The Ancient History of Ice Cream

Strawberry Ice Cream, Strawberries

In its journey zigzagging between tradition and geography, ice cream has grown from a dessert for the powerful elite to a street food that everybody enjoys and consumes all year round. Back in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, ice-and snow-drinks were served to the rich and wealthy, and what we can loosely call the first ice cream cup was found in Egypt in a tomb from the Second Dynasty in 2700 BC. The “first ice cream cup” was a kind of mold consisting of two silver cups, one of which contained snow (or crushed ice) and the other cooked fruit. “Icehouses”, where snow was stored and ice deliberately formed, were undoubtedly an extremely ancient invention which led to our modern-day refrigerator. A tablet from c. 1780 BC records the construction of an icehouse by Zimri-Lim, the King of Mari, in the northern Mesopotamian town of Terqa. In China, archaeologists have found remains of ice pits from the 7th century BC, and references suggest that these were in use before 1100 BC. Alexander the Great, who loved snow and ice with honey and nectar, stored snow in pits dug for that purpose around 300 BC. In Rome, in the 3rd century AD, snow was imported from the mountains, stored in straw-covered pits, and sold from snow shops. The ice that formed in the bottom of the pits sold at a higher price than the snow on top. Persian records date back to the 2nd century AD for sweetened chilled drinks with ice created by freezing water in the desert at night.

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Yakh-chal in Yazd province – Iran.
In 400 BC Persian engineers had already mastered the technique of storing ice in the middle of summer in the desert.
The ice could be brought in during the winters from nearby mountains. But they had a wall made along east-west direction close to the Ice Pit (yakhchal).In winter the qanat water was being canalized to north side of the wall. The shadow of the wall makes water freeze more quickly so they could have more ice per each winter day.

Snow was used to cool beverages in Greece around 500 BC, and Hippocrates is known to have blamed chilled beverages for causing “stomach flow” as Snow obtained from the lower slopes of the mountains was unsanitary, and iced drinks were suspected to induce convulsions, colic, and a host of other diseases. Later, the Romans seemed to take note of Hippocrates’ complaint and did not add ice to their beverages because the easily accessible ice on the lower slopes was not sanitary for use in food preparation. However, in the same century, the people of the Persian Empire did the opposite. Instead of putting ice in their drinks, they would spill grape juice concentrate over the snow and eat it in hot summers. A hundred years later, they invented a special ice cream recipe for their royal families which consisted of iced rose water, vermicelli, saffron, berries and other sweet flavours.

In Ancient Rome special wells were used to store ice and snow which slaves brought down from to mountains to luxurious villas. During the Roman Empire, Nero Claudius Caesar (54-86 AD) often sent runners into the mountains for snow, which was then flavored with fruit and honey toppings.. Among the ruins of Pompeii there are traces which lead us to believe that some shops specialized in selling crushed ice from Vesuvius sweetened with honey.

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 Emperor Nintoku (Edo Embroidery Pictures, Comparison of Day and Night). Woodblock print by Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912) 

Gathering ice to preserve food was a practice in Japan where Emperor Nintoku (290 – 399 AD) proclaimed an Ice Day and in China, over a thousand years ago. In the Shih Ching, an ancient collection of odes, mention is made of an ice-gathering festival. King Tang of the Shang Dynasty (c. 1675 – 1646 BC), had 94 ice men who helped to make a dish of buffalo milk, flour and camphor. During the Tang Dynasty an elegant drink was recorded which consisted of goat, cow of buffalo milk cooked with flour and camphor and then placed in iron containers and buried in snow or ice. The Arabs prepared cold drinks with cherries, quinces and pomegranates.

The first “ice cream” on the American continent was the Paila, a tradition in Pre-Columbian Ecuador. The Caranquis (or Caras), before being conquered by the Incas, sent expeditions to bring blocks of ice and snow down from the top of the volcano Imbabura, wrapped in thick layers of straw and frailejòn leaves, for thermal insulation. The ice cream was then made by filling a large cauldron (called a “paila”) with ice, snow and fruit juice (and sometimes milk), and mixing vigorously until the juices and ice froze together. Using this ancestral technique, gradually perfected over centuries, helados de paila are still prepared traditionally today in some places in Ecuador, especially in the modern town of Imbabura.

Ice cream was made possible only by the discovery of the endothermic effect. Previously, the cream could only be chilled so it could not be frozen. The addition of salt reduced the melting point of the ice, which had the effect of removing heat from the cream and allowing it to freeze. The first documented record of this was the Indian poem Pancatantra, dating back to the 4th century AD. The early written description of the method is documented not from culinary sources, but from the writings of Ibn Abu Usaybia concerning medicine in the 13th century. The technique of “freezing” is not known from any European source prior to the 16th century.

Ice, Ice Cream, Ice Cream Sundae, Sweet, Waffle, Fruits

“The Oldest Profession in the World”: Prostitution or Gardening?

Former president of the United States Ronald Reagan (1911 – 2004) allegedly once said, “Someone once said that politics is the second-oldest profession. I’m beginning to think it bears resemblance to the first”, unfavorably comparing politicians to prostitutes.

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“Sorrow” by Vincent Van Gogh (1882), Van Gogh is reported to have encountered Sien Hoornik (the lady posing for this drawing) wandering the streets of The Hague with her five-year-old daughter Maria Wilhelmina in January 1882. She was destitute and pregnant, with addictions to alcohol and tobacco and reportedly working as a prostitute. 

Sex workers are rightly avoiding the term “prostitute” because of what we equate with it (dirty men, sadness, a woman selling her body, etc. Perhaps even its comparison with politicians?). It’s a word filled with a great deal of cultural baggage, and none of it good. Research after research have shown that our damaged view of the “prostitute” is far from real, but we persist in trying to define and classify this figure as such throughout history. Despite the old adage, prostitution is not “the oldest profession in the world”. Anthropologist George Peter Murdock of Yale University found that prostitution did not occur in many so-called primitive cultures, but the medicine man was universal. Mary Breckinridge, an American nurse midwife and the founder of the Frontier Nursing Service, have suggested that midwifery is the oldest profession, “The midwife’s calling is so ancient that the medical and nursing professions, in even their earliest traditions, are parvenus beside it”. I often find myself getting mildly irritated when I hear prostitution being referred to as “the world’s oldest profession”. It is not. I would actually argue that the world’s oldest profession is gardening, but trying to work out what is the “oldest” profession is actually something of a wild goose chase as professions (and money) are recent inventions.

Homo sapiens have been roaming around the world for around 200,000 years, and the earliest evidence of coined money dates back to 640BC in Lydia, Asia Minor. Even the systems of bartering products, rather than currency, rely largely on the domestication of cattle and the cultivation of crops, and this dates back to about 9000 BC. This means that we managed to live quite happily without money for much of human history. Given that money is perhaps the most influential factor on how we live our lives these days, it is sobering to note that the only value that money really has is what we as a society collectively connect to it. At the end of the day, “money” is bits of paper and metal disks, which we have all agreed upon, are unique. We lived perfectly well without it before our ancestors decided that the gold rocks were nicer to look at than the other rocks.

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“Socrates finds his student Alcibiades at heterai” by Henryk Siemiradzki (1843 – 1902)

But let us ignore that for a bit and talk about gardening. The inhabitants of ancient Mesopotamia were already urban and literate around 3000 BC and the evidence for their gardens comes from written documents, pictorial sculpture and archaeology. The 7th century BC Assyrian King Assurbanipal (King of the Neo-Assyrian Empire from the death of his father Esarhaddon in 668 BC to his own death in 631 BC) is seen on a sculpture featuring his wife, sitting on a couch beneath the vineyards, attended by musicians. Trophies of conquest are on view, including the dismembered head of King Elam hanging from a fragrant pine branch. The Babylonian text of the same time is divided into parts, as though it were showing soil beds with names of medicinal, vegetable and herbal plants written in each square.

At Mari on the Middle Euphrates (c. 1800 BC), one of the great courtyards of the palace is crossed by elevated walkways of baked brick; the king and his entourage will dine there. At Ugarit (c. 1400 BC), there was a stone water reservoir, not centrally positioned as in later Persian gardens, since the central feature was probably a tree. On a larger scale, royal hunting parks were set up to house the exotic animals and plants that the king had collected during his international campaigns. King Tiglath-Pileser I (c. 1000 BC) mentions goats, oxen, asses, two-type deer, gazelle and ibex, proudly saying “I numbered them like flocks of sheep.”

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“Morning mood at the lake of Karnak” by Karl Wuttke (1849 – 1927). The sacred lake of the Karnak Temple was dug by Tuthmosis III (1473-1458 BC). It is lined with stone wall and has stairways descending into the water. The lake was used by the priests for ritual washing and ritual navigation.

The history of ancient Egyptian gardens, like all aspects of Egyptian life, relied on the Nile and the network of canals that drew water from it. Water was hoisted from the Nile in leather buckets and carried to the gardens on the shoulders, and later, starting about the 4th century BC, it was raised from the wells by hoists with counter-balancing weights. The early gardens consisted of planting beds divided into squares by earthen walls, so that the water could soak into the soil rather than be lost. The gardens belonged to the temples or to the residences. Secular gardens were situated near the river or canals and were primarily used for growing vegetables. Beginning in the New Kingdom, the gardens were connected to more spacious homes and were often surrounded by walls. Temple gardens were used to grow some vegetables for rituals, Palace Gardens first appeared in Egypt just before the Middle Kingdom (2035–1668). These gardens were very large in size and were arranged in geometric patterns. The ponds in the palace gardens were enormous and numerous. In the second millennium BC, King Snefer ‘s garden pond was wide enough for boats to be rowed by twenty oarsmen. The rulers of ancient Egypt, such as Queen Hatshepsut (1503–1482 BC) and Ramses III (1198–1166 BC), used pots to bring back to Egypt new kinds of trees and flowers found during their conquests in Libya, Syria and Cyrene.

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Pond in a garden. Fragment from the Tomb of Nebamun, 1400 BC

Ancient Indian gardens are listed in several ancient Hindu texts, including Rigveda (1500–1200 BC), Ramayana and Mahabharata. Buddhist accounts mention the bamboo grove that King Bimbisara gave to the Buddha. Digha Nikaya, a Buddhist text, also mentions Buddha living in the mango orchard of the Jivaka monastery, donated by the physician Jivaka. The inscriptions of Emperor Ashoka (304 – 232 BC) mention the establishment of botanical gardens for planting medicinal herbs, plants and trees. They had pools of water, grid patterns, and chattri pavilions.

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A border of trees, palms and herbaceous plants from a Roman garden in the 1st century AD. Coloured photographic reproduction of a wall painting, c. 1891.

Sumerian documents dating back to the c. 2400 BC is the first recorded mention of prostitution as an occupation. They describe the temple-brothel run by Sumerian priests in the town of Uruk. Now, if we want to be a little divisive, we should take holy prostitution into account. Sacred prostitution is a ritual consisting of paid intercourse conducted in the sense of religious worship, probably as a type of ritual of fertility or hieros gamos (“divine marriage”).The Old Near East was home to several shrines, temples or “houses of heaven” dedicated to various gods. The 5th-century BC historian Herodotus’ account and some other testimonies from the Hellenistic era and Late Antiquity indicate that ancient societies fostered the tradition of sacred sexual rites not only in Babylon and Cyprus, but in the Near East. Herodotus writes:

“The foulest Babylonian custom is that which compels every woman of the land to sit in the temple of Aphrodite and have intercourse with some stranger at least once in her life. Many women who are rich and proud and disdain to mingle with the rest, drive to the temple in covered carriages drawn by teams, and stand there with a great retinue of attendants. But most sit down in the sacred plot of Aphrodite, with crowns of cord on their heads; there is a great multitude of women coming and going; passages marked by line run every way through the crowd, by which the men pass and make their choice. Once a woman has taken her place there, she does not go away to her home before some stranger has cast money into her lap, and had intercourse with her outside the temple; but while he casts the money, he must say, “I invite you in the name of Mylitta”. It does not matter what sum the money is; the woman will never refuse, for that would be a sin, the money being by this act made sacred. So she follows the first man who casts it and rejects no one. After their intercourse, having discharged her sacred duty to the goddess, she goes away to her home; and thereafter there is no bribe however great that will get her. So then the women that are fair and tall are soon free to depart, but the uncomely have long to wait because they cannot fulfil the law; for some of them remain for three years, or four. There is a custom like this in some parts of Cyprus.”

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A visit to the hetaeras. Attic red-figure hydria. Dated somewhere between 490 – 480 BC

So how did prostitution become the “oldest profession in the world”?

“The oldest profession in the world” did not start to acquire its association to prostitution until 1889. But, in fairness despite my preference to gardening, there are a lot of other professions that can legitimately claim to be the “oldest” profession such as farmers, horticulturalists, barbers, engineers, gardeners, the military, doctors, nurses, teachers, priests, and even lawyers.

Perhaps the earliest recorded claim to be the world’s oldest profession was made on behalf of tailors. The Song in Praise of the Merchant-Taylors from 1680, which was routinely performed at pageants at the Lord Mayor’s Show if the current mayor of London happened to belong to the tailors’ guild, began:

“Of all the professions that ever were nam’d,
The taylor’s, though slighted, is much to be fam’d’:
For various invention, and antiquity,
No trade with the tayler’s comparèd may be:”

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“Phyrne” by Francesco Barzaghi (1839-1892). Phyrne was (born c. 371 BC) was an ancient Greek courtesan (hetaira), from the fourth century BC. She is best known for her trial for impiety, where she was defended by the orator Hypereides.

After pointing out that Adam and Eve made garments for themselves, and were therefore tailors, it continued:

“Then judge if a tayler was not the first trade.
The oldest profession, and they are but raylers,
Who scoff and deride men that be merchant-taylers.”

(Again. To be fair, I should also note that by that logic Adam was put into the garden of Eden and given the task to tend to it and was therefore a gardener.)

The Irish poet Henry Brooke (1701–1783) declared that humbugging (i.e. scamming) was the oldest profession:

“Of all trades and arts in repute or possession,
Humbugging is held the most ancient profession.”

The phrase began to be associated with prostitution in the last decade of the nineteenth century following Rudyard Kipling’s short story about an Indian prostitute, On the City Wall (1889). Kipling writes: “Lalun is a member of the most ancient profession in the world. Lilith was her very-great-grandmamma, and that was before the days of Eve as every one knows. In the West, people say rude things about Lalun’s profession, and write lectures about it, and distribute the lectures to young persons in order that Morality may be preserved. In the East where the profession is hereditary, descending from mother to daughter, nobody writes lectures or takes any notice; and that is a distinct proof of the inability of the East to manage its own affairs.”

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“Campaspe taking off her clothes in front of Apelles by order of Alexander”, by Auguste Ottin (1811-1890). Campaspe was a supposed mistress of Alexander the Great.

Perhaps due to our tendency to attribute the best qualities to men and believe in the worst qualities in women, this became the one association that sticks, apparently, because five years later, in a scathing article on the morals of the aristocracy in the mass circulation Reynold’s Newspaper, 22 July 1894, the reference was repeated:

“In ancient Rome, under the empire, ladies used to go to baths to meet a certain class of men, while men resorted thither to meet a certain class of ladies. The ladies belonged to what has been called “the oldest profession in the world”, a profession which is carried on in Piccadilly, Regent street, and other parts of London with great energy every night …”

In the same year the Pall Mall Gazette reported a speech in which “Mrs. Ormiston Chant … implored us to stand shoulder to shoulder and destroy what Kipling has called ‘the oldest profession in the world'”.

Very Short Story about Voting in Ancient Greek and Rome

Sortition by lot was a form of selecting public officials in some ancient Greek city-states. It has been used particularly in the democracy of ancient Athens from which most information on the practice is derived. This procedure overturned the electoral races and allowed for the daily succession of the office holders. Therefore, the government’s activities were not in the hands of experts, but through the sorting system which at least gives the people some practical political education.

The Pnyx, a hill in central Athens – a place of popular assemblies, thus making the hill one of the earliest and most important sites in the creation of democracy.

The justification for this sortition system was the dignity of all men. Only those who put themselves forward as candidates were selected by lot to occupy the public office. Although military officers and some financial officials were chosen by polling rather than by sorting, most of the executive roles were broken down into small assignments, each of which was assigned to an annual board of ten members selected by lot.

In both Athens and Sparta, the male citizen body was relatively small (less than 40,000 in Athens, and perhaps a quarter of the number in Sparta). In Athens, they all came together and voted by a show of hands; in Sparta, they voted by shouting (those who shout the loudest won).

The Pnyx with the carved steps of the speaker’s platform in the centre

Bearing in mind the shouting alone, privacy would have been an issue. The Romans faced the question of privacy in the ballot box even more explicitly than the Athenians who had a form of secret ballot in legal cases, but nowhere else despite their democratic credentials. In the second half of the second century BC , the Romans adopted a number of laws to protect the privacy of the electorate. We know nothing about this in any depth, but Cicero ‘s conservative huffing and puffing makes it clear that this was a politically charged change which aimed to stop the elite putting pressure on the votes of the poor. And it was important enough to be shown on coins. Coins from that era suggest that voters individually picked out their ballot slips (wax on wood, most likely) from a basket as they walked across some form of “bridge”, then wrote the name of their candidate in the wax as they walked, and finally dropped it into the ballot box.

A 63 BC coin depicting a Roman casting a ballot

The sheer number of Roman citizens at the time would also have somewhat complicated things. There were some 200,000 voters in Rome by the middle of the first century BC and many more in Italy. The Roman people have always been divided into groups of voters who, through a series of extraordinarily complex and subtly shifting processes which proves to be a giant pain in one’s bottom to learn centuries later, cast one vote per party. The whole thing was quite modern as each group of voters delivers one vote and the person who gets the largest number of group votes wins, and the process saves time, and manages a massive electorate, because all the groups of voters vote simultaneously and conveniently in a location near their home.  Again, we have been voting in very similar fashions for more than 2000 years. However, the Romans never seem to have invented a local voting scheme, because anyone who wanted to participate had to come to the city itself and they never seem to have hit the idea of a party voting at the same time. Instead, each party voted sequentially, one after the other, so that it could take more than a single day to deliver the vote and an awful lot of waiting around for the average voter.

For those who wanted to be a politician, an electoral handbook survives from the Roman world full of advice on how to run an election campaign. The book is credited to Marcus Cicero’s younger brother, Quintus, and purports to be his advice to Marcus for securing his election to the consulship of 63 BC. It’s awfully modern in many ways, such as its advice to stay out of shaking hands and to make sure you still know people’s names. So really, politicians have been playing the same tunes for more than 2000 years and we fall for it every time.

The relief representation depicts the personified Demos being crowned by Democracy. About 336 BC

It was possible that Julius Caesar was working on some kind of reform of this. And by the time of his assassination, some brand new voting halls (saepta, or “sheep-pen”) had begun in the city to give a new home to the voting process. The irony, of course, was that Caesar’s dictatorship was in fact the end of free democratic elections anyway — and within fifty years the Saepta had been transformed into an up-scale shopping mall and antique market.

How to Win an Election: Lessons from an Ancient Roman Rebel

Pin Ups, Retro Women, Vintage, Retro

The ancient Greek historian Thucydides once wrote, “Human nature is constant”. An election is a messy process and something that we have tried to get right for thousands of years. In some ancient Greek city-states, election by lot was a method of choosing public officials. It was used especially in the Athenian democracy, from which most information about the practice is derived. This practice provided the regular turnover of officeholders. As a result, for better or worse, the operations of government were not in the hands of experts, but in the hands of the people.

Only those who had presented themselves as candidates were chosen by lot to fill public offices. Military officers and some financial officials were selected by voting. But for the most part executive functions were broken down into small tasks, of which each was entrusted to an annual board of 10 members chosen by lot. The rationale of this system was the equality of all citizens. The good news in this system is that it provided at least some practical political education for its citizens. Saying “I’m not into politics” seems to not have been an option as they would have been demanded to take part in it eventually. As Pericles said, “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”

Pin Ups, Retro Women, Vintage, Retro, Pin-Up, Fashion

In ancient Rome, although any adult male citizen could cast a ballot, the richest people had disproportionate influence. Social and political patronage was key, and campaigns were followed by bribery and abuse. However, the electoral process was generally fairly reasonable and orderly. In 64 BC, a 42-year-old political outsider named Marcus Tullius Cicero ran for consul – the highest office in the republic. Marcus was young, intelligent and popular, but the fact that he was not a member of the aristocracy would normally have excluded him from consideration. However, the other candidates that year were so unappetizing that, according to his younger brother Quintus, even the stiff and dull Marcus actually had a small chance of winning if he could run a successful campaign. Still, the odds were against Marcus. Not one to mince words, Quintus said, “since you are seeking the most important position in Rome and since you have so many potential enemies, you can’t afford to make any mistakes. You must conduct a flawless campaign with the greatest thoughtfulness, industry and care.” Quintus then proceeded to write his campaigning advice to his brother in Commentariolum Petitionis, a short handbook on electioneering as a guide for Marcus Tullius Cicero’s campaign for consul of the Roman Republic in 64 BC.

Cicero, copy by Bertel Thorvaldsen 1799-1800 of Roman bust

It is interesting to note what kind of a man was Quintus Tullius Cicero. To say that Quintus had an impulsive temperament would have been putting it rather mildly. He had frequent fits of cruelty during military operations, a behaviour frowned on by Romans of that time as the Roman ideal was to control one’s emotions even in battle. Quintus had a penchant for old-fashioned and harsh punishments such as putting a person convicted of patricide into a sack and throwing him into the sea. Traditionally, the felon would be severely scourged, then sewn into a stout leather bag with a dog, a snake, a rooster, and a monkey, and the bag was subsequently thrown into a river – understandably, this was not a popular practice. He gave out this punishment during his propraetorship of Asia.

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“Cicero with his friend Atticus and brother Quintus, at his villa at Arpinum” by Richard Wilson (d. 1782)

In one of his letters to his friend Titus Pomponius Atticus (written in 51 BC) Marcus wrote that that he dares not leave Quintus alone as he is afraid of what kind of sudden ideas Quintus might have. So by the sound of it, Marcus has had to spend his life worrying about the erratic Quintus. Why, then, would Marcus take guidance from the family’s black sheep?

The answer is that Quintus, complicated as he was, was a very experienced politician. Quintus was praetor in 62 BC, and propraetor of Asia for three years from 61 to 59 BC. In the Gaelic wars, he was a legatus under Caesar, accompanying him on his second expedition to Britain in 54 BC and surviving a siege of his camp during a revolt. He served under Marcus, his brother, when Marcus was governor in Cilicia in 51 BC. It is understandable, then, that his advice for Marcus was a product of his own long and disinguished experience and still being used by politicians today. Quintus tells his brother that, to win an election, he must creep and crawl to voters, promising impossible things, pretending friendship where there is none and lie, lie, lie. Those were slimy and unpleasant advice but, as evidenced by millions of politicians in the space of thousands of years, they work.

1. Promise everything to everyone.

One of the biggest complaints about modern politicians is their failure to keep campaign promises.  But Quintus blatantly states that the making and breaking of promises is just part of the whole political process. The best way to win voters is to tell them what they want to hear: “Remember Cotta, that master of campaigning, who said he would promise anything, unless some clear obligation prevented him, but only lived up to those promises that benefited him.” People will be much angrier with a candidate who refuses to make promises than with one who breaks them as soon as he was elected. “… if a politician made only promises he was sure he could keep, he wouldn’t have many friends. Events are always happening that you didn’t expect or not happening that you did expect. Broken promises are often lost in a cloud of changing circumstances so that anger against you will be minimal.”

That approach is based on a theory about uninformed voters which rests on the simple notion that human beings make every decision proceeding from their own self-interests. Comprehensive knowledge of the political process is of no use to them. Voters have to deal with too many other problems to listen attentively to politicians unless it directly affects their everyday lives. Politicians then need to ensure that they tell voters exactly what voters want to hear in a concise and understandable way.

This does not mean that politicians should tell you what you want to hear willy-nilly. To determine what to tell voters, ideally a politician must know who the voters are and what they want. Then he needs to identify problems which are of common concern to all voting groups within the relevant election district. Based on analysis of that information, an election message is developed which then evolved to promises that they would break on a later date.

2. Pretend you have friends and call in all favors.

If you have helped friends or associates in the past, an election period is a good time to let them know that you are expecting them to pay you back. “Make it clear to each one under obligation to you exactly what you expect from him. Remind them all that you have never asked anything of them before, but now is the time to make good on what they owe you.” If someone isn’t in in your debt, you can remind them that if elected, they would be rewarded as long as they support you now.

Despite Marcus being a novus homo (“new man” – an ancient Roman term for a man who was the first in his family to serve in the Roman Senate), Quintus says that Marcus can still win over “a man who is well born, and most devoted to humane studies, You will have the best and the brightest . . . on your side.” One of the pamphlet’s most egregious distortions of Marcus’s recorded views is the treatment of amicitia (“friendship”). Marcus himself wrote a book on the subject of friendship, treating it as a pledge of honor binding men together. Quintus tells him to feign friendship where it does not exist and lie to friends when convenient, effectively striking at all that Marcus himself has professed belief in.

3. Know your opponent’s weaknesses and exploit them.

Quintus practically invented opposition research, “Consider Antonius, who once had his property confiscated for debt … after he was elected as praetor, he disgraced himself by going down to the market and buying a girl to be his sex slave.” A winning candidate assesses his opponent and then focuses relentlessly on his weaknesses, all the while trying to distract voters from this opponent’s strengths.

4. Flattery will get you everywhere.

Quintus tells his brother, “You desperately need to learn the art of flattery — a disgraceful thing in normal life but essential when you are running for office.” A candidate must make voters believe that he thinks they’re important. Shake their hands, look them in the eye, listen to their problems.

The ability to listen and process what you hear into something advantageous to you is an asset. A political party must first find out what voters wish for and then repeat those wishes back to them in the same language. In general, it is important for a political party to understand that the most effective political rhetoric is marketing in which the central idea is to promise what the customer (voter) demands and not to wax poetic about the aspirations of the seller (politician).

5. Give people hope.

“The most important part of your campaign is to bring hope to people and a feeling of goodwill toward you.” Voters who are persuaded that you can make their world better will turn out to be devoted followers — at least until after the election, when you will inevitably let them down.

In the USA, Barack Obama’s Campaign of Hope in 2008 demonstrated how far a positive message of hope could go. In New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern’s Let’s Do This campaign saw her coalition’s rise to power that ended the National government’s nine years in charge. Both elections saw an increased voter turn-out and greater engagement from the youth vote.

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“The Young Cicero Reading” by Vincenzo Foppa (1427 – 1515)

7. Get the youth on your side.

Despite what older, worn-out and out of touch politicians try to tell us, the youth are the future. Therefore, helping them to see value in the political decision-making processes and discussions is is very much in a country’s best interest as it helps countries to consider the long-term needs of all their citizens. Quintus highlights their value in other, more self-serving, ways when he writes that “it will help your campaign tremendously to have the enthusiasm and energy of young people on your side to canvass voters, gain supporters, spread news, and make you look good.”

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“Cicero Denounces Catiline” by Cesare Maccari (1840 – 1919)

Marcus Tullius Cicero was elected consul for the year 63 BC. He may not be well-known in modern times for his political career, but his prolific writings have been instrumental in the development of modern political thought. His De Re Publica (“On the Republic”) is still an influential text for discussions and analyses of governments and constitutions to this day. However, all is not lost for Quintus. Although out of the two brothers, history seems to favour Marcus by preserving and quoting him. It was Quintus’ advice that was ingrained and followed by politicians and powerful people even 2000 years later. Quintus would have be delighted.

Scar Removals and Breast Reductions: Graeco-Roman Practices of Plastic Surgery

In the 6th Century BCE, an Indian physician named Sushruta, who was widely regarded in India as the “father of surgery”, wrote one of the world’s earliest works on medicine and surgery. The work included the method of skin grafting, which entail transplanting pieces of skin from one part of the body to another. His treatise also provides the first written record of a forehead flap rhinoplasty, a technique still used today, in which a full-thickness piece of skin from the forehead is used to reconstruct a nose. However, Sushruta was not the first inventor of plastic surgery. The first known record of plastic surgery was in 1213 BCE, when ancient Egyptians tried to preserve the nose of their dead king by surgically inserting bones and seeds into it.

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Inscribed tablet on the wall of the temple of KOM-OMBOS, upper Egypt, built by Ptolemy VII (181-146 BC) Temple date (100 c BC)

For centuries, tribes would stretch their earlobes, bind their feet, file their teeth, as well as tattoo and scar their skin – these practices have not lost their cultural powers. Plastic surgery gained momentum and sophistication during the lifetime of the ancient Roman physician Galen (129-216 CE) due to increased obsession with the human body. Galen himself attempted to cure eyes that squinted and drooped. He also performed aesthetic rhinoplasty on wealthy men and women who simply wanted a new nose. However, after the fall of Rome, many of Galen’s medical texts were lost – only 20 out of his 600 books survive – and the practice of plastic surgery was in decline. In the Middle Ages, despite discussions of proper dental care, surgery in general was deemed to be pagan and sinful because the spilling of blood by a surgeon and the power he held over the body were akin to magic. Plastic surgery, therefore, has always existed and was shrouded in mystery, magic, and eroticism.

Greek legends recount the Graiai, sea god desses who lacked teeth and eyes but successfully passed one of each between them for use. On the utopian island described by Iambulus around 100 BCE were tortoises whose blood had a glue powerful enough to reattach severed body parts. In Apuleius’s circa 160 CE, Latin retelling of the Greek tale The Golden Ass, the hero’s nose and ears are removed by witches and then replaced with wax.

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Edward Burne-Jones, Perseus and the Graiae, 1877-1880

Also in Greek mythology, there is the story of Tantalus, king of Phrygia and son of Zeus. Tantalus was one of the few mortals invited to Mount Olympus. After getting away with some minor infractions, Tantalus thought he was immune from any punishment due to his being the son of Zeus. He then committed a heinous crime by killing his own son, Pelops, and serving him at a banquet to the Olympian gods. Enraged, Zeus hurled Tantalus to Hades to suffer eternal torture of hunger and thirst. Zeus then ordered Hermes to collect all the pieces of Pelops from the dinner table and reconstruct them together. However, the shoulder was missing as Demeter, preoccupied with her daughter Persephone’s disappearance, had accidentally eaten it. Hephaestus reconstructed the shoulder with ivory and Zeus breathed life into him. Legend has it that any one who has a birth mark on the shoulder is a descendant of Pelops.

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Pelops and Hippodamia, eastern pediment of the temple of Zeus, Archaeological Museum of Olympia.

Homer stated “One surgeon was worth an army of men” recognizing the value of a surgeon during frequent wars that raged those days. This illustrates nicely a discovery made in Abdera (Thrace), dating to the middle of the 7th century BCE where the remains of a woman were discovered with what seemed like an injury on the rear of the skull consistent with a lead shot from a sling. This injury looked like it had been successfully operated on and, judging from the recovery growth around the area, it has been estimated that the woman had lived for 20 years or so following the surgery. This gives us us an early look into early treatments to trauma injury and the care it took to cover the subsequent scarring.

By the first century BCE, perhaps prompted by the very public Roman baths, the Romans were also practicing advanced plastic surgery procedures. In a culture that praised the beauty of the naked body in both art and poetry, the ancient Romans viewed any sign of abnormality, particularly around the area of the genitalia, with both suspicion and amusement. Consequently, one of the most popular plastic surgery procedures appeared to be circumcision removal, which is described in a rather detached way by Cornelius Celsus’ text De re medicina during the reign of Tiberius (14-37 CE) where he describes a breast reduction surgery on an obese man whose breasts were “unsightly” and “shameful.”

Roman surgeons would also remove scars, particularly those on the back, which were marks of shame because they suggested that a man had turned his back in battle or, worse, he had been whipped like a slave. The poet Martial (40-104 CE) suggests that some slaves had their brands removed by surgeons during this time. Surgeons would also often operate on gladiators who had noses and ears chopped off and on foreigners who would try to fit into Roman society.

Dewi Sri, Nang Khosop and the Bountiful Body of a Goddess

For centuries, rice has been a staple diet and plays an important role in Asian culture. Although rice farmers have found their lives to become more difficult due to climate change, Bloomberg states in 2016 that 16 million people still farm rice in Thailand alone. Commemorating the beginning of the rice growing season with an annual Royal Plowing Ceremony in the month of May is an ancient tradition for countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Sri Langka among others. Some of the duties of the Emperor of Japan as chief Shinto priest is the ritual planting of the first rice seeds on the grounds of the Tokyo Imperial Palace as well as performing the first harvest ritual. Rice fields in Asia are generally protected by goddesses.

Although these goddesses, as well as their many variations of legends, may be overshadowed by the famous Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest, they exhibit many of the elements of Demeter’s characteristics. They all journeyed to the underworld in one way or another. They also resembles Demeter in their association with snakes, fertility and motherhood. In 1849, German Classicist Eduard Gerhard speculated that the various goddesses found in ancient Greek paganism (including Demeter herself) had been representations of a singular goddess who had been worshipped far further back into prehistory – associating this deity particularly with the concept of Mother Earth. Evidently, the influence of the Mother Goddess reached further than ancient Greece.

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Dewi Sri 36 cm tall bronze statue, Central Java art. Her left hand is holding a rice plant.

The story of Dewi Sri also takes her to the three realms of heaven, earth and the underworld. Dewi Sri is ancient goddess of rice and fertility even before the Hindu and Islamic era of Indonesia. Despite her mythology being native to the island of Java, after the adoption of Hinduism in Java as early as the first century CE, Dewi Sri became associated with the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity.

Dewi Sri and the origin of rice as written in Wawacan Sulanjana (“The Tale of Sulanjana”), which contains Sundanese local wisdom through reverence of rice cultivation in its tradition. Once upon a time in heaven, Batara Guru, the king of the gods, commanded all the gods and goddesses to help build a new palace. Upon hearing this, the naga god Antaboga became anxious as, although he was fiercely loyal to his master, he was a great serpent and did not have arms or legs to help with the building. His anxiety became too much that three teardrops fell from his eyes to the ground where they became three beautiful jewel-like eggs.

With the three eggs in his mouth Anta flew to the heavenly palace to offer them to Batara Guru. On his way there, he was approached by an eagle whom asked him a question. As Antaboga was holding his eggs in his mouth, he had no choice but to keep silent. The eagle, feeling insulted, furiously attacked him – leaving him with only one egg to offer Batara Guru. Batara Guru accepted the egg and asked Antaboga to nest the egg until it hatched. The egg hatched into a beautiful baby girl who he then gave to Batara Guru.

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Statue of Dewi Sri — Ubud, Bali

The girl grew up into a beautiful princess in the heavenly palace, so beautiful that her foster father, Batara Guru, started to feel attracted to her himself. To protect the girl’s chastity, the gods poisoned the girl and buried her body below the earth. However, from her remains grew plants that would forever benefit human kind. Coconut grew from her head, various spices and vegetables grew from her nose, lips, and ears. Grass and flowers grew from her hair, trees grew from her arms and hands and rice grew from her eyes. The girl was then known as Dewi Sri (“Great Goddess”) venerated and revered as the benevolent goddess of rice and fertility.

Dewi Sri was not the only goddess who had to die so that mankind could live. According to the Laotian origin myth in a manuscript in Wat Si Saket (built between 1819-1824 CE), one day after a thousand-year famine, a young hermit caught a golden fish. The king of the fish heard his subject’s cry of agony and asked the hermit to free the golden fish in exchange for a treasure. The treasure was Nang Khosop, a maiden who served as the soul of the rice. The hermit let Nang Khosop live in a rice field where she then nourished humans for many generations. However, one day an unrighteous king brought about a famine on the land by storing the rice that was due to the people to acquire luxury goods for himself. During this famine, an old couple of slaves met the now old hermit in the forest. Seeing that they were famished, the hermit appealed to Nang Khosop to feed them. However, she refused as, unaware that the king had been keeping her rice, she felt that she had given the people sufficient food to survive. The hermit then slaughtered Nang Khosop and cut her into many little pieces. The pieces of Nang Khosop became different varieties of rice. The old couple then went on to teach humans how to cultivate this new rice in small grains.

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Buddha statue located in front of Wat Si Saket in Vientiane.

The Fallen God and the Power of Humility

Semar is probably one of the oldest characters in Indonesian mythology who was not derived from Hindu mythology. He was made famous by performances of Wayang (Shadow Puppets) in the islands of Java and Bali as a rather unattractive, short man with breasts, a great sized behind, and uncontrollable urge for farting. However, underneath his peculiar appearance, Semar plays a major part in the Indonesian creation myth as the elder brother of the supreme god Batara Guru (the Hindu god Shiva).

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The Candi Semar, one of the temples of the Candi Arjuna temple complex at the Dieng Plateau (photo taken in 1864)

The book Purwacarita says that Semar is actually Sang Hyang Ismaya, elder brother of Batara Guru, and father of Batara Surya (the Hindu sun god Surya). He was one of the three powerful warrior gods born from a single divine egg. His brothers are Sang Hyang Antaga and Sang Hyang Manikmaya (who later took on the name Batara Guru). When it was time to decide which one of them was to be the ruler of heaven, Sang Hyang Antaga and Sang Hyang Ismaya quarreled for the position in a battle that went on for forty days. Their father, the ruler of heaven, finally decided to hold a contest. The brother who was able to swallow the heavenly mountain would be crowned as the next ruler of heaven.

As their father looked on sadly, Sang Hyang Antaga tore his lips in his attempt to swallow the mountain. He lost a lot of blood and collapsed on to the earth. Sang Hyang Ismaya choked as the mountain entered his throat and fell unconscious. When the two brothers regained their consciousness, they could no longer recognize each other. The mighty warrior figure of Sang Hyang Antaga had changed; His body now short and bloated, his mouth huge, ripped by his effort to swallow the mountain and forever marked his face. Sang Hyang Ismaya, whose face was fair like the sun, had turned into a little old man with small limbs and sad eyes. His mouth gave a perpetual clownish smile which makes him look rather frightening.

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Shadow puppet representing Semar

Their father banished them both to earth. Sang Hyang Antaga was renamed Togog Wijomantri and was assigned to care for the giants, whose natures were filled with rage. Sang Hyang Ismaya was renamed Semar Bagranaya. He was charged to care for the kings, Brahmins (priests and wisemen) and knights of the world, whose natures were filled with pride. Thus the two brothers bowed their heads and accepted their fates. Semar came down to earth to serve as servants to the kings and warriors. 

According to Babad Tanah Jawi, Semar was a spirit who looked after a small field near Mount Merbabu ten thousand years before there were any other people in the island of Java. His descendants, the spirits of the island, came into conflict with the first people as they cleared fields and populated the island. To end this feud, a powerful Hindu priest provided Semar with a role that allowed him and his descendants to stay. The role is that of a spiritual advisor and divine supporter of the royalty. As this is a hereditary role, his descendants who are willing to protect the humans of Java also remain there.

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Wooden wayang golèk doll, depicting the Semar.

Although he was banished to the human realm, Semar was blessed with eight divine virtues: He would never feel hungry, never feel sleepy, never fall in love, never feel sad, never feel tired, never be sick, never feel heat and never feel cold. Those eight virtues are represented by the eight hairs on his crest. Those eight chest hairs are not the only unusual quality of Semar. In fact, Semar’s very being is full of contradictions. He has a man’s face, but he has a woman’s breasts. He has wrinkles on his face like an old man, but his hair is cut like a child. His lips always smile but his eyes are sad. He is a deity, but he wears kawung motive sarong, as other retainers wear. His outward appearance is considered grotesque, but he has a kind heart.

Semar is the symbol of the duality of life, like yin and yang, where opposites exist side by side in harmony. Any attempt to change his appearance, if it was even possible, would prove disastrous. For example, a forelock is often something that children have, whereas on Semar, an old man, it shows child-like qualities such as honesty and lack of prejudice. If his forelock were cut off, he would lose these qualities and became suspicious and prejudiced like other adults. This symbolizes the importance of balance and acceptance of the good and bad qualities, as one cannot exist without the other.

In every Wayang performance, Semar is the only character who dares to protest to the gods, including Batara Guru and Batari Durga, even compelling them to act or desist. He often represents the realistic view of the world in contrast to the idealistic view held by the heroes. His role is somewhat similar to Shakespeare’s Falstaff in Henry IV as critic of the play’s worldview and antidote to pride.

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 On the play Hanuman Obong, and the army of monkeys helped Anoman semar

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.