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Certain Times Came To Be Held As Sacred

From the earliest of times, humans have respected the animals living around them as embodiments of a greater power. Individual animals were often seen as expressions of a unique spirit. An eagle embodies the spirit of Eagle, a bear the essence of Bear. Each spirit animal is the source and ultimate realization of qualities found in the living animal. To win these spirits as allies in the struggle against the unknown, humans have sought to establish sacred relationships with them and their animal forms. The Kwakiutl and other American Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest are famous for carving totems "" stout, straight logs cut into an imposing stack of stylized animal heads: raven, frog, mink, whale, fox, bear. Among them often stand fantastical animal characters, such as Sisiutl, out of whose antennaed head sprang two serpents.

In Kwakiatl rituals, dancers covered their bodies with fur or woven grass robes and wore painted wooden masks that echoed the animal faces on the poles. By wearing a mask, the believer moved into the identity of the spirit or god, thus accessing its power.

A Kwakiutl crane mask collected by the American anthropologist Franz Boas measured more than five feet to the end of its narrow beak. The dancer performed complex footwork while working the mask, opening and closing the huge beak in time with the beat of the drum. The crane spirit was feared as a cannibal hunter of men, and its central place in winter ceremonials provided an opportunity for the tribe to accept the fate of death. The dancer performed the part of the cannibal crane for the sake of his tribe. By taking on its threatening nature, he enacted a reconciliation between death and the living, who gained strength as a community by witnessing the ceremony.

The raven played an important role in those cultures where it shared the landscape, especially in the northern reaches of North America and Asia. In Raven these native cultures saw both a creator and a trickster""a reasonable interpretation of the bird itself, whose call sounds intelligent but whose behavior can be pesky.

The Koryaks, who lived on the Kamchatka Peninsula of far northeastern Siberia, told a myth that explained the darkness of the winter solstice through Raven's behavior. Raven Man and Little Bird Man were vying for the hand of Big Raven's daughter, Yinye-a-nyilet. When Little Bird Man won her heart, Raven Man swallowed the sun. Yinyea-nytiet went to Raven Man, who greeted her with a shut beak. She tickled him under the wing. When he laughed, his mouth opened and out popped the sun.

Ravens inhabit spirit worlds all along the North Pacific coast of North America, as evidenced by artifacts "" dance rattles, masks, and drums, for example "" from the Haida of the Queen Charlotte Islands, including one remarkable rattle carved in the shape of a man reclining on the back of a raven and sticking his tongue into the mouth of a frog. Frogs, considered allies to both ravens and humans, helped the two species communicate. They also conveyed magic tokens and potions to tribal leaders, as this one was doing "" mouth-to-mouth.

Domesticated animals have embodied spiritual power in the religions of humankind as well. Egyptians associated cats with the sun god, Ra, who was constantly on the lookout for another attack from Apophis, the demon serpent. Each time the serpent captured Ra and dragged him into the underworld, the world cycled through another night of darkness. Wall paintings represented their cosmic struggle with an image of a cat attacking a snake. The ancient Egyptians also revered Bastet, a goddess with a cat's head and a woman's body, representing the radiant strength of the sun, fearsome and protective at the same time. Along the trade routes to the Middle East and Asia stood Bubastis""near today's Zagazig in Lower Egypt""where devotees gathered at a splendid red granite temple for the annual festival in honor of Bastet. A cat necropolis was situated near the temple. There mummified cats, some laid in ornamented sarcophagi, were entombed.

Visionary experiences often came about through animal guidance into the spirit world. Into the 19th century, the Yahgan people of Tierra del Fuego, Chile, had never seen visitors from other cultures. They lived in simple grass huts and paddled canoes out into the rough Pacific Ocean, living on fish and mussels, gulls and their eggs, porpoises, seals, and, occasionally, whales. They first saw civilization in the form of the Beagle, which brought not only naturalist Charles Darwin but also a Catholic priest, Martin Gusinde, to their shores. "A man could be strolling alone along the seashore, lost in dreamland, without thought or purpose," recorded Father Gusinde, when he would suddenly find himself in the midst of a visionary spectacle of what are known as asikaku, "apparitions." Around him crowds an immeasurable company of herrings, whales, swordfish, vultures, cormorants, gulls, and other creatures. All are addressing him in flattering terms, respectfully, in the most friendly way; and he is beside himself has no idea what is happening. His whole body numb, he drops to the ground and lies there without moving. His soul (his kespix), is consorting with the spirits, and feeling, while among them, an inordinate joy.

Returning home, still somewhat in a daze, the man would fall into bed, Father Gusinde related. The animals ipproached him in his dream as well. "There is one that is being especially amiable, in the most extravagantly attentive way," wrote Gusinde. That one animal becomes the shaman's familiar, his special guide into the world of the spirits of nature.

Historians use the word "animism," from the Latin anima or soul, to describe the religious beliefs of those who feel that spirits live in the phenomena of nature. That state of mind was clearly expressed in the conversation, recorded by Alexander von Humboldt in 1795, between a Christian missionary and an Indian in the Orinoco Valley Df Venezuela. "Your God keeps himself shut up in a house, IS if he were old and infirm," said the Indian. "Ours is in the forest, in the fields, and on the mountains of Sipapu, whence the rains come."

The Celtic people of pre-Christian Northern Europe revered the power dwelling in trees and associated particular deities with indigenous plant species. Cerridwen, the white moon goddess, inhabited the pale-barked birch. The fruit-bearing rowan was sacred to the goddess Brigit. The Celts saw the oak as a tree of male strength, the abode of the god of thunderstorms.

By the third century B.C., the Druids, a sect of male magic-workers, grew out of these Celtic traditions. The coming of Christianity meant the decline of Celtic rites, although early Christians found ways to weave its symbolism into their rituals. Canterbury Cathedral, built and rebuilt on a Celtic worship site in southeastern England, contains as many as 70 sculptural interpretations of the Green Man, a central Celtic spirit-figure represented as a man with a face and body sprouting leaves. To celebrate the birth of Jesus, Christians borrowed the symbols of holly "" Celtic tree of the waning year, honored for its evergreen leaves "" and ivy, the Celtic vine of resurrection, since it quickly revives after winter. In modern times, the Christmas traditon of decorating an evergreen tree with lights and ornaments also grew out of Celtic tree worship.

The Hopi Indians of the American Southwest believe in a world populated by hundreds of kachina, or spirits, each associated with a plant, animal, natural phenomenon, or legend. Examples include Mongwa, the great horned owl; Palik Mana, the butterfly; and Honan, the badger. Others are Koyemsi or Mudhead, symbolizing the earth, and Koshari, the Hano Clown. For religious ceremonies, dancers wear brilliant costumes matching the characteristics of each kachina. Dancers wearing Hano's headdresses and his black and white stripes painted on their bodies are at liberty to spoof and jostle, in keeping with his trickster personality. The Hopi give their children kachina dolls in traditional dress as good-luck charms. The dolls hang from the rafters of Hopi pueblo homes, guaranteeing blessings from the spirits for the whole family.

Religious ceremonies often began "" and still do "" with special preparations that distinguish a sacred act from the ordinary routine and express respect for the spiritual realm. Everyday garments must be removed and replaced with special clothing or headgear. These may take the form of vestments worn by the officiant, such as a priest's white surplice. Worshipers may don veils or skullcaps, prayer shawls or fine clothing. Special marks or colors may be put on the body. Sometimes these are temporary "" chalk, flour, or plant dyes. Sometimes they are permanent""tattoos applied, scars inflicted, as part of the ceremony "" and will remain for the rest of that individual's lifetime as reminders of that sacred ceremony.

Often worshipers begin services with cleansing rituals, based on systems of belief that see human life as limited, dependent, and impure compared with powerful and transcendent forces, which stand forth as ideals of perfection and purity beyond human reach.

In the Catholic faith, worshipers entering a church dip fingers in holy water blessed by a priest, a purifying act before making the sign of the cross and asking God's blessing. In many Christian denominations, the body must be baptized, a form of spiritual rebirth in which the individual is cleansed of sin before being formally accepted into the faith. This sacrament may occur shortly after birth, in a ceremony in which the infant's head is sprinkled with baptismal water, or may take place later in life, in some faiths involving full immersion of the body in a sacred font or blessed river.

Muslims wash before entering a mosque and ensure that the area for prayer is clean at home and elsewhere by using a prayer rug. Ancient precursors to modern-day Hinduism regarded both bathing in water and burning in fire as methods of ritual purification and preparation for approaching the gods. The ruins of the Indus Valley city of Mohenjo Daro include a large bathing pool in a central location, presumed by archaeologists to be a place for cleansing the body in preparation for worship in the temple.

Later, the Aryans laid fires in which they sacrificed animals. Invoking Agni, the mouth of the sacred flame, they watched the smoke rise from the offerings and the glowing incense. In that smoke they saw their gifts and prayers ascending to the gods. Their first sacrifice, though, was Purusha, the giant creator god. After creating the world and all its beings, he consumed himself in the fire of creation. Priests reenacted his sacrifice in rituals to renew and sustain the world order.

In many religious traditions, among them those of the Hindus, early Greeks, Chinese, and the Shintos of Japan, the earth is considered sacred in and of itself. In the western prophetic traditions, certain places on the earth must be consecrated, made holy, and then be commemorated as such with the building of a temple, church, or shrine upon the site. In still other traditions, particular places were respected as sacred "" geographical configurations where humans sensed a closer contact with the divine. Certain springs, rivers, grottoes, caves, rocks, and mountains took on special significance. Profane attributes could not be allowed in such places.

At the foot of Greece's Mount Parnassus, rising 2,000 feet above the Gulf of Corinth, an abundant spring feeds a tributary of the Cephissus River. Those who worshiped there considered themselves to be at the navel of the earth. Traces of religious activity at this site date back to the Mycenaeans early in the first millennium B.C. They believed that Python, the serpent son of Mother Earth, guarded the central cave.

Athenians took over the shrine in the eighth century B.C., believing that their god Apollo had killed Python and reenacting the battle between them every eight years. They built a temple to Apollo nearby and inside erected a hive- shaped omphalos, a stone symbol indicating that this site, called Delphi, was the center of the world. Worshipers cleansed themselves ritually, brought sacrifices to Apollo, and consulted the famous oracle there, a priestess whose ecstatic states connected her with the divine. Returning to the human realm, she revealed the gods' will in prophecies about the fates of citizens and rulers.

Perhaps the oracle's most famous prophecy was that of Oedipus, the legendary king of Thebes, who was fated to kill his father and marry his mother. Familiar to all in ancient Greece, his tragic story is known to us today through the plays of Sophocles.

At the border between today's Israel and Syria, at the base of Mount Hermon, a nature preserve protects the forested streams and waterfalls, primary headwaters of the Jordan River, which were likely honored in times before recorded history. Uniquely refreshing even in the summer heat, this area in the third century B.C. was renowned as a center for worshiping Pan, a god of the Greeks, half-man, half-goat, able to provide fertility among the flocks and evoke fear "" "panic" comes from his name "" among humans. At this site, springs burst out of rock grottoes and pooled up inside the shadowy caves. Worshipers offered their sacrificial gifts to Pan by throwing them into the primary grotto. Niches carved in nearby rock walls can still be seen today. They once held statuary of Pan, his lover, Echo, and his father, Hermes, messenger of the gods. The name of today's nearby village of Banias, Syria, is a variation on his name.

The seasons are a powerful force in our lives

They affect the activities we do, the foods we crave, the clothes we wear "" and quite often, the moods we are in. The ability to predict the seasons "" by tracking the rising and setting points of the sun throughout the year "" was key to survival in ancient times. Babylonians, the Maya and other cultures developed complex systems for monitoring seasonal shifts. But it took centuries more to unravel the science behind the seasons.

Nicolai Copernicus (1473-1543) radically changed our understanding of astronomy when he proposed that the sun, not Earth, was the center of the solar system. This led to our modern understanding of the relationship between the sun and Earth. We now know that Earth orbits the sun elliptically and, at the same time, spins on an axis that is tilted relative to its plane of orbit. This means that different hemispheres are exposed to different amounts of sunlight throughout the year. Because the sun is our source of light, energy and heat, the changing intensity and concentration of its rays give rise to the seasons of winter, spring, summer and fall.

The seasons are marked by solstices and equinoxes "" astronomical terms that relate to Earth's tilt. The solstices mark the points at which the poles are tilted at their maximum toward or away from the sun. This is when the difference between the daylight hours and the nighttime hours is most acute. The solstices occur each year on June 20 or 21 and Dec. 21 or 22, and represent the official start of the summer and winter seasons.

The vernal equinox and autumnal equinox herald the beginning of spring and fall, respectively. At these times of the year, the sun appears to be directly over Earth's equator, and the lengths of the day and the night are equal over most of the planet. On March 20 or 21 of each year, the Northern Hemisphere reaches the vernal equinox and enjoys the signs of spring. At the same time, the winds turn colder in the Southern Hemisphere as the autumnal equinox sets in. The year's other equinox occurs on Sept. 22 or 23, when summer fades to fall in the north, and winter's chill starts giving way to spring in the south.

From year to year, there is always some variability in the equinoxes and solstices because of the way Earth's changing tilt matches up with its orbit around the sun. This year, the precise moment of the March equinox came at 1:32 p.m. ET Saturday. That's the moment when the sun was exactly overhead, as seen from the point on Earth's equator directly facing the sun at that time.

Here's how the seasonal change affects the weather: Around the time of the June solstice, the North Pole is tilted toward the sun and the Northern Hemisphere is starting to enjoy summer. The density of the solar radiation is higher because it's coming from directly overhead "" in other words, the sun's rays are concentrated over a smaller surface area. The days are longer, too, meaning that more radiation is absorbed in northern climes during the 24-hour cycle. Another factor that may come into play is that the radiation takes a somewhat shorter path through the energy-absorbing atmosphere before striking the earth.

At the same time that the Northern Hemisphere is entering summer, the South Pole is tilted away from the sun, and the Southern Hemisphere is starting to feel the cold of winter. The sun's glancing rays are spread over a greater surface area and must travel through more of the atmosphere before reaching the earth. There are also fewer hours of daylight in a 24-hour period. The situations are reversed in December, when it's the Southern Hemisphere that basks in the most direct rays of the sun, while the Northern Hemisphere receives less dense solar radiation for shorter periods of time.

Although the solstices represent the pinnacles of summer and winter with respect to the intensity of the sun's rays, they do not represent the warmest or coldest days. This is because temperature depends not only on the amount of heat the atmosphere receives from the sun, but also on the amount of heat it loses due to the absorption of this heat by the ground and ocean. It is not until the ground and oceans absorb enough heat to reach equilibrium with the temperature of the atmosphere that we feel the coldest days of winter or hottest days of summer.

With the turn of the seasons, certain times came to be held as sacred, the holy days on which ordinary business ceased and all people concentrated on their relationship with the powers in the spirit world. In regions far enough from the equator to notice the changing of the seasons, the spring and autumn equinoxes, and the summer and winter solstices have been observed since ancient times. Stonehenge, the monumental stone circle on England's Salisbury Plain, was built between 2500 and 1900 B.C. with stones imported to a site already in ritual use for as long as a thousand years before. The complicated layout appears to have been designed to make the most of the light at the time of the summer equinox, when the sun at dawn creates a remarkable interplay of rocks and shadows.

The Celts, inheritors of the Stonehenge tradition, divided a calendar into eight parts: the two equinoxes, the two solstices, and halfway points in between "" Samhain, summer's end, November 1; Imbolc, winter's end, time for the storyteller, February 1; Beltane, May Day; and Lughnasadh, the festival of light, August 1. Each one of the eight holidays was celebrated with a different ritual feast or ceremony.

The ancient Greeks explained the change of seasons in the story of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, especially responsible for grain. From her Roman name, Ceres, comes the English word "cereal." She lived with Zeus and the pantheon of gods who inhabited Mount Olympus. Some people see in her Greek name the root word for mother, suggesting she evolved from an even earlier goddess, a type of Mother Earth.

Demeter's daughter, Persephone "" also called Kore, the virgin "" was kidnapped by a god who did not live on Olympus. Hephaestus, god of the forge and lord of the dead, lived in Hades, the shadowy underworld on the far side of the River Styx. According to the ancient Greeks, the boatman Charon ferried the dead from this side of the world across the river to the underworld. Mythologically, Styx was the eldest child of Oceanus, the ancient river that circled the world and whose underground channels formed the known rivers. Geographically, the Styx was today's Krathis River, which plunges 600 feet down rocky Mount Chelmos and courses wildly through a gorge in the northern Peloponnesus. "The stream that falls from the crag by Nonakris drops first of all on to a high rock and down through the rock into the river Krathis," wrote the second-century author Pausanias in his Description of Greece. "Its water is death to men and all animals." Across this river and into his nether realm, Hephaestus carried his new bride.

Grieving for the loss of her daughter, Demeter lost interest in the crops and the seasons, so no grain grew. She wandered to Eleusis, an ancient Attican city with an unnavigable bay to the south and rich fields all around. In the time that this myth was held to be true, around 1000 B.C., Eleusis was the most important Greek city after Athens and its port of Piraeus.

Zeus, anxious to see mortals harvesting the fields once again, persuaded Hephaestus to allow Persephone to spend two-thirds of the year with her mother. During that time, the plants grew, blossomed and bore fruit. In the months when Persephone returned to the underworld, the earth grew cold, and the plants withered, lying dormant until the following year, when she again returned to the land of the living.

At Eleusis, an annual cycle of Demeter-focused rituals developed to mark the important points in a year in agriculture: plowing, planting, sprouting, full growth, harvest, and threshing. This cycle has marked the seasons of human life for ten thousand years.

Nature's turning points of each day "" morning, noon, afternoon, sunset, and evening "" are also important markers in ritual, especially for prayer, reminding Mulims, for example, to make their devotions five times a day, Jews three times "" morning, noon, and evening "" and Christians in the morning and at night.

Seasonal ceremonies provide a sense of control and a promise of return. Ceremonies marking the seasons of human life delineate passages in the progress of a person's relationship to the community and the divine powers. When a child is born, the instinct in any social circle is to welcome her or him into the community. In most cultures, there is also a special ceremony to ask God for protection of the child.

Among the Blood Indians of Saskatchewan, Canada, part of the Blackfeet Federation, a male elder performed a naming ceremony when a child was born. He purified himself with fragrant burning sweetgrass, then marked the infant's face with tribal signs, red ocher lines below the eyes and above the lips. He lifted the baby up ceremonially and showed it to the sun, chanting and singing songs that ask for the sun's radiant light to guide and protect the new member of the tribe.

Coming-of-age celebrations mark the passage from childhood into adulthood in many societies. Adult males among the Pende people of Zaire led the boys coming to manhood each year to an initiation camp, set apart from the village. The men donned striped costumes woven of bark and raffia, with full skirts of straw surrounding neck, waist, wrists, and ankles. Some wore horned headdresses, some exaggerated artificial eyes. The costumes of these minganji, as the presiding elders are called, emphasized their special connection to the spirits of the dead. They danced ominously with and around the initiates, finally leading them back into the village and pronouncing them men.

Followers of Candomble, a tradition brought to Brazil by Africans who practiced Yoruba Voodoo, believe that only when an orixa, a spirit, calls a young man, is it time to initiate him into the religion. Then the young man is isolated for six months. Believers say that he enters a trance world, becoming a horse ridden by a god. In a designated cult house, male and female priests pour the blood of a goat and scatter the feathers of seven fowl over his shaved head. After these chastening ceremonies, the community greets the young man with a festival that celebrates the renewed communion of Brazilians with their African past.

Many rituals around the world mark women's coming of age as well. One of the most glorious is the Apache sunrise ceremony, performed by Native Americans in the Southwest, who celebrate by supporting the young woman as she reenacts their myth of the origin of the world. During the 96-hour ritual, the young woman wears splendid robes with long white fringe, a colorful scarf, and a neckpiece of beads and feathers. Her family selects a godmother - an elder woman to guide her through this passage. They prepare a mix of white clay and cornmeal and pour it over the young woman's head, caking her hair and staining her dress for the entire ceremony. She is later dowsed with bright yellow cattail pollen, symbol of fertility. Dancing, chanting, and praying go on for four nights. At certain points in the ceremony, the young initiate runs in the four cardinal directions; at dawn she runs toward the rising sun. Her godmother kneads her body, singing of its changes. "Now you are entering the world," she sings. "You become an adult with responsibilities.... Walk with honor and dignity...for you will become the mother of a nation."

In Bali, where Hinduism mingles with ancient local tradition, puberty is the time of life when young women and men undergo tooth filing. The ceremony called mepandes or metatah, performed by a man born into the priestly caste, is a necessary preparation for marriage. Male and female participants are dressed elegantly for the occasion, in colorful fabric brocaded with gold. Boys wear a sword; girls wear flowers; both wear special makeup. To begin, the priest cracks open a yellow coconut and sanctifies it as the ceremonial spittoon. Incense and floral essence fill the air. The priest uses a file to flatten the fanglike upper canines and remove the evil beast inherent in humanity. He chisels and files the four upper teeth between the canines. All attending understand that the six teeth symbolize the six human weaknesses "" lust, greed, anger, drunkenness, ignorance, and jealousy "" and that after the tooth-filing ceremony, the young people have been cleansed, and are ready to take on adult responsibilities. The boys and girls spit the filing dust into the sacred coconut, which is later buried in the family temple, its power still close at hand. Other rites of passage include the Christian Confirmation, the Jewish Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah, and the Hindu thread initiation ceremony, in which young people accept the religious duties and obligations of an adult.

The union of two people in marriage has required since earliest times a blessing in a religious ceremony and sanc- tion by the community. Wedding rituals are always joyous and elaborate. The bride is often dressed in white, symbolic of her sexual purity. The bridal veil has been traced back at least to the time of ancient Rome, where brides covered their whole body with a red veil before they arrived at their wedding. To remove the veil is to reveal and give herself to her husband. In many ceremonies, it is the husband who lifts the veil. History records the presence of flowers and other symbols of fecundity.

Muslim brides in Syria carried bouquets of fragrant orange flowers. In ancient Greece, brides held sheaves of wheat and wore crowns of holly. Another recurrent theme is the community's wish for fertility: Rice, wheat, corn, or other dried grains are tossed upon the couple as they emerge from the wedding ceremony. A wedding cake or pie has been central to the celebration for centuries. Middle Eastern accounts from the first millennium B.C. describe the newlyweds sharing a sesame-seed pie. Or, family members would strew bits of wedding cake in the marriage bed. During the complex marriage rituals of Java, where Islam mingles with native spirit religions, the couple receives two bowls, one with white rice and one with yellow. Together they combine the two kinds of rice and then feed each other.

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