International Women’s Day: Hypatia

I first came across Hypatia in the 2009 film Agora.


Based in Roman-ruled Egypt, the film centers around the raging disputes between the main religions of the day –  Judaism and Christianity, and ends with the death of Hypatia, a Greek philosopher. Essentially, it is suggesting that ancient religions allowed no place for philosophy or science and in fact divide us as people, though this concept may have been made stronger for the sake of the film plot.

Hypatia sprang to my mind as someone to write about, because for a start, women were not really regarded as equals in Ancient Greece or Rome. Hypatia lived in the later stages of the ancient world, around 350-370 AD. But as an aristocrat of her day, money allowed her to thrive in a man’s world.

She was a mathematician (the first known woman mathematician) and philosopher, and as the head of the Platonist school at Alexandria, she taught many male students on these subjects – based on law rather than nature – making her a woman apart from her time. One scene in the film that has stuck in my mind (probably out of shock value), that apparently did happen in real life, is when one of her suitors makes a pass at her (suggested as Orestes in the film though this is not historically true), and she gives him her menstruation rags, saying there is nothing attractive about carnal knowledge. As to the rest of the film, it’s probably fair to say that history has been somewhat distorted.

Essentially, her eventual death resulted from rising tensions between the Christians and Jews. Or rather, the situation was used to get rid of her. Orestes was the governor of Alexandria at this time, and Cyril was the Bishop of Alexandria, and both became more furious with each other’s actions. Although Hypatia was widely held highly and with virtue by most men, it was because Orestes came to her for council that Cyril cited her – an untrustworthy pagan- as the reason for his and Orestes’ inability to get along, which amounted to the wider conflicts between Christians and Jews in the city. Really, he was jealous of her – jealous that people came to her for her wisdom, and that a woman could hold such a power as wisdom.

One report by Socrates Scholasticus states that after Cyril spread these rumours, she was kidnapped by a mob of Christians, stripped naked in a church, and attacked with roof tiles, before her body was torn limb from limb. Another report says that her body was dragged naked through the city. Along with many others, she was made a scapegoat for the conflicts, and it was because she was such a strong female figure, that she was seen as much of a threat as the other men.

Retro Christmas Card Extravaganza

I don’t send Christmas cards. To me it seems like either a thing you do at school, or something you do when you’re a proper grown up. I am neither.

Yet it’s the festive season, and I can’t ignore this big element of Christmas – the thing that most of us take for granted, until perhaps the day we no longer get a single Christmas card. The problem I have is, where do you draw the line? Who are the people who don’t make it onto the card list? I have 165 friends on Facebook, but I know that they’re not all reeeally friends. Maybe I should send out a lovely e-card to Facebook and Twitter friends. It would save trees, though the electricity used would create a momentous amount of CO2 obviously.

A few years ago, I sent cards to prisoners held unlawfully around the world via the Amnesty International scheme.  This was probably the last time I sent cards to anybody. If you’re going to send a card, do it with meaning right? Even if you just sign it, “Thinking of you during this difficult time, from …”.

The first official Christmas card was sent as a greeting from Sir Henry Cole, an English civil servant, to his friends and professional peers in 1843. I say “official Christmas card” because even before this, people sent hand made greetings messages to each other. Cole asked his friend John Calcott Horsley to design the card that he would send, depicting what we now see as a very traditional Victorian Christmas scene.

And yet, following this, some of the earliest designs rarely featured such scenes, but rather images of spring signalling the coming season…which seems kind of odd to me.

Obviously, one thing that can’t be ignored is the lucrative nature of the Christmas card industry. According to Hallmark’s statistics, they sold 1.5 billion cards during the Christmas period in 2010, compared to the Valentine’s Day period which saw just (just?) 144 million cards sold. Even the first cards, made by Cole and Horsley, were for business purposes.

Queen Victoria is well known for having celebrated Christmas in the style we celebrate it in today in Britain, and was herself a fan of sending Christmas greetings since the 1840s, like the card below from 1897:

 Here are a couple of my favourite World War One Christmas cards which you can find  here:





The Germans knew how to make ’em. Speaking of World War I, anybody seen a film called Joyeux Noel about the Christmas truce on 1914 between the French, Scottish and Germans? I only caught the end, but it seemed pretty good.

joyeux noel

Reminds me of this song – originally not released as a Christmas tune, but due to the Christmas reference, it soon became one.

Anyway, here are some more cards from throughout the ages…












1980s Soviet card

Tales from the Crypt

Portugal – that’s where I was a week ago. I went to the Algarve. The evenings looked like this:


Nearby the villa we stayed at there was a small town called Alcantarilha, and in this town is a 16th century church – the Capela dos Ossos or the Bone Chapel, as you’ll see by its original decor inside:  


Over 1000 bones are stored in this chapel, which was built over a graveyard. Like many bone chapels throughout Portugal, as opposed to being a gory sight, it was actually built for the honest purpose of protecting the remains of the dead. Which is why inside, Jesus watches over the bones.

Portugal isn’t the only country to have relocated various graveyard bones. From my last post about my family tree of deceased people, to this post with its church of relocated bones…to a tree with relocated graves. Do you know who this man is?

It’s Thomas Hardy, the famous writer of such stories as Jude the ObscureFar from the Madding Crowd, and Under the Greenwood Tree. St Pancras station, London, began construction in 1863, and there was a slight problem with the development: St Pancras Old Church, said to have Norman links and to be the oldest surviving church in London, had a graveyard full of aristocrats and prominent figures such as immigrants like the refugees from the French Revolution, that encroached on the development of the station and later developments. So it was decided that the graveyard should be relocated.

Around the same time as the construction of the station, Thomas Hardy was a student of architecture. He was appointed as the overseer of the exhumation – a sensitive affair considering the nature of the job, and one which he would write about much later, having spent so much of his time managing the movement. The 7,000 bodies were to be placed in a mass grave just north of the graveyard. And the gravestones?


This is known as the Thomas Hardy tree, an ash tree which was planted around the same time as the reinterment of the bodies, later to grow up amongst the headstones. I haven’t actually visited it yet. Maybe I’ll go on Halloween. And to Highgate cemetery.

I’ve visited many cemeteries in my life, due to the two trips I went on visiting First World War memorials and graveyards in France and Belgium. One sticks in my mind in Belgium – the Langemark cemetery, a German cemetery.

During WWI, the Germans buried their dead just as their enemies did, in makeshift graves that became permanent. Here are a couple of original German graves at the preserved trenches of Sanctuary Wood in Belgium:

After WWI, the defeated Germans were made to exhume the bodies of their soldiers in the graveyards in this area of Belgium, and rebury them in fewer graveyards. After WWII, the Germans had to exhume the bodies again from these cemeteries and reinter them again into fewer cemeteries, for the sake of an easy upkeep in a foreign land. Langemark, at the time known as Langemarck-North was one of just three “collecting” cemeteries. It was filled with the bodies from 18 other cemeteries. They were reburied in mass graves, multiple names listed like below. 

There are over 44,000 bodies in this one cemetery.

Everyone I know who I visited this cemetery with on both tours was especially affected by the bleakness here. Aside of the many gravestones, there are three mass graves here, one of which is known as the Comrades’ grave, containing 24,917 servicemen. Worth noting is the small monument at the entrance; inside, this building lists the names of the soldiers’s bodies that were unable to be identified but known to be buried at Langemark.

3,000 of the bodies in one area of the cemetery are those of Kriegsfreiwilliger, which means war volunteer. These soldiers were young, inexperienced German men who made up 15% of the war vounteers who died at the Battle of Langemarck during October and November 1914, as part of the First Battle of Ypres. It was at the hands of highly trained French infantry and British riflemen. It is now known as Kindermord bei Ypern in German, or the Massacre of the Innocents in English.

At one end of the cemetery stands four figures, the bronze statues of a group of mourning men, created by Professor Emil Krieger from Munich. It was taken from a famous print of a group of German soldiers from the Reserve-Infantry-Regiment 238 mourning at a graveside in 1918. Two days later the man on the second from the right was killed.

When you first enter the cemetery, it’s what you immediately see. These four silhouetted figures. And even once you’ve worked out that they aren’t in fact real people, you can’t help but let your gaze return to them, always there in the background, watching over.

Vampires and Witches: A Short History

When I was young, about five or six, I was quite superstitious and paranoid. I was so superstitious, in fact, that when I washed my face before going to bed, and I pulled the plug out of the sink, I ran all the way to my bedroom, for fear that if I didn’t get there before the plughole gurgled, something bad would happen. Surprised I had any toes left after all the corridor corners I had to negotiate on the way.

And I was very paranoid. I had so many nightmares about Martians invading after I would listen to Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds, or watch the 1950’s film. It didn’t matter how scared I got each time, I would still put myself through the ordeal of listening to the album or watching the film time and time again. Anyway, I was so paranoid, that at one point in my young life I thought that everyone was spying on me – my family were all in on it. All conspiring against me, wearing masks. I think Road Dahl’s The Witches had something to do with that – that, and being the youngest child in a large family who often didn’t understand the things that everyone else understood. I finally plucked up the courage after what seemed like months back then but was probably just a couple of weeks, and I asked my sister.

I said:

“Are you all witches wearing masks and spying on me?”

She started laughing, and I was so relieved.

Two nights ago, I went to see Derren Brown’s show Svengali which was a mayzing. It baffled me so much that I woke up with what I call a “cryptic crossword headache”. In other words, it made me think too hard. And the show itself covered the theme of possession. The word “svengali” refers to someone who can control another with evil intent. That’s about all I can say, though you can probably guess he did his usual freaky stuff.

Today, we see the Middle Ages as being renowned for the age of superstition. Regarding witches, you could pretty much accuse anyone (women mainly) of being a witch or dancing with the devil if they had a wart on their face or a birthmark or seemed possessed. The idea of witches and possession by demons came about through the superstitious elements of religion – Christianity in Britain – with its superstitious roots evident in the Bible and its references to possessed beings – see here for many occasions when Jesus cast out demons. Paganism became synonymous with devil worship in the eye of the church at some point. Of course, some people did practise devil worship and witchcraft and still do. But the medieval times are famous for their women-ducking, stake-burning, back-stabbing masses of witch hunters, such as those led by Vincent Price as epitomised in the film Witchfinder General…okay so it wasn’t actually Vincent Price, but Matthew Hopkins played by Vincent Price.

Sometimes, I wish Vincent Price could read me to sleep with a bedtime story every night.

Right now, I have the DVD menu on the TV screen for The Woman in Black with the freaky music playing in the background over and over, really getting me into this post.

Now, let’s get back to Matthew Hopkins.

He was an immoral lawyer in the 17th century, nicknamed “The Witch-Finder General”, and in just 14 months, around 1645/1646, he was responsible for the deaths of 230 so-called witches. He used to torture people – at that time illegal in Britain – to rouse confessions from his victims, along with his little sidekick John Stearne, a sadistic chap who enjoyed a good old torturous prick and poke, and later a couple of other folk who joined the witch hunting team. Confessions amounted to admitting you were a witch and that you kept and “suckled” imps usually in the forms of animals. And maybe you’d throw in a couple of names of other witches while you were at it. Such as Elizabeth Clarke, Hopkins’ first victim, whose mother was found guilty of witchcraft before her, and who eventually admitted to being a  witch with imps and familiars in the form of her pets. She had been kept without food and sleep for three days though, and ridiculed with strip searches. As seen below:


Women bore the brunt of these searches, having always been seen as either ugly, old hags or seductive, evil temptresses of men as a result of religious, spiritual and, let’s face it, sexist beliefs throughout the Middle Ages. And still today.

Kristen Stewart. She’s one, isn’t she? Cheating on R Patts. Seducing older men. Never the other way round, I’m sure.

Maybe not – never mind, just needed a way to move onto vampires.

Vampires became strongly apparent again in Medieval times. They were everywhere – couldn’t get rid of them. They used to nick milk and orange juice off doorsteps after a late night out, the pests.

Vampires came about through the idea of the “undead” during this superstitious age. The term “vampire” developed around the beginning of the 18th century, but the idea of a vampire has been around for many many centuries, and there is evidence found in other parts of the world to suggest it is prehistoric. The vampire came to the Western world from Eastern Europe, and the term “vampire” has derived from a number of European languages.

The evidence for vampires? Inexplicable deaths caused townsfolk to exhume the bodies of those they believed may not have passed onto the spirit world – usually those who were troublemakers in their living lives.

Signs of a vampire? A bloated body having just fed on a victim, with trails of blood from the mouth or nose.

Way of dealing with a vampire? A stake through the heart in some countries, decapitation in others. Also, a brick in the mouth.

Why a brick in the mouth? I hear you say. Because if they exhumed bodies, they often found a hole in the shroud that covered the corpse’s head in the mouth area, causing the teeth to be bared. They weren’t aware that it was the bacteria in the mouth that created the hole, but rather strangely thought it was something vampires fed on to build their strength up, along with feasting on the blood of fellow corpses in the graveyard before moving onto living human blood. Nor did they understand epidemics, and that it was probably illnesses, not vampires, that struck down many people at a time. So, they drove stakes through their hearts, often pinning them inside their coffins, put rocks in their mouths to jar their jaws, or buried troublemakers in the living world upside down, as they were the ones most likely to become vampires, so that when they tried to dig themselves out of their coffins, they actually dug straight to hell.

Of course, today we understand the processes of decomposition much more than in the good ol’ Middle Ages. Bodies become bloated, not through “feeding”, but through the build up of gases inside, which would inevitably create enough pressure to push blood out of the mouth or nose. Those from the Middle Ages were also unaware of the factors contributing towards decomposition such as cool air temperatures which allowed bodies to rot at a much slower rate, thereby giving the appearance that the body was not really decomposing at all.

The thing I find strange about the belief in vampires, is not all the strange practices and paraphernalia they used to rid themselves of these bloodsucking creatures, but the global spread of this belief. Not only were vampires thought to have existed by people living across Europe, but also in other continents all around the world. Though not necessarily known by the term “vampire”, the folklore of other cultures show belief in these evil beings: ramanga in Madagascar – the outlaw who feasts on the blood and toenail clippings of nobles; and my particular favourite, the manananggal of the Phillippines, who flies at night to prey on pregnant women as they sleep, by eating their foetuses using their long tongues, and also feeding on the entrails and phlegm of sick people. Makes me hungry actually – I imagine the sensation of sucking on phlegm to be like sucking out the last bit of ice cream from the bottom of a Cornetto.

My point is, vampires were a widely spread belief for centuries, even millennia. How did the belief disappear (disregarding those who still belief in vampires and werewolves, of course – I’m referring to the general public)? Well, this wasn’t easy to find out on the net, particularly because so many people’s responses to this question is that they do still believe in some form or another of vampires (I don’t – really there is no more space in my paranoid mind to start getting scared of vampires. I already have masked witches in my family to contend with). But I guess the obvious reason must be the advances in medical science, and the freedom to question the church’s teachings, without being condemned as a blasphemer.

And now to finish with one of my favourite witchy moments:


Olympics Through the Ages

Yesterday, I read in an article in The Guardian that the  winner of the men’s 5000m race in the 2008 Beijing Olympics would have beaten the winner of the men’s 1500m race in 1908. They took this fact from a report created by researchers in the House of Commons, which also said that the winner of the women’s marathon in 2008 would have beaten the winner of the men’s race in 1908 by half an hour.

Interesting stuff.

It seems we are becoming superhuman – or godlike, if you will, like the Ancient Greeks. We (and I use the word “we” as opposed to “they” when I reference athletes as it makes me feel good about myself) just keep getting faster and stronger and breaking each other’s world records. We can’t help but push ourselves. So how did we get like this, and why weren’t we like it in the past?

A number of reasons:-

– money. People didn’t have the money for training regimes – especially women for obvious reasons in the past (on a side note, women have only been allowed to compete in all categories at the Olympics for the first time this year – the final sport being boxing. Strangely, there are still some sports that don’t allow men, such as synchronised swimming. Also, in the old days, people not deemed to be of a civilised origin had to compete in separate events i.e. in 1904, those from colonies such as Africa, out of fear of later revolts against the dominant world leaders and empires, were only allowed to compete in so-called “athletic events for savages”. Fast forward to the black power salute of the 1968 Olympics, and even to today with such programmes as Survival of the Fastest and race and genetics still play a very prominent role in modern Olympics).

– two world wars got in the way. Ducking bombs whilst out jogging is obviously too distracting.

– regarding jogging – although the term jogging has been referenced since Shakespeare’s day, with a slightly different meaning of “slight, quick movements”, it never really took off until the 1960s/1970s and in those days was called roadwork, something mainly used by athletes. My point is that the idea of keeping fit – jogging regularly being a main part of modern day fitness regimes – wasn’t really a habit of the general public until the second half of the 20th century. Yes, people did exercise, but it generally consisted of flapping your arms and legs around.

(Club swinging – a discontinued Olympic event)

Fitness regimes of athletes were probably not as hardcore as today’s athletes either, and they didn’t push themselves like others today. The idea was to ease your body into fitness, not pummel it into it. For example, you can chart the progression of the star jump – originally a simple stretch waving the arms up and down in the Victorian times, through to the Edwardians where the movement had progressed to doing the same action but holding weights as well, and finally towards the twenties and onwards where jumping becamed involved – forming the star jump. So in the old days, people did not have as deep an understanding of the human body as we do today. Nor did early modern Olympians have the same kind of diets. Or drugs. Or rather sport enhancing drugs we use today – past generations were also known to have taken drugs as I will describe later.

In terms of overt fitness or muscle tone, muscle-building is one thing that has been around since the late 1800s, promoted by the likes of Prussian Eugen Sandow with his Grecian Ideal, but his look was probably considered that of the other, and was not the norm. Yet, the Victorians and Edwardians did generally get into more outdoor sports and leisure activities, like cricket. This led to such games in the 1908 Olympics as the popular sport of pedestrianism.

This was basically long distance walking brought about by the Victorian love of the great outdoors. But we aren’t talking a simple 3-hour race. Though they loved the great outdoors, this sport was gruelling and repetitive, as outlined in this article stating how one six-day pedestrianism race took place in one sports ring. Six days! That meant walking round and round and round and round… In fact, some people found the exercise so physically challenging, they often cut their thighs to relieve muscle tension. It’s easy to see why even Victorian athletes took drugs for pain relief in those days. As pharmacies were more relaxed during Victorian times, and were generally still experimenting themselves with many types of drugs, athletes would chew coca leaves, and take cocaine, strychnine and alcohol. However, this was all banned by the 1908 Olympics.

But still, the muscles we see in the Olympics today were a little less recognisable in the old days – a bit more deflated and, well, flabby. Roll back the clock to the Ancient Games, and there is an obvious difference.

1896 saw the first modern Olympic Games in Athens. The Ancient Olympics didn’t actually take place in Athens, but in Olympia, beginning in 776 BC and continuing every four years (known as an olympiad) around the time of the summer solstice. Any free man from any country and state could compete as long as he spoke Greek, but women couldn’t attend. There were a few differences between the Ancient Olympics and the modern Games of around the turn of the 20th century. My first point regards muscles. Look at these Ancient Classical Greek artefacts:

The Ancient Greeks tried to model themselves on the Olympic Gods in body and in mind – hence their gymnasiums and games such as the Olympics, and also through studying all different subjects. The Olympics was a religious event dedicated to the gods – mainly Zeus and Hera. Of course, we can’t expect that every Greek looked like the two bronze Riace Warriors above (not least because elements of these figures just don’t make sense: muscles are over-defined, and they are actually missing their coccyx bones. Though they seem highly realistic, they are still works of art and emphasize the supposed perfection of the Ancient Greek body), but perhaps many of the athletes did.

I always remember my Classics teacher at school telling us that when sculptures like this were first discovered, the people laughed at the muscle definition, simply because they didn’t realise these muscles existed.

Ancient Greeks did also compete in the nude, if not to prove they were men and legible to enter the Games, but also to show off their fine physiques. In the old days, there were fewer events, but these included things like the 192m sprint race, which involved contestants running down a straight, or a stade as it was known – the length of the stadium, round a wooden stake, and back down the straight they came down to the starting line.

On this vase, showing such sprinters, there is obvious muscle definition, so we can only determine from all of these artefacts – regardless of artistic licensing – that they must have been very fit in the Ancient Games.

Another event was the pankration – a fighting sport with an anything goes kind of attitude, except it didn’t allow biting or eye-gouging. These men were obviously bulkier.

And of course chariot racing – dangerous and bloody. Prizes for the various Panhellenic Games, which the Olympic Games were a part of, involved a gift of whatever was the symbol for that event (for the Olympics, it was an olive wreath, known as kotinos), and a lot of public recognition – and much partying!

One event I always found intriguing was the ancient technique for the long jump, part of the pentathlon.

They did it from a standing position (even in the original modern day Olympics they did the long jump from a standing position) and held weights, swinging them backwards and forwards before taking a leap. Apparently the weights pulled them further forward and steadied their landing.

Here are some modern games that are no longer practised:


Yes, the tug-of-war. A very British game, which would explain who came first in all three places in 1908: Gold went to the City of London Police, Silver to the Liverpool Police, and Bronze to the Metropolitan Police “K” Division. I wonder if this event would ever have made it to the Games if Rome had in fact held them as intended, and not Britain who stepped in when Mt Vesuvius erupted on April 7, 1906. As of this year, Britain will be the only country to have held a record of three Olympic Games – 1908, 1948 and 2012. At the 1948 Olympics, Germany and Japan were strictly prohibited from entering.

I did a tug-of-war once with loads of other local children, and I remember being pulled forward along with the rest of my side so fast that I tumbled over onto a topless man with a massive beer belly who was lying out on the floor. I lost my balance and sat on his beer belly twice. Yes, tug-of-wars remind me of sunny, summer days – not that we’ll apparently see much of that at this year’s Olympics, which will be another record for Britain: it is due to be the wettest Olympic Games in history (most events will be wet t-shirt competitions – wahey!).


In this picture, we see the British women’s archery team who won all lead position. This may have been due to the fact that Britain was the only nation to have a women’s team…

The Plunge/Swimming Obstacle Race/Underwater Swimming

The Olympics used to feature a whole host of swimming events which you can see being relived here by Sports Relief on the BBC. My favourite is the obstacle race which involved such things as swimming under a boat and climbing up and down a pole.

Delivery Van Driving

In the 1900 Olympics in Paris, this was an unofficial event as part of the World Fair. In fact, there were all forms of motor racing at this event, including a taxi race, 7 seater car race, 2 seater car race… the list goes on.

And a few more  that have gone out of fashion over the years:

Live pigeon shooting

Rope climbing

Long distance horse jumping

Poodle clipping

Solo synchronised swimming

Club swinging (as pictured above)

Hot air balloon racing

It seems the older modern day Games had a much more lighthearted feel. I for one am going to propose a slippery pole competition for this year’s Games – if it’s not too late.