Games of the throne; history’s courts

Reception of the Grand Condé at Versailles by Louis XIV of France (r.1643-1715)

While we now take our school pupils on trips to Versailles, and go on holiday to trudge over the seven hills of Rome that now hold only the ruins of the once splendid ancient imperial palaces, these sorts of places used to be the powerhouses of their societies. Throughout many of history’s ‘great’ (always a subjective term) civilisations, kings and conquerors governed kingdoms ranging from tiny ones to huge empires such as Rome. Their courts often played pivotal roles as the centres where it all came together: bland administrative business; juicy power dynamics; policy- and decision-making; avenues of influence that included the royal bedroom and shady back-corridors; and lots and lots of Game of Thrones-worthy scheming and plotting. Not the cleverest position to take on if you were interested in living a long and unencumbered life, the job of ruler.

Times have obviously changed, and though there are plenty of powerful men and women to be found in the world, our modern (first, western) world likes to think it has evolved into a ‘better’ (another subjective term) shape. However, the appeal of power will never quite go out of fashion. Luckily, investigating court dynamics throughout history can teach us heaps about power, so I’m afraid this blog post might end up being a sort of guidebook for the home-megalomaniac. Either way, I have hand-picked some examples to illustrate this topic with. To dodge some chaos I’ll refer to the rulers as male, so just keep in mind there were some female rulers as well throughout history.

In order to successfully govern one’s kingdom and have all of the court’s eyes focused on you it wasn’t the best idea to habitually snooze through the entire day and throw incessant parties, all the while devoting no time and energy to the actual business of ruling at all. The first keyword to successfully preside over a court was Personality with a capital P. Ambition, a conscientious work attitude, and a strong backbone obviously helped your cause. A good example is Louis XIV, the Sun King of France (r. 1643-1715), who was only four years old when he became king, so first a regency council headed by his mother ruled on his behalf, with most of the daily policy being concocted by chief minister Cardinal Mazarin. Usually such a slow start is quite disadvantageous to the ruler, because all the important connections and ties are made to run through different persons and offices. However, after Mazarin’s death in 1661, Louis began his personal reign and took to ruling like a duck to water by instantly announcing he could do perfectly well without a chief minister. Furthermore, Louis liked being in control: he consulted with his advisors but made sure to always have the final word, and he was determined not to let any favourites influence his decision-making. Louis’ court at the Palace of Versailles was a splendid (or vomit-inducing, if you dislike the over the top baroque style, like I do) environment in which he kept the nobility close so he could keep somewhat of an eye on them, and in which he manifested himself as a powerhouse of a ruler.

Throughout history, the nobility, and other such meddlesome persons surrounding the king, could be a real drag. However hard-working and strong-willed a ruler might have been, he was always connected with, limited by, and supported by the existing courtly hierarchy. The English King Henry III (r. 1216-72), for example, became increasingly subjected to the power and will of the barons, who seized power a couple of times during his reign and scribbled down their rights in the Great Charter of 1225 and the Provisions of Oxford (1258). Henry ended up with nothing much to say at all – not exactly ideal from his perspective. At all times, the various officials who supported our kings throughout history made up the formal sphere of influence at the court, in which a ruler could be approached. For example, at the court of the (Eastern) Roman Emperor Theodosius II (r. 408-450) in Constantinople, a system of suggestiones (proposals) that could inspire imperial decisions was in place. They could come from both outside and inside the palace and varied from personal interests to stuff such as whining about church matters. Imagine someone who wanted the emperor to call a council or arrest an enemy of yours handing a proposal to an official who was in a position to pass it on to the emperor himself, either directly or through yet another pair of hands. Officials with good positions in this chain through which information was conveyed to the emperor through the corridors of the court were obviously well-placed to influence matters; as always, knowledge was power.

So much for a taste of the formal sphere; it is time to explore the informal sphere a bit. This is where all the juice is at. Holding a high-ranking office could certainly lead to a decent deal of influence on the ruler, but it wasn’t the only (and not always the most effective) way. Anyone who had the king’s ear could feasibly have some sort of effect on him – ranging from the far-reaching political kind to which colour pants he wore on Tuesdays. And of course, anyone who had the king’s ear was valuable to outsiders seeking influence, which of course further enhanced their own positions. There are a couple of standout relations to the ruler that offered great megalomaniac potential.

Firstly, royal women – wives and their importance for securing the succession, mothers who often acted as regents for their underage sons, sometimes sisters, etc. – were usually pretty damn close to the ruler. Some of them did so well at whispering into the ruler’s ear that we are now quite aware of who these women were, which is relatively rare seeing that history wasn’t usually kind in recording the deeds of women. Although the accounts are most likely quite exaggerated and perhaps quite untrue altogether, ancient sources such as Suetonius describe how in the first century AD Agrippina the Younger wheedled her way into her uncle, emperor Claudius (r.41-54), his lap, became his (fourth) wife, and manipulated the hell out of him to the extent that he adopted her son, who then became his successor, the notorious emperor Nero. She also allegedly (falsely) accused those who stood in her way of things like witchcraft and incestuous relationships; her husband Claudius rather blindly followed her lead in these things and forced these people to resign from office, or had their property confiscated. To top it off, when Claudius began to favour someone else over Agrippina’s son for the succession, Agrippina is said to have killed him by poisoning his food. It’s an impressive bunch of conveniently bad press stemming from dynasties that came after her, but she must at least have been an interesting woman to have gained this amount of press in the first place.

Secondly, if you were an unhappy outsider stranded outside the gates of a splendid court while urgently needing to convince the ruler of something hugely important, you might approach one of the ruler’s personal attendants to help your cause. Any such attendants were usually well-placed to exert some influence through their proximity to the ruler, as they could control the informal flow of information as well as control access to the ruler. It’s a bit harder to figure out whether these figures personally influenced the ruler in actual political matters, though. Either way, controlling access meant you could be a power-broker, and that sounds kind of cool. Eunuchs often functioned as such; imagine high-pitched whispers from behind the inner court’s curtains. Because they obviously would have had an unnaturally hard time posing any kind of threat to the royal succession, by courtesy of having (at the very least) no balls, eunuchs often had a very high level of access and could often transcend the boundaries within the court. In Achaemenid Persia (559-331 BC), for example, eunuchs functioned as intermediaries between the king and the royal women and could be employed by both to gather information and relay messages and gossip back and forth between the outer and inner courts. During the reign of Theodosius II (r.408-450), who I mentioned earlier, the eunuch Chrysaphius plotted and schemed to isolate the emperor from those closest to him, succeeding in arguably driving both the emperor’s (powerful) sister Pulcheria and the empress into exile. Of course, he stepped in to fill their void and became quite the (figurative) man around the court. I’m rooting for George R. R. Martin’s character Varys, from his A Song of Ice and Fire series (AKA Game of Thrones on the telly), the eunuch master of whispers, will turn out to be an absolutely pivotal character in the series, pulling at puppet strings from the shadows.

Lord Varys, ‘the spider’, the eunuch master of whispers, and Lord Petyr Baelish – two shadowy puppet masters from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, here portrayed on HBO’s Game of Thrones. 

All in all, if you had a strong personality and if you were determined to micromanage the hell out of everything all by your onesies, you stood the best chance not to be overcome by trifling office holders and meddlesome wives while ruling your kingdom from the cosy walls of your court. The existing hierarchy and rules of the time, as well as the whole sometimes very shady informal sphere, could be serious impediments, of course, and if you were unsuspectingly poisoned by a seemingly devoted wife there wasn’t much you could do to keep power from slipping away from you. I’ve portrayed the way in which both the formal and the informal sphere could gain power, but of course a ruler’s connection with these spheres could just as well be to his advantage – just something to keep in mind.

A sad example of how far personality – be it good or bad – can still get you these days is the straw-haired loudmouth Donald Trump. In my opinion, he’s taking a clever approach at being incredibly dumb; he shouts his stupid and angry nonsense from the rooftops because it’s what stupid and angry people want to hear. And it’s working. Which terrifies me.

The media obviously plays a big part in all of this modern power nonsense too. In our courts throughout history, access to information tended to put you in a position of leverage. Nowadays, information can be shared and broadcast in such a way – not only scale-wise but also with regard to the manipulation of stories – that it can destroy tables completely rather than simply turning them. I find it hilariously sad how the Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff was chucked out of her palace, arguably for making some political mistakes. She definitely didn’t do everything entirely by the book, but everything was spun in such a way that her (more) corrupt opponents managed to depose her and take her place, all the while making it seem as if they were saving the day. Now Brazil is stuck with a ministerial squad who between them add up to an impressive sum of corruption, money-laundering and election fraud charges – if that’s even the worst of it.

Whichever way you look at it, power will always create interesting circumstances and dynamics, where the underlying rules of the game are often unwritten. I’d wager that power has an incredulous amount of skeletons in its closet, and I’d sleep with two eyes open at night to keep one eye on opportunities and the other on possible threats, be they of the physical or of the informational kind. Good luck!


For further reading see for example my thesis. I also highly recommend Suetonius’ De vita Caesarum (best known as The Twelve Caesars) for juice on the first bunch of Roman emperors.


Dinosaurs: the dirty details

Tyrannosaurus Rex in scene from film 'Jurassic Park'.
A scene from Jurassic Park (1993), directed by Steven Spielberg, showing Dr. Ian Malcolm diverting the T-Rex’s attention away from the car with John Hammond’s grandchildren in it.

Most of us will be familiar with this scene. A fair amount of us were likely obsessed with dinosaurs back when we were (little) terrors ourselves. For a lucky few of us, our sensitive, impressionable, monster-hugging age more or less coincided with the release of this film. I was one such kid. And for me, the fascination never went away. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

I reckon most of the people reading this post must at least have had a mild ‘Ooh, dinosaurs, cool, let’s check it out!’ feeling, so I’m hoping my upcoming ramble about some lesser known facts and common misconceptions regarding dinosaurs won’t bore all of you to death.

However, before tumbling back in time into the Mesozoic, I feel a pit stop at the question of relevance is needed. How can we justify, as a scientifically oriented modern world looking to the future, spending time and money digging up these magnificent bastards who have been dead for a very long time and piecing together minute details about their lives? It can’t just be so that we can make films such as Jurassic Park and sell loads of dinosaur toys to googly-eyed children, can it? (Although I guess it’s naïve to be naïve where it concerns capitalism…)

First off, at a very basic level, seeking any kind of knowledge can be beneficial – it would be very misguided indeed to suppose that we can predict whether studying certain things will fail to yield any kind of useful results, and to equate ‘progress’ for mankind only with studies focused on our modern world or our future.

More concretely, the study of dinosaurs is a field in which geology, science, and biology are constantly developed and tested. The boundaries of what’s possible were shifted, for instance when Dr. Mary Schweitzer managed to extract soft tissue from a 68 million year old T-Rex fossil (a girl named Sue). Also, new knowledge about the geological history of our planet is gathered while digging into rock formations. Most compelling are perhaps the new insights into evolution, nature, the adaptability of species and their relation to their environment. I mean, dinosaurs roamed the earth for around 163 million years. Try comparing that to our genus of Homo, which is less than 3 million years old. And to be honest, at the rate at which we are destroying our planet and each other, I dare say we won’t quite come close to giving the dinosaurs a run for their money. I wouldn’t want to try and outrun a T-Rex, anyway.

Lastly, the Ross Gellars of this world also need jobs. I think having people who creatively reproduce the sounds a velociraptor could have made can only be an asset to our species.

Now, with that out of the way, let’s get down to business. First off, let’s gnaw away a bit at the base of the pyramid. The name we have been using for these creatures ever since the birth of proper dinosaur palaeontology in the early nineteenth century, Dinosauria, from the Greek deino (‘terrible’) and sauros (‘lizard’), is inaccurate. The size of our heads ever-increasing, in the course of the twentieth century we realised that dinosaurs aren’t lizards at all. They are both individual, specific groups of reptiles; brothers, if you will. It is, of course, a bit late in the day to go back and change all the names.

But wait a minute, reptiles are mostly ‘cold-blooded’ (ectothermic). Imagine a sluggish snake slowly slithering into the sunlight to warm up. In the early years of dino studies, dinosaurs were thought to have been the same. Luckily, as we now know, not nearly all dinosaurs were like this. Although large dinosaurs like the sauropods (Diplodocus, Brachiosaurus etc) most likely edged closer to being ectothermic, with their walnut-sized brains matching their bodies in speed, a host of other groups may have had mixed metabolisms, perhaps shifting from being predominantly endothermic (‘warm-blooded’) as juveniles to more ectothermic as adults. The group that eventually evolved into birds even became fully endothermic somewhere along the way; imagine hyperactive, bouncy tooth-machines with varying amounts of feathers. Wait – birds?

Yep, bird is the word. When everyone talks about the ‘dinosaurs going extinct 65 million years ago,’ they’re not entirely sensitive to the nuances; not all dinosaurs went extinct. Birds don’t come from dinosaurs, birds are dinosaurs. They share more characteristics with other members of the group Dinosauria than with any other group, and they were versatile and adaptable enough to survive the asteroid impact and the ensuing hell on earth. So if you want to be snobbishly accurate, you’ll say that all the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct all those years ago, and that only the avian dinosaurs, aka the birds, survived. They evolved within the group known as maniraptora; mostly ‘raptor-like’ dinos that had long arms with three-fingered hands, hollow bones, and wishbones. And a fair amount of them developed feathers. Flight developed at some point in this group of maniraptora, though it is uncertain when exactly. Deinonychus, the real inspiration for Jurassic Park’s Velociraptors (actual Velociraptors were a lot smaller), must have resembled a very scary, toothy, fluffy, oversized, and probably flightless chicken. Sadly, however hard I try, I can’t get myself to consider feathered dinosaurs scarier or cooler than the ‘naked’ versions – Jurassic Park’s representation of the raptors will always have a place in my heart.

What is even worse for the public image of dinosaurs: some members of the Tyrannosauroidae superfamily (which, as I’m sure will surprise you greatly, host the Tyrannosaurus family, too) were apparently also covered in down or even proper feathers. The best example is Yutyrannus, T-rex’s slightly smaller (at approx. 9 meters in length compared to T-Rex’s 12 meters) Chinese cousin, who had feathers on various parts of its body. As you can imagine, this opens up a whole can of worms regarding which dinosaurs were feathered and which ones weren’t – but I don’t have space to dig into that in this post.

After all this disheartening talk, I’ve got to end with a small section on the world’s most famous dinosaur: the king, the terrifying Tyrannosaurus Rex. First off, there is no evidence for T-Rex being feathered. Phew. Also, that whole thing they’ve got going in Jurassic Park where the T-Rex can’t see you if you don’t move is – if you hadn’t guessed it yet – very very creative film-making indeed; there is no reason at all to assume that such a loophole existed in real Mesozoic life. If you ever encounter a T-Rex, don’t freeze. Run. However, this Elvis amongst predators was not actually the biggest carnivore one could bump into. Spinosaurus, the weirdo with the huge crest on his back playing catch with the satellite phone in Jurassic Park 3, gave T-Rex a run for its prehistoric money. Giganotosaurus and Carcharodontosaurus (named for the strong resemblance of its teeth to that of the great white shark) are also known to have been slightly larger than T-Rex. In my opinion, this doesn’t make T-Rex any less cool; it was hugely successful and widely represented, with T-Rex fossils being found in a large variety of rock formations dated between 68 and 66 million years ago. Despite living way at the end of the Dinosaur age, the T-Rex takes up a dominating position in our imagination when it comes to these magnificent creatures. Kings indeed.

So much for the past; what about the future? The latest film in the Jurassic Park series, Jurassic World (2015), envisions the dino theme park up and running ‘properly’ and catering to an increasingly hard-to-awe audience. However, the method of extracting dino dna from a Mesozoic mosquito wouldn’t quite hold up in real life, and despite soft tissue being extracted from a T-Rex, finding actual dna in something so old is highly unlikely – let alone completing the sequence and actually cloning a dinosaur. Also, one would hope the Jurassic Park films would have deterred us enough from trying something so horribly doomed to fail (how arrogant could we get as a species… seriously).

Well, how arrogant, indeed. Scientists are already working on cloning a woolly mammoth after finding decently preserved dna in the permafrost. (See, for instance, this article: I find this quite shocking. In the original Jurassic Park, Dr. Ian Malcolm sees this atrocity for what it is when he speaks to John Hammond about his revival of the dinosaurs: “(…) Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Dress up warmly, guys, there are scary times ahead.



For further reading see, for instance, D. Fastovsky and D. Weishampel, Dinosaurs. A Concise Natural History (Cambridge University Press 2009).

The creepy tales of Japan: The tale of the yuki onna – the snow woman

Yuki onna. Image found on
Yuki onna. Image found on

— See my previous post for an overview of Japan’s tradition of creepy things. —

Yuki onna – the snow woman

The snow came down dense and thick on a dark, moonless night. A lone traveller, huddled up in gear that failed to keep out the fangs of the wind, was desperately looking for shelter. As he plodded on with dwindling vigour, relief suddenly washed the snowflakes from his eyes as the vague shape of a woman appeared in the distance. He was saved. Surely, she lived nearby and had heard his calls for help. As the traveller approached her, her blurred form crystallised and he could see she was both young and beautiful, with long, black hair. Deceptive warmth overtook him as he followed the resolute steps of the woman, failing to notice that she had no feet and simply floated across the snow, or that her white kimono was so paper-thin she should long since have frozen to death. Losing himself in her vision, the traveller was lost forever, as the woman soothingly turned him into a block of ice with the touch of her breath.

The snow woman, or yuki onna, is a spirit on speed. An extreme busybody, she appears in many different legends across (but not exclusive to) Japan’s northern reaches that see heavy snowfall in winter and seek to explain why people sometimes disappear or reappear as frozen corpses. The short story above is but one random version (that somehow made its way out of my ice cream-cold brain) that encompasses some familiar elements of this myth; there are countless variations on the story, some of which I will shed some light on in this post.

The yuki onna, while referred to as a yōkai (demon), resembles classic yūrei (ghosts), with a pale complexion, white garments and long black hair, either floating or lacking feet entirely. In most tales, she is a young, bombshell beauty with no good intentions whatsoever, killing unsuspecting mortals with her bad, icy breath, or leading them astray so the elements can do her dirty work for her.

Undoubtedly a legend of great antiquity, the yuki onna first appears in writing in the Sogi Shokoku Monogatari, an account written by the monk Sogi, who lived during the Muromachi period (1333-1573). He saw a ten feet tall version of the yuki onna standing in his garden, who vanished when he tried to speak to her. With no one actually getting hurt, this is a bit of a mild, warmup version of the legend.

Sometimes, she appears as a mother holding a baby, looking all vulnerable and in need of help. When not-so-paranoid souls proceed to jump to her aid and take her child from her, they are turned into living icicles. I would imagine this particular manifestation of the yuki onna has a fairly decent success rate when targeted at parents who are desperately searching for their lost child. Yuki onna have also been known to invade houses, ruthlessly killing those inside. It’s probably not a good thing that thanks to this particular aspect, the more superstitiously susceptible of us might hesitate when a half-frozen stranger in need of actual help starts pawing at our door in the middle of the night.

Though she’s never a goody two-shoes, the yuki onna occasionally shows a softer side as well. In the best-known version of her story, recorded by Lafcadio Hearn in 1904, she astonishingly appears capable of having mercy. The tale tells of two woodcutters, one young and the other old, who find themselves trapped by a blizzard and are forced to seek shelter in a mountain hut. That evening, a beautiful woman comes in and kills the old guy by unleashing her horribly bad breath on him. The yuki onna spares the young man, warning him never to tell anyone what he had seen, or else she would come back to send him to his grave, too. Several years later, the man is happily married with children, with a wife distinctly more beautiful than Peggy Bundy (sorry!). One night, when looking at his wife he is reminded of the strange incident in the mountain hut, and – you can probably see this coming – he actually decides to tell her about it. Of course, his wife turns to him and reveals herself to be that very same yuki onna. Out of love for their children, she lets him live, despite her earlier warning. How touching. In a flurry of melancholy, she then waltzes out the door and vanishes. Or melts into a puddle. Versions differ a little. (I’m sure you can guess which one is my favourite).

So much for her softer, more-in-touch-with-cute-snowflakes-side. By contrast, hard as winters from hell, the yuki onna sometimes manifests as a terrifying snow vampire, staying alive by sucking the life out of her victims. It is said that first, she freezes her targets, after which she gives them a proper dementor-style kiss, sucking their souls out through their mouths. In the Nigata prefecture, this version of the yuki onna supposedly even prefers the life-force of children.

And again, this is merely the beginning. There are so many different stories regarding this strange, strange lady, I’m going to be sensible and call it quits at this point. I just love the kind of stuff we humans come up with in order to explain deaths or disappearances connected with natural phenomena. I think we have a deep-seated hunger for scary stories, too, at a very basic level. There’s something very appealing about messing ourselves up a bit and having a good fright night, even if we inevitably end up looking way less heroic and hiding behind pillows – whether they are of the human or of the fabric variety!

The creepy tales of Japan: The tradition – monsters, spirits, and darkness

'Various Yokai Flying out of Wicker Clothes Hamper' from the 'Omoi Tsuzura' by Yoshitoshi
‘Various Yokai Flying out of Wicker Clothes Hamper’ from the ‘Omoi Tsuzura’ by Yoshitoshi

— I wanted to include both a general overview of the Japanese tradition of creepy things as well as highlight one story in particular, so I  divided this post into two parts. Click here to jump head-first into the tale of the yuki onna, or snow woman. —

The tradition

You might recall the Japanese horror films Ringu, which revolves around a woman with abnormally long hair continuously spider-crawling out of  television sets, or Ju-On: The Grudge, in which vengeful spirits haunt a house and quite literally scare everyone to death. Both are fairly good candidates for creeping yourself out to get into the Halloween spirit.

I first saw those films when I was maybe fifteen or sixteen years old. I remember this one time when a friend and I had just watched either Ringu or The Grudge – I don’t recall which one; during this period we re-watched these way too often – in my very dark attic room in the house I grew up in. Afterwards, we hauled our asses downstairs to hang out in our living room. After a couple of minutes of post-film discussion, mid-sentence, the television suddenly switched on, without either of us being anywhere near the remote. I’m practically underground regarding how down to earth I am, so it was more of a creepy moment to instantly make fun of, but still. Sadako? House spirits? And I do love a good ghost story.

When it comes to ghost and/or horror stories, these two films are merely the tip of the Japanese iceberg, so I thought it might be a good idea to seek out the skeletons in Japan’s closet. Join me at your own peril.

I can only stare in awe at Japan’s ability to come up with ridiculously wonderful, horrible monsters and ghosts. Different regions obviously have their own tradition of specific tales and stories – I imagine them being told by old ladies to scare the village children into behaving themselves. However, general trends regarding phenomena such as yōkai (demons/monsters/apparitions) and yūrei (ghosts/spirits) can be observed at least from the time when far to the west, Europe was busy being all kinds of primitively medieval.

Yōkai, sometimes also referred to as mononoke, come in many different shapes and sizes and range from pure evil to merely mischievous. They tend to be somewhat in touch with their inner Uri Geller, as they are often ascribed supernatural powers. As early as the eighth century, the Shoku Nihongi (completed in 797) states that yōkai appeared in the imperial court with alarming frequency, and that Shinto purification was performed to ward them off. Clearly, the demons weren’t deterred enough, or else they would never have become Japanese canon.

Now for some shapes and sizes. Many animal yōkai – some of the more famous of which are kitsune (foxes), tanuki (raccoon dogs), hebi (snakes), and inugami (dogs), are shapeshifters (obake) that often play tricks on people, for instance by using their human forms. More definitively ominous yōkai come in the shape of oni: horned demon/ogre amalgamations that wear loincloths and swing giant clubs or swords about like there’s no tomorrow. More ambiguous are the tengu; bird-like demons that were traditionally deemed disruptive harbingers of war by Buddhism, but who evolved into (still dangerous) spirits who protect the mountains and forest. I can go on for a while still – there are so many different kinds! – but I’ll limit myself to mentioning one last type of yōkai, the tsukumogami. This class is built on the fascinating idea, which dates back at least as far as the tenth century, that certain ordinary household items come to life on their hundredth birthday. I mean, imagine your tea pot playing pranks on you, or angrily seeking payback for all those years of making disgusting mint tea in them. Or your straw sandals. Or your hand mirror. Apparently some of these items even teamed up to take revenge on people who had mindlessly thrown them away…

Besides all these strange monsters, there are also more familiar creeps to be found in Japanese horror history. Yūrei, like their ghostly western counterparts, are spirits who ran into a brick wall while trying to cross over to the afterlife. There is obviously a reason why they find themselves in this sticky situation; generally these people died ever so slightly abnormal deaths. I’ll leave it to your own imagination to come up with the specifics. Powerful emotions such as revenge, jealousy and sorrow can also tie spirits to this world, in which case their particular conundrum needs to be sorted out before they can finally move on. As time wound on, these ghosts took on a fairly standardised appearance: white robes or clothing; long, unkempt black hair; lifeless hands and feet. Ringu’s main character, anyone?

My favourite type of yūrei is the onryō, or vengeful spirit, thought to be capable of all kinds of nastiness (even natural disasters) in order to secure their revenge. They are far more powerful in death than they ever were in life. So, for megalomaniacs, this seems to be the ultimate career path. The same eighth century Shoku Nihongi which mentions yōkai also records the first instance of someone being possessed by an onryō. Clearly, the author must have been an interesting figure. The text states that a man named Fujiwara Hirotsugu had died in a failed insurrection aimed at removing from power his rival, the priest Genbō. Hirotsugu’s soul then returned to literally scare the life out of the priest. Another tale, of uncertain age, but recorded by Lafcadio Hearn in 1904, tells of a samurai who promised his dying wife that he will never remarry. It will come as no surprise to you that he could not keep his feeble mind in check and ends up breaking the promise with alarming speed. His dead wife’s ghost is far too good of a woman for coming to warn him first, before proceeding to murder the young bride by ripping her head off when her warning wasn’t heeded. Yikes.

These kinds of wrathful ghosts are often present in a game I feel should regain some popularity – Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, or A Gathering of One Hundred Supernatural Tales. It first became popular during the Edo period (1603-1868), and because of this game, the demand for the gathering of kaidan (ghost stories) from all over Japan increased. The game involves a hundred candles or lamps being lit, and the players taking turns recounting ghoulish tales, be they folkloric or focused on personal/local supernatural experiences. After the end of each story, the storyteller douses one light; spirits were obviously drawn to the darkness like moths to a flame. As the game progressed, the room grew darker and darker, leaving more room for creepy apparitions to come and peep at the players from the darkness. Much cooler than an Ouija board, if you ask me.

These little anecdotes are just the beginning; Japanese ghost stories are definitely worth digging into, if you’re into that kind of thing. In the next part, I will tell one such tale; that of the snow woman, or yuki onna. I ensure you it is nothing like Disney’s Frozen.

Here are some creepy pictures that do a much better job at providing an adequate punch line than I ever could.

Onryō by Hokusai
Onryō by Hokusai
Ukiyo-e print of yōkai, by Aotoshi Matsui
Ukiyo-e print of yōkai, by Aotoshi Matsui
Oni in pilgrim's clothing. Tokugawa period.
Oni in pilgrim’s clothing. Tokugawa period.

History’s awkward endings Pt.2: Frederick Barbarossa

Frederick Barbarossa, middle, flanked by two of his children, King Henry VI (left) and Duke Frederick VI (right). From the Historia Welforum.
Frederick Barbarossa, middle, flanked by two of his children, King Henry VI (left) and Duke Frederick VI (right). From the Historia Welforum.

The twelfth century almost reminds me of the world created by Marvel for their superheroes such as Captain America and Iron Man. It is without a doubt my favourite era of the Middle Ages. The hero of today’s story, Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’, Holy Roman Emperor from 1152 until his death in 1190, shared the stage with some other truly larger-than-life figures who made sure they would occupy a good amount of pages in future history books. So, I naturally can’t tell Frederick’s story without filling in some of this context, for fear of these chaps coming back to haunt me.

Quickly rising to celebrity status was bold King Henry II of England, who consolidated what would become known as the Angevin Empire, and who famously quarreled with Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and had him stabbed to death inside his own cathedral. Henry’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was a plotting she-wolf who joined some of her sons in rebellion against him. One of those sons, warrior-poet Richard I ‘the Lionheart’, placed his stamp on the crusades by making his Muslim adversary Saladin’s life fairly stressful. (By the way, for those interested in the poet part: look up Richard’s song ‘Ja nuns hons pris’ on youtube. It’s great.) And, according to Disney, Richard had a fabulous follower named Robin Hood. Finally – I’m forcing myself to cut this list short – my favourite Pope, Innocent III, who was incredibly pompous and stuck his oversized nose into literally everything within reach, began his reign just before the end of this century in 1198.

Now, let’s fill in part of the board on which these chess pieces played their game. Imagine upcoming cities with guilds, booming trade, a powerful Church, kings and vassals, knights in shining armour going off to chop Muslim infidels into tiny pieces in the Holy Land, and ever-shifting boundaries as neighbouring kingdoms harried each other’s territories. On this stage, tales of chivalric romance often sung by wandering minstrels carrying out-of-tune lutes, for example recounting the legend of King Arthur, were busy becoming the rock stars of their day. In short, this period is about as quintessentially medieval as it gets.

For Frederick Barbarossa, the conditions for becoming a medieval superhero were all in place, because by the time he became emperor the Holy Roman Empire was eh, having some issues. Superheroes must have something to battle and overcome, of course.

The Holy Roman Empire was made up of a plethora of principalities, duchies and the likes, stretching from the Low Countries to northern Italy, the core of which would later become Germany. A.K.A., not the most easily governed mishmash. Complicating matters further, its emperor was often elected, and was then crowned by the Pope. In time, the popes (in this case, Gregory VII) decided they wanted a piece of the pie and tried to strong-arm one of Frederick’s predecessors, Henry IV, into letting them appoint local church officials. The ensuing struggle, known as the Investiture Controversy, almost literally crippled Henry, who had to beg on his knees for forgiveness. Henry’s initiate pig-headedness had also led to uprisings within his empire, increased power for local German princes, and the rebellion of his sons. Even after the Controversy was ended in 1122, strife continued to plague the empire in the form of power hungry princes and two squabbling rival houses. So, you can imagine the Holy Roman Empire wasn’t entirely shipshape by the time Frederick appeared on the scene.

Perfect circumstances for some legacy-building, or so Frederick thought. Frederick, who was the nephew of King Conrad III, was born in 1122. In a Game of Thrones-worthy episode, he won the king’s confidence during the Second Crusade (1145–1149), and proceeded to make sure he was present at the king’s deathbed in 1152, along with just one other person. Both Frederick and his buddy afterwards declared that Conrad had handed the royal insignia to Frederick rather than to his own six-year old son. Not bad, Freddy.

He instantly realized that in order to restore some of the recently lost power to his position, he had to cut some smart deals. The first item on his to-do list was establishing peace in the mess that was the German states, which he achieved by making lavish concessions to the German princes. Consequently, he bombarded the empire’s Italian domains with a bunch of campaigns intended to restore imperial authority, which were moderately successful. He also reinstated the (originally sixth-century) Justinian Code of law, which he used to add divine powers to his office. Overall, this man had the skills and the charisma to breathe new life into imperial authority, and he is considered to be one of the Holy Roman Empire’s greatest medieval emperors.

Such a great man as this Redbeard (which is what Barbarossa means) obviously deserved a heroic – or at least a dignified – exit. There was certainly a grand opportunity for him to go out with a bang. In 1187, Balian of Ibelin, represented by ladies’ favourite Orlando Bloom in the film Kingdom of Heaven, had been forced to surrender Jerusalem to the Muslim leader Saladin; the Third Crusade was launched in 1189 in an attempt to reconquer the lost lands. Frederick Barbarossa joined King Richard the Lionheart and the French king Philip II Augustus in taking up the cross. It could have been great. It could have been wonderful. Instead, it was ever so slightly damp.

En route in Anatolia, before even reaching the Holy Land, the great Frederick Barbarossa drowned while crossing the river Saleph. How the hell did this happen? The sources all vary ever so slightly, and there’s no space here to go through all of the versions. According to our main source, the Historia de Expeditione Frederici Imperatoris, the army had trudged through the blistering heat on unforgiving terrain for days, scaling cliffs ‘accessible only to birds and mountain goats’. The author has it that Frederick wanted to cool down a bit, as well as avoid another mountain peak, so he jumped right into the swift-flowing river. Straight into a whirlpool, apparently. Thus, Frederick ended up sleeping with the fishes (bonus points if you get the Worms reference). There is also a source that states that Barbarossa attempted to give his horse some swimming lessons by crossing the river, but failing miserably; both Frederick and his horse were swept away by the current. Of course, as befits a proper knight, he was wearing his full plate armour, and sank like a guilty witch.

After his death, his army more or less dissolved and most of the German knights returned home. Without the German army, Richard the Lionheart failed to reconquer the holy grail that was Jerusalem, despite capturing the important cities of Acre and Jaffa. Luckily, in World War 2 the Nazis realised what a great emperor Frederick had been, and wanted to honour him by naming one of their operations after him. However, Operation Barbarossa, the code name for Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union which was started in June 1941, met a similarly awkward end when the troops drowned in mountains of Soviet snow. Perhaps they were tempting fate by naming it after Frederick.

The death of Frederick Barbarossa as depicted in the Gotha manuscript of the Sächsische Weltchronik.
The death of Frederick Barbarossa as depicted in the Gotha manuscript of the Sächsische Weltchronik.

History’s awkward endings Pt.1: King Croesus of Lydia

Head of Croesus on a vase in the Louvre, Paris (France)
Head of Croesus on a vase in the Louvre, Paris (France)

History often serves as a sort of mirror of the past, showcasing what our species is capable of and offering perspective on present-day events. Plenty of lessons can be learned from it. Plenty of how-not-to-do-its. The big picture can teach us about development, trends, bla bla bla you know the story. But history is also rife with ridiculous stories that are just too good not to tell, despite their often questionable nature and, perhaps, little direct present-day relevance. So who am I to deny these stories their turn in the limelight?

Through the course of my studies I’ve naturally built up a bit of an arsenal of these kinds of stories, and I thought it would be nice to do a (themed) series incorporating some of them. So, enter History’s awkward endings, in which each post will tell a different tale. Yes, the ‘endings’ part is deliberately vague, to give myself some more options. All ye with weak stomachs or a too highly attuned sense of vicarious shame, turn away before it’s too late

Our first target of ridicule is weirdly wonderful, war-mongering king Croesus of Lydia.

Imagine living in the kingdom of Lydia, which spanned roughly the western half of present-day Turkey, in the fifth century BC. Your Greek neighbours across the Aegean Sea are all busy forming city-states and trying to one-up their rivals by inventing even cooler ways to rule their cities. Sparta’s holding fast to her “What’s better than one king? – Two kings!” thing, while Athens is under expert tyrant management by the Pisistratids and still has some way to go before coming up with all that democracy nonsense. Closer to home, on your own side of the pond, there are some little Greek colonies that can easily be scared into submission by a capable king. Lydia’s capital, Sardis, has a river running through it that supposedly carries gold dust, in part explaining the kingdom’s wealth, and King Croesus’ reputation for being filthy rich. Croesus is not only rich; he is also stupidly confident and ambitious, and of course wants to ensure he will go down in history. And he will.

Now, our main and almost only written source on Croesus is Herodotus, the ‘father of history’. He wrote the Histories, an account of the Persian Wars (you know, the ones during which the whole ‘300’/’This. Is. SPARTA!’ thing took place) and the prelude to it, with a vast amount of background given about the Persian Empire, too. He was a bearded (albeit originally non-mainland-) Greek with a passion for recording even the most obscure titbit of information he had gathered on his travels. Herodotus had the admirable goal of trying to be as historically accurate as possible; and, to be fair, he does a decent job at this, casting his often critical eye on a huge variety of matters. For instance, he’ll strive to give both versions if he has heard two conflicting stories on a certain matter and can’t figure out which one’s correct. However, he sometimes records utter nonsense as well: despite his claims to the contrary, camels do not actually have four thigh-bones and four knee-joints. (Hdt. III.103). Herodotus wrote his Histories about a full century later than when Croesus did all of his sallying forth and conquering and such; something definitely worth remembering. He also likes a good story (including his own book, of course), so literary motives might distort matters a bit further here and there. All in all, I think it’s fair to take the stories he tells about Croesus with a bit of a pinch of salt

According to Herodotus, Croesus succeeded to the throne at the age of thirty-five, predictably after the death of his father (shit – that’s how kingdoms work?). Almost instantly he began indulging in his new favourite pastime of non-mainland Greek bashing, which he started by invading the Ephesians and then worked his way through the rest. Expanded kingdom: check. Wealth: check. Happiness? Croesus thought so, but there’s an interesting passage to be found in the Histories which tells of his meeting with Solon the Athenian that sheds some light on this point.

Yes, THE Solon, the one who’s remembered for his laws and reforms. After having given his city a helping hand, Solon seems to have gone on some sort of Grand Tour, and happened to stop by Sardis, too. Croesus, holding Solon in high regard, asks him who he considers to be the happiest among men, obviously expecting Solon to flatter him and say Croesus’ name. Solon will have none of that, however, and proceeds to list a few men who for example became wealthy, fathered sons and saw them grow up and have kids of their own, and died a glorious death in battle. A.k.a., they met a good end, too. When Croesus asks why he isn’t included in this in his opinion none too impressive list, Solon replies that he can’t name him yet, until his life has been brought to a fair ending, while having held on to all of his wealth. (Hdt. I.30-32).

His conquering needs not satisfied yet, Croesus decides he wants to become even richer (which, if he can hang onto it, would make for a great ending) and devises taking his megalomania into the neighbouring hulk that is the Persian Empire. In the meantime, by the way, his son dies, arguably as a result of his own paranoia; not a good sign. A pitt-stop at the renowned Delphic Oracle, situated in the most beautiful place on earth (Delphi, in Greece; seriously, go visit it if you have the chance) was meant to give him piece of mind regarding this not entirely risk-free enterprise. Luckily the oracle tells him that if he marches against the Persians, he will destroy a great empire. (Hdt. I.53). Score!

Now of course one can imagine that oracles, as some sort of precursors to modern-day horoscopes (shudder), could boost their success rate considerably by being ever so slightly ambiguous. I’m sure you can see it coming. Croesus, of course, didn’t, and learned his lesson the hard way. By pissing off Persia’s king, Cyrus, who with the epithet ‘the Great’ already appeared to have the symbolical upper hand over Croesus, Croesus secured the fate of his own kingdom. Cyrus bulldozed over the ant that was his now former neighbour, sacked Sardis, annexed his kingdom and took his gold. It is unsure where and how exactly Croesus died. Herodotus claims Cyrus released Croesus from the great pyre they had intended to roast him on and was then made an advisor (Hdt. I.87-88), but this seems like a bit of a stretch. Either way, I think we can safely assume Croesus never made it onto Solon’s shortlist of happy men. The king who lost his kingdom; a sort of ancient version of scoring an own goal – and we all know how much of a disaster that is!

Our ancestry: Homo Naledi, Homo Superman?

Facial reconstruction of Homo Naledi. Photograph by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic.

This past week, articles began to pop up all over the internet regarding the find of a new species of human ancestor, imaginatively named Homo Naledi after the South African cave where the remains were found. Those of you who know me will know that finds like these make me as giddy as a kid in a candy store. So, be warned. Proceed at your own caution. There are actual dragons ahead.

Why is this find so interesting? What sort of impact could it have on our understanding of hominin (the group consisting of modern humans, extinct human species, and our immediate ancestors) evolution?

The Homo Naledi find has proper boat-rocking potential. In true Indiana Jones fashion, the site was discovered by cavers, who knew there might be bones in caves and were looking for previously untrodden passages. After working their way through a passage called the Superman’s Crawl (because most people can only fit through the narrow gap by extending one arm above their heads and the other pressed against their bodies, like Superman in flight), and crossing the rocky ridge known as the Dragon’s Back, they found a fissure in the floor leading into a vertical chute. In what I’m sure you realise by now is a highly inaccessible place that won’t win any wheelchair-friendly awards, they uncovered a chamber from which the bones of at least fifteen (!) excellently preserved specimens would be excavated. This is a huge amount. Usually, finds are restricted to the odd skeletal part here and there. Before going into more detail about this new species, a bit more context about our broader human lineage might be useful.

Now, there’s an interesting gap in the fossil record of our genus, Homo, that this find might play into. As one scientist put it, current Homo finds that are dated between 3 and 2 million years ago can all be contained in one shoe box, while leaving space for the shoes. On the far end of this gap, we find what is commonly considered to be a very early direct ancestor of ours, the Australopithecines. The well-known specimen “Lucy”, dated to 3.2 million years ago, belongs to the species Australopithecus Afarensis. They walked upright on two legs, but were a lot smaller than us and had considerably smaller brains (than most of us). They were more apish than human, so to say. Our own genus, Homo, possibly emerged around 2.8 million years ago, but becomes recognisably represented in the fossil record around 2 million years ago with Homo Habilis and Homo Erectus. These were larger-brained handymen who used stone tools and, as we know for sure with regard to Homo Erectus, harnessed fire and became Masterchefs.

So how does Homo Naledi fit into this story? The bones they uncovered were mildly confusing, to say the least, and have a bit of a Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde vibe to them. On the one hand, the fossils sported characteristics that had surprisingly modern human features, but at the same time some parts were quite primitively apish. The top half – shoulders, torso, and flared hips – reminds us more of our very early Australopithecine ancestors, whereas the bottom half with its long legs and humanlike feet appears very much human. The skull and teeth show an interesting mix of the two; the braincase was less than half the size of ours, but it was quite modern, and more similar to Homo Erectus than Homo Habilis is.

Thus – you’ve guessed it – Homo Naledi might be placed somewhere in between Australopithecus and Homo Erectus, at perhaps around 2 to 2.5 million years ago, in which case it would fill in some of the blanks of the shoe-box era. This is by far the most likely scenario. The problem is that so far they haven’t managed to date the find, because apparently bottom-of-a-cave mixed sediment presents a bit of a problem. So we can’t shout it from any rooftops just yet. Also, if it somehow turns out to be much older, it might contest the idea that Australopithecus is our direct ancestor. In that case it might also be connected to the recent discovery that has pushed back the date of the earliest known stone tools to an astonishing 3.3 million years old (so, before any thus far known species of Homo were around). And if it happens to be a lot younger, it places a small-brained Homo alongside a lot of advanced Homo bigheads.

However interesting this is, I’m even more intrigued by another feature of the find. At least fifteen skeletons, found in a Mission Impossible worthy remote part of a cave, preserved without any tools or animal bones to suggest that they might have lived there. How on earth did they get there? There were no tooth marks on the bones to suggest predatory gnawing and dragging into lairs, and no rubble or stones to indicate the bones had been washed there by a river or a flood. Also, the way the bones were distributed points to intervals between the deposition of the specimens. According to Lee Berger, the paleoanthropologist who led the excavation, the only likely explanation seems to be, to quote Boromir, that ‘This is no mine. It’s a tomb!’ Deliberate burial or disposal of bodies. Far, far earlier than our current earliest evidence of burials. Only Homo Sapiens and perhaps Neanderthals are thus far associated with this sort of ritualisation of death. Moreover, because the chamber is so hard to reach and very, very dark indeed, torches or lit fires must have been necessary. This is very advanced behaviour for a creature with such a small brain.

Of course, there could have been a different entrance to the chamber all those long years ago. In that case, perhaps fire wasn’t a definitive requirement at all. And even though the sediments scream out against the bones having washed in, I think it might perhaps be too big of a leap to pin this deposition of bodies in the category of ‘ritualised’ burials. Perhaps the Naledi simply found a convenient chasm nearby their living place to chuck their dead into, so they weren’t staring at them all the time while they rotted.

But, whichever way you spin it, this new species sure throws us a curveball and makes us rethink some of our previous assumptions. Oh yeah, and the find’s location in South Africa, rather than East Africa where most other human fossils are found, might end up changing our perspective about our origin story, too. Not a bad score for one find. I for one eagerly await the day they finally manage to date these remains.

(Further reading:

Prohibition party!


“Everybody’s got to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another beer.”

― W.C. Fields

As a Dutch person it seems almost impossible to grow up without encountering, often from an improbably young age, the phenomenon of tourists asking you where the nearest coffee shop is. Cue surprised stares and open mouths when you proceed to shrug and apologise for your ignorance, while they hastily move on and continue their search. The Netherlands have long since been entrenched in the imaginations of many a foreigner as a sort of magical Alice in Wonderland-land. Legal drugs! Party! Woo! And, as their trips progress, some increasingly funky-looking windmills.

A lot of these thrill-seekers are unaware that drugs are in fact not legal at all in this country. Certain kinds – the ‘soft’ kinds such as cannabis and certain mushrooms – are merely tolerated under certain circumstances. For instance, as long as you are a Dutch resident, are of age, and are carrying a maximum of 5 grams of cannabis, you won’t be prosecuted. Yes, you read that correctly: tourists miss the boat. From January 1, 2013 onward, coffee shops are not allowed to sell to people without Dutch residency. Luckily for tourists, though, most shops don’t check all too rigorously.

The idea behind this degree of toleration is that the government can keep more of an eye on things this way, rather than forcing it underground and losing all control over it. At least, it does to us sober Dutchies. It’s also good to note that the country that epitomises Freedom with a capital F is now slowly but surely, state by state, converting to our wisdom. This is a very far cry from the historical example I mean to pull up here. A lot has changed in some eighty years.

I’ve always been enthralled by the contrasts and contradictions that arose during the Prohibition Era in the United States. It shows us how the American people reacted to the complete ban on the sale, production, importation and transportation of alcoholic beverages that was in place from 1920 to 1933. But wait. Wasn’t this the same period in time usually referred to as the Roaring Twenties? Reckless spending, wild jazz, booty-shaking dancing, partying, and outrageous flapper girls… and a general ban on alcohol. Quite a bold move on the government’s side, I’d say. If only the people who shoved the so-called Volstead Act down people’s throats had had the ability to listen to the words of Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, some seventy odd years in the future, they would have known that ‘Life, uh, finds a way.’

The Volstead Act was a reaction to the perception that society had begun to run rife with alcoholics, gamblers, druggees and violence. The advocates of this act, well, advocated it as a cure for society’s problems, as it was to promote health and public morals. Now, anyone who has seen the successful HBO series Boardwalk Empire (with a fantastic Steve Buscemi, by the way), or anyone who can successfully add one and one, may have the notion to place some footnotes by the intended results of the Act. On the surface, some success was achieved. During the 1920s overall registered (!) alcohol consumption declined by around fifty percent, and it took American society until the 1940s to climb back up to their pre-Prohibition levels of alcohol consumption, so at least some temporary effects are indeed noticeable. Some US inhabitants were at least healthier and perhaps adhered to the odd moral here and there. On the other hand, of course, there is a reason why this era is known as the Roaring Twenties, and why Prohibition is usually regarded as a failed exercise.

Imagine hidden, underground parts of warehouses filled with huge home-made kettles or – on a smaller scale – bathtubs, where things resembling alcoholic beverages were produced by shaggy men in long coats. A significant amount of people had lost their income when alcohol was banned because, hey, no need to produce and distribute it any longer. These people somehow had to make a living (guess how!). A lot of previously alcohol-consuming but law-abiding people also felt the law was unjust, and were thus more than willing to break it. The result was an entire black market for the stuff. Or, for some sort of stuff; quality could vary immensely, to the point where some of the home-brewed stuff should not be consumed by anyone valuing their lives. Speakeasies – bars where alcohol was sold illegally – popped up all over the place. Organised crime received a huge boost. Mafia groups (think Al Capone!) flourished and added bootlegging to their repertoire. And the government hardly stood a chance. Prohibition was notoriously weakly enforced; the magnitude of the task completely overwhelmed law enforcers, who simply didn’t have enough tools available to them in order to deal with the situation. For those who had the energy to make an effort, the law could be bypassed fairly easily.

So, life indeed found a way. And now the whole thing was way further removed from the government’s hands than it had been previously. Moreover, when the stock market collapsed on October 24, 1929, it became apparent that state governments could really have used the tax revenue the sale of alcohol had brought in prior to Prohibition. Roosevelt, who was elected in 1932, saw reason and finally had Prohibition repealed in 1933. Of course, this Prohibition business concerned a completely different time, context, and even substance than the whole Dutch drug story told above. Still, I think it’s a good measure of human nature; when people feel they’re being treated unreasonably – in this case in the case of a complete alcohol ban – they won’t just stay put. And these days cannabis is widely considered to be a very mild drug that can hardly be called worse than alcohol for morals and general behaviour, so it follows similar lines.

In the end, I figure you just can’t stop the dinosaurs. All together now, one last time: Life, uh, finds a way.