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Friday, October 24, 2014

Who Was Melchizedek?

For anyone who has read the Bible, particularly the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. Old Testament), chances are you remember the long lists of names and genealogies that drone on seemingly forever. These are the parts of the Bible that most people skip over because...well...they seem boring, pointless and make us want to throw the Bible at the cat or dog.  And for the most part, you don't need to be a Bible scholar to recognize the fact that most of these names are of individuals who don't matter to the Bible story and have no real importance to Christian or Jewish theology.  I mean, does it really matter that the Sons of Gomer are Ashkenaz, Riphath and Togarmah!?!

But every once in a while the Bible does briefly reference a name of an individual who actually played an extremely significant role in the development of Jewish and Christian theology. Enoch, for example, is only mentioned briefly in the Hebrew Bible (he's mentioned much more in the New Testament actually) as being a man who "walked with God."  Or what about the tale of Ehud, the coolest ninja in the world who single-handedly killed Eglon, the evil, fat-ass Moabite king. And let us not forget about dear ol' Queen Athaliah, whose six-year reign ended with the attempted assassination of all her grandchildren (to destroy the royal blood line of David) and reintroduced the worship of Baal into Jerusalem. Yes, the Bible is indeed full of random and obscure characters, who though not much is said about them, play a critical role in the development of both Judaism and Christianity.

One such character is Melchizedek, the "King of Salem."  From the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), we are told that Melchizedek was, "the priest of the most high God" (Genesis 14:18) to whom Abraham paid his tithes.  The only other reference to Melchizedek in the Hebrew Bible is found in Psalms 110:4, which states:
The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.
From these verses we can only glean a few tidbits of information on who Melchizedek was and why he was so important. For Abraham to pay tithes to Melchizedek suggests that Abraham considered himself subordinate to this "King of Salem."  And as Psalms states, the "order of Melchizedek" suggests that more than one individual has claimed the priestly rights/titles/status as the figure mentioned in Genesis 14.

Still, none of this tells us much about who Melchizedek ultimately was, or if he was even a singular individual.  After all, many Christian scholars protest that the name Melchizedek is more of a title than it is a person's name, or that it might be the preincarnate Christ.  After all, Melchizedek literally means  "my king (is) righteous(ness)" or "King of Peace."  Wasn't Jesus also referred to as the "Prince of Peace?" And as we learn from Hebrews 5:5-6, Jesus himself is identified as being a "high priest" after this order:
So also Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest; but he that said unto him, Thou art my Son, to day have I begotten thee.  As he saith also in another place, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.
Is it possible that the Melchizedek mentioned in the Hebrew Bible could be one in the same person as the Melchizedek spoken of by Paul in his letter to the Hebrews?

While some may argue that this supposed link between Jesus and Melchizedek is proof that they are one in the same being, I believe it can be made quite clear that Jesus and Melchizedek are two very different people but of the same priesthood order (or authority).  In other words, Melchizedek (of the Hebrew Bible) is a foreshadowing (like many other things found in the Hebrew Bible) of the Supreme High Priest, who is Jesus Christ.

A good illustration of how Melchizedek served as a foreshadowing of Christ comes from the Nag Hammadi Papers.  These documents (found in upper Egypt in 1945), which date back to at least the 1st century A.D., contain a number of Gnostic writings that touch on some of the typical Christian debates of that time period.  Included in this treasure trove of writings is the following on Melchizedek:
And immediately, I arose, I, Melchizedek...and I will not cease, from now on, forever, O Father of the All, because you have had pity on men, and you have sent the angel of light...When he came, he caused me to be raised up from ignorance, and (from) the fructification of death to life. For I have a name: I am Melchizedek, the Priest of God Most High; I know that it is I who am truly the image of the true High-Priest of God Most High...I shall pronounce my name as I receive baptism now (and) forever, (as a name) among the living (and) holy names, and (now) in the waters. Amen.
Note how Melchizedek (who refers to himself as "I") references the "angel of light" who caused [him] to be raised up from ignorance [and] death."  We see in this text that Melchizedek sees himself as a foreshadowing of Christ who is the "true High-Priest of God Most High." Melchizedek had only received "the image" of the "true High-Priest."

The Zohar adds a measure of clarity on how Melchizedek conducted himself as High Priest. Like many other prophets, Melchizedek's labors served to divide the righteous from the unrighteous, as any "Priest of the Most High God" would be expected to do:
Hence in the days of Abram MELCHIZEDEK KING OF SALEM (salem = completeness), i.e. God whose throne was then established in its place and whose sovereignty therefore became complete, brought out bread and wine i.e. produced the appropriate food for the whole world, and did not withhold blessing from all the world; from the upper grades he brought forth food and blessings for all the worlds. AND HE WAS A PRIEST TO THE MOST HIGH GOD, the whole thus being in the most perfect order; to show that as the wicked upset the world and cause blessing to be withheld, so the righteous bring blessing to the world and for their sakes all its inhabitants are blessed. And he gave him a tenth of all to wit, of those blessings which issue from “all”, the source of all the blessings which descend upon the world. According to another explanation, God gave Abram a tenth (The Zohar, Yeshivat Kol Yehudah, vol. 1, Pp. 262).
From both the Zohar and Biblical accounts, it is clear that Melchizedek was a divisive character, who rebuked the wicked and praised the righteous.  Add to it the following passage from the world of Mormon theology:
Yea, humble yourselves even as the people in the days of Melchizedek, who was also a high priest after this same order which I have spoken, who also took upon him the high priesthood forever. And it was this same Melchizedek to whom Abraham paid tithes; yea, even our father Abraham paid tithes of one-tenth par of all he possessed.  Now these ordinances were given after this manner, that thereby the people might look forward on the Son of God, it being a TYPE OF HIS ORDER, or it being his order, and this that they might look forward to him for a remission of their sins, that they might enter into the rest of the Lord.  Now this Melchizedek was king over the land of Salem; and his people had waxed strong in iniquity and abomination; yea, they had all gone astray; they were full of all manner of wickedness; But Melchizedek having exercised mighty faith, and received the office of the high priesthood according to the holy order of God, did PREACH REPENTANCE UNTO HIS PEOPLE. And behold, they did repent; and Melchizedek did establish peace in the land in his days; therefore he was called the PRINCE OF PEACE, for he was the King of Salem; and he did reign under his father (my emphasis).
Note how Melchizedek is a "type" of the "order" of Christ and that his people called him "the Prince of Peace."  Again, Melchizedek served to foreshadow Christ, they were NOT the same person.

Any further doubt that Jesus and Melchizedek are the same person is smashed to pieces by Paul, who clearly speaks of how Melchizedek is a foreshadowing of Christ in Hebrews, Chapter 7:
For this Melchisedec, king of Salem, priest of the most high God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and blessed him;
To whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all; first being by interpretation King of righteousness, and after that also King of Salem, which is, King of peace;
Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually.
Now consider how great this man was, unto whom even the patriarch Abraham gave the tenth of the spoils.
And verily they that are of the sons of Levi, who receive the office of the priesthood, have a commandment to take tithes of the people according to the law, that is, of their brethren, though they come out of the loins of Abraham:
But he whose descent is not counted from them received tithes of Abraham, and blessed him that had the promises.
And without all contradiction the less is blessed of the better.
And here men that die receive tithes; but there he receiveth them, of whom it is witnessed that he liveth.
And as I may so say, Levi also, who receiveth tithes, payed tithes in Abraham.
10 For he was yet in the loins of his father, when Melchisedec met him.
11 If therefore perfection were by the Levitical priesthood, (for under it the people received the law,) what further need was there that another priest should rise after the order of Melchisedec, and not be called after the order of Aaron?
12 For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law.
13 For he of whom these things are spoken pertaineth to another tribe, of which no man gave attendance at the altar.
14 For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Juda; of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood.
15 And it is yet far more evident: for that after the similitude of Melchisedec there ariseth another priest,
16 Who is made, not after the law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of an endless life.
17 For he testifieth, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.
Verse 3 is of particular note, since it employs the phrase "made like unto." In the Greek Septuagint, the verb "aphomioo" is used in this context.  And as Professor D.W. Burdick points out:
The verb "aphomoioo" always assumes two distinct and separate identities, one of which is a copy of the other.  Thus, Melchizedek and the Son of God are represented as two separate persons, the first of which resembles the second" ("Melchizedek," The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia - Revised, G.W. Bromiley, vol. 3, Pp. 313).
From these verses (and the other sources mentioned above) the haze over Melchizedek begins to clear.  Melchizedek is not Jesus, nor is he a messianic figure.  He is a foreshadowing of Christ who is to come.  The "Order of Melchizedek," which has been mentioned several times in several of the aforementioned references, is therefore a holy calling given through priesthood (see what Paul said on the matter in the scripture reference above).  Interestingly enough, the world of Mormon theology has this to say on the matter:
There are, in the church, two priesthoods, namely, the Melchizedek and Aaronic, including the Levitical Priesthood. Why the first is called the Melchizedek Priesthood is because Melchizedek was such a great high priest. Before his day it was called the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God. But out of respect or reverence to the name of the Supreme Being, to avoid the too frequent repetition of his name, they, the church, in ancient days, called that priesthood after Melchizedek, or the Melchizedek Priesthood. All other authorities or offices in the church are appendages to this priesthood.
This sort of explanation fits with what we know about Melchizedek from the sources available to us. Melchizedek was the best of men. He was a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ, who was to come. Melchizedek was a champion of peace and a king over a holy land (some scholars believe his Kingdom of Salem was the precursor to JeruSALEM). Though very little can be found in the Bible on his life, other sources help to augment the story and fill in the missing pieces.  And what we are left with is a picture of a man who was indeed a foreshadowing of Christ...a Prince of Peace.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Birth of the Monroe Doctrine

On this day in 1823, President James Monroe outlined his famous doctrine (which eventually became known as the Monroe Doctrine) opposing European expansion into the western part of North America. Before Congress, Monroe gave a passionate speech condemning any and all European exploration of western lands and called for a renewed commitment to American settlement into the west:
In the discussions to which this interest has given rise, and in the arrangements by which they may terminate, the occasion has been deemed proper for asserting as a principle in which rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European power. . . . We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere. But with the governments who have declared their independence and maintain it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them or controlling in any other manner their destiny by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.
As we all know, western expansion became a pillar of American strength throughout the 19th century. To "Go West" was as American a concept as apple pie. With that said, we would do well to remember that President James Monroe's passionate determination to safeguard western expansion from the clutches of European "invasion" was a bold pronouncement for that time. It may seem commonplace for us today, but it wasn't for the people of his day.

And as wonderful as Western expansion may have been for early Americans, it was a complete disaster for other groups, Native Americans in particular.  What became known as "Manifest Destiny" in the eyes of Americans was nothing more than a fancy way of saying "conquest" for Native American tribes, who found themselves being continuously pushed further west.  "Manifest Destiny" would eventually be used to justify war with Mexico (which, in reality, was one of the most unjustifiable wars in American history), along with other atrocities like the "Trail of Tears."

Of course, not all of the blame can or should be placed at the feet of James Monroe, who in my opinion is one of our most underrated presidents ever. Many other leaders (and lay folk) carry much of the responsibility for causing so much pain to Native Americans that, in some respects, remains to this day (President Andrew Jackson certainly comes to mind).

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Forgotten Half: Women of the British Empire

The European continent is home to one of the richest and most diverse cultures in world history.  It has been at the forefront of tremendous change and influence that has both blessed and cursed millions throughout the world.  One of the most influential of all these nations is the little island to the north known as Great Britain. Few would have thought that what started as a relatively small nation would eventually become one of the largest empires in world history yet for all its achievements and conquests, the British Empire is still greatly misunderstood.  Throughout the course of early historiography, the British Empire has been seen and understood through the lenses of male-domination and masculinity.  Rarely if ever is the role of women mentioned within the historiography of the British Empire.  One would think that such an oversight would be foolish, being that half of a given population is essentially discarded.  Yet despite this massive oversight, the role of women in the British Empire is paramount to the understanding of how Britain managed to succeed as an empire.  Though often overlooked, British women played an essential role in the empire by protecting family life, maintaining British culture, and preaching Christian values in the colonies.       

During the early years of colonization, British women played a very small role in the founding of colonies.  In fact, women were rarely seen in many of Britain’s earliest colonies.  In Jamestown for example, the first settlers were exclusively men, being that the most urgent need was for skilled “manly” labor.[1]  Once women began arriving in the various American colonies, most were obligated to suffer under the practice of indentured servitude.  Those who were free, however, married young and began families as soon as possible.[2]  In India, women again were not to be found amongst the earliest colonizers.  In fact, early British colonizers preferred the absence of European women.  They believed that relationships between British men and Indian women actually aided in bridging the gap between the two cultures.[3]  The presence of British women (in their eyes) would only hurt that balance.  The basic rule for women, in terms of British colonization, was that where rule and conquest were the goals, women were a hindrance.  Where settlement and colonization were the aspirations, women were beneficial.[4]

When women finally did make their way to the colonies, their arrival was often met with hesitation and concern.  Though the arrival of women helped to establish and secure British the family culture, it also ushered in an era in which men longed for the “good old days” of concubinage with native women.[5]  No longer were the British men free to mingle with indigenous women, as they had been accustomed.  This change, however, ushered in a new day for British colonizers.  British women brought to the colonies the established customs of European family values.  In turn, women worked to spread such values by networking with one another in their respective colonies.  As one women stated, “An Indian household can no more be governed peacefully, without dignity and prestige, than an Indian empire.”[6]  In short, women strongly embraced the idea that to secure a British-style home within the colonies was the surest way to secure the empire as a hole. 

Life was not easy for the majority of British colonial women.  Leaving one’s home, though exciting, was tremendously stressful as well.  To make matters more difficult, women that entered the colonial world found themselves in more mundane activities than those of men.  As one historian points out, “The colonial world was definitely a man’s world, and women were not allowed to play a meaningful role in it except as petty traders and farmers.”[7]  To help secure the British family structure within the colonies, women worked tirelessly and received little recognition for their efforts.  Within the walls of their homes, women labored as homemakers, wives and mothers.  They were responsible for almost all of the behind the scenes activities that helped to maintain a typical British family.  Whether in the Caribbean, India or Africa, European women faced the every day struggles that were expected on a “proper” British woman. 

As difficult as life may have been as a colonist, it was not without some benefits.  Upon their arrival, many British women were quickly taken as wives.  Since the population of men in a colony was usually twice that of women, many women who came to work in the colonies were quickly married to a willing male.  Their marriage actually proved beneficial, since fewer jobs were available in the colonies than back home.  In fact, fewer women worked outside the home in the colonies than in Britain.[8]  Though not typically working outside the home, colonial women found themselves with more than enough to keep them busy.  The daily tasks of maintaining the home and rearing children were extremely time-consuming.  Fortunately, many colonial women also enjoyed a more luxurious life than their counterparts back home.  A typical middle class family could afford three to six servants in the colonies, whereas back in Britain they could only afford one if they were lucky.[9]

As pleasant as life might have been for some colonial women, it would be a gross overstatement to say that all women shared in the joy.  The reality of colonial life for many women was far from blissful.  For some, the hope for a family of their own was shattered by the horrors of reality.  While trying to escape the struggles of life back home, many women were forced to make their living in the various colonies as prostitutes.  The sex slave trade that grew in the British colonies reached staggering levels.  Some women were even forced to average four customers a night, which provided tremendous revenue for the various brothels.[10]  One can only imagine the struggles of such a life.  The difficulties that accompanied this type of a lifestyle must have been appalling.  In the male-dominated society that was the British Empire, women were often seen (and trafficked) as expendable commodities.  Clearly life as a colonial woman was not as easy as hoped.  Whether working behind the scenes as a housewife or forced to endure the vile conditions as a sex slave, the efforts of colonial women were often forgotten, since women clearly took a back seat in such a society.

Family life was only one of the many ways in which British colonial women were able to make an impact.  Along with the struggles that attend womanhood, was the pressure to maintain and cultivate British culture.  The idea of what it meant to be British was deeply rooted into the lifestyles of many of its citizens.  Not only did it carry the aura of superiority to others, but it also carried masculine overtones.  As Linda Colley put it, “Quite simply, we usually decide who we are by reference to who and what we are not.”[11]  For British women, this meant protecting the British family system from the “corruption” and influence of native populations.  It also meant that women were taught to comply with the idea that a masculine British Empire was the supreme goal. 

One example of the emphasis placed on spreading British culture was the establishment of Empire Day.  Celebrated on May 24 (the birthday of Queen Victoria), Empire Day was a spectacle that was commemorated in nearly 6,000 schools across the empire.[12]  Children across the empire were taught to glory in being British.  Young girls in particular could often be seen singing patriotic songs that celebrated soldiers, while young boys engaged in athletic and warrior patriotism games.[13]  Such activities molded the minds of young boys and girls to embrace the idea of a masculine/warrior society, where women worshipped their fighting men from the sidelines.

In the colonies, the expansion of British culture often grew into full-blown racism. Again, the concept of “Britishness” created an aura in which British citizens felt superior to indigenous people, based on their religion, customs and beliefs.  The British superiority complex was more than evident in India, where the ruling class was exclusively British.  Zareer Masani points out that during the mid 18th century, the British reserved all high offices of administration while, “The subordinate ranks of administration remained entirely Indian.”[14]   By maintaining exclusive control of high offices, the British Empire created yet another means by which British identity was shaped amongst the masses.  The belief in British superiority began to take a very strong hold in the hearts of its citizens.

For women, this idea of British superiority was defended vigorously.  As the empire continued to branch out, women were quickly integrated into the expansion of British ideology.  As teachers, British women were able to help as educators in India, where they worked hard to help “civilize” the local people.[15]  In Africa, British women were also used to help educate and establish British culture in the area.[16]  For the most part, women took these responsibilities very serious, and were often sympathetic to the needs of the native peoples.  British women proved vital in relocating British culture to the colonies.  As Margaret Strobel states, “in the colonies, as in Britain, women were particularly responsible for carrying out these rituals…women’s work was to maintain the status of the family and preserve social boundaries between Europeans and indigenous people”[17] In essence, women were the gatekeepers of British cultural norms.

For all the good done by women in the colonies, there was still a level of xenophobia that permeated British colonials.  British women were quick to put their guard up in defense of their families.  Women even regularly feared the use of native wet nurses for their children, believing that, “the milk of a native woman should contaminate an English child’s character.”[18]  Women were also quick to point out the “savagery” of indigenous men, who were seen essentially as, “would-be rapists or seducers.”[19]  As one African native put it, “The overall European policy in Africa may be summed up in these two words: white supremacy.”[20]  British men were quick to point out the iniquity that lurked if a “savage” was able to seduce a white woman.  In such cases, British leaders (who were men) failed to recognize any wrongdoing in relationships between European men and native women.  Clearly a double standard had been created. 

Along with the concern for the well being of their women, British men were quick to point out how their culture treated its women with much more respect.  According to the British intellectual James Mill, a society could be judged based on its treatment of women.  As Strobel points out, “In Mill’s view, the status of women progresses from low to high, associated with the evolution of ‘civilization.’”[21]  Based on Mill’s estimation, the British felt vindicated in their assessment that they were more “civilized.”  The novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe provides a perfect example of this belief.  The story’s main character, Okonkwo, regularly beats his wives for mundane issues.  In one particular part, he even beats his wife Ojiugo for failing to have dinner ready.[22]  For the British, this would be ample evidence of their superiority, even though it would be reasonable to assume that even Britons were guilty of committing the same acts on their wives.

Another important aspect of British culture was its religious convictions.  For the British, this was one of the major distinguishing factors that uniquely made them British.  As Linda Colley points out, Britons were able to unite more on the issue of their Protestant faith than on any other issue.[23]  For British women, this belief was passionately embraced, since women were traditionally the religious pulse of the family.  In their quest to follow God’s will, British women became zealous missionaries in the colonies.  Their yearning to convert and aid the various native populations made them powerful tools to the empire.  British women were active in establishing villages for runaway slaves, in protesting the ritual burning of native widows, and in seeking an end to the practice of clitoridectomy.[24]  Female missionaries were also successful in areas like India, where they were able to offer education to indigenous women and were able to effectively establish British customs.[25] 

The efforts made by female missionaries convinced many of them that they were capable of branching out and helping even more people.  Women like Dr. Annie Besant, who led the Madras Theosophical Society, helped to inspire much of the nationalist movement in India.  She was able to inspire her followers to unite and, “seek common ground between Indian and European religious and cultural traditions.”[26]  Other women sought to break the patriarchal chains with which they were restrained.  To expand their ability to help, female missionaries in India banded together to create the Ladies Association for the Promotion of Female Education Among the Heathen.[27]  Their goal was to create an organization that would convince the male colonial leaders that a women’s society could organize, convert, and sustain itself.  The measure met with limited success. 

The desire that European women had to branch out and help indigenous people of the various colonies was often met with ridicule, accusation and scorn.  In Africa for example, female missionaries regularly bumped heads with their male superiors in the church.  The male-dominated British social structure had little time or patience to deal with women’s issues effectively.  In one particular instance, the experience of Mary Pigot is very telling of how conflicting male leaders could be with their female subordinates.  While running an orphanage in Calcutta, Miss Pigot was criticized by her male superior, Rev. William Hastie, for how she chose to run the institution.  When Miss Pigot refused to submit to his authority, Rev. Hastie simply accused her of sexual immorality with an Indian man.  Miss Pigot was dragged through six years of legal proceedings, but finally found not guilty.  Despite making false accusations, Rev. Hastie was never reprimanded in any way.[28]  As difficult as things may have been for female missionaries, there is no doubt that their efforts helped numerous people in the various colonies of the Empire.  Their influence helped further the education of countless people within the Empire. 

The British Empire was a vast and diverse world.  For British women, it was a world that offered little recognition for their efforts, and even less praise for their contributions.  In the male-dominated culture that was Great Britain, women took an unfortunate back seat, and their labors received virtually no praise as a result.  Despite the regrettable lack of appreciation for their efforts, British women have left a long-lasting imprint on the legacy of the British Empire.  Through their efforts, British women were able to successfully protect and nurture their families, maintain and cultivate the British culture, and spread the message of Christianity.  Their assistance to the various indigenous populations within the British colonies deserves as much praise as the male missionaries enjoy.  For British women, it was their ability to overcome the chauvinistic atmosphere of male domination that permeated the British Empire.  In the end, this is their greatest legacy.    



[1] Lawrence James, The Rise And Fall of the British Empire (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994), 39-40.
[2] Ibid, 38.
[3] Margaret Strobel, European Women and the Second British Empire (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991), 3.
[4] Ibid, 2.
[5] Ibid, 4.
[6] Ibid, 17.
[7] A. Adu Boahen, African Perspectives on Colonialism (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1987), 107.
[8] Margaret Strobel, 19.
[9] Ibid, 19.
[10] Ibid, 28-29.
[11] Linda Colley, “Britishness and Otherness: An Argument,” Journal of British Studies (October, 1992): 309-329.
[12] Lawrence James, 328.
[13] Ibid, 329-330.
[14] Zareer Masani, Indian Tales of the Raj (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987), 8.
[15] Ibid, 71-72.
[16] A. Adu Boahen, 104-106.
[17] Margaret Strobel, 13.
[18] Ibid, 18.
[19] Zareer Masani, 55.
[20] Ndabanangi Sithole, Imperialism’s Benefits by an Anti-Imperialist African, taken from the online packet. Chapter 9, page 253.
[21] Margaret Strobel, 49.
[22] Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (New York: Random House Inc., 1959), 29-31.
[23] Linda Colley, 317.
[24] Margaret Strobel, 50-51.
[25] Ibid, 53. 
[26] Zareer Masani, 78.
[27] Margaret Strobel, 53-54.
[28] Ibid, 54.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Did the Irish "Discover" the New World? The Tale of St. Brendan

We are just a few days removed from Columbus Day, which celebrates the arrival of Christopher Columbus and crew to the "New World" in 1492.  Of course, any elementary school student can tell you that Columbus was far from being the first person to land in the Americas.  History has proven that others (to include Viking Leif Erikson and possibly even the Chinese) arrived long before the hulls of Columbus' Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria ever touched American soil. 

History is replete with tales (some true, some fictional) of adventurers who braved the waters of the Atlantic and discovered "new worlds" that were full of fantastic plant, animal and even human life. It is likely that we will never truly know which groups of people made their way to the Americas, but what is clear is that the oceans were not vacant of ships of brave people who were willing to try. 

When it comes to verifying these stories, one of the many problems is the fact that the written record was hard to come by.  Prior to the invention of Gutenberg's Printing Press, word of mouth only took stories so far, and most of these stories were just that: stories.  The ability to produce a mass account that was verifiable was extremely difficult to do.  This is why Columbus' story is the most popular (had Columbus sailed just six decades earlier one wonders if his story would have been as well known).

One of the many stories of brave sailors is that of Saint Brendan (c. 484 - c. 577), an Irish monk from the early Medieval period.  Very little is known about the actual man outside of two texts that have survived from both the 8th and 11th centuries, both of which were written several hundred years after Brendan's death, but are likely based on earlier copies.  Brendan was born in Tralee (southwest Ireland) to Christian parents (arguably some of the earliest Christian parents in Ireland) who raised him to become the same.  He was ordained a Priest in the Catholic Church in 512 and dedicated his live to spreading the Christian message throughout his native Ireland and surrounding areas. 

In addition to devoting his life to the church, Brendan was an avid and passionate sailor.  Records reveal that Brendan spent a tremendous time at sea, visiting nearby islands and cities where he converted large groups of people to Christianity and established a number of monasteries. Brendan’s prowess as a navigator of the sea became well known and he was eventually joined by many other sailors and missionaries who augmented his crew and allowed him to venture even further out into the Atlantic

But Brendan's greatest claim to fame comes from the Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis (Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot and one of the two surviving documents mentioned above),which tells the tale of Brendan's adventures to discover the Garden of Eden.  Brendan had heard the legends regarding the supposed location of the Garden of Eden from St. Barinthus, who claimed to have made the voyage a few years earlier.  The Navigatio Brendani states that Brendan, along with fourteen other brave sailors, fasted for forty days (each person fasting for 2-3 days to total 40 days as a group) and asked God to guide them on their quest for the Garden of Eden.

During their journey, Brendan's crew encounters massive sea monsters and other fantastic sites that astound the reader (is it any wonder why the Navigatio Brendani became a Medieval best seller?).  Brendan & Co. make a number of stops at previously undiscovered islands where they encounter a vast assortment of plant, animal and human life (there is even one occasion in which a talking bird prophecies to the men about their voyage).

Eventually, the crew arrives at what they call "St. Brendan's Island" where they discover the most beautiful land ever.  According to the Navigatio Brendani, the men remain in the land for several days and bask in the abundant fruits, nuts, jewels and other treasures they discovered.  It isn't until they discover an uncrossable river that the men turn back, with their goods in hand, to Ireland where they share their tale of adventure and discovery. Incidentally, it is the tale of St. Brendan's Island that inspired one Walt Disney to offer up his own unique spin on Carlo Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio. Disney's depiction of Pleasure Island (which can be seen by clicking here) was the result of his reading about St. Brendan's adventures.

Naturally, the modern reader senses a number of problems with this tale.  It is clearly full of hyperbole and drama that is typical of any medieval adventure saga.  Almost nobody takes the story at face value.  But like any ancient or medieval tale, there is almost always a few kernels of truth.  Is it possible that St. Brendan ventured far out into the Atlantic and discovered an unknown and beautiful land?

A few people think so.

Author and amateur historian Dattatreya Mandal has the following to say on the matter:
So...what lends credence to this incredible conjecture that puts [Brendan]at the pantheon of New World exploration?  Well, quite curiously, the first known European colonists of America are the ones who tantalizingly provide the much needed allusions.  Yes, we are talking about the Vikings themselves.  The sagas of the Norsemen provide numerous glimpses into how they perceived different foreigners; and in various cases, the Irish were seen as sea-faring people with aptitude for exploration.  Celtic mythology also mirrors this appraisal, with fantastical accounts of the famous Irish voyagers like Bran and Maeldun.
The most intriguing contents of these sagas relate to how the Vikings found Irish-sponsored Christian missionaries in Iceland from before the time they colonized the island.  The 'tumble down the rabbit-hole' continues with one special Scandinavian account mentioning the Norsemen meeting with a particular group of Native Americans who had supposedly seen Europeans before their encounter with the Vikings. There are even vague tales in the early medieval sagas that hint at some natives of the New World speaking a derivative of the Irish language.  Consequently, it comes as no surprise that the Vikings under Leif Erikson called the expansive landmass south of 'Vinland' by the name of 'Irland it Mikla (or Greater Ireland).   

In addition, modern day sailor and navigator Tim Severin demonstrated in 1978 that it was indeed possible to make the journey from Ireland to America using the type of boat that Brendan built in his day: 


Of course, the connections made by Mr. Mandal and the voyage of Mr. Severin do not definitively prove anything other than the possibility exists that Brendan and his crew could have ventured as far to the east as the Americas.  Is it likely?  Not really?  But was it possible? Yes.

In the end, we will never know if Brendan and his brave crew ever landed in the Americas or not. Personally, I think it is highly unlikely.  What I take from the saga of St. Brendan is this: exploration and adventure have always been at the heart of the human spirit.  That and it is quite likely that humans have been exploring for longer (and further out) than we probably think.  If I were a gambling man, I would bet AGAINST the idea that St. Brendan landed in the Americas, but I would also bet in FAVOR of the notion that human beings have been exploring (even as far out as the Americas) all the way back to medieval and even ancient times. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Top 10 Medieval Myths

Knights of the Round table, damsels in distress locked away in a tall tower, fire-breathing dragons of doom, witches and their enchanted spells, magical magicians with their secret potions, Holy Grail legends.  When it comes to Medieval mythology, the list is as long as Merlin's magical staff.

Like most historical eras, the Medieval world is immersed in stories that are, shall we say, less-than-accurate.  In fact, for most who haven't studies this fascinating period of history, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Historical myths are nothing new.  We are all familiar with the tale of George Washington and the cherry tree or the brave warrior Achilles whose bravery gripped entire armies with fear. These tales often tell us more about how people CHOOSE to interpret history as opposed to the history itself.

And when it comes to the Medieval world, the mythology is almost overwhelming. The stories have taken on a life of their own and many have survived even to this day. It is amazing to see just how many people actually embrace the myths even today. Most people today have a very distorted view on the realities of the Medieval world.  For example, here is a small list of just a few of the more common myths that most people today have taken to be true:

1.) Medieval People Believed in a Flat Earth

No they did not! For centuries, scholars had accepted the reality that the world was spherical in shape.  In fact, the ancients of Classical Grease (Socrates, Aristotle, etc.) accepted the fact that the world was round.  Though many of the ideas of antiquity were lost during the "Dark Ages" (the dumbest term ever in history), Medieval thinkers of all stripes accepted that the world was not flat.  Oh, and side note, so did Christopher Columbus!

2.) The Right of Primae Noctis

This is a myth made popular by the Oscar winning film "Braveheart."  In the movie, Medieval Scottish lords are granted the right to have sexual relations with a newly married bride on the first night of her marriage.  The practice, which is more commonly known as Droit du Seigneur, was practiced to a small degree in ancient China (and possibly ancient Babylon) but there is absolutely no evidence that it ever happened in Medieval Europe.  In fact, the myth was created in 19th century France to serve as an example of how backward the period was believed to be.

3.) Vikings Wore Horned Helmets

Sorry, Minnesota Vikings fans (and History Channel actors), but Vikings from the Medieval period did not wear horned helmets.  This is complete nonsense. In fact, Viking helmets were quite crude and round.  There were no decorations to speak of.  The idea of horns was born out of 19th century Romanticism and Scandinavian artists who began depicting their Viking ancestors as wearing horns.

4.) The Medieval World Loved Torture

Yes, torture existed in the Medieval world.  Torture also exists today.  Every era has seen some shade of it.  But the Medieval world was NOT obsessed with torture and/or torture devices like we are led to believe.  In fact, the Iron Maiden (which is regularly associated with the Medieval era) was created much later, probably in the 17th century.  There are no mentions of it  being used earlier than 1793!  In reality, most torture devices were created AFTER the Medieval era.

5.) Chastity Belts

There is absolutely zero evidence that chastity belts were ever used in the Medieval era.  In fact, the only reference we have of chastity belts being used in Europe date back to the 19th century, when people became fascinated (for whatever reason) in alleged Medieval torture devices (that were never actually Medieval to begin with).

6.) Water Was Terrible...Just TERRIBLE

Another complete B.S. belief.  Yes, it is certainly true that the Medieval world did not enjoy the sanitation practices of the modern world but this doesn't mean that they had no source of clean water. Simple common sense disposes this myth completely.  Homo Sapiens need water or we...um...DIE! The Medieval World (as well as the ancients) were well aware of this fact.  This is why we are able to find plenty of relics of Medieval (and ancient) wells that provided clean water.  And let's not forget that the Romans built massive aqueducts to transport clean water.  The Medieval world did not somehow forget how important water was.  They were well versed in the process of purifying water for human consumption. In reality, every civilization made (and continues to make) water a priority.  If this weren't the case we simply would not have survived as a specie.  In addition, the notion that Medieval (or ancient) people satisfied their water intake by drinking beer, wine, etc. is completely bogus.  In fact, water was often added to DILUTE the potency of those drinks.

7.) Medieval People Did not Live Long.  30 or 40 Years of Age Was Considered Old

It is true that mortality rates were significantly higher for people living in the Medieval world, but this does not mean that a 30 or 40-year-old person was considered to be old or near death.  In fact, most data shows that if a person lived into adulthood they could likely expect to live into their 60s or 70s.  Life expectancy rates are lower for the Medieval world because there was a far greater infant mortality rate.  Infants were the most at risk group of the Medieval population.  It wasn't uncommon for a given couple to lose several young children due to illness, childbirth, etc.  But if a child could reach the age of sixteen or so, he/she was likely to expect a fairly long life.

8.) Medieval People Did Not Have Good Hygiene

If we judge Medieval hygiene by today's 21st century standards then yes, the Medieval world had terrible hygiene.  But the myth that Medieval society rarely bathed or practiced cleanliness is not true. There are several surviving Medieval sermons in which priests admonish their congregation to ensure that cleanliness standards were being met.  Some cities, lords, etc. created laws to ensure cleanliness. Though they knew little in terms of medical practices, the Medieval world was well aware that disease was less likely to spread if cleanliness was maintained.  Baths were common (though not daily) and several items (to include combs and recipes for Medieval deodorant) have been preserved even today.

9.) Medieval Women Had No Rights

They certainly didn't enjoy the same freedoms as men, but this is something we could say for the majority of human history, not just the Medieval world.  With that being said, Medieval women could inherit land, money, etc. and were allowed to own and operate businesses.  Women were free to travel, buy goods, and do most of the things men could do (aside from responsibilities to be had in the church and military).  In fact, women would experience a LOSS of rights with the dawn of the Renaissance and Early Modern period.

10.) Medieval People Were Religiously Devout in All Ways and Feared the Church

While it is certainly true that the Catholic church was the single greatest influence on the Medieval world, the modern belief that Medieval people were staunchly devout and feared the church is a myth. There is literally tons of surviving literature from priests in all parts of Medieval Europe who complained about the lack of devotion they found in their parishioners.  Priests complained that people were indifferent to the teachings and did not take religious practices seriously enough. They rebuked those who used religious holidays and festivals as nothing more than an excuse to get drunk.

As can be seen, the myths of the Medieval world, which are oftentimes embraced by today's world as being fact, are nothing more than blissful ignorance.  They reveal more about us than they do about the actual Medieval world.  We of the modern era like to suppose that our ancestors of old were crude, dirty, biased and uninformed but the reality is we are the ones who come off looking crude, dirty, biased and uninformed in our understanding of the Medieval world.  It may not be to our liking when we discover that people of the past were not as foolish as we think, but facts are facts.