Runic Aerobics Disliked by Nazis

i-1db5fd8074923e2f4d25a5565ca957f2-marbysw.jpgIn Nazi Germany and its occupied territories there were many ways to get thrown into an extermination camp. But Friedrich Marby broke some kind of record: he was sent to Dachau for publishing too silly ideas about runes. He survived.

The Nazis themselves were no strangers to occultism, particularly Heinrich Himmler, whose neo-Pagan religious movement I’ve touched upon before. Movements similar to today’s New Age, neo-paganism and occultism flourished in the early 20th century. But Marby was too much even for Himmler: he invented runic aerobics.

Marby’s ideas took off from the cosmic and psychedelic writings of Guido von List and Siegfried Kummer*, and possibly inspired those of Swedish mad professor Sigurd Agrell. His runic gymnastics incorporated astrological ideas. “In Marby’s opinion, the Universe was awash with cosmic rays, which could be both received and transmitted by human beings. In addition, the beneficial influences of these rays could be increased by adopting certain physical postures in imitation of rune-forms (a practice with an obvious similarity to yoga).” (A. Baker, Invisible Eagle, 2000). It didn’t help either that Marby was unimpressed by his country’s anti-semitism.

As Kellgren said so drily, being insane doesn’t mean you’re a genius. And just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. But to my mind, Marby’s fate calls to mind the Falun Gong controversy. Just because you’re persecuted by a totalitarian regime, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t nuts.

* Kummer invented runic yodeling, as pointed out to me by Peter Olausson. Nobody seems to know if Kummer survived the war.

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A Tale of Demonic Possession

i-ecaa5f3df07c8adc7358e52c03c3a5dc-51Dbw8VeJZL._SL160_.jpgDaryl Gregory has published a number of very good short stories over the past few years, notably a few science fiction pieces based on neuropsychiatry. So I was very keen to read his first novel, Pandemonium (Ballantine/Del Ray 2008). Genrewise it’s modern fantasy in the sense that it takes place in a world much like ours where certain things happen that appear to be magical. As a consequence, the course of post-WW2 US history is different at some points.

The central fantastical idea in the novel is that humanity is haunted by a number of disembodied spirits that can possess people. Each spirit has its own trademark behaviour and often prefers people with certain characteristics, and so they can be recognised and given names. When a person becomes possessed by such a “demon”, such as on the book’s first page, people around wonder “Which demon is it this time?”. For instance there’s the “Angel of Death”, which possesses little girls, dresses the possessed body up in a white night gown and prowls hospital wards of the terminally ill, delivering an apparently magical kiss of death to inmates. Each demon can only occupy one body at a time. They rarely stay for long in one body. I’m not sure if they can “exist” without a human body. It may be that every demon is constantly possessing someone on the planet and playing out its built-in scenario repeatedly without pause. In one scene, a demon jumps instantly from one man to another in a group attacking its original body of a few days past and knocks them all out.

The book tells of a man who was possessed by a demon at age five and has suffered strange psychiatric problems since. We follow him as he tries a last-ditch effort to get help, and as a consequence ends up having violent adventures over a period of about two weeks. Many winks and nods to fans of genre fiction and comics. It’s a pretty good novel, though to my taste it suffers from pacing problems. The main characters do far too much gratuitous travelling to and fro, and I sometimes got impatient. This criticism is of course a bit of a compliment in itself since it shows that I cared about what was going to happen next. And pacing is a difficult part of the novelist’s art since it’s hard to read your own prose as if you didn’t know what was coming. But still, this novel is not as good as Daryl Gregory’s best short stories. But I’m looking forward to his second one, The Devil’s Alphabet, due out in November!

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Breaking and Making Bodies and Pots

i-6ede53501acac70dcf4f9214caa5b25d-Porträtt mini2 bw.jpgMy dear friend and fellow archaeo-blogger Åsa M. Larsson of Ting & Tankar has sent her PhD thesis off to the printers! This she has done with her supervisor’s blessing, which in Sweden means that she is for all practical purposes a PhD now. The viva is just a ritual and your committee can’t influence the thesis since it’s already been printed.

Åsa’s will take place at 1300 hours on Friday 18 September, in the Geijer auditorium, building 6, Humanities Centre, Engelska Parken, Uppsala, Sweden. Meet me there. As an Aardvarchaeology exclusive, here’s the abstract of Åsa’s as yet not even printed thesis: bleeding-edge osteo-archaeology about the Middle Neolithic B in the Lake Mälaren area, c. 2800-2400 cal BC.

Larsson, Åsa Maria 2009. Breaking and Making Bodies and Pots. Material and Ritual Practices in South Sweden in the Third Millennium BC. Aun 40. Department of Archaeology and Ancient History. Uppsala University.

In South Sweden the third millennium BC is characterised by coastal settlements of marine hunter-gatherers known as the Pitted Ware culture, and inland settlements of the Battle Axe culture. This thesis outlines the history of research of the Middle Neolithic B in general and that of the pottery and burial practices in particular. Material culture must be understood as the result of both conscious preferences and embodied practices: technology can be deliberately cultural just as style can be un-selfconscious routine.

Anthropological and ethno-archaeological research into craft and the transmission of learning in traditional societies shows how archaeologists must take into consideration the interdependence of mind and body when interpreting style, technology and change in prehistory. The pottery crafts of the Pitted Ware and Battle Axe cultures were not just fundamentally different technologically, but even more so in the attitudes toward authority, tradition, variation and the social role of the potter in the community. Battle Axe beakers represent a wholly new chaîne opératoire, probably introduced by a small group of relocated Beaker potters at the beginning of the period.

The different attitudes toward living bodies is highlighted further in the attitudes toward the dead bodies. In the mortuary ritual the Battle Axe culture was intent upon the creation and control of a perfect body which acted as a representative of the idealised notion of what it was to belong to the community. This focus upon completeness, continuation and control is echoed in the making of beakers using the ground-up remains of old vessels as temper. In contrast, the Pitted Ware culture people broke the bodies of the dead by defleshing, removal of body parts, cremation, sorting, dispersal and/or reburial of the bones on the settlements. The individuality of the living body was destroyed, leaving the durable but depersonalised bones to be returned to the joint collective of the ancestors. Just as the bodies were fragmented, so were the pots, sherds and bases being deposited in large quantities on the settlements and occasionally in graves. Some of the pots were also tempered with burnt and crushed bones. At the end of the Middle Neolithic the material and human remains show evidence of a growing effort to find a common ground in the two societies through sharing certain mortuary rituals and making beakers with a mix of both traditions, stylistically and technologically.

Keywords: Middle Neolithic, Late Neolithic, Pitted Ware culture, Battle Axe culture, Corded Ware culture, pottery, pottery technology, craft, chaîne opératoire, mortuary archaeology, mortuary house, burial, ritual, defleshing, cremation, secondary mortuary practice, osteology, ethnoarchaeology, culture, culture change, identity, ethnicity, practice, cognition, body, embodiment


In other news, I am very annoyed by a botched metaphor in a Maggi, Pierce & E.J. song. On their lovely 2005 triple album Silver is a song named “String of Pearls”.

I’m sorry my sweet love
Every day I spent with thee
Was like a string of pearls to me

What Maggi means here is clearly that each day with the one she loved was a pearl and that strung together they formed a string of pearls. Instead she tells us that every single one of the aforementioned days was an entire string of pearls. I just can’t get over it. Gah.

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150 Years of Continual Discoveries

Sean B. Carroll’s latest book has been sitting on my reading shelf (and been read by my wife) for over four months, but now I’ve finally read it. Remarkable Creatures is a collection of mini-biographies of people who have made important discoveries in evolutionary biology.

I won’t mention names, but we’ve got both of the scientists who discovered evolution, the guy who discovered mimicry, the man who found the first Homo erectus fossils on Java, the man who discovered the Cambrian Burgess shale with its soft-part fossils, the man who found the first dinosaur nests, the father and son team that figured out that the Cretaceous ended with an asteroid impact, the man who convinced paleontologists that birds are theropod dinosaurs, the man who found a fossil leggèd fish and named it Tiktaalik, the couple who finally focused hominid palaeontology’s attention on Africa, the man who got two Nobels and invented the molecular clock, and the people who applied it to Neanderthals.

Being a fan of Stephen Jay Gould I had read before about several of the earlier figures covered here. I could see that Carroll has left out some of the less flattering or simply weird bits of their intellectual biographies. But still, his book was an enjoyable read, very much focused on the adventurous side of making important discoveries and making sense of them. Its sub-title is “Epic adventures in the search for the origins of species”. The later half of the book held a lot of news for me, and I enjoyed it a lot, especially since we are shown how the work of each scholar built upon that of the forerunners. There’s an extensive bibliography and an index, and so the book will work well for reference purposes and as an entry point for further reading. But anyone with a bit of intellectual curiosity may simply read it for fun.

For a longer review, check out Brian Switek’s at Laelaps from back in April. I reviewed S.B. Carroll’s book about evo-devo, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, in 2006.

My Bird Ring

My son just got back from a happy week on Hallands Väderö, a small island nature reserve off the southwestern coast of Sweden. It reminds me of my own visit there at about his age and the bird ring I found.

We were staying in BÃ¥stad on the mainland for a week, and I remember having a lot of fun despite my parents having a number of violent tearful fights. The worst of them got sparked when I complained about how boring my visit to Hallands Väderö had been: my dad was angry with me for complaining, my mom defended me, and soon they were fighting again — so I thought it was my fault. And the island’s name has remained a sore spot with me since.

But anyway, the bird ring. On the island I found the dry leg of a dead bird on the seashore, soft tissue almost gone, sinews still holding it together, foot still covered with skin. And around the lower leg, an aluminium ring with a series of digits and the name of the Swedish Museum of Natural History.

Stupidly, I hung on to that ring for 15-20 years before sending it to the museum. Better late than never, I guess. And they told me that the bird had been a gull that had received the ring on that very island a few weeks before my visit. A data point in the study of the fate of birds.

What about you, Dear Reader — have you ever found a bird ring?

Me And My Tea

I love black tea, and by that I mean brews from leaves of Camellia sinensis and C. s. assamica, nothing else, milk and sugar please.

Earl Grey is basically Assam flavoured with oil of bergamot, a citrus fruit. It’s OK if there’s no plain tea. But many café employees believe that Earl Grey is plain tea.

Sometimes I drink honeybush which is kind of nice, but that’s another plant and nothing compared to real tea. I don’t like rooibos much.

Here are my favourite teas.

  • Assam CTC. This is Crushed, Torn and Curled Assamica. Dark, strong, the main ingredient in “English breakfast”.
  • Yunnan (Swedes, this is pronounced “jynnän”; Anglophones, you will never learn to pronounce that first vowel) and Keemun. Chinese black teas with a hint of woodsmoke, like delicate versions of the outrageous Lapsang souchong.
  • Black tea dust. This is actually considered low-budget stuff, but it makes for a strong brew which is what I mainly care about.

I don’t like these:

  • Oolong and Darjeeling. Sour-tasting.
  • Ceylon. Weak unsatisfying stuff. Maybe I should try grinding Ceylon into dust.

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Don’t Miss the Perseids

Did you notice something funny about the Google logo yesterday? It was full of falling stars. This marked the maximum of this year’s Perseid meteor shower. Every year about this time, Earth moves through the exhaust cloud left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle. When gravel and sand from the comet enters our atmosphere the grains burn brightly, looking like shooting stars. The meteor shower, that has been known for over 2000 years, looks like it originates in the constellation named for the Greek hero Perseus. But Swift-Tuttle itself wasn’t observed until 1862!

Last night before bed time me and my wife lay down flat on our backs on a blanket in the yard and looked up for a while. Because of cloud cover and ground light we saw only a few bright stars and no Perseids. But tonight is going to be another good one for falling stars. Check them out!

Update 14 August: Saw one! And a surprising number of artificial satellites, little moving dots. And an air plane.

Wikipedia Cracks Down On Cult Propagandists

One of my pastimes is writing on Wikipedia. It’s almost unavoidable since I use the encyclopedia daily and keep running into stuff to correct — facts, spelling, stylistic mishaps. In the past, though, I’ve been really discouraged when trying to improve the articles about Falun Gong (a.k.a. Chinese Scientology). They used to be a battleground between Chinese Communist Party loyalists and Falun Gong devotees, both sides trying to cram as much propaganda into the articles as possible. Then the FGers managed to get the CCP guys banned from editing, which was excellent in itself. Unfortunately it led to a prolonged situation where the articles were entirely taken over by cult propagandists, some of whom checked the articles five times a day. And then I got involved. As it turned out, I could do very little on my own.

But back in May, English Wikipedia barred all users on servers belonging to the Church of Scientology from editing the encyclopedia, and two dozen individual user accounts on Wikipedia were zapped too because they had been used extensively to push the Scientology agenda. The crackdown took a lot of work since these decisions aren’t made lightly: you need to document in detail why somebody needs to get kicked out. And now a similar clean-up effort has reached the Falun Gong pages. A swarm of experienced Wikipedians with no pro-FG or pro-CCP agenda has descended on them. Yesterday the nastiest of the FGers (a fellow Scandy, no less) was banned for six months from touching any of the FG articles. And the delicious irony is that this is the very same guy who got the CCP propagandists thrown out!

The reason behind all this clean-up is of course that if a person looks up an organisation on Wikipedia, then the article will be pretty useless if it’s written by people with any sort of passionate relationship to that organisation. If they hate it, if they love it, they’re not the right people to write about it. Myself, I dislike both FG and CCP since I see them as a crazy cult and a totalitarian regime respectively, but I can’t say that I have any strong feelings about either. I just want those articles to be fair, well-sourced and factually correct.

I must admit that I am kind of passionate, though, about those FG propagandists on Wikipedia who kept erasing everything I wrote. So the ongoing change is a double pleasure for me: a set of much-read Wikipedia articles will finally become worth reading, and the doublespeaking cultists I’ve had to deal with get their just deserts.

But on Wikipedia, vigilance must be eternal, because one day new propagandists will appear. They’ll start small just to see if anybody’s paying attention…

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Chasing after the Wind

I was brought up to believe that I am special. I was told that I am unusually smart and gifted. Whether or not this is true, it has given me a deep-seated expectation of myself to do great(ish) things, to achieve a bit more than the average Joe, to stand out from the crowd, to gain recognition.

Most people of course achieve very little that is noteworthy beyond the solid humble everyday victories of a quiet life. I’m sure that most people do not have a sense that this is in any way insufficient. I’m also sure that many of these average achievers have talent and potential far beyond that needed to live a standard life. They just don’t expect of themselves to do any more than the average person. I believe they are by and large content.

The skills and training I have are not much sought after. There is very little professional demand for me. This clashes badly with my grandiose ideas about myself. I achieve things that I am proud of on a small one-man-project scale, but few care, and I gain little recognition. I am frustrated.

So I’m thinking that maybe it isn’t such a good idea to tell your kids they’re anything else than just plain Joe & Jill. Because regardless of how talented (or not) they are, it is clearly possible to live a happy life without standing out in any way. It might be better for the world if every talented person were encouraged to achieve their maximum. We’d get more scientific breakthroughs, more great art and music, more just and competent leaders that way. But it is probably not in general good for people to be thus encouraged, since most will still not achieve much — only feel the expectation to do so. What good does it really do me, for instance, to believe that I should be a university lecturer and head projects involving thirty people?

Think about it. A child of sub-average or average talent will almost certainly not be happier if they grow up to believe that they should be able to accomplish great things. But nor will in most cases a child of above-average talent. Because smart people are a dime a dozen. There isn’t any great demand for them.