Did Michelangelo design the uniforms of the Vatican’s Swiss Guard? In short: no way

swiss guard

It’s a common belief that Michelangelo designed the uniforms of the Pontifical Swiss Guard. But, in fact, they are based on armor common throughout Renaissance Europe.

During the Renaissance, Swiss mercenary soldiers were considered among the best in Europe. When Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere became Pope Julius II in 1503, he asked the Tagsatzung to provide him with a guard. The Tagsatzung — a/k/a the Diet of Switzerland – was the governing body of Switzerland prior to formation of the Swiss federal state in 1848.

Continue reading

Suffering and self-promotion: the Urdu ghazals of Mirza Ghalib

The only known photo of Mirza Ghalib, taken in 1868.

The only known photo of Mirza Ghalib, from 1868.

Mirza Ghalib was a 19th century poet who lived in India during the last years of the Mughal dynasty. He is best known today for his 234 ghazals in Urdu (a language similar to Hindi).

Ghazals originated in seventh-century Arabia. Originally, they celebrated wine, women and music, or anguish over lost love. By the eleventh century, however, the theme of lost love had acquired philosophical overtones. In Ghalib’s ghazals, separation and suffering are indistinguishable from life, and the beloved is often a metaphor for God.

Ghalib himself understood suffering all too well. He was born Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan to an aristocratic family descended from Seljuk Turks. His father died when he was a child. At the age of 13, he wed an 11-year old in an arranged marriage.

Continue reading

Saint Denis: the patron saint of headaches feels your pain

saint denis notre dame

Statute of St. Denis, Notre-Dame, Paris.

Being beheaded can really mess up your day. But according to Christian tradition, after Saint Denis was decapitated, he simply picked up his head and kept walking and preaching. So it’s perhaps no surprise that Denis (pronounced “duh-KNEE” in French) is the patron saint of headaches.

St. Gregory of Tours tells us that Denis was born in Italy in the 3d century A.D. In 250, he was sent as a missionary to Gaul (modern-day France), where he became the first Bishop of Paris.

Paris, however, was still largely a pagan city. And the Parisians didn’t take kindly to Denis converting so many to Christianity. They took Denis and two of his companions to the highest hill in Paris — Montmarte — and decapitated them.

Continue reading

Mansa Musa – the “Black Moses”

Musa

From a 14th century Catalan atlas, Mansa Musa holding a nugget of gold.

 

In the 14th century, Mansa Musa of Mali (c. 1280 – c. 1337) ruled a kingdom stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to beyond the bend of the Niger River in the East. And according to a 2012 analysis, Mansa Musa was the richest person ever.

Musa’s wealth came from Mali’s extensive production of salt and gold. In the north, slaves worked the Taghaza salt mines, while in the south the legendary Wangara gold mines provided more than half the world’s gold.

Mansa Musa is often referred to as the “Lion of Mali.” But in the Mandinka (Mandigo) language, Musa means “Moses.” This has led some historians to call Mansa Musa the “black Moses.” And it’s an appropriate nickname, given that Musa’s real fame came from his 1324 Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca.

Continue reading

Hagar and the Well of Zamzam: how a woman discovered one of the holiest sites in Islam

 

hagar

Hagar and Ishmael in the Desert by François Joseph Navez (Belgian, 1787–1869)

 

The Well of Zamzam is located near the Kaaba (Cube), the holiest place in Islam. Both the Kaaba and the Zamzam Well are inside the Holy Mosque (Masjid al-Haram) in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

One of the Five Pillars of Islam is the Hajj pilgrimage to the Kaaba. During the Hajj, pilgrims drink from the Zamzam well. To understand why Zamzam water is so important to Muslims, a bit of religious history is in order.

It begins with the story of the biblical patriarch, Abraham, and his wife, Sarah. Slightly differing versions of the story appear in the Bible and the Koran (Quran). But the essentials are:

Continue reading

The Dogon: African tribe or space aliens from Sirius B?

dogon dance

It turns out the Scientologists aren’t the only ones who claim we come from space. The Dogon – an indigenous tribe of Mali – claim that the germ of all things originated in a super-dense “egg of the world”—what we now know as the star “Sirius B.” Sirius B is the twin to Sirius, the so-called “Dogstar,” the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major.

But the real kicker is that the Dogon made their claim in the 1940s. And a diagram for the Sirius system is shown in Dogon artifacts over 400 years-old. Sirius B wasn’t even discovered by astronomers until 1970. So how did the Dogon know it was there?

To answer that question, we need to take a look at Dogon creation myths. But first a warning – these may not be appropriate for all readers.

Ready then? Here we go. Continue reading

Death and destiny: the Moirai a/k/a the Fates

fates

In Greek mythology, the Moirai – better known as the Fates – are the three goddesses who carry out a person’s destiny.  When someone is born, Clotho spins the thread of his or her life, while Lachesis measures the thread and Atropos it cuts with her shears when it is time for that person to die.

The Moirai acted more or less independently of the other Greek gods to ensure that everyone’s eternal fate proceeded without obstruction.  Even the gods had to submit to them — though some sources say that Zeus could interfere with someone’s fate when he really wanted to.

Ancient sources describe the Moirai as stern, old women who are ugly and, sometimes, lame, to boot.  Clotho is usually depicted with a spindle, while Lachesis holds a staff and Atropos a pair of shears. Continue reading

General Order No. 11: when Ulysses Grant expelled the Jews

grant cartoon

Ulysses S. Grant , the 18th president of the United States, is generally acknowledged one of the greatest military commanders in U.S. history.  There is one huge negative on his career as a Civil War general, however.  Under General Order No. 11, Grant expelled all Jews from Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee.  And although he would spend much of his presidency promoting the rights of Jews (as well as blacks and Native Americans), General Order No. 11 remains a stain on Grant’s reputation.

The immediate cause for issuance of the order was the black market in Southern cotton during the Civil War.  Northern textile mills — as well as the Union Army itself — relied on cotton from the south.  Although President Lincoln allowed limited trade in Southern cotton, it was not enough to satisfy demand.  Cotton prices soared on the black market, and unlicensed traders openly bribed Union officers to allow them to buy cotton without a permit. Continue reading

Elagabulus: the 14-year old transvestite who ruled Rome

elagabulus statute

He was a Syrian transvestite who enjoyed being whipped in public.  He married and divorced at least five women during a four-year period, but his most stable relationship was with a male athlete.  He positively adored his pet rock.

Sounds like just another day in W. Hollywood in the ‘70s.  Only the year was 217, and the transvestite in question happened to be the Emperor of Rome.

Spoiler alert: things didn’t end well for him. Continue reading

Modest Mussorgysky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” – the original Black Sabbath

 

mussorgsky

Although written nearly 150 years ago, Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” feels incredibly modern.   Mussorgsky composed the piece – about a witches’ Sabbath and Satan worship on St. John’s Eve – over 12 sleepless days in 1860, finishing on St. John’s Eve itself.  In a letter to Vladimir Nikolsky, he said of the work:

 “[I]t seethed within me so, and I simply didn’t know what was happening within me… I see in my wicked prank an independent Russian product, free from German profundity and routine… grown on our native fields and nurtured on Russian bread.”

Continue reading