Monday, February 22, 2016

The Hymn of Creation

The Hymn of Creation is one of the hymns from the Rigveda, the oldest of the Vedas. The Vedas, or sanskrit for knowledge, are the more authoritative of the two literary foundations of Hinduism. The second foundation is composed of epics, auxiliary texts to the Vedas, poetical literature, and texts prescribing religious and legal duties. They were composed between 2000 BCE and 150 BCE, and were transmitted orally as the Vedic Chants.  

There are four sets of hymns: Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and the Atharvaveda. Each of the sets is organized into five sections: the Samhitas (mantras and benedictions), the Aranyakas (text on rituals, ceremonies, sacrifices and symbolic-sacrifices), the Brahmanas (commentaries on rituals, ceremonies and sacrifices), and the Upanishads (text discussing meditation, philosophy and spiritual knowledge).

Back to the Hymn of Creation, it is noteworthy for its epistemological openness and poetic beauty in contemplating the beginning of the universe. 

Then even nothingness was not, nor existence,
there was no air then, nor the heavens beyond it.
What covered it? Where was it? In whose keeping?
Was there then cosmic water, in depths unfathomed?

Then there was neither death nor immortality
nor was there then the torch of night and day.
The One breathed windlessly and self-sustaining.
There was that One then, and there was no other.

At first there was only darkness wrapped in darkness.
All this was only unillumined water.
That One which came to be, enclosed in nothing,
arose at last, born of the power of heat.

In the beginning desire descended on it —
that was the primal seed, born of the mind.
The sages who have searched their hearts with wisdom
know that which is kin to that which is not.

And they have stretched their cord across the void,
and know what was above, and what below.
Seminal powers made fertile mighty forces.
Below was strength, and over it was impulse.

But, after all, who knows, and who can say
whence it all came, and how creation happened?
The gods themselves are later than creation,
so who knows truly whence it has arisen?

Whence all creation had its origin,
he, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not,
he, who surveys it all from highest heaven,
he knows - or maybe even he does not know.

Translation by A. L. Basham.

Monday, February 15, 2016

A tour of the Garden of Delights

Recently a website created a virtual tour of the Garden of Delights by Hieronymus Bosch.

Bosch was part of the Netherlandish Renaissance, a painting movement in the 16th century, like Pieter Bruegel the Elder, author of the painting in the previous post. Like The Fight between Carnival and Lent, it shows contempt for the worldly world, or more scholarly, contemptus mundi. This was a common theme in Classical Antiquity and throughout Christianity.

Thank you Francisco for the post!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The fight between Carnival and Lent

Appropriate for today's date in Christian calendars, the beginning of penance, fasting, and repentance as part of Lent, here's a depiction of the transition between Carnival and Lent, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 

Close-up of the fight between Carnival, on the left, and Lady Lent on the right.
"The Carnival figure is a large man riding a beer barrel with a pork chop attached to its front end. He is wearing a huge meat pie as a head-dress; he is wielding a long spit, complete with a pig's head, as a weapon for the fight. The pouch of knives at his belt indicates that he is a butcher - the guild of butchers traditionally provided the meat for the carnival feast so his place at the procession's heart is apt. The man behind the barrel is dressed in yellow, which is connected with deceit, and he is followed by a female figure who is carrying on her head a table with bread and waffles on it. Beside her is a lute-player, which was a frequent symbol of Lutheranism. 
Lady Lent in the foreground, garbed like a nun, is sitting on a cart drawn by a monk and a nun, and looks gaunt and thin, with her followers feeding on bread and biscuits. Lady Lent's wagon contains traditional Lenten foods, pretzels, waffles, and mussels." 
The fight between Carnival and Lent, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1559).

For more details here's the wikipedia page.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Red means GO

"During the Cultural Revolution, members of the Red Guard began publicly voicing their displeasure with red stoplights. Because red was the color of the revolution, they felt it should mean “go,” symbolically encouraging the spread of Communism. The movement to swap the meaning of red and green lights gained momentum until Zhou Enlai, the Premier of the Republic, convinced the Red Guard that it was, in fact, a horrible idea."

From this link. Thanks Sam for this fun post!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Nahuatl words in common English

Tomato, avocado, cocoa, guacamole and maybe chocolate. 
All are products that were commonly used by the Aztecs, and other American peoples, and unknown in Europe before the 16th century. 
In Nahuatl, or Aztec, they are tomatl, āhuacatl, cacahuatl, āhuacamōlli, and xocolātl. They are names for the product itself, except for avocado, which was sometimes used to denote testicle.

Mayan depiction of two deities exchanging cacao.
No mention to chocolate survives in Aztec literature.
From the Madrid Codex, page 52, one of the few pre-Columbian texts that
escaped zealous book burning sprees by missionaries.
They are folding books made from the bark of fig trees.

Chocolate, questionably a Nahuatl word, was readily adopted when it was introduced by Dominican friars to the Spanish court. Not without controversy though. An intense theological debate tried to determine if chocolate violated the religious fasting. Pope Pius V ruled that it did not (though I could not find the original reference). 

Cover of Moral inquiry on whether chocolate breaks religious fasting (1636)
by Antonio de Léon Pinelo.

is a list of words from Nahuatl and other indigenous American languages.

Monday, February 16, 2015

What is art? A fiscal matter

In 1926, Constantin Brâncuși arrived in New York to showcase his works. Among them was Bird in Space (in the picture below).

Works of art are exempt from duties. However, to the customs officials the sculpture did not look like a bird, and was unlike anything they could call art. So, it had to be taxed. Not that the work was evocative of something else, and pressured to come up with a category so that the work could leave customs, it was labelled under "Kitchen Utensils and Hospital Supplies".

Bird in Space (1928)

Brâncuși's works at Brummer Gallery in New York (1933) 

The matter was of course not settled, and Edward Steichen, a friend of Brâncuși, and who took a beautiful photograph of the sculpture, filed an appeal of the customs' decision. Steichen gathered prominent art critics and artists to support Bird in Space artistic status, and included an account of the creative process, how it was like other works of art. On the customs side, two famous sculptors, Thomas Jones and Robert Aitken, argued for the current classification. They appealed to the lack of aesthetic beauty, and its abstract appearance. Here's an excerpt of the exchange between Brâncuși's lawyer and Robert Aitken:

            Speiser: Now, Mr. Aitken would you mind stating why this is not a work of art? 

            Aitken: First of all I might say it has no beauty. 
            Speiser: In other words, it aroused no aesthetic emotional reaction in you? 
            Aitken: Quite no. 
            Speiser: You would limit your answer exclusively to the fact that so far as you are                 concerned it does not arouse any aesthetic emotional reaction?             
            Aitken: Well, it is not a work of art to me. 
            Speiser: That is the sole reason you assign for it? 
            Aitken: It is not a work of art to me.

The judges were in turn more concerned about the influence of the title and whether it resembled a bird or not.

            Judge Waite: What do you call this?
            Steichen: I use the same term the sculptor did, oiseau, a bird. 
            Judge Waite: What makes you call it a bird, does it look like a bird to you? 
            Steichen: It does not look like a bird but I feel that it is a bird, it is characterized by the artist as a bird. 
            Judge Waite: Simply because he called it a bird does that make it a bird to you?                   Steichen: Yes, your honor. 
           Judge Waite: If you would see it on the street you never would think of calling it a bird, would you? 
            [Steichen: Silence] 
            Judge Young: If you saw it in the forest you would not take a shot at it? 
            Steichen: No, your honor. 

The final decision was that Bird in Space was pleasing to look at, highly ornamental, and indeed a work of art, despite being an abstract representation. And abstract art was hereby exempt of custom duties.

Brâncuși's bird in space by Edward Steichen (1926) 

Here's a short version of this amusing and outrageous controversy:

And a detailed version, with excerpts of the trial:

Friday, October 4, 2013

A fast history of the sandwich

"During the Middle Ages in Europe, thick slabs of coarse and usually stale bread, called trenchers, were used as plates. After a meal, the food-soaked trencher was fed to a dog or to beggars at the tables of the wealthy, and eaten by diners in more modest circumstances.

The immediate culinary precursor with a direct connection to the English sandwich was to be found in the Netherlands of the 17th century, where in taverns beef hung from rafters, which was cut into slices and served on bread with butter.

The first written usage of the English word appeared in the journal of the English historian Edward Gibbon, referring to "bits of cold meat" as a "Sandwich". It was named after the 4th Earl of Sandwich, an 18th-century English aristocrat, although he was neither the inventor nor sustainer of the food. It is said that he ordered his valet to bring him meat tucked between two pieces of bread, and because he also happened to be the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, others began to order "the same as Sandwich!" It is said that Lord Sandwich was fond of this form of food because it allowed him to continue playing cards, while eating without getting his cards greasy from eating meat with his bare hands.

Initially perceived as food men shared while gaming and drinking at night, the sandwich slowly began appearing in polite society as a late-night meal among the aristocracy. The sandwich's popularity in Spain and England increased dramatically during the 19th century, when the rise of an industrial society and the working classes made fast, portable, and inexpensive meals essential."

from the wikipedia page