Tag Archives: mythology

Two gods, three heads-Happy New Year?

Janus or Juno?

January has a slightly contentious etymology. It’s traditionally said that it was named after the god Janus. Which would make sense, given that he’s the god of beginnings and endings.

But…there’s also evidence from farmer’s calendars that it might actually have been named after the goddess Juno, queen of the gods. (Others cite June as belonging to Juno…)


Early coin from the Republic featuring Janus.


Of course, history and language being what they are, it gets even muddier when you factor in that the early Roman calendar began with March. There’s no definite answer to when this changed-possibly because they had one regular and one ritual calendar.

Whether or not he could lay claim to the first month, the first day of each month was sacred to Janus. Continue reading

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A Demonic Warning

A small traditional demon for the Halloween season!


Tutivillus was a catchall demon for word related slips and sins. One of my professors first mentioned him as a demon that would either record or collect in a giant sack all the idle words and gossip of people who ought to have been praying in church. In other places he’s accused of encouraging this spiritual sloth even amongst the clergy, inspiring them to slur their words or shorten their sermons and prayers.

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Some Untidy Spot

Landscape with fall of Icarus

Musee des Beaux Arts

W. H. Auden


About suffering they were never wrong,

The old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position: how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood:

They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.



In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

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Elemental Creatures

 A little bit more periodic trivia for you. Two of the elements on the periodic get their names from folkloric creatures. (cue Peer Gynt)

Cobalt (element 27) is not found on its own in nature, only in mineral ores.

We use it now in steel alloys to make tougher drill bits and milling machine parts.

It has been used unknowingly since ancient times to color paint and glass. The ancient Egyptians used it along with iron and copper to get lapis blue glass. It’s also been found in blue and white Chinese porcelains from the 8th or 9th centuries. So it’s been around, just hiding out of sight under the blues. It creates a stable pigment that was once attributed to the element bismuth. (Cobalt blue wasn’t actually called cobalt blue until 1777.)

Maxfield Parrish, Reveries. (With cobalt blue.)

Chemistry and quilting, I’d love to see the finished project!

The artist Maxfield Parrish used cobalt blue in his rich, luminous skyscapes- some people call cobalt blue Parrish blue thinking of his skies. (I admit that I tend to do it, especially when looking at the outline of dark trees against a rich sky. Parrish just comes to mind first.)

Don’t be too distracted by the color.

Cobalt is needed for life in minute quantities but in a larger volume can be poisonous. People grinding the pigment had to be careful not to breathe it in, and when the ore was first found it was called kobald ore, German for goblin or sprite ore, because it was so problematic. It looked like silver ore but seemed to be poor in metal and gave off poisonous fumes containing arsenic when smelted. Cobalt itself was finally isolated in the 1730s and named after the troublemaking kobalds.

Kobalds are creatures from Germanic folklore. No one seems to agree on where they (myth or creature) come from originally. The stories go back at least to the 13th century and may be vestiges of Nordic mythology. The underground kobalds blamed for the evil temper of the ore seem to be folkloric cousins to knockers and bluecaps. They’re normally imagined as child sized old men, sometimes otherwise normal and sometimes as hunched over and ugly.

Cobalt’s neighbor on the periodic table, Nickel (element 28) is also named after a troublemaker.

In medieval Germany miners found reddish ore with a green crust that looked like copper ore, but from which they couldn’t get any copper. They blamed the Nickel (word history issue alert: some sources say it’s as in Old Nick or the Devil and others translate it as a term for goblin) for their trouble, and called the ore Kupfernickel. In the 1700s the chemist studying the ore got an unknown white metal which he named after the troublesome spirit.

Hall of the Mountain King

At first kupfernickel was the only source of nickel, but luckily other sources had been found by the time it was in demand for steel production at the end of the 19th century. Today nickel-iron alloys are used in the hottest parts of jet engines because they stay strong even in intense heat.

The first thing most people in the US think of when they hear nickel is $.05. Nickel has been used in minting coins from different countries since the start of the 19th century. It’s gotten too expensive to use much in coinage any more, and the US is one of the few countries that still has a fair amount of nickel in lower denomination coins. The nickel used in making a nickel coin is worth about 90% of the coin’s face value. (Normally the metal is worth far less-old pennies are the big exception. Nickel’s other neighbor, copper, is worth enough that the old copper pennies from before 1982 are worth over twice their face cost in metal!)

Nickel can still be a problem. A lot of people are touch sensitive to it and can get red and itchy skin from contact. Because of its resistance to corrosion, it used to be used in jewelry intended for pierced ears. (It’s nickel that helps put the stainless in stainless steel.)

Most of Earth’s nickel is in our planet’s inner and outer cores. Like cobalt, nickel is mostly found in its native state in meteoric iron. Which is in itself possibly a good example of our core’s composition.

I’ll confess, I don’t generally work with any metals containing nickel, but I make an exception for meteorites! As I’d mentioned with meteorites before, the nickel in iron-nickel meteorites helps keep them stable and usable. P1110545-edit-blog

Another fun fact about these elemental neighbors and their matching names-the chemist who discovered nickel (Axel Cronstedt) was a student of George Brandt, who discovered cobalt. So student and teacher’s discoveries sit next to each other on the periodic table, and both elements are named after the creatures blamed for the miners’ frustrations!

They even caused frustration for chemists later on. Most elements get heavier as you move across the periodic table from left to right. In the 1860s this was considered one of the universal laws of nature, but laws don’t have exceptions and cobalt is slightly heavier than nickel! Theoretical and experimental chemists bickered for years over a few pair weight reversals in the periodic table.

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Discordant Dwarfs and Bad Apples

After mentioning Ceres, and since we mostly know Pluto, it seemed only fair to do a quick swing by Eris. Especially since we’re still in apple time.


Eris was the Greek goddess of discord and strife.


The most famous myth involving Eris is how she sort of started the Trojan War.


In a classic fairy tale setup, most of the pantheon had been invited to a wedding, but she was left out since she was a known troublemaker.


So of course she crashed to make trouble. She tossed in a golden apple engraved with to the fairest–all the other goddesses started to bicker over which of them deserved it.


Zeus (king of the gods and possibly of bad ideas as well) decided that the handsomest man in the world would be the best judge. So Paris, prince of Troy, was given the job. It was down to three powerful goddesses, all of whom stripped and when that failed, tried bribery. Hera offered him political power, Athena prowess in battle, and Aphrodite the hand of the most beautiful woman in the world. (Ignoring the fact that said agreed upon beauty was married.)


Ruben’s Judgment of Paris

 In the famous ‘Judgement of Paris’ Paris awarded the apple to Aphrodite and ran off with Helen. Helen’s husband and allies went to war with Troy, and the rest is a couple epics long. Per most classical mythology, it ends poorly for nearly everyone.


The dwarf planet that came to be called Eris was discovered in 2005 from photographs taken two years earlier. It seems to be more massive than Pluto, about 1/4 the mass of Earth. They’re not sure yet if it is slightly larger than Pluto or denser.


It’s a little odd that all of the planets have the Roman version of names, and here Eris is the odd planet out with the Greek version.


It seems like a planet named after strife should be one big enough to have the gravitational pull to clear its orbit and be considered a full planet.


There’s a certain appropriateness in giving the name to a dwarf planet, given the discord their designation, discovery and naming seem to sew in the astronomical community.


The team that discovered the object known as Eris and the one called Makemake announced their discoveries earlier than planned, after another team announced the discovery of a third object they’d been tracking. (The one now called Haumea.)


Haumea became a source of bickering, Caltech said they saw it first, the Spanish team announced it first. Caltech had found someone accessing their data  days before the announcement and accused the Spanish team of using Caltech’s data without permission. The Spanish team accused Caltech of politically interfering with the International Astronomical Union (IAU) when they officially recognized Caltech’s suggested name over the Spanish team’s suggested name.


The official reason was that the Spanish team suggested Ataecina, who was an underworld goddess. They thought it was a good way of honoring their Iberian background, and as an underworld goddess it fit nicely with Pluto. (Nice sounding name too…)


The IAC argued that the names of underground deities could only be used for planets in a similar orbit to Pluto, so went with Caltech’s proposed Hawaiian goddess, Haumea. She was the goddess of the island of Hawai’i, fertility and childbirth, and fit the guidelines that Kuiper belt objects are supposed to be named after creation deities.


Of course, with so many mythologies to choose from, it seems odd they couldn’t just pick a neutral one, shelve those names for the next time, and move on.


Golden apples anyone?


Contentious Haumea is a tiny dwarf planet beyond Neptune. It’s has only 1/3 the mass of Pluto and is oddly elongated, but both teams agreed that it is big enough to have its own gravity.


Shadowed by the infighting, slightly larger and rounder (2/3 the mass of Pluto) Makemake was named after the creator god of the Rapa Nui.


The birdman cult which worshiped him was suppressed when Christian missionaries came to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) so not much is known about their practices or Makemake, beyond that he created humanity.


Okay, who has a good mnemonic to remember all these new guys and their order?


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A Harvest Tangent

 The other day someone mentioned the thirteen planets, and it gave me pause, since I thought there were less than when I was little, not more.


Oops. I didn’t realize all the dwarf planets had been named. Obviously I knew Pluto, and Eris sounded familiar, Ceres I thought was a large asteroid, and I didn’t remember Haumea or Makemake. I thought it was a good time of year to take a quick look at Ceres.


Ceres was the Roman goddess of agriculture, grain, fertility and motherhood. She’s essentially the Roman version of the Greek goddess Demeter. Linguists aren’t sure where the name Ceres comes from, one theory is that it shares a lost indo-European root with create, kernel, increase, corn, etc. We get the word cereal from her name.


 She was credited with discovering wheat (spelt) and with yoking oxen for plowing. Her main festival was held in spring, but now fall seems the appropriate time to visit the myths. The Romans saw her as connected to the line between life and death. She had a personal connection to the dead once the Romans nabbed Persephone from the Greeks and named her Proserpina.


In 1801 a newly discovered planet was named after her. It was first discovered on January 1, observed two dozen times, lost, then finally independently confirmed on December 31rst. (Perhaps Janus would have been a better name…) It has fluctuated between asteroid and planet and now seems to be considered both a dwarf planet and an asteroid.


Ceres is the only dwarf planet in the inner solar system. It lies in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Even at its brightest it is too dim to see with the naked eye except in the darkest, clearest skies. When he first saw it, its discoverer wasn’t sure if it was a comet or planet, but it seemed to be too stable for a comet.


Ceres is about 600 miles in diameter, about the size of Texas.


 I wasn’t sure if the dwarf planet designation was all about size.


There seems to be a little more to it than that. Planet is a cultural and not a scientific designation, so the whole thing is sort of vague. The 2006 dwarf planet description is basically a spherical object in a more or less regular orbit around the sun that isn’t large enough for its gravity to have cleared its orbit of most other celestial bodies. (So too small to enlarge itself by eating all its neighbors.)


What’s cool is in March 2015 (scary how not far away that is) NASA’s Dawn mission will be studying the structure of Ceres and a nearby asteroid, Vesta, to see how they were formed. They think these small bodies have altered less in the past 4.6 billion years than the planets have, since Jupiter’s gravity both protects them and stopped them from forming a planet.



chemistry http://periodictable.com/Elements/058/index.html

Photograph of Cerium from Theo Gray’s wonderful book on the elements.

 The element cerium (58) was discovered in 1803, and named after the recently discovered planet.


It is the most common (and least expensive) of the rare earth elements. It’s nearly as common as copper, the rare earth elements are named less for their scarcity than for the trouble it takes to isolate them. Cerium is a soft silvery metal that can catch fire when it is struck. The whole piece won’t burn, but any bits knocked off burn as they’re made. So cerium is used in lighter flints and in special effects where lots of sparks are needed.


At high temperatures (65-80 degrees Celsius) it can ignite spontaneously in air. Its fumes are toxic and you can’t douse it with water since cerium will react with water ot product hydrogen gas. So as much fun as it sounds like to play with, it sounds like an element to avoid unless you have the training.


The Greeks sometimes call cerium dimitrio, after Demeter.


Okay, so it’s a dwarf planet and a rare earth element named after her second hand, but still not bad for a goddess mostly defunct for centuries!


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Musing and Muses

Vermeer's vision of Clio

I spent a good chunk of my time off with one of those Discover What You’re Best At books. It ended up feeling like quite a waste. It has a series of aptitude tests that you’re supposed to take to give you an idea what sort of career would best suit you.

Not so much of a help, I tested extremely high on logic (not a shock really) and business (!). Mechanical (also a surprise presumably for the visual aspects, I certainly don’t understand how things like cars work outside of in the vaguest of terms…) and social skills came in as close seconds. Basically I got a ‘you’re better than average at anything other than clerical or numerical skills.’ Which seem to be the two most useful skills for entry-level positions. So of course everything suggested was either cutthroat businessy or else requires advanced degrees.

Besides feeling frustrated and no better off, it reminded me of how I feel with a lot of the creative aspects. Somewhere between better than average but not quite enough. So two things: an old poem that still feels as appropriate as ever to me, and a question – how did you end up in the career you have/if you haven’t chosen one yet, how are you going about searching for one?

(a request of the Muses)


Crystal to water.
Pearl to milk.
Gold to honey.

May it please the muses…
(for they are judges,
as much as anything else)

Gone from the hills of Greece,
Ashes from an offering long cold.

From high-rise to desert dune,
Or a pasture between…

Hear me.

Yes, yes,
One more supplicant, sniveling on
(as least I don’t dress the role).

I beg for a sign of good will,
Help me. Or free me.

Lady of open books,
and mother of my major.
Give me a mind to read the past,
and a key to lock it in.
Let it prosper in me.
Let me prosper in it.
Or let me forget.

Help me to write,
to really really write,
epics of grace and aching beauty.
(And most importantly, with plot!)
Teach me,
or teach me to put down my pen
and keep my peace.

Let my words blend
beauty and conciseness.
(And shun the cliché!)
Let my poetry be pristine,
high and clear as your flute.
or let it not be.

Help me to write truly,
in notes that can be heard and felt.
Thought and depth in tiny movements.
Let me write like playing the lyre.
Keep my words grounded,
or let them fly away.

Let me render heart and soul,
and earn tears, true tears, not my own.
(As even I know that tears of
frustration count for nothing.)
Let me open a vein,
and let the right words come.
Or clot them.

Help me write
with warmth,
and passion,
and not out of rote.
Keep me awake with love of art,
not despair.
Let me keep my own voice,
and seek not to mimic.
Or let the pale imitation fade away.

They say the sky’s the limit
but it’s hard to breathe up there.
Let me judge reasonably,
and know when enough is enough.
Let me enjoy the stars
and not try to be one.

Comedy is not my best…
But let snideness be a virtue,
And sarcasm pointed, but not poisoned.
(Let them call me brilliant, not bitch.)

Coordination is none of mine,
What could I ask of you?
Lend me grace,
(not to dance, that would be too much!)
But give me the grace to give in and give up,
To walk away with a straight back
and not to mourn.

And to whatever modest muse
cares for the humbler arts,
I beg the same of you.
Give me your gifts in full,
some talent to pursue,
or take your half-given gifts back.
And leave me some peace.

I ask for help.


Answer me!


Crystal to water.
Pearl to milk.
Gold to honey.

Hear me.
Help me.
Or set me free.

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