The Symbolic Middle Ages

According to Dorothy Kim, assistant professor of English at Vassar:

Today, medievalists have to understand that the public and our students will see us as potential white supremacists or white supremacist sympathizers because we are medievalists. The medieval western European Christian past is being weaponized by white supremacist/white nationalist/KKK/nazi extremist groups who also frequently happen to be college students… What are you doing, medievalists, in your classrooms? Because you are the authorities teaching medieval subjects in the classroom, you are, in fact, ideological arms dealers. So, are you going to be apathetic weapons dealers not caring how your material and tools will be used? Do you care who your buyers are in the classroom? Choose a side.

You really have no excuse to address whether your medieval studies is a white supremacist medieval studies or not. You also do not have a choice in whether you are part of this debate because the debate is already prevalent and public. Our students are watching and will make judgements and calls on what side you are really on. I suggest overt signaling of how you are not a white supremacist and how your medieval studies is one that does not uphold white supremacy. Neutrality is not optional.

OK, I’ll choose a side, and that side is a firm stand against this sort of twaddle. I really hate moral bullying – “If it’s important to me, then it needs to be important to you! You’re not allowed not to care – if you deny the problem, you’re part of the problem!”

But maybe the only “problem” is your own warped perception of reality?

Apparently the “alt-right,” whatever that is, takes inspiration from the Middle Ages (and from the Classics too). They like the idea of Crusaders cracking Muslim skulls, and they also like to contemplate a Europe before the advent of mass non-European and non-Christian immigration. But how many people are we actually talking about here? And how big of a problem is this, really? People can idealize any era of history that they want, for whatever reason they want. We always feel sad when other people don’t share our enthusiasm for our subject – well, here are people who love the Middle Ages! How about harnessing that enthusiasm and nudging it towards the academic consensus – on the off chance that one of these types should actually appear in our classrooms? It’s really no different from how one treats students who idealize ancient Egypt, Native Americans, the Caliphate, matriarchal prehistory, or pseudo-history of the Da Vinci Code variety. You accept the students where they are, and gently explain that their vision of the past might not be entirely accurate – and you make sure to explain that whatever happened in the past doesn’t necessarily make for good policy today.

I really don’t believe that “the public and our students will see us as potential white supremacists or white supremacist sympathizers because we are medievalists.” I think that most ordinary Americans are fully capable of distinguishing between professors of medieval studies and young men dressing up as Knights Templar. It would not occur to them to think that we are endorsing the Charlottesville rally, any more than we are endorsing Knight Transportation or King Arthur Flour (or, for that matter, that the classics department is endorsing the Atlanta Gladiators or the American Legion). To suggest that they can’t is condescending and rude, and more than a little self-dramatizing. In fact, I would say that Prof. Kim’s post is an example of Joseph Epstein‘s observation that much in current academic life is “either boring or crazy,” and for whom publishing an article about it was like “opening the blinds to reveal the baboons at play, as if to say, ‘Betcha didn’t think their behinds were quite so purple as that.'” Most people roll their eyes at the sheer craziness of much academic dispute, and shed no tears when politicians cut our funding.

In fact, let me turn Prof. Kim’s invitation on its head: what have you done, medievalist, to combat this craziness? What have you done to prove to Middle America that your discipline and profession deserve to be taken seriously?

Babylonian Trig

Evelyn Lamb in Scientific American:

Don’t Fall for Babylonian Trigonometry Hype

Separating fact from speculation in math history

You may have seen headlines about an ancient Mesopotamian tablet. “Mathematical secrets of ancient tablet unlocked after nearly a century of study,” said the Guardian. “This mysterious ancient tablet could teach us a thing or two about math,” said Popular Science, adding, “Some researchers say the Babylonians invented trigonometry—and did it better.” National Geographic was a bit more circumspect: “A new study claims the tablet could be one of the oldest contributions to the study of trigonometry, but some remain skeptical.” Daniel Mansfield and Norman Wildberger certainly did a good job selling their new paper in the generally more staid journal Historia Mathematica. I’d like to help separate fact from speculation and outright nonsense when it comes to this new paper.

What is Plimpton 322?

Plimpton 322, the tablet in question, is certainly an alluring artifact. It’s a broken piece of clay roughly the size of a postcard. It was filled with four columns of cuneiform numbers around 1800 BCE, probably in the ancient city of Larsa (now in Iraq) and was removed in the 1920s. George Plimpton bought it in 1922 and bequeathed it to Columbia University, which has owned it since 1936. Since then, many scholars have studied Plimpton 322, so any picture you might have of Mansfield and Wildberger on their hands and knees in a hot, dusty archaeological site, or even rummaging through musty, neglected archives and unearthing this treasure is inaccurate. We’ve known about the artifact and what was on it for decades. The researchers claim to have a new interpretation of how the artifact was used, but I am skeptical.

Scholars have known since the 1940s that Plimpton 322 contains numbers involved in Pythagorean triples, that is, integer solutions to the equation a2+b2=c2. For example, 3-4-5 is a Pythagorean triple because 32+42=9+16=25=52. August 15 of this year was celebrated by some as “Pythagorean Triple Day” because 8-15-17 is another, slightly sexier, such triple.

The far right column consists of the numbers 1 through 15, so it’s just an enumeration. The two middle columns of Plimpton 322 contain one side and the hypotenuse of a Pythagorean triangle, or a and c in the equation a2+b2=c2. (Note that a and b are interchangeable.) But these are a little brawnier than the Pythagorean triples you learn in school. The first entries are 119 and 169, corresponding to the Pythagorean triple 1192+1202=1692. The far left column is a ratio of squares of the sides of the triangles. Exactly which sides depends slightly on what is contained in the missing shard from the left side of the artifact, but it doesn’t make a huge difference. It’s either the square of the hypotenuse divided by the square of the remaining leg or the square of one leg divided by the square of the other leg. In modern mathematical jargon, these are squares of either the tangent or the secant of an angle in the triangle.

We can interpret one of the columns as containing trigonometric functions, so in some sense, it is a trig table. But despite what the headlines would have you believe, people have known that for decades. The mystery is what purpose the tablet served in its time. Why was it created? Why were those particular triangles included in the table? How were the columns computed? In a 1980 paper titled “Sherlock Holmes in Babylon,” R. Creighton Buck implied that through mathematics and cunning observation, one could sleuth out the meaning of the tablet and offered an explanation he thought fit the data. But Eleanor Robson, in “Neither Sherlock Holmes nor Babylon,” writes, “Ancient mathematical texts and artefacts, if we are to understand them fully, must be viewed in the light of their mathematico-historical context, and not treated as artificial, self-contained creations in the style of detective stories.” It’s arrogant and will probably lead to incorrect conclusions to look at ancient artifacts primarily through the lens of our modern understanding of mathematics.

What did it do?

There are a few theories about how Plimpton 322 was created and used by the person or people who made it. Mansfield and Wildberger are not the first to believe it’s some sort of trig table. On the other hand, some believe it links the Pythagorean theorem (known by these ancient Mesopotamians and many other civilizations long before Pythagoras) with the method of completing the square to solve a quadratic equation, a common problem in mathematical texts from that time and place. Some believe the triples were generated using different numbers not included in the table in a “number theoretic” way. Some believe the numbers came from so-called reciprocal pairs that were used for multiplication. Some think the tablet was a pedagogical tool, perhaps a source of exercises for students. Some believe it was used in something more like original mathematical research. Academic but readable information about these interpretations can be found in articles by Buck in 1980, Robson in 2001 and 2002, and John P. Britton, Christine Proust, and Steve Shnider from 2011.

If it is a trigonometry table, is it better than modern trigonometry tables?

Mansfield and Wildberger’s contribution to scholarship on Plimpton 322 seems to be speculation that the artifact could be used to do trigonometry in a more exact way than we do now. In a publicity video by UNSW that must have accompanied the press releases sent to many math and science journalists (but not to me—what gives, UNSW?), Mansfield makes the claims that this table is “superior in some ways to modern trigonometry” and the “only completely accurate trigonometry table.”

It’s hard to know where to start with this part of their claims. For one, the tablet contains some well-known errors, so claims that it is the most accurate or exact trig table ever are just not true. But even a corrected version of Plimpton 322 would not be a revolutionary replacement for modern trig tables….

Is base 60 better than base 10?

Perhaps the utility of different types of trig tables is a matter of opinion, but the UNSW video also has some outright falsehoods about accuracy in base 60 versus the base 10 system we now use. Around the 1:10 mark, Mansfield says, “We count in base 10, which only has two exact fractions: 1/2, which is 0.5, and 1/5.” My first objection is that any fraction is exact. The number 1/3 is precisely 1/3. Mansfield makes it clear that what he means by 1/3 not being an exact fraction is that it has an infinite (0.333…) rather than a terminating decimal. But what about 1/4? That’s 0.25, which terminates, and yet Mansfield doesn’t consider it an exact fraction. And what about 1/10 or 2/5? Those can be written 0.1 and 0.4, which seem pretty exact.

Indefensibly, when he lauds the many “exact fractions” available in base 60, he doesn’t apply the same standards. In base 60, 1/8 would be written 7/60+30/3600 which is the same idea as writing 0.25, or 2/10+5/100, for 1/4 in base 10. Why is 1/8 exact in base 60 but 1/4 not exact in base 10? It’s hard to believe this is an honest mistake coming from a mathematician and instead makes me even more suspicious that his work is motivated by an agenda.

Plimpton 322 is a remarkable artifact, and we have much to learn from it. When I taught math history, I loved opening the semester by having my students read a few papers about it to show how much scholarship has gone into understanding such a small document and how accomplished scholars can disagree about what it means. It demonstrates differences in the way different cultures have done mathematics and outstanding computational facility. It has raised questions about how ancient Mesopotamians approached calculation and geometry. But using it to sell a questionable pet theory won’t get us any closer to the answers.

Medievalism and the Alt-Right

From a Facebook friend:

Apparently, I’m the only academic historian who isn’t terrified of the “alt-right.” Every medieval studies thing seems to be consumed with a wave of fear… fear that somewhere in a basement somewhere, a white supremacist Trump-loving gun-toter is blogging about how great the early Middle Ages were.

And, as a result, witch-hunts and general tomfoolery have broken out among the “woke” medievalists. “Why does the Alt-Right love our period so much?” they cry. Why is there so much hatred out there?

I’ll ignore the second question for now (I don’t want to argue ad hominem), and not to be flip, but I think the question is being asked wrongly. It isn’t why do “they” love the Middle Ages, but why do “we” notice it and worry?

Many, many, many parts of the past are attractive to various agenda-driven nuts, not just the Middle Ages and not just the “alt-right.” Take a look at the historiography of the Israel/Palestine conflict and what that does; both sides have many “activists” working to erase the other group’s past (and to a vicious level). Look at various Celtic Studies, Irish or Scottish history, nineteenth century American history, almost any historical narrative of much of the past in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, the Aegean, South Asia, Korea, and on and on. Far right (often actual fascists) make sure that sources like Wikipedia are useless for topics like the early history of India, anything to do with Kurds or Armenians, and so on.

On the medieval world, yes some members of the alt-right fetishize certain aspects of the period, e.g. the Crusades or the Vikings or the myth of the Norman yoke, all of which are regular features of west European self-conceptions and all of which are hardly new inventions. Need we point out that there’s a straight line back to Walter Scott & Co. that connects Crusaders and Klansmen?

Or should we point out that those same now labelled “alt-right” fantasies have had pretty solid backing? Why is Louis IX the saintly king of France? What, after all, did the French military first do upon entry into Damascus? Crusades fantasies play into twentieth and twenty-first century European dealings with Muslims.

And in Muslim views of Europeans. Arab nationalists hold up the counter-crusade, and many of the more violent Islamist groups are heavily medievalist-driven to an extent almost no one else is. (There’s a self-proclaimed Almoravid army in North Africa, ISIS models itself – down to reinstating slavery! – on a close reading of seventh century texts, Salafis dress as though it were 632, and so on.)

One could go on; how many discussions of politics and conflicts are full of World War II mythohistory? How many US discussions are about a mythic eighteenth century?

Looking to the past for better models is, inherently, a conservative move. “The past was better” is basically conservatism in brief. So, of course conservatives are interested in history. And, with the breakdown of authoritative knowledge via the Internet (and some fashionable intellectual trends), those who are loudest get noticed – and they don’t need to be correct.

Where I teach, I know that I will run into people who are part of what has been termed the “ankh right” and there will be hoteps in my classroom in a few weeks when we cover ancient Egypt. I will aim to get them into thinking about ancient Egypt on its own terms and not through modern nationalist fantasies but the way to do that is not by saying “oh they are terrible and liars.” (Unfortunately, for me, because I actually engage in non-aggressive pedagogy with said hoteps, I was labelled in a job interview as too black for a well-known US school by a classicist!)

The past is the past. Looking to it for comforting myths (of any sort, left , right, north, south, white, black, whatever) is never going to do anything but create fiction. Getting upset about one group’s unwholesome influence makes me wonder: How is it possible you just noticed this?


Quite a bit of this is about “they were selling a symbol of Odinism at Leeds and that is sometimes used by far-right groups or individuals” (or Celtic crosses or terms like Anglo-Saxon and so on and so forth) “so any use of those is by definition tainted” and similar lines on other things.

The logic (and the panic) could have been scripted by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer (and so on) if one were to substitute “shahadeh banner” for Thor’s hammer or anything else. Now, there are real world (as opposed to online only) far right Islamist activists; they actually control actual territory and they actually kill actual human beings, and they base their actions on their interpretations of early medieval texts (many of their leaders actually have advanced degrees in early medieval studies) but we have a word for people who would ban all symbols and activities and studies that those folks are involved in.

In other words, I bet a lot of the people in the panic over evil Odinists would probably be up in arms over an attempt to ban sales of items that have symbols used by ISIS – and rightly so – even if one is threat is much more real.

Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty

From the Washington Examiner:

Stephen Miller is right: Lazarus’ immigration poem is not US law.

There’s been some argument over who came out ahead in the picturesque set-to between White House staffer Stephen Miller and CNN reporter Jim Acosta over the White House support of the immigration bill sponsored by Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue. On one point at least it seems to me that Miller had the best of it when he charged that Acosta was being “ahistorical.”

Acosta kept reading and reciting the Emma Lazarus poem written before the Statue of Liberty was erected in 1886 but not inscribed at its base until 1903: “Give us your tired, your poor,” etc. His plain implication was that the United States had an open immigration policy back in the years before World War I.

That implication is flatly false. The early republic did not have a federal immigration policy, but as immigration started rising well after the end of the 1792-1815 world war between Britain and France, the state governments did inspect immigrants alighting from sailing and then steam ships, with a view to excluding those with communicable diseases or unable to support themselves economically and thus likely to become “a public charge.” For more information on this, see Vincent Cannato’s 2010 book American Passage: The History of Ellis Island.

In the 1880s the federal government took over the task of screening immigrants, building the Ellis Island inspection station which opened in 1892 within easy sight of the Statue of Liberty. Ellis Island processed millions between 1892 and 1914, when the outbreak of World War I pretty much cut off overseas immigration, and again from 1919 to 1924, when a sharply restrictive immigration act was passed, barring virtually all immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.

The Ellis Island regime was not, however, the kind of open immigration system Jim Acosta and an increasing number of liberals and Democrats seem to favor. For one thing, the most tired and poor seldom made it to the United States, because they lacked the money or the heartiness to afford or weather even steerage passage on a trans-Atlantic steamship. More importantly, the government excluded those deemed (at their Ellis Island inspection or elsewhere) suffering from communicable diseases, those deemed to be insane or “loathsome” and those “likely to become a public charge.” (Here’s a sample of exclusions for such reasons.)

More at the link. See also:

Jim Acosta, Racist Apologist for White Privilege

White House adviser Stephen Miller made short work of CNN’s Jim Acosta at yesterday’s White House press briefing on immigration. Acosta enjoined, “It sounds like you’re trying to engineer the racial and ethnic flow of people into this country through this policy,” by giving preference to English speakers. In fact, the vast majority of the world’s 1.2 billion English speakers are African or Asian.

Acosta claimed that preferential treatment for English-speaking applicants would benefit people from Great Britain and Australia. Scathingly, Miller replied:

“I am shocked at your statement, that you think only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English. It reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree. This is an amazing moment. That you think only people from Great Britain or Australia would speak English is so insulting to millions of hard-working immigrants who do speak English from all over the world. Jim, have you honestly never met an immigrant from another country who speaks English, outside of Great Britain and Australia? Is that your personal experience?”

There are about 1.2 billion English speakers in the world, including 125 million Indians, 90 million Filipinos, 79 million Nigerians, 30 million Bengalis, 28 million Egyptians and 15 million Pakistanis, according to Wikipedia. More than half of all English-speakers are non-European. Barely a tenth of English speakers outside the United States live in Britain, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. Acosta’s gaffe was epically ignorant and racist in the extreme.

Acosta repeatedly interrupted Miller, chanting “Give me your tired, your poor…,” a line from Emma Lazarus’ 1883 sonnet The New Colossus which is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. If anything, Miller handled the CNN journalist too gently. He might have said: “America had no restrictions to immigration in 1883, and millions of white European immigrants poured into the American heartland. To accommodate them we drove out the Native Americans. By 1890 there were only 250,000 Native Americans left in the United States, compared to 2 million or more before European settlers arrived. In other words, we gave privileges to white people and killed or displaced people of color. You can argue the merits of this policy, but we don’t want to return to a situation in which immigration occurs at the expense of people who were here first.”

The Academic Life

I used to subscribe to the American Scholar, a quarterly literary magazine sponsored by the Phi Beta Kappa Society, edited between 1974 and 1998 by the witty and literate Joseph Epstein, who always contributed an essay under the pseudonym “Aristides.” His last one, “I’m History,” was particularly good; two quotations that stayed with me over the years:

The truth was, I found much in current academic life either boring or crazy, and I didn’t want to devote much space to things in which I could not take any serious interest. I tended to view the occasional article that we ran on these strictly academic subjects as, in effect, opening the blinds to reveal the baboons at play, as if to say, “Betcha didn’t think their behinds were quite so purple as that.”


In academic argument… the radicals almost always win, even though they rarely constitute a majority. Conservatives, dependably a minority, usually don’t care enough to take a strong stand against them. Liberals, the poor darlings, though generally the majority, are terrified about seeming to be on the wrong side of things and so seek compromises that inevitably favor the radicals. The model here is the Russian Duma, with the minority of Bolsheviks cracking the moderation and ultimately the backs of the Mensheviks.

Slightly related, a Facebook friend notes the following, about the Chronicle piece on the Leeds Conference, with which I happen to agree:

Okay, so several weeks later, I’m still hung up on this:

“[Medieval studies] has been rather proud of its resistance to critical theory, which then just attracts even more people to the field who themselves want to be resistant to theory and see medieval studies as a safe place — a safe place to be elitist, a safe place to be white, a safe place to be Christian, Eurocentric, misogynist, etc.”

It’s really intellectually dishonest to equate skepticism about critical theory and being a Christian with being a neo-Nazi.

To say nothing about how we can easily turn this critique on its head: “American Studies has been especially welcome to critical theory, which then just attracts other people interested in critical theory to the field and turns it into a safe space for them, marginalizing everyone else interested in different approaches…” etc. No one seems to think that that’s a problem.

Also related: the accusation that the expression “Anglo-Saxon” is inherently racist. This essentially boils down to the fact that at one point it did not simply refer to a set of dialects spoken in early medieval England, but also described white people of English descent (as in “WASP”), sometimes approvingly. So in true wet-blanket, Debbie-Downer fashion, we have to throw out the baby with the bathwater. A certain Tom had something to say about this:

There’s been a lot of traffic in my little corner of the internet lately that suggests that the field of early medieval studies, and Anglo-Saxon studies in particular, has a problem. The problem, not to put too fine a point on it, is racism, with a side helping, it seems, of sexism. I don’t think I have any insights that can solve such serious problems, I am sorry to say, but I think I do have some observations to make that might help us understand where our discipline is now, how we have gotten here, and what we can—and cannot, or should not—do in the present moment.

The whole discipline, the claim has been made, is tainted by the way in which the very terms “Anglo-Saxon” and “Anglo-Saxonist” have been employed, from the nineteenth century to the present, in ways that explicitly or implicitly align with ideas of whiteness and white racial superiority. There can be no real argument with this point that the terms have been used by racists: it is true, and it has long been known. But the notion that these terms are now irrevocably tainted is one that I am not (yet?) persuaded of: different speech communities often use identical words with differing senses. Like even the worst characterizations of Anglo-Saxon studies, America, too, has a long history of both open and institutional racism, and yet I am not sure that we should wish to change the name of the country, just because the politics of some Americans includes white supremacist attitudes.

Also, whenever someone tells me that I need to steep myself in the “critical discourses that address systemic racism both explicit and implicit,” as does a “Collective Statement by Medievalists of Color” (none of whom actually has the courage to sign their names to it), I want to reply that wish that more medievalists would educate themselves on the dialectical materialist process that drives all of history, and from which everything else is a distraction. After all, both “systemic racism” and “dialectical materialism” are unfalsifiable Theories whose adherents essentially tell everyone “either you agree with me, or you’ve got false consciousness,” and who will thus inflate all data points in accord with their worldview into cosmic significance, while dismissing everything that isn’t as completely inconsequential. Whenever I hear that “systemic racism dictates that we are all entangled in its articulations and practices,” I can’t help but think of Ben Kenobi saying that The Force “surrounds us, it penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together.” This is fine for the Star Wars universe, but needlessly mystical when considering our own.

Finally, from another Facebook friend, the following amusing observation:

I’m too tired to read sentences like: “Scientists create spaces of representation through graphemic concatenations that represent their epistemic traces as engravings, that is, generalized forms of ‘writing.'”

The Leeds Conference

An article on the annual Leeds conference in the Chronicle of Higher Education has been making the rounds, but I liked this commentary from… Commentary:

Apparently, There Is an Academic Medievalist Far Left

Even “Game of Thrones” has not quite rescued medieval studies from its reputation for stodginess. Yet the organizers of this year’s International Medieval Congress must have thought their fellow scholars would think them a teensy bit cool for selecting the theme “otherness.”

There were plenty of panels on gender, gendering, ungendering, and various gendered things. There was one devoted to “Hagiography Beyond Gender Essentialism: Trans and Genderqueer Sanctity: Rethinking the Status Quo.” There was plenty on ethnicity, a bit on race, and, for those who like their politics unsauced, a panel entitled “The Historical Is Political: Understanding the Backlash against the Study of Race, Gender, and Representation in Medievalism.”

I note these titles not to bash the conference, whose program contains many interesting things, or to suggest that medieval studies can cast no light on contemporary problems. I am saying only that the 2,400 scholars from 56 countries who descended on England’s University of Leeds earlier this month may have thought they’d gone some way toward appeasing the academic left.

Nope. Some of their fellow medievalists are accusing them of abetting white supremacy.

This remarkable charge, though related to longstanding discontent about the field of medieval studies, is at the moment tied to a panel entitled “The Medieval Concept of Otherness.” For the sake of focus, invited panelists were all historians of the early Middle Ages. The idea behind the panel was that whatever the medieval understanding of “us” and “them” or “self” and “other” was, it is was quite different from what ours is today. So the Leeds International Medieval Conference had a white supremacy problem because—no, really—this one panel consisted of “white Europeans” who were not steeped in critical race and postcolonial theory. You cannot have a discussion of how people in the early Middle Ages thought of “the other” without panelists of color versed in highly politicized contemporary theories of oppression.

More at the link.

Satanic Panic

From Atlas Obscura (courtesy Andrew Reeves), an interesting article on the supposed Satanic origins of the old Procter and Gamble logo. I remember hearing about this in the 1980s, along with the idea that backwards messages in rock music were instructing teenagers to kill themselves, the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons would open you up to demonic possession, and that there is a supercomputer in Brussels (nicknamed “The Beast“) with everyone’s name in it.

When 1980s Satanic Panic Targeted Procter & Gamble

The company spent decades battling false claims that it was in league with the Devil.

IF YOU WERE ALIVE IN 1982, you might remember a very special episode of Phil Donahue’s talk show. On that day, the President of Procter & Gamble went on the program and admitted that the company supported the Church of Satan and that its logo contained Satanic symbols. Oh, it happened in 1985? Actually, others remember the episode airing in 1989.

The truth is, this never occurred. P&G has never had any connection to the Church of Satan. The Church itself describes the claim as “completely false.” But the truth has never stopped a good rumor from catching on.

To better understand the P&G rumor, it’s important to grasp its broader context. During the late 1970s through the late 1990s, a potent fear of Satanic cults, known as Satanic Panic, gripped the United States. Years of news and cultural touchstones like the Manson Family trial and The Exorcist had primed the country for this paranoia. In his seminal 1972 study, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, British sociologist Stanley Cohen coined the phrase “moral panic” in reference to events like this, which appear suddenly to threaten societal norms. These events are misrepresented in sensationalistic fashion in the media and eventually reporting on the subject comes to define it for the public.

When the first article on the P&G rumor, “Rumor Giving Company a Devil of a Time,” appeared in The Minneapolis Tribunein March 1980, Satanic panic was hitting its peak. The story detailed an accusation of Satanic imagery hidden in the company’s logo—a man in the moon looking out on 13 stars. But as a spokesperson from P&G, Tressie Rose, explains, this claim was without merit. “[It was] first developed by wharf hands to mark STAR candle crate boxes,” Rose writes in an email. “We then decided to formalize it, created the graphic, 13 stars for the 13 original American colonies. It was officially trademarked in 1882 but the incorporation of a face in the moon happened before that. It was the logo created in 1930 that created the rumor but not until the 1980s, 50 years after its creation.”

To most people, that design would appear insignificant, but most people aren’t Jim Peters. In the 1980s, Peters was the music director at the Zion Christian Life Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, and a member of a family of anti-rock crusaders who instigated a record-burning campaign in 1978. His brothers, Dan and Steve, initially gained notoriety for a series of seminars and a pseudo-documentary in the vein of Rock, It’s Your Decision called Truth About Rock.

Jim, who could not be located in research for this article, was just as ambitious and had been delivering seminars of his own. When interviewed by The Tribune for the article, Peters claimed to have found a copy of the P&G logo in a book by British occultist E.A. Wallis Budge called Amulets and Superstitions. A member of P&G’s public relations team responded at the time by stating, “This is the kind of rumor we can’t do anything about… People will believe what they want to.

To its credit, P&G was right and the story disappeared for almost two years until January 1982 when papers in the Midwest began running variations on a wire story from United Press International. The articles had titles like “Soap Baron Battles Devilish Rumors” and again made references to P&G’s logo, but this time without any connection to Jim Peters.

There’s more at the link, including the information that Amway reps were partly responsible for perpetuating the rumor that the P&G logo was somehow Satanic. Wallis Budge, though, was a lot more than an occultist.


The icon (from Greek εἰκών, meaning “image”) is a distinctive feature of Orthodox Christianity (Greek, Russian, Serbian, etc.). The classic icon is a frontal portrait of Jesus, Mary, or some other saint, although icons illustrating a scene are also common. You know them when you see them: the style is unmistakable. They tend to be flat and richly ornamented, giving a deliberately otherworldly appearance to their subjects. There are also many rules that one must follow in the making [sic – not “painting”] of an icon. Bishops hold a bible in their left hand and give a blessing with their right. Jesus wears a red tunic and a blue cloak, and his halo has a cross on it. And so on. Here are two examples from my collection:


The original image of St. George, as a young, beardless man with tightly curled hair, in armor and carrying a shield and lance.


St. George “the trophy-bearer” in action – riding a white horse and spearing the dragon through its mouth.

Why the particular style? Why are they so important to Orthodox worship? One must realize that these are not just pictures for the edification of the faithful, of the sort that might appear in The Bible Story, The Watchtower, or the Book of Mormon. Orthodox icons have power. You could pray to a saint near his image, and he would be much more likely to hear your petition. Particular icons are even thaumaturgic, such as the icons of the Virgin Mary on Mount Athos in Greece – one of which is formally appointed the abbot of a monastery, and has two feast days. In other words, in the east, icons function like saints’ relics. (I like the theory that it is on account of relics that icons acquired their special purpose. No one is going to keep the bone of a saint just lying around, but is going to house it in a nice reliquary. A picture of the saint on the top of the reliquary would tell you whose relic it was; as long as you made an accurate copy of the picture, the miraculous qualities of the relic would be transferred to the new image.)

But there’s a problem here, isn’t there? Christian practice evolves, of course, but seldom to the point where it is completely at odds with an important dictum from scripture, in this case the Second Commandment:

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.

Now, only the most eccentric Christians would interpret this to mean that all representational art, or even just religious art, should be forbidden (Martin Luther: “If it is not a sin but good to have the image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?”) And given that this rule is found in the Old Testament, has it not been trumped by the New, and to be cast aside like kashrut or the prohibition against sowing different crops in the same field? Perhaps – but surely of all that we find in the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments are still binding. And praying to (a saint through) an icon sure looks like “bowing down” and “worshiping” an image, doesn’t it, thereby violating the real spirit of this law?

Thus did Byzantine Emperor Leo III, in the 720s, order the removal and destruction of icons from the lands under his control. Was this spurred by a genuine religious feeling, prompted by recent natural disasters and military losses? Or was there something more political to it? (The theory I’ve heard is that the monasteries that produced icons were growing too powerful, and Leo wanted to undercut them – apparently there may have been a “class struggle” aspect to it as well). This iconoclastic movement survived Leo and did not fully end until 842, at which time Theodora, regent for the young Michael III, called it off. Ever since then the first Sunday in Lent is designated the Feast of Orthodoxy and celebrates the return of icons to their rightful place in Orthodox worship. At the time, though, all it succeeded in doing was driving the Greek and Roman Christianity further apart and may have had a role to play in the pope’s consecration of Charlemagne as Emperor of the West in AD 800. The Catholic Church did not venerate icons as such, but they were fully behind religious images and were appalled at how the Byzantines had apparently gone insane. As far as they were concerned, Jesus himself invalidated the Second Commandment – when he came to Earth, he became an “image” of something in heaven. Thus to reject images is to reject the Incarnation.

Stone Mountain

Yesterday I finally had the chance to visit Stone Mountain, a large granite monadnock formation to the east of Atlanta. In terms of sheer natural beauty it rivals Ayers Rock or Devils Tower; you can take a cable car to the top and explore the ethereal moonscape while admiring the distant Atlanta skyline.


But this is not the primary significance of Stone Mountain. Carved into the north face is the world’s largest bas-relief sculpture… of the Confederate heroes Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson, all riding their favorite horses (Black Jack, Traveller, and Little Sorrel, respectively). I’m afraid that for my visit the sun was in exactly the wrong position for photographs, so I am reduced to reproducing Wikipedia’s:



This sculpture, which measures some 76 by 158 feet, dates from 1916 and, after many fits and starts, was finally completed in 1972. It is faced by a long, gently sloping lawn (where the people are sitting in the picture above); this is lined with memorials to the thirteen states of the Confederacy, and at the top, facing the sculpture, is Memorial Hall, which houses the Discovering Stone Mountain Museum. This museum deals with Stone Mountain and its surrounding community throughout history, including Indian occupation, the arrival of European settlers, the Civil War, granite quarrying in the nineteenth century, races to the top of the mountain in the twentieth century, the bicycling events of the 1996 Olympics, the politics and production of the sculpture itself, and yes, the founding of the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan on the top of the mountain on November 25, 1915. Almost needless to say, this was designated as a “dark chapter” in the Mountain’s history; it was nice, though, that they acknowledged it, rather than pretending it didn’t happen.

But it seems that Stone Mountain wants to live down its Confederate associations as well. No, they’re not prepared to blow up the monument, as some have requested. But there’s more to the park than the sculpture, and very little of it is Confederate. You can visit the Great Barn, ride the Scenic Railroad, or enjoy the Yogi Bear 4-D Adventure (this is all provided by Herschend Family Entertainment, which has been contracted by the state of Georgia to run the place). Although it’s clear that the whole thing was once intended to be the “Southland’s Sacred Mount” – somewhat like the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria, South Africa – and apparently the Stone Mountain Memorial Association retains the right “to reject any project deemed unfit,” they don’t seem to have any qualms about allowing the Laser Show Spectacular, projected after dark and only on certain nights onto the side of the mountain with the carving, accompanied by music and fireworks, or Snow Mountain, a series of slides and ramps on the lawn facing the sculpture, that will be covered in artificial snow for sledding come wintertime. Even the gift shop is completely devoid of Confederate memorabilia. Instead, there’s lots of American patriotism on display:


And, on one postcard, even the sculpture itself has been defaced with a US flag, something unthinkable at one point.


I honestly don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I don’t care much for the Lost Cause stuff you sometimes find around here, but if you’re going to have a memorial… man, have some respect!

A website entitled Shades of Gray: The Changing Focus of Stone Mountain Park has more information.

Le Sacre du Printemps

It’s over three years old now, but I missed it at the time: a significant anniversary noticed in The Verge:

100 years ago today, ‘The Rite of Spring’ incited a riot in a Paris theater

It began with a bassoon and ended in a brawl.

One hundred years ago today, Russian composer Igor Stravinsky debuted The Rite of Spring before a packed theater in Paris, with a ballet performance that would go down as one of the most important — and violent — in modern history.

Today, The Rite is widely regarded as a seminal work of modernism — a frenetic, jagged orchestral ballet that boldly rejected the ordered harmonies and comfort of traditional composition. The piece would go on to leave an indelible mark on jazz, minimalism, and other contemporary movements, but to many who saw it on that balmy evening a century ago, it was nothing short of scandalous.

Details surrounding the events of May 29th, 1913 remain hazy. Official records are scarce, and most of what is known is based on eyewitness accounts or newspaper reports. To this day, experts debate over what exactly sparked the incident — was it music or dance? publicity stunt or social warfare? — though most agree on at least one thing: Stravinsky’s grand debut ended in mayhem and chaos.

The tumult began not long after the ballet’s opening notes — a meandering and eerily high-pitched bassoon solo that elicited laughter and derision from many in the audience. The jeers became louder as the orchestra progressed into more cacophonous territory, with its pounding percussion and jarring rhythms escalating in tandem with the tensions inside the recently opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

Things reached a near-fever pitch by the time the dancers took the stage, under the direction of famed choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky of the Ballets Russes. Dressed in whimsical costumes, the dancers performed bizarre and violent moves, eschewing grace and fluidity for convulsive jerks that mirrored the work’s strange narrative of pagan sacrifice. Onstage in Paris, the crowd’s catcalls became so loud that the ballerinas could no longer hear the orchestra, forcing Nijinsky to shout out commands from backstage.

A scuffle eventually broke out between two factions in the audience, and the orchestra soon found itself under siege, as angry Parisians hurled vegetables and other objects toward the stage. It’s not clear whether the police were ever dispatched to the theater, though 40 people were reportedly ejected. Remarkably, the performance continued to completion, though the fallout was swift and brutal.

More at the link and, if you’re interested, in Modris Eksteins’s wonderful book Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (1989).