Lesson #387: Amok

Because you probably don’t live in isolation, you’re likely familiar with the phrasal verb “to run amok”. Our friends Messrs. Merriam and Webster have four related definitions for amok. The second, the one we know best, “in a wild or uncontrolled manner”, is of Malay origin and dates to the early 1670s.

However, the earlier (1665) definition,  “a murderous frenzy that has traditionally been regarded as occurring especially in Malaysian culture”, is apparently a thing that still exists that is bound almost entirely to Malaysian culture, but has also shown up in cases in the Philippines and Puerto Rico. It’s a rare madness — and is therefore classified as a mental illness — where someone will just completely lose his (or her) mind and causes serious bodily harm or straight up murders someone for no reason.

I can’t be the only person to notice that all three of these places are islands, right?

You can read more on Amok here.

M-W definition here, Etymology here.

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Lesson #377: Pramen

This comes by way of the fact that while I was back in the motherland, I picked up two bottles of Zlatý Bažant, a Slovak beer I can’t get in America, but really quite like.* As a rule, I’m down with Eastern European lagers, but my selections are somewhat limited here. I was able to find a couple (pricey) bottles of the Croatian beer Karlovačko in the spring, which was a nice treat. And I can get Żywiec and Tyskie — both Polish, the former better than the latter — and a whole slew of Czech beers, including — only very recently — my very favourite beer of all time, Budvar’s dark lager (černé or tmavý ležák, depending on how formal you want to be — the former means black, the latter is what’s on the label and means dark lager). But if I want Slovak or Hungarian lagers, I’m SOL. Which is why I brought a couple bottles of the Bažant back with me.

This led me to a conversation with The Swede about language, the Swedish phonemic pronunciation, and how Zlatan Ibrahimović‘s given name literally means “golden.” He wanted to know how I knew that; I told him to look at the Eastern European beers. Zlatý Bažant translates to “golden pheasant.”** I also mentioned the Czech beer Zlatopramen. And my general knowledge that zlat- is the Slavic root for gold.

But then I realized…I know what zlat- means, but I have no idea what pramen is. This will make more sense to you if you know that Staropramen is a beer that exists (it isn’t my favourite, but I’ll drink it if my options are that and pretty much any American/Canadian/British lager). Now, I know what the root star- means (old), but I’d never thought to look up pramen before. Two beers, different root word, same ending. It obviously means something.

It means spring — of the water variety, not the season. In case you’re ever quizzed on it.

If you were curious, my very favourite Czech word is čtvrtek — which is absurd to pronounce,*** but means Thursday. And yes, that is six consonants in a seven letter word. I also like the word zmrzlina (ice cream).

*If you’re a beer drinker, it’s a bit spicier than your average lager, so it has a bit more flavour, but it’s still crisp and good for outdoor/summer drinking.

**In fact, there’s a golden pheasant on their label and the imported labels have the English translation. We tried to swipe a Bažant glass when we were in Bratislava, but had no luck. In fairness, we didn’t try especially hard. We were only there two nights; the first we bought bottles of beer — Budvar’s standard lager, specifically — sat on the castle walls and drank them (yes, there is photographic evidence) and the other, I went to the opera and accidentally left him at a Greek wedding reception and then we went back to the flat and watched half of a Leafs playoff game on my tablet at 1am. That was, incidentally, also the night I discovered, while looking for the Leafs game on the TV, that my very favourite CanCon (Canadian Content) show, which my cousin in a major Canadian city rightly makes so much fun of me for enjoying because it’s pretty terrible, has actually been successful enough to be dubbed into Slovak…I took video of it for her. Because I’m a good cousin/friend, and I care.

***On the plus side, Czech pronunciation rules are delightfully easy (which I assume is to make up for the ninety million declension rules)…stress is always on the first syllable and every letter is pronounced exactly how it’s written. Phonemically, Czech is as simple as a language can be.

Lesson #372: The Right-Hand Man

I’ve mentioned before that sometimes questions will pop into my head for no reason at all and nag me to answer them; I was literally washing my dinner dishes when this question wandered into my brain unprovoked.

Western culture* has a tenet that one’s most loyal and trusted advisor/soldier/business partner is one’s “right-hand man.” But why? My immediate thought was that it’s born of religion because I’ve studied both the Tanakh and the Bible at some length, and I know the lyrics to ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘Heaven on Their Minds’.** It’s also the most obvious answer because that phrasing shows up nearly three dozen times over both scriptures.***

But it’s not the right answer. It seems those two documents absorbed some combat history.

In all likelihood the concept of the person to your right being the person you trust the most because he’s the person on whom you rely the most (and therefore being your “right-hand man” comes from the phalanx formation. In the phalanx, the person on your right was the one using his shield to protect your entire right side — including, since roughly 85% of the population are right-handed****, your sword hand. This actually raises a whole separate question about where they put lefties. Did they have entire phalanxes of lefties that were mirror images of the right-handed phalanxes? Did they simply train lefties to fight right-handed? If I can find that answer, you can be sure I’ll let you know.

Anyway…

Interestingly, though we generally associate the phalanx with the ancient Greeks — specifically the Spartans if you payed attention in grade 9 World History — the first known depiction of the formation is actually a fragment of the Sumerian Stele of the Vultures, which dates to the 25th century BCE.

You can read more here. Of course, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that there’s no definitive answer to this question and if you google the origins, many, many (most) people submit JESUS! as the answer. Which is fine, if not particularly logical. Just because it appears in scripture doesn’t make it the origin; I choose logic.

*I don’t know enough about Eastern culture to comment on the validity of the idiom there.

**I’d urge you to take those two pieces for what they’re worth.

***1 Kings 2:19, Ezekiel 16:46, Ezekiel 21:22, Zechariah 3:1, 1 Chronicles 6:39, 2 Chronicles 18:18, Psalms 16:8, Psalms 77:10, Psalms 80:17, Psalms 91:7, Psalms 109:6 and 109:31Psalms 110:1 and 110:5 — the first of which is directly referenced in Matthew 22:44, Mark 12:36Luke 20:42, and Acts 2:34, and Hebrews 1:13  — Matthew 26: 64, Mark 14:62, Mark 16:19, Luke 22:69, Acts 2:33,  Acts 5:31, Acts 7:55 and 7:56Romans 8:34Ephesians 1:20, Colossians 3:1, Hebrews 1:3, Hebrews 12:2, and 1 Peter 3:22. Lest you think I just know those offhand, remember I’m really good at finding things and very patient in my research. Also, given that John is our non-synoptic friend, his absence from this list shouldn’t be particularly surprising.

****Though, as with the blue eyes, a disproportionate number of actors are lefties. Pay attention the next time you see an actor writing something onscreen. I promise you more of them will be left-handed than is representative of the actual population.

Lesson #361: The Letter H

At the risk of sounding something like a Sesame Street advert, today is being brought to you by the letter H.

I learned something very interesting about the letter H today and it’s that the letter existed in Late Latin, was dropped from Old and Middle French entirely, and then started reappearing in Modern English.

Take, for example, the word habit (in the clerical sense, not the things-you-do-a-lot sense). The Latin word is habitus, the Middle French is abit, and then English tacked the H back on to make habit.

You can read more about it here and here.

Lesson #337: Adelphoi, Desposyni, and Christianity

Autobiographical note: This is the most fun I’ve had doing research in a long while because it was the most challenging research I’ve done in a long while. The four hours it took me to get everything together and written (I don’t f**k around with my research) is time I rarely have to devote, but it’s a slow weekend in my world. This is also why yesterday’s post is as detailed as it is — though that took only half the time. 

Both the Gospels of Matthew and Mark acknowledge Jesus’ siblings. Four brothers by name, even. They’re called James, Joseph, Judas (or Jude depending on which version you’re reading), and Simon. They also make mention of at least two sisters, who aren’t named, but because the noun is plural, I’m sure you can do the (super basic) math.* 

If you never learned that in Sunday school, ever, that’s because modern Christianity sees the whole thing as a problem. Because Christianity on the whole likes to view Mary as pure as all get-out despite the fact that women of her time would never have had one kid and then been all, “yeah, that’s enough.”

There has been debate raging about the meaning of the word “brothers” in this context since pretty much the dawn of Christianity. Proponents of the perpetual virgin version of Mary — pretty much all of Christianity — choose to see this translation as a figurative association between Jesus and these four. Cousins, maybe.** Or brothers from another mother (literally…there’s discussion as to whether they might be Joseph’s children from a previous, completely unmentioned marriage). Or, you know, bros.

Here’s the problem with that argument: the Greek word from which we get the translation “brothers” is adelphoi, which literally means “from the same womb.”*** I’m not exactly sure how that gets misinterpreted because it’s pretty explicit.

Whatever the modern interpretation, early Christians didn’t doubt the consanguinity of Jesus’ brothers. The historian Josephus (who was Jewish, but that’s so very much not the point here) addresses James’ fate in Antiquities of the Jews. He notes in Book 20, Chapter 9, paragraph 1 that James, who was stoned to death, was “the brother of Jesus called Christ.”****

And they had a word for people who were Jesus’ blood relatives: desposyni, meaning “belonging to the Lord.” The word was widespread enough in its use that the early third century historians Sextus Julius Africanus and Hegesippus both addressed the concept in their writing. Hegesippus’ work is mostly lost, but large portions are quoted in Eusebius’ Historia Ecclesiae. Book 3, chapter 20 makes reference to the grandsons of Judas, whom he calls a blood brother of Jesus. Julius Africanus’ work, which actually uses the word desposyni, is quoted in book 1, chapter 7 of the same Eusebius work. 

The concept of the adelphoi and desposyni fell out of favour by the time Third Synod of Carthage set the books of the Bible in 397, with help from major early Christian theologians like Hippolytus and Epiphanius, who held to the perpetual virgin doctrine that continues to exist today. There is, however, some scholarship that suggests that a meeting took place between Pope Sylvester I and Jewish Christian leaders in 318, wherein the Jewish Christian leaders, speaking on behalf of the desposyni, asked that the papacy a. recognize the bloodline of Jesus, b. make Jerusalem the mother church (and have the church’s money sent to Jerusalem), and c. revoke the authority of the Greek Christian bishops of Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, and Alexandria, and appoint desposynos bishops in their stead. Rome declined. This meeting is the last known communication between the Church and the desposyni.***** 

There is no doubt some political motivation in all of this. It’s unlikely that, with the papacy under Roman patronage by this time, the Church was ever going to agree to lose the money it was making in being the mother church and in being in control of bishopric appointments. And it’s not exactly good publicity to change your mind about the purity of your holiest saint. In canonizing the Bible not long after, Rome solidified its place as the power of Europe for the next 1125 years — until Martin Luther showed up and said “eine minuten, bitte” — and shaped the way modern Christianity believes without much question into the finer points. The Church, like every other ruling faction, became a political entity ahead of everything else. It just so happened their political interest was in saving souls. For money.******

And lest you think this is critical of Christianity, it is and it isn’t. I’ve long been critical of the unchecked political agency of the early and medieval Church. But I’m most impressed by people like priests and bishops, whose job it is to learn and know these things, but still manage to reconcile them with their faith (and then let me ask a million questions about it all like a petulant four-year-old who wants to know why she has to go to bed); it’s exactly these sorts of smaller details that, when taken as a collective, made me walk away from religion. As an academic, the whole notion of the Church saying, “just trust me!” without ever giving compelling evidence for why I should — especially when my scholastic motto is “sources or GTFO” — led to a wholesale mistrust in the fundamental tenets of the entire faith.

As an aside: There’s an interesting alternate history to be drawn if the mother church moves from Rome to Jerusalem.

*See here (verse 55) and here (verse 3)

**Unlikely. The Greek word for cousin is a distinct word, anepsios.

***The etymology of the word brother even identifies the as “Greek adelphos…meaning, specifically, “brother of the womb” or “brother by blood.”

****For the record, religious scholars agree that of the two references to Jesus in Josephus’ work (both in Antiquities of the Jews), this is the only one that is authentic. The reference in Book 18 to Jesus’ crucifixion is universally held to be a later addition by an outside source. For more on that, see Schrekenberg and Schubert’s Jewish Traditions in Early Christian Literature, Vol 1, Evans’ Jesus and His Contemporaries: Comparative Studies, Wansbrough’s Jesus and the Oral Gospel Tradition, Dunn’s Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, Vol. 1, Wells and Hoffman’s The Jesus Legend, and probably half a dozen others.

*****See Malachi Martin’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Church.

******See: tithing, which was required by law. And any number of shady practices employed by the medieval church to scare every last cent out of people in order to ensure their eternal salvation. But that fear-mongering and widespread abuse of power made the Church exorbitantly wealthy.

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.

Lesson #335: Dachshunds Are Badger Hunters

I randomly learned today that dachs is the German word for badger.*

I’m a pretty smart girl with some fairly decent language skills. I know the German word for dog (incidentally, the Swedish word is the same). I also have some fairly decent deductive reasoning skills. That makes those hilariously shaped Dachshunds badger hunters. Which makes total sense. Those ridiculously short legs and that long body? Perfect for diving into badger setts. That aggression that until today struck me as a bit off? Yeah…badgers aren’t exactly cuddly.

And apparently, the Dachshund was long a symbol of Germany, which led political cartoonists in the First World War and, to a lesser extent, the Second World War to use the dog as a representation of Germany. I also found a couple from the 20s that can be seen here and here. And one from 1934 here.

*This isn’t even close to the weirdest linguistic thing I’ve learned in the last week. As my linguistic life somehow revolves around bears (don’t ask), I learned to say something very odd about bears in American Sign Language at the weekend. On a street corner. Outside a bar. In a popular neighbourhood. In the middle of the day. If you saw a group of people on Sunday afternoon all dressed in navy and white, gesticulating wildly, and laughing hysterically, that’s what was happening.