24 April 2010

Ouroboros Eins

Figure A: Responsible for the fall of Rome?
64th-degree Warden Edward Gibbon secretly thought so!

Good eve, loyal readers. Tonight I tell you of the creature called
Ouroboros, the serpent eating its own tail, also known as the World Serpent, or Jörmungandr. It is a strange history, fraught with mystical intrigues and uncertain prefixes. And maybe a three-way Ragnarök between the Psychologists, Freemasons, and Theosophists for fate of humanity (or at least they thought so).

Disclaimer: This tale involves a lot of inimitable and intimidating German compound jargon words (Deutschezusammengesetztefachsprachewörter) and a fair smattering of umlauts -- may the Prospektivenleser beware!

Figure B: Thor's giant holographic proxy fights his serpentine cousin, Jörmungandr, in rehearsals for the 3 p.m. matinée of Götterdämmerung

Our story begins, as most stories do, in the past -- the very ancient past. The faith of the old Norse peoples included a pantheon of gods, giants, and divers other spirits. Among these was Jörmungandr, offspring of the trickster-god Loki. A snake, little Jörgy grew and grew and grew until he was so big he encircled the whole of Midgard (Earth), with his tail in his mouth.

It is said that that the sky-god and amateur carpenter Thor had three encounters with the World Serpent. An infamous cat burglar, Thor tried to steal his giant-pal Útgarða-Loki's feline friend, only to discover it practically impossible to lift because it was, in fact, Jörmungandr in a catsuit! Once, Thor went on a fishing trip with another giant-friend, and with one of his hand-tied flies caught the World Serpent, but his yellow friend cut the line before he could strike it a fatal blow with his hammer. Now that's a fish story! The final meeting between god and snake will take place at Ragnarök, the end of the world, when Jörmungandr will leave his comfortable Outer Sea to poison the sky, summoned by sky-hater king of the Frost Giants Richard Wagner. Thor will battle the serpent, killing him but dying himself after walking nine paces from the snake's overpowering leitmotif.

Figure C: Guido Cagnacci, "Allegoria della Vita Umana,"
17th century, tastefully censored for young readers

The Ouroboros did not only appear in Norse culture, however. Chinese, Hindu, Greek, Atlantean and Amerindian cultures also had representations of the circular serpent in their literature and art. To many, it represented the cyclical nature of life and the continuity of the world. The Celts just thought they made great earrings.

That great pagan apologist and peritonitist Edward Gibbon, in his great 1776 work The History of the Decline and the Fall of the Roman Empire (later made into a polemic documentary film starring the late Gibbon apologist Sir Alec Guiness) blames the Ouroboros for Rome's decline. He believed that Romans had lost their civic virtue, becoming effeminate and unwilling to live a "manly" lifestyle. They became Christian and abandoned the old pagan customs, looking to the afterlife rather than the present. And, in addition to barbarians, the Empire was regularly attacked by their Gothic allies: giant, angry serpents, not unlike the one responsible for the death of St. Francis Xavier.

But the wick on my candle has almost reached its nadir. Time to close the Cabinet until next time, when I will continue the Saga of the Ouroboros.

Figure D: Fifth-century Roman soldiers being attacked by enraged, Christian-hating serpents, in a woodcut from Decline and Fall: Illustrated Edition (1777)

14 April 2010

Publick Occurrences: America's First Newspaper

Wilkommen am Wunderkammer! As an aficionado of dying media, I thought I would bring you, in this edition of the Cabinet, the tale of that first American penny dreadful, Publick Occurrences both Forreign and Domestick. Struck up in that late, great lazy newspaper town of Boston by an English expatriate named Benjamin Harris in 1690, Occurrences was the first printed news chronicle to circulate this side of the pond. Harris' day job was as the proprietor of the London Coffee-House in Boston, a place where Anglophiles could gather and gossip in affected British accents.

Plate 1.1: Harris poses with "printer'ſ beſt Friend" in an advertisement for Occurrences

Harris began his gazette with some semi-accurate and prophetic words:"The Countrey shall be furnished once a moneth...with an Account of such considerable things as have arrived unto our Notice." As you can see, spelling has not always been a priority in the news industry. Leaving his business open to expansion, Harris included the caveat that he would have no qualms about flooding his readership with news, as he could not keep a "Glut of Occurrences" from his loyal subscribers.

Harris' goal, he said, was to make sure that "Memorable Occurrents of Divine Providence may not be neglected or forgotten, as they too often are," referring to the infamously illiterate and forgetful lotus-eating Puritans of New England. Another of Harris' objectives was to use his printed organ as a kind of mind control, directing his readers to "better understand the Circumstances of Publique Affairs" in order to "direct their Thoughts at all times." To what ends Harris intended to use his power, be it for zombie revolution or personal vanity, is unknown.

The third goal of Occurrences was "that some thing may be done towards the Curing, or at least the Charming, of that Spirit of Lying, which prevails amongst us." Harris perhaps intended to cure, or at least address, the supposedly supernatural devilry most saliently expressed in the 1689 Braintree Liar Trials. (The lie? The town was actually called Quincy! The real truth? Braintree was controlled by a malevolent, sentient Liberty Tree.) Harris furthermore made his intentions known that he would "expose the Name of such person, as A malicious Raiser of a false Report," and would serve justice by personally pressing them to death in his workshop.

Plate 1.2: Illustration of the fate of "Malicious Raisers of False Reports" appearing in Occurrences

As no newspaper had ever been published in the British colonies of North America, Harris had the daunting task of condensing eighty-three years of news into three double-columned pages. Luckily, he hit upon an ingenious idea to remedy this problem -- make the back page of the second sheet blank. Then the reader could fill in, using their own printing press, what they deemed Harris had neglected. Who's the clever one now, Sulzberger and your "grey" lady?

True to his word, Harris included a diverse array of stories from north, east, west, and south. He reported that "Epidemical Fevers and Agues grow very common, in some parts of the Country," and "tho' many dye not" they were "sorely unfitted for their impolyments." New England society seems to have recovered quickly, though, from its temporary dearth of colored clothing.

Although it was probably apparent to most of his subscribers, Harris also reported that Boston had, “a few weeks ago…met with a Disaster by Fire, which consumed about twenty Houses.” More importantly, however, one of the “Calamities of this Fire” was that the “best furnished PRINTING-PRESS, of those few that we know of in America, was lost; a loss not presently to be repaired.” Any good investigative journalist today would regard this story with suspicion, and might ask: “Did Harris forcibly enter into the Shop of a rival printer, ABSCOND with his PRINTING-PRESS and then ſet the ſhop ablaze to cover up his crime?” Luckily for Harris, investigative reporters had not been invented yet. Unfortunately, Cotton Mathers had been invented, as we shall see presently…

After recounting that, while “barbarous Indians were lurking about” in Chelmsford, “Christianized Indians” had the “prospect of a very Comfortable Harvest," Harris ended the issue with another disclaimer: “'Tis possible, we have not so exactly related the Circumstances of this business, but this Account, is as near exactness, as any that could be had.” Harris needn't worry -- there was no challenge to the veracity of Harris' stories from the other newspaper publishers of Boston. AND THERE WOULD BE NO Publick Occurrences No. 2!

Plate 1.3: Cotton "3.0" Mather sternly reprimands a "barbarous Newsie" it encounters on the road to Salem trying to illegally sell Occurrences out of her handwoven basket.

As you might have expected the humorless and functionally-illiterate Puritan leaders of Massachusetts did not like Harris' unlicensed beige journalism. Foremost among them was Cotton Mather, a great tree-killer in his own right. The prototype Mather 3G,  was engineered to be the ultimate arbiter of Puritan law. The third incarnation was a great improvement on its predecessors, the Richard 1000 and the Increase-a-tron 2.0, cranking out wordy yet inexplicably popular sermons faster than he could inject parishioners with smallpox. The Mather did not stand for illegal printing, however, or upstart competition, and so Harris' two printing presses were smashed by enthusiastic Luddites.

Benjamin Harris, disgraced and bankrupt from his failed Berkshires coffee plantation, did what he knew he must do someday, activating the teleportation portal that linked the London Coffee-House back to its metropolitan namesake. Harris was never seen in Boston again, but, fourteen years later, a man named John Campbell purchased the now-decrepit building and discovered an old printing press inside, and the Boston News-Letter, the first continuouſly printed newspaper in North America, was born!

Well, readers fair, this edition of the Cabinet has drawn to a close. But ol' Prof. C has learned at least one lesson from his research into early American newspapers!

Please fill in below any witticisms, pseudofacts, or interesting woodcuts that you feel add to my tale. Printing only, please.


13 April 2010

Coffee: The Wander Years

Well, hello there!  From time to time, I like to indulge my interest in natural history and psycho-botany by sharing the story of a particular species of flora.  Longtime readers will fondly recall my posts penned in loving tribute to the eccentricities and practical uses of the Jerusalem Artichoke (better known as  "sunflower's ugly cousin") and the Agave plant (better known as la madre hermosa de la tequilla).  Now I turn my razor-sharp skills of botanical wit and floral observation to everyone's favorite member of the Bedstraw family, the coffee plant, genus Coffea.  

Coffee, the beverage, though perhaps now best known as the scrip required for entry into "internet shoppes," was once drunk for its supposedly beneficial properties.  No one knows exactly when in the misty past man discovered the possibilities held within the coffee bean.  Probably because most people don't care.

Coffee is not directly tapped from the trunk of the plant, despite what Kentuckians might tell you.  It is, in fact,   made from something called "beans."  You won't find any leaf-covered titan canning these brown beauties, though!  Coffee beans are no legumes at all -- they are actually fleshy seeds, often called in "the fair trade" berries or cherries.  Coffee beans contain everyone's favorite white crystalline xanthine alkaloid (no, not theobromide!), caffeine, as a natural defense against non-human predators.    

The coffee plant is native to the Horn of Africa and southern Arabian peninsula.  Legend has it that a nomadic-shepherd-type, in need of entertainment, as shepherds are wont to be, forcibly fed the berries to the goat wards of one of his herding rivals, hoping they would cause inebriation, or at least death by poisoning.  The animals, though famous for their indiscriminate tastes, bristled at the bitter fruit, but "Akbar," as we shall call our shepherd, successfully concluded his high-jinx.  It was only later that he learned the outcome of his prank.  The infected goats had produced a delicious flavored milk that became renowned in the valley for its energy- and calcium-giving properties.  And the rest, as they say, is now only popular in Rhode Island.

But I digress!  How came coffee from the barren oases of darkest Africa to Europe, Great Imperial Arbiter of World Taste?  It started--as it always does--with some Turks.  Forbidden from drinking intoxicating beverages by their Islamic faith, the Turks of the Ottoman Empire scoured the known world for a beverage that would please there brains without offending their God.  Coffee, called qahwah in Arabic, was their answer.  Soon, coffeehouses rivaled tulips and eunuchs in popularity in the capital of Istanbul.

Fig. 1: Estate in the Lake District where the fortunately-named Wordsworth stayed when he wrote "Lines Composed a Few Miles above a Coffee Plantation" (1798)

In their oriental travels, savvy Europeans backpackers and greedy merchants soon discovered the Turkish drink.  An English trader for the Royal Levant Company, a certain man Edwards, made friends with an Ottoman Greek named Pasqua Rosee (perhaps a nomme de cafe, since an -opolous in strangely absent).  Rosee was a whiz with preparing the bitter brew and a crack marketer to boot.  Edwards thought that these newfangled coffeehouses would be a hit on his home island, so he decided to bring Rosee back to England and start up his own establishment.

Rosee and Edwards opened up their coffeehouse in London in 1652.  As an early modern person, Rosee lacked a sense of the unintentionally absurd, so the sign above the door of his shop was emblazoned with a   likeness of his own head.  Despite this faux pas, his store was a hit with the businessmen of London, and soon every empty lot and basement hovel in London had a coffeehouse that catered to a specific clientele.  Some of the stranger niche establishments included "Coffee-house for Unwigged Gentlemen" (for wig-abstainers), "At the Sign of the Beelzebub" (for Satanists), "Symmes' Inner Coffee-house" (for hollow earth enthusiasts), "The Chicory-House" (which did not actually sell coffee), and "The Amsterdamned Coffee-House" (for Dutch-haters).  (Believe or not, the last one of those was real!)  All raked in the pounds.

Coffeehouse enthusiasts promoted the drink, as the Turks had done, as a sober alternative to alcohol.  Before long, however, coffeehouses began selling other drinks -- tea, hot chocolate....and beer.  Tobacco, scourge of Biblical author James the VI and I, was also popular at coffeehouses, perhaps because smoking the dried leaves was also thought to be an antidote for dread malaria.

Fig. 2: Self-explanatory.

Coffee and coffeehouses were soon popular in the cities of the Old and New Worlds, including Boston, New York, Paris, Amsterdamn, and Vienna.  But it still had to be imported, at great cost, from the domain of the Great Turk.  Sounds like a job for those ruthless traders and still life lovers, the Batavians!  Although I know that you are curious to learn more of the nascent global coffee trade, I regret to say that this terribly over-involved story will not fit into the Cabinet or I won't be able to shut its doors.

Stay tuned for the cleverly-named second chapter, entitled "Coffee: Years of Change." Until then, the Cabinet is closed...
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