Category Archives: History

Recycling Old Fake News

This example is from The New York Times. In a late-breaking news story, they allowed an essay pointing out the Times’ refusal to report things like the Communist-made Holodomor famine in the Ukraine.

At the bottom, however, they linked to “The Lost Children of Tuam.”

Accompanied by moody black and white photos (including a cheesy animated GIF of trees blowing in the wind), the Times reporter proceeded to rehash Ireland’s best Victorian era, private religious order, funded on a shoestring, try at providing a home for unwed mothers and their kids — who’d been dropped by their families and had nowhere else to go. The story admits that the kids went to the same public schools as other kids, and that the doors of the homes were never locked.

It has been proved that, although there were abuses typical of large charitable organizations, most of the homes were safe and healthy, and many of the surviving denizens look back with affection at their time with the nuns. It was careless and stupid to lose track of one of the home-associated cemeteries. But it happened a bunch in England with Victorian stuff, and you don’t hear fantasies about serial-killer bureaucrats slaughtering entire secret cemeteries full of kids.

(If you want to have nightmares, though, the English “baby farms” will do it.)

Kids and moms who died at the homes died of the same things that killed kids living on farms or in towns: tuberculosis, influenza, measles, diphtheria, and so on. But everywhere in the world, including the US, kids died at a higher rate in charitable establishments. Why? Because they were full of kids whose moms weren’t healthy, spreading germs to each other; and because the more kids you have in one place, the less care each one is going to receive. (Need I mention American daycare, where the ratios and numbers are lower, but the illness incubation and dirt is endemic?) You also had a situation where the more you followed progressive medical ideas, the more likely you were to do harm inadvertently. (It was dangerous to be warm in the winter, don’t you know?)

Now, all that said… there is actually something behind all this that was worth being upset about. It turned out that there were over 300 swaddled bodies of babies and toddlers that had been buried in a repurposed septic tank out back of the Tuam home. It is not clear whether the septic tank had been properly consecrated as a tomb, or whether the children received proper funeral Masses. If everything was carried out properly, it was done in a hole-and-corner way without proper records and markers. (Or the records were destroyed, in an excess of bureaucratic discretion.) Forgetting about them and building around them was definitely wrong.

However, it does appear that proper death records were kept for these kids, and the local government properly notified. So if they weren’t keeping tabs on the kids’ burials, they bear a good chunk of the blame. My county does better than that, with all the pioneer cemeteries that require tending and protection.

But it’s easier to shift blame to the dead, or to ignore your own sins.

PS — There is a nice picture of olden days Irish First Communion kids. No, the girls aren’t wearing veils. Instead, they are wearing fitted frilled bonnets, with little strings tied in a bow.

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Michael Heiser Books

[Previously posted, in somewhat different format, as a comment over at Crossover Queen.]

Michael Heiser is a pretty solid Bible scholar. His POV is that he is trying to understand the Bible solely based on the text while ignoring theological tradition. (Hence the title of his podcast, The Naked Bible Podcast.) Of course, you can’t necessarily do that, so he spends most of his career trying to understand the Bible via archaeological, cultural, and historical info. As for his religious POV, I think he’s some flavor of evangelical.

I really enjoyed his podcast series on the Book of Ezekiel. It gave a very nice explication of the literal sense of the text, along with a lot of secondary cultural material that greatly helped. He also had pictures and articles to download from his site, such as pictures of various archaeological discoveries of “chariot thrones” with angel and wheel supporters, found in countries around Israel.

Anyway, the guy has a couple of books out on supernatural angel-related stuff in the Bible, and comparing it to various Phoenician, Sumerian, etc. materials about the same thing. The Unseen Realms is the first one, and it’s available for free on Kindle Unlimited. Reversing Hermon is his more recent one. I read Unseen Realms too fast and missed some of his more startling/iffy bits, until he quoted them in Reversing Hermon.

The downfall of drawing your own conclusions is that you can be led into things like “Hit the button on the astro software, and decide what must be the Star of Bethlehem!” My older brother is an astronomer, so I’ve seen huge numbers of theories about the Star of Bethlehem. I was not impressed by his “Rosh Hashanah must be the real Christmas!” theory, mostly because I’ve seen a lot of the same astronomical material used as an interesting coincidence with the Virgin Mary’s traditional (East and West agree) birthday in September. His theory is a much better grade of “just suppose,” but interesting and academic doesn’t mean closer to reality.

The basic deal with Reversing Hermon is that a lot of Near/Middle East cultures had this idea that they got civilization skills from seven minor deity/angelic sages (who came from heaven or from the ocean). The sages taught humanity all sorts of things, married human women, and had kids who were human on the outside but minor deities/angels/spirits on the inside. And the same thing was true of their grandkids and so on. All the divine-descended people were taller than regular mortals, stronger, great warriors and sorcerors, etc., and had all the awesome skills that the sages taught. Various folks like Enkidu and Gilgamesh had this background.

But they didn’t live forever, and if you killed them their deity/angel/spirit half took over and became a vengeful spirit, punishing humans and haunting various spooky places. They also had their own realm, “the Great Land,” which was underground under various sacred mountains, the Dead Sea, etc. The Canaanites were very big into this, and very big into appeasing them or getting a specific Baal “Lord of the Dead” to keep them under control, because the giant dead running back and forth from their Great Land were a lot more dangerous than normal human dead people in Sheol.

Heiser shows that a lot of the stuff in the Bible about giants is from the POV of Israel putting a different spin on their neighbors’ stories. The sages were really evil rebel angels. The skills taught by the “sages” included a lot of things that Jewish people saw as inimical to good life and civilization, not foundational to it. Giants were mostly not good guys in life, either; they are people possessed by evil spirits or allowing themselves to be used. God was in the process of defeating the rebel angels, their evil descendants, and the evil Rephaim spirits. Heiser also theorizes in Reversing Hermon that a lot of Jesus’ actions, and His Incarnation, were part of showing humans the truth about the ultimate defeat of said rebel angels, giants, and evil spirits.

I thought the thesis was pretty interesting, and the gathering of sources was, too. Obviously Jesus did have a fair number of agendas going on, and spiritual warfare was clearly one of them. What I objected to was the conclusions and uses he made from the material. There was a lot of stuff that had me rolling my eyes and looking dubious, including the Rosh Hashanah Christmas thing.

And then, when you work your whole book up to “And Catholics totally don’t understand the rock/gates of Hell speech, but my theory won’t give satisfaction as to why Peter gets called Rock,” you are going to make us Catholics start looking like an eye slot machine. (Because there’s always another theory about how we’re wrong, and they’re all different except about how we’re wrong this time.)

Also, a lot of his pointing out that various “mighty men” references could also be giant references (based on some good Septuagint translation weirdness), led up to an assertion that the “gebirah” (great woman) stuff in the history chronicles, and the “valiant woman” stuff in Ruth and Proverbs, was not about Israel and Judah’s kings having their moms act as queen mother councilors or about smart ladies doing cool things, but about giantesses with wicked skills. (Okay, he didn’t come right out and say that, but that’s what I was seeing.) Possibly this was on purpose, possibly it was a consequence of his thesis. But either way, it ended up as an indirect swipe at recent Bible scholarship (mostly by Catholics) about how queen mother gebirah imagery relates to the Virgin Mary, among other Bible ladies. I have read a lot of gebirah research stuff, and other scholars have found that there is tons to relate it to similar stuff in neighboring cultures. It is the sort of thing that Heiser would normally like, or at least want to integrate with the giant interpretation thing. I could think of several ways to do that, on my way to the refrigerator.

So yeah, several places strike me as him having a minor Catholic allergy that is getting in the way of his thinking. Disappointing, but maybe he’ll get over it and come up with some fun stuff in a few years. He does make good use of Catholic scholars like Bergsma, Pitre, Hahn, etc., so he’s not suffering from anything serious.

My real problem is that, by separating Bible studies from doctrine or interpretation, he is basically creating an interpretation that is at odds with Christianity. Pagan ideas about the nature of things like the seven (or nine, or twelve) sages are not just morally wrong; they are factually incorrect. So just because Bob and Tanith Canaanite may have believed in vengeful rephaim ghosts, and some Biblical times Jews may have also believed in them, isn’t it somewhat important to point out that demons are full of BS, and stories about them also tend to be factually incorrect? Doesn’t it seem more like Jesus was striking against the BS, rather than worrying about descendants of giants roaming the earth? The fact that all this kind of lore has become very minor and forgotten would tend to argue that the Church didn’t really want to focus people’s attention on this stuff.

I was also not happy about his podcast interviewing some people going out and doing various kinds of “deliverance ministry” and spiritual warfare based on his books. I mean, you can like a scholar’s work pretty well without being willing to trust your life or your soul to his conclusions! He’s not trying to be a cult leader and I don’t find anything creepy in his work, per se; but there are some kinds of materials that just attract… overly enthusiastic… responses. I don’t know that he’s really taking that into account enough. (To be fair, however, he’s starting some kind of anti-Bible-conspiracy-theories video series soon, so maybe he is thinking about this stuff.)

But as a sourcebook for Near/Middle East mythos material and fiction ideas, The Unseen Realms is good and so is Reversing Hermon. And it is Bible fun, which is always fun to consider. Just don’t take it as Gospel.

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Awesome Churchill Deal!

If you like Winston Churchill, you may know that he also wrote history books.

You may not know that, during his “exile” years between the wars, Churchill wrote Marlborough: His Life and Times, a four volume biography of his famous ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough. It is extremely informative on a wide range of subjects and a broad expanse of English and European history. You meet royal mistresses and Puritan widows, D’Artagnan, the Duke of Monmouth, and all manner of other people of note. You meet the original Winston Churchill and find out about his descent from a blacksmith who married well. You also hear from Marlborough’s redoubtable wife Sarah, a woman of strong opinions who, in old age, talked back to the historians.

But you also see our Churchill being quite open about drawing comfort from the lessons of history. He celebrates the stubborn persistence of John Churchill in the long years of disappointment after early success, and his readiness to respond to his country’s need after all that time. He draws parallels between WWI and the various messy European wars, often fought at the same messy places. He describes Marlborough’s long changeover from hardcore Tory to Whig. Finally, he points out that you don’t become the winningest general in a big swath of history by being lazy or an idiot.  (Throughout the entire book, he conducts a big feud against Macaulay on this point. Yeah, it is family pride, but backed up with documentation.)

By defending Marlborough, Churchill seems to work off some of his ire against his own critics. But he also seems to measure himself pretty sternly against his peers in the past, along with all of modern times. In short, it is the old concept of history as a mirror or a yardstick, but Churchill’s use of it is a little more naked to our eye than Tacitus or other great historians.

We sometimes forget that Churchill was a socialist of sorts. His blended admiration of France under the Sun King as collectivist, and hatred of it as anti-liberty, will strike you as weird. This is balanced by his Whig/Protestant view of history, which is equal parts old-fashioned and wrongheaded, but also very devout and sincere. Finally, his defense of some of Marlborough’s less glorious moments is downright eyeroll-worthy. “Betraying the king while you live under his roof is totally justified if your heart is pure.” Sure, Churchill, just keep telling yourself that.

(After hearing this detailed account of the work done before the “Glorious Revolution,” I don’t want to hear anybody from the UK talking about the American Revolution as treacherous. Our folks were extremely open and aboveboard about their actions. The lords who threw the Glorious Revolution were snakes.)

OTOH, you really can’t beat a Parliament politician’s insider ideas about Parliament’s history of wheeling and dealing. If he’s wrong about this stuff, it’s a very knowledgeable way of being wrong. You also learn a great deal about his sources for writing about Marlborough and his contemporaries. He is excellent at using period sources to make his portrait of Marlborough more accurate and more human, and he delights in the odd coincidences and fun bits of history.

You won’t be sorry if you get this book. You may spend large parts of some chapters having to listen to the book somewhere that you can growl back at Churchill, but you won’t lose by it.

If you already subscribe to Audible, you can get all four volumes of Marlborough: His Life and Times for one credit. That’s 81 hours, folks.

The downside of the audiobook is that you do not get footnotes.

The upside is that the narrator does a really good job with Churchillian prose, without being super-blatant about the fact he is doing a Churchill imitation.

So consider checking it out.

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A Guide to the Laws of England Affecting Roman Catholics

A Guide to the Laws of England Affecting Roman Catholics, by Thomas Chisholme Anstey.

This 1842 compendium of the English laws affecting Roman Catholics, past and present, is extremely enlightening. It doesn’t include the laws that were also against other sorts of religious dissenters, but only the specifically anti-Catholic ones. It also includes the text of a loyalty oath that was required of Catholics wishing to be covered by the various “Relief Acts” and Catholic emancipation laws. Yup, you didn’t even get your basic civil rights without doing some groveling.

One thing that shows up is that a lot of laws which Irish people tend to think about as being against “the Irish” are really against all Catholics. For example, the infamous rule that a Catholic could not own a horse worth more than five pounds.

I’m pretty sure that we all know about all the death penalties and imprisonments for horrible things like “being a priest” or “saying Mass,” and about all the crushing fines and terrible imprisonments visited upon recusant Catholic laypeople, both men and women. But here are some laws you might not have heard about:

Catholics could not possess any arms or even gunpowder, but they had to pay people to maintain arms at their own expense, for royal use. Nice, huh?

Recusant Catholics could not go to court, and could not go within ten miles of London unless they were natives there. At one point they could not even go five miles from home without losing everything they owned and then being kicked out of England.

Under Elizabeth I, any Catholic leaving England to go to school was to be deprived of the ability to hold real estate, and all contracts made with him were voided. Sending a person out of England to school meant a 100 pound fine. Going overseas was forbidden to any woman or minor under 21, except by special government permission from the queen and her ministers. Later, even sending money overseas to a seminary or Catholic charity made you a person unable to hold offices or real estate; you lost everything you owned except your heir’s right to inherit your lands after your death.

In general, under various laws, Catholics could own real estate but could not do anything with it. Their Protestant kindred were given the legal right to “enjoy” their houses and land and to keep any profits that arose. This lasted until Catholic emancipation in 1829, under George IV.

Under William III, any Catholic keeping school or found teaching kids was to be sentenced to perpetual imprisonment.

Under Queen Anne, it was decided that if a Protestant child of a Catholic or Jewish family ever complained of “want of fitting maintenance,” they were to be given money, lest the kids reconcile with their parents and their religion. The age of the children did not matter as long as the parents were still alive, and most of the applicants seem to have been adults. At least one was a middle-aged adult.

Anglican canon law also called for the punishment of all recusants and dissenters. There were Anglican churchwardens, constables, high constables, questmen, and questmen’s assistants, all of whom could arrest you for being Catholic, basically. They would be paid 40 shillings for everybody they listed as not attending the Anglican parish church at least once a month.

All marriages had to be celebrated in Anglican parish churches by Anglican priests. Even if you were Jewish or Catholic, or a Protestant of another group. The idea of being able to register your marriage by going to a strictly secular registrar, and then celebrate it in your own religious group, was new to England in 1829. In general, the building had to be registered, or a registrar had to be present, or there had to be a special license. But this was progress.

There’s also an interesting discussion of how the Anglican seal of confession was considerably weakened by Anglican canon law in comparison to Catholic canon law. Anglican clergy were allowed to reveal confessions of anything that went against the realm or anything that was dangerous to the clergyman’s life; but any talking about secret confession contents was considered an irregularity and nothing more. (Which doesn’t mean that individual Anglican priests didn’t act differently; but you can see how corrupted the canon law was made by its government status.)

There’s also a lot of discussion of how charitable bequests to Catholic causes were frequently voided by the decisions of judges, even after 1829 made those bequests totally legal in the UK. A lot of times, this was explicitly done to benefit Protestant heirs, or the money taken over by the government.

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Icono-Graphy, Egyptian Hieroglyph Style

It turns out that a lot of Egyptian artworks don’t just _include_ inscriptions. Sometimes, the picture _is_ an inscription. Egyptologists call this kind of thing a “rebus,” and sometimes they are very beautiful and clever.

For example…

The Greeks and Romans were fond of an Egyptian god they called Harpocrates, and the Egyptians called Har-pa-khered, or Horus the child.

Har-pa-khered was portrayed as a boy with his finger on his lips or in his mouth. (For which reason the Greeks and Romans associated him with shushing and silence.) The hieroglyphic sign for the syllable “khrd-/hrd-“, and hence the word “khered”, is a boy with his finger on his lips or in his mouth. So basically, statues of Har-pa-khered are not just pictures, but writing. His posture says his name, or at least his title. 🙂

Another example is Aten, aka Ra-Horakhty (Ra, Falcon of the Horizon). The hieroglyphic sign for the syllable R’ is a sun disk. The sign for the sun on the horizon is the sun disk with three rays pointed downward. And the picture used to depict Ra-Horakhty is the same thing, albeit with a few extra rays!

Here is a “rebus statue” of Ramesses II. As you see, he is also portrayed as a minor with his hand in his mouth, but he’s a baby or toddler (“mes”) instead of a child (“khered”). The falcon over him would normally be “Hor”, Horus, but this specific one is portrayed as “Ra,” because he has the sun disk on his chest. At the kid’s foot is a sedge stalk, and the word for sedge is “su.” So the statue is read as “Ra-mes-su.”

Here is another rebus statue. It shows Senenmut, the head steward and architect of Queen Hatshepsut, aka Pharaoh Maatkare. He is kneeling, offering a statue of a rearing cobra (the uraeus or i’irt, a symbol of royalty and of Lower Egypt, as well as of the goddess Wadjet). The uraeus is wearing a sun disk (“Re”) between cow horns, which are associated with female deities like Hathor; “Maat” is the daughter of Ra/Re. On either side of the uraeus at the bottom, there are upraised arms supporting it; these praying arms are the syllable sign for “k-” and hence, for the “ka” soul. So Senenmut is really presenting a statue of “Maat-ka-Re.”

The actual hieroglyphic inscription on his right arm says, “The good goddess Maatkare given life.” The inscription on the bottom and back shows Senenmut’s name purposefully eradicated, just as Hatshepsut’s names usually were. (There are 22 statuettes like this from Senenmut’s tomb. The first Wikimedia pic is of one from the Brooklyn Museum; the second pic is at the Kimbell Art Museum.)

So this is something to look for, in Egyptian art.

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What Pompeii Looked Like

Gareth Blayney has beautiful prints of what you would have seen in shops in Pompeii, before the eruption.

Stunning. The phrase “artist’s impression” does not do them justice.

Dang it! I want one!

Heck, I want the (nonexistent) T-shirt!

He also has some nice prints of landmarks in ancient Rome, but the Pompeii prints are homier.

Also there’s an unexplained picture of a “T-Rex in Rome.” (Not that I’m against that….) I assume it’s from a science fiction book I haven’t read?

I wish somebody would commission him to do covers for some Roman historical fiction books.

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America’s First Fighting Captain: Jeremiah O’Brien

Once upon a time, right after the Battle of Lexington and Concord (and the somewhat dubiously naval Battle of Chelsea Creek), the tiny village of Machias, Maine (then part of the Colony of Massachusetts) decided to revolt against the United Kingdom. The question was largely theoretical, as you’d expect of a village of only twenty houses. But then, the very foolish young British Navy captain of the HMS Margaretta (escorting the merchant ships Polly and Unity on their errand to get wood for the British Army to build barracks) threatened to turn his six-pounder cannon against the town unless they took down their newly erected Liberty Tree.

The local militia took the threat seriously, and formed a desperate plan to capture the captain and his officers when they attended church on Sunday. This plan was foiled inadvertently (by a bored guy looking out the window, seeing men with muskets, and promptly jumping out the window and running into the woods), and the officers fled back to the Margaretta. Captain James Moore weighed anchor, abandoning the merchant ships he was escorting, and tried to escape downriver, while being fired upon by practically every man in town, while they followed in canoes and rowboats as well as along the shore on foot and horse.

On Monday morning, Dennis Wheaton was bored after their exciting Sunday. He started chatting to his buddy, John O’Brien, about how it would be easy to seize one of the merchant ships, and then use it to chase and capture the Margaretta. After all, she hadn’t sailed any farther than an island in the nearby bay. Two other friends came up, and got the idea floated to them. At which point, these four country lads went down the dock and captured the Unity.

This caused a little ruckus, and many of the townsfolk gathered around. The young men explained what they had done, and their brilliant plan. John managed to convince his eldest brother, Jeremiah (who was one of the militia leaders) to get with the plan. The crew of the Polly was a little more awake and not in the mood to have their ship captured, but one of the other militia leaders headed to East Machias with some men to capture another merchant ship. They would manage the capture all right, but then run their ship aground and have to send a rowboat to warn the Unity that they couldn’t help out.

In the end, 34 men boarded the Unity. The youngest O’Brien brother, Joseph, was only sixteen, and his elder brothers forbade him to go. He snuck aboard anyway, as the 35th man. (The brothers also had to dissuade their old dad from coming along.) The village crew included Wheaton, the other five O’Brien brothers, and Jeremiah’s free black servant Dick Earl.

Once they were close to the bay, the villagers decided to hold an election for captain. Jeremiah O’Brien was elected unanimously. He immediately offered the chance for anyone to leave before battle, and three men took him up on it. They were down to 31 men. (32 including Joseph down below.)

They planned their attack. They would catch up, then board and storm the English Navy’s little warship. They had some muskets and fowling pieces, a little naval wall piece, a few swords, and a lot of pitchforks. They also had the advantage of having several excellent marksmen among their fighters.

But the Margaretta had forty men, with muskets and cutlasses for every man. And those six pounders. And several wall pieces. It was ridiculous for these American rebels to think that they could win, much less go around yelling, “Surrender in the name of America!” The first two Americans to man the wall piece were blown away by one of the cannon. The next American to try his hand at the wall piece blew off the Navy helmsman’s head. The Navy sailors scattered, which gave the Americans room to board. Pitchforks proved to be a pretty nasty boarding weapon, and the Americans took weapons away from the Navy men who dropped them. The Navy captain took notice of his opposite number directing the battle, and started throwing hand grenades at Jeremiah O’Brien. Jeremiah had two buddies acting as his wingmen, though, and they both deliberately aimed their muskets at the Navy captain, wounding him fatally in the chest. That was pretty much the end of the battle.

So in point of fact, the men of Machias did beat the British lion. They captured the Margaretta and hid her upstream, landed on a beach and camouflaged with tree trunks. Then they turned the Unity into an official naval vessel of the Machias Committee of Safety and then of the Massachusetts Navy, under her new name of the Machias Liberty. Despite inadequate funding from Boston, they managed to make life difficult for the British in their patrol area and all the way to the Bay of Fundy. Other ships captured by O’Brien included the Diligent and the Tapnaquish. After a lot of political maneuvering, Massachusetts let O’Brien go, and he became first a Ranger captain on the land, and then a privateer captain, commanding the Resolution, the Cyrus, the Tiger, the Saint Vincent, and the Hannibal, all privately owned. His brother John also became a privateer captain, wreaking all sorts of havoc.

Eventually Jeremiah O’Brien was captured, first imprisoned in Brooklyn and then in Plymouth, England. He escaped to France along with other American prisoners and returned home. He became a Selectman and a customs collector, remaining a civilian homebody during the War of 1812.

But in 1814, the British came back to Machias Bay, taking the small American fort at Machiasport and moving upriver on barges to take Machias. O’Brien put on his Revolutionary War uniform, mounted his one-eyed white horse, rode at breakneck speed to the village, and tried to rally the villagers to resist. But the men of Machias were not what they had been, the British Army forces were pretty darned numerous, and he couldn’t persuade anyone to follow him. (To be fair, he was 70 years old, which was a lot older then.) He retired cursing in spectacular fashion.

The British occupied the village without destroying anything. When they searched the houses, the villagers made sure there were no arms for them to find. (Because all the guns were hidden out in the woods.) Captain O’Brien ended up offering cider and cake to the men who searched his house. The British officer asked their host to give them a toast.

Captain Jeremiah leapt up. “Here’s to the success of the American arms!”

There was a moment of awkward silence. Then the British laughed, and their officer counter-toasted, “Here’s to the health of the King!”

Captain Jeremiah O’Brien died in 1818. His family were Protestant Irish from Dublin: dissenters in Ireland, Baptists by conviction, and members of the Congregational Church in Machias. His son, also named Jeremiah, would become a Congressman for Maine. His descendants and relatives are still many.

You can read all about it in The Life of Captain Jeremiah O’Brien of Machias, Maine, by the Rev. Andrew M. Sherman.

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