In the still of the night

by Steven Bonta
Special to Via Negativa. All rights reserved by the author.

In the still of the night, I pay my respects at the Shrine of the Cobra.

Actually, I’m in a tiny sanctum at the fringe of Tattaneri Cemetery, on the edge of a bustling city in Tamilnadu, South India. Here cobras sometimes issue from the fringe of acacias to drink milk offerings left in saucers before the billhook-wielding image of Sonaisami, one of the many ferocious Shaivite demiurges worshipped in the villages and waste places of Tamilnadu. Sonaisami (“Lord of the Tomb”) sports a potbelly and florid mustache, as do the other protector deities, or bhuts, posted on each corner of the roof of the dilapidated shrine. On the back of the building is a terrifying painting of the goddess Kali garlanded with skulls, the corpse of Shiva prone at her feet.

Ordinarily, Lord Sonai’s shrine is neglected, competing as it must with thousands of more attractive temples housing more charismatic gods in a city that styles itself the heartland of Dravidian Hinduism. But tonight, on Shivaratri — the Night of Shiva, nearest thing in the Hindu world to Halloween — Sonai has taken center stage. His niche is lit by oil lamps, and an offering of coconuts, rice, and arrak liquor is spread on the dusty brick floor.

“Do you believe there are such things as cannibals, white man? Here in India, I mean?”

I fumble for a reply to such a typically Indian non-sequitur, setting aside my sweaty barbell as a rat scurries across the dirt floor of the gym.

“I’ve never thought about it, but I suppose not.”

“That’s my saying, too, but this man, he is from the south, from Tirunelveli, and he says his family worships a god whose priests are cannibals.”

The man indicated, a burly, taciturn laborer performing dumbbell curls, speaks no English, so I ask him in Tamil what he is talking about.

He assures me, in perfectly measured tones, that his kuladevan, or family deity, is propitiated by priests who actually eat the flesh of corpses, and that he has seen this rite performed. I ask the name of this god.

“Sudalai Madan,” he answers — “Fiend of the Burning-ground.”

“Is it possible for outsiders to see such rites?” I ask.


My friend Balu and I grow restless. It is well past midnight, and the only living thing we have seen in hours of waiting, besides the swarms of insects buzz-bombing a pair of feeble streetlights, was a lone bicyclist who shot past the silent cemetery grounds without a sideways glance. The dead, however, are very much in evidence. Human remains unearthed by stray dogs from shallow graves lie scattered among the weeds, and some thoughtful soul has placed several bones, including a nearly-intact skull, on the ground in front of Kali’s leering image.

Underneath each of the three large metal pavilions that mark the crematory portion of the cemetery, a corpse is burning. Beside one of these corpses, we find something else: a large circle, marked with tika powder and sprigs of various plants, inscribed in the ashes left from decades of cremations. In the middle of the circle is a small heap of human bones, gathered from the cemetery and broken into bite-sized pieces. A tangle of acacia branches has been dragged over the site, to prevent trespassers like myself from getting a closer look.

Finally, past 1 AM, I hear from the deserted street the sound of voices and the hypnotic wheeze of an udukku or squeeze-box drum.

The sightless eyes stare back at me from a ruined, bloodied face. By his appearance, the man was the victim of some reckless truck driver and, without kin, has been dumped unceremoniously at the entrance to the cemetery, only partially wrapped in a bloody sheet. He will presumably be cremated anonymously, by some of the rough-looking men who labor in the necropolis. On a whim, I approach several of them and ask, feeling somewhat foolish, if they have ever heard of such a thing as people coming into the cemetery at night and eating human remains.

“Oh, that’s tomorrow night,” one of them says, without a twitch of surprise.

“Is a velaikkaran [white man] allowed to see such a thing?”

“Sure. You come tomorrow, around midnight. You’ll see.”

An odd and unexpectedly noisy procession has arrived at Tattaneri Cemetery. Twenty or thirty men, including a uniformed policeman, surround a terrifying figure dressed in colorful black trunks, wearing a wig of long, black tresses, and carrying on his head a gorgeous, flower-draped, spindle-shaped object known as a kapparai. The figure is in a state of frenzied possession, which the Tamils call avesam; he howls and screams and spins wildly, while several of his acolytes help to support him. At the head of the group, a kodangu or soothsayer, who is playing the squeeze-box, along with another drummer, keep up the mesmerizing rhythm as the group pauses right in front of me.

“They worship the god Irulappan [Lord of Darkness],” one of the cemetery workers informs us, “who is the same as the one they call Sudalai Madan in the south.”

At this, Balu becomes uneasy. Later, he tells me that he has heard of this dark god and the fearful secret rites his followers practice. There may be some danger, he suggests. Good Hindus do not worship in the dead of the night. I offer to pay more than the usual fee to Balu, who is a trishaw driver, and his concern appears to abate.

The votaries of Irulappan are surprised and delighted to find a Tamil-speaking white man waiting for them in this secret, desolate place. No white man has ever seen their rites before, and they are eager to show an outsider how religion is really done.

The priest carrying the kapparai suddenly gives a bloodcurdling shriek and races towards the pavilion where the ritual circle has been prepared. The kapparai is jammed into the ash next to the burning corpse, and the priest, still jerking and babbling under the influence of the spirit that controls him, sits down cross-legged in front of the pile of bones. The rest of us crowd around, a ring of expectant dark faces and one pale face, imperfectly lit by a pair of guttering oil lamps. I am ushered to the priest’s side, so that my view will be unobstructed.

“I have heard of such things,” my Brahmin landlord tells me earlier that evening. “These people are not Hindus at all, and I don’t understand why they worship such dark gods. We always say that puja should not be held after midnight, but what they do is not really puja. I think you should be very careful.”

With another howl, the priest scoops up the bones with both hands and stuffs them in his mouth, molars crunching improbably through brittle, sun-bleached fragments of femurs, skulls, and ribs. In a moment, Irulappan has finished his meal, and is ready to grant a wish or two. Leaping to his feet, the wild-haired vessel for the god begins barking auguries to the circle of devotees, who merely look deferentially at the ashes and murmur “Aama, sami” (Yes, lord). One of the acolytes suddenly keels over into a possessive swoon and, as his comrades crowd around trying to revive him, Irulappan departs, and his bone-weary human vessel goes over to the water pump to revive himself.

After a few minutes’ break, in which I am allowed to photograph a cluster of grinning Irulappan sectaries standing around the colorful kapparai, the ritual resumes with the mukkavu, or triple sacrifice of a goat, rooster, and pig. A black kid is presented with a circle of banana leaves, on each of which is placed a pile of rice. As soon as the animal noses one of the rice piles, its throat is cut and the blood mixed with the chosen portion. The other two animals are similarly dispatched, and then the head priest, with two acolytes (including the one who swooned earlier) retires into the acacias to perform the most secretive part of the entire ritual: the rice/blood mixture is hurled into the air, and Irulappan takes it. From within the trees we hear a loud scream, and then the cadre returns. They will say only that the offering was accepted, as always.


Two nights later, I return to the cemetery for a sequel to this ritual (dare I call it osteophagy?), which can only take place during one week out of the year. This time, the same group appears with a different kapparai, a triangle enclosing five faces. A similar rite is performed.

Another group from a different temple shows up as well, larger and more boisterous. Their priests arrive first, eat bones, and then greet the large procession of followers as it surges down the street to the cemetery. Among them are mummers dressed as bhuts, with black mustaches and carrying billhooks and whips. Tonight, evidently, will feature the initiation of one of their acolytes.

A young man in manacles is thrown into the ashes next to a pile of bones, while the rest gather around to watch. The whip-wielding bhuts lash at the devotees, screaming at them to kneel, while the initiate manages to choke down bones and corpse-ashes in roughly equal portions. While all this is going on, in a surreal twist, one of the onlookers hands me his business card. He’s an engineer, he wants me to know.

“Irulappan is a crazy (paitiyam) god,” the head priest of the Irulappan cult tells me several days later. Gone are the trunks, the saidai (black wig), and the garlands of flowers that had been hung over every idol in the temple, including that of the goddess Ankalaparamesvari, the temple matron. In the niche of Irulappan, to the left of the entranceway, the generic black statue within no longer sports the silver pieces that limned its features during festival time, nor the leopard skin denoting his association with Shiva.

“Irulappan is the same as Sudalai Madan in the south, and Mayandi (‘Lord of Illusion’) in the east,” the priest tells me. “He is the crazy son of Shiva, and like his father, frequents cemeteries and burning grounds where he sometimes eats human remains.”

He points to the wall behind him, festooned with the portraits of head priests stretching back several centuries. “This temple is very old, at least four hundred years. When it was built, this was all countryside. Now it is all city, but we keep the old forms of worship alive. I worship like my father, and he as his father before him.”

Author’s note: Transgressive forms of Hinduism featuring some form of ritual cannibalism appear to be very ancient, and center on the so-called “Brahminicide myth,” in which Shiva, in a fit of pique, lops off one of the heads of Brahma. As penance, he is cast out from civilized society, and forced to travel through India as a beggar with the skull (Skt. kapala) of Brahma attached to the palm of his hand, frequenting cemeteries and consuming human remains. The rather mysterious order of the kapalikas, alluded to as heretics in classical Sanskrit literature, seems to have adopted the habits of the outcaste Shiva rather literally, and the kalamukhas (“black faces”) of medieval south India may have done the same. In more modern times, the cannibalistic Aghori sect of Varanasi has received some fairly sensational publicity, while rites similar to those I witnessed in Tamilnadu are described (though never witnessed firsthand) by Eveline Meyer, in her surprising book on the cult of the Tamil goddess Ankalaparamesvari (the matron goddess of the temple where Irulappan was enshrined). The Tamil word kapparai is derived from Sanskrit kapala, and suggests a connection between the secret religion of Irulappan and the brahminicide myth of the kapalikas.

Editor’s note: Other posts by Steven Bonta at Via Negativa include Lament for the fisherfolk of Sri Lanka and Favorite authors on ancient history. My brother Steve recently moved back to the area with his wife and child and currently teaches English at the Altoona College of Penn State. He wrote this essay this very morning, after a spur-of-the-moment request from me late yesterday, and thus didn’t have the time to dig up any of the photos he took of the ritual in time to include them here. I think it’s plenty frightening without them, though. Happy Halloween, y’all.

Report from the resident naturalist

When I read the following letter from my mother to her nine-year-old granddaughter Eva, it had “blog post” written all over it. As you’ll see, the last couple weeks have been an exciting time for wildlife sightings on the mountain. While I sit inside writing poetry, my mom (naturalist writer Marcia Bonta) is out wandering the mountain, having close encounters with black bears and logging our first-ever sighting of a fisher in Plummer’s Hollow. But sometimes the critters get even closer, as the first part of her letter relates. (Keep in mind that she wrote this quickly, in one draft – like a blog post, but very unlike her usual writing for publication.)

Dear Eva,

Autumn is here. The air is cool and crisp, the sky bright blue, and the temperature was 39 degrees Fahrenheit this morning – not quite the freeze we were promised, but close.

The other day, while writing an article about woodchucks that I had entitled “Mad Marmot,” after the sign on the lab of the professor studying woodchuck hibernation, I had come to the end and wondered how I could write a good conclusion. I had heard bumping noises downstairs and so had Grandpa, but we thought that it was Uncle Dave coming up early for his lunch.

Finally, shortly after noon, I went downstairs to put on the soup. A woodchuck ran across the kitchen floor in front of me. It was the same woodchuck that has been hanging around on the veranda, knocking over our walking sticks in the corner, all summer. I quick slammed the door between the kitchen and the living room and called to Grandpa, “There’s a woodchuck in the kitchen!”

He came running down and propped open the back door. Then we looked around in the kitchen for the woodchuck. Grandpa took a flashlight and looked behind the stove and refrigerator. No woodchuck. Then he looked under the refrigerator. Uh, oh. It was squeezed in the space behind the bottom front panel. (Did I mention that this is a smallish woodchuck?) Anyway, Grandpa pried off the panel and the woodchuck didn’t move. I gave Grandpa a broom and he and Uncle Dave, who had come up by then, tried to persuade Mr. or Mrs. or maybe Ms. Woodchuck to leave. Finally, it made a mad dash for the open back door with Grandpa yelling after it, hoping to discourage it from coming back.

But how had the woodchuck gotten inside? We thought that it must have dug a hole in the foundations down in the basement since it lives in the burrow system under the front porch. But we couldn’t find any hole down there. It remained a mystery until after dinner.

Grandpa went into the living room to sit down and read and he called to me, “Come in here and look at this.”

On the piano he pointed out several fresh scratches and some dirt. I saw a couple long, fresh scratches on the wooden floor. Then he showed me a gaping hole in the screen in the window behind the piano. That woodchuck had climbed up the table we have sitting next to the veranda door and busted its way into the house, landed on the piano, tumbled down on to the floor, probably ran around the living room – because the scratches were over near the spinning wheel – then into the dining room and on into the kitchen.

What had it wanted in our house? Did it want to hibernate? Was it truly a mad marmot, either angry or crazy or both? And why did it show up just when I needed a conclusion to my article?

The next day I went for a late morning walk. I was walking back along the Far Field Road when I noticed a wild grape vine wiggling down below. I stopped and looked. At that very moment, a large mother bear reared up about 30 feet below me and to the side of the shaking grapevine. She started sniffing in my direction and I wondered what to do. I knew that the grapevines were shaking because of cubs. Should I run? Should I stand still? Should I speak to her?

Luckily, she was a peaceful mother. She merely lowered herself back down on all four legs, walked quietly over to what turned out to be one good-sized cub, both looked up at me so I had a good view through my binoculars, then they turned away and walked silently down the slope away from me.

Then the other day I was sitting on Alan’s Bench and heard a “cluck-cluck” behind me. I didn’t move. A hen turkey walked quietly past in the weeds in front of me. Yet I kept hearing the “cluck-cluck” behind me. I sat still for another ten minutes and finally continued my walk. Two turkeys ran out on the trail ahead and another one joined them from the spruce grove. That one had been the clucker.

Between all those animals, and the fisher I saw in the hollow the other week – a very rare species for Pennsylvania – I feel like I’m living in the middle of “Wild Kingdom.”

Love, Nanna

© Marcia Bonta. Used by permission.

My account of our visit last March to the groundhog researcher my mother mentions in the second paragraph can be found here. For another guest blog post from Marcia Bonta – her list of favorite nature books – see here.

A dozen natural history books for summer reading

It’s Summer Book Week at Via Negativa. Since I’ll be gone part of the week on vacation myself, I decided it would be an ideal time to consider what constitutes the perfect summer read. I’ve enlisted the help of my family to put up posts while I’m gone, and also do a little guest-blogging.

As you might guess, my mother has a large library of nature and natural history books. It includes all the expected authors – Abbey, Thoreau, Dillard, Lopez – and many more besides. I’ve been wanting for some time to get her to supply a list of her all-time favorite nature books, because I figured it would include a number of non-standard authors and even a few obscure ones. This past weekend, Mom graciously complied. Here’s her list, and what she had to say about it.

These twelve books represent only a fraction of the wonderful natural history books that I have enjoyed over the years. Most are now out of print, but all are available through except for one (Crip, Come Home), and that is available through – another good, online source for used books. My choices are colored by my interests over the years and by, in a few cases, authors who are or were friends. In alphabetical order by author:

Twelve Moons of the Year, by Hal Borland. Any book by Hal Borland is good reading. Most are based on his nature editorials for the New York Times. As the dust jacket tells us, “Here…is that familiar, comfortable voice, gentle wit, occasional crankiness, and dry, countryman’s wisdom that made him one of Americas’s best-loved writers about nature.” He died in 1978 and immediately fell off the radar screen in collections of best nature writers. But for anyone who loves celebrations of the daily events in country living, Borland’s work is worth reading.

The Appalachians, by Maurice Brooks. Written back in 1965, this beautifully illustrated book is a primer on the Appalachians by a man known as “Dr. Appalachia” in his lifetime. I was enchanted by it because it captures the uniqueness and beauty of this old chain of mountains stretching from Canada’s Gaspe Peninsula to southern Georgia, with such chapters as “Orchids That Aren’t in the Tropics,” “Lungless Salamanders,” and “The Wood Warblers.”

Life on a Little Known Planet, by Howard Ensign Evans. The “planet” is that of the insect world. Evans has written many wonderful books and this is just his best known. How can you not embrace the work of an author who has chapters called (for example) “The Cricket as Poet and Pugilist,” “Bedbugs, Cone-nosed Bugs, and Other Cuddly Animals,” and “The Intellectual and Emotional World of the Cockroach”? In his concluding chapter, “Is Nature Necessary?” Evans writes, “The fact that there are literally millions of species of plants and animals on this little-known planet of ours is to me overwhelmingly exciting,” and he conveys this excitement throughout his book.

Spring in Washington, by Louis J. Halle. I’ve probably recommended this book to more people than any other I’ve read. Written in 1945, Halle visits, on bicycle, all the natural places in and around Washington, D.C. When we lived there, 20 years later, we still found and visited all the places he wrote about. This is not a guidebook. Instead, Halle “undertook to be monitor of the Washington seasons, when the government was not looking. Though it was only for my own good, that is how the poorest of us may benefit the world.” I must admit that I took his words to heart.

The Long-Shadowed Forest, by Helen Hoover. Helen and her artist husband Adrian lived on the shores of a lake on the Canadian border of Minnesota during the middle of the twentieth century. Best known for herGift of the Deer, I like this book even more, maybe because of her poetic title that evokes our own forest. Hoover snowshoes in the winter and walks the other months of the year, describing what she sees in the rugged wilderness where she and her husband chose to build their primitive cabin without the amenities of modern life. She feeds a three-legged mink, watches bull moose battle, records the antics of chickadees and gray jays, and sees wolves crossing the frozen lake. But she too has a message. “When we poison and bulldoze and pollute, let us remember that we are not the owners of the earth, but its dependents. Let us look to the earth, to its wealth and beauty, and be proud that we are a part of it. Let us respect it, and time and space, the forces of creation and life itself. As we hold the future in our hands, let us not destroy it.”

A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm, by Alexander F. Skutch. For more than 60 years, before his death just a few weeks shy of his 100th birthday, Skutch, a native of Maryland, lived on a tropical farm in Costa Rica where he studied and wrote about tropical birds in dozens of books. My husband and I visited him back in 1989, when he was 85, and ate lunch with him and his wife while his tropical birds flew in, out, and around his unscreened home. Throughout his life he watched his tropical farm become an island in a sea of agriculture. In this book he writes about his life on the farm and the wildlife he observes, including leaf-cutting ants, cichlid fishes, and a potpouri of plants, birds, and mammals.

Driftwood Valley, by Theodora Stanwell-Fletcher. A bestseller after its publication in 1948, it has remained a timeless adventure book. Teddy and her husband John overcome a series of near-disasters in their attempt to live in harmony with nature. Living in the wilds of British Columbia where no white people had ever lived, they homesteaded during the latter part of the 1930s. They also collected the plants and animals of the region for the British Columbia Provincial Museum to provide a source of income. But mostly Teddy writes about the natural world and its inhabitants, including an enlightened defense of the wolves they see. “Utter silence, a deathlike hush over the land, and then, from somewhere below, came a sound that made our hearts stand still. Like a breath of wind, rising slowly, softly, clearly to a high, lovely note of sadness and longing; dying down on two distinct notes so low that our human ears could scarcely catch them. It rose and died, again and again.” Many years later I visited Teddy in her northern Pennsylvania home and heard of her years in British Columbia and of her life afterwards. During our visit, she, too, was in her late eighties, and still enjoyed snowshoeing every winter.

Iceland Summer: Adventures of a Bird Painter, by George Miksch Sutton. Sutton was the Pennsylvania Ornithologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission back in the 1920s. Then he went on to some fame as a bird artist, in my estimation the best of all of them, and as an ornithologist adventurer in such places as Mexico and the Arctic. His books are fun to read and a joy to look at because his delicate paintings always illustrate them. Iceland Summer recounts his summer quest, along with fellow ornithologist Olin Sewall Pettingill, Jr. and his wife Eleanor, for birds in the wilds of Iceland. Not only did this book receive the coveted John Burroughs Medal for nature-writing in 1962, but he was knighted by Iceland for his contributions to that country. His painting of an Iceland gyrfalcon, which appears in this book, was used by the Iceland government in a postage stamp.

Wandering Through Winter, by Edwin Way Teale. The concluding book in Teale’s American Seasons series, it was an inspiration and goad to me, as were all the many books Teale wrote in his lifetime. From his early books on insects, especially Near Horizons, to his late books about his farm in Connecticut, Teale never wrote a bad book. His knowledge of the natural world was vast and he shared it in a most appealing way. In my opinion he was, and remains, the dean of American nature writing. In Wandering Through Winter, as he travels from the Silver Strand below San Diego to Caribou, Maine, he writes about whooping cranes, migrating whales, pupfish in Death Valley, and the eagles of a Mississippi ice jam. Teale also spends a day with a witch hazel gatherer, camps in the desert, and visits a snowshoe maker in Maine.

Crip, Come Home: The Story of a Bird Who Came to Stay, by Ruth Thomas. The bird is a brown thrasher with a broken wing who lived on the Arkansas farm of Thomas and her husband, and was able to make his living on his own despite his broken wing. For eleven and a half years Thomas meticulously observes him. She also watches her husband Stan lose his battle with cancer. “All the months of Stan’s illness, the old thrasher was a joy and a care beyond ourselves,” she writes. “Stan’s love and the old cripple thrasher, somehow they seemed one, and when I faltered, gave me strength. ‘Do not walk and weep and brood by the fire. Somewhere is another need, another pattern. Have courage to seek,'” she concludes. I included Thomas in my book American Women Afield: Writings by Pioneering Women Naturalists, and my editor said that the excerpt from Crip, Come Home brought tears to her eyes.

Mountains of the Heart: A Natural History of the Appalachians, by Scott Weidensaul. An update of the Brooks book, Weidensaul follows the Appalachians from Georgia to Newfoundland, and “we see how geology, climate, evolution and five hundred years of history have shaped one of the continent’s greatest landscape features into a mountain range of unmatched diversity and beauty.” My friend Scott has written other, more praised books such as Living on the Wind, but this is my favorite, probably because of its subject and its lyrical title, since they are the mountains of my heart too. And unlike Brooks’ book, which doesn’t say much about Pennsylvania, Weidensaul, who lives in the shadow of Hawk Mountain, writes at length about his Pennsylvania Appalachian roots.

Naturalist, by Edward O Wilson. As a great fan of Wilson’s writing, I was especially pleased when he published this autobiographical book, beginning with his childhood on the Gulf Coast of Alabama and Florida. He describes both his growth as a scientist and the evolution of the science he has helped define. As he succinctly writes, “Most children have a bug period. I never grew out of mine,” going on to specialize in ants. Unlike many scientists, Wilson has spoken out and continues to speak out about the loss of biodiversity. “The great majority of species of organisms – possibly in excess of 90 percent – remain unknown to science. They live out there somewhere, still untouched, lacking even a name, waiting for their Linnaeus, their Darwin, their Pasteur…Earth, in the dazzling variety of its life, is still a little-known planet…A lifetime can be spent in a Magellanic voyage around the trunk of a single tree.” He may be a famous scientist, but he has never lost his awe for the incredible earth we inhabit.

– Marcia Bonta

Favorite authors on ancient history

It’s Summer Book Week at Via Negativa. Since I’ll be gone part of the week on vacation myself, I decided it would be an ideal time to consider what constitutes the perfect summer read. I’ve enlisted the help of my family to put up posts while I’m gone, and also do a little guest-blogging.

Over the last few years, my brother Steve has been making an intensive study of ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine history, finding many parallels with our own times. Here’s his annotated list of favorite authors on (and mostly from) that period. I’ve refrained from including Amazon links, since many are available in multiple editions and translations.

In general, I prefer culling history from original sources wherever possible. This list is therefore top-heavy with the works of Greco-Roman historians, and is by no means inclusive. It is also more an author list than a book list, since I have found reading the works of the best historians, ancient and modern, to be a the most rewarding approach (also, it’s a sneaky way to slip in more than the recommended maximum of ten titles!). Included are two modern historians, J. B. Bury and Steven Runciman, whose exceptional scholarship fills in much of the gaps of Byzantine and Medieval history, owing in no small measure to their interest in subjects not popular with many other historians (witness Runciman’s works on the Sicilian Vespers and the Bulgarian Empire, for example).

Some might be disappointed that I have excluded Gibbon. While the unabridged Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is often an edifying and informative read, Gibbon’s undeniable command of his material is unfortunately surpassed both by his ego and his inept conclusions. In addition, Gibbon was an uncritical champion of empire as a benign and civilizing influence, a premise I reject without apology.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War: The first book of descriptive history, Thucydides’ masterpiece is a timely parable on the pitfalls of imperial hubris. The famous Funeral Oration of Pericles highlights the glories of Athenian society at its apogee, while Thucydides’ accounts of the ruthless Athenian subjugation of Melos and the disastrous and unwarranted invasion of Sicily highlight the follies of hegemonic overstretch.

Herodotus, The Histories: This famous work by the “Father of History�? is a must-read for its entertainment value as well as its genuine historical interest. Sandwiched between riveting accounts of Greek heroics at Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Platea in the long Greco-Persian conflict, are fascinating if improbable cultural, geographical, and faunological digressions, such as the fabled gold-digging ants of India. Also of great interest is Herodotus’ account of Achaemenid Persian history and culture.

Appian, Roman History: This lesser-read Greek historian of republican Rome is palatable to an informed modern audience because his accounts of various Roman wars of subjugation (the Iberian wars and “Mithridatic�? wars against independent Pontus, e.g.) are marked by the author’s obvious sympathy for the vanquished tribes. In addition, Appian is the only continuous source for the tumultuous period from the Gracchi to the rebellion of Spartacus, an era that saw Rome for the first time convulsed by civil war and ravaged by the despotism of Marius and Sulla. Appian shows better than any other author how Rome morphed from a republic into an autocratic empire in the space of a few generations, and lays much of the blame on Rome’s incurable love for militarism and territorial expansion.

Plutarch, Lives: Plutarch’s timeless character studies, while of dubious historical value in places, nonetheless offer priceless glimpses into the way that Romans in the 2nd century AD were apt to regard their semi-legendary past. Particularly attractive is the biography of Numa Pompilius, Rome’s second king, who made peacemaking his top priority. For his entire reign, Rome was at peace with her neighbors. Pompilius supposedly founded the College of the Fetials, a priestly caste charged with investigating the facts of any international dispute, to determine whether Rome had a grievance legitimate enough to justify going to war. Plutarch’s larger-than-life biographical sketches have been credited with helping to inspire the chivalric code.

Sallust, The Jugurthine War/The Catilinarian Conspiracy: Sallust’s two brief extant works are usually bound together and make for a quick, rewarding read, in spite of Sallust’s preachy tone. The Jugurthine War was a late first century BC conflict against a wily Numidian usurper in North Africa who dared to challenge the Roman right to dictate terms to the Africans. Rome finally captured Jugurtha and subdued his rebellion–but at a price. The two generals who secured Jugurtha’s downfall, Marius and Sulla, quarreled over receiving credit for the outcome, and became bitter rivals. Their enmity led a few years later to the awful civil wars that tore the republic asunder a generation before Julius Caesar, and led to the slaughter of thousands of Roman partisans. Sallust’s other work is one of several accounts of the celebrated conspiracy of Lucius Catiline and his confederates in the Senate, a conspiracy that was discovered by chance and exposed by Cicero. Julius Caesar himself was quite possibly one of the conspirators, or so Cato, Cicero, and the historian Appian all believed. The downfall of Catiline cemented Cicero’s reputation as the greatest statesmen of his age and, with Cato, Brutus, and Cassius, one of the last spokesmen for the old Republic.

Tacitus, The Annals/The Histories: Tacitus, Jefferson once opined, is not to be read but to be studied. This finest Roman historian is our best source of the traumatic events of the early imperial period spanning much of the first century AD. In his economical style, Tacitus describes the intrigues of Tiberius, Messalina, Nero, Galba, Otho, and many other polititicians and rulers of this turbulent period of western history.

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars: This scandalous set of biographies of Caesars from Julius to Domitian accuses most of Rome’s early despots of monstrous personal crimes. From the well-known aberrations of Nero and Caligula to the personal depravity of Tiberius and Claudius, this book is a depressing but probably fairly reliable illustration of the corrupting influence of absolute power.

Anna Comnena, The Alexiad: Anna Comnena was the daughter of the very capable Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus, whose task it was to rebuild the state after the disastrous defeat to the Seljuk Turks at Manzikert and the subsequent political turmoil. Though somewhat hagiographic, as might reasonably be expected from an adoring daughter, this is the first known work of Western history written by a woman, and is easily the most readable of the Byzantine chronicles. Aside from the endearing personal touches, this book is noteworthy for its detailed account of the use of the Byzantine secret weapon, Greek fire, and for Comnena’s lengthy discussion of the Bogomil heresy. She describes Comnenus’ efforts first to convert, and then to exterminate, the Balkan-based sect that later gave rise to the Albigensian movement in Lombardy and Languedoc.

J. B. Bury, History of the Later Empire, from the Death of Theodosius I to Justinian: John Bagnell Bury, an eminent English historian of the late 19th and early 20th century, was almost single-handedly responsible (along with Vasiliev) for restoring the image of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire, an image which (outside of the Orthodox world) had languished in opprobrium ever since Gibbon’s dismissive treatment of this greatest Medieval European state. Generally considered Bury’s most definitive work, History of the Later Empire carefully examines the history, culture, and economics of the Eastern Empire (and of neighboring states) during the fifth and sixth centuries AD. Other works by Bury carry the history forward through the reigns of Heraclius, Irene, and other noteworthy rulers until the tenth century. As a historian, Bury far surpasses Gibbon for his impartiality, attention to detail, and avoidance of ego insertion.

Steven Runciman, The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus and His Reign: A more modern English historian, Steven Runciman, was one of the most erudite people ever to write history. Runciman seems to have known most of the languages of Eastern Europe, as well the classical and standard research languages, not to mention Turkish, Arabic, Armenian, and various other Middle Eastern languages. He was thus ideally positioned to write the many superb historical, cultural, and religious studies of Byzantium for which he is remembered, and of which the above-named is perhaps the best but by no means the only one worth reading. Lesser-known books of tremendous value include The Medieval Manichee (a history of heresy from the early Gnostics through the Cathars, and containing much material to be found nowhere else on less-studied heretical movements like the Paulicians), Byzantine Civilization, The Fall of Constantinople, History of the First Bulgarian Empire, and The Sicilian Vespers (a fascinating account of a Medieval intrigue between the thrones of Byzantium and Aragon to bring about the downfall of the ambitious hegemon, Charles d’Anjou). Runciman is also justly celebrated for his three-volume History of the Crusades, still considered the definitive work on the subject.

– Steve Bonta

Travel book favorites

It’s Summer Book Week at Via Negativa. Since I’ll be gone part of the week on vacation myself, I decided it would be an ideal time to consider what constitutes the perfect summer read. I’ve enlisted the help of my family to put up posts while I’m gone, and also do a little guest-blogging.

In addition to being a peace scholar, my father is a voracious reader of travel books. Almost every night before going to bed, he reads a chapter or two from whatever travel book he’s engrossed in at the moment – there’s nothing better for putting himself in the proper frame of mind for sleep, he says. Over the years he has read hundreds of the things, so I figured it would be fun to get an annotated list of his all-time favorites. Here’s what he came up with.

Some of my favorite travel books describe the social and cultural conditions of places that later break into the headlines. The fighting in Kosovo and Albania? Find out about feuding in the area a century earlier in High Albania by Edith Durham. Why were the Mujahideen in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province so successful in killing the American SEALS a few weeks ago? Read George Scott Robertson’s account about the fighting qualities of the mountain people in that particular section of the country. Why do the nomadic people of Darfur and the settled villagers fight and kill? Find clues in Michael Asher’s book on the deserts of Sudan. Not all great travel books presage later fighting, of course, though they should give a strong feeling for people and places around the world. A few favorite travel books:

Accounts about Africa

In Search of the Forty Days Road, by Michael Asher (Longman, 1984).
The Forty Days Road, the name for a semi-mythical desert track, provided a convenient excuse for Asher to buy a camel in a Khartoum market and start exploring the deserts of the Darfur region of Sudan. He had an amazing ability to fit in with the desert tribes and move around with them on his camel. The relationships of the semi-nomadic peoples with one another and with the more settled peoples of Sudan, one of the themes of the book, provide an insight into the continuing tragic situation that envelopes Darfur today. Asher’s subsequent books about the desert are effective also.

Travels in Ethiopia, by David Buxton (Praeger, 1967).
Buxton describes his travels to many parts of Ethiopia with sensitivity and grace. He lived in the country for three years in the 1940s; his writing and his sharp black and white photos provide a compelling picture of a very poor country with a fabulous history.

Some Great books on Asia

Hunza, Lost Kingdom of the Himalayas, by John Clark (Funk & Wagnalls, 1956).
Aside from the silly sub-title (Hunza is neither lost nor is it in the Himalayas–it’s in the Karakoram Range), Clark provides an engrossing account of his year (1950) among the villagers in an inaccessible valley of northern Pakistan. His reason for moving to Hunza? He wants to combat the advance of communism by teaching woodworking to village boys. A geology professor at Princeton with some medical training, when he isn’t working with his students, he treats villagers for various illnesses and explores the geology of the mountains. As he builds his programs, he overcomes the hostility of officialdom in Pakistan, the selfishness of the Mir who autocratically rules Hunza, and the initial suspicions of the villagers. The book is a forerunner of the Peace Corps concept by a man who is middle-aged, highly motivated, and very well trained for his tasks.

Danziger’s Travels: Beyond Forbidden Frontiers, by Jeff Danziger (Grafton Books, 1987).
Danziger is an excellent writer who exhibits a remarkable ability to talk his way past officials, endure unbelievable hardships, and whack along through fascinating places in Asia, from Turkey to China. One of the most memorable sections is his description of the war in Afghanistan against the Russians in the mid-1980s. Danziger was in Herat, watching from his hiding place as the MIGs swooped over the city dropping bombs. He had to move with the Mujahideen across the country at a strenuous pace, running up and down and up and down high mountains, striving to keep up with the fighters. Probably the best of the “following the Silk Road�? travel books, the account may lack the depth of some of the others on this list–Danziger describes his travels rather than his life in a particular area–but it’s really a great read.

My Journey to Lhasa, by Alexandra David-Neel (Harper, 1927).
David-Neel, a French woman with a life-long fascination for Tibet, became the first traveler in the 20th century to enter the forbidden city of Lhasa. Traveling with her adopted son, a young Buddhist monk, she disguised herself as an elderly Tibetan woman when they entered Tibet from southwestern China, traveled as much as possible on remote roads, let her “son�? do all the talking, avoided communities where they might be challenged, and successfully made it over the mountains and into Lhasa. It was a breath-taking journey for a woman in her 50s. Her follow-up books on Tibet, especially Magic and Mystery in Tibet, are also worth reading.

Káfirs of the Hindu-Kush, by George Scott Robertson (Lawrence & Bullen, 1900).
In the late 19th century, Robertson decided to travel from northern British India across the Indus River into the mountains of what was then called Kafirstan and is now called the Kunar Province of Afghanistan. The Kafirs, so-called because they had resisted conversion to Islam until the mid-19th century, were famed for raiding and terrorizing villages near and far and murdering the inhabitants. A few decades earlier, when the Emir of Kabul finally conquered them and converted them to Islam, they became fanatical about their new faith–but they retained the ferocity of their ways. Robertson describes both the hostilities he faced in the villages where he visited and lived and the raiding, terrorizing expeditions that his friends and neighbors carried out. Anyone who believes that Osama bin Laden may be hiding out in South Waziristan, or the other mountainous areas along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, should read this book about the special fighting culture of Kunar Province. It’s a perfect fit for the top Al-Qaeda folks.

Behind the Wall: A Journey through China, by Colin Thubron (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987).
Thubron is a fine travel writer, primarily because he learns languages before venturing out into a new country. He learned Arabic before traveling around the Middle East nearly 40 years ago, then learned Chinese before wandering around China to see how it was doing after the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. Then he learned Russian in order to travel in Siberia and the newly independent Central Asian Republics after the end of the Soviet empire. This account of China is a personal favorite, perhaps because of his honest and friendly approach to the people and places he visits.

Travels in Central Asia, by �?rmin Vámbéry (Harper, 1865).
Vámbéry was one of the most intrepid travelers of modern times. A Hungarian scholar who was fluent in numerous Asian languages, he disguised himself as a Hajji who was returning from Mecca and was able to join a caravan of other returning hajjis in a journey from Tehran into what is now Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. He visited the independent Kingdoms of Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand (Russia had not conquered those areas yet), before circling back toward Europe through Herat in western Afghanistan. The King of Khiva at the time was notorious for vicious treatment of his subjects, visitors, foreign emissaries, and especially non-believers. Had Vámbéry’s disguise been challenged, he would have been quickly killed. His observations on the countries he crossed and the fabled central Asian cities he visited are riveting.

A Couple Others

Six Months in the Sandwich Islands, by Isabella Bird (Murray, 1890).
Bird was crossing the Pacific in the 1870s when her boat was unable to leave the Sandwich Islands, now the Hawaiian Islands. Forced to remain there by the circumstances, she made friends easily, lived with various people on different islands, and traveled into all sorts of remarkable natural places. She climbed massive volcanoes on the big island of Hawaii, rode horses to scenic natural places, and hiked into remote spots. A remarkable, intrepid, spirited person, her other books, particularly her A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, are also engaging reading.

High Albania, by (Mary) Edith Durham (Beacon Press, 1987 reprint of 1909 edition).
On her doctor’s orders, Durham traveled down the Adriatic for her health about 100 years ago, but she ignored the warnings of dangers and journeyed inland to visit the mountains and villages of Albania and the former Yugoslavia. During her numerous trips in the Balkans, she not only learned the languages, she also gained the trust of the people and traveled easily as a lone woman. The kindly villagers would host her at length, reluctant to see her finally move on since her very presence afforded the village a measure of protection from the intentions of enemies. Her hosts would take her almost to the top of the ridge and point the way, but they could not accompany her into the next village–due to the ever-present memories of ancient feuds. Nonetheless, her love for the Albanian people comes out clearly in this wonderful book.

—Bruce Bonta

Lament for the fisherfolk of Sri Lanka

From October 2000 to July 2001, my brother Steve was in northwest coastal Sri Lanka gathering material for a dissertation (Negombo Fishermen’s Tamil: A Case of Contact-Induced Language Change from Sri Lanka, Cornell University, 2004). He worked extensively with the inhabitants of a small, Catholic fishing village a few miles from the city of Negombo. Last night he sent the following e-mail, with permission to publish it here.

The news just gets worse and worse. It appears that most or all of the people who were my research subjects and my friends during my stay in Sri Lanka are dead. Negombo was hit quite hard, and the people whose language and lifestyle I documented lived in frail cadjun [coconut-leaf] huts within meters of the high water mark, on the sands of the beach. They knew nothing but God, family, and fishing, and have not, to my knowledge, dropped bombs on anybody or fought any wars on drugs or mass-produced pornography and land mines; yet they are all apparently dead and we remain. Not only that: I could not have gotten my status-conferring, income-enhancing Ivy League PhD without their help, whereas they got along just fine without mine – yet they are gone and I linger on, PhD and all.

Nor can I take any consolation in their being “human beings just like us,” because they aren’t like us, not at all. They have the same DNA, they have many of the same passions, to be sure. But they also have no comprehension of our wisecracking, self-absorbed cynicism; they are (though it sounds cliche to say it) blessed with a certain childlike absence of guile. They place community above all other things and choose not to trouble themselves with the world’s problems. They do not live their lives in “I can give you 15 minutes of my valuable time” mode, ever. They always treated me like a dignitary and usually insisted on preparing excellent seafood dinners, which they couldn’t afford. There was never any suggestion that they were ashamed of their humble living quarters. Their huts were always clean, and their clothing always neat. I paid to help them build a cistern of their own (an untold luxury) in the sand behind their hut. It consisted merely of a 15-foot deep hole lined with metal, but it gave them fresh water for washing and drinking for the first time, ever. I fancied that, in buying them a well – not to mention a pile of clothing and household goods I got for them right before my departure – I was repaying them in part for helping me achieve my ambition.

Now the well and the household goods, as well as the houses and inhabitants, are probably gone, along with those of tens of thousands of others like them, all alike in their poverty and simplicity, all utterly unlike us. Maybe the old, abominable racial theories are correct, in a perverse and unanticipated way, for there really do seem to be two completely different moieties of the human race: the one, perpetually lapped in comfort, snugly insulated from the brunt of mother nature (most of the time), and able and willing to unleash hellfire and bombnation on the other half at the slightest provocation, real or imagined; the other, perpetually under the yoke of the first, always fodder for the cannons, chaff for the economic downdrafts, grist for the millstones of mother nature.

Anyway, enough hyperbole. Suffice it to say, I’m really bummed about this. Call it survivor’s guilt or whatever, but there can’t be too many people out there who’ve seen their PhD subject matter obliterated.

Steve Bonta
27 December 2004