Tag Archives: Western Civilization

Summer solstice

Okay, here comes some sciency stuff.

Summer solstice happens twice a year—once in the Northern Hemisphere (June 21) and once in the Southern Hemisphere (December 22). Those are the two days when the Sun spends the most time in the sky.

If you have a globe handy, you’ll see that there’s a line that goes all the way around the middle of the Earth. That’s the equator. It separates the Earth into a northern half and a southern half. Each half is called a hemisphere—’hemi’ means ‘half’ and ‘sphere’ is another word for ‘globe’.

The Sun appears to travel across the sky, but ackshually the Earth is traveling around the Sun and spinning on her axis at the same time. An axis is the line that goes through the center of the Earth from the North Pole to the South Pole. Did you notice that your globe’s axis is tilted? It’s tilted at a little over 27 degrees, because Earth is tilted at a little over 27° in relation to its orbit around the Sun. Because of this tilt, half the year (the time it takes to orbit the Sun) the Northern Hemisphere receives more of the Sun’s rays. The other half of the year, the Southern Hemisphere receives more of the Sun’s rays. The equator gets the Sun’s rays all year round, so it’s always hot there.

It takes one year for Earth to orbit the Sun. When the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the Sun it’s Summer there. When the Southern Hemisphere is tilted toward the Sun it’s Summer there.

Getting back to that equator—let’s look at the globe again. There are 2 other lines that also run around the Earth. In the Northern Hemisphere, there’s the Tropic of Cancer. In the Southern Hemisphere, there’s the Tropic of Capricorn. On June 21, the Northern Hemisphere tilts toward the Sun and the Tropic of Cancer gets the Sun’s rays directly. You could draw a line from the Earth’s center through the Tropic of Cancer to the Sun. On December 22, the Southern Hemisphere tilts toward the Sun and the Tropic of Capricorn gets the Sun’s rays directly. You could draw a line from the Earth’s center through the Tropic of Capricorn to the Sun.

On June 21, the Northern Hemisphere has the most daylight of any day of the year. Six months later, on December 22, the Southern Hemisphere has the most daylight of any day of the year.

Remember, when the Northern Hemisphere has the most hours of daylight (Summer solstice) the Southern Hemisphere has the fewest hours of daylight (Winter solstice). The opposite is true at solstice six months later.

Three months after solstice is the day when the day is split equally in two, with 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of nighttime. This is the equinox. The autumnal (Fall) equinox is September 22 in the Northern Hemisphere. March 21 is the vernal (Spring) equinox.

Why am I telling you this? Well, over two thousand years ago a Greek librarian figured out exactly how big around the Earth is using only a well and a stick—and he did it at noon during the Summer solstice.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space

What’s a Grecian earn?

About 14 drachmas an hour! Har har har!

Okay, can I get a do-over? I’m not entirely happy with the drawing I did for that last post about Greek measurements. Didn’t look Greek enough, or just didn’t have pizazz or something. So I drew a new version of it, this time taking the drawings on those wonderful old Grecian urns as my inspiration. Tell me what you think.

Here’s an old Greek urn—these drawings are gorgeous. I love the light terra-cotta-colored figures on a rich black background.

Here’s the new sketch.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus

Herodotus reading his Histories to the crowd

“These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feuds.”

While the Greeks did think of time as a cycle, there was still a desire to reach back in time to remember stories from the past. We saw how Homer kept alive the story of the siege of Troy through his epic poem, the Iliad.

Herodotus (Hay ROD oh toos) was a Greek who lived in the fourth century bc and is thought to be the first historian. He wrote The Histories mostly about the wars between the Greeks and Persians and how they got started. Herodotus was a great storyteller, but what made him a historian is that he investigated, he did research—he got his information from several sources; he visited the places where the history took place; he went to the library; he interviewed people—then he arranged the information he’d gathered to explain how and why something happened.

I have a paperback copy of The Histories. It’s not an easy read, but I like to ‘dip into’ my copy and read whatever I open to. The battle of Thermopylae is in there—that story has since been made into a graphic novel and movie, The 300—and the battles of Marathon and Salamis. Herodotus included lots of oddball side-stories and observations, which are also fun. The Persian emperors Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes are in there (Xerxes is thought to be the party-boy king Ahasuerus from the biblical Book of Esther).

History is often about the big military battles and wars. I want this history, the one you’re reading right now, to be about ideas. But I’m telling you, if the Greeks hadn’t broken the will of the mighty Persian Empire and eventually beat ‘em, there would have been no flowering of art, literature, philosophy and democracy that happened after the wars—and was the Greeks’ gift to us.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space

The Iliad

The Iliad is an epic poem written by the blind poet Homer in the 4th century bc, about events that happen during the siege of Troy—known back then as Ilium—in the 12th century bc.

In those days poems like the Iliad were recited in front of an audience. They were written with a specific rhythm and often-repeated phrases in order to help the poet memorize the whole thing. The Iliad is mostly about war, the destruction it causes, and a code of honor that was part of Greek culture.

Because I’m a swell guy, I condensed the whole Iliad in to one sentence. You can take a really deep breath and recite it without stopping:

Nine years into the Trojan War the Greeks attack a town on Troy’s side and make off with a couple of Trojan girls Chryseis and Briseis Agamemnon takes Chryseis and Achilles who is the Greeks’ best warrior takes Briseis to be their girlfriends Chryseis’s dad offers to pay to get her back but Agamemnon says no dice Dad prays to Apollo Apollo inflicts a plague on the Greeks and a lot of them die Agamemnon figures out making Chryseis his girlfriend is the cause of this plague so he gives her back but he still wants a girlfriend so he makes Achilles give him Briseis this ticks Achilles off so he says he’s not going to fight for the Greeks anymore and even asks his mom Thetis who is a sea-goddess remember she married the mortal Peleus and wouldn’t invite Eris to their wedding to ask Zeus to help the Trojans who are the Greeks’ enemies so Zeus is on Troy’s side now and Achilles won’t fight so the Greeks get their hats handed to them there’s lots of fighting with some featured fights between Paris the shepherd with the good judgement who stole the beautiful Helen and Menelaus who is Helen’s husband and Hector and Ajax the Greeks don’t do so good the Trojans beat the Greeks back as far as their ships Diomedes and Odysseus get some inside info about the Trojans’ battle plans but the Trojans set one of the Greek ships on fire so things are looking pretty bad for the Greeks because without the ships how do they get back home Achilles still won’t help his pals but Nestor says let Patroclus wear Achilles’ armor so the Greeks will think yay Achilles is back in the game Patroclus is good but Apollo sees what’s going on and knocks Patroclus’ armor off of him and Hector kills him the Greeks and Trojans fight over the body and armor Hector gets the armor the Greeks get Patroclus’ body Achilles feels like a heel and tells Agamemnon okay I’ll fight those Trojans now Achilles’ mom Thetis the sea-goddess gets the god Hephaestus to make Achilles some new armor and Achilles goes out to fight the Trojan army who for some reason are sleeping outside the city walls and when they see Achilles coming they say feet do your stuff and try to beat it back inside Troy but they’re not fast enough and Achilles kills every Trojan he sees he even fights the god of the river Xanthus who complains about all the dead bodies Achilles sees Hector and chases him around the city three times until Hector stops running and fights Achilles but Achilles kills Hector and ties Hector’s body to the back of his chariot and drags it back to the Greek camp Patroclus gets a big funeral Achilles drags Hector’s body in circles around Patroclus’ coffin every day for the next nine days Hector’s dad the king of Troy tells Achilles come on man that’s not right Achilles says yeah you’re right I’m sorry and returns Hector’s corpse to the Trojans Hector gets a big funeral and everybody stops fighting for a while.

The reason I’m telling you this is because I’m interested in how people thought about time. Homer’s poem is about things that happened 800 years before he was born. Maybe the Iliad was a comment on wars happening in Homer’s own time. It was definitely a way of remembering events long gone.

The Iliad is an epic story, but too fanciful to be considered a history. We’ll have to look to another Greek to see who invented the idea of history.

Thanks to Spark Notes

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space

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 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.

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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.

Egyptian sundials

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An Egyptian lady catching some rays from Ra.

Let’s travel west from Sumer, away from the MidEast, along the northern coast of Africa to Egypt. About 1,000 years after civilization was up and running in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, the Egyptians got started on their civilization which thrived from 3100 bc to 332 bc. Like the Sumerians, Egyptians depended on a river—the Nile—and a system of irrigation to water their crops to keep the economy going. Their writing system was hieroglyphics—symbols that represented sounds, or ideas, or things. Their government was monarchical—they had a single ruler, called a Pharaoh. The Egyptians worshiped a pantheon—which means a bunch of gods and demi-gods. The Pharaoh was worshiped as a god, too.

The Sumerian culture must have influenced the Egyptians somewhat. The Egyptians divided the day into two halves, each having 12 hours—twelve is an easy Base Sixty number. The Egyptians are thought to have invented the sundial. The earliest example of a sundial has 12 hours marked using lines on a semi-circle, 15° apart.

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A fragment of a limestone sundial. The gnomon goes into the hole at top.

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This sundial is a half-bowl cut out of a block of stone.

A sundial is a simple way to measure the passage of the Sun. There’s a post (called a gnomon, pronouced NOM-ON) sticking up from a flat, horizontal surface. Lines are drawn on the flat surface, radiating out from the gnomon. When the Sun is shining, the gnomon casts a shadow on the lines. Each line represents the passage of an hour.

The Egyptians built huge obelisks—big stone monuments. These were sundials, too. The obelisk cast a shadow on the ground, which was marked for every hour. As the Sun moved across the sky, the shadow would move along the dial, showing the time. Of course, sundials only work when there’s daylight. How did they tell time at night?

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