Word With a Past: Juggernaut

The Hindu god Krishna is worshiped in the form of Jagannatha (Lord of the World) in a famous 12th c temple in Puri, in the Indian state of Orissa.

The most important of the annual festivals associated with the Jagannatha temple is the Chariot Festival.  The god’s image is placed in a highly decorated wagon and taken on procession from the temple to the country house of the god.   The wagon is so heavy that it takes hundreds of worshippers to move it.   The procession is accompanied by thousands of pilgrims, who crowd around the wagon.  Between the crush of the crowd and the weight of the wagon, accidents are common.   Occasionally an ecstatic pilgrim throws himself under the wagon’s wheels.

he Chariot Festival of the Jagannatha temple, Puri, Orissa, India. Enclyclopedia Britanica


Quiet devotions by individual worshippers don’t make much of a story.  Huge crowds and an inexorable wagon that crushes worshippers under its wheels?  The stuff that travelers’ tales are made of.  As early as the 14th century, European travelers in India were fascinated by the story of the Chariot Festival, and the worshippers who “cast themselves under the chariot, so that its wheels may go over them, saying that they desire to die for their god,”  (Friar Odoric, c 1321. Just to give an example.)

In the nineteenth century, more than one responsible British official checked the Orissa province records and reported that the instances of death by chariot wheel were greatly exaggerated.  It  didn’t  do any good.  The story of the chariot of Jagannatha  had become a metaphorical juggernaut, capable of  crushing mere facts beneath its wheels.

Juggernaut, n.   Anything that draws blind and passionate devotion, or to which people are ruthlessly sacrificed.




History on Display: That’s Ruff

Sometimes you stumble across something small at a museum that overshadows the museum’s larger purpose in your mind.

For instance, the only thing I remember about the historical museum in Galena, Illinois, is a half-smoked cigar that a child picked up after General Grant discarded it.  The boy evidently treasured it for years, handing it down for several generations until someone donated it to the museum.  Thirty years later, I can still work up a head of steam about the museum’s decision to exhibit that cigar.  What were they thinking?

I was just as distracted, though in a good way, by a single artifact in the Rubens’ House in Antwerp.  When the last detail of the house has vanished from my head, I’ll still remember the portefraes.*

I love 16th century portraits.  Flemish families. Jolly Dutch burghers.  Tough Tudor courtiers, and their softer Stewart relatives (technically 17th century).  I love the way those portraits give you a glimpse at the personalities of their subjects.  And I love the clothes, including the ruffs.  Over the course of the century, those ruffs get bigger and bigger.  By the end of the century, really fashionable people had to eat their soup with a 2-foot long spoon.  (Honest, I couldn’t make this stuff up.) * *

I’ve always assumed those ruffs were held up with starch.   Wrong.

The largest ruffs, known as cartwheel ruffs, were supported by a metal frame that went around the wearer’s neck like, well,  a cartwheel around an axle.  The frames were covered with silver wire to make them more attractive, but not all the silver wire in the world could have made them comfortable.

Gives a whole new meaning to stiff-necked, doesn’t it?


* Also known as supportasses  and  underproppers.  The things you learn during a Google search.

** I don’t know about you, but give me a 2-foot long spoon and a bowl of soup and I can guarantee you I’ll have soup down my front.


Charlemagne: The Education Emperor

My Own True Love and I were standing outside the cathedral at Aachen when the memory stirred in both our brains.  Aachen=Charlemagne.*

It was the end of the day.  Thanks to my usual case of vacation/holiday bronchitis, I had no voice.  One of our Turkish/Belgian hosts was observing Ramadan and was tired from his fast.  We had not done our homework and had no idea what Charlemagne-related stuff the city might hold.  We kicked ourselves, wrote down the website posted on a nearby wall, bought some of Aachen’s famous gingerbread, and walked away. **


Whether you call him Charles the Great, Carolus Magnus,  Karl der Grosse, or Charlemagne , there are plenty of reason to be impressed with the man:

  • He conquered much of the former western Roman empire.
  • He was the founder of what later became the Holy Roman Empire–and the idea of a distinctly European identity.  His contemporaries called him the Father of Europe.
  • He was an important player in the spread of Christianity into Northern Europe, though his methods did not include turning the other cheek.  In 785 he ordered the death penalty for any newly conquered Saxon who refused to be baptized  (This is roughly the same period when Christendom began to accuse Islam of conversion by the sword.  Just saying.)

Me?  I’m fascinated by Charlemagne the Education Emperor.

Charlemagne was illiterate for much of his life. He hired learned men to read out loud to him at dinner, dispensing with the usual medieval floorshow of jester, bard, and musicians.  He studied three of the classic seven liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, and mathematics.  He learned to speak Latin and some Greek in addition to his native Frankish.  By all accounts, Charlemagne’s efforts to learn to write were less successful.  (According to his secretary and biographer, he practiced writing while in bed and hid his wax tablets under his pillows.)

Though he never quite got the hang of reading and writing himself, Charlemagne was an enthusiastic promoter of literacy in others. Under his patronage, the court at Aachen took the first steps out of the Dark Ages into the Middle Ages, a little flutter of learning known as the Carolingian Renaissance.  He gathered a group of the Anglo-Saxon and Irish clergy who had kept the flame of literacy alive in Europe after the fall of Rome.  He reformed the palace school at Aachen and founded monastery schools throughout the empire with the intention of creating a literate clergy.  He sponsored the creation of a new uniform script for copying texts, the development of textbooks for teaching Latin to non-Latin speakers, and thee collection of Latin manuscripts.


*  ca. 742 – 814, in case you’re interested.

** A quick Internet search revealed that Aachen is developing a “Charlemagne route of museums and sites in anticipation of the 1200th anniversary of Charlemagne’s death in 2014.   We’ve put Aachen on our schedule for 2014.  See you there?