Or: Libra, Steelyards, Symbols, and Justice.
Being born in October I have been, for most of my life, obliged to take notice of the balance. I am a Libra you see, and whatever else that does or does not portend for me as an individual, and whether or not that designation holds any meaning whatsoever for me personally, one result, impossible to deny, is that my brain has been conditioned from an early age to give special consideration, be it particular depth of thought or even a single extra second’s worth of attention, to scales.
When, as children, we first catch wind of the existence of astrological symbols we are at a point in our lives when anything which might help solidify our identities by differentiation is something deserving of our attention. Most of us, I would venture to guess, take hold of our symbol for some short interval as children, and wring whatever meaning we can out of it, drawing corollaries between ourselves and others who shared the same sign, taking heart in character traits supposedly attached, bolstering, through mythical means, our sense of ourselves. When later in our lives we reject astrology as fanciful and amusing hokum it hardly matters. Our signs are still there as the tiniest footnote at the bottom of our appraisals-of-self. We will always see in them the faintest reflection.
An analogy might be that of the lapsed Catholic, who was brought up going to church, but who on adulthood rejected religion outright. Catholicism was something born-into, something outside oneself, something not chosen but inherited. Even after a definitive choice is made to reject it, however, the symbol of a cross will always manage to successfully travel that guarded pathway to our interiors. Whatever judgement the brain passes that symbol will still hold sway with the eyes.
When I was in art school I was obliged, as all hopeful image-makers are, to re-examine the personal symbology of my life. Did any of the tired old symbols carry any weight or meaning? Could any of them be used, adapted, perverted? It dawned on me around that time that though I was fond of “The Balance” as a symbol , the equal-armed beam balance which is universally used seemed not quite right. This scale with its symmetry and elegance and precision could simply never be an accurate symbol for me, my mind, or the life that I lived. It was altogether too platonic.
A few years later while working, for a short time, as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art an alternative symbol presented itself. During a shift I was stationed in one of those wonderful, dimly-lit, and comparatively empty areas of the museum , beside some long glass cases containing Roman artifacts. There were small functional and decorative objects of all kinds inside —vessels and tools and little statues and amulets all jostling together like a the contents of Romulus’ hall closet.
Amongst all of this iron and bronze a single object seemed to demand further scrutiny. It was asymmetrical and brutal looking, with its dangling chains each terminating in a hook. I had no guess as to its function or purpose. Torture device? Weapon? Brutish tool of animal husbandry? Looking at its little placard I discovered it was called a “Roman Balance” or “Steelyard” and that it was in fact a scale. I marveled for a moment at the coincidence. Of all the objects to draw my eye and interest it had to be a scale. I knew immediately that I’d found an object I could get behind, an object which resonated with me somehow. I’d found a proper Libran symbol for myself.
A bit of background information:
The Roman balance (or statera as it was originally known) is so called because no instance has been found of its existence prior to the Roman era. A similar principle was used in ancient Egyptian balances, however, and independently created examples have been found in China. Some evidence seems to exist that this type of scale was actually in use among Greek craftsmen in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries B.C.E. before Hellenistic mathematicians like Archimedes ever formally demonstrated the theoretic basis for their workings.
The Romans brought these scales to Britain around 55 B.C.E. and the English word ‘steelyard’ by which they are referred today is thought to be a mistranslation of the German ‘Stael-hof’ , which was itself the name of the base of the Hanseatic merchants of the Middle Ages, who used the Roman balance extensively in their businesses.
Functionally steelyards differ from the balance because they have unequal arms and employ a counterpoise, rather than a series of fixed-mass weights, which is shifted along the long arm in relation the the fulcrum. At the place where the counterpoise keeps the beam exactly horizontal, the weight of the object is indicated on an engraved scale on the long arm.
Though steelyards are less precise for weighing small objects like coins or jewels they have the benefit of employing a single weight for a wide range of loads. They were particularly useful for weighing heavy objects like vehicles, sides of beef, and humans. Additionally they had the benefit of cheap manufacture and portability. In as much they were used as industrial scales straight through the eighteenth century and remain in use in markets all throughout Asia and and the Middle East today.
I happen to find them, with their precarious asymmetry, their hooks and chains and their myriad forms of sculpted counterweights quite compelling, and beautiful.
Visually, viscerally, the steelyard seems to embody some aspect of balance, or perhaps the personal quest for it, which the equal-arm balance does not. After having discovered it there at the Met I visited it often. It didn’t take me long to realize that this object had symbolic potential far beyond the whimsical introspection it might supply for the comparatively small group of us who were born under the sign of Libra.
What, after all, do the scales symbolize for the rest of humanity?
Thinking of the equal-arm balance, alone, in silhouette, or held aloft by the left hand of Themis / Justitia / Lady Justice, notions undoubtedly come to mind. They are precise and unambiguously immediate, aspirational and inspirational, they are resplendent and exalted, they are incorruptible and pure. In other words they have no relation whatsoever to the realities of human justice as it is experienced and met out.
Now look at the steelyard. It is hard-looking and vaguely menacing, all hooks and chains and lengths of metal. It has a brutality to it somehow. You can imagine wielding it like a club or a flail and imagine the damage it might do were it wielded against you. Then there’s its asymmetry, which on first glance seems so counterintuitive to achieve any kind of balance. By design its sides are unequal, set against one another at cross-purposes. One side only holds the weight while the other only passes judgement, and a not quite precise judgement at that.
It’s a strange, hard, dangerous looking object, all angles and points set against a shifting bluntness, and one could imagine that were you to hand one to a child she’d be just as likely to smash in a skull as to balance anything whatsoever.
Though functionally the steelyard can achieve the same aims as our aspirational equal-arm scale, visually it suggests a complexity and precariousness and menace entirely more human, and I’d argue entirely more appropriate, symbolically, for our notions of crime and punishment, corporeal or otherwise. If a pound of flesh needs weighing this is the scale for the job.
Add to this to the forms which the steelyard’s counterweight took, and could take, and all sorts of explicit symbolic relationships emerge. In the past these “poises” as they are sometimes called were often fashioned in the shape of gods, men, women or animals. One could easily imagine a slab of beef on the hooks counterbalanced by golden McDonald’s arches for instance, or an emaciated corpse counterbalanced by an Iron Cross, a knife counterbalanced by a black glove, a smoldering retarded child counterbalanced by a weight in the shape of Texas, a boot stamping on a human face, forever, counterbalanced by a giant silver dollar, or… well… whatever delightful image strikes your fancy!
The steelyard can do it all.
Anyhow, since happening upon that Roman balance about 12 years ago I’ve adopted it in my mind. When I think Libra I think steelyard, and so, conversely when I think steelyard I think, in some small way, of myself.
When I see a statue or etching of Lady Justice my mind reflexively erases that flimsy equal-arm balance with its impossible precision and imaginary exaltation and replaces it with its hard, practical, rough and ready, asymmetrical cousin.
The Histoire Naturelle des Indes, created sometime in the 1590’s, is one of the earliest illustrated records of European contact with the America. Also know it by its informal title The Drake Manuscript it was donated to the the Pierpont Morgan Library in 1983, who after many years of study graciously produced a full color facsimile. I happen to have said facsimile, which was published in 1996, right here in front of me. Shall we take a gander?
First a few words on the manuscript’s origins and possibly misleading title.
The Drake Manuscript is named for Sir Francis Drake, the famed English privateer, navigator, slave trader, politician, and pirate of the Elizabethan era, whose travels it is thought to illustrate. Though Drake was himself something of an artist , the images in Histoire Naturelle des Indes were not created by his hand. Nothing of his artwork survives as it turns out.
Truth be told there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that Drake had anything to do with the manuscript, let alone that it ought to be informally named after him. Such are the gears of history- grinding the anonymous down to invisibility and raising the famed higher… for a while at least.
The best guess as to the manuscripts origins are something along these lines-
The naive drawings show signs of being created by several separate hands. Context reveals that these were likely the hands of Huguenots. Drake is known to have employed not only Huguenots on his voyages but artists as well. A “considerable number” of the images correspond to ports of call familiar to Drake, in some cases associated directly with his voyages, and Drake is mentioned by name, twice, in the manuscript itself. Hence, with a nice pile of circumstantial evidence to stand on, and no other clues, we have The Drake Manuscript.
Anyhow, whether this is simply an instance of a famous name capturing otherwise anonymous historical debris with its considerable gravitational pull or simply an instance of fine deduction on the part of historians doesn’t matter much. What matters are the 199 fascinating images and accompanying captions.
Taken as a whole the images are an interesting mixture. The drawings of plants and animals are presented in a sort of cold practical manner, removed from their natural surroundings, with captions that read almost like a sales catalog, listing the virtues and drawbacks of each. The drawings of the indigenous peoples themselves on the other hand are altogether warmer and seem to serve no greater purpose than curiosity.
The styles of the images are an interesting mixture as well-
Quote, “Some drawings are well rendered, others mere daubs, but most have a kind of buoyantly piquant vision of their subjects. Some are true to life, some–particularly the fishes with doglike snouts and ears–arise from an almost medieval fancy, and some may reflect a knowledge of printed sources.” - Verlyn Klinkenborg.
I’ve reproduced a group of the images below for your scrutiny. Some were chosen because I particularly liked the drawing, some because I was amused by the caption, and some because the ghost of Drake, boarding the deck of my apartment and holding me at sword-point, compelled me to. Have a look for yourself.
“A special herb which the Indians use for food as well as an extremely beneficial medicine; when they are sick, they breathe in the smoke by mouth with a straw; soon the ill humour escapes by vomiting. They often pulverize it and, putting it in their noses, it distills several drops of water from the brain to discharge it. It is also found very helpful for toothache…”
“This fish is very large and no less vicious. When the negroes dive in the sea for pearls it jumps on them to make them drown and afterward eats them.”
“This animal is the size of a greyhound. When it sees people in the woods it breaks off branches and throws them at them…”
“These are small flies which are so small one cannot see them, they are very dangerous. When there is no wind and the weather is calm, they come in droves attacking people, stinging them in such a manner that one would take them for lepers…”
(Woman of the Indies)
“This woman chases the flies away with a little bell hanging from a tree branch, afraid that when they bite their children, they will cry, for seeing their children cry makes them sad, having visions that at that time the devil is in their body…”
“A very piusonous tree, so that if a person looks up to it, he will be blinded for three hours afterwards. The Indians hide their arrows in this tree when they are at war in order to make them poisonous.”
“A very poisonous beast. It feeds in places where there is wine and vinegar. It only moves around at night. A person who has been bitten by this animal lives only for twenty-four hours afterwards. It finds the Indians in their beds in order to kill them.”
(Tiger and Anteater)
“Savage beast. However, whenever this small animal called anteater encounters a tiger looking for prey it turns on its back and throws itself on the tiger’s neck and pierces its throat with its snout and claws and does not release him until he is dead on that spot.”
CHILIRATI, PECHE ESPADE (Sawfish), and CAPPE (Eel)
(Island called “Fougue” or Fire Island)
“During the day one always sees smoke on top and when the sun has set and night has come, one likewise sees a great fiery blaze because on the island and on the summit, the earth produces sulfur and there is thunder and lightening which cause the continuous fire…”
HINDE DE LA TRENITE
(Indian of Trinidad)
“Tha manner of catching parrots is this: if they are large, they make a trap with string attached to it. In this trap they put a parrot with his feet tied and next to him a small animal called a catille which plucks him. When the parrot cries and the other parrots, hearing his voice, come to his rescue, freely joining him in the trap, the Indian seeing this pulls the string and the parrots are instantly trapped.”
PIOVCHE DE MER
“This is as valuable as a louse.”
“This is a very agile beast. The Indians cannot tame it or feed it for they die of grief and do not eat in captivity. They have a face like a human and are very mischievous and rebellious and throw themselves against people mainly in their faces and eyes.”
“The nature of this animal is so to climb with its belly uppermost and, climbing this way, it moves faster than a man could on foot. The skin of this animal is very excellent for people suffering from falling sickness [epilepsy]. The head of the afflicted is covered with it then one realizes how effective the skin is.”
HINDES DE IHONA
(Indiands of Ihona)
“When the Indians have defeated their enemies, they make them lie down on the ground, then pound on them, and after that, give them a blow on the head with their sword. When the blood starts flowing, they hold it back promptly, thinking that by this means the body will make a better roast for a solemn feast, calling this a deed of prowess.”
PORC DE MONTENNE
“This animal is called a mountain pig because it lives in the mountains. It is adroit at climbing. It has a navel on its back. “
PORC EPIC SAVVAGE (Wild Porcupine), SAGOVAI (Monkey), and CRABLE SAVVAGE (Scorpion)
AVILANNES BLANCHES GOMITES
(White Physic Nut)
“They may well be called white nuts… They don’t make one vomit at all.” This is as opposed to the black Physic Nut which has quite different effects. “When a person has eaten them, he will throw out everything in his body above and below.” The Indians evidently ate the black nuts when they felt they’d been poisoned as a way of expelling the poison from the mouth and from “below.”
“This fish is very viscious in the sea so that when a sailor throws himself into the water for some reason this fish turns on his back and tears out a leg or an arm and eats it.”
COMES LES YNDIENS ONT ORDINAIRM[ENT] DES JLLUSIONS DU MALING ESPRIT
(How the Indians Usually Have Visions of the Evil Spirit)
“The Indians are much tormented at night by visions of the Evil Spirit whom they call in their language “Athoua.” They do not dare leave their houses at night–only when light has come–and this is because they have no belief nor education and do not worship anything…”
I find these fascinating, and believe me when I say I had trouble choosing from the 199 plates reproduced in the excellent facsimile.
Concerning the images themselves it amazes me to look at them in the artistic context of their time, because though I undoubtedly find them beautiful, when I remind myself that they were created in the 1590’s, and that at that same moment El Greco, Rubens, and Caravaggio were all active… well it’s surprising. Thought of in those terms it’s a wonder these weren’t made by the “Indians” themselves.
I think today, with television and advertising and graphic design having made the shared “visual language” so pervasive, we have a tendency to regard varying levels of visual sophistication simply as styles which homogeneously blanket entire eras, permeating everything from high art to life’s daily banalities. It may be true, to some degree, as far back as the 19th century, but images like those in the Drake Manuscript are, for me, a useful reminder that if you travel further back, our conceptions begin to break down and become little more than assumptions, based on the retrofitted categorizations art historians have coined for us.
The captions fascinate and amuse me for a similar reason. There is something comical to me about contemporaries of Shakespeare, Giordano Bruno, Cervantes, and Galileo traveling to these “savage” lands, filled with a blustery and inalienable sense of their own superiority over the ignorant inhabitants, who upon arrival and lengthy inspection proceed to relay information as goofy and superstitious and folkloric as their dark-age ancestors might have believed.
Of course, as not to fall into the same trap of egoistic presumption, and lest snide ephemera hunters of the 3000’s stumble upon this blog (attributing it, of course, to Markos Moulitsas or Xeni Jardin whilst my anonymous bones decay in quietude) and scoff at the wrong-mindedness of it all, I’ll shut my mouth right there.
For a bit more on the manuscript see-
The Morgan Library page
Histoire naturelle des Indes on Google books.
This pdf from the National Humanities Center.
I’ll only say this in closing, I enjoyed these and I hope you did as well.
hide full text
The new year approaches and as it draws nearer arms will begin to raise, and in each hand will be a glass, and in each glass a libation. As the midnight hour approaches more and more glasses will raise until, were the millions of libations allowed to flow into one another, and were gravity to join in the festivities and relax a little, a veritable river of spirits would form there just above our heads, flowing from hand to hand and from time-zone to time-zone, chasing the sun as it endlessly sets over the world.
And what sound will accompany this river of spirits as it’s bailed, glass by glass, into the air? Why the same sound that accompanies us everywhere, in all of our endeavors, great and small– the gush and tumble of words. Yes, my friends the toasting hour approaches, so before it catches us and our mouths inexorably up in its ebullient current let’s have a slightly closer look at this toasting business shall we? Glasses at the ready.
First, a few words on origins–
Drink as “offering” has been a documented aspect of prayer ceremony from the dawn of history in both Pagan and Judeo-Christian traditions.
Quote: “An early Greek custom called for a pledge of three cups-one to Mercury, one to the Graces, and one to Zeus. In Rome, drinking to another’s health became so important, the Senate decreed that all diners must drink to Augustus at every meal. Fabius Maximus declared that no man should eat or drink before he had prayed for him and drank to his health.” -Paul Dickson.
The term “toast” itself is thought to have come from the Romans, who evidently found themselves drinking a lot of sub-par wine. They’d drop a piece of burnt bread into wine, the charcoal of which would reduce the drinks acidity, making it more palatable. This toast may have also been included with the wine as a token bit of nourishment. The term stuck even after the practice of including the burnt bread died out. It mutated even further when, in the golden age of toasting, the act of drinking a toast to women admired but not present spawned the phrase “toast of the town.”
Meanwhile there is a connected custom, the clinking of glasses, to consider. There are three theories as to its origin. The first is attributed again to the Greeks’ proclivity for poison. It’s thought that the hearty thud of wine vessels against one another might facilitate an exchange of liquid from one vessel to another, thus ensuring any poison would be imbibed by all. A second theory attributes the clinking of glasses to the Christian era. It was thought that the bell-like clink of glasses would banish the Devil, who was thought to literally inhabit liquor (and be the cause of the ill behavior of the drunken), and who was repelled by the sound of bells. The third theory, which sounds entirely more modern to me, is that all five senses had to come into play to get the greatest pleasure from drink, the sight, the smell, the touch, the taste, and with the clink… the sound.
In truth the species of speach which we moderns refer to as “a toast,” meaning the one word salutations, often in a phonetically-sounded foreign tongue, the literal meaning of which we rarely know, is only the dimmest shadow of a once grand and formal tradition of dinner speaking. Today, for the average person not serving as an ambassador on distant soil, that tradition is relegated almost exclusively to the dreaded wedding toast, in which a bitter and terrified “best man” stumbles his way through those few words which represent the final hurdle in his race to the open bar.
In the heyday of toasting the whole affair was elaborate enough that scores of books were published to help people navigate the treacherous rules of etiquette involved for both toast-giver and audience, and no drink could be drunk without “a few words” of praise to someone. To drink without offering a toast was simply an affront to everyone in the room, and this imperative evidently protracted even casual occasions into 8 or 10 hour binges.
Today it would just be impossible. Imagine heading over to your local Tex-Mex place for a few 6 dollar Coronas after a crappy day in your shabby cubicle, only to realize you were a “best man,” in a room full of nothing but other “best men,” obliged to speak and listen before every… single… round; for 10 hours. Didn’t Sartre write a play about that?
In any case, as I said at the beginning, the “hour of the toast” is fast approaching, and though I don’t expect many of you will want to wax eloquent, at length, in iambic pentameter, about how much you love your mother, or country, or best mates, you may still wish to surprise everyone with something a bit more imaginative than the expected, “May you rock out with yer cock out and jam out with yer clam out! Down the hatch!”
With that in mind I am including below a small sampling of toasts (mostly culled from the 1927 volume, The Big Toast-Book, by Carleton B. Case, pictured above) so antiquated sounding that they might be just the thing to… oh, I don’t know… persuade your mightily disappointed and old-fashioned father that he ought not disown you just yet, or convince your significant other’s parents that you’re more than the coarse, dead-eyed, lout you appear to be, or induce premature nostril-vomiting in your rivals, or embarrass the hell out of your sweetheart. Who knows? Maybe they’ll just inspire you to come up with a decent toast yourself and revive in some small way the time honored tradition.
For the Romantics:
Here’s to the one and only one,
And may that one be she
Who loves but one and only one,
And may that one be me.
Here’s to love, The only fire against which there is no insurance.
God made women both beautiful and foolish–
Beautiful, that man might love her;
Foolish, that she might love him.
Here’s to everything old! Old friends, old times, old books, and old wine.
Flow wine, smile woman, and the universe is consoled. -Beranger
For the Bachelors:
Love is the wine of life
And marriage is the morning after.
I would advise a young man to pause
Before he takes a wife;
In fact I see no earthly cause
Why he should not pause for life.
Here’s to the woman! –ah that we could fall into her arms
Without falling into her hands! -Bierce
A pipe, a book, a fire, a friend,
A stein that’s always full,
Here’s to the joys of a bachelor’s life,
A life that’s never dull.
For the Married:
To Home! The place where you are treated best and grumble most.
He is not worthy of the honeycomb
That shuns the hive because the bees have stings. -Shakespeare
Let the man who does not wish to be idle, fall in love. -Ovid
Laugh and the world laughs with you; snore, and you sleep alone.
For the Naughty:
Here’s head first, to a foaming glass!
Here’s head first, to a lively lass!
Here’s head first, for a bit of kissing,
For the good don’t know the fun they are missing!
Here’s to the ships of our navy,
Here’s to the ladies of our land,
May the former be well rigged,
And the latter be well manned.
Here’s to the lasses we’ve loved, my lad,
Here’s to the lips we’ve pressed.
For of kisses and lasses,
Like liquor in glasses,
The last is always the best.
For the Bitter:
Here’s to the woman with face so fair,
Framed in a wreath of beautiful hair;
Pretty red lips as soft as a rose–
How many have kissed them God only Knows.
Here’s to the love that lies in a woman’s eyes,
And lies, and lies, and lies.
For the Old Sots:
Which is the properest day to drink–
Saturday, Sunday, Monday?
Each is the properest day I think,
Why should I name but one day?
Here’s to the heart that fills as the bottle empties.
Man being reasonable must get drunk;
The best of life is but intoxication;
Glory, the grape, love, gold– in these are sunk
The hopes of all men and of every nation. -Byron
God made man frail as a bubble;
God made love, love made trouble;
God made the vine– was it a sin
That man made wine to drown trouble in?
Grasp the bowl; in nectar sinking
Man of sorrow, drown thy thinking!
For the Ladies:
If kissing were the only joy of bed,
One woman would another woman wed.
(followed by winking and giggling)
The more one sees of men the more one likes dogs.
For the Men:
You shall and you shan’t,
You will and you wont,
You’re condemned if you do,
And you’re damned if you don’t
Go back to bed!
I know it’s loud it’s grown-up time.
No you can’t have any of my grape juice,
Just go back to bed please.
Honey, you have to go back to bed
Because the monster is on his way
And he likes to eat children.
Yes he eats them
And chews up their bones.
He ate one of the neighbor kids last night.
Yes, he’s on his way here right now…
Wait, I think I hear him on the steps!
You better get to bed quick. RUN!
Yesterday’s yesterday while today’s here,
Today is today till tomorrow appear,
Tomorrow’s tomorrow until today’s past,
And kisses are kisses as long as they last.
May you live all the days of your life. -Swift
Weep and you are called a baby,
Laugh and you are called a fool,
Yield and you’re called a coward,
Stand and your called a mule,
Smile and they’ll call you silly,
Frown and they’ll call you gruff,
Put on a front like a millionaire,
And somebody calls your bluff.
May bad luck follow you all the days of your life,
And never overtake you.
At ten, a child; at twenty, wild;
At thirty tame, if ever;
At forty wise; at fifty, rich;
At sixty, good or never!
While we live, let’s live in clover,
For when we’re dead, we’re dead all over.
And finally, here’s one especially for me to make:
May the people who dance on your grave get cramps in their legs!
Lastly I would just like to mention how strikingly perfect the symbolism of holding up a full glass, especially on New Years Eve, seems to me. We hold it there, brimming, shining and untouched. So much optimism for everything which is to come, for the fun yet to be had, for the possibilities which await! We take that first delicious and refreshing sip with bright eyes. But of course, by the end of the night it’s a different story though isn’t it? The glass lays toppled, used-up, cracked, empty and we… we are nauseous, disheveled, most likely embarrassed and full of some vague regret, having yet again failed to learn anything from the previous time we held up a glass, confidently swearing that things would be different.
For more on the history and art of toasting see the following:
The History & Ritual of the Toast
Toastbook by Paul Dickson
Drinkingsongs.net which offers many toasts as well as a terrific bibliography
Wine, Women, and Song published 1884
In Praise of Ale published 1888
Toasts published 1895
The Banquet Book Published 1902
400 Laughs, or Fun without Vulgarity published 1902
Rare Bits of Humor published 1906
Irish Toasts published 1908
A Tankard of Ale, an Anthology of Drinking Songs published 1920
More Toasts published 1922
Hope you enjoyed.hide full text
Happy New Year all and sundry! 2008 will be different! I swear!