Monday, 29 June 2015

Yes, Salt Can Lose Its Savour

Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. (Matt 5:13, cf Mk 9:50, Lu 14:34)
     Salt adds flavour, and aids in preservation, so the meaning is fairly clear. But how, I used to wonder, could salt lose its savour? Well, as it turns out, it is quite simple.

Monday, 15 June 2015

When a Superpower Was Written Off

     When I was a little boy, we didn't have television, so we had to make do with the wireless instead. After school we would listen to 15-minute serials about such characters as Superman and Tarzan, for our parents were rather tolerant. Then, within a week of the first Sputnik going into orbit, some Australian radio writers started up a new serial, Operation Moon Satellite. By the time I caught up with it, it presented as a Flash-Gordonish fantasy, which soon resolved into a war of wits against a humanoid computer known simply as The Brain. The plot became ever more convoluted - and implausible - as the heroes found their moves checked at every turn by The Brain, and one by one they fell into his hands. They were trapped. The situation was hopeless. At last, The Brain came down and conversed with a woman standing just above a large engine room. All of a sudden, without warning, she pushed him into the machinery, and he disappeared in a flash of blue flame. He was simply written out of the script. Just like that! Next, a voice-over came on and announced that the show was over, and was going off the air.
     I was dumbfounded. It was the classic "with one jump Jack was free" artificial ending. I could hardly believe that such a complicated story line could end so abruptly. The amazing thing is, several decades later, I watched the same thing being played out on the world stage. An awesome and terrible superpower was simply written out of the script of history. Just like that!

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Why Didn't the Norse Settle North America?

     Almost 500 years before Columbus, Snorri Thorfinnsson became the first white person to be born in North America. Labrador and Newfoundland were first discovered by Norsemen based in Greenland sometime around 1000 AD,under names such as Markland and Vínland. The site of the second area is disputed, but that was where Snorri was born. How many Norse settlements were made, how long they lasted, and how frequently attempts were made at settlement are all unknown. Certainly, only a single Norse site has been archaeologically discovered, and that in Newfoundland. Wat is known is that the first bishop of Greenland visited Vínland in 1120, so there were presumably people living there. In 1347 a Greenland ship bringing timber from Markland was driven to Iceland, but whether it had visited a colony at the time is unknown. Shortly afterwards, the Greenland settlements themselves disappeared from history.
    The Norse venture into North America is one of the great might-have-beens of history. Why did it fail? It has been suggested that the European weapons of the day were not markedly superior to those of the natives. Climate change, particularly the start of the Little Ice Age, has also been implicated. But I think there were more profound reasons.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

The Philosophy of an Aboriginal Tribe

     One of the advantages of being a compulsive book buyer is that I tend to have a book available for every occasion. Thus, when I learned that on my visit to Alice Springs in 1997 I would have the chance to attend a demonstration of the customs of the Warlpiri tribe, I thought it was time I read the book I had purchased twenty years before: Desert People, a Study of the Walbiri Aborigines of Central Australia by M. J. Meggitt. Written in 1962, it had the added advantage of describing the tribe as it existed in the 1950s, before they had picked up the worst parts of our civilisation.
     "Alice Springs is not the homeland of the Warlpiris," explained our white guide. "Their territory extends from Yuendumu and Mt. Eclipse right up northwest to Hall's Creek in Western Australia."
     "So," I said, "they have further extended their range in the last fifty years."
     "What do you mean?" he asked.
     I then explained how Meggitt had recorded that, originally, they lived south of Winnecke Creek. Nevertheless, with the decline of other tribes, they managed to extend their range - at one stage by force, at another by ceremonial purchase - north to the headwaters of the Victoria River and southeast to Teatree. But by 1962, they still had not expanded to Hall's Creek.
     "Well, we were told they had always lived there," the white guide replied.
     Don't believe everything an Aborigine tells you, my man.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Homosexuality in the Lower Animals?

     By popular demand. Well, not exactly, but a correspondent has suggested it is about time I made good on the promise made in my essay on the sex life of koalas:
Obviously, I am going to have to write another article in due course about the phenomenon, because non-zoologists do not understand that many species of animals use sex in manners not easily referable to human sexuality - or, indeed, to that of other non-human species. Homosexuality as we know it is extremely rare outside of humans.
     There seems to be a lot of interest in this lately. The Wikipedia article on the subject, for example, is accurate as far as it goes, but misses the big picture entirely. The natural temptation is always to equate it with human homosexuality. Indeed, it is clear that many people cite it in order to valid the human activity. One wonders how many examples they need to validate it: a hundred, or just one? And how the same method would not validate monogamy, harems, promiscuity, infanticide, and cannibalism, all of which can be found in the lower animals. In point of fact, every species, including the human species, possesses a social system adapted to its way of life. The presence of a specific behaviour in some other species does not validate it for human beings, and its absence does not invalidate it. Whether homosexual practices are a legitimate activity for human being is a legitimate subject for debate, but you won't find the arguments in this essay.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Problems of Pontius Pilate

     Now that Easter is coming up, perhaps we should spare a thought for Pontius Pilate. In 2006 I watched the Black Hills Passion Play, and it depicted Jesus being brought before Pilate while it was still dark. Suddenly, a lot of things clicked.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The Strange Story of Antechinus

 Or Why It Doesn't Always Pay to be Too Macho

    A few decades ago, when my mother was still alive, we both happened to take a short stroll through the rainforest at Mount Glorious, west of Brisbane, when suddenly we noticed an animal like a big mouse come scurrying up the trunk of a tree. Gazing at its pointed, foxy, most un-mouselike face, I suddenly exclaimed, "Good heavens! It's an antechinus! We are lucky to see such a thing during the daytime." A short time later, the penny dropped. We had been incredibly lucky, for we had arrived during the only two weeks of the year when it would have been active by day: the mating season. It had only been while I was at university that the remarkable life cycle of these mysterious creatures had begun to be unraveled - in fact, not far from where we had seen it.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Women's Ordination

     Of course, women should be ordained - as deacons! But as far as ordination to the priesthood is concerned, it comes up against a barrier. It has never been done before. It was unheard of for the first nineteen and a half centuries. It is contrary to the apostolic order. This fact is common ground on both sides. Therefore, the Eastern Orthodox must reject it because it violates the tradition they see as a seamless robe. Roman Catholics must reject it because the papacy and the magisterium have always rejected it. Protestants must reject it because it is contrary to the  principles of the Reformation. The aim of the Reformation, after all, was to get rid of all the extraneous doctrines which had accumulated over the centuries and return to the teachings of the early church. But at least it may be said that these innovations had been introduced by slow, hardly noticeable degrees, like a clock which gains a minute every day until it is striking twelve at dawn. They cannot now accept an innovation which everyone knows is contrary to the teachings of the apostolic church. The proponents are therefore forced into one of two positions, both heretical: either the universal church has been wrong since the time of the apostles, or its teachings were true only then, but not true for all time. They should be called out as to which position they take.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Little Red Riding Hood and the Werewolf

     Little Red Riding Hood, as every schoolboy should know, but doesn't, was originally published by Charles Perrault - who, in point of fact, had much better style and flair than the anonymous writers who churn out the story in our modern children's books. But he didn't originate it. As a folk tale, many variations exist in Europe dating back hundreds of years. And it was bowdlerised even by the time he received it. Originally, it would have been a tale about an encounter with a werewolf.
     This should be obvious once you think about it. When Little Red Riding Hood first met the wolf in the forest, how was he able to talk to her? Why wasn't she scared stiff? Why didn't he eat her up then and there? I always used to wonder about this when I was a boy.
     Clearly, she met him in his natural, human form. Once she had told him her story, it set his evil mind at work. He repaired to somewhere private and performed whatever conjurations are necessary to transform into a wolf. (Montague Summers recorded such artifices as girding on an enchanted belt of wolf's fur, and then urinating around his clothes to turn them into a pile of stones until he returned.) As a wolf, he then ran all the way to Grandma's place, much faster than a human child could go, and polished off Grandma. Presumably, he then reverted to his human shape and, naked, crept into Grandma's bed, pulling the bedclothes up to his chin, and wrapping her bonnet tightly around his head as a disguise. When the unsuspecting grandchild said, "What a deep voice you have!" it was his masculine voice which nearly gave him away. When she said, "What big eyes ... big teeth etc you have!" he was busy turning into a wolf again.
    It's pretty simple when you look at it.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Wini, the Wild White Man of Badu

     It must have been about 1958 or 1959 that Ion Idriess' book, Isles of Despair was republished, and it created a stir. One of my teachers at primary school told us about it. There was an article about it in The Woman's Day. A few years later I was able to read the book myself: the well-written, gripping true story of Barbara Thompson, who had been adopted by a tribe of Torres Strait headhunters. Equally intriguing, the book described how she met, and narrowly evaded Wongai, a ruthless escaped convict, who had been accepted on another island as a chief, and the incarnation of a god.
     A few years later, another of the same author's books was republished: The Wild White Man of Badu. Here we were presented with the gripping account of this same character. It told how, on escaping from Norfolk Island in an open boat, the convict killed and ate his companions and then, fortuitously negotiating the reefs of the Coral Sea, landed on Badu Island at the most opportune time. The natives were celebrating the wongai, or wild plum, totem when he arrived at the same time as the lightning flashed behind him. Shouting "Wongai!" which he had heard the natives shout, and which he assumed was a war cry, he slew the first warrior who attacked him. Thus, the natives concluded he was their god in human form, and so commenced his climb to power.
     Of course, when I was a boy I assumed that anything on the printed page was the truth. Fifty years later, I have developed some critical faculties, but all that time I have been wanting to learn the full story of this enigmatic character who once dominated the western islands of Torres Strait for a quarter of a century. I don't suppose I ever will.