Latin Lessons

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The Romans are coming! The Romans are coming! No, wait. They were already here. Here, that is, if you’re European. And more specifically, a Londoner. The Guardian recently posted a story about the oldest writing in the United Kingdom being unearthed as Roman missives—originally written on wax that overlaid boards, Roman style—are being unearthed at the site of the new London headquarters of Bloomberg. Having spent many years of my life learning to specialize in ancient writings on original media, it always does me good to see hoi polloi getting excited about old texts. These Roman notes are so old that the marks on the wax have only survived by etching faintly onto the underlying wood, the wax having long ago deteriorated. The mundane writing wouldn’t have lasted had it relied on the original medium.

Even with their penchant for irony, the British don’t seem to have made much of the fact that the oldest writing in the UK has been located beneath what will become the headquarters of the media giant, Bloomberg. We will pay handsomely for good media. Anybody can coat a piece of wood with wax and scratch away. Almost nobody will read it. If it survives long enough after you die, it becomes a media treasure-trove. All the sudden we can’t wait to find out what Londinio Mogontio ate for dinner last night. Such mundane things we write about. Just to clarify, I’m talking about the Romans, not Bloomberg. Trenchant media information is, after all, what we live for. We must know what others think this commodity is worth. They’ll pay good money for that.

Tibullus will repay Gratus—it’s right there on wood. These guys were also worried about the exchange of commodities, it seems. And while nobody gives a Roman denarius anymore, we can get people’s attention by saying yes, the Romans were here. Sitting in this very spot before the cross has grown cold, making sure that accounts have been settled. The last thing you want is a Roman at your door demanding restitution. One does have to wonder what Junius the cooper thought about all this. Junius is the one with an office across from the house of Catullus. His barrels may have been broken down to make more planks for writing. The fourth estate gone wild. All that hard work would’ve gone unnoticed too, had not a major media giant decided, literally, to rake the muck under old London where before even the original tower was built friends, Romans, and countrymen were lending each other denarii. And one suspects, their beers, if Domitius Tertius Bracearius is who we think he is.

United We Fly

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I’m on a flight from New York to London. This wasn’t a trip I particularly wanted to take (what business trip ever is?). I don’t like flying, and changing time zones takes days off my life. Bowing to the inevitable, I dutifully checked in yesterday. However, that didn’t go quite as planned. I’m flying United. I generally take United since they offer many destinations out of Newark, and who wants to cross Manhattan to get to JFK or Laguardia? I’ve actually become rather fond of United’s snack boxes. Since I’m so 1990s, I decided to check in on their website. Two or three pages in, they stopped me and suggested I should use my cell phone. This is much preferred, I’m told. Well, I do have a cell phone, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to access it in the UK. Still, this is the way things are done these days. I had United’s app on my phone from a previous flight, so I happily typed in my confirmation number, to fly the friendly skies. Since this is an international flight, I have to scan in my passport. That’s a bit worrisome, but the app says to do it and who can argue with an app? Click. My passport is being encrypted and verified. I’m free to go. Then the message pops up. I can’t check in.

I’m old enough to know how to use a landline. I called United. The agent was very friendly, just like the skies, but clearly couldn’t comprehend the complexity of my issue. One, I couldn’t check in. Two, my passport had been sent to somebody, but who was it? United? Some foreign government? James Bond? I didn’t mean to make the guy nervous, but this is my passport we’re talking about! He said he would transfer me to tech support. The call was transferred. The cheery female robot asked me if I wanted a $100 Wal-Mart card. I should press one. I don’t support Wal-Mart so I didn’t press one. She cheerfully insisted. I resisted. She came back on and said that I could press any button for a Wal-Mart card. When I didn’t comply, she hung up on me. I called United again.

This time the agent assured me I would have a human response at tech support. I heard the two tones connecting me with a guy who sounded surprised to hear a voice from the outside world. It was like he was speaking from a dank basement somewhere. He had no idea where my passport scan went either. He suggested deleting the app and then downloading it again. Start the process over. Reboot, as it were. I know the reboot drill, but I was worried about my passport scan. Where had it gone? If his solution worked, at least one problem would be solved. I could check in and reserve my place on the flight (ironically, buying a ticket isn’t enough to do that). I confirmed the instructions with my light-deprived docent. I asked, in parting, what I should do about my missing passport scan. His advice was the very image of an ouroboros. “You might try calling customer service,” he said. I don’t like flying.

Staking a Claim

Okay, I confess. When I learned my recent host in London lived in Highgate, my thoughts immediately went to the Highgate Vampire. I first learned about the Highgate Vampire from Matthew Beresford’s From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth, a book that spoke to me at some inexplicable level. Claims had been made that an actual vampire roamed the north of London in the 1970‘s. My first thought was utter skepticism—one of the reasons that I was never afraid of vampires is that I knew they couldn’t possibly be real. The mythical world of a fundamentalist allows deity, devil, angels, and demons. No more, no less. The vampire, as a supernatural creature largely dreamed up by John William Polidori and Bram Stoker, was a literary monster only. As a doctoral student in Ancient Near Eastern religions, I learned that the prototype of the vampire went back to Sumer, the earliest civilization known. Still, I wasn’t worried. The Sumerians also believed in night hags and dragons and had no crucifixes to keep the beasts down. Then I learned about the Highgate Vampire.

I have just finished reading Sean Manchester’s most recent iteration of his account of slaying the Highgate Vampire. Manchester, a bishop in the Old Catholic Church and a descendant of Lord Byron—Polidori’s close associate—claims to have staked the vampire in the backyard of a haunted mansion in Hornsey. This transpired in 1973. There’s one born every minute, right? But then, there are the claims of physical evidence: exsanguinated foxes, photographs of rapidly decomposing corpses, the obvious ardor of Manchester’s personal account. The mental jarring was extreme—surely a priest would never fabricate such a tale? Surely the vampire is a fictional creature with no place in a rational world? Why did Manchester’s account resemble Jonathan Harker’s diary so much?

So, we were staying in Highgate, London. The first morning as the sun rose, I dragged my family to Highgate Cemetery. I hadn’t read Manchester’s account yet, and Beresford’s book was almost three years back in my memory. Looking through our pictures, there I found it—the tomb in which Manchester claims to have originally discovered the black coffin with the actual vampire inside. Whether fictional or not, I was in the presence of the vampire. The overcast sky, ivy coated tombstones, the jet-lag—all combined to provide the atmosphere for the impossible. I have no idea what really happened in London when I was a child in school, but I have learned that many adults will gladly drain off the very lifeblood of others in order to attain their own benefit. From the days of Sumer to the present, growing in number there have been vampires among us. Our lives are much more comfortable if we simply refuse to believe.

Abbey Rood

On the long flight home from London, experiences during my brief free time play back in my head in a continuous loop. One monument to civilization I wanted my daughter to experience was Westminster Abbey. I would liked to have taken her to St. Paul’s as well, but churches are just too expensive to visit. I’ve written before about our drive to visit places of significance, the urge toward pilgrimage that is as old as humanity itself. (Perhaps even earlier.) Because of the reach of the British Empire, events that have taken place in Westminster have affected people all over the world. The cream of the British crop is buried there. To see them, however, you need to pay an unhealthy sum of money. “Money changers in the temple,” as my wife aptly observed. And once inside photography is prohibited. How easy simply to become a slab of marble hazily remembered in the mind of an overstimulated tourist. There is no way to absorb it all.

The church has fallen on hard times in much of Europe. Speaking to several Brits the real interest seems to be in Islam, a religion clearly on the rise in the United Kingdom. During a brief respite from work, during which I ducked into the British Museum, the queues were out the door for an exhibit on the hajj. Tickets for the exhibit were sold out. Meanwhile, across town, the Church of England charges a visitor 16 pounds even to enter the great minster with roots in the eleventh century. Christianity and capitalism have become inextricably intertwined. A building as massive as Westminster, let alone St. Paul’s, must be costly indeed to maintain. These have become, however, icons to culture rather than religion. Their value in that regard cannot be questioned.

Standing beside Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, and T. S. Eliot, it is noteworthy how few clerics buried in the Abbey maintain such a draw. Kings, queens, knaves and aces of many suits may abound, but apart from the eponymous Archbishop of Canterbury, few men and women of the cloth stand to gain our attention. The nave soars high overhead and the crowds of sightseers jostle one another to get a view of the sarcophagus that now houses the dusty bones of those whose names endlessly referenced from our childhoods vie for admiration. The sign says “no photography,” and the docents throughout the building cast a suspicious eye on anyone holding a camera. How jealous Christendom has become in a land of secular advance. I stand next to Sir Isaac Newton and contemplate how the seeds of destruction are often planted within the very soil that surrounds the foundations of mighty edifices of yore.

Cemeteries and Certainties

A visit to Highgate Cemetery is a reminder of a different way of life. Built as a fashionable burial ground for an overcrowded London of the Victorian Era, the cemetery demonstrates a closeness of life and death that we have very much sublimated in the twenty-first century, as if by avoiding the topic we might make death go away. As a tour guide led us through the overgrown, moody grounds with ivy-covered tombstones and doleful trees, she explained how those of just over a century ago wove death and life into a continuous fabric with elaborate rituals of mourning and a sure sense of the afterlife. Monuments commissioned by the families of the departed used symbols from a variety of traditions syncretized to assure the survivors that death was not the final word. The departed, one presumes, had little concern in the matter.

Symbols from the newly discovered wonderland of ancient Egypt combined with classical symbols of Greco-Roman antiquity and Gothic revival combined to assure the living that death was not really the end after all. How easy it is to forget that death, for most of human history, was very near at hand. Only with our recent medical innovations and concern not to overpopulate our environment have developed nations (something certain religious sects blithely overlook in their enthusiasm to conquer the world by dint of numbers) been able to shove death into the dark corners of our minds. Unless inspired by ghost hunters, we seldom linger in cemeteries. We separate ourselves from the dying as if the inevitable were some disease we dread catching. We can’t reconcile ourselves with the most biological aspect of our lives.

The Egyptians did believe in an afterlife, but at first it was not a democratic one. Kings and courtiers might live forever but the common person was only accorded a brief time in this world. The idea that death could be cheated by religion eventually grew, and Christianity came to accept such assurances as a hallmark of faith. The symbols for that faith figured prominently in Highgate Cemetery. As we came out from the tour, I was reminded that the radical Karl Marx, champion of the proletariat, was buried just yards away. Even those we today recognize as having borne immortal ideas still rest in the same chilly ground. Is the hope that binds them with the heavens an illusion left over from ancient times or is resurrection an idea from which we just can’t escape?

Good Morning, London

First of all, Virgin-Atlantic Airlines gets a gold star in my book. Having flown quite a bit over the past six months, I’ve been reminded on just how stingy airlines can be, making even a brief flight a test of endurance. They are very generous with full body scanners and less so with basic human services, such as food, entertainment choices on long flights, and a sense that you’re doing anything other than propping up a flailing, deregulated industry. Virgin-Atlantic demonstrated that air time need not be torturous. So, with many choices of movie to watch, on Good Friday, I decided on one of my favorite genres of religious movie—the vampire flick.

I have been anticipating Dark Shadows for well over a year now, but I had heard nothing about Fright Night. Really, in many ways Fright Night was an unremarkable vampire movie, but then again, watching on a plane is maybe not the place where one would expect the gothic mood required for full enjoyment. Nevertheless, the full range of religious cures of vampires was present with one notable exception: crucifixes. Crosses abounded, but here on Good Friday I saw no corpi. There was holy water, so clearly it wasn’t purely Protestant sympathies that led to the abandonment of crucifixes in the movie. In any case, crosses were only a minor deterrent in this scenario. What finally dispatched the chief vampire in this case was a traditional wooden stake. Which, somehow reminds me of typical airplane food on most airlines.

Driving around a secular London dressed in religious garb, St. Paul’s Cathedral lit splendidly in the night, was a reminder of the hold Christianity still has on even non-religious culture. It was kind of like the corpus-less crucifix in the movie. The inspiration behind the great gothic stylings of Big Ben and Parliament arise from their long association with Christian culture. On the streets people were milling about London late in the evening, not apparently fresh from church, standing in the shadow of Westminster Abbey and happily snapping photos. This may be a montage of disparate images colliding in my jet-lagged mind, but somehow virgins, vampires, crucifixes, and churches seem to fit naturally together.

One of Us

I suspect quite a few people are thinking about Jesus today. He does seem to be in the public consciousness with appearances on both Newsweek and the Watchtower. Newsweek, I have to admit, was an impulse buy. I’m flying to London today and I wanted something light to bring on the plane, so why not take Jesus along? I’ll have to report on the contents later. What caught my attention was the contemporary, very Caucasian Jesus standing in what appears to be Times Square. Since I walk through here a couple times a day, the immediately striking aspect is how unremarkable this would be. Perhaps that’s what the cover artist was going for, but people who think they’re Jesus—or at least a close approximation—are hardly rare. It seems that many of them are interested in running for president. Many others run Megachurches. Very few live on the streets.

My Jehovah’s Witnesses friends stopped by recently. I used to chat with them when I was unemployed, but I’m no longer home during missionary hours. This edition of Watchtower also features a very Caucasian Jesus, but one who wears his hair in a style no first-century Jewish man would have. He has been stripped of his own faith heritage just as surely as the blue-eyed Jesus on Newsweek. The funny thing about Christianity is the chimera they make of the human half of Jesus. This is one part of the Bible nobody wants to take literally. Does Jesus need to look like us to effect salvific results?

It is often said that beauty is skin deep. One has to wonder just how profound faith is as well. People seem to be better at believing what they see. When it is time to consider what God might look like, we inevitably consult a mirror. Where is the comfort in an all-powerful being that looks like he’s not one of us? Well, maybe we could ask women what it’s like. For all the variables in Jesus’ appearance, he’s always male. Funny, so are the people who profit most from promoting his brand. Maybe my ideas are just taking a flight of fancy. The rest of me is on a flight as well. And I have no idea what the captain looks like.