Friday, 19 April 2019

Urban Spacemen?

After the depressingly dark heritage of the swastika last week we need something more uplifting to read. So, how about an openly gay archaeologist who uncovered Europe’s oldest urban settlement, a site so old and relatively more advanced than anything else in that period that some people think it was built by aliens! Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Hardly.

The archaeological site of Lepenski Vir was discovered in August 1960 in what is now Serbia, which was part of Yugoslavia. Very little excavation was undertaken, probably because the Communist government of Yugoslavia had very little interest in financing it. It was only when they decided to build a hydroelectric power station and dam that would flood the area that archaeologists began to push for funding for a proper excavation before it was lost forever.

After a survey of the site and initial investigations were carried out it was discovered that it seemed to be a sizeable settlement which could date back about 5,500 years. The subsequent report that was submitted to the Belgrade Institute for Archaeology in 1961 intrigued one of the academics there. His name was Dr. Dragolav Srejović (1931-1996).

Dragoslav was born in the city of Kragujevac though he had little love for the place. He sought escape from his miserable childhood by immersing himself in art, theatre, a love of Church ceremonial and Greek mythology.

After leaving school he developed tuberculosis and spent over a year in hospital. During this period he recognised his homosexual feelings. He fell in love with one of his friends, the only friend who visited him in hospital. Dragoslav’s illness prevented him from having any sort of physical relationship and it ended when his boyfriend decide to enter the homophobic League of Communist Youth of Yugoslavia.

After his recovery from tuberculosis Dragoslav went to study archaeology in Belgrade. He became an assistant in the Department of Archaeology at the Faculty of Philosophy. In 1964 he earned his doctorate with a thesis on Stone Age anthropomorphic sculptures in Yugoslavia. By the time the report on Lepenski Vir arrived at the Institute of Archaeology Dragoslav was an assistant professor.

Funding for a proper excavation of Lepinski Vir was obtained and Dragoslav and his team began work there on 6th August 1965. It was believed that the site dated back to the Starčevo Culture which flourished in Serbia along the River Danube from about 5,500 BC for a thousand years at the end of the Mesolithic Age.

After two years Dragoslav came down to a layer which proved to be truly ancient and threw back the age of the site another thousand years. Sculptures were found which could be dated even earlier than the Starčevo Culture. These were the oldest sculptures known in Europe.

What was even more astonishing was the number of dwellings that were discovered. In total 136 buildings were identified during the whole five years of the excavation. Even assuming that only half of them were inhabited, each by a family of two parents and one child, the settlement at Lepenski Vir would have had a larger population than any other known settlement from the same period in Europe.

What makes Lepenski Vir even more historically significant is that most of the dwellings were arranged so that their entrances all faced a central open area. This meant they were planned. It was not the sporadic spread of dwellings that is found in the early settlements of the Mesolithic Age but were deliberately arranged. This makes Lepenski Vir the first known incident of “urban planning” in Europe.

Also on the site was a necropolis where the community placed their dead. The bones of the dead provided enough DNA to be analysed in more recent years. It was found that these first “town-dwellers” had mixed European and Asia Minor ancestry. This has led to the theory that migrants from the first agricultural communities in Asia Minor travelled along the Danube and interbred with the local Europeans. This could be the reason why Lepenski Vir became the first “town”. The Europeans had previously been hunter-gatherers with no real settled location. The migrants from Asia Minor introduced permanent settlements.

There’s a marvellous article giving a more detailed explanation of the significance of this site on the “Discover” magazine website here.

Once the excavations were completed in 1970 the whole site was flooded by the construction of the hydroelectric power station and dam. Dragoslav Srejovič had discovered enough at Lepenski Vir for the whole site to be considered of global importance and, just like Abu Simbel in Egypt, the whole site was moved to higher ground as a means of preservation.

That’s where Lepenski Vir is situated today and you can visit it for yourself. Even though it’s not on its original location it still remains an impressive site with remains of buildings and remarkable little statues.

Dragoslav Srejovič received several honours and awards for his work at Lepenski Vir. He followed this up with further archaeological projects, the most important of which was the excavation of a half-forgotten imperial Roman palace and spa at Gamzigrad not far south of Lepenski Vir. The site had been excavated before but was virtually ignored after the 1950s once the Communists took over the country. Dragolsav brought Gamzigrad back into the archaeological world with new excavations and research. He is credited with being the person responsible for Gamzigrad gaining UNESCO World Heritage status in 2007. Lepenski Vir has yet to receive this status, partly due to it not being on its original site.
Dr. Dragoslav Srejovič at Lepenski Vir sitting beside one of the many sculptures found on the site.
Dragoslav was often annoyed at the way some people interpreted his discoveries at Lepenski Vir. Which is where the aliens come in.

Because the technology, sculptural style and social organisation of Lepenski Vir was so far advanced compared to the rest of Europe some people began to claim that it could only have been made possible by the arrival of aliens to the site (despite there being equally advanced settlements in Asia).

These people found it hard to accept that humans could be so advanced that far back in time without alien intervention. They even named their fake alien race the Lepensians. Several prominent ufologists and alien visitation specialists such as Eric von Daniken supported the various claims. As recently as 2007 ufologists were reporting a triangular formation of “lights in the sky” moving towards Lepenski Vir.

Even though the alien visitation idea is, to me, a load of crap, I have to admit that its adds an extra layer of fascination to the whole site. However, as a historian I hope that Lepenski Vir will never turn into a place of pilgrimage for ufologists and alien hunters. I’m sure Dragolav Srejovič would have thought so as well.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Our Darkest Legacy

(I have friends and relatives in New Zealand. Along with the rest of the civilised world I was shocked by the terror attack in Christchurch last month by a self-declared white supremacist. I had written today’s article several weeks before the attack. I considered removing it from my blog schedule, but decided to keep it because we are living in a world where such attacks are frequently reported and there never be a time when it would be considered appropriate.)

Today I want to look at one of the most far-reaching influences that an openly gay man ever created. It’s one that came to dominate the 20th century more than anything else and is still seen today. But it’s an influence and a legacy that the lgbt community cannot be proud of. It’s the use of the swastika as a symbol of racial supremacy.

The swastika has been around for thousands of years. It’s well known that it was symbol of good fortune in ancient India. As a simple geometric design it appears in other ancient civilisations, from the Greeks to the Aztecs. It is truly sad that it became as symbol of hate and fear.

To trace the origin of the Nazi’s use of the swastika we have to go back to a neo-pagan occult group that formed in Munich in the 1890s. It was a small group, numbering only five central figures, mostly gay men, who were writers and philosophers. The two main figures were Alfred Schuler (1865-1923) and Ludwig Klages (1872-1956). The one who is of most significance to the swastika is Schuler.

Alfred Schuler was born in Mainz. He moved to Munich and began studying archaeology at the university. He was fascinated by ancient civilisations and the artefacts they left behind. However, this fascination came into conflict with his studies. Schuler believed that archaeologists were desecrating ancient religious sites, and by putting artefacts in museums they were declaring their superiority and control over the past.

It was also his admiration for ancient civilisations, Rome in particular, that led Schuler to develop another belief, that the modern world was a corrupting influence on the development of humanity, and that the Christian Church was ultimately responsible. This opinion pushed his spiritual beliefs into the occult (ironically, a Christian construct) and neo-paganism.

In 1893 Schuler met Ludwig Klages and between them they formulated a set of beliefs that developed into the formal association called the Cosmic Circle. One of the core beliefs of the group was that of an ancient global matriarchal culture. The Cosmic Circle believed that Christianity purposefully destroyed the matriarchal societies of the past and was leading the world to disaster. A second irony is that their own beliefs and symbols that gave rise to a regime that did just that.

Throughout all his adult life Schuler imbued his perception of ancient Rome with the Greek Eros. Just as Sigmund Freud imbued his psychoanalysis with sex, so did Schuler with the Cosmic Circle, except that Schuler’s sex was homosexual and open.

Part of the Cosmic Circle’s elements of “worship” was for members to re-enact life and events from Roman and classical history, dressing up in period costumes and holding mock rituals and erotic dances. Schuler himself often dressed as the Earth Mother Goddess with wig, dark robes and heavy make-up. He was much more serious about these ceremonies, more so than the other members. For instance, he firmly believed that an exotic dance performed by young, nubile men could cure Friedrich Nietzsche, the pioneering philosopher of gay rights, of the madness he had developed.

On another occasion Schuler planned to bring down all governments by having one of his colleagues stand naked in Munich market place chanting to the ancient gods. The colleague declined to take part.

It was at about this time, 1904, that the Cosmic Circle began to deteriorate. Schuler had been expressing anti-Semitic opinions for many years. Some members of the Cosmic Circle were Jews or had Jewish ancestry and Schuler began a “witch-hunt” against Jews in “his” organisation. He demanded that they renounce their faith and heritage or leave the Cosmic Circle. Following the collapse of the Cosmic Circle in 1904 its members split into Schuler and his Aryan anti-Semitic supporters and their opponents.

Schuler had travelled to Asia some years earlier and had seen the swastika symbol in India and Tibet. Its symbolism seemed to appeal to his own Cosmic Circle ideas of supernatural life and power. He was not alone in adopting the swastika. Across Europe it began to appear in logos from everything from sports clubs to occult groups. It was a popular symbol of life, energy and harmony. To Schuler the swastika was also a symbol of his homosexual, orgiastic, anti-Semitic propaganda, and through his influence it began to be adopted by supremacist groups.

In 1907 in Austria a white supremacist group called the Order of the New Templars adopted the swastika and its anti-Semitic symbolism as their emblem. This seems to have been the first time the swastika can definitely be claimed as a specifically anti-Semite emblem. Between 1917 and 1925 the Thule Society, a German Aryan supremacist group, used a circular swastika as their emblem.

By this time Alfred Schuler was conducting lecturers on his beliefs. He still had some supporters, including the prominent Munich salon host Princess Elsa Bruckman. It was at one event at Bruckman’s salon in 1920 that Schuler and Adolf Hitler were both present.

Hitler was clearly influenced by Schuler’s swastika symbolism. In his book “Mein Kampf” in 1923 Hitler described how the new Nazi Party looked for a suitable symbol and flag. He was familiar with the swastika through his connections to both Schuler and members of the Thule Society. Independently of each other, Hitler and Dr. Friedrich Krohn, an active Thule member, came up with flags with a central swastika. Hitler adapted them into the flag that became the emblem of hate that dominated the 20th century.

If nothing else the evolution of the swastika from a symbol of life and harmony into one of hate and fear tells us a lot about the power one ideology can have over the use of just one symbol. The fact that an openly gay, neo-pagan, occultist inspired this change the darkest legacy that any member of the lgbt community can leave.

The final irony is that the evil Nazi regime that stamped its swastika all over Europe also stamped homosexuals with a pink triangle, and it is the pink triangle that was claimed by survivors of the Holocaust and the pioneering lgbt rights activists in the 1970s and transformed from a symbol of oppression and discrimination into one of pride and defiance against hate.

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush

Here’s one of the more unusual lgbt heritage sites that there is in London. Basically, the history of the site goes something like this – King James I, that old queen who came up with the name of Great Britain, set up a mulberry garden in St. James’s Park in 1609 which, fifty years later, had become the site of a brothel before becoming part of the Buckingham Palace gardens.

I don’t visit London very often, but the history of this site got me so intrigued that I wanted to find out more. The first thing I wanted to know is why King James wanted to set up a mulberry garden. It all boils down to money.

At the beginning of the 17th century silk production in Europe was centred in France and Italy. The French were especially skilled in silk production and within a century many religious refugees from France, the Huguenots, many of them silk weavers, were arriving in London to create the lucrative silk industry that King James had dreamt of.

King James had big plans for silk. He set up several mulberry gardens on various royal properties and encouraged his Lords Lieutenant in the counties of England to buy mulberry saplings from him to create their own. Unfortunately, he or his advisors chose the wrong type of mulberry bush.
The silkworms of China, France and Italy fed on the leaves of the white mulberry. King James chose the black mulberry for his project. All the experts on silk production at the time knew that silkworms which fed on black mulberry produced a coarse, brittle silk. The probable reason why King James went for black over the white was because of the British climate. White mulberry grows better in warmer climes.

This may also be the reason James shipped thousands of white mulberry bushes over to the New England colonies in America, because the climate was warmer than Britain’s. Again, the silk industry in America wasn’t a success, this time because the silkworms preferred the native American red mulberry. It looks like King James’s silk project was doomed to fail on all grounds.

The mulberry garden which King James set up and which concerns us today was a 4-acre garden set up in what was a large piece of wasteland to the west of St. James’s Palace, the then official residence of the monarch, just down the Mall from Buckingham Palace.

Various 17th century maps show this garden, though its exact location and size varies from one map to another. During the period of the Protectorate, the years of the disastrous British republic under Oliver Cromwell in the 1640s, the whole area was used as military barracks. The government weren’t interested in silk production and neglected the mulberry garden in its northern corner. This is when it was reported by Clement Walker that the garden had become a place of “new-erected sodoms and spintries”.

“Spintry” is one of those quaint old words that could easily have cropped up on an old BBC quiz show about obscure words called “Call My Bluff”. The word is of Greek origin, via Latin, and is supposedly derived from the word for a bracelet. The allusion being that your hand goes through the bracelet. I’ll leave you to guess how it came to be used for sexual activity. From the very beginning of its entry into the English language “spintry” was used to describe male prostitution and homosexual activity.

A house was built on land between the garden and St. James’s Palace, and this is the site of the present Buckingham Palace. Several families owned the various houses that occupied the site before the current one but they didn’t own the mulberry garden.

By the 1650s the mulberry garden had been leased to a new owner who turned it into a pleasure garden. Gone were the male prostitutes and in came the 17th century high-flying jet set and “It” crowd who turned it into a fashionable place to be seen.

All this attention made neighbouring St. James’s Park another fashionable place to be seen. It was at this time, 1677, that the mulberry garden became part of the property of the house where Buckingham Palace now stands.

Today you can walk past the old mulberry garden where the male prostitutes used to operate. If you walk from Hyde Park Corner to the Palace the site of the garden is on the other side of the Buckingham Palace wall as you walk down Constitution Hill.

Next time I visit London I’ll make a special effort to pay my own respect to James I’s failed silk industry and follow the example of the 17th century Poet Laureate John Dryden who, on his frequent visits when it was a pleasure garden, nibble on a mulberry tart. Perhaps also I’ll give a thought to those nameless men who sold their services to others in the “spintry”.

Friday, 5 April 2019

Out of the Greenwood

From day one I’ve resisted the temptation to include advertising on my blog. However, today I’m going to make an exception because I have just had my first Kindle book published. It’s called “Robin Hood – Out of the Greenwood: His Gay Origins Revealed”.

I began researching this book long before I began this blog. At the time I was working as a tour guide at Nottingham Castle, and we were discouraged from mentioning Robin Hood. The city council who paid my wages insisted that someone who broke the law was not a good role model, and that he didn’t exist anyway. Even today the same council do next to nothing to promote Robin Hood. Even so, tourists were always wanting to know about Robin Hood and it was necessary to answer their questions.

Robin Hood has been mentioned on this blog a few times. A lot of these mentions have been in relation to the theory I expand in my new book. Basically, I believe that Sir John Clanvowe, a poet and courtier, was the person most likely to have compiled the ballad which was later printed as “A Geste of Robyn Hode”. It is in this ballad that we get all of the most familiar stories about this world famous outlaw which have been retold in thousands of books, films and television programmes ever since (along with a few later additions, like Maid Marian, Friar Tuck and Prince John, none of whom featured in the medieval ballads).

The theory is based on research I conducted into Sir John Clanvowe and the man acknowledged during his lifetime as the man he “married”. This partner was Sir William Neville, the Constable of Nottingham Castle from 1381. A lot of the characters and plot details in “A Geste of Robyn Hode” seem to be based on people, places and events in Sir William Neville’s family background. You can type “Clanvowe” into the search box at the side to find out more about this couple.

It was only after I left Nottingham Castle (not from choice) that I was able to do more extensive research, and eventually I put it all together in a display for Nottingham’s first celebration for LGBT History Month in 2008. From there I began writing the book, which has undergone several revisions since then.

My theory is too complex to be restricted to a few blog posts, so a fuller explanation in book form was the only way to go.

As my book is now published on Kindle Amazon (on here) I’m not expecting a huge response. All I expect is that people get a new perspective on a familiar legend and, perhaps, realise that the medieval world wasn’t how they might think.

It is my hope that this will be the first in a series of books based on some of my blog articles and on other, non-lgbt, history research.

That’s enough advertising for now. If you’re interested, take a look and buy a copy.

Monday, 1 April 2019

Homohoax : The City of Lesbians

It’s April Fool’s Day again, and here’s another hoax in the lgbt community.

This particular homohoax originated ten years ago. A report published by the Xinhau news agency told of a city in Sweden called Shakebao (translated into English as Chako Paul) which was inhabited solely by lesbians.

It’s not really clear whether the report was a deliberate hoax. It may have been just a misinterpretation of an actual location, or an elaboration of an urban legend. Given the origin of this “hoax” is in China we may never know for sure, the Chinese media are not known for being open about their sources. As far as people in Sweden were concerned the presence of a lesbian city was news to them.

Let’s see if we can get to the root of the story. First of all, the report was published in August 2009 by Xinhau, the official state news agency. This is a translation of part of their report:

“In Sweden there is a place that is respectful of women’s love, ... This is Shakebao. The town holds around 25,000 women, all from around Europe. If men transgress into the forbidden city they will be beaten half to death. The citizens of Shakebao are mostly engaged in the forest industry, … Some go into nearby cities to work and return to Shakebao by night. Shakebao’s tourism industry is increasingly prosperous, with hotels and restaurants everywhere that cater specifically to women around the world.”

It wasn’t long before the story was picked up other Chinese news agencies. The story’s impact produced a flood of internet searches, reported later to have all been by men though I expect some Chinese women were just as interested, causing an effect that was described as “crippling the nation’s data network”. Swedish tourist organisations were also inundated with requests from China for more information.

If anybody knew of Shakebao’s existence it would be the Swedes, right? Not so. Claes Bertilsson, a spokesman for the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions, had never heard of it, nor of any other settlement populated by 25,000 women. For Sweden that’s a major-sized city – someone would have noticed it. Even the tourist office for the area in which the city was supposed to be located couldn’t find it.

The plot thickened after another report appeared, this time from the Harbin news agency, of a Chinese woman who had actually been there. The woman, identified as Niu Xiaoyu from Shangdong, was a student at a Swedish university (the report doesn’t say which one). At university she fell in love with a male college teaching assistant. When Xiaoyu came back to their shared apartment with another male Chinese student the boyfriend went into a jealous rage. Xiaoyu broke off their relationship and determined to end all contact with men.

Stories of Shakebao must have been going around the university because Xiaoyu decided to move there. At first she tried to fit in and follow the common activities. She found lumberjacking (lumberjilling?) too hard and strenuous, and nothing else seemed to suit her temperament. To make matters worse in her eyes was that the city stores didn’t stock many cosmetics.

After a few weeks Xiaoyu’s Swedish ex-boyfriend arrives, disguised as a woman tourist, to apologise and he tried to persuade her to come back with him. But Xiaoyu was adamant and stayed. The boyfriend then returned back to university.

It should have become apparent to Xiaoyu that she was obviously in the wrong place. It was only after another woman tried to seduce her that she realised she had made the wrong decision in coming here and she made a hasty return back to her ex-boyfriend.

Now, given that this lesbian city was an invention of imaginative Chinese journalists it seems obvious that the story of Nui Xioayu was false as well. When I first read this story I was immediately struck by its similarity to many old folk tales. As well as being a fan of legends and mythology I’m acquainted with the Perry and Aarne-Thompson indexes of folk motifs. These are lists of hundreds of story and plot elements from all the folk-tales and legends from around the world grouped together by related themes.

The story of Nui Xiaoyu can easily be placed into the same folk motif group as “The Country mouse and the City Mouse”. In essence this group inclludes the story of an individual who goes to a place where he/she hopes to find a better life or to escape some bad situation. However, disappointment and/or abuse leads the individual to yearn for home and he/she leaves to do so, realising that things weren’t really as bad as they had thought. There are several old Chinese folk-tales which are virtually identical to the story of Nui Xiaoyu, leading me to believe that her story was as fake as the city of Shakeboa itself.

Above is a screenshot of the top part of the Xinhau report. It includes a photo of an impressive castle. This is implied as being the entrance to the city, but in fact it is a building in Scotland called Taymouth Castle. Further down the article was a photo of a scantily clad young woman in a seductive pose. Obviously, both images were grabbed off the internet and included to add some credence to the story.

As I said at the beginning the story of a lesbian city may not have been a deliberate hoax, but seems more like sloppy journalism. Whether the Chinese state-run media want to admit to reporting what is no more than a modern spin on an old urban legend or folk motif or not, the fact that the did has only elevated its status and profile.