Friday, December 29, 2006

Christmas and its pagan symbols

Despite of its oficially religious meaning, the Christian celebration of Christmas comes from pagan rites almost totally. A recent study from Manuel Mandianes shows it.

The dates

From the IV century, Christians started to celebrate this new festivity (only Easter was celebrated until this date), and, from the V century, because of the progressive division between the Western and Eastern Roman Empires, it was also divided in two: Christmas, celebrated in the Western, and Epiphany in the Eastern.
The date of birth of Jesus is not known exactly. An old oriental myth tells that Mythreas, god that protects the cosmic order and human justice, and guaranteed peace treaties, came out from a rock a 25th of December, with the aim of liberate men from the Evil. Some shepherds attended his birth. Later on, under the influence of Babylon, the same god appears as an envoy of the Sun with the mission of creating life on Earth.
Christian tradition added the date of 25th December in order to move people far from pagan traditions of Natalis Solis Invicti in a period of decadent paganism, in which the Sun worship was very used. The Church placed the birth of Jesus in the moment of solar re-birth, in the winter solstice.
In 1582, the Gregorian calendar corrected the Julian one in some days, a change Orthodoxs refused to accept. That is why they celebrate their Epiphany the 7th January. Later on, maybe due to habits or to try to attract the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church adopted the 6th January as the Epiphany, a festivity additional to Christmas (even if their significance is, theoretically, exactly the same).

Tree vs Nativity scene

The rivality between the Christmas tree and the nativity scene started in the XVI century, as a result of the fight between protestants and anti-reformists. The Church had been reoresenting the birth of the Messiah and the adoration of the Wise Men for centuries, while the first known Christmas tree is located in Alsatia, XV century, although they have very ancient pagan and druidic antecedents.
The Lutheran reform, in the XVI century, was against the scenes, trying to avoid any form of idolatry, and imposed the tree in Protestant countries. The tree, without the fact of idolatring figures, still had a religious symbology. The Caholic reaction was to modernise them; scenes progressively showed a more realistic representation of people and facts. They were soon full of non-religious figures, shepherds, that represented every kind of job and work.

Santa Claus

The current figure of Santa Claus is inspired in a Christian priest of Greek origin called Nicholas, who lived during the IV century in Anatolia and, while coming from a rich family, shared his belongings with the poors.
The transformation of Saint Nicholas in Santa Claus happened around 1624. Dutch immigrants in America took their habits and traditions with them, among them Sinterklaas, their saint patron. In 1809 the writer Washington Irving wrote a satire in which he changed the name of this Dutch saint according to the English prononciation: Santa Claus.
In the middle of the XIX century, the American figure of Santa Claus was exported to England, and later to France, where it was unified with Bonhomme Noel, a bearded character who dressed in white with bright decorations. From this union comes the current figure of Santa Claus, whose definitive appearance was designed in 1931 by Coca-Cola.
The habit of giving gifts to children in Christmas appears in the Ancient Era. Rome dedicated a festivity in December to Saturn (Chronos for the Greeks), in the end of which gifts were received by children. European children received them in later times, coming from very different characters, both religious (Wise Men in Spain) or pagans (the witch Befana in Italy).
Later on, Saint Nicholas replaced most of these characters. Since 1822, the Santa Claus visit is represented on Christmas Eve. Its adoption was very successful in the US because it satisfied a needs of the American society, as gifts were equally given to protestant, jewish, orthodox or lay children. Currently it is a pagan symbol accepted all around the world.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Pirates (2/2)

It is in the territories far away from the "civilized" Occident that piracy gets to its greatest extempt. From the colonial era, with the introduction of quick, manoeuverable vessels built by States, the pirates cross the seas of West Indies and Orient, so large and far from the metropole that they become impossible to be controlled by the Europeans.

Skulls, filibusters and rhum

All started with the great demographic expansion in Europe at the 15th Century. Poor peasants and fishermen massively join up pirate vessels, which watch the trade routes followed by Spanish boats in the Atlantic and steal their gold booty.
From 1566, with the war between Spain and the United Provinces, England supports the latter by hiring privateers and equipping them with high quality vessels, able to fight openly to Spanish frigates.
During the 17th centur, however, the English government progressively retires its support. Privateers not enjoying its favour anymore became pure pirates again and even formed a confederation against the Navy. They progressively moved their activity to Iceland, Africa, Canada, and finally cocentrated in the West Indies.
The first pirates of the Caribbean (called filibusters, from Dutch vrijbuiter) established acting as traders of slaves, so did for instance the famous Hawkins and Drake (in fact, they usually "acquired" their slaves from Spanish and then legally sold them). In the 17th century, the Caribbean islands, emptied of indigenes thanks to the exterminating labour of the Spanish, were perfect hide-outs for them. The island of Tortuga is especially famous, it received several bands of pirates between 1630 and 1670.
Generally, piracy activities were done against Spanish vessels, as their cargoes were more promising, and this way, a little privateering was done against the common enemy. A very famous story tells that Cornelis Jol, "Pie de palo", and his band, entered Santiago de Cuba in 1635 dressed up as franciscan monks, and pillaged the city. In order to protect his galleons, Phillip II of Spain created light squadrons called "armadillas", which resulted very effective.
In parallel, another kind of dealers appear, the buccaneers, who are not pirates themselves. These Europeans settled in several islands, in groups of 15 to 20 men, where they learned from the natives the technique of meat conservation by smoking (or bucán). They established supplying posts, not officials but well known by merchants and pirates, and were generally respected by both.
Although filibusters were rougher pirates than the Mediterranean ones, they were certainly not sadic, as they are so often shown. In fact, they avoided violence unless it were necessary, except rare cases. They rather made psychological war, frightening and threatening their victims. One of their techniques was the use of the mythical skull and bones flag, the "Jolly Roger", although it was not started to be used until the end of 17th century. Before, national flags or monochromatic ones (red or black) were used.
From 1650, Nederlands, France and England use pirates, prisoners and soldiers to colonize several islands (Curaçao, Jamaica, Martinique). This way, some of the greatest pirates in History arise among them, such as Morgan, De Graaf, Nau "l'Olonnais" and Teach "Blackbeard". However, the States did not support them anymore, and a general repression was carried out. These last pirates ended up changing their activity (Morgan became governor of Jamaica and De Graaf made some business in Missouri), or dying tragically. In the middle of the 18th century, piracy had practically ceased to exist.

Pirates in Orient

In the Far East piracy was also a popular activity. Since the first trading exchanges, the cities of Canton and Macau were the richest in the area thanks to their situation in the middle of the routes. It was also the reason why the main attacks and pirate nests were concentrated in that zone, the most important being the Chinese Tanka, but also foreigners such as Philippines, Vietnamese and Japanese (called Wokou).
At the beginning of the 19th century a Pirate Confederation was formed, mainly by Chinese autochtone pirates, whose activity was focused to the attack to European ships. It was a well-organised confederation, which, even if granted action autonomy to every pirate, had a reglamentation on conflict solving, tactics, behaviour and booty share. It even had a Public Fund to which all the pirates contributed with a part of its booties.
However, after the Opium War, English, American and French carried out a campaign that eventually crushed the confederation, as the inferiority of the latter was huge against steam ships. From this moment, Western powers took over the trade and smuggling of spices, opium and slaves.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Pirates (1/2)

Piracy exists since the first mariners sailed the seas, as it was a way to look for economic benefits for the people living at the coasts, generally poor. At the beginning it was not a condemned activity, if it was not done to fellow citizens. It was actually licit, and even praised, when the victim was a foreign. Homer wrote in his works about the adventures of Achilles and Menelaus, who did not hesitate to do lucrative pillages in enemy territoty, and Ulysses, who established his hide-out in the island of Itaca.

The Ancient Mediterranean

After the disappearing of the Minoian civilization, there is not a clear ruler of the Mediterranean anymore. Since the city-states start to arise, this sea becomes a busy trade route, and unsafe at the same time. Etrurian and Thracian pirates attack periodically the Greek and southern Italian coasts. Phoenicians associate the concepts of piracy and trade, and feed their slave trade this way. The island of Crete becomes the greatest pirate nest in the Mediterranean. It was not until the VI century BC that Athens carried out the first campaign against the pirates in order to have peace for its trade routes. At that time, the fact of being a pirate starts to be disapproved, as this activity looks for an individual benefit instead that for the community.
Rome had serious problems with Cilician pirates, who assaulted Sicily and reached as far as Ostia. It even seems that Julius Caesar himself was kidnapped by the pirates when he was young (although immediately afterwards he looked for help, reached them and made them crucify). In the I century BC, Pompeius conquers Cilicy, and offers the pirates a smart choice: to join the Roman navy, or to be enslaved. During centuries, the "Mare Nostrum" was a safe place for Romand transport and trade, not being so though in the Atlantic coasts.
Medieval piracy

After Rome, Byzantium became the greatest Mediterranean power, but as it did not control the whole of the coasts, it had to face continuous attacks from Narentine, Cilician and North African pirates. In 1204 Constantinople is taken by the crusaders, who start making piracy activities in the Eastern coastlines and establish a lucrative trade of Arab and Turkish slaves. Genovese and Venetian trade routes were also watched and assaulted by Catalonians, Sicilians and Maltese. At this time appears the expression "far il corso", literally make his own way, used by mariners that join pirate vessels to leave their poverty situation. From there came the latin word "corsario", for "privateer".
In the North Sea, the seasons of Spring and Autumn, with its dense fogs, were an ideal place for piracy. First Vikings in the coastlines, and then Bretons, Irish and Bordolese in the trade routes of English, Dutch and Baltic ships. In the XIV century the Hansa appears, as a trade association between septentrional cities, with the aim of offering mutual protection. However the agreements were rarely accomplished, and while every lord had pirates at his service for acting against other cities.

Golden Age and decadence

From the XVI century, the piracy becomes a politic matter. Great States start to influence in it, by financing pirate vessels or signing anti-piracy agreements with other States. As a consequence of this influence, the new privateers have more modern and sofisticated ships, giving place to a true Golden Age of piracy. Most important were port cities of Argelia (Bejaia, Oran, Algiers), that were protected and financed by Muslim kingdoms, specially the Ottoman and the nasri of Granada, by using these privateers to weaken the influence of Christian kingdoms. It is the time of the Barbarossa brothers (Baba Aruj and Khaid ar Din) who, associeted to the Ottoman Empire, caused great losses to the Spanish fleet.
From the XVII century, the troubles caused by privateers to their own protectors make these retire progressively their support. At the XVIII century the fleets of England, France and the United Provinces were powerful enough to control the decadent pirate activity, that disappeared one century later.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

A noble eagle or a scavenger ugly bird?

After the American Independence War, the Continental Congress of the recently created United States decided it was imperative to create a set of symbols to represent the new nation. Among them, a committee was designated to ellaborate the design of the future American Great Seal, since used for representation of the coat of arms and the president, as well as other institutions. This committee was composed by three men: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
One of the hottest arguments between the two latter was about choosing a bird to be included in the symbol, so that it represented the spirit and the moral of the new nation. Jefferson proposed the bald eagle as such, an endemic bird in North America, with an arrogant, vigilant look. A bird with this appearance, he thought, cannot be but a noble and brave one.

A bird with not much of a noble behaviour

However, if we observe the citations made by biologists and naturalists about the behaviour of this bird, such as the works of Mark Catesby and Meriwether Lewis, we can realie that this bird is actually all except noble and brave.
The bald eagle is a carnivore, not a good hunter though. It nearly always feeds of carrion from dead animals or rests abandoned by an imperial eagle. When it eats fish, it usually gets close to the tracks of migration for salmons, and catches those dead on their way. Or it just waits patiently that an osprey, very skilful in catching fishes on the fly but smaller than the bald eagle, fetches a fish, and then steal its food. However, it never dares to fight an imperial eagle, while they are the same size.


Benjamin Franklin never supported the bald eagle for the United States symbol. He said about it, in a letter to his daughter, that "it is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him." Franklin proposed the turkey as the symbol, a truly brave and arrogant bird according to him.
The 20th June 1784, the Congress supported Jefferson and approved the bald eagle as part of the Seal. Did Jefferson suspect what would the American relations be like towards politically weaker countries, and in the contrary, in situations in which it would compete with someone with its same size? The extermination wars against American natives, economic fagocitation of South America, predation with oil resources, sale of weapons to countries in civil war... and at the same time, negation of inconditional help to Europe during the Nazi invasion, the political game played with the Soviet Union (another bald eagle, but a bit more foolish), or the likely little heroic retreat from Irak... Actually, the bald eagle is perfect for this symbol. What a black humour, Jefferson.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Xian Yu, the general that almost got China

The year 210 BC, the emperor that established the Qin dynasty in China dies. His son, a complete idiot, could not avoid a general uprising in the empire, that would lead to his fall.

In the south, in the rural region of Chu, a coalition of rebel armies advanced towars the Qin capital, Guanzhong. It was agreed that the first general that conquered the city would be the heir to the throne. Of the candidates, Xian Yu was the most admired, but also the most feared.

A doubted reputation

Xian Yu was nephew of Xian Liang, the soldier that had started the revolt. After his death in battle, Xian Yu took it over from him, and he unstoppably fighted and defeated the imperial armies. His cruelty, however, was not less known. He razed entire cities, killed hundreds of thousands of people, and murdered members of his own coalition. In the battle of Julu, having been put under command of the general Song Yi, he did not hesitate to killing him when he had shown indecision, and commanding his army, risked it and produced an enormous defeat to the iperial troops, despite of huge losses of his part too. He was awarded a doubted reputation of brave and militarily skilful man, but also arrogant and tyrannic.

Xian Yu forgot the agreement that had been made. While he was fiercely fighting in Jusu, a small army led by the unknown Liu Bang entered the weakened empire and conquered the capital, being thus appointed future heir of it. When Xian Yu arrived there and noticed it had already been conquered, he got furious and razed it.

A violent five-year civil war happened between the two factions. Xian Yu had more support, more territory and a better equipped army. However, after some defeats, Liu Bang began winning. Despite of his less military experience, because of his humble origins, he carried out a successful diplomacy. He got surrounded by good military advisers, attracted of the more noble and calm personality of Liu Bang than the one from his adversary. Meanwhile, Xian Yu never accepted a single advise from his lieutenants and only trusted the bravery of his soldiers.

In the end, the better strategy, and especially the management of supplies, gave victory to Liu Bang, who became the first emperor of the Han dynasty. Xian Yu cut his throat on the side of the river Yangtse, abandoned by all his lieutenants.

Xian Yu is still a very popular character in the Chinese culture. The sentence "being surrounded by Chu music" means being without allies or support. It comes from the moment when Liu Bang's army surrounded Xian Yu, after conquering the region of Chu, from where he was. Liu Bang odered his soldiers to sing typical songs from the region, so that they showed him that they were on his side there too.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


Western civilization, since the end of Middle Ages, expanded progressively out of its environment, exploring new territories and discovering strange cultures, very different from its own. Towards them, the discoverer imposed a dominating attitude in the beginning. However, the perception on new civilizations and its population has hugely changed, along with the way of thinking and social changes in Occident.

XV to XVII centuries: The "savage"

Since XV century, Portuguese naos and Spanish caravels, to which other European empires joined later, explored the coasts of unknown continents, establishing colonies and forcing natives to assimilate their culture or exterminating them.
The conception of these new cultures is represented by the way to denominate them: "savages". This automatically puts them in a culturally inferior degree. Colonizers do not respect their customs, destroy their systems. As best, they experiment a simple curiosity for the rare items they contain. It is not rare to see an aristochrat that acquires an elephant tusk, an exotic music instrument or a mummified native, to show to his friends.
Representations of savages usually show their bodies as hairy and monstrous shape, and almost always in a wild and cannibal scene. Western mentality of that moment, very influenced by religion and superstitions, and reluctant to new points of view, naturally led to this monstruous concept of the new and unknown.

XVIII and XIX centuries: The scientific, artistic and social interest

With the arrival of the Enlightment and the use of reason, there starts to be a more constructive curiosity towards exotic cultures. Firstly, a purely scientific interest made antropologists and doctors from Occident study the differences and similarities of these "new people" to the known ones, as well as their way of living.
XIX century is the period of romantics, of explorers and adventurers. This is a perfect scenario for people like them. New territories are charted, scenes of tribal life are painted, and travel books that tell about rites and customs of these civilizations are written. It is the century of people like Livingstone, Stanley and Burton.
At the end of the century and beginning of next one, the positivist movement motivates to classify everything in the World. Naturalists and botanists travel around the Earth classifying new species, taking photos of animals and plants, and take information on non-civilized tribes that exist on the World.
From XX century: Integration

It is only in the past century that a value starts to be given to these cultures, that Western civilization assimilates their cultural contributions and artistic shapes. Modern painters, such as Pablo Picasso and André Breton, among others, among many others, integrate forms and aesthetics directly copied from African and South-american symbolic sculpture.
Globalized World is becoming a mix of trends that lead to a kind of world art. Cultural integration is greater, different lifestyles are adopted. Oriental philosophy and African music get mixed with western customs in an armonic way. Finally, we got to the product of several centuries of human evolution.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Nile and the Euphrates

Around the year 4000 BC, a civilization appears on the side of the Nile river. The Egyptian Empire lasted more than 3000 years and was the first civilization in History that built great architectural and artistic works, also to create an organized central administration.
In parallel, in the area between the courses of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, in Mesopotamia, state-cities arise (Sumer, Akkad, Susa, Ur, Babylon) that will compete on each other and develop an equally important cultural identity. To them we owe the first aphabet and the code of laws.
However, the development in both of them was very different. While in Egypt a great politic entity appear and was stable for thousands of years, Mesopotamia saw endless confrontations between its small state-cities, none of which managed to impose its hegemony permanently. What is the reason of this difference?

Two basins, two civilizations

Certainly, both river sides were very fertile. However, they were in a different manner.
The river Nile suffers periodic floods. It is necessary just a minimum human effort to take the maximum profit, guaranteeing also rich harvests with a great stability. The sides of the Tigris and the Euphrates, to begin with, are more mountainous and less favourable to agriculture. Moreover, harvests are not necessarily always good, but droughts and floods can sometimes happen. Thus, in order to take the maximum benefit of its potential, it was necessary for its population to build great dams and complex irrigation systems. Exactly, archaeological findings in Ancient Mesopotamie show the existence of this kind of works, while they are rare in Egypt.

Social consequences

In Egypt, food stability allowed a long prosperity and the establishment of an empire in which citizen miscontent was not frequent. This Empire was relatively stable for thousands of years, until its inactivity finally provoked its decadency. In Mesopotamia, on the contrary, the support of the community was necessary for the good operation of irrigation systems in difficult conditions, and in this context, the role of the city was fundamental to establish guarantees. Moreover, when bad harvests happened, was was frequent, usually provoked by disputes on territories or resources.

It is interesting how similar cases have repeated along History. Stability makes people open-minded, risking sometimes to lead to cultural sleeping. In difficult periods survivance instincts are more important, the people get isolated in their community, and show aggresive to external identities.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The slap of Anagni

The pope Boniface VIII (satirized in an ancient drawing, on the right) is one of the most infamous of the Roman Church. With him, the figure of the pope suffered the biggest humilliation of his history. A slap on the face is not easy to be forgotten.

Power conflicts

At the end of the XIII century, Italy is divided in hundreds of small States governed by powerful families, which also try to achieve power in Rome by placing a pope with their own surname. Let us imagine an Italian-like war, in which small treasons are as frequent as open field battles.

In 1297 the pope Boniface VIII, from the Caetani family, rules Rome. A small terrain dispute took him as an excuse to a total war with the Colonna family, also with pretensions to place a pope in Rome. The war ended with the total destruction of the Colonna capital, Palestrina, and the banishment of the family to France.

Meanwhile, the king Philip IV the Fair had been taking a pulse with the pope since several years before, as the pretensions of the latter to expand his power were extreme ("It is necessary for the salvation that every human creature subjects to the Roman pontificate", Unam Sanctam, 1302). In 1303 the French king broke the pulso by deciding to collect taxes from the clergy in the country. Boniface responded to this as a pope, by redacting a bule to excommunicate the king.

The slap of Anagni

However, the skilful ministre of the king, Guillaume de Nogaret, proposed him a simple plan before the war would be declared: Go to Italy by surprise, arrest the Pope and destitute him back in France. First rejected by the king, few days later Nogaret received a letter from him with orders to "go to such a place, and make such treaties with such persons as seems appropiate".

Sciarra Colonna, eager of revenge, joined Nogaret's expedition, which in the Apennines recruited 1600 men, enemies of Caetani, and managed to get to the Pope's residence in Anagni without being noticed. In the palace, Sciarra humilliated Boniface by slapping him to the floor. The pope, still down, shouted "Guillaume, son of cathares! Here is my head, here my neck. I will die, but I will die as a Pope". Nogaret convinced Sciarra not to cut his head at the place.

The Pope was in prison only three days, as many of his supporters raised in arms in Rome and freed him, and the attackers fled. However, the Pope was very weakened by this fact (he could have suffered too much moral and physical damage for being 68 years old), and died a month later. After one year, the Pope's residence was moved to Avignon, and so was under absolute control of the king of France. The Popes have hardly recovered from that slap.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Iberian falcata

"It cuts off arms from the shoulder, heads from necks with a single hit, leaves the entrails out and produces all kinds of horrible wounds".

So told Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis Historia, about the charms of the most feared weapon in the pre-Roman era. In the 2nd century BC, after the Second Punic War, the Roman Empire had expelled Carthage from the Iberian Peninsula. Now this territory was on a plate, and with it, its iron and copper mines, the richest of the Known World. However, a general uprising of Iberian and Celtiberian tribes against the invaders prolonged their conquest for almost two hundred years, and became hell for the Roman Legions.

The fierce resistence the natives opposed was influenced by their better knowledge of the terrain and their guerrilla war, but the use of the falcata, a sword clearly superior to Roman weapons, hit hard in the legions' moral. Augustus even orderd to renforce with iron the shields of the armies that left for Hispania, to try to mitigate its cutting effect.

The falcata's probable origin is the Greek kopis, a type of saber that Greek merchants brought in their colonial missions. From 5th century BC, Iberians gradually transformed it, decreased its curvature, added a double edge at the end (so that it could also operate as a thrust weapon, and especially improved its method of fabrication by using very pure iron and a three-plates structure. This lead to a very flexible weapon which was virtually impossible to break by other weapons of the time.

Its cutting power was most effective when used from high, such as in cavalries or at the defense of city walls. That is why, because of its characteristic shape, the hit came in a direction tangent to the target, and not perpendicular such as in the Roman gladius, so the cut was deeper. This technique has been later used, drom the scimitars to the modern sabers that Napolean dragoons used.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The true Robespierre

Robespierre is one of the main characteres in the French Revolution, but also that sanguinary tyrant who sent thousands of people to guillotine during the Terror era. However, the ones who write History are usually the winners of the moment, which in this particular moment were the enemies that provoked his downfall. Let's try to be more critical.

A respectable citizen

Maximilien Robespierre was born in Arras, in the French Picardie. From a middle-class family, he could follow Law courses as his grandfather, where he stood out as a particularly brilliant student. While working as a lawyer, he wrote several law books that gave him a good reputation in the town. Being known as an inconditional supporter of Rousseau's revolutionary theories, he was one of the most respectable citizens of the region, being especially known for his correction, honesty and absolute sincerity.
In 1788 revolutionary ideas became more popular, and Robespierre started influencing political ambiances in the town, where he was chosen for several political jobs in Arras and later in Paris, where his position in defense of poor peasants granted him the support of the people while his brilliant speeches. He entered the Jacobins Club, the radical left-wing group, of which he eventually became the spiritual leader after the disappearing of its founding leaders (Barnave, Mirabeau). The attitude Robespierre took during the events that followed, and especially the speeches in which he exposed it, gave him an increasing popularity within the Revolutionary Government, which eventually lead him to be elected as a member of the Public Security Commitee. He had opposed the war with Austria, and had supported the execution of King Louis XVI, by pronouncing his popular sentence "Louis must die, so that the country can live". The failure that the contrary position Girondins took meant their destruction, and the consolidation of Robespierre as the leader of the National Convention, new era of the Revolution.
From 1792 to his downfall two years later, more than 30000 people were guilotined in Paris, denounced by the Convention as traitors to the Revolution. Robespierre and his little buddies increased progressively repressive actions, also among the members of the Government. Danton and Hébert, supporters of Robespierre but from different factions, were executed, and the Government was increasingly pointed out as a dictatorship. Finally, a raising of the people provoked the Convention overthrown and the execution of its tyrant, in July 1794.

A cruel tyrant?

It is uncontested that Robespierre created an authoritary and repressive state, almost a dictatorship in the middle of the Revolution. However, which were the reasons for his actions? Actually, a personal dictatorship does not match with the ideas he defended, and maybe he never really liked sending citizens to the guillotine (he dismissed from a judge job at Criminal Court of Arras to avoid pronouncing death sentences). It is imaginable that after the overthrown of the Convention, many members of the Commitee blamed Robespierre, already dead, for all the atrocities that happened, and so saved their lives.
Robespierre was a theorist and a philosopher. During his political career, he formulated laws, wrote essays and gave speeches. The ideas from his idol Rousseau, which defended the people's power especially over individual freedom, were the defining ideas of his Government, that he described as "the despotism of freedom against tyranny". As a theorist, he tried to apply his ideas in an inflexible way, to the point that he did not hesitate to eliminate his detractors. As a politician without pragmatic sense, he never betrayed his ideas, and was "incorruptible" until his death.

Monday, October 16, 2006


We have all learned at school quite well (or not) the History until what is called "nowadays". How ambiguous... What does "nowadays" mean? We cannot stop wondering how will this age be called in the future, when it will not be the Contemporaneous Age anymore, when it will become History.
"Postmodernism" is the term to usually call this age. Not a great name, undoubtely, which just comes from being the successing age to Modernism. Anyway, neither Modernism was so called at its time, so let us hope a better name someday.
But, what are its values of thinking? Is it true that, as our parents say, "current society has not values"? Well, according to the Modernist point of view, maybe yes. But a Postmodernist will answer: "it depends on what you consider a value", leaving the hearer confused and a bit dizzy.

How it happened

Let us see how this mess came out. Year 1945: The World has just realised of the result of Progress, so idealized by Modernist and Positivist philosophies of the last hundred years. This way of thinking believed infinitely in the power of Technology and Reason which, through Scientific method and Experimentation, would eventually lead the Man to absolute Good and Truth, to dominate its surroundings and make him owner of his destiny. But after the Second World War and all the horrors and social injustices it created, all this was seriously argued and, except neo-modernist attempts such as the Structuralist school, progressively unbelieved.
New relativist ways of thinking arise. Sartre, Derrida and Foucault surprise thinkers with their "Existentialist", "Decontructionist" and "Post-structuralist" proposals. The idea of "one way, one truth", is substituted by "everything goes". Communication media carry information to the masses, which start to be critical and create opinion. New generations break down ethic values never argued before.
This trend, however, is ralentised by the Cold War and the division of the World in two oposing blocks, with consequent politizacion of media, which become a tool of mass opinion domination. Finally, at the end of the 80s happens the great victory of Postmodernism, communist regimes in Eastern Europe are progressively overthrown by the growing power of public opinion. The global conception of the World and Relativism compose the thought of our society. The concept of "value", as an idea whose definition exists and is commonly accepted, has disappeared.

What is a postmodernist

All of us who live in this age have postmodern lifestyles. We all are, in a greater or less extent, a product of this trend.
- A postmodern does not believe in doctrines. Knows that thinking, opinion and truth are relative. Utopy does not exist, and Progress is not more than an illusion built by the mistaken idea of "Truth". As it is a relative idea, everything else is.
- Postmoderns believe in Imagination and Creativity. They know that Reason alone is a limited tool, and besides, inhumane.
- A postmodern, however, knows that even if he is creative, he is not original. No idea that comes from his mind has been generated in there, as every idea is a copy, version or mixture of other existing ones. He/she knows, besides, that this idea is not static but fluid, its meaning changes greatly according to the time and place.
- Postmoderns are not humanists. They do not wonder about "why" or "what for" of the Being. Instead, they are humanitarian. They believe that personal experience and friendship are the ways to make individuals more compltee.
- A postmodern being is a product of Globalization. He feels as a member of the World. Has interest and admiration to different cultures, even more than the own.
- Postmoderns communicate in a non-conventional manner, they experiment. Reinvent the language. They also change their concept of art and beauty, they change all the time. They will never achieve to define themselves because they are change indeed.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Queen of Sabah

The story of the Queen of Sabah is one of those cases where true is marred by legends. Despite of being mentioned in many ancient writings, the authentic identity of this woman is still unknown.

The story

Several Holy books, such as Judaic Bible, Islamic Quran and Ethiopian Kebra Nagast tell about a queen who ruled in the southern Kingdom of Sabah (or Sheba in Hebraic) with great kill, as she was loved and feared by her people. It is told that "she lived with luxury, and she had a magnificent throne" (Coran, 27). Personally she was very brune, and beautiful, but also with a strong will.
Even when no name is ever given to her (although Ethiopian tradition calls her Makeda, and Arab calls her Bilqis), Judaic texts mention that the queen heard from the greatness of King Solomon and decided to visit him, carrying with her big amounts of spices, gems and gold as a gift. She could even have been invited by Solomon himself.
Different versions agree that during her 6-months stay in Israel, Solomon made use of his seduction arts towards her, by which he was well known (this charming sir had more than 700 wifes and concubines). According to the Judaic Bible, she was so impressed by his culture that in the end she converted to Judaism and set this religion in her homeland when she returned. Ethiopian tradition affirms that from the union of both a child was born, whose name Menelik, who, at his mother's death, was the first of an extraordinary long dinasty that ruled Ethiopia, lasting to the popular emperor Halie Selassie and his descendents.
However, scarce archaeological evidences make it very hard to know the true story of this queen. How could someone, who takes such an important role in legends and Holy writings, leave so few traces of her existence?

The History

Let us see. What does seem certain is that in the X century BC, as Israel reached the maximum of its cultural and political power under Solomon's rule, there was a kingdom at the gates of the Red Sea which occupied a great part of current Yemen, and probably coastal regions of the Horn of Africa.
Sources different from the already mentioned say that the city of Tyre "traded with the merchants of Sabah and Ramah: first quality spices and every kind of gems and gold they gave for their goods" (Ezechiel, 27), agreeing in what the Bible mentions. Also Assyrian and Persian writings testify its existence. It seems that, despite being a much less refined culture than the Israeli one, its privileged situation confered it quite a great importance at this time.
Recent archaeological findings have shown an urban centre in Marib, currently Yemen, at what is supposedly the heart of the ancient kingdom of Sabah. Findings in Ethiopia have not been so revealing, although the presence of semitic origin languages concentrated in the coastal zones of Ethiopia, Egypt and Somalia suggest that at least these areas probably belonged to this culture.
About the existence of the queen, the absence of a name to give her is something awful (in the historical sense). But actually, it is not really known whether she existed or not. Holy writings, so prone to allegories and myths, could perfectly have told about the queen in a symbolic meaning.
In the findings at Marib there is a temple known as Temple of Bilqis (the name given to the queen by the Arabs). Hence, maybe the queen, as it was a civilization mainly matriarchal, became a godness. It could even be, why not, that writings do not tell about the Queen of Sheba but on the Godness itself, in a symbolic meaning. However, pagan religion in this kingdom was polytheistic, so we could be just reducing the legendary queen to a simple local divinity from the supposedly capital Marib.
The fact of the visit to Solomon is not generally seen as a legendary tale, but it could also admit several meanings. The most widely accepted is the sign of a commercial treaty between the kingdoms of Israel and Sabah. Trading goods carried by the Sabaeans to Israel seem to prove it. However, it is possible instead that the king Solomon, seeing a kingdom with great commercial power but militarly inferior, would have forced a submission treaty by which Sabah would have become a mere vassal of Israel. This could give an explanation to the fact that Judaism expanded over southern Arabia and Ethiopia.
The switch of reality into legend could have happened in a natural way. King Solomon liked to be surrounded by a court of poets and singers that told the deeds of his king. These heroic songs could have become tradition, which 400 years later would have been impressed in Judaic writings, from there passed to Quran, and from there to Legend. Et voilà, the myth is over :)