Archive

Miscellany

Miscellany Animals

Llamas, alpacas, guinea pigs, turkeys, and ducks were among the animals indigenous to the New World that Christopher Columbus encountered on his second voyage there in 1493. On that trip he introduced from the Old World horses, pigs, cattle, sheep, and goats. “A large whale was taken betwixt my land, butting on the Thames and Greenwich,” wrote London dweller John Evelyn in his diary on June 3, 1658. “It was killed with a harping iron, struck in the head, out of which spouted blood and water by two tunnels, and after a horrid groan, it ran quiet on shore and died.”

Miscellany Home

Pantagruelian feasts, common at Gallo-Roman villas, followed the Gallic custom of eating around a table rather than the Roman method of doing so while lying down supported by one elbow. After one banquet, it was recorded that all “remained seated on their benches. They had drunk so much wine and had so gorged themselves that the slaves and the guests lay drunk in every corner of the house, wherever they happened to stumble.” 

Miscellany Luck

“The worst punishment God can devise for this sinner,” wrote Harper Lee—who loved casino gambling—in a 1990 letter, “is to make her spirit reside eternally at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City.”

Miscellany Flesh

Andean legends tell of pishtacos, bogeymen who steal their victims’ fat. In colonial times they were said to be Franciscan monks who used the fat as church-bell grease or holy oil. By the 1960s they were sometimes represented as workers who used it to lubricate modern factory machinery or airplane engines. 

Miscellany Climate

In March 2018 authorities in Alexandria, Egypt, began removing five hundred residents from their homes along the Al Mahmoudeya canal—dug in 1820 under orders from Viceroy Mohamed Ali—and into high-rises. “There are many areas,” says Alexandrian climate scientist Mohamed El Raey, “that are located at least three meters below sea level. They will have to be abandoned and the people relocated.” Estimates suggest near-term rise in sea levels will inundate a third of the city.

Miscellany Epidemic

According to Thucydides, before the plague of Athens, the Athenians were divided over whether the disaster predicted by an oracle would be a limos (famine) or a loimos (plague). “In the case of unwritten prophecies,” wrote one classicist, “it would be impossible to determine which word the speaker meant to use. The ambiguity of the sound would have been its chief recommendation to the soothsayer.”

Miscellany Epidemic

Around 1500 bc, the Hittite augur Maddunani sacrificed to the gods one goat kid, one piglet, and one puppy in an attempt to end an epidemic that had devastated the army. While puppies played “an extensive, and apparently vital” role in Hittite ritual, wrote historian Billie Jean Collins, “this is the only case in Hittite ritual of puppies being killed as an offering.”

Miscellany Family

When the seventh-century Japanese prince Shōtoku was having his tomb built, he told the laborers, “Cut here, trim there—I wish for no descendants.”

Miscellany Rule of Law

A copy of crew rules kept by eighteenth-century pirate captain Bartholomew Roberts was found after his death in 1722. These granted each man equal title to “strong liquors at any time seized,” threatened with death anyone found seducing a woman “and carrying her to sea in disguise,” and prohibited discussion of “breaking up their way of living” until each pirate had earned £1,000.

Miscellany Rule of Law

Toy company Mattel sued MCA Records in 1997, alleging the hit pop song “Barbie Girl” by Aqua violated trademark. Justice Alex Kozinski (who retired in 2017 while facing allegations of sexual misconduct) argued for the Ninth Circuit that the song was protected as parody. He ended his opinion, “The parties are advised to chill.”

Miscellany Water

The story of Juan Ponce de León searching for the Fountain of Youth in Florida in 1513 was fabricated after his death in a chronicle by Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, a Spanish courtier who found the explorer to be egocentric, dim-witted, and gullible—and so wished to render him foolish in the annals.

Miscellany Music

Hip-hop producer Devo Springsteen was once asked why he had sampled Nina Simone’s 1965 recording of the song “Strange Fruit” instead of Billie Holiday’s 1939 rendition. “Because of the rawness of her voice,” he said. “There is something really black about her voice. And when you are trying to make black music, there’s not a much blacker voice than Nina Simone.”

Miscellany Disaster

In 1919 a steel storage tank burst in Boston and spilled 2.3 million gallons of molasses, creating a twenty-five-foot-high wave that killed twenty-one people and tore buildings from foundations. The tank had leaked since its installation, but the company had, in response to complaints, merely painted it a concealing brown.

Miscellany Home

“When the maids are beautiful and the concubines charming, this is not a blessing,” warns Confucian master Zhu Bolu in a seventeenth-century work of household advice. “For servants,” his next maxim advises, “don’t employ handsome boys.”

Miscellany Swindle & Fraud

In Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, published in 1843, Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “What philosophers say about actuality is often just as disappointing as it is when one reads on a sign in a secondhand shop: pressing done here. If a person were to bring his clothes to be pressed, he would be duped, for the sign is merely for sale.”​