An Ancient Egyptian Homework Assignment from 1800 Years Ago: Some Things Are Truly Timeless

Every generation of schoolchildren no doubt first assumes homework to be a historically distinct form of punishment, developed expressly to be inflicted on them. But the parents of today's miserable homework-doers also, of course, had to do homework themselves, as did their parents' parents. It turns out that you can go back surprisingly far in history and still find examples of the menace of homework, as far back as ancient Egypt, a civilization from which one example of an out-of-classroom assignment will go on display at the British Library's exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, which opens this spring.

"Beginning with the origins of writing in Egypt, Mesopotamia, China and the Americas, the exhibition will explore the many manifestations, purposes and forms of writing, demonstrating how writing has continually enabled human progress and questioning the role it plays in an increasingly digital world," says the British Library's press release.




"From an ancient wax tablet containing a schoolchild’s homework as they struggle to learn their Greek letters to a Chinese typewriter from the 1970s, Writing: Making Your Mark will showcase over 30 different writing systems to reveal that every mark made – whether on paper or on a screen – is the continuation of a 5,000 year story and is a step towards determining how writing will be used in the future."

That wax tablet, preserved since the second century A.D., bears Greek words that Livescience's Mindy Weisberger describes as "familiar to any kid whose parents worry about them falling in with a bad crowd": "You should accept advice from a wise man only" and "You cannot trust all your friends." First acquired by the British Library in 1892 but not publicly displayed since the 1970s, the tablet's surface preserves "a two-part lesson in Greek that provides a snapshot of daily life for a pupil attending primary school in Egypt about 1,800 years ago." Its lines, "copied by this long-ago student were not just for practicing penmanship; they were also intended to impart moral lessons."

But why Greek? "In the 2nd century A.D., when this lesson was written," writes Smithsonian.com's Jason Daley, "Egypt had been under Roman rule for almost 200 years following 300 years of Greek and Macedonian rule under the Ptolemy dynasty. Greeks in Egypt held a special status below Roman citizens but higher than those of Egyptian descent. Any educated person in the Roman world, however, would be expected to know Latin, Greek and — depending on where they lived — local or regional languages." It was a bit like the situation today with the English language, which has become a requirement for educated people in a variety of cultures — and a subject especially loathed by many a homework-burdened student the world over.

via Livescience

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Strange Dancing Plague of 1518: When Hundreds of People in France Could Not Stop Dancing for Months

If you find yourself thinking you aren’t a victim of fashion, maybe take another look. Yes, we can consciously train ourselves to resist trends through force of habit. We can declare our preferences and stand on principle. But we aren't consciously aware of what's happening in the hidden turnings of our brains. Maybe what we call the unconscious has more control over us than we would like to think.

Inexplicable episodes of mass obsession and compulsion serve as disquieting examples. Mass panics and delusions tend to occur, argues author John Waller, “in people who are under extreme psychological distress, and who believe in the possibility of spirit possession. All of these conditions were satisfied in Strasbourg in 1518,” the year the Dancing Plague came to the town in Alsace—an involuntary communal dance festival with deadly outcomes.

The event began with one person, as you’ll learn in the almost jaunty animated BBC video below, a woman known as Frau Troffea. One day she began dancing in the street. People came out of their houses and gawked, laughed, and clapped. Then she didn’t stop. She “continued to dance, without resting, morning, afternoon, and night for six whole days.” Then her neighbors joined in. Within a month, 400 people were “dancing relentlessly without music or song.”




We might expect that town leaders in this late-Medieval period would have declared it a mass possession event and commenced with exorcisms or witch burnings. Instead, it was said to be a natural phenomenon. Drawing on humoral theory, “local physicians blamed it on ‘hot blood,’” History.com’s Evan Andrews writes. They “suggested the afflicted simply gyrate the fever away. A stage was constructed and professional dancers were brought in. The town even hired a band to provide backing music.”

Soon, however, bloody and exhausted, people began dying from strokes and heart attacks. The dancing went on for months. It was not a fad. No one was enjoying themselves. On the contrary, Waller writes, “contemporaries were certain that the afflicted did not want to dance and the dancers themselves, when they could, expressed their misery and need for help.” This contradicts suggestions they were willing members of a cult, and paints an even darker picture of the event.

Certain psychonauts might see in the 1518 Dancing Plague a shared unconscious, working something out while dragging the poor Strasbourgians along behind it. Other, more or less plausible explanations have included ergotism, or poisoning “from a psychotropic mould that grows on stalks of rye." However, Waller points out, ergot “typically cuts off blood supply to the extremities making coordinated movement very difficult.”

He suggests the dancing mania came about through the meeting of two prior conditions: “The city’s poor were suffering from severe famine and disease,” and many people in the region believed they could obtain good health by dancing before a statue of Saint Vitus. They also believed, he writes, that “St. Vitus… had the power to take over their minds and inflict a terrible, compulsive dance. Once these highly vulnerable people began to anticipate the St. Vitus curse they increased the likelihood that they’d enter the trance state.”

The mystery cannot be definitively solved, but it does seem that what Waller calls “fervent supernaturalism” played a key role, as it has in many mass hysterias, including “ten such contagions which had broken out along the Rhine and Moselle rivers since 1374,” as the Public Domain Review notes. Further up, see a 1642 engraving based on a 1564 drawing by Peter Breughel of another dancing epidemic which occurred that year in Molenbeek. The 17th century German engraving above of a dancing epidemic in a churchyard features a man holding a severed arm.

We see mass panics and delusions around the world, for reasons that are rarely clear to scholars, psychiatrists, historians, anthropologists, and physicians during or after the fact. What is medically known as Saint Vitus dance, or Sydenham’s Chorea, has recognized physical causes like rheumatic fever and occurs in a specific subset of the population. The historical Saint Vitus Dance, or Dancing Plague, however, affected people indiscriminately and seems to have been a phenomenon of mass suggestion, like many other social-psychological events around the world.

Episodes of epidemic manias related to outmoded supernatural beliefs can seem especially bizarre, but the mass psychology of 21st century western culture includes many episodes of social contagion and compulsion no less strange, and perhaps no less widespread or deadly, especially during times of extreme stress.

via Public Domain Review

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Animated History of Cats: How Over 10,000 Years the Cat Went from Wild Predator to Sofa Sidekick

Dogs sees us as their masters while cats sees us as their slaves. - Anonymous

The next time your friend’s pet cat sinks its fangs into your wrist, bear in mind that the beast is probably still laboring under the impression that it’s guarding the granaries.

Anthropologist Eva-Maria Geigl’s animated Ted-Ed Lesson, The History of the World According to Cats, above, awards special recognition to Unsinkable Sam, a black-and-white ship’s cat who survived three WWII shipwrecks (on both Axis and Allied sides).

It’s a cute story, but as far as directing the course of history, Felis silvestris lybica, a subspecies of wildcat that can be traced to the Fertile Crescent some 12,000 years ago, emerges as the true star.




In a Neolithic spin of "The Farmer in the Dell," the troughs and urns in which ancient farmers stored surplus grain attracted mice and rats, who in turn attracted these muscular, predatory cats.

They got the job done.

Human and cats’ mutually beneficial relationship spelled bad news for the rodent population, but survival for today’s 600-million-some domestic cats, whose DNA is shockingly similar to that of its prehistoric ancestors.

Having proved their value to the human population in terms of pest control, cats quickly found themselves elevated to welcome companions of soldiers and sailors, celebrated for their ability to knock out rope-destroying vermin, as well as dangerous animals on the order of snakes and scorpions.

Thusly did cats’ influence spread.

Bastet, the Egyptian goddess of domesticity, women's secrets, fertility, and childbirth is unmistakably feline.

Cats draw the chariot of Freya, the Norse goddess of love.

Their popularity dipped briefly in the Late Middle Ages, when humankind mistakenly credited cats as the source of the plague. In truth, that scourge was spread by rodents, who ran unchecked after men rounded up their feline predators for a gruesome slaughter.

Nowadays, a quick glimpse at Instagram is proof enough that cats are back on top.

(Yes, you can haz cheezburger with that.)

Dogs may see our service to them as proof that we are gods, buts cats surely interpret the feeding and upkeep they receive at human hands as evidence they are the ones to be worshipped.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City January 14 as host of  Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Bertrand Russell’s 10 Commandments for Living in a Healthy Democracy

russell rules 2

Image by J. F. Horrabin, via Wikimedia Commons

Bertrand Russell saw the history of civilization as being shaped by an unfortunate oscillation between two opposing evils: tyranny and anarchy, each of which contain the seed of the other. The best course for steering clear of either one, Russell maintained, is liberalism.

"The doctrine of liberalism is an attempt to escape from this endless oscillation," writes Russell in A History of Western Philosophy. "The essence of liberalism is an attempt to secure a social order not based on irrational dogma [a feature of tyranny], and insuring stability [which anarchy undermines] without involving more restraints than are necessary for the preservation of the community."




In 1951 Russell published an article in The New York Times Magazine, "The Best Answer to Fanaticism--Liberalism," with the subtitle: "Its calm search for truth, viewed as dangerous in many places, remains the hope of humanity." In the article, Russell writes that "Liberalism is not so much a creed as a disposition. It is, indeed, opposed to creeds." He continues:

But the liberal attitude does not say that you should oppose authority. It says only that you should be free to oppose authority, which is quite a different thing. The essence of the liberal outlook in the intellectual sphere is a belief that unbiased discussion is a useful thing and that men should be free to question anything if they can support their questioning by solid arguments. The opposite view, which is maintained by those who cannot be called liberals, is that the truth is already known, and that to question it is necessarily subversive.

Russell criticizes the radical who would advocate change at any cost. Echoing the philosopher John Locke, who had a profound influence on the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, Russell writes:

The teacher who urges doctrines subversive to existing authority does not, if he is a liberal, advocate the establishment of a new authority even more tyrannical than the old. He advocates certain limits to the exercise of authority, and he wishes these limits to be observed not only when the authority would support a creed with which he disagrees but also when it would support one with which he is in complete agreement. I am, for my part, a believer in democracy, but I do not like a regime which makes belief in democracy compulsory.

Russell concludes the New York Times piece by offering a "new decalogue" with advice on how to live one's life in the spirit of liberalism. "The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows," he says:

1: Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

2: Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

3: Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.

4: When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

5: Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

6: Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.

7: Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

8: Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

9: Be scrupulously truthful, even when truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool's paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

Wise words then. Wise words now.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in March, 2013.

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via Brain Pickings

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When Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire Were Accused of Stealing the Mona Lisa (1911)

If you visit the Louvre today, you'll notice two phenomena in particular: the omnipresence of security, and the throng of visitors obscuring the Mona Lisa. If you'd visited just over a century ago, neither would have been the case. And if you happened to visit on August 22nd, 1911, you wouldn't have encountered Leonardo's famed portrait at all. That morning, writes Messy Nessy, "Parisian artist Louis Béroud, famous for painting and selling his copies of famous artworks, walked into the Louvre to begin a copy of the Mona Lisa. When he arrived into the Salon Carré where the Da Vinci had been on display for the past five years, he found four iron pegs and no painting."

Béroud "theatrically alerted the sleepy guards who fumbled around for several hours under the assumption the painting might have been borrowed for cleaning or photographing, until it was finally confirmed the Mona Lisa had been stolen."




The immediate measures taken: "The Louvre was closed for an entire week, museum administrators lost their jobs, the French borders were closed as every ship and train was searched and a reward of 25,000 francs was announced for the painting."

High on the list of suspects, thanks to the word of an art thief not involved in the heist named Joseph Géry Pieret: none other than Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire. Confessing to his habit of purloining small items from the Louvre, which then took no great pains to protect the cultural assets within its walls, Pieret informed the police that he had sold a couple of small Iberian statues to a "painter-friend." Pieret, writes Artsy's Ian Shank, "had left a clue — a nom de plume in one of his published confessions, pulled straight from the writings of avant-garde poet Apollinaire. (As police would later discover, Pieret was in fact the writer’s former secretary.)"

As the powers that be knew, "Apollinaire was a devout member of Picasso’s modernist entourage la bande de Picasso — a group of artistic firebrands also known around town as the 'Wild Men of Paris.' Here, police believed, was a ring of art thieves sophisticated enough to swipe the Mona Lisa." Though the Spanish-born painter and Italian-born poet had nothing to do with the theft of the Mona Lisa, Picasso had indeed bought those stolen sculptures from Pieret, and in a panic nearly threw them into the Seine.

"Apollinaire confessed to everything," writes Shank, while Picasso "wept openly in court, hysterically alleging at one point that he had never even met Apollinaire. Deluged with contradictory and nonsensical testimony the presiding Judge Henri Drioux threw out the case, ultimately dismissing both men with little more than a stern admonition." Two years later, the identity of the real Mona Lisa thief came to light: a Louvre employee named Vincenzo Peruggia (shown right above), who had easily smuggled the canvas out and kept it in a trunk until such time — so he insisted — as he could repatriate the masterpiece to its, and his, homeland.

All this makes for an entertaining chapter in the history of art crime, but if you still believe that Picasso must have had a hand in the Mona Lisa's disappearance, have a look at "All the Evidence That Picasso Actually Stole the Mona Lisa." Compiled by the Huffington Post's Sara Boboltz, the list includes such facts as "He was living in France at the time," "He’d technically purchased stolen artworks before" — those little Iberian sculptures — and "He loved art, duh." None could deny that last point, just as none could deny the Mona Lisa's enduring status as something of a Holy Grail for art thieves. But what modern-day Peruggia — or Picasso, or Apollinaire, or as some theories hold, Béroud — would dare make an attempt on it now?

via Mental Floss/Artsy/Messy Nessy

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch Four Daring Films by Lois Weber, “the Most Important Female Director the American Film Industry Has Known” (1913-1921)

These days, every cinephile can name more than a few women among their favorite living filmmakers: Sofia Coppola, Ava DuVernay, Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Agnès Varda — the list goes on. But if we look farther back into cinema history, coming up with examples becomes much more difficult. There's Ida Lupino, previously featured here on Open Culture, whose The Hitch-Hiker made her the only female director of a 1950s film noir, but before her? No name from that early era is more important than that of Lois Weber, in some estimations "the most important female director the American film industry has known."

Or so, anyway, says Weber's extensive Wikipedia entry, part of the relatively recent effort to rescue from obscurity her vast body of work: a filmography estimated at between 200 to 400 pictures, almost all of them considered lost. Weber's champions emphasize not just her prolificacy but her boldness, not just technologically and aesthetically — 1913's Suspense, for example, pioneered the split-screen technique — but socially.




Even in its infancy, she used her medium to deal with issues like poverty, drugs, capital punishment, women in the workforce, and even contraception. (In 1915's Hypocrites, she went as far as to include the first full-frontal female nude scene in motion pictures.)

Though born in 1879, well before the advent of cinema, Weber grew up with a surprisingly suitable background to prepare her for this kind of filmmaking. Raised strongly religious, she left the family household to take up street-corner evangelism and church-oriented social activism. Early in the 20th century she moved from her native Pittsburgh to New York, where she set her sights on singing and acting. "I was convinced the theatrical profession needed a missionary," she later explained, and having heard that "the best way to reach them was to become one of them," she "went on the stage filled with a great desire to convert my fellowman."

Weber's work in the theater opened the door to opportunities in the then-nascent movie industry. By 1914, she could confidently say in an interview that "in moving pictures, I have found my life's work. I find at once an outlet for my emotions and my ideals. I can preach to my heart's content, and with the opportunity to write the play, act the leading role and direct the entire production, if my message fails to reach someone, I can blame only myself." The recent restoration of several of her surviving films has made it possible for her message to reach a century she never lived to see — and to give their viewers the chance to evaluate the claims made by film historians like Anthony Slide, who puts her alongside D.W. Griffith as "American cinema's first genuine auteur, a filmmaker involved in all aspects of production and one who utilized the motion picture to put across her own ideas and philosophies."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Free: Download Thousands of Ottoman-Era Photographs That Have Been Digitized and Put Online

“Turkey is a geographical and cultural bridge between the east and the west,” writes Istanbul University’s Gönül Bakay. This was so long before Constantinople became Istanbul, but after the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the region took on a particular significance for Christian Europe. “The Turk” became a threatening and exotic figure in the European imagination, “shaped by a considerable body of literature, stretching from Christopher Marlowe to Thomas Carlyle.” Images of Ottoman Turkey were long drawn from a “mixture of fact, fantasy and fear.”

With the advent of photography in the mid-nineteenth century, those images were supplemented, illustrated, and countered by prints depicting Turkish people both in everyday life circumstances and in Orientalist poses.




In the final decades of the Ottoman Empire, as modernization took hold all over Europe, viewers might encounter photos of women in poses reminiscent of the Odalisque and street scenes of bustling, cosmopolitan Constantinople, with signs in Ottoman Turkish, English, French, Armenian, and Greek.

Photos of Enver Pashade facto ruler of the Ottoman Empire during World War I and “highest-ranking perpetrator of the Armenian genocide,” writes Isotta Poggi at the Getty’s blog—circulated alongside images like that below, a group of Turkish tourists posed near the Sphinx. These and thousands more such photographs of Ottoman Turkey at the turn of the century and into the first years of the Turkish Republic—3,750 digitized images in total—are now available to view and download at the Getty Research Institute.

The photos come from French collector Pierre de Gigord, who acquired them during his many travels through Turkey in the 1980s. They were taken by photographers, some of whose names are lost to history, from all over Europe and the Mediterranean, including Armenian photographers who played a “central role,” notes Poggi, “in shaping Turkey’s national cultural history and collective memory.” (Read artist Hande Sever’s Getty essay on this subject here.) The huge collection contains “landmark architecture, urban and natural landscape, archeological sites of millennia-old civilizations, and the bustling life of the diverse people who lived over 100 years ago.”

Despite the loss of materiality in the transfer to digital, a loss of “formatting, or sense of scale” that changes the way we experience these photos, they “enable us to learn about the past,” writes Poggi, “seeing Turkey’s diverse society” as photography’s early viewers did, and to better understand the present, "observing how certain sites and people, as well as social or political issues, have evolved yet still remain the same.” Enter the Pierre de Gigord collection at the Getty here.

via Hyperallergic/The Getty

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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