“Food is not rational. Food is culture, habit, craving and identity”

And of their flesh shall ye not eat, and their carcass shall ye not touch; for they are unclean to you.”
-Leviticus 11:8

Having well considered the origin of flesh-foods, and the cruelty of fettering and slaying corporeal beings, let man entirely abstain from eating flesh.”
-Manusmrti 5.49

O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may learn self-restraint But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves
-Surah 183, 194

Religion can hold a strong sway over culture and it influences how people behave in social situations by placing a strong emphasis on moral behavior and promoting group cooperation. However, the benefits of religion may come at a price and sometimes an individual must forego his or her own personal interests for the good of the religious group, perhaps by becoming a celibate religious leader, payments of tithing, or following dietary restrictions and fasting laws.

Religious taboos that prohibit the consumption of certain foods or food during certain times are particularly interesting because they seem to go against all basic survival instincts that humans have.

  • Judaism mandates that its followers must keep Kosher, which are foods acceptable to eat under Jewish Law, and there are many restrictions and taboos during the time of Passover, including prohibition of leavened bread.

  • Followers of Islam should only eat foods that are Halal or “permissible in Islamic Law” and must abstain from consuming any food during the fasting periods in the month of Ramadan.
  • Catholics may not eat red meat on Friday or during the time of Lent, when it is typical for other forms of luxuries to be given up as well.

Many different explanations for the historical origins of dietary restrictions have been proposed in the past, but research in the fields of anthropology and psychology suggests that the most plausible explanation for these seemingly detrimental rituals is that they signal devotion to a group.

An individual associates with a specific group of like-minded individuals and this membership grants them the benefits of others’ altruistic acts – aid that is given simply because someone is in the “in-group”. Being part of the group therefore provides safety, relationship opportunities, and the possibility of help from a group member. Individuals form a group by entering into a social compact where they all agree to work together and adhere to rules of the group for the greater collective good of all members.

This is known as reciprocal altruism: you help a member of the group because you expect that at some point, they would do the same for you, and everyone wins.

However, this system can only work if everyone follows the rules and if their promises of aid are honest. Otherwise the group breaks down when people invest and are not rewarded. And it is difficult to organize voluntary group cooperation without the risk of some people taking advantage of the system, so-called free riders, that reap the benefits of being in a group without returning the favor.

If a group relies on cooperation and altruism to function, there must be a way to determine who is part of the group, usually through shared behaviors, customs, dress, etc. Common forms of signaling group membership can include clothing style, such as identifying oneself as a Michigan student by donning a blue and maize sweatshirt or identifying oneself as Christian by wearing a rosary or crucifix.

Similar behavior and dress clearly identifies all member of this group as loyal fans to the University of Michigan

Similar behavior and dress clearly identifies all member of this group as loyal fans to the University of Michigan.

The flaw with these signs of group membership is that anyone who wants to take advantage of the benefits to be reaped from group camaraderie can, and by simply wearing these articles of clothing, they can appear as though they too are part of the group.

A so-called "wolf in sheep's clothing" can integrate themselves into a group to benefit from it without any intention of returning the favor

A so-called “wolf in sheep’s clothing” can integrate themselves into a group to benefit from it without any intention of returning the favor.

A group’s capacity to find and then punish or oust cheaters increases the overall success of the group, so a more effective and selective form of group identification is often required. 

Therefore, a more complex way of signaling group membership may arise in the form of a costly signal.  This is a behavior that does not directly benefit the member of the group or the group as a whole, but demonstrates a commitment to the group. If an individual is willing to go out of their way to demonstrate that they want to be part of the group, it is more likely that they have a true vested interest in the group’s outcome.

It can be argued that a dietary restriction or food taboo is an example of this type of costly group signal – health and happiness are not gained by following any such rule (except the happiness one finds in being devout in their religion). Yet, nearly every religion in the history of mankind has requested that its followers obey some sort of dietary law.

An early Judeo-Christian belief held that pork was prohibited because pigs were used by pagans such as the Romans to worship false idols, and therefore the animals were tainted in the eyes of God with a connection to idolatry and were unclean for believers to consume. However, if this were the case, then most domesticated animals should have been considered unclean to eat, because many other animals associated with pagan practices, such as the bull, ox, or sheep were not considered unclean.

This facade from the Ara Pacis in Rome indicates that sheep and cattle were also important animals in Roman ritual, yet there are few Western taboos regarding the consumption of their meat.

This facade from the Ara Pacis in Rome indicates that sheep and cattle were equally important animals in Roman ritual, yet there are few Western taboos regarding the consumption of their meat.

Many different theories and explanations have been proposed for why most major religions demand that their followers obey a variety of dietary restrictions and taboos, and they cite reasons that range from historical symbolism to biological issues.  Clearly, traditions in a religious practice have important symbolic meaning for its followers.  The practices need not require sacrifice in order to maintain this symbolism, but typically, they do.

But it turns out that where history cannot, evolutionary theory can provide an explanation for the persistence of dietary laws: following dietary restrictions is a way to show one’s commitment to a group and indicate a genuine interest in cooperation and altruism.

Any rule that elicits a food restriction immediately divides people into groups of those who follow it and those who do not. Every culture has special protocols or traditions associated with acquiring or eating certain foods, and food taboos figure prominently into many societies around the world:

  • A traditional American thanksgiving would not be complete without the male head of household sitting at the head of the table, ready to carve the family’s turkey.
  • A successful Netsilik Eskimo seal hunt ends when the meat has been meticulously divided among a hunter’s lifelong “seal partners” during a village-wide celebration.
  • A Catholic communion involves the drinking of wine and eating of bread in a highly symbolic and meaningful way, and only members of the Catholic church may participate in this special event.

These rituals are performed in such a way that anyone who is not a member of that group would not fully understand and would thus be disconnected from the others during celebrations. Consequently, it is easy for others to determine which group an individual associates with through their knowledge of food customs, taboos, and restrictions. Furthermore, anyone willing to follow complicated rules that require a sacrifice of luxury demonstrates they are not simply fair-weather followers but devoted members of the group.  

By this obvious outward sign of who is part of the culture, the religion, the “in-group”, dietary laws can function as a way of keeping groups more united because members can be more assured that their fellow group members are equally committed to the group.

 

Anyone interested in reading more on these ideas should definitely check out my inspiration:

Irons, W. 2001. Religion as a Hard-to-Fake Sign of Commitment. Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment. R.M. Nesse (ed), pp 292-309. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Also, researchers conducted a case study of group membership signaling among religious communes.  Their findings indicated that groups which require more commitment, more “inside” knowledge, and more adherence to ritual, were more likely to be successful.

Sosis R. and E. R. Bressler. 2003. Cooperation and Commune Longevity: A Test of the Costly Signaling Theory of Religion. Cross-Cultural Research. 37, 211-239.

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“If we can teach people about wildlife, they will be touched”

Out of genuine interest rather than any particular career planing, I spent this past summer working an internship at Avian Wildlife Center that rehabilitates and releases injured wild birds, anything from hummingbirds to herons. Most of the birds we dealt with were brought to us after unfortunate interactions with humans in some way – nest disrupted, hit by car, poisoned by pollution, etc. At the center, birds receive care until they can be released back into the wild.

3 little victims of an illegal nest removal, these fledgling American Robins are a few weeks away from release back into the wild

3 little victims of an illegal nest removal, these fledgling American Robins are a few weeks away from release back into the wild

Before release they are also tested for parasites, ability to self-feed, and feather condition.  During their time at the center people interact with them as little as possible so they don’t learn to associate humans with food and approach them after being released.

It’s a great and rewarding job, if you aren’t expecting high pay, flexible hours, or a stress-free work environment. It’s also pretty interesting, and I could (and did) leave work every day with multiple bird stories to share.

This baby Sandhill Crane was everyone's favorite, and an opportunity to take charge of the hand-feeding was a contested role during his visit.

This baby Lesser Sandhill Crane was everyone’s favorite, and an opportunity to take charge of his bi-hourly hand-feeding routine was a contested role during his visit.

One particularly interesting case we had was a lady who brought in a fallen sparrow nest, with three baby birds. She commented that she was surprised one of the babies was twice the size of the other two.  This is because one wasn’t a sparrow at all, but a cowbird. They are incredibly interesting birds, particularly in how they raise their young – they don’t. Instead, they are nest parasites: the mother cowbird flies around laying eggs in other birds nests to be raised by an unsuspecting parent bird, in this case a sparrow.

A juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird being fed by its foster parent, a Chipping Sparrow, in Baltimore Co., Maryland (6/5/2011). Photo by Jon Corcoran (http://www.flickr.com/photos/thrasher72/).

A juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird being fed by its foster parent, a Chipping Sparrow, in Baltimore Co., Maryland (6/5/2011). Photo by Jon Corcoran (http://www.flickr.com/photos/thrasher72/).

The lady, who before this information had been impressed by his advanced growth, was suddenly appalled at the poor little cowbird in her sparrow nest. She then asked if we would euthanize the “parasite” since it disrupted the life cycles of the other birds. Of course that is not the case, and we explained that we would take care of it just the same – the center takes any injured wild bird, irregardless of how many individuals of that species they might already have because it makes no attempts to influence natural population ratios.

She wasn’t convinced why it should be saved, which was a common sentiment among several of the rescuers of cowbirds we spoke to over the summer.

Perhaps the term “parasite” gives them a bad reputation, but cowbirds are truly fascinating. Where most other species would imprint on whatever they first see – imagine the classic example of a baby duckling who imprints on a human when it hatches and spends its day following people instead of fellow ducks. Cowbirds, however, are smart enough to know what they are without having to see another cowbird during their whole infancy.  This is because they recognize their own coloration and use that information to find mates in the future.

Though barely related, I had to include this image of 2 ducklings imprinted to a Corgi

Though barely related, I had to include this image of 2 ducklings imprinted on a Corgi

Generally, to the public we simply try to explain that it is the bird’s natural behavior which should not be tampered with. Cowbirds are not an invasive species and are completely meant to coexist with other birds in their natural habitat, which ranges all across North America from southern Canada to southern Mexico.

They can’t thrive without this method of reproduction, which arose naturally through co-evolution with competing bird species.  It is simply how they live and reproduce, and the individual should not be blamed for its innate biological behavior, any more than a hawk should be blamed when it kills a dove for its dinner.

This isn’t to say that cowbirds don’t harm other birds – I am sure that unknowingly raising a baby cowbird takes its toll on a sparrow mother, who will be half the size of her baby before it leaves the nest. But they don’t outright kill their hosts (a good parasite doesn’t kill its host, or it loses its livelihood), and the parents with whom the cowbird tries to leave her eggs are not completely defenseless in the matter, as they sometimes detect and eject foreign eggs.

Cowbirds are known to parasitize over 100 different species, so their eggs seldom match those they are laid with.

Cowbirds are known to parasitize over 100 different species, so their eggs seldom match those they are laid with.  Here, a large speckled cowbird egg is alongside 3 smaller blue Chipping Sparrow eggs.

Still, there is so much love (and funding to care for) birds of prey, who must kill to consume at least 20% of their body weight a day to sustain themselves. People marvel over the beauty of an eagle soaring in the sky while nest parasites, such as cowbirds, cuckoos and several other species, are met with animosity – even though they are usually not responsible for the deaths of any other birds and are equally fascinating creatures.

  • (An exception is if a cowbird egg/baby is discovered and tossed from the nest by the duped parent. A response, nicknamed the “Mafia Behavior”, occurs where the mother cowbird will return to the nest and destroy the other eggs, in hopes of forcing the victim to create a new nest and lay a new brood, also giving her another chance to lay new eggs).

Cowbirds are somewhat infamous for contributing to the near extinction of the Kirtland’s warbler and there were even several mass attempts to remove cowbird eggs from warbler nests, although later it was found there were several other factors leading to their decline besides cowbirds, mostly from human damages to the ecosystem. And studies have even shown that when humans try to remove cowbirds, we end up helping them – removing birds from an area signals less competition, so they are able to reproduce more in that area and end up parasitizing even more nests than they would normally would have.

As with any animal that makes its way through life by competing with others, there are winners and losers.  As a rehabilitator, helping one means eventually harming another, as the circle of life continues in the wild and someone must be preyed or parasitized upon. That doesn’t mean efforts to protect the environment are any less meaningful and perhaps the best thing we can do is try to fix the damages done by humans and restore the balance that existed before human activity began to cause serious disruptions.

After all, these species got along just fine before humans showed up to observe, monitor, and “fix” nature.

“Why’d it have to be snakes?”

A common motif in Western literature and art is the representation of snakes as the embodiment of evil and deceit. We could ask ourselves, as Indiana Jones usually does on one of his adventures, “why’d it have to be snakes?” You would be hard-pressed to find a positive portrayal of a serpent in a film or book: In Harry Potter, Voldemort has a pet snake in which he places part of his soul and a dark wizard is identified by his ability to communicate with snakes. The long-running television show Dr. Who depicts a being of pure hatred that survives on fear as the giant snake Mara. In classic stories like the Jungle Book, Kaa the python is always up to something treacherous through use of hypnosis and deceit. And older still, is the famous example in the Book of Genesis, when a serpent seals Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden through cunning trickery.

Countless more examples abound, but why are serpents always linked to evil?  Why not sharks, spiders, lions, or bats, all of which tend to instill equal amounts of fear among people and yet don’t have the long-lasting associations with evil like that of snakes?  Most species of snake are not particularly vicious or dangerous, at least compared to any other animal that might be associated with evil, and yet it is always snakes.

Historically, snakes have always been a common symbolic motif, and in many early human cultures they did indeed represent evil.  Nearly all cosmogonies of early civilizations – origin myths that explained the creation of the world – depicted snakes as evil beings set on world destruction.

  • The story of Gilgamesh from early Mesopotamia told how a stole the plant that provides eternal youth, causing Gilgamesh to lose his immortality – a bit like the story of the garden of Eden, where immortality in the garden was lost due to the trickery of a serpent.
  • In Ancient Egypt, Apophis was the serpent that tried to stop the sun god Re from bringing forth morning and thus he had to be battled and conquered every night before the sun could rise again.

  • The Vikings believed that Jörmungandr was a serpent so large it could encircle the earth and bite its own tail. It was the serpentine arch-nemesis of Thor that would one day kill him and initiate Ragnarok by squeezing his tail and destroying the world.

And even when they aren’t screwing over all of mankind with plans to destroy the world, snakes are still up to mediocre bouts of evil – in Greek mythology the half-human monster Medusa, who could turn men to stone with a single glance, had snakes for hair. This probably fueled later medieval folklore that warned of a giant serpent called a basilisk, whose gaze rendered its victims dead.

The Basilisk has remained a popular mythical monster, starting in Ancient Greece and continuing on through the Dark Ages, and reappearing in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

The Basilisk has remained a popular mythical monster, starting in Ancient Greece and continuing on through the Dark Ages, and famously reappearing in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Although the stealthy behavior and sometimes venomous bite of a snake is part of the natural, biological world, it still gives people reason to dislike them, and the way that they move and slither through grass unseen makes snakes a useful metaphor for a deceitful or sly person.  They flick their tongues in and out in a slightly sinister way, therefore having a “serpent’s tongue” makes one untrustworthy.  If there is a legitimate reason to fear or dislike something in the physical world, it makes it easier to transfer that fear into a symbol that could represent pure or supernatural evil, because people already have a negative connotation to it. 

But in non-Western cultures, snakes aren’t always evil, and sometimes were represented in a duality of good and evil – although Apophis opposed the sun god Re, a Uraeus was a cobra image atop the crown of an Egyptian king meant to protect him.  Serpents meant different things to different members of society and different societies as a whole.

The Caduceus of Greek Mythology was the “messenger” staff carried by Hermes and Iris and was wrapped with two winged snakes. In modern times it is sometimes confused with the Rod of Aesculapius – which only had one, un-winged snake. As the god of medicine and healing, Aesculapius and his followers worshiped snakes and products derived from them, especially venom, were thought to have medicinal properties in ancient times.

On the left is Hermes carrying the Caduceus, which has been adopted as a symbol of medicine in place of the Rod of Asclepius, who was the god of medicine and healing.

On the left is Hermes carrying the Caduceus and on the right is Aesculapius carrying the Rod of Aesculapius.  Although the Rod of Aesculapius was carried by the god of medicine and healing, the Caduceus is sometimes portrayed in modern times as a symbol of emergency and medical services.

The imagery of a snake shedding its skin and emerging anew has also lead to its representations of rebirth, especially in Hindu cultures. During the festival days of Shravana, the “Nag panchami” involves snake worship in a quest for fame and knowledge. But a snake can also represent sexual desires and passions, both positive and negative, and could therefore contribute to an individuals downfall.

And remember Apophis, whom the Egyptians had to defeat every night? Though a figure of evil, he might not have been truly hated but instead seen as a power to be reckoned with and a necessary part of life. Good cannot triumph over evil if there is none to defeat and the ancient Egyptians valued a balance of good and evil, order and chaos, ma’at and isfet – the world is not balanced if there is no evil and an unbalanced world was seen as the true danger.

Likewise, in Norse belief, there was no avoiding Ragnarok – it was fated to happen, and Thor knew he would die to Jörmungandr long before it would happen.  So with this cultural perspective, the serpent may be seen as less of an agent of evil and more as an agent of fate, a messenger that acts to ensure the world carries on as it is meant to, whether this be good or bad for everyone involved.

The definitive imagery as serpents being fully evil didn’t really exist until Christianity came along. It is possible that the early ideas of the duality of snakes – both good and evil – is what sealed the future perceptions of snakes in a negative light. The early Church did not like dualities in ideas and early Christianity usually saw things as all good or all bad, with little middle ground. Dualities left too much open for interpretation by commoners, which was a disadvantage in a time when the Church was trying to spread quickly across cultures and into new territories.

Sadly, it was not uncommon for Christians to vilify the pagan beliefs that they did not adopt, making them wholly evil and therefore more straightforward to the common people. (Even the meanings of the words “vilify” and “villain” come from an early Christian attempt to associate the pagan French “vilain”, simply meaning a peasant farmhand, into something evil because they were, after all, pagan.) Snakes, which represented many ideas of both good and evil, came to be associated with devil worship, sorcery, and deceit because an individual could be deceived by an idea with more than one meaning.  Therefore, placing a serpent in the Garden of Eden as the ultimate downfall to mankind and as the form that Satan himself chooses when he tempts Eve, has created a permanent connection between serpents and “evil”, which has lasted for hundreds of years and still persists in Western culture today.

“Trust not too much in appearances”

I’ve been re-watching some of my favorite childhood movies – I think its a quarterlife crisis thing as graduation draws near – and one that I especially made a point to watch was “Prince of Egypt”. It was one of Dreamwork’s first animated films and is based off the Biblical story of Moses and the Exodus out of Egypt.

Val Kilmer voices Moses and Ralph Fiennes (Voldemort) voices Ramses II. Patrick Stewart, Jeff Goldblum, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Danny Glover, Helen Mirren, Martin Short, and Steve Martin also lend their voices. And you get to hear Ralph Fiennes, Martin Short, and Steve Martin sing. It’s pretty epic.

I always loved it as a child, but I recently realized I loved it for different purposes than were intended – being the story of the Exodus, a viewer is perhaps supposed to learn about the Bible, Moses, and the power of God in freeing his people from oppression.  And I will admit, the burning bush as sign of God’s power is a well-done scene and very cool… but I always loved the portrayal of the Egyptian gods more.  The Egyptian priests were far more suave than Moses or Aaron, especially with their jackal- and hawk-headed gods and their love of all things “cat”.  Not to mention, young Ramses II had a way cooler haircut.

As kid I thought the Egyptian gods might have really existed alongside the Christian God (though I surely wasn’t supposed to believe that from the Bible), and I always figured they actually had animal-heads. As a student who enjoys archaeology and mythology, I now question what the purpose of the animal-heads were and how literally they were meant to be taken.  Simply:

“Did the Egyptians actually belief their gods had animal heads?”

And the answer is not a simple one. Our understanding of Egyptian religion is lacking because we still can’t even read all of the hieroglyphics we have found. Furthermore, Egyptians considered it bad luck to write about the afterlife, religious practices, and ideas about evil, so for some topics we have no information at all.

Early Egyptologists may have believed the Egyptians had somewhat primitive ideas about religion and would have actually believed in the improbabilities of an animal-headed god. We in modern society tend to have an obsession with exotic cultures or mysterious traditions and do sometimes forget that our ancient ancestors were intelligent and capable of the same critical thinking we are, and their religion was highly organized and complex. And their religious leaders were well-educated scholars – the Dalai Lama is an incredibly well-educated man though admittedly his lifestyle, religion, or appearance can be seen as a bit “exotic” in Western culture.

The Egyptian gods are described as being “therianthropomorphic”, meaning partly human and partly animal. But representations varied widely – Anubis always has his jackal head, but Osiris is usually represented in human form. Osiris can also be represented by the “crook and the flail”, an “atef” crown, sometimes a bull (these animals were sacred to him), and even the color green (representing rebirth and fertility – understandable considering he is the king of the afterlife and fathered a son after his death). Since Osiris was a deity connected to several aspects of life and death, a mere single representation of him is neither an accurate nor fair way to demonstrate his power.

An ancient image of Osiris – note the green skin on the human form, and that he is wearing an Atef crown and holding a crossed Crook and Flail across his chest.

The famous Classicist and author Edith Hamilton wrote that the Egyptians deliberately made their gods unhuman to distance them from mortals, to make them more awe-inspiring and something to be feared. Indeed the Greeks saw the Egyptian gods as uncompanionable, mysterious, aloof, and beast-like, unlike their own gods who were human-formed with idealized beauty and very human personality traits.

And this may be slightly true, as the afterlife was seen by ancient Egyptians as being very hierarchical – gods were better than kings, who were better than elites, and at some points the possibility of a mere peasant going to the afterlife wasn’t even considered. Therefore, if the gods were meant to demonstrate their status above kings through imposing appearances, perhaps they were meant to appear aloof because they were in fact inhuman.

However, the Egyptians were sophisticated and methodical, and from their art we know they valued symbolism. Therefore it is possible that the images of gods were meant to be completely symbolic and not literal. If you have ever examined an Egyptian drawing, you will immediately notice that detail, size, perspective, and realism are absent – the information that the image projects is much more important. If pictures weren’t meant to be taken literal, we shouldn’t assume that because Horus is drawn as hawk-headed that Egyptians believed if they physically saw Horus in real life, he would have a beak.

The animal associations of power and magic were much more important than realism. It is likely that Anubis was shown with a jackal head not because it was believed that he was half dog but because the jackal was associated with cemeteries because they were scavengers and it was feared they might unearth buried corpses, and so the jackal was associated with the god who was associated with protection during burial, mummification, and the afterlife. Anubis’s jackal head is also an excellent example of the symbolic nature of the animal-headed deity because during mummification rites, priests would often don a jackal mask to emulate Anubis – but in no way was it believed this priest actually became Anubis.

Image taken from the "Book of the Dead', showing an Egyptian priest wrapping a mummy, meant to invoke protection from the god Anubis

Image taken from the “Book of the Dead’, showing an Egyptian priest wrapping a mummy, meant to invoke protection from the god Anubis

And Egyptians weren’t the only ones to do this – In classical Greek, it was believed Zeus often came to earth as a bull or swan, or disguised as a mortal (usually to seduce a maiden), but this wasn’t the actual likeness of Zeus himself. And how often is Jesus portrayed as a lamb, or the Holy Spirit as dove, even in modern society? Jesus is described as the “lamb of god”, but not because it is believed he is or ever was an actual lamb. Animal representations simply give us a more basic understanding about the nature of a deity.

This was especially important in Ancient Egypt, where the majority of people could not read. Hieroglyphs are complex and there are thousands of them to learn. It is much easier to represent the violent nature of the female demon Ammut (who eats the hearts of evil men) by showing her as having the body of a river beast like a hippopotamus rather than by describing her wrath in writing.

And another possibility to consider is that Egyptians might have accepted that they didn’t even know what their gods would look like. The gods are described as being able to hide themselves from mortals and even from other gods. Likewise, they could transform themselves and hide their true forms and secret names from mortals as well as each other, never looking the same to two different individuals. Egyptian religion therefore acknowledges there is no single concrete form a god can take, and even the idea of Egyptian bodies are multifaceted and complex – there are 5 aspects of a person, each with different appearances and functions.

So probably the safe answer is that we don’t really know what the Egyptians believed, and they might not have fully known either. But, they did not worry about actual representations – images of specific individuals and even their mummy death masks are never lifelike portraits but are instead idealized representations of what the perfect person or mummy might look like. And the fact that the gods could change their forms, even among each other, might imply there is no one specific way a god would look.

“What is history, but a fable agreed upon?”

In a lecture regarding Egyptian tombs the other day, my professor mentioned how some kings were so afraid of graverobbers disrupting their tombs – thus making their afterlife more difficult or even impossible – that they had booby traps built. What he meant by this was secret doors or unbalanced rocks that may fall. Of course, what was in my imagination was more like Indiana Jones, with spikes that pop up through the floors, pressure plates that trigger poisonous darts, or a giant rolling rock ready to crush you should you disturb the tomb the of the sacred king. That is until my professor made a point to abruptly stop his lecture to add “NOT like in Indiana Jones”.

Apparently, he gets that sort of question a lot, along with questions about whether or not aliens helped build the pyramids and if there really is a curse of the mummy of Tutankhamen (no and no). He says the crazies asking him these questions are merely one of the “perks” of being an Egyptologist with a publicly accessible university email address.

And I hate to admit that I’ve gotten caught in a class discussion before with a faulty assumption I made after watching “The Mummy” – that the Egyptian Book of the Dead was a standard text that was so special that only a few copies existed. In reality it was actually called “The Book of Coming Forth by Day” and copies were buried with most elites in a practice that lasted over 1,700 years, and the content of each varied greatly based on the individual it was buried with.

This error made me wonder how much damage these myths about archaeology do to the art of science. It never seemed like a big deal to me: as a kid I was fascinated by characters like Indiana Jones and Allan Quartermain. And though they are horribly inaccurate, I credit movies like “The Mummy”, “Gladiator”, “Kingdom of Heaven”, and “Braveheart” with my early interest in anthropology, archaeology, and history.

Admittedly, I had to relearn many of the “facts” I learned from so-called historical movies, but nevertheless popular culture made me interested enough in a topic to learn the real facts behind it. So, is historical inaccuracy okay if it increases the public interest and awareness in a topic such as archaeology or history?

I guess that answer depends a lot on the story being told. For example, the Disney movie “Hercules” is infamous for its inaccuracies when it comes to the Greek traditions of Herakles – my favorite being that Zeus was such a man-whore that he fathered Herakles with another woman, not Hera. But, the Greeks had so many different versions of their own stories, that it wouldn’t seem that big of a deal to make inaccuracies now when the original myths were equally inconsistent.

But, what about a movie like Gladiator? It is meant to give an idea of life in Roman times and all of its characters are named after real people. Except none of them are represented accurately – Maximus of Hispana lived over 200 years before the Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, and Commodus certainly did not murder his father. So, do we damage the history and memory of these individuals by mixing their stories with fable and vilifying them without just cause? It seems a little unfair to the dead who are unable to defend their images in the face of popular culture.

Perhaps the most dangerous of these issues is when misconceptions arise about entire cultures, that still may exist. My mind jumps to the opening scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”: Indy is in Peru searching for a golden fertility idol, and ends up being chased by the “Hovitos” tribe who bow down before the idol and engage in mindless killing at the order of Indy’s archenemy “Belloq”. Except the Hovitos never existed and are dramaticized and loosely based on the “Chachapoyas” of Peru, while the artifact is actually a representation of the Aztec goddess “Tlazolteotl”.  This picking and choosing and combining of interesting imagery from various cultures is a common theme in films and seems to do a disservice to a culture of which only some traditions and values are worth retelling.

Or the ending of “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”, where Indy learns that a group of aliens, which ancient peoples around the world worshiped, actually built pyramids and other major ancient monuments. As my professor pointed out:

“the belief that aliens helped the Egyptians build the pyramids is less crazy than it is a sheer insult to the engineering skills and intellect of the Egyptians, because you are basically claiming that they couldn’t have done it on their own”.

But, it is also arguable that the creative arts of film and literature should be given a bit of poetic license on a historical matter, because history is never clear-cut and unambiguous. One could argue that we never know how the true events played out because “history is written by the victors”. And many people simply want to know how to feel about a historical event in a black & white way – basically, was a person good or bad? Was an event positive or negative? And films do a good job of presenting history in this sense, in a fun and entertaining way that leaves the viewer with a clearly defined idea of what they just witnessed and how they should feel about it.

That being said, maybe the best way to look at a blockbuster film is with interest, a grain of salt, and a desire to learn the real facts. Visual imagery is a great way to spark interest, but one should never claim to have any real knowledge on the matter if their facts come from Hollywood.

“Taste the Rainbow”

Okay, so I’ll start by saying that I know that this is nothing like a typical post from me, but Spring Break starts tomorrow here at UofM so it seemed like an appropriate time to document my adventures in “distilling” a few weekends ago.

Any college student knows the first thing you need for a fun house party is, sadly, a lot of cheap liquor.  Our adventure began at the local Meijer, where much to our surprise and amazement, pretty much all of their alcohol was on sale.  It was a beautiful moment, and yet…

Somehow we still ended up with some cheap beverages that no one really wants to drink…

Luckily, we also purchased skittles.  Cue the making of Skittle Vodka! (I prefer the term “distilling”, it sounds classier but admittedly is not really accurate).  Basically you dissolve skittles into vodka to make skittles-flavored vodka, pretty simple concept.  And it’s a fun way of making decent tasting punch from even the cheapest of vodkas.  And it’s ridiculously easy, so if you are interested, here’s what you will need:

  • 1 handle (1.75L) of a vodka of your choice
  • 1 large bag (~20oz) of skittles
  • 5 clean, empty bottles
  • Coffee filters, cheesecloth, etc.
  • Strainer/Sieve/Colander 
  • Coffee grinder/Blender (optional)

And here’s the process:

1. Sort out the different skittles flavors into separate cups (you can also make awesome flavor mixes like strawberry-grape or lemon-lime)

2. *This step is totally optional, but expedites the process and is definitely the most fun part: grind the skittles into a delicious skittle powder.

— Stop here and quickly find something to coat with skittles sugar, I recommend ice cream or even yogurt. —

Next, add the remaining ground up skittles to an empty bottle, fill with vodka, seal, and repeat for each flavor.

It helps to shake them up every day or so too, to make sure the skittles fully dissolve.

Orange first…

Aaand lemon…

3. If you ground up the skittles, it only takes a couple of days for the skittles to fully dissolve into the vodka.  If you placed them in whole, it might take up to a week for them to fully dissolve.  Once they do, you can filter out the skittles sediment to get a clear and colorful drink.

I recommend using a filter placed in a colander, but there’s a lot of ways to do this.

To speed up the process, we devolved to simply wrapping a filter around a glass and letting it drip into a glass.  This is a bit slower, but you can have multiple flavoring processes going at once this way.

4. After the vodka has completely filtered, place into clean bottles (hopefully you can find some classier ones that we did), and serve!

There are a lot of options to go here, bold drinkers may enjoy a sour warhead version of this, or even vodka-infused gummy bears.  So have fun, enjoy, and remember Drink Responsibly!

“If God did not intend for us to eat animals, then why did he make them out of meat?”

The perks of being in a “Human Nutrition and Culture” class is that a bunch of great topics relating to food keep popping up in discussions. Meat consumption is an extremely intricate and variable topic among the cultural groups of the world – just to name a few interesting topics: cultures such as the Inuit live almost entirely off of animal products in a land with no vegetation, many major world religions ban the consumption of pork, a meal isn’t considered complete among Maasai without meat, and there is an arguable vegetarian trend that has been spreading throughout the United States in recent years.

For the purposes of a recent study, I looked at how meat consumption was viewed among different social classes in Medieval Europe and how this impacted their nutrition and health – and was surprised to find a modern day connection to how we identify different meats. (And if you are curious, the lower classes were actually healthier than higher classes because they ate more “cheap” foods such as vegetables and less “high-class” foods such as sugar. If only it were like that today).

Have you ever wondered why some meat is called the same thing as the animal it comes from and some have different names? Well… maybe not… but consider:

  • chicken is called chicken, turkey is turkey, fish is fish

However:

  • cow meat is called beef
  • calf is veal
  • sheep is mutton
  • pig is pork
  • deer is venison

The argument is often made that calling meat by other names such as beef and pork allows for people to psychologically distance themselves from the fact that they are actually eating a once-living creature. It’s easier to eat a steak when your mental image is not of an actual living cow but rather an abstract food term “beef”.

vs.

While this may be part of the explanation, it certainly doesn’t explain why we still call chickens chicken, which is one of the most eaten animals and hence should be the most likely to have a differential name for its consumption.

The difference actually comes from the Norman conquest of England and the resulting mixture of cultures and languages that occurred. When the Normans (French) took over England and it’s government, they became the elite and the nobles of the country. And they used their own words for their food – beouf, porc, and mouton. The commoners still kept the Anglo-Saxon names they used for the animals – cow, pig, and sheep.

Venison follows along this same pattern, as deer were considered royal property and legal only for nobles to consume.

The language differences may have come from a deliberate desire of the Normans to separate themselves from the commoners, or it may have been a natural response of each group to continue to use their native language.

Furthermore, the elites and nobles who used the French words only saw the meat and so called it by their French names, while the commoners who raised the animals – but were probably too poor to actually eat them – called the living animals by the Anglo-saxon names. Over time, as the languages and cultures mixed due to coexistence, both were incorporated into the common language because both developed different implications – beouf, beef, for the meat and cow for the living animal.