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More than an Apparition: A Little Intro to Our Lady of Guadalupe

One day, back when we lived in California, I went to Catholic church with my spouse (I’m Baptist, so I have an excuse not to go all the time). As soon as I walked in the first door, I detected that sweet and yet overpowering scent of roses. Upon entering the second door, the freshness of greenery hit me – even over the scent of the incense – and my eyes feasted upon a mountain of flowers unlike anything I’d ever seen before (and I’ve been to true Southern funerals!). The mountain flowed from the bottom of a painting of the Virgin Mary. From beneath a statue of the Lady’s feet spilled another mountain of lush blooms, and the floral collection tumbled all the way across the dais on which the altar sat.

Being the shocked protestant I was, I leaned over to my husband and asked, “What is THAT?”

“It’s the Feast of Guadalupe. It’s very popular in Mexico.”

From that, I’ve learned a bit more about the feast and the story behind it. So pull up a chair, smell the flowers, and let’s dig in.

A Quick Rundown on Mary, Mariology, and Marian Apparitions

Mary: Mother of God.

If you ask me, that’s a pretty big job, and that should make Mary pretty important to religious folks. There’s not many details about Mary, however, present in the Bible. How do we study someone who, other than the details presented mostly in Luke, has mostly been erased?

The study of Mary is known as “Mariology”. Catholics and Orthodox parishioners include things such as Sacred Tradition and other, post-biblical doctrines as part of the information to be studied as part of Mariology. From this, aspects of Mary and her life have been more fully derived and defined for the faithful. As a protestant, I was most surprised to find out about the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is part of Catholic tradition.

Other sources of information are something called Marian Apparitions. These are times that Mary has allegedly appeared to people and sometimes given them help or direction. Through Mary’s continued actions, thoughts on what she supports have also built. These apparitions are often named “Our Lady of [Insert Location Apparition Was Seen Here]”. Our Lady of Fatima, for instance, was seen in Fatima, Spain.

And, most importantly, Our Lady of Guadalupe was seen in Guadalupe, a suburb of Mexico City.

Juan Diego Builds a Church

Our Lady of Guadalupe is based on a series of five apparitions, four to Juan Diego and one to his uncle, Juan Bernadino.

On December 9th, 1531, Juan Diego followed a call coming from Tepeyac hill. Once he reached the site, he discovered a radiant Indian woman dressed in Aztec finery. There the visage told him she was the Mother of God and all humanity, and she ordered him to build a house for her on the site. In order to fulfill her demands, he needed to ask the Bishop for help.

Juan Diego asked Bishop Juan de Zumárraga to build the temple, but he was dismissed. There are a few religious speculations as to why, but what I’ve seen points to a bishop that is ultimately blameless (if wrong). I think it likely that the bishop didn’t pay attention to a poor convert. As a Spanish conquerer, it makes sense the bishop would have (racistly and wrongly) ignored an Indian peasant. The humility, origins, and economic station of Juan Diego makes his story all the more important.

After having failed to obtain Bishop Juan de Zumárraga’s blessing and help, Juan Diego returned to the hill where the Lady told him to try a second time the next day. At the second telling, the Bishop found him bold and wondered why the man insisted a second Marian Apparition has appeared. He demanded a sign that Juan Diego is telling the truth.

Later that night, Juan Diego returned home to find his only family – uncle Juan Bernadino – so sick and ailing that he was surely dying. Juan Diego remained at his uncle’s bedside, caring for him for two days, but the man did not recover. He tells his uncle that he must leave to get a priest to prepare for death.

On his way, he runs into the Lady again. She rebuked him for not having the faith to return to her, but Juan Diego bravely asked her to give him the sign requested by the bishop. She told him to return to Tepeyac hill and pick flowers.

Juan Diego was confused because of the wintery season, but he followed through. At the top of the hill, the Lady of Guadalupe helped him pick the miracle flowers and placed them in his tilma. She told him to bring the flowers to the Bishop.

Upon giving the tilma to the bishop, the flowers tumbled out and reveal the image of the virgin.

The famous Our Lady of Guadalupe image. There is a lot of Aztec and Christian symbolism in each piece. The cloth is, like most Tilmas, made of agave fiber and only has a “shelf life” of 30 days. Careful work has mostly preserved this piece, though bits have been lost. Public Domain, attributed to Mary, Mother of God.

At the same time that Juan Diego showed his faith to the Lady, she appeared to the uncle Juan Bernadino and healed him. After her church is built, it became known for its healing properties.

This last apparition, on December 12th, marks the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

A Travel Destination and Symbol of Mexico

The tilma (cloak) of Juan Diego was only supposed to last for a short time, but preservation of the image and a combination of miracles means that you can still visit it. While 2020 was of course an aberration due to the pandemic, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is otherwise one of the most visited religious sites on the planet (only behind the Meiji temple or the Kashi Vishwanath temple). People travel to this site for healing, to inspect the miraculous cloak, and to celebrate the December 12th feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The tilma and apparition has come to represent much more than a single set of events that took place during Spanish colonialism. It has come to represent Mexican heritage, social justice, healing, and hope for the poor and indigenous. As Mary appeared to a poor Indian, dressed in both clothes and skin of an Aztec, even the Church has declared her the patron saint of Mexico (even if there was controversy surrounding the authenticity of the story).

In addition to being a symbol for the downtrodden, she has become a symbol, rallying point, and part of Mexico itself. Starting with the war for Mexican independence from Spain, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla encouraged untrained peasants and common people to throw off the Spanish colonists. Because Mary, as the Lady of Guadalupe, symbolized hope and belief in the downtrodden, this helped in his rallying call and brought her image into politics as well as religion.

A painting of Miguel Hidalgo, who led the way to Mexican independence from Spain. He kickstarted his movement by invoking the image of Mary as seen on the famous Tilma. If you look closely at his banner in this painting, you can see the likeness. Public domain, 1905 painting by Antonio Fabrés.

Since then, people of Mexican heritage have carried her image and importance all across the globe. She has seen Mexico through civil wars, popular uprisings, and battles concerning the separation of church and state. White, protestant Americans may not know much about the Lady of Guadalupe beyond her symbolism of Mexico, but she is important throughout all of the Americas and is an essential part of the world.

For More Information

I hope you enjoyed reading this – it ended up WAY longer than I’d intended! I also worry that people probably know more about this than I realize. I did, after all, grow up in a super-sheltered fundamentalist protestant household.

As I was reading up on this, I found that many sites included several details about the story that others did not. The main story in the “Juan Diego Builds a Church” section was my summary that took information from all of these sources. Be careful and discerning – a lot of sources are religious, so they have a certain agenda to fulfill.

From the Franciscan order of Catholics

Official Vatican stuff

Where my spouse looks up really obscure Catholic things

A secular, American article

More Catholic stuff

A blog/article/essay about someone’s personal experiences

And, of course, Wikipedia has a great summary.

About the Author: H.R.R. Gorman is a PhD chemical engineer with expertise in biotechnology and making drugs. Following science, Dr. G’s greatest passions are writing and history. If you want to know more about this white-trash-turned-excessively-bourgeois maniac, you can go to https://hrrgorman.wordpress.com/.

Dreams and Deathtraps: The History of Submarines

Welcome back, y’all.

Imagine you’re at Disneyland, 2015. You go in, and the first attraction you see is the Finding Nemo ride. You don’t know what the ride is about, so you get in line. Once you’re through the long wait, you see it: a small submarine. You get in anyway, because you waited so long.

But then they shut you in.

And then you feel like you sink.

And then you definitely don’t scream, unbuckle, stand up, and try to get out. You don’t frighten employees, and you definitely don’t run away and cry in Star Wars Land while the people you came to Disneyland with are confused. And you definitely don’t suspect the author of this column did any of these things.

If you’ve ever ridden the civilian death-trap known as the Finding Nemo ride, you’ve benefited from hundreds (or perhaps thousands!) of years of dreaming about underwater adventure. The first underwater adventurers were divers who breathed through reeds, and during the middle ages Europeans took this idea a smidge further: what if you could be in an underwater box? An entire ship, unseen, under the water?

Image: William Bourne’s submarine design was very clever but never built. The principle seems sound, but would you want to take a trip on a thing with only a leather pouch between you and a watery grave? Image by William Bourne, 1578, Inventions or Devises. Public Domain.

With Middle Age tech, this was going to be a hard beast to figure out. In addition to finding the right buoyancy so the underwater boat would neither sink nor float, there were issues of how to propel it, how to navigate, and this little thing called “how to breathe”. One of the first plausible attempts to answer these questions was made by William Bourne, who was a British Navy guy (of course) and mathematician. The diagrams of his planned submarine were published in the 1578 book Inventions or Devises. These drawings still exist, but the leather-and-wood craft was never built. The buoyancy problem was solved by including leather compartments that could be pulled inside the ship to sink and pushed outward to rise.

Image: Cornelis Drebbel invented an oar-powered deathmobile that navigated the Thames and thrilled the British heart. Because of course it did. The artist who drew this seems to be unknown.

This idea solved one of the four major problems: buoyancy. In the early modern period, similar ideas were devised and attempted. The first “successful” submarine ever built was made by Dutchman Cornelis Drebbel for (of course) the British Navy. These boats were oar powered. King James VI/I was interested in these submarines and, apparently, rode in one of these boats as part of an exposition. These boats weren’t useful for much more than show, and it wasn’t for many years that a “useful” one appeared.

That’s because an oar-powered submarine is a joke. It’s not easy to steer, and it’s definitely not easy to row while entirely underwater. You have to fight against the drag all the time. American inventor David Bushnell added the first screw propeller to a submarine, which solved a large problem of the earlier craft: propulsion. With this addition, he was able to design and build a one man craft known as the Turtle. It’s at this point that we must ask the question, “Why did he build it?”

Honestly, it was because he built underwater mines and thought a submarine would be the best way to use them. Yes, the man invented a ship as a ‘side project’ to go along with his bombs. To use against the British, because of course the British would be involved here.

Image: I wouldn’t be caught dead in this machine because look at it – dead is where I’d end up. This is Lieutenant Commander F.M. Barber’s 1875 drawing made based on David Bushnell’s descriptions.

In 1776 during the blockade of New York Harbor, Ezra Lee piloted Bushnell’s craft and tried to attach a mine to the HMS Eagle. He was unsuccessful because the currents were too strong for his single-man craft, and Bushnell was the only one who really knew how to navigate it. Bushnell was frail, however, and couldn’t keep the man-powered-screw propellers going for long.

At this point, it’s clear why navies wanted this invention: to blow things up. The French soon built one, Americans kept trying, British kept trying, and the Russians kept trying, but they still had the problems of steering well and, you know, breathing. The American Civil War saw a lot of development toward solving these problems.

Though it was lost in North Carolina’s Graveyard of the Atlantic and never found, the most famous of the Union submarines was the USS Alligator. It was French-designed (Brits, you’re letting me down!) and American built. Alligator was the first submarine to solve the breathing problem by using compressed air. It didn’t help anyone, though, when it was sunk in tow during a storm. They still haven’t found it.

Image: The CSS Hunley, built and financed by deathtrap designer Horace Hunley, was the first submarine to blow up another ship. This 1864 painting was made by Conrad Wise Chapman. Common Domain.

The Confederate ship CSS Hunley added navigability, control, and greater man-powered propulsion to the list of submarine advancements. (You probably want to be careful clicking that link, not because it’s virusy, but because it’s CLEARLY full of Confederate propaganda and will put you on a list. It’s too late for me, so save yourselves.) The Hunley was the first submarine to sink another ship (the USS Housatonic) in battle. Shortly after it sent the signal that it had succeeded in its mission, however, it sank for unknown reasons. Even after the submarine was found off the coast near Charleston, it’s unclear why she sank. This battle was the sign of things to come.

The next phase of submarine history is more well known. Inspired by recent advancements, the latent dreams of underwater discovery from ancient times, and Verne’s 10,000 Leagues under the Sea, inventors pushed toward perfection of the boats. Metallurgy, engines, chemistry, and more continued to improve all sorts of vehicles – including boats and subs. It wasn’t long before people of many nations were using compressed air, screws, and metal hulls to make underwater boats capable of great destruction. Unrestricted submarine warfare on the part of Germans during WWI made the U-boats (“unterseaboot”) infamous. Continued advancements that came along with many other naval inventions led to the diesel-powered beasts of WWII.

Note the great weakness of the above paragraph: diesel powered. Diesel-cycle engines burn oxygen, and even with compressed air, breathing is still a problem in a submarine. The diesel-powered submarines could go about as far as an ordinary ship, but they couldn’t stay underwater for long and they couldn’t support many sailors.

The nuclear age of submarines arrives with the Nautilus, and everything gets bigger, better, faster, more secret. I mean, look at that Turtle image, that Hunley image, then this one. Look at the size of the people in/on/next to them. SHIVER AT THE POWER OF HUMANITY. Image: USS Nautilus Launching into the Thames, released by the US Navy.

Enter the deeply controversial Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, so-called “father of the nuclear navy.” He pushed the invention of the pressurized water reactor, or PWR, a nuclear reactor capable of use on a naval vessel. The PWR powered the first nuclear submarine: USS Nautilus, as named after Verne’s fictional submarine. In 1955, Mamie Eisenhower christened her and sent her off on the first of many record-breaking voyages. Nuclear power doesn’t create carbon emissions and doesn’t require oxygen, so a submarine with scrubbers and compressed air can stay underwater an almost infinite amount of time. The (American, anyway – Soviets were kind of crazy) nuclear submarines were safe and effective despite this author’s horrible fear of deathtraps submarines. Aside from additional improvements in navigation and communication from computers, nuclear submarines are the current technologies we have today.

(The nuclear engineer spouse reading over my shoulder wants me to remind you that Rickover’s push for PWRs scrapped development of sodium fast reactors, for which he blames the Admiral – not that anyone reading this probably cares).

About the Author: H.R.R. Gorman is a PhD chemical engineer with expertise in biotechnology and making drugs. Following science, Dr. G’s greatest passions are writing and history. Dr. G has never cried at Disneyland and will vehemently deny it if you try to push the matter. If you want to know more about this white-trash-turned-excessively-bourgeois maniac, you can go to https://hrrgorman.wordpress.com/.

The History of Best Friends

I’m quite hopeful you, as you read this, have a best friend.

If you don’t, however, you can pick up a best friend from a shelter not too far away: you can get a dog.

Dogs, called “man’s best friend” in a cliché and somewhat sexist statement, hold that special status in our hearts for a reason. Whereas horses can understand and work with humans, and while cats can see us as food and attention sources, dogs are starved for love and want to dole it out in equal – well, let’s admit it, greater – measure. But how did we get to this point? And why the heck are there so many breeds?

Let’s find out by delving into a pre-history that, with modern technology, is only now being discovered.*

Domestication

This peer-reviewed gene analysis paper shows how researchers analyzed dog genomes of many breeds to determine that the well-beloved race all descended from gray wolves. Yes, that’s right, your beloved Butter Butt is 100%, genuine wolf.

“I know and accept this worthless fluff-bucket owns my house.” — Dr. Gorman

In fact, the genetic clades (clades represent similarities in genomes, and the closer the clade the more similar the genes) show how closely related dogs and wolves really are. In one of the article’s images, the one that describes the haplotypes (or genetic groups) of dogs and wolves, several groups of dogs and wolves are about equally related to one another. Dogs and wolves are also capable of interbreeding.

This interbreeding seems to have been important during the domestication of the dog, as analysis of the mitochondrial DNA indicates multiple back-breeding events (i.e., when domesticated dogs interbred with wolves) added genetic diversity. It may also indicate multiple domestication events. Multiple events makes it really hard to pin down when dogs were domesticated, and even where! The paper I linked above seems to indicate the primary event happening in east Asia, but others (as summarized in this The Atlantic article) claim with what seems to be equal validity, that the event occurred in any number of places. There is a lot of evidence, however, favoring east Asia over other places.

While genetics has shown us what changed to cause the wolf ancestor to split into wolves and dogs, scientists still argue as to how or why those changes were implemented.

What does it take for domestication occur? This review article from Cell (trust me, it’s a high-level scientific journal) says there’s nothing certain about what makes an animal domesticated, and studied traits vary by species, breed, and situation. The sheer number of dog breeds with highly varying traits also leave us wondering what were the things ancient humans did that changed a wolf into a dog.

There’s only one thing we can be sure of: we absolutely needed friends. Humans gave dogs protection, food, and comfort in a harsh and ancient world even before the first agricultural revolution.

And, as you dog owners know, they gave all of that back ten-fold.

Dog Breeds

Though dog domestication happened something on the order of 15,000 to 30,000 years ago, the divisions of dogs into breeds happened much later.

And it’s the biggest genetic experiment to have ever happened.

From Mastiffs to Chihuahuas, from Shiba Inu to Australian Shepherds, they’re all dogs. Most breeds also didn’t exist until about 150 years ago, when it became a popular hobby in England to breed the perfect pup.

In fact, look at this map where the landmasses are adjusted for size based on the number of breeds from the area:

CRAZY FRIKKIN’ ENGLAND IS BIGGER THAN AFRICA, AUSTRALIA, and ASIA COMBINED. Also, sorry the map’s not zoomed in to see things well, but I couldn’t find a better image (I saw it for the first time at my dog trainer’s place).

In the late 19th century, the English – and, later, much of Europe – got into the whole idea that dogs were pets and could be bred. Now, I don’t want to be too presumptive, but Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859, otherwise known as “pretty much at the beginning of the dog-breeding craze.” Was this scientific work influential in dog breeding? Did it inspire the middle-class hobbyists to begin creating dogs that had specific traits other than what were needed to do their jobs? There’s no proof, and it’s literally just something I’ve had in my head for a while, but I think it’s fairly coincidental that all of this happened at once.

But, as selective pressures brought about the differentiation between dog and wolf, human-enforced breeding measures brought about the breeds. We can see this still ongoing today as breed regulations change and new traits come into favor. For instance, when you look at the below picture of two chihuahuas, which one do you think is the correct by breed standard?

The answer is both are ok. Both the deer-headed (B) and apple-headed (A) Chihuahua are up to code, but the apple-headed dogs are more popular and more “desirable” (especially if you want more health problems). I take issue with this specific consumer choice due to those associated health issues, but whatever.

As dog breeding continues, issues associated with inbreeding have cropped up. If you choose to get a purebred dog, do your homework. Look up the lineages of the dog you’re considering, and maybe don’t get one descended from the top showdog (for AKC Pomeranians, it’s hard to get away from Prince Charming in your lineage, but I tried to keep greater diversity when I got my dog).

And, every time you pet your friend, remember that someone, thousands of years ago, was brave enough to pet a wolf.

About the Author: H.R.R. Gorman is a PhD chemical engineer with expertise in biotechnology and making drugs. Following science, Dr. G’s greatest passions are writing and history. Dr. G has a vicious attack Pomeranian named Hector, who is a spoiled and dearly loved dog. If you want to know more about this white-trash-turned-excessively-bourgeois maniac, you can go to https://hrrgorman.wordpress.com/.

*If you believe in the young earth theories or disbelieve evolution, I hope this article was interesting to you without being offensive. With or without evolution, it’s clear: dogs were designed to be our friends. 🙂

Wu Zetian’s (bloody?) Image Through the Ages

Into the Past by H.R.R. Gorman

When Americans like me think of famous female rulers, we tend to imagine the queens of England: either of the Elizabeths, perhaps Victoria. Elizabeth I, especially, holds a place in people’s hearts because of her speech to the soldiers when facing the Spanish Armada.

Of similar hardcoreness, though for very different reasons, is a female monarch from a world and a millennia away: Wu Zetian (武则天) (or other names such as Wu Hou, depending on what time period of her life you’re talking about). Empress Wu was the only female ruler of China in the recorded 3000 years of its dynasties, from the first Emporer Qin to Emperor Puyi. Sure, some women were powers behind the throne and used puppet Emporers to perform their schemes, but Wu was the only one to do it outright.

Wu Zetian
Painting by an unknown Chinese artist of the 18th century. The original image currently resides in the British Library. Because of course the British would own it.

And, if the non-contemporary tales about her are to be believed, she did it with a trail of blood. Writers said she killed her infant daughter in a ploy to gain leverage over the previous empress and have her executed. They claimed she poisoned people, some of them her own family members, and had many people executed in order to have her way. By a combination of scheming, murder, and religion, Wu Zetian took the throne for herself.

That trail of blood story, however, is a little strange. Some scholars, as mentioned in this Smithsonian article, mention the suspiciously similar tales between Wu Zetian’s rise to the throne and what a genuinely horrible woman did many years earlier. There are no contemporary records of the murders, but no one can say whether it was because Wu had them all destroyed or (my personal opinion) they were fabricated later.

Why make up these lies, though? After Wu Zetian’s son, the “true heir” as son of the last male emperor, rose to the throne, it became important for him to quash chances of rebellion. In order to prevent rebellion, emperors and their bureaucrats would need to malign any usurpers, of which Wu Zetian obviously was one.

Not only that, but life in China’s royal courts was already volatile at best. With empresses, concubines, eunuchs, brothers, uncles, and other schemers skulking about, the emperor had to be vigilant. Backstabbing was the norm, and executions to stay in power or gain power were commonplace. Emperors not only quashed rebellion by stifling positive memories of Wu Zetian, they reduced the chances of women “stealing” power from the man they considered the rightful ruler.

Wu Zetian Civ
Modern portrayals of Wu Zetian are far more favorable than older ones. Shown here is Wu Zetian as seen in the video game Civilization V. Since no contemporary images of Wu remain, this one’s just as likely as the 18th century painting above to be accurate. Except the clothes. That looks like a modern Chinese wedding dress to me.

Whether for good or ill, recent interest in Wu Zetian has prompted research into her reign and a new look at who she was and what she accomplished. These efforts, of course, are told through a modern lens and can see Wu Zetian without the lens of monarchical maintenance getting in the way. One of her most lasting contributions was her establishment of China’s famous meritocracy, wherein especially talented people – even those not of the noble class – could take an examination and rise high within the power structure. This test, or at least one similar to it, was used to recruit bureaucrats and ministers until the end of the Qing dynasty in 1912.

Wu Zetian peacefully (on a large scale if not on the small, imperial family scale) held together a huge nation, passed policies to increase agricultural output, and contributed to the arts by commissioning works such as biographies of famous women and books of poetry. It is possible that these biographies and poetry were intended to compliment her order that children lament the deaths of their mothers just as they lament the deaths of their fathers. While it could be seen as a move against sexism, others have seen these efforts as ways to legitimize her reign, since women were considered deontologically incapable of reign prior to her.

It’s quite possible we’ll never be able to really know whether or not Wu Zetian floated to the throne on a veritable river of blood, or if she used her pen and quick wit to get there. The records of her time period are plentiful enough that she couldn’t be erased, but sparse enough that exactitude cannot be expected. In all likelihood, it was a combination of the two. However it happened, Wu Zetian has something on that aforementioned Queen Elizabeth I: she didn’t just fall into power on accident.

She owned it.

For more information, there are several articles available online. Here’s a few free-to-access articles I found interesting and on semi-trustworthy sites.

Smithsonian Article – Caution: this site has a ton of pics, so it loads SLOW

BBC Article – Short, but interesting

China Culture – A random site out there, but it fits a lot of what I already know about Wu Zetian

About the Author: H.R.R. Gorman is a PhD chemical engineer with expertise in biotechnology and making drugs. Following science, H’s greatest passions are writing and history. 他也正在学习中文. If you want to know more about this white-trash-turned-excessively-bourgeois maniac, you can go to https://hrrgorman.wordpress.com/.

Sequoyah: Power through the Pen and Press

Into the Past by H.R.R. Gorman

The English language: we all know our writing system isn’t perfect because, if it were, I wouldn’t have to spell “rhythm” so many different ways before spellcheck finally tells me it’s right. It takes a child years to learn to read and write English for this very reason. And all of this effort, wasted on the young, is because the English alphabet was borrowed from the Romans, and the Romans never toyed with the foolish idea of an alphabet for anything other than Latin (for which their alphabet was pretty much perfect).

That’s right. No English person invented their own writing system. We just stole a different system that was very much imperfect for a language with a ton of different vowel sounds. Then we proceeded to invent things like “dumb” with a b on the end because… just because we needed to make it worse.

Very few pre-literate societies are able to come up with their own writing systems, and those that do often rely on logograms (where one symbol is one word). Foreigners, usually missionaries, have invented writing systems for previously illiterate societies.

Image of Cherokee man, Sequoyah, holding a copy of his syllabary.
Downloaded from the National Portrait Galleries, this painting was created by artist Henry Inman circa 1830. It was a copy of an original painting by Charles Bird King, which has since been destroyed in a fire before it could be preserved photographically or digitally.

And one of the main inspirations for missionaries to invent writing systems for other languages is the efforts of one Cherokee silversmith: Sequoyah.

Sequoyah was born in the 1770’s (though some believe it was earlier) to a Cherokee woman and a white father, theoretically Nathaniel Gist, a fur trader. His name, Sequoya, means “pig’s foot,” which led some historians to believe he had a physical disability, perhaps a club foot. As a result, he learned to be a silversmith, which wouldn’t require him to leave his native town of Tuskigi.

Sequoyah sold his silver to people of many diverse backgrounds, and one day a white man admired his work and said, “I’d like you to sign this.”

But Sequoyah didn’t know how. He went on a journey to get someone to show him a way to spell his name, and he thought the “talking leaves” of the white Americans were interesting. He didn’t understand how the Latin alphabet worked, and he couldn’t read – he just knew it was interesting.

Then, when he participated in the War of 1812 for the Americans, he noticed that the white men could send and receive letters from home. His people, unable to do so, were missing a vital element that boosted the morale of the English-speakers. He wanted to communicate with those back home.

And so he set his mind to inventing a Cherokee writing system despite being completely illiterate, no one having ever studied the nuances of Cherokee speech, and not understanding the basics of how different alphabets, logographic systems, or syllabaries worked. He experimented with logograms, but quickly realized that a one-symbol-one-word system would take him forever to invent, learn, and teach, and it would likely never be complete.

Then – and remember, he couldn’t read, didn’t even know that English writing was based on sounds – he invented a script based off the sounds in his language. By himself, and against people burning his work because they thought it was witchcraft, he created a complete system by which his language could be written. After proving the system wasn’t witchcraft (and that his young daughter, Ayoka, wasn’t a witch for being able to read), Sequoyah then proved the usefulness of a writing system to the tribal council.

A table showing the letters of the Cherokee syllabary and what sounds they represent
Syllabary taken from Native Languages. The Roman letters on the left represent the consonant sound, and the Roman letters on the top represent the vowel sound (“v” is a nasal “eh” sound). So, “W” represents “la” in Cherokee.

And boy did they pick it up.

Unlike English, the Cherokee syllabary actually matched their language and did not need to be slaved at for years in order to understand the mind-boggling mess of spelling. It took Cherokee mere weeks to learn to read their language rather than the years it takes us. Before long, the Cherokee literacy rate matched and surpassed that of the white Americans. They established the first Indian* writing system on their own, without foreign intervention, from scratch.

Because American missionaries saw the use of a written language and translations of the bible into a people’s native tongue, many people went to foreign lands or started making syllabaries and alphabets for other people. Though Sequoyah probably isn’t well known outside of America, his genius reaches to the far corners of the earth and has made the world a better place.

So, take a moment, today, to think about your English writing system. Even though it’s not perfect, it’s yours, and you put in the effort to learn and use it. We can be thankful for our form of communication and appreciate the struggle of creating a written system at all.

For more information on the Cherokee Syllabary, there’s plenty of online resources. Several travel and museum sites have detailed information (Northern Georgia travel site, Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, Cherokee NC museum) in addition to those sites mentioned in the image blocks.

I discovered a book during my research (Seqoyah: The Cherokee Genius), but I’ll admit it was very expensive and I didn’t want to purchase it because I didn’t have $70 lying around to buy a copy from a reliable seller.

Wikipedia is very helpful for white people who want to know how the syllabary works.

*I use the term Indian here because many – if not most – native works indicate that Indian is the preferred term for their people. The term “Native American” or “Native” seems to have been invented by whites and implemented as PC without consulting the people they’re referring to. Check out this article and this YouTube video to learn more about why I made this choice.

About the Author: H.R.R. Gorman is a PhD chemical engineer with expertise in biotechnology and making drugs. Following science, H’s greatest passions are writing and history (especially the Age of Jackson – which, coincidentally, is relevant to this article). If you want to know more about this white-trash-turned-excessively-bourgeois maniac, you can go to https://hrrgorman.wordpress.com/.

Into the Past: The Not-so-Spanish Spanish Flu

With Coronavirus/Covid-19 currently raging across the globe, many people are looking to the past for comparisons. Since recurrent diseases such as yellow fever, smallpox, and others feel too far in the past to really compare with, many have chosen a deadly pandemic for inspiration:

The century-old outbreak of the Spanish Flu.

The Spanish Flu, like most strains of influenza, tended to attack the respiratory system and often made the body vulnerable to pneumonia which only further complicated a patient’s prognosis. With no ventilators (the first negative pressure ventilator used on humans – the “iron lung” – wasn’t tested until 1928), no antivirals such as Tamiflu (generic name oseltamivir phosphate; look for “vir” at the end of drugs to identify an antiviral), and widespread misinformation campaigns, those who lived in 1918 were facing a grimmer outlook than we can expect here in 2020. But, lo, did I mention above “misinformation campaigns”? How could this possibly be in the glorious past?!

The news industry in the 1910s was quickly learning from the skillbook of Nelly Bly, who pioneered investigative journalism. These new techniques, wherein journalists dove into the action, led to exposes on corrupt politicians, business owners, and social issues, but they were not the only types of journalists out there. Sensationalist journalism, perfected by Hearst and Pulitzer at the turn of the century, was about to be hijacked for clearly nationalistic causes. Benito Mussolini of World War II fame, for example, honed his political ideologies espousing extreme authoritarianism and an Italian ethno-state.

More broadly, however, nations found themselves in the need of propaganda when facing the meat grinder of World War I. If you were German, your newspapers needed to be pro-German, otherwise the kaiser wouldn’t be able to recruit enough fresh bodies to turn into corpses. If you’re English, the stories need to be pro-England, otherwise Parliament couldn’t shame enough boys into accepting destruction in the trenches.

And, in America, President Woodrow Wilson needed you to shut up about the flu.

Patient zero of the 1918 Flu Pandemic was a farmer in Kansas. The flu spread in the small town of Haskell and later, due to sons being called to the draft and going to large training camps, military installations such as Camp Funston in Kansas. The flu rampaged through the camp, but luckily the doctors realized something was afoot and did their best to quarantine the sick. Though they eventually calmed the virus in the camp using isolation measures, it wasn’t completely effective, and the sick were shipped off to fight in Europe where the virus spread.

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An ambulance hauling a patient in 1918, manned by nurses recruited for the effort. Image from the CDC image gallery.

At the same time, Wilson was apprised of the situation. He knew there was a virulent strain of flu – or something else just as devastating – destroying lives in Kansas. With his war efforts finally underway, he worried the risk of squelching American morale with news of a rapidly-spreading plague would dampen draft and training enthusiasm or compliance. The nation had been deeply divided about joining the war just a year ago, and now (Wilson believed) was not the time to make the populace back out of supporting the war efforts.

So he straight up banned reporting on the virus.

Once in Europe, the virus quickly spread among the ranks of both sides of the fight. Most European nations’ journalism was similarly stunted as America’s had been, what with the need to recruit more people to die. Despite the toll of the disease eventually matching or and eclipsing the number of deaths caused by the war itself, nations such as Britain, Germany, and France all refused to admit the virus was spreading in their ranks. They covered it up.

The only Western nation that didn’t inhibit coverage of the pandemic was Spain.

And boy, did American news latch the heck onto that. With the ability to point to Spanish newspapers as the first publications about the flu, and thus by calling it “Spanish Flu,” American newspapers were finally able to report as the second wave of the virus ravaged places like Camp Devens near Boston, followed soon after by east-coast metropolises. Politicians and military men still tried to downplay the fatality of the virus, which led to the mayor of Philadelphia allowing a massive parade that caused an enormous spread of death and destruction throughout the US, just as the virus – now permanently deemed “Spanish Flu” thanks to misinformation campaigns – continued to rage throughout Europe and Asia.

But misinformation didn’t stop those people who could be called the heroes of the Spanish Flu. In the effort to stop the flu, many doctors found difficulties in isolating the pathogen and, thus, determining a method to develop a vaccine against the disease. Because of the weakened immune systems of the sick, secondary illnesses such as bacterial pneumonia complicated this search. The haste to find a cure often led to sloppy lab work, and many worried that quarantine would be the only effective measure.

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Image: Anna Williams, true American hero; image taken from the NIH website.

Though this did, sadly, end up being the case since the flu mutated into a less pathogenic form by the next year (as flu tends to do), some doctors did amazing work to discover the flu as a “filterable virus”. Anna Williams, one of the few women in the medical research field at the time, was the first to make this distinction while many others insisted the disease was a resurgence of the bubonic plague. Her efforts with the 1918 flu pandemic eventually led to better understanding and our ability to combat the flu and other viral diseases. Other doctors, especially military doctors at camps, were the first to prove the disease could be limited by quarantine.

All of them, however, were instrumental in establishing public health departments and efforts across the nation.

And, here in 2020, someone will be a new hero we should appreciate. Already, Chinese doctors (many of whom sadly fell to the disease) could be considered heroes for their efforts to sound the whistle and treat early patients. Smaller heroes, such as bloggers like us, can make sure to provide only accurate information while others (resisting… urge… to… start internet fights) may spread misinformation.

Into the Past Prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about people who tell the truth in the face of many lies. Don’t feel constricted to coronavirus or the 1918 flu pandemic, but feel free to use any of the information presented here.

There won’t be a roundup, but you are encouraged to share your work in the comments.

For more information on the Spanish Flu, I encourage you to read The Great Influenza by John M. Barry. You can find a quicker overview posted by the CDC. If you’re into podcasts, the American History Tellers episode “What We Learned from Fighting the Spanish Flu” can be found on Stitcher or on your favorite podcast app (I use Podcast Republic, available on Google Play).

About the Author: H.R.R. Gorman is a PhD chemical engineer with expertise in biotechnology and making drugs. Following science, H’s greatest passions are writing and history (especially the Age of Jackson). If you want to know more about this white-trash-turned-excessively-bourgeois maniac, you can go to https://hrrgorman.wordpress.com/.