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.

Shake Your Boötes: King Arthur, Arctic Adventurism, Werebears

January 5, 2022

There is a dubious etymology of which I am fond whereby the name of the star Arcturus, in Welsh mouths, partially dissolves into “Arthur”. From such unlikelihoods all manner of speculations arise – not just to do with the legendary king’s connection to bears (let us suppose, for a moment, as we entertain these other improbabilities, that “Arcturus” – the cockstar of Arctophylax – might mean both “Bear guardian” in the sense of one who guards the Bear [i.e., Ursa Major] and that of a “guardian bear”) but also the Arctic. 

Take, for instance, the astonishing 1577 letter from Gerardus Mercator (yes, that Mercator) to John Dee, informing him about an English claim to territory above the Arctic circle based on the fact that, in the sixth century, King Arthur conquered the North Pole. I shit you not. 

Were any of the 19th and 20th-century British polar explorers aware of this story? Is the United Nations? Does the UK have an ancient, competing claim to imminent Arctic territory along with the Russians, Canadians, Norwegians, and Danes? Fascinating as the transmissions of Arthurian material into medieval Scandinavian literature actually were – as with Gunnlaugr Leifsson’s 12th/13th-century translation (and acculturation) of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Prophecies of Merlin into Old Norse as the Merlínússpá – might there also be a lost cycle of legends in a ruined monastery somewhere: a white coda to the Matter of Britain? Cautionary tales orally transmitted by an indigenous, circumpolarized band that watched from a distance as knights of the Round Table – furs and gut parkas over chainmail – tried to consolidate their grip on the auroral latitudes but ultimately failed to adapt to/endure its hardships and starved/went mad/froze to death on the ice.

As my friend Brendan Bashin-Sullivan and I geeked out about yesterday…

As for bears, I have much more to say on the subject, but it’s sunny in London and my intention to break a 369-day-long alcohol fast at The Seven Stars for Twelfth Night. I will say this much for now: it’s curious, mighty curious, that before Bödvar Bjarki (Beowulf, through a different cultural lens) travelled south from Trondheim (née Uppdales?) to find his fame as champion of champions in the court of King Hrólfr Kraki he first had to pull a sword from a stone in the former den of his cursed werebear father Bjorn that Bödvar’s two older, stronger brothers were unable to remove. Selah. 

God’s Airstrike; the Black Stone

January 3, 2022

Have you not considered how your Lord dealt with ʿAad –

Iram – who had lofty pillars,

The likes of which had never been created in the land?

[Y]our Lord poured upon them a scourge of punishment.

Indeed, He waits and watches.

Reading Geoff’s new BLDGBLOG post this morning, I was reminded of a treasure hunt Eva and I went on in Turkey before the plague struck.

Somewhere in the Rub’ al Khali on the Arabian Peninsula lie the ruins of Ubar, known also as Iram of the Pillars – a city God destroyed by airstrike 6,000 years ago. According to one tradition, al-Ḥajaru al-Aswad, the Black Stone set in the eastern corner of the Kaaba, is a fragment recovered from the shock-metamorphosed aftermath of that disaster.

Meteoritic or not, the stone has been damaged repeatedly over the centuries. At one point, after it shattered in a fire, six pieces were removed from Mecca to Istanbul. Four are embedded in the 16th-century Sokollu Mehmet Pasa Mosque. One is set above the entrance of Suleiman the Magnificent’s mausoleum. And the sixth, in the mihrab of the Blue Mosque.

We found them all.

undead undead undead

January 2, 2022

On Hampstead Heath last night, like revenant Lucy. I thought I heard children in the trees near a pond, then something vulpine, then wondered momentarily if they might not be both. In such environs, there is a plastic theriomorphology at play. In general, it isn’t so much that things aren’t what they seem as seeming isn’t what things are.

I texted my friends Geoff Manaugh and Nicky Twilley that a fox and I had crossed paths as I hoofed to the heath; the only two creatures afoot on that dark stretch. “Let it capture you and wear your flesh like a clown suit,” Geoff suggested. I demurred, but it’s early days in London yet.

The alcove of a Brutalist uzumaki in Kiev. Original photograph by Bradley Garrett.

Christmastide; dark days

January 2, 2022

Whenever I move into a new dwelling, as I did yesterday, I cast my thoughts back to all the others I’ve inhabited/survived – some almost divine in my recollection (e.g., the marble, glass and dark wood flat among stone pines above Lake Avernus my father rented for us from a genial gangster); some dismal (e.g., the dining room table I paid $90/month to budding entrepreneurs to sleep beneath in Palo Alto once I ceased being able to afford a room in their house, which they called Camelot – and even put my mother and sister under the one time they visited me); and some dire.

Many years ago, I lived in a storage garage; a mad, unhappy place. One October, suffering from pneumonia (and by “suffering”, I mean retching blood, hacking up green phlegm, with crusted tissues all over the floor, a filthy blanket wrapped Native American-style around my shoulders, smoking GPC’s, and drinking Napoleon brandy from the bottle), I watched The Shining there in the dark with the volume turned all the way up on a small television propped atop another, much larger one from the 1950’s that didn’t work anymore. At some point, I fell over sideways – too cold, too sick, and too drunk to right myself. Staring at the TV like that – mouth slack, unblinking – I thought I saw something stir in the dark. One by one, huge, translucent spiders crawled up over the back of the set, then down its front, throwing monstrous shadows. I didn’t know if they were real or hallucinations. Either way, they were horrifying. And while they scuttled across the bright screen, Jack Nicholson’s character chased his son through the snow with an axe. I couldn’t even scream. I just lay there, a froth of blood and cognac on my lips, afraid I had died in my sleep and woken up in hell.

Anyhow, this new place is much nicer.

Hammer of the Goths

December 31, 2021

“This long delay before so comparatively insignificant a fortress chaffed the Eunuch’s soul, and he began to meditate other schemes for its reduction.”

Thomas Hodgkin, Italy and Her Invaders

I have a soft spot for military eunuchs, I guess. Zheng He, particularly, but also Narses – an Armenian castrate and fanatical Marianist who weathered a lopsided rivalry with Belisarius in Justinian I’s 6th-century AD war of reconquest (surviving recall by the emperor – an intriguing [literally, I have no doubt] turn of events, if even a fraction of what Procopius had to say in The Secret History is true), eventually took control of Byzantium’s finances, and then, at the age of seventy-five or so, raised an army of 30,000 “barbarian” mercenaries in the Balkans, slow marched it down the Adriatic calf of the Italian peninsula, and crushed the Ostrogoths from Sena Gallica to Mons Lactarius.

Having (very temporarily) taken Italy back for Constantinople – and received the last Roman triumph of antiquity for it – he set about trying to rebuild the ruined capital of the western empire*. Justinian had sent an elderly man to do the job hoping Narses, even covered in glory, would be too tired to march all the way back for the throne. To my mind, there is something sad and beautiful about those last, Sisyphean labors of the old Exarch, trying dam a river at flood stage, nowhere yet near its crest. The river being History, of course. Only fools believe its waters are antidotal to Lethe’s**. They may taste different, but they’re both runoff from the same obliviating snowpack.

*How he paid for it probably deserves its own post. The short version: the treasure fortress of the Ostrogoths sat on an outcrop of trachyte atop the oracular complex of the Cumaean Sibyl (possibly repurposing the temple of Apollo directly above it, or the temple of Jupiter above that, as their citadel). Narses directed his sappers to undermine the walls of the fortress from the sacred caves below. It worked too well, causing the front gates of the fort to calve off into the sea and making what had been highly defensible totally impregnable. At that point, he shrugged and settled in for some good, old-fashioned poliorcetics. In the end, he is supposed to have gotten the Ostrogoths to surrender with a theatrical ruse that involved bogus public executions of female hostages: lopping off fake heads, that sort of thing. Anyhow, they cleared out. And he let them go, focusing his attention on his primary duty to the empire: counting loot.

**Narses was no fool. Nor was he inclined to suffer them. There is a story – almost certainly apocryphal – that Justinian’s successor Justin, who disapproved of the then-nonagenarian press-ganging Romans into reconstruction projects, relieved Narses of his authority and allowed him to retire to Naples. Justin’s wife Sophia sent Narses a golden distaff there and informed him he’d always be welcome back to Constantinople to supervise the women spinning. To which Narses replied that he’d spin a thread the empire would never see the end of. Whereupon he told the Lombards they were welcome to the north of Italy – giving the wheel of flame another turn.

As I said, the story is probably untrue, and it’s certainly unkind, but Narses not only did enable an Italian invasion by Lombards, he led it. His own army of “barbarians” was basically Lombardish. The Goths and Franks they defeated were natural enemies of the Lombards every bit as much as they were of the Greek Romans. And in the vacuum that nature doesn’t so much abhor as find perplexing, Lombardy rushed in. Within a few years, it was they who ruled Italy, setting in motion the political machinations that ultimately resulted in Naples freeing itself from the Roman yoke: the sort of weird offspring you might expect from a senescent eunuch obsessed – to the point of genocide, on occasion – with a holy virgin.