For the little gods’ sake…

(Spoiler alert: This post contains commentary on “Small gods” by Terry Pratchett and as such gives away vital plot details.)

Cover of "Small Gods (Discworld)"
Cover of Small Gods (Discworld)

I often use the phrase “For the little gods’ sake…” as an expression of frustration. I got the expression from the Diskworld novel “Small gods” by Terry Pratchett. The premise of the story is that everything has a god or goddess,  and there is even a Goddess of Things That Get Stuck in Drawers, Anoia. These deities are constantly jostling for prominence and for followers, because followers equate with influence and without influence a god will fade away into a sort of background of powerless whispering.

Drawer pulls
Drawer pulls (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anoia is lucky in this respect as much of her influence comes from the annoyance that people feel when they open a drawer and it gets stuck. She doesn’t have to rely on believers. In the stories minor deities who do not have enough followers are served by priests of more major deities on an agency basis.

Although Anoia’s cause if peripherally helped by the events in the book, the book’s main theme is another small god, who is in desperate straits as he has only one follower and is accidentally incarnated as a tortoise. He regains his deity by persuading an eagle to drop him on the head of the villain of the story, thereby killing both himself and the baddie.

Tortoise 05
Tortoise 05 (Photo credit: Wikipedia) 

Pratchett is obviously drawing on the story of Aeschylus’ death as a result of a tortoise being dropped on his head. The interesting thing is the theology that Pratchett weaves around the incident where everything has a god or goddess and there is a hierarchy of gods who continually jostle for position.

PANTHEON
PANTHEON (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A huge pantheon seems, well, wasteful. One single Deity seems more logical, as gods are supposed to be all-powerful, all-seeing, etc. One way out of this dilemma is to see each member of the pantheon as being mere aspects or manifestations of the one Deity. Many religions seem to make this compromise.

English: The Maya rain deity
English: The Maya rain deity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A god is supposedly a non-physical being, and supernatural. A deity is supposed to be able to subvert the laws of nature and cause unexplainable things to happen. Most if not all deities are thought of by believers as anthropomorphic manifestations – in other words, like people.

हिन्दी: Nature
हिन्दी: Nature (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, a non-physical being presumably cannot have physical attributes, like people, so it seems to me to be wrong to believe that a deity is in any way like a person. One consequence of ascribing attributes to deities is to make them fallible as people are fallible. One only has to look at descriptions of the supposed behaviours of  the Greek, Roman or Norse mythologies to see the consequences of your deities having human characteristics.

Captioned as "Balder und Nanna". The...
Captioned as “Balder und Nanna”. The god Baldr and his wife Nanna. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gods are powerful beings and in most cultures power equates to ambition and ambition leads to conflict. Goddesses, if the religion has them, are generally idealisation of the status of women in the society, the mothers, the sisters, the daughters, the wives and generally the peace makers and the artists.

The head of an Egyptian goddess. The gender is...
The head of an Egyptian goddess. The gender is suggested by the lack of a beard, and the simple hairstyle points to the divine status of the subject. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The pantheon of many religions are an unruly bunch with cheating, back-stabbing, sex, killing and many other unsavoury pursuits, but these are stories made up by us humans about the deities. These behaviours are mirrors of our own best and worst characteristics, but on a heroic scale.

Obviously the stories come from the minds of the adherents to the religion, but where do they get the stories, how do these legends arise? They arise as a result of humans attributing human characteristics to their deities, and then wondering what they would do with these characteristics. The legend makers will see the goings on of the rich and famous and will see their deities behaving the same ways but writ larger than life. Others then pass these stories on as facts.

Illustration from a collection of myths.
Illustration from a collection of myths. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Deities are supernatural entities and have the ability to transcend the laws of nature. While many examples exist of unlikely, improbable and apparently impossible things happening, in the majority of cases it appears that there are physical explanations of these events. For a deity to perform a genuine miracle, then, the miracle should be without possible explanations.

English: Ruins of Santa Maria del Miracle Chur...
English: Ruins of Santa Maria del Miracle Church inside the Roman amphitheatre of Tarragona, Spain Français : Ruines de l’église Santa Maria del Miracle (Sainte Marie du Miracle) à l’intérieur de l’amphithéâtre romain de Tarragone, Espagne (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Roman Catholic faith has a church body which is concerned with verification of miracles called the “Congregation for the Causes of Saints.” They take miracles very seriously. Most modern miracles it seems are cures of illnesses, and documentary evidence of the state of health of the beneficiary of a miracle, both before and after the event are required.

English: Roman Catholic church, Târgovişte, Ro...
English: Roman Catholic church, Târgovişte, Romania (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am uncomfortable with the concept of miracles as it is hard to see how a non-physical cause can cause a physical event. I’m not even sure that “a non-physical cause” makes sense. All causes are physical, aren’t they? An effect without a physical cause would not then make sense.

All physical effects seem to have a physical cause, even if the statement is softened to an assertion that the state of the Universe now is caused by the state of the Universe before and the tendencies or laws of nature.

Laws
Laws (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The concept of a miracle changes this to something like “the state of the Universe now is caused by the state of the Universe before and the tendencies or laws of nature, or something else, outside of the framework of the physical Universe and the laws of nature”.

This pretty much means that anything can happen, but we don’t see this in practise. The Universe follows the laws of nature, be they classical or be they quantum physical.

Quantum-atom
Quantum-atom (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If a deity cannot have physical attributes, because a deity is not a physical entity, then what attribute can a deity have? Certainly a deity would not have a gender as that is a property of physical biological entities, such a animals and plants. I’ve said above that I don’t think that there can logically be more than one deity, but singularity or plurality seem to be physical properties (but numbers may not be).

If we work back from the definition above, a deity is “something else, outside the framework if the physical Universe that allows things to happen that are not the result of the laws of nature operating on the Universe”. I think that’s a round about way of saying that we don’t know what a deity would be like if there is such a thing.

English: Basic physical properties of soil Čes...
English: Basic physical properties of soil Česky: Základní fyzikální vlastnosti zeminy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wine

Assortment of wine from Domaine Chandon in Yar...
Assortment of wine from Domaine Chandon in Yarra Australia showing their sparkling Chardonnay and Pinot noir wine as well as a still pinot noir. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most cultures have some substance that they use to relax inhibitions and induce euphoria. Overindulgence leads to intoxication, the word acknowledging that the substance, whatever it is, damages the body in some way. It is toxic. The most widespread substance that is used is alcohol, and the reason it is so common is probably because it is easy to produce and acquire. Just let some fruit go rotten.

Of course, rotten fruit is pretty nasty, and people are ingenious, and it was soon discovered that fruits and grains and some root vegetables could be made to ferment without first going rotten. In fact it is a yeast that is the agent which facilitates the necessary chemical reaction, which takes in sugars in some form and produces carbon dioxide and alcohol. “Alcohol” when referred to in relation to recreational drinking is ethyl alcohol or ethanol, a substance that has now and then suggested as a fuel for cars.

English: Bai jiu, or Chinese white hard alcoho...
English: Bai jiu, or Chinese white hard alcohol that was made locally in Haikou, Hainan, China, and sold in a dedicated alcohol shop. The signs hanging on the stone bottles show alcohol percentag above, and price in yuan (2009) below. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alcoholic drinks can be made from practically anything and can contain varying levels of alcohol, from relatively low alcohol drinks like beers and ales, through to wines, which represent the strongest drinks that can be made by simple fermentation and on to distilled alcoholic drinks which contain large amounts of alcohol.

English: Elderberries Ripe elderberries growin...
English: Elderberries Ripe elderberries growing by the Roman wall at Calleva Atrebatum. Elderberries can be used in a number of ways, including making elderberry wine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wine is these days made from grapes, and alcoholic drinks made from other fruits are usually referred to as “fruit wines“. There is an unfair implication that “fruit wines” are not real wines and are inferior to grape wines. While “fruit wines” are generally not as good as grape wines, the reason is probably more to do with the centuries of development and improvements that have gone into modern grape wines than any inherent superiority of grapes as a prime ingredient of wines.

Wines are typically made from the grapes of Vitis vinifera though occasionally other grapes are used, and hybrids of V. vinifera with other species are not uncommon. Wines are classified as either white or red, the colour coming from the colour of the skin of the grapes that were used in the production of the wine. Rosé wines are usually pinkish or pale red and are usually made from red wine grapes. The paler colour results from the removal of the skins at an early stage of production.

Several French rose wines from the Rhone Valle...
Several French rose wines from the Rhone Valley and Provence. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are all sorts of varieties of wine, named after the varieties of grape vines that produce the grapes. I’ve a couple of books on wine which detail the genealogy of grape vines and it is a complicated messy and incestuous family tree. There are stories of skullduggery, stealing, and smuggling. There are stories of cataclysmic crop failures and noble experiments and migrations between countries.

Climate change comes into the picture too. Grapes are grown in areas of southern England where grapes have not been grown since Roman times, when younger and more robust varieties were grown. But the ability to grow grapes commercially in England can’t all be put down to global warming since techniques for protecting vines from frost (the main cause of crop failure in grape vines) have been vastly improved.

Madeleine Angevine growing in England
Madeleine Angevine growing in England (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Smoke producing machines are used to protect vines from frost and helicopters have been used to good effect too. I’m not sure how these techniques work, but I believe they do. One of the most bizarre protection methods is to spray the vines with water which instantly freezes and cocoons  the buds in an envelope of ice apparently protecting them from freezing.

I find this stuff interesting, but the reason people buy wine is because of the alcohol in it, and the reason that they prefer some wines over others is the taste. I prefer red wines, because white wines seem astringent and too sweet. Which is odd because red wines can also be astringent and sweet! Well, maybe I am exaggerating somewhat, but the beauty of the wine is definitely on the tongue of the taster.

When tasters taste wine, they have a problem. Sweetness or dryness is pretty much describable, as is the tannin level, which gives all wines, red or white, its astringency, but when the subtleties of the flavour have to be described, especially to someone who has not yet tasted the wine, then there are issues.

Vineyard owned by California wine producer Fer...
Vineyard owned by California wine producer Ferrari-Carano in the Dry Creek region of Sonoma county. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wines may be described as “fruity” or “full-bodied”, which gives some impression of the experience of tasting the wine. The taster may have to descend to using analogies for further details. To quote from a bottle label : “This wine is fruit driven with flavours of red berry fruit and black cherries….”.

However, if you actually taste the wine, you won’t taste berries or cherries. What you will taste is firstly the major type, red or white. Secondly you are likely to be able to distinguish the variety, for example Pinot Noir, or at least the style for a blended wine. Then you will get the overall ‘shape’ of the wine (robust maybe, or delicate). You will note different aspects of the wine at different stages of drinking, at first hit, in the mouth and the aftertaste. I find that some wines have distinctive phases of this sort and others don’t.

You certainly don’t want to be analysing every sip of every wine when you drink it, but I do try to taste it like above at least on one mouthful, but I don’t always remember to do so. It does help you when you choose a wine in the store though.

Typical shape and design of a white wine tasti...
Typical shape and design of a white wine tasting glass. New Zealand wine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To get back to the red berries and cherries for a moment, you may taste a wine and not be able to detect them in your tasting. That’s because, in my opinion, those tastes are not there as such. So what do the tasting notes mean by these comments? They mean that the taster is reminded by some flavours of the wine of some aspects of the taste of berries. A faint echo of the richly complex flavours of red berry fruit echoes in the mind of the taster, and that is all that he has to work with when trying to describe some of the flavours in the wine.

In terms of familial relationships the flavour being described by the taster is not as close as brother or sister to the flavour mentioned by the taster. It’s more a second cousin twice removed relationship, and the taster is not saying that it is the second cousin twice removed, but that it reminds him or her of the second cousin twice removed. So you may think that there is hint of gooseberry in flavour of the wine and for you there are.

I think that the ability to even register some flavours varies from person to person and not just in wine. One person may taste something complex and say “mint”, while another may say “cloves”.

Wine tasting bar at Ridge/Lytton Springs, Sono...
Wine tasting bar at Ridge/Lytton Springs, Sonoma, California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So where does it leave those of us who read wine labels and try to match the description with the label? Well, unless you drink a lot of wine and have an ability to distinguish the flavours that is practised, and have a similar sort of palate to the usually anonymous taster, then the bottle labels or tasting notes don’t mean a great deal. If it says “robust” or “full-bodied” for example, most people would be able to agree, but if it says “hints of gooseberry” you may well not agree that those flavours are there. It might remind you more of apples.

Image of an old Kazakhstan wine bottle.
Image of an old Kazakhstan wine bottle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)