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…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…
This is the Ferrebeekeeper’s 300th post! Hooray and thank you for reading! We celebrated our 100th post with a write-up of the Afro-Caribbean love goddess, Oshun. To celebrate the 300th post (and to finish armor week on a glorious high note), we turn our eyes upward to the stern and magnificent armored goddess, Athena, the goddess of wisdom.
Athena’s birth has its roots in Zeus’ war with his father Cronus. In order to win his battle against the ruling race of Titans (and thus usurp his father’s place as the king of the gods), Zeus married the Titan Metis, goddess of cunning and prudence. Her wise counsel and crafty stratagems gave the Olympian gods and edge against the Titans and the latter were ultimately cast down. Metis was Zeus’ first wife and the secret to his success… but there was a problem. It was foretold that Metis would bear an extremely powerful offspring: any son she gave birth to would be mightier than Zeus. To forestall this problem Zeus tricked Metis into transforming into a fly and then he sniffed her up his nose so that he could always have her cunning counsel inside his head. But Metis was already pregnant. Inside Zeus’ skull she began to craft a suit of armor for her child to wear. The pounding of her hammer within his temples gave Zeus a terrible headache. Insane with pain, Zeus begged his ally Prometheus (the seer among the Titans) to cure him of this misery through whatever means necessary. Prometheus seized a labrys (a double headed axe from Crete) and struck open Zeus’ head with a noise louder than a thunderclap. In a burst of radiance Athena sprang forth fully grown and clad in gleaming armor.
Athena was Zeus’ first daughter and his favorite child. For his own armor, Zeus had carried an invincible aegis crafted out of the skin of his foster mother, the divine goat Amalthea. When Athena was born he handed this symbol of his invincible power over to her. Similarly throughout classical mythology Athena is the only other entity whom Zeus trusts to handle his lightning bolts (there is an amazing passage in the first lines of the Aneid where she vaporizes Ajax’s chest with lightning, picks him up with a whirlwind, and impales him on a spire of rock in revenge for an impiety). Her other symbols were the owl, a peerless predator capable of seeing at night, and the gorgon’s head, a magical talisman capable of turning humans to stone (which Athena wore affixed to her armor). Although she was first in Zeus’ esteem, Athena did not forget her mother’s fate and she remained a virgin goddess who never dallied with romance of any sort.
Wisdom, humankind’s greatest (maybe our only) strength was Athena’s bailiwick as too were the fruits of wisdom. Athena was therefore the goddess of learning, strategy, productive arts, cities, skill, justice, victory, and civilization. She is often portrayed as the goddess of justified war in opposition to her half-brother Ares, the vainglorious deity representative of the senseless aspects of war. In classical mythology Athena never loses. Her side is always victorious. Her heroes always prosper. She was the Greek representation of the triumph of creativity and intellect.
Metis never bore Zeus a son to usurp him–but when I read classical mythology such an outcome always seemed unnecessary. Not only did Athena wield Zeus’ authority and run the world as she saw fit, but Zeus was perfectly happy with the arrangement (a true testament to her wisdom). The one slight to the grey eyed goddess is that she does not have a planet named after her (nor after her Roman name Minerva), however I have always thought that astronomers have been secretly saving the name. We can use it when we find a planet inhabited by beings of greater intelligence, or when we travel the stars to a second earth and apotheosize into true Athenians.
In Chinese mythology, Gong Gong was a tempestuous and unhappy water spirit of great strength. He is usually portrayed as a raging black dragon or as a seething water monster. In an earlier post concerning the Black Mansion—the Chinese underworld—I described how rigorously regimented the Chinese spirit world is (on earth, in heaven, and in hell). Gong Gong was a spirit who was not happy with the rigid hierarchical order of things. Despite his raw power, his job in the courts of heaven was to run trivial errands and fill out tedious paperwork. Growing sick of what he perceived as menial chores, Gong Gong rebelled against the Jade Emperor. In order to usurp control of heaven, he unleashed terrible floods and allied with a wicked nine-headed demon named Xiang Yao.
Together Gong Gong and Xiang Yao brought about great destruction in the world. The tumult they unleashed killed countless people. But, despite the suffering they caused, the two could not defeat the powers of heaven. They were opposed by Zhu Rong, the god of fire and ruler of the south who fought with a great sword from the back of his tiger. Unable to withstand Zhu Rong’s ferocity, the monsters were about to be defeated outright. Infuriated and unwilling to accept such shame, Gong Gong hurled himself into Mount Buzhou, a mythical mountain which was one of the principal supports of heaven. Part of the mountain collapsed and a terrible hole appeared in the sky. The suffering caused by Gong Gong’s earlier actions was nothing compared to the catastrophe caused by this collapse. Flood and fire swept earth. Terrible creatures from beyond came through the rip in existence and ravaged the planet. Famine and horror stalked the world and it seemed as though all living things were doomed.
With the other gods helpless, the creator goddess Nüwa again stepped forward. She cut the legs off a great turtle and propped the sky back on its axis. Then she gathered precious stones from a river and cast the breath of her magic into them. With these multicolored stones she repaired the vault of heaven. In some versions of the story she slew the black dragon Gong Gong whereas in other versions he sneaked away and still remains at large somewhere in the world. Whatever the case, Nüwa’s repairs were not perfect. The sun and moon now flow across the heavens from east to west and the stars were thrown from their position to drift with the seasons. Even the North star was jarred from true north.
Strangely enough my favorite Chinese novel (maybe my favorite novel from anywhere) originates from this tumultuous myth. The Story of the Stone was written by Cao Xueqin in the eighteenth century as the Qing dynasty first began to relentlessly unwind. It is the story of a great princely house slowly losing its vigor and declining from within. In a bigger sense it is the story of mortal kind and the ineluctable flux of our little lives. There are thirty major characters and over four hundred minor characters in a drama that spans the epic breadth of Chinese history and culture (and takes up thousands of pages). The portrayal of all levels of Chinese society is magnificent…but just beyond the petty intrigues, squabbles, affairs, and misunderstandings that make up the complex plot of The Story of the Stone are hints at an enigmatic divine order underpinning the cosmos. From time to time, a strange beggar covered with sores and limping on an iron crutch shows up with magic medicines. The female lead is hauntingly familiar with an otherworldy beauty to her mien. And the protagonist of the story, Jia Baoyu, is a fey aristocratic adolescent who was born with a magic piece of jade in his mouth. Although it doesn’t come up often in the novel and it is not obvious to the characters, the hero is the stone. He was one of the gemstones given magical life by Nüwa in order to repair the breach in heaven–but he was not used because of a flaw. Frustrated by life at the edge of heaven, he incarnates as a mortal and the book is the story of his human life…indeed of all human life. I won’t say more about The Story of the Stone other than to apologize for not explaining how impossibly brilliant and ineffable the work is. I must also offer an attendant caveat: this is the consummate literary masterpiece of China and, as such, it is overwhelmingly and heartbreakingly sad.