Headache roameth in the desert, blowing like the wind / Flashing like lightning…

– Babylonian tablet, circa 700 BC

In Babylon, and throughout human history, people have pictured evil spirits as the cause of headaches. Even today, a lot of headache imagery supposes an external agent inflicting pain – often with tools from the carpenter’s shop:

A giant wields a rusty saw. He gloats and hums as he works, slicing through my forehead and into the mind behind it. – E. Lockhart, We Were Liars (2014)

His headache was still sitting over his right eye as if it had been nailed there. – Ian Fleming, Moonraker (1955)

When the tools are not piercing or cutting, they may be squeezing or pounding:

…it is sometimes said that the “top of the head appears to open and shut,” or that someone seems to be “holding the head in a vise,” or “pushing a screw into the top of the head,” or that the head feels “as if it were swollen,” or “bursting.” – Harry Campbell, Headache and Other Morbid Cephalic Sensations (1894)

The pain is generally referred to the top of the head, and is frequently described as resembling a “ticking,” or the beating of a small hammer on the skull. – Henry Goode Wright, Headaches (1867)

The opposite of the “head in a vise” headache might be the “splitting headache,” an expression that is sometimes connected playfully to the birth of Athena from the forehead of Zeus. In one version of the story, Zeus asks Hephaestus to crack open his forehead with an ax to relieve his Olympian headache. Novelist Mortimer Collins uses the expression less loftily in Sweet Anne Page (1868),describing a hangover:

…he awoke with a headache – a splitting headache, that seemed capable of splitting a tough planet into infinitesimal fragments.

A throbbing headache, though it keeps time with the body’s own pulse, may evoke hammering, splitting, or shattering. The Nurse in Romeo and Juliet says: “Lord, how my head aches!…It beats as it would fall in twenty pieces” (II.5.48-49).

When a headache is very bad, the sufferer may think of surrendering his or her head altogether. In Egyptian mythology, Horus prays for his head to be taken off and exchanged with a new one. In her 1992 memoir Woolgathering, Patti Smith recalls a pounding headache that “got into that crazy realm where the guillotine seems like a good idea.”

Rarely, headache imagery is animal rather than mechanical, and native to the mind rather than imposed by a torturer. In Erika Swyler’s “The Mermaid Girl: A Story” (2016), headache is a disturbance in the landscape inside one’s head:

Headaches were like birds. Starlings. They could be perfectly calm, then a single acorn could drop and send the entire flock to the sky.

In Excedrin commercials from the 1960s, a crusty old man compared his headaches to “two bull goats” ramming each other. He put the knuckles of his two fists together to illustrate.

Credits
Babylonian tablet translation by R. Campbell Thompson (1903), quoted in Mervyn J. Eadie, Headache through the Centuries (NY : Oxford, 2012).
Horus story from Papyrus Leiden I 348, cited in Karenberg and Leitz, “Headache in magical and medical papyri of Ancient Egypt.” http://docshare01.docshare.tips/files/29412/294122655.pdf
Goodreads.com, Quotes about Headache

Photo: H. Daumier (1833); Wellcome Library/Wikimedia

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He’s going mad cooped up here, like a wasp inside a beer glass.

– A gangster in Peaky Blinders (S4, E4)

Lying low during a gang war, Tommy Shelby grows restless and frustrated. He is indeed a dangerous, inhuman being, held in by circumstances that are invisible and toxic.

Yet the metaphor’s impact comes not from its applicability to Shelby but from the fact that you – in a lifetime of summer afternoons – have seen a bug trapped in some similar way and you have given a moment’s thought to the vast incomprehensibility of the universe. You ask, “What does an insect know about glassmaking or brewing or the chemistry of his own body, succumbing to fumes that are no part of the life he was designed to live?”

In asking such questions, you come to the core of Greek tragedy: we think we know what our existence is all about, but we have no better idea than a wasp in a beer glass. As Sophocles says in Antigone, “Whom the gods would destroy they first make opinionated.”

Photo: Classics Dept/University of Reading post on Archaeology & Arts /https://www.archaeology.wiki/blog/2017/01/20/greek-tragedy-small-screen/

I prepared the way by congratulating him upon solving the Gordian knot of the Dutch difficulties by his keen judgment without the sword.

– Alvise Valaresso, Venetian ambassador to Britain (1622)

The story of the Gordian knot tells how Alexander the Great dealt with a challenge that had defied all comers for centuries: a knot so complicated it could not be untied. It was hard to know even where to begin, since both ends of the rope were hidden inside the knot’s coils. Alexander cut the knot with a stroke of his sword, and was credited ever after with innovative thinking.

It was a meathead’s solution, of course – like solving gridlock with an air strike.

A knot is one of humankind’s most elegant technologies, using the flexibility of rope, and its ability to turn back upon itself, to resist the force that would pull the knot apart. The harder the pull, the tighter the knot holds. It’s a very fit metaphor for the kinds of problems we face in an interdependent world. Ambassador Valaresso paid James I a high compliment in saying the king had found a way to lessen tensions without a shortcut to violence.

Photo: Monkey’s fist knot (tied with a metal weight inside to facilitate throwing that end of the rope, to an approaching boat, for example); wincingdevil.com

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Your body is a battleground.

Gulliver is a metaphor for France (a great nation tied down by petty factions) in this 1830 cartoon by Ferdinand-Philippe d’Orléans; Library of Congress

The idea that you are a battleground where good and evil clash is as old as the story of Adam and Eve and as contemporary as the image of a micro-devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other.

In the song “My Body Is a Battlefield” (Tobias Jundt/Bonaparte, 2010), the devil versus angel conflict is expressed as a series of contradictory impulses and perceptions, negative versus noble, raising a question of true identity: Who are you really? The two sides shatter the self into “a thousand faces”:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=859p9lW0Wws.

In Barbara Kruger’s poster “Your body is a battleground” (1989), the inner devils and angels turn political and the question is not which choice to make but who has the right to make it. Pro-choice and pro-life advocates battle in the courts, legislatures, and streets to determine who will own the “territory” that is a woman’s body: http://www.thebroad.org/art/barbara-kruger/untitled-your-body-battleground.

In the Book of Job, God and Satan use a man’s body as a battleground – leaving him with a bad case of boils.

In The Odyssey, Odysseus makes a battleground of his own body. He has himself tied to the mast of his ship so he can experience the thrill of the Sirens’ song without being drawn to his death, like a moth to flame. Odysseus-minded people nowadays go bungee jumping.

When it’s compared to something other than a battleground, your body may be a temple, a nation, a house, a shell, a suit of clothes, a machine with a control unit upstairs, or a gross weight carried around by the soul. Duality (or multiplicity) is built into all these metaphors. When there is duality, there will be a battle.

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Passed away

“Passed away” is a metaphor for having reached the end of the road in life’s journey – or at least one’s off-ramp. Others continue on their way, some taking a moment to mourn, thinking how they will miss the departed and his crazy lane changes. But the daily commute goes on.

Passing implies motion relative to something, in this case the boundary between life and death, which Shakespeare calls “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns” (Hamlet III.i.79-80). The ancient Greeks and Romans saw the boundary as a river. Christians view “the other side” as a bright city, in contrast to the Greek and Roman view of a twilight realm of discontented shadows, not unlike East Berlin in its day.

People sometimes say “passed” rather than “passed away,” as if the last gasp of the breath of life were a flatulent exhalation. Space, the final frontier; death, the final fart.

Photo: Berlin.de

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Up the ladder

As he has followed the siren song of his shiny modern gadgets of food preparation up the ladder of ease, man has lost something. – Marshal South, primitivist, Desert Refuge magazine (July 1942)

For Marshal South, the ladder of convenience is a slippery slope in reverse. We go up instead of down, but still fail to see the unhappy consequences of taking that first step. Upgrading from a fireplace to an electric stove, we celebrate not having to collect fuel each day, and little notice how we’ve lost the scents and flavors that come from local wood.

The slippery slope is a naturalistic metaphor, using gravity to explain why we keep taking the next steps. On South’s ladder, we ascend because of evil singing mermaids.

The idea of a ladder as a fast track to ruin is built into the military sense of escalation ­– as a series of steps that turn a minor conflict into all-out war. We escalate because the alternative to going up is backing down.

Photo: Bandelier National Monument by Daniel Mayer; Wikimedia

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You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead.

– Paul McCartney, “Two of Us” (1969)

The “Two of Us” lyric turned out to be literally true. The bullet that ended John Lennon’s life was eleven years up the road, while he and Paul looked back on a friendship that began in 1955. “What a long, strange trip it’s been,” they might have said, if the Grateful Dead hadn’t said it already.

The idea that a lifetime is a journey is as old as mythology. The stories of heroes – Theseus, Jesus, King Arthur – present themselves as adventures that occur during travels, revealing by stages the hero’s full power and true self. It’s interesting that life as a journey should take hold universally among humans, since most of us (historically) have lived all our lives within a few miles of where we were born. The journey is one through time rather than space and, arguably, from me-centered need to a sense of belonging in a community.

One of Paul’s worst songs, “Long and Winding Road,” pictures a meandering route of “many ways” that always returns “to your door.” The idea of losing one’s way and rediscovering the true path is a staple for sermonizers. But the journey metaphor allows for happy wandering too. In “Two of Us.” Paul recalls the best times were when he and John went “Sunday driving, not arriving.” They had fun as young criminals – mocking adults who insisted on the seriousness of life, cheerfully “spending someone’s hard-earned pay.”

Photo: Denali National Park; NPS

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