Saturday, April 23, 2011

Lowry Lynch and King Midas - how related?

Last weekend Cork Astronomy Club went to Bath. At dinner on Friday night someone asked me for a party piece and after the customary show of reluctance I told the story of Midas the King and his asses ears, which was greeted, when I had finished, with a chorus of “Lowry Lynch!”

The story of Lowry Lynch goes like this. King Lowry Lynch (or more correctly Labroid Lorca) had horse's ears, something he was concerned to keep quiet. To cover the horses ears he grew his hair long, and had it cut once a year. The barber, who was chosen by lot, was immediately put to death. A widow, hearing that her only son had been chosen to cut the king's hair, begged the king not to kill him. He agreed, so long as the barber kept his secret.

The burden of the secret was so heavy that the barber fell ill. A druid advised him to go to a crossroads and tell his secret to the first tree he came to, and he would be relieved of his burden and be well again. He told the secret to a large willow. Soon afterwards, Craiftine, the court poet and harper, chanced to break his harp, and needed a new one. Now it happens that the best tree for making a harp is a willow. And of what willow tree was the new harp made? Why, of the very tree the barber had told his secret to.

Whenever Craiftine played it, the harp sang "Lowry Lynch has horse's ears". Lowry Lynch repented of all the barbers he had put to death, and admitted his secret.

By way of comparison, you can find my own telling of Midas the King has asses ears in my collection of stories for children.

Clearly the two tales are essentially the same. I should like to find out the precise relationship. Was the story of Lowry Lynch, the horses ears and the harp written by someone who was familiar with Greek myths, and if so when? Or are the stories two instances of a folktale, and are other instances known?

For example the Cinderella tale appears in the folklore of many cultures. I believe the earliest recorded version comes from China, written down in the middle of the ninth century of the Common Era, but probably already familiar to readers before that. It has a magical fish in place of a fairry godmother, and a golden shoe. I read somewhere (though I can't find the reference now) that in one Chinese version of the tale the two ugly sisters are forced to dance themselves to death wearing iron shoes on hot coals.

References : a history of the Cinderella tale

Lowry Lynch in

I thought I had read the bit about the ugly sisters dancing on hot coals in the Opie book (image) but I've just glanced through my copy and I can't find it, so maybe I saw it somewhere else.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I muse on the post-Roman history of the Roman baths at Bath

Three fascinated hours in the Roman Baths museum at Bath with Cork Astronomy Club last weekend.  Most surprising fact: the baths have a continuous history long before the Romans, and ever since. I had always imagined that they were rediscovered in the 18th century just in time for Jane Austen to visit the Pump Room.  But there's a crucial fact that I was previously unaware of.  The baths are built on top of a hot spring. So whereas most Roman baths were built in a city and fed by an aqueduct, uniquely at Bath, the city was built round the baths. The hot spring still springs (if that's what a spring does). You can see the water bubbling up!

Tourists amuse themselves photographing each other beside the great bath

A diminutive tourist helps erode Roman paving enclosing
a Roman lead pipe
Which brings me to the acorns. Our tour bus guide showed us these carved stone acorns with which the Georgian Bath architect John Wood decorated the parapet of The Circus:-

At The Circus acorns decorate the parapet recalling
the pigs that led Prince Bladud to the hot spring in 800 BC
They recall a herd of acorn-eating pigs which Prince Bladud found wallowing in steaming hot mud.  He observed that the pigs went in scabby and came out clean.  So Prince Bladud leapt in and was instantly cured of leprosy, and began the story of Bath and its baths. Prince Bladud, the tour guide told us, lived 800 BC. But a book I bought in the museum shop says that the story was probably invented by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century.

Nonetheless, it’s certain that long before the Romans arrived and built the baths, the local Celtic tribes knew and venerated the hot springs, which pumped hot water up, year after unceasing year, mineral rich, and miraculous.  A diagramme in the museum showed the geological fault up through which the warm water is forced.  But neither the Celts nor the Romans knew this.  To them the hot springs were magic and the work of gods. 

An interpretation board explains how hot water (red) deep
in the earth’s crust is forced up at pressure through a fault

directly underneath the Roman baths and temple complex
Evidence of Celtic shrines has been found, where they worshipped a deity known as Sul.  The local tribe minted coins depicting ships. So they will have traded with the Romans who will have doubtless known, even before they invaded, about the hot springs, which are unique in Europe (other than Iceland). 

The Romans were diplomatic enough to name the place Aquae Sulis, The Waters of Sul, even though they built a temple and dedicated it to their own goddess Minerva.

The baths have been restored to their layout in the Roman period. But the hot spring had been in continuous use for thousands of years before the Romans. And also, so far as I can tell, continuously ever since.

The building that the Romans erected around the spring was truly spectacular.  Thers's no roof now so you have to imagine it, and there's a diagramme to help you do this.  Aquae Sulis was pretty much at the edge of the empire and many people who came to it will have never seen anything else like it, before or since.

This diagramme helps visitors visualise the enormous high roof
By the time of the baths' final extension in the 4th century the complex included a temple, at least five hot and cold baths, sweat rooms and cold rooms, and a jacuzzi into which hot water directly from the spring was forced under pressure through a lead pipe.  It’s that jacuzzi where they think the sick came to be healed. As well as the physical heat, the people will have experienced the spiritual warmth of the goddess who they believed had sent the magical water. 

The Jacuzzi - sorry it's such a dull photo.  Sitting on the stone seat you would have been pretty much completely immersed and it's thought this was where the sick came to be healed.
How did attitudes change when Christianity arrived?  Was the temple of Minerva converted to a church?  Was the hot spring still regarded as holy? I didn’t get any information on these questions.

And the best bit - after the Romans

We now come on to the part of the history that interests me most.

What happened when the Romans left?  Continuity and discontinuity in history. The great bath, sacred spring and temple fell to ruin, and as the drainage system disintegrated, the area returned to marsh. But when? Before Britain became independent of the empire in 410?  Not till the Battle of Dyrham in 577 when Bath came under Saxon rule? The Saxons called the place Hat Bathu, hot bath, so what does this tell us?  Was the massive vaulted roof still intact when the Saxons arrived? More questions that I didn't get answers to.

There's a theory that an earthquake sometime between 410 and 676 shattered the Roman structures.

In 1090 two new baths were begun by Bishop Villula who was impressed with the hot springs’ therapeutic powers. A century before that, my book mentions Benedictine monks “living by the hot springs”.  And in 1106 a King’s Bath was built. A 12th century chronicle describes “a receptacle beautifully constructed with chambered arches. These form baths in the middle of the city, warm and wholesome and charming. Sick persons from all over England resort thither to bathe in these healing waters, and the fit also, to see these wonderful burstings out of warm water and to bathe in them.”

In 1452 Thomas Calder wrote : “what can be more wonderful or more blessed than this provision by which all men, high and low, rich and poor, receive cure of all their maladies”.

Three years before that an Act or Parliament banned nude bathing. Vice and licentiousness huh!

I skip over the rest of the history, the 18th century, Jane Austen, and all that.  To learn more I recommend the inestimable Wikipedia. The official Roman Baths website is a bit disappointing. 

In my teenage years I lived a few miles away in Bristol.  I remember visiting the baths once, only once, and I don't recall they made much of an impression. What a waste! 

I see Stonehenge. Also a manky handbag

Cork Astronomy Club on tour.  That’s our bus at the bottom.  You may think we went to Florence but no that’s not the Ponte Vecchio it’s the Pulteney Bridge in Bath, England.   We saw the Roman baths and Stonehenge amongst other places and I have things to say about both; but I need to get my thoughts and my photos in order first. Oh, and I almost forgot.  The William and Caroline Herschel Astronomy Museum, which was our reason for going to Bath in the first place.

Most surprising fact about the Roman bath: it has a continuous history long before the Romans, and ever since. I had always imagined that it was rediscovered in the 18th century just in time for Jane Austen to visit the Pump Room. And Stonehenge – wow! Neolithic farming must have been hugely productive if they could spare the labour to build something so huge and essentially pointless.

Mankiest exhibit in Bath: included in this display of 19th century handbags at the costume museum, centre, is one decorated with shiny green beetle wings from India. Ugh!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Lead books - maybe a hoax after all

Unintelligent forgery?

Lead books! Ha! Have we been had for fools?  See my earlier post (4th April) on a find said to be the earliest ever Christian documents, predating even the letters of St Paul.

Who ever heard of lead books anyway? And the first Christians - or so I've always been led to believe - lived in daily expectation of the second coming; so why would they write books at all, never mind lead ones?  The major discovery of Christian history indeed!

These doubts occurred to me the day after I wrote that piece. And now the thought that the lead books are fakes receives reinforcement by Peter Thonemann, lecturer in ancient history at Oxford University, who has staked his career on them being forgeries and no more than 50 years old.

He says the text on one of the bronze tablets (they are not all lead it seems) makes no sense in its own right, but has been extracted unintelligently from another longer text on display in the Archaeological Museum in Amman.  By someone who knows so little Greek that he confuses the Greek letters lamda (L) and alpha (A).

Thonemann likens one of the inscriptions to "t to be that is the question wheth".

This comes from a blog by Daniel O. McClellan, an historian of early Christianity. Thanks to Noggin for calling it to my attention

Why you should avoid airline tea but coffee is okay

To make tea, the water needs to be near to 100 C. But on a plane water boils at too low a temperature, so you'll never get a decent brew.

It's because although airline cabins are pressurised, the pressure is significantly below normal sea-level atmospheric pressure.  And it's the ambient pressure that determines the temperature at which water boils. At normal sea-level atmospheric pressure, it's 100 C. At lower pressures, the boiling point is lower.

It follows that you should make a better cup of tea in fine weather (high pressure) than in a storm (low pressure). Has anyone actually noticed this? I haven't, but now the thought has occurred to me, I intend to check.

And it presumably means that in Tibet, too, tea is a bit substandard. Which is a shame. For I remember a book I had when I was little which said that tea is a traditional drink for Tibetans, and it’s taken with rancid butter.

The low boiling point of water on board an aircraft should pose less of a problem when you're brewing coffee, which is best made with water at 95 C.

There’s a vital figure missing from the foregoing, namely at what temperature water does in fact boil on a normal airliner.  Sadly I can't supply this.  You’ll need to read In-flight Science, by Brian Clegg, Icon Books, £12.99, reviewed in New Scientist on 9th April.