31 October 2009


On this day at the Russian Imperial Court, we are told, they would chant this Troparion commemorating the Holy Martyrs Zenobia and Zenobius:

As brother and sister united in godliness
Together you struggled in contest, Zenobius and Zenobia.
You received incorruptible crowns and
Unending glory and shine forth with the grace
Of healing upon those in the world.

Since a saint's day is an annual event -- and I religiously celebrate St Zenobia's Day every year* -- I won't repeat her story here, but point you to my first post of 31 October 2007 (when I was also a day late. Shame!). Their history is complex -- not to say confused -- and it's all the fault of the 10th C Byzantine monk, Symeon Metaphrastes, who fully deserved his nickname, 'the Re-writer'.

Click over to that post -- Zenobia: Martyr Saint of Cilicia and her brother -- and see what you can make of it. Annual reflection has not made me any wiser. You might be luckier.

* Late again, I'm afraid, despite the best efforts of the 'Orthodox Church in America' webpage to remind me that it falls on the 30th of October, thanks to their October Liturgical Calendar (whence this image as well as the Troparion [translated and arranged in Western musical notation by ©I'vow Bakhmetev])

28 October 2009


Autumn colour isn't just for trees: Zenobia changes colour too.

Zenobia pulverulenta, I mean. And she's a shrub.

With nodding white bell-shaped flowers exuding an exotic, spicy, almost cinnamon-like Syrian scent.

This Zenobia, however, is no native of Syria.

The shrub grows wild only in the moist sandy areas and bogs of the south-east USA. Still, she's a true queen, with gracefully arching branches and blue-green leaves covered with a fine silvery down -- hence her nickname of "Dusty Zenobia". The leaves are now just changing into their autumn finery, a mix of orange, red, and purple colours.

The Genus of Zenobia

Zenobia has her very own genus. As you would expect of an empress, it's a terribly exclusive club -- containing just the single species of shrub that bears her name.

Restoring Zenobia to her proper rank.

The privilege of bestowing a name on a plant lies with the person who first classifies it and publishes an adequate description in botanical terms. He (rarely she) may name it more or less as he pleases within the rather broad limits of a few botanical rules. For one thing, it is frightfully bad form to name a discovery after oneself. For another, it must appear to be in Latin (the ending of nearly all genus names makes them look like Latin -- even when the word is Greek or commemorates modern people and places).

Not all names stick. They can be changed, for example, by someone who manages to uncover a case of faulty classification of a known plant.

Zenobia was once misclassified -- and therein lies a tale.

She belongs to the family of Ericaceae, subfamily Vaccinioideae, and was placed among the tribe of Andromedeae as a mere subgenus, as if she were just another bog standard Lily of the Valley.

Naming plants after classical figures was all the rage in the early years of scientific botanizing. In fact, it happened that botanists so often honoured the three Graces (Charities) or the minor goddess Charis when they described a new genus -- and were enchanted by the beautiful flowers or graceful growth forms -- that the name was given to five genera in five different families.

Andromeda was a popular choice, too.

Andromeda was the daughter of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiope of Ethiopia, whose mother got the girl into terrible trouble by boasting of her beauty. She claimed that the princess was lovelier than the sea nymphs, thereby irritating their father, the god Poseidon. To punish this arrogance, Andromeda was chained naked to a rock as a sacrifice to a sea monster. She was saved by the hero Perseus, who became her husband. The image of a beautiful virgin in chains to be eaten by a beastly sea monster was an irresistible attraction for artists throughout the ages (such as Titian, right) -- and to 18th century botanists.

Andromeda was established as a plant genus in 1753 by the famous classifier and namer of plants and animals, Carl Linnaeus, who gave the name to a little heath he found in Lapland. Gradually, as more and more species were described and included in the genus (some having three or four hundred species), it became apparent that it contained much too heterogeneous a collection of species.

In 1834, the Scottish botanist David Don published "A New Arrangement of the Ericaceae," in which he separated a number of species from the genus Andromeda, creating at the same time several new genera -- which meant, of course, that he was now allowed to give them new names. He followed in Linnaeus' footsteps and created bevies of classical females, such as Cassandra (that didn't stick either; she's now Chamaedapkne), Cassiope (the bragging mother of Andromeda), Leucathoe (daughter of the king of Babylonia who was changed by Apollo into a sweet-scented shrub; perhaps incense), and our Zenobia. Clearly, he thought that plant names should be charming rather than descriptive. And believed that, somehow, the romance of plants could be hidden in their names.*

Why Zenobia?

David Don left no obvious clue to explain why this American shrub should be honoured by the name of the third-century warrior queen of Syria.

He did clarify, however -- albeit in scholarly Latin -- that he had named the new genus after the highly honoured queen of Palmyra, valorous (or virtuous; the word is the same), learned, and famous for her misfortunes.** Perhaps he thought that spoke for itself, and added "whatever opinion may be formed of [her] title to rank as [a] separate gen[us], the arrangement of the species will, I trust, be found to be more natural than any hitherto proposed."

We agree.

What God has joined together, let no man separate (Matt. 19.6).

Enter the Dutch

Of all the gardeners on earth, the Dutch variety are least likely to leave well enough alone.

So it is hardly a foolish boast when the Dutch Garden Centre Esveld says, "Nowhere else in Europe will you find as many garden plants!" Zenobia is the proof of the pudding.

They offer three different kinds of Zenobia shrubs.

Left: the Zenobia pulverulenta that we know and love.

Right: Zenobia pulverulenta "Raspberry Ripple", with rose-flecked flowers.

Below right: Zenobia pulverulenta "Blue Sky", with blue-green leaves.

True, they are still of the same species, pulverulenta (= Latin for "Dusty" Zenobia).

But how long, dear reader, do you think it will take the Dutch to make a new species?

They're working on yet another variety as we speak -- the mysterious unphotographed Zenobia pulverulenta viridis. I bet it's going to be greener than ever!

A pity they didn't make it Z.p. virilis, ' Dusty Zenobia, Brave and Manly' in honour of our warrior queen.

* All the dirt on The Gods and Goddesses in the Garden: Greco-Roman Mythology and the Scientific Names of Plants, by Peter Bernhardt, Rutgers Univ. Press, 2008; partially available on Google Books.

** The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, Vol. 17, 159.


Top left: SC Gardener

Right: Titian, Perseus and Andromeda (1553-1559), Wallace Collection, via Wikimedia Commons

Below left: I am most grateful to Nurseries PlantenTuin Esveld for this and the following two photographs. Credit Nurseries PlantenTuin Esveld, Boskoop, Netherlands.

Below right: Credit Kwekerij R. Bulk, Boskoop.

Bottom right: Credit Nurseries PlantenTuin Esveld, Boskoop, Netherlands.

14 October 2009

The Double Duchess ... Into and Out of Babel

Like most bloggers, I'm used to having posts copied and put on someone else's website ... without getting so much as a mention. But never before has my blog been run through an automatic translator (twice, I believe) before being plagiarized.

That's what happened to The Double Duchess and Zenobia. The results are hilarious -- an entirely new language that must be called 'Babelish' -- and a joy to share with my more honest readers.

First, the Babelish (via The Jewerly Shop, as they spell it), which is italicized for its sins, followed by my original text:

Jewerly Babelish:

On Monday 21 June, a sector thanksgiving unmistakable 60 years of Ruler Victoria's find. And, for the opening beforehand since the liquidation of the Prince Consort in 1861, at the regal regale that evening, the beauty queen set excursion her widow's weeds and wore "a put on clothing of which the whole kit fa was embroidered in gold, which had been uniquely worked in India."

Zenobia Babel:

On Monday 21 June, a public thanksgiving marked 60 years of Queen Victoria's rule. And, for the first time since the death of the Prince Consort in 1861, at the state banquet that evening, the queen set aside her widow's weeds and wore "a dress of which the whole front was embroidered in gold, which had been especially worked in India."

Jewerly Babelish:

The skirt of gold pile was embroidered all all over in a comet-like intend in emeralds, sapphires, diamonds, and other jewels outlined with gold, the corners where it opened in face existence opulently wrought in the verbatim at the same time jewels and gold to note peacocks outspread tails. This opened to reveal an underdress of goo crepe de chine, lightly embroidered in bright, gold, and pearls and sprinkled all settled with diamonds. The trail, which was devoted to to the shoulders by two slim points and was fastened at the waist with a at liberty diamond furbelow, was a grassy velvet of a pleasurable tinge, and was superbly embroidered in Oriental designs introducing the lotus bud in rubies, sapphires, amethysts, emeralds, and diamonds, with four borderings on incongruent grounds, separated with gold twine. The trains was rocky with turquoise satin. The bodice was composed of gold chain to accord the skirt, and the face was of crepe de chine esoteric with a stomacher of verifiable diamonds, rubies and emeralds.

Zenobia Babel:

The skirt of gold tissue was embroidered all over in a star-like design in emeralds, sapphires, diamonds, and other jewels outlined with gold, the corners where it opened in front being elaborately wrought in the same jewels and gold to represent peacocks outspread tails. This opened to show an underdress of cream crepe de chine, delicately embroidered in silver, gold, and pearls and sprinkled all over with diamonds.

The train, which was attached to the shoulders by two slender points and was fastened at the waist with a large diamond ornament, was a green velvet of a lovely shade, and was superbly embroidered in Oriental designs introducing the lotus flower in rubies, sapphires, amethysts, emeralds, and diamonds, with four borderings on contrasting grounds, separated with gold cord. The trains was lined with turquoise satin.

The bodice was composed of gold tissue to match the skirt, and the front was of crepe de chine hidden with a stomacher of real diamonds, rubies and emeralds.

An Englishman in Paris

Jewerly Babelish:

Charles Frederick Benefit , who opened his look for on the Rue de la Paix in 1858. Lincolnshire natural, Quality had worked as a clerk for two London textile merchants, gaining a encyclopedic adeptness of fabrics and culture the affair of supplying dressmakers. Unusually pushy, he visited the Citizen Terrace to contemplation distinguished portraits. Elements of the sitters' dresses in these paintings would later contribute insight for Significance's own designs for both in fashion ensembles and masked ball costumes.

Zenobia Babel:

Charles Frederick Worth, who opened his shop on the Rue de la Paix in 1858. Lincolnshire born, Worth had worked as a clerk for two London textile merchants, gaining a thorough knowledge of fabrics and learning the business of supplying dressmakers. Unusually ambitious, he visited the National Gallery to study historic portraits. Elements of the sitters' dresses in these paintings would later provide inspiration for Worth's own designs for both fashionable ensembles and masquerade costumes.

Jewerly Babelish:

It was his ingenuity to use 'spend mannequins', our models of today (selected in Quality’s instance not for their knockout but for their resemblances to his best customers) to staged off the clothing -- so that his customers would see how the garments look when ragged. The Lodgings of Benefit was likewise the sooner to put forward seasonal collections, four respectively year, and event invented fashion shows, as we restful identify them.

Zenobia Babel:

It was his genius to use 'live mannequins', our models of today (selected in Worth’s case not for their beauty but for their resemblances to his best customers) to show off the clothes -- so that his clients would see how the garments look when worn. The House of Worth was also the first to present seasonal collections, four each year, and thus invented fashion shows, as we still know them.

Jewerly Babelish:

Anticyclone-upper classes women flocked to his classy, definitely uncommunicative salon; a literally of prologue was as a rule required. Charles Dickens, in 1863, reported slyly in stupefaction to his compatriots on both sides of the Aqueduct that a bearded man with his “rugged fingers” was formal to rip off “the wrest dimensions of the highest titled women in Paris — garb them, unrobe them, and get them apply to loath and back.”

Zenobia Babel:

High-society women flocked to his plush, very private salon; a letter of introduction was usually required. Charles Dickens, in 1863, reported back in astonishment to his compatriots across the Channel that a bearded man with his “solid fingers” was allowed to take “the exact dimensions of the highest titled women in Paris — robe them, unrobe them, and make them turn backward and forward.”

Plain Babel

and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”

(Gen 11:6)

06 October 2009

Hypatia Hits the Big Screen

And who (if we may ask) is Hypatia?

Philosopher, mathematician, lecturer, astronomer. A pagan. And a woman.

An uppity woman.

Born before 370 CE in Alexandria in Egypt.

The ancient sources tell us little about Hypatia, the female astronomer and mathematician who was so much admired by her fellow pagans and so despised by the Christians.

A pagan poet, Palladas,who lived in Alexandria at about the same time as Hypatia, wrote this epigram, the first contribution to her literary legend.

Searching the zodiac, gazing on Virgo,
Knowing your province is really the heavens,
Finding your brilliance everywhere I look,
I render you homage, revered Hypatia,
Teaching’s bright star, unblemished, undimmed.*

But a Christian source remembers it differently:

AND IN THOSE DAYS there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through (her) Satanic wiles.

The Background

Hypatia was the daughter of Theon, a mathematician who was the last attested member of the Museum (the "shrine of the Muses"). In its glory days, the libraries of the Museum had held some half a million books. Those days were long over and the last books probably went up in flames in 391 when the great temple of Serapis was razed to the ground and a Christian church built over its ruins.

She was taught mathematics by her father, but reached an excellence far above her teacher, especially in astronomy, and she instructed many [pupils] in mathematical studies.

She helped her father prepare his big book on Ptolemy's planetary models, the Almagest: Theon's second edition of this astronomy classic proudly acknowledges the contribution of "the philosopher, my daughter Hypatia."

Hypatia herself was a follower of the Neoplatonic tradition. We know that she taught publicly in Alexandria -- perhaps in the Museum and certainly in the Agora -- where (although a woman) she appeared dressed in a philosopher's cloak, expounding in public to those willing to listen on Plato or Aristotle or some other philosopher. She wrote a treatise on what we would today call 'numbers theory' and another on geometry.

All of her own works are now lost but we can glean something of her teaching from seven letters written to her by her most famous pupil, Synesius, who converted to Christianity and became Bishop of Cyrene in Libya. He had studied under Hypatia in the early 390's and his surviving letters span the years from 399 to 413. Indeed, she was the recipient of his final letter, penned from his deathbed:
I am dictating this letter to you from my bed, but may you receive it in good health, mother, sister, teacher, and benefactress, and whatsoever is honoured in name and deed. (Ep. 16)
A Neoplatonic Sanitary Napkin

Hypatia was "honest and chaste and throughout her life remained a virgin." Almost certainly she never married -- although she was "exceeding beautiful and fair of form". But boys will be boys and, needless to say, one of her pupils fell in love with her. Despite his best efforts, he could not control his passions and made his affections obvious to her.

Bringing out one of her [bloodstained] menstrual towels, she thrust it a him; and having displayed the evidence of her unclean nature said: "It is this you love, young man, not beauty."

Another version has her say , "In truth, this is the focus of your yearning, young man, but it is nothing beautiful!"

Whatever her exact words, the young man was seized with shame and horror and was brought to a change of heart and a return to chastity.

This is a difficult but well-reported scene, one which most scholars have ignored (or left in the original Greek so as not to have to deal with it). But Hypatia is not saying that her vagina is unclean, but that a philosopher -- and especially a Neoplatonist -- is above things of the body and should focus only on the soul's journey towards the infinite Truth. They must not descend into corporeality or allow themselves to be ensnared by lust. This may be implied by the Alexandrian-Greek word she uses for 'sanitary napkin', phylakeia ("shieldcloths"), which carries the added charge of preserving virginity, rather as a 'shield' for celibacy.

(Neo)Platonic Friendships

Another of her pupils, and a personal friend, was Orestes, the imperial prefect of Egypt and governor of the city, and nominally a Christian.
And the governor of the city [Orestes] honoured her exceedingly; for she had beguiled him through her magic. And he ceased attending church as had been his custom....And he not only did this, but he drew many believers to her, and he himself received the unbelievers at his house.
She had many other friends in high places, both private individuals and magistrates. Adherents of philosophy generally at this time were aristocrats. They formed a group unsympathetic to Christianity and potentially hostile to it. It was from these friends that Hypatia's danger came. In the eyes of the Church, and especially of the city’s patriarch Cyril, she was too big for her boots.
Cyril ... was passing Hypatia's house and noticed a hubbub at the door, 'a confusion of horses and of men', some coming, others going, and yet others standing and waiting. He asked what was the meaning of the gathering and why there was a commotion at the house. Then he heard from his attendants that they were there to greet the philosopher Hypatia and that this house was hers. This information gave his heart such a prick....

Religious tension in Alexandria was already running high with conflicts between Christian and pagan, between Christian and Jew, between orthodox and heretical views. Although the Christians were by now the dominant party and no longer persecuted, they were all too ready to persecute others. In 391, the Emperor Theodosius had forbidden all pagan cults everywhere in the Empire. That same year, rioting and civil disorder broke out when the temple of Serapis was destroyed. Violence erupted between Christians and Jews as well, so Cyril led a mob against the synagogues and drove the Jews out of Alexandria, a flagrantly illegal act and an usurpation of Orestes' authority as governor. Both men now became embroiled in a struggle for political power as Orestes resisted ecclesiastical encroachment upon his civil jurisdiction.

Prelude to Murder

When the prefect rebuffed any attempt at reconciliation, he was himself assaulted by armed monks "of a very fiery disposition" who had come into the city in support of the patriarch.
About five hundred of them therefore quitting their monasteries, came into the city; and meeting the prefect in his chariot, they called him a pagan idolater, and applied to him many abusive epithets.... A certain one of them named Ammonius threw a stone at Orestes which struck him in the head, and covered him with blood that flowed from the wound. All the guards with a few exceptions fled [but] the populace of Alexandria ran to the rescue of the governor, and put the rest of the monks to flight; having secured Ammonius they delivered him up to the prefect. He immediately put him publicly to the torture, which was inflicted with such severity that he died under the effects of it.
Orestes was lucky to escape with his life, but escape he did. In reply, Cyril recovered the body of Ammonius, deposited it in a church and, calling him the "Marvellous", enrolled him among the holy martyrs. But the more sober-minded Christians didn't buy this story and Cyril was forced into silence. The intense hostility between the civil and church authorities continued to simmer.

Meanwhile, fanatical monks were roaming Alexandria, prepared to murder if necessary.

Died March 415, a date set in horror

Hypatia was around 60 at the time and no longer the tantalizing beauty of earlier days.

What exactly happened on that day of doom depends of which source you believe: the 10th-century Suda Lexicon (quoting an early 6th C biography), the 5th C Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus, or the 7th C Chronicle of the Coptic Bishop, John,Bishop of Nikui -- the negative voice in our records, who claims that she deserved everything that she got: as Cyril, too, would have put it (and probably did), she was a sorcerer and an enemy of Christ.

The version by Socrates Scholasticus (who, after all, lived through the events [c 379-450]) burned its way into literary legend. A mob of frenzied monks, certainly devoted to – and possibly acting under the orders of – the bishop Cyril ambushed Hypatia:
Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with roofing tiles (or sharpened oyster shells). After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them.
"In this way the dream of Hellenic Reason ended, In this way, on the floor of Christ."**

For good measure, as we are told elsewhere, While she was still feebly twitching, they beat her eyes out. The extreme brutality of the monks may have been aggravated by fasting (it was during Lent that the murder occurred), which some consider a mitigating factor.

Whether Cyril was guilty or not, no-one was ever brought to trial for the crime and the Church authorities saw fit to canonize him in 1822.

Even though there shall be utter forgetfulness of the dead in Hades 'even there shall I remember thee,' my dear Hypatia.(Synesius, Ep. 124)

Fast forward to 2009

It's time for Agora.

A history pic telling the story of Hypatia is scheduled to be released to theatres.

The film is by Academy Award Winner Alejandro Amenábar (The Others, 2001, The Sea Inside 2004). After its showing at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, it is now scheduled to be released on December 18.

From what I've seen, Amenábar is way out of his depth.

British Oscar-winning actress Rachel Weisz is a smoldering, lipsticked Hypatia, juggling two fabricated love interests: Orestes (played by Oscar Isaac) and an entirely fictitious Davus, a Christian monk (Ashraf Barhom), a hairy-cloaked sizzler who never existed. That's the first clue that this is historical fiction.

According to promotional materials: "The brilliant astronomer Hypatia and her disciples fight to save the wisdom of the Ancient World." And the luscious Rachel has this to say, "The film is definitely the story about a woman who refuses to compromise her ideals .... She believes in reason and doubt and she is not willing to step down from that. It's pretty bold."

We shouldn't blame the actress for the words put in her mouth, but still, this is pretty grim. While shrieking mobs race across the screen, Hypatia utters the unlikely line: "Whatever may be going on in the streets, we are brothers."

Phew! And the 'voice over' rubs it in: "In the last days of the Roman Empire, at the fall of civilization, one woman, ahead of her time, stood to unite mankind."

She did? I hadn't noticed before just how modern Neoplatonists really were. Her knowledge of astronomy is equally trite: "Though the heavens should be simple, they are not."

No, I guess not. But she may not have had time to learn more since, as the photo shows (just above, left), she was awfully young at the time of her murder. No sagging 60-year-olds here.

A lesson for our time.

From the press release:

"Working on a grand scale with great confidence, Amenábar follows his characters through epochal changes. Christianity sweeps across Alexandria not just as a force of enlightenment but also simply as force. As Davus falls under the sway of extremism and Orestes struggles with his new faith, Agora takes up big themes of religion and allegiance, and how violence can enforce both. Driven by a questing intelligence, this film dramatizes ideas that are as relevant today as they were in Hypatia's lifetime."

That's all right then. It's relevant.

But it is not History.

Still, if the trailer is anything to go by, I can hardly wait for December 18th.

* Palladas, Poems a selection translated and introduced by Tony Harrison (London: Anvil in association with Rex Collings, 1975), 67. It can be argued that the epigram refers to another Hypatia entirely because Palladas may have lived earlier than our philosopher. Since the dating is unsure, we can only go by the poem itself. To my mind, it best fits a philosopher and astronomer who is also a virgin (Virgo); that is, Hypatia of Alexandria.

** Mario Luzi, Libro di Ipazia (Milano, 1978)

Thanks so much to Jone's History Women's blog for first notice of this film.

More information on Hypatia at the
Penelope page , University of Chicago; on Hypatia as a feminist and racial icon, see the excellent Overheard blog post. Two books review the meagre evidence: Maria Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria (Harvard Univ. 1995), especially good on Hypatia in the literary tradition; Michael Deakin, Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr (New York, 2007).

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