QUESTION: Why did the ancient Greeks think the gods lived on Mount Olympus, when anyone could have hiked up to the top and seen that no one was around?
ANSWER: As you go back in history, people get weirder. You can't expect the old-timers to be strict rationalists. In the 20th century, the Western Civilization, we are careful to distinguish between metaphor and literal truth, notes Robert Fagles, author of a new translation of Homer's "Iliad." But just as there are primitive cultures today that don't distinguish between dream reality and waking reality, the Greeks tended to mix myth and history into a single narrative.Oh, yes: Mount Olympus. This is no minor mountain. It's a rugged peak nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, shrouded almost permanently in clouds, adding to the otherworldly feel. It's not like people hiked to the top for a little cardiovascular workout for the weekend.
People didn't have time for mountaineering in those days. Just as other cultures revered Mount Fuji, Mount Sinai and Mount Kenya, Mount Olympus came to represent the seat of the gods. People may have felt that going there would be an intrusion. "What happens if Zeus throws a thunderbolt at you?" asks Anthony Yu, professor of religion and literature at the University of Chicago. "Who are you to want to go up there in the first place?"
No, the real question is this: Why aren't babies ever named Zeus? Or Ajax? Or Hercules? Isn't that a lot better than Bob?
QUESTION: Why are some autumns more colorful than others?
ANSWER: You don't really want to know more about leaf chemistry. We recognize that. All you need to know is that the making of a colorful leaf is as complicated as the recipe for a souffle. You need bright sunny days and cold nights. That causes the green chlorophyll to break down and get sucked back into the tree for winter, thereby revealing the red and yellow pigments underneath. If the weather is warm and wet and cloudy, as it was this year in Vermont (the foliage capital of the United States), the chlorophyll lingers as the leaf slowly dies and turns brown. You want more information, go to the dang encyclopedia.
Now for an alarming bulletin. These mediocre autumns could be an actual trend. "Somehow the colors are not as bright anymore," says Hubert Vogelmann, chairman of the botany department at the University of Vermont in Burlington. Could this be a sign of global warming? Higher temperatures in areas with deciduous trees would take the edge off the brilliant fall colors. At the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., environmentalist Lester Brown says he's noticed that the really colorful years are fewer and farther between. He suspects the "greenhouse effect" is the cause.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the woods . . .
THE MAILBAG: We got an anonymous letter asking simply, "Why is marijuana illegal?"
Marijuana has been outlawed since the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act.
You should be aware that some drugs are more illegal than others. Valium and other prescription medications are legally ranked as Class 3 drugs. Cocaine and morphine, which can only be prescribed under limited circumstances, are Class 2 drugs. Marijuana is a Class 1 drug. So is heroin. These drugs are limited to scientific experiments. (Tobacco, we would guess, is the No Class drug.)
The negative standing of marijuana is at least slightly the result of the labor situation during the Depression. There was much resentment in the southwest United States against Mexican immigrants taking farm jobs. Marijuana was considered a Mexican drug.
Marijuana remained legal even through Prohibition because, according to Yale historian David Musto, the legal community didn't think it would be constitutional to outlaw a weed. Outlawing pot would be like outlawing red ants. The solution, inspired by a ban on machine guns, required that anyone who wanted to possess, sell or give away marijuana had to have a license and a transfer stamp. These licenses and stamps were essentially fictitious.
Washington Post Writers Group