Lesson #426: The Double-Headed Eagle

If you’ve been reading for a while, it shouldn’t be a surprise how we got here and why this is of particular interest to me.*

The World Cup is on. I love the World Cup. It’s my favourite sporting event. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of them is that the popularity of football offers billions more eyes than usual to put politics on a global stage.**

My experience with Albania is limited. I’ve set very tired feet on the ground in Albania, but barely — it was very early in the morning, I had been dozing (at best) on a very uncomfortable overnight bus from Dubrovnik to Skopje (never again), and I literally didn’t know what country I was in until I saw a sign on the side of the road in a language I couldn’t read. But I know about Kosovo, if only because it’s related to the dissolution of Yugoslavia.***

The Shakiri and Xhaka double-headed eagle gestures were a big thing yesterday (and discussions of match bans were on order today), but the politics of that are a separate post. Today, we’re touching on the history of the double-headed eagle.

I had assumed that the double-headed eagle was a Roman thing, but the Romans never used it. Sort of. There’s a fluidity in the Eastern Roman Empire that makes its use sort of Roman, but not really. Anyway, the origins go back to the Hittites, who occupied modern-day Turkey from roughly the 20th to the 7th centuries BCE. Scholars are in agreement that the double-headed eagle took on a later meaning of orthodoxy (in the Orthodox Christian faiths) and dominance (in the Byzantine Empire), but its original meaning has been lost — in part because there’s a two millenia gap in its use after the decline of the Hittites before the Byzantines started using it as a part of their heraldry. The double-headed eagle as heraldry spread into the Arab world and large swaths of Europe — particularly in Southeastern Europe — in the late medieval period (11th and 12th centuries), as a result of the Crusades.

In modern times, Russia’s association with the double-headed eagle is arguably the most recognizable — it’s even in their football crest.**** However, it also shows up on Albania’s flag (thus the ethnic Albanians playing for the Swiss team using it), along with Serbia and Montenegro‘s flags, and if you look at the not-so-distant past, in addition to the Russians, it was used by the Serbian kings, which remains on the Serbian flag; the Habsburg dynasty of Austria-Hungary; the Austrian Empire; the Montenegrin royals;  the German Confederation; and Yugoslavia, generally, up until they exiled their last king after the Second World War.

Fun fact: in this World Cup, five other countries have an (single-headed) eagle in their crests: holders Germany, Mexico, Nigeria, Poland, and Tunisia.

For more on the history of the double-headed eagle, see here and here.

*If you haven’t been, the short version is: the sociopolitics of the Balkans as they’re reflected in football hooliganism. And also history.

**In this regard, it’s a shame the US are not participating.

***Serbia basically spent the 90s being a controlling ex until the rest of the world stepped in and were like, “guy…sit down” — and even then, they didn’t do a great job. I have many feelings on the Dayton Accords and not many of them are good.

****If they’re smart, Xhaka and Shakiri will say, “we were paying tribute to our host country!” Which no one will believe, but at least it’s a feasible explanation.


Lesson #421: Find Out the Temperature From A Cricket

This week’s lesson I learned from one of my nine-year-old students, who learned it on a field trip he was very excited to tell me about: if you count the seconds between a cricket’s chirps, you can tell the temperature.*

Crickets are cold-blooded. Because they’re insects. And, as the temperature increases, it allows for more frequent initiation of the chirp mechanism. Think of it as operating the same way heartbeats do in cold-blooded creatures. Because science knows by how much each degree of temperature increases the cricket’s ability to chirp, it also knows how to gauge temperature from the rate at which the cricket chirps.

The actual figuring takes some effort, but here’s how to do it with degrees Fahrenheit.

Step one: Find a cricket.

Step two: Count the number of chirps the cricket makes over a 14-second span.

Step three: Repeat the second step twice more and average the numbers.

Step four: Add 40. This is the temperature.

To ascertain the temperature in degrees Celsius because you live in a sane country that uses the metric system, follow these steps:

Step one: Find a cricket.

Step two: Count the number of chirps the cricket makes over a 25-second span.

Step three: Repeat the second step twice more and average the numbers.

Step four: Divide by three, and add four. This is the temperature.

Disclaimer: this information is accurate only between 55-100 degrees Fahrenheit/12-38 degrees Celsius.

More here and here.

*In this situation, you have been separated from your phone. Or are hiking with no reception. But you have a stopwatch on you.

Lesson #417: Cockroaches Can Swim

This is a lesson I learned when I watched a cockroach jump into a pool and walk on the gutter cover. Which is under a half inch of water.

How we got here: I teach and coach swimming in the evenings. I also tend to be the person who cleans the scum line in the pool every week because it’s easier to clean in the water than on the deck, and I’m the person who spends the most time in the water. As I was cleaning between my swim and my lessons today, I came across a cockroach. So I commented to the head lifeguard about it, and when I turned back to shoo it off to whatever dark corner it crawled out of, it jumped into the pool. At this point, our curiosity won, and we watched it. It seemed to be doing okay for a bit. And then it sank down to the gutter cover. At which point, I felt kind of bad and sent the lifeguard to get the skimmer. And then it started walking. Underwater.*

It turns out cockroaches can hold their breath underwater for up to 40 minutes. Which…explains a lot, but also WHY?!? I hate cockroaches. This is nightmare fodder.

*This story ends badly for the cockroach, which got itself too close to the filter suction and ended up getting sucked down before the lifeguard could get the skimmer. Plus side, it reminded me of the time The Swede ended up standing on the bed in our hotel in Berlin until I disposed of a(n admittedly fairly large, but not *that* large) spider.

Lessons #398-399: Sleep Sneezing and Milk Frogs

Right…end of semester. You know how it is. So…two very interesting links about things that I’ve learned this week.

1. As I was drifting off to sleep the other night, I sneezed. Which got me to wondering whether people sneeze in their sleep. To my knowledge I’ve never heard it. It turns out, you cannot sneeze in your sleep because your brain shuts that area of your brain down. You can read about that here.

2. Before refrigeration was a thing that existed, people put frogs in their milk to preserve it. Which is gross on so many levels, but apparently is totally scientifically sound. You can read more about that here.

Lesson #380: Puffin Cams!

Ever since I was about 12 and we visited some extended family in Maritime Canada, I’ve had a thing about puffins. I even had a Newfoundland tourism poster with puffins on it on my bedroom wall as a teenager.* Because they’re adorable. Seriously. Look at them.

single-puffin_18377_990x742At some point when I still lived in a southern state, there was a pair of fluffy orange socks in my Christmas stocking that my mother referred to as my “puffin feet,” something I still call them to this day. Now, there is no creature on Earth cuter than otters, but puffins are a close second. And if you’ve ever watched them try to take off from the water, it’s hilarious. Because they’re such chubby little things, they have to flap their wings really, really hard to get themselves airborne, and they fail on a fairly regular basis and take a nosedive back into the water. It’s hard not to laugh when they fail — because it truly is funny — but they’re tenacious; they give it another go and are off. They’re also delicious to eat, which is something that still makes me feel guilty more than four years after the fact, but when in Rome. Or, you know, Reykjavik.

Anyway…because the internet is occasionally for more than just cat videos and porn, the Audubon Society has a trio of puffin cameras up on Seal Island in Maine. Which I spent a good 45 minutes watching this morning. I can’t help it; they’re so effing cute!

Here’s what I observed in those 45 minutes: I started watching at 5:30, right as the first puffin arrived. He kind of hung out for a bit and did that thing people do where they’re looking around for their friends. Another puffin came through at 5:35, but didn’t stay long. The first puffin just sat on the ledge and watched the ocean for a bit. His friends (or whatever…I don’t know if puffins have friends) started coming by at 5:40. All was good for about 10 minutes…puffins arrived, hopped about, groomed themselves, sat and stared at the ocean (or whatever puffins do when they’re facing the water), but then it started to get a bit crowded on puffin rock, and puffin number one — which is the one I was specifically watching — started getting a bit irked at everyone bothering him when he clearly just wanted to hang out and watch the sun rise (or whatever puffins do when they’re facing the water). A few times he chased other puffins off. Mostly, he kind of wandered from place to place, and every time someone invaded his personal space, he’d travel closer to the camera so he could be alone. He eventually found a little crevice to hang out in. I liked this puffin because this is exactly how I am…leave me alone, jerks, I’m just trying to hang out here! About 5:55, they started to hit a critical mass for puffins on the ledge. Not because of the lack of space in general, but because of a lack of landing space. See, puffins land a bit like jets on an aircraft carrier; it’s a bit of ‘oh God, oh God, I have to stop NOW!” It is not at all graceful, but it is funny. Because after a while, there’s not a whole lot of real estate large enough for landing, so they start kind of half landing on each other. By 6:00, the first puffin had been joined by 17 others. At 6:03, the first puffin wandered out of frame. Anyway, once the puffins are on land, they walk everywhere, which makes sense if you’ve seen them take off/land. Also, I learned, puffins don’t make sound unless they’re hanging out in their burrows, and then they sound kind of like a chainsaw.

If you happen to be an insomniac (like me) or you enjoy a leisurely “getting ready for work” pace (not at all like me), check them out. Audubon suggests the best time to watch them is between 5-9 am EST.

The loafing ledge video is here. This is the feed I was watching.

The boulder berm video is here.

The burrow video is here.

*I also had posters of athletes (mostly swimmers) and cute boys like every other teenage girl.

Lesson #346: Tree Lobsters

We got here by way of an infographic I was reading that talked about islands around the world where specific animals live en masse. Among the animals listed was the tree lobster. I legitimately said, out loud, “what the hell is a tree lobster?” Because seriously? Tree lobster?

It turns out that tree lobsters are not the awesome thing I had created in my imagination; they’re a species of stick insect that live on Lord Howe Island in Australia.

The tree lobster had once been used as fishing bait, but were thought to have been eaten into extinction by the early 1920s by black rats introduced to the island when the S. S. Makambo ran aground in 1918. But it turns out they didn’t actually go extinct; they just went into hiding for a couple generations before being rediscovered in 2001.*

An adult can grow to 15cm (roughly 6″) in length — which is terrifyingly large for a stick insect, thank you — and looks like it’s got a lobster’s exoskeleton.

For more, you can read this, this, or this.

*This is called the Lazarus Effect.

Lesson #336: Damnatio ad Bestias

Damnatio ad bestias is the Latin for “condemnation to beasts.”

As you may remember, if you’ve been reading long enough, the Roman Army was not especially tolerant of rebellion within its ranks, which led to the practice of decimation.

Turns out, they were even less a fan of desertion. At least if you took part in some sort of rebellion, you stood a nine in ten chance of surviving your failed attempt at change.

Deserters were sentenced to death by being thrown, woefully under-armed — if they were armed at all — into the arena with angry, hungry wild animals that wanted to, and did, tear their throats out. Sometimes, they were simply tied to a pole. Sometimes, they got their skulls crushed by elephants. Sometimes, if they were especially bad, smaller animals were introduced to kill them more slowly. Good times! The Romans certainly took their bloodsport seriously.

Damnatio ad bestias wasn’t strictly a sentence for deserters. It was also handed down to early Christians, but was most often the fate of criminals. Both the Codex Theodosianus (429-438 CE) and the Corpus Juris Civilis (529-534 CE) actually stipulate who may and who may not be sentenced to damnatio ad bestias. The list of those who were allowed to be executed by damnatio ad bestias includes: deserters, anyone hiring a sorcerer with the intent to harm another, plebian prisoners*, counterfeiters, political prisoners, anyone who committed patricide**, anyone instigating an uprising (!), and kidnappers.

The practice of damnatio ad bestias originated in Asia, where it was practiced from the sixth century BCE. One of the earliest recorded instances is the biblical story of Daniel being thrown to the lions (from which he was delivered, if you remember your Sunday/Hebrew school lessons).*** There is some question as to whether the earliest instances of damnatio ad bestias were actually human sacrifice rather than the punishment the sentence would later become, though by the time of Alexander’s campaigns in the fourth century BCE, the sentence was being carried out as punishment.****

According to historians Polybius and Pliny the Elder*****, damnatio ad bestias arrived in Europe in the second or third century BCE by way of the Punic Wars, and by the first century CE, the practice had become an entertainment event, including being part of the first games at the Colosseum in Rome (under the Emperor Titus). Nero became the first emperor to use the punishment as a way to persecute early Christians. His version involved simply wrapping Christians in animal skins and throwing them to the dogs******, but later emperors changed this practice to become more entertaining-bloodsport-in-the-arena and less guy-on-the-street-being-attacked-by-dogs. This aspect of damnatio ad bestias continued until the 313 CE Edict of Milan, which granted freedom of religion. However, the practice itself continued for another three hundred years, until it was (purportedly, I can’t find any evidence that this is true*******) outlawed in 681 CE.

For more reading (in case the citations above weren’t enough), see here (this one’s a whole book!), here, and here.

*Patricians were beheaded, slaves were crucified.

**Apparently, the usual punishment for any crime of parricide was drowning whilst sewn into a bag of snakes (poena cullei), but damnatio ad bestias was the fallback in case a sufficient body of water could not be found.

***The Tanakh version of that story is here. The Old Testament version is here. They’re exactly the same story in almost exactly the same words, but people are weird about acknowledging that the Tanakh and the Old Testament are nearly identical, so in the interest of fairness, I give you both. In the Old Testament link, I’ve provided the NIV text, but the link gives you a drop down menu that allows you to choose from 47 different English versions. And if that doesn’t suit you, there are options in 61 other languages.

****See Plutarch’s Life of Demetrius.

*****Polybius’ The General History of Polybius and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History.

******See Tacitus’s The Annals.

*******While I can’t speak to the legal accuracy of this, everything suggests that after the seventh century CE, the practice all but disappears, though there are a couple notable instances that take place much later.