Solstice & Christmas

I love astronomical words like ‘gibbous’ referring to one of the moon’s phases, even though I don’t fully understand what it means in the same way that I haven’t really come to grips with solstices (longest & shortest days?) and equinoxes (equal nights and days?) but I do know that one of them – the summer solstice – is just around the corner.

Falling usually on December 21 or, in this case, on Saturday, 22 December 2018, the summer solstice is the longest day of sunlight we can expect for the next year.

Solstices are specific times on opposite sides (north and south) of the equator, which is the imaginary belt running snugly around the Earth’s belly and thus occur twice a year.

The winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere (Europe etc.) is around December 21, the darkest day of the year, while around June 21, is the summer solstice.

It is the exact opposite here, of course, in the Southern Hemisphere (Down Under). During the December solstice, which is summer here, the Sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn (another imaginary band around the Earth’s knees, as it were) and has reached its southern-most position on the globe, when the North Pole is tilted furthest away from the Sun.

The Solstice is actually at a specific moment – when the Sun is exactly over the Tropic of Capricorn, (latitude 23° 30′ South), and occurs at 06:23 in Perth, West Australia, this year.

The summer and winter solstices were crucial points of reference for ancient civilizations, including the Celts.   Only the druids who had angled their sacred sites so that they either faced, or stood, in a geometrical relationship to the rising sun of the solstice, could reveal the paths of heavenly bodies, showing the workings of the universe and the designs of the gods as the solstice is one of the two times of the year when the sun rises and sets in almost exactly the same place, several days in a row

The term solstice comes from the Latin word solstitium, meaning ‘the Sun stands still’, because on this day, the Sun reaches its southern-most position as seen from the Earth. The Sun seems to stand still at the Tropic of Capricorn and then reverses its direction. Some cultures referred to this period as the day the Sun turns around.

Ancient people are thought to have seen the sun rising and setting ever further to the north or south and to have assumed that, without a good deal of prayer, procession and bloody sacrifice, it would either get stuck in the same place – with disastrous consequences for agriculture – or, worse, continue in the same direction until it disappeared for ever. Absolute nonsense of course, given that these self same Neolithic peoples built enormous, astronomically aligned stone temples so that their priests, and spiritual leaders could guide their peoples through the obligatory festivals and celebrations of the astronomical events of the year.

Both Greece and Rome revered the sun with Hercules seen as a sun god. His twelve labours were equated with the twelve constellations of the zodiac through which the sun passes in the course of a year while Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, was the official sun god of the later Empire of Rome.

Emperor Aurelian reintroduced the sun god and cult in 274 A.D. The Emperor Constantine the Great, with the Edict of Toleration, proclaimed at Milan, made Christianity legal throughout the Roman Empire in 313 A.D., but continued to have his coins inscribed with the words, “Sol Invicto Comiti”, which means Committed to the Invincible Sun. Accordingly, Constantine’s adoption of Christianity in the Roman Empire was more likely a matter of political strategy than religious conviction.

St. Patrick (the patron saint of Ireland) blended pre-Christian, pagan beliefs onto his brand of Roman Christianity introduced to Ireland c. 432A.D. by taking druidic beliefs in the sun god, Lugh and fashioning them into orthodox Christianity. The addition of a circle (the wheel – like the pocket-sized votive wheels still found in Celtic sanctuaries – was a symbol of the sun. The eight spokes are thought to represent the cardinal points and the rising and setting of the sun at the summer and winter solstices) onto the Christian cross became the commonly recognised Celtic Cross, bringing together elements of paganism and Christianity.

So too were dates chosen to offset pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti. In ancient Rome, the winter solstice festival Saturnalia began on December 17 and lasted for seven days. The festival was held to honour Saturn, the father of the gods and was characterized by the suspension of discipline and reversal of the usual order. The date of Christmas itself celebrating the birth of the “true light of the world” was aligned with the December solstice because from that point onwards the days began to have more daylight in the Northern Hemisphere. Mind you, what that has to do with anything is anyone’s guess.

Happy Solstice (winter or summer, wherever you are) and a very happy Christmas to all.

 

 

 

A(nother) New Direction (Again!)

One of the original ideas for this blog thingy was for me to encounter new curves in media and technology and … ok, ok, I am the first to admit I have been a bit of a slow learner in those areas.  But at least when I posted something on Red Branch Chronicles it also appeared, as if by magic, on my FaceBook thing which I never actually look at.  No idea how that happens – it is something that automatically occurs when I post on my WordPress account.  Now, for some reason, FaceBook no longer accepts direct input from WordPress unless I convert my FaceBook ‘Profile’ – didn’t even know I had one – to a Facebook ‘Page’.

Im not 100% sure what the difference is, but perhaps a page is more business-like than a (more?) informal profile?  Who knows?  Not sure I care actually, but I feel as if technology – and FaceBook in particular – have thrown up another obstacle in my snail like approach to media literacy.

Anyway, having followed explicit on-screen instructions (from FaceBook) on how to convert my Profile to a Page, this post should now magically spring up on Facebook to the shock and awe of … myself, anyway.

Here’s hoping

 

Qvevri Wines

One of the reasons I went to the Caucasus – and Georgia in particular – was because of the claims wine was ‘invented’ there in 6000 BCE, or 8000 years ago, give or take a few centuries. IMG_1726The Washington Post, National Geographic, The Daily Mail, the BBC, CNN, The New York Times and the ABC all ran fairly recent stories bruiting the news of radio-carbon dating of pot shards and bio-molecular and DNA archaeology of grape pips from the Stone Age accurately dating wine making to that period in Georgia.

Alvin Toffler in his seminal book The Third Wave claimed that humanity advanced in sudden ‘waves’ or periods of intense adaptation and progress. The third wave was the technological and communications one which swept the world within the last century. The second was the Industrial Revolution but the first – and probably the most important wave – was the adaption of farming and the domestication of animals by our Neolithic Stone Age ancestors. Without this first wave, Toffler claimed, nothing else could have been achieved, which brings me back to wine.

To my mind, there is no question that wine was ever invented. IMG_1685Just as no one can claim the invention of the wheel or the discoverer of fire, similarly, no one can claim to have invented wine. Nevertheless, legends lay easy claim to the latter. Noah, after he landed the ark on Mt. Ararat (on the borders of modern day Turkey and Armenia) disembarked the animals and planted a vineyard after which he got horribly drunk and made a disgrace of himself. All of which begs the question of where he originally came from because he must have brought the vine shoots or saplings with him in the ark!   Then there is the much older Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh which also details a deluge after which the eponymous hero sets out on a quest to discover wine and the immortality it can bestow. Another Persian legend describes how Jamshyd – a semi-mythical king – kept grapes to be eaten in jars. One of his handmaids, out of temper with the king and his court, attempted to top herself by drinking the juice from the foaming grapes in one jar, believing it to be poison. Instead she discovered the delights of alcoholic inebriation which she then passed on to the king who, according to the XVII Rubaiyát of Omar Khayyam (The Fitzgerald Translation 1859)

‘They say the Lion and the Lizard keep

the courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep

It must have been a joyous discovery when the first Neolithic farmers found that the grapes, hoarded for leaner times, had fermented and changed magically into a drink other than the contaminated and disease ridden water that they had been dependent upon all their lives.

Three factors independently appeared, more or less at the same time, that all combined to give us the wine that we know today. Firstly the widespread presence of vitis vinifera, the wild Eurasian grape vine in the valleys between the greater and lesser Caucasus mountains, secondly the cultivation of barley and wheat which allowed food reserves to be stored, and thirdly the invention of pottery for making and storing wine.IMG_1854

But back to Georgia where the most astonishing thing is that wine is still made in the same way that our prehistoric ancestors made it.IMG_1619

First the grapes are crushed – sometimes in large, hollowed out logs – before the juice, the skins, the grape pips and even the stalks are poured into qvevri, large earthenware jars, (several hundred to thousands of litres in size) often lined with beeswax, which are then buried in the ground. The juice ferments using wild yeast while the ground maintains a steady geothermal temperature and the conical shape of the qvevri allows the wine to circulate and clarify naturally.

IMG_1623
A glass of ‘white’ qvevri wine compared to ‘normal’ white wine

These qvevri wines – also known as ‘natural’ or ‘raw’ or unfiltered wines – have a distinct orange or amber coloured hue due to the skin contact during fermentation and taste quite different to European wines which are fermented without the pulp. Nevertheless, qvevri wines can differ in style with both sweet, semi sweet and dry wine all being made from the Saparavi grape.IMG_1707

Wine is such an integral part of Georgian life that wine is made by just about every family as grape vines are ubiquitous throughout the country. Roughly 500 of the world’s 2000 grape varieties hail from Georgia although less than 20 varieties are used in wine making.

Kakheti, in the eastern part of the country is probably the most famous wine producing area in the country and that is where I went to sample the Saparavi dry red and the white Tsinandali in the town of Sighnaghi.IMG_2166

Under the Soviet rule, the Russian taste was for strong, sweet wine with extra sugar added which led to a decline in quality but since Georgia’s independence in 1991, wine makers have upped their game and while still producing wine in the traditional qvevri fashion, now also produce high quality wines in the western style.

References

https://www.washingtonpost.com/…/earliest-evidence-of-wine-found-in-giant-8000-year…

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/…/oldest-winemaking-grapes-georgia-archaeolog…

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/…/Scientists-discover-8-000-year-old-wine-bottles-Ge…

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-41977709

https://edition.cnn.com/2017/11/14/health/oldest-wine-georgia-study-trnd/index.html

http://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2017-11-14/oldest-wine-georgia…pottery…/9143874

The Story of Wine – Hugh Johnson New Illustrated Edition 2002

A History of the World in 6 Glasses – Tom Standage 2005

Uncorking the Caucasus – Dr. Matthew Horkey & Charine Tan 2016
 

Crossing the Caucasus

When I was in school, I used to enjoy Geography and was proud of my childish ability to name European capital cities. Then the world seemed more compact, comprising of Western Europe, The USSR, Asia, Africa, The Americas and Antarctica. Then, of course from the ethnocentric European point of view, there was the Near East (Egypt and Suez), the Middle East (Syria, Turkey) and the Far East (China, Japan) and, intriguingly, Asia Minor or was it Eurasia? And then there was something called the Balkans, famously described by Bismarck, I think, as the ‘sick man of Europe’ and the Caucasus, which, in my mind, was a sort of no-go area. Nevertheless, none of those areas was ever clarified in my mind.

Confusingly too, in American crime news and novels, there were always references to “Caucasian males, armed and dangerous, if encountered, do not approach”. Who or what they were I was never quite sure but I suspected that I might be one of them – no, not the armed and dangerous bit, of course.

Anyway, as I learned recently, the currently outmoded system of classifying our species depended on a 19th century German physiologist and anthropologist, Blumenbach. He classified human kind in traditional terms of Caucasian / Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Australoid and Negroid, but it was the use of the term Caucasian that fascinated me.

The Caucasus Mountains in modern day Georgia, and specifically the southern slopes,

Wine Qveri
Ancient Wine amphora or Qveri from Batumi in Georgia

were apparently the home of, not only the autochthones – the original members of mankind – and the site at which Noah’s (of the Ark fame) son, Japheth – the traditional Biblical ancestor of the Europeans – established his tribes before migrating into Europe proper but also the birthplace of wine more than 8,000 years ago!With a history like that, what was there not to like about exploring this hitherto unknown – to me – part of the world.

Factually, the Caucasus is the area of land, composed mostly of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan (along with lesser, recognised and / or unofficial Republics of Ossetia (north & South), Abkhazia, Adjara, Ardsakh, bounded in the north by the Greater Caucasian Mountains and about 100 kilometres south by the lesser Caucasian Mountains.

188px-Kaukasus
Satelite view of the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Mountains

Nevertheless, without bothering particularly to look at maps, I arbitrarily decided for myself that my Caucasus (trip) would start in Istanbul where the Bosporus drained from the Black Sea and would encompass everything as far as Baku in Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea. It seemed simple – Black to the Caspian Sea with the Caucasus somewhere in between – and the wine bit sounded good, to me at least.

Caucasus 2 Map
Istanbul to Baku, The Black to the Caspian Sea.

I remember, years ago, I dozed through a class called Comparative Analysis of an Uncommonly Taught Language, Turkish and English. The only definitive thing I took away from that class was that Turkish is an ‘agglutinative’ language. I could still remember a smattering of Arabic phrases from my time in the Gulf so language shouldn’t be a problem! All I had to do now was get to Istanbul and start discovering 8000-year-old wines!

IMG_1761IMG_1763

Words

I think that I have a good to excellent vocabulary; I read a lot, I write a bit, I had a good education and I tend not to need a dictionary – I don’t believe that I actually have a paper dictionary here in the house. When, on the rare occasions, I do come across an unfamiliar word – one that I might be hard pressed to give an accurate dictionary-style definition – it doesn’t matter because I can understand the general meaning from the context. For the vast majority of books and articles that I read, I would say I have a total understanding of every word used in my own native language.

So, imagine my chagrin when I recently reread a novel I had read some 25 years ago (hint: referred to recently on this blog) and was dismayed to come across a plethora of words, some of which, luckily, stirred a vague memory in my word-hoard. Nevertheless IMG_1324many of them forced me to stop, and go to my online Oxford Dictionary of English and check to see if my understanding tallied with the author’s use and, embarrassingly, to actually look up new words that appeared almost on every page – it was like reading in a foreign language.

I remember – I think – reading somewhere that Anthony Burgess (The Malaysian Trilogy; A Clockwork Orange; Earthly Powers, etc.) imageskept a dictionary on the shelf in his toilet and tore out a page each day after having committed it to memory!

I am not going to go that far, of course and, besides, I don’t have a paper dictionary, remember?

Wasn’t it Humpty Dumpty who said (rather crossly, as far as I can remember) that words mean what you want them to mean, so here is a sample of words that I came across – hats off to anyone who can understand these, lifted, as they are, from context – but all from the same novel published in 1989 – shortlisted for the Booker Prize too!

abulia

glair

kern

^ jorum *

^ villious

^ ataraxy

echolalia

spruik

kickshaw

flitch *

cully

bumper *

epicene

finical

losel

mephitic

In all honesty, I can’t remember what half of them mean now – and I only finished reading the novel yesterday, too.   Luckily my online OED keeps track of recently looked up words so there you have it.  Nevertheless, it’s humbling to think that the English language is so vast and complex that there will always be new words to come across and not just the recently added ones as in “Milkshake Duck” which was recently acclaimed as the Word of the Year here in Australia.  Go figure it out yourself.

* Words I have a memory my father used to use but I still had to check to ensure the author’s use tallied with my understanding of my father’s usage all those years ago.

^ Words which the inbuilt dictionary on my iMac does not recognise.

NoseDive

(Not a graceful curve or elliptical)

I don’t know why, but ever since I returned from Europe in August 2017, I seem to have hit a dry patch with regard to my writing and this blog thingy. I have been able to write neither bucolic accounts of my European Peace Walk, nor do research for my Red Branch Chronicles.

That’s not to say that I’ve been lazy – far from it. I seem to have been busy all day and everyday, just doing things that need doing and that won’t get done by themselves. There is always something “new” that has to be done in everyday, general living which has completely blotted out my creative world or perhaps, then again, I have voluntarily chosen to neglect it.

Despite the scribbled contents of a grubby, wine-stained notebook that I dragged along on the EPW and my eclectic, albeit desultory, readings in the Celtic area and era, over the last few months, nothing has sparked my interests. In truth, it may well be the other way around. I have this vague reluctance to commit myself to write about Celtic Iron Age, cropped-img_0322_edited1.jpg

Travel,  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Food,  img_0046

Books cropped-bookcase.jpg

and those sorts of things on my blog so I have done absolutely nothing. Saying that nothing resonated with what I felt able to write allowed me to stagnate. I’ve barely sat down in front of the computer, let alone attempted to write something about my forays into Christmas cooking so, as Ian Dury intones, I have most certainly not been “a pencil squeezer”!

However, today was different. My kitchen clock, permanently stopped at 8:42, since before I went to Europe and the September calendar on the back of the door, were all physical manifestations, I was told, of my sloth, stagnation and inactivity. Half-heartedly defending myself from those (acknowledged) charges, I pointed out the clock is always right twice a day and who needs a paper calendar anyway, when we are all tooled up with smart wearable gadgets? Nevertheless, I put up a new calendar on the back of the kitchen door and threw the recalcitrant clock into the bin (no more K-Mart clocks for me, thank you very much), resolving to buy a proper clock as soon as possible.

Seems such an easy feng shui fix, doesn’t it – buy a new clock and put up a 2018 calendar? I’m sure there is more to it than that but let’s see. I suppose the proof will be in the pudding. How much will I have written by the end of this month (January), season (Summer) or year (2018)? Well, there’s a nice attempt at temporising if ever I saw one! I started out writing about a nosedive but I may be able to convert that downward plunge into a Bigglesian loop de loop. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biggles

 

 

 

Floating

I watched a Christopher Nolan* movie recently on the long flight home – holy-moly, who understands or follows any of his plots on first viewing as they weave in and out, forward and back in undefined flash-forwards and backs? – and one of the main characters ejected from a doomed space station in a streamlined, white pod that zoomed through the atmosphere before plunging into the ocean.

IMG_0956I didn’t actually plunge but tentatively tried “a float’ in a space-aged pod to recover from my walk in Europe. Sleek and gently oval in shape, the pod is loaded with 500Kg of Epsom salts and the water gently heated to body temperature, allowing you to float and relax while the magnesium salts permeate the skin and relax tired muscles.

Remarkable therapeutic benefits, relieving stress, pain, fatigue, arthritis and fibromyalgia, are just some of the benefits claimed for the float and I was keen to try. Who wouldn’t? Described by some as otherworldly, a pure, blissful experience accompanied by deep feelings of lightens and grace.

Anyway, I turned up for this new adventure and there it was – the pod from the Nolan movie that had crashed into the ocean, only this one was sleeker and more inviting, a smooth, eggshell shape, yawning temptingly before me, soft internal pastel lights changing automatically.

I stepped into knee deep, warm water, pulled the (escape) hatch down, and lay back on the subtly shifting water as it adjusted so perfectly that I was barely aware of floating.

With the hatch down, it was stygian black – I couldn’t actually say ‘inside’, because I had no sense of the space around me, where right or left were, and which way was up or down – and alone, I floated or drifted in complete silence and darkness not knowing if my eyes were open or closed. There was no current, no movement until I thrashed around trying to centre myself, as if that were important.

I suddenly realised that everything I was experiencing then came from within me. There was no distraction, no outside stimuli to lead my wandering mind, nothing to look at, and nothing to hear or see. Deprived of most of the usual senses, I hung there passively, doing nothing.

Things are so black that I could imagine seeing vivid, other worldly scenes but all I saw was nothing. It reminded me of a comic scene where one character says, appreciatively, ‘ah, the sound of silence’ and the other character responds, ‘what? I don’t hear anything.’

IMG_0961

I giggled then and listened to the sound of my heart and the blood pulsing in my body and then it was all over and I stepped out into the “chill-out” room with a cup of herbal tea. Did I feel lighter, more vibrant, was I boosted, were my dopamine and endorphin levels brimming over?

Not knowing what my endorphin or dopamine levels were before, it was difficult to say if they were raised after the float but I certainly felt pleased with myself for no apparent reason, and there might even have been a bounce to my step and my hair definitely felt fluffy!

 

* Christopher Nolan directed Inception, Momento, Batman Begins, Interstellar, The Dark Knight, The Prestige, Dunkirk, among others