Stealing Symbols

On my way across the parking lot at my local supermarket, I noticed a truck with an unusual tailgate decoration and window decal.

The window decal contains the words “Protected by Thor” and the tailgate image seems to be Thor’s hammer. However, the most popular use of Thor’s hammer these days is in the Avengers and Thor movies.  Being a fan, I know what Thor’s hammer looks like in those movies: 

The image on the left is from Thor: The Dark World, the one on the right from Thor: Ragnarok, just before Hela destroys the hammer. 

Here is a close-up of the image on the hammer from the movies:

While the borders seem to be decorative squiggles, the image engraved on the middle front is a triquetra – three intertwined elements.  Though Christians use it to refer to the Holy Trinity, its use predates Christianity by thousands of years.  It appears in passage tombs in Ireland, where it is often interpreted as the combination of life, death, and rebirth.

It’s been used repeatedly in popular culture.  It appeared on a Led Zeppelin album, in the TV show “Charmed,” and in the TV series “The Walking Dead.”

However, the symbol on the truck doesn’t seem to be referencing those TV shows or the Marvel movies. 

Neo-Pagan Symbol

The simplified version of this symbol is currently used by Asatru believers and Neo-Odinists, as well as other contemporary pagan/heathen groups. Many of these people believe in the old Norse gods, including Odin/Woden and Thor.  It’s even accepted now as a religious affiliation symbol that can be placed on the tombstone of a deceased member of the US military, like the Christian cross, the Star of David, or the Crescent Moon and Star.  For modern Pagans, it’s a public badge of belief.  Presumably, you could put this on your car in the same way Christians might put a fish symbol.

Again, though, it’s not exactly the image on the truck.  And the truck image is not exactly like the amulets featuring Thor’s hammer found in ancient burial sites. Most of those have an animal face in the top section and a relatively simple swirl pattern below. 

The gold-plated silver Mjolnir pendant now housed in the Swedish Museum of National Antiquities is more complex in its decoration, but it still has the eyes and nose of a face at the top and more complex designs in the middle and bottom.

The image on the truck

The image on the truck matches a badge sold on a website offering a variety of  biker symbols, movie symbols, and other patches, all featuring strong, male images.   Some examples seem like fan wear – a John Wick badge, a Tyrell Replicants owl badge, (a reference to the film Bladerunner), a crew patch from The Martian, and a royal crest patch from the Legend of Zelda game.  Other patches have a darker side – a Confederate flag, a Hydra symbol from Captain America, lots of skulls, serpents, and pro-gun images, including a take-off on the North Face logo with the words “Aim for the Face,” and right-wing statements like ”Build That Wall” and the CNN logo with the words “Fake News.”

 The few that reference women have a rape context, like “Duct tape: turning ‘No, no, no’ into ‘Mmm, Mmm, Mmm.’”

Distrust is a common theme.  One patch features the Masonic Eye of Providence familiar from the dollar bill, but with “Trust No One” written under it.

Another has a heart shape with the words “All You Need Is Hate” inside it.

Clearly, there’s a range of opinions here.  That same mix muddies the meaning of the symbols.  Is “Protected by Thor” on the back of a truck a statement of a neo-pagan religion such as Asatru – just as “God is my co-pilot” might be for others – or is it a hate symbol?  Today, it’s hard to tell.  The Anti-Defamation League lists Thor’s Hammer as a symbol currently used by both hate groups and legitimate neo-Norse religious groups.  They note that white supremacists often include other racist designs into Thor’s hammer, such as a swastika (which was an ancient symbol originating in India and used in many cultures worldwide before Hitler got hold of it).

Celtic and Norse 

The symbol on the truck combines a Norse symbol with Celtic designs, a curious mix.  The Celts originated in the Middle East as early as 10,000 years ago, then moved north and west, eventually reaching Eastern and Western Europe.  The strongest remaining Celtic areas are shown in dark green on the map below.

A DNA study of a 5,200 year-old skeleton in Northern Ireland told an interesting story.  She had black hair and brown eyes. Some of her ancestors came from what is today Syria and Iraq. Others came from what is now Basque Country in northern Spain.

Scandinavian settlement was delayed because glaciers covered the land during the Ice Age.  When the ice retreated, people moved in.  According to DNA studies on seven individuals living between 9,500 and 6,000 years ago, they came from two separate groups.  The people from the south had blue eyes and dark skin.  The people from the northeast had pale skin and a range of eye color.  Later migrations into the area added new genetic material.

“The purity of the blood”

White Supremacist and Neo-Nazi groups have taken over many Celtic and Nordic symbols, including the Celtic sun (left), the valknut, various Icelandic runes, and Odin’s ravens, under the assumption that these are “White” cultures and therefore suitably “pure.”

But to be human is to be a hybrid, from the beginning.  All people of Western European descent carry some Neanderthal DNA.  Those of Eastern European descent carry either Neanderthal or Denisovan DNA – or both.  A skeleton found in Russia in 2012 revealed a startling ancestry: one parent was Neanderthal and the other Denisovan with some Neanderthal. The Neanderthal genes resembled those found in a skeleton in Eastern Europe, which suggests multiple migrations between Europe and Siberia. 

Over the centuries, waves of immigrants and conquerors swept through Europe, each one bringing its own culture and language.  Over time, the warriors settled down with the local girls, and the cultures blended. 

An interesting example of that blending is a bone sculpture of an Egyptian sphinx with a face carved of amber from the Baltic, discovered in the 500 BC burial of a Celtic chieftain in what is now Germany (pictured).

We use that heritage every day.  In English, four of our days of the week are of Norse origin (Tiu’s Day, Woden’s Day, Thor’s Day, Freya’s Day) but three are English translations of Latin names (Day of the Sun and Day of the Moon, Saturn’s Day). Our month names come from Roman gods and emperors (Juno, Janus, Mars, Julius, Augustus,) or Latin numbers (Septem, Octo, Novem, Decem) plus two Greek goddesses, Maia and Aphrodite.  It seems to work pretty well.

But certain groups deny that heritage, history, and science.  And they pervert ancient symbols to their own ends.

Is the design on the truck a hate symbol?  Probably.  But other groups are actively fighting back against the attempt to coopt these symbols.  Heathens United Against Racism joined over a hundred other groups taking a stand against the theft of Nordic and Celtic symbols.  In one standoff, White Supremacists bearing the Odin’s Raven flag (right) faced far greater numbers of counter protesters also carrying Odin’s Raven flags.  Perhaps that’s the best answer. 

Jaan Calderon, a Norwegian American and director of the Ravens of Odin Reenactment group, proudly wears a Thor’s Hammer amulet.  He was shocked to see it used by “skinheads, racists, and Nazis to propagate their racist message” in Charlottesville, but he adds, “Earthly hate groups will come and go, but Thor and his gang will live on, keeping the evil ones at bay.”

Let’s hope so.

Sources and interesting reading:

“Available Emblems of Belief for Placement on Government Headstones and Markers,” National Cemetery Administration,  U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs,

Apel, Jan, Lund University, “Ancient DNA sheds light on the mysterious origins of the first Scandinavians,” 10 January 2018, The Conversation,

Badges from Titan One,

Bray, Dan, “Hammer in the North: Mjolnir in Medieval Scandinavia,” Sydney Studies in Religion, Sydney University, 1997,

“Calendar Origins – Names of Days,”

“Calendar Origins – Names of Months,”

Calloway, Ewen, “Europe’s first humans: what scientists do and don’t know: DNA studies are uprooting our understand of prehistoric times,” Nature, 22 June 2015,

Claddagh Design, “The Meaning of Celtic Knots,” History, Ireland, 20 June 2019,

Drawing of gilded Thor’s Hammer amulet,

Geraghty, Jim, “What Do You Do When Hate Groups Decide to Adopt One of Your Symbols?” National Review, 21 August 2017,

“Hate on Display: Hate Symbols Database,” Anti-Defamation League, General Hate Symbols, Hate Group Symbols/Logos, Neo-Nazi Symbols, Ku Klux Klan Symbols,[146]=146&cat_id148=148&cat_id[150]=150&cat_id[151]=151&cat_id[0]=1467page=1

McKeown, Marie, “Blood of the Irish: What DNA Tells Us Abut the Ancestry of People in Ireland,” Owlcation, 19 August 2018, Owlcation,

“Mjolnir,” Wikipedia,

“Odinism and Asatru: Basic Facts,”,

Photo of carved sphinx, one of two found in a Celtic chieftain’s burial site in Germany, from “Fantastic Beasts: The Sphinx and other hybrid creatures in Iron Age European Art,” blog post,

Radford, Tim. “Irish DNA originated in Middle East and Eastern Europe,” The Guardian, 28 December 2015,

Samuel, Sigal, “What To Do When Racists Try To Hijack Your Religion: White supremacists are coopting Norse heathen symbols.  Should the heathens ignore them? Protest them? Create a new theology?” The Atlantic, 2 November 2017,

Semley, John, “Thor: Ragnarok’ is a hammer in the face to the alt-right” 4 November 2017,

“The Triquetra or The Trinity Knot – Meaning, Appearances And History,” Irish Around the World, 22 August 2018,

“Thor’s Hammer,” ADL Hate on Display: Hate Symbols Database, ADL,

“Valknut,” Wikipedia,

 “Viking symbols ‘stolen’ by racists,” The Norwegian American, 2 November 2017,

Vogel, Gretchen, “This ancient bone belonged to a child of two extinct human species,” Science magazine, 22 August 2018,

Living with History: Thoughts on Visiting Croatia, Part I

Croatia is the crescent-shaped country shown in green on the map, across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. It used to be part of Yugoslavia. 

Today, Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast is a trending holiday location, famous for its picturesque islands with good harbors, clear water, and gentle weather. Boats pull up daily along the riva and disgorge young adults ready to party. There’s lots of music and good wine. 

But up the hill from the bustling tourist shops sits a fortress built long ago, like the one pictured at Hvar, when that harbor had to be defended from marauders.  It’s a curiosity now, a place you can rent for a reception.  It’s also a reminder of the region’s history that’s so long and complex it’s shocking to people who are used to thinking of 1776 as a long time ago.  I found it fascinating.


When Davoka Radovcic was appointed as the new director of the Croatian Natural History Museum, she reviewed the collection of artifacts held in storage.  Among them, she noticed eight white-tailed eagle talons that had been excavated from Krapina, a Neanderthal site in northern Croatia, back in 1899. 

  The white-tailed eagle is a large, powerful raptor with a wing-span of over six feet (1.8 meters). When Radovcic examined the talons, she noticed most of them had a hole pierced through the top and burnishing marks along the edges.  Clearly, they’d been modified.

She showed the talons to David Frayer, a paleoanthropologist friend who said later, “I was shaking when I saw them…I knew how important they were.”  After extensive study of the talons, Radovcic and Frayer became lead authors of a 2015 paper about them in PLoS One. They concluded that the talons, collected from three different birds, had been purposely pierced and strung together, possibly into a power necklace.  The assemblage was dated to 130,000 years ago, at least 50,000 years before Homo sapiens are thought to have arrived in the area.  The necklace is now considered the oldest known Neanderthal jewelry. 

Yet this extraordinary assemblage lay forgotten, tucked away in a drawer for a hundred years.  If not for Radovcic’s sharp eye, they might still be there.


Neanderthals may have been the earliest hominins in the region, but waves of Homo sapiens, known collectively as Illyrians. followed.  The ancient Greeks referred to the area as Illyria, so all the groups living there before the Greeks arrived were called Illyrians, in the same way that all native tribes in the Americas were called Indians. Very little is known about these people, partly because their history is buried under cities constructed by more recent and more famous residents, including Greeks, Romans, Venetians, Turks, Austrians, French, and British. As each new wave conquered an earlier one, people re-purposed stone blocks, roads, foundations, tools, and artwork.  In Poreč, for example, the famous Euphrasian Basilica is the third Catholic church to be built on the site.  It incorporates Greek colonnades, a Roman floor mosaic, a Venetian decorated canopy, and wall mosaics by Byzantine artists, plus repairs and changes made after fires and an earthquake.

Diocletian’s Palace

Perhaps the most famous example of mixed histories is what’s called Diocletian’s Palace.  It was actually a fortress rather than a palace, built for the Roman Emperor over an earlier settlement in what is now the city of Split, on the coast.  Oddly enough, the city has grown up in and around the ruins, including many additions/modifications made to them through the centuries.  It’s become the Old City, home to shops, restaurants, churches, schools, and an open-air market. Its gates, once fiercely guarded, now stand open to all.

Emperor Diocletian was born nearby, in the Roman city of Salona. After a successful military career, he rose to the rank of Emperor.  During his reign (284 – 305 AD), he instituted changes in regional rule, coinage, trade, and taxation.  He attacked and conquered the Persian Empire, a long-standing foe.  But mostly he’s known for escalating the persecution of Christians.

Even more than previous Roman leaders, he saw their religion as a threat.  Christians did not participate in state-sanctioned festivals or make offerings to the official gods. They didn’t believe in the Imperial Cult, which held that Emperors were divinely appointed.  Diocletian felt he had to unite an ethnically diverse empire through a standard series of laws and practices, which included a return to the Olympian gods.  In this way, he thought the Empire could return to the glory of Old Rome.  Sort of “Make the Empire Great Again.”

So he instituted the last and most extensive program of persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, beginning in 303.  While the image of Christians being eaten by lions in the Colosseum is disturbing, Diocletian’s purges turned out to be a colossal failure as a deterrent.  Instead of driving people away, they made the new religion more popular.  Those tortured and killed rose to the ranks of martyrs and saints.  Even some Roman rulers became uncomfortable with the practice.

Disheartened and in poor health, Diocletian abdicated his position in 305 and returned to his homeland. The drawing shows what his “palace” looked like when completed.  The fortified city covered 30,000 square meters (about 323,000 square feet). It included room for an army garrison, private quarters, gardens, public squares, and several temples.

But he found little peace there.  He was keenly disappointed to see his system of regional governance fall apart after he abdicated.  One of his co-leaders, Maximian, tried to take over as Emperor, but he was defeated and subsequently disgraced in a Roman doctrine known as Damnatio memoriae: condemnation of memory.  His statues and portraits were destroyed, his image removed from buildings  He killed himself in what some sources call a “forced suicide.”

Diocletian, too, probably killed himself.  Afterwards, the palace remained an imperial possession of the Roman Empire and sheltered Diocletian’s family and other Roman nobles in the area.

When Constantine became Emperor in 324, he converted to Christianity and made it the official religion of the Empire, reversing all of Diocletian’s punitive measures. 

In the 7th century, when the area was under attack by the Slavs, local people moved into the palace for protection. 

The aerial photo shows what it looks like today.

 Over time, Diocletian’s presence was gradually if not quite erased then seriously over-written. A bust of him remains (but resides in the basement), as well as the basic layout of the fortress, some columns and arches, a few sections of the outer walls.  And one of the sphinxes out of the eight  he collected from Egypt.  The rest were beheaded after his death. The whole one, which once belonged to King Thutmose, mighty ruler of Egypt who was crowned in 1526 BC, now watches throngs of tourists walk through the courtyard that Roman soldiers used to guard.

After the city of Salona (Split) fell to Charlemagne, King of Franks and Emperor of Romans, in 800 AD, Diocletian’s sarcophagus was destroyed and his mausoleum remade into a Catholic church, now called the Cathedral of Saint Domnius. The new builders combined Diocletian’s Corinthian columns, which he took from the ancient Greeks, with elaborate carved and gilded altarpieces.  New statues portrayed Christian saints in Roman-style robes.  Elaborate stone carvings decorated the walls, altar, and pulpit. Relics of Saint Domnius in a silver reliquary join the ranks of the dead entombed in the church.

In a deliberate rebranding, the place that held the remains of the Emperor was claimed for the new ruler and new faith.  Over the centuries, this relatively small church became the seat of the diocese.

Yet today, it’s a curiosity to most visitors rather than a place of spiritual power.  It bothered me that people talked and laughed, checked their phones, took photos of friends in front of the gilded altar.  It seemed disrespectful. It’s a church. One with a complicated history, but still a place of worship.

Diocletian isn’t much of a hero in the eyes of history.  His division of power is partly blamed for the collapse of the Roman Empire. Over 3000 Christians were killed by his order. Over 2000 slaves died in the construction of his palace.

And that was neither the beginning nor the end of sectarian violence.  Because Croatia and the other countries of the former Yugoslavia sit on the line between the Muslim East and the Christian West, religion has played a role in many conflicts involving Western Christians, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Jews that have resulted in well over a million deaths.

As recently as 1991 – 2001, the Yugoslav Wars accounted for over 140,000 deaths.

Blood permeates the stones in this church and everywhere else in the country.  The sheer weight of history the place carries is overwhelming.  At the same time, the workmanship of all sections is incredible.  It has a beauty and intensity that deserve recognition.

Balancing old and new

In the vestibule (Peristyle) of the Palace, I listened to a klapa group, traditional a cappella singers.  The place has wonderful sound that resonates all the way to the open ceiling two stories up.  Several videos of klapa groups are listed in the sources.  Clearly, the all-male group has roots in church music, particularly Gregorian chant.  It still has a deep, solemn feel.

 Later, though, we heard a klapa group that used guitar, mandolin, and accordion for accompaniment and included more folk tunes and party music. Like everything else in the area, it seems to be in flux, part old and part new.

Game of Thrones

The most surprising discovery of my tour of Diocletian’s Palace was the number of tourists who were there only to see locations used in filming Game of Thrones.  Special tours showed avid followers the basement of the palace (shown) where Daenerys kept her dragons in the show.  Fans could have their picture taken on a replica Iron Throne, take selfies in the narrow stone streets.  For many, the fictional world of Game of Thrones seemed more real and more immediate than the actual history. Granted, the site’s intensity and bloody past make it a perfect backdrop for a series featuring both.  But the dramas that played out in these halls were real.

More on Croatia, especially the island of Vis, will appear in Part II.

Sources and Interesting Reading

Bust of Diocletian, in Diocletian’s Palace, from Intrepid Berkeley Explorer,

Calloway, Ewen, “Neanderthals wore eagle talons as jewelry,” Nature, 11 March 2015,

Croatia Adriatic map by Norman Einstein, May 20, 2005

“Diocletian’s Palace,” Croatian National Tourism Board,

“Diocletian’s Palace,” Wikipedia,

Diocletian’s Palace drawing  By Ernest Hébrard (recoloured by DIREKTOR) –, Public Domain,

Diocletian’s Palace peristyle today  By Bengt Nyman from Vaxholm, Sweden – Split D81_3080, CC BY 2.0,

Diocletian’s Palace today  By Beyond silence – Own work, Public Domain,

Photo of walls of Diocletian’s Palace in Split  By Beyond silence – Own work, Public Domain,

Diocletian’s Palace today, from the air By Ballota (crop by DIREKTOR) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

 “Diocletian Persecution,” Wikipedia,

“Euphrasian Basilica,” Wikipedia,

“History of Croatia,” Lonely Planet Travel Information,

“History of Dalmatia,” Wikipedia,

“Illyria,” Wikipedia.

“Illyrians,” Wikipedia, httos:/

Klapa singers in Diocletian’s Palace

Klapa singers, another video

Klapa singers photo The Lady Travels blog

“Krapina remains: fossil Neanderthal remains, Croatia,” Encyclopedia Britannica,

Kubilius, Kerry, “Traveling to and around Croatia,” TripSavvy, 4 June 2019,

“Neanderthal: First Discoveries,” Britannica Online Encyclopedia,

Peristyle of Diocletian’s Palace photo      By Ballota – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Rubin, Alissa, “Religious Identity at the Heart of Balkan War,” Los Angeles Times, 18 April 1999,

Steves, Rick and Cameron Hewitt,  Rick Steves Croatia and Slovenia, Sixth Edition. Avalon Travel, and imprint of Perseus Books, June, 2016

“World War II in Yugoslavia,” Wikipedia,

“The Yugoslav Wars,” Wikipedia,

Zorich, Zach, “Neanderthal Necklace,” Archaeology magazine, July-August 2015,

Trying to Buy Time

In February, I visited the Actun Tunichil Muknal wet cave in central Belize. To get into the most important area, visitors must swim across a river, then wade through flooded sections of the cave, climb rock falls, crawl through openings, and navigate tight spaces between rocks while in neck-high water.  Licensed guides provide hard hats and headlamps, as well as advice on handling the difficult sections. The trek takes 4 – 5 hours. 

The highlight of the visit is the “Cathedral,” a section deep in the cave where people left offerings, mostly between 700 and 900 AD.  Here, visitors must remove their shoes and stay in marked areas so they don’t accidentally step on any of hundreds of ceramic bowls that are more than a thousand years old  – or skeletons of sacrificed humans.  Excavations by Thomas Miller in 1986 identified remains of 14 humans.  As of 2019, three more have been found.  The bones of the “Crystal Maiden” and other victims are now coated with a thick layer of minerals left behind by the river, making them sparkle in the light of a headlamp.

After a careless tourist dropped a camera on a skeleton, breaking the skull, recording devices of any kind were banned from the cave.  It’s just as well.  A camera would only separate the viewer from the scene.  And a selfie with the skeleton of a sacrificed victim is a terrible idea on multiple levels.

The cave has no interpretive signs, no visitor center, and no information about the people who left these offerings in the cave or their reasons for doing so.  They left no symbols carved on the walls or paintings on the pots. But we know that the time the offerings were placed in the cave coincides with the last phase of the occupation of the area by the Maya.  Between 800 and 900 AD, most of the great Maya cities in what is now Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras were abandoned due to a fatal combination of deforestation, drought, famine, political instability, and warfare.  A few squatters set up huts in the empty squares of the great cities, but most of the surviving Maya scattered, going anywhere conditions were more favorable.  

If a written record of the cave’s use survived, it would probably have been burned along with other Maya texts when the Spanish “converted” the Maya to Catholicism, often by torture.  On July 12, 1562, Bishop Diego de Landa began a program of purging Maya artifacts and hand-written books by burning over 5000 objects that day alone.  This church policy of destroying “idols” continued for 150 years.  By the 20th century, so little was known of those who built the great cities that people decided the huge stone temples and ornate carved slabs were the work of aliens, a belief that persists, unfortunately, even today.

But four of the hand-painted Maya books, originally sent to Europe as curiosities for the monarchs, survived, providing essential information about Mayan language, history, astronomy, mathematics, and religion.  Plus the glyphs carved in stone remained, and gradually experts teased out their meaning.  Over the last forty years, archaeologists have been able to piece together much of the story of the dynasties that rose and fell in the Maya world.  But the deciphering process is on-going, partly because the Maya, like the ancient Egyptians, used a complex combination of object symbols and sound symbols in their writing, and that combination could vary at the whim of the scribe.

Given all this, we can put together some of the background on the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave and the people who used it over a thousand years ago.


Modern Americans tend to think of time as an object apart from themselves.  A possession.  We have time or we don’t have time.  We spend time, like money.  We run out of time the way we might run out of gas.  We use clocks to mark off little segments of each day so we can be at appointments when expected.  But we don’t have any involvement in the creation or continuation of time.  We don’t have to earn time.  We feel no personal responsibility to make time continue, to make the sun move, the rain fall, or the seasons change.

But the ancient Maya did. In their city-states, from about 1800 BC to about 800 AD, they built monuments to honor the passage of time.  They marked the moment of the solstices and equinoxes with special rituals and offerings.  (Diagram of the E-group at Uaxactun, Guatemala, below.)  These functioned much the same way as various stone and wood henges in other parts of the world, with a viewing point and markers for the solstices and equinoxes.

Maya E-group at Uaxactun

They maintained complex calendars that tracked the solar year, the lunar year, and the number of days since the beginning of the Fourth Creation, what we would call August 11, 3114 BC.  At that moment, the Hero Twins, through their courage, resourcefulness, and magical abilities, were able to make time start again.  Many Maya monuments note the units of time passed since that day, in the same way many western calendars count years from the birth of Jesus.

The Maya divided time into units using a base 20 system:

Kin = one day

Winal = 20 kins

Tun = 20 winals or 360 kins

Katun = 20 tuns or 7200 kins (19.7 years)

Baktun = 20 katuns or 144,000 kins (394.26 years)

Great Cycle = 13 baktuns (5,128 years)

The calendars were exact, but time itself was always uncertain, especially at the end of a cycle, a little like the anxiety people felt at the approach of Y2K. 

To help make time continue, the Maya gave offerings to the gods.  If they didn’t, they believed time would stop.  The motion of the sun across the day’s sky, the turn of the seasons, the coming of the rains, the seasons of planting and harvest – all these required offerings. For the same gods who brought rain could withhold it – or bring so much that the land was flooded.  The sun god that drew the seedling out of the ground could also kill it.

Blood sacrifice

Drawing of bloodletting scene from Yaxchilan

Blood was the most precious offering.  Ritual blood-letting by the city’s rulers, considered priest-kings, is recorded in paintings and monuments of many Maya city-states.  The king and other aristocratic men would be expected to pierce themselves with stingray spines.  The queen and other royal women would have to draw a rope studded with thorns or obsidian blades through their tongues, as shown in the drawing of a panel from Yaxchilan.  Drops of their blood fell on special cloth that was offered to the gods.  The dream-trance that accompanied this act, pictured as a vision serpent, allowed the leaders to communicate with their ancestors and the gods. 

The glyph for bloodletting/conjure, known as the “fish in hand” sign, appears in the upper left hand group in the next panel from Yaxchilan,  Here, a kneeling queen, wearing the blood-spattered cloth from her bloodletting to tie up her hair, sees the vision serpent rising from the blood-spattered cloth in the bowl at the bottom left.  Out of serpent’s mouth emerges the head of the ancestor/god. 

A blood sacrifice was thought to open up a channel of communication with the gods. According to the Maya creation story, the gods created people by sprinkling their own blood on maize dough.  They wanted creatures who could honor them and nourish them through sacrifice.  The rulers’ blood offering released the essence of the gods to regenerate the world.

Caves and cenotes

Even those who did not participate in public bloodletting were expected to give offerings to the gods. These included any items of great value: fine ceramics, exotic shells, masks, and precious stones, especially greenstone.  These gifts were often set in caves or thrown into rivers or cenotes (sink-holes containing water) to honor the powerful rain god, Chaac. 

La Ventana cave, Guatemala

Ordinary people offered the best they had, ritually sacrificing these items by burning them, drilling a hole, or breaking off a section.

(The practice of leaving offerings in caves continues today in parts of Guatemala, where local people place flowers, candles, and incense in caves to seek favors from the gods, now combined with Catholic figures of Jesus, Mary, especially Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the saints as shown in the photo.)

Early triumphs

For a long time, the Maya system seemed to be a great success. Their engineering feats rivaled the Romans’. Their art and architecture still amaze viewers. During what are called The Pre-Classic and Classic eras, lasting from 1000 BC to 250 AD, the Maya built the most sophisticated cities in the Western Hemisphere.  El Mirador’s La Danta Temple, at 236’ tall, was the tallest building in the world when finished.  Today it’s hard to see (photo) because the forest has reclaimed it.  The site included water management systems and wide roadways that connected it to other cities.  The UNESCO artist’s rendering provides an idea of what the city looked like at its peak.

Tikal, another powerful city-state, is still impressive, even though only ruins of the largest structures remain.  (Photo shows one of the twin temples in the  main square)

The political and religious system that had powered the growth of this empire continued despite warnings that the rulers’ practices were not sustainable.  Deforestation in rainforests left the soil too weak to be productive.  Research indicates that El Mirador failed for this reason. But there were other places, and the kings simply moved their empires or their allegiance and built again.


Then, between 650 and 800 AD, the rains began to fail across the Maya World, especially in what is now the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, Belize, and the Petén area of Guatemala.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), several periods of intense drought, each one lasting decades, coincided with the collapse of the Classic Maya cities.

Desperation offerings

New cave finds at Balamku cave

The rulers apparently decided that Tlaloc/Chaac, the rain god, needed more offerings.  The recent discovery of ritual offerings at the Balamku cave system at Chichen Itza (Mexico) this year shows many similarities to the findings at Actun Tunichil Muknal cave in nearby Belize.  A team of explorers funded by National Geographic pulled themselves through tight passages in the cave for hours before finding an undisturbed collection of offerings left by the residents a thousand years earlier.  They included vases, decorated plates, braziers, and bowls.  The difference here is that the offerings were clearly marked for the rain god.

The goggle-eyed figure on the pots is Tlaloc, the rain god.

 So it seems reasonable to say the offerings in Actun Tunichil Muknal served the same purpose – a plea for rain that would save the people and their community.  If the old beliefs were true, then the gods needed more offerings, better offerings.  And, perhaps, for a while, the offerings seemed to work.  The drought would loosen its grip and the rains would start.  But the change didn’t last.

Imagine the confusion the people felt.  The same system that had sustained them so brilliantly for so long wasn’t working.  So they offered more, ritually “killing” the pots by breaking off a section or drilling a hole in the bottom.  Today, pots lie piled inside other pots, often six or seven deep, all over the upper section of the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave. 

When that still wasn’t enough, they turned to the most precious gift of all: blood.  Evidence shows the victims were killed inside the cave.  Many still have the killing stone lying next to them.  Some were teenagers.  Some were children.  Four were infants.

What drove the people to these murders?  There are many theories, including the slaughter of people suspected of being witches bringing down bad luck.  But given the Maya attitude toward offerings to the gods, especially blood offerings, it seems more likely it was an extreme response to a terrible situation. Perhaps it seemed the only way they might buy more time from the gods.

Today, the skeletons lie scattered where floodwaters have taken them.  With their thick mineral coating, they’re gradually becoming part of the flowstone.  But they’re still powerful.

And desperation still hangs in the air of the cave.

Sources and interesting reading:

“Actun Tunichil Muknal,” Wikipedia,

Coe, Michael and Mark Van Stone. Reading the Maya Glyphs.  London: Thames and Hudson, 2001.

“Diego de Landa: Spanish Bishop, Encyclopedia Britannica

“Drought and the Ancient Maya Civilization,” NOAA,

“El Mirador,” Wikipedia,

Foer, Joshua, Dyland Thuras and Ella Morton.  Atlas Obscura. New York: Workman Publishing, 2018

Foster, Lynn V.  Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Jarus, Owen, “The Maya: History, Culture & Religion,” Live Science, 22 August 2017,

Longhena, Maria.  Maya Script: A Civilization and its Writing.  New York: Abbeville Press, 2000.

Martin, Simon and Nikolai Grube. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. London: Thames and Hudson, 2000.


“Maya Religion,”

“Maya Ruins of Belize,” Wikipedia,

Miller, Mary Ellen.  Maya Art and Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson, 1999.

Monteferrante, Sandra, “Maya Cycles of Time,” originally published in Convergence in March 2007,

Montgomery, John. Dictionary of Maya Hieroglyphs.  New York: Hippocrene Books, 2006.

Schele, Linda and Mary Ellen Miller.  The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art.  New York: George Braziller Inc., 1986.

Steffens, Gena, “Maya ritual cave ‘untouched’ for 1,000 years stuns archaeologists,” National Geographic, 4 March 2019,

Spector, Brandon, “Lost Cave of Jaguar God Rediscovered Below Mayan Ruins – and It’s Full of Treasure,” Live Science, 5 March 2019,

Stone, Andrea and Marc Zender.  Reading Maya Art.  London: Thames & Hudson, 2011.

“Treasure trove of hundred of Mayan artifacts discovered beneath Chichen Itza,” Mexico News Daily, 5 March 2019,

“Uaxactun,” Wikipedia,

“Yaxchilan bloodletting scene,” Lintel 17, drawing by Ian Graham courtesy of the Harvard University collection, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, 2004. Digital file #101240031.

“Yaxchilan Lintels,” The British Museum,

“Yaxchilan Lintel 24,” Wikipedia,

Zraick, Karen, “The Place Is Extraordinary: Well-Preserved Artifacts Are Found Under Mayan Ruins,” The New York Times, 6 March 2019,

Photos of Tikal and La Ventana cave by the author

The stork, the baby, and the water lily

The jar of Vlasic pickles I found on the grocery store shelf sports a cartoon image of a stork on the front label and the top lid.  The stork has a bow tie, a deliveryman’s cap, and eye glasses sitting partway down its long beak.  It seems to be male.  He’s holding the pickle like a cigar.  In Vlasic TV commercials, the stork has a deep voice reminiscent of Groucho Marx. The tag line is “That’s the tastiest crunch I’ve ever heard,” with the last word sounding like “hoid,” imitating a stereotypical New York City accent. 

According to the Vlasic story, the stork image was introduced in 1974, in an attempt to combine traditional ideas about the stork delivering babies and pregnant women’s supposed craving for pickles. In an early ad, the stork delivered a baby in a bundle. Hence the delivery man cap.  But in more recent ads, the stork has kept the cap and bow tie but lost the baby bundle and all reference to pregnancy and childbirth. The snappy patter simply extols the virtues of a crunchy pickle.  The change was probably a good way to expand their market for pickles, but the  new image has almost nothing in common with the stork’s mythical predecessors.  

The stork and the baby

In contemporary images of the stork/baby concept, a few show only the stork in flight, but most show the stork delivering a baby in a bundle.  It’s become a graphic shorthand for pregnancy and childbirth, commonly found on baby shower invitations and birth announcements.  The image on the Pampers diaper box is quite simple, but it still conveys the message.

Contemporary images of the stork and the baby

Historical antecedents

Even more interesting are the older images of the stork delivering babies, especially those from the early 1900’s.  In some of those pictured here, the stork is a female, dressed in a bonnet or babushka and pushing a baby carriage.  In others, the stork appears male, dressed in a deliveryman’s cap and bow tie, much like the modern Vlasic stork.  In both cases, they wear human clothes, as if they are stork/human hybrids.

In one interesting vintage card, the stork prepares to drop the baby down the chimney, sort of like Santa Claus and his gifts.

Several cards show the storks plucking the babies out of the marsh, sometimes out of  pond lily flowers.

Where did these ideas come from?  Some people dismiss the whole story about the stork bringing the baby as simply a way for adults to avoid telling children about sex and babies, like saying the baby was found in the cabbage patch (the idea behind the Cabbage Patch Kids dolls) or under a blackberry bush.  But there’s much more to the image.  Storks became associated with pregnancy and childbirth because of folk tales that perpetuated ancient beliefs.

“The Storks”

Hans Christian Andersen took the traditional stork beliefs he knew as the inspiration for his story “The Storks,” published in 1838.  After a stork couple sets up a nest, and their eggs hatch, local boys taunt the chicks with a song about how the babies will be hanged and roasted.  One boy, Peter, tells the others they shouldn’t make fun of animals, but most of the boys ignore him.  Seeing that the song makes the babies nervous, the mother stork tells them it’ll be all right because they’ll all fly away to Egypt when they get older, while those boys will be stuck in the cold.  When the babies grow up and the family flies away, they ask if they can have their revenge on the cruel boys.

The mother stork says, “I know the pond where all the little children lie, waiting till the storks come to take them to their parents.  The prettiest little babies lie there dreaming more sweetly than they will ever dream in the time to come.  All parents are glad to have a little child, and children are so pleased with a little brother or sister.  Now we will fly to the pond and fetch a little baby for each of the children who did not sing that naughty song to make fun of the storks.” 

The young storks ask what will happen to the ringleader who taunted them.

“There lies in the pond a little dead baby who has dreamed itself to death,” said the mother. “We will take it to the naughty boy, and he will cry because we have brought him a little dead brother.”

It’s a considerably more complex version of the stork and baby than the cute, bland image we see on the diaper box.  Here the storks not only deliver babies, they also make moral choices about who should have one and who shouldn’t. The story also implies that humans have a clear moral responsibility toward animals in general and storks in particular, and they will be punished for failure to meet it.  Plus, it endows the storks with great powers.  They’re more spirit than bird.

Origins of the myths

Hans Christian Andersen borrowed heavily from Germanic and Slavic folk tales for his stories.  In these tales, animal spirits, animal-human hybrids, magic, and shape-shifting were common.  

In Slavic mythology, storks carried souls from Vyraj to Earth.  Vyraj was a kind of paradise, located in the crown of the Cosmic Tree, far beyond the sea.  Long ago, people saw the storks fly away in the fall to some unknown land and return in the spring. They believed the birds flew to Vyraj and brought spring back with them.  When people died, their souls went to Vyraj with the migrating storks.  After some time, they were returned to earth and were delivered to loving homes by a stork which found the unborn babies waiting in a dream-state, in a marsh.

Lotus and Water Lily

The other important element of the stork spirit and the babies in the marsh picture is the waterlily, which is an overwhelmingly positive, generative symbol. Photos: white pond lily (left) and lotus flower (right)

Fossils of what is now considered the “mother of all flowering plants” 125 million years old, were discovered in China.  This plant apparently thrived in shallow pools and lakes, with its flowers extending above the surface.  Scientists believe it is the ancestor of both the lotus and the water lily. Though the modern lotus and water lily are separate species, their appearance, environment, and mythical importance are quite similar.

Birth and Rebirth

The lotus, native to North Africa, India, Asia, and parts of the Middle East, is considered a mystic flower, a source of life.

Ancient Egyptians saw the blue lotus, actually a water lily, as a part of the cycle of birth and death.  In creation stories, it is often the first life to grow out of the watery chaos. The creator god Nefertum, whose name means Beautiful Beginning, is often shown emerging from the lotus flower as Khepri, the scarab beetle that carries the sun, then as a small child. 

In the illustration shown below, winged Isis, the most famous Egyptian goddess, wife of Osiris, mother of Horus, is shown rising from the Nile on a lotus flower.

A statue found in King Tut’s burial chamber shows the boy-king’s head emerging from a blue lotus, a promise of his later rebirth.

(Interestingly, sniffing or eating the lotus flower apparently can produce a feeling of euphoria, , though some people say the claim results from confusion of the lotus and the poppy.  But it does make those illustrations of people sniffing lotus flowers more interesting.)

According to legend, lotus flowers sprang up at the birth of the Buddha, symbolizing the ability to rise from the mud to sacred purity. The photo on the left shows the Buddha emerging from a lotus flower.

For Hindus, the lotus represented cosmic renewal.  Pictured (right) is the goddess Lakshmi standing on a lotus flower and holding two more.

On the other side of the world, the Mother Goddess of ancient Teotihuacan, in central Mexico, was pictured as a bird-faced water spirit, the source of life.  Water drips from her hands while vines ending in lotus flowers grow out of her.  All around her, plants, animals, and humans thrive. (Pictured below)

The Great Goddess mural at Teotihuacan

In all of these, we have the lotus/water lily as a generative cradle of spirits and humans, and water as a powerful place that serves as a portal between worlds.  Its presence in the stork/baby picture helps to create a positive outlook.  The babies are plucked from the water lilies, the source of life.

Why do storks bring the babies?

Ancient people saw the storks fly away in the fall, into the unknown.  Later, the birds returned, bringing spring with them. Today we greet the return of the first migratory birds as a welcome sign that winter’s grip is failing.  It’s not much of a leap from there to seeing the birds as the agents causing the change, carrying spring on their wings, plucking new life from the magic flowers floating on still waters.

So the stork on the diaper box is a faint reflection of a rich mythological past.  And the Vlasic stork, probably changed from its original form in order to update the company’s image and widen the appeal of its products, is now hardly recognizable as part of the stork/baby/water lily story.  But other customs keep the concept alive.  A friend’s daughter was born with a birthmark on her neck, which her parents refer to as a “stork bite.”

Sources and interesting reading:

Andersen, Hans Christian, “The Marsh King’s Daughter,”

Andersen, Hans Christian, “The Storks,”

“Birds in Creation,”  Birds in Mythology,

Bryce, Emma, “What’s Behind the Myth That Storks Deliver Babies?” Live Science 13 June 2018,

Cieslik, Anna, “Cabinet of Curiosities: Why We Tell Kids That the Stork Brought Their Baby Sibling,” Daily Break, 10 January 2018,

 “Flowers of July: Lotus and Water Lily,” Living in Season,

Glynn, Amelia, “Where did the “delivery stork” myth originate? Tails of the City, 08 May 2011,

Iles, Linda,“The Lotus in Ancient Egypt,” Isis, Lotus of Alexandria Lyceum,

Inman, Jung, “A Lotus Flower Appeared at Each Step the Baby Buddha Took, Buddha’s Birth and the Lotus,” 17 April 2016,

“Lotus Flower Meaning and Symbolism,”

“Nefertem” Wikipedia,

“Padma (attribute),” Wikipedia,

Statue of young Buddha emerging from the lotus flower, courtesy of the National Museum of Vietnamese History

Taylor-Brown, Alison, “Storch Myths and Legends,

“Were-storks and the Origins of Storks’ Baby Carrying,” Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog, 26 October 2013,

“Vlasic Pickles,” Wikipedia,

“Vyraj,” Wikipedia,

“White Stork,” Wikipedia,

“Zhiva, West Slavic goddess of life and fertility, with swan,” Paintings by Igor Ogiganov,

Images of the stork/baby/marsh:

Twins in basket, stork with bandana

Babies in swamp with storks

Stork with glasses and baby

Stork chimney delivery

Stork in bonnet with two babies

Baby on bird

Lotus and water lily photos by the author

Clapping Games

When I was young, I liked to play clapping games like “A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea” and “I Am a Pretty Little Dutch Girl.”  Here’s a simple version:

A sailor went to sea, sea, sea

To see what he could see, see, see

But all that he could see, see, see

Was the bottom of the deep blue sea, sea, sea.

Clapping games girlsAt the time, I didn’t stop to think it was a song about a sailor drowning.  I knew it was a play on the words see and sea, but mostly it was something to sing while we clapped.




We used the same “Sailor” tune for “I Am a Pretty Little Dutch Girl”:

I am a pretty little Dutch girl

As pretty as I can be

And all the boys in the neighborhood

Are crazy over me.


My boyfriend’s name is Mello

He comes from the land of Jello

With pickles for his toes and a cherry for his nose

And that’s the way my story goes.


Another version of the second verse went

I have a boyfriend Patty

He comes from Cincinnati

With 48 toes and a pickle on his nose…


In another, it’s a pimple instead of a pickle.

It was popular all over the USA and England.  An Australian version uses “Bush girl” instead of Dutch girl.  In others, he’s French.  In Israel, the boyfriend’s name is Chaim, which is made to rhyme with Jerusalem.  In some versions, the boyfriend is seen kissing another girl, and the narrator ends the story with kicking the boyfriend down the stairs.

In some versions, it’s conflated with “Miss Lucy,” (or Suzy, or other variant), to the same sing-song tune:

Miss Lucy had a baby

His name was Tiny Tim

She put him in the bathtub

To see if he could swim.

He drank up all the water

He ate up all the soap,

He tried to eat the bathtub

But it wouldn’t go down his throat.


Many also include near off-color jokes like this alternate version of “Miss Suzy” (one of many):

Miss Suzy had a speed boat
The speed boat had a bell
Miss Suzy went to heaven
The speed boat went to
Hello Operator
Give me number nine
If you disconnect me
I’ll kick you in the
Behind the refrigerator
There was a piece of glass
Miss Suzy sat upon it
And broke her little
Ask me no more questions….and so on.


And that’s a pretty mild version!


Down, Down Baby

Sesame Street had a nice segment on teaching another child how to do the motions to “Down Down Baby,” another standard.

In this video, you can see more complex clapping pattern.

Mary Mack

Another famous clapping game is “Mary Mack.”   The most common version goes:

hand-clapping pairs

Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack

All dressed in black, black, black

With silver buttons, buttons, buttons

All down her back, back, back


She asked her mother, mother, mother

For fifty cents, cents, cents

To watch the elephants, elephants, elephants

Jump over the fence, fence, fence


They jumped so high, high, high

They reached the sky, sky, sky

And didn’t come back, back, back

‘Til the Fourth of July, ly, ly.


Origins of this song are obscure, and many explanations are hard to believe.  One says Mary Mack was a passenger who went down with the Titanic.  Another claims the name is a shortened version of the Merrimack, the ship the Confederates made into the iron-clad Virginia that faced off against the Monitor.  Despite seeing this explanation repeated in more than one source, I can find no factual support for it.

Another origin story makes the story a slave song, with encoded references to freedom, perhaps wanting money to escape slavery. Yet another says the elephant is a reference to the Republican Party.  And a different one says “Mack” was slang for flirting or prostitution.

Some recent versions have a very different last verse:

She was so high, high, high

She touched the sky, sky, sky,

And she didn’t come down, down, down

‘til she almost died, died, died.


The song is often described as a favorite of African American girls, particularly in low-income areas, in the 1970’s.



When I asked friends if they’d grown up with these clapping songs, most said they knew the same songs I mentioned.  One grew up in Louisiana, one in Colorado, one in Texas, one in Illinois, one in New York, one in Michigan, one in California.  So how did these songs become so popular they crossed continents and oceans – decades before the advent of the internet and YouTube videos?  And where did they come from in the first place?

Those questions are actually more complicated than they seem, as are the answers.  We’re asking about several histories here: the rhymes, the melodies, and the clapping patterns.  And once you pull on a historical thread, you often find it connected to many others.  In this case, the story involves immigrants to the US, a Pope with military ambitions, the West African slave trade, minstrel shows, vaudeville, population shifts in the US, and a lot of kids sharing and adapting clapping songs they liked.

Nursery Rhymes

Pat-a Cake

Nursery rhymes have a long, well-documented history in Europe.  “Pat-a cake” first appeared in a British play called The Campaigners, in 1698, though it probably existed in oral tradition long before that. In the play, a nurse makes reference to the cake and the Baker’s man while entertaining the baby.  In Mother Goose’s Melody (1765), the full verse appears:

clapping patty cake

Patty Cake, Patty Cake

Baker’s Man.

That I will, Master,

As fast as I can.

Pat it and prick it,

And mark it with a T,

And there will be enough for Tommy and me.


(Marking baked goods was a way for the seller and buyer to identify the loaf ordered.)

You may know a more recent version, like this one:

Pat-a-cake, Pat-a cake,

Baker’s man,

Bake me a cake

As fast as you can.

Roll it, and pull it, and mark it with a B,

And put it in the oven for baby and me.


Some of the rhymes in these games came from England, and were brought to the US by immigrants.  Some are combinations of songs from multiple sources.  Like all folk songs, they morphed with their singers and the situation.  In some of the videos in the source list, you can watch girls – and sometimes boys  ̶  from India, Africa, the Caribbean, and Japan doing clapping games.  Many insert brand names, like Disneyland, Dr. Pepper, or Coca-Cola, and jokes like “What color was his fart?”


There was no published music to accompany the Pat-a Cake verse until 1796, almost a hundred years after it first appeared.  Personally, I’ve never heard it sung.  It’s mostly recited, in a sing-song tone, with simple clapping and gestures that go along with ”roll it” and “pull it” and “mark it with a B.”  Often the mother or caregiver will hold the baby’s hands and help form the clapping gesture.

Many of the other clapping games share similar simple melodies, more like chants.  “My Boyfriend Gave Me an Apple,”  “I Went to a Chinese Restaurant,” and “My Mummy” have the same basic melody as “A Sailor Went to Sea.”


Here’s where the story gets more interesting and a lot heavier. There seems to be a clear link between clapping games and Africanisms brought to the Americas and the West Indies with the slave trade.

While slavery of vanquished people was not uncommon in Europe and Africa, the West Africa slave trade the Portuguese began in the 1400’s increased dramatically in the 1600’s as demand grew for laborers to work on plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean islands.

Historical note: In 1452, Pope Nicholas V called on the Portuguese monarchy for help fighting the Saracens in Constantinople.  As a reward for their help, he issued a papal bull, Dum Diversas, which reduced non-Catholics to the equivalent of the Saracens, who were Muslims.  Thus non-Catholics became enemies deserving of a life of perpetual servitude.  Two years later, the Pope rewarded the Portuguese with a monopoly in the slave trade with West Africa.  While other countries soon ignored this decree, it served as a religious stamp of approval for trade in captive humans.

However, as Dawn L. Wright points out in her Master’s thesis, “An Examination of English speaking rhythmic games and plays of African American children,” many Africanisms survived, even in the face of enslavement and acculturation.  Two of her examples are call and response patterns of participation, and body percussion.  Both, she says, continue African music and movement styles while taking on parts of European customs as well.

Call and Response

Some clapping games involve call and response, but the pattern is more commonly found in work songs, sea shanties, and military marching songs.

This video, filmed at Kenya Connect Schools, features a call and response, a pair clapping game, and a circle elimination game.  The last clapping game featured in the video is especially impressive in its speed and complexity:


Body Percussion

Because masters feared that slaves might use drums as a secret communication system, slaves were forbidden to use them, so body percussion filled in with complex combinations of stomping, clapping, finger snapping, and patting thighs or cheeks.clapping Master_Juba

Hambone (Juba Dance) is a perfect example, brought from the Congo to South Carolina by slaves and later spread through slave communities in the Caribbean islands, Brazil, and the southern US.  Hambone body percussionists were usually male.  And the lines “Hambone, hambone, where you been?  Round the world and back again,” are one of many examples of double entendre in these songs.  One explanation is that a hambone that went from one pot to another in slave quarters, flavoring the soup, but it often had a more sexual interpretation as well.

Here’s a contemporary hambone performance by Derique McGhee at Lincoln Center

Minstrel Shows

Minstrel shows, variety shows featuring song and dance acts that exaggerated and ridiculed African American music and dance, became popular in the 1800’s. Drawing on a much older custom of holding up “others” as curiosities, minstrel shows incorporated “slave ditties,” purported to be from African slaves but sung by white musicians in black face.


Often the shows also included the Juba Dance, featuring a performer doing an elaborate dance involving stomping and body percussion.  The two parts later split into tap dancing, which merged with European step dancing to become American tap dancing, and hambone (body percussion), which is now more commonly performed by white artists.

Here’s a contemporary video of body percussion by the Hambone Brothers:

But it was a weird business all around.  By 1900, minstrel shows had morphed into Vaudeville acts. While most minstrel-style groups were white men in black face,  there were also black minstrel groups who performed with or without black face, including Bert Williams, an African-American who was part of the Ziegfeld Follies beginning in 1910 and the highest paid African-American in show business at the time.  Mostly, though, these shows sold a demeaning caricature of African-Americans.  Thomas D. Rice, a white man who performed in black-face under the stage name “Daddy Jim Crow,” introduced the song “Jump Jim Crow,” accompanied by a dance.  It gave its name to the institutionalization of segregation and discrimination that lasted until the Civil Rights movement.  Its legacy still lingers today.

However, one of the many peculiar parts of this history is that the use of African-American songs, dances, and rhythms, even in the context of minstrel shows, served to perpetuate them.  It also created a strange hybrid wherein northern white songwriters like Stephen Foster wrote songs about slave life in the antebellum south, like “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Oh, Susanna!” and “Camptown Races,” incorporating African-American rhythms and styles, which were then performed in minstrel shows by singers in blackface, often using African-origin percussion and instruments.Clapping Al_Jolson_Jazz_Singer

Here’s Al Jolson singing “Mammy” in black face in  The Jazz Singer (pictured) and singing “Camptown Races” in the video:

While it’s sort of awful to see today, it shows the strange cultural mixing that went on in these shows.

The Children

Popular entertainment kept the clapping songs and dances alive in the public mind, but children must have passed them on simply because they were fun, right from the start.  Many slave girls were assigned white children to care for.  According to first-hand accounts, friendships between slave children and white children were fairly common.  It’s not hard to imagine a couple of kids passing the time with a clapping game, which would then spread.


This spread happened on a far wider scale with the Great Migration.  Before 1910, 90% of the US African-American population lived in the rural South.  But between 1916 and 1970, over 6 million African-Americans moved to urban centers in the Northeast, Midwest, and Far West, seeking better jobs and treatment.  And they brought their songs with them, which then fueled the spread of gospel, blues, jazz, and rock and roll.

And some became the clapping games that gleefully skipped across social borders everywhere.  And morphed with each setting and group.

The earliest examples of clapping games were recorded in the American South in the 1850’s.  By 1950, “Miss Mary Mack” was the most popular clapping song in the English-speaking world.

The Clapping Song

In 1965, Shirley Ellis recorded “The Clapping Song,” written by Lincoln Chase, whose parents were from the West Indies.  It attempts to teach the clapping pattern while singing the song.  It wound up being very popular, reaching #8 on the pop charts, a good follow-up to her earlier hit, “The Name Game,” also written by Lincoln Chase.  It borrows from a 1930’s song “Little Rubber Dolly.”  Here’s the Shirley Ellis version:

And the lyrics:

Three six nine, the goose drank wine.
The monkey chew tobacco on the street car line.
The line broke, the monkey got choked
And they all went to heaven in a little rowboat.

Clap pat, clap pat, clap pat clap slap!
Clap pat clap your hand, pat it on your partner’s hand
Right hand.
Clap pat clap pat clap your hand. Cross it with your left arm.
Pat you partner’s left palm.
Clap pat, clap your hand, pat your partner’s right palm
With your right palm again.
Clap slap, clap your hand, slap your thighs and sing a little song.


My mother told me, if I was goody.
That she would buy me a rubber dolly.
My aunty told her I kissed a soldier,
Now she won’t buy me a rubber dolly.

Three six nine, the goose drank wine.
The monkey chew tobacco on the street car line.
The line broke, the monkey got choked
And they all went to heaven in a little rowboat….



Clapping games are currently enjoying a revival, especially among pre-teen girls who delight in learning and performing the really complicated versions with many different movements.  Most of the YouTube videos you’ll see in the Sources feature girls who, at 8 or 10 years old, are making their own videos of the games, slowing down the explanation sometimes for us older, slower folks.

My neighbor who teaches in a local elementary school told me that in an attempt to get the kids off their phones and interact with each other at recess, teachers have started including  clapping games. They teach hand-eye coordination, rhythm, and cooperation, and they exercise the brain and the body at the same time.  Besides, they’re fun.


Sources and interesting listening:

“ABC, 123, and Peter Pan clapping games,” video

“Tic Tac Toe and other games,” video,

Bishop, Julia, “Clapping Games,” British Library, 26 October 2016

“Blackface,” Wikipedia,

“Body percussion,” Wikipedia,

Cabrera, Gertrudis, “A Day in the Life of an Enslaved Child,” lesson plan and materials, Franklin Elementary School, Houston

“Call and response (music) Wikipedia

“Clapping Game,” Wikipedia,

“Doctor Pepper,” video,

“Don’t Break the Window” clapping game, video also includes Lemonade, Bingo, and Double,double,

“Down, Down Baby,” video clip from Sesame Street,   Cute group

“Down, down, baby! A hand-clapping history, SAHMurai, 17 April, 2016,

Ellis, Shirley, “The Clapping Song,”

Gaunt, Kyra D.  The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop.  New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Hambone Brothers, video,

“Iona and Peter Opie,”

Jenkins, Ella, “A Sailor went to sea,” Smithsonian Folkways recording, with clapping.  Jenkins identifies “a sailor” as African-American.

“Juba Dance,” Wikipedia,

“Juba Dance,” WikiVisually,

“Liberian clapping games,” video from Africa Heartwood Project,

“Mary Mack”

McGhee, Derique, Hambone demonstration at Lincoln Center, New York, August 12, 2010

Mintz, Steven, “Childhood and Transatlantic Slavery,” Children & Youth in History, Columbia University,

“Miss Mary Mack,” Pop Culture, by

“My Mummy” British Library video clip and explanation

“Nigerian clapping game” video  clapping pair, elimination game, boys and girls

“Nursery Rhymes, childhood folklore and play: The archive of Iona and Peter Opie,” Archives and Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library, a Bodleian Libraries blog, 7 March 2017,

Opie, Iona and Peter.  The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes.  Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997

“Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man”  Wikipedia

Photo of children playing clapping games by Jarek Tuszynski, 2011

“Pretty Little Dutch Girl,” Wikipedia,

Rosen, Michael, “An introduction to clapping games,” British Library,   A very good source

“A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea”  video clip,

Wiggins, David K. “The Play of Slave Children in the Plantation Communities of the Old South, 1820 – 1860,” Journal of Sport History, Vol 7, No.2 (Summer, 1980)  21 – 39.

Wright, Dawn L. “An examination of English speaking rhythmic games and plays of African American children,” Master’s thesis, Clark Atlanta University, 1 July 1996, available through Atlanta University Center’s Digital Commons @Robert W. Woodruff Library, Atlanta University Center, open access.




Heroes, Adventurers, and Crackpots

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” (published in 1842) portrays Ulysses (Odysseus to the Romans) as an old man who is back home after his years fighting in the Trojan War, recounted in The Iliad, and his wanderings at sea, detailed in The Odyssey.


The familiar tales in those books include the Trojan Horse, The Cyclops (shown above), the twin dangers of Scylla, the six-headed monster, and Charybdis, the violent whirlpool, as well as the alluring Circe who turns men into pigs, and the Sirens who comb back their long hair as they sing men to their doom (pictured).

Ulysses_and_the_Sirens_by_H.J._Draper (1)

Through bravery, deceit, and considerable help from the gods, especially Athena, Ulysses survives all his adventures.  As the poem begins, he’s been reunited with his wife, Penelope, and once again sits on the throne of Ithaca.

Ulysses head Yet he’s restless, unsatisfied.  He misses the camaraderie of battle, the thrill of life at sea.  It’s more than nostalgia that he feels, it’s hunger for the life he used to know.  So he decides to leave the kingdom in his son’s hands and set off with his trusted companions once again.

His complaint is universal in its appeal:


“… How dull it is to pause, to make an end

To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!

As though to breathe were life…


Death closes all, but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with gods…


‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world…

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die…

Though much is taken, much abides, and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


It’s a rallying cry to those who don’t want to slow down, to become less with age.  It’s been read at dozens of retirement parties, the battle hymn of the old adventurer. It’s always been one of my favorites, even though, on re-reading The Odyssey, I find Ulysses considerably less heroic than I remembered.  If it weren’t for the intervention of Athena and other gods, he would have failed in his quest – early on.  Still, the poem speaks to the old hero’s undiminished search for adventure, for noble battle, perhaps for redemption.

Captain America

Ulysses is the archetype of the adventurer/hero.  His stories combine wild battles with superhuman enemies, beautiful/deadly women, natural hazards, magical tokens, and intervention by the gods.  It’s a winning combination, even today.  The powerful defender/avenger (!) figure appears in almost all Marvel super-heroes,  Star Wars heroes, and most of the fantasy warriors in on-line games.  Like Captain America (shown), the warrior hero lives for the noble fight.  He (or she) has little or no life outside of battle.  Super-heroes don’t usually chaperone class trips or take the kids to soccer practice.

But we forgive all that because, after all, they’re heroes.  Ulysses deserves to do great things, even in his old age, and we cheer for him even as he leaves poor, long-suffering Penelope at home once again and heads off into the great unknown with his band of old buddies.


A Different Story

In 2018, a Polish retiree named Aleksander Doba, at 71, completed his third trans-Atlantic solo crossing, in a 21′ kayak he designed.


His first crossing was in 2011, from Senegal, West Africa, to Brazil, a 99-day journey.  (See map on left).  When he arrived at his destination, he was greeted by one journalist.




Days after returning home, he started planning the second trip, which he completed in 2013, going from Portugal to Florida, a 6,000-mile journey.  (See map on right).  He had saltwater blisters and eye infections. His toe nails fell off.

When he tried to exercise by swimming in the ocean, he found he attracted sharks.  When his clothes became unwearable, he went naked.  On the trip, he suffered multiple equipment failures, including his satellite radio, GPS unit, and electric desalinator.  Most he fixed by himself or managed without.  But when his rudder broke during a storm near Bermuda, he was forced to head in to land for repairs.  As soon as it was fixed, he returned to his route.  (Notice the circular blip on the map of his journey.)  It’s believed to be the longest open-water kayak crossing in history.

Then he wanted to go again, this time from west to east, from New York to France.  Despite everyone’s attempts to dissuade him, he went.  His wife of 45 years, Gabriela, said when she couldn’t dissuade him, she gave up and accepted his decision.  But the third passage proved to be the hardest.


Shortly after he got into open water off the New York coast, he ran into terrible storms with 65 mph winds and huge seas that required him to tie himself down in the narrow sleeping area he had inside the kayak. (See photo.)  But in the middle of the storm, he realized the waves were so high, the kayak would be buried in the troughs and destroyed unless he slowed it down by deploying a sea anchor, essentially a parachute opened in the water behind the kayak to slow its descent down the backs of the waves into the troughs.  It worked for a while, but then one of the ropes failed and the kayak began to roll in the waves so violently he thought it would break apart.  He had to rope himself to the kayak, go out in the sea into the teeth of the storm, and deploy the spare sea anchor. He admitted later that when he returned to his tiny cabin on the kayak, he was surprised he was still alive.

On each trip Aleksander Doba paddled and drifted over 6,000 miles, all alone in a kayak he designed, with a sleeping area about the size of a coffin set sideways.  He described the tedium of paddling as a form of dementia.  Though he’s partly deaf, he left his hearing aids behind so he wouldn’t lose them in the sea.  But he grew so disoriented, he started shouting at himself.  He spoke to sea turtles he passed and yelled at flying fish that struck him.

Late on the third trip, he lost all contact with family and friends.  “I came very close to the line of my possibility and human possibility,” he admitted later.  But he saw the crisis as an opportunity for triumph.  He wanted to move toward the suffering, not avoid it, so he would be a hero, not a victim.

Doba from Daily Mail

“If you aren’t willing to suffer,” Doba told a reporter from The New York Times, “you can do nothing.  You can sit and die.”  In the pictures of Doba on his arrival, he radiates a kind of fierce strength.  Ulysses would understand.


And yet, few people know of him and even fewer would call him a hero.  Why is Ulysses considered a classic hero and Doba is not?

Maybe we’re just used to the image of Ulysses as the hero and cling to the idea even after realizing he only survived his adventures with extensive help from Athena and Hermes.  Or that he had sex with (or killed) almost every female he met on the journey then declared he would kill his wife, Penelope, if he found out she’d been unfaithful in the twenty years he’d been gone.  Or that he couldn’t shut down his killing instinct even when he got home.  He killed all one hundred of Penelope’s suitors, leaving the great hall awash in blood.  When the families of the slain men showed up, looking for revenge, it was Athena who stepped in and shut down the cycle of killing.  Still, Ulysses had really good marketing.  Homer told his story so well that people have been reading it for 1200 years.

Doba, on the other hand, is a hero with almost no fanfare.  Many, including his own family, dismiss him as a crackpot.  But he has, perhaps, a far more important lesson to teach us than Ulysses does.

We need Doba.  We need all the adventurers.  They feed us, even if we’re not out on a kayak with them or climbing mountains or heading into space.  Doba said, “You can be made small by life or you can rage against it.”  When asked what he meant, he added, “I do not want to be a little gray man.”

That’s his gift to us.  We don’t have to be Ulysses/Odysseus, legendary king of Ithaca and beloved of the goddess Athena.  We can be regular folks, even old ones, and still strive for something extraordinary.



Sources and interesting reading:

Doba photo by Iwona Photography,

Gordon, James. “Kayaker paddles Atlantic,” The Daily 23 April 2014,

Homer. The Iliad, translated by W. H. D. Rouse.  New York: New American Library, 1938.

Homer. The Odyssey, translated by Samuel Butler, Publishing, 2016

“Odysseus,” Britannica Online Encyclopedia,

“Odysseus: Myth, Significance, Trojan War, and Odyssey,”,

“Odysseus,” Wikipedia,

Squires, Nick.  “Greeks discover Odysseus’ palace in Ithaca, proving Homer’s hero was real,” The Telegraph, 24 August 2010,

Tennyson, Alfred, Lord, “Ulysses,” from Beginning with Poems: An Anthology, edited by Reuben A. Brower, Anne D. Ferry, and David Kalstone. New York: Norton, 1966.

Ulysses and Cyclops painting by Arnold Böcklin – Sotheby’s London, 11 June 2012, lot 8  Public Domain,

“Ulysses and Sirens” painted by H. J. Draper, 1909, Wikipedia Commons,

Ulysses, sculpted head, by Jastrow, from the Iliade exhibition at the Colosseum, September 2006–February 2007, Public Domain,

Well, Elizabeth (author) and Joakim Eskildsen (photographer), “Alone at Sea: Why he kayaked across the Atlantic at 70 (for the third time),” The New York Times magazine, 22 March 2018,



The Opera House at Manaus, Brazil

The Opera House was supposed to be a center of culture in the middle of the Upper Amazon Basin, a jewel of the arts to rival the great theaters of Europe.  And, in spite of its strange history, it is.  The day I visited, local school children were touring the building.  The Amazonas Philharmonic was scheduled to perform later in the week.  The gift shop was doing a brisk business.

Manaus opera exterior

Construction began on The Opera House in 1884.  Its first performance was held in 1897.  But by 1921, it stood empty and abandoned, a victim of the sudden end of the Rubber Boom that ran from the late 1800’s to about 1910.

The Rubber Boom

2018-02-03 Manaus old house 019Natural rubber comes from the Pará tree, native to South America.  When the harvester makes “V” cuts in the tree, the sap drips down and forms lumps which are refined into latex.

Ancient peoples at least as far back as the Olmec in Mexico (3500 years ago) used rubber to make waterproof textiles, boat patches, containers, and the ball they used in ceremonial games.  Because untreated rubber tends to lose its shape, they added sulfur to harden it.

However, the Portuguese who took the natives’ land starting in the 1500’s never asked for their advice about handling rubber, so it remained a mystery until Charles Marie de La Condamine explained the benefits of rubber to the Academie Royal des Sciences in France, in 1751.  He showed it could stretch and return to its former shape and could withstand being immersed in water without being affected.  In 1770, Joseph Priestley added that it was good for erasing pencil marks on paper.  Then Francois Fresneau discovered turpentine was a rubber solvent. But it wasn’t until 1839 that Charles Goodyear discovered “vulcanization” by accident.  He left a ball of rubber and some sulfur on the stove and found, in the morning, that the rubber was both charred and hardened.

With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, and more particularly the birth of the auto industry in the 1890’s, demand for rubber soared, especially for belting, gaskets, matting, gloves, adhesives, elastic in garments, and car tires.  South America was its main source, particularly Brazil.  As the money flowed in, the landowners’ greed, competition, and brutality grew.  Natives did the work and saw no profit.  When they rebelled, suppression was quick and deadly.  Since wild rubber trees are widely dispersed, Portuguese land owners acquired huge swaths of land, mostly by using private armies to terrorize the inhabitants into working for them. Their tactics included cutting off dissidents’ hands and displaying them.

Thinking plantations of rubber trees would make more money than individual trees in the jungle, the owners cleared land and planted hundreds.  But their trees died from a leaf blight that was fed by close proximity.  So the “rubber barons,” as they were called, went back to wild rubber trees.  The sap was tapped from the trees, collected, refined, and shipped down the Amazon to the Atlantic Ocean, and from there, to the world.  And they could charge whatever they wanted since they controlled most of the available rubber supply.

It’s hard to appreciate how much money these men amassed in a short time. Because the Rio Negro’s tannin-rich water turned their white shirts tan in the wash, they sent their laundry to France or Portugal to be washed, ironed, and perfumed, then returned by ship, a round-tip that might take months.  In the middle of the hot, humid rainforest, they still wore starched European style clothes and made their homes showplaces of European wealth, with fine paintings, sculpture, inlaid woods, marble, decorative tile-work, and enormous mirrors.  Both men and women wore jewels and fine fabrics that rivaled those sported by royalty. They were the highest per-capita buyers of diamonds in the world.  When they found the clip-clop of horses on the cobblestones distracting, they2015-08-08 Brazil hotel 016

ordered bricks made with rubber that would muffle the sound.  They are still visible near the Opera House.

Rubber-boom Manaus boasted electric lights, 16 miles of streetcar tracks, and a telephone system.

Buoyed by a belief in Social Darwinism that declared some men were more successful because they were innately superior, the barons indulged in contests of wealth.  If one had a fine yacht built, another ordered two.  One kept a tame lion in his villa.  Another claimed he watered his horse with French champagne.  In addition to a wife, a baron might take dozens of natives as sexual companions.

2018-01-30 Brazil opera 004

So what would be a fitting place for these incredibly rich people to go, to see and be seen?  The theater, of course.  In 1884, construction began on an audacious project – a palatial opera house.  To complete it, they had to hire architects, artists, designers, and painters, get various exotic woods from the Amazon basin, and import roofing, art, and furniture from France, as well as marble from Italy and steel from the British Isles.

Light came from 198 chandeliers.  The reception room (pictured below) featured elaborate inlaid woods and large mirrors placed on opposite walls that provided the viewers with endless repetitions of their image.

Manaus opera interior

The dome required 36,000 decorated tiles and special supports.  The painted ceiling portrayed the spirits of music, dance, and drama.  The grand curtain depicted the Meeting of the Waters, where the dark water of the Rio Negro meets the lighter water of the Upper Amazon

In 1897, the opera house opened with a performance by Enrico Caruso in La Gioconda.    The barons had lured the brightest star in the opera world to the middle of the jungle to sing for them in their beautiful theater.  Clearly, they were meant to be where they were and to do everything they had done.


A Warning

2018-02-03 Manaus old house 002Down the Rio Negro a bit from Manaus are the ruins of a town that was started but never finished.  Apparently, some powerful people grew unhappy with the status quo in Manaus and decided to form their own community.  They imported marble, granite, and ceramic tile, then started construction on several ornate homes and a chapel. But the settlement failed before the houses were completed. Today, the jungle is reclaiming the space, moving in over the decorative tile and marble steps.  The reason for the settlement’s collapse is unknown, but a small, family cemetery near the buildings hints at disease, perhaps Yellow Fever, which was common in the area.

 The Fall

Back in Manaus, the party lasted until their grip on the market failed.  An Englishman did what the rubber barons thought was impossible: he smuggled rubber tree seeds out of Brazil.  In 1876, when the barons were just beginning their meteoric rise, Henry Wickham shipped 70,000 seeds to British colonies in Malaysia and India, a number so high it suggests he had help from some locals.  The exact arrangement has never been explained, and the “rubber theft” is still something of a touchy subject in Manaus.

After some initial difficulties, the English efforts in India and Malaysian paid off.  By 1909, Brazilian rubber production dropped to only 50% of the world total.  In 1918, only 20 percent.

Manaus’s fortunes fell even more abruptly than they’d risen. The lights that once illuminated its buildings and streets went dark.  The tram stopped. The telephone lines went quiet.

The rich fled with what money they had left.  The theater was forgotten.  By 1921, visitors said it housed only bats, bugs, and vermin.  Aside from a brief appearance in a Werner Herzog film, it lay abandoned and decaying for over seventy years.

The Revival

In the 1970’s, the Brazilian government decided to put money into reviving some remote settlements, including Manaus.  It’s still in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest, with no overland road access due to seasonal flooding.  Visitors arrive by boat or plane.  But after the establishment of a Free Zone with its appealing tax incentives, businesses moved in.  National and international investment followed.  It’s now the sixth largest economy in Brazil, fueled not by rubber, but by shipbuilding and fishing, as well as trade in wild fruits like acai, guarana, and cupuacu, plus Brazil nuts, beer, soap, and petroleum products. Manaus mercado-municipal-manaus

As the city’s fortunes improved, successful businessmen wanted to reclaim the best of the city’s past. A coalition of investors joined government agencies in funding the rehabilitation of some Gilded Age buildings, including a number of historic homes, the library, and the central market, the Mercado Adolpho Lisboa (pictured), built in 1882, which still does a booming business in fruits, vegetables, spices, and fish.

Brazil fish monger

But the star of the revival was the Opera House, which has become a symbol of the powerful present more than the colonial past.  In 2001, the provincial government allocated funds to lure top musicians to play in the Amazonas Philharmonic. Today, the completely restored Opera House hosts orchestras from around the world, as well as jazz bands, rock bands, and dance troupes. Jack White, of the White Stripes, was a featured performer in 2004.

Regular people who would never have been allowed inside the theater when it was built now look on it with pride.  The brutal oppression that allowed the rubber barons to amass their wealth is seldom mentioned.  Instead, the locals claim this striking building as their own.  They’re proud of it.  They support its concerts and relax in its gardens.  It represents their city’s endurance and quality, and therefore theirs.


Tours of the Opera House (about $8.00 per person) include a visit to the grand theater hall and the reception area, as well as a costume display.  Book ahead for an English-speaking guide.  If this is the start of your Upper Amazon tour, you’ll find it adds an interesting perspective on the area’s history.


Sources and interesting reading:


“A Brief History of Rubber,” Mongabay,

Cunningham, Eleanor, “The Manaus Opera House: The Theatre of the Amazonian Jungle,” The Culture Trip, 10 November 2017  https://theculturetrip.som/wouth-america/brazil/articles/the-manaus-opera-house-the-theatre-of-the-amazonian-jungle/

“Manaus,” Wikipedia,

Morton, Ella, “Teatro Amazonas,”  Atlas Obscura on Slate, 14 January 2014, manaus_brazil.html

Ramm, Benjamin, “The beautiful theatre in the heart of the Amazon rainforest,”  16 March 2017,



Other information courtesy of the tour guides at the Manaus Opera House and background provided by our Road Scholar group leaders

Photo of the Mercado Adolpho Lisboa from Wikipedia.  All other photos by the author.



Championing New Views of the First Americans

Pedra Niede portrait

In 1963, when Niede Guidon was a young archaeologist working at the Museu Palista in Sao Paulo, Brazil, a friend showed her some photographs of ancient paintings on rock walls.  Something about those photos made a profound impression on her.  The site was called Pedra Furada, Pierced Rock, after a famous rock formation with a hole in it.

Pedra Furada pierced rock

The remote area of northeastern Brazil where the photos were taken, stripped of its forests in colonial times, had suffered terrible erosion, silting of rivers, and subsequent desertification by the time Guidon visited in 1973.  But its isolation had helped to preserve the paintings.  As soon as she began studying the area, she realized it was something extraordinary.

Pedra rock art Wikipedia, by Diego Rego Monteiro

Where most rock art sites in Europe are a single cave or a series of caves in a single mountain, Pedra Furada is a collection of over 900 sites with over 1150 images painted on the walls and ceilings, mostly with red ochre or other clays, and some burned bone charcoal.  The oldest images date from 12,000 years old, the newest about 5,000 years old, showing a change in style over time from fingerwork to paintings created with cactus spines and brushes made of fibers or fur.  They show people hunting with atlatls (dart throwers), dancing, mating, giving birth, and fighting.  Many animal are represented, including caimans, llamas, pumas, deer, capybaras, turtles, fish, and iguanas.

Pedra painting with red deer and humans

Often the red deer are large, surrounded by small images of people, as in the panel shown. Other sections feature rows of marks and unidentified figures, and what seem to be narrative sequences.

Pedra patterned body




Some large rectangular humanoid figures with patterned bodies are surrounded by smaller human forms with raised arms.


The treasure underfoot

What lay deep in the ground near the painted walls was even more surprising than the paintings.  Guidon and her team spent years carefully excavating the areas, finding evidence of hearth fires and stone tools in layers ranging from 5,000 years old to 32,000 years old, with lower levels dating to 48,000 years old.  Repeated analysis by independent labs, mostly in France, supported those dates.  Guidon herself, never one to shy away from an argument, maintained in a 1985 article in Nature that the site showed clear evidence of human occupation 60,000 years ago!

Clovis First”

Her findings enraged American archaeologists because they challenged the common belief that people arrived in the Americas by walking across the land bridge from Asia, called Beringia, to Alaska during the Ice Age, about 13,000 years ago.  From there, they supposedly dispersed all through the Americas.

Clovis points

This theory began in the 1930’s with the discovery of a finely-made spear point lodged in a mastodon bone near Clovis, New Mexico.  When other points/arrowheads with this same design were found in neighboring states, and then across the country, archaeologists decided that these points were made by East Asian big game hunters who followed their prey across Beringia and down an ice-free corridor between glaciers into what is now the western United States.  The presence of the Clovis points became the basis for a belief in a Clovis people and a Clovis culture that was so effective it spread from north to south throughout the Americas. The Clovis First theory was repeated endlessly in school textbooks throughout the 20th century.  (The Clovis point in the photo shows the characteristic fine work on both sides (bi-face).


There were a few glitches in the theory, but they were largely ignored.  For instance, the greatest concentration of Clovis-style points has been found in the southeastern US, not in Alaska or northern Canada, so we can assume they moved from the east to the west, not the other way around.  (See diagram of Clovis point distribution)

Plus, there was never any proof that the Clovis-style points indicated either a people or a culture.  Today, iPhones are found all over the world, but they represent neither a people nor a culture.  They’re simply a very useful bit of technology.  Probably Clovis points were too.  A valuable trade item, endlessly copied – spreading across the continent.

But all of these problems with “Clovis First” were dismissed by the established powerhouses in American archaeology, especially at Harvard and Yale.

Dennis Stanford, now with the Smithsonian Museum of History, admitted that when he was excavating a site in Florida and came across signs of human habitation far older than Clovis dates, he told his team to fill the pit back in and tell no one about it since their findings would never be accepted.

Who’s she?  

Then along came this brash Brazilian woman with her French education and her crazy theories about early man in Brazil.  The US archaeological community tore her findings apart, claiming the tools were made by monkeys, or they were “geofacts,” natural objects altered by weather or falling to the ground.  In a heated response to a question about them from a reporter from The Guardian,  Guidon said, “US archaeologists believe that the artifacts are geofacts created naturally because the North Americans CANNOT BELIEVE they do not have the oldest site!”  When critics said the carbon hearth samples were the result of natural fires, she pointed out the sites lay well inside caves or rock overhangs, inside circles of stones.  No carbon was found in sample pits dug outside the shelters. “The carbon is not from a natural fire.  It is only found inside the sites.  You don’t get natural fires inside the shelters,” she retorted.  “Americans criticize WITHOUT KNOWING.  The problem is not mine!  The problem is theirs!  Americans should excavate more and write less!”

Guidon challenged American archaeologists to come to the site, draw their own samples, and do their own tests.  They refused.

When they couldn’t make her back down, US archeologists discredited, belittled, then ignored Guidon, her research, and her site. It simply never appeared in surveys of ancient settlements in the Americas.  “Everybody has pretty much deep-sixed Guidon,” one noted American archaeologist commented.

But time, it seems, is on her side.


New finds in Chile and South Carolina

Tom Dillehay, an American archaeologist working at sites in southern and central Chile, found extensive evidence of human habitation there 18,000 years ago, 5,000 years before the supposed appearance of the “Clovis people.”  Settlers on the Chilean coast built lodges, ate a variety of seafood, and used different kinds of seaweed for medicines.  Presence of quartz and tar from other areas indicated either a trade network or a wide area of exploration. Even though Dillehay had painstakingly recorded every discovery and each step of the dating process, and used independent labs for verification, the established archaeological community initially refused to consider his conclusions.  He had to spend ten years defending his findings, but thanks to his persistence, there’s now at least a bit of doubt concerning Clovis First.

Albert Goodyear, who has been working at the Topper Hill chert mine site in South Carolina since the 1980’s, ran into similar problems when he found a rich deposit of Clovis style points and then, much farther down, ran into a completely different set of hearths and tools.  The deepest layers dated to 50,000 years old.  Again, the archaeological community raged against the findings, making life so miserable for Goodyear that he considered leaving the field completely.

For scholars with a vested interest in preserving Clovis First, it simply wasn’t possible that there were settlements before Clovis.  If so, all their work would be meaningless.

Fig 7

Santa Elina rock shelter and more

Then more news came from Brazil, including discoveries at Santa Elina rock shelter in central Brazil, where pierced bone ornaments made from giant sloths (photo) were dated over 23,000 years old.  Like Pedra Furada, it too had rock art and evidence of occasional, seasonal use over thousands of years.  A site in Uruguay yielded evidence of humans hunting giant sloths 32,000 years ago.  Now, these finds are being lumped together with Guidon’s research, indicating a record of human habitation in the area at least 30,000 years old.  Some suggest over 50,000 years old.

Other revelations have followed.  But the most dramatic challenge has come from Steven and Kathleen Holen, who have long held the belief that people were in the Americas before 40,000 years ago.  In a paper in Nature, they argue that break marks on 130,000 year old mastodon bones found in Southern California suggest hominins (ancestors of modern humans) did the butchering using stone tools, perhaps to get at the marrow or use the bones for tools.  To illustrate their point, the Holens used rocks they found at the site to break open elephant bones.

The dust still hasn’t settled from the fracas over their claims.

Even more radical theories

As Niede Guidon said years ago, “I think it’s wrong that everyone came running across Bering chasing mammoths – that’s infantile.  I think they also came along the seas.”  Now in her 80’s and mostly retired, she hasn’t softened her tone at all.  She currently maintains that people first arrived in South America from West Africa, perhaps as far back as 100,000 years ago.


She says they could have floated or paddled across the sea with the current and the wind in their favor.  Both journeys have been replicated in modern times.  (The diagram at the left shows the route a 70-year-old Polish kayaker took in his solo journey across the Atlantic in 2017.)  If you look at the globe, an African origin certainly makes more sense for settlements in northeastern Brazil than having people go through Alaska, down the coast of North America and Central America, then across the Andes and the Amazon Basin to get to Pedra Furada.Pedra map

But Guidon isn’t stopping there.  She suggests that the group from Africa may have merged with groups from the South Pacific that came by sea, settled on the Pacific coast and later crossed lower South America.

Evidence for the South Pacific theory    Botocudo man, South American natives of eastern Brazil, historical portrait, 1875

Several native populations in South America were completely eradicated by the Spanish and Portuguese conquerors.  One group, the Botocudo, were murdered by the Portuguese because they wouldn’t submit to enslavement.  Oddly, the Portuguese kept several of the skulls, which later wound up in a museum.  When modern scientists drilled into the teeth and tested the DNA, they found markers typical of Polynesians and Australians. (Drawings of a Botocudo man, above).  See earlier post on “Chickens, Sweet Potatoes, and Polynesians in Brazil.”

The Long Chronology

Increasingly, it looks as if there is no one simple answer to the origin or timeline of the peopling of the Americas.  A new theory, called the Long Chronology, posits multiple waves of immigrants from different places arriving over a long period of time, probably with only a few successful, surviving settlements.  This pattern seems more promising than Clovis First – and certainly more defensible given new discoveries.  This does not rule out migration from Siberia or along the west coast of North America.  It simply takes away its claim of exclusivity.

Serra da Capivara

Pedra Serra da Capivara entrance

Meanwhile, Niede Guidon is busy trying to get funding to keep the 320,000 acre national park she fought for, now called Serra da Capivara, open. (Entrance shown in photo.)  Her research helped establish it as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991, but government support is undependable.  Few American archaeologists have ever visited.  Only the hardiest tourists make the trip.  But Guidon’s work is finally getting some attention from the press and the academic world.  Robson Bonnichsen, from the University of Maine’s Center for the Study of the First Americans, feels her work needs more attention.  “We’re trying to get some eminent American scholars down there to study the methods and results,” he said.  He plans to lead the first American excavation team there.

This should be interesting to watch.  Perhaps if an American man gets the same results, the data will get more respect.  If so, Guidon will probably wonder what took the rest of the world so long to catch up with her.


Sources and interesting reading:

Bellos, Alex, “Archaeologists feud over oldest Americans, The Guardian, 10 February 2000,

Bower, Bruce, “People may have lived in razil more than 20,000 years ago,” Science News, 5 September 2017,

Bower, Bruce, “Texas toolmakers add to the debate over who the first Americans were,” Science News, 11 July 2018,

Brooke, James, “Ancient Find, But How Ancient?” 17 April 1990, The New York Times,

Fenton, Bruce, “Brazilian rock shelter proves inhabited Americas 23,000 years ago” The Vintage News, 29 January 2018,

Guidon, Niede, “Nature and the age of the depostis in Pedra Furada, Brazil: Reply to Meltzer, Adovasio and others, Antiquity, vol.68, 1994.…

“Interview with Niede Guidon,” Crosscultural Maria-Brazil,

Jansen, Roberta, “The archaeologist who fights to preserve the vestiges of the first men of the Americas,” BBC News, 12 March 2016,

“Niede Guidon,” Wikipedia,

“Niede Guidon,” WikiVividly,

“Pedra Furada,” Britannica Online Encyclopedia,

“Pedra Furada,” Wikipedia,

“Pedra Furada, Brazil: Paleoindians, Paintings, and Paradoxes, an interview with Niede Guidon and others, Athena Review, vol. 3, no.2: Peopling of the Americas,

Peron, Roberto, “Pedra Furada the Pierce Rock Site,” Peron Rants (blog) 28 April 2017,

Powledge, Tabitha, “News about ancient humanity: Humans in California 130,000 years ago?” PLOS Blogs, 5 May 2017, blogs/2017/05/05/news-about-ancient-humanity-humans-in-California-130000-years ago…

“The Rock Art of Pedra Furada,” The Bradshaw Foundation,

Rock Art panel, photo by Diego Rego Monteiro – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Romero, Simon, “Discoveries Challenge Beliefs on Humans’ Arrival in the Americas,” The New York Times, 27 March 2015,

“Serra da Capivara National Park,” Wikipedia,

Wade, Lizzie, “Traces of some of South America’s earliest people found under ancient dirt pyramid,” Science, 24 May 2017,

Wilford, John Noble, “Doubts Cast on Report of Earliest Americans,” The New York Times, 14 February 1995,




Rabbit’s Foot Mojo

Around the world, people believe certain activities bring good luck and others bring bad luck. In Russia, you shouldn’t whistle indoors because it will bring down financial ruin on the house. (My mother told me it made the Blessed Mother cry!)  In Hawaii, you shouldn’t whistle at night because it angers Pele, the god of fire.  In France, people tack horseshoes on the barn door with the opening facing down.  I was taught that made the good luck run out.

We think of ourselves as rational people, yet tradition and custom whisper that specific practices can and do influence the course of events.  Even those who claim they are not superstitious may cling to certain rituals before a big event, like playing a favorite song, repeating a certain phrase, carrying a photo of a loved one, wearing a “lucky” piece of clothing, getting dressed all left side first, or carrying an object infused with personal or religious meaning.

rabbits foot etsy

Certain objects became easily recognizable good luck charms, including a four-leaf clover, a horseshoe, and a rabbit’s foot. The rabbit’s foot, usually the left hind foot, was attached to a metal collar and fitted with a chain.  Later versions were often dyed bright colors.  Today, carrying around part of a dead animal is considered more creepy than lucky, so the charm is less popular.  But the rabbit’s foot has a fascinating history.


Historians debate the origin of the rabbit’s foot charm.  Some claim it’s related to the rabbit/hare myths from Europe, China, and Latin America.  It’s true that rabbits were very important in these cultures’ stories.  (I’m using rabbit and hare as equivalents in this post although I understand they are different species in the same family.  For purposes of myth, they’re very similar.)

In antiquity, the rabbit was widely seen as a symbol of fertility and abundance because rabbits breed, well, like rabbits.  A female rabbit can have forty babies a year.

rabbit The_SpringThe Germanic/Celtic goddess Ostara or Eostre (pictured) represented spring and dawn.  Her feast was celebrated at the Vernal Equinox, the first light of spring.  Her symbols were the rabbit and the egg, as well as various flowers. Today we have the Easter Bunny, who leaves brightly colored eggs and candies, clearly a combination of ancient symbols: the egg and the rabbit, representing new and abundant life.  All of these have now been subsumed into our Easter celebration, held on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Vernal Equinox.

In ancient Greek and Roman art, the rabbit was associated with Aphrodite/Venus and considered the gift of lovers.

The rabbit in the moon

rabbit in moonAround the world, many people see the form of a rabbit in the surface of the moon, rather than the face of The Man in the Moon.  Shown in

rabbit and moon goddess

the picture is the Japanese moon rabbit stirring the elixir of immortality.

For the ancient Maya and Chinese, the rabbit was the companion of the moon goddess, known as Ixchel (shown with her large rabbit companion) and Chang’e (shown sitting on the crescent

moon) respectively, associated with fertility and beauty.rabbit Chang'e Chinese Moon Goddess

In Celtic myths, the hare, the sacred animal of the Earth Mother, could be a shapeshifter. According to one story, a hunter wounded a hare in the leg, forcing it to hide in a clump of bushes.  When the hunter followed, he found a door in the ground leading to a large subterranean hall, where he found a beautiful young woman bleeding from a wound in her leg.

With the advent of Christianity, many of the old spirits were dismissed or demoted to demons.  However, the rabbit was spared that fate when the black cat was substituted as the familiar of witches, a belief that continues, unfortunately, to this day.  The rabbit was re-branded as a Christian symbol.

Durer_Holy_Family_3Hares A woodcut by Albrecht Durer, published in 1497, shows the Holy Family with three hares. Titian’s painting “Mary and Infant Jesus with a rabbit,” shows Mary stroking a white rabbit with one hand and holding the baby Jesus in the other. Later, the three hares symbol, probably originating in the Middle East, became very popular in European Catholic churches, especially the three running hares with connected ears forming a triangle symbolizing the Holy Trinity.three hares symbol

Clearly, the rabbit was an important symbol of fertility, abundance, rebirth, vitality, and spirit power.  However, all of these involve the whole rabbit, not just the foot.

The Foot

Folklorist Bill Ellis claims the first mention of the rabbit’s foot charm in America was in the 1800’s, when it was described as a fetish popular with African slaves in the south, especially around New Orleans.

The rabbit’s foot charm is actually an anti-charm, a protective talisman typical of West African folk magic known as hoodoo.

evil eye charmIt’s like the evil eye charm (pictured) so prevalent in the Mediterranean region, a blue eye charm pinned to a baby’s clothes or blanket to ward off the evil eye – bad thoughts/wishes from others.  It takes the form of the evil it wishes to dispel.  The rabbit’s foot is, traditionally, the left hind foot of a cross-eyed rabbit killed in a cemetery under a new moon.  The use of the left foot (sinister) and the grave dirt combine to protect the wearer from ill fortune because it embodies ill fortune.

The Mojo

Lucky mojo hand.jpg

The rabbit’s foot often became part of a “hand,” “toby,” or “mojo,” a bag of powerful charms, often with a hand pictured on the outside.  You can still find them for sale on line (including the one pictured).  Some include a rabbit’s foot, a bone, a lodestone, lavender or other herbs, John the Conqueror root, or other powerful items, plus oil the user needs to  rub on them to “activate” them.  These “hands” can be configured to suit many different purposes, including love, reconciliation, revenge, vision, safe travel, uncrossing of evil conditions or hexes, luck in gambling, wisdom, and sexual attraction.  Each purpose would require a separate “hand” or “mojo.”

muddy waters

This is the “mojo” referenced in the blues songs like “I’ve Got My Mojo Working,” made famous by Muddy Waters (pictured). Two nice YouTube videos of it are listed in the sources.  In the song, the speaker says

“I’m goin’ down to Louisiana, get me a mojo hand

I’m gonna have all you women under my command.”


But the chorus indicates the magic isn’t working on the woman he wants.

“I got my mojo working

But it just won’t work on you.”

Unfortunately, “mojo” was sometimes misinterpreted as male sexual performance (as in Jim Morrison’s “L.A. Woman/Mojo Risin’”), but mojo was a term used by both male and female blues singers, referring to a collection of powerful charms.  Interestingly, “I Got My Mojo Working’” was recorded by Ann Cole in 1957, before Muddy Waters claimed it as one of his signature songs. A recording of her version is also included in the sources.

So a rabbit’s foot was a form of mojo, a protective charm against bad luck, brought to America with the slave trade and later combined with both American Indian and European influences.

The Appeal of Magic

Oddly, though, in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, the rabbit’s foot charm was appropriated by the white community.  It was part of a general fascination with magic/voodoo/spells, potions, fetishes, and charms that showed up in popular culture.  In 1951, the English Witchcraft Act of 1735 was revised, making witchcraft legal as long as it was considered entertainment.  That seemed to reflect the thinking in the U.S. as well.

SinatraAlthough Cole Porter recorded “You Do Something to Me” in 1929, with the famous line “the voodoo that you do so well,” the song wasn’t widely popular until the 1950’s when it was recorded by Bing Crosby for his radio show (1955), then Doris Day (1957) and Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Dean Martin (1962) as well as many others. Other popular songs of the time included “Witchcraft,” also popularized by Sinatra (1957), “Casting My Spell on You” sung by Johnny Otis ((1958), and “The Witch Doctor” (1958), which invokes witchcraft but also mocks it (Ooo-eee, ooo-ah ah, Ting Tang, walla walla bing bang).

Elvis_Good_Luck_CharmIn 1961, Elvis Presley recorded “Good Luck Charm,” in which he compares his love to a four-leaf clover, a horse shoe, a silver dollar, a rabbit’s foot on a string, and a lucky penny, and concludes she’s worth more – as a lucky charm on his arm.

“Don’t want a silver dollar

Rabbit’s foot on a string

The happiness in your warm caress

No rabbit’s foot could bring”


“Love Potion Number 9,” which tells of a man seeking help from a “gypsy with a gold-capped tooth” and her magic potion to improve his love life, was recorded by The Clovers in 1959, then by the The Searchers, a white group, in 1964, when it reached number 3 on the Billboard Top 100 chart.

Witchcraft was clearly fascinating, though most appealing when filtered through a white lens, just as ten years later, Black American R&B would become wildly successful when delivered by The Rolling Stones.

So the rabbit’s foot was caught in the middle of all this history.  It was a charm made up of bad luck elements that combine to defend the wearer from bad luck.  It also referenced the Trickster Rabbit of West African and American Indian folklore, the one who is smaller and less powerful than his enemies but winds up out-smarting them through his skill and courage – and dumb luck. Yet it became most popular in the white community during the segregated post-WWII era, divorced from its African past except in a sort of mocking nod to witchcraft, which seemed to be fascinating mostly because it was alien.  So, like jazz and the blues, it entered mainstream white culture through the back door, as something different and edgy. The rabbit’s foot that dangled from the keychain, though stripped of its cultural underpinnings, retained some of its powers, at least as a statement of 1950’s cool.



Sources and interesting reading:

“5 Famous Lucky Charms That Get More Baffling With Research,” Cracked,

Backer, William H. and Cecelia Sinclair.  West African Folk Tales. Loyal

“Chang’e,” Wikipedia,

Cole, Ann, recording of “Got My Mojo Working” from 1957 YouTube

D’Costa, Krystal, “What Makes a Rabbit’s Foot Lucky?” Anthropology in Practice blog, Scientific American Blog Network, 26 October 2011, rabbits-foot-lucky/

Dembicki, Matt (ed.).  Trickster: Native American Tales. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Books, 2010.

Devi, Debra, “Language of the Blues: MOJO” American Blues Scene, 8 July 2015,

Durer, Albrecht, “The Holy Family with Three Hares” from the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection,

“Good Luck Charm,” written by Clarence Satchell, Ralph Middlebrooks, James L. Williams, and others, sung by Elvis Presley,

“L.A. Woman” lyrics, The Doors Lyrics, AZ Lyrics,

Locke, Tony. “Superstitions and Folklore of the Rabbit and Hare,” Irish Abroad blog, 29 March 2013,

“Love Potion No. 9 (song),” Wikipedia,

“Lucky Rabbit Foot Shadowbox,” available on Etsy,

Mama Zogbe Chief-Hounon Amergansie, “Hoodoo – a New World Name of an Ancient African Magical Tradition,”

“Mojo Hand, Mojo Bag, Toby, Conjure Bag, Wanga, Gris-Gris, What it is,” Lucky Mojo,

“The Moon Rabbit in Legend and Culture,” Owlcation, 11 January 2018,

“Ostara, herald of springtime,” http.//

“Maya whistle in the form of the moon goddess and her rabbit consort,”(photo) Princeton University Art Museum.

“Mojo,” definition by Merriam Webster diction,

“Mojo (African-American culture)” Wikipedia,

Muddy Waters singing “Got My Mojo Workin’” YouTube videos from 1956 and 1966

Nosowitz, Dan, “Why Is The Rabbit’s Foot Considered A Good Luck Charm?” Modern Farmer, 20 March 2017,

Panati, Charles. Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things. New York: Harper Collins, 1987.

“Rabbits and Hares in Art,” Wikipedia,

“Rabbit’s Foot,” RationalWiki,

“Rabbit’s Foot,” New World Encyclopedia,

“Rabbit’s Foot,” Wikipedia,

Sifferlin, Alexandra, “What’s the Origin of the Easter Bunny?” Time magazine, 1 April 2015,

“Three Hares,” Wikipedia,

Windling, Terri, “Into the Woods” series, 43: The Folklore of Rabbits and Hares, 18 December 2014,

“You Do Something to Me,” song written by Cole Porter, Wikipedia,

Yronwode, Catherine, “Rabbit Foot in Hoodoo Folk Magic, Spell-Craft, and Occultism,” Herb Magic,

“Fat Boys,” Magnetism, and Magic

The “fat boys” are sculptures usually associated with Olmec/Maya/Izapan sites in southern Mexico and Guatemala, especially near the Pacific coast.  They look very different from the sophisticated sculptures we usually associate with the ancient cities of that area.  They’re stumpy stone figures of very fat humans, with a big ball for the bottom and a smaller, flattened ball for the top.  The arms can barely stretch across the wide belly. fat boys Takalik

I first saw one of these sculptures at Takalik Abaj (See photo), an Olmec/early Maya major trade site near Chocola, where I was part of an Earthwatch team helping with a dig.  The basalt figure stood about 4’ tall, with a flattened head and an enormous belly. Kaminaljuyu, just down the way from Takalik Abaj and now mostly absorbed by Guatemala City, had the greatest number of “fat boy” sculptures discovered at a single site.

Some of the fat boy sculptures are so worn, they look like blobs, with no indication of features.  Tourists often pass them by without a second glance.

Olmec map

Yet hundreds of large and small versions of the “fat boys,” as the sculptures became known after their discovery, have been found across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico, through modern Guatemala, and down into Honduras, Belize, and El Salvador.  Why were they so popular over such a wide area?

Some of the sculptures, also called “potbellies,” featured a collar around the figure’s neck, possibly a sign of wealth.  Many were situated on pedestals.  Some had a prominent navel.  None had specific genitals that would identify it as male or female, though a few had a bulge at the bottom.

fat boy sculpture



Dating stonework is always difficult, but researchers found the task even more difficult when they realized that many of these sculptures had been moved from their original location and reused or perhaps traded. The ones near La Democracia, Guatemala, (See photo with a fat boy, a fat boy-style head, and local traffic) had been moved and buried.  They were discovered when workers were digging up a sugarcane field.  Official guesses about their age have varied from 1500 BC to 500 BC.

 View-of-fat boy Monte-Alto-Monuments-in-the-town-square-of-La-Democracia-Guatemala


The stone itself may have come from the Pacific Piedmont area near the border of Guatemala and Mexico, or from the Tuxtla Mountains on the Gulf Coast side.


Interpretations are varied and conflicting.  Some experts said the sculptures represented dead people with bloated bodies.  Or burial markers, although only three examples were found associated with burials.  Or rulers whose corpulence showed their wealth.  Or ancestors.


Although it’s hard to date these figures, it seems the earliest versions were numerous, quite small, and found in individual households, not public spaces.  The one found in Tikal (MS 81), which Michael Coe described as “an incomplete, minor pot belly sculpture,” is an example.  What purpose could this sculpture have had that made it important to have in regular households?

fatboy goddess

A new find provides a clue

In 1996, a previously unreported pot belly sculpture was found near Teopan, on an island in the caldera of volcanic Lake Cotepeque in western El Salvador.  What made this sculpture so important was its excellent condition that made it possible to see that the figure was clearly a very pregnant woman, probably engaged in giving birth. (See photo)  In a letter dated 1576, Spanish official Diego Garcia de Palacio described a “large stone idol in the form of a woman” on an island in the same lake.

Archaeologists are slow to change their minds, but the evidence seems to be piling up that the “fat boys” were neither fat nor boys, at least in some cases.  They were females embodying the concept of fecundity.  Perhaps they functioned as charms for safe and successful childbirth, or as an Earth Mother figures.  Certainly, figurines of pregnant women giving birth are quite common in ancient Mesoamerica and South America.  The Santarem pottery piece featured in the photos below shows a pregnant woman giving birth.  woman pregnant, Santarem pottery

But there’s also a whole different side to the potbellied figures.


Some of the potbellies are lodestones!  A lodestone is a natural magnet, and like any magnet, is capable of attracting or repelling other ferrous metals as well as temporarily magnetizing other objects with iron content.

The lodestone “potbellies” are, like their non-lodestone cousins, carved out of magnetite, a kind of iron ore.  But only a small percentage of magnetite stones are lodestones.  Geologists do not completely understand how some stones become magnetized, but the most common theory is through a lightning strike. Perhaps a bolt of lightning is enough to align all the charges of the ions in the stone. (Interesting that the ancient Maya often pictured black stones at the bottom of lightning bolts.)

fatboy turtle head

In 1976, Vincent Malmstrom and his assistant, Paul Dunn, discovered that when a compass was held up to one of the “potbellies” at Monte Alto, the needle reacted.  It swung away from true north and pointed to the stone.  When they tested others potbellies and giant heads on site, they found the needle was sharply attracted when they held a compass to the navel of some statues and to the right temple in others.  The magnetic force of the stone was far stronger than the magnetic field of the earth.

(Update: a 2019 study by Harvard University geoscientist Roger Fu of 11 “potbelly” sculptures confirmed the 1977 finds.  The Harvard study link is )

Four of the five “potbellies” in La Democracia, Guatemala were found to have these magnetic arrangements, as well as four of the six giant heads. Though he searched, Malmstrom found no spot indicating material had been inserted into any of the sculptures he tested, so he concluded that the skilled carvers were aware of magnetism, could identify lodestones, were able to work them, and knew exactly where the poles were in the rock, so they carved the statues to take advantage of that arrangement.  He found other magnetic sculptures in the Soconusco region, including a turtle/frog head, a rearing jaguar, and two men seated on a bench. Malmstrom thought the sculptures were pre-Olmec in origin, dating them to 2000 BC.  That date has not held up well under scrutiny by archaeologists.


What has lasted is Michael Coe’s extraordinary 1968 find at the Olmec site of San Lorenzo, (photo by John B. Carlson) much closer to the Gulf of Mexico side of the Isthmus – a small, carefully-shaped, polished rectangular bar of hematite, dubbed M-160.  It was broken in ancient times and broken again in the course of study.  However, it showed remarkable refinement in its construction and, when floated in water or liquid mercury, it consistently aligned to the same point, west of magnetic north, the same orientation as the buildings in the Olmec sites of San Lorenzo, La Venta and others.

If M-160 indicates an Olmec understanding of magnetism as a direction finder, it predates the Greek discovery of magnetism (600 AD), perhaps by a thousand years.  Other groups claiming the first understanding of magnetism as a directional force include the Vikings, the Arabs, the Persians, and the Chinese.  If you read different sources, you’ll find widely different dates and accounts, and they all claim they’re the first.

The magic of magnetism

It’s interesting to guess how this knowledge might have been used.  In addition to direction finding, especially when combined with star lore, magnetism had to appear to be magic.  It still does.

Lodestone 2

For about ten dollars, you can get a set of small lodestones and do your own experiments.  You can magnetize pins and paper clips and make them move other pins without touching them.  Or make some move toward the lodestone and others scoot away.  (You can also ruin your electronics if you pass the lodestone over them!)  If you hold a paperclip on a string near a pole on the lodestone but not touching it, the paperclip will swing back and forth as if it’s frantic to reach the pole.  It doesn’t take much imagination to see all of this being used in a show of magic and power in ancient times.

In that sense, then, with the introduction of magnetism, the “potbellies” may well have morphed from a Mother Goddess/ birthing figure to a general power figure, one rulers would want to possess, display, and manipulate.  As Preclassic expert Julia Guernsey notes, “Importantly, rotund bellies were a frequent and long-standing attribute of Preclassic figurines, sometimes alluding to pregnancy and in other cases appearing to reference obesity.”

Unfortunately, we have very little data on how many of the figures were constructed to take advantage of magnetic poles and almost no information on their use.  It does seem that the cluster of finds near Soconusco/Monte Alto/ La Democracia suggests a large-scale production of the figures from lodestone magnetite found in the area, perhaps for trade.

Another theoryPTLI new cover

Some experts believe that the ability to find and use lodestones as well as how to use them came from Asia and the Pacific islands, carried across the sea by long-distance sailors who already knew about their uses as a navigational aid.  While the idea is often dismissed as far-fetched, it’s a possibility I pursue in Past the Last Island.

Sources and interesting reading:

Amarolli, Paul. “A Newly Discovered Potbelly Sculpture from El Salvador and a Reinterpretation of the Genre,”

“Aztec ‘Birthing Figure’” Aztecs, Mexicolore,

Barreto, Christina, ed. “Figurine Traditions from the Amazon,” Oxford Handbook of Prehistoric Figurines, Oxford University Press, 2016,

Bower, Bruce, “Ancient sculptors made magnetic figures from rocks struck by lightning,” Science News, 22 April 2019,…

Carlson, J. B. “Lodestone Compass: Chinese or Olmec Primacy?” Science 189 (1975) p. 753.

Coe, Michael D. America’s First Civilization. New York: American Heritage/Smithsonian Library, 1968. New Word City e-book, 2017

Review of Coe, Michael D. America’s First Civilization. Science, 2 May 1969, 164:538-539.

Dill, J. Gregory, “Lodestone and needle: The rise of the magnetic compass,” Ocean Navigator, January/February 2003,

Guernsey, Julia, “Rulers, Gods, and Potbellies,” The Place of Stone Monuments: Context, Use and Meaning in Mesoamerica’s Preclassic Tradition. Dumbarton Oaks, 2010

Guernsey, Julia. Sculpture and Social Dynamics in Preclassic Mesoamerica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

“Izapa,” Mundo Maya.

“Izapa,” Wikipedia,

“Enigma of the Ancient Magnetic ‘Fat Boys’ and Their Curious Magnetic Properties,”, 19 April 2014,

Jenkins, John Major, “Some Iconographic and Dosmological Observations of the Symbolism of the new Stela 48 from Takalik Abaj,” Alignment, 22 April 2008,

“Kaminaljuyu,” Wikipedia,

“Lodestone,” Wikipedia,

“Lodestone – 600 BC” Magnet Academy, History of Electricity, magnetism, National MagLab, the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, 2014

“Lodestone – Physical Properties and Healing Properties,” Kidzrocks.

“Magnetite and Lodestone,”,

“Magnetism in the New World,” Second Look Magazine, 1979, p. 8.

Malmstrom, Vincent H. “Chapter 3, Strange Attraction: The Mystery of Magnetism,” from Izapa: Birthplace of Time.  Dartmouth College, 1997.

Mills, Allan A. “The Lodestone: History, Physics, and Formation,” Annals of Science, (61) 2004

“Olmec,” Encyclopedia Britannica online,

“Olmec,” Wikipedia, (an excellent source)

“Potbelly sculpture,” Wikipedia,

Selin, Helaine. “From Second to Third Age: Olmec Origin,” Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997.

Stern, David P. “The Lodestone,” Earth mag,

Thompson, Lauri McInnis and Fred Valdez, ” Potbelly Sculpture: An Inventory and Analysis,” Ancient Mesoamerica, Spring 2008, 13 – 27.

Wilford, John Noble, “Oldest Pottery in Americas Is Found in Amazon Basin,” The New York Times, 13 December 1991,