Saturday, September 28, 2013

for Santa Cecilia, patron of music

I've been reading about the saints. What a terrible time they had. The persecution of women - or indeed girls as many of them were aged 12 to 17 - was full of hatred for women's independence of thought and action. Cecilia was forced into marriage, first they tried to kill her by suffocating her in steam – in a sudatorium. This failed and she was beheaded, but her head was not fully severed and so she lay for three days dying. Another version says that she kept singing after her head was severed. She is the patron saint of music and of musicians; a kind of Orpheus figure.

for Santa Cecilia

the organist plays a dirge
hands flying

under the apse
a pure white marble body
lying her hands bound    head wrapped
face down    as if crying

she sings through her dead mouth
the earth hears her long dying song
above golden angels spiral
and my heart weeps for this young girl

The church of Santa Cecilia is in Trastevere. It was first built in 5th century. She is killed because she kept converting people to Christianity, including her husband and as a result the marriage was not consummated. It strikes me that she and other saints are wilful virgins. Her husband, Valerianus, was martyred too. 
 For more on Santa Cecilia, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, in her Italian Days (1989) writes about her (pp. 248-249).
Photos on this page from the top:
Statue of St Cecilia in the portico of the church of Santa Cecilia.
Gold figure of St Cecilia under the apse. Note her harp.
St Cecilia tied and bound.
The balduchin and apse of the church of St Cecilia.
St Cecilia(?) praying.
St Cecilia fresco depicting her being bound (sorry about quality).
All photos by me.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

the calculus of lambda (λ)

Did you know that lambda (λ) is the Cosmological Constant? In fact, the "standard model" of the big bang universe is known as λCDM (lambda cold dark matter). It is considered the simplest model for matching theory with observations of the universe.

The following appears to be the case (physicists please correct me if I have this wrong):
λ is dark energy and 68.3% of the universe is dark energy.
Dark matter constitutes 26.8% of the universe.
And calculus is about discovering the unknown.
So let’s discover a universe in which lambda is knowable and energetically taking up 68.3% of ‘space’.

the calculus of lambda (λ)
the variable x is a valid lambda term
what of xx
double λ?

lambda calculus solves my world
discovers the unknown
the dark energy driving the universe

repeat after me the three rules
–a variable x is a valid lambda term
–if t is a lambda term, and x is a variable, then (λx.t) is a lambda term
(a lambda abstraction)
–if t and s are lambda terms, then (ts) is a lambda term
(an application)

the observations click
purple shift
that emotional leap of faith into other realms
a transit out of time into timelessness

x = woman
t = transit
s = you work it out

The three rules above can be found on Wikipedia at

Thank you to wonderful physicist Meryl Waugh for sending me some info on lambda. Any mistakes here are mine not hers.

 The photos on this page from the top are:
1. A coven of lambda lambs in the Basilica di San Clemente, Rome.
2. Saptamatrika: seven matrikas, seven mothers, sometimes connected with the Pleiades. They always hang out together and are often found dancing. One of them in this picture has the head of a sow. In this picture on the left: Shiva, then the matrikas: Brahmani, Maheshvari, Kaumari, Vaishnavi, Varahi, Indrani, Chamunda (photo taken in the Oriental Museum in Torino). If you want to know more about matrikas, check out Giti Thadani's wonderful Moebius Trip.
3. Another girl gang on a gold Etruscan bracelet.
4. I don't know what this means. I found it on the wall at the Film Museum in Torino, and there appear to be a few lambda calculations going on in there. All grist for the mill.

This poem was first published on the Wonder Book of Poetry edited by Kit Kelen:

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Lost texts: Linear A

When I studied Ancient Greek some 30 odd years ago, my favourite subject was Historical Syntax. In this class we looked at the development of the Greek language, it’s Indo-European roots and how Greek words were transformed into other related words in Lithuanian, German, French, Italian and so forth. 

We also looked at Linear B which was deciphered in 1952. All the credit has gone to Michael Ventris, but in June 2013 the news emerged that American classicist Alice Kober did the painstaking work  behind the decipherment, without which Ventris would not have had the information for the decoding. Unfortunately Alice Kober died in 1950.

Linear B is now a readable text, but Linear A remains an enigma. Scholars have been trying to figure out these texts and there are some advances being made.

This poem is an imaginary text based on material that can be found in the public domain.

Lost texts: Linear A
Final translation
she carries the gilded pot
delicate and three-legged
from Mesara wheat sun-gilded
is cooked with threads of saffron
the shepherd girls bring in the wethers
from the hills
twenty-seven sheep
figs fresh and dried are piled high
golden wine spills from conical cups
the women feast under a full moon

vessel : bronze : three legs : diminutive ending : of gold : carries [fem] 
direction : place name? : movement towards : grain : of gold
[verb] : spice / herb /plant [crocus?] : of gold
shepherds [fem] : sheep : 27 : high  
figs : green : figs : black : high
conical cups : liquid : of gold : high
people [fem] : food : moon

small bronze tripod gilded she carries
from place name Mesara [near Phaestos] to this place
golden grain [wheat]
[transformation verb?] : spices of golden thread [saffron]
shepherds [fem] [sheep neuter – wethers] : 27 : high [from]
green figs [fresh figs] black figs [dried figs] : high
conical cups : golden liquid [wine] : high
people [fem] : food [feast] : round moon

The interesting thing about this short text is the interweaving images and metaphors. The colour gold is a trope that goes through all of the text. Height is also important: in one instance it means from the heights, in the others it suggests a cornucopia. A feast or festival is taking place and a woman is carrying a small vessel that can stand on its three legs. Young women bring in the sheep who have been neutered at some point. Oddly the number 27 is specified. It is unclear what significance this number has; it’s also unclear whether or not the sheep are to be killed [ritually] or eaten as part of the feast or whether these people eat mainly grain, herbs and fruits. If the sheep were to be ritually slaughtered one would expect some sense of the sacrificial to be evident in the poem. Further, one would also expect such a ritual to take place at the dark of the moon or at the first sight of a sickle moon as sympathetic magic with the sheep horns. The wine is plentiful for the feast and the conical cups reflect the moon’s shape.

Interestingly, all the actors in this short text are female, from the unidentified ‘she’ at the beginning of the poem to the shepherdesses to the plural feminine form of people at the feast. The sheep would once have been male but have been castrated and therefore the neuter gender is used for them – they are wethers not rams. While this is a short fragment, the fragment itself is complete. No doubt there is more detail about the unnamed ‘she’ in the poem, possibly a woman with ritual power. The age of the shepherdesses is indicated by a word which suggests that they have not yet reached puberty.

It is possible that the text refers to a puberty rite in which only women participate as has been noticed by Spyridon Marinatos (1976) while Nanno Marinatos (1984) suggests that saffron was used in rites of passage for young women because of its effectiveness against menstrual cramps. The full moon is also suggestive of a puberty rite.

The two signs from Linear A included in this text are not identical to the Tables of Standardized Linear A Signs because there are a large number of hapax legomena (single instance of a word in a text or language) in many of the extant Linear A tablets, most of which are broken (unfortunately it was not possible to include them on this blog site - a small technological challenge I hope to overcome).

The vocabulary for this text has been taken from

Linear A image comes from: (yellow)

For more information see the following texts.

Day Jo. 2011. ‘Counting threads. Saffron in Aegean Bronze Age writing and society.Oxford Journal of Archaeology 30(4): 369-391.

Day, Jo. 2005. ‘Adventures in Fields of Flowers: Research on contemporary saffron cultivation and its application to the Bronze Age Aegean.’ In SOMA 2003: Symposium of Mediterranean Archaeology. Edited by Camilla Briault, Jack Green, Anthi Kaldelis, and Anna Stellatou. Oxford: Archeopress BAR S1391.

Marinatos, Nanno. 1984. Art and Religion in Thera. Athens: Mathioulakis.

Marinatos, Spyridon. 1976. Excavations at Thera VII. Athens.