May 282020
 

The eclipse of Thales was a solar eclipse that was, according to Histories of Herodotus, accurately predicted by the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus. If Herodotus’ account is accurate, this eclipse is the earliest recorded as being known in advance of its occurrence. Many historians believe that the predicted eclipse was the solar eclipse of 28 May 585 BCE. How exactly Thales predicted the eclipse remains uncertain; some scholars assert the eclipse was never predicted at all. Others have argued for different dates, but only the eclipse of 28 May 585 BCE matches the conditions of visibility necessary to explain the historical event. I have mentioned this eclipse before http://www.bookofdaystales.com/solar-eclipses/ but in that post I was more interested in eclipses in general as ways of dating ancient events.

Herodotus’ Histories 1.73-74 states that a war started in the period between the Medes and the Lydians. There were two reasons for the war: the two sides had clashing interests in Anatolia, but also there was a motive of vengeance: some Scythian hunters employed by the Medes who once returned empty-handed were insulted by king Cyaxares. In revenge the hunters slaughtered one of his sons and served him to the Medes. The hunters then fled to Sardis, the capital of the Lydians. When Cyaxares asked for the Scythians to be returned to him, Alyattes refused to hand them over; in response, the Medes invaded.

Afterwards, on the refusal of Alyattes to give up his suppliants when Cyaxares sent to demand them of him, war broke out between the Lydians and the Medes, and continued for five years, with various success. In the course of it the Medes gained many victories over the Lydians, and the Lydians also gained many victories over the Medes. Among their other battles there was one night engagement. As, however, the balance had not inclined in favor of either nation, another combat took place in the sixth year, in the course of which, just as the battle was growing warm, day was on a sudden changed into night. This event had been foretold by Thales, the Milesian, who forewarned the Ionians of it, fixing for it the very year in which it actually took place. The Medes and Lydians, when they observed the change, ceased fighting, and were alike anxious to have terms of peace agreed on. [Histories 1:74]

As part of the terms of the peace agreement, Alyattes’ daughter Aryenis was married to Cyaxares’ son Astyages, and the Halys River (now known as the Kızılırmak River) was declared to be the border of the two warring nations.

An alternate hypothesis regarding the date of the battle argues that Herodotus was carelessly recounting events that he did not personally witness, and that the solar eclipse story is a misinterpretation of his text. According to this view, what happened could have been a lunar eclipse right before moonrise, at dusk. If the warriors had planned their battle activities expecting a full moon as in the previous few days, it would have been quite a shock to have dusk fall suddenly as an occluded moon rose. If this hypothesis is correct, the battle’s date would be not 585 BCE (date given by Pliny based on the date of solar eclipse), but possibly 3 September 609 BCE or 4 July 587 BCE, dates when such dusk-time lunar eclipses did occur. Generally speaking, I find this argument unconvincing. It is hard to confuse lunar and solar eclipses, and their effects on armies would have been radically different.

While doubt has been cast on the truth of the story, there are other accounts of it besides that of Herodotus. Diogenes Laërtius says that Xenophanes, who lived in the same century as Thales, was impressed with the prediction, and he also gives additional testimonies from the pre-Socratics, Democritus and Heraclitus. At the time of Thales’ purported prediction it was not yet known that eclipses were caused by the Moon coming between the Earth and the Sun, a fact that would not be discovered until over a century later by either Anaxagoras or Empedocles.

If the account is true, it has been suggested that Thales would have had to calculate the timing of any eclipse by recognizing patterns in the periodicities of eclipses. It has been postulated that Thales may have used the Saros cycle in his determination, or that he may have had some knowledge of Babylonian astronomy. However, Babylonians were far from being able to predict the local conditions of solar eclipses at that point, which makes this hypothesis highly unlikely. In fact, there is no known cycle that can be reliably used to predict an eclipse for a given location and, therefore, any accurate prediction would have been pure luck.

The eclipse peaked over the Atlantic Ocean at 37.9°N 46.2°W and the umbral path reached south-western Anatolia in the evening hours, and the Halys River is just within the error margin for delta-T provided.

On the whole, I do not think that emulating the Scythians’ dish of serving up the king’s son on a platter would be a suitable way to celebrate the day, but there are alternatives.  One is mare’s milk cheese.  The Scythians were noted for this cheese by Herodotus:

Now the Scythians blind all their slaves, because of the milk they drink; and this is how they get it: taking tubes of bone very much like flutes, they insert these into the genitalia of the mares and blow into them, some blowing while others milk. According to them, their reason for doing this is that blowing makes the mare’s veins swell and her udder drop. When done milking, they pour the milk into deep wooden buckets, and make their slaves stand around the buckets and shake the milk; they draw off what stands on the surface and value this most; what lies at the bottom is less valued. This is why the Scythians blind all prisoners whom they take: for they do not cultivate the soil, but are nomads.

Herodotus Histories 4:2

The author of the Hippocratic treatise On Generation, On the Nature of the Child and Diseases IV (which dates to the end of the 5th century BCE or the beginning of the 4th) compares the physiological process whereby a bad humor is heated and agitated in the human body to the making of mare’s cheese by the Scythians:

If the man is not purged, as the humor is stirred, there is produced an amount that is excessive. This is similar to what the Scythians make with mare’s milk. For they pour the milk into wooden bowls and shake it. As it is stirred, it foams up and separates. The fatty part, which they call butter, as it is light rises to the surface; the heavy and thick portion sinks to the bottom; they separate it and dry it. When it has become firm and dry, they call it ‘hippakē’. The whey of the milk is in the middle. Similarly in the case of man: when all the humour in his body is stirred, all the humours are separated by the principles I have mentioned: the bile rises to the top, as it is lightest; then comes the blood; third the phlegm; and the water, as it is the heaviest of the humours. (Diseases 4.51, 7.584 Littré)

Mare’s milk is fairly commonly available in central Asia (even in supermarkets) and I was offered it several times when I was in Kyrgyzstan 2 years ago.  Kyrgyz nomads are also known for making cheese from mare’s milk although the process is a bit tricky because the milk will not coagulate using cow rennet.  You can use camel rennet and maybe yak rennet also.  But there are other processes that can be employed as well, as in the above quote.  I doubt you will find mare’s milk cheese outside of central Asia, but give it a try.  It is a little reminiscent of goat’s milk cheese.  If not, maybe you can find mare’s milk.  It is normally called kumis (Russian term).

Nov 252014
 

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On this date in 1952 The Mousetrap, a murder mystery play by Agatha Christie opened in the West End of London and has been running continuously since then. It has by far the longest initial run of any play in history, with its 25,000th performance taking place on 18 November 2012. It is the longest running show (of any type) of the modern era. The play is also known for its twist ending, which the audience is traditionally asked not to reveal after leaving the theatre.

The play began life as a short radio play broadcast on 30 May 1947 called Three Blind Mice dedicated to Queen Mary. The play had its origins in the real-life case of the death of a boy, Dennis O’Neill, who died while in the foster care of a Shropshire farmer and his wife in 1945.

The play is based on a short story, itself based on the radio play, but Christie asked that the story not be published as long as it ran as a play in the West End of London. The short story has still not been published within the United Kingdom but it has appeared in the United States in the 1950 collection Three Blind Mice and Other Stories.

When she wrote the play, Christie gave the rights to her grandson Matthew Prichard as a birthday present. In the United Kingdom, only one production of the play in addition to the West End production can be performed annually, and under the contract terms of the play, no film adaptation can be produced until the West End production has been closed for at least six months.

The play had to be renamed at the insistence of Emile Littler who had produced a play called Three Blind Mice in the West End before the Second World War. The suggestion to call it The Mousetrap came from Christie’s son-in-law, Anthony Hicks. In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, “The Mousetrap” is Hamlet’s answer to Claudius’s inquiry about the name of the play whose prologue and first scene the court has just observed (III, ii). The play is actually “The Murder of Gonzago,” but Hamlet answers metaphorically, since “the play’s the thing” in which he intends to “catch the conscience of the king.”

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The Mousetrap’s longevity has ensured its popularity with tourists from around the world. In 1997, at the initiative of producer Stephen Waley-Cohen, the theatrical education charity Mousetrap Theatre Projects was launched, helping young people experience London’s theatre.

As a stage play, The Mousetrap had its world premiere at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham on 6 October 1952. It was originally directed by Peter Cotes, elder brother of John and Roy Boulting, the film directors. Its pre-West End tour then took it to the New Theatre Oxford, the Manchester Opera House, the Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool, the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, the Grand Theatre Leeds and the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham before it began its run in London on 25 November 1952 at the Ambassadors Theatre. It ran at this theatre until Saturday, 23 March 1974 when it immediately transferred to the larger St Martin’s Theatre, next door, where it reopened on Monday, 25 March thus keeping its “initial run” status. The London run has now exceeded 25,000 performances. The director of the play for many years has been David Turner.

Christie herself did not expect The Mousetrap to run for such a long time. In her autobiography, she reports a conversation that she had with Peter Saunders: “Fourteen months I am going to give it”, says Saunders. To which Christie replies, “It won’t run that long. Eight months perhaps. Yes, I think eight months.” When it broke the record for the longest run of a play in the West End in September 1957, Christie received a mildly grudging telegram from fellow playwright Noël Coward: “Much as it pains me I really must congratulate you …” In 2011 (by which time The Mousetrap had been running for almost 59 years) this long-lost document was found by a Cotswold furniture maker who was renovating a bureau purchased by a client from the Christie estate.

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The original West End cast included Richard Attenborough as Detective Sergeant Trotter and his wife Sheila Sim as Mollie Ralston. They took a 10% profit-participation in the production, which was paid for out of their combined weekly salary (“It proved to be the wisest business decision I’ve ever made… but foolishly I sold some of my share to open a short-lived Mayfair restaurant called ‘The Little Elephant’ and later still, disposed of the remainder in order to keep Gandhi afloat.”

Since the retirement of Mysie Monte and David Raven, who each made history by remaining in the cast for more than 11 years, in their roles as Mrs Boyle and Major Metcalf, the cast has been changed annually. The change usually occurs around late November around the anniversary of the play’s opening, and was the initiative of Sir Peter Saunders, the original producer. There is a tradition of the retiring leading lady and the new leading lady cutting a “Mousetrap cake” together.

The play has also made theatrical history by having an original “cast member” survive all the cast changes since its opening night. The late Deryck Guyler can still be heard, via a recording, reading the radio news bulletin in the play to this present day. The set has been changed in 1965 and 1999, but one prop survives from the original opening – the clock which sits on the mantelpiece of the fireplace in the main hall

“Mousetrap” is old Brit slang for cheese that is inedible (hence used in mousetraps). Remember – the early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese. Well, I figured I would turn this on its head and talk about exotic and extraordinary cheeses. I figured one twist, to match the twist ending of the play, would be to talk about cheeses that are not made from cow’s milk. But whilst I am at it I thought I should exclude sheep and goat milk too. Not exotic enough. That brings me to Pule.

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Pule, Serbian donkey milk cheese (produced at Zasavica Special Nature Reserve in Serbia), is reportedly the world’s most expensive cheese, fetching around 1,000 Euros per kilogram. In September 2013, the cheese was valued by a news source at $600 USD per pound. It is so expensive because of its rarity: there are only about 100 jennies in the landrace of Balkan donkeys that are milked for pule making. Each jenny must be hand-milked three times daily and it takes 25 liters (6.6 gallons) of milk to make one kilo (2.2 pounds) of cheese. Incidentally, it is reputed that Cleopatra bathed in donkey milk to maintain her skin tone.

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Moose milk cheese is also rare, not because lactating moose are particularly rare, but because milking them is an exceedingly delicate matter. You have to sit with the female in complete silence for about 2 hours to produce 2 liters of milk. This cheese is only made in Sweden by the Moose House, produced from the milk of Gullan, Haelga, and Juno, three cows abandoned by their mother and adopted by the Johannson family. Moose lactate only from May to September. Each animal produces about 5 liters (1.3 gallons) of milk per day, so each year the farm can only offer 300 kg (660 pounds) of cheese. The cheese contains 12 percent fat and 12 percent protein.

Tibetans and Nepalis have been using yak milk for centuries, but its use for cheese is relatively new, largely due to the influence of Westerners. This site gives a good overview of introducing nomadic Tibetans to the production of Yak cheese.

http://www.cowsoutside.com/yak_cheese.html

The problem was that cheese as a product did not appeal to the Yak herders’ tastes—who wants to eat rotten milk? But it is now being produced and exported to the West as a way of providing economic aid to the herders. You can get it mail order.

Finally I give you mare’s milk cheese. Here I am devolving more than usually into the realms of the unknown. Mare’s milk is typically fermented into a drink known as koomis, which is mildly alcoholic. I’ve had it once in a Turkic region of Russia and cannot say that I am in love with it. Then again I had it for breakfast with some industrial-strength dumplings after a night of dancing with local villagers, so it is possible my palate was off. Mare’s milk does not have enough casein and fat to make cheese without mixing it with other milks. In case you are curious, human milk has the same problem. I have it on good authority that mare’s milk cheese can be found in NW China, so it’s on my list. I’m not that far away. Well, it’s a hike, but not like getting there from Buenos Aires.

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So have at it. Celebrate The Mousetrap with the most exotic cheese plate you can muster. Here’s one valued at $3,200 and includes gold flecked white stilton as well as Pule and other rarities.