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Searching for the Fisher Kings

In the waters of southern Florida, the creative Calusa people forged a mighty empire


Friday, September 17, 2021

Florida Mound KeyFlorida Key Marco CatIn 1895, Frank Hamilton Cushing, a pioneering anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution, turned his attention to an obscure area of swampland in southwestern Florida. He had been shown a collection of objects that had recently been found by workers extracting peat from a bog on Key Marco, on Florida’s Gulf Coast northwest of the Everglades. Cushing was one of the country’s preeminent scholars of Native American culture, yet the artifacts he saw perplexed him. The finely crafted relics, which he estimated to be quite old, were unlike anything he had seen before. Cushing decided to make the long, arduous trek to Key Marco, where he organized a team to further investigate the site.


Over the next two years, Cushing’s team retrieved thousands of objects that stunned the archaeological community. Preserved in the muddy, oxygen-free conditions of the bog were tools, weapons, ceramics, and household objects made from bone, shell, wood, and woven fibers. There were also painted ceremonial masks and carved animal heads. A six-inch wooden statuette of a feline, known as the Key Marco Cat, is considered by many to be one of the finest pieces of pre-Columbian Native American sculpture.


The people who crafted these objects were a mystery to Cushing and other scholars. Their material culture was seemingly older than and unrelated to that of Native groups living in Florida at the time, such as the Seminole or the Miccosukee. The men and women who had created and used these items had inhabited Florida’s shores long ago. They had, however, left behind evidence of their lives, especially of their mastery of their marine environment. Buried in the muck of Key Marco were fishing nets woven from palm fibers, hammers and other tools made from conch shells, and blades fashioned from shark teeth. Even the land on which they lived owed itself to the sea, as it was formed from heaps of oyster, clam, and conch shells.

Secret Rites of Samothrace

Reimagining the experience of initiation into an ancient Greek mystery cult


Monday, September 27, 2021

Samothrace Island ViewSamothrace MapDuring the day, the rocky island of Samothrace in the northern Aegean Sea is often veiled by clouds. Wind sweeps across the landscape, and the turbulent waters remain, as they were in antiquity, dangerous for seafarers. When the clouds clear at night, however, the peak of Mount Fengari at the island’s center, which reaches a mile into the sky, becomes visible. From the vantage point of the peak, Homer relates in the Iliad, the sea god Poseidon watched the Trojan War as it unfolded. Nestled in a deep ravine in the mountain’s shadow lie the remains of the Sanctuary of the Theoi Megaloi, or Great Gods. From at least the seventh century B.C., pilgrims walked under the cover of darkness from the nearby ancient city, now known as Palaeopolis, to the sanctuary to be inducted into a secret religious cult. As they passed through an immense marble gateway onto the sanctuary’s eastern hill, they might have heard the rush of water coursing through a channel beneath the entranceway. Amid the sounds of music and chanting emanating from farther within the sanctuary, the prospective initiates reached a sunken circular court. Here, ritual dancing and other performances might have taken place, surrounded by bronze statues that were likely dedicated by previous initiates. The noise and darkness, as well as the use of blindfolds, probably induced an altered state of mind that prepared participants for the forthcoming rituals and sacred revelations. By the flickering light of oil lamps and torches, they began the steep descent down the Sacred Way, to the sanctuary’s heart, to be initiated into the mysteries of the Great Gods.


Samothrace CoinBecause initiates were bound to keep the details of the rites secret, ancient literary sources provide scant details about the cult. Those writers who do discuss the mysteries often give diverging accounts and differing identifications of the gods. Coins dating to the second-century B.C. unearthed at the sanctuary depict a great mother goddess. Some ancient writers associate this goddess with a group of gods called the Kabeiroi. “What we know most clearly about the initiation are its promises and benefits,” says archaeologist Bonna Wescoat of Emory University. “Ancient sources strongly state that the Great Gods are powerful and protective gods. Most say they offer protection at sea, while some say they offer protection in times of need. The benefits they confer could have meant different things to different people, depending on what an initiate most sought from the experience.” Some writers even claim that initiates experienced a moral transformation. According to the first-century B.C. Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, initiates into the Samothracian mysteries became “more pious and more just and better in all ways than they had been before.”

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The Pursuit of Wellness

How the ancients attended to mind, body, and soul


Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Wellness England Great BathYou may be one of millions of people returning to recently reopened gyms in an attempt to shed a few pounds of pandemic weight. Or, to give yourself a moment of respite between loading the dishwasher and putting the kids to bed, perhaps you have started meditating. Alternatively, you might put on noise-canceling headphones to take in ambient sounds of lakes or jungles through an app on your phone. If so, you are participating in a widespread commitment to wellness, taking part in activities meant to promote and achieve personal well-being.


Peoples of the ancient world practiced self-care, too, with a range of behaviors and rituals that nurtured mind, body, and soul. For instance, around A.D. 60, at Aquae Sulis, the site of natural hot springs in what is now Bath, England, the Romans built a huge temple and spa complex that became a center for both pilgrimage and health. There, Romans and local Britons socialized and bathed, hoping to heal a host of ailments such as rheumatism, arthritis, and gout. They also worshipped the Romano-Celtic healing goddess Sulis Minerva. The Aquae Sulis springs had already been host to centuries—and possibly millennia—of ceremonies held by Bronze and Iron Age communities. Even after the destruction of the Roman baths in the sixth century A.D., Aquae Sulis’ legacy continued. The health-giving properties of the springs were well known in Britain throughout the Middle Ages, and by the seventeenth century, Bath was the place to see and be seen. It became common for visitors to drink the sulfurous thermal waters, a practice known as “taking the cure.” Some still engage in this activity, seeking its purported health benefits.


In fact, many wellness pursuits enjoyed today were developed in the ancient world. There were Egyptian foot massages, Maya communal sweat baths, and expensive Roman face creams. And not only would a group of ancient Indian practitioners of yoga recognize some of your positions, they might even give you a few pointers.





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