The Past Is Not What It Used to Be

A Greek temporal celestial calculator @ 200 BCE. Photo by Tony Freeth in Scientific American.

This is the time of year when we collectively think about time, about how the page is turning (ha! my website). But we don’t just turn the calendar page–we switch out the calendar. We might perhaps feel the icy fingers of Time brushing the nape of our neck, yet we also imagine the bouncing baby of 2022. Spring must be coming, yes, sometime soon? Better times?

With the new year circling the tarmac on approach, I have had a heightened awareness of time and history. Recent stories have surprised me: a wet fish slap to the brain about How We Remember the Past. I found enough examples to fill two posts. This one will talk about history by the historians, the next about history in recent memory. The Past is not simply a collection of facts.

The Past No More

History textbooks when I was growing up often had misstatements and exaggerations; I’m sure yours did, too. For example, Columbus did not discover America. He had a very good publicist, given that he didn’t even make it to North America, but only landed in the Bahamas, not to mention “discovering” an area already populated. He also brought smallpox and enslavement along with the possibility for exploitation trade. Even so, I can still visualize the cartoon of my childhood where Peabody and Sherman helped Columbus prove that the earth was round. It’s hard to shake simplistic explanations.

Peabody did correctly surmise that Columbus was a bit of an idiot. Photo from the Peabodyverse
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The Wild Hunt on Christmas Eve

Peter Nicolai Arbo’s Asgardreien (The Wild Hunt of Odin), 1872, wikipedia.

Pretend this is the Jeopardy category: Common Bonds. The Wild Hunt, mind control, and the 1871 Polaris disaster. What do they all have in common? Got it? Add in fan fiction, Zwarte Piet, shoemakers, Martin Luther, reliquary theft…. Yes? Norse mythology? Saving girls from prostitution? Louisa May Alcott, Thomas Nast? How about Shadrack, the Black Reindeer?

It is Christmas Eve, after all.

The mythology–the extensive fan fiction, which is what mythology is, isn’t it?–around the legends of Santa Claus and Christmas have roots that go waa-a-a-y beyond the Coca Cola commercial. Although I dug deep into a comparison of Santa and Jesus last year, there are Santa rabbit holes to be discovered. Even if we just talk about Santa and his helpers, there’s plenty that even that Greek scholar and seminarian Clement Moore didn’t envision.

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Gravy: International Emulsified Sauce of Mystery

Pan drippings did not originate in France. Just sayin. Photo from tastesbetterfromscratch.

 Leg of mutton, but no other meat is used. Prepare water; add fat; dodder [wild licorice] as desired; salt to taste; cypress [juniper berries]; onion; samidu [semolina]; cumin; coriander; leek and garlic, mashed with kisimmu [sour cream or yogurt]. It is ready to serve.

From “Three Babylonian Recipes You Can Make Today”

This is a recipe that starts with a gravy. Boil animal fat, water, and spices together, using semolina and yogurt as thickening agents. Combine with meat. It’s a recipe that is 3,600 years old, from ancient Babylon. Hammurabi and friends knew how to eat.

According to several internet cooking references, gravy was created in France because the medieval French wrote many cookbooks that used the technique. Gravé is a word from Middle English, which for some reason is credited to the French. Of course, one of the better techniques for making gravy involves using a roux–flour browned in meat drippings–and since roux is a French word (though it’s based on the Latin russet or red/brown), then obviously the French invented gravy! Certainly, that’s what the French would tell you.

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