You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Literature’ category.
Here at Ferrebeekeeper we have reviewed all sorts of meanings of the word “Gothic”–From Gothic painting to Gothic literature to Gothic history to Gothic architecture, a review of the changing history of this word has taken us through thousands of years of western culture (and beyond). Although this blog has described the Gothic alphabet created by Bishop Wulfila in order to proselytize to the Gothic tribes, the term Gothic has yet another meaning in the context of the Roman alphabet.
From approximately 1150 to well into the 17th century, Blackletter script was widely used throughout Western Europe. Renaissance humanists from 15th century Italy onward thought the various varieties of Blackletter script were barbaric and they called the fonts “Gothic” to belittle them as un-Roman and hence primitive (the Germans however did not suffer such prejudice and Blackletter–or Gothic–scripts are still used for writing and printing German).
The main Blackletter scripts were Schwabacher, Fraktur, , and, above all, Textualis (although typographers may disagree with me about this—and indeed about everything I am writing here). Blackletter was developed in a world where ink made of bone soot was cheap but parchment was heavy and expensive. Letters and Lettering by Frank Chouteau Brown describes the development of Blackletter as a pursuit of both beauty and practicality:
The original Gothic letter was a gradual outgrowth from the round Roman Uncial. Its early forms retained all the roundness of its Uncial parent; but as the advantages of a condensed form of letter for the saving of space became manifest, (parchment was expensive and bulky) and the beauty of the resulting blacker page was noticed, the round Gothic forms were written closer and narrower…until a form was evolved in which the black overbalanced the white–the Blackletter which still survives in the common German text of to-day. Thus, though a Gothic letter may not be a Blackletter, a Blackletter is always Gothic, because it is constructed upon Gothic lines.
Thus generations of medieval scholars, scribes, and copyists carefully transcribed the Roman classics by hand into Blackletter manuscripts. When Guttenberg carved the font for his 42-line Bible (an original copy of which I saw last year at the Huntington) he chose Textualis as the most appropriate for the printed word of God.
I find Blackletter fonts to be extremely beautiful (although I am disquieted by how quickly they edge towards illegibility). Throughout this short article I have not attempted to provide any sort of true overview of the endless variety of Gothic fonts, but I have attempted to include an overview of these extremely gorgeous alphabets.
There is one addendum to all of this. Nobody seems able to stop calling things “Gothic” and of course contemporary typography designers were no exception. Your word processing program probably has a variety of modern sans-serif typefaces named “something-something Gothic” (“Frankln Gothic being especially popular). These scripts have nothing to do with Gothic Blackletters but instead are a throwback to true classical Roman and Etruscan letters. Unfortunately American publishers and designers called the new fonts “Gothic “since that was their term for German alphabets (and it was 19th century German designers who first introduced some of these letters).
Saint Patrick’s Day spirit is beginning to pervade the land and the mind turns to all things Hibernian. Last week, Ferrebeekeeper investigated Leprechaun tattoos and, though visually interesting, that subject quickly turned dark and scary. This week, we plunge into the green forests of ancient Celtic Ireland to pursue the roots of Ogham, the mysterious tree alphabet of the Druids. Get out your golden sickles and put on your mistletoe haloes, the nature and origin of Ogham are shadowed by primeval mystery and this whole journey could easily veer off into the fantastic realms of pre-Christian myth.
To begin with the basics, Ogham was a runic alphabet from early medieval times which was in use throughout the lands ringing the Irish Sea, but which seems to have been most prevalent in Munster (Southern Ireland). Ancient objects inscribed in Ogham are most commonly found in Kerry, Cork, and Waterford, but are also known in Wales, Scotland, the Orkney Isles, the Isle of Man, and the Devon coast. Stone monuments inscribed in Ogham are usually written in Old Irish or an unknown Brythonic tongue—probably Pictish. The alphabet seems to have been primarily used from the 4th century AD to the 8th century AD (although correct dates are a subject of contention).
There are many historical theories explaining the origin of Ogham, but none are conclusive. Some scholars hold that the script originated during the Roman conquest of Britain as a sort of non-Roman code language used between Celtic people. Others assert that the language grew up as a means for denoting Celtic sounds—which the Roman alphabet is not well suited for—and became more complex and complete only as Christian scholars set up communities in Ireland. Wilder theories involve ancient primitive peoples as diverse as Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, the lost tribes of Israel, and the mysterious Sea People who destroyed Minoan palace civilization in the Mediterranean (please, please don’t tell my Irish history professor that I let you know about any of these hare-brained ideas). My favorite mythical (as in “not-real”) story of the origin of Ogham involves the legendary Scythian king, Fenius Farsa, who invented the Gaelic language and then crafted Ogham out of scraps recovered from the fallen Tower of Babel (there’s more than a soupçon of world-famous Irish blarney in this folktale).
Whatever the actual origins of Ogham were, a large number of inscribed stones have been found in what were once Celtic lands. Most of these were territorial markers and memorials—the oldest of which come from Ireland (although it is believed there was a heritage of inscribing the lines on sticks and bark which predated stone inscriptions). Some scholars believe the Welsh, Manx, Scotish, British, and Orkadian Ogham stones date from Post-Roman Irish incursion/invasions. Ancient tradition assigns the names of trees or shrubs to each of the letters of Ogham (although such a naming convention may only date from the tenth century). A comprehensive glossary of letter names can be found here along with a translation of an ascetic Ogham joke (of sorts).
This blog has often referenced the heroic deeds of Hercules, particularly since the demigod single-handedly killed a shocking number of the titanic monsters born of Echidna (not to mention the fact that he allegedly knew something of Echidna herself). Yet one of Hercules greatest deeds gets mentioned least often–even though it might have been the most remarkable. Additionally, according to myth, this prodigious feat was critical to the founding of the Olympic Games! With the summer Olympics coming up later this year in London, it is time to tell the amazing (and disgusting) tale.
In order to atone for murdering his family while under a divine curse, Hercules was sentenced to complete a list of mighty labors. Eurystheus, the sniveling king who chose the tasks, selected deeds presumed to be impossible (and fatal)–but Hercules completed the first four with ease. Eurystheus therefore decided to think of something demeaning and disgusting for Hercules’ fifth task. Augeas, king of Elis, had the greatest herds and flocks of livestock in all of Greece. By day his many horses, cows, goats, pigs, and sheep would graze and forage. At night herdsmen would round up the animals and return them to Augeas’ immense stables. All of these animals left quite a mess behind them and the stables had never been cleaned. Eurystheus decided that mucking out endless tons of dung would win no glory for Hercules. The petty king demanded that Hercules accomplish the task within a year–an impossibly short time for the horrible chore.
Hercules however had a plan. He presented himself to King Augeas and promised to clean the stables within a single day–provided the King would recompense him with one tenth of his livestock. Augeas laughingly acceded to the crazy offer knowing that no man could clean the stables in years. Hercules however was not merely a man. He punched giant holes in opposite walls of the stables and then diverted a mighty river through the breach. The ordure was rinsed from the stables in less than a day.
King Augeas was not rich because of his generosity or fairness. He proclaimed that the river had done the work and denied payment to Hercules. When Hercules returned to Eurystheus, the latter decreed that the labors were not meant for profit and Hercules would not receive credit for cleaning the Augean stables (there is probably a lesson about dealing with powerful people in there). The heroic labor was a wash–literally and figuratively. Hercules kept the incident in the back of his head though as he slogged his way to the edge of the Earth and down into the underworld. When the twelve labors were complete he returned to Augeas’ kingdom to make war on the greedy king. Hercules first killed Augeas’s twin nephews, Cteatus and Eurytus, demigods born of Molione (Augeas’ sister) and Poseidon. He dragged the warrior twins from a chariot and smashed them to death. Then Hercules’ soldiers (the Tirtynthians) sacked Augeas’s city and put the inhabitants to death. Finally Hercules ripped Augeas to pieces (there is probably another lesson about dealing with powerful people in that grim postscript).
To celebrate the victory and the completion of his labors, Hercules instituted a peaceful athletic contest which grew into the Olympic games (although some classical sources state the Olympics were started by Zeus after his victory over the titan Cronus). Irrespective, it is worth relating the story whenever the Olympics roll around (especially if you have already grown tired of the stupid London Olympics mascots). I also find myself envious of Hercules’ easy ability to clean up messes whenever I find myself facing a daunting pile of…tasks.
Anyway as a bonus for those who are inclined to literature, here is a section of Ode X of the ancient Greek poet Pindar’s Olympic Odes. Pindar here describes Hercule’s violent war on Augeas (the remainder of the ode can be read here).
Conquests by toil unearn’d to few belong:
Action’s the sovereign good, the light of life.
But me Jove’s Hallow’d Rites the athletic strife
And matchless Games in solemn song
Bid blazon; which the potent Hercules
Stablish’d by Pelops’ ancient tomb;
What time the godlike Cteatus to his doom
He sent, though sprung from him that rules the seas,
Him with bold Eurytus, the largess due
Thus from reluctant Augeas to compel.
Them on their journey in Cleones’s dell
Th’avenging chief from ambush slew.
Just retribution! His Tirtynthian host,
Surprised in Elis’ close defiles,
Molione’s o’erwheening sons by wiles
Had crush’d; and all of his choicest chiefs were lost.
That guest-beguiling king the wrath of Heaven
Soon reach’d. He saw the sceptre of his sway,
To sword and flame his wealth and country given,
Saw his Epeian kingdom pass away,
Sunk in Destruction’s gulf! ‘Tis hard indeed
The conflict with a mightier foe to close;
And wit forsakes whom Fate hath doom’d to bleed.
Himself a captive thus, the last of those
Whose loyalty his fault and fortune shared,
‘Scaped not the dire revenge Herculean rage prepared.
In Norse mythology, the world is ruled by glorious glowing gods, the Aesir, who are the magnificent (yet all-too-human) protagonists of Viking cosmology. Arrayed against the Aesir are a wide range of antagonists. Some of these enemies are vast beyond reckoning like the mighty Midregard serpent, which rings the oceans, or Níðhöggr, the giant snake that chews the world tree. Others are largely unknown–like the dark elves of Svartálfaheim (the hidden realm) or the fire beings of molten Muspellheim. However, by far the most common antagonists in Norse mythology are the jǫtnar–the frost giants. The giants (also known as trolls) are portrayed as huge powerful ice-beings whose behavior is even more unruly than that of the gods: symbolically they are the embodiments of chaos and nature. In fact the first living being in the Norse pantheon was a titanic progenitor jötunn named Ymir. He was killed and dismembered by the Aesir, who then made the world from his body (which suggests that the jǫtnar may harbor a legitimate grudge against the Aesir).
Although the primeval frost-giants are usually portrayed as the enemies of the gods, the relationship between the groups is actually more complicated. many Aesir gods have jǫtnar spouses or lovers. Although the frost giants show up from time to time in Valhalla to work mischief, their real home is Jotunheim, a wilderness land of ice, mountains, and frozen firs with no human population (much like contemporary Canada). Some giants are portrayed as monsters with multiple heads, animal features, or grotesque traits but others were comely.
The list of jotnar who featured in important myths is numerous. Loki the trickster deity who sometimes saved the gods and other times worked to destroy them was a jötunn as was his daughter Hel, ruler of the land of the dead. Other notable frost giants include Fornjot the Destroyer (a storm giant who fathered the wind), Skrymir, the master of illusions, and Hrungnir–a stone-headed giant of matchless strength. Although many of these giants were horrible and feature in stories of epic battle, other giants were more fair and took part in more subtle contests.
The jötunn Gunnlöð was said to be exquisitely beautiful. Gunnlöð guarded the mead of poetry, which was made from the fermented blood of Kvasir, god of wisdom. According to the Prose Edda, poetry is a gift from Odin who seduced Gunnlöð and bargained three nights of passion for three sips of the mead. The king of the gods tricked her– he took the poetry and gave it to humankind but broke his promise and left Gunnlöð unfulfilled. Other poets however tell the story differently and suggest that Odin fell in love with Gunnlöð and the two were happy to drink and sleep together. Finally, it has been hinted that Gunnlöð tricked Odin and took what she wanted of his godhood in exchange for fake mead and false poetry. The true mead of verse–the blood of Kvasir himself–never made it to earth. All poetry we have is sour and ersatz. Yet, strangely, most bards and epic poets are quiet concerning that last interpretation…
Like the Arctic landscape, Inuit mythology is austere, cruel, strange, and beautiful. Just as the dialects of the Inuit language differ based on geography, so too many of the sacred stories of the Inuit share the same elements yet also vary from one region to the next. One such story is the myth of Sedna—the goddess of marine mammals, the frozen depths of the sea, and of the spirit’s realm below. There are many versions of the tale. Here is my favorite.
Sedna was a beautiful giantess. Her great size was a hardship for her father, who had to spend most of his time hunting in order to feed himself and his daughter. However, because she was so lovely, she had many suitors. Sedna was proud of her looks and her strength, so she rejected every suitor as unworthy of her.
One day a well-dressed stranger came to visit Sedna’s father. Though the visitor’s clothes were opulent and his language was cultured, he kept his hood pulled down so that his face remained in darkness. The stranger talked of his great wealth and the life of ease which Sedna would enjoy if she were his wife. Then he appealed to the father’s greed with gifts of fish, animal skins, and precious materials. Since hunting was bad and his stores were running out, Sedna’s father felt he had little choice but to comply–so he drugged his daughter and presented her to the stranger. As soon as she was loaded on his kayak the elegant stranger paddled off into the frozen ocean with unnatural speed.
When Sedna came around to consciousness, she was in a great nest on top of a cliff. The only furnishings were dark feathers, fish bones, and a few clumps of skin and fur. The elegant stranger cackled and threw back his hood. He was none other than Raven, the capricious trickster deity who had arrived second in the world, soon after the creator had shaped it. Raven kept his beautiful stolen wife trapped in his nest and he fed her on fish (although she kept her ears open and listened to his magic words).
In the mean time, Sedna’s father became unhappy with the bargain he had struck. He set out on his kayak to find his daughter and rescue her from the mysterious suitor. Night and day he paddled, till finally he heard her cries for help intermingled with the howling winds.
Sedna’s father arrived while raven was off pursuing his other ventures, and Sedna quickly climbed down to his kayak so they could start back to the mainland. They paddled hard, but before they could reach land, Sedna spotted a distant pair of black wings in the sky. Raven had returned home to his nest and found his bride was missing. In anger at being cheated, Raven called out magic words of anger to the sea spirits. The winds rose to a gale and huge waves pounded the kayak.
Lost in terror, Sedna’s father cast his daughter into the ocean to placate Raven and the water spirits. Despite the storm and her father’s imprecations, she clung to the gunwale of the kayak. Then, in fury, her father pulled out his flint knife and hacked at her fingers. Sedna’s first finger came off and, amidst blood and saltwater, was transformed into narwhals and belugas. Her father hacked off her second finger which transformed into fur seals and ringed seals. Finally the knife cut through her third finger which transformed into the great walruses. Unable to grip the kayak with her maimed hand, Sedna fell into the sea. Rather than submit to her raven husband or her greedy father, she let herself sink beneath the waves down to the icy bottom of the ocean.
Beneath the waves she found Adlivun, the Inuit underworld where spirits are purified before they wander on to other worlds. With the help of her powerful new children she made herself ruler there. Her legs gradually changed into a mighty tail. Her humankind ebbed from her and was replaced by divine power and wrath. Sedna is still worshiped as the underworld god by Inuit peoples. She hates hunters both because of the wrongs she suffered at the hands of her father and because they continue to kill so many of her children—the seals, whales, and walruses. From time to time she raises a terrible storm to drown seafarers, or she gathers together all of the marine mammals within her long beautiful hair where the hunters can never find them. It is at such times that the shaman must travel down into Adlivun to beg with her and to praise her beauty and strength. Only then will she reluctantly let the storms abate and allow all of the marine mammals to go back to the coasts–where they are again in danger from Inuit spears.
Philoctetes is one of the great missing heroes of the classical world. Not only was there was an entire epic poem from the Homeric era about the quest to find him Aeschylus and Euripides are both known to have written entire plays about him, and the great Sophocles wrote two. Only one of the plays by Sophocles now survives.
Philoctetes was a great archer and a “companion” of Heracles. When through the treachery of Nessus, Heracles was poisoned with blood of the hydra, only Philoctetes has the courage to light his funeral pyre. This earned him tremendous esteem from the dying hero, who presented Philoctetes with his bow and poisoned arrows.
Philoctetes unsuccessfully sought the hand of Helen of Troy which meant that he was “called up” by Menelaus to win her back from Paris after she was abducted. It would seem Philoctetes also made some powerful enemies during his time with Heracles because as he hastened to the war he was stung by a poison snake while on the Island of Chryse. The wound suppurated and produced such a foul odor that Odysseus tricked the unhappy archer into being left behind in agony.
This proved to be a mistake. After years of war, an oracle (being tortured by the Greeks) revealed that the Greeks could not prevail in the Trojan War without the bow of Heracles. Odysseus and a group of soldiers including the hero Diomedes were dispatched to find the weapon. In doing so they found the still injured (still reeking) Philoctetes, and, only through intervention from the deified Heracles, were the angry group of men able to come to a satisfactory resolution.
For some reason, Philoctetes remained a favorite subject of painters for a long time. Something about the beautiful warrior’s agony, and the dramatic wound (to say nothing of the divinely sent snake which alternately came from Apollo, Hera, or the nymph Chryse) has kept artists from different eras returning to the story—even if the poetry, plays, and epics which truly explain the drama have vanished.
Asphodels are a genus (Asphodelus) of small to mid-size herbaceous perennial flowers. Originally native to southern and central Europe, the flowers now grow in other temperate parts of the world thanks to flower gardeners who planted them for their white to off-white to yellow flowers and their eerie grayish leaves. These leaves have long been used to wrap burrata, a fresh Italian cheese made of cow’s milk, rennet and cream—when the asphodel leaves dried out the cheese was known to be past its prime. The bulblike roots of asphodel are edible and were eaten by the poor during classical antiquity and the middle ages until the potato was introduced to Europe and supplanted asphodel completely.
This somewhat pedestrian wildflower is one of the most famous plants connected to the Greco-Roman underworld. Homer is the first poet (whose works still survive) to give a lengthy description of the realm of Hades and the asphodel is mentioned growing everwhere in a great field in the middle of the underworld. To quote the University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology website:
Largely a grey and shadowy place, the Underworld was divided into three parts. Most souls went to the “Plains of Asphodel,” an endless stretch of twilit fields covered with grey and ghostly asphodel flowers, which the dead ate. A very few chosen by the gods spent their afterlife in the “Fields of Elysium,” a happier place of breezy meadows. But if the deceased had committed a crime against society, his/her soul went to Tartarus to be punished by the vengeful Furies until his debt to society was paid, whereupon he/she was released to the Plains of Asphodel…. Souls of the dead were only a pale reflection of their former personality, often portrayed as twittering, bat-like ghosts, physically diaphanous and insubstantial.
The gray and ghostlike nature of the asphodel plant and its wistful off-white flower may have suggested something funereal to the ancient Greeks. Or possibly the plant’s connection with the afterlife was a hand-me-down from an earlier culture. In fact here is a learned and comprehensive scholarly essay which posits that the asphodel had pre-Greek religious significance.
Whatever its history, the Greeks also regarded the plant as sacred to Persephone/Proserpine, who is frequently portrayed wearing it or picking it, as well as to other chthonic deities. Greeks and Romans planted asphodel on tombs both for its melancholy beauty and as a sort of food offering to the dead. So the cemeteries of classical antiquity were lugubrious but pretty places filled with ghostly flowers.
In western literature and art asphodel remains a symbol of mourning, death, and loss. William Carlos Williams made the plant the central focus of his poem “Asphodel, the Greeny Flower” which agonizes over the ambiguities of the next world (which seems to be a land of oblivion) juxtaposed with the burning regrets of this life. Here is a poignant fragment:
Of asphodel, that greeny flower, like a buttercup upon its branching stem- save that it's green and wooden- I come, my sweet, to sing to you. We lived long together a life filled, if you will, with flowers. So that I was cheered when I came first to know that there were flowers also in hell. Today I'm filled with the fading memory of those flowers that we both loved, even to this poor colorless thing- I saw it when I was a child- little prized among the living but the dead see, asking among themselves: What do I remember that was shaped as this thing is shaped? while our eyes fill with tears. Of love, abiding love it will be telling though too weak a wash of crimson colors it to make it wholly credible. There is something something urgent I have to say to you and you alone but it must wait while I drink in the joy of your approach, perhaps for the last time.
The quince (Cydonia oblonga) is a flowering tree of the rose family which bears an edible golden fruit. Quinces are rare in America due to their susceptibility to fireblight disease (a bacterial infection caused by Erwinia amylovora). Because the fruit are unusual here and because, without cooking or other treatment, they are very sour and bitter, quinces are regarded as a sort of poor relation to apples and pears (both of which are indeed very close relations within the rose family), but probably it should be the other way around. Not only does the quince occupy an exalted place in literature and the arts, but the tree is believed to hold a treasure trove of medically useful compounds in its leaves, bark, and fruit.
Quince trees are small trees which, in spring, bear many large single blossoms of bright pink. The flowers are hermaphrodites, able to fertilize themselves. When fertilized the blossoms develop into chartreuse-colored pubescent fruit which then further ripen into a bright golden yellow in autumn (when also the tiny fuzzy hairs fall off). The knobbly pear-like fruit are exceptionally tart but become sweet if treated with salt, bletted (left on the tree to decompose slightly), or cooked. The quince is exceptional for baking, for making sweet wines and liquors, and for jams and sauces. Additionally quinces have long been a feature of traditional medicine and a host of recent studiessuggest that different parts of the plant might have a number of therapeutic properties including lipid lowering effects, antidiabetic activity, and antiallergic properties among others (in addition to being a healthy nutrition and fiber source).
The quince originated in the Caucasus region between the Caspian and the Black Sea (a region where wild quince trees can still be found). Cultivation of the little tree began in Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. If that sounds like a familiar location, it should, for it was there that human hands created the first cities. From the cradle of civilization, the quince spread to the Levant and the Mediterranean long before the apple or the pear. For this reason the fruit is a favorite candidate (along with the fig) as the forbidden fruit of Genesis. Additionally, anytime an apple appears in ancient Greek literature or myth, it can reasonably be assumed to be a quince–which means the infamous golden apple of Eriswhich caused the Trojan War was actually a golden quince. Indeed quinces are gold colored and have been a traditional feature of classical Greek nuptial ceremonies since records exist. The quince lingered on as a symbol of Aphrodite and is one of the trees sacred to the love goddess. A number of fertility myths and superstitions remain attached to the quince in the Balkans and in Turkey.
Beyond the Mediterranean world, the quince has an active artistic life as well. The knobby glowing fruits have been a source of inspiration to artists for a long time, but perhaps they are even more celebrated in literature. Peter Quince is the rustic craftsman and playwright from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Wallace Stevens later borrowed the character to narrate Peter Quince at the Clavier, an examination of desire, music, and thought. Tennyson, Browning, and Keats all alluded to the fruit or flowers of the quince which feature frequently in Victorian poesy. In fact The golden fruits are the second fruit mentioned in the poem The Goblin Market (which must surely rank as the greatest fruit-themed poem ever written). Finally, the fruit features prominently in The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, a work of literature familiar to everyone which surely deserves mention here, involving as it does farm animals, mammals, a turkey, and the moon which was (and remains) in outer space.
‘Dear pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?’ Said the Piggy, ‘I will.’
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
The coral reef is a super-competitive ecosystem where every surface hides a hidden mouth, a poison dart, or a camouflaged hunter. However the reef is also a place rich in resources where it is possible to make a good living. It is sort of the New York City of ocean habitats. Some animals have been part of reef-like ecosystems for a tremendously long time, but one of my favorite reef animals, the banded sea snake or yellow-lipped sea krait (Laticauda colubrina) is a latecomer. Like the coral reef catfish (which descended from freshwater river fish ancestors but evolved into a saltwater coral reef dweller), the krait has put its land-dwelling roots behind it and moved out into the ocean—although it remains an air-breather like all snakes and it must also come ashore to drink freshwater since it has not yet evolved the super kidneys necessary for dealing with saltwater. Yellow-lipped sea kraits are widespread throughout the Indo-Pacific Ocean. They grow up to 2.2 meters (6 and a half feet long).
An accomplished hunter, the banded sea snake lives on cuttlefish, squid, fish, fish eggs, and small arthropods which throng the shallow reef. The krait’s venom is among the most poisonous on earth, but fortunately the creatures have easy going dispositions (and small fangs) and they rarely bite humans. Their closest relatives among the land snakes are the cobras.
Yellow-lipped sea kraits shed their skin far more often than do land snakes in order to protect themselves from parasites: sometimes they change skins as often as every fortnight. Kraits are viviparous and do not bear eggs but rather give birth to completely autonomous baby snakes which are born with their parents’ swimming and hunting ability. The snakes are such gifted swimmers thanks not just too their sinuous bodies but also to laterally compressed tails which they use like paddles to propel themselves through the water. Another feature which the kraits possess to deal with their watery habitat is nostrils which clamp shut
The kraits are extremely beautiful: their bodies are banded with black and pale blue rings. They have a balck head with a yellow snout. Their beauty gives them a special place in art and literature. I like to imagine that the yellow-lipped krait was one of the mysterious beautiful “water-snakes” who caused the ancient mariners unconscious epiphany which broke the curse he labored under and marked the climax of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (a profoundly beautiful miniature epic about the importance of treating animals kindly):
Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.
Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.
…they say that Bacchus discovered honey.
He was travelling from sandy Hebrus, accompanied
By Satyrs, (my tale contains a not-unpleasant jest)
And he’d come to Mount Rhodope, and flowering Pangaeus:
With the cymbals clashing in his companions’ hands.
Behold unknown winged things gather to the jangling,
Bees, that follow after the echoing bronze.
Liber gathered the swarm and shut it in a hollow tree,
And was rewarded with the prize of discovering honey.
Once the Satyrs, and old bald-headed Silenus, had tasted it,
They searched for the yellow combs in every tree.
(Excerpt from “The Fasti” by Publius Ovidius Naso, known as Ovid)
As you have probably apprehended, there is a theme to my posts this week about the ambiguous line between the wild and the domestic–a tension which forever pulses within all human thought and endeavor. Humans are animals. We came from nature and can never ever leave it. We continuously long for the natural world in our aesthetic and moral tastes—our very idea of paradise is a garden of plants and animals. Yet the social and technological forms humans create often seem entirely at odds with the natural world. Our fishing fleets destroy the life within the oceans as they provide us with the wild fish we long for. Our cities poison and strangle the beautiful estuaries where we build them. As our hands reach toward the divine and the celestial, our feet break apart the earth we sprang from.
I’ll write further about that point (indeed I don’t believe I have ever left off examining it), but for right now I would like to discuss The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus, a painting which symbolically explores the juxtaposition between wild and domestic. The work was created by that consummate oddball visionary, Piero de Cosimo, who disliked wielding fire and refused to clip the trees in his orchard because he felt that doing so contravened the will of nature. Vasari relates that de Cosimo would sometimes abandon himself to the wilderness and was more beast than man (also the artist seems to have suffered from emotional illness). Yet, within this painting de Cosimo presents that moment when bees were first gathered from the wild and kept for the purpose of honey production. It was a step away from an imagined era of wildness towards an agricultural era when sweetness and plenty became available to all.
In The Discovery of Honey, a group of satyrs have found a hive of bees swarming within a strangely human stump. Together with Silenus, a bumptious fertility god, they are beating eccentric implements to gather the swarm so it can be collected. On the right side of the painting Bacchus and his coterie stand amidst forests and ravines beneath a glowering monadnock. A satyr carries a woman away into the wild while savage beast-men tear apart a carcass and climb off into the trees. On the left side of the painting, people and fauns bearing iron and pottery march towards the stump from a surprisingly sophisticated town with an elegant campanile. In the center the bees swarm into a knot as a human-hybrid child pops out of the yonic rift within the torso shaped stump.
What is going on here? This painting has remained an enigma to scholars since its creation. Many critics have opined that the right side of the work represents wilderness and the works of the gods while the right side represents society and the works of humans. Wilderness and civilization meet at the point where the bees are captured and honey is discovered. This interpretation is undercut by the half-human status of the characters on both sides. Another interpretation holds that the painting represents the symbolic discovery of fertility—metaphorically represented by honey. The painting’s composition certainly supports this concept: the nursing faun, the baby satyr in the center of the painting, and the satyr spontaneously offering onions (a fertility offering of Greco-Roman society) are all fertility symbols, as our numerous other more overt figures within the painting!
Both of those interpretations are right, but there is more to the painting than that. The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus represents de Cosimo’s homage to the animal spirit within humankind. Artists paint themselves–and most of the characters in this work are part animal! Such is our dichotomy. We are animals exploiting other animals and yet we have too a touch of the divine–Bacchus and the wild Arcadian gods are taking part. The urge to capture and recreate wild organisms is part of human nature. We may have domesticated bees (along with grains, cattle, turkeys, pistachios, and catfish) but we ourselves are not fully domesticated. The church, the nobles, the city—they never fully civilized Piero de Cosimo, crazy Renaissance artist, who was at his best—his most divine–when living as a beast. As you watch the diners walking through a strip mall eating honey-glazed turkey sandwiches it may be hard to recognize the same faun-like aspect to them, but look closely in a mirror and you will see another wild beast-person–undomesticated, troubled, rudely great…