December 8, 2013
Just a few musings about a wonderful season and its traditions
Some things go so very much without saying that we can’t even think they haven’t always been that way.
Of course we have always celebrated Christmas, haven’t we?
You all know the answer –in fact we have not.
And I don’t have to go back so far as the time before Jesus – whose birth we remember at Christmas – was actually born, which would, as most theologians agree about, have happened between 4 and 6 BC (Not long ago, pope emeritus Benedict XIV. caused an outcry because he stated exactly that. Read about it here.)
But for a long time nobody cared about it anyway. There was no interest whatsoever in Jesus’ Birth. The important events were his crucifixion and his resurection. These were the days that were celebrated. The first time we know of that Christmas was celebrated was in the 4th century in Rome. Howstuffworks.com provides a wonderful overview regarding that topic.
No, Christmas has definitely not been there forever.
But since then, we certainly always have had a christmas tree, right?
In fact, it should take more than thousand years untill Christmas was celebrated with a tree. It is said that first decorated trees were set up in Latvia in 1510, and it is widely known that Martin Luther, the great reformer, decorated a tree with candles for his children. But it should take quite a bit of time till decorated trees at Christmas were common. Germans brought the first trees to the US, to Pennsylvania in the early 19th century, and as for Britain, christmas trees came into fashion through Queen Victoria and her German husband Prince Albert. You can read it for yourself in an interesting longreads.
Oh, of course. But all the time, since Christmas was invented, we’ve been going around, singing carols, yes?
Now, this is interesting. Going around and singing for neighbours seems to be a really old habit – only not for christmas. It was called “wassailing” and dates back to the middle ages, where people visited each other and wished each other a good fortune. The habit to do this at christmas time however only reaches back to Victorian times. Read about this interesting subject in a wonderfully informative TIME article and enjoy a little collection of traditional German christmas songs played on the organ by my talented friend Matthias Rascher:
But then surely we’ve written to each other all the time, haven’t we?
We have sent tidings of comfort and joy to our fellow christians and our families over all those centuries, for certain!
Yeah well – not exactly. Sending christmas cards is a British invention. In 1843, John Callcott Horsley, a painter and illustrator, designed the first card for his friend Sir Henly Cole, who, being involved in many events like the Great World Fair and the founding of the Victoria and Albert museum, just didn’t feel like writing dozens of personal letters to friends and family. This is the birthday of the commercial christmas card. But very soon it became a hit – people started to ask for and send away hundreds and thousands of neatly designed cards to their loved ones. The guys over at Mental Floss tell you all about it.
Christmas hasn’t been here forever. And still it is the one and only time in the year almost nobody can resist. We think about each other, we sing songs, we cherish our families and friends and share many much loved traditions, even if they don’t date back to ancient times. I love this time. I hope you do to. Come on. Let’s do Christmas!
A wonderful, inspiring Christmas time and Merry Christmas to all of you.
Enjoy a little gift I’ve prepared for your pleasure and watch a slideshow featuring beautiful historical Christmas cards:
And, at last, listen to the universal Christmas wish, courtesy of Matthias Rascher:
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Many thanks to my dear friend Matthias Rascher for allowing me to use his uploads on YouTube. Please visit his YouTube Channel for more wonderful organ music and have a look at his fantastically curated Twitter Stream.
January 4, 2013
Plato is my friend – Aristotle is my friend – but my greatest friend is truth!
(Sir Isaac Newton)
Apples are good for your health. Everybody knows that. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away!” was the very first task I had to learn by heart in my early English lessons. But when it comes to Sir Isaac Newton, the apple isn’t simply a nutritive, vitamine-rich fruit. It is the fruit of knowledge.
Of course all of you know the wonderful anecdote about the apple that hurt Newton’s head (famously celebrated by Google with a sweet doodle in 2010) and brought him to the development of the Universal law of gravity (read more about it here). But there is much more about him.
Newton was a man with a broad knowledge and almost limitless interests. His achievements were not only on the field of science, as in mathematics, theoretical physics, mechanics and optics. He was also very interested in philosophy, alchemy and even religion and theology, and wrote about it. For 3oo years his religious and alchemistic works weren’t accessible to the public, all the more I was happy when I got to know that they are now digitized and open for everybody through the wonderful Newton Project (You MUST check out this fantastic website!) It is awesome to see him from a totally different site. His writings are both fascinating and touching, as this list of his sins from 1662 shows.
Today is the 370th birthday of this brilliant mind and true renaissance character, and I invite you to celebrate it with a real treat: A few photos from a 1st edition of Newton’s “Geographia generalis”, published in 1672. I can’t thank my very dear friend @thesonofstig on Twitter enough for sharing this with me and allowing me to use the pictures he sent me for this post.
Read about Newton’s mathematical work on the calculus here.
Don’t remember the three laws of motion? Here you are! Let a dog show you how they work;-)
Get to know about Newton’s optics works, his prism experiment and the telescope he built in the article “Newton and the colour of light“.
Learn about the Newton Project in an article from the NYT.
Besides the Newton Project website, the Cambridge Digital Library holds a lot of resources about Newton as well.
Here’s also a review of my favourite biography of Newton.
And, last but not least, a wonderfully written article about newer developments in the research on gravity, “What is gravity, really?“
I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
(Sir Isaac Newton)
February 27, 2012
The Tigress: Pictures of an arresting encounter that made me think
You cannot miss him. Whenever he appears, be it in a movie or a documentary, the music changes. It becomes compelling, a bit mysterious but mighty all the same. Perhaps there is a drum solo and then – silence. Only the sound of the wind and some moving leaves are left. Everything else makes room. The stage is set. Then he comes. The king. The king of the jungle. The great tiger.
Of all big cats, the tiger is the most fascinating. Neither the lion nor the leopard or any of the others combines strength, menace, beauty and grace in such perfection. It is not very astonishing that in Asian literature and history the tiger takes the place that the lion has in our western culture. He is the animal royal. But of all big cats, the tiger is also the most endangered. Or perhaps it is not “but”, perhaps it is “because”. Perhaps it is because the tiger is so impressive, so extraordinary that people make him subject to their hunt, not only in history, but still today.
What we see today is only a poor rest of the variety and amount of tigers we once knew. Only 7 % of what once roamed most of Asia is left. Of the 9 subspecies of tigers three are already extinct, three are very close, and all are severely endangered.
If our attitude does not change soon, for our grandchildren tigers will be mentioned in the same breath as the mammoth and the dinosaur – only a relic of distant dreams.
On the other hand, there are signs of hope. People are becoming more aware of the treasures of our planet – and of what it means if we lose them. So, when some years ago in a broad survey “Animal Planet” asked about 50,000 people in many countries about their favorite animal, it was neither the intelligent and helpful dolphin nor the faithful dog that came on top. It was the tiger. No doubt, this animal – so far above us in terms of strength and dangerousness, but then so vulnerable as well – has now become subject to our admiration and affection.
Some time ago I went on a field day with one of my classes. Like most children, my 5th graders are fascinated by animals and so we decided to visit a zoo nearby. I had taken my camera with me, and strolling through the zoo I encountered one of those impressive animals, an awesome tigress. She was majestic but also really amiable. Believe it or not: When I whispered “Can’t you please turn a bit so that I can get a better picture of you?” – she really did! Actually she acted quite like a model. So I was able to take some really nice shots which show her beauty and casual strength. You are invited to share them with me. Enjoy!
“Few problems are less recognized, but more important than the accelerating disappearance of the earth’s biological resources. In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it is perched.”
Bonus: Read a comprehensive article on tigers on Wikipedia and savor a video featuring breathtaking pictures of camera-trapped tigers (H/T to my friend Matthias Rascher, who dug that up). Here is also a list of important fictional tigers and, if you want to visit the most famous of all, Shere Khan of Kipling’s “The Jungle Book”, read it online or download it for free here. And at last William Blake’s superb poem “The Tyger”, from which I have taken my headline for this post, and with which I will close, written and illustrated by his own hand.
October 4, 2011
On poetry, love in the antiquities and the art of translation
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful island in the Mediterranean Sea. And on this Island, there lived a gifted woman. Her name was Sappho, and her talent was so extraordinary that people called her “the 10th muse”.
No, actually I don’t want to tell you a fairy tale ;-). The idea for this blog post came to me in a more modern way: A friend of mine posted a tweet on Twitter, featuring a poem by Anne Carson. I liked it, and was reminded that I had already heard about her. Scouring my library, I quickly found what I was looking for: A little book, containing her translations of Sappho’s poems.
I reread them. Well, to be honest, I didn’t simply read them, I savoured them, drowned in the delight of Sappho’s wonderful, colorful words. And while doing that, I came to three conclusions:
The first one was not very astonishing. I already knew Sappho’s poetry, and I’ve always loved it. The words drop of her lips like honey…full of exquisite sweetness. And herself – what a stunning biography for a woman in those times, more than 2500 years ago (read more about her life here).
I was touched all the more by my second conclusion. All my life, through all my history studies, this was what I had been taught, what I believed and also taught my own students: That people in ancient times didn’t feel like we do. That it was not possible for them, living in times of plagues and early deaths, to invest as much feeling into other persons as we do today, or else they would have gone mad over the loss of one beloved after the other. That love, that deep, intimate feeling we know between men and women was an invention of the 19th century, of no use in earlier times. That there were totally different reasons that held relationships together: Caring for family and offspring, conserving land, creating power bonds between families or simply struggling for survival. If there were tender feelings between two people…nice. But it had been my firm conviction that this was not an important – or even necessary – foundation of marriage or a relationship.
And then I read Sappho’s words – in a powerful translation – and it hit me like a bullet. What she describes in her unique, artful words – is nothing less than love. The deep, intimate love we know today. Exactly the love I know. And I wondered, how I – and all my teachers before me – could have been so mistaken.
It occured to me that the reason for it probably wasn’t really “far away”. I, and all my teachers before me, used translations of ancient texts that were made mainly in the 19th or early 20th century. And even more recent translations took these as a role model for their choice of words. The language that had been used there was simply not our language. So the words about emotions, love and sexuality came out strangely cool and flat. Not at all the way we would talk about feelings so deep and profound.
That led me to my third conclusion: The importance of a contemporary translation of classic texts, and, in the same breath, how wonderful Anne Carson’s translation in “If not, Winter” is. Anne Carson, a classical scholar and poet herself, has managed beyond awesomeness to put Sappho’s words, written 2500 years ago, into a language that speaks to us. And even more: Though Sappho wrote dozens and dozens of poems in her lifetime, merely three have survived as a whole! All the others are fragments, sometimes only a few words or even letters. A challenge for every translator – and still, Anne Carson managed to create sense beyond sense in her translation…even the fragments talk to us and give us a vivid impression of what they may have sounded like once they had dropped from mellifluous Sappho’s lips.
Just listen to her:
“He seems to me equal to gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking.”
(p. 63, from poem 31, one of the rare almost complete ones.)
“You came and I was crazy for you and cooled my mind that burned with longing.”
(p. 101, fragment 48)
“I am aware…of evildoing…other…minds…blessed ones….”
(p. 9, fragment 3)
Or this one:
“….beautiful he…stirs up still things….exhaustion the mind…..settles down…but come O beloveds….for day is near“.
(p.87, fragment 43)
Or even this, only a few words left, and yet so sad and beautiful:
“……rumor…..hair…..at the same time…..man…..anxiety…..ground……daring.”
(p. 169, fragments 87 a-c)
Who could say this is flat? Who could say this is old-fashioned and lacks emotion?
Reading these texts I saw it crystal clear: People in ancient times weren’t that different from us. Of course I was right, as were my teachers: People in ancient times had a hard life indeed. It was dangerous then to invest feelings and emotions. Death came cruelly and unexpectedly. It was a craze to waste feelings when you knew there would be nothing but loss and pain. But still: People were born and died, they laughed and cried, loved and hated…just like we do. They were the same as we are. They were no different. That’s what Sappho and Anne Carson taught me. I bow in awe, humility and admiration.
“I don’t know what to do. Two states of mind in me.” (p. 51, fragment 51)
Read much more about Sappho (Essays, texts in Greek and English, and lots of links) here.
Listen to how Sappho’s poems, actually songs, may have sounded like in ancient times: