Saturday, December 20, 2008

The True Meaning of Xmas

It is not a sin to use "X" in the abbreviation of Christmas. "Xmas" is not a disrespectful modern secularization, but derives from Chi (X), the first letter of the word "Christ" in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written.

The symbol has been used by the church itself at least as far back as the 15th Century, when typesetters employed it with the newly invented Gutenberg press.

When fused with the second letter of Christ's name in Greek, Rho (P), it is called the labarum, a sort of sacred monogram symbolizing Jesus Christ. This ligature is said to have originated with Constantine I, who reportedly dreamed the symbol before the pivotal Battle of the Milvian Bridge (312). He ordered his soldiers to paint it on their shields, and when they emerged victorious from the battle, Constantine converted, becoming the first Christian Roman emperor.

But all this has little to do with the true meaning of Xmas. For that, you need look no farther than this year's magnificent Postal Service Christmas stamp. It is taken from a painting by the Italian master Sandro Botticelli which hangs in the Cleveland Museum of Art. The Virgin and Child With the Young John the Baptist was painted around the same time the holy "X" was first being inserted by frugal German typesetters into Gutenberg's invention.

What does "Xmas" truly mean? Click to enlarge and feast your eyes--you'll be brought as close as you can come to an answer.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Myth of the Sole

It was an "instantly mythic moment" according to the NY Times. Indeed the thrown shoe flies far back into the past. Posting for National Geographic's Pop Omnivore, Marc Silver writes on the history of Thrown Shoes and Other Hurled Insults. "Your feet walk on dirt. [...To] show the sole of your foot in Middle Eastern countries, in Thailand, and in a few other places—it’s a terrible insult. People get into huge fights when they think someone has purposely shown the bottom of their foot, barefoot or in shoes. If you cross [your] legs and let the sole of your shoe face someone, that can be a terrible, terrible insult. People have been killed for that." He traces the gesture back as far as ancient Egypt, where people "sometimes drew a pictograph of their enemy on the bottom of their sandals and walked on them symbolically."

This reminded me that the ancient Greeks also used shoes to express contempt. In my novel, Night of the Furies, the young trio of archeological sleuths contemplate a 1st Century BC statue of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty:

Eros, the winged cherub, fluttered just over her shoulder, while standing beside her was the goat-god Pan, doing his best to seduce her.

It's difficult to tell whether Eros is trying to defend Aphrodite or encourage Pan. But there's little doubt of the goddess' intent, flashing the sole of her sandal.

Later in the novel the trio investigate the ancient Eleusinian Mysteries. Initiates to the annual religious rite--which included both women and slaves--joined together in a boisterous 14-mile procession from Athens to the seaside city of Eleusis.
At one point, crossing a bridge over the river Kephisos, "Men with heads covered to conceal their identity sat on the bridge and hurled ribald insults at distinguished persons in the procession" (H.W. Parke). Whether it was done to "forestall any ill luck" or was simply an opportunity for merriment, we have to ask ourselves: What ancient culture other than the Greeks would have allowed such freedoms to its citizens? How many cultures even allow them today?

We have much to thank the ancient Greeks for, just as the Iraqi people--despite legitimate complaints and terrible costs--have much to thank our soldiers for. According to the brother of the Iraqi reporter who "spontaneously" threw his shoes at President Bush, he had been planning his "protest" for nearly a year. There was a time, not too long ago in Iraq, when he wouldn't have been free to even imagine such a thing.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Isocrates blogs on Greek riots

The AP reports: ...the unprecedented scale of destruction has horrified Greeks. The conservative daily, Eleftheros Typos, lamented that the very foundation of the country's democracy was at risk. The paper's front page bore a single quote from the ancient Greek rhetorician Isocrates:

"Our democracy is self-destructing, because it abused the right to freedom and equality, because it taught people to consider impudence as a right, illegality as freedom, rudeness as equality and anarchy as happiness."

Monday, December 8, 2008

‘Fury is Understandable’

In Euripides famous tragedy The Bacchae, the god Dionysus, humiliated by the young King Pentheus, punishes the king by luring him into a violent frenzy of Maenads. The women literally tear him apart.

What is often overlooked in the play is the fact that it is, in essence, a story of revenge. I was reminded of this by the wave of riots currently raging across Greece following the fatal shooting of a 15-year-old boy by police.

The police claim the boy was shot after their squad was attacked by a gang of youths. Despite this, riots have been spreading across the country and appear to be growing more violent.

"The fury is understandable," said the interior and public order minister, Prokopis Pavlopoulos. "What can't be understood is raw violence."

Perhaps the bewildered minister--and the Greeks themselves--have forgotten the lessons of The Bacchae. As Euripides demonstrated nearly 2,500 years ago, a sense of vengeance can unleash in a mob the most incomprehensible madness.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Doors of Perception

This fascinating paragraph from a recent Newsweek article ("Why We Believe," 11/3/08) is worth a careful reading:
"A bundle of neurons in the superior parietal lobe, a region toward the top and rear of the brain [...] distinguishes where your body ends and the material world begins. Without it, you couldn't navigate through a door frame. But other areas of the brain, including the thinking regions in the frontal lobes, sometime send "turn off!" signals to this structure, such as when we are falling asleep or when we feel physical communion with another person (that's a euphemism for sex). During intense prayer or meditation, brain-imaging studies show, the structure is also especially quiet. Unable to find the dividing line between self and world, the brain adapts by experiencing a sense of holism and connectedness. You feel a part of something larger than yourself."

The article claims that this "ability to shut off the sense of where you end and the world begins" may help explain why people are inclined to accept irrational beliefs, such as belief in the paranormal. It implies that this false sense of connection allows us to accept beliefs that are false.

But my question is this: What if the experience of holism and connectedness is not merely an adaptation to a part of the brain being shut down, but that shutting down that structure is a way for the brain to allow itself to experience holism and connectedness? In other words, the brain is actually designed to allow us to perceive a higher truth--to step through another kind of doorway entirely.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Bookgasm Q & A

Hey, have you read the new Nora Roberts?
Are you a member of Oprah’s Book Club?
Do you enjoy stories about the struggles of the disenfranchised in our society?
If you answered “no” to all those questions, we’d like to welcome you to BOOKGASM, the site dedicated to READING MATERIAL TO GET EXCITED ABOUT.
This is from the "About" page of one of my favorite book review websites--BOOKGASM. The site is edited by pop culture enthusiast Rod Lott, who's excellent reviews of Dark Gold and Night of the Furies have naturally endeared him to me. But what I love most is the attitude of a site "that includes all kinds of genre fiction, from horror and sci-fi to mystery and suspense. It also includes graphic novels, trashy paperbacks, cheap magazines and other things that much of America pretends to be ashamed of, for no good reason."

For cheap thrills, Shakespeare, mythology and more, take a look at Rod Lott's Q & A with me.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Stiff Measures

Will economic hysteria revive the bacchanalia?

CANBERRA (Reuters) - An Australian holiday resort will hold a month-long, nude "anything goes" party to combat an expected economic downturn, media reports said on Thursday. "Tough economic times call for stiff measures," Tony Fox, the owner of the White Cockatoo resort in Mossman, in tropical Queensland state, told the Courier-Mail newspaper. "It will be a hedonism resort, where anything goes for a month. It doesn't take rocket science to work out what it means," Fox said, naming March as the risque party month. (more...)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Traveling to Greece?

My screenwriter friend Leon Capetanos is of Greek descent, and he's traveled many times to the country. In fact, one of his movies, Tempest, which he wrote with the great American director Paul Mazursky, was shot in the Peloponnese, at the tip of one of those finger peninsulas, the area known as the "Mani." (Paul said he used to sing "We're in the Mani" every morning on location).

Paul Mazursky with my wife, Joanna
Farmer's Market, Los Angeles

When I was planning my research trip for Night of the Furies, Leon had one recommendation: Harry's Greek Travel Guide. This is not a guidebook, but a massive website run by a Greek-American (or American-Greek) named Harry Grant. Harry rivals the ancient geographer Pausanias in the depth and breadth of his knowledge of Greece. The site is almost overwhelming. But it's very well designed and absolutely invaluable. If you're planning a trip to Greece, I strongly recommend you take a trip through Harry's website first.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

NIGHT OF THE FURIES is a Fugue on Freedom

Chicago Tribune journalist and author Gerry Doyle (From the Depths) has written an online feature about Night of the Furies at The Big Thrill. If you're curious about the difference between ancient Greek and Roman orgies, you might want to give it a look.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Dying to Know

To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise: for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them: but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils. And what is this but that shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know? Socrates

A Popular Science article reports that a three-year study will explore the nature of death and consciousness: "After countless accounts of near-death experiences, dating as far back as ancient Greece, science is now taking serious steps forward to explore the nature of the phenomenon. A new project aims to determine whether the experience is a physiological event or evidence that the human consciousness is far more complicated than we ever believed.

"The Human Consciousness Project sets out to explore the nature of human consciousness and the brain. The first step of the project is the "Awareness During Resuscitation" study, a collaboration among more than 25 medical centers throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe.

"...the most intriguing aspect of the study is its attempt to study consciousness during clinical death. According to [leader of the study, Dr. Sam] Parnia, the science of these "consciousness events" may be somewhat similar to the relation between Newtonian physics and quantum physics. Scientists once believed that Newtonian physics could answer all the questions in the universe. When they ventured into the sub-atomic realm, though, Newtonian physics no longer applied. But quantum physics did. Similarly, the near-death experience could be another state of consciousness with a different set of rules than what we currently understand, and beyond the limits of what current scientific methods can explain."

Monday, October 27, 2008

Capturing Apollo Capturing Daphne

Just saw a fabulous exhibit at the Getty Museum here in Los Angeles--portraits in marble by the 17th Century Italian sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. This bust of his lover, Costanza Bonarelli, shows Bernini's phenomenal ability to capture the casual, fleeting, lifelike moment, a kind of miraculous photograph in stone. Take a close look at Constanza's mouth. Bernini said the best moment to capture the mouth was just before or after the person spoke, when the lips were parted.

My favorite Bernini sculpture is the ‘Apollo and Daphne’ at the Villa Borghese in Rome. According to the Getty, when this masterpiece was first put on display, "there arose such a cry that all Rome concurred in seeing it as a miracle." The brilliant British author and historian Paul Johnson wrote: "No man had ever achieved such mastery over marble before, and no one, we can be sure, will ever again approach it."
The sculpture captures the climactic moment of the story of Apollo and Daphne, the famous myth of fleeting love I recounted in Night of the Furies:
Apollo was the greatest archer, the god of the silver bow. When he saw Eros struggling to string his little bow, Apollo made fun of him, and Eros took revenge. The cherub pulled out two arrows from his quiver: one that kindles love, and one that dispels it. The one that kindles was sharp and glistening with a gold point; the one that dispels was blunt and heavy with a lead tip. From the top of Mt. Parnassus, Eros shot Apollo through the heart with the gold point. The leaden one he shot at a nymph named Daphne, the beautiful daughter of a river god.Apollo fell immediately in love with Daphne, but Daphne spurned him and fled. He chased her through the woods. She ran like the wind. The further he pursued her, the more he fell in love, but Daphne grew more fearful the closer he came. As Apollo was about to overtake her, she cried out to her father for help, and the river god used his magic. A numbness seized Daphne’s limbs, bark closed over her body, her hair turned into leaves, her arms into branches, her feet into penetrating roots.
She had turned into a laurel tree. Only her beauty remained.
The laurel became the tree of Apollo, from which came the laurel wreath of victory and achievement. A crown well deserved by Bernini.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

ATTN: Writers was named "Best Website for Writers" by Writer's Digest Magazine. The site is bursting with useful information.
Its Editor-in-Chief, the lovely Jennifer Minar, recently did an interview with me discussing the writing of my new thriller, NIGHT OF THE FURIES. I'm honored to join the company of her other interviewees, including Michael Connelly, Peter Abrahams, Janet Fitch, and more. Check out the FURIES interview HERE.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Divine Inspiration

Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1861, Hamburg Kunsthalle

I've always loved this painting (click to enlarge). It's shocking and beautiful and mysterious all at once. For years a dog-eared postcard of it served as my bookmark. But for some reason, I never sought out the story behind it. I suppose I feared it would somehow diminish the thrill of the picture itself.

It wasn't until I was doing research for Night of the Furies that I discovered what the scene was about. It turns out it's connected with the Eleusinian Mysteries, an ancient Greek religious ceremony (and a key element of my novel). The woman, Phryne, was a famous hetaera, or courtesan, in 4th Century B.C. Greece. She was accused of profaning the Mysteries' seaside purification rites by striding naked into the water for all the world to see.

Her trial took place at the Aereopagus, a rock hill near the Acropolis that served as the setting for the high court of Athens. I took this picture of it from the vantage of the Acropolis. A temple dedicated to the Furies once stood at the foot of the rock.

Here's Wik on Phryne's trial: "...she was defended by the orator Hypereides, one of her lovers. When it seemed as if the verdict would be unfavourable, he tore open her robe and displayed her breasts, which so moved her judges that they acquitted her. ...The judges' change of heart was not simply because they were overcome by the beauty of her nude body, but because physical beauty was often seen as a facet of divinity or a mark of divine favor during those times."

Phryne's divine beauty inspired more than the court of Athens. The scene of her with her hair loose, wading nude through the shimmering sea, inspired the greatest painter of classical Greece, Apelles. His renowned painting Venus Anadyomene ("Aphrodite Rising from the Sea"), though lost to time, launched a recurring, iconic motif into the long history of art.

Here's a version in marble from a 4th century A.D. Roman villa.

The motif was revived in the Renaissance, two thousand years after Apelles. It inspired Botticelli's famous "Birth of Venus."

In the 20th Century, the image found its way into the movies, with Ursula Andress emerging from the sea in the first and greatest Bond picture, Dr. No.

The scene quickly became a cinema classic, and was knocked off again in 2002 with Halle Berry as the Bond girl, Jinx, the latest Aphrodite incarnation.

I'm all for sexy girls with knives in their belts, but my favorite Birth of Venus is by the 19th-Century French artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

It's probably this dreamier Aphrodite, tucked in the back of my mind somewhere, that inspired this scene in Night of the Furies:

The girl who held my eyes now was stepping lazily through the surf, gazing down at the frothy water, seemingly lost in herself. She was wearing a bikini with sailor stripes and the emblem of an anchor embroidered on the cups. Her hair was a rich black, cut to her shoulders, and tangled from drying in the wind. Her mouth was slightly open, and her downcast eyes were dark. She looked like a sated panther, moving with a kind of languid grace, dragging her toes through the water. Something about her—maybe the strength of her profile, or the whiteness of her skin, or the way she peered with quiet intentness at the strangers parading around her—told me she was different than the rest, that this was not the sort of place she came to very often. There was an air of youthful innocence about her, but an air intriguingly tinged with darkness, a sort of sensual contentment. I found the very sight of her arousing.

Arousing indeed. Phryne's brazen beauty was undoubtedly divine.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Bad Bread

It seems appropriate, as the world descends into economic hysteria, to be launching a book about Dionysian madness. Once again fear is the obvious driver, as it’s so often been in the past.

Famine sparked the “Great Fear” that swept France in the summer of 1789. Peasants went on a mad rampage, burning and ransacking their way through the countryside. Eventually it led to the storming of the Bastille and the start of the French Revolution.

Mass hysteria has many theories: “convergence,” “emotional contagion,” “collective effervescence.” They all involve a mutual reinforcement, an infectious multiplication of feeling, with emotions ranging from paranoia and panic to gleeful, unrestrained enthusiasm.

In the Middle Ages, episodes of what’s called the ‘dancing rage,’ or St. John’s Dance, erupted all over Europe. People would basically go wild in the streets, dancing, screaming, writhing, convulsing, even foaming at the mouth. It was another form of mass hysteria, and it happened in cities all over Europe. Priests thought the people were possessed by the devil. Music was played to help calm them.

It may be more than fear that feeds these collective convulsions. Professor Mary K. Matossian believes that in both these historical cases an initial catalyst was hallucinogenic ergotism. France’s “Great Fear,” like St. John’s Dance, may have been caused by ergot poisoning from the bread people ate. The ergot alkaloid ergotamine is an immediate precursor to LSD. It causes convulsions, hallucinations, mania, and psychosis.

The ergot fungus usually arises when the season is particularly wet and the grain is left damp. In that long-ago summer in France, a drought had been followed by storms and floods that ruined the year’s harvest. Usually farmers threw out ergot-infected yields, but when the harvest was poor, they couldn’t be choosy. They went ahead and ate the bread and chased the nobles all the way to the guillotine.

Forgive the pun, but once again it’s bad bread that’s making us throw the bums out. Only we may have another—even more infectious—catalyst to our hysteria.

The mass media.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Night of the Furies Drops October 14!

"Fast, furious, sexy, and unique,

David Angsten's Night of the Furies
turns a tour of the Greek Isles into a gripping story of ancient history and bloody retribution.
This book demands to be read in one sitting."

James Rollins, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Oracle

See Trailer

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