Feeling a Bit Pagan Today

bunny and eggs

There is a bit of the pagan in the air this spring Sunday.

The secular celebration of Easter is all from pagan traditions. You’re being a modern Anglo Saxon if you have that bunny and decorated eggs as part of this holiday weekend.

They worshipped Eostre who was their goddess of springtime. This was the time to celebrate the true return of the sun from a long winter. Not that the Sun had been gone entirely, but it did not hold the power that it has in the other three seasons. The Christian holiday of Easter and other religions used the spring equinox as a guide to their own holy days.

But how did we get a rabbit with eggs?

eggs Ukrainian Easter Eggs from the exhibition “The Pysanka: A Symbol Of Hope,” at the Ukrainian Institute of America in New York. via CNN

Eostre saved a bird whose wings had frozen during the winter by turning it into a rabbit. That rabbit who had once been a bird retained its ability to lay eggs. Though never officially adapted by the church, the Easter Bunny was born.

Eggs had been a symbol of fertility for a much longer time than Christianity. Keep in mind that eggs from chickens and from birds natural come in many colors, so coloring them began as an imitation of nature.

Unlike today, eggs had once been much more scarce during the winter, so spring also meant the return of eggs to the diet. There are records of people giving each other decorated eggs at this time of year and as part of Easter celebrations that go back to the 11th century.

Zero Is Not Nothing

“If you look at zero you see nothing;
but look through it and you will see the world.” – Robert Kaplan

“an O without a figure” – William Shakespeare, King Lear

“Where did you go?”
“Then why are you late?”
– exchange between a father and son
on a Sumerian clay tablet from 5000 years ago


I remember vividly when one of my sons at age 5 realized that zero was very important. He has a mathematical mind (he ended up in the finance world) and it hit him that nothing in math works without zero. He would discover in the years to come that it plays a role in many other things too.

It is a symbol of what is not there. Add a zero with any number and it does not change. Add a zero to the end of any number and it increases. A bit of a paradox.

This concept was invented (or is the proper word “discovered”?) in pre-Arab Sumer. It got a symbolic form in ancient India.

It obviously is mathematical but it figures then into other areas as large as the universe itself.  Mathematician Robert Kaplan follows this symbol’s history in his book The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero. It is partially a cultural tale, part scientific discovery, part law of nature and it has a few strokes of Romance.

The Sumerians counted by 1s and 10s but also by 60s. That’s not so foreign to us if you consider our 60 minutes in an hour and that 6 × 60 = 360 for the degrees in a circle. Kaplan reminds us hat we have a bunch of number systems: 12 for months in a year, 7 for days in a week, 24 for hours in a day and 16 for ounces in a pound or a pint. All these systems were our ways of trying to make sense of the universe. and gigantic concepts like Time.

Our ancestors pre-zero were clearly handicapped in dealing with large sums. (Kaplan says to try multiplying CLXIV by XXIV.) The mathematically astute Greeks didn’t really have zero. It was Indian mathematicians who treated zero like any other number, instead of as a symbol.

I find math fascinating but have always been math-phobic and always struggled with math courses once we got past the arithmetic and into algebra and beyond. So, I enjoyed the story of zero. For example, how in the Middle Ages, zero comes to western Europe via Arab traders.

It was considered “dangerous Saracen magic” and associated with the Devil. But those who worked with numbers every day were not only the rare mathematicians but any merchants or money lenders.

All this leads to double-entry bookkeeping, equations, the invention of calculus, and the scientific revolution. Leap into our lifetimes and most people know that computers see everything as zeros and ones.

Kaplan’s other books were on the library shelf besides this one and they are all math-related. The other title that got my attention is The Art of the Infinite. (It has a subtitle that may seem impossible to some of us: “The Pleasures of Mathematics.”) I do recall that for me as a child it wasn’t so much zero that caught me by surprise as it was infinity.
I think I have come to understand zero. I’m not sure I have any greater grasp of infinity than I did as a child. In the same way that I now know much more about the stars and the heavens than I did as a child, I still look up at the night sky with a childlike wonder and know I will never understand it all. Others know far more than me and yet they will never understand all of it. In physics and cosmology, whether the Universe is infinite is still an open question. My lack of knowledge and my wonder are infinite.

I asked earlier if zero is discovered or invented, and it turns out that this was a question famously debated by Kurt Gödel and the Vienna Circle. Kaplan writes, “The disquieting question of whether zero is out there or a fiction will call up the perennial puzzle of whether we invent or discover the way of things, hence the yet deeper issue of where we are in the hierarchy. Are we creatures or creators, less than – or only a little less than — the angels in our power to appraise?”

Other cultures, disconnected from Mesopotamia, Greece, India, or Europe, such as the Mayans, also had to discover zero. (Ah, “discover” – and so I have revealed my answer to that question.)  As infinity began as a philosophical concept before it became mathematical, zero moved from math to philosophy.

Nothingness as a philosophical term is a huge topic of its own. Nothingness is the general state/domain/dimension of nonexistence. It is where things pass to when they cease to exist. But it can also be where they come into existence, as in some cultures where God is understood to have created the universe ex nihilo, “out of nothing.”

Nothing is infinite.

Yes, I see the paradox.

book cover

Thoughts Tonsorial


I got a haircut this past week. I also shaved off my beard and mustache. Spring cleaning.  I also stumbled on the image above of a medieval monk. I wondered what was going on with that haircut.

I know that many religions require practitioners to follow strict regulations. Some of those are designed to lessen individuality. The individual is not good for the path to God or enlightenment.

I studied for a time at a Buddhist monastery. Those monks shave their heads clean. It symbolizes that they are cutting ties with the secular world.

In medieval times, Catholic monks also needed a special haircut. It was not a full shaved head. It was only the top of their scalps that were shaved and the edges were left untouched. This unique haircut is called the Tonsure, or Tonsura in Latin. The word tonsure means “clipping”, as in clipping your hair off.

It goes back to around 1073 when Pope Gregorio VII was enthroned. Things were pretty laid back about haircuts and dress. There was even dating amongst monks, priests, and nuns. Gregorio decided to clamp down on everything from corruption and abstinence – to standardizing haircuts.

St. Paul
Saint Paul

He thought that imitating Saint Paul, who was depicted as balding with a high forehead (which apparently was supposed to signify great wisdom and learning), would show that like Paul they were giving their lives to God. Saint Paul wrote thirteen books of the Bible and spread Christianity across the Roman Empire in his lifetime. He seems like an exemplary model.

But there was a problem with shaving the monks’ heads. The Bible forbids cutting the hair at the edge of one’s head or beard. See Leviticus 19:28. According to that, I violated the rules this past week because it says “You must not cut off the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.” I cut off all of my beard.

The Pope and the monks wanted to imitate Saint Paul but were afraid to go against the Bible. So, the monks shaved the top of their heads to show tribute to Saint Paul but kept the edges of their hair to respect the Bible. And so, the tonsure became the look of almost every Catholic monk in Europe in medieval times.

It started to disappear as the Church went through changes like the Crusade wars and Luther’s Reformation. But it was not until 1972 that Pope Paul VI banned the tonsure haircut for any Catholic monks and the haircut from 900 years before disappeared.

Demystifying the Ouija Board

Ouija board
Photo by Paul Szlosek

The magic of oui (Yes) ja (Yes)
opening portals to spirits long dead or
your own wishes and desires unconsciously alive.
The planchette moves lightly spelling out words,
names, answers and big questions forever unanswered.

Contacting the “spirit world” is an ancient game and there was a rise of spiritualism in the 1840s. Mediums used various techniques and tools for communicating with the spirit world. Table-turning and planchette writing boards were early versions of the modern Ouija boards.

In 1891, there were a few first advertisements in newspapers for “Ouija, the Wonderful Talking Board.” It was sold as a toy that had something unique about it that it could answer questions about the past, present and future. It was implied that it was magical (like a magic trick could claim) but there was also the idea carried in ads that it could link “the known and unknown, the material and immaterial.”

William Fuld took control of the Kennard Novelty Company which had factories in the U.S. and England that were producing the talking boards at the end of the 19th century.

Ouija board
Original Ouija board sold by Kennard 1890

The 1890 board is very similar to what you can buy today in the toys and games department. Nothing magical about the board. You could make your own with the alphabet arrayed in two semi-circles above the numbers 0 through 9 and the words “yes” and “no” in the uppermost corners and “goodbye” at the bottom.

You need a “planchette,” which is traditionally a teardrop-shaped device, with a point and a small window in the body, which is used to maneuver about the board. Typically two people sit around the board with their fingertips on the planchette. They pose a question and wait for the planchette to move from letter to letter and spell out the answers.

That moving is supposed to be beyond the control of the humans touching the planchette and is a result of “spirits” moving it.

Are there really supernatural forces at work here?

Faraday’s apparatus for experimental demonstration of ideomotor effect on table-turning

I don’t find the board as mysterious as some people. Yes, I have used it and yes I have seen words spelled out and even felt that it was moving without me consciously moving it. The Ouija board is still sold as a “game” and scientifically minded people will tell you that you are experiencing the ideomotor effect. That effect is a way for your body to talk to itself.

Michael Faraday first described this effect in 1853, while investigating the paranormal practice of table-turning. The ideomotor phenomenon is not supernatural but is a psychological phenomenon. A subject makes motions unconsciously. The phenomena is studied in connection to hypnosis and other psychological research.

Ideometer comes from “ideo” (idea, or mental representation) and “motor” (muscular action). Scientists use this to explain automatic writing, dowsing, facilitated communication, applied kinesiology, and Ouija boards.  Bodily reactions would also include why salivation can be caused by just imagining sucking a lemon; idea creates motor response. Many phenomena attributed to spiritual or paranormal forces, or to mysterious “energies” are due to ideomotor action.

The Ouija board had a popularity surge during the difficult decades of World War I, the Jazz Age and prohibition, probably both as people sought “answers” and wanted to contact those who had died or just have fun with friends. During the Great Depression, Fuld’s company opened new factories to meet the demand for the boards.

In 1967, the year after Parker Brothers bought the game from the Fuld Company,  they sold 2 million boards. It outsold their Monopoly game. It was a time of the Vietnam War, race riots, and also the counter-culture Summer of Love.

Though the game was treated as such, there were always people who took the idea of contacting spirits with it seriously. That idea and a fear of what could happen by inviting a spirit to “possess” you got its own surge in 1973 when the film version of The Exorcist was a big hit.

That novel and film were supposedly “based on a true story” and the 12-year-old girl in that story becomes possessed by a demon after playing with a Ouija board and allowing that spirit to control her and then not letting go.

I always believed that “Ouija” came from the French and German words for “yes” but I have read that the name is supposed to have been what was spelled out on the board when its inventor asked a supposed ghost to name it. I don’t buy that supernatural coincidence origin story and stick with yes/yes.

There are historical precursors to the talking board familiar to us today. There are also modern-day variations on “supernatural” ways to get answers to questions.

One divination game for simple yes–no questions uses two sticks or pencils balanced to point towards the word “Yes” or “No” written on a sheet of paper.  An older Spanish game called Juego de la Lapicera (“the Pencil Game”) seems to be its precursor. It was popularized in the English-speaking world in 2015, partly through an internet #CharlieCharlieChallenge and started to be called the Charlie Charlie game.

pencil game

The Charlie Charlie game also relies on the ideomotor phenomenon. Even breathing from the participants can cause the top pencil to rotate towards an answer.

A basic experiment used to demonstrate the ideomotor effect is to allow a hand-held pendulum to hover over a sheet of paper with options written to the sides, such as “yes,” “no,” and “maybe.” Very small unconscious movements in the hand, in response to questions, can cause the pendulum to move towards the words on the paper.

In Search of Terra Incognita


I was writing elsewhere about that royal pirate, Sir Francis Drake, when I read that one of his journeys was a commission from Queen Elizabeth I to find Terra Australis Incognita.

Latin for Unknown South Land, Terra Australis Incognita (often shortened to Terra Incognita or Terra Australis) was a hypothetical continent first posited in antiquity.

It appeared on maps between the 15th and 18th centuries although no one had ever seen such a land.  Its existence was based on the idea that continental land in the Northern Hemisphere should be balanced by land in the Southern Hemisphere. Balancing land was a theory that appeared in print as early as the fifth century on maps by Macrobius. He used the term Australis on his maps. The word australis is Latin for austral, which simply means “southern.”

Terra Australis Incognita became a legendary place – an “unknown land of the South” going back to even before Roman times. It appears in medieval geography.

What intrigues me about this place is not only the idea of exploration (something that fascinated me in elementary school history and geography lessons) but that it was based on no documented knowledge of such a place. The “terra incognita” of the twenty-first century is somewhere distant from Earth.

Sending Drake to find it, Queen Elizabeth was giving some credence to the imagined place. It is like the search for Atlantis, another place that came from something Plato wrote, not as a real place, but as an example for his own time. Though fictional, the legend led explorers to search for it into the twentieth century – perhaps still today.

In the eighteenth century, what we call Australia was not thought of as that or as of being Terra Australis. Captain Cook and his contemporaries knew about a fifth continent which they called New Holland. It was considered to be separate from yet another imagined sixth continent that had not been discovered at that time but would eventually be today’s Antarctica.

British explorer Matthew Flinders popularized the naming of Australia after Terra Australis. His 1814 book on the continent, A Voyage to Terra Australis, maintained that there was “no probability” of finding any significant land mass anywhere more south than Australia. It was in the nineteenth century that colonial authorities officially applied the name Australia to New Holland and the Dutch name faded from usage.

The south polar continent had no name for decades after its discovery until Antarctica was coined in the 1890s. Antarctica comes from the Greek antarktikos, “opposite to the Arctic” and “arctic” comes from the Greek word arktikos, which means “of the bear” and is a reference to the northern constellation we call Ursa Minor. The “Little Bear” is a constellation traditionally important for navigation, particularly by mariners, because Polaris, the brightest star in the constellation, is the northern polar star.

Follow the River

The river of my childhood imagination

I grew up in the very urban Irvington, New Jersey. It borders the state’s biggest city, Newark. As you went west from town, you entered suburbia.

There is the South Mountain Reservation about 4 miles west and as a kid growing up in the 1960s my friends and I often rode there on my bike to “get into nature” and looked for adventures. It has Hemlock Falls, a mill pond where we fished and lots of trails in its more than 2000 acres. It was the closest thing I had to wilderness.

My only neighborhood oasis from urban life was the Elizabeth River which ran along the bottom of my street. I probably passed it almost every day. We called it “The Brook.” I don’t think I knew it was actually the Elizabeth River until I started getting into maps when I was 10 years old.

We played along and in that river all the time. We threw rocks. We made dams. We made little boats and tried to see which one would make it the furthest downstream. I imagined that some might someday make it to the ocean and to some other country. I put messages in my bottles asking the finder to write to me. I even included a self-addressed and stamped postcard in a few of them. No one ever responded.

Our parents always warned us not to go there. The water certainly wasn’t very clean and after heavy rain, it was full of rainbow eddies from gas and oil runoff from the streets. There were no fish for anglers, though were very small fish in some sections that attracted some big birds, such as night herons.

In my childhood days, there were several times when we read stories in the local newspapers about a kid getting drowned along the river because they were caught by stormwater. We imagined a wall of water gushing down the river. I would go there when it rained and stand on the bridge over Allen Street watching for a wave. I never saw one. The water just gradually rose.

The Elizabeth River isn’t a Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn kind of river. When it passed through my town it was captured by concrete walls.
It is confined all along the way in this artificial channel that was built in the 1920s and 30s and as part of the WPA projects.

When I was in sixth grade, I had a fairly detailed map of waterways in the state and decided to try to find the source of the river. The headwaters of the Elizabeth River are actually buried beneath East Orange in Essex County. I assume it is fed by underground creeks and streams. It doesn’t see the light of day until it is at the border between Irvington and the Vailsburg neighborhood of Newark. From there it goes pretty much in a southern direction through the center of Irvington.

My neighborhood was near that place where it emerges from underground. You could enter the underground tunnel part to the north when the water was low. I tried it with a few friends but the fear of the darkness, crazy rats, maybe even bats, and that sudden wave of floodwater prevented us from ever going very far underground.


I was happy to walk the full length of the open sections, In a dry summer, the water was restricted to an even smaller channel at the center, so you could walk most of the way on either side. We slipped on slimy rocks and got our sneakers and pants wet many times. There were places that had a kind of metal ladder to climb in or out but for most of the way, it would be tough to climb the walls.

There were times when older kids and even the police would see us down there and chase us out.

at Civic Square
Through Civic Square

Past my neighborhood, it flows past our area park and Irvington High School and along the east side of Civic Square with the library, town hall, and police and fire departments.

Further south, it forms the west boundary of the 19th century Clinton Cemetery. I always found this to be a creepy section, and then at the southern end of the cemetery, the river passes under the Garden State Parkway near Exit 143 and disappears as a surface waterway again. That was the end of the river for most of my young life.

going underground
The river goes back underground

When I was able to drive, I consulted maps and did some research and I decided to complete my river journey to the end of the river. It reemerges just south of the Union County line near the Parkway again.

By car and foot, I was able to track it to the Arthur Kill, a tidal strait between Staten Island, New York and New Jersey’s Union and Middlesex Counties. That strait is a major navigational channel for the Port of New York and New Jersey. The river’s mouth is Raritan Bay which is fed by the Passaic River, Hackensack River, Rahway River, and Elizabeth River.

Perhaps a few of my messages in bottles actually did make it along the river carried by heavier rains to this heavily used marine channel where you can see ocean-going tankers. They went out into the Atlantic Ocean. Maybe they are still adrift, searching for a shore to land upon.

The oddly-named Arthur Kill is an anglicization of the early 17th-century Dutch achter kill meaning “back channel.” It probably referred to it being located “behind Staten Island.” During the Dutch colonial era, the region was part of New Netherland. The Dutch kill comes from the Middle Dutch word kille, meaning riverbed, water channel, or stream. The area around Newark Bay was known as Cull Bay during the British colonial era. and the sister channel of Arthur Kill is called Kill van Kull which refers to the waterway that flows from the col (ridge or passage).

bridge in Elizabeth
South Front Street Bridge at the river’s mouth at the Arthur Kill

The channel is not a pretty part of the Jersey coast. It is primarily edged with industrial sites and is sometimes referred to as the Chemical Coast. The Staten Island side is primarily lined with salt marshes and is home to the Staten Island boat graveyard. It creates a border for Fresh Kills Landfill and Freshkills Park.

The Passaic River is the New Jersey River that gets the most attention. Its headwaters are in the Great Swamp which was once Glacial Lake Passaic as the Ice Age melted and the waters found their way counterintuitively north. It is still mostly unchanneled and above ground. It flows over hard, black volcanic basalt cliffs at the Great Falls in Paterson and empties into Newark Bay.

Still, my Elizabeth River holds a much stronger hold on my memory and imagination. To a small boy, “The Brook” was Twain’s Mississippi River even if I never was able to float on a raft downstream.

face in the wall
A strange “face in the wall” along the river