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Posted in Historical articles, History, Legend, Plants, Religion on Friday, 17 May 2013
This edited article about onions originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 257 published on 17 December 1966.
Framyard Alphabet – onions, pigeons, quash
An Eastern folk tale tells us that when Satan left the Garden Of Eden, onions sprang up from the spot where he had placed his right foot, and garlic where his left foot had touched. While this is only a legend, we are positive that if we only knew it, the origin of the onion was every bit as interesting.
It was so long ago – much more than 4,000 years, most authorities say – and therefore its native home and exact age are difficult to trace. Most botanists seem to agree on an Eastern birthplace. There are drawings on old Egyptian monuments of priests holding onions and covering their altars with their stalks. In Chinese, the word is designated by a single character, which means that the onion was known from the beginning of their written language.
The Egyptians raised it to godhood, calling upon it to witness their most solemn oaths, as it was a symbol of eternity. However, their priests were forbidden to eat them, but this may have been an act of ascetic self-denial. The Greeks, on the contrary, regarded an onion-eater with abhorrence, although they cultivated a few varieties to flavour their food.
The Romans were amused at both the Egyptian and Grecian attitudes and refused to regard the vegetable as either sacred or profane. They believed that eating onions gave you courage and strength, feeding large quantities to their soldiers, labourers and game-cocks. Apparently, our English word came from them about A.D. 20, a Roman writer calls them unionem’, from which comes the French ‘ognon’ and our English ‘onion’.
When the onion reached England, it was neither worshipped nor hated, except that in the old Druid rites its different layers were said to have represented various heavens and hells. Later, the onion was regarded as a friendly spirit and planted in English gardens to keep the owner safe from evil spells. Even as late as the 18th century, many people believed that a bunch of onions hung in a crowded room, would draw to themselves all diseases.
The patron saint of the onion is the merry Saint Thomas and in early England it played an even more important part than the mistletoe in Christmas festivities. A huge bonfire would be lighted and the unmarried girls of the village would gather around it timidly. A jolly fellow, representing Saint Thomas, would then skip out of the shadows and give each girl an onion, telling her to whisper to it the name of the man she would like to marry, repeating this mystic verse:
Good Saint Thomas, do me right,
And let my true love come tonight.
That I may see him in the face,
And him in my kind arms embrace.
The catch was that the vision of her future husband would be granted only on the exact stroke of 12 and we imagine that few of the girls would care to tear themselves away from the fun so early.
Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History, Legend, Myth on Wednesday, 15 May 2013
This edited article about vegetables originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 256 published on 10 December 1966.
Asparagus, like garlic, belongs to the lily family, and has been cultivated as a food for over 2,000 years. The Romans grew it as high as 20 feet, and they have left records of stems being cooked and eaten that weighed as much as three pounds. They must have been served half raw, as a favourite expression those days was to do things ‘as quickly as asparagus is cooked’.
The Romans used the berries too, fermenting them and making them into a drink.
There is a rather pretty story about the asparagus plant that is still told in Greece. Perigyne, a character in Grecian mythology, had fled into an asparagus thicket, after her father had been killed.
“If you will hide me from my enemies,” she begged, “I will never destroy or burn you.”
The asparagus heard her plea and concealed her well. Because of this, it is said, the Ionians, who claim to be descended from Perigyne, will never permit the asparagus plant to be destroyed.
In order to have a fine asparagus bed, an old Roman book tells us, ‘pound up a ram’s horn until it is reduced to a fine, white powder and use this to fertilise the young plants’. However, the book goes on, ‘you must put your plants in the ground at the exact moment the moon pops over the horizon’, otherwise your crop will be ruined.
Another curious belief, prevalent in both Greece and Rome, was that asparagus, if beaten up with oil and smeared liberally over your body, would make you immune to bee stings. Handle them as much as you like, so the book says, and they will not sting you.
An interesting theory, but one we may prefer to let others test!
Posted in Animals, English Literature, Famous crimes, Legend on Monday, 13 May 2013
This edited article about Dick Turpin originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 253 published on 19 November 1966.
Dick Turpin's ride to York on Black Bess by Ronald Simmons
Dick Turpin’s famous ride from London to York is, alas, a case of The Ride That Never Was – and the same applies to his equally celebrated horse, Black Bess!
Richard Turpin, the son of an Essex innkeeper, was born in 1706. He was apprenticed to a butcher, but took to cattle-stealing instead, and joined a brutal gang of smugglers and thieves who terrorised the Essex countryside. He then teamed up with a notorious highwayman, Tom King, but accidentally shot him when trying to save King from being arrested. The dying highwayman gave information about Turpin, who escaped from London to Yorkshire (but not by a headlong ride), and it was there that he was finally captured. He died bravely on the gallows at York in 1739.
The legend of the ride was built up by Harrison Ainsworth in his romance, Rookwood (1834), but the real rider seems to have been a highwayman known as ‘Swift John Nevison’, who in 1676 robbed a sailor at Gadshill in Kent at 4 a.m. one morning and reached York at 7.45 p.m. the same day, to establish an alibi that he could not have been at Gadshill. He covered roughly 190 miles in just under 16 hours.
Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, Legend, Myth, Plants, Religion on Saturday, 11 May 2013
This edited article about vegetables originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 251 published on 5 November 1966.
The humble cabbage is not only a very old vegetable – it has been cultivated for over 4,000 years – it is also one with an interesting history.
A little girl feeding cabbage to her pet rabbit
In Egypt the cabbage was worshipped as a god and, to show their great respect for the vegetable, it was the first dish Egyptians touched at their banquets. The Ionians believed that fairies rode on cabbage stalks and held it in such high respect that they swore their most sacred oaths on it. “I swear on the cabbage” was a very solemn promise, not lightly broken.
Due to its great antiquity and the numerous varieties, botanists do not agree on the cabbage’s place of origin, but mythology has made up for this by giving us a number of fascinating themes.
The Romans did not deify the cabbage, but they did give it a divine origin. They claimed that Jupiter, the father of all their gods, was attempting to explain two contradictory oracles. He laboured so hard that perspiration came out on his brow and, as the drops fell to earth, they turned into tiny cabbage plants.
Curiously enough, Grecian mythology also ascribes a watery origin to the cabbage. The story goes that Lycurgus, a prince of Thrace, destroyed all the grapevines in Dionysus’ garden. Dionysus was a most important god and, when he saw the damage to his garden, a very angry one. Lycurgus was brought before him and condemned to be bound to a grapevine for the rest of his life. As Lycurgus wept, lamenting his lost liberty, his tears took root and tiny cabbage plants came up.
Several hundred years later a reflection of this legend was found in a belief, widely held by both Greeks and Romans, that eating cabbage would cure intoxication. The cabbage, having sprung from Lycurgus’ tears, was the enemy of the vine, of which Dionysus was the God.
Intoxication was not the only thing the cabbage was supposed to cure. One old writer states that at one stage in their history the Romans expelled all doctors and preserved their health for over 600 years by prescribing cabbage as a remedy for every disease – a tale that must be viewed with a certain amount of scepticism! Less fancifully, Cato, the censor, urged all Romans to grow cabbages for their slaves, as they were both cheap and nourishing.
There are a lot of strange members of the cabbage family. Some of them are not really related to it at all, but the word ‘cabbage’ appears as a part of their name. In the West Indies, there is a tree called the Cabbage Palm, whose end is cooked and eaten in exactly the same way as we prepare the vegetable. (This same tree is found in Australia, but there the natives dry the leaves and make hats out of them.)
Another cabbage tree is found in the Channel Islands, whilst on rocks near the Antarctic Circle, a shipwrecked crew kept themselves alive for days on cabbage growing there.
Posted in Historical articles, History, Legend, Scotland on Wednesday, 8 May 2013
This edited article about Tam o’ Shanter originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 246 published on 1 October 1966.
As Tam flees across the Brig o' Doon Meg loses her tail to the pursuing demons by John Millar Watt
Of the many famous people associated with the Scottish town of Ayr through the centuries, no one can match Robert Burns for the number of statues, monuments and other structures which are kept today as shrines to his memory.
Burns, the best loved of the Scottish poets, was born on 25th January, 1759, in a cottage about two miles from Ayr. Many of his songs and poems were woven around the familiar sights and sounds of this locality. Perhaps the best memento of him is the graceful, moss-covered brig (bridge) which rises over the crystal waters of the river Doon.
The Brig o’ Doon was the bridge that Tam o’ Shanter crossed on Meg, his grey mare, on the frightful night ride which is depicted so vividly in Robert Burns’ poem Tam o’ Shanter.
The poem tells how Tam, after drinking till late in the inn at Ayr, rode home through a raging storm. As he passed Alloway’s haunted kirk (church) he saw a fearsome sight, “warlocks and witches in a dance . . . Tam stood, like one bewitched”. Then suddenly the demons noticed him . . . and the chase was on!
Tam knew that the flying demons could not cross a running stream, so he frantically urged Meg forward, trying to reach the Brig o’ Doon before they could catch him. Just as the terrified pair got to the bridge, the fiends made a final furious effort and clutched at the desperately galloping mare. They were too late. Meg crossed to safety, “but left behind her ain grey tail”.
The original Tam o’ Shanter was Douglas Graham, of Shanter Farm, near Ayr. Ayrshire farmers are known to their neighbours by the names of their farms rather than by their surnames. As Graham used a boat called Tam for fishing, everyone called him Tam o’ Shanter.
Still standing today in the High Street in Ayr is the Tam o’ Shanter Inn, kept as a museum by the city. The tiny drinking room is so small that you can almost touch all four walls at once. On market days, Tam used to sit there, with Robert Burns.
On the walls hang a series of paintings illustrating Tam’s awful ride from the inn. The paintings show Tam wearing the traditional lowland Scotch bonnet – a round, flat, blue woollen cap with a tuft on the top, made in the neighbouring towns of Kilmarnock and Stewarton. The name of tam-o’-shanter came to be applied to the bonnet Tam always wore.
The bonnets Scots men and women wear today are considerably smaller than those worn in Tam’s time, but all over the world from John o’ Groats to San Francisco, a Scottish bonnet is called a tam-o’-shanter.
Posted in Animals, Biology, Legend, Superstition on Tuesday, 7 May 2013
This edited article about the basilisk originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 245 published on 24 September 1966.
It sometimes happens, although very rarely, that an elderly domestic hen may begin to grow wattles and to crow while still laying eggs. It may also happen that an elderly barnyard cockerel may lay a kind of egg. These things merely indicate that the birds are undergoing a change of sex in later life.
These things were noted by people living many centuries ago. They did not understand what was happening, so to them such events seemed miraculous, and they invented a legend to explain them. The legend was that the egg laid by an elderly cockerel would hatch and from it would come a rather terrifying creature which was half cockerel, half serpent. This cockerel with a serpent’s tail they called a cockatrice or basilisk.
The basilisk was the epitome of everything evil and was said to be so deadly that, if it looked at a man, he would drop dead. It was generally believed that there were basilisks all over the country, in hiding.
There was, however, an ingenious knight who had the idea that, if he made a suit of armour composed of mirrors, he could rid the country of basilisks because, whenever he confronted one of them, the basilisk would see its own image in his armour and would itself drop dead!
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Posted in Ancient History, Language, Legend, Literature, Myth, Religion on Friday, 3 May 2013
This edited article about the Aegean Sea originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 241 published on 27 August 1966.
King Aegeus saw the black sails of Theseus' ship and flung himself into the sea, thereafter known as the Aegean Sea, by John Millar Watt
When people think of Greece, they think of her ancient buildings, her civilisation and her mythology. A sense of history follows visitors everywhere: an atmosphere created as much by the historic Parthenon as the deep, deep blue of the Aegean Sea.
The Aegean Sea lies between Greece to the west and Asia Minor to the east. Its coastline hides a score of small coves and beaches. Its coastal waters are scattered with many fertile islands producing wheat, wine, oil, figs, raisins, honey and silk.
Legend connects the Aegean Sea with a famous king of Athens: Aegeus, whose son, Theseus, was perhaps Athens’ greatest hero.
King Aegeus had wronged the King of Crete, who, as recompense, demanded that each year Aegeus send him seven maidens and seven youths. The King of Crete let them loose in an underground labyrinth to satisfy the hunger of a monster which he kept there. This creature, called the Minotaur, had the head of a bull and the body of a man.
Theseus, who had never been defeated in battle, decided to accompany the next group of victims to Crete, destroy the Minotaur, and bring the young Athenians safely back to their homeland. The ship which was to carry them to Crete had black sails, in mourning for their departure, but Theseus promised his father that if he was successful, he would set white sails on his return as a signal that he had triumphed over the monster.
When he arrived in Crete, Theseus was befriended by Ariadne, daughter of Minos, the king. She gave him a ball of thread with which to guide himself through the labyrinth in search of the monster. Theseus entered the maze and made one end of the thread fast at the entrance, unwinding the ball as he walked along the crooked tunnels. It is said that he found the monster asleep and beat him to death with his bare hands. Rewinding the thread, he led his companions out of the labyrinth.
Joyously they sailed for home, but Theseus had forgotten something . . . the white sails he should have set to announce his victory.
King Aegeus had kept a continual lookout for his son’s return. He saw the ship approach, and he saw the black sails. Stricken with grief and despair, the unhappy king threw himself into the blue water which, for ever after, has been called the Aegean Sea.
Posted in Ancient History, Archaeology, Architecture, Historical articles, History, Legend, Myth on Wednesday, 1 May 2013
This edited article about Crete originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 238 published on 6 August 1966.
A reconstruction of the Palace of Knossos by Harry Green
The island of Crete, in the Aegean Sea, is barely 160 miles long by 35 miles wide. But it has an importance in history out of all proportion to its size, for it acted as a kind of stepping-stone between three continents – Africa, Asia, and Europe.
During the 19th century, discoveries on the Greek mainland led men to believe that somewhere in the islands of the Aegean Sea lay the key to the early history of Greece. Gradually attention centred upon Crete, and excavations began at various points on the island.
In 1900, Arthur Evans, a young British scholar, began digging in the ruins on a hill some three miles outside the town of Heraklion, on the north coast. He expected that the site would be cleared in a year or so . . .
Twenty-five years later he was still working there, for beneath the hill lay one of the greatest palaces of the world – Knossos, home of the legendary King Minos.
It swiftly became apparent to Evans that his spade was laying bare not merely a palace, but an entire civilisation, extending from approximately 3600 B.C. to 1200 B.C. It was as though some future archaeologist, digging in England, were to find a single site containing the ruins of Stonehenge and a 20th century nuclear power station, together with remains of all the centuries between!
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Posted in Historical articles, History, Legend, Literature, Religion on Friday, 5 April 2013
This edited article about Haroun al Raschid originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 219 published on 26 March 1966.
Scheherazade at the court of Haround al Raschid
Many people, reading The Arabian Nights, think of Haroun al Raschid, Caliph of Baghdad, as just a character in fairy tales. But Haroun al Raschid, who was born on March 24, 763, was a very real person and one of the greatest of all the Caliphs who ruled the Mohammedan Empire.
Becoming caliph in 786, he greatly extended the caliphate by wars of conquest, but his outstanding achievement was the prosperity he brought to his country. During his reign he made Baghdad the largest and most beautiful city in the world, and the centre of art and learning.
His love of justice and peace, and his zeal for literature and the arts, far outshone his reputation as a soldier. He was one of the few Moslems of his day who believed that Mohammedans and Christians should live together in peace, and to that purpose he established diplomatic relations with Charlemagne and other Christian rulers.
Even to this day Moslems look upon the reign of Haroun al Raschid as the golden age of Mohammedanism. The wealth and luxury of all of the nations he brought into the Empire of Islam gave to social life a grace and refinement hitherto unknown.
Haroun al Raschid’s court at Baghdad was on a scale of magnificence that dazzled foreign visitors. The receptions he held for ambassadors, artists, scientists and poets, brought to life many of the scenes in the Arabian Nights.
When Haroun al Raschid died in 809, he left behind him a Baghdad that rivalled Rome in the days of its greatest splendour.
Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History, Legend, Myth on Tuesday, 5 March 2013
This edited article about Penelope originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 174 published on 10 May 1965.
Penelope was the wife of Ulysses – that hero whose ten years of wandering after the Trojan war has been recorded for us by the poet Homer in his Odyssey.
Was there a Trojan war, a Ulysses, a Penelope – and all the other heroes and heroines about whom Homer wrote? Well: modern research has shown that Troy could have been destroyed by the Greeks in a long war.
And if it is possible that there was at that time a King of the Greek province of Ithaca called Ulysses, then it is reasonable to assume that his Queen was named Penelope.
This is what Homer tells us about Penelope. . . .
For ten years Ulysses, her husband, had been away from home at the siege of Troy. When that city at last fell to the Greeks, Ulysses set off home, but a host of subsequent adventures kept him wandering from country to country, exposed to constant peril and unable to regain his province for another ten years.
Throughout the years of Ulysses’s wanderings, suitors for the hand of Penelope poured into her palace. For with the hand of the fair Queen went the kingdom of Ithaca – a prize that excited the greed of men all over Greece.
“Your Majesty, you must by now be a widow,” they implored Penelope. “Ulysses must surely have been killed in battle or in shipwreck. He will never return home. Marry one of us, so that your kingdom will have the sovereign it needs and so that your son Telemachus will have a father.”
Penelope refused to believe them. Indeed, for centuries poets made her their heroine for her prudence, dignity and faithfulness during those twenty long years of separation.
But the suitors exerted pressure on her, so that she had to think of a plan to stall them. “Now, when I have finished spinning this shroud I am making for my father-in-law, I will make a choice of one of you,” she said.
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