Obdormio.com Unwasted Hours

28 June, 2012

St. John the Whatnow?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

Here’s another little titbit of information the tourists visiting St. John’s Church in Bergen don’t care to find out: Which St. John is the church named for?

Well, in fairness, two people have asked me this, but they lacked the staying power (and English proficiency) to hear me out.

There are two Saints John. No, let me be more precise. Even leaving aside the for the purposes of this post irrelevant issue of authorship of the various Johannine works, there is a whole bunch of Saints John, but traditionally there are two big ones: the Evangelist and the Baptist.

So which St. John is the church named after? Unfortunately, the short answer is “no one really knows.” There are arguments in favour of both of them, but no definitive proof that shows the parish founders intended one over the other. As a result, the question has prompted a bit of a debate. Personally, I think the Baptist has the stronger case here, but hopefully that won’t influence my presentation of the arguments too much.

Let’s start with the fact that most churches named for a St. John are named for the Evangelist. Bergen, however, had previously had a church dedicated to the Baptist, so there was a pre-existing tradition for naming churches for him here. That church had been torn down several decades before the present St. John’s was built, but it was recent enough in memory that the builders of the new church would have been aware of its existence.

Furthermore, St. John’s was built on a hill outside what was then the city proper, in what was pretty much open space. Prior to the church’s construction, this site had been used for the bonfires of the midsummer celebration. Midsummer, as it happens, coincides with the feast of St. John the Baptist, and the name of the day in Norwegian is indeed St. John’s day. The hill was so strongly identified with this celebration that is was actually known as St. John’s Hill. Today, it is called Sydneshaugen – “south headland hill”. All in all, the Baptist had a strong prior claim on the area.

In favour of the Evangelist, however, the church was not named for the hill. St. John’s church was built to service St. John’s Parish, which had been established a decade prior – the church is thus named for the parish, not the other way around. The parish was not restricted to this hill, which was, as noted, open land at the time. It encompassed a large population on the south side of the city – which is incidentally why the church is so large; laws at the time required new churches to seat a certain percentage of the parish population – and the hill was largely incidental. As noted before, when naming something for St. John and not specifying the Baptist, you are usually talking about the Evangelist.

But like I said, no one knows. The parish founders did not see fit to write down their thoughts on the matter, so we’re in the dark. The parish no longer exists, it was merged with the other parishes of the city centre a decade ago to form the Cathedral Parish, so see where shoddy record keeping will get you?

In lieu of a definitive answer, a compromise has been proposed: we say that the church is named for both of them, a solution that also has precedents around the world – there is for instance this little chapel.

I’m still rooting for the Baptist, though.

25 June, 2012

A Study in Red Brick

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

Last Monday, I started my summer job as a tourist guard in St. John’s Church in Bergen. I am not there to guard the tourists, but to guard the church from the tourists, who would, if given half a chance, run away with the pews.

St. John's Church

St. John’s Church, Bergen

Even though being a guide isn’t part of the job description, I thought I ought to try my best to be helpful when someone had a question. So I studied up for this job. I read all I could find about the Church online. I tracked down one of the few remaining copies of the book published for its centennial. I am trying to definitely track down the identities of some of the ambiguous statues. I crammed.

And, of course, no one has any questions. The building and its history? Nope, don’t care. Where’s the nearest toilet? Once or twice someone asks when it was built, but that’s about the extent of it. Now, maybe it’s just that they don’t speak English very well, but even so I am frustrated. I could tell you more than the fact that the church is neither Catholic nor the cathedral, is what I’m saying!

So, lacking an appreciative audience in the philistines that come by in my work hours, I shall instead foist my new-found expertise on you, gentle reader. Prepare to be educated.

St. John’s Church is the largest church in Bergen, and it is visible from the most central parts of Bergen as it lies on top of the hill overlooking the harbour area. It is not the tallest building in Bergen any more, but because it is on top of the hill, the tower is still the highest point in Bergen, not counting the mountains.

The church was built between 1891 and 1894, to service the previously established St. John’s Parish. It is built in brick, clad with red tile. It is built in a neo-Gothic style, as was common in church architecture at the time, which looked for inspiration in the awe-inspiring medieval churches that sought to capture a piece of Heaven on Earth. This was partly a reaction to the previous dominant style, which was more austere and influenced by rationalist ideals. While the building style draws inspiration from the middle ages, the stained glass windows were kept as abstract patterns rather than proper murals – they did not let go of rationalist ideals so completely as to allow the necessity for illustrating Bible stories in glass.

St. John’s is very much in the tradition of German neo-Gothic architecture, with one important exception. While German neo-Gothic churches tend to be brick throughout, St. John’s embraces its Norwegian nature and uses quite a bit of wood.

Inside St. John's Church

Fantastic amounts of wood.

The siding of the walls is wood, the galleries are made of wood, and of course, the whole ceiling structure is wood:

The ceiling of St. John's Church

They even managed to fit in some Gothic arches.

All the wood makes the feel of the room very different from a pure brick construction, makes it warmer and more organic. It is 18 meters from the floor of the nave to the top of the ceiling. The wooden columns supporting the roof have boggled the mind of at least one visiting carpenter last week. The wood also affects the acoustics of the room – there’s a reason why it’s rented out to so many concerts.

The Meat Market, Bergen

The Meat Market. Picture by Alfred Diem.

Like I said, St. John’s is visible from much of central Bergen, as a giant red building looking down on the city centre. There is, however, another red brick building worth mentioning here. You can see it there on the left, it is the old Meat Market. It is from the same general period as St. John’s, but it is built in a Historicist style – though it is similar enough that I have seen at least one writer mistake it for neo-Gothic. He must not have really looked at the arches.

I mention this building because of its parallels with St. John’s in time and style – the latter a complete coincidence – and because of it’s location. Here, have a look at this map of Bergen, where I’ve marked out their locations. If you draw a more or less straight line between them, you realise that these two buildings book-end the city centre of Bergen. They form the end points of a sort of axis civitatis. Churches should traditionally be oriented east-west, with the altar facing east. In St. John’s the altar faces south-west, with the entrance pointing north-east, along this axis, presumably because they wanted the church to face the main area of the town.

If you start out by the Meat Market, as carnal a place as you could wish, you’re basically at sea level, right next to Bryggen and the Fish Market. If you start moving towards St. John’s, you pass through Torgallmenningen, which is, I think it’s fair to say, Bergen’s main street. It is the heart of the city centre, lined along all sides with shops selling all manner of things. As you reach its end, you pass the Blue Stone – and do note the colour – with the edifices of culture on either side of it: the theatre to the right, the park and music pavilion to the left. Now you begin to climb ever so slightly, up Torggaten and its lesser version, Vestre Torggaten, which are also core parts of the city centre, until you finally stand by the steep steps leading up to St. John’s, and all the spirituality it represents.

See, tourists, what you’re missing? You’re visiting a freaking poem!

21 June, 2012

I want a pad

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

I’ve recently started wanting a tablet. No, that’s a lie, I’ve wanted an iPad pretty much since they came out. The thing is, though, even though I am sent into fits of “ooooh, shiny!” and would really love to have a toy like that, I have not been able to justify to myself the expense of one. I want an iPad, but I don’t need one. I have a computer, I have a phone, I am already drowning in the conveniences of the modern West (so, yeah, when I say “need” I don’t really mean “need”, you know). A tablet on top of that would just be gilding the lily, getting something for no good reason but to play with it. And I don’t mind that in most cases, really, because I am a filthy wasteful materialist, but in this case the price tag is too high.

The last couple of days I have started to reconsider, though. Maybe I do need one. I’ve been sitting at work, bored out of my mind for long stretches of time when there are no tourists to mind (oh, as an aside, I recently started working as a tourist guard. Long, tiring hours, many of them empty). If I had my laptop, I would think to myself, I could do something useful with this time! This completely disregards the reality which is that if I had my laptop, I would be wasting lots of time. It’s all moot anyway, since my laptop is actually kind of big and clunky and not suited for taking anywhere nice.

A tablet, though, that might work. I’d need one with a keyboard, since I like typing at things, and would want to do some writing while I sat there. A tablet would also be a pretty good thing to have when I am going on my ill-advised trip to Crete this summer. Can’t bring my laptop there.

Do I have room in my budget? Would it get delivered fast? The answers to both are probably no. But I have gotten so far as to look at options. It need not be an iPad – in fact, I understand those don’t have the greatest keyboard solutions. I don’t know enough to make an informed decision, and I don’t feel like investing a lot of energy into learning about the field. The Asus Transformer Prime looks neat, and has a pretty awesome name, should I go for one of those?

I don’t know what sort of point I’m building towards here. Maybe the lesson learned is that my desire for shiny toys will always overpower my better judgement in the end. I’d ask for tablet recommendations, but who’s to say I would even read them. I am liable to just walk into a store and ask them for advice, even though I know how bad an idea that is.

Actually, it would be very feasible to go by the Apple store after work tomorrow…

No, I’m going to stop now and go to sleep before I end up talking myself into something stupid. Good night all.

18 June, 2012

Welcome to My World: Gods

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

Continuing on the general theme of gods, I’m going to shift from the factual to the fictional, and talk a bit about D&D gods. This post will have a pretty different tone than the previous Welcome to My World posts, being a bit more meta and not really directly related to the other posts in subject matter, but should you want a look at them anyway, you can find them all here.

I just wrote an exam paper on the definition of gods – problems of definition are a pretty central concern in religious studies – and throughout writing it I was distracted by thoughts of how I could apply this to fiction. This post is part of the result. One of the core set of terms used when discussing definitions in this kind of field is emic and etic. An emic definition is an internal definition, a subjective and personal one. When you ask a Christian to define the word “god” you will get Christianity’s emic definition – or more accurately, this person’s emic subset of Christianity’s definition. An etic definition, on the other hand, strives to be objective and neutral, capable of spanning all variations of – in this case – gods in various religions. A purely etic definition is of course as impossible as a pure objectivity in the humanities, but the point is to get as close as you can. The guy who coined the terms based them on phonemic and phonetic, and they have a similar relationship of culturally determined versus universal.

To bring it over to the game, in the core D&D 4th edition, there are several gods listed in the Player’s Handbook as suggested options for divine characters. In my own world, I have kept this core pantheon pretty much as it is so far, but that may change in the future – perhaps even in the writing of this post. Several of these core gods have also been given statblocks – that is, they have stats of the same kind as any other monster, and can be fought and defeated in battle by the players. I have seen, on several occasions when this has been the topic in various forums, people who are downright angry about this. The gods should not be statted out, they say, they are embodiments of eternal concepts and therefore indestructible. It is basically a case of these posters’ emic definition of gods not fitting well with the game’s definition – nor indeed with several religions’ definitions, but that’s beside the point here.

Within the game, however, there is a definition of god that for the game world is completely etic. D&D is after all a world where many rules are a great deal more solid than they are in the real world. The Dungeon Master’s Guide defines gods by their abilities and limitations. They are “powerful but not omnipotent, knowledgeable but not omniscient, widely travelled but not omnipresent. They alone of all creatures in the universe consist only of astral essence. The gods are creatures of thought and ideal, not bound by the same limitations as beings of flesh.”

This is still a very vague definition, being more poetic than practical – only the bit about consisting of astral essence is concrete. In the Draconomicon, however, there is a more definite and rule-bound definition for the word “deity”, found near the stats of Tiamat. A deity, within this universe, is a being who:

  1. Rolls saving throws when an effect is applied, rather than at the end of their turn, AND
  2. Is completely unaffected by player characters below level 20, AND
  3. Speaks the magical Supernal language, AND
  4. Discorporates when it is reduced to half its hit points, leaving it weakened, but not dead.

I think it is safe to say that the “god” spoken of in the DMG and the “deity” of the Draconomicon is the same category. It is very much a game’s definition, which makes sense, as this is a game. “God” is a word that is as narrowly defined within the game as the name of any other monster – and D&D famously has different monsters under names that in the real world are synonyms. It is all about carving out specific niches.

When it comes to making up the cultures of the world the game is set in, however, I am tempted to return to the vaguer definitions of real life. My paper wasn’t just on gods, it was on supernatural, or rather superhuman, beings in general. Now, within a D&D world, it doesn’t quite make sense to talk about superhuman beings as the core of religion, because there are oodles and oodles of superhuman beings in D&D, and chances are the players characters are among them.

I am tempted to, within the game world, expand the word “god” to include anything that is worshipped – so that what are in the game’s technical terms primal spirits or primordials, are called gods by the common citizenry who happen to belong to their cults. I worry that this might end up being just confusing, though, since the game has a built in etic definition of the word already. Some of life’s complexities are not worth reproducing in a game, simply because it becomes boring or confusing rather than fun, and the problems of definition faced by religious studies seems like such a one.

So let me focus on the beings which meet the game’s definition, then. Without going into specific deities, I’ll instead tell you a bit about how I do deviate from the standard set-up in my view of them.

The standard cosmology posits a universe where the two poles of the Astral Sea and the Elemental Chaos stand opposed. Somewhat inspired by Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, I’ve taken this one step further, and decided that somewhere in the Elemental Chaos there lies a core, a heart, of pure change. A single point of unending change, which is never the same from one instant to the next. Likewise, in the Astral Sea, there lies a heart of pure permanence, a place of absolute unending stillness, where nothing can live or move or breathe. These are the poles, the cores of the universe, two equal opposites locked in eternal balance, radiating change and permanence and creating all things as they touch.  A tiny speck of change seeps into the area around permanence, and you have the Astral Sea, a place of serenity and preservation, but where change can still occur. On the other end you have the Elemental Chaos, where the merest touch of permanence seeps into the shores of change, enough that there can be things for more than an instant.

From the astral essence, then, you get gods – beings of permanence with just enough change in them to be beings at all – capable of thought and movement and will. Their counterparts, the primordials, are beings of change with just enough permanence to be beings at all, to have will and a semblance of form.

It follows then, that the gods are at heart conservatives. It is not in their nature to change their ways, or to change at all. Even the ones who claim change and invention and progress as their domains, are in the long view conservatives. They are creatures of permanence. It is no coincidence that those among them who flirt the most with change and chaos are the ones that have lost their sanity.

Though they are credited with feats of creation, they are not, as a group, creators. They are preservers. It was the primordials who created the world; the gods merely preserved it, locked it in its shape. The gods did not create souls, they do not know where they come from or where they go, they just bound them in flesh. Gave them that bit of permanence that keeps them in the world, for a time. The inhabitable universe is a mix of chaos and permanence; the gods merely represent one of the extreme points of the axis. They are powerful beings, very powerful beings, but being nonetheless, who can indeed be killed.

Because, really, what is the point of having evil gods in your game if your player’s can’t face them in the climactic showdown?

14 June, 2012

Of Gods and Men

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

I have an exam tomorrow. I also need a post for tomorrow. In a beautiful union of rocks and birds, I’m going revise and write a post at the same time. I’m afraid the result might be a bit disjointed, lacking an overarching unity, or indeed point, but I’m going to risk it.

Gods crop up in plenty of religions, and certainly in all the ones I’m currently studying. They all have some different ideas on how the relationship between gods and men work, however.

Ancient Mesopotamia is probably the most pessimistic in its outlook: Humans were created as slaves for the gods, so that the gods wouldn’t have to do any work themselves. Tilling the soil, building irrigation channels, growing food and building temples are all really boring tasks that the gods didn’t feel like doing themselves. Serving the gods meant performing labour, and giving them its fruits. Prayers and rituals were about warding off misfortune, and keeping the god-kings happy. Such a cheery time.

The ancient Egyptians were also big on serving the gods, but with a less pessimistic outlook. The creation of Man wasn’t elaborated on much, but humans were part of the ordered cosmos the gods maintained. The gods also held back the chaos of the barren desert and lifeless night, maintaining the constant cycle of birth and rebirth in the universe. Priests, a special class, performed daily rituals of service and sacrifice in the temples, on behalf of the king, whose job it actually was. The king was both divine and human, the point of intersection that linked the two spheres.

The ancient Greeks were a bit unclear on the creation of Man, though the Orphic cycle held that human were created from the ashes of the titans that devoured Dionysus. What is more clear is the creation of woman – Zeus sent woman to men as a punishment, forcing them to endure them if they wanted to procreate and have their families live on. Zeus was a bit miffed at having been tricked into taking the useless bits of the animal as his share in a sacrifice, and then shortly thereafter having fire stolen from him by Prometheus. Here, the gods were rulers of the cosmos, who had shaped the world order and had great power over people’s lives. When an animal was sacrificed, the bones and fat were burned, while the people performing the sacrifice ate the meat in a feast – sharing a meal with the gods. Prayers were almost contracts – Man honoured the gods, in exchange for blessings.

The Romans took this further, there’s a reason do ut des is in Latin. There were gods all over the place, and if you honoured them properly, but not excessively, they’d smile on you. The Romans figured the reason for their prosperity was their great piety. They resembled the Greeks in their ritual practice, in many cases at least. They also imported gods and cults from all over their empire, so there was obviously some variety.

Making a leap north, and ahead a millennium or so, we get to the Vikings. Here, too, we have the gods as beings of order, holding back the forces of chaos – and doing an ever worsening job of it. Seriously, they keep giving away weapons and losing members and in general weakening, all leading up to the big collapse to come. Anyway, humans are in the middle, between the realm of gods and the realm of chaos, and can use all the protection they can get, and therefore sacrifice and hold festivals in the gods’ honour. Meanwhile, Odin collects dead people to boost his forces for the last battle – great plan, Odin! An army of all the people who didn’t survive their battles! Cream of the crop, I’m sure. Can’t go wrong.

I think I’m going to stop here. This did end up feeling a bit disjointed and rushed, but meh. I have an exam, what do you want from me?!

11 June, 2012

Je Ne Parle Pas Français

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

I don’t speak French.

That’s not really a remarkable fact in and of itself; there are actually a great number of languages I do not speak a word of, but French is the one that eats at me.

It’s not that I have a great interest in French, or indeed France, either. I have no particular plans or desires to visit France or travel in the Francophone world. One summer, I was given the opportunity to go either to Paris or Fredrikstad. I chose the latter. I have no special fascination with French culture, no interest in its literature so great that I cannot read translation, no love for its film so great that I cannot read subtitles. I do own a CD entitled “The Best of Bizet”, but I don’t think learning the language would have any real impact on my enjoyment of the music.

No, the reason why not speaking French eats at me is the  fact that I spent several hours, every week, for three years, in a class that aimed to teach me French.

Now, there were plenty of subjects in school I didn’t particularly care for, and several in which I was no good, but I think I still walked away from those with something. I can calculate the area of a circle, and probably solve an equation or two given enough time and paper to scribble on. I’m aware of the general function of tectonic plates. I can set up a monthly budget in a spreadsheet, and I could make a very basic database in Microsoft Access 2000, if I should ever see a copy of that again. I know how to light a butane burner, and I know the rules of dodgeball, but I do not speak French.

The thing is, I like language. I think linguistics is super interesting. I feel like I should have had something to show for it all at the end of those three years in secondary school, but nope! I can muddle through the title of this post, but that’s about it. I keep thinking that one day – one day! – I will find the time to go through those language courses they have in the library, or find some awesome online course, and really dig up all the knowledge that never really took back in school and learn the damn thing. It doesn’t happen of course – even when I do have free time, this goes way down the list of priorities.

Enter the thing I actually wanted to talk about in this post: Duolingo. Duolingo is one of these newfangled Internet crowdsourcing services, which aims to teach you a language while simultaneously using you to translate various web pages. You gradually get given more complex words and sentences, and the idea is that as you grow in proficiency, you can help translate more tricky stuff.

I read about this thing when they announced who knows how long ago, and though it sounded like a neat idea. I signed up for their mailing list, and promptly forgot the whole thing until a beta invitation landed in my inbox a few days ago. Over the weekend, I’ve been playing around a bit with their French module, and want to jot down some thoughts.

One the plus, I absolutely see how this might be useful – taking the language in small daily doses, and building up a slow rise in competence. I have, in fact, dug up some of those things I learned in school, enough to make heads and tails of the sentences and basic verbs, and have managed to advance to level four. I don’t know if that’s four out of ten (unlikely) or four out of ten million (also somewhat unlikely), but I am at level four.

And that’s the part of Duolingo I’m sort of sceptical about: the points advancement system. See, every lesson you complete or sentence you translate wins you points. When you have enough points, you advance a level.  There’s even a big medal hanging around the neck of my default profile picture whenever I log in, proudly proclaiming my prowess as a level four Frenchie.

I don’t feel like a level four Frenchie. I still don’t speak French. I can make it thought some of the sentences that keep getting repeated in these lessons (L’homme boit du bière et la femme boit l’eau, because stereotypes fuel early learning or something, I guess), but that doesn’t mean I’ve actually learned much. There’s no real explanation for verb conjugation so far, for instance – and if there’s one thing I remember from French class in school, it’s the endless word document of verb conjugations I had amassed by the end – so I feel like I’m perpetually one step behind what I’m being asked to translate. Like an important step has been skipped. Why should I get points for that?

More insidious still, I think the points and levels could easily foster a false sense of accomplishment. It promotes a train of though where you graduate from one thing and move on to another – “I have mastered this word, now I need not look at it or think of it again!” I won the trophy, now I need not expend further effort on the task. Language doesn’t work like that, it’s not a continually growing pool of points you amass, it’s a thing you practice regularly to maintain, or let atrophy into nothing. Like a muscle. This is Fitocracy all over again.

I’ll probably keep going with these lessons a while longer. It’d be mad to give up after three days, and the core idea is still a neat one. Maybe it’ll even help, after a month or two. Maybe I’ll even have to eat my words about the points system.

But I’ll only do that if I can do it in French.

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