The Caganer

The Catalonian tradition of including a man pooping in the Christmas nativity for good luck.

In the Catalonia region of Spain, in the northeast corner of the country, there is a Christmas tradition of including the statue of a man defecating in the nativity scene. The caganer (aka “the pooper”) is typically a man wearing the traditional Catalan clothes of a red cap, white shirt, and black trousers who is crouched down pooping.

While Jesus, Mary, & Joseph are at the center of the nativity scene the caganer is usually off to the side. He can also be moved around each day in a little game of hide and seek. The purpose of the caganer is that he brings good luck by fertilizing not just the land but also the future of the family who owns the nativity. It also shows that everyone is truly equal, that everyone poops. Caganer statues are available in shops around Barcelona and aren’t just limited to the traditional style. You can find caganers modeled after world leaders, celebrities, movie characters, the pope, Disney princesses, and more.

Today you can find a wide variety of caganers, from world leaders to comic book characters.

Learn more about the caganer tradition.
Caga Tió, the “poop log” is fed and later beaten to produce gifts for children.

Caga Tió

The caganer isn’t the only Catalonian Christmas pooping tradition. The Tió de Nadal (aka the “Caga Tió” aka the “poop log”) is a wooden log frequently with a smiling face painted on the one end and little legs to prop it up. The tradition is that children will leave little bits of food for the tió during Advent and on Christmas Eve or Day they beat the log with sticks while singing. This ceremony induces the log, which is partially covered by a blanket, to poop little gifts for children (which have been hidden under the blanket). Once it has served its purposes the log is burned in the fire or thrown out.

Added info: The Catalonians have several traditions associated with pooping. One expression sometimes said before eating is “Menja bé, caga fort!” or “Eat well, poop hard!”

Zombies: Sadder Than You Think

The concept of Haitian zombies was used as a threat to keep slaves working.

Before Haiti was an independent country it was the French colony of Saint-Domingue where they produced sugar, coffee, cotton, and other goods. The French brought more than a million West African people to the colony as slaves, more than any other colony in the Caribbean. Slavery in Saint-Domingue was particularly brutal – most people were poorly fed, they worked 12 hour days, pregnant slaves frequently didn’t live long enough to have babies, torture was common. Life expectancy was about 3-6 years with about half of the enslaved people of Saint-Domingue dying within the first few years of arriving.

The brutal conditions of Saint-Domingue left the enslaved people hoping that, in death, their souls would return home to West Africa.

Haitian Vodou & Zombies

The Code Noir was a 1685 decree that outlined how slavery was to be conducted in the French empire. Among other things it stated that slaves were prohibited from practicing African religions and instead were forcibly baptized into Catholicism. What resulted was Haitian Vodou, a religious blend of West African beliefs (practiced in secret) given a veneer of Catholicism.

Part of this belief system was the idea that, upon dying, you would return to lan guinée (ie. Guinea, or West Africa). Their idea of heaven was to escape the slavery of Saint-Domingue and to simply go home. Feeling the allure of going home some people decided to escape slavery on their own terms. As such suicide was very common Saint-Domingue.

Initially suicide was seen as a viable way of getting to lan guinée but at some point there was a change. At some point (oral tradition is murky on when/how) suicide was prohibited and the punishment for committing suicide was that you’d be a slave forever – you’d become a zombie. The zombies of Haitian Vodou are not the Western pop culture shambling brain-eating zombies. The Haitian zombie was someone whose soul had been captured, denied entry to lan guinée, and was turned into an undead field hand with no chance of escape. Plantation slave-drivers used this to their advantage threatening slaves that if they killed themselves they would be turned into zombies to work forever under the control of a bokor/sorcerer. Unlike today what was feared was the threat of becoming a zombie, not the actual zombies themselves.

1929’s White Zombie was the first zombie movie. It used some Haitian Vodou beliefs but took significant artistic license.

White Zombie

Over time the zombie concept evolved and changed. The sensationalistic 1929 William Seabrook travel book The Magic Island introduced voodoo and zombies to mainstream Western culture. This inspired the 1932 film White Zombie, which was the first zombie movie. White Zombie stars Bela Lugosi as the villainous Murder Legendre (a bit on the nose) who’s a bokor enslaving people as zombies to be his henchmen and to work in his sugarcane mill. White Zombie used Haitian Vodou ideas but with a lot of artistic license. Later zombie stories dropped the Saint-Domingue threat of eternal slavery, then they dropped the bokor master commanding the zombies. Aside from being mindless undead creatures, the zombies of today have little resemblance to their sadder more terrifying origins.

Added info: following the Haitian revolution of 1791–1804, the 1883 Haitian Criminal Code outlaws the practice of turning someone into a zombie.

Rednecks & Hillbillies

The terms redneck and hillbilly both come from rebellious 17th century Scottish protestants.


In 17th century, King Charles I pushed for greater religious uniformity across the British Isles. Scottish Presbyterians disapproved as these reforms were increasingly Catholic in style & organization. In 1638 thousands of Scots signed the National Covenant (sometimes using their own blood as ink), signifying their preference for a Presbyterian Church of Scotland and their refusal to accept the reforms made by Charles. Going one step further, some of these “Covenanters” took to wearing red cloth on their necks as an outward sign of their resistance. These dissenting Scottish religious rebels were the original “red necks”.

Looking closely at The Signing of the National Covenant in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh by William Allan you can see the man signing the Covenant at the center is having his blood drawn by a dagger for him to use as ink.


Political and religious tension continued around the British Isles throughout the late 17th century which led to the 1688 Glorious Revolution. On the one side of this revolution was Catholic King James II and those who supported a strong monarchy, on the other were Protestants & Parliamentarians. Afraid of a Catholic dynasty and that James would leave the throne to his Catholic son James Francis Edward, seven influential English nobility invited the protestant Dutch Prince William of Orange to invade England and take the throne.

Around the same time, Scottish Presbyterian leader Richard Cameron was preaching a message of rebellion against the English. Being a religious nonconformist, Cameron took to being a field preacher and spread his radical message outdoors away from Scottish towns. His followers (the Cameronians) were given the nickname “hillmen” due to their outdoor religious gatherings.

As William of Orange easily invaded England, and successfully took the throne, he was supported by Scottish Protestants. The Scottish living in Northern Ireland at the time fought against the Jacobite supporters of King James. William of Orange was nicknamed “King Billy” and his Ulster Scots Protestant supporters were nicknamed “Billy boys”. Eventually these two Scottish Protestant rebel nicknames of “hillmen” and “Billy boys” got combined to form “hillbilly boys” and then just “hillbilly”.

Ulster Scot supporters of William of Orange became known as “Billy Boys” which, when combined with the Scottish Cameronian nickname of “hillmen”, eventually became “hillbilly”.

American Rednecks & Hillbillies

Despite their successful support for William many Scottish were still oppressed for being Presbyterians and for being Scottish. Searching for greater religious & personal freedom they began to emigrate in larger numbers from Ulster to the British colonies in North America. An estimated 200,000 Ulster Scots (aka Scotch-Irish) emigrated to the American colonies between 1717 and 1775. Settling up and down the East coast and throughout Appalachia, these Scottish protestants brought with them their religion, the rebelliousness, as well as their nicknames.

Over the centuries the meanings of both “redneck” and “hillbilly” have changed. During the “Redneck War” of 1920-21 “redneck” was used to label the unionizing coal miners (many of whom were Scotch-Irish) who wore red bandanas in solidarity. The term has also been used to describe early 20th century southern Democrats as well as more literally to describe poor farmers with sunburnt necks. Hillbilly also took on a more literal interpretation to describe the people who settled the rural hilly areas of Appalachia and the Ozarks. Today both terms are generally used as derogatory slurs for poor rural whites.

Sign of the Cross

As one of the oldest ideograms in the world, the cross represented a lot of things long before it represented Christianity. Now it represents all of that and more.

Before the cross was associated with Christianity, it had a long history with ancient cultures around the world. The symmetrical intersection of two lines is a pretty simple idea, plus it’s easy to draw/carve on almost any surface. As such it’s understandable that different people at different times have each created their own cross symbols – an early example of multiple discovery, or maybe the collective unconscious.

While designs & purposes vary from culture to culture there are reoccurring themes. For pre-Columbian cultures of North America the four points of a cross are frequently used to represent the four cardinal directions, the four seasons, the four winds, and/or the four primary forces of nature. The Greek cross corresponded to the four fixed signs of the zodiac (Leo, Taurus, Scorpio, Aquarius). In a similar interest with the number four, European alchemists would later use the cross as one of the symbols for the four platonic elements.

In the Chinese language the cross is a sign for “perfection” as well as the character for “ten”. Interestingly, in Roman numerals a cross turned 45 degrees (an X) is also the sign for ten, but in Chinese the X sign was an early symbol for the number “five”. The X symbol in Egyptian hieroglyphics meant divide, count, and break into parts. Speaking of math, the cross as mathematical “plus” sign came much later around the 14th century and the “x” for multiplication came around the 17th century.

An assortment of pre-Christian cross designs from around the world.

If we expand our definition of a cross and make some simple alterations we get even more results. The Inca have the Chakana, a stepped cross symbol representing different levels of existence. Turned 45 degrees the stepped X symbol Aban is the Ghanaian Adinka symbol for “castle” as well as “strength”.

A cross in a circle ⊕, such as the Solar Cross (wheel cross, Odin’s cross), has been used by people for thousands of years around the world (and recently by white supremacists). It can represent the sun, a solar deity (such as the weather/solar god Baal of the Middle East or Shamash in Babylon), the wheel of a sun gods’ chariot, in China it represented thunder/power, it’s the mon of the Shimazu clan in Japan, etc. A cross amulet for a sun god made of four triangle shapes (like the Cross Pattée ᛭) can be seen in the 9th century BCE stela of the Assyrian King Shamshi-Adad V. A cross with slight bars on the ends is the ancient Chinese sign for a wū ☩, a shaman or sorcerer. Add a rounded shape to the top of a cross and you have the Egyptian hieroglyph Ankh ☥. Finally, one of the most famous (and later infamous) altered crosses is the swastika which has a very extensive history by cultures around the world long before its use in the 20th century.

Christianity Before The Cross

The cross gained a new meaning after the crucifixion of Jesus … but not immediately afterwards. To start, it’s unclear what kind of cross Jesus was crucified on. It could have been a pole, it could have been shaped like a capital “T”, or it could have been the lower case “†” shape we are familiar with. Regardless of cross shape, as a way to avoid persecution, early Christians used a variety of other symbols to secretly represent Jesus before they used the cross. The Ichthys (the “Jesus fish”), the peacock, the pelican, the dove, an anchor, as well as the letters Alpha & Omega were all early Christian images containing hidden meaning symbolizing Jesus.

It wasn’t until 300 years after Jesus that the cross became a widespread symbol of Christianity. Constantine, the 4th century Roman emperor, not only stopped the Roman persecution of Christians but also became the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. Supposedly he had a vision of a symbol in the sky followed by Jesus telling him to make that symbol the symbol of God, that it would protect him from his enemies. From this Constantine ordered all of the shields and banners to feature this new design.

Four early Christian symbols used in secret to avoid persecution.

Exactly what this symbol supposedly was however is debated. Some say it was a cross but others say it was the staurogram. The staurogram is a ligature combining the Greek letters “T” and “P” to form ⳨ which was an abbreviated way of writing “stauros” or “cross” – it also looks a bit like a person crucified on a cross. Still another possibility was the symbol Chi Rho, a ligature of the Greek letters “X” and “P” forming ⳩, a shortening of the title “Christ”. Also, the early Christian interest in ligatures goes one further with the IX monogram ligature, which is an overlapping of the Greek letters “I” and “X” as a shortened form of the name Jesus Christ.

Ultimately, whatever sign Constantine supposedly saw, the Chi Rho became the symbol used by the Roman military. As the Roman empire spread it took Christianity and the symbols of Christianity along with it. It’s thought that over time the assorted early Christian symbols morphed/simplified into the cross we associate with Christianity today.

Cross Diversity

Like the diversity of pre-Christian crosses, we now find ourselves with a plethora of Christian cross designs – lots of styles for lots of reasons. Early church theology made use of the cross as a teaching tool which helped generate alternate designs. The four points of a cross could now represent the four evangelists. The Papal Cross has three horizontal bars instead of the traditional one, symbolizing the Pope’s rank. The Triumphal Cross / Globus cruciger, a cross placed at the top of an orb, is used to show Christ’s reign over the world (which is a popular symbol in art).

As Christianity spread to new regions the church (and the cross) would adapt to the local cultures. Early Christians took the Egyptian Ankh, changed the teardrop-shaped loop to a circle, and it became the Crux Ansata or “cross with a handle”. The Celtic Cross was created in the Gaelic speaking areas of the British Isles as a combination of the local Druidic solar/lunar beliefs (the circle) with the Christian cross. Similar to many Celtic crosses, the Ethiopian Cross also features a latticework design but is even more elaborate. The Ethiopians use the woven pattern to represent everlasting life.

European heraldry also generated a variety of new crosses especially during the medieval Crusades. The Jerusalem Cross is one cross with four other smaller crosses in the four quadrants. It was the coat of arms for the Kingdom of Jerusalem after the Holy Land was conquered by the crusaders in the 13th century. The five crosses can represent the five wounds of Christ, or the four evangelists & Jesus, etc. This cross variant found its way into the heraldry of the crusaders as well as the current day national flag of Georgia. Christian cross variants were incorporated into European family crests, military groups, and national symbols. Today a cross can be found in at least 29 national flags not including flags with the southern cross constellation or all of the countries (other than the United Kingdom) whose flag features the Union Jack (which is a design of three crosses overlapping).

Added info: The ritual of making the sign of the cross with one’s hand goes back to the 2nd century treatise Apostolic Tradition.

Also, while similar, a cross and a crucifix are different. A crucifix has the body of Jesus on a cross and became a symbol of the Catholic and Orthodox churches starting around the 6th century. A cross is the object Jesus was crucified on but without Christ’s body on it. Protestant religions tend to use empty cross designs for their symbols.

Twelve cross designs from around the world used to represent different things.

Snake Handling

A literal interpretation of the Bible has some people handling venomous snakes as a testament of their faith.

Snake handling is the fairly obscure religious practice of holding a venomous snake / snakes as a testament of your faith in God. It stems from a literal interpretation of various Bible verses including Mark 16:18 where Jesus tells the disciples that the true believers “… will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” Practitioners of snake handling feel the Bible is inerrant and should be read plainly so, when it says you will pick up snakes, you pick up snakes.

The practice began in the early 1900s – exactly who started the practice of snake handling is debatable. One of its earliest proponents was George Hensley of Tennessee. He later created the Church of God with Signs Following, a Pentecostal Holiness church that spread around southern Appalachian states. Not every service features snake handling, but there is a box of snakes by the altar for when someone is feeling especially energized by the Lord. Signs Following churches don’t just limit their demonstrations of faith, their signs of expression, to handling snakes. Some members will also handle fire while others may drink poison such as strychnine.

Pastor Andrew Hamblin handling a snake at the Tabernacle Church of God, who later was raided by authorities for handling venomous snakes.

Once Bitten

Perhaps not surprisingly, people handling snakes sometimes die by snake bite. You might get by one or two times handling a snake safely without incident, but the more times you shake around a snake the probability of getting bit gets higher. Initially some outsiders felt there must be a trick as to why the snakes weren’t biting people: the snakes were milked before hand, or they were sedated in some way, etc. Believers said it was the work of God, but then deaths started to make the news.

The 1945 death of Lewis Ford as a result of handling snakes in the Dolley Pond Church of God with Signs Following put snake handling in newspapers around the country. During his memorial service six snakes were placed in the casket, including the one that killed him. The national spotlight on this fairly bizarre rural practice stopped the popular spread of these churches. Membership began to decline partially due to poor public relations, but also due to members dying … of snake bites.

Snake handling expert, and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga psychology professor, Ralph Hood estimates that almost 100 people have died in the last 100 years as a result of snake handling. Some churches will call an ambulance if you get bit and you then have the option of choosing medical assistance or riding it out. The bites are interpreted as God’s will. As such it was God’s will that Pastor George Hensley die by snake bite – same with Pastor Jamie Coots and then years later his son Pastor Cody Coots. There are only around 100 snake handling churches left.

Added info: Besides all of the obvious problems with this practice an additional concern is the treatment of the snakes. Inspections of these churches have found malnourished and sick snakes. In 2013 Tennessee authorities raided the church of Pastor Andrew Hamblin, confiscating 53 mistreated ill snakes. There are a host of laws in different states that ban the handling of venomous snakes but local officials tend to not prosecute offenders.

A CNN piece on snake handling and Pastor Andrew Hamblin.

Following through on all of Mark 16:18, Signs Following church members also sometimes drink poison.

The Rod of Asclepius vs the Caduceus

Often confused, the one without wings is the medical symbol.

the Rod of Asclepius

The Greek god Asclepius was the son of Apollo and became the god of healing/medicine. There are a host of legends about his medical powers – from his ability to heal the sick to his learning how to resurrect the dead. The most recognizable element of the Asclepius story though is his serpent-entwined staff.

The Rod of Asclepius is a wooden staff with a single snake coiled around it. Like Asclepius himself, there isn’t one consistent story explaining the snake. In one version a snake taught Asclepius the secrets of medicine, in another he watched one snake use herbs to revive another snake, etc. Over time the Greek association of medicine and snakes became intertwined (not unlike the Rod of Asclepius). Temples to Asclepius served as centers of healing, and given his association with snakes, non-venomous snakes were welcome. Snakes would crawl over patients’ beds and had free-reign of the buildings – Indiana Jones’ worst nightmare.

Over the millennia the Rod of Asclepius became an international symbol of healing & medicine. You can find it in the logo of the World Health Organization, a whole host of national medical associations, and on the side of ambulances everywhere … unless someone has accidentally used the caduceus instead.

The Caduceus

From the son of Apollo to the brother of Apollo, Hermes was the Greek messenger god who moved between worlds. After generously giving Apollo his tortoise shell lyre, Apollo returned the favor by gifting Hermes his wand / staff. This wand is known as the caduceus which has two snakes entwined around the wand with a set of wings at the top.

The image of a double snake wand is not unique to the Greeks. The caduceus has origins in ancient Mesopotamia going back to at least 3,000 BCE. Hermes isn’t even the only Greek messenger god to carry one – the goddess Iris also carries a caduceus. Like the Rod of Asclepius, there isn’t just one Greek explanation for the origin or meaning of the wand. One story says that Hermes saw two snakes fighting and he used his wand to break up the fight (and they became entwined around the wand). From this the caduceus has come to represent peace but it also represents trade as Hermes was the god of (among other things) commerce, cunning, and thieves. One thing it does not represent is medicine.

The Confusion

One reason for the confusion between these two symbols is they (more or less) look similar. Further, there is nothing about the Rod of Asclepius that looks particularly medical so it’s easy to forget which is which.

One of the biggest sources of confusion in the United States is the Army Medical Department (AMEDD). For some branch insignias the AMEDD uses the Rod of Asclepius but for others it uses the Caduceus (despite the caduceus having nothing to do with medicine). The Army mistakenly used the caduceus in 1851 and the mistake spread to other branches. At this point they are well aware they’re using the wrong symbol but won’t change.

Today it’s not uncommon to find the caduceus mistakenly on the labels of products that want to look more authoritatively medical, purely as a marketing tactic. Maybe using the symbol for commerce as a manipulative way to generate sales isn’t entirely a mistake.

Pareidolia and Who Is In The Moon

A man’s face, a rabbit – different cultures see different things because humans are hardwired to look for patterns.

Over thousands of years of evolution our brains are hardwired to find patterns. For example, finding tiger stripes in the tall grass is a pretty valuable ability. We use pattern recognition for defense, for finding information, for recognizing friendly faces, etc. As our brains are constantly searching for patterns we’re bound to get it wrong sometimes and find meaning in things where there is none.

Pareidolia is when we incorrectly recognize something where there is really nothing. This can be auditory, such as “hearing” a word in what’s really just random sounds or white noise, but most of the time pareidolia is visual. We “see” animals in clouds, we “see” butterflies in Rorschach inkblot tests. What we “see” the most however is faces. Facial pareidolia is when we see faces in things such as electrical outlets, the front of cars, in the burnt patterns of grilled cheese sandwiches, or on the surface of the moon.

Who is on the Moon?

The surface of the moon is marked by impact craters from asteroids as well as large craters of solidified ancient lava. In the same way ancient humans connected the stars to create constellations, people have looked at these lunar markings and “seen” a variety of things.

The Man in the Moon

A European tradition going back at least to the 14th century finds the whole body of a man carrying sticks on the surface of the moon. While stories vary, he’s said to be a man caught gathering sticks on a Sunday. As punishment for breaking the Sabbath he was banished to the moon. The Haida of the Pacific Northwest North America see this shape as a boy (instead of a man) who had been gathering firewood by moonlight. The boy insulted the moon and was similarly banished to the moon as punishment.

Other traditions see just the face of a man and not the whole body. Some say the man is Caine from the Bible, also sent to the moon as punishment. Talmudic folk tradition says this person is Jacob.

Jack & Jill

The nursery rhyme of Jack & Jill is based on the Scandinavian myth of Hjuki and Bila. The two children were said to be carrying a pail of water when the moon god Mani carried them to the moon (where they can be seen carrying their pail).

The Woman in the Moon

Sometimes the man/boy carrying sticks on the moon is said to be a woman (a witch of course) carrying sticks. In the southern hemisphere however, where the moon is seen upside down (depending on your cultural point of view), the Māori of New Zealand see a different shape as a woman. Rona was carrying water at night but tripped when there was insufficient moonlight to light her way. Hurt and angry she cursed the moon. The moon heard her insults and (like the punishment in the Haida legend) she’s now on the surface of the moon along with her water jug.

The Samoans say this woman is Sina, who thought the moon looked like a giant breadfruit and asked the moon to come down to let her child have a bite. The moon, insulted by this, took Sina, the tools she was working with, and her child back to the moon.

A Pair of Hands

In some Hindu traditions the hands of Astangi Mata are seen on the surface on the moon.

Name of Ali

In Islam, where there is a history of aniconism and not depicting sentient beings in art, there is a Shiʿite tradition of seeing the name of Ali (the son-in-law of Muhammad) written on the surface of the moon.

A Rabbit

In India the Buddhist Jātaka tales has the story of a rabbit that sacrifices itself by jumping into a fire. The rabbit is saved and placed on the surface of the moon. In China the rabbit Yutu is seen on the moon preparing the elixir of life in a bowl. The Japanese also see a rabbit with a bowl but instead of a magical elixir it’s preparing rice cakes.

Mesoamerican groups also see a rabbit on the moon. As the one story goes Techuciztecatl (the moon) was hit in the face with a rabbit, the imprint of which is still on the moon.

A Toad

The Selish people tell of a wolf who was romantically pursuing a toad in the moonlight. Just before being caught by the wolf the toad leaped so high she landed on the moon. Another toad on the moon is a variation of the Chinese rabbit on the moon story. In this version after the rabbit prepared the magical elixir for the Moon goddess Chang’e, the goddess drank the elixir and was transformed into a toad.

The Kimbundu tribe of Angola have the story of a prince who was only permitted to marry the daughter of the moon. Only a frog knew the way to get to the moon so he served as messenger between the Earth and the moon. Now the frog can be seen on the moon.

Thousands of years of humans have looked up at the moon from cultures around the world and have, through creativity and pareidolia, seen a variety of things. Cultures have explained these figures with creation myths or moral lessons, giving us the stories we know today.

Bonus: One of the most famous versions of the man in the moon is seen in the 1902 Georges Méliès film Le Voyage dans la Lune.

The Georges Méliès film Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) is a classic early film.

the Vulcan Salute

Leonard Nimoy got the Vulcan hand sign from a Jewish blessing.

For a 1967 episode of Star Trek: The Original Series Leonard Nimoy’s Vulcan character Spock was to, for the first time in the series, appear with other Vulcans. He decided Vulcans would have their own greeting that isn’t a human handshake or bow. Nimoy thought back to his childhood and remembered an Orthodox religious service he attended. The Jewish Kohanim performed a blessing where they brought their hands together, thumb to thumb, and parted their fingers between their middle and ring fingers (forming two Vs). This hand sign forms the Hebrew letter Shin which is the first letter of “Shaddai”, one of the names of God.

Nimoy took this two-handed blessing and turned it into the one-handed Vulcan salute. This gesture is often accompanied by one of the most famous phrases from Star Trek, “Live long and prosper.” When the “Amok Time” episode aired the hand sign instantly became famous. People would make the sign to Nimoy everywhere he went. Many people thought it was just a fun variation on the peace sign but unbeknownst to them they were (in a way) actually blessing one another.

On the history of the Vulcan salute


The Roman two-faced god of transitions and the start of a new year.

Since the Romans “borrowed” large amounts Greek culture, it’s fun to find mythological traditions that are uniquely Roman. Janus is a Roman god with no Greek equivalent. He was created before the importation of the Greek pantheon and even before the foundation of Rome itself. Typically he is depicted as just a head with two faces looking in opposite directions. He’s the god of transitions, change, beginnings & endings, of doorways & gates, etc. He faces both the past and the future.

Originally spelled Ianus, since the letter “J” wasn’t added to the Western alphabet until after 1524 CE, janus meant “arched passage, doorway” in Latin. There were numerous jani (ceremonial gateways) built throughout Rome as superstitious freestanding structures for good luck and to bring about good beginnings.

The exact origin of Janus is unclear. There are theories that he was originally a sun god, as the sun would be the beginning of a new day, but this isn’t certain. What is better known is that he presided over beginnings and was invoked at the start of ceremonies. His being the gatekeeper to the gods meant you made an offering to him before reaching out to any of the other gods.

Janus in profile. Sometimes the faces looked identical, but other times the one face is older & bearded while the other face is clean-shaven & younger.

Start All Over Again

Janus’s role as the god of transitions led to the month of January being named for him, as on January 1st we start not only a new day but a new month and a new year as well. The Romans believed that how something started was an indication of how it would go. An inauspicious start could prove disastrous to a new venture so it was important to make an offering to Janus.

So it became customary on January 1st to not only honor Janus, but to give gifts & well-wishes to other Romans. This could set the standard for the rest of the year. At the start of a new year it’s valuable to not just look back, but also to look forward to something new.

Calvin and Hobbes (the real ones)

The characters of Calvin and Hobbes are named after a theologian and a philosopher.

The comic strip Calvin and Hobbes features a six year old boy named Calvin and his sometimes anthropomorphic stuffed tiger Hobbes. The two are named after 16th century protestant theologian John Calvin and 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. The characters of Calvin and Hobbes are decidedly a lot more fun than their namesakes.

John Calvin

Born in France in 1509, John Calvin trained to be a lawyer but moved to Geneva, Switzerland and became a major figure in the protestant reformation that was spreading across Europe at the time. Unlike Martin Luther, who looked to work with Catholic doctrine but make some changes, Calvin threw it all out and started from scratch creating an entirely new school of Christian thought. Among other things his new theology taught that we can’t know anything about God except what God chooses to reveal to us, that because of Original Sin we are driven to sin unless God steps in to help us, that you only partially have free will because God has predetermined your fate to end up in Heaven or Hell so you’re going to end up doing what it takes to merit the one you are destined for, and that there is nothing you can do about any of this.

The Catholic Church used to name heretical movements after the founder (such as Lutheranism). Similarly, this is how Calvinism was born. Calvin’s ideas for reformation became influential with a host of protestant groups including the Presbyterians, the Puritans, and the Huguenots. Calvin also believed that “… the human heart is a perpetual idol factory”, and that religious art was a distraction. This is why Calvinist churches are so plain and without statues or other ornamentation. Until this time the Catholic Church had been a lucrative source of work for artists, but because of the reformation movement’s austere aesthetic, to earn a living artists were forced to either produce more secular art or move to other cities or countries where the reformation hadn’t taken hold as strongly. This simple aesthetic applied to Calvinist clothing as well (such as the simple styles and Sunday black clothes of the Puritans).

In politics Calvin believed in the separation of church and state, but he also believed that politicians & royalty were in positions of power because God willed it. As such authority figures should be submissively obeyed even when said figures are unworthy of such deference (except if they are leading you astray from God). Which is kind of like Thomas Hobbes …

Thomas Hobbes

Born in 1588, 24 years after Calvin’s death, Thomas Hobbes’s world view was strongly influenced by the destruction brought about by the English Civil War. From this he produced Leviathan, which is his 1651 treatise of social contract political theory. In short, he believed that, when left on our own and without government, humans are violent and selfish. He believed we need government to help us rise above our base instincts. Without a political community he said that the life would be “… solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Similar to Calvin’s view that humans are compelled to selfishness & sin, Hobbes’s political philosophy was that without a government, the default “state of nature” for humans is chaotic and violent.

This is the basis for his argument that we not only need government but that we also must obey authority figures even when said figures leave a lot to be desired. In his mind, an abusive dictatorial government was still better than no government at all. There was almost no place for political revolution in Hobbes’s version of the social contract.

It’s worth noting that the foundation for Hobbes’s argument, the belief that without government “uncivilized” humans would engage in constant bickering & violence and would always be looking over their shoulder for attacks from others, isn’t necessarily true. The philosophical novel Ishmael by Daniel Quinn partially explores this assumption and how the competition for greater wealth is what incites violence. Many early tribal groups living within their means were able to live in relative stability. It has also been argued that, as humans became more sedentary in civilizations, warfare increased because humans couldn’t move away from one another to avoid conflict.

Even keeping to 17th century social contract philosophy there are arguments against Hobbes’s ideas. John Locke also believed in the benefits of having a strong government, but he believed that if that government was jeopardizing your natural rights to “life, liberty, and property” you had the right of revolution to overthrow the government. Thomas Jefferson later copy & pasted Locke’s ideas for the Declaration of Independence.

Calvin & Hobbes

Ultimately both Calvin and Hobbes had fairly dim views of humanity. They believed that without an authority figure (be it God or be it a political leader) humans were by default mean and unable to make better lives for themselves. Fortunately the fictional Calvin and Hobbes are a lot more positive than their namesakes.

Calvin and Hobbes crossing a log bridge appeared in the The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book. It was later parodied by Nina Matsumoto showing the actual Calvin and Hobbes as Calvin and Hobbes crossing the log, and has since become a much parodied meme.