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Posts Tagged ‘mythology

“See the turtle of enormous girth, on his shell he holds the earth”*…

An illustration of the “Hindu Earth” from 1876

On the roots of a surprisingly wide-spread– and durable– image…

Anyone who’s ever heard the expression “it’s turtles all the way down” is probably familiar with the image of the world being carried on the back of a giant turtle. While that philosophical one-liner is of relatively modern vintage, the cosmic turtle mytheme has appeared in disparate cultures across the globe for millennia. In honor of everyone’s favorite intellectual quandary, let’s take a moment to celebrate the tortoises that hold up the world.

In his book Researches Into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization, the turn-of-the-20th-century anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor writes that the world turtle concept likely first appeared in Hindu mythology. In one Vedic story, the form of the god Vishnu’s second avatar, Kurma, is a great turtle, which provides a celestial foundation upon which a mountain is balanced.

Over in China, part of the traditional creation mythology involves a giant turtle named Ao, although the image in this case is a bit different. According to the legend, the creator goddess cut off the legs of the cosmic turtle and used them to prop up the heavens, which had been damaged by another god. It’s not quite carrying the world on its back, but it still puts a terrapin at the center of the universe, making sure that the very sky doesn’t fall down.

The concept of a world turtle seems to have arisen independently within Native American myth and legend. In the creation stories of the Lenape and Iroquois people, the Earth is created as soil is piled on the back of a great sea turtle that continues to grow until it is carrying the entire world. Many indigenous tribes in North America refer to the continent as Turtle Island to this day.

The image of the world being carried through space by an ancient, impossibly massive tortoise is evocative, so it’s not hard to imagine why it has survived for so long in so many different cultures. But in the end, why turtles?

In a 1974 issue of the anthropological journal Man, the scholar Jay Miller provides some thoughts on what makes the turtle such a popular world bearer, writing, “I viewed the turtle as a logical choice for such an atlantean because its shape and appearance were suited to this role.” But he goes on to write, specifically of the Lenape belief in a world turtle, that the creature also mirrored aspects that they valued in their culture, such as perseverance and longevity. And that idea doesn’t just apply to the cosmic turtle in Lenape culture. “With intensive research, the above analysis should also apply for other societies that place the earth on the back of a turtle.” Most turtles and tortoises are also famously long-lived, giving them a wise, ancient quality that lends itself to mythologizing.

World turtles appear in more modern pop culture as well, from the Great A’Tuin of the late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld franchise, to the all-knowing Maturin of Stephen King’s metaverse. Clearly, it remains cool to imagine that our world is being led through space by a being that actually knows where we’re headed.

Why Is the World Always on the Back of a Turtle?” As Eric Grundhauser (@OMGrundhauser) explains, it’s mythology all the way down.

* Stephen King

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As we contemplate cosmological chordates, we might recall that it was on this date in 762 that Baghdad was founded. After the fall of the Umayyads, the first Muslim dynasty, the victorious Abbasid rulers wanted their own capital from which to rule. They chose a site north of the Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon— a site especially blessed as it had control over strategic and trading routes along the Tigris, and it had an abundance of water in a dry climate. The caliph Al-Mansur commissioned the construction of the city– in the round, a deliberate reminder of an expression in the Qur’an, when it refers to Paradise.

Within a short time, Baghdad evolved into a significant cultural, commercial, and intellectual center of the Muslim world. This, in addition to housing several key academic institutions, including the House of Wisdom (see also here), as well as hosting a multi-ethnic and multi-religious environment, earned the city a worldwide reputation as the “Center of Learning.”

Baghdad was the largest city in the world for much of the Abbasid era during the Islamic Golden Age, peaking at a population of more than a million. But the city was largely destroyed at the hands of the Mongol Empire in 1258, resulting in a decline– fueled by frequent plagues and the turmoil of multiple successive empires– that lingered through many centuries.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 30, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Never let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what’s right”*…

 

People disagree about morality. They disagree about what morality prohibits, permits and requires. And they disagree about why morality prohibits, permits and requires these things. Moreover, at least some of the disagreement on these matters is reasonable. It is not readily attributable to woolly thinking or ignorance or inattention to relevant considerations. Sensible and sincere people armed with similar life experiences and acquainted with roughly the same facts come to strikingly different conclusions about the content and justification of morality.

For examples of disagreement about content, think of the standards ‘vote in democratic elections’, ‘do not smack your children’, and ‘do not eat meat’. Some reasonable people recognise a moral duty to vote, or a moral prohibition on smacking or meat-eating; others do not. To see the depth of disagreement about justification, consider the variety of reasons advanced for the widely accepted moral standard ‘do not lie’. Should we refrain from lying because God commands it, because it promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number, because in deceiving others we treat them as mere means to our ends, or because the virtue of honesty is a necessary condition of our own flourishing? Each of these reasons is persuasive to some and quite unpersuasive to others.

Reasonable disagreement about morality presents educators with a problem. It is hard to see how we can bring it about that children subscribe to moral standards, and believe them to be justified, except by giving them some form of moral education. But it is also hard to see how moral educators can legitimately cultivate these attitudes in the face of reasonable disagreement about the content and justification of morality. It looks as though any attempt to persuade children of the authority of a particular moral code will be tantamount to indoctrination…

Michael Hand asks– and suggests an answer to– a desperately-important question: “If we disagree about morality, how can we teach it?

* Isaac Asimov

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As we struggle to teach our children well, we might send fabulous birthday greetings to Publius Ovidius Naso; he was born on this date in 43 BCE.  Known in the English-speaking world as Ovid, he was a Roman poet who lived during the reign of Augustus.  He was a contemporary of the older Virgil and Horace, with whom he is often ranked as one of the three canonical poets of Latin literature.  Ovid is today best known for the Metamorphoses, a 15-book continuous mythological narrative written in the meter of epic, and for works in elegiac couplets such as Ars Amatoria (“The Art of Love”) and Fasti.  His poetry was much imitated during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and greatly influenced Western art and literature; he was, for instance a favorite– and favorite source– of Shakespeare.  And the Metamorphoses remains one of the most important sources of classical mythology.

Ovid enjoyed enormous popularity in his time; but, in one of the great mysteries of literary history, was sent by Augustus into exile in a remote province on the Black Sea, where he remained until his death.  Ovid himself attributes his exile to carmen et error, “a poem and a mistake”; but his discretion in discussing the causes has resulted in much speculation among scholars.

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March 20, 2018 at 1:01 am

“If I had to choose a superhero to be, I would pick Superman. He’s everything that I’m not.*…

 

The images that pop up in most people’s heads when they think about superheroes can be traced back to the 1938 debut of Superman and the genre evolution that followed. But it’s possible to go back even further, connecting the Hulk to the ancient epic poem of Gilgamesh, and Batman to 17th Century cross-dressing crimefighter Moll Cutpurse…

 Heroic history at: “How Ancient Legends Gave Birth to Modern Superheroes.”

* Stephen Hawking

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As we investigate our icons, we might recall that it was on this date in 1885 that Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in the U.S.   Considered by many to be the Great American Novel, Huckleberry Finn has been controversial from it birth (e.g., here and here)– indeed, the controversy began before its birth:  The UK and Canadian edition came out two months earlier; the U.S. version was delayed because one of the engravers added an obscenity to one of the illustrations: on p. 283, an illustration of Aunt Sally and Silas Phelps was augmented by the addition of a penis.  Thirty thousand copies of the book had been printed before the unwanted addition was discovered.  A new plate was made to correct the illustration and repair the existing copies; still, copies with the so-called “curved fly” plate remain valuable collectors items.

Huck, as drawn by E. W. Kemble for the original edition of the book

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February 18, 2017 at 1:01 am

“To perceive Christmas through its wrappings becomes more difficult with every year”*…

 

The commercial Christmas card as we know it originated in London in 1843. That winter, Sir Henry Cole, a civil servant who helped organize the Great Exhibition and develop the Victoria and Albert Museum, decided he was too busy to write individual Christmas greetings to his family, friends and business colleagues. He asked his friend, the painter John Callcott Horsley, to design a card with an image and brief greeting that he could mail instead.

Horsley designed a triptych, with the two side panels depicting good deeds (clothing the naked and feeding the hungry) and the center panel showing a family Christmas party. The inclusion of booze at this party got Cole and Horsley an earful from the British Temperance Movement. At the bottom of the center panel was the inscription “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”

The card was lithographed on 5 1/8″ X 3 1/4″ stiff cardboard in dark sepia and then colored by hand. An edition of 1,000 cards was printed and sold at Felix Summerly’s Treasure House in London for a shilling each. Of those cards, twelve exist today in private collections, including the one Cole sent to his grandmother.

Mass-printed cards soon replaced hand-written greetings in most of Europe and the United States. Americans imported their Christmas cards from England until 1875, when a German immigrant named Louis Prang opened a lithographic shop and created the first line of Christmas cards in the states.

While Prang was soon producing more than 5 million Christmas cards each year and had been dubbed the “father of the American Christmas card,” his success didn’t last long. The initial popularity of his cards led to imitations that were less expensive and featured seasonal images instead of the colorful floral arrangements Prang favored. Prang’s imitators drove him out of the market in 1890, and inexpensive Christmas postcards imported from Germany ruled until World War I.

By the end of the war, the modern American greeting card industry had been born and today it supplies the 2,000,000,000+ Christmas cards that are sent every year in the U.S.

[Via Mental Floss, where one can also get a peek at some of the weird turns that the trend took: “9 Delightfully Bizarre Christmas Cards from the 1800s.”]

* E.B. White

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As we lick envelopes, we might be relived to remember that today os the traditionally-accepted start of the Halcyon Days.  Ovid recounts, in The Metamorphoses, the story of Aeolus, the ruler of the winds, his daughter Alcyone, and her husband Ceyx, the king of Thessaly. When Ceyx was drowned at sea, Alcyone threw herself into the waves in a fit of grief– whereupon the gods transformed them both into halcyon birds (kingfishers).  When Alcyone made her nest on the beach, waves threatened to destroy it; so Aeolus restrained his winds and kept them calm during seven days (some believe fourteen) in each year, so she could lay her eggs.  These became known as the “halcyon days,” when storms do not occur.

While in modern usage the phrase has taken on a nostalgic cast (folks pine for the “Halcyon Days of Youth”), we can hope that they spell a safe and calm Holiday season in 2014…

The Kingfisher

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December 14, 2014 at 1:01 am

Listing…

 

From The New Yorker, The Hundred Best Lists of All Time.

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As we rankle at the rankings, we might note that this was the Feast Day of the Ass in ancient Rome.  The festival honored Vesta, the daughter of Chronos (Time) and Rhea (Earth), and legendary founder of the Vestal Virgins, a cult of six virginal women priestesses who were charged with keeping alive the flame burning in their temple at the center of Rome.  The celebration was named as it was in honor of the donkey that saved Vesta’s honor:  As told by Propertius, the young Vesta was being sought by the “horned” Priapus, who approached one night as she lay sleeping.  Her ass’s loud braying awakened her in time to defend herself from his advances.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 15, 2013 at 1:01 am

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