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, http://www.cracked.com/blog/5-bizarre-origin-stories-famous-good-luck-charms/

Backer, William H. and Cecelia Sinclair.  West African Folk Tales. Loyal Books.com. www.loyalbooks.com/book/west-african-folk-tales-by-Willaim-H-Backer

“Chang’e,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chang%27e

Cole, Ann, recording of “Got My Mojo Working” from 1957 YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lY9XvUc6xWE

D’Costa, Krystal, “What Makes a Rabbit’s Foot Lucky?” Anthropology in Practice blog, Scientific American Blog Network, 26 October 2011, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/what-makes-a 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, https://www.americanbluesscene.com/language-of-the-blues-mojo/

Durer, Albrecht, “The Holy Family with Three Hares” from the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/359765

“Good Luck Charm,” written by Clarence Satchell, Ralph Middlebrooks, James L. Williams, and others, sung by Elvis Presley, AZlyrics.com https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/elvispresley/goodluckcharm.html

“L.A. Woman” lyrics, The Doors Lyrics, AZ Lyrics, https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/doors/lawoman.html

Locke, Tony. “Superstitions and Folklore of the Rabbit and Hare,” Irish Abroad blog, 29 March 2013, http://www.irishabroad.com/blogs/Post?View.aspx?pid=4325

“Love Potion No. 9 (song),” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_Potion_No._9_(song)

“Lucky Rabbit Foot Shadowbox,” available on Etsy, https://www.etsy.com/listing/585526587/lucky-rabbit-foot-shadowbox?ga/

Mama Zogbe Chief-Hounon Amergansie, “Hoodoo – a New World Name of an Ancient African Magical Tradition,” http://www.mamiwata.com/hoodoo/hoodoo.html

“Mojo Hand, Mojo Bag, Toby, Conjure Bag, Wanga, Gris-Gris, What it is,” Lucky Mojo, http://www.luckymojo.com/mojo.html

“The Moon Rabbit in Legend and Culture,” Owlcation, 11 January 2018, https://owlcation.com/social-sciences/moon-rabbit

“Ostara, herald of springtime,” http.//www.northernpaganism.org/shrines/Ostara/about.html

“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, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mojo_(African-American_culture)

Muddy Waters singing “Got My Mojo Workin’” YouTube videos from 1956 and 1966 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aI_JFcrTooM https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8hEYwk0bypY

Nosowitz, Dan, “Why Is The Rabbit’s Foot Considered A Good Luck Charm?” Modern Farmer, 20 March 2017, https://modernfarmer.com/2017/03/rabbits-foot-considered-good-luck-charm/

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

“Rabbits and Hares in Art,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbits_and_Hares_in_art

“Rabbit’s Foot,” RationalWiki, https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Rabbit%27s_foot

“Rabbit’s Foot,” New World Encyclopedia, www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Rabbit%27s_foot

“Rabbit’s Foot,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbit%27s_foot

Sifferlin, Alexandra, “What’s the Origin of the Easter Bunny?” Time magazine, 1 April 2015, http://time.com/3767518/easter-bunny-origins-history/

“Three Hares,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org.wiki/Three_Hares

Windling, Terri, “Into the Woods” series, 43: The Folklore of Rabbits and Hares, 18 December 2014,  http://www.terriwindling.com/blog/2014/12/the-folklore-of-rabbits-and-hares.html

“You Do Something to Me,” song written by Cole Porter, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Do_Something_to_Me

Yronwode, Catherine, “Rabbit Foot in Hoodoo Folk Magic, Spell-Craft, and Occultism,” Herb Magic, http.www.herbmagic.com/rabbit-foot-html

“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.

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,” www.fundar.org.su/referencias/teopan.pdf

Barreto, Christina, ed. “Figurine Traditions from the Amazon,” Oxford Handbook of Prehistoric Figurines, Oxford University Press, 2016, https://www.reasearchgate.net/figure/Santarem-figurine-of-pregnant-woman-left-and-back-of-seated-figurine-with-perforated_273134801

“Aztec ‘Birthing Figure’” Aztecs, Mexicolore, http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/artifacts/birthding-figure

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, http://www.oceannavigator.com/January-February-2003/Lodestone-and-needle-the-rise-of-the-magnetic-compass/

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.  http://mundomaya.travel/en/arqueologia/top-10/Izapa.html

“Izapa,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Izapa

“Enigma of the Ancient Magnetic ‘Fat Boys’ and Their Curious Magnetic Properties,” MessagetoEagle.com, 19 April 2014, http://www.messagetoeagle.com/enigma-of-the-ancient-magnetic-fat-boys-and-their-curious-magnetic-properties/

Jenkins, John Major, “Some Iconographic and Dosmological Observations of the Symbolism of the new Stela 48 from Takalik Abaj,” Alignment, 22 April 2008, http://alignment2012.com/Takalik48.html

“Kaminaljuyu,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaminaljuyu

“Lodestone,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lodestone

“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. http://www.kidzrocks.com/v/education/LODESTONE

“Magnetite and Lodestone,” Geology.com, https://geology.com/minerals/magnetite.shtml

“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, https://www.britannica.com/print/article/427846

“Olmec,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olmec (an excellent source)

“Potbelly sculpture,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potbelly_sculpture

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, http://www.phy6.org/earthmag/lodeston.htm

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, http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/13/world/oldest-pottery-in-americas-is-found-in-amazon-basin.html

Solstice and Santa

The Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere is December 21 this year, the shortest day and longest night of the year. (For those in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s the Summer Solstice and the longest day of the year.)
What is a Solstice?
If you note the spot where the sun rises each day for a year, you’ll see it moves along the eastern horizon until it reaches its farthest point (the solstice or sun-stop) before it seems to turn around and move back toward the center (the equinox). For a more complete explanation, see the earlier post on Solstice and Equinox.

santa solstice
The Winter Solstice is an important event for those of us who hate the very brief daylight and early darkness of late fall days because we know all that will start to change after the Winter Solstice. The days will start to get longer, the nights shorter. We’ll be on the upswing, even if the day to day change is slight.

This moment of change is so important it’s often marked by rituals and lights. The Hindu festival of Diwali features lights, candles, fireworks, prayers, treats and sweets.santa tree of life menorah

The Jewish festival of Chanukah (Hanukkah) involves songs, prayers, special foods, good fellowship, and of course, the lighting of the candles on the menorah one by one over the course of eight days. The bronze menorah pictured features a Tree of Life design inspired by the African Acacia tree, an interesting combination of themes.

Perhaps the best-known post-Winter Solstice celebration is Christmas, but it is a complicated holiday and season. In some ways, it’s about the birth of Jesus. In others, it’s more a commercial and social event, one sewn together out of dozens of cultural patches from different times and regions.

Two main influences have shaped our thoughts about the Winter Solstice and Christmas: the Mediterranean and ancient Near East, especially the Roman Empire and the early Catholic Church, and the Nordic traditions of Yule.

In the Mediterranean world and the Ancient Near East
The greatest power in the Ancient Near East about 500 BC was the Persian Empire. It stretched from the Black Sea to the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf. After Alexander the Great, originally from Macedonia in Greece, defeated the Persian King Darius, Alexander became the new King and, by 323 BC, extended the empire’s reach from Greece to India, over two million square miles! Alexander sought to combine elements of Greek, Middle Eastern, and Persian culture.
Santa persian_empire map
After Alexander’s death, the empire fell apart, but his efforts to spread Greek culture ushered in the Hellenistic period, which lasted over two hundred years and had a lasting influence on Western civilization.  Alexander coin, below. Note his interesting headdress.

Santa AlexanderCoin
When the Roman Empire conquered Greece, about 146 BC, it incorporated many parts of Greek culture, as well as some elements of Persian culture that Alexander had introduced. When the Roman Empire conquered new lands (See map, below), their armies spread those cultural elements as well.

Santa map-roman-empire1

One interesting element of Persian culture spread by the Roman army was Mithraism, a mysterious men-only cult that involved worship of the sun as Mithra, complex initiations, a strict hierarchy of power, and absolute loyalty to the ruler.santa sol invictus

Even after the cult’s popularity faded, Emperor Diocletian dedicated an altar to Mithras (pictured above) as patron of the Roman Empire. In 80 AD, an altar to Sol Invictus (The Unconquered Sun) in Rome carried the inscription “The Unconquered Sun Mithra.” In a mosaic, Mithra-Sol appears in a chariot drawn across the sky by four horses, as he makes the sun rise and set. He is generally shown with a halo around his head, or a crown of rays, like the sun.

Santa, Sun, Mithra, Apollo

How does all of this about Mithra/Sol Invictus relate to those of us anxiously awaiting the Winter Solstice? The biggest day of the year for followers of Mithra was December 25, when it was clear that the sun was once again growing in strength. The priests of Mithra, called Magi, studied the stars for signs. (They show up in a later story.)
Today, the Iranian festival Shab-e Yalda (“The Night of Birth”) carries on the tradition of gathering together with friends and family to ward off the darkness of the longest night and then celebrate the triumph of Mithra, the Sun God, over darkness.

Santa ChristAsSol mosaic
Interestingly, Sol/Helios, with halo, is sometimes pictured in a golden chariot being pulled by four horses. A 3rd century AD mosaic of Sol Invictus still lies in a necropolis (place of the dead) underneath Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Some now interpret it as the sun-god Helios/Sol Invictus/Jesus Christ. (Mosaic pictured, left)
The Romans later morphed the December 25 “dies soli invicti nati” (the birthday of the unconquered sun) into a week-long wild party called Saturnalia, dedicated to Saturn, the god of agriculture, liberation, and time. During the festival, which dates back at least as far as 217 BC, Romans decorated their houses with greenery and candles, gave gifts to children, and enjoyed good food, drink, sex, some gambling and fighting – all the regular party elements. With work suspended and lots to celebrate, it was the most popular of the Roman festivals. (Saturn in his chariot, below.  Yes, there is a similarity.)
Santa Saturn in chariot
Indeed, the festival remained popular long after Emperor Constantine ended the persecution of Christians, (312 AD), converted to Christianity, banned Saturnalia and other “pagan” festivals, and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.
When Catholic Church officials realized they couldn’t eradicate Saturnalia, they co-opted it, making it the celebration of the birth of Jesus. No one knew the actual date of Jesus’s birth, so it was a perfect date for a celebration of new birth and the triumph of light over darkness.

Though the Roman Empire had a new official religion, it maintained many of the older customs, not just in terms of festivals. Important figures, formerly seen as gods and goddesses, were now presented as Jesus and His particularly notable followers. Through their pure faith and ability to inspire others, they became known as saints. In Christian artwork, they were often marked by a halo, a golden orb around the head very much like the sun orb around the head of Sol/Mithra and the orbs surrounding Hindu and Buddhist holy people.

Santa Kzanskaya Mother of God icon  Santa infant with halo  santa Madonna_benois_01

When Jesus appeared in a painting or sculpture with other holy people, his halo often had rays as well as the orb, in keeping with the Mithraic sense of rank.

The Benoit Madonna, or Madonna with Flowers, one of Leonardo da Vinci’s early paintings (on the far right), shows subtle floating halos around the heads of the Madonna and Child. However, the more modern stained glass image of Jesus shows a full rayed halo reminiscent of the older image in the mosaic (left) and the image of Alexander on the coin.
Santa Jesus halo   Santa StJohnsAshfield_StainedGlass_GoodShepherd_Face

Saint Nicholas
Saint Nicholas was a bishop in Myra (modern-day Turkey) in the 4th century AD, who was known for his strict defense of the Christian faith and his generous gift-giving. He was said to have given gifts to poor children and secretly provided the dowry money to keep three sisters out of a life of prostitution.Santa Saint Nicholas icon

The icon show his serious demeanor, as well as his halo. The painting by Gentile da Fabriano, made a thousand years after Saint Nicholas’s death, shows him sneaking up the side of a building so he can throw bundles of money inside.

Santa Saint Nicholas window

The Nordic Connection
Meanwhile, in Scandinavia, the Juul (Yule) celebration before, during, and after the Winter Solstice included feasting, fighting, drinking, and merrymaking, as well as lots of fire, heat, and light to encourage the return of the sun.
In Norse mythology, the wolf, a symbol of darkness and destruction, is always chasing the goddess of light. At the Winter Solstice, she is at her most vulnerable. Yet the epic Edda says after she is killed and eaten, she is reborn out of the belly of the wolf. Just as she will always be consumed by darkness, she will always return. So the Winter Solstice Yule is a celebration of the interplay of death and rebirth.

santa holly
Like holly, the evergreen tree was a Norse symbol of immortality because it didn’t lose its leaves and turn brown, even after all the other plants did. Therefore, it had special powers. Vikings used holly leaves and berries to make circular wreaths to decorate their houses. To some people, trees were  homes of the spirits, so they decorated evergreen trees in winter with charms and offerings.

The Yule log was burned in honor of the Norse god, Thor, the protector of Earth (Midgard). A piece of the giant log was kept for good luck and as kindling for the following year’s fire.santa yule_log martha vineyard gazette

The picture here shows a log in a hearth, but really a Yule log should be giant and the hearth that can hold it should also be giant, so that, for a moment at least, it can drive away all thoughts of the dark and the cold.


Unlike the Thor of the Marvel comics and movies, Thor in Nordic legends traveled the skies in a magic chariot drawn by two goats. Sometimes he killed and ate the goats, but they would always be reborn the next day – a perfect symbol for the Winter Solstice sun dying one day and being reborn the next. The goat became a symbol of Thor. Today, the Yule Goat is the most common holiday decoration in Scandinavian countries.


goat with elf and light

In some holiday images, elves drive a sleigh pulled by one goat, or several, so they can deliver gifts to children.

Goat and elves-Nystrom_God-Jul_10

The Dark Side
Ancient Norse folk beliefs also included dark, scary figures: the Yule Riders of Norwegian folklore, dangerous creatures of the Underworld; Lussi, who would steal children away into her dark world, Icelandic trolls and the Yule Lads, who live in the mountains with their terrifying ogress mother Gryla and her cat, which eats children.


santa krampisparade
Norse and Germanic folklore also gave us Krampus, the Christmas devil who shows up on December 6, which is also the feast day of Saint Nicholas, but Krampus is not carrying gifts. He’s carrying a rod with which he can beat wicked children. He looks truly terrifying. Oddly enough, he’s enjoying a resurgence in popularity these days, especially in Austria and Germany. The photo included is from this year’s festival. Some parents  take their children to meet Krampus and be terrified. Maybe it’s supposed to scare them into better behavior. The main legacy of Krampus, though, seems to be the idea that someone is keeping tabs on your behavior, and you’ll be rewarded with gifts if you’ve been good, but be punished if you’ve been bad.


Santa Christmas-MistletoeThank the Celtic Druids for the mistletoe you hang in the parlor. Mistletoe, a semi-parasitic plant that grows on willow, apple and oak trees, was long considered a magical, medicinal, and sacred plant that should be gathered at the Summer or Winter Solstice. People often pinned a sprig of mistletoe over the door to ward off evil spirits and encourage goodwill. Interestingly, mistletoe was incorporated into many Saturnalia celebrations as a fertility symbol.
Old Man Winter/Father Christmas/Sinterklaas/Santa Claus
The Nordic Yule Goat at one time brought children gifts. Other pre-Santa Nordic figures include Old Man Winter and Father Christmas.santa_bluecoat

Father Christmas was pictured as an old man with a long beard, very often dressed in embroidered cloth or furs and carrying a cut evergreen tree or perhaps wearing a wreath of holly.  He might still carry a switch to punish bad children.  Sometimes he rode a goat.



The antique Christmas card pictured below shows Father Christmas carrying a cut evergreen tree, toys, and the baby Jesus, who has a rayed halo, an interesting mix of cultural images.

Santa carrying Jesus

Sinterklass was the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas/Father Christmas. A serious old man sporting a full beard and fine red robes, he kept a book in which he recorded whether each child had been good or bad. He would deliver gifts to good children and a broom made of willow branches to spank bad children.
The Trouble with Christmas
People from all over the globe came to the New World and brought their native customs about the Solstice and Christmas with them. However, these customs were not always welcomed. The Puritans and other conservative Christian sects hated Christmas, claiming it was little more than a pagan celebration with a Christian veneer.
Worse than that, by 1800, Winter Solstice/Christmas celebrations in the US had become wild, rowdy affairs noted for public drunkenness, aggressive begging, and destruction. The common practice of demanding food and drink from the rich (which later turned into the tamer “Wassailing”) sometimes ended in gangs threatening to destroy a house if not offered the finest food and ale.
Santa festive druid with elf
Stephen Nissenbaum describes the problem in his fine book, The Battle for Christmas. There were two camps in the eastern US in 1800: those who wanted the wild Solstice/Harvest party like the one pictured, and those who wanted something gentler, kinder, and more religious. In 1809, partially in response to these problems, Washing Irving published Knickerbocker’s History of New York, in which the narrator claims to remember the old customs associated with Christmas, particularly those of the early Dutch settlers in New York. He describes Saint Nicholas’s wagon, his pipe, and his gifts, and the great customs of visiting family and friends, sharing good food and drink, as well as games. It’s a fine, civilized picture.

In 1810, John Pitard paid for the publication of a pamphlet featuring a picture of Saint Nicholas bringing gifts like toys, oranges, and candy to good children.
In 1821, William Gilley published a poem called “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight,” which includes many of the features we’ve come to expect of Santa: the red outfit, the appearance on Christmas Eve, and the presents for good children. For naughty children, he leaves a birch rod so parents can beat the offending little ones. And the poem is the first to mention reindeer pulling the magic sleigh, rather than goats. Santa HarpersStNick001 1857

“A Visit from St. Nicholas”
This poem, published in 1823, also called by its first line, “’Twas the night before Christmas,” did the most to change the figure of Saint Nicholas into what we know as Santa Claus. Though the main character is called Saint Nicholas in the poem, he’s not the 4th century Turkish bishop, the stern authority figure of the early Church. He’s now good ol’ Saint Nick, dressed in fur that was covered in soot. “He look’d like a peddler just opening his pack.” His eyes twinkle. He has a broad face and a round belly. He’s “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.” He has lost his halo and his bishop’s robes. He no longer has dark hair, dark eyes, and a stern face. In the 1857 Harper’s version, he’s seen climbing down the chimney while his magic flying reindeer/deer wait for him.

Moore’s Santa is much kinder than Sinterklaas or Santeclaus. He’s a jolly old elf like those of Norse lore, even though he doesn’t look much like an elf. He doesn’t leave birch rods, only presents. He winks at the viewer/narrator before he heads back up the chimney, as if they’re both in on a wonderful joke. And he wishes a Happy Christmas to ALL. He’s Father Christmas without all the dark stuff.

santa thomas-nast
The Thomas Nast illustration  shown makes Santa really fat. He’s a figure of plenty. He brings gifts to children. He lives in the North Pole and has a workshop run by elves.  And he’s wildly popular. But he’s not overtly religious. He has a sprig of holly in his cap and a knowing twinkle in his eye. He now carries a long clay pipe, the type fancied by the wealthy. His cheeks look pretty flushed. He carries so many toys he can barely keep hold of them all.  He’s an odd relative of the severe saint he’s named after and the Father Christmas figures who preceded him. Mostly, he’s shown riding on his magical sleigh while he brings presents to children on Christmas Eve. Interestingly, in the card pictured below, he has an American flag on his pink sleigh.  Make that two.  Does this mean Santa only delivers in the USA?
Santa and deer
Through the early 1900s, the Nast version of Santa co-existed with the more gaunt or elfin figures of Father Christmas.Santa Coca-Cola-Christmas

Then, in 1931, Coca-Cola asked Haddon Sundblom to design an image of Santa for their ads. Sundblom’s painting clearly uses the Nast figure of Santa as a model. He’s not an olive-skinned Turk. He’s a blue-eyed, ruddy-cheeked, jolly fat man who sports the red outfit with fur trim on the cuffs. Sundblom’s Santa was so popular, the artist went on to paint Santa ads for Coke for the next 32 years!

So, out of the Solstice, Saturnalia, Mithra, Sol Invictus, Saint Nicholas, Old Man Winter, Father Christmas, Thor, elves, Yule, and good old American commercialism, we end up with something that has parts of all of them and yet turns into something a little less than the sum of those parts. Santa is pleasant and acceptable to many, but in the end, it’s quite a bland image, especially now that it’s been stripped of its ethnic, spiritual, and magical associations. Today he’s used to peddle cars and power drills and soft drinks. He works in malls and shows up at various events around town before Christmas. Children are encouraged to sit in his lap and make wishes/demands.

Santa Miracle on 34th Street
Who is this man with the fake beard and strange outfit? He’s meant to be the figure he never quite manages to be: the Santa in Miracle on 34th Street (1947), in which Edmund Gwenn, as Kris Kringle, convinces young Susan, played by Natalie Wood, and her doubting mother, played by Maureen O’Hara, that Santa Claus really does exist.
That Santa Claus is the personification of a fond memory, a wish for something magical.

Every year, I hear about people who are upset because they think holiday lights and candles and evergreens and mistletoe are “pagan” and therefore evil. But they’re just elements of the past that belongs to all of us. Time didn’t begin with the birth of Jesus. Indeed, He followed customs and rituals of His Jewish ancestors. When we decorate an evergreen tree with lights and hang mistletoe, we are simply giving a nod to our amazing – and complicated – collective past.
Happy Winter Solstice!  Happy Hanukkah!  Merry Christmas!

Sources and interesting reading:
Bagot, Neil, “Yule – A Merry Viking Christmas?” Viking Slots, 19 December 2014, https://www.vikingslots.com/blog/yule-viking-christmas

Basu, Tanya. “Who is Krampus? Explaining the Horrific Christmas Devil,” National Geographic News, 1 December 2017 https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131217-krampus-christmas-santa-devil/

“Coca-Cola didn’t invent Santa – but they did change Christmas as we know it,” The Aps Group, https://www.theapsgroup.com/coca-cola-didnt-invent-santa-change-christmas-know/

Eldridge, Allison. “7 Winter Solstice Celebrations From Around the World,” Britannica.com, https://www.britannica.com/list/7-winter-solstice-celebrations

Fox, Selena, “Celebrating Winter Solstice,” Circle Sanctuary, 2017.

Galloway, Laura, “How Santa Got His Reindeer,” CNN, 223 December 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/22/opiion/galloway-reindeer/index.html

Harris, Kathleen, “How Joulupukki, the Finnish Santa, went from naughty to nice,” Ink Tank, 22 December 2015. http://inktank.fi/how-joulupukki-the-finnish-santa-went-from-naughty-to-nice/

“Halo (Religious Iconography)” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halo_%28religious_iconography%29

Handwerk, Brian, “Saint Nicholas to Santa: The Surprising Origins of Mr. Claus,” National Geographic News, 29 November 2017, https://new.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131219-santa-claus-origin-history-christmas-facts-st-nicholas/

“Holidays and Traditions around the December solstice,” Time and Date AS, 1995 – 2017. Timeanddate.com

“Icelandic Folklore,” Iceland Travel. https://www.icelandtravel.is/about-iceland/culture/folklore

“Julbock ornament – pewter” Scandinavian Shoppe.com. https://scandinavianshoppe.com/products/julbock-ornament-pewter.html

“The Magical History of Yule, The Pagan Winter Solstice Celebration,” The Huffington Post, 2 December 2016, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/winter-solstice-pagan-yule_us_585970abe4b03904470af4c5

Map of Persian Empire about 500 BC, http://www.worldmapsonline.com/persian_empire.htm

Map of Roman Empire at the end of Julius Caesar’s reign, 100 BC BBC Primary History/Romans/Rome

“Mithraism/Persian Religion,” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Mithraism

Miracle on 34th Street, Twentieth Century Fox, 1947.

“Mosaic of Sol Invictus in Mausoleum M in pre-4th-century necropolis beneath St Peter’s Basilica,” Halo, Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halo_%28religious_iconography%29#media/File:ChristAsSol.jpg

Nelles, Scott, Tree of Life menorah, cast bronze, https://www.etsy.com/listing/59829422/tree-of-life-menorah-cast-bronze-9

Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc, 1998.

Nystrom, Jenny, “Elf Gnome Delivering Presents on Goat Sled,” Christmas counted cross stich or counted needlepoint pattern, Orenco Originals, (//cdn.shopify.com/files/1/1003/2254/products/01a11x14SnataGnomePresentsJennyNystrom…)

“Old Norse Yule Celebration – Myth and Ritual,” Lady of the Labyrinth’s Old Norse Mythology, http://freya.theladyofthelabyrinth.com/?page_id=397

“Old Santeclaus with Much Delight,” anonymous poem published in New York in 1821, Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Santeclaus_with_Much_Delight

Pruitt, Sarah, “8 Winter Solstice Celebrations around the World,” History Stories, A&E Television Networks, 20 December 2016, http://aenetworks.com

“Saint Lucy,” BBC – Religions – Christianity: Saint Lucy. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/saints/lucy.shtml

“Saint Nicholas,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nicholas

Saint Nicholas painting by Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1427), public domain, Wikipedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gentile_da_Fabriano_063.jpg

“Santa Claus,” History.com. http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/santa-claus/print

“Santa Claus,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Claus

“Saturn,” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Saturn-god

“Sinterklaas,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinterklaas

“Sol Invictus,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sol_Invictus

“Stained Glass Good Shepherd,” stained glass at St. John the Baptist’s Anglican Church, New South Wales. Wiki Common, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:StJohnsAshfield_StainedGlass_GoodShepherd_Face.jpg

Thomas, Robert B. “Yule comes from the name of old feast in honor of Thor, Midwinter solar rituals included fires, which evolved into yule log,” Deseret News, 12 December 1999. https://www.deseretnews.com/article/732571/Yule-comes-from-the-name-of-old-feast-in-honor-of-Thor.html. Also Ask the Almanac, The Old Farmer’s Almanac, http://www.almanac.comYankeePublishing

“Thor,” Thor with goats, Wiki Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thor_1832_from-Die_Helden_und Gotter_des_Nordens.jpg

“The Tradition of Mistletoe at Christmas,” Why Christmas? https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/mistletoe.shtml

“A Visit from St. Nicholas,” poem by Clement Moore, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Visit_from_St._Nicholas

“A Visit from St. Nicholas,” poem by Clement Moore, 1822, from Burton Egbert Stevenson, ed. The Home Book of Verse, Volume 1 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1912), Project Gutenberg etext #2619, https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Poetry/a_visit_from_st_nicholas.htm

Wade, Deena, “Winter Solstice Traditions: Rituals for a Simple Celebration,” Mother Earth Living, November-December 2004, https://www.motherearthliving.com?Health-and-Wellness/simply-solstice-celebrate-winter-with-new-and-old-traditions

Weaver, Sue. “The Yule Goat (Yulbock)” Storey Publishing, http:www/storey.com/article/yule-goat/

Whipp, Deborah, “The History of Santa’s Reindeer,” Altogether Christmas, http://www.altogetherchristmas.com/traditions/reindeer.html

“Why is Christmas Day on the 25th December?” Ehy Christmas, https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/25th.shtml

“Yule Goat,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yule_Goat


Another book, Another controversy

MV migration_map


The Misfits and Heroes novels were born out of my belief that humans arrived in the Americas by many different routes at different times.  That went against the theory widely taught in school: that the first humans to reach the Americas walked across the land bridge from Russia to Alaska about 13,000 years ago. They followed big game and wandered down an ice-free corridor between mile-high ice sheets.  Eventually they populated all of the Americas.

I never doubted that some people arrived that way, but not many.  The land simply couldn’t support many.

Then I read about other finds – in Chile, Mexico, Brazil, Texas, South Carolina, Delaware, Florida.  They all seemed to predate that ice-free corridor in Alaska and the Yukon.  Further, some prominent geologists and paleo-anthropologists claimed the ice-free corridor, if it ever existed, wasn’t passable until 10-12,000 years ago, long after the first settlements in North America.  Consider Topper Hill, South Carolina (50,000 years old), Pedra Furada, Brazil (32,000 – 48,000 years old), Monte Verde II, Chile (at least 18,500 years old), Meadowcroft Rock Shelter, Pennsylvania (17,000 years old), and Huaca Prieta, Peru (15,000 years old).  Given the antiquity and sophistication of these sites, it seems absurd to hold onto the theory that development and culture moved solely from the north to the south, beginning 13,000 years ago.

But the belief persisted, mainly because it’d been repeated so many times people assumed it had been proven beyond any doubt.  At one point, I questioned the whole concept of the “Clovis People” and “Clovis Culture,” since Clovis points were a lithic style, a technological improvement that spread from the southeastern US across North America and down to Venezuela.  My argument was that iPhones have spread across the globe, but their presence does not indicate either a “people” or a “culture.”  It’s simply a very useful bit of technology.  However, my opinion struck a nerve among archaeologists, some of whom claimed they had a bookshelf full of volumes explaining the Clovis people and their culture.  So I let it go.  But in my heart, I think the Clovis points were a valuable trade item that was held in such high esteem it was included in grave goods.  (I’m not sure there’s an equivalent today since technology changes so rapidly. When I started working, really rich people had huge speakers for their component sound system.  Today, a system the size of a shoe-box delivers far better sound.)

Olmec head unearthed

When I visited the Olmec site at La Venta (at least 3500 years old), near Villahermosa, Mexico, I was struck by the amazing sculptures there.  Later, in an attempt to drum up interest in my new Latin American Literature class, I took pictures from La Venta into my composition classes at Mott College in Flint, Michigan.  Without telling the students anything more than dimensions, materials, and probable age of the pieces, I asked what they thought of them. Olmec mask 4

Every group had the same responses: “They’re African” or “They’re Asian.”  It was so consistent, it made me wonder.  What if African explorers came across the Atlantic to the Americas?  What if Asian explorers came across the Pacific?  What if they met somewhere – perhaps in the narrow Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico, and the fusion of cultures created the fire that forged a brand new civilization?

Those questions (and one more) became the basis of the Misfits and Heroes novels.

West Africa


Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa

The first book in the series, Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa, tells a tale of people forced to learn quickly when their boat is swept out into the open sea.  They end up heroes not because they were born with special powers but because they rose to the challenge and made a new life in a new world.

The journey itself has been repeated many times.  Katie Spotz rowed a bow across the Atlantic – solo.  Axel Busch sailed across the Atlantic – solo – in 21 days.  You can watch his video on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPL35Ul0Ses  In 1970, Thor Heyerdahl took Ra II, a reed boat modeled after Egyptian sailing vessels, from Morocco to Barbados, in the Caribbean.

In 2006, English adventurer Anthony Smith put an ad in The Daily Telegraph, reading “Fancy rafting cross the Atlantic?  Famous traveler requires three crew Must be OAP (Old Age Pensioners).  Serious adventurers only.”  Smith, with a bit of whimsy and a nod to Heyerdahl, named his raft the An-tiki.  In 2011, the group floated 2,763 miles across the Atlantic, surviving storms and a lost rudder, and ending up on St. Martin, in the Caribbean.  Smith did exactly what he wanted to do – replicate the journey of two British seamen who survived drifting for 70 days in a lifeboat after their ship was sunk by a German warship in 1940.

Clearly, all these people were able to cross the Atlantic from West Africa because the current and winds were in their favor. Why then wouldn’t it be possible for ancient people to make the same journey, carried by the same currents?  Long-standing prejudice held that ancient people couldn’t take boats across open water, but new evidence shows that our cousins, the Neanderthals, did exactly that, crossing the Mediterranean Sea as early as 175,000 years ago.

Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa – Click on the picture for the Amazon link.


The South Pacific

The second book in the series, Past the Last Island, takes an even bigger leap: it says that the great navigators of the South Pacific found their way across the Pacific Ocean to the Americas in ancient times – not by going all the way north and following the coast down North America, but by traversing open water.  The boat in the illustration is Polynesian.

map Polynesian boat


Clearly their ancestors learned to use boats early on.  Homo Floresiensis, or The Hobbit People as they’re known because of their short stature, occupied an island on the far eastern edge of what is now Indonesia between 50,000 and 190,000 years ago.  Getting there required crossing deep ocean water.

For island people, water was the road, the connection, the wide world.  They had to learn how to use it.

Polynesian star compass

The area encompassing Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Australia, New Guinea, Melanesia, and Polynesia would have been a melting pot of peoples and cultures, in which sea prowess would have played an important role in identifying leaders.  The person who could use the wind and waves to travel was admirable.  The voyager who could find a way back, even at night, was probably worth elevating to the status of leader.  Knowledge was power.  A Polynesian star compass is pictured.

Even after Europeans colonized the South Pacific islands and forced people to stay put, native knowledge of the winds, stars, and currents was passed on, sometimes in secret.  When a famous European sailor agreed to sail hundred of miles with native Polynesian navigators, the European was so worried he brought his sextants and charts with him and hid them, but he never needed to use them.  Despite the European characterization of the people as “primitives,” their knowledge of the sea astounded seasoned European sailors.

It’s now clear that South Pacific seafarers reached Hawaii (possibly following migrating flocks of golden plovers) and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) long before European sailors even knew the places existed.  Recent studies of sweet potato DNA suggest trade existed between Polynesia and South America long before the conquistadors arrived.

Botocudo man, South American natives of eastern Brazil, historical portrait, 1875Ancient Polynesian DNA retrieved from some Botocudo skulls in a Brazilian museum seems to indicate the presence of Polynesians in Brazil long before the 13,000 BP land bridge was supposed to have opened up in Alaska. (Drawings of Botocudo man shown)

In 2015, Harvard geneticist Pontus Skoglund discovered DNA links between Amazon Indians and the indigenous peoples of Australia and New Guinea.


The site at Monte Verde, in southern Chile, supports this claim.  Despite ferocious resistance from American archaeologists, the site is now recognized as being at least 18,500 years old.  Further, finds at the site suggest that the settlement was one of several that enjoyed a trade network.  So, how did people get to southern Chile?  Either they went all the way down the coast from Alaska, a very long journey, or they came across the southern Pacific.

As with the first book, I’m suggesting that some people would purposely seek out the unknown.  Perhaps they were outcasts, thrown out of their villages and left to survive if they could.  Many probably died, but some didn’t.  Or perhaps, just like modern people, some simply wanted to know what lay beyond the edge of the world.

Past the Last Island – Click on the picture for the Amazon link.


The Merger of Asian and African

The third book takes the biggest risk of all – suggesting a merger of the two groups.  But that seems to be what happens when different groups of people occupy the same area.  For many years, scientists claimed it wasn’t possible for Neanderthals and modern humans to mate, but most of us carry Neanderthal DNA, so clearly, they could and did mate.  And they probably learned a great deal from each other.

If a small group arrived in the Americas and started a settlement, they’d eventually fail unless they found new blood to add to the tribe.  I’m guessing that a group of 12 or 15 people couldn’t thrive.  In that case, a stranger would be both a threat and a promise.  A Meeting of Clans shows both responses.

Complicating this story is the presence of yet another group – outcasts who have become so violent they understand nothing else.

A Meeting of Clans



The Outsiders

MV Solutrean

The fourth book grew out of a strange theme in Mesoamerican and South American art – the bearded stranger who looks nothing like the others in the group.  Yet he (and it’s usually a male) is clearly in a position of authority.  So I combined this idea with part of the Solutrean Hypothesis put forth by Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution and Bruce Bradley of the University of Exeter.  Their theory suggests that humans from what is now northern Spain and southern France reached the Americas and brought several technological innovations with them, including the dart thrower (atlatl – illustrated below), eyed needles, and a thin, bi-faced point that supporters claim became the inspiration for the famous Clovis points that spread across North America.



As you would expect, detractors abound.  Many complain about Stanford’s proposed route, which went north from Europe, skirted the ice and ended up in northern North America.  Since most of the very promising sites on the eastern coast of North America are in the south, I agree that the ice route is unlikely.  However, the idea of people crossing from northern Spain to the Americas is still very possible.  For one thing, the vast majority of the Clovis-style points have been found in the southeastern US.


If the originators came from Asia, the majority should have been in the northwest.  For another, the travelers in my book would be following approximately the same route Columbus did, except a whole lot earlier!  It seems fitting somehow.

So the theory is a wild one, but it’s the basis of the newest book in the series.  And the hero is truly a misfit!

A Family of Strangers 


The Misfits and Heroes series

All the books are the children of controversy.  And that’s fine, at least with me.  They’re fiction.  They’re meant to open up new ideas for the reader’s consideration.  For too long we’ve repeated a story about everyone coming to the Americas across the Land Bridge from Asia about 13,000 years ago.  But with so much evidence to the contrary, we can no longer cling to that tale.  So the books present another possibility.

Much of what we thought we knew is changing.  New studies suggest modern humans may have arisen as far back as 300,000 years ago, perhaps in more than one place.  The story of human origins seems to have a great many subplots.

In the next ten or twenty years, the dates of very early settlements in the Americas will probably keep leaping backward as new finds surface.


If you haven’t already read the books, I hope you’ll check them out on Amazon or other on-line sellers or ask your local bookseller to get them.  Whether or not you subscribe to any of these theories, you can enjoy the books.  They’re just good stories, full of human drama and adventure. If you like them, tell others or leave a review – or both.  And thanks to those who have!


Sources and interesting reading:

Many of these topics are also covered in earlier posts on this blog, and sources are listed for each.

“Anthony Smith (explorer)” Wikipedia, htps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Smith_(explorer)

Axel Busch sail across the Atlantic video, You Tube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPL35Ul0Ses

Botkin-Kowacki, Eva. “A final blow to myth of how people arrived in the Americas,” Christian Science Monitor, 10 August 2016,  https://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2016/0810/A-final-blow-to-myth-of-how-people-arrived-in-the-Americas

Bower, Bruce.  “People may have lived in Brazil more than 20,000 years ago,” Science News, 5 September 2017, https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/science-ticker-stone/stone-age-people-brazil-20000-years-ago?utm_content=buffer8976dd&utm_medium=social&utm_sour

Doucleff, Michaeleen.  “How the sweet potato crossed the Pacific way before the Europeans did,” NPR, Food, History, and Culture, 22 January 2013, http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/01/22/16998044/how-the-sweet-potato-crossed-the-pacific-before-columbus

Gannon, Megan. “Study: The First Americans Didn’t Arrive by the Bering Land Bridge,” Mental Floss, 10 August 2016, http://mentalfloss.com/article/84506/first-americans-didnt-arrive-bering-land-bridge-study-says

Hawks, John. “Did humans approach the southern tip of South America more than 18,000 years ago?” John Hawks blog, http://johnhawks.net/weblog/reviews/archaeology/america/dillehay-monte-verde-2015.html

“Homo Floresiensis”  Wikipedia.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_floresiensis

Hilleary, Cecily.  “Native Americans Call for Rethink of Bering Strait Theory,” VOA news, 19 June 2017, https://www.voanews.com/a/native-americans-call-rethink-of-bering-strait-theory/3901792.html

“New Evidence Puts Man in North America 50,000 Years Ago,” Science Daily, 18 November 2004, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/11/041118104010.htm

Perkins, Sid. “DNA study links indigenous Brazilians to Polynesians: Sequences shared by far-away populations stir up a Palaeoamerican mystery,” Nature, 01 April 2013. http:///www.nature.com/news/dna-study-links-indigenous-brazilians-to-polynesians-1.12710

Pringle, Heather. “Primitive Humans Conquered Sea, Surprising Finds Suggest: Prehistoric axes found on a Greek island suggest that seafaring existed in the Mediterranean more than a hundred thousand years earlier than thought,” National Geographic, 17 February 2010, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/02/100217-crete-primitive-humans-mariners-seafarers-mediterranean-sea/

“Solutrean Hypothesis,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solutrean_hypothesis

Vialou, Denis, Mohammed Benabdelbadi, James Feathers, Michel Fontugne, “Peopling South America’s center: the late Pleistocene site of Santa Elina, Antiquity, 08 August 2017, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/antiquity/article/peopling-south-americas-centre-the-late-pleistocene-site-of-santa-elina/04FF561EBC1883B6

Yirka, Bob. “Evidence suggests Neanderthals took to boats before modern humans,” Phys.org   1 March 2012, https://phys.org/news/2012-03-evidence-neanderthals-boats-modern-humans.html

Wade, Lizzie.  “Traces of some of South America’s earliest people found under ancient dirt pyramid,” Science, 24 May 2017, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/traces-some-south-amercias-s-earliest-people-found-under-ancient-dirt-pyramid

New Thoughts on Olmec Art

The Olmec culture is generally defined as the “Mother Culture” or first great civilization in Mesoamerica, an area encompassing most of Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and parts of Honduras, and Costa Rica.  Olmec cities flourished on the Gulf Coast of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrow neck of southern Mexico. Olmec Map 2

However, Olmec influence and trade routes spread over a much larger area.  New research shows extensive trade connections between Gulf Coast Olmec cities and Oaxaca, closer to the Pacific side, as well as the Basin of Mexico, particularly Teotihuacan, and into what is now Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and parts of western South America.   Olmec map

The earliest Olmec sites presently known date to 4000 years ago ( about 2000 BC).  By 1400 BC, Olmec artisans were creating amazing earthworks, stonework, and ceramics that still captivate the viewer.  To their 19th century discoverers, Olmec cities seemed to have sprouted full-blown out of the earth, complete with sophisticated directional alignment, symbolic writing (which we still can’t decipher), a complex set of spiritual beliefs, and finely crafted stonework, much of which was imitated by the Maya and other peoples who came to prominence after the Olmec faded.

Because of this belief, alien theorists claimed Olmec art was the work of extra-terrestrials.  Some religious sects claimed the cities were founded by a lost tribe of Israel.  Today, if you read about Olmec cities, you’ll come across all kinds of bizarre theories.

The problem with Olmec research is that we know so little about these people, including where they came from, when they arrived and what made them organize their society the way they did.  Some sites lie buried off the coast, often in areas now populated by oil rigs.  Others were discovered in the 1800s, when there was little interest in carefully uncovering the layers.  People just wanted curiosities for their collections.  Indeed, many unprovenanced Olmec artifacts now live in museums around the world.  Looters still use crude methods, including digging trenches through possible sites, looking for portable pieces they can sell on the black market.  So much valuable information has been lost.

Olmec art

People often associate the Olmec culture with colossal basalt heads, strange greenstone figurines, and hollow ceramic babies.

Giant Heads  Olmec head unearthed

The first colossal head was discovered in 1862, when workers found what they thought was a giant cook-pot turned upside down and buried in the ground.  It turned out to the top of a stone head, about 4’ (1.47 meters) tall.  The local geologist thought it depicted a male of African descent.  This head turned out to be one of the smallest of the seventeen discovered so far.  The largest is over 11’ (3.4 meters) tall.  Interestingly, some of the heads appear to be purposely mutilated and buried, either by the people themselves or by those who followed.

Olmec giant head b

In 2009, three members of an evangelical church entered the Olmec archaeological site at La Venta, near Villahermosa, Mexico, and vandalized about thirty pieces, including four colossal heads.  Clearly the heads are still threatening to some people.

More curious to me is the refusal of the archaeological community to recognize the African features on these giant heads.  Though it’s entirely possible that people came to the Americas from West Africa, scholars have stuck to the idea that everyone came across the land bridge from Asia to Alaska.  Therefore, they reasoned, the heads couldn’t look like Africans because the people all came from Asia.  Circular thinking at its worst.

The only people talking about the African origins that resulted in these stunning basalt portraits are Afrocentric historians like Ivan van Sertima, who published They Came Before Columbus in 1978, in which he pointed to the Olmec heads as evidence of African presence in the Americas long before Europeans arrived.  Unfortunately, his theories have been largely ignored or dismissed by the academic community.

The same can be said for Pedra Furada, a collection of over 800 archaeological sites in northeastern Brazil, where Niede Guidon, a Belgian archaeologist, claimed she found evidence of human activity dating between 32,000 and 60,000 years old.  American scholars refused to accept her data, partly because they were convinced of the Alaska land bridge theory, so no one could possibly be in the Americas before 13,000 years ago.

If the Pedra Furada site findings are finally accepted, especially now with the 130,000 year old site near San Diego proposed, it would open the door to more possibilities.

Most Olmec scholars now see the cities as important trade centers, especially for jade, obsidian, malachite, rock crystal, basalt, schist, andesite, and serpentine.  Trade might have invited people from all over to the cities.  Some experts now suggest that ceramic production in the Olmec world was inspired by pottery from Ecuador (over 2,000 miles/ 3200 km away) as far back as 1900 BC.


The Figurines

Olmec Kunz axe

A remarkably consistent design drove the making of many Olmec figurines.  One of the first to have extensive publicity was a jade “axe” obtained by George Kunz in 1889, a wedge-shaped piece carved with a face featuring almond-shaped, lidless eyes, a flat nose, and a strange mouth that seemed to have a puffy upper lip and fangs.  In 1929, Marshall Seville of the American Museum of Natural History declared the figure to be “the conventionalized mask of the tiger” on the shoulders of a man.  By 1955, Mathew Stirling decided the figures showed the offspring of a female human-male jaguar sexual encounter.  Seriously.  Michael Coe, at one time the pre-eminent Mesoamerican scholar, agreed.  Given the popularity of were-wolves in European literature, Coe used the term “were-jaguar” to describe the figures.  When he curated an exhibit of Olmec art in New York in 1956, he called it “The Jaguar’s Children.”  The mysterious figures were identified as “were-jaguars.”  Now, unfortunately, the term won’t come unstuck. Tate book cover

However, Carolyn E. Tate has described a new possibility in her book, Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture: The Unborn, Women, and Creation (University of Texas Press, 2012).  Her argument for a new interpretation of the figurines is compelling.  She describes them as embryo, fetus, and baby forms stylized for some important purpose.

To try out her theory, she showed pictures of Olmec figurines to a cardiologist friend.  He thought they looked like human fetuses but recommended she talk to specialists in human gestation.  Of the eleven experts who responded, all felt several images represented fetuses.  Some said they showed specific congenital abnormalities such as neural tube defects which would cause spontaneous abortion (miscarriage).  Several said the images were so naturalistic, they could identify the age of the fetus.

In the book, Tate develops that idea.  Specifically, she suggests that the abnormalities shown in these sculptures of embryos, fetuses, and babies show the effects of a diet of untreated maize.  It’s a compelling argument when you consider the evidence.

Two diagrams from her book shows developmental stages of the human embryo’s face.  The second shows an Olmec sculpture corresponding to the stage.

Olmec face images


Olmec embryo

The Olmec figure pictured below, often described as a dwarf, looks more like a 14-week old fetus.  Note the symbols on its head and back.

Olmec figure 2


And another:

Olmec figurine identified as dwarf









Tate blames untreated maize for a disastrous number of miscarriages among the Olmec that led to the creation of these statutes.  Olmec mother and fetusClearly the Olmec understood insemination and gestation.  However, they had to learn that unless maize (corn) is treated with ash or lime, it does not provide enough nutrients, especially niacin (Vitamin B3).  A diet heavy in untreated corn can cause birth defects and pellagra. Eventually, they learned how to solve the problem, but when the Spanish brought maize back to the Old World, widespread pellagra followed its introduction.

Olmec Las Limas (2) We don’t know why the Olmec found these images so important they repeated different versions of them in their masks and figurines, but perhaps, like so many people who suffer through the pain of a stillbirth or a miscarriage today, they felt those unborn children had become “angels” – powerful spirit beings capable of interceding on their behalf.  The Las Limas sculpture from La Venta shows an adult holding a baby (two views shown in photo).

Olmec head with mask


olmecs figure with seed

Several monuments in La Venta seem to show people wearing an “embryo” mask.  (See head with mask carving pictured above.)  The image is also conflated with sprouting seed, as in La Merced monument 1 (pictured).  At some point, the Olmec may have seen the death of the child as an offering that could bring life, just as the seed must be buried in order for the plant to rise.  It’s a common theme in later Maya art.

While many of these figurines are identified in art history sources as “dwarfs,” some seem to be, as Tate suggests, figures of the unborn.  However, it’s important to note that others are statues of dwarfs.  And some show jaguars.  But maybe we can back away from the “were-jaguar” description.


The Hollow Babies

Olmec_baby-face_figurine_(Bookgrrrl)   Olmec baby Hern back

Another strange feature of Olmec art is the ceramic hollow baby.  Examples have been found in the Olmec heartland and across the Isthmus to Oaxaca and Chiapas, down into Guatemala.  The baby can range from tiny to life-size.  It’s usually made of thin, light-colored clay that is highly burnished. The babies are usually seated with legs spread, so it’s clear that they have no genitals.  Some have a star/fontanel shape pierced into the back of the head.  Some have symbols on their back.  Michael Coe referred to them as “the jaguar’s children,” but there is nothing jaguar-like about them.  Other scholars have described them as a stand-in for human sacrifice, a way to fill a house with powerful spiritual force, or a ritual object that was carefully curated by a society, along the lines of holy statues that are carefully tended and dressed according to the liturgical season.

Tate refers to them as the “seed state” of humans.  They seem to be happy and healthy.  Perhaps that is their power.

Olmec-hollow baby 2

Tate’s book provides a new and interesting view of Olmec art.  It doesn’t answer all the big questions, but it gives us lots of new possibilities


Sources and other interesting reading:

“Aflatoxin,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aflatoxin

“Afrocentrism,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afrocentrism/

“Basalt Olmec Mask,” The Barakat Collction, London, Beverly Hills, Abu Dhabi.  http://www.barakatgallery.com/Store

“Infant Jesus of Prague,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infant_Jesus_of_Prague

“La Venta, monument 44,” Smithsonian Olmec Legacy: Images Database, http://anthrolopology.si.edu/olmc/cfml/site_images/

“La Venta: Stone Sculpture,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, October 2001, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/vent3/hd_vent3.htm/

Minster, Christopher, “Olmec Art and Sculpture,” ThoughtCo.  https://www.thoughtco.com/olmec-art-and-sculpture-2136298

“Nixtamalization,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nixtamalization

“Olmec,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olmec

“Olmec Art,” Heilburnn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/olmc/hd_olmc.htm/

“Olmec Civilization,” Ancient History Encyclopedia.  http://www.ancient.eu/Olmec_Civilization/

“Olmec Colossal Heads,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olmec_clossal_heads/

“Olmec Jade ‘Corn Cob’ Found in Veracruz, ”New Fire: The University of Texas at Austin’s Blog on Mesoamerica News and Research,” 23 March 2015, https://newfire.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/olmec-jade-corn-cob-found-in-veracruz/

“The Olmecs,” The Olmec Civilization. https://sites.google.com/site/theolmeccivilization/home  (map)

“Pedra Furada,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pedra_Furada

“Pelagra,” World Health Organization, 2000, http://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/en/pellagra_prevention_control.pdf

Tate, Carolyn E.  Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture: The Unborn, Women, and Creation.   Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012.

It’s Not an Alien Astronaut

When I visited the famous Maya city of Palenque, in southern Mexico, I had the chance to see the full-size replica of the sarcophagus of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, or Pakal the Great.

Pacal tomb lid 2

The original is still under the Temple of Inscriptions, where it was discovered in 1952.  Unfortunately, archaeologists at that time were not able to translate the many symbols and glyphs on the sarcophagus.  So people guessed at the meaning.  One guess, in particular, proved to be very popular.

In his book, Chariots of the Gods, published in 1968, Eric Von Daniken proposed that the image on the sarcophagus actually showed an alien astronaut.  Palenque was one of the ancient sites that he proposed were proof of alien presence on Earth. The book was wildly popular, selling over seven million copies.  That same year, Arthur C. Clarke’s space epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was published.  It continued a story line from his earlier work, “The Sentinel,” written in 1951, which tells the story of an ancient artifact left on the moon by alien beings.  In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the obelisk proves to be the force behind the sudden advancements in human achievement, including the first use of weapons by the ape-men shown at the beginning of the movie.Pacal Von Daniken

So Von Danniken was simply using popular science fiction theories and imposing them on specific ancient sites, including, among others, Machu Pichu, Nazca, Cusco, and Palenque.  The problem is now that experts can read Mayan glyphs and understand Mayan cosmology, people still want to see a picture of an alien astronaut on Pakal the Great’s tomb.


When I was walking from the ruins to the museum, I passed numerous street vendors offering small replicas of Pakal’s tomb lid, one of which I bought for ten dollars.  But the vendor also held the plaque up sideways and pointed out the alien astronaut, in case that’s what I wanted.

Pacal ancient aliens astronaut theory debunked YouTube

The hoax is extraordinarily long-lived.  Maybe it’s the appeal of seeing intelligent aliens as part of our history.  TV shows like “Ancient Aliens,” “In Search of Aliens,” “Mystery Quest,” and “History’s Mysteries” keep the story of the alien astronaut alive and well.  For an episode of “Ancient Aliens,” Paul Francis, a model maker, created a 3-D image of the alien astronaut on Pakal’s tomb lid. (See photo, above.)  He admitted, “I had to be a little interpretive.”  I guess so!  The “rocket” he created looks nothing like the image on the sarcophagus.

Pacal Ganesha   Pacal Kells

This whole debate arose out of ignorance of the belief system and cultural symbols of the ancient Maya.  It would be like seeing a photo of the Indian god Ganesh (See image, above) and trying to interpret it with no knowledge of the Hindu beliefs behind it.  Or looking at the image from the Book of Kells, the beautiful illuminated gospels drawn on calfskin in Ireland around 800 AD, without an understanding of the Four Evangelists it pictures and their winged representations.  (That would be clockwise from the top left: Mathew – shown as a winged man, Mark – shown as a winged lion, John – shown as an eagle, and Luke – shown as a winged ox.)  These symbols come from the prophetic Revelation of St. John.

Imagine the wild theories you could come up with if you didn’t know the background.


Maya symbols and cosmology

The World Tree

Pacal worldtree

As it turns out, Maya cosmological beliefs, many of which were absorbed from earlier cultures, were fairly consistent across the Maya city-states.  They saw the world as divided into three zones: The Upper World, or the land of the gods, the Middle World, where humans live, and the Underworld, which is the realm of death.  However, these realms weren’t necessarily defined as good or evil.  Every part had its value.


The World Tree spanned all three worlds.  Its roots were in the Underworld, its trunk in the Middle World, and its highest branches in the Other World.  It took several forms, including a Ceiba tree, a stylized maize plant, and a cacao tree.  The version used on Pakal’s tomb lid is also used in a mural in the Temple of the Foliated Cross at Palenque.

Pacal Foliated Cross

Here you see the same imagery (minus the reclining human): the World Tree rising from the offering bowl (marked with the dotted X “kin” sign and filled with the trappings of royalty: the crossed sky band, the fish, and the lancet for ritual blood-letting) on top of the Underworld/realm of the dead (Cauac monster head).  At the top of the tree is the Principal Bird Deity.


Shining Glory

Pacal celts

All along the tree you find the symbol for precious greenstone celts, emphasizing wealth and power as well as shining glory. (In the diagram the glyphs for jade celts are marked in red)  The tree is also marked with the sign for wood.

Curled around the upper section of the tree is the Milky Way conflated with the double-headed serpent bar, which was the symbol of power for Maya kings. (See diagram below. Each serpent has a huge upper jaw.)

Pacal serpent bar

Pacal Temple of the Cross



It’s interesting to see the same elements repeated in other tablets and murals which show the World Tree in the center, growing out of the Earth Monster/ Underworld.  In the case of the Temple of the Cross (drawing above), the World Tree is a maize plant, with personified ears of corn growing out of the branches.  Once again, it grows out of the Cuauc Monster/Underworld figure at the bottom, and the Principal Bird Deity rests at the top.  Interestingly, the two figures in the mural are the same person at different ages.  Note that the figure on the right stands on a personified maize plant, while the one on the left stands on a Cuauc monster with a cleft head from which corn emerges.

The King Dying and the Young Maize God Being Reborn

Pakal, on his tomb lid, is presented as both the man dying, falling into the maw of the Underworld (between jaguar jawbones) and the baby being born onto the Tree of Life.  Certain Maya rulers were thought to take on the role of god-kings who could intercede with the spirit world after death.  In this image, Pakal is being reborn as the maize god. (Note the seed and leaf image just below the reclining figure of Pakal.) Just as the maize seed must be buried in the earth in order to grow, Pakal is falling into the Underworld only to rise again.

Pacal baby

Pacal, birth of maize god

The Baby

Pakal is shown lying on his back, with the right leg raised, which is the sign for “unen” or baby (drawing on left).  While this sign usually shows an infant, it’s also used to show the birth of the maize god on a Late Classic vase (drawing on right).Note the vegetation growing out of the cleft head of the Cuauc monster.

Pacal mother's skirt

The jade skirt

Pakal’s net jade skirt is interesting in that the diamond weave is usually associated with women.  Indeed, a very similar skirt seems to be worn by Pakal’s mother in a tablet found in the royal palace. (See drawing, left)  This may suggest an androgynous combination, just as the adult in the baby pose suggests a combination of youth and age.

Pakal rebirth of maize godPacal turtle

The turtle emblem

The turtle emblem Pakal carries on his chest (drawing by Linda Schele, left) may be a reference to the rebirth of the Maize God from the Turtle Shell, as referenced on this plate (drawing above, right).:

Ancestors and nobles

All along the border on the outside of the image are references to celestial bodies and six portraits of leading nobles.  The coffin inside the sarcophagus is carved on all four sides with portraits of Pakal’s ancestors emerging as trees sprouting from the earth.  Painted stucco figure on the walls of the tomb echo these references to relatives and important figures in the life of the leader who was laid to rest in the tomb.



While some may find it harmless fun to see an alien astronaut instead of a famous leader immortalized by his tombstone, for me, it seems a little insulting to the people who created this amazing piece of complicated and beautiful art.


Sources and interesting reading:

“Alien Explorations: Ancient Aliens season 1, episode 4,” http://alienexplorations.blogspot.com/2012/02/pacal-votan-tomb-lid-ancients-aliens.html

“Alien Explorations: Von Daniken’s Mayan Rocket Man,” http://alienexplorations.blogspot.co.uk/1979/02/von-danikens-mayan-rocket-man.html

“The Book of Kells,” The Library of Trinity College, Dublin.  https:///www.tck.ie/library/manuscripts/book-of-kells.php/

Coe, Michael D.  The Maya.  New York:  Thames and Hudson, 1999.

Four evangelists, from The Book of Kells, Public Domain, http://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index/php?curid+4013150

Fields, Virginia M. and Dore Reents-Budet.  Lords of Creation:  The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship.  Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Scala Publishers: 2005.

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

“Ganesh,” Manas: Indian Religions, Ganesh. https://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/southasia/Religions/Avatars/Ganesh.html

Guenter, Stanley. “The Tomb of K’inich Janaab Pakal: The Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque,” Southern Methodist University, http://www.mesoweb.com/articles/guenter/Tl.pdf/

Heyworth, Robin, “Chicanna Structure II: The Monster Mouth Temple,” Uncovered History (blog) 16 July 2016. http://uncoveredhistory.com/mexico/chicanna/chicanna-structure-ii-monster-temple/

“K’inich Janaab’ Pakal,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinish_Jannab’_Pakal

The Linda Schele Drawings Collection, FAMSI. http://research.famsi.org/schele_list.php?rowstart=150&search=125&title=Schele%20Drawing%20Collection&tab=schele&sort=

Mark, Joshua. J.  “K’inich Janaab’ Pakal,” Ancient History Encyclopedia. http:///www.ancient.eu/Kinich_Janaab_Pacal/

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

Miller, Mary, and Simon Martin.  Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya.  Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Thames and Hudson, 2004.

Minster, Christopher, “The Sarcophagus of Pakal,” Latin American History, About.com. http://latinamericanhistory.about.com/od/Maya/fl/The-Sarcophagus-of-Pakal.htm

“Pacal’s Rocket,” Ancient Aliens Debunked (blog) http://ancientaliensdebunked.com/references-and-transcripts-pacals-rocket/

Palenque: History, Art and Monuments, booklet, reproduced and authorized by the National Institute of Archaeology and History (INAH) 2001.

“Palenque Mexico,” Mayan Ruins: The Ultimate Guide of the Mayan Ruins.” http://mayanruins.info/mexico/palenque-mexico/

“The Sentinel (short story)”  Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sentinel_(short_story)

Stone, Andrea, and Marc Zender. Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture.  New York: Thames and Hudson, 2011.

Tedlock, Dennis.  2000 Years of Mayan Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

“The World Tree: A World in Layers,” Mayan Kids, http://www.mayankids.com/mmkbeliefs/worldtree.htm

Jacks and Knucklebones


Jacks used to be a popular children’s game.  It’s considered old-fashioned today because you don’t play it on your phone, but it regains some of its popularity when the kids are stuck in the cabin during a storm and there’s no signal available.

Long ago, though, jacks and knucklebones, its predecessor, were very important indeed.


A modern jacks set includes a rubber ball and several (sometimes five but usually ten) six-sided metal pieces, each with four round ends and two pointed ends.  Typically the players sit on the floor.  The first to play drops the pieces on the floor.  Starting with “onesies,” the player tosses the ball in the air and scoops up one jack before the ball takes its second bounce, then moves on to the next until all the pieces are retrieved.  If not, the player loses his or her turn and another player starts.  Once the “onesies” round is complete, the player moves to “twosies,” and onward all the way to “tensies,” which usually marks the end of the game.

Like solitaire, jacks can be played alone, which gives the player a chance to practice.  It’s all in the hand-eye coordination.  A good player can move from one-bounce to no-bounce games, catch pieces on the back of the hand when necessary, and switch dominant hands.

But like so many bits of modern culture, it provides a link to our ancient past, when “throwing the bones” meant far more than playing a game.



The game of Knucklebones, also known as Astragaloi, Tali, Kuglelach, Five Stones, and other names, has been around for thousands of years and played all over the world, including Africa, Australia, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas.  Usually, the bones used were ankle bones of sheep, goats, or pigs because they had four distinct sides.  Once the meat was scraped off, the bones were set out so ants or other insects could devour all the scraps.  Then the bones were cleaned and polished, and sometimes dyed.


A set of knucklebones and a board to play on was included in Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s grave goods (1323 BC). The game is mentioned in both The Iliad and The Odyssey (800 BC).  A Greek vase from 350 BC shows a nymph and a satyr playing the game.  A painting in Pompeii shows two goddesses playing (before 79 AD).  A Roman statue (pictured) features a young woman playing astragaloi. A painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder includes a couple of girls playing knucklebones (1560) – Detail shown below.


Throwing the Bones:  Divination

But the use of knucklebones is part of an even older tradition still in use today: divination – predicting the future or seeking answers to questions.  Divination is based on the idea that all things in the universe are connected and nothing happens by chance.  Therefore, the particular arrangement of the bones on a board as they fell is meaningful. As with Tarot cards, the reading depends on the bones, their values, and their relative positions where they fell.


If the charms used in the divination are quite different physically, such as a red stone, a weasel jawbone, an eagle talon, and a piece of fur, each piece may be assigned a specific meaning, emotion, or connection.  However, if the pieces are all the same, they need to have different aspects or facets.  In the case of the knucklebones, each bone has four very distinct faces. (See photo.)  In some cases, the faces were further delineated with markings, usually indicating numbers or values.

Women sometimes threw knucklebones to find out who whether the man they liked felt the same about them, along the same lines as pulling the petals off a daisy while saying “He loves me, he loves me not.” In ancient Greece, unmarried women who played Knucklebones were thought to be placing themselves in the hands of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who would choose a suitable mate.


In some Mongolian villages, throwing the bones was associated with fertility, destruction of evil spirits, and the promotion of life.  Knucklebones were often given to children as protective magic.  The game is still popular in Mongolia and Nepal (pictured).




Later, some bones were filed down but the markings remained, and knucklebones morphed into dice.  But the sense of destiny riding on the throw of the dice remained.  When Julius Caesar and his armies crossed the Rubicon River in northern Italy in 49 BC, beginning a civil war with the Republic, he used the expression “The die is cast.”  In other words, the single die was rolled and the choice was made – perhaps by fate – and now cannot be reversed.

It’s not clear when or how the “throwing of the bones” morphed from divination to game.  Perhaps several uses existed side by side.  In the hands of a shaman, the bones became an instrument of divination, just as a deck of cards or dice might today.  In the hands of a gambler, they became the heart of a game ruled by luck, the more powerful and capricious cousin of chance.  In the hands of children, they became the central part of a contest based on skill.

Today, the game of jacks exists, like so many other pieces of our culture, as a remnant of a past we’ve almost, but not quite, forgotten.


Sources and Interesting Reading:

“Alea iacta est,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alea_iacta_est

Association of Independent Readers and Rootworkers, “Category: Obi and Diloggun Divination” http://readersandrootworkers.org/wiki/Category:Obi_and_Diloggun_Divination

Association of Independent Readers and Rootworkers (Bonereaders), “Category: Throwing the Bones and Reading Other Natural Curios,” http://readsersandrootwrokers.org/wiki/Category:Throwing_the_Bones_and_Reading_Other_Natural_Curios

Collinger, Zachary.  “How to Play Jacks,” Grandparents.com. http://www.grandparents.com/grandkids/activities-games-and-crafts/jacks

DeGrossi Mazzorin, Jacopo and Claudia Minniti, “Ancient use of the knuckle-bone for rituals and gaming piece,” Anthropozoologica, published by the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, 2013, reprinted in BioOne,   http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.5252/az2013n2a13

“Dice and Divination: Playing with Knucklebones (Part I) September 2016, https://loadingplayertwo.wordpress.com/2015/09/21/dice-divination-playing-with-knucklebones-part-1/

“Dice and Divination: Playing with Knucklebones (Part 2)” February, 2016, https://loadingplayertwo.wordpress.com/2016/02/03/knucklebones-part-2/

“Dice and Jacks,” YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?w=CribNxumT4Y

Good, Alexandra.  “Knucklebones,” Archaeology of Daily Life.

Howard, Dorothy, “The Game of ‘Knucklebones’ in Australia,” Western Folklore (1958), reprinted in Australian Children’s Folklore Newsletter, November 1996.

“Item SH 990058  Knucklebones – Sheep, Aboriginal Children’s Play Project, circa 1945-1960” Australiab Children’s Folklore Collection, Museums Victoria Collections, http://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/1805550

“Jacks,” The Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/jacks

“Jacks,” The National Toy Hall of Fame, http://www.toyhalloffame.org/toys/jacks

“Knucklebones,” Board Game Geek, http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/11726/knucklebones

“Knucklebones.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knucklebones

“Knucklebones and Other Animal Deposits in the ‘Cruz del Negro’ Necropolis: Possible Phoenician Funerary Rituals in SW Spain,” Anthropozoologica, published by Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, reprinted in BioOne, http;//www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.5252/as2013n2a10.

“Knucklebones: Playing with Bones,” Ancient Games.  Henssen Palaeo Werkstatt.  http://palaeowerkstatt.de/en_spiel.php

“Kugelach (aka Five Stones) Yehuda: Life Intersects Games, 01 September 2008, http://jergames.blogspot.com/2008/09/kugelach-aka-five-stones.html

“Mesopotamia Architecture, Music, Games and Pets,” Facts and Details, http://factsanddetails.com/world/cat56/sub363/item1518.html

Pegg, Carole, Mongolian Music, Dance, and Oral Narrative: Performing Diverse Identities Seattle: University of Washington Press: 2001.

“Rollin’ Bones: The History of Dice,” Neatorama, 18 August 2014, http://www.eatorama.com/2014/08/18/Rollin-Bones-The-History-of-Dice/

“Tallus bone,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talus_bone

“The die is cast,” Wiktionary, the free dictionary, https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/the_die_is_cast

Thorn, John. “Bruegel and Me,” from the column “Play’s the Thing,” Woodstock Times, 28 December 2006, https://ourgame.mlblogs.com/bruegel-and-me-f5sec7a5a27d6#.qworj8v15

“Toys and Games,” History Lives, a division of the Cooperman Fife and Drum Co., http://www.historylives.com/toysandgames.htm

Wiener, Noah.  “Ancient Games: Bronze Age tokens uncovered in Turkey are world’s oldest game pieces” Biblical Archaeology, 19 August 2013, http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures-daily-life-and-practice/ancinet-games/


Bruegel, Pieter the Elder, “Children’s Games,” (detail), Google Art Project Version 2, Photo Gallery

Five Stone in Nepal, photo by Eli Shany

Jacks, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

Knucklebones – Sheep, Museum Victoria, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>

Roman statue of girl playing knucklebones, photo by Sarah Joy

Woman Playing Knucklebones, painting by Jean-Baptiste Chardin, Baltimore Museum of Art, the Mary Frick Jacobs Collection, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid+45015764


Searching for Those Glory Days

Bruce Springsteen’s hit “Glory Days” examines four people’s ideas of the glory days.  Two of them have a nostalgic view of their high school years.  One was a sports star and the other a beauty.  Now that they’re older, their life is clearly a disappointment; they’ve lost that high they once felt.  The third person is the speaker’s father, who worked at a Ford plant for nineteen years before he was laid off.  Now he drinks down at the American Legion Hall.  But, the speaker adds, his father never had any glory days.  (This particularly harsh verse is often omitted from live performances.)  The speaker finishes off by saying he’s going to the bar, where he’ll probably bore his listeners with tales of the good old days.

Glory days, well they’ll pass you by

Glory days in the wink of a young girl’s eye

Glory day, glory days

‘”Glory Days,” Bruce Springsteen, Columbia Records, 1984, on the Born in the USA album


The song became so popular it hit #5 on the Billboard pop singles chart for 1985 and, along with “Born in the USA,” became one of the cornerstones of the album Born in the USA, which sold 30 million copies.  Springsteen performed it as part of the half-time show for Super Bowl XLIII, and it’s played after every New Jersey Devils’ home win.  How curious, since Bruce Springsteen, who wrote the song and based it on people he knew, is a huge star, not a washed-up adult waxing nostalgic.  He doesn’t miss his high school days.  He’s said on several occasions that he hated high school.  But clearly, he tapped into a powerful emotion in his listeners.  And the driving rock sound, complete with rolling electric piano, heavy drums, and catchy melody helps to balance the sad commentary.  In the YouTube video listed in the Sources section, you’ll see the band having a great old time singing this basically sad song.

Perhaps there are personal glory days and societal glory days.  From the lyrics, “Glory Days” seems personal, referring to the time when these people were the star baseball player and beauty queen, when everybody knew their names.  Then time went by and life didglory-bruce-springsteen-born-in-the-usa-1n’t turn out the way they thought it would.  That’s understandable. Many people, as they age, find accident or illness robs them of the life they once enjoyed.   But the album, Born in the USA, with the picture of Bruce facing the American flag on the cover, is clearly about more than four individuals.  It speaks to a very different kind of disappointment, a feeling that some bigger promise has been left unfulfilled: the promise of greatness.  Except now, with the big flag, it becomes the story of the whole country, not just four people.

The album cover is fascinating.  Annie Leibovitz took the famous photo of Bruce Springsteen, from the back, which is cropped to focus on his butt, lower torso, and upper legs.  The photo is so important that the words are pushed to the very top edge of the cover.  The flag in the background is enlarged to the point it’s reduced to red and white stripes, while Bruce’s white shirt and worn blue jeans become the field of stars.  His stance is at once relaxed and slightly defiant, which suits the tone of the album.  The dominant colors are red, white, and blue.  The red hat stuck into the back pocket is especially striking.  Apparently Lance Larsen gave it to his old friend, Bruce Springsteen, after Larsen’s father died.  It had been his favorite cap.  As a tribute, Springsteen stuck it in his back pocket for the photo.  But on the cover it functions as more than a memory.  It’s a perfect symbol.  It’s red – the color of strength and passion.  It echoes the flag stripes.  But like the blue jeans, it’s worn.  How perfect to symbolize an American man, a complex mix of power and dreams and disappointment.

It became so famous that it spawned numerous imitations, including baby gear.


The other possible cover photo, showing Bruce from the front, leaping in the air while holding his guitar, was used for the cover of the single, “Born in the USA.”  While it’s full of energy, it lacks the emotional punch of the album cover.

You can now buy shirts that feature an image that conflates Bruce Springsteen’s cover image from the single of “Born in the USA” and Captain America. (Image below)


The title track, “Born in the USA,” is an indictment of a government that sent young men to an unpopular war and then ignored them when they returned. The narrator grew up in a grim industrial area, was sent off to Viet Nam, came back after losing a brother there, then couldn’t find work back home.  Ironically, the song was used in multiple Republican conventions, beginning with Ronald Reagan’s.  Apparently, no one bothered to listen to the lyrics, or else they felt the heavy beat and catchy, repetitive chorus were all that mattered.


It’s curious that the red hat sticking out of Springsteen’s back pocket on the album cover bears a striking resemblance to the red hat worn by Trump in his campaign, emblazoned with the slogan “Make America Great Again.”  Trump also played “Born in the USA” at rallies, partially in order to challenge the citizenship of Ted Cruz, who was born in Canada.  In the strange, twisted way of the 2016 campaign, Trump followers booed Springsteen for campaigning for Hillary Clinton, but they loved singing along to Springsteen’s songs, which were used without his permission.

The Dream Tarnished

Failure of the American Dream is hardly a new theme in American arts and letters.  In his poem “Harlem,” published in 1951, Langston Hughes asks the question “What happens to a dream deferred?”  The last two possibilities are that it “sags like a heavy load” or it explodes.  Aren’t these the same emotions Springsteen has put into his song?      In his film Requiem for the American Dream, Noam Chomsky explains the roots of inequality in American society, which he claims go back to the founding of the country.


Photo of the abandoned Packard Plant in Detroit, Michigan

“My Little Town”    

Paul Simon’s song “My Little Town” paints a dismal picture.  The speaker says he remembers “flyin’ my bike past the gates of the factories” while his mother was “doin’ laundry, hangin’ up shirts in the dirty breeze.”  Then the chorus adds:

“Nothin’ but the dead and dying’ back in my little town.”

The second verse says

In my little town, I never meant nothin’

I was just my father’s son.

Savin’ my money, dreamin’ of glory,

Twitchin’ like a finger on the trigger of a gun.

Chorus: Leaving nothin’ but the dead and dying back in my little town (repeat four times)


This picture is just as bleak as Springsteen’s but the song lacks the punchy rock sound.  It’s straight up dark and threatening.  But it’s interesting because once again, it brings up the dream of glory as well as the desperation and barely controlled rage that go along with the long quest for it.

The Land of Promise

Part of the mythology of the USA is that it is the Land of Promise.  Anyone with the necessary talent and drive can make it big here, right?  We don’t know how to define “making it” or “big” exactly, but it’s all terribly important.  Life is a competition.  The better ones win; the others lose.  Sometimes it takes someone from the outside to notice how fierce and strange that competition is here.  Frida Kahlo, artist and wife of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, remarked, “The most important thing for everyone in Gringolandia is to have ambition and become ‘somebody,’ and frankly, I don’t have the least ambition to become anybody.”

But by and large, we do.  (And Frida and Diego, despite their clear Communist sympathies, were actually very good self-promoters. One section of Diego Rivera’s famous “Detroit Industry mural at the Detroit Institute of Art is shown below.  It makes an interesting contrast to the photo of the abandoned plant.)


Natural Wonders Lost

There’s another side to the disappointment in both of these songs.  The place is dirty.  America the Beautiful is a dingy factory town, and the dirt is weighing everyone down.  People have become less because the world is ugly. According to the Paul Simon song, “When it rains, there’s a rainbow, and all of the colors are black.  It’s not that the colors aren’t there.  It’s just imagination they lack.”  The people are all “dead and dying.”

What’s most interesting about these songs is the heartache that’s part of the loss.  A promise of some kind has been broken, and the emotional cost is very high indeed.  Ironically, though, the factories/mills/mines that built these towns also polluted them.  So is the nostalgia for the good old days of dirty factories or the good old days before the Industrial Revolution, or some other nebulous time in the past?


It’s not hard to understand how Trump was able to use the red hat and the slogan “Make America great again” so effectively.  While it may have started as a call to the unemployed who had once worked in the now shuttered factory, steel mill, or coal mine, it quickly expanded because people could interpret it any way they wanted and use it to support whatever grudge they held.  White Supremacists saw it as a license to hate people of color.  Misogynists saw it as a reason to take away women’s rights.  Militant Christians saw it as a reason to harass non-Christians.  As the Nazis proved in Germany, national problems become easier to handle when you make them someone else’s fault.

Fear of the future, including climate changes, new technologies, global companies and marketplaces, and ever-increasing automation, drove the Trump supporters to chant “Build the Wall!”  They might as well have chanted, “Turn back time!”  And indeed, the slogan on the red hat is about turning back time, though it’s not clear how far.

Perhaps before Europeans reached these shores.


(I took a little break from antiquity in this post, but I’ll be back there next time. – KFR)


Sources and interesting reading:

Behind the Scenes: A Rear View of Bruce Springsteen, Network 9, http://network9.biz/brand-design/behing -the-scenes-the-rear-view-of-bruce-springsteen/

Chomsky, Noam. Requiem for the American Dream video, available on Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes.  Preview available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWD8Wksx_zI

“Detroit Industry: North Wall” mural by Diego Rivera, 1932 – 1933, Detroit Institute of Arts  https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3205277

Ellis, Aaron.  “The Cover Cove: Bruce Springsteen – Born in the U.S.A.” Quora  https://thecovercove.quora.com/Bruce-Springsteen-Born-in-the-U-S-A

“Frida Kahlo,” Wikipedia  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frida_Kahlo

Hughes, Langston.  “Harlem.” (1951) From Collected Poems. Reprinted by Poetry Foundation.  Copyright 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes.  http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/46548

Molloy, Parker, “Are Politicians Too Dumb to Understand the Lyrics to ‘Born in the USA’?” The Daily Beast, 6 November 2014, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/11/06/are-politicans-too-dumb-to-understand-the-lyrics-to-born-in-the-usa.html

Packard Plant photo by Joshu Lott for Getty Images North America, December 12, 2013, http://www.zimbio.com/pictures/XBRBO1vJ64O/Detroit+Packard+Plant…

Simon, Paul.  “My Little Town” Universal Music Publishing Group, from the Still Crazy After All These Years album, 1975

Google Play Music, http://play.google.com/music/preview/Teaihwssolckipdipgqo4ssk4si?lyrics=1&utm_source=google&utm_medium=search&utm_campaign=lyrics&pcampaign

Simon and Garfunkel, “My Little Town,” YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1jg8jf9oTjw

Springsteen, Bruce, “Glory Days,” YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vQpW9XRiyM

Springsteen, Bruce, “Glory Days,” lyrics, AZ Lyrics, http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/brucespringsteen/glorydays.html

Happy Birthday: Cake, Candles, and Customs


Around here, people often celebrate a child’s birthday with a cake, lighted candles, and a song.  A parent or friend brings the cake to the table, candles already lit, while all the guests sing the “Happy Birthday” song.  The birthday girl or boy is told to make a secret wish then blow out the candles.  It’s great fun but sort of an odd tradition.  We put this flaming cake in front of a child, hope she doesn’t burn herself or set the house on fire, then cheer when she blows them out.  Why?


Like so many of our holiday customs, our birthday rituals come from very old beliefs that have been absorbed into the present but stripped of most of their original meaning. birthday-cake-and-candles


The birthday cake

The history of the birthday cake is surprisingly vague.  If you look up its origins, you’ll find the same two points repeated in almost every source. birthday-artemis One refers to round loaves presented (sacrificed) at the temple of the Greek goddess Artemis (Diana to the Romans), who was associated with hunting and the moon.  Some sources say candles adorned these loaves so they would glow like the moon. (Artemis/Diana, pictured with her hunting bow, on the left)

Also, you’ll read about German bakers in the Middle Ages who baked cakes for aristocrats and much later expanded the practice to ordinary people.

Then there’s often a short and obscure reference to older “pagan customs.”  That’s where it gets interesting.

Paganism vs. Christianity

The early Roman Catholic Church tried to erase all traces of earlier beliefs, which were (and still are) often lumped together as “Paganism.”  According to Dictionary.com, “pagan” refers to a person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions.  Synonyms include heathen, infidel, idolater, a non- Christian, and (currently) an adherent of neo-Paganism.

Most popular beliefs before the rise of the Abrahamic religions revolved around the natural world, especially the movement of the sun, moon, and stars.  People marked the rising of important stars and planets, and the passage of the sun along the horizon that brought the change of seasons. Solstices and equinoxes were celebrated with elaborate rituals.  Many groups felt they had to participate in these changes in order to keep the universe turning.

birthday-sol-invictusOne example of a pre-Christian faith is the Cult of Mithras, which originated in Persia at least 6000 years ago and spread throughout the Roman Empire with the Roman legions.  It included worship of the sun as Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), a god whose birthday was generally celebrated just after the winter solstice, December 25. (Image, left)

Emperor Constantine had a coin struck, picturing himself and Sol Invictus side by side, so in a stroke of genius he equated himself with the Unconquered Sun, and December 25 became a Roman holiday: Saturnalia.  As a side note, the image of Sol Invictus looks a lot like the head of the Statue of Liberty. (Coin, lower right, Sol Invictus, lower left)



However, early Christian Church officials were so set against pre-Christian practices that they outlawed all celebrations marking celestial events.  Birthday celebrations were also forbidden because they made an individual connection with the alignment of the sun, moon, and stars, and thus were used in astrology and divination.

Church teaching said humans were “born in sin,” so clearly, the faithful shouldn’t be celebrating the moment of their birth.

This reflects the beliefs of conservative Jews and Muslims as well.  Some sources go so far as to say that birthday celebrations are a form of Satanism in which believers create a god in their own image and celebrate that person’s birth as the highest holy day.

Name Day

In order to give people an alternative, the Church recommended that the faithful celebrate their “name day” instead of their birthday.  Since each Catholic child was named after a saint, the name day was usually that saint’s feast day.  Some conservative European Catholics still follow this practice. birthday-saint-stephen

For example, all the people named Stephen could have a celebration on St. Stephen’s Day.(Icon of St. Stephen, left)  Actually, St. Stephen’s Day is a very important celebration even now, with participants in various European countries marking it with costumed parades, horseback rides, feasting, drinking, playing music and dancing. birthday-st-stephens-day-one-world-news(photo, right)

While St. Stephen is known as the first martyr to the Christian faith, his feast day seems more like a party than a religious ceremony.  Plus, the feast day falls on December 26 or 27, so while it’s dressed up as a feast day, it’s essentially still Saturnalia or the triumph of Sol Invictus.


birthday-constantineActually, the ban on seasonal festivities started to lift as far back as the 4th century.  By the time Emperor Constantine (sculpture, left) ended the persecution of Christians and Emperor Theodosius decreed Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, or what was left of it, traditional beliefs had already started blending with Catholic practices.

Saturnalia (the festival after the winter solstice) became Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus.  The Vernal Equinox became part of Easter, which is still celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox.

And birthday celebrations, while still frowned upon in conservative circles, became popular once again.  Their significance in terms of divination and horoscopes, however, was officially forgotten. This silence allowed old customs and beliefs to grow once again, adding a sense of danger to the celebration.

According to some, any bad event on your birthday warned of a whole bad year ahead.  You shouldn’t celebrate before your actual birthday or you’ll have bad luck.

In order to balance the good wishes of a birthday, some people spank the birthday celebrants or pull their ears.  In Kentucky Superstitions, Daniel and Lindsey Thomas note, “On a child’s birthday, he should receive a blow with a switch or other instrument of pain for each year of his life.  Each blow should be accompanied by the pronouncing of one line of the following or a similar incantation, adapted to fit the age of the child:

One to live on,

One to grow on,

One to eat on,

One to be happy on,

One to get married on.”


It’s hard to know why these customs began, but once they became part of the ritual, it would be bad luck to change them, I suppose.


For important birthdays of aristocrats, special charms were baked into the cake and used to tell the fortune of the receiver.  In some cases, these were gems.  I can only imagine the dental problems in the future of the unfortunate recipient!


And about those candles –


Candles were the outgrowth of torches built with pitch/resin to burn hotter and longer.  Artists used torches like these to light their way in the caves of France and Spain while they painted their beautiful images 30,000 years ago. The Egyptians are usually credited with making the first beeswax candles, 5,000 years ago, but it took the Romans to develop the wick-burning tallow candle, about 100 BC.  Because tallow (rendered beef fat) candles smelled worse than beeswax candles, rich people and religious leaders preferred beeswax.  They still do.

In animist thought, the natural world is seen as the source of all power, good and bad.  For example, water spirits bring life-giving rains and fill the rivers, but they can also send floods that kill.  Same with fire.  Or storms. The spirit force that is part of the living world is both good and bad.   The Abrahamic religions changed that balance.  In these faiths, God, not nature, was seen as the source of goodness, prosperity, power and light.  Since pain and suffering were still very much part of their lives, people blamed them on the opposite of God: the dark spirits.  The main player was Satan (Lucifer) and his minions from Hell, fallen beings of light who’d gone over to the Dark Side. “The Devil made me do it” worked as an all-purpose excuse for bad behavior.

Evil Eye charmBut there were other dark forces as well, many of them carry-overs from earlier superstitions.  These evil forces could take many forms, most of them frightening and ugly, and all brought misfortune.  Some dangers were well-known, like the evil eye, the power another could have over you simply by giving you a “look of daggers.”  (“If looks could kill, I’d be dead now.”)  Children were particularly susceptible to the dangers of the evil eye, so mothers pinned eye charms on the child’s clothes as a protection (photo, left)

My grandparents thought it was bad luck to compliment a baby.  They feared spirits would strike the baby with some illness out of jealousy.  And where were these spirits?  Everywhere.

The birthday boy or girl was especially susceptible to evil spirits, so it was important to have fire/light and lots of sound to scare them away.  Lots of guests helped too, especially if they sang.  A bright, happy atmosphere drove away dark spirits.

Even with the lights and singing, danger lurked, so people had to be extremely careful during a birthday.  Everything had to be done correctly to avoid bad luck.

Light a candle, make a wish

birthday-vigil-candlesThe candles on the birthday cake contain the wish of the birthday boy or girl.  Just like the banks of vigil candles found in Catholic churches (photo, left), if you light a candle, you can make a wish.  The practice is so popular that even when churches moved the vigil candles to a distant part of the church, people sought them out.  Currently, you can arrange for someone to light a candle at one of the famous churches for you, by paying on-line.

From its inception, the Catholic Church used candles for its rituals, just as the Jews, Romans, Hindus, Egyptians, Persians, and probably most others who came before them had.  Fire was a symbol of life and a triumph over darkness.  The Holy Spirit was pictured as a tongue of fire.  In every active church, a candle, lit on Easter eve, burns all year long, indicating the presence of God in the building.  During official ceremonies, multiple candles burn on the altar.  At Baptism, a child is blessed with a beeswax candle.  In the Last Rites before death, the person is blessed again with a beeswax candle.  Russian Orthodox believers will often keep a candle burning before a holy icon in their home.

If lighting candles was common practice in the church, why ban them on a birthday cake?  Because it was using sacred fire to mark a “pagan” tradition connecting the person to the stars and planets.  When birthday celebrations became more tolerated, the sense of danger lingered.  The birthday could be marked, but it had to be done so carefully.


Then why blow out the candles?

kr-birthday-at-aunt-suesThe candles are safe as long as the song goes on, but there’s always a sense of hurry once the song (and helpful cheering and clapping) is over.  The celebrant must hurry and blow out the candles, even if she needs help to do it.  Why?  Here are some possibilities:

Perhaps the number of breaths it takes is important in determining the future.  Less is more, here, definitely.

Perhaps the smoke carries the wish up to Heaven, just as a burned petition would, in which case the fire becomes an offering, and the cake becomes a sacrifice.

Perhaps the future can be read in the pattern of the smoke.  This is a whole area of divination, with its own rules.  For example, a tall straight flame means a stranger will arrive shortly.  A dripping candle is bad luck for the person on that side of the cake.

Perhaps it’s important that the candle is blown out by a person rather than dying on its own, which could be a sign of evil spirits nearby.


When the early Christian Church attempted to kill birthday celebrations, it only drove them underground and permanently encased them in  superstitions.  When they were once again allowed, the celebrations lost a lot of their connection to divination but retained their sense of power and danger.  In order to protect the celebrant, certain rituals had to be completed exactly.  Interestingly, we still go through these steps with great care, even though few birthday party guests today would talk about evil spirits trying to steal the soul of the child unless they were scared away by light, song, and happy noise.  Still, we all cheer when the child completes all the steps.  Then we can serve the cake and hope the birthday child’s slice doesn’t fall, which would be – you know – bad luck.


Sources and interesting reading:


“Birthday Cake,” Wikipedia.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birthday_cake

“Birthday Superstitions,” New World Witchery – the Search for American Traditional Witchcraft, blog post 159.  https://newworldwitcher.com/2012/06/05/blog-post-159-birthday superstitions/

“Ceremonial Use of Lights,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ceremonial_use_of_lights

“Christmas,” World Book Encyclopedia, 1966, 3:408 – 417

Deezen, Eddie. “Why do we put candles on a birthday cake?” Neatorama blog. http://www.neatorama.com/2016/05/18/why-do-we-put-candles-on-a-birthday-cake/

Dwived, Bhojraj, Dr. The Study of Omens. New Delphi: Diamond Pocket Books, 2000.

Goldschneider, Gary, and Joost Elffers.  The Secret Language of Birthdays: Your Complete Personology Guide for Each Day of the Year. New York: Viking Penguin, 1994.

Haymond, Bryce. “Blowing out Birthday Candles,” Temple Study: Sustaining and Defending the LDS Temple (Latter Day Saints) 18 July 2008.  http://www.templestudy.com/2008/07/18/blowing-out-birthday-candles/

“History of Candle Making,” Nature’s Garden class. http://www.naturesgardencandles.com/candlemaking-soap-supplies/item/history/-history-of-candle-making.html

“The History of the Birthday Cake,” Hankering for History blog by bravodeluxe, http://hankeringforhistory.com/the-history-of-the-birthday-cake/

“The Importance of Lighting Candles,” Sepulchre Candles.  http://www.sepulchre-candles.com/category/the-importance-of-lighting-candles

Linton, Ralph and Adelin. The Lore of Birthdays. Omnigraphics: 1952.

“Mithrasim,” Wikipedia.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mithraism

“Name Day,” Wikipedia.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Name_Day

“The Origin of Birthday Cake and Candles,” ProFlowers blog. http://www.proflowers.com/blog/origin-of-birthday-cake-and-birthday-candles

“Pagan.” Dictionary.com. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/pagan

Puckles Family Bakehouse, “A History of Birthday Cakes,” 2011.  http://www.puckles.com/au/pages/a-history-of-birthday-cakes

“Quick History of the Birthday Cake and Candles,” Trivial Importance video.  www.youtube.com/watch?v=dn5nndo_rz0

“St. Stephen’s Day,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Stephen%27s_Day

“Sol Invictus,” (image)  Shadows Magick Place  http://shadowsmagickplace.blogspot.com/2012/12/sol­invictus­yule­and­magick.html

Still Waters Revival Books, “Birthdays: Pagan/Occult Origins & the Highest of All Holy Days (Holidays) in the Satanic Bible,” http://www.sermonaudio.com/new_details3asp?ID=18801

“Theodosius I,” Wikipedia.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodosius_I

Thomas, Daniel and Lucy.  Kentucky Superstitions.  New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1920.

Turner, Bambi. “10 Wacky Birthday Superstitions,” How Stuff Works. http://people.howstuffworks.com/10-wacky-birthday-superstitions.htm

“Why Australians won’t let kids blow out birthday candles,” Wide World of Stuff blog, 20 February 2013.  https://michaeljlewis.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/why-australians-wont-let-kids-blow-out-birthday-candles-a-great-documentary-short-about-a-nyc-hoops-legend-and-michael-jordan-at-50-a-terrific-read/  (photo)

“Why do we blow out candles to celebrate birthdays?” Alusi Candles blog, 1 June 2015. http://alusi.com/why-do-we-blow-out-candles-to-celebrate-birthdays/

“Why do we blow out candles on your birthdays?  A deep insight into it” Naresh Golla blog, http://nareshit.blogspot.com/2011/09/why-do-we-blow-out-candles-on-our.html