Thinking About The Afterlife In Ancient Greek Mythology


So, like, imagining some Hero who’s gone to the underworld for whatever fool thing ancient heroes were always going into the underworld for. And they’ve got to get out past Cerberus, the three-headed dog guardian of the afterlife, right? So what I’m thinking now is the Hero trying to get past Cerberus by warning, you know, if we fight I’m going to kill you. Wouldn’t Cerberus just have to laugh because, “Oh, yeah, you’re going to send me right here where I already am? I’m going to be trapped staying within sight of me?”

Anyway please send me $200 million to make this movie thank you.

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On Things You Can Touch Or Punch


I was with a friend at the local hipster bar. I mean my local hipster bar. We weren’t anywhere near his. I know I talk about it a lot as the local hipster bar, but please understand. Their new logo is a rendition of their raccoon puppet, holding a couple of fireworks and a can of beer that’s labelled “Ham”. It’s a fine place and they’ve started having glazed-pottery nights.

My friend got to mentioning something or other coming up, and how he hoped it would go, knock wood. And he knocked on the bar. To this extent all seems well. I’m pretty sure the bar is wood and his knocking was in fine mid-season form. He carried off the knocking with no injuries and no dryads left stranded on base.

It got me thinking about the custom of knocking wood. It’s a good-luck gesture. It’s supposed to work by getting the attention of the wood-spirits who overheard you. You can see why that would work. Gumans drawing the attention of supernatural spirits has worked out well for the human according to every legend ever. “Well,” say many humans in these legends, “drawing the attention of that naiad or whatever it was sure has cured my problem of not being turned into a grasshopper!” Or else, “I used to think there was no way I would wake up chained every morning to be torn apart by hyenas. Then I stumbled into that pooka drinking party!” “I didn’t ever used to have a ferocious lightning-beast living in my belly button. But then thank goodness I fell through the wall of that Shinto shrine!”

Still, apparently the knocking of wood does help, if we can take any guidance from how rarely people at hipster bars get their eyes dipped in magic nectar so they can see the fairy creatures and then have their eyes gouged out so they can’t see the fairy creatures anymore. It did get me to thinking about one of those little cross-cultural differences. The English, I understand, merely touch wood, tapping the nearest piece lightly, rather than rapping sharply on it.

Full disclosure: I’ve never been a dryad. And I couldn’t find any to interview before deadline. I have to think if I were one, though, I’d be more inclined to do favors for someone who tapped me rather than knocked on me. It’s got me wondering about the cultural differences. Why should Americans figure the best way to get a magic spirit to do what you want, or at least leave you alone, involves punching it?

Well, because Americans are good at punching, I admit. Look at the great legendary figures of 20th Century American Culture: Popeye, Superman, Dwight Eisenhower, Muhammad Ali, Mary Richards. They’re all people who punch through problems. Even Captain Kirk only used his phasers when he couldn’t punch for some reason. And they’re all pretty successful so maybe they have something with their punch-based plans.

At least they look successful. But, like, if you watch the cartoons Popeye gets shipwrecked a lot. Probably that’s because he has more chances at shipwreck than the average person. Someone in, say, Havre, Montana, who never enters a body of water bigger than a coin fountain might expect to be shipwrecked only eight times in her life. Popeye must run a higher risk. Still, you have to wonder about if he shouldn’t pass up on sailing in favor of a punching-based lifestyle.

But punching is a cherished part of American culture. One of the leading myths of the early 19th Century Mississippi River valley was of Mike Fink, a bombastic, tough-talking, hyperactive bully who spent his time punching, shooting, or punch-shooting (punching with a gun) everything he could find, especially if it wasn’t a white male. His friends explained he was really a great guy, just you had to understand his point of view, before he punch-shot you. But that’s what friends of sociopaths always say so that they don’t get punch-shot-punched next.

I can’t draw any big conclusions about British touching and Americans knocking wood, though. Most of the differences between British and American cultures were invented by the Tourism Boards in 1958, so that people could share stories of how different things were on their vacations. I’ll bet any number of British people who don’t care about tourists knock wood whenever they feel like.

It still seems risky. I’d stick with touching, or if it wouldn’t be redundant buying the wood-spirits a round. Culture is a complicated thing.

Those Who Do Not Study The Pasta Are Sure To Reheat It


I know I’ve written several essays inspired by books I was reading recently. I can’t help it. I keep finding my reading inspirational, and that’s why I’m doing another one like it. This time the book is Pasta And Noodle Technology, edited by James E Kruger, Robert B Matsuo, and Joel W Dick, and published in 1996 by the American Association of Cereal Chemists. Yes, I read a book about the noodle technology of nineteen years ago. Maybe more than nineteen years ago. The book collects scholarly articles that probably weren’t written after the book’s publication.

“But wait,” you may ask, “Joseph, why would you pick up such a book?” I give my permission. You may also note, “While you’re most interested in eating food, you almost never have any interest in where it comes from.” Go right ahead. If you like, point out the time some people in Singapore’s Orchard Road shopping district set up a trailer-home exhibition dedicated to some athlete, and passed out waffles, and I took and ate one without considering how odd every piece of that scene was. But I had good reason to pick up the book: I have absolutely no self-control while in a library. Put any book at about shoulder height on a shelf near the space history books and I’ll take it.

But the book rewards its reading. Just on page two we get this:

The legend [ of Marco Polo bringing spaghetti to Italy ] published in the year 1929 in The Macaroni Journal, the magazine of the American Association of Pasta Makers, still survives today.

I don’t know how rough your week has been. But I say that it’s better now that you know there is an American Association of Pasta Makers. And you probably grinned at learning there’s a trade publication called The Macaroni Journal. And it’s surely delightful to know that magazine still exists today, in 1996, even though that isn’t quite what the text says. The week is better still because of what came before. The text had just described the legend that the muse Thalia “kept secret for years” how to make macaroni but finally shared it with the mermaid Parthenope. Parthenope shared it with Naples, who shared it with everyone else. It adds a whole new dimension to the muse Thalia, who I thought was just the muse of comedy. Apparently she was the muse of comedy and macaroni, and now “muse of comedy and macaroni” is my new dream job.

Another discovery is that the Minolta corporation even today in 1996 makes chromatographs which pasta-makers use to make sure noodles are colored correctly. I’m not clear whether Minolta was hired for pasta-color-validation technology. It could be the pasta-makers kept their intentions secret. I’m entertained by imagining someone rushing in to Minolta Master Command and crying out, “I just found out what those maniacs at San Giorgio are using our chromatographs for!” Gasps all around, and then she tells them what the use is. They shake their heads and say, “There is no recovering. Close up the business.” I guess it’s closed up. I never hear about Minolta anymore.

Another valuable discovery from the book: pasta-making requires a lot of uses of the word “extrude”. I like “extrude”, as a word. It’s faintly funny-ish without being worn out the way “nostril” or “moist” are. If you want to use the word “extrude” a lot without people thinking you’re deliberately being a clown, then get into pasta scholarship.

The articles include many close-up photographs of noodles that have long since rotted away. For example, in Figure 11 (Figure 1, scanned best I can) a close-up picture shows what spaghetti produced in a vacuum looks like compared to spaghetti not and … I don’t know. I think the point is that vacuum spaghetti is better, but I have no idea what I should be looking at. I can’t even swear there’s a difference.

It appears to be two strands of spaghetti set next to one another. That's it. If there is a difference I do not know what it is.
Figure 1: Figure 11. Appearance of spaghetti produced without vacuum (left) and with vacuum (right). From Pasta And Noodle Technology, edited by James E Kruger, Robert B Matsuo, and Joel W Dick. 1996.

But this shows how untrained my eye is. The many charts of variables plotted against one another also show how untrained my pasta brain is. The lesson I draw from this is that pasta is too complicated for me to understand. If I were thrust into a non-technological world there are many things I might be able to rebuild by myself. I don’t want to brag but I’m very good with inclining planes. But I would never manage even a primitive kind of ravioli. It’s humbling, and isn’t being humbled the best reason to read about pasta technology?

Things I Don’t Understand About Another Ancient Greek


My dear love was looking up information about the ancient Greek wrestler Milo of Croton for good reasons that I’m sure existed. The interest in Milo was pretty casual up to the point of discovering that he was affiliated in some way with Pythagoras of Samos, the Pythagoras famous for siding with squares and making people laugh over his bean issues, assuming he and his followers had any particular bean issues and people didn’t just make that up so people would laugh about the Pythagoreans. You probably have problems like that too. Famous figures of Ancient Greece usually have hilarious stories attached to them, but when they intersect with Pythagoras — whom you’ll remember as a man who allegedly claimed to have a golden thigh and the ability to write on the Moon — the crazy-funny level just leaps up and usually off the charts and lands in a beanfield where it dies of embarrassment.

For example: it’s apparently argued whether Milo had anything to do with the famous Pythagoras of Samos, because he might have just been associated with another Pythagoras of Samos who happened to be an athletic trainer. See, Milo was a seven-time Olympic athlete, so he’d have good reason to bother with athletic-type people. This is assuming that Pythagoras of Samos the Athletic Trainer wasn’t also Pythagoras of Samos the Loopy Philosopher/Mathematician/Cult Leader.

But as Olympic athletes go, Milo was apparently one of them, with a win in boys’ wrestling and then five men’s wrestling titles. Apparently he was beaten at his seventh Olympics by a young wrestler who’d developed a style of “arm’s length” wrestling. My love and I aren’t sure exactly what that style is. It makes it sound like he was beaten by slap-fighting. I’m not surprised he didn’t return to the games after being beaten by that; I wouldn’t blame him if he died of embarrassment. But maybe I’m reading it wrong. Maybe he was bested by an opponent who stood at arm’s length and held out his arms and kept pointing out “I’m not touching you” until Milo stormed off in disgust. Again, I wouldn’t fault him for not returning with something to foil this tactic, like, telling his opponent’s moms on them.

But being unable to believe the slapping and not-touching in the Olympics was the least of his accomplishments. Apparently he was a military leader who convinced the Crotoniates to lead an army to defend the Sybarites against Telys, tyrant of Sybaris. Now to be fair, by which I mean dismissive, that’s just the sort of thing you did in those days. You just weren’t part of Ancient Greek society unless you were setting up a tyrant or overthrowing a tyrant. And it was important to cities, too. Not getting the occasional tyrant to be overthrown marked a city as the seriously hick part of the Peloponnese, the way you today might look askance at a metro region that can’t even get an Arena Football team. Some up-and-coming cities would rent out a battlefield and set up themselves while overthrowing them and put themselves on the map that way.

But not everyone did this work in style; according to Didorus, and if you can’t trust him who can you trust, said he lead the Crotonites into battle while draped in a lion’s skin, wielding a club in a Hercules-like manner, and wearing his Olympic crowns. The lion skin I don’t wonder about, but: his crowns? All five of them? How? I know they weren’t, like, the crowns the Queen of Britain wears — remember, Pythagoras of Samos and the ancient Greeks lived literally more than three centuries before Queen Elizabeth II — and were more kind of wreaths of flowers of the kind you wear when you’re a charming bride. But that’s still, five. Put five crowns of anything on your head and you’re going to have them flying off all the time, unless you keep one hand clinging to your scalp so as to maintain some semblance of balance. It’s got to throw off his club-wielding. This is the price for not being able to pick just one crown.

Of course, who says he wore them all on his head? Maybe he put one on his head, and one on each arm, and one around each thigh? That would be quite practical as long as he didn’t have to share a tight seat, such as on a roller coaster, with someone. But why would he? Chairs wouldn’t be invented for dozens of years until after his death, the date of which is not actually known.

According to further legend, he died when he attempted to split a tree down the middle with his bare hands, which got stuck, which sounds like a worse way to die than just “of embarrassment following an Olympic slap-fighting loss”. But apparently while his hands were stuck he was set upon by wolves, who ate him, which raises a further question: what, he couldn’t tear some wolves limb-from-limb using just his feet? There is a painting by Joseph-Benoit Suvée (1743 – 1807) which purports to show Milo at his wolf-induced death, arguably fighting off the wolves with his feet, although it really looks to me more like he’s working on advanced belly rubs. I have to point out that there’s little evidence Suvée ever met Milo and none that he interviewed any of the wolves involved.

There’s much more to the legend of Milo of Croton, of course, and I may come back to it, but for now I think it fair to say: Ancient Greece. Like, what the heck, guys? You know?

The Thing About Medusa


So, if Ben “The Thing” Grimm were to fight Medusa, would he have to avoid seeing her? I mean, what’s the worst that could happen, he’d be turned into even more stone? I feel like there’s probably an implicit answer in that The Thing is still around in comics, I think, and surely the Fantastic Four battled Medusa at some time in the 60s because if it was the 60s and you were a superhero you just did that sort of thing, battling ancient Greek mythological figures, possibly in space. So The Thing is still around, and you don’t see Medusa’s face slapped all over comic books, but that’s surely just because she’s waiting to be rebooted into a new movie series of her own, right? And that means he probably handled things just fine.

Anyway, I feel like there’s probably someone well-versed in the details of the Marvel comic books universe who could tell me with certainty about their fight and whether he had to do anything special, but, I dunno. I feel vaguely bad when I can effortlessly explain subtler points of 1980s G.I.Joe episodes to people, and I don’t want to make the Marvel comics expert have to feel like that too.

Robert Benchley: Opera Synopses I


[ Since it’s such a busy week all around why not return to the pages of Robert Benchley’s Love Conquers All and to the part where he summarizes some opera for our convenience? Here, his notes explaining Die Meister-Genossenschaft. ]

DIE MEISTER-GENOSSENSCHAFT

Scene: The Forests of Germany.

Time: Antiquity.

Cast

Strudel, God of Rain Basso
Schmalz, God of Slight Drizzle Tenor
Immerglück, Goddess of the Six Primary Colors Soprano
Ludwig Das Eiweiss, the Knight of the Iron Duck Baritone
The Woodpecker Soprano

Argument

The basis of “Die Meister-Genossenschaft” is an old legend of Germany which tells how the Whale got his Stomach.

ACT I

The Rhine at Low Tide Just Below Weldschnoffen.—Immerglück has grown weary of always sitting on the same rock with the same fishes swimming by every day, and sends for Schwül to suggest something to do. Schwül asks her how she would like to have pass before her all the wonders of the world fashioned by the hand of man. She says, rotten. He then suggests that Ringblattz, son of Pflucht, be made to appear before her and fight a mortal combat with the Iron Duck. This pleases Immerglück and she summons to her the four dwarfs: Hot Water, Cold Water, Cool, and Cloudy. She bids them bring Ringblattz to her. They refuse, because Pflucht has at one time rescued them from being buried alive by acorns, and, in a rage, Immerglück strikes them all dead with a thunderbolt.

ACT 2

A Mountain Pass.—Repenting of her deed, Immerglück has sought advice of the giants, Offen and Besitz, and they tell her that she must procure the magic zither which confers upon its owner the power to go to sleep while apparently carrying on a conversation. This magic zither has been hidden for three hundred centuries in an old bureau drawer, guarded by the Iron Duck, and, although many have attempted to rescue it, all have died of a strange ailment just as success was within their grasp.

But Immerglück calls to her side Dampfboot, the tinsmith of the gods, and bids him make for her a tarnhelm or invisible cap which will enable her to talk to people without their understanding a word she says. For a dollar and a half extra Dampfboot throws in a magic ring which renders its wearer insensible. Thus armed, Immerglück starts out for Walhalla, humming to herself.

ACT 3

The Forest Before the Iron Duck’s Bureau Drawer.—Merglitz, who has up till this time held his peace, now descends from a balloon and demands the release of Betty. It has been the will of Wotan that Merglitz and Betty should meet on earth and hate each other like poison, but Zweiback, the druggist of the gods, has disobeyed and concocted a love-potion which has rendered the young couple very unpleasant company. Wotan, enraged, destroys them with a protracted heat spell.

Encouraged by this sudden turn of affairs, Immerglück comes to earth in a boat drawn by four white Holsteins, and, seated alone on a rock, remembers aloud to herself the days when she was a girl. Pilgrims from Augenblick, on their way to worship at the shrine of Schmürr, hear the sound of reminiscence coming from the rock and stop in their march to sing a hymn of praise for the drying up of the crops. They do not recognize Immerglück, as she has her hair done differently, and think that she is a beggar girl selling pencils.

In the meantime, Ragel, the papercutter of the gods, has fashioned himself a sword on the forge of Schmalz, and has called the weapon “Assistance-in-Emergency.” Armed with “Assistance-in-Emergency” he comes to earth, determined to slay the Iron Duck and carry off the beautiful Irma.

But Frimsel overhears the plan and has a drink brewed which is given to Ragel in a golden goblet and which, when drunk, makes him forget his past and causes him to believe that he is Schnorr, the God of Fun. While laboring under this spell, Ragel has a funeral pyre built on the summit of a high mountain and, after lighting it, climbs on top of it with a mandolin which he plays until he is consumed.

Immerglück never marries.

Breaking Mythological News


There’s some excitement over a neat discovery in ancient Greek Or Maybe Roman Mythology. Apparently they’ve managed to find a human who appeared in a myth and who didn’t come out of it in pretty rotten shape. This is really neat, since the best you can usually hope for if you find yourself a human in a Greek Myth is maybe getting turned into a grasshopper and then eaten by a loved one. Getting off scott-free was unheard of.

Anyway, the newly unearthed story goes something like this: Uhhurmneoc, the Goddess of Throat-Clearing, was discussing with Mauvetica, the Goddess of Colors You’re Not Really Sure What They Look Like, about whether any particular human was going to say or do something that got them in trouble that day. Just then they overheard a young lad, Oneoftheoselladicus, mention how he’d had a bee that sat on his chin for an unusually long time and he thought that was neat. The gods naturally poked in to see if he was going to say something that could set off Appiopithenes, God of Bee-Chin-Wearing, but the lad suddenly noticed the scroll-taker and shouted, “Look over there! It’s King Midas and he’s saying something!” Naturally everyone dashed off to see what the lunkhead had got himself in for this time, and the forgotten Oneoftheoselladicus escaped to a competing mythology that’s now believed to just be fan fiction. Midas, naturally, ended up spending three weeks speaking to and understanding only what in those days were called “torpedoes” (which we should read as “sub-aquatic propelled missiles used to sink ships or destroy harbors”), but for him that’s doing better than average.

I’m always delighted to see how we better understand the world-view of the ancients by seeing their legends and stories come back to life like this.

Robert Benchley: Odysseus to Penelope


[ Among the essays collected in Of All Things, Robert Benchely included a fairly substantial piece, “When Genius Remained Your Humble Servant,” about the changing tenor of letters. I don’t want to reprint the whole essay here, but enjoyed the amusing hypothetical exchange here that showcases the lovely blending of high culture and pedestrian business that is so fruitful for humorists. ]

So explanatory has the method of letter writing become that it is probable that if Odysseus were a modern traveler his letters home to Penelope would average something like this:

Calypso,

Friday afternoon.

DEAR PEN: — I have been so tied up with work during the last week that I haven’t had a chance to get near a desk to write to you. I have been trying to every day, but something would come up just at the last minute that would prevent me. Last Monday I got the papyrus all unrolled, and then I had to tend to Scylla and Charybdis (I may have written you about them before), and by the time I got through with them it was bedtime, and, believe me, I am snatching every bit of sleep I can get these days. And so it went, first the Læstrygones, and then something else, and here it is Friday. Well, there isn’t much news to write about. Things are going along here about as usual. There is a young nymph here who seems to own the place, but I haven’t had any chance to meet her socially. Well, there goes the ship’s bell. I guess I had better be bringing this to a close. I have got a lot of work to do before I get dressed to go to a dinner of that nymph I was telling you about. I have met her brother, and he and I are interested in the same line of goods. He was at Troy with me. Well, I guess I must be closing. Will try to get off a longer letter in a day or two.

Your loving husband,

ODIE.

P.S. You haven’t got that bunch of sports hanging round the palace still, have you? Tell Telemachus I’ll take him out of school if I hear of his playing around with any of them.

Everything I Know About Some Plants


There’s nothing quite like wandering around a garden nursery looking at all the various tiny plants that I’m far too stupid to actually manage. Of course you can say that about many things: there isn’t anything quite like building a multi-use sports arena out of nothing but discarded satellite TV dishes, for instance, unless you count building several single-use sports arenas all close up against each other. But that shouldn’t be counted against the fun of wandering around all these little rows of plants nestled in tiny plastic pots and reading how relentlessly Anglo-Saxon a name they can get, and what sorts of folklore attach to them.

Many plants enjoy these blunt, old-fashioned names that speak of their folkloric origin or of something we were trying to keep secret. Putting the secret right there in the name of the plant doesn’t seem to have worked but bear in mind, before the rise of mass printing where were we going to put secrets instead?

Shunted Gutter-Berrys, also known as King Pym’s Chortles. These are found lining the roofs that other, lesser, plants build to shelter them from the elements and clumsy, plummeting chipmunks. They have become invasive in parts of the country (any country) with a chipmunk shortage, such as the space between eight and twelve feet above the ground and away from all trees or other structures. A post-Columbian Exchange plant, these were first identified by settlers in Connecticut who asked the Indians what they were, and didn’t recognize sarcasm when they heard it. Their flowering between the 30th of April and the 1st of May is considered a sign that your calendar-maker ripped you off.

Continue reading “Everything I Know About Some Plants”