Descent into the Absurd

Religio-Moral Exoticism (Gladwellocalypse, Part 3)

Even though it had been my intention to put this series to bed, and indeed, I had never intended it to be a series at all, the Gladwellocalypse was in full swing during this last season of Revisionist History to such a degree that I couldn’t ignore it.

I still usually enjoy Malcolm Gladwell; when he’s the interviewee on a show I might not normally tune in to, I will. There are several topics on which he is able to contribute reliably well, such as the US’ broken system of higher education and he’s hardly ever dangerously uninformed like many hosts of political satire programs.

Some of Gladwell’s critics say he’s a stupid person’s idea of a smart person. His enthusiasts refute that, one such describing his process of popularizing intellectual thought in his books and podcasts as:1

[U]nearthing material lying dormant in the rarefied realms of academic psychology, sociology and anthropology and shooting bolts of narrative electricity through it.

At base, the type of criticism pushed back on here is one strongly rooted in elitism, specifically the notion that mere accessibility invalidates something as intellectually worthwhile. Gladwell himself notes that such popularization is literally what his process is about, with an added kiss-off to any such critics:2

If you’re in the business of translating ideas in the academic realm to a general audience, you have to simplify […] . If my books appear to a reader to be oversimplified, then you shouldn’t read them: you’re not the audience!

His work along these lines has led many to hail him as a “public intellectual”, but a different bearer of that same title, Umberto Eco, has also warned against the dumbing down of culture for capitalistic ends:3

The culture industry appeals to a generic mass of consumers (for the most part quite unaware of the complexities of specialized cultural life) by selling them ready-made effects, which it prescribes along with directions for their use and a list of the reactions they should provoke.

One such work directly relating to the Italian semiotician is The Da Vinci Code, widely known to have borrowed its plot and details from Eco and the sources he was satirizing in Foucault’s Pendulum (Il pendolo di Foucault). Dan Brown’s particular take the  popularization of material from the intellectual realm had some predictable consequences because of his lack of real research and careless use of unreliable sources. When these are unravelled it’s a descent from bad to worse to dismal:4

[T]he legitimacy of the Priory of Sion history rests on a cache of clippings and pseudonymous documents that even the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail suggest were planted in the Bibliotheque Nationale by a man named Pierre Plantard. As early as the 1970’s, one of Plantard’s confederates had admitted to helping him fabricate the materials, including genealogical tables portraying Plantard as a descendant of the Merovingians (and, presumably, of Jesus Christ) and a list of the Priory’s past “grand masters.” This patently silly catalog of intellectual celebrities stars Botticelli, Isaac Newton, Jean Cocteau and, of course, Leonardo da Vinci—and it’s the same list Dan Brown trumpets, along with the alleged nine-century pedigree of the Priory, in the front matter for The Da Vinci Code, under the heading of “Fact. Plantard, it eventually came out, was an inveterate rascal with a criminal record for fraud and affiliations with wartime anti-Semitic and right-wing groups.

Eco is hardly heavy-handed on the score of morality but as he is a former Aquinian scholar, his works are almost necessarily steeped in it. Simon Simonini, who creates the real-life hoax of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in his The Cemetery of Prague is clearly portrayed as an evil man perpetrating an evil deed. While Eco portrays the scheme at the heart of Foucault’s Pendulum as a misguided game, Brown fully endorses a similar plot, portraying it as fact, and even winning some of the lawsuits arising from his work through use of the claim that history can’t be plagiarized. Although the content of the two works is similar, the intent is thus completely opposite: Where Eco’s is a postmodern look at the irrationality of the universal conspiracy theory, Brown’s is a post-ironic embrace of alternate facts.

Also a bit of inaccessibility is neither here nor there to me; I’d never condemn anyone for being readable but I’ll also do what it takes to get to the information I’m looking for, up to and including learning a smattering of dead languages. I enjoyed the weighty opening chapters of each book of Les Misérables as setting up important historical, political, and philosophical context before diving back into the melodrama. I appreciated the way the density of Joseph Campbell’s writing early in The Masks of God acts in a medium-is-the-message manner as an initiation into the mysteries therein revealed. I’m definitely not down with slogging through a bone-dry read with no payoff though and even when Gladwell is wrong at least he’s still typically entertaining.

No, my critique is a different one. The tagline for the RevHist informs us it’s:

[A] podcast about things overlooked and misunderstood.

But there are reasons some things have been forgotten and also reasons they should remain so. Or in the case of casuistry, the topic on which Gladwell dwells for no fewer than three episodes, rather than needing to be rehabilitated as he attempts, it is precisely that type of history which should be studied so it might not be repeated. In brief, casuistry is a process of reasoning which reached its height in the mid-16th to mid-17th centuries under the Jesuits. The term remains one which is almost universally used in a pejorative sense, which is indeed the history Gladwell is trying to revise.

I’m somewhat hesitant to dive into a diatribe about a religious group; my general attitude is live and let live although I don’t partake. And I must also acknowledge that my point of view is decidedly Anglocentric, therefore all forms of Catholicism carry some amount of negativity to me, but there are plenty of other well-known reasons apart form that. It’s also important to note that Gladwell is not a Catholic either, and so seems to be engaging in a bit of religio-moral exoticism here.

In any case, let’s turn the clock back to Elizabethan England. When the Religious Settlement put the capstone on the Reformation, the Continental powers sent Jesuits to the island to sow dissent, up to and including assassinations and violent overthrow of the government.

One such was the Babington Plot, which saw Jesuit priest John Ballard recruit Anthony Babington into a French-backed plan to assassinate the queen, support a Spanish invasion of England, and finally place the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots on the throne in her stead. Double agents uncovered the scheme, which ended instead with 15 executed for treason including Mary herself.

A still more extreme plan was hatched during the reign of the next king, James, which, if successful, would have remained to this day the largest ever act of religious terrorism. The Gunpowder Plot, also known as the Jesuit Plot, would have blown up Parliament during the State Opening killing not only King James and his close relatives but much of the aristocracy, the Privy Council, the senior members of the legal system, and the heads of the Church of England as well. By any estimation England would have been plunged into chaos, and it’s likely that its existence as an independent nation would also have been at serious risk.

And the thing that allowed all this subterfuge, all this covert plotting and planning was—you guessed it—casuistry. The specific fruit of the process at play here was one termed mental reservation, or more simply, equivocation, or still more directly, lying. Lying was considered a serious sin to this point but the Jesuits had reasoned that where justice and truth came into conflict, justice had to trump truth, terming it a “lie of necessity”.

Casuistry additionally offered convenient justifications for other previously morally inexcusable but highly desirable acts including usury, homicide, and regicide. Blaise Pascal derided and satirized the process in his refutation, Provincial Letters (Lettres provinciales), the TL;DR version of which is that casuistry could essentially be used to justify just about anything. Indeed, the use of the process to wriggle out of any moral quandary rendered the term Jesuitic a synonym for cunning or deceitful.

The order, and its specific deployment of casuistry were broadly condemned even by contemporary Catholics: immediately upon his 1676 accession Pope Innocent XI condemned 65 of their propositions as “laxorum moralistarum” (lax moralities) and forbade their teaching on pain of excommunication, focusing particularly on mental reservation. Non-Catholics, especially in England, were still less pleased with the order and its works, with someone cited simply as “a recent English author” in 1845 commenting:5

[T]he Jesuit […] conceals his right name, hides his real object, contracts his brow and disowns his party, [he] is as contemptible as he is dangerous, and to be scorned as much as he is to be feared. […] The unblushing Infidel, the bold and reckless Atheist can be better met, and is a far less dangerous foe to Christianity, than the slippery, turning, vanishing, masking, equivocating Jesuit.

Gladwell does dig into some of the controversial early modern uses of casuistry with Father James Keenan, a Jesuit theologian. Together they present these problems as strawmen and fully endorse with a handwave the justifications that plunged the order into centuries of disrepute.

In modernity, there has been a revival of casuistry based on the notion that it was not the process itself that was the problem, but its abuse. This is closely akin to the slogan, guns don’t kill people, people do. I’ve never understood how this has been used as pro-gun; yes, people are fallible, so giving them the means to act in drastic and irreversible ways is inherently a bad idea. A quite similar saying but with entirely the opposite intent is present in Japanese:

kichigai ni hamono
(don’t) give a knife to a crazy person

To their credit, in more recent years the Jesuits have become more progressive than the Vatican on a variety of topics including HIV/AIDS, homosexuality, and abortion. Gladwell does bring up one such area, birth control6 without establishing in any way that casuistry was at work, and the other episodes misapply casuistry to topics that have nothing to do with the order or its practices. He sums up the case he is trying to build for casuistry thus:7

St Ignatius Loyola […] gave his followers a set of moral instructions: to set aside principal, to descend into the particular, to listen closely. Why? Because only then can you fulfil one of the most important human obligations: to offer consolation to those who are suffering.

But this is some Cloud Cuckoo Land version of casuistry Gladwell has constructed for himself, not casuistry as was practiced in the early modern period when it was originally criticised and discarded, nor yet how it is practiced today. Pope Francis, by all accounts one of the most progressive and sympathetic pontiffs ever, and a Jesuit himself, decries the practice, saying that it seeks to establish general laws on the basis of exceptional cases.8 Which is not only exactly the error it fell into in the past, but also morally far worse than the principled stand Gladwell is attempting to supplant with casuistry in his miniseries. And this is ultimately how casuistry has repeatedly worked in actual practice: insurance for a 16th century merchant ship is “like another captain” (how weaselly is that?) in that it seeks to keep the cargo safe, therefore usury is morally right in this case, and therefore usury is morally right in all cases—quod erat demonstrandum, hic et ubique.

Just as the news media help elect authoritarian populists by slanting coverage in their favor, sensationalism, in this case applied to the distorted popularization of an intellectual process ultimately with a profit motive, might be what’s behind Gladwell’s search for ever more controversial claims. And I, in fact, might simply be feeding the troll here.

Read Previous Posts in This Series

Part 1: The Limits of Revisionist History

Part 2: The Unfit “King”


  1. Ian Leslie, “Malcolm Gladwell Is Underrated”, I. M. H. O., 2013.
  2. Oliver Burkeman, “Malcolm Gladwell: ‘If my books appear oversimplified, then you shouldn’t read them’”, The Guardian, 2013.
  3. Eco, Opera Aperta, 1962.
  4. Laura Miller, “The Last Word: The Da Vinci Con”, The New York Times, 2004.
  5. Alexander Duff, The Jesuits: Their Origin and Order, Morality and Practices, Suppression and Restoration, 1845.
  6. Gladwell, “Dr. Rock’s Taxonomy”, Revisionist History, 2019.
  7. Gladwell, “Descend into the Particulars”, Revisionist History, 2019.
  8. Francis X. Rocca, “Pope to meet with sex abuse victims for first time in June”, Catholic News Service, 2014.

The Chthonian Connection

Things come clear in the netherworld (The continuity of magic from East to West, Part 4B)

Recently I was able to visit the Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid (MAN). Their “Protohistory” section contained various artifacts bearing the clear stamp of Near Eastern culture. In particular, the Mausoleum of Pozo Moro dating near the end of the sixth century BC, from a necropolis in the modern province of Albacete, 125 miles inland from the Mediterranean coast, shows strong Hittite and Syrian influences during this clearly orientalizing period in Iberian art. The gorgeous fourth century Lady of Elche and several similar pieces contain stylistic elements that clearly draw from Phoenician models in elements such as the zig-zagging folds their clothing, and are believed to represent, or at least be associated with, the Phoenician goddess Tanit (𐤕𐤍𐤕). Of course, I had already known that there was considerable Phoenician presence in the area, centered in Qart Hadasht (𐤒𐤓𐤕•𐤇𐤃𐤔𐤕𐤒𐤓𐤕•𐤇𐤃𐤔𐤕, “new city”, later known pleonastically as Cartago Nova, modern Cartagena), but I hadn’t expected the physical evidence to be quite so clear and conclusive since it is typically downplayed, even in the MAN’s name for this section (why not simply Early History?).

The Lady of Elche itself was declared a forgery nearly immediately upon its discovery at the turn of the last century, a notion based entirely on bad science: how could its form, style, and sophistication have been possible in Iberia until the advent of Hellenism or Roman expansion into the region? In spite of these hypotheses persisting until quite recently, actual science has found nothing to support them, instead affirming a date around the latter half of the 5th to first half of the 4th century BC based on extensive analysis of contextual artifacts, sculptural technique, and pigments, to name a few. In any case, these items act as still further links between the Near East and Western Europe, specifically relating to myth and magic.

Turning more specifically to the connections relating to Mesopotamia and Ancient Greece, in both cultures magic is associated strongly with the netherworld. For example, their respective goddesses of witchcraft are distinctly chthonian and dwell in the land of the dead. This is quite clear for Eresh’kigal (𒀭𒊩𒆠𒃲) as queen of the underworld, but slightly less so in the case of Hekate (Ἑκάτη) as she has a great deal of power over many realms. Orphic hymns feature her with various motifs in keeping with her underworld role:¹

[…] τυμβιδίην, ψυχαῖς νεκύων μέτα βακχεύουσαν […]
νυκτερίην, σκυλακῖτιν, ἀμαιμάκετον βασίλειαν […].

[…] Celebrating funerals among the spirits of the dead […]
nocturnal, protectress of dogs, kingdom unstained by blood […].

In Greek myth, Persephone (Περσεφονη) journeys to the underworld where she eats pomegranate seeds and so must return for a quarter of the year. This etiological tale of the seasons is well known but significant elements link it to the Near East. It should be noted that the familiar version is highly bowdlerized; the original being that Haides (Ἁιδης) forcefully abducts and rapes her, and only when her mother, Demeter (Δημήτηρ), threatens the world with famine is she allowed to return. There is quite a similar Mesopotamian tale involving Eresh’kigal but with some roles reversed: Nergal (𒀭𒄊𒀕𒃲), the god of war visits and is seduced by the queen of the underworld and lies with her for seven nights, and so must return for half the year thereafter, explaining, apparently, why wars were fought seasonally. In both cases we’re talking about forbidden fruit; Nergal and Persephone are both warned beforehand to abstain but are nonetheless tempted. Hekate additionally plays a part in several versions of the latter’s tale, carrying a torch to help search for the lost goddess, and indeed, she, Demeter and Persephone share a number of attributes and aspects.

Additionally, while there is some debate about the etymology of the name of Persephone’s mother, Demeter, most agree that it’s some form of “Earth Mother” and that she’s also a chthonian goddess (making her daughter’s abduction somewhat redundant). Eresh’kigal means “Queen of the Great Earth”, a close parallel.

Continuing on the etymological thread, especially as relates to magic and medicine—closely interrelated concepts in ancient times—one of Baba’s (𒀭𒁀𒌑) epithets is Azugallatu (A.ZU.GAL) “great healer” as that’s one of her main roles as a deity. Asklepios’ (Ἀσκληπιός) name is etymologically uncertain, but seems related to an epithet for Apollon (Απολλων), his father, that’s used on the Cycladic island of Anaphe (Ανάφη) near Thera (Θήρα), Asgelatos (Ασγελατος), which seems quite close to the Sumerian goddess’ name with a gendered ending. There is also a more direct connection to the Graeco-Roman world: Eresh’kigal’s name commonly occurs in Greek defixiones and papyri, its form transcribed so exactly that coincidental homonymy is extremely unlikely.

As for the netherworld itself, in the Graeco-Roman context we see various mortals managing to visit Haides: Theseus (Θησεύς), Pirithous (Πειρίθοος), Herakles (Ἡρακλῆς), Orpheus (Ὀρφεύς) and Odysseus (Ὀδυσσεύς) all traveled there, as did Aenaeas, each passing through one of the various “mouths” located in the mortal realm. So too in ancient Mesopotamia there was a physical location, or gate, specifically in the city best known by its Akkadian name, Uruk (𒌷𒀕, Sumerian Unug, which sits in modern Iraq near Samawah), through which mortals, or at any rate, heroic ones like Enkidu (𒂗𒆠𒆕), could enter the netherworld. In both cases, however, special actions needed to be performed to get there, and it was more difficult to return.

Continuing the trip to the netherworld, the well known Greek myth has Charon (Χαρων) ferry the dead across the rivers Styx (Στύξ) and Acheron (Ἀχέρων) to the land of the dead, but one Babylonian tale carries a close corollary:²

“Enlil and Ninlil: Birth of the Moon-God” […] tells how Enlil himself, the most powerful of the Sumerian gods and the chief of the Sumerian pantheon, was banished to the Nether World and followed thither by his wife Ninlil. This myth is [… includes…] the Sumerian belief that there was a “ man-devouring “ river which had to be crossed by the dead, as well as a boatman who ferried them across to their destination […].

Although none of the rivers in the Greek underworld carries this exact meaning, all are similarly dismal or even threatening:

  • Acheron: possibly “stream of woe”
  • Cocytus (Κωκυτός): “lamentation”
  • Lethe (Λήθη): “forgetfulness”
  • Phlegethon (Φλεγέθων): “fiery”
  • Styx: “gloomy”

The generally unpleasant vibe of the netherworld is another point of agreement:³

By and large, the Sumerians were dominated by the conviction that in death the emasculated spirit descended to a dark and dreary beyond where “life” at best was but a dismal, wretched reflection of life in earth [sic].

Compare this to Hesiod’s (Ἡσίοδος) hymn to Hermes (Ἑρμῆς):⁴

“For I will take and cast you into dusky Tartaros [Τάρταρος i.e., Haides] and awful hopeless darkness, and neither your mother nor your father shall free you or bring you up again to the light, but you will wander under the earth and be the leader amongst little folk [i.e., ghosts of infants and children].”

One of the more important aspects of the state of the dead in the netherworld is that:⁵

Though “dead” the deceased could in some unexplained manner be in sympathetic contact with the world above, could suffer anguish and humiliation, and cry out against the undependable gods.

I’ve already extensively covered the fact that such sympathy is essential to the character of Graeco-Roman magic generally, as well as in the specific case of necromancy and black magic, so I won’t belabor that here.

In both traditions, the dead can also become somewhat demonic, especially if they have been slain in battle or haven’t been properly buried, and so cause sickness and other calamities to befall those in the mortal realm. In the Sumero-Akkadian world, such a being is termed an gidim or eṭemmu (𒄇, Sumerian and Akkadian respectively), and the incantation texts make consistent reference to this concept:⁶

When the spirit of a dead person has taken possession of a man,” or “the hand of a spirit of the dead,” then exorcism is due. The sick person believes himself to feel this grip, and he prays: “If it is the spirit of a member of my family or my household or the spirit of one slain in battle or a wandering spirit….”

The wrath caused by the mistreated dead was termed menima (μήνιμα) by the Greeks, appearing quite early in the literature and referenced by Plato and Homer, who allude to those killed in battle, left unburied, or victims of old, uncleansed wrongdoings, which then manifest great suffering. In particular, when in The Iliad, Achilles makes it clear to the Hector that he plans to defile his corpse, the dying hero retorts:⁷

φράζεο νῦν, μή τοί τι θεῶν μήνιμα γένωμαι
ἤματι τῷ ὅτε κέν σε Πάρις καὶ Φοῖβος Ἀπόλλων
ἐσθλὸν ἐόντ᾽ ὀλέσωσιν ἐνὶ Σκαιῇσι πύλῃσιν.

[L]ook to it that I bring not heaven’s anger upon you on the day when Paris and Phoebus Apollo, valiant though you be, shall slay you at the Scaean gates.

The dead were therefore to be appeased through ritual in both cultures, and as Walter Burkert notes, “in very similar ways”:⁸

[T]hrough various kinds of libation: “water, beer, roasted corn, milk, honey, cream, oil” in Mesopotamia; “milk, honey, water, wine, and oil” in Aeschylus [Αἰσχύλος]. Even more peculiar is the importance of pure water as an offering to the dead: “cool water,” “pure water.”

When it comes to actual magic, again, I’ve already established the connections quite thoroughly, both as to black magic, where poppet-based Near Eastern rites of annihilation clearly prefigure Greaco-Roman defixiones, as well as closely-related traditions of haruspicy. Still Burkert presents compelling evidence as to the consistent use of persuasive analogies relating to oaths across various locations:⁹

From the eighth century we have a relevant Aramaic text, the treaty text of Sfire [near modern Aleppo, Syria…]. This is an international contract concluded by solemn oaths and curses; in this context it is said: “As this wax is consumed by fire, thus… (N.N.) shall be consumed by fire.” In the seventh century the same formula appears in a contract made between the Assyrian king Esarhaddon and his vassals; much earlier it is found in a Hittite soldiers’ oath. It corresponds to the oath of the Cyreneans [an ancient Greek colony near modern Shahhat, Libya] as set out in their foundation decree, transmitted through a fourth-century inscription […]. “They formed wax images and burned them while praying that anyone who did not keep the oath but flouted it might melt and flow away like the images.”

The objection might be made that some of the features of the lands of the dead, the state of those who dwell there, and their ritual appeasement are widespread or even universal ideas. Certainly China has its èguǐ (餓鬼, hungry ghosts), the Norse underworld is bordered by a river of swords, the Slidr, and the Shinto (神道) afterlife, Yomi (黄泉) is a gloomy underground realm, just to grab a few from various regions.

Still, the compelling aspects of the commonalities between the traditions of the Near East and Ancient Graeco-Roman world are both the large number of points of agreement as well as the specificity of the details in which they agree. The direction of this influence can also be seen to be clearly East-West, especially as the Assrians, with whom lasting contact with the Greeks comes, inherit many of these concepts from the Akkadians and Sumerians before them. Finally as Burket concludes of the orientalizing period in general:¹⁰

[I]n the period at about the middle of the eighth century, when direct contact had been established between the Assyrians and the Greeks, Greek culture must have been much less self-conscious and therefore much more malleable and open to foreign influence than it became in subsequent generations.

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Griffin and the Phoenix

Part 2A: Hark, a Haruspex!

Part 2B: Go West, Young Mantis

Part 3A: Coda Etrusca

Part 3B: Devoted More Than All Others

Part 4A: Romancing the Hellenes


  1. “Orphic Hymn to Musaeus”, my translation (I hope I got it right).
  2. Samuel Noah Kramer, “Death and Nether World According to the Sumerian Literary Texts”, Iraq, Vol. 22, 2014.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Hesiod, Homeric Hymns and Homerica, Hugh G. Evelyn-White trans., 1964.
  5. Kramer.
  6. Walter Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age, 1992.
  7. Iliad XXII, Samuel Butler trans., 1888. emphasis mine.
  8. Burkert.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.

Romancing the Hellenes

Ideological protectionism and revising history (The continuity of magic from East to West, Part 4A)

Ladies and gentlemen, it seems I have been the victim of a conspiracy. Given the current climate of public discourse, I’m sure you’re assuming I’m referring to a conspiracy theory, but I can assure you this is quite real. We’re talking long-term behavior of institutions not any false-flag-pizza-shop-basement-pedophilia-ring bullshit here.

If you’ll remember, this entire series was kicked off by the fact that I had taken it for granted because of the on-its-face obviousness that magical practice in the ancient world generally flowed from the Near East to the Graeco-Roman world. When I went looking for citations to that effect, however, I was stymied and could only find either classical ones or scattered ones that were quite recent.

I then went on to do some direct comparisons and follow-up research myself as to whether I was barking up the right tree. Doing so, I was able to put together a few compelling cases, but I also eventually ran across Walter Burkert’s 1992 book, The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age. This work not only presents the kind of evidence I was looking for, it also lays out the reasons I was running into such difficulties.

Although there was an ancient idea of an East-West divide beginning with the Trojan and then Persian wars, Walter Burkert notes the rift we experience today:¹

To a large extent […] is the result of an intellectual development which began more than two centuries ago and took root especially in Germany. Increasing specialization of scholarship converged with ideological protectionism, and both constructed an image of a pure, classical Greece in splendid isolation.

If this information, and particularly the phrase “ideological protectionism” sends horripilations down your spine, welcome and read on.

As I noted above, beginning in the late 18th century the European scientific communities in the areas of philology, classics, archaeology, and related fields increasingly became focused on the idea of a “pure, self-contained Hellenism which makes its miraculous appearance with Homer”,² and insecure about, and increasingly hostile toward the discoveries that were steadily chipping away at it. According to Burkert these included the decipherment of cuneiform and hieroglyphic writing, and the discovery of Mycenaean civilization and the orientalizing period in Greek culture.

This links the trend with the romantic nationalism, irrational pseudoscience, and essentially antisemitic movements afoot in Europe in this timeframe. Take for example the fact that the so-called Pythagorean theorem was known in ancient Babylon made headlines just like the Bronze Age Collapse did a couple of years ago, when Otto Nuegebaur had already discovered it in the 1920s. Nuegebaur was an Austrian who was already an outsider as his focus was the history of science and who was forced to emigrate when he refused to sign an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler’s government, and was therefore blackballed by the scientific community. His adoptive country, the US, was less interested in identifying Ancient Greece as its sole cultural wellspring, so Neugebaur was able to go on to win great acclaim and several prestigious awards in his field.

Although there is a kernel of truth in Raiders of the Lost Ark—that the Nazis were obsessed with the occult, and did attempt to search for legendary items—it’s unlikely they would have gone looking for a Semitic artifact of any sort regardless of what kind of powers it supposedly held. By contrast, their search for the Holy Grail, led by Otto Rahn—the author of just the type of material then in vogue with the leadership of the Reich, which wove the Grail and the Templars into German nationalist mythology—and sponsored by Heinrich Himmler, is a matter of historical fact.

This trend in scientific circles to ignore evidence, particularly when related to anything from the Near East, aligns uncoincidentally with Jewish people being granted full legal equality in many areas of Europe. Again around the 1770s:³

[W]ith Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a new concept of classicism, one with rather pagan tendencies, asserted itself and came to attract high regard. Second, beginning with the work of Johann Gottfried Herder, the ideology of romantic nationalism developed, which held literature and spiritual culture to be intimately connected with an individual people, tribe, or race. Origins and organic development rather than reciprocal cultural influences became the key to understanding.

Another of Himmler’s pet projects was a think tank called Ahnenerbe (meaning “ancestral heritage”) whose official mission was “to promote the science of ancient intellectual history” but which was actually engaged in the use of pseudoscience to create propaganda. Increasingly, archaeological digs and expeditions were taken over by government-sponsored groups, more particularly SS groups, and still more particularly, Ahnenerbe, bent on finding evidence to back up Hitler’s theories of Aryan descent and genetic superiority. Their logo, shown below, also contains pseudo Greek/ runic letters and the unfortunate use of the Norse Odal rune in the center.

Another datapoint for this troubled time in the sciences is The Myth of the Twentieth Century (Der Mythus des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts). This book—a major bestseller under the Reich alongside Mein Kampf—by Alfred Rosenberg, a prominent ideologue of the Nazi Party created a myth, specifically:

[T]he myth of blood, which under the sign of the swastika unchains the racial world-revolution. It is the awakening of the race-soul, which after long sleep victoriously ends the race chaos.

So again we have an “interpretation of history”, essentially promulgating Nordicist Aryanism and blaming everyone else, particularly Jews, for all the world’s ills.

Turning back to the period of “pure Hellenism”, it was, naturally enough, particularly present in Germany beginning around turn-of-the last century. For example, even though he denounced Nietsche’s Birth of Tragedy (Die Geburt der Tragödie) as anti-scientific, in 1884 German classical philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff’s scornfully assessed ancient Eastern culture thus:⁴

The peoples and states of the Semites and the Egyptians which had been decaying for centuries and which, in spite of the antiquity of their culture, were unable to contribute anything to the Hellenes other than a few manual skills, costumes, and implements of bad taste, antiquated ornaments, repulsive fetishes for even more repulsive fake divinities.

Fast forward to today and the effects of this systematic rejection of fact still linger:⁵

[E]xpert archaeologists […] sometimes appear to feel uncomfortable about this fact and indeed advise against using the expression “the orientalizing period.” The foreign elements remain subject to a policy of containment: There is hardly a standard textbook that has oriental and Greek objects depicted side by side; many of the oriental finds in the great Greek sanctuaries have long remained—and some still remain—unpublished.

In a few sentences, Burkert lays out what the physical evidence shows regarding the relevant peoples and locations during the period in question:⁶

Greek merchants are present in Al Mina on the Orontes estuary [near modern Samandağ on the southern coast of Turkey] from the end of the ninth century; from there the connections reach to North Syria, to Urartu [in eastern Anatolia], and along the shortest caravan route to Mesopotamia. In approximately the same period the Greeks are in evidence at Tarsos and somewhat later at Tell Sukas [near modern Jableh, Syria]. There are also Greek finds from Rash-al-Basid (Poseidonia), Tell Tainat [also on the southern coast of modern Turkey], Tyre, and Hama. Connections go to nearby Cyprus, but above all to Euboea, where excavations at Lefkandi have brought to light relics of a relatively affluent community in the tenth and ninth centuries which was open to trade with the East. In the eighth century Eretria along with Chalkis reached its peak; but Athens was not negligible either. From Chalkis the Greeks reached the West even before the middle of the eighth century, as can be seen from the settlement of traders and craftsmen discovered at Pithekoussai-Ischia. Here, too, the trade in ores was crucial, above all with the Etruscans; the Phoenician route via Cyprus to Carthage and then to Sardinia had to compete with that of the Greeks from Euboea via Ithaca to Pithekoussai. It is in connection with these routes that the first examples of Greek script appear, in Euboea, Naxos, Pithekoussai, and Athens.

The motivation for this contact, as the above passage implies, was trade, specifically in metals. The Royal Road, a major trade route running between the Assyrian and Akkadian capitals of Ash’shur and Nineveh to Sardis on the west coast of modern Turkey—an area inhabited by culturally Greek peoples—was already well established by the seventh century BC. This road would become better known during the Persian Empire, and still later was to become the westernmost leg of the Silk Road.

If nothing else, all this is helpful in confirming that I’m not crazy. Furthermore, the proofs offered by Burkert include some of the very ones I identified earlier. With this established, I can return to the magico-religious evidence which Burkert also points to in this incredible book.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 4B: The Chthonian Connection

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Griffin and the Phoenix

Part 2A: Hark, a Haruspex!

Part 2B: Go West, Young Mantis

Part 3A: Coda Etrusca

Part 3B: Devoted More Than All Others


  1. Burkert, 1992.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.

Pompeii and Pigs

An exhibit and an inscription

One recent weekend, my family and I jumped on a train that took us to Oxford, more specifically, the Ashmolean Museum. I’ve mentioned the place previously and described it to my son as the British Museum’s much quirkier cousin.

The draw on this day was an exhibition in which I was quite interested, “Last Supper in Pompeii”, which tells the story of Roman food and drink culture. In Gods & Heroes, we provided players with delicious food and drinks such as:

  • Caecubum: Caecuban wine, known as the finest in the ancient world, produced on a coastal plain of Latium.
  • Locustum Elixam: boiled lobster.
  • Lucanicae: Lucanian sausages, this area of the Southern Italic Peninsula apparently produced excellent cased ground meats.
  • Posca: a drink made of vinegar, water, and herbs, somewhat like modern shrub.
  • Ptisanarium: a barley drink similar to horchata—odd because the Spanish word comes ultimately from Latin hordeum, “barley”, though our word tisane, meaning a medicinal drink comes from ptisanarium.

I cribbed many of the foods from the 1st century AD cookbook attributed to Caelius Apicius, De re coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking), the oldest surviving European one, and which also formed an important cornerstone of the Ashmolean exhibit, with many descriptions of its dishes as well as corresponding cookware appearing.

One surprising item in particular was related to a dish from the book, glires—dormice, either stuffed with pork, pine nuts, and spices and baked, or roasted and dipped in honey, a taste apparently handed down from the Etruscans. This was a terracotta jar called a glirarium in which the live rodents were kept, and given loads of walnuts, chestnuts, and acorns. the jar had air holes, but was impossible for them to climb out of and was kept dark so they would think it was time to hibernate and stuff themselves, similar to the fattening process the modern French use for ortolans, their songbird delicacy.

Something else caught my eye as well, mostly because it was so cute: a small silver votive figurine of a chubby piglet. This was clearly the same type of ex-voto I’ve described previously. The Ashmolean placed it within a section about the atrium of the Roman home, specifically in the lararium, where it most certainly would not have appeared in ancient times (though it was linked thematically with artifacts that did, so I get it). Instead, of course, such an item would be placed in a shrine of the god to which it was dedicated, in this case, Hercules (and it also hails from Herculaneum, where there must’ve been at least one important one), with its form a likely reference to the Erymanthian Boar (aper Erymanthius), the capture of which made up his fourth labor.

The piglet bears an inscription as such items invariably do:


The exhibition’s description of the item, which struck me as incorrect, rendered this as:

HERculi VOEsius Marci Libertus

To Hercules from Voesius, Freedman of Marcus

Looking into other sources, I found in the Epigraphik-Datenbank Clauss/ Slaby (EDCS) something entirely different, but with which I also did not agree:

HERculi VOt(E)um (solvit) Merito Libens

To Hercules, (he) fulfills? (his vow) willingly and deservedly

My own rendering splits the difference:

HERculi VOEsius votum solvit Merito Libens

To Hercules, Voesius (fulfills his vow) willingly and deservedly

How did I reach this conclusion?

Let’s begin with the problems with the Ashmolean’s version. The formulae for this type of religio-magical inscription are, naturally, quite important. If the inscription was from a secular setting and read simply VOE M L, I’d be fully on board with their interpretation of it as an extended name, and in such M is always Marcus. On a votive, however, the VSLM formula is ubiquitous, and reading this as a further shortening of this initialism seems on steadier ground. Additionally, though the piglet is not large, and likely hollow as many such objects are, it’s still quite a bit of silver and the workmanship is quite lovely, so I’d tend to think it would be beyond the means of a freedman.

As for the other interpretation, the EDCS relies on the VSLM formula a bit too much. Latin not only contains no form of votum inflected or otherwise with voe in it, there’s no word of any kind with that cluster of letters, so instead they’re positing an odd abbreviation. Furthermore, the S for solvit is still missing. More compelling still is that the name of the vow-keeper would also be missing in this version, and names are clearly of major importance: the simplest defixio (curse tablet) is a Nixonesque list of the names of those being cursed, for example. Hercules needs to know that it is Voesius who has repaid him.

Of course all this is my opinion and for that matter based on rather limited information. I do feel certain this silver figurine represents the mythic boar though. The beast of Erymanthus was white like Moby Dick, and silver and white are often used interchangeably in Latin. Rather than being docile this little guy has his head raised proudly with an anthropomorphic, intelligent, and defiant gaze. The beast was also one of the few Hercules captured alive and King Eurystheus of Tiryns, who ordered the labors, had to beg him to take the fearsome creature away. As such, the Erymanthian boar would have been the symbol of an untameable spirit of the wilderness.

Kato’s Comeuppance

Tarantino unravels the Lee myth (Mythmaking in the martial arts, Part 5 Addendum)

I recently decided some of my longer addenda were actually stories of their own, and easier to find, track, etc., if broken out as such, especially since my addenda seem prone to sprouting addenda of their own. To anyone who has already seen them and have thus been gulled into clicking an article you have already seen, whatever, no bigs—in fact, why not give it another read? You might find something you missed last time.

This one that I’ve chosen to start with has gained new currency, perhaps, by its recent bagging of a pair of gold statues at the annual self-congratulatory party Hollywood likes to throw itself.

A couple of things came up for me while watching Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, some relating to the Manson murders, some to Bruce Lee, and some, surprisingly, to both. The first was the generally declining Hollywood system in the late ’60s and the growing focus on lowering budgets, including the Spaghetti Western, which main character Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) initially resists, but eventually performs in. As I’ve noted, this paralleled the rise of the Kung Fu genre.

And El Coyote. This is a great Mexican-American place that I try to visit whenever I’m in LA for their huge, tasty plates and margaritas. And I knew it was a longtime fixture of the area but had no idea that it’s actually approaching its 90th anniversary. Nor did I know that Sharon Tate and her pals ate there on the night before they were gruesomely murdered. With industry events like E3, my work with Disney, and my abortive partnership with David Lynch, among others, I’ve been to El Coyote many times, memories of which have a newly acquired spooky air.

Next I found out that Jay Sebring, who “discovered” Lee was also Tate’s boyfriend until she met Roman Polanski during the filming of Fearless Vampire Killers. She and Polanski later married but Sebring remained her close friend. Perhaps he was even the hookup for Lee as “Karate Advisor”, specifically for Tate’s scene in The Wrecking Crew, which also appears in the Tarantino movie. Sebring was with Tate when the Mason “family” came to her house and was also killed.

There’s a weird twist here that’s not covered in the Tarantino film, and which, let me be clear, I give zero credence: some, including Polanski, believed Lee was responsible for Tate’s death. The link is paper thin and I only mention it for context. Polanski was a student of Lee’s and they saw each other the day afterwards at which time Lee mentioned he had lost his glasses. One of the clues left at the Tate-Polanski home was an unidentified pair of specs.

Finally, let’s get to the Bruce Lee scene as you might’ve known I would. The scene includes Lee (Mike Moh) idolizing Muhammad Ali and making claims about how a fight between them would go, which provokes derision from fictional stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), and a subsequent three-round martial contest which is interrupted before it can be resolved.

Of course I’ve discussed Lee’s Ali obsession, as well as his loudmouthed braggadocio. The Ali stuff appears on film while the latter aspect of Lee’s personality can easily be gleaned from his interviews, as well as the firsthand comment from a coworker that, “No one liked him […]”. Cliff’s scoffing at Lee’s swaggering reflects IRL stuntman Gene Lebell’s comments, and the fight even shows what he specifically suggests would happen in a fight between Lee and someone larger. The format of the combat suggested by the film’s Lee is additionally reminiscent of that between Lee and Vic Moore at the 1967 Long Beach tournament.

It would far be too self-flattering to think Tarantino had read this series of articles, but it does seem clear that he drew from some of the same sources I did for his portrayal of Lee. And clearly Tarantino had previously been a fanboy, dressing the Bride (Uma Thurman) in a black-and-yellow tracksuit and Onitsukas in 2003’s Kill Bill: Volume 1, a clear homage to Lee’s outfit in Game of Death, so something more recent must than that have caused a crisis in his faith.

Tarantino also engages in some anachronism; presenting a fully fledged groovy Lee complete with the chicken noises he later made his signature, but in the time period depicted he wasn’t remotely a star, just a minor actor playing a sidekick on a soon-to-tank small-screen supeshow—far closer to the square early Lee of his first screentest.

Devotees of St. Lee were naturally quite upset by the film’s sacrilegious portrayal as were legacy owners Linda Lee Cadwell and Shannon Lee, the latter quickly and predictably responding,

“ […] he was picked on [by the film] in the way that he was picked on in life by white Hollywood.”

Still, even this controversy serves to renew interest in Lee, just as films about how rotten the movie biz is ultimately only serve to expand its myth.

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Bruce Lie

Part 2: Enter the Tycoon

Part 3: Fists of Flim-Flam

Part 4: Urban Lee

Part 5: The Littlest Dragon

The Little Less-Than

Unruly merbodies (DeDisnification, Part 10)

The Little Mermaid came out in 1989, the first film in what has been called the Disney Renaissance, breathing life back into the animated musical genre, which had been languishing since the 1967 release of The Jungle Book or, according to some, even earlier.

By contrast, the gravy train Disney is currently riding has them remaking every one of even their most modestly successful animated movies. One presumes that this is due to a descending cost curve in CG allowing “lifelike” effects to be cheaply inserted into these films. To me, these remakes are first unneeded and second tend to make the films infinitely worse.

I understand their reasoning, to be sure: there are people of my acquaintance who simply will not watch an animated film and also those who are put off by any sort of visual stylization even with live actors. I suppose, along with my other media ethe, there’s a relevant one that I arrived at partially in my own medium and partly from my days as an art student—the level of visual stylization should match the level of realism being presented in the rest of an experience.

To digress briefly: the well known Magritte painting The Treachery of Images (La trahison des images) depicts a pipe together with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”—“This is not a pipe.” The work caused quite a stir in its day, but it is entirely correct. Indeed other fields have developed related statements such as “the map is not the territory” and the “word is not the thing”. Each case involves a metaphorical representation of reality via a medium of communication. When someone refers to “abstract art,” they are splitting hairs: all art is abstract, it is only the degree of abstraction that varies. Even if you want to create something “realistic”, it is inherently not reality, but a level of abstraction, or stylization—just one that is relatively close to reality.

Let’s take Moby-Dick. The work is strongly based in reality and Herman Melville even served as a “green hand” on a whaling ship; the literary equivalent of method acting. The story is also based in part on the factual story of the doomed voyage of the Essex, a ship that was sunk by a whale. Still, Melville is selecting the elements to include and exclude—the specific members of the crew, the vengeance-obsessed Ahab, the white whale. In short, he has still created the world of the Pequod, one based in the reality of his time, and a specific realm of pursuit, with the exception of the supernaturally powerful titular whale, all marshaled together in order to tell the story.

For contrast I give you Flatland: there is a kind of reality portrayed, but central to the work is the visualization of a two-dimensional world peopled by geometric figures. All the rules of this world, which is essentially a thought experiment, have to be developed by the author and explained to the reader—almost nothing can be taken for granted.

In the Disney-Pixar film, The Incredibles, the inconsistent level of stylization bothered me—super-realistic fire and wet hair were admirable technical achievements, but did not belong in that world. So much more so portraying a fairy-tale reality in vivid, lifelike detail. This also bothers me about the whole MCU and is also why Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is such an excellent standout among these supes—the visuals are perfectly matched to the themes. Whereas watching Christopher Walken’s voice emerge from a not-quite photoreal orangutan to sing “I Wan’na Be like You” is a quick trip to uncanny valley. Digression concluded.

There is, in any case, a veritable flood of these live-action remakes, so many that multiple films are currently in theatrical release, which likely says something about their quality—I can’t be bothered to watch them myself. But one that has been teased has gained particular attention: The Little Mermaid.

And suddenly, the same people who have been very accepting of these remakes are up in arms, tweeting complaints like:

Leave classic Disney movies in peace!

Sorry but I won’t watch this, it simply doesn’t make any sense.

Boycotting this disgrace.

Does this mean that they’ve finally wised up to the fact that their childhood memories are being crassly commoditized by a company expert in maximizing ROI and not so much in creating excellent entertainment experiences? Is it because they’ve figured out that the original animated movies, however flawed, are still superior or that the original works they are based on are still better?

Nope, it’s because of white fragility. You see, a black woman, Halle Bailey, was cast in the lead role of Ariel, stoking outrage and giving rise to the hashtag not my Ariel because she’s not a white-skinned redhead as she was portrayed in the animated film.

You see, Disney in the past was notorious for their racist and sexist on-screen portrayals, as well as various other regressive tropes. True, they were “of the time” and other animation studios, and indeed, film studios generally, were just as bad, sometimes even worse. But lately, Disney has attempted to erase their checkered past, launching a charm offensive of inclusion with such entries as Moana and The Princess and the Frog.

Lest we imagine there’s some type of woke social consciousness behind this effort, Screen Rant contributor Kayleigh Donaldson reminds us the move is “just good business”:¹

[Bailey] has the perfect youthful warmth that Ariel needs, as well as that spark of inquisitiveness. As evidenced by her work under Chloe x Halle, she certainly has the vocal range required to sing those Alan Menken songs […]. Bailey has an enthusiastic and young fanbase, and such things are most certainly taken into consideration in casting projects of this size. In many ways, she’s the full package.

Nonetheless, those complaining on social media have consulted the source, as one can only imagine they never previously had, declaring that as the work is by Hans Christian Andersen, a Dane, Ariel should similarly be Danish, ergo white. Which is actually wildly off the mark: While our term, mermaid means a “young woman of the sea”, the Danish term is havfrue, which means “half-woman”. And indeed these creatures are portrayed as less-than human in the tale, as they lack immortal souls. So quibbling about the color of her skin, eyes, and hair is absurd; she is racially nonhuman. As Lori Yamato, professor of comparative literature notes:²

[T]he mermaid as a being complete in herself is not an option […]; as a mermaid, she is primarily seen as half-human rather than full-mermaid.

The idea of this supernatural creature came early and was widespread, appearing essentially on every human-inhabited continent, together with an ancient intuition that human life originated in the sea. The first clearly focused version is Sumerian Kulianna (“fish-woman”), one of the seven hero-monsters slain by Ninurta in his pursuit of Imdugud, and appearing in the art of the area as early as the Old Babylonian period (around 1830 BC–1531 BC). From there it was borrowed, as things often were, by the Greeks and the West generally, along the way acquiring some properties of the birdlike but shore-dwelling Siren (Σειρήν) along the way, including enchanting vocal stylings.

The operative ur-water sprite for Andersen’s version seems to have been Melusine, a legendary figure prevalent in northwestern France and the Low Countries who seems to actually spring from yet a different Graeco-Roman tradition, that of nymphs (νύμφἡ), specifically Naiads (Ναϊάδες). Melusine was linked to the House of Luxembourg, the Counts of Anjou, and so also the House of Plantagenet, and the French House of Lusignan as a kind of fertility and prosperity deity, though, as I’ve previously noted of these creatures:³

They both exemplify the native innocence of the healthy (and often local) countryside and yet uneasily recall the dangers of its ungovernable wildness; they represent nature as the true expression of divine beauty accompanied by unknowable depths.

Moving on to the Andersen story, in addition to its sentimentalism and Christian moralizing, many see it as antifeminist, with the female protagonist giving up her voice, symbolic of her free will and agency, in order to become attractive to a man. Additionally the cruelty, always present in folktales, is unnecessarily amped up; there’s no magic in how the sea witch takes the mermaid’s voice for example—she cuts out her tongue. Financial Times arts critic and Andersen biographer, Jackie Wullschlager notes that the story,⁴

[…] shows Andersen enjoying the Mermaid’s suffering and offering an oppressive mix of self-sacrifice, silence, and expiation as ideals of female behavior.

Quoting Andersen’s work directly, the sea witch’s deal in particular embodies this sadism:

I will mix you a potion. Drink it tomorrow morning before the sun rises, while you are sitting on the beach. Your tail will divide and shrink, until it becomes what human beings call ‘‘pretty legs.’’ It will hurt; it will feel as if a sword were going through your body. All who see you will say that you are the most beautiful child they have ever seen. You will walk more gracefully than any dancer; but every time your foot touches the ground, it will feel as though you were walking on knives so sharp that your blood must flow. If you are willing to suffer all this, then I can help you.

The Disney film is often seen as turning the tale into a postfeminist text. The elements cited are its focus on the individual, and in particular, the body as the locus of power, as well as the presence of consumerist and heteronormative value systems. The evidence they present for this is not uncompelling; in brief, the world is run by patriarchies, women are either good (Ariel and her sisters), and therefore resemble Barbie, or evil (Ursula the sea witch), and therefore old, fat, and ugly. Finally, the tale centers on a makeover that renders the heroine acceptable to the man she desires. Of the sea witch’s place in this matrix, communications and women studies professor Laura Sells says:⁵

Ursula is the female symbolic encoded in patriarchal language as grotesque and monstrous; she represents the monstrosity of feminine power.

However, it’s significant in both cases that the human world is really the goal and not the prince at all. In fact, there is a clear subtext in the Andersen work, and arguably the Disney one as well that has given it enduring appeal for social outsiders and specifically LGBTQ audiences. Nor is this accidental, as Wullschlager informs us:⁶

As the drama of the suffering of a social outsider and an unrequited lover who cannot express his or her passion, [this story] is still poignant. This is certainly how Andersen identified with the tale, allying himself in his bisexuality to the mermaid’s sense of being a different species from humankind.

Andersen’s sexual orientation is documented, he wrote letters to men which went far beyond the feelings of admiration acceptable to Romantics of the day, disturbing the recipients, such as:

I languish for you as for a pretty Calabrian wench […] my sentiments for you are those of a woman. The femininity of my nature and our friendship must remain a mystery.

Andersen had several crushes on both women and men, all of them unrequited, as well as a poor physical self-image, and it seems that “The Little Mermaid” in particular expressed his curiosities and anxieties about sexuality. If you look back on the passage I’ve already quoted about the mermaid being transformed it reflects the lengths to which someone who feels they are occupying the wrong body is willing to go to remedy the situation.

It’s also important to note that the mermaid does not get the man and when she does not, cries so hard that she melts into foam. Afterwards she enters a purgatorial state as a daughter of the air, an invisible and ethereal being who might finally earn a soul after suffering, enduring and doing good deeds for 300 years. Andersen too, devoted himself to godly works, deepening these parallels, writing:

Almighty God, thee only have I; thou steerest my fate, I must give myself up to thee!

Over in the Disney version, the subtext also appears, many say because of the work of the excellent songwriting team of Alan Menken and Harold Ashman, who also happened to be gay. Many see “Part of Your World” as expressing the longings of a closeted homosexual. “Under the Sea” also fits into this interpretation as Leland Spencer, professor of communication studies relates:

Sebastian believes that Ariel’s identity is essentially connected to the body in which she was born. Sebastian’s musical admonition is a normalizing discourse that officially sanctions particular performances as appropriate or acceptable. His comparison frames the ocean as superior to the land, but also a more fitting place for Ariel. As a mermaid, she should be happy in the ocean. The song asks what more Ariel could be looking for, but Sebastian is not interested in an answer. The implication of the rhetorical question is that she need not look elsewhere because she belongs in the sea and could never be satisfied anywhere else.

It’s also worth noting that Ursula’s appearance seems to have been inspired by the drag queen Divine.

Finally, The Shape of Water did an admirable job of turning subtext into text and subverting many of the unfortunate tropes of the mermaid story. Its art direction was fantastic as well, and yes, live action was the best choice for the film.

If, in similar fashion, Disney’s casting of Bailey as Ariel signals that their live-action remake of The Little Mermaid will come directly at some of the deeper themes embedded in the original film, or even some of the still more difficult ones in Andersen’s work, then I salute them. But not so much if, as I predict, it’s just tokenism in an otherwise complete rehash.

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Straightening out “Hunchback”

Part 2: Making over “Mulan”

Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak

Part 3A: “Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes

Part 3B: Doing Hera’s Work

Part 4: “Belle” Epoch

Part 5: Putting “Pocahontas” to Rest

Part 5 Addendum: Powhattan’s Mantle

Part 6: Trouble with “Tarzan”

Part 7A: Down the Rabbit Hole

Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War

Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle”

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred

Part 9B: The Sum of its Versions

Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio

Part 9D: Snowhaus


  1. Kayleigh Donaldson, “The Little Mermaid’s Ridiculous Casting Backlash Explained”, Screen Rant, 2019.
  2. Lori Yamato, “Surgical Humanization in H. C. Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid’’, Marvels & Tales, 2017.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Jackie Wullschlager, Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller, 2000.
  5. Laura Sells, “Where Do the Mermaids Stand? Voice and Body in “The Little Mermaid”, From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture, 1995.
  6. Wullschlager.
  7. Leland G. Spencer, “Performing Transgender Identity in The Little Mermaid: From Andersen to Disney”, Communication Studies, 2013.

Coda Etrusca

A forgotten culture’s lasting influence (The continuity of magic from East to West, Part 3A)

I’ve already done the research and writing regarding my hypothesis as to how magic moved from the Near East to the West, but I’m compelled to dwell a bit longer on the Etruscans. My reason for doing so is a simple one: I find them fascinating.

As with many things relating to the ancient world, my first real encounter with them was during the production of Gods & Heroes. For the game we included the culture but because of our timeline at roughly 230 BC, it had been on the decline for nearly 300 years. Therefore we presented necropoleis, phantoms, demons, and a few ragged bands of Etruscans still managing to live at the margins of the burgeoning Republic of Rome.

I also wrote and directed voiceover in Etruscan. This was a meaty side project for me. I had worked with Michael Weiss, professor of Indo-European languages from Cornell to get a timeline-appropriate script in Latin, Greek, Gaulish, Oscan, and some other fun regional languages but he balked when I asked about Etruscan. Per my MO this was a challenge-accepted moment and when I showed him what I’d come up with he doffed his hat. Here are a few samples:¹

mi tsinis mulakh’wa tur
I give you blessings.

For the temple!

ic ica rumakharasi
Thus to the Romans!

Handily, when the design team would come up with names for characters or places in the language, I could suggest they use the adjectival form of a word or tell them which genitive ending was appropriate to affix.

Structurally, the language is quite interesting, with agglutinative word endings as are found in Turkic languages and Japanese, together with inflections as we see in most European languages—most have one or the other, not both. There’s also a heavy stress on the initial syllables of words that led to a loss of word-internal vowels, or their replacement by sonorants or aspirates, though they seem to have been re-established later.

It also seems strangely forward looking, with features that were to emerge later in European languages: the soft c before front vowels, the q that we see as a form of k that must be followed by u—both likely due to an excess inventory of letters representing the k sound and which occur across most modern European languages, the ts sound for z we see in German and Italian, among others, and separate letterforms for u and v.

Gods & Heroes used the Etruscan alphabet in the gameworld as well. It’s a form of Old Italic and a close relative of Greek. This means it’s quite readable even though it runs from right to left, or earlier in boustrophedon. It’s actually the forerunner of our own Latin alphabet, as well as having moved north where it evolved into Elder Futhark. Rendered in the Etruscan script, the above phrases would look like this:

𐌓𐌖𐌕 𐌀𐌅𐌗𐌀𐌋𐌌 𐌔𐌉𐌍𐌉𐌆 𐌉𐌌


𐌉𐌔𐌀𐌓𐌀𐌗𐌀𐌌𐌖𐌓 𐌀𐌂𐌉 𐌂𐌉

The reasons Weiss had such doubts about the possibility of working in Etruscan are manifold: not only is it a long-dead language, but it’s also difficult to reconstruct as it has few relatives—in fact the Tyrsenian group to which it belongs is a hypothetical one—and finally the corpus of the language is quite limited, with even scanter ones for others in the group such as Rhaetian and Lemnian.

There are various theories about the origins of the language and people, some agreeing with what I’ve previously discussed; Asia Minor, and others that they either predate the Indo-Europeans and may have related instead to Minoans and Lemnians or associating them with the Pelasgians, ancestors of the Greeks. In any case there was something of a sprachbund between the language and Greek and later Latin which ultimately confounds us etymologically as it’s often difficult to trace which language was the originator and which the borrower of any given word.

Nonetheless, many words and names we still use in English to this day descend from Etruscan. Basically things in Latin that don’t obviously trace from Ancient Greek or Proto-Indo-European, and even some that do, are likely to come from this mysterious language. Some examples are:

  • April: from 𐌖𐌓𐌐𐌀 (apru) via Latin Aprīlis, from Ancient Greek Ἀφροδίτη (Aphrodite)
  • atrium: from 𐌄𐌓𐌈𐌀 (at’re)
  • mundane: from 𐌈𐌖𐌌 (mut’) “world” via Latin mundus
  • palate: 𐌖𐌕𐌀𐌋𐌀𐌚 (falatu) “sky” via Latin palatum
  • person: from 𐌖𐌔𐌓𐌄𐌘 (p’ersu) “mask” via Latin persona

Even the word Rome seems to derive from the Etruscan gens 𐌀𐌌𐌖𐌓 (Ruma), seemingly meaning “teat”, and so perhaps linking to the origin myth of the twins suckled by a she-wolf.

A moderately educated Roman during the early Republic would have known Etruscan and Greek as well as their native Latin. Greek was the language of learning to some extent, but also because of their extensive colonial presence in the southern Italic Peninsula and Sicily, known as Magna Graecia. They’d know the first language not only because of proximity—so close that the shore of the Tiber directly across from Rome was formerly called Ripa Etrusca, ”the Etruscan Bank” (modern Trastevere)—but also because the Republic was established only after the overthrow of the Tarquins (𐌀𐌍𐌗𐌓𐌀𐌕, Tarchna, which was also the name of an important Etruscan city), an Etruscan succession that took over at the end of the Roman Kingdom period (753 BC–509 BC).

It’s important to note that all of the Roman Kings are semi-legendary, beginning with Romulus, who founded the city with his brother Remus, who he of course later slew. Generally, as their reigns are unnaturally long, it is agreed that these kings likely represent a greater number of individual rulers who have been conflated to focus on those deemed most important. The kings were elected by the senate rather than being dynastic and the failure of this system under the Tarquins, who skipped the voting part, is what led to the crisis in kingship and abolition of monarchical rule that was to last until Julius Caesar.

Along with the language, several other things typically thought of as Roman were introduced under the Tarquins. These included clothing such as the toga praetexta—white with a broad purple border, the paludamentum—a cape worn by military commanders, and the trabea—a typically red or purple overgarment, as well other accoutrements like senatorial rings, phalerae—military awards, the tuba—not our modern one, but a long, straight horn, the kingly sceptre, the curule chair, and even the fasces (note none of the preceding terms are italicized as we still use them in English). Important edifices also date from the Tarquins’ reign: the city’s first defensive wall, the Cloaca Maxima, the Circus Maximus, and the Capitoline’s temple to Jupiter Optimus Maximus.

Regarding the gods, most think of those of Rome as being borrowed from the Greeks, but many are actually Etruscan versions of those gods and still others are actually native Etruscan gods only later syncretized with Greek ones. Still others seem to have been natively Roman, such as Jupiter, though his other name Jove seems to match the known Etruscan “anti-Jove” 𐌄𐌅𐌉𐌄𐌅 (Weiwe, Latin Veiovis). The first group includes:

  • Apollo: from Ἀπόλλων via 𐌖𐌋𐌐𐌀 (Aplu)
  • Bacchus: from Βάκχος via 𐌀𐌗𐌀𐌐 (Pakha)
  • Charon: from Χάρων via 𐌖𐌓𐌀𐌗 (Kharu)
  • Hercules: from Ἡρακλῆς via 𐌄𐌋𐌂𐌓𐌄𐌇 (Hercle)

And a few in the second group are:

  • Juno: 𐌉𐌍𐌖 (Uni)
  • Mars: 𐌔𐌉𐌓𐌀𐌌 (Maris) via an Oscan deity based on the Etruscan god of change.
  • Minerva: 𐌀𐌅𐌓𐌍𐌄𐌌 (Menrwa)
  • Mercury: 𐌗𐌓𐌄𐌌 (*Merkh) from an epithet of 𐌔𐌌𐌓𐌖𐌕 (Turms) in his role as the god of trade, and incidentally the origin of the English word merchant.
  • Neptune: 𐌔𐌍𐌖𐌈𐌄𐌍 (Net’uns)
  • Saturn: 𐌄𐌓𐌕𐌀𐌔 (Satre)

And, as we already have seen, the Etruscan divinatory arts were also adopted wholesale by the Romans together with Etruscans as practitioners thereof. In Part 3B I’ll wrap up with a more in-depth discussion of these.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 3B: Devoted More Than All Others

Part 4A: Romancing the Hellenes

Part 4B: The Chthonian Connection

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Griffin and the Phoenix

Part 2A: Hark, a Haruspex!

Part 2B: Go West, Young Mantis


  1. As usual, I’m using a nonstandard Romanization to describe the language. I’ve aimed for easy readability and pronunciation, eschewing letters like χ, φ, and θ, as well as slightly more familiar ones such as ś, v, and z, as well as the use of digraphs like ch, ph, sh and th, which also mislead. So kh represents ch and χ, p’ represents ph and φ, sh is ś, t’ is th or θ, I’ve used u or w to represent v as a vowel or consonant respectively, and ts represents z. As I’ve alluded to above, the letters k, c, and q all have the value k, but I’ve let this peculiarity stand. Apostrophes represent either the syllabic breakup of consonant clusters or aspiration, which I think comes pretty clear. I’ve also put in conjectural vowels where the original orthography omits them. Finally, it’s also worth noting that, as with any dead language, no one really knows what Etruscan sounded like—the map is not the territory, except in the case of the 1:1 map of the empire.

Go West, Young Mantis

Hepatoscopy in Greece and Rome (The continuity of magic from East to West, Part 2B)

The very fact that our words for reading omens from the innards, and specifically the livers of sacrificed sheep, are Greek and Latin attests, if nothing else, that these cultures had some familiarity with the practice. The fact that we have two pairs of such terms seems nearly excessive, especially as there is only the barest nuance separating their meanings. I’ve noted haruspex was the Latin term for the priest-practitioner, while in Ancient Greece it was a μάντις (mantis), whence of course the insect (thus “praying mantis” is pleonastic) but also all the -mancies (via the verbal form, μαντεία).

That the art was widespread is clear, even though the serious ick factor of fishing around in a pile of steaming viscera to learn the will of the gods is pretty large, especially given the generally high esteem in the West for these mother cultures, leading to a downplaying if not full-on expungement of the gory details. Historian and archaeologist Sir William Reginald Halliday writing near the turn of the last century certainly fit this pattern saying:¹

To attempt to classify or to enumerate exhaustively [divination as a part of animal sacrifice’s] almost unlimited possibilities of variation is a difficult and unprofitable task. Of the most important of them, however, extispication or the examination of entrails, something must be said. Into great detail or the discussion of technicalities it will fortunately be unnecessary to go.

Nonetheless, as a more recent scholar, Derek Collins, notes of the centrality of these rites that Halliday begrudges discussing:²

Next to the Delphic oracle, the most important form of divination in classical Greece was extispicy.

Indeed the importance of the rite can be gauged by the fact that it was also part of the preparation for a consultation with that oracle. Additionally, just as in the Ezekiel passage about Nabû-kudurri-usur I quoted in Part 2A, divination was most commonly performed before and during military campaigns where it was termed in Greek τα σφάγια (tà sphágia), governing weighty issues such as when to begin a march, who was to command, etc.

Halliday also notes that some form of extispicy has sprung up among many far-flung peoples, trying again to downplay these rites within Greek culture as well as to cast doubt as to their origin. But there is neither Greek literature nor iconography, let alone physical evidence, to support such an origin of the practice prior to 700 BC when it appears in the final version of the Homeric epics while older strata are devoid of such mentions. Art begins to present seers examining the liver from about 530 BC and not until following the Persian Wars (499–449 BC) does literature feature it as the dominant form of divination. Again, let’s recall that in 700 BC, we’re only 100 years past the Greek Dark Age, and that date is important for another reason as we’ll see later.

Halliday manages to hold his nose long enough to discuss the origins while still attempting to downplay it, by terming it a “sub-rite”:³

The Greeks themselves assigned the origin of extispication as of augury to mythical figures, to Delphos son of Poseidon, to Prometheus, to Sisyphos or Orpheus; and among the peoples supposed by antiquity to have invented the art are Etruscans, Egyptians, Cyprians, Cilicians, or Chaldeans.

The abovementioned Titan as the source of the art figures in Prometheus Bound as one of the gifts given to the mortals along with fire, which again reinforces its importance:⁴

[] σπλάγχνων τε λειότητα, καί χροιν τίνα
ἔχουσ᾽ ἂν εἴη δαίμοσιν προς ἡδονην
χολή, λοβοῦ τε ποικίλην εὐμορφίαν.

[…] the smoothness of animal entrails, what color the gallbladder must have to please the gods, and the dappled symmetry of the liver lobe.

Herodotus’ supposedly historical claim that extispicy originated in Egypt and moved thence to Greece has been fully debunked by modern archaeology as there is no attestation in Egypt prior to the Hellenistic period. As to the tradition pointing to Cilicia and Cyprus, the priest clan of the Tamiradae at Paphos claimed to have brought the art with them from Cilicia, and to have passed it on to the Cinyradae. This last term refers to the chief priests there, who were actually of Phoenician rather than Greek origin, and so ultimately trace back to the source I’ve suggested. Collins concludes:⁵

[E]xtispicy originated in Mesopotamia among Babylonians and Assyrians, from where it moved west to the Hittites in Asia Minor and from there to Greece.

So despite some confusion remaining in Halliday’s work near the turn of the last century as to where Graeco-Roman augury came from, Collins delivers the above statement as being “commonly accepted” as of a decade ago. Furthermore, many of the same terms of art are used in the East and West, with many of those in Ancient Greek appearing to be direct translations from Akkadian, referring to features of the liver such as the “gate”, “head”, “path”, and “river”.

Turning to Rome, the practice enjoyed similar ubiquity such that in the late Republican era (44 BC), Cicero wrote:⁶

extis enim omnes fere utuntur
nearly everyone uses entrails in divination

Indeed while in the Mesopotamian practice sheep were mainly used, though oxen and goats also sometimes provided the wiggly material, in the West the practice was extended to sacred chickens, and even the guts of frogs and dogs could be consulted on occasion.

As to Latin literature, Vergil mentions a famous seer, Asilas:⁷

[…] ille hominum divomque interpres Asilas,
cui pecudum fibrae, caeli cui sidera parent
et linguae volucrum et praesagi fulminis ignes […].

[…] Asilas, interpreter between gods and men, whom the victims’ entrails obey, and the stars of heaven, the tongues of birds, and prophetic lightning fires […].

He’s talking about the Etruscans, whose Disciplina Etrusca contains exactly these things: haruspicy as well as divination via the stars (astrologia), interpretation of bird cries (linguae volucrum), and lightning (fulguratura). Note that the Etruscan language and literature are largely lost, and now known only though Latin sources, just as with the above terms, though the term 𐌔𐌉𐌅𐌔𐌕𐌄𐌍 (nets’wis) is generally agreed to be the equivalent of haruspex. Etruscan, Hellenistic, and Roman archaeology specialist Nancy de Grummond notes:⁸

Etruscan ritual […] was informed by a constant preoccupation with fate and destiny, and centered on attempts to learn the will of the gods and somehow to affect their decisions and thus the outcome of human affairs. The well-known Etruscan science of haruspication, involving the scrutiny and interpretation of the entrails of a sacrificial animal, epitomizes Etruscan praxis […].

Sounding familiar? Now we can return to the liver model from Piacenza about which I’ll come clean: I’ve misled you slightly. While it is in fact “relating to the Roman culture” as I said, it’s actually Etruscan, as that was the dominant culture on the Italic peninsula during Rome’s formative years and therefore a huge cultural donor—the Greek influence was to come later. What struck me about the liver models naturally did not escape the notice of scholars:⁹

The correspondence between Etruscan and Assyrian hepatoscopy became evident as soon as the Etruscan bronze liver found at Piacenza was compared with the Assyrian clay model of a liver in the British Museum […].

And as in the Near East, this liver model isn’t unique in the Etruscan world—there are others in both bronze and terracotta, the Piacenza Liver is just an excellent example, which is unique in that it also attempts to relate the liver and the sky. I’ve also sneakily held back a bit of Collins’ tracing of the art from East to West:¹⁰

In the case of liver divination, the only exception to [the] pattern is that some of the technical information concerning the manufacture of model livers for instruction seems to have bypassed the Greek mainland and flowed by way of Lydia to Etruria.

However it seems he’s actually gotten it wrong. Remember when I said that the date of 700 BC when hepatoscopy entered Ancient Greek literature was important? It corresponds exactly to the Orientalizing period of Etruscan history:¹¹

[T]he internal tradition of the Etruscan disciplinae goes back to the seventh century […]—that is, to precisely that period whose glory is reflected in so many oriental imports.

That is to say that Collins should have cast a still wider net as it seems the entire art bypassed Greece, caught on in Etruria, and then doubled back from there. Indeed the exonym for the Etruscans that the Greeks invented and that we still use a form of—Tusci—may derive from θυοσκόος (thyoskoos), “sacrifice-diviner”. The Etruscans’ name for themselves was 𐌀𐌍𐌔𐌀𐌓 (rasna), which just means “people” as many autonyms do.

The source I’m quoting above, The Orientalizing Revolution, backs up at least this aspect of my hypothesis that much of Western magic stems from the Near East and I plan to read it further to see what else it reveals. The final verdict reached on this topic in the book is this:¹²

[T]o build a system specifically on the slaughter of sheep, to manufacture demonstration models of sheep livers from clay and metal and to provide them with inscriptions for the sake of explanation, is something peculiar found precisely along the corridor from the Euphrates via Syria and Cyprus to Etruria. It can even be shown that both the Assyrian and the Etruscan models diverge from nature in a similar way; that is, they are derived not directly from observation but from common traditional lore.

And, at least in Rome, the art continued to be Etruscan long after their hegemony of the area had elapsed; the art was passed from father to son. Thus when the Romans refer to haruspices they essentially mean this group of Etruscan specialists who continued to officiate in Rome.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 3A: Coda Etrusca

Part 3B: Devoted More Than All Others

Part 4A: Romancing the Hellenes

Part 4B: Chthonian Connection

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Griffin and the Phoenix

Part 2A: Hark, a Haruspex!


  1. W. R. Halliday, Greek Divination: A Study of its Methods and Principles, 1913.
  2. Derek Collins, “Mapping the Entrails: The Practice of Greek Hepatoscopy”, The American Journal of Philology, 2008.
  3. Halliday; by “sub-rite” he’s insinuating that animal sacrifice is the main rite with hepatoscopy being an adjunct thereto—contrary to all evidence.
  4. Lines 493–495. Προμηθευς Δεσμώτης was formerly attributed to Aeschylus; I’ve used M. L. West’s 1990 translation, finding no fault with it. Also this site doesn’t support all the Ancient Greek accents and breathing marks—my apologies to any readers thereof.
  5. Collins.
  6. Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Divinatione, 1.10.
  7. Pūblius Vergilius Marō, Aeneid,X.175, H. Rushton Fairclough’s 1918 just fine translation.
  8. Nancy de Grummond, “Etruscan Religion”, The Cambridge History of Religions in the Ancient World, 2013.
  9. Walter Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age, 1995.
  10. Collins.
  11. Burkert.
  12. Ibid.

Hark, a Haruspex!

Looking in the liver (The continuity of magic from East to West, Part 2A)

While looking in the British Museum for items to establish the continuity of magical practice from East to West, I ran across a quite compelling one: an artifact in the Near Eastern section labelled The Liver Tablet, dated between 1900 and 1600 BC and found in Sippar (in modern central Iraq). Its description says it is an:

Inscribed model of a sheep’s liver probably used for instructing pupils; each box describes the implications of a blemish appearing at that position.

And just what might those implications be? We’re talking here about divination—attempting to foresee the future—one of those mysterious mancies ancient magic is riddled with, in this case hepatomancy, which itself is a type of haruspicy. The first term derives from the Greek words for “liver” (ἧπαρ, hêpar) and “divination” (μαντεία), and the second from an archaic Latin word for “entrails” (haru) and the Greek word “to examine” (σκοπία, skopiá), which we also see in another form of divination handed down from Mesopotamia, the horoscope. Still more terms referring to the same arts appear, and as they will come up later, it’s best to introduce them as well; hepatoscopy and extispicy, respective synonyms of the first pair.

The Brit’s liver tablet turns out to be far from unique, with hundreds of similar ones excavated from sites like Mari (in modern eastern-central Syria) and Hazor (north-eastern Israel), with some 36 of them found at Hattusa (central Turkey) alone.

And of course the reason this object caught my eye is that there is a rather famous one that’s quite similar relating to the Roman culture, known as the Liver of Piacenza for the northern Italian province in which it was found, more on which later.

Turning to the Mesopotamian complex of languages and the practitioners of the art in the region, although several terms for various priests and priestesses are attested, there are a few for this specific religious office, including Sumerian mash’shugidgid, mash’shugigi, and uzu, all of which came to be expressed in Akkadian by the term bāru. In Mesopotamia hepatomancy is thought to be the oldest of the divinatory arts, predating even writing. As professor of ancient Near Eastern studies, Beate Pongratz-Leisten notes:¹

While no omen reports have been transmitted from the early periods, Early Dynastic profession lists and numerous administrative tablets from Ebla [in modern northwest Syria] point to the practice of extispicy performed during the third millennium BCE.

The specially trained priests would inspect the liver and lungs of a sacrificial sheep for omens. The liver was regarded much as the heart is today, as the seat of emotions, especially desire, and even life and the soul, and so received particular emphasis in auguries. As a side note, in antiquity Cupid/ Ἔρως’s arrows targeted neither the victim’s heart nor liver but their eyes.

Moreover, although anything animate or inanimate could be used by the gods to express their will as to human affairs or indeed cosmic truths, the stars and the liver were thought of as the particularly favored media. Professor of religious and classical studies Alan Lenzi notes:²

[Mesopotamian s]cholars’ references to the celestial phenomena as “heavenly writing” (šiṭir šamê) or “writing of the firmament” (šiṭir burūmê), and the categorization of the liver as the “tablet of the gods” (-uppi ša ilī), are indicative of this perspective.

As to the method of this divination, the size, shape, and color of the organ were considered, but marks and the locations in which they appeared were of particular importance. Just as the museum’s label notes, the liver tablet and many like it essentially directed the student to  the omen indicated by a mark at a given location.

Prior to all of this, the priest would have a specific question to which the answer was being sought, generally regarding the important actions a ruler was planning to take, in order to gauge both the general cosmic favorability and the possible repercussions. The priest then,³

used judicial terminology, asking the sun god Šamaš “to judge the case” (dīna diānu) and “put truth” (kitta šakānu) into the entrails of the sheep.

As this suggests, such auguries mainly pertained to royalty, and as the sheep you possessed essentially equated to your wealth and social status, the extravagance of consulting their innards was also necessarily restricted to the elite. For example, the archive at Ebla, in the northwest of modern Syria, one of the largest from the time and region (mid-3rd millennium BC) contained lists of sheep so used, which,⁴

reveal that it was practiced on a large scale on behalf of the court, but also point to the king’s sponsorship and patronage of the craft.

The latter was true to such an extent that the seals of these priests beginning in the Old Babylonian period (c. 1830 BC) reflected their position in direct relation to the kings they served. One named Asqudum from the kingdom of Mari, for example, reads:

Zimri-Lim, appointed by the god Dagan; Asqudum, the diviner

Zimri-Lim is of course the king he served.

Furthermore, the Book of Ezekiel 21:21 characterizes Nabû-kudurri-usur (𒀭𒀝𒆪𒁺𒌨𒊑𒋀, best known as Nebuchadnezzar II) of the Neo-Babylonian Empire as personally performing hepatomancy among other divinatory arts:⁵

For the king of Babylon stood at the parting of the way, at the head of the two ways, to use divination: he made his arrows bright, he consulted with images, he looked in the liver.

A few things are worth noting here: First, the crossroads is the locus of the oracle, a liminal space in several traditions. The Greek Ἑκάτη (Hekátē) was the goddess of the crossroads as well as witchcraft, and the Roman Diana took on these aspects under the epithet Trivia, meaning “triple way”, or crossroads. This idea of such places was passed down even to relatively modern times as bluesman Robert Jordan was reputed to have traded his soul to the devil for his guitar skills in the 1920s. Second, the arrows are actually shaken  rather than “made bright”—other translations render it this way. That is, they are cast as lots; this is another form of divination known as cleromancy. Finally, the images mentioned are graven ones—idols known as teraphim (תְּרָפִים), “household gods”. All of this is to decide whether to invade Jerusalem, for which apparently the king received a resounding yes from the gods.

From the time that divinatory material begins to appear in writing, royal and temple libraries show it to be quite important, often housing large collections. An example of the importance of such documents can be seen in King Ash’shurbanipal’s archive, where over a quarter of the tablets were divinatory.

These royal associations extended to the omens themselves because of their relationship to historical events, i.e., this mark appeared when king X did Y, and so presenting either dire or propitious tidings based on the outcome. Things like:

a-mu-ut Na-ra-am-(d)Sîn sá A-pí-sá-al Il-qá-é

Omen of Naram-Sin who conquered Apishal.


a-mu-ut ú-hu-ra-im si12 I-bí-(d)Sîn ba-taq? ma-ti-šu i-ba-al-ki-li-šu

Omen of diminishment of Ibbi-Sin against whom a fraction of his country made a revolt.

Naram-Sîn and Ibbi-Sîn being kings of the Akkad and Ur III period respectively.

Eventually and somewhat predictably, it became aspirational to appear in these omens as a paradigmatic and historiographic ruler, also uncoincidentally increasing one’s prestige and political power. Ash’shurbanipal, for example, sought to insert himself into the company of kings like Sargon and Naram-Sîn of Akkad, as is recorded in a letter from a diviner asking how the king would like his omens to be written, running in part:

[Omen for Ash’shurbani]pal, mighty king, reverent prince, of whom (it is said) Ishtar (walks) at the side of his a[rmy] cut off [the head of Teumman, king of Ela]m in the midst of battle and the son of Bēl-iqīsha […]-tuk of the Elamite they hung around his neck, and Ash’shurbanipal [went to Nineve]h, his royal residence. They were exulting joyfully and performed music, the messenger? of Ummanigash, king of Elam, he killed in front of Ash’shurbanipal, king of the universe, and he sat on his throne. Ash’shurbanipal, king of the universe, at the command of […] Tammarītu, king of Elam, together with his magnates rolled before him [in?] Nineveh, his royal residence. [whom Assur and] Ishtar love and lead with their full content, and Tammarītu who had plotted for help of Shamash-shum-ukīn, he himself, the diviner and his magnates went and kissed his feet, Tammarītu and the diviner accused each other in front of him.

[If … the right and left side of the station are […] it is the omen of Ash’shurbanipal, king of the universe, (of whom it is said) that Shamash and Ishtar walk at the side of his army and killed (his enemies) in the midst of battle and effected their defeat.

[If…] in the lift of the head of the right lung there is a sign/omen (predicting) the annihilation of the army, it is an omen of Shamash-shum-ukīn, [the treacherous brother, who] fought against the army of Ash’shurbanipal, the beloved of the great gods, (but) was defeated.

I’ve covered the prevalence of this form of divination in the ancient Near East, next time more about its presence in Western magic and ritual.

Coincidentally, the Brit’s exhibition, “I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria‎”, was really what I went there to see but alas, it was the last weekend of its run, it was sold out, and I didn’t get to see it so I did this instead.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 2B: Go West, Young Mantis

Part 3A: Coda Etrusca

Part 3B: Devoted More Than All Others

Part 4A: Romancing the Hellenes

Part 4B: The Chthonian Connection

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Griffin and the Phoenix


  1. Beate Pongratz-Leisten, “The King at the Crossroads between Divination and Cosmology”, Divination, Politics, and Ancient Near Eastern Empires, Ancient Near East Monographs, 2014.
  2. Alan Lenzi, “Revisiting Biblical Prophecy, Revealed Knowledge Pertaining to Ritual, and Secrecy in Light of Ancient Mesopotamian Prophetic Texts”, Divination, Politics, and Ancient Near Eastern Empires, Ancient Near East Monographs, 2014.
  3. From Pongratz-Leisten.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Taken from the King James Version.

The Griffin and the Phoenix

The migratory patterns of mythical beasts (The continuity of magic from East to West, Part 1)

A handy thing about living in London is I can go to the British Museum. San Francisco’s Legion of Honor is decidedly minor league by comparison, really doing a fair job only as a historical cross-section of Western painting, with wunderkammer-style collections of anything else, including their more archaeological selection of ancient artifacts. The British, on the other hand, has more of this stuff than they can even display properly.

To this point, my research has mainly been done online, a painstaking, time-consuming, and often frustrating affair. Additionally my access to WorldCat via my son’s university is shortly to end making things considerably worse. Indeed, the UofM seems to have noticed that I’m trying to use their service from a distant location and now refuses requests except from my phone, a less-than-ideal device for such purposes.

There are drawbacks to the museum to be sure: the relevant artifacts might be displayed based on contexts entirely dissimilar to what one has in mind, and of course, there are tourists, from which at least the dark corners of the internet remain free. They really only came to the museum to take selfies in the great hall in an attempt to give their friends some form of cultural FOMO, but hey, now that they’ve come all this way, they might as well play it out a bit, in case someone asks them about it, so they can repeat hazily understood facts about the Rosetta Stone, e.g., but assuring everyone, “such history—it was amazing!” Basically, they clutter the halls, each with a sense that the items on display must be important but unsure as to why. When one of them stops, they all stop, assuming something particularly noteworthy has been spotted by a member of the herd.

Then there are the tour guides; one was trying to explain cuneiform to his group in one of the Assyrian galleries and started out well, saying it had been invented by the Sumerians, but then took a sharp left turn, saying it was an alphabet and that the Assyrians who supplanted the Sumerians used the script to write their own language. I uttered a series of three “no”s each a bit louder than the last before I could stop myself.¹ I’m sure it was passed off as a mild attack of Tourette’s, but for the rest of my visit I wondered if there was someone I should report him to.

Anyway if, for example, I want to establish a continuity of ritual practice between the magic of the ancient Near East and the Graeco-Roman sphere I can simply stroll through a few galleries (dodging past tourists) in order to do so. The process is simple: I look in the Mesopotamian or Egyptian galleries for items I recognize, more or less, from the ancient West, and moreover can also view items from this last area if needs be. So on we go.

The griffin is tricky, as one of the earliest recognizable images comes from Crete, specifically the royal palace complex at Knossos, causing people to associate it with Greek culture. And indeed, the Bronze Age Greeks did draw significantly from the Minoans, including at least their mode of dress, the buon fresco technique, and the Linear B script. Maybe the Mycenaeans also borrowed the bird-creature along with many other things but we don’t know because of the Late Bronze Age Collapse.

Nonetheless we encounter similar chimerae in Mesopotamia, including some versions of Imdugud/ Anzû (𒀭𒅎𒂂), whence also the Ziz (זיז) generally with more birdlike properties, and the Alad/ Lamassu/ Shedu (𒀭𒆗), with a lion or bull’s body, eagle’s wings, and a human face, which components also flowed into Jewish lore as the four living creatures that draw the chariot of God and thence to each of the Christian Gospels and their writers, who sometime reassemble à la Voltron to form the mighty Tetramorph.

Strong examples of the griffin in bronze appear in Rhodes, which, while traditionally Greek is closer to Anatolia than it is to the mainland, with its name possibly stemming from the Phoenician word for snake, 𐤓𐤏𐤃‎𐤄 (possibly ero’od—the script is an abjad, so we can only guess at the vowels), since the island was apparently once quite infested with the creatures. Extremely near cousins of these griffins also turn up in Etruria; they are so similar indeed that they form part of the hypothesis of the Anatolian origin of the Etruscans.

The phoenix on the other hand has a name which in itself is etymologically inextricable from Phoenicia, as both once referred to the color purple. Mycenaean attests both po-ni-ke (probably fonikes) meaning the creature and po-ni-ki-ja (fonikia) meaning the color. As might be expected because of the extensive trade network and the moderate sprachbund formed thereby, these words are as migratory as the grey heron the Egyptians may have based a phoenix-like idea on, originating in the word bnw (maybe bennu—another abjad here). Thence, conjecture runs, it was borrowed by the Minoans, and from them by the Mycenaeans. Meanwhile the ethnonym is attributed also via Minoan to a different Egyptian word, fnḫw (fenekhu), referring to woodcutters, as their lumber came from Canaan.

However, Dutch history of religion scholar Roelof van der Broek expresses some doubt:²

It is clear that there are certain parallels and relationships between the benu and the phoenix, but it is not possible to demonstrate that the Classical views were based on Egyptian, as some others have assumed. […] there are no indications that these notions [of the rebirth of the soul] developed from Egyptian conceptions, even though it has been assumed by some Egyptologists and others as well. It is at least equally probable that this symbolism developed spontaneously from the Classical phoenix myth.

He continues in a more etymological vein thus:

The name of the phoenix has also been considered to be derived from that of the benu, which has been taken as evidence of the Egyptian origin of the Classical myth. Sethe and Spiegelberg, followed by many others, have argued that the Egyptian word benu should be pronounced *boin or *boine, on the basis of the fact that it is written as bjn-w. The name φοῖνιξ is therefore considered to be only a Greek version of the Egyptian term for the benu. Several serious objections to this conclusion can be put forward […].

Unfortunately, in rather meta fashion, my limited ability to access this book online meant that I could only find out what a few of these objections were. All I could find was the Google Book, which hides significant portions of the text presumably to protect the copyright, even though the book is nullibiquitous for purchase. I trudge on nonetheless.

There is a near homophony of the Mycenaean words fonikes and fonikia, such that the latter appears simply to be the genitive form of the first, linking the two terms so deeply that either the mythical fowl’s plumage becomes reddish purple to match the dye of that color that originates in Phoenicia, or vice versa. There another confounding homonym in this cluster, po-ni-ki-jo (fonikios) which appears just a masculine-gendered variant of fonikia, but means a date palm, whose Latin name remains Phoenix dactylifera. There are yet more meanings in Ancient Greek, which at least seems clearer as it refers to a guitar-like instrument of the Phoenicians, and the letters of the Phoenician alphabet are called Φοινικηια (Phoinikeia) by Herotodus (Ἡρόδοτος).

Various theories of which sense is the primary one abound, based on authorities such as Isidore of Seville, who says the bird is named for the color, and Ovid, who says the name came from “the Assyrians”, meaning the Phoenicians, and Lactantius, who says exactly the reverse, although they both agree that the palm is named for the bird, as it nests in said tree, while the Spaniard says the palm is named for the bird because they share a long lifespan, an idea Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria also puts forth. Ultimately, it seems the name of a fabulous creature must be the original sense, coming to Mycenaean from a Semitic source and moreover covering both the bird and the griffon, which then was extended to the land, the color, the palm, and the musical instrument. And indeed these creatures both appear in Minoan art. A French language review of the van der Broek book—one of the few traces I could find of it—reflects that he agrees:³

Le Po-ni-ke mycénien, l’oiseau de Phénicie, serait alors une espèce de griffon, d’origine sémitique.

The Mycenaean Po-ni-ke, the bird of Phoenicia, would then be a species of griffin, of Semitic origin.

Van der Broek also concludes that the name of the bird has to have been transferred to the palm rather than the other way around, perhaps because both had the aspect of long life, also bringing the idea of victory symbolized by the palm frond into the complex and resulting in depictions of the bird perched in a palm tree.

Neither van den Broek, nor anyone else I can discover points to an actual origin for the word and it seems to have been lost to the ages. I’ll be bold and suggest Sumerian piring (𒊊). The literal meaning is “lion”, but also “bull”, or “wild bull”, and indeed as there is a tendency in the language to group felines and canines together, we should add “dog” to these; animal, wild, and dangerous seem the proper cluster of associations. Furthermore, it’s used in descriptions of the 11 chaos monsters birthed by the dragon goddess Nammu (𒀭𒇉, better known by her Akkadian name 𒀭𒋾𒊩𒆳, Tiamat) to avenge the slaying of her consort, Abzu (𒍪 𒀊):

piring igi ushumgal
lion with the face of the Ushumgal (Great Dragon)

piring igi mush’khush
lion with the face of the Mush’khush (Furious Snake)

piring mush’khush ab’shaga luga
lion, the Mush’khush that lives in the center of the sea

These creatures are chimerae, their nature embodying the primordial chaos their mother represents: dragons like those mentioned above, a bull-man, a scorpion-man, a fish-man, one with a lion’s head and bird’s feet (clearly griffin territory), and even a lion-man who is named Uridim (𒌨𒅂), “Mad Lion” (which uses the term for dog).

The transformation to fonikes is explicable, though there is no evidence for the direction I propose: the Sumerian consonant ĝ, with the value ŋ (essentially ng, as I’ve rendered it above) does not exist in Linear B, and so the word might’ve been syllabized as pi-ri-ni-gi. Eventual and common decay of the tapped r and a shift in the first vowel takes us to po-ni-gi, and some influence from the Mycenaeans takes us the rest of the way there, where p- can describe f- and g-, k- (and kh-).

In any case, while concepts did tend to wander across the ancient world, their general East-to-West direction eventually becomes clear.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 2A: Hark, a Haruspex!

Part 2B: Go West, Young Mantis

Part 3A: Coda Etrusca

Part 3B: Devoted More Than All Others

Part 4A: Romancing the Hellenes

Part 4B: The Chthonian Connection


  1. The correct answers are: logographic/ syllabic script, Akkadians, and Akkadian.
  2. R. van den Broek, The Myth of the Phoenix according to Classical and Early Christian Traditions (Études Préliminaires aux Religions Orientales dans l’Empire Romain, 24), 1972.
  3. Marcel Detienne, Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions, 1973.