suck the blood from the left breast of those, who chanced to be his by lot, till they were dead; but the rest were kept in the wilderness by the young men, till nine months were expired, during which time they must not converse with any; and of these were made their priests and conjurers."

John Smith - he's checked into countless motels since then

How far Captain Smith might be misinformed in this account, I can't say, or whether their Okee's sucking the breast, be only a delusion or pretence of the physician, (or priest, who is always a physician,) to prevent all reflection on his skill when any happened to die under his discipline. This I choose rather to believe, than those religious romances concerning their Okee. For I take this story of Smith's to be only an example of huskanawing, which being a ceremony then altogether unknown to him, he might easily mistake some of the circumstances of it.

The solemnity of huskanawing is commonly practiced once every fourteen or sixteen years, or oftener, as their young men happen to grow up. It is an institution or discipline which all young men must pass before they can be admitted to be of the number of the great men, officers, or cockarouses of the nation; whereas, by Capt. Smith's relation, they were only set apart to supply the priesthood.

The whole ceremony of huskanawing is performed after the following manner:

The choicest and briskest young men of the town, and such only as have acquired some treasure by their travels and hunting, are chosen out by the rulers to be huskanawed; and whoever refuses to undergo this process dares not remain among them. Several of those odd preparatory fopperies are premised in the beginning, which have been before related; but the principal part of the business is, to carry them into the woods, and there keep them under confinement, and destitute of all society for several months, giving them no other sustenance but the infusion, or decoction, of some poisonous, intoxicating roots; by virtue of which physic, and by the severity of the discipline which they undergo, they became stark, staring mad; in which raving condition, they are kept eighteen or twenty days.

During these extremities, they are shut up, night and day, in a strong inclosure, made on purpose; one of which I saw belonging to the Pamunky Indians, in the year 1694. It was in shape like a sugar loaf, and every way open like a lattice for the air to pass through... In this cage, thirteen young men had been huskanawed, and had not been a month set at liberty when I saw it.

Engraving from History of Virginia, based on John White painting, depicting a priest and a conjurer.  In the background is the huskanaw pen described by Beverley.

Upon this occasion, it is pretended that these poor creatures drink so much of that water of Lethe, that they perfectly lose the remembrance of all former things, even of their parents, their treasure, and their language. When the doctors find that they have drank sufficiently of the wysoccan, (so they call this mad potion,) they gradually restore them to their senses again, by lessening the intoxication of their diet; but before they are perfectly well, they bring them back into their towns, while they are still wild and crazy, through the violence of the medicine.

After this, they are very fearful of discovering anything of their former remembrance; for if such a thing should happen to any of them, they must immediately be huskanawed again; and the second time, the usage is so severe, that seldom any one escapes with life. Thus they must pretend to have forgot the very use of their tongues, so as not to be able to speak, nor understand anything that is spoken, till they learn it again. Now, whether this be real or counterfeit, I dont know; but certain it is, that they will not for some time take notice of any body, nor anything with which they were before acquainted, being still under the guard of their keepers, who constantly wait upon them everywhere till they have learnt all things perfectly over again. Thus they unlive their former lives, and commence men by forgetting that they ever have been boys. If, under this exercise, any one should die, I suppose the story of Okee, mentioned by Smith, is the salvo for it; for, (says he) Okee was to have such as were his by lot, and such were said to be sacrificed.

Now this conjecture is the more probable, because we know that Okee has not a share in every huskanawing; for though two young men happened to come short home, in that of the Pamunky Indians, which was performed in the year 1694, yet the Appomattoxs, formerly a great nation, though now an inconsiderable people, made a huskanaw in the year 1690, and brought home the same number they carried out.

I can account no other way for the great pains and secrecy of the keepers, during the whole process of this discipline, but by assuring you, that it is the most meritorious thing in the world to discharge that trust well, in order to their preferment to the greatest posts in the nation, which they claim as their undoubted right, in the next promotion.

On the other hand, they are sure of a speedy passport into the other world, if they should, by their levity or neglect, shew themselves in the least unfaithful.

Those which I have observed to have been huskanawed, were lively, handsome, well timbered young men, from fifteen to twenty years of age, or upward, and such as were generally reputed rich.

I confess, I judged it at the first sight to be only an invention of the seniors, to engross the young men's riches to themselves; for, after suffering this operation, they never pretended to call to mind anything of their former property; but their goods were either shared by the old men, or brought to some public use; and so those younkers were obliged to begin the world again.

But the Indians detest this opinion, and pretend that this violent method of taking away the memory, is to release the youth from all their childish impressions, and from that strong partiality to persons and things, which is contracted before reason comes to take place. They hope by this proceeding, to root out all the prepossessions and unreasonable prejudices which are fixed in the minds of children.

So that, when the young men come to themselves again, their reason may act freely, without being biased by the cheats of custom and education. Thus, also, they become discharged from the remembrance of any ties by blood, and are established in a state of equality and perfect freedom, to order their actions, and dispose of their persons, as they think fit, without any other control than that of the law of nature. By this means also they become qualified, when they have any public office, equally and impartially to administer justice, without having respect either to friend or relation.

All in the Family

Beverley (1673-1722) was a brother-in-law of the wealthy Virginian William Byrd, II (1674–1744), author of The History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina and also The Secret History of the Line between Virginia and North Carolina (which was the R-rated tell-all about the survey party that laid out the borderline.)   For more on the incomparable Billy Byrd, see Pig in a Puppy (4/19/08). ... in which he announces

"The truth of it is, the inhabitants of North Carolina devour so much swine's flesh, that it fills them full of gross humours."

William Byrd, II

Datura Initiation in Carolina

Robert Beverley was also the contemporary of John Lawson (1674-1711) whose accounts of life in the Carolina backcountry were published in A New Voyage to Carolina (1709). Lawson had has own stories of the hallucinatory "husquenaugh" practices.  His full account appeared here 8/24/09 in Sex, Drugs and Rockahomine,  Part Two.  Here's an excerpt:

They give them Pellitory-Bark, and several intoxicating Plants, that make them go raving mad as ever were any People in the World; and you may hear them make the most dismal and hellish Cries, and Howlings, that ever humane Creatures express'd; all which continues about five or six Weeks, and the little Meat they eat, is the nastiest, loathsome stuff, and mixt with all manner of Filth it's possible to get.

After the Time is expired, they are brought out of the Cabin, which never is in the Town, but always a distance off, and guarded by a Jaylor or two, who watch by Turns. Now, when they first come out, they are as poor as ever any Creatures were; for you must know several die under this diabolical Purgation. Moreover, they either really are, or pretend to be dumb, and do not speak for several Days; I think, twenty or thirty; and look so gastly, and are so chang'd, that it's next to an Impossibility to know them again, although you was never so well acquainted with them before.

I would fain have gone into the mad House, and have seen them in their time of Purgatory, but the King would not suffer it, because, he told me, they would do me, or any other white Man, an Injury, that ventured in amongst them; so I desisted.

They play this Prank with Girls as well as Boys, and I believe it a miserable Life they endure, because I have known several of them run away, at that time, to avoid it. Now, the Savages say, if it was not for this, they could never keep their Youth in Subjection, besides that it hardens them ever after to the Fatigues of War, Hunting, and all manner of Hardship, which their way of living exposes them to.

Besides, they add, that it carries off those infirm weak Bodies, that would have been only a Burden and Disgrace to their Nation, and saves the Victuals and Cloathing for better People, that would have been expended on such useless Creatures.

The Waggery of Nature

But back to Robert Beverley.  It would appear that he had a mischievous sense of humor. Beverley relates the story of finding a wildflower that he does not identify, but that I would guess to be the Pink Lady Slipper.

About Two Years ago, walking out to take the Air, I found, a little without my Pasture Fence, a Flower as big as a Tulip, and upon a Stalk resembling the Stalk of a Tulip. The Flower was of a Flesh Colour, having a Down upon one End, while the other was plain. The Form of it resembled the Pudenda of a Man and Woman lovingly join'd in one. Not long after I had discover'd this Rarity, and while it was still in Bloom, I drew a grave Gentleman, about an Hundred Yards, out of his Way, to see this Curiosity, not telling him any thing more, than that it was a Rarity, and such, perhaps, as he had never seen, nor heard of.

When we arrived at the Place, I gather'd one of them, and put it into his Hand, which he had no sooner cast his Eye upon, but he threw it away with Indignation, as being asham'd of this Waggery of Nature. It was impossible to perswade him to touch it again, or so much as to squint towards so immodest a Representation. Neither would I presume to mention such an Indecency, but that I thought it unpardonable, to omit a Production so extraordinary.

Is it just me, or does Robert Beverley (ever so slightly) resemble the famous hippie-flower-gun barrel guy?

Datura Rites in California

Datura initiation rites similar to huskenaw occured among many native North Americans.  In "Creation in Light of Luiseno Religion" Sam Gill writes of the ceremony practiced by indigenous people of southern California:

Intoxicated by the datura, the youths were assembled around a fire and given a display of the magical powers of the adepts.  These were performances in a shamanic style in which all manner of mortal wounds were seemingly suffered, often self-inflicted ones, with the wounds then being miraculously healed. 

While the effects of datura were felt only during one night, the initiates continued to fast for a period of days.  Three days after drinking the datura brew, the youths were taken to a pit in which a net representing the Milky Way had been placed, along with three stones forming a crude human shape. 

The Milky Way is the spirit to whom human spirits go when human beings die.  The initiates had to enter the pit and leap from stone to stone.  A misstep or fall presaged an early death...Crossing the Milky Way expressed the Luiseno wish that, upon death, their spirits would be free from the earth and go to be caught in the net which is the Milky Way.

Datura has been, and remains, in the top tier of sacred plants worldwide. 

Used in a variety of ways and for different purposes, it has served a major role for Hindus, Aztecs and Carlos Castaneda, among others.

From an ancient Aztec herbal

How to Create a Zombie

Canadian ethnobotanist Wade Davis has examined its use in Haitian "zombification" procedures.  From a 2004 news report:

The story begins in 1962, in Haiti. A man called Clairvius Narcisse was sold to a zombie master by his brothers, because Clairvius refused to sell his share of the family land. Soon after Clairvius "officially" died, and was buried.

However, he had been later secretly unburied, and was actually working as a zombie slave on a sugar plantation with many other zombies. In 1964, his zombie master died, and he wandered across the island in a psychotic daze for the next 16 years. The drugs that made him psychotic were gradually wearing off.

In 1980, he accidentally stumbled across his long-lost sister in a market place, and recognized her. She didn't recognise him, but he identified himself to her by telling her early childhood experiences that only he could possibly know.

Dr. Wade Davis, an ethnobiologist from Harvard, went to Haiti to research this story. He discovered how to make a zombie. First, make them "dead", then make them "mad" so that their minds are malleable. Often, a local "witch doctor" secretly gives them the drugs.

He made the victim "dead" with a mixture of toad skin and puffer fish. You can put it in their food, or rub it on their skin, especially the soft, undamaged skin on the inside of the arm near the elbow. The victims soon appear dead, with an incredibly slow breath, and an incredibly slow and faint heartbeat.

In Haiti, people are buried very soon after death, because the heat and the lack of refrigeration makes the bodies decay very rapidly. This suits the zombie-making process. You have to dig them up within eight hours of the burial, or else they'll die of asphyxiation.

The skin of the common toad (Bufo bufo bufo) can kill - especially if the toad has been threatened. There are three main nasties in toad venon - biogenic amines, bufogenine and bufotoxins. One of their many effects is that of a pain-killer - far stronger than cocaine. Boccaccio's medieval tale, the Decameron, tells the story of two lovers who die after eating a herb, sage, that a toad had breathed upon.

The other half of the witch doctor's wicked potion comes from the pufferfish, which is known in Japan as "fugo". Its poison is called "tetrodotoxin", a deadly neurotoxin. Its pain-killing effects are 160,000 times stronger than cocaine. Eating the fish can give you a gentle physical "tingle" from the tetrodotoxin - and in Japan, the chefs who prepare fugo have to be licensed by the government. Even so, there are rare cases of near-deaths or actual deaths from eating fugo. The toxin drops your temperature and blood pressure, and puts you into a deep coma. In Japan, some of the victims recovered a few days after being declared dead.

Back in Haiti, once you've got the zombie-in-waiting out of the ground, you make them mad, by force-feeding them a paste made from datura (Jimsons Weed). Datura breaks your links with reality, and then destroys all recent memories. So you don't know what day it is, where you are and, worst of all, you don't even know who you are. The zombies are in a state of semi-permanent induced psychotic delirium. They are sold to sugar plantations as slave labour. They are given datura again if they seem to be recovering their senses.

Life on the sugar plantation.  Who knew that the BBC was ever this raunchy!

Datura (Jimsons Weed, Angel's Trumpet, Brugmanisa candida) contains the chemicals atropine, hyoscyamine and scopolamine, which can act as powerful hallucinogens in the appropriate doses.

They can also cause permanent memory loss, paralysis and death.

The person who applies these chemicals to a victim has to be quite skilled, so that they won't kill them. There is a very small gap between appearing-to-be-dead, and actually being dead.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Poor Man, the Son of Pride, and Assorted Schlock

"So vast is art, so narrow human wit."
"Remembrance and reflection how allied.  What thin partitions divide sense from thought."
"They dream in courtship, but in wedlock wake."
- Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

This week, I once again stumbled upon the story of some enterprising folks in Haywood County (ca. 1880) who turned a quick buck by counterfeiting Indian artifacts. A full account of the tale (including illustrations) appeared here in The Great Haywood  Artifact Scam (8/26/2008).  Those clever Haywoodians would rinse their newly whittled soapstone carvings in rusty water to give them a phony patina of age and wear. 

The incident is an apt metaphor for a lot of things involving Native Americans since then.  With a line of potential suckers, urrr, customers ranging from oafish tourists to ditzy New Agers, it's been possible to peddle a whole bunch of severely twisted takes on Cherokee history and culture for a long, long time to the accompaniment of a ringing cash register.

I've had my own moments of romanticizing times and people from the past, but I'd rather not remain stuck in that delirium.  It's like what Pope said about dreaming and waking.  Reaching for the "real story" is usually a lot more interesting and a great deal more challenging.

Speaking of frauds camouflaged by the manufactured patina of the past, Chief Seattle's 1854 speech comes to mind.  You know the one:

How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? blah, blah, blah... 

It is quite lovely sentiment, deeply moving, Seattle's speech. But would a reader be disappointed to learn that it was created by a screenwriter in the 1970s?  Whoops!

The Chief Seattle expose appeared here  9/10/07 in  Ralph Oliver Waldo Wendell Emerson Holmes.  When the speech was adapted into a kid's book in 1991 it sold 280,000 units in six months, helped no doubt by the attribution of the speech to "Chief Seattle, 1854" rather than "Ted Perry, 1971."  Maybe you can't buy or sell the sky, but you sure can buy and sell the daylights out of a phony speech about how you can't buy or sell the sky.


The speech is lovely, even with (or especially with) a German (?) accent, but why gild the lily by calling it something it isn't...quite? And it isn't quite what Chief Seattle said.

I wonder if anyone else remembers what was (briefly) a big hit record of 1971, Les Crane's spoken word rendition of Desiderata ("Go placidly amid the noise and the haste...") I'd forgotten it, but working as a disk jockey back then, I had to spin that 45 every day.  It was purported to be a poem from some hoary master of ancient wisdom, I'm not sure who.  Nostradamus?  Kahlil Gibran?  Rod McKuen?  Wasn't it found in Old Saint Paul's Church in Baltimore in 1692?  That was part of the record's mystique.  In fact, Max Ehrmann had written the lines in 1927, so poor Les Crane faced a unexpected crisis over royalties.


Holy cow! Les Crane (rhymes with Novacaine) actually won a Grammy for Desiderata, incredible as that may seem. I had not heard the record in decades, and on hearing it again I don't know whether to laugh or to cry.

A few months after the Desiderata sensation subsided, National Lampoon responded with Deteriorata, which would arguably prove to be a far more accurate prophecy of these times.

I don't put much stock in the version of the New Age Noble Savage being marketed these days.  Heritage, anyone's cultural heritage, is at great risk when bought or sold. And look how well sentimental fakery sells. 

Once in a while, though, a touch of the romantic is a welcome thing to encounter. I just discovered a classic of nineteenth century archaeology, Antiquities of the Southern Indians, Particularly of the Georgia Tribes, by Charles Jones, Jr.  What a delight! Jones writes beautifully, he draws from obscure early documents, he catalogs in great detail many sites in Georgia and the Southeast, and he manages to slip in some literary references from William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the like. 

Jones quoted a couple of lines from Bryant's poem, The Disinterred Warrior.  It commands  attention partly because of the warrior, yes, but more because of the way that people like Bryant, like Jones, had such a deeply heartfelt sense of wonder about the past and did not set themselves apart from it.

The Disinterred Warrior

Gather him to his grave again,
 And solemnly and softly lay,
 Beneath the verdure of the plain,
 The warrior's scattered bones away.

Pay the deep reverence, taught of old,
 The homage of man's heart to death;
 Nor dare to trifle with the mould
 Once hallowed by the Almighty's breath.

 The soul hath quickened every part--
 That remnant of a martial brow,
 Those ribs that held the mighty heart,
 That strong arm--strong no longer now.

 Spare them, each mouldering relic spare,
 Of God's own image; let them rest,
 Till not a trace shall speak of where
 The awful likeness was impressed.

 For he was fresher from the hand
 That formed of earth the human face,
 And to the elements did stand
 In nearer kindred, than our race.

 In many a flood to madness tossed,
 In many a storm has been his path;
 He hid him not from heat or frost,
 But met them, and defied their wrath.

 Then they were kind--the forests here,
 Rivers, and stiller waters, paid
 A tribute to the net and spear
 Of the red ruler of the shade.

 Fruits on the woodland branches lay,
 Roots in the shaded soil below,
 The stars looked forth to teach his way,
 The still earth warned him of the foe.

 A noble race! but they are gone,
 With their old forests wide and deep,
 And we have built our homes upon
 Fields where their generations sleep.

 Their fountains slake our thirst at noon,
 Upon their fields our harvest waves,
 Our lovers woo beneath their moon--
 Then let us spare, at least, their graves!

For the reader who goes through books with a highlighter, few pages of Antiquities will remain unmarked. Along with the little-known but well-documented information are digressions seldom found in modern archaeological tomes:  

We stood in the midst of an ancient and extensive Indian burial-ground on one of the low-lying islands which fringe the Georgia coast. Earth and shell mounds were thickly congregated on every hand. A bold spring issuing from a sandy bluff — adjacent salt-water streams and wide-spread marshes filled with oysters, crabs, and fishes, and neighboring forests once abounding with game — rendered this, in the olden time, a spot highly attractive to the red-men. The solemnity of death and of desolation so far at least as this entombed race was concerned — rested upon every thing.

Even the traditions of the locality were forgotten, and the grand old live-oaks which knew these sleepers during their waking hours whispered no legends of their customs, their wars, their loves, their lives, or their deaths. Their feeble "footprints on the sands of time" had been obliterated by the tread of a statelier civilization, and there were none to care for their graves. The same sun was sinking to his rest. The breath of the myrtle and the orange still perfumed the ambient air. Kindred waves washed the bermuda-covered shore and dashed their spray, as in former days, against the roots of the vine-clad cedars.

Eagles of the same bold flight soared majestically in the tranquil heavens, and contiguous woods were vocal with the notes of birds native here for centuries. The same blue sky, the same soft sea-breezes, the same generous mother earth, kindred forests and flowers, the same loves and voices of Nature, but all else how changed! The living Indian frequented no more his favorite groves.

Autumnal leaves long ago covered the last trace of his rude hut. His watch-fires were dead. His council-lodge years ago mouldered into utter decay. His village was converted into a cotton-field, and the ploughboy trampled upon and furrowed mound-tombs hallowed by unrecorded memories of chiefs, warriors, priests, medicine-men, and the nameless dead of tribe and family.

Never more will weeping mother with trembling hand fashion the funeral-vase. The sorrowings circle will never again assemble around the sepulchral fires, nor stalwart arms above the ashes of the dead heap the grave-mound. Beaten upon by the rains and wasted by the winds, there will soon be scarce a vestige of these tumuli. Few, if any, will gather up and deposit in some secure resting-place these neglected bones as they whiten in the sun and crumble into dust amid the fields of the present owners of the soil.

"Mors sola fatetur
Quantula sint hominum corpuscula."

The world, waxing old, forgets the names, palaces, pyramids, and sky-searching towers of even those who once held mighty sway over vast domains; and, in the wreck of ages whole nations, living and dying without letters, are remedilessly engulfed in the great ocean of oblivion.

As we mused amid these silent, storm-beaten graves, the mournful strains of the Coplas of Manrique entered with peculiar pathos into our saddened, thoughts.

"Our lives are rivers gliding free
To that unfathomed, boundless sea —

The silent grave.
Thither all earthly pomp and boast
Roll, to be swallowed up and lost

In one dark wave.
Thither the mighty torrents stray,
Thither the brook pursues its way,

And tinkling rill.
There all are equal. Side by side,
The poor man and the son of pride

Lie calm and still."

[Jorge Manrique was a fifteenth century Spanish poet whose best-known work Coplas por la Muerte de su Padre, was translated into English by Longfellow - see note below]

With the recognition that our ultimate fate is obscurity, the counterpoint to the melancholy of Manrique, Longfellow, and Bryant is found in Alexander Pope's Ode on Solitude. Sunny by comparison, he composed it prior to the age of twelve.  At about that point in his life he endured  serious health problems that deformed his body and stunted his growth, ands left him with a severe hunchback. He reached a height of only 4 ft 6 in. Because he was a Catholic at that time in England, Pope had been isolated from school and society and his poor health only alienated him further.

Ode on Solitude

Happy the man, whose wish and care
   A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
                            In his own ground.

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
   Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
                            In winter fire.

Blest, who can unconcernedly find
   Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
                            Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease,
   Together mixed; sweet recreation;
And innocence, which most does please,
                            With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
   Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
                            Tell where I lie.

How funny that, 300 years later, the English faculty at Yale would see that his resting place was marked. 

How funny that the twelve-year-old who embraced obscurity and who was dealt less than the full measure of humble life he envisioned, is now the second most frequently quoted writer (after Shakespeare) in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.  Pope's greatness is of the type not soon forgotten, his words granting him a kind of immortality.  But I like to think that every human life contains flashes of greatness, even if that greatness remains humble, private, unseen.

The past has fallen on hard times, twisted into a lie when it's not outright destroyed. A lot of people are crowded around a blazing fire fueled by the burning of the testaments of history.  Golf course developers care not what their bulldozers sweep away.  Cherokee tourism shills would have you believe that every native inhabitant of the southern mountains since the Ice Ages was a Cherokee, when they more likely arrived here just a short time before the Spanish gold miners.  ISIS, the Taliban, or the current Islamic flavor of the month is devoted to wiping out the cultural treasures of "the cradle of civilization" at a stunning pace. Meanwhile,  America's McCarthyesque PC police congratulate themselves on eliminating any traces of the past that offend their delicate sensibilities. 

I don't know what life will be like when civilization enters an advanced stage of Alzheimers, but we're about to find out.  Revisit Ray Bradbury's remarkably prescient Fahrenheit 451 and you will note that the exercise of memory is one of the most rebellious acts that one can commit.

Thankfully, the archaeological scholarship of Charles Jones uncovers fragments of what it meant to be human, fragments of long-ago greatness, along with the fragments of bone and stone and clay that suggest the story of those who were here before us.

Note -
Don Jorge Manrique flourished in the last half of the fifteenth century. He followed the profession of arms, and died on the field of battle. Mariana, in his History of Spain, makes honourable mention of him, as being present at the siege of Ucles; and speaks of him as 'a youth of estimable qualities, who in this war gave brilliant proofs of his valour. He died young; and was thus cut off from long exercising his great virtues, and exhibiting to the world the light of his genius, which was already known to fame.' He was mortally wounded in a skirmish near Canavete, in the year 1479.

The name of Rodrigo Manrique, the father of the poet, Conde de Paredes and Maestre de Santiago, is well known in Spanish history and song. He died in 1476; according to Mariana, in the town of Ucles; but, according to the poem of his son, in Ocana. It was his death that called forth the poem upon which rests the literary reputation of the younger Manrique. In the language of his historian, 'Don Jorge Manrique, in an elegant Ode, full of poetic beauties, rich embellishments of genius, and high moral reflections, mourned the death of his father as with a funeral hymn.' This praise is not exaggerated. The poem is a model in its kind. Its conception is solemn and beautiful; and, in accordance with it, the style moves on -- calm, dignified, and majestic.' ~ Longfellow's Poetical Works, prnt. by Routledge, 1883. 
Full poem as translated by Longfellow

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Grooving With the Picts

Strangers to clothing, the Britons wear ornaments of iron at their waists and throats; considering iron a symbol of wealth, they value this metal as other barbarians value gold. They tattoo their bodies with colored designs and drawings of all kinds of animals; for this reason they do not wear clothes, which would conceal the decorations on their bodies. Extremely savage and warlike, they are armed only with a spear and a  narrow shield, plus a sword that hangs suspended by a belt from their otherwise naked bodies. They do not use breastplates or helmets, considering them encumbrances in crossing the marshes.
- Herodian (Greek Historian, ca. 170 - ca. 240) from History of the Roman Empire since the Death of Marcus Aurelius

Way back...or should I say way, way, way high school, my friend Robert shared his favorite track from a new Pink Floyd album.  It was an avant-garde composition with the title Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict.  For whatever reason I didn't give much thought to the meaning of the word "Pict" nor would I give the word any thought in the intervening 40+ years.

Until now.

Recently, I was getting reacquainted with the work of English painter John White (1540-1593) whose drawings I had appreciated from the time I was a little kid. As far back as I can remember we had a copy of John Lawson's book, "A New Voyage to Carolina" and it featured illustrations by John White.  With that association in my memory I would have recollected that Lawson and White were contemporaries, perhaps colleagues, during Lawson's under-appreciated "Voyage of Discovery" through the Carolina backcountry in 1700-1701. In fact, White preceded Lawson (1674-1711) by a century, and had been hired by Sir Walter Raleigh to illustrate and make maps during Richard Grenville's 1586 expedition to the New World.  For his pains, White was named governor of the colonization attempt on Roanoke Island in 1587.

Roanoke Indians, John White

White gave us our "first look" at what those colonists encountered in Carolina, quite memorable images. But during his career he also painted Old World subjects, and that is how I once again bumped into a Pict, not that I would recommend bumping into a Pict.  As it turned out, White's Old World Picts found a place next his New World Algonquians, for reasons to be explained later.

A Pictish Woman, watercolour over black lead, John White

The Picts were a tribal confederation of peoples who lived in what is now Scotland during the Late Iron Age and Early Medieval periods, and who raided the Roman Empire. They were mentioned (by name) by Roman writers as early as AD 297, with the Latin word "Picti" referring to their practice of painting and tattooing their bodies, something alluded to by Julius Caeser in The Gallic Wars: “All the Britons dye themselves with woad,  which produces a blue colour, and makes their appearance in battle more terrible.”

A Pictish Warrior Holding a Human Head, John White

In general, their lifestyle was similar to that of the neighboring Gaels and Anglo-Saxons.  Early Pictish religion resembled Celtic polytheism, though they later converted to Christianity. The Picts had their own language, now extinct.  And today scholars believe that reports of elaborate Pictish tattoos were exaggerated.

Pictish Warrior, John White

Pictish Warrior, Theodor de Bry engraving based on John White painting, in A Brief and True Report

Nevertheless, White and other artists of his time perpetuated the popular image of the heavily-illustrated Picts. The question arises, though, why did Theodor de Bry's engravings based on John White's series of Pict portraits appear in the 1590 edition of Thomas Harriot's A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia?

Harriot (1560-1621) had travelled with John White on their first voyage to Carolina (1586).  Harriot was hired for that expedition due to his expertise as a navigator, astronomer and scientist.  He learned the Algonquin language and brought specimens of New World flora, fauna and minerals back to England. Walter Raleigh was a businessman who anticipated vast profits from successful colonization of the New World, and Harriot's book was in no way intended to discourage potential colonists. 

The Conjurer, Theodor de Bry engraving, based on John White painting,  in A Brief and True Report

On the contrary, Harriot emphasized the abundant fecundity of the New World and downplayed the hazards.  In this respect, it made sense to include portraits of the fierce Picts of the British isles alongside pictures of the comparatively docile Indians of the Roanoke region. 

Theodor de Bry, engraver of the Pict images, explained that they were included to show how the inhabitants of Great Britain in times past were wildly tattooed savages, contrasting dramatically with the more modest and demure Algonquians of Carolina.  Here's the account of the Picts, published in Harriot's book:

IN tymes past the Pictes, habitans of one part of great Bretainne, which is nowe nammed England, wear sauuages, and did paint all their bodye after the maner followinge. the did lett their haire gro we as fare as their Shoulders, sauinge those which hange vppon their forehead, the which the did cutt. They shaue all their berde except the mustaches, vppon their breast wear painted the head of som birde, ant about the pappes as yt waere beames of the sune, vppon the bellye sum feere full and monstreus face, spreedinge the beames verye fare vppon the thighes. Vppon the two knees som faces of lion, and vppon their leggs as yt hath been shelles of fish. Vppon their Shoulders griffones heades, and then they hath serpents abowt their armes: They caried abowt their necks one ayerne ringe, and another abowt the midds of their bodye, abowt the bellye, and the saids hange on a chaine, a cimeterre or turkie soorde, the did carye in one arme a target made of wode, and in the other hande a picke, of which the ayerne was after the manner of a Lick, whith tassels on, and the other ende with a Rounde boule. And when they hath ouercomme some of their ennemis, they did neuerfelle to carye a we their heads with them.

To the dismay of some who were seduced by Harriot's promotional tract and actually tried to find a new life in the New World, the Algonquins were no less benign than the Picts of old.  Those intrepid Englishmen are remembered today as members of the Lost Colony. 

Frankly, because she looks so much like she would fit in at any hipster brewpub ca. 2016, I have to include one other image, a watercolour attributed to Jacques Le Moyne rather than John White.

A Young Daughter of the Picts, painting ca. 1580s

In the British Museum publication, European Visions: American Voices, Sam Smiles' essay John White and British Antiquity: Savage Origins in the Context of Tudor Historiography addresses the Le Moyne painting:

The use of flowers to cover the body has been repeatedly commented on, given that it bears no direct relation to the classical accounts of the Picts originated in Scythia, and so turned to Xenophon who, in the Anabasis, records that the warlike peoples on the Black Sea coast included the fair-skinned Mossynoicoi, whose chestnut-fattened children were "tender and very white...with backs and breasts variegated and tattoed all over in flower patterns."

Rockin' that floral body art the way she does, I'll bet the Young Daughter of the Picts would dig a little Floyd:

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See also  - The Pictish Tattoo: Origins of a Myth, by Richard Dibon-Smith