Queen Tomyris: Destroyer of Heroes, Part I

Restore my son to me and get you from the land unharmed, triumphant over a third part of the host of the Massagetai. Refuse, and I swear by the sun, the sovereign lord of the Massagetai, bloodthirsty as you are, I will give you your fill of blood. - Herodotus I.212

She commanded a search among the slain for the body of Cyrus. When it was found she took a skin, filled it full of human blood, and as she dipped his dismembered head in the gore, insulted the corpse by saying, "I live and have conquered you in fight, and yet by you am I ruined, for you took my son with guile; but thus I make good my threat, and give you your fill of blood."

Great Cyrus of Persia, conqueror of worlds, was defeated by the wrath of a mother.


The Maiden of Kosovo

"...awoke to brilliant sun
And rolled her sleeves above her snow-white elbows;
On her back she carries warm, white bread.."

They did not win the battle. In a textbook map made to show the scope of Ottoman conquests, there was no 'X' to even mark Kosovo as militarily significant. But 600 years after 1389 AD, at a convention in Los Angeles, a woman -- not even a Serb, merely a scholar -- recites in their own language this epic song about a young bride who has lost everything dear to the Turks: her groom, her country. The battle, the loss, carve a memory so deep that even in Greece children recite and sing it. By the time she is finished the hundreds of Serbians in the audience have tears streaming down their faces, an ache and a nationalism so palpable that she realizes suddenly, that if she were to now command them to go do anything -- they would do it, for the sake of remembering.

"Jao, jadna! hude ti sam sreće!
Da se, jadna, za zelen bor hvatim,
I on bi se zelen osu

"O pity, pity! I am cursed so utterly
That if I touched a greenly leafing tree

it would dry and wither, blighted and defiled."


Cold War: The Khrushchev Thaw

24 September, 1959,
in Pittsburgh, Pennslyvania, a godfather who manages parking lots makes a clandestine deal with a hotel owner, and so a little boy who is interested in dignitaries slips in through the security guards. USSR leader Nikita Khrushchev moves past signs like "Khrushchev Go Visit the Moon", past the shouting crowd, and comes in through the lobby. There, squished between bodyguards and TV journalists, stands the small, thin boy with his back ramrod and arm stuck straight out.

Khrushchev's denouncement of Stalin has been playing continuously on Europe Free Radio, broadcasting 24 hours a day throughout the Eastern Bloc. He smiles and walks to the 11-year old, shakes the outstretched hand, and the pats the redheaded kid on the head kindly. The next day in the local newspaper the boy has a gigantic smile, and a picture with his small fingers splayed: "boy who bypassed heavy security!", "hands which shook with the leader of one of the world's two greatest powers!"

Today, that little boy is a sweet and loud old man who spends his days shouting history as if our lives depend on it, SENDING EMAILS WITH EVERYTHING IN CAPS, and waiting quietly in his office for someone to come visit him.


中國: 秦始皇帝

西的土地下,有一 個 墳墓。
Beneath the dirt flow rivers and seas of silver mercury, stand armies of thousands, lay the skeletons of servants, officials, of wives, of virgins, of the workers who constructed this grave of theirs: a necropolis which was once the largest city in the world. Above ground its dead king once created an entire nation, built out of war and terror. His legacy is a unified people which to this day would fight tooth and nail rather than be torn apart.

Nobody is inspired by 嬴政. An early stint with death made him paranoid and untrusting. Everything he did, he did out of fear, of being forgotten, of dying, out of a desire to be immortal. The expanse of his conquests, accomplishments, memorials -- that bloody wall which I climbed a quiet path up, dead people on the bottom and peach trees on the sides -- just belie an awesome depth of terror, desperation, and uncertainty. What a megalomaniac. He died 210 BCE, poisoned by the elixir which was supposed to give him everlasting life.

Satellites of the Soviet Union

I was really happy, scooping up sweet potato fries, to discover that I can practice Russian at work with both the girl from Mongolia and the new boy they hired, who's from Ukraine. And so for a day or so, I held in my hands the thought that maybe geopolitical hegemony and imperialist traditions aren't so bad. From the beginning, empire was unification was cohesion was solidarity was forced aggregation into some larger identity.Violence, domination, coercion -- even the kinship that brings us together is blood.

The next day, August 8th, Georgian troops moved into South Ossetia.


July 31, 1914

Czar Nicholas II sleeping fretfully, or maybe not at all, gets a telegram at 3am.

"...The responsibility for the disaster which is now threatening the whole civilized world will not be laid at my door. In this moment it still lies in your power to avert it. Nobody is threatening the honour or power of Russia who can well afford to await the result of my mediation. My friendship for you and your empire, transmitted to me by my grandfather on his deathbed has always been sacred to me and I have honestly often backed up Russia when she was in serious trouble especially in her last war.

The peace of Europe may still be maintained by you, if Russia will agree to stop the milit. measures which must threaten Germany and Austro-Hungary.


In the morning in a conference, he roars at his angry military commanders that this will not do, that they must cancel the general mobilization: in his mind are not political consequences, but thoughts of the deaths of millions of Russian men. In the room he is alone in his opposition, in the countryside the order for mobilization are already being carried out. It falls quiet and an aide standing behind the Tsar whispers, or maybe speaks loudly, "Yes, Your Majesty, it is a difficult decision." Nicholas has always been seen by the nation as a weak and indecisive ruler. He has never wanted to be Tsar.

General Russian mobilization is confirmed.


Women of Afghanistan

"In Mazar stands the Tomb of Rabia Balkhi, a beautiful, tragic medieval poetess. She was the first woman of her time to write love poetry in Persian and died tragically after her brother slashed her wrists as punishment for sleeping with a slave lover. She wrote her last poem in her own blood as she lay dying. For centuries young Uzbek girls and boys treated her tomb with saint-like devotion and would pray there for success in their love affairs. After the Taliban captured Mazar, they placed her tomb out of bounds. Love, even for a medieval saint, was now out of bounds."

from the book Taliban, by Ahmed Rashid


The Early Days of Osama bin Laden

"I felt outraged that an injustice had been committed against the people of Afghanistan. It made me realise that people who take power in the world use their power under different names to subvert others and to force their opinions on them. Yes, I fought there, but my fellow Muslims did much more than I. Many of them died and I am still alive."
- Osama bin Laden

After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the CIA actively encouraged resistance -- funneling arms and capital to guerrilla insurgents through Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency. The "Arab-Afghans" were a legion of volunteers from a dozen nations who, together with Osama bin Laden, joined in the noble quest to uphold the dignity of both the Afghan people and the Muslim world. These mujahedin were hailed by Ronald Reagan as "freedom fighters." Later, remnants of these "freedom-fighters" were to become the network of Al-Qaeda.


Old English: Some Etymology

The Word Weird
This has a good root in Old English's wyrd, a word whose bit of linguistic philosophy has no modern equivalent. Loosely, it refers to both the material of fate and the active process of weaving it: the past composes it, our will entwines with it, it pushes the world towards a pattern, but is itself woven by events. Mm... in my head I imagine wyrd as this very mysterious noun who is god of auxiliary verbs -- then I picture the water geyser coming out of Donnie Darko's chest.

But it's more fascinating when you're falling asleep in a dark lecture hall, listening to a bespectacled chief. Imagine: Having just finished a tale of Beowulf's dragon, he pauses to sip his lukewarm coffee, then leans in with the spark of child and quietly remarks how curious it is that the advent of Christian empire, with its kingdoms of heaven and neurotic anxieties, erased away the Early Medieval, beautifully stoic idea of nothing being eternal. What long sentences I write. But kindness (however selective) as state policy -- Jesus, I do owe you some thanks.

Anyway, the modern definition of 'weird' derives from the Norse mythology of the Three Norns: Urðr (wyrd), Verðandi (to be), Skuld (shall) -- better known as The Three Fates or The Wyrd Sisters. From their uncanny appearance has appeared the 'weird' of this day, as in, your face is weird.

The Word Hell

Also from Nordic mythology, Hel is the woman who rules over the cold, misty abode of Helheim, underworld for the unheroic. It's only a borrowed name, but point in fact -- the whole concept of Hell is borrowed from old culture. This totally describes my problem with Christianity: it believes that it owns all human history, but without properly acknowledging or appreciating what that diverse history is made of, and then tries to monopolize the universe in that ignorance and flippant disregard. I resent it, even though I know it's very childish: the sky isn't my sky, and none of history is mine either. But calmly letting religious Darwinism take its course is a lot more difficult when you have a tiny world of your own to protect.

Roman Republic: The Catiline Conspiracy

But at power or wealth, for the sake of which wars, and all kinds of strife, arise among mankind, we do not aim; we desire only our liberty, which no honorable man relinquishes but with life.
- Caius Manilus, rebel general, Conspiracy of Catiline XXXIII

In 62 BC, noble-born Lucius Sergius Catilina capitalized on the grievances of the agrarian class: debt, poverty, lack of voice in government, and organized these disgruntled men into an army to overthrow the Roman Senate. The plot was foiled by Cicerco (Catiline's successful rival for the consulship), and the rebel army ran around for a little until confronted. But "when the battle was over, it was plainly seen what boldness, and what energy of spirit, had prevailed throughout the army of Catiline; for, almost everywhere, every soldier, after yielding up his breath, covered with his corpse the spot which he had occupied when alive. A few, indeed, whom the praetorian cohort had dispersed, had fallen somewhat differently, but all with wounds in front," says Sallust. "Catiline was found far away from his own soldiers among the corpses of his enemies. It would have been a glorious death if he had thus fallen fighting for his country," says Florus. Historians are convinced of his bravery, but will forever be skeptical about the sincerity of his ideals.

The story etched itself into me after rushing in late to my Ancient Mediterranean discussion with a mind full of this strange leader who was his own bravest soldier, only to find all the other students denouncing him as a depraved demagogue. So what! I can't know what kind of person I would have been in those times, but with such a stale Senate in power, I would have wanted to fight together with him.

Sallust's opinion I have to account for, but Cicero is something like an asshole.

His delight, from his youth, had been in civil commotions, bloodshed, robbery, and sedition...His insatiable ambition was always pursuing objects extravagant, romantic, and unattainable.
- Sallust, historian, Conspiracy of Catiline, V

...Nor do I believe that there ever existed so strange a prodigy upon the earth, made up in such a manner of the most various, and different and inconsistent studies and desires.

Cicero, asshole, Pro Caelio V