Fiery Serpents

February 17, 2022

Marcel Mauss asserted that a “myth is the mesh of a spider’s web, not a dictionary entry.” I agree, and have lately been following threads of a particular geophysical myth-mesh to some pretty far out corners of the web.

Early yesterday morning, for instance, I watched a short, jaw-unhinging documentary by Karen Kramer called The Jolo Serpent-Handlers (just wait until you get to the bit where a guy named Dewey Chafin, who survives an agonizing night – surrounded by a shouting, dancing, electric-guitar-twanging prayer vigil – after being bitten on the arm by a black rattlesnake [Crotalus horridus, probably] during a ceremony, admits it was the 68th time, over 28 years, that it had happened). And in the afternoon, in hot pursuit of the heraldic origin of the biscione, I set off across Mediolanum to visit the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio for a look at what was once purported to be the bronze serpent that Moses, per God’s specific instructions (see Numbers 21: 4-9), carried through the desert exodus on a pole to heal snakebitten Israelites who stared it in the eyes.

Admittedly, I’m less interested in puzzling through the seemingly contradictory position staked out by the Old Testament Lord and His lawgiver with respect to other idols (e.g., the Golden Calf) than in the fact that there is, to this day, a goddamn snake on a pillar in the middle of one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in Europe. I mean, this is where Ambrose converted Augustine, for chrissakes.

Whatever its actual provenance (the Byzantine Emperor Basil II is supposed to have presented it to HRE Otto II in 1000 AD as a gift wrapped in the Moses story) – and even counterbalanced, as it currently is, with a 19th-century cross on a pillar opposite the nave from the snake – the bronze is a deeply weird echo of ancient ophiolatry and of early Neoplatonisms and Gnosticisms that jockeyed for primacy with Arianism and the Nicene creed in the Paleochristian era. “A very obscure sect,” is how Origen described the Ophites. And how. Not just in terms of, ah, origin, but motive, method. And, as Roberto Calasso points out in the wonderful second chapter of his Tiepolo Pink, whom are we even talking about when we talk about the Ophites? “Cainites, the Perates, the Sethites, the Barbelo-Gnostics, the Severians, the Nicolaitans, the Archontics? No answer is given.” But I have, as usual, my suspicions.

Herpetological Footnote

February 6, 2022

When I wrote in the previous post that I don’t have “any especial herpetological interests”, I meant: except for Komodo dragons.*

A Komodo dragon can run down a deer over short distances. They’re cannibalistic, and fight each other standing upright like goddamn Sleestaks. They wear bonemail armor (osteoderms) under their hides. Their mouths are full of sepsis-inducing bacteria to which they themselves are miraculously immune. They can unhinge their lower jaws and consume 75% of their body weight in a single meal. They can swim in the ocean, climb trees, subsist on as few as twelve meals a year, and reproduce by means of parthenogenesis. And oh, yeah. They hunt in groups. The idea that there are thousands of these creatures – some ten feet long and weighing more than 150 lbs – creeping around the Lesser Sunda Islands of Indonesia is nightmarish. Imagine being a Homo floresiensis settler there 200,000 years ago, when darkness was truly dark, sitting inside a shallow cave and realizing your terrible terrible mistake.

*And maybe dragons more generally.

In 2015, my sister and I dragged our then-seventy-three-year-old mother to the ruined fort atop Dinas Emrys to try waking up the dragons asleep beneath the hill. My mom stood well back. You know, just in case. Afterward, something interesting happened. Standing over the foundation of a collapsed tower (pictured here), we started hearing two voices conversing in Welsh. It came as quite a surprise, given that we hadn’t seen anyone in the surrounding woods, or on the (only) trail up, or on the summit as we circumnavigated the ruins. So I ran around the hilltop trying to figure out where they were coming from, but didn’t find a soul. What I did see was an open cave mouth where it hadn’t been ten minutes earlier, in a shady depression beneath the circle of tumbled stones in which the dragons were supposedly confined in 100 AD.

A year later, in the Lake District near High Tilberthwaite, Jay Owens led me to a cavelet she and Ella Saitta had found with a curled dragon made of slate inside, beside a scratched stone reading: WAYNE WAS TASTY. The, ah, long tail of the summoning?

Union of the Snake

February 6, 2022

For a guy without ophiolatrous leanings, or even any especial herpetological interests, I have a lot of snake stories. Weirdly many of them about near-fateful encounters I’ve had with extremely dangerous species. The time, when I was wee, my mother St. Georged a water moccasin that had coiled beneath me on my swing (thanks, mom!). The time I crawled headfirst into a dark shaft beneath the Casa Grande domes without a headlamp and stopped – for no perceptible reason – with my face just inches short of a sleeping rattlesnake.* The time a different rattlesnake bit me on the foot as I waded through waist-high scrub in shorts while bush-running a string of small peaks in the San Bernardinos. Bruno Ganz’s admonition that “only double knots will last” may have saved my life there – or, at the very least, my leg – when the snake’s fangs got snarled in the twice-tied laces of my Asics.

I’ve handled snakes, let them lick my face, and even encircle my body (which reminds me of an elderly, white-afroed Black man I once saw sitting on a stool at Venice Beach, talking on his phone, encircled by three albino pythons; “No photos,” he told me). Deb Chachra and I once threw sleeping bags down in the dune sea that envelops the US-Mexico border near Yuma and slept under the Milky Way. The next morning, we saw evidence that at least one shovel-nosed snake (Chionactis annulata annulata? Chionactis occipitalis occipitalis?) had swum through the sand beneath us in the night, like a baby Shai-Hulud.

I won’t go on, but could.

I mention all of this because I have, while overturning figurative (and actual) rocks in the first few weeks of my PhD, somehow already been surprised by a snake – a fantastically huge one, undulating back through spacetime from the oil fields of eastern Oklahoma to the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (née Southern Death Cult) mounds of the New Madrid Seismic Zone, into penumbral prehistory, of the Early Woodland and even darker, deeper time. I’m supposed to be writing about Gravitational Minimalism for a seminar talk I’ll give in two weeks at University College Dublin, but all I really want to think about these days is snakes.

*Come to think of it, for years, every time I crawled into holes in the ground in the desert southwest I was confronted by sentinel serpents. A run of ill luck interrupted in one notable instance when a growling mountain lion inhabited the cave instead.

At Play in the Magnetic Fields of the Lord

February 2, 2022

Astroeremology is something I’ve had an armchair interest in for a number of years. Back when I first started nosing around it, bouncing ideas off PSU professors like Alex Ruzicka, I was quite taken with one geologic mystery of Mars in particular. Are any of you are familiar with the magnetic lineations the Mars Global Surveyor detected back in 1997? They’re similar – in appearance, at least – to the ones found in the Earth’s crust that led to the discovery of sea floor spreading: evidence that greatly strengthened the theory of plate tectonics. As I’m sure you’re all aware, the notion of any similar activity on Mars, even historically, is a controversial one. And given how long ago the Martian planetary dynamo shut down, the stripes there probably do tell a different geologic story. I mean, they might be hotspot artifacts or some other relic of ancient plate tectonics. Personally, though, although it may only be my chronic impishness flaring up, I agree with Ruzicka’s hypothesis that at least some of those lineations are magnetic paleodunes.

I realize this notion is complicated by a number of unanswered questions – e.g., Could highly magnetized ores be formed by eolian deposition? And even if they could, how might that happen in the absence of an atmospheric water cycle like Earth’s? &c.

I had an idea about this, based on the following (quite possibly bone-headed) assumptions: 1. Eolian deposition is routine on Mars. 2. Some sand dunes lithify. 3. Not all dunes that lithify need to do so in the context of precipitation. 4. Dunes that lithified in a post-precipitation Martian climate might do so if: 

• The obliquity of Mars changed – as it is wont to do occasionally. 

• As a result, the surface of the planet changed position relative to sun, exposing its massive CO2 ice fields in the southern polar region to increased temperatures, some of which melted. 

• Enough CO2 was released to thicken the atmosphere slightly (creating a situation in which both wind patterns changed and small quantities of groundwater were not immediately sublimed away). 

• Wind got shut off to particular dune field. 

• Subsurface ice melted slightly, owing to elevated global temperatures. 

• Moisture wicked up into the dune (because of the new temperature gradient), where it facilitated diagenesis. 

But who knows, really? If they are paleodunes, they may have formed in the context of rain in some remote eon of Martian history. By counting the number of impact craters, measuring their size, and looking for evidence of previously observed erosion patterns, we should be able to date paleodune fields to known geochronological benchmarks, at the very least. If someone – or something – would take a closer look, all sorts of interesting, better-informed questions might be asked. This sort of thing didn’t exist back then, so it may be that MOLA, HRSC, and other instruments have helped sort the mystery out already. If so, I haven’t read about it.

If we (where “we” = “someone, anyone, please”, although there is nothing but an orogeny of other priorities to stop me from acquiring a student edition of ArcGIS Pro and looking back into this myself) do identify topography consistent with paleodunes in those cratered highlands, I’d love to see us drop a robot down to check them for magnetite, limonite, and other hematitic precipitate cements one would expect to see in a lithification process that involved extremely slow, very low T/P redox reactions – which would probably have reinforced the remnant magnetism in the hematite dust.

And, heck, if those magnetic lineations aren’t dunes, that’s probably even more interesting.


January 24, 2022
Self portrait in John Dee’s magic mirror.

Just a reflection of a reflection

of a reflection of a reflection of a reflection.

Will I see you on the other side?

Arcade Fire, “Reflektor”

I’ve been slowly making may way through the first volume of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s De occulta philosophia libri tres, savoring throwaway references to optical illusions (including a Pepper’s Ghost!), the spatial limitations of his telepathic communications with Johannes Trithemius, ancient fire retardants (the Alexander Gates in the Caucasus were supposedly painted with the same “bitumen” Amazons (again, supposedly) smeared on themselves before battle – as protection against what isn’t clear; perhaps the sort of Boetian flamethrower Socrates and his fellow hoplites faced at the battle of Delium, insofar as the Agrippa may have just gotten his hands on a copy of Lorenzo Valla’s Thucydides), and so forth, in the context of his elaboration of a material world downstream of celestial and super-celestial ones that occasionally reads like a Neoplatonist account of stellar nucleosynthesis.

Anyhow, I got to wondering how he paid his bills (when he paid them – there was at least one short stint for debt in a Bruxellois hoosegow). Long story short: in 1528 he accepted the office of Archivist and Imperial Historiographer at the court of Margaret of Austria, daughter of Maximillian I, and permanent regent of the Netherlands, which she governed for her nephew, Charles V. As if the mere fact of Agrippa becoming archivist for the Holy Roman Empire weren’t sufficiently wonderful, consider the timing.

The years he served in the role (1528-30) correspond almost exactly with Pizarro’s conquest of Peru, the subdual of Mexico beyond the Aztec sphere of direct control, and the first big pulse of exhibitions of artifacts (magical and otherwise) that had flowed from the Americas to Europe. Margaret was one of the principle early collectors of such objects. Hernán Cortés would present Charles V with pilfered treasures, Charles would keep the precious metals and stones, and ship Margaret the ethnographic remainders – which she strategically displayed throughout her palace in rooms as public as the library and private as her personal study and even bedchambers. Among these items, according to a detailed 1523-24 inventory of the palace, was a set of ceremonial costumes Cortés took from Moctezuma, “used to impersonate four Aztec gods”. In her fine article, “Collecting a New World: The Ethnographic Collections of Margaret of Austria” (requires JSTOR access), Deanna MacDonald informs us that these included: “silver leg guards, sandals, and a mirror” (emphasis mine).

While it isn’t made clear which gods the four costumes were meant to represent, I have an hypothesis about one of them.

As I have written here previously, Tezcatlipoca – “Smoking Mirror”, the divine antagonist; jaguar-cloaked god of the night wind, of discord and autocracy, beauty and sacrifice, divination, temptation, sorcery – brought about the fall of Quetzalcoatl through the use of magical obsidian mirrors. And although MacDonald doesn’t specify that the mirror was black, I’d bet good money that it was.

No later than the 1580s, John Dee, the original 007, came into possession of one of these mirrors*, which he used for purposes of communicating with what he called angels speaking Enochian, but which might just as easily have been sorcerous Nahuatl-speaking radio operators on the other end, humping it through the Selva Lacandona trying to call in airstrikes from Tezcatlipoca down on the invaders.

In any case (and I don’t want to push on this coincidence too hard, but), it has not escaped our attention that Agrippa would have probably worked – at least part of the time – in the same library the ceremonial costumes were displayed in. It may have even been his job to curate the displays. As Margaret’s archivist and historiographer, he would have certainly had access to other, undisplayed treasures (including at least one other mirror, according that same palace inventory, which may or may not have been made of obsidian).

I mention these things because I love the idea that Agrippa – the only known magician on the scene at the time – might have been the first European to identify the function of the black mirror and either smuggle one out of Margaret’s storerooms after she died in 1530 or else simply communicate about it through his personal network: beta that Dee eventually made use of in acquiring one (if not that particular one – although that’s possible too, inasmuch as Margaret’s proto-Kunstkammer was redistributed among the Hapsburgs, any one of whom might have ended up with the curiosity and chosen to sell it to Elizabeth’s advisor) decades later.

More generally, I love the idea that, in his role, Agrippa might have acted as an esoteric first filter for debris flowing east on xenoepistemological currents across the Atlantic; and, in so doing, have both helped trigger the Northern Renaissance and co-found an Invisible College that would later reveal itself – at least in part – in the form of the Royal Society.

*The British Library contends on its website – without explanation – that Dee’s mirror originally made its way into Europe between 1527 and 1530. I suspect this dating has to do with the recent geochemical and x-ray spectroscopic analyses confirming that the mirror is, in fact, as has been believed for centuries, of Mesoamerican origin – and most likely from the region of Pachuca, which the Spaniards didn’t conquer until 1527/28. If so, a gentle reminder that Pachuca was well within the sphere of Aztec force projection – had, in fact, been stomped by the Aztec triple alliance a century earlier – and could easily have had its obsidian mirrors pulled across the event horizon into the maw of Tenochtitlan for Cortés to eventually plunder in the first phase of his conquest.

Translatio imperii

January 17, 2022

And after thee shall arise another kingdom inferior to thee, and another third kingdom of brass, which shall bear rule over all the earth. And the fourth kingdom shall be strong as iron: forasmuch as iron breaketh in pieces and subdueth all things: and as iron that breaketh all these, shall it break in pieces and bruise.

Daniel 2:39-40, KJV

It’s axiomatic that the more you poke into medieval Matters, and other matters medieval, the more frequently you’ll stir up emberish kings claiming descent from Trojan refugees.

It isn’t totally clear that this tradition began with patrician Roman families like the Julii – who were surely less interested in being associated with the losers of a legendary war than in the semi-divine status conferred by lineage from Homeric characters like Aeneas (a literal love child, of Aphrodite and Anchises); a knot that subsequent, Christian kings would try to undo by re-tracing the ancestry of Trojan heroes back to descendants of Noah rather than pagan gods – but what they, the early Caesars they produced, and the imperial poets who mollycoddled them did with the idea spawned all sorts of imitators in the millennium that followed the dissolution of the western Roman Empire.

While visiting London in November, before a foodborne illness caused the distinction between my insides and outside to thin, I stumbled onto the Lord Mayor’s Show, where effigies of the giants Gog and Magog were paraded. If Geoffrey of Monmouth is to be believed – which, now that I’ve reintroduced whisky into my diet, I make a firm practice of doing – one of these giants was originally a Trojan: Corineus, who accompanied Brutus, the great grandson of Aeneas, to the island he’d rename Britain after himself, and, settle, having first hurled its last, largest indigenous giant off a seaside cliff, in a region he’d name Cornwall after himself. That giant’s name, depending on the source, was either something like Gawr Madoc or else, garbled in unfamiliar mouths, Gogmagog.

Geoffrey got the idea of Brutus for his 12th-century Historia Regum Britanniae from the 9th-century Historia Brittonum; all the subsequent Bruts, starting with Wace’s Roman de Brut, got it from him. The anonymous group that compiled the Historia Brittonum (eventually attributed, “Luther Blissett”-style, to “Nennius”) were undoubtedly familiar with the 7th-century Chronicle of Fredegar, in which the lineage of the Merovingian dynasty is traced back to Astyanax – the son of Hector, crown prince of Troy – who would later be called Francus and sire the Franks.  

When, in the 9th century, Charlemagne caught the Frankish baton, his claim of descent from Aeneas – i.e., Hector’s second cousin, rather than Hector (and therefore Priam) himself – raised an interesting question to do with the medieval concept of Translatio imperii – that is, transfer of rule – from Rome to whomsoever was strong enough to seize and hold power in the aftermath of the western empire for himself and his children, however briefly; namely, whether one’s claim to imperium was stronger the closer one got to direct descent from the specific Trojan the Julii emperors claimed to be be descended from, or from those whose rule extended over Troy itself, Aeneas included.

Subsequent European dynasties went back and forth on this. According to his biographer, Wipo of Burgundy, Conrad II, the first of four Sallic kings also crowned Holy Roman Emperor, was descended from one scion of the royal Trojan house through his mother, Adelaide of Metz. In the Gesta Hungarorum, an anonymous 13th-century chronicle of the Hungarians (which cites Dares Phrygius as its authority, no less!), the claim to lineal descent for the Dacian-Transylvanian princes flowed through a different son of Troy.

In his prologue to the Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson wrote that Odin was descended from a population of Trojan refugees that intermarried with Thracian sibyls, and that Asgard was another name for Troy.

Twenty year earlier, in 1204, at the climax of the Fourth Crusade, European soldiers sacked Christian Constantinople. I’ve read that French aristocrats justified this outrage, at least in part, as being punitive against the Greeks on behalf of their Trojan ancestors. I’m not sure how believable that is, but I love it anyway.

I also love the fact that there were post-Byzantine panegyrics – composed for predictable reasons – that claimed Mehmed II was descended from the Trojans and had, in conquering Constantinople, simply re-fought the ancient conflict with a better outcome. Suffice it say that Mehmed, who declared himself Kayser-i Rûm (Caesar of Rome) in 1453, and whose Ottomans had emerged from the ashes of the Sultanate of Rûm, was no stranger to the idea of Troy.

Whether associated geographically with Achilleion (in the Troad; one of several towns so-named in ancient Turkey) or the Sigeion promontory a few miles north that antiphrastically marks the ‘Silent’ mouth of the Hellespont, for at least fifteen hundred years since the Greek archaic this tumulus in northwestern Anatolia, now called Beşiktepe, was regarded as the tomb of Achilles. According to Plutarch, Alexander paused at it in 334 BC to pay his (naked, oiled) respects en route to his Asian conquests. Five centuries years later, in 216 AD, the Roman emperor Caracalla – an extreme Mégas Aléxandros fanboy (who may have gone so far as to pocket the nose of his idol’s embalmed corpse in Alexandria) – marched his legions toward war with the Parthians via Beşiktepe in a self-conscious historical echo.

And coming from the other direction in 1453, Mehmed, just twenty-one at the time, did the same – for slightly more complicated historical reasons, presumably – before he stamped out the last embers of the Imperium Graecorum and got himself re-branded Mehmed the Conqueror.

Geobotanical Prospecting

January 13, 2022

File today’s post – which is dedicated to Adam Large, wherever he may be – under “Ideas that seemed a lot more radical when I first speculated about them ten years ago” or else “Time marched on. Did my own thinking about x,y,z advance with it?”:

Some plants are strongly correlated with deposits of particular minerals (e.g., Ocimum centraliafricanum for copper or juniper/sage for Uranium) — whether because the ore body alters the surrounding geochemistry in a way that’s favorable to the plant, or because the plant can absorb large quantities of the mineral without toxification, or some other reason. The investigation of such indicator species for purposes of identifying new mineral deposits is called geobotanical (or just botanical) prospecting.

Every plant has a unique spectral signature which can be detected using near-IR or some other sensor band. In theory, it should be possible to forensically interrogate all space-based and aerial imagery that was captured with the appropriate bands (and perhaps not even with those, as algorithms get better at detecting indirect evidence of one electromagnetic narrative hiding within another) for any purpose historically – not just prospecting – in order to classify spectral signatures of known indicator species amidst background noise (i.e., the rest of the imaged planet) and eventually produce a global “base map” (in the nomenclature of my former employer) of indicator species that could be mashed-up with a variety of other proprietary data, further filtered algorithmically based on industry expertise, and so forth, to help improve the efficiency of prospecting — one of the main cost centers of the mining industry. 

By similar means — insofar as imagery catalogs enable a limited form of time travel — candidate indicator species for certain minerals (e.g., two of the hobbyhorses in my personal stables: gold and rare earths) might be identified where none currently exist.

If one had an archive of historical imagery with the right bands and resolution, you could take the locations of known gold, platinum, silver, and REE deposits, wind the clock backward to look for imagery prior to their exploitation (i.e., before the vegetative ground cover got destroyed) and back out the spectral signatures of plants surrounding the deposits. By excluding all of the known signatures associated with deposits of a particular mineralogical type, it should be possible to identify candidates of new species to feed into an analysis pipeline identical to the one described above.

Such archives are spotty, of course, and in any case probably only extend back 25-odd years. Other sources may exist that could help fill in the patchwork gaps between the first overflown multispectral imagery and the present, but it’s fair to say that the global vegetation imagery record — like the archaeological record, the fossil record, the art history record, or any other historical data set — will remain incomplete, and that “before” images for only comparatively recent mining operations will be analyzable. Even so, as I explained to the founder and chief brainiac of the then-largest commercial satellite company in the world back in 2014, it doesn’t hurt to try. For all I know, they did.

Here are a few of the indicator species I collected information about in the immediate wake of my divorce a decade ago. It was nice to have flowers around the house. Especially those that blabbed silently, electromagnetically, about buried treasures.

Astragalus bisulcatus (aka Two-Grooved Milkvetch), an indicator species for vanadium deposits in uraniferous sandstone in the SW United States.

Mielichhoferia elongata (aka Elongate Copper Moss) is a cuprophilous bryophyte endemic to the Alps, Auvergne, the Pyrenees, and the mountains of Swedish Lapland and Norway. For some reason, it can also be found near Corrie Kander, Aberdeenshire and Ingleby Greenhow, Cleveland.

Digitalis purpurea (aka Foxglove, Witch’s Glove, Dead Men’s Bells, Fairy’s Glove, Gloves of Our Lady, Bloody Fingers, Virgin’s Glove, Fairy Caps, Folk’s Glove, Fairy Thimbles, Lion’s Mouth, Fairy Fingers, King Elwand, Foxbell, Floppy dock, Flowster-Docker, Fingerhut, Revbielde, &c.), a local indicator species for iron deposits in Russia and manganese deposits elsewhere in Europe.

Convolvulus althaeoides, an indicator species for phosphates in the Mediterranean Basin. Believed by miners in Estremadura, Spain, to be “a most reliable guide to the scattered and hidden deposits of phosphorite occurring along the contact of the Silurian slates and Devonian dolomite.”

Hyptis suaveolens, an indicator species for copper deposits in the Malanjkhand granitoid of Madhya Pradesh, India. Copper from the overlying soil accumulates in certain of the plant’s organs and stunts its growth characteristically.

Persicaria hydropiper (aka Smartweed or Water Pepper), an indicator species for hematite deposits in China. First identified as such by Zhang Hua — a Jin dynasty poet and military advisor to the Emperor Wu. Hua was killed in 300 BCE after the Empress Jia (who had herself seized power from Wu’s grandson in a coup d’état) was executed in a coup.

Crotalaria cobalticola, a rattlepod endemic to the Katangan Copperbelt region of the DRC, is an indicator species of cobalt deposits in the copper-rich soils there.

Alyssum bertolinii (aka Madwort), a nickel hyperaccumulator endemic to ultramafic soils. Indicator species for nickel deposits in Italy and elsewhere in Europe.

Astragalus pattersonii (aka Patterson’s Milkvetch), an indicator species for sandstone-type uranium deposits in the western United States. It thrives on the direct intake of selenium from ore bodies located at depths of up to 23 meters.

Viola calaminaria (aka Yellow Calamine Violet), a zinc hyperaccumulator. Indicator species for zinc deposits in Europe.

Eriogonum ovalifolium (aka Cushion Buckwheat), an indicator species for silver deposits in the western United States.

Equisetum Arvense (aka Horsetail), the last surviving genus of Equisetopsida. It is an indicator species for gold deposits in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and Southern Arctic.

Ocimum centraliafricanum (née Becium homblei), an indicator species for copper deposits in Central Africa.

Needless to say, there were others.

Attila’s Jester

January 9, 2022

“It seems extremely unlikely that Paleolithic Europe produced a stratified elite that just happened to consist largely of hunchbacks, giants and dwarfs.”

Davids Graeber and Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything

“Don’t go to a mindreader, go to a palmist.

I know you have a palm.

Does your face hurt?

‘Cause it’s killing me.”

Scott Walker, “SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)”

A shout out to Zerco, the lisping, double-hunchbacked Berber dwarf who, over the course of a few short years in the fifth century, served (literally, as the enslaved) personal jester for the most powerful military figure in the eastern Roman Empire (magistri militum Aspar), in the western empire (Flavius Aetius, who Gibbons called “The Last of the Romans”), and in the retinues of two Hunnic kings – the brothers Bleda and Attila.

Aspar bought Zerco on expedition in North Africa against the Vandals and lost him in the fog of war somewhere in Thrace. Zerco was captured by Huns led by Bleda, who liked the comedian well enough that he had a custom suit of armor made for him so they could ride everywhere together. He even married Zerco to one of his queen’s handmaidens to put an end to his escape attempts. When Bleda died (that is, when he was very likely killed during a hunt by Attila – an episode reflecting plenty of historical echoes; and a murder Zerco may well have witnessed, given his constant proximity to Bleda, or else which Attila suspected him of witnessing), Attila inherited the jester.

Whereas everyone else in Attila’s court is supposed to have found Zerco’s physical and macaronic humor hilarious – like, piss-themselves funny – Attila didn’t. In fact, people suspected he was scared of the little man. And given the earliest available pretext, Attila gave Zerco away – to Aetius, after terms regarding the matter of a botched hostage ransom, subsequent crucifixions, and some stolen, twice-sold treasure had been settled to everyone’s satisfaction (except Zerco’s, natch).

It isn’t clear whether Zerco ever realized that Aetius had been responsible for fomenting the North African revolt that Aspar was dispatched to quell when he bought the jester. Without any evidence to support my opinion, I suspect he did. Regardless, Aetius afterward had cause to re-gift Zerco back to Aspar in Constantinople – completing one giant circuit in a biographical spiral, and beginning the next, as political advisors of Attila on an embassy to the eastern empire, no doubt starving for laughter back home, persuaded Zerco to return to the Hunnic court (and to the wife and family he’d been torn away from). He was prepared to attach himself to a westward Roman embassy, but Attila told him to stay the fuck away.

Probably Zerco died in Constantinople, but no one knows for certain. There is an extraordinary bit of speculation about his eventual fate by oracular troubadour/30th-century man Scott Walker – a song described thus in Wikipedia:

“Zercon is the protagonist of SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter), a composition by singer-songwriter Scott Walker. The 21-minute song appears on his 2012 album Bish Bosch, and follows the jester’s attempts to escape the cruelty of Attila’s court by ascending through history, eventually becoming the titular brown dwarfstar and freezing to death.”

I listened to it yesterday on a long run along the bog paths of Hampstead Heath, past a 15-story concrete tower with the word “Midgard” emblazoned on it, past a boy spinning like a top in the rain, repeatedly chanting what might have been, “I’ve got gold. I’ve got titanium,” but sounded more like, “I’ve got gold. I’ve got Titania,” and I would highly recommend you too give it a chance. For Scott Walker’s sake, if not Zerco’s.

“It astringeth and retaineth the bloud.”

January 7, 2022

As if anyone reading this needed another reason to think I’m weird, I based my first-ever London run this morning on the shape of the astrologo-alchemical symbol Cornelius Agrippa assigned to Arcturus, which he called Alcameth, one of his fifteen fixed Behenian stars. Apart from its dubious etymological connection to King Arthur, Alcameth is supposed to be good for fevers (I’m triple-vaccinated, but one can’t get enough prophylaxis these days) and is gemologically associated with jasper, an opaque siliceous aggregate which I’ve lately considered using – the bloodstone avatar of it, that is – in the construction of an Oxygen Holocaust memorial.

Remote Viewing

January 5, 2022

I was reminded in my sleep of how King Wen, jailed by the last Shang, Di Xin, arranged the ancient trigrams into the hexagrams of classical I-Ching to ascertain what had become of his kingdom far from his cell in the prison tower.

Di Xin, meanwhile, dug a pool big enough for canoes to circle about in and filled it with wine. On an island in the middle, he planted a tree whose branches were skewers for roast meats, drooping down above the jade-like booze (瓊漿玉液) so party boaters could grab snacks as they liked.

The meat tree is rooted in fact. Wen of Zhou existed, and is believed to have constructed the Oracle in his captivity. Did I get the idea that he consulted it for purposes of remote viewing from Borges, or did I just dream that detail on the shores of Lake Lagunita thirty years ago, and then again last night? It had the flavor of a dream dreamed twice.

Anyhow. Lacking yarrow stalks, I took three pennies and did my own casting this morning with a question fixed in my mind. Hexagram 57: Gentle Penetration. No comment.