The Punic Curse Trail

Seeking the defixio’s Near Eastern origins (Defixiones, Part 7)

The first known example of a lead curse tablet (defixio) pleading for justice for a crime done to the supplicant is not from the far-flung provinces of Rome, nor is it from Rome proper, it’s not even Greek, it’s from Carthage (Punic 𐤒𐤓𐤕•𐤇𐤃𐤔𐤕). The text runs thus:¹

Lady Ḥawwat, Goddess, Queen who causes (things) to be poured out! May I, Maṣliḥ, make ʾEmʿaštart melt, and ʿMrt(?) and all which is hers, because she has rejoiced at my expense about the money that I have lost completely(?). (and may I/you cause to melt) every person who rejoices at my expense about the loss of this money, just as the lead is poured out.

Let’s establish the bona fides of the specimen: It is a sheet of lead, inscribed with a prayer in Punic, which was rolled up and deposited into a tomb in a Carthaginian necropolis near the coastal area of Dermech in modern Tunis.

The deity called upon is the “goddess, queen” Khawwat¹ (𐤇𐤅𐤕‬), an epithet of Tanit(𐤕𐤍𐤕), the head of the Phoenician pantheon together with her consort Baʿal (𐤁𐤏𐤋). Although no fire or melting were involved in the deposition of the defixio, the rhetoric focuses on “melting” and “pouring out”, presumably referring to a simple method for the creation of a lead sheet—pouring molten lead onto a hard, flat surface, such as a stone—as the analogy for the punishment of wrongdoers.

Overall, it’s quite familiar, with the only slightly odd feature being the supplicant, Matslikh,² has lost money, but rather than seeking justice for the theft, he asks those rejoicing in his loss be punished—an early prayer for deliverance from schadenfreude.

Now to the dating of this object, which is less clear: it is often ascribed to the third century BCE, making it quite early in the context of curse tablets generally, but there is little information available on the object and what there is is dubious. First, the necropolis the defixio was excavated from dates to the seventh–sixth century, and second, the dating is based on the idea the Greek tradition had to have preceded it. The data here are admittedly scarce, and their interpretation is uncertain, as Christopher Faraone, et al. note:³

[Classical scholar William Sherwood] Fox, on the one hand, suggests [… a] “Semitic” influence on the Greek materials, whereas much of the scholarship on the Carthaginian curse assumes or argues for the reverse, namely, that the Greek tradition of binding spells was being imitated or adapted by the author of the Punic tablet.

It seems clear choosing a date based on the idea this tablet was made in imitation of Greek models is bad science, so I’d definitely lean towards an earlier one. Furthermore, the practice of cursing via a necropolis requires the defixio be placed in the tomb of one untimely dead, and if somehow the knowledge of such a tomb survived for three hundred years, one would imagine a massive trove of defixiones would have been discovered at the spot. Even this assumes deposition of three hundred years of detritus would not have completely effaced the tomb or even the entire complex.

If, as I think should be done, we move the date of the curse tablet toward the active dates of the necropolis, it goes from being the first known plea for justice to perhaps the first known defixio full stop. Of course, we have already seen Egyptian execration texts predating the Greek models, and the ancient Near East (ANE) was generally seen as the source of mystical practices, so why wouldn’t the practice first appear in that same context?

Faraone et al. posit a biblical passage in the Book of Judges is a reference to the practice among the Canaanites in the ninth century, which, if true, would easily predate any known curse tablet.⁴

There was a man in the hill country of Ephraim [אֶפְרָיִם] whose name was Mikha [מִיכָה].

He said to his mother, “The eleven hundred (pieces) of silver that were taken from you, about which you uttered a curse and even spoke it in my hearing—the silver is in my possession; it was I who took it.” And his mother said, “May my son be blessed to Yahweh [יהוה]!”

Then he returned the eleven hundred (pieces) of silver to his mother; and his mother said, “I have indeed consecrated the silver to Yahweh from my hand for my son, to make an idol of cast metal. So now I return it to you.”

So when he had returned the money to his mother, his mother took two hundred (pieces) of silver, and gave it to the smith, who made it into an idol of cast metal; and it was deposited there in the house of Mikha.

Again, although no actual curse tablet is mentioned, the ritual elements sound entirely familiar: in Roman terms, there is a curse and a vow made and when the lost money is recovered, an ex voto offering is made of the promised silver—we’ve just substituted Mercury with Yahweh here. Percentagewise, the amount donated by Mikha’s mother is low, but 200 pieces of silver seems quite a substantial sum, especially given it’s enough to cast into an idol.

It’s also worth noting Judges describes a series of incidents of the unfaithfulness of the people of Israel to their God, Yahweh, with whom they are supposed to have a covenant. This is expressed in several ways in this passage, as both theft and witchcraft are clearly proscribed by Mosaic Law, as is the making of idols. Indeed, there is a formulaic pro-monarchical criticism repeated throughout the book, just as it is immediately after this tale:⁵

In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.

Another related theme in Judges is the conquest of the land of Canaan (Punic 𐤊𐤍𐤏𐤍, Hebrew כְּנָעַן‬), and the settlement among the local people by the Israelites. The term Canaanite lumps together several settled and nomadic pastoral groups of the southern Levant, but the main coastal group who continued to identify themselves using the endonym in North Africa were the Phoenicians, better known as the Carthaginians. The implication in the book is that by mixing with the Canaanites, the Israelites are coming into contact with and being subverted by the non-Judaic traditions that held sway in the region before their arrival.

If we take the Judges passage as referring to this same set of cursing beliefs, it means we’re effectively winding the clock all the way back to at least the Late Bronze Age Collapse (LBAC) corresponding closely with the beginning of the Greek Dark Age, a time during which the culture was illiterate, ultimately borrowing the Phoenician alphabet some 200 years after its creation to return to writing the Greek language. Why would we not think the defixio was another borrowing by the nascent Greek culture from the wise ANE?

The Phoenicians would also be in much closer contact with the generally acknowledged sources of the mystical tradition that was to flow eventually into the Graeco-Roman world. In particular, Sumerian texts show a particular feature relevant to what we see later in sympathetic magic in the West: formulae of analogy accompanied by ritual.

All the way back in the Sargonic Period (ca. 2334–2154 BCE) we have incantations such as this one that “applies an analogy of pot-breaking to a daimon”:⁶

tukkats’tsakin khekats’kats

May it be smashed to bits like a pot!

There is a clear implication the act of smashing a pot is to be performed as a ritual together with the prayer, and there are many such.

Remaining in the Mesopotamian milieu, another tradition of the same descent is evidenced in numerous texts against witchcraft from the Middle Assyrian Empire (1392–934 BCE). These are quite consistent, typically beginning with a diagnosis, which also includes information about how the initial curse may have been performed:⁷

šumma amēlu kišpī epšūšu lū ṣalm[ūšu
ina m]ê temrū lū ṣalmūšu ana gulgullisic
amēlūti paqd[ū … ] […]

If witchcraft has been performed against a man, (if) either figurin[es of him] have been sunk [in wat]er […] or figurines of him have been thrown into fire, or figurines of him have been bu[ried] in the ground […]

We have seen poppets are part of the Western tradition, and the descriptions here of how they will have been treated match closely with what we know about defixiones as well: sunk into water, as at the springs at Aquae Sulis and Parioli, thrown into fire as at Mainz and Uley or buried in the ground as at various Necropoleis including the one at Dermech.

Another text more poetically describes such a figurine as having been “handed over to Eresh’k’ikal (𒀭𒊩𒆠𒃲, Queen of the Underworld) in dilapidated places,” also referring to burial, but connecting more directly to the idea of a tomb. Significantly, this goddess would later be syncretized with the Greek goddess of witchcraft, Hekate (Ἑκάτη). Other places of deposition are also given, the most colorful being in “the sewage opening of the city-wall”.

Next, instructions are given, with their purpose being:⁸

kišpīša ruḫêša saḫārim-ma ṣabātīša kaššāpi
u [kaššāpti]


that her witchcraft (and) her sorcery turn (back)—be it warlock or witch, [who bewitched him]—and seize her, to bind warlock and [witch]

Note those terms of seizing and binding, so closely intertwined with curse magic in the West, as well as the remarkable similarity to the common formula in Roman prayers for justice that targets a victim, “whether man or woman.”

The undoing of the curse is then described—essentially exchanging figurines of the cursed person with those who have cursed them. A final remarkable element in this tradition is the piercing of figurines:⁹

TA.ÀM ṣilli gišimmari tutakkapšunūte

You pierce them three times each with the thorn of a date palm.

It seems date palm thorns would eventually come to be replaced by iron nails, partly because of availability, and partly because of the Iron Age. Moreover, just as coins were to become a substitute for defixiones, defixiones themselves seem to have actually been substitute figurines. Just as there was a transition between curse tablets and coins placed in lamps in the shrine of Anna Perenna, in that same shrine there were poppets placed within inscribed lead containers, which I’d guess belonged to an earlier tradition that was also simplified over time.

In light of all of this information, locating the source of the defixio tradition in Greece seems increasingly doubtful. Not only were its days as the powerhouse of the Mediterranean still centuries in the future, the ANE was steeped in millennia-old mysticism that would have been pretty compelling to an impressionable young culture.


Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 8: Hellenism Schmellenism

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Curses of Aquae Sulis

Part 2: Malefic Traditional

Part 3: Sympathy for Sauron

Part 4: Bargaining with the Gods

Part 5: Secundina’s Beef

Part 6: More Than Money Can Buy


Notes

  1. KAI 89, transliteration and translation from C. A. Faraone, B. Garnand and C. López‐Ruiz, “Micah’s Mother (Judg. 17:1–4) and a Curse from Carthage (KAI 89): Canaanite Precedents for Greek and Latin Curses against Thieves?”, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 2005. Punic is read from right to left, as is the case with many Semitic languages.
  2. The phonetic value ⟨ḥ⟩ is a “hard H” (/ħ/) often rendered, as I have here, as ⟨kh⟩.
  3. Faraone, et al, 2005.
  4. Ibid; the passage referred to is Judg. 17:1–6.
  5. Judg. 21:25, NLT, 1996.
  6. Graham Cunningham, Deliver Me from Evil: Mesopotamian Incantations, 2500–1500 BC, 1997. I’ve used my own transliteration and translation.
  7. Tzvi Abusch and Daniel Schwemer, Corpus of Mesopotamian Anti-Witchcraft Rituals, 2016.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.

More Than Money Can Buy

Honor culture and the cost of a curse (Defixiones, Part 6)

One of the many defixiones—lead curse tablets—found at the site of Aquae Sulis (modern Bath) is from one Docilianus. It’s famed for its Roman majuscules inscribed in a fine hand, though the text is fairly generic:¹

Docilianus Bruceri deae sanctissimae Suli devoveo eum qui caracellam meam involaverit si vir si femina si servus si liber ut […] dea Sulis maximo letum adigat nec ei somnum permittat nec natos nec nascentes donec caracallam ad templum sui numinis pertulerit.

Docilianus (son) of Brucerus to the most holy goddess Sulis. I curse him who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether man or woman, whether slave or free, that the goddess Sulis may afflict him with maximum death, and not allow him sleep or children now and in the future, until he has brought my hooded cloak to the temple of her divinity.

One does wonder what “maximum death” might refer to, but this and others from Roman Britain are of a different character from the more typical ones that seek to preventatively injure or constrain the target. By contrast, here:²

The overwhelming majority of curse tablets discovered […] were reactionary: an act or wrong had been done to the author and through the use of defixiones they sought to redress the matter.

Aquae Sulis in particular, is the find site for so many of this type of curse tablet; many theories were spawned about the possible reasons behind this:³

[T]he majority of thefts would have occurred at the baths, and at the hands of bathhouse thieves (fures balnearii), hence the large number of outer garments and coins lost. […] On the other hand, the loss may be due to careless and suspicious patrons of the baths misplacing such items, like rings, and instantly suspecting thieves.

The latter hypothesis is borne out by the fact that many incised gems found in the drain of the baths seem to have been lost when the adhesives with which they had been attached to rings were softened by the hot water, and appear among the “stolen” items complained of in the tablets.

Still, the fact that many of the defixiones from Aquae Sulis demand revenge for the thefts of only a few coins or inexpensive property stands in contrast to Uley, where:⁴

[T]he claims are of much greater value, with the greatest amount being of 100,000 denarii.

So of course the Aquae Sulis curse tablets raised speculation, such as that:⁵

[T]he majority of supplications were from individuals of a lower social standing, the victim not being able to afford a slave of his own, or to even pay one to mind his belongings while in the baths.

Or that:⁶

[A]fter the discovery of a theft while at the baths, the making of such incantations on curse tablets may have been a convenient method of exacting revenge at the height of the victim’s frustration.

But these are both unfounded. As we have seen, there is clearly a monetary component above and beyond that of the tablet itself. Rather, the cheapness of the defixio itself merely means there is a very low minimum threshold to that value. It is indeed the low value of the lead sheet itself that probably led to this element of the curse being discarded over time—as I’ve mentioned before, Aquae Sulis’ hoard of 12,000 coins attests this shift. Marina Pirinamonte cites the general decline in literacy as a reason for this, but as some defixiones are entirely pictorial, that’s clearly not the only factor at work.

An additional issue is that the settlement at Uley was rural and wealthy. Furthermore, the god worshiped there was Mercury Silvanus, syncretized with an unknown Celtic god, but perhaps similar to Moltinus, as the images of the deity here are notable for their horns. In any case, Mercury, as a god of commerce, cattle, and silver, would generally tend to have higher-class followers.

Sulis Minerva seems to have been less choosy—the baths were open to the public in a larger, urban setting. The goddess herself, with a Celtic name relating to the ideas of sight and light (cf. Old Irish súil, “eye”, Proto-Celtic *sūlos, “sun”), was perhaps a good choice to detect a thief, even of something small.

Returning to the curses, many describe the amount of money given to the god, typically some portion of the value of what was stolen, with one third being the lowest I’ve seen, for example in this quite businesslike message from Saturnina found at Uley, who may have been in the cloth trade:⁷

commonitorium deo
Mercurio Satur-
nina muliere de lintia-
mine quod amisit ut il-
le qui ho[c] circumvenit non
ante laxetur nissi quand[o]
res s(upra)dictas ad fanum s(upra)d[ic]
turn attul[e]rit si vir si [m]u-
lier si servus si liber
deo s(upra)dicto 
tertiam
partem
 [d]onat ita ut
exsigat istas res quae
s(upra)s(crip)ta sunt […].

A memorandum to the god Mercury from Saturnina, a woman, concerning the linen cloth which she has lost. (She asks) that he who has stolen it should not have rest until he brings the aforesaid property to the aforesaid temple, whether man or woman, whether slave or free. She gives a third part to the aforesaid god on condition that he exact this property which has been written above […].

The full value is also given sometimes, which seems strange, as, in effect, the curser is still losing that value.

In some cases, such as that of Basilia, which I presented in Part 4 or the one above, it seems the donation is to be made only if the property is recovered—in effect an ex voto. However, I think the evidence points in another direction: Just as Saturnina’s does, the word donat is nearly formulaically used in defixiones, which is, to be technical, the third-person singular present active indicative of dōnō, meaning “I give”. All of this means the best translation of donat is simply “(he/ she) gives”, leaving it unclear as to whether it is an action that has been or will be done.

Looking at another curse from Uley, it runs thus:⁸

Biccus dat M-
ercurio quidquid
pe(r)d(id)it si vir si m-
ascel ne meiat
ne cacet ne loqua-
tur ne dormiat
n[e] vigilet nec s[a]-
[l]utem nec sa-
nitatem ne-
ss[i] in templo
Mercurii per-
tulerit ne co(n)-
scientiam de
pederat ness[i]
me interceden-
te

Biccus gives Mercury whatever he has lost (that the thief), whether man or male (sic), may not urinate nor defecate nor speak nor sleep nor stay awake nor [have] well-being or health, unless he brings (it) in the temple of Mercury; nor gain consciousness (sic) of (it) unless with my intervention.

The only conditions made here seem to relate to the would-be victim rather than to the god or what is given to him. Furthermore, as we saw in Part 2, coins were placed within lamps, apparently as a substitute for defixiones, indicating the ritual and monetary offerings were commonly given at the same time. Looked at in this light, the conditions seem only to reflect what is being asked for in exchange for the value being given.

Taken together, this would mean after losing some property the supplicant would cast a curse and give the god they were entreating to intervene even more money, which, especially given some items were misplaced and not stolen at all, seems a clear case of throwing good money after bad: Even if their property was returned, which was far from certain, they might still be out the same amount, and as much as double if not. Nonetheless, it seems the injustice suffered was more the point than the monetary value lost.

In order to illustrate the concept at work here, we’ll have to examine another of the constellation of terms relating to value in the Graeco-Roman world, in this case timé (τιμή), which also means “honor”. In The Iliad, it was the timé Agamemnon took from him that sent Achilles to his tent, allowing the Trojans the upper hand in the war for a time.

Achilles argues with Agamemnon, largely as to the few riches he receives for “fighting himself weary” (ἐπεί κε κάμω πολεμίζων), with his final statement summing up the issue:⁹

νῦν δ᾽ εἶμι Φθίην δ᾽, ἐπεὶ ἦ πολὺ φέρτερόν ἐστιν
οἴκαδ᾽ ἴμεν σὺν νηυσὶ κορωνίσιν, οὐδέ σ᾽ ὀΐω
ἐνθάδ᾽ 
ἄτιμος ἐὼν ἄφενος καὶ πλοῦτον ἀφύξειν.

Now I will go back to Phthia, since it is far better to return home with my beaked ships, nor do I intend while I am here dishonored to pile up riches and wealth for you.

It’s very relatable 3000 years later; who hasn’t had a boss like that? But note Achilles’ use of the term ἄτιμος (atimos), indicating clearly it is his honor that has been taken, also forming a parallel to riches and wealth. I won’t gloss over the rather brutal fact that the timé being discussed is a human being: Briseis (Βρισηΐς), a Trojan princess whom the Greeks abducted and enslaved as a concubine.

Regardless, Achilles has what he feels is a legitimate grievance, and appeals to the gods for justice. Since his mother, Thetis (Θέτις), is a goddess, he doesn’t need to resort to the use of a defixio, but the language he uses is not dissimilar and again, the concept of timé is raised as central:¹⁰

μῆτερ ἐπεί μ᾽ ἔτεκές γε μινυνθάδιόν περ ἐόντα,
τιμήν πέρ μοι ὄφελλεν Ὀλύμπιος ἐγγυαλίξαι
Ζεὺς ὑψιβρεμέτης […].

Mother, since you bore me, though to so brief a span of life, honor surely ought the Olympian to have given into my hands, Zeus who thunders on high […].

Note there is a touch of dysphemia here: Achilles mentions his own disastrous fate, and lays the ultimate blame for Agamemnon’s failure to accord him honor at Zeus’ door. This is indeed part of the formula; Zeus owes him value, and so should act on his behalf. And the god does as he is asked: things turn quite badly against the Greeks, and even when Agamemnon eventually tries to coax Achilles back by meeting the demands he originally made, he refuses them. Clearly, the material value is less important than that of his injured timé. Only his rage when his cousin/ lover Patroclus (Πάτροκλος) is killed brings him back into the war.

While the Romano-Britons perhaps latched onto a particular aspect of the religio-magical tradition of defixiones, it seems clear despite the continuing worship of their local deities syncretized with or alongside those of Rome, the major elements of the practice remained very much intact.

This continuity extends from ancient Near East cursing praxes, which eventually came to be expressed as inscribed lead sheets. These, in turn, developed a distinct culture that spread right across the Graeco-Roman world, including a consistent set of analogies for sympathetic magic, rhetoric used to address the gods, and the exchange of value between gods and mortals. The fact that honor is set above pragmatic concerns seems to be yet another piece of this tradition that spans the whole region.


Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 7: The Punic Curse Trail

Part 8: Hellenism Schmellenism


Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Curses of Aquae Sulis

Part 2: Malefic Traditional

Part 3: Sympathy for Sauron

Part 4: Bargaining with the Gods

Part 5: Secundina’s Beef


Notes

  1. Tab. Sul. 10.
  2. Geoff W. Adams, “The Social and Cultural Implications of Curse Tablets [Defixiones] in Britain and on the Continent”, Studia Humaniora Tartuensia, 2006.
  3. Ibid, though the notion is attributed to Tomlin, Tabellae Sulis: Roman inscribed tablets of tin and lead from the sacred spring at Bath, 1988.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Uley 2, emphasis mine.
  8. Uley 4.
  9. The Iliad, Book 1, 168–71, A.T. Murray, trans., 1924, emphasis mine.
  10. Ibid, Book 1, 352–4, emphasis mine.

The Mysteries of Zūja-Go

The slang of Tokyo’s underbelly (Argots, Part 4/ Taishō, Part 4)

While researching the Asakusa (浅草) district during the Taishō period (大正時代, 1912–26), I ran across acharaka (アチャラカ), a term for a particular type of satirical comedy. Miriam Silverberg discusses it thus:¹

The derivation of the word acharaka [アチャラカ] has its own irony, for, like the Cockney and language of the down-and-out in Asakusa, it makes use of wordplay. Acharaka is a vernacular abbreviation of the phrase achira kara [あちら から], which means “from over there.” And the words “over there” referred to over across the ocean, from Euro-America.

What was this “vernacular”, I wondered—a cryptolect? Was there really a corollary to Cockney rhyming slang in Asakusa? This potential dovetailing of my interests was tantalizing. The research was difficult; there were many roadblocks, such as poorly informed and -written Wikipedia articles in foreign languages. But with luck, perseverance, and quite a bit of humility, I am able to present the story of zūja-go (ズージャ語), an argot from Taishō Japan.

Just as Silverberg did, Cockney argots are frequently referenced in connection with that of Taishō Tokyo. In particular, though lacking the global reach of rhyming slang, the spread and continued use of the Japanese cryptolect were otherwise similar. Itō Junko, et al. tell us:²

An argot […] known as zuuja-go, ‘jazz language, jazzese’, is widely used in Japanese jazz circles, from where it has spread to wider parts of the entertainment industry […].

That’s right, like Takurazuka, it has somehow survived from Taishō to now. The name zūja-go itself uses the argot term for “jazz”, as I’ll explain later, plus the Japanese for “language”, (語, go). Certainly terms for musical instruments and other elements of the jazz scene are central to the argot, but the inclusion in the lexicon of terms for things like karaoke and personal computer attest to its modern usage. The scholarly article continues, discussing how zūja-go works:³

The essence of the argot formation can be understood as analyzing words in two parts and switching their order […] The point of [zūja-go], the “fun of the game,” lies in a characteristic distortion of the input through reversal and further modifications.

The operative Cockney corollary here is one called back slang. As related by Silverberg, Wada Nobuyoshi (和田信義) made something of an ethnography of the down and out in Asakusa, in which:⁴

He points out that the hawker made use of linguistic reversal as one means of forging new, secret words. (One common example is the word enkō [エンコー], which is the reversal and abbreviation of the syllables comprising kōen [公園, “park”], the insider slang for Asakusa Park. The hawker language was thus not unlike Cockney, because of its consciousness of class base, and because of its use of the back-slang terms that reversed syllables in order to make a political point. It was, of course, also Japan-specific—a product of the modern years with a Japanese linguistic and social history.

The hawker is a figure at the margin of society. They are sellers of small goods, typically at least dodgy if not actually contraband. They need a patter, a shtick, to attract notice and move merchandise, often quickly before the authorities arrive. The Cockney type is well realized in the 1998 film, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels character, Bacon (Jason Statham), selling jewelry “handmade in Italy, hand stolen in Stepney”, together with a shill, only to be interrupted by the “cozzers” (police). Here’s just part of his sales banter:

It’s no good standing out there like one o’clock half-struck. […] These are not stolen, they just haven’t been paid for. And we can’t get them again—they’ve changed the bloody locks. […] It’s no good coming back later when I’ve sold out: “too late, too late!” will be the cry when the man with the bargains has passed you by. If you got no money on you now, you’ll be crying tears as big as October cabbages.

As for Cockney back slang, it essentially pronounces the phonological elements of a word in reverse. It’s similar to Pig Latin as far as the idea of reversal, but takes it further. The ludling yields results such as:

  • kayfabe: be fake
  • moniker: eke-name
  • pennif: from finnip, five-pound note, extended to any note
  • slop: from pols, police
  • yob: boy

I’ll note of these that apart from moniker, which is etymologically dubious, yob, and kayfabe—an entry from American pro wrestling—none of these seems to have stuck. On the other hand, pennif and slop are noteworthy because, like some of the more impenetrable terms in rhyming slang, they layer back-slanging atop extant slang terms.

Zūja-go’s method of reversal sits somewhere between Pig Latin and back slang: it works with the syllabic nature of the language and flips those units. As with so many argots, there is a basic level that uses native Japanese words and performs a straightforward syllabic swap, as in terms like:

  • bukei (ブケイ): police inspector, from keibu (警部)
  • domoko (ドモコ): child, from kodomo (子供)
  • gaikichi (ガイキチ): crazy, from kichigai (気狂い)
  • suiya (スイヤ): cheap, from yasui (安い)
  • suriku (スリク): drugs, from kusuri (薬)

Then, of course, there are words borrowed from other languages. Foreign languages during the interwar period were quite prestigious, and especially so among devotees of the modern scene. “Ain’t that the Latest!”, a song from 1930, reflects the mixture of alienation and admiration that foreign languages engendered at the time:⁵

見てもわからぬ舶来トオキイ
わかる顔して見るつらさ
なまじ断髪洋装の手前
隣の外人をちょいと真似て
お茶を濁した苦笑い
オヤ尖端的だわね

The foreign talkie I don’t understand when I watch,
The bitterness of trying to look like I understand,
In front of the halfheartedly bobbed hair and Western clothing.
I imitate the foreigner sitting next to me a little,
The bitter laugh of one who fakes his way through.
Ain’t that the latest!

Certainly these qualities were emulated in the argot, which added a layer of both cool and obfuscation—and certainly the simple act of kanaization can make these words unfamiliar even to speakers of the languages they’re borrowed from—with terms like:

  • dammo (ダンモ): modern, modan (モダン)
  • hīkō (ヒーコー): coffee, kōhī (コーヒー)
  • kompaso (コンパソ): personal computer, pasokon (パソコン)
  • okekara (オケカラ): karaoke (カラオケ)
  • shītaku (シータク): taxi, takushī (タクシー)

Note that some of these are already adding further layers because of the terms they derive from: karaoke mixes the Japanese kara (空) meaning “empty” with a shortening of English orchestra, while pasacon is an abbreviation of both of its English elements. Also in kompaso and dammo, we see a sound change occur as /n/ before a labial consonant (/b/, /m/, or /p/) shifts to /m/.

Other changes of this last type concern in vowel length, again fitting with Japanese’s typical patterns and making the argot words more wordlike, and hard consonants, a trickier one to explain: Orthographically, hard consonants are expressed by placing a character called a sokuon (促音) before the syllabic script element or kana (仮名) it affects. It is expressed as a small version of the kana tsu (つ/ ッ). As the sokuon and the subsequent kana are in different syllables, when argot terms are formed, there are essentially two options: applying it to a different consonant or simply pronouncing it as tsu. /n/ can also be a syllable on its own, and some reversals make this happen. Words evidencing each of these strategies are sampled below.

Change in vowel length:

  • zūja (ズージャ): jazz, jazu (ジャズ)
  • kūkya (クーキャ): audience, from kyaku (客)
  • rāko (ラーコ): cola, kōra (コーラ)
  • sharukoma (シャルコマ): commercial, komāsharu (コマーシャル)
  • mīno (ミーノ): to drink, from nomi (飲み)

Sokuon applied to a different consonant:

  • katte (カッテ): roll, from the sushi type tekka (-maki: 鉄火)
  • pakka (パッカ): water imp, kappa (河童)

Sokuon read as tsu:

  • kotsuya (コツヤ): guy, from yakko (奴)
  • kuribitsu (クリビツ): surprised, from bikkuri (びっくり)
  • patsura (パツラ): trumpet, from rappa (喇叭)
  • pīhatsu (ピーハツ): happy, happī (ハッピー)
  • totsuba (トツバ): bat, batto (バット)

Syllabic /n/:

  • mpa (ンパ): bread, from Portuguese pãopan (パン)
  • mpata (ンパタ): pattern, patān (パターン)
  • nto (ント): tone, tōn (トーン)

Then of course there are many that don’t fit the rules of the ludling, and therefore in effect better fitting the rules of an argot: sunite (スニテ, “tennis”), we might expect to be realized as either nisute or suteni, but the ni stays firmly in the middle. Yanopi (ヤノピ, “piano”) gains a /y/ present nowhere in English or Japanese. And bontoro (ボーントロ “trombone”) has clearly misplaced an /n/.

Shortenings, which indeed are the central matter of yet another Japanese argot, appear in terms like gishu (ギシュ, “socialist”) coming from the final syllables of shakaishugi (社会主義). Returning to acharaka, I’ve already given its derivation from achira kara, which Silverberg characterizes as an abbreviation, but we can see that it’s not that simple: the argot flips the second word’s syllables, while in the first word, ir is dropped from the middle.

The next level of metamorphosis has to do with the Chinese characters—kanji—words are often made up of. When the positions of these are altered, so are their readings. Some examples include:

  • patsuichi (パツイチ): one shot, from ippatsu (一発)
  • kogaku (コガック): school, from gakko (学校)

If not for the kanji readings here, we might expect patsuitsu and kogatsu. But a still more extreme case is the term for the Ueno (上野) district, already represented by the simple argot term, Noue (ノウエ), but with its kanji reversed to 野上 changes its reading to Nogami.

Finally, we have terms such as inbenshon (インベンション), meaning “piss”, which layers a translingual pun over the ludling’s transformation: shonben, the Gunma dialect (群馬弁) pronunciation of 小便, to benshon (ベンション), which, with the addition of an initial in-, resembles the kanaized English invention. As we’ve seen repeatedly in argots, puns are quite commonly employed and the attractiveness of terms I’ve already mentioned, such as suriku and kompaso, comes from their resemblance to English words “slick” and “compass”.

The one I’ll end on is eburiuīku (エブリウイーク), the kanaization of the English phrase every week, which refers to shaomai (燒賣), the delicious dumpling. To get there, we take the Japanese name of the dim sum (點心) treat, shūmai (シューマイ) and flip it to maishū (マイシュー), a homophone of which is 毎週, translating into English as “every week”. Handily, the argot term also reminds you of how often you should eat shaomai.


Read Subsequent Articles in the Taishō Series

Part 5: How “Alice” Grew Big in Japan


Read Previous Articles in the Taishō Series

Part 1: Japan’s Turbulent Taishō

Part 2A: Epochal Architecture

Part 2B: When Tokyo Moved West

Part 3A: Asakusa Movies

Part 3B: Asakusa Opera


Read Previous Articles in the Argots Series

Part 1A: The Slang of Empyrea’s Automata

Part 1B: Canargy: a Cant How-To

Part 2A: Serious and Playful Cryptolects

Part 2B: Me Talk Pretty Ludling

Part 3: Rhyming and Stealing


Notes

  1. Miriam Silverberg, Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times, 2007.
  2. Junko Itō, Yoshihisa Kitagawa and Armin Mester,  “Prosodic Faithfulness and Correspondence: Evidence from a Japanese Argot”, Journal of East Asian Linguistics, 1996.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Silverberg, 2007. I was unable to find the original work, so we’ll have to trust her.
  5. Lyrics by Shochiku Kamata Music Club, Composition by Matsutake Kamata Music Club, Performance by Naoko Soga (松竹蒲田音楽部, 松竹蒲田音楽部, 曽我 直子), 「尖端的だわね」 (Sentanteki Dawane, “Ain’t that the Latest!” ), 1930.

Rhyming and Stealing

The spread of a London ludling (Argots, Part 3)

When talking about argots, one inevitably arrives at rhyming slang. Indeed, this series has already mentioned it a few times, so let’s take a closer look. No one knows exactly when or how it started, but it seems in London of the 19th century, some folks needed a cryptolect. In order to create one, they used the playful mechanism of rhyme. The OED’s first record comes from 1846: aunt joanna, meaning “piano”.

That another early term round the houses is rhymed with (and so used to mean) “trousers” also tells us the prevailing accent of the region is non-rhotic. This is a characteristic of many accents of England, but in the area in question the accent that dominates is so strongly associated with the argot it is often termed Cockney rhyming slang, though, as we shall see, there are other varieties. Cockney, though sometimes used to describe all Londoners, is distinctly working class and particularly of the city’s East End: it’s the dialect of Eliza Doolittle and Michael Caine.

As I’ve shown in previous articles, the line between ludling and argot is a fluid one, with ludlings sometimes moving into argotic territory and back again. The border between the two is intelligibility to outsiders. Even with her childhood ludling, idig, Jessica Weiss recalls,¹

[…] creating variations of idig at the neighborhood pool, making it even more impossible for boys and teachers to understand.

If Weiss were successful in this effort, her ludling would essentially become an argot. There is often a kind of layering that occurs based on this need, as with 86, I’ve mentioned earlier, which combines a borrowing from another language, normalizes the spelling into English, and then passes it through the filter of rhyming slang in order to provide that word with the meaning, “cancel”.

Indeed, rhyming slang, which I’ve raised a few times as being clearly ludic, can turn quite quickly from a game to something rather devious. Initially, it seems straightforward: take a word you want to indicate, find a phrase that rhymes with it, then substitute that phrase for the word. This gives you terms such as:

  • plates of meat: feet
  • sorrowful tale: jail
  • trouble and strife: wife

This is the easy level; the substitute phrases not only rhyme with the word they are indicating, but are also linked semantically. If you weren’t privy to the game, you still might be able to puzzle out the meaning, especially given contextual clues—if someone’s in a sorrowful tale, for example, you might at least start thinking in the right direction.

On the next level, there’s no semantic relationship to follow, only the rhyme. Some examples are:

  • apples and pears: stairs
  • butcher’s hook: look
  • loaf of bread: head

One could still hope to get some information from context; consider “I went up the apples and pears” versus “the apples and pears are over there”. In the second one, someone could really be talking about fruit, but in the first, the preposition up lets you know the phrase is not being used in a standard way, and then thinking about things one goes up, you might very well hit upon stairs.

The rhyme still acts as a bridge to the meaning, but a further level removes that bridge. As Professor of English Simon Horobin notes:²

The tendency for slang to be altered in speech, and for speakers to omit the second, rhyming, component, can make such terms particularly opaque to an outsider.

When this shortening is performed, we are left with:

  • bubble: Greek
  • raspberry: fart
  • tea: thief

The redacted rhymes being respectively and squeak, tart, and leaf. Suddenly it gets pretty hard—you have to guess what completes the phrase as well as what it rhymes with. Here are some of the ones I’ve previously mentioned, so you can also see how their connections attenuate:

  • aunt: piano
  • round: pants
  • plates: feet
  • sorrowful: jail
  • trouble: wife
  • apples: stairs
  • butcher’s: look

loaf: head

One imagines using 80 or even eight to mean “cancel” could have been another trick in this game. A similar case to 86 appears in:

  • dukes: hands

Together with 86 and raspberry (often shortened to razz), dukes is one of only a few words commonly used in American English derived from rhyming slang. It’s exclusively used in the context of telling someone to prepare to fight in the phrase, “put up your dukes.” Because this association was so strong, the word was also verbed, through a standard process of our language to simply mean “fight”, as in duke it out.

So how did we get from hand to duke? Forks had already been used as a slang term for hands via a fairly obvious analogy, then rhyming slang added duke of York to the mix. Which is also confusing, because duke has also been used to mean “walk” using the same rhyme or “cork”, “chalk”, or, for that matter, an actual fork.

Furthermore, there are other dukes, meaning:

  • bent or rent (of Kent)
  • nose (of Montrose)
  • rain (of Spain)

And duke is far from alone in this, bottle is a similarly troublesome example, carrying a large range of meanings:

  • ass (and glass)
  • bowler (of cola)
  • bum (i.e., ass) (of rum)
  • copper (i.e., policeman) (and stopper)
  • daughter (of porter)
  • ear (of beer)
  • horse (of sauce)
  • shop (of pop)
  • two (of glue)
  • watch (of scotch)

The other way around, laugh can be expressed using:

  • bird (bath)
  • bubble (bath)
  • cow’s (calf)
  • bobble (-hat and scarf) also wooly (-hat and scarf), hat (and scarf)
  • jimmy (Giraffe)
  • rory (McGrath)
  • steffi (Graf)
  • tin (bath)
  • turkish (bath)

I’ll note this is only a moderately large group of synonyms; if I were to list the terms for say money or drunk, for example, they could easily become articles of their own. At any rate, one can see how Byzantine the argot is, with words that are current or passé or that are more or less acceptable among different groups.

You might also have noticed some of the references in this last group are distinctly non-19th century. Indeed, the lexicon continues to expand, with “popney”, focusing on slang deriving from the names of famous people, including.

  • becks (i.e., David Beckham and Posh Spice): dosh (money)
  • calvin (Klein): wine
  • scooby (Doo): clue

Some traditionalists don’t approve of such coinages, deriding the new slang as “mockney”. There are distinct regional versions throughout England as well as Northern Ireland, reflecting local terms and rhymes, as bacon (sarnie, slang for “sandwich”): “Pakistani” does for some Northern English dialects. There is also a New Zealand branch and an Australian one that gives us its own terms, like:

  • apples (and rice): nice
  • kanga (roo): screw (i.e., prison warder)
  • noah (-’s ark): shark

86 appears to reflect a thriving rhyming slang culture in America. No one knows exactly where the term sprang up, but the possible etymologies seem to focus on New York City: some suggest it came from Delmonico’s Restaurant, and was the item number of their house steak, which they’d frequently run out of, and others that it was the address of the front entrance to a famous speakeasy called Chumley’s, and would be shouted to let patrons know they should flee out the back door. Neither holds up especially well to scrutiny, and one of the OED’s example sentences tells us the word,³

[…] among habitues has as many etymons as Homer had home-places, such probably being boozed up ex cathedra.

So why do so few rhyming slang terms remain in American English? Perhaps I’m overestimating how thriving the culture was and there was never a lexicon that went far beyond the few remnants I’ve pointed out. Or maybe the cryptolect was so deep and impenetrable it wasn’t discovered, let alone recorded. I like to think there are dimly lit corners of America where a marginalized culture still communicates below mainstream society’s radar using an argot rooted in rhyming slang.


Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 4: The Mysteries of Zūja-Go


Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1A: The Slang of Empyrea’s Automata

Part 1B: Canargy: a Cant How-To

Part 2A: Serious and Playful Cryptolects

Part 2B: Me Talk Pretty Ludling


Notes

  1. “The Secret Linguistic Life of Girls: Why Girls Speak Gibberish”, Schwa Fire, Jessica Weiss, 2015.
  2. “Only Fools and Horses in the OED”, Oxford Dictionary blogs, 2018.
  3. Peter Tamony, Americanisms: Content and Continuum, 1964, quoted in the OED entry for “eighty-six”.

Me Talk Pretty Ludling

Linguistic adventures in girl world (Argots, Part 2B)

When I was in the second grade Zoom burst onto the children’s educational television scene like an excessively energetic preteen through a giant paper logo. Although my parents subscribed to the belief that television rotted the mind, and so we didn’t have one, I was able to catch Zoom from time to time, in the homes of friends or family that were not TV Amish. Nonetheless, there must’ve been some type of adult supervision or who’d have watched PBS? As the show was educational and I was in the target demo (seven–12-year olds) they’d sometimes show it at school, and even PBS was better than classwork.

Running for a total of six seasons, the show featured a diverse cast of rugby-shirted, precocious showbiz kids relentlessly dancing, singing, being wacky, shallowly discussing the serious topics of the day, and presenting activities for you to do yourself—games, arts & crafts, and recipes. I was to learn much later the show was inspired by Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (TV Amish, remember?), so the general zaniness, camera tricks, and running gags all were borrowed from that context. There was no script; presumably they simply loaded the “Zoomers” up with caffeinated drinks and unleashed their hijinks on the hapless viewing public.

The Fannee Doolee word game, the sung Boston zip code in the address to the show’s letters department (02134), Bernadette’s signature butterfly arm move, and Ubbi Dubbi are the main pop-culture residue of the show, with the last being a ludling that was already known to me as Double Dutch. The girl culture of my school adored all these things. They pushed for activities from the show to be done in class, they flashed the Bernadette, and they spoke fluent Ubbi Dubbi.

Although my interest in languages was even then in effect, I was not entertained by this ludling. As I mentioned, I already knew it, as well as Pig Latin and a pretty unusable one called Triple Chinese. I could, but preferred not to engage in Ubbi Dubbi. Nonetheless, we come here to an interesting element of ludlings: they are typically created and used by girls.

Of course simply by their nature as games, ludlings appeal to a younger audience. But the value of a secret language also appeals to the group as Meredith Doran explains:¹

Language is one of the cheapest tools available to kids. You don’t have money or power, but you’ve got words.

As for why these cryptolects come from the mouths of young women in particular, Jessica Weiss, a writer who tackled the topic says:²

[G]irls are drawn to […] ludlings, because using them builds social bonds. Though girls aren’t threatened in the same way as others who use secret languages, like prostitutes or criminals, using gibberish creates a sense of exclusivity and power for girls at a time when they are otherwise inherently powerless.

Exploring a different phenomenon, the recent appearance of a paragoge, or “exclamatory syllable”, in utterances like fine-uhstop-uh, etc., linguist John McWhorter attempts to pin down the distribution of its usage:³

[…] I have heard this primarily in, to use the technical term for the dialect, white girl.

He is partially joking, but attributes the utterance to younger women “of all shades” speaking mainstream American. He finds it not to appear in black English, among older speakers, or men. This is what brings these threads together, as McWhorter notes:⁴

It’s an example of the fact that when language changes it tends to be women who lead the change.

One illustrative example he presents is the change in English verbs in the third-person present from endings in -eth to -s:⁵

So Henry VIII, writes to Anne Boleyn, 1528, “Written with the hand of him which desireth as much to be yours as you do to have him.” […] Then Queen Elizabeth, to whom he was related quite directly, 1591, writes, “My deare brother, As ther is naught that bredes”—not breedeth — bredes more for-thinking repentance and agrived thoughtes than good turnes to harme the giuers ayde,” […].

As bona fides at least of my acceptance of linguistic innovation, if not being a white girl, I -uh! I’ve done it for so long, in fact, that I have no idea where or when I picked it up. Though I do remember detecting a need for it as early as 1980, and making some (unsuccessful) experimental utterances, I do not flatter myself that I originated it; I’m definitely not a girl-culture influencer.

So is the fact of my gender the reason I didn’t gravitate to the pop-cultural whirling dervish of Zoom and it’s Ubbi Dubbi? Nope; it was something else. Certainly I was not a great conversationalist—some might call me laconic now, but I was frequently taken for a mute in my youth. Language as a game and tool for me focused instead to a branch concerned with rebuses, coded writing, and puns.

Furthermore, my objection to all of the ludlings of my youth was an aesthetic one: the sounds inserted by them, ʌb, eɪ, and ɒŋ, are ugly ones to my ear, and so much more so when you hear them repeated throughout sentences or within words. Consider Ubbi Dubbi versus Matteänglisch: the latter doubles each vowel sound and infixes a b, a very similar process. But taking the word interesting as an example yields the pair:

  • ʌbintʌberʌbestʌbing
  • ibinteberebestibing

Perhaps if Zoom had brought Matteänglisch (naturally renamed something cutesy) to the American small screen in the early ’70s I’d have have been more ibinteberebestebed in zoom-ah-zooming with the girls.


Read Subsequent Articles in This Series:

Part 3: Rhyming and Stealing

Part 4: The Mysteries of Zūja-Go


Read Previous Articles in This Series:

Part 1A: The Slang of Empyrea’s Automata

Part 1B: Canargy: a Cant How-To

Part 2A: Serious and Playful Cryptolects


Notes

  1. “The Secret Linguistic Life of Girls: Why Girls Speak Gibberish”, Schwa Fire, Jessica Weiss, 2015.
  2. Ibid.
  3. “No-Uh! On the rise of an exclamatory syllable in English”, Lexicon Valley, Episode 130, 2018.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.

Secundina’s Beef

The rhetoric of pleas for justice (Defixiones, Part 5)

If you know something about defixiones—Roman curse tablets—you probably think of them as essentially preemptive; asking a god to injure a victim without presenting any particular reason for doing so. Those found at Aquae Sulis (modern Bath), however, are of an entirely different character as they are backward looking, based on some offence that has already been given, and appealing to a god with a so-called plea for justice. They generally cite thefts, typically by persons unknown as the reason for the punishment requested. Gordon and Simón summarize the type thus:¹

Such curses are […] similar to the world of real litigation they skirt or duck, with rhetorical skill far outweighing the establishment of facts in deciding the outcome or judgement.

These are not unique to Roman Britain, other examples have been found including in Greece, as well as more recently in the sanctuary of Isis and Mater Magna in Mainz. One in particular from Veldidena, now Wilten, a neighborhood in Innsbruck, is worth taking a closer look at as an exemplar. John Gager says it’s written in “unsophisticated Latin”² but I hope to show that the form and content are actually brilliant:

Secundina Mercurio et
Moltino mandat, ut siquis XIIII
sive draucus duos sustulit, ut
eum sive fortunas eius infi-
dus Cacus sic auferat quo-
modi ill[a]e ablatum est id quod
vobis delegat, ut persecuatis
vobisque deligat, ut
persicuatis et eum
aversum a fortunis[s]u-
is avertatis et a suis prox-
simis et ab eis quos caris-
simos abeat, oc vobis
mandat, vos [e]um cor[ipi]a-
tis.

Secundina commands of Mercurius and Moltinus that whoever has stolen two cows worth 14 denarii, that the untrustworthy Cacus carry off him and his possessions, just as hers were taken, the very things that she gives to you to track down. And she also assigns you to persecute him and separate him from his fortune and from his family and from those dearest to him. She commands this; you must catch him.

I should note that this defixio is often translated as being about a pair stolen necklaces rather than cows. The word draucus is the cause of this uncertainty: a Greek-borrowed δραύκιον gives the item of jewelry, but others have pointed to a Gaulish word referring to cattle instead. Given that both options are equally difficult to verify and the location of this find in an area where the Celtic language would have been spoken alongside Latin, and very likely not Greek, as well as the fact that everything else in this defixio refers to cattle, as do several others from the site, as we shall see, I have gone with cows.

Proceeding with the text, we see Mercury being called upon. He is, among many other things, the god of thieves, having himself rustled the herd of Apollo early in his career. Just as he is the god of disease and also healing, it makes sense to call on him to catch a thief, particularly of cattle.

As for Moltinus, he is a little-attested Gaulish god who seems to have been syncretized with Mercury, so we might suppose Secundina is just covering her bases, except that unlike Mercury, this guy is a chthonian deity although, certainly there is also Mercury’s role as psychopomp on that side), just the sort to communicate with via defixiones, rather than with ex vota we’ve seen done for Mercury before. Finally, his name is cognate with English mutton, and he seems to be a god of cattle. The common motif of Mercury riding a ram is a likely reason for the syncretization of the two deities.

Calling upon the mythical monster, Cacus, is also quite clever: first, his name simply means “bad”, but this son of Vulcan was known as a thief, particularly of Hercules’ cattle, dragging them by the tails into his cave, and so leaving behind a misleading trail. This is the sort of deviousness Secundina hopes Mercury and Moltinus can unravel in order to bring the thief to justice.

There is yet another aspect to the language of the prayer that is revealed here, and which I’ve not yet discussed. It’s embodied in the phrase, “infidus Cacus”. Let’s seemingly abruptly veer into the world of Greek drama; Eva Stehle notes:³

Speaking is dangerously performative in the world of Aeschylus. The prime example is Oresteia: Kassandra’s prophecies and visions of the curse in Agamemnon, the raising of the dead in Choephoroi, the Furies’ “Binding Song” in Eumenides.

This “dangerously performative” nature of speech is neither limited to this playwright nor even the stage, rather the play reflects the culture’s norms and beliefs; in this case the operative one being words have power. The tradition of wearing masks and assuming personae assures that the catastrophes the actors conjure do not befall them personally—in effect they hide their real selves from the gods.

Dysphemia (δυσφημία: “ill-omened speech”), of which the invocation of Cacus is an example, is easiest defined by what it is not—naturally, euphemia (ευφημία):⁴

[T]hose charged with prayer or song must speak words welcome to the gods and avoid any repellent to them. […] Euphemia along with its nonverbal corollaries of pleasing motion, music, and a beautiful visual scene constituted a human offering of charis to the gods. Charis, pleasure given or received, governs relations between humans and gods: it attracts the gods to prayer and celebration, honoring and delighting them, while suggesting that benefactions should be given in return.

The idea of charis (χάρις) of course gets back to the exchange of value I’ve discussed previously, putting it into this larger context. The amulet I cited in Part 4 skillfully uses euphemia, in its use of terms like “holy” (ἁγῖοις, lit. devoted to the gods), “everlasting” (ἀεί), “full fitness” (ὁλοκλήρουςα, completeness, perfection), and “health” (ὑγιαῖνούςα).

In curses, while the value exchange is still there, as we’ve seen, dysphemia is used to engender godly anger toward the intended victim in those called upon instead, consisting of elements like,⁵

[R]eferences to polluting realities such as death, cries of pain or grief, insulting language, and expectation of disaster.

In addition to being directive as to what Secundia wishes to befall whoever has wronged her, the punishments mentioned also act as dysphemia, falling into the final category of the above list.

According to Stehle, even the meter of the language used can be eu– or dysphemic: strophic language presents a steady, repetitive rhythm, fitting with the “pleasing motion” aspect of euphemia, while anastrophic language, with uneven and abrupt rhythms obviously is the opposite. My Latin is honestly not good enough for me to get a sense of whether anastrophe is also woven into this defixio, but perhaps one day I’ll attempt such a breakdown.

The loss of two cows or indeed anything worth 14 denarii would be a pretty tough one for almost anyone to simply accept and move past; one denarius is typically thought of as a skilled laborer’s daily wage. As such, Secundina’s seeking of divine intervention seems entirely the correct course. And she, or a magical practitioner working on her behalf, has performed the task admirably. The thieves are unknown, and there is no evidence apart from the missing cattle, so we turn to rhetoric in favor of their punishment instead. Elements pertinent to thievery, cattle, and punishment are invoked, with a dash of dysphemia thrown in to rouse the gods’ anger against the guilty party.

Personally, I hope if she didn’t get her cattle back, at least the thief was brought to justice.


Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 6: More Than Money Can Buy

Part 7: The Punic Curse Trail

Part 8: Hellenism Schmellenism


Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Curses of Aquae Sulis

Part 2: Malefic Traditional

Part 3: Sympathy for Sauron

Part 4: Bargaining with the Gods


Notes

  1. “Introduction”, Magical Practice in the Latin West, Gordon and Simón, 2005.
  2. Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, Gager, 1992.
  3. “Prayer and Curse in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes”, Classical Philology, Eva Stehle, 2005.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid, emphasis mine.

Serious and Playful Cryptolects

The ubiquitous ludling (Argots, Part 2A)

It is well known there are language games, also called secret languages or word games, and while I had some idea that other cultures had them, it turns out they appear basically everywhere and there is also a more scientific name for them: ludlings. It’s a portmanteau of the Latin words ludus “game” and lingua “language”.

The best known of these to an English-speaking audience is Pig Latin. This ludling most often appears today as a comedically penetrable code: people either say things in it with a surety they will be understood, or think they are being covert when they’re not. It was featured in the very well-known musical Gold Diggers of 1933, wherein Ginger Rogers sang an entire verse of “We’re in the Money” in Pig Latin. In one Three Stooges short, Larry speaks it to a woman in an effort to impress her, but she already knows it, and in another, Moe and Larry attempt to teach it to Curly.¹

Today, it has come to be generally used ironically in phrases like “ixnay on the [x]” (nix), or simply amscray (scram). Nix itself is a borrowing of Yiddish nichts, “nothing” with its meaning extended in an argotic way to become a verb meaning “cancel” or “reject”. 86, which carries the same meaning, is suggested by the OED as rhyming slang for nix, extending this ludus.

Still, when a French reader ran across the following passage in a Kotaku article,² they were flummoxed:

Next time, exne on the wiisucksne when you’re talking with the video games press.

One element of the “unintelligibility” of this phrase comes from the reference to the Nintendo Wii video game console and another from the fact it’s improperly formed; the article’s comments section included corrections to “ixnay on the iiway uckssay”. Add to that even a slight deficit in English comprehension and click! — the code works again, even though its use in a magazine article reflects its accepted comprehensibility among English speakers. If you watch the Pig Latin performance of “We’re In the Money”, which is available on YouTube, it’s quite strange and even unsettling.

The other shoe I’d have wanted to drop in a dramatic reveal, but have unfortunately already announced in this article’s subtitle, is that ludlings are also argots. Serbian Šatrovački (шатровачки), though it is often compared to Pig Latin, is generally classified as an argot rather than a ludling. The essential difference is a von Braunian one of attitude—if it’s used by marginal groups, it becomes sinister. Take Cockney rhyming slang; what’s more of a language game than that? But it seems clear the language was devised in order to communicate without either the gendarmes or “customers” (i.e., those being fleeced) understanding what was being said.

Returning to Pig Latin, why is it called “Latin” when it clearly has nothing to do with that language? It is common to name ludlings by analogy to foreign languages: Double Dutch (English), Javanaise (French), Macaronic Latin (Romance languages), Mattenenglisch and Matteänglisch (German; two different ones, despite the similarity in names), Yuantang dialect (苑塘话, Hakka 客家話).

And what about the “pig” part? Again, many ludlings have names recalling animals and other nonhumans. Birds are often invoked, but some stranger ones include Korean Gwisin Mal or Dekker Mal (귀신말: “ghost language”, 도깨비말: “ogre language”), and Somali Af Jinni (“djinni language”). Some even run to inanimate objects like Russian Kirpichny yazyk (Кирпичный язык: “brick language”), Latvian Pupiņvaloda (“bean language”), German Löffelsprache (“spoon language”), and Swedish Fikonspraket (“fig language”). Many of those remaining refer to the type of gibberish they deal in, but only Romanian Greaca Vacească (“cow Greek”) matches the neologizing in Pig Latin precisely.

Latin, perhaps because of its role as a language of learning, seems to have been singled out for mockery. Macaronic Latin, which I mentioned above, is based on a somewhat nonsensical application of Latin endings to vernacular words with actual Latin words mixed in. The name of the language also refers to a rustic dumpling — the term was to eventually evolve into macaroni.

The German version is Küchenlatein, while French has Latin de cuisine—both “kitchen Latin”—which, while it seems a classist put down of the help, actually stems from the fact that monks dining together and often lacking a shared vernacular would inventively update the liturgical vocabulary they did share in order to communicate concepts more down-to-earth or modern.

In any case, a few precious words of this gibberish found their way into English dictionaries:

  • babblative: prattling
  • balductum: balderdash
  • circumbendibus: roundabout process

These puckishly prod the perceived pomposity of Latin, each via a slightly different stratagem. There are a few more terms I’ve run across in disused lexica of vernacular English that clearly share this origin:

  • inebrious: drunken
  • excrementitious and stercorarious: covered in feces
  • sinistruous and theftuous: hidden, secret

If this reminds you of the ersatz taxonomic binomial names appearing in Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons, it’s not by accident—it’s exactly this kind of nonsense, though at a less advanced level. And in English, there is a tradition of such code-switching shenanigans going back at least to Shakespeare that post-Bard came to be known as Dog Latin or Cod Latin. The dog element here, rather than referring to the sound of the speech is more to the idea of a mongrelized language and the cod doesn’t refer to the fish or the body part but the meaning of “joke”—ludus again.

As I noted previously in this series, there has always been a literary interest in argots, and indeed, there is a certain virtuosity at work, as Elyse Graham notes:³

[I]n dog Latin […], an appreciation of the misuse of the rules requires an understanding of the rules; it requires a subject position past that of a novice who can only follow rules and toward that of an expert who knows when to violate the rules.

On the borderlands between ludling and argot, Meredith Doran performed a yearlong study on the use of Verlan, formed by swapping syllables, among teens in minority communities on the outskirts of Paris (la banlieue). She finds of their use of the ludling as their preferred idiom:⁴

[B]anlieue youth language may represent a valuable alternative to mainstream French precisely as a tool for forging, negotiating, and expressing identities which stand outside the binary categories of mainstream discourse, allowing youths to define and express themselves through a linguistic bricolage that mirrors their sense of identity as mixed, evolving, and drawing from multiple cultural and linguistic sources.

It’s important to note that Verlan can be dated at least to a 12th-century version of The Madness of Tristan (Folies Tristan), wherein the titular hero gives his name as “Tantris” to conceal his identity. It seems to have also been used during the German occupation. Although not nearly as old, probably dating from at least the turn of the last century, based on the evidence in popular culture, Pig Latin also seems to have had its own renaissance. I’d guess because of the need for a cryptolect during Prohibition, and probably continuing through the Great Depression.


Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 2B: Me Talk Pretty Ludling

Part 3: Rhyming and Stealing

Part 4: The Mysteries of Zūja-Go


Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1A: The Slang of Empyrea’s Automata

Part 1B: Canargy: a Cant How-To


Notes

  1. Three Little Pigskins, 1934 and Tassels in the Air, 1938, respectively.
  2. Luke Plunkett, “Capcom (Try To) Back Away From Anti-Wii Comments”, Kotaku, 2010.
  3. Elyse Graham, “Dog Latin: a comedy of errors”, OxfordWords blog, 2017.
  4. Meredith Doran, “Alternative French, Alternative Identities: Situating Language in la Banlieue”, Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, 2007.

OK Medium, I’m Back

What allows feedback but isn’t Facebook? (“10 Reasons Why I’m Leaving Medium” Addenda)

Yes, I left in a huff not even a year ago with several choice words for the site. And I hate to go back on things I’ve said. Nonetheless, there are a couple of factors that compel my return:

Image for post

First, in the continuing race to the bottom that is today’s internet, Facebook (FB) has managed to retake the lead. I won’t go into it too much, but while I like being connected to my people, the actual business is an amoral cesspool. They’re currently running a pricey rebranding campaign to try to redeem their image after their less-than-awesome policies have become public. I haven’t been able to track down the spend, but it must be massive with entire public transit stations nationwide plastered with their posters in addition to TV spots.

The basic pattern of these is “[x] is not your friend”, where x is the various ills they themselves have perpetrated: clickbait, data misuse, false news, spam, etc. I’m always equal parts annoyed and impressed by this type of campaign, of which there are several right now, including PG&E (for burning down communities) and Wells Fargo (for massive fraud against its customers). In each of them a soulless corporate entity is presented as a group of relatable, fallible humans who have always had your best interests in mind, but because of circumstances beyond their control, strayed from the true path, but now have seen the error of their ways and are recommitted to the values they would like you to believe they stand for. As. If. The FB one should cut to the chase and say:

Facebook is not your friend.

Fake accounts are one category FB is now theoretically going after. I can tell you from personal experience, at least in the pre-IPO days, when games were a significant element of the platform, the hardcore players—middle-aged women—were multiboxing. That means they had at least two accounts so they could engage in “social play” by acting as their own in-game friends, for gifting, trading, etc. FB’s IPO prospectus put their active monthly users at 845M, which anyone with any real-world knowledge could tell you was grossly inflated by the fake accounts they now say are not your friends; they definitely were the friends of shareholders in the biggest internet IPO of all time at $104B. I was a developer of several of the games that built that house, and then a victim when they decided to move us to a shed out back and then burn that shed to the ground. I’ve still got at least four accounts—come at me, FB.

I won’t be posting there, at least for the time being (obviously, I should never say never)—I have no illusions this will adversely affect them in any way, but doing anything to increase anyone’s usage of the site would make me complicit. And, handily enough, while I’ve failed thus far at being able to add a comments section in Ghost, Medium does have this capability built in. I guess we’ll see what happens with that activity.

Since, as I’ve noted, monetary compensation is not something I’m interested in, I guess I shouldn’t really care about the various metrics particularly. So it’s not a level playing field; what is? Ghost also has nearly no discoverability, short of me assing around with Google AdWords, which won’t be happening. I also had been considering this as an either/or issue, when there’s actually no particular reason not to post the same articles in both locations, allowing readers to choose which they prefer. Admittedly, it’s a bit more effort, especially as, in Borgesian fashion, I have a tendency to repeatedly detect flaws and re-edit ad nauseam. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be copying my more recent articles from Ghost over to Medium, as well as updating some of the older ones.

Finally, I’ve decided I had been overusing footnotes: my thought was to use them to impart additional information without breaking the flow of the narrative, but I realized the information either was important enough it should be incorporated into the body of the article or it wasn’t, and should therefore simply be omitted. Now I reserve my footnotes for citations, so hotlinking to and from them is less important; they’re just there to assure the reader I do my research and don’t just make stuff up (mostly).


Addendum: I did it!

It seems I underestimated the impact my Facebreak would have on the company, which lost $120B in the week before last, which, as John Oliver noted, is more than the value of the entire global cheese market.¹

While it might seem I’m either confusing correlation with causation or being ironical, I mean it: together with many others, certainly, I voted with my eyeballs by not looking over there. The reasons for the drop were declining revenue and user growth, the very areas affected by a Facebreak.

Last week, it came to light there remain massive numbers of fake Russian accounts on FB stoking political, cultural, religious, and racial divisions—much to my unsurprise. This is one of the many reasons the Facebreak will continue.


Update

I do continue to post all of these articles on Medium, but my own website is now my main focus. Medium is free, which is good, and my hope is posting there will help people find the rest of this stuff here. I am still more committed to staying off FB.


Read Original Article

10 Reasons Why I’m Leaving Medium


Notes

  1. “Workplace Sexual Harassment” Season 5 Episode 18, Last Week Tonight, July 29, 2018.

Asakusa Opera

Modernism in musical theater (Taishō, Part 3B)

The culture of the erotic and the grotesque (eroguro, エログロ) was present in Japan from the early Heian period ( 平安時代, 794–1185), characterized by sexually themed paintings. Such imagery has full continuity to the modern era as a distinctively and recognizably Japanese aesthetic. Nonetheless, Taishō (1912–26) culture both altered the meaning of the extant term and added its own new elements, dubbing the new movement “Erotic grotesque nonsense” (ero guro nansensu, エロ・グロ・ナンセンス).¹ Stanford University professor Jim Reichert describes it as a

[…] prewar, bourgeois cultural phenomenon that devoted itself to explorations of the deviant, the bizarre, and the ridiculous.

This, however, is far too narrow of a definition—assuming he means sexually deviant, it’s almost tautological. The only new information presented is as to the class involved, and on this point, film critic and historian Akira Iwasaki (岩崎昶) paints a more complex picture, saying that it was the “result of a capitalist system having advertised bourgeois consumer culture to Japanese spectators from the petit-bourgeois and proletariat”. It should be noted for those left in any doubt that Iwasaki was also a Marxist.

I’d also like to note that through his synonymy Reichert makes light of the movement as many others do. They seem to agree with the right wingers, authoritarians, and defenders of the “traditional” that it was inherently corrupt, materialistic, and superficial. The thread of their illogic runs that the culture is gone, so the Moderns must’ve abandoned it easily, so it can’t have had any real substance. But this ignores constant government censorship and repeated crackdowns, one of the largest urban disasters of all time, a worldwide depression that landed particularly hard on Japan, and the Second World War.

Returning to the definition of the movement, it seems clear that ero includes not only manifestations and consummations of physical desire but also the sensual as experienced in gustatory pleasure and visual culture. Guro meanwhile is about the sideshow freak and the grossly oversized or deformed but also the desperation of poverty; the dark side of modernization which only worsened following the earthquake. Nansensu covers a range of associations including nihilism, surrealism, irony, and satire. Asakusa had all of these in abundance.

Popular songs, such as Tomomichi Soeda’s (son of Azenbō Soeda) “New Tokyo March” (添田 知道, “新東京行進曲”) tied the movement directly to Asakusa:

昨日チャンバラ、今日エロレビュー、モダン浅草ナンセンス。
Yesterday, chambara. Today, ero revue. Modern Asakusa nansensu.

As already touched on, Asakusa was also home to a variety of food, from restaurants, cafés, and street vendors with stalls or carts. Some Taishō eateries still sell in the district and there is a continuity of content and style even in newer shops. Their motto back then was “cheap, fast, and good,” and the food was defined by the place:²

[T]empura in Asakusa was Asakusa tempura; one did not go to Asakusa to eat grilled eel, one ate “grilled eel in Asakusa.” [Gonda gives] an account of a man seeking the best tempura in Asakusa before taking the last train home to his village. His souvenir would be the memory of the food.

These made up some of the ero experience of the place, while guro manifested in barnumesque street performers including a variety of animal acts, various foreigners—we were still worth a good stare when I lived there in the ’80s and ’90s—musicians, hypnotists, fortune tellers, men entirely covered in tattoos, giants, strongmen, female acrobats, and the numerous beggars and vagrants, who were organized into a sort of guild allotting locations and shares, including some with disabilities including advanced cases of leprosy.

Film participated in the full range of ero guro nansensu, with the mere experience of spectation working in the first element, together with the presentation of more literally erotic elements in some. Chambara with its simulated bloody stabbings and hackings clearly acted as guro, while slapstick, as well as surrealism to a lesser extent, filled out the nansensu category.

Another such catchall was Asakusa Opera. The district’s 14 cinemas were more than matched by its many live musical theaters; as many as 23. Various types of musical theater came under the “opera” heading—there was revue and operetta as well as traditional opera, with Japanese versions of Rigoletto and Carmen being shown and attracting massive audiences. Following the typical Taishō pattern, these forms evolved rapidly from wholesale adoption of Western styles to a uniquely Japanese aesthetic.

Asakusa Opera dates from the 1917 premiere of Female Troops Go to the Frontline (女軍出征, Josei-gun no shuppatsu) as the first true work in the form. A high point was the production of Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (Orphée aux enfers), renamed Tengoku to jigoku (天国と地獄, “Heaven and Hell”) after significant alterations. The opera is itself a satirical parody fitting with the ero guro nansensu movement, and featured the risqué “Galop infernal” (“Infernal Galop”) best known today as the music of the “can-can” and which initially shocked audiences everywhere.

Even though it actually came in 1929, when Taishō was over, though only by three years, Casino Folies (カジノ・フォーリー, Kajino Fōrī) was backward-looking to the heyday of the Asakusa scene and clearly a part of the ero guro nansensu movement. Despite drawing its name from the Western Folies Bergère and Casino de Paris, it was again uniquely Japanese. What made the revue a household word was the serialized publication of a fictional tale of the Asakusa Scarlet Gang (浅草紅團, Asakusa Kurenaidan) by Yasunari Kawabata (川端 康成) beginning in 1929, which mentioned the show, together with a (false) rumour about the female performers dropping their bloomers during performances.

The works of Asakusa Opera were decidedly strange, being made up of skits, songs, and dances created by a group of intellectuals, and then put on by actresses who couldn’t even follow a script. The writers notably approved of this development because, as they said, the Asakusa audience would not laugh at a script.³ They did not look down on their audience either, but sought to fulfil their desires as well as to comment on the social issues of the moment. The nansensu aspect in particular was politically subversive, as it suggested that the constructs of society—power inequities and moral codes, for example, were arbitrary and could be easily cast off.

Perhaps even more peculiar than the form itself were its fans: peragoro (ペラゴロ) were fanatical male enthusiasts of popular opera and revues from affluent families who would monopolize seats, shout the names of their favorite stars and throw love letters onto the stage. Some discussion of the etymology of the term is worthwhile here:⁴

Everyone agrees that the first two syllables are the last two of “opera.” As for the last two, some say that they derive from “gigolo,” others that they are from gorotsuki, an old word for “thug” or “vagrant.” The latter signification, whether or not is was there from the start, came to predominate. The peragoro were the disorderly elements that hung around [Asakusa] park. They went to the theaters night after night, provided unpaid claques for favorite singers, and formed gangs, whose rivalries were not limited to vehement support for singers […]. Their lady friends […] were sometimes called peragorina, though this expression had by no means the currency of peragoro.

Yaso Kusama (草間八十雄) who taxonomized the criminal element in Asakusa placed these groups in the category of what he termed “soft-core delinquents”. Both of these accounts somewhat downplay their criminality, suggesting they were simply rabid fans, but they essentially acted as gangs that would also physically attack one another. Furthermore, at least some of those who came to Asakusa for the entertainments did so until they had no money to leave and so filled out the ranks of the vagabondage there, regardless of what class they came from. It’s strange that a culture strong enough to have this kind of fandom should entirely vanish, but so it did.

Or did it? There is a single remnant of those days, though rather than Asakusa, it’s from the tiny town of Takarazuka. Marxist or not, Iwasaki’s theory of the origins of this type of entertainment is evident in the work of Ichizo Kobayashi (小林 一三), an industrialist and politician whose main goal was to boost ticket sales on the Hanyku Railways (阪急電鉄株式会社) he owned and whose terminus from Osaka (大阪) was in Takarazuka. Looking around the modern entertainments of the day, he decided an all-female theater group performing Western-influenced song and dance shows inspired by productions like Female Army on the March, would be exactly the kind of attraction he needed. His decision to use only women was mainly based on the fact that this was the demographic group he was targeting: the new female consumer. This was what became the Takarazuka Review (宝塚歌劇団).

In 1969, Japanese playwright Kara Jūrō (唐十郎) shocked audiences with The Virgin’s Mask (少女仮面, Shōjo kamen), a surrealistic play about the revue. One sentance drew a direct line, proclaiming:

The Asakusa Operas have disappeared and only Takarazuka remains.

The Takarazuka Review has been running for more than 100 years, though not entirely to Kobayashi’s plan:⁵

[W]hereas Kobayashi sought to use the actor as a vehicle for introducing the spectacular artistry of the theater into the home, some Takarasiennes and their fans used the theater as a starting point for an opposing strategy, which included the rejection of gender roles associated with the patriarchal household.

It is somehow fitting that the subversive elements, and particularly those relating to the new roles of women in modern Japan live on.


Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 4: The Mysteries of Zūja-Go

Part 5: How “Alice” Grew Big in Japan


Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Japan’s Turbulent Taishō

Part 2A: Epochal Architecture

Part 2B: When Tokyo Moved West

Part 3A: Asakusa Movies


Notes

  1. The kanaized unabbreviated terms are エロチック, グロテスク, and ナンセンス.
  2. Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times, Miriam Silverberg, 2007.
  3. Asakusa, Hachirō Satō, 1932.
  4. Low City, High City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake: How the Shogun’s Ancient Capital Became a Great Modern City, 1867–1923, Edward Seidensticker, 1983.
  5. Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan, Jennifer Robertson, 1998.

Powhatan’s Mantle

The Ashmolean’s Pocahontas-relevant artifact (DeDisneyfication, Part 5 Addendum)

Britain has some of the finest museums going, particularly when it comes to historical artifacts from around the world. How they got there is a matter of controversy at the very least. The scene in Black Panther where Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) recovers a Wakandan artifact from a British museum, though obviously fictionalized, is a clear reference to the fact these items are, in many cases, straight-up plunder.

Another artifact discussed in the scene is from Benin, a kingdom in what is now southern Nigeria, with which the Portuguese began to trade in the 15th century. In 1897, the British sent a force of 1,200 to capture, loot, and raze the capital city as punishment for the country’s crime of defending itself from an attempt by a previous British expeditionary force of 250 bent on deposing the king and looting the capital. Much of the treasure ended up in the British Museum, most notably the Benin Bronzes, a group of more than a thousand metal plaques and sculptures that once decorated the royal palace of the African kingdom.

There are ongoing bids by several countries, including Nigeria, to repatriate various items from British museums, which the government has been noncommittal about. The so-called Elgin Marbles are the best known of these, obtained via questionably legal means from the Ottomans, occupiers of Greece in the early 1800s when this took place.

I must admit to being of two minds about this type of looting as ruin sites like the Athenian Acropolis have often simply acted as quarries for the people living nearby, and many Greek and Roman works in particular might’ve been completely lost if not for imperialist pillagers like the Earl of Elgin. The bronze from the pediment of the Pantheon in Rome is rumored to have found its way into St. Peter’s Baldachin, and so we are left to guess what a key element of one of the most amazing buildings of the ancient world looked like. To be clear, this in no way excuses what was done in Benin—the British saved the bronzes from themselves, for themselves.

In any case, one of the more unexpected artifacts on display in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is “Powhatan’s Mantle”. This item is made of four deerskins trimmed, stitched together with sinew, and decorated with some 20,000 polished discs of shell depicting a large standing central figure flanked by a deer and mountain lion, along with circular motifs thought to represent villages. The 1656 catalog of the Tradescant Collection—the founding set of artifacts for the Ashmolean—describes the item as,

Pohatan, King of Virginia’s habit all embroidered with shells, or Roanoke.

The museum’s label for the item is notably wrong; it was neither a garment nor did it belong to Mataoka’s (aka Pocahontas) father, Powhatan (… discuss). It’s far too large and heavy to be worn unless the great chief, whose name was properly Wahunsenaca, was some kind of Andre-the-Giant-esque prodigy. Instead, it’s generally acknowledged that it was a decorative hanging. Incidentally, the name Powhatan was both the name of his people and village and may have been used as a sort of title for Wahunsenaca as their leader.

Mainly though, one wonders how this artifact found its way here. It’s one of the earliest items from North America still preserved in a European museum. Different theories exist, such as it was collected by the younger John Tradescant while visiting Virginia in 1637. Another more likely one is Chief Wahunsenaca gave it to Captain Christopher Newport in 1608 to present to King James I, not as a tribute but a gift from one monarch to another.

There was actually a pair of visits to the Jamestown colony by Newport in 1608. Both were supply missions, as the Jamestown settlement was doing a terrible job of growing crops to feed its people. While the Powhatan had initially allied themselves with the English as they were worried about the activities of the Spanish, when John Smith reneged on their treaties and turned to the coercion of supplies from the surrounding villages, the relationship soured.

When Newport arrived in January 1608, there seems to have been some attempt to settle these troubles since Wahunsenaca sent a young man, Namontack, to London with the English ships as a gesture of goodwill, even though Smith seems to have been the aggressor. Nonetheless, the more likely timing for the transfer of the artifact in question is on Newport’s return with more supplies and colonists from England, when there was a noted exchange of gifts at an attempted coronation of Wahunsenaca, which he refused as he was already a king.


Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 6: The Trouble with Tarzan

Part 7A: Down the Rabbit Hole

Part 7A Addendum A: Curious Curation

Part 7A Addendum B: “Alice” in Revolt

Part 7A Addendum C: The Cultural Importance of Arisu

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

Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle”

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred

Part 9A Addendum: The Woods “Over the Wall”

Part 9B: The Sum of its Versions

Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio

Part 9D: Snowhaus

Part 10: The Little Less-Than


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