“Against the fashionable (and idiotic) claim that revenge is just hardwired and an instinctual response programmed into our genes and neuro-structures,” argues law professor William Ian Miller in an analysis of Njál’s Saga, “actual Icelandic feuding” rather “made it preferable for revenge to be served up cold; take your time and think. Only the stupid hit back right away.”
“Woe to you, my princess, when I come. I will kiss you quite red and feed you till you are plump. And if you are forward you shall see who is the stronger, a gentle little girl who doesn’t eat enough or a big wild man who has cocaine in his body,” wrote Sigmund Freud to his future wife, Martha Bernays, on June 2, 1884.
Noah Webster, creator of the first widely used American English dictionary, wrote that “the English, neglecting the beauty and regularity of their own language, adopt foreign words in their foreign spelling; thus incommoding all ordinary readers among their own citizens, and multiplying anomalies, till the orthography of their language falls little short of the confusion of tongues at Babel.”
“I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been in the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories,” wrote Edgar Allan Poe in a letter in the last year of his life.
Legend regarding the horseshoe as a lucky symbol holds that in the tenth century, while St. Dunstan was working in England as a farrier, the devil entered the forge and demanded his hooves be reshod. During the process, the future saint caused as much pain as he could, and the devil begged him to stop. Dunstan agreed—on the condition that Satan never enter a house where a horseshoe is on display.
Ornithologists have found that hormones strongly determine aggression between sibling seabirds. Blue-footed boobies rarely attack a nest mate, while among Nazca boobies—born with androgen levels three times higher—the elder of two hatchlings unconditionally attacks and kills the younger one shortly after birth.
Georges Cuvier, founder of the field of paleontology, wrote in 1812 that examination of the strata of the earth revealed “traces of revolutions.” He surmised, “Innumerable living beings have been the victims of these catastrophes; some have been destroyed by sudden inundations, others have been laid dry in consequence of the bottom of the seas being instantaneously elevated. Their races have become extinct and have left no memorial of them, except some small fragment which the naturalist can scarcely recognize.”
When a theologian renting from ninth-century Islamic philosopher al-Kindi hosted two cousins for a monthlong visit, the landlord increased the rent proportionally. His reasoning: a dwelling has a “limited existence.” A tenant enjoys this without the burden of ownership, then leaves the space “a dung heap and in dilapidation, only repairable at grievous expense.”
Before their journey westward in America in 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were advised by Thomas Jefferson to “observe the animals” and especially “the remains and accounts of any which may be deemed rare or extinct.” One of the animal fossils that the expedition sent back is believed to have been of a dinosaur, dating from the Cretaceous Period.
According to the Talmud, “If a fledgling bird is found within fifty cubits of a dovecote, it belongs to the owner of the dovecote. If it is found outside the limit of fifty cubits, it belongs to the person who finds it.” Jeremiah, a renowned fourth-century rabbi, once asked what the outcome would be if a bird were to have one foot inside the limit and the other outside. This was one quibble too many. “It was for this question,” the text relates, “that Rabbi Jeremiah was thrown out of the House of Study.”
During a battle with Scythians in Macedonia on April 29, 1091, Byzantine emperor Alexius I Comnenus noted the midday sun “shedding its rays,” reported his daughter Anna Comnena in the Alexiad. He dispatched local peasants to bring water in skins or jars to his troops, who “sipped a drop of water, then returned to the fray.” The newly hydrated Byzantines wiped out their enemies, and a chant began: “All because of one day the Scythians never saw May.”
Having gained fame in England as a mind reader, Maud Lancaster came to New York City to perform in 1893. Nellie Bly, investigating for the New York World, quickly discovered that Lancaster’s telepathy act involved a confederate giving secret signals. Bly donned a blindfold, performed the signature trick herself, and published a front-page exposé about the events under a headline reading “Miss Lancaster, Who Astonished All London, Finds the World ’s Young Woman Too Much for Her.”
“Today is my eighteenth birthday!” Alexandrina Victoria wrote in her journal on May 24, 1837. Less than a month later, she was awoken at six o’clock and informed she was queen of the United Kingdom. “I am very young and perhaps in many, though not in all things, inexperienced,” she noted that day, “but I am sure that very few have more real goodwill and more real desire to do what is fit and right than I have.” Her reign, at 65 years and 216 days, is the second longest of the British monarchy.
The ancient physician Galen catalogued the anxious delusions of his melancholic patients, including those of a man who “believes he has been turned into a kind of snail” and “runs away from everyone he meets lest his shell get crushed,” and those of another who “is afraid that Atlas, who supports the world, will become tired and throw it away, and he and all of us will be crushed and pushed together.”