Archive for June, 2011

The Pictish Stones of Ancient Scotland

By: The Scribe on June, 2011

An example of Pictish StonesVisitors to Scotland may have noticed monumental stone slabs decorated with intricate patterns and markings. These stones, known as stelae were erected during the 6th to 9th centuries CE. The stones were put up by a group of people known as the Picts. They settled in eastern and northern Scotland during a period of time between the Late Iron Age and the Early Mediaeval periods.

The Picts had their own unique language which is no longer spoken today. Scientists and anthropologists believe that the language may have been related to the Brythonic languages which were spoken by Britons who were living in the southern areas of the British Isles. The Picts were mentioned in the Roman conquest of Britain but disappeared from any historical accounts around the 10th century. It was believed that at that time, the Picts merged with the Gaels and that their distinct culture ceased to exist.

Scientists have been unable to determine the reason why the Picts may have decorated the large stone slabs. The markings on the stones are not well understood. It is thought that some may have been personal memorials while others may have been decorated with clan markings, or symbols that showed what a person’s lineage may have been. While some acted as personal memorials they are rare.

It is believed that between thirty and sixty separate symbols were used on Pictish stones. This mythological creature is a common symbol on Pictish standing stonesSome were quite intricate and complicated. Some stones are decorated with images that represented animals such as salmon, wolves, stags, eagles and adders. Some Pictish stones were decorated with a creature known as the Pictish Beast. The Pictish Beast is a mythological animal that resembles a seahorse. Scientists are not sure what the beast is supposed to represent. Some stones are decorated with images of common, everyday objects that were used by high status individuals.

There are three different classes of Pictish stones. The first, class 1, are made of rough, unworked stone. These tend to be the earliest stones and date from between the 6th and 8th centuries. These stones do not have a cross on them but do have other symbols carved into the surface of the stone.

Class 2 stones are somewhat more complex. They often have crosses or other Christian A class 2 stone from approximately 800ADmotifs on them. They tend to be more rectangular and may be decorated on both sides. They tend to date from the 8th and 9th centuries. This is the beginning of the period when the Picts were becoming Christianized.

The last category of stones dates from the 8th and 9th centuries. Unlike the other stones the latest versions are not marked with symbols that are uniquely Pictish. They often have crosses on them and have many different uses and forms.

Individuals who want to see the Pictish standing stones will usually have to go to a museum or other facility in order to see them. The majority have been moved from their original locations although a few still stand at the sites where they were originally placed.

Hear No Evil, See No Evil- Advice from 17th Century Monkeys Still Popular Today

By: The Scribe on June, 2011

The three wise monkeys are a familiar sight to many people. They sit in a row, one with his ears covered, one with his mouth covered and the third with his eyes covered. The saying, “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” is one that has been translated into many different languages and used around the world. But where did the monkeys come from and why is there sometimes a fourth monkey included with the others?Carving of the three wise monkeys

The source for the popular depiction of this saying is the  Nikko Tosho-gu shrine in Nikko, Japan. The carving was completed in the 17th century by sculptor Hidari Jongoro. The panel that the monkeys are on is actually part of a much larger eight panel series. The depictions illustrate the life cycle of man and incorporate many ideals from the Code of Conduct developed by Confucius. Confucius was a famous Chinese social philosopher who lived from 551 to 479 BCE.

Although the three monkey carving is the most widely known illustration of the “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” saying, there are other areas where it was found as well. Another source for the saying is from the Analects of Confucius, a written record of the sayings and actions of Confucius. It was written during the time period between 475 BCE and 221 BCE by Confucius’s pupils in the time following his death. In this case, the saying was somewhat longer and translated into “Look not at what is contrary to propriety; listen not to what is contrary to propriety; speak not what is contrary to propriety; make no movement which is contrary to propriety”. It is understandable why the much shorter version is so popular today.

Monkeys appear frequently in the Shinto faith and so it is no wonder that monkeys would appear in carvings on an important Shinto temple. The monkey acts as a messenger of Hie Shinto shrines and during the year of the monkey the faith will celebrate with special festivals that only take place during this time.

Gate of the Nikko Tosho-Gu Each of the monkeys has a name. The monkey who has his eyes covered is known as Mizaru. The monkey covering his ears is named Kikazaru and the monkey with the covered mouth is Iwazaru. Many people know Kikazaru as Mikarazu and Iwazaru as Mazaru althouth the reason for this name change is not known.

In some cases, a fourth monkey may also be seen alongside the Three Wise Monkeys. This monkey’s name is Shizaru and is often shown sitting with his arms crossed. He illustrates the ideal of “do no evil”. In many cases, modern culture believes that the group of monkeys shows people who ignore evil or wrongdoing by turning away or ignoring what is going on around them. Other people use the series of monkeys as a reminder that they should avoid being gossipy or snooping into the business of those around them. Many cultures use this philosophy as a way of avoiding exposure to evil so that they do not do wrong in turn.

The Real Story of Mulan

By: The Scribe on June, 2011

Many people have seen the Disney movie Mulan and do not realize that it is actually telling the story of an ancient Chinese poem titled the Ballad of Mulan. Because it is a legend, it is unknown when Mulan may have lived although she was believed to have lived during the Northern Wei dynasty which lasted from 386CE to 534CE.

This painting is oil on a silk backgroundIn the movie, Mulan is depicted as being unskilled with weapons. The “real” Mulan, on the other hand, was said to have practiced with many different weapons. The area in which she was believed to have lived was known for practicing martial arts such as Kung Fu and for being skilled with the sword. In the legend, the real Mulan (whose name was actually Hua Mulan) rode horses and shooting arrows.

In the movie as well as in the poem, there was no male child. This caused problems when the Emperor (or Khan as he is called in the poem) began to call up troops to fight the invading Mongol and nomadic tribes. If there had been a son he could have gone in his father’s place as it was only up to the family to provide one man to fight. Whether it was the father or the son did not matter; all they needed to do was provide one person to join the army.

As in the Disney movie, Mulan chose to enlist in her father’s place as he was too old to fight. At the age of eighteen she joined the army and prepared to fight against the Mongolian and nomadic tribes that wanted to invade China. Unfortunately for her there was no intelligent horse and no small red dragon as there was in the Disney version of the legend.

According to the legend she fought for twelve years. During that time she was offered twelve ranks as a way to reward her for her skill in battle. Then, according to both the Disney film and the legend, Mulan chose to return home to live a quiet life with her family. She turned down a title that would have been bestowed upon her for her skill in battle.This map shows how large China grew during the Ming Dynasty

Although the first versions of the legend date from the 6th century CE a later version of the book expanded on the original poem. It is no surprise that the poem was expanded on as it is quite short. The book was written and released during the late Ming Dynasty which lasted from 1368CE to 1644CE. This expanded version became quite popular and the story became a folk legend as well. One of the main reasons for this popularity was that it mentioned gender equity, something which few pieces of literature included at the time.

Disney is not the only company to have made a movie about Mulan. The character has also appeared in a number of other movies or has had characters named after her. Some of the movies were successful and others failed to attract interest at the box office.

Locusta- Rome’s Professional Poisoner

By: The Scribe on June, 2011

Poisoning was often used in ancient times. Whether it was knocking off one’s siblings to put someone more in line for the throne or getting rid of an unfortunate spouse, poison was, in some areas, almost an art form. Many plants such as hemlock and belladonna were used frequently in order to kill of pesky rivals or those of higher social classes.There were over 7000 known poisons that were used in ancient times

While poison was used, and many ancient rulers utilized tasters in order to make sure they were not the victims, only Rome would have a professional poisoner. Her name was Locusta and it is believed that she caused the deaths of many important Romans including the Emperor Claudius and Britannicus, Claudius’ son. Locusta’s services were first employed by Agrippina the Younger, the final wife of Claudius, to permanently take care of her husband. The weapon of choice was a large dish of poisoned mushrooms.

Locusta was, of course, arrested and was sentenced to death. Agrippina was exiled. All seemed bleak for Locusta and it likely would have been if Nero had not taken over. Nero was a bit paranoid about his position and felt threatened by Brittanicus. After all, Britannicus was Claudius’ actual son, and Nero was only a nephew. Because he wanted to get rid of Britannicus, he was willing to cancel the death penalty if Locusta was willing and able to deal with the issue. The poisoning took place in the middle of a dinner party. Britannicus’ convulsions were passed off as an epileptic seizure and he was removed from the room. He was dead several hours later.

She was more than willing to do so. She managed to figure out a way to foil the food tasters by adding the poison to water rather than to the wine. The food taster didn’t bother tasting the water. Who adds poison to water after all? Locusta would, and she did. Britannicus ended up dead and Locusta ended up with a rather highly placed patron.

Nero was Locusta's main clientLocusta became quite rich as a result. She was given land, gifts and money. More importantly, even though she was known to have committed a series of poisonings she was fully pardoned. Many of her referrals came from the Emperor himself. Locusta was so good at her work that she even began to educate others in how to use the same toxins and poisonous herbs.

When you are known to be a poisoner and your prime patron was a much-hated emperor, your life expectancy is considerably shortened after your patron is deposed. Such was the case with Locusta. After Nero committed suicide, her life went sharply downhill. Suddenly she was called to account for the many murders she had committed. She was executed the same year in which Nero died.

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