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I’m sorry there was no post yesterday–I was busy trimming my holiday tree. Tree worship was a common custom in many ancient cultures from China to Egypt to the Hebrews (and it is an underlying topic of this blog). Pagan Europeans—particularly Scandinavians and Celts also venerated evergreen trees as a symbol of undying life.
To symbolize life, I decorated my tree as a tree of life with all sorts of different animals from different epochs of life. Looking at the detail photos you will notice familiar animals from past Ferrebeekeeper posts. The mollusks are represented by the squid and the octopus. There is a pangolin, a walrus, a rabbit, and a muskox, as well as a variety of other mammals. Best of all, you will notice a tom turkey!
It took a while to gather all the different toy animals and put screw eyes and string on them, but I think you will agree the results were worth it! My Christmas tree actually does represent my feelings about what is sacred and numinous in our world of amazing living things. Hopefully it can get my friends and me through the dark yule/solstice season. Merry Christmas and seasons greetings to everyone out there! I hope you get the gifts you want and spend the season with the people whom you care for.
To refresh Ferrebeekeeper I am planning to expand the “Turkey” category to also include gamefowl and waterfowl (which together are scientifically known as the clade Galloanserae and constitute most of the farmbirds raised by humans). Today though I am addressing the stories and allusions about a wild bird—the partridge.
Partridges are famous for being the first gift in the terrifyingly redundant seasonal carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (so the singer ends each of the many refrains singing about a partridge in a pear tree). I have always liked partridges–perhaps because of this association with the Yule season or maybe because of their distinctive comical prettiness. One of the most modest and attractive game fowl, partridges are part of the pheasant family. Midway in size between pheasants and quail, they dwell on the ground (where they are adept at hiding) and forage for seeds.
In addition to their anchor position in a famous Christmas carol, partridges play a part in one of the great myths of classical antiquity—the Theseus/Cretan cycle which gave us stories of the Minotaur, Ariadne, Minos, Pasiphae, Icarus, and Daedalus. Throughout the story, the inventor Daedalus is always curiously off to the side—creating the labyrinth, solving it, and flying away on wax wings. Although the story of the death of his son Icarus hints at his character, it is the story of his most talented apprentice which truly reveals Daedalus’ unpleasant nature.
Daedalus’ apprentice was his nephew Perdix. Under his uncle’s tutelage, Perdix was quickly becoming a brilliant inventor/artificer in his own right. One day, while walking on the shore, he saw the spine of a fish. The shape gave him an idea and he crafted a notched copy of the bone in iron—thus was the first saw created. Later he invented the drafting compass by riveting two sharpened iron spikes together.
Daedalus was envious of his nephew’s innovation and he was jealous of rivals. One day as they were walking together on a high place the wily old inventor dropped an ingenious mechanical toy by the ledge. As Perdix knelt to snatch up the device, Daedalus pushed him over the edge to his death. However cunning Athena admired the craft and intellect of Perdix, so she did not let him die. As he fell through the air, the gray-eyed goddess transformed the boy into the partridge—known as perdix in Greek. Thereafter the partridge has shunned roosting on high places or flying too high—in memory of the betrayal of Daedalus.
The gods also remembered Daedalus’ cowardly murderous act and they branded him with a partridge so that he could not escape the deed. The elderly inventor was banished to barbarian lands where his genius was not appreciated and ultimately died in obscurity.
It is the holiday season and decorated conifers are everywhere. Seeing all of the dressed-up firs and spruces reminds me that Ferrebeekeeper’s tree category has so far betrayed a distinct bias towards angiosperms (flowering plants). Yet the conifers vastly outdate all flowering trees by a vast span of time. The first conifers we have found date to the late Carboniferous period (about 300 million years ago) whereas the first fossils of angiosperms appear in the Cretaceous (about 125 million years ago) although the flowering plants probably originated earlier in the Mesozoic.
The first known conifer trees resembled modern Araucaria trees. They evolved from a (now long-extinct) ancestral gymnosperm tree which could only live in warm swampy conditions—a watery habitat necessitated since these progenitor trees did not cope well with dry conditions and also probably utilized motile sperm. Instead of relying on free-swimming gametes and huge seeds, the newly evolved conifers used wind to carry clouds of pollen through the air and were capable of producing many tiny seeds which could survive drying out. Because the evergreen cone-bearing trees could survive in drier conditions, the early conifers had immense competitive advantages. These advantages were critical to survival as the great warm swamps of the Carboniferous dried out. The continents, which had been separated by shallow oceans and seas, annealed together into the baking dry supercontinent of Permian Pangaea. In the arid deserts and mountains, the conifers were among the only plants which could survive.
This ability to live through any condition helped the conifers get through the greatest mass extinction in life’s history—The Permian–Triassic (P–Tr) extinction event, (known to paleontologists as “the Great Dying”). Thereafter, throughout the Mesozoic they were the dominant land plants (along with cycads and ginkgos which had evolved at about the same time). The Mesozoic saw the greatest diversity of conifers ever—the age of dinosaurs could just as well be called the age of conifers. Huge heard of sauropods grazed on vast swaths of exotic conifers. Beneath these strange sprawling forests, the carnosaurs hunted, the early birds glided through endless green canyons, and the desperate little mammals darted out to grab and hoard the pine nuts of the time.
Although flowering plants rapidly came to prominence towards the end of the Cretaceous and have since become the most diverse plants, today’s conifers are not in any way anachronisms or primitive also-rans. They still out-compete the flowering trees in cold areas and in dry areas. Conifers entirely dominate the boreal forests of Asia, Europe, and North America—arguably the largest continuous ecosystem on the planet except for the pelagic ocean. They form entire strange ecosystems in the Araucaria moist forests of South America—which are relics of the great conifer forests of Antarctica (the southern continent was once a warmer happier place before tectonics and climate shift gradually dragged its inhabitants to frozen death).
The largest trees—the sequoias and redwoods–are conifers. The oldest trees—bristlecone pine trees and clonal Spruces–are conifers (excepting of course the clonal colonies). Conifers are probably the most commercially important trees since they are fast-growing staples of the pulp and the timber industries. Timber companies sometimes buy up hardwood forests, clear cut the valuable native deciduous trees and plant fast growing pines in their place to harvest for pulp. In fact all of the Christmas trees which are everywhere around New York come from a similar farming process. The conifers are nearly everywhere—they have one of the greatest success stories in the history of life. It is no wonder they are the symbol of life surviving through the winter to come back stronger. They have done that time and time again through the darkest and driest winters of the eons.
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!