anghara (anghara) wrote,

Once upon an encyclopedia #3: Volume III: Colemani to Exclusi

Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition (1979)

Volume III: Colemani to Exclusi

There seems to be a theme that emerges for every volume, even though I choose more or less at random. In this volume, that would appear to be water. You’ll see why.

Although the first entry really has nothing to do with anything wet, but let us, if I may use the phrase given the preamble, dive in anyway…

1. Compurgation:

A concept dating from early English law, compurgation is defined as “a method of settling issues of fact by appealing to the supernatural” – practiced until the 16th century in criminal matters and as late as 19th century in civil matters. This sounds a lot more exotic than it was, really, because the basic idea involves the swearing of an oath – a SERIOUS oath, on pain of perjury and direct retribution from the Almighty.
The idea seemed to be that somebody responsible for proving a “fact” was obliged to produce a number of witnesses, maybe a dozen or so, who would swear on their OWN oath that the original individual was telling the truth about something. JUST that. There would be nothing in this scenario about quizzing the witnesses about the fact itself which was in dispute, about which it was probable they may have had little to no direct knowledge.

Not all witnesses were created equal, though. The value of a man’s oath varied in accordance with his social status. This could mean that – incongruously – sometimes it might have been necessary to assemble oaths which somehow added up to a prescribed monetary value. The basic idea of the “supernatural” aspect seemed to have been simply that an oath sworn in this wise had deep religious significance (they took the “ So help me God” thing rather more literally than it’s the case today) – but there were legal implications as well for being false and bearing false witness. It was entirely possible, in those days, that people might actually refuse to give such oaths for individuals with iffy reputations.

Interestingly, the article says that “compurgations” were long considered to be better evidence than account books in cases of debt. I suppose you could always count on the fact that you couldn’t get someone you’d REALLY screwed to give a good word on your behalf – because it be like lying to God about you, and that would have been… a very not-done thing. Still, it must have been nice for some. Produce enough witnesses of a high enough social standing, and you were off scot-free…

2. Coral:

Let’s start with the boring nomenclature and classification stuff. The thing we call “coral” is comprised of a variety of invertebrate marine organisms (class Anthoszoa, phylum Cnidaria) characterized by skeletons – internal or external – of a stone-like, horny, or leathery consistency. Stony corals (the ones we are all most familiar with, the ones that spring immediately to mind when you say the word) number about 1000 species.

Biologically speaking, if you did not know this, the body of a coral consists of a polyp – a hollow cylindrical structure attached at one end to a solid surface and, on the other end, has a mouth surrounded by tentacles armed with stinging cells that paralyze prey. After its eggs are fertilized they are expelled and swim free for days or weeks as something called a “planula” before attaching to a solid surface and developing into a polyp. They are a colony-forming organism but can be solitary, too, and the largest solitary form grows to s diameter of about 25cm (10 inches) across.

Stony corals can occur in all oceans, from the tidal zone to depths of nearly 6000 metres or 20 000 feet. Living corals are yellowish or brownish, but the dead skeletons are always white. The skeleton is almost pure calcium carbonate and grows to surround the polyp inside; growth rate varies with food supply, temperature, and species. Atolls and coral reefs are composed of stony coral (this is why you’ve heard of them before, they are the thing that you know that surrounds exotic sea coasts…). Common types include brain coral, mushroom coral, star coral, and staghorn coral – all named because of their appearance. The corals and the coral reefs can grow at the rate of about 0.5 to 2.5 cm a year.

You might also know another factoid, something that the encyclopedia does not mention because believe it or not back in the days from which this thing dates, it was *not an issue*. It is now. Coral reefs are particularly vulnerable to the changing pH of the oceans. They are bleaching and dying at a great rate. Things like the Great Barrier Reef may not even exist – as a living thing – within a human generation.

I mourn this as I mourn many thing that we are destroying by our gigantic footprint on this Earth. Sometime in between the time when this article was published and the time in which coral reefs became endangered, I was privileged enough to bear witness to corals on two Pacific islands, Fiji and Moorea.

I learned to snorkel on a coral reef off a Fiji beach of sparkling white sand – coral dust, that. I learned several things, fast. One was that you did NOT walk barefoot where coral was, because coral cuts like knives and could flay the skin off your feet. Another was that corals secrete a peculiar anticoagulant chemical when they cut and slice and reach for prey – and that means that coral cuts BLEED, and keep bleeding, and it is almost impossible to staunch them. I brushed past a coral outcrop with my ankle as I was coming out of the water that one time – just brushed it, I looked down and it wasn’t even a scrape, it was just a thin white line where I’d touched skin to coral – but by the time I had fully walked out of the water and onto the beach I looked like a shark had taken half my leg off. The worst thing was this – because the bleeding had to be stopped, and then the miniscule scrape had to be bandaged up and I couldn’t get the bandage wet, that was the end of my snorkeling for that day at least. Which was ANNOYING. Mightily. But one doesn’t really want to be flailing around in those waters trailing blood. Corals are not the worst thing that might decide to see if you were worth being called lunch.

But there was one thing that was a gift – and it is something I choose to remember over and beyond the corals’ natural defenses. During these early snorkeling expeditions, I actually swam out to the edge of the reef – and then, greatly daring, SWAM BEYOND.

And the *world ended*.

Behind me, what I had cheerfully thought of as bedrock suddenly plunged down down down down straight down to a deep, blue, empty ocean and a floor of white sand a long way below me. And down there on that distant sea floor two manta rays chose that moment to lift off, shaking the sand from their leathery ‘wings’, like two sea angels taking flight.

I remember feeling a kind of preternatural awe that made me turn and swim madly back for the dangerous, deadly, sharp, pointed, bloodletting reef. It might have it in for me but it was closer to my world than this alien place was – this open ocean, this empty water, this space where a different God lived and had dominion. This was not my place. I was an intruder here. I was an interloper. And for a moment, there, the coral stood like a rampart… and promised me safety beyond its walls.

Coral is mighty. I will be very sad and not a little angry if we allow ourselves to lose it, if I see it happen in my lifetime.

Sometimes reading these articles in the encyclopedia hurts because of all the things that they did not know back then.

3. Date line, or International Date Line:

The International Date Line is described as an imaginary (well, duh!) line stretching from north to south pole and arbitrarily demarcating each calendar day from the next. It corresponds – roughly enough – along most of its length to the 180th meridian of longitude but it bows to the vagaries of human-made geographical divides in places. For instance it deviates eastwards in the Bering Sea, in order to avoid bisecting Siberia, and then doglegs west again to include the Aleutian islands with Alaska – and then, further south, it performs another zig-zag tango in order to allow certain islands to share the same day as New Zealand.

The worldwide timekeeping system is arranged so that the noon of any given day corresponds to the time at which the sun crosses the local meridian of longitude. A traveler going around the earth, using current timekeeping devices and methods, advancing or retarding (eastward=back, westward = ahead) his clock one hour by every time zone he entered and a calendar advancing by one day at the time his clock indicated midnight would find on returning to his starting point that the date according to his own experience was different by one day from that kept by the persons who had remained at the starting point.

Yeah, time travel gives me a headache.

I am a certified world traveler, yet the one time I had a direct and immediate encounter with the International Date Line I somehow managed to *completely forget about its existence*. This was back when I was going to Japan for the World Science Fiction convention of that year, and I gleefully and arrogantly arranged all my flights … and ended up in Japan a day later than I thought I was going to. International Date Line, yanno. I had crossed it. The DATE CHANGED. And I really only realized that when I landed in Tokyo and boy did I feel the egg on my face. I missed more or less a whole day of the convention because I simply did not take into account that I did not live on a flat Earth. It was a lesson in living science, though. I won’t forget it. I won’t forget it again. I WON’T. If I ever make it to Japan again you BET I will be there on the day that I am supposed to be there.

4. Danube River:

All right, you really thought I was going to miss this one…? REALLY?

Again, going the dry-as-dust geographical just-the-facts-ma’am route first, let it be known that this is the second-longest river (after the Volga) in Europe. It flows for 1770 miles (2850km) through the southeastern portion of Europe, rising in the Black Forest mountains in Western Germany and emptying into the Black Sea (actually, there’s a story there, all by itself. A River born in the Black, and dying in a different Black. There is just… something there…) Along its course, it passes through nine countries (Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, what used to be Yugoslavia and is now split into Croatia and Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Ukraine) and through four central European capital cities (Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade), more capitals than any other river in the world.

Once a long-standing frontier of the Roman Empire, its name – Dānuvius – seems to be a linguistic a loan from Celtic (or possibly even a Persian root) Apparently it is one of a number of river names derived from what is bombastically called a Proto-Indo-European language – the word *dānu appears to be a term for "river", a physical terrestrial river one supposes but possibly also a primeval cosmic river, perhaps from a root *dā "to flow/swift, rapid, violent, undisciplined”.

But when it comes to this PARTICULAR river, this amongst all the rivers of the world is MY river, the river of my heart, of my soul. When I hear the first trembling notes of Strauss’s “On the Beautiful Blue Danube”, I burst into tears – the river, where I knew it, was not blue, never was, never would be, it was an old river full of mud and silt and filtered sunlight and it ranged from muddy brown to an iridescent green where some of the clearer depths showed.

It inspired me to become an anthologist, actually.

I wrote more about the river, and what it means to me personally, in the introduction to the anthology which I edited, “River”. Here’s the blurb for it:

“It begins. Somewhere. An insignificant trickle of water. And it changes. And it grows up, and gathers a history, and finds its way into atlases and maps, until it finally reaches the sea, and vanishes into its vastness. You might think it of no importance. That it does not matter. But you follow where it leads... Rivers have always been very important to humankind. They've been explored. They've been navigated. They've been called gods. They've been blessed and cursed and venerated and used and enjoyed and exploited and polluted since the beginning of recorded history. They've been sung about and dreamed about and followed on epic journeys of discovery. They capitals of empires have risen on the banks of rivers - and so have a thousand fishing villages, and river landings, and water mills. There is only one River. Really. And it's all of them. Every river is different - and yet they're all the same, vast and full of life and death and mystery and history and adventure and quiet dreams. Full of life. Full of mystery. Full of stories. (Stories by: Mary Victoria, Tiffany Trent, Jay Lake, Irene Radford, Deb Taber, Keffy R.M. Kehrli, Jacey Bedford, Joshua Palmatier, Brenda Cooper, Seanan McGuire, Ada Milenkovic Brown, Nisi Shawl, Joyce Reynolds-Ward)”

Go read more, there.

5. Demons, hierarchy of:

These kinds of entries are utterly irresistible to a storytellers. There’s a HIERARCHY? Of DEMONS? REALLY??? People have way too much time on their hands…

Here’s the gist of the article – and pay attention, this is COMPLICATED.

Apparently, an ordering or ranking of malevolent celestial or spiritual beings is especially noted in western religions (including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) in a ranking directly counterposed to the ranking of angels. The demon ranks are generally headed by a Prince of Evil, known, in the common parlance, as the Devil.

We will draw a veil over Zoroastrianism, despite its striking familiarity of context even for people who know little to nothing about the religion itself, but there is more than enough in here without it.

Going straight in to the faiths that are loose in the world today in more or less the form that they began with, let’s start with Judaism. Here, it would seem, there are forces of evil – shedim (demons or foreign gods) or se’irim (hairy demons) believed to inhabit desert wastes, ruins, and graves, and from these bases they afflict humans with what the Encyclopedia article calls “physical, psychological, or spiritual disorders”. I guess if you have to ask for more information you aren’t afflicted… or something. The head honcho in this hierarchy was known variously as Satan (the Antagonist), Belial (spirit of perversion, darkness and destruction) and “other names”, says the article coyly. One would think that it might be important to know them, but eh. Go read a holy book for that, I guess.

Certain demons are noted in the Old Testament by name – Lilith, Azazel, Aluga (who is a vampire?!?) and others. In the Talmud, the compendiary of Jewish law lore and commentary, the king of demons is Asmodeus, is most likely derived from the older Zoroastrian Demon of Fury, and is assisted by a Queen called Agrath bat Mahalath with her 10,000 demonic attendants (somebody counted…?)

The Christians, who followed in these footsteps, took freely from Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and anything else that came their way, including any indigenous religions or beliefs which Christianity ran over in its proselytizing advance across the face of the world. Jesus names Beelzebub as the chief of demons in the New Testament, and equates him with Satan (presumably meaning the same guy who turned up in the PREVIOUS holy books). In the middle ages and the reformation period, during a time when Christianity seemed to be something that you simply tinkered with whenever you got to itch to redefine God, various hierarchies of demons were developed.

An example is a rather amazing list associated with seven deadly sins – Lucifer (pride), Mammon (avarice), Asmodeus (lechery – oh, how the mighty have fallen, here), Satan (anger), Beelzebub (gluttony), Leviathan (envy), and Bethpregor (sloth). Heard of most or all of these before, other than Bethpregor who is a new one to me, in vastly different contexts – and now I am utterly confused about Lucifer…
Over in this other corner, the Islamic hierarchy is headed by Iblis (the devil) also known as Shaytan (or Satan – this guy gets around)) or ‘aduw Allah (the Enemy of God). Iblis became the leader of a host of Jinn, spiritual beings who generally bode evil for men.

Things get really fascinating when you delve into the Gnostics. In the Gnostic worldview, which flourished in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, several hierarchies developed from its various systems and schools of thought (they didn’t seem to be able to come to any sort of agreement at all. Demons were something where you just went wading in and reimagined as you wanted, apparently…)

Just as an example – there is one set that ruled the seven planetary spheres, governing the days of the week, and had animal symbols connected to the demonic spirits – seems a surfeit of riches, there, but take a look at this list – Ialdabaoth (the first Archon of Darkness – dear GHU but this is starting to sound like a bad D&D campaign…) who was a lion, Iaoth (who may or may not be the same thing and is also a lion), Eloaios (ass), Astaphaios (hyena), Iao (snake), Adoni (ape) and Sabbataios (fire) – (this last seems to be very arbitrary – fire is an animal, now?) The prototype of Ialdabaoth is most likely Ahriman or Satan (you again? We have to stop meeting like this), and the names of several of the Gnostic demonic figures are either names or attributes assigned to God in Judaism – a deity who, as creator of this world, was viewed as evil by the Gnostics. (Okay, I don’t get that, why would the creator of the world be an evil deity…? I mean, there are problems with the world, to be sure, and there are times I would love to have a sit-down with the creator(s) and ask what the BLAZES they thought they were about – but evil…? Really?)

Other gnostic lists of demons included the archangels of Judaism and Christianity – they really had it in for that particular God, apparently, and all of his angels, too.

Man. There is a lifetime of stories, right there.

6. Electric eel:

To end on a topic that’s on-theme, water, we return to aquatic organisms.

The electric eel is not, in point of fact, an eel, but rather an eel-shaped fish found in slow-moving fresh water, periodically rising to gulp air from the surface (it apparently needs the oxygen for respiration. But it’s a FISH. Go figure.) It’s an elongated, roughly cylindrical, scaleless, gray-brown, sluggish creature which can reach a length of up to 2.75 metres (9 feet) in length. Its dorsal and caudal fins are somewhat rudimentary, but the tail region, which is actually about 4/5 of the thing’s total length, is bordered below by a long anal fin which enables the fish to move. The tail region also contains the electric organs which enable the electric eel to produce an electric shock strong enough to stun a man (up to 650 volts). The shock can be discharged at will.

I never met one, personally. But there is, of course, a story.

A friend of mine, back in Africa, used to go hiking out in the wilds as a form of recreation. On one occasion, he and his friends reached a shallow river which looked easily fordable by simply wading across it, but there was a ferry installed which apparently served as transport of choice between the two banks. They could not understand this, and disregarded it – and began taking off their shoes and turning up their trousers in order to wade across said river in a lot less time than it would take for the ferry to be poled back and forth. They ought to have been warned by the fact that their actions began to gather an interested audience on the far bank – but they didn’t think anything of it, dismissing it, perhaps, as the simple curiosity of local folk who didn’t see outsiders all that often. Instead, the first of them, his preparations complete, stepped into the water…

…and two steps later exploded out of it with a bloodcurdling scream of “JESUS!!!” and practically walked on water to get back to the safety of the bank where he collapsed, panting.

“Aaah,” the locals said, nodding sagely and giving one another understanding smiles. “He found the Jesus fish.”

There was a REASON for the ferry, see.

The river was full of electric eels…
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