Audiobook: Tacitus on Germany

Tacitus, that renowned historian of Rome, wrote Germania, or De origine et situ Germanorum, over nineteen hundred years ago, and Thomas Gordon translated it more than a hundred years ago, putting the text, as prepared by Project Gutenberg, in the public domain, free to be enjoyed by any and all of us. Here I have recorded myself reading it, so that you might benefit from such a penetrating account of the ancient Germanic peoples as Tacitus provides, even in the absence of reading time of your own.

Here is the audio, free for download at the Internet Archive:

And here is the text from which I read. I hope you enjoy listening to it at least as much as I did reading it.


Who is Santa Claus?

Every Christmas Eve, a jolly old fellow with a big belly and a billowing white beard hops in a sleigh with a sack full of toys and has a troupe of reindeer pull him around the world to give the toys out to children and spread good cheer. The children leave him milk and cookies in the night, and word has it that he prefers chocolate chip. He spends the previous year tallying up whether each child has been naughty or nice, and though it's said that he gives the naughty ones a stockingful of coal, he doesn't seem to do so very often. In a broader sense he's the patron of the season, as Father Christmas, and thus whenever we give gifts or take part in merriment in accordance with Christmas tradition we are acting in the spirit of Santa Claus.

So goes the account I grew up with, at least. But considering that there is nothing Biblical or ecclesiastical about this story, it's rather remarkable that even late Christendom would be so fervid in celebrating it. So where did it come from? Who is this curious character we call Santa Claus or Father Christmas?

It should be noted when discussing the history of such figures that sometimes mythic images recur without an obvious direct connection on the level of historical fact. History in general is full of remarkable coïncidences, but this is especially the case when we are dealing with mnemohistory, that is, the history of things as they are remembered and not necessarily as they happened. Santa Claus is a curious example of this; as we'll see, there are certain correspondences between our modern Santa and other images revered at different times and in different places which seem to transcend any obvious historical connection.

First, though, the most obvious historical connection: St. Nicholas of Myra. In the high-church Christian tradition many miracles have been attributed to his intercession, and there are stories of miracles he is said to have worked in his own lifetime. He was known for gift-giving; he apparently had a habit of leaving coins in shoes that had been left out for him, and in memory of this it became tradition in some places for children to leave their shoes out on the eve of his feast day (December 6th in the West and the 19th in the East) with a small gift in hopes of getting something in return. That we leave out stockings for small gifts today would seem to follow after this.

Perhaps the most famous legend of St. Nicholas' generosity is that of his giving of purses of gold coins to the three daughters of a poor man, so that they would have dowries and not be forced into prostitution—of especial note is that he gave these in the secret of night so as not to draw uncomfortable attention, throwing them through a window into their house, or in some variations of the tale, down the chimney. There is also a story, less historically verified, of his resurrection of three children who had been murdered by a butcher and put into a barrel to be sold as ham; accordingly he is the patron saint of children.

In the Middle Ages his was, as one would well expect, a day for gift-giving. But under the Reformation, as saints' days were deëmphasized if not rejected entirely, gift-giving was instead done on Christmas, with Martin Luther suggesting the Christ-child as the giver of gifts. It is from a German hypocorism for the Christ-child that we get one of Father Christmas' aliases in English: Christkindl became Kris Kringle. And through the Dutch Sinterklaas we get Santa Claus.

Some time before the Reformation, however, the spirit of Christmas had already been personified. A carol from the pen of one Richard Smart, Rector of Plymtree in the southwest of England in the middle of the 15th century, reads as follows:
Nowell, nowell.
Who is there that singeth so, Nowell, nowell?
I am here, Sir Christèmas.
Welcome, my lord Sir Christèmas!
Welcome to all, both more and less!
Come near, come near, Nowell, nowell.

Dieu vous garde, beaux sieurs, tidings I you bring:
A maid hath borne a child full young,
Which causeth you to sing: Nowell, nowell.

Christ is now born of a pure maid;
In an ox-stall he is laid,
Wherefore sing we at abrayde: Nowell, nowell.

Buvez bien, buvez bien par toute la compagnie.
Make good cheer and be right merry,
And sing with us now joyfully: Nowell, nowell.
The respectful title of Father seems to have become more important to this "Sir Christmas" as the 16th century gave way to the 17th and Puritanism emerged as a cultural force, and especially when Puritans came to power in England (during the Commonwealth, 1649-1660) and in New England (where the public observance of Christmas was illegal until 1681 and abhorred for generations to come). The Puritans distrusted the old customs of communal feasting and wine-fueled merriment and sought their prohibition, and those in defense of Christmas tradition proffered the image of the kindly old gentleman who promoted not excessive consumption but good cheer.

A number of 17th-century satires portray this conflict. In the anonymously published Arraignment, Conviction and Imprisoning of Christmas, a lady Royalist and a town crier search for the merry father whose absence is keenly felt; John Taylor's The Complaint of Christmas laments the sight of "the merry lords of misrule suppressed by the mad lords of bad rule at Westminster". In Josiah King's The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas, Father Christmas is taken before a judge and jury and various virtues and vices personified, such as Mrs. Prudence, Mr. Mean-well, and Simon Servant, have their say either for or against him. His detractors accuse him of inciting lascivity and riotousness; his defenders praise his temperate virtue, peace-making and goodwill. In some cases from the early modern period onward he is invoked as a rebuke to gentry unwilling to feast the poor as per tradition, or to those shirking the seasonal injunction to generosity in general.

And of course from about the mid-19th century onward the names Santa Claus and Father Christmas are fully understood to be synonymous, and certain familiar characteristics become canon, such as the red coat, the troupe of reindeer, and the use of chimneys.

A more tenuous connection, historically speaking, is that between Santa Claus or Sinterklaas in particular and the old Germanic god Odin. During the time that later became associated with the Nativity of Christ, the peoples whose pantheon included Odin celebrated Yule, which in Scandinavia, according to Heimskringla, involved feasting and drinking:
It was ancient custom that when sacrifice was to be made, all farmers were to come to the heathen temple and bring along with them the food they needed while the feast lasted. At this feast all were to take part of the drinking of ale.
Toasts were made on this occasion to Odin (who would grant victory), to Njörðr and Freyr (who would grant peace and a good harvest), and to the king, as well as to ancestors and departed relatives.

Now Odin has a long beard and rides his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, through the heavens; Santa, too, has a long beard and is pulled along by eight (or later, nine) reindeer, or in his Dutch form rides a horse. And Odin of course was toasted as the patron of Yule just as Santa heralds the Christmas season.

There are other parallels to be noted between Odin and Sinterklaas which are even more historically tenuous but are nonetheless worth mentioning. For one, compare Odin's ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who keep him informed on the goings-on in Midgard (that is, the human world), and Zwarte Piet (who helps Sinterklaas much as the elves do in the North American tradition): in both cases the old bearded patron of the feast has black-faced helpers. Just as tenuous but even more endearing is the resemblance between Odin's having given the runes—that is, written language—to man and the eating of chocolate letters by Dutch children in honor of Sinterklaas. Whether or not these elements are actually historically related—which is doubtful for the most part—is hardly relevant; what's important is that, for whatever reason, the same image recurs at the same time of year.

Now let's turn to another part of pre-Christian Europe. In Rome at what is now called Christmastime, feasting and drinking were enjoyed and lords of misrule were chosen, just as Puritans would complain was happening among Britons over a thousand years later. This was Saturnalia, during which Saturn, whom we might now call Father Time, temporarily took over from his son Jove and returned men to a time of primal joy. Catullus (Poems, XIV) calls it "the best of days". Gifts were given, games of dice were played, and the whole people made merry:
During the holiday, restrictions were relaxed and the social order inverted. Gambling was allowed in public. Slaves were permitted to use dice and did not have to work. Instead of the toga, colorful dinner clothes (synthesis) were permitted in public, as was the pileus, a felt cap normally worn by the manumitted slave that symbolized the freedom of the season (Martial, Epigrams, XIV.1). Within the family, a Lord of Misrule was chosen, a role once occupied by a young Nero, who derisively commanded his younger step-brother Britannicus to sing (Tacitus, Annals, XIII.15).

Slaves were treated as equals, allowed to wear their masters' clothing, and be waited on at meal time in remembrance of an earlier golden age thought to have been ushered in by the god.
Lucian of Samosata, in his Saturnalia, records a conversation between Saturn and one of his priests, in which the god declares that while it is for his son to grant riches of gold and slaves, his own domain is that of more carefree pursuits:
Mine is a limited monarchy, you see. To begin with, it only lasts a week; that over, I am a private person, just a man in the street. Secondly, during my week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water—such are the functions over which I preside.
It should be pointed out that the hat now associated with Santa bears a striking resemblance to the pileus as well as to the Phyrgian cap, which by confusion with the pileus has become a symbol of liberty in recent centuries. Also of note is that Saturn's venerated statue, made of ivory, wore a scarlet cloak (Tertullian, De testimonio animae, II). Woolen fetters around its feet were loosened during his brief yearly reign to signify his liberation. Being associated with his Greek form of Cronus, he was also honored according to "Greek rite" (ritus Graecus), with the head uncovered, rather than capite velato, that is, with the head veiled by a fold of the toga. Servius (Ad Aenaeidem, III.407) notes that since Saturn himself was depicted as veiled (involutus), it accorded with the role reversals of the season that the god would be veiled and the worshipper not. Plutarch (Quaestiones Romanae, II) says that the god is veiled because he is the father of truth (the highest truths being inherently mysterious). And it would seem oddly fitting with this spirit of reversal that St. Nicholas would save three children from being eaten, given that Cronus is said in the myths to have eaten his own children.

So we have a jolly bearded god in a red cloak who presides over the happiest time of year, during which gifts are exchanged, social norms are relaxed, and drunken feasts are enjoyed. If that isn't Father Christmas, then I know nothing of the holiday.

Again, whether or not any of this was directly passed down historically is completely immaterial; what matters is that for whatever reason, Europe and her diaspora have a recurring tendency to make the last two weeks of the year an occasion for merriment and to imagine the presiding figure over this occasion to have certain perennial characteristics.

And to return to matters of history for a moment, who better to be the human reference point for a pagan figure surviving into Christendom than he who shares his name and title with another St. Nicholas from the same region, Lycia, who as late as the mid-sixth century sacrificed seven calves for a feast in a Christian chapel? According to Gustav Anrich's Life of Nikolaos of Sion:
...the clergy of Plenios came in a procession with the congregation of the faithful, chanting and with the venerated crosses, and met the servant of God [Nikolaos] at the chapel [of St. George]. From there he went with them with seven calves. They went into the chapel of the holy George and he sacrificed the seven calves, and the crowds gathered so that there were two hundred couches. The servant of God supplied enough to distribute a hundred measures of wine and forty measures of wheat, and everyone ate and was filled and thanked God who gave grace to his servant Nikolaos...
As Anrich notes, such an account "shows us the survival of the old sacrificial meal made over into Christian form"—a microcosm of the Christmas experience, no? And why not? As Statius (Silvae, I.6.98ff) cheered during the reign of Domitian toward the end of the first century:
Who can sing of the spectacle, the unrestrained mirth, the banqueting, the unbought feast, the lavish streams of wine? Ah! now I faint, and drunken with thy liquor drag myself at last to sleep. For how many years shall this festival abide! Never shall age destroy so holy a day! While the hills of Latium remain and father Tiber, while thy Rome stands and the Capitol thou hast restored to the world, it shall continue.
And indeed, age has failed to destroy Saturnalia. It has taken on the addition of a new narrative from Christianity, and through the resultant syncretism has become merged with Yule (which remains the name of the holiday in several European countries); it has also more recently taken on massive commercial baggage. Yet underneath the accruements of the ages, so holy a day we still keep.

So who is Father Christmas? We can say assuredly that under diverse names and with various alterations of form, he has been with us a very long time. As was famously written in the New York Sun to one little Virginia who had asked whether there was a Santa Claus:
You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank GOD! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
And didn't we note something earlier about veils?

Io, Saturnalia! Good Yule! and Merry Christmas!


Out of Egypt: metaxy, memory, and Moses the Egyptian

I. Introduction
Draw a distinction.
Call it the first distinction.
Call the space in which it is drawn the space severed or cloven by the distinction.
—George Spencer-Brown[1]

Nothing, in fact, is far away from anything; things are not remote: there is, no doubt, the aloofness of difference and of mingled natures as against the unmingled; but selfhood has nothing to do with spatial position, and in unity itself there may still be distinction.
We find from time to time that the wisdom found in one field of study is applicable to another. George Spencer-Brown was writing about the space of logical and mathematical construction; Plotinus was speaking of unity on the most fundamental level, that of all things in the One. Taking these together, we see that every distinction between things is simultaneously a line of contact between them. That which we cleave apart, conceptually speaking, we necessarily and in the very same instance cleave together. Every separation is thus a connection. Such a line, of boundary as well as contact, not only cleaves a given space but is a space in itself, an interval or betweenness which has been called metaxy.

Jan Assmann, who begins his book Moses the Egyptian with the very same quote from Spencer-Brown, notes that it "also applies surprisingly well to the space of cultural constructions and distinctions and to the spaces that are severed or cloven by such distinctions."[3] If we further apply the premise of metaxy above, so that every cultural distinction is understood to be simultaneously a connection, we have taken a crucial step in examining a particularly important cultural distinction—that which Assmann calls the Mosaic distinction—and thus have a firm ground upon which to begin the translation of that which lies on either side of the distinction. We'll return to this matter shortly; first, a brief introduction to the subject matter of Moses the Egyptian.

There is a discussion on the nature of monotheism, religious revelation, and their relation to Egypt through the figure of Moses, which began in Antiquity and continues to the present day. Moses the Egyptian is a recent installment in this Moses-Egypt discourse, and it takes a discerning look back at the trains of thought which have run through its territory. In both this narrow sense and in a broader sense which regards the entire Western experience before and since the Christianization of Europe, the book is a study in cultural memory.

In the course of this study, Assmann articulates and integrates several concepts, the explanations of which constitute in themselves some of the book's most important theses. The Mosaic distinction is chief among them, aside perhaps from that of mnemohistory, that is, the study of how the past is remembered. Also of importance is the anonymous god who is "One and All", or Ἓν καὶ Πᾶν, as revealed by Egyptological study and as remembered by scholars and mystics from Ancient Egypt to the Enlightenment and beyond. Though we will not spend much time here on its Enlightenment reception or its roots in Ramesside theology, this concept of deity is of central importance to the Moses-Egypt discourse.

My especial interest in these matters regards their importance for the rehabilitation of an extra-Mosaic European religious perspective, the development of which will depend on the examination of the cultural threads which connect Egypt to both Israel and Greece. Such an examination will help us translate Christianity and pre-Christianity, to find the underlying stream by which European culture has in all its phases been nourished, and thus to build a "Grand Narrative" of the European past which can serve as the foundation of new cultural undertakings.

Such an effort, of course, will require much more examination, deconstruction, and reconstruction than is offered in the present treatment. Here our chief concern regards the Mosaic distinction, given that it underlies the distinction between Christians and "pagans". Before we can go any further in our examination and translation of this distinction, of course, we must define it, and for that we turn to Jan Assmann.

II. The Mosaic Distinction: Before and After
From the first chapter of Moses the Egyptian:

The distinction I am concerned with in this book is the distinction between true and false in religion that underlies more specific distinctions such as Jews and Gentiles, Christians and pagans, Muslims and unbelievers. Once this distinction is drawn, there is no end of reentries or subdistinctions. We start Christians and pagans and end up with Catholics and Protestants, Calvinists and Lutherans, Socinians and Latitudinarians, and thousand more similar denomination and subdenominations. Cultural or intellectual distinctions such as these construct a universe that is not only full of meaning, identity, and orientation, but also full of conflict, intolerance, and violence. Therefore, there have always been attempts to overcome the conflict by reexamining the distinction, albeit at the risk of losing cultural meaning.[3]
He explains that this distinction is best called the Mosaic distinction since it begins according to tradition with Moses; nonetheless, even if we assume Moses to have been a real figure, Akhenaten's monotheistic revolution in Egypt, in which temples and sacred images were demolished and cultus of the gods was banned, drew the same distinction even earlier. However, "Moses is a figure of memory but not of history, while Akhenaten is a figure of history but not of memory", and since "memory is all that counts"[4] when it comes to cultural definitions—we'll soon pick up this thread on the importance of memory a bit later with the introduction of the concept of mnemohistory—the term Mosaic distinction, rather than Akhenaten's distinction, is justified.

The assumption might come rather easily that all religious traditions define those outside themselves as "unbelievers" or "pagans". But such a distinction is not universal; it is part and parcel not of religion itself, but of what we call monotheism. It is thus fundamental to the modern "secular" frame, as I have written elsewhere; it cleaves the space in which the Western mind has dwelt since its Christianization.

The space severed or cloven by this distinction is the space of Western monotheism. It is this constructed mental or cultural space that has been inhabited by Europeans for nearly two millennia.

It is an error to believe that this distinction is as old as religion itself, though at first sight nothing might seem more plausible. Does not every religion quite automatically put everything outside itself in the position of error and falsehood and look down on other religions as "paganism"? Is this not quite simply the religious expression of ethnocentricity? Does not the distinction between true and false in [religion] amount to the distinction between "us" and "them"? Does not every construction of identity by the very same process generate alterity? Does not every religion produce "pagans" in the same way that every civilization produces "barbarians"?

However plausible this may seem, it is not the case. Cultures not only generate otherness by constructing identity, but also develop techniques of translation.
Ancient polytheisms functioned as such a technique of translation. They belong within the emergence of the "Ancient World" as a coherent ecumene of interconnected nations.[4]
In order to illustrate the radically different understanding of religion brought about by the Mosaic distinction, we must describe in further depth what came before it.

The word paganism for what exists outside, and existed prior to, the Mosaic distinction is unsatisfactory, not only because the term was coined in contradistinction, but more importantly because the diversity of religion in such places and times consists of a multitude of systems of differing names, rites, and doctrines; there are innumerable "paganisms". There is something these systems had in common, however, namely their sense that the gods are in a certain respect international and do not limit themselves to the concerns of an elect group, which allowed them to translate one another.

Hence the concept of the All-Encompassing God we mentioned above: this was the understanding which was implicit in the intercultural translation of Antiquity, and was made explicit in "an uninterrupted line of textual tradition from the Ramesside age down to the Greco-Roman era".[5] This textual tradition, which is the origin of the Hermetic idea of the cosmic god, expounds what Assmann calls evolutionary monotheism, rather than revolutionary monotheism. The former is compatible with polytheistic worship, whereas the latter opposes it.

Indeed, the terms monotheism and polytheism show themselves in this discourse to be inadequate for describing the real differences between Mosaic counter-religion and the innumerable "paganisms" it rejects. The modern contrast of monotheism and polytheism is unsatisfactory, since it addresses the differences between monotheistic counter-religions and other traditions as a question of number, which is less important than the differences in how God's nature is understood. The difference between religion and counter-religion is much more a question of quality than of quantity. In "paganisms", that is to say, in cultures not observing the Mosaic distinction, God is present in nature, or even directly equivalent to Nature Herself; in cultures which do observe it, deity and world are severed from one another. Thus Assmann and others have taken to referring to this sense of God-as-One-and-All, and the intercultural interpretation of the gods that went with it, as cosmotheism.

For a further account of this cosmotheistic sensibility, we can turn reliably to the ancients themselves. As early as the Kassite period of Bronze-Age Mesopotamia, lists were written not only relating the names of deities in Akkadian and Sumerian, which were spoken by members of the same cultural bloc—and in which lists of this sort were already in existence—but now also in Kassite, Amorite, Hurrian, and Elamite, thus translating across truly distinct cultures.[6] Greeks living in Cyrene visited a temple of Zeus Ammon in the Siwa Oasis; a distinctive Gallo-Roman religion, in which the gods were addressed by double names, developed from the Roman conquest of the Celts; and so on. The examples of such cross-cultural interpretations (as in the case of the Sumerians, Kassites, and so on) and syncretic formations of new cultural paradigms (as in the case of the Gallo-Roman development) are innumerable.

Tacitus, in his study of the ancient Germans, while nonetheless considering their practice of human sacrifice to be unlawful, quite easily renders their primary deities into Roman terms:
Mercury is the deity whom they chiefly worship, and on certain days they deem it right to sacrifice to him even with human victims. Hercules and Mars they appease with more lawful offerings. Some of the Suevi also sacrifice to Isis.[7]
Plutarch says in his work on Egyptian religion:
Nor do we think of the gods as different gods among different peoples, nor as barbarian gods and Greek gods, nor as southern and northern gods ; but, just as the sun and the moon and the heavens and the earth and the sea are common to all, but are called by different names by different peoples, so for that one rationality which keeps all these things in order and the one Providence which watches over them and the ancillary powers that are set over all, there have arisen among different peoples, in accordance with their customs, different honours and appellations.[8]
In the last book of Apuleius' Metamorphoses, Lucius invokes the Queen of Heaven by four names: Ceres, Venus, Diana, and Proserpina, which themselves could be easily rendered in Greek: Demeter, Aphrodite, Artemis, and Persephone. In her reply, she refers to herself by no less than eleven names:
Lo, I am with you, Lucius, moved by your prayers, I who am the mother of the universe, the mistress of all the elements, the first offspring of time, the highest of deities, the queen of the dead, foremost of heavenly beings, the single form that fuses all gods and goddesses; I who order by my will the starry heights of heaven, the health giving breezes of the sea, and the awul silences of those in the underworld: my single godhead is adored by the whole world in varied forms, in differing rites and with many diverse names.

Thus the Phyrgians . . . call me Pessinuntia . . .; the Athenians . . . call me Cecropeian Minerva; the Cyprians . . . call me Paphian Venus, the . . . Cretans Dictynna, the . . . Sicilians Ortygian Proserpinel to the Eleusinians I am Ceres. . ., to others Juno, to others Bellona and Hecate and Rhamnusia. But the Ethiopians . . . together with the Africans and Egyptians who excel by having my original doctrine honor me with my distinctive rites and give me my true name of Queen Isis.[9]
Note that the translatability of distinct cultures by means of common archetypes does not imply that these cultures were the same, or that their differences were merely superficial (Greco-Roman Isis religion, with its habit of addressing the goddess by so many names, is itself a distinct cultural development). Indeed, the very act of translation presupposes that there are meaningful differences. Translation is a crossing of boundaries, and non-existent boundaries cannot be crossed. We may use the analogy of language to illustrate the mutual conditioning of translatability and heterogeneity.

In Spanish, the verb tocar has several meanings which have separate words in English. Tocar una cosa, for example, means to touch something, but tocar la guitarra means to play the guitar. This demonstrates that there is no precise equivalent for the word tocar, in all its shades of meaning, in English. These different senses of the words are nonetheless translatable.

Likewise, the Egyptian figure of Thoth and the Greek figure of Hermes were seen as reflecting a common divine essence, despite noted differences. Thoth for the Egyptians is the scribe of the gods, and is said to have given language and science to mankind. Hermes is also responsible for language and is the messenger of the gods, but traditionally he is portrayed more as clever and cunning than book-wise as Thoth is.[10] He is also a psychopomp, which Thoth is plainly not. These differences were not enough, however, to prevent the center of Thoth's cult in Khmun from being called Hermopolis. Hermes' role as psychopomp, in fact, gave him an affinity with the Egyptian Anubis, and the two were rendered during the period of Roman rule in Egypt as Hermanubis.

What is fundamental, of course, to this pre-Mosaic understanding of divinity is not that the gods were translated, but rather that they were not deemed categorically "true" and "false", as they were understood to be present in nature. This sense of common truth, combined with the presence of very real boundaries of meaning and practice, is what allows for any kind of translation in the first place, linguistic or otherwise.

Thus the Mosaic distinction created a new understanding of religion: one of "true" and "false" gods, "righteous" and "heretical" customs, revealed creeds versus "idolatry". It made different systems of myth and ritual opaque to one another, rather than translatable by means of underlying commonalities in the figures and narratives by which these systems made reference to the divine. In so doing, it also created a new kind of violence. War in what we would call Classical Antiquity was not waged in the name of "spreading the true faith" or "destroying false gods"; the very concept of a "false god" does not seem to have been established. Traditions which adhere to the Mosaic distinction, and thus have within themselves an impetus for such violence, are counter-religions, for they frame themselves in contradistinction to all other religions.

III. Mnemohistory and the Genius of the Discourse

Egypt functions as the emblem of this "otherness" or "falsehood". The remembrance of Egypt is, in the Mosaic tradition, part of a "constellative myth" or a "Tale of Two Countries", as Assmann puts it, which frames Egypt as a rejected past, a past which has been overcome, a previous state from which one has been converted. The calling forth of this past can serve another purpose, however: that of deconstructing the Mosaic distinction.
If the space of religious truth is constructed by the distinction between "Israel in truth" and "Egypt in error," any discoveries of Egyptian truths will necessarily invalidate the Mosaic distinction and deconstruct the space separated by this distinction.[11]
Thus the Mosaic distinction is maintained by the very same method which allows us to deconstruct it, that is, by remembering Egypt. This recalls our discussion of metaxy earlier; the distinction connects what it divides, and what lies between is what allows for movement in either direction:
[I]t is as a neuter plural (τὰ μεταξύ), referring to “intermediate” or “in-between things”, that the metaxy occurs in Plato’s Gorgias (468a), where Socrates discovers through dialogue with Polus that there is a neutral class of things, qualities, states and actions which are neither good nor bad (τὰ μήτε ἀγαθὰ μήτε κακά). While our actions may in themselves be neutral or intermediate (Socrates gives the examples of sitting, walking, and running), we always act in pursuit of the good, however. Even evil actions are committed for the sake of the good; they are evil as a result of their agents’ perverted understanding, whereby the Good and the Truth become obnubilated in the soul.[12]
In this case, what has been obnubilated is Egypt, and what lies between is memory. Just as we always act in pursuit of the Good, movement in either direction across the Mosaic distinction puts us in the pursuit of remembering Egypt; whether we affirm or deny the falsehood of the gods, we are keeping the memory of Egypt alive, as an anchor for either affirmation or contradistinction. Hence the importance of mnemohistory, that field of history whose distinction from others is that it is not concerned with what actually happened as much as with how what happened was (and is) remembered. Thus in tracing the Moses-Egypt discourse from Antiquity to the 20th century, Assmann is undertaking a mnemohistorical study, thereby uncovering the metaxy, the in-between space, of the Mosaic distinction.

Hence the subtitle of the book: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism. For Moses and the traditions which have followed him, Egypt is important not for what it was but as a reified "other", a memory of the rejected "pagan" past—"And I that am the LORD thy God from the land of Egypt..."[13] Likewise, any tradition which seeks to retrace history in order to overcome the Mosaic distinction must involve its own memory of Egypt. Assmann wants to place this sense of memory in the context of actual Egyptian history, in order to shed light on the origins and effects of the memory. He also wants to make a more general illustration of the reception of Egypt:
Mnemohistory is reception theory applied to history. But "reception" is not to be understood here merely in the narrow sense of transmitting and receiving. The past is not simply "received" by the present. The present is "haunted" by the past and the past is modeled, invented, reinvented, and reconstructed by the present. To be sure, all this implies the tasks and techniques of transmitting and receiving, but there is much more involved in the dynamic of cultural memory than is covered by the notion of reception. It makes much more sense to speak of Europe's having been "haunted" by Egypt than of Egypt's having been "received" by Europe.[14]
Indeed, as we'll see later, it is not only the Mosaic memory of Egypt that the West has inherited, but important traces of the Egyptians' own memories of counter-religion which survived into Late Antiquity—all the better for uncovering the metaxic "neutral ground" which lies between them. Assmann thus wants not only to understand the memory of a rejected Egypt in its "mythomotoric" function for the Mosaic tradition, but more broadly to elucidate the thematic patterns underlying the entire Moses-Egypt discourse, to perform a "mnemohistorical discourse analysis" which "investigates this concatenation of texts as a vertical line of memory and seeks out the threads of connectivity which are working behind the texts: the intertextuality, evolution of ideas, recourse to forgotten evidence, shifts of focus, and so forth."[15]

In performing this analysis, Assmann says, a heretofore neglected phase in the "haunting" of Europe by Egypt is brought to light, namely that of Egyptomania which "starts in the latter half of seventeenth century and culminates in the time of Napoleon". This phase is important because it "is different from that of the Egyptophilic Renaissance in that is has worked through... the hostile reactions of orthodoxy"[16] and has built itself on a firmer ground of historical criticism. It has merged, in the context of Egypt, a Hermetic discourse, a "hieroglyphic" discourse ("the Egyptian script (mis)understood as pure conceptual writing (Begriffschrift)"[17]), and a Biblical discourse; it does so by means of the conception of an unrevealed "monotheism", in which Nature Herself is deity, which is thus important to the project of constructing the mediating figure of Moses the Egyptian. This period of post-Renaissance Egyptomania is of more interest to Assmann's book than it is to our discussion here, but we must acknowledge it as a significant part of the broader discourse in which we are participating.

Assmann notes that this project will require the input of scholars with expertise outside of Egyptology, but also that Egyptology itself has a crucial role to play:
It might be asked what an Egyptologist could possibly contribute to such a project, which obviously requires very different qualifications. It is necessary to know Egyptian to study the works of these men, who themselves did not know Egyptian. What is required is the combined competencies of a classicist, a scholar of patristic literature, a Hebraist, a Renaissance scholar, a historian of ideas, and a Freudian scholar, whose field is now a discipline in itself. I cannot claim any of these competencies for myself. I am perfectly (and painfully) aware of the all too preliminary character of my observations, which, of course, need to be extended, reviewed, and corrected by the respective specialists. But there is something here which only an Egyptologist can discover, and that is the original impetus which got this discourse started and which survives in an almost miraculous way through all of its transformations and ramifications.[18]
Assmann thus wants to establish "a dialogue with Ancient Egypt... integrating it again into the cultural memory of Europe". He must thus "coloniz[e] the no man's land" between the historical study of Egypt and the fascination or "haunting" which Egypt has exerted on the European mind, and thus make a mnemohistorical examination of Egyptology itself.[19]

For someone who wishes to understand fundamentally the importance of the Mosaic distinction as well as the purpose of mnemohistory, this chapter provides a good enough summation. Most importantly for us, it introduces the genius or daemon of the Moses-Egypt discourse—though for Assmann, "this kind of helpful mystification is, of course, illicit"[20]—which generates myths from the distinctions and constructions therein. We now have a basic portrait of the mythomotor we'll need to become familiar with in order to overcome the distinction whose metaxic space it inhabits, and thus to bring the fruits of the discourse to bear on a European religious perspective.

IV. Akhenaten: The First Counter-Religion
Now that we have explained the Mosaic distinction, its metaxic space which consists in the remembrance of Egypt, and the aims of mnemohistory, we can delve a bit further into the history behind the relevant memories. In the second chapter of Moses the Egyptian, the religious antagonism underlying the constellative myth of Israel and Egypt is further explained, and the Egyptians' own memory of the events of the Amarna period—to the extent that such can be traced, since Akhenaten was subject to damnatio memoriae after his death—is discussed. Though Assmann cautions us that to affirm outright that Moses was Akhenaten is to operate in "a field which could be characterized as 'science fiction' applied to the past instead of the future",[21] mnemohistory tells us that there is at least some historical connection between these two figures.

To establish such a connection, we must begin with King Amenophis IV, that is, with Akhenaten. Assmann notes that one could trace religious antagonism in Egypt to its conquest by the Hyksos, a Palestinian people, about three centuries earlier. The Hyksos ruled Egypt for over a century, and the experience of Hyksos rule remained in Egyptian memory. But "there was certainly no religious conflict between the Hyksos and the Egyptians",[21] because the Hyksos, who worshipped Baal, did not impose their cult on the Egyptians, let alone destroy Egyptian sacred sites or objects.

Thus the earliest "purely religious conflict" we have any certainty of is that instigated by Akhenaten, and as it turns out, a plague broke out across the Near East around the end of the Amarna period. This experience must have added to the horror of Amarna counter-religion, and together they "formed the trauma that gave rise the phantasm of the religious enemy".[22]

Among both the priestly class and the common people, there was reason to see Akhenaten's revolution as a shocking act of sacrilege and destruction: for the former, the performative construction of order on earth by means of ritual had been interrupted; for the latter, the gods, who were understood to be present outside their temples during festivals—"[e]very major Egyptian religious feast was celebrated in the form of a procession"[23]—were now continually absent.

Thus the Amarna revolution was a civic disruption as well as a spiritual one, and the two qualities are rather difficult to distinguish:
The Egyptian idea of the city was thus centered on and shaped by the religious feasts. The city was the place on earth where the divine presence could be sensed by everyone on the occasion of the main processional feasts. The more important the feast, the more important the city. The feasts promoted religious participation but also social identification and cohesion. The Egyptians conceived of themselves as members of a town or city rather than as members of a nation. The city was where they belonged and where they wanted to be buried. Belonging to a city primarily meant belonging to a deity as the master of that city. This sense of belonging to a god or goddess was created and confirmed by participation in the feasts. The abolition of the feasts must have deprived the Egyptians of their sense of identity and, what is more, their hopes of immortality. For following the deities in their earthly feasts was held to be the first and most necessary step toward otherworldly beatitude. In the Theban tomb of Pairi there is a graffito which the scribe Pawah wrote in the time of Smenkhkare, the last of the Amarna kings. It is a lamentation for the absent god and it begins which the words: "My heart longs to see you!" Its theme is nostalgia for the sight of Amun in his feast.[23]
This desacralization and even desemioticization of the city and the cosmos, combined with the spread of disease, thus created a devastating experience, the trauma of which was exacerbated by the systematic removal of Amarna from Egyptian memory:
The recollection of the Amarna experience was made even more problematic by the process of systematic suppression whereby all the visible traces of the period were deleted and the names of the kings were removed from all official records. The monuments were dismantled and concealed in new buildings. Akhenaten did not even survive as a heretic in the memory of the Egyptians. His name and his teaching fell into oblivion. Only the imprint of the shock remained: the vague remembrance of something religiously unclean, hateful, and disastrous in the extreme.[24]
Thus the frame of experience which Amarna established, voided of any conscious recollection of what had caused the trauma, was then filled with new experiences as well as reïnterpretations of old ones (the Hyksos, for example, were reïmagined as monolatrists of Seth), "which in their turn had roots in this semantic frame of this nascent image of the Asiatic foe."[25] This semantic frame, as we'll see, is considered by Assmann to be part of the Western inheritance of Egyptian memory. By reading ancient authors from Manetho to Tacitus regarding the story of Moses, we can develop a better picture of how this semantic frame was established.

V. Traces of Amarna: The Classical Reception of Moses
Assmann goes on to describe how Egyptian oral tradition retained traces of the Amarna experience; by elucidating these traces, we are not only able to acquire a better understanding of how counter-religion was experienced by Egypt (i.e., by those who were not counter-religious), but also to get a further sense of the dependence of the Mosaic tradition on Egypt. Manetho, an Egyptian priest who wrote his history of Egypt in the early Ptolemaic period, made an account of such traces.

Flavius Josephus, in his Contra Apionem, seeking to dispel "the various calumnies which the Egyptian historian Apion and other Hellenistic historiographers—mostly of Egyptian provenance—had attributed to the Jews"[26], twice quotes Manetho. His first quote Josephus regards as true; it describes how the Hyksos, after their reign, during which they "treated the population with utmost cruelty", was ended by the king of Thebes, "emigrated into Syria and finally settled in what is now called Judaea."[27] The second version of this origin story Josephus is less happy about:
According to Josephus, Manetho's first version follows the "sacred Scripture" (ta hiera grammata), but his second version is based on popular tales and legends (mutheuomena kai legomena). In Manetho's [second] account, King Amenophis wanted to see the gods. The sage Amenophis, son of Hapu, tells him that he may see the gods if he cleanses the land of lepers. The king sends all lepers with priests among them into the quarries in the eastern desert. Amenophis the sage predicts divine punishment for this inhuman treatment of the sick: they will receive help from outside, conquer Egypt, and rule for thirteen years. Not daring to tell the king this in person, he writes everything down and commits suicide. The lepers are allowed to settle in Avaris, the ancient capital of the Hyksos. They choose Osarsiph, a Heliopolitan priest, as their leader. He makes laws for them on the principle of normative inversion, prescribing all that is forbidden in Egypt and forbidding all that is prescribed there.[27]
Thus the first commandment Osarsiph gives is "not to worship the gods, not to spare any of their sacred animals, not to abstain from other forbidden food." It is a commandment of normative inversion, by which sacred things are made taboo and taboos are made sacred. This notion of inversion is crucial to the understanding of counter-religion which Assmann articulates, and we will return to it shortly.

The second commandment of Osarsiph "proscribes association with people from outside". Assmann notes that while the first commandment "seems most characteristic of the negative force of a counter-religion", the second commandment would appear to be typical of what Mary Douglas calls an "enclave culture", a threatened minority culture which seeks to avoid being absorbed into the majority culture by means of "a multitude of purity laws":
As Mary Douglas has brilliantly shown, Judaism is the classic case of such an "enclave culture". Therefore, it is very probable that the second commandment, the prohibition of intercourse with outsiders, refers to the Jews rather than to the Amarna religion, especially since the notion of exclusivism, or "amixia," came to be a stereotype of the Classical discourse on Jews and Judaism. The second of the two commandments of Osarsiph would then have to be explained as a secondary motif that entered the tradition only after the Egyptians encountered the Jews.[28]
But Assmann cautions us that "the possibility can by no means be ruled out that even the second commandment stems from the older experience", as "the Amarna religion shows some traits of an enclave culture as well", and notes the boundary stelae surrounding Amarna which record that the king was sworn not to cross them. This may have had to do with the fear of contagious disease, but it may also have been done for "fear of contagion of a more spiritual kind". Assmann notes that it is "revealing" to make such an association between the idea of an enclave culture and the experience of Amarna.
Moreover, the prohibition of contact with outsiders can be more generally interpreted as the negation of mutual religious translatability. It then has to be seen against the background of ancient polytheism, which encourages and enforced intercultural communication.[28]
The story of Osarsiph continues, as he fortifies the city and invites the Hyksos, long since expelled from Egypt, to join them in their revolt. The Hyksos return; the king, remembering the prediction, flees to Ethiopia with the sacred animals. The lepers and the Hyksos then rule Egypt "for thirteen years in a way that makes the former Hyksos rule appear like a Golden Age in the memory of the Egyptians."[29] Towns and temples are destroyed and the sanctuaries are "turned into kitchens" where the sacred animals are cooked. Osarsiph then takes the name Moses. Finally, Amenophis and his grandson Ramses return from the south and drive out the lepers and the Hyksos.

Assmann notes that, despite Josephus' reading of this story as a "counterhistory", as Amos Funkenstein would put it[29], it is actually a recording of an oral legend that apparently had many versions. He then goes on to recount the variants of the Moses story—Manetho is the only one to call him Osarsiph—which were told by other authors: the Greeks Hecataeus of Abdera and Lysimachus; Chaeremon of Alexandria, the Egyptian priest and bookkeeper who tutored a young Nero; the Gallo-Roman historian Pompeius Trogus; the Jewish author Artapanos (who describes Moses "ethnically as a Jew but culturally as the founder of Egyptian religion and civilization" and thus writes a "pure counterhistory in Funkenstein's sense of the term"[30]); Tacitus; Plutarch; the Egyptian grammarian Apion (the namesake of Josephus' Contra Apionem); and Strabo.

VI. Normative Inversion, From Without and Within
Among those listed above, we will linger here only on the accounts of Tacitus and Strabo, because of their emphasis on the principle of normative inversion which we established earlier as important to the understanding of counter-religion. Tacitus describes Moses as instituting "a new religion which is the exact opposite of all other religions (novos ritus contrariosque ceteris mortalibus indidit)"[31]. He explains that this religion conceives of god monotheistically and aniconically, rejecting the divine images as impious.

Tacitus further notes that "the Jews consider everything that we keep sacred as profane and permit everything that for us is taboo (profana illic omnia quae apud nos sacra, rursum concessa apud illos quae nobis incesta)."[31] As Assmann puts it:
In Tacitus, the characterization of Jewish monotheism as a counter-religion which is the inversion of Egyptian tradition and therefore totally derivative of, and dependent on, Egypt reaches its climax.[32]
Strabo's account emphasises Moses' rejection of images, and attributes to him a pantheistic conception of deity in which the representation of god in zoomorphic images, as in Egyptian tradition, is fundamentally inadequate in relation to such an all-encompassing being.[33] This sense of "idolatry" as inferior initiation, rather than outright impiety, is of a Stoic character rather than a Biblical one; "the coincidence in the refusal of images is purely formal."[34] Nonetheless, this notion of monotheism as a break from tradition and a rejection of prior rituals is important, because it supplies a more appropriate definition of monotheism than the one to which we are accustomed:
The decisive feature of the monotheistic movements is their revolutionary, "idolophobic," or iconoclastic character. They are counter-religions which are born out of "dissatisfaction" with tradition.[35]
Note that this picture of inversion is not merely the product of the biased account of Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians. Much the same account of the Mosaic Law is given by Maimonides, who writes in his Guide for the Perplexed that Moses intended a sort of therapeutic legislation which would remove all trace of "idolatry":
We have shown in our large work, Mishneh-torah (Hilkot, ‘Abodah-zarah, i. 3), that Abraham was the first that opposed [idolatry and magic] by arguments and by soft and persuasive speech. He induced these people, by showing kindness to them, to serve God. Afterwards came the chief of the prophets, and completed the work by the commandment to slay those unbelievers, to blot out their name, and to uproot them from the land of the living. Comp. "Ye shall destroy their altars," etc. (Exod. xxxiv. 13). He forbade us to follow their ways; he said, "Ye shall not walk in the manners of the heathen", etc. (Lev. XX. 23). You know from the repeated declarations in the Law that the principal purpose of the whole Law was the removal and utter destruction of idolatry, and all that is connected therewith, even its name, and everything that might lead to any such practices, e.g., acting as a consulter with familiar spirits, or as a wizard, passing children through the fire, divining, observing the clouds, enchanting, charming, or inquiring of the dead. The law prohibits us to imitate the heathen in any of these deeds, and a fortiori to adopt them entirely. It is distinctly said in the Law that everything which idolaters consider as service to their gods, and a means of approaching them, is rejected and despised by God; comp. "for every abomination to the Lord, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods" (Deut. xii. 3 1).[36]
Indeed, Maimonides uses this principle to construct his image of the "Sabians", that is, the "idolaters" whose rites Moses legislated against:
Maimonides' Sabians are an imagined community which he created by applying Manetho's principle of normative inversion in the opposite direction. Manetho was familiar with Egyptian tradition and imagined a counter-community based upon the inverted mirror image of Egyptian mores. Maimonides was familiar with normative Judaism and imagined a pagan counter-community—the 'ummat a'aba—as the counter-image of Jewish law. If the Law prohibits an activity x there must have existed an idolatrous community practicing x. The truth of both counter-constructions lies in the negative potential and antagonistic force of revelation or counter-religion.[37]
Thus both sides of the Mosaic distinction, with their mutual counter-constructions in both inherited memory and derivative reïmagination, agree that one side is the inversion of the other. Thus, irrespective of how factually accurate the stories told on either side about Moses may be, they both express the truth of what counter-religion is in relation to what exists outside it: the former semiotically and morally inverts the latter and thus denies any independent truth in the latter. A counter-vocabulary is thus coined to describe and account for other religions as a contiguous image of what is to be opposed: "paganism", "heathenry", "idolatry", "unbelief", "apostasy", and so on.

This means that while both sides are affirming the antagonistic quality of counter-religion, they are by the very same fact denying one another's conceptions of the divine and thus of the world. To turn on its head the statement we made in the introduction, this connection is simultaneously and necessarily a separation. Both sides remember one another in a negative light, but this shared negativity is grounded in unshared, and indeed mutually opposed, portions of the memory of what happened in Egypt.

VII. Reception and Dependence: Asymmetry in the Memory of Egypt

We have "a conspicuous case of distorted and dislodged memory" with the story of Moses and the lepers. Assmann argues that a "crypt" was formed in Egyptian collective memory, in which the dislocated recollections of the traumatic experience of Akhenaten's monotheistic revolution were made subject to various alterations. He notes that on both sides of this "constellative myth", Israel and Egypt, the other is seen in a "dark affective shading": in the Biblical account of the Exodus, "the Egyptians are shown as torturers and oppressors, as idolaters and magicians", while "in the Egyptian account, the 'Jews' are shown as lepers, as impure people, atheists, misanthropes, iconoclasts, vandals, and sacrilegious criminals."[38]

While "it would be most instructive to confront these different versions with what could constitute historical evidence," there is only one historical event which has not only archaeological evidence but also semantic conformity to these stories of plague and expulsion: the Hyksos period in Egypt.[38] Assmann agrees with Josephus and with Egyptologist and archaeologist Donald B. Redford that "the Hyksos' sojourn in, and withdrawal from, Egypt was all that happened in terms of historical fact" and that "different memories of these events lived on in the traditions of Canaan and Egypt."[39] Thus we have an archaeologically verifiable anchor by which to draw our mnemohistorical portrait:
The Hebrews merely fell heir to the Canaanite part of these memories. If we accept this theory, we are in a position to evaluate the stages of its transformation and to recognize its direction. The Hyksos stayed in Egypt not as slaves but as rulers. They withdrew from Egypt not as finally released slaves but as expelled enemies. The inversions which the Hebrew tradition imposed on the historical facts find their explanation in the semantic frame of the covenant-and-election theology.[39]
The Egyptian part of these memories, then, was inherited by the West, forming "the phantasm of the religious Other and the phobic idea of conspiracy and contagion" which "never ceased to haunt Europe". He thus argues that "it is important to trace this history back to its origin, with the hope that this anamnesis and 'working-through' may contribute to a better understanding and an overcoming of the dynamics behind the development of cultural or religious abomination."[40]

Here we must return to our discussion of metaxy, for it allows us to explain in further depth the understanding of the Mosaic distinction as "totally derivative of, and dependent on, Egypt". The acknowledgement of an intervallic space between religion and counter-religion, or in this case between Egypt and Moses, should not be taken as an implication of symmetry. What the above accounts from Classical authors, taken together with the Biblical account, make clear is that there is a fundamental asymmetry surrounding the Mosaic distinction. One side is independent; the other dependent. One side supplies the metaxic space with content simply by being remembered; the other, in its rejection of what is remembered, uses the content of the former as fuel for a counter-narrative. One side was traumatized by the experience of the other; the other remembers the traumatized as oppressors.

This asymmetry, and thus the framing of its metaxic space, may provide the key to its own overcoming. It tells us not only what the Biblical and Classical accounts owe to Egypt, but also in what manner they relate to each other. The implications of this relationship, and the method thereby provided for transcending the Mosaic distinction, will require explication elsewhere.

[1] George Spencer-Brown, Laws of Form, 1972, pp. 3.
[2] Plotinus, Enneads, c. 270, IV.3.11 (trans. Stephen MacKenna and B.S. Page).
[3] Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, 1997, p. 1.
[4] Idem, p. 2.
[5] Jan Assmann, Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism, 2008, p. 69.
[6] See idem, p. 54, as well as Mark S. Smith, God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World, 2010, pp. 41-43, and Theophilus G. Pinches, "The Language of the Kassites", from The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 49, issue 1, January 1917, p. 112.
[7] Tacitus, De origine et situ Germanorum, 98, IX (trans. Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb).
[8] Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, c. 100, 67 (trans. Frank Cole Babbitt).
[9] Apuleius, Metamorphoses, c. 165, XI.5.
[10] Walter J. Friedlander, The Golden Wand of Medicine: A History of the Caduceus Symbol in Medicine, 1992, p. 69.
[11] Idem [3], p. 8.
[12] Alistair Ian Blyth, "The Seductiveness of the Metaxy", 2009.
[13] Hosea XII:9, KJV; see also Exodus XX:2.
[14] Idem [3], p. 9.
[15] Idem, p. 16.
[16] Idem, p. 19.
[17] Idem, p. 18.
[18] Idem, p. 21.
[19] Idem, p. 22.
[20] Idem, p. 17.
[21] Idem, p. 24.
[22] Idem, p. 25.
[23] Idem, p. 26.
[24] Idem, pp. 28-29.
[25] Idem, p. 29.
[26] Idem, p. 30.
[27] Idem, p. 31.
[28] Idem, p. 32.
[29] Idem, p. 33.
[30] Idem, p. 36.
[31] Tacitus, Historiae, c. 105, V.IV.
[32] Idem [3], p. 37.
[33] Strabo, Geographica, c. 23, 16.2.35.
[34] Idem [3], p. 226 (footnotes to pages 36-42).
[35] Idem, p. 39.
[36] Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, c. 1190, p. 317.
[37] Idem [3], p. 58.
[38] Idem, p. 40.
[39] Idem, p. 41.
[40] Idem, p. 44.


The Saturday detention that never came, or: How I learned to laugh at public schools

They told me I could be mistaken for an intruder.

This was the same school that made all of us wear IDs on our chests for that very same reason. I had my ID. My beard's even in the picture—next to an incorrect spelling of my name.

I told them I wouldn't shave it. There was no reason to.

Them as in other kids. As in most of my teachers, who couldn't be bothered to really bust me. They had more important things to do than harass a 16-year-old for having a goatee. My art teacher—who had a bit of facial fuzz herself—was different. Told me she'd "write me up"—give a referral to one of the assistant principals. The assistant principal told me I belonged in in-school suspension. The in-school suspension supervisor told me I needed to "learn my place". To me it was clear that I didn't have a place—not in this top-heavy human centipede of a school, anyway. There were about as many counselors and assistant principals as there were teachers, half the students never read anything longer than a text message, and there was a fight every other week. But the real problem worth correcting? My beard, clearly.

To write one up. To learn one's place. The oft-heard phrasal verbs of school reprimand.

This wasn't the first opportunity they'd taken to needlessly occupy my supposedly important class time—they'd messed with me three months earlier about not having an ID, back on the first day of the policy's implementation. It was a Monday. They'd warned us all the previous week about the "ID sweep" they'd be making of the school: all students without IDs on their shirts would be rounded up from every classroom and given a detention or whatnot.

I'd gone that last Friday to the cafeteria—the commons, they called it—to get the ID they'd made me. One assistant principal's favored bootlicker, who was tasked with handing out tenth-grade IDs, had taken ten minutes and still couldn't find mine. He said I could come back Monday. So I did—and I was "swept", along with a few hundred other kids from around the school, down to the commons, where the several principals sat at a table giving out detention forms for the following Saturday. When I got up to their table, I tried to explain what had happened. "I don't care", one of them said. "Saturday detention." I tried again—"No, sir, listen"—he didn't care. He had other students to carelessly reprimand, and I was holding up the line. I told the principals I wasn't going to sign the form. I didn't deserve Saturday detention—I'd done as I was told, and had been polite in doing it. The principals were all engrossed in their petty bureaucratic harassment session, so they told me just to sit down in a chair a few feet away from the table: "We're not here to argue with you."

I was missing my second-period chemistry class. I sat in the chair for a good ten minutes or so before asking the principals if they were ready to deal with me. I was told to sit back down. It was obvious they weren't paying much attention, so I got up and wandered around the commons a bit, then decided to just walk back to class. They had nearly the entire faculty packed into the commons to deal with the rulebreakers—when a just-implemented rule is being broken by half the school, you'd think the rule might be reëvaluated—so my stroll through the halls was unsupervised.

When I got back to class, I told my chemistry teacher that I'd been let off with a warning. Five minutes later I had to go to third period—architectural graphics, which I might have found fun if it hadn't been a class. The teacher told me to go back to the commons to obtain my ID—not knowing, of course, the events of the previous hour—so I did. I went in, sat back down in the same chair I'd been sitting in thirty minutes before, and realized that none of the principals had even noticed my absence—incompetence at its most convenient. I went from there to one of the several tables of office workers handing out IDs, away from the principals. I evaded their detection and ended up getting my ID more or less uneventfully. I never did get in trouble for refusing to sign that detention slip.

All that was in November. Fast-forward, back to January where they're waging war on my beard. I got one day of in-school suspension and went back to my classes as normal the next day.

One of the best things about Texas is that homeschooling is legally allowed and socially accepted. One of the worst things about Texas is that the public schools exist anyway.

I left the State about a week after that, so no further abuse came to me for growing my facial hair. Florida's got its own public schools, of course, but they took a different view of such things; everyone I met there was shocked to hear of the draconian tendencies of my previous school. Forced to shave? Forced to wear an ID on your chest? "That's crazy, dude."

Not to say that Florida's educational facilities didn't have their own risible regulations. At my high school there, the main hallway, which was circular, was "one-way"—walking counterclockwise was a punishable offense. So was not wearing a tucked-in, collared shirt. Said shirt had to be one of four colors—black, grey, white, or maroon, as I recall—apparently to prevent the wearing of gang colors. Improving the school's demographics by kicking out the criminally-inclined "students" among us would be a massive no-no, of course, so we all had to deal with these silly and largely ineffectual strictures. I didn't mind this much, since I got to keep my prized beard.

At one point at this same school in Florida, I tried to change one of my classes to Advanced Placement. The counselor I normally talked to referred me to the head of the AP department, who sent me to another lady, who had me talk to a fourth counselor, who sent me back to the first one. A bureaucratic loop so simple and unassuming in its stupidity that I could not help but admire it.