Siege Diaries 12/2/2020

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Today’s Daily Stoic writing prompt:  How can I make my actions count?

The way to make my actions count is to have the courage to step forward when I am needed.  The worst anyone can say is “no.” And “no” is sometimes a gateway into another kind of “yes.”  

As Andy Dufresne says in Shawshank Redemption: “I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying.”

We’re all dying.  But that shouldn’t keep us from living.   I keep thinking of Dmitri Shostakovich in June of 1975.  He had to know that the darkness was encroaching.  His hand was so weak he could barely write.  He was in the hospital, and out again.  And he couldn’t not keep composing, and turned out a work, the Viola Sonata, full of life–his life.   

Especially now, when our regular patterns of life are interrupted.  Especially now, where everyone wants to will themselves into the future, maybe a year off, when perhaps the health crisis will have passed.  But what until then?  What awaits behind the corners of the time that will pass between now and then?  What I can do now? 

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Today’s SMASH work:

Sakha-Yakutia is the coldest inhabited place in the world, with temperatures at times reaching as low as -70C and the average winter temperature in the capital of Yakutsk being -35C.  As you would expect for a region in what is commonly known as Siberia, the summer solstice rather than the winter one is more significant for festivals.  The Sakha people, a group of Turkic nomadic/pastoral origin who began to settle the area in the 9th century, celebrate the Yhyakh (“abundance”) festival at midsummer, which is considered the New Year in Sakha culture.  The main ritual takes place outdoors.  The Sakha people put up their uraha – traditional tent-like summer structures.  

 Women and children decorate the space, bedecking trees and tethering posts for horses with salama—nine bunches of horsehair, strung on ropes also made of horsehair.  Yhyakh is the ceremonial dampening of the ground with the sacred kymys (or kumiss—fermented mare’s milk) by the oldest man present, who is clad in white garments.   This summons the Aiyy, the divine beings who offer protection to the people, their homes, and the hunt. Accompanying the main celebrant are girls, also dressed in white, extending sacred birch branches to encourage the friendly spirits to come closer, while offerings of food are cast into fires to keep less-friendly ones at bay. 

After this opening ceremony, an hours-long round dance and song known as the Ohuokhai takes place.  “Dancers form a circle and dance, arm in arm, hand in hand, with the left foot put forward, while making rhythmical, graceful movements with their bodies, legs, feet and arms. A lead singer improvises the lyrics and the other dancers repeat them.”  A competition is held at this national festival for those who lead these dances—a skill that includes both singing and poetic improvisation, as well as the ability to attract the most participants to the leader’s circle.   The music used for the Ohukhai is a special melody that can be performed by a variety of instruments, but is especially associated with Kylyhakh or throat singing. Another prominent instrument is the national instrument known as the khomus, a mouth harp used to imitate the sounds of horses and other animals.

Other activities at the festival include, of course, food–including the raw liver of a white mare slaughtered no more than an hour before.   Horses are decked out in their finery, merchants ply their wares, and traditional competitions such as wrestling take place.  In modern times, this festival has been revived after declining somewhat during the years of Soviet rule, and the largest gathering, near Yakutsk, can attract over 10,000 visitors. 

Sources:  “When Siberians Greet the Sun,”   https://www.junglesinparis.com/stories/in-remotest-russia-a-pagan-solstice-festival-celebrates-high-summer

“The Yakut celebrate their New Year by worshiping the summer sun,” https://www.rbth.com/arts/328601-yakutia-sakha-russia-holiday

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Cahokia (the site in the images at the top of this post)

I am a lover of the abandoned.  Nothing evokes for me a sense of history than looking upon ruins, now crumbling or overgrown, or disappearing beneath a blanket of green, their sharp edges rounding into gentleness, as the years erode their meaning until it is nearly forgotten.

While I was growing up in Ohio, I saw the landscape was marked by earthworks—some of them simple mounds, others in forms such as snakes—relics of peoples who roamed those lands in years before—but not my own people, I thought at the time, so of less import. They were primitives, I believed, ancestors of those who were civilized by the Europeans who were my own progenitors. As such, their lives and their ruins did not fascinate me like the tales of Egypt or Rome did.  No great cities of those peoples lay in ruins for the archaeologist to wander, musing, at what had been lost, or had been transformed after long years into current glory.

In Illinois, not far from St. Louis, an immense mound, 100 feet tall and covering 14 acres– dominates over the remains of 120 smaller mounds.  Such mounds are a hallmark of the Mississipian peoples, who often built their villages—and earthworks—along their trade routes.  But this site was different by the sheer factor of its size—somewhere between six and nine square miles—and the fact that this was no city that sprang up organically as a natural outgrowth of trade or agriculture.  No, Cahokia (named for a local Indigenous group in the area when Europeans first happened upon the site), situated in the middle of nowhere on land that was not particularly favourable for settlement, was a planned city.   Archaeologists believe it was founded in around 1000, and by 1050 was home to 10,000 to 20,000 people—rivaling European cities like London in population and outdoing them in sheer acreage and scale (London during this period had barely spread beyond the “square mile” of the old Roman city.) In just a few decades the people who built Cahokia moved 55 million cubic feet of soil to construct the city. 

Within the bounds of the city could be found homes, workshops for pottery, textiles and metalwork; storage buildings for food; wide plaza; administrative buildings situated on mounds; and at the centre, atop the huge central mound (constructed in 14 stages, with four terraces) a massive religious complex surrounded by a wooden palisade that seems to have been the reason for the settlement.  Human remains found at the site come from a wide variety of different groups of Mississippians, including possible victims of human sacrifice.  At least a third of the city’s residents were not local. The religious significance of this site is reflected in the east-west orientation of the site’s centre, based on using the positions of the sun, moon, and stars for accuracy. West of the central mound, remnants were found of a circle or wooden posts oriented to the rising sun that were used to mark the solstices and equinoxes.

By the time Hernando de Soto saw Cahokia in 1540, the site was deserted and overgrown. No account of Cahokia seems to survive in any Indigenous historical or folklore tradition.  Although there is no evidence the settlement was ever attacked, it was rebuilt four times in a hundred-year period before 1275. By that time, the population had been declining for nearly 200 years, and within another 75, seems to have vanished completely. 

Today, the site has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Besides the large central mound, known as Monk’s Mound after the Trappist monks who once farmed it, the site also features the remains of 51 other mounds.  It’s been on my list of places I want to someday visit since I heard about it several years ago and it shattered my assumptions of what North America before European contact was like. 

Sources:

“Lost cities #8: mystery of Cahokia – why did North America’s largest city vanish?”  The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/aug/17/lost-cities-8-mystery-ahokia-illinois-mississippians-native-americans-vanish

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/198/

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