Monthly Archives: September 2017

How ancient cultures explained eclipses



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A 1765 painting of Helios, the personification of the sun in Greek mythology.
Wikimedia Commons

Roger Culver, Colorado State University

On August 21, a total solar eclipse will be visible across parts of the United States.

As the Earth and moon sweep through space in their annual journey around the sun, the three bodies align in such a way that the Earth passes into the shadow of the moon. Observers then witness a sun that is gradually covered and uncovered by the moon’s disk – a spectacular celestial event.

But until astronomers were able to explain this phenomenon, a solar eclipse could be a terrifying event. In many cultures throughout human history, the sun was seen as an entity of supreme importance, crucial to their very existence. It was regularly worshipped as a god – Amun-Ra to the Egyptians and Helios to the Greeks – or as a goddess, such as Amaterasu for the Japanese and Saule for many Baltic cultures.

One reason the sun served as a god or goddess in so many cultures was its awesome power: Looking directly at it would severely damages the eyes, a sign of the sun deity’s wrath.

So the idea that the sun deity could be temporarily extinguished in a total eclipse inspired a number of imaginative explanations. Most involve some sort of evil entity trying to devour the sun. Such myths undoubtedly arose from the fact that during the early stages of a solar eclipse, the sun appears to have a bite taken out of it.

The various creatures include the Vikings’ sky wolves Skoll and Hati, a Chinese dragon, a Vietnamese frog and assorted Roman demons. In many cultures, it was believed that such creatures could be driven off by creating as much loud noise as possible: yelling, ringing bells, and banging pots and pans.

Perhaps the most creative version of this strand of mythologies comes from certain branches of Hindu culture. In that version, the mortal Rahu is said to have attempted to attain immortality. The sun and moon told the god Visnu of Rahu’s transgression. As punishment, Visnu decapitated Rahu.

Ever since, Rahu has sought to exact vengeance on the sun and the moon by pursuing them across the sky to eat them. Once in a while – at the time of an eclipse – Rahu actually catches the sun or the moon. In the case of a solar eclipse, Rahu slowly devours the sun, and it gradually disappears into Rahu’s throat – only to reappear from his severed neck.

Rahu swallowing the moon.
Anandajoti Bhikkhu, CC BY

In other branches of Hindu culture, the “sun eater” took the more traditional form of a dragon. To fight this beast, certain Hindu sects in India immersed themselves up to the neck in water in an act of worship, believing that the adulation would aid the sun in fighting off the dragon.

Other cultures had equally ingenious explanations for – and defenses against – a total solar eclipse. Eskimos thought an eclipse meant that the sun and moon had become temporarily diseased. In response, they’d cover up everything of importance – themselves included – lest they be infected by the “diseased” rays of the eclipsed sun.

For the Ojibwe tribe of the Great Lakes, the onset of total eclipse represented an extinguished sun. To prevent permanent darkness, they proceeded to fire flaming arrows at the darkened sun in an attempt to rekindkle it.

Amidst the plethora of the myths and legends and interpretations of this strange event, there are seeds of understanding about their true nature.

For example, the famed total solar eclipse of May 28, 585 B.C., occurred in the middle of a battle between the Medes and the Lydians in what is now the northeast region of modern-day Turkey. The eclipse actually ended the conflict on the spot, with both sides interpreting the event as a sign of the displeasure from the gods. But based on the writings of the ancient Greek historian Heroditus, it’s thought that the great Greek philosopher-mathematician Thales of Miletus had, coincidentally, predicted its occurrence.

Chinese, Alexandrian and Babylonian astronomers were also said to be sophisticated enough to not only understand the true nature of solar eclipses, but also to roughly predict when the “dragon” would come to devour the sun. (As with much knowledge back then, however, astronomical and astrological findings were relayed only to the ruling elites, while myths and legends continued to percolate among the general population.)

Advances in modern astronomy have given us detailed explanations for solar eclipses, to the extent that their time and location can be predicted centuries into the future and reconstructed from centuries ago.

The ConversationOf course, mythologies surrounding total solar eclipses still exist today. Some conspiracy theorists say this year’s eclipse will cause the end of the world – perhaps a testament to the endurance of the superstitious side of the human psyche.

Roger Culver, Emeritus Professor of Physics, Colorado State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Time Off Again


I am currently being assailed by a variety of ailments and illnesses, and it is therefore necessary for me to take some time off to recuperate. I’m hoping this will only be about a week or so, and then be back at it again. There may be the odd post, but nothing much and nothing is certain. Anyhow, have a break from me and we can get back together in just over a week perhaps. Thanks.


10 Best History Apps for Android


The link below is to an article that looks at 10 of the best history apps for Android.

For more visit:
http://www.androidauthority.com/best-history-apps-for-android-801017/


Today in History: September 18



How Nazis twisted the swastika into a symbol of hate



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An orange flag with the traditional Indian swastika on top of ancient Hindu temples in the Himalayas.
(Shutterstock)

James M. Skidmore, University of Waterloo

The images from Charlottesville, Va., of white supremacists marching with Nazi banners reminded us, as if we needed it, that the swastika remains a potent symbol of racist hate.

In Germany, where neo-Nazis also march, it’s illegal to display the swastika, and citizens there initiate private or neighbourhood efforts to remove it from graffiti and other street art.

But attempts to eradicate the swastika can sometimes misfire, as happened recently in Quebec. Corey Fleischer, known by the Instagram handle erasinghate, was stopped by police when he tried to blot out swastikas embossed on salvaged anchors on public display in the small St. Lawrence River community of Pointes-des-Cascades.

Plaques suggested that the anchors were from the Third Reich, but a Radio Canada correspondent reported that they were made by the English company W.L. Byers before the Nazis came to power. The company used the swastika as a symbol of good luck, a common practice in the early 20th century.

Fleischer remained unmoved by this historical explanation. As he told CityNews: “The swastika is no longer a sign of peace. It’s a sign attached to a party that literally almost wiped out an entire culture.”

I come across this obsession with swastikas time and time again. In my university courses on German cultural history, students are repelled yet fascinated by the horror it symbolizes. When I ask whether the swastika should be banned in North America the way it is in Germany, some say yes, whereas others point to its innocent use in other cultures.

The debate is similar to the dispute between Pointes-des-Cascades and Corey Fleischer. Should the 25 years it was a symbol of Nazi racism outweigh its millennia-long use as a talisman of good fortune?

An image from the erasinghate Instagram account showing Alexander Trowbridge, a multimedia journalist, participating in one of its early events.

A diverse and ancient history

The swastika wasn’t always an odious symbol of hate. Far from it. The word svastika is Sanskrit in origin and means “conducive to well-being.”

As a symbol, the swastika’s power resides in its simplicity and balance. Graphic designer Steven Heller notes that “the swastika’s geometric purity allows for legibility at any size or distance, and when on its axis, the whirling square gives the illusion of movement.”

Its form, according to Heller, is “sublime,” so it’s no wonder that it has found a place in so many cultures.

In Buddhism, the swastika is thought to represent the footprints of the Buddha. It takes on a liturgical function in Jainism, and in Hinduism the clockwise symbol (the swastika as we know it, with the arms pointing right) and the counterclockwise symbol, the sauvistika, pair up to portray opposites such as light and darkness.

In Mesopotamia it was used on coins, and the Navajo nation wove it into blankets. It has been found on ancient pottery in Africa and Asia. It was sometimes used as a single element, but often it was repeated as a series of interlocking swastikas to form a border on a garment or in architecture, as was common in Roman times.

It made an appearance in Germanic and Viking cultures, and you can find it in medieval churches and religious vestments across Europe.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the swastika became well-established in western culture as a good luck symbol, similar to a four-leaf clover or a horseshoe.

Companies used it as logo; it adorned birth announcements and greeting cards. American Boy Scouts could get a swastika badge, and the Girls’ Club published a magazine called The Swastika. Finland, Latvia and the United States have all used it as a military insignia.

In Canada, a mining community in northern Ontario was named Swastika, just as you might name a town New Hope or Bounty. Windsor, N.S., and Fernie, B.C., both had hockey teams called the Swastikas. In 1931, Newfoundland issued a $1 stamp commemorating important moments in transatlantic aviation; each corner had a swastika.

The late 19th century saw the newly formed German empire caught up in an era of unrestrained nationalism. Some nationalists sought to prove German racial superiority, subscribing to a now discredited idea that an ancient Aryan race — the original Indo-Europeans — were their ancestors. Evidence was needed to connect the Germans with the Aryans.

Nazis appropriated the symbol

The swastika provided the necessary link.

In the early 1870s, when German businessman and archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann thought he had discovered the ancient Greek city of Troy, more than 1,800 instances of the swastika were unearthed. Since the swastika was also present among the archaeological remains of the Germanic tribes, it didn’t take long for nationalists to jump to the conclusion that the Germans and the Greeks were both descendants of the Aryans.

And if you believe that Germans form a separate “race” superior to other ethnic groups around it, it becomes easier to claim that you need to keep that “race” pure. In that context, anti-Semitism followed.

The Thule Society, an anti-Semitic organization promoting the superiority of German Volk (folk in English), was founded at the end of the First World War. It used a stylized swastika as its logo. The society sponsored the fledgling Nazi party, and in a bid for greater public profile, the party created a banner that incorporated the swastika as we know it today.

Hitler was convinced that a potent symbol would rally the masses to his xenophobic cause. With a black swastika (called the Hakenkreuz in German, or hooked cross) rotated 45 degrees on a white circle set against a red background, the Nazi banner modernized the ancient symbol while evoking the colours of the recently defeated German empire.

In Mein Kampf, Hitler took sole credit for the design and attempted to give it meaning: “In red we see the social idea of the movement, in white the nationalistic idea, in the swastika the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man.” Tortured symbolism aside, the swastika banner did what it was supposed to do —it gave visual identity to the Nazi movement.

When the Nazis assumed power in 1933, they sought to unite the country behind their racist Aryan ideology, and the use of their symbol infiltrated all aspects of German life.

You can still see it sometimes, including in mosaic ceiling tiles at Hitler’s Haus der Kunst in Munich. The banner became the official flag of the country in 1935, and although it wasn’t everywhere as Hollywood might have you believe, it was very much present.

The way forward

Steven Heller subtitles his book, The Swastika, with a simple but pertinent question: Symbol Beyond Redemption? In those cultures where it’s been used for centuries in religious practices or in the decorative arts, this question is unnecessary. The symbol doesn’t carry any negative connotations there.

But objects like the swastika do not have any inherent meaning; the symbolism is constructed by the people who use them. In our western society, the swastika is tainted. The Nazi movement’s violent crimes against humanity gave the Hakenkreuz a meaning that can’t be concealed or erased.

In places like Pointes-des-Cascades, where pre-Nazi swastikas exist, extra care must be taken to contextualize their presence. But in all other instances the symbol really must be shunned.

The ConversationIts hate-filled racist intentions are clear. It wasn’t an innocent symbol for the Nazis, nor is it for latter-day neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

James M. Skidmore, Director, Waterloo Centre for German Studies, University of Waterloo

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Richad Henry Lee


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the USA founding father Richard Henry Lee.

For more visit:
http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/166798


Chester Alan Arthur


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the 21st president of the United States – Chester Alan Arthur.

For more visit:
http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/09/11/chester-arthur-presidency-donald-trump-215593


The Financial Crash of 1929



Today in History: September 15



Today in History: September 14



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