Things you didn't know you knew
Did you know that the Greeks have a word that translates as 'sharpdull'? If that seems to you like an oxymoron, you are precisely correct. 'Oxy' is Greek meaning 'sharp' and 'moron' means 'dull'. (Which is why 'moron' was once a technical term for the slow of thought, before it became a common insult.)
As those following my Facebook posts will note, I've been coming across a lot of Greek and Latin that people speak daily without realizing that they are doing so. I was doing translations when I realized that the girl's name 'Renata' means 'reborn', and because a shingles infection usually strikes around the waist, it gets its name from 'cingulum' meaning 'belt'.
In this part of the world, a second-year student is a sophomore. That's because after a year the student is partly educated, and partly ignorant. Thus the student is wise - 'sophos', but also not wise - which brings us to our old friend 'moron'. From here we can thank academic shorthand for getting us from 'sophosmoron' to 'sophomore'.
Incidentally, the 'oxy' part of 'oxygen' also has the 'sharp' meaning, though sharp in the sense of 'acrid'. It was once believed that the gas was essential for generating acid - thus it was an 'acrid stuff generator' or 'oxy-gene'.
And now for something completely different.
My thanks to those who've been buying my most recent books, and even more thanks to those who've taken the time to review them (especially as the reviews have all be favourable). For those who have not yet taken the plunge, my publishers are offering a special e-book deal on Amazon for 'The Servant of Aphrodite'.
The promotion is from April 8-11. On Friday the book is 60% off, and the price rises day by day till Tuesday when its back to the full price. (Which is still pretty reasonable, in my opinion!)
Durandal, Harpe, Excalibur, Gan Jiang, Caladbolg, Quernbiter - you may know of these or similar legendary weapons. The interesting thing is how these mighty swords cross cultures. The above list contains swords from Greek myth (Harpe), Japanese, Celtic and Arthurian legend (Durandal, Gan Jiang and Excalibur respectively) and it is nowhere near comprehensive. Even Julius Caesar reputedly had a sword called Crocea Mors, 'the Yellow Death' which killed all who were struck with it. Quernbiter, in Nordic legend was so sharp it could cut through the stone querns used for grinding grain.
As ever with myth, it turns out there's more than a grain of truth behind the tales. I recently talked to someone who takes an interest in swordsmithery, and it was fascinating stuff. The point of a sword - and the edge, I suppose - is that it has no practical purpose other than to kill people. Since those on the receiving end tend to object to this, a sword can expect to meet resistance, be it armour or someone else's sword or shield.
So a sword has to keep a good edge even after being repeatedly banged against metal and it has to be flexible enough to spring back after impact rather than shattering or bending. Good, well-tempered steel can do this to an incredible degree. I once read of a Celtic sword dredged from deep river mud (which was anaerobic, so the sword did not rust much). The sword was bent almost into a circle by the jaws of the dredger, but when released the 2,000 year old blade sprang right back into shape.
Thing is, there is a very, very fine balance between carbon and iron in good steel. Just a smidgeon too much carbon makes a blade brittle. Too little makes it bend and stay bent. For the sword-makers of the ancient world the entire process was hit-and-miss, and that's even before we consider nickel, chromium manganese or other trace elements that complicated the mix. This is why warriors preferred ancestral swords. You never knew what a new one would do in battle.
Of course, sometimes and completely by chance, a sword-maker hit on exactly the right combination of minerals, mixed in just the right proportion for exactly the right time. The result was a sword that would shatter other swords, cut through armour and stay sharp even under trying circumstances. Such swords were highly sought after, and as we have seen, became legends in their own right.
Over the past week or so I have been anxiously looking upwards before getting into the Jeep and then closing the door gently once I'm inside. That's because just above there's a row of icicles on the side of the roof which hang down over the approach to the car.
We're talking serious ice here. The smallest of these frozen swords of Damocles is around a meter long, and I've stopped worrying about the longest falling and impaling me, because I now have walk around the thing. It goes from the roof two stories above almost to the ground. We should back the car out, take a shovel and knock the icicles off the roof, but I'm perversely interested in how long they'll get. (A stalaticicle?)
On the other side of the house we have the lawn, or rather a snowfield slightly deeper than I am tall. The icicles dropped from the roof on this side earlier this week and impaled themselves into the snow making a pretty picket fence across the dining room window. This will eventually happen on the parking apron side as well. The trick will consist of not being underneath when that happens.
Friends and family sometimes speculate on how deranged one has to be to live somewhere with temperatures below zero all winter, and which has five meters of snow fall in that time. Yet I'm writing this on my iPad beside a very warm wood-stove, with a glass of port beside me. Outside the window there's a view of mountains and snow-covered pines stretching to the horizon. Forrest's 'History of Sparta' is on my lap, and there's Bach on the stereo. I'm okay, thanks.
The true meaning of Saturnalia
Over the holiday break I received an earnest missive in which the writer urged me to 'remember the true meaning of Christmas'. This was in response to an earlier online comment that every January involves my attempting to diet away several kilograms of festive excess which my waistline picks up over this period. My correspondent gently suggested that, instead of pushing food through my face, I could better use the time to contemplate the blessings of Providence in an atmosphere of 'peace and joy'.
There's a lot to be said for this, though one might argue that peace and joy are fully compatible with mince pies and brandy cream. It does though raise the question of the 'true meaning' of Christmas. If we are talking literally of 'Christ's Mass', then point taken. However, for most people 'Christmas' is a wider celebration, which often includes distinctly pagan elements.
Also, this holiday was celebrated centuries before the first Christmas day. It marks the winter solstice, after which the days will get longer and lighter. But also, the 21st marks the official start of winter. That was when ancient farmers cast an eye over their livestock and decided which animals the farmers could afford to feed over the winter, and which animals would feed them. Even with pickling, smoking and other ancient preservative techniques there's some parts of an animal that have to be eaten immediately. Add that the autumn grape harvest is producing its first brew of wine around now, and that work has finished in the fields for the year, and you have all the ingredients for a solstice festival.
So from that perspective, while there's the religious aspect to it, this holiday is also about drinking, partying and eating yourself sick, and always has been. It's about storing memories that get you through the tougher times ahead. Consider, for example, the true meaning of February. That's from the Latin 'Februa' - purging and purification through abstinence. It's coming.
Hercules and reality
Hercules has left home. That's the main news of the month, since as I write this the book is being printed and should be on sale in a few days. It has been a lot of fun putting the book together and watching it grow from the original concept to the final product. It's the first in a planned 'Unauthorized Biographies' series, and is a further step on my part, taking me out of the realm of ancient history into the word of myth.
In fact, this is not actually that big a step. One of the things that kept surprising me about Hercules and his early labours is how solidly the locations were based in reality. There was no 'long ago in a faraway land' for the ancient Greeks. It was 'six generations ago, by that hill/lake/swamp over there' that Hercules did his mighty deeds. If you want to visit the the mountain where Hercules captured the Erymanthian Boar, all you need is a passport and a plane ticket to Greece. While you are there, it's a short road trip to the valley where Hercules slew the Nemean Lion, and you can still stop - as Hercules probably did - for a drink afterwards in the small town of Nemea which then, and now, produces some of the best red wine in the Peloponnese.
The world of myth and the world of antiquity are interlinked, and for the people of the ancient world there was not that great a distinction between them. Not only did the stories of myth inform the lives and landscape of ancient peoples, but it was sometimes hard to tell which was which. Were there centaurs in the deep forests, or fauns and satyrs? Certainly some imaginative hunters were prepared to swear that there were. And after all, have you personally seen a live kangaroo or narwhal, or do you take the existence of these creatures on trust?
The Spartans claimed Hercules as their ancestor, just as the Athenians did with Hercules' contemporary and friend Theseus. To the Greeks it made a difference from whom you were descended, just as the Romans made a big deal about having originally been ancient Trojans. In fact I would go so far as to argue that until you understand their mythology, you cannot really understand the Greeks and Romans. While writing the story of Hercules I had to put together a lot of facts I already knew but had never properly organized. Making the story into an organized whole gave the same sense of satisfaction that one gets as each bit of a jigsaw is fitted into place.