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December 6th, was Krampusnacht, a holiday celebrated in Alpine regions of Germany and Austria. The festival’s roots stretch back into pre-Christian times when Germanic mountain folk paid homage to Krampus the child-stealing demon of winter darkness. Krampus was a hell-sent god with goat’s horns, coarse black fur, and a fanged maw. He would visit disobedient or inattentive children and beat them with a cruel flail before tearing them to bits with his claws (in fact “Krampus” means “claw” in old high German). The demon would then carry the dismembered bodies back to the underworld and devour the human flesh at his leisure.
This harsh myth imparted crucial lessons about the cruel Alpine environment—which would literally reward inattention and carelessness with a terrible death and a vanished corpse. However there were also merry elements of year-end saturnalia to the celebration: young men dressed up as Krampus and drank and played pranks while unmarried women would dress as Frau Perchta—a nature spirit and fertility goddess who could appear as a hirsute old beast-woman or as a gorgeous scantily clad maiden. Amidst the mummery, feasts were held and presents were given. Unsurprisingly, when Christianity came to Northern Europe, these pagan celebrations were incorporated into Christmastime festivities. Thus Saint Nicholas–originally a conservative Syrian bishop (who became a protector of unfortunate children after his death) obtained a devil-like alter-ego. This wasn’t even the end of the pagan metamorphosis of Santa. The orthodox churchman also acquired a team of flying reindeer, a tribe of subservient elves, and a magical wife as Christmas traditions moved northwards into Scandinavia and combined with the universe of Norse myth!
For a time the Krampus story traveled with Santa and became part of the Christmastime traditions of German immigrants to America. Christmas cards and holiday stories often featured Krampus and his evil pagan god features were even incorporated into the popular conception of Satan. However, as Christmas became more important to merchants and tradesmen, the darker aspects of the story were toned down. Additionally fascist regimes in Germany and Austria were hostile to Krampus traditions during the thirties (and the grim imagery was not wanted after the horrors of World War II when those regimes were gone). Lately though the figure has been making a comeback in Austria and Germany and even America seems to be experiencing a renewed interest in the fiend
I am writing about this because Krampus, the clawed god of winter death, is a perfect addition to this blog’s deities of the underworld category. However, I have a more personal (and twisted) Krampus tale to tell as well. As you may know I am a toymaker who crafts chimerical animal toys and writes how-to books on toy-making. Recently a friend of mine who is an art director asked if I could build some puppets for stop-motion animation. He asked for a traditional (not-entirely jolly) Santa and for two children with no facial features–the expressions would be digitally added later.
Imagine my surprise when it turned out that the puppets were for a dark Krampus segment on a celebrity chef’s Christmas special. Anthony Bourdain, celebrity personality, adventurer, and bon vivant wanted to do an animated segment about this murderous gothic god who is still a vestigial part of the holiday. The segment was supposed to go into the nationally broadcast “No Reservations” Christmas special alongside Christopher Walken and Norah Jones, but when network executives took a closer look at Krampus, child-dismembering Alpine demon, it was decided that he should remain a vestige. So much for my showbiz career (of creating an evil Santa puppet and two faceless victims)…. The stand-alone segment can still be seen by itself on Youtube (or below). Don’t worry though, this dark holiday fable has a happy ending—I still got paid!
This week’s theme on Ferrebeekeeper is “Flowers of the Underworld.” So far we have featured a ghostly-looking flower which is actually edible and a demonic looking flower which is actually medicinal—hardly plants from the depths of hell. Today therefore we are proceeding in a scarier direction and featuring a flower of delicate beauty…which is profoundly poisonous. Aconitum is a genus of about 300 flowers belonging to the buttercup family (a family of flowering plants, notable for the number of toxic plants therein, which has been extant since the Cretaceous). The aconites are hardy perennial flowers which grow throughout the Northern Hemisphere but largely prefer mountain meadows and rich cool forests. The plants have many common names which range from whimsical to hair-raising: “blue rocket”, “monkshood”, “wolfsbane”, “woman’s bane”, “devil’s helmet”, “mourning bride”, “Hecateis herba” (which means “the herb of Hecate”, to whom the aconites are sacred) and so on. All aconite plants are extremely toxic. You should not eat them, touch them, or even write about them without taking precautions. Seriously—Pliny the Elder (absurdly) wrote that the smell of aconite could kill a mouse from a substantial distance! When something is so toxic that it hoodwinked the greatest naturalist of the Roman era, you know it is really a fraught topic (although, frankly, Pliny made some other errors as well).
Aconite plants have dark green leaves in a spiral pattern and a radish-like root. In the wild they live in rich soils, preferring those which are moist but well drained, however they can be cultivated easily in a variety of locations. The real glories of aconites are their flowers, which are lovely but difficult to describe–the tall upright stems support numerous blossoms each of which has five sepals. The posterior sepal is in the shape of a cylindrical helmet or hood from classical antiquity (the source of many of the aconites’ common names). The most common aconite in Europe is the common monkshood (Aconitum napellus) which is known from its brilliant blue-purple flowers and from endless mystery novels, but other species look somewhat different. For example, the yellow wolfsbane (Aconitum anthora) lives in the Alps and bears pretty yellow blossoms.
Since I am an avid flower gardener and do not have children, dogs, or livestock, I decided to plant monkshood in my old garden. Unfortunately, for all of their reputed hardiness, the flowers were no match for the toxic soil and the dreadful machinations of the Norway maple. Perhaps their failure was a good thing. Because aconites are so toxic, I became prey to paranoid thoughts that agile children would somehow steal into my (walled) garden and eat the (unappealing tasting) plants.
My paranoia was not groundless–aconites contain virulent neurotoxins. Inchem.org describes the mechanism of aconite poisoning in the typically bland language of pharmacology stating, “Aconite alkaloids activate the sodium channel and have widespread effects on the excitable membranes of cardiac, neural and muscle tissue.” In translation this means that alkaloid compounds found in all parts of the plant (but particularly the root) are potent neurotoxins which disrupt neural and nerve-to-muscle signals and usually prove fatal by stopping the heart. Because it is so dangerous, aconite has a substantial place in history. Chinese soldiers used the poison for their arrows and Greeks poured it into water supplies as an early form of bio-warfare. The roots were most infamous as a gastronomically administered stealth poison. Emperor Claudius was probably killed by aconite poisoning, as too was Emperor John I Tzimisces. These emperors were joined over the years by numerous other victims from all walks of life. Aconite has also been used as a medicine (and still is part of Chinese traditional homeopathy), but since it is so easy to kill patients with a slight overdose, Western doctors abandoned compounds derived from the plant as soon as other subtler neurological drugs were found.
Aconite flowers have an equally dramatic place in myth and literature. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, aconite plants first came into the world when Hercules dragged Cerberus, the monstrous canine offspring of Echidna, up from the underworld into the world of life. The poison drool–or “lip-froth” as it is written in my translation–fell from the hellhound’s three gnashing mouths, landed on the ground in Scythia, and transformed into aconite flowers. Ovid recounts the tale as an aside while recounting how the poison was a particular favorite of Medea (the citation is Ovid, Metamorphoses 7. 412 if you want to read the dramatic passage for yourself).
It was not just classical poets who wrote of the plant. In Ulysses, Bloom’s father died from a (deliberate?) overdose of aconite which he was self-administering as a homeopathic remedy for neuralsia/depression. Presumably the character failed to heed the counsel of Keats, who prominently alluded to aconite in the first stanza of his Ode on Melacholy which, in the second stanza, counsels the reader how to avoid despair through appreciation of the natural world, study of classical values, and delight in love. On the other hand, the third and last stanza of the poem seems to indicate that sadness is a requisite part of mortality which allows us to savor beauty, love, and joy—indeed by counter-example melancholy guides us towards these transcendent (but transient) feelings. Keat’s complex message steps far beyond thoughts of flowers and the underworld so I will leave you to read the entire poem on your own. Here, however is the first stanza, entreating you away from aconite (and from other forms of self harm). It goes without saying, gentle reader, that I am entirely of a mind with Keats:
NO, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kist
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.
Hooray! This week Ferrebeekeeeper officially celebrates small herbivorous ground mammals! There are several reasons for this adorable theme, but chief among them are the week’s two prominent holidays: 1) Groundhog Day is on February 2nd, 2011; and 2) the first day of the Chinese year of the rabbit takes place on February 3rd, 2011. Also I hope an endearing parade of little bewhiskered faces will help you forget your cabin fever and stay warm as this oppressive winter rages on.
Since humankind does not hibernate, I thought I would start the week with a non-hibernating lagomorph which, though not actually a farmer, is renowned for its haymaking abilities. This animal, the pika, is a close cousin to the rabbit (which will itself be amply celebrated on Thursday. Additionally, a world famous cartoon character, the Pikachu, may or may not be a pika.
Pikas are small densely furred animals of the family Ochotonidae which is part of the lagomorph order. Lagomorphs most likely split from rodentlike forbears as far back as the Cretaceous–so the lepus and pikas both have an ancient heritage. Pikas are generally diurnal or crepuscular and they eat grasses, sedges, moss, and lichen. Most pikas are alpine animals, living on the mountain skree at or above the tree line (although a few burrowing species have moved down the mountains to the great central Asian steppes). The 30 or so species of pikas are divided between Asia, North America, and Europe. Most Pikas live together in family groups (with the exception of North American Pikas which are maverick loners). Additionally, in Europe and Asia, pikas frequently share their burrows with nesting snowfinches.
Since pikas do not hibernate and they live on resource starved mountaintops, the animals harvest grasses in the summer and create little hay stacks so that their harvest will dry and be preserved. Once these grasses dry out, Pikas store they hay in their burrows in order to provide both food and shelter during the brutal mountain winters. Unfortunately, the pikas are greedy. They attempt to steal grass from their neighbor’s haystacks while simultaneously defending their own. The ensuing fights are a major cause of pika mortality because the distracted combatants are easy prey for high altitude predators like hawks and ferrets.
Even though Pikas have apparently been around for more than 65 million years, they get scant respect. Both Google auto-populate and my spell checker refuse to acknowledge the creatures and keep pushing me towards “pica”, an eating disease characterized by the consumption of non-food substances such as dirt or paper, or “Pikachu,” the mascot of the Pokemon children’s brand. This latter entity is a fictional yellow magical creature captured and made to fight as a gladiator by cruel Japanese anime children. The Pikachu is capable of some sort of electrical attack. Pikachu may or may not have been based off of either the animal pika or a Japanese portmanteau combining the words for ‘spark’ and the noise a mouse makes. The Pikachu’s cartoon features provide no help in assessing whether it is a pika or not, since the character looks eerily similar to a pika but doesn’t present any definitive trait (and possesses a most un pika-like tail to boot). Although Pokemon’s star is mercifully beginning to set, the brand ruled childrens’ entertainment completely during the late 90’s. Pikachu was ranked as the second best person of the year by Time magazine Asia edition in 1999 (finishing just below the not-quite out of the closet Ricky Martin, but ahead of Mini-me and J.K. Rowling).