Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Folding Cranes

An afternoon array of colored paper
opens before us on the table.
We study the photographs:
cranes dance, necks bowed,
black and white against the forest.

Making patterns, we fold and fold again,
Lines cross the midpoint,
still precise fold on fold, symmetrical.

Let the parts of the triangle flatten,
refold in upon itself to the secret parts,
our fingers find the way,
split triangles become legs. We pull edges,
and the heads and tails emerge.
We fold down the flapping triangle,
and our birds have wings.
We puff a small breath inside the paper bird,
and finally,
the cranes unfold before us,
a thousand cranes unfold.

Image from:
Tim Laman, National Geographic Posted by Picasa

Sunday, October 09, 2005

About humanities. Why study it? Why teach it? Imagine one end of a ladder grounded on the earth and the other kind of waving in the sky. The bottom of the ladder, its end resting solidly on the ground, represents our connection to the earth, our ability to use our 5 senses to understand, translate, and interact with reality – to touch, to smell, to taste, to hear, and to see. As we move up the ladder of abstraction, we use words that are progressively more abstract. We’re talking here about the universe, the cosmos, things that we imagine or think about, but that we may not be able to validate with our senses. Both faith and science come into play here. We have theories and perhaps hope, but no solid answers.

This ladder of abstraction is actually Chomsky’s flying ladder. Borrowing from linguistics, let’s imagine Chomsky’s flying ladder, where both ends of the ladder are waving in the air and the ladder is constantly swaying back and forth. He came up with this metaphor to describe how we mentally create language, that delicate and continual balance between selecting words (diction) and choosing the order those words appear (syntax). How do I know what I’m going to say until I say it is rather true. From Chomsky’s point of view, the ladder sways back and forth between vocabulary (diction) and sentence structure (or word order, syntax).

It’s this ladder that I am climbing on when I talk about comparative religions and comparative cultures because this level of understanding is about understanding others from outside the culture and, at heart, it’s about understanding ourselves, our hopes and dreams. Bad things happen. We are violent and cruel, greedy and rapacious. And we are insulated from the worst of human behavior. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist nor does it mean we are freed from the responsibility of caring for others or working to change the world.

But, what does the study of humanities bring us? If we are in a circumstance where the life of the mind and soul are not nurtured, studying what a sense of aesthetics brought to other cultures can bring us hope, perhaps a direction, perhaps answers. Some of us will need to function closer to the bottom of the ladder of abstraction; some of us are drawn to the world of ideals, Plato’s “perfect forms”. Some of us love argument, the heat of debate; others prefer not to think about theories at all. But the humanities, that is truly humanism, the valuing of human experience, comes right from the Greeks, and helps us see what is good and beautiful. We may disagree about individual works of art or music. We may not even like dance or theater. We may be nonbelievers or devout. But some of the time, we are connected by a common appreciation of craft, or skill, or vision, or belief. Just that awareness of beauty in our lives can help us to cope with the reality of human existence. That every day is not a paradise. That we may confront the reality that life can be nasty, brutish and short. That exploitations exist. That wars happen and loved ones die. That sometimes others die that we may live and our children live in a world that hopefully always has room for the creative spirit. And for beauty. And for love in the largest possible sense that expands to include the entire human family. And that’s why I teach humanities.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

On time for writing poetry. This week, a colleague, Terrance, and I were talking about poetry, journal writing and the lack of time . . . so I thought I'd look at what surrounds me as I drive to work each day. We had talked a little in humanities class about how prehistoric peoples must have been very aware of the weather; their lives often depended on "reading" the weather, while today we remain oblivious, most of the time, unless ice storms come. So I tried to look at the weather, to "read" it like my grandfather would (he was a cowboy in Wyoming at the turn of the century), by scanning the sky. Here's the weather report from this week, so far, written in bits each day as I drove to work.

October Weather Report

Early Tuesday morning,
clumps of clouds
hang low over the valley
as if they had fallen -- like stars,
like dreams too close to the earth.

On Wednesday, gray dimples fill the sky,
flecks of light at the horizon hint at the sun,
while trees shiver yellow.

Thursday, brilliant sun blinks and twins to moon,
traceries of cloud alternately hide and reveal the sun.
Wispy streamers of gray drift, filling up the sky.
Pale yellow bands light the edge of the world,
now yellow, gray and blue,
layered in morning harmony.

On Friday, what a curious mix of sky and dark cloud,
as if yesterday's god, Thor, Norse god of Thunder,
slumbered amid rumpled gray clouds along the horizon,
ignoring that one bolt of bright sun above,
dreaming of what giants, what wild nights,
lost in the morning,
as rain smudges the line of hills
where earth meets sky.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Detail of Chiwara Mask from Bambara of Mali, Africa. The first time I saw a chiwara mask was in the video, African Art, which had just a small clip of people in a small village talking about the importance of this ritual dance, done just before planting. The dance/ritual commemorated how the Bambara learned how to till the ground with a tool rather than by hand, probably adapted from the antelope's horns. The video vividly shows the mask in context, costume, drum, music, and that thin line between forest and field. But a photograph can never capture the artifact itself -- which Gary Westford has made more accessible to us by creating the library display at LBCC. Very few of us can ever hope to see the chiwara mask as it was meant to be experienced, at the center of ritual.

This impressive mask is about 3 feet tall, with intricate carvings. Some sources report that only men dance with the chiwara mask; however, the masks themselves answer this question as we can see two styles of chiwara -- male and female. Gary's mask (above) shows a male mask; the woman's mask inclues a baby antelope; she symbolizes the earth, the baby symbolizes humankind.

The costume in the African Art video is made of raffia (a kind of straw), and Parrinder (see below) shows a mask with black and white cloth decorated with symbols of the universe. The ritual itself is to ensure fertility -- of the crops and of the community, much like the underlying roots to our own Passover or Easter for spring planting, and then in the fall, somewhat like Succot or Thanksgiving for harvest.Posted by Picasa

Chiwara Mask from Bambara of Mali, Africa, Gary Westford exhibit, Linn-Benton Community College Library, Albany, Oregon. Posted by Picasa

Wedding Portrait Mask, Ghana, Africa. Gary Westford at LBCC put together an amazing exhibit of African artifacts at our main campus library, including this wonderful mask that shows two faces coming together as one. I don't know more about this mask, but I'm fascinated by the double image for in Benin (also in Southwest Africa), traditional stories about sacred or heavenly twins are common, originally from creation stories. Could this mask be actually a mask of twins but sold to tourists as a "wedding portrait mask"? My question comes because usually masks show gender -- and here the gender is subsumed. That could be reinforcing the melding of two to one in a marriage. So, more research is needed.

Geoffrey Parrinder talks about the primeval twins who were the parents of all other gods. Their first act was to create 7 pairs of twins (for example, the twins of Storm), all to rule different aspects of the earth, a neat turn on animism (page 23) in African Mythology (New York: Barnes & Noble 1996). Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

No way to post pictures, but this morning I´m writing from a little internet cafe in San Miguel de Allende in Gto., Mexico. The door is open to let a few fresh breezes in, and the taxis, cars of every description, including the infamous SUV, trucks, busses, and the occasional dune buggy, all pass by, bumping over historic cobblestone streets. San Miguel is still unforgettably lovely. We were first here over 30 years ago and the city has grown much. The biblioteca is still the biggest English language library in all of Mexico, although the collection is very dated. Literacy programs and scholarships for Mexican children are the main focus. Retirees clog the downtown area, and the artisan's market is still filled with colorful and beautiful Mexican crafts, more expensive than I ever imagined. What I will remember most are the rooftop gardens with sweeping vistas, and houses with bouganville cascading down their sides, incredibly fresh mangos, bananas, and avacados, and patient people who speak Spanish slowly. Each morning, the birds -- including a lovely white egret -- flock from Benito Juarez part, just two blocks from our little apartment, and the writing goes well. Beth

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Roman mosaic found in Turkey telling story of the birth of the Minotaur and Daedalus' design of the labyrinth. The interesting story of this mosaic is that NOVA writes it up with an emphasis on Daedalus and Icarus, even to the title of this mosaic. Here's NOVA's summary.

"When King Minos of Crete [center] decided to keep alive a magnificent bull that Poseidon had given him for sacrifice, the sea god punished him by having Minos's wife Pasiphae (seated at left in the mosaic) fall in love with the bull. To satisfy her desire, the architect Daedalus and his son Icarus (second from right and far right, respectively) built her a hollow cow in which she could hide and mate with the bull. Their coupling produced the half-man, half-bull Minotaur, which was shut away in the maze-like Labyrinth (upper right)."

The female figure between King Minos and Pasiphae remains a mystery. The central figure remains King Minos, linked to his wife on the left, yet reaching out to Daedalus on the right. Pasiphae is shown seated, looking somewhat self-satisfied, self-absorbed. Researchers speculate that the laybrinth, shown on the far right as a separate building, is actually the entire palace complex at Minos on Knossos for its hundreds of connecting rooms and hallways. What is the moral of this story: To disobey the gods brings horrific retribution? That our desires or curiosity cannot always be satisfied? That we cannot always confront what we create -- with human technology? How interesting that this particular scene, massive in size, was chosen for the floor of this Roman villa in Turkey. Which characters shown drawn your sympathy? I'm curious about that woman in the middle. Is she a servant? A messenger? A goddess herself? Is she perhaps the storyteller herself (see the outstretched hand), or is she the mistress of the house in which this mosaic was found?

Source of story and mosaic: Posted by Hello
Saturday morning, early. Spring term is finally over! Whew! What a rush at the end with last-minute papers, a mix of celebration and completion for most. This morning up far too early but Allen called me in to see a few minutes of NOVA's breathtaking story about the Roman mosaics found in Turkey. 10 mosaics were discovered just before (or perhaps because of) a new dam that would drench this historic area with a new lake. The expressiveness of these mosaics, the brilliance of their colors -- and the really fine recreation of a Roman villa in the Hellenistic period make this site one to visit:
And now that summer's begun, it's time to blog once more. So, into the breach, blog!

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Virgin with Christ child and Jerusalem crown, Westminster Abbey, London, July 2004. Posted by Hello On Friday, in a rather large and impersonal classroom, I gave the slide-show on Israel at school. I was concerned before hand and felt even after, the overall talk didn't say everything I wanted. So here's a place to put the ideas down. Part of the problem is that religion is involved. Who could consider traveling to Israel and not be drawn to the topic of religion and Jerusalem? So, writing my ideas down will help me crystalize my thinking -- even if there's no time, not enough time for this kind of writing.

Why begin with a sculpture outside Westminster Abbey in London, when I want to talk about Jerusalem? The statue is conventional and beautiful, with a curious city floating above her head. I found this city-crown floating over hundreds of church sculptures -- saints and the virgin. Finally, in an orientation by a man who studied church architecture his entire life, finally, at Chartres Cathedral, in France, I learned the mystery behind these curious city-crowns. They represent Jerusalem and the longing of the Christian medieval world to reclaim the birthplace of Jesus from the Muslims.

For at this time, just after the turning of the millenium, powerful religious, economic and political factors fused to bring the Western Christian world in a series of brutal Crusades against the Muslim world, which at that time dominated the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, from eastern Turkey, through Palestine, Egypt, across northern Africa and up to well over half of Spain. People from every class joined the Crusades over a 200 year period, in five separate waves, the First Crusade called by Pope Innocent III, not to convert lost souls to Christianity, but to reclaim the heart of Christianity -- Jerusalem.

We cannot understand Jerusalem and the current state of Israel without understanding the history of enmity that permeates her culture.

My talk explored the story of Masada, and then returned to Jerusalem to look at three sacred spots: the Wailing Wall, sacred to Jews as a tangible reminder and place to mourn the loss of the Second Temple, which was destroyed in the year 70, and itself represented the rebuilding of King Solomon's First Temple that held the Ark of the Covenant; the Church of the Holy Sepulchure, built originally by St. Helena, sister to Emperor Constantine, in 345, and sacred to Christians as the church that marks the crucifixion of Christ (five Stations of the Cross are placed inside this church); and the Dome of the Rock, sacred to Muslims, for that golden-domed mosque built in 691 was placed where Mohammed left for his Night Journey, his footprint embedded in the Foundation Stone which rests at the center of the mosque. And yet enmity and the potential for violence permeate the culture of Jerusalem, despite the confluence of these three major religions.

Part 1 (next time) Masada. Please leave a comment if you like; I think they're working now. Beth

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Saturday's visit to the University of Oregon's newly refurbished museum found me fascinated by two artists -- Kiki Smith and Rick Barstow. I cannot remember what the docent said about Kiki Smith's The Blue Lake because the image was so compelling. I was drawn immediately into the ferocious gaze of the main figure, the distortions, the compelling sense the brown hair was the earth and the woman herself, her body was the lake. Was the painting a mediatation inward, blue the color chosen to remind us of death, of drowning?

The second artist, Rick Barstow, had intrigued me on my first visit because the painting was so dramatic, a deer (?) head affixed to a male torso, intense colors, no arms, helpless but why? Echoes of the Green Man myth perhaps? The docent added that not only was Barstow a Native American artist, but that he was a Vietnam vet. Transformations. Uniquely male view.

Immediately I jumped to the net to explore more of both of these artists. Kiki Smith is already well established, showing at MOMA in New York, but Rick Barstow also has a New York presence in SoHo. I haven't had time to write about what I learned, but I appreciate being able to see more than one work by these two artists, for their interests, ideas and creativity are inspirational, challenging, and compelling.

Kiki Smith at MOMA:
Exhibits: and

Rick Barstow art and statement on being a Native American artist NPR Interview
A Time of Visions:
Barstow at the Froelick Gallery, Portland OR
Interview at:

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

It's Tuesday morning. Help! I need a reminder as to why I should like Lord Byron. I know he's considered a great Romantic poet and is revered by the Greeks for his support of their drive to nationalism, but I see his life glorified, and I just get mad.

Here's a man who created himself, not a bad feat. Born with a club foot and overweight, teased dreadfully as he was growing up, he retired to his estate, lived on crackers and water, and then surrounded himself with a coterie of freinds who gathered at wild parties, complete with dancing girls and drinking wine from a skull's head.

When his early poems were published, he became the darling of society. Women were drawn to his beauty and his passion (as well as his nobility), and it didn't matter to him that they might be married or innocent. In fact, he considered women an ornament -- women should not eat in public, he said, it mars their beauty. His liaisons contributed to his death as well; hailed as a hero for going to Greece in a time of their war for independence, he was caught in a rain storm while travelling to be with his married lover, caught a severe cold and died.

Some of the lines of his poems echo in my heart. When I was younger, I idolized him. Today, I see the context of his life and realize how many men patterned their behavior and attitudes toward women after him. So I take it nearly as a personal affront.

Fiero's treatment of Byron is far too sympathetic. She says he was
"alienated from society" (35) and that he was fascinated by the myth of Prometheus "as a symbol of triumphant individualism". My point is he made choices; Prometheus acted for the good of humanity, stealing fire/knowledge from the gods. But Byron's fire is passion without integrity. I have the feeling I'm not being fair. Give me a reason to care again about Byron. Beth

Source: Gloria K. Fiero, The Humanistic Tradition, Vol 5: Romanticism, Realism and the 19th Century World. McGraw-Hill, 2002.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

So, the challenge of today to talk about plagiarism and scholarly integrity! Ha! I feel like Don Quixote tilting. The ease of access to so many fine ideas provides much temptation to my students who copy and paste with abandon -- and then freewrite. So, today, using the fantastic paintings of Hieronymous Bosch and the crackpot theory that a viewer can possibly tell if a Catholic Reformation or Protestant rebellion is coded in these 15th and 16th Century paintings, we shall explore the issues of plagiarism. More later!

Monday, February 07, 2005

Detail of wall hangings, Street of the Tentmakers, Cairo, Egypt.

Tonight I'm feeling just a little recovered from the awful cold that's going around and getting ready to read a set of papers. First, what are these wall hangings? These hand-sewn applique quilted hangings, roughly 3 x 4 feet, are crafted in small open-air shops along the Street of the Tentmakers in Old Cairo.

Here, in the space of a roughly 8 x 10 workspace/shop, 2 or 3 teenaged boys will sit cross-legged, under the eye of the shop manager, and spend their day stitching traditional Islamic designs backed with canvas. Once the tentmakers along this street served the carvans along the famed Silk Road with colorful tents; today, some shops specialized in larger, brilliantly colored, sheet-sized quilts to decorate weddings, restaurants, or a butcher's shop.

The Street of the Tentmakers is just far enough away from tourist tours to be quiet, yet the workmanship is exquisite. The young men were pleased to have their work praised; I knew from the high unemployment rates that they were also pleased to have a job, for we often met cabdrivers with university degrees. We were able to bring just one small hanging home to treasure.

The traditional Islamic designs carry more meaning than I've been able to decipher. I can see the repetition, the geometric "frame and meander" that is traditional. Almashriq's article says the designs come from the mosaic floors in medieval mosques, where design is not left to chance.

For more historical background and more detailed pictures, see this site:
For more pictures of a traditional shop, see:
but now it's truly time to read papers!

A question I've never been able to answer is how do we justify such differences in the standards of living in our world? Posted by Hello

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Ariane ivory miniature. Posted by Hello

Detail of Ariadne, with satyr and winged cupids, from Constantinople, 6th Century. Ivory miniature (about 5" tall), Museum of Middle Ages, Paris. This beautiful little miniature is fascinating for its sad expression and mixture of Byzantine and classical elements. So is this Ariadne AFTER she's abandoned by Theseus? Note she's holding a staff (symbol of power or healing?) and a bowl (allusion to water?), with one breast exposed (reference to Amazons?). Many miniatures of this period and place (Constantinople) were of the Christ or religous themes, but here we find a classical theme, retelling the famous story of Ariadne, the woman who told Theseus how to find his way through the labyrinth, following her thread. His mission: to kill the dreaded Minotaur, ending the annual sacrifice of 7 pairs of maidens and young men, tribute from Athens to Knossos, also marking the shift of political power from the island of Crete to Greece.

Today is a quiet day, with many papers to read. Tomorrow we talk about Mesoamerican culture in humanities; perhaps that's the connection for we always wind up talking about human sacrifice. Time for tea. Beth

Posted by Hello

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

ROMAN BATHS, BATH, ENGLAND. No one's allowed to go bathing now in these Roman baths, used for many hundreds of years by priests, royalty, and later, the aristocracy. When Rome pulled out, the baths were taken over by the locals and preserved. What amused me most were the many offerings to the gods made here, so that bathing was much more spiritual than today. And curses! "A plague be visited on the foul unmentionable one who took my toga!" These curses were etched on tiny tin or copper scrolls and then tossed into the pools as an offering to the goddess, along with coins. And, in an inner room, a large pool completely enclosed was reserved for the priests and for healing. A niche held a statue of the goddess.
Posted by Hello

ARTIFACT OF THE DAY: Roman god Mercury with Celtic consort Rosmerta and 3 hooded deities. I know this is a rotten picture, but it's truly fascinating for its mix of ideas and cultures.

This sculpture (currently in the Musuem of the Roman Baths, in Bath, England) is badly worn, details of expression long gone. Rosmerta was known for her healing power; here she sits on a throne equally with Mercury, and carries a healing wand. In Britain, with Mercury, she is part of a divine couple (fused female and male divinity, rather different from the Christian hierarchy). She also sometimes appears with a cornucopia, a scroll, or a bucket (as here), or close to sacred waters.

Equally interesting are those three hooded figures at the bottom of the picture, called genii cucullati and shown with a mysterious animal. Some trace these three women (how can we tell they're women as this sculpture is so worn, but apparently, those short, heavy cloaks are icons themselves) back to the three aspects of mother goddess, worshipped widely during pagan times during the Winter Solstice (now Christmas), symbolizing abundance -- or perhaps abundance in womanly-ways -- wealth, wisdom, fertility, and healing as well. The animal lends a somewhat sinister air to modern eyes -- perhaps a familiar (too large?) or a lion/dog (symbol of the wild)? One essay links Roman, Celtic and Germanic traditions in the "Bethen", a female trio later transformed to saints under Christianity -- all marytred, all beheaded, all protectors of girls and women in some aspect of birth, fertility and death. All in all, a long way from home, yet the artifacts remain.

Additional sources:
and and

Posted by Hello

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Hathor column, Deir el-Bahri, Hatshepsut's Tomb. ARTIFACT OF THE DAY. Posted by Hello Hatshepsut's statues could be torn down, her prayers effaced, but the tomb remains, monumental, of stone, and enduring. She lived nearly 4,000 years ago, and ruled as the first female Pharoah for nearly 20 years, first as regent for the young Tuthmosis III, and then on her own. The picture shows columns still standing in a small temple dedicated to Hathor on the left side of the tomb. Other reliefs throughout the tomb show Hatshepsut's accomplishments; she negotiated and fought battles with Nubians, and a monumental frieze documents her expedition to the ancient city-state of Punt (today, Somalia), showing marvelous sea creatures, boats, gifts and giant mounds of incense. The frieze is now very difficult to see, colors worn away by sun and wind. An authorized copy was made of this very large frieze; the museum copy is now sharply incised and more brilliantly painted than the original.

Every image I brought back from sabbatical has a different story. If I listen just to the guides and read the printed materials available at site, I get one level. If after coming home, I look at popular articles, I get another level. And if I have good research materials, I get a third level. Hatshepsut is a case in point. We were told on site that the pharoahs after Hatshepsut destroyed and defaced her statues, and worked to erase her name from the list of pharoahs and from all memory because they didn't want to record a female pharoah. The next level of research reveals that indeed, she reigned as pharoah, regent and king for nearly 20 years, but popular stories affirm she was a peaceful ruler (being a woman, of course). The next layer of research reveals that she went on at least two military expeditions as well as the fabled expedition to Punt. And that other women ruled as "kings" and pharoahs of Egypt.

Hathor is typically shown with a female face, full hair, and cow's ears. I like to say Hathor's the original cow girl, but her identities were many and her power was recognized everywhere -- even to Abu Simbel. Hathor, a sky and cow goddess, was considered the Mistress of the West (traditionally the land of the dead, the direction of the dying sun), and placed near tombs or shown offering the ankh, the symbol of life to the pharoah, at once protecting and nurturing the ka or soul of the departed. Many offerings would be brought to Hathor during the Beautiful Feast of the Valley in a magnificent procession. So, Hathor brought hope at the moment of death. I think I'm fascinated by her because Hathor is decidedly female; she looks like someone we might know -- if we could set aside her ears.

Frieze of celebrants, Valley of the Queens, Hatshepsut's Tomb. Posted by Hello Notice the very lively figures, balanced, harmonious, yet full of energy and movement.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Late Bronze Age: ARTIFACT OF THE DAY: Boetia Madonna Posted by Hello. I spotted this variation of the seated "plank" goddess in a small case in the British Museum. These smaller (about hand size) terracotta figurines were made of clay, flat on one side, with more details on the front side, sometimes with only the face shown in any detail. This is a particularly fine "plank goddess" given the details of the modeling. These figurines were often thrown into lakes, found as burial or temple offerings, or (in some variations) found in house rubble as goddesses of the hearth. Note the crown, Greek dress peplum and the details of the swaddling on the baby. It's not certain who she is -- a later version of Ishtar with child? Aphrodite? The location of Boetia puts her in sometime in the Bronze Age, but the details of the figure suggest a later date. I'm interested in the theme of mother and child, venerated well before Christianity. As always, more information is needed!

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Inside Blue Mosque, Istanbul. Posted by Hello

Islamic Istanbul: ARTIFACT OF THE DAY. One question we were often asked while in Istanbul was which was more beautiful, the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sofia. Here you can see the shimmering light filtered by stained glass windows, comparable to any in the West, and the soaring pillars and domes, each surface with ceramic tiles. At the bottom of the picture, electric lights shimmer where candles once were placed in the traditional wired pattern that seems to float.

Built between 1609-1616 for Sultan Ahmet I, the Blue Mosque is directly across from Hagia Sofia, and dazzles the eye with its fine ceramic (called faience wall panels), the blue and green drawing the eye upward and out. Until the 19th Century, according to guidebooks, the pilgrimage to Mecca began here from the Blue Mosque. Visitors are welcomed. We remove our shoes at the door and even in large groups are hushed to silence by the beauty of this sacred space.

Who can answer which is more beautiful? For me, the Blue Mosque seems integrated, one main architectural idea synthesizing prayer, while the colder and older Hagia Sofia (built originally about 330 CE and then rebuilt by Justinian in 533 as the Church of Holy Wisdom. Justinian exclaimed on entering the completed church, "Glory be to God, who has thought me worthy to finish this work! Solomon, I have surpassed thee!"

Hagia Sofia, converted from its Christian roots to an Islamic mosque in 1947 and now a museum, juxtaposes Christian mosaics with Islamic architectural elements -- the mihrab contains a piece of the holy stone from Mecca.

Both are large places of worship, the Blue Mosque can hold 10,000 and Hagia Sofia seems even larger. Walking along the upper floor of Hagia Sofia, we can stand where Justinian's empress Theodosia once stood, looking over the great inner court. If I were a Christian pilgrim, perhaps Hagia Sofia would resonate more clearly. If I were an Islamic pilgrim, I think both places would have a deeply spiritual sense about them. Looking strictly at the unity of the two buildings, the Blue Mosque offers its visitors layers of harmony.

Decide for yourself by visiting the Hagia Sofia at and the Blue Mosque at A longer essay on Hagia Sofia during Justinian's time can be read at and another travelogue votes for the Hagia Sofia instead of the Blue Mosque at

Detail of ceramic ceiling, Blue Mosque, Istanbul. Posted by Hello

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Medusa head at bottom of column, Istanbul, Turkey Posted by Hello

ARTIFACT OF THE DAY. This stone head at the base of a Roman column can be found in the innermost deepest part of a small waterworks museum in Istanbul, near the Haga Sofia and hippodrome. The museum allows visitors to wander a series of boardwalks around an underground water works from Roman times; I took these pictures while on sabbatical there in March 2004.

Medusa, one of the three Gorgon sisters, with snakes intwined in her hair, commonly appeared on such columns at important buildings in ancient Greece and Rome. Originally, Medusa was a very beautiful woman who fell in love with Perseus. Mythology tells us that Athena became jealous of Medusa, and transformed her so that anyone who looked at Medusa would turn to stone (a feminist would ask: Is this the appropriate end for female beauty, a target of jealousy?). Even so, Perseus eventually killed Medusa, beheading her, thus ending her hypnotic power. Yet, the image of Medusa also appears frequently on Roman armour and shields, offering protection in battle. And statues of Perseus killing Medusa appear again and again.

Here, in this small museum, what's fascinating is that the column is turned upside down, as if to deliberately end the power of Medusa, yet in some way, continue her protection, as her face is not defaced or destroyed. Stephen Harris and Gloria Platzner, in their book Classical Mythology, point out the conflict between matriarchal and patriarchal belief systems (pages 123+):

"As long as death is perceived as part of the ongoing cycle of life, death, and rebirth, the Goddess's serpent is portrayed as a beneficent creature. Once the patriarchal perspective takes hold, however, death becomes the final blow to the hero's ego, and the Goddess's Underworld functions come to seem terrifying. The once beautiful serpent is now transformed into the hero's perpetual enemy, the dragon."

Harris and Platzner go on to refer specifically to the Greek Gorgon sisters (Stheno, Euryale and Medusa), showing a Gorgon from a marble relief at a temple of Artemis at Corfu (6th Century BCE), "whose bulging eyes, protruding tongue, and hair of snakes, along with her belt of entwined snakes, render her a truly hideous figure" (123). Since the snake is such an important symbol to east and west, how interesting this symbol is converted from a sign of power and protection to a female mask that one must destroy out of revulsion.

See the Gorgon pediment (west facade of the Doric Temple of Artemis) at the Archaeological Museum of Corfu at