The Dream (Henri Rousseau, 1910, oil on canvas)

The Dream (Henri Rousseau, 1910, oil on canvas)

Here is “The Dream,” the last painting completed by Henri Rousseau, the toll collector who became a self-taught artistic genius at the end of his life. The painting shows Rousseau’s mistress Yadwigha (a long-sundered lover from the painter’s youth). She is naked, reclining on a stuffed divan which magically floats through a jungle filled with lions, strange larger-than-life flowers, tropical birds, and a hidden elephant. The other main figure of the composition is the enigmatic snake charmer who reappears from other Rousseau works and seems to represent the beauty and mystery of the world.  As this dark figure plays the recorder he or she casts a mysterious enchantment upon the fulsome flora and fauna. The work seems to suggest that life is a transient dream of surpassing beauty–but a dream in which the meaning remains wild and elusive. What we think we know is ultimately subsumed by nature and the greater forces of the unknown.

Rousseau wrote a poem to explain the painting, but the poem says little which is not obvious (or which the viewer does not already intuit):

Yadwigha dans un beau rêve
S’étant endormie doucement
Entendait les sons d’une musette
Dont jouait un charmeur bien pensant.
Pendant que la lune reflète
Sur les fleuves [or fleurs], les arbres verdoyants,
Les fauves serpents prêtent l’oreille
Aux airs gais de l’instrument.

(Yadwigha in a beautiful dream
Having fallen gently to sleep
Heard the sounds of a reed instrument
Played by a well-intentioned [snake] charmer.
As the moon reflected
On the rivers [or flowers], the verdant trees,
The wild snakes lend an ear
To the joyous tunes of the instrument.)

 

 

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In writing about dreams and nightmares, I would be remiss not to write about the dominant dream monsters from western mythology—incubus and the succubus. Stories about these dream demons and demonesses originated in ancient Mesopotamia and have been common ever since (actually, considering that writing originated in Mesopotamia, myths about this sort of dream demon probably go back even further). As you have noticed, these demons are very prominently gendered: an incubus is male and a succubus is female (indeed the former is extravagantly male and the latter amply female). This fact explains the enduring popularity of the concept: these beings are sex demons which represent fundamental human drives and fears. According to tradition, they steal into a person’s bedroom at night and lay with him or her. The nocturnal demons are also reckoned to be spirit vampires of a sort—they steal the life force of their victims by sleeping with them.

Lilith (John Collier, 1892, oil on canvas)

Lilith (John Collier, 1892, oil on canvas)

While all sorts of gods, goddesses, demons, monsters, and supernatural entities were curtailed by the spread of monotheism (with its jealous single god), the incubus and succubus effortlessly jumped right into the folklore of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam at the very beginning and have stubbornly remained there ever since. Lilith—the demonic first consort of Adam–came into the Babylonian Talmud directly from Babylon (although some modern Talmudists dispute this and assert that the sexual demons are an eighth century addition to the Talmud). In Islamic folklore, there is a persistant belief in the qarînah (قرينة) which are invisible demons which have relations with humans in dreams (according to superstition they can be seen by some holy/magical folk and frequently hide in animal bodies).

 

The Malleability (artist unknown)

The Malleability (artist unknown)

There is no shortage of supernatural beings analogous to incubi in other parts of the world either. An incomplete list of these demons includes the Tokoloshe of South Africa; the Trauco of Chile (which preys exclusively on unmarried women); the pink botu of the Amazon, a shape-shifting river dolphin which seduces adolescents; the Indian pori (a seductive angel whichleads men towards suicide); and the Turkish Karabasan. The Teutonic mare or mara is a heavy goblin which crouches upon the victim’s chest (straddling the line between sleep apnea and salaciousness)

The Nightmare (Henry Fuseli, 1781, oil on canvas)

The Nightmare (Henry Fuseli, 1781, oil on canvas)

There are very obvious reasons why this myth winds through so many human cultures: the dream demon is a fairly transparent proxy for powerful erotic dreams and feelings (I probably don’t have to explain the specifics of this to anyone who has passed through puberty). I have included some “heavy metal” looking paintings and prints in this article to illustrate the dream demon as a symbol of unbridled adolescent lust and nighttime dreams of forbidden lovemaking.

 

Succubus (by Arsenal21)

Succubus (by Arsenal21)

All of which seems to be a part of growing up. Disturbingly, though the incubus and succubus have a much darker abusive side. In traditional cultures (and therefore probably in ancient ones as well) the incubus was often blamed for pregnancies which should have been impossible (as for young women who were secluded or kept under close chaperone). It is not unreasonable to suppose that the demon was thus as a pretext for incest or sexual abuse at home. This makes the original definition of the monster especially sad and appropriate. For too many people, abuse is indeed a life drinking demon which can not be escaped or even discussed. The happy world of people with upstanding loving families…and indeed the law itself are only beginning to find out about some of these kinds of abuses, so it is no wonder they were originally cloaked in myth. Nevertheless, this illustrates that those sanctimonious people who say stuff like “these things never used to happen in the old days” have a rather shallow grasp of history AND human behavior. Additionally it illustrates that made-up supernatural horrors are no match for actual human abuse.

Woodcut (Erich Heckel, ca. 1925-1930, woodblock print)

Woodcut (Erich Heckel, ca. 1925-1930, woodblock print)

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To celebrate Halloween this week Ferrebeekeeper is exploring dreams and nightmares! Yesterday we introduced the Baku, a dream-eating, long-snouted spirit-beast from East Asia. Today we travel directly to the real of dreams and nightmares itself! Well sort of….Since I am unable to get inside the head of dreamers other than myself (at least with today’s technology) this means going to an almost equally scary place…the bedroom!

...Gosh!

I wanted to combine the place where dreams happen with gothic decorative art (a particularly fitting style for Halloween). I therefore asked myself whether anyone had crafted overly-elaborate gothic beds. A quick Google Image search revealed the answer to be “Oh my goodness!” Apparently the world’s bedwrights have been hard at work creating an insane array of magnificent and horrifying beds to cradle the reposing bodies of well-heeled dreamers.

"Oh my..."

“Oh my…”

Here is a gallery filled with crazy and extravagant gothic beds (a fitting companion to past galleries of gothic clocks, lamps, gates, and houses). Behold the magnificent dark canopies, strange gargoyles, and haunting grotesques…along with every sort of flange, post, tower, buttress, arch, and bracket that imagination can conceive.

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It’s difficult to believe that people sleep in such dark slendor…anyway, hopefully this range of bedframes will inspire your Halloween dreams (assuming that the baku does not get them first). Sleep well!

Ancient-Roman-Bedchamber1

A Bronze Statue of a Baku

A Bronze Statue of a Baku

There are two sorts of dreams. In a figurative sense, your dreams are your aspirations and hopes for the future (for example I dream of getting a paying job, becoming a world famous visual artist, and colonizing our sister-planet Venus). However, in a more literal sense, dreams are a series of unreal adventures which take place inside your head when you are sleeping. Real dreams consist of strange phantasmagoria, troubling psychosexual images, intense emotions and memories as well as and undigested mental odds-and-ends…and horrifying nightmarish fears.

A baku inhaling nightmares

A baku inhaling nightmares

To start off our Halloween week of dreams and nightmares, here is a mythical animal which embodies the tension between both meanings of the word dreams. The Baku is a supernatural entity which devours dreams and nightmares. Apparently stories of the baku originated in ancient China, but these days it is most prevalent in Japan where it plays an ever growing role in folklore and fiction. The baku is a chimera which is said to have an elephant’s trunk, a rhinoceros’ eyes, an ox’s tail, and a tiger’s paws. The creature devours dreams by inhaling them through its sinuous proboscis.

baku

Not surprisingly, the baku’s moral alignment is highly controversial! In traditional Japanese texts it was a pleasant and helpful spirit which ate nightmares and thus provided afflicted sleepers with peaceful & pleasant (albeit somewhat bland) dreams. However in our fractured modern world, the baku has darkened and now it sometimes eats a person’s figurative dreams (although not having aspirations, ideas, or ambitions presumably makes a person an ideal office worker).

Baku (tattoo art by hiraistrange)

Baku (tattoo art by hiraistrange)

Originally bakus were regarded as completely supernatural, however in recent times they have become conflated with the inoffensive tapirs–which certainly physically resemble the descriptions of the mythical baku. This fact makes the baku even more confusing. It is now both a supernatural dream eating monster dwelling in the ether…and an actual living mammal which can be discovered in the rainforests of Malaysia and South America. I have always liked tapirs a great deal and so I am going to insist they are in no way malevolent. They appear to live exclusively on rainforest vegetation, but even if they did decide to branch out and inhale some human dreams, I am certain they would take our nightmares and not our fondest wishes.

An adorable baby tapir!

An adorable baby tapir!

Property of Dynamic Range Media

Property of Dynamic Range Media

Sadly I am unable to think of any seasonally appropriate scary/creepy things to post today (I am saving all of my Halloween material about dreams and nightmares for next week!). Therefore I am dedicating today’s post to hyping my friend’s visionary online TV project! My friend, Dan, is a gifted director in Hollywood who has crafted several online TV programs. The first of these shows is a whole series of mini-webisodes which portray a terrifying near-future dystopia of…wait, actually I will tell you about the action-packed series shortly; first let me explain Dan’s business idea.

Business before ultraviolence...

Business before ultraviolence…

Dan believes that in the near future there will be no broadcast or cable television:   programming will be accessed directly through the internet (indeed, most of the people I know under thirty already get their programs this way). He therefore decided to sidestep the nightmarish business of pandering to sharklike Hollywood producers and make his own content directly for the web.

The web likes original content!

The web likes original content!

Although moving to the web gave Dan and his team endless freedom, it also imposed its own severe limits, since they had to make their first program with a shoestring budget. I mean this literally—Dan had the pecuniary resources for string for shoes. This tiny production budget had to cover cameras, props, professional actors, settings, lights, costumes, special effects, catering, stunts…everything.

Hmm...

Hmm…

Dan’s first program has to work so that he can get more funding for the amazing programs to come. He thus constructed this first show “The Kill Corporation” to appeal to very broad tastes. This is a savage world of primary colors, ruthless characters, and non-stop action.

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The Kill Corporation takes place in the business world of tomorrow. Litigation and internecine office politics have been replaced by “terminal arbitration” a swift and final method of conflict resolution carried out by the eponymous third party corporation. Parties involved in arbitration are understandably desperate to win their disputes and they cajole the arbitrators with every manner of blandishment. Some arbitrators chafe under this corrupt scheme—or become generally lost—and the main way to solve such problems is, of course,  more arbitration.

Pictured: Schlubs

Pictured: Schlubs

This works out as you would imagine with unlikable corporate schlubs desperately bumping each other off in hopes of moving up the hierarchy of their own horrible organization. Painted with the vivid expressionistic lines of classic farce, The Kill Corporation transcends its genre to project a satirical vision of humankind’s eternal inability to administrate anything without producing a bloodbath.

Be forewarned, the website for the series is located within the fictional world of the show. While this means you can’t actually purchase terminal arbitration as billed—it also means you can participate in fun online games and hijinks!

Large bronze head (Sanxingdui, Circa 1300-1200 BC, cast bronze)

Large bronze head (Sanxingdui, Circa 1300-1200 BC, cast bronze)

The traditional narrative of Chinese civilization is that the Han people (who originated on the fertile central plains around the Yellow River) invented cities, writing, advanced agriculture, bronzework, and Chinese civilization in general. The first great era of Han Chinese civilization was the Shang “dynasty” which lasted from 1600 BC to 1046 BC (although stories persist of an earlier—perhaps mythical—Xia dynasty). After the Shang age, the superior Han gradually spread through all of China incorporating lesser peoples into their greater hegemony (which endures to this day as the mighty nation we call China). This narrative was called into question in 1986 when workers at the Lanxing Second Brick Factory in Sichuan discovered an ancient pit full of exceedingly weird and magnificent bronze statues.

china-map9

Archaeologists flocked to the site and began researching the civilization which was behind these strange works or art. It became apparent that the bronzeworks came from a culture which was contemporary to Shang dynasty China, but which was not directly connected. These ancient people are known as the Sanxingdui culture. They flourished in the Sichuan region, but, aside from the self-evident fact that they were gifted bronze artists, very little is known about the. Archaeologists speculate that the Sanxingdui people lived unified under a strong centralized theocracy in a walled city; also some Chinese scholars identify the Sanxingdui with the Shu kingdom (which is mentioned occasionally in extremely ancient Shang-era sources). I would love to tell you more, but since the Sanxingdui left no recorded history, that is virtually all we know about the creators of these exquisite bug-eyed sculptures and masks. It is believed that some natural disaster or invasion wiped out their city-state and the survivors became integrated with the Ba culture which were in turn swallowed up by the Chin Empire.

 

Bronze Mask with protruding Eyes (Sanxingdui, circa 1300-1200 BC, bronze)

Bronze Mask with protruding Eyes (Sanxingdui, circa 1300-1200 BC, bronze)

Whatever the truth about them, they made amazing art. In addition to the huge alien faces, animals such as snakes, fish, and birds abound in Sanxingdui artwork—as do zoomorphic combination animals and fantasy creatures like dragons. Practical items such as axes and chariot wheels were also found.  Naturally there is a vocal minority out there who insist that Sanxingdui culture was influenced by aliens, Atlantis, or whatever other supernatural entity du jour is selling books, but to find out more about them, we are going to have to wait for more discoveries.

A sacrificial altar with several four-legged animals supporting bronze humanoid figures (Sanxingdui, ca. 1300-1200 BC, bronze)

A sacrificial altar with several four-legged animals supporting bronze humanoid figures (Sanxingdui, ca. 1300-1200 BC, bronze)

lead-image-halloweenDuring secondary school in rural Ohio the music teacher annually dug out the moth-eaten scores for a bunch of Halloween songs including “Black and Gold,” (the lyrics of which I still somewhat remember). The song was a doggerel hymn about the colors of Halloween season and the lyrics were just a list of black and gold items: jet black cats with golden eyes, golden goblins, pumpkins, and black shadows. Some young wag always said “this should be titled ‘black and orange,’” which I thought was a fair point based on all of the orange and black candy and decorations around.

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Allegedly the seasonal color scheme of black and orange go back to the ancient Celtic traditions which Halloween comes from. Orange (or rich gold/saffron, maybe) is the symbolic color of the harvest, the crops, and the autumn leaves whereas black represents night, death, and winter darkness. It’s a good color combination, but I always wonder whether the seasonal obsession with bright orange and black may be more a result of marketers rather than ancient Celts—or maybe they actually dug out black robes and golden sickles every year for Samhain just like the music teacher got out those smudged Halloween music sheets.

samhain_2010_by_madameguinevere-d31yvj8

If it is a marketing tradition, the marketers chose well. Orange and black are beautiful together and perfectly fit the season, but you rarely see people running around wearing this combination other than tigers and baseball players (and tigers aren’t even people). I wonder of there are shopping seasons in the future that likewise will be known by color—like back to school will be aqua and puce. Perhaps the seasonal holiday colors are predetermined by the natural colors season. Do Australians have a creepy death holiday in their fall (our spring) or what? Or is everything just orange, dun, and buff there every season? What are holiday color combinations from other cultures?

Polynesian Halloween?

Polynesian Halloween?

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Our current form—bipedal & prone to toppling, with two limited manipulator arms—always struck me as less functional than it could be. If I were making sentient beings, I would first try something else. I can therefore never understand why robot makers are always trying to copy the humanoid template and create androids. Fortunately there are other robotics experts who are willing to consider more versatile shapes for the next generation of robots. Consider this robot octopus, manufactured by a Greek team.

 

The robo-octopus can swim using traditional octopus jet propulsion (particularly effective because of the elastic webs between its tentacles). It can also crawl along the ocean bottom with its many arms and utilize its synthetic tentacles to carry or manipulate multiple objects.

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So far the robo-octopus is merely an experimental plaything and it has all the awkwardness of some first generation Pre-Cambrian jellyfish, but it is hard not to see immense potential in that adaptable be-tentacled shape. Imagine combining it with a supercomputer and giving it wrap-around artificial eyes. What a magnificent robot that would be!  Indeed, maybe we could utilize such a shape for transhuman cyborgs of the future.  Humans could swim around in three dimensions and be free of all this right-leg/left-leg falling down business!

Cyborg_octopus

 

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We are rapidly coming up to Halloween! In years past, Ferrebeekeeper has celebrated this scary holiday with these week-long special topics: Flowers of the Underworld, Echidna Mother of Monsters, and the Undead. This year I want to write about dreams and dream monsters—so look for a whole series concerning suchlike dream phantasms on the last week of October! Spooky!

pumpkins_roadside_with_forest_0(1)Before we get to dream monsters we have plenty of seasonal topics in the real world to get through. Today’s post is once again about pumpkins—but instead of talking about their color, their long agricultural history, or their seasonal mythology we will instead cut right to the quick and write about pumpkin reproduction. For pumpkins have male and female flowers and thus require a very special third party in order to reproduce. Originally pumpkins were (mostly) pollinated by two related genera of new world bees—the squash bees Peponapis and Xenoglossa (which together constitute the very Roman-sounding tribe Eucerini).

Male Squash bee (Peponapis pruinosa) photo by Douglass Moody

Male Squash bee (Peponapis pruinosa) photo by Douglass Moody

These large bees live symbiotically with pumpkins, squash, and cucumbers (the plant genus Cucurbita) and have historically had almost exactly the same range as cucurbits. Bees of this tribe are about the same size as bumblebees and are pollen specialists adapt at dealing with the narrow-necked but elastic flowers of squash and pumpkins. The bees also have large coarse hairs on their legs to better carry the exceptionally large pollens of pumpkins and heavy squash. I remember after planting a pumpkin patch as a child I fearfully avoiding my vegetable charges because of the fierce buzzing of the doughty bees hiding in the many flowers strewn through the maze of abrasive vines. Brrgh, my skin still shivers to recall the noise, smell, and texture of that part of the garden (which, as an added bonus, was located in clinging gelatinous red-clay mud).

Male squash bee - Peponapis pruinosa (photo by Ron Hemberger)

Male squash bee – Peponapis pruinosa (photo by Ron Hemberger)

Sadly the thirteen species of Eucerini bees, like many native bees, have been hit very hard by commercial pesticides. Modern industrial pumpkin growers sometimes call upon honey bees to undertake pumpkin pollination, but the hard-working domestic bees are not nearly as adept at the task as their wild native kin.

A honeybee seems slightly overwhelmed by large grains of sticky pumpkin pollen (Photograph ©2007 John Kimbler)

A honeybee seems slightly overwhelmed by large grains of sticky pumpkin pollen (Photograph ©2007 John Kimbler)

Noor-ul-Ain Tiara

Noor-ul-Ain Tiara

The Noor-ul-Ain is a giant pink diamond which is mounted in a tiara of the same name currently in the possession of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is believed that the Noor-ul-Ain diamond was once part of a vast Indian diamond named “the Great Table” which was embedded in the throne of the greatest Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who ruled India in the middle of the seventeenth century. When the Mughal dynasty withered and came apart a century later, the Persian shah Nāder Shāh Afshār looted and ransacked Dehli. Evidence strongly suggests that the Shah took the Great Table diamond and it was subsequently cut into two giant pink diamonds which became part of the Iranian treasury.

In 1958, the diamond was selected to be made into a wedding tiara for Farah Pahlavi (who became empress of Iran when she was wed to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the famous shah of Iran). The great American jeweler Harry Winston designed this ornate tiara.

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