Friday, December 29, 2006

Christmas and its pagan symbols

Despite of its oficially religious meaning, the Christian celebration of Christmas comes from pagan rites almost totally. A recent study from Manuel Mandianes shows it.

The dates

From the IV century, Christians started to celebrate this new festivity (only Easter was celebrated until this date), and, from the V century, because of the progressive division between the Western and Eastern Roman Empires, it was also divided in two: Christmas, celebrated in the Western, and Epiphany in the Eastern.
The date of birth of Jesus is not known exactly. An old oriental myth tells that Mythreas, god that protects the cosmic order and human justice, and guaranteed peace treaties, came out from a rock a 25th of December, with the aim of liberate men from the Evil. Some shepherds attended his birth. Later on, under the influence of Babylon, the same god appears as an envoy of the Sun with the mission of creating life on Earth.
Christian tradition added the date of 25th December in order to move people far from pagan traditions of Natalis Solis Invicti in a period of decadent paganism, in which the Sun worship was very used. The Church placed the birth of Jesus in the moment of solar re-birth, in the winter solstice.
In 1582, the Gregorian calendar corrected the Julian one in some days, a change Orthodoxs refused to accept. That is why they celebrate their Epiphany the 7th January. Later on, maybe due to habits or to try to attract the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church adopted the 6th January as the Epiphany, a festivity additional to Christmas (even if their significance is, theoretically, exactly the same).

Tree vs Nativity scene

The rivality between the Christmas tree and the nativity scene started in the XVI century, as a result of the fight between protestants and anti-reformists. The Church had been reoresenting the birth of the Messiah and the adoration of the Wise Men for centuries, while the first known Christmas tree is located in Alsatia, XV century, although they have very ancient pagan and druidic antecedents.
The Lutheran reform, in the XVI century, was against the scenes, trying to avoid any form of idolatry, and imposed the tree in Protestant countries. The tree, without the fact of idolatring figures, still had a religious symbology. The Caholic reaction was to modernise them; scenes progressively showed a more realistic representation of people and facts. They were soon full of non-religious figures, shepherds, that represented every kind of job and work.

Santa Claus

The current figure of Santa Claus is inspired in a Christian priest of Greek origin called Nicholas, who lived during the IV century in Anatolia and, while coming from a rich family, shared his belongings with the poors.
The transformation of Saint Nicholas in Santa Claus happened around 1624. Dutch immigrants in America took their habits and traditions with them, among them Sinterklaas, their saint patron. In 1809 the writer Washington Irving wrote a satire in which he changed the name of this Dutch saint according to the English prononciation: Santa Claus.
In the middle of the XIX century, the American figure of Santa Claus was exported to England, and later to France, where it was unified with Bonhomme Noel, a bearded character who dressed in white with bright decorations. From this union comes the current figure of Santa Claus, whose definitive appearance was designed in 1931 by Coca-Cola.
The habit of giving gifts to children in Christmas appears in the Ancient Era. Rome dedicated a festivity in December to Saturn (Chronos for the Greeks), in the end of which gifts were received by children. European children received them in later times, coming from very different characters, both religious (Wise Men in Spain) or pagans (the witch Befana in Italy).
Later on, Saint Nicholas replaced most of these characters. Since 1822, the Santa Claus visit is represented on Christmas Eve. Its adoption was very successful in the US because it satisfied a needs of the American society, as gifts were equally given to protestant, jewish, orthodox or lay children. Currently it is a pagan symbol accepted all around the world.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Pirates (2/2)

It is in the territories far away from the "civilized" Occident that piracy gets to its greatest extempt. From the colonial era, with the introduction of quick, manoeuverable vessels built by States, the pirates cross the seas of West Indies and Orient, so large and far from the metropole that they become impossible to be controlled by the Europeans.

Skulls, filibusters and rhum

All started with the great demographic expansion in Europe at the 15th Century. Poor peasants and fishermen massively join up pirate vessels, which watch the trade routes followed by Spanish boats in the Atlantic and steal their gold booty.
From 1566, with the war between Spain and the United Provinces, England supports the latter by hiring privateers and equipping them with high quality vessels, able to fight openly to Spanish frigates.
During the 17th centur, however, the English government progressively retires its support. Privateers not enjoying its favour anymore became pure pirates again and even formed a confederation against the Navy. They progressively moved their activity to Iceland, Africa, Canada, and finally cocentrated in the West Indies.
The first pirates of the Caribbean (called filibusters, from Dutch vrijbuiter) established acting as traders of slaves, so did for instance the famous Hawkins and Drake (in fact, they usually "acquired" their slaves from Spanish and then legally sold them). In the 17th century, the Caribbean islands, emptied of indigenes thanks to the exterminating labour of the Spanish, were perfect hide-outs for them. The island of Tortuga is especially famous, it received several bands of pirates between 1630 and 1670.
Generally, piracy activities were done against Spanish vessels, as their cargoes were more promising, and this way, a little privateering was done against the common enemy. A very famous story tells that Cornelis Jol, "Pie de palo", and his band, entered Santiago de Cuba in 1635 dressed up as franciscan monks, and pillaged the city. In order to protect his galleons, Phillip II of Spain created light squadrons called "armadillas", which resulted very effective.
In parallel, another kind of dealers appear, the buccaneers, who are not pirates themselves. These Europeans settled in several islands, in groups of 15 to 20 men, where they learned from the natives the technique of meat conservation by smoking (or bucán). They established supplying posts, not officials but well known by merchants and pirates, and were generally respected by both.
Although filibusters were rougher pirates than the Mediterranean ones, they were certainly not sadic, as they are so often shown. In fact, they avoided violence unless it were necessary, except rare cases. They rather made psychological war, frightening and threatening their victims. One of their techniques was the use of the mythical skull and bones flag, the "Jolly Roger", although it was not started to be used until the end of 17th century. Before, national flags or monochromatic ones (red or black) were used.
From 1650, Nederlands, France and England use pirates, prisoners and soldiers to colonize several islands (Curaçao, Jamaica, Martinique). This way, some of the greatest pirates in History arise among them, such as Morgan, De Graaf, Nau "l'Olonnais" and Teach "Blackbeard". However, the States did not support them anymore, and a general repression was carried out. These last pirates ended up changing their activity (Morgan became governor of Jamaica and De Graaf made some business in Missouri), or dying tragically. In the middle of the 18th century, piracy had practically ceased to exist.

Pirates in Orient

In the Far East piracy was also a popular activity. Since the first trading exchanges, the cities of Canton and Macau were the richest in the area thanks to their situation in the middle of the routes. It was also the reason why the main attacks and pirate nests were concentrated in that zone, the most important being the Chinese Tanka, but also foreigners such as Philippines, Vietnamese and Japanese (called Wokou).
At the beginning of the 19th century a Pirate Confederation was formed, mainly by Chinese autochtone pirates, whose activity was focused to the attack to European ships. It was a well-organised confederation, which, even if granted action autonomy to every pirate, had a reglamentation on conflict solving, tactics, behaviour and booty share. It even had a Public Fund to which all the pirates contributed with a part of its booties.
However, after the Opium War, English, American and French carried out a campaign that eventually crushed the confederation, as the inferiority of the latter was huge against steam ships. From this moment, Western powers took over the trade and smuggling of spices, opium and slaves.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Pirates (1/2)

Piracy exists since the first mariners sailed the seas, as it was a way to look for economic benefits for the people living at the coasts, generally poor. At the beginning it was not a condemned activity, if it was not done to fellow citizens. It was actually licit, and even praised, when the victim was a foreign. Homer wrote in his works about the adventures of Achilles and Menelaus, who did not hesitate to do lucrative pillages in enemy territoty, and Ulysses, who established his hide-out in the island of Itaca.

The Ancient Mediterranean

After the disappearing of the Minoian civilization, there is not a clear ruler of the Mediterranean anymore. Since the city-states start to arise, this sea becomes a busy trade route, and unsafe at the same time. Etrurian and Thracian pirates attack periodically the Greek and southern Italian coasts. Phoenicians associate the concepts of piracy and trade, and feed their slave trade this way. The island of Crete becomes the greatest pirate nest in the Mediterranean. It was not until the VI century BC that Athens carried out the first campaign against the pirates in order to have peace for its trade routes. At that time, the fact of being a pirate starts to be disapproved, as this activity looks for an individual benefit instead that for the community.
Rome had serious problems with Cilician pirates, who assaulted Sicily and reached as far as Ostia. It even seems that Julius Caesar himself was kidnapped by the pirates when he was young (although immediately afterwards he looked for help, reached them and made them crucify). In the I century BC, Pompeius conquers Cilicy, and offers the pirates a smart choice: to join the Roman navy, or to be enslaved. During centuries, the "Mare Nostrum" was a safe place for Romand transport and trade, not being so though in the Atlantic coasts.
Medieval piracy

After Rome, Byzantium became the greatest Mediterranean power, but as it did not control the whole of the coasts, it had to face continuous attacks from Narentine, Cilician and North African pirates. In 1204 Constantinople is taken by the crusaders, who start making piracy activities in the Eastern coastlines and establish a lucrative trade of Arab and Turkish slaves. Genovese and Venetian trade routes were also watched and assaulted by Catalonians, Sicilians and Maltese. At this time appears the expression "far il corso", literally make his own way, used by mariners that join pirate vessels to leave their poverty situation. From there came the latin word "corsario", for "privateer".
In the North Sea, the seasons of Spring and Autumn, with its dense fogs, were an ideal place for piracy. First Vikings in the coastlines, and then Bretons, Irish and Bordolese in the trade routes of English, Dutch and Baltic ships. In the XIV century the Hansa appears, as a trade association between septentrional cities, with the aim of offering mutual protection. However the agreements were rarely accomplished, and while every lord had pirates at his service for acting against other cities.

Golden Age and decadence

From the XVI century, the piracy becomes a politic matter. Great States start to influence in it, by financing pirate vessels or signing anti-piracy agreements with other States. As a consequence of this influence, the new privateers have more modern and sofisticated ships, giving place to a true Golden Age of piracy. Most important were port cities of Argelia (Bejaia, Oran, Algiers), that were protected and financed by Muslim kingdoms, specially the Ottoman and the nasri of Granada, by using these privateers to weaken the influence of Christian kingdoms. It is the time of the Barbarossa brothers (Baba Aruj and Khaid ar Din) who, associeted to the Ottoman Empire, caused great losses to the Spanish fleet.
From the XVII century, the troubles caused by privateers to their own protectors make these retire progressively their support. At the XVIII century the fleets of England, France and the United Provinces were powerful enough to control the decadent pirate activity, that disappeared one century later.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

A noble eagle or a scavenger ugly bird?

After the American Independence War, the Continental Congress of the recently created United States decided it was imperative to create a set of symbols to represent the new nation. Among them, a committee was designated to ellaborate the design of the future American Great Seal, since used for representation of the coat of arms and the president, as well as other institutions. This committee was composed by three men: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
One of the hottest arguments between the two latter was about choosing a bird to be included in the symbol, so that it represented the spirit and the moral of the new nation. Jefferson proposed the bald eagle as such, an endemic bird in North America, with an arrogant, vigilant look. A bird with this appearance, he thought, cannot be but a noble and brave one.

A bird with not much of a noble behaviour

However, if we observe the citations made by biologists and naturalists about the behaviour of this bird, such as the works of Mark Catesby and Meriwether Lewis, we can realie that this bird is actually all except noble and brave.
The bald eagle is a carnivore, not a good hunter though. It nearly always feeds of carrion from dead animals or rests abandoned by an imperial eagle. When it eats fish, it usually gets close to the tracks of migration for salmons, and catches those dead on their way. Or it just waits patiently that an osprey, very skilful in catching fishes on the fly but smaller than the bald eagle, fetches a fish, and then steal its food. However, it never dares to fight an imperial eagle, while they are the same size.


Benjamin Franklin never supported the bald eagle for the United States symbol. He said about it, in a letter to his daughter, that "it is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him." Franklin proposed the turkey as the symbol, a truly brave and arrogant bird according to him.
The 20th June 1784, the Congress supported Jefferson and approved the bald eagle as part of the Seal. Did Jefferson suspect what would the American relations be like towards politically weaker countries, and in the contrary, in situations in which it would compete with someone with its same size? The extermination wars against American natives, economic fagocitation of South America, predation with oil resources, sale of weapons to countries in civil war... and at the same time, negation of inconditional help to Europe during the Nazi invasion, the political game played with the Soviet Union (another bald eagle, but a bit more foolish), or the likely little heroic retreat from Irak... Actually, the bald eagle is perfect for this symbol. What a black humour, Jefferson.