Courses and Recourses

The Grand Saint Antoine

On May 25 the The Grand Saint Antoine was in sight at the port of Marseille.The port authorities had been waiting for the ship feverishly for hours, till they eventually saw it approach slowly. Everything was ready. It was not the precious cargo of fine cotton, silk and other goods their main concern, but rather, the ghost of the bacteria Yersinia pestis the ship carried on-board.

The vessel had sailed from the Lebanon to reach  Smyrna, Tripoli and Cyprus months before collecting goods destined for a trade fair that took place each year in the commune of Beaucaire.  They had been informed that a Turkish passenger had been infected and died, but soon some crew members and even the ship’s surgeon had followed his destiny. Once in Livorno the ship was refused entry to the port and now there it was, in all its frightening aura. Yet, they knew they were ready this time. Everything had been prepared meticulously for decades.

Since the end of the plague of 1580, the people of  Marseille had taken important measures to attempt to control a future spread of the disease. It was not certainly the first time that the plague had made its devastating appearance in the continent. A sanitation board was established by the city council, and it was put in charge of the health of the city. Public infrastructures were built, like the public hospital of Marseille, furthermore, the sanitation board was responsible for the accreditation of local doctors too.

A control and quarantine system was also defined. Members of the board were to inspect all incoming ships and only the ships with no signs of disease were allowed to dock, but if the ship’s itinerary included a city with documented plague activity, it was sent to the lazarets (quarantine stations) for a minimum of 18 days. When The Grand Saint Antoine gently steered towards one of them, the members of the board couldn’t but smile with relief and satisfaction.

But, what about the fair? What about all those who had invested all their money on the goods kept on-board? Could such an important event like the fair be cancelled? You know the answer too well. It couldn’t. Powerful city merchants, in fact, wanted the silk and cotton cargo of the ship for the fair at Beaucaire and pressured authorities to lift the quarantine. The city’s primary municipal magistrate, Jean-Baptiste Estelle, who owned part of the ship as well as a large portion of its lucrative cargo used all his influence to organize the premature unloading of the cargo into the city’s warehouses, so that the goods could be sold soon at the trade fair.

What happened afterwards can be easily imagined: the number of infections and deaths began to climb within days exponentially. This pandemic had become a serious threat  to the entire economy, hence, instead of undertaking emergency measures to try to contain the infection, officials launched an elaborate campaign of disinformation, going as far as hiring doctors to diagnose the disease as only a malignant fever instead of the plague. Yet, the truth couldn’t be hidden for long as hospitals were quickly overwhelmed, residents carried the sick out of the city, mass graves were dug and the number of dead was so high that  thousands of corpses lay scattered  around the city. The tragedy was now visible.

It wasn’t until two months after the first cases of bubonic plague appeared in Marseille that appropriate measures were undertaken such as: trade embargoes, quarantines, the prompt burial of corpses, the distribution of food and aid, and disinfection campaigns using fire, smoke, vinegar, or herbs. At last the Grand Saint-Antoine was burned and sunk off the coast of Marseille.

The disease killed about 126.000 people. While economic activity took only a few years to recover, as trade expanded to the West Indies and Latin America, it was not until 1765 that the population returned to its pre-1720 level.

If we want to make a parallel with our equally “contaminated” times, nothing apparently seems to have changed, in the main dynamics at least: lies, the prevalence of economic interests over those of people, mystification, corruption, ignorance, disinformation.

As philosopher Giovanbattista Vico claimed, man’s attitude remains always the same, even if historical situations and behaviours change. What seems new in history is only comparable by analogy to what has already manifested itself as if in an eternal circular motion in which nations rise and fall. Nations eternally course and recourse through this cycle passing through these eras over and over again. So, if he is right, we are done.

The Handmaid’s Tale

Western civilization has been influenced by Aristotle’s vision of the world for centuries.  In short, God had structured all matters of life in a sort of hierarchy were  God was at the top of the ladder while right under him there were the angels and human beings. Animals, plants, minerals followed in this order. Everything and everybody had they exact place and , according to this perfect organization, women ranked right after men. Women were meant for reproduction after all, and apparently,  this was believed to be their main task  as all the other more important matters concerned men only. Therefore, man’s place was the world, while women had to remain confined in their houses.

This patriarchal vision of society was the consequence the divine vision of the world and for this reason  it was regarded to be primary duty of men to tell the subordinate gender what was right or wrong and to behave accordingly. Men have accurately controlled their education over the centuries focusing a woman’s training mostly on her accomplishments: sewing,  playing , dancing, drawing etc.…. still, when we get to the nineteenth century, the running of a house and family was everything that should matter to a woman. This scheme started to crack during WW1, when women replaced men at work while they were at the front. Women started to earn their own living, to gain independence and have access to a broader education. When the war was over, the taste of freedom had been too sweet and exciting to go back to home seclusion, furthermore, with independence the right to vote had arrived. The door house was now wide open and the world tantalizing.

Hence, women had eventually rebelled to what had been designed for them by God himself but, can all this be without consequences? As I said before, it is incontrovertible that we have a reproductive biological function, but it is likewise incontrovertible that the women that belong to the more advanced and wealthiest part of the world make less children. My great grandmother had six children, my grandmother four, my mother just me and I chose to have none. If this is the trend, we are doomed to extinction. Hence, if we want to keep stuck to the metaphor of God’s hierarchy, the world is out joint, as Hamlet would say, what if a totalitarian theonomic state would form to set things right? Would it be so impossible?

This what “The Handmaid’s Tale”, a dystopian novel by Canadia authoress Margaret Atwood, is about. We are in a not too distant but nightmarish future: a radioactive disaster has devastated the Earth and the wars that have followed have changed the face of states and governments. In the United Stares, a theocratic sect, called the “Sons of Jacob”, has come to power and has upset the social order. In this new Republic of Gilead, as it is now called, it is possible to confess only one religion, the one decided by the state, and absolute power is in the hands of the Commanders. Below them, the Angels are the armed militia, the secret agents called the Eyes, while the men of lower social class are employed for the humblest jobs. But , where are the women?

Women are completely subservient to man – again -, and according to a rigid and aberrant interpretation of the the Holy Scriptures, they are considered useful only if the are able to procreate. Deprived of any kind of freedom, access to their goods, the possibility of receiving an education, women are divided into different categories: among these, the “Handmaids” are those who, being fertile, are used for the purpose to father the children of the Commanders.

All women of Gilead are classed socially and follow a strict dress code: the Commanders’ Wives in blue; the Handmaids in red with white veils around their faces; the Aunts (who train the Handmaids in brown; the Marthas (cooks and maids) in green; Econowives ( the wives of lower-ranking men) in blue, red and green stripes; young, unmarries girls in white; widows in black. Some women are sent to work as prostitutes in brothels called Jezabel.

The novel is told from the point of view of June, now called Offred, a Handmaid. Before the coup that brought the Commanders to power, the girl led a normal life: she had a job and lived with Luke, with whom she had a daughter. But when the Republic of Gilead is founded, her life is completely turned upside down: she loses her job – women in fact cannot work -, her bank account is cleared and she is persecuted as an immoral woman, because Luke and she are not married.

The two then try to flee to Canada with the child, but are captured: the child is given up for adoption, Luke disappears and the girl is transformed into a Handmaid, thus taking the name of Offred. In fact, the maids do not even have the right to their own name; since the only purpose of their existence is to generate children on behalf of the Commander to whom they belong, they take their name: “Offred” stands for “Fred’s”, the name of the Commander to whom the girl is enslaved. So now Offred is nothing but an object in the Commander’s hands.

Atwood says she wrote the novel in 1984 when she was in East Berlin, and that she was inspired by seventeenth-century American puritanism. So the crazy drifts described in the work are certainly the result of invention, but certainly the atmosphere of the Iron Curtain and the religious radicalism, real and historical facts, contributed to the genesis of the novel. In fact, as the writer explains, “every totalitarian regime does nothing but exasperate trends already present in society to consolidate its power”.

This is perhaps why the story of The Handmaid’s Tale is a truly disturbing, even if engaging whether one decides to read the book or watch the series. What is disturbing is that, in the midst of the inventions typical of a science fiction novel, you always feel that there is something potentially close to us, from misogyny to attempts to control the woman’s body. Atwood says, in fact: “My rule was that I would not include events in the book that had not already occurred in what James Joyce called “the nightmare of history”: nor any technology that was not already available, no imaginary law, no atrocity that was not already been committed. God is in the details, they say. So is the devil. “

Ada Lovelace

Is thy face like thy mother’s, my fair child!

ADA! sole daughter of my house and heart?

When last I saw thy young blue eyes they smiled,

And then we parted, — not as now we part, But with a hope. –( Child Harold Pilgrimages, Canto III)

Ada Lovelace never saw her father, yet in a way he never left her. Her name Augusta Ada, for example, was always to remind her the scandalous liaison he had had with her aunt Augusta Leigh, actually, his step sister, who was so dear to him to dispose that his daughter should be named after her. Easy to guess, her parents’ marriage came to an end soon and the small talk concerning the circumstances of their divorce would follow her till her death. This may happen when your father is poetry super star George Byron. The swelling tide of rumours about his indecorous conduct forced him to leave the country when Ada was only five weeks old, never to come  back. He died in Greece, when she was only eight years old.

Her mother, who came from a rich family and was a renowned mathematician, in a way feared her daughter might be inclined to the study of humanities just like her father and introduced Ada to her own field of expertise. It was soon evident that the magic of words was not to be in her future, but rather the enchant of numbers. At the age of 12 she made the project of a steam power flight machine. As a true scientist she studied birds’ mechanisms of flight, and then examined various materials, including silk, feathers and paper, with which to build wings. She jotted down the results of her research and recorded each experiment in an illustrated guide, entitled Flyology . One of her tutors proclaimed that if a young male student had her skills “they would have certainly made him an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence”. But she was just a girl.

Lady Byron decided to enhance Ada’s natural aptitude to Math entrusting her training to Mary Somerville, a Scottish astronomer and mathematician, who in 1835 would become the first woman to be accepted, as an honorary member, by the Royal Astronomical Society. Once out in society at the age of 17, it is Mary Sommerville that  introduced Ada to William King, who will become her husband and make her Countess of Lovelace and scientist Charles Babbage, the inventor the “Difference Engine”, a first model of automatic calculator designed to tabulate polynomial functions.

When Ada was invited by Babbage himself to see a demonstration of how the “Difference Engine” worked, she was strongly impressed. She couldn’t know it then, but the “Difference Engine” would change her life and would also be the beginning of a long friendship and a fruitful working relationship with Babbage.The man, who at first underestimated that curious girl, began to change his mind and to open up more. They began to correspond about science and even to discuss his ever evolving projects. He also encouraged Ada to indulge her evident predisposition for numbers and to put her potential to good use. For those times, it was not at all easy: the Victorian patriarchal society was hostile towards the ladies who tried to overcome the intellectual, cultural and social boundaries imposed on them.

In  1835, a year before Ada married, Babbage had begun to plan the “Analytical Engine”, a computing system that used cards to multiply and divide numbers and perform a variety of data tasks. The mathematician was forced to seek support and investments on the project abroad, as the British government had tightened the purse strings and this is the reason why in September 1840 Babbage attended the Second Congress of Italian Scientists in Turin.

Among the people in the audience there was the engineer Luigi Menabrea, who offered to draw up a description of the analytical engine, hitherto non-existent. The article appeared two years later in French (Notions sur la machine analytique de Charles Babbage), in a Swiss magazine. Ada Lovelace, who knew French and every aspect of Babbage’s creature very well, proposed herself as a translator. No, actually she did something more.

She added to Menabrea’s writing some of her notes. The new text, almost three times longer than the original, was published in the British magazine “Taylor’s Scientific Memoir” in August 1843. It was signed simply A.A.L. (the initials of Augusta Ada Lovelace) to hide the author’s gender.

Ada Lovelace’s notes also contained in complete detail, a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers using the Analytical Engine, the so called “Note G”.  In short, the first computer program in history. This is the reason why today Ada is considered the founder of the science of programming, at least in its theoretical aspects: for her, in fact, what mattered was the possibility of demonstrating that only one machine could really be applied for multiple purposes, thanks to the instructions that were provided.

Her intuitive mind was able to see even more: if, following instructions, those machines could manipulate numbers, then they would also be able to manipulate the symbols they represented, like musical notes or letters of the alphabet. In a way she was able imagine the behaviour of our modern computers.

Babbage never managed to build his analytical engine and Ada Lovelace could never test his program as she died of uterine cancer at the age of 36. Thus, for over 100 years after her death, no one remembered her, except as Lord Byron’s only legitimate daughter. Her scientific contribution remained underestimated until the “father of computer science” Alan Turing rediscovered her notes in 1936. It is possible that the British mathematician was inspired by Ada’s ideas in theorizing artificial intelligence.

The greatest tribute to Lovelace’s work, however, came in the 1980s, when the US Department of Defence called ADA  the newly developed programming language DOD-1 (Department of Defense 1). Furthermore, since 2009, Ada Lovelace Day has been celebrated around the world on the second Tuesday in October, to acknowledge the achievements of women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

By the ways, Ada Lovelace was more alike to her father than her story tells, in fact, she did have the gift of poetry, but she applied it to science. She actually declared in a letter that she aspired to what she considered a “poetic science” and that “ imagination is also the faculty of combining“, that is, “of finding points in common between subjects who have no apparent connection”, but “pre-eminently it is the faculty of discovery. It is what penetrates into the invisible worlds around us, the worlds of Science ”. Those could be the words of any romantic poet; just like her father. When she died, she wanted to be buried next to him at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. Together at last.

The Prioress

If I told you to think about a woman who is commonly considered extremely elegant, refined with a great sense of fashion, one who enjoys food and a good company where she often delights in displaying her good manners and knowledge of languages, I am sure you would presume, and with reason, that I’m talking about myself, because I am all such things. But, if I told you that the subject in question is not actually Mrs Tink, but a nun, I am likewise sure that you would understand that there must be something weird in what I am saying, as our image of a “nun” does not , cannot match that description. The Prioress of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” is exactly  all this: a character that does not fit stereotypes.

Chaucer’s description of the pilgrims, actually, is all about detecting their weirdness in behaviour or look, rather than giving you an exact picture of  their physical account, as if only spotting  their singularities, the poet could read their true nature. Chaucer proceeds with great elegance making a crafty use of gentle satire, which consists in the case of the Prioress in a sequence of flatteries, which actually mean quite the opposite of what it seems .

Since the very first lines we understand that this Prioress is somewhat ambiguous. The poet appears to be attracted by her way of smiling, which he describes  as “ simple and coy”. Nothing odd, you would say, this first image fits the behaviour of a nun perfectly, but then he soon adds that she is known as “Madam Eglantine” and eglantine is wild rose with fragrant leaves and flowers, which was in the Middle Age  a symbol of Christ but also of passion and love, and, well, this is weird. Hence, we wouldn’t be far from the truth if we assumed that her being “simple and coy” would refer to another more secular stereotype : the chaste, angel like woman of courtly love tradition.

Chaucer goes ahead telling us how beautiful she sings, even if she intones straight through her nose and also notices that she speaks English with a French accent, even if she is not French at all and very likely she has never been to France. So, we understand that this nun wishes to impress the people she interacts with, thus suggesting that she was once lower-class. Her strange mannerisms can be noticed also at meal time. In fact, she displays excellent table manners: she never lets a morsel of meat fall from her mouth onto her breast, nor does she dips her fingers into the sauce. She wipes her lips so clean that not a trace of grease remains after a meal and eats slowly as if she were not hungry. It is clear that the Prioress’s intent is that of imitating courtly manners and in a way, thus being noticed….. by men.

A nun must be “charitable”, of course, and Chaucer, I am sure, sneered , while emphasizing how sensitive this woman was. She wept if she only saw a mouse bleeding and used to feed “with roast meat, milk and fine white bread”……..her dogs. Chaucer’s satire lies here in what he omits to say, as her humane attitude is displayed only to animals, but there is not a single word of Christian compassion for human beings.

It seems hard to believe, but Prioress is not indifferent to the fashion of  the time, and this is strange indeed. She loves gathering her veil “in a seemly way, thus, keeping the veil higher to let her forehead and the sides of her face uncovered, she goes against monastic rules. That is why Chaucer tells us he appreciates the “graceful charm” of  her neck,  because he saw it and this was quite an unusual exhibition for a nun.

She also indulged on a little make up, as her soft and red lips suggest the use of lipstick which was considered, of course, unacceptable. Furthermore, she wears beautiful, expensive clothing and jewelry, while monastic rule forbade nuns to wear ornaments. The coral rosary with green beads, from which hangs a golden pin with an engraved “A” with the Latin phrase “Amor vincit omnia”- “Love conquers all”- reveals her materialistic interests, which are far away from  being  spiritual. This attitude is emphasized  through the fact that her “greatest oath was but by Saint Loy”, a saint who worked as a goldsmith .

In conclusion, this Madame Eglantine is more interested in profane things rather than fulfilling her religious role. Even the fact that she is far away from her monastery on a pilgrimage, a practice which had been forbidden by bishops several times in history and condemned by the Lollards, proves it . Hence, the target of Chaucer’s criticism is not the lady, but what she represents, that is, the increasing secularization of the church in the late Middle Ages, which by no means could be seen as “dainty”.

The Wife of Bath

In the past, from Aristotle onwards, there was the common creed that God had structured all matters of life in a hierarchical way, a precise work of art where everything had their exact place. This Great Chain of Being, as it was called, in the Middle Age had developed more or less like this: God was at the top of the ladder and right under him there were the angels, which like him are entirely spirit and immutable. Human beings, who consist of both spirit and matter, were beneath them. Animals, plants, minerals followed in this order.

Of course, each group was organized according to a sub-hierarchical structure, as nothing had be left to chance. For what concerns human beings, men came first. That was an uncontroverted law of God. Hence, according to this view women were believed to be naturally inferior. Just like God is above men, men are above women, thus, it is their role and duty to tell the subordinate gender what is right or wrong and to behave accordingly. In short, this patriarchal vision of society was the consequence of the nature of things, the divine vision of the world. If women had been placed there, it’s because God believed it was right to be so.

That is why the stereotypes of women of those times were commonly two: those who conformed to these rules and those who did not. The former were pictured as innocent, chaste and submissive, while the “rebels” were considered sinners, witches, in short, a threat, as they were out man’s control, just like the “true-love” Lord Randal meets in the woods while hunting. This witch like sort of woman poisons and seduces the young man, leading him to death. God, being immaterial, had maybe underestimated, the great power of seduction and control that women might have over man, and this was his Achilles’ heel of the entire structure.

The woman sketched by Chaucer in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, known as “The Wife of Bath”, was well aware of women’s powers and had used them well, that is why she does not completely fit to the above mentioned cliché. She is a wealthy woman, who has made money through marriages, that is, she is independent, a word which is rarely applied to a woman in the 14th century. “Worthy” is the very first adjective Chaucer uses to introduce her. In fact she is a skilled cloth maker and church goer, even if  her mass attending is more a matter of ostentation than devotion. She is powerful and wants to be respected, particularly by the other – submitted – ladies who are intimidated by her behaviour. “The Wife of Bath” is also pictured as “bald”, “ entertaining”, seductive – Chaucer himself appears to feel the charm of this woman – and intelligent.

In the group she is recognized as an absolute authority about marriages and dares to speak freely about what she has learnt through her long experience – she was only twelve when she went to the altar the first time – ; she speaks before other men without needing the permission or the approbation of anybody and what she has to say is shocking for the time.

The first revelation she has to make is that marriage….sucks: “marriage is a misery and a woe”, but this torture can be softened by the clever use of women’s sexual powers to get what she calls a “sovereignty” over their husbands. In short, men can be easily manipulated. Such discovery worries “The Pardoner”, who is to be married soon and does mean to be thus treated by his future wife, but she keeps speaking to impart him a lesson – a woman to a man – in order he may learn from her words of experience how she got complete mastery over all of five husbands, thus demonstrating that women are way smarter than men.

Telling the stories of her 5 marriages and revealing her tricks and cunnings she wants to prove that though men may have all the tangible power in society, women are better at lying and deceiving than men are. Borrowing one famous line from the movie of the “Big, Fat, Greek Wedding” : a man may be the head of the household but the woman is his neck, hence she may turn him wherever she likes.

Hence, even if  “The Wife of Bath” has often been seen as sort of feminist forerunner, she actually both goes against and conforms to stereotypes: though she enjoys telling how she took power over her husbands, she also admits to marrying solely for money, as women in medieval society could gain power and money only through their husbands. But her words started to make comon belief about women’s role in society waver, instilling the most powerful poison ever: doubt.

The Right to Party

We have lived fortunate times, this is for sure. No world conflicts, economic boom,  lucky enough to have inherited fundamental rights we have not fought for, which have made our lives safer, more guaranteed, more dignified. 

We have lived fortunate times, so fortunate that leisure has become the “pillar” of our lives. In the past only a few bunch of people had time and money to enjoy leisure. The others were quite content, if they could provide their families with food, shelter and education for their children. 

We have lived fortunate times; but the “pillar” which has held up our lives  is about crack under the blows of the outbreak, as our leisures are at stake, since a new lockdown is very close. 

We have lived fortunate times, that is why we are unprepared to fight the enemy. We have never bumped into any, so we do not accept its threatening existence, moreover, it cannot be seen, so it is much easier to close our eyes and try to ignore it.

We have lived fortunate times, to be sure, but solidarity and the awareness of belonging to a community have given way to individualism  and selfishness, thus weakening any effort of developing common strategies .

We have lived fortunate times, times which have produced,nevertheless, generations of parents and children who are no longer focused on fundalental values such as education, commitment, effort, for example.

We have lived fortunate times, that is why we cannot conceive a world  made of common sacrifices and limitantions, even when those are due to an unpredictable emergency. We don’t want our lives to be changed, the life of our children cannot be changed, hence, it has become vital to preserve our right and their right to socialization and fun, therefore, pubs, bars, restaurants etc,  ought to remain open. Psycholoysts blabber about the amount of damages this generation of adolescents will suffer from deprived proximity to friends, forgetting that this generation has made of isolation their distinctive trait much before the pandemic. They have always enjoyed being isolated for hours with their playstation, they are isolated even when they are with their group of friends, always stuck to their cellphones, they live isolated in their families. A month of two of lockdown can have no prolongued effect on our children, for one main reason above all: they are young. They have all their life to live and they will forget, that is a privilege of the young. The only risk they might run is that of  learning a lesson from this event, if we allowed them, of course.

We have lived fortunate times, but are we so sure they have been thus fortunate?

Cassandra

Cassandra was the most beautiful of the daughters of Hecuba and Priam, the Queen and  King of Troy. She was so beautiful that even Apollo, notorious womanizer among the gods, was infatuated with her. One  day, while she was slumbering in the temple, Apollo silently approached her, as he had in mind to win the girl’s love. When she woke up and heard the handsome god professing his passion, she was pleasantly flattered. He courted her gently and  promised to give her a most precious gift that would have sealed their love: she would have been able to see the future, but, there is always a but, only if she consented to lie with him.

Cassandra was intrigued at first, it was a generous gift indeed, but, after accepting the offer, she started to have doubts and changed her mind. It happens, even to charming gods. So angry Apollo, who was not used to being jilted, seeked his revenge. He kept acting the meek sad rejected lamb for a while and implored her to give him a single kiss that he could remember forever. The girl accepted and while she made the move to reach Apollo’s lips, the God spat in her mouth. A gesture of utter contempt. With that act Apollo had nullified his own gift condemning her not to be believed.

From that moment on, Cassandra will start to see the future and, as any human being, will not be able to resist or refrain from telling others what she knew, or to alert those who were going have losses or mischances, hence as prophetess of misfortunes and nefarious events, she was avoided and marginalized, for fear, or the illusion of her being able to change events.

Apollo could have condemned Cassandra to mere silence, but he did not. He gave her the faculty to perceive more than normal, keeping the use of the word, and also remaining aware of the fact that others could listen to her but would choose not to believe her words, indeed, they would consider her crazy and delusional for her insistence, especially when she warned them of immense dangers. She will cry out the negative outcomes of Helen’s kidnapping, in fact, and will try to stop the Trojans from dragging the wooden horse into the city, warning them that it would be the cause of their ruin; but she will always remain unheard.

If we want to give a further interpretation to the myth, we may add that Cassandra’s faculty does not only consist in seeing the future but rather, understanding its signs, or better, she sees the future, because she understands them. In a sense Apollo had made her wise, wiser than anybody else, that is the meaning of his gift. After all isn’t it the destiny of the wise, of those who know how to see far and beyond, of those who are able to decipher the omens and may know how to anticipate them to end up unheard?

The consequence of the scrutiny of future should lead to the rise of a great deal of questions in order to find the best solutions to incoming problems, even if they seem inconvenient at first glance. For example, when Priam sees the horse, he doesn’t wonder why he should receive such a gift in a middle of a war, and why the Spartans had retreated in such a hurry. Why? Wisdom would have suggested him to be careful, but he is not. Worn out by an exhausting war, he chooses to believe in the final peace and ignore Cassandra’s words, and, as he wishes to return to normal life, he accepts the Spartans’ gift and allows the huge horse to be dragged inside the city wall and their disgrace of his people with it.

Hence, we may say that Cassandra’s curse lies above all in her not being able to communicate and interact, thus her efforts remain arid, unproductive and sterile. A double torture for those who profess and need to communicate and interact with each other: being aware of speaking while remaining unheard. Communicating is as important as listening and communication is truly constructive, if made of real listening, because communication is something more than the mere reception of an observation, it is an emotional feedback that changes us, excites us, makes us think and reason in order to modify and improve our system.

In this sense our age, which has glorified communication through medias, has turned out to be the less communicative at all, as we all speak and write a lot, but nobody or just a few takes the trouble to listen. Everybody has a truth, which cannot be even dented. Therefore, those who are entitled to “read the signs” and take us out of troubles, like in this outbreak, remain often unheard or offended. So, even if we see the clouds approaching, we still prefer to turn our back to modern Cassandras and look at that little portion of the sky where the sun still shines, without realizing that we are just dragging the Trojan horse in.

 

 

 

 

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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.