Saturday, September 5, 2020

The Destiny of Women Spies


Laura D'Oriano 1911-1943


On this blog, I discussed several times the case of Margaretha Zelle, AKA Mata Hari, executed in 1917 on the accusation of being a spy for the Germans. But, of course, there have been several cases of women accused of espionage and then executed. Some were real spies, others were victims of a new version of the "witch hunt" that had bloodied Europe during the 17th century. 

While Mata Hari was surely an innocent victim, the case of Laura D'Oriano is different and it seems clear that she was a real spy for the allies during WW2. But the reasons that led her into troubles were the same as those that doomed Mata Hari. According to Brian Sullivan, "there are three reason that lead people to become spies. The first, the rarest, is ideology. The second is money, the third is blackmail."

There is no doubt that neither Mata Hari nor Laura D'Oriano had any interest in the ideology of the conflicts they were witnessing. They were just swept away by a situation of personal problems, lack of money, and just the impossibility, at times, to resist to evil. 

Laura D'Oriano's story reads in many ways like that of Mata Hari. Both were cosmopolitan women who had lived in foreign countries and spoke several languages. Both were escaping from a marriage with an abusive husband who searched an artistic career to make a living. Mata Hari was more successful and achieved world fame. Laura D'Oriano failed. She was, no doubt, a beautiful woman from the pictures we have of her. But that's not enough to guarantee a career of performer.

It seems that Laura D'Oriano had serious problems of money, she tried various odd jobs until she was was framed into a low-level espionage job for the Allies. She moved to Bordeaux, where she was supposed to provide information about the movements of the Italian submarines stationed there. That seems to have involved seducing some of the Italian officers manning the base. We will never know whether some of the officers she obtained information from died as a result of that information being transmitted to the British. But that is the job of female spies operating as seductresses. 

That of the spy is a dangerous job, no matter what is your role. It is probably not glamorous at all and it doesn't even pay well. So, Laura D'Oriano was identified, arrested in Italy, and sentenced to death. She was shot in Rome on January 13, 1943. Curiously, in one last detail that made her similar to Mata Hari, she wanted to die looking at the firing squad. Roba da Donne

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Empathy and Epic Fiction: A reflection on the day of the Ashura of 2020

 The day of Ashura, 2020, inspired me these notes about empathy and epic fiction

Is it still possible to produce epic fiction in our world? It is extremely difficult in a world where everything seems to be tainted with decadence and decline, but there is a chance. And we saw truly epic moments in Russel Crowe's movie "The Water Deviner" (2014). 

Let me say first that whoever wrote the script for this movie should be cursed by the muse Calliope and receive at least a bad stomachache as punishment. Really, modern scripting is almost always bad, but this one is terrible. We see an improbable war-widow who looks like a movie star, completely out of place in a hotel in Istanbul. Flashbacks aplenty, and of the worse kind (against the basic rule of all fiction: never use flashbacks). An especially horrible scene is when the filmmaker insists for at least five minutes on showing us one of the three sons of the protagonist having to kill his wounded brother. I mean, what do you think you are allowed to do in order to try to extract a cheap tears from your viewers? Don't you have a drop of shame left in your nearly empty brain? And the script for the last 10 minutes of the film were handled by the same writer who writes the scripts for the Tom and Jerry cartoons.

But the film has this redeeming feature: it is epic. Truly. It is because the theme is epic and we can't miss that point. "The Water Deviner" tells us of a father looking for the bodies of his dead sons. That's something that resonates with all of us. You can't forget the scene, in the Iliad, when King Priam goes to see Achilles, asking him to give back to him his dead son. And Achilles weeps together with the father of the man he killed. This is possibly the highest moment of poetry ever produced in human literature. And it is epic. 

What is epic, after all? It is conflict and a good cause. There is a hero who fights for a good cause. He may be defeated, it doesn't matter. Heroism is doing one's duty in difficult circumstances. Not by chance I am writing these note in the day of the Ashura of 2020, commemorating when the Imam Hoseyn (AS) fought and died at Karbala. He fought for justice and died for justice, that's the basis of all epic stories.

So, epic can appear everywhere, in different circumstances. Even in a decadent society that seems to be bent to destroying everything that's good and decent, like ours, occasionally epic resurfaces. Think of how Virgil resurrected the epic stories of the Iliad and the Odissey in his Aeneid. Like us, Virgil lived in an age of decadence, and his attempt to glorify the birth of the Roman Empire could have turned into the worst apologetic trash that the Empire was already producing at the time. And yet, Virgil turned his story into an epic masterpiece. This is because epic is always around us, it is up to us to recognize it. 

Back to The Water Deviner, despite all the narrative disasters that plague it, the epic vein never really disappears. It is deep, and it is made especially alive by the figure of Hassan Bey, the Turkish officer who is the co-protagonist (and perhaps the true protagonist) of the movie. It is in the gradual discovery by Joshua, the protagonist, of the soul of a nation: ordinary people, the Turkish soldiers defeated in the war, who feel that they have something to fight for: to defend their land. This is epic -- truly epic. 

Of course, I know that wars are bad. In this case, after the end of the 1st world war, a lot of horrible things happened and all the sides involved have their faults: Turks, Greek, British, all alike. It is part of the human destiny to be like this. But one day we'll transcend the need of the kind of epic that involves killing people. It will be a different, and higher, form of empathy that we will reach. But we won't get anywhere if we don't develop empathy even in the simplest forms. And we have to start from the level we are: the level of feeling something for our fellow human beings. Yes, like when we are told of a father who is looking for the bodies of his dead sons. It may be Priam in the Iliad, or Joshua in "The Water Deviner" -- it is the same thing. It is the magic of empathy that makes us be them, and takes us to their world and their feeling.

The words below are attributed to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and to have been addressed to the mothers of the Australian soldiers who died in Gallipoli during the WW1. It is not certain that Ataturk ever said these words, they may be fiction. But, then, so are the words that Achilles and Priam exchanged as told in the Iliad. And, I dare to say, that this piece of fiction by an anonymous writer of the 1930s is not inferior to the words told by Homer. Words are our link to the real world. Worlds make us see, dream, and feel. And words make us feel for something higher than ourselves -- this is empathy in its purest form. The epic in everyone of us.

Those heroes that shed their blood
And lost their lives…
You are now lying in the soil of a friendly Country.
Therefore rest in peace.
There is no difference between the Johnnies
And the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side
Here in this country of ours…
You, the mothers,
Who sent their sons from far away countries
Wipe away your tears,
Your sons are now lying in our bosom
And are in peace
After having lost their lives on this land
They have become our sons as well


There is a point that I hadn't noticed when I published this text and that came up in the discussion on Facebook. I wrote that in the Iliad, "Achille weeps together with the father of the man he had killed." Which is true, but note the subtlety, Achilles doesn't weep for Hector or Priam. He just notices the similarity of the destiny of his own father and his friend Patroclus. And he weeps for them only. It is a kind of empathy, but I'd say a notch lower than that of someone who really can put himself inside the person he faces. It seems to fit with Julian Jaynes interpretation of the mind of the people at the time of the Iliad: their level of empathy was not so high.

Priam finished. His words roused in Achilles
a desire to weep for his own father. Taking Priam’s hand,
he gently moved him back. So the two men there
both remembered warriors who’d been slaughtered.
Priam, lying at Achilles’ feet, wept aloud
for man-killing Hector, and Achilles also wept
for his own father and once more for Patroclus.
The sound of their lamenting filled the house.

h/t Maurizio Tron




Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Theology as the Queen of Sciences: Can we Stop the Collapse of Truth?


Years ago, I was walking along a narrow path along a steep mountain slope. Suddenly the rocks under my feet started slipping down. I don't know what I exactly risked at that moment but I had a horrible feeling that the whole mountain was sliding down and that it was taking me with it, all the way down to the bottom of the valley. Maybe some God, somewhere, was rolling dice for me and the bad number didn't come up. But if I rethink of that moment, I can still feel the impression of everything collapsing around me. The same sensation I have nowadays, not about a rockslide, but about truth slinding down and being lost forever. 


First of all, a disclaimer: I am trained in physics and I know that the worst sin that you can make as a scientist is that of mixing data with opinions. In other words, you don't do science by analogies. That's not just a sin, it is treason. If you do that, you are three times a traitor: to yourself, to your teachers, to science. 

And yet, I recognize that something is rotten in the citadel of science. Maybe we scientists are still able to do good science, but what we are doing is becoming more and more irrelevant. We painstakingly find data, evaluate them, compare them, before arriving to a conclusion. But data are becoming irrelevant in the discussion.

An example: A few days ago, I found the results of a poll on how people perceive the damage made by the Covid epidemic. Impressive: in a group of Western countries, people estimated that the fraction of people killed by the virus was way higher than the real data. For instance, people in the US estimated that the Americans killed by the virus were 9% of the total. Now, do you realize that it would mean 30 million victims? Compare that with reality: the count of covid deaths now stands at 173,000 and the real mortality in the US so far is about 0.05%. The average estimate is off of more than a factor of 200.

And think that the "9%" is an average of the answers given. Some people must have known the real number and that means a lot of people must be thinking that the number of victims must have been well over 10%, maybe 15% or 20%, Think about that: if you believe that your chance to die of covid is around 15%, then it is the same as that of rolling a "6" on a die. Imagine that: you roll your die, you get a "six" and -- bang --  you are dead. 

And that's the reason of the tsunami of pure terror that has invaded people's lives. I know people who are still in voluntary lockdown in Italy, even though the compulsory lockdown has been over for three months. And they are living a miserable life, not wanting to see anybody, go anywhere, meet anyone. When they must go out -- because they must -- they do that wearing their face masks tight and looking at the people they happen to cross in the street as if they were lepers or worse.

This wave of madness explains some of the reactions I had to my comments on that poll. Some people seemed to be truly offended by the numbers I presented and they responded in kind (you are a denialist, a spreader of fake news, a conspiracy theorist, etc.). Others seemed to be genuinely unable to understand the point I was making. The reaction was something like, "But, Ugo, don't you understand that we had 35,000 deaths of coronavirus in Italy? You think that's not enough? How can you be so callous in saying that these deaths do not count? You want to do nothing to stop the coronavirus to spread and cause more victims? Are you evil, heartless, or just someone who doesn't live in the real world?"

We can say many things about this story. That school has not made its job of teaching even a little mathematics to people, that the government propaganda turns out to be very effective, that we need to explain things better if we want people to understand reality, that Internet tribalization is causing all sorts of troubles. All that is correct, but my impression is that there is more here, there is much more. 

I have been thinking a lot about truth. And I still believe that science, the way we understand it today, is a step toward truth. But it is not enough, and a lot of what we are doing is counterproductive. What's truth, really? How can it be that truth is so difficult to recognize? How can it be that we keep fighting so hard against truth? How can it be that truth is so fragile that the lowliest internet troll can destroy it? How is it that people trust so evidently unreliable sources of information and become angry at the mere thought that they might be lied to?

Maybe we need something bigger, higher, deeper than just listing "the data" and hope that people will find truth in them. What could that be, I don't know, but I know that the problem is not new. Aldeady during the 3rd century AD, a man named Augustine was asking himself this question and he would find truth in the divine revelation. Today, Michael Dowd has put together a view that I see as the next step after Augustine: the truth is not in the words that the prophets related to us, although in part it may well be. The truth is in everything that surrounds us, the word of God is not in a book, it is in the creation itself. And the virtue we need to recognize truth is humility in front of the greatness of the creation

So, maybe theology really is the queen of the sciences and we badly need it to give a sense to our poor "science," so proud of itself and so lost in a universe too big for it to understand. This post by Dominey Jenner is a good example of a different view. I won't say that I agree on every single point she makes, but it reads like a breath of fresh air after having come out of a smoke-filled crypt.

Dominey Jenner: Restoring the Queen of the Sciences

This is an article by Dominey Jenner.

We have all heard rather a lot about ‘the science’ these last few months. Its elevation has been clear through its impact on government policy, with the ever present SAGE and influential scientists such as Neil Ferguson. The consequence has been catastrophic both socially and economically. It would seem that, in fact, science does not have all the answers.

Perhaps it is time to return to a broader understanding of the sciences. Theology was once considered ‘the queen of the sciences’ – the study of God presumed to be the most fundamental way to understand the world that He has made. I would suggest that only through this lens can we really understand why lockdown and its associated policies were always going to be bad for the human experience.

Social Distancing

In C.S. Lewis’ ‘The Great Divorce’, Hell is depicted as a socially distanced realm. Its inhabitants move further and further away from each other as time goes on; “they’ve been moving on and on… getting further apart…every now and then they move further still”. Isolation pains us because we are instrinsically relational beings. The Bible holds that we are made in the image of God – a God who by nature is relational. Whilst the Trinity is perhaps one of the most headache-inducing doctrines, it is not hard to understand that One God made of Three Persons is going to involve relationship. Throughout the Bible we see Father, Son and Holy Spirit in perfect and constant relationship with each other. As God’s image-bearers, relationship is what we’re about too.

If being prohibited from seeing your family, your friends and your work colleagues was hard to bear, that is because it went against your human nature. If being required to stand two metres apart from your fellow citizens feels alien, that’s because it is. If you missed just bumping into people at Tesco’s, on the train, or in the park, that’s because we are relational beings. A people required to socially distance are a people required to work against their own nature.


It was early into lockdown that I saw her. An elderly woman, hunched up, face mask pulled up, eyes darting around, aghast at the sight of fellow human being, nothing but fear in her eyes. I wanted to cry.

The fear induced by our government and the media is perhaps one of the most lamentable aspects of this whole Covid episode. The warning given, early on, to the government by a SAGE sub-group that, “the perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased…using hard-hitting emotional messaging” did not go unheeded with government messages such as “if you go out, you can spread it, people will die”, plastered everywhere.

Even now, four months on, YouGov’s fear tracker (yes, it’s a thing) has only fallen by 11 percentage points since its peak, the day after lockdown began. 49% of those most recently surveyed still feel, “very or somewhat scared” of catching the virus. Covid has virtually left these shores and yet the fear remains. The terrorisation of our general population has been wholesale.

“Do not be afraid” is one of the most oft-repeated encouragements in the Bible, expressed over a hundred times. What a sweet counter those words are. They are based on the idea that, whilst not promising an easy life, God is ultimately in control and can be trusted to do the right thing by those who put their trust in Him. With our lives in His hands and Death conquered, we have nothing, ultimately, to fear. Biblically, the opposite of fear is not courage, but rather faith.

Fear is the devil’s currency. He seeks to sow it in human hearts for it is one of the best ways to undermine faith. It is hardly surprising then, that a nation saturated with fear is a nation approximating Hell.

Face masks

Human beings are the pinnacle of God’s creation. Made on the sixth day, just before God rested, we are created in His image and entrusted with the stewardship of the Earth: “Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1: 28). Human beings are sacrosanct.

Just let that sink in for a moment, because it runs against the grain of so much of current popular thinking. The neo-Malthusian revival, perhaps most apparent in the climate change movement, would have us believe that, in fact, humans are the scourge of the Earth. Consider David Attenborough’s view that, ‘we are a plague on the Earth’. His solution, of course, is population control. I can’t think of anything more contrary to God’s command to Adam and Eve to “fill the Earth and subdue it”.

But what has this to do with face masks? There seems to me to be something fundamentally sacrilegious in the blotting out of half a human being’s face. The face is more than just its physical features – it is part of the essence of a man. Animals have faces but we know it’s not the same.

Whilst I’ll admit to not having a fully developed theology of ‘the face’, I do believe the Bible has something to say about its significance. When Moses asks to see God’s glory, He agrees but says, “you cannot see my face, for no-one may see me and live” (Exodus 33: 20). God’s face is inextricably linked with his Person. So Moses has to settle for God’s back: “I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen”. Clearly, the face is more than just its constituent parts. When believers are encouraged by the Lord to “seek my face” we know it’s not his literal face but all that the face stands for. The face is symbolic, it expresses the Person. To cover it is, I believe, to dehumanise.


“Ah yes, singing – of course singing will be banned”. This was my first thought when I heard of a church choir in America, that became infected with Covid, following a single rehearsal. It was at this point that my suspicions were confirmed – there was something uniquely wicked about this virus and the way it would be responded to.

Singing is part of what we are made for. Many will be familiar with the opening statement of The Westminster Shorter Catechism; “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Singing is one of the ways by which we are enjoined to do this. “Sing to the Lord” is a regular refrain: “Sing to the Lord, all the earth; proclaim his salvation day after day” (1 Chronicles 16:23).

It is no coincidence that the Bible has a whole songbook, the Psalms, incorporated into it. The apostle Paul encourages believers to “sing and make music from your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19). Proclamation through the sung word was held dear by the likes of Martin Luther. It is reported that, “many of Luther’s enemies feared his hymns more than the man himself”. We are created to worship and the prohibition of congregational singing denies us this fundamental means of grace.

Furthermore, as if to add insult to injury, there is talk of humming being considered as a substitute for singing. This is like some cruel joke. It is to entirely miss the point of singing. Nothing can be proclaimed with lips firmly closed. I would rather be silent than hum. Imagine John’s revelation of heaven with humming in the place of singing: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth, and all that is in them, humming…” And of course they can’t go on to express what they would have otherwise sung: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Rev. 5:13). No, we are diminished without the opportunity to sing together.


It has been difficult not to detect a certain malevolence towards children through many aspects of lockdown. Who can forgot the chalked playground squares that French nursery children were confined to? Or pictures of teachers, covered head to toe in PPE, welcoming littles ones back to school by pointing a temperature gun at their heads. Or, more recently, the perverse suggestion from a trusted CBeebies doctor, that children might like to cover their little faces with an old sock. There is so much in the way children have been treated during lockdown that I have found, frankly, dark and sinister.

In the Bible, children are considered to be a gift from God: “Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him” (Psalm 127:3). The way we treat children matters. Those who felt license to express their otherwise latent contempt for children, during the censorious atmosphere of lockdown, should have thought twice. Perhaps they were not familiar with Jesus’ strong warning, “if anyone causes one of these little ones those who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea”.


There is so much more that could be said on this subject: the treatment of our elderly; the decent into madness; our government’s attempt to play God; the idolisation of the NHS; the crippling fear of death. Suffice to say that, from a Christian perspective, these too are great evils.

An elderly preacher who I love and respect once said that the thing that convinced him that Christianity was true was the sense it made of the human condition. You may disagree but it’s at least worth considering. Thanks to our weak national church and the abdication of responsibility by its leaders (with a few notable exceptions), to teach anything approaching biblical Christianity, the majority of people will have no idea why their natural instincts may in fact be correct. It would seem that the queen of sciences has been in exile for far too long.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Julian Jaynes and the Biblical Story of Tamar and Judah


 The Story of Tamar and Judah as told in the book of Genesis of the Bible is especially interesting for the way it describes how the characters. They move as if they had no feelings, like automatons. It is a kind of view of reality that Julian Jaynes explored in his search for human consciousness. It was a long journey from the time of Tamar and Judah to our times, but the trip is continuing. Where are we going? Will we hear again God's words as told by Google?

All we do is the result of how we perceive the world, and the way we perceive the world depends on how our mind works. It is, actually, a two-way relationship (as we relate, so we think). And it is a story that started long, long ago, when our ancestors started developing what we call today "self-consciousness," a way of modeling oneself, just as they would model the external world. Julian Jaynes was a great pioneer in this field with his The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,  (1976)

Now, it seems to me that our so-much cherished self-consciousness is failing us, leading us to believe that, "the world is what we think it is." It is what Donald Rumsfeld noted when he said, "now we create our own reality." That's a consciousness jump comparable to the one that changed our bronze age ancestors into what we are today. But not all changes are good and we may be destined to a harsh rediscovery that the world, out there, is not the same as what we think it is.

As usual, the key of the future lies in the past and we can learn a lot on how our mind works by examining how it evolved over the past millennia. Julian Jaynes explored many ancient documents in support of his idea that our ancestors were not really conscious but acted on the basis of "voices" that they heard in their mind. His interpretation of the Iliad and the Odyssey is especially impressive. Jaynes didn't pay as much attention to the Bible, probably a more modern book than the Iliad, but even there we can find examples of how differently the ancient thought.

I recently commented on the story of Tamar and Judah, as told in the Genesis about the significance for women to wear face veils. But there is much more than that in the story than the creative use of the veil made by Tamar. What's impressive is how the author writes the story in a way that never gives us any hint of what the characters were thinking while they were doing what they were doing. It was especially impressive to think of this after reading a modern rendition of the story written by Francine Rivers in 2009. The story is the same, but the way of telling it has changed enormously in some 3000 years. Let's make a little comparison. 

This is Francine Rivers describing how Tamar came to marry Judah's son, Er. (just skim through this especially bad example of prose)

“Why must it be this way, Mother? Have I no choice in what’s to become of me?”“No more choice than any other girl. I know how you’re feeling. I was no older than you when I came into your father’s house. It is the way of things, Tamar. Haven’t I prepared you for this day from the time you were a little girl? I have told you what you were born to do. Struggling against your fate is like wrestling the wind.” She gripped Tamar’s shoulders. “Be a good daughter and obey without quibbling. Be a good wife and bear many sons. Do these things, and you’ll bring honor upon yourself. And if you’re fortunate, your husband will come to love you. If not, your future will still be secure in the hands of sons. When you’re old, they’ll take care of you just as your brothers will take care of me. The only satisfaction a woman has in this life is knowing she has built up the household of her husband.”“But this is Judah’s son, Mother. Judah’s son Er.”Her mother’s eyes flickered, but she remained firm. “Find a way to fulfill your duty and bear sons. You must be strong, Tamar. These people are fierce and unpredictable. And they are proud.”Tamar turned her face away. “I don’t want to marry Er. I can’t marry him—”Her mother grasped her hair and yanked her head back. “Would you destroy our family by humiliating such a man as this Hebrew? Do you think your father would let you live if you went into that room and begged to be spared marriage to Er? Do you think Judah would take such an insult lightly? I tell you this. I would join your father in stoning you if you dare risk the lives of my sons. Do you hear me? Your father decides whom and when you marry. Not you!” She let go of her roughly and stepped away, trembling. “Do not act like a fool!”Tamar closed her eyes. The silence in the room was heavy. She felt her sisters and nurse staring at her. “ I’m sorry.” Her lip quivered. “ I’m sorry. I’ll do what I must.”“As we all must.” Sighing, her mother took her hand and rubbed it with scented oil. “Be wise as a serpent, Tamar. Judah has shown wisdom in considering you. You are strong, stronger than these others. You have quick wits and strength you don’t even realize yet. This Hebrew has taken an interest in you. For all our sakes, you must please him. Be a good wife to his son. Build a bridge between our people. Keep the peace between us.”The weight of responsibility being given her made her bow her head. “I will try.”“You will do more than try. You will succeed.” Her mother leaned down and kissed her cheek briskly. “Now sit quietly and collect yourself while I send word to your father that you’re ready.”
 And this is how the Bible describes the same story:

And Judah took a wife for Er his first-born, and her name was Tamar

Isn't it impressive? Let me show you another example, this one about Er. Here is how Ms. Rivers describes him.

Er was tall like his father and held the promise of great physical strength. He had his mother’s thick curling mass of black hair, which he had drawn back in Canaanite fashion. The brass band he wore around his forehead made him look like a young Canaanite prince. Tamar was awed by her husband’s handsome appearance but filled quickly with misgivings when she looked into his eyes. They were cold and dark and devoid of mercy. There was pride in the tilt of his head, cruelty in the curve of his lips, and indifference in his manner.

And here is what the Bible says

But Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of God and God put him to death.

You see the difference. 

The fact is that the character in the Bible story behave in ways that would make us describe them as robots or automata. Another example is Abraham who blindly obeys when God tells him that he must sacrifice is firstborn Isaac. Not that they are stupid, not at all. The ruse that Tamar devises in order to bend the Levirate law in her favor is clever by all means. But there is not a trace of feelings or of consciousness in their behavior. Nor there is a hint of compassion for the death of Er and Onan, nor for the distress of Tamar. And when Judah orders Tamar to be burned at the stake, he seems to be no more concerned about that than if he were ordering a sheep to be roasted. These people are all autistic or what?

The book of Genesis was probably written around the 6th century BC, but the stories it tells about the patriarchal age are certainly older, quite possibly their core lies in the bronze age, more or less when the Acheans were besieging the city of Troy on the Western border of Anatolia. So, it makes sense to apply the considerations that Jaynes had developed for the Iliad also to this section of the Bible. Indeed, in the story of Abraham, we read of how he received from God the command to kill his son, Isaac -- probably heard as a voice in his head just like it happens to the heroes of the Iliad. That raises an interesting questions, were the characters of the patriarchal age just portrayed as automatons, or were they automatons? That's a question we cannot answer: we cannot enter the minds of people who lived some three thousand years ago -- we cannot even enter the minds of the people who are alive today. But one things is sure: the human mind has changed a lot in a few thousand years.

The Bible may actually gives us some idea of this gradual evolution. While Abraham obeys God's orders that he hears in his mind, in the case of Tamar and Judah, we are not told that anyone heard voices. God enters the story only as a mischievous element, smiting Judah's sons without paying any attention, apparently to the results of his actions. It doesn't seem that God cares at all about Tamar or about anyone else and nobody in the story asks God's advice. 

It may well be that the story of Tamar and Judah is about the transition phase from the bicameral age to the modern way of thinking. Indeed, just as an example, there is another Tamar in the Bible, the son of David, who is raped by her brother Amnon, whose feeling are clearly described in the Book of Samuel as "Amnon hated her with a very great hatred; for the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her."

So, it is a long journey that we made from Abraham to Ms. Francine Rivers. And perhaps the most interesting part of it is that it is continuing. Just examine any on-line discussion on the Web, don't you have the impression that some people have gone too far in their travel to self-consciousness? They are so self-conscious that they tend to think that the world has to adapt to the way they see it, rather than the opposite. Do you note the knee-jerk reaction when you tell them something that doesn't fit with their internal model of the world? 

Imagine that the story of Tamar and Judah were told today: would you believe what this woman said? What proof do we have that the objects she showed were really Judah's ones? Was it all a ruse by Judah to have sex with her daughter-in-law? Besides, who killed Onan and why? Who is this Tamar, anyway? Is she a Canaanite agent spying on the good Hebrews? Maybe Tamar is all part of a conspiracy by the Canaanite king to invade us because they are envious of our freedom?

In those times, truth was somehow solid, enshrined in a story. Now, truth has become fluid, as you think you hold it, it flows away from your hands. In a way, even truth has been marketed, just like many other commodities. And once it is marketed it becomes a product that comes in various gradation, from extra-value to run-of-the-mill. It is even overproduced, like candies or toys. 

The book by Ms. Francine Rivers is a good example of this over-production of a supposed truth. It is no more about truth, but about a version of the truth for the cheap end of the market. Among other things, you can note how Rivers has slashed away from her story all the potentially upsetting elements found in the Bible. The core of the story, that Tamar prostitutes herself to force his father in law to respect the Levirate law, is just not there. Zero: not even mentioned. Truly amazing: it is like writing a biography of Abraham Lincoln and never mention that he was President of the United States. Apparently, Ms. Rivers thinks that this part of the story would be hard to digest for modern Christians. So, what is left is something like a TV soap opera of the 1960s. Which is, after all, our current way of interpreting reality. 

Yet, for everything that exists, there has to be a reason for it to exist. If we moved from being automatons to being "self-conscious," it means that there was a reason for moving in that direction. There must have been advantages for people who were self conscious in comparison to those who weren't. Maybe being able to model oneself led to better relations with one's social group. 

But the most fascinating thing is that the journey of consciousness is continuing. Where are we going? If we continue building up models of reality in our minds, we risk detaching ourselves from reality, "we create our own reality" as Donald Rumsfeld notes. But that's not a good thing: we risk losing track of the real world and that may be bad. Very bad. Maybe the direction of the travel will be reversed and one day we'll hear again God's voice in our heads, although maybe by then God's name may well be "Google."

Sunday, August 9, 2020

The Great Game: Why Italy was Created in the Crimean War

Image: Piedmontese "bersaglieri" soldiers engaged against Russian troops in Crimea, ca 1855. Of the 15,000 troops sent to Crimea from Piedmont, it is reported that only about 2500 returned to their homes. Painting by De Stefani, from Wikipedia

History sometimes repeats itself, often rhymes, always it is shaped by chains of events that sometimes have remote and little known origins. What led me to re-examine the history of the Crimean War of 1843-1845 was the attempt of understanding the reasons of the birth of Italy as a unified state, in 1860. As it nearly always happens, that led me to discover a number of events that history books often fail to report or to assess correctly. In particular, how the origins of the Italian state is the result of a concatenation of events whose origins lie with the "Great Game", the gigantic struggle that pitted Russia and Britain over the 19th century for the domination of the world. It is a thread that goes back to long ago, but that is still playing its role in our times. 

We may start this story with 1783; at the time of Catherine the Great, when the Russian Empire occupied the Crimean peninsula as part of a victorious campaign against the Ottoman Empire. It was a small event in itself, but one that would have great effects on the history of the world. In particular, it had an important reflection on events that took place in the Italian peninsula almost one century later, with the political unification of a region that had never been an independent state in history before.

The story stars from he late 18th century, when the world saw a phenomenon never seen before: the rise of coal-based empires; large structures that exploited their coal resources to industrialize and to boost their military power. The main ones were the British and the Russian empires that had the largest coal resources in the world. Other empires of those times didn't have coal or had been unable to exploit the resources they had. These two empires came in contact along a ragged ring of fire that started at the Baltic sea, in Europe, all the way to the remote peninsula of Kamchatka in the North Pacific. Over this vast area, the "great game" was being played: a game that had world domination as its final reward. It was this struggle that inspired Rudyard Kipling's novel "Kim" (written in 1901), where you can't understand the story of the transformation of an independent and free Indian boy into a spy for Britain if you don't remember how important the Great Game was at that time.

In the West of Eurasia, the big prize was the Middle East, being encroached from the North by Russia and from the South by Britain. And so it was that, in the late 18th century, Crimea became a strategic asset in the great game. For the Russian, it was the door to both the Mediterranean and to the Middle East. And the Russians they started creating a major military port to host their black sea fleet, founding the city of Sevastopol on the South-Western tip of Crimea.

Of course, the European powers, and the British in particular didn't like the idea of sharing the Mediterranean with the Russians but, initially, they had to put up with the events. But, in 1853, the Russians and the Ottomans were again at war in the Balkans, with the Ottomans being defeated. That was too much and the Western Powers assembled a large expeditionary force that included British, French and Ottoman troops that landed in Crimea in 1854. The objective was ambitious: take Sevastopol and kick the Russians out of the Black sea.

Today, we remember little of the Crimean war that, actually, didn't involve just Crimea but also the Baltic, the Caucasus, the White Sea, and even military operations in the remote Kamchatka peninsula. It was a major war that saw the engagement of nearly one million combatants on each side and some 400,000 casualties on the Russian side while those on the allied side were nearly 300,000. The Crimean war was not just large, but it involved some element that would reappear in later wars: propaganda, railroads for transporting troops, photographic reporting, amphibious warfare and more. In many ways, the Crimean war prefigured the much larger world wars that were to appear in the 20th century.

From a military viewpoint, the Crimean war was a defeat for the Russian Empire, forced to de-militarize Crimea. But it was also an example of the  "two rules of military engagement with Russia," already well established with Napoleon Bonaparte. They are: 1) First, the Russians lose and 2) Then they win. By 1877, Russia had reoccupied Crimea and was again at war with Turkey. This time, the Western European powers didn't intervene to help Turkey; rather, Britain profited of the occasion to snatch Cyprus away from the Ottoman Empire.

How did all that affect the Italian penisnsula? In Italy, nobody seemed to be especially interested in the events taking place in the remote Crimea. But with the war in full swing, France and England desperately needed all the allies they could find. And so, France asked (or perhaps ordered) the Kingdom of Piedmont (also known as Kingdom of Sardinia) to send an expeditionary force to fight with the allies in Crimea. Piedmont was not an empire and it had no coal, but it had been able to industrialize using British coal and had built-up a considerable military force with the objective of subduing the plethora of statelets that existed in the Italian peninsula at that time. The Piedmontese intervention had only a modest effect on the balance of forces in Crimea, but it established the fact that Piedmont and France were allies. It also established that Piedmont had gained a certain degree of strategic credit that it was to redeem later in terms of military help from France.

A less known part of this story is the role of the Kingdom of Naples. The Kingdom had a long story of friendship with Russia and, some 50 years before, Russia had sent troops to Naples to help (unsuccessfully) the Kingdom to repel an attack from France. It seems that the Russians saw the Southern Italian kingdom as their gateway to the Mediterranean region and maintained good relations with it. At the time of the Crimean war, there was no formal alliance between the Kingdom of Naples and Russia, but when the British asked to the King of Naples to send troops to Crimea to join the Anti-Russia alliance, the King refused, preferring to remain neutral and to maintain the commercial exchanges that the Kingdom had with Russia. Even when it was clear that Russia was losing, the King of Naples refused to make the about-face that the Austrian empire did at the last moment. That turned the Kingdom of Naples into a pariah in the eyes of both the French and the British.

So, much of what happened in Italy after the Crimean War can be explained by these simple facts. The French and the British felt that the Kingdom of Piedmont was to be rewarded for its help, while the Kingdom of Naples was to be punished. For the Kingdom of Naples, already economically backward, it was a disaster: the defeat of Russia in Crimea had made it impossible for the Russians to send help to Naples and the kingdom found itself completely isolated against the more powerful Kingdom of Piedmont, well supported by Britain. There came the expedition of Garibaldi to Sicily in 1860, whose ships were protected by the British fleet. The Neapolitan army was defeated, the kingdom was invaded by the Piedmontese from the North and that was the end of the Kingdom of Naples and the birth of the Kingdom of Italy.

And that's the story as it went. It is curious how so many things are connected and how things could have gone differently if only some events had played out in a different way.  What if the Crimean war had gone in a different way? Would Italy still exist today? What if Napoleon III had realized that in helping Britain against Russia he was damaging the French interests in the Mediterranean? And what could have happened if France had refused to help Piedmont to conquer Italy? This is the fascination of history that sometimes repeats itself, often rhymes, and always surprises us. 

Other posts by Ugo Bardi on the Crimean war and its consequences

Friday, August 7, 2020

Why Face Masks May be Here to Stay Forever


Wearing a mask may be a burden but, in some cases, also an advantage, especially for women in a patriarchal society. Traditionally, a mask allowed a certain anonymity and a chance for occasional sexual license. Could it be that the current diffusion of the habit of wearing face masks is a reaction to the more and more invasive "surveillance state" in the West? In this post, I explore this issue also in relation to the biblical story of Tamar and Judah 
(above, Tamar and Judah in a painting of the Rembrandt school)
The fashion of wearing face masks in the West is surprising, especially after that the epidemic has practically vanished from Western Europe. Yet, Westerners cling to their masks as if their life depended on them, even in conditions when they are not needed, for instance in the open air.
The new fashion of face masks in the West is all the more surprising if you consider that practically no known society in history has ever enforced wearing face masks or veils for everyone, except in areas where protection is needed against sand blown by the wind. In the standard Western iconography, someone who wears a mask is a criminal or an outlaw. Who would need to hide his face if not for some evil purpose? True, sometimes a mask is worn by good characters in fiction, such as Batman, but there is always a dark side to the story.
The only exception to the rule is the veil worn by married women. It is sometimes said to be an Islamic tradition, but there is nothing specifically Islamic in it. In Southern Europe, up to less than one century ago it was common for married women to wear a veil in public and, even today, a Western bride sometimes wears a veil at her marriage. In general, it is typical for women to be veiled in public in patriarchal societies, as it is still the case in some Middle Eastern and Asian countries.

I would argue that the veil can be seen as a burden, but also as an advantage for women. Nothing exists if it doesn't have a reason to exist and, over history, women accepted to wear veils because it gave them some advantages. A certain degree of anonymity that allowed them to occasionally indulge in behaviors that were not allowed by their society. Indeed, wearing masks remains a characteristic of the Western carnival festivities, where a certain tradition of free sexual encounters remains alive to this day. 

So, could it be that the current explosion of face masks in the West is the result of the diffusion of the "surveillance state"? With more and more oppressive ways to control people being deployed, with face-recognition techniques, surveillance drones, spy cams, and all the rest, wearing a mask provides a certain advantage for the wearer. It is not a coincidence that the "anonymous" hackers are represented as wearing a mask. Anonymity is an advantage and there is safety in numbers.
If this is the case, then, that face masks are likely to become a stable feature of the Western society, independently of their usefulness as anti-virus barriers. They are uncomfortable, but if they can hide you from those pesky drones, well, it may be worth wearing them. Masks as a form of freedom from oppression? Maybe.

To understand more the meaning of wearing masks, let me discuss an ancient story where a face mask played a fundamental role: the biblical story of Tamar and Judah. I already discussed this story in a previous post, but here let me go into some more details.


Tamar and Judah: The Veil as a Life-Saving Tool

 by Ugo Bardi, Aug 2020
In the book of Genesis of the Bible, we read how Tamar prostituted herself in order to have children from her father-in-law, Judah. It is a fascinating story that tells us of remote times, but not so remote that we can't understand the plight of the people who lived and struggled in a world very different from ours. 
The story of Tamar is often commented for its moral and religious meaning, but let me retell it with a more down to earth purpose: understanding how the habit of married women to wear a veil affected ancient patriarchal societies and, occasionally, could be a definite advantage for women.

So, let's start with the protagonists. Judah was one of the patriarchs of the Israelites, the great-grandson of Abraham in person. He was endowed with a certain degree of wickedness and we are told of how he attempted to kill his brother, Joseph. Later on, he seemed to have gained some of respectability, he got married and had three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah.
Tamar enters the story when she marries Er, the oldest son of Judah. We are not told much about the origins of Tamar. Sources other than the Bible say she was a Canaanite, others that she was the daughter of a high priest. The Bible doesn't mention a dowry, but it is unthinkable that Tamar wouldn't have brought one to Er. Dowries are typical of patriarchal societies were men are considered more valuable than women. In these societies, a woman can gain access to a high rank man by paying for the privilege. 
So, Tamar marries Er and everything seems to be going well in the best of worlds, when Er suddenly dies. The Bible explains to us that God was angry at Er for some reasons, but the real issue is that Tamar is left as a childless widow. In this case, patriarchal societies had a tradition called the "Levirate" that favored, or even imposed, that the younger brother of a deceased man would marry the widow. The law applied when the widow was childless, as it was Tamar's case. 
The Levirate laws are grounded in financial matters, as most marriages were in antiquity, and still are. In a patriarchal society, a woman would gain access to a high-rank man by paying a dowry. But if the man died before having children, the woman would have paid for nothing, because being female she couldn't inherit the possessions of her deceased husband. The levirate law protected the widow, making sure that she would have a husband and a chance to have male heirs. It seems that the children sired by the brother of the deceased husband would be considered as sons and daughters of the first husband in regard to inheritance matters. 

So, we read that Judah's family followed the levirate customs and that Tamar's brother in law, Onan, married her. That might have settled all issues, but there is a new problem: Onan is not interested in having children from Tamar. We are told that he "spilled his seed on the ground," something we would call today "coitus interruptus." Why Onan did that is probably still related to the financial implications of the levirate. If Tamar had sired a male heir to Onan, his own inheritance would have been diminished because the son would have counted as Er's son. The story may have been much more complicated than this, anyway what happens is that Onan dies, too. Maybe he was smitten by God for his bad behavior, but the point is that Tamar finds herself a childless widow for the second time. 

At this point, things become really complicated. The levirate law says that Tamar should now marry Judah's remaining son, Shelah. But he is too young, and so Tamar finds herself betrothed to a child with the perspective that when he will be grown up enough, he will behave like Onan, for the same reasons. Then, after having buried two husbands, we may imagine that Tamar's reputation would be a bit tarnished, to say the least. Maybe she is a witch? Don't forget that the Bible says in the Exodus "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." About Shelah, he must not have been so thrilled at the perspective of having to marry a woman who may have been 10 years older than him. And Judah, what could he do? Maybe he could send Tamar back to her family, but then he would have had to pay back the dowry he had received -- not a perspective he would relish, of course. 
Thus being the situation, we seem to have a classic no-win situation. But then something happens that changes everything. Let's read the story from the book of Genesis
13 And it was told Tamar, saying, Behold thy father in law goeth up to Timnath to shear his sheep.

14 And she put her widow's garments off from her, and covered her with a veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place, which is by the way to Timnath; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife.

15 When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face.

16 And he turned unto her by the way, and said, Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee; (for he knew not that she was his daughter in law.) And she said, What wilt thou give me, that thou mayest come in unto me?

17 And he said, I will send thee a kid from the flock. And she said, Wilt thou give me a pledge, till thou send it?

18 And he said, What pledge shall I give thee? And she said, Thy signet, and thy bracelets, and thy staff that is in thine hand. And he gave it her, and came in unto her, and she conceived by him.

19 And she arose, and went away, and laid by her veil from her, and put on the garments of her widowhood.

20 And Judah sent the kid by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive his pledge from the woman's hand: but he found her not.

21 Then he asked the men of that place, saying, Where is the harlot, that was openly by the way side? And they said, There was no harlot in this place.

22 And he returned to Judah, and said, I cannot find her; and also the men of the place said, that there was no harlot in this place.

23 And Judah said, Let her take it to her, lest we be shamed: behold, I sent this kid, and thou hast not found her.

24 And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter in law hath played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt.

25 When she was brought forth, she sent to her father in law, saying, By the man, whose these are, am I with child: and she said, Discern, I pray thee, whose are these, the signet, and bracelets, and staff.

26 And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son. And he knew her again no more.

Now, this story has such big holes in it that you could pass a caravan of a hundred camels through them. Let's see to explain. 

First, the idea that a prostitute awaits for customers in "an open place by the way to Timnath" is already suspicious. Prostitutes tend to frequent busy places and for one of them to sit and wait for customers in an "open place" would be dangerous if they were to meet a rough customer. In ancient times, prostitutes operated mainly in temples as "hierodules." That gave origin to the legend that Tamar was a sacred prostitute of some cult. But hierodules were not sacred, they were just a service provided by the temple that also guaranteed their safety and that they were paid. I describe that in a previous post. This is mostly a detail, but one of the many weaknesses of the whole story. 

Second, we are told that Judah "thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face." This is totally absurd. In ancient times, prostitutes did not veil their face. That was a no-no. Period. Here is how I discuss this point in a previous post

According to Michael Astur (1966), a Babylonian hierodule was strictly forbidden from wearing a veil and harshly punished if she did. So, how could Judah mistake a veiled woman for a prostitute? Astour, here, goes through a truly acrobatic leap of logic, noting first that a woman could abandon her hierodule status and marry and, in this case, she was allowed to wear a veil. Then, assuming that Tamar had been a hierodule before marrying, her wearing a veil could be "a privilege evidently extended into widowhood." Even if we were to agree on this perilous chain of assumptions, the explanation still makes no sense. How could Judah know that the veiled woman he had met was a former prostitute when her aspect, instead, was that of a married woman?

Third, we are asked to believe that Judah has sex with his daughter-in-law who has been living in his family for at least a few years and that he doesn't recognize her because she wears a face veil. Now, this is reminding of how Lois Lane in our "Superman" stories is so dumb that she can't recognize that her fiancée Clark Kent and Superman are the same person, just because Kent wears glasses. Maybe Judah wasn't the sharpest pair of scissors in the shearer's toolbox, but the story that the Bible tells us is supposed to be a true story. And Judah cannot have been that dumb. According to some sources, he said he was drunk. Yeah, sure.

Finally, there is the story that the supposed "prostitute" asks Judah for a pledge in the form of "Thy signet, and thy bracelets, and thy staff." That's another no-no: from the earliest days of monetary history, prostitutes have been paid in cash. It is unthinkable that Judah would go to the market of Timnath without taking at least a little silver with him. He was there to shear his sheep, and what would he have paid the shearers with? That silver could also have been used to pay for whatever he would have needed while there, including the services of a prostitute. That the supposed prostitute, Tamar, had asked for such a degree of commitment from Judah as to leave something that made him recognizable was weird at least, even suspicious.

So, how do you explain this series of apparently unsolvable contradictions? Well, as Captain Kirk of the Starship "Enterprise" would to say, there are always ways to avoid to put oneself in a no-win situation. And that was what may have happened. 

Let's go back to the impasse: Judah doesn't want to give Tamar to Shelah but he doesn't want to send her back to her family, either. In the meantime Judah's wife dies and suddenly there appears an obvious solution for Judah: take Tamar as his own wife. A good idea that keeps the money at home and still gives Tamar a chance to bear a heir to Judah's family. Besides, it is not hard to imagine that that a woman in full flower, such as Tamar, would have been attractive for a widower, such as Judah. But for Judah to marry her is legally impossible: Tamar is betrothed to Shelah and for Judah that would be seen as adultery, a grave sin, punishable even with death. 

But let's imagine that Judah and Tamar have an affair well before the Timnath story. Then, let's imagine that Tamar gets pregnant. Ouch, big problem: now they are adulterers, sinners, and both punishable by law. Of course Judah could deny being the father of Tamar's child, but that would condemn Tamar to death as a harlot and bring upon Judah the wrath of Tamar's family.

Then, before Tamar's pregnancy becomes obvious, a theatrical performance is organized. Tamar doesn't even need to go to Timnath disguised as a prostitute. Judah just comes back from there without his signet, bracelets, and staff. Then he goes through the charade of sending a friend to Timnath with a goat, supposedly to pay for a prostitute, but well knowing that there has never been one there. When the scandal breaks up, Judah's staff and stuff miraculously reappear in Tamar's hands, lending substance to an otherwise unbelievable story.

See how things fit together? Tamar did misbehave, but her father in law cannot punish her because she carries his child (actually, children, twins will be born). Then Judah is not an adulterer because he didn't know he was having sex with his daughter in law (oh, yeah, he was drunk!!). Tamar's relatives, then, are happy because Tamar's children will inherit Judah's wealth. And everyone his happy to pay no attention to the many inconsistencies of the story. The only one who may not be so happy is Shelah, who has lost the privilege of being the oldest son to Judah because Tamar's children will be considered heirs to the deceased Er. But so is life and you can't have everything.

You see how many details click together in this fascinating story. It is so fascinating because it describes the plight of normal people who weren't so concerned about grand things such as the house of David, but about their own survival in a difficult moment. And we can understand them and their plight, even millennia afterwards. But the most fascinating detail of the story is the role played by the veil. Had there not been the use for women to wear a veil, Judah couldn't have convincingly argued that he didn't know whom he was having sex with. The veil literally saved Tamar's life and ensured that her children would become the founders of the Davidic line of the tribe of Judah. And, as I said at the beginning, for everything that exists, there is a reason for it to exist


In this 1969 song by the Italian singer Lucio Battisti, we hear the story of a man who is told that his wife, Francesca, has been seen with another man. He says that it cannot be, that the woman they saw looked like Francesca, dressed in the same way and with the same hair color. But that cannot be because, he says, "Francesca lives for him." If veils had been worn by Italian married women in the 1960s, this song couldn't have existed.

Lucio Battisti - It's not Francesca (English translation)

you're wrong, who you saw is not
is not Francesca
she's always at home waiting for me
it's not Francesca
if there was a man, then
no, it can't be her
Francesca never asked for more
who's wrong, I'm sure, it's you
Francesca never asked for more
'cause she lives for me
like the other one, she's blond but
it's not Francesca
if she was dressed in red, I know
it's not Francesca
if she was hugging(him) then
no, it can't be her
Francesca never asked for more
who's wrong, I'm sure, it's you
Francesca never asked for more
'cause she lives for me
she lives for me
she lives for me


Astour, Michael, Journal of Biblical Literature, 85,2 (1966) 185-196.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Gaia, the Return of the Earth Goddess

Temple worship in Ur, from Sumerian times. Note in the lower panel people are bringing all sort of goods to the temple represented as the abstract structure on the right. 

House founded by An, praised by Enlil, given an oracle by mother Nintud! A house, at its upper end a mountain, at its lower end a spring! A house, at its upper end threefold indeed. Whose well-founded storehouse is established as a household, whose terrace is supported by lahama deities; whose princely great wall, the shrine of Urim! (the Kesh temple hymn, ca. 2600 BCE)

Not long ago, I found myself involved in a debate on Gaian religion convened by Erik Assadourian. For me, it was a little strange. For the people of my generation, religion is supposed to be a relic of the past, opium of the people, a mishmash of superstitions, something for old women mumbling ejaculatory prayers, things like that. But, here, a group of people who weren't religious in the traditional sense of the word, and who included at least two professional researchers in physics, were seriously discussing about how to best worship the Goddess of Earth, the mighty, the powerful, the divine, the (sometimes) benevolent Gaia, She who keeps the Earth alive.

It was not just unsettling, it was a deep rethinking of many things I had been thinking. I had been building models of how Gaia could function in terms of the physics and the biology we know. But here, no, it was not Gaia the holobiont, not Gaia the superorganism, not Gaia the homeostatic system. It was Gaia the Goddess.

And here I am, trying to explain to myself why I found this matter worth discussing. And trying to explain it to you, readers. After all, this is being written in a blog titled "Chimeras" -- and the ancient Chimera was a myth about a creature that, once, must have been a sky goddess. And I have been keeping this blog for several years, see? There is something in religion that remains interesting even for us, moderns. But, then, what is it, exactly?

I mulled over the question for a while and I came to the conclusion that, yes, Erik Assadourian and the others are onto something: it may be time for religion to return in some form. And if religion returns, it may well be in the form of some kind of cult of the Goddess Gaia. But let me try to explain

What is this thing called "religion," anyway?

Just as many other things in history that go in cycles, religion does that too. It is because religion serves a purpose, otherwise it wouldn't have existed and been so common in the past. So what is religion? It is a long story but let me start from the beginning -- the very beginning, when, as the Sumerians used to say "Bread was baked for the first time in the ovens".

A constant of all ancient religions is that they tell us that whatever humans learned to do -- from fishing to having kings -- it was taught them by some God who took the trouble to land down from heaven (or from wherever Gods come from) just for that purpose. Think of when the Sumerian Sea-God called Aun (also Oannes in later times) emerged out of the Abzu (that today we call the abyss) to teach people all the arts of civilization. It was in those ancient times that the Gods taught humans the arts and the skills that the ancient Sumerians called "me,"  a bewildering variety of concepts, from "music" to "rejoicing of the heart." Or, in a more recent lore, how Prometheus defied the gods by stealing fire and gave it to humankind. This story has a twist of trickery, but it is the same concept: human civilization is a gift from the gods.

Now, surely our ancestors were not so naive that they believed in these silly legends, right? Did people really need a Fish-God to emerge out of the Persian Gulf to teach them how to make fish hooks and fishnets? But, as usual, what looks absurd hides the meaning of complex questions.

The people who described how the me came from the Gods were not naive, not at all. They had understood the essence of civilization, which is sharing. Nothing can be done without sharing something with others, not even rejoicing in your heart. Think of "music," one of the Sumerian me: can you play music by yourself and alone? Makes no sense, of course. Music is a skill that needs to be learned. You need teachers, you need people who can make instruments, you need a public to listen to you and appreciate your music. And the same is for fishing, one of the skills that Aun taught to humans. Of course, you could fish by yourself and for your family only. Sure, and, in this way, you ensure that you all will die of starvation as soon as you hit a bad period of low catches. Fishing provides abundant food in good times, but fish spoils easily and those who live by fishing can survive only if they share their catch with those who live by cultivating grains. You can't live of fish alone, it is something that I and my colleague Ilaria Perissi describe in our book, "The Empty Sea." Those who tried, such as the Vikings of Greenland during the Middle Ages, were mercilessly wiped out of history.

Sharing is the essence of civilization, but it is not trivial: who shares what with whom? How do you ensure that everyone gets a fair share? How do you take care of tricksters, thieves, and parasites? It is a fascinating story that goes back to the very beginning of civilization, those times that the Sumerians were fond to tell with the beautiful image of "when bread was baked for the first time in the ovens,"  This is where religion came in, with temples, priest, Gods, and all the related stuff.

Let's make a practical example: suppose you are on an errand, it is a hot day, and you want a mug of beer. Today, you go to a pub, pay a few dollars for your pint, you drink it, and that's it. Now, move yourself to Sumerian times. The Sumerians had plenty of beer, even a specific goddess related to it, called Ninkasi (which means, as you may guess, "the lady of the beer"). But there were no pubs selling beer for the simple reason that you couldn't pay for it. Money hadn't been invented, yet. Could you barter for it? With what? What could you carry around that would be worth just one beer? No, there was a much better solution: the temple of the local God or Goddess.

We have beautiful descriptions of the Sumerian temples in the works of the priestess Enheduanna, among other things the first named author in history. From her and from other sources, we can understand how in Sumerian times, and for millennia afterward, temples were large storehouses of goods. They were markets, schools, libraries, manufacturing center, and offered all sorts of services, including that of the hierodules (karkid in Sumerian), girls who were not especially holy, but who would engage in a very ancient profession that didn't always have the bad reputation it has today. If you were so inclined, you could also meet male prostitutes in the temple, probably called "kurgarra" in Sumerian. That's one task in whicb temples have been engaging for a long time, even though that looks a little weird to us. Incidentally, the Church of England still managed prostitution in Medieval times

So, you go to the temple and you make an offer to the local God or Goddess. We may assume that this offer would be proportional to both your needs and your means. It could be a goat that we know it was roughly proportional to the services of a high-rank hierodule. But, if all you wanted was a beer, then you could have limited your offer to something less valuable: depending on your job you could have offered fish, wheat, wool, metal, or whatever. Then, the God would be pleased and as a reward the alewives of the temple would give you all the beer you could drink. Seen as a restaurant, the temple worked on the basis of what we call today an "all you can eat" menu (or "the bottomless cup of coffee," as many refills as you want).

Note how the process of offering something to God was called sacrifice. The term  comes from "sacred" which means "separated." The sacrifice is about separation. You separate from something that you perceived as yours which then becomes an offer to the God or to the community -- most often the same thing. The offerings to the temple could be something very simple: as you see in the images we have from Sumerian times, it didn't always involve the formal procedure of killing a live animal. People were just bringing the goods they had to the temple. When animals were sacrificed to God(s) in the sense that they were ritually killed, they were normally eaten afterward. Only in rare cases (probably not in Sumeria) the sacrificed entity was burnt to ashes. It was the "burnt sacrifice called korban olah in the Jewish tradition. In that case, the sacrifice was shared with God alone -- but it was more of an exception than the rule.

In any case, God was the supreme arbiter who insured that your sacrifice was appreciated -- actually not all sacrifices were appreciated. Some people might try to trick by offering low quality goods, but God is not easy to fool. In some cases, he didn't appreciate someone's sacrifices at all: do you remember the story of Cain and Abel? God rejected Cain's sacrifice, although we are not told exactly why. In any case, the sacrifice was a way to attribute a certain "price" to the sacrificed goods.

This method of commerce is not very different than the one we use today, it is just not so exactly quantified as when we use money to attach a value to everything. The ancient method works more closely to the principle that the Marxists had unsuccessfully tried to implement "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." But don't think that the ancient Sumerian were communists, it is just that the lack of method of quantification of the commercial transaction generated a certain leeway that could allow to the needy access to the surplus available, when it was available. This idea is still embedded in modern religions, think of how the holy Quran commands the believers to share the water of their wells with the needy, once they have satisfied their needs and those of their animals. Or the importance that the Christian tradition gives to gleaning as a redistribution of the products of the fields. Do you remember the story of Ruth the Moabite in the Bible? That important, indeed.

But there is more. In the case of a burnt sacrifices, the value attributed to the goods was "infinite" -- the goods consumed by the flames just couldn't be used again by human beings. It is the concept of Taboo used in Pacific cultures for something that cannot be touched, eaten, or used. We have no equivalent thing in the "market," where we instead suppose that everything has a price.

And then, there came money (the triumph of evil)

The world of the temples of the first 2-3 millennia of human civilizations in the Near East was in some  ways alien to ours, and in others perfectly equivalent. But things keep changing and the temples were soon to face a competition in a new method of attributing value to goods: money. Coinage is a relatively modern invention, it goes back to mid 1st millennium BCE. But in very ancient times, people did exchange metals by weight -- mainly gold and silver. And these exchanges were normally carried out in temples -- the local God(s) ensured honest weighing. In more than one sense, in ancient times temples were banks and it is no coincidence that our modern banks look like temples. They are temples to a God called "money." By the way, you surely read in the Gospels how Jesus chased the money changers -- the trapezitai -- out of the temple of Jerusalem. Everyone knows that story, but what were the money changers doing in the temple? They were in the traditional place where they were expected to be, where they had been from when bread was baked in ovens for the first time. 

So, religion and money evolved in parallel -- sometimes complementing each other, sometimes in competition with each other. But, in the long run, the temples seem to have been the losers in the competition. As currency became more and more commonplace, people started thinking that they didn't really need the cumbersome apparatus of religion, with its temples, priests, and hierodules (the last ones were still appreciated, but now were paid in cash). A coin is a coin is a coin, it is guaranteed by the gold it is made of -- gold is gold is gold. And if you want a good beer, you don't need to make an offer to some weird God or Goddess. Just pay a few coppers for it, and that's done.

The Roman state was among the first in history to be based nearly 100% on money. With the Romans, temples and priests had mainly a decorative role, let's say that they had to find a new market for their services. Temples couldn't be anymore commercial centers, so they reinvented themselves as lofty place for the celebration of the greatness of the Roman empires. There remained also a diffuse kind of religion in the countryside that had to do with fertility rites, curing sickness, and occasional cursing on one's enemies. That was the "pagan" religion, with the name "pagan" meaning, basically, "peasant." 
Paganism would acquire a bad fame in Christian times, but already in Roman times peasant rites were seen with great suspicion. The Romans burned witches, oh, yes, they loved to burn witches -- they burned many more than would ever be burned in medieval times. And the victims were most likely countryside enchanters and enchantresses. They were considered dangerous because the real deity that the Romans worshiped was money. An evil deity, perhaps, but it surely brought mighty power to the Romans, but their doom as well, as it is traditional for evil deities. Roman money was in the form of precious metals and when they ran out of gold and silver from their mines, the state just couldn't exist anymore: it vanished. No gold, no empire. It was as simple as that.

The disappearance of the Roman state saw a return of religion, this time in the form of Christianity. It is a long story that would need a lot of space to be written. Let's just say that the Middle Ages in Europe saw the rise of monasteries to play a role similar to that of temples in Sumerian times. Monasteries were storehouses, manufacturing centers, schools, libraries, and more -- they even had something to do with hierodules. During certain periods, Christian nuns did seem to have played that role, although this is a controversial point. Commercial exchanging and sharing of goods again took a religious aspect, with the Catholic Church in Western Europe playing the role of a bank by guaranteeing that, for instance, ancient relics were authentic. In part, relics played the role that money had played during the Roman Empire, although they couldn't be exchanged for other kinds of goods. The miracle of the Middle Ages in Europe was that this arrangement worked, and worked very well. That is, until someone started excavating silver from mines in Eastern Europe and another imperial cycle started. It is not over to this date, although it is clearly declining.

So, where do we stand now? Religion has clearly abandoned the role it had during medieval times and has re-invented itself as a support for the national state, just as the pagan temples had done in Roman times. One of the most tragic events of Western history is when in 1914, for some mysterious reasons, young Europeans found themselves killing each other by the millions while staying in humid trenches. On both sides of the trenches, Christian priests were blessing the soldiers of "their" side, exhorting them to kill those of the other side. How Christianity could reduce itself to such a low level is one of the mysteries of the Universe, but there are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. And it is here that we stand. Money rules the world and that's it.

The Problem With Money

Our society is perhaps the most monetized of history -- money pervades every aspect of life for everyone. The US is perhaps the most monetized society ever: for Europeans it is a shock to discover that many American families pay their children for doing household chores. For a European, it is like if your spouse were asking you to pay for his/her sexual services. But different epochs have different uses and surely it would be shocking for a Sumerian to see that we can get a beer at the pub by just giving the alewives a curious flat object, a "card," that they then give back to us. Surely that card is a powerful amulet from a high-ranking God. 
So, everything may be well in the best of worlds, notoriously represented by the Western version of liberal democracy. Powerful market forces, operated by the God (or perhaps Goddess) called Money or, sometimes, "the almighty dollar," ensure that exchanges are efficient, that scarce resources are optimally allocated, and that everyone has a chance in the search for maximizing his/her utility function.

Maybe. But it may also be that something is rotten in the Great Columned Temple of Washington D.C. What's rotten, exactly? Why can't this wonderful deity we call "money" work the way we would it like to, now that we even managed to decouple it from the precious metals it was made of in ancient times?

Well, there is a problem. A big problem. A gigantic problem. It is simply that money is evil. This is another complex story, but let's just say that the problem with evil and good is that evil knows no limits, while good does. In other words, evil is equivalent to chaos, good to order. It has something to do with the definition of "obscenity." There is nothing wrong in human sex, but an excess of sex in some forms becomes obscene. Money can become obscene for exactly this reason: too much of it overwhelms everything else. Nothing is so expensive that it cannot be bought; that's the result of the simple fact that you can attribute a price to everything.

Instead, God is good because She has limits: She is benevolent and merciful. You could see that as a limitation and theologians might discuss why a being that's all-powerful and all-encompassing cannot be also wicked and cruel. But there cannot be any good without an order of things. And order implies limits of some kind. God can do everything but He cannot do evil. That's a no-no. God cannot be evil. Period.

And here is why money is evil: it has no limits, it keeps accumulating. You know that accumulated money is called "capital," and it seems that many people realize that there is something wrong with that idea because "capitalism" is supposed to be something bad. Which may be but, really, capital is one of those polymorphic words that can describe many things, not all of them necessarily bad. In itself, capital is simply the accumulation of resources for future use -- and that has limits, of course. You can't accumulate more things than the things you have. But once you give a monetary value to this accumulated capital, things change. If money has no limits, capital doesn't, either.

Call it capital or call it money, it is shapeless, limitless, a blob that keeps growing and never shrinks. Especially nowadays that money has been decoupled from material goods (at least in part, you might argue that money is linked to crude oil). You could say that money is a disease: it affects everything. Everything can be associated with a number, and that makes that thing part of the entity we call market. If destroying that thing can raise that number, somewhere, that thing will be destroyed. Think of a tree: for a modern economist, it has no monetary value until it is felled and the wood sold on the market. And that accumulates more money, somewhere. Monetary capital actually destroys natural capital. You may have heard of "Natural Capitalism" that's supposed to solve the problem by giving a price to trees even before they are felled. It could be a good idea, but it is still based on money, so it may be the wrong tool to use even though for a good purpose..

The accumulation of money in the form of monetary capital has created something enormously different than something that was once supposed to help you get a good beer at a pub. Money is not evil just in a metaphysical sense. Money is destroying everything. It is destroying the very thing that makes humankind survive: the Earth's ecosystem. We call it "overexploitation," but it means simply killing and destroying everything as long as that can bring a monetary profit to someone.

Re-Sacralizing The Ecosystem (why some goods must have infinite prices)

There have been several proposals on how to reform the monetary system, from "local money" to "expiring money," and some have proposed to simply get rid of it. None of these schemes has worked, so far, and getting rid of money seems to be simply impossible in a society that's as complex as ours: how do you pay the hierodules if money does not exist? But from what I have been discussing so far, we could avoid the disaster that the evil deity calling money is bring to us simply by putting a limit to it. It is, after all, what the Almighty did with the devil: She didn't kill him, but confined him in a specific area that we call "Hell" -- maybe there is a need for hell to exist, we don't know. For sure, we don't want hell to grow and expand everywhere.

What does it mean a limit to money? It means that some things must be placed outside the monetary realm -- outside the market. If you want to use a metaphor based on economics, some goods must be declared to have an "infinite" monetary price -- nobody can buy them, not billionaires, not even trillionaires or any even more obscene levels of monetary accumulation. If you prefer, you may use the old Hawai'ian word: Taboo. Or, simply, you decide that some things are sacred, holy, they are beloved by the Goddess and even thinking of touching them is evil. 
Once something is sacred, it cannot be destroyed in the name of profit. That could mean setting aside some areas of the planet, declaring them not open for human exploitation. Or setting limits to the exploitation, not with the idea of maximizing the output of the system for human use, but with the idea to optimize the biodiversity of the area. These ideas are not farfetched. As an example, some areas of the sea have been declared "whale sanctuaries" -- places where whales cannot be hunted. That's not necessarily an all/zero choice. Some sanctuaries might allow human presence and a moderate exploitation of the resources of the system. The point is that as long as we monetize the exploitation, the we are back to monetary capitalism and the resource will be destroyed.

Do we need a religion to do that? Maybe there are other ways but, surely, we know that it is a task that religion is especially suitable for. Religion is a form of communication that uses rituals as speech. Rituals are all about sacralization: they define what's sacred by means of sacrifice. These concepts form the backbone of all religions, everything is neatly arranged under to concept of "sacredness" -- what's sacred is nobody's property. We know that it works. It has worked in the past. It still works today. You may be a trillionaire, but you are not allowed to do everything you want just because you can pay for it. You can't buy the right of killing people, for instance. Nor to destroy humankind's heritage. (So far, at least).

Then, do we need a new religion for that purpose? A Gaian religion?

Possibly yes, taking into account that Gaia is not "God" in the theological sense. Gaia is not all-powerful, she didn't create the world, she is mortal. She is akin to the Demiurgoi, the Daimonoi, the Djinn, and other similar figures that play a role in the Christian, Islamic and Indian mythologies. The point is that you don't necessarily need the intervention of the Almighty to sacralize something. Even just a lowly priest can do that, and surely it is possible for one of Her Daimonoi, and Gaia is one.

Supposing we could do something like that, then we would have the intellectual and cultural tools needed to re-sacralize the Earth. Then, whatever is declared sacred or taboo is spared by the destruction wrecked by the money based process: forests, lands, seas, creatures large and small. We could see this a as a new alliance between humans and Gaia: All the Earth is sacred to Gaia, and some parts of it are especially sacred and cannot be touched by money. And not just the Earth, the poor, the weak, and the dispossessed among humans, they are just as sacred and must be respected. 
All that is not just a question of "saving the Earth" -- it is a homage to the power of the Holy Creation that belongs to the Almighty, and to the power of maintenance of the Holy Creation that belongs to the Almighty's faithful servant, the holy Gaia, mistress of the ecosystem. And humans, as the ancient Sumerians had already understood, are left with the task of respecting, admiring and appreciating what God has created. We do not worship Gaia, that would silly, besides being blasphemous. But through her, we worship the higher power of God.  

Is it possible? If history tells us something is that money tends to beat religion when conflict arises. Gaia is powerful, sure, but can she slay the money dragon in single combat? Difficult, yes, but we should remember that some 2000 years ago in Europe, a group of madmen fought and won against an evil empire in the name of an idea that most thought not just subversive at that time, but even beyond the thinkable. And they believed so much in that idea that they accepted to die for it

In the end, there is more to religion than just fixing a broken economic system. There is a fundamental reason why people do what they do: sometimes we call it with the anodyne name of "communication," sometimes we use the more sophisticated term of "empathy," but when we really understand what we are talking about we may not afraid to use the world "love" which, according to our Medieval ancestors, was the ultimate force that moves the universe. And when we deal with Gaia the Goddess, we may have this feeling of communication, empathy, and love. She may be defined as a planetary homeostatic system, but she is way more than that: it is a power of love that has no equals on this planet. But there are things that mere words cannot express.