Thursday, August 25, 2011

Sun Gods

By Caroline Price, ABC-CLIO Media Resources Manager

As we continue the quest for exciting imagery on the new ABC-CLIO World Religions database, one of the most fascinating aspects of the process lies in researching how many different mythologies have used similar themes to explain how the world works.

Since the long, hot summer is blazing to a close, we thought we'd pull some images featured on the database to show how some religions personified the sun with a bevy of fiery gods and goddesses. Be sure to check out World Religions for more stories of the deities who helped shape the history of religion.

Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu-o-mikami


Amaterasu-o-mikami, as legend has it, became so annoyed by the destructive behavior of her storm-god brother that she retired to a cave and refused to come out. This caused darkness to fall upon the world. The other gods created a plan to get Amaterasu-o-mikami to come out of the cave. The goddess Ama-no-uzume performed a ribald dance that made the sun goddess curious enough to look outside in order to investigate. She was then tricked into further opening the cave to look into a mirror, and one of the gods pulled her outside. Dawn broke as Amaterasu-o-mikami emerged, and the entrance to the cave was closed so she could not return to it.

Egyptian sun god Ra


Ancient Egyptian art sometimes depicts a Benu bird, the sacred bird of Heliopolis, as representative of the soul of the sun god Ra. Other depictions may show Ra as a man with the head of a falcon. He was considered first among the gods, and the passage of the sun across the sky was seen as his daily journey to renew the world.

Surya, Hindu sun god

J. Gordon Melton

In some versions of the Hindu myth, the sun god Surya drove a seven-horse chariot with one wheel, which caused it to orbit the sky. Surya was said to have as many as seven wives, who in turn represented such qualities as knowledge, courage, and light. In later versions of the myths, Surya's role diminished, and he was even depicted as being swallowed by the god Rahu each time there was a solar eclipse.

Aztec sun god Huitzilopochtli

Getty Images

Huitzilopochtli serves many roles in Aztec mythology, from a god of war to sun god. In one version he springs fully grown and armed from his mother, Coatlicue, in order to vanquish a plot his sister Coyolxauhqui was hatching against her. The scheming Coyolxauhqui was killed and her head tossed into the sky, where it became the moon.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

NATO's Role in the Libyan Revolution

On August 22, the Libyan rebels made a dramatic entrance into Tripoli, marking the culmination of their six-month-long struggle against the regime of Muammar Qadhafi. Back in February 2011, the rebellion began as a series of peaceful protests for change that sprang in Tunisia and rocked the Islamic world. Encountering the Qadhafi regime’s crackdown, the protests escalated into an uprising that spread across the country, with the forces opposing Qadhafi establishing a government based in Benghazi named the National Transitional Council (NTC) and seeking the overthrow the Qadhafi-led government. Qadhafi’s bloody crackdown was quickly condemned by the United Nations, which froze the Libyan assets and, following further government attacks on its citizens, authorized member states to establish and enforce a no-fly zone over Libya. Despite the ensuing NATO air bombardment campaign, the Qadhafi regime proved to be resilient. In fact, the hastily organized and poorly led rebel forces were repeatedly rolled back by much more experienced and better armed government forces, especially the vaunted Khamis Brigade. Just two weeks ago, the revolt against Muammar Qadhafi and his regime appeared to have stalled. The rebel efforts to push west from Benghazi and Misrata were repelled, and the rebel leadership appeared to be turning on itself. And yet, the last week of August showed a remarkable turnaround.

Several factors contributed to this change. The sudden collapse of Qadhafi's forces in late August was preceded by steady attrition through months of air strikes and squeezed supply lines. The NATO air campaign, which conducted over 19,750 sorties, inflicted considerable damage on the military capability of the Qadhafi forces. The relentless bombardment of armor and artillery east of Zawiya greatly weakened government defenses and contributed to breaking down much of the resistance that could have halted the rebel advance.

But much more important work was done behind the scenes. Judging from available reports, foreign special forces—primarily from France, Great Britain, and the United States, but also from Qatar and Jordan—played a major role in training the inexperienced rebel forces, providing weapons and serving as forward air control to guide air strikes. Over the last few weeks, the rebel groups appeared to be better armed and forged a closer and more effective working relationship with the NATO jets above them. While most of the world’s attention had focused on Brega and Misrata, the turning point of the campaign seems to have take place in what had hitherto been considered a sideshow, the Nafusa highlands in the west, where the NATO trainers and regular deliveries of arms and equipment fused the disparate rebel elements into a fighting force. The offensive that began from this region in early August delivered a breakthrough in the stalemate as the rebels scored a major victory at Zawiya. It demonstrated better preparation and coordination among the rebel forces while an amphibious assault on Tripoli clearly revealed the extent of planning that underlay rebel operations. One cannot but suspect considerable Western involvement in this planning. This detracts nothing from the efforts that the NTC has undertaken in its struggle against the Qadhafi regime, but it does underscore the decisive impact of NATO's decision to serve as the rebel air force.

--Alexander Mikaberidze is assistant professor of history at Louisiana State University, Shreveport, LA, and an award-winning author of eight books. His most recent published work is Conflict and Conquest in the Islamic World: A Historical Encyclopedia.

Conflict and Conquest in the Islamic World
This comprehensive reference work documents the extensive military history of the Islamic world between the 7th century and the present day.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Why is gold so valuable?

The world of global finance is abuzz these days with dizzying attempts to determine whether the already historically high price of gold is poised for an uptrend or a downtrend. In the immediate aftermath of Standard & Poor’s downgrade of the U.S. credit rating from level AAA to AA+, gold prices soared to even higher record levels on August 9 to reach $1780.

This more than 40% increase in the price of gold over a 12-month period is attributed to investors’ desire to seek a safe haven amid uncertainties in foreign exchange markets in the context of national debt crises in Europe and the United States and concerns about inflation. Yet tracing patterns of levels of gold as a store of value relative to a range of stock indexes, money supply trends, commodity prices, inflation or deflation, monetary policy, political instability, consumer behavior, and other indicators can produce varied interpretations from a likewise wide range of viewpoints. Underlying all scientific attempts to pinpoint the direction in which gold prices are heading is the most important, and most elusive, question as to precisely why gold is valuable. This question becomes even more difficult to answer in a present-day geopolitical and global financial environment that is profoundly transformational on complex levels, a circumstance that leaves scholars, commentators, and policymakers a bit stumped in their attempts at identifying contemporary understandings of value as rooted in sociocultural or economic structures.

The high values ascribed to gold today may be due to the simple fact that humankind has turned to gold for reassurance in uncertain times for centuries. In The Creation and Destruction of Value (2009), Princeton University professor of history and international affairs Harold James stresses the fact that “crises lead to a fundamental uncertainty about what things are worth” and cites a long list of historical occasions on which individuals and investors turned to various material assets, perhaps chief among them gold, as a reaction to economic and political upheaval.

Contemporary market research by such organizations as the World Gold Council confirms the fact that gold prices evolve according to diverse factors and in response to myriad conditions that affect nations across the globe differently. The interplay of these conditions is difficult to predict, yet would seem essential to any tangible prediction of gold price given the dynamic relationship between the price of gold, foreign exchange, money supply, and general trust in sovereign solvency.

If it is so difficult to identify specific, empirical reasons for gold’s value in contemporary society, one might be led to consider if this question is even worth asking? It clearly is. History has shown that times of uncertainty often lead to periods of meaningful, productive scientific and philosophical inquiry into the institutional/political frameworks and human interactions that make the world go ‘round. It is my instinct to turn to an icon in the historical evolution of perceptions of money and value in Western society for answers to this worthwhile question—St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who provides us with as an artful articulation of man’s relationship to gold as a precious commodity in his discourse on value in the Summa Theologica. As with other commodities, Aquinas notes that gold is perceived to have an intrinsic value tied to its beauty and functionality, yet cautions that this is simply based on human assumptions about what is or is not real when he compares the value of pure gold to gold fabricated by alchemical arts, postulating that if “real gold were to be produced by alchemy, it would not be unlawful to sell it for the genuine article, for nothing prevents art from employing certain natural causes for the production of natural and true effects.”

---Shannon L. Venable, author of Gold: A Cultural Encyclopedia

Monday, August 15, 2011

Gen. David Petraeus to Become Director of CIA

When Gen. David Petraeus assumes his duties as director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in September, he will do so as someone uniquely qualified to lead the nation’s most prominent collector of foreign intelligence. The CIA is already a high-performing organization boasting talented and dedicated agents and analysts serving around the world. You can expect Director Petraeus to take the organization to even greater heights. This isn’t unabashed adulation, but simply where the Petraeus’ record points. Consider what some naysayers have suggested:

Petraeus will overstep his bounds or try to make policy on his own. Doubtful. Petraeus is always keenly aware of the limits of his authority. He is always loyal to his chain of command. He will try to persuade, he will work to impose his will, and he will be aggressive. But Petraeus will follow the rules and will find ways to operate within the authorities of his office.

The CIA won’t accept him because Petraeus is a military officer. The CIA consists of professionals who share the same ambition as does Petraeus – to succeed. They know full well how difficult it is to sustain their credibility in a dangerous world (not to mention the dangers of DC bureaucratic struggles). So they will have no problem at all welcoming Petraeus because he brings credibility demonstrated by a proven track record working the toughest national security challenges. And what many do not realize is the extent to which Petraeus integrated the work of intelligence professionals into his military decision-making as the top general in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Petraeus will try to ‘militarize’ the CIA. He won’t need to, and wouldn’t want to, either. Petraeus is the rare senior military officer that is very comfortable moving between cultures. Whether it is an elite university, an Army unit, or the CIA, Petraeus will adapt. He’s supremely confident in himself and his abilities. He will impose his priorities on the CIA, but he’ll do it smartly and creatively. Soon enough, the CIA will be embracing his changes.

The CIA isn’t a flawless organization. It’s big and faces such an array of national security challenges that it’s difficult to keep pace. But expect it to move forward aggressively under Petraeus’ leadership. And don’t heed the pundits who project that Petraeus is eager to enter the political ring. His focus will be on the CIA, and on providing and assessing intelligence to ensure the national security of the United States. There are other duties ahead of him – likely secretary of defense and/or state, director of national intelligence, or national security adviser. But political office isn’t on the horizon for him, not now, and likely not for a long while, if ever. Politicians, even presidents, wield their power for too short of a period. General, now director, Petraeus is playing a longer game.

----Bradley T. Gericke, PhD, is the author of David Petraeus: A Biography. Dr. Gericke is a military historian and U.S. Army strategist who is currently stationed with the 8th Army in Seoul, South Korea.


Bradley T. Gericke

This in-depth and forthright biography examines the personal and professional life of General David Petraeus, today's most prominent military leader.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

From the Editor: The World History Encyclopedia

"Overall, this massive undertaking is quite an impressive resource for students of world history. Academic libraries with significant history, anthropology, or archaeology collections would do well to add this to their collection, as would large public libraries." - Booklist. Read the full review here
When we began this project, we aimed at providing the sort of resource we dreamed of when we were struggling to develop our first classes in world history. Teaching world history is definitely daunting to new teachers–some of whom believe that they’re supposed to teach everything that has ever happened everywhere on the globe. Too many people have been tempted to throw up their hands and run away. The reality is that we are working and trading with societies all across the globe, making the study of world history more valuable than ever. Knowledge of world history will help students develop a cultural sensitivity that enables a better understanding of their own society as well as the societies of others. When we study world history, we are in fact developing a solid platform for understanding the wide range of possibilities open to us as individuals participating in our own culture and simultaneously developing our skills for interacting with other cultures.

As experienced teachers know, and the College Board acknowledges, there are beneficial intellectual habits that can be formed best through study and analysis of world history. The College Board has identified five such "habits of mind." They are:
  • Seeing global patterns and processes over time and space while connecting local developments to global ones
  • Comparing within and among societies, including comparing societies' reactions to global processes
  • Considering human commonalities and differences
  • Exploring claims of universal standards in relation to culturally diverse ideas
  • Exploring the persistent relevance of world history to contemporary developments 

Our goal as the editors of this encyclopedia was to develop an exemplary resource for curious and intelligent people–one that would be accessible to laypeople, students, and teachers alike. The academic participants who planned and outlined our project were all experienced teachers; we devised a resource with in-depth introductions and analyses to provide solid ground from which to launch into every aspect of human life that we could imagine. If you’re interested in comparisons across time or geography–for instance, comparing siege warfare in the ancient world with the battle of Stalingrad, or in comparing marriage customs in the Neolithic Age with those in Elizabethan England–we’ve got the resource for you!

We structured the work thematically, knowing that would facilitate comparisons as well as organizing the information into digestible chunks. There were times we almost despaired, but there were always scholars out there who could pull us over, around, under, or through the roadblocks we encountered. We also realized that we could never "finish" this project because the world keeps moving; as the old saying goes, "history, just one dratted thing after another." And, so, we offer the best, most complete examination of world history that a dozen scholars directing some 800 expert contributors could develop, knowing full well that a decade from now, we will be inspired to update it–history just keeps rolling on. 

Having said that, we fell in love with the project we produced. We believe we accomplished our goal of having the most comprehensive overview of human history possible at this date. Most importantly, all of us on the project, as well as the students we “test drove” the project with, experienced that jolt of lightning that happens when we first reach an understanding of an aspect of human experience. We call it "the ah-hah! moment." We trust our readers will find it as exciting as we have.

--Carolyn Neel, Associate General Editor and Volume Editor of World History Encyclopedia

Monday, August 1, 2011


As a way to mark the Night of Power (Lailat-ul-Qadr in Arabic)—when the Koran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad—fasting (sawm) every day during the ninth month (Ramadan) of the Islamic lunar calendar defines one of the Five Pillars of Islam. By the end of Ramadan, Muslims will have experienced hunger and thirst most of the time, and thus will be genuinely inclined to relieve the burden of the poor for whom this is a permanent plight. Muslims' awareness of the whole community of believers (Umma) should have increased over the month as a result of training to forgo the gratification of their own desires, since they and their fellow believers will have been radically curbing them for 29–30 days in a row. This discipline frees the spirit from its habitual patterns and reminds it of God's sovereignty and provident mercy.

As self-mastery for God's sake, Ramadan is an inner holy war against temptations, where valor is shown through endurance (sabr) against Satan and the strengthening of faith. But it is first and foremost an act of pure submission (the literal meaning of the word islam) to God's command, given in the sura (chapter) entitled Al Baqarah in the Koran. This is the only passage where a month is mentioned by name, with instructions to fast throughout the month during which the holy book was first "revealed as guidance to man and clear proof of the guidance, and criterion (of falsehood and truth)." ...

Thus, the fast regulates the entry into the body of all foreign substances, whether food, drink, smoke, or medication. All of these are banned between the first glimmer of dawn until the sun has completely set, at which time all these exchanges between inside and outside become licit again. These two moments of the start and end of the daily fasting period are signaled by cannon shots during Ramadan in the cities of many Islamic countries.

Just after sunset and the iftar prayer for the breaking of the fast has been said, it is usual to have a light snack, such as one or three dates as was Muhammad's custom; this evening "breakfast" is experienced as a kind of sacrament of brotherhood. Once the daily evening prayer has been completed, a full dinner may be consumed—obviously none too soon. In this context, a festive atmosphere overtakes Muslim neighborhoods as friends visit each other's families. Near bedtime, extra tarawih prayers for Ramadan follow the daily night prayer at home or at the mosque ….

SNEAK PEEK at ABC-CLIO's brand-new World Religions databases
Available August 15, 2011 

As adherents approach the end of Ramadan (in 2011, this occurs at the end of August), the time between sundown on the 29th and the next morning's Eid ul-Fitr communal prayer for the breaking of the fast is set aside for special takbir prayers of Allahu Akbar ("God is Most Great") said in common in a number of variants. This time is also set aside for giving Zakat ul-Fitr—the seasonal "poor due," or support of the needy, which the head of the family must donate on behalf of all of its members to the corresponding number of needy Muslims. Zakat is another one of the Five Pillars of Islam. ...

After a month of ascetic exertion, Muslims watch for the new moon of Eid ul-Fitr (the festival marking the end of the month of Ramadan) with a great deal of excitement. The day before its expected appearance, men spend the day at the mosque and women take the children to cemeteries to visit departed family members. The new moon must be sighted between the sunset of the 29th and the break of dawn on the following day, or else a 30th day of fasting is added. The same method is used at the end of the previous month of Shaban to determine the actual beginning of Ramadan. …

At its core, Ramadan is one of the most important of all Islamic holy events—in depriving the body, enriching the soul, honoring Muhammad and the Koran, and submitting to God's command—and it has connected Muslims across the world for millennia, and continues to do so today.


Roy, Christian. "Ramadan 2011: Background." World Religions: Belief, Culture, and Controversy. ABC-CLIO, 2011. Web. 1 Aug. 2011.