In Ancient Greece, Cooking Was Magic!

In ancient Greece, the word for "cook," "butcher," and "priest" was all the same: mageiros, which shares its etymological root with the word "magic."

Phalanxes Had Problem: Everyone Wanted To Be Right

Ancient Greek soldiers would hold shields with their left arm, and swords with their right. This created an interesting dilemma. Thucydides, an Athenian general and historian, wrote that "fear makes every man want to do his best to find protection for his unarmed side in the shield of the man next to him on the right." The soldier who is farthest right must try to "keep his own unarmed side away from the enemy, and his fear spreads to the others who follow his example." In other words, the man farthest to the right would always try to go to the right of the enemy, so his unprotected right side would be safe. He would keep going to the right, and each man would follow, trying to protect their own unprotected right side. The result, Thucydides wrote: "the right wing tends to get unduly extended."


"Heaven won’t fail the dedicated heart. Sleeping on brushwood and tasting gall, 3,000 Yue soldiers at long last can defeat the Wu."

Every Chinese schoolchild knows the idiom "sleeping on brushwood, tasting gall." It means — roughly — that grueling hard work will always pay off in the long run. The quote is a couplet by writer Pu Songling in the 1600s, who wrote it after repeatedly failing the notoriously difficult Qing Dynasty-era civil service exam. But the idiom predates Pu.

You have to back pretty far in Chinese history to find the source of the saying, to the war-filled Spring and Autumn period. In the early 400s BCE, King Goujian of the Yue state was defeated by the Wu state ruler and forced to be his servant for a time, before being allowed to return home. Goujian kept his resolve strong with hard living, eating peasant food and literally tasting bile to remind him of the bitterness of servitude. He eventually triumphs over his nemesis — who leads a more luxurious, lazy life — and annexes his rival’s kingdom.

Today, people are urged to become a “21st-century Goujian” through hard work. But they might want to consider Pu Songling’s case, too. Sometimes hard work takes too long to pay off. Pu, a schoolteacher, lived and died in relative obscurity, despite having written numerous short stories about the supernatural. It was not until some 50 years after his death that he gained a following as a writer. Too late for Pu to enjoy it.

The Architect Who Became A God

King Djoser (c 2667 - 2648 BCE) built what is perhaps the first true pyramid in ancient Egypt, the step pyramid. The architect of Djoser's pyramid was Imhotep, the king's vizier. He slowly grew in fame, slowly getting credited with medical powers, until he was worshiped as a god in the Ptolemaic Period (332 - 30 BCE) and equated with Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom, and Asklepios, the Greek god of healing.

Today, his name is perhaps better known for being the mummy that was brought back to life in the movie, The Mummy.

Ancient Circular Burial Raises More Questions Than It Answers

A rare circular burial found at the Tlalpan site, in southern Mexico City, has 10 males and females, ranging in age from a one-month-old infant to an older, or even elderly, adult. The burial is approximately 2,400 years old. By that time, state-level societies were emerging in the Valley of Mexico. Perhaps these ten belonged to one such state?   Some of the remains show evidence of intentional skull deformation and tooth filing. Both became common in later Mesoamerican civilizations. Perhaps the Valley of Mexico was a trend setter?   Weirdly (to modern viewers) the skeletons have been carefully arranged. They face different directions, and are deliberately intertwined: one head is on another's chest, one pair of hands lays on another's back. Why this particular arrangement? We are still trying to figure that out. So far, it is still unknown how they all died, or whether they even died at the same time.

Where Is It Illegal To Die?

In the 400s BCE, Athens forbade anyone to die or to give birth on the island of Delos, to render it fit for the proper worship of the gods. Since 1878, no births or deaths have been permitted near Japan’s Itsukushima Shrine, a sacred site in Shinto belief.     Death is still outlawed in some places today, but for more prosaic reasons. In 1999 the mayor of the Spanish town of Lanjarón outlawed death, again because of an overcrowded cemetery. His edict ordered residents “to take utmost care of their health so they do not die until town hall takes the necessary steps to acquire land suitable for our deceased to rest in glory.” The French settlements of Le Lavandou (in 2000), Cugnaux (in 2007), and Sarpourenx (in 2008) have all outlawed death because of limited capacity in local cemeteries. The Sarpourenx ordinance added: “Offenders will be severely punished.” In 2005 Roberto Pereira, mayor of the Brazilian town of Biritiba Mirim, proposed a ban on death because the local cemetery had reached its capacity -- although he was unsuccessful.    

Reconsidering Bacchus

The ancient Roman god, also known as Dionysus, does not have a good image today. His name is linked to drunkeness, excess, madness. But the ancients did not see him as one-sided. He was the god of losing one's inhibitions. But he was also the god of getting together. Ancient nicknames included Bacchus the Liberator, Bacchus the Saviour, and Bacchus the God Who Gives Men's Minds Wings. Those do not sound all bad, right?

Bacchic cults were banned in Roman times, because their members held allegiance to "a parallel state," but at the same time, Roman leaders have quotes on how fantastic it is that conquered populations enjoy Roman wine so much -- it makes them easier for Rome to control. To the ancients Bacchus was an ambiguous god, both beneficial and harmful.

Was the Persian Army so Big Its Arrows Really Blocked out the Sun?

The army of the Persian Empire had enough archers that they were said to be able to "block out the sun." You might remember the Spartan's famous answer to that: great, we "can fight in the shade."

Were those ancient chroniclers exaggerating? We do not know, but conservative estimates of the Persian army's capabilities was that they had 50,000 men in their army. Yes, that's a conservative estimate. Previous armies in the region are believed to have fought with mainly infantry, with archers being a supporting group; we know the Persians innovated by increasing the numbers of archers. Let’s crunch some numbers.

As a conservative estimate, let's say there are about 20,000 archers in the Persian battle line. Each archer can fire about 5 arrows a minute. And their quivers held 120 arrows, but let's assume they had to go hunting for dinner the last few nights, and give them 100 arrows. When you do the math, that means the Persian Army could fire 100,000 arrows a minute. And they could do that for as long as their arms held out, or until their arrows run out, so about 20 minutes.

The Persian army could fire 100,000 arrows a minute, for 20 minutes. As a conservative estimate. Now, I've never been on an ancient battle field, but that sounds like it could block out the sun.

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    HISTORICAL NON-FICTION

    By Lillian Audette

    This blog is a collection of the interesting, the weird, and sometimes the need-to-know about history, culled from around the internet. It has pictures, it has quotes, it occasionally has my own opinions on things. If you want to know more about anything posted, follow the link at the "source" on the bottom of each post. And if you really like my work, buy me a coffee or become a patron!

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