Leap years, ill-Fated Years?

2020 is a leap year, but I don’t like that confident about it and do you know why? Because I am Italian and in these latitudes leap years are believed to be bad luck. Of course, there must be a reson that gave origin to this common belief and we have to go back to Roman times to find it .

A year is said to be a leap year, when instead of lasting 365 days, it has one more day, exactly in February, which therefore counts 29 days in all. The reason for this change is to be found in the exact duration of the solar year, that is, the time taken by the Earth to make a complete tour around the sun. History traces the origin of this ancient practice to the time of the Ancient Romans: Julius Caesar in 46 BC already knew that the calendar year actually lasted 365 days and 6 hours. So every 4 years in his calendar, he had added one more day immediately after February 24, a date that was pronounced in Latin “sexto die ante Calendas Martias“, that is ” six days before the first day of March”. The extra day was called “bis sexto die“, that is ” the sixth day for the second time”, that is why the Italian word for leap year is “bisestile” (bis-sexto).

But, why is a leap year associated to bad luck? Well, in Ancient Rome February was the month dedicated to funeral rites, the commemoration of the dead and penance. The 21th of February was also the day of “Feralia” which means “bringing” (in Latin: fero) gifts to the dead.  Roman citizens brought offerings to the tombs of their deceased ancestors, which consisted in the delivery, over a clay pot, of flower garlands, ears of corn, a pinch of salt, bread soaked in wine and loose violets. Even if additional offerings were allowed it seems that the dead were appeased only with ritual offerings. These simple offerings for the dead had been introduced in Lazio perhaps by Aeneas, who had poured wine and violets on the tomb of Anchise. Ovid narrates that once the Romans had neglected to celebrate Feralia, because they were engaged in a war, so,  the spirits of the dead had come out of the tombs, screaming and wandering the streets angrily. After this episode, reparatory ceremonies had been prescribed and the horrible manifestations ceased.

February was therefore commonly considered a bleak and fatal month and the extra day of a leap year made it ever more so. Another hypothesis is that for the ancients, everything that was anomalous and not rational, was to be considered a bad omen, therefore, also a year with an extra day. That is why after many centuries we keep believing that a leap year is not a good thing and how could I think it otherwise, since I woke up the 1st of January with a cold? And if this is just the beginning and 365 more will have to come like this, oh my!!

Happy New Year!!!

The whole Christmas period is all about lights and celebrations which are linked to the winter solstice and date back to ancient Rome traditions and even before. Both the Romans and the Egyptians worshipped Mithras (originally a Persian deity who was said to be either the son of the sun or the companion of the sun) , a very popular deity indeed, whose birth was celebrated by the Romans on the 25th of December, and by the ancient Egyptians on January 6th. Since then, this phase of the year represents the renaissance of the sun and is greeted with various rites, which highlight the new beginning.

January, in fact, whose name comes from the god Janus, is portrayed with two faces: that of a young man and that of an old man with a beard, so that he can look back and forth at the end of the past year and at the beginning of the next. The Egyptians represented Mithras, the new-born sun, by the image of an infant, which they used to bring forth and exhibit to his worshippers on his birthday and kindle lights in token of festivity, so we may understand where the tradition of lighting our towns and houses for Christmas time comes from, but what about the New Year’s fireworks?

Well, New Year’s fireworks had to ward off the forces of evil and the evil spirits that are unleashed, in a moment of transition from the old to the new year, as evil spirits don’t seem to enjoy loud noises. Even the cork of the sparkling wine shot to celebrate midnight is excellent for warding off the evil eyes. The throwing of the shards (on the streets from the windows), which used to be very common in Italy years ago, particularly in Naples, at the midnight of the end of the year,  represents the physical and moral evils that have been accumulated over the year everybody wishes to chase away.
Hence, the noise, the crowd, the fire, the shouts symbolize the new that comes from chaos, the season that changes, the earth that sprouts. For centuries, the men of every civilization have been celebrating the rites of passage, the changing of the seasons, the end of a year and the beginning of a new time, with fire and noise. Bonfires and lit lamps, on the other hand, had the function of illuminating the path of the year that entered.
Therefore, I wish you all that your own path this year may be sparkling, but serene and positive at the same time.

 

On the Importance of Storytelling

Alexander III of Macedonia, commonly known as Alexander the Great, was 22, when he landed in Asia Minor with an army of 50.000 soldiers. Once he put his foot on shore, he symbolically stuck his spear on what for him was Asian ground and said: this land is mine”. This is the incipit of one Alessandro Baricco’s memorable lectures on the vital importance of storytelling and, of course, he chose a great story to tell in order to get his point, so let’s keep on with the narration.

First of all: why did a Macedonian king claim those vast Asian territories named Persia, the greatest empire of the time? It could seem like madness at first glance, but he had a powerful reason: to save the honour of the Greeks. Long time before, the Persians had invaded Macedonia and Greece, a war which was won eventually by the Greeks, but at great expense for the people. Everything had been destroyed: villages, houses, temples. As the Persians had come there and burnt their temples, hence it was his right to conquer their land and burn theirs. Alexander had inherited this pan-Hellenic project from his father, who had hired Aristotle himself for his education. When his father died and he was awarded the generalship of Greece and used this authority to launch the campaign for the conquest of Persia.

By the way, it was a crazy enterprise. He arrived with “only” 50.000 soldiers, a small bunch of men if we consider that the Persian empire was inhabited by millions of people who could be recruited any time by Darius, the King of Kings. Wherever he went, the Persians could have put together an army three times his. Something more had to be done, that’s why Alexander’s story of conquest and revenge took necessarily the form of legend. He wanted his people to see him more like a God than a king. That is why he started his conquest of Persia with three symbolical actions. First of all, he went to pay homage to the tomb of Protesilaus, who was the first  to leap ashore at Troy, and thus the first to die in the war. That was the destiny of any “first” man who put his foot on Persian land according to a prophecy. Alexander, wanted to be the first to touch the ground, but he didn’t die, thus proving that predictions didn’t work on him as he was a God.

Then he went to visit the tombs of Achilles and Patroclus along with Hephaestion, his life mate. Achilles was among those legendary figures of the war of Troy, the one and whose values he identified himself the most and he was a demigod, after all. Finally, he felt the urge to do something apparently nonsensical. He risked his life and that of the comrades who followed him to reach the Libyan desert to ask the oracle of God Amon  the following question: ” Am I Amon’s son”? Alexander must have had a monumental ego, this is a matter of fact, but all this was to make his story more appealing. They were about to fight a war, which would subdue Persia under the Greek dominion and the only one who could lead them to victory couldn’t but be a God. Gods are no losers.

Well, they won. Alexander won because he had an appealing story to tell, made of dreams, legend, conquest and his people followed him to victory. He had understood the immense power of storytelling. Can we give a definition of storytelling to make all this clear? Of course. Reality = facts + storytelling, namely, it is the reality devoid of facts and a fact without a storytelling does not exist, it is not real. Only those facts which are part of a narration are true.

At this point of Baricco’s lecture, I understood. Those large movements, which are growing worldwide, are fed with storytelling and they will never be stopped by facts. The facts of the unattainability of electoral promises or the evident incapability of this or that politician, these are facts, but they can’t be a barrier to what is mostly irrational and emotional. It is a sort of collective automatic response, an indomitable stream. It follows man’s animal instinct, the one which makes you believe to absurd things. Alexander wanted to conquer Persia, as they had destroyed the Greek temples 150 years before. Never mind if they were not exactly your temples, as Alexander was Macedonian, it is a meaningless detail compared to the power of the storytelling.

That is why, as long as we want to oppose those movements taking the evidence of the ineptitude of leaders or the folly of some election programmes, with facts, we are in the wrong. Facts do not appeal masses. We need to find a new storytelling; and soon.

Leviathan

 

“What a piece of work is man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god, The beauty of the world, The paragon of animals..” (Hamlet Act. II Scene 2)

Angels“, “Gods“, “the beauty of the world“: is this what men actually are? If it were so, the societies we have built in time should have been able to express such perfection or at least some of them and we know it has not been so. If we were thus “noble in reason“, “infinite in faculty” the “piece of work” of creation, for what reason would we lock our doors at night? Thomas Hobbes believed that any idea of modern society should start from a realistic, rather than idealistic, analysis of the nature of man.

His vision of mankind, in fact, takes the form of a sort of anthropological pessimism where human beings are all dominated by passions, greed, vainglory and distrust. These are the conditions that throw humankind into a permanent state of war, which is for Hobbes the natural state of human life, the situation that exists whenever those natural passions are unrestrained. A war where every individual faces every other individual as an enemy; the “war of every man against every man.” The consequent total absence of collaboration cannot but make us miserable and renders life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hence, rather than angels, it seems we act more like wolves: aggressive, violent, mean, selfish.

In such a world where everybody struggles to preserve his life and goods and where violence at the hands of others is the greatest fear, the only possibility to live in peace together for each individual is to give up his natural right to acquire and preserve everything in whatever manner he chooses. It must a collective endeavor, of course, since it only makes sense for an individual to give up his right to attack others if everyone else agrees to do the same and he calls this collective renunciation: the “social contract.”Of course, how can it be trusted that everybody keeps his words? Hence; a system needs to be instituted, a “visible power to keep them in awe,” to remind them of the purpose of the social contract and to force them, for fear of punishment, to keep their promises. The power necessary to transform the desire for a social contract into a commonwealth is the sovereign, the Leviathan, or the “king of the proud.”

“For by Art is created that great Leviathan called a Common-wealth, or State, (in latine CIVITAS) which is but an Artificiall Man; though of greater stature and strength than the Naturall, for whose protection and defence it was intended” (Leviathan. Introduction)

Therefore; the Leviathan is but an artificial man, made in the image of its imperfect creator. The Sovereignty is its artificial Soul and gives life and motion to the whole body. The Joints are  the Magistrates and other Officers of Judicature and Execution ; Reward and Punishment which are fastened to the seat of the sovereignty are the Nerves, The Wealth and Riches are the Strength of all the particular members ; the Counsellors are the Memory; Equity and Lawes are an artificial Reason and Will; Concord, Health. By the way, as any other man, the Leviathan is vulnerable and it experiences Sickness if there is a Sedition and a Civil War brings it to Death. We can feel Hobbes fears in these last words, in fact, the Leviathan was published in 1651, few years after the Civil War which had ended with the trial and execution of Charles I.

By the way, the Leviathan must not necessarily be a king. Hobbes makes clear that the sovereign power can be composed of one person, several, or many—in other words, the Leviathan can equally well describe a monarchy, an aristocracy, a democracy or even that republic made by Cromwell which rose from the ashes of the Civil War. The only requirement that Hobbes sets for sovereignty is that the entity has absolute power to defend the social contract and decide what is necessary for its defense.

Just few questions: is Hobbes only a pessimist or did he get it right? Does only a Leviathan, whatever political form it takes, make us safely stay together and restrain our animal, aggressive nature? What would happen without such control? Well, just check  any social network and as its presence has not been clearly outlined yet, you will see millions of hungry wolves running wildly, free and happy to have found a place to unleash  their repressed nature at last.

A Portrait of an Eligible Ruler

From the comments of the previous post, everybody knows what they dislike about their rulers, but let’s try and be constructive: what makes a politician fit for being in charge of a country? Would you like him to be a sort of shrewd leader as the one suggested by Machiavelli, a heart inflaming dreamer or simply an honest anybody, as it seems to be so “en vogue” here these days? Well, my answer is: a sharp-witted accountant, and by accountant I mean somebody who knows exactly figures, understands present situations and pursues his goals according to the real possibilities the State budget offers him and nothing more. A leader with such skills would make the fortune of his country, and I know this is to be true as in the past there was a ruler I do admire, a king, that somehow had many of these characteristics: Henry VII Tudor.

When Henry became King, he had inherited a nation shattered by a long civil dynastic war between the noble families of Lancaster and York. For what concerns foreign policy, the importance of England in Europe had become quite marginal especially after the loss of the Hundred Year’s war and furthermore, he was aware that his claim to the throne was shaky, plots and conspiracies were, in fact, always behind the corner. Differently from the other European countries, we have to remember that English kings did not rule by Divine Right, hence, they could not act as freely as they would, because their actions were submitted to the Common Law and the Magna Charta. Apparently weak, in charge of a country torn to pieces, what could he do? Not much, it would seem, but Henry accepted the challenge. First of all, he didn’t search for the limelight with great, noble actions that would have made his people dream, he was not a man of dreams, but facts, hence, he put on the clothes of the inflexible “accountant” and set to work.

He targeted two main objects: unifying the country and centralizing the power in the hand of the monarchy. Being an attentive “accountant”, he accurately pondered about what was advisable to do and not to do. First of all, he aimed at avoiding troubles with foreign and more powerful countries, as any other war would have made him at the mercy of Parliament. He chose to make commercial treaties with France and The Netherlands, thus opening up trade with both countries and arranged the marriage of his children to the crowned heads of Europe forming stronger alliances.

Stability was the main goal of his domestic policy.  First of all he married Elizabeth of York thus uniting the House of Lancaster and the House of York. Then he deprived the noble families of their private armies, enforced royal taxes, modernized administration, promoted trade and the making of a fleet, thus demonstrating that he well understood what was necessary to face the new era marked by the discovery of America. When he died, he left a safe throne, a solvent government and a prosperous and reasonably united country. Of course his son Henry VIII and his grand-daughter Elizabeth I are more interesting and well-known sort of rulers, but it was Henry VII, who actually laid the foundation of modern England.

I can’t imagine of any ruler with such determianation and clarity of purpose nowadays and certainly not here in Italy. Sunday’s vote has nothing to do with innovative or clever politics of enlightened candidates, but rather, it will end up with choosing between the frying pan and the fire and we are well aware that you might get burnt with both of them, unfortunately.

 

 

 

On Witches and Socks

According to a Christian legend, while the Three Wise Men were on their way to Bethlehem to bring gifts to the Infant Jesus, they bumped into a very old woman and asked her if she knew were the Son of God was, as they seemed to be quite disoriented. Unfortunately she didn’t know. Nevertheless, she offered them accommodation for a night, after all, she was the best housekeeper in the village, with the most comfortable home. The following day, the Three Magi tried to convince the old lady to join them to the visit to the baby Jesus, but despite their insistence, she refused, as did not feel like leaving the house, she was too busy with her housework after all.

Yet, very soon she repented for not having gone with them. She quickly prepared a basket of sweets and left the house in search for the Three Wise Men, but in vain. She stopped at every house she found along the way, giving candies to the children she met, in the hope that one of them was the baby Jesus. Since then, she goes around the world, giving presents to all children, so that she might be forgiven.The good ones will have toys, candies or fruit, while the bad ones get only coal, onions or garlic. That’s why it is tradition here in Italy to leave empty socks next to beds of children the night of the Epiphany, so that the old lady, that is actually called Befana, may fill them with presents. Befana’s iconography is a little scary, however, as she wears a dark and wide skirt, an apron with pockets, a shawl, a handkerchief or broad black hat on his head, a pair of worn slippers, all enlivened by numerous colored patches and she travels around the world flying on a broom.

🤔🤔🤔

Wait, wait, wait, but if Jesus was not born on Christmas day, even the date of his revelation to the Magi cannot be that certain. Why was it fixed on the 6th of January? Even in this case a Christian tradition actually overlapped a pagan one. We have go back to Roman Mithraic rites, again. If you remember, we have already stated that originally on the 25 th of December the winter solstice was celebrated along with Mithras, the Sol Invictus. On the twelfth night after the winter solstice, that is the day of the Epiphany, the death and rebirth of nature through Mother Nature was solemnized. But why after 12 days? Because the twelve days represented the twelve months of the years, therefore, the entire natural cycle. It seems that on those days, female figures flew over the cultivated fields, to propitiate the fertility of future crops, hence the myth of the “flying” figure, the so-called Befana.

Now, I cannot but go and look for a capacious sock, and advice you to do the same, you’ll never know.😜

“The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long live the Befana!”

 

 

The English Way (1)

Sordi-in-I-Due-Nemici-Posters

from “The Best Enemies”, with David Niven and Alberto Sordi.

Elections are not very far and I may say that analyzing the Italian political situation, the name of the party that is very likely to win will be: “precariousness and confusion”.  But what are reasons that have brought our nation to the pathological political instability that has characterized us for decades? What’s wrong with us? We are a charming country with a glorious past, the cradle of civilization along with Greece and much more could be added, for sure. However, even if we started so well, we must have missed a few steps in the path towards a mature democracy.

One justification might be that we are a young nation: only 157 years old. We shouldn’t forget that before the unification, we had suffered dominations of any kind, whose heritage can be clearly seen in any of our regions in term of culture, food, music, language. By the way, in those centuries of oppression we had also gradually developed a higher degree of scepticism and distrust against any form of administration. Cunning, unreliability, deceitfulness, “virtues” that still distinguish the Italian stereotype abroad, were the weapons we had developed in time to defend ourselves from the foreign rules.

The problem is that once free and politically united, we haven’t been able to work together for the making of a common identity, because our chronic distrust runs in our veins and has always made us choose for the “individual” way, rather than the “social” one.  That’s why the process towards a responsible, efficient democracy here is slower than in other countries. It’s this lack of a common political and social exercise that still makes us always look for that charismatic one, who might solve all our problems. He has never showed up and never will. But as I told you before, we are young.

In other countries, on the contrary, the path towards democracy has seemed somehow more natural. The last invasion in England, for example, dates back to 1066,  when the Normans conquered and unified the country – fortunate event that might have happened in Italy as well, thus sparing us a lot of troubles, but for the Pope’s fierce opposition against the Normans’ advance from the South of Italy,  therefore; England, if compared to Italy, had an advantage of 800 years. It means they had plenty of time to make a lot of nice political experiments. From that moment on, and before any other country, England will undergo a gradual but constant weakening of the great powers of the Middle Age, Church and monarchy and the growing of a modern one: Parliament.

With the English Common Law, for instance, the king was not considered any longer above the law; therefore if the English ruler could be tried just like anybody else,  it meant that he had started to lose those divine traits that his fellow kings all over Europe would have kept for a longer time. Furthermore; with The Magna Carta the king could no longer impose taxes without that “general consent” of those who one day will become part of a fully elected Parliament. The nobles took advantage from this situation increasing their power, but they greed will bring England to the disaster of the War of the Roses.

The Tudors were necessarily firmer monarchs whose recipe for a stronger country was the balancing of powers. They weakened the nobles depriving them of their private armies, avoided summoning Parliament, increased trade, developed alliances with the other countries, but above all, smashed the power of the Roman Catholic Church taking advantage of the Protestant wave from the north of Europe. At the dawning of the seventeenth century England was an Anglican country with a well-defined Parliament and a growing middle class.

The Stuarts failed to understand the now rooted distinctive features of their country, and tried to make it more “European” if possible, but in this way they only succeeded in reinforcing its prior structure. After the Glorious Revolution, England was a modern nation with a monarchy controlled by an independent Parliament and a flourishing bourgeoisie. It was, therefore, ready to face the great changes the industrial revolution would have brought about before any other European country and destined to be a long-lasting power worldwide. But this is another story. As I told you before, we are young.