Voice of the Past: Enoch Powell on Overstaying Your (Political) Welcome



Politicians often overstay their welcome. Presidents are lucky in that the 22nd amendment cuts short a political life before abject failure, allowing each of them to become elder statesmen. But even that defense rarely protects them in the waning year of their presidencies–as most presidents are found to be odious after eight years of them. Clinton and Bush were loathed immediately after their presidencies, and I suspect Obama will be as well. All are rehabilitated to fondness in later years–so long as they accept their exile from the ballot.

This past week, a milestone in American political history happened. For those wonks and talking heads that follow such a thing, the House Majority Leader Eric Cantor–the usual heir apparent to the Speaker of the House, lost his seat in a primary election. Eric Cantor didn’t have the luxury of a term limit to inflict the abortive blow. Instead, he had to experience what the British arch-conservative Enoch Powell observed:

“All political lives end in failure.”

Powell, a Conservative member of parliament, exuded the sort of privileged arrogance that some American politicians display. Truly, many of them can get away with this sort of bravado for a bit, but showing too much of your hand–your contempt for the electorate–will end you. Powell gave a fiery speech against immigration in Britain, a speech that went down in their history as the “Rivers of Blood” speech, and left such a bad taste upon the stiff upper lips in Britain that he lost his seat in the Shadow Cabinet–dashing any hope to lead the UK someday. Despite the fact that many agreed with his sentiments, he rode out his time as a meaningless backbencher.

His quote–his epitaph really–came from a book he wrote about another politico, the 19th century Leader of the Opposition, Joseph Chamberlain. The quote in full tells more of the story:

“All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs”–Enoch Powell, Joseph Chamberlain (Thames and Hudson, 1977), p. 151.

Note to politicians–best to leave the game on your terms, rather than overstay your welcome.





Forgotten Detroit?

Day in The D - Scott Kelby Worldwide Photowalk - Detroit, MI

Say “Detroit” to someone outside of the Motor City, and they will take it as a euphemism for the failure of the old American economy. At its zenith, Detroit was the wealthiest city in America, home of the great automotive juggernaut that made Henry Ford a household name. The long decay of manufacturing, beginning in the 1970’s, exacerbated by rising oil costs, the ascendency of foreign autos, the passage of the job-killing NAFTA legislation of the 1990’s and the economic crisis of the 2000’s have had particular impact on Detroit. This decay has been well documented, especially by the bloggers at “Forgotten Detroit,” and it isn’t hard to see it at street level.


The 1987 action film “Robocop” chose for its backdrop a decrepit, future Detroit, one where crime lords and drugs brought the city to crippling blight. Law enforcement became a sort of warfare. No child of the 1980’s thought that this movie would have been prophetic.  In the film, big business relied upon the absolute blight and crime to drive down property to a point that the city could be leveled and gentrified into a new “Delta City.” Life it seems, imitates art as this has in fact happened in a way, as the downtown, surrounding the central Campus Martius park, is almost exclusively owned by Dan Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans. His private police–Rock Securities–monitor the downtown, working with police to keep the core of the city functional amidst the nearby chaos of Livernois Ave–the most dangerous street in America, where a citizen has a one-in-seven chance of being victim to a crime.

My last stay in Detroit was in the Renaissance Center–or RenCenter–, a relic of the 1980’s concept of insular, contained worlds, separated from the beating heart of the downtown. I stayed far above street level in the hemisphere’s tallest hotel–the Marriott Renaissance housed in the RenCenter. Looking down the 60 stories below me, I felt as disconnected as one could be from Detroit, and for many a business traveler, this is exactly the distance they’d want to keep if they believe the poor press the city gets. However, where the national story has been about the decay of Detroit, there are green shoots to be found. To find them, I’d have to abandon the glass towers of “Delta City.”

Renaissance Center (GM)


Those green shoots are the in the perseverance of Detroiters to see their city back from the ash. Celebrity sons like Kid Rock, the recent mayor Dave Bing and Dan Gilbert have focused their energy on bringing this city back from the edge. Detroit’s cultural institutions still radiate. The Detroit Institute of Art still sports a Rodin “Thinker” on the main steps. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra still has a national broadcast hosted by the legendary Dick Cavett and under the baton of the Midwestern Maestro Leonard Slatkin (a former conductor in St. Louis, prof at Indiana, and globetrotting conductor). And Wayne State University still attracts 28,000 students to call Detroit their home away from home.

Mariner's Church (Detroit, Michigan)

However, piqued by the catalogue of rotting buildings in “Forgotten Detroit,” I was more curious about those landmarks that are thriving and surviving the neglect. Of particular poignancy is the Mariner’s Church near the Tunnel to Canada. The little parish  is dwarfed by the nearby GM Headquarters, and barely noticeable by car. Built in 1849, the old chapel served as a spiritual safe harbor for those weary travelers on the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes. Each sailing season, the church offers blessing for sailors heading out on the Inland Seas. And in times of shipwreck, the chapel has served as a memorial place. After the loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald in a freak storm on Lake Superior in 1975, the chapel famously rang its bell 29 times, one for each crewman lost at sea. The event was immortalized by the Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, in his “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” To this day, the chapel holds a memorial for the Edmund Fitzgerald, and all of those lost at sea, annually.


Walking onward from the Mariner’s Chapel toward the downtown, I see that I am not alone on the sidewalks. What was once the domain of multi-lane throughways has been turned back over to pedestrians. The Motor City surrendered much of its downtown greenspace to transportation hubs in the 20th century, as the automobile supplanted any need to ever walk in downtown Detroit. However, as cities are rediscovering the value of foot traffic along its main streets as the key to economic revitalization, the old roundabouts and traffic lanes are being leveled in favor of pedestrian zones. In 2004, the city re-established its town square–the Campus Martius. This downtown park was restored to its place as the milestone for the city–all of those roads named for their mileage, such as “8 Mile,” take their origin from the Campus Martius. In winter, the ice rink welcomes downtown workers, and in summer time, an urban beach. The farmers’ market was restored after an 9o-year hiatus.

Culturally, Detroit has the feel of any other Midwestern metropolis, the remnants of immigrant waves from eastern Europe still flourish, as local deli’s still serve Reubens and Pastrami on Jewish Rye. Meanwhile, new transplants, such as the Clevelander Michael Simon’s Roast offer up high-end foodie experiences. In short, whether high-end bone marrow shooters and duck confit, or mounds of deli-style charcuterie by the pound, Detroit is a carnivore’s town. While new restaurants blossom around the Campus Martius, some of the long-established diners and greasy spoons are slightly farther afield. Those institutions have survived in neighborhoods that have turned over to blight, vandalism, crime and ruin. Places like Hygrade Deli are worth the urban safari, but probably not on foot. Yet these anchors on street corners may attract a new generation back into Detroit, especially those yearning for the authentic.


When it comes to the authentic, Detroit is so maligned that credit is stolen for the good things about the city, such as its rightful claim as the inventor and the promoter of the “Coney” hot dog. My first reaction was the same as others–that certainly the “Coney Dog” is a New York creation; its namesake the Island with the amusement park. Rather, the Coney’s roots, like that of Cincinnati Chili, are eastern European. The Coney chili, bearing some resemblance in texture to the meaty sauce from Cincinnati, was developed in the Detroit region by Greek and Macedonian immigrants. Like Philadelphia’s rival cheesesteak shops, Detroiters will debate endlessly over who makes the better Coney–The American Coney Dog or the Lafayette.

Detroit's Famous Coney Island Restaurants - Detroit, USA

Coney favorites and internal rivalry aside, Detroit still has fight. Native son Joe Lewis would be proud of the stamina and the relentlessness of his hometown. Locals are proud of Detroit, warts and all. As the cliche goes, sometimes you do have to hit rock bottom. Detroit, and perhaps Buffalo, are the last of the rust belt cities (the others being Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Toledo) to emerge from a long industrial winter. Cleveland and Pittsburgh have achieved balance with a smaller population and diversified economy. On the ground, there is evidence that the winter in Detroit may be turning, and a rightly sized Detroit is emerging to join her post-industrial Rust Belt neighbors in a Midwestern Renaissance.

Holiday D Light-Detroit, MI

Detroit Fist or “Monument to Joe Lewis”–Photo credit: memories_by_mike / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

GM Renaissance Center: Photo credit: paul bica / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Nothing Stops Detroit: Photo credit: memories_by_mike / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Campus Martius Aerial: Photo credit: Joyce Pedersen (addict2pics) / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Camus Martius Beach: http://nedhardy.com/2013/10/03/no-this-is-detroit/

American or Lafayette: Photo credit: Urban Adventures / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Mariner’s Church Photo credit: cseeman / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Robocop: Orion Pictures. 1987.

Hiatus: Moving Again

Covered Wagon

Back in September, I noted that I was moving back to the Midwest after having spent (and spent is the correct term) 6.5 years in Washington, DC. My move was to a temporary sanctuary as I endeavored to plant my roots more firmly in the Hoosier soil. This month, I move again, to a permanent station, and take on the mantle of homeownership.

So, my attention is spent amidst the packing peanuts and cardboard and rental trucks and moving men these days. But worry not, upon my return, I will pick up where I left off. Having recently spent some time in Michigan, I have a trove of travel stories, including:

  • Detroit Found–The Motor City is not as run down as the media tells. Green shoots abound.
  • Grand Rapids–Gerry Ford, Amway and restored cityscapes, not to mention the quacking of the flat Michigander accent sum up all that makes Michigan, well, Michigan.
  • Bigbee Coffee–Lansing’s little coffee shop takes on the big boys, and is worthy of the quaffing.

I also noticed, that since my last hiatus, I have managed to get through only half of my promised compendium. Here are a few more stories to come:

The Arch–Eero Saarinen and St. Louis

Cheyenne Frontier–A quick visit to Wyoming, the Egg and I, and recollections with former Governor Jim Geringer

Archie McPhee and Me–Ever been a “kid in a candy store?” Seattle’s landmark junk shop offers up bacon scented paper, larger than life cockroaches and every bit of junk “made in China” that you don’t need, but can’t live without.

Harbor Walk: San Diego–the ghost ships in the harbor, the USS Midway, and a not-so-bad fish and chips stand.

Rockefeller’s Cleveland–The richest man in history called Cleveland, Ohio home. Yes, Cleveland.

Taliesin West–To understand Frank Lloyd Wright, you really need to visit the places he called home. How a childhood gift of wooden triangles made for America’s most famous architect.

Anyway, I’ll be back in the saddle in a few weeks.

–Henry’s Eclectic.


The Real Labor Day

A workman's tale...


In most other corners of the world, May 1st is recognized as Labor Day. But in the US, our Labor Day occurs in September. Assigning one of the less enjoyable aspects of humanity a spring holiday has the effect of brightening an otherwise depressing idea. In America, we kick off fall and the subsequent winter doldrums with Labor Day, the meteorological equivalent of heading back into the dark, dank coal mine. May Day–the first of May–was once a spring festival day, another inheritance from Germanic and Norse traditions. Some still spin around the Maypole and crown a May Queen in affectations of quaint nostalgia. But in the modern sense, May 1 is a memorial day for working people everywhere in the world, except the US. How did Labor Day end up in September? And how did labor become such a hated idea in the American political life?

American politicians have spent the lifetime of the republic afraid of the collective power of the people. John Adams and his Federalists referred to this as “the mob.” Rebellions are always led by citizen groups, and in the US, we’ve tolerated only one citizen-led rebellion, in 1776. When Scots-Irish wanted to assert their rights to distill their own spirits, they led a small rebellion against President Washington and the new government in 1791, Washington himself commanded the army that dispersed the rebellion led by his former comrades in arms against the British, the first and only time a sitting US president led a command from the front (rather than the White House Situation Room.) But, I digress.


The First Labor Day

In 1884, the divide between the very wealthy and very poor was even greater than today. Workers, influenced in part by the socialist writings of Marx but also earlier American utopianists like the British immigrant Robert Owen of Indiana, began to organize into unions.  In the post-Civil War years, American industry grew exponentially as immigrant workers from abroad took on jobs in the factories of major cities.  Those immigrant workers brought with them an anti-authoritarian, anti-class spirit, especially Germans, who escaped the creation of an imperial Germany after their 1848 revolution. Forty years of American assimilation did not deter German-speaking laborers in major cities from demanding a classless society and worker equity. Working conditions in factories of the time are well-known, 12-18 hour work days, seven days a week, child labor, and no concept of occupational hazards or human resource management. 1880’s America was what 21st Century China is now. 

At the time, workers’ unions were violently put down, often using local police forces to do the dirty work. Demonstrations reached a fevered pitch when, on May 4, 1884, protesters gathered on Haymarket Square in Chicago, calling for a fixed eight-hour work day. In the hysteria, there was an explosion. Police believed fringe anarchists bombed the square, the protestors maintained it was a capitalist conspiracy. Seven policemen and four protestors died in the melee. To take up the cause of those who died, the Socialist International declared May 1 to be the International Workers Day—or Labor Day. It is hard to believe with 21st century eyes that people were willing to die for the right to an eight hour work day.

This move was unwelcome in American society. After all, the late 1800’s were the American Gilded Age, and then-president Grover Cleveland owed his razor thin electoral victory to the titans of industry at that time. Cleveland was the only democrat elected to the presidency between James Buchanan and Woodrow Wilson. He knew that the power center was center-right in American politics. And so, to avoid setting off a socialist labor movement in the US, he declared the first Monday in September to be the American Labor Day, cleaving the US observance from the international socialist observance and offering a bone to the rabid masses long after the international day. Every effort was made to minimize the Haymarket massacre in the American experience.

President Grover Cleveland Restored

To this day, May 1—International Workers Day, or Labour Day—honors the eight-hour work day, something that is severely eroded in American life today. While the Adamson Act in 1916 established the eight hour work day, and the Fair Labor Standards Act established the idea of the 40 hour work week with overtime pay, those laws have since been circumvented. Salaried employees are exempt—a trade-off for having a guaranteed income over hourly or piece-rate wage. With that exemption comes unwritten rules—as salaried employees can find themselves working more hours per week without overtime. Contracted employees are often exempt, as the contract is viewed as the binding document—a law unto itself. Retail employees often work above and beyond to earn commission on top of their base. Americans have seemingly cashed in their productivity not for more leisure, but perhaps the pursuit of avarice instead.

French Riviera

Not all countries behave this way, and in fact, are more productive with fewer hours in the office. According to yearly polls by the banking giant UBS, the French, who work 1453 hours a year have a GDP-per hour of $25.10 an hour. In America, we work 1792 hours a year and have a GDP per hour of $24.60. So, the French do more with less time at work, and do just fine as the 18th largest economy in the world. Not to mention the Germans, who also have mandated short work weeks, and are the 3rd largest economy in the world, behind the US and slave-labor China. Put another way, the French are working an average of 30 hours a week over a 50-week work year, and the US is working 35 hours a week over a 50 week work year. It is a little worse than that though—the French have a mandated 5 weeks-vacation per year while most Americans, if they have a two week vacation leave, will not take it nor will not avoid their BlackBerries while on vacation for fear of missing something back at the office. Some call this a freedom—a freedom to work as much as you want. And others say any tampering with the status quo could hemorrhage jobs–an obvious red herring in the face of global productivity from our European competitors. But I imagine those that say such things have no understanding of what it is to labor with their hands, in retail or in middle management.

Joseph McCarthy

Such talk would have roiled Senator Joe McCarthy, the obtuse drunken Cold War senator from Wisconsin, who launched into an irrational persecution of labor movements in the 1950’s. At the time, the US had rightly elected Eisenhower as president—the ur-cold warrior and greatest tactician we have ever produced. Eisenhower was the perfect foil against Stalinism—a completely different political construct that socialism. Most people, when mentioning a fear of communism mean to say Stalinism–the totalitarian, murderous tyrannical form of government. The USSR was an existential threat to the US, with its assertion of dominion over Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and Latin American. Stalin was using the mantle of Marx and Lenin to hide his totalitarian grip on the USSR. He murdered his opposition. Like any utopian ideal, the wheels come off quickly in the hands of men. And so, we did have a Red Scare. We had a legitimate global problem off our shores.

But McCarthy, a real poll hound, got votes by Red-baiting the American public into thinking that any collective actions were essentially the same as “communism.” (McCarthy may be the singular person to blame for conflating communism, Stalinism, Marxism and Socialism as all the same thing.) A lot of politicians used this tactic back in the 1950s, including Richard Nixon. McCarthy and others quickly recast the US away from anything that favored populist or union activities. Unions were investigated for their anti-business whining for worker’s rights. Academics and artists works were scrutinized with a filter for perceived communist sympathies. Musicians and actors were blacklisted from practicing their art. The House “Un-American Activities” Committee began its inquisition into the First Amendment. The era of the individual–free to make choices, free to suffer consequences and loyal to the patriotic company store was back in style. And some of the by-products of those days—“In God We Trust” on our currency, the Pledge of Allegiance and Loyalty Day—remain with us, their origins obscured.

The Bellamy salute is the salute described by Francis Bellamy to accompany the American Pledge of Allegiance, which he had authored. During the period when it was used with the Pledge of Allegiance, it was sometimes known as the "flag salute". During the 1920s and 1930s, Italian fascists and Nazis adopted salutes which were similar in form, resulting in controversy over its use. It was officially replaced by the hand-over-heart salute when Congress amended the Flag Code on December 22, 1942.

Loyalty Day? In the US, May 1st is officially “Loyalty Day.” Signed into law by President Eisenhower in 1958, the day is set aside to reaffirm our loyalty to the American ideal. More importantly, it was  established to forever put a wedge between the international Labor Day and the US. Now, May 1 also happened to be a day when the Soviets liked to display all of their missiles in Red Square in the largest euphemism ever created by men. (geriatric old farts in awe of many a phallus being erected by heavy machinery, doing what they can no longer do, but I digress again). As America fell behind the Soviets in the early days of the Cold War, it is perhaps understandable that our leaders wanted to detract from the might of the Soviet Union and their display of missiles on May 1 with a day of our own. But that wasn’t the reason for why Loyalty Day came to be–fealty to jingoism was more important than to fellow laborers. American labor was to be celebrated as something unique, set aside from an international labor movement. Exceptional even, without peer.

While not an official holiday or bank holiday, US presidents have declared the Loyalty Day since 1958—Clinton and Obama included. An interesting note, Eisenhower himself declined to commemorate the day in his last two years in office, perhaps because McCarthyism had imploded, the witch hunt was no longer popular and the right to dissent is a first amendment protection. His precedent remains un-followed, for 25 years after the Cold War, the White House continues to proclaim a holiday that several generations of Americans have never heard of.

Labor Day in some ways is a farce in America; an old idea long lost in the economic juggernaut. We do not, as a culture, mourn the Haymarket martyrs nor celebrate the great American economic backbone–the Middle Class. We take the day off, or most of us do if our employers allow. Plenty of people work on Labor Day. It is as if the idea of honoring Labor movements, the winning of improved working conditions, occupational safety, work-life balance and time with family are unsavory and unpatriotic. And yet, standing up and demanding a right is the most patriotic thing we can do as citizens.

John Steinbeck once riffed that the reason why labor and other socialist-democratic movements never took deep root in the US was “because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” There is some truth to that, seeing how easy it is in modern America to put on the affectations of wealth through credit spending, leasing BMWs and composing well-crafted selfies on facebook. As a society, we could revisit this holiday, which has become nothing more than the last grilling-out day in September for millions of Americans. We could think of the eroding middle class and find a way back to that 1950’s era of prosperity, that came through the collective buying power of the middle class and not through a gilded oligarchy. We could join ranks with other nations and rightly celebrate the re-birth of our economy in May, rather than its fall in September, by honoring labor’s contribution to the right to leisure that we all can enjoy.


We have no need for Loyalty oaths or Loyalty days. They smack of control over the minds of men. Americans have preternatural fidelity–we know we have a good thing every day. Even the worst of us is better off than the rest of the planet, or at least the worst of other countries. Official duty days are the very exercise of the totalitarian, demanding blind loyalty to a narrow interpretation of the nation’s history and culture. This reminds me of North Korea, not the US. No, the tribute to labor is not the status quo, it is aspirational. And since when did we want to stop being aspirational?

Photo Credits

Labor Face: Rakesh JV / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Haymarket Riot: coolloud / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Grover Cleveland:  Foter / Public Domain Mark 1.0

French Riviera Beach Bums: irene. / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)

McCarthy History In An Hour / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Bellamy Salute, American Flag: http://www.nww2m.com/2012/06/i-pledge-allegiance/

Weber Grill Robert S. Donovan / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Voice of the Past: Emerson on Procedures

Ralph Waldo Emerson

We’ve all been there; a situation where someone in authority over our work, day or life relies upon a procedure, codicil or regulation to snap things back into bureaucratic harmony. Nothing is more infuriating than procedure getting in the way of common sense. (An aside, I have always found common sense to be an oxymoron for reasons that become obvious upon an appeal to it.)

Among many of his Bon mots, this particular gem by Emerson offers a retort:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

The challenge, of course, is that a reader looking to massage their own ego may think that being inconsistent in all things is somehow a stroke of genius. I’d contend that the difference between those who are inconsistent and brilliant against those who are inconsistent and neurotic is in their productivity. Put another way by the screenwriter Bruce Feirstein in his version of 007:

“The distance between genius and insanity is measured only by success.” –Super villain Elliot Carver, in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).


Emerson is saying more than to be an iconoclast, he means that small minded people cannot shake the feeling that being consistent is a virtue. Or perhaps feigning consistency to impress those who think consistency is a virtue is somehow good in its own right. There are cases in life where consistency has its purpose, building a house, the scientific method and responding to a fire come to mind. But those are not small-minded endeavors.

Sometimes to resolve a problem or to focus on what matters, the old way will not suffice, as the old way will end up creating the same result. Einstein said as much too, in his reflections in trying to solve a problem with the same failing solution with the expectation of differing results.

Like a lot of quotes, cutting off the explanation leaves the real meaning lost, denuded. Here is the full quote:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”– Emerson, Self-Reliance

Emerson Books18 / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

On Eostre


Ostara by Johannes Gehrts

The Easter story–the Christian Easter story–gets its day in the sun this week. The story of life and rebirth is welcome after every hard, cold winter. As a kid, swinging my Buster Brown’s up against the oaken pew, doodling on the backs of tithing envelopes at the old Methodist church, I wondered a bit about where the word Easter originated. After all, it is a word that has no reference in Scripture, nor is derived from a Greek or Latin word. The answers to my childhood inquiry would not be found in that part of the ancient world. The word Easter, like Yule, originates from the Germanic tradition, the holiday of renewal.

The story of religion building and borrowing from other religions is nothing new. Like the Catholic usurpation of December 25th from the Roman Saturnalia to observe Christ’s birth, Easter was borrowed to convert the pagan Germanic and Norse tribes to the faith. Of course, Christians have the benefit of knowing approximately when Jesus died, during the Passover. While the exact date may be lost to history, the movable feast follows the Jewish calendar year.


Universal Symbols

As a young student, I had an exceptional reading teacher who found a way to teach Greek and Roman mythology as part of our curriculum—long before the “Common Core” and “No Child Left Behind” obliterated the education profession. Later, a high school lit teacher introduced me to the writing of Joseph Campbell. Campbell strove to find a kind of “unified field theory” for the themes and symbols of all mythology, and in his canon of writing, did so.  From an ethnocentric view, Greek and Roman myth has very little to do with my northern European ancestry. When it comes to “living mythology” in our day an age, the Norse can lay a greater claim to the survival of their symbols in the modern age. Sure, we have democracy from the Greeks. But we have Christmas Trees, Groundhog Day, and several Easter symbols from the Germanic tribes and their Norse and pagan mythology.

As Campbell would agree, Norse and Germanic myth differs little from Greek mythology at its core–being polytheism. With its own pantheon of Gods representing certain emotions and symbols, the Norse match point-for-point the Greek and Roman gods. Zeus? Try Odin. Apollo? Try Thor. Aphrodite? Try Freya. Hercules? Siegfried. Muses? Rhein Maidens. Hades? Valhalla. Animal reverence was more common in the Norse, but present in Greek and Roman as well.  What differs among the three is what was physically left behind. Greeks and Romans built magnificent marble temples that are still imposing in ruin today. We have their written word, through Plato among others. Germanic tribes however were mobile, or built their structures from wood that would not last the millennium. They put their effort into fine jewelry work, most of which was melted by the conquering Roman legions. Regarding their subjugated tribes as “barbarian,” the Romans did little to appropriate the Norse gods into the Pantheon. And, with the conversion of the empire to Christianity, what little symbolism remaining in Northern Europe was expropriated and reassigned within the Christian tradition. For the most important observance in Christianity, the Goddess Eostre–or Easter–was given a “page-one rewrite.”

The #Venerable #Bede - #BritishLibrary - - #fr

The Goddess Eoster

The Internet is awash in neo-pagan imagery of the Goddess Eostre, however the Norse myths around the name Eostre are fairly thin. The Anglo-Saxon historian and Catholic monk, the Venerable Bede, described Eostre as a pagan German goddess for whom the Eastermonth, now April, was named. He said:

“Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.”

By his time, the festival in her honor was supplanted by the Passover and Passion play. As is often the case with the Christianization of the tribes of Europe, the names of the deities changed by the holiday feasting and symbolism carried on, like techies replacing the operating system but keeping their computer hardware. Aside from that attestation in the 11th century Anglo-Saxon Bede’s De temporum ratione, there is little to go on. The name also survives in oblique ways—the Ostrogoth tribes to the east of Ancient Rome as described in Caesar’s writings on the Gallic Wars, the modern country of the Österreich (Austria), and even the surname Oster (as in the appliances among other uses) owe their root to the Germanic word for “East”—Ost. In fact, the alternative spelling of Eostre is Ostara. And, given the emphasis on the rebirth and renewal of the season, aligned with the vernal equinox, Easter is the rising sun, the rebirth of Spring and the renewal of life. Sounds like a familiar meme.

The Story of the Egg-Laying Hare

Myths around the Eostre goddess seem to be a modern construction, by neo-pagans and Wicca. Two in particular explain away the symbolism of another Easter symbol, the egg-laying hare. As a cultural touch point, Americans know well the Cadbury Egg commercial, of the clucking rabbit laying a chocolate, sugar filled egg. As far as my eight-year-old self was concerned, the Easter Bunny was the Cadbury Bunny, laying chocolate, fondant-filled eggs on television. I always preferred the mini-eggs, and still do to this day. Perhaps in a culture so steeped in animal absurdity–from the talking mouse to Brian in the Family Guy–no on thinks to ask where the idea of an egg-laying rabbit originates. And for that, we have to go to the Norse myth of Eostre and the Hare.

The Goddess Eostre, a lover of all of the creatures of the forest, was on her journey in the wood. She came upon a bird, its wing injured beyond hope. Eostre, so connected to the spirits of nature, shared in the anguish of the wounded bird and took pity. As the body of the bird would never be the same, she saved the spirit of the bird, turning the bird into a beautiful, bounding hare. Yet the metamorphosis was incomplete. In thanks to Eostre, the hare laid an exquisite egg for her, as a gift. (As retold by your author, playing Aesop)

Or something like that. The Wicca variation paints Eostre as more of a trickster, showing off for passersby, turning a bird into a rabbit. Eostre in this retelling broke a cardinal virtue–to do no harm. Eostre lost her powers, and was unable to return the hare back to being a bird, leaving the rabbit on earth to lay eggs.

But why a hare? And why eggs? Hares are prominent in Germanic lore. The Goddess Freya kept silver bunnies as companion animals. And eggs are a visual stand-in for the fertility of the Spring season. Our cultures most recent exposure to the magical hare was by Peter Jackson in his shameless embellishment of Tolkien’s Hobbit. Jackson employed rabbits as companion sled dogs of a kind, an obvious expropriation from Northern European folklore.

The translation of animal worship from Norse mythology to Christian tradition is again at the hands of the Germans. Those same Germans who gave us Groundhog Day (the reverence of the bear, or ground marmot as weather keeper) gave us the rabbit who lays eggs. The Easter bunny is prominent in America, in part because of the German settlers who brought the bunny with them. They turned it into a confectioner’s marketing machine, and sold off Easter eggs of chocolate. Thus, the ridiculous egg-laying rabbit became Christian. The very name Easter became the western name of the Resurrection celebration. The goddess was wiped from the historical record, the feminine replaced with the masculine (in terms of symbolism).

Faberge Egg
Eggs evolved from their fertility symbolism into something modern as well. When in Bavaria some years ago during the Easter season, I marveled at the local custom of painted eggs. These exquisitely decorated orbs were either drained of their yokes then painted upon, or preserved under layers of enamel. This practice is pre-Christian, but retained in Catholic Bavaria. Over time, the eggs would become so very elaborate, and in the case of Faberge, not even be made of eggs anymore, but of gold fit for a Tsar of Russia.

334. Pussy Willows (Feral Cat?)

A Brief Note on Fuzzy Palm Fronds

Some Christian traditions did not translate well in the cooler Northern European climate. For example, it was difficult, if not impossible for the laity to acquire actual palm fronds to celebrate Palm Sunday. A local, abundant substitute would have to suffice. The foothills of the Alps bloom with Pussy Willow in the spring, about the time of the Easter celebration, becoming a substitute for Palm Sunday. Pussy Willow branches usually begin appearing in stores around Lent, and were a prominent fixture in my childhood home, no doubt a tradition passed down from German settlers who knew no differently before the age of globalization could bring palm fronds to every chapel around the globe.

Cognitive Dissonance or Good Clean Fun?

Stripped of the universal and borrowed themes, the Christian Easter focuses on the leap of faith that every Christian is asked to make, of the passion, resurrection and salvation through belief. It is a leap of faith that cannot be made once, but as Soren Kierkegaard observed, must be made over and over again. That allusion—the leap of faith and renewal—of the recurring spring, the recurring observation that after the cold, barren winter life goes on should be lost on no one, in no culture. Humans welcome the return of hope in all things.

It is easy to appreciate why more fundamentalist strains of Christianity have tried to move away from those Germanic traditions, as they are not canonical or even related to Christianity. However, for those early proselytizers, trying to convert Vikings and Goths and Celts to a religion rooted in Bronze Age Judea, it is easy to see how appropriating local symbols and customs aided in conversion. The Middle Ages gave rise to Europe as Christendom, and the new, hybridized faith that emerged was exported to the United States and the world. However, as many Americans either observe the holiday or only the secular trappings of candy baskets today, it is clear that the feasting day of Easter looks very different than its roots as a resurrection story from the Fertile Crescent thanks to the admixture of Norse mythology into its symbols.

Eostre Goddess Photo credit: Foter / Public Domain Mark 1.0

This is the Place: Salt Lake Old and New

This is the Place Monument

In 1847, after a grueling 1300-mile exodus from Missouri, over the vast plains and megalith Rockies, the first Mormon settlers arrived in what would become Utah. Looking over the vast valley from the Piedmont of the Wasatch Mountains, Brigham Young declared to his flock, “This is the place.”

That place, the Salt Lake Valley, must have looked like Eden from that distance. Cottonwood trees climbed the mountains, exposed limestone would provide the foundation of their new terrestrial Kingdom. In the distance, what seemed to be a lake of plenitude must have signaled to Young a perfect place for a new Eden. Of course, that lake would be the brackish Great Salt Lake, providing no drinkable water. No bother, must have thought Brigham—it is a Dead Sea in the New World!

Salt Lake City is the first city of Mormondom, a place on the map that is the home to the fastest growing religion in recent memory. Yet half of the population are “gentiles,” as the faithful call us. Its adherents will tell you about it without much inquiry of your own.


Conferences are the usual reason for my travel, and Salt Lake was not immune from this trend. My pursuits off-the-clock in Mormondom were three fold—I wanted to find the local fare, desired to tour as much of Temple Square as I could, and I wanted to find the green shoots of the new “Gentile” Utah peeking through centuries of dogma. As I began my pilgrimage, locals could tell I was not from around Salt Lake before I even opened my mouth.

“How can you tell?” I’d ask.

“You have a beard!”

Sporting stubble was a tell, as Mormon men have been clean shaven since their honor code days and missionary work. Prior to these edicts, manly manes were common among the Mormons. But, as the post-WWII Americana developed, church elders encouraged the flock to clean up, assuring Mormons were integrated in American society—that they were as American as any other. So, the IBM look came into fashion among the young, and often carried on through life. But, like any religion, doctrine takes time to change, and now those short-sleeve dress shirts and clean-shaven men again look as though they are from another age.

Salt Lake City, May 2012

Salt Lake is the most liberal of Utah’s cities, but that isn’t saying much. A Utah liberal is probably closer to a New York Republican on the political spectrum. Locals have elected Democratic mayors who look toward economic development as a safe foil to stand against fundamentalist “values voters.” At the time of my visit, no fewer than 15 major construction sites were active downtown. The Salt Lake of my memories is already a new world—a new city. Not the easiest of cities to take on by foot, I hired a cab. Mentioning my past career in state governments, the cabbie gave me the ground truth about Utah politics. “I like the governor, but he’s like the rest of the statehouse…towing the Mormon party line.” An interesting turn of phrase, revealing that Utah politics are squarely divided between the faithful and the fallen, in his estimation anyway.

Tasty Fry Sauce

Fry Sauce and a Blue Iguana 

Task one was locating Utah’s contribution to the Great American Buffet—fry sauce. For the uninitiated, Fry Sauce is a curious yet convenient condiment spread over fast food from Provo to Park City. The mixture of ketchup and mayo into one puddle on a plate is called “a mess” back East. I was prohibited in making such a concoction on my plate as a child, certainly. In fact, when the two emulsions meet on a burger, most Americans are so embarrassed by the mess that we put a bun on it and hide it from view. Arctic Pop, a local burger chain, originated the sauce.

“Are you sure you want to go there?” he asked.

“I do, I read about it on Yelp!”

“Yeah, but, it isn’t that great.”

Is this the place?” I asked, hoping for a rise out of my cabbie.

He responded, without catching my best Brigham Young impression.

He was right. The poor shop looked like the last Burger Chef on earth, décor untouched since 1978. And sadly, I couldn’t get fry sauce in a nice soufflé cup. It arrived in a pre-sealed shallow tin.

“Hmm. This isn’t the place.”

The cabbie agreed to wait for me. Cab traffic is pretty light in Utah. Quickly coming back to the car with some disappointment, he offered, “Want some real food?” “How about Mexican? You’ll like the Red Iguana.”

Red Iguana: The Killer Mexican Food

The Red Iguana is known for its mole (pronounced like MOH-lay). Mexicans began moving to Utah in force in the post-NAFTA years, bringing some flavor into a part of the country where “Jell-O” is the unofficial food of the state.

“Is this the place….for mole?” I asked some departing diners.

“Sure, but the Blue Iguana is better. The family divorced, and the husband opened up a new restaurant.” Or, so the passers by gossiped. Copious research did not show any relation between the two restaurants, save for the choice in mascot. The mole was better than fine. A thick savory puree of coffee and chocolate, ancho and Serrano peppers, tomato and onion dress up the grilled chicken. I could eat a bowl of this stuff and have them hold the chicken. Who needs fry sauce…the state condiment of Utah should be mole.

Temple Square, Salt Lake City, 1899 retouched

This is their place

Dusk seemed to be the best time to tour Temple Square—the beating heart of the Mormon faith. While modern buildings have sprouted up around the grounds, the Square remains the focal point of the downtown core. Admonitions await the visitor, on carefully placed signage:

My arrival, unlike the ancient Mormon settlers, was heralded. I was immediately approached by two young men, matching missionaries in their IBM uniform look, welcoming me (and perhaps assessing my beard for signs of heathendom).

“Hiiii, just looking around.” I offered immediately, expecting the sort of proselytizing that arrives at my doorstep periodically.

“Okay. You may want to see the visitor’s center, or the Museum of Church History and Art.”

Is this the place?” I asked jokingly, expecting the missionaries to at least catch my increasingly inside joke funny only to myself.

“No, it is over there,” they monotonously directed. Still, no one catching my Brigham Young impression.

“Can I go in the big building too?” pointing blasphemously at the Temple, another tell that I was not among the Elect.

“No, only if you have a Temple Recommend,” they dismissed. “But there is a model of the temple in the South Visitor’s Center if you want to take a look.”

Verily enough there was a model. This came as a surprise to me, as I always thought the interior of the temple was a secret. I approached a young woman missionary pair in the Center, asking about this revelation.

Salt Lake Temple Model

“The temple isn’t secret, but sacred,” they offered in a well-turned, rehearsed and pitch perfect reply.

Ah, well that makes more sense to me. While the connections between Mormon practice and Masonic ritual (the alleged inspiration of some of the faith for Joseph Smith) are well documented, I forgot for a moment that what was an anthropological experiment for me was a faith for others. These grounds, in their Marriottesque décor, were the Mormon St. Peter’s Square. This was the Mormon Vatican.

Many of the missionaries in Temple Square were from other countries—a veritable EPCOT center of nationalities purposefully assigned to this place, to show the global majesty of the church. Their name tags are augmented by the flag of their home country. Mormons are polite to a fault. I knew as much from my acquaintances over the years, and knew that this was the place for me to try out my traveler’s pidgin polyglot of languages without fear of ridicule.

 “Ist das die platz…fur die alte Tabernacle, bitte?” to the Swiss and German pair.

They giggled, feigned appreciation for my butchering of German grammar (no religion can temper German efficiency and directness), and began their checklist of engaging a hairy gentile on his path to conversion. I entertained this a bit, wanting to see just how the conversation works within the compound. They shared their favorite passages from the Pearl of Great Price. They asked about my own beliefs and what I think happens to my soul when I expire. All deep questions for a guy wandering around in shorts and a backpack, sneaking chomps of a candy bar despite the extolling not to eat on hallowed ground.

“Danke schoen, nein danke.” “Ich war einmal Methodist.”

Christmas at Temple Square

In the old Tabernacle—the choir hall—I find myself alone. No tour was in the place at the moment. This building housed the first Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which has gone on to become a rather famous singing ensemble comprised of volunteers. As a former chorister, I have my own judgments about the choir’s curious diction (but perfect pitch and articulation), but I reserve those judgments and take in the hall. I belted off some of my own Baritone to hear the world-famous acoustics—so clear that you can hear a pin drop on the podium 200 yards away. My Bach chorale cycled along the domed ceiling like an inverted velodrome, growing like a tidal tsunami until returning back, the effect like singing in a shower the size of a sports arena. Some other tourists and a few missionaries opened the door. I had stopped singing in what felt like an hour ago, and the sound was just now diminishing. We made eye contact, and I just shrugged. Rather than letting a conversation erupt, I walked out the nearest door, a la Steve McQueen (“do something awesome, then leave.”) or Snoop Dog (droppit like its hawt).

Across from the older campus is the newer world headquarters of the Mormon Church, a 1950’s era pile of alabaster that looks like it landed from Planet Eisenhower. The building sports a massive Mercator projection of the world, not too unlike something Mussolini might have wanted in his den. All of the major activities of the church—from the performances of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to the semi-Annual conference are held at the Conference Center across the street. This building blends natural elements and stone in yet another amusement-park-tacky-yet awe-inspiring way.

Plump-faced sun

I should pause here to say that Mormon architecture should be analyzed by its own vocabulary. It is hard to adjudicate it otherwise. The temple itself is based on the biblical proportions (as understood) of Solomon’s Temple. This created a footprint that seems squished—a very long, slightly narrow rectangle. The use of repeating elements—spires, windows, and asymmetry—differs greatly from the use of the Greco-Roman architecture in most public buildings in the antebellum 19th century. Symbols—a rising, smiling sun and the oxen—are all elemental in Masonic imagery, and are used liberally on the old Temple façade.

“Ni hao,” I offered to the Taiwanese missionary, “Zai Nali Museum…uh…ma?”

Gentiles can tour the Temple Square without worry of conversion. If you have an open mind, and are willing to treat the Mormons with respect and leave the sarcasm and contempt behind, walking the grounds and seeing a unique American story first-hand is worth the effort. The church even provides shuttles from the airport to give lay-over passengers a brief tour if their schedule permits. The Mormons, of course, hope visitors will be won over by their visit to the Square, but this is not a requirement for admission.

As I left the square, a young couple walked slowly, blissfully toward the front of the old temple. The setting sun back-lit the edifice like a great corona, as if the temple was emanating divine light. The long shadow over the square blanketed the flower beds in dusky hues. The girl looks up in awe, as I did, at the scene. And then he made his move, she turned to find him on bended knee, the diamond hurling bolts of sunset all around. I am just far enough away that the whole scene occurred in near silence—like a colorized Oz as a silent film. She contorted in laughing joy. The nod. The hug. Another eternal couple forged. Even the most skeptical can’t help but appreciate the numinous in that experience. I do not think they knew that I was a voyeur to their moment. They expected someone looking on, perhaps their Heavenly Father from atop the Temple. For them, this is the place.

Polygamy Porter Pint

The new Salt Lake City

Ending on that note, it was time for me to find my place. Two blocks down, I found my third goal—the new Utah. Aside from Robert Redford’s Sundance and the occasional independent bookery, Salt Lake has grown from its conservative founding into a cosmopolitan city. Since the 2002 Winter Olympics, Utahans have relaxed their once totalitarian laws on the consumption of alcohol. At the Beer Hive, the bar carries Utah’s contributions to the craft beer movement. Wasatch Brewing Company has been in business since 1986, surviving the old “club” days when imbibers were required to buy a “membership” to a pub, and were also required to buy food with every two beverages. Wasatch led the Reformation, serving up fine micro-brew to the Gentiles and doing it well.

“What will it be?”

“Something local, dark, and free of false hope, perhaps.”

The bartender picked up on my irreverence. The beard must have sealed the deal.

“Ah, try the Polygamy Porter.”

“Pardon?” I snuff, attempting to see if the bartender back peddles. He holds his ground, seeing through it.

“Polygamy Porter,” I look at the tap handle, and sure enough, the logo says it all. Buxom Victorian nudes around their beau, with the slogan.“Bring some home for the wives.”

“Brilliant,” I thought. “This is my place.”

Polygamy Porter

Photo Credits

This is the Place Photo Dean / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Vintage Missionary hoveringdog / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Salt Lake Skyline CountyLemonade / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Tasty Fry Sauce BenSpark / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Red Iguana vxla / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Temple Square Photo credit: Foter / Public domain

Temple Model Interior nan palmero / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Tabernacle J Mullhaupt / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Nauvoo Sun Stone quinn.anya / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Polygamy Porter MikeOliveri / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Temple Square Sign: The Author