The month of January is named after Janus, the ancient Roman god of beginnings and ends, who is one of the reasons many of us are currently busy making, keeping and breaking New Year’s resolutions.
Sometimes, difficult problems require simple but extreme solutions.
According to legend, when Alexander the Great came to the city of Gordium in Phrygia, an area which is in Turkey today, he came up with a radical way of solving the ancient problem of the Gordian Knot.
Black has been favored by monks, princes, pirates, anarchists, judges, fascists and fashionistas, just to name a few contrasting groups. It is the color that was a color and stopped being one when Newton analyzed light. Then it became a color again, and remains the color that has been most often associated with opposite values throughout western history.
Yes, Christopher Columbus’ travels completely changed the world because they led Western European powers to colonize the Americas, but Columbus and his crew were not the first Europeans to reach the American continent. Vikings were, about 500 years before Columbus.
The idea of artificial creatures that can do things by themselves is very old, and it can be found in many cultures around the world. The word “robot” itself, however, has very specific origins, which are earlier than Isaac Asimov’s 1950 novel I, Robot.
Even though all Western cultures represent justice in the same way — a female figure holding scales and a sword, sometimes wearing a blindfold — only the sword and blindfold come from Western sources. The scales of justice originated in a more ancient civilization, and today’s common representation of justice only came together gradually over centuries.
Alchemy, the ancient mystical study of the transformations of matter, may not have reached its goals, such as changing lead into gold and finding a universal cure for all diseases, but it did make contributions to ancient sciences and cultures that are still used today. Two of the most common symbols in the West, for instance, come from Alchemy:
From a great snake to a sign from God, the rainbow is one of the most varied natural symbols in cultures worldwide. In European and North American cultures, however, the rainbow has a common function that is found in Scandinavian mythology, Greek and Roman mythology, as well as Judeo-Christian traditions. That function is to connect. More specifically, to connect the human world with the world of gods.
In Scandinavian mythology, the bridge that connects Asgard, home of the gods, with the Earth is a rainbow that can only be crossed by gods or the souls of those who died bravely in battle. Described as having only three colors in the 13th century poetic Eddas, the Bifröst is now commonly thought of as a complete rainbow:
What did Oscar Wilde mean when he wrote that “life imitates art far more than art imitates life”? Simply put, this quote from The Decay of Lying (1891) is about how art affects the way we look at the world around us. Take fog, for instance:
In the West the God of Love is most often depicted as a winged boy with a bow, sometimes blindfolded. Here is a good example, at the very top of one of Botticelli’s most symbolically complex works:
Contrary to common belief, the medieval period was not a dark, culture-less time during which Europeans’ main occupation was groveling in the mud. So why the bad reputation?
If we look at the facts, the roughly 1,000 years starting after the fall of Rome in 476AD saw major contributions to Western cultures, not to mention the rise of the Western European powers we know today.
The first universities in the West were founded in the Middle Ages, for instance. The University of Bologna was founded in 1088, that of Paris in 1155, and Oxford became a major academic center in 1167, with Cambridge following in 1209, to name a few. And no, medieval scholars did not think the earth was flat.
Some visual artists strive to please the eye, while others specialize in tricking it. Yet others manage to do both at the same time, as French photographer Fanette Guilloud, who uses no computer tricks or superposition of images — only spray paint and her camera — to produce stunning forms of geometric impossibility:
Voting people out of communities has become a form of entertainment through reality TV shows, but the practice used to serve a more political purpose. Its name, however, has not changed since ancient times. It’s called ostracism.
While the word “ostracism” refers to social exclusion today, it originates from an Ancient Greek practice that involved broken pieces of pottery and an actual vote.
It’s not the name of a rock band or of an underground art group. No. “The Atomists” is the name of the thinkers who first had the idea that everything is made of tiny particles that combine to form larger structures. They had that idea about 2,500 years ago, some in India and others in Greece, producing a theory and a word that have played a crucial role in the history of science.
While some may think that western republics are becoming increasingly complex, dysfunctional and slow, that government shutdowns and endless going back and forth between parties and interest groups are signs of our times, the history of republican government tells a different story.
Take a look at the distribution of power in the Roman Republic (509BC – 27BC):
According to legend, and to several Ancient Greek authors including Plato, two words of wisdom were carved into the stone at the entrance of the most important temple of Ancient Greece, the Temple of Apollo in the city of Delphi. Two words that formed the phrase “gnothi seauton,” which literally means “know yourself.”
Who hasn’t heard someone say they don’t like modern art because they think “it’s ugly”?
Despite the subjectivity of the statement, there is some truth in it. Not all, but some of the art produced in the first three decades of the 20th century is indeed characterized by a great shift away from what is traditionally considered beautiful. What matters is no longer the work of art itself, but the process that leads to the work of art, and the questions raised by the process. The best example has to be Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain, a signed urinal meant to challenge what art is and does:
In Ancient Rome, those who had the power to punish criminals carried a symbol of that power for all to see, and it can still be seen in many western countries today, including the US. This symbol, called “fasces,” was a bundle of wooden rods tied around an axe with strips of leather:
It’s all about association. Renaissance masters called the tall and pointy architecture of the Middle Ages “Gothic” by association with the Goths, the tribes who had started invading the Roman Empire in the 3rd century and whose name had become synonymous with a lack of refinement. Then in the 18th century, at the time of the Gothic revival, a new type of scary story developed and was called “Gothic,” by association with the buildings such as castles and churches where the action of the stories often takes place. The rest of the Gothic cultural evolution is about association with these stories, collectively known as Gothic fiction.
Why is the poster of a black cat given the same importance as the Eiffel Tower in every souvenir shop in Paris? Sure, the poster designed by Swiss artist Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen in the 1890s is striking to look at:
One of the most meaningful developments in recent popular culture is the rise of the zombie. Zombies are now everywhere, from TV series to Hollywood movies and video games. While the zombie genre is clearly not for everyone given its level of gory violence, its social and political message concerns all of us.
Zombies are neither dead nor alive. They are mindless, speechless corpses driven by one need: eating other people.
Walt Disney used it as inspiration for the castles of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, and it is often seen as the perfect example of 19th-century Castle Romanticism. This inspirational castle is Neuschwanstein, located in Bavaria, Germany.