Cicada on a tree

This week I learned: spite houses, periodical cicadas, Utroba Cave

About spite houses, prime-numbered cicadas, and a 3,000-year-old stone vulva.

Regarding that last one – some of the text of this post may be considered NSFW.

Houses built just to annoy people

What fascinates me about this isn’t so much that some people would be so incensed by the behaviour of others that they would literally build a house to get back at them – it’s that this has happened so many times that it has an actual name. A spite house is defined as “a property built solely to upset neighbours or flout planning regulations”. There are whole lists of these things all over the internet, so I’m just going to mention a couple of personal favourites.

The Alexandra Spite House in Virginia was built in 1830 because the owner of the land, who already lived in a perfectly decent house, got sick of the noise from people and horse-drawn wagons using the alley between his house and the next. So he blocked the alley by building a house on it, a house just two metres wide, using the walls of his own house and his next-door neighbours as the sides.

The Plum Island Pink House is a beautiful (if very pink) house situated in the middle of a salt marsh in Massachusetts, on a remote island with no other inhabitants and no access to running water. Most of the details of its construction are lost to history, but the story that remains is tantalising: in 1925, supposedly, a woman divorcing her husband stipulated, as part of the divorce settlement, that he build her an exact replica of the house they had lived in together. She just didn’t stipulate where he build it.

Finally, though I’m not sure spite is the right word here, I am deeply in love with the Equality House in Kansas. Proudly painted in all the colours of the rainbow flag, it sits on an unprepossessing block of land… directly over the road from Westboro Baptist Church.

One final note: I can’t help noting that all the examples of spite houses I’ve been able to find seem to be located in the US. Make of that what you will.

Original source: Spite Houses: 9 Homes People Built Just To Annoy Their Neighbors

Why some cicadas dig prime numbers

Cicadas, like a number of other insect families, spend the majority of their lives in their hidden, larval form, only emerging for a short breeding period in the forms we tend to recognise by sight – or, in the case of cicadas, sound.

I’d heard before about 17-year Cicadas – a group of American species so named because their adult forms all emerge from the ground at the same time, on a cycle of seventeen years. Sixteen years of nothing and then – cicadas everywhere. But something I’d never wondered about before is: why seventeen years?

It turns out there are also 13-year Cicadas. In total there are six (or possibly seven) cicada species known as periodical cicadas, and all of them emerge on either a thirteen or seventeen year cycle. So what is it with these cicadas and prime numbers?

As it turns out, having a prime-numbered life cycle is a remarkably clever way to minimise predation. Fat, slow-moving cicadas are prey for a wide range of other animals, from birds to mammals to wasps and other insects. Many of these insect predators have life cycles of their own, but usually along the order of two, three, or four years. By evolving a prime-numbered life cycle, periodical cicadas ensure that none of these shorter-cycled predators can ever sync up with them. So, for instance, a cicada-killing wasp whose adults emerge every four years might feast on 17-year Cicadas one year, but the next time their cycles align would be a staggering 68 years later.

Original source: The Futility Closet podcast ep. 181: Operation Gunnerside

More information: Cicadas and Prime Numbers

The ancient Thracian womb that is fertilised once a year

There’s plenty of evidence that certain ancient civilisations had some pretty good ideas about the movement of the sun throughout the year, and are likely to have incorporated it into their religious practices. But sometime after the ancient Britons were lining up their giant stones with the solstices, over in present-day Bulgaria the ancient Thracians were celebrating the turning of the seasons in a whole other way.

Rediscovered in 2001, Utroba Cave – also known as the Womb Cave or Vulva Cave – is a hand-carved, 22m deep, startlingly realistic vulva extending into the side of sheer cliff face in the Rhodope Mountains. It’s been dated back to the 10th or 11th Century BC, and is speculated to have been used for fertility rites, mother goddess worship, or other ceremonial women’s business.

What is not speculation is that every day, at midday, the sun shines in through a specially-carved, carefully-aligned hole in the ceiling to form the clear shape of a phallus on the cave floor. At the far end of the cave is a carved alter, 1.3m in height. Over the year, as the sun grows lower in the sky, the phallus lengthens, stretching out until finally, at the sun’s lowest point – between January and March, as the Northern Hemisphere winter begins to give way to spring – it reaches the alter, and the sun symbolically fertilises the stone.

How beautiful is that?

Original source: Naked History Lessons

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