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Paolo Porpora (1617–1673) was a Neapolitan painter during the Late Baroque. He was apparently influenced by Dutch still life paintings and his works share the precision, control, and aesthetic elements of paintings by Rachel Ruysch or Balthasar van der Ast. Yet Porpora did not paint still life paintings. His works are miniature nature tableaus which have the dark drama of Baroque art written small in the lives of small animals. In Still Life with a Snake, Frogs and a Tortoise, the various reptiles and amphibians square off in a little landscape of fungi and flowers. The small world has the menace and violence of a Webster play as the cold blooded creatures stare beadily at each other attempting to work out who will eat whom.
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.
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.
Snakes might not be out there penning beautiful odes or solving quadratic equations (although they have the intelligence necessary to hunt clever birds and mammals) however the reptiles are distinguished by their amazing sensory abilities. Like the extraordinary siluriformes (the catfish, which are living tongues that apprehend the world in astonishing ways), certain snakes have abilities to perceive things which other animals simply cannot detect.
Snakes double the primary senses of hearing, smelling, and sight—which means that some snakes effectively have eight or more senses. Let’s go through these senses individually.
Hearing: Although the reptiles lack external ears, they have sensitive inner ears which allow them to hear airborne vibrations. This however is only one mechanism of hearing for snakes: the animals have jaws linked to their inner ears which allow them to hear extremely faint vibrations. Since most serpents have lower jawbones which are separated into two distinct bones, the animals are extremely adept at locating the source of a sound from the different time/frequency that vibrations strike the different bones. This means they can hear the source of sound with pinpoint accuracy. These hearing abilities give some snakes 9especially desert snakes) the ability to hunt by sound in absolute darkness.
Smell/taste: Snakes breathe through two nostrils, but unlike mammals their “noses” have little to do with their sense of smell. To quote an article involving snake senses from reptilis.net:
…snakes have gone a different route, one taken by their lepidosaurian relatives a long time ago. Instead of using only their nose, snakes have adapted their tongue and sense of taste to capturing scent particles in the air and transforming it into olfactory information.
Better yet, because snakes “smell” by “tasting” the air with their tongues, and because those tongues are typically forked, they also have incredible directional smelling. Snakes effectively smell in stereo.
So snakes are capable of amazing abilities to taste/smell their environment and they have directional smell which almost acts like hearing or sight in locating prey or mates.
Sight: Most snakes have conventional binocular optical abilities on par with other vertebrates (although tree snakes are known to have particularly fine vision) however many groups of snakes (particularly the python and viper families) possess astonishing heat-sensing pit organs that can detect infrared light. For their size, the sense organs are more heat sensitive than anything humans have created with technology.
Touch: Snakes have an amazingly sophisticated sense of touch (as one would might imagine for an animal which lives on its belly). Thanks to their sense of touch they can respond immediately to stimuli from their environment and they can feel the slightest changes in their habitat. Additionally touch is important for snakes socially and is a primary means of communication between snakes of the same species.
As with sharks, cats, and owls, snakes have used their astonishing senses to become formidable predators. Snakes are widespread in all of the continents other than Antarctica and they dwell in all habitats other than permanently cold ones and deep ocean (well, plus a couple of weird islands). This success is a result of their sharp and numerous senses.
Because of the incongruity between lunar and solar calendars (and thanks to the whims of the 12 year Chinese horoscope cycle) Valentine’s Day has ended up in the middle of Ferrebeekeeper’s Snake Week. At first I thought that this was a problem–since there were no snake theme valentines anywhere to be found online. I did not want to break out the magic markers and glitter to create my own valentine to serpents because it has been a busy week (and what would I do with a bunch of snake valentines? What if someone saw a grown-up making such things?). Fortunately I found that there is a medium where snakes and hearts frequently intermingle. Even better many of the designs are extremely gothic and spiky and scary.
Like evil leprechaun tattoos, snake/heart body art is very common. In fact I had some trouble finding catfish tattoos and the internet even ran short of evil leprechaun ink but I had no trouble finding snake/heart tattoos! Apparently an immense number of people have snake tattoos of all sorts. I wonder why serpents are so universally appealing as permanent body art? Do people choose snakes for tattoos because the legless reptiles are ancient symbols of knowledge, wisdom, and fertility, or is wearing a snake an announcement of edginess, moral ambiguity, and toughness? The snake inside the heart seems like it has a double meaning: not only is it an obvious metaphor for corrupted or dangerous love but it provides an outright fertility image (especially since the traditional cardioid-shaped valentine heart look less like an actual heart and more like a shapely asp).
Whatever the meaning these snake/heart tattoos are extremely impressive. Thanks to the brave souls who wear them. Also a very happy valentine’s day to all my readers: I could hiss you all…er kiss you all!
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).
The rod of Asclepius—a serpent coiled around a staff–is a symbol from ancient Greek mythology which represents the physician’s art. Asclepius was a demigod who surpassed all other gods and mortals at the practice of medicine. Because his skills blurred the distinction between mortality and godhood, Asclepius was destroyed by Zeus (an exciting & troubling story which you can find here).
There are several proposed reasons that a staff wrapped by a snake is the symbol of the god of medicine. In some myths, Asclepius received his medical skills from the whispering of serpents (who knew the secrets of healing and revitalization because of their ability to shed their skin and emerge bigger and healthier). Some classicists believe the snake represents the duality of medicine—which can heal or harm depending on the dosage and the circumstance. Yet others see the serpent as an auger from the gods. Whatever the case, the rod of Asclepius is a lovely and distinctive symbol of medicine and has been since ancient times. Temples to Asclepius were constructed across the Greco-Roman world and served as hospitals of a sort. The serpent-twined rod of the great doctor was displayed at these institutions and became a symbol for western doctors who followed.
However there is a painfully apt misunderstanding between the rod of Asclepius and a similar symbol.
Greek mythology featured a separate and entirely distinct symbolic rod wrapped with snakes, the caduceus—which has two snakes and is winged. The caduceus was carried by Hermes/Mercury, the god of merchants, thieves, messengers, and tricksters. Hermes used the rod to beguile mortals or to touch the eyes of the dead and lead them to the underworld.
In the United States the two rods have become confused because of a military mix-up in the early twentieth century (when a stubborn medical officer refused to listen to his subordinates and ordered the caduceus to be adopted as the symbol of the U.S. Medical Corps). Since then the caduceus has been extensively used by healthcare organizations in the United States and has come to replace the staff of Asclepius in the majority of uses. Commercial and for-profit medical organizations are particularly inclined to use the caduceus instead of the rod of Asclepius as the former is more visually arresting (although academic and professional medical organizations tend to use the staff of Asclepius).
To recap: the caduceus, which symbolizes profit-seeking, theft, and death, has replaced the staff of Asclepius, an ancient symbol of healing, throughout the United States. Of course it is up to the reader to decide whether this is a painful misunderstanding, or a wholly appropriate representation of the actual nature of the broken American healthcare system. HMOs, insurance companies, and hospitals, however have started to take note and are moving towards crosses and random computer generated bric-brac for their logos, leaving both ancient symbols behind.
We’ll begin our week of serpents with a strange and magnificent-looking viper from the jungles and rainforests of Central Africa. Atheris hispida is also known as the rough-scaled bush viper or the spiny bush viper because of its most unusual physical characteristic—the pointed curving scales which give it a distinctive bristling “punk-rock” appearance. Atheris hispida is a member of the viper family and is thus related to rattlesnakes, adders, as well as numerous tropical vipers in Asia. The species is a strong climber and is often found basking on trees, flowers, or vines. They are among the smallest vipers: the male measures only 73 cm in length (and is longer than the female). Mostly nocturnal, they hunt the trees and rainforest brush for tree-frogs and lizards.
As far as I can tell, there are no effective anti-venoms for the furtive snakes (which range from the Congo west into Kenya and down into Uganda) so despite their hairy appearance and big anime eyes you may not want to pet them!
I’m extremely excited that Chinese New Year is here at last! A dozen times I have started to blog about Chinese snake paintings and stopped because I was waiting for the year of the snake—but that finally arrives on Sunday. To celebrate the advent of year 4710—the year of the water snake–next week is devoted to snakes and serpents of all kind (a longstanding favorite topic here at Ferrebeekeeper). Because they are one of the twelve zodiac animals, snakes have long been celebrated in Chinese art. Additionally their sinuous form adapts beautifully to Chinese-style brush and calligraphy work (as is evident in the art works below).
People born in snake years are said to be graceful and reserved. Although they are successful at romance and have an innate intelligence they are also reputed to be materialists with a dark mysterious side. The snake does not suffer the same stigma in China as in the West and the benevolent creator goddess Nuwa was a serpent goddess. Hopefully the year of the water snake will bring you every sort of happiness and success. Tune in next week as we break in the new year with a variety or remarkable snakes and snake-related topics!
The day has completely slipped away from me (as is the way of Mondays in January) but–even though I haven’t written a proper blog post–I wanted to share some photos of an extremely fancy tropical tree python with you. The green tree python (Morelia viridis) is found in southern Indonesia, New Guinea, and the Cape York Peninsula of Australia, all of which sound far preferable to the cold gray pall of Brooklyn. The snake has a long slender body which measures from 1.5 to 1.8 meters (about 5 to 6 feet) and has a pronounced head with a heavy square nose/muzzle.
The species is arborial and is notable for coiling up into a saddle position when sleeping or resting. Green tree pythons feed mostly on tree-dwelling mammals (which they catch by hanging their necks and heads into an S-shape and imitating vines) and smaller reptiles which live up in the rainforest. As with the green vine snake, the sinuous almost abstract beauty of the green tree python always makes me think of lush tropical forests on far-away continents and its exquisite green/yellow/chartreuse color reminds me of the beauty of nature.