The Judgement of Parrots

In Homer’s epic poem, the Iliad, the Trojan War got started because of a beauty contest, known as The Judgement of Parrots. The contest was between the three most beautiful goddesses of Mount Olympus—Aphrodite, Hera and Athena—and the winner got a golden apple. As best as I can tell, the goddesses must have asked some parrots to declare who was the most beautiful of them. I found many paintings of this scene, but all the great masters forgot to include the parrots, so I drew it myself. If you want something done right, do it yourself, as they say.

Greek gods

Zeus hurling lightning bolts at the mortals.

Everybody wonders, “Where did we come from? Why are we here?” At least I’m pretty sure everybody does.

The Greeks tried to answer those questions with myths—religious stories about how the world and people came to be. They believed in many gods and goddesses who mostly lived on the top of Mount Olympus. These gods sometimes came down to interact with the mortals—regular people like you and me. The god Poseidon (po-SIGH-den) ruled the sea and lived in it. Hades (HAY-deez) was the god who ruled the Underworld—where the ancient Greeks believed we go when we die. Zeus (ZAY-oos—I know, I know, everybody says ZOOS) ruled the other gods and the sky from Mount Olympus.

The Manders School Visit World Tour

For the past week or so I had the great honor to give presentations to the students at Rowan Elementary School (who put a pirate ship in the middle of their library!) and Bedford Elementary School (whose walls are adorned with giant artworks created by the graduating classes through the years). Many thanks to my hosts/hostesses for inviting me and sharing my work with the kids. I was treated like a rock star and I’m grateful.

I’m gassing up the garishly-decorated double-decker tour bus to be at Cranberry Elementary School later this month. If you’d like me to visit your school, contact bookings@johnmanders.com

The Greeks

Athena, Goddess of Wisdom

Let’s travel north from Egypt, across the Mediterranean Sea, to the island of Crete and the Greek mainland. It’s the Bronze Age, everybody!—from 3200 to 1100 bc—because some genius figured out smelting. Smelting is melting down 2 or more metals at very high heat, then combining them so when they cool, they’re a new metal, called an alloy. If you smelt the metals copper and tin, you get the alloy bronze. Bronze is stronger than copper or tin. Bronze was a handy material for making weapons and armor.

Like the Sumerians and Egyptians, the Greeks were farmers. Because Crete and the Cyclades are islands, they spent some time zipping around the Mediterranean in ships and trading with other people who lived along the sea. They used coins for conducting business—first made out of electrum, an alloy of gold & silver, later replaced with coins of pure gold and pure silver.

When we talk about the Greeks as a civilization, we’re talking about a bunch of individual city-states—like Athens, Sparta, Thebes and Corinth—who shared language, religion and culture. Sometimes they fought with each other, sometimes they banded together to fight a common enemy.

The Greeks were polytheistic—they worshiped many gods. Polytheism: poly= many; theo/deo=god.

These city-states were ruled by kings, but in Athens they began a system of government called democracy, where citizens can vote on who rules them.

The Greeks introduced theater; created statues and pottery; wrote epic poetry and songs; and developed a style of architecture using weight-bearing columns.

Image

An example of ancient Egyptian humor

Measuring length in ancient Egypt

One thing about a civilization: people are always building things or buying & selling things. The Egyptians built some impressively big things. When you’re putting together something as big as a pyramid, you need to get all the measurements right. The Egyptians traded things as well. If you’re selling or buying a plot of land, or a roll of fabric, or a quantity of wheat, both buyer and seller need to agree on how much is being traded.

What you need are standardized measurements. Before the Egyptians started building a pyramid, they had to figure how big the base of it would be so that the sides could come to a point at the top at the right height. If an Egyptian were buying a roll of fabric, she’d need to use the same measurement as the seller to describe how much fabric was being sold.

What do you do if you don’t have a ruler or a tape measure or a yardstick? Or, what if you have a ruler or a tape measure or a yardstick but yours is different from somebody else’s?

Here’s what the ancient Egyptians did: they used the good old human body for measuring.

A grown man’s foot is more or less the same length as every other grown man’s foot. Sure, some are longer, some shorter—but not by very much. The average grown man’s foot can be used as a standard measurement. Those clever Egyptians imaginatively named this measurement a ‘foot.’

The length of a grown man’s forearm—from elbow to the tip of the middle finger—is more or less the same length as every other grown man’s forearm. This measurement was known as a ‘cubit.’ The Latin word ‘cubitum’ means elbow. In the Hebrew Bible, cubits are used to describe the size of Noah’s Ark, or how tall Goliath was, or how long to make the curtains for the Tabernacle.

From the middle of a man’s chest to the tip of his middle finger is two cubits. From fingertip to fingertip of both outstretched hands is four cubits.

Using a grown man for measuring.

One ‘palm’ equals 4 digits (fingers) of a grown man’s hand. There are 7 palms in a cubit, or 28 digits. A digit is roughly 3/4 of an inch. A palm is just under 3 inches.

That’s how the Egyptians standardized their measurements. You can find grown men just about anywhere! If not, they had cubit rods marked with cubits, feet, palms and fingers.

Cubit rod.

Time & space

Yes, yes, I know—my phone has been ringing off the hook with people calling to complain that this history of Western Civilization seems to be a history of telling time. Maybe you have a point. Maybe I have been concentrating too much on how the ancients reckoned time.

This history is about ideas. I want to tell how Western Civilization was shaped by innovation and invention. Look, would it make you all happier if I added a second topic? I admit, so far (even though we’ve only gotten as far as the Sumerians and Egyptians) I *have* been a little obsessed with timekeeping. How about if I start talking about how we’ve measured space?

What if we discovered that there’s a connection between time and space?

For instance: how far can you walk in an hour? If you keep up a steady pace, you’ll cover 3 miles. A long time ago, this unit of measurement was called a league. Most people traveled by walking. They knew that in an hour they could be somewhere 3 miles away. They were using time to measure distance.

Egyptian calendar

An Egyptian man plows a furrow so the lady can sow seeds into it.

Both the Sumerians and Egyptians had economies that depended on agriculture—they grew crops for their food. If you ever planted tomatoes—or onions, or zucchini, or those two-ton pumpkins you see at the state fair—in a garden, you’ll have seen on the seed packages instructions about when to plant. If you plant your tomatoes too late, the fruit will never ripen in time before the first frost. This is why calendars are so important.

The Egyptians’ planting schedule was built around their river, the Nile. Every year the Nile would flood. After the floodwater receded, it left behind nutrient-rich silt that improved the soil. Egyptian farmers had to plant crops as soon as the Nile receded so they could harvest before the Nile flooded again.

By around 2450 bc the Egyptians had developed a calendar whose year was twelve months. Each month was thirty days long (12 x 30 = 360 days). The year was divided into three seasons—Inundation, when the Nile was flooded (Akhet), Emergence, time to plant the crops (Peret), and Harvest, time to gather the crops (Shemu)—of four months each, with five days added to the end of the year.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the Egyptian calendar used Base Sixty for counting the days. I’d like to think they sent a nice thank-you note to the Sumerians.

How to build a better water clock

Ctesibius of Alexandria. Believe it or not, this guy’s dad was a barber.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll remember that a couple of posts ago I ranted about how Egyptian water-clocks seemed impractical and I didn’t see how they could even function as clocks at all.

Well, apparently back around 270 bc, an inventor named Ctesibius (Teh-SEE-bee-us) of Alexandria thought the same thing. He identified two problems:

One) The water-clock wasn’t a clock, but rather a timer. It only worked while there was water in it.

Two) The water came out of the bung-hole at the bottom at different rates of speed: quickly when the jar was full, slowly as it grew empty. That’s because the weight of the water on top pushed down on the water that was escaping—less water, less pressure, slower dripping of water. That made it unreliable for keeping time.

So how did Ctesibius fix these problems? Well, he figured in order to keep constant pressure on the hole at the bottom, the water clock should always be full. So he set up a second jar of water to keep the first one filled. The second jar had a hole at the bottom that leaked water into the first jar.

THEN, a third, empty jar was placed under the first jar. Instead of telling the time by how much water had leaked out, this empty jar told time by how much water had leaked into it.

Ctesibius even made a float to put into the empty jar. As the water level rose, an arrow—attached to the float—pointed to the hour.

A tip of the hat to Heidi K. for sending me a link to this video!

Image

Ancient Egyptian water wristwatches never caught on