Propositions Underfoot

When the pilgrims arrived at the scene of my Astronomical Calendar 2016 cover picture, they had walked more than five hundred miles in a generally though sinuously westward direction. If much of it was at night they already knew that the Milky Way sometimes arches nearly overhead from east to west, mirroring their journey.


(Alastair McBeath, meteor expert, may tell us whether there could really have been Perseid meteors in the sky in AD 1000, July 25 by the old Julian calendar.)

But they will also have seen this mysterious band draped from horizon to horizon at other angles – from north to south, for example, if they started even earlier in the night. When they came to Cape Finisterre and saw the Milky Way standing vertically from the ocean, they may have been awed by it afresh but will they have seen it as a special sign?

It’s difficult for us to know what other cultures “believe.” We look back patronizingly on their myths as charming stories. Could the pilgrims have believed that the Milky Way was a further leg of the pilgrimage route, into Heaven? (I may have made that idea up, reading too much into a phrase in a tourist website.) Did the Sumerians really believe that it was the serpent Tiamat – the Greeks that it was the spurted milk of Hera as she snatched her breast away from Heracles, her husband’s love-child – the Chinese that it was a river across which the weaver-girl (Vega) and the cowherd (Altair) are allowed to meet each other once a year on a bridge of magpies?

I am a non-believer, where believing means accepting things because they are handed down rather than because there is evidence for them, but I respect religions in so far as they are personally felt responses to the world. They are poems. A sophisticated brain of 1000 AD may have thought: “I don’t know what that is, and I don’t think the bishop knows either.  But God set it there as a sign, and for me it’s worth another three days to come here and kiss it, and make my soul more sure of paradise.”  (For the sophisticated brain of that time, God and soul and paradise were still back among things “known.”)

I made an early planning mistake. I learned that St. James’s Day is July 25, so it seemed obvious that I should paint the pilgrims at Cape Finisterre on that day, which was about a month after we were there. The time needed to be in darkness with the Milky Way upright in the west; in late July that comes about an a half before sunrise.

(For my collection of ambiguities, sub-collection ambiguities both of whose meanings fit fairly well, sub-collection ambiguities caused by disadvantages of English, sub-collection ambiguities perpetrated by myself, sub-collection unintentional: it comes about an hour and a half before sunrise. Sub-collection ambiguities explainable by phrase structure: It {comes about} an hour and a half before sunrise versus It comes {about an hour and a half before sunrise}.

That meant the pilgrims had to be up and walking early, but I already needed to mention that they probably did that, to avoid the heat of July days. And it turned out to be, pleasingly to me, hour zero of sidereal time, the Andromeda Hour, a whole other great topic.

I made a plot of the stars of that hour, and built the picture by stages over it. It’s always been advisable to have the front cover done early, before the book club or Celestial Products, who do things to a sensible schedule, ask for it for their catalogues (pardon me, Larry). Luckily I got this one done before it was needed, the danger then being of going back too often to tinker with it.

But you may have noticed something. The pilgrims, surely, wouldn’t have wanted to miss the celebrations in Santiago on St. James’s day? I should have had them set out from the city after that, and arrive at the headland on, say, August 1.

I called out merrily to Tilly: “I’ve got to scrap my picture and start it all over! And then change at least fifteen pages in the book!” This was during the post-Finis-Day period (Nov. 3 to 10) when everything was with the printer but several pages with technical problems were still having to be re-made and re-made, smashing more nights. I was wearily joking. I bent the story a little. These pilgrims arrived in Santiago with time to spare, and while they plastered their blisters and rested for a few days someone told them of the extension of the route to the end of the world, the shining pathway to Heaven; for that, they would set out again immediately, even if it meant missing the St. James Day mass. Implausible, but you may not have noticed.

And when pilgrims arrived at Saint James’s shrine in 1000 AD, there may have been little more than a rough stone chapel; maybe a hut, or a grave on a hillside. The story of its founding is assigned to 813 (or 835 according to another secondary source), but the earliest known records of the pilgrimage are from around 1000. Santiago de Compostela is now a city five miles from end to end. The pilgrim route, the Camino de Santiago, when it comes into the city, becomes a street (having been a linkage of roads minor or major and paths interesting or next to invisible). There are waymarks to guide you along the Camino, mostly cockleshell signs; I have no picture to show you except this photo from a street in Pontevedra, where we were later, out southward along the “Portuguese” branch of the Camino).

Pontevedra, Camino de Santiago, cockleshell

(Only on clicking and thereby magnifying do I notice the shape of that next-but-one slab. Discreetly disguised cover of a manhole or perhaps a tunnel to a secret dwelling. And those two fragments of sunshine just beyond the pilgrim – where exactly do they come from?)

This stylized cockleshell differs from the basic waymarks on posts and trees by being made of brass and set into a paving slab. Others in cities were inscriptions on buildings or the road. After we reached Santiago and traipsed in through the suburbs we came to another of these indications of being still on the Way, at a juncture looking something like this:


The sidewalk broadens and curves, just before a street that is a sort of partial ring street around what once were the walls of the inner city. Across that can be seen the opening of the last street of the Way, up into the core city and to the cathedral. In the curve of sidewalk are chiselled six “propositions” (the word I found for them at third or fourth try).

Europa fíxose peregrinando a Compostela
Europa se hizo peregrinando a Compostela
L’Europe s’est faite grâce au pèlerinage à Compostelle
Europe was made on the pilgrim road to Compostela
L’Europa e nata in pellegrinaggio a Compostela
Europa ist auf der Pilgerschaft geboren

They say, in Galician, Spanish, French, English, Italian, and German, literally:

Europe made itself pilgriming to Compostela
Europe made itself pilgriming to Compostela
The Rurope is made itself thanks to the pilgrimage to Compostelle
Europe was made on the pilgrim road to Compostela
The Europe is born in pilgrimage to Compostela
Europe is from the pilgrimhood born

The first thought that occurs when writing these things down, as opposed to when just seeing them, is, which order? As you walk toward and then over them you come first to the German; so I decided to put them as above, so that they are as they would appear in a photograph. But if you mention them in that order, by voice or on a page, Galician becomes the first instead of the last.

European languages are written from left to right; Arabic and Hebrew are written from right to left; ancient boustrophedon inscriptions (“ox-turning,” as in plowing furrows) were in lines alternately from right to left and left to right. East Asian languages such as Chinese are often (one of them, old Mongolian, always) written in vertical columns. But all move down the page (or tablet). Was there ever a language written upward? Obviously not: if you write line two above line one, your wrist or sleeve will smudge line one. – Wrong. These six sentences are a page reading upward. When you come to the German line at the bottom, you can’t yet read the Galician line at the top.

(If the piece of sidewalk were stood upright, it would be like any other page, and you would probably read it from the top downward; but it can’t be stood upright. So should I speak of such a page as having a bottom and top? Yes: we speak of paper pages as having tops and bottoms because we can hold them upright, but we more often hold them flat. It occurs to me that originally, when the Greeks looked at a scroll, they may have referred to the first line as being not the “top” but the “head”; but I haven’t checked.)

The six sentences say approximately the same thing, but are almost more interesting for the variation in how they say it. One doesn’t mention Compostela. Only one mentions the road. Two speak of pilgrimage (an action), one of pilgrimhood (a state, a faculty?), two represent Europe itself as “pilgriming.” One offers thanks to the pilgrimage. Four say that Europe was “made,” two that is was “born.” Are these due to the differing character of the languages? – or of the peoples that speak them? That’s what we wonder. Those that use the passive voice construct it in different ways: Galician and Spanish, “made itself”; French, “is [in a state of having] made itself”; English uses the past tense of “be” and past participle of “make”.

One would be a line of verse, with alternating strong and weak syllables, if the unnecessary (I think) definite article were removed:

Europa ist auf Pilgerschaft geboren

– making a virtue of reading the set in downward order.

There are certainly results from differences in the languages’ history and structure, but I doubt there are conclusions to be drawn about national character or the “genius” of the languages. Somebody had the idea of inscribing something into the pavement here; then the person or the committee invited an Italian and a German and the rest to suggest sentences; or – the least likely but another appealing scenario – a sexlingual craftsman got down on his knees and chiselled out these six lines as his creative brain generated them. Perhaps I could google and find out, but I’d rather let my picture live! It’s worth a scene in a play.

And endless other thoughts follow, because that’s how it is with connections, especially those half in and out of linguistics, in those bitten by the linguistic bug.

First, we hear the Catalan, Pole, and Dane saying “What about us?” And the Portuguese: “Galician is only a dialect of me!” And the Esperantist: “I’m all you needed.”

Yes, the creator or creators of the propositions had an invidious choice, but there are so many languages in Europe. And how grandly different they are! They don’t just differ in syntactic patterns but in the shape of words. Taste the buttery chewy Italian, the limpid exactness of German, the plain mutter of English, the glide of the Latin that was eroded down and down and down to become French. And this family of words: pilgrim, Pilger, pèlerin, pellegrino, peregrino (in that last of them, Spanish’s delightful scrambling of liquid and nasal consonants, periculum-peligro, miraculum-milagro, parabola-palabra, sanguinem-sangre, nominem-nombre, hominem-hombre). The pilg-peregrin-pellerin cluster of words includes the peregrine falcon, the bird that has been clocked at 242 mph, faster than any other known animal. I’m inventing a character, Perigreen (or Peregreen or Perrygreen), now I need a story to put him or her in. What is the root meaning, did it have anything to do with trekking to a sacred spot? I didn’t know and looked it up. I have a list of words that, when I looked them up, I assumed I knew about what the answer would be and was astonished at what it really was. This surprised me but maybe shouldn’t have. Peregre, “foreign, alien,” was said in Low Latin of about the fifth century AD about blokes who were from per, “across” or “beyond,” ager, “the field, the farmland,” the home territory. You grumbled it about someone who came in looking for work.

But do the European languages appear grandly different only because we see them from close up? I admit to an impression that a lot of African names and placenames are rather look-alike, an overall African look. (It’s a common caricature. An “uncle,” that is, a friend of my parents, assured me that Baa baa ba-bun-baa baa baa means in Hausa “The black slave has not brought the blue indigo.”) Yet the European languages (except for Basque, Hungarian, and Estonian and Finnish and their relatives) belong to one family (Indo-European), meaning that they descend from what was once one language. The multitude of African languages falls into seven families, unrelated to each other (unless or until linguists prove the very remote connections they sometimes claim). That makes it likely that, from within an African language, that is, if you’re a speaker, others seem a lot more different than English does from Russian or Sanskrit.

Was Europe formed by the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela?

Europe was formed by many factors, such as the orogeny that opened the Mediterranean and uplifted the Alps, the Neanderthalers who were the first immigrants of genus Homo, the spread of Neolithic farmers, the wave of Indo-Europeans with their horses, the trading empire of Minos (son of Europa), the chieftains sailing away from the fall of Troy, the scattering of the Sea Peoples by Pharaoh Ramses, Phoenician and Greek colonizing, the Greeks’ wars of survival against Persia, the flowering of Athens, Philip of Macedon and his phalanxes, the Roman empire, Christianity, the papacy, Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Empire, the Renaissance, the closing of eastern routes and consequent voyages of exploration to the west, Charles V, the Enlightenment, and the industrial revolution that started in northern Britain. The “discovery” of the bones of the apostle James in a corner of Spain may have brought more supporters to that bit of Christian Europe, thus helping it to start pushing the Moors out, and the ant-trail lines of pilgrims along the converging branches of the pilgrim route make, or made, a symbolically unifying theme, like the vaster Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca and the Hindu pilgrimage up one bank of the Narmada and down the other. But perhaps what is meant is that everyone – Celts, Slavs, Gypsies – came into Europe as migrants; Europeans have insisted on diffusing themselves all over the world, like gas escaping from a bag; and Europe has improved itself into, if not a shrine, a place that people want to get to, especially just now.

It looks as if Britain really will hold a referendum in 2016 on whether to stay in the European Union. There is a Little Englander minority, just as there are minorities blinkered by fanaticism and nationalism and other forms of short-sightedness and failure to appreciate the Other, in the Netherlands, Germany, and Syria. The trouble with ideological minorities (I love cultural minorities) is that they try to grow into majorities. I’ve volunteered to do at least something – telephoning or leafletting – for the staying-in campaign. Maybe I’ll produce my own leaflet. Which is the only continent whose name looks as if it starts with a word for “good”?

10 thoughts on “Propositions Underfoot”

  1. Guy,

    I love Gloria’s comment about your “infinity of considerations” ~ the way you lay bare your thought process makes for compelling reading! Two minor points you mentioned in passing struck a chord with me:

    1. I’ve often wondered, whether in my house, or outside somewhere, “wait a minute, where is that sunlight *coming* from??” It has to be from one or multiple reflections; in the case of your photo, the sunlight must be glancing off of one of the windows in the building on the right. In my house, sometimes the answer is “off of the glass picture on the wall, then off of a light fixture, and finally to the patch of light on the floor.” It can be puzzling enough that I try to find the light path and block it with my hand to see if I’m correct.

    2. Writing from bottom to top wouldn’t work because you would smudge your writing with your hand or sleeve, of course! Who would write in such a ridiculous manner?!? The answer: me, unfortunately. I’m left-handed and for some reason learned to write with my hand curled down from above the word that I am writing, and so (in particular, throughout school) have always smudged the words because I constantly drag my hand through the freshly written lines!

    1. Eric, I do the same thing with patches of light in my home, and the same thing when I write! Writing right-to-left and top-to-bottom would work fine for me.

      1. Great minds think and, apparently, exert fine motor control over their left hand while writing, alike!

        As to Guy’s question about the proportion of left-handed writers who write after our fashion, I would guess that you and I are in the minority. I think the more prevalent (and probably more practical) way of writing for a southpaw is the Bill Clinton style: lean the top of the paper over toward the right and position the hand to the “southwest” of the words being written. That eliminates the smearing problem :)

        1. A right-hander writing a left-to-right script, such as our Roman alphabet, is pulling the pen, and is uncovering the letters as they are written, thus seeing them somewhat more easily. Likewise a left-hander writing a right-to-left script, such as Arabic, is pulling the pen, and uncovering the letters. So it might seem that Roman-type script is adapted for right-handers and Arabic-type script for left-handers. I would think the difficulties in doing the opposite – that is pushing the pen, and tending to hide the letters just after they are written – are only slight. Arab right-handers evidently have no difficulty in writing. It may be that the Arabic script is somewhat adapted for the pushing, rather than pulling, action: the connected forms of Arabic letters lend themselves to sweeping, scooping, boat-like motions – I wish I could show here what I mean; pushing the pen along them feels good, and yields luxuuriantly thickened curves.

    2. Eric, it would have been polite of me to remember about left-handed people I’ve seen writing in the way you describe. I wonder what is the proportion of left-handed people who do so, and why it happens with some and not others?

      My sister told me that in some village schools in Uganda some of the children learned to read upside-down, because there were so few books they had to sit in a circle around them. (Correct me if I had that wrong, Jenny.)

      I’ll go back and look as carefully as you have done at the street in Pontevedra. I had thought the patch of light that has a piece taken out of it by the portly man’s head must be somehow coming through the shop into whose window he is looking.

      I, like you, like these effects of light when it’s behaving like a billiard ball, or, more three-dimensionally, like a ball in a squash court (have you played squash, which may have a different American name? – unfortunately “squashball light” may not be a workable term). In the ancient stone house where I am now, I find my attention caught by a light-patch that has no obvious explanation, and after some consideration I trace it back through a doorway to the glass on a picture and from that at a glancing angle through another doorway to a distant window and through that to the glass doors of the cinema on the other side of the street; or off one pane of a bay window to a pane at an angle to it and from that through a high kitchen window and over the roof ridge of a house we formerly lived in to the illuminated cross on the gable of the Baptist church; or to a mirror and from that past a paper lampshade that has taken out a piece of it, and through a skylight to the moon.

    1. Anyone can tell from Anthony’s surname that he’s of Portuguese-speaking descent. Peregrinação – another delight.

  2. Orbital investigations certainly suggest the Perseids likely have been encountering the Earth for millennia, although I’ve not come across any records which can be tied directly to observations of them in AD 1000. The nearest probable Perseid observations in time, linked because of their occurrence date, seem to be those from Japan on July 20, 24 and 25 in AD 1007, when meteors were visible all night (according to the 1958 Smithsonian Contributions to Astrophysics paper by Imoto and Hasegawa, “Historical Records of Meteor Showers in China, Korea, and Japan”, available online via the Harvard ADS system). If correct, this would indicate Perseid meteors may indeed have been visible to “your” pilgrims, Guy!

    1. That’s what I needed; the record from 1007 just about proves that Perseids could have been in the sky in 1000 on July 25, though not, of course, that Europeans noticed them. I made my program include a meteor radiant if the time is within 5 hours centered on the shower’s peak, and draw more meteor trails in proportion to closeness to the peak. The question was whether the program had found a valid time for the peak in 1000. The dates of meteor showers move gradually later through the centuries.

  3. Guy,
    Your blog about the cover is one more jaunt into that infinity of considerations which make up your thought processes when at work. These create an extra “life” for us who are mere mortals imagining how one would come to these processes. I’m finding that the hyperboles for gratitude have become trite and you will need to get some telepathy on “appreciation” that barely scratches the surface of it. Great blog!

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