Sunday, February 25, 2007

Human sacrifices to Huitzilopochtli

In summer 1521, the small army of the conquistador Hernán Cortés had been expelled from Tenochtitlan by the Aztecs, 62 of his soldiers taken prisoners during the fight. From outside the lake of the mexica capital, Cortés saw, powerless, the Aztec priests dispose these prisoners on the pyramid-temple altars, opened their chests and offered their beating hearts to the god Huitzilopochtli.

The chronicle of the swordsman Bernal Díaz tells these facts. Ritual sacrifice was perceived by Cortés as a threat and intimidation from the Aztecs. It probably arised a feeling of rejection and revenge in him, that influenced the later extermination of Aztec culture. However, the ritual sacrifice had a very different meaning.

In Aztec culture, human sacrifices were common during celebrations or natural disasters. Spilling human blood was a means to be humilliated in order to express gratitude and pay the debt towards the gods, for the sacrifice they did themselves in the creation of the world. Auto-sacrifice was the most widespread way, being common the fact of perforating sometimes several parts of the body with obsidian (especially ear, tongue and penis).

When the sacrifice involved offering the life of another person, this was rarely a slave (as the sacrifice became less valuable). It was usually a free person voluntarily offered or a war prisoner. The latter type of sacrifice, in which a jaguar warrior offered his prisoner to Huitzilopotchli, god of Sun and War, was the most widespread among Aztecs. The rite usually consisted in a ritual dance performed by both victim and warrior, and later the priest took the heart out from the victim's chest on the sacrifice altar. Right afterwards, the victim's body was offered to the warrior's family. They then ate his flesh and carried his skin for several days. What explanation has such an extravagant rite?

A complex meaning

In Meso-American cultures, the concept of the individual is relative. The nature of the "me" does not exist as itself, but as other individuals see it. This way, a jaguar sees other jaguars the same way a human sees other humans. The sacrifice rite is, in this context, a ceremony of assimilation, of an attempt to become the other. By eating his flesh, and carrying his skin, the warrior and his family personify their enemy, who defines who are themselves. In this manner, the sacrifier becomes, momentaneously, a singular individual, not relative but absolute.

For the better quality of the rite, the victim must be as similar as possible as the sacrifier, that is, from a near origin. That is why, the sacrified that came from the nearby city of Tlaxcala were more ppreciated than those come from further. Spanish were, thus, a second-class type of victim.

An interesting aspect in the ritual sacrifice, is that the sacrifier assumes also the role of the victim (result of the assimilation of the other). When the family ate the victim's flesh, they were in mourning, and it was frequent to cry during the ceremony, same as if it were their relative who was dead.

So, although difficult to understand by the Western invaders, the true reason of the sacrifice was much more complex than they thought.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

History of the fork

The fork, unlike knife and spoon, has not always been part of table settings. In fact, its history is relatively very recent. Although it appeared in Greece as early as the 4th century, it did not start to be generally used until the Modern Ages. Before the fork was introduced, people would largely eat food with their hands, calling for a common spoon when required. For aristocrats, though, table manners appointed that only three fingers should be used to touch the food, leaving the little and ring fingers unused.

First attempts in Italy

From the 7th through the 13th Centuries, forks were fairly common among the wealthy in the Middle East and Byzantium. In the year 1005, the byzantine aristocrat Maria Argyropoulina married the future Doge of Venice, Domenico Selvo. During their wedding celebrations she dared to refuse to eat with her hands. Instead, she had one of her eunuchs cut her food into little pieces she was able to eat with a golden fork she carried with her, fact that was considered decadent by everybody. The princess died shortly after of some disease, and this was perceived as divine punishment. The cardinal bishop of Ostia, St Peter Damian, spoke "of the Venetian Doge's wife, whose body, after her excessive delicacy, entirely rotted away." He preached extensively against this extravagant instrument, calling it both diabolic (probably due to its Devil's trident-like form) and useless, as spaghetti and macaroni were so hard to eat with it. It must be noted that forks at that time were flat and two-pointed, thus much more difficult to handle.

Hence, fork disappeared for 300 years from Italian table, until the 16th century, when it was rediscovered thanks to a renewed social interest in cleanliness. In 1533, another royal marriage, that of Catherine de Medicis with the king Henry II of France, spread the use of the fork. The Italian princess made it fashionable in the French court. She introduced the usage of each guest arriving at a dinner with their own fork and spoon enclosed in a box called a "cadena".
Use in Europe

England saw its first fork when a traveller called Thomas Coryate described its using as good manners, after one of his journeys to Italy in 1608. In the beginning, he was ridiculised and mocked, and fork seen as an affectation. "Furcifer" he was called, which means "pitchfork handler" in Latin. The clergy perceived its use as an ungodlt act, by saying that "God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks - his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metallic forks for them." However, in 1633, Charles I of England declared that "it is decent to use a fork", a statement that heralded the beginning of civilised table manners. After some years, every member of the British royal family and the court possessed a fork. Its use was slowly spread among the wealthy in England, as imitating Italian habits was seen as sign of culture and refinement.

However, the way to use the fork remained a mystery revealed to only a few, well into the 18th century. Joseph Brasbridge, an English retail silversmith, wrote of his confusion in a customer's home, "I know how to sell these articles, but not how to use them." The king Louis XIV of France continued to eat with fingers or a knife for many years. Once he discovered its usefulness, though, he became the first host in Europe to provide complete sets of dinnerware for his guests, suppressing the necessity of the "cadena". He also ordered shape changes in dinner knives, such as rounding its point, as their pricking task was not needed anymore. In the 19th century, mass production and the invention of the electroplating process made metallic forks affordable to a rising middle class who wished to emulate the nobility.

The fork shape has been subject to several changes. By the end of the 1600's, manufacturers were adding a third tine to denote the old custom of eating with just the first three fingers. In Italy, Gennaro Spadaccini was the first to add a fourth tine and round its sharp points, under the order of king Ferdinand to adapt it for the eating of spaghetti. Finally, in the beginning of the 18th century, the curved fork was developed in Germany, coming out in the tool we know today. The additional tines made diners less likely to drop food, and the curved tines served as a scoop so people did not have to constantly switch to a spoon while eating.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Gustaf's military revolution

The first example of combined arms can be seen in the Swedish army during the 30 years war. The unprecedented interaction between infantry, musketeers, cavalry and artillery that king Gustaf Adolf of Sweden introduced, supposed the beginning of the modern warfare.

Until the 17th century, tactis were still much alike in the late middle ages. Blocks of infantry and cavalry acted separately, while artillery remained an inmobile, heavy unit for support or siege. The cavalry itself had lost the role of stormtroop it had before, as it relyed on heavily armored horsemen that performed shy movements of pistol attack and retreat, called "caracole". The infantry formation was the "tercio", a bulk group of pikemen surrounded by arquebusiers, where the long spears of the first provided protection to the latter. As early firearms were short-ranged and slow to charge, this conservative structure showed a good performance to the Spanish Empire at the time, in spite of confering warfare a complete lack of offensive. With the introduction of the field artillery, it became a very vulnerable target.

The Gustaf revolution

Gustaf had developed a new army, where mobility became the strongest feature. As a first measure, the arms and armors of the soldiers were significantly reduced, even to just light harnesses in the case of cavalry. Pikes were reduced to 3 metres (instead of 6), and muskets were made lighter, so that "fork" was not needed anymore.

The tercios of the Spanish tactical school were abolished. Gustaf's infantry instead used linear formations, much more mobile by the quick ordering from line to column. Musketeers could all fire at the same target and quickly alternate different lines of fire. Their tactics also changed: they usually shooted in salvos, instead of individually, provoking a psychological effect on the enemy. Right after the shot, a charge of pikemen (with their new maneuvrable pikes) crushed the weakened enemy. This combination gave back the infantry the offensive role it had lost.

The Swedish cavalry also favored the shocking effect of the charge. The caracolle was ineffective since the lethality of the pistol was low. Gustaf's horsemen instead advanced on the trot firing their pistols and then charged at full speed with drawn swords, especially vulenrable targest such as enemy cavalry in caracolle retreat or field artillery. The cavalry was also supported by units of musketeers granting it more deffensive capability.

The greatest improvement was that of the artillery, though. Gustaf and his artillery chief, Lennart Torstensson, decided to create a type of light artillery, of pieces of "only" 150 kg (while 1500 kg of the traditional cannons). This new artillery could perfectly follow infantry and even cavalry displacements, thus acting as a short-range, effective support at all time. These units of light artillery, moreover, were not assigned in an exclusive regiment. Instead, each infantry or cavalry regiment was provided with several pieces of artillery to the order of the same commander. This apparently simple issue proved to be essential, as this case of splitting had never been the case before.

The result? The German Catholic League was massacred at the battle of Breitenfeld, and the time of the Swedish Empire started. The old military tactics were suddenly abandoned and remplaced by Gustaf's ones. Napoleon itself considered Gustaf as one of his military inspirators.