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Last year I wrote about the world’s fastest human powered boat, the 170 oar Hellenic navy trireme Olympias, which is scheduled to visit New York’s harbor as part of the tall ship festival this summer (July, 2012). One of my friends has even been training to crew the classical warship while it is here, so we will be returning to that story soon! In the mean time, however I have been following the somewhat related story of the traditional construction of a Viking longboat in Norway.
Viking ships were up to three times as fast as the other ships of the time. They could be pulled entirely on the beach and they had flexible, clinker lined hulls which allowed them to conform to the waves in the manner of the serpents, dragons, and seabirds which were their emblems. Vikings used their superior ships to undertake prodigious feats of sailing. The Norse mariners sailed from North America in the west, to the far distant Sea of Azov beyond the Black Sea (and pretty much everywhere in between). Not only were the sea coasts of Europe, Central Asia, and North America accessible to Viking ships: because the vessels had such a shallow draft, they could operate on rivers which were regarded as non-navigable. From the 8th to the 11th centuries, Scandinavian sailors could appear almost anywhere to explore, trade, pillage, or hire out as mercenaries.
The ship being crafted today in Haugesund (Western Norway) is based on a large greatship (storskipene) of the Norwegian coastal fleet. The boat will be christened the Dragon Harald Fairhair in honor of King Harald Fairhair (c. 850 – c. 933) who welded the petty kingdoms of Norway together as a unified nation (that’s a metaphor—he used statecraft and war to assemble his kingdom rather than actual welding). In order to make the ship as realistic as possible, traditional boatwrights have pored over classical literary sources from medieval sagas, as well as analyzing drawings, carvings, and actual period boats from wrecks and burials. The project’s website describes the completed boat
At a hundred and fourteen feet of crafted oak, twenty-seven feet on the beam, displacing seventy tons, and with a thirty-two hundred square foot sail of pure silk, this magnificent ship will indeed be worthy of a king.
The Dragon Harald Fairhair will have 25 pairs of oars. It is necessary to have at least two people on each oar to row the ship efficiently. That will give a crew of at least 100 persons, yet the craft should be able to be sailed by only twelve.
When it is finished, the Dragon King Harald, will join a veritable fleet of reconstructed Viking boats (which can be seen here at vikingstoday.com). The craft should be seaworthy in summer of 2012, but its builders anticipate spending a season experimenting with rigging and sailing techniques (since there are no actual Viking sailors left to explain how to operate a working Viking longboat.
Today is the first day of the Chinese New Year! Happy Lunar New Year to everyone! It’s time for dumplings and fireworks! This is the year of the Water Dragon—an auspicious year (if astrologers are to be believed). Since being born in the year of the dragon is regarded as fortunate, Chinese demographers are projecting a larger than normal number of births this year. If you are looking to have children maybe you should hold off on the partying and go work on that right now.
The dragon is the de facto symbol of China (and has been so for a long, long time). The mythical creatures appear everywhere in art, architecture, clothing, advertising, and even drawn indelibly on people (as above). Snarky political cartoons about currency manipulation represent China as a dragon in the same way that the United States is always shown as Uncle Sam or an eagle. Five clawed dragons symbolized imperial authority during the era of the emperors. Even in pre-dynastic China the dragon was a central symbol. Dragon statues have been discovered from the Yangshao culture (seven millennia ago).
Although symbolic of power, strength, and good luck, Chinese dragons are also inextricably linked to water sources. In various myths, dragons represent control over oceans, rivers, lakes, and ponds. They are also linked with stormclouds, rainfall, floods, and rainbows. Some scholars and folklorists believe that the concept of dragons was originally based around actual aquatic animals like saltwater crocodiles (which ranged along the Chinese coast in ancient times), large snakes, and huge catfish.
Because they are composed of features from various real animals, Chinese Dragons perfectly suit the themes of this blog (which has a history of admiring chimerical creatures). Dragons have the body of a serpent, the claws of an eagle, the legs of a tiger, the whiskers of a catfish, the antlers of a deer and the scales of a fish. According to legend, back in the depths of time, the Yellow Emperor, a semi-divine magician, unified China and became the first emperor. The Yellow Emperor’s standard was a golden snake, but whenever he conquered another fiefdom he would add the features of their heraldic animal to his own. As the emperor’s army conquered more and more of China, the snake acquired antlers, talons, fish scales, and barbels.
People born in the year of the dragon are supposed to embody a mosaic of noble traits. Dragons are said to possess intelligence, energy, self assurance, passion, and courageousness. Allegedly water dragons combine these virtues with patience and understanding. I’m not sure how much faith I put in astrology, but I certainly hope this year combines some of these good things.
Gung hay fat choy!
In Dynastic China the most important ceremonial objects around which the Emperor’s power was focused was not a crown but rather the imperial seals. However that does not mean that ornate jeweled crowns were not a part of court life. Phoenix crowns were worn by the empress and other exalted noblewomen on ceremonial occasions. These headdresses were adorned with intricate sculptures of dragons, phoenixes, and pheasants made from precious materials. The crowns were highly ornamental and were literally encrusted with gold, turquoise, kingfisher feathers, pearls, and gemstones.
First crafted in the Tang Dynasty, phoenix crowns changed many times in accordance with Chinese fashion but they found their greatest era of popularity in the Ming dynasty when the wearer’s status was indicated by the number of dragons, phoenixes and pheasants on her crown. The empress was allowed to wear a crown with 12 dragons and 9 phoenixes, but a less-favored concubine or minor princess might be forced to endure a mere 7 pheasants.
Phoenix crowns—or similarly elaborate jeweled crowns are also associated with weddings and the juxtaposition of the bride’s red robes (red is the super magic happy lucky color of China) against the bright blue of the turquoise and kingfisher feathers makes for a bold visual presentation.
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.
Nüwa was a serpent deity from ancient Chinese mythology. Sometimes she is pictured as a gorgeous woman, other times she is shown possessing a woman’s head but the body of a powerful snake. Nüwa was the creator of humankind and remained a powerful benefactor to people and all living creatures (many of which were also her handiwork).
When the world was new, Nüwa walked through empty plains and valleys. Perceiving that creation was very desolate and lonely she began to craft living creatures in order to fill the waste. On the first day she made chickens and sent them clucking through creation. On the second day she fashioned dogs to run through the forest. On the third day she created sheep to graze the plains. On the fourth day she crafted pigs to root through the earth. On the fifth day she made gentle cows and truculent bulls. On the sixth day she was inspired and crafted horses. On the seventh day she was walking near a river and she saw her beautiful reflection. She knelt down in the yellow clay and began to hand sculpt figures similar to herself. As she set the lovely little forms down, they came to life and began to call out to her as mother. All day Nüwa built more and more of the little people, after her long labors, her energy was waning. To finish the job she picked up a strand of ivy and dipped in the fecund mud. Then she flicked the mud across the lands. Everywhere the little blobs fell, people sprung up, coarser and less lovely then the hand-made folk, but perfectly serviceable. Thus did Nüwa create humankind, separating from the very beginning the rich and noble people from the commoners by means of her crafting methods.
Nüwa loved her creations and she continued to look after them quietly (for she was modest and disliked effusive worship). She took Fuxi, the first of the three sovereigns of ancient China as her spouse. Fuxi was a hero in his own right and is said to have invented fishing and trapping. There are many ancient pictures and representations of the happy couple entwined as huge loving snake people. However one day the great black water dragon Gong Gong put her marriage and all of her work in peril. The story of what happened subsequently is of great interest (and bears directly on my favorite work of Chinese literature) so I will tell it completely tomorrow.
Jason and the Argonauts faced one of Echidna’s children, the Colchian Dragon, which was guarding the golden fleece. Taking a page out of Dashiell Hammett’s playbook, they slipped the monster a mickey and made off with the fleece while the dragon slumbered (pausing only to draw a mustache on the creature). Not exactly a proud moment…but it was probably the least morally ambiguous thing they did during their dark quest.
Here is a painting of a very very fancy Jason, administering the potion to the dragon. The fact that the monster is about the size of a terrier makes the whole scene even more hilarious but hey, that’s eighteenth century art for you.
In the Greek view of the world, there was a tranquil garden of perpetual rosy twilight which was found at the sunset edge of all lands–so far west that the west came to an end. The garden was inhabited by three nymphs of peerless beauty whose special task was to tend an apple tree in the middle of the garden. The golden fruit of the tree would confer immortality upon anyone who ate one. But of course there was a catch.
This was the penultimate labor of Hercules: to bring back three of the apples of the Hesperides. The tree was in the private garden of Hera herself and the apple tree was a wedding gift from Mother Earth to the queen of the gods. Plucking the apples from the tree would bring instant death to any mortal, but the biggest problem of all was the garden’s true guardian, the dragon Ladon who was coiled around the apple tree. As you might imagine, Ladon was one of Echidna’s offspring. He is sometimes shown as a great python, other times as a more traditional dragon, and occasionally as a hundred-headed uber-dragon.
Although dragons abound in Greek mythology, the snake-dragon curled around a sacred tree, seems to have arrived in Greek mythology from another canon altogether. Scholars believe Ladon’s original form was the Semitic serpent god Lotan, or the Hurrian/Hittite serpent Illuyanka. In fact, serpents/dragons wound around fruit trees are well-known in the three great monotheistic faiths of the present. In Greek mythology, Ladon only plays an active role in the story of Hercules 11th labor (and even then, the dragon’s role is curiously ambiguous).
Hercules traveled through the Greek world having adventures, killing giants, and seeking the garden’s location. It was during his search for the Garden of the Hesperides that he slew the Caucasian Eagle and freed Prometheus (who, in gratitude, told him what to expect at the garden of the Hesperides). In order to obtain the apples, Hercules solicited the aid of the titan Atlas, who holds up the firmament. Hercules assumed the burden of the heavens while immortal Atlas collected the apples. When Atlas betrayed Hercules and left the strongman holding the heavens, Hercules pretended to accept his fate–but he asked to adjust his lionskin first. Once Atlas was holding the heavens again, Hercules picked up the apples and took them back to Eurystheus (who was rightly afraid of them, and gave them to Athena). The fate of the dragon is a bit unclear. In some versions Hercules kills him for good measure. For example, in the story of Jason and the golden fleece, Ladon’s corpse is spotted by the Argonauts—the creature’s body is still heaving and trembling years after death while the heartbroken nymphs sob. In other stories the dragon survives and, together with the nymphs, continues to look after the tree of life.
Because I can not resist, here are links to a very short and delightful comic strip consisting of a first, second, and third panel. The drawings contain mild nudity (which differs from that found in Lord Leighton’s painting above only in that the strip is contemporary). The creator, M.L. Peters, tried to add a feeling of fin de siècle illustration so as to give the comic punchline a deeper resonance, and I feel he succeeded admirably. Additionally I love anchovies.
This is Das Paradiesgärtleina, a superb gothic panel painting created in 1410 by an unknown German artist known only as the “Upper Rhenish Master”. Various Saints are oriented around Baby Jesus in a lovely walled garden. The Virgin Mary is at the top left reading a book. To her left Saint Dorothy plucks cherries (then, as now, symbolic of purity) from a stylized cherry tree. Saint Barbara draws clear water from a font, as Saint Catherine helps Baby Jesus play a psalter. To the right St. George sits on the grass with a small dragon dead beside him. He is earnestly talking to the Archangel Michael who has a black demon chained at his feet. St. Oswald, leaning on a tree trunk, seems almost to serve as St. George’s squire. It has been surmised that this painting might depict a knight (in the guise of St. George) entering into heaven.
The real delight of the painting lies in its lovely details. This painting carefully and individually depicts over 27 plants, 12 species of bird, and two insects. Very few paintings depict nature with such precision.
Here is a list of the identified plants:
Lily of the Valley
Here is a list of the birds:
Great Spotted Woodpecker
The work is painted in a tradition of Maria im Rosenhag (Mary in the rose bower), but the Upper Rhenish master has made the convention his own by presenting a garden where virtue and joy, personified by the holy family and the saints, exert easy control over the natural and the supernatural alike.