Star Wars and History: Divine Conception in Myth

~ This is the fifth of a six-post series called Star Wars and History. (See below for a list of the six titles.) ~

In The Phantom Menace, we learn that the Force conceived Anakin Skywalker in his mother’s womb, without a father. That divine conception puts him in company with the Buddha, according to some stories, and of course with Jesus Christ, along with a long list of pagan heroes. For instance, in The Secret History of the Mongols, a radiant being descends through the roof of a lady’s yurt and fathers Bodonchar Munkhag, founder of Genghis Khan’s dynasty. And in Greco-Roman myth, Zeus conceives the hero-king Perseus by descending on a virgin as golden rain — while Mars conceives Rome’s Romulus and Remus when his phallus emerges from a sacred fire tended by a virgin priestess.

Perseus’ mother, Danae, and the golden rain

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Star Wars and History: Father vs. Son in Myth

~ This is the fourth of a six-post series called Star Wars and History. (See below for the six posts’ titles.) ~

In The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker fights his father, Darth Vader. Revenge of the Sith repeats this father vs. son theme when Darth Sidious (Palpatine) reveals that Sith apprentices often kill their masters: their figurative fathers. That aligns Star Wars with a common theme from myth. Many mythic heroes confront and kill their fathers. Mordred, for instance, kills his father, King Arthur (and is killed by him). And of course, the Greeks’ Oedipus kills his father and takes his place as king of Thebes. Gods battle their fathers too, including the titan Cronus, who overthrows — and castrates — his father, Ouranos, the sky god. But a similar fate awaits Cronus; he’s later overthrown by Zeus, his own son.

Mordred -- cropped
Mordred and King Arthur

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Star Wars and History: Roman Republic and Empire

~ This is the first of a six-post series called Star Wars and History. (See below for the six posts’ titles.) ~

In Revenge of the Sith, the evil Palpatine transforms the Galactic Republic from the top, creating the Empire — without overthrowing the state. Palpatine is already Chancellor of the Republic, though he’s held office longer than normal, thanks to a civil war. He simply switches his title to Emperor. He also centralizes power in his own hands, at the expense of the elected Senate. But he leaves the Senate in place, along with the rest of the republican government.

Star Wars and history: Augustus, first Roman emperor -- Palpatine's counterpart
Caesar Augustus

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Did Ancient Semites Father the Germanic Languages?

German, English, Swedish, and the other Germanic languages belong to the Indo-European family, but they’re odd members. They and Proto-Germanic, their common grandparent, have a lot of vocabulary and grammar utterly unlike other Indo-European languages. Rather, it resembles Semitic languages, like Hebrew and Arabic. That suggests a fascinating lost history, with civilized Middle Easterners setting up camp among the primitives of northern Europe’s great forests. Continue reading “Did Ancient Semites Father the Germanic Languages?”

“300” Got It Wrong: Persian Rule Might Have Been Good for Greece – and Western Civilization

During the early 400’s B.C.E., the Persian Empire twice tried to conquer ancient Greece. An alliance of city-states fought back, led by Athens and Sparta. Against seemingly impossible odds, the little cities defeated the greatest empire the world had ever known. Westerners have long credited the Greeks’ victory with saving Western Civilization. Persian rule, they say, would’ve cut off the flowering of Greek culture and the development of democracy, particularly in Athens. The movies 300 and 300: Rise of an Empire bang that drum hard. They cast the Greeks as masculine freedom-fighters saving Europe’s future from a corrupt, effeminate Asiatic slave regime. Obviously, you can’t take the movies too seriously, but how about the widespread view behind them?

topic from 300: Rise of an Empire - Persian admiral dies, Salamis
The Persian admiral dies at Salamis

Imagining Persian rule in Greece calls for a guessing-game. But we have lots of pieces to move around the board. So let’s play. To start off, we’ve got to recognize that the Persians relied on local self-rule far more than any other ancient empire. And they encouraged local religious and artistic traditions. (The Old Testament calls the Persians’ King Cyrus a messiah because he let the Jews return from exile in Babylon and rebuild their temple.) So it’s not likely the Persians would’ve governed the Greek city-states directly or crushed their culture. Continue reading ““300” Got It Wrong: Persian Rule Might Have Been Good for Greece – and Western Civilization”

The Da Vinci Code Conspiracy: Three Fatal Flaws

Dan Brown has drawn a lot of fire for torturing the truth to build the plot for The Da Vinci Code. But I’ve yet to see anyone focus on the book’s three truly fatal flaws.

Detail from Da Vinci's Last Supper: One of the book's few legitimate claims is that Da Vinci's John, the blonde next to Jesus, looks like a woman.
Detail from Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. One of the book’s legitimate points is that Da Vinci’s John the Apostle, the blonde next to Jesus, looks like a woman.

[SPOILER ALERT: This post reveals plot details!] Continue reading “The Da Vinci Code Conspiracy: Three Fatal Flaws”

Papal Resignations and Elections: A Beginner’s Guide

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of his successor raise some fascinating questions, most of which find their answers in the distant past.

  • Can the Pope really resign? Several Popes have resigned, starting with Pontian in 235 C.E., who quit because the Roman Empire condemned him to labor in the mines. But the Church wasn’t sure about resignation until Pope Celestine V issued a decree authorizing it in 1294 — and then promptly quit. The next Pope, Boniface VIII, annulled almost all Celestine’s decrees, but not that one, and the two Popes’ concurrence resolved the question: Popes can quit. Boniface, however, still wasn’t taking any chances. He imprisoned Celestine to prevent a return to power, and he may have murdered him. (Celestine had the last laugh. In 1313 he rose to a position higher than Pope: he became a saint.) Continue reading “Papal Resignations and Elections: A Beginner’s Guide”

Four Modern Breakthroughs that Ancient Science Just Missed

The ancient Greeks achieved some amazing things—and almost achieved several more.

  • Anaximander of Miletus / Evolution & Life’s Aquatic Origins: Anaximander was one of the first philosophers and the author of the earliest known philosophical text. He lived in the Greek city of Miletus in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) during the early 500’s B.C.E.—the age of Buddha, Confucius, and the destruction of Solomon’s Temple. His observations led him to conclude that life sprang from the seas or from warm water covering the Earth. He also thought that the first animals were fish and that humans and other land animals descend from those fish. His logic, however, didn’t match Darwin’s. Fish fossils seem to have influenced Anaximander, but his main inspiration came from the fact that young fish aren’t dependent on their parents: they swim free the moment they hatch. So the very first fish could survive without parents. Young humans and land animals, on the other hand, do depend on parents, so the very first land creatures couldn’t have survived without parents. Their parents, then, must have been … fish. Anaximander had limited evidence and a convoluted theory, so his idea didn’t catch on. But 2500 years later, evolutionary theory reached similar conclusions, though for different reasons. Continue reading “Four Modern Breakthroughs that Ancient Science Just Missed”

Aramaic: the Humble Language that Overcame the Persian, Greek, and Roman Empires

Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew living in Judea, yet he didn’t preach in Hebrew, and he may not even have spoken it. Judea was then part of the Roman Empire, yet Jesus didn’t speak Latin either. Of course, Greek played a larger role than Latin in Judea and the empire’s other eastern provinces: the former domain of Alexander the Great and his Hellenistic (“Greek-like”) successors. Yet Jesus didn’t speak Greek either. Nor did he speak Persian, the languages of the Greeks’ predecessors: the first conquerors to unite the Fertile Crescent into a long-lasting empire. So what was Jesus’ language? He spoke Aramaic, and so did most everyone he knew. Aramaic never had a great empire, yet it was the Fertile Crescent’s lingua franca for more than fifteen hundred years. Why? Continue reading “Aramaic: the Humble Language that Overcame the Persian, Greek, and Roman Empires”