Thursday, January 29, 2009

Tamerlane's Revenge

Timur the Lame, aka Tamerlane, conquered much of India, Persia, and Central Asia in the fourteenth century.

Here is a timeline of events after his death.

February 19, 1405: Tamerlane dies. His body is returned to Samarkand and buried.

Timur's lavish tomb, the Gur-e Amir, still stands. 1895 photo.

1405, after entombment: A sign is carved into his tomb which warns that whoever disturbed the tomb of Timur bring "demons of war onto his land."

June 19, 1941: Mikhail Gerasimov exhumes Timur's remains for study.
June 22, 1941: Nazi Germany invades the Soviet Union.

[N.B. Timur was given an elaborate Islamic funeral and reburied in November 1942; the battle of Stalingrad ended in Russian victory not too long thereafter]

Monday, January 26, 2009

Axis Monday II: Living on Babel


Because "it takes too long to come down to ground level each day to make it worthwhile," a crane operator on the Burj Dubai – the world's tallest building – is rumored to have "been up there for over a year," the Daily Telegraph reports.
His name is Babu Sassi, and he is "a fearless young man from Kerala" who has become "the cult hero of Dubai’s army of construction workers." He also lives several thousand feet above the ground.

Their December article covers a good deal of the symbolism behind this story and is worth a read. Most intriguingly it discusses the mythologization of the construction worker, and uses the true life example of this man living atop the Burj Dubai to hint how real people become transformed into heroes immortalized in folklore.

In this case, the axis mundi transmits that legendary status directly. The Burj Dubai is certainly the profoundest symbol of Dubai (along with its artificial islands, more on those in the future, perhaps), and in a lesser sense of the secular Middle East and the world.

The unique status of the building thus imparts mythological status directly to its sole (?) inhabitant. No one cares if somebody lives in an unfinished three story tenement, except for the Law. But if you live thousands of feet above the ground, literally dwell in the sky, higher above the natural ground than any other human being--it would be shocking if the situation did not impart mystical power to this figure.

The gods which swept Europe and the Middle East as they left nomadism behind as a general rule displaced and replaced terrestrial gods, the Gaias and Earth Mothers of the world (This hypothesis is somewhat controversial and I surely will address it in great detail in the future, but for now take it at face value). These new gods as a general rule came from and lived in the Sky. Mt. Olympus is both indicative and obvious. The gods lived atop the Sacred Mountain--the axis mundi of Greece.

Mr. Babu Sassi, this cult hero of blue-collar Dubai, reigns from his throne in the sky in just the same way.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Quotations on Tea and the Moment

"He took his first sip of tea--always the best one." -Neal Stephenson, Diamond Age

"It was a rainy night. It was the myth of the rainy night. Dean was popeyed with awe. This madness would lead nowhere. I didn't know what was happening to me, and I suddenly realized it was only the tea that we were smoking; Dean had bought some in New York. It made me think that everything was about to arrive--the moment when you know all and everything is decided forever." -Kerouac, On The Road

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Two Word Summary of 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button'

WARNING: The following post contains significant spoilers for the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The summary below gives away every moment of the entire film, so take caution.

Memento Mori.

End spoilers.

This has been the first edition of the new weekly Axis Monday feature, "Tuesdays with Memento Mori." Look forward to a fuller edition next week!

More Notes and Quotes from the Moment

A headline from

Also from
"This is America happening," said Evadey Minott of Brooklyn, New York. "It was prophesized by [the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.] that we would have a day when everyone would come together. This is that day."

Don't hear about prophesy every day in America.

Two million people on the Mall--a full .67% of the population of the United States gathered in this one place to watch the Moment.

By Constitutional decree the inauguration must occur at noon.
Can you even imagine it raining on such a day as this?
Truly that would be an ill omen.


"Bush -- following tradition -- is leaving a note for Obama in the top drawer of his desk in the Oval Office. White House press secretary Dana Perino said the theme of the message -- which Bush wrote on Monday -- is similar to what he has said since election night about how Obama is about to start a "fabulous new chapter" in the United States, and that he wishes him well."

From CNN:

Obama is using the same Bible that Abraham Lincoln used for his inauguration. It has not been used since Lincoln's first inauguration in 1861; it's making a special trip out of the Library of Congress for the event.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Axis Monday I: The Inauguration

I'll keep it short since everybody else is talking about this, but it fits right in with the purpose of Axis Monday, so I unfortunately am required to address the inauguration.

This will be the first in a series of Monday posts which celebrate the Axis Mundi. It seemed a fittingly liminal place to start.

Behold the glory of the Capitol, the Axis Mundi of the nation, bedecked for its greatest recurring festival. Even more exciting than Sundance.

The dome pierces the sky; it is in every sense the axis mundi, the heart of the world.

For years the federal Height of Buildings Act prevented any D.C. building from trumping the Capitol's height; a few other federal buildings now rise higher (mostly Cathedrals and Basilicas) but no private building stands taller.

And tomorrow is the hierophany, the revelation of the sacred, at this very space.

Let's talk about the word inauguration for a moment.

From the Online Etymology Dictionary:
1569, from Fr. inauguration "installation, consecration," from L. inaugurationem (nom. inauguratio) "consecration, installment under good omens," from inaugurare "take omens from the flight of birds, consecrate or install when such omens are favorable," from in- "on, in" + augurare "to act as an augur, predict" (see augur).
Romans were big on foretelling the future through birds and other omens. Tomorrow is a day of many omens, a sacred day, which shall set the future for a long time to come.

Will the omens be favorable?

Obama has made them so.

President Obama's journey by train to the capital these past few days has also been wrought with symbolism: deliberate parallels to Lincoln, but also the simple motif of the grand journey. Mr. Obama cleverly saw that a symbolic gesture of this sort would inspire the country more than wasting a few days in the city. He undertook a quest fraught with liminality, and tomorrow becomes actualized.

When is THE liminal moment?
CNN knows:

I don't make this stuff up, folks.

When Obama takes the oath, he shall--for those few moments--pierce the boundary between the earthly world and the sacred realm. He shall be a conduit, for a mere moment, of everything this country believes in.

All such times are transitory. The oath shall pass; its power shall linger through his inaugural address, and then his power shall fade and he will again become a mere man.

No matter what else transpires, it will be the greatest moment of Barack Obama's life, and it shall henceforth always have a hold on him. A second inauguration, should he prove so fortunate, lacks these same trappings. This is the first. This is the one that counts. For him more than other recent presidents, because of the burden placed on him and the hopes of the people.

Come what may--the inevitable failures and disappointments, the utter impossibility of fulfilling his promise--for this one moment he shall be everything, he shall be Perfect.

And once the speech finishes and the balls begin, life will go on for him and for everyone, and the door to the sacred will seal once more.

Friday, January 16, 2009

A Rose By Any Other Name Would be a Tulip

I can't help but feel a certain measure of respect for people who carve themselves into what they desire to become. It always ends in disaster, but to live if only briefly as an image with a false name to enhance your glamor has some appeal. Norma Jean Baker and Archibald Leach carved themselves into two of the greatest movie stars in history. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, Iusef Djugashvili, and Lev Davidovich Bronstein became three of the most infamous revolutionaries to ever live. All five are seen below and instantly recognized:

It is only natural that most who live these lives do not live them happily: What human can survive for any length of time as an ideal? And to have your name thrust upon you, as in the case of poor Adolf Hitler Campbell, who has recently been taken into custody from his family. . .

I digress. I post this in followup to the below post, and I don't believe people go far enough. All leaders should be as the Popes, renaming themselves as they deem appropriate. The mayor of Pittsburgh doesn't go far enough, he should append "the great" or "Steelersareawesome" to his middlename. Furthermore, Steelerstahl isn't redundant enough, it should be Steelerstahlacierχάλυβας鋼鉄강철açoстальacero for now, and once people get the hang of that it should be expanded to encompass twenty more languages, then a hundred.

Oh yes, an addenda: the title of the post. A rose by any other name smelling as sweet is one of the most universally loved lines in Shakespeare. What most people don't know is that it may have held an ironic meaning. The Rose was, at the time, a theater that headquartered the acting company that rivaled Shakespeare's (and one that he had actually used himself from time to time prior to the Globe's construction). Elizabethan theatres, as you may know, had no toilets. Furthermore, the ground level was densely packed and standing room only, and Elizabethans seldom bathed. A Rose by any other name most certainly didn't smell so sweet, and the theory goes that this line was intended to demonstrate Juliet's naivete, not be some profound declaration to be taken at face value.

Pittsburgh Mayor Changes Name to Support Team

Lest he curse the Steelers with bad luck in their upcoming game against the Ravens, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is temporarily changing his name. This prevents their opponents from having an unfair advantage.

It is unclear what he is temporarily changing his name to; Stephen J. Dubner of Freakonomics suggests Steelerstahl, which is even better because of its redundancy--'stahl' is German for steel.

Never say that names lack power.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Eclectic Ephemera I

New Feature!

I've had portions of this list for several weeks now (hence the outdated Christmas links) when I still thought of calling this feature 'A Hodgepodge of Ballyhoos'. But that is too whimsical and this blaag is about wonder before whimsy (although whimsy certainly has its place... I daresay I personally rank it third among feelings, after wonder and nostalgia)

But nevertheless this feature shall consist of little titbits of intriguing know-how from the Internet or elsewhere, things that don't quite merit a lengthier discussion but which nevertheless are striking. Take a gander:

[The idea for this feature is definitely NOT cribbed from the excellent and more cleverly named “Instantiations of Nift” on Scott Siskind's blog. Of course not.]

Originally this feature was slated to appear on Sundays, which is more fitting considering basic Abrahamic mysticism and hermetic philosophy. Numerology based on this original intent dictates that there shall be seven items per week.

Bonus: A traditional Sami storehouse in northern Finland. I am absolutely certain that the frightful image of Baba Yaga's house, with its walking chicken legs, came from Russians who headed too far into the northern, liminal forests and saw some of these frighters.

1.A (somewhat lacking) history of the letter g. Even I couldn't tell you why our most fundamental but least penetrating symbols change like this over time. The vagaries of endless history, I suppose. Perhaps the Greeks couldn't quite remember how that Sidonian scribble looked... and since then it's been all about creative typography, I suppose. Here is a great article on the same subject from a Freemasonic perspective.

2.In other circumstances I'd call it nationalism, but Nova Roma transcends such base urges. The entire micronation is solely based on nostalgia. This is wonder in its most clear and basic sense. But it's still weird (For the record, SCA is not nostalgic. It is wistful).

3.“Why did the chicken cross the road” may be the first joke most children learn. They hear it and repeat it, never realizing that it is the most common of all postmodern, intertextual jokes. The joke, like all jokes, defies expectations—but by turning a humorous setup into a mundane result. By nature it disappoints. By nature it isn't funny. And by nature it doesn't make sense unless you already understand the idea of a joke, and the sorts of jokes this one references. Hence the deep irony that it is the first joke children learn. They assume it's funny, because they know that it is a "joke." But it isn't, that's the point, and this is utterly lost on them.

4.Literary plurals for animals have a long history (They are called 'terms of venery,' to be proper).

Birds have the best. Parliament of owls, murder of crows. Thus writers turn something so mundane as a couple of pigeons hanging out into the charming and expressive. Very fey. You can see a great list here. Here's some other good ones:

a. A piteousness of doves, an exalting of larks, a pandemonium of parrots, an ostentation of peacocks, an unkindness of ravens (Hey Schuyler, look at that unkindness flying overhead!), a kaleidoscope of butterflies, a fever of stingrays. Some of these may be spurious, but who cares?

While we're on the subject, I formally propose that a bunch of giraffes are not a herd; they are a hullaballoo. This word perfectly fits their nature.

5. At this week's SAG meeting, which ultimately dragged out for over thirty hours, a lengthy discussion broke out over whether they should extend the prescribed meeting length by three hours.

The discussion to extend the meeting by three hours lasted eight hours.

I find this much more hilarious and whimsical than they did.

6. This one's a bit more on the 'creepy' side. A woman's husband recently died. She buried his cellphone with him and still calls him regularly just to chat. In fact, she had his number inscribed on the stone. She also still covers the bill.

7. According to the Wall Street Journal, the United States strongly considered bailing out Christmas. After all, Santa Claus is 'too big to fail'. Proof that even the stodgiest, most matter-of-fact paper in the country still has time now and then for the marvelous. Witness also that NORAD, one of America's most powerful military organizations, manages to find time each year to track Santa Claus for the sake of children's happiness.


The Jumbamatron

For it is with the same imperialism that present-day simulators try to make the real, all the real, coincide with their simulation models.

Jean Baudrillard

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Crises of Our Great Leader

"Religion to medieval man was not so much a theological system as a solid psychological matrix surrounding the individual's life from birth to death, sanctifying and enclosing all its ordinary and extraordinary occasions in sacrament and ritual. The loss of the Church was the loss of a whole system of symbols, images, dogmas, and rites which had the psychological validity of immediate experience and within which hitherto the whole psychic life of Western man had been safely contained."

-William Barrett
Irrational Man

If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that can not be surmounted by scorn.

-Albert Camus on "The Myth of Sisyphus"

All our knowledge begins with sense, proceeds thence to understanding, and ends with reason, beyond which nothing higher can be discovered in the human mind for elaborating the matter of intuition and subjecting it to the highest unity of thought.

-Immanuel Kant "Critique of Pure Reason"

"Life has no meaning a priori . . . and its validity is nothing other than this meaning that you choose"

-Jean-Paul Sartre "Being and Nothingness"


Apostolic Names in the US

One out of every twelve male children born in America in 1880 bore the name of one of the Apostles.
Nowadays, barely one baby boy in forty bears that honor.

The following chart, using data which I gathered from this site shows how trends in Apostolic names (plus Jesus) has changed in the last century and a quarter. The rank is pretty simple; John was the most popular name in 1880, etc. The number columns show how many babies bore that name per million.

Totals: 77890 baby boys per million bore one of these names in 1880.
60,405 in 1950.
25,400 in 2007.

An important caveat: this list does NOT include non-English versions of these names. The only spelling variant is for Philip, which may be spelled with one L or two. But Juans, Jeans, Johanns, Ioannises etc. are excluded. So if you'd like you can consider this Apostolic Names among WASPS rather than in the USA as a whole.

Also note that Nathaniel only appears in the Gospel of John; he is usually equated to Bartholomew.

I won't analyze what these changes say about the changing nature of the US--I suspect that demographic changes are the most important factor anyway--but consider the other trends this brief survey reveals.

1. 50% more boys bore the name John in 1880 than bear the name of all the Apostles combined in 2007.

2. A handful of apostles are doing better now, notably Andrew, which has jumped 17 ranks, and Matthew, which has jumped over 100 into the very top tier. Jesus has also gotten more popular; this is almost certainly because of the Hispanic version of the name. Nathaniel has done OK too.

3. Andrew was the 10th most popular name of 2007, with 4200 boys. Thomas was the 10th most popular name of 1880, with 11000 boys. Think about that for a second. The 1880 U.S. Census established the U.S. population at a hair above 5o million. Now it's over 300 million. You would think that the number of children bearing the 10th most popular name would increase, not drop by more than half. In a nutshell, this shows how much more diverse America has become... even in the fairly trivial matter of names. The name pool is much, much larger nowadays.

4. Bartholomew has completely dropped off the list... it has not appeared in the top 1000 most popular boys names in over 100 years.

5. James stayed just about the same for the first 70s years of the study (Note again, confirming #3, that the absolute number of babies with the name dropped by 2k/million even as the rank jumped from 3 to 1), but then dropped off sharply in the modern era. How curious.

6. Unsurprisingly, basically nobody is EVER named Judas.

On the female side, the name 'Mary' was the single most popular name for girls from 1880 through 1950. It has sharply dropped in popularity since the 1970s. At the name's peak in the 1880s, over 3% of newborn girls were named Mary. Only John was a more popular name, but it didn't last quite so long.

It is worth mentioning that although Apostolic names have declined dramatically in popularity, Biblical names as a whole still maintain their currency. The #1 boys' name in 2007 was Jacob; Michael was #2. Girls seemed to have escaped their Biblical roots, for the nonce: the second most popular name, Isabel, is Biblical, but much more indirectly; it comes from Elisheva, who was Aaron's wife. The most popular girl's name, Emily, is Roman in origin.

What do you think these trends signify, if anything?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Complex Flags

Before Christmas we chatted about the Swiss flag, and how its colors and dimensions are not rigidly defined. Can you imagine that in America?

The American flag is more complexly symbolic than the Swiss flag, but American schoolchildren all learn its meaning early in life. And Betsy Ross is venerated like a Catholic saint (with similarly dubious miracles). Consider also the host of proscriptions around the American flag. Rules for its proper use and care, how high it may be raised, how to dispose of it, etc. are all codified in the official U.S. Flag Code.

Keep in mind that, according to flag etiquette, the American flag must never be stepped upon; not only that, it may not even touch the ground. The flag is reserved for the heavens alone; the sublunar earth disgraces it, even though that ground is part of the nation the flag represents. Could the Flag Code state any more clearly that the flag is the symbol of a nation composed not of people and land but foremost of the symbolic and the sacred?

Ponder also that the latest attempt to pass a constitutional amendment against flag burning failed in the 2006 Senate by one vote. It passed the House by a large margin. Many state and local organizations have requested such an amendment, despite repeated Supreme Court rulings against similar local statutes. The logic for such an amendment makes sense in its way; in a textbook case of metonymy, schoolchildren (and, more sporadically, adults) pledge allegiance to the nation by pledging allegiance to the flag. The flag is the nation; burning it, argue the proponents of the amendment, is tantamount to treason. To those who believe this, burning the flag is a direct assault on the nation--and therefore transcends the guarantees of free speech.

All of these complex rules and regulations, and the strong emotions the American flag engenders, proves one thing beyond all doubt:

It is that rarest of cases where symbolism is so powerful that it fully actualizes in the earthly realm.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Whimsy On Magic

What comes to mind when the word “magic” is heard? Merlin putting the sword in the stone? Harry Potter waving his wand? David Blaine tricking stupid people into thinking he can levitate? Magic, noun-the art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of incantation, gesture, or other means. When we hear “magic” we think of the seemingly supernatural effects we are incapable of, not the seemingly supernatural effects we deal with on a day-to-day basis. Magic is alive and well and integrated into our everyday lives.

A young man has met with an elusive old hermit on the streets of London. This hermit, a bearded and disheveled beggar, is supposedly going to train him in the arts of the occult. He says to the hermit, “teach me some magic.” The hermit asks for a fiver. The young man rolls his eyes and gives him a five-pound note, which the hermit uses to buy fish and chips. The now-angry young man exclaims “Aren’t you supposed to be teaching me something?” to which the hermit, contentedly munching on his fish and chips, replies, “I just traded a piece of paper for vital sustenance. How is that not magic?”

But, you say, currency has an agreed-upon value. There’s nothing magic about that. Wrong. That is the very definition of magic. Magic is evoking physical actions from people via shared belief using seemingly inert materials. There are actual cases of people being condemned to death by local priests/witch-doctors/shamans and subsequently dying. Much in the same way that the communal belief in the power of a curse can kill someone, it is our communal belief in the strength of our economy that helps make it strong. Why should I provide you vital sustenance for that piece of paper? Because I know I can trade it to someone else. Alright, I'll accept that, but why should I put my pieces of paper in the local bank? At any given time a bank owns, at most, 10% of its assets in hard currency. It is the belief in the strength of the bank that allows it to exist, if we didn’t believe our money was safe we would withdraw it en masse only to find it wasn’t there (which happened during the Great Depression).

Not only this, but the physical presence of these pieces of paper has a nigh-supernatural effect have on our behavior. I think to Abbie Hoffman’s infamous 1973 prank of scattering hundreds of dollar bills on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. These wizards of finance, many of whom so wealthy they could bathe in such bills and set fire to them every day of the remainder of their lives, trampled one another to grab them. Trading was shut down, and visitors were not allowed into the NYSE again until a glass barrier had been installed.

And that is not the only form of magic that we encounter on a daily basis. Performance, too, is itself a form of magic. Think back to our earlier archetypes, Merlin and Harry Potter using their robes, incantations, and wand gesturings to effect change. Is this not precisely what a performer does? Performers put on their magic garments (costumes/uniforms), intone the magic words (sing poetry, speak rhetoric), and gesture appropriately with their magic wands (props, musical instruments) to effect enormous change within their audiences.

Think to the last concert you attended where the band managed to get the audience jumping and screaming. Think of the historical orators who could take ordinary docile men and women and whip them into a lynch mob or an army capable of conquering Europe. Think to the godlike power of theater* and its extension/enhancement, film, in its ability to evoke involuntary spasmic breathing (laughter) or involuntary tear-duct malfunction (people can be made to feel empathy for images on a screen!)

By moving and speaking the performer brings about a seemingly magical change in another. No, we cannot hit someone with an enormous blast of psychic power by putting our hands together and screaming “KAMEHAMEHA” (though this would be hilarious to witness in an actual fight), but most societies have at some point through oratory and nationalist rhetoric persuaded their citizens to needlessly endanger their lives by charging into battle against opponents they have no quarrel with to enrich a handful of people they will never meet. Which sounds more absurd to you?

*-a theme explored in plays as early as The Bacchae. The connection is made explicitly in The Tempest, where the magic of Prospero (seen below) is directly linked to the magic of the stage.