Carnival Races

I was reading John Glassie’s “A Man of Misconceptions” and stumbled across a curious passage.  The book is about a priest/scientist from the Galileo era who was on the wrong side of history.  Athanius Kircher believed, among other things, that most things on earth could be explained by magnetism.  Why was the moon so close?  Magnets.  Why do plants grow upwards?  Magnets (plants would be repelled by the natural magnetism of the earth, forcing them away from the ground).  Why does medicine work?  Magnets (it would draw the harmful humors out of the bloodstream through divine magnetism).

On page 207, the striking passage happened:

The new pope, Giulio Rospigliosi, took the name Clement IX.  He wrote comic opera liberettos and enjoyed evenings out.  To the job of secretary of state, he appointed the cardinal who was said to be Queen Christina’s lover.  Christina [the ex-queen of Sweden], who had been on tours of Paris and Hamburg, returned to Rome and accepted a stipend.  She helped Clement establish the first public opera house in the city, and helped persuade him to prohibit the racing of Jews during Carnival.  (The prostitute races continued.)

My reaction: Hold the phone, “helped persuade him to prohibit the Racing of Jews during Carnival.

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A little bit of research and history sleuthing led to this revelation:

The racing of the Jews originally began in 1466, and was thought to have been received somewhat positively at the time.  During Carnival, Italians would race horses, donkeys, and bulls, then children would have footraces, as would the elderly, the women, the prostitutes, the Jews and so on and so forth.  Winners would be awarded a fancy robe and everything was hunky-dory.  The Jews were evidently levied with a 1,100 florin tax to pay for their involvement in the races.  However, over the next hundred years of Carnivals, things turned on their head.  According to the “Jewish Encyclopedia” entry from “Berliner, Gesch. der Juden in Rom, ii., part 1” a Jew died during the races in 1547 and the Jewish community stopped participating in the races.  Other sources are less forgiving to the Romans and the 17th century Roman art historian Cassiano del Pozzo is cited saying that the Jews would be stripped to loincloths, have SPQR painted on their foreheads (the abbreviation for the name of the Roman government), and would have the runners gorge themselves on food.  The hapless runners would then sprint through the cold and mud, puking their guts out from overexertion on a full stomach, and pelted with everything from rotten fruit to cats (Glassie’s book describes someone getting hit with a cat during a race).  According to Cassiano, the winner would “return with his fellows to the smelly theater of the circumcised.”  Some authors say that Clement’s decision to ban the racing was not so much out of a humanitarian effort to improve Rome, rather because of “the little convenience that comes from seeing these Jews run.”  Instead of being forced to take part in the races, Clement simply added another 300 florins to the yearly Carnival tax, raising the sum to around 1,400 florins.

Racing of prostitutes during Carnival was quite normal because the pre-Lent festivities were meant to flip the society on its head.  According to some sources, Italian armies would occasionally race prostitutes in front of besieged cities to denigrate the city, but during Carnival the prostitutes were sort of celebrated in a twilight-zone way.  Some sources have argued, that rather than be pressured to the margins of society, on this one day during the race, prostitutes were allowed to be in the limelight of Italian society.  Perhaps the oddest thing is how relatively unknown these events are.  Very little has been written on the Racing of the Jews or the Racing of Prostitutes in Italy or Rome, and the information that is available on the internet is evidently oftentimes at odds in how it describes the races.  Some sources talk about it like it was a fun pastime that all involved enjoyed until it ended, whereas others talk about it as a degrading and obscene action of an insensitive Rome and an unfeeling Church.  Without more research into the topic, the accuracy of either claim is up in the air.


John Glassie, A Man of Misconceptions (Riverhead Books, 2012) pg. 207
Stephen D. Bowd, Venice’s Most Loyal City (Harvard University Press, 2010) pg. 100


Human Nature and Economics

In the textbook “Principles of Microeconomics” (sixth edition, by Eugene Silberberg and Gregory Ellis, with the pretty Seattle skyline on the cover) there is a chapter on exchange and supply with a subheading “Formation of Markets” that includes a story from a British P.O.W. in World War II.  The soldier, R. A. Radford, wrote:

     “We reached a transit camp in Italy about a fortnight after capture and recieved 1/4 of a Red Cross parcel each a week later.  At once exchanges, already established, multiplied in volume.  Starting with simple direct barter, such as a non-smoker giving a smoker friend his cigarette issue in exchange for a chocolate ration, more complex exchanges soon became an accepted custom.  Stories circulated of a padre who started off round the camp with a tin of cheese and five cigarettes and returned to his bed with a complete parcel in addition to his original cheese and cigarettes; the market was not yet perfect.  Within a week or two, as the volume of trade grew, rough scales of exchange values came into existence.  Sikhs, who had at first exchanged tinned beef for practically any other foodstuff, began to insist on jam and margarine.  It was realised that a tin of jam was worth 1/2 lb. of margarine plus something else; that a cigarette issue was worth several chocolates issues, and a tin of diced carrots worth practically nothing.
In this camp we did not visit other bungalows very much and prices varied from place to place; hence the germ of truth in the story of the itinerant priest.  By the end of a month, when we reached our permanent camp, there was a lively trade in all commodities and their relative values were all well known, and expressed in terms of one another -one didn’t quote bully [canned beef] in terms of sugar- but in terms of cigarettes.  The cigarette became the standard of value… The unity of the market and the prevalence of a single price varied directly with the general level of organisation and comfort in the camp. A transit camp was always chaotic and uncomfortable… a transit camp was not one market but many.  The price of a tin of salmon is known to have varied by two cigarettes in twenty between one end of a hut and the other…
The permanent camps in Germany saw the highest level of commercial organisation.  In addition to the Exchange and Mart notice boards, a shop was organised as a public utility, controlled by representatives of the Senior British Officer, on a no profit basis.  People left their surplus clothing toilet requisites and food there until they sold at a fixed price in cigarettes.  Only sales in cigarettes were accepted -there was no barter- and there was no higgling…
An influx of new prisoners, proverbially hungry, raised [the general price level].  Heavy air raids in the vicinity of the camp probably increased the non-monetary demand for cigarettes and accentuated deflation…”

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To simplify the story, essentially a soldier found that within a few months of arriving at a Prisoner of War camp, barter based economies arose organically and rapidly morphed into a currency-esque system utilizing their smokes as the fixed unit of trade.  Now, conceptually this is both fascinating and prosaic.  Early on, simple human desire to get something out of any deal means that a non-smoking soldier would trade his cigarettes for something that the smoker/tradee needed less than cigarettes, like a stick of gum or something.  By trading cigarettes for gum, both parties win and come away from the trade feeling like they won something.  That’s the prosaic part of the story, that people trade stuff they don’t want for things they want.  The fascinating part is that commerce comes rocketing onto the stage so quickly.  The philosopher in me wants to ask, did the soldiers create a barter/soft-currency based economy because it was what they knew, or do people simply gravitate towards economics and merchant based trade as a part of human nature?  In a way it is a question about Carl Jung’s “collective unconscious”, a theory that posits that people are born with layers and layers of knowledge already rattling around in their brains as a result of their ancestors. (Jung would argue that if one took a caveman that was born in the world of today and raised in the exact same way as a modern child, that the cavechild would be considered supremely less intelligent than a modern child.  Jung argues that we are born with generations of more trial and error under our belts.)  In that regard, does a person of today quickly pivot towards bartering with a single form of currency because it is our comfort zone, or do we do so because it is purely more efficient in an economic sense and thereby more efficient on a human level?

The same textbook (with the pretty Seattle skyline) has a quote from Booker T. Washington earlier in the chapter, quoting him writing:

     “The making of these bricks taught me an important lesson in regard to the relations of the two races in the South.  Many white people who had no contact with the school [Tuskegee], and perhaps no sympathy with it, came to us to buy bricks because they found that ours were good bricks… As the people of the neighborhood came to us to buy bricks, we got acquainted with them; they traded with us and we with them.  Our business interests became intermingled.  We had something they wanted; they had something we wanted… In this way pleasant relations between the races have been stimulated.
My experience is that there is something in human nature which always makes an individual recognize and reward merit… The man who learns at Tuskegee to build and repair wagons and carts is regarded as a benefactor by both races in the community where he goes.  The people with whom he lives and works are going to think twice before they part with such a  man.”
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Washington’s approach to the basics of economics was that through crossing the wires of individual desire and individual needs, race relations could be created in a place where none had existed prior.  Tuskegee’s bricks were superior to all other bricks around, so builders came to the school to purchase the bricks.  Essentially, that simple economic invisible forces pressured Southerners who would normally have leaned away from purchasing bricks from a Black school.  Over time, the ties that bind become ingrained and people are valued based on content and quality.

Both of the short quotes are thought provoking and likely very able to be refuted through reasoned and critical discussion, but they provide a wonderful springboard for a curious mind beginning to think about the interplay between economics and human nature.

Principles of Microeconomics, Eugene Silberberg and Gregory M. Ellis, (Pearson Learning Solutions, Updated Sixth Edition, 2010).

Hannibal’s Strategy

The Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca is widely regarded as one of the greatest generals that mankind has ever produced.  Much of his storied success comes from his victory over the Roman consul Caius Terentius Varro at the Battle of Cannae.  To give some background to the importance of a battle from 216 BCE, the German strategic maestro of World War I, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, used Cannae as the baseline of his encirclement plans on the Western Front.  Over two thousand years after Hannibal fought the battle of Cannae, the battle was being used as the template for a grand strategy in a global combat.  Generals have idolized and attempted to imitate Hannibal’s success ever since the battle ended, and for good reason.
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The Schlieffen plan, basically a plan to hold the French and allies at the border between Germany and France, then roll the German military who was not fighting on the front through Belgium and take the French from behind, completing an encirclement and effectively eradicating the Allied resistance in the West, allowing Germany to deal with the East and South unmolested.

Before Cannae even begins, more background information needs to be provided: Hannibal had crossed the Alps into Italy and was slowly encroaching further and further South and East into the Roman sphere of influence.  Hannibal had beaten most of the Roman generals in head on combat with his superior cavalry (horses, mostly Numidian riders from Africa) and hardened infantry.  The Romans elected a dictator to guide them through the war, selecting a cautious general named Fabius as the commander.  Fabius chose to not meet Hannibal on the Carthaginian’s terms, instead Fabius kept his troops at a distance, safely able to check Hannibal’s actions, but not meeting him in open combat.  Fabius was one of the last forces between Hannibal and Rome’s capital.

Hannibal’s army was like a swarm of locust, everything they crossed over was pillaged and eaten.  Hannibal was running low on supplies, especially food, and there was little more that could be taken from the Roman land.  Perhaps the greatest instance of Hannibal’s genius happened at the Battle of Ager Falernus.  Fabius held the high ground in a rocky patch of Italy, and behind him lay the material wealth of Rome.  Hannibal could not retreat back over the lands he had come through because they were barren, but he only had two options to get past Fabius.  Either to fight Fabius on the high ground, or to slip around him on the one other mountain pass and attempt to ford a large river with his massive army and baggage train without being caught by the Romans.  Fabius was in the most perfect position he could ever have wanted to be.  If Hannibal charged him, Rome would score a monumental victory; if Hannibal ran for the river, the Romans could take the Carthaginians from the rear and crush them against the river.  By all accounts, it was a victory assured.
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Never fight a guy with the high ground.  It’s a bad plan.

Hannibal had his men tie torches to the horns of oxen, and set the horde of cattle stampeding off towards the river by cover of night.  Roman guards saw a giant slithering line of torches and a huge cloud of dust charging towards the river and assumed Hannibal had decided to run.  The Roman garrison on the high ground charged down the mountain towards the river, at which point Hannibal’s men slipped behind them and passed Fabius’ forces with minimal distress, pushing deeper into Italy after sidestepping the Romans again.
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One of the first instances of “Battle Cattle”

According to historian Theodore Dodge, after passing Fabius at Ager Falernus, Hannibal and his men moved towards the Italian city of Cannae because it was laden with breads and grains.  Out of interest in food for his forces, Hannibal turned to Cannae, where he was met by the Roman forces led by two consuls, Lucius Aemilius Paulus and Caius Terentius Varro.  Hannibal had roughly 50,000 men at his disposal, whereas the Romans were attacking with nearly 86,000; Dodge reminds readers that the armies of Carthage were hardened veterans, while the armies of Rome at this time were populated with green recruits and slaves.  Hannibal met the Romans on the plains of Cannae, keeping his left side to a river, perhaps to prevent flanking from that side.

The above image shows the basic plans of the battle.  The Romans wished to use the tactics from the battle of Marathon, where crushing the center of the enemy’s army would split forces in two and make it easier to flank and crush the two halves.  Hannibal had sufferend huge losses to the Romans earlier in the Second Punic War from a similar tactic.  In anticipation of this, Hannibal arranged his troops in a convex arrangement and slowly had the line retreat from the center to pull the Roman forces in.  All the while, Hannibal’s cavalry forces faced the Roman cavalry on the right flank.

The Roman troops were drawn into the bowl of Carthaginians, just as Hannibal had planned.  At the same time, the Numidian cavalry crushed the Romans, then wheeled and struck the Roman infantry from behind.  There was nowhere to run, there was no room to fight.  Men piled deeper into the bowl away from the cavalry as they swiped in, while men shied away from the spears of the Carthaginian infantry.
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Much of this scene in the most recent season of Game of Thrones took cues from the Battle of Cannae.  The crush of men running from certain death, oftentimes getting so jammed in that the soldiers couldn’t even raise their weapons or arms to defend themselves.
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Classic encirclement tactics, first used by Hannibal to grand success.

Theodore Dodge writes that at this point, the battle was over, but the slaughter had just begun.  Hannibal lost 6,000 men in the fighting, but the Romans lost upwards of 70,000.  The Romans in the senate of Rome were utterly stunned by the loss, and generals for all of history since then have tried to replicate the tactic because of the monumental and brutally efficient victory that it had gained Hannibal.  There are however, several factors to consider that could take away from Hannibal’s success.  Varro, the Roman general, over-packed his troops in the center.  He wanted to have more men to throw at the center of Hannibal’s armies, so he doubled the number of men per square foot, reducing the space between legionaries from five feet to two and a half feet.  Roman legions were largely successful because of their mobility and versatility, but Varro undid the benefits of the formations in favor of pressing more flesh into the front lines.  Secondly, the prudent general would oftentimes keep a reserve of troops who would wait on the wings and assist any troops who were flagging or struggling.  This reserve could have broken the encirclement or delayed the cavalry enough to have turned the tide of battle in Rome’s favor.  Thirdly, Hannibal’s cavalry was the greatest on the field, but most of the success of the battle relied on the Numidians winning the day.  If the cavalry of Rome had held or inflicted heavy losses on the Africans, the flank of the horses would not necessarily have been as severe.  That is not to say that Hannibal was a poor general, by all accounts he planned this battle to perfection, but much of the success was predicated upon the failures of the Roman armies as much as it was on the successes of Carthage.  Hannibal was either exceptionally lucky in his predictions or preternaturally skilled at reading his opposing commander.  That was the Genius of Hannibal.

Theodore Ayrault Dodge, Hannibal, (Barnes & Noble, 2005) originally published in 1889.

Interpersonal Struggles of the 900s

Before he becomes a pope, the lives of the pre-popes range from dull and pious to world-travelling and full of debauchery.  Before he became Pope Sylvester II, the priest was known as Gerbert d’Aurillac and was educated in France.  He ranged around the world, gathering information about astrology and mathematics from Spain, mathematics and optics from Greece, hydraulically powered pipe organs, and supposedly learning the dark arts at some point during his travels.  Gerbert was one of the more progressive individuals to exist in Europe in the late 900s; he held great respect for the Arabs and their mastery of the natural sciences and war craft.  Unsurprisingly, Gerbert’s willingness to accept scientific discoveries and closeness with the Moors made him an unpopular figure with many priests, and his acid tongue and sharp pen made enemies with a large number of nobles.   Nobility and priests began to spread stories about Gerbert’s Faustian figure; in one legend, Gerbert made a pact with a succubus named Meridiana, utilizing her demonic magic to ensure his place on the papal throne.

Look at how happy Gerbert looks with Meridiana.  He doesn’t mind that she has faces on her knees or wee goat feet.  People could benefit from this level of body-positivity.

In actual history, Gerbert was a prodigal priest from France who was given a position as the head of an abbey in Italy by the Emperor of the Holy Romans, Otto II.  Gerbert’s time as a stranger in a strange land did not mesh well with him.  His no-nonsense Frankish upbringing did not integrate into the laid back Italian region that he was living in.  In his writings he took to airing his complaints, writing things like “Italy may produce crops, but Gaul and Germany breed soldiers,” “I dare not rely on the trustworthiness of my knights because they are Italians,” and the more direct, “[the abbey] has troops, but they are Italians, not men.”

In this era, priests were known to be quite the insult comics when recounting their experiences with races, people, kings, and paupers.  Since they were the only people who really had a grip on literacy in the tenth century, priestly accounts fuel many of the descriptions of the time, and like people of all eras, priests were susceptible to human emotions clouding their opinions.  For example, when a Bishop named Liudprand arrived in Constantinople to try and broker a marriage deal between a Holy Roman emperor and a “true Roman” Byzantine princess, he was less than impressed with the Byzantine King Nicephorus. (Byzantium was the remnants of the Roman empire after a schism, so princesses were called “purple-born” and represented the maximum level of respectability)  In his records of his time in the Byzantine court, Liudprand wrote,

“The ruler of the Greeks wears his hair long, a trailing skirt, wide sleeves, and a woman’s cap.  He is a liar, a cheat, a pitiless and arrogant man as cunning as a fox, full of hypocritical humility, avaricious covetous, an eater of garlic, onions, and leeks, and a water drinker.  The king of the Franks, on the other hand, has his hair cut short, wears clothes utterly different from a woman’s, has a hat on his head, is a lover of truth, detests wiles, is compassionate when compassion is proper, but severe when severity is called for, truly humble, never avaricious, drinks wine, does not eat garlic, onions, or leeks like Nicephorus.”

Evidently, the early meetings between Liudprand and Nicephorus had gone poorly, and the emperor took out his ire on the Bishop.  Liudprand made matters worse by stirring the pot whenever possible.  The marriage deal between the two empires fell apart, likely in no small part because of the bad blood between the two diplomats.

Image result for nicephorus iiThe above image is of Emperor Nicephorus.  That’s the face of a garlic-eating water drinker.


James Reston Jr., The Last Apocalypse: Europe at the year 1000 A.D. (Doubleday inc., 1998).

The Cadaver Synod

(This post is an excerpt from page 131 of “Veni, Vidi, Didici: I came, I saw, I learned.”  It’s my new book that takes all things Hemlock Scholar related and more and compiles them into a complete and intriguing text.  Available on Kindle at , and soon to be available in print.)

In 876 CE, Bishop Formosus was excommunicated and put on trial by Pope John VIII for a host of reasons.  Shortly after the assassination of Pope John VIII,[1] the charges against Formosus were dropped and he was reinstated as the Bishop of Porto.  When Pope Stephen V died in 891, Formosus took power as the next Pope, crowning the emperor of Rome before dying in 896.[2]  One year later, in 897, Formosus’ successor and former political rival Pope Stephen VI decided to stick it to the ex-pope one last time.[3]

In this painted depiction of the Synod by Jean Paul Laurens, you can see that the pope is very dead and very on trial.

Pope Stephen had Formosus’ body dug up out of the sepulcher that he was in, jammed the corpse on the papal throne and began a trial to accuse the dead man of having transferred between episcopal sees illegally.[4]  Stephen attempted to erase the image and memory of Formosus from the world, declaring the corpse guilty; he had Formosus’ fingers of blessing sliced off his right hand, all ordinations that Formosus had done were rescinded, and Formosus was stripped of his pope robes and put in commoner’s clothes. The Synod was the first instance of a pope judging a pope, in part destroying the formerly held belief that a pope was held above all others and could not be judged by anyone, king or pauper.  In a way, the trial said to the world that a pope had the power to reckon a pope.  Formosus’ body was hurled into the river, but pulled out at some point.  A few months later, an insurrection of angry Roman peasants deposed Stephen VI, and he was thrown in prison where he was later strangled.

Formosus’ body was pulled out of the ground another time under Pope Theodore II, at which point Formosus was forgiven for Stephen’s indiscretions.  He was redressed in pope clothes, had a communion wafer popped into his mouth, and buried with the other popes again.  People sang hymns and Psalms as the body was returned to its original resting place, bringing a curious chapter of Church history to a close.[5]

The story of the Cadaver Synod leads in to an entirely different question: what rights do the dead have?  Even in the modern sense, a corpse is curiously adrift legally in that nobody technically owns a body.  To state it in a different way, a corpse has roughly as much agency as a doorknob, and yet a body is not considered to be a piece of property that is protected by the same legal regulations and rules that a doorknob would be subject to.  Somehow, humankind more or less universally declared that a body deserves to be peacefully put to rest.  Everyone from Vikings to Aztecs had elaborate burial rituals that accorded a great deal of respect and power to the dead (in Viking burial rituals, the dead oftentimes had more rights than slaves did, which encouraged slave women to volunteer as sacrificial tribute at funerals).
A recent court trial in France found that a family’s keeping the body of an elderly member in the basement fridge was illegal because, “What kind of peaceful resting place can a fridge be, when you can just go downstairs and take a peek any time you want?”  Essentially claiming that the dead require a right to privacy; but the dead have never banded together to express their rights.  Some articles say that the belief that the dead have a right to their bodies (really brings a new meaning to habeas corpus) comes from 1600s British beliefs that the soul had a legal right to reclaim its body when Resurrection day happened.


Nicholas Peasley, Veni, Vidi, Didici: I came, I saw, I learned. (Amazon Direct publishing, 2016), 131-132.


[1] He was supposedly poisoned by his family and then beaned behind the head with a hammer.

[2] Formosus’ successor was technically a guy named Boniface, but Boniface had a flaring of gout and died two weeks later.  Without Boniface, the next pope was one of  Formosus’ worst enemies.

[3] Oxford Dictionary of Popes calls the reason for Stephen VI’s rage a “near-hysterical hatred of Formosus.”

[4] One priest had to represent Formosus’ corpse and speak on his behalf

[5] Moore, Michael Edward. “The Body of Pope Formosus.” Millennium 9 (2012): 277-297.

The Saturday Baron

If you ever watched the old James Bond movies, one of the more curious villains is found in Live and Let Die, a henchman who goes by the name of Baron Samedi.  Baron Samedi is a standout in the pantheon of Bond villains because he’s honestly quite benign compared to the other ones.  He shows up, scares some people, gets shot three or four times and then shows up again at the end of the movie.  Unlike Jaws or Nick-Nack though, Baron Samedi’s literary inspiration comes from the real world, specifically Haitian Vodou (a different category than New Orleans Voodoo).  The Baron is a Haitian supernatural being, somewhere in between deity and demon.  Because of the nature of folklore and mythology, the actual details and specifics are immensely varied, albeit quite intriguing.

James Bond villain version of Baron Samedi

Alternatively known as Baron Samedi, Bawon Sanmdi, Baron La Croix (some sort of an incarnation of the Baron?), Baron Cimetiere (another aspect), and Baron Kriminel, the folklore of the Baron has him show up in a half dozen different ways.  The most classic version is the original Baron Samedi (loosely translates to Baron Saturday) who appears in artwork as either a tall, black man with a skeleton head, or as just a straight up skeleton, wearing a black tuxedo with either blood red or purple undercolors, a tophat, and cotton nose plugs.  The way he dresses is the way that Haitians dress corpses for burial, and for good reason because Baron Samedi is fairly close to being the Haitian god of death.  In folklore, Samedi is the one who decides if a dead person is allowed to remain dead, because only if he digs a grave for the person can they actually die.  Much of the referencing of zombies in vodou stories comes from Samedi not picking up his shovel for some reason.  Samedi is well known in the legends as a massive rum drinker, a cigar smoker, and a womanizer (in stories, he’s anywhere between a super charming and suave womanizer and  sexually assaulting women in graveyards).  If a person is close to death, one of the folk remedies is to offer rum or cigars to the Baron in hopes that he chooses not to dig a grave for you and lets you remain shuffling on the mortal coil for a while.

Rum and Cigars, your vices may save you if you give them to the right god

The aspects of Baron Samedi are where things get a little muddled.  Baron Cimetiere (loosely Baron Cemetery) is the guardian of the graveyards and tombstones, and is Baron Samedi, but also not Baron Samedi.  Think of it in the same way that people talk about the Trinity, or about squares and rectangles.  Baron Cimetiere also dresses his horses in the same tuxedo and tophat combo, though not much is said about that in any other sources that I’ve found.  Baron La Croix is the super suave version of Samedi who finds death to be a joke and an existential crisis and encourages people to make the most of life (he’s also a Loa of sexuality, a vodou spirit of sexuality, so use your imagination when he says make the most of life).  Lastly, Baron Kriminel is the aspect of the Baron who possesses people.  If a person is taken over by Baron Kriminel, the person goes berserk and starts stabbing and biting people.  Family members are supposed to bring food to the possessed person and appease the Baron’s spirit, but if the food isn’t good enough, the possessed person will start gnawing pieces of their own arm.  The Haitian remedy is to dunk a chicken in gas and light it on fire so that the Baron can enjoy the shrieks of the dying bird.

All in all, the Baron is sort of a mixed bag of good and bad, dictating life and death as well as taking over people’s minds.  In recent years, the Haitian spirit has had a degree of influence on popular culture as well, as the character Dr.Facilier in Disney’s Princess and the Frog has major themes drawn from the dress and style of the Haitian folklore.

Samedi’s colors are black, red, purple and white; and not every villain wears a tophat

Citations (admittedly not my best researched article, for some reason there is a remarkably small amount of material on the internet about Haitian folklore):
Baron Samedi, Haitian Loa and Voodoo – article by Daz Lawrence

Atomic Footballs and Close Calls

There are a handful of moments in history that are defining, particularly because nothing happened.  When the Y2K didn’t turn every motherboard in the world into useless noodles, when the Mayan calendar’s end date didn’t mean the world ended, people love a good doomsday story.  What is oftentimes forgotten is how close the world has been to the brink on a handful of occasions.

This thing is the Doomsday Clock, it’s a symbolic representation of how close the world is to catastrophic failure.

For example, in 1983, Stanislav Petrov (The most Russian name possible after Boris Yeltsin) was working for the Soviet Union’s Air Defense system.  His job was to watch a radar system for anything that bleeped, sweeped, or creeped.  The Russians had just shot down an jet plane from South Korea that had slipped into Russian airspace and killed hundreds of passengers as well as an American senator; tensions between America and the Soviet Union were nearly at an all-time high.  One day, a little past midnight, the screen blared that the Americans had fired off 5 missiles.  Petrov’s job was to let his higher command know when the Americans attacked so they could retaliate.  Petrov credits his time as a civilian as to why he didn’t immediately tell his commander, and he tried to verify the attack.  It was odd that the Americans would only shoot off five missiles, a real attack would be hundreds of bombs at once, plus the radar satellite was known to be somewhat unreliable.  After a few minutes of frantically checking, Petrov concluded that the 5 missiles were in fact, a malfunction of the machines.  The Americans were not attacking.  There was no call to retaliate and shoot back.  Historians are still somewhat unsure as to whether or not a rapid report would have ended in a fiery cataclysmic nuclear war, but in 2004 Petrov was recognized for his role in “avoiding a global catastrophe.”

The natural question to ask is: “How can it possibly be that easy to start a nuclear war?  How could Petrov making one quick and terrified phone call have ended the world?”  The answer is in something called “Mutually Assured Destruction”, the idea that if the enemy fires enough missiles to blow up your entire infrastructure, you fire all of yours back at them before the bombs begin to drop just to make sure they are as crippled as you are.  The problem is that missiles move really fast.  The President of the United States or the Soviet Premier would need to have access to the big red button that fires the missiles at all times.  That’s exactly what they do too.  In the United States, we call it the “Atomic Football”, in Russia, it’s the “Cheget”.  A wee aluminum briefcase with a black leather package, the contents are largely unknown but weigh upwards of 45 pounds.  Based on the memoirs of the aides that carried the Atomic Football, there is a spiral notebook with a simplified list of all of the President’s options when he fires the missiles as well as a set of nuclear launch codes on a card called “the biscuit.”

The President’s biscuit does not look like this.  That said, the nuclear biscuit would undoubtedly taste better with butter.

The briefcase and President have been separated several times, sometimes in small ways when the Commander-in-Chief and his Secret Service purse carrier board different elevators (totally a no-no, the Pres. needs to be within sight of the football at all times), other times they get separated in big ways; for example, on one occasion the Football carrier accidentally left the briefcase at the airport and had a Secret Service member bring it to him by performing a high speed hand-off from a motorcycle to the motorcade car.  At other times, the President and his biscuit have been separated.  When Ronald Reagan was shot, the EMTs sliced his clothes off him and the card went missing for a period of time before they found it dumped in his shoe.  To reiterate, this card has the codes that you need to start World War III and wipe out a handful of countries.  Bill Clinton supposedly forgot his card somewhere, and simply did not tell anyone for a couple months much to the chagrin of his Chief of Staff.  In another case, Jimmy Carter was said to have left his biscuit in his jacket pocket when he sent the coat to the dry cleaner.

Even with all of the bunglings and complete foolishness that has happened from time to time with the President’s obscenely important pigskin, there are no stories about the Americans ever opening the briefcase with intention to use.  In Russia, on the other hand, there was a moment where the bombs almost went off.  A handful of American and Norwegian scientists were setting off a science-filled rocket in 1995, with the intention of getting some sort of new learning about the Aurora Borealis.  The missile went up, up, up, then sort of veered off into Russian airspace towards Moscow.  To understate the situation, the Russians freaked out.  The rocket looked, for all intents and purposes, like an American submarine missile.  Yeltsin had the codes out and entered into the Cheget, but as level heads prevailed, nothing was finalized.  Nobody talked about the Norwegian rocket for about a week, at which point it was casually noted on the evening news.  Once again, the world came within a whisker of becoming the Fallout franchise, and everyone happily went about their business.

“With great power comes great responsibility” has really never been the world’s way of dealing with Atomic weapons.  Dr.Strangelove is practically a documentary sometimes.