On Friendship, Superstition, and Madness

So I’ve been back in the UK from Suriname for around two weeks now, and had been struggling to think of something to write about. Fortunately, that’s now changed.

I was talking to a friend of a friend recently, who I’d only just met, and they were very interested in the fact that I studied geology.  We spoke for a while about rocks, in particular crystals, until they said something that I wasn’t expecting, viz. “gemstones bring out different energies in humans”, and that “white crystal” is “good for thinking and the brain”.  Needless to say, that brought the geological conversation to a rather abrupt halt, and the subject was promptly changed.  As with everything in this life, there’s a relevant scene from Peep Show.

Fast forward a few days, and we find I’ve mentioned this particular discourse, and how it’s clearly a ridiculous concept, to my good friend TKC.  She said that from her neck of the woods, a lot of people believe the same thing, and that lots of her course mates wear crystal bracelets in an attempt to “improve love and relationships”. The ensuing discussion was interesting and thought provoking.

She compared it to other harmless superstitions, such as making a wish when one cuts a birthday cake, which was a fair point. However, it still bothered me.  The bring out “energies” in humans point, it seemed almost identical to homeopathy.  This nebulous and indistinct mechanism that’s not tangible in any fashion which affects one’s health (or magic for want of a better word).  It goes without saying that having studied minerals to a masters degree level, I’m less than convinced by the ability of crystals to have such health effects on humans.  Indeed, the only heath effects from “white crystal” I can think of off the top of my head would be the rather unpleasant ones that will eventually kill you from having a lots of chrysotile/tremolite knocking about.  In all likelihood, this “white crystal” is probably quartz, mainly because it’s cheap and very abundant (i.e. it’s sand).

This was where revelation the first came in.  Are different superstitions more “legitimate” depending on your cultural origin? The answer of course has to be yes.  While in the UK crystal energy fields aren’t widely subscribed to as a concept, things like walking under ladders being unlucky, black cats being lucky, and Friday the 13th being bad are quite commonly believed.  I can think of examples in my own family where superstitions are closely held beliefs (or at least appear to be).  One relative is convinced that water divining is real, while another strongly disapproved when I brought a peacock feather into the house (I was unaware that they were unlucky) – said feather was promptly destroyed in case you were wondering!  Indeed, quite a few warn me not to “tempt fate”, and a part of me agrees with them, even though there’s clearly no reason to, giving rise to an interesting internal argument between the rational and irrational.

Considering the crystal energy superstition more carefully, there does appear to be a purpose to it.  While the crystal itself is clearly inert (good luck getting quartz to react with most things), one could argue that the psychological effect of having the belief could be positive, a sort of placebo if you will.  If the belief that the crystal can help improve one’s life is able to effect a subconscious improvement in for example, someone’s confidence, then that would be a positive outcome.

Obviously this whole analysis is rocky territory (geological pun very much intended), as organised religion is a small step away from superstitious beliefs.  My argument would be that crystals are just crystals, and peacock feathers are just peacock feathers.  Given that they are tangible and examinable, one can prove there’s no “energy” etc. (four years studying pretty much every aspect of crystals imaginable is enough to last a lifetime – kudos to my geologist friends reading this who are doing Ph.Ds, you guys are properly hardcore!), whereas the beliefs behind organised religion aren’t tangible, and therefore cannot be examined in the same fashion.  I admit this leaves me wide open to accusations of hypocrisy, but so be it (for those of you who don’t know me personally, this is where I point out that I am a Christian)!

However, the point remained, and that is why did I care?  It’s a good question, just why do I care?  After all, I’m a great believer in not poking one’s nose into other people’s business when it comes to beliefs, so long as they aren’t detrimental to others.  The answer to that is of course rather simple, and that is because I’m a scientist. On a brief aside, one of my earliest memories of being interested in science was when I was around four years old.  My mother had purchased an encyclopædia (this one) for a family friend’s daughter a couple of years younger than me.  I had a quick flick through, and found the pages on electricity particularly interesting.  I promptly begged for a copy of my own, which I eventually got when Christmas came around – I still have it somewhere in fact.  Anyway, I digress.

More accurately, I’m a geologist, and since embarking on my geological studies just over four years ago, geology has become rather a central tenet of my life.  As a result, I care about it quite a lot, and want people to learn about it and understand it too, meaning that when things like this crystal energy stuff pop up, ideally I’d be able to dispel that, stick to SCIENCE and show them how things really are (presumably this is how my militant atheist friends feel a lot of the time). At this point, revelation the second rears its ugly head.  If I was so disparaging about “crystal energy” because I know it to be total nonsense and care about geology, then that flags up an unfortunate parallel. There’s someone else who’s disparaging about beliefs, because they care about biology.  Yep, that’d be Richard Dawkins. Personally I’m not a fan of his.  Yes he’s a good scientist, but also comes across as intolerant, insensitive, and patronising. Certainly not someone I’d desire to emulate, even remotely.

The question of how to sensibly discuss mineralogy and crystallography with subscribers to the crystal energy idea remains unanswered.  In fact, there isn’t an answer.  Similar problems of course arise when discussing evolution with creationists, the authenticity of the moon landings with conspiracy theorists, and the concept of horoscopes with adherents to astrology.  While it may be difficult to reconcile the fact that some people think different crystals can influence wealth/love/relationships/health/etc. with scientific mineralogical observations proving there’s no such influence, the implication is that there is not a lot that can be done.

So what have we learned here?  Several things in fact. Firstly that superstitions vary from culture to culture, what seems totally normal for one can appear totally ridiculous in another.  Secondly that science isn’t always the answer (or sensu stricto in this case, it’s the psychological element that needs consideration rather than the mineralogical one if an attempt rationalise this superstition is to be made).  Finally we learn that superstitions, while irrational, are actually quite interesting to consider in their cultural and historical contexts from an anthropological perspective.

In that respect, (i.e. the act of believing in the crystal itself provides a subconscious change in one’s confidence/attitude) it is infinitely more legitimate than many common superstitions in this country (black cats/magpies/peacock feathers/horseshoes anyone?).  However, a fair few of these have to be taken in their historical context.  One such example would be the “smashing a mirror gives seven years’ bad luck” idea, which stems from the time when wages were low, and mirrors were obnoxiously expensive (and could cost seven years’ wages).  Perhaps the finding of a four leaf clover may be considered good luck as finding one itself is rare, implying that one is lucky?

As with many things, the matter is substantially more complex than it first appears, and thinking it through as above, I feel a bit more open minded and enlightened.  Having said that, there’s clearly no merit to these crystal superstitions from any scientific point of view (aside from the potential placebo related psychological side effects).  I still (obviously) disagree with it, but it makes more sense to me now.

I know that’s quite a heavy post for a Friday, particularly the one before Christmas, so here’s a video of Gandalf teaching the Cookie Monster self control to take the edge off.  You’re welcome.

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Special Edition: A Delightful Stroll in the Countryside (Day 5)

The final full day dawned, which was a shame.  There were still lots of sites I wanted to visit, but I’d run out of time.  On the upside, it gives me the perfect excuse to return some day!

Anyway, HC and I decided to spend the morning visiting the museum, and shopping for souvenirs, as that was a rather important thing neither of us had done.  The first point was the museum, which was fascinating.  It had several very interesting artifacts on display, including weapons and stoneworking tools, but those that were most interesting were the (copies) of rongorongo tablets, and an original moai eye.  People have spent their whole careers studying rongorongo, but the salient facts are that it is an undeciphered script, found only on 26 tablets (which were found on the island).  Nobody knows what it means.

An original moai eye

An original moai eye

We went to the artisanal market, and I ended up buying a small model moai.  I couldn’t not really, and I knew that if I didn’t, I’d definitely regret it!  For those of you who will inevitably wonder if I named him, the answer is yes.  I christened him Tim.

After the shopping, and a brief lunch, Christophe appeared once more, and drove us both (as HC accepted my offer of joining me on another trip) to the North Eastern end of the island, the Poike peninsula.  It is inaccessible to vehicles, and so you have to walk (or ride) to explore the area.  As a result, it’s seldom visited.

There are various archæological sites on the peninsula, some of which are completely unique.  One on the itinerary today was one such unique one. It is called Vai A Heva, and is a statue that has a large mouth in which to collect water, carved into the side of the mountain.

Vai A Heva

Vai A Heva

A little farther up the mountain was a very tiny cave (you essentially had to curl into a ball to get inside), but inside the cave was another petroglyph of Make Make.

Make Make petroglyph

Make Make petroglyph

We continued walking, and reached the summit.  At this point, we were very lucky with the weather, and the sun came out, to give the most amazing view.  Looking west, you could see most of the island, and from one coast to the other.  It was awe inspiring.

What a great view! (Click to enlarge)

What a great view! (Click to enlarge)

With the view having been seen, it was time to head down the mountain, and return to the hostel.  It was an excellent finale to an excellent holiday.

Special Edition: The West Coast and Interior (Day 4)

After having such an insightful tour with Christophe the day before, and having a great desire to see as many archæological sites as possible while on the island, I’d emailed him to arrange two half day tours.  One was to several sites to the west and centre of the island, while the other (which is going to be the subject of Day 5’s instalment) was for a hike around the Poike peninsula (the peninsula in the photo from the plane in the post entitled “Special Edition: Arriving on Easter Island (Day 1)”).

Anyway, before the half day tour (which started at 3 in the afternoon), I went for a walk with some of the people from the hostel. One of them only came as far as the first site of the day, called Tahai. There were several platforms here, one of which has a moai with modern eyes installed (after archæologists discovered fragments of an original eye on Anakena beach).

The moai with eyes at Tahai

The moai with eyes at Tahai

An interesting aside is that I was talking to Christophe (my guide from yesterday) about this, and he said he spoke to the archæologist who discovered it – a native Easter Islander.  Apparently the archæologist didn’t realise what it was, but showed it to his grandfather, who promptly told him that it was a moai eye (as he remembered the time when lots of them had eyes).

Tahai

Tahai

At this point, one of the hostel people left, and it was just me and the other (HC) who continued onwards.  A little farther down the coast was Hanga Kio’e.  Here stood a solitary moai, which, according to the book, was one of the final platforms and moai to be built.

We continued onwards, hoping to reach Te Peu, but without any success (as we were fighting a losing battle against time – we had to be back at the hostel by 3 to have the tour).  I’d invited HC to join me on it, as she wanted to see one of the sights that it involved anyway.

Turning back (probably only 10 minutes from Te Peu with the benefit of hindsight), we stopped off at a cave called Ana Te Pora, which was interesting, and had a stone bed in it.

The next cave along (back in the direction of Hanga Roa), was called Ana Kakenga, which had two large openings facing the ocean which was beautiful.  However, the entrance to the cave is very small and narrow (with a low ceiling), and also pitch black (and therefore not suitable for those with claustrophobia).

Looking out of Ana Kakenga at the Pacific Ocean, and some rocky islets

Looking out of Ana Kakenga at the Pacific Ocean, and some rocky islets

Upon returning to Hanga Roa, and having a quick lunch, HC and I got ready for our afternoon tour.  Sure enough, at 3 o’clock, Christophe appeared, and we went off to the first site.

The site in question is called Puna Pau, and is the quarry where the topknots (Pukao) were made.  These topknots are the red “hat like” objects on top of some of the moai.  You can see one clear example in the first image in this post.  There are three different designs of these, which either represent a feathered headdress, tied up long hair, or a bandana like thing.  Those you see upon the moai are just balancing, they are not cemented or attached in any way.  Overall, only about 100 were ever made (including those abandoned in the quarry).

Abandoned Pukao at Puna Pau

Abandoned Pukao at Puna Pau

The next place to visit was Akivi, which is an inland platform consisting of seven moai.  This platform is unique in being the only one where the moai face out to sea, rather than inland.

Akivi

Akivi

The final stop for the day was a cave called Ana Te Pahu, which, like all the caves I visited, are former lava tubes.  Inside was an interesting petroglyph to Make Make, who was the god related to the birdman cult.  Also in the cave were several ferns which were endemic to Easter Island (and only to Easter Island), which was pretty interesting.

Make Make petroglyph

Make Make petroglyph

With the tour over, we were dropped back in the hostel, where we relaxed.  HC and I went for a walk along the shore in Hanga Roa just as the sun was setting.  This gave the perfect opportunity for a sun-setting-behind-a-moai photo, which was too good to miss!

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After wandering around for a while, we decided to get some supper at a French restaurant, whose proprietor was described to us in a way that made him sound like Basil Fawlty (a character from Fawlty Towers – which, for the benefit of my foreign friends, is probably the most famous British comedy programme on television that has ever been made) – although we never met said proprietor, so sadly couldn’t confirm personally alas!

Anyway, we ordered a massive paella to share, which was full of delicious seafood (lobster, scallops, mussels, clams, prawns, various types of fish, etc.).  It was very big, and very filling, and very nice! Feeling delightfully full, we called it a night, and headed back to the hostel to sleep.

It was ridiculously big, but so nice!

It was ridiculously big, but so nice!

Special Edition: A Tour of the North and East (Day 3)

Apologies for the delay in getting this instalment out, I’ve been pretty busy this week, visiting London, moving back to university, researching graduate jobs, and sorting out my research project for my master’s degree! Unfortunately I left my travel journal at home, so I’m doing this completely from memory, but as there are lots of details, I might miss a couple of things out (although obviously, I’ll try not to)!

Anyway, my third day on Easter Island consisted of a private tour with a guide (named Christophe) who’d lived there for six years (who originally came from Brittany).  If you happen to be visiting Easter Island at some point, and want a guide who is extremely knowledgeable, then you can find his page here.  One great thing about Christophe’s tours is that he only takes small groups (of 1-3 people), and avoids the sites when the larger groups and tour buses visit them.  You only get to see four or five sites on a full day tour, but you’ll learn more history and folklore than you can shake a stick at. I really recommend hiring him, and he’s a great bloke too!

He collected me from my hostel, and our first stop was at the beach of Anakena, one of two beaches on the island.  It was spectacular, with several moai on a platform, framed by golden sand and palm trees.

Anakena beach

Anakena beach

Also on the beach was a moai that really reminded me of one of my favourite poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley – Ozymandias (full text available here).

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Real life Ozymandias?

The second site we visited was called Papa Vaka, which is a site full of petroglyphs, including the largest on the island (12 metres long depicting a canoe – visible in the following image by the two parallel lines in the rock).

The petroglyphs at Papa Vaka

The petroglyphs at Papa Vaka

The hole full of water that you can see towards the bottom of the image was used in the past as a rudimentary mirror for looking at the stars.

After this great second site, we headed on over to the next location, Tongariki.  Nothing really prepares you for the scene in front of you at Tongariki.  It’s a massive platform consisting of 15 moai all facing inland, and it’s truly breathtaking.  For me, it’s definitely one of the “must see” places on Easter Island.

Tongariki

Tongariki

The third site of the day was the quarry of Rana Raraku, which is where the moai were all carved.  About 900 moai exist in total, of which about 400 of them are in various stages of construction in the quarry.  Everywhere you look there are moai, and it’s fascinating. Nobody is sure how they were made or transported, but however they did it, it must have been a huge effort!

Moai at Rano Raraku

Moai at Rano Raraku

Like with Orongo, you are only allowed to visit Rano Raraku once per visit to the island, so it’s extremely important not to waste the opportunity.  I spent around 90 minutes at each site, which seemed enough (and significantly more than the “suggested” amount on the boards :D)!

Rano Raraku was the final stop scheduled for the day, but we stopped off for one more on the way back to Hanga Roa.  This site is called Huri A Urenga, and is home to a special moai.  Typically, the platforms they are standing on are very wide and narrow, and the moai faces perpendicularly out from it.  However, at Huri A Urenga, the moai faces towards the corner, and the platform is more of a square shape.  The reason for the moai facing a different direction to usual is due to the fact that it actually faces the direction of the winter solstice.

The moai at Huri A Urenga

The moai at Huri A Urenga

Christophe drove me back to the hostel after this, where I spent the evening relaxing and talking to some of the others who were staying there.

Special Edition: Exploring the South West (Day 2)

I enjoyed a rather nice lie in, before heading out at 10:30 with my new book to explore the South West part of the island.  Caves, craters, villages of religious cults, and abandoned platforms of moai were on the agenda today.

I started off by walking along the coast, past the airport to a cave (called Ana Kai Tangata) where there were cave paintings.  The sea was pretty violent, with massive waves crashing against the coast.  It was pretty spectacular.

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After a brief stop, I went on and climbed up the extinct volcano (Rano Kao) that forms this corner of the island.  Upon reaching the crater, I was greeted by one of the most amazing sights.  It was huge, about a kilometre in diameter, with huge pools of water and reeds inside.

The crater at Rano Kao

The crater at Rano Kao

Walking round the crater to the coast took a while, but I eventually reached the entrance to the village of Orongo.  This is where the cult of the birdman was celebrated.  Numerous stone houses were perched right on the top of the cliff, sandwiched between the vertical drops into the crater, or the Pacific Ocean.

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The houses at Orongo

Numerous petroglyphs were dotted around the site too, each with special significance (relating to the birdman competition, and the god it honoured).

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Petroglyphs

After spending an hour and a half at the site, I went out and walked round to the other side of the crater (to a place called Vai Atare).  It took several hours to get there, but I was greeted by an amazing view, putting the precarious position of Orongo in context.

Putting Orongo's position between the crater and the ocean into perspective

Putting Orongo’s position between the crater and the ocean into perspective

I headed back, intending to take a path shown on my map to the next place I wanted to visit, but unfortunately I couldn’t find it.  This meant that I had a six mile walk ahead, with a four mile walk after back to the hostel.  Very fortunately, two miles in, a very nice man (who turned out to be the director of the island’s hospital) stopped and asked if I wanted a lift.  I gratefully accepted his kind offer, as it cut an hour of walking off (and, having already walked about 15 miles that day already, I was a bit tired).

I arrived at the ruined platform of Vinapu where there are several toppled moai, along with some good examples of good masonry. After a good 30 minutes looking around the site, I walked back to the hostel.  A very long and tiring day, but a very good start to the holiday!

Special Edition: Arriving on Easter Island (Day 1)

After an early 5am start to pack and get to Santiago airport, I was on the LAN Chile flight to Easter Island.  Five hours of flying above the blue of the Pacific, with no land in sight, until suddenly, a peninsula came into view.

My first glimpse of Easter Island

My first glimpse of Easter Island

We landed, got through the airport, and I was met by the staff from the hostel, who gave me a flower garland before driving me to the hostel itself.  I dumped my stuff, and went for an explore of the town on the island – Hanga Roa.  There’s not a lot to the town, with it consisting of only about four roads, but there were lots of shops, restaurants, and cafés.  However, that was not was I was first looking for.  Top priority for me was to visit the post office to get a souvenir stamp in my passport.  Owing to the fact that Easter Island is a special territory of Chile, my domestic flight meant that I hadn’t had to go through any immigration procedures, and so the only proper way was to get a special stamp from the post office.  Having come all this way, I couldn’t not!  I went on to browse some shops, and elected to buy a guide book to the island – Amazon link here (written by the Honorary British Consul to the island, and former Cantab – we seem to get everywhere!).

At the end of the road lay the coast, and, with it being Easter Island and all that, there were a couple of moai standing there.

The two moai on the coast in Hanga Roa

The two moai on the coast in Hanga Roa

They are curious statues, and about 1,000 exist in total.  Their size varies enormously (between one and 20 metres – although the average is usually about six or so), and almost all of them face inland (towards where villages once stood in the past).  So many questions remain about them, yet there are no answers.  I appreciated the moai for a while, and gazed out towards the west over the sea.  The next nearest piece of land was 1,200 miles away or so – the Pitcairn Islands (British Overseas Territory), population 50.  I was so very far away from anywhere, but with only four whole days, I had a lot to explore!

A Pretty Quiet Day

First of all, the Prince of Cambridge now has a name. Woo!  He’s now Prince George, which means (assuming that Prince Charles takes George as his regnal name – as being known as King Charles III would probably lead to comparisons between the first two Kings Charles, who were rather controversial to say the least), that he’ll boost the number of Kings George up to eight (putting it as joint most popular, along with Edward and Henry).  However, one could argue that Edward is the most popular, as there were three Kings Edward prior to the Battle of Hastings in 1066 (after which the numbers start, as does modern English history).  In chronological order, these Kings were: Edward the Elder (reigned 899-924); Saint Edward the Martyr (reigned 975-978); and Saint Edward the Confessor (reigned 1042-1066). In a way it would have been cool for him to have been named after one of the ancient Kings of England, although I somehow doubt that we’ll have another King Æðalstan (the first King who unified the whole of England in 927, after trashing the Vikings up in the North – reigned 924-927 (Wessex), and 927-939 (England)). (See previous Special Edition entitled “Old Letters (or the Four “Billy No Mates” of the Alphabet)” for information on those old letters if you’re unsure). Anyway, that Saxon history lesson out of the way, what have I been up to?  Well, yesterday I visited the sulphide plant, where the vast majority of the mined copper ore gets sent (in diggers carrying 300 tonnes each).  They dump it in a pile, and it gets crushed and processed to make a sort of powder/paste of 30% copper (which gets sent by road to a smelter elsewhere).  There was a huge amount of heavy machinery (such as a 15 metre high giant rock crushing machine), and it was very interesting.  The afternoon was quite quiet, but one of my colleagues popped in and asked if I was scared of snakes.  I replied that I wasn’t, so he duly dumped a small lizard into my hand (who had been caught outside, and was now named María).  It was very small, and pretty sweet, and after taking some photos, we released it back outside. Apparently their natural predators around here are tarantulas which is rather sad (but luckily, the tarantulas aren’t really about during the winter). 

María the lizard

María the lizard

Today is pretty quiet, and I’m on my own in the office this afternoon, as everyone else is at a first aid course.