The Origins of Greensleeves and Syphilis

Greensleeves illustration
Greensleeves illustration by Walter Crane. Based on a theme written by ??

This may not seem like a holiday-themed post, but in the theater of mad decorating that took place at our house last week, listening to Christmas carols led to all sorts of topics. One of my favorite carols popped into the mix: “What Child is This?” played by Vince Guaraldi on The Charlie Brown Christmas CD.  Naturally, the song led to a discussion of “Greensleeves” which naturally led to… anyone? anyone? Henry the Eighth… which naturally reminded of something I recently learned about syphilis.

The Earworm Virus of “Greensleeves”

The lyrics to “What Child is This?” were written as a poem by William Chatterton Dix, who mused on what the magi might have said besides, “Where the Holiday Inn?”  Dix was an English insurance company manager whose near death illness invoked a spark of divine inspiration so intense that he began writing poems like “The Manger Throne.”  At some point, when a hymnal was later created in 1865, his poem was set to the ‘borrowed’ tune from “Greensleeves.”

The little ballad, played by strolling bards at Renaissance festivals and the more famous pick-up lute quartets, had been around for nearly three centuries. The song has long been attributed to Henry, and the legend goes that he wrote it for Anne Boleyn as she was rejecting his advances. Continue reading “The Origins of Greensleeves and Syphilis”

The Demise of Ghosts Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

The Puritans killed off the ghosts.

Marcus the Carcass
Marcus the Carcass, the kajmeister Halloween mascot.

Or, to say it more properly, Martin Luther and the Reformation Christians were the ones who turned the dead into the bloodcurdling beings that inhabit today’s stories. Halloween stories being an appropriate topic for today’s blog, I was reading about the history of horror, and I wondered how medieval societies felt about ghosts. When I read about the Dance of the Dead and the role of Martin Luther, it all sort of clicked into place.

In the medieval period, the dead were considered simply another age group. The blessed dead who were consecrated as saints became part of daily ritual life and were expected to intervene to support the community. Families offered commemorative prayers to their ancestors, whose names were written in “Books of Hours,” prayer books that guided daily devotion at home. —[Emphasis mine] from “How the Dead Danced with the Living in Medieval Society,” theconversation.com

Just Another Age Group

Prior to the Reformation, medieval societies had a more platonic relationship with the dead. Maybe not platonic–how about balanced? The dead represented ancestors who could be either blessed or just normal ol’ ghosts. Some spirits intended harm, like demons or tricksters, but not all of the walking dead were malicious. Hence, many medieval paintings, particularly murals, showed the dead dancing among the living. The dance was part of the transition of life as one aged and eventually crossed the line into that other state of being. Continue reading “The Demise of Ghosts Has Been Greatly Exaggerated”

Pyrotechny Legend and Lore

Parking lot fireworks
Fireworks over an Albuquerque parking lot, photo by Kajmeister

I see fireworks
I see the pageant and pomp and parade
I hear the bells ringing out
I hear the cannons roar
I see Americans, all Americans free
Forever more–
–John Adams, Is Anybody There? from 1776

Bamboo shoots make the best firecrackers. At least, that’s what the Chinese thought, and they ought to know, since they are credited with inventing them. Most folks probably learned the abbreviated history that I did, where Marco Polo brought gunpowder and spaghetti back from China to the Europeans. Not exactly true, since Roger Bacon referenced the gunpowder formula when Polo would have been only about 13. But legends, including those in the U.S., are an important part of the formula. So is China, as one of the most noted artists of our century is a man who paints the sky with gunpowder.

Founder of Crackers

Li Tian, Founder of Crackers
Li Tian discovering what black powder does when ignited, from historyplex.com

The invention of firecrackers has multiple Chinese stories behind it. One says that folks in the Han Dynasty, (200 BC -200 AD), developed a custom of throwing bamboo stalks into the fire to ward off evil spirits. Since bamboo has hollow air pockets, it pops when it burns, ending with a bang. Continue reading “Pyrotechny Legend and Lore”

Happy Juhannus

Celebrate Juhannus 2018
Midsummer celebration, design from finncamp.org

I spent summers as a kid at a place called the Finn Camp in the woods of suburban Detroit. The summer program was swim lessons in the morning, drama rehearsals in the afternoon, saunas on the weekends, and a lot of tag played on and underneath the docks of the lake. At the end of each school year, I lived in great anticipation for the start of all this in mid June, after the solstice party called Juhannus.

Solstice celebrations, which happen between June 19 and 21, are curiously named “Midsummer” events. In the U.S., summer is tightly linked to the school year, and most children’s seasonal school year ends near the beginning of June. So, why isn’t it the Begin Summer celebration?

The summer solstice occurs when the earth’s tilt is at maximum toward the sun in your hemisphere. In the north, we’re as close to the sun as we’re going to get during the year on that day. Daylight will be the longest–maybe you’ve felt the sky lightening earlier in the morning as you get your coffee or seen the sun peeking through the kitchen window long after dinner. After tomorrow, the daylight hours will start getting shorter again. In that sense, you could say that we’re at the “mid” point; the year is all downhill from here. Continue reading “Happy Juhannus”

A Quartet Convenient but not Required

Vivaldi Spring and cherry blossoms
Spring is the ideal time for Vivaldi, photo & music from Youtube

I had a lovely post on tariffs all mapped out for this week’s essay, but then the sunrise came up pink and the Dailypost word turned out to be “Quartet” and I looked at the daffodils on the kitchen counter, and all I could think about was Spring! Spring! Spring! We’ve sprung into a new season–officially last week in northern California, the northern United States, the northern hemisphere of Terra Firma. Everyone knows there are four of everything that make up the universe: seasons, elements, states of matter, humors, food groups. Is four some sort of natural requirement?

Maybe only Two Seasons. Or, How about Six?

We are humans; we like to divide things. It seems pretty obvious that there would be at least two seasons, since the winter and summer solstice create natural divisions in a calendar. There is a point of time where the days get longer in most of the civilized part of the world, and another point where days get shorter.  Western civilization evolved to recognize four separate seasons, with the other two categorizes recognizing the equinoxes, those times when the day and night are roughly equal before transitioning to slightly longer or slightly shorter. Continue reading “A Quartet Convenient but not Required”