Tag Archives: religion

Edimburgo Part IV : ¿maíz escocés?

One of the more interesting day trips you can take from Edinburgh is to the quaint little village of Roslin. All you need is £1.20 to catch the #15 bus from the city center, and then just sit back and enjoy the 35-minute ride.

If you squint and make that 2 look more like a 1, this could be the number 15 bus!

But you won’t be the only tourist in Roslin. The village has seen an astounding increase in visitor traffic since 2003 when a little old book you’ve probably never heard of came out … The Da Vinci Code. I think they may have even made a film version of it starring some no-name actor and with some washed-up former child star as the director. But apparently a couple of people have heard of it, because they’re coming by the thousands to see Rosslyn Chapel, which plays a crucial role in Dan Brown’s thriller and which happens to be located in a green space next to the village of Roslin’s graveyard.

Now whether you believe all the hype about the Templars and buried esoteric treasures or not, Rosslyn Chapel is a beautiful 15th-century structure with amazing stone carvings and is really worth a visit. Vices and virtues are on display, vines grow out of the mouths of little men, dragons surround pillars, and the devil even makes an appearance as a fallen angel. There also just might be some carvings along an arch of … corn?

Some folks posit that those chunky things with crowns and little beady things running up and down them are supposed to represent the stuff. But if that’s the case, then there is a mystery going on with this chapel that has nothing to do with any grail.

El maíz, as we all know, is a wonderful domestic grass that was cultivated by the Mayans and Aztecs throughout large parts of what is now Mexico well before any Europeans arrived in the area and shook up the place. It now stands as one of the most important grains in practically every culture in the Americas and is used in cuisines throughout the world. Heck, thanks to high fructose syrup and big agra, it now forms the bulk of the American diet. Oh, and I love the stuff! Not just because I’m a native Hoosier, but because it just plain tastes good.

The problem is that Europeans had—in theory—never seen, tasted, or heard of the stuff when the carvings at Rosslyn Chapel were made. So if those really are images of corn at the chapel … WTF??? (As the kids would say.)

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Dogs and Politics: Bolívar, Nevado, and Chávez

Because of my experience with Angostura bitters I’ve been looking into other nooks and crannies of Simón Bolívar’s life. One of the more interesting parts of his legacy is the history of  his dog Nevado (Snowy). Like most things related to Bolívar, the story is connected to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Statue of Bolívar's two companions, Nevado and the Indian Tinjaca. Plaza Bolívar de Mucuchíes, Mérida, Venezuela.

Nevado was a Mucuchí. Mucuchíes are fluffy white Andean dogs that sometimes have a little splash of black, tan, or gray; and they’re pretty much localized to the Mérida region of Venezuela. The breed was started 400 years ago when Augustine missionaries first brought Pyrenean Mastiffs with them to the Andes. Apparently those friars were surprised to find a Andean dog of similar temperament and looks already there when they arrived, so they did the obvious—they breed the two together. (That’s the obvious thing to do, right?) The end result was the Mucuchíes, which are popularly known as a lovable breed of hard-working dogs. They are also the national dog of Venezuela and a kind of national symbol for the country.

Bolívar’s Mucuchí pup Nevado was given to him by the people of Mérida during the leader’s fight for the liberation of Venezuela from Spanish control. Legend has it that Nevado was a faithful companion to Bolívar and even ran alongside Bolívar’s horse when he went into battle. Ultimately the poor thing was killed during the Battle of Carabobo in 1821, which was a decisive win for Bolívar and a key victory leading to Venezuela’s independence. Many memorials exist today in Venezuela dedicated to Nevado and his roll in the liberation of the country, and the dog’s story is a rich part of Venezuelan history. But the Mucuchíes as a whole have seen better days. More and more the breed has been bred with larger dogs such as St. Bernards, making it harder and harder to find a purebred Mucuchí these days. Enter Hugo Chávez.

Recently Chávez gave government backing and funding to the Nevado Foundation (named after Bolívar’s dog of course), an organization that has been trying to bring the breed back from the brink of extinction. Chávez is crazy for all things Bolívar. He sees himself as the ideological son of the liberator. He changed the official title of the country to the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” in 1999. And he even likes to give a copy of Bolívar’s sword as gift to distinguished guests, as he recently did for Russian Tzar Godfather President Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. So backing a group named after Bolívar’s dog was probably a no brainer for the South American leader.

While the Nevado Foundation, which operates a breeding kennel for the dogs just outside of Caracas, only has about a dozen pups at the moment, now with the backing of Chávez’ government, they have high hopes. According to Nevado Foundation President Walter de Mendoza…

We want [Mucuchíes] to be known all around the country as a breed and as its historical legacy. We would like to have Mucuchíes even outside Venezuela. One of the plans we have is to have at least a couple of them in each embassy around the world as a symbol of our country.

source: PRI

And I’ll be the first in line to pet one!

Semana Santa in Spain

One thing I’ve always wanted to do is witness Semana Santa (“Holy Week”) celebrations in Spain. But another year has passed and it still only remains a dream. Here’s hoping that 2011 will be my chance!

Semana Santa is, of course, the week leading up to Easter. It includes Palm Sunday (el Domingo de Ramos), Maundy Thursday (el Jueves Santo), Good Friday (el Viernes Santo), and Easter (la Pascua de Resurrección) itself. In Spain, as well as most other Spanish-speaking countries, this adds up to a celebration and festival season that rivals Christmas.

In particular, the week usually consists of a series of processions through the city. Each procession features incredibly impressive pasos, which are floats with highly realistic sculptures depicting the Passion (the final days and suffering of Jesus of Nazareth) and/or the grief of Saint Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Each procession is organized by a particular brotherhood from a local church. These brotherhoods (hermandades or confradías) are lay organizations that are dedicated to performing acts of religious observance in public. In terms of Semana Santa, this means ritual penance for the Passion and death of Jesus.

A procession usually runs from the brotherhood’s home church to the city’s cathedral and might consist of…

*A large guiding cross (cruz de guía) that leads the procession.

*The nazarenos (more on them below).

*Penitentes (also nazarenos, but without the pointing hats) carrying wooden crosses as part of their public penance.

*Altar boys and acolytes with candles and incense.

*The pasos.

*A band.

All of this means there can be hundreds or more in a procession. And the procession itself can last as long as fourteen hours if the brotherhood is from an outlying neighborhood.

For an outsider, one of the more striking aspects about the processions are the nazarenos, the men (and even a few women) dressed in distinctive robes and conical hats. The nazarenos disguise themselves because they are doing penance and shouldn’t be recognized in public because of it. And the hats probably signify a focusing of energy and spirit pointed at heaven. But most of us folks from the US see their costumes and immediately think of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s unclear if the Klan lifted their design from nazarenos or not. Like the Nazis stealing the swastika from Asia, it would be a sick joke if that were the case. The Klan has always been a highly anti-Catholic movement, and Hispanics and Latinos are viciously targeted in their ideology.

La Santa Muerte : a film by Eva S. Aridjis

La Santa Muerte (“Saint Death”) is easily one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in the last couple of years. Santa Muerte is kind of like the personification of death; she’s usually portrayed as a skeleton wearing fine robes and holding a scythe. But she’s a version of death that watches over believers and can intervene on their behalf. The film documents the devotion to this figure in her native Mexico. In particular, the movie focuses on the shrine of La Santísima Muerte (“Most Holy Death”), which a woman named Enriqueta Romero Romero made out of her home. As the shrine has grown, Enriqueta—a featured figure in the documentary—has added a shop that sells Santa Muerte figures, candles, religious tokens, and other items for reverence and worship. She and her family also take meticulous care of the saint, changing her clothes on the first of every month, purifying the shrine with smoke and perfume, and holding a large festival on the anniversary of the site’s founding, November 1. Upwards of 5,000 people crowd the street in front of the shrine on that day, and the movie ends with this festival. It is truly one of the most interesting and unusual events I’ve seen captured on film.

(The following is from a SBS Dateline piece, not the documentary.)

The shrine is located in the Tepito neighborhood in Mexico City, which has a reputation for being one of the largest centers for crime and black market dealings in D.F. Not surprisingly then, the saint is known for being particularly favored by criminals, drug dealers, and the like. In the documentary, the filmmaker goes behind the bars of two prisons to show her popularity. Many of the prisoners in the film have shrines in their cells. One interviewee even paints large Santa Muerte murals for her fellow inmates in order to incur favors and to exchange for goods. But Santa Muerte’s popularity has spread beyond prisons and the criminal world. She’s also popular with the poor and destitute, with a particularly strong following among disenfranchised groups in Mexico such as homosexuals, transvestites, and sex workers. Generally, she’s seen as egalitarian in her favors, and the film makes a point of showing how such beliefs play out in worship. Go rent it.

Holy Sh*t! Catalonia’s Caganer Christmas Surprise

(Thanks to a new ISP, I’m back in business!)

To outsiders, there are perhaps few things stranger in Catalonia than the popular caganer figurines that have been part of that region’s nativity scenes for over three centuries. Traditionally the caganer (literally “the pooper” in Catalan) is a peasant man in a red hat and country garb, bare bummed and squatting in the act. Nativity sets in Catalonia are generally larger than we are used to in the English-speaking world; they often display whole parts of the city or countryside, not just the manger. So the squatting fellow usually does his business behind a bush and a bit away from Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

His role in the nativity set has several possible meanings. Some think that he represents fertility, since his defecation fertilizes the land. Some say he represents equality since we all have to go at some time. Many think he just gives the otherwise otherworldly scene of Jesus’ birth a hint of naturalism. Or perhaps his presence suggests that God works on His timetable—whether nature is calling someone close at hand or not. But generally I think most folks can see that the figure is meant to inject a little humor into the season, which has led to a certain change in caganers sold since the 1940s.

Yup, while the traditional red-capped peasant is still available, lots of folks these days prefer a caganer statute of a celebrity, politician, athlete, cultural icon, or even my beloved Pocoyo (who has blue poo!).

¡Feliz Janucá! : Spanish Hanukkah vocabulary

I think non-Jews (like me) have a tendency to think Hanukkah is a more important holiday than it actually is, mostly because it falls so close to Christmas. However, it is festive and fun, and it’s going on right now. So what better reason is there to learn some new vocabulary in Spanish? ¡Vamos!

(There’s a good short description of the story of Hanukkah en español aquí and in English here.)

Festival of Lights : la fiesta de las luces

Greek kings : los reyes griegos :: Maccabees : los macabeos :: victory : la victoria

menorah : la menorá/la menorah :: candles : las velas

oil : el aceite :: eight days : ocho días

(“Ocho Kandelikas”/”Eight Little Candles” : Ladino Hanukkah song)

songs : las canciones :: games : los juegos

latke (potato pancake) : la latke (la tortilla de papas/patatas)

gelt (chocolate money) : el dinero de chocolate

sufganiot (jelly donut) : el buñuelo de jalea

dreidel : el dreidel (in Mexico, the Jewish community uses a toma todo)

La canción de dreidel
Tengo un pequeño dreidel que de barro fabriqué,
cuando esté seco y listo, puedo jugar con él.
Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel que de barro fabriqué,
dreidel, dreidel, dreidel con dreidel jugaré.

The Dreidel Song
I have a little dreidel. I made it out of clay.
When it’s dry and ready, then dreidel I shall play.
Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay.
Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, then dreidel I shall play.

Ladino : Spanish’s Jewish Cousin

Most folks have heard of Yiddish, a language that developed in the Ashkenazi community of Central Europe during the Middle Ages. However, many people don’t realize that Yiddish is actually closely related to German. In fact, it originates from a Medieval form of that language, only written in Hebrew letters. Similarly, Spanish has its own language cousin in the Jewish world, Ladino or Judaeo-Spanish, which is spoken by the Sephardic descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella.

A collage of some important Sephardic Jews. Maimonides is in the top left and Hank Azaria is in the bottom right. Click through for the full list.

While Yiddish grew out of Medieval German, it also has linguistic influences from Hebrew and Aramaic. In a similar way, Ladino developed from a Medieval form of Spanish but also shares bits of vocabulary and grammar with Hebrew, Arabic, and even Turkish. For those who know any Spanish, I think you’ll find it sounds familiar…and a little exotic at the same time.

(Grasyas, ceniboy, for posting this and other great Ladino videos.)

Ladino is still spoken by small communities in Israel, Turkey, Greece, and even the United States, but it is in danger of going extinct. Most speakers use it as a second language, and older generations are not passing it along to their children and grandchildren in great numbers. Nonetheless, here’s hoping for a renaissance.