March 31, 2013

What's in a Basket?

So I wanted to share a little Easter history with everyone but I wanted to do something a little different than just focus on the pagan origins of the holiday itself. Often people focus on the origin of the name of the holiday, etc. I thought instead, it would be interesting to take a look at the common tradition of the Easter Basket. There have been many cultural adaptations and interpretations of this custom, but all somewhat related.

What are the origins of giving baskets of fake grass, eggs and candy? Why a basket? 

It was an ancient pagan custom that in the spring, people would offer baskets of seedlings to the fertility goddess Eostre (or Oestre) hoping to increase the chances of a good harvest. Also the goddess Eostre was often depicted carrying eggs in a basket, signifying fertility and new life. 

The basket was used to symbolize a bird’s nest so people would decorate it to resemble one even more by adding a bed of grass to the bottom. Then, eggs would be added to the nested basket to look more realistic. 

These ideas, among others, were adopted by the early Catholic Church. For instance, it was also traditional for people to fast before the Spring Equinox. By doing this, they hoped to redirect their energy into the seedlings so that the harvest would be more successful. This was an idea that inspired Lent. After a long fast during Lent, Easter offered a welcome feast to celebrate its passing. This desire to celebrate by feasting on previously abstained goodies led to the basket tradition. 

The Christian adaptation of the Easter Basket revolved around the custom of Blessing the Family Baskets. This is when every family would bring a basket of food that they had commonly abstained from during Lent, to Mass on Easter Sunday. It would then be blessed for an Easter feast. In the basket would be items such as red wine, salted meats like ham, dairy, eggs, and eventually candy. This tradition is still observed in more Orthodox households. It is sometimes called the Pascha or Paschal Basket. 

The more commercialized Easter baskets of today have ditched the religiously symbolic foods in favor of just eggs and/or candy, as the world has become more secularized (and sugar loving!). Still, many families will spend today feasting and observing the joy and new life of the spring season, provided to the world by the glory and miracle of the risen son/sun. 

Happy Easter!!!!!

March 29, 2013

Magnificent Lost Egyptian City Found Underwater

We really do live in a time of great discovery!

What has been called “The Gateway to Egypt”, the lost city of Thonis-Heracleion was an extravagant, pre-Alexandrian international trade hub in the first millennium BCE. The city had huge religious significance, as it housed the grand Temple of Amun. Hints of its location could only be found in ancient texts and rare inscriptions. Thonis-Heracleion had been considered a mere legend until only recently.

The city was called Thonis by the Egyptians and Heracleion by the Greeks, hence its current name. Anyone coming into the port had to stop and unloaded their cargo so it could be inspected and taxed by temple officials. Those who refused would have their ships deliberately sunk. To win favor, some would bring votives of Egyptian deities.

Similar to Pompeii, this is a civilization frozen in time. Evidence shows that this was a majestic and wealthy place of grandeur. The city’s population seemed to have peaked from the 6th to the 4th century BCE.

Amidst over 700 anchor points and over 60 beautifully preserved shipwrecks, they have recovered a trove of artifacts said to be in excellent condition. Retrieved material includes everything from colossal statues, inscripted tablets, architectural elements, jewelry, coins, bronze statuettes, pottery, and strange ritual objects. Most of the material depicts Egyptian deities Osiris, Isis, and Horus.

The city was discovered about 4 miles off the present coast, extending into the western side of Aboukir Bay. Excavations will continue in a joint effort between The Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Oxford, the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology and Egypt’s Ministry of State for Antiquities. The results of this in-depth (no pun intended) research was recently presented at an international conference at the University of Oxford.

So what happened to this once glorious city? Evidence suggests that it sunk into the Mediterranean in the 8th century CE after multiple natural disasters, perhaps a deluge. There is no conclusive evidence yet, so for now, it remains a mystery.

March 28, 2013

Ancient Sumerian Temple Discovered

A buried temple-like structure near the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur (in modern day Iraq) has been found. It is believed to be at least 4000 years old. 

 The size of the structure is massive. The walls are nine feet thick, indicating that the building was of great importance. It’s a monumental complex with rows of rooms encircling a large courtyard. 

Using modern archaeological methods, researchers are testing soil samples to determine information about climate, agriculture, and possible uses for this building. 

 What makes this discovery so important is its location. At more than 10 miles from Ur, it is the first major archaeological find that far from the city center. It is also notable since foreign archaeologists have been banned from the area by the Iraqi government for political reasons many years. This is one of the first discoveries made since archaeologists have been allowed back into the area. 

 What more might they uncover?

March 26, 2013

Mystery Surrounding 1700 Year Old Tunic

About 2,000 meters (6,560 ft) above sea level on what was likely a Roman-era trade route in southern Norway, a thawing glacier revealed a rare find: a pre-Viking tunic, carbon dated at around 300 CE. It was made to be used as loose fitting outer garment for a man about 176 cms (5 ft 9 inches) tall.

The tunic is made of lamb's wool that has turned greenish-brown with age. There is evidence of a diamond pattern and several patches and repairs indicating it got a lot of use. Only a handful of similar tunics have been found in Europe to date.

Interestingly, there were many other artifacts found nearby including a wooden tent peg, various textiles with decorative shells, spear tips and arrows with ingenious design and even a horse shoe!

The researchers in Oslo are baffled by the tunic. Why would anyone take off a warm tunic by a glacier 6,560 feet above sea level?

So far, the only hypothesis offered is that the owner of the tunic was suffering hypothermia, causing him to feel deceptively warm and confused, leading him to take off his tunic and toss it into the glacier.

A good start, but it is still conjecture. What other reasons could there have been?

March 20, 2013

Happy Birthday Ovid!

Happy Birthday Ovid! 

Often described as one of the most important figures to know of ancient history, Ovid’s prolific writing influenced Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton. 

Publius Ovidius Naso, or Ovid, was born on March 20, 43 BCE in Sulmona, Italy to a wealthy family. He studied in Rome to become a public speaker and politician but to the dismay of his father, he used what he had learned to write poetry. 

Though critics in antiquity were not always kind, considering his work to be frivolous, his writings remain some of the most important work of the ancient world. 

Read and/or download Ovid’s epic meter of dactylic hexameters, “Metamorphoses."

March 19, 2013

Ancient Sundial Discovered in Egypt

During the 2013 season of the Valley of the Kings Project, one of the oldest portable sundials (over 3500 years old) was discovered in a sarcophagus containing the mummy of a woman named Nehemes Babu.

The small sundial is made of limestone, engraved with a semicircle marked out by twelve divisions painted with black lines. There is a hole in the center that is presumed to have served as the fixing point for a wooden or metal pin, whose shadow would have marked out the hours. Archaeologists on the project surmise that the sundial served to measure the working hours during the day since it was found near the huts of those suspected to have constructed the tomb in the 13th century BCE.

However, the positioning of the Sun was also considered a key aspect in the guiding those whom had passed to the afterlife, as recorded on the walls of the royal tombs. Could the newly discovered sundial been a visual map to the afterlife left to guide Nehemes Babu or was it simply a time piece meant to keep the tomb builders on schedule?    

March 17, 2013

Happy St. Succat Day!

couldn't let a holiday go by without revealing some lesser known history! 

St. Patrick’s real name was Maewyn Succat. His father was Calphurnius, a deacon and son of Potitus who was a priest. His mother's name was Conchessa, whose family is believed to have been from Gaul and originally sold into slavery to Calphurnius by her father. Calphurnius fell in love with Conchessa, released her from slavery, and married her. It is believed that Conchessa was either the sister or the niece of St. Martin of Tours in Gaul.

The family lived near the Firth of Clyde in Northern Britain (Scotland), which was still under the Roman Empire at the time (fifth century). When Succat was 16 years old, Irish raiders kidnapped him, along with his two sisters, and sold them into slavery in Ireland. He was separated from his sisters and sold to work as a shepherd. Succat remained a slave for six years. He believed his slavery was punishment for not believing in God as a child and living as a pagan.  

The fifth century book, Armagh, includes a Latin passage written by Succat as St. Patrick called   "The Confession”. In it he writes:

"But after I had come to Ireland, I was daily tending sheep, and I prayed frequently during the day, and the love of God, and His faith and fear, increased in me more and more, and the spirit was stirred; so that in a single day I have said as many as a hundred prayers, and in the night nearly the same; so that I remained in the woods, and on the mountain, even before the dawn, I was roused to prayer, in snow, and ice, and rain, and I felt no injury from it, nor was there any slothfulness in me, as I see now, because the spirit was then fervent in me."

Succat became filled with religious zeal and eventually escaped captivity by sneaking aboard a ship headed to Britain,  later joining a seminary on the south coast of France. His mission became converting pagans, whom he once identified with, to Christianity. Early in his mission, Succat acquired his name when he went to Rome and became a patrician- a Roman citizen with special status as a religious adviser. The name Patrick is believed to be more of a nickname and a corrupted form of his patrician title, Patrikios.

Aside from establishing many schools and churches around Ireland, St. Patrick became noteworthy as a missionary for his unusual approach to teaching. Rather than taking a “fire and brimstone” approach when speaking of the “evils” of pagan beliefs, he used pagan customs and blended them with Christian ideas in order to more effectively reach out to the locals. The most commonly cited example of this is his use of the shamrock to teach the idea of the holy trinity.

To Irish pagans, the shamrock, also called the "seamroy" by the Celts, was a sacred symbolizing the rebirth of spring. St. Patrick taught that each of the three leaves of the shamrock represented an element of the trinity, and their coming together at the base represented how three elements can constitute one entity, the shamrock, or the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

With his success as a pagan converter, St. Patrick became known as the “Banisher of Snakes”, snakes being a metaphor for pagans. The legend says that St. Patrick drove all of the snakes from Ireland by standing on top of a hill with only a wooden staff. The fact is that Ireland was not a natural habitat for snakes since the ice age, as it separated from the mainland approximately 8000 years ago.

So by preaching from a hilltop armed only with a wooden staff, St. Patrick eradicated the pagans, or who were referred to as snakes, from Ireland and Christianity triumphed. Eventually Ireland was Christianized. St. Patrick's mission lasted 30 years. He died March 17, 461CE, and was buried in Downpatrick in Country Down. This is why March 17th has been commemorated as St. Patrick's Day.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!