The Festival of Drunkenness

A drawing based on an ancient Egyptian wall painting shows a drinking festival in progress. The upper row of figures features revelers drinking wine, including one woman who has overindulged. The lower row shows a procession with musicians.
Courtesy of Betsy Bryan via

No, dear reader, this is not Panama City on Spring Break.  This is an actual religious festival from ancient Egypt.  We have discussed how beer played a part in religious festivals, and that the Sumerians actually had a goddess specifically for it. (For more on Nin-kasi, please see this post: )  There was an importance placed on beer in Egyptian culture as well.  The source of this festival is a mythological story of how beer saved the world.

The story goes that Re, the sun god, was frankly salty about the “duplicitousness” of mankind and called his children together to discuss it.  A Council of the Gods is called, and they decide to punish the rebellious men by letting loose the goddess Hathor.  She stormed out in the form of Sakhnet, which literally means female magical power.  In some stories this is the form of a great flood, and in others it is the form of a lion.  Whatever this form is, Hathor went to town killing everyone up and down the Nile Valley.  Re and the other gods started to feel bad about what they let loose, and tried to get her to stop, but at this point Hathor was in a blood rage and would not and could not stop.  In order to stop her murderous rampage, the Council of the Gods flooded the fields with beer that had been tinted red with ocher to look like blood.  Hathor greedily lapped it up and got drunk and passed out.  Mankind was saved by drunkenness.

Originally, it was thought these rituals took place in later in Egyptian history when they were ruled the Greeks and Romans.  However, recent discoveries from the excavations of the Temple of Mut complex in Luxor show they took place much earlier- around 1470 BCE.  Dr. Betsy Bryan’s research has found the Festival of Drunkenness was celebrated by people at least once a year, sometimes twice, in homes, temples and makeshift desert shrines.  It was different than many other temple ceremonies as the priests or pharaoh would act on behalf of the people.  In this ritual, everyone participated together- the elites and the peasants.  The scene is described in a hymn to Sakhnet as young women with flowing garlands in their hair serving alcohol to everyone  They all drink to the point of passing out, then are awoken to the beating of drums and the priests carried out a likeness of the goddess Hathor and they present their petitions to her.  It wasn’t just drinking going on either.  Graffiti was found discussing “traveling the marshes”, which is a euphemism for having sex.  These festivals took place at the beginning of the Nile floods in mid-August, which hearkened to the fertility and renewal of the land by the floods.

The excavations have found what is termed a “porch of drunkenness” associated with Hatshepsut, the woman who became pharaoh.  (For more on Hatshepsut, please see this post )  The porch was constructed at the height of her reign.  It has been theorized that Hatshepsut was instrumental in popularizing the festival to justify her assumption of pharaonic powers by association with a Great Goddess.  There is also a tantalizing discussion of Hatshepsut driving off enemies of Egypt termed the “shemau”, which at least one historian believes was the Jewish people.  Then the festivals would be a time to celebrate the fertility of the remaining Egyptians and to replenish their population.  This would place the Biblical exodus much earlier than theorized.  There is no additional corroboration for this theory however.

No one knows why the porch of drunkenness was taken down.  Hatsheput’s name was stricken by her successor, Thutmose III, so it could have been part of that campaign.  The ritual fell out of favor as well, and according to Bryan it had lost favor completely by the reign of Amenhotep III.  She observed that Egyptians did not like the alcohol making them lose control, and that was what this ritual was about- taking them to the edge of chaos.  However, in the time of the fun loving Greeks and Romans it regained popularity.  Herodotus reported in 440 BCE that the festivals drew as many as 700,000 participants and drunkenness and sexual permissiveness was the rule.  There are also mentions of the festival as late as 200 CE.  Although the significance of it had gone, there’s nothing better than a good party.


Eclipses- Historical Harbingers

Total solar eclipse Photo Credit- By I, Luc Viatour

If you’ve been anywhere near the news, you would have seen that a solar eclipse happened in the continental United States yesterday.  I have to admit it was a pretty amazing experience as I was lucky enough to be in the path of totality.  As the sky went dark and the crickets started chirping, I thought about what it must have been like for those in the past.  They didn’t have the benefit of NASA and other scientists telling us that this was normal, the Sun would come back and to wear protective glasses.  How did people through the ages deal with eclipses?

One of the first references we have of an eclipse is from a series of circular and spiral shaped petroglyphs at the Loughcrew Megalithic Monument in County Meath, Ireland.  This is near the passage tomb of New Grange, which is also from around the same time.  (For more on New Grange, please see this post )  These date back to around 3340 BCE, and scientists have calculated that a solar eclipse occurred on November 30, 3340 BCE.  According to Irish archaeoastronomer Paul Griffin, the monument was in the path of totality, meaning the entire solar disc was obscured.  Decoding the carvings on the rock, Griffin was able to deduce they were recording the eclipse, making it one of the first records of such an event.  Inside the monument, the charred remains of 48 humans were found.  It has been hypothesized this was a human sacrifice to “bring back” the Sun from the underworld.  

The Chinese and Babylonian cultures began to predict eclipses with high accuracy.  The Babylonians believed an eclipse was an evil omen for the ruler.  The Chinese believed the Sun was being eaten by a large dragon during an eclipse.  An ancient book of documents called the Shu Ching, described the eclipse in October 22, 2134 BCE.  The emperor charged two astronomers, Hsi and Ho, to predict the eclipse so archers could be stationed to defend the Sun from the dragon.  Unfortunately for Hsi and Ho, they got massively drunk and failed to alert the warriors and were beheaded for dereliction of duty.  Similar mythology describing the Sun as being stolen is found around the world, but it was not always a dragon to blame.  The Vietnamese people believed the Sun was being eaten by a giant frog, and the Norse people blamed a wolf.  In Korea, they believed dogs were stealing the Sun.  Because of this, many cultures gathered together to bang drums or even pots and pans to scare away whatever was trying to steal or eat the Sun.

On the other side of the world, the Inuits believed the Sun goddess Malina walked away after a fight with her brother Anningan, the Moon god.  An eclipse happened when Annigan caught up with his sister.  The Pomo, another Native American tribe, believed a bear got into a fight with the Sun and took a bite out of it. The bear was apparently hungry and went on to take a bite out of the moon two weeks later, explaining why there is a lunar eclipse usually two weeks after a solar one.  In the Africa, the Batammaliba tribe in Benin and Togo, believed the Sun and the moon were at war and the only way to keep them from permanently damaging each other was to end human conflicts.

Eclipse Icon at Loughcrew 3340 BCE Photo Credit-

The ancient Greeks also believed that an eclipse was an omen of evil tidings.  Historian Herodotus tells of an eclipse on May 28, 585 BCE that prompted a cease fire between the Lydians and the Medes.   In the middle of the Battle of Halys, the sky turned dark and the battling armies took this as a sign the gods wanted them to stop.  A truce was negotiated and the battle was renamed the Battle of the Eclipse.  Another eclipse changed the course of Greek history.  At the height of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, and eclipse occurred on August 27, 413 BCE.  At that time, the Athenians were attempting to dislodge the Syracusans from Sicily.  Their commander, Nicias, was extremely superstitious and postponed the fleet’s departure because of the eclipse.  This gave the Syracusans enough time to stage another attack in which the Athenians were defeated.  This marks the beginning of the decline of Athenian dominance in the region.

The Christian gospels tell of the sky darkening during the day at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.  Some archaeoastronomers believe that Jesus’ death coincided with a solar eclipse and have tried to use this to pinpoint the exact date.  There are historical records of solar eclipses in the year 29 and 32, but no one has proof of which date is correct.  Following along with the bad omen belief, another solar eclipse affected the life of Louis the Pious.  He was the third son of Charlemagne and inherited the Holy Roman Empire.  It is reported he witnessed the eclipse on May 5, 840 and was convinced it was a warning of impending punishment from God and died of fright soon after.  This plunged the kingdom into civil war for three years.  There was also said to be an eclipse right before the death of Henry I of England on August 2, 1133, which reinforced the superstition that eclipses were bad omens for rulers.  The solar eclipses on January 8, 1777 and again on June 24, 1778 was bad news for George III.  The one in 1777 proceeded the American victories at Trenton and Princeton, and the one in 1778 proceeded the victory of the Americans at the Battle of Monmouth.

Despite the beliefs and myths, the ancients were able to use information about eclipses to further scientific knowledge.  Aristotle observed the shadow of the Earth on the moon was curved and hypothesized the Earth was round.  Another Greek astronomer named Aristarchus used a lunar eclipse to estimate the distance of the Moon and Sun from the Earth.  Yet other astronomers observed the existence of the Sun’s corona during a total solar eclipse.  Astronomers Liu Hsiang, Plutarch and Leo Diaconus were pioneers in eclipse data.  However, it was not until 1605 that Johannes Kepler gave a scientific description of a total solar eclipse.  The first In modern times, Sir Arthur Eddington tested Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.  During the May 29, 19191 solar eclipse he confirmed that starlight bent around the Sun by measuring the position of certain stars.  This was predicted by Einstein’s theory that massive objects caused distortions in space and time.

We no longer have the same superstitions about eclipses, but it is thought to be a time of change.  A nice way to put it is ending patterns that do not serve and beginning new healthy ones.  Enjoy the skies in good health and good spirits!


Pingyang and the Army of the Lady

Princess Pingyang Photo Credit- Epoch Times

Pingyang was born in 600 to Li Yuan, a peasant who had risen through the army to become a commander.  She was the only daughter to him and his second wife Duchess Dou.  She did have two older sisters from Li Yuan’s first marriage, however, Pingyang spent more time with her four brothers.  As was customary, she was given in marriage when she was quite young.  Her chosen husband was Cai Shao, the son of the Duke of Julu.  By all reports, Pingyang was a dutiful and loving daughter, sister and wife.  However, her loyalty was put to the test when everything went sideways.

During this time, China was ruled by the Sui dynasty emperor, Yangdi.  Yangdi has gone down in history as a paranoid man who was one of China’s greatest villains.  He murdered his father to get to the throne and squandered China’s wealth on failed foreign exploits, of which he lost all of them.  Then Yangdi decided on an extensive building program, which had an extraordinary death toll.  He put men to work rebuilding the Great Wall, and 6 million were killed.  He put men to work building the Grand Canal, and there was a 40-50% death rate.  He raised taxes and no one could pay them because there was no one left to work the farms.  Yangdi had conscripted all the able bodied men into the army.  People chafed under this burden and began rebellions, which were put down with excess force.   Yangdi grew more and more suspicious of everyone.  Then in 615 a popular street balad went around that the next emperor would be named Li.  This this is kind of like saying the next president will be named Smith as it is an extremely common name.  However, Yangdi was already suspicious of Li Yuan.  He was a wildly popular general who had risen from the peasantry.  Plus he was rumored to have a birthmark in the shape of a dragon under his left armpit, which obviously meant he was destined to be emperor.  Who can argue with the armpit, right?  He ordered Li Yuan arrested and executed as a threat to the Empire.  Just for fun, he also accused Li Yuan of having sex with two of the emperor’s favorite concubines.

Li Yuan had no wish to become a rebel leader, but it was that or be killed on trumped up charges.  So,  he put together of more than 30,000 aided by the neighboring Turks, who admired him enough to forge a truce with him not to attack Chinese lands as long as he was in charge while he was still general.  Then he sent secret messages to his four sons and Pingyang’s husband to aid him.  Unfortunately, Cai Shao was the head of the palace guard and the family was living in the palace.  They were sitting ducks for the emperor’s rage.  Cai Shao and Pingyang discussed what to do.  Cai Shao wanted to join his father in law, but didn’t want to leave Pingyang in a prime spot to be kidnapped, ransomed, killed or all three.  However, Pingyang could take care of herself.  Her husband escaped to join the army and Pingyang escaped as well and went to the family’s estates in the province of Hu.  When she arrived in Hu, PingYang found everything in a mess.  People were starving because of a severe drought on top of the fighting that seemed to be everywhere.  To aid her people, Pingyang opened her personal food stores to them.  It was something they didn’t forget.

From Hu, Pingyang watched her father, husband and brothers’ forces fight tooth and nail with emperor’s army.  They fought hard and bravely, but they were outnumbered.  Pingyang wasn’t the kind of woman to sit around and wait while she watched her family destroyed.  She took action.  Going to the families she had just saved from starvation, she began recruiting her own army.  She even convinced a local highwayman and his men to join.  With this start of 10,000 men, Pingyang began convincing imperial allies to desert.  This was an amazing accomplishment for a woman not yet twenty in ancient China.  Women did not command armies, and certainly did not issue orders to men.  However, she was able to both command and train an army worthy of battle.  In a few months, Pingyang was able to raise more than 70,000 troops and the marched to take the capital of Hu under the banner of the “Army of the Lady”.  In a genius public relations move, Pingyang decreed there was to be no looting, raping and plundering in conquered lands.  In fact, she would distribute fresh water and food to the inhabitants.  This gesture of goodwill swelled her army even more.

Yangdi was not pleased with this turn of events and diverted troops from his fight with Li Yuan to take care of this troublesome woman.  He immediately got his behind handed to him.  She was able to link her army with her father’s and together, they marched on the imperial palace in Daxingcheng.  Emperor Yangdi fled south and was killed in 618, ignobly strangled by his own advisors in a bathhouse.  Li Yuan was now the first emperor of the Tang dynasty, taking the name Emperor Gaozu.  He promoted his daughter, Pingyang, to marshal, which came with a military staff.  All of this along with the new honor of being Princess Zhao of the Tang dynasty.

Sadly, Pingyang died two years later at the age of 23 of unknown causes.  Her father buried her with full military honors.  Some people in court questioned why a mere woman would deserve such honors.  Emperor Gaozu simply said, “She was no ordinary woman.”


Jalal al-Din Rumi

Statue of Rumi in Buca Photo Credit- İncelemeelemani

The latest news is that Beyoncé named one of her new babies after a Persian poet.  Everyone is abuzz with discussions of who this man was and what exactly this means.  Although the poetry was written in the 13th century, it has gathered popularity in the west beginning in the early 21st century.  So who was Jalal al-Din Rumi?

Jalal al-Din Rumi was born September 30, 1207 in the city of Balkh, which is is in present day Afghanistan.  He lived with his family on this far eastern edge of the Persian Empire, and was raised in the tradition of his family as an Islamic jurist.  His father Baha ud-Din Walad was considered the “Sultan of the Scholars”.  Balkh was a center of Persian culture and Sufism.  There Rumi was exposed to the Persian poets Fariduddin Attar and Sani, who apart from his father were the most important influences on the young man.  When the Mongols led by Genghis Khan began invading, the family moved 2,000 miles to the west to Konya in Anatolia.  On the way to Konya, the family made the pilgrimage to Mecca and met Rumi’s idol, Fariduddin Attar, in the Iranian city of Nishapur.  Attar recognized the eighteen year old’s talent and gave Rumi a copy of his book Asrārnāma, or The Book of God,  a book about the entanglement of the soul in the material world.  This meeting and Attar’s work had a profound affect on Rumi’s later life and work.

In Konya, Baha ud-Din became the head of a madrassa, or religious school.  When he died in 1231, the twenty-five year old Rumi took his father’s place.  He also became an Islamic Jurist, issuing fatwas and giving sermons.  By this time, he had married twice and been widowed once and was the father of four children- three sons and a daughter.  A very respectable life.  However, things changed when he met Shams-e Tabrizi.  Shams was a dervish, or “God-man”, who had taken a vow of poverty.  He was a blunt man who was far below Rumi’s social class.  His nickname was “the Bird” because he could not stay in one place for very long.  Stories say that Rumi was teaching his students by a fountain and Shams crashed the lecture and threw Rumi’s books into the water.  Rumi was horrified as the books he was carrying included his father’s journals, and now they were ruined.  When asked why he did such a thing, Shams replied that now Rumi would have to live what he had been reading about.  Instead of infuriating Rumi, this inspired him.  Later he said that his true life and true poetry began at that meeting, and

“What I had thought of before as God, I met today in a human being.”

Not everyone shared Rumi’s appreciation for Shams. The fact that the two men were in such different social classes was a problem.  The two were not supposed to be interacting on a friendly level.  Plus Shams was irascible and had a terrible temper.  He was said to swear in front of Rumi’s children and generally be anti-social.  He was repeatedly driven away by Rumi’s disciples, and made a bitter enemy in one of Rumi’s sons, Ala al-Din.  One story says, that after being driven off by death threats, Rumi was despondent because he was so lonely for his teacher and friend.  Rumi got a harebrained idea, and married his young step daughter to the teacher to legitimize his presence in their home.  Young Keemia was around twelve and Shams had to be about sixty.  This was a bad idea all the way around.  Keemia later died of an unknown illness and Shams disappears.  Some stories say he reverted to his old wandering ways and ended up in India.  Other stories say he was killed for religious blasphemy.  Still others say he was killed by young Keemia’s step brother, Rumi’s son.  No one knows for sure.  Rumi is said to have gone looking for his lost friend, and wrote the verse:

Why should I seek? I am the same as
He. His essence speaks through me.
I have been looking for myself!

Rumi’s mourning for his lost teacher and friend was transformed into a collection of poetry called, Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi or The Works of Shams Tabriz.  This was a collection of over 40,000 lyric verses of all types of Eastern-Islamic poetry and is considered one of the greatest works of Persian literature.  The last years of Rumi’s life, he spent with his scribe and favorite student, Hussam-e Chalabi.  Rumi dictated his masterwork, Masnavi-ye Ma’navi or Spiritual Verses, to Hussam-e Chalabi and it is considered one of his most personal works.  It is regarded by some Sufis as the Persian-language Koran.

Rumi died of an unknown illness on December 17, 1273 and was buried next to his father in Konya.  A shrine called Yeşil Türbe, or the Green Tomb, was constructed over his burial site.  His epitaph reads:  “When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men.”


Tamar of Georgia-  Queen of Kings

Despite the name, I am not talking about the state in the Southern United States.  There is a whole other country coincidentally called Georgia located on the Black Sea near Turkey.  The name “Georgia” is probably a corruption of the Persian name for the people there, gurğān.  There is also a theory put out there that the people loved the legend of St. George and the Dragon.  In any case, they were devoutly Orthodox Christian country with a reputation for being fierce warriors.  Their rulers also claimed to be descended from King David, the second king of Israel.  Yes, that David.

Tamar was born in 1166 CE to King Georgi III and his wife, Burdukhan.  Tamar was the couple’s first child.  There are mentions of a sister named Rusudan, but they are few and far between.  As the firstborn, Tamar was declared her father’s heir and co-ruler at the tender age of twelve.  A few years prior, Georgi had to put down a rebellion led by his cousin, Demna.  Demna was captured and blinded and castrated and pitched into prison.  This was a custom similar to the Byzantines, who believed a man must be “whole” before he could rule.  Demna didn’t last long in prison and died soon after.  However, the discontent among the nobility that fueled the rebellion did not die.  Georgi attempted to suppress it by raising new families to the nobility and emphasizing that Tamar was his heir.  If Georgi had any doubts about elevating his teen aged daughter, he allayed them by saying “One knows a lion by its claws and Tamar by her actions.”

The two ruled together jointly until Georgi’s death in 1184.  Tamar became the sole monarch in Georgia and was crowned a second time at the Gelati cathedral near the city  of Kutaisi.  She was called a “king” in their language as she ruled alone and not as a consort.  However, she was the first female rule in the country and that just stoked the fires of rebellion in the nobility.  In several stories, this is glossed over in light of her later achievements.  However, Tamar was forced in short order to deal with the rebels and she did so in a decisive manner.  One legend tells of how she sent two women to stall the rebels by pretending to negotiate long enough for her to gather her army.  They were eventually pardoned, but not until their titles and wealth had been stripped.

Despite this violent beginning, Tamar wanted to rule well.  She called a Holy Synod, a council of all the religious leaders in the country to decide important religious questions of the day.  Conveniently, after the Synod was finished all the clergy who had opposed her found themselves out of a job.  With the Church firmly behind her, Tamar married.  Unfortunately, the choice of Yuri, the son of Prince Andrei Bogoliubsky of Vladimir-Suzdal, was disastrous.  Yuri was quite handsome and a valiant soldier, however, he was also a first class jerk.  After his marriage was solemnized, Yuri was never found sober and he was a mean drunk.  He was constantly picking fights, sleeping with anyone he could managed to get into bed and publicly insulting his wife for not conceiving a child.  Worse, he was constantly trying to get the country into war with their Muslim neighbors for no other reason than he was bored.  Tamar was quietly consolidating her power, and soon had had enough of her drunken ass of a husband and did the unthinkable.  In a devoutly Christian country where divorce was considered illegal, Tamar convinced the Orthodox Church to give her a divorce from Yuri.  He was accused of addiction to drunkenness and sodomy and packed off to Constantinople.  He attempted a couple of coup d’etats by raising mercenary armies made up of wayward Vikings, Turks and disgruntled nobles.  All his attempts were put down by his ex-wife’s army, which was headed by her new husband Prince David Soslan.  David was not only an excellent general but also quite handsome, described by Tamar’s aunt as “Hewn from stone and reared on wolf’s milk.”  Damn.  The couple had two children together, the future Georgi IV and a daughter named Rusudan, who would also become “Queen of Kings” after her brother’s death.

At this time, a period of expansionism began in Georgia.  This mostly to give the nobles something to do besides try to take over Tamar’s throne.  Idle hands are the devil’s workplace and all.  Under her rule, the Georgia began reclaiming fortresses and districts which had been previously conquered by the Ildenizids and the Shirvanshah.  Georgia’s military successes were so great, the Islamic world decided to send a unified force to defeat them.  It was led by Sultan Rukn al-Din, and to say he was arrogant was an understatement.  He sent Tamar a lovely letter stating his intentions.  He started off with a bang saying “every woman is feeble of mind,” and went onto demand Tamar immediately surrender and either convert to Islam to become his wife or stay Christian and become his concubine.  Well.  Isn’t he sweet?  The Georgian court wasn’t pleased with this message, and in fact one of the nobles present when it was delivered hauled off and punched the messenger.  Despite these demands, Tamar did neither of these things and promptly handed him his ass at the battle of Basiani.

Between battles, Tamar influenced much of Georgian culture.  The national Georgian epic, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, was said to be inspired by her. The capital of Tblisi was flooded with gold and silver pouring in from their conquered lands, and became an important crossroads between East and West.   She also endowed many churches and monasteries, and in the new monasteries the captured battle flags from the Muslim armies she conquered hung as trophies.  However, despite her warlike nature she was very concerned with doing charitable works for her people.  Tamar died after an unknown illness around 1213.  Her burial place is also a mystery, as she is thought to have been intured in a secret niche at the Gelati monastery, but it has never been found.  Other legends say her body was taken to the Holy Land and buried near the Holy Sepulchre.   For her great piety and faith, she was canonized as the the Holy Righteous King Tamar by the Eastern Orthodox Church.