Archaeological shout-outs!

Greetings gentle readers! I know it’s been an absurdly long time since my last post and once again, production schedules are to blame. I’ve finished one show and moved right on to the next so the good news is you’ll all have some fun stuff to watch starting in January. Until then, I’ve got 2 rather cool updates from some equally cool sites/organizations. Give ’em a read and who knows, you might even feel inspired to join up on one of their upcoming projects or pay them a visit!

For all you US natives, next time you’re in Illinois make a point to go see what was once the largest city in pre-Columbian North America and give our very own Mississippian cultures some much-needed love!

Many of the great mounds are still there and there’s even a Woodhenge! Be sure to keep an eye out for cultural similarities between the mound builders and the more well-known civilizations of Mexico and Latin America. Speaking of which…

Maya Research Project
If Mayan and/or Aztec archaeology is more your speed, here’s all the info for the upcoming 2012 field season! It’s open to everyone, so even if you’re no longer a student (like me!) but still want to get out in the field and do some work, you can!

The Maya Research Program is a U.S.-based non-profit organization (501C3) that sponsors archaeological and ethnographic research in Middle America. Each summer since 1992, we have sponsored archaeological fieldwork at the ancient Maya site of Blue Creek in northwestern Belize. In 2012 we again offer opportunities to participate in our field program and learn about the Maya of the past and today.

The Blue Creek project is open to student and non-student participants, regardless of experience. The field school is certified by the Register of Professional Archaeologists and participants will receive training in archaeological field and laboratory techniques. 

Academic credit and scholarships are available.

We invite students and volunteers to participate in the Maya Research Program’s 21st year of our Blue Creek archaeological project in Belize.

2012 Field Season Dates:

Session 1: Monday May 28 – Sunday June 10; Session 2: Monday June 11 – Sunday June 24 ; Session 3: Monday July 2 – Sunday July 15; Session 4: Monday July 16 – Sunday July 29

Until next time, gentle readers!

This is a mythology post!

Tricksy Tricksters

Greetings, oh gentlest of readers, and welcome to yet another mythology post! Today we’ll be taking a look at the often misunderstood trickster gods of various cultures. Pull up a comfy chair, grab some popcorn and get ready to learn about the fine art of tricks from the old school masters. Allons-y!

A half-god half-giant, Loki is one of the more colorful deities in the Norse pantheon. He’s an extremely crafty shapeshifter and sometimes turns into salmon. When not being a salmon, Loki tends to be busy causing problems for the rest of the Æsir His children, Hel, Fenrir and Jormungandr, are not the most pleasant bunch and neither is Loki. After a number of exploits including his active participation in the death of the much-loved god Baldr, Loki ended up tied to a rock deep underground (sometimes in Hel depending on who’s telling the story) while a venomous snake slowly dripped venom onto his body. His wife, Sigyn, holds a bowl to catch the venom but every now and then she has to empty it. When the venom does hit Loki, this causes (understandably) violent convulsions which in turn cause earthquakes. Ta da! There are many stories about Loki using his craftiness for a variety of means, usually at the expense of the other Æsir. Whether it’s tricking Odin into using a shape-shifted giant as a stonemason to build a wall around Valhalla in Midgard or trying in vain to out-eat a giant who is really the personification of fire, Loki always emerges with a few scratches but otherwise no worse for wear. That is, until it’s time for Ragnarok. At this time Loki will roll up the final battle in a ship made of dead men’s fingernails and duke it out against the Æsir until he meets Heimdallr on the battlefield and the two essentially double-KO each other.

Coyote is a character present in the stories of nearly every Native American tribe. The epitome of the trickster, Coyote, like Prometheus and a number of other deities in other cultures, is credited with stealing fire from the gods to give to humans. There are numerous stories of Coyote’s exploits and his habit of getting out of some rather tight spots. He often teams up with Crow and/or Raven, another character known for his mischievous ways. Whip smart and often too smart for his own good, Coyote was both the creator of order out of chaos and the destroyer of order and often had ties to death but never in a negative Judeo-Christian sort of way. Coyote, like most tricksters, kept natural forces and other deities in check with his trickery and would chastise any deity that he felt had gotten too big for his or her divine britches.
Here’s a short Coyote story from the Nez Perce tribe:

A long, long time ago, people did not yet inhabit the earth. A monster walked upon the land, eating all the animals–except Coyote. Coyote was angry that his friends were gone. He climbed the tallest mountain and attached himself to the top. Coyote called upon the monster, challenging it to try to eat him. The monster sucked in the air, hoping to pull in Coyote with its powerful breath, but the ropes were too strong. The monster tried many other ways to blow Coyote off the mountain, but it was no use.
Realizing that Coyote was sly and clever, the monster thought of a new plan. It would befriend Coyote and invite him to stay in its home. Before the visit began, Coyote said that he wanted to visit his friends and asked if he could enter the monster’s stomach to see them. The monster allowed this, and Coyote cut out its heart and set fire to its insides. His friends were freed.
Then Coyote decided to make a new animal. He flung pieces of the monster in the four directions; wherever the pieces landed, a new tribe of Indians emerged. He ran out of body parts before he could create a new human animal on the site where the monster had lain. He used the monster’s blood, which was still on his hands, to create the Nez Percé, who would be strong and good.

The ‘Smoking Mirror‘ of Aztec mythology, Texcatlipoca was a god of many facets. He was associated with a wide range of things including (but not limited to) the night sky, night winds, hurricanes, the North, the earth, obsidian (hence ‘Smoking Mirror’), enmity, discord, rulership, divination, temptation, jaguars, sorcery, beauty, war and strife. There are several stories documenting the shenanigans that Tezcatlipoca would get up to with, and often against, Quetzalcoatl. Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia!

In one of the Aztec accounts of creation, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca joined forces to create the world. Before their act there was only the sea and the crocodilian earthmonster called Cipactli. To attract her, Tezcatlipoca used his foot as bait, and Cipactli ate it. The two gods then captured her, and distorted her to make the land from her body. After that, they created the people, and people had to offer sacrifices to comfort Cipactli for her sufferings. Because of this, Tezcatlipoca is depicted with a missing foot.

Another story of creation goes that Tezcatlipoca turned himself into the sun, but Quetzalcoatl couldn’t bear his enemy ruling the universe, so he knocked Tezcatlipoca out of the sky. Angered, Tezcatlipoca turned into a jaguar and destroyed the world. Quetzalcoatl replaced him and started the second age of the world and it became populated again. Tezcatlipoca overthrew Quetzalcoatl when he sent a great wind that devastated the world, and what people who survived were turned into monkeys. Tlaloc, the god of rain, became the sun, but Quetzalcoatl sent down fire which destroyed the world again, except for a few humans who survived who were turned into birds. Chalchihuitlicue, the Water Goddess became the sun, but the world was destroyed by floods, with what people survived being turned into fish.

Now, you may be wondering why Krishna is on this list. It’s actually because of a specific story involving Baby Krishna stealing some ghee (mmmm clarified butter) from his mother. Apparently he made quite the name for himself as a regular butter thief.

Anansi the spider is one of the most important deities in West African and Caribbean folklore. Like Coyote, he is the ultimate trickster but is also renowned for his wit and wisdom. The Anansi tales are some of the best known stories in West Africa and often contain morals to guide people in their daily lives. One such story is that of how Anansi got his stories (it’s also one of my favorites):

Once there were no stories in the world. The Sky-God, Nyame, had them all. Anansi went to Nyame and asked how much they would cost to buy.

Nyame set a high price: Anansi must bring back Onini the Python, Osebo the Leopard, the Mmoboro Hornets, and Mmoatia, the dwarf.

Anansi set about capturing these. First he went to where Python lived and debated out loud whether Python was really longer than the palm branch or not as his wife Aso says. Python overheard and, when Anansi explained the debate, agreed to lie along the palm branch. Because he cannot easily make himself completely straight a true impression of his actual length is difficult to obtain, so Python agreed to be tied to the branch. When he was completely tied, Anansi took him to Nyame.

To catch the leopard, Anansi dug a deep hole in the ground. When the leopard fell in the hole Anansi offered to help him out with his webs. Once the leopard was out of the hole though he was bound in Anansi’s webs and was carried away.

To catch the hornets, Anansi filled a calabash with water and poured some over a banana leaf he held over his head and some over the nest, calling out that it was raining. He suggested the hornets get into the empty calabash, and when they obliged, he quickly sealed the opening.

To catch the dwarf he made a doll and covered it with sticky gum. He placed the doll under the odum tree where the dwarfs play and put some yam in a bowl in front of it. When the dwarf came and ate the yam she thanked the doll which of course did not reply. Annoyed at its bad manners she struck it, first with one hand then the other. The hands stuck and Anansi captured her.

Anansi handed his captives over to Nyame who rewards him with the stories, which now become known as Anansi stories or Anansesem

Perhaps one of the most likable Olympians, Hermes is another classic trickster. The second youngest of the Olympians, Hermes was a deity of many things (commerce, thieves, travelers, sports, and border crossings…) Hermes was well known for his tricks that he would often play on unsuspecting gods and mortals alike. A Homeric hymn to Hermes describes him as a god “of many shifts, blandly cunning, a robber, a cattle driver, a bringer of dreams, a watcher by night, a thief at the gates, one who was soon to show forth wonderful deeds among the deathless gods.” Everyone knew things were off to an interesting start when, as his first act shortly after being born, Hermes snuck out and stole Apollo’s cattle. However, if you have issues with infants stealing your livestock there may be larger issues at hand. Just saying. In any case, Hermes had a very eventful career. He fathered several notable children (Pan, Hermaphroditus, Priapus, Eros, Tyche…) and had supporting roles in both the Iliad and Odyssey. Hermes often aided Zeus in his extramarital affairs and just as often had to clean up the mess afterwards. In conclusion, Hermes has been inventing things and tricking his divine siblings since Day 1. Observe:

According to legend, Hermes was born in a cave on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia. Zeus had impregnated Maia at the dead of night while all other gods slept. When dawn broke amazingly he was born. Maia wrapped him in swaddling bands, then resting herself, fell fast asleep. Hermes, however, squirmed free and ran off to Thessaly. This is where Apollo, his brother, grazed his cattle. Hermes stole a number of the herd and drove them back to Greece. He hid them in a small grotto near to the city of Pylos and covered their tracks. Before returning to the cave he caught a tortoise, killed it and removed its entrails. Using the intestines from a cow stolen from Apollo and the hollow tortoise shell, he made the first lyre. When he reached the cave he wrapped himself back into the swaddling bands. When Apollo realized he had been robbed he protested to Maia that it had been Hermes who had taken his cattle. Maia looked to Hermes and said it could not be, as he is still wrapped in swaddling bands. Zeus the all powerful intervened saying he had been watching and Hermes should return the cattle to Apollo. As the argument went on, Hermes began to play his lyre. The sweet music enchanted Apollo, and he offered Hermes to keep the cattle in exchange for the lyre. Apollo later became the grand master of the instrument, and it also became one of his symbols. Later while Hermes watched over his herd he invented the pipes known as a syrinx (pan-pipes), which he made from reeds. Hermes was also credited with inventing the flute. Apollo, also desired this instrument, so Hermes bartered with Apollo and received his golden wand which Hermes later used as his heralds staff. (In other versions Zeus gave Hermes his heralds staff).

And with that, I shall spare you from further block quotes and conclude this exciting mythology post. Until next time, gentle readers!

Archaeology on TV: Out of Egypt

Greetings once again, gentle readers! One of the positive benefits of staying indoors to avoid the sub-optimal air quality here is that I have been spending a lot of time catching up on my TLC/History/Discovery Channel programming! I discovered one night, much to my chagrin, that a new show was premiering on the Discovery Channel entitled ‘Out of Egypt’. A nice lady from UCLA was apparently going around the world to show us viewers how all sorts of other civilizations were influenced by the Egyptians. I had 2 issues with this right off the bat. 1) ‘Out of Egypt’ is the title of my Masters dissertation. 2) While I love my Egypt, not *everyone* was influenced by them but there are lots of fun parallels to explore. On the night of the premiere, I decided to give it a bit of a grudging watch to see what sort of madness would unfold. The first episode, naturally, was on pyramids. Pyramids of the world! Pretty standard for this sort of thing so we were off to a fair start. There was of course the usual traipsing around the Giza Plateau and surrounding areas to see pyramids of various ages and sorts, and then it was off to Latin America for a look at the pyramids of the Aztec and Maya empires. Once again, pyramids were walked upon, experts were spoken to and all of it was done in glorious HD. It was at this point I changed the channel and opted for the newest episode of ‘Mad Men’ because I just couldn’t take another segment of the show. Why? Let’s take a look at a basic breakdown of the issues and questions of the Egypt/Mexico pyramid adventure:

Me: Well, yes…to a degree. Pretty shiny things would have been included because people tend to hold onto their good jewelry. One never knows what sort of parties might go on in the afterlife so you need to look your best. Also, pharaohs, being the kings (and queens!) and all that, would have had more jewelry and ornate things than the average Egyptian. It was all placed in and around the deceased so they could come back and use it in the afterlife…and then it was promptly plundered. There’s a very good chance the gold n’ jewels n’ treasure wasn’t around very long. It’s also very possible that bodies and goods never even made it into the pyramid for a myriad of reasons. Sooo…

Me: Didn’t I just cover this?

Me: And so do Egyptian ones if they’re in Saqqara…

Me: *facepalm* Yes, sacrifices happened. Any point of the Latin American portion of the show would have been a wonderful time to mention that in the mythology of the area (Aztec, Mayan, Inca) the gods didn’t have blood because they were, you know, divine and godly and otherworldly and all that. Thus, sacrifices involving blood were required so the people could provide the gods with nourishing blood and in turn allow them to continue existing and provide food, rains, good battles, etc. Sometimes this blood came from the losers of a recent battle, sometimes it came from their own people. That’s just how they rolled. A lot of the flair was just that…flair. One needs to make sure your people and enemies know who’s boss.

Me: *points to Egypt* Pyramids have antechambers. So to all the tombs. Trufax.

Me: Yay! Parallel to Norse mythology!! Yggdrasil anyone? Or any other type of Tree-Of-Life? No? No parallels? Oh, okay then.

Me: Didn’t we just do this?
Expert Man: Yes…they did.
Me: Is this show being serious right now?
Expert Man: They would have been in public, yes….people would have watched since it was usually for religious purposes…

Me: Wait, wasn’t this show about showing us connections between other cultures and Egypt? Where are my connections? Oh, hey! A new episode of ‘Mad Men’! *click*

Once again, my desire to change the face of historical programming on TV has been heightened. I’m sincerely hoping that the show I saw was the product of questionable editing. The host seems pretty knowledgeable, as she is an Egyptologist from UCLA with a PhD and everything, so I can only hope better questions were asked and that editing demons simply made off with the good sound bites. I was really hoping there would be some good connections made between cultures and it wouldn’t simply be a rehashing of the same tired and somewhat sensationalized information that gets recycled on these shows.

If you want some quality archaeology and/or history to watch, check out Time Team America. They do it right. Some parts are a little hokey but it provides the best overall depiction of the archaeological field process and the fun shenanigans and discoveries that occur in the field.