WSJ Historically Speaking: The Glory Days of Frankincense and Myrrh

Photo: PRINT COLLECTOR/GETTY IMAGES

Photo: PRINT COLLECTOR/GETTY IMAGES

The Magi, the three wise men, famously offered the baby Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. We can still understand why they brought gold, but what Mary and Joseph were meant to do with the frankincense and myrrh—resins derived from the Boswellia and Commiphora trees—has become less obvious.

The usual explanation for the Magi’s gifts is that they symbolized the trajectory of Jesus’ life: gold to announce his divine origins and kingship, frankincense (which was burned in religious ceremonies) to declare his future role as a priest, and myrrh (which was used in burials) to represent his suffering and death.

But to the ancients, the significance of frankincense and myrrh went far beyond their spiritual symbolism. Both commodities had played a central role in daily life since the dawn of civilization. The resins were introduced to Egypt in the third millennium B.C. from the Land of Punt (thought to have been somewhere between Ethiopia and Eritrea).

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WSJ historically Speaking: How the Original Geneva Convention Created Rules for War

Photo: EVERETT COLLECTION

Photo: EVERETT COLLECTION

If there is any comfort in this week’s publication of a Senate report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s post-9/11 treatment of terrorist suspects, it lies in the fact that torture and cruelty aren’t the common features of war that they once were. Unlike previous ages, the modern world has explicit standards of conduct, laid down by the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which almost 200 countries are now signatories.

The abuse of prisoners of war—whether for pleasure, to extract information or to demoralize the enemy—has been part of recorded history since at least the Assyrians in the first millennium B.C. In 875 B.C., King Ashurnasirpal II boasted, “Many captives…I burned with fire. From some I cut off their hands and their fingers, and from others I cut off their noses, their ears…of many I put out the eyes.”

The man behind the adoption of a universal moral code of warfare was the Swiss businessman Henri Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross. In the summer of 1864, spurred by the suffering he had witnessed after the Battle of Solferino (1859), Dunant brought together the representatives of more than a dozen governments. He invited them to become the first signatories of the original Geneva Convention. By December, 12 states had signed, including Italy, France, Sweden, Denmark and Spain. Britain followed in 1865, Russia in 1867, the U.S. in 1882.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: How the Turkey Became the Thanksgiving Bird

Photo: WARNER BROS. TELEVISION/EVERETT COLLECTION

Photo: WARNER BROS. TELEVISION/EVERETT COLLECTION

This Thanksgiving, let’s spare a thought for the roughly 40 million turkeys whose destiny is inextricably linked to the fourth Thursday in November.

As a symbol of national pride and family values, the humble turkey has few rivals. But how did it edge out the competition to become the quintessential Thanksgiving dish?

Success was neither immediate nor assured. It isn’t clear whether turkey made it onto the menu at the original 1621 harvest-celebration meal shared among the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. Wild turkeys were plentiful; the colonist leader William Bradford noted in his diary that “there was a great store” of them. But the only surviving letter about that meal refers to four men who went “a-fowling,” which could have meant anything from ducks to swans.

The tradition of Congress issuing a national Thanksgiving proclamation began in 1777, at around the same time that the Great Seal of the U.S. was being designed, and the turkey wasn’t a serious contender to be the symbol of America. The birds considered included the rooster, the dove and the eagle. In the end, the Great Seal committee accepted Charles Thomson’s 1782 suggestion of the bald eagle.

But two years later, Benjamin Franklin found himself wondering whether they had made a mistake: “I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly…he is generally poor and often very lousy.” By contrast, Franklin wrote, the turkey was a “much more respectable bird…though a little vain and silly, a Bird of courage.”

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WSJ Historically Speaking: London’s WWI Exhibit and Other Memorable Memorials

Photo: UPPA/ZUMA PRESS

Photo: UPPA/ZUMA PRESS

One of the most beautiful and sublime war memorials in modern history, the ceramic sea of poppies around the Tower of London, will vanish forever in two weeks’ time. The temporary installation, “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” by artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper, has attracted more than 4 million visitors since volunteers began “planting” the 888,246 poppies in early August—one poppy for each British or Commonwealth soldier who died.

The universal chorus of praise enjoyed by “Blood Swept Lands” is an important reminder that art and commemoration aren’t incompatible. Although it is no easy task to capture the tragedy of death or the essence of personal greatness, it can be done.

That said, public memorials are a notoriously sensitive business, and the result often ends in tears—if not for the artist, then for the public. Lord Byron thought the whole enterprise was a bad idea, especially when it came to commemorating public figures. “What is the end of Fame?” he asked in his poem “Don Juan.” “To have, when the original is dust, / A name, a wretched picture, and worse bust.”

Byron may have been influenced by the public scandal that surrounded the 1822 unveiling of Richard Westmacott’s statue in honor of the duke of Wellington. Westmacott created an 18-foot bronze colossus featuring Achilles in all his naked glory. It was the first nude statue in London since Roman times. The outcry was so great that the artist meekly added a fig leaf, thereby ruining the classical purity of the statue and making it seem more pornographic rather than less. Since then, the statue has been vandalized twice—in the predictable place.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Burying the Body in One Place and the Heart in Another

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Halloween is an eloquent denial of the finality of death. Throughout history, people have resisted the idea that life begins and ends with the human body. Even the most ghoulish Halloween story starts with the premise that life exists in more than one realm.

During the medieval period, the belief that the physical and spiritual worlds were intertwined fed into the idea that the soul was located inside the heart. Many aristocrats and royals even had their hearts removed after death. Their corpses were then interred in the family crypt, while the heart was preserved and buried in a place of spiritual significance.

That usually meant a favorite monastery. But for Richard I, known as “The Lionheart” (he supposedly once ate the heart of a lion), it meant having his body buried in England and his heart in France—a way to demonstrate his divine right to wear the crowns of both kingdoms.

Jerusalem was another popular destination. This was where Robert the Bruce (1274-1329), king of the Scots, begged his fellow knights to bury his heart. A band of Celtic crusaders duly set off, bearing the organ inside a silver casket. They got as far as Spain, where most of them were killed fighting the Moors. The heart was rescued by one of the survivors and carried back to Scotland. It was subsequently lost until the 20th century, when archaeologists accidentally stumbled upon the casket while making an inventory of Melrose Abbey in Roxburghshire, Scotland. The heart was left in situ, denying Robert his wish.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: A Few Great Historical Myths

Photo: UNIVERSAL HISTORY ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Photo: UNIVERSAL HISTORY ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Posterity is a curious thing. To some, it accords unmerited glory; to others, it bequeaths lasting shame.

Marie-Antoinette, whose execution took place on Oct. 16, 1793, is one of many who have suffered more than their fair share from posterity. As every schoolchild loves to repeat: When told that the French people had no bread to eat, the thoughtless queen uttered the immortal words, “Let them eat cake,” thereby meriting her dreadful fate at the guillotine.

Marie-Antoinette had many faults, including an unerring ability to choose the wrong friends. But crassness was not among them. She probably never said the phrase, according to Antonia Fraser’s sympathetic, revisionist biography. Judging by the number of women (and it’s only women, for some reason) who have been accused of making the “cake” comment, it’s highly likely that the incident never happened.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Fire as a Source of Destruction—and Innovation

Photo: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Photo: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Wildfire season officially began in September, but the long drought in parts of the U.S. has made the idea of a specific season seem almost redundant. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the U.S. has already suffered 41,000 wildfires this year, resulting in the loss of 3.1 million acres.

Although fire remains one of the greatest dangers to human life, throughout history, its devastating power has been a source of both inspiration and innovation.

In 24 B.C., the constant threat of city fires led the Roman Emperor Augustus to institute the Cohortes Vigilum, the first municipal fire department. Its 7,000 freedmen acted as watchmen, day and night. Although Rome’s six-story wooden buildings and narrow streets made actual firefighting all but impossible, the Cohortes Vigilum helped make the city a safer place. If necessary, it had the authority to knock down whole streets—a crude but effective form of fighting fires.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Women Who Led the Fight for Independence

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

In years to come, the 2014 Scottish independence campaign is likely to be remembered for its overflowing testosterone. In this case, it was men brandishing their microphones. The campaign leaders, the debaters, the pollsters, even the egg-throwers were predominantly male. Women’s voices seemed to form a polite backdrop, as though the entire country had suffered a fit of 19th-century female gentility—except for the fact that actual 19th-century women were hardly shy about firing a rifle for independence.

The 1820s and ’30s in particular were a vintage time for the female independentista. Across the globe, from the Spanish-American Wars of Independence to the Greek Revolution to the November Uprising in the Polish-Russian War, women became spies, nurses, soldiers, couriers, sutlers, propagandists and even unofficial bankers. Some lived to tell the tale; some didn’t.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Pandemics Over the Centuries

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

As the Ebola virus ravages the west coast of Africa, scientists in Canada have reported promising new signs in the search for a cure. This could be a major step toward beating the dreaded disease. But the first such breakthrough was discovering that Ebola is spread through bats native to West Africa.

Throughout the history of pandemics, figuring out how a disease spreads has been key to controlling it. Without such knowledge, a population has scant means of defending itself.

In 1615, a French trading ship was wrecked off the coast of Massachusetts. One of the four survivors was carrying smallpox and passed it on to the Wampanoag Tribe. Time-honored Native American cures, such as sweating or bundling the sufferer, only helped spread the virus. Within 20 years, some nine-tenths of the New England tribes had disappeared.

In the 19th century, another deadly threat arrived from Europe: cholera. The U.S. had escaped the first eruption of the disease in 1817. But thanks to modern travel, the second eruption in 1829 became a trans-Atlantic pandemic. It started in India, then moved along the trade routes into Europe and China.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Anthems Sung in a Patriotic Key

Photo: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Photo: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

The burning of the White House on Aug. 24, 1814, by British troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Robert Ross isn’t an obvious candidate for national celebration. But the event, distressing as it was at the time, did have one silver lining. The amateur poet Francis Scott Key was so relieved that Baltimore’s Fort McHenry escaped a similar fate a few days later that he wrote a poem about it, entitled “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” In 1931, 117 years after the streaming red glare had revealed that the U.S. flag was still there, Key’s poem—renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner”—was officially designated the U.S. national anthem.

Admittedly, the anthem is a challenge to sing. Moreover, practically everyone outside the U.S. mistakenly assumes that the song refers to a battle during the War of Independence, not during the War of 1812. The long version also has an embarrassing tirade against the British (“Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution”), but apart from these hiccups, “The Star-Spangled Banner” stands head and shoulders above most of the other 200 or so national anthems in existence today. For one thing, it is jolly and optimistic—sentiments often in short supply among the rest.

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