Monthly Archives: October 2013

Lilith: dark goddess, bad room-mate, queen of Sheba


Who was the first woman? Unless you want to get all realistic and silly about it, the normal answer is probably Eve. But there is an alternative.

There are two creation accounts in the Bible. In the first, man and woman were created at the same time. In the second, Adam’s wife was created from his rib-cage. How can this be? The answer is obvious. They’re two different myths Adam must have had two wives.

Adam’s first wife was called Lilith, and was created by God after Adam got tired of mating with horses.  Adam wanted Lilith to be subservient during sex but she refused to do this and left him. Pretty soon, she hooked up with demons and started to have her own children.

God sent three angels; Senoy, Sansenoy, and Samlegot, after her. They threatened to kill her children but she told them that if they did she’d kill all the children of Adam. This was a real threat, as she had been ordained by God to watch over children and therefore had authority in this area.

They worked out a compromise where the angels would only kill 100 of Lilith’s children each day, in exchange Lilith would leave alone any human children protected by the names of the angels. The thousands of her children who nonetheless survived became demons called the Lilim, and protective amulets against Lilith and her kin were used up to the 18th century.

After Adam’s son Cain murdered his brother Abel, Adam and Eve separated for 130 years. In this time, Lilith and Adam got together again. Their relationship seems to have come to an end after the birth of Naamah, a great-great-great-great grandchild of Cain. She followed Lilith’s example and made out with angels to create new powerful demons, we can only assume that Lilith found Naamah more fun to be around than Adam.

Millennia later, Lilith and Naamah were evidently still close to some degree. It seems they may even have been living together, because one of them stole the other’s baby. This is a major breach of ettiquette in most shared living arrangements and according to legend they disguised themselves as prostitutes and sought the judgement of Solomon to find who a child’s real mother was.

The Queen of Sheba, whoever that may have been

It seems odd that Lilith couldn’t afford her own place because she apparently ruled a kingdom called Zmargad, some people think this would make her the Queen of Sheba who killed the children of Job, the Bible’s most unfortunate man.

The Queen of Sheba later visited Jerusalem to meet Solomon, and according to an Ethiopian text called the Kebra Negast their child was the ancestor of all the monarchs of Ethiopia. The Yoruba Ijebu clan of Nigeria also draw their royal line back to the Queen of Sheba. This is just one example in history where a mythic figure is a demon to some people, and a hero to others.

How does a figure get reinterpreted so differently in different cultures? It’s hard to say, but it’s starting to happen now with Lilith. As early as 1899 Lilith was being rehabilitated as a mother goddess by Neopagans, especially by those of a Jewish persuasion. She’s also becoming a symbol for some feminist Jews. So things may be starting to look up for her.

Five bizarre animal breeding programmes from totalitarian states

If there’s an idea behind totalitarianism it’s that it is possible and desirable for human life to be centrally controlled. Unsurprising this has also affected how dictatorships think about nature.

What totalitarian states choose to breed shows us a lot about how they interacted with nature. These bizarre projects served as propaganda, an expression of crazy romantic notions, an outlet for yet more misanthropy, and even served as a demonstration of dissent.

1. Heck Cattle

800px-XN_Heck_Cattle_0033Lutz and Heinz Heck were German zoologists in the 20s and 30s. They wanted to recreate wild versions of domestic animals by breeding for qualities similar to those found in extinct undomesticated breeds.

The most famous are Heck Cattle. The first bull of this breed was born in 1932, before the Nazis took power, but the whole project was quickly surrounded with Nazi ideas.

In 1940 Konrad Lorenz, another Nazi zoologist developed the theory that civilisation and domestication had made humans and animals made less beautiful, more sexually active and more prone to mutation, such as different skin colours. Heck Cattle were an attempt to purify the bovine race. Göring, the head of the project, envisioned a new breed of prehistoric Aurochs that the Germans could hunt in vast wildlife reserves in Poland.

The attempt to recreate some idealised, racially pure past was of course a complete disaster. But the poor cows weren’t racist themselves. Despite suffering in the final stages of the war they still exist today. The problem is, they’re basically big, bovines with a reputation for aggression. This reputation may or may not be fair, but the creators believed it was, and few farmers really want a herd of angry Nazi cows.

2. The Manpanzee

Ilya Ivanov was a Russian scientist who dedicated a large part of his career to the question of whether humans can breed with Chimpanzees. His failure may lead us to the conclusion that they can’t, but he was hampered by three problems: a lack of financial and political support, a lack of human volunteers, and a lack of chimpanzees.

In 1927 he got funding from the Soviet government, arguing that breeding humans with an animal would be a blow against religion. He used the money to artificially inseminate female chimpanzees in French New Guinea. When this failed he tried to reverse the experiment in Russia. In both cases he only had one male donor, and the male chimpanzee died before the experiment began.

3. Heck Horse

SteppentarpanAnother Heck project. This was an attempt to breed back a Tarpan, a species of wild horse believed to have gone extinct in 1909. They’re meant to be calm, intelligent, and curious. They don’t mind being ridden, but don’t like being told where to go. So, it’s a small horse, but that’s okay because you can’t steer it anyway. Good job, Nazi Science. Seriously.

4. Himmler’s Angora Rabbits

Another giant angora rabbit, not related to the Nazi breed
Another giant angora rabbit, not related to the Nazi breed, which did not survive

Of all the projects on this list, this is the one I find most intensely disturbing. I feel I should apologise for including it, really. Himmler’s “Project Munchkin” was a project to breed large white fluffy rabbits. The rabbits could be shaved, and were very well looked after, providing a cheap, humane way to get fur. Himmler produced a loving photo album of the project and saw his humaneness to animals as a sign of German greatness.

Sickeningly, these rabbits were kept in concentration camps and looked after by inmates. People were actually executed for not showing enough care and attention to rabbits. Himmler’s care for animals unfortunately didn’t extend to his own species.

5. The Domesticated Silver Fox

pupsA Soviet scientist called Dmitri Belyaev began a project to breed foxes in 1959. He was interested in breeding away the fear reaction, and breeding for sociability. These foxes now whimper for attention, wag their tails and enjoy making friends with humans.

Since the Soviet Union collapsed, the project has had funding issues, but foxes have been sold as pets. The project is still giving us insights into how humans would have first domesticated dogs and cats.

This is possibly the only successful and moral experiment in this list. So it’s worth noting that the scientist involved was a bit of a rebel. He was interested in genetics in Stalin’s Russia, where it was considered a false, capitalist science. By the time the Silver Fox project had began, Russia was becoming slightly less insane, but still in the early years this project was carried out against the official state ideology.

There are, apparently, foxes that were bred to be aggressive instead. But we won’t dwell on that.

Unanswerable questions about the world’s first monotheistic emperor

Akhenaten is probably the only hereditary leader in the history of the Earth who I can’t help liking. He was also a bit of an ineffectual merciless tyrant. But let’s start with the positives. He established the first monotheistic state on the planet, momentarily sweeping away the ridiculously well entrenched Egyptian polytheists. He built a new capital city, and he allowed a completely unique and innovative style of art to develop.

His reign was difficult, and it’s an open question how much of that was his fault. A century ago a great disaster had laid waste to Minoan Crete, and barbarians from Europe called the Sea Peoples were attacking the Bronze Age world. We have quite an extensive list of diplomatic letters from his reign which talk about financial problems, plague, and insurgency.

The surest sign that his reign was not successful was that after his death in the 1330s (before Christ, obviously) his name was removed from inscriptions and there seems to have been an attempt to delete him from history. His new religion “Atenism” seems to have totally disappeared.

In a very short time, he completely changed the basis of a civilisation. Even if in didn’t work, it raises questions that I think are well worth pondering. Unfortunately, I think they’re possibly unanswerable.

1. What motivated Akenaten?

By getting rid of the priesthood and taking their gold, Akhenaten got rid of a powerful rival and would have made big financial gains. Could his reforms have just been an attempt to make money?

But, if this was the case, why make such a radical change? And why build new, expensive temples with big open air areas for worship of the sun? It seems like the actions of a true believer.

Maybe his motivation wasn’t so much religious or selfish, but psychological and scientific? One commentator, James Henry Breasted, has suggested that he was “the first individual” trying to stamp his personality on the world and create a more accurate view of how the universe worked.

2. Where did Atenism come from?

The first reference we have to Aten, the God of Atenism, is from the Story of Sinuhe published some six hundred years before Akhenaten. In this, Aten, or the sun-disc, is referred to as a creator. We don’t really know for sure how Aten was interpreted by the layity.

The other contender for the title of “founder of monotheism” aside from Akhenaten is Zoroaster, he founded Zoroastrianism. Estimations for when he lived ranged from 1800 BC to 500 BC. I don’t really want to get into that, but it raises a lot of questions. Did monotheism come from Persia to Egypt? Or Egypt to Persia? Where did the ancient Hebrews fit into this?

3. Where did Atenism go?

Freud had a theory that Moses was a priest of Aten who was exiled to Israel, and therefore Judaism has Egyptian routes. There is absolutely no archaeological evidence to back this up. While the Great Hymn of Aten has been compared to Psalm 104, this similarity is shared with other more orthodox Egyptian religious hymns.

Religions are usually quite hardy, surviving practitioners turn up in all sorts of odd places. But after the death of Akhenaten, Aten seems to have been removed totally from the pantheon.

So how come monotheism popped up again in Israel, and in Persia? Was monotheism an idea whose time had come, and if so, why?

There are many theories on how various factors influence culture,  but I doubts its the kind of question we can get a definitive answer to.

Five people who are leading the way out of civilisation as we know it

All over the world, there are people who have come to the conclusion that modern industrial society is a bit shit, really. As we begin to understand the impact of modern society and the dangers that we inflict on ourselves, it could be tempting to dream of withdrawing entirely from the whole stinking game.

And there are people around who have done that. Here are some of my favourites:

1. Sue Woodcock, hermit in the Dales

In 2004 Sue Woodcock, a retired policewoman, spent her savings on a rayburn cooker and some rare sheep, and moved to the Yorkshire Dales. She referred to the world she’d left as “that England” and claimed to have no morals, because that’s something society enforces on you.

She’s more of a Hermit than a primitive, her lifestyle involves meeting very few people, she generated her own electricity and got water from her own well. In 2011 she was looking into selling up and her lifestyle now seems to involve trips to the shops to buy wine-racks.

2. Emma Orbach, mud hut dweller

orbachEmma Orbach was the daughter of a wealthy musician and got an education at Oxford. She left England with her husband, originally to set up a self-sufficient farming community, but then she split off from that to get even more back to nature. For the past thirteen years she’s been living in a mud hut in rural Wales.

She doesn’t allow tractors onto the land, grows what she needs and does all of her own repairs. It sounds like this isn’t just a withdrawal from society, she hopes that living simply will help humanity see what’s possible.

3. Tom Leppard, most tattooed man in the world

Tom Leppard, 'the Leopard Man of Skye'Tom Leppard, the former most tattooed man in the world, lived alone on the island of Skye, Scotland. He lived alone for twenty years, only travelling to the mainland by kayak once every week to collect his pension. In 2008, at the age of 73, he left the islands and moved to a one bedroom house, claiming that it was getting too dangerous to kayak into town when he needed to.

4. Will Lord, primitive skills teacher

Will Lord, of Beyond 2000 BC is not entirely primitive as such (I mean, he has a website and does TV work) but he’s one of the people in the UK that teach and retain old skills used by “primitive” people, such as flint knapping, constructing, bows, bushcraft, etc. These skills are interesting for people who want to be able to make and use their own tools.

The main argument for these skills is that, while lots of tools that even the people on this list use are cheap to get the industries that produce them aren’t sustainable. This has lead people to develop an interest in making their own tools.

5. John Zerzan, theorist of primitivism

John Zerzan is worth mentioning here as the main theorist of Anarcho-Primitivism. He has some followers in Britain. My main memory of them is seeing big piles of pamphlets they’d put together, and being told they’d formed a production line to make them.

Perhaps the problem with the anarcho-primitivists is that they have a difficult choice to make. The tools you need to spread an idea are the same tools you need to spread your message. So do you compromise your lifestyle to convince others, or do you live by your ideals even though one person doing it won’t save the world?

Leppard eventually had to give up his extreme lifestyle when he couldn’t support himself alone. Emma Orbach’s lifestyle is only possible because she was originally part of a commune that could defend their rights against outsiders. So it seems that people who want to withdraw from civilization may want to be a role-model for others, but they still need sympathetic allies who are still inside civilisation if they’re going to be successful.

Could ancient people have built batteries?

The short answer to this question is “Yes!” The long answer is, “No.” Let me explain.

baghdad-batteryAn odd object has been found in Iraq dating from the Sassanid period (224 to 640 AD). It’s basically a terracotta pot containing a copper cylinder made of a single sheet of copper, with a single iron rod inside them. Put together, this device looks similar to an electrical battery.

The theory is, if you put the correct chemicals into this jar, you could use them to create a chemical reaction that would generate an electrical charge. This is demonstrably true. Experiments have shown that Lemon Juice, or Benzoquinone (which could have been collected from beetles) and vinegar could be used in a device like this to generate electricity. You can even build a replica yourself. Depending on how you use them, replicas have produced between 0.8 and 2 volts.

So, yes, the Sassanids could have produced electricity. But what would they have used it for? The original theory was that it would be used for electroplating gold onto silver objects. We know that the Sassanids were particularly good at this. However it is generally believed now that the Sassanids fire-gilded with mercury to produce these items. Being able to do it inefficiently in a slightly different way wouldn’t have even been a good trick.

The big problem is that the battery theory doesn’t match with the device. We’ve found no wires, and no electrical equipment associated with these objects. Further, no conductive metal is open to the elements, so it’s not clear how you’d get power out of it.

battery1bSo what were these objects used for? We have found similar artifacts that were used for storing holy scrolls. The only difference is that these weren’t covered in clay. We could assume that these objects had a similar use. If an scroll had been left in them and had degraded completely, there could be an acidic organic residue left that is unfortunately similar to what would be left by a battery.

So, yes. A battery could have been made using pre-industrial technology. But the only evidence that it was used in this way comes from experimental archaeology. All this can really tell us is that it’s technically possible to construct a battery, not that it ever actually happens. This is the kind of information that’s useful to accidental time travellors, maybe. But doesn’t help us to understand the past.

But then, nothing is certain. If people could have made electricity, who’s to say they didn’t? These objects haven’t attracted much attention from serious archaeologists. Maybe there’s further study to do.