Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Little Things II: Goliath

Some time ago I wrote an article concerning two little historical theories, that might or might not be correct, but are nevertheless fascinating, because they are unconventional without being too far out. And they throw new light on some topic or event without forcing us to overthrow everything we thought we knew. I like things like that, and I always will.

It looks as if eventually I will make a series of articles like that, starting today with a second one. My topic today will be Goliath.

I do not think I have to recount the story from the Bible to you. The bit that interests me is the physical description of Goliath (from the authorized King James version, Samuel 1, chapter 17).

And there went out a champion out of the camp of the Philistines, named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span.

And he had an helmet of brass upon his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of brass.

And he had greaves of brass upon his legs, and a target of brass between his shoulders.

And the staff of his spear was like a weaver’s beam; and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron: and one bearing a shield went before him.

(What is meant by a target of brass in this context? Certainly not a target for his enemies to better aim at Goliath’s back. I think it is only a weird translation. My German Bible says it was a curved sword.)

A historian immediately would notice that that is not the description of a typical Philistine warrior. How do we know? Because each time the ancient Egyptians fought wars and won them (and they won a lot, otherwise their kingdom would not have survived for more than 2000 years) they carved steles and reliefs glorifying the deeds of their king in which they depicted columns of enemy prisoners of war. These depictions were always very realistic, the enemies were not stereotyped barbarians but shown with their characteristic clothes and weapons, and, in some cases, skin colors as well. There are depictions of Philistines too and from these we can see that they were lightly armed, went barefoot and wore feather crowns instead of heavy helmets. Look here, for example. In fact, no warriors from the region at David’s time wore heavy armor.

But when you read the description in the Bible, it may still ring a bell, especially after some of the recent movies. Look at this fellow:

Looks just like Goliath, doesn’t he? It is a Greek hoplite. Helmet, greaves, heavy thrusting spear, shield, everything there. They also packed curved swords called kopis as secondary weapons. The Bible says Goliath’s body armor was in the form of a mail coat, and there were such hoplites as well, like these. Complete hoplite gear weighed up to 30kg. (By the way: In the graphic novel and movie 300 the spartan hoplites do not wear any body armor which is, historically, pure nonsense. But then again there are 1001 reasons to treat that work as a piece of complete fiction.)

Another thing is that at that period Greeks were typically larger than Palestinians, so it might have been easy for a Greek to appear like a giant to the Israelites. Additionally there seem to be narrative similarities between the Goliath story and some passages from the Iliad.

So Goliath was a hoplite, right? Well, probably not. There’s a catch. The trouble is that the hoplite armor and fighting style was only invented several hundred years after king David is estimated to have lived. Several historians have suggested that Goliath could have been a Greek hoplite but for that reason it is not very well possible. But there is another solution to the problem, which I think might be the true one.

It was developed by the archeologist Israel Finkelstein in his book David and Salomon. He reminds us that the tales of king David were passed down orally for many generations before they were recorded in writing during or after the Babylonian exile period. At that time not only did hoplites exist, it seems also some of them had found their way into Canaan as mercenaries. They were the ultimate fighting machine of the day (except for war chariots maybe). So when the Jewish scholars set out to write down the traditional stories of their people and they came across a story about a giant and terrfying enemy warrior, what would have been easier to them than give him the appearance of the most awe-inspiring type of warrior they knew?

In fact, the habit of depicting people in historical scenes in attire contemporary to the artist has always been around. Just look at the paintings of Biblical scenes from the Renaissance. They even showed Roman legionaries in medieval plate armor. This painting is an example. And it is my opinion that this deplorable habit is still around in movies, especially concerning hairstyles and makeup. Helen of Troy should not look like someone from 21st century Hollywood. She would be beautiful in ancient Greek makeup as well. Trust me!

[I just noticed there is a certain unintended irony in listing the giant Goliath as a “little thing.” Well, such is life. By the way: To see all articles in this series just click on the search key “little things”!]

An Open Mind

With almost three months of blogging experience under the hood I now feel confident enough to expand the scope of my topics into some more dangerous territories. I am talking about that kind of things that are sometimes called “fringe theories”, and I will generally be using that term. They might also be termed “conspiracy theories”, but most of them do not concern conspiracies. In fact, talking about conspiracies deeply bores me, and I will chose my topics by personal interest alone. I may talk about UFOs, crop circles, Atlantis, pyramids and others, but I would never waste my time with the Bilderbergers. After all I am writing for my amusement (and hopefully, yours as well).

So what I will write about those thing will always have the character of playing around. I am not trying to convert the unconvertable (to whatever position). Still less I plan to preach to the converted. So, dear reader, if you like to read articles where fringe theories are whacked good and proper, because it gives you a warm feeling inside to see the nutjobs slain with flashes of cold, hard “reason”, look somewhere else, because that’s not my intention. You might expect some mocking, because, as I said, I am out for fun, but I am not in any way angry. The only thing that ever makes me angry is people who preach what they don’t believe themselves.

I would describe myself as very open-minded. It is my philosophy and stance as a scientist and as a human being. It means considering different explanations for everything and reserving your judgment a lot. It is a walk on a tightrope for anyone, including scientists, but I feel it somewhat comes easier to me as I, being a mathematician have very high demands on any “proof” before accepting it anyway.

Some years ago I told a physicist I was certain most crop circles were man-made these days. He looked at me as if I was nuts and said, “Most? Not absolutely all of them?” That was an example of a closed-minded scientist. All I can sincerely say is that many are clearly the work of people, and with some others I don’t know. I am willing to debate every theory with you as long as it is at least somewhat consistent and meaningful. Refusing it would be an a priori conclusion and those are dangerous. Once you begin with them you have strayed from the path of real science. It may go unnoticed for a very long time, but somewhere down the road it will explode in your face. On one hand it is simply an unsound position for a scientist which has stymied progress more than once in history as we all know and on the other hand it makes debates with people sceptical of science so much more difficult, because it keeps you from treating other opinions with respect.

So I will act open-minded if you pay me the same respect.

I apologize for the previous sentence. Dear reader, I think you belong into one of three categories: You are a so-called “sceptic”, you are a so-called “believer” or you are somewhere in between. I myself are somewhere in between, but with a difference. I am sorry to say, that I unwittingly place you, dear reader, in the “believer” category (though you probably are not), because I expect attacks (if any) to come from that camp and I am writing this in part to brace myself for any attack that might happen.

What does being closed-minded mean? It means unquestioningly believing what you were told by authoritive figures and never think about it yourself. It means not considering you might be wrong, it means preaching instead of debating.

And my point is that unfortunately so many “believers” in fringe theries are terribly closed-minded. True, they don’t believe what science and governments tell them (and neither should you, without asking the questions).

But they unquestiongly believe everything that Hoagland, Sitchin, Bauval, or Friedman feeds them. They almost treat it as holy scripture. They don’t want to see for themselves. “I don’t have to try it, I know I’m right.”, as someone once said on a website I saw. If someone more level-headed mentions where it might be wrong, or where it demonstrably is, they try to vilify you or shout you down or resort to the more nasty methods of internet thuggery.

So sorry, I won’t debate on that level. Keep it courteous, then I will always be open for your input.

That’s it. Have fun! And don’t forget: “The Templars have something to do with everything.”

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The Name of the Magician

For once I will try to write an article that is not quite as long as most of the others, although I must admit I will probably not be too successful in this. It seems as if prolixity is my chief sin in writing, for which I am sorry.

Some time ago I read the book Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke and liked it a lot. It is the first work by her and she is yet to write a second (save for some short stories), but is certainly an impressive debut. Currently Clarke seems to be working on a book that is basically a sequel to it (or at least claimed so once in an interview). Despite the fact that I am generally wary of authors that stop trying something new as early as after their first book (the short stories are set in the same universe as well), Jonathan Strange is so excellent I am probably going to give the sequel a try.

The book is set in alternative version of England during the Napoleonic wars, where real magicians have always existed in the world. I hesitate to call it an alternative history novel outright for two reasons. One is that in such a novel I would not expect magic. The other is that in a way it is much rather an anti-alternative history novel.

In a regular alternative history you have a historic event that happens differently from our history, usually called the point of divergence, which causes the whole subsequent history to be completely different (mostly it involves boring things like wars and certain nations attaining world domination). The craftier the author is, the more minuscule the point of divergence event will be.

Clarke subverts this method completely, by picturing a world with an entirely different history that still turns out, around 1810, to be just exactly the same as in our timeline. It has a history where England had been separated into two realms for centuries, one of which was ruled by a magician king, and still in 1907 Wellington fights Bonaparte in the Peninsular war, and Byron even writes the same poems. It is a most charming idea as long as it is not used too often or because of laziness. I imagine it would become stale quickly.

But so far all this was only introduction. I now want to talk about an amusing detail in the book.

In one of the final chapters of the book an Austrian gentleman addresses the magician Jonathan Strange in German as “der Hexenmeister des großen Wellington” (the sorcerer of the great Wellington). Apart from the fact that it is completely correct German (including spelling), which, sadly, is rare in books, which all too often are really careless with foreign quotes, it uses an interesting word.

In English there are quite a few terms for “magician”: magician, mage, wizard, sorcerer, conjurer, enchanter, warlock and a couple of other less common ones.

In German it is just the same: Magier, Zauberer, Hexer, Hexenmeister, Zauberkünstler, and others. In fact I feel most can be pairwise equated with English terms, e.g. Zauberer=Wizard, Zauberkünstler=conjurer, Magier=magician.

In the 21st century the most commonly used term is “Zauberer”. Gandalf is a Zauberer and so is Harry Potter. But Clarke used “Hexenmeister”. It is a perfectly correct word, but it is not the word a modern German speaker would use. It has a certain old-fashioned ring to it. (In fact the word, literally translated, means “witch-master”, master of witchcraft.) Of course it is possible that Clarke choose a quaintly old-fashioned term to match the setting of her novel, but I see a different reason that convinces me more.

There is a famous poem by Johann Wolfgang Goethe, titled Der Zauberlehrling (The Sorcerer’s apprentice), equally famously made into an orchestral musical piece by Paul Dukas, and later into a Disney animated film. (I mentioned it in this article.) The poem begins with the lines

Hat der alte Hexenmeister
Sich doch einmal wegbegeben!

which is “Has the old sorcerer for once betook himself to some other place!”.

It is one of the most famous poems on magic there is, and it was written in 1797 (published in 1827). I am convinced it is completely impossible for Clarke not to be aware of the poem and not having had in it mind at some point. A novel about magicians in the early 1800s just cannot ignore the most famous poems about magicians from that exact period by one of the most famous poets of all times.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is laden with references to all kinds of contemporary things, including poetry, but there is none to Goethe or his poem. Well, the novel is set in England and nowhere even remotely deals with anything German, so there simply was no place for it. And after all it was published a little too late for the novel’s characters to know it (the novel ends in 1816). But, and that is my theory, Susanna Clarke chose to acknowledge Goethe’s poem by using, in that one passage, a term that was taken straight from the poem.