The Importance of Making Civility a Habit

Civility really is a more broad term compared to being considerate. Civility is simply just being nice, and it’s not only an attitude of benevolence, thoughtfulness and relating to other individuals. It also entails a real, active interest in the well-being of communities and even concern for the health of the planet. You have to really do an effort in order to be civil. And being considerate is a part of being civil.

– Abdulla M. Abdulhalim, in Seven Habits Of Considerate People by Alena Hall of HuffPo

As someone who was steeped in the values of good manners and conscientiousness from early childhood — thank you mom and dad — I am fortunate to know firsthand how personally and existentially fulfilling it is to do good in the world; whether it is going out of your way to help a loved one or strange, offering a kind word, or simply smiling, we must not underestimate the value of any kind deed, however seemingly mundane in the grand scheme of things.

Of course, none of us are consistent in this regard; I have had many regrettable lapses in patience, courtesy, and altruism. We all do. But that’s what makes being considerate and civil so valuable: it takes effort and mindfulness, and therefore shows a strong commitment to be as continuously thoughtful as possible. That sort of active interest and concern, as highlighted by Abdulhalim, is precisely why we must all strive to make such behavior a collective habit. It inspires others to do good and in the aggregate leads to a better world.

I am fortunate to have had a broadly positive experience with humanity; to have encountered and continued to encounter good, decent, and well-meaning people who display the better (but woefully underrated) aspect of human nature. Were it not for my fortunate and loving upbringing, and the example set by all those who were kind to me and kind in general, perhaps I would not hold onto the optimistic view I have of human nature (one that has nonetheless been tested time and again).

But ultimately, being civil and considerate should be a given in almost every circumstance or interaction. While the article highlights the importance of balance — of learning when to say no, for example — it is also clear that we have to dare to be kind to our fellow humans even if it seems counterproductive and hopeless in the first place. After all, change has to start somewhere, and how will we ever bring out the best in ourselves and others — and in doing so, help elevate the human condition — if we do not take that first step in showing just how we are capable of?

Happy Birthday Red Cross

On this day in 1864, twelve European nations signed the seminal First Geneva Convention, which established “the basis…for the protection of the victims of armed conflicts” and with it what is now called the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), conceived and founded by Swiss businessman and social activist Henry Dunant and Swiss jurist Gustave Moynie. 

The organization served as both the catalyst and enforcer of the convention’s articles, which were history’s first legally-binding rules guaranteeing neutrality and protection for wounded soldiers, field medical personnel, and specific humanitarian institutions in an armed conflict.

The first of several such conventions, this watershed moment for both international law and humanitarianism launched the wider Red Cross Movement (now known as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement), which is comprised of several distinct humanitarian organizations geared towards protecting human life and health, ensuring respect for all human beings, and preventing and alleviating human suffering.

The ICRC is one of several institutions in this broad movement, along with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and 189 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Together these groups number around 97 million volunteers, members, and staff across the world, making it by far the largest movement of its kind in history. The Red Cross and Red Crescent remains the most enduring and universally recognized symbol of humanitarianism and compassion. 

The Top Ten Ancient Greek Artwork

As the cradle of western civilization and one of the most advanced societies known to have ever existed in the ancient world, it is little surprise that the ancient Greeks excelled in one of the key marks of an advanced civilization: art and cultural expression. Courtesy of the BBC are ten works that are noteworthy for their innovation and impact both at the time and for centuries after. 
 

Fallen Warrior from Temple of Aphaia (c 480-470BC)

Sculpture of a fallen warrior from the temple of Aphaia at Aegina. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images.

There is a tragic pathos to this mighty sculpture of a dying hero from a temple on the Greek island of Aegina. Tragedy is a Greek concept. The tragedies of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus are still performed. This statue shows a strong man fallen, heroic to his last breath.

The Pergamon altar (180-160BC)

Pergamon Altar. Athena against the giant Alcyoneus.

Pergamon Altar. Athena against the giant Alcyoneus. Photograph: Phas/UIG via Getty Images.

Classical Greek art changed rapidly as Greece itself went through wars and imperial transformations. In what is called the Hellenistic age it became much more emotional, sensual and even sensationalist. The furious sculptures on the Pergamon altar – which can be seen in its own museum in Berlin – are full of passion and psychological drama.

The Riace bronzes (460-420BC)

One of the two Riace bronzes: the Warrior

One of the two Riace bronzes: the Warrior Photograph: Alinari Archives/Alinari via Getty Images.

These tremendous statues found in the sea off southern Italy in 1972 are important because so few original Greek bronze statues survive. Most of the classical nudes in museums were carved in marble in the Roman era, as reproductions of such rare, and now largely lost, originals. Here we see the true majesty of Greek art in its classical age, which occurred in the fifth-century BC.

Goddesses from the east pediment of the Parthenon (c 438-432BC)

Three goddesses from east pediment of the Parthenon

Three goddesses from east pediment of the Parthenon. Photograph: ©The Trustees of the British Museum.

Sitting and reclining in graceful unison, these goddesses carved in marble for the Parthenon in Athens are among the most beautiful and mysterious images of the human form ever created. Incredibly, the artist makes the draperies that cover their bodies as real and richly textured as similar garments painted by Leonardo da Vinci a millennium later – and who didn’t have to produce his illusions in stone. These are dream goddesses.

Marble metope from the Parthenon (c 447-438BC)

Metope from Parthenon, battle between Centaurs and Lapiths

Metope from Parthenon, battle between Centaurs and Lapiths. Photograph: DEA/G Nimatallah/De Agostini/Getty Images.

Violence is a favourite theme of ancient Greek artists. Reared on the myth of the Trojan war and experiencing the reality of wars with Persia and between Greek cities, classical artists found new ways to show conflict. This human fighting a centaur, carved for the Parthenon in Athens, is astonishingly real in its detail and dynamic energy.

God from the sea, Zeus or Poseidon (c 470BC)

A bronze sculpture of the god Zeus, or possibly Poseidon

A bronze sculpture of the god Zeus, or possibly Poseidon Photograph: Archive Photos/Getty Images.

This majestic bronze, found in the sea off Greece, conveys the magic of Greek mythology. The god – probably Zeus, lord of Olympus himself – is caught in the act of hurling a thunderbolt. His body is charged with divine power, and yet, it is a human body, neither colossal nor ethereal but the mirror of ourselves. The Greek gods are human, all too human, and their petty squabbles cause wars and sorrow in the world.

The Siren vase (480-470BC)

The Siren Vase

The Siren vase. Photograph: © Trustees of the British Museum.

In Homer’s Odyssey, one of the founding epics of Greek literature, Odysseus longs to hear the seductive yet dangerous song of the sirens that lure sailors to their deaths. So all his crew plug their ears, and Odysseus has himself lashed to the mast. This powerful painting captures the tension as Odysseus strains at his bonds, his whole body agonised, his head raised in rapt listening.

The Motya charioteer (c 350BC)

The Motya Charioteer

The Motya charioteer. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images.

This is one of the most startling Greek statues to survive, and highly revealing about the erotic charge of the Greek nude. This youth is not technically nude, but wears a tight-fitting garment that instead of hiding his body, heightens every contour. Greek statues are portraits of human beauty that are meant to be arousing as well as noble. This athlete poses in sensual triumph.

The Dionysus Cup by Exekias (c 540BC)

The Dionysus Cup by Exekias. Photograph: Matthias Kabel / Wikimedia.

Dionysus, god of wine and madness, sails on his boat, surrounded by dolphins, in this delightful painting. Part of the fascination of Greek art is that its themes were taken up by artists down the centuries, as the myths of this culture were constantly being rediscovered. So this image of Dionysus can be compared with later portrayals of the wine god by Titian, Michelangelo, or Cy Twombly.

Mask of Agamemnon (1550-1500BC)

Agamemnon, king of Mycenae. Gold funerary mask

Agamemnon, king of Mycenae. Gold funerary mask. Photograph: Universalimagesgroup/Getty Images.

When the enthusiastic, romantically minded archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered this golden mask at Mycenae in 1876, he had no doubt that it must be the death mask of Agamemnon himself, the king who led the Greeks in the Trojan war, only to be assassinated on his homecoming. Of course there’s no proof of that, but it is one of the most compelling faces in art.

World Humanitarian Day

It will come to know no surprise to regular readers that I have an avid interest in humanitarian issues, ranging from global inequality and poverty to human rights abuses and war. I have long had a keen interest in the United Nations as a mechanism for bettering the human species and facilitating the more positive aspects of globalization — illuminating and addressing these global problems in multilateral ways while promoting an ecumenical and unified global identity.

While I have no delusions about the U.N.’s vast flaws and shortcomings, I find it to be conceptually sound and an ideal start to a hopefully more effective international framework. One thing is for certain: whatever the institutional problems of this and other international organization, the everyday work done by its members is usually sound, well-intentioned, and altruistic — which is precisely what World Humanitarian Day is dedicated to highlighting.

This day pays tribute to the often unseen aid workers who carry out life-saving activities around the world, often in dangerous and difficult circumstances. It also celebrates the spirit of humanitarian work worldwide, work that brings communities together and alleviates the common human suffering that we should be concerned about.

It is observed annually on August 19, the anniversary of the 2003 bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad that killed 22 people, including U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello. There will be a wreath-laying ceremony at the U.N. Headquarters in New York City to honor de Mello and other aid workers killed in the line of duty.

Unfortunately, such a commemoration is especially relevant today, as  aid workers are suffering at record numbers as of 2014:

The research shows that in 2013, 155 aid workers were killed, 171 were seriously wounded and 134 were kidnapped. Overall this represents a 66 per cent increase in the number of victims from the previous year. With 81 aid workers killed in 2013, Afghanistan is still the country with the highest number of attacks.

Preliminary figures show that as of 15 August 2014, 79 aid workers have been killed this year alone. The months of July and August saw a rise in the level of attacks and incidents involving aid workers including in Gaza and South Sudan.

Only these past few weeks, aid workers were killed in the midst of conflicts in South Sudan and Gaza, just two of many places that rely on their vital services. Such loss of life is a tragedy in itself, especially for the global community as a whole. As the world faces increasingly more difficult and existential threats, there needs to be a more concerted effort to address these matters and protect those who willingly risk their lives to dispense such solutions.

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

To mark the centenary of the First World War, tens of thousands of blood-red ceramic poppies will be planted around the Tower of London, each representing a life lost in the bloody four-year conflict.

The installation called ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ was created by artist Paul Cummins and set designer Tom Piper with the help of a team of around 8,000 dedicated volunteers. Planting began on August 5, the start of the war, and will continue until November 11, Armistice Day (also known as Remembrance Day), which marks the end of the war.

By then, the iconic monument will have 888,246 poppies, a somber reflection of the staggering death toll. Both British and Commonwealth soldiers are represented, including around 74,000 troops from the Indian subcontinent who gave their lives to the empire.

At barely 120,000 or so poppies as of this post, it already looks sobering:

Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red, Tower of London. Between 5th August (start of the war) and 11th November (Remembrance Day), there will be a poppy planted for each death. Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red, Tower of London Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red, Tower of London III Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red, Tower of London IV

It is hard to imagine that each poppy represents a single human life, an individual with a name, identity, dreams, ideas, fears, loved ones. To think that all this is but a fraction of the over 16 million people who died, nearly half of whom were civilians (I can only imagined the scale of this project if it entailed all those lives.

The poppy became a symbol of remembrance in Britain during the First World War, inspired by a 1915 poem called “In Flanders Field” by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, which recalled the fragile flower melding with the dead in Flanders, Belgium (the site of many horrific battles).

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The ceramic poppies do an excellent job of visualizing just how many individuals died in this senseless conflict. Each took three days to make and were put up for public sale; after the last poppy is planted in November, the small sculptures will be sent to buyers and the proceeds will go to British charities such as the Royal Legion and Help for Heroes, which serve British veterans.

Source: The Independent

The 25 Most Beautiful Public Libraries in the World

Eupraxsophy:

These are definitely going on my bucket list.

Originally posted on Flavorwire:

[Editor's note: In celebration of the holidays, we're counting down the top 12 Flavorwire features of 2012. This post, at #3, was originally published April 16.] We’re suckers for beautiful libraries here at Flavorpill, as you might have noticed from our lists of beautiful college libraries and beautiful private libraries from all over the world. But public libraries are probably even more important to the culture at large than either of these — they’re places where anyone can enter and partake of knowledge they offer, where anyone can engage with history, literature and culture. And while we know it’s the books that are important, everyone likes to read in a beautiful space, so we decided to take a look at the most beautiful public libraries in the world. We excluded some very beautiful libraries that may be open to the public as museums or tourist attractions but with…

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Of BRICS and MINT

In 2001, economist Jim O’Neill wrote a report for Goldman Sachs’  Global Economic Paper  series titled “The World Needs Better Economic BRICs”, where he identified four countries — Brazil, Russia, India, and China — as potential powerhouses of the world economy (South Africa was added in 2010 after being invited to a summit of the original four countries).

These developing or newly industrialized nations were (and remain) distinguished by their large, often fast-growing economies and increasing influence on global affairs. As of 2014, the BRICS together comprise nearly 3 billion people (40 percent of the world population), a combined nominal GDP of $16.039 trillion (20 percent of world GDP), an estimate$4 trillion in combined foreign reserves, and 18 percent of the world economy.

By 2050, it is estimated that their economies will completely eclipse those of the G7, an association of the world’s current richest countries. Well aware of their rising status, the BRICS have been holding annual summits since 2009 (their sixth meeting just concluded in Brazil this past July) and they have invited other developing nations as an exercise of solidarity and influence. They have essentially become a household name among policymakers, political scientists, and economists across the world (not to mention investors and business people).

Now, the man that has brought us this catchy and game-changing acronym as a symbol of shifting global paradigms has presented four other contenders — the so-called “MINT” countries of Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey (nearly all of which had been invited to previous BRICS summits).

As BBC News reported, these countries are not only as fast-growing and increasingly influential as the BRICS, but they each have a  healthier demographic outlook: whereas China and Russia in particular are projected to experience stagnation and even decline in their working-age populations, all MINT countries are beginning to enter a demographic “sweet-spot” where there are more working-age people than dependents (by they very young, as is the case in most developing countries, or very old, as is typical in most developed nations).

As the following chart shows, their projected growth rates will be no less impressive either:

Also note the location of the BRICS. The absence of South Africa has raised questions over its inclusion in the group.

Nigeria’s potential for growth is especially impressive: to jump from the 39th to 13th richest economy in less than four decades is, as far as I know, virtually unprecedented for such a large nation. Mexico and Indonesia close the gap by nearly half, and Turkey’s growth — although not as dramatic given that it already had a head start industrializing — nonetheless puts it near equal footing to established economies like Germany, France, and the U.K.

Moreover, these nations enjoy the fruits of geography:

Something else three of them share, which Mexican Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Meade Kuribrena pointed out to me, is that they all have geographical positions that should be an advantage as patterns of world trade change.

For example, Mexico is next door to the US, but also Latin America. Indonesia is in the heart of South-east Asia but also has deep connections with China.

And as we all know, Turkey is in both the West and East. Nigeria is not really similar in this regard for now, partly because of Africa’s lack of development, but it could be in the future if African countries stop fighting and trade with each other.

This might in fact be the basis for the Mint countries developing their own economic-political club just as the Bric countries did – one of the biggest surprises of the whole Bric thing for me. I can smell the possibility of a Mint club already.

If not a distinct MINT club, then certainly some sort of union of the two; this has already somewhat occurred with certain informal BRICS gatherings, which have involved few MINT members, in addition to other rising economies.

Of the four MINTs, only Turkey has a fairly diversified economy (hence, as mentioned earlier, its slower projected growth), while the remainder specialize primarily in commodities — namely agricultural products and/or natural resources — though efforts are underway to move into manufacturing and services (Mexico, for example, is already set to become one of the world’s top automobile producers).

For comparison, Brazil and Russia are the major commodity producers of the BRICS, while China, India, and South Africa have a broader economic base that includes greater developments in manufacturing and services.

What about wealth per individual citizen of these countries? Large and fast-growing economies are all well and good, but how does it break down?

Well, Mexico and Turkey are at about the same level in per capita earnings, with about $10,000 annually, while Indonesia — with a much larger population — has about $3,500 per person and Nigeria earns $1,500 per head (on a par with India). The head of the pack is Russia with $14,000 per head, Brazil with $11,300 and China with $6,000.

Here’s what in store for the MINTs if growth rates continue:


Granted, like the BRICS — and for that matter most rapidly-developing countries — inequality remains a persistent problem for each member, albeit to varying degrees: according to the 2014 Gini Index, India, Indonesia, and Turkey have fairly low rates of inequality (lower than even the United States), China and Russia are in the mid-range, while Mexico, Brazil, and especially South Africa are among the top brackets.As these countries become wealthier, there will no doubt be increasing pressure to see more of that wealth amount to something for the average person, whether through investment in public services or better-paying and more secure jobs. Already, nearly all the BRICS and MINT countries have seen some protests and civil unrest related wholly or in part to socioeconomic issues (by my recollection, Brazil and Turkey have seen the most pronounced demonstrations, though nearly all members have dealt with strikes).

As the BBC piece goes on to observe, the average person in these countries expresses a palpable sense of hope and optimism, even if there is much work to be done. Aside from inequality, corruption remains a huge issue in all these nations, as our infrastructural and institutional deficiencies (lack of good schooling, reliable roads and ports, etc). Things are largely in a flux, with lots of potential and forward-thinking, but plenty of causes for doubt and concern.

Whatever the future holds, there is little doubt that there will be interesting times ahead, both for these individual nations and the world at large. Few people in the West could ever imagine any of these countries being major actors on the world stage, given the decades of poverty and instability with which we associate them. It is strange to imagine that in my lifetime, countries like Mexico and Brazil — seen as dysfunctional and miserable places by the likes of most fellow Americans — may become economic and even political competitors.

Of course, I am getting ahead of myself. But as the developing world catches up to the more established industrialized nations (situated largely in the West), it is very likely that we will see a more multi-polar world, with global influence diffused across a larger number of actors. Such a paradigm is difficult for me to conceive given how long the international system has operated in a unipolar or bipolar fashion (the latter being the norm since World War II and the former for the last two-and-a-half decades). Will it be unstable? Will the world better address global challenges with more nations exercising influence? What of all the vast cultural and political differences between them? Won’t that get in the way?

Well, setting aside the political implications, I for one am encouraged to see half the world’s population potentially being lifted out of poverty (not to say that hundreds of millions won’t be left behind within their increasingly wealthy nations). Going back to the first chart I shared, it is worth pointing out that other populous countries like Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, and the Philippines are also slated to be among the top twenty economies. Plenty of other nations will see relatively large growth even if they do not reach the cream of the crop.

But we must not be complacent. There is still much work to be done, on both individual national levels and globally. From climate change to worsening global inequality, profound existential challenges remain. But at least there is plenty of untapped potential that is starting to be released, and that will hopefully amount to greater prosperity for all — BRICS, MINT, and beyond.

Your thoughts?

Video — The Transformative Power of Classical Music

As I write this post, I am listening to a compilation of classical music that includes such greats as Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and  Tchaikovsky. Rarely do I feel more focused, motivated, and at peace than when I indulge in such music. It has helped me endure many of my darkest or most stressful moments, helping to both rouse my spirits and soothing my soul (in fact, work has never been better since I made a point to listen almost exclusively to classical music — just a correlation to be sure, but still a strong one).

The following TED Talk by British-born composer Benjamin Zander takes a delightful look at the power of classical music, not just in terms of its technical and artistic qualities, but with regards to its impact on one’s thoughts, emotions, and soul. As he sees it, classical music cultivates and unlocks our love for all new possibilities, new experiences, new connections. It is an enchanting argument I am inclined to agree with, both from experience and his video.

While we are on the subject of classical music, you can find a downloadable album of 99 classical music pieces for just $5.99 on Amazon (the series also has 99-track albums for a number of other classical greats, such as Chopin, each ranging in price from $4.99 to $6.99 as of this post). My moral and productivity at work have never been greater!

 

 

 

 

Santa Muetre

Close-up view of a Santa Muerte south of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. (Source: Wikimedia)

Translating roughly to “Holy Death” or “Saint Death”, Santa Muerte is a syncretic sacred figure that is widely venerated in Mexico, mostly by the downtrodden and ostracized segments of society: prostitutes, criminals, substance abusers, the sick, the poor and other lower-class groups.

Saint Death combines Catholic and indigenous Mesoamerican beliefs, therefore embodying two distinct but complementary views of death: the Christian use of skeletons to remind people of their finite lives, and the Mesoamerican reverence towards the power of death.

The Cult of Santa Muerte is very complex, seen as either a part of Mexican Catholicism or a distinct religion altogether – the Church in Mexico condemns it, while individual believers have different views. The exact origins of Saint Death are unknown, although Mexico has long retained a syncretic combination of its European and Mesoamerican traditions, such as through the Day of the Dead.

The cult was said to have surged in lower-class neighborhoods of Mexico City during the 1940s, while other sources suggest it emerged in the 1960s in the state of Hidalgo. Either way, it’s only been recently that this controversial belief system has become more popular and public, with at least two million followers, if not more. As Mexico endures widespread death and violence from its current drug war, and as its political and economic climate faces renewed trouble, reverence of Holy Death seems to be increasing.

Indeed, her popularity is directly tied to individual or national incidences of hardship, to the extent that anthropologists identify her belief system as a “Cult of Crisis,” someone people turn to in desperation.

Iconography and Symbolism
Santa Muerte is referred to by a number of other names, Señora de las Sombras (“Lady of the Shadows”), Señora Blanca (“White Lady”), Señora Negra (“Black Lady”), Niña Santa (“Holy Girl”), and La Flaca (“The Skinny One”). No two images of Santa Muerte are exactly alike, as it often varies from person to person. Her icons range from small images or figurines that can be held in one hand, to statues or full-blown shrines; some people even have the image tattooed on their bodies.

Despite the variances, there are some near-universal motifs, including a similarity to another Catholic-Mesoamerican combination, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. Like Mexico’s Virgin Mary, Lady Death is usually dressed either in long robes or long dresses, covered from head to feet with only the face and hands showing. However, this has deeper symbolizing, as it is meant to represent two things: how people hide their true selves from the rest of the world, and how flesh covers the bones of the living. Both these facades are temporary and eventually fall away in death (note that the Aztecs used to portray figures as having half their flesh removed, in order to get a similar point across).

Santa Muerte generally holds two objects: a scythe in the right hand and globe in the left.  The scythe symbolizes many things, depending on the individual: the cutting of negative energies or influence, a harvesting tool for collecting hope and prosperity, or the moment of death, when a scythe is said to cut a silver thread representing our lives. The scythe has a long handle, indicating that it – like death itself – can reach anywhere. The globe represents Death’s dominion and presence over the entire world, and can be seen as a kind of a tomb to which we all return; the fact that she even holds a globe is an indication of her vast power (it should be noted that in European iconography, royalty would be depicted holding globes for similar reasons – sure enough, Medieval societies would portray skeletons doing the same, especially during famines or plagues, when death ruled supreme, even claiming nobility.

Other objects that can appear with an image of Santa Muerte include scales, an hourglass, an owl, and an oil lamp. The scales allude to equity, justice and impartiality, as well as divine will: death makes no judgments, as it claims everyone, good or bad. The hourglass indicates many things: the limited time of life on earth, but also the belief that death is the beginning of something new, as the hourglass can be turned to start over. It also denotes Santa Muerte’s patience, as all living things are visited by death eventually. An owl symbolizes her ability to navigate the darkness and her wisdom and is also said to act as a messenger, while a lamp symbolizes the intelligence and spirit needed to light the way through the darkness of ignorance and doubt.

It may seem strange that such a morbid figure could have such positive connotations. But that in itself is a symbol of death’s neutrality: it is not a purely good or bad thing, and it could have elements of both depending on the person. The duality of death, as both a positive and negative force, is prevalent across human cultures. This individualistic and personal nature of this faith – the fact that Lady Death means different things to different people – is largely what makes the faith so popular.

Rituals, Customs, and Beliefs
According to popular belief, Santa Muerte is very powerful and is reputed to grant many favors. Reflecting her nebulous and individualistic nature, the abilities attributed to Holy Death vary widely, and both the methods of worship, and the reasons she is sought after, differ from person to person.

Rites dedicated to Santa Muerte are similar to the processions and prayers seeking help from Catholic saints. Many believers in Santa Muerte identify as Catholics and will invoke the name of God, Christ, and the Virgin in their petitions to Santa Muerte. Often times, she stands near statues of Catholic images of Jesus, the Virgin of Guadalupe, St. Peter, or St. Lazarus. In the north of Mexico, Santa Muerte is venerated alongside Jesús Malverde, another pseudo-saint and folk figure popular among drug traffickers. However, some adherents warn that Santa Muerte is very jealous and that her image should not be placed next to Catholic saints, as it could result in consequences.

In any case, Santa Muerte will be subject to altars that are usually surrounded by any or all of the following: cigarettes, flowers, fruit, incense, alcoholic beverages, coins, candies and candles. As with Catholic saints, Lady Death’s icons are treated as real persons who can give favors in return for the faith of the believer, including miracles.

But unlike her traditional Christian counterparts, Santa Muerte is said to grant favors that no other saint can, such as making someone fall in love with you, damaging property, or even harming or killing someone – albeit only for just reasons.

As Señora de la Noche (“Lady of the Night”), she is often invoked by those exposed to the dangers of working at night, such as taxi drivers, bar owners, police officers, soldiers, and prostitutes. Indeed, she is generally used to protect against assaults, accidents, gun violence and all types of violent death.

Her image is often dressed differently depending on the request: for example, she may be dressed as a bride for those seeking a husband, or as a nun for those requesting hope or faith.

The color of the robe can indicate the nature of the petition as well: white is the most popular, symbolizing loyalty, purity or the cleansing of negative influences. Red is for love and passion with one’s partner, friends, or family, and also signals emotional stability. Blue garb indicates wisdom (popular for students), brown robes are used to invoke spirits or the dearly departed, and purple robes indicate the need to open some kind of pathway or opportunity (such as for a career). Gold indicates economic power, success, money and prosperity, while green signals justice or unity with loved ones. Amber or dark yellow indicates a search for health and/or money, and Lady Death figures can be seen wearing this color in areas frequented by alcoholics, drug addicts, or ill people. When dressed in black, the image is said to provide total protection against black magic or sorcery (though conversely, she may be dressed this way in pursuit of negative magic or power).

There is also a version of the image in a rainbow-colored robe, known as the Santa Muerte of the Seven Powers. The colors of this robe are gold, silver, copper, blue, purple, red and green. Gold is for wealth, red for love and passion, purple for the changing of negative to positive, silver for luck and success, green for justice, copper for lifting negative spirits, and blue for spirituality.

In additional to these variances, each worshiper adorns his or her own icon in their own way, using dollar bills, gold coins, jewelry, flowers, a paper with a request, and so on.

Santa Muerte also has her own “Saint’s Day,” which is celebrated on either November 1 or August 15, depending on the adherent. She’s often dressed in a bridal outfit during the occasion, and is subject to public gatherings and festivities.

Veneration
Despite its growing popularity, the controversy of the faith means that it remains secretive: most worshiping is done in homes of devotees or in shops tending to spirituality and the supernatural (tarot readers, curanderos, herbal healers, etc) However, more shrines and public festivities devoted to her are appearing in public; some time ago, a believer by the name of Enriqueta Romero Romero decided to take a life-sized image of Santa Muerte out of her home and build a shrine for it, visible from the street. Though it doesn’t hold Catholic or occult rituals, thousands of people continue pray and leave offerings. Several public shrines have been set up elsewhere in the country in response.

Raising of Santa Muerte images during a service in the deity’s honor on Alfareria Street Tepito Mexico City. (Source: Wikimedia).

Furthermore, a group called Iglesia Católica Tradicional México-Estados Unidos (Mexican-US Traditional Catholic Church) built the first temple dedicated to Santa Muerte in Mexico City, with plans to develop devotional material to be sold or disseminated across the country.

Popularity and Demographics
As I noted before, Santa Muerte is especially popular among the lower-classes of Mexican society. For decades she had a following in Mexico’s poorest neighborhoods. The phenomenon stems from scarce resources, desperation, exclusion from the educational and economic systems, and socioeconomic oppression – as such, it is based primarily in t inner cities and the very rural areas. It should be noted that most new religious beliefs start with the lower classes for this very reason.

She’s also gained many adherents who have become disillusioned with the dominant Catholic Church and the inability of established Catholic saints to deliver them from poverty. Indeed, some of the more blighted communities are said to revere Lady Death more than Jesus.

Though most upper-class people look down on the cult as an unsettling or foolish superstition, there have been some accounts of Lady Death making inroads among the wealthy and successful. Whether or not this is due to perceived trendiness is unknown, as the practice is even more secretive among the well-off than the poor.

Some of her most devoted followers are prostitutes, pickpockets, petty thieves and drug traffickers, especially those who turn to crime out of survival. Still, the cult is most strongly associated with the drug cartels that are wreaking havoc on Mexico, a connection that has only heightened the taboo-status of the belief. Mexican authorities regularly linked the worship of Santa Muerte to prostitution, drug trafficking, kidnapping, smuggling and homicides. Indeed, criminals are among her most fervent believers, praying to for a successful operation, or for escaping the police. She is considered to be the “Virgin of the Incarcerated,” such that a large number of convicts will convert to the faith after several months. Many prisons cells have been seen bearing the images of Santa Muerte.

In the north of Mexico, a major center of drug trafficking, she is venerated along with Jesús Malverde, the “Saint of Drug Traffickers”; altars with images of Santa Muerte have been found in many drug houses in both Mexico and the United States.

Interestingly, it has been reported the law enforcement and military personnel conducting the current drug war have asked Lady Death to bless their weapons and keep the same – an interesting twist considering that the criminals they fight do the exact same thing.

Figurines of Santa Muerte for sale in Sonora Market, Mexico City. (Source: Maurice Marcellin).

Santa Muerte and the Catholic Church
Mexico’s Catholic Church considers the worship of Santa Muerte to be equivalent to Satanism or black magic, claiming the she is used to mislead desperate people (many protestant denominations make the same warning). Priests have tried to inform people that death is a phase of life, rather than a figure to be worshiped; they also warn against idol worship, which is a defining element of death cult but officially discouraged by the Church.

Furthermore, the cult is seen as competing with the Catholic Church, since many followers end up leaving to become exclusive Santa Muerte devotees. Nonetheless, the majority of devotees to Santa Muerte do not worry about any contradiction between the church and the worship of Santa Muerte.

Santa Muerte in the United States
Devotion of Santa Muerte has been on the rise in the United States, mostly following the millions of poor Mexicans who have immigrated to the country. Her presence can be found almost anywhere that has a large Mexican community, including New York City, Houston, Tucson and Los Angeles, which alone has 15 registered temples and organizations devoted to her. It should be noted that many of these “adherents” bear icons or symbols mostly for cultural reasons.

The cult has gained some non-Mexican followers as well, most notably in Northern California’s Santisima Muerte Chapel of Perpetual Pilgrimage, which was founded by a white woman. Though it’s doubtful that will spread outside the Mexican working-class, the possibility can’t be ruled out. So far, America’s Catholic Church has not issued any official statements on the matter (though local churches are said to be addressing it).

An Excellent Summary of the Tragedy of WWI

As the centennial of history’s first world war falls further behind us, so too will the necessary ruminations and analyses that remain relevant in our fragile international system. While there are nor shortage of well-written and deeply-reflective pieces on the subject, the following one by Burt Solomon of The Atlantic is one of my favorite. Although this excerpt stood out the most, I strongly recommend reading the whole thing — it is succinct but on point.

And for this, more than 16 million men went to their slaughter, many of them in cruel and creative ways. In trenches that stretched an unbroken 475 miles from the North Sea to the Swiss border, the Germans constructed walls using corpses, so that French troops who captured a trench hung canteens from protruding ankles. Along the Somme River, in northern France, more than 1 million men were killed or wounded in 1916 for an Allied advance of seven miles. Poisonous gas filled a quarter of all the artillery shells fired on the western front in 1918. More than a third of German males born between 1892 and 1895 died in the course of the war. The killing spread to civilians in England and France attacked by German zeppelins. War was no longer noble, even as some of the men who fought it were noble beyond compare.

It was a sad, pointless war, for which we’re still paying a price. A hard-hearted peace treaty and a ravaged economy produced a “lost generation” of young Germans and led directly to the rise of Hitler and an even uglier worldwide conflagration. The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement reached by Britain and France in 1916 drew arbitrary boundary lines across the postwar Middle East—around Iraq, for instance—that are returning deadly dividends to this day. The toppling of the Russian monarchy and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire created a balkanized Europe that, as recently as the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over strife-torn Ukraine, pains us still. The world was a nastier place after the war than before it.

All wars tell us something about the basest regions of human nature, the First World War (caustically named in 1918 by an English journalist who thought it would not be the last) more than most. About the nature of covetousness, the perils of insecurity, the ease of losing human control over human events.

We’ve come a long way in many respects, but only up to a point. Complacency with regards to a seemingly stable and prosperous future had also proceeded the First World War. This isn’t intended to be alarmist — I am well aware that the world is a far more peaceful place than it has ever been, relatively speaking — but it is a reminder that peaceful coexistence and the overcoming of our basest motives for violence and cruelty require tremendous vigilance and an understanding of the mistakes from the past. That is pretty much the only good thing to take away from such a horrifically pointless but deadly conflict.