Posts Tagged ‘customs’

12-21-12: The Long Count Calender and the Maya

December 21, 2012 Leave a comment


Much is being made of the ancient Mayan prediction that the world will end today. Nobody, needless to say, is too worried about the accuracy of the prediction.

What is worth noting about the Maya, among other things, is their Long Count Calender. The first thing to know about the Long Count, along with its associated calendars, the Haab and the Tzolk’in, is that they are incredibly complicated and fantastically accurate. That is to say, the ancient Mesoamerican calendars are truer to the observed motion of the stars than our own calender, the Gregorian, is.


And here is where the complexity comes in. For starters, the Mesoamerican counting system isn’t based on the number 10, but on the number 20–more or a less. In fact, numbers roll over when they reach 18.

The Long Count is an astronomical calendar that measures vast stretches of time–each of the LC periods lasts about 7,885 solar years. The Haab is a solar calendar that contains 365 whole days and is divided into 18 months. The Tzolk’in is a ritual calendar of 260 days divided into 13-day periods.

And here is where things getting truly mind-blowing: the Haab, the Tzolkin, and the Long Count can all be pictured as wheels working together like gears in a machine. No joke. It is this system of three gears that produced the date-names associated with each day in ancient Mesoamerica.


Hmmm. And here are a few more things to think about. The Mesoamerican writing systems are one of five instances in human history of the independent invention of writing. That’s right–just four other societies–Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China– created a writing system from scratch. And the Mayan glyphs, which in fact are a syllabary, are very complex, so much so that it is only in the last 20-or-so years that archaeologists have been able to read Classic Mayan with confidence.

Finally, there is the Popul Vuh, the Maya book of creation. The PV tells of a series of creations, of which which the human is the last, the present cosmic era. This account is reminiscent of the scientific account of evolution, which underlines the fact that, beyond their many gods, the Maya studied and worshiped time. The Maya were (and are) one of the world’s great peoples, inventors, watchers of stars, builders of monumental cities.

Be that as it may, it seems quite unlikely that the lights will go out today…



Image: Maya stela containing the Mayan creation date. WikiCmns. Public Domain.


Wedding Card for Bihari Bride & Assamese Groom

November 26, 2012 2 comments


Wow…amazing work!  RT

(reposted from Creative Mithila)


Wedding Card for Bihari Bride & Assamese Groom.

Attaturk: Father of a Nation (Part 1)

September 24, 2012 4 comments

High on the list of RT’s dream destinations, Turkey has exercised a powerful fascination on him since shortly after college, when he ran across an old book on Turkish culture. Then he read Romilly Jenkin’s magisterial Byzantium: The Imperial Centuries and was completely hooked.

One could go on and on about the sights to be seen and the immense variety in landscape and culture encompassed by Asia Minor, but perhaps the most important fact to hold on to is the diversity in culture: Turkey is home both to 1) the great city Istanbul and the adjacent small but important section of European Turkey and 2) the deeply Middle Eastern region around Lake Van and the headwaters of the Euphrates-Tigris river system.  Gilgamesh and Herakles rolled into one (so to speak), and somehow the Turks have not only managed to hold the condominium together, but are actually enjoying a noticeable degree of prosperity.

How has Turkey been able to carry off this not-so-small political miracle? Surely Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, first President of the Republic of Turkey, deserves no small part of the credit.

Attaturk’s story is one of the more amazing (at a time filled with amazing stories). He was born in Salonika in 1881 to a middle-class family and served in the Turkish army during WWI. At the end of the war, with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Attaturk led a revolution that modernized Turkish society in some of the most fundamental ways: not only did his party replace the old sultanate with a parliamentary republic modeled on western institutions, but the Turks also replaced the Arabic script with a modified Roman alphabet and replaced traditional garb with western dress.


By the time that Attaturk entered the fray, the Ottoman Empire was in steep decline. After the death of Suleiman the Magnificent (1566), the empire had begun to drift, at first gradually, then picking up speed during the 18th and 19th centuries. At its height, the empire stretched from the gates of Vienna in the west to Baku in the east, and from the Crimean Peninsula in the north to the border of Sudan. The Ottomans had gained control of the territories of their predecessors, the Byzantine Empire, adding some of their own along the way. But they soon found themselves facing the same problems that had led to the fall of the Byzantines: maintaining effective control over such a large area and dealing with the tensions that inevitably arose between the empire’s many ethnic minorities.

But doubtless the chief cause of the Ottoman’s decline was Europe’s rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of  the Byzantine collapse and the fall of Constantinople (1453). The rise of imperial Spain, funded by a massive infusion of wealth from its new colonial empire, followed by the scientific, industrial, and democratic revolutions, proved more than the Ottomans could handle. Despite periods of reform–most notably, the Tanzimat (1839-1876) and the First Constitutional Era (1876-1878)–the Ottoman Sultanate was indeed the “Sick Man of Europe” at the end of the 19th century. Weak as it was, however, the sultanate retained most of its political authority on the eve of WWI.

It was onto this stage that Mustafa Kemal stepped in 1905. Notably, in his early years, he showed little interest in religious affairs, preferring a military career. After graduation from officer school, he served in Syria and Macedonia and took part in the Young Turk Revolution of 1908. Starting with the Italian-Turkish War (1911-1912), he saw action in the series of wars that cost the Ottomans control of Libya and most of the Balkans; he distinguished himself in the fighting and by 1913 had attained the rank of Colonel.

During WWI, Mustafa Kemal Bey continued his rise through the military ranks, ending with command of the 7th Army in Syria. The army was destroyed by aerial bombardment in September 1918, and this disaster was followed by the Armistice of Mudros, which took the Ottomans out of the war. Mustafa Kemal Pasha returned to an occupied Constantinople.

At this point, we confront the mystery behind Attaturk’s life–what compelled a senior military officer in a majority Muslim empire to embrace westernization and a democratic political life? 1) Part of the answer lies in the Turks’ political situation: though their fortunes had reached their nadir, a de facto power vacuum existed in Constantinople after the war. And power vacuums by their nature tend to draw out great leaders. 2) Part of the answer lies in Anatolia’s long history; it has always served as a bridge between cultures, and the influence of European culture has been significant. 3) And part of the answer lies in Attaturk himself. To begin with, Attaturk absorbed (and represented) elements of both European and Middle Eastern civilization; he was a polyglot, fluent in French and German, and with a knowledge of Arabic sufficient for him to understand and interpret the Quran. He was an autodidact who maintained a considerable library of books on technical subjects. He was a lover of nature who worked to establish a zoo in Ankara. And he was something of a bon vivant, enjoying waltzing, raki, and folk songs. To this we can add that Attaturk was married and adopted three children. Perhaps it can be said that he was open to the best in the many cultures he traveled through as a child and young man. While the Allied powers worked to partition the Turkish homeland (via the Treaty of Sevres), Attaturk had the vision and confidence to act.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Turkish Revolution was the energy of its leaders. Starting in 1919, they signaled their resistance to foreign occupation and began to plan for a new national government with its seat in Ankara. The last Ottoman parliament, dominated by Attaturk’s party, met in Istanbul in the winter of 1920 and promulgated the National Pact, a declaration of six principals regarding the future of Ottoman territories, most important of which was the assertion of the Turkish homeland’s right to be a free and independent nation.

The Ottoman parliament was disbanded on March 16, 1920, when Constantinople was occupied by Allied forces; the first session of Turkey’s Grand National Assembly met on April 23 in Ankara, dominated by Attaturk’s Republican People’s Party.

By then, the Turkish War of Independence had broken out, a struggle which led to the proclamation of the Republic of Turkey on October 29, 1923.


Photos: Top: Mustafa Kemal Pasha, 1918. Middle: Ottoman Parliament. Bottom: Leaders of the Sivas Congress, 1919. All Photos: WikiCmns; Public Domain.

Edward Curtis, Photographer of the American Indian

During his long life, the photographer Edward Curtis (1868-1952) created perhaps the most authentic and certainly the largest photographic record of the American Indian. He took more than 40,000 photographs of Native Americans, determined not just to record, but also to document his subjects.

The son of a minister, Curtis grew up in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Fascinated with photography, he dropped out of school in the sixth grade and built his own camera. At 17, he apprenticed with a photographer in St. Paul. 

After some years, the pace of Curtis’s life began to pick up. In 1892, he married Clara Phillips; the first of their four children, Harold, was born the following year. When his parents moved to Seattle 1896, Curtis and his family went with them.

Fate struck. Curtis photographed his first Native American, Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle (1895). A few years later, he was invited to join the Harriman Alaska Expedition, and after that, he photographed the Blackfoot people of Montana (1900).

By this point, Curtis had made thousands of images of Indians, and financier J.P. Morgan offered to publish his work. The product of this collaboration, The North American Indian, was issued in twenty volume and contained more than 1,500 photographs. The final volume was published in 1930.

“The information that is to be gathered … respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost.”

–Edward Curtis, preface to The North American Indian

Curtis was an ethnographer, dedicated to recording the Indian’s way of life before it vanished; in addition to his photographs, he made wax cylinder recordings of Indian music and language, wrote down tribal folklore and history, and noted down facts of everyday life such as food, clothing, recreation, and funeral customs. Not infrequently, these materials are our only surviving information.

Such devotion to his calling, however, came at a cost to Curtis. In 1917, his wife divorced him. He was not a good businessman and was arrested once for failure to pay alimony. In 1924, he sold an original ethnographic film, The Land of the Headhunters for $1,500; the film had cost him $20,000 to make.

Despite these troubles, Curtis continued his work. Much of the material he produced is now part of a special archive at the Library of Congress.

His work remains an astounding gift to the American people.

Photos: Top: Edward Curtis; Middle: Princess Angeline; Bottom: Apache, Morning Bath. All photos: Edward Curtis, WikiCmns; Public Domain.

The Syro-Phonecian Woman

April 18, 2012 5 comments


The “Syrophonecian Woman” in the Gospel of Mark has perplexed me for some time. As an episode in Mark’s gospel (the first of the four canonical gospels to be written), and one that portrays a woman outwitting Jesus, I’m inclined to think the episode is genuine.

Then we come to the fierceness of Jesus’s rejection of the woman, who is pleading for the life of her child: “It isn’t right to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.”

If Jesus is fleeing from Herod’s spies, he would be under a great deal of stress, and this might account for his harsh rebuke–which compares the local population to dogs, in contrast to the Children of God. If so, it reveals a streak of contempt in Jesus that is visible (to my eye) no where else in the Gospels. Would Jesus really risk his safety by insulting in such humiliating terms the population sheltering him?

Then there is Tyre’s odd status. Home to a pantheon of gods, including a goddess who received the sacrifice of children, the city nonetheless lay within Asher’s tribal allotment. Saving “the lost sheep of Israel” (as Jesus mentions in Matthew’s account of the story) may have been a second reason for Jesus’s journey into Phonecian territory. In short, Jesus may not have viewed the woman as a straightforward pagan.

In fact, her description as Syro-Phonecian may refer mainly to her language, Greek. Sophisticated merchants that they were, the Phonecians would have been likelier than the people of Galilee to have a good command of this international language. That would be doubly true if the woman were rich, as the presence of little dogs in her household may indicate.

If that is the case, then we have strong evidence for a bilingual Jesus.

Finally, a word about reconstruction. My version of this story is broadly reconstructed: much has been added to bring the story to a state I think eliminates the problems I’ve mentioned. All reconstruction is tentative, meant to help advance the understanding of a story. What is at stake here is not only the details and accuracy of the account, but also a search for consistency in voice and event.

The Syro-Phonecian Woman

(original text in roman type; RT’s additions in italic & enclosed in brackets)

      [When he had sent his disciples on the road,] Jesus traveled to the area around Tyre. [Because of the price that Antipas had set on his head,] he wished to enter each house anonymously, [and he was travelling as a local fisherman; despite these precautions,] word of his arrival spread. So when he entered a house one day, a woman [followed him in] and, kneeling down, said, “A demon has entered my daughter; please have mercy and cure her!”

      [Now Jesus was furious, afraid that she had revealed his identity; but at least] the woman was a gentile of Syro-Phonecian descent [and was speaking Greek. He said, “I am not a doctor—I can’t cure her.” The woman replied, “Please! She hasn’t eaten for days. The demon makes her play with her food, and now she is so weak she can’t get up from her mat.”

      “What have you done to make her eat?” After a moment, the woman replied, “I have scolded her several times, and once she was playing with her food in such a disgusting way I grabbed it out of her mouth and threw it to the little dogs.”]

      Shocked, he replied, “It isn’t right to pull bread out of a child’s mouth and give it to dogs.” She snapped in response, “Even dogs under the table eat food that children refuse!”

      [Jesus laughed and said], “[I am no expert, but] in return for such spirit, you may go home; the demon has fled from your daughter.” And when the woman got home, she found her daughter lying on her mat, and the demon fled.

      [But Jesus had to leave Tyre after that, and on the advice of his friends, he travelled north to Sidon.] [Mk 7:26b–30]

Copyright: The Rag Tree, 2012.


Painting: Queen Anne of Hungary, 1520; painter unknown; WikiCmns; Public Domain.

With a Tip of the Hat…

October 21, 2011 Leave a comment

Even with the variety of topics I discuss, it seems to me that the Rag Tree at times needs a little livening up…So, with a tip of the hat to life on the other side of the Great Equation… RT

Flamingo Dancer's Blog

I have been reading Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, which is quite amusing. I fell in love with the following passages:

Mrs Smiling’s second interest was her collection of brassieres, and her search for the perfect one. She was said to have the largest and finest collection of this type of underwear in the world. It was hoped that on her death it would be left to the nation. She was an expert on cut, fit, colour, construction, and proper use of brassieres, and her friends has learnt that they could interest or calm her, even in moments of extreme emotion, by saying the following words: ‘I saw a brassiere today, Mary, that would have interested you…’ (p3)


Mrs Smiling’s character was firm and her tastes civilized. Her system of dealing with human nature when it insisted on forcing its coarseness upon her way of life was short and effective…

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Is Cursive Obsolete?

July 24, 2011 4 comments


Some worthwhile thoughts from a teacher in Seattle. Enjoy!   RT

Is Cursive Obsolete?.