February 09, 2011

Hobby horses

It has long been noted that individuals and groups often have certain pet ideas or obsessions that they enjoy fiddling with and thinking about. In Lawrence Sterne's immortal Tristram Shandy, the author refers to these as hobby-horses:

...have not the wisest of men in all ages, not excepting Solomon himself, - have they not had their HOBBY HORSES; - their running horses, - their coins and their cockle-shells, their drums & their trumpets, their fiddles, their pallets, - their maggots and their butterflies? - and so long as a man rides his HOBBY HORSE peaceably and quietly along the King’s highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him, - pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?

The Anglo-Saxons, whose culture gave us Beowulf (the theme here lately, by the way) had some hobby horses of their own. They were especially fascinated with the biblical story of Cain and Abel. You may recall that the Beowulf poet states that the monsters Grendel, his mother, and a host of other nasty critters were descendants of the primal brother-murderer Cain.

They weren't the only ones who found fratricide interesting. The theme of enemy brothers shows up in all kinds of myths and legends, including the story of Romulus and Remus and the sons of Oedipus. But the story of Cain had its special place. What was up with that?

For starters, the North Sea raiding societies, including Danes, Norse, Swedes, and the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons, were prone to killing and feuding. War was very common, but so too were fights that could break out at any time in a culture of honor. Just as many fights today take place in bars, so then boasting and insults in the mead halls could easily lead to killing. And, then as now, one good killing seems to call for another, with revenge killings and feuds.

They did devise one way to put an end to the cycle of violence, i.e. by paying the weregild or man price to the dead man's survivors. That worked fine as long as the killing took place between people of different families. BUT, when a man killed his brother, there was no way to atone; one could not pay oneself. Hence people who killed their brothers were seen as especially cursed. They probably felt this way even before their conversion to Christianity, but when they finally did, they found special resonance in the Cain story.

This theme also shows up in Beowulf when the hero has an unpleasant exchange with Unferth, who challenges Beowulf's courage. Beowulf dismisses him, saying

...you were a man-slayer, killed your brothers,
closest kinsmen, for which you must suffer
damnation in hell, clever though you are.

Today's take home message: if you have a brother, try not to kill him.

THE LATEST SCAPEGOATS on the right are public employees.

SPEAKING OF SCAPEGOATS, here's Frances Fox Piven, a frequent target of Glenn Beck's conspiracy theories, speaking for herself. In Glennbeckistan, Piven, who has written extensively about poverty and poor people's movements with Richard Cloward, is believed to be a mastermind of revolution. She has been the target of many death threats as a result.


TEEN'S BEST FRIEND. Here's another story about how dogs are good exercise equipment, in this case for teens.


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