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2008-04-17 11:18 AM
Curses Spring Eternal
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A new issue of The Orphan Scrivener, our newsletter, is posted on the website for anyone who doesn't subscribe and might be interested in all the things going on that I have been too negligent to write about during the past few weeks. Mary also contributes an article on gardening in the city and my own bit I shall reprint here...in the spring my thoughts always turn to baseball...or at least they turn even more to baseball than during the rest of the year.
CURSES SPRING ETERNAL
"A devilish Boston fan working on a concrete crew at the $1.3 billion stadium covertly buried a Red Sox T-shirt under what will become the visiting team's locker room to jinx the Yanks...'In August, a Red Sox T-shirt was poured in a slab in the visitor's clubhouse. It's the curse of the Yankees,' one worker said. 'Nobody knows about it. It's in the floors, it's buried.'"
I am not so sure that sports curses actually work but over-zealous fans have been trying them out since Roman times. Back in issue 43 of The Orphan Scrivener Mary wrote about curse tablets, malevolent requests, usually inscribed on a thin sheet of lead which was rolled up and often buried. Curse tablets were employed against business competitors, rivals in love, and, naturally, chariot teams belonging to the wrong color faction.
A favorite burial place was the race course of the hippodrome. The sort of thing a follower of the Blues might wish upon the Greens' team in sixth century Constantinople, where our Lord Chamberlain John does his detecting, is illustrated by a very small (believe it or not) portion of the inscription from a tablet found in Carthage as translated by John Gager in Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World:
"I invoke you, spirit of one untimely dead, whoever you are, by the mighty names SALBATHBAL AUTHGEROTABAL BASULTHATEO ALEO SAMABETHOR. Bind the horses...Bind their running, their power, their soul, their onrush, their speed. Take away their victory, entangle their feet, hinder them, hobble them, so that tomorrow morning in the hippodrome they are not able to run or walk about, or win, or go out of the starting gates, or advance either on the racecourse or track..."
Usually it is the differences between historical periods that most interest me, but there's no doubt that some things never change, especially basic human emotions like love for one's team and hatred towards its rival. It is hard to think about the Blue and Green factions of the sixth century, without seeing a similarity to today's baseball rivalry between the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. It also isn't hard to understand how the Greens and Blues ended up rioting in the streets so often. As bitter as the Yankee/Red Sox rivalry may be, they compete with 28 other teams and play each other only a fraction of the time. What would baseball be like if there were only the Yankees and Red Sox locked in endless head to head combat? We would probably see rioting in the streets too.
Sports stadiums are also much the same, both architecturally and in the impulses behind them. The new Yankee Stadium, replacing the stadium built in the Bronx in 1923, will duplicate the facade of the original, and retains the current field dimensions, even though the rest of the facility will be modern. The new stadium is, of course, supposed to be a source of civic pride as well as a reminder of the Yankees' storied past. So too the hippodrome in Constantinople, modeled on Rome's Circus Maximus, was intended to mark the new capital as a great city in its own right while reminding citizens of the past glory of the Roman Empire.
Modern and ancient stadiums share physical characteristics which go beyond the obligatory seating for spectators. High priced luxury boxes for the well-heeled are nothing new. The hippodrome's kathisma, from which the emperor viewed the races and sometimes faced hostile crowds, was connected directly to the Great Palace and was a sort of mini-palace, boasting special lodges for dignitaries, as well as a dining area, bedchamber, and dressing room.
Along the spina in the center of the hippodrome's racecourse were arrayed a variety of monuments, some of which commemorated the exploits of the famous charioteer Porphyrios. Yankee Stadium features its own Monument Park with monuments and plaques honoring great players including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio. The monuments used to be located in the hinterlands of the former, far flung centerfield, but now sit behind the fences which were moved in, probably to defend against barbarian incursions. Unlike the spina, Monument Park does not feature other delights such as an Egyptian obelisk, brazen eagle, poisoned bull, 60 foot tall Hercules, or a wild boar -- more's the pity, since it would have been thrilling to see Mickey Mantle attempt to run down a ball hit to the Serpent Column.
The Yankee's heroes are each limited to a single monument, unlike Porphyrios who had seven along the spina dedicated to his long career. All that survives of the monuments are two bases, but the epigrams engraved on them are preserved and can be read in The Greek Anthology. There, the statistically inclined sports fan can learn that Porphyrios was the only charioteer to have twice won, in a single day, the diversium, whereby the winning charioteer would exchange teams with the loser of the morning's race and compete a second time in the afternoon, thereby proving his success was solely the result of his own skill.
It is disheartening to consider all the similar accomplishments which must have been lost, or never recorded at all. (And just as well baseball didn't exist since it can produce statistics faster than any human being could chisel). We can only wonder about the career records of charioteers like Julian, Faustinus, and Constantine, although they must have been impressive since all three were depicted, along with Porphyrios, in the kathisma.
Computers are much better than monuments for storing records. Never mind Babe Ruth's 714 home runs (mostly for the Yankees...it was his coming over from the Red Sox that started the whole feud...), now everything is preserved for the ages. Even the lone home run Jack Reed hit in his brief Yankee career, on June 24, 1962, at Tiger Stadium in Detroit, off Phil Regan, a right-handed pitcher, with one out and Roger Maris on base, and the score tied 7-7 in the 22nd inning. I saw it on television, not that I remember the details...except going outside to play when the Tigers were batting because I didn't want to risk seeing them win the game.
In an age of science like ours, where we are capable of such splendid feats as recalling the circumstances of every single time a wooden bat has made contact (or missed) a horsehide ball, I guess we can't take curses seriously any more, whether they are conveyed by inscribed lead tablets (and do you think modern demons can still speak Latin or ancient Greek?) or baseball jerseys.
Still, it was reported:
"The New York Yankees have ended a construction worker's attempt to jinx their new stadium with a buried Boston Red Sox jersey. Team officials watched Sunday as construction workers removed the jersey, with slugger David Ortiz's name on it, from 2 feet of concrete in a service corridor of the stadium that's under construction."
It only took about five hours, with jackhammers. Not that anyone was worried but I guess even in the twenty-first century it is better to be safe than sorry.
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