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In the Roman pantheon, Janus is the two-faced god of beginnings, limits, doors, gateways, and departure. Unlike the other Greco-Roman deities, Janus was not imported from Greece to Rome. How he arrived in the Roman pantheon is unclear: some scholars believe that he was originally a gatekeeping deity of the near East while others argue he was an original Latin deity who was worshipped in Italy before Rome rose to power. Similarly there are different myths concerning his origin. The most dramatic tale of his creation asserts that he was made by Uranus, god of the primal heavens as a love present for dark Hecate. Janus despised being in the underworld so he escaped from Hecate by diving into the river Styx and swimming to the world above.
After fleeing the underworld, Janus acted as one of the earliest kings of Rome in the golden era when the titans ruled the world, however at the end of the titanomachy—the epic war between titans and Olympians—he made the poor decision to give shelter to Saturn, hated father of Jupiter. Jove was furious at Janus because of this betrayal and he cursed him with immobility and with a second face. Thereafter Janus stood at the threshold of heaven to open and close the gate as Jupiter came and went.
Janus was a popular god for the Romans and they worshipped him whenever they started a new venture or embarked on a trip. January is named after the god and the first day of every month is dedicated to him. The ancient temple of Janus stood in the center of Rome was open during war and closed during times of peace. Since the Romans were a warlike people the temple was rarely closed and sometimes stood open for hundreds of years at a time.
In Northern and Central Europe, the last day of April is the last day of winter and darkness. The holiday known to the ancient Gaelic people as Beltane is the opposite of Samhain (aka Halloween): in spring, the forces of darkness and the underworld come out for a last wild dance but are driven away by the burgeoning summer. The holiday is called “Walpurgisnacht” in German and Dutch, however the Estonians know it as “Volbriöö, (Walpurgi öö)”, the Swedes call it “Valborgsmässoafton” , The Czechs know it as “Valpuržina noc”, and the Finns, bucking the trend, call the celebration “Vappu”. Except in Finland, the festival is named after Saint Walpurga, an English missionary who proselytized among the Franks and Germans in the eight century (and who was canonized on May 1st).
Walpurgisnacht is one of the ancient touchstones of German art and culture. Tradition has it that demons, spirits, and naked witches from around Northern Europe come together on that night to dance around bonfires on the Brocken, the highest mountain in Northern Germany (although only a hill compared with the mighty Alps in the south). The climax of Goethe’s Faust takes place on Walpurgisnacht as the witches and spirits attend the devil (although it seems like ancient pagan versions of the holiday were centered around fertility goddesses). Likewise in The Magic Mountain, Hans Castorp finally talks at length to the bewitching Madame Chauchat on May Eve as the sanatorium erupts into primeval merry-making.
To celebrate this strange haunted pagan fertility festival I have included three great images from German art.
The most prominent female deity in ancient Mesopotamia was Inanna (also known as Ištar). Monotheistic religions have a way of leaving out women (or making them ancillary characters like Mary). Polytheistic religions often divide their goddesses into fertility goddesses (like Aphrodite) versus power goddesses like Athena or Artemis. Inanna reflects no such omission or dichotomy: as Queen of Heaven, she was both the goddess of sex and the goddess of war. In fact, saying that she was the most prominent female deity of the Babylonian/Akkadian/Sumerian pantheon might be unfair: arguably she was the most prominent god of any sort in that pantheon.
Worship of Inanna seems to have begun in the city state Uruk around 6000 years ago. Her sacred symbols were the eight pointed star and the lioness. She is especially affiliated with the planet Venus (which, obviously, was known instead as “Inanna” to the Mesopotamians), the third brightest object in the sky which, bafflingly, can rise in the East and the West in both the morning and evening (we realize that his is because Venus is our closest neighbor, but to the Babylonians it was uncanny). Inanna was not just the day star but also storm, flood, wrath, and war. Additionally, she was a goddess of fertility and unbridled sensuality. Inanna had many lovers (and was always looking for more) but her actual husband was the beautiful shepherd god, Dumuzi. There are several unabashedly graphic poems about the physical nature of the pair’s marriage (which you can look up on your own).
In addition to personifying forces of nature, Inanna possessed all of the secrets of civilization. She beguiled ancient Enki, the first god, with her charms and made him drunk on beer. Then she convinced him to give her the Mes, clay tablets which represented fundamental truth and all the blueprints for power and civilization. When Enki sobered up, he sent his attendants after Inanna to fetch back the Mes, but it was too late. Uruk blossomed and outshone Enki’s city, Eridu, in glory.
Probably the most famous story about Inanna concerns her trip to the underworld (ruled by Inanna’s sister, the dark and jealous goddess Ereshkigal). One day Inanna left heaven. She abandoned her seven cities and emptied her temples. She donned the seven sacred objects symbolic of her queenhood and set out for the realm from which no traveler returns. Before leaving, however, Inanna left explicit directions with her faithful vassal, Ninshubur, concerning what to do if she (Inanna) did not return in three days.
Arrayed in splendor, Inanna came before the great bronze gate to the underworld and announced herself as “Inanna, Queen of heaven.” She claimed to be visiting the underworld to attend her sister’s husband’s funeral. The doorkeeper of the dead, Neki was amazed and he sought Ereshkigal’s orders. To enter the underworld, Inanna had to give up her crown and, at each subsequent gate she was forced to part with another of her treasures/garments. One by one she set aside her lapis earrings, the double strand of beads about her neck, her breastplate (called, “Come, man, come”), her golden hip girdle, and the lapis measuring rod. She walked on and on through the dreary lands of spirits, ghosts, and wraiths. Whenever she tried to talk to Neti, he answered, “Quiet Inanna, the ways of the Underworld are perfect. They may not be questioned.”
Finally at the last gate she had only her royal breechcloth. Surrendering this last garment she came to the final depths of the realm of the dead naked and stripped of power. As she stepped before the throne of Ereshkigal she was knocked to her knees by the annuna, the monstrous judges of the underworld. They surrounded her and judged her. Here is a translation of the actual Sumerian text:
They passed judgment against her.
Then Ereshkigal fastened on Inanna the eye of death
She spoke against her the word of wrath
She uttered against her the cry of guilt
She struck her.
Inanna was turned into a corpse
A piece of rotting meat
And was hung from a hook on the wall
After three days Inanna did not return. Ninshubur became worried. She was a goddess in her own right who sometimes served as a herald or a messenger for the other gods, but her true devotion was always to Inanna (some myths even describe her as one of Inanna’s lovers). Acting on Inanna’s instructions, Ninshubur went to various deities to ask for help rescuing Inanna.
Inanna’s father and paternal grandfather were unmoved by her death (having warned her against sojourning in the land of the dead). However ancient Enki, still loved her, despite the fact that she had taken the Mes from him. In order to save Inanna from death he summoned kurgarra and the galatur, demon beings, to whom he gave the water of life. Assuming the guise of houseflies, the two demons flew into the underworld and descended to Ereshkigal’s throne room where Inanna was suspended dead and decomposing on a hook. With magical powers they rescued Inanna’s corpse from suspension and poured the water of life upon it. Inanna returned to life and proceeded back through the underworld, gathering her clothes and treasures as she went.
Unfortunately the galla, the demons of the underworld, discovered her as she was leaving. Unable to prevent her egress, they nevertheless demanded a substitute life to take her place and they followed as the goddess made her way back through the underworld and back out into the world of life. As Ninshubur joyfully greeted Inanna, the galla asked for the attendant’s life (which Inanna angrily refused). The underworld demons then asked for Inanna’s sons, Shara and Lulal, and even for Inanna’s beautician Cara as sacrifices to take Inanna’s place. However the goddess was firm: since all of these people were dressed in mourning for her, she refused to let them be touched. However when the Queen goddess came home to her palace, she found her husband, Dumuzi (who was once a shepherd but now lived as a god-king) dressed in rich robes, drinking and feasting merrily. Infuriated, she pointed him out to the galla and the demons sprang at him. Dumuzi appealed to the sun god Utu for help and was transformed into a snake, but the demons were remorseless and they found him in his new form and dragged him away to the depths of the underworld in place of the resurrected Inanna.
The gods cared little about Dumuzi’s fate, but his sister Geshtinanna remained loyal to him. She begged Ereshkigal to take her in her brother’s stead and the death goddess (impressed by such love for a sibling) relented and allowed her to spend half the year as a stand-in for her brother. Their annual place changing was believed to drive the seasons. As for Inanna, she went back to war and sex. Yet something had changed, reborn, she had knowledge of the underworld and the ultimate mysteries.
In ancient Greece, there were two incarnations of death. The more well-known Greek personification of Death was Thanatos, the child of Nyx and brother of Hypnos (Sleep). Thanatos represented natural death and was portrayed as a gentle being. He was represented either as a kind handsome bearded man with wings or as a beautiful winged child. Thantos is sometimes portrayed carrying a butterfly, a wreath, or an inverted torch. Thanatos is frequently represented on funerary stele and on vases—a peaceful figure who led souls away after they had lived full lives.
However Thanatos had a flock of hellish sisters, the Keres, dark flying beings with sharp teeth and an insatiable taste for blood. The Keres represented violent senseless death. They flew in the thousands above battlefields and hung over plague ravaged cities. The Keres were associated with the apparatus of violent death–famine, madness, agony, hate, and violence, yet classical authors also sometimes treat them as oddly personal—like a bullet with a soldier’s name on it. Keres were portrayed like harpies or demons—cruel women with fangs and talons dressed in bloody ripped garments. When they found a wounded or sick person the Keres would descend to feast on blood. Hesiod’s harrowing poem, The Shield of Heracles describes them in such a manner:
The black Keres, clashing their white teeth,
Grim faced, shaggy, blood-bespattered, dread,
Kept struggling for the fallen. They all wanted
To drink black blood. Whom first they caught.
Lying or fallen newkly wounded, around him
They threw their might talosns, and the shade to Hades
Went, in icy Tartarus. Their hearts were glutted
With human blood: they threw away the corpse
And back to the tumult and fighting rushed, in new desire
Hesiod also indirectly indicates that the Keres were among the horrible fates which flew out of Pandora’s box and have subsequently plagued mankind. The Romans also believed in these cruel & deadly incarnations of fat. The Roman name for the entities was tenebrae—“darknesses”
The Keres do not fit neatly into the larger Greco-Roman pantheon. Perhaps, like Nyx herself, they were outsider gods left over from some earlier tradition. Throughout the course of classical history, their portrayal and their fatalistic meaning changed. However they were a part of classical thought. It is important to mention them when writing about the Greek underworld. The dark realm below was haunted by these cruel children of night—they would fly forth when disaster struck humankind.
Here is one of my favorite disturbing religious paintings. The work was completed in 1864 by the not-easily-classified 19th century French master Édouard Manet. At first glimpse the canvas seems like a conventional devotional painting of Christ just after he has been crucified and laid out in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, but, upon closer examination the multifold unsettling elements of the painting become manifest. The figures are painted in Manet’s trademark front-lit style which flattens the figures out and gives them a hint of monstrous unearthliness. This is particularly problematic since we are located at Jesus’ feet and his body is already foreshortened. The effect is of an ill-shaped Jesus with dwarf’s legs looming above us. Also, from his half-closed eyes it is unclear whether Christ is dead or not. Is he artlessly deceased with his eyes partially opened? Has he been resurrected already but is somehow still woozy? Are the angels resurrecting him? Here we get to the biggest problem of the painting: when is this happening? This scene is certainly not in the gospels (at least I don’t remember any episodes where weird angels with cobalt and ash wings move Jesus around like a prop). Did Manet just make up his own disquieting interpretation of the fundamental mystery at the heart of Christianity? It certainly seems like it! In the foreground of the work, empty snail shells further suggest that we have misunderstood the meaning. An adder slithers out from beneath a rock as if to suggest the poison in our doubts. Painting this kind of problematic religious work did not win Manet any friends in the middle of the nineteenth century, however it is unquestionably a magnificent painting about faith…and about doubt.
This blog has addressed many different deities of the underworld, but one of the most important figures of classical Greco-Roman underworld mythology has been left out. Persephone (or Proserpine to the Romans) was the queen of the underworld, the reluctant consort of Hades who ruled over a dark and mournful kingdom (as pictured above). However Persephone was one of the few figures in classical mythology who could leave the underworld. Like her mother Demeter, Persephone was a vegetation goddess—a deity that dies and is reborn with the annual growth cycle of plants.
Persephone was not just the queen of the underworld, but also the goddess of spring. When she emerged from the underworld, winter ended and life begin to grow and flower again. The vase below shows her returning with Hermes from the dark realm so that spring could once more come and winter’s darkness be banished for another year.
By far the most popular post on Ferrebeekeeper involves leprechauns. Because of this fact, the sporadic generic tips I receive from WordPress usually include advice like “maybe you should consider writing more about this topic.” This involves a conundrum, because leprechauns are totally made up. What else is there to be said about the little green fairy-folk without reviewing weird B movies or randomly posting leprechaun tattoos?
Fortunately today’s news has come to my aid. Apparently the world’s smallest park, Mill Ends Park, in Portland, Oregon was victimized by tree-rustlers who stole 100% of the park’s forest. This seems like grim news, but Mill Ends Park is very small indeed: the entire (perfectly circular) park measures 2 feet in diameter. Because of its dinky 452 square inch area, Mill Ends Park only contained one small tree. A drunkard might have fallen on it (the park is located on a traffic island in the midst of a busy intersection) or pranksters might have taken it away to a container garden. Maybe a German industrialist now has the little tree in some weird freaky terrarium…
Anyway, you are probably wondering why Portland has a park which is smaller than a large pizza and what exactly this has to do with imaginary fairy cobblers from Ireland. It turns out that Mill Ends Park was the literary confabulation of journalist Dick Fagan. After returning from World War II, Fagan began writing a blog (except they were called “newspaper columns” back then, and people were actually paid for them). In 1948, the city of Portland had dug a hole to install a street light on the median of SW Naito Parkway, but due to the exigencies of the world, the light never materialized. Fagan became obsessed with the pathetic little mud pit and began planting flowers in it and rhapsodizing about fantasy beings who lived there (whom only he could see). Fagan’s story of the park’s creation is a classic leprechaun tale. While Fagan was writing in his office, he saw a leprechaun, Scott O’Toole, digging the original hole (presumably to bury treasure or access a burial mound or accomplish some such leprechaun errand). Fagan ran out of the building and apprehended the little man and thus earned a wish. As mentioned, Fagan was a writer, so obviously gold was not his prime motivation. He (Fagan) asked the leprechaun (Scott O’Toole) to be granted his very own park. Since the journalist failed to specify the size of the park, the leprechaun granted him the tiny hole.
Fagan continued to write about the “park” and its resident leprechaun colony for the next two decades using it as a metaphor for various urban issues or just as a convenient frippery when he couldn’t think of anything to write about (a purpose which the park still serves for contemporary writers). In 1976, the city posthumously honored the writer by officially making the tiny space a city park. The little park frequently features in various frivolous japes such as protests by pipe-cleaner people, the delivery of a post-it sized Ferris wheel by a full-sized crane, and overblown marching band festivities out of scale with the microcosm.
True to form, the Portland Park Department was appalled at the recent deforestation and sprang into action by planting a Douglas fir sapling in Mill End Park. Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) are the second tallest conifers on Earth, and grow to a whopping 60–75 meters (200–246 ft) in height so it is unclear how this situation will play out over time, but presumably Patrick O’Toole and his extended Irish American family will be on hand to ensure that everything turns out OK.
Snake week continues with a dramatic return to my native Appalachia. Up in the mountains, devout Christianity has taken on a great many colorful forms, but arguably none are quite as exciting as the rites celebrated by the Pentecostal Snake-handlers. Snake-handling in Appalachia is said to have a long history rooted in 19th century revivals and tent-show evangelism, but its documented history starts with an illiterate but charismatic Pentecostal minister named George Went Hensley. Around 1910 Hensley had a religious revelation based on two specific New Testament Bible verses. Couched in the flinty vaguely apocalyptic language of the Gospels, the two verses which obsessed Hensley read as follows:
And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. Mark 16: 17-18
And he said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven. Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. (Luke 10: 18-19)
While many believers might chose to understand these lines as a general affirmation of Christ’s devotion to his flock, Hensley was very much a literalist (and a showman). Believing that the New Testament commanded the faithful to handle venomous snakes, he set about obtaining a number of poisonous snakes and incorporating them into his ministry. The practice quickly spread along the spine of the mountains and beyond. Even today the Church of God with Signs Following (aka the snake handlers) numbers believers in the thousands.
A service at the Church of God with Signs Following includes standard Pentecostal practices such as faith healing, testimony of miracles, and speaking in tongues (along with much boisterous jumping and testifying), however what sets the ceremony apart are the live poisonous snakes which are located in a special area behind the alter located at the front of the church. Throughout the service, worshipers can come forward and pick up the serpents and even let the snakes crawl over their bodies. Native pit vipers such as copperheads, timber rattlers, and water moccasins are most commonly used in the ceremonies but exotic poisonous snakes like cobras are sometimes included. The snakes act as a proxy for devils and demons. Handling the reptiles is believed to demonstrate power over these underworld forces. If a congregant is bitten (which has happened often), it is usually regarded as an individual or group failure of faith. Upon being bitten devout snake-handlers generally refuse treatment, regarding this as part of their sacrament.
Not only do snake handlers handle snakes they also sometimes drink strychnine to prove their devotion. Additionally (although less alarmingly) they adhere to a conservative dress code of ankle-length dresses, long hair, and no make-up for women, and short hair and oxford shirts for men. Tobacco and alcohol are regarded as sinful.
Snake handling has a long and twisty relationship with state laws. In Georgia, in 1941, state legislators passed a bill which made Pentecostal snake handling into a felony and mandated the death penalty for participants, however the law was so extreme that juries refused to enforce it and it was eventually repealed. A number of states still have old laws clearly designed to curtail the practice of the faith (often these were instituted after particularly controversial deaths, particularly those of children).
The founder of snake handling, George Went Hensley, also had a twisty serpentine course through life. After founding and popularizing the church during the World War I era, he strayed somewhat from the life of a minister. During the 20’s he had substantial problems in his home life caused by drinking and moonshining. After being arrested for the latter, Hensley was sentenced to work on a chain gang but he beguiled the guards into other duties with his likability and, on an errand to fetch water, he escaped and fled from Tennessee. He worked various occupations including miner, moonshiner, and faith healer and married various women before returning to his ministry in the mid-thirties. During the next decades, Hensley led a vivid life involving a multi-state ministry (which was the subject of a miniature media circus), various drunken fits and conflicts, multiple marriages, and lots of poisonous snakes. The odds caught up to him in Altha, Florida in 1955 when he was bitten on the wrist by a venomous snake which he had removed from a lard can and rubbed on his face. After becoming visibly ill from the bite, he refused treatment (and is said to have rebuked his congregation for their lack of faith) before dying of snakebite. When he died he had been married 4 times and fathered 13 known children. He also had claimed to have been bitten over 400 times by various snakes.
Hensley always asserted that he was not the father of snake-handling, however he certainly popularized the movement. Even today, Christians of a certain mindset can prove their faith by harassing toxic reptiles (although the religion’s legality is disputed in many states where it is practiced).
Estonian mythology all seems strangely familiar and yet jarringly bizarre—like songs you hear in dreams or children’s books read in unknown languages. The stories have Greek parallels (and owe much to Finnish mythology) but the narrative is off-putting. A cunning blacksmith makes a beautiful woman out of gold but is unable to give her a soul or a mind. Beings from the land of the dead come back through a sacred grove to seduce maidens in the evening. Forests grow tired of human greed and get up and move away.
Perhaps the most familiar-yet-strange figure in Estonian myth is Vanatühi, the god of the underworld. Vanatühi means “old empty one” and the deity is famed for being stupid–nearly to the point of being inert. Whereas other underworld gods are always up to some malevolent scheme, Vanatühi is a big dumb farmer with crude ogre features. Because of his stupidity, Vanatühi is always being outwitted by Kaval Ants (“Crafty Hans”), the cunning trickster of Estonian myth (who usually starts out as a farmhand working for Vanatühi.
Vanatühi has two mythological items of great power, the stranger of which is küüntest kübar, a magical crown made of fingernails (yuck!) which renders the wearer invisible. The other mystical item he has is a whistle which he stole from Pikne, the god of lightning, however the whistle never seems to come into play. Maybe Vanatühi swallowed it?
According to wild-eyed (& hare-brained) eschatologists the world is supposed to end tomorrow (December 21st, 2012) as the Mesoamerican long-count calendar runs out. The methodology of destruction is a bit unclear, but a general consensus (of stupid crackpots) seems to hold that the nonexistent mystery planet Nibiru will slam into the Earth and everything will disintegrate in fire. Volcanoes and solar storms are also somehow featured in some versions of the narrative.
All of this sounds very exciting—and it would certainly prove immensely fascinating to astronomers who keep a close watch on the local solar system with telescopes and spacecraft–and have never seen any hint of the apocalyptic space phenomena made up by crazy people. Yet I think we are overlooking a big part of the fun. The long count calendar is a 5,125-year reckoning of time created by the ancient Mayans. Since tomorrow’s apocalypse is therefore Mayan, one would certainly expect the lords of Xibalba (the Mayan gods of the underworld) to show up to harrow the Earth–or, you know, at least to assist Nibiru in finishing off the job. Dedicated readers will recall that we have already met the gods of Xibalba in this dramatic post concerning the great heroic quest at the center of Mayan mythology. To summarize, the sun and the moon went down into the dark torture city of Xibalba to free their father’s spirit and release the living world from slavery to the gods below. After an epic magical battle, the story ended Hollywood-style with the twins burning and hacking all of the underworld gods to pieces. The heroes then apotheosizing into the familiar celestial bodies we know and love.
This would not seem to bode well for the lords of Xibalba (what with the being killed and all), yet underworld deities are wily and treacherous–so we should not count them out of the picture despite the fact that they were chopped up and fricasseed. So that you can more fully appreciate the Mayan apocalypse (or if it goes badly, so you will know whom you are talking with in the afterlife) here is a comprehensive listing of the Lords of Xibalba. These characters operate in themed pairs–which is why each entry contains two gods):
Ahalmez (Sweepings Demon) and Ahaltocob (Stabbing Demon): are gods for the obsessively cleanly. They hide in dirty or unswept areas of peoples’ houses and, when the filth is too much, leap out to kill the slovenly inhabitants.
Xiquiripat (Flying Scab) & Cuchumaquic (Gathered Blood) are both blood-themed gods who cause septicemia/blood poisoning
Ahalpuh (Pus Demon) and Ahalgana (Jaundice Demon), are tumor gods who cause people’s bodies to swell up with poison dropsy;
Chamiabac (Bone Staff) and Chamiaholom (Skull Staff), are bone demons who turn dead bodies into skeletons.
Xic (Wing) and Patan (Packstrap), are gods of pneumonia and lung disorder who cause travelers to choke to death from pneuma disorders.
Most importantly One Death and Seven Death were the two rulers of the underworld. They were synonymous with death itself (although I have no idea what their jersey numbers stand for).
Hmm, all right, that is a pretty scary list and these guys certainly sound like bad news (although none of them seem to be particularly affiliated with planetary collision). I guess we will keep our eyes peeled for stabby glowing characters in loincloths jumping out from behind the refrigerator.
Of course if the end of the days truly has you down, it is worth listening to David Morrison, an astronomer at Nasa, who has gone on record to say, “At least once a week I get a message from a young person, as young as 11, who says they are ill and/or contemplating suicide because of the coming doomsday. I think it’s evil for people to propagate rumours on the internet to frighten children.”
That seems like a pretty direct slap in the face to the lords of Xibalba (assuming any of them survived the rampage of Hunahpu and Xbalanque). I guess we’ll watch the heavens tomorrow with interest. If anyone is incredibly scared, you can come over to my place for chocolate pie, hot peppers, and tequila.