Fiction · history

Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears

What a brilliant novel. I will keep this short but suffice it to say, one of the best books I have read in many years, beautifully constructed.

The story is historical fiction centred on a fictional industrialist pre World War One, built around a spy/murder who-dun-it plot. What makes it brilliant is the construction where the book is really made up of three novels, each building on the same story but being told from completely different perspectives, each entertaining in its own right, and each giving a glimpse of more and more of the truth until everything is masterfully brought together in the very last chapter.

The descriptions of finance are fun and insightful, giving an insight into how important commerce and finance is in world events including countries going to war.

I also enjoyed the historical context, I knew little of the political history pre world war 1 with the rise of Bismarck and Germany and this was fascinating reading.

Thoroughly recommend reading for anyone who enjoys history, has a little background in finance or would like to learn more of that, and enjoys a spy type novel.

Culture · Evolution · Genetics · history · Learning · Science

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

A fascinating read about human evolution from c 12000 bc by a scientist anthropologist with tremendous real world experience. He hypothesises about the key driving forces that have really made the world as we know it today, a world largely dominated by Eurasian societies and provides compelling evidence in support of those hypotheses.

This book has been recommended on numerous podcasts and one the Pulitzer Prize. I think it connects well with some of Edward O Wilson’s themes from Consillience and I suspect, though I have not read it it should connect through to Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari which is still on my reading list.

Jared argues persuasively that the differences in human development across the globe come not from innate differences in the cleverness or superior culture of one group of individuals versus another but really due to a few simple overarching realities of human development driven ultimately by geography. I like it because it really addresses and decimates some of the common rather racist views of cultural superiority that tend to be espoused.

He traces the dispersion of humans from Africa through Eurasia, to New Guinea and Australia, to North and South America and to the islands of the Pacific.

In the end he argues that there are several very basic key determinants of human development:

1. The development of agriculture through the domestication of plants and animals which allowed a move from simpler hunter gatherer clans into more complex societies. Agriculture allowed specialisation with some members feeding more than just themselves, allowing others to become crafts men, warriors or politicians. This also lead to our more familiar societal structures with leaders and hierarchies, and tax and tribute and the need for collective narrative like religion and culture to keep those societies working effectively together. Effectively in almost all instances globally, agrarian societies displaced hunter gatherer societies.

2. That the domestication of animals lead to us being exposed to many of the germs from to those animals that created many of our common disease: measles, tuberculosis, smallpox, flu, whooping cough etc. The more domesticated animals, the more diseases. This lead to greater immunity via natural selection in those communities who first domesticated these animals. Later contact with communities who had not domesticated as many animals or the same animals resulted in massive devastation by the germs carried in by those with immunity eg. The Spanish and European invasions of America introduced these new diseases with devastating consequences.

4. That it was pretty much evolutionary luck across the globe as to which particular areas had more plants or animals that could in-fact be domesticated, with the Fertile Crescent and Eurasia happening to be particularly lucky in this regard.

5. That simple Longitudinal geography makes a huge difference. The Eurasian/North African east west landmass along similar latitudes made it possible to have rapid transmission of technology, agriculture and germ immunity across that land mass with similar enough climate conditions. It was much harder to move North South, the Tropics have very different diseases to the temperate regions, very different cultivatable plants, hence transmission of agriculture and technology along north south continents like from North Africa to Southern Africa, or North to South America, or North Asia to Australia was far slower.

4. That cultures with head starts in agriculture then developed further technological advantages, from metal working, first copper, later iron, to boats and sea-faring, to writing as a means of organising and transmitting knowledge, to eventually guns allowing the further consolidation of power ultimately into empires.

He covers developments of all parts of the world in fascinating detail including China, Africa, the Americas and the Pacific islands.

This book has really brought home to me the power of evolution over long periods of time to completely transform societies. Also very relevant today as we face new viral pandemics to understand that and the innate connection between humans the contacts we have with animals.

Overall I found the book fascinating but it is a long read where he argues and seeks to prove his hypothesis and it can feel a little repetitive in places. Still I enjoyed it immensely.

Culture · Fiction · history

Mythos by Stephen Fry

A wonderful introduction to Greek mythology which I have always been curious about but never found a really accessible read.

For my own remembrance I am just going to summarise some of the key characters and relationships here:

The First Order – primordial deities – often the idea of the god and the thing they represent are mixed together

  • Chaos gives birth to
  • Erebus – darkness
  • Nyx – night
  • Who couple and give birth to :
  • Hemera – day and
  • Aether – light
  • Chaos also gives birth to
  • Gaia – the earth, hence words like geology and geography
  • And Tartarus – the caves beneath the earth
  • Gaia gives birth to Pontus the sea and Oranus, the sky (hence the planet Uranus in Latin, all the planets are named after Roman gods, and the word Uranium)
  • Herma and Aether couple and give birth to Thalassa, the female sea

Nyx also gives birth to

  • Moros- doom and destiny
  • Apate- deceit (Romans called her Fraus, from which we get fraud and fraudster
  • Geras – old age (hence geriatric) but also wisdom and dignity (in Latin Senectus – hence senile, senior and senate)
  • Oizys – (in Latin Miseria) hence misery, also depression and anxiety
  • Momos – personifying mockery, scorn and blame

Nyx and Erebus also give birth to further dark progeny

  • Eris (Discordia in Latin) – strife
  • Nemisis- fateful retribution
  • Charon- ferryman of the dead
  • Hypnos – sleep ( hence hypnotic)
  • The Onerio – beings who bring dreams, such as Phobetor, bringer of nightmares and Phantasos, fantastical dreams
  • Hypnos has a son Morpheus who shifts shapes in dreams (hence morphine and morphing and metamorphosis)
  • Thanatos – is death himself hence euthanasia (good death), in Roman Mors, hence mortals, mortuary and mortified

And three lovely daughters, the Hesperides, nymphs of the golden hour of sunset, heralding their parents, darkness and night.

The second order – the Titans and others

Gaia earth, and Oranus the sky god give birth to 12 Titans (the striving ones),

6 male

  • Oceanus – the seas and oceans
  • Coeus
  • Crius
  • Hyperion
  • Iapetus
  • Kronos, the youngest

6 female

  • Theia
  • Themis – justice and wise council
  • Mnemosyne – memory, mnemonics,
  • Phoebe – prophesy
  • Tethys – the sea
  • Rhea

Three Cyclopes, one eyed giants

  • Brontes – thunder
  • Steropes – lightning
  • Arges – brightness

Three Hecatonchires, fifty headed 100 handed monsters,

  • Cottus the furious
  • Gyges the long limbed
  • Aegaeon or Briareos the sea goat or vigorous one

All of whom who disgusted Ouranos and he banished them back into Gaia’s womb

  • Tethys and Oceanus give birth to
    • Clymene lover of Iapetus
      Metis, who is clever and wise
      Nilus the Nile
      The Oceanids – sea nymphs

    Theia and Hyperion give birth to

    • Helios the sun
    • Selene the moon
    • Eos the dawn

    Crius and Pontus give birth to

    • Eurybia – flint hearted

    Clymene and Iapetus give birth to

    • Atlas
    • Epimetheus
    • Prometheus

    Gaia and Tartarus give birth to

    • Typhon a monster (hence the words typhoid and typhoons)

    Gaia turns to Kronos to punish Ouranus for what he did to the Hecatonchires and Cyclopes, making him a sickle/scythe made from adamantine, with which to arm himself. Kronos gelds Ouranus who curses him with “May your children destroy you as you destroyed me”

    From where the blood of Ouranus touched the ground (Gaia) sprang up:

    The Erinyes or Furies, nicknamed Eumenides (ironically the “kindly ones”)

    • Alecto – remorseless
    • Magaera – jealous rage
    • Tisiphone – vengeance

    The Gigantes, hence giants, gigantic, (having arisen from Gaia, the earth)

    Kronos then releases the Cyclopes and Hecatonchires from Gaia’s womb, and takes them together with Ouranus down to Tartarus, the depths of the earth

    Other spirits that come into being include the Gorgons, children of Phorcys and Cato, themselves son and daughter of sea god Pontus and Gaia, with hairs of snakes and who will turn you to stone if you make eye contact

    • Sthenos
    • Euryale
    • Medusa

    The Moirai or Fates, daughters of Nyx were

    • Clotho, who weaves the thread of life
    • Lachesis, who measures its length and
    • Atropos who chooses when to cut it short

    The Keres, the carrion daughters of Nyx, spirits of violent death.

    The nymphs are female deities:

    • Oreads look after mountains, caves, and islands
    • Nereids descendants of Oceanids, love in the sea
    • Naiads, look after fresh water lakes and streams
    • Leimakides love in meadows
    • Dryads and Hamadryads love in woodlands and trees
    • Meliae are ash wood nymphs

    Atlas fathers 7 daughters with the Oceanid Pleione called the Pleiades, which we know as the meteor shower and the constellation of 7 sisters. The eldest is Maia.

    The Third Order – the Olympian gods

    Gelded Oranus’s gonads fall into the sea and from their arises Aphrodite (Venus to the Romans), goddess of love who first makes landfall on Cyprus.

    Kronos takes his sister Rhea to be his wife and they have children. However Kronos fears his fathers curse that his children will turn against him, and so he swallows each of them as they are born: Hestia, Hades, Demeter, Poseidon, Hera until at the last Rhea tricks him into swallowing a magnetite stone, which he thinks is another child, and she goes on to give birth to Zeus in hiding on Crete. Zeus is raised by a she goat called Amalthea (from whose horn we get the Horn of Plenty or Corncupia), and taught by Metis, the wise. Rhea, Metis and Zeus make a potion which Kronos drinks, causing him to vomit up his children and the magnetite stone.

    Thereafter comes a ten year war called the Titanomacy between the gods (Zeus and his Siblings and two of the Titans: Clymenes sons Prometheus and Epimethius who side with him) and the Titans lead by Kronos. Metis advises Zeus also to release the three Cyclopes, and the three Hecatonchires that Kronos had imprisoned in the underworld. The Cyclopes crafted Zeus’s thunderbolts for the fight and the Hecatonchires hurl rocks with their hundred hands, and help the gods defeat the Titans.

    Zeus punishes the Titans who opposed him:

    • Atlas he sentenced to hold up the sky for eternity
    • Kronos he sentenced to measure every day, hour, and minute of eternity, with his scythe he becomes “old Father Time”, from whence we get words like chronograph, chronicles, synchronised and chronic. The Romans called him Saturn, and he hangs in the sky between his father Uranus (Ouranus) and his son Jupiter (Zeus).

    And he rewards those who fought with him. The Cyclopes become Zeus’s armorers, the Hecatonchires become guardians of Tartarus, and Prometheus becomes his confidant.

    Zeus goes on to father many children!

    With Mnemosyne (memory), Zeus fathered the 9 muses

    • Calliope – epic poetry, the beautiful voice, and mother to Orpheus, the musician
    • Clio – history
    • Erato – lyric and love poetry (symbolised by the lute, golden arrows, turtle doves and myrtle)
    • Euterpe – joyful music
    • Melpomene – all tradegy (music, poetry, drama etc), mother to the Sirens, sad mask
    • Polyhymnia – hymns, praise and sacred music
    • Terpsichore – muse of dance, mother of Sirens
    • Thalia – comedy and idyllic poetry, happy mask, ivy, a bugle and trumpet
    • Urania – muse of astronomy and the stars, universal love

    With the beautiful Oceanid Euronyme, daughter of Oceanus and Tethys, he fathered the three beautiful Charities or Graces

    • Aglaea – spleadour
    • Euphrosyne – mirth
    • Thalia – cheerfulness

    With Themis, embodiment of law and justice he fathered the Horai (the Hours, embodiment of the serendipitous moment)

    • Auxesia – summer
    • Carpo – winter
    • Thallo – bringer of flowers, spring (Flora to the Romans)

    And

    • Eunomia – law, legislation
    • Diké – justice and moral order (Justitia to the Romans)
    • Eirene- goddess of peace (Pax to the Romans)

    And so we are introduced to the Olympian gods:

    The direct children of Kronos and Rhea

    • Zeus, leader of the gods, Jupiter to the Romans
    • Hestia – Vestus to the Romans, hospitable center of hearth and home, celibate and attended to by the Vestal Virgins who keep her flame alight in a bowl.
    • Poseidon – Neptune to the Romans, god of the sea. The Cyclopes forge him his trident. Horses are sacred to him. He marries Amphitrite, daughter of Oceanus and Tethys (perhaps), and creates a dolphin for her as a wedding present. She is mother to Triton, a merman. Poseidon, is father by other mothers of numerous monsters, demigods and human heroes including Percy Jackson and Theseus.
    • Hades – Pluto to the Romans, god of the underworld Tartarus, and therefore not actually one of the gods on mount Olympus, (hence plutocrat and plutonium), becomes lord of Nyx, Erebus and Thanatos. The river Styx (hate) is daughter of Tethys and Oceanus, flows in the underworld. Charon ferries the souls over the Styx. The Furies live there too. And Hades acquires the three headed dog Kerberos (Cerberus), and Hydra, the many headed sea monster guards the entrance.
    • Demeter, goddess of the harvest, Ceres to the Romans hence words such as cereal. With Poseidon she has a daughter Arion, a speaking horse.
    • Hera – Junoesque to the Romans, is the haughty, proud and jealous wife of Zeus. Goddess of marriage and symbolised by the peacock and cow.

    We have Aphrodite who is furthered by Ouranus and the ocean

    • Aphrodite, Venus to the Romans, goddess of beauty and love, particularly sensual love.

    Then gods whom Zeus himself fathers

    • Hephaestus – the first son of Zeus and Hera, is ugly and diminutive and his mother throws him down from mount Olympus when he is born. He makes a throne as an anonymous wedding present for Hera at her wedding to Zeus, the Throne traps her and will not let her go until Hephaestus commands it. In exchange he asks for Aphrodite in marriage. Hephaestus, god of fire, artisans and blacksmiths becomes the smith of the gods, assisted by the Cyclopes, fashioning their weapons. To the Romans he is Vulcan, hence volcano and vulcanise.
    • Ares – second son of Zeus and Hera, Mars to the Romans, god of war, lover of Aphrodite (Venus) before she marries Hephaestus. His form of war is strength power and violence rather than tactics which belong to Athena.

    Zeus seduces his tutor Metis (at his wedding feast to Hera). Afterward Metis metamorphasises into a fly, Zeus into a lizard and he eats her. Some time later Zeus then gets a massive headache. After some time and various plans put forward by Triton and Prometheus, eventually Hephaestus fashions a double edged axe which he uses to cleave open Zeus’s head, from which proceeds fully clothed in armour and with a spear, his and Metis’s daughter Athena, after which his head heals up. Metis infact allowed herself to be swallowed and she lives on in Zeus’s head, counselling him and checking his reckless excesses.

    • Athena (Minerva to the Romans) is goddess of wisdom, statecraft, handicraft, and strategic warcraft and tactics, law and justice. Idealised beauty, and aesthetics are hers as are ideals of platonic love. She is symbolised by an owl and by a serpent, and the olive tree is sacred to her. She remains celibate, the Greek word for virgin Parthenos is often associated with her, hence the Parthenon in Athens dedicated to her.

    Zeus also seduces the Titaness Leto, daughter of Phoebe and Coeus. Hera, jealous bans her from giving birth on land and she bears her children, twins, on the floating island of Delos:

    • Artemis, (in Rome Diana) a girl, silver is her colour, with a silver bow and arrows made by Hephaestus, goddess of the moon, mountainsides and forests, hunting, hunting dogs and stags and childbirth. She remains celibate. Her tree is a Cyprus.
    • Apollo, (in Rome also Apollo!) a boy, golden in colour, with a golden bow by Hephaestus, god of the sun, lord of mathematics, logic, reason, poetry, medicine, rhetoric and enlightenment. He was also god of prophecy and in charge of the oracles at Delphi, who’s priestess was called the Sibyl. The python is sacred to him – he kills the original serpent Python sent by Hera soon after he is born, to kill Leto, him and his sister with Hephaestus’s golden bow and arrows – as is the laurel tree, the dolphin and the white raven.

    Finally with Maia, daughter of Atlas and Pleione, eldest of the Plaiedes sisters, Zeus fathers

    • Hermes (Mercury to the Romans) As an infant barely a day old he kindles fire, herds Apollo’s cattle, and invents music and the Lyre, which he then gifts to Apollo to avoid being punished for steeling and slaughtering two of his cattle. He is quick of mind and foot and so he became the messenger of the gods. Hephaestus fashions his winged boots, the Talaria, a winged helmet he Petasus and a silver staff with wings entwined by two snakes called a Kerykeion, the symbol of medicine. He is god of rascals, thieves, liars, sportsmen and story-teller, commerce and tradesmen, herdsmen, science and medicine. And his symbols of the lyre cockerel. The element quicksilver/mercury is named after him and we get words like mercurial from him.