The Complex Relationship Between -id and -or

January 28, 2010 at 5:00 pm (Alchemy, Ancient Greece, Egypt, Etymology, Health and Medicine, Linguistics, Modern World, seismology, The Ancient World, The Four Humours, Water) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

The English language, notorious for its pervasive irregularities and apparent inconsistencies, includes a trend that, when applied to certain word forms, leads to some curious results. The trend to which I refer is the relationship of adjectives ending in –id to corresponding nouns ending in –or. This trend is seen exclusively amongst words with Latin roots. Here is a table containing some examples of such adjectives:

List 1: Adjectives and corresponding nouns that follow the -id --> -or pattern

It should be noted that stupor is not the exact noun form of stupid, which is actually stupidity. And, while stupidity and stupor convey different nuances, there is enough overlap in their definitions to make the noun-verb connection apparent. There are, however, just as many adjectives ending in –id with corresponding nouns that do not follow this trend. These nouns tend to end in the more common –idity and –ness. Here are some examples:

List 2: Adjectives and corresponding nouns that do not follow the -id --> -or pattern

This second list acts as a reminder of just how irregular English conjugation is. A much more interesting list, however, includes adjectives ending in –id which, if run through the -id → -or conjugation mechanism, produce curious results. The following list includes the grammatically correct noun forms of these adjectives, as well as a list of nouns ending in  -or which could possibly share some etymological relationship to the corresponding adjectives:

List 3: Adjectives with corresponding nouns that do not follow the -id --> -or pattern, but for which there exist other nouns, whether related to the initial adjectives or not, that do fall into the pattern

This is the list of most interest because, unlike the others, it does not merely consist of examples and counterexamples of the -id –> -or pattern. It presents us with an opportunity to explore the relationships between certain adjectives and the nouns that, coincidentally or not, are spelled and pronounced so as to fit the pattern established by the first list. Could the italicized nouns give us a glimpse into arcane uses of these adjectives? It requires no stretch of the imagination to see how the meaning of valid could be related to that of valor, the actions of a person possessing the Greek quality of valor being considered valid by the societal norms of the time. Similarly, it is easy to see how a relationship between liquid and liquor could exist somewhere in the recesses of word origins. But what of vapidvapor and humidhumor?

While the word vapid is most commonly used as a synonym for insipid or lifeless, the Oxford English Dictionary reveals that, in the 17th century, vapid was used to mean, “Of a damp or steamy character; dank, vaporous.” Here, it seems, lies the –id → -or connection between vapid and vapor, an outdated relationship betrayed by the modern word forms in which it no doubt resulted. To unearth the connection between humid and humor also requires the pondering of a definition that has fallen out of use. The Oxford English Dictionary lists, among its definitions of humid, several relevant usages that haven’t been common for centuries. While the primary definition is, “Slightly wet as with steam, suspended vapor, or most; moist, damp.”, several historical uses of the word include, “In medieval physiology, said of elements, humours…Said of a chemical process in which liquid is used…Of diseases: Marked by a moist discharge.” This conception of humor (a reference to the Four Humours or Temperaments, medical notions that hearken back to ancient Egypt and Greece), here referring to wetness, gave rise to our modern notion of the word, currently used to mean, “Mood natural to one’s temperament…” and, “The faculty of perceiving what is ludicrous or amusing, or of expressing it in speech, writing, or other composition.” To uncover the relationship requires a look at classical medicine and its assumptions regarding the functioning of the human body.

A chart outlining the relationship of the four humours (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm) with the physical body and its personality traits

According to this conception of human health, one whose composition is characterized by moistness walks the line between sanguine and phlegmatic. Those with sanguine temperaments were ascribed the traits of extroversion and sociability, while phlegmatics were considered kind and relaxed. It does not require a far leap to bridge the gap between the ancient notion of physiological humidity and our contemporary use of the word humorous to suggest a jovial and comedic personality. The following image shows how moisture was associated with a sanguine-phlegmatic temperament:

Having deciphered the aforementioned relationships through a bit of etymological archaeology, it seems necessary to address one final list of words. Here is a list of common nouns ending in –or with corresponding adjectives that seem to follow no discernable pattern:

List 4: Nouns ending in -or with corresponding adjectives that do not follow the -id --> -or pattern

While this last list does not present any immediately obvious clues regarding outdated word usage, it leads to another interesting line of inquiry. Why is there no adjective form of temblor in the English language, whether modern or arcane? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the world temblor, synonymous with earthquake, is an Americanism not seen in print earlier than 1876. Since the word is so young and is not commonly used, perhaps it simply never had the chance to sprout related adjectives. Perchance this could lead to the temblorous conclusion that English word forms only emerge if they are necessary, and do not merely arise out of grammatical convention.

Some Further Reading:

An article about Greek virtue ethics

A look at the classical conception of the four bodily humours

An exhaustive list of -id adjectives that makes special note of vapor and humor. Oddly, this list suggests that valor and valid are unrelated, while glossing over the relationship between humor and humid

A chart of Latin roots that links valid and valor

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Ned Maddrell, the Last Native Speaker of Manx

January 19, 2010 at 7:52 pm (Death, Elocution, Linguistics, Modern World, The Ancient World, The United Kingdom) (, , , , , , , , , )

The coat of arms of the Isle of Man

Situated in the Irish Sea between Ireland and England, the Isle of Man is, according to its government’s website, “An internally self-governing dependent territory of the Crown which is not part of the United Kingdom.” Inhabited since the 7th millennium BC, the island has hosted a variety of cultures practicing diverse traditions.

Although the island’s official language is currently English, the native tongue was, until recent decades, the peculiar Goidelic language of Manx Gaelic (insular Celtic languages are split into two groups: Manx, Irish, and Scottish Gaelic are dubbed Goidelic, while Breton, Cornish, and Welsh are dubbed Brythonic. The two groups are widely believed to share a common precursor) . This historically significant era came to an end on December 27, 1974 when Ned Maddrell, the last native speaker of Manx, died at the age of ninety-seven.

Ned Maddrell

Fortunately for the sake of cultural preservation, Maddrell allowed linguists to record him speaking Manx in the late 1940s when he was one of only two living native speakers. Upon the 1962 death of the other native speaker, Sage Kinvig, Maddrell became something of a celebrity in linguistic circles. Students of Goidelic languages flocked to him in order to learn what they could of the imperiled language before his death. Maddrell’s willingness to expound upon Manx proved invaluable to its preservation, even if only for academic purposes. Here is an example of spoken Manx, available to us due in no small part to Maddrell:

To put the demise of Manx in context, here is part of a speech by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General of the United Nations from February of 2009:

Some further reading:

An article that discusses the origins of Manx as well as its last native speakers

Some information about the Isle of Man from its government’s official website

A look at insular Celtic languages that distinguishes between Goidelic and Brythonic

An article with links to many different endangered languages

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Quinta Essentia

August 7, 2009 at 8:57 pm (Alchemy, Enlightenment, Exclusive Societies, Geology, India, Japan, Kabbalah, Literature, Metallurgy, Mythology, Religion, Shakespeare, Symbology, Technology, The Ancient World, The Occult, The Renaissance, Theater) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

What a piece of work is man. How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties. In form and moving, how express and admirable. In action how like an angel. In apprehension, how like a god. The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

-   The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act II, scene ii

Shakespeare's tortured prince weighing the value of mankind.

Shakespeare's tortured prince weighing the value of mankind.

This dizzyingly rich quotation is familiar to any student of literature, and has become a sort of mantra to those who practice the theatrical art of soliloquy. But what interests me here are not the layers upon layers of meaning that Shakespeare wove using these words, but rather one individual word in particular. That word is quintessence which, as it is used in this context, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “The most typical example of a category or class; the most perfect embodiment of a certain type of person or thing.” But a bit of etymological reasoning leads to more questions than answers. Why would the prefix quint, meaning five, when attached quite literally to the word essence, produce a word synonymous with archetype or apotheosis? What is this mysterious fifth essence that has seemingly sneaked unnoticed into our contemporary lexicon? The answer, it turns out, lies in various ancient philosophies, ranging from the ancient Greeks to the age-old practice of alchemy.

A table of Medieval alchemical symbols.

A table of Medieval alchemical symbols.

The practice of alchemy, which combines elements scientific, philosophical, and spiritual, is believed to date back to traditions of the ancient Persian Empire, as early as the 8th century BC. While certain aspects of alchemy bear resemblance to complex spiritual systems such as Kabbalah, its more practical attributes can be seen as a precursor to modern chemistry. Although alchemists practicing in different eras and parts of the world embraced drastically differing systems, one unifying theme running through them all is a concern with physical elements.

earth, air, fire, water

The four primary, or Classical, elements are earth, air, fire, and water.  This way of dividing the physical world can be found in various ancient cultures. In many traditions, however, there is a fifth element that is considered to be the most important one of all. Known to the Greeks as Aether, the Hindus as Akasha, and the Japanese as void or sky, the notion of a fifth, ethereal element that ties the four physical elements together is pervasive amongst ancient philosophical traditions. It is from the alchemical interpretation of this fifth element, this quinta essentia, that we receive our term signifying an example of perfection. Sometimes referred to as the Philosopher’s Stone, the fifth element is the unity that comes with the mastery of the four lower elements, a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It is just this notion that Shakespeare was evoking when he dubbed man “the quintessence of dust”. After all, even a ghost in the machine, no matter how powerful the spirit and how complex the mechanism, is still a mere ghost in a mere machine. This conclusion was, it seems, one of the weights that made Prince Hamlet’s head so heavy.

Some Further Reading:

The online text of a University of Virginia class focusing on the history of alchemy

An analysis of Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man…” soliloquy

The entry for lapis philosophorum (the Philosopher’s Stone) from

A site that catalogues the history of chemistry, from alchemy to nanotechnology

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Thursday, the Day of Thor

August 6, 2009 at 4:20 pm (7 Wonders of the Ancient World, Ancient Greece, Astronomy, Cartography, Christianity, Linguistics, Modern World, Mythology, Paganism, Scandinavia, The Ancient World) (, , , , , , )

Irrational Geographic is so often concerned with notions ancient and arcane that, in this novel entry, I’ve decided to take an opposite approach. Today is Thursday, the 6th of August. So as to remain as temporally present and as commonplace as possible, I have decided to make an inquiry into Thursday itself. One seventh of our shared existence is spent inside of this designated period of time, so its origins, both as an entity and as a word, are of undeniable interest.


An artistic representation of the months and seasons of the modern Gregorian calendar, here juxtaposed with the ancient Hebrew calendar.

Thursday is designated the fifth day of the week according to the Gregorian calendar, which is currently the Western standard for the temporal demarcation of the year (There are, of course, other calendrical systems currently in use, including the Jewish and Hindu calendars, and that of the Nigerian Igbo with their curious four-day week). This is only the case due to the fact that Sunday is widely designated as the week’s first day, an honor bestowed upon the day, named after the year-defining sun (from the Old English word Sunnendaeg, “Day of the sun”), by Judeo-Christian calendrical tradition. Some nations including The United Kingdom, on the other hand, still consider Sunday to be the week’s seventh day, making Thursday the fourth. The Chinese word for Thursday, in fact, means fourth. The ancient Greeks and Romans would have taken issue with this, however, each designating their equivalent of Sunday as the week’s first day, associating it with supreme divinity.

The legendary Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, depicted Helios, the Greek sun god, for whom the first day of the week was named.

The legendary Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, depicted Helios, the Greek sun god, for whom the first day of the week was named.

Despite the fact that Thursday sits on the opposite side of the week from Sunday, its namesake is certainly a source of great historical power and significance. Its moniker originates in a culture very different than that of Sunday. Thursday takes its name from Thor, simultaneously the ancient Norse god of thunder and Germanic god of protection.

”Thor’s Battle Against the Giants” by Swedish painter Marten Eskil Winge, 1872.

”Thor’s Battle Against the Giants” by Swedish painter Marten Eskil Winge, 1872.

One of the oldest recorded deities of Scandinavian polytheistic culture, Thor (also referred to as Donor in some Germanic linguistic traditions) served as a symbol of Pagan resistance and cultural pride in the face of the monotheistic Christian encroachment upon Scandenavia beginning in the 8th century. Perhaps the fact that remnants of Thor grace our modern calendars (Thursday having taken the place of Dies Iovis, the ancient Latin “Day of Jupiter”) suggests that this resistance was never fully quelled despite the fact that, by the 12th century, Christianity had all but beaten Paganism out of the region.

A Medieval map of Scandinavia.

A Medieval map of Scandinavia.

Like the evergreen tree decorated with candles and ribbons displayed during the Christmas celebration, the prominent inclusion of Thor’s name in a predominantly Judeo-Christian calendar is an instance of the hybridization of Pagan and monotheistic traditions that has survived into modern times. While the Christian crusaders of the Middle Ages may have aimed to bend the world to their will, they themselves received some cultural battle scars that are still visible today. Our word for Thursday is just such a scar, scratched approximately fifty two times across the face of every modern Western calendar.

Some Further Reading:

A look at the Igbo calendar as it relates to the notion of a spiritual cosmic order

A simple breakdown of the Hindu calendar

A tool that allows for the conversion of dates between the Gregorian and Jewish calendars

An essay that discusses the origins of the Christmas tree and its Pagan connections

A Wikipedia entry including some excellent charts comparing day nomenclature cross-culturally

A timeline of the Christian conversion of Scandinavia

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The Lost Panacea of Silphium

July 8, 2009 at 6:21 pm (Ancient Greece, Botany, Drugs, Egypt, Extinction, Food, Health and Medicine, Modern World, Sexuality, Symbology, The Ancient World, Women) (, , , , )

silphium-plant-Cyrenaica-LibyaNative to the ancient Greek colony of Cyrene (located in modern day Libya), Silphium (also known as laser) is an extinct plant that, in its heyday, was one of the most treasured medicinal resources of the ancient world. Employed by cultures all around the Mediterranean, Silphium was used as a spice, a cure-all medicinal remedy, a form of birth control, and an agent for pregnancy abortion. Famed scholars ranging from Pliny the Elder to Herodotus to Theophrastus all wrote of Silphium’s legendary potency. Despite its widespread popularity, Silphium allegedly refused to grow anywhere aside from Cyrene. The colony became so closely identified with the plant that it appears on the settlement’s coins.

Silphium was Cyrene’s chief export. The plant was notoriously resistant to cultivation, and is believed to have been harvested to extinction within the first few centuries AD.

Silphium, here seen on Cyrene's coins, was the colony's chief export. The plant was notoriously resistant to cultivation, and is believed to have been harvested to extinction within the first few centuries AD.

Silphium was so strongly desired by various ancient civilizations that it was, at times, valued above currency. With some Romans contending that the plant was a gift from the god Apollo, its extinction was considered a great tragedy. Pliny even wrote that the last known Silphium plant was given to the Roman Emperor Nero himself.

An artifact from the 6th C believed to depict King Arcesilaus II of Cyrene overseeing the weighing of Silphium.

An artifact from the 6th century believed to depict King Arcesilaus II of Cyrene overseeing the weighing of Silphium.

The Egyptians shared the Romans’ veneration of the plant, associating its with human love and sexuality. The Egyptian glyph signifying the heart portion of the soul, in fact, may have been meant to picture the seed of the Silphium plant. This character, known to the Egyptians as Ib, is likely the origin of our modern heart symbol.

Here is an ancient Cyrene coin bearing the image of a Silphium seed. Its likeness both to the Egyptian Ib and, likewise, to the modern heart symbol is striking.

Here is an ancient Cyrene coin bearing the image of a Silphium seed. Its likeness both to the Egyptian Ib and to the modern heart symbol is striking.

While the world has been without Silphium and its powers for well over a millennium, our modern culture still bears its mark. Every time a love-dazed youth carves a heart into a tree or inserts a whimsical, heart-shaped emoticon into an online conversation, the plant that once commanded a king’s ransom is winking at us from the ghostly recesses of the Earth’s past. Like the Dodo bird that gave us an insult implying stupidity or the dinosaur that inhabits every child’s imagination, Silphium’s potency is strong enough to overcome the silencing power of extinction itself.

Some Further Reading:

Some information about Silphium’s possible use as birth control and an abortifacient

An article entitled “Abortion in the Ancient and Premodern World”

An article about ancient methods of measurement, including brief mention of Silphium from Cyrene

An essay addressing the five parts of the Egyptian soul, including Ib

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Who Built the Sphinx?

June 15, 2009 at 3:04 am (7 Wonders of the Ancient World, Egypt, The Agricultural Revolution, The Ancient World, The Ice Age) (, , , , , , )

The Great Sphinx of Giza is one of the most famous statues in the world, residing on the West bank of the Nile River near Cairo, Egypt. It measures 241 feet long by 65 feet high, making it the world’s largest known monolith. Along with the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx is part of the legendary Giza Necropolis.


Mainstream modern history contends that the Sphinx was constructed during the 3rd millennium BC under the Pharaoh Khafra. It is widely believed, in fact, that the Sphinx’s face bears an intentional likeness to that of Khafra. Others contend that the statue was built by Khafra’s father, the Pharaoh Khufu, and was merely repaired or modified by his son (who perhaps altered the statue’s face to resemble his own). Some alternative historians, however, have put forth the claim that the statue was originally built thousands of years prior to either of these Pharaohs, and is historically attributed to them due only to the modifications made to the Sphinx during their respective reigns.

A statue depicting Khafra, currently housed at the Egyptian Museum on Cairo.

A statue depicting Khafra, currently housed at the Egyptian Museum on Cairo.

The startling lack of any mention of the Sphinx’s construction in the written records of ancient Egypt is cited as evidence for this hypothesis. While the process of designing and building the Great Pyramids of Giza (built approximately contemporaneously, it is widely assumed, with the Sphinx) is extensively outlined in Egyptian records, the only mentions of the Sphinx regard repairs performed on the statue.

The Sphinx's nose is believed to have been carelessly shot off by French or British troops during the 19th century.

The Sphinx's nose is believed to have been carelessly shot off by French or British troops during the 19th century.

French Egyptologist R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz fist noted in the 1950s that the Spinx shows evidence of water erosion that could only have been caused by heavy rainfall over an extended period of time, or perhaps even exposure to flooding. This was a curious observation due to the fact that Cairo is located in a desert climate. The last time that this area of the world is believed to have experience rainfall sufficient to produce the erosion found on the Sphinx was immediately following the end of the last Ice Age about 10,000 – 12,000 years ago, a minimum of 7,000 years before the accepted start of Ancient Egyptian culture. Skeptics shoot down this theory by chalking up the Sphinx’s erosion to the result of acid rainfall or the weakness of the limestone from which the statue was built, and hold fast the the claim that the Sphinx is no older that 5,000 years.

The red areas of this map represent the "Fertile Crescent" where agriculture is believed to have originated about 10,000 years ago (8,000 BC), allowing for the first time in human history the development of sedentary communities. Northern Egypt is covered by the southwestern portion of the highlighted area.

The green areas of this map represent the "Fertile Crescent" where agriculture is believed to have originated about 10,000 years ago (8,000 BC), allowing for the first time in human history the development of sedentary communities. Northern Egypt is covered by the southwestern portion of the highlighted area.

If the Sphinx were in fact built more than 10,000 years ago, this means that it was constructed before the date currently associated with the widespread employment of agriculture, which has been historically equated with a sedentary lifestyle and thus the possibility of civic works. So, assuming (if only for argument’s sake) that the Sphinx was constructed shortly after the end of the last ice age, we must make one of two unprecedented allowances. Either a pre-agricultural “civilization” (I here include the word civilization within quotations because the word’s traditional definition implies a mastery of agriculture) somehow managed to build an astoundingly large and complex statue, or the agricultural revolution took place millennia earlier than it is widely believed to have done so. Perhaps a happy medium can be reached by allowing for the possibility that a culture dating earlier than 8,000 BC mastered agriculture (or at least horticulture) on a scale sufficient to sustain an advanced, sedentary lifestyle while avoiding the trend of expansive totalitarian agriculture. This would allow for the phenomenon to have remained confined within a limited geographical range while the rest of the pre-historic world led a nomadic, hunting-and-gathering existence, unaware of astonishing accomplishments of their North African neighbors.

Some Further Reading:

A site that explores the Sphinx’s origins as mystery

An article containing a cursory description of the Sphinx’s possible origins

An article contending that the Sphinx predates Ancient Egypt

An essay discussing the Sphinx’s possible origins

A brief description of totalitarian agriculture, a concept that I was originally introduced to by the author Daniel Quinn through his books Ishmael and The Story of B

An essay challenging the notion that the Sphinx significantly predates Khafra

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Earthquake Fish, Earthquake Weather, Earthquake Clouds, Earthquake Light

June 3, 2009 at 5:00 pm (Animals, Death, Fear, Geology, Meteorology, Modern World, Mythology, Technology, Tectonics, The Ancient World) (, , , , , , , , )

Appearing in ancient texts from many cultures across the globe, earthquakes have been a source of fear and speculation since time immemorial. With an average of 18 major temblors striking per year (mostly in the Pacific Ring of Fire), it is small wonder that this violent phenomenon has driven humans to desperate attempts at earthquake prediction. While few modern cultures accept, as some once did, that earthquakes are caused by celestial struggles or air trapped beneath the earth’s surface, many still point to early warning signs with origins in ancient mythology. The following earthquake prediction techniques are not supported by mainstream modern science, but are nonetheless widely embraced by individuals and organizations determined to gain a foothold against one of nature’s most destructive habits.

Earthquake Fish

Ribbon Fish

More commonly known as the ribbonfish, these oddly shaped creatures dwell at great depths and commonly measure up to 8 feet long. Taiwanese legend points to these slender fish when attempting to predict earthquakes, claiming that these deep-sea dwellers rise to the surface in the moments before a quake strikes. Modern seismology has shown no correlation between the activities of these fish and actual earthquakes.

Earthquake Weather

Some claim that the Loma Prieta earthquake that ravaged the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989 was preceded by "earthquake weather". This photograph depicts the part of the Bay Bridge that collapsed during the temblor, which was broadcast on live TV due to the fact that the San Francisco Giants were playing in the World Series at the time.

Some claim that the Loma Prieta earthquake that ravaged the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989 was preceded by "earthquake weather". This photograph depicts the part of the Bay Bridge that collapsed during the temblor, which was broadcast on live TV due to the fact that the San Francisco Giants were playing in the World Series at the time.

Perhaps the most prevalent folk superstition regarding earthquakes in the modern day United States, the notion of earthquake weather in Western culture dates at least as far back as Herodotus (486 BC – 425 BC). Aristotle wrote about this meteorological phenomenon as well, attributing earthquakes to subterranean winds. Warm, calm weather, he believed, would precede seismic activity. While modern seismologists dismiss this notion as foolish and unfounded, I have personally witnessed this widespread superstition in action. On one unseasonably warm afternoon in San Francisco I was warned by multiple people to be wary, for we were experiencing, they claimed, typical earthquake weather. Fortunately, that day ended without disaster.

Earthquake Clouds


Discussed by Indian scholar Daivajna Varāhamihira as early as the 6th century, peculiar cloud formations are believed by some to rapidly appear in anticipation of earthquakes. Similar observations have appeared in Chinese and European writings of antiquity. These long, slender clouds that have been likened to snakes are said to form in a matter of seconds, acting as a grim premonition to observers below. Modern seismologists are divided about the legitimacy of this prediction technique, which does, at least superficially, seem to show some semblance of legitimacy. These clouds, it is hypothesized, correspond to temperature changes along fault lines that can accompany increased seismic activity and the eruption of heated gasses. The thermodynamic mechanisms by which terrestrial temperature changes affect cloud formation, however, have still yet to be demonstrated in a way that satisfies the scientific community. Until this can be successfully done, earthquake clouds will remain relegated to the realm of superstition.

Earthquake Light


This beautiful luminescence was spotted in the sky over Tianshui, Gansu province about 30 minutes before the Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008.

Similar in appearance to the polar aurorae (borealis and austrialis), earthquake light is said to include a wider range of colors. Having been embraced as a harbinger of earthquakes since ancient Greece, several 20th century earthquakes have, many claim, been preceded by these beautiful lights. Minutes before an earthquake struck the Sichuan province of China in 2008, cell phone video footage of these lights was uploaded to the website Skeptics contend that these lights were merely the result of sunlight refracted by atmospheric moisture. Neuroscientist Michael Persinger has attempted to explain these mysterious lights through his Tectonic Strain Theory, which links seismic activity to electromagnetic fields that can be misinterpreted by human cognition as lights or even UFOs.

While each of these prediction techniques has its fervent proponents, evidence for their reliability is not sufficient enough for them to be employed by the United States Geological Survey Earthquake Hazards Program. This does little, however, to dissuade individuals from looking to ancient wisdom for comfort in the face of a violent force so overwhelmingly powerful that it effortlessly causes the world’s most developed nations to grovel before it in fear. This speaks to the common occurrence of drastic emotion overriding and even dashing to bits all the pristine knowledge of the academic ivory tower. In the face of violent death, sometimes there is only the terrified individual against an indifferent quagmire of external forces.

Some Further Reading:

A frequently updated site tracking earthquake clouds

The United States Geological Survey’s homepage for earthquake information

An article exploring many facets of earthquake clouds

A brief look at the Tectonic Strain Theory

The National Earthquake Information Center

An article proposing a scientific explanation for earthquake lights

A video depicted the earthquake lights that purportedly predicted the Sichuan quake of 2008

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The Baghdad Batteries: Were Babylonians able to generate electricity in 250 BC?

May 28, 2009 at 4:06 pm (Metallurgy, Technology, The Ancient World, The Arab World) (, , , , , , , , )


In the mid 1930s a series of curious objects, believed to date from the 3rd century BC, were unearthed in Khujut Rabu, near Baghdad. These earthenware jars, measuring about 5 inches high, contained copper cylinders and iron rods. This strange group of objects, not given any special attention, found its way into the collection of the National Museum of Iraq. It was not until several years later that Wilhelm Konig, the museum’s director, came across these jars and pieces of metal and, upon analyzing them, drew a startling conclusion.


In 1940 Konig published a paper contending that when the pieces of these artifacts were fitted together correctly and the jars were filled with an acidic solution, they formed functional electrochemical cells capable of generating electricity. While modern historians attribute the invention of the battery to Italian physicist Alessandro Volta in 1800, Volta may have simply recreated a 2,000 year-old lost technology. (Cultures dating as far back as 2,750 BC made written mention of electricity, although only regarding electricity that occurs naturally. It wasn’t until the 17th and 18th centuries that serious academic inquiries into electricity were conducted by Western scientists, notably William Gilbert and Benjamin Franklin.)

Volta’s early “Voltaic pile” battery consisted of copper and zinc rods separated by pieces of cloth soaked in brine. When several of these units were piled atop one another and connected end-to-end by a wire, an electrical current flowed.

Volta’s early “Voltaic pile” battery consisted of copper and zinc rods separated by pieces of cloth soaked in brine. When several of these units were piled atop one another and connected end-to-end by a wire, an electrical current flowed.

The Baghdad batteries, Konig believed, worked in the same way as the Voltaic pile. This theory is supported by the fact that the iron rods discovered inside the earthenware jars do in fact show evidence of acidic corrosion, perhaps having been submerged in vinegar. Konig suggested that when the iron rods were inserted into the copper cylinders, fitted into the jars’ mouths with asphalt stoppers, and the jars were filled with vinegar, the resulting cells were in fact capable of producing an electrical current. This claim was proved in 1940 by Willard F. M. Gray of the General Electric High Voltage Laboratory in Pittsfield, MA. Making an exact replica of the devices unearthed at Khujut Rabu and using a copper sulfite solution, Gray generated a half a volt of electricity.


Later experiments using grape juice and vinegar produced similar results. Even the popular television program Mythbusters successfully recreated Gray’s experiment in 2005. While the voltage generated by these batteries is meager (never more than 1V), it has been hypothesized that if several of them were wired together as were the zinc and copper rods in Voltaic piles, higher voltage could be achieved.

Here is a reproduction of a Baghdad battery connected to a multimeter.

Here is a reproduction of a Baghdad battery connected to a multimeter.

Konig cited examples of artifacts electroplated with gold, dating from the same era as the batteries, as evidence of the use of low-voltage electricity in the 3rd century BC. By negatively charging a piece of metal with an electrical current and submerging it in a solution of metal salt, it becomes coated with a layer of positive metal ions. This technique has been used, for example, in the process of gold plating. Gold-coated Egyptian artifacts dating contemporaneously with the Baghdad batteries might support this interpretation of the batteries’ use.

A summary of the conclusions drawn by the television program Mythbusters, regarding possible uses of the Baghdad batteries.

A summary of the conclusions drawn by the television program Mythbusters, regarding possible uses of the Baghdad batteries.

In the years since Konig published his paper in 1940, there has been much debate about the batteries in the scientific community. With some factions contending that the notion of ancient electricity is farcical and others going so far as to claim that the Baghdad batteries explain the legendary powers of the Biblical Ark of the Covenant, a wide range of viewpoints have been expressed. Since ancient texts never explicitly confirm knowledge of usable electrical energy, modern historians are doomed to continue speculating about the role, if any at all, that controlled electricity played in ancient Babylonia. But when pondering objects that have the potential to drastically redefine our conception of ancient history, as with the Piri Reis map discussed in a previous entry, an open mind is certainly the most suitable tool.

Some Further Reading:

The Baghdad Batteries on

The Baghdad Batteries on the UnMuseum

A description of how electroplating works

Some information about Alessandro Volta and his accomplishments

A history of batteries, complete with a timeline

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Deadly Nightshade

May 27, 2009 at 4:51 pm (Aesthetics, Botany, Drugs, Health and Medicine, Murder, Mythology, Poison, The Ancient World, The Occult) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )


Deadly nightshade, alternatively known as belladonna, is an herbaceous plant found in North America, Europe, and Asia. A delicate-looking, beautiful plant with a legendary potency, its role in history has stemmed primarily from the effects of chemicals naturally occurring in the plant, which include the hallucinogenic toxin scopolamine. It is also from the berries of deadly nightshade that the drug atropine, included on the World Health Organizations Essential Drugs list, is derived.

Deadly nightshade was dubbed Atropa belladonna by Carl Linnaeus, the father of binomial nomenclature, in his 1753 book Species Planatarum.

Deadly nightshade was dubbed “Atropa belladonna” by Carl Linnaeus, the father of binomial nomenclature, in his 1753 book Species Planatarum.

The plant’s genus, Atropa, comes from the name of the Greek Fate Atropos, who was believed to wield scissors that could cut short the thread of human life. This is a reference to the severe toxicity of the plant’s berries, a handful of which, if eaten, can plunge an adult into a nightmare of confused convulsions and hallucinations, followed by a torturous death. Extract from the plant has, according to legend, been used as a poison since ancient times. Macbeth, King of Scots from 1040 – 1057, was rumored to use atropine as a sedative and poison to surreptitiously best his foes. There have also been reports of deadly nightshade being employed by torturers, who used it to disorient and weaken their unfortunate subject.

The three Moirai, or Fates, of Greek mythology. Atropos is pictured in the center holding her “abhorred shears”.

The three Moirai, or Fates, of Greek mythology. Atropos is pictured in the center holding her “abhorred shears”.

The toxic nature of the chemicals contained in deadly nightshade is such that, in small doses, parts of the plant have been historically used recreationally and spiritually to induce hallucinations, perhaps most notable by European witches and shamans in their notorious “flying ointments”. The chemicals scopolamine and atropine can, according to shamanistic lore, create the sensation of physical flight (along with a host of other hallucinations and delusions) when ingested orally or applied to the skin in ointment form. A tincture of deadly nightshade was also purportedly drunk by ancient Greeks who visited the legendary Oracle of Delphi, in order to induce prophetic visions.

An ancient depiction of the Oracle of Delphi giving a mystical consultation.

An ancient depiction of the Oracle of Delphi giving a mystical consultation.

The history of deadly nightshafe, one concerned both with death and with a heightened experience of life, speaks to the dichotomous nature of this powerful plant. Even its two most common names, deadly nightshade and belladonna, associate the plant first with death and darkness, and second with feminine beauty. Perhaps these contrasting interpretations are not separated by an unbridgeable gap, but are rather two poles of one notion. It could be that the seductive nature of this plant, which can cause spiritual visions, is amplified by its potentially fatal potency. This combination of erotic and thanatopic qualities is reminiscent, appropriately enough, of the Greek Fates themselves – three women who determine the course of mortal life through enchanting song, weave the course of events into an unchangeable fabric, and finally cut the life thread short.

Some Further Reading:’s entry on Deadly Nightshade

An inquiry into flying ointments’s page devoted to Belladonna’s entry dedicated to atropine

A large collection of information regarding the Moirai (Greek Fates)

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The Cryptocartography of Piri Reis

May 25, 2009 at 3:03 pm (Cartography, Military, Nautical, Technology, The Ancient World, The Arab World) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


Hadji Muhiddin Piri Ibn Hadji Mehmed, better known as Piri Reis, was a Turkish admiral and cartographer who produced many historically important and remarkably accurate maps of the Mediterranean during the first half of the 16th century. Perhaps his most famous map, drawn in 1513, is known as the First World Map. This map has been the subject of much speculation and contention due to some of its striking and peculiar characteristics, specifically its depiction of South America and what may be Antarctica.


Drawn on gazelle skin and measuring 90 cm x 63 cm , the map was lost to the world until its rediscovery in 1929 in Istanbul’s Topkapı Palace, a discovery that has sparked decades of debate. Text on the map states that Reis drew it based largely on ancient cartographical information that he gathered from other maps drawn by Roman cartographer and all-around Renaissance man Claudius Ptolemaeus (better known as Ptolomy) who lived during the 2nd century AD. (Ptolomy, it should be noted, introduced the use of longitude and latitude, which are essential tools of modern cartography). Reis also drew information from Indian, Portuguese, and Arabic maps, and even a map drawn by Christopher Columbus. Some of his source maps, historians speculate, were derived from those housed in the legendary Library of Alexandria before it burned in 48 BC, depriving the modern world of incalculable volumes of ancient knowledge.

Synthesizing information from such diverse sources, Reis compiled one of the most accurate world maps of the 16th century. Here is an illustration of the remarkable precision with which the First World Map depicts the eastern coast of South America.


What makes this map truly fascinating, however, is the land mass depicted to the lower right. While some claim that is it a misplaced representation of Patagonia, others contend that it is in fact the coastline of Antarctica. This latter interpretation has forced historians to drastically reconsider the timeline of ancient geographical knowledge.


If the First World Map does indeed depict Antarctica, this invalidates the widely held assumption that humans first discovered Antarctica in 1820 when a Russian expedition stumbled upon the massive continent. Even more startling, however, is that fact that the area of Antarctica purportedly shown on the map, known as the Princess Martha Coast, has been covered by large sheets of ice, measuring a mile thick, for over 6,000 years. The U.S. Navy Hydrographic Bureau has employed modern technology to peer beneath this cover of ice and map the actual coastline, and has found that the First World Map depicts it with startling accuracy. Here is a letter from Air Force Commander Harold Z. Ohlmeyer to Charles H Hapgood, an expert who has written extensively about Piri Reis, regarding the map’s accuracy:

“6, July, 1960

Subject: Admiral Piri Reis Map

TO: Prof. Charles H. Hapgood
Keene College
Keene, New Hampshire

Dear Professor Hapgood,

Your request of evaluation of certain unusual features of the Piri Reis map of 1513 by this organization has been reviewed. The claim that the lower part of the map portrays the Princess Martha Coast of Queen Maud Land, Antarctic, and the Palmer Peninsular, is reasonable. We find that this is the most logical and in all probability the correct interpretation of the map. The geographical detail shown in the lower part of the map agrees very remarkably with the results of the seismic profile made across the top of the ice-cap by the Swedish-British Antarctic Expedition of 1949. 
This indicates the coastline had been mapped before it was covered by the ice-cap. The ice-cap in this region is now about a mile thick. We have no idea how the data on this map can be reconciled with the supposed state of geographical knowledge in 1513.

Harold Z. Ohlmeyer Lt. Colonel, USAF Commander”

Could it be possible that an ancient thalassocracy, unknown to modern historians, discovered and mapped in great detail the coastline of Antarctica 6,000 or more years ago, and then passed this information down through the millennia until it found its way into the Library of Alexandria only to be fortuitously reproduced before it would have otherwise been forever lost upon the library’s destruction? While many modern academics dismiss this theory as fantastical poppycock, I cannot bring myself to discard the possibility that ancient civilizations were advanced in ways that would astound us if only their accomplishments hadn’t been lost to the great eraser of time.

Some Further Reading:

Here is an extensive look at the controversies surrounding the map

A site devoted to the history of polar discovery

A blog that links to many interesting sites concerning cartography

A bit about the tragic destruction of the Library of Alexandria

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