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”

Eat Your Vegetables!

One of my most vivid childhood memories is of being told I had to finish dinner before we could go to the state fair. On my plate were sliced orange disks which my mother said were carrots but, in fact, were sweet potatoes. I detested the mushy things and knew they were not carrots. I sat there for Hourrrrrssss, with tears streaming down my face, unable to handle the discrimination and oppression of the sweet potatoes. The unfairness! No merry-go-rounds for me! My mother was lying! The adults were in league to ruin my life! The trauma! The unfairness!

Child hates eating carrots
Carrots are NOT sweet potatoes! Photo from Parents magazine

I’m kind of sad now that I never asked my long-dead mother whether this story actually happened, and why, in particular, she would lie and tell me that sweet potatoes were carrots. It seems kind of unlikely now. Also, ironically enough, I now love sweet potatoes and will eat them without marshmallows, butter, or any flavoring at all. (They’re really good stuffed with chili and jalapenos.) Continue reading “Eat Your Vegetables!”

Space Octopus/Star Fish

Octopus Flying Saucer
Octopus E.T. from Freaking News.com

I really wanted to find out that the octopus came from outer space. With eye stalks that rotate, suckers on its multiple arms, and a “brain” located mostly along the tentacles, the octo is curious to some and downright disturbing to others. When I saw the headline: “Alien” octopuses “arrived on earth from space as cryopreserved eggs” I had to trace the theory back to the paper in a legitimate scientific journal which suggested this intriguing occurrence.

Unfortunately, my hopes were dashed by Snopes and the article’s lack of deductive reasoning and relevant facts. Bummer! The ghost of Darwin has, for now, fended off the extraterrestrials but, as an encore, has performed biological magic with starfish.

First, an important grammar lesson. I was taught that the plural of hippopotamus is hippopotami, so that the plural of octopus would be octopi, but my mother was wrong. Octopus is not Latin–like the word radius (plural radii)–but Greek oktṓpous (ὀκτώπους, ‘eight-foot’). So the plural is octopuses (or octopedes) but never octopi.

And Moses supposes his toeses are roses… Continue reading “Space Octopus/Star Fish”

Mare Nostrum IV: Gibraltar–Everyone Wants a Piece of the Rock

…The concept of two pillars, one in the North and another in the South, in those times, would be recognised by all sailors as a religious prohibition, a warning that only the approved might pass between them. The Pillar on the right, sailing out of the Mediterranean towards the Atlantic, Westwards, would be Gibraltar, a grey limestone monolith two miles long and 1380 feet high …The Pillar on the left, on the North African coast would be a lower mountain about 400 feet high, known as Septa… [covered in bushes which] flower yellow in January through to April, presenting the impression of the fiery pillar.
–William Serfaty, The Pillars of the Phoenicians

Macaque at Gibraltar
Straits of Gibraltar, photo by Kallmaker.

Mons Calpe. Pillar of Hercules (Ἡράκλειαι Στῆλαι). Jabar Tariq. What the Neanderthals called it is unknown. The Barbary Macaques–The Rock Apes–don’t tell us their name for it either. Nowadays, most humans call it Gibraltar.

Because of an advertising campaign, Gibraltar has long been associated with safety and security. Getting a “piece of the rock” is connected to insurance which yearns for a boring, uneventful existence. However, assumptions which link Gibraltar and peace are flawed at heart. The Rock has reflected 2.6 square miles of arguments and disputed ownership for much of its human history, especially during the last five centuries. Continue reading “Mare Nostrum IV: Gibraltar–Everyone Wants a Piece of the Rock”

San Francisco, American Phoenix

1906 SF earthquake
April 18, 1906 San Francisco, photo from wikipedia

Today marks the 112th anniversary of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Watching the news of the commemoration this morning, I am struck by how the city has throughout its history managed to stand for both old and new. The more I poked around the ashes of the story of this most famous disaster, the more I realized how much it stands for rebuilding and the spirit of renewal.

Perhaps the 50th Largest Earthquake

The 1906 earthquake struck at 5:12 am and lasted for 42 seconds, less than a full minute.  The estimated Richter magnitude is 7.9, which makes it the tenth largest quake recorded in the United States. However, the frequency and size of earthquakes around the Pacific Ocean–from Sumatra to Alaska–means that the SF quake doesn’t even make the list of top forty largest earthquakes in world history.

Earthquakes were not particularly frequent or known occurrences in the fledgling California at the time. The Richter scale wasn’t to be invented for another thirty years and scientists, looking back, don’t think there was a tremendous amount of seismic activity beforehand. But, of course, that is how pressure builds up and the quake is the mechanism that allows the faults relieve themselves when they are crushed too closely together. Pressure must escape and, like a genie released from a bottle, the impact of releasing a giant force from a tiny space is hugely felt. Continue reading “San Francisco, American Phoenix”