January 29, 2011

Consulting the oracle

Image courtesy of wikipedia. We didn't have any around.

The Charleston papers, as WV readers know, have vent lines to which people can call in to express their opinions or questions on any conceivable topic.

And they do.

The Spousal Unit is better at keeping up with these oracular statements than I am and she found a few worthy of making it to the Goat Rope Farm refrigerator. They may have deep hidden meanings or, like Zen koans, could lead to Enlightenment if only one sits and contemplates them. Here are a couple to meditate upon:

I'm just wondering if anybody else who has been eating Slim Jims lately can tell they've got a new taste to them?


I don't think it's right that the state provides vehicle insurance for state employees who sit around with snuff in their mouth during the course of their work day.

Finally, it seems that the lottery, which I used to describe to GED students as a tax on people who aren't very good at math, is a recurring topic of interest:

My wife and I bought a roll of 100 scratch-offs--there were three $1 winners and two $2 winners--$7 out of $100. What a joke.



January 28, 2011

Deep in their hearts they remembered hell

An illustration from the 1830s of early efforts to convert Swedes to Christianity a thousand years before.

I've been blogging about Beowulf lately, although you will also find links and comments about current events below. Another thing I find interesting about the poem is the issue of religion. It seems to me that there is a thin veneer of Christianity spread sparsely over a big pagan poem.

The narrator and some of the characters talk about God and an afterlife. There are references to the Bible, but mostly to the book of Genesis, with the monster Grendel and his ilk seen as children of Cain and with references to the Flood and to the "giants in the earth" who flourished before the deluge. But there is no explicit mention of Jesus or any New Testament theme that I could find.

The poem begins and ends with two stories of kingly burial which show more kinship to pagan funeral customs than Christian burial. Beowulf himself was right there with the boys from the Iliad in longing for fame in battle as a kind of immortality. There is little that is Christian in the overall ambiance of the epic.

It may reflect a time when the conversion process, whether of the Anglo-Saxons or the North Sea warrior societies like the Danes and Geats was early and tentative. In the poem, the Danes plagued by Grendel's predations seek help from pagan gods after all else fails:

Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed
offering to idols, swore oaths
the the killer of souls might come to their aid
and save the people. That was their way,
their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts
they remembered hell.

In nature, estuaries are those interesting places where salt and fresh water meet and all kinds of interesting biological things can be found. Beowulf is a sort of spiritual estuary where the pagan mingles with the Christian in an interesting way.


I THINK WE KNEW THAT. A panel charged with investigating the financial crisis that led to the Great Recession thinks it was preventable. I think they left out the part about stagnant incomes and growing inequality however.


IMAGINING EUROPE, but getting it wrong. Not in a good way.

REFUDIATED. Four hundred rabbis have signed a letter protesting FOX "News" icon Glenn Beck for inappropriate use of Holocaust imagery.

OUT OF AFRICA. Ancient tools found in the United Arab Emirates suggests that some early humans made the trip earlier than previously believed.


January 27, 2011

Like the swift flight of a sparrow

The English church historian Bede, from a 1493 illustration.

The theme here lately is Beowulf, although you will also find links and comments about current events below. One of the interesting things about that poem is the light it sheds on religion in the Anglo-Saxon world.

It would seem that when these Germanic tribes invaded or migrated to England in the 500s, most of them were pagan and held to some variety of Norse religion, which survives in such places as the names of several weekdays (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday are named after gods). An effort to convert them to Christianity got into high gear around the year 600, give or take a few.

Unlike in other places, it seems to have taken place without much in the way of martyrdoms on either the Christian or pagan side. Maybe one reason why Christianity appealed to them was that it offered a less dark view of the world than the old religion. In Norse mythology, gods, humans and the whole shooting match were expected to go down in a cataclysm known as Ragnarok.

According to the Venerable Bede (circa 672-735), an early chronicler of English church history, a pagan priest was consulted about the new religion and he was fairly open to it. Bede says that he described the human condition thus:

The present life man, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter amid your officers and ministers, with a good fire in the midst whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door and immediately another, whilst he is within is safe from the wintry but after a short space of fair weather he immediately vanishes out of your sight into the dark winter from which he has emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space but of what went before or what is to follow we are ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.

If that isn't one of the world's best analogies, I don't know what is. But if I was the sparrow, I'd have stayed in the mead hall.

THIS IS OUR CONCERN, DUDE. Some economists warn that spending cuts and freezes advocated by President Obama and his "friends" in Congress could be the real job killers. Here's another take on it while we're at it, along with Dean Baker's response.

ROADBLOCKS. Here's Jeff Goodell, author of Big Coal, in a Rolling Stone article on the 12 politicians who are doing the most to block progress on dealing with climate change. West Virginia's senior senator made the list, which makes me wonder if our junior senator is jealous. One startling change from the past is that Don Blankenship didn't make the list this time. The former CEO of Massey Energy appears to be taking a time out. Thanks to Ken Ward's Coal Tattoo for the heads up.

WHAT I'M SCREAMING. WV needs to modernize its unemployment system now.

GOOD TO KNOW. Legislators in Utah may soon make the M1911 the official state gun.

ON THE BRIGHT SIDE, optimism in America is at a four year high (which may not be saying much).


January 26, 2011

A demon-haunted world

Back in the 1990s, Carl Sagan wrote a book titled The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. The theme here lately is Beowulf and Sagan's title--minus the science--is a pretty good description of the world of the poem.

The seas literally teem with monsters, as is related in the story of a swimming match between Beowulf and his friend Brecca where the former, swimming for days with sword and armor, has to overcome nine sea beasts.

The land isn't much better. All kinds of nasty creatures, such as Grendel and his mother, prowl the lonely areas and attack humans and animals at will. Such monsters, which are said to be the offspring of the children of Cain, the primal murderer. Grendel, the poet says, he

haunted the moors, the wild Marshes, and made his home in a hell.
Not hell but hell on earth. He was spawned in that slime
Of Cain, murderous creatures banished
By God, punished forever for the crime of Abel's death.

The haunted mere or swamp (lake?) where Grendel and his mother live is likewise full of monsters and nasty giant water snakes.

Then there are dragons, irritable fire-breathing monsters with venomous bites who dwell on hoarded gold and don't take kindly to being disturbed.

As noted in yesterday's post, the human world wasn't a whole lot nicer. All of which makes for a pretty good story, if not a very nice place to live.

STATE OF THE UNION. It would probably be trite beyond words to say that the state of the union address seemed political to me but there you have it. There were things to like and not to like. I am concerned that the proposed freeze in federal spending could have a recessionary effect. More on that to come.

WHAT HE SAID. Here's NY Times columnist Bob Herbert talking sense on Social Security and the real cause of budget deficits.

HEALTH CARE REFORM seems to be moving ahead in West Virginia.

GENGHIS KHAN left a greener world behind him. His methods, however, are not recommended for emulation.

TO SLEEP, PERCHANCE to remember.

URGENT DINOSAUR UPDATE here. This newly discovered one had just one finger. I could think of things to say but will spare the reader.


January 25, 2011


The theme here lately is Beowulf, although you'll also find links and comments about current events below. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this oldest English epic is a bit like a cross between The Hobbit (dragons and monsters and all that) and The Sopranos. No wonder the world it portrays is so dangerous.

The kind of society portrayed in the poem isn't all that different from that of the Iliad. It's a warrior society based on a culture of honor. Culture of honor have been discussed here before (search blog in upper left hand corner form more). They have appeared in all kinds of societies and neighborhoods down to the present day.

To make it plain, a culture of honor is one in which the good things of life are easily taken away unless one responds vigorously to any and all slights or Nike stomps.

Beowulf also shows a glimpse of a "heroic" society dominated by lords and their thanes or retainers, who spend their time getting sloshed in mead halls when they aren't out raiding. The lord/thane bond was a very serious one, but it wasn't maintained with tyranny. Rather, the lord gained the loyalty of his retainers by generosity. In the poem, the lord is often called "the ring giver." As the poem puts it,

...a young prince must be prudent like that,
giving freely while his father lives
so that afterwards in age when fighting starts
steadfast companions will stand by him
and hold the line. Behaviour that’s admired
is the path to power among people everywhere.

Within the poem and in other Anglo-Saxon sources there are several stories about the lord/thane bond and the duty of a retainer to fight for and if need be avenge one's lord, even if he has already died and even if the fight is hopeless.

It's also a culture where feuds are common and can drag on and on. It wouldn't take much to get one started. Imagine a bunch of drunken warriors exchanging boasts in a mead hall. Bragging gives way to insults, which gives way to violence and then it's on. One good killing deserves another, unless the offender pays the wergild or blood price.

Finally, it's a culture composed of many rival bands and little kingdoms, each of which are prepared to move in on another's territory at any sign of weakness.

And all that is without taking the monsters into account, about which more later.

BUDGET CUTTING AUSTERITY MEASURES when taken to extremes can lead to disastrous outcomes.

COURTING TROUBLE. This article looks at the risks of climate change denial.

GET MOVING. Here's an NPR tribute to America's first fitness guru, the late great Jack LaLanne.

WHAT'S IN A SMILE? Apparently, quite a bit.


January 24, 2011

Monsters and mead halls

I've been spending time with the poem Beowulf lately (see last week's posts) and plan to unpack it a bit here over the next stretch. Here's the basic outline of the plot:

Hrothar, king of the Spear Danes, is a successful ruler who builds the Mother of All Mead Halls, which he calls Heorot. Mead halls were important amongst the warrior kingdoms of the North Sea as places for lords, their retainers, and others to spend long winter nights in drinking, feasting, and all that.

The local monster Grendel is not amused (imagine having to listen to a bunch of drunken proto-Vikings every night) and raids the hall, eating lots of people. Suddenly Heorot is not the hottest hangout.

After a while, a young warrior from Geatland (probably southern Sweden) comes with his posse and vows to kill the monster. Hrothgar welcomes them and the Geats settle in for the night.

Grendel kills one Geat but Beowulf pounces and applies an armlock that tears off the monster's arm (for judo buffs out there, I think it was a variation of ude garami). Grendel is fatally wounded and goes back to his home beneath a swamp to die.

There is much rejoicing...until Grendel's mother (who does NOT look like Angelina Jolie in the poem) comes the next night and kills one of Hrothgar's advisers. Beowulf goes to the haunted swamp the next day and swims down to do battle with her, eventually killing her and bringing back Grendel's head as a trophy, It takes four people to carry it.

After more rejoicing and gift giving, Beowulf and pals go home. He eventually becomes king over the Geats and rules successfully and peacefully for 50 years until someone stirs up a dragon by discovering its hoard of treasure. The dragon wreaks havoc and the aged Beowulf vows to kill it in single combat. That doesn't work out too well but he finally succeeds with the help of Wiglaf, a young retainer. He is fatally wounded however.

The Geats give him a fitting funeral, but the poem ends on a sombre note. Now that their king is gone, the Geats are likely to be raided and conquered by others. You may have noticed that you don't find Geatland on any contemporary maps, so they were probably on to something.

That's just an overview. There's a lot more interesting stuff, about which more later.

COMPETITION may be the new magic word.

A PRIVATE CIA? Apparently.

CLIMATE CHANGE threatens a number of animal species.