Archive for June, 2007

The Egyptian God of… Lettuce? (ca. 3300 – 300 BC)

By: The Scribe on June, 2007

*Note of Forewarning: This article deals with the topic of ancient sexuality, and may not be suitable for younger eyes.

Egyptian fertility god

One of the earliest gods of the ancient Egyptian pantheon was a god named Min, originally identified with Horus during the Predynastic period. First called the “Chief of Heaven” and associated with the sky, it was not long until Min became the primary fertility god of ancient Egypt.

In Egyptian art, Min was depicted wearing a tall feather crown, holding a flail in his right hand, and in his left hand… well, that’s where things start to get a bit awkward. Min is what can be called an ‘ithyphallic’ god, which means that he is shown in artwork with an uncovered and erect phallus – however, it should be noted that this kind of imagery was not necessarily seen as a sexual image by the Egyptians. Instead, it was a normal way of showing Min’s role as an agent of fertility.

In his role as a fertility god, Min was in charge of the rain, and each year at the beginning of the harvest season, there was a “Festival of the Departure of Min” – his statue would be taken out of his temple and brought into the fields, where participants would sing praises to Min and play games in the nude, hoping this would cause him to bless their harvest with his favor.

Playing games in the nude was not really a big deal to the ancient Egyptians – after all, in their hot and humid climate, serving women, dancers, and even farmers would work in the nude. Children typically didn’t even wear clothing at all until their official coming of age ceremonies.

Min, Egyptian god of fertilityWhere things get a bit awkward for modern historians, however, is in the discussion of Min’s symbols. All the ancient gods had their own symbols, since religion was such an integral part of daily life in ancient Egyptian culture. Min’s symbols were mostly typical of a fertility god: a white bull, a barbed arrow, and… lettuce?

Lettuce, an item not usually associated with fertility, was apparently a favorite food of Min. Why? According to the ancient Egyptian texts, this particular variety of lettuce was considered to be an aphrodisiac – and not only that, but this lettuce plant was tall, straight, and when pressed… it produced a white, milky sap substance that was, of course, easily associated with another male bodily fluid.

In fact, ancient Egyptians considered a lot of things to be aphrodisiacs… some varieties of onion were forbidden to celibate priests, in fear that they might desecrate themselves if they took a bite! Regardless, Min was an extremely important ancient Egyptian god, and well respected among the people. Although seeing a depiction of a man holding himself on the side of a building or as a public statue would have a completely different meaning today, to the Egyptians, this was perfectly normal and acceptable. In fact, if Min and his phallus weren’t around – they might not have anything to eat next harvest season.

Tomorrow: Tasty jelling stones!

Roman Soldiers Had to Clean Their Rooms Too (3rd C BC- 3rd C AD)

By: The Scribe on June, 2007

ancient Roman fort

Contrary to popular belief, it appears that women had a very high presence in Roman military forts, living and working alongside the men even in wartimes. Although previously it was thought that the forts were exclusive to men, a number of objects and their distribution pattern throughout a number of Roman forts have begun to dispel that notion!

A typical Roman soldier was not legally allowed to have a wife, although commanding officers frequently had wives and children. The belief was that the only women in a Roman fort would have been these officers’ wives, and that any other women inside the forts were prostitutes or concubines – women who didn’t live there on a regular basis. However, it is likely that this concept was reinforced by male military historians in the 19th century, who believed that women were merely a distraction and a disruption to military life.

In direct contract to this outdated belief, over 30,000 objects such as hairpins, beads, perfume bottles, and spindle wheels have been found all across the fort buildings and in along their streets. These kinds of artifacts show that women played roles as craftspeople, traders, and shopkeepers, in order to keep the small town-like economy of the forts running smoothly. After all, if the men were expected to receive military training and work for the army all day – who would be left to negotiate shipments of food supplies and mend clothing?

Another intriguing piece of the puzzle comes in the form of 11 babies, buried underneath the barracks of one of the forts. Historians who still believe the forts were segregated have tried to explain this phenomenon as coincidence, claiming the babies’ remains were accidentally brought into the fort in shipments of soil and then laid down in the barracks’ foundations unawares, however that is highly unlikely – a coincidence of 11 burials transported from elsewhere is rather impossible.

According to archaeologists, tombstone inscriptions in and around the Roman forts detail how many soldiers left property to women upon their deaths, which is a very significant act for any Roman male, and not something he would have done for a concubine or prostitute. These Roman soldiers were forming long-term relationships with women while inside the forts, and though they may not have legally been allowed to wed, it appears that women still lived and worked alongside the soldiers as common-law wives, taking care of the soldiers and bearing their children.

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Tomorrow: All hail the god of…. lettuce?

Milk – It Does A Body Poor, Actually (ca. 5800 BC)

By: The Scribe on June, 2007

Milk - it does a body poorAccording to recent studies, it appears that people in the Stone Age didn’t drink milk – at all. Although modern Europeans rely on milk as a part of their diet, ancient Europeans were only able to digest milk up until the end of childhood – after which their bodies simply weren’t able to process the lactose through their systems.

DNA analysis of Neolithic skeletons showed that there might be a reason why today’s Europeans have the highest percentage of lactose tolerance in the world, more precisely in Europeans from north and central regions. It turns out that before dairy farming, humans had no need to be able to digest milk during adulthood, and it was only after dairy animals were introduced in Europe around 8000 years ago that humans began to be able to drink milk without getting sick.

The truth is, most mammals lose the ability to produce lactase after childhood, an enzyme in the intestines that is needed to digest lactose – it turns out that humans who still produce lactase actually have genetic mutation that allows them to do so. Essentially, Neolithic humans were normal in their lactose intolerance – and most European and African humans are the weird ones with a genetic mutation that allows them to keep drinking milk.

Today, the only modern humans that can properly digest milk are those from European, African, and Middle Eastern descent – wherever prehistoric farming communities began to use dairy animals like cows, goats, and sheep in their farm habits. The mutation developed as milk began to be a regular staple in the diet, providing nutrients when other harvests were small, leaving the rest of the world behind in their ‘normalcy’.

So, although you may enjoy your ice cream today, if you’re ever given the opportunity to travel back in time to the Stone Age, leave the Yoplait behind – unless you really want to make your prehistoric ancestors ill.

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Tomorrow: Roman soldiers had to clear their rooms too.

Welcome to the Caveman Art Show (ca. 28,000 BC)

By: The Scribe on June, 2007

Cave man artIn a cave in southwestern Germany, three very small ivory figurines were discovered that seem to suggest Early Man wasn’t as artistically inept as once thought. These tiny figurines have been dated to around 30,000 years old, making them part of the period in time when scientists believe Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens lived as neighbors to each other.

All three of the figurines were less than 5 centimeters long, and are each very distinct forms: one is a bird that closely resembles a duck, one is a horse, and the third piece is a semi-human and semi-animal creature that appears to have the face of a lion and a man’s body.

Hailing from three additional sites not too far from Hohle Fels cave, where these figurines were discovered, archaeologists have a collection of 17 other artistic objects, including a rather complex musical pipe made of swan bone. These 20 objects in total, all from the Swabian Jura area in southwestern Germany, make the collection the “oldest body of figurative art in the world”, according to British archaeologist Anthony Sinclair.

These objects also refute the previously established notion that early humans were only capable of primitive cave paintings, and hadn’t yet developed their aesthetic senses. It was thought that early man slowly developed their skills over time, as they acquired better tools and materials – but looking at these figurines, clearly this evolutionary theory is now entirely unnecessary!

More caveman artThe earliest objects considered to be art are still cave paintings, however, and these are located in underground chambers in the Ardeche region of France. At 29,000-34,000 years old, these charcoal drawings depict horses, rhinos, and a deer. There has been a small stone carving found in the Golan Heights near Israel, thought to be dated at around 200,000 years old, but this has yet to be confirmed – so for now, these tiny ivory figurines are our best link to the evident artistic proficiency of early humankind!

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Tomorrow: Milk – it does a body poor, apparently…

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