You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘head’ tag.
Kindly forgive the last few weekdays without a post–I was on a winter solstice vacation from the internet. To cut through the holiday treacle, let’s concentrate on one of my favorite subjects—giant snake monsters! More specifically, after this year of horrible storms, I am writing about the fearsome inkanyamba, a mythical serpent-like being from South Africa. Inkanyambas are said to dwell in the pools beneath waterfalls. They have the bodies of great serpents and horselike heads. Inkanyambas are associated with powerful seasonal storms—particularly tornadoes. Such powerful local cyclones were thought to be caused by male inkanyambas out looking for mates.
The creatures are said to live in the Pietermaritzburg area of KwaZulu-Natal . The Inkanyamba is particularly associated with the 95 meter tall (310 feet) Howick Falls, South Africa. For a while the Inkanyambas of Howick Falls even had a bit of Loch Ness Monster style fame attracting tourists, photojournalists, and cryptozoologists (insomuch as that is a real thing). Lately though, the moster is fading back to the proper realm of myth and art.
In ancient Greece, one of the most universally popular symbols was the gorgoneion, a symbolized head of a repulsive female figure with snakes for hair. Gorgoneion medallions and ornaments have been discovered from as far back as the 8th century BC (and some archaeologists even assert that the design dates back to 15 century Minoan Crete). The earliest Greek gorgoneions seem to have been apotropaic in nature—grotesque faces meant to ward off evil and malign influence. Homer makes several references to the gorgon’s head (in fact he only writes about the severed head—never about the whole gorgon). My favorite lines concerning the gruesome visage appear in the Odyssey, when Odysseus becomes overwhelmed by the horrors of the underworld and flees back to the world of life:
And I should have seen still other of them that are gone before, whom I would fain have seen- Theseus and Pirithous glorious children of the gods, but so many thousands of ghosts came round me and uttered such appalling cries, that I was panic stricken lest Proserpine should send up from the house of Hades the head of that awful monster Gorgon.
In Greco-Roman mythology the gorgon’s head (attached to a gorgon or not) could turn those looking at it into stone. The story of Perseus and Medusa (which we’ll cover in a different post) explains the gorgon’s origins and relates the circumstances of her beheading. When Perseus had won the princess, he presented the head to his father and Athena as a gift—thus the gorgon’s head was a symbol of divine magical power. Both Zeus and Athena were frequently portrayed wearing the ghastly head on their breastplates.
Although the motif began in Greece, it spread with Hellenic culture. Gorgon imagery was found on temples, clothing, statues, dishes, weapons, armor, and coins found across the Mediterranean region from Etruscan Italy all the way to the Black Sea coast. As Hellenic culture was subsumed by Rome, the image became even more popular–although the gorgon’s visage gradually changed into a more lovely shape as classical antiquity wore on.
In wealthy Roman households a gorgoneion was usually depicted next to the threshold to help guard the house against evil. The wild snake-wreathed faces are frequently found painted as murals or built into floors as mosaics.
Not only was the wild magical head a mainstay of classical decoration–the motif was subsequently adapted by Renaissance artists hoping to recapture the spirit of the classical world. Gilded gorgoneions appeared at Versailles and in the palaces and mansions of elite European aristocrats of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Even contemporary designers and businesses make use of the image. The symbol of the Versace fashion house is a gorgon’s head.
So what’s so amazing about catfish? So far, Ferrebeekeeper has describing all sorts of different variations of these fascinating fish. From the giant truck-sized catfish of the Mekong, to the infinitesimal (yet horrifying) candirus of the Amazon, to the deadly poisonous schooling catfish of coral reefs, to catfish that live underground or in gardens, we have seen a seemingly impossible variety of the irrepressible whiskered creatures. But, aside from their variety, hardiness, and interesting appearance, catfish represent an extraordinary apogee in sensory ability. They are able to apprehend their watery realms in ways that might as well be supernatural or alien to us. Catfish have honed familiar senses—taste, smell, touch, hearing, and sight–to outrageous extremes. Yet they have additional senses—electroreceptivity, pressure sensitivity, and possibly other senses–that we are only starting to understand.
Let’s start with catfish’s sense of taste: catfish, unlike us, are not limited to tasting things with their tongues. Their entire bodies are covered with taste buds. To quote catfish expert Dr. John Caprio of Louisiana State University, “Catfish are swimming tongues…You can’t touch any place on a catfish without touching thousands of taste buds. To use an analogy, it’s as if the tip of your tongue grew out and covered your body.” Catfish can literally taste the water all around their bodies and the mud they are swimming over.
Beyond their powers of taste, catfish have a bloodhound-like sense of smell. With astonishingly sensitive olfactory pits near their nostrils, Catfish can smell certain compounds at one part per 10 billion parts of water. The sense of smell does not merely help them while hunting and seeking food, catfish use smell to identify other individual catfish and to maintain a social hierarchy. A catfish has an elaborate picture of its watery realm, the denizens thereof, and of the history and interaction of these inhabitants based on smell.
Catfish’s scale-free skin is unusually sensitive to touch but that is not the end of catfish’s ability to feel what is going on around it. The most distinctive feature of catfish—their 8 barbels (whiskers) are literally organs for touching. Like a blind man’s cane, each of these barbels can touch the substrate or whatever is moving in front of the catfish. Not only are the barbels covered with taste buds and feeling nerves, the whiskers also vibrate with water disturbance and provide a sense almost like hearing—although catfish also have multiple hearing organs.
Vibrations travel well under water and most fish have excellent abilities to sense sound, but catfish have evolved some additional auditory features. The swim bladder of a catfish (which the fish uses like a submarine ballast in order to rise and fall through the water column) is connected by a series of small bones (the Weberian apparatus) to the hearing apparatus (otoliths) inside the head. Catfish are therefore able to hear sounds of a higher frequency than other freshwater fish. Catfish can also sense extremely low-frequency sounds thanks to a different hearing system—a series of small pores running along the fish’s lateral lines. Within the pores are infinitesimal hair-like sensing apparatuses which respond to the slightest water displacement. Using lateral line hearing, a Catfish can sense animals scuttling across the rocks on the bottom of a river, predators swimming above them, and even fishermen walking on the shore. Perhaps most remarkably, the low frequency sensors which catfish have in their lateral lines seem to give the fish the ability to detect seismic activity. The Chinese and Japanese are said to have used the creatures as advanced earthquake detectors (which probably gave rise to the myth of Namazu, the Japanese earthquake catfish).
Although some catfish have small or underdeveloped eyes, the majority of catfish species can see extremely well. Additionally catfish possess a tapetum lucidum—a layer of reflective tissue at the back of the eyes which allows them to see keenly in low-light conditions (cat owners will recognize the tapetum lucidum as the flashing green glow of feline eyes).
Finally catfish can sense the electrical discharges within the nervous and electrical-muscular systems of living things (in fact the electrical catfish goes a step beyond and uses electricity for hunting and self-defense). The cells responsible for electroreception are found grouped together in tiny pits along the catfish’s head and along its lateral line. Although electroreception has limited range, it is a powerful sense which can allow the fish to sense animals hidden beneath the mud or otherwise camouflaged.
A catfish’s life must be exciting—awash as they are in complicated overlaying sensory perceptions. Their abilities to perceive the world have taken them farther than other fish. According to the Tree of Life web project:
Catfishes are a species rich and exceptionally diverse group of fishes ranking second or third among orders of vertebrates. The Catalog of Fishes (Eschmeyer, 1998 et seq.) database treats 2,855 species of catfishes as valid. About 1 in 4 valid species of freshwater fishes, 1 in 10 fishes, and 1 in 20 vertebrates, is a catfish.
Several hundred more species of catfish have been discovered since the above paragraph was written. Paleontologists have even discovered fossils of catfish on Antarctica (the only continent where they can not currently be found living). Catfish are basically sentient sense-organs. They have diversified and thrived by being able to discern what is going on in the world around them (and they have probably enjoyed the experience).
Once again it is the mid-autumn festival (also known as the mooncake festival), one of the most important festivals of the Chinese calendar. I hope you and your friends get together to drink rice wine while looking at the jade rabbit who mixes magic herbs on the moon!
Last year Ferrebeekeeper explored the mid-autumn festival through poetry but this year we will concentrate instead on food. The quintessential foodstuff of the mooncake festival is the mooncake, a cake which is crafted to look like the moon [Ed. this is some fine work you’re doing here], however an equally lunar-looking foodstuff is nearly as important for celebrating the holiday. The pomelo is a beloved citrus fruit which has come to be integrally associated with the mid-autumn festival. The fruit is like a giant green or chartreuse grapefruit with a yellow-white or pinkish-red interior (depending on the variety). Pomelos can be quite large with a diameter that runs between 15 and 30 centimeters (6 to 12 inches) and they can weigh up to 2 kilograms (about 4 and a half pounds). The fruit is segmented like that of an orange (albeit with a great deal more pith) and tastes like a mild sweet grapefruit. In some varieties of southern Chinese cooking, the pomelo skin is used as an ingredient in its own right.
Because of its shape, its harvesting schedule, and its delightful taste, the pomelo is a mainstay of the mid-autumn moon festival. To quote gochengdoo.com, a Chines culture blog:
In Mandarin, pomelos are called 柚子 (you zi), a homophone for words that mean “prayer for a son.” Therefore, eating pomelos and putting their rinds on the head signify a prayer for the youth in the family. In addition, the Chinese believe that by placing pomelo rinds on their heads, the moon goddess Chang’e will see them and respond to their prayers when she looks down from the moon.
The pomelo has long been cultivated in China: the first allusions to the fruit date to 100 BC, but cultivation may go back further. Many of the citrus fruits we are most familiar with, such as oranges, lemons, and limes, are the end result of centuries—or even millennia–of hybridization and selective breeding. Pomelos are an exception. Native to Malaysia and Southeast Asia, the pomelo is one of the ancestral citrus fruit and the pretty trees grow wild in the jungles of Southeast Asia. It is believed that the first sweet oranges were probably a hybridization of pomelos and mandarins. Grapefruits are probably a descendant (it is hard to tell what the exact relations are since citrus trees hybridize so readily). What is certain is that the pomelo fruit is lovely and sweet and will enhance your ability to appreciate the moon tonight!
Happy lunar viewing!
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.
Every artist has favorite themes which they revisit again and again throughout their life. Rembrandt painted and repainted his own face as he went from young student to successful portraitist to sad old man. Watteau’s works often feature lovers in the lingering twilight. Picasso was drawn again and again to the Minotaur whom he painted variously as a beast, a poet, a sensualist, a murderer, and a murder victim. To some degree each artist can be swiftly summarized by his or her favorite images. These artistic leitmotifs are the touchstone to an artist’s life and work. When looking over an artist’s entire canon, one can watch certain themes wax and wane or see how the artist’s favorite subjects overlap each other. It is rather like the category cloud to the left: except played out over a lifetime and with images only (indeed, when I finally launch my art website you can compare how my blog’s categories match those of my painting).
My favorite gothic painter, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), had several recurrent themes. Cranach’s preferred subject was sumptuous young maidens with triangular faces who are wearing nothing but a few pieces of jewelry and the occasional wreath or transparent veil (beautiful naked people top nearly every artist’s topic list: but each artist brings his or her own unique twist!). Cranach also enjoyed painting Adam and Eve and their fall from paradise. Like me, he loved to paint animals and his works are a veritable menagerie (only a handful of his canvases lack creatures, most notably paintings in which…well we’ll get to it below). On a darker note he painted women stabbing themselves: there are several “Lucretia” paintings in his oeuvre. Cranach was from Saxony and the Saxon landscape of vivid forests punctuated by fortresses perched on crags is another major component of his work.
Most disturbing to modern sentiments, Cranach loved to paint beheadings or, more commonly, pretty women carrying severed heads. There are so many paintings like this by Cranach that it is hard to keep them separate (so please forgive any mistakes or misattributions in the following grisly gallery).
It is unclear why Cranach loved this subject so much. Many painters have portrayed the subject of Judith and Holofernes–which speaks to nationalism, bravery, and feminism. Even more artists are captivated by the death of John the Baptist with its martyred religious hero and its wanton villainess (whose incest-tinged struggle so strangely mirrors the travails of the goddess Ishtar). A fair number of medieval artists painted beheadings (which were after all much more common events back then) and Théodore Géricault sometimes painted heads fresh from the guillotine.
But nobody that I know of carried this obsession as far as Cranach. Perhaps he is evoking the ancient theme of death and the maiden: the beautiful young women in their finery with their unknowable expressions certainly contrast dramatically with the slack ruined horror of the dead heads. Cranach lived in a dark era when terrible deeds were common: these beheading paintings, like his symbolic masterpiece Melancholia might speak to the grim state of Europe as it plunged towards all-out religious war. Or maybe Cranach had a dark and troubled side. Was he afraid of women? Did he revel in the charnel house? Art provides a funhouse mirror of the human soul and who knows what monstrous yearnings can be spotted wriggling in that mysterious edifice?
Maybe a better question is why I am posting about this facet of Cranach’s art. Hmm, well for one thing I love Cranach’s painting and, even after writing about Melancholia earlier, I wanted to address his work further. Also despite their ghastly subject, these strange paintings are singularly beautiful and dramtic: I wanted to draw your attention into their haunted depths. The fact that an incredibly talented painter spent nearly a decade painting nothing but pretty young women holding severed heads is worth remarking on for its own right(also I have also always thought that Freud might have something with his theories of Eros and Thanatos). At a more primitive level, I hoped some sixteenth century violence and horror might drum up ratings during the summer doldrums. Most of all I want to use the paintings as memento mori (and I believe this was Cranach’s most pronounced intention also). Cranach and John the Baptist are long dead and turned to dust. Such is the fate of all flesh, but you are still alive and it’s a lovely June day. Stop looking at troubling art and go revel in the sunshine!
Mayan cosmology, which shrinks neither from darkness and violence nor from beauty and heroism, features one of the most strange and transformative tales of the underworld. The story is found in the Popul Vuh, the most comprehensive remaining work of Mayan mythical literature (which was recorded in the Quiché language by a Domenican friar in 1701 AD). The most important and cohesive part of the Popul Vuh recounts how twin heroes, Xbalanque and Hunahpu, challenged the gods of the underworld to a multi-match ball tournament. Episodes from the story are recognizable in art from the golden age of the Classic Mayas (from 200-900 AD).
The story begins when Hun Hunahpu, the father to both twins, challenged the greedy and corrupt gods of Xibalba (the Mayan underworld) to a ball game. Mayan ball was a sort of high impact racquetball with scoring hoops (rather like rollerball). In important tournaments, the losers were sacrificed and their severed heads became permanent additions to the court. When Hun Hunahpu lost the ball game to the gods of the dark house, they ripped him apart and left his head impaled on a tree. However, Xquic, a lovely blood goddess of the underworld fell in love with the head of the brave and handsome Hun Hunahpu and became impregnated by his spit. She raised her twin sons, Hunahpu and Xbalanque hidden away from the eyes of the gods below, but when the two grew to manhood they inevitably found their father’s sports equipment. Learning of his downfall they set out to defeat the gods of Xibalba, whose malign influence was corrupting the world of life (also, by besting the gods at the sacred ball game, they hoped to restore life to their father).
After deliberately losing several ball matches in order to obtain a strategic advantage, the brothers were forced to take shelter in a dark house in Xibalba, which was filled with killer bats and with the horrifying bat gods, the Camazotz. To escape the bats, the brothers took refuge inside their blowguns, but Hunahpu, mistakenly believing that dawn had arrived, stuck his head out to look around. A Camazotz (or the Camazotz—their nature is unclear) promptly snipped Hunahpu’s head off with razor claws, and carried the bleeding head to the ceremonial ball court for use during the next day’s ball game.
Grieving for his dead brother, Xbalanque summoned the animals of the jungle and asked them to bring their favorite food. Many animals brought leaves or grubs or worthless carrion, but the coati brought a calabash gourd, which Xbalanque then fashioned into a surrogate head for his brother. During the ballgame, he managed to exchange the fake head for the real one and the brothers ultimately went on to win the tournament.
Enraged by the loss, the Xibalbans constructed a great oven in which they immolated the meddlesome twins. The deities of hell then ground the twins’ burned bones to dust and threw them in a river. However Xbalanque and Hunahpu were again one step ahead. They magically regenerated as a pair of catfish which gradually changed into boys. Amazed by this miracle, and not recognizing the now-transformed twins, the Xibalbans hired the orphans as magical entertainers. The twins performed increasingly spectacular magical miracles for the Xibalbans. They transformed into animals and burned buildings only to restore them perfectly unburned. Finally the two magicians were called to appear before One Death and Seven Death, the ranking rulers of Xibalba. The twins performed a spectacular magic show which culminated with Xbalanque sacrificing Hunahpu, only to have the latter emerge more powerful and vigorous then before. One Death and Seven Death applauded and demanded the twins put them through the same transformation. Naturally the twins sacrificed the rulers of Xibalba, but they did not restore them to life. They then revealed their true identities and began to slaughter their former tormentors. The forces of Xibalba surrendered utterly and begged for mercy.
The story ends with the twins granting clemency to the surviving gods of hell on the condition that the world of life no longer need worship them or present offerings to the underworld. The brothers then dug up their father’s remains and pieced them together. But their magical skills could not bring him fully back to life. Maimed and broken, he was left on the ball court where they found him. Some say he became maize and gave life to the world. Others say he became the fragile hope which lingers for all things lost and dead.
The brothers then left the underworld, but as they ascended to the world of the living, they found that it had become somehow diminished to them. Their mighty magical transformations had put the affairs of life behind them. The two kept climbing and transcended the world entirely. They are still visible as the sun and the moon. Their story is the Mayan story of the creation and how life was redeemed—at least for a time—from the greedy deities of the underworld.