ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the category “ancient history”

In the name of love – not always a happy tale

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A pomegranate tree – a symbol of love

God, it is said, created Adam before Eve, and to keep Adam adequately occupied he was given the task of naming all the fantastic forms of life God paraded before him.
“Centipede,” Adam said, having regarded this multifooted creature for a while.
“Zebra,” he nodded (with an extended eeee sound) but was struck mute by the stately grandeur of the hairy pachyderm that looked down its very long, elongated nose at him.
“Mammoth,” Adam decided after a while.

Day after day, he sat there naming these creatures, and it struck him somewhere round day 178 that they all came in pairs. Two elephants, two lions, two penguins, two stoats but only one Adam. Which was why God brought forth Eve, and Adam took but one look and fell helplessly in love. Alternatively one could argue that if Adam wanted to procreate, there wasn’t much to choose from – same goes for Eve.
“You could try, you know,” Eve said one evening, looking Adam up and down.
“Eh?” Adam wiped his mouth with the back of his forearm.
“A girl likes being courted,” Eve pouted. “You know, flowers, jewelry  the odd little daytrip …” Eve sighed and threw a look at the rolling green meadows of Eden, picture perfect and oh, so boring.
“Why bother?” Adam yawned. “It’s only you and me, right?”
“I could find someone else,” Eve threatened.
“Yeah, sure,” Adam laughed, “like how about setting up house with the ant-eater next door? Or hey, chat up Mr Tiger and see how far that gets you.” Adam was very amused. Eve was not, and when dusk settled like a purple velvet curtain Eve refused to snuggle up close to Adam, staring at Venus instead while humming “Love hurts“.
“Pssst! Gorgeoussssssss,” someone hissed.
Eve almost fell off her little log. “Who’s that?” she hissed back, straightening her spine somewhat.
“It’sssss me,” this hissing presence said. “You’re one ssssexy lady, ssssssweetheart.”
“You think?” Eve preened and sidled closer to the voice that seemed to be coming from a nearby tree.
Well, the rest is history as they say, with a very aggravated Adam being thrown out of paradise on account of his woman. (Or wife? Were Adam and Eve married?) I imagine there were many, many nights when Adam berated his wife for being an idiot, in response to which Eve cried that it was his fault – for not showing her he loved her.
“Love you?” Adam snorted. “What sort of romantic drivel is that?”.

If we stay with the Old Testament for a while longer, there’s the sad lovestory of Samson and Delilah. Samson was a somewhat complex character, bound by his parent’s oath as a nazarite, one of God’s chosen. God has plans for Samson, having given the young man impressive strength with which to smite the Philistines – as long as he didn’t cut his hair (Haircuts and alcoholic beverages are a major no-no for the nazarites amongst us). Anyway, Samson became a major burr on the Philistines’ nether parts, and after several failed attempts at catching him, the Philistines resorted to a ruse. Samson loved a young woman called Delilah (as deceitful then as she was when Tom Jones sang about her) and one night he finally told her it was all in his hair, whereupon she proceeded to shave his head while he slept. This was probably unrequited love from Samson’s side – Delilah seemed quite unperturbed when her man was led away and blinded. One could say that in this case, what Samson did in the name of love was sheer stupidity.

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Kick-ass Judith (L Cranach)

Yet another woman in the Old testament, Judith, took a leaf out of Delilah’s book, seducing the Assyrian general Holofernes before chopping his head off while he slept. Okay, so she had valid reasons to do so – the Assyrians threatened to destroy her home – but yet again love was used as cunning deceit.  (One strong woman, dear old Judith; decapitating someone requires a lot of muscle) One could of course argue that this had nothing to do with love. this was lust, plain and simple, the fire raging in Holofernes’ loins when in Judith’s presence befuddling his mind to the point that he lost his head.

Helene_Paris_DavidWe fast forward a number of centuries and there we are, with Paris and Helen. The lady with the face that launched a thousand ships fell heads over heels for the Trojan prince and decided to run off with her lover thereby shaming her husband and handing the Greeks the pretext they needed to once and for all destroy Troy. Which they did with surprising efficiency, eradicating the city so completely its actual location was lost. (Until a polyglot German business man by the name of Heinrich Schliemann rediscovered it in the nineteenth century. Not a man much swayed by love, Heinrich took a pragmatic approach regarding such matters and advertised for a wife when he needed one. Different story …) Yet another lovestory that ended without a Happily Ever After. Paris died, Helen was dragged back home by hubby Menelaos, and Paris’ entire family was exterminated.

Around the times of Christ we have gorgeous Cleopatra, the lady who gave milk-baths a name, so to say. In keeping with tradition, Cleopatra was married to her younger brothers (in plural, as one died and the next one stepped into his place) But she loved elsewhere, starting with Julius Caesar. When they met, Cleopatra was young and nubile, Caesar was battle-hardened and… yup, old. But clearly vigorous enough to inspire tender feelings in his Egyptian mistress – or was that just Cleopatra pretending to keep herself and her country safe? Later on, after Caesar’s death, Cleopatra was to transfer her affections to Mark Anthony, and for a while it seemed these passionate lovers would succeed in building their own little empire. Enter capable, cool-headed Octavianus and “poof”, that little dream bubble was skewered. Mark Anthony committed suicide after suffering defeat at Octavianus’ hands, and some while later Cleopatra followed suit, as per tradition by being bitten by an asp.

Through the ages, loves and infatuations have often changed the course of history – or at least had severe impact on it. Edward II had a thing about his male favourites that undermined his standing and led to him being ousted (it may all have been platonic, we don’t know), Henry VIII’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn lead to a new English Church, Edward VII fell so in love with Wallis Simpson he abdicated (it’s a tad unclear if this is what Wallis wanted. Whatever the case, how can you say no to a man who has resigned a crown for your sake?). And then we have all those cases where women (okay, okay; a smattering of men as well) have risked everything – even their lives – for love.

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Armfeldt

One such person is Madeleine Rudenschiöld, a Swedish lady who in the late eighteenth century fell head over heels in over with the handsome royal favourite, Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt. An eyeful  was Gustaf – to our modern eyes somewhat lacking in toned muscle, but all the same pleasing to look at with an absolutely magnificent head of hair.  This decorated officer and cosmopolitan Don Juan was one of the king’s confidantes and was responsible for the lavish and complicated entertainments offered at court. Pretty Madeleine was young and innocent, and taken aback by being the object of Armfeldt’s intense courtship.

A determined man, Armfeldt won Madeleine’s heart in 1785 – coincidentally the same year he married another woman – and was soon a regular visitor to Madeleine’s bed. Being a man of voracious appetites when it came to women, Armfeldt had a number of other mistresses as well, but from his correspondence and the length of their relationship, Madeleine does seem to have held a special place in his heart – as did his capable if somewhat frumpty wife (whom he rather sweetly refers to as “my pumpkin”). So far, this is nothing but a little love affair, but when Gustav III was murdered in 1792, Armfeldt’s comfortable existence at court came to an end.

Armfeldt was ousted from power, did not like it and conspired to achieve the downfall of his enemies and his reinstatement at court. Dear Madeleine helped, delivering his messages to the other men involved in the conspiracy. One day she was intercepted, the conspiracy was revealed and while Armfeldt was safe down in Italy, poor Madeleine was not, having to suffer the ultimate shame of pillory and prison for having helped her lover. She was pardoned some years later and sort of drops out of history. She seems to have spent her latter years as an unpaid housekeeper for her brother. Oh, the wages of true love!

People do stupid things for love. Some drink poison to die beside their lover, some sell everything they own to help their loved one pursue a dream. It’s easy to laugh at these gullible fools – even if most of us will twist our lips in wry recognition as we hear a husky voice sing the poignant words in one of my favourite songs, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

They asked me how I knew, my true love was true,
I of course replied, something here inside cannot be denied.
They said someday you’ll find all who love are blind.
When your heart’s on fire, you must realise, smoke gets in your eyes.”

They say it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. I agree – heck, I think Cleopatra and Madeleine, Anne Boleyn and even Eve all agree as well. It is what we do in the name of love that defines us as humans, weak and fragile at times, but so resilient and brave at others. And no matter where we are in the world, to what culture we belong or what faith we call our own, there’s no denying that the greatest thrill of all is to hear someone say “I love you” . No, wait; the greatest thrill of all is to SAY “I love you” and see that special someone light up like a beacon.

Here’s to love, people. Here’s to the bubbly fizzy feeling that has you dancing on the spot, here’s to the mellow contentment of belonging together. To love – or as dear old Julius would have cooed to pretty Cleopatra, Amor Vincit Omnia. Except, of course, it doesn’t, as evidenced by Holofernes and Samson, Helena and Cleopatra. And yet…Oh,yes: and yet.

Falling forward – a reflection on evolution

The other day, I was listening to a radio programme about the deficiency of our basic design. “Our” in this case being us humans. It seems that the biped descendant of those very ancient primates that is modern human has as yet to fully master the challenge of walking without falling over.

Research has been conducted on young healthy people and their walking mishaps (the scientists have given up on the rest of us, unstable wrecks that we are). Turns out that even these prime specimens have a tendency to fall over. More than 50% report falling over on a regular basis – mostly due to stumbling over their own feet. Note that the participants were all sober, and the falling over incidents were not restricted to midnight walks through forests. Nope. Bright daylight, even ground beneath, and still our young and healthy representatives fell. A lot.

Maybe it’s not the two legs that’s the problem. Maybe it’s our feet. Maybe we, as a species, have been burdened with feet that stick out too much. The scientists disagree. There’s nothing wrong with our feet, they say. Instead, our overall stability would have been much, much better had we continued to walk on all four, dragging our knuckles along the ground. Not exactly a surprising conclusion.

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Moonlight Sonata, R.A Blakelock

Thing is, had we not dared to let go of the ground and rise on our (then) hind legs, we might have been less prone to falling, but we would also have been much, much dumber than we are today. Once primitive man lifted his eyes off the ground to view the world at large, to stare at the moon and stars above, something began happening in his brain, further stimulated by the fact that now that he wasn’t walking on his hands, he could use them for other things. Like making rudimentary tools. Or picking fruits and berries. (Or lice. Plenty of lice to pick off our ancient ancestors’ hairy frames)

Obviously, Homo Erectus was not aware of the “small step for man, huge leap for mankind” he represented. Here was a hirsute creature, standing on his two feet and regarding his surroundings from a sufficient height to discover threats before they discovered him – a good thing, seeing as our ancient forebears had little with which to defend themselves against, f.ex, a hungry leopard. I’m guessing this is where the tool development took off. Hungry leopard drops down on biped. Biped falls to the ground. Long fingers find purchase round a rock. Biped frantically hits hungry leopard over the head with rock. Leopard very surprised, lets go. Biped lives to see another day. Phew.

From rock to bash leopard with, progress was probably quick, all the way to that day when a very thin, very sharp sliver of flint was used to do some basic hair removal. “Oooo! Look at my legs,” cooed Mrs Homo Erectus, “all smooth and unhairy.” (I’m not sure we should be grateful to her, BTW) Somewhat more seriously, making tools had a huge impact on our intellectual capacity. It requires intelligence to fashion a lump of rock into something – specifically, it requires a vision, the capacity to see what it will be once it is done.

Our tool-making forefather had thereby moved into the realm of conceptual thinking. Once you can look at an unshaped lump of rock and think “hmm, that would make a great hand-axe. All I need is to chip a bit here, and there, and then…” the step towards considering the future, where we might come from and where we might end up, is not that big. Yes, Homo Erectus may have been a bit unsteady on the ground, but his brain was expanding at an impressive speed.

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Moonlight on the Fens by G Coulson

So when next you stumble over your own two feet (and no, it’s not the feet’s fault: that has been scientifically proven) remember that this is the very, very small price you pay for being able to crane your head back to look at the night sky and wonder about life on Mars. Or listen to a Beethoven symphony. Or lose ourselves in art by men like Blakelock and Coulson. Mind you, Homo Erectus would probably not have appreciated the art. Or the music. And he had never heard of Mars. But he was thrilled to bits at having survived that leopard attack!

Of mummies in tartan

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One of the earliest depictions of men in kilts (early 17th c, mercenaries in Gustav Adolf’s armies)

Say “tartan”, and most people think of Scotland – and of kilts. The word conjures up images of stalwart warriors, dressed in skirts as they charge the English soldiers of centuries long gone by. Not necessarily historically correct, and no matter just how dashing Mel Gibson looks in a kilt, I can assure you William Wallace never wore one. Never. The kilt, you see, is a 16th century invention, which is why all those books set in medieval Scotland and with a bare-breasted kilt-wearing gent on the cover are not only a tad cliché, they are also historically wrong. There: felt wonderful, to get that off my chest!

From what one can read on the internet, the combination of a tartan skirt and a hairy male knee is about as close to heaven as one can get, and while having nothing against kilt-wearing men – I find them both handsome and ruggedly male, as they walk about in their swinging garments with God knows what underneath – I do not necessarily consider hairy knees to be a “die-for” vision.

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Fragment, Hallstatt Tartan (National History Museum, Vienna)

Neither here nor there, as this post is supposed to be about tartan – or plaid, as some Americans say. Tartan is not a Scottish invention. I know: quite a shock, isn’t it? Nor is it an Irish invention, which would otherwise be a logical conclusion, as the Scots originated in Ireland. Ancient Celts – from which both the Irish and, by association, the Scots, are descended – were known for their love of tartan, further borne out by the finds in Hallstatt, Austria. Hallstatt is believed to have been the heartland of the Celtic culture back in the 8th century B.C., and the prehistoric burial grounds, as well as the old salt mines, have turned up quite a number of bits and pieces in tartan – skilfully woven twill cloth with horizontal and vertical stripes of different colours.

For us modern people, it is difficult to fully comprehend the effort that went into making clothes in the past. Most of us wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a plain weave or a twill weave, we never consider the work that has gone into the garments we so casually pull off the rack to wear, and we are incapable of darning and mending – well, beyond sewing on a button or two. (Hems, IMO, can be handled with staplers in a crisis, which is probably why my hubby has a hard time keeping a straight face when I say I’d like to learn to embroider. I would, actually.)

Anyway, our truly ancient forebears did not need to worry about hems or buttons. The cave dwellers used skins to cover themselves with, and given the general conditions in which they lived, this was a smart choice. But I bet you that already back then, someone was decorating their skins with whatever they could find, transforming a shapeless garment into an individual fashion statement.

Millennia rolled by, and people learnt to farm. In Egypt arose cultures where clothes were definitely of importance, but given the heat, the thinner the better, and so the Egyptians concentrated on linen and cotton, on light colours to reflect the glare of the sun. I am sure the skilled Egyptian weavers would now and then decorate the products from their looms with a contrasting line in red, or blue, but to go as far as a colourful tartan, that they did not.

To the north of Ancient Egypt, a nomadic culture still survived. On the large Eurasian steppe, that endless roll of grasslands that extends from modern day Ukraine to China, people had for generations lived as herdsmen, leading their flocks from one new grazing ground to the other. Belongings were transported in carts, entire tribes travelled together as their flocks moved south or west or east. Home was not a permanent residence, home was what you could carry with you, and so fabrics became important, the quality of your textiles shouting to the world just how successful you were.

Textiles don’t do well over time. They rot, they get degraded to rags, end up thrown in the fire. As a consequence, only rarely do we find any remnants of the clothes worn by people who died thousands of years ago – unless they were buried in very dry conditions, such as the Andean altiplano or the Tarim basin in Central Asia, home to the Taklamakan desert, the most arid place on earth. And it is to this rather inhospitable area that we must go to find the oldest known tartan specimens in the world.

For very many years, the Eurasian Steppe was considered a one-way street. The Huns, for example, came from the east and moved west, causing destructing and chaos as they went. Some centuries later, and it was Djingis Khan, leading his Mongol Horde from east to west. Only relatively recently have we begun to realise that some migrants went the other way, travelling from west to east. Some of them apparently ended up in the Tarim basin, developed a flourishing culture that survived for several centuries before they disappeared, floating off without leaving much of a trace – except for two things; documents in a now extinct language, and the Ürümchi mummies.

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Tokharian princes, 500 or so A.D.

Some of these mummies are old. Very old, well over 3 000 years. They are also remarkably well-preserved, having been buried in almost perfect conditions – nice and dry. Astoundingly, the mummies seem to be Caucasian – very strange in Chinese Turkestan, where the predominant population is either Chinese or Mongol. But the mummies have blond hair, they are tall (very tall) and fair-skinned, they have high-bridged noses and round eyes. Interestingly enough, this tallies with descriptions in ancient Chinese texts, referring to a neighbouring people of great height, with fair or red hair and deep-set blue eyes. These Nordic hunks hung around in one form or other until somewhere midway through the first millennia A.D. They were called Tokharian.

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From “Mummies of Ürumchi”, E.W. Barber

Although the mummies have been found in various locations within the basin and vary in age, they all share one further common feature; the high quality of the woven textiles they were buried with, many of them with a tartan pattern. Even more intriguing, the tartan patterns uncovered in Chinese Turkestan resemble not only those of the old Hallstatt culture (bi-coloured twill weave or three coloured plain weave) but also those of Scottish tartans (multi-coloured twill), which are not found anywhere else. So, are we looking at very ancient Scottish emigrants? Or are these people the ancestors of present days Scots?

Let us take a step back. Tartan patterns are generally restricted to woollen textiles. To make wool, one needs sheep, an animal that was domesticated well over 8 000 years ago. At the time, the sheep wasn’t woolly, it was hairy, more like a goat. It was bred for its meat, but with the passing of years and a conscious breeding effort, the hairy sheep became a woolly one, so that about 4 000 B.C. we had our classical white fluffy animal (and those of you with a more than passing acquaintance with sheep will know that rarely are they fluffy – or white).

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photo: Michael Palmer (photorasa.com)

Suddenly, there was a lot of wool. Spindles were invented, and looms were adapted to handle this new material, rather different from flaxen thread/yarn. Plain weave was replaced – or complemented – with twill weave (in which two threads of the warp are looped together by the weft, with an offset between the rows, thereby creating a diagonal pattern that runs through the fabric) Twill had the advantage of allowing for a tighter weave, thereby making the resulting cloth warmer. All of this leading-edge development – from flax to wool, from plain weave to twill – seems to have happened in present day Turkey or thereabouts, a remnant of twill having been found in a 3 000 B.C. grave in central Turkey.

At the time, Anatolia and the Caucasus was a veritable melting pot for humanity. Innovations were made at an impressive speed: domesticated horses, carts, woolly sheep, woollen textiles. All these novelties were shared between the peoples, probably using some sort of proto Indo-European language. And then, for whatever reasons – maybe they fell out, or maybe the grazing became restricted, or maybe some of them just wanted to see the world – began the exodus from the Caucasian heartlands, with some going east while the majority went west.

Our Ürümchi mummies – or their ancestors – obviously went east, while others of their tribe chose to go the other way. Maybe they went to Hallstatt, Austria and the salt mines, where they would develop into the people we call the Celts. Our voyagers on the eastern road carried with them an Indo-European language. (As late as in the 6th century A.D., a people in the Tarim basin spoke Tokharian, an Indo-European language that has a clear resemblance to the Celtic languages – sort of wow, IMO) Those long-dead travellers also took along a love for their tribal tartan patterns, a love so strong that it would survive the long, slow trek across the endless Eurasian steppe. While none of this is conclusive evidence, I believe the mummies of Ürümchi were, in fact, a side-branch on the Celtic tree.

urumchi Kilt&SporranSo where does tartan comes from? I guess it sprang out of love for colour and textile, a silent ode to the world that surrounded the weaver. Maybe she had her eyes captured by the spectacular colour of a winter sunrise, when the muted purplish grey of the receding night is shot through with strands of glowing pink. Maybe she was entranced by the bright green of new leaf, against a backdrop of brown rocks. Or maybe she was trying to capture all those elusive colours that live in the wind. Or maybe she was daydreaming of a time when good-looking hunks would swathe themselves in colourful tartan and little else. 

These days, all that remains of the people who went east are those desiccated mummies, elegant, tall people who towered well over six feet, men and women alike. And those that went west, well they’re just as dead, just as gone – but the tartan they brought with them from the Caucasus is still going strong. Imagine that: something as fragile as a fabric surviving through centuries of time. I guess we can conclude multi-coloured stripes just never go out of fashion, right?

If you want to read more about the Ürümchi mummies and their fascinating textiles, I strongly recommend “The Mummies of Ürümchi” by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. (This post was originally posted on English Historical Fiction Authors bloig, albeit it has been modified)

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