Vikings

Vikings: They Did a Lot More Than Loot and Pillage

They were the bad boys of early Medieval Europe. From the pulpits of all of Europe and even farther came the prayer “A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine”—“From the fury of the Norsemen, O Lord deliver us.” Sailing out of Scandinavia, they occupied large parts of Britain, Ireland, France (surely you’ve heard of Normandy), Ukraine, Russia, and Italy. They formed an elite regiment in Constantinople, where they were called the Varangian Guard.

They just happened to be the first Europeans to set foot in the Americas some half a millennium before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. They had a settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, which they abandoned only after constant warfare with the Skrælings (Indians).

We call them Vikings, but for them the word was a verb, not a noun. Most of the dread Norsemen raiders were farmers who would “go viking” when their short growing season was over. They were, in effect, part time terrorists.

Also, they just happened to create a great literature in the sagas, particularly those created in Iceland in the 13th century. They included such works as:

  • Njúls Saga,, the greatest of them all, about revenge that gets out of hand
  • Egils Saga, about the bard Egil Skallagrímsson
  • Laxdæla Saga, with its female heroine Guðrun
  • Eyrbiggja Saga, with its berserkers (yes, they actually existed)
  • Grettirs Saga, about a famous outlaw warrior

These were probably the best works of literature to come out of Europe in the period in which they were written. They are all available in excellent translations from Penguin Books.

Incidentally, as a French woman of Norman heritage, my Martine is herself a Viking.

Glorious [Bang!] 4th

We Celebrate Our Independence by Playing at Terrorism

As I write these words, the air is full of explosions. Dogs and cats are whimpering as they hide under beds, tortured by their pet-loving owners who celebrate our independence with backyard barbecues and playing at being terrorists. I’m not sure that many Americans are giving any attention to the Declaration of Independence from King George III.

Ultimately we got our independence, but mainly because of help from France. You can read all you want about American history and not find a word about George Washington ever winning a battle. France helped us at a horrible cost to the French monarchy: their assistance bankrupted the treasury and was a major contributor to the French Revolution, which began shortly after we won our independence. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette paid for helping us by being publicly beheaded in Paris’s Place de Grève.

Ingrates that we are, we tend to downplay the French role in winning our freedom. When the British under Cornwallis were tied up at Yorktown, it was because Admiral François Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse, Marquis of Grasse-Tilly was backing up the Continental Army led by Washington and Lafayette.

Don’t think I’m feasting on escargots, Coquilles Saint-Jacques, and Pouilly-Fuissé because of this. I’m not celebrating at all, especially as it sounds like my street is being bombed.

Mission Creep

Mission Santa Barbara

California has given birth to many beautiful myths. Unfortunately, they frequently have little bearing on the actual history of the Golden State. For instance, the twenty-one Franciscan missions founded by Father Junipero Serra—who has been canonized a saint by Pope Francis in 2015—are among the most peaceful places I have ever visited. Yet they were little more than rural concentration camps in which thousands of Californian Indians found their way to early graves.

If you look at a map of the mission location, you will find that they are all strung out like so many pearls along the Camino Réal closely following the coastline. Indians who dwelt close to the coast were rounded up and assigned as peons to the various missions, where they were worked to death. During the heyday of the missions from 1769 to 1834, some 53,600 adult Indians were baptized, and 37,000 were buried.

The Graveyard of the Santa Barbara Mission

Visiting the Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez missions, I was stunned to find that the postage-stamp-sized cemeteries adjoining the missions held 3,936 and 1,227 bodies respectively. Why is this? The Indians attached to the missions (they were not allowed to leave) were essentially overworked and underfed. When they lived in the missions, the Indians lived in permanent adobe structures that were infested with fleas. Young Indian maidens were treated as nuns and confined to barracks in which the rooms were 50 feet long by 21 feet wide with bunks ranged around the walls. A single high window provided the only ventilation, while the center of the room was an improvised sewer or latrine.

According to Carey McWilliams in Southern California Country: An Island on the Land:

To understand what conversion meant to the Indian, it should be remembered that the process of Missionization necessitated a sudden transition from the settled, customary existence of the Indian in a small rancheria or village to the almost urban conditions that prevailed in the larger Mission establishments. The change … must have come as a deep mental shock to the Indian.

As much as I respect much of Catholic teaching from my long education in religious elementary and high schools, I cannot condone many practices of the past, such as the Inquisition and the treatment of native peoples in the missions.

A Little Man With a Big Nose

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

I have just finished reading Laura Dassow Walls’s Henry David Thoreau: A Life. As I have mentioned before, I don’t usually like biographies, because if you admire the person who is the subject of them, you are devastated when he or she dies in the last chapter. Sitting in my little library, I was devastated when the American I most loved and admired succumbed to consumption at the age of forty-four.

Everyone knows a little about Thoreau, most of it wrong. When I first read the book, I was told by friends that when he moved to his cabin by the shores of Walden Pond, Thoreau “cheated.” What kind of a hermit was he when he spent a lot of time in Concord with his friends. The answer is: He was no kind of a hermit. The first chapter of Walden, or Life in the Woods is entitled “Economy,” not some eremitical mumbo-jumbo.

Long after he returned to his house in Concord, Thoreau lived an active life giving speeches, writing thousands of pages of notes on nature, fulminating against slavery (his house was a station on the Underground Railroad), and supporting John Brown and his followers even after Brown was executed for his raid on Harper’s Ferry. He had read and understood Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, even while thousands of Americans condemned it as heretical.

I love the above photograph of Thoreau, which also is on the dust jacket of Laura Walls’s biography. Look at those piercing blue eyes. The scraggly beard was to warm his neck to protect him from the ravages of consumption.

This biography is nothing less than spectacular. I was saddened to come to the end of it.

Why do I admire Thoreau so much? I can only say that he was one of the most observant people who ever lived, easily on a par with John Muir and Charles Darwin. It was Thoreau’s notion of land set aside from human occupation as “commons” which led, via Muir, to the creation of the National Park System. Also, I regard Walden as a great book in a century that included such luminaries as Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman.

Now I’m going to have to read some more Thoreau. Lucky me!

In the Court of the Lion of Judah

The Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, the Lion of Judah

He was short and somewhat frail, yet Haile Selassie managed to reign as Emperor of Ethiopia for some 44 years, from 1930 to 1974, when his government was toppled by a revolution. Although his book about Selassie, entitled The Emperor, has come under fire for certain inaccuracies, Ryszard Kapuściński leaves us an unforgettable portrait which is probably mostly true. Take, for instance, the following excerpt:

His Majesty spent the hour between nine and ten in the morning handing out assignments in the Audience Hall, and thus this time was called the Hour of Assignments. The Emperor would enter the Hall, where a row of waiting dignitaries, nominated for assignment, bowed humbly. His Majesty would take his place on the throne, and when he had seated himself I would slide a pillow under his feet. This had to be done like lightning so as not to leave Our Distinguished Monarch’s legs hanging in the air for even a moment. We all know that His Highness was of small stature. At the same time, the dignity of the Imperial Office required that he be elevated above his subjects, even in a strictly physical sense. Thus the Imperial thrones had long legs and high seats, especially those left by Emperor Menelik, an exceptionally tall man. Therefore a contradiction arose between the necessity of a high throne and the figure of His Venerable Majesty, a contradiction most sensitive and troublesome precisely in the region of the legs, since it is difficult to imagine that an appropriate dignity can be maintained by a person whose legs are dangling in the air like those of a small child. The pillow solved this delicate and all-important conundrum.

I was His Most Virtuous Highness’s pillow bearer for twenty-six years. I accompanied His Majesty on travels all around the world, and to tell the truth—I say it with pride—His Majesty could not go anywhere without me, since his dignity required that he always take his place on a throne, and he could not sit on a throne without a pillow, and I was the pillow bearer. I had mastered the special protocol of this specialty, and even possessed an extremely useful, expert knowledge: the height of various thrones. This allowed me quickly to choose a pillow of just the right size, so that a shocking ill fit, allowing a gap to appear between the pillow and the Emperor’s shoes, would not occur. I had fifty-two pillows of various sizes, thicknesses, materials, and colors. I personally monitored their storage, constantly, so that fleas—the plague of our country—would not breed there, since the consequences of any such oversight could lead to a very unpleasant scandal.

Tiwanaku

Tiwanaku: Gate of the Sun

I must think I’m going to live forever.Trapped in my apartment during the quarantine, I am thinking more and more about returning to Peru and including the altiplano of Bolivia. Here I am at age 76, thinking of a strenuous trip at high altitude to one of the most fascinating (albeit difficult) places on Earth.

In 2014, I spent some time on the western shore of Lake Titicaca, on the Peru side. I even took a tour on a launch to Isla Taquile and one of the Uros Isles, but as the boat left the dock, I discovered that I was beginning to suffer the effects of food poisoning. The former afternoon at Sillustani, I ate something in a farmer’s house that violently disagreed with me. What is more, I was hours away from a toilet. Under the circumstances, I was not able to appreciate the beauties of Lake Titicaca, and in fact I took no pictures that day.

Map of Lake Titicaca, Showing the Location of Tiwanaku at Lower Right

Just as I returned to Tierra Del Fuego after breaking my shoulder there in 2006, I plan on returning to the Peruvian side of the lake, and adding some parts of Bolivia to the mix. I find myself suddenly interested in the Aymara-speaking peoples of the Andes.

A funny thing happened to me in Puno during my last visit. It was a bitterly cold morning, as it frequently is at that altitude (12,000 feet or 3,700 meters). I had neglected to bring a scarf with me, and I badly needed one. Enter a poor Aymara woman laden down with hand-knitted handicrafts. I walked up to her and brought a beautiful scarf at a reasonable price. Apparently, I made that woman’s day. She broke into a big smile and was almost prepared to welcome me into her family.

Over a thousand years ago, there was an Aymara empire centered at Tiwanaku in modern-day Bolivia. It lasted until AD 1100 when a massive and persistent drought led to a drop in the level of Lake Titicaca, leaving the Aymara fields high and dry. Hundreds of years later, the Inca took over; but their empire was short-lived once the Spanish conquistadores began to move in.

Walls of the Kalasaya Complex at Tiwanaku

Since the eco-catastrophe that destroyed the Aymara empire a thousand years ago, the Aymara have become a scattered people indulging in subsistence agriculture and the herding of llamas and alpacas.

Cerro Rico

The Cerro Rico, or “Rich Hill,” in San Luis Potosí, Bolivia

One thinks of mines as delving deep into the earth. The silver mines at Cerro Rico in San Luis Potosí, Bolivia, are no exception—except for one little fact: The mines are at an altitude of 15,000 feet plus (4,700 meters), high enough that the miners must chew coca leaves so that they could work without the debilitating effects of soroche, acute mountain sickness.

In his book Valley of the Spirits: A Journey into the Lost Realm of the Aymara, Alan L. Kolata writes:

Silver was the prize that inspired unbridled lust in the Europeans who conquered the Andean world in the sixteenth century. The frenzy for veins of silver from the majestic Andes destroyed whole nations of Indians. After decades of warfare, pestilence and famine, the ravaged native populations were subjugated into slave labor in the hellish mines of Potosí in southern Bolivia. Desperate for laborers to work the fabulously rich deposits, Spanish overlords laid claim to the traditional laborers, the mit’a, that the Indian nations rendered to their native monarchs. More than one-seventh of the native population between Cuzco in southern Peru and Tarija in southern Bolivia were pressed into service in the mines of Potosí. Conditions in the mines were bestial. Even the Spanish dogs of war were treated with more compassion than the native conscripts who died in unremembered numbers.

“Conditions in the Mines Were [and Are] Bestial”

They still are bestial. The Cerro Rico is still being mined, though with diminishing rewards. Between the 16th and the 18th century, 80% of the world’s silver supply came from this mine. According to Wikipedia:

After centuries of extractive mining methods that severely damaged the local ecology the mountain continues to be mined for silver to this day. Due to poor worker conditions, such as a lack of protective equipment against the constant inhalation of dust, many of the miners contract silicosis and have a life expectancy of around 40 years. The mountain is still a significant contributor to the city’s economy, employing some 15,000 miners.

According to the Lonely Planet guidebook for Bolivia, it is possible to tour the mines, though I seriously doubt the sanity of travelers who make the attempt.

The silver mined at Potosí was sent by caravan to Lima, Peru, from where it was transshipped from the Port of Callao to Panama, portaged across the isthmus to Colón, and placed on Spanish treasure ships bound for Spain. Many of those ships never made it, being sunk by Atlantic storms and pirates.

And the upshot? For all the gold and silver went into financing Spain’s wars, which were generally mishandled. In the end, Spain was taken by Napoleon who put an end to the Spanish monarchy of the time.

How Do I Ignore an Insurrection?

Oh, Are They Still Fighting That War?

You know that, when the Confederate Battle Flag comes out of the mothballs, that nothing good is going to happen. I wonder what Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson would think of the tattooed monkeys and other deplorables that descended on the nation’s capital yesterday.

I know that I promised not to write political posts any more, but I would like to say a few words about the events of January 6 and why it was such a miserable failure.

Adolph Hitler was nobody’s idea of a capable leader, but he had one quality that the Trumpster lacked. He had more or less capable chiefs at his side that he stood with for the whole duration of his rule. I include Joseph Göbbels, Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, Albert Speer, and Martin Bormann. Of course, Ernst Röhm of the SA didn’t last out the war, nor did Rudolf Hess—but for the most part, the Führer didn’t change his subordinates as often as he changed his underwear.

Hitler Did Know How to Hang On to “Good” People

Trump, on the other hand, couldn’t abide anyone for more than a few weeks. Then he would part company with them and make noises about never really knowing them that well. When he said that about Steve Bannon or his ex-attorney Michael Cohen, he thought it made him look good. Actually, it showed that he was an ingrate who couldn’t interact well with his subordinates. (Or that he didn’t choose them well to begin with.)

In a way, that’s good. If one has a malignant narcissist leading your country, you don’t want him to be all that effective. At least the Capitol Building is still standing, more or less.

L.A. in the Civil War

Docent at Wilmington’s Drum Barracks (2008)

Southern California was separated from the main battlefields of the Civil War by thousands of miles, yet it was contested territory. The California State Legislature was a hotbed of secessionism, and there was talk of separating the state into two halves, with the southern half being part of the Confederate States of America.

Two military officers stationed in the area became major players in the East: Albert Sidney Johnston becoming a general for the Confederacy, and Winfield Scott Hancock for the Union.

Winfield Scott Hancock, One of the Heroes of Gettysburg

Fortunately for the Union, there was a strong cadre of Yankee sympathizers in town. These included Phineas Banning, responsible for building the Port of Los Angeles; District Attorney Ezra Drown; rancher Jonathan Warner; and publisher Charles Conway.

The only remaining military facility from those days is in Wilmington—the Drum Barracks, just south of Phineas Banning’s palatial estate.

Los Angeles in 1861

If you’d like to read a more detailed account of how L.A. fared during the Civil War, with numerous photos, I recommend you check out this website from TV station KCET, entitled “We Have Been and Are Yet Secessionist”—Los Angeles When the Civil War Began.

It Goes Way Back…

The Roman Senate in Session

Lest you think that what is befalling the United States at present is of recent vintage, I urge you to consider the two great parties of the Roman Republic around 130 BC. There were two main political parties, the optimates (“the best ones”) and the populares (“favoring the people”). The former—consisting of members of the senatorial class and large landowners—were united in opposition to the tribunes Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and his younger brother Caius Sempronius Gracchus. According to Wikipedia:

For about 80 years, Roman politics was marked by the confrontation of these two factions. The Optimates favoured the ancestral Roman laws and customs, as well as the supremacy of the Senate over the popular assemblies and the tribunes of the plebs. They also rejected the massive extension of Roman citizenship to Rome’s Italian allies advocated by the Populares.

How familiar it all seems today! The Republicans, whose entire political platform could be expressed in the phrase “I got mine,” are fearful and apprehensive that the unwashed Democrats and their immigrant allies want a share of their wealth. Like the Optimates, the Republicans are “the best ones,” so whatever they do to hold on to power is quite all right with them.

Yesterday, I ran into an elderly woman at the Farmers Market on Fairfax who was a virulent Trump supporter. She thought that the black and other unwashed Barbarian hordes were after her money. I didn’t bother to try reasoning with her, because she was beyond reason. So I merely insulted her, as did the Afro-American gentleman who was in line with me.

I always thought that the nice thing about having money is being able to spend it in interesting ways. Not necessarily so! At some point, this woman inherited some money, problem from her late husband and decided to build an impregnable fortress around the proceeds against me and my kind.