The Bowl, The Ram And The Folded Map: Navigating The Complicated World

The writer Carlo Levi said:

The future has an ancient heart.

Consider these two traditional bowls. Later there will be a short quiz on them.


the ram

The problem with having two evolutionary biologists in the car is the arguments.

We were driving past the wet English pastures, carpeted as usual with gentle sheep. Their fleeces were heavy and baggy, saturated with rain, but they moved in their usual dreamy trance across the landscape like rainclouds passing across the fields of heaven. It was a few days after Christmas and the rivers were starting to rise. Dr Glass was driving.

“What are you thinking about?”

“A thing I saw on Tumblr,” I said. “A vegan group had put up a picture of a badly shorn sheep to claim that wool is a product of animal cruelty. Below it was a discussion between shepherds and vegans. While there are many ways to be cruel and abusive while raising sheep, a problem with the statement that wool=cruelty is that domestic sheep do need to be sheared.” I looked at the soggy sheep. “That’s what I was thinking about, looking at these wet sheep. Imagine carrying around all of those pounds of soaking wet wool, like a sponge. I know it’s somewhat waterproof, but I can’t imagine how they don’t get… mildew.”

Need to be sheared.” Dr Glass pounced on this. “Why do sheep need to be sheared?”

I responded with knowledge I had received from shepherding friends and family: “If you don’t remove their fleeces, they can collapse of heat exhaustion. They’re heavy and dirty, and inconvenient and uncomfortable for the sheep.”

Sometimes you can hear Dr Glass think. Right now he was slightly annoyed, in the pursuit of something: obviously a product of domestication, but how/why/where/when? What kind of animal “needs” human intervention to survive? “And what do sheep do in the wild?”

I had to think about this.

the map

Last year, there some generalized anger in the pop-culture sphere about the use of nonwhite actors to portray popular fictional characters.This was partially ignited by actor Sinqua Walls playing Sir Lancelot in a single episode of an American TV show called Once Upon A Time:


Careful literary and historical analysis of the topic has produced the conclusion that “he can get it.”

Although it was also a complaint about actress Angel Coulby playing Guinevere in the BBC’s show Merlin:


Careful literary and historical analysis of the topic has only led to inarticulate, incoherent sobbing.

In particular, there was the common complaint that having People of Color playing knights in King Arthur’s court was unconvincing and anachronistic – clearly an annoying, unrealistic sop to those oppressive Politically Correct folks who always want to see diversity in the media! The idea is that fantasy stories set in vaguely historical, vaguely European settings should be populated exclusively by white people – as white people were the only inhabitants of Europe in history.

"Good thing I got here in time! That guy on the left is unrealistic and fictional!" "Jesus CHRIST - Merlin, are those dead ducks? Did you actually bring dead ducks into my throne room? What the fuck, man?" "THIS IS MY DISGUISE" "You need to go." "BUT I AM NAUGHT BUT AN HONORABLE DUCKMONGERER" Or, "How Merlin in Disguise Visited the King," F.A. Fraser, 1912.

“Good thing I got here in time! That guy on the left is totally unrealistic in this setting!”
“Jesus CHRIST – Merlin, are those dead ducks? Did you actually bring dead ducks into my throne room? What the fuck, man?”
“You need to go.”
Or, “How Merlin in Disguise Visited the King,” F.A. Fraser, 1912.

Having actually studied King Arthur, I was happy to correct this misapprehension and wrote “Black Knights, Green Knights, Knights of Color All A-Round” about some Arthurian Middle Eastern and North African characters. Other blogs like People of Color in European Art History also contribute evidence of Europe’s multicultural past.

Since I can see when people link to my blog, I can see that this upsets a lot of Internet readers, who find it difficult to imagine how vaguely-medieval European-fantasy set pieces like King Arthur or Lord of the Rings could include people who are not white. How would they get there? they accuse. It’s been a year, but the issue keeps coming up.

It seems that there is a certain type of historical accuracy that only makes sense if it matches a historically inaccurate picture of the world.


the ram

If sheep must be sheared if they are to be treated kindly, then what do sheep do in the wild?

I concentrated, rifling through my mental index of natural history. Where do sheep live? Every continent but Antarctica. All domesticated, though. What are the wild sheep? Practically none. I snatched at passing fragments of information. The Bible. “Turkey, I think – or Iran. I feel like those are the oldest records of sheep that I know. Domesticated. But that could be the beginning – think of goats.”

“That feels right,” Dr Glass agreed, “Most domesticated animals are from the Fertile Crescent.”

“I swear I’ve seen cave art with sheep in it, but there’s definitely no such thing as wild sheep in that region of Europe today. They wouldn’t have lasted.” Then: “There are Bighorn sheep in the American Midwest. They live in – deserts. And the mountains.”

Dr Glass was skeptical. “Brought over by the Spanish?” He referred, of course, to the Spanish invasions of North and South America, which introduced (or re-introduced) new mammals to the continent. Horses have been extinct in the Americas since prehistory; all horses in the Americas now are relatively recent imports from Europe.

“No,” I said with certainty. “Native American mythology includes Bighorns.”

“And horses.”

“No, Bighorns are definitely pre-invasion.”

“And domestic sheep as we know them predate that by far.” We had reached the medieval market town, and Dr Glass pulled into the secret parking spot behind the ironmongers’. “The only way sheep could have from an Asian origin to North America is if they crossed the land bridge.”


the map

The continents were once one, and teemed with animal life. As the continents separated, their environments became different, and their plants and animals began to diversify in turn. Then the continents grew farther apart, and some animals were common across them, but some grew unique. Look at the great mammals, the charismatic megafauna, the animals people care about. Australia broke off very early, and the marsupials came to power, and they are like nothing else on the living planet. This is why animals are different, and why you will be charmed by this biological diversity upon visiting a zoo.

But Russia and Alaska were once connected by the Bering Land Bridge, and when the ancestors walked out of Africa, they had a nicely accessible planet to walk across. Some of the ancestors walked to Asia, where they acquired useful companions in the form of dogs. They walked up through Russia and across the Bridge into North America, bringing their dogs, their clothes, their stories, their innovations, their culture. The land bridge dissolved, and the Americas stood lonely. But never alone. The world is connected by invisible bridges as well.

Across the landbridge also came the wild sheep.

Bighorn sheep don’t have what you’d call wool. They are woolly, and I’ve knitted worse, but they don’t have saggy baggy coats of inconvenient fleece. They have fluffy fur in the winter, and in the summer, when it’s hot, they scratch their excess fur away.

There are very few wild sheep in the world. They’re the bighorns. There are some in Afghanistan. Most are gone, replaced in their places by domestic sheep.

“Then domestic sheep originated in Iran, like most domestic animals.” Dr Glass and I theorized. “Probably about ten thousand years ago. Wild sheep don’t generate wool fleeces – it wouldn’t make sense from an evolutionary perspective, as they confer no benefit and inconvenience the animal.  It was human selection over hundreds of thousands of generations that produced what we would call ‘wool’ from the wild sheep, and created the artificially bred animal that we know of as ‘sheep,’ an animal that survives poorly in the wild. You must shear sheep because sheep must be sheared: it is what they are shaped for.”

I pulled up Wikipedia on my phone and in a few quick swipes determined that we were right. The lovely thing about being two evolutionary biologists is the agreements, and the times when we’re right, and the fact that we never get bored. The fact that we can look at an animal considered by society to be bland and boring, and to run around the world with it.

To an evolutionary biologist, every dinosaur and farmyard animal carries its history in its bones, its fleece, its blood. You can’t rewrite that past, because the truth of it is all around you: even the bones of the earth know.

Every sheep is more than a sheep; it is all the sheep it has ever been, and everything we have done to them, and everything they have done for us.

The English landscape around us rolled and undulated, like a rich green blanket thrown over a sleeping body. You get such wonderful views in this part of the world.

But it isn’t natural: no, never natural. England has been cultivated and sculpted into shape, gardened by humans for thousands of years, groomed constantly by the nibbling teeth of sheep.

nautilusthe ram

And did those feet in ancient times walk on England’s mountains green?

And was the holy Lamb of God in England’s pastures seen?

This is the opening of “Jerusalem,” one of the national songs of England. It is asking rhetorically whether, in ancient times or perhaps the future, Jesus visited England, because William Blake would have liked that a lot.

Jesus, if he lived, lived in Palestine 8000 years after sheep were domesticated.

There are 2200 miles between England and Palestine, and Jesus was not white, and he was not English, but it’s decidedly hard to remember that now, when the myths have gathered him up and made him into a fictional character.

“Jerusalem” is sung at English sporting events and English funerals and English Christmas carol services: perhaps the Lamb came here, or is here, or will come here, or might be wanting to later. It is not too far to walk, and he might look like us, or be like us – or like us. It could be true now, or maybe later, or whenever he gets around to it. 

Oh, but the song sounds something in your bones. Forget historical accuracy and questions of religion – bring me my damn chariot of fire.


the bowl

 MoroccanMexican Mexican bowl, 16th century Moroccan

Consider these bowls again.

Half of the bowls are hand-painted vessels from Mexico, which is what we call a country that includes the remains of a South American empire. A majority language in Mexico is Mexican Spanish, and the dominant religion is Christianity.

Half of the bowls are hand-painted vessels from Morocco, which is what we call a country that includes the remains of a North African empire. The majority language in Morocco is Arabic and the dominant religion is Islam.

Consider which might be which before peeking at the alt texts, where the answers are.

The distance between Mexico and Morocco is 5,760 miles.

It took me a while to notice this. It happened because I spent many long hours working in a Mexican restaurant, and then I went to Morocco

– and I looked up.

the ram

Audobon's Rocky Mountain Sheep
John James Audobon’s Rocky Mountain Sheep

Wild sheep are rare things. The Bighorn nearly went extinct, alongside the bison, after European colonization of North America.

the map

Science is traditionally taught by blowing the minds of students who struggle to understand the workings of pepper grinders, and leaving them to pick up the pieces for themselves. The students then reassemble the fragments of their minds incorrectly, retaining the sexy and surprising bit, and filling in the rest of the gaps with porridge before going out into the world and smugly misunderstanding everything they see in it. Naturally, what they observe in the world does not match the porridge in their heads. Sometimes the students reassess their minds and realize that the world is infinitely more complicated than porridge and that most of their education was a series of easy lies, in which case they are usually doomed to be writers or scientists. Conversely, if they insist that the world actually matches the composition of their porridge, such that the observable world is wrong, then they will go on to be successful and influential.

This is why people still insist that evolutionary biology underlies gender theory, and why they genuinely and honestly think that seasons are caused by the Earth’s elliptical orbit moving it closer to the Sun.

(it seems that there is a certain type of historical accuracy that only makes sense if it matches a historically inaccurate picture of the world.)

There is an easy lie that you learn when you first learn about physics. It’s a thought exercise used to explain the concept of dimensions. It’s based on Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, a novel from 1884 that describes a society of two-dimensional shapes, satirizing, of all things, Victorian gender roles and social hierarchies. It was rediscovered in the 1920’s as a good metaphor to talk about relativity and other concepts in physics – everybody loves a two-dimensional universe.

One Flatland thought exercise goes like this: imagine a universe of only two dimensions. This is Flatland, and its inhabitants are Flatlanders. They live as drawings on a piece of paper. Imagine a Flatlander ant at Point A on the paper. It will take him a long time to walk across the paper to Point B. But if you folded the paper, so that the Points were closer to each other, the two-dimensional ant could step from Point A to B very quickly. This is an easy lie so that undergraduates can pretend they know how wormholes work.

But how do you get antique bowls from North Africa to South America?

You fold the map.

the bowl

The scene is Medieval Europe, in History Times. The Moors are invading. Coming from North Africa, they range from fair-skinned blondes to dark-skinned Ethiopians, though they’re prominently Arab and North African; they follow Islam. From the early 700s until 1492, they conquer, buy, sell, own, live on, build on, trade on, and influence large swathes of real estate in Europe, including Spain, Portugal, Italy and France. For over five hundred years there is a significant Moorish presence in Medieval Europe.

13th century Source "Islam in Europe" by Jack Goody, cover page. Original: Cantigas de Santa Maria, by Alfonso X, "The Wise"

“I’m serious, Mo, you’re gonna need to wear fishnet ankle socks if our band’s gonna make it big. The ladies ain’t gonna ride out for your bare-ass feet.”“ohhh the ladies love my bare-ass feet
the sexy ladies think they’re neat
they all hate Nigel’s stupid hat
and think it makes his calves look fat”

The Moorish kingdoms of Europe are pushed back by Christianity, but they leave their cultural relics behind. In Spain, where Moorish influence extends the most thoroughly, the Moors have replaced traditional Spanish pottery with their own style, which features a sexier type of glaze and doodly patterns associated with Islamic art. The Spanish interpretation of this style quickly becomes one of the most popular and desirable in medieval Europe. Even after Christianity returns to Spain, Hispano-Moresque pottery remains attractive and sought-after.

"Othello and Desdemona in Venice" by Théodore Chassériau (1819-1856)

“But Brad, honey, I don’t understand how you’ve spent our entire household budget on pottery imports?””It’s all the little doodly bits, Patricia. I just love the freaking Spanish bowls with all the freaking doodly bits.”

moroccan bowl

“I’m sorry, Brad, I just don’t get it.”

Not long after the Moorish kingdoms fall, the Spanish wish to celebrate their land’s release from the oppression of their Muslim masters, so they sail to the New World with the generous intentions of seizing land and introducing indigenous South Americans to Christianity and slavery. (Irony, being a highly radioactive element, was not discovered until later in History.)

Pre-colonial Mexican pottery, which I helpfully saved on my computer as "EXCITING turkey tagine"

Pre-colonial Mexican pottery, which I apparently helpfully saved on my computer as “EXCITING turkeypot.jpeg”

As the Moors displaced their own traditional pottery styles, the Spanish immediately replace the Mexican native pottery with their own. There is a particularly attractive type of pottery that catches on quickly, with a sexy glaze and Islamic doodly bits.

Mexican bowl, 16th century

In the 1500s, not long after the last Moorish kingdom in Europe fell, a Mexican potter made this.

One type of Mexican pottery that is widely admired is Talavera poblana, a later but popular form that echoes Morocco when you know where to look. You can see the bones of its history in its paint: one conquest after another, but see how fine it is. Oh, Talavera, see how you bridge the world and make it smaller, more sorrowful, but look at your doodly bits, your lustrous glaze.

And that’s why there’s African pottery in Latin America. You can’t put history down like an empty bowl when it starts confusing you. You have to follow it, and see where its bloodlines are shared.


the bowl

There is a fairy tale that when a Jewish carpenter was killed in the Middle East, his blood was collected in a golden bowl, and the bowl traveled to England, where it blessed a king and his court of knights. One of the knights was from the Middle East, and he didn’t see the bowl, because he wasn’t impressed enough by the Jewish carpenter; so instead he went in pursuit of a Beast. This fairy tale is at the heart of England. It is only a story, an easy lie to bring you to something true.

the map

There is a fairy tale that the ancestors walked out of Africa, straight-backed and strong, and walked into the world; but at the root of the story, and at the root of most things, is Africa, and to say that “we walked out” is to say that “we left it” and we did not and we have not and we will never. It is only a story, an easy lie to bring you to something true.

the ram

There is a fairy tale that the world is bigger and more complicated than you know, but this does not mean that you cannot begin to learn it. It starts with a step. The step is the way. The domestic sheep is an easy lie on the step to truth: a sheep is a sheep and so needs us and it has always been so. 

Look up, look out, look beyond: we carry our history like fleece on our backs; like a golden bowl of blood; it keeps us warm; we can never leave it.

You can’t rewrite the past, for the bones of the earth keep it for us.

Carrying its history, the wild sheep walks across the land bridge and into the more complicated world.




24 thoughts on “The Bowl, The Ram And The Folded Map: Navigating The Complicated World

  1. I can only agree with keely and Amy.

    I am completely honest and serious when I say that I don’t know what my feelings are doing right now. I am touched deeply by this post (although it’s not even a particularly “touching” subject) and… wow. Just wow.

    What I find absolutely amazing is 1) the structure (always alternating between the bowl and the map and the ram – HOW DOES YOUR MIND EVEN WORK?!, I’d never have ideas like that, even if I tried) and 2) the poetic phrasing of some parts.

    Elodie, you’re a genius of your own kind. I’ve always suspected this but this post here cemented it for me. I’m… humbled? proud? HAPPY! to know you, even if it’s only through the internet.

    Now let me get back to reading porny fanfiction. Gives me time to digest this brilliant masterpiece before coming back.

    [Oh, ALSO: I have not forgotten that I wanted to write a guest post. Indeed, another topic has arisen that I can imagine would be funny to read about (if you’ll still have me). I feel horrible that I suggested this like more than half a year ago and still haven’t delivered. I have to write one last paper and got two exams next month and after that there’s loads of free time before starting my master’s and yeah. I’M THINKING OF IT EVERY DAY, so bear with me!]

    • Oh Myrin! I’ve really missed you! I know it’s my own fault – not blogging for about half a year – but it’s really nice to hear from you.

      I’m unreasonably happy that you like the structure; thank you for the excellent and very cheering compliment. ( I must blame some of it on reading/studying the poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Blackbird” too often in my formative years.) I have a stupid amount of useless draft posts in my folder, mostly because I haven’t found the connection I want to make between them yet – sometimes a rough or difficult piece falls into shape when you impose a structure on it, and then you look clever. It’s a good writing exercise in general. Separate bits that go together, label them and shape them – then when you’ve got all your sections, go back through and tie them together.

      Don’t worry – a blog that takes 4-6 months between posts has got to be relaxed and casual about time. (Hmm, perhaps I should listen to myself there). I would love to hear from you when you have the time and space to think about guest posts! You’ve given me something lovely to look forward to. Let me know when you’re ready. I do think the blog needs something to keep it going and guest posts might be just the thing!

      Good luck in your work!

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  3. Thank you for writing and publishing your thoughts. I’ve enjoyed your humor, scientific outlook, and feminism, and your unique combination of these.
    I have “pressed” this post on my blog because, well, it’s well-written, and I most certainly could not have said it better, and history as construct is a topic I enjoy discussing so it prompted me to write a little about my own thoughts. Impetus!
    Thank you for helping the discussion of science and humanism along–reminds me to help it along, too.

    • Thank you very much! The piece you wrote was so kind and lovely that I desperately wanted to Like it, but then felt that it might be egotistical, but aaaghhh and so on.

      I am grateful for your interest and charmed by your blog.

      • I think it speaks volumes about your good taste that you liked my post that was inspired by your post😉

        (And my apologies that I only recently saw your comment and social network conundrum. I wholly believe that one should be able to “like” what they like without worrying. And thanks for “liking” my post!)

  4. pots-the moorish pots are more gaphical and less, mn, rganc looking-because f that idea in one hadith, that one shuld not depict living things. the reason for the geat arab calligraphy and the patterns. (well, we know that islam isnt monolithic, so thee are a lot of artists who drew-persians were great in religios minitiatures and everywhere culture merged, new stuff came in.

    the sheep is the reasion i knit with non-woll-wool. i dont like the idea of using sbs bodyparts without asking. i dont like the idea of -“I make you the way I want becasue i have the power to do so”. it just saddens me”´,..

    • Thank you, Lethe, those are both good points.

      Avoiding the wool industry can be a real problem for knitters. For those who wish to work with fiber, but do not choose to support the wool industry, or who have sensory problems processing wool, there is such a wonderful constellation of alternative plant and synthetic fibers. Another option, for those who would like to use wool in their work but do not wish to buy it, is to look for secondhand wool sweaters in their local charity shop or thrift store, and to unravel them.

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  7. I know I’m late to the party, but this is wonderful, Elodie. I love every piece of it and I love how it all comes together. “There is a fairy tale that the world is bigger and more complicated than you know, but this does not mean that you cannot begin to learn it.” This is such a beautiful line. Every time I see something you’ve written it inspires me to write and learn and be more creative. Unfortunately, I am also the world’s worst procrastinator, and scared of judgement. Still, I hope one day I’ll get where I’m going, by way of small steps and scaffolding and easy lies.

  8. Just found this one on G+ today. Just great!
    That anachronistic bit is something that, IMHO, many do not understand or notice or even know about.
    Enjoyed the read and appreciated the humour!
    Thanks a lot for this one.

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  11. I am astounded by this post and how you managed to weave in so many important truths so beautifully. (As well as including praise for Angel Coulby, which should always exist in the world.) I don’t know much about evolutionary biology, but I do find it a very interesting topic, and I love seeing it used as a jumping-off point for conversations about history. I think I’ve previously only seen that in the context of gender stuff, which as you said can get icky pretty quickly.

    I’m a historian/aspiring historian (what do you say when you’re just starting grad school?) and also a Spanish speaker who spent many years studying (and one year studying in) Spain, especially its history of Moorish cultural and linguistic influence. As such, this post was especially enjoyable to read. I love telling people about the history of Moorish influence in Spain, and how it persists in the textile industry and words like “Ojala” and national treasures like the Alhambra. And how the whole thing is so messy and complex and you end up with places like the mosque in Cordoba, which has a church nestled inside it. (I affectionately named this phenomenon the “mezuitedral”.) That being said, I do not have the familiarity with Latin America to have drawn the line that you drew from the pottery in Spain to Mexico. Your drawing of historical land bridges in this post was beautifully done.

    As an aspiring historian/person generally trying to digest the world, I spend a lot of time reflecting on something that John Green has said various times in one form or another: “Imagine the world complexly.” I love how this post encourages it’s reader to do that, and does so with some incredibly creative linkages.

  12. I have started this comment a few dozen times, I think. I have read this essay at least that many times. It is the only thing ever written about doodly bits on pottery and bighorn sheep that can routinely make me cry. The complex web of the world and the lies we use to get at the truth and often around it are a fascinating subject to me, and this illustration of them yanks at the part of me that routinely expresses itself by pulling phrases out of context and letting them resonate, shining light of their own with the richness of their dimensional meanings as well as refracting the light around them.

    So, thank you.

  13. Super late comment, sorry, probably you will never see this but…
    As another evolutionary biologist and as someone who, as an undergrad, took a course entitled “Sheep,” I am of course going to fixate on that part (although all of this is so interesting! And I am inappropriately proud of having guessed the bowls correctly). So, three sheep-thoughts: 1. There are domesticated sheep breeds that don’t need shearing, like the Dorper breed, which is a very elegant sheep from South Africa. They don’t have proper wool, it’s more hair-ish, and it falls off on its own.
    2. The Soay sheep are a feral population of once-domestic sheep that escaped and live on an island, and they survive completely unmanaged now (although surrounded by attentive scientists). So domestic sheep may not always need us.
    3. I remember being really struck when my Sheep professor starting describing breeds by rating their “maternal instinct,” as in, “This one has good growth and twins a lot, but it has poor maternal instinct so sometimes you have to step in to raise the lambs.” In breeding for meat/wool/whatever, we’ve occasionally bred out that absolute foundation of fitness, the ability to successfully reproduce!

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