Monthly Archives: March 2010

Spy Wednesday poem from Ireland

As quoted in Keating’s history, and in Bishop O’Brien’s dictionary:

Ceadaoin luidh Judas tar ord:
a lorg deamhan, dioghal garg:
ceadaoin, ro ghabh Saint im saith:
ceadaoin ro bhraith Iosa ard.

My translation:

Wednesday, Judas went out under orders
from the fierce demon, vengeful and cruel;
Wednesday, great greed for wealth received;
Wednesday, great betrayal of high Jesus.

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Vatican Library Digitization

This is pretty exciting news for our civilization. The Vatican Library is one of the great treasures of Planet Earth, and it’s never been as thoroughly accessible as it now can be.

Via Roger Pearse.

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Spy Wednesday

One of the old names for today is “Spy Wednesday”. This was a translation of the old Gaelic name for the day, which was “Ceadaoin an Bhraith”.

‘Ceadaoin’ is Wednesday — “first” (cead) + “fast” (aoine), since the Early Christians fasted on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. (Thursday is “between fasts” and Friday is just plain “Fast”.

The word ‘braith’ comes from the verb ‘braithim’, which according to O’Brien’s old dictionary meant both “to observe, spy, reconnoiter” and “to betray”. So probably there was a translation error.

Anyway, really it’s “Treachery Wednesday”, but it sounds cooler this way. I’m not sure how far back the expression goes, but there’s an early 15th century Irish ms that has a Latin text with an Irish intro and outro, which is titled this in Irish.

The Welsh use a closely cognate expression, apparently. Volume 12 of the Transactions of the Honourable Society of the Cymmrodorion (what a name!) note the expression “Dydd Mercher y Brad” (Wednesday of Betrayal) already in use in a poem from the 1200’s. So maybe this is a Welsh expression, at root. (I don’t know if the coincidence of “betray” and “observe, spy, scout” is present in Welsh.)

Since this is a commemoration of the constant danger of treachery, and since the name is obviously relevant to them, it is allegedly the custom of members of the CIA to attend a Mass today that is said for them. (I guess the liturgical color of spooks is Passion-red.)
Spies are not always regarded a bad thing in the Bible, of course. The children of Israel who spied out the land were doing a good thing; not reporting their findings accurately was what was bad. The men who spied on Jericho and were rescued by Rahab were good Israeli agents, too. ๐Ÿ™‚

Of course, the official name is “Holy Wednesday” or “Wednesday in Holy Week”. But the Internet and spy novelists have done a lot to put the name “Spy Wednesday” back into common English usage. It’s just cooler, you know? ๐Ÿ™‚ It used to be more of a day of abstinence in the Latin Rite in many places; so it had more prominence then.

Here’s a poem about it. Make sure you scroll down past the fish. ๐Ÿ™‚

This year in the Ordinary Form, the first reading from Isaiah about the Suffering Servant asks the musical question (among other things): “Who is my adversary? Let him come near me.” Which isn’t primarily referring to Judas, but it works out that way. ๐Ÿ™‚ The psalm is rather interesting, too; and the Gospel is all about Judas selling Jesus out.

The old Extraordinary Form readings are different. You get a first reading about “I am trampling out the vineyard”, which is a bit scary; the psalm is a cry for help; and the Gospel is about Judas’ betrayal and Jesus’ arrest.

Here’s the old breviary readings for the day.


Apparently, the old local regs in Ireland in the 1800’s still declared that one should not eat “white meats” (white foods = milk, butter, cheese, et al) on Ash Wednesday, Spy Wednesday, or Good Friday. There was also strict control of eggs and milk throughout Lent. (You could only eat an egg at dinner, and no eggs at all on Friday.) Sundays were considerably relaxed, but even that wasn’t saying much. And so on. Here you go, in Irish and English.

These are of course the people who think walking around barefoot all night in a cave, without food or water or sleep, is a good plan. Yep, gotta love Celtic spirituality! So sweet and easy!

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Come O’er the Sea, Strider

In a lot of ways, Monty Python’s Life of Brian is about rhetoric and grammar at school and university, even more than it’s about being political and religious satire. These were the parts I liked. One of the deepest things they did was having a speaker for the Judean Liberation Front ask the rhetorical question “What have the Romans ever done for us?”, and have the crowd answer him. At length.

In the relentlessly literal part of my brain, I have to say that I often find myself answering rhetorical questions. I find that a lot of science fiction fans also do this. Writers from the other side of the mental tracks don’t seem to realize that it’s a bad idea to raise rhetorical questions with fandom, unless you want an answer and are sure it won’t negate yours. Answers tend to derail the rhetoric, and at any rate, cause us to forget the rest of the essay in order to grapple with the incongruent rhetorical question.

So when N.K. Jemisin (whose first book, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, is a pretty good read if you like actual fantastic worlds and supernaturalness in your supernatural romance) writes an essay on why it’s rather interesting to write fantasy that doesn’t get stuck on standard tropes, I found myself more concerned with the rhetorical question.

Here it is:

“All those stories about restoring a deposed king to a usurped throne, for example โ€” well, what makes the deposed king any better than the usurper? Why must power be kept in the hands of the people who originally had it (and werenโ€™t competent enough to hold it) as opposed to someone new, with better organizing skills and possibly fresh ideas? The message in these fantasies seems to be support the status quo! Donโ€™t question it! Change is bad! What does it mean that we readers find such comfort in these fantasies that weโ€™ve made quite a few of them bestsellers?”

Heh. I think we all sympathize with ranting about the stuff we dislike. But the answers to these rhetorical questions turn the reader perpendicular to Jemisin’s point. “Why can’t I get some different tropes here?” is the better question to ask, because it’s an open question with a variety of interesting answers. All these rhetorical questions do have answers, and Jemisin probably knows a lot of them. Just because she doesn’t like those answers doesn’t mean that others have to share that dislike. (In fact, she could probably be persuaded to like them, if the trappings and the lead-up were right. But never mind. That’s a distraction, too.)

The reason so many fantasies are written about the return of the deposed king is that A) Tolkien did it, B) Arthurian legend’s based on it (at beginning and end), C) Christianity and Judaism both expect a Messiah any time now as part of their core beliefs, D) Homer and Greek myths have deposed kings return a lot, and E) fairly recent history and politics of the post-Reformation British Isles turned on the return of deposed kings several times. So we have perhaps the most influential example of a genre; the Matter of Britain; the foundations of Western civ; and actual stuff that happened in real life in English, Scottish, and Irish history, and thus affected the history of American and Australian settlement, and indeed of all sorts of folks everywhere. If the true king were on the throne, for certain values of ‘true king’, everything really would be different.

So these are the sorts of answers that are distracting readers from Jemisin’s essay:

“Because my ancestors would never have met or come to America if the true king had/hadn’t made it to the throne.” “Because it’s one of the implied truisms of Irish and Scottish rebel music.” “Because King Charles II really did wander the land looking ugly but charming everyone, and he was the first king in hundreds of years not to disappoint English Catholics.” “Because my name starts with Mac or O and thus I am the descendant of kings, and who knows where I’d be if my clan were still in power.” (I think the answer to this one for the romance fans is not so much ‘queen of all I survey’ as ‘surrounded by cute Irish/Scottish guys and lovely scenery’. And of course they know they’re probably common clanspeople, and that their relatives also left because the land was hard. That’s not the point.) “Because Europe has spent more than a thousand years with Camelot as an important symbol of good governance and romance, which is supposed to return when most needed.” “Because ‘He will return to judge the living and the dead, and His Kingdom will have no end’.” Etc., etc.

But heck, this sort of thing is important to the human imagination even beyond the traditional bounds of Christendom and the Jewish world. Heck, lots of things went into the transformation of Shogunate Japan into modern Japan. But its legend, even at the time, was as much about “If the divine emperor had his rights, everything would be different!” as “Crud, we’ve got to find a better way of defending Japan from all these foreigners!” So you can’t get away from it, and it’s unreasonable to chide people for it. It’s as if you were yelling at them, “How dare you walk across gravel as if it’s an uneven surface composed of thousands of discrete rocks!”

Jemisin can choose to write about something different, and that’s fine. (Although actually, that’s exactly what The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is about, and that’s part of why it’s selling well. There’s a lot of witty twists, but it’s definitely a return of deposed people to power. So you still wrote what the market wanted, but in a way it didn’t know it wanted until you did it. Heh. But I agree that writers having fun are more likely to provide me with fun.)

But all you pundits out there — just don’t tell us you don’t know why it is, unless you really don’t. And don’t ever raise a question rhetorically unless you know both the answer, and that it serves your point.

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John C. Wright’s Fave Chinese Show Coming to US on DVD

Chinese Paladin III. As described on Mr. Wright’s blog.

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Lady Iron Monkey!

UPDATE: Link fixed!

This intentionally goofy 70’s kung fu movie is one of my favorites. Here’s a review that explains its charm quite well. Lots of screenshots, too.

Just bear in mind that Shorty and Fatty are dubbed to sound like Stan & Ollie….

Here’s the opening credits, demonstrating the basic moves behind monkey kung fu, and playing some funky Seventies music with brass.

Apparently, this movie was directed by the same guy who brought Jackie Chan his big breakthrough.

Other movies with the actress


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The Freaky Folded Lead Sepulchre of Gabii

Those crazy Wolverines from U of M have found themselves a genuine mystery in the ancient Italian town of Gabii.

Gabii was one of Rome’s early neighbors and rivals in the surrounding region of Latium, occupying a highly defensible position between lakes. It sat on top of a big chunk of fireproof volcanic rock, though, so when Rome grew powerful, it built itself bigger by diminishing Gabii. However, as it became a backwater, Gabii had a second life as a Roman lake resort town.

There were eleven classical statues found at Gabii and put in the Borghese Museum. Napoleon bought them and stuck them in the Louvre. There was also a beautiful colored mosaic floor found in the ruins of a villa in Gabii, which Borghese sold to Hervey, the Earl of Bristol, for use at his country seat. I’m looking for a picture of that.

St. Symphorosa’s husband St. Getulius was supposed to have hailed from Gabii. He decided to retire from the Army without asking because of his Christian views, and was executed with six relatives and converted friends for his pains. St. Primitivus, one of them, had his body thrown into the lake; St. Exuperantius recovered it. So Gabii had ruins of an old church of St. Primitivus, at least in the 19th century.

Here’s Gabii on Google Maps. See where it says you’re looking at what used to be Lake Regillus, of the famous battle?

At the moment there’s no Street View, but there’s some kind of panorama thing from Google Earth. It apparently points you right at the temple of Juno.

Here’s an old book describing a short jaunt from Rome to the ruins of Gabii, along the Via Prenestina. Very useful for identifying what you see on Google Maps.

UM has a site called the Gabii Project, and a blog called Lapis Gabinus.

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Ooh! Shaw Brothers!

Apparently, Funimation is releasing a whole bunch of Shaw Brothers kung fu flicks on DVD. (Via Instapundit.)

The exciting bit is that one of these is a flick called The 14 Amazons. It’s based on the old story called The Yang Heroes.

The Yang clan was famous for being a clan of great military skill, producing many generals. Of course all the men went to serve the emperor in his army, when they were old enough, leaving the capable women of the clan to run things at their border home. But then there was a sudden invasion of Hsia barbarians, and every man in the Yang clan got killed.

As often happens in this sort of tale, the surviving female members of the clan just designate the eldest girl a boy, for all military and clan leadership purposes, and go on. (Since this came out long before the Mulan story was on American radar, a lot of reviewers mistook this point. But the actress is playing a girl whom everyone knows is just pretending to be a boy for clan purposes; the actress is not playing a boy. This is courtesy of the Amazon reviewer, who references Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s website.) There are a lot of women running around Chinese opera getting mistaken for boys, or disguising themselves as boys for various reasons. So the convention is just to take the costume as totally convincing, like the way nobody ever recognizes Superman when he’s wearing glasses.

But unfortunately, when the Yang ladies sent a warning to the emperor that his borders had been breached, he decided to send negotiators instead of armies — and the barbarians weren’t interested in negotiations. Out of time, and with nobody else able to save their country, the ladies of the Yang clan ride out to take care of the matter themselves….

This movie got a lot of awards and kudos back when it was made, for paying attention to the rigors of a pre-modern military campaign and for showing the bonds between women in a clan and household. I always like best the martial arts stories with historical weapons, so this is right up my alley.

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Reporters Who Don’t, Part 709.

Re: the abuse case of the late Fr. Lawrence Murphy, as reported all over the place, the judicial vicar from Milwaukee back then has written a very interesting article about the case. It appears in the Catholic Anchor, an archdiocesan newspaper out of Anchorage, Alaska. Here it is with Fr. Z’s interesting glosses. (Because canon law has its own weird way of putting things, and it’s easy for us non-lawyers to miss significant wording.)

Why did such an article, with such in-depth information, appear only in Alaska?

As the writer says: “The fact that I presided over this trial and have never once been contacted by any news organization for comment speaks for itself.”

Even the news media have reported that when matters were originally reported to the civil authorities, they did not believe the deaf children and refused to prosecute Fr. Murphy. This was never pursued further by civil authorities, in any of the waves of attention to clerical child abuse. As part of cleaning house, it was the archdiocese that pursued the matter. A little late, you might say, but it was done.

One interesting part is that the ex-vicar general claims in this article that all the quotes attributed to him from handwritten notes were not handwritten by him, and that he can’t imagine who they did come from. He notes that the lack of factchecking wasn’t what he was taught to do in journalism class….

Here’s the most important quote: “….on the day that Father Murphy died, he was still the defendant in a church criminal trial.”

Which I can believe. Canon law investigation and trial is slow and careful.

The article ends with something I haven’t seen in quite a while — his email and phone number. Obviously, he is begging for reporters elsewhere to call him and get the story.

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Btw, How To Train Your Dragon Is Pretty Far from Its Source

Cressida Cowell is an English author of about a zillion books about one Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, Hope and Heir of the Hairy Hooligan Tribe. The first book was a picture book. After that, there were about seven dragon and pirate books all starring Hiccup.

The dragon books start with the kids of the village being sent to learn dragonry instead of falconry, starting with stealing a dragon egg, raising it, taming it, and then using them for riding beasts. Everyone in the Viking world does this.

The entire plotline of the movie is that dragons have never ever been tamed by anyone, and that Hiccup is the first to think of it. And that he starts with a full-grown dragon, and that nobody has ever even seen a dragon egg ever.

So… yeah. A bit different. Just so you know. I mean, it’s a cute enough movie, and has some nice art.

I suspect that we’re dealing with layers of well-intentioned changes (“We mustn’t encourage kids to disturb bird nests!”), along with your standard Hollywood impulse to clone standard plotlines. Oh, well. It is what it is, except for the bizarre tail position thing. That just makes no sense whatever. Oh, and the amputation at the end of the flick, which I guess is a nod to war movies? Maybe they thought Hiccup and his dragon should match? Maybe they were thinking about smiths and Wayland? Who knows….

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Wholesome? Inara?

The folks at Tor are starting a rewatch of the series Firefly. In said rewatch of the first episode, they opine that Inara’s character is designed to show that sex is wholesome.


Kaylee, if anyone on that ship, is the example of sex being wholesome. Inara is a professional psychologist who happens to have sex as the screwdriver in her toolkit, and fashion as the hammer. She’s not really all that interested in sex, per se. She’s not even all that sexy, per se, except for effect — unless she forgets about it being just a tool.

Inara is generally on the side of good; but she’s not wholesome. Her job is basically unwholesome. Only a sick society would put a professional psychologist in such an unhealthy position.

Kaylee, on the other hand, is highly fickle but absolutely sincere. When she loves them and leaves them, she loves them first. It’s no secret that she wants to love someone permanently. She has a good solid handle on sex’s basic purposes, and she’s not fooling herself about how she falls short in those areas. She may be a bit of a fool about her love life, but she’s not decadent.

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Expect Some Rage from This.

Female suicide bombers apparently blew up about 40 people and injured about 60 more, down in the famous Moscow subway system. What a terrible thing to do.

(My condolences to the families of those who were killed.)

Thousands and thousands of people pack into the underground subway stations every day, so it wouldn’t be hard for a couple of blasts to kill that many people. A female suicide bomber already tried this once, in 2004.

The thing is, while I’m sure this spreads fear, it’s also pretty sure to enrage everybody in Moscow. Historically, that is not a very smart thing to do. Americans like to growl about doing really bad stuff in revenge, but they generally hold back in favor of trying to dismantle the system. Russians have been known to do all that bad stuff in real life, right away. And indeed, the last few times we had waves of Chechen terrorism in Moscow and other big cities, they got plenty of waves of retaliation from the Russian government.

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I’m Enjoying That Sigrid Undset Biography

No, I’ve never read any of Sigrid Undset‘s two vast medieval Nordic historical fiction trilogies. I know they’re good stuff, but I just haven’t sought them out yet.

However, her biography of St. Catherine of Siena is hefty, but still only one volume long. Also, I was able to download it as an audiobook without worrying about package delivery. (Also, it’s Holy Week. Gotta do something to keep my mind on Him.)

So I’ve been listening to it and enjoying it very much. The narrator is one of the non-intrusive sort, for the most part, but with enough different tones of voice to set characters apart.

Undset takes an interesting approach to biography. Since so much of medieval Siena is still intact, and indeed, Catherine’s own house is much as it was, she takes that as her entry point into St. Catherine’s life. This allows her to exercise her novelist’s imagination on many well-documented events, looking around the town to describe what the people of the time would have seen.

It helps that Catherine was the subject of biographies by her contemporaries soon after death, wrote her own autobiography, corresponded with tons of people to the tune of thousands of letters, lived in a city that kept records, and was basically the subject of a lot of comment throughout her life, much of which has survived to our time. Most medieval and Renaissance people are shadows to us; Catherine has volumes of evidence of her existence. (Even though she was a commoner, albeit a member of a respectable and well-to-do family of dyers.)

As I understand it, Undset’s novels usually took place in the context of families or households. This comes in handy, since St. Catherine grew up in a house that was also a dye factory, with over twenty siblings (not all of them lived) as well as aunts, sisters-in-law, brothers-in-law, foster children, and apprentices running around the place (not to mention her parents, both strong and intelligent people). Later on, even as St. Catherine lived an ascetic life full of hours of solitude, her life was always full of writing letters to half of Europe and talking to her myriad “spiritual children”, as well as knowing what was going on in the lives of the poor and needy wherever she went. She was able to both live “in a cell inside her heart” and enjoy sorting out chaos and constant demands on her time. She wasn’t a nun; she was a Third Order Dominican living out in the world most of the time.

Undset also is very good at depicting and explaining the fraught relationship that Lapa, Catherine’s energetic and emotional mother, had with her most perplexing and beloved of daughters. Lapa appears to have been very open about even her most appalling moments to Catherine’s biographer and “spiritual son”, Raymond of Capua. (Catherine died fairly young by our standards, though not by Siena’s; but Lapa died old by anybody’s standards.) Undset makes the most of this biographical gold, and anybody who knows a Lapa will recognize her instantly.

There is a lot of good stuff here, and I haven’t even scratched the surface. Undset doesn’t hide the ways that a medieval city and family was different from modern expectations. But as good as she is at explaining their point of view, she is constantly showing the ways that these people also act from ordinary human nature. She doesn’t shy away from inexplicable events, though she does try to explain those things that seem to have possible explanations. She’s also very good at explaining St. Catherine’s teachings and thought, although this is done in passing and not in depth. (It’s a biography, not a scholarly paper.) Not many people can respect someone as a visionary, yet write a book about them that’s down to earth. Undset not only managed this with historical respectability, but also tells it in a way that’s very entertaining. Highly recommended.

Here’s the Catherine of Siena stuff at Ignatius. As you can see, you can get a trade paperback or an ebook of the Undset biography, as well as the audiobook.

Andrea Vanni knew Catherine, and here’s a fresco of her that he painted. Notice the eagle beak that woman had! This was up on a pillar; and the idea with a lot of these almond-eyed Italian paintings was that you looked up at the painting above your head, and the eyes would appear to be looking down at you.

(At least, that’s my understanding. Art history folks probably know more about this than I do.)

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The Midnight Court in English Translation

I really am the last to hear about these things….

Here’s a side-by-side translation of Brian Merriman’s great work of fantasy and humor, The Midnight Court. In this poem, the queens of the fairy courts judge the men of Ireland… on their… um… manliness. By reputation, it’s one of the greatest works in the Irish language or any other form of Gaelic. It’s not easy to find a translation in this country, and I haven’t. Yet here’s a translation that’s been on the Web since 1998, and I never found it until now.

However, not only is this Sunday morning before choir, but it’s also Holy Week. And given that The Midnight Court is not only a great poem, but an extremely bawdy poem, it’s not exactly in the spirit of the season. Even if it is all about the Biblical requirement to go forth and multiply.

Very timely for today’s European birth rate, though.

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