Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Origins of Friday the 13th

Ready the rabbit’s feet and four-leaf clovers,
Friday the 13th is on the horizon.

In the western world, the number 13 has so long been associate with bad luck and negativity that it’s extremely difficult to pinpoint exactly when these superstitions arose. Many possibilities have been theorized, but none of them have ever been proven or even accepted as all that likely.

Some attribute the superstitions to the Middle Ages, assuming that it relates to the story of the last supper. When Jesus and his apostles gathered at the table in the Upper Room of King David’s Tomb, Judas, the betrayer of Jesus Christ, was the 13th and last to sit.  The number has been related to wretched luck ever since.

However, it can also be traced back to Norse Mythology in more than one tale. For instance, Loki was believed to have engineered the murder of Balder and was the 13th guest to arrive at the funeral. The superstition presents itself again in the myth of Norna-Gest. At his birth celebration, three uninvited nonrs arrived bringing the number of guests from 10 to 13. They then cursed the infant by binding his lifespan to the life of a nearby candle, which was immediately extinguished and presented to the child.

There is even a myth that attributes the earliest fears of the number 13 to the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. Although Hammurabi’s code has no official numbering system, the 13th law is said to be omitted in a certain translations, making it seem somehow more ominous in nature than the rest (which seems difficult considering just how ominous some of the punishments already are.)

Now, Friday is certainly less universally feared. In the mind of sailors, Friday is a particularly unlucky day to begin a voyage. And part of Friday’s bad wrap can again be attributed to Jesus, as it was Good Friday, when he was crucified.

When the two are combined, they create a dark, creepy shadow of credulous superstition that our modern culture still can’t shake. According to one specific study by the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in North Carolina, anywhere from 17 to 21 million people are affected by parakevidekatriaphobia, the fear of Friday the 13th.   That fear runs so deep, in fact, that some people refuse to even get out of bed when Friday the 13th occurs.

So do you number among the tens of millions who might be staying home this Friday? Or will you brazenly disregard the history of ill omens and face this Friday like any other? Either way, we hope you’re ready! In the words of Jack Youngblood, “Good luck is a residue of preparation.” 

Friday, September 8, 2017

History of Tea Culture in China and Japan

To the literati and officialdom of ancient China, tea represented “elegance, harmony, friendliness, and grace”. The act of tea drinking was a way in which one could “cultivate the mind and improve moral integrity” and it was admired as a drink that was pure of content and consisting of elegant qualities.  
        The discovery of tea goes back to the early history of China and, through time, has been developed into an important subject of various forms of art, significant social events, intense competitions, and daily activities. Poems were written about its unique qualities and paintings were created by its inspiration. Tea also became a staple for devout Buddhist monks who appreciated its close tie to nature, its medicinal value, and its ability to chase away drowsiness during long sessions of meditation.

Through trade, tea spread from Chine to Japan, as well as numerous other countries around the world. In Japan, the use of tea went through several transformations from the time of its introduction, with the tea ceremony eventually developing into a highly ritualized and religious event while in China the tea ceremony remained mainly a time for social gatherings and quiet relaxation. 
For the Chinese, the tea plant has been held in high esteem for its various valuable qualities: its medicinal properties, its ability to restore wakefulness, its close tie to nature, its relative inexpensiveness, and, overall, its distinct and desirable taste. However, the appreciation for all of those qualities was not fully present at the beginning of its use; the appreciation for tea as a drink had to develop over a fairly long period of time. 
The use of tea dates back to 2737 BCE during the reign of the Chinese Emperor, Shennong, who is given credit for having been the one to discover the beverage. The legend states that, one afternoon, Shennong was taking a walk when he decided to stop and rest under a tree. A servant then presented Shennong with a cup of boiled water to drink (water was boiled during this time for hygienic reasons) when a leaf from the tree he was sitting under fell into his cup of water and began to steep. The Emperor, being a scientist, decided to taste the water when he saw that the leaf made it turn a light brown color. Enthralled with the aromatic scent and floral taste, the emperor decided that this should be a drink in China.

While this legend may hold several truths, it is generally believed by scholars that tea and tea-drinking underwent about four major phases before becoming the drink that most people are familiar with today. The first phase began before, and continued into, the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BCE – 476 CE). During this phase, tea leaves were mainly picked to be eaten as a source of food. The leaves were later discovered to have medicinal value that was used to aide in curing numerous ailments such as digestive issues.
 The second phase took place starting in the Pre-Qin Period (before 221 BCE) and continued on into the Eastern and Western Han dynasties (207 BCE – 189 CE). Here, tea was used for the first time as a beverage when it was mixed with millet, along with other condiments according to taste preference, and was then boiled until it became a drink with a porridge-like consistency.
Come the time of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE), the third phase was beginning as the Chinese began grinding dried tea leaves into a powder and then leaving them to steep in boiling water. It was also during this dynasty, in the early 800’s, that tea made its way to Japan in this powdered form, which will be discussed further at a later point.
When the Song Dynasty (960 – 1127) came to power, this form of tea-drinking had become the preferred method of consuming the beverage. Although powdered tea prevailed in popularity starting in the Tang Dynasty, another method was also developed that would slowly but surely gain in momentum: roasting and baking.

This method pushed tea-drinking into what could be considered the fourth and final phase of tea development. The process involved picking the young and tender green tea leaves in the spring, roasting and baking them, and then “making them into whole separate tea leaves”. However, even though this method of tea-drinking existed in the Tang and Song dynasties, it was not until the Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing (1644 – 1912) dynasties that whole leaf tea became the predominant way to drink tea in China. 
        Tea is an important aspect of Chinese and Japanese culture because it embodies so many important aspects of both cultures. Not only could it be seen as a physical representation of nature, but it can provide one with a moment of tranquility that can be hard to find in this busy world. 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Eclipse Mythology

In ancient times when technology was not yet advanced enough to help the human race understand the reasons for a solar eclipse, mythology was created to provide people with an explanation. For the ancient Greeks, the word itself, ‘eclipse', comes from the word for ‘abandonment’ as if the sun was literally abandoning the earth. It was considered a bad omen, and that perhaps someone had done something to greatly displease the gods. 

In Norse mythology, an eclipse involves the two deities Sol, the goddess of the sun, and Mani, the god of the moon. These two are brother and sister and are responsible for traveling across the sky each day and night in their horse drawn chariots. The horses of these chariots, or at least of Sol’s, are named Árvakr (“Early Riser”) and Alsviðr (“Swift”), and for good reason. Both Sol and Mani are constantly being chased by two wolves known as Skoll and Hati, the ‘One Who Mocks’ and the ‘One Who Hates'. When they catch Sol and Mani, signaled by an eclipse, it is seen as a sign that Ragnarok, the end of the world in Norse mythology, would soon occur.

Several other ancient cultures, such as the Chinese, Korean, Hindu, and Egyptian, associate an eclipse with the sun being devoured by a being and then reinstated after being chased away, fought off, and other such means. Inuit lore tells of the moon god, Anningan, and the sun goddess, Malina, who are also brother and sister and rather quarrelsome.

After a particularly heated argument, Malina stormed off while Anningan chased after her. Because he is so intent on catching his sister (whether it is to apologize or continue the argument is unclear), he forgets to even take time to eat and becomes thinner and thinner until he must drop down to Earth to eat and regain his strength before continuing his pursuit.  When Anningan finally catches up to his sister, an eclipse occurs, until Malina runs away again. 

 For ancient Persians, an eclipse of the sun was considered to be prank by a peri. The peri were winged, fairy-like spirits that could be somewhat unpredictable, being anywhere from generous and helpful to humans to mischievous and even evil in intent. When an eclipse transpired, it was believed to be a peri covering, blotting out, or darkening the sun for fun.

While a solar eclipse is a well understood phenomenon in the modern era, it was a random and even ominous event to numerous cultures around the world in ancient times. Mythology involving the eclipse was a way for them to understand what was happening. If only they had had the eclipse glasses that we have today, then perhaps they would have considered it as much a spectacle as we do in the 21st century!