Friday, 3 October 2014

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

October 3

Just for once, we won’t be kicking off with a pitched battle but, instead, heading back to October 3 of 2333 BC. Yes, that may well seem an uncannily accurate dating for something so remote in history but stick with it and all will become clear. The event in question is the birth of the state of Gojoseon (now Korea), founded by Dangun Wanggeom. As you’ll recall, the Lord of Heaven, Hwanin, had a son, Hwanung, who had a hankering to live in the world among the people, so down he goes with his three thousand helpers (that many sounds more like an administration) to found the Holy City of Sinsi. No sooner has he sorted that out than he hears that there’s a tiger and a bear living in a cave that have started praying to him in the hope of becoming human, so Hwanung, seemingly not in the least bit dismayed by the fact that this is two whacking great ferocious mammals we’re talking about here or that, by all accounts, they’re fully able to talk back, says to them, “Here’re twenty cloves of garlic and a bunch of mugwort, don’t eat anything else and stay out of the sun for a hundred days.” The tiger pretty soon smelled a rat and (probably thinking that anything’s got to be better than the all-garlic-and-mugwort diet) gives it up as a bad job. But the bear carries on and, lo and behold, in twenty one days was transformed into a woman. Now, that explains a lot. Though not what happened to the hundred days originally stipulated.

Not quite satisfied at having become a woman, our ex-bear prayed beneath Sindansu (a sacred tree) to be blessed with child and Hwanung, hearing her prayers (and spotting an opportunity too, no doubt), took her for his wife and, by and by, along comes Dangun Wanggeom, who would go on to found the Gojoseon state. Less likely is it that this is from where we get the term “to bear a child.” Followers of Daejongism consider October 3 as the Festival of the Opening of Heaven, the day being a public holiday in South Korea.

Dangun didn’t rest on his laurels, however, and he is also attributed with the development of acupuncture and moxibustion. We all know what acupuncture is, but what about moxibustion? Well, this turns out to be a traditional therapy using moxa made from – wouldn’t you know it – dried mugwort, which is ground up into fluff that is then burned on the patient’s skin. (How ill would you need to be?) Mugwort is a bitter herb that has been used to flavour drinks since at least the early Iron Age (which, at any rate, would’ve been handy for washing away the taste of all that garlic) and was used in brewing beer before hops came along. The wort part simply means root, though the mug section may come from the drinking vessel used to drink it (about the least likely thing we’ve heard thus far), or from the Norse, muggi, meaning marsh, or from Old English, mycg, for midge, seeing it’s been used since ancient times to repel insects. Not to mention the odd tiger or so into the bargain.

Nearly 2,300 years later, but still in BC, we come to the First Battle of Philippi (Macedonia), which took place in 42 BC but was a bit of an all-round uninsulated explosive device, seeing it failed to get much sorting out done and meant they’d have to do it all again (hence the name: First Battle of). On one side were our old friends, Mark Antony and Octavian, whilst on the other stood Brutus and Cassius, slayers of Caesar two years before, Caesar himself being the bloke that famously pooh-poohed the warning about being a bit careful come March 15. It seems that the seer had warned old Julius to expect a spot of bother “no later than the Ides of March” and, on that very day, the Emperor is on his way to the theatre when he spots the said haruspex and can’t resist reminding him, rather smugly and somewhat complacently, that “the Ides of March have come,” to which the swift reply is, “Aye, Caesar, but not gone.”

After Brutus and Cassius (with the aid of about fifty eight strapping mates) had got through butchering their leader, they decided it might be a wise move to leave town and go and be senatorial somewhere else like, say, Macedonia, so away they sail only for a vengeful Mark Antony and Octavian to come after them in hot pursuit, finally catching up with them in Philippi. Antony orders a charge against Cassius while, at the same time, Brutus rushes Octavian’s troops, putting them to flight and capturing their camp. Where there’s no sign of Octavian himself. Apparently, he too had been forewarned of ill omens, even though Beware the Third of October doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, and Octavian wasn’t the kind of bloke to doubt the veracity of the chicken innards. So he went and hid in the marshes until it was all over.

Meanwhile, Cassius had been taking a darn good thrashing from Antony and, to make matters worse, he then hears a rumour (false, as it turns out) that Brutus is faring equally as badly. So he commits suicide, just to be on the safe side. Well, what he actually does is to order Pindarus to kill him in exchange for his freedom. With the very blade he had used to cut down Caesar. To put the tin lid squarely on it, it could’ve been Pindarus that had spread the rumour in the first place, and October 3 also just happened to be Cassius’s birthday. As he probably remarked whilst the knife was going in, “I’ve had better ones.” Brutus, in actual fact, had been doing rather well but then his troops decided that a bit of looting was in order and so stopped to do that instead of pressing home their advantage. The result was a draw, though in achieving this stalemate Cassius lost 9,000 men and Octavian 18,000. They fought it out again on the 23rd, and this time it was Brutus who fell on his own sword.

Getting bang up to date, we now come to this day in 1226, which is when St Francis of Assisi hung up his hassock and headed off into the Empyrean. Which is heaven, of course, the word coming from the Ancient Greek for “in the fire” (as in pyre), though not to be confused with the term empyreuma, which is one that those unpoetic scientific boffins have coined for the “characteristic smell of charring vegetable or animal matter.” Whilst it remains unclear precisely why they would need such a word at all, you wouldn’t really want to be going round to theirs for dinner, now would you? Back with our goodly saint, he was born in either 1181 or 1182 as Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, so not Francis at all, that being the work of his dad who, for some reason, decided to nickname him Francesco or “the Frenchman.” Despite the fact that he would go on to become one of the most venerated figures in history, he never actually was ordained into the priesthood at all. He did, however, invent the Christmas Nativity, in 1223, blissfully unaware that, less than eight hundred years later, cash-strapped schools throughout the nation would be using this as an excuse to annually inflict upon long-suffering parents everywhere the obligation to sit through an evening of excruciating tedium witnessing the woeful antics of their beloved offspring as they desperately, but vainly, attempt to remember the few over-rehearsed words they’ve been entrusted with, and then flogging them an overpriced DVD recording of the entire shambles afterwards, to “treasure.”

Did that sound a touch cynical? Well, that’s one thing our Frankie never was, instead being renowned for his humility and his willingness to talk to anyone. Including birds. The story goes that St Francis (just plain Francis then) was walking with some companions when they came to a place where the trees were full of birds, at which he says, "wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters the birds." So, not only a gifted linguist but durn good eyesight too, judging from that statement. There was also the Case of the Wolf, who had been making a regular nuisance of himself by “devouring men as well as animals,” so Francis decides that something ought to be done and tells the wolf straight out, “Brother Wolf, you do much harm in these parts,” and then leads the wolf back into town to make peace with the people, who agree to feed him if he’ll only stop eating them. Fair enough. But by no means all. Francis then concludes a pact on behalf of the town dogs, by which they would consent to stop bothering the wolf too, which seems like taking rather a lot on himself, seeing that history doesn’t actually record what the dogs themselves had to say about the affair, only that Francis reported, “Oh yes, the dogs are fine about the whole thing, trust me.” Not that it matters: Francis was proclaimed a saint on 16 July 1228, less than two years after his death, aged forty four.

Not all that long later – 1283 – October 3 (a Monday) wasn’t going to turn out to be a very good day for Dafydd ap Gruffydd, the last independent ruler of Wales. The fact is, he happened to be something of an all-round slippery customer specialising in perfidy and, with his track record, not the sort of bloke you’d want to be lending your lawnmower to. Dafydd had two brothers (Rhodri not really counting for much), Owain being one and Llywelyn the other, this latter happening to be ruler of most of Wales and possibly the very mug that mugwort was named after. In 1255, Dafydd and Owain got to together to challenge him, which resulted in Llywelyn defeating them and imprisoning Dafydd. Only to release him the following year and restore him to favour. Come 1263 and Dafydd’s up to his old tricks once more, this time joining up with their mortal enemy, King Henry III of England, to have another pop at Llywelyn. And lose once again. And, in 1267, Llywelyn restores him to favour again. Leaving Dafydd free to join up with the brand new King of England – that’s Edward I, the Hammer of the Scots, as he was known, thanks to his prototype Better Together campaign – to have a third go in 1274 and thus make the score 3-0. In 1277, Llywelyn forgives him again. Only to end up getting his head chopped off in 1282 and leaving Dafydd exactly what he’d been after all along.

Not that it did him much good. By 1283, an ungrateful Edward was right on his case, besieging him wherever he went, until Dafydd ended up in Snowdonia, where he was badly wounded. Both he and Owain were captured and taken to Shrewsbury. You might think that was punishment enough but, oh no, not where Edward was concerned, who decided that something special was called for in this case and allowed him the honour of being the “first prominent person” to suffer hanging, drawing and quartering. Dafydd was dragged through the streets at the horse's tail (pretty much enough to finish you off in itself) then hanged a bit, revived, emasculated, then disembowelled and his entrails burned before him. They hacked off his head (and parboiled it to keep it fresh for viewing later) and also his limbs, just for good measure. This would become the statutory penalty for high treason (it was actually Henry III who came up with the idea), though when it came to women, “for reasons of public decency,” they were burned at the stake. Good thing too – you don’t want the sight of bare breasts making the whole thing seem tawdry, now do you?

Well, we seem to have spent so long establishing all the above that there’s not enough time even to mention all the other things that happened on this day. Like the Staedtler Company being founded in 1835 (they’re the pencil people); or Edgar Allan Poe being found delirious in a gutter in Baltimore in 1849 (his “last public appearance”); or J.S. Thurman patenting the vacuum cleaner in 1899, which he sold as a door-to-door service at four dollars a go; or the first photo being faxed in 1922, since which the quality has never improved even one iota; or Elvis making his first public appearance, aged 10, in 1945; or the momentous October 3 night of 1990, which saw the crumbling of the Berlin Wall. Pity, that: there were probably some good stories in amongst that lot.

We will, however, just give a brief mention to the fact that this day in 1995 was the one on which O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of the murder of Nicole Simpson & Ron Goldman. Yes, he might well have been seen on national television fleeing from a police pursuit with the blood still warm on his hands but, come on, be fair, the glove clearly didn’t fit him, did it? October 3 would pay him heartily back for the smug supercilious grin he wore that day as the verdict was announced because, thirteen years later to the very day, in 2008, he was finally found guilty of numerous other charges. He is now serving a thirty three year sentence.

[All opinions expressed herein remain entirely personal]

"Saraceni - Vision of St Francis" by Carlo Saraceni - Unknown. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

"Execution of thomas armstrong 1683" by unknown artist - Figure 11, Page 121 of A Traitor's Death?. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

"Cesar-sa mort" by Vincenzo Camuccini - Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

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