26 April 2007


(First published in ANZAPA)

The coffee down at the local coffee shop is very bitter and requires a lot of sugar. What makes it good is that it stays warm to the very last and so, by the time I have finished it, I feel very nurtured and ready to face the household tasks once more. Unfortunately, I am not taking sugar at the moment and so I haven't been there for some months. Instead, I brew it here at home and have learned not to mind it unsweetened, so here I sit sipping my coffee as I write this and keeping one eye on the clock because in a while I must go and pick Master Four up from kindy. It would not do for me to forget the time.

Coffee was apparently discovered by goats. The story is very easy to find on the web because coffee companies seem fond of quoting it. What surprises me is that they know the name of the goatherd who attended the particular herd of goats who enjoyed chewing on berries, and they know it happened in about 850 AD. His name was Kaldi, and he noticed that when his goats fed on a particular kind of berry, they became quite frisky and did not want to sleep. Goats are difficult enough to handle, so it must have been quite a task to deal with goats who were high on coffee. I'm sure that when I read the story as a child, the goats were described as dancing, but it was probably very lively dancing. Poor old Kaldi, I can almost hear him screaming, “Stay away from those lions, you stupid goats,” as the goats leapt and darted nimbly around the would be predators who, being carnivores could not guess that their prey were on a heightened sense of alertness. “Come back, you stupid goats, come back! I can't protect you stupid, stupid goats if you keep running off in different directions!” What could a poor boy do? He tried the berries himself.

Finding himself not poisoned, and finding himself able to enjoy the same hyper-activity as the goats, he showed his discovery to the local monastery. According to the story I found on the web, the monastery was Christian, and the monks there experimented with the coffee berries and developed a drink which made it much easier to keep up their work and prayers far into the night. However, the use of coffee seems to have spread first through the Arab worlds despite the fact that it was banned as an intoxicant among Muslims.

Coffee wasn't the only thing that got goats high. In ancient times a shepherd boy of Greece found his herd of goats behaved very strangely when they went near a certain place.2 His name is known, too. It was Coretas3, and perhaps what made him really memorable was that he began uttering prophecies. When he was heard by someone other than goats, prophesying became a craze. Craze was the word for. Many people preferred the term 'ecstasy'. They all believed that they were in the grip of divine inspiration and many, in their rapture, fell into the very chasm from which the heady fumes issued.4

The deaths provoked a response for the protection of the community. It was decided to choose just one person, a woman, because women were considered to be more sensitive to the site, to sit alone above the chasm and answer questions put to her by those who wished to know the future. She could then hear and answer them.

This solution, though, turned out to have a tiny flaw: Love, desire, could lead a young Delphi oracle to give false prophecy. So it was decided to use old women instead, probably thinking old women were past passion and, therefore, corruption. They were, however, just as witty.

There was another reason why women might have been chosen as the oracle: The site had already been presided over by the Earth goddess, Rhea, with her daughter and protector, Python, and her companion, Pan - the goat god.

Divine inspiration was one way of determining the future. Another way was to look at the signs around them. Sacrificing someone and studying their entrails, for instance. A good choice for sacrifice was a seer who had got it wrong5. You can just imagine it. Some poor guy who has risen through the ranks because he's a bit smarter than every one else, someone who is good at anticipating what the enemy will do, at thinking about ambushes and lines of supply, crossing rivers and all the stuff that goes with war, one day he gets outsmarted by some kid, maybe it's some kid with a slingshot and a keen eye, or a smart kid who has grown up knowing that a bit of thought can achieve great things, but anyway one day the older guy suffers a defeat.

The General's king might not be a genius, but he hasn't held on to his position by being stupid, either. A defeat is not a good thing, but it can be turned to advantage. The soldiers have learned to trust the General and do the strange things he asks them to do because up to now it has always worked out for the best, and they may even love him because being involved in a victory is a good thing to brag about. In short, the General has got to go some time, and now there is a good excuse. There will even be a party. Kill the General, kill all his male relatives so that people don't get the idea of rallying to some one of the General's blood., and the next person to take over the General's job will make very, very sure that he just does as he's told and that he gets it right.

Maybe the General thinks about all this. He sees the moment when it all starts to go wrong and part of him is angry that he didn't think that today might be the day his opponents produced someone who could out think him, and part of him is angry that anyone should do this to him. But - it would have been good to have been able to know this other guy. Looking up, he sees the kid, and he knows that's him, that's the guy, and he can see the kid is so happy, the kid thinks he has brought down a mighty warrior and he is all a light with triumph and wants to tell everyone about it.

Shutup,” the General thinks. “Just shutup and don't let anyone know what you can do because if you do, it'll be your turn, one day. You'll fall, too, one day.” And he thinks about how his father and his sons are all going to be killed and he thinks it is all such a cursed waste.

Dad, Dad, I did it! It was victory!”

His father, let's call him Daedalus for no good reason, looks at his son who is all bright with a victory that confirms for the boy his superior mind and the possibilities it brings.

Shutup, boy,” Daedalus says lovingly.

But Dad!”

But Daedalus knows the loneliness of always being able to see just a few steps ahead of everyone else around him, and of knowing they never really understand anything he says. He knows that the General fell into the same trap that too many artisans fall into when they have to deal with kings. The kings are no dim wits, but their savvy is of a special kind, restricted to taking and holding power, and very few of them have enough imagination to understand what thinkers like to think about. The best you can hope for is that they'll keep you alive, if imprisoned, in case your mind should come in useful again.

Oh, child, after all that's happened to us, don't you see? The higher you put yourself, the further you'll have to fall.”

I'm not going to fall,” says Icarus, who has been inspired too well with the joy of over reaching yourself and of suddenly finding new things within your grasp.

Daedalus, though, has experience. He has read history, and he has lived it, and now he knows a lot of things. He knows about the pyramids of Egypt and the ziggurat at Ur, he knows that the second temple at Delphi was built of beeswax and feathers6, and that there is good money in the honey business7 He knows the wiles of kings who guard their power and their treasure by silencing the artisans whose secrets they have used, and he knows that kings, on the whole, lack imagination, being in constant fear of going the same way Icarus' General is about to. They use the need for some nice, shiny blood as the excuse, but it is still just a politically expedient execution.

People are suspicious of thinkers. At Delphi, two architects designed a treasury in such a way that they could drain the treasure out. They weren't nearly as clever as they thought they were because the owner of the treasure noticed that his treasure was sinking and built traps which caught the thieves. Icarus should try to understand that there is always something cleverer than yourself out there.

The owner of the treasure at Delphi is a son of Poseidon, god of the ocean, and of earthquakes, and here we are, thinking of water again. (When were we thinking of water before?) The oracle at Delphi bathes before she goes to the sacred chamber, and when seated on her tripod she holds a sprig of laurel and a bowl of water, and she looks into the bowl. Really, any shiny thing will do. In desert countries a shiny thumbnail is all they need.8 Kings, however, find it expedient to use some nice, shiny blood.

(It was when Daedalus was thinking of blood, before, that he was also thinking of water because of its connection with scrying. The part of his mind that was verbalizing said 'blood', but the undercurrents followed the water back to Delphi.)

Some people had the idea of using other signs to predict the future. Perhaps they half remembered some old lore from their hunter-gatherer ancestors. So one day Daedalus' new apprentice comes up to him where he is enticing a pigeon that has just flown in to enter its cage to rest and eat.

People reckon,” the apprentice says conversationally “You can tell a lot from the way birds fly.”

Daedalus doesn't answer. Now that the pigeon is in its cage he is fiddling with a strip of cloth in his hands. Despite keeping his hands busy, he doesn't look upset. The apprentice decides to continue.

Like, in battle, you can tell if you're going to win by whether the birds fly in from the left or right.”

Well, it would rather depend,” Daedalus murmurs, “on whether they are coming from the direction of your own reinforcements, or your enemies'.”

The apprentice can't think why reinforcements would cause birds to fly one way or another, or how the birds would know whose reinforcements were going to win unless the gods had inspired them. He decides to steer the conversation away from war.

But birds just dropping straight out of the sky, that's a bad omen.”

For the bird, maybe. But for whoever shot it down it just means a tasty pie.”

No. I mean if no one shot it down. If the birds just started falling out of the sky. That's what my mate in the army told me.”

Have they been?” asks Daedalus, suddenly dragging his mind into the here and now.

No. I'm just saying my mate in the army told me. It's a bad omen when birds fall out of the sky.”

Yes. Malaria9.”

The apprentice struggles a bit in his mind. Conversations with his master are always difficult, and sometimes the words Daedalus uses are just gibberish.

Malady. Like plague. You're saying a malady makes them fall out of the sky. So it is a bad omen.” The apprentice is thrilled that he managed to follow his master's train of thought.

The thought of plague reminds Daedalus of Apollo and so of the sun. Maybe he winces a little. His apprentice sees this, because his own special kind of savvy is in being able to read people's hearts. He knows his master is lonely, and figures that's why he spends so much time with the pigeons10.

So what do your pigeons reckon, then?”

There are not so many plagues as there were.” The plagues are waning, and with them the power of Apollo and the power of Delphi. He had always thought that the story of divine inspiration, or the alternative one of fumes from the decaying body of Python, was just superstition, and yet now that the power of Apollo's arrows were waning, so were those of his oracle. It could not be mere coincidence11, but he knew better than to say aloud that a god was dying.

It's the Iron Age now,” he adds, although it has been the iron age for some time. “Women aren't as respected as they were. Kings worry about them the way they worry about artisans who might do something too clever. More kings are uniting their people under one god, and they don't listen to the small gods of streams, trees and rocky places anymore. They like the beserking power of drunken Silenus, but not the music of Pan anymore. I wish it was the Age of Reason. Then thinkers could speak directly to each other.” He tugs thoughtfully at the cloth in his fingers. “And we wouldn't always be risking our lives every time we thought of something to try." He turns away from the sun's light.

Nostradamus had a different idea about reading the future. The oracle of Delphi, and those who call themselves scryers, are assuming that time is like a block, that past, present and future and all be revealed to anyone who can alter their consciousness sufficiently and in such a way as to see it. Others prophets believed that the future was something they learned through divine inspiration alone, that they were receiving messages from god. Yet others read signs in ways that may have had meaning once, but the truth had got lost in political agendas and fear.

Nostradamus got the idea that, basically, what goes around comes around. He worked out the astrological positions of the stars during certain events of the past, and used this information to predict that similar events would occur the next time the conjunctions happened.12 Astrology was a real science to his culture, so his “comparative horoscopy” made sense. To us, though, astrology is not necessarily a reputable science, and so we think twice before we give much patience to the work of Nostradamus.

Dreams and premonitions are other means of seeing into the future, but all we can really tell from them is that most people worry a lot and sometimes someone turns out to have been right. In Britain, though, in the 1960s, a J A Barker set up the British Premonitions Bureau. Personally, I am astonished that a TV series hasn't been built around that concept. There could have been a couple of characters who fit in smoothly with swinging sixties London, and who have a catchy little cry whenever they sally forth to investigate something, like “The PB is go!” They could investigate crime as well as potential hazards, and solve some historical secrets because, after all, if they can see the future they can see the past and present as well. So they can find out what happened to Granny's will, see who dunnit, and protect good old PB from future marauders trying to prevent them from preventing them from doing their good works. And when they inquired of each other whether they took tea or coffee, as they coasted over Salisbury plain in their yellow Rolls Royce, they would not be discussing drinks, but by which to scry from for, as we all know, tea leaves and even coffee grains can predict the future. Sugar is supposed to signify a wedding.

Bad luck if you don't happen to take sugar.

No comments:

Post a Comment