Saturday, January 26, 2013

Getting their five a day

These cows benefit from my campaign against food waste.  They absolutely delish the kitchen peelings which I bring down to them twice a week. See one of them reaching her tongue out for the bucket, and another licking the inside of it when it's empty.

Daddy what's a Protestant?

Soon I need to write a piece under the headline “Priest in Jesus didn't exist shock”.

But first, here's a Catholic joke. Daddy, what's the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant? Well, Catholics believe the bread and wine are transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ, and Protestants think the bread and wine are just symbols to remind us of the Last Supper. Pause. Daddy, I think I'm a Protestant.

Like all good jokes it contains a germ of truth. And the truth here is that in my experience a large proportion of Irish Catholics are actually protestants. They don't believe in the bread and wine stuff, they don't believe the Pope is infallible (actually Papal infallibility is a huge subject which few people understand and I'm not one of them but my point is that understand it or not, many Catholics don't believe in it), they think there's a lot to be said for women priests, and that banning contraception is downright crazy. 

But they remain Catholics all the same. Disparaged as à la carte Catholics by some. Good Catholics according to themselves.

Sacerdotal malcontents 

Which brings me the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP). Hundreds of Catholic priests in Ireland - dissident priests you might call them - have joined. 

Left, malcontents arrive for an ACP meeting. Right, Fr Tony Flannery an Irish priest suspended by the Vatican
There have been many readers’ letters in the Irish Catholic, some in favour of this new association, but mainly against.  A letter printed on 15 November 2012, called these priests “a variegated group of sacerdotal malcontents and attention seekers the Irish Catholic Church could well do without.  If they can't or won't accept the Church's magisterial teaching, why don't they just leave it?  The Church is neither an elected assembly, nor a debating society.  Let them form their own somewhere else!”

Even without accepting the letter writer’s point of view you can ask, well, why don't they?

And the only answer I can think of is, there must be a lot of sociology involved. 

Priesthood didn't originate with Jesus

And now to the Father Flannery affair. He is one of the founders of the ACP and is threatened with excommunication. The church denies this but yesterday's Irish Times ran a story Vatican threatened to excommunicate priest, documents confirm.

On Monday this week, Fr Tony Flannery had a prominent comment piece in the Irish Times under the headline Vatican's demand for silence is too high a price, condemning authoritarianism in the church. Fr Flannery said the Vatican wanted him specifically to recant statements he has made. What are these exactly? Well he thinks that women priests is a subject that ought to be discussed, and holds unorthodox views on contraception and homosexuality.

But here's the big one. Fr Flannery no longer believes that “the priesthood as we currently have it in the church originated with Jesus” or that Jesus designated “a special group of his followers as priests.”  Instead, he wrote, “It is more likely that some time after Jesus, a select and privileged group within the community who had arrogated power and authority to themselves, interpreted the occasion of the Last Supper in a manner that suited their own agenda.”

These quotes are from an article published in 2010 in Reality, an Irish religious magazine.

Being Catholic is central to my identity

To which the only response is hurrah you tell ‘em Tony. The man’s a protestant. Those words of his are pure, core, protestantism.  And you can hardly blame the Vatican wanting him to recant the statement, and affirm that Christ instituted the church with a permanent hierarchical structure and that bishops are divinely established successors to the apostles.

But my main point is not what I think or the Vatican thinks but what Fr Flannery thinks. And he wants to stay in the Catholic Church.

In his Irish Times statement, linked above, he says he can't give up on freedom of thought, freedom of speech and most especially freedom of conscience; moreover he knows people will say he should leave the Catholic Church and join another Christian church, one more suitable to his stance ... nonetheless: “Being a Catholic is central to my personal identity.”

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

I seek unlucky Fridays in Chaucer and find none

At New Year, traditions about unlucky 13 set me wondering how far back we can trace superstitions about Fridays. I noted that numerous websites concerned with this question trace negativity about Fridays back to the 14th century, citing Chaucer's line "and on a Friday fell all this misfortune”.

The Nun’s Priest and Chauntecleer and the fox. Source unknown
I've now checked this. I find that all these websites have copied each other, and all are wrong. Chaucer mentioned Fridays twice in the Canterbury Tales (so far as I can tell) and in each case, what he stressed was not the day's unluckiness, but its association with Venus.  In medieval astrology each of the planets had a special influence upon a given day of the week. Venus’s day was Friday. (Which is more apparent in Romance languages, where the name of the day comes from Latin Veneris dies,  eg French Vendredi.)

The line "and on a Friday fell all this misfortune” occurs in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. The misfortune in question is the cockerel Chauntecleer being taken by the fox. The whole tale is a mock epic. The randy seven-wived Chauntecleer is dubbed a devotee of love goddess Venus; and Friday being the day the misfortune fell is the occasion of mock tragic irony, that Venus should have brought her devotee low on her very own day.

Friday also crops up in the Knight’s Tale. Here it's the changeableness of Venus that is paralleled to the changeableness of Friday weather and the changeableness of lovers’ moods.

Chaucer does mention that an earlier author had something to say about Fridays. That was Geoffrey de Vinsauf, writing in the early 13th century, about 170 years before. But I've checked, and the same applies. It's the Venus connection that interested Geoffrey de Vinsauf. Nothing else.

Now none of this actually proves that these authors were unaware of the unlucky Friday tradition. I suppose it’s just conceivable that the unluckiness of Fridays was such a well–embedded idea that it didn't need saying. But I don't think that’s likely. Were it so, I should have expected some mention to creep in, with perhaps a pious reference to Good Friday.

My conclusion: according to my very superficial research, 1592 is the earliest mention in English of Friday being unlucky.

Here are the Chaucer Friday references in case you want to check them.

So what of Friday the 13th?

The special unluckiness of Friday the 13th is even more recent. According to Dick Harrison, professor in history at Lund university, it can at the earliest be found in the mid-1800’s, and spread into popular consciousness in the early 1900’s. The idea won approval especially in literature, for example, in Thomas L. Lawson's novel Friday, the Thirteenth (1907), dealing with panic among stock brokers on Wall Street. In recent decades, we have developed a myth around Friday the 13th by looking back in history in search of various accidents that are said to have occurred on that date. One of the latest additions is the finding that Friday the 13th was the day Philip IV of France attacked the Knights Templar.*

It's the antiquity illusion: the illusion that a recent notion is sanctified by ancient tradition. The opposite of the recency illusion we find in linguistics.

Finally, in medieval theology 13 actually had a positive aspect, according to Encyclopedia Britannica online. This was due to being the sum of 10 + 3, Commandments plus Trinity.

* in Svenska Dagbladet 13th April 2012. See also Wikipedia

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Extraterrestrial rivers - spooky

Perspective view of Reull Vallis, Mars. Image: ESA
The striking image above, taken by ESA’s Mars Express last year, is the upper part of the Reull Vallis region of Mars. 

The river-like structure is believed to have formed when running water flowed in the distant Martian past, cutting a steep-sided channel through highlands before running on towards a vast basin. 

The presumed dried-up river stretches for almost 1500 km (940 miles) across the Martian landscape, flanked by numerous tributaries, one of which can be clearly seen cutting in to the main valley. More images on ESA website.

Not spooky enough?  Then try this

Images of Mars tend to look familiar to us, like desert regions of the Earth. So take a look at a river on Saturn’s huge moon Titan.  The image on the left is just a taster. For the real thing, go to

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has captured a crisp image of a long river cutting across Titan’s surface.  Not a dried-up river: it's flowing as you read this. Flowing not with water, but with hydrocarbons (liquid methane mainly I think). At -180° Centigrade. The river stretches more than 250 miles (400 kilometers) from its source to a large sea near Titan's north pole. Cassini's radar image is the first high-resolution shot ever taken of such a vast river system on a world beyond Earth.  Scientists are comparing it to Earth's Nile River in Egypt; not in length, but in straightness. Like the Nile its course is thought to follow a geological fault.

How big is Titan?

Titan is the second largest moon in our solar system. Only Jupiter's moon Ganymede is larger, with a diameter barely 112 kilometers greater. This graphic shows the relative sizes of Earth, Titan and our Moon. Mars if shown would appear larger than Titan but much smaller than Earth.  One more spooky fact: light takes about 80 minutes to reach Earth from Titan. From the Sun, 8 minutes.

L to R: Earth, Titan, our Moon
        Diameters in km:
        Earth 12,760
        Mars 6,790 (not shown)
        Ganymede 5,250 (not shown)
        Titan 5,140
        Earth’s Moon 3,470