The view from my window, with the Lakeshore Limited passing by.
Above: "A Adoração dos Magos" ("The Adoration of the Magi"), by Domingos Sequeira, 1828, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon, Portugal. The Star of Bethlehem appears as a glowing light above mother and child.
A light in the darkness
It's all about light. At this time of year, there are a number of celebrations, religious and secular: Christians celebrate Christmas, Jews celebrate Hanukkah, and African-Americans celebrate Kwanzaa. New Year's Day marks the beginning of a new and hopeful year. All use an imagery of light: a star, candles, fireworks, and the many light displays that decorate our houses. And all come around the time of the winter solstice, when, in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun, which has gradually absented itself, begins to return. Although two months of sometimes brutal weather awaits, the event brings a message of hope for better things to come.
In the year 2020, there was an additional show of light in the sky. There was a rare conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, when the two planets appeared so close that, for those lucky enough to witness the phenomenon, they seemed to merge into one brilliant heavenly body. (Unfortunately, the skies in the Northeast were covered in clouds during this event.) Was such a conjunction the fabled Star of Bethlehem, which led the Wise Men to the infant Jesus?
The Bible story of the Three Wise Men
The story of the Star of Bethlehem occurs in only one place in the Gospels, in Matthew 2.1-12. According to the Gospel, in the reign of Herod the Great, puppet king of Judea under the Romans, "wise men from the East" (magoi apo anatolôn) arrived in Jerusalem to inquire concerning the whereabouts of the newly-born King of the Jews, "for they had seen his star." Herod, fearing a threat to his power, and learning from his experts that the child was in Bethlehem, sent the Wise Men to that town to bring him information. Herod (falsely) claimed that he too wished to worship the child.
The Wise Men follow the Star, which also arriving from the east, comes to a stop right over the house where Jesus lies with his mother Mary. They fall down and worship him, giving him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Warned by God, they do not return to Herod, but go home another way. Joseph, also warned by an angel that Herod is up to no good, takes mother and child to Egypt. Herod, angry at being tricked, slaughters all the children two years and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding area (the Massacre of the Innocents, whose factual basis is questioned by historians).
The Gospel does not say how many Wise Men there were. Later writers, especially in Western Christianity, fixed their number at three, perhaps influenced by the three gifts which they gave to the Child. (Eastern Christians often fix the number as twelve).
Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, commemorates the Jewish Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire, and the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd Century B.C. The event is described in the books of the First and Second Maccabees. The miracle of the one-day supply of oil lasting eight days is first described in the Talmud.
The Seleucid Empire was founded by Seleucus I Nicator, one of Alexander the Great's generals, after the death of Alexander in 323 B.C. and the subsequent breakup of Alexander's empire. His empire eventually encompassed most of Alexander's Asian territories. By the Second Century, the empire of the Seleucids was coming apart, and by 143 B.C., the Jews, led by the rebel Judas Maccabeus and his four brothers, had achieved independence for Judea and the restoration of traditional Jewish religion, which had been banned by the Seleucid king Antiochus.
According to the rabbinic tradition of the Talmud, when the Jews reentered the temple, they found only one small jug of olive oil whose seal was unbroken, protecting it from contamination. It held only enough oil to light the seven-branched lamp, the menorah, for one day. But by a miracle, the oil lasted for eight days, burning brightly until more oil could be procured. It is this light in the darkness that is celebrated at Hanukkah, when one candle of the menorah is lighted each day for eight days, until all are lighted. Unlike the seven-branched menorah of the Temple, the Hanukkah menorah has nine branches; the ninth branch is lighted first, and the others are lighted from it. In 2020, Hanukkah began the evening of December 10 and ended the evening of December 18.
Kwanzaa is an African-American celebration held from December 1 to January 1. It was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, but is based on traditional harvest festivals from West and Southeastern Africa. Since these lands lie in the Southern Hemisphere, the Solstice they celebrate is the Summer Solstice, heralding not the cold of winter but the warmth of summer. As interpreted in Kwanzaa, the festival celebrates African heritage, unity, and culture.
Each day of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of the Seven Principles: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith).
Among the symbols displayed at Kwanzaa is the kinara, a seven-branched candle holder, similar to the Jewish menorah. A black candle is placed in the middle branch, with three red candles to its left and three green candles to its right. The black candle is lighted first, and the others, in order from left to right, are lighted from it on subsequent nights.
The conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 2020; Was it the Christmas Star?
On December 21, 2020, there was a celestial symbol of light, as the two planets Jupiter and Saturn seemed to overlap, making one super-bright light in the sky on the very night of the Winter Solstice. The planets are, of course, actually hundreds of millions of miles apart, and their closeness is an optical illusion. Such occurrences are rare, these particular planets have not been seen this close for 400 years. But there were several such conjunctions around the traditional date of the birth of Jesus Christ. A photo of the two planets as they appeared just before closing on each other in 2020 appears below.
There has been much speculation about the real facts behind the Biblical story of the Christmas Star. There is no reason to doubt that there was some such phenomenon around the time of the birth of Jesus, but both its nature and its date are matters of speculation. Some have suggested that it was a nova or perhaps a comet, but the conjunction of two or more planets would seem to fit the description of this event that has become so much a part of the Christian tradition.
We do not actually know the exact date of the birth of Jesus, except that he seems to have been born some time in the first century B.C. It happens that there were several conjunctions of two or more planets during this time period. Jupiter and Saturn appeared close to each other three times in 7 B.C. Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn passed in near-conjunction in 6 B.C. Venus and Jupiter appeared in close conjunction in 3 B.C. and again in 2 B.C. It seems likely that visitors come to gaze on the child they considered their Holy King did see something up there in the sky, seeming to be a beacon lighting their way. So maybe we were actually visited by the Christmas Star.
Quotation of the Month
For our Classical Quotation of the Month, we bring you, in Greek and English, the story of the Chirstmas Star in the Gospel of Matthew. The Greek text is from an edition containing both the Greek and the Latin Vulgate, published by the Catholic Book Agency, 1955. The English is the King James translation, as published by the Massachusetts Bible Society, 1964.
Saturn, top, and Jupiter, below, are seen after sunset from Shenandoah National Park, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Luray, Virginia. (Photo from the NASA web site.)
The Chicago River, from the Michigan Avenue Bridge, January, 2008. (Photo by C.A. Sowa.)
CHICAGO COLLOQUIA ON DIGITAL HUMANITIES AND COMPUTER SCIENCE
Since their inception in the fall of 2006, I have been attending the Chicago Colloquia on Digital Humanities and Computer Science (DHCS), held at a rotating group of universities around Chicago. These Colloquia now draw participants from all over the world, who present projects covering many fields, including such interests as visual arts, archaeological reconstruction, musical composition, literary criticism, social trends, popular culture, history, and many fields yet to be discovered. Of the projects I have submitted under the name of Minerva Systems, a couple have been presented as poster exhibits. Others I have informally circulated among the participants. But whether one is presenting a paper or simply taking part in discussions, the Colloquia offer an opportunity to exchange a wealth of ideas. Workshops and smaller discussion groups, too, are well worth while.
For information about the Colloquia, visit the DHCS Web site at "http://chicagocolloquium.org". Information about all previous Colloquia (2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011) can also be accessed from there.
The Reliance Building, at State and Washington Streets in Chicago, January, 2008. (Photo by C.A. Sowa.) The Reliance Building, like the MINERVA System, was built on principles of modularity and extensibility.
Read about it!
My thanks to all those who have reviewed and used my self-study CD course on using computers and quantitative methods in the study of literature, The Loom of Minerva: An Introduction to Computer Projects for the Literary Scholar, and my thanks to those who continue to give me comments.
You can read Chapter 1, "A Guide to the Labyrinth: The Problem and Its Solution" on this Web site. (Note: this chapter now describes a greater variety of ways to structure a project, e.g., top-down, bottom-up, etc. It will continue to be revised.) You can also see images from two demonstrations of the MINERVA System, from 2006 (emphasizing individual applications programs), given at the First Chicago Colloquium on Digital Humanities at the University of Chicago and 2007 (emphasizing new project planning programs) given at the Second Chicago Colloquium on Digital Humanities at the Northwestern University.
The MINERVA System
The MINERVA System for Study of Literary Texts is a set of tools, some automated, some not automated, for planning and carrying out a project in literary study. Methods of Systems Analysis, borrowed from the scientific and commercial world, are adapted to the study of literature. This methodology emphasizes the use of diagramming techniques and modular design, offering a way to construct a project as a set of units or modules that can be worked on separately and moved around without disturbing the whole. A project is defined as an enterprise that has a goal and an organized way of achieving that goal.
The Loom of Minerva combines the methods of Systems Analysis with the insights of traditional belles-lettres literary criticism. All analysis takes as its point of departure the value of the piece of literature itself to the critic and the reader, as well as the historic, social, or aesthetic qualities attached to it. These alone confer significance on any work of scholarship. Examples grow directly from study of various works of literature, from Vergil to Coleridge to Baudelaire to Victor Hugo to Edna St. Vincent Millay and Gertrude Stein, and works of criticism from Sainte-Beuve to Swinburne to Gertrude Stein (criticizing her own work).
Emphasis is placed on analyzing the language of criticism itself, analyzing exactly what we mean by such terms as "beautiful," "ugly," "pompous," "like a spring garden," etc. By defining our terms with an exactness that can be quantified, we learn to give precision to our thoughts, whether using a computer or not.
What is in The Loom of Minerva
The CD contains both a set of narrative chapters and a set of programs, called the MINERVA System for Study of Literary Texts. The narrative chapters explain and amplify the programs, and the programs illustrate the chapters. The programs are provided in both executable form and source code, to satisfy both non-programmer scholars and programmers who want to play with the code.
MINERVA stands for Model INteractive Engine for Recognizing Verbal Artifice.
Advantages of the MINERVA System
The MINERVA programs do not require the use of data that is in a proprietary format. They use plain ASCII text, such as that downloaded from the Internet. The OwlData programs can be used to put downloaded or scanned text in the correct format for the MINERVA programs. The mathematics and statistics used are fairly elementary, such as can be understood as an introduction to basic concepts of what the computer and quantified methods can do. The programs are open-source, as they are intended to be extensible.
For more information:
If you are interested in finding out more about the Loom of Minerva or the MINERVA System, contact me at email@example.com.
Reconstruction of one of Babbage's engines at the Computer History Museum, Mountain View, California. Click on the picture to watch it in action. (Photo by J.F. Sowa).
Charles Babbage's Difference Engine and Analytical Engine
Charles Babbage, prolific Victorian inventor, is most famous for two of his inventions, the Difference Engine (1812) and the Analytical Engine (1833), which are perhaps the truest forerunners of the modern computer. The Difference Engine, a mechanical device of rotating gears, was designed to automatically generate mathemetical tables. It was called the Difference Engine because it was based on the principle of computing the differences between successive values of an expression, then the difference between the differences. Versions of the Difference Engine were eventually built and used, but Babbage himself dropped work on it to pursue his real dream, the Analytical Engine. The Analytical Engine was, or would have been, the first "real" computer, capable of performing any kind of mathematical operation, and able to be "programmed," that is, to perform a sequence of operations without human intervention, and to choose, when necessary, between alternative paths of action. It was to be powered by steam, and programs were to be entered into the machine by means of punched cards, an idea borrowed from the then-new Jacquard power looms. Babbage, sad to say, was never able to complete the Analytical Engine.
Ada, Lady Lovelace, "the world's first programmer"
Babbage's collaborator on his Engines was one of history's most remarkable women, Ada, Lady Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron. These lines from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage are thought to be addressed to her:
A gifted mathematician in her own right, Ada worked with Babbage until her untimely death in 1852 at the age of 36. In 1842, the Italian engineer Luigi F. Menabrea published a description, in French, of Babbage's Analytical Engine. Lady Lovelace translated Menabrea's article into English, expanding it with commentary so extensive that her "Notes upon the Memoir" are virtually an original work. She provides detailed directions for using the machine to calculate answers to mathematical problems, leading modern writers to call her "the world's first programmer." Her words relate computing to other artistic endeavors:
We may say most aptly that [Babbage's] Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.
A Babbage Engine in London and California
In 1985, the Science Museum in London set out to build a working Difference Engine No. 2, based on Babbage's original designs. It was completed in 2002, and is on public display at the Science Museum. An identical Engine, completed in 2008, is presently on loan to the Computer History Museum, Mountain View, California, where it is on display until May, 2009. Read more about this recreated machine at the Computer History Museum Web site.
Click here or on the picture below to watch the Babbage engine in action, in a video taken by John F. Sowa.
Reconstruction of one of Babbage's engines, detail view. Click on the picture to watch it in action. (Photo by J.F. Sowa).
Read about the 1845 Eureka Machine for Composing Hexameter Latin Verse
Another Victorian machine which could be called an early special-purpose
computer was the Eureka machine designed by John Clark in 1845 for automatically
composing Latin hexameter poetry. It still survives, in a museum in Somerset,
England. Click here to read about it.
Book: Traditional Themes and the Homeric Hymns
The book, out of print for a while, is again available by "on-demand" production. Contact the publisher for information.
New selections are available on this Web site for free reading. You can read Chapters 1 ("Introduction") and 10 ("Conclusion: the Place of the Hymns in the Ancient Greek Oral Tradition"), Appendix I ("Outlines of Themes Identified in the Hymns"). You can also see diagrams of the themes as they appear in the Hymns.
Article: "Thought Clusters in Early Greek Oral Poetry"
An article, by Cora Angier Sowa and John Sowa, describes in detail
the quantitative and mathematical methods used on the computer to
identify thematic elements in Hesiod and the Homeric Hymns.
Material from this study was later integrated into into the more
comprehensive Traditional Themes and the Homeric Hymns. Click on
"Thought Clusters in Early Greek Oral Poetry".
A version of the CLUMP cluster analysis program used to identify thematic
repetitions is now also being integrated into the MINERVA suite of programs
in the self-study CD The Loom of Minerva.
In orally composed poetry like Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, and Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days, there was no written text (the alphabet being barely known at the time, around 750 B.C.). The bard, like a jazz musician, recomposed his story each time (to a melody now lost to us), using stock phrases or "formulas" and repeated scenes. Since the story was enjoyed not by reading but by hearing it, there were no punctuation marks or chapter headings to tell listeners where they were in the narrative or its episodes. The skilled singer used, instead, repeated words and phrases to serve as "oral punctuation" to articulate the story and provide emphasis for important themes and concepts.
Reissued here is my article Verbal Patterns in Hesiod's Theogony, which explores the use of verbal repetition in Hesiod's tale of the origins of the gods.
We think of computers as being very modern, although calculating machines and computer-like devices have been around for a long time. In particular, we think of using such a machine to do such non-scientific tasks as composing poetry as a modern concept. But in 1845, John Clark built the Eureka Machine for Composing Hexameter Latin Verse. It still exists in a museum in England. Read about the Eureka Machine and read the original description of it from the Illustrated London News of July, 1845.
There is more about early computers and their mechanical ancestors in the self-study CD The Loom of Minerva: An Introduction to Computer Projects for the Literary Scholar, described above.
"Minerva" has long been a popular name for ships. There are cruise ships named "Minerva," including Greek vessels whose owners chose that name as a synonym for their own city patroness Athena. Warships named "Minerva" have graced the navies of Europe from the time of Nelson and Napoleon to the present, whether British "Minerva" or French "Minerve."
It is an interesting choice, considering that Athena, with her gift of the olive, defeated Poseidon, lord of the sea, with his gift of the horse, in the contest to be patron deity of Athens. (See the depiction of Athena and Poseidon below.)
The name "Minerva" for a British warship belongs in the splendid tradition of naming vessels after names from Classical history and mythology. Along with names like "Invincible," "Audacious," "Irresistible," "Insolent," "Victory," and "Dreadnought," we find "Gorgon," "Phoenix," "Achilles," "Apollo," "Dryad," "Endymion," "Hector," "Helicon," "Medusa," "Meleager," and, famously, "Arethusa." The most famous ship named for the Sicilian nymph Arethusa was known for her victory over the French "Belle Poulle" in 1778. Training ships for over a century inherited the name, one after the other.
A frigate "Minerva" participated in the Battle of Cape St. Vincent against the navy of Napoleon on February 14, 1797. The marine painter Thomas Buttersworth (the elder) painted a portrait of "Minerva" in 1810, and the "Minerva" Pub in Hull, England (built in 1831) uses the frigate's symbol, the owl, on its sign. Of course, some ships have been named "Athena" and "Poseidon," too; there was a movie about such a ship called The Poseidon Adventure.
There is a further connection between ships and this Minerva Systems site. In the self-study CD The Loom of Minerva (described above), an analysis of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is used as a case study to demonstrate methods of Systems Analysis and computer techniques.
A feminist note on the gender of ships: Because of the living qualities of ships, I like to refer to a ship as "she" rather than "it." While some may compare a vessel to a woman because of the supposedly capricious nature of both (although there seems nothing wrong with an occasional playful moment), I think that this view overlooks other qualities. Ships, like women, are beautiful, swift, intelligent, and powerful. I am glad to acclaim them as my sisters!
Signed vase painting by the Athenian potter/painter Amasis (6th cent.
B.C.), depicting Athena and Poseidon. The two figures are labeled
ATHENAIA and POSEIDON. The inscription down the middle reads
AMASIS MEPOIESEN ("Amasis made me"). Amasis may well have been
African. (Illustration from a lithograph by Kaeppelin et Cie., ca. 1840.
The actual vase is in the Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque
Nationale de France, Paris.)
Essays and reviews on building and architecture
Among the selections on this site is the previously published "Holy Places", a study of myths of landmarks. In addition, there is an epilogue to that essay, on "The World Trade Center as a Mythic Place". This piece continues the author's interest in relating ancient ideas to things that we care about in the modern world.
Cora Angier Sowa has combined humanities and technology for many years. She has a BA in Latin and an MA in Classics from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a PhD in Classical Philology from Harvard University. She spent a year studying archaeology at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. She taught Greek and Roman literature and history at Mt. Holyoke, Vassar, and Brooklyn Colleges. For a number of years, she was a programmer/analyst at Chemical (now Chase) Bank in New York. She has taught classes in computers and humanities at the College of Staten Island and at St. John's University in Queens, New York. She served twice on the Committee on Computer Activities of the American Philological Association, once as chairperson of the committee. She was the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship (for study in Greece) and of a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies (for work on computers and ancient Greek literature).
In addition to the book Traditional Themes and the Homeric Hymns (described above), Dr. Sowa has published articles and reviews on Classics and on the mythology of architecture and motion pictures. A harp player, she is also on the board of trustees of the International Percy Grainger Society , an organization dedicated to preserving the home and archives in White Plains, New York of Percy Grainger -- composer, piano virtuoso, collector of folk songs, and inventor of an early mechanical music synthesizer. Dr. Sowa is Webmaster for the Grainger web site.
A lifelong railfan, Dr. Sowa is a member of the New York Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society and is on its Board of Directors. She is National Representative for the New York Chapter and is on the Advisory Council of the national organization. She is also a member of the New York Railroad Enthusiasts.
Dr. Sowa lives in Croton-on-Hudson NY, and in New York City, with her husband, Dr. John F. Sowa, an expert in Artificial Intelligence and computer design, and several cats.
All selections on this site, unless otherwise identified, are copyright by Cora Angier Sowa.
Send e-mail to Cora Angier Sowa.
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