Friday, 31 October 2014

All Hallows’ Eve

31 October - Hallowe’en is celebrated by now all across the world on the traditional date of Samhain or All Hallows’ Eve.

“But while this may be regarded as fairly certain for what we may call the aborigines throughout a large part of the continent, it appears not to have been true of the Celtic peoples who inhabited the Land’s End of Europe, the islands and promontories that stretch out into the Atlantic Ocean on the North-West. The principal fire-festivals of the Celts, which have survived, though in a restricted area and with diminished pomp, to modern times and even to our own day, were seemingly timed without any reference to the position of the sun in the heaven. They were two in number, and fell at an interval of six months, one being celebrated on the eve of May Day and the other on Allhallow Even or Hallowe’en, as it is now commonly called, that is, on the thirty-first of October, the day preceding All Saints’ or Allhallows’ Day ... Yet while a glamour of mystery and awe has always clung to Hallowe’en in the minds of the Celtic peasantry, the popular celebration of the festival has been, at least in modern times, by no means of a prevailing gloomy cast; on the contrary it has been attended by picturesque features and merry pastimes, which rendered it the gayest night of all the year.“ (Sir James Frazer “The Golden Bough”)

An imagination of Jack O’Lantern wandering through the night on All Hallow’s Eve by the Slovakian artist Rado Javor* 

 A long time ago, when bronze working was a state-of-the-art skill, smiths were regarded as some kind of magicians, those who were able to craft two different metals from the womb of the earth into something new, more than the sum of its parts and cast wonderful tools and weapons from it. Smithies remained enchanted places, conveniently close to the magic crossroads, often with a gateway to the Otherworld and the idea of the uncanny smith remained in the collective consciousness of the people. And thus, it was a smith called Jack Oldfield, once upon a time in Ireland, who struck a deal with the devil. When old Nick came to snatch Jack’s soul, he asked the adversary to buy him a last drink. The fiend agreed and since he had no loose cash on him, he changed into sixpence and Jack grabbed the coin from the counter, put it into his pocket together with a silver cross. Thus, the dickens couldn’t change back and Jack made another deal. He’d free the archfiend if he wouldn’t come back to claim his soul for another ten years. The Lord of the Flies agreed and when he returned at the agreed time, Jack asked him for an apple as last meal and up a tree went Belzeboub to get one for the smith while Jack quickly carved a cross into the bark of the tree and the archfiend was snookered again. Jack agreed to let him go if his soul would be safe from hell for all eternity. And then, one fine day, Jack’s number came up. The gatekeepers in heaven sent the old sleeveen packing post-haste and then Jack stood at the gates of hell and he couldn’t go in there either, since he had his deal and Jack was condemned to wander the world forever and a day. Old Nick, however, took pity and gave him a glowing coal from the fires of hell to provide at least a bit of light and warmth for the lost soul on his way and Jack put it in a turnip he had with him as provisions for the journey. And so he became known as Jack of the Lantern, Jack O’Lantern and his damned soul wanders through the night on All Hallow’s Eve.

A traditional Irish Jack-o'-Lantern in the Museum of Country LifeIreland

Whether Jack had the turnip with him to distil poitín is not passed down to posterity, however, the various light and fire festivals celebrated all across Northern and Central Europe on or around October 31st used turnips and beets to carve spooky lanterns from and when thousands came sailing across the western ocean to the New World, they used the vegetable available in abundance there to celebrate the custom: pumpkins. It was the Irish Renaissance that began in the 1830s, however, that claimed an unbroken tradition from pre-Christian times and old Celtic rituals to modern customs. And while the Protestant regions celebrated the Reformation on All Hallow’s Eve, Hallowe’en, Catholic areas like Ireland or southern Germany maintained rituals in relation to all the death having a pass in that certain night before the solemnity of Hallowmas was celebrated on the next day. That the restless dead are going about during that night is very probably not an old Celtic belief of Samhain, the day when the Celtic year ended, when the harvest was gathered, livestock was brought back from the summer pastures and winter began. This world and the other worlds overlapped on Samhain though and the gateways were open for the fairies and other denizens of the Annwn, the underworld who loved to cross over. The restless death were just a later, Christian addition to the cross-border commuters of that special night.

Daniel Maclise (1806 – 1870): “Snap-Apple Night“ (1833) shows people feasting and playing divination games on Halloween in Ireland

Riabagoaschtern, Kipkapköögels, the Dickwurzmann and the Rummelnacht, shindig night, the lanterns lit on Martinmas sometimes still made from turnips, the tricking and treating and disguising and all those other customs with the seal of approval of alleged historical hindsight back to times immemorial are usually seldom older than the Early Modern Age and might or might not be an echo of ancient customs and most become disposed, step by step, by the reimport of Hellowe’en from the United States. And along with more serious religious practices, the fun part prevails, like it probably was in the days of yore, be that the 16th century or the Bronze Age.

* Found on - more of Rado’s art can be wondered and marvelled at on:

And more about on Hallowe’en on:

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Emperor Constantin's auspicious victory in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312

28 October 312 near Rome, Emperor Constantine won his auspicious victory over the usurper Maxentius.
“Maxentius … called some senators together, ordered the Sibylline books to be searched. In them it was found that:—   “On the same day the enemy of the Romans should perish.” Led by this response to the hopes of victory, he went to the field.” (Lanctantius “Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died“)

An illustration of Emperor Constantine and his troops by Angus McBride* 

The twilight of the once mighty Praetorian Guard had already begun long since, when Emperor Maxentius revived the illustrious formation in Rome in the year of 306 CE. His predecessor Diocletian’s reform of the empire and relocation of the imperial administration centres away from the old capital to Nicomedia in modern western Turkey, Milan, Antioch, and Trier meant a radical decimation of the emperor’s traditional life guards regiment as well and the men who once made and murdered emperors and once had auctioned off the empire, back in 193 CE, were reduced in numbers, status and influence to a minor garrison in Rome. Maxentius, however, was an usurper and when the other legitimate emperors, after all there were four of them, regularly, after Diocletian’s reforms, ordered the Praetorian Guard to be dissolved, Severus, the local Caesar in Milan, was killed during the following riots and Maxentius had his cadre of loyal followers.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's imagination of the Praetorian Guard at the height of their power: "Proclaiming Claudius Emperor" from 1867

The proclamation of Constantine as Emperor of the West by his troops after the death of his father, one of the four original tetrarchs, wasn’t exactly legal either. For a couple of years, though, both he and Maxentius acted as Emperors of the West until they agreed that there can be only one and in the spring of 312, Constantine marched into Italy. A hopeless endeavour at first glance, since Constantine had to leave most of his troops along the Rhine to guard Gaul against the Germanic tribes and Maxentius could ride out the matter in a position of all-round defence in Rome. However, according to legend, Constantine had a dream that he had "to mark the heavenly sign of God on the shields of his soldiers... by means of a slanted letter X with the top of its head bent round, he marked Christ on their shields." and for inexplicable reasons, Maxentius left his more or less secure home base in Rome, marched to meet Constantine, tried to bottle him up north along the river Tiber near the old Milvian Bridge, a complicated manoeuvre that included a withdrawal of his centre to pull Constantine into an encirclement, the action was misunderstood, Maxentius’ men panicked, Constantine pursued, the usurper and his Praetorian guardsmen made a desperate last stand on the river, they were cut up and the battle was lost. Maxentius drowned while he tried to escape across a pontoon bridge.

A probably contemporary image of the battle's climax from the Arch of Constantine in Rome

According to some, Constantine and his men saw a cross shining over the battlefield before hostilities commenced on that day, along with the words "Εν Τούτῳ Νίκα", "In this sign, you shall conquer;" and later tradition made Constantine’s march along the Via Flaminia towards Rome something of a Road to Damascus, having the emperor converted to the true faith and whatnot but actually, no signs of a cross or a rho-chi  or something similar appear on the Arch of Constantine that was erected to celebrate his victory at the Milvian Bridge and Constantine was baptised on his death bed 25 years later, if at all. All sources agree, though, that after the battle, the Praetorian Guard was disbanded for good, their barracks, the Castra Praetoria, were torn down and 300 years of Imperial tradition, weal and woe, ended. A grand gesture by emperor Constantine, who soon became the sole emperor, far more tangible than an ominous vision and a certain sign that a new age had indeed begun.

*( found (and licensed) on
and more about the Battle of the Milvian Bridge on:

Sunday, 26 October 2014

“Farewell great Painter of Mankind" - the Death of William Hogarth in 1764

26 October 1764, the English painter, printmaker, pictorial satirist, social critic, and editorial cartoonist William Hogarth died at the age of 66 in London.

“Farewell great Painter of Mankind Who reach'd the noblest point of Art Whose pictur'd Morals charm the Mind And through the Eye correct the Heart. If Genius fire thee, Reader, stay, If Nature touch thee, drop a Tear: If neither move thee, turn away, For Hogarth's honour'd dust lies here.“ (David Garrick’s epitaph for William Hogarth)

One of Hogarth’s many single paintings, the “The March of the Guards to Finchley“ describing the mustering of troops on London’s Tottenham Court Road during the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, full of Hogarthian details.* 

Career options for a young man are usually quite limited with a family background of a pater familias who ended up in debt prison because his Latin-speaking coffee house at St John’s Gate went bust, forcing the said young man to sell his mother’s home-cooked domestic remedies in the streets to obtain the basic necessities for the loved ones. Satirist is an excellent choice, though, if one has a bit of artistic skill, a keen perception of life’s absurdities and the ability to cope with them. Fortunately, William Hogarth had all three of these abilities in abundance. And very soon, the artist became a highly moral pictorial satirist who castigated conditions of a world that was about to change forever at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution when the old values of Merry Old England were to become a cherished relic in the newly founded United Kingdom with its Hanoverian kings, South Sea Bubbles, a capital that was drowning in unbelievable hygiene standards and the according epidemics and new customs and habits of high and low and those lowly who pretended to be high that made the days at the court of the Merry Monarch Charles II, as Samuel Pepys had described them in his diary, seem like idylls of the king.

William Hogarth's self-portrait "The Painter and his Pug" (1745)

When Realism became an art movement in France a hundred years after Hogarth’s death, intending to portray real, commonplace people in their natural habitat, the aversion of Romantic drama threw out the baby with the bath water and created a social drama without even a hint of the sense of humour, the irony of human, all-too-humaness and the sheer joy of telling a tale that the British master of early sequential art had expressed in his often painstakingly realistic depictions. Taking the works of artists like da Vinci and Dürer along with the quite realistic tradition of Dutch 17th century genre paintings and turning them into satirical story-telling prints published en masse as broadsheets and appreciated, often in the evenings in the homes of the emerging bourgeois family circles, by a huge audience, Hogarth’s “Modern Moral Subjects”, Harlot's and Rake's Progresses, “Marriage à-la-mode” or “Industry and Idleness”, usually six to twelve consecutive prints, flooded the readers with a wealth of detail on every sheet along with laughter and a distinct finger-wagging. And there are few testimonies of the life and times of an epoch as rich and as entertaining as those created by Hogarth. The artist’s stance against Britain’s participation in the Seven Years’ War, expressed in his print “The Times” from 1762, proved to be too much for his audience. Hogarth took the smear campaign against him to heart and died two years later as one of Britain’s most influential artist of the 18th century and not only in terms of satirical art.

And more about William Hogarth on gives a good introduction to Hogarth’s approach on sketching reality with a tongue-in-cheek attitude in a work he had characterised himself as being “steeped in humour”.