More commonly known as ‘The Virgin Mary’, ‘Holy Mother of God’, or ‘Jesus’ old lady’, Saint Mary is very interesting. As the mother of Jesus she is considered by many as the greatest, most holy of saints.
I mention in other articles in this series how early Christianity owes an awful lot to women. Jesus himself had female followers, whose role as disciples seems to have been downplayed by a male dominated church. The most famous is probably Mary Magdalene. His mother Mary is another significant woman in the Christian tradition.
Women were also important for their role as leaders, prophets and preachers in the early Christian movement – when it was still basically a Jewish sub-sect. This is apparent even in scripture, especially the Pauline Epistles – the Letters of Paul that make up a huge amount of the New Testament. In them Paul mentions meeting in women’s houses, where they were leading a home-church, and of their activity as preachers, teachers and a very public face of Christianity in the Roman Empire.
Even once Christianity took on a more patriarchal and sexist attitude, they could not deny the importance of women, though they tried. Jesus’ female followers were effectively scrubbed. Sometimes they can be seen standing in the background of artistic pieces. But some aspects of femininity and its importance could not be denied, even by a church determined to be a right bloody sausage-fest, and the Holy Mother is a perfect example of that.
She’s also got some stunning imagery and the motif of “The Virgin and the Child”, a glowing Mary, usually dressed in dazzling blue robes, holding a beautiful infant Christ, has been reproduced by so many artists, with such beauty.
But I’m not really interested in her for that. It’s when we get to the comparative that my ears twitch and a smile comes over my face. You see Mary is also sometimes referred to as the “Queen of Heaven” and this epithet, this title, puts her in esteemed company for what is, seemingly, a universal symbol. A feminine ruler of the heavens.
Even in religions of the most sexist of cultures female Gods are present, and can often be very important. Hera, or Juno, in the Greco-Roman pantheon, Inanna or Ishtar in the Sumerian-Babylonian pantheon, Isis of the Egyptian pantheon and the ancient Semitic goddess Anat all bore this title of ‘Queen of Heaven’, or ‘Queen of the Heavens’.
It is widely considered that the Greco-Roman pantheon owes a lot to the Gods and Goddesses of the East. In that tradition there were many feminine rulers of heaven, such as those mentioned above. The symbolism of Mary being referred to this way is huge, then!
I can only speculate as for reasons why. Obviously as the mother of Jesus Mary is a significant figure in Christianity but her being placed in a position of reverence may also have helped early Christians adapt to their new religion, especially if they were following ancient pantheistic (multiple gods) religions. Perhaps it was deliberate, a specific intent to put the mother of Jesus on equal or greater footing than other prior female deities. Or could it be that the symbol of the ‘mother’ – however she is portrayed – is something of importance to a human psyche that, as a reproductive animal, places a massive weight of importance on parenthood? After all one of the first demands God makes of humankind is “…Be fruitful and multiply…” (Genesis 1:28).
What I do know is all of this places Mary as a very important figure not merely in Christianity, but in the study of the culture and influence of worship and religion itself. That’s cool!
Want to know about more saints? Read our full list.
CONTENT WARNING: Contains an image of a dead saint. Also some sacrilege and blasphemy, probably.
Yeah, unfortunately this is a case of the morning after the night before. The secularised celebration of Halloween (31st October) very much absorbed the Christian All Hallows’ Eve (31st October) the adjacent All Saints’ Day (1st November) and All Souls Day (2nd November).
What is All Saints’ Day? It’s a pretty self-explanatory thing. It is the official celebration of all saints. Many saints have their own festivals, days and celebrations but with a huge range of saints to choose from some people were bound to be excluded. As such celebrations of just about everyone holy have been going on since around the 4th century CE. All Souls’ Day is the equivalent for standard dead people. This time of year, then, is about remembrance of the dead.
I can’t blame you for not really knowing about, or caring about, the saints. Those Christians did get a bit Pokémon after a while. They added too many and muddled up the designs. Did they have their Klefki moment? Well there’s Saint Zita, the patron saint of domestic servants and maids, and also lost keys! That’s not an association she has, it’s a role she has as recognised by the church. They gave her the role of being patron of lost keys.
What is a Saint? It is literally someone holier than thou. They are people the church considers to have had a particular closeness to God, often they are renowned for performing miracles, perhaps they were a martyr, or perhaps they just devoted themselves especially to worship. In some doctrines, indeed theologians correct me if I’m wrong but in most Christian doctrines, everyone who enters the Kingdom of Heaven is a ‘Saint’. So the saints we venerate on Earth are just especially holy people – of course according to the church that canonises (the official process of making a saint) them.
In many ways the saints mirror the multiple major, but especially minor, deities that trace their roots back to pantheism (beliefs in multiple gods) and animism (a belief in the spirit in all things). Many belief systems have their ‘spirits’ of various things; the forests, the rivers, the buildings, the – I dunno – cakes, etc. The saints sort of replicate that through their system of patronage. Saints aren’t just holy people who did some shit, they represent certain things and can be given official recognition, or patronage, of that link by the church.
As mentioned above with Saint Zita. She was herself a domestic servant to a wealthy family of silk merchants in Tuscany, so her being patron of domestic labourers and maids is appropriate. She is said to have been very pious, giving a third of her wages in alms to the poor, a third to her family and keeping only a third for herself. She lived a very holy life by all accounts, hence her canonisation.
Looked at through my atheist eyes it seems like she was just a nice person. But miracles are ascribed to her. For example she is said to have been in charge of baking the bread but one day abandoned her duty to attend to a poor person in need. When she returned to the kitchen, angels had prepared the bread for her. Nobody else could have done it because apparently nobody else knew how to make bread…Seems suss, but welcome to Saints! There’s a lot of suss in there!
If you wish to visit Saint Zita you can do so in the Basilica di San Frediano in Lucca, Italy. Lucca is a lovely town anyway and I’m sad I’m only just learning about Zita for a gag because I definitely would have paid her a visit when I was in Tuscany.
Patronages in Saints, then, are often based upon proximity or association of the person to a place, an activity or a characteristic. This is why we have patron saints of towns and cities, patron saints of jobs and social roles and patron saints of weird shit like unattractive people. I should carry around an icon of Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes!
Karl the Great’s canonisation was declared invalid but Saint Charlemagne, the late Frankish King and Holy Roman Emperor, would definitely be the Patron Saint of Curious Idiots™. He already is in my eyes, which is why I wrote about it.
The many saints and their patronages are an affirmation that God is in everything. The church keeps up with the pace, too. There are patron saints of explosives (Saint Barbara), motorcylists (Saint Columbanus) and the internet (Saint Isidore of Seville). This system means no town, no role, no job, and few phenomena remain untouched by holiness. All is holy and so all has a saint.
Following this I am going to write We Lack Discipline’s Top 5 Favourite Saints (So Far…). I say ‘so far’ because, as mentioned, there’s a saint for everything. There are over 10,000 saints in the Catholic canon, and other Christian groups have their own saints beyond just the Catholic bunch. There are also ‘folk saints’, people who have not been officially canonised but who have a special regard to certain countries, people or groups.
I talk and write about Christianity a lot but I, myself, am an atheist. Why would I write about the subject when I am not a believer? The Christian faith provided the blueprint for western morality. The entire fabric of the societies of nations like Britain, France, Germany and the United States of America is a delicate weave of Christian values and secular ideals. Christianity is still dominant in many areas of the world, western Europe, Central and South America and Africa, for example. There are social conflicts, structures and rights in our times; marriage rights, reproductive rights, gender and sexuality, crime, leadership, governance etc. that all trace root aspects back to Christian values, morals, considerations or organisations – For good or for ill.
This still affects us. I think this makes it very important to study.
There is also another aspect. I may not like the God or the religion as an organisation, but the imagery in Christianity is some of the finest. I love religious architecture, religious art and religious iconography. The saints epitomise this. Their often remarkable lives, or deaths, make fascinating studies for artists who can, in their composition, use a saint or religious figure as an allegory for aspects of the human condition. It all takes on a lot of symbolism and I love looking into that sort of thing, studying its contexts and meanings and how they have changed over time.
So thanks for joining me in this little look at All Saints’ Day and what saints are. Now sit back piously, put on some ambient choral music and enjoy our top 5 saints.
Want to know about more saints? Read our full list.
The personification of animals in modern wildlife documentaries is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand it makes their lives relatable to us, helps us empathise with the ups-and-downs of a wild living, helps us appreciate the wonderful, safe bubble we have built around ourselves and makes an otherwise niche interest very available.
On the downside we have thousands, possibly millions, of people who think lions are wholly adorable when some of the stuff they get up to would make your soul shiver, that meerkats are sweet little advertising mascots when they’re closer to slut-shaming organised crime gangs, and let’s not even speak of the sea otters.
This giving of human characteristics, identifications or symbolism to animals is not new. Like so much humans do there even seems to be some innateness to it. Cultures have been lining animals up to see how they relate to humanity since…well…humanity.
I’ve written multiple times about the Löwenmensch, the roughly 40,000 year old mammoth ivory carving. It is clearly a lion’s head on a person’s body.
I can’t say for sure that the person made that figurine out of any specific worship or reverence for lions. Yet there is something about the figure, something I think people from 40,000 years ago can look at and get exactly the same notion as someone from 40 minutes ago.
We want, to some extent, to be like lions.
We have two concepts at play. Anthropomorphising is the giving of human qualities, characteristics or attributes to animals. Zoomorphism is the giving of animal qualities, characteristics or attributes to humans. Culturally we seem to love doing both.
But this thing gets pretty circular! Seeing qualities in animals we relate to, or seek to emulate, we thus creat art, dance, music, trance-states etc. in order to become like the animal, which makes it more relatable, so we see qualities… etc.
To an extent I think the harsh recognition that we can never be the animal, and the animal can never be us, makes this circular state possible. It’s like orbit, at some point it ought to come crashing down but the angular momentum, those fragments of relatability, just finds a way to make it go around once more.
It also led to a very powerful pantheon of animal symbolism. Over the course of human development animals have come to be icons, symbols, reflecting certain ‘truths’ about ourselves.
What grand purpose, what lofty reason could I have for tackling this topic now?
‘Cause I got a fucking dope pendant!
That’s the honest reason.
You see I don’t really wear jewellery, if we exclude my mandatory peacock phase in my teens. I’ve never really enjoyed it.
Ear piercing never did it for me, I didn’t understand it then and I don’t now. I don’t judge people for having piercings I can just think of no reason I would personally stick a hole in myself to dress it up in sparklies.
Rings are just uncomfortable. I do stuff with my hands – yup get the wanking jokes out now! – But I write, I play guitar, I was dishes, I scrabble about in dirt, among rocks and in the mud. I can feel rings on me at the best of times, but they’re there, when doing stuff I’m always very aware of them.
Watches can piss off. I’ll wear one that can read universal time once physicists have actually puzzled out what the hell time is. Until then I don’t give a shit if it cost £5 or £50,000 what you have on your wrist right there is an arbitrary linear human perception device. I already have one built into my brain so I don’t need a ticking mortality reminder on my wrist. Plus my phone does the job and dangles in a pocket rather than awkwardly straps to my wrist.
So why on earth would I buy something to wear around my neck? I wear shirts at funerals with the top button undone. I’m uncomfortable with stuff around my neck. Why would I inflict discomfort on myself?
The answer is all in the symbols.
What really drew me to this piece was the image of a lion hunting a stag.
I want you to think what that might mean to you. How would you interpret that? Is that a horrifying sight to you and not the kind of thing you want on your person? Perhaps you think it is majestic, beautiful even?
I know it meant something to me.
As I have already said, there’s nothing new about the lion as a symbol. I have written articles about lions, cave lions, about cats in human culture and I’m fairly certain in all of them I mention how lions and humans are kin. We were born in the same cradle of cruelty, radiating from Africa into Europe at around the same time. We competed over resources, hunting much of the same prey, and no doubt admired each other’s prowess from a safe distance.
It is unsurprising, under those circumstances, to find many of our earliest depictions of animals feature lions. From the Löwenmensch, and the cave paintings of Chauvet all the way up to present day as pissed-up football revellers belt “VREELAHN ZAHNA SHERD” which I think is drunk-footballese for “Three lions on a shirt.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that my Greek replica is far from the earliest coin depicting a lion. The kingdom of Lydia (roughly modern Western Turkey) is, as far as we know, the first culture to produce metal coinage. Lions feature heavily, as does the symbolism of the lion facing off against the bull. That lion/bull image is a whole essay in and of itself, that seems to have its roots in Sumerian astronomy and astrology but that puts fingers into cultural pies throughout history.
So given their rich history what do lions as symbols mean? I’d pose that question differently. How many layers of meaning have been given to lions throughout history? It’s a lot and once you get into any sort of interpretation of symbolism you have to accept that different symbols mean different things to different peoples at different times. It’s very situational.
The most obvious meaning is wildness and yet how often do we see the lion, particularly used symbolically, represented as bestially ferocious? It is rarely. You could argue that this is exactly what is happening in my pendant, the ferocious lion is tearing apart the meek and passive stag.
It isn’t! And I’ll elaborate.
The lion as a symbol if I had to sum it up is best represented as ‘light’. The fiery mane of the male lion is an easy association to make with the sun and this appears to have happened. There is also, though, a representation of one’s own light – the self – in it. This seems counter to what a lion is, especially when they had likely been a key danger to humans for tens of thousands of years. So, in a sense this is not a ‘self’ in a conscious way. This lion represents our inner light, our inner illumination or our inner selves.
So why choose such an aggressive, gnarly looking beast for it?
Probably because this symbolism was initiated by people who had actually watched lions and not merely worn out their VHS cassette of The Lion King as a kid and saw some docs on Animal Planet.
For all of their associations with brute force and masculinised alpha-nonsense the male lion is, mostly, a measured creature. People who wish to lionise themselves for their aggression or flashiness do not know lions.
His place in a pride is not to hunt, his place is barely even to involve himself in scavenging disputes (and when he does get involved he’s either hungry or the pride is in serious trouble). The male lion is stately. He is proud, stoic and calm. He fights only when he has to and uses every other behavioural tool in his arsenal to avoid it because when a male lion clashes with a male lion serious damage occurs. Other male lions are some of the biggest dangers lions face in the wild. The males of the pride (and there can be multiple, usually no more than three) thus provide for their community by being the first line of defence against that great harm. They provide the safety and the pride provides the food.
It’s very protection racket, but nature is vicious like that. To me it sounds an awful lot like some kind of warlord shit. One thing the lion represents is royalty, which is fancy-words for warlords. At least it was, until it came to mean undeserved, heritable entitlement.
Of course the other thing, then, is far from being symbolic of a violent light or an uncontrollable beast within perhaps the self that the lion represents is neither conscious nor unconscious. Perhaps it is the reins on those aspects of self. The lion is not our natural cruelty nor is it our stoic passivity. It is the ability to control oneself when either of those is needed.
Exactly traits a monarch may need, too! In the helter-skelter world of the 8th-4th century BCE Mediterranean there were no Kings, Queens or rulers as we’d think of them today. With a few exceptions they were mostly warlords! They were organised bands of self-interested pilferers and pillagers, they dressed themselves up in the regalia of civilisation but they were warlords. We can’t judge them too harshly for it, though, because they were surrounded by other organised bands of self-interested pilferers and pillagers and if you don’t defend your own you will get pilfered and pillaged!
What the lion represents of self, then, is the knowledge, the measure and behavioural control to know when to stand guard, or back down, when to fight the very urge to fight, in order to protect what is valuable; and when to raise your head, roar and let the world know you’re ready to go on a warpath. In a more warlordy sense it is knowing when to sheath your weapon and when to unsheathe it for the best possible outcome.
We all know that the lion is a symbol of royalty, of power and of courage, such is the power of the symbol and the universality of the lion or big cat – but the roots, the sun representation, the tales traced across the stars in the constellation of Leo, this is where the meat comes from. The lion is royalty, with respect. The lion is power, in measure. The lion is courage, where needed. The lion is not mere aggression, the lion is protection. The lion does the right thing.
The lion doesn’t just represent what can be done it is rather a reflection on what should be done. It is a moral agent. It does not necessarily represent the power and illustriousness that comes with being monarch. It is a reminder of the responsibilities that come with the role.
This, also, fits with kind of what happened as moral attitudes and responsibilities changed. What began as an obvious symbol of individual or royal power in the Fertile Crescent morphed into a representation of a greater good, of the power of ‘state’ itself, before becoming a highly charged religious symbol. The lion has been morally guiding us all along. Being secretly controlled by wild big cats would explain a lot about our collective social situation.
What, then, of the stag? Well there’s a tricky one because there are basically deer species all over the damn world and whilst every culture with lion symbolism runs a similar track with it, the old stag, the deer, or the hart – well they mean different things to different people.
Overall it is not dissimilar to the lion. A stag is good, old, upright strength. The hugest difference to note is of course a lion is a predator, whilst even to humans the stag was prey. It was honourable prey, though. The animal stands, its antlers, almost coronal, crown-like, stabbing through the mists as human hunters watchfully gaze. We have reverence for the stag, not like other prey species.
They are often portrayed as symbols of spirituality, of a connection between worlds. I’d wager a solid portion of this is best summed up with the Japanese “Itadakimasu” – usually translated as “Let’s eat!” or “Thanks for the food!” It has its roots in the animist traditions of Buddhism and the respect for the souls of all living things. It can probably be better translated as “I humbly receive.”
You see before meat came in standard cuts, a mutilation of the body it had been, and pre-packaged in supermarkets, before supermarkets were even a thing. Indeed before markets were a thing, humans had to look at an animal, admire an animal, in some hunting traditions ‘become’ or embody that animal (which some cultures still do today), walking a mile in its shoes before they killed it for food. It wasn’t some pointless ritual although it no doubt became ritualised, it was a necessity. If you didn’t get close, stay out of sight, make the animal comfortable and know how it felt, you didn’t get your damn fat and protein and that stuff goes a long way for a small band of hunter-gatherers.
Perhaps the boundary between life and death that the stag inhabits carries some of this hunter’s legacy. To themselves they are wild beasts roaming free, but we know, through hunter’s eyes, when we look at them they’re already dead – at least we hope.
So stags have a reputation as a creature of spiritual mystery, majesty and grace in many cultures, the UK and Ireland, across Europe in Celtic traditions etc. But how would they have been thought of in Ancient Greece?
Not too dissimilarly, though perhaps with a shade less reverence.
Artemis and Actaeon
The stag is probably most associated with Artemis, the amazing goddess of the hunt and, upon my apotheosis, my future wife. I have written an adoring article about her too, if you want some more background. We will focus on the story of Artemis and Actaeon, from Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’.
In Ovid’s telling of this tale Artemis is bathing in a grove with her nymph buddies. She is approached by Actaeon, a deer hunter. He ‘accidentally’ sees her naked and Artemis is so enraged she wants to majorly fuck him up. Unfortunately she doesn’t have her bow to hand so just throws water on Actaeon, slaps a couple of antlers on him, mutilates his form until he’s a stag and then slaps him on the rump and says “fuck off!”
I am, of course, paraphrasing. For all his reputation for gratiutousness and profanity Ovid ain’t got shit on me!
This is from the Brooks More translation available here but we have the wonderful, and telling, lines;
“…His courage turned to fear. The brave son of Autonoe took to flight,”
Autonoe is Actaeon’s mother, by the way.
Here we see one of the key differences in reception between a lion and a stag. There is a clear dividing line between a royal predator and royal prey. The lion stands proud, courageous even when afraid; the stag, though, is afraid and runs.
After being sent on his way Actaeon is torn apart by his own hunting dogs.
I’ve read, so often, that this is about human sacrifice to the Gods. The stag, particularly the white hart, has been used as symbolic of Christ or the Holy Spirit. At least as far as Christian myth goes representing the ultimate sacrifice. Stags are also often depicted in hunting scenes being absolutely, brutally, mauled. The sacrifice idea definitely holds weight.
However I see it a little differently. Actaeon is the hunter become the hunted, a very ironic punishment for what could be construed of as a minor transgression (if we believe he accidentally saw Artemis naked – possible. Or that he didn’t gawp, stare and marvel at her beauty – almost definitely impossible.) Either way it does not matter because who is the hunter to gaze upon the very hunt herself? Artemis is nature, in all her nurturing cruelties. Actaeon, in daring to even objectify her, has transgressed that.
If this were just a matter of sacrifice or humiliation why not transform him into a sacrificial beast? The ancient Greeks would usually sacrifice sheep, goats or oxen. Why not one of those? Why not have another hunter find him rather than his own stag-hunting dogs?
The symbol of the stag here is important, I feel. We are to know that even transformed Actaeon is a potent beast. Indeed it is that very ‘potency’ that Artemis is angered by. Turn him into a goat and she’s just another goat-slayer. She has to show her power, by turning him into that which is considered powerful but that she, herself, controls. She is goddess of the hunt, the very spirit of hunting itself, and it’s not very good sport if you don’t have worthy prey.
Actaeon, such an accomplished hunter he can sneak up on a goddess and her nymphs, is very quickly bested as the most accomplished prey.
In another version of the story I believe Actaeon boasts that he was a better hunter than Artemis and that’s why she kills him. Either way I think my interpretation works. The sacrifice is of less significance to the transformation and Actaeon’s handling of it.
What, then, is the lesson? Besides don’t stop and stare at random naked women you find in the seclusion of a woodland glade, of course?
What we have is the transformation of a human considered strong. He is transformed into a beast known to be hunted, but also considered strong, as well as noble and good sport in the hunt. He is promptly turned into Pedigree Chum. I mean, don’t fuck with Artemis is a good enough lesson but this, to me, is about human impotence in the face of nature.
Artemis represents the ‘higher’ aspect of hunting. She is the brutal beauty, the personification of those hunting practices that had nurtured humans to that point, and a representation of nature’s abundance, but violence. To me at least she represents that cruel duality of what so many people like to call ‘mother earth’. I hate those two words because anyone who has studied anything remotely related to life, the universe and everything knows; if nature is our mother she’s bloody abusive!
Actaeon is hunting when he finds Artemis, a behaviour that could be considered very human but that is also shared with a great deal more of the living world, too. Artemis is, obviously, drop-dead gorgeous. He is transfixed, the very epitome of the human animal, hunting and lusty, gazing at a virgin Goddess. His animal lusts get the better of him and he stares, clearly objectifying the goddess as if a human woman. This might flatter some of your other goddesses, perhaps even causing them to toy with you romantically, but Artemis is famously virginal. She is above human, she is superhuman.
Artemis turns Actaeon into a stag not merely for the sacrifice, those Greek gods used humans like action figures. The very opposite! She delights in her hunt. In many ways you could perceive his transformation as making him more than what he was. A human hunter has weapons, they have dogs, and they have communication and cries and calls to tell those dogs what to do. Artemis strips Actaeon of those, leaving only a challenge. “Stags have got away from you in the past now let’s see how well you do.” And naturally, he fails. The stag is a deliberate choice, he has his cunning, his speed, his strength, he even has a big old pair of antlers. It’s of no use, though, if you don’t know how to use it.
The stag, then, is a worthy adversary. The hart is an opponent to be recognised and respected, but with the knowledge that it is ‘lesser’ and can be destroyed. Certainly to those of us who are lions.
Let’s talk about the coin itself a little.
From what I can find out the piece is a replica of a silver didrachm of Hyele (Velia), and was likely minted around the 4th century BCE, although similar designs appear in Velia in the 6th century BCE and do not vanish from the record until around 275 BCE when an alliance with Rome meant they stopped minting their own currency.
Hyele was a city in Magna Graecia (Greater Greece – the name given by Romans to Greek settlements around the Southern coast of Italy) and is on the Tyrrhenian Sea in Southern Italy where there were many such Greek settlements. It is supposed settlers from Greece began arriving on the Italian peninsula from around the 8th century BCE, and they established many great, ancient cities such as Neapolis (Naples), Massalia (Marseille) and Syracuse (New York…Nah it’s obviously Sicily). They also had a thing for sticking lions on their coins!
It has been pretty much a universal symbol on Hyele’s coins, from first to last. So why did they choose this image?
Well, actually trying to find specifics on what certain images meant to certain cultures is tough. Despite the huge amount of scholarship around coins it’s like the ancient equivalent of trying to figure out why we always eat processed cacao and talk about the weather by watching Tay Zonday’s memetastic, but deeply symbolic, ‘Chocolate Rain’.
That’s why I’ve written a whole article of cultural interpretative bollocks! The actual, contextual meaning has vanished in the tangled cable-drawer of time.
The single lion seems to represent ‘royalty’, or, at the very least, the power of the state or community. It is not necessarily a symbol of an individual. We return to the ‘three lions’ of the England football team. There are no ‘three lions’. Those three lions are not Alan Shearer, Bobby Moore and Sam Allardyce. They are abstract.
However a single lion hunting is not a passive symbol. It is active. And if the single lion represents the courage, power, bravery and domination of the community it is produced for it stands to reason the prey item represents something over which these ‘lions’ have mastery.
Lion Attacking a Horse
Let’s turn to another amazing lion hunting symbol for a moment. The sublime “Lion Attacking a Horse”, a marble sculpture likely dating back to 4th century BCE Greece (around the same time as Hyele was making their coins, and switched from a single, prowling lion to the hunting motif) most associated with Rome.
As mentioned, lions as symbols, especially lions hunting, was not an uncommon theme in the East. Now I’m not quite sure if there are any major events around that time that could have led to the cultural appropriation of Eastern symbols for use in Greek culture. I mean there was that young lad who went on a bit of a rampage, Alexander the Something-or-other, a Macedonian fella who fought against the Achaemenid Persian empire to become King of All Asia.
The meaning, then, could be quite obvious. Our Alexander is the lion and the horse is the Achaemenid Persian culture he bit down on the neck of.
Like with the stag imagery, a horse is not a weak, submissive prey item. They are big, strong and well regarded. For all of their propaganda, and the post-‘300’ pop-culture memes, the Persians were not necessarily thought of, universally, as uncultured, indulgent barbarians by the Greeks. Considering those ‘barbarians’ had battered them – TWICE – by that point it would be hard to call them ‘inferior’ with a straight face. There is enough evidence to show Greeks at the time did regard the Persians, their way of life and their culture. The horse embodies that regard.
This amazing sculpture, with Roman dominion over Greece, was transported to Rome. An ironic symbol as the new lion makes a horse of the old.
Here it is believed the statue stood for a long time. The location it is described as having been found in, a streambed at the base of the Palatine Hill, has led some to believe it was on display at the Circus Maximus, the go-to venue for horse racing and beast hunts. It would be a rather apt location for such a wonderful portrayal of the brutal beauty of nature. It is very realistic and very pathetic.
Sadly all lions age and all lions must one day die. Although if it was at the Circus Maximus it was likely still stood there when the last events and races occurred in the mid-6th century CE, after this it disappears for a few centuries.
Didn’t think this story could get any deeper? Think again! Rome left a lot of old shit behind and the statue, now slightly worse for wear, was found near the bottom of the Palatine Hill at some point before the 14th century CE. By then it had been installed at the Piazza del Campidoglio on the Capitoline Hill.
It was also broken, the rear legs of the lion were ruined, the delicate limbs of the horse long since fractured and the horse’s head removed. Rumours that the sculpture Mafia put it in the bed of a sculpture movie producer are likely overstated.
And that’s where the story ends?
Because this piece, even a fragment of its former self, was so enrapturing to the burgeoning Renaissance movement in Italy and for a couple of hundred years was an historic masterpiece to be admired. But inevitably someone would want to restore it and one Ruggero Bascapé did the job. Who he? He was one of Michelangelo’s students!
This statue, once forgotten to time, is now considered one of the finest examples of classical sculpture, a forgotten symbol of the imperial might of Rome, that had one of Michelangelo’s students fix the broken bits so we get to see the glorious cut-and-shut job it is today and – somehow – it’s all the more beautiful for that journey.
The Killing Bite: A Conclusion
What’s that gotta do with my silly bling?
That imagery that drew me in has been drawing people in for millennia. The compassionate, but brutal portrayal of suffering, the notions of victory and victimhood, they resonate. A lion attacking a prey item is just striking imagery to the human mind.
We have already seen symbols of lions squaring off with, or fighting other creatures before Alexander. This is not a post-Alexander phenomenon and he did not popularise the lion. There are images of the lion attacking a stag on coins from Hyele from before Alexander was even born. They did not take their designs from this ‘Lion Attacking a Horse’, from the suspected influx of Eastern inspired lion imagery Alexander exported with his victories. It just all seemingly flower from the same wellspring.
The image, the symbol of the lion, its use as a symbol of power, strength, victory, conquest, light, life – all of it was thousands of years old before Alex had bridled Bucephalus. It had another meaning to the people of Hyele, perhaps a less fixed one, one where the symbol persevered over centuries exactly because it meant so much, but so broadly its symbolism could change.
It is likely the overarching significance of the lion and the stag is similar to the lion and the horse, or the lion and the bull. Often the lion confronting, or hunting motif is used on coins to commemorate a war or victory, the proud lion conquering a worthy, but ultimately inferior, prey.
It could be purely symbolic, the lion, symbol of life, symbol of the sun, vanquishing this noble beast of the mysterious, spirit-filled forest.
It could be a conquest of consciousness over unconsciousness, a celebration of life vanquishing death.
It could be that the lion is a representation of Artemis herself and this is a celebration of the human will and its triumph over the cruelties of nature under her guidance.
It could be the person who designed it just loved cats and stags.
Frankly I don’t know a lot! That’s why I’m a Curious Idiot™. I do know that the ‘head’ side of the coin is Athena, which was a lovely bonus. She is not my dear Artemis, but in many ways she’s a better friend for it. I’m at home in the woods or the hills, marching with sore feet to the Trumpet Voluntary of the birds in the trees. Artemis gets me at my best.
I’m not so at home in the cities, or with conflict. Having the goddess of the urban, the cultured and the wise next to my heart is a wonderful talisman. I also happen to be bad at conflict and she is also a goddess of war and peace, so have some bonus on your bonus. It means, though, that poor Athena has to be there to comfort me through my worst!
I don’t know a lot. To be honest, we don’t know a lot. The past is an alien place and what feelings images inspired, what thoughts and associations they brought up, is something it is mostly impossible to know. Even when another writes of it we are only hearing their opinion, from their specific sub-culture, for their time. Even where the imagery has a lasting legacy, like the lions and stags, the associations change so much over time that even if the concept is the same it could still be very different in interpretation.
These exercises in symbolism, what words, pictures, animals, concepts etc. would have meant is fascinating because it is so interpretative and requires those deep dives of research I love doing. And there’s never an answer, it’s the everlasting gobstopper of academic interests. This is the wonderful subjectivity of art and I know nothing about that, either!
What I do know is this lion and stag is an enduring image and I spent money I didn’t have on something I didn’t need because it rang a bell inside of me.
To me I am the lion. But I haven’t always been. That’s what makes it so powerful. I actually know much better how to play the stag. My life’s been no bed of roses, and I’ve had my share of teeth on my neck. To see that suffering portrayed so simply, elegantly and compassionately as on this coin, is striking.
Eventually, though, one fights back or dies. In fighting back there is a very real danger that the stag morphs into the lion. Like the moving of the ‘Lion Attacking a Horse’ sculpture from Greece to Rome, an old lion eventually just becomes some other predator’s prey.
The lion is not necessarily me, I’m changeable. But it is who I want to be, I want to bite down on the stag I was in the past.
To me this is a symbol of my control. Control over the fear that had me darting off as a startled stag in the forest. Control over my aggression that once had me attempting to bite the back of the world and inflict so much harm I only ended up hurting myself and the people important to me. It is my responsibility, and my control of those responsibilities. It is my light, and my control of that light.
Perhaps me buying a piece of jewellery, itself symbolic of status and importance, featuring this particular imagery is significant? Perhaps it’s merely a premature mid-life crisis!
Or perhaps it is a gift from me, to me. Perhaps it is me telling me that it’s time to let out my mane, roar and be ready to tackle any stag, myself included, so that I can finally show what I have to offer the world.
If you would like the kind of pendant that inspires a 5,000 word essay don’t forget to follow @Agameganon on Twitter for updates on her online shop. Or the shop is available here (although stock comes and goes so check back later if it’s empty).
I’m done calling it the ‘Men’s Health Crisis’ because all the men I’ve encountered in my life hate suffering, hate pain and hate illness just as much as the next human being. If it’s not the individual men that are the problem there must be more factors involved in what the WHO has recognised as a global crisis in health outcomes for men (try as I might I cannot find the report on the global men’s health crisis, but I have read it previously and if you can find it its is troubling reading). I am done seeing this as a problem with ‘men’, because the evidence would suggest it is mainly about the expectations of what a man is, or should be, in society; that would be the masculine identity.
I say this as, anecdotally at least (though never forget, anecdotes are not data), men do not wish to live in pain, to suffer and struggle through, and most of them do not want to die prematurely. I’ve read that this is a “silent crisis” which to me suggests selective deafness because if even a Curious Idiot™ like me can see it clearly it’s evidently not that silent. Perhaps we are just listening for the wrong things?
What there does seem to be is a significant influence of the idea that to take care of one’s health, to worry or to seek help is not ‘masculine’. Men should suffer, even though few if any of them want to. It is masculine to endure suffering, and feminine to alleviate it. I don’t believe this, but I believe society, as a whole, does and men in particular; even if they are not aware they believe so. Men are supposed to be able to take it. This is not merely an attitude of men to other men since there are a significant number of women out there who enforce this harmful social attitude too.
This crisis comes despite the fact that the majority of medicine’s models are built to the specifications of the average white male, despite the imbalance of numbers of scientists and doctors who are men. Globally there is a pattern of premature mortality, worse health outcomes, and a lack visits to the doctor or other healthcare professionals in men despite the system being fine-tuned for them.
Why? Since my experience dictates men are just as susceptible to pain as anyone else, could there be wider social factors applying pressure? Are men being socially coded to not show it? Is it considered weakness to admit that you are suffering a health problem?
“The higher risk of premature mortality for men compared to women and the large differences among men are almost considered natural phenomena.”
A lot of this is not natural at all! There are a huge number of factors involved but anyone who does not see the intrinsic, masculine coding – that to suffer and endure is manly – is just not looking for it. Most of this is not innately biological and what biological factors are at play are having their effects increased by social expectation to present a masculine identity.
Men are literally killing themselves to prove to everybody how manly they are. Society expects it.
I have heard it said, and read far too many times, that differences in development and risk-seeking behaviour are the reason for a lot of this difference in mortality. Basically men are dumb, do dumb things and die younger because of it. This premature death of men through accident and misadventure allegedly skews the statistics.
However a 2021 paper – available through PNAS here – suggests that whilst this may have been true in prior generations the bulk of the difference today comes from men aged 60+, with youth mortality making only a marginal difference in comparison.
Their conclusions contain things I find it hard to find any data or anecdote to counter;
In essence, “Boys will be boys” kills boys, but not necessarily through things we could apportion blame for, or associate with reckless masculinity, like risk-taking behaviours. Most of it is likely wider social pressure allowing men to exacerbate ill health rather than be seen as unmanly.
According to data from the WHO (link to PDF) ‘road injury’, traffic accidents, are a large factor worldwide, taking approximately 0.47 years off a man’s life. Arbitrary risk-taking or thrill-seeking, though, is not necessarily the reason. The report states that a lot of this is down to gender related factors such as occupation. Men, worldwide, tend to take riskier jobs than women. There are numerous studies showing that men are much more likely to die either of an accident, or else of ill health, caused by their occupation than women.
However, this is nothing compared to the contribution of baseline health factors. The same report has heart disease as the biggest contributor, knocking the equivalent of approximately 0.84 years off of a man’s life. What’s more heart disease is not the lone medical issue causing premature male mortality compared to women. Cancers, respiratory conditions, self-harm and liver disease all show, globally, a greater effect on men’s mortality than they do on women’s.
So why, when as previously stated the medical models are highly favourable to men, is this?
In the UK (but I believe the pattern holds globally) men are often significantly less likely to consult their GP. Considering the UK has free healthcare at the point of service, i.e. we don’t have to pay to see a doctor, this is outrageous.
Let us look closer at heart disease. This is, without a doubt, the leading cause of death in most developed countries. It’s a human weakness, not an exclusively male one and heart disease in women is drastically understudied. However, ischaemic heart disease is approximately twice as prevalent in men as in women according to a 2017 NHS survey. It is predominantly a male health problem.
Typically, a first myocardial infarction (commonly known as a heart attack), will occur around the age of 65.
A heart attack is where blood vessels in the heart are restricted, usually by a clot. This causes a lack of oxygen to the heart tissue, which causes necrosis – tissue death – in the heart muscle. The thing is, whilst the average age of a first ‘attack’ is 65 this is usually after the onset of coronary or vascular issues, ‘furring’ of the arteries for example, caused by a combination of biology, genetics, age and lifestyle risk factors. In essence the signs are usually already there. The symptoms have likely been building for maybe a decade or more. The problem with that is that men between the ages of 16-60 are a lot less likely to visit their GP. A 2010 look at crude rates of consultation from the BMJ suggests men are around 32% less likely to visit their GP than women. A man may even be in excruciating pain, the kind of chest pain, neck and shoulder discomfort associated with a heart attack and choose to ignore it in the moment and ‘sleep it off’ rather than seek help. They suffer and die because of this. This problem does not throw itself out of the window in the face of emergency as you might expect. This runs deep.
What’s interesting to note about this BMJ piece is they go on to look at differences in consultation rates for certain conditions. In that case, where cardiovascular disease is being treated, men are only 5% less likely to visit their GP. This would suggest to me that not going to see your doctor is the biggest issue here. Once men can see the door is open and something has to be done they are perfectly willing to seek help, visit a doctor, and take care of themselves better.
Men who are aware of their heart disease go to the doctor. Men who are unaware…well they have heart attacks than can significantly decrease their long term prognosis (although modern treatment methods have mitigated this a lot) and lower their quality of life, if not kill them. I cannot immediately find data on prognosis in people after a heart attack when they were previously being treated for heart disease versus those who were not. My prediction would be that people who are being treated would, if nothing else, be likely to delay the onset of their first heart attack and have better survival rates. If for nothing else than for their own awareness of their condition and what would indicate a problem with it.
Look, I’m not here to “Woe is me!” or suggest the medical establishment needs to do better – though they clearly need to work harder on recognising and mitigating their own biases (and many, thankfully, do). There are many facets of healthcare I will criticise, especially mental health care which is often woefully inadequate. But in this case this is not a systemic issue with health and this is not exclusively a medical establishment problem. Whilst there are a lot of factors involved the biggest ones, to me, seem to be social and behavioural. The social idea of what a man is supposed to be twinned with social enforcement behaviours and attitudes is a leading cause of premature death in men. This is not merely through bullish, pig-headed defiance in those men, either. Rather the collective data seems to suggest the notion that silently suffering is masculine is a huge, if not the biggest, factor.
There’s a lot of work going on to puzzle this out and try and get men to look after their health a bit better.
I’m a man myself, and I know the pressures. Masculinity is not fixed. It is a plastic concept. It has changed across times and cultures. It is perceived differently in different countries. It is even a completely different concept across socio-economic barriers. What does seem common, however, is that it is not considered intrinsic. Rather it is something which must be ‘proved’. One is not simply a man one must show oneself to be manly. Femininity is permitted, indeed socially expected, to be passive. Masculinity is seen as an active trait.
As a poor man what I can say is that masculinity around me was ‘proved’ by showing ‘strength’. This does not just include risk-taking behaviours; extreme sports, speeding in the car, climbing on rocks you shouldn’t be, drinking to excess etc. but was mostly done through much more casual and insidious means. Carrying a limp without getting it looked at, saying “It’s just a bit of tummy trouble” when you’re in tremendous pain, or surrounding yourself with other people acting in ways detrimental to their health for fear of judgement or social alienation.
If all of your peers smoke and yet you say “Nah, I don’t want a heart attack or lung cancer, thanks!” You will be judged. You will be mocked. You will be called a “Pussy”, a deliberately gendered, effeminising, insult. It is a specific challenge to the idea that you could be masculine. If you do not succumb to the peer pressure you are less of a man and you risk alienation and separation from your peer group.
You may be thinking “Good! They sound like dicks!” but this is poor person’s life we’re talking about here. Those peers may be your only friends and the only network you feel you can trust. They are also, often, your protection from other harmful masculine behaviours. They protect you from other men. I have covered masculine violence in another article and it, too, is horrific reading for any men who want to suggest there is not a problem of violence linked to masculinity. There is and we’re killing ourselves and each other there, too. Men are overwhelmingly, worldwide, the predominant victims of violence. Many of the same mechanisms feeding the violence problem are also feeding the health problem.
These combined factors lead us into a tangled web of misery. These health problems, being enforced by social expectations, cause more health problems, themselves then gendered, increasing social expectation and causing yet more health problems. Whilst COVID-19 may have disrupted the statistics in the last few years, suicide is generally one of the leading causes of death in men aged 20-50, if not the leading cause, claiming the lives of approximately three times as many man than women in the UK; certainly here in the UK but I believe that pattern holds true worldwide. More than misadventure, more than accident or occupational hazard, more than premature heart disease, more than cancer, men aged 50 and under are dying more by their own efforts. This does not strike me as the kind of thing that would manifest in a group of people who had no problem with their sense of personal identity.
The statistics would indicate significantly more women than men suffer mental health conditions. I have even read this as “women have an increased prevalence to mental disorders than men.” This is a statement of fact that totally ignores everything we know about reporting bias. I find this very difficult to believe, to the point of angry protestation. Men are suffering mental health issues, likely in at least equal numbers to women, they are simply not seeking help, getting diagnosed and allowing the numbers to reflect the reality. There is an excellent paper on it in the American Journal of Men’s Health here. A lot is made in the literature of the differences of presentations between male and female mental health disorders, indeed there is a paper looking at how these assumptions manifest in the research, by Smith et al, also in the American Journal of Men’s Health, here. It is suggested women are more likely to exhibit internalising symptoms – depressive behaviours, anxious behaviours, eating disorders etc. Men, meanwhile, have a higher tendency towards acting out – with defiant behaviours, violence or substance abuse for example.
One of the most telling lines in that Smith paper is;
“Research that compares men and women’s mental health neglects the similarities between men and women’s experiences of stress, instead focusing on the different outcomes of stress…”
As a man who has suffered all his life with mental health issues I can tell you that getting pissed up and into a scrap is not a ‘symptom’ of a mental health disorder in the same sense that anxiety, intrusive thoughts, depression etc. are. Acting out is an indicator that this is a person in distress, a person experiencing mental disorder, e.g. anxiety and depression. It’s a self-medication to alleviate the base symptoms! The outcome of the stress is different only because men are not permitted to leave it in its proper place and so displace their suffering.
These men are just as depressed and just as anxious. Unfortunately the manner by which men express this is often looked upon not as a sign of distress but as a personal failing, a failing of virtue or worse as a standard exhibition of masculinity. We either think of these people as perfectly normal men, or else we judge them as not good people, rather than as people in tremendous pain with no idea or understanding how to express or alleviate it due to a social pressure to prove themselves as men.
That is not to excuse the acts of violence of men, nor are all acts of violence committed out of mental distress. The data is pretty unequivocal here, too. People in mental stress, people with mental health disorders, are significantly more likely to be the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of violence. There is a very good look at the issue of violence and mental health in The Lancet, including a discussion of the financial (as well as obvious social) benefits to tackling this issue. It is quite apparent that to see violence merely as a personal failing rather than indicative of wider issues is counter to decades of biological, psychological and sociological research linking increased tendency to violence with a vast array of biopsychosocial factors. Without understanding these factors we risk never getting to the core of the problem or reaping the benefits of efforts to alleviate them.
And to pour more masculine fuel on this fire, I mentioned earlier that a huge amount of professionals in the healthcare industry are men. They are men who have ‘proven’ their masculinity by going through the arduous hard work of medical training, no less. They tend to be upper-middle class, have good incomes and a high degree of social standing – factors that would lead to their being perceived of as masculine. To what extent are these professionals enforcing and projecting the same masculine social pressures as wider society?
Whilst I’m sure it is not every doctor who would downplay the psychological suffering of a man I have consulted with GPs who definitely do just that. What’s more it is not an isolated thing. It has not been one medical professional out of all of them I have ever seen. It has been many. My dealings with mental health professionals have turned up most of those, with mental health problems being seen more often as a personal failing, something a man should just ‘toughen up’ to deal with, than other non-mental issues. The same attitudes, expectations and projections of this harmful masculine identity are embedded in the medical profession. This is not through a deliberate and systemic pursuit of them, but simply because the human individual finds it hard to put their biases to one side even when their effective fulfilment of their role requires it. As far as I am aware this is not disputed by anyone and is a key argument in any inequality debate. The innateness, indeed inertness of our bias and prejudice is one of the key barriers to effective social change.
The result is what looks in the scientific literature like a multi-faceted bias. There is a lack of study and understanding of what is perceived of as ‘feminine’ traits in men, such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders. To add to the already ludicrous stigma associated with mental illness and its symptoms, they have also become gendered. Therefore there is a perception, for example, that a man with anxiety is merely frightened, and less of a man. A man with depression is just unwilling to fight, he’s not a warrior. A man with an eating disorder is considered effeminate. Society at large makes fun of men with diagnosed eating disorders. Just consider the reception to John Prescott expressing his struggles with bulimia. He was pilloried, mocked and lambasted – for one because of his body type, but also because he was a man with what was thought of as a very feminine disorder. It’s horrific.
But this then works the other way. Not only are typically ‘male’ presentations of mental disorder – tendencies to violence or substance abuse – judged as a failing of virtue in the man rather than an exhibition of mental discomfort. Not only are ‘feminine’ presentations of mental disorder judged, dismissed or misunderstood in men. Those same issues, reversed, are then ignored in women and similarly judged as a personal, rather than a health, failure. A woman exhibiting ‘male’ presentations of mental disorder will struggle to get the care, help and understanding she needs because of those same forces.
These aspects have led to what can only be described as a wilful underestimation of the psychological problems faced by men and a dismissal of women who present with typically male medical problems not only with regards to mental health (so things such as aggression or substance abuse) but in the under-study or social judgement of those women who suffer heart disease and stroke – often considered more ‘male’ conditions. It leads to a belief that if those women are having a masculine problem they are doing something wrong. Science does not operate in a vacuum, it is not separate from society and those same wider social attitudes and judgements are also at play in the academic study and consideration of these issues. Social attitudes affect research. This gendering of health issues is harmful to men and women alike. This patriarchal health crisis makes everyone worse off! It hurts us all!
I use this argument regularly in my discussions with men when talking about gender equality. This health data is one of the primary arguments I use against ‘masculinity’ in its current form, and its place in the male identity. Men, worldwide, may be ‘winning’ in terms of gender dominance, but they are seemingly killing themselves to do it. I merely present the data and ask them if they think that’s worth it. Most, unsurprisingly, think not.
Yes, it shouldn’t require a selfish motivation for people to try to make the world, as a whole, a better place. For some, though, it’s the crowbar needed to break in the doors and open someone up to the reality. This problem is going to require men choosing to reconsider the way they think of masculinity, and society supporting them in that. Castigation, judgement, mocking or calling men idiots for finding themselves caught in a wave of current social expectation that, to challenge, would require them to adopt a pariah role is not helpful. A huge part of the problem is a lack of compassion to male suffering, and behaving like that only serves to reinforce it.
The data is, honestly, harrowing and overwhelming. It cannot be denied even in the staunchest of manly men or the most misandrist of people. The debate to be had is not “Do men suffer worse health outcomes, seek help for medical issues less, commit suicide more, and die younger?” That’s just a near-universal fact. If people want to disagree with this piece they will disagree on ideological grounds, matters of opinion, apportioning of blame or how to solve the problem. Nobody can argue with me about the data or the facts unless they also want to argue with every major medical organisation in the world.
“So what?” you might be thinking, “It’s not my problem”. Perhaps you’re a woman, a non-binary person or a man who feels it truly is masculine to portray ‘toughness’ in all aspects of your life, even to the detriment of your genuine toughness. It is hard to argue any separation between the impacts of negative health on an individual and wider society, and gender. The two things are linked. This is absolutely a gendered problem. In a world addled with male advantage this is a categorical inequality in which men are the primary victims. The numbers across time, age, wealth, race and national boundaries, show it. But the problems radiate. Men may be the primary victims, but all of society suffers.
This health crisis creates further social problems. Men are suffering. Instead of seeking help men are suffering. Yet it is nearly impossible to do so in silence, or without affecting the world around you. That pain, discomfort, distress and stress finds a way to manifest externally. Conflict, fighting, murder, mockery, bullying, physical abuse, psychological abuse and domestic abuse – these things are all linked to stress, pressure or mental health issues, particularly in men with their pressures of fulfilling a ‘masculine’ role. It becomes hard to argue against the notion of ‘toxic masculinity’ when the data suggests not only are masculine expectations slowly poisoning men and killing them prematurely, but when those same masculine expectations are contagious and negatively affecting the world around them. What’s more it is doing it in a subtle way. Most people, men and women, will not see a man suffering ‘quietly’ as being as large of a problem as it truly is. We will see masculine expressions of pain, those violent or self-destructive behaviours we have discussed, as just them being them. It is just “the way it is”, many people will think, without analysing why it is or whether or not an effort to change it could make all of us better off. Male suffering and sacrifice is socially normalised, indeed expected.
It also becomes a negative feedback loop. Those men who have learned, often the hard way, to take care of themselves are those with conditions. They die younger, leaving a corpse where a role-model could have been. There are insufficient men out there telling boys and younger men, telling their sons and grandsons, to actually take care of themselves, to be okay with not being okay. This further exacerbates the problem.
Inequalities have also made men the primary income source for families across a lot of the world. When they are no longer capable of providing it leads to increases in stress and poverty, a lower quality of life that is, itself, linked to negative health outcomes across borders, ages, races and genders. Sick men are making everybody else sicker, a lot of that being through the social idea of what a man is expected to be in society. That is to say it is not exclusively a man’s fault, but the fault of a society that so often perpetuates these expectations of a man.
The greatest irony in the whole situation is that in their attempts to not be perceived of as weak, men are making themselves objectively weaker. I don’t think there is any better demonstration of the power of perception versus reality than that. To many men it is better to be seen as strong by your peers, friends, family and colleagues than to exhibit actual strength, to maintain a strong and healthy body and mind. That’s sad, and whilst I don’t judge those unaware souls caught in the tide, any man wilfully perpetuating this notion should be ashamed.
When a man is willing to lash out and inflict pain upon the world, or worse to entirely remove himself from the world through suicide, rather than admit he is in pain himself we have serious problems with masculine identity in our society.
This piece began as a sardonic joke on Twitter about how society would respond if men got periods. I responded to the original tweeter who suggested we’d have “So many treatments and other forms of care available.” And I understand that perspective. As mentioned the medical models we use are biased to the white, male body. However I said I was too cynical to agree. Instead we’d ‘tough it out’ but, unable to control the pain and our hormones we would lash out. Meanwhile society would do little to help our plight or hinder our destruction. It would go down as “boys will be boys!” and much as men might dismiss a tearful woman by saying “On her period…” in a world of the masculine period it wouldn’t be screams and tears we would forgive – it would be violence and destruction.
I am glad I don’t live in that world. The things I have looked at not just today but over the course of years of being a mentally ill man, the data I have seen, the opinions of doctors, psychologists and social scientists seems to indicate that the fragility and insecurity, the inability to express male pain and suffering, for all the complex reasons discussed here, is already causing untold harm on people worldwide. Matched with the masculine identity as it stands, and the attitude towards health that it has inherited from successive generations who harmed themselves and others but insist they “turned out just fine!”, the male period would be a nightmare.
Perhaps, though, the regularity of that pain and discomfort, the inescapability of it, the unifying nature of it being prevalent across men would lead to something wonderful; A male acceptance that they are, as everyone else, a fragile sack of meat-mechanics. Things fail; physically, mentally and emotionally, in the human body. This is not effeminate, it is inevitably human. Whilst there would likely be some judgement, much as people judge women for expressing discomfort during their periods. Indeed in male/male interactions there could be a lot of “Nah my period doesn’t hurt, you’re just a pussy!” But perhaps a universal and relatively blame-resistant condition behind which all men could empathise with each other, and truly know and share each other’s pain, would alter that identity. Indeed, experiencing and expressing pain could, itself, become part of a new masculine identity in those circumstances.
Sadly this is just speculation and the reality is that men hurt, but they attempt not to show it. They suffer, but they don’t talk about it. They die young, often of things that if not preventable were at least treatable sooner. Instead men kill themselves. It’s tremendously sad, and it needs to change if we hope to have anything like a future with more compassion, equality and understanding.
Equality will never be won ignoring these stark and difficult facts about men’s health. I can see few, if any, negatives to men being socially permitted to take care of their health. Financially, socially and as far as advancing the causes of equality goes – It is win, win, win.
What I do see is the current carpet-bomb of misery that the ignorance of men’s health causes, not just for men but for everyone.
It has probably not escaped the notice of any repeated readers that for the past couple of months I have not been around on social media, and have not been writing articles so much.
Here’s the deal. I’m a one man band at the moment! It’s just me and for now I just don’t have the time and energy to write like I was a few months ago.
I don’t want to worry anyone, I’m having a bit of a hard time of things right now and when my personal life situation ends up like that the idea of persevering with work is just unfathomable (thanks autism!).
As a result I have been taking some time not only to focus on these personal battles, but also to recharge my brain. I’m continuing to read, I’ve gone back to playing a few videogames to relax in my downtime, I’m watching more series and movies to catch up with a pop culture zeitgeist I left behind a while ago and I’m building a steady supply of ideas.
I spent the first six months of 2021 working like an absolute demon! There’s burning the candle at both ends and then there’s chucking the candle into a furnace whilst screaming – the latter is what I did!
I put out six months of articles at over 450,000 words – Top 10s, some serious looks at things, some not so serious looks at things, animals, history, Romans, mythology, psychology etc. etc. I basically overworked.
This was, in a way, by design, and my reasoning for this was simple. I wasn’t merely building a solid portfolio of articles in the trademark We Lack Discipline style. I’ve said it before – people don’t read! Whilst I want a text-based portfolio of our work to be a permanent thing for accessibility as much as ease of archiving, this was not my only reason for this busy period. I was building a catalogue of ideas to move forward into version 2.0 with! My intent is, eventually, to script and produce a video on just about every article so far produced. This, obviously, will take time especially since I have no video editing experience. Learning this is one of the things I have been doing in this quiet period and is proving time consuming!
So what I am working on besides? Let me give you a few ideas.
As mentioned I am working on learning video editing. I have done audio editing before and am finding some aspects easily translational. Other aspects are not so easy, though. I don’t have any quality camera equipment so I am limited in what I can shoot and a lot of the aesthetic details and minutiae escape me right now!
I am aiming to be ready for podcasting by next year. I suggest this as a podcast should (hopefully!) require minimal editing, and merely needs some art assets and a decent structure. My hope is that I can interview people, 1 on 1; whether they are academics or just Curious Idiots™ and discuss the things they are interested in and, given our modus operandi, some crossover with other academic disciplines.
I ultimately want it to be casual and fun. I’ve been lucky enough to get to know a few academics via social media since doing WLD and I see such amazing potential in their enthusiasm and personalities that I feel are not getting utilised by academia or media. There are huge personalities out there, capable of conveying otherwise complex information with a casually appealing, lay-person’s perspective in mind and I think those voices need to be publicised!
In terms of reading I have a few things on the go. Our series on The Bible is likely on hold. It always was a difficult sell but they are some of the least read things on the website. The sad fact is the kinds of people who want to criticise religion are often seldom the people who want to break down the nitty-gritty of those religions to tear them down internally – like I enjoy and basically set out to do with the series! I said at the start it would be a long-term project and so it shall remain because it is a huge amount of work for little to no payoff.
‘We Lack Discipline Reads: The Bet’ is definitely still alive. I am greatly enjoying pulling apart the meaning of this text word-by-word and the author seems to be enjoying being analysed-by-proxy. I can’t express how good a work of literature I genuinely think ‘The Bet’ is and I only hope my series analysing it can convince people to pick it up and give it a read.
I’ve recently started Robert Graves’ ‘Claudius the God’ – the sequel to ‘I, Claudius’. I’ve been waiting for this book to turn up in a charity shop since finishing ‘I, Claudius’ and it certainly pushes my Roman buttons. Robert Graves is an incredible historic fiction writer mainly due to his solid classicist’s background. As a student of classics with knowledge of the Latin language, Graves has created a Rome in his works that whilst almost definitely exaggerated, still feels believable. He really draws the melodramatic aspect of the Julio-Claudians out in these books and I recommend them to anyone interested in the period.
I am considering the idea of reviewing historic fiction (particularly TV or movies). Being the Curious Idiots™ we are my main focus will be on entertainment and how it achieves it but I also want to focus a little on any documentary/factual basis for the presentation.
This is going to involve me compiling a much larger selection of Roman texts and boosting my classics knowledge beyond a bit of Virgil, Suetonius and Tacitus but that will merely give me more to think and write about!
I’m also still mulling over a comparison of historic, particularly ancient warfare, and organised crime gang structures. Like many working class males I have had a ‘gangster’ phase and did a lot of reading about the subject. In recently reading about Alexander the Great it struck me how similar his methods of swinging between inspiration and fear and leaning upon his own personality, manufacturing a ‘legend’ about himself; there are fewer similarities between these armies of the past and modern military structures than there are between ancient military groups and major organised crime gang structures. I think it’s an interesting concept and one I cannot find a lot of investigation on. If anyone knows anything I’d appreciate a head’s up.
One of the other things I want to do, inspired by a recent reading of ‘Alex and Me’ by Dr. Irene Pepperberg.
For those who don’t know Dr. Pepperberg was the carer of a wonderful African grey parrot named Alex. Alex was the subject of one of the greatest, deepest dive experiments into animal cognition there has ever been.
His name is actually an acronym for ‘Avian Language Experiment’ and the whole deal was to figure out if parrots could talk or just repeated shit.
Thankfully Pepperberg was clever in the experimental design and actually used her language experiment to push the boundaries of what we know of how animals sense, understand, process and ‘think’ about the world around them.
If you believe her observations then Alex demonstrated not only a level of intelligence and play previously never thought possible outside higher primates but, in the cases of all except humans, seemingly surpassing them! Alex could understand the differences in concepts, e.g. the difference between shapes, colours, numbers etc. as well as being potentially the only animal outside of a human being to ask an existential question when he saw himself in the mirror and asked “What colour?” about himself.
It’s an incredibly story and I do recommend reading ‘Alex and Me’ for some of the most heartbreaking but smile-inducing science literature out there.
Anyway, animal cognition, consciousness, sensory processing and adaptive thinking – It is very much one of my cups of tea! As a result I have also bought ‘The Alex Studies’, Pepperberg’s book that goes into more depth about the studies and their findings, as well as a text on animal cognition that Pepperberg has contributed to.
So at some point in the future you can probably expect a little animal cognition action.
It’s a truly fascinating subject. From an evolutionary perspective I cannot believe adaptive thought, human-style cognition and consciousness are entirely unique to humans. Seldom is there a trait in one animal that there is no equivalent, or prior step for in their predecessors. With current research on consciousness, increasing technology allowing us to probe deeper into the workings of the brain, with less invasiveness, I think it is only a matter of time before we truly recognise these signatures in animals.
Sadly for the behaviourist school, whilst the level of reductive philosophy might be good for getting good, quantitative data most people who spend any quality time with animals will know they just don’t seem to operate like that.
It is remarkable that what could be construed of as common sense by anyone who has lived with, worked with or observed animals for their own sake is having to be painstakingly worked towards by cognitive biologists but such is the burden of proof (and arrogance…) of science. Whilst I don’t agree with the attitude, the reason for the scepticism is honest. We must prove these things, almost criminally, beyond a reasonable doubt, before we can accept them. Whilst part of this is due to nonsensical human exceptionalism and the same kinds of things that have been stifling biology since before Darwin had a beard, there is an aspect of it that is just caution. One must rule out every other possibility before declaring something true.
Does this mean I think every animal is conscious? Absolutely not and certainly not with the same capacity as humans. However if there is a suggestion some animals may possess cognitive capabilities akin to consciousness it must be investigated for ethics if nothing else! If it turns out pigs are aware, and terrified of, their own impending farmyard deaths I, a bold, unapologetic carnivore, would think twice about eating pork.
Why is this, to me, ethically different? Predator/prey relationships are built upon savagery and fear. It is reasonable when, in the clutches of a potential predator, particularly when that predator is human, the environment likely alien to the animal, perhaps with the scent of blood and death in the air, it is reasonable for there to be a reactionary fear. However, up until the point of killing the animal can have had a lovely, relaxed, normal life with no idea of what was going to happen. If, however, I was aware that prey item had lived in the muddy field, eating, living, snuffling about doing all the stuff food animals do, but that it was living in a constant state of anxiety about the fact that it knows it will be slaughtered…It’s different, mate – it really is!
Commercial, intensive farming is already horrible enough as it is! If it turns out pigs spend their days in abject existential terror then pork is off the menu! Bring on the lab grown meat. I can’t wait to go into a supermarket and ask for a 1kg slab of lab.
As far as everything else, nothing’s quite ticking over as before. Sadly I haven’t had the time or inclination to do my nature walks. Thankfully nature likes to come to me. I have been getting acquainted with moths a lot recently because they keep flying into my spot. I’ve also had a visit from a couple of wasps although the lack of them around seems to indicate to me there are no nests on my side of the vegetation.
In short, the work may have slowed but it hasn’t stopped. Visitor numbers to the website are still good and hopefully will only improve as we add and add to our catalogue of works.
We currently have…erm…No patrons for a total of £0. I’m planning on using all funds gained to save towards equipment. I could definitely use a decent camera/mic setup, and at some point I’m going to need a new computer as my main one is not quite up to the task of video processing and encoding. After that one of the main things I would want to do is pay for better guests and guest writers to contribute.
So, yes we’ve been taking it easier. But it has by no means been easy! I really do want to put a spurt on with video editing as I suspect that will be my greatest means of outreach. So expect the articles to be slow for a while.
Thanks for your time and thank you for supporting ‘We Lack Discipline’.
I have a history with East Anglia. I have previously lived in the region, worked in the region and studied in the region. I’ve sat on struggling old single-carriage diesel trains commuting from home to university across the flat lands. I learned to drive on the somewhat perilous lanes of the region.
Sadly my personal life during that time led to many negative memories and yet my love for this part of the UK transcends that memory. I’ve visited places like Colchester and Southend in recent times but that isn’t quite the middle-of-nowhere, flatland fields that I associate with East Anglia. Sorry Essex. So spending a few days chilling near the Norfolk/Suffolk border, only a short drive away from places I used to live, places I used to visit and places I used to raid the car boot sales of for retro videogames, is absolutely amazing.
There was, oddly, a sensation of ‘coming home’.
I have always talked up the bio credentials of East Anglia. As one of only a few places in the UK with no major motorway and one of the last places to give up traditional farming and land management methods for more modern, intensive ones, it has habitats few other places in the UK can match up to. Hanging like the builder’s-bum of Britain jutting out into the North Sea it gets some remarkable migratory birds and insects, too. It all adds up. You might think you know East Anglia, but there is a stark contrast between the Southern coast of Essex and the North Norfolk Coast. It is not a place with one important habitat, but rather it is a patchwork of them and I happened to visit one. The Redgrave and Lopham Fen, around the Norfolk/Suffolk border near Diss.
So what the hell is a ‘fen’? It sounds like some kind of hip-hop slang. Well it isn’t.
A fen is a sort of boggy wetland habitat generally characterised by the growth of tall wetland grasses and sedges. A natural fit for the near-sea-level soggy flatlands of East Anglia. If we were able to cultivate rice in the UK we would probably have left the fens as they are. Unfortunately our agricultural staples do not grow well in flooded fields! As a result the natural fen lands were mostly drained for crops. Drainage ditches, canals, dykes, drains and even pumping stations all maintain a drier land ripe for farming (particularly so since the fens produced very fertile, peaty soil) but they also decimated this unique habitat.
This wasn’t a modern practice. Draining land for agriculture in Britain likely dates back to the Roman era (considering Rome was once a mosquito infested bog itself they were good at draining wetlands!) or possibly earlier. But the practice didn’t stop! As time went on, the population of Britain grew, and farming practices changed, so more and more of the fens were drained.
Sadly there were two consequences of this. For one, those who relied heavily upon the fens for their trades, especially thatchers who would gather and use the sedges and reeds, were basically put out of work. Secondly, this was a unique habitat, a water-rich patchwork of soggy soils and small pools. There were a remarkable number of species that relied upon these unique habitats that now didn’t have it. Thirdly, of course, there’s flooding, always a potential problem.
Redgrave and Lopham Fen is a valley-fen on the Norfolk-Suffolk border near the Waveney and Little Ouse Rivers. It is the largest river valley fen in England and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). This is because of the remarkable numbers of plants, invertebrates, birds and other species it supports.
Now, this might be unusual for an arachnophobe like me but I went in the hopes of seeing the great fen raft spider (Dolomedes plantarius). As far as I am aware Redgrave and Lopham fen is one of only three areas in the UK that they can be seen – There’s this fen, there’s the Pevensey Levels in East Sussex, and there’s the old Neath and Tennant Canal in South Wales.
Besides rarity though, what makes these spiders so special? Well, they’re semi aquatic, reasonably large (a female can be 70-80mm in legspan) and known to eat fish – what more do you want to know about them!? If you’re not impressed by a near 10cm spider that goes fishing We Lack Discipline is not for you!
Unfortunately the fen raft spiders do prefer a warm, baskable day with little wind. Whilst we had the still air, we did not have the sunshine and so they escaped my ever-ready camera.
But, if an environment is perfect for rare invertebrates it is often a haven for others and there was a blessing of butterflies, a bombardment of bumblebees, a draught of dragonflies and a furious flurry of flies (both regular and hover). A few wasps were spotted, too. Vespids were particularly active but I saw one or two shy ichneumonids and there was certainly evidence, small holes in the sandy soil, of solitary bees and wasps.
Deeper in the reeds there were visible waterfowl, ducks and coots and the like, as well as audible signs, calls, from warblers, woodpeckers and even the incredible, low-pitched “Boom!” of a bittern, a bird I have only ever heard (and seen) once before.
All four of the widely dispersed native UK reptiles are alleged to be breeding there, common lizards (of which we saw one), slow worms, adders and grass snakes. Aside from the amazing raft spider I had hoped to see a grass snake. I didn’t, but mercifully I’m versed enough in the perils of looking for particular species to know you should make the most of looking at everything rather than be disappointed you didn’t see one thing.
In terms of the other life, within the waters themselves water voles and otters are not uncommon. There are also a few grazers used to manage the more untameable plants and grasses and make management of the whole ecosystem a bit easier. It was cattle and Konik ponies (a Polish breed of very hardy pony better suited to grazing in soggier places) but apparently sometimes the hardy Hebridean sheep are used as well.
It’s not just the fen environment there, though. There are areas of scrub, larger open-water areas, woodlands and heathlands.
It makes for an exceptionally diverse habitat in a relatively condensed area and that just means bustling biodiversity everywhere you look. There were definitely buzzards in the sky, dragonflies fighting (and/or fucking) and I did get to watch a gorgeous spider perform the rotisserie-fly manoeuvre. I’ve no idea what the spider species was but they were gorgeous and there were many of them about.
I could spew superlatives for hundreds more words but honestly, enjoy some photos and consider paying a visit if you’re in the area. The trails were relatively accessible such that some of them could probably even take a wheelchair. There was a lovely little coffee place there, as well as toilets and a visitor centre where I understand they put on regular activities and guided walks for the kiddos. It’s very definitely worth a visit if you like a good walk in nature.
There’s nothing quite like the magical feeling of gazing across the tops of reeds and sedge and it seeming to go on forever into the horizon. I have often heard people say that they do not like East Anglia because it is ‘flat’ or ‘featureless’.
Much of East Anglia may be flat, but a visit to the incredibly special habitats; the fens, the woodlands and the coastal dunes and beaches, will very quickly teach you what utter tosh the supposed ‘featurelessness’ is. It doesn’t have rolling hills or snow-capped mountains but it has something far more impressive and far less inert.
I am 33 years old and I have lived with disturbed sleep for, as far as I can remember, around 29-30 of them.
As a child I was prone to waking up, disturbed, in the middle of the night.
As an adult, not only are there regularly nights where this disturbance is pretty much par for the course but there are times when my brain just outright refuses to shut off at all!
Anyone who has been there will know the struggle. Sleep problems are believed to affect around one in three of us at any given time. It’s a widespread and massive problem.
What’s more, poor sleep is not just bad for the brain that needs the rest. There are knock-on effects. A few nights of bad sleep, for example, can delay your regular sleep phase, indicating problems in melatonin production and processing. Melatonin is one of the neurotransmitters involved with sleep.
Another is GABA, gamma-aminobutyric acid. Now I hate the “This is the X-Hormone” where X represents a particular trait but this is the relaxey-hormone. It’s a neurotransmitter that literally dulls yours nerves, making you feel calm, comfortable, relaxed and sleepy.
So the truth universally acknowledged is that bad sleep makes you upset, grumpy and anxious, with dysfunctional GABA systems the likely culprit.
Well, half of the likely culprit. You see we also have cortisol. Cortisol is an endogenous (from inside your own body) anti-inflammatory, your body releases it when you are under stress. Unfortunately, sleep is one of the key means of regulating it and studies show when you don’t sleep well levels of this hormone build up in your body. What does that mean? Well, high cortisol usually indicates high stress, high stress usually indicates danger and danger would necessitate panic.
So when you don’t sleep well you are more prone to irritability, anger, anxiety and panic.
Evidence also seems to link poor sleep with dysfunction in the insulin/blood sugar balance systems too. Combined with the tiredness it can lead to people not only eating badly during periods of poor sleep, but increases in likelihood of weight gain.
And poor sleep has been linked with increased risks of cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease and stroke.
Basically if there’s one thing in your life you should keep as a pretty solid, regular pattern it’s having a nice kip! Yet, again, around 1 in 3 of us at any given time is experiencing sleep problems. Why?
To answer that we’d have to know what sleep is so let me give you the best, medical definition of what sleep is.
Sleep is, err, well, your brain, erm, just, like, shuts down, but not completely! Because if it did that you’d be dead. It’s more of like a standby mode. It works by, umm, mechanisms and…shit…and the main function of it is, I dunno, to render you vulnerable to attacks by predators?
I kid! We know more about sleep than that, I’ve already talked about hormonal pathways, neurotransmitters, sleep seems to play a huge role in memory and information processing but the fact is for all the study and knowledge we have on it we still don’t know exactly what it is, how it is or why it is.
I find it surprising, then, that all the advice about sleeping poorly is so fucking judgemental, as if everyone’s a damn expert on the topic!
I get it if you’re some 20 year old, just cut the apron strings and you’re trying to fall asleep in front of a phone blasting blue-spectrum light into your eyes. Blue spectrum light is known to mimic natural light for our bodies, delaying or preventing the appropriate production of melatonin – again for want of a better term the ‘sleep’ hormone. Although it doesn’t quite make you fall asleep as much as it makes you drowsy and regulates your body’s sleep rhythm, taking a lot of cues from light.
People like that may need some help or advice on ensuring healthy sleep.
But I’m an autistic, lifelong sleep wrestler, in his thirties, who is quite biologically literate. Telling me to turn off my devices at an appropriate time, use apps or settings for night (phones and computers tend to have these night-modes where they shift the colour spectrum they are putting out to the red-end. This is a lot more conducive to melatonin production). Most of the time I’m getting advice about how best to sleep you can bet your arse I’ve been there, done that and still got the sleepless night. So what’s going on?
Well, welcome to the weird and wonderful world of individual physiology! Something that has long been touted as ‘the future of medicine’ with promises of individually tailored doses of individually selected medicines to cure all your ills, except it never really comes to pass, does it? Especially since many GPs can’t even be bothered to check your notes or keep up to date with research regarding your specific, life-long states such as – you know – autism!
Let me explain my bitterness, a bitterness I have explained numerous times to numerous doctors only to be met with a familiar one-size-fits-all approach.
Autistic people are fucked when it comes to regulatory hormonal systems. They just work differently and not necessarily well! Co-morbidity (two conditions that often go together) of autism and sleep disturbance is probably as close to 100% as you can get! As well as the regular associated nervous, repetitive behaviours we’re already looking at a guaranteed messed up management of cortisol, so welcome to the world of stress.
Studies have also shown that melatonin production in autistic individuals can be a little messed up and so is GABA regulation.
So what you’ve got is a group of people whose endogenous hormonal regulatory systems for sleep and relaxation are just FUCKED. I’m not even ‘We Lack Disciplining’ this language! If I was a high profile professor giving the most important lecture of my life about this topic I would still use the descriptor ‘FUCKED’. It genuinely is fucked.
People with autistic spectrum conditions or neurodivergent conditions suffer and struggle constantly to maintain the same kind of baseline of relaxation and sleep pattern not because they’re a bunch of uppity, annoying special snowflakes – but because their bodies innate regulatory mechanisms just do not work like neurotypical peoples’ do. There is a wealth of evidence to support this.
People who sleep badly tend to die younger of conditions like heart disease or stroke. They probably would be likely to self-medicate, drinking or taking drugs to help them sleep, and giving themselves the complications of being a habitual user of those substances. People are literally dying 10-20 years too soon because of a collective failure to recognise that sleep problems are not a moral failing but likely a complex collection of physiological and psychological symptoms.
So how do we deal with these problems? Surely doctors must be tripping over themselves to prevent this health menace akin to smoking?
I’ve expressed to every medical professional my issues with sleep, how my disturbed sleep is directly implicated in my prior problems with drugs and alcohol. Do you think they sent me to a sleep clinic or an addiction group?
I use my GP as a last resort (always – I’m autistic, I don’t like using phones, asking for help or having to meet strangers – a doctors surgery is like hell to me!) so by the time my surgery gets a call from me to discuss sleep issues I am already at the end of my tether. Yet they seem to take it as ‘Night 1’, the first disturbance.
Because of my prior addiction issues doctors are hesitant to prescribe me the drugs I know work – the ones that are so effective at working they can immediately halt the dependence on substances I was allegedly ‘addicted’ to. It is almost as if sleep, not addiction, is the problem! But I’m being bitter. I have also discussed the research about autistic people and their sleep-system regulatory hormone issues.
I’m not fit to give prescription advice but in my opinion a healthy supply of low dose melatonin, and controlled access to hypnotic drugs can make a huge difference. I’ve been there and done it so many times. I know I can reset my body clock in three days by using a solid routine, supplementary melatonin and zopiclone – for example.
So surely it’s easy for me to ask my GP for this?
Nuh-uh! Hypnotic drugs, any drugs that act upon the GABA systems – the key relaxey-system in our bodies, is pretty much a no-no for any GP in the UK thanks to NICE guidelines that basically boil down to ‘if people could use it for fun don’t prescribe it ever.’
Despite my records stating quite unequivocally that I do not have drug seeking behaviour, I have genuine, regular sleep issues that I have a pretty effective system for using these drugs to deal with, doctors are loathe to prescribe them.
This is despite me having a condition, autism, that is co-morbid with dysfunction of our natural GABA production and absorption systems! I like to use the metaphor of water. Imagine if a solid 98% of the population NEVER got dehydrated. Their body’s systems just worked, they were efficient in their water processing. Then you, poor little 2%er, turn up at your GP and you’re like “I’m thirsty doc!” and your GP was like “Nah you ain’t, 98% of people aren’t! You’re just here because you’re a water addict!” (side note: we’re literally all water addicts. Definitely do not try quitting that shit cold turkey!) But this person isn’t some liquid junkie. Their body’s water processing systems are broken. You’re denying a person dying of dehydration a prescribed drink because their physiology is minority. It’s fucked! This is what we do with people on the spectrum and GABA agonists.
Back when I had my GP, a doctor who knew me, knew my family – he’d even been my grandfather’s GP – this was not a problem. There was a relationship. Once, this was after he had ‘retired’, so I had been used to arguing with various other GPs who were recommending me yoghurt (something he tutted at) or prescribing me those awful anti-histamines, anyway in the midst of all this he returned, briefly, to fill in for staff shortages and I was lucky enough to get an appointment He practically showered me in the prescriptions like a ticker-tape parade!
He said it was quite clear that I suffer with persistant sleep problems, I’m sensible in my use of the drugs and there’s no reason I shouldn’t be prescribed them. Effectively he said these other doctors were being a little precious about it, which I found quite heartening.
And I think, as a society, we’re precious about it.
“How do you sleep at night?” We ask of people who do horrible things.
For us sleep is a moral issue, a virtue. Those who sleep well must be happy and comfortable in their own lives, they must be good people.
We bury people in nonsensical suggestions of things that can help. We judge them for their inability. We call them ‘sleepyhead’ or ‘lazybones’ when they drag themselves from what seems like less of a bed and more a temporary coffin, in which they got a light drizzle of sleep compared to your downpour of rest and relaxation.
We see their lethargy and inattention and instead of being concerned for someone struggling we tell them to get their act together. Piling stress upon stress to give them more things to fill their head chock-full of so they can struggle to sleep the very next night.
I can tell you, no matter how much you know about the biology of sleep, by the time you’ve had 2-4 weeks on a reduced sleep you WILL feel like it’s your fault, your failure and something you’re doing wrong. It’s horrible.
So what’s the point of this article – there’s hardly any references, it’s basically just one long semi-informative rant.
Look, I’ve just spent a solid 2-3 months having my sleep slowly degrade in quality as I try to wrestle it back. I used every trick in the book, every technique I knew and I couldn’t stop it. As a result my thinking was affected, my work slowed to close to a halt and it upset me because I’ve loved nothing more than my walks in nature, writing articles about cats and feeling like a boss!
Recovery is not as simple as getting a good night’s sleep. I did that last night (MERCIFULLY!) but I still feel exhausted. You accrue what is known as ‘sleep debt’ and the longer your troubles continue the more you owe. It can take weeks to get back into a solid schedule – during which time you will probably be sleeping more. If you have kids, or a job that needs you to wake up early you’re basically screwed. Alarms are your worst enemy when it comes to recovering sleep debt!
I feel a lack of sympathy from people when it comes to sleep. Again, there is a heavy suggestion it is your own fault if you’re not sleeping well but that’s just flat bullshit! We need to be more compassionate about these issues. Not sleeping is as close to a genuine, horror-movie level curse as we get in real life. It’s literal torture (seriously, sleep deprivation is torture, I’ve hallucinated on a lack of sleep before – your brain gets fucking trippy!). It’s no joke, it’s no laughing matter and it’s a complex physiological and psychological issue that is going to require a significant effort to manage.
But we need to change the way we think about it.
Want to read about more horrible mind-states, conditions and stuff that affects me?
A bit of weird one, and a break from our usual bio-bios of the ‘Caturday Special’ series but on the day on which people celebrate the cat what could be better than to reflect on the representation of cats throughout human history and societies.
I explained in my domestic cat article that the humble little wildcat-turned-domestic was effectively a self-domesticating marvel. Little wonder, then, that they captured the hearts of many people throughout history. But the human journey with the cat does not begin with our friends in agricultural pursuits. Long before cats were our friends and co-habiting with us they are both a threat and an idol.
It’s clear early humans looked at large cats with some reverence. Do we have evidence of this? Of course! From cave paintings of lots of animals, including lion-like cats, to the Löwenmensch, the statue of a lion-man found in a cave in Germany.
The Löwenmensch is fascinating. Estimated to be between 35,000-40,000 years old based upon radio-carbon dating, and carved with stone tools out of mammoth ivory. It is a beautiful work of art in its own right. What’s even more amazing about it, though, is the task of creating this 30cm tall figurine would have been painstaking.
Whatever drove the artisan or artisans of these people to perform that undertaking, it was clear that this zoomorphic (human represented as an animal) depiction was important. What does it represent? Is it an embodiment, a desire for them to be more cat, to be successful hunters like lions? What did they see in lions, in big cats, what behaviours, what fear did they have of their abilities to inspire such reverence? The time, effort and resources to make such a sculpture for what we assume was a fairly subsistence culture is truly unbelievable! This carving meant something!
The cave paintings we have, probably the most famous of which are the Chauvet cave paintings in France, are likely a little more recent than the Löwenmensch. The Chauvet paintings are estimated to be around 30,000 years old, the famous Lascaux paintings around 17,000 years old. Unlike the Löwenmensch these also depict multiple animals, not merely focussing on one specific one.
The depiction of what seems to be a group of, likely, Eurasian cave lions, in Chauvet, however shows that observing cats was important.
I talked in our lion article and our cave lion article about how humans and lions are sort of linked, radiating out of Africa at around the same time, both migrating and adapting to new conditions. Predators don’t tend to mess with other predators too much, but early humans would definitely have been a target for lions, and the same pride we see in humans today may have turned that from a fear into a contest. Hunter versus hunter.
I like to imagine humans and lions like two great boxers; Ali and Frazier or Tyson and Holyfield; bitter, embattled rivals. How can you look upon such a person, in hindsight, with anything like genuine hatred? They may be a competitor, even an existential danger, but they do what you want to do so well that they just make you want to be better.
Move forward a few thousand years and humans are starting to do some new and weird stuff, like ‘settling’. Previously considered to have been in small tribes, semi or completely nomadic and hunter-gatherers, humans instead realise that by staying put, cultivating the land and grazing livestock they can find a perfectly comfortable life in one spot. This itself leads to what we know of as ‘civilisation’ – larger groups of people, settled into communities, working together.
Cats would grow incredibly important in the midst of this increasing agriculturisation. One of the key aspects of an agrarian culture versus a hunter-gatherer one is cultivating one’s own food. This requires surplus. At the very least it necessitates keeping seed-grain in store so that it can be brought out next year for planting. This requires storage and storage is liable to invasion from ‘pests’.
This is how it is believed the relationship between humans and small cats developed the closeness it currently has. We did not bring cats to our settlements to control pests, they came to hunt the pests and domesticated themselves. It’s an incredible mutualism and it is not surprising to find that around 10,000 years ago, there is evidence of humans having close relationships with feline companions.
Until recently it was believed that the ancient Egyptians were the first to domesticate small cats. There is huge evidence supporting domestic cats in Ancient Egypt dating back around 4,000 years or more. However, the discovery of a grave in Cyprus led to a massive revision in that date. This discovery at the Neolithic site of Shillourokambos was of a human skeleton and a feline skeleton (closely resembling an African wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica) presented at least some evidence of close human relationships prior to the Egyptians.
Why does it suggest this? Could it not merely be a native cat? No, because wildcats were not present in Cyprus at the time. It must have been brought over by human activity.
It should come as no surprise, then, that ancient cultures across the Fertile Crescent, Asia, the Middle-East, Europe and Africa that have left evidence of their past for us to inspect have also left evidence of their relationships with cats.
The Egyptians famously adored cats. The stories of their worship and respect for cats dominate. The idea that it was illegal to harm a cat, legends of defeats at the hands of Persians using the symbol of the cat, so feared by Egyptians, as a weapon, are easy to spin a sentimental web with. By around 3000 BCE the Goddess, Bastet, appears, with her worship being centred on her main temple in Bubastis.
Bastet is an incredible goddess, initially being depicted with the head of a lion and associated with Sekhmet, the two ‘characters’ eventually diverged. Sekhmet became the lion-headed warrior Goddess, whilst Bastet morphed into a smaller-headed cat, more akin to a domestic cat, and came to represent the homely aspect, the domestic!
We see not only a remarkable evolution of deities and worship, but a shift in the consideration of the cat as a whole. For thousands of years the cats of Egypt were likely appreciated for killing crop and grain-store pests, helping maintain the full bellied prosperity of the Ancient Egyptian people. In time this protection, the killing of pests that cause us harm, of things like snakes, gave them a regal, hunter’s air. This was our divine warrior, our protector.
So those others who considered themselves divine, the pharaohs, took them in. Which led to a fashion of others taking them in. This created an entire culture of feline doting and also, presumably, showed to the ancient Egyptians the side of cats we know today.
As a hunter cats are seemingly sublime. Their form, movements, methods etc. are all incredible. However, once sated and with the right temperament the cat is a stone-cold darling! Cute little purry floofballs who you can just look at curled up on a cushion and stare at them for hours just admiring how adorable they are.
We softened cats, just not in reality! The sheer numbers of small rodents, birds and other fauna killed across the domestic cat’s habitat is a testament to the fact that they are still the lion-headed protectors of old! No, we softened cats in our minds. We came to understand them symbolically not as a hunter, but as a comfortable, settled creature.
What’s really remarkable, though, is the seeming universality of this.
It was not only ancient Egyptian culture that developed a homely Goddess of the humble cat.
Ancient China has skeletal evidence, from Quanhucan, of potential small cat domestication dating back around 5,300 years. Analysis of the bones to determine diet suggests these cats were getting a healthy dose of grain with their protein. Being obligate carnivores who seldom eat a significant amount of anything not-protein, and since cats do not naturally hunt millet or spelt it is likely they obtained this grain by eating China’s crop and seed pests.
They also have a similar reputation and role as protectors of harvest and fertility.
They also have myths about their cuteness, playfulness and capriciousness!
Although I can find a significant amount of detail about the minor cat goddess Li Shou what I can’t find, unfortunately, is the source. The tale goes thus, however.
The Gods were seeking something to be in charge of the Earth, and after presumably having a formal interview process with the various candidates instead decided to give the role to the cat, Li Shou. Li Shou, however, was a cat. Instead of doing her due diligence she looked at the world, saw that it was good and so had a kip under a cherry tree. The world went to pot and the Gods were like “Cat, please!?” But Li Shou did it again, patrolling, finding a nice spot and having a nap. The Gods were displeased and said “Li Shou, up your game! The world’s going crazy! Stop falling asleep under cherry trees!” So she didn’t. Next time instead of falling asleep under cherry trees she was either distracted chasing a falling leaf or a butterfly, and played with it.
The Gods had finally had enough and were like “Li Shou, we love ya but you’re shit!” and the cat being a cat just shrugged and went “Eh, maybe I’m not good for the job.” So the Gods were in a pickle. Who was going to look after the Earth? Li Shou looked around at the first mugs who were available, who happened to be a human couple, and was like “Why not them?”
So the Gods put the humans in charge as custodians of the Earth, gifting humans the ability to talk but sadly robbing the cats of their ability to talk.
It’s a beautiful tale, it really is, and speaks so deeply to our observations of the small cat. They are lethargic during the day, to say the least. Cats are known to sleep up to 18 hours a day and this is reflected in the tale. But they are also delightfully playful and active.
What’s more the cat’s humility and independence, the fact that this cat doesn’t seem to have been afraid of the Gods, or afraid of her nature. Instead of feeling hard done by having lost the ability to speak the cat was happy to give the responsibility to the humans and just go cat about.
This strong-minded independence recognised by the ancient peoples of China was also one of the things the ancient peoples of Europe liked about them, specifically the Romans. To Romans a cat was a symbol of freedom and independence.
It’s why we don’t hear about them much in Roman culture. They were much more passionate about their dogs, or keeping birds than they were about ‘domesticating’ cats. Instead they respected them as they were. Cats, to them, were hunters, mascots, who would keep your grain or your equipment safe from potential nibblers.
In this sense there was, for no desire to come up with a better pseudo-Roman term, felinitas. Much as a person had humanitas, or humanity, and the culture set up for the pursuit of greatness by individuals, it seems as though the humans of that time respected cats not for their utility to them, but the utility they provided independently. The Romans respected cats for this independence and felinitas.
The Greek relationship, unsurprisingly, is complicated. It is unsurprising because Ancient Greece was not necessarily a unified culture, a common nation working to one goal. Rather it was a series of separate city states that would unite, forming leagues or alliances. As a result what passes as fashion in Athens may not pass in Ephesus. The opinion of cats in Epirus or Macedonia may not have been the same in Sparta or Rhodes. What’s more, when do you mean in Greek history? It’s all very situational.
Cats were almost certainly kept as pets or pest control in Greece. In some areas it is likely that Egyptian ideas of cat respect and worship were adopted. In other areas a more Roman attitude towards them was likely, it varied.
Of course Romans and Greeks weren’t the only ancient people with a healthy respect for cats in their role as independent hunters. A story in the Mahabharata (book 12) tells the tale of a mouse (Palita) and a cat (Lomasa).
Palita and Lomasa both lived around a massive banyan tree, the mouse in a hole and the cat lived among the branches hunting the birds. One day a hunter set up a trap and caught Lomasa in it, leaving some bait or meat behind. The mouse came to get the meat and found the mongoose (Harita) and the owl (Chandraka) waiting.
If Palita remained where he was the owl would snatch him up, if he scarpered back to the ground, Harita would hunt him down. As a result the mouse made an unlikely ally.
Palita made peace with Lomasa and said he would release the cat to pay back for his protection.
There’s a bit of back-and-forth but the upshot is the mouse won’t free the cat until the hunter is in sight. That way there is no danger to Palita as Lomasa will be more interested in running away from the hunter to kill the mouse.
Far from being a Aesopian exploration on ‘nature’ there is a huge amount about this story that is a lot more human and complex. It is not merely about a mouse distrusting a cat, but a mouse overcoming that fear to make a situational ally. Neither the cat, nor the mouse, deceive each other. As far as I can tell there is no betrayal, the cat does not get the mouse, the mouse does not turn into a Jerry and start terrorising the cat. Rather they find a mutually beneficial situation, negotiate a peaceful solution that benefits both of them and then both go their separate ways, mainly based upon the wisdom of Palita who is a surprisingly politically astute mouse.
The whole tale is about trust and weirdly a philosophy that I find resonant. It’s a surprisingly psychologically astute observation of relationship behaviours. One can only ever be a situational friend or ally. Circumstances dictate the closeness of a relationship and those circumstances often rely on one or both parties obtaining some benefit. It’s not that a cat and a mouse can’t be friends. It’s that a mouse could never be friends with, say, a starving cat. How will you know if the cat is starving? Well if it is scoping to munch you, it doesn’t matter how friendly you are, the cat likely will say nothing.
There’re aspects of break-ups, fallings out with friends or family, politics and the whole she-bang of human social organisation in this little cat and mouse tale.
The most remarkable thing about this historical representation of the cat, this astute observation of complex human relationships? Whilst the Sanskrit text of the Mahabharata dates to around 400 CE, it likely traces its roots back to a much older oral tradition from the Vedic period (around 1,500-1000 BCE) and the Indus Valley cultures. For anyone who wants to suggest modern understandings of human behaviour are ‘more advanced’ I say you’re tripping and people have been musing on being people for a lot longer than we might suspect.
We go back to those representations of pre-history, the Löwenmensch, cave paintings etc. and it makes me wonder about the use of natural symbolism in human storytelling. That connection to nature, that respect that is so evident in the Löwenmensch figure is still present tens of thousands of years later in traditional stories.
It should come as no surprise then that a culture seemingly animal obsessed in which the main man Odin rides an eight-legged horse and has raven companions to find that Freyja, the Norse goddess, rode a chariot pulled by two grey cats, Bygul and Trjegul.
Yup, even Norse culture has its divine cats and Freyja’s cats are actually a fascinating study in the duality of feminine sexuality – something I’ve been thinking an awful lot about recently.
No, I’m not just horny, I’ve been writing chapter-by-chapter analysis of the novel ‘The Bet’ by author Vivienne Tuffnell, that deals a lot with female sexuality.
For one thing Freyja’s cats are both toms, both male, yet they are very much ‘of the feminine’. They are slender, pretty, seen and not heard, tender, loving; every extant misogynist feminine expectation in the book. They embodied the essence of Freyja herself.
All the way down to be down-and-dirty fuckers and merciless killers. Freyja is not just the goddess of fertility, love and beauty. She is a goddess of sex, of war and of gold.
These cats reflect that. On the one hand the cat is a tender, fluffy cuddle-buddy. At the same time if you touch them the wrong way they’ll bite your fucking hand off and if you’ve seen one playing with a mouse you’ll know they’re cold! They don’t give a shit for the suffering of their prey, they just want to kill it.
But they reflect the changing roles of women, too. This is a dominant feminine goddess dominating two male animals. Particularly important in Norse cultures, where we have evidence of female warriors, we have documentation of shield-maidens, there is an acknowledgement of feminine strength and independence that is reflected so well by the symbol of the cat.
We see the cat becoming a symbol in a sense we could recognise it today. How many cat food adverts, when referring to the cat, use feminine pronouns? It’s a lot of ‘em, right!? We engender animals, objects, roles and symbols – rightly or wrongly.
You see, so much of how we consider cats is removed from the cats themselves. To an extent all cultural representation of cats is merely fabrication, the human imagination at work. That’s not to say the Löwenmensch is unimportant, Egyptian cat worship is not worth studying or Freyja’s noble chariot-pullers should be disregarded. Rather I am suggesting looking at these depictions of cats teaches us a lot more about our cultures, hopes, fears, expectations, values etc. than it teaches us anything about cats!
Speaking of which, let’s look at the reception of cats in the middle-ages of Europe.
They allegedly kinda hated them.
I’m not going to out-and-out blame Christians, although it’s definitely their fault. However they were being led by fucking superstitious idiots who, seeing evidence of so much pagan ritual symbolism of cats, decided they were definitely doing the devil’s work.
Pope Gregory IX issued the Papal Bull ‘Vox in Rama’ in June 1233. The intention was to damn Luciferianism, the worship of Lucifer associated with a huge amount of the Gnostic tradition purged out of Europe by supposedly righteous people committing the darkest, most evil of actions – funnily enough justifying a bit more Gnosticism in Christianity.
So why make a villain of the cat? Well, because apparently devil worshippers would make black cat statues come to life and shit. I don’t know, it’s mad superstitious nonsense, to be quite honest. I’m a harsh critic of Christianity, or organised religion in general, for the fantastical joyride of bullshit it tends to take people on. Basically people had to kiss a black cat’s arse to initiate themselves into the devil’s rites.
However this was not a Papal Bull issued specifically to encourage Christian persecution of cats. Rather it was a smear on their name that would likely lead to dismissive and cruel attitudes towards cats.
Pope Innocent VIII of the 15th century would describe cats as “The Devil’s favourite animal…” continuing the hatred and persecution of cats in Christian Europe. How far would this go? Cat burnings – where people would just set a net full of cats above a fire and revel as they presumably howled in pain and died horribly. Dead cats were often placed in or around houses as some weird ward of evil and symbol of good luck. Sometimes they would be enclosed alive, built in, immured in the walls or under floorboards.
The same absurd lust for suffering that caused the pursuit of witch hunts, inquisitions and even full blown wars between nations was propped up, supported, by this ridiculous symbol – the cat as evil! Even today some countries and cultures maintain superstitions about cats, especially black cats.
It should be said that there is no evidence that this was done regularly or en masse. It is almost certain that there was not such a significant persecution of cats that it led directly to the Black Death and the spread of plague, as some suggest. Did it happen? Probably. Was it widespread? Possibly. Was it regular, organised and effectively an attempt to wipe out a species? Likely not. Did it cause plague? Absolutely not.
But what these stories provide for us is yet another tale in the role of cat symbolism in human culture and how the portrayal of an animal can lead to actual actions. Did the Catholic Church start a church-sanctioned campaign of killing cats? Almost certainly not. Did the Catholic Church publicising cats as suspicious, superstitious and of the devil cause some people to perform horrible actions? Probably. All of it, though, is entirely fabricated by people for people. The cat was merely a convenient symbol.
What’s quite likely is that outside of urban settings, and despite the opinions of the Popes and the Catholic Church, in rural communities at least cats probably maintained their regard as solid hunters that help keep your shit in order.
Thankfully some of these people, artists in particular, were just as enamoured with cat pics as we are on the internet today and have provided many charming drawings of cats that I shall include to a) remind you that there was no universal hatred of cats in Europe and b) they’re just basically medieval cat memes!
Through the Renaissance and into the Enlightenment our opinions of cats in Europe shifted again. To an extent, during this time, cats became almost a symbol of the human dominance of nature. As art, science and industry progressed our opinions of both cats and our own place in nature, was changing. Cats and their instincts became a representation, perhaps, of the taming of humans themselves. The hunter brought in from the wild, whose natural instincts are turned to other pursuits like science, sports or invention.
The world’s first major modern cat show was put on at Crystal Palace in 1871. The popularity of the cat spread and today the internet is basically propped up on a foundation of funny cats, from ‘I Can Has Cheezburger?’ through Lil’ Bub and Grumpy Cat, we are now elevating individual cats to the status of celebrity.
Whether we’re conforming to old legends like Meowth in Pokémon being a representation of the Japanese Maneki Neko – the wonderful cat of good luck who beckons people to safety and prosperity;
Whether we’re representing old prejudices, such as with Salem the cat from Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the typical, sarcastic witch’s black cat;
Whether their capacity for mischief and getting themselves into trouble leads us to consider how to “Hang In There, Baby;”
Or whether they’re just a begrudgingly loyal companion who, despite their attitude, just want to go home and have some food and some pets like Sassy from ‘Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey’ (itself a 1993 remake of the 1963 Disney movie ‘The Incredible Journey’ based upon a novel by Shiela Burnford);
The fact is that cats have always, and likely will always be important to human culture. In some cases we use the dark mystique (e.g. Le Chat Noir in Montmartre, Paris, with that iconic poster, that clearly uses the superstition of black cats to draw people to their theatre/entertainment venue), in some cases we use their power and majesty to manipulate children into eating an unhealthily carb-loaded breakfast (Tony the Tiger the Kellogg’s mascot for Frosties, or Frosted Flakes) and in some cases we just like cats doing cat stuff (the internet) – It all demonstrates the fabulous complexity, the layered structure of human symbolism.
I’m a biologist first and foremost. Cats are cats. They need to cat about doing cat things to keep being cats. They just cat!
But the human mind doesn’t work that way and it creates densely layered meanings that are, much like the idea of friends and foes in the tale of Lomasa and Palita from the Mahabharata, very situational. What this or that cat means may be different between different cultures. The Christian suspicion of the cat is not matched by Islam, where the tale is that the distinct tabby ‘M’ marking on their forehead was bestowed upon them when the Prophet Mohammed touched a cat on the head. Japan has a literal cat island full of feral cats whilst other nations invest heavily in purging their towns and cities of ferals. The Lion King created a couple of generations of people who would grow to venerate lions whilst people who actually have to live side by side may struggle to hold a positive opinion when they snatch a cow in an opportunistic fit of hunger. It is not about ‘what do cats mean as a symbol?’ as it is ‘what cats mean what symbols to what people at what time?’. It’s a lot more layered.
I saw when I did my ‘Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals’ series just how incredibly important to conservation the recognition of an animal on its own terms was. So much of human understanding of the natural world is tied not to actual facts and observations but to myths, reputations and symbols.
This is something that will have to be educated out. Our cultures are foundational, they are the soil in which we plant roots and draw the most from, but that does not mean it is always good for us, or give us a solid idea of what the truth is.
In terms of animals this means reputations based on little more than religious fashion and trend, the benefits of association or the perils of damnation. Humans are capable of a great deal of cruelty in the names of all sorts of beliefs, good or bad – regardless, those actions will be rooted in a foundational culture and the means by which that culture represents its animals will determine how those people consider or treat them.
What’s certain, though, is much as ancient cultures like the Egyptians left behind a solid legacy to the cat, the preservation of the internet is a future key aspect of ensuring the humans to-come understand our present relationship with cats, and the differences in those relationships between cultures.
This article was released on International Cat Day 2021! Happy Cat Day, Everyone!
You can CAT-ch up with our Caturday Specials here
Caturday Special: The Origin Story – Proailurus and Pseudaelurus – The progenitor species of all modern cats examined. Caturday Special: The Snow Leopard– The ‘Ghost of the Mountains’ gets an examination, a beautiful cat with some remarkable characteristics. Caturday Special: The Scottish Wildcat – Once an emblem of so many Scottish clans, now this poor, cute, and feisty wildcat is struggling to survive due to historic persecution and current ongoing interbreeding with domestic cats. Caturday Special: The Serval– Find out about this elegant and beautiful medium-sized African wildcat and how it has become part of our domesticated cat lineage! Caturday Special: The Kodkod – The smallest cat in the Americas and endemic to only a small part of Chile and Argentina, find out about this amazing little boopster. Caturday Special: The Feliformia and the Spotted Hyena– Did you know that hyenas are actually more closely related to cats than to dogs? They are members of sub-order of carnivores called ‘Feliformiae‘ or the cat-like carnivores. Learn more about them, the hyena and the hyena’s remarkable genitals here. Caturday Special: The Cougar – The second biggest cat in the Americas is actually more closely related to your domestic moggy than the lion! Learn more! Caturday Special: The Eurasian Lynx – One of my continent’s most handsome predators and one that certain groups are looking to get reintroduced to the UK after a 1,000 year absence in the hope it will control rabbit and roe deer numbers. I’m all for it! Caturday Special: Hybrids – Looking at the phenomenon of hybrid species, with focus on cats like the liger, the pumapard and the Kellas cat, as well as some talk about domestic hybrids like chausie, bengals and caracats. Caturday Special: The Fishing Cat– It’s a cat that loves to fish. An adorable little kitto from Asia. Caturday Special: The Marbled Cat – A beautiful Asian cat of the Bay-Cat lineage that completes a write up of a cat species from every extant cat clade and that discusses the smaller, little known cats and why they are worth study. Caturday Special: The Eurasian Cave Lion– A prehistoric beauty, around 10-15% bigger than the modern, African lion and as fearsome as it was admirable. Lions and humans emerged from Africa together and have a strong, cultural bond as a result. Like competing brothers. Caturday Special: Homotherium – Less well-known than their Smilodon cousins, these pre-historic, sabre-toothed beasties have some incredible evidence for intelligence, social behaviour and the evolution of butchery! Caturday Special: The Rusty-Spotted Cat – Possibly the smallest cat in the world (it’s close between it and the black-footed cat) this tiny, elusive feline of India and Sri Lanka is surely one of the cutest little hunters on Earth. Caturday Special: The Leopard – One of the most well-adapted, disperse and diverse of habitat cats on our planet and one whose various populations are sadly threatened by human activity. Of huge cultural significance to humans going back at least as far as Ancient Greece, the leopard is amazing. Caturday Special: The Sand Cat – It started as a cute distraction from the world’s ills but became a lesson, from an amazingly well-adapted, resourceful desert cat, on how to better use resources. Caturday Special: The Ocelot – The cat, the myth, the legend, the meme, star of Archer, Metal Gear Solid and a weird little invisible dragon kid in Dark Souls 3? We look at the ocelot, a medium-sized cat from the Americas that is as cute as it is deadly. Caturday Special: The Giant Cheetah – The larger cousin of our extant cheetah, if you think they’re impressive, wait until you read about these big boys!
CONTENT WARNING: Contains discussions on infant mortality, depressive behaviours, abusive behaviour and sex and gender roles.
“It was a long night; it seemed to be endless, minutes crawling by like years.” Is a sentence many people, pre-covid, would have had difficulty understanding. It’s a very depressive sentence, the psychological time-dilation that occurs in the mind of people caught in a mire of suffering to the point of numbness.
So starts Chapter 3 of The Bet and we are back in the present with Antony Ashurst.
He had fallen asleep, seemingly very briefly as it is still night, in the nursery, by the radiator. In Chapter 1 we had also seen a radiator and I mentioned how it was this human comfort, this artificial bastion against the ravages of nature, a technological marvel to combat the bitter cold and snow in the world outside and here it plays much a similar role. Ashurst is a man attempting to cling to his humanity.
He awakes in a state of confusion. We can assume, given his prior lack of sleep, the events that had occurred, the lengthy walk, the stress, and the lack of food that he basically passed out from tired. I am sure most of us have had situations where we have been so tired we just sleep; on the floor, in a chair, on a classroom desk. Situations where you just cannot stay awake, you do not intend to sleep but sleep becomes you. It’s yet another disconcerting invasion of the bestial, of the natural, of the inevitable into Ashurst’s life and his waking in confusion is almost a microcosm of his current situation.
He could “feel…the deep, bottomless emptiness of the crib” and what I really love about this crib imagery, later described as a “wooden abyss”, is this further blurring of the lines between life and death. It was already such a prominent theme in the first chapter. There, though, it was about Ashurst being lost between worlds. Ashurst wanted to comfort his child, be with his child but to do so would have meant a katabasis, a journey down that he is, as a living, mortal being, sadly all-too unable to make. A crib is supposed to house, nurture and nurse new life and yet, in this circumstance, we see it housing an abyss, a darkness, it is instead being used to nurse death itself. Like a massive star, Ashurst’s child has become such a dense ball of grief that now it is a black-hole, a singularity laid to nurse in this coffin-crib, this “wooden abyss”. It’s fucking poignant.
But Ashurst is alive, and not consumed by that black hole. He bites his lip until he draws blood, an act that is described as “the old talisman against tears” which I find incredibly interesting. There is a tendency, in humans, to take what are, effectively, either ‘instinctive’ or possibly conditioned, but either way unconscious behaviours and ascribe conscious significance to them. Biting one’s lip to fight outward expressions of emotions, e.g. crying or laughing, being described as a ‘talisman’, usually a manufactured or processed charm, an object, makes a conscious entity of this unconscious behaviour. It is another invasion of the natural, like his atavistic outburst in Chapter 1, into the mind of an otherwise seemingly well-grounded, intelligent man. As if to take ownership of those unconscious behaviours allows him to feel human again.
“He locked the door behind him, as if he could lock away the feelings, and went downstairs again to the bright kitchen, driven by a hated sense of self-preservation to seek food.”
The final sentence in the paragraph is another one of those Vivienne Tuffnell masterclasses in taking the mundane and soaking it in significance. He shuts and locks the door, a perfectly normal, everyday human thing to do but we are expressly told this time that it is as if he was locking away the feelings. Why are we told this? Isn’t the old adage “show, don’t tell!”? Well in which case is there some significance. To me, yes. If he merely locks the door behind him, and we are left to imply that he is locking away his feelings it is our reflection, our belief, that he is shutting himself off from this. The fact that it is mentioned in the text suggests, actually, Ashurst knows what he’s doing, too. He knows this is a denial, a blocking-out, a rejection of his true feelings. One of the most tragic aspects of this early part of the story is we are made very aware of Ashurst’s awareness. His intelligence is not hidden, his knowledge of what is happening to him is certain. So for every action, every struggle there is an aspect of himself that knows what he is doing, no matter how desperate, odd or painful.
We have the ‘bright kitchen’, from one man-made object, the crib, drenched in death, containing the very essence of abyss, we now have this contrasting human construct, the kitchen, which is bright.
And he is driven by a “hated” self-preservation. To some lucky people that might be a hard concept to grasp but to anyone who has ever been in a situation where they just wished they could fade away it’s very real, it’s fucking potent. Guiltily preparing food when you don’t feel at all like eating is something I’ve done. I could do myself the world’s best steak frites at that point and it may as well be tasteless nutrient paste. I don’t want to eat, but I am compelled. It’s another example of that natural invading the conscious space. The human organism’s needs controlling the human consciousness, the closest thing we could get to a ‘spiritual’ self. It feels as though Ashurst is willing himself into spirit. At this moment it may be that he has more business with ghosts than with the real world.
Humans are curious creatures in that we possess consciousness, which is generally considered an ability to think about think abouting. Personally it is my thought that humans ascribe far too much agency to consciousness when, actually, most of the time we are being dragged by unconscious desires. Our conscious actions can mirror those unconscious desires, and it seems we have mechanisms whereby we can unconsciously decide something, and then justify it to ourselves as a conscious decision. In reality we seldom think about many of the things that we do that we consider conscious behaviours. I like to use brushing teeth as a model.
There is no known natural, evolved mechanism for shoving bristles in your gob and rubbing them on your teeth. Various species have various ways of ensuring solid dental hygiene but none have gone to the trouble of inventing a special tool to do it, never mind an entire field of medical specialty. The thing is, though, I don’t actually think about brushing my teeth. I just do it. At one point I had to learn, sure, but eventually with enough learning it becomes habit and once it becomes habit it’s just some shit you do.
What’s more, I would argue rarely do people brush their teeth spontaneously. Rather it occurs at set times – We like to say it is part of our ‘routine’ but then I have to ask what the difference between routine and ritual is. We brush our teeth, usually, as part of the morning ritual and the bedtime ritual. When I think about all of the things that I do at these times to prepare myself very few of them are conscious. Ritual is important to all animals and disruption of that ritual can lead to discomfort but it’s not a conscious consideration of having not done all the right things, it’s an uneasy feeling in the pit of your gut, an intuition that something isn’t right.
I’m autistic so ritual is particularly important to me and there are some things I just feel wrong doing. I can’t, comfortably, leave my house without having had a shower, for example. If I am going out I have to shower. I can never be the guy who stumbles to his local corner shop in his dressing gown and slippers to pick up some milk in the morning because I would have go through my entire washing ritual before I felt comfortable leaving the house. There is no conscious interjection or consideration; it is just something that must be done.
But the significance here is Ashurst is not just uneasy feeding himself. He hates the self-preservation. His unconscious self is driving him to perform a ritual – cooking and eating – and his conscious self, seemingly powerless, hates that his unconscious self is choosing to help him carry on when he presumably wants to climb into that crib and join his dead kid in the abyss, when consciously he probably just wants to melt away into the background. It’s a seeming nothing sentence but, again, Vivienne has managed to make it reflect a war in one man’s brain, Self vs. Self, this see-sawing power of conscious and unconscious minds.
This is going to be one of the major themes of this novel. Ashurst is a man on a journey many of us have to face. Yet many of us rely often on those talismans, those radiators, those human artifices to provide us the comfort through them. We lean upon the manifestations of consciousness to provide us comfort because what is the unconscious if not the reflection of an animal within, a wild, untameable beast. Humanity, our conscious, is art, culture, enjoyment, sacrifice, ingenuity, comfort and being able to make rational, reasonable decisions. The unconscious is anxiety, fretting, worry, reaction, instinct, it punches people in the face, it bleeds, it suffers, it dies, it’s constantly looking over our shoulders, it’s making emotionally charged, spontaneous decision, with little rhyme, reason or rationality.
Or is it?
I know all too many ‘rational’ people whose decisions are made solely upon their ‘feeling’ about an issue, rather than any conscious consideration, research, data gathering or the prerequisites of making a ‘rational’ decision. What’s more that unconscious self, the reactive part of us also has us snatch kids out of the way of oncoming traffic when they’re in danger, jumps into rivers to save people and gives us the response “I don’t know why I jumped in, I just felt I needed to do something!”. Whilst the rule of thumb might be a simple “conscious good, unconscious bad” many of the worst atrocities have been committed under the cold, ‘rational’ light of consciousness and much of the best of humanity is done by acting without thinking at all, entirely unconscious.
Ashurst is in an unfortunate situation whereby the warmth of a radiator, looking at a nice painting or going out for drinks with the guys isn’t going to mend the divorce between his conscious and unconscious selves. He’s a man truly divided, divorced of mind, almost. It is going to take significant cognitive couples-counselling to get any sense of ease back in his life and that is going to require the best of both of his selves. He is going to have to learn to trust his feeling, let his body drag him to the kitchen, let his unconscious prop him up whilst his conscious has no patience or impetus to keep living but also he will have to probe, investigate, learn, consider and process consciously.
Sorry! I know that’s a lot to take in. But, such is the level of human complexity in all of Vivienne’s novels that I’ve read, and yet go look at the words. She presents it all so simply that it could easily be ignored. I think that to skirt around it in order to avoid that complexity would be to completely miss the point of her writing, though. She is an ideas writer, a philosophical writer – she may not describe herself as such but she works so much of the human cognitive complexity, as well as the morals, ethics and balances of it, into her work that I can see no other means of describing it. There is clearly a particular focus, too, on this Jungian balance between the conscious and unconscious minds. Whilst I don’t necessarily agree with Jung I think he was a man with a big idea who was probably along the right lines for coming to some significant understanding about the human mind and Ashurst is almost a vessel for attempting to understand some of those things on the part of the author.
So Ashurst’s brain tells his feet, much to ‘his’ chagrin, to go grab some food. What he eats is ridiculously Spartan, he has a bit of dry bread, some water and an apple. Hardly a banquet but the body wants what it wants and clearly what it wanted to do in that moment was consume whatever was available without preparation! I’ve been there!
At this point there’s almost a shift in the narrative voice. It is as if we are following Ashurst in his progression from his limbo, caught between sleep and wakefulness, life and death, and back to the groundings of what we might call ‘reality’. We get interjections in the text of his thoughts, even as he’s eating.
“A glass of water. OK, not too bad; even a bit better. Try an apple. That’s enough. What do I do now? What can I do? I can’t sleep, surely.”
It is as if the very unconscious and primal act of eating, sating the unconscious need, has allowed his conscious self to emerge from his cocoon of misery, look around and go “Oh, shit…Life!”
How often do we find this ourselves? How relatable is this? Being stuck in a rut, or mired in a funk and then you perform one act of basic self-care and it’s like a reawakening. I know I’m very prone to it but I’m an autistic person prone to anxious-depressive episodes but I’ve seen it in others with all sorts of situations of overwhelming emotion. This is what I was talking about earlier about how Ashurst is going to have to learn to marry his conscious and unconscious self, his conscious motivation is clearly linked to ensuring his unconscious desires are in some way satisfied. Whether you’ve just had a bad day, you’re experiencing grief or trauma, a breakup or just some other random extreme of emotion the unconscious can overwhelm us. Yet sometimes all it takes is eating one meal, getting something to drink, having a bath or a shower, getting dressed, tidying up – these little rituals! We’re back to rituals again! Sometimes all it takes is performing those little ‘normal’ rituals to ease the unconscious turbulence and suddenly find yourself ‘awake’, consciously, again.
A large part of the rest of this chapter is Ashurst and those rituals.
Before we get there, though, there is another conscious consideration of his. “I can’t sleep, surely.” Would imply to me that he’s absolutely knackered but too full of thought to sleep. He sees the sleeping pill left for him by the doctor, Gavin, and it is seemingly used as a means of introducing the character of his aunt, Sophie.
She had already been mentioned, if I remember correctly, but we didn’t get a good idea of who she is. This little passage gives us a lot more of an impression of her.
Ashurst’s doctor, Gavin, had wanted to call Sophie but Ashurst was hesitant.
“You know Sophie;” he says, “you know how she just takes over everything. She mustn’t have now. This is for me.” Ashurst tells Gavin.
This is a hint at another major theme of the book which is feminine dominance and given the goings on of the last chapter I get the feeling I’m about to go on another monologue of meaning!
There are very few female characters in the book who don’t come across like pieces of shit. I can think of two off the top of my head – perhaps we shall find more as I re-read and analyse the book deeper.
Now you could look at that situation as frighteningly misogynistic! You could ask why so many negative portrayals of women? What about their positive qualities? Why present the male as victim when, overwhelmingly, around the world, women are victims of masculinity and not vice versa.
For one thing, the fact that we are asking these questions is surely part of the point, right? If every portrayal of a female is drenched in a post-feminist positivism, or worse a deep sense of victimhood – is that not disempowering women?
It’s a truth fairly universally acknowledged that power corrupts, but I don’t necessarily think this novel wants to explore that. One of the main aspects of the whole journey is Ashurst learning his own potency, how to live with that power and what to do with it so that he can wield it responsibly. That’s where I think the purpose of the female presentations in the book is.
There is a character later on who, it could be argued, is just as domineering as Ashurst’s aunt, Sophie, but who does so with such compassion and care that it is evident she is not using her power to satisfy her own needs, or gloss over her own insecurities, but to assist others. We have met Judy and Jenny who I expressed in no uncertain terms were absolute pieces of shit who use their power in order to satisfy their own insecurities. Again it’s this balance of conscious and unconscious, of action and motivation, of understanding who you are, why you do what you do and trying to consider whether what you are doing is ‘right’, whatever that might mean to you.
I don’t think women are presented in a bad light because of any internal misogyny on the part of the author, nor do I think she hates women or thinks they’re all bad. I think it’s a presentation of a collage of women she has met, people she has experienced, who misogyny allows to misbehave by categorising women as powerless when, actually, they can wield much power even in a society that degrades them and attempts to strip them of their power.
To ignore the capabilities of a human to behave badly, to act in bad faith or to hurt others based upon nothing but their sex or gender is to ignore everything we know of anthropology, psychology and human behaviour. It is, in itself, an act of sexism to suggest women must be presented as either ‘good’ or victims.
Sophie represents a very interesting case. We will learn more about the relationship between Ashurst and his aunt as time goes on, but she is almost the archetype of the unease between conscious and unconscious selves. She is all about presentation, stiff-upper lip, being proper, doing right and yet – she rarely does the right thing, never mind for the right reasons. It’s a very human presentation and I know ‘Sophie’s! I know women for whom control and presentation are everything and any deviation is met with a harshness, a cruelty and a power that one could even describe as uniquely feminine, a raw, maternal power capable of taking the biggest, strongest man and making them feel like the smallest, scolded child.
Given how disempowered women have been, and the manners in which society, over time, has conditioned them to wield that power, a huge part of gender equality is going to be women gaining power. As mentioned, it is generally believed that ‘power corrupts’ but what about the power of life and death that doctors have? What about the power of female member of the RNLI to rescue people whose lives are at risk at sea? Sorry to use the Uncle-Benism but ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ and those who learn to be responsible with their power often end up less susceptible to those corrupting forces.
A huge part of that incorruptibility comes from understanding, though. One of the first things you have to understand is that you are, no matter how much you may think you are good, always capable of doing bad things. Nobody is immune to this. Even Jesus Christ, whom many Christians hold up as the paragon of passivity and innocent, lambly virtue, got pissed off with some money lenders and flipped their fucking tables! One must be aware of one’s anger, one’s insecurity, one’s passion, one’s desires – One must, funnily enough given the themes we’ve already discussed, be aware of who one is as both a conscious human entity and a snivelling, angry, scared, desperate unconscious human animal to truly harness the good of one’s own potency and to utilise it in good faith.
This is not innate.
Regardless of sex, gender, religion, belief, colour, creed, favourite genre of music, football team you support or preferred ice cream flavour. There is no innate mechanism for goodness or badness in human beings – there are conditions that can give someone a lean in one direction or another, but no hard-and-fast, set-in-stone deciding factor that says this person is good and this person is bad.
I think that’s something Vivienne is trying to achieve with her presentation of women in this book. She has empowered her women, but to what end? How do they wield that power? It is a warning not merely to women but to all people (the use of women is almost an inversion device, we have an ongoing book about men using their power to oppress women, it’s called real fucking life – so by flipping it rather than asking the same questions of society it is asking different ones) to be careful as they move forward in a world where people are asking for power to be distributed more equitably. To ask the questions who are the kinds of people who are likely to appeal for that power, seek that power and desire to use that power? Are they going to be the incorruptible paragons of virtue who have undergone painstaking journeys in their lives to understand themselves such that they can use their power for good? Or is that power likely to be usurped by the people most likely to fight most vociferously for it? Do the kinds of people willing to fight that hard for power have the right attitude, the right self-knowledge and understanding to wield it?
Now for further clarification that’s not to say that I, or Vivienne, think that women are incapable of wielding power. Women are likely no more, or less likely than men to abuse power. The point is that the established social convention makes powerful women a much more compelling medium for the message Vivienne wants to deliver. Men have been wielding the majority of power for a long time and it’s quite clear they’re hardly incorruptible paragons of virtue, either, to put it fucking mildly. But that’s the point. Can we really engender misuse of power when history has shown powerful people, men and women alike, acting horrendously when in possession of it? Or do we need to look deeper and ask questions not of men and women but of people.
In that case, I maintain that the reason women are used as majority carriers and abusers of power in ‘The Bet’ is to provide that inverted perspective. It is a measure to ensure that it becomes impossible to make this just another story of men being dicks and encourage us to ask the questions as, and of, human beings in general.
What it also allows us to do is look at masculinity from the flipside, too. Masculinity as we know it is being eroded and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. There are aspects of conditioned, masculinised behaviour that are outright fucking destructive. But there is a risk that in framing the arguments in a ‘men bad, women good’ point of view we actually risk alienating a lot of would-be good men, tarring them with the same brush as actual pieces of shit. What’s more it is going to require reformulating what masculinity should be, a change in identity that many people may struggle with. We need to ensure we are giving them role models of what a positive masculinity can, or should look like.
Masculinity is already presented in a very one-sided fashion, mainly by men who do not understand their conscious and unconscious selves who want to present a one-sided view of it so that they can deny their own vulnerability and insecurity! Men cry, men get scared, men break down, men suffer mental health problems – not every man is a strong and stoic perfect and chiselled demonstration of what ‘masculinity’ is supposed to be. The truth is men are human. Women are human. They are equally vulnerable sacks of meat, caught in a crazy evolutionary dance, aware that one day the music will stop, the ball shall end and they are absolutely addled with mixed feelings and emotions about the whole damn thing. I got the feeling this was Vivienne’s main point with it and as I have mentioned elsewhere, particularly in the introduction, as a somewhat non-conventional male this hits me hard. I can safely say when it comes to misuse of power I’ve been both a perpetrator and victim. I’ve been a perpetrator to people of all genders, I’ve been a victim of people of all genders. There’s no universal to it.
Whilst structure may imbue particular groups with an increased tendency to power, again, there is no innate mechanism for it! That tendency does not equal certainty. Despite the power imbalance in Western culture there are many incredibly powerful women and many incredibly powerless men. Determinism is bullshit! This world, to the best of our current models, is probabilistic. What do you do if those dice roll and give you power? Does it matter if you’re male, female or non-binary? How might that power, or the potential corruption thereof, manifest based upon these different circumstances?
These are questions Vivienne is asking and I honestly do not think I have read a more compelling presentation of gender roles, particularly masculinity (and particularly the pitfalls of the various social expectations of it), than in this book. Yet the main use of the device of having a male victim of female power is not to present women in a bad light, or men as hard done by. I think it’s to remind us that, circumstances being different, we can all be pieces of shit. We can all emit these negativities, these auras, we can all objectify, discredit, abuse, act without compassion because of our own prejudices, assumptions and neuroses.
None of us are immune to acting as villains and in presenting an alternative to what is a culturally dominant pattern of male dickheadery, Vivienne removes the veneer of cultural coding and makes it about something more fundamentally human and universal.
Lengthy sidetrack, let’s get back to Ashurst.
He wanders about his house, like a living ghost, haunting it. But his conscious mind is still racing. He heads to his bedroom, to the en suite in which his wife, Jenny, had died in labour for a child who would also die. The bedding is “twisted into a tangled shape, pillows dented and askew.” In a way the environment is a manifestation of Ashurst’s interior world so, what do we do? We ritual!
He tidies up.
It’s a return of personhood to a man stripped of it by tragedy. He’s a normal chap doing normal stuff. Of course there’s a touch of pain, rather than fully remake the bed he merely puts a throw on it. The energy to remove the bedding not matched with a readiness to truly ‘change’ it. It’s one of the things about human ritual is the depth of meaning we place in the inanimate. I have objects myself, a small Chinese style ornamental teapot, a clockwork mantel clock, which remind me of people since passed. They are of no functional value to me. If I’m honest with myself they merely take up space in an already cluttered living environment. But I couldn’t bring myself to put them in a box in the attic or donate them elsewhere because they mean so much to me. I, too, despite the minor inconvenience of these objects, cannot bring myself to change them.
He looks at his dead wife, Jenny’s, belongings and simply cannot touch them, and in fact Ashurst has to leave. Much like me and my mementos there is something very real to Ashurst about these inanimate objects, a power to them whereby moving them, changing them, acknowledging them just makes what has happened to him real. Despite the fact that in this moment he is very much in his real world, rather than the limbo he was before, there’s still a longing for that limbo, for that uncertainty. I don’t think it’s a wish for things to go back to how they were for reasons that will become obvious, but it is indicative of someone mid-process. He is not yet ready to move on.
There is discussion of how the house is dusty since Jenny offended the cleaning lady – since we’ve already met Jenny and you know my feelings on her as a character this comes as no surprise. It is another subtle character detail, though, that can easily slip through the net. Jenny is basically just a piece of shit! Not merely when chatting in the pub with someone equally shitty, she’s not trying to ‘fit in’, she just fits, she’s shitty with friends, shitty with loved ones and shitty with the house’s workers.
This also gives us an idea of some kind of stasis in Ashurst and his world even prior to the tragic events at the start of the book. His life has been on hold for clearly a lot longer than just that. Combined with the knowledge we gained of his mother being ill, her suicide, his father’s recent death and the fact that he is still a very young man we can fairly well surmise, in fact, that whilst this is a person who has been alive for 19 or 20 years, it is also someone who has ‘lived’ through very few of them.
He is now a man stripped bare of those stifling binds and whilst we can fetishise and get teary-eyed about wild animals being re-released into captivity the truth is that the wild life is full of dangers. It must surely be likewise for a human being, having been a captive of circumstance for so long. The freedom to do what thou wilt is, actually, a weighty responsibility for someone, like Ashurst, who knows pain as a closer friend than many of us do by his age. I find the use of a seemingly wealthy, privileged young man as the fulcrum of suffering is another deft use of inversion by Vivienne to render the message of universality a lot clearer. Suffering is inevitable, and cruelties can be inflicted by anyone on anyone.
Ashurst moves instead to his father’s room, another realm of stasis. It’s another Vivienne masterwork of turning the pedestrian into a champion sprinter. She simply describes the room and in so doing gives us an insight into this enigmatic figure of Ashurst’s father, simultaneously grand and domineering and yet vacant and Spartan.
This whole segment, Ashurst moving from room to room as Vivienne describes the room could be looked at as mindless descriptive word-padding, but when you actually think about how it is presented, the seeming shift of the narrative voice from being third-person and disconnected to seeming to reflect Ashurst himself it becomes a lot more powerful of a thought.
“How can you feel like a stranger in your own house, a house his family had lived in for over five hundred years?”
That becomes the key point. This description is not for us. Although we are seeing these rooms, these objects, this furniture for the first time it, so, it feels, is Ashurst. He is a stranger in his own home, this dense museum of memories that he wanders through, seeking sanctuary. Every nook, cranny, corner, drawer, wardrobe and bathroom of the building is drenched in significance and meaning and in attempting to find a haven he ambles, like Dante in Hell, finding only the banshee wails of past sorrows, regrets and memories. Imagine what horrible things would have to occur, what tragedies you would have to accrue to make every room in your house a haunting reminder of all the terrible things that had happened to you, alienating you with their presence.
We get snippets of his life, his late wife’s voice creeping in, mockingly, to criticise the grandeur of his home – the power of belittling. Hers is an acerbic voice, not so much the mighty, small axe chopping down privilege as the boom of a Titan melting it, dissolving it and any sense of identity that may come with it. Jenny is powerful, Ashurst’s legacy is not. There are shades of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Tess’s encounter with Alec by the d’Urberville tomb. All the ancestral swords and shields of the past are long since rusted, the nobility of their great name dissolved in the present by the potency of the living. A so-called noble past means nothing.
Every room reminds him of someone with whom he has shared trouble, himself, his aunt Sophie, his wife, his father. Every object is soaked in significance, every room resonating with memories.
When you consider the meaning of a ‘home’, a supposedly safe, comfortable environment, your own space, to which you can retreat, it’s not just voices of the past that reverberate through this chapter. It is the inner turmoil of the present. Ashurst is a man lost amidst the familiar. He surveys everything familiar and finds only the estranged.
It’s really quite clever writing, the house comes to symbolise not merely bricks-and-mortar. We have already, in Chapter 1, had the reflection of Ashurst’s mind in the natural, his brain-fogged, grieving, confused state matched by weather, the cold, dead, snow and the moonlight. The focus was on him in this acting-without-thinking phase. It was primal, it reflected an unconscious.
Now the moonlight is dulled, we aren’t in the unconscious realm anymore. This house, the description of it and how it reflects Ashurst shows him at his conscious level, the identity he has, and the thoughts he has of himself and his life and what we find is a man who doesn’t know very much about himself. He is a stranger in every room he visits, an accessory in his own memories, constantly at the mercy of the power of others. He looks at every room and says “I can’t stay here.” He finds no comfort in any corner of his home and, by extension in any corner of himself.
He is a man who is a stranger not just in his house, but in his skin.
Little surprise, then, that he relents, knocks back the sleeping pill left for him by his doctor and elects, at least in the short term, to the mercy of escape.
My article on Wicked Problems is probably one of my least read and yet I would argue most important. ‘Wicked problems’ are what occurs where science, technology, society and politics meet in the arena known as ‘social planning’ – i.e. how do we want to make our best world in the future, and what are the best means of doing so. Marriage rights, sex and gender, wealth disparity, transportation infrastructure, climate management – these are all wicked problems and so is trophy hunting.
There’s been a lengthy back-and-forth on twitter about trophy hunting, recently. Perhaps you’ve seen it, perhaps not. Perhaps like many others you have seen newspaper headlines about the UK attempting an outright ban on returning trophies from trophy hunting locations, supported by high-profile celebrity voices. It is being done as a measure to protect wildlife, however the issue becomes complex when large areas of habitat, and species, are kept on private reserves for game hunting.
These reserves depend upon the funding from hunting. They often have their own rangers, or else invest in local ranger services to protect their wildlife from poaching. They promote breeding, maintain the entire ecosystem to be conducive to this end and, unfortunately, yes, they fund it all because a few people feel big and powerful when they use a shooty-shooty to kill big, beautiful wildlife.
But it’s a messy issue. Hunting for sport is not something I agree with in the least, however the kills, as well as providing a trophy for the hunter, also often provide meat for the locals to eat, hides to work with, wear or utilise elsewhere. They provide an income that is used to support local communities. The IUCN have recognised the role of trophy hunting in the protection of wildlife and habitats and also agree it’s a complex issue. They also make a note in one report that the value of that land in terms of agricultural value is often somewhere on the region of 300-600 times more lucrative, financially, than hunting.
Making trophy hunting no longer viable risks land owners deciding the best way to deal with their loss of one livelihood is to invest in the other, more profitable one. Most of the reserves, which are already suffering due to covid, would end up converted to farmland to significant detriment to wildlife.
Habitat loss, and human-wildlife conflict are just the leading conservation problems of our time. Whilst indiscriminate hunting has, in the past, led to, at the very least, dramatic reductions in some species populations, even outright extinctions, today it is not so open-and-shut a case.
I don’t want to bog people down in minutiae, the discussion is mainly being led by conservation scientists and science communicators and animal rights activists. There’s plenty of nuts and bolts if you want to go find them. I want to focus on the complexities. The things to think about that make it a ‘wicked problem’ with no easy solution.
I agree there is a ‘problem’ – I don’t like or support hunting for sport. I just don’t get it, I don’t think it’s necessary and it should, in time, fuck off.
But is an out-and-out ban the best way to go about this?
One thing to consider is that there is a fair amount of data out there but data from where?
Considering where your data comes from is an important thing. What one reserve in Zambia does, or how it operates, may not be the same in Kenya, Namibia or Tanzania, or across different reserves.
These can be private businesses, there are many private hunting reserves in South Africa, for example. They can also be huge areas of land (apparently potentially as large as multiple UK counties or the country of Luxembourg!) managed as hunting blocks. These areas of land are usually put out to bid by local authorities to be run by concession owners. For example in Tanzania the Tanzania Wildlife Management Authority, working under the national Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, puts their wildlife hunting blocks out to tender. They even have a copy of their tender application advertisement so you can see their standards and how they expect the land to be managed. In Namibia the Ministry for Environment, Forestry and Tourism (MEFT) allows communities to register as self-governing ‘conservancies’. Whilst the MEFT are relatively hands-off in these areas they do have the right to revoke conservancy status. It should be noted that not all of these conservancies allow hunting. You can get more details on Namibia’s conversancies here. Thanks to Professor Adam Hart for the clarification.
What becomes apparent is that each region of each country has a huge amount of difference in what can happen, how and where. There is a huge difference between them.
Consider your own local businesses. I am sure you’ve picked up a lunch somewhere and it’s been terrible and picked up a similar thing at even a different franchise of the same business, in a different city, and it’s been great! Now scale that up to the size of, say, A CONTINENT!
Whilst some trophy hunting reserves may be outright corrupt and exploitative what they have to do, at the very least, is maintain an ecosystem for the wildlife to be able to breed in to sustain numbers so they don’t just run out of animals to be killed.
Even the worst practitioners have to maintain sustainability.
But the best practitioners may use that money elsewhere. Perhaps they invest in protected or controlled zones around their private reserves so that there can be a steady flow of wildlife between the two? Perhaps they pay for local communities to get involved as guides, trackers, employees, wait-staff, bar staff, cleaners etc.? Perhaps they maintain their wildlife on a constant upward trajectory, ensuring they’re growing their populations of animals?
It is different in each location – and thus so will the suitability of any particular scheme used to adapt that community from a dependence on hunting to one that can be sustainable and community led without hunting.
Consider the species, too. There are an estimated 1-1.5 million blue wildebeest in Africa (although numbers of some populations and subspecies vary) of these it is estimated close to 250,000 die per year in their annual migrations – from dehydration, hunger, predation, age, weakness, infirmity etc.
Between 2005-2014, according to a HumaneSociety International report, around 52,000 wildebeest trophies were imported into the US (one of the prime locations for trophy hunters). Around one fifth as many as die by ‘natural causes’.
It is also an estimate as to how many wildebeest were killed in Botswana in 1983 when, thanks to a couple of harsh drought years, efforts were made to stop the wildebeest reaching water sources that were instead fenced off for use by humans and human-adjacent livestock.
This is a point that I think conservation scientists like Dr. Amy Dickman are trying to make! In one year, one human measure of wildlife control to support local human activity led to as many deaths in wildebeest as trophy hunters in the US claimed in a decade!
On the ground the picture is often very different to the clean-and-easy narrative presented in the Global North, in your newspapers and on BBC fucking breakfast! Reality, now that’s a lot crueller.
The aspect of neo-colonialism on the part of activists is also something to consider. A bunch of relatively affluent people in ‘the west’ telling African nations how best to manage their wildlife is all very well and good until they have zero consideration for the reality of living with that wildlife.
In Britain, the worst you have to deal with is a fox screaming at night or a seagull tearing open your bins. In Africa you have to worry about lions killing your cattle that you depend on for milk, meat and/or hides, leopards eating your kids on the way home from school or elephants trampling your village! We might see these species as beautiful and majestic but the reality is people and animals are dying because of these conflicts bred in white-dominated discussions in the UK, Europe and the United States.
Down on the ground it’s all fences, guns, poison and snare traps! Where wildlife, particularly harmful wildlife, encroaches on human activity both the people and the wildlife suffer. The kinds of measures that killed those 50,000 wildebeest in 1983 come back into play.
Who takes priority?
Do we protect the people or the wildlife?
To what end?
This is where it’s a wicked problem. It has no consensus, nobody truly knows what they’re doing, or what the end result will be, but we have to try. What we certainly have to do is put some faith in the people on the ground, the ecologists, biologists, conservation scientists and the local communities they painstakingly work with. They want what we want and have seen, first hand, the incredible complexities of these situations. If it was a clear-cut issue, we wouldn’t be having such intense debate about it!
What I know is there are people out there willing to devote their lives to these slow, difficult solutions. They are willing to see the suffering, suffering many people couldn’t tolerate witnessing, in order to understand it and figure out ways to prevent it. These people don’t like trophy hunting either, but they’ve seen the alternative.
The alternative is thousands of animals being persecuted, displaced, poisoned, starved of prey species or even just shot, speared or beaten with sticks or rocks by local pastoralists. The alternative is huge swathes of land currently managed to maintain wildlife to be shot being turned into farms, decimating the landscape and bringing its wildlife into conflict with the farmers. In this case, the non-hunting alternative could cause a bigger problem than the problem we are attempting to solve.
Poisoning is a particularly bad problem as that impacts the ecosystem of carrion feeders. Many of the large predators of Africa are known to feed on carrion, as well as vulture species that, as my article on them explains, are vital ‘cleaners’ in their ecosystems. Vulture guts are where botulism, tuburculosis and even anthrax go to die! Declines in vulture numbers in Africa and Asia have been linked to deliberate, or accidental, poisoning in carrion. This has a significant impact on ecosystem health, as well as the public health of the local populations!
‘The road to hell…’ and all that!
There are many initiatives, in many places, that have worked but ‘location, location, location’. Whilst photo-tourism may be viable in some areas in others there may not be the requisite infrastructure to handle the number of tourists you’d need to sustain it. Hunting is a cash-crop! It’s obviously an affluent pursuit and the price-per-trophy is significantly higher, meaning you can often run a hunting reserve with minimum requirements for accommodation, infrastructure and comfort. Can the same be said of wildlife photo-tourism? Do people expect a different ‘experience’? These are things that MUST be considered.
To complicate matters further we must look at the bigger picture, too.
As mentioned habitat loss and exploitation and human-wildlife conflicts are two of the biggest problems in conservation right now.
Consider it like the Titanic. The whole ship is sinking. There’s a massive gash in the side of the boat and water is coming in at an alarming rate. One of the attendants is frantically trying to get people to the lifeboats when they are interrupted by someone.
“Excuse me, the tap is on in my room and won’t shut off.” They say.
“Please, if you could make your way to the lifeboats! The ship is sinking!” The attendant replies.
“Well if you shut off the tap in my room the ship’ll sink slower!” The complainant responds.
In terms of global loss of biodiversity (the Titanic) we (humans) are the iceberg! We’ve carved a hole (habitat loss) in the hull and our ship (global biodiversity and species population numbers) is sinking. The attendants (conservation scientists, researchers etc.) are desperately trying to get people to understand the magnitude of the situation but every individual (e.g. the tap complainant) has their own perspective of what may, or may not, be a pressing concern.
The only undeniable fact is the ship is sinking and the biggest concern is to move as much human and wildlife activity away from the problem areas to give us the most amount of time to deal with the problem.
As much as I dislike the practice on a moral and ethical level in the real circumstances in the world right now trophy hunting is the tap that won’t turn off on the Titanic!
The problem is it is also very emotive. People killing animals to protect their family, community or livestock we can understand. People killing stuff for fun, those of us who love animals, cannot understand.
High profile animal killings, like Cecil the Lion, make for huge, headline news stories but the thousands of lions per year that die because they make problems for the humans they co-habit with just don’t. We see one image of a smirking git with their ‘trophy’ and we lose our heads.
If we want to ensure we are investing in the correct path to ensure as sustainable as possible a protection of the world’s wildlife we need to accept and acknowledge that this is the exception. We’ll get around to it, we’ll deal with it. But, back to the Titanic metaphor, let’s get all the people and animals we can out of the really big harm’s way first before we think about going around turning off the taps!
I have not seen a single person in this discourse on trophy hunting labelled by activists as ‘pro-hunting’ or ‘shills’ ever express an opinion in support of trophy hunting. No conservationist supports the arbitrary killing of animals. What they are arguing is for a recognition of the true messiness, the wickedness, of this problem.
You can’t just cut off a source of income to an entire community. It may only account for 15,000 people in the whole population of the country but if it is the only industry in that particular region that basically like making an entire village in the UK unemployed. How do they pay for shelter, food, resources, healthcare, education etc.? What do they then do to make money? Well, again, the IUCN gives us some idea, with agriculture, farming, being the most profitable path to take.
This would turn huge areas of land currently cultivated, protected and dedicated to wildlife as a valuable resource into over-exploited areas, where prey species would be driven out, predators put under pressure, and human-wildlife conflicts causing more deaths to humans and animals. What do you do?
I wish I had the answers, I really do. I don’t. Patience, understanding, data, recognition of complexity – that’s the only thing I can appeal for. There are excellent scientists, conservationists, hands-on people in the field working on the solutions. But it’s slow going trying to transform so complex an issue into a community-led, sustainable solution. It can only be done in small increments. Africa is a fucking big continent with huge and drastic differences in infrastructure, ecosystems and wildlife populations. What works in one spot may not work in another.
I am opposed to the UK legislating a ban on trophy hunting. I do not support trophy hunting. But I do not support communities being forced into slapdash decisions to counter it should they need a new income. I believe the results of human-wildlife conflict and habitat loss would come into play in some areas if this were to be the case, and I believe that would have a significant detriment to species numbers and global biodiversity.
It’s wicked problem, sorry about that. But if we recognise it as such we can work towards patience, consensus and understanding for each other’s viewpoints that can help mediate practical, sustainable solutions rather than turning off a tap on the Titanic to find the ship still sinking.