Laputan Logic
Friday, May 02, 2003

The Small Santiago Tablet (length: 319mm, width: 122mm)


In 1864, the French lay missionary Eugène Eyraud -- the first known non-Polynesian resident of Earth's most isolated inhabited island, Easter Island or Rapanui -- reported in a letter to his superior that he had seen there "in all the houses" hundreds of tablets and staffs incised with thousands of hieroglyphic figures. Two years later, only a small handful of these incised artefacts were left. Most rongorongo, as the unique objects were subsequently called, had by then been burnt, hidden away in caves, or deftly cannibalized for boat planks, fishing lines, or honorific skeins of human hair. The few Rapanui survivors of recent slave raids and contagions evidently no longer feared the objects' erstwhile tapu or sacred prohibition.

When Eugène Eyraud died of tuberculosis on Rapanui four years later in 1868, his fellow missionaries there, who had arrived only in 1866, knew nothing of the existence of incised tablets and staffs on the island. Rongorongo comprised the Easter Islanders' best-kept secret. Rapanui's rongorongo script comprises one of the world's most fascinating writing systems. This is principally because rongorongo is Oceania's only indigenous script that predates the twentieth century and because it represents one of the world's most eloquent graphic expressions...


While plenty have claimed to be able to read it (including the author of the quote above, Steven Roger Fischer), the Rongorongo script of Easter Island remains undeciphered to this day.
The Easter Island Tablets

by Jacques B.M. Guy

Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui or Rapanui, with its statues and with its unique writing system (known as Rongo­rongo), has provided such fertile breeding ground for various crackpot theories, from sunken continents to alien visitors, that a short introduction is necessary.


What Then, Do We Know?

Very little. We will probably never know what the tablets mean: too few have survived. Let us then be content with the little of which we can be sure.

Each tablet was prepared before carving. Shallow grooves were cut lengthwise, probably using an adze with a blade of shell or of obsidian. They are 10 to 15mm wide, and can be clearly seen in a photo pp.64­65 of Catherine and Michel Orliac's excellent little book. The signs themselves were engraved in those grooves, probably with shark teeth or obsidian flakes, as oral tradition has it.

Of the 21 tablets we have, three bear almost exactly the same hieroglyphic text. A fourth one, called "Tahua" or "The Oar" bears only part of that text, and in a very different, more lapidary, style. Indeed this tablet is an oar made of European ash, as were used in the British navy two centuries ago. At the earliest, it could date from the beginning of the eighteenth century, at the latest, from the end of the nineteenth. There must therefore have been then literate Easter Islanders, because this "Oar" is not a mere copy. It looks like a compilation, a digest of earlier texts, lost, except for its beginning, found on those other three tablets (see "On a Fragment of the Tahua Tablet" in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, December 1985).

The overwhelming majority of the hieroglyphs are anthropomorphic. They are little figures, facing you, or sideways; standing with dangling arms; or sitting with their legs sometimes stretched, sometimes crossed; with a hand up, or down, or turned to the mouth; some hold a staff, some a shield, some a barbed string. Some sport two bulging eyes (or are they ears, or coils of hair?); some a huge hooked nose with three hairs on it; some have the body of a bird. The writing often looks like an animated cartoon. You can see the same little fellow repeated in slightly different postures. One tablet shows the same figure in three successive postures, sitting sideways, playing, it seems, with a top. Or is it a potter at the wheel? A jeweller with a drill, making shell beads?

There are also many zoomorphic figures, birds especially, fish and lizards less often. The most frequent figure looks very much like the frigate bird, which happens to have been the object of a cult, as it was associated with Make­Make, the supreme god.

When you compare the tablets which bear the same text, when you analyze repeated groups of signs, you realize that writing must have followed rules. The scribe could choose to link a sign to the next, but not in any old way. You could either carve a mannikin standing, arms dangling, followed by some other sign, or the same mannikin holding that sign with one hand. You could either carve a simple sign (a leg, a crescent) separate from the next, or rotate it 90 degrees counterclockwise and carve the next sign on top of it.

All we can reasonably hope to decipher some day is some two to three lines of the tablet commonly called "Mamari". You can clearly see that they have to do with the moon. We happen to have several versions of the ancient lunar calendar of Easter Island. The most interesting was collected by William Thomson in 1886, whose report was published by the American National Museum in 1889, in a monograph "Te Pito te Henua, or Easter Island". Thanks to Thomson, we know for instance that the night called "kokore tahi" corresponded to 27 November 1886. Using an almanac of 1886 or astronomical software, we can match his list against the actual phases of the moon at the time of his stay on Easter Island, and use this comparison as a key to deciphering the hieroglyphs of the calendar (see " The lunar calendar of Tablet Mamari", Journal de la Société des Océanistes, Paris, 1990). Thomson also collected the names of the months with the corresponding dates in our calendar. By an extraordinary stroke of good luck, the traditional Easter Island year corresponding to 1885­1886 happened to have 13 months, whereas all other authors reported only 12 months. By calculating the dates of the phases of the moon in 1885 and 1886 we can reconstruct this ancient calendar and, to a certain extent, how it worked, and when the extra month ("embolismic month" in technical jargon) had to be inserted (see "A propos des mois de l'ancien calendrier pascuan", Société des Océanistes, Paris, 1992). Some day, perhaps, someone will discover a tablet the hieroglyphs of which are the names of the months, or which contains the rules for deciding when this thirteenth embolismic month was to be inserted.

I have mentioned failed attempts at decipherment. Many have claimed that the Easter Island hieroglyphs are the spit image of the writing of this or that extinct civilization, from India to the Andes, and made the Easter Islanders their descendants. First, this is untrue. The Easter Island hieroglyphs have a distinct style, unique in the world. Second, this is downright silly. There are not a million different ways of drawing a "mannikin standing", a "fish", a "staff", a "bow", an "arrow". Ask a four­year old to draw you a "man with a stick" and compare that with the hieroglyphs of Easter Island. You are sure to find a few that look very much like that "man with a stick". Does that make the child an heir to the ancient Easter Islanders?


A segment of the Santiago Staff with part of lines 4 and 5 clearly visible

When I look at these riotous dancing figures, I can't help being reminded a little of the subway graffiti of Keith Haring (gallery).

Enlargement showing fine details of the middle of lines 3 to 7, verso of the Small Santiago Tablet.

For more information the Easter Island script, is the best collection of resources available anywhere on the web. The site includes the full corpus of texts for the language, a catalogue of symbols and photographs of all existing inscriptions.

Thursday, May 01, 2003


Susano-o and the Dragon

Susano-o [the mythical progenitor of the Japenese Imperial Family] descended from heaven to earth. He arrived at the river Hi, in the province of Idzuno. He heard the sound of weeping.

He came upon an old man and old woman who were pitifully saying their farewells to their daughter. The old man was named Ashi-nazuchi, and his wife, Te-nazuchi. He asked them the nature of their grief, and they explained that they formerly had eight daughters. The other seven daughters had been devoured by an eight-headed serpent [Yamata-no-Orochi].

Susano-o fell in love with the young woman, (named Kushi-nada-hime) and offered to save her, in exchange for her hand in marriage. They immediately granted his request. Susano-o changed Kushi-nada-hime into a comb and stuck her into his hair. He asked the old couple to brew and bring him a large amount of sake, poured it into eight buckets, then waited for the serpent.

Finally, the serpent arrived. It indeed had eight heads, and red eyes like winter-cherries. It also had eight tails. Upon finding the sake, the each of the heads eagerly drank the sake, became drunk and fell asleep. Then Susano-o drew his ten-span sword and chopped the serpent into little pieces. When he struck one of the tails, his weapon became notched. He cut open the tail and within it is found a magnificent sword.

After the battle, Susano-o gives the sword to his sister Amaterasu, as he feels he is unworthy of the sword. The sword is known here as the Murakumo-no-tsurugi, (lit. Sword of gathering clouds of heaven) it belongs to the insignia of the Imperial House of Japan.

An image of [a likely replica of] the famous Murakumo-no-Tsurugi later renamed Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi or "The Grass-Cutting Sword", thought to have come from the tail of the serpent Susano-o slayed.

Weapons of Wonder

As otherworldly as all this sounds, the origin of the tale of Yamata-no-Orochi and the sword is believed to be utterly down-to-earth. Specifically, it is thought to stem from the itinerant groups of men skilled in the ways of making fine steel from iron-rich sand who, long, long ago worked deep in western Honshu's wooded mountains.

To make this prized metal (from which the finest blades were fashioned) required enormous quantities of water and wood, as well as a large group of experts led by one known as the murage.

Among these, some specialized in excavating ditches and sluices on the slopes down which vast amounts of water were channeled with iron-sand-rich soil to separate the mineral from the dirt by exploiting their different specific gravities.

Others chopped trees and burned wood to make charcoal, while some built the specialized clay tatara smelters -- 3 meters long by 1 meter wide and high -- into which 10 tons of iron sand would be poured over three days, heated with 12 tons of charcoal at more than 1,400 degrees, to yield some 3 tons of steel. Of this, about half was the prized tama-hagane from which Japan's famed swords are made, a steel distinctly different from its Western and Chinese counterparts made from iron ore.

With such prodigious quantities of fuel required, these groups of steelmakers constantly had to be on the move, as their smelters' appetites left entire mountainsides stripped of timber and streams polluted with runoff.

For villagers, these roaming steelmakers were a serious threat to their livelihood, both by denying them fuel and loading streams with mud that ruined their fishing and fouled their paddies. Hence the theory is that the monster, Yamata-no-Orochi, represented tatara steelmakers -- its burning red eyes being their fiery smelters and its bleeding body the muddied streams flowing from the mountains where they worked.


As early as the 13th century, during the Kamakura Period (1183-1333), when the samurai class started to rule the nation, Japanese swords were recognized as superior to any made elsewhere in the world. Indeed, according to the late historical novelist Ryotaro Shiba, during the Muromachi Period (1392-1573) Japan's most popular exports to Ming Dynasty China were these fearsome weapons. In his travelogue, "Satetsu no Michi (The Road of Iron Sand)," Shiba says this was because although metal casting was common in China at that time, steelmaking was virtually unknown.

However, with the introduction to Japan of matchlocks, bows and spears during the 16th-century Warring States Period, swords became more symbolic of the samurai rather than their prime tools of combat. To preserve this symbolic aura, the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-98) ordered that no one but members of the samurai class could possess a sword. And to ensure his edict was observed, he launched "sword hunts" aimed primarily at reducing the danger from the many farmers' uprisings. As well, however, it also served to further entrench the ruling class, called bushi (samurai), by turning the swords into their spiritual emblem throughout the Edo Period (1603-1867).


The tip of a Masamune sword

Wednesday, April 30, 2003
  The tomb of Gilgamesh

The Epic Of Gilgamesh - written by a Middle Eastern scholar 2,500 years before the birth of Christ - commemorated the life of the ruler of the city of Uruk, from which Iraq gets its name.

Now, a German-led expedition has discovered what is thought to be the entire city of Uruk - including, where the Euphrates once flowed, the last resting place of its famous King.

"I don't want to say definitely it was the grave of King Gilgamesh, but it looks very similar to that described in the epic," Jorg Fassbinder, of the Bavarian department of Historical Monuments in Munich, told the BBC World Service's Science in Action programme.


This is story is remarkable, not only because of the potential importance of this find but also by the implication that Western archaelogical digs have already recommenced in Iraq after being terminated by the first gulf war twelve years ago – and even before the restoration of electricity and running water to Baghdad. 
Monday, April 28, 2003
  The foreignness of the French

Timeliness, as may been seen from this and the previous post, is not exactly Laputan Logic's strong suit. Nevertheless, I think this one is still topical.

Long after the acrimoniousness of the "debates" in the UN Security Council pre the Iraq invasion, there still seems to be quite a bit of enduring resentment in the United States against the French nation and its people. "Freedom Fries" remain defiantly on sale at the Capitol Hill cafeteria and the word "french" has entered the American punditocracy's lexicon as an epithet for the lowest kind of untrustworthiness, a bit like that English word welsh (see also my entry on Welsh and Walloon).

It wasn't always this way. Let's face it, without France's friendship during the American War of Independence (declaring war on Britain in 1778 and committing so much in the way of resources that they effectively bankrupted their economy in the process), Americans would be speaking English right now. Then, of course, there was the Statue of Liberty, a gift of international friendship from the people of France to the people of the United States and in celebration of the centenary of that independence. And what Great American Novelist worth his salt would have missed the opportunity to waste his youth and brain cells in the cafes and bars of Paris in the early 20th century? American and French mutual mistrust of the British virtually guaranteed that the two great nations were to maintain a warm regard for each other, one that was to last for the good part of two centuries.

But those days are long gone now. America is now in the process of de-Frenchifying (de-frenchfrying?) itself and its language although the latter may be a little harder to pull off than some would like. Being myself of a nation which also has a long and proud history of friendship with the United States (but one with the distinction of having thoughtlessly thrown itself into every major war and/or quagmire that the US has found itself in since WWII), I thought I'd best do my bit in the cause of this new and very just linguistic war against the hateful Gauls.

The first point I'd like to make is that the French are foreigners. Using this obvious fact as a starting point, I wondered whether perhaps the English word "foreign" might even be derived from the word "french" by some route. Alas, this was far too naive, the word "foreign", unsurprisingly in retrospect, actually pertains to the concept of the "outside world". It comes to us from Late Latin via Old French and is closely related to the word "forest", i.e. "somewhere out there, out in the wilderness".

But while the word for foreigner itself didn't yield anything promising, I did discover that the word French or rather its precursor Frank turns out to be the quintessential word for foreigner in many of the world's languages. This coinage dates back to the Crusades, a time when floods of ideologically-crazed young Europeans washed up on the shores of the Levant egged on by popes, ambitious princes, mad monks and Venetian merchants. The bemused locals, when confronted by these Christian liberators, lumped them all under the name of the biggest group, "the Franks" and the name stuck good. Centuries later when the Western hoards once again swarmed out Europe, this time into the Orient, Arab and Persian traders had already introduced this useful term to Africa, India and South-East Asia (where, in the latter case, Islam was seen as a very welcome antidote to Christian missionary zeal).

So here then without any further adieu, is a survey of "the French as foreigners" in a number of the world's languages1.

Arabic faranj
Aramaic frang
Cambodian farang
Ethiopian fa'ra'nj
Greek frangos
Hindi firangi
Malay barang (foreign goods)
Malayalam farangi
Persian farangg
Samoan palangi
Tamil pirangi
Thai farang
Turkish ifrangi
Vietnamese pha-rang

So take that, you primates capitulards et toujours en quete de fromages!!

This table was collated from information from this article from the LINGUIST mailing list. While the conclusion is reached that the Samoan word palangi is not really connected to farang, this article claims a connection to the Malay word barang or "foreign goods" but then denies a link to farang from there (by the way, the title of this piece is "lingua franca").

1 - This word does have one teensy weensy disadvantage of being a collective term which refers to all Westerners, which includes, unfortunately, Americans

Another thing I found out from the LINGUIST article: Greek text written in Latin characters is called frangovlakhika (the spelling of this term has been rendered for your reading convenience into frangovlakhika). See the Welsh post for more information about the meaning of Vlak.


The cakewalk was originally a 19th-century dance, invented by African-Americans in the antebellum South. It was intended to satirize the stiff ballroom promenades of white plantation owners, who favored the rigidly formal dances of European high-society. Cakewalking slaves lampooned these stuffy moves by over-accentuating their high kicks, bows, and imaginary hat doffings, mixing the cartoonish gestures together with traditional African steps. Likely unaware of the dance's derisive roots, the whites often invited their slaves to participate in Sunday contests, to determine which dancers were most elegant and inventive. The winners would receive cake slices, a prize which gave birth to the dance's familiar name.

After Emancipation, the contest tradition continued in black communities; the Oxford English Dictionary dates the widespread adoption of "cakewalk" to the late 1870s. It was around this time that the cakewalk came to mean "easy"—not because the dance was particularly simple to do but rather because of its languid pace and association with weekend leisure.

The cakewalk's fame eventually spread northward, and it became a nationwide fad during the 1890s. Legendary performers Charles Johnson and Dora Dean were the dance's great popularizers, and cakewalk contests were a staple of Manhattan nightlife around the turn of century, for whites as well as blacks. Early ragtime songs, with their trademark syncopated beats and brassy sounds, were often known as cakewalk music.

Fanciful. Preposterous. Absurd.

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