There is a legend in Portugal, a just-so story to explain a place name.
The place is called Mira Gaia and is a place on the river shore, across which is Gaia. I say it’s a just-so story because I suspect the name comes from Roman times, when the place across the river was farms and the name is something like “farm look out point.” The Romans were known for imaginative and poetic names like that.
However, the legend goes to another time altogether. The Douro River used to separate Christian and Moor for a long time. (I don’t know how long the time was. Portuguese history is told in generalities. It’s a cultural thing.) Long enough that raids across the river were common, to capture slaves, at least from the Muslim side. (The Christians might have captured slaves too. There is talk of Moorish slaves, but again everything is fuzzy. The one thing I know for sure, because immortalized in oral history, tradition, storytelling and first person accounts, is that the Moors sent parties across the river to raid for slaves. There were admonitions specially for parties of pilgrims, never to be unprotected in certain locations.)
Before we go any further, much has been said about Islam in the “golden age” when they occupied the peninsula. It might surprise you to know that it’s been incredibly burnished. I.e. they might have allowed a little more learning and discussion of things-not-in-the-Koran mostly because these were the provinces, things were spread out and control was harder. But this was after they burned the library at Alexandria (This was the latest I heard, but in comments I’m informed it ain’t so, so we’ll simply say they burned more books than they preserved, even if they’re given credit for the later) and their general treatment of women was about the same it is today. A female pilgrim – we are to understand, not just from poems and traditions, but from first hand diaries and accounts – could be expected to be treated like the girls taken by Boko Haram. I.e., multiple rape followed by being given away in a marriage that was nothing short of slavery.
In the same way, it will shock you to know that early Medieval Christianity has been much maligned. Oh, sure, a lot of it had adapted to local customs, both in worship (which often entailed giving the local god a saint’s name) and in treatment of women (and men.) But such as it was Christianity had one revolutionary belief (gotten from Judaism, of course) in the fact that women had souls. This means that, yeah, sure, women could be coerced into marriage (they still can, given a crazy enough family and enough pressure) but not with the knowledge of the cleric performing the ceremony. I suspect 1/3 of the “she was so pious she sought refuge in a convent” were women escaping from unbearable marriages they didn’t have the strength to refuse. The convent, too, provided women not just a safe place, but a place from which to make a contribution to society. Contrary to all the films about salacious sexual exploits in convents (if those went on, they were really, really stealthy, considering that communal life in those days was VERY communal) nuns made contributions not just in arts like culinary (most sweets recipes in Portugal come from “conventual recipes”) and lace-making, but also in reading, teaching, music, and even less gentle arts like agriculture. If Feminists had an ounce of shame or knowledge of history, they’d trace their origins to convents, where women proved they could support themselves, lead decent lives and contribute to society without men.
Now, was it all roses and wine? Oh, heck no. For one, in the middle ages, and in an area where wars were ongoing, to push back the invaders to North Africa, no one’s life was roses and wine. And for another, it was a time of might not only makes right, but might has to be respected because it can protect us. So a strong knight could certainly mistreat/lead his wife a dance. Male infidelity was absolutely accepted, while female infidelity, if you were lucky, got you sent back to your parents naked and mounted backwards on a mule.
(I will here remind idiots who have studied no history that this was not because men were uniquely evil and women uniquely victimized, but because – by the dictates of biology – men needed to ensure female fidelity if they were to be sure that the child they were raising, the one who would inherit everything, was actually theirs. Women OTOH might be materially harmed by their husband’s infidelity, but not to the point of not knowing who their children were.)
Still and all, from what I can determine from having read a lot of chronicles and biographies, a Christian woman’s life was still preferable to living with the Moors, particularly living with the moors as a captive.
Also, again, I paint with a broad brush. I’m sure individuals and circumstances varied. When I was young, my dad and I were fond of exploring castle ruins (all sorts of ruins, really) which were abandoned centuries ago and had neither been archeologically studied (there’s a treasure throve waiting in Portugal if you can get to them before these sites are obliterated to put up the newest stack-a-prol apartment.
In a castle, overlooking the Douro, a castle so overgrown that you could only tell it had been there by the foundations, we tripped on a tiny tomb – enough, say, for a toddler – with both the cross and the crescent inexpertly engraved on it.
Whose it was and what it might mean who knows. It could be the child of a Moorish captive and the local Lord and the mother have demanded that both symbols be on the tombstone. It is equally easy to conjure up the idea of a pair of star crossed lovers, burying their child and for good measure protecting him with both symbols.
Suffice it to say that as everywhere where two populations are at war and separated by a narrow natural barrier (the Douro is very hard to navigate, partly because it’s shallow in places. However, for a while, in Porto, it was forded by a bridge of boats. That bridge collapsed under the weight of people fleeing Gaia during the Napoleonic invasions. There is a plaque on the side, which propagates the legend that on the anniversary you can hear the screams and cries of people drowning as the bridge collapsed. No, I’ve never been brave enough to verify it.) some humans found their own private truces, and some humans found a hell worse than the general war. The thing about humans is that they are so human and religion or culture alone is not enough to dehumanize them.
At any rate, returning to the legend about Mira Gaia, which I’m telling you, because I dreamed of it, over and over and over again last night, and I am not sure what it means, exactly.
The legend goes that on their way from their wedding fist the Lord and Lady of X were assaulted by a party of raiding moors. It is understood, though never said, that the Lord was a bit the worse for the extensive celebrations, and so the moors stole his affianced wife.
He couldn’t rest, because he loved her truly (and blah blah blah) and night and day he thought about her. So, he got word she was living in Gaia, in the palace of a Moor prince who had silken blah blah blah.
Our brave knight, upon his horse which, I doubt me not, ran more swiftly than the moonlight, made to Gaia, scaled the walls of the prince’s palace, somehow without raising alarm fought many of the guards, then finally got into the chamber where the prince was sleeping the Knight’s wife, which according to legend, had been made part of the seraglio.
The knight fights and kills the prince (and btw the area wasn’t called Gaia yet at the time, according to legend, but the knight’s wife was) and takes his wife Gaia, and bundles her onto his horse, then bundles her onto a boat.
When they’re halfway crossing the Douro, the knight notices his wife is standing at the wrong end of boat (not the prow. Name is not coming) and looking towards the place she just left, crying and sighing.
He thinks she’s sorry for having been despoiled, etc, and tells her, “Gaia, come away from there. You don’t need to remember anymore. We’ll never speak of this.”
And she says amid sighs “I am looking one last time at the place where I was so happy with the man I loved whom you cowardly killed.”
At which point the knight is supposed to have said, “Then Mira, Gaia!” (mira, meaning look in the speech of the time and I believe still in Spanish.) And he drew his sword and cut her head off in a single stroke, burying her in the river by that portion on the shore now called Mira Gaia.
Why on Earth I spent the night dreaming of this, I don’t know. Again it is almost certainly a just-so story to explain a place name after the area and the lingo changed. So why should it haunt me?
Perhaps because I’ve lately been thinking – in the context of other countries and whether it is our right or even our duty to bring them closer to liberty – about liberty and captivity and the human attraction to both in different measures.
Perhaps my subconscious was trying to communicate something – who knows?
As most of you know I’m not pro-war save in the sense of defensive wars. OTOH I know enough history to know that a situation and culture which is possessed of animus against us, and drawers at looking after its own people, might not be a danger to us now, but will be a danger to us eventually. ICBM missiles go everywhere and judging by the efforts of North Korea and Iran, they will eventually be made even by people who can’t muster making a decent car.
We live in a world that the founding fathers couldn’t fully anticipate, and the shortness of our travel times might very well make – one day – imperative that we intervene before places become a danger to us. It’s sort of like living in a neighborhood with someone who kills small animals. Are you going to sit there and do nothing as he escalates to children?
I’m an agnostic on this. I say we leave them alone (not the people who kill small animals. I’d go nuts on them. I like animals) until they’ve proven they’re a material danger to us, and then we go in and we “pacify” them. But “pacification by bombing them into the 7th century” is one thing, and does one thing – it stops them for now. It might not stop them forever.
And they are humans too, like us, and at some point one starts thinking “What if they could be made like us? Isn’t just killing them an affront to all human kind?”
Here I must take a breath. You see, I like humans. And given the choice in any situation I’ll choose life.
But the human impulse to captivity is one that can’t be ignored. It’s not really an impulse to/liking of captivity, btw. It’s a liking for security.
Once you’ve been hemmed in and confined very long, but had your food and drink on time and aren’t’ randomly terrorized every day, you equate confinement with security. You’d rather not be free, if it’s going to make you insecure. That type of culture, be it in the middle East where it’s enforced by religion, or in our inner cities where it’s enforced by culture, is hard as heck to break. Not one generation, not two. You probably need three generations to get people to internalize that liberty doesn’t mean destruction.
In the desert, after all, the Israelites asked Moses why he’d brought them from the fleshpots of Egypt, having forgotten back breaking labor and – hard to believe – the mass murder of male infants.
IOW like Gaia in the legend, who had been captive for years, and had had status and security with her captor, this new thing, and being stolen back even if (technically, probably) to greater freedom was very scary. What if her husband didn’t really forgive her? What if he found she’d enthusiastically cooperated with her captor? That she had children by him?
One of the things of any captive people is that everyone is tainted.
It amuses me when someone traces someone in a country like Russia or China and discerns tenuous tendrils to the old hierarchy. Well, duh. The effect of tyranny is to corrupt everything it touches and society at every level.
So when we free a country, a lot of the middle class are going to be thinking “what if they find out about—” That plus the penchant for security means it’s not only a long time till liberty takes hold, it’s a tough road for the holding power.
A lot of other powers became imperial in these circumstances, occupying and taking the fruits of the land to pay for their trouble.
Americans don’t do that. They are terrible imperialists. All they want to do is go home.
This means, ultimately, that it’s a costly endeavor for someone’s benefit, as the someone is kicking and screaming and telling you they don’t want it.
The Gaia solution (which sounds like a science fiction title, doesn’t it?) is very tempting then. It also, of course, renders everything else pointless.
If one rides upon a horse swifter than moonlight (and what the heck is up with that. Since when is moonlight swift?) to rescue a people, be it abroad or in our inner cities, it is reckless stupidity not to have the fortitude of our convictions, and the certainty in our own culture, enough to then set up the conditions for them to be free and showing them freedom is exhilarating, not scary.
Otherwise, perhaps it would be best if we don’t start.
The choice might not be ours, of course. In our rapidly shrinking world isolationism is attractive and probably impossible. (Even the founding fathers had to deal with the Barbary pirates.)
But if we have to go in, then we should stay and make sure that Gaia is brought to understand what is captivity and what is freedom.
Otherwise, it will be all to do all over again.