Book review: Over The Edge of The World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of The Globe by Laurence Bergreen

Just looking at the book cover and synopsis, I knew this was going to be a thrilling historical book. Right from the outset, you’re thrust into the complex world of 16th century Portugal and Spain. Ferdinand Magellan is a Portuguese sailor who is repeatedly denied the chance to sail an expedition to the Moluccas or Spice Islands. These islands harboured naturally growing spices such as cinnamon, cloves, pepper, and nutmeg which were extremely valuable. A few hundred pounds of cloves could purchase a seaworthy ship. Having been denied funding for his expedition and with the king of Portugal oblivious to his proposal, he left Portugal and went to Seville, Spain where with the help of a certain Ruy Faleiro, a seasoned sailor, and connections from his father-in-law, he manages to navigate the bureaucracy of Spain and successfully pitch his plan to sail to the Moluccas and claim them for the young king of Spain, Charles. Magellan claimed that the Spice Islands lied in Spanish territory as designated by the treaty of Tordesillas several years earlier. The Treaty split the world in two; the west from Cape Verde islands just off the North African coast onwards belonged to Spain and the East up to the Indies and beyond belonged to Portugal. This Treaty was drafted shortly after Christopher Columbus discovered the New World for Spain to enable Spain to expand it’s empire to the Americas. What the Treaty didn’t take into account was the shape of the planet. 

This was not just any ordinary expedition of discovery. It was also albeit a scientific one. For one, it would prove that the earth is round. Although it had already been proved by Erastothenes in ancient Egypt over 1500 years earlier, the more astonishing proof was circumnavigating the entire world. Secondly, this voyage proved something else entirely unknown; that the planet is covered mostly by water. Land occupies a small portion of it. Thirdly, it proved that the Americas were not part of the Indies but an entirely different continent.

Magellan’s plan was simple and precise. They were to sail to Brazil and then continue downwards to the South Pole until they found a passage or strait that led them to the Spice Islands. Columbus had attempted to find the strait leading to the Indies from the Americas because he knew the world was round and therefore you could reach the east if you sailed west long enough. Magellan had maps that were borrowed from different sources which speculated over a passage leading to the Indies. Having convinced the Casa de Contratación (House of Commerce which was in charge of expeditions) and King Charles of Spain, he was given funding and all the necessary help to make the voyage a success. The 19 year old King Charles was counting on the voyage to finance his political aspirations. He was set to be crowned King of the Holy Roman Empire, the highest position in Europe but he needed to bribe the electors in Germany and the ostentatiously greed pope with tributes. So the voyage, if successful, would partially help the young king become the most powerful man in Europe. 

It is human nature to make up stories about things we don’t understand. And that was what people did during the Age of Discovery. They thought that ocean water boiled at the equator, that if you sailed too far, you would fall off the edge of the world, that there were ferocious monsters like dragons which devoured sailors and that there were magnetic islands which pulled nails out of approaching ships. All this was just plain superstitious nonsense which people believed because they did not understand or know anything about the oceans. It also prevented many adventurous people from risking their lives to sail the oceans. It was probably one of the reasons why Magellan almost failed to mobilise his crew in Seville and had to look in other cities. 

Magellan was given 5 ships; Trinidad, San Antonio, Concepción, Victoria and Santiago. The whole fleet was named Armada de Molucca. Trinidad was the flagship and Magellan was the disciplinarian Captain General. They set sail in mid 1519 after months of preparation and assembly with a crew of 260 men of various nationalities from Portuguese to Spanish to French to Norwegian to Venetian and many others. Out of all these only a handful survived the entire journey. Eighteen to be precise. Others perished in war, mutiny, execution and scurvy. A few defected from the mission in San Antonio and returned to Spain. Magellan, being Portuguese, had a difficult time handling the self entitled Spaniards on the ship and his authoritarian brand of leadership did not help. This culminated in a mutiny while they were near the South Pole. In demonstrating his power, Magellan executed some of the mutineers and plugged their heads on sticks. A priest and another mutineer survived this ordeal but were marooned on a remote isolated island. Meanwhile, the Armada braved some of the worst weather known to sailors and many perished while navigating the strait. Food was insufficient and the men tried to fish or when they came across an island, they tried to get the inhabitants to give them provisions. When they were in Rio De Janeiro, they enjoyed feasts with the local people and, having been starved of female companionship, resorted to having wild orgies with the native women. 

The voyage is full of scenarios of this kind. The armada coming across a primitive people and trading with them for provisions and other valuable items. Sometimes islanders are not hospitable to strangers. Many times, they seemed to be hospitable hosts. Magellan and his crew held feasts with islanders in the Pacific and even tried to do mass conversions of all the islanders to Christendom. Magellan’s overindulgence in the affairs of local peoples soon paid off with his death. 

On the flagship, there was an educated fellow with connections to the Casa and the church, who was listed as the chronicler of the voyage, Antonio Pigafetta. He took a keen anthropological look at the people and cultures they came into contacts with and kept records of everything that happened during the voyage. Eventually, only two ships, Trinidad and Victoria, reached the Spice Islands. It was a long arduous journey in which many lives were claimed. The crew had survived massacres, wars, scurvy, extreme cold and high tides.

In the end, the Armada managed to prove that the earth is round by moving to the west until they reached the east. They also dispelled many longstanding myths concerning navigation, cosmology, geography, and oceanography. Although the voyage cost 4 ships of the Armada, it also provided many cloves (about 381 sacks) which were enough for the owners of the ships and the king to make a profit from the voyage. The voyage also changed our thinking of how we viewed the world around us, our place in it, and our knowledge concerning the world. It is probably the single most important voyage of the Age of Discovery for it’s sheer accomplishment of circumnavigating the globe, which was very unlikely had they known the perils standing in their way. Magellan’s circumnavigation proved to be near impossible to replicate afterwards mainly because of the extreme harsh weather in the strait and at the southern tip of South America. King Charles tried to send 3 more voyages unsuccessfully and Magellan’s voyage begun to look more and more daring and extraordinary. Indeed it was. 

One thing I noticed while reading is that the author meticulously researched the book and indeed there’s a bibliography of sources where every detail comes from. Yet the book reads like an edge-of-your-seat adventure fiction novel. I’m impressed at how well written the book is and how Bergreen has detailed facts so well and in unison with the book that it never interrupts the flow of the story at all. He could change the subject to rocket science in the middle of the book and you wouldn’t notice how he even begun or delved into the topic. All you would know is that you’re hooked. What a breathtaking book!! 

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Book reviews: Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali 

Roger L. Simon has described her as a modern “Joan of Arc”. Christopher Hitchens considered her “the most important public intellectual ever to come out of Africa”. Saba Mahmoud accused her of taking advantage of the West’s post-9/11 hatred and prejudice towards Muslims to make a political career for herself. Others have discredited her as an Uncle Tom, a white in a black body, a symbol of neocolonialism, a native who sells secrets to the enemy. It reminds me of the Aunt Lydia character in The Handmaid’s Tale who tortures fellow women on behalf of totalitarianism and theocracy. Despite all these divisive mixed opinions, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has not faltered. She has soldiered on like the true fighter she was raised to be. She has weathered death threats and fatwas from so-called Islamic moderates in the West. She has demonstrated stunning bravery to fight for Muslim women’s rights (that some of them don’t know they have), freedom of speech, and against female genital mutilation and against the ancient fanatical ideology of male honour. Ayaan is not just an atheist but a feminist activist as well. In the moral philosophical system dubbed Islam, she is not the woman who left her faith but as stipulated in the Holy texts, she is considered an apostate. The Koran is very clear on apostasy. It is punishable by death. 

In this moving memoir, she details her own subjective version of events from her birth leading up to her immigration to America. She narrates her whole upbringing in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. At times, she goes into detail more personal than I expected. For example, her circumcision (or excision) in early childhood. 

Gradually, we see Ayaan progress from a fundamentalist, uncritical Islam sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and antisemitism to a humanist unbelief. She was born a fighter in a family of fighters. Her father was a revolutionary who fought for democracy in Somalia. She was subconsciously groomed to be a fighter for truth, autonomy, freedom for those under oppression, repression and mental submission to religion and it’s man-made edicts. She fights relentlessly for the rights and freedom of women and for this reason, I think the main theme of her memoir is humanism and autonomy; that humans have rights and that one’s gender doesn’t dehumanise them. 

In subtle ways, her book is a bit critical of traditional African beliefs which are always mingled with Christian or Islamic beliefs. This is a serious issue. I’m yet to see a modern critic of religion address this issue. Fortunately she does allude to it here and there in the book but doesn’t quite delve deeper.

She dealt with her loss of belief quite well. I would very easily say conversion from Islam to atheism but you can’t convert to no belief. Like most atheists, it’s not a conversion experience. It’s more a realisation that you nolonger believe than a conversion. Her point of realisation comes when she’s going on a vacation and takes along with her a copy of The Atheist Manifesto by a Dutch professor (there’s another by a French philosopher). By the fact that she even picks this book up is already proof that she had lingering doubts about her faith. She was probably already an atheist though consciously unaware of it. Her progression from a religious culture in Kenya and Somalia to atheism in Holland is a consequence of a head-on collision between faith and European values. Why does a seemingly godless Dutch society fare better than the religious ones in Saudi Arabia or Somalia, she asked herself. Her beliefs were in constant conflict with Dutch values like free speech, human rights and democracy. At some point, she had to choose. I like to think that anywhere anytime any place, no sober person chooses dogma and absolutism over evidence and freedom but humanity is full of surprises. 

Her book isn’t flawless as you would expect. I thought that she could have used better grammar or written certain situations better. The writing wasn’t great or sophisticated enough for me on the whole. Probably the memoir could have done better with more editing and rewriting. I can overlook such trivial issues if the message in the book is more important. Ayaan is a fantastic woman, a courageous woman, a good example of escape from oppression, a modern heroine for all those who strive and yearn for true freedom in the Islamic world. And it was indeed a privilege to read this memoir of her amazing life. 

Random Stuff #027: Dreams of an Alternate Universe

It was a bizarre dream in a bizarre time and place. I could sense it right from the vague beginning. What did I sense? The weirdness mostly but also a magical feeling that I was not supposed to be there. I was a misplaced being, a foreigner in a far away land. In some way, that all dreams convey, I knew I was there because I had gone there from another world. I also knew that my foreign identity in this world was to be kept clandestine.

As if by mere chance, I find myself at a bizarre looking university building. It’s a rectangular greyish smooth building with no particular decor about it. Just a building with a glass face at the front and a flat roof on its top. A layer of asphalt covers the front and goes into straight into the road adjacent. There’s no way to tell where the walkway ends and the road starts. Beyond the road is a very beautiful park with recently planted trees and grass so uniform in its growth one would think it’s a football pitch.

 As I stand at the enormous glass entrance, a beautiful petite African lady with a light brown skin complexion almost to the point of whiteness approaches me. She’s clad in a long white summer dress with a white scuff on her neck. Her hair was black as coal and plaited into a form of dreads I had rarely seen on earth. Once I see her, I automatically know we are both in love. But it’s a sacred love between two beings from different universes. She and a few of her colleagues and professors in the astrophysics department know that I am not here and I have employed their help to unlock the secrets of the multiverse. Along the way, this lady and I have fallen for each other. At this point, she is taking me to her dormroom which is inside this building. We head inside. The dream fast forwards to her room. Her room is so strange. It has mega compartments in the walls similar to the ones we use to confine dead bodies in a furnace chamber for cremation. This has the feel of death about it but I know it is the norm in this world. She leads me to the kitchen counter where she pours me some red wine and winthin a few minutes, we are getting overly intimate. 

The next day, we have exited the building. She’s supposed to be for an exhibition in the park at the front under a tent which has all kinds of photographic and artistic descriptions of the gigantic universe. White at the tent, she’s summoned someplace else by someone and has to leave me alone. I want her to stay. We hold hands for a brief moment and she leaves me, her hair being blown by a subtle wind, her soft skin more beautiful than ever. I let her go. Suddenly I notice how sublime the morning sun is in this world and I’m hypnotized for a long moment. I sit and watch it in amazement. End of dream. 

This was a bizarre dream right from the start. Usually I forget 90% of my dreams like most people. My dreams are also almost always about my dreams, hopes and fears and personal life experience like everyone. If I was to dream about anything that I never thought or visualised or had seen or experienced before, then that would be an extraordinary dream with no predetermined architecture from all our experiences. Sadly, such dreams are nonexistent. You only dream about what you have experienced or hitherto imagined. You can’t expect a medieval peasant or an early homo sapiens to dream about cars or mega cosmopolitan cities with skyscrapers, complex transport networks, or nuclear weapons. Instead their dreams are centred on village life, hunting and gathering, agriculture, stone weapons like spears and arrows, and other such things native to their life experience. In the same way, I don’t expect a 21st century human to dream about 25th century in any way that would approximate the reality of that time. If one was to dream about events that were similar to that time, there would be nothing to convince a skeptic that it’s anything other than a chance event. Think about it this way. At one point or another, it’s inevitable that any one human will dream about the future. There are 7.8 billion people on earth. What are the odds that one person will dream an accurate or approximate picture or view of the world 500 years in the future? I think the odds are high. Probability and chance favour the odds. 

My dream above is a dream about the universe and about a scientific pursuit to traverse the limitations of three dimensional space to travel to an alternate universe similar to ours. In a course of events that happen before my dream begins and of which I have no clear knowledge, I have travelled to a different universe and settled into it. I have no idea what events led me there or how I settled into the universe or even how I fell in love with the African student. I just intuitively know I did. Now was this dream so extraordinary or “out of the ordinary”? In a sense, it was. I don’t frequently have dreams about space travel or interuniversal travel or about being an astrophysicist. But I have thought about these things a lot and it seems inevitable that I would have to dream about them at some point. And I did. 

I’m not going to attach any significance to the dream because I don’t think dreams have any meaning or connection to real life. A friend told me that dream is about me being lured to death by a cunning serpent in the shape of a woman. But I’ll not indulge in such non sequitirs. This dream was sublime and spiritual in a way that I was, for a brief moment, contemplating it’s truth value and even believed in the existence of the multiverse. Not to stand back from the dream after a while and realise its aesthetic nature was blinding me from recognising it’s implausibility. In effect, I came back to my senses but it was nevertheless a beautiful dream. 

A Brief Rant on Existentialism 

Human existence is a dilemma. A sort of existential crisis built around mental gymnastics aimed at running away from reality or the uncompromising nihilism of the world. If the universe has no purpose, man shall offer one. If a universe has no consciousness running the show, we shall create one (or many) in our minds who are in our image. If you won’t create your ultimate purpose, other assertive personalities will do it for you. This is the dilemma, the confusion, the fear that we do not understand, the awkwardness of being a conscious being in this universe with a lot of unanswered (and unanswerable) questions. 

It’s only a couple millions years ago that the first human fossils appear in the fossil record. Even later that, just a couple hundred thousand years ago that modern humans first appear on the scene. We have been around about 200,000 years. A few ten thousand years ago, we woke, as a chick shutters an egg shell in search of life, from our eons of slumber; having evolved into homo sapiens, we took the first steps from primitivity, from small-mindedness, from pointless Savannah dominance, to civilization and culture, to dreaming of taking over the planet, to imperial dominance over all conscious beings. Man began to travel from the cradle of humanity in a subconscious bid of conquering all that exists. But the more we discovered in our endeavours, the more we realised we were a sorry lot trying to find our way. Our lives and genes and nature having compelled us with powers beyond what we could fathom initially or finally.

Ours was a search for ultimate meaning, purpose, order, direction or flow of all that is. But all we got back was indifference and solitude. The universe wasn’t ready to tell us anything. Not especially in the event we have the ability to find out for ourselves. In the course of these human events, we started to learn. We didn’t take long to know we are living on a pale blue dot with a yellow sphere illuminating our sky in the day and a full or crescent or half moon in the night. We probed more questions still. And the universe answered them. We were not just on a planet. We were in a solar system composed of a yellowish star burning millions of joules of hydrogen fuel and a few other planets which we occasionally worshipped as gods. Yet that wasn’t it. We were not just in a solar system. But just another star system in a seemingly infinite number of others orbiting a super massive blackhole in the middle of a galaxy we call Milky Way. We now know that this galaxy is one of thousands in a group we call a cluster. Add to this the surrounding clusters  to make up thousands of clusters in a larger group we call a galaxy supercluster. Yet our supercluster is one of thousands that, rounded together, make the observable universe as we know it with our current understanding. It could be much bigger than we shall ever know because it is expanding at a rate faster than light. 

As one grows, one puts away childish things. This childhood unveiling showed us things we didn’t want to see. We realised the sun was not made in cosmic gas clouds for us to feel heat or grow crops. We realised the moon wasn’t dismembered from earth to provide light at night. We realised we were solipsistic beings and that the world didn’t revolve around us. We realised that we knew but little to understand our place in the scheme of things. We realised that it was possible someone wasn’t looking out for us. We realised we had to make our way. We realised in some sense we are the conscious part of the universe, the subjective side of it that doesn’t tow the line of natural laws but simply obeys them.We realised we are the channel by which the universe responds to its rigid frequencies, the mouthpiece through which it communicates to itself. We realised what a privilege, an honour, an improbability it is to live in this beautiful expansive, mysterious universe. And what a gamble it is to live. A few of us who knew the dilemma realised how tragic and miserable and ignorant one would be to have had the chance to live this life if only for a brief few years and died having not known what a beautiful marvellous intriguing world we live in. 

Random Stuff #026: The improbability of existence.

It is very easy to look at existence as a trivial issue when it could be, highly likely, that it is more improbable than the universe itself. Think about it for a second. If we exist in this universe and it’s vastness, and all have a common consensus on which came first, whether we are believers or nonbelievers, it follows that the later advent of living beings (in the form we know them at least) is more improbable than the universe or even the empirically unproven multiverse. In the scientific and evolutionary sense, a universe could exist with galaxies and galaxy clusters and clusters of those clusters and yet there is a small chance that not one of those infinite planets will have the ingredients of life at least as we know it. 

Deoxyribonucleic acid commonly referred to as DNA is the fundamental building block of life, the source of living infrastructure, the instruction manual for life on earth that was, in hindsight, anticipated by Charles Darwin as soon as he published On the Origin of Species in 1859 and brought with it a new paradigm shift to our understanding of nature and the universe. It took up to the 1900s for someone to rediscover the work that Gregor Mendel had done, in an Austrian research monastery in 1860s, and had this conclusively proved the existence of genes, to finally vindicate the early DNA theorists. Still work had to be done to sew together two fields in biology–evolution and genetics. And so was birthed the modern synthesis which explains evolution in relation to genetics. But that was the 1930s and an evolutionary worldview was incompatible with religious doctrine. Some had the guts to declare it ungodly or satanic, and some still do. Others are less obscurantist and more willing to bend religious doctrine to fit scientific fact. So they say it was God’s way of creating flora and fauna. Which in turn either makes God to be a slow creator that had to go through several failed experiments to come up with a solipsistic human or this God allowed evolution to happen naturally without divine interference and thus we are not as special as religion claims we are or we are just a lone step in the evolutionary process. 

Incorruptible or downright fraud

Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible prepositions.       – Thomas Jefferson 

Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty or intellectual misdemeanour.    – Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion

How much vanity must be concealed – not too effectively at that – in order to pretend that one is the personal object of a divine plan? How much self-respect must be sacrificed in order that one may squirm continually in an awareness of one’s own sin? How many needless assumptions must be made, and how much contortion is required, to receive every new insight of science and then manipulate it so as to ‘fit’ with the revealed words of ancient man-made deities? How many saints and miracles and councils and conclaves are required first in order to be able to establish a dogma and then – after infinite pain and loss and absurdity and cruelty – to be forced to rescind one of those dogmas? God did not create man in his own image. Evidently, it was the other way around…..                            – Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great 

Having started out with three captivating quotes from three great men, it seems extravagant to quote another one. But it is necessary before I delve into the subject matter of this article. Michail Bakunin once said if God did not exist, it would be necessary to create him. To some extent, I agree with him. Not necessarily that we needed a god as that we had no choice but to create him. The natural world had so many disturbing questions that could only be explained by a prime mover. I acknowledge that it will be near impossible to persuade a staunch Catholic that no pope or saint is infallible, and also to convince a Muslim that Muhammad was a flawed imperfect fallible human, if their belief is based on faith alone, and not on rationalism and critical thinking. 

My aim here is not to kill God, because I recognize some people have a deep psychological need for him, but to show people how marvelous and miraculous the natural (or materialistic) world is. Yes, the natural world performs miracles more wonderful, more awe-inspiring, more honest,more aesthetically pleasing than any fraudulent slight of hand that priests and mullahs and rabbis and modern evangelicals are capable of. One wonders, as one studies religious revelations and miracles and in general violation of natural laws, why they took place in highly superstitious, ancient, premodern, primitive societies or in isolated places and witnessed by isolated people and why the modern world with cameras and computers and high resolution telescopes and microscopes for the unaided eye is devoid of these alleged proofs of divinity. 

Back to the article. Incorruptibility, is best defined simply as the belief that one’s body doesn’t decompose after death, if one was a righteous Catholic. So easy, isn’t it? Incorruptibility vindicates Catholicism and exposes other religions with no comparable miracles as false. Another definition is it’s a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox belief that divine intervention allows certain bodies to avoid decomposition after death as a sign of holiness (Source: Wikipedia). A fairly well thought definition, I think. But then there’s an instant twist. The article goes on to assert claims outside this specific definition. It says bodies that undergo little or no decomposition or delayed decomposition are sometimes regarded as incorruptible. To what extent do we judge decomposition? How do we know if it’s little or a bit much? If the body decomposes slowly and in 200000 years, it’s turned to dust, does it count as incorruptible still? So many questions follow, so few answered. 

The Catholics generally regard incorruptibility to be a miracle. We shall call a miracle any event in which the laws of the natural world appear to have been suspended or tweaked and we can’t find a scientific explanation for it. Many believers sincerely believe saints can have incorruptible corpses, popes are infallible, Jesus was their saviour, and that prayer works. I read somewhere a few days back about a Catholic who appeared to claim that the embalmed incorruptibles were so due to divine intervention in embalming them. Embalming is a process of preserving dead bodies from decomposition or rotting. Now his claim can’t be proved or disproved for it’s paradoxical nature. He makes more assumptions than are necessary to get to the truth. The less assumptions means the nearer we stay to factual premises.  

Bernadette Soubirous, commonly known as St. Bernadette of Lourdes, grew up in Lourdes, France in an impoverished family of which she was the eldest daughter of a miller. At about age 14, she began to have visions and apparitions of a lady she claimed was demanding for a church to be built in the area where these apparitions took place and also directed her to spring waters with healing effects. The stories spread about her Marian apparitions and the church was skeptical in the beginning. After a swift investigation, Bernadette’s apparitions were declared authentic by the church. Bernadette Soubirous soon relocated to a convent in Nevers where she lived until she died of tuberculosis. When the canonisation process began, there were several miracles happening or had happened in Lourdes which were investigated and many were found to be temporary fixes or false. Many others were found to be true. In 1909, her body was exhumed for the first time and found to be incorruptible. In 1919 and 1925, the process was repeated and then moved into a crystalline casket. The church declared her dead corpse to be officially incorruptible. Was it really? In the 1919 exhuming, the present doctor wrote in a report, “The body is practically mummified, covered with patches of mildew and quite a notable layer of salts, which appear to be calcium salts… The skin has disappeared in some places, but it is still present on most parts of the body.”. Later, when she was to be displayed in public at the Sisters of Charity (her order in Nevers), her face had a blackish colour about it that would have been unsettling to pilgrims. So a certain Pierre Imans, a Parisian mannequin designer for God’s sake, was brought in to solve the imperfections of the rotting corpse. A “light wax” mask and new hands were devised and put in place by the talented designer. Even up to this day, people still claim that St. Bernadette performs wonders for them. 

This is not an isolated incident. There are several cases just like these as I’m about to show. But first, I want to clarify that I don’t think the Catholic Church is colluding as a whole, to deceive the world. The sainthood has a lot of allusions to make anyone suspect a sinister campaign of lies and conscious deceit. I think there has been a bit of craft here and there, now and then. But it is not enough to make it look credible. A lot of honest sincere propagandists had to be sold the idea to make it work. And so it evolved with the church and the church embraced it. In a time of ignorance, it was as good an explanation as any evolved human was expected to come up with, pending modern chemistry and physics. 

A less recognised saint is St. Silvan, who allegedly died in 350 CE in Rome, and is in a Church tomb in Dubrovnik, Croatia. The body looks perfect and smooth from afar. But upon close examination, the skin is covered with wax. A common method of hiding decaying flesh. It is claimed Silvan’s body arrived from Rome in 1847, but there’s no mention of where it had been before that, or who had been in contact with it. Another one is St. Victoria whose corpse appears to be a wax effigy as well. Her severed fingers and palm shows bones underneath the wax. 

In the church of San Crisogono, the dead body of Blessed Anna Maria Taigi rests in a glass casket. It appears incorruptible at first but closer scrutiny shows the body is too good to be true. The wrinkles on her face are made of wax and there are black hair strands on her scalp of blond hair. This is an obvious skeleton coated with wax. 

An intriguing case is St. Cecilia, who is considered the first saint and said to have been martyred in 177 CE. Having buried the remains of two beheaded brothers, she was punished by bestowing the same fate on her. The executor, having tried to decapitate her three times unsuccessfully, fled leaving her with a severe injury and heavy loss of blood that she crawled about for three days before she was found dead; albeit allegedly with 3 fingers protruding on her right hand and one on the left to signify the Holy Trinity. She is the patron saint of musicians. Old accounts allude to her body having been washed and embalmed and the viscera removed. A sweet floral odour emanating from the coffin could indicate the usage of burial spices like resin and myrrh which aided in preservation and was Jewish practice at the time, and was coincidentally used in Egyptian mummification. She was locked in a cypress casket, a type of wood that was standard for, you guessed it, mummification. John Delaney, the author of Dictionary of Saints, claims the whole story has been “constructed from legends, many of which are trustworthy” and John Coulson goes further when he says it’s a “fabrication devoid of any historical truth”.

It’s actually surprising how people are so oblivious to such fraudulent desecration of dead humans. If you’re a saint, do you really rest in peace after death? People go to these churches without any knowledge of these bodies being wax effigies or preserved bodies in perfect environments. I think if one is a devout believer, one has to choose between this whole fiasco being a legitimate doctrine or it being a conspiracy, an evil one even. If one chooses to call it an honest endeavour, one must explain why the need for all these wax effigies. The burden of proof weighs a ton for the pious here. 

Thus when the sincere believer, who has been misled to believe these rotting corpses are the same as they were on the day they were buried, is forced to face the facts, he/she looks for an explanation to fit the narrative. One of these is a redefining of incorruptibility as slowly or partially decayed corpses. This is based on the gullible notion that delayed decomposition happens as a sign from God. An assertion that can only be made by the uninformed Catholic. Nevertheless, I’ve heard it as an argument for wax effigies and embalmed bodies. As I did research for this article, I came across another secular blogger who was told that the wax and preservation is added intentionally so that people may notice it and so that a genuine impression of the corpse may be preserved as it was at the exhumation. It is stunningly shocking when I discovered that incorruptibility isn’t taken as a requirement of sainthood anymore officially by the church. This raises some disturbing questions. Like should we still consider saints who were canonised on the basis of their incorruptible bodies as saints anymore, or we await further inquiry? What about the credulous faithful who, the overwhelming majority, hardly know this new Catholic doctrine and consider incorruptibility to be a sign from God? What was the motive behind this change? Does this change show the man-made nature of Catholic doctrine and law, and thus the Catholic Church as well? 

The obscurantist nature of the church has stood in the way of scientific progress and research for several decades. From Aristotle, to Galileo, to Copernicus, to Giordano Bruno, to Charles Darwin, there’s a long trail and pattern of inhumane behaviour and conscious obscurantism  towards revolutionary scientific ideas stretching even up to now in the 21st century and showing no signs of halting. The incorruptible bodies haven’t been subjected to any modern research tools to authenticate since the turn of the century. The church, for once, outsourced a group of pathologists and chemists to investigate the incorruptibles. It was discovered and there was substantial evidence that “many (if not all) incorruptibles had human assistance”. Disconcertingly, the team also “encountered many cases in which saints had clearly been mummified, often by their followers, in an attempt to preserve (or help preserve) their bodies.”. Most notably Saint Margaret of Cortona. The small voice of reason had penetrated the walls of the Vatican and the irrationality of faith was being put to the test. 

The naivety of believers is the main reason why they believe ridiculous nonsense. Let me demonstrate this with a simple insinuation from the doctrine of incorruptibility. It follows that if God delays or suspends decay of human flesh, that such a phenomenon only happens in the church and to holistic pious individuals. I did a quick survey of ten Catholics I knew, three of whom are connoisseurs of church doctrine, and I got 90% saying incorruptibility only and only happens in the church. The odd man out suspended I was setting a trap for him, hence his skepticism, but couldn’t tell me where else it happens. However, he was sharp enough to tell me that God sometimes performs miracles in other religions. When I asked him why God does it, he replied with the age-old proverb “God works in mysterious ways.”. That cannot be proved or disproved. Karl Popper’s common sense reformation of the scientific method should be enough to dispose of such obscurantism. 

The evil fascist Bishop Alfredo Schuster, who was the Archbishop of Milan from 1929-1954 and a Benedictine monk and supported Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime, was found to be incorruptible after 31 years. Another article mentions Catherine Parr, the sixth wife of Henry VIII, and how her body was found in a perfect state of preservation 1782 after 250 years in a sealed coffin. She was reburied shortly after and later exhumed in 1817 only to find a skeleton. St. Joseph Calasanctius, who was part of a clerical campaign of the Piarist order and knowingly covered up Child Abuse cases against small boys to protect the reputation of the order, and even had the guts to document all these evil crimes by fellow priests while callously doing nothing to protect the boys, was canonised after his body was found to be incorruptible. The evil power hungry monster, Benedetto Caetani, known as Pope Boniface XVII, who sought to mobilise all European powers under him, and hence create a theocratic Catholic-fascist Jew-hating continent, and was also depicted in the Eighth Circle of Hell in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, was exhumed after 300 years and his body looked perfectly preserved.  He was lodged back in the grave and re-exhumed to find only bones remaining in his coffin in the 1830s. In every case I’ve mentioned in this paragraph, we see a flawed human being bestowed with the miracle of incorruptibility. One would wonder what kind of God makes evil people incorruptible. 

Probably the best preserved corpse is that of Xin Zhui, discovered in China in 1971. The article narrates, “Her death is dated to 178–145 BC. She seems to have been about 50. An autopsy found that she seemed to be only a short time dead. They found her organs were intact. Her blood was still red in her veins. Nobody knows for sure what was responsible for such a remarkable preservation. Her airtight coffin is thought to have contributed to it. A liquid in the coffin in a shade of red may explain the mystery but nobody knows what it is. The bodies of her neighbours Sui Xiaoyuan and Ling Huiping are similarly well preserved. Xin’s body is kept in the Hunan Provincial Museum. She proves that bodies can be inexplicably preserved without accounting for it with the supernatural.“. 

In the Tarim Basin desert of China, mummified corpses, dating to 4000 years ago (way before Christianity came along), were found to be so well preserved that centuries-old incorruptible Catholic saints couldn’t compare. In August 1952, Time magazine ran a story of a Hindu guru Paramahansa Yogananda, whose body was found to be incorruptible years after his death. Harry T. Rowe, Los Angeles Mortuary Director of the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California where Yogananda’s body is interred, stated in a notarized letter: 

“The absence of any visual signs of decay in the dead body of Paramahansa Yogananda offers the most extraordinary case in our experience…. No physical disintegration was visible in his body even twenty days after death…. No indication of mold was visible on his skin, and no visible drying up took place in the bodily tissues. This state of perfect preservation of a body is, so far as we know from mortuary annals, an unparalleled one…. No odor of decay emanated from his body at any time….”

There are several other cases of Tibetan and Buddhist monks who are incorruptible and in some cases, no one can explain what exactly caused it. But that’s no reason to conclude it’s God who intervened to starve microbes to death by the billions in the guise of pleasing impressionable humans. Hambo Lama Itigelov, a Buddhist monk who died in 1927 and was exhumed in 2002, was found to have been preserved by bromide salts. 

King Tut, the Egyptian pharaoh of the 18th dynasty who ruled between c. 1332-1323 BC,  has been so well preserved for over 3300 years against all odds that his body is in a perfect state far from decay. Note that he existed before the Catholic Church and probably believed in Egyptian gods. 

What is religion better at than hoodwinking the gullible people? What is religion if it doesn’t claim or revere ignorance? What sane person would consciously believe such a preposterous idea as incorruptibility? Prosper Lambertini who became Pope Benedict XIV categorically deny that any corpse that has been treated in any way to keep it fresh should be thought of as miraculously incorrupt. Yet the church continues to display embalmed popes and saints and priests. What kind of corrupted institution is this? The short answer is it’s a man-made institution made in the image of those who created it. That’s why it has so many flaws. Let’s sit back, await future examinations of saints corpses to expose the sinister fraud going on in the background. Watch Christians who struggle to believe fantasies, who seem to think a miracle vindicates their religion and is a necessary precept for them to believe. In other words, it’s too ridiculous they need a miracle to validate their beliefs. But this world, this universe, is amazing and miraculous, in that it creates these miracles for the faithful to believe, and cares not if they are misled. It allows other protagonists to recreate the same miracles over and over again. The universe works like that. It only offers you a strict range of natural laws to work in. It is always, and it has always, and will always, be up to you or to the prevailing discourse to decide which side of the argument is honest, is fraudulent, is truely worthy of your spirit. I hope critical thinking and freethinking will always reign supreme. 

The Dawn of a New Era: #WelcomeUnai 

Finally after endless bouts of speculation, we have our new boss. Welcome to the Arsenal, Unai Emery. It’s a new dawn, it’s a new era, one of excitement and fundamental change. And we are glad, as Arsenal fans, for all this good work being done by CEO Ivan Gazidis, Raul Sanhelli, Josh Kroenke, Sven Mslintat and others in revolutionarizing the club. 

For a while, we have been craving for change, which change was de facto a euphemism for Arsene Wenger to step down. After what seems like an eternity in football time, we managed to get rid (I don’t mean to sound crude) of the paleolithic doyen Wenger. He had overstayed his welcome, like one club legend once said in recent times. 

With the arrival of Unai Emery, we have an experienced and proven and passionate and progressive serial winner. He started out in his native Spain at Lorca Deportivo in 2005 before moving to Almeria where he led them to promotion into La Liga. Due to his impressive spell at Almeria, he was appointed by Valencia as head coach in 2009 where he replaced the sacked Ronald Koeman and found a destabilised underperforming club that he systematically put back together to finish sixth in his first season and third in the subsequent 3 seasons. This is as much as any sensible or realistic club, chasing after a Pep-inspired Barcelona and a star-studded Real Madrid, could hope for – being the third wheel. After a brisk 6 months at Russian side Spartak Moscow where he was sacked after woeful form, it didn’t take long to get his next job and within a few months, he was back in Spain at Sevilla, where he regained his reputation by leading the club to three successive Europa league titles, amid annual player sales and a limited budget. He was a rising star waiting for a big opportunity and Paris Saint Germain, who were looking for a coach with great European experience, quickly scooped him away from Sevilla to Paris. His first season in Paris was marred by domestic and European disappointment as a mentally fragile PSG side failed to take advantage of a 4-0 lead at home to knock out Barcelona and instead conspired to destruct under pressure at the Camp Nou to surrender the tie to Barça. The league was also difficult to win as a free scoring Monaco side dominated on their way to lifting the trophy. Nevertheless, Emery managed to get his hands on two domestic cups. The following season came with the costly arrival of Brazilian superstar Neymar and the youngster Mbappé and suddenly he had a serious issue controlling the dressing room especially with players who thought they were bigger than him and had inflated egos to go with their solipsism. Notwithstanding, he managed to make a clean sweep of all domestic trophies but encountered inevitable failure (if you ask me) in Europe when they were again drawn with a Spanish side in the form of an unbeatable Real Madrid who were surprisingly underdogs but used their experience to bully PSG into losing the both legs of a tie. In total, Emery has won 8 trophies in the past 8 years, as much as Pep Guardiola has won and more than any other current coach in Europe’s top 5 leagues. It’s an impressive record but the unrealistic fans will attempt to downplay it. The ambitious realistic fans will appreciate the appointment and will also understand that he is more likely not to win the league with a broken, defensively poor squad which requires major surgery on its spine to challenge for anything credible. 

These are exciting times for Arsenal and football fans generally. We can’t wait for the new premier league season. There’s the FIFA World Cup 2018 in Russia kicking off in mid-June. Let’s all celebrate this beautiful game for these are exciting times to be alive.