The Kitchen in Asian Mythology

In Asian mythology, just before the Lunar New Year, the kitchen gods would go to Heaven to report to the Heavenly Emperor on his family’s activities during the year. In China, the family “send off” their kitchen god to heaven to make their report by burning the paper in which an image of the paper god was drawn that had hung over their stove for the entire year. The smoke rising to the heavens represents his journey to heaven, while fire crackers are lit to speed up the kitchen god’s travel. To ensure a good report before the Heavenly Emperor, honey would be rubbed on the lips of the paper god so that the kitchen god would have only sweet things to say to the Heavenly Emperor, or so that the sticky honey would prevent him from opening his mouth and tells the Heavenly Emperor any bad news.

Every Vietnamese household has a ceremony named Tet Tao Quan (“Kitchen Gods’ Day”). The women of the family would cook delicacies such as steamed sticky rice or plain porridge, altars would be cleaned and decorated with fresh flowers and fruits, and large bowl of water containing live golden carps is kept aside. The carps will be freed into a pond, lake or river after the worshiping ceremonies are finished. The three kitchen gods can only travel up to the heavens with the help of golden carps, as a carp is believed to be heaven’s animal and is a very good swimmer.

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Vietnamese painting of the Kitchen Gods

The most popular story of the Chinese kitchen god dates back to the 2nd Century BCE. The kitchen god was once a mortal on earth named Zhang Lang. Zhang Lang married a virtuous woman, but later left her to be with a younger woman. As a punishment for his adultery, the heavens afflicted Zhang Lang with ill-fortune – Zhang Lang became blind and, not long after, his young lover abandoned him. His misfortunes continued until he had to resort to begging to support himself.

One day, when he was begging for alms, Zhang Lang came upon a simple house of his former wife. As he was blind, he did not recognize the woman he betrayed. However, she recognized him, took pity on him and invited him in. She cooked a meal for Zhang Lang and tended to him kindly. As Zhang Lang told her his life’s story, he began to weep remembering his former wife and his treatment of her. Hearing this, Zhang Lang’s former wife gently told him to open his eyes and his vision was restored.

When he could finally make out the woman sitting in front of him, Zhang Lang recognized her as the wife he abandoned. However, it appeared that bad luck followed him to the end of his life, as Zhang Lang felt such shame that he threw himself into the kitchen hearth without realizing that it was lit. Despite the virtuous woman’s best efforts to save her former husband, she could only salvage one of his legs. To this day, a fire poker is sometimes referred to as Zhāng lǎng de tuǐ(“Zhang Lang’s Leg”).

The devoted wife then created a shrine to Zhang Lang above the fireplace. The Heavenly Emperor took pity on Zhang Lang. He gave Zhang Lang a new name Zao Jun (“Stove Master”) and made him the god of the Kitchen. When his faithful former wife died, the couple was finally reunited.

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From Chinese mythology, the Kitchen God, named Zao Jun (灶君; literally “stove master”) who rewards or punishes each household accordingly…. This pix is in the famous play “12 bà mụ” of Nguyễn Khắc Phục.

To establish a fresh beginning in the New Year, families in Asia are traditionally organized both within their family unit, in their home, and around their yard to clean. This custom of a thorough house cleaning and yard cleaning is another popular custom relating to the Kitchen Gods stemming from the philosophy that they embody. It is believed that in order for the deities to depart to heaven, the family home and “persons” must be cleansed. This ritual continued until after the ceremony where old decorations are taken down and new posters and decorations are put up for the following Spring Festival.

To further illustrate the relationship of the kitchen and family relationships, to this day traditional Independent Chinese families are classified accordingly to the stove they possess. In circumstances of a divided household, kitchens are shared but never the stove. In the case of a fathers death, the sons would divide their fathers household. The eldest son inherits the stove and the younger brothers transfer the coals from the old stove to their own new stoves to invite the kitchen gods to join their newly formed households. This process is called pun chu (“dividing the stove”) which also indicates the division of the “soul” of the family. As the stove is divided, each family members could then keep a part of their family’s “soul” in their new homes.

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The kitchen in the Shikumen Open House Museum, Shanghai, China

The Ancient Magic of Hygiene

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Cabinets d’aisances des fosses inodores.” (1830)

The proverb of cleanliness being “next to godliness” is popularly credited to John Wesley’s 1778 sermon. But it also came from writings in the Talmud. Washing oneself in clear water before paying homage to the gods and deities became part of the ceremonies in many ancient religions. In ancient Egypt, people washed their faces and hands before praying to the goddess Isis, and the priests bathed their bodies at least twice every night and twice during the day. Christian author Tertullian (c. 155 – 240 CE) tells us that water had inherent natural cleansing properties and, as an essence of holiness, water could remove all taints and open the way to the new state of existence.

In India, water had the power of giving life, strength and purity. The followers of Brahma bathed once or twice a day and rinsed their faces and hands several times a day. Hinduism imposed on its followers the duty of ritual bathing in the waters of the rivers which are still regarded as sacred. Muslims wash their hands, faces and feet before each of the five obligatory prayers in a day. Ablutions in the fountain are executed when they pray along the way, because, as Sahih Muslim says, “Cleanliness is half the Emaan (“faith”).” The Islamic culture led to the development of the ancient idea of public baths. However, the hammam (from the Arabic word “hamma” means “to warm”), known to us today as “Turkish Bath”, carries with itself more than just a bath. Practices of the hammam are an integral part of the Turkish and Arabic lifestyle. In the hammam, it is considered possible to clean the body as well as to relax and to recreate.

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Open air museum Petronell ( Lower Austria )

Very early toilets that used flowing water to remove the waste are found at Skara Brae in Orkney, Scotland, which was occupied from about 3100 BCE until 2500 BCE. The people of the Harappan civilization in Pakistan and northwestern India had primitive water-cleaning toilets that used flowing water in each house that were linked with drains covered with burnt clay bricks. The flowing water removed the Human waste. Around the 18th century BCE, Minoan Crete improved the toilet by adding the capacity to flush. In 2012, archaeologists found what is believed to be Southeast Asia’s earliest latrine dating back to 1500 BCE during the excavation of a neolithic village in Rach Nui, southern Vietnam.

In the Japanese culture, the bath is dominant in most areas of life. It has also become a model indicator of family and social organization. The development of commercial bath houses occurred at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth century CE. By the nineteenth century CE, there were 600 public baths in the capital of Japan alone. Public baths were the most popular meeting place as it was considered a way to meet new friends and for different social classes to interact with each other. Baths were also of vital importance for the Japanese gods. After escaping from the world of the dead, the god Izanagi took a bath in the river to wash away death from his body. It was also said that Izanagi initiated the tradition of washing one’s hand before entering a Shinto shrine.

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Leaflet advertising Bromo paper toilet tissue manufactured by Diamond Mills Paper Company of 44 Murray Street, New York, probably about 1878 or early 1880s. The paper contained the “disinfectants and curatives” Bromo chloralum and carbolic acid “as to render its use not only a positive preventive of that most distressing and almost universal complaint, the Piles, but also a thorough deodorizer and disinfectant of the water closet.” 


The main Babylonian medical text, the Sakikku, a diagnostic handbook written by chief scholar Esagil-kin-apli of Borsippa, describes a demon called Sulak, who hides in places where its victims would be alone and vulnerable such as the toilet. He is a guardian who is held responsible for causing strokes and seizures if toilet users do not abide by its bathroom standards of modesty and silence. The Talmud also tells us about Shed Bet ha-Kise. Going to the privy alone and being respectful of Shed Bet ha-Kise by keeping quiet are key to avoiding his attack. Upon returning from a trip to the toilet, one must walk at least half a mile away before having sexual intercourse to prevent Shed Bet ha-Kise from ensuring the children resulted from the sexual act to be epileptic.

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Chinon (Indre-et-Loire). The fortress for latrines in the Clock Tower.

In the first century BCE, bathhouses and public latrines became a major feature of Roman infrastructure and nearly all city dwellers had access to private toilets in their residences. Throughout the Roman empire, spells meant to ward off demons were scrawled on lavatory walls. The Roman goddess of Fortune, Fortuna, seems to have had a special relationship with toilet users as people prayed to her for their safety on the toilet. The waste water from latrines, along with what came out of private homes, was collected into a giant sewerage system originally built by Etrucan engineers and improved by the Romans called Cloaca Maxima. The goddess who presided over the good functioning of the sewerage system is Cloacina – named from the Latin word cloaca (“sewer”). Cloacina was assisted by city officials, called Aediles, who were in charge of supervising and improving the sewerage system. Titus Tatius, the king of the Sabines from Cures was said to have built a shrine to Coacina in his toilet and invoked her when the sewers became blocked.

In ancient Asia, the toilet god was considered to be beautiful. Therefore, the toilet in a household would be nicely decorated and kept as clean as possible. There was also a belief that the state of the toilet in the house would affect the physical appearance of unborn children. Pregnant women would ask the toilet god to give boys a good nose and to give the girls dimples. A dirty toilet would lead to ugly and unhappy children.

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Room with latrines in the interior of the castle of Mauléon-Licharre, (Pyrénées-Atlantiques, France).

Ancient Ladies of War

The vision of heavily armed men has become so heavily associated with the art of war that at this point it has become a cliché. So much so that, despite the many evidence throughout history of many female fighters, strategists and leaders, the association between women and war are still mostly seen as somewhat of a novelty even to this day. Stories of ancient female warriors are relegated to legends and folklores with minimal historical accounts attached to their lives, which leads to doubts on whether these women actually existed. Some of them are so fantastical and unrealistic that one would be forgiven to be inclined to immediately dismiss them. The lives and exploits of notable warrior women in history such as Artemisia I of Caria, Boudicca, or Joan of Arc are mostly considered examples of exceptional personal valor instead of reflections of the societies in which they lived.

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Attic red figure pelike by the Polygnotos Painter, 440-430 BC. A battle between a Greek warrior and an Amazon. The signature of the Painter is above the head of the warrior. Found in Gela, Sicily.

Chronicles of the ancient wars in Japan, much like those of ancient Greece and Rome, present many different kinds of male warriors such as the tragic hero, the warrior-courtier, the traitor, the coward and many others. On the other hand, women’s roles in these tales are slight and set far from the battlefields. There is the tragic heroine, or the loyal wife, who kills herself at the death of her husband or lover, the grieving mother who grooms her son to avenge his father’s death, the merciful woman who encourages a warrior chieftain to empathize, against his better judgment, and dissuade him from slaughtering his enemy’s children who later grow up to kill him, and the seductress who diverts the warrior from his task with her feminine wiles – all intriguing roles, of course, but they are stereotypes which realistically would apply to only very few women.

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Nakano Takeko shrine in Japan

Then there are the “ordinary women” who are either slaughtered or taken by the warriors as spoils of war. The fates of these women were rarely, if ever, mentioned. The likelihood of these women being raped and murdered were considered such a matter of course that frequent references to them would only disturb the flow of the story. The rare female warriors were depicted as superheroines. The life of Empress Jingu of Japan (c. 169-269 CE), as with many ancient female warriors, was shrouded in mystery. Aided by a pair of divine jewels which allowed her to control the tides, Empress Jingu led a successful invasion to Korea without shedding a single drop of blood from the Korean or the Japanese. However, the belief that Korea was invaded during this time is widely rejected historically as the historical evidence of Japanese rule in Korea during this time are somewhat debatable. Her legend became more incredible as her son Ojin was born upon her return to Japan in 203 CE. Ojin remained in the Empress’ womb for three years as he was conceived before she went to battle and was born upon her return. Legend has it that Ojin was actually Hachiman, the god of war, and he remained in her womb for three years to give her the time she needed to conquer Korea.

The descriptions of Tomoe Gozen are also unbelievable. Not only was she described as a woman of great beauty, intellect and battle skills, Tomoe Gozen was also a perfect archer, brilliant horse rider, an expert of the sword and a very competent politician – in short, a perfect war machine with the face of an angel. Nevertheless, she proved herself in combat as, leading only 300 samurais, she fought more than 2000 warriors and survived.

Tomoe Gozen is noted as one of Japan’s rare woman warriors who engaged in offensive battles. However, again, this is not completely true as there was, in fact, a whole class of women who were engaged in offensive battles. The excavation of three battlefield head-mounds from the Battle of Senbon Matsubaru between Takeda Katsuyori and Hojo Ujinao in 1580 CE and DNA tests on 105 bodies revealed that 35 of the warriors were female. Two subsequent excavations elsewhere produced similar results. As none of these findings was a siege situation, this leads to the conclusion that women fought in offensive armies even though their involvement was seldom recorded.

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Replica of the armor worn by female samurai Tachibana Ginchiyo at Siege of Yanagawa in 1600

The ancient women of Japan were only one of the latest in a long history of society-sanctioned female warriors. Herodotus describes steppe nomads named the Sauromatae, descendants of the Scythians, whose women hunted and fought alongside the men on horseback. This description is confirmed by archeological evidences of female warriors in Scythian cultures. Excavations of 44 Sauromatian and Sarmatian kurgan burial mounds along the Khazakstan-Russia border in the 1990s discovered several skeletons of women buried with daggers and bronze tipped arrows.

As many other female skeletons unearthed at the same site were buried only with more typically feminine goods like beads and earrings. Such women of nomadic steppe cultures appear to have been trained in warfare from childhood and would have been proficient in the Scythian practice of mounted archery. In times of war, these women would have ridden alongside the men into battle, shooting at their foes from horseback and occasionally being shot themselves. The wounds found on a few of the excavated female skeletons confirmed this.

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Sculpture of Amazon Female Warrior, Ouidah, Benin

Accounts of the nomadic Cimbri tribe on the European continent by their Roman adversaries provide insight into their martial culture. Plutarch’s record of the life of Roman general Caius Marius during the invasion of the Germanic Cimbri, Teuton, and Ambrone tribes in 103 CE sheds some light on the roles of the Germanic women in combat. Plutarch recorded that Cimbri women accompanied their husbands to the Battle of Vercellae, apparently well trained enough in combat to guard the Cimbri baggages and entrenchments as their men marched onto the field to meet Marius’ army. Upon witnessing the defeat of the Cimbri by the Romans, the women shocked the pursuing Romans by slaying both their fleeing husbands and themselves rather than enduring capture.

Going to Hell and Back, Turning Chaos to Opportunity

Joseph Campbell wrote, “a hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Within this concept, the underworld is notable as a place where a hero could descend and prove himself. For the ancient Greeks, the underworld represents a point of no return. However, there are some who managed to descend to the realm of the dead and returned to the land of the living. This journey to the underworld usually provide the hero or upper-world deity with a special object, a loved one, or a heightened knowledge. The ability to enter the realm of the dead while still alive, and to return from it, is considered proof of the hero’s prowess and mastery over himself and the world around him or, in the case of the goddess Persephone’s return from the underworld, the cyclical nature of time and existence.

This is not an exclusively Greek story. The journey to the underworld and the resulting transformation are such an important part of the ancient religions that it influences cultures, rituals and governments of many ancient societies. An ancient Bugis poem called La Galigo is the most coherent account of the introduction of kingship among the Bugis and Makassar people of South Sulawesi, Indonesia. The poem described the earth as being in chaos at the beginning of time. The gods and goddesses then decided to send Batara Guru (“noble lord counselor”) to transform this chaos into a place habitable for man.

We Nyilitimo, the daughter of the god of the underworld, agreed to serve as a wife to Batara Guru on earth. Therefore, as Batara Guru descended to earth from the heaven on a rainbow, We Nyilitimo rose from the underworld on a big wave, earning herself the title Tompo ri busa mpong (“She who rose from the foam of the waves”). The two deities met and began a civilization together. After a period of time, Batara Guru and We Nyilitimo left to return to their respective realms, leaving their children to live on earth. Without their divine parents, mankind began to turn on one another. Batara Guru and We Nyilitimo took pity on them and appointed one of their children to rule over the warring communities. In the Bugis-Makassar kingdoms this being was called the Tu manurung (“the one who descended”), a child of heaven and the underworld whose duty was to lead the people on earth. This legend became the ideal depiction of the origins of rulers that forms the basis of later court writing in Makassar which emphasize the divine ancestry of the royal families. In Bugis-Makassar society, a king was regarded as an essential mediator or link between mankind on earth and the gods in heaven and the underworld, as he was believed to possess the power to move freely between the realms until such time of his death where he would descend to the underworld to join his mother.

The 12th century Epic of King Gesar of Mongolia relates the heroic deeds of the culture hero Gesar, the lord of the legendary kingdom of Ling. His birth was said to be miraculous. One version of his birth is that, like the first king of Bugis-Makassar, he was born from the union between a father, who was simultaneously a sky god and holy mountain, and a mother who was a goddess of the watery underworld. Like the semi-mythical role of the Bugis-Makassar king, King Gesar defended his people against various human and superhuman aggressors. A version of his myth says that he descended to the underworld near the end of his life to rescue his mother from usurpers of the underworld and later, instead of dying a normal death he joined his mother in the underworld from which he may return at some time in the future to save his people from their enemies.

The god Izanagi and his wife, the goddess Izanami, gave birth to the many islands of Japan as well as numerous deities of Shintoism. After Izanami died giving birth to the fire-god Kagu-tsuchi, Izanagi executed the fire god and went to see his wife in Yomi-no-kuni (the underworld) in the hopes of retrieving her. However, like Persephone in Greek mythology, Izanami had eaten the food cooked in the furnace of the underworld, rendering her unable to return. Although he had promised, prior to his descent, to never look upon his wife, Izanagi betrayed this promise only to behold her in her monstrous state. The couple’s relationship turned sour as, angry and ashamed, Izanami took her revenge on Izanagi by dispatching the lightning god Raijin and the hag Yomotsu-shikome to chase after him. In her fury at the escape of Izanagi, the goddess swore to kill a thousand of his people every day. Hearing this, Izanagi retorted that a thousand and five hundred people will be born every day.

The name Guanyin is the short version for Guanshiyin, which means “the one who hears the sound of the world”. In one version of her legend, when Guanyin was executed, a supernatural tiger took her to the realm of the dead. However, instead of being overwhelmed by the darkness like the other spirits of the dead, Guanyin completely surprised the hell guardian by playing music, making flowers bloom around her. Guanyin turned hell into heaven. In Sumerian, the word for ear and wisdom are the same. Therefore, when Inanna “turned her ear to the Great Below”, the implication of this little sentence is that she was seeking wisdom and understanding – this further implies that one descends to the underworld to seek knowledge. When she approached the outer gates of the underworld, she was entering the ordeal of initiation. Inanna shows through her own descent her self-sacrifice for a deep wisdom and atonement. Inanna descended, submitted and died. By descending to the underworld, she opened herself to losing control of her life, facing the very real possibility of never getting out of the underworld, and still kept going. Being acted upon is considered one of the essence of the experience of the human soul faced with the transpersonal. Allowing another to exert their influence upon her is not considered passivity, but an active willingness to receive. `

A main goal of such descents, then, is the letting go of illusions and the old patterns of mundane life. Ereshkigal’s realm is similar to the undiscriminating fires of Kali in the Indian mythology. It combines time and sufferings and killing human distinctions and ego before yielding a new life as well as an acknowledgment that life is cyclical.

The I Ching notes that the symbols for chaos and opportunity are the same. This also relates to the interpretation of a divine descent to the underworld. If the world, society and cherished collective beliefs are being threatened with chaos, I Ching interpret this as the world making its own descent into the underworld prior to its being reborn. If so, then humanity is facing a time of opportunity instead of merely chaos. The world would then shed its illusions before it is empowered.

8 Ancient Roman Love Hacks

The Roman author Ovid was born a year after the assassination of Julius Caesar. He wrote various works throughout his long career, but none so insightful for the everyday person as his Ars Amatoria (“The Art of Love”).

At first glance, the three books of Ars Amatoria are a collection of short poems playing with the common tropes of love stories – the locked-out lover, the slave go-between, the symptoms of love-sickness, the rich rival, the poor poet, infidelity and occasionally successful erotic encounter. But, they also include advice to the reader on how to be a good lover. Here are some of them:

1. Manage Your Smell

“[address] the odor in your armpit so that it does not go rancid and your legs so they are not rough with hair.” he says.

He also says, “See to it that he is well-composed, and his toga without stain. That the tongue not be unbending, and that your teeth be without tartar, Nor let your foot swim about while walking in a loose shoe(s). Don’t let a hair-cut badly fashion your stiff hair; Let your hair and your beard be trimmed by a familiar hand. And that it doesn’t stick up too much, and that your nails are without dirt. And no hairs stand out in the cavities from the nostril. Nor let the breath of your sad mouth be badly scented, Nor [smelling] as a man or billy-goat annoy nostils.” (I. 514-522)

2. Know Your Limits and Work Your Assets

“With little gesture make, whenever she may speak the woman who will have fat fingers and dirty nails. And to the woman whose breath of her mouth is burdensome, never speak hungry and always keep some distance away from your lover’s mouth. If your teeth are blackened, large, or not in line from birth, you will carry the greatest error by laughing.” (III. 280-286)

3. Make Your Choice and Own it

Ovid tells us, “you must act the part of a lover” in order to really become one. But, first of all, “choose someone to whom you can say “you alone please me”’ – that is, choose someone to be the recipient of your loving discourse. With this opening, Ovid goes right in to the heart of the conflict between love as a conscious, rational choice and as an irrational, overwhelming emotion. In the art of love, emotion and logic need to be balanced.

4. Go Out and Find Love

In any case, this section advises the reader to not sit complacently waiting for love, and instead to make an effort to go out and find it. “This woman will not come having fallen to you through thin airs: You must look with your eyes for a suitable girl” (I. 43-44)

Ovid’s favorite local hotspots for singles mingling included the circus, the arena, and even the open-air public market. But the go-to place for a veritable “galaxy” of beauties was the theatre. There, a Roman could find “crowds of lovely women, gaily dressed,” in search of art and culture.

4. Beware of Alcohol and Bad Lighting

Ovid explicitly advises his audience to beware of the combination of alcohol and low lighting in finding a lover, describing them as ignis in igne fuit (“a fire within a fire”) adding that “Nighttime darkness and wine harm your decision making and standards” (I.247) If you really want to know what she [or he] is like, look at her by daylight, and when you’re sober.”

5. Be Friends

Another possibility of finding love is, of course, through friendship. “Let love appear disguised by the name of friendship. With this entrance, I have seen the surrendering words of fierce women. This which has been the cultivator, a lover was made”. (I. 720-722)

6. Pay Attention to the Red Flags

Ovid also recognizes that there are always undesirable men, and warns women to be cautious. “Avoid those men who swears by looks and culture, who keeps their hair carefully in place. The things they tell to you they’ve told a thousand girls: their love wanders and lingers in no one place”. (III. 433-442)

7. Do not Brag about Your “Conquests”

Those notches on the proverbial bedpost might be a pleasure to brag about, Ovid suggests, but they won’t help your or your paramour’s reputation. If you really must spill the juicy details to a friend, at least refrain from painting yourself as the gods’ gift to women or men: “Let us… speak sparingly of our real amours, and hide our secret pleasures beneath an impenetrable veil.”

8. Pick Up a Book

Seagoing hero Ulysses was eloquent and so fluent in ancient tongues and storytelling that he had two goddesses after him. A good brain and sense of refinement matters in love. Ovid says, “Youths of Rome, learn, I recommend you, the liberal arts; and not only that you may defend the trembling accused. Both the public, and the grave judge, and the silent Senate, as well as the fair, conquered by your eloquence, shall extend their hands.”

9 Ancient Ways to Everlasting Fame

Although not everybody wants to be famous, it is still a natural human desire to receive some recognition for one’s talents and contribution. For the more ambitious, those who aim for everlasting fame must deal with numerous challenges from jealousy of rivals to possible extinction of their own civilisation and language.

What ultimately claims everyone is simply the steady march of time. Most people who have risen to dizzying heights of fame seems to be largely forgotten. The steamy verses of the Greek poet Sappho titillated audiences for much of antiquity. They were so enchanting, one Athenian lawmaker said he felt that once he’d heard them he could die a contented man. The celebrity gladiator Spiculus was so admired by the emperor Nero that, when he sensed that his own murder was imminent, Nero requested that Spiculus would be the one to kill him instead. Sappho and Spiculus are now largely forgotten except by historians and people who actually have to study them. But, in their day, they were hot stuff. So how is it that some people are almost instantly forgotten when they have gone, while others cling on, embedding themselves so deeply into our culture that we’re still studying them, writing about them and even depicting them in films millennia after they’re gone?

“In the Days of Sappho” (1904)

1. Be Hungry for It

A fitting place to begin the search is Ancient Greece, where achieving everlasting glory was a national obsession. In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles says that he was given the option between living a long but undistinguished life or a brief life that would give him a chance to achieve immortal glory. Achilles chose the second option – preferring to be a subject of song for all eternity. However, a more subdued Achilles later reappeared in Book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus sails to the underworld and converses with the shades. One of these shades is Achilles who, when greeted as “blessed in life, blessed in death”, responds bitterly that he would rather be a slave to the worst of masters than be king of all the dead.

“The Wounded Achilles” by Filipo Albacini (1825)

Another hero, Ajax, is said to have been driven mad when he lost to Odysseus in a contest over who is the best fighter in the Greek army. Believing that he is avenging himself upon the judges of the contest, Ajax goes on to slaughter a herd of cattle. Once he returns to his senses, the humiliated hero commits suicide by falling on his spear.

Suicide of Ajax, 530 BC

2. Hire Your Own Publicist

Master of self-promotion Alexander the Great ruled the kingdom of Macedon from 336-323 BC, expanding it from mainland Greece and a scattering of Mediterranean islands to a global power that stretched all the way to northwest India. His advanced propaganda machine included a troop of historians who accompanied him on campaigns. These historians write the history of his campaign as it was happening. He also authorised only one sculptor to carve his portrait and carefully planned the details of any likenesses that appeared on coins.

Bust of Alexander the Great

Nicias (c. 470 BC – 413 BC), an Athenian Politician and General in the Peloponnesian War, engaged the services of a publicity manager named Hieron to help him cultivate the image of a hard-working and self-sacrificing public servant. It was Hieron who helped Nicias to act out this part by investing him with an air of solemnity and self-importance.

3. Have the Right Career

Those not lucky enough to be born into power still have a decent chance of being remembered if they focus on changing the world through their ideas. Back in antiquity, philosophers weren’t particularly well known by the general public. But thousands of years later, their work still guides modern thinking and they are so widely known they can be considered to be household names. However, ancient philosophers had the added advantage of fewer competitors since most people of their time were illiterate. Finding fame gets harder to achieve without original ideas, but it is still possible to come up with revolutionary thought experiments.

Later, as Da Vinci, Galileo, Einstein and Isaac Newton inch towards a millennium of fame, it might be tempting to opt for a life in the laboratory. Unfortunately, nowadays even a Nobel prize probably won’t do the trick as science is now much more collaborative and you’ll more likely to be noted as just one name in a group of clever people.

In ancient Rome, Gladiators were mainly drawn from the ranks of convicted murderers and slaves. Most of them would only appear in the Colosseum once as they would be killed in the match. However, the best of them achieved great fame. Such was the attention that they received that others, including freeborn women, senators, even the Emperor Commodus (161 – 192 CE), offered their own services as gladiators. Unfortunately, sporting heroes impact a generation, but once they start to go out of living memory they decline.

4. Sleep with Someone Famous

Incidentally, gladiators were thought to be exceptionally potent, and women sleeping with them could achieve fame for themselves. The poet Juvenal scorned a woman named Eppia, the wife of a senator, who eloped to Egypt with a gladiator called Sergius – thus elevating and immortalizing her through his writing. “What was the attraction? The fellow was a physical wreck”’ Juvenal demands. “Ah, but he was a gladiator.” Eppia replied.

A certain degree of self-validation through sleeping with someone famous also emerged in Euripides’ play, The Bacchae, when Dionysus became angered after his aunt Agave claimed that his mother Semele had never slept with Zeus and slept with a mortal man instead – thus denying Dionysus’ divinity and the high profile he would have gotten by being the son of Zeus.

Zeus and Semele

5. Be Outrageous

The man who brought down ancient Rome’s political system was a wealthy nobleman named Publius Clodius Pulcher (c. 93 BC – 52 BC). Well-known in Rome even before his foray into politics, Clodius had already shocked and amused the Roman public by his eccentricities and unpredictable ways.

Clodius entered politics to secure the acceptance and respect of the ruling class who quickly dismissed him as a buffoon. After the elite rebuffed him, Clodius positioned himself as the leader of the angry Roman working classes. This surprised Rome’s ruling classes who continued to despise Clodius. Rome was so divided during Clodius’ campaign for the praetorship that the elections had to be postponed twice due to fighting in the streets between his followers and the faction of his opponent, Annius Milo.

When Clodius happened to meet Milo along the Appian Way, a fight broke out between their guards and Clodius was gravely wounded until Milo ordered his men to finish him off with a consideration that a popular dead opponent was less harmful than an alive and angry one.

6. Look Pretty

Helen of Troy, with her “face that launched a thousand ships” is one example of being famous for one’s beauty as men came to see her all the way from distant lands. Penelope, wife of Odysseus, is another example as she was forced to devise various strategies to delay marrying one of her 108 suitors while she spend twenty years waiting for the final return of her husband.

The fourth century BC Greek courtesan Phryne had clients visited her from all over the Greek world and showered her with gifts. After she became rich, Phryne offered to use her wealth to rebuild the walls around the city of Thebes which had been destroyed by Alexander the Great with a condition that the walls should bear an inscription recording, or rather promoting, her and her generosity.

Her efforts of self-promotion were not in vain as rhetorician Athenaeus of Naucratis provides many anecdotes praising her beauty and generosity. Praxiteles, a sculptor who became her lover, was also said to have used her as the model for the statue of the Aphrodite of Knidos – the first nude statue of a woman from ancient Greece.

Aphrodite of Knidos

7. Be Really, Really Lucky

When Tutankhamun took his last, feverish breath in 1323 BC, he was just a boy king of 18. He’s not known to have achieved anything particularly remarkable – understandable, given his age. Then something extraordinary happened. His tomb was discovered in 1922. Its location and size had kept them safely hidden away, while all the tombs around it were being plundered by looters.

The memory of Tutankhamun has been ensured by the large number of physical artefacts he left behind. His mummy alone has been intensively studied as experts unravel the mystery of his short life and how he died. His fame increases with every headline and documentary. When we think of ancient Egypt, we think Tutankhamun. It doesn’t matter that it was all a fluke.

Bust of Tutankhamun

8. Leave Stuff Behind

Leaving any kind of physical legacy is extremely helpful. This could come in the form of the many, many descendants of the 13th-Century Mongol warrior Genghis Khan, whose prolific loins sired one in 200 men alive today, or the numerous monuments and coins on which Alexander the Great stamped his image. In China, the emperor Qin Shi Huang secured his lasting memory with the Great Wall of China and the vast Terracotta Warriors buried with him – not to mention that he founded an entire country.

China’s Terracotta Warriors

9. Be a Villain

Another route to enduring fame that should not be encouraged is to seek notoriety. From Jack the Ripper and Captain Blackbeard, to Hitler and Ivan the Terrible, many of the best-known characters in history are infamous. The most charismatic have been remembered, with a shudder, for generations. This has led some to pursue fame the nasty way. When Mark David Chapman was being charged for murder for shooting John Lennon, he said ‘in order to be the most famous person in the world, I have to kill the most famous person in the world.”

Painting on the Building of the TEmple of Artemis at Ephesus

Thousands of years ago, an arsonist called Herostratus set fire to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the great temple of Artemis at Ephesus in Turkey in 348 BC. Herostratus later confessed under torture that his crime was driven by his wish to be a celebrity. Hearing this, the Ephesians decided to execute Herostratus and ban all mention of his name – dubbing him instead as “That Who Is Not Lawful To Mention”. However, the ancient historian Theopompus mentions the name of Herostratus in his his book Hellenics and the name appears again later in the works of Strabo. Unfortunately this banning tactic was a failure as Herostratus is remembered to this day. The term “Herostratic fame” refers to Herostratus and means “fame [sought] at any cost”.

What’s left of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus

Inclusivity, Tolerance and the Golden Age of Islam

To this day, poems by Muhammad Jalal ad-Din Rumi have sold millions of copies. This makes him one of the most famous poets in the world. His poems were often compared to Shakespeare’s for their resonance. Rumi lived in the close of the Golden Age of Islam. His writings on tolerance give us further value in offering a glimpse of the beliefs and tradition in which Rumi experienced in his lifetime.

Traditionally, the Golden Age of Islam is dated from the seventh to the 13th century. It was during this period that artists, scholars, poets and traders in the Islamic world made their biggest contribution to a wide range of disciplines both by preserving earlier traditions and by adding innovations of their own.

Through trading, the Islamic empires significantly contributed to globalization when the knowledge, trade and economies from many formerly isolated regions and civilizations began integrating through their contacts with explorers and traders. As the empire’s trade networks extended from the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Indian Ocean and China Sea in the east, it helps to establish the Islamic empires as the world’s leading economic power. As a result, Islamic civilization is unique in that it grew and expanded based on its merchant economy, in contrast to their Christian, Indian and Chinese peers who generally expanded their societies from agricultural landholding nobility.

Tomb of a Sufi Chief

In the middle of all these exchanges, the first stage of a mystic movement known as Sufism appeared in the early Umayyad period (661–749 CE). Islamic mysticism is called tasawwuf which literally means “to dress in wool” in Arabic. However, since the early 19th century, the movement has been called “Sufism” in western languages. Sufism derives from a somewhat looser Arabic term for a mystic, sufi, which is in turn derived from ṣuf, (“wool”). This may be a reference to the woolen garment of early Islamic ascetics.

One of the Sufi orders’ contribution to the rise and expansion of the Islamic civilization was their missionary activities. This extensive networking allowed the Bayt al-Hikma (“House of Wisdom”) to be established in Baghdad, where scholars from different cultures and faiths gathered and translated the world’s knowledge into Arabic. Knowledge was synthesized from works originating in all the ancient civilizations, and many classic works of antiquity were translated into Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Hebrew and Latin.

This inclusiveness extended to the labor force. Both men and women were involved in diverse occupations and economic activities. Women were employed in medicines, scholarships, as well as a wide range of commercial activities and diverse occupations such as farming and construction work.

Islamic Spain Agricultural Scene

A number of distinct features of the modern library were introduced in the Islamic world, where libraries expanded the primary function of ancient libraries as center of collection of manuscripts. A library became a public and lending library, a center for the instruction of sciences and ideas, a place for meetings, discussions, and sometimes lodging for scholars or boarding school for pupils. The concept of the library catalogue was also introduced in medieval Islamic libraries, where books were organized into specific genres and categories.

Rumi showing his love for his disciples

These developments would have demanded a great degree of knowledge and flexibility from workers and scholars alike to be able to compete with their countrymen and the rest of the world. This gave birth to the large number of Muslim polymath scholars, who were known as Hakeems, each of whom contributed to a variety of different fields of learning comparable to the later European renaissance men such as Leonardo da Vinci. Due to the demands in this period, polymath scholars with a wide breadth of knowledge in different fields were more common than scholars who specialized in any single field of learning.

Apart from the demand at the time for people to have a wide variety of knowledge and interests, an extensive range of Islamic writings on love, poetry, history and theology show the thought at the time as being open to a broad spectrum of philosophical ideas. Although society was controlled under Islamic values, a certain degree of religious freedom helped create multi-faith, cross-cultural networks by attracting those of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths.

Al-Wasiti Discussion

Another example of how inclusive the Islamic world at the time comes from the most well-known work of fiction from the era – The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. The book was a compilation of many earlier folk tales from different cultures such as China and Africa translated or retold to Persian.

Arabian Nights was translated in the 18th century by Antoine Galland and since then became an influential work of literature in the west. Various characters from this epic, such as Aladdin, Sinbad and Ali Baba, have become cultural icons in western culture. A number of elements such as genies, magic lamps and magic carpets from ancient Arabian and Persian mythology retold in the epic are now common fixtures in modern fantasy.

Another literary genre benefitted from the development of the Golden Age of Islam is Science Fiction. Theologus Autodidactus (“Self-taught Theologian”), written by polymath Ibn al-Nafis (1213–1288), is an early example of this. It uses various elements such as spontaneous generation, futurology and doomsday, all of which would not be out of place in the science fiction works today. However, rather than giving the supernatural or mythological explanations for these events which were common then, Ibn al-Nafis attempted to explain these plot elements using the scientific knowledge of biology, astronomy, cosmology and geology known in his time.

From the book “The Birth of Iskandar”

A number of musical instruments utilized in classical music today are believed to have been derived from Arabic musical instruments. Later, Ottoman military bands, known by the Persian-derived word Mehter, are thought to be the oldest variety of military marching band in the world. Some standard instruments employed by a Mehter are the bass drum, the kettledrum, the cymbals, oboes, flutes and triangles. These military bands inspired many marching bands and orchestras in the west, which then heavily inspired the works of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

Rumi would have experienced this early in his childhood. His father, Baha al-Din, was a teacher of Islamic law, with Sufi inclinations, in Khorasan. By 1215, Baha al-Din chose to move his family to Konya, where Rumi stayed for the rest of his life. Baha al-Din became the principle teacher of one of Konya’s religious colleges. He died in 1231, and the then 24-years-old Rumi inherited his father’s teaching position. Rumi, at this time, was already well-versed in both Islamic law and Islamic mysticism. Following the inclusive nature of society and education at the time, the college where Rumi taught had over ten thousand students from every class of society, including grocers, weavers, tailors, and bookbinders. Also recognized as an Islamic Jurist, Rumi often involved himself in the lives of his community members, solving disputes and facilitating loans between nobles and students.

Bowl of Reflections, Early 13th Century

In 1244, Rumi met Shams al-Din Tabrizi, who introduced Rumi to the Rejoicing Sufism, which inspired Rumi’s subsequent works though its music and spiritual dances. Their meeting is considered a central event in Rumi’s life. They were close friends for about three years. In fact, their relationship was close enough to spark theories of homoeroticism by modern historians, which would have again fitted the level of tolerance and inclusiveness of the time. Over the course of that time, Shams was repeatedly driven away by Rumi’s jealous disciples, including one of Rumi’s sons, Ala al-Din, until Sham’s sudden disappearance in 1247. Rumi left the college to travel in search of his friend. He eventually made peace with his loss and returned home.

Rumi’s mourning for the loss of his friend led to the outpouring of more than 40,000 lyric verses, including odes, eulogies, quatrains, and other styles of poetry. The resulting collection, Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi (“The Works of Shams Tabriz”), is considered one of the greatest works of Persian literature.

Meeting of Rumi and Molla Shams Al-Din

Rumi died in Konya in 1273 CE and his remains were interred adjacent to his father’s. The Yesil Turbe (“Green Tomb”) was erected above their final resting place. Now known as the Mevlana museum, the site includes a mosque, dance hall, and dervish living quarters. Thousands of visitors of all faiths visit his tomb each month, a testament to not only Rumi and his relatable works, but also the inclusiveness of society at the time.

Mevlana Museum

Spread of Islam and Introduction to the Javanese Philosophy

The history of the arrival and spread of Islam in Indonesia is a little unclear despite it being one of the most significant developments in Indonesian history as there are many competing theories and only fragmentary historical evidence. One theory states it arrived directly from Arabia before the 9th century, while another credits Sufi merchants and preachers for bringing Islam to Indonesian islands in the 12th or 13th century either from Gujarat, India or directly from the Middle East. 

Masjid Ageng Surakarta, photo taken between 1910 – 1930

Nevertheless, a clear turning point occurred when the Hindu empire Majapahit in Java fell to the Islamised Demak Sultanate. In 1527, the Muslim ruler renamed newly conquered Sunda Kelapa as Jayakarta (meaning “precious victory”) which was eventually contracted to Jakarta, the current capital city of Indonesia. 

 Islam is thought to have been present in Southeast Asia from early in the Islamic era. From the time of the third caliph of Islam, Uthman (644-656), Muslim emissaries and merchants were arriving in China who would have passed through Indonesia sea routes from the Islamic world. It would have been through this contact that Arabic emissaries between 904 and the mid-12th century are thought to have become involved in the Sumatran trading state of Srivijaya.


Believers on their way to the mosque, between 1925 and 1948

The most reliable evidence of the early spread of Islam in Indonesia comes from inscriptions on tombstones and a limited number of travellers’ accounts. The earliest legibly inscribed tombstone is dated AH 475 (1082 CE), although as it belongs to a non-Indonesian Muslim, there is doubt as to whether it was transported to Java at a later time.

An early Muslim gravestone dated AH 822 (1419 CE) has been found at Gresik an East Javanese port and marks the burial of Malik Ibrahim. As it appears that he was non-Javanese foreigner, the gravestone does not provide evidence of coastal Javanese conversion. Malik Ibrahim was, however, according to Javanese tradition one of the first nine apostles of Islam in Java (the Wali Songo) although no documentary evidence exists for this tradition.

It was largely due to the Walisongo that in the period of 40–50 years, Islam was widespread in Java, whereas before it was very difficult to develop.

Javanese Mosque between 1890 and 1920

Equality

Until the early Demak era, society was divided into two major groups: Gusti, people who live in the palace and Kawula, people who live outside the palace. Gusti means “master”, Kawula means “servants”. Kawula only have the right to lease, not the right of ownership, because the right of ownership only belonged to the people with the social status of Gusti. In the era of Majapahit, all property is owned by the palace (state, or nation, or the kingdom).

Walisongo, especially Sheikh Siti Jenar and Sunan Kalijaga, created a new perspective in the cultural and society structure. They introduce the new community structure which is so-called “Masyarakat”, derived from the Arabic term of Musharaka, which means a community of equal and mutual cooperation. We know this because the term “masyarakat” and “rakyat” are missing in the Javanese Kawi vocabulary, indicating that the term was brought in later by Walisongo.

Following this was a change of mindset. Gusti referred to themselves as: intahulun, kulun or ingsun, while Kawula referred to themselves as kula or kawula. Walisongo changes all those designation which indicates the meaning of servants, and replaced it with the term of ingsun, aku, kulun, or awak, and other designations that do not represent the identity of slaves or persons with lower social status. In present days, the term of kula, ambo, abdi, hamba, sahaya or saya, are still being used for the purpose of showing respect toward others, such as while speaking toward someone older, parents, strangers and so on.

Masjid in Kampung Arab (Arab Village) in Semarang, c. 1930

Humility

The Javanese in the era of Majapahit were notoriously arrogant. Their principle of life is Adigang Adigung Adiguna (“superior in power, authority, and knowledge”). According to the testimony of scholar Antonio Pigafetta, there’s no one is as arrogant exceed the Javanese. If they were walking, and there’s also people from another nation who walk at a higher place, they will be ordered to get down. and if they refuse, they will be killed. That was the character of the Javanese at the time. So in old Javanese Kawi, there’s no word for kalah (“lose”). If someone at odds with others, then there is only “win” or “dead”. As Ma Huan noted, in Chao-wa (Java) if a man touches their head with his hand, or if there is a misunderstanding about money at a sale, or a battle of words when they are crazy with drunkenness, they at once pull out their knives and stab [each other]. He who is stronger prevails.

Another evidence of the arrogance of the Javanese is represented during the time when envoys from China (Meng Xi) came in order to deliver a message from their king (Kubilai Khan) to the king of Singasari (Kertanegara). The message ordered Kertanegara to submit toward their kingdom. And in return, Meng Xi (the Chinese envoy) had his ears cut off, humiliated, and sent back to China by Kertanegara.

Walisongo then developed term ngalah (which comes from “NgAllah”). It comes from the Javanese prefix “Ng” which means toward (a purpose, and or destination), for example: ng-alas (toward the forest), ng-awang (toward the clouds), and Ng-Allah means toward Allah (tawakkul – from the Arabic language, it is the word for the Islamic concept of reliance on God or “trusting in God’s plan”), the word “ngalah” itself was then used by the Javanese as an expression in avoiding conflict.

Mosque, Indonesia between 1900 and 1940

Rituals

The Walisongo saw that Hinduism and Buddhism actually were only embraced by the Gusti society inside the palaces. The common religion that generally embraced by the general population outside the palace is Kapitayan, a religion whose devotee toward Sang Hyang Taya. Taya means suwung (“empty”). the god of Kapitayan is abstract and indescribably. Sang Hyang Taya is defined simply as tan keno kinaya ngapa, it cannot be seen, thought, nor imagined. And the might of Sang Hyang Taya can be seen in various places, such as in stone, monument, trees and in many other places in this world. Therefore, the ancient Javanese make their offerings over those places as their devotion toward Sang Hyang Taya. A similar concept of Brahman is found in Hinduism.

These Kapitayan’s religious values was then adopted by the Walisongo in spreading Islam toward the regions as the concept of tawhid in Kapitayan is very similar to the concept of tawhid in Islam. the term of Tan keno kinaya ngapa in Kapitayan (“can’t be seen, can’t be thought, can’t be imagined, He is beyond everything”), have a similar meaning as laisa kamitslihi syai’un in Islam (“There is nothing like unto Him” – Qur’an Surah Ash-Syura chapter 42 verse 11).

Walisongo also use the term Sembahyang (sembah (worship)+ Hyang (god), thus worshipping Sang Hyang Taya in Kapitayan) in introducing the term of Shalat in Islam. There’s also a ritual in form of not eating from morning up until night in Kapitayan, which is called as Upawasa (Puasa, “fasting”). Incidentally, the ritual of fasting in Hinduism is also called “Upawasa” or “Upavasa”. Instead of using the term of fasting in Islam, Walisongo used the term of Puasa or Upawasa from the Kapitayan in describing the ritual. The term of Poso Dino Pitu in Kapitayan whose means fasting on the day of the second and the fifth day in which is equal to seven days of fasting, is very similar with the form of fasting on Mondays and Thursdays in Islam. The Tradition of Tumpengan of Kapitayan was also being kept by the Walisongo under the Islamic perspective as known as Sedekah (from Sadaqah which, in the modern context, has come to signify “voluntary charity”. According to the Quran, the word means voluntary offering, whose amount is at the will of the “benefactor”.)

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Tumpeng. The big plate generally set in the middle of a celebration.

At the time of Majapahit, there is a ceremony which is called as Sraddha, a ceremony that being held 12 years after a person’s death. There is a time in the Majapahit history, a poet namely Mpu Tanakung, composed the Kidung of Banawa Sekar Sekar (The Ballad of Flowers Boat), to describe how the ceremony was carried out with full opulence and grandeur. This tradition was then called by society around the lakes and beach with the term Sadran or Nyadran (derived from the word Sraddha). Walisongo who derived from Champa also brought religious traditions, such as ceremonies for 3 days, 7 days, 40 days, 10 days, and 1000 days after someone’s death. This is not a native Javanese tradition, nor the Hindu tradition. In the books of Tradition of Champa, such tradition has already exists since a very long time ago.

Another example of the teaching of Walisongo is Slametan which is developed by Sunan Bonang. In the Tantric religion embraced by kings of Nusantara archipelago, there’s a sect in that Tantric religion which is called the Bhairawa Tantra sect that worships the Goddess of Earth, Durga and Kali. They have a rituals where they were creating a circle called Ksetra.

Kasuyatan Mosque, between 1915 and 1926

At Indonesian National Museum in Jakarta, there is a statue of a character named Adityawarman height of three meters and stands on a pile of skulls. He is the priest of the Bhairawa Tantra, the one who performed the teaching of malima. He was inaugurated and then became the Bhairawa priest carrying the title of Wisesa Dharani, the ruler of the earth. The statue described that he sat on a pile of hundreds of corpses, drinking blood, and laughing uproariously.

Witnessing such situation, Sunan Bonang created a similar event. He entered the center of Bhairawa Tantra in Kediri. During his travels in Kediri, he stayed in the west of the river, in the village of Singkal Nganjuk. There he held a similar ceremony, made the similar circle, but much more subdued. Food were put in the center of the circle and then they pray together. This is called Slametan, a ceremonial meal prepared to maintain a balanced relationship between the natural and supernatural forces.. Therefore, Sunan Bonang was also known as Sunan Wadat Cakrawati, as the leader or imam of Chakra Iswara (Cakreswara).

Mosque in Surabaya between 1900 – 1940

NEW RELEASE – Time Maps: Gods, Kings and Prophets

The whole story of Egypt has taken about 7000 years. This roughly translates to about three hundred generations, or a hundred average human lifetimes. The Ancient Egyptian culture meets its natural end around the time of Alexander the Macedonian. However, it is such a magnificent flowering of the human spirit that we turn to it for reference to this day to lead us into understanding many other cultures around the world.

The rise and fall of empires, dynasties and cultures are patterns that we find in the recollection of events, but the patterns in ancient Egypt are repeated throughout human history, and in the mythology of many nations – the king murdered by his brother, the old king with a young wife, the assassination of a saintly king, the attempt by courtiers to take control of the kingdom, the king brought down by his ambition or pride, and many others, all very Shakespearean. On a larger scale there are social upheavals, cultural revivals, wars that lasted for generations, superb technical achievements, works of art that stimulated the ancient Greeks and hence influenced the world, as well as religious inspirations that helped shape the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.

Written with a Mathematician’s precision and a Historian’s curiosity, Time Maps covers over millennia worth of developments & impacts of civilizations, migrations, leaders and continents. Illuminating concepts of societies, dynasties, heroes, kings and eras through incisive and thorough research, looking at ideas, theories & world views with a sense of wonder and delight.

I am reading a small section of our new book, Time Maps: Gods, Kings and Prophets. It is now available through Amazon.

Time Maps: Gods, Kings and Prophets is now available on Amazon.

Is Life Easier for Beautiful People? Great Men, Evil Women and Standards of Beauty

In Canada in 2014, the rather beautiful Justin Trudeau’s leadership numbers surpassed those of the older, somewhat less Disney prince-like, then-prime minister Stephen Harper with 38 percent of respondents telling Ipsos Reid that Trudeau was the leader they trusted most versus 31 percent weighing in for Harper and 30 percent for Tom Mulcair – this was despite Trudeau’s own lack of experience and sustained political attacks portraying him as feckless and self-absorbed. Sensing trouble, the other political party tried to turn Trudeau’s looks into a negative adding the qualifier “Nice hair, though”. But in doing so, they unwittingly drew attention to a powerful trait that Trudeau had to smooth over voters’ uncertainty. Thanks to this, Trudeau’s physical presentation became his most recognizable feature, setting him apart from his competitors and filling the conversation void left by the absence of reliable information about his experience and trustworthiness. When the time came, Justin Trudeau and the Liberal party won 184 of the 338 seats in the Commons. Shorty after this, he and his also beautiful wife appeared on the pages of Vogue.

As much as our parents like to tell us to not judge a book by its covers (ignoring the fact that most books with ugly covers aren’t flying off the shelves), or “it’s the inside that counts” (as if anyone ever fall in love with a particularly attractive pair of kidneys), we cannot deny that beauty is power. For thousands of years, philosophers and poets marvel at the mysterious power of beautiful people. Each trying to come up with the best way to describe what “beauty” is, giving it numerous other qualities beyond that which we can see such as “a certain something”, “aura”, “sex appeal”, “inner beauty” etc. In the 1960s, a psychological research reveal we tend to persuade ourselves of the greatness of people who we consider as beautiful. We happily project virtues onto the beautiful person without the slightest knowledge of whether or not they possess them. Study after study has shown that we assume beautiful people to be smarter, kinder and more trustworthy even when we have nothing more to go on than pictures of their faces. 

Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, Plato says. But even Plato must have noticed that those beholders have strangely similar tastes relating to facial and body symmetry. He would have realized, then, that agreement on what is “beautiful” is often consistent within nationalities and ethnic groups. For example, women in Egyptian art are often depicted as slim with high waists and narrow hips, ideally with dark black hair and golden skin. In Ancient Greece, however, the ideal woman was light skinned and plump. Plato also tells us tells us the three wishes of every Greek: to be healthy, to be beautiful, and to become rich by honest means. Ancient Greek parents-to-be were so concerned about their offspring’s beauty that they placed statues of Aphrodite or Apollo, the two deities of beautiful physical appearance, in their bedrooms to help them conceive beautiful children.

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Adonis by Rinaldo Rinaldi at Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, by Yair Haklai, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The rules of beauty were all important in ancient Greece especially for the men. This was, of course, fabulous news for men who were buff and pretty. A full-lipped, chiselled man in Ancient Greece understood that his beauty was a gift of the gods and that his perfect exterior hid an inner perfection, he therefore had no qualms in spending more than eight hours at the gym every day to maximize his gifts. For the ancient Greeks, a beautiful body was considered direct evidence of a beautiful mind. 

This did not apply to the ladies. Although being a beautiful man was good news, being a beautiful woman spelt trouble. That charming fellow Hesiod described the first created woman simply as kalon kakon (“the beautiful-evil thing”). The woman was evil because she was beautiful, and beautiful because she was evil. But what is this “evil” that women had? Helen of Troy gives us an example. Her “evil” beauty was considered to stem not from the way she looked, but how she “made” men feel and what she “made” men do. When we first meet Helen in book three of Homer’s Iliad. The old men sing about her “Oh what beauty!”. “Terrible beauty – beauty like that of a goddess” – meaning that Helen has the kind of presence that drives men to distraction. Helen’s beauty, in the ancient world, was a weapon of mass destruction. The “evil” of women’s physical beauty is also emphasised in a famous anecdote about Phyrne. Phyrne was the young mistress of the fourth-century Athenian sculptor Praxitiles. She was also the model for some of his most beautiful works. During a game of follow-the-leader with other courtesans at a feast, Phyrne called for a bowl of water and washed her face. The other women, bound by the rules of the game to follow suit, were then also forced to wash their faces. Young and naturally beautiful, Phyrne of course looked none the worse, but her older companions had to spend an uncomfortable evening with their faces bare of any makeup.

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Phyrne, Walters Art Museum

This “eyes of the beholder” business that Plato talked about is also surprisingly specific and modern. One might remember the awful “thigh gap” fashion which started in 2013. We also have that search for the “perfect nipple” in 2017. Nipples that occupied between 25 and 30 percent of the breast were rated highest in terms of desirability. At the top of customers’ cosmetic surgery wish lists is having a symmetrical pair of nipples, despite the fact that most women have asymmetric nipples to go with their also asymmetric breasts. Second on the wish list is making the size of the nipple and areola (the pigmented area surrounding it) smaller. Those are just two examples of our many modern preoccupation with the “ideal” beauty.

The ancient Greeks also recognized specific characteristics as beautiful: a straight nose or one that fell in a slightly depressed line from its root to the forehead, a low forehead and perfect eyebrows called “eyebrows of grace” that formed a delicate arch just over the brow bone. Particularly appealing were eyebrows that grew together over the nose – a feature which we certainly wouldn’t think much of today as we call it “unibrow”. The mouth admired by the Greeks was naturally reddish, with the lower lip slightly fuller than the upper lip. The perfect Greek chin, round and smooth, should be dimple-free.

The ancient Greek housewives were somewhat exempt from this fuss. As Demonthenes put it, a man married “to have a faithful watchdog in the house. Beauty and gratification of the senses came from the mistress.” The use of makeup of enhance one’s appearance was therefore limited to the hetaera (courtesans) as a plain housewife was preferable.

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The Dahuting Tomb ( 打虎亭汉墓) of the late Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), located in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China

In Asia, in the Han Dynasty of China (c. 206 BC – 220 AD) very slim women with long black hair and red lips were favoured. While the Japanese Heian beauty included pale skin, round and rosy cheeks, and little bow lips. In pre-modern Chinese literature, the ideal man in caizi jiaren romances was said to have “rosy lips, sparkling white teeth” and a “jasper-like face”.

Book One of Tale of Heike- Gi-O LACMA M.80.219.52.jpg
By Yashima Gakutei (Japan, 1786 -1868)

Despite the obvious perks of being beautiful, Bob Dylan was right when he said that “behind every beautiful thing, there’s some kind of pain.” The public tends to be more scathing and less forgiving when a person perceived to be beautiful made mistakes and show weaknesses as they hold this person to a higher standard. This also works the other way. The world’s most incompetent politicians and worst dictators in history tend to be quite unattractive with hideous haircuts. Although no one really expect people with such serious and demanding jobs to look like supermodels,  these politicians would have had access to the best barbers in their countries – therefore, they really had no excuse to have their hairs looking so ridiculous. One can only assume that they were so miserable to live with that the people in their lives may have let them out of the house looking like that as a form of payback. However, they seemed to enjoy a higher degree of freedom as they tend be held to a much lower standard and able to get away with so much more than their more beautiful counterparts.