Chinese, English, and Egyptian hieroglyphics

In the early hours of Tuesday morning (January 31), I had a dream which included the following scene: A uniformed official tried to stop someone from doing something by saying, “I think you’ll find you’re in violation of this,” and holding up a multipage document. The cover had the title, written in “Chinese” (but not in recognizable characters, at least not to me), under which was a list of other languages that it was written in: the word “Pona” (or something very like that), written in Roman letters and meaning English; a line of Egyptian hieroglyphics, indicating that hieroglyphics were included; and the English word “Non-lingual.”

My reaction on seeing this was that this was supposed to be some kind of futuristic “galactic federation” sci-fi setting, and that the choice of languages was odd — ordinary Chinese characters seemed jarringly un-futuristic, and revived Egyptian hieroglyphics? Really? As for “Non-lingual,” I immediately understood what was meant by that — a system of symbolic pictures with complex abstract meanings — and I had an image of one such picture with English notes scrawled on it (apparently a page from a student’s marked-up textbook). The image was a simple line-drawing (not quite stick-figures, but not much more complex than that: a standing person facing left, and behind him a much smaller person leaping into the air and plunging a spear into the larger person’s back. The notes said “He first,” meaning the smaller attacker, “and he second” (meaning the larger victim) — meaning that the picture always indicated situations in which what was symbolized by the attacker occurred first in time; and what was symbolized by the victim, second. The attacker and victim could symbolize many different things, and the notes gave three examples: “farmer and farm,” “diver and sea,” and “Great Mohammed and [. . .]” — the ellipsis representing a phrase that I can’t recall, but which I understood to be something like the Islamic equivalent of the Antichrist, an evil leader who was to appear just before the end of the world. I thought: Yes, that makes sense, because [this Antichrist-figure] comes much later than Great Mohammed but is nevertheless defeated by him.

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Some aspects of the dream were probably caused by recent reading. I’d just finished rereading Vico’s New Science, which emphasizes the development of language from pre-linguistic communication (Cf. “Non-lingual”) through “hieroglyphics” (under which heading Vico includes both Egyptian and Chinese) to “vernacular letters” such as the Roman alphabet. Vico also interprets anything and everything in mythology as a symbol of farming.

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On Tuesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the dream, I went to a tourist site in Taoyuan called “Window on China,” most of which consisted of scale replicas of various landmarks in Taiwan, China, and other countries. Each had a sign in Chinese and English. One of the replicas was of the Taipei Grand Mosque. (The English sign explained that it was a “pray place for Moslems” — using the pre-PC spelling Moslem rather than Muslim, just as the dream had featured Mohammed rather than Muhammad.) There was also a section with an Egyptian theme, with Egyptian hieroglyphics all over the walls.

The visit to Window on China was not planned in advance, and I did not know at the time of the dream that we would be going there — nor that it featured hieroglyphics and a mosque.

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Update: On Wednesday evening, the day after the visit to Window on China, I read a few pages of George MacDonald’s St. George and St. Michael, which introduced a previously unknown character called the Great Mogul (a panther). Another possible sync with “Great Mohammed” and “Grand Mosque,” since the Mughals were Muslims. Also, Mohammed, Moslem, and Mogul are all dated Mo- spellings of names that are now generally spelt Mu-.

Inferno-related synchronicities

On Tuesday night (January 24), I was searching the Internet for images of a winged lion used as a symbol of St. Mark the Evangelist. Many of the hits were photos of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice.

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On Thursday evening (January 26), I taught a class in which we talked about the chemical equation for photosynthesis. I pointed out that the two sides of the equation contained the same atoms, recombined to form different molecules — just as in an anagram, the same letters are recombined to form different words. I taught the students the word anagram and gave an example (dormitory = dirty room). I’m not sure why I chose to mention that, since its relation to the topic at hand was tangential at best.

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Immediately after that class, I stopped at a Japanese restaurant to get takeout. While I was waiting for my food, I sat in the restaurant and read. They were playing a song in the background which was mostly in another language (probably Japanese, but I couldn’t make it out clearly enough to be sure) but had a recurring refrain in English: “I know I’m not alone.” I thought about how most people apparently hate being alone, but I’ve always found it pretty nice.

[Edit: Actually, this was apparently the all-English song “Alone” by Alan Walker. The sound was so unclear that I thought it was in another language.]

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I brought the food home to eat with my wife. She wanted to watch a movie on TV while we ate and decided on Inferno with Tom Hanks, based on the Dan Brown novel. Much of the action takes place in Florence and Venice; St. Mark’s Basilica puts in an appearance, and the winged lion is visible.

Tom Hanks’s character has to solve a series of puzzles, the first of which is an anagram. He says, “It’s an anagram,” and another character repeats, “An anagram.”

Later in the film, the villain says to his accomplice, “I need to know I’m not alone.”

Nature’s first gold is grain

(That’s a Robert Frost allusion, in case you didn’t catch it.)

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On Saturday, January 14, I taught a private English class in which we used an article about the history and different forms of money — barter, commodity money, representative money, and fiat money.

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On Monday, January 16, I checked my brother Luther’s rarely-updated blog and found a new-to-me post (actually posted on January 9) called “On Money.” It also traces a conceptual history of money, from barter through commodity money and representative money to fiat money. Instead of talking about the gold standard, he uses the imaginary example of a “wheat standard.”

We’ll get to gold or paper money shortly, but lets start with something of more obvious practical value: food. . . . So let’s create a wheat bank. It’s got huge granaries capable of storing all the wheat all the farmers could ever produce; skilled engravers who make easily recognized, unforgeable wheat promissory notes; and builds a reputation for honoring its notes faithfully.

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On Monday, January 23, I read several pages from David Marsh’s English translation of Vico’s New Science. The following is from paragraph 544 (on pages 230-31).

The early peoples called ears of grain ‘golden apples’. This was in fact the world’s first gold: for the metal gold was still unmined . . . It was only later that the metal was called gold, because its colour and value resembled that of their staple grain. This is why Plautus has to specify ‘a treasure of gold’, thesaurum auri, to distinguish a hoard of metal from a granary.

Treacherous friends, husbands, wives, and children

I read the book of Micah today, the Good News Bible version. Here is chapter 7, verses 2-6.

There is not an honest person left in the land, no one loyal to God. Everyone is waiting for a chance to commit murder. Everyone hunts down their own people. They are all experts at doing evil. Officials and judges ask for bribes. The influential people tell them what they want, and so they scheme together. Even the best and most honest of them are as worthless as weeds.

The day has come when God will punish the people, as he warned them through their watchmen, the prophets. Now they are in confusion. Don’t believe your neighbor or trust your friend. Be careful what you say even to your husband or wife. In these times sons treat their fathers like fools, daughters oppose their mothers, and young women quarrel with their mothers-in-law; your enemies are the members of your own family.

A few hours later, I read the following passage in Ann Shearer’s Athene, page 158.

For with the age of iron, all manner of crime had been born. Modesty, truth and loyalty fled and treachery, deceit and violence took their place. Friend was no longer safe from friend, wife from husband, husband from wife or either from their children’s plots.

The parallels are quite close, including the order in which things are mentioned. In both passages, the disappearance of loyalty is mentioned right after the disappearance of honesty/truth. Then both passages go on to say that you cannot trust your (1) friend, (2) husband, (3) wife, or (4) children — in that order.

Interpretations of the seven pillars of Wisdom’s house (Proverbs 9:1)

Today I read a few pages each from Ann Shearer’s Athene: Image and Energy and Valentin Tomberg’s Meditations on the Tarot.

On page 153 of Athene, Proverbs 9:1-6 is quoted, and Shearer then discusses the meanings later commentators gave to the seven pillars of Wisdom’s house.

Wisdom has built her house,
she has set up her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her beasts,
she has mixed her wine
she has also set her table.
She has sent out her maids to call
from the highest places in the town,
‘Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!’
To him who is without sense she says,
‘Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Leave simpleness, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.’

Back in the eighth century, Wisdom’s house had been identified as the house of learning and the pillars as the Seven Liberal Arts: the threefold way to eloquence (Rhetoric, Dialectic and Grammar) and the fourfold way to philosophy (Music, Arithmetic, Astronomy and Geometry).

On page 441 of Meditations on the Tarot, Tomberg alludes in his discussion of the Garden of Eden to the same passage in Proverbs and gives a different interpretation.

But in so far as we — Christian Hermeticists — are concerned, the “trees” or “yogas” of the garden that we want to cultivate and maintain, are given to us in the “seven pillars of the house that Wisdom has built” (Proverbs ix, 1), i.e. the seven “days” of Creation (including the sabbath), the seven miracles of the Gospel of St. John, the seven “I am” sayings of Jesus Christ and, lastly, the seven Sacraments of the Church.

Mantis shrimp (and dog) eyesight

On Thursday night, I taught a class in which we read an article called “Photosynthesis and Light.” As part of that, I had to teach the meaning of the term visible spectrum, and I explained that there was nothing special about this particular range of frequencies, that it was “visible” only with respect to the human eye, and that other kinds of eyes found slightly different spectra visible. I mentioned that ultraviolet is visible to bees but red is not, and I mentioned the mantis shrimp with its 12 different kinds of photoreceptors and its ability to distinguish polarized light. Although it’s not really a question of different visible spectra, I also threw in the fact that dogs and most other mammals have only two kinds of photoreceptors and are what we would call red-green colorblind.

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The next evening, I was teaching a different class, using an article called “Speed Kills” (about exceptionally fast predators) which I had not looked at until that morning (i.e., after the Thursday class). One of the predators featured in the article was the mantis shrimp. The article of course focused on its incredible strike speed, but it also mentioned that the mantis shrimp has “the world’s most complex eyes” and “can see colors that are invisible to humans.” A sidebar highlighting key vocabulary gave the following example sentence for the word vision: “A dog’s vision is not as good as its sense of smell” — and so I again had opportunity to explain that dogs had relatively poor color vision, with only two kinds of photoreceptors.

A sweet potato by any other name

In my evening class last night, I had to explain the meaning of “sweet potato greens” (a common vegetable in Taiwan). I described, in English, what a sweet potato was like, and one of the students guessed “Fānshǔ yè?” but everyone looked a little confused. Fānshǔ (蕃薯, literally “barbarian potato”) does in fact mean “sweet potato,” but a much more common term in Taiwan is dìguā (地瓜, literally “ground melon”). The relative frequency of fānshǔ vs. dìguā in Taiwan is perhaps roughly similar to that of, say, automobile vs. car in America. In fact, in my 12 years in Taiwan, I don’t think I had ever encountered fānshǔ anywhere but in a dictionary until yesterday. So I said, “Well, yes, but most people would say dìguā yè.” At that, everyone understood. “Oh, right, dìguā yè.” That, unlike fānshǔ yè, was a vegetable everyone was familiar with.

Perhaps half an hour later, on my way home from that class, I stopped to buy some stinky tofu from a roadside stand. The owner, who knows me, decided to throw in something extra for free. He said (all in Chinese, of course), “Here, have some dìguā fritters, too. They’re free.” Then, thinking I might not know what he meant, he added, “Do you know dìguā? It means fān-shǔ” — enunciated slowly and clearly, like Sam explaining to Gollum that taters are “po-ta-toes.”