Skip to main content

The Vanity of Versailles

Gates of Versailles

It was the gold that shone most brightly in the morning light, and as we stood outside the palace gates of Versailles, it was easy to understand how the exterior of this grand edifice was built to impress. On either side of the royal gates was a tall, Classical-style building, and where the frieze would normally be found, the inscription A Toutes les Gloires de la France was carved in large letters, for all to see鈥斺淭o All the Glories of France.鈥

Gazing on all this glory, meant to reflect the power of the king of France and the splendour of his kingdom, the first words of Ecclesiastes came to mind: 鈥淰anity of vanities, all is vanity!鈥 Even though these things once impressed peasants and nobility alike in favour of the king, today they are simply a relic of the grandeur that once was, an empty palace open for anyone who will buy a ticket to see it. Even though it is still a very grand place, the vanity of it all is perhaps more evident in modern light.

Dachau Concentration Camp

(Photo by Ivan  Bustamante, available under the Creative  Commons Attribution 2.0 Licence)

(Photo by Ivan Bustamante, available under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Licence)

I must admit, Dachau Concentration Camp was not a place I wanted to visit. After watching the documentary film there, I really didn鈥檛 want to see any more, and the entire time we were there I kept thinking about its purpose. It is a memorial, made so that people can come and remember what had happened there. But I kept asking myself this: Why remember? If I were one of the few prisoners who survived, remembering would be the last thing I would want to do鈥攊n fact, I would do anything to forget what had happened during those dark times.

Those people were starved, tortured, worked literally to death, deceived, and murdered. The film we watched called it slavery, but it was worse than slavery. At least a slave master wants his slaves to be in good health so that they can work well; the tenants of Dachau were only there for horror and humiliation.

Why remember? Finally it struck me鈥攏ot from within but from a monument with these words: 鈥淢ay the example of those who were exterminated here鈥ecause they resisted Nazism help to unite the living for the defense of peace and freedom and in respect for their fellow men.鈥 The survivors came back and remembered because they didn鈥檛 want it to happen again. I fear that if something like this does reappear, it will come as subtly and deceitfully as Hitler鈥檚 ideas came鈥攂ut perhaps memorials like Dachau will do their part to convince mankind of the horror that such ideas can bring.

Aqu忙 Sulis

Curse tablet

The goddess worshipped at the ancient Roman-British resort Aqu忙 Sulis was none other than Sulis Minerva, an entity based on the Roman goddess Minerva but having characteristics of the Celtic goddess Sulis. When the Romans happened upon the hot springs there, they naturally thought of Minerva as the one who made hot water bubble forth from the ground, and when they found that the natives regarded Sulis as the keeper of the spring, they saw a chance for religious unity.

Travelers from all over the Roman Empire visited the magnificent baths and the settlement that grew up around them, and many took part in a unique method of prayer to the goddess. Instead of voicing their prayers aloud, they scratched the words upon a flattened piece of lead or pewter, then folding it up and throwing it into the Sacred Spring. Although one has been found written in the British Celtic language, most were in Latin. I found this very interesting, but I was shocked when I began reading the prayers themselves. Instead of addressing their goddess with reverence, the prayers were stated in a very straightforward way, in a language that was almost commanding. And more striking than this was that nearly every prayer was a curse. 鈥淚 curse him who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether man or woman, whether slave or free, that…the goddess Sulis inflict death upon…and not allow him sleep鈥ow and in the future,鈥 such were the inscriptions on these petitions to the goddess.

How could these people be so bold, and so cruel? Perhaps the boldness had to do with the privacy that this medium afforded them. They could be confident that no human eyes would ever read those words (so they thought), and they trusted that Sulis Minerva would read them and deliver the vengeance that they sought. But why such cruelty? We may never know, but I dare say that while we might never dream of praying to our God to curse other people, thoughts of ill-will do cross our minds at times.

The Etruscans

The Etruscans

The inscription above is the name Seianti, carved on the elaborate stone coffin of the Etruscan noblewoman who bore that name. Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa was evidently quite wealthy, as the lid of this sarcophagus is adorned with a surprisingly lifelike sculpture of her reclining.

This was only one of the many Etruscan artifacts housed at the British Museum, and the whole Etruscan room held a certain charm for me. Perhaps it is their relative obscurity—everyone knows about the Greeks and Romans, but Etruscans? Who were they? They were the ancient inhabitants of a region of Italy called Etruria, and their civilisation existed in the time before Rome’s domination. They were a non-Indo-European people, and this is known by their language, which was entirely unrelated to the great majority of the other European languages, such as Latin, Greek, and Oscan.

Like the Arabs and Israelis today, the Etruscans wrote their words from right to left, although their alphabet is a predecessor of the Roman one. The language itself is mostly unknown to us today, since nearly all the surviving examples of it are carvings on burial stones. However, what little we do know about the Etruscan language is enough to fascinate me, and make me wish we knew more about the people of Rasna.

(British Museum, London)

Faces of the British Museum

On more than one occasion at the British Museum, I found myself looking at a piece of art and wondering about the intentions of its creator. Every ancient culture had its own style of portraying humans in art, some more realistic than others—from the blocky, ever-grave Aztecs to the majestic, lively Greeks—but I was most interested in their facial features.

What was the Scandinavian seaman thinking when he carved out of walrus tusk a chess king with a forlorn look as if his son just died? Did the Huastec potter in ancient Mexico intend for his hedgehog-shaped jug with big eyes and tiny mouth to look as if it were flying through the air about hit something? And that Greek harpist on the side of a pot—did the artist who drew her see the same melancholy expression that I see today? There is no way to know, and certainly facial expressions vary between cultures and time periods. However, I like to think that even the great artisans of old had a sense of humour.