Saturday, May 31, 2014

Art Post: Niko Pirosmani

Nikoloz Aslanis Dze Pirosmanashvili, or Niko Pirosmani, was a self-taught Georgian painter (from the Georgia that's a nation in the Caucuses, not the Georgia that's part of the US,) who lived from 1862 to 1918. He must have truly loved to paint, for he lived most of his life in utter obscurity, trading his paintings for food and shelter. He was "discovered" by the art world only toward the end of his life, and doesn't seem to have really understood what all of that fuss and bother meant. Poor Niko got sick, and with no one to look after him, soon died.

Today, Pirosmani's art is well-respected in his homeland, and he graces the Georgian 1 Lari bill:

For more information on Porosmani, I recommend his biography on Olga's Gallery (an art website,) his Wikipedia Page, or Soviet Life Magazine, 1969. (Why was I reading Soviet Life? Research.)

Anyway, here are some of his paintings I enjoyed:

A Boy Carrying Food

Threshing Yard, Evening


Gate Keeper

Feast in a Gazebo

Shepherd in a Sheepskin Coat on a Red Background

Tatar--Camel Driver

Train in Kakhetia

Donkey Bridge

Signboard: Wine Pub

Party by the River Zkheniszkali

Kakhetia Sagas, Alazan Valley

Kakhetia Sagas, Alazan Valley, detail

Kakhetia Sagas, Alazan Valley, detail


Hunting Scene with a View of the Black Sea

The Tiflis Funicular

Prayer in a Village

Robber with a Stolen Horse

Wedding in the Old-Time Georgia

Grape Harvest Feast

Shamil with a Bodyguard

Shepherd with Flock

More of Pirosmani's paintings.

Back to the Fabulous Eurasian Steppes!

The pink part marks the steppes. The red lines mark the borders of "Europe," which is, obviously, not really a continent, but whatever we happen to feel like calling "Europe." Same goes, of course, for "Asia." Interestingly, a rather large % of Europe is steppe, though you don't hear much about it except in the context of "barbarian hoards boiling out of the steppe and threatening the walls of Europe," as though Europe started where the steppes end. Rather, the steppes lead right into the heart of Europe, like taking the Eurostar from France to London.

Physically, the steppes are largely flat and grassy. People have moved across them, often on horseback, for thousands of years. Much of the world's population is at least partially descended from steppe folks. 1 in 200 people today are thought to be descendents of the steppes' most famous warrior, Genghis Khan (and his immediate family, most likely.)

This post is mostly a random assortment of information I happen to have recently come across about various steppe peoples. I don't claim to be complete, extensive, authoritative, or even in chronological order. There are probably many large groups about which I know virtually nothing, and small groups about which I know comparatively a great deal.

One thing I noticed while looking at this first map is that the fabled (but very real) Silk Roads of Asia run well to the south of the steppes:

The Silk Roads (water routes excluded) go through some very rough terrain, like mountains and deserts. The steppes, while often cold, are nothing if not flat and easy to cross. Their under-utilization as a trade highway has probably been due to most of the goods people wanted to trade for coming from areas well to the south of the steppes, like the Iranian, Harappan, and Chinese civilizations. The steppes are not particularly known for their small, easily transported, valuable trade goods. This is not to say that trade did not cross the steppes, only that the steppes and the Silk Road are different.

Here's another fun map, of the Great Wall of China:

China has had, shall we say, an historical issue with getting invaded by the Mongols. I don't know if the walls particularly worked, but they certainly tried. (Those medium-purple wall sections up in the north were built by Chinese dynasties that were, apparently, ruled by Mongolian tribes from up that way. I'm not sure how that all works out in the nationalist rhetoric, if they should be properly considered part of the Great Wall complex, or an inter-Mongol defensive work, but they all do serve the same purpose.)

A map of Eurasia before the mongol conquest:

Another map of roughly the same period (they disagree on some points):

And after the Mongol conquest:

A lot of people died in between those maps.

Somewhere around 1280, a fellow named Rabban Bar Sauma, a Nestorian Christian born near Beijing to a perhaps Turkic or Uighir family, became an ambassador for the Mongol Empire and eventually made it to the Atlantic coat of France before heading back:

The parallel to Marco Polo is obvious, and indeed, he wrote a boo about his adventures, titled "The Monks of Kublai Khan, Emperor of China" or "The History of the Life and Travels of Rabban Sawma, Envoy and Plenipotentiary of the Mongol Khans to the Kings of Europe, and Markos Who as Mar Yahbh-Allaha III Became Patriarch of the Church of the East in Asia," which was translated by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge and published in English 1928... which means it might be in the public domain, depending on technicalities. Anyway, the Khan of the Mongols, Arghun, wanted to arrange an alliance with the French to conquer the Middle East together. Here's an excerpt of one of the letters he sent, which happens to mention Rabban:

According to the Wikipedia, the letter says,
"Under the power of the eternal sky, the message of the great king, Arghun, to the king of France..., said: I have accepted the word that you forwarded by the messengers under Saymer Sagura (Bar Sauma), saying that if the warriors of Il Khaan invade Egypt you would support them. We would also lend our support by going there at the end of the Tiger year’s winter [1290], worshiping the sky, and settle in Damascus in the early spring [1291].

If you send your warriors as promised and conquer Egypt, worshiping the sky, then I shall give you Jerusalem. If any of our warriors arrive later than arranged, all will be futile and no one will benefit. If you care to please give me your impressions, and I would also be very willing to accept any samples of French opulence that you care to burden your messengers with..."

Nothing much came of the alliance, as France did not seem as keen at the time on conquering the world as the Mongols--plus Arghun died before anything got done.

More later on people who weren't the Mongols...

(All maps and the letter in this post courtesy of the wonderful and fabulous Wikipedia.)

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


I just noticed something (that really should have smacked me in the face years ago) about English:

He Him His
She Her Her

He has a ball. Give the ball to him. It is his ball.

She has a ball. Give the ball to her. It is her ball.

Shouldn't they be, "Give the ball to shem," (instead of her) and "It is hir ball" (instead of his)?

Monday, May 19, 2014

You people studying Western Europe...

...have it so darn easy. The political landscape of Western Europe has been relatively stable, with only a handful of major players, for the past two thousand years or so. (On top of that, the history tends to be taught in school, so you've got a head start.)

Western Europe in 526. Can you find Italy? Yes. England? Yes. Span? Yup. Sure, Germany's missing and there are some smaller states that have since disappeared, but there's nothing too surprising. You can probably even guess what happened to the Burgundians. (Hint: they're still there.)

Fast forward about 500 years, to 1092. Germany, (AKA the Holy Roman Empire,) has joined the party. Spain's off doing something confusing (it's been conquered by Muslims via Morocco, leading to centuries of fighting and eventually some genocide and ethnic cleansing and the re-assertion of Catholic dominance and political unity, etc.,) but the other major countries look rather like they do today.

Here's a map of Eastern Europe/Western Asia from the same time period (c. 1015):

The Rus you can probably guess = Russia, but why are there two Bulgarian states? Who are the Pechenegs, Oghuz, Kimak, Kipchak, Karakhanids, Ghaznavids, etc? Where did they go?

Many of these people weren't just absorbed; they were displaced. The Cumans, once allies of the Kipchaks, eventually settled in Hungary. They came originally from East of the bend in the Yellow River, in China. The Mongols displaced them; they displaced others.

The Pecheneg displaced the Khazars, once a Turkic-speaking Jewish state north of the Caucuses.

In the 1800s, the Circassians, a group from the Caucuses, were famously beautiful. Hair dye ads in America pomised their products would turn users as beautiful as Circassians. In 1864, the Russians conquered and ethnically cleansed the area (many went to Turkey.) Circassia is no more.

So, students of Western Europe: count your blessings. You've got it easy.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Into the Garden

I love gardens. Alas, I am not particularly adept at growing them. The night after I planted my strawberry and asparagus roots, we had frost.

A few weeks ago, I planted some flower seeds and some berry seeds (maqui berry seeds, to be exact. I didn't realize when I bought them that they're apparently the latest, over-hyped "superfood"--I just thought purple berries might taste good or at least look nice in the garden.) The flower seeds sprouted pretty quickly, but the berries... did nothing. Day after day, my dirt just sat there. Eventually some of the little dirt-pods started turning green from our abundant NW rainfall, but alas, nothing you could call a "plant." I had begun to dejectedly wonder if I should just dump the dirt into the garden and let some other plant make use of it, when I went out to check on my garden, and there were sprouts! Five of 'em, and probably more to come.

So, in a year or two, if I don't manage to kill the plants, I should have some berries. I'll try to remember to post a review of what maqui berries actually taste like.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The most horrible thing about WWI...

is that people thought it was such a smashing success, they decided to do it all over again two decades later.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Steampunk Cipher Machine

This gorgeous device bears the arms of King Henri II of France, who ruled France from 1547 to 1559, and was used to encrypt secret documents. (You can see it in greater detail on its Wikipedia page.)

I am still trying to figure out how exactly this machine worked. Is it nothing more than a set of glorified decoder rings? Or are there gears inside, perhaps allowing the user to turn all of the small wheels at once by rotating the big wheel?

The right-hand side seems sensible enough--there are (or were) 24 dials, one for each letter of the Latin alphabet (Latin was widely spoken in Europe at the time, and so a reasonable language for the message-senders to have used,) each subdivided into 12 or 24 sections, indicating polyalphabetic encryption.

Polyalphabetic encryption is pretty cool, and was invented in the 1400s, so would have been reasonably current when this device was built.

Your single-alphabet encryption, the sort you probably did as a kid, involves a 1-to-1 correspondence between the letters in your message and the letters in your code. For example, you might switch all of the As to Zs, Bs to Ys, Cs to Xs, and so on. Or all of the As to Cs, Bs to Ds, Cs to Es, and of course, Ys and Zs to As and Bs. Regardless, you can write the whole code on two lines and, unfortunately, it's pretty easy to break. Any letter sitting all by itself is most likely A or I, and you work from there.

With a polyalphabetic code, you change the code for each successive letter in the message you're encrypting. So letter #1 you might switch with its inverse from the other end of the alphabet, as above, but then letter #2 in your message you might switch with the letter two spots to its right in the alphabet, as in the second schema. Letter #3 might be determined in yet another way. As long as the person on the other end knows the key, they can still decrypt the message, but it's much harder for anyone else in between.

Of course, polyalphabetic codes are still breakable, and encryption has come a long way since the 1400s. But for the time, it was pretty good.

So I suspect the 24 dials on the right hand side, with their 12 and 24 spots, would have been used to assist with a polyalphabetic encryption.

But what about the big wheel on the left? It has 18 sections! I have no idea how 18 would figure into all of this. If it were 12 or 24, you could perhaps turn the big wheel to make all of the little wheels turn at once (assuming there are any gears at all inside of this, and that it is not, in fact, hinged like a book in a manner which would completely preclude any communication between the dials on the two sides. Did the maker decide it didn't actually matter how many spots were on the big wheel, so long as it turned? Does it serve some other function? I have no idea. I've been looking around for more information on the subject, but so far I've turned up almost diddlysquat (the best website so far has just been this little one on a wine label inspired by the machine.)

I wish to emphasize that this is just my best guess on how the machine worked, and that I really do not know much of anything at all about encryption. I would be delighted if anyone could enlighten me, especially about that left-hand dial!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Vegetable Sheep and Barnacle Geese

"Nature produces [Bernacae] against Nature in the most extraordinary way. They are like marsh geese but somewhat smaller. They are produced from fir timber tossed along the sea, and are at first like gum. Afterwards they hang down by their beaks as if they were a seaweed attached to the timber, and are surrounded by shells in order to grow more freely. Having thus in process of time been clothed with a strong coat of feathers, they either fall into the water or fly freely away into the air. They derived their food and growth from the sap of the wood or from the sea, by a secret and most wonderful process of alimentation. I have frequently seen, with my own eyes, more than a thousand of these small bodies of birds, hanging down on the sea-shore from one piece of timber, enclosed in their shells, and already formed. They do not breed and lay eggs like other birds, nor do they ever hatch any eggs, nor do they seem to build nests in any corner of the earth."
--Giraldus Cambrensis, Topographica Hiberniae, 1187.

I recall reading, back in my childhood, that some folks in Ireland had justified eating Barnacle Geese, (which are real geese,) during Lent on the grounds that they were fish (though perhaps I am confusing them with otters.) However, I definitely don't remember seeing them described as plants.

Another oddity worthy of Grandfather Herodotus is the fabled Vegetable Lamb of Tartary:

Although their bodies, noses, mouths, and eyes, Of new-yeaned lambs have full the form and guise, And should be very lambs, save that for foot Within the ground they fix a living root Which at their navel grows, and dies that day That they have browzed the neighboring grass away. Oh! Wondrous nature of God only good, The beast hath root, the plant hath flesh and blood. The nimble plant can turn it to and fro, The nummed beast can neither stir nor goe, The plant is leafless, branchless, void of fruit, The beast is lustless, sexless, fireless, mute: The plant with plants his hungry paunch doth feede, Th’ admired beast is sowen a slender seed.
--Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas, La Semaine, 1587.

I'd have thought it was just a fanciful description of cotton, but supposedly it's actually based on a fuzzy fern, the Cibotium barometz, part of which imaginatively looks like a lamb:

Blueberry Stew and Cattails

And now for something completely different?

I love berries, but hypoglycemia means I can only eat pie in moderation. So what to do with buckets upon buckets of berries?
How about Blueberry Stew! (Follow the link for an American Indian recipe courtesy of Merathena and her grandmother.)
Oh, yes, that does sound good.

In other culinary news, I am happy to report that cattail shoots are tasty and easy to prepare. They are definitely tastier, in my opinion, than many other commonly cited "wild edibles," (dandelions are too bitter for my taste.) However, you do have to make sure your cattails have been growing in nice, clean water.

Little Black Masks

From Two Nerdy History Girls, I bring you the little black masks of the 18th century.

Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk, in masquerade dress by Thomas Gibson, 1720.

La Comtesse de Bersac, by Jean-Baptiste Santerre.

The Rhinoceros

Called visor or vizzard, moretta or servetta muta, the little black mask was worn not only to masquerades, but also as an everyday accessory, to conceal one's identity or protect against the sun. The masks were held in place by pinching a bead between the teeth, which undoubtedly made masked conversation rather difficult.

It's not much different, I suppose, from the "facekini" apparently popular in China these days.

Pictures of the Russian Army

Banner of the Russian Armed Forces

Today's research actually focuses on the Imperial Russian Army, 1721-1917, rather than the modern army. This is the army of War and Peace, founded by Peter the Great and destroyed by WWI and the Russian Revolution.

Russian dragoons and hussars, 1807 (Lyta and Jasper's time, though well after Midwinter.)

Russian grenadiers and musketeers, 1762, looking very familiar.

Francis Davis Millet's Fifty lashes, from Campaigning with the Cossacks, Harper's magazine, 1887. Discipline in the army was painfully enforced.

The Battle of Friedland, 1807. The Russians lost the battle, but Napoleon lost the war.

(All images courtesy of the Wikipedia.)