Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Peace Symbol turns 50 today

On February 21, 1958, designer Gerald Holton created a symbol for the upcoming Easter march from London to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment near Aldermaston, England. The march was organized by the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War, and the symbol represented nuclear disarmament. It was based on the semaphoric symbols for the letteers "N" and "D."

(See below: images uploaded from Wikimedia Commons, as is the peace symbol .)

How the Aldermaston symbol evolved into the peace symbol is not exactly clear. According to Wikipedia, Philip Altbach, a student at the University of Chicago, brought a bag of the Aldermaston buttons back to the United States. I've also heard that civil rights and peace activist Bayard Rustin played a role in popularizing the symbol in the United States. In any case, once it got to America, it lost its specific meaning of nuclear disarmament and became a generalized peace symbol.
The symbol has been denounced as the Satanic symbol of a broken cross, the "footprint of the American Chicken," and countless other things. But by its its very simplicity it has endured. It even showed up in a Star Trek novel, "Strangers from the Sky," by Margaret Wander Bonanno, in which Mr. Spock is sent back in time to mid-21st Century Earth and helps save two Vulcans who have crashed their spaceship in the Pacific. Spock visits his human ancestor, Professor Grayson, who gives him a peace symbol on a chain. He calls Spock "Ben" in honor of peace activist Dr.Benjamin Spock. In the story, the peace symbol is something of a magic talisman.
I'm sure it will still be around in 2058.
Note: After listening to "Strangers from the Sky" on my drive from Elkhart back to Bloomington while hoping the "Check Engine" light on my 1990 Toyota didn't mean I was going to crash-land on Interstate 55 (it didn't), I realized the story was much more complex and interesting than I remembered. I've revised the summation of the story, though that doesn't do it justice.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Parsis and our continuing fascination with them

You don't think of Jules Verne as a writer of love stories. But he put one in what may be his most popular work--Around the World in 80 Days. The love story isn't very lifelike, at least not in the English translation I read. But he did one thing I thought brilliant: he made Aouda, the female love interest, a Parsi. There's something romantic and fascinating about a people who still practice the Good Religion of the prophet Zarathushtra, (Zoroaster in Greek) who probably lived in the tenth or 11th century B.C. Their priests still worship in fire temples (though they do not worship fire--it is a symbol and focal point for their worship of Ahura Mazda) and they bring their dead to the Towers of Silence, for the vultures to claim.

Zoroastrianism may be the first monotheistic religion. Zoroastianism introduced the concept of heaven and hell (though even those in hell will be united with Ahura Mazda in the end), the Evil One (Angra Mainyu), prayer five times a day, and the concept of free will to choose good or evil.

The Parsis came to India sometime between 716 and 965 A.D., possibly because of persecution after the Arab invasion of Persia. They sailed to Gujarat on the west coast of India. The local ruler Jadi Rana gave them permission to stay if they adopted the local language of Gujarati, that the women wear the sari, and that they should cease to bear arms. One story goes that the ruler persented them with a full pitcher of milk, symbolizing that Gujurat was full. The Parsi leader added a pinch of sugar to the milk to represent the contribution his people would bring.

And this small community had contributed greatly to India. Parsis were especially prominent in trade and banking. During the British Raj, Parsi influence increased. They were eager to learn English and to send their children, including girls, to British schools. (Zoroastrians believe in equality of the sexes, though their priesthood is exclusively male.) Nonetheless, a number of Parsis were prominent in the Indian independence movement.

Well-known Parsis include orchestra conductor Zubin Mehta and rock icon Freddie Mercury. Wikipedia. has an impressive list of notable Parsis.

Because conservative Parsis do not accept converts, and initiate only the children of two Parsi parents in to the religion (though some Paris communities are changing), the future of the Parsi community is in question. It would be a shame if this beautiful religion of Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds vanished from the earth.

In my Dickens Challenge novel, I've made my heroine the child of a Scottish-American father and a Parsi mother. That allows her to have a connection to Zoroastrianism (the story begins on Epiphany, when Christians celebrate the arrival of Zoroastrian astrologers, or Magi, to Bethlehem) and still be an Episcopal priest, as she is when the story begins.

Like Jules Verne, and countless other Westerners, I have a fascination for this small but incredibly influential community.