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As mentioned in last year’s post concerning pumpkins, the original Irish jack o’lanterns were not carved from the familiar orange gourds (which only made their way to Europe after the discovery of the Americas), but rather were cut from turnips, swedes, or mangelwurzels. I have illustrated this post with a little gallery of turnip lanterns. I was hoping to find a mangelwurzel to carve up for an original photo, but it seems like the hurricane has prevented adequate supplies of these medieval vegetables from reaching the city—so that will have to wait till next year. In the meantime, here is a folktale about how jack o’lanterns originated.
The story of the origin of the jack o’lantern is a stirring tale of greed, guile, and the restless undead. Jack was a trickster, a fraud, and an unrepentant sinner who roamed around Ireland scamming honest folks and selling mortgage-backed securities & other poorly structured equities. One day, Jack was running from a mob of debtors (which should immediately recommend the story to contemporary American mores) when he encountered the devil traveling along the bog road. Jack convinced Satan that it would be to the latter’s advantage to infiltrate society in a more subtle form than that of scary red guy with horns.
Jack’s plan was that the devil should pretend to be a golden coin. Jack could present this to the debtors who would then begin to argue and fight over the coin thus leading them inexorably into the devil’s clutches. The devil shapeshifted into coin form and presto, Jack grabbed him and stuffed him into a purse with a cross sewn on it (which he had probably stolen from a clergyman or a church-run orphanage). The devil was unable to escape Jack’s clutches. In order to get out of this predicament, Lucifer had to promise Jack never to collect his soul and take it to hell.
After many financial shenanigans and dodgy schemes, Jack eventually died–as all men must. His spirit wandered the gray earth in a dark fog, unable to find any succor or happiness in the lands of the living. At length he made his way to the gates of heaven but he was not wanted there and was chased off by saints and angels. Jack drifted through different realms but could never escape the chill of death and the inchoate miseries of the grave. Finally, defeated, he went to hell and begged for entrance.
But the devil remembered his promise (and was pleased by Jack’s misery). Satan barred Jack from hell and sent him on his way, but first he mockingly threw the specter a blazing coal from the inferno–which can never be extinguished. Jack tried to clutch the red ember and it burned and seared his flesh even though that flesh was ghostly and insubstantial. Yet the coal was better than nothing, so Jack carried it in his hands even though it caused him agony. Finally in a flash of inspiration, the con-man snatched a turnip from a garden and carved it into a little lamp to hold the coal.
Jack never could find peace–his spirit still roams to this day, but over the different eras his lamp has become an enduring symbol of the Halloween season. The devil, however, greatly appreciated Jack’s plan to infiltrate society in the form of money and he made many bold innovations in this direction (while being always watchful to steer clear of churches and cleric’s purses). He’s probably lurking somewhere in my bank balance and in yours too.
As noted in several previous blog posts, the Chinese underworld, Diyu, is simultaneously a place of vicious physical tortures AND a particularly nasty and intractable bureaucracy. King Yama presides over this hellish realm assisted by the merciless judge Qin-Guang-Wang who determines how long damned souls must suffer in order to pay off their karmic debts. Yet, in addition to these big names, there are also many other lesser bailiffs, beadles, demons, ghouls, guards, and torturers who work for the system. Perhaps the most recognizable of these henchmen (or henchbeings) are the animal-headed duo of Horse Face and Ox Head. Known together as the Niútóumǎmiàn, Horse Face and Ox Head are the principle bailiffs at the first room of Diyu–the dreadful Hall of Retribution, where initial judgement is meted out to newly dead souls.
Like Cerberus in Greek mythology, these two immortal demons are the first & worst jailors of the dark realm and act as heavies on behalf of the rulers of the underworld. Their tasks include manhandling intractable souls before Diyu’s bench, throwing combative souls into deeper pits of torment, and pursuing would-be escapees. Horse Face and Ox Head lack human compunctions and mercies, but, crucially, they also lack human guile and can thus be tricked.
In The Journey to the West, the most abstruse and fantastical of the Four Great Classical Epics of Chinese Literature, Horse Face and Ox Head (or legions of Horse Faces and Ox Heads) are outwitted by Sun Wukong, the beloved monkey trickster deity, who then erases his own name and the names of all of his monkey subjects from the annals of death. Having thus ensured immortality for himself and his simian followers, Sun Wukong proceeds onward to wreak chaos elsewhere.
Most of the visitors to Diyu were not so fortunate, strong, and clever as the Monkey King and were easily dealt with by the formidable doormen of Diyu. In Japan the duo are known as Gozu-Mezu. They are also part of the afterworld in various cultures around China like Singapore and Thailand. For all of their popularity in visual art, there is remarkably little information about the lore and backstory of Horse Face and Ox Head. It seems that nobody really pays much attention to bailiffs, even when they are immortal animal-headed demons guarding hell itself!
The Islamic conception of hell is similar to the Christian conception of hell: Muslim hell is called Jahannam and it is a place of fire and torture. Deceased sinners enter through one of seven gates, according to the nature of their sins, and are given clothing made of fire (which sounds like it would be hard to dry-clean). The souls are mercilessly burned until they become black like charcoal. Nineteen angels oversee the administration of fire-based torture.
But Jahannam does have a special garden feature lacking from Christian hell. In the middle of the fiery realm is a great malevolent tree named Zaqqum with roots that snake down into the raging fires beneath the world. Zaqqum has fruits which are shaped like devil’s heads. The hungry spirits trapped in hell eat these fruits, which are the only foodstuff to be had, but the fruits only intensify the suffering of the damned. The Quran directly mentions the pain caused by eating Zaqqum’s fruit:
[44.43] Indeed, the tree of zaqqum
[44.44] Is food for the sinful.
[44.45] Like murky oil, it boils within bellies
[44.46] Like the boiling of scalding water.
Other references compare eating the fruit of Zuqqum to swallowing boiling brass, or relate how consuming the fruit is so painful that it causes the eaters’ faces to fall off!
There are no known allusions to Zuqqum before Mohammed. The concept originated with his revelations. Since the writing of the Quran, a number of thorny, poisonous, or bitter trees from Muslim lands have derived their common name from Zuqqum the great misery tree of Jahannam which feeds directly on the fires of hell.
This week has featured posts about quolls, the quincunx, quince trees, and qiviut. For a last q-theme post, I thought about revisiting the lovely quilin, the Chinese unicorn, but I decided that that would be too easy. To round off the week properly we must undertake a grim and harrowing journey of imagination. We need to go back to the dark mansion–once more we must descend to Diyu, Chinese hell.
As explicated in my previous post, Diyu was the Chinese afterlife for souls that lived less than exemplary lives (i.e. just about everyone). The edifice was imagined as a gigantic maze with many different chambers presided over by different competing authorities. As souls worked (or bribed) their way out of one awful torture chamber they were whisked to a new one until, eventually, their karmic slate was clean and they were ready to be reborn back into the living world.
The ruler of all hell was King Yama also known as Yen-lo-Wang (a god adapted from Yama, the Hindu death god, who merits his own post) many other potentates, gods, and spirits inhabit Diyu. Yama was once the judge of hell as well as its ruler, but he was found to be too lenient and was replaced as magistrate by Qin-Guang-Wang a much less merciful underworld deity. Qin-Guang-Wang presided over the first room of Hell where the magic mirror of retribution stood. This mirror replayed every single part of a person’s life in agonizing detail. Once Qin-Guang-Wang had watched this pitiless evidence he sent the spirit on to the proper destination. In all eternity he has only sent a handful of souls over the golden bridge to the perfect happiness of western paradise. A few more souls are allowed to cross the silver bridge which leads to the seedy and disreputable but still comfortable southern paradise. Everyone else is sent deeper into the dark mansion to report for centuries of disemboweling, flaying, boiling, impaling, roasting, crushing, skinning, and so forth.
Of course everyone–beast, human, god, demon, or even inanimate object—has a backstory in Chinese mythology and the ruthless Qin-Guang-Wang is no exception. According to myth he was once King Jiang of Qinguang, a warrior and martinet whose inflexible interpretation of rules and personal cruelty were peerless. The court of heaven noted his talents, promoted him to deity, and now he does what he loves for eternity.
During my break from blogging, I visited the Getty Villa on the Malibu coast, which has a tremendous collection of Greco-Roman objects from the classical and pre-classical eras. One of the more lovely artworks in their collection was this first century Roman statue of Pluto carved from marble.
The Getty’s label for this sculpture reads as follows:
Pluto (Hades to the Greeks) was the Roman god of the Underworld. He is depicted here in the guise of Plouton, a Greek deity associated with wealth and agrarian abundance. The mature bearded figure stands draped in a long cloak. A large cornucopia (now broken) rests in his left arm as a symbol of prosperity. Although sculpted in the Roman era, this statuette is modeled after a Greek work of the Hellenisitic period (323-31 BC)
Like Poseidon, Pluto/Hades was the older brother of Zeus. When he was born he was consumed by his father Cronus. Once rescued from that predicament by Zeus’ cunning, he joined his siblings in the terrible war against the Titans. When the Olympians were triumphant, Zeus gave Pluto suzerainty over the underworld, the dead, and all things within the ground.
Although Pluto appears in many myths, the most important story about him concerns the manner by which he obtained a spouse. The other deities feared and avoided Pluto, who was solitary and gloomy. The goddess Demeter, the goddess of growing things, had a radiant daughter named Persephone, a maiden of unsurpassed loveliness. One day, as Persephone was gathering flowers, Pluto opened a chasm in the world and drove up from the darkness in a chariot drawn by midnight black horses. The god of the underworld captured the trembling girl and bore her down to his opulent palace in the land of the dead. No longer a maiden, Persephone took no joy in the rich jewels and precious metals of Pluto’s great mansion. The only consolation to her was the dark garden of the underworld where she beguiled her time surrounded by the silent weeping shades of the dead.
Although Zeus had consented to this arrangement, even he was unprepared for Demeter’s wrath. She withdrew her gift of fertility from the world (a theme seen in both the story of Psyche and the myths concerning Oshun, an Afro-Brazilian love goddess) and everywhere people and animals starved. The world began to wither into a lifeless desert and Zeus was forced to send his messenger, Hermes (Mercury), to retrieve Persephone. But, while in the garden of the underworld, she had eaten four seeds of a pomegranate. Thereafter she was forced to return to the underworld for four months of the year to rule beside Pluto as queen of the dead.
Statues of Hades/Pluto are much less common than statues of the other Olympian deities. Greeks and Romans feared drawing his direct attention but they also feared to anger him by not sacrificing to him in worship. There were therefore a number of euphemisms for the deity such as “rich father” or “giver of wealth”. Additionally, since Pluto ruled all things under the ground, the Plouton identity, seen in the statue, came to be associated with wealth and with agricultural fertility–after all, gold and jewels came from the ground—as did life-giving crops. The Eleusinian Mysteries celebrated a more positive aspect of Pluto–as the god of wealth and the spouse of the life-giving Persephone. It was believed that initiates of these mysteries would enjoy Persephone’s favor in the underworld and would be granted access to the beautiful glowing fields of asphodel which she planted in the underworld.
In medieval art, hell was frequently portrayed as the flaming gullet of a terrible monster. This image of the literal mouth of hell never exactly appears as such in the bible and it has been speculated that the iconography derives from pre-Christian pagan mythology. Perhaps the poisonous all-devouring maw of the Fenris wolf was transformed into the flames of damnation due to the words of early Christian proselytizers (who sometimes incorporated pre-existing ideas into their teachings). Since the imagery originated in England first before becoming standard throughout Western Europe, it has been posited that the hellmouth concept originated in the Danelaw—the Norse settlements of England.
Whatever its origin, the picture of tiny naked sinners imprisoned and tormented inside of a huge merciless hellmouth is one of the most vivid images from gothic art. The images which I have embedded in this blog post all came from a single book of hours which was created in Utrecht, around 1440. The prayer book was once a treasured possession of Catherine of Cleves, who was the wife of Henry, Duke of Guise. The Duke, a powerful and important nobleman was assassinated on the orders of Henry III during the War of the Three Henrys. Catherine never forgave the French monarch and it is believed her support was instrumental to the king’s own death at the hands of a crazed assassin-monk. It is interesting to imagine her eyes running over the burning sinners as she plotted the death of kings and fed fuel into the fires of the religious wars of France.
The book was divided up in the nineteenth century, but, through good fortune (and thanks to large sums of money trading hands) it is now completely in the possession of the Morgan Library and Museum. Going to the fine online site allows one to examine the book in great detail and gain many insights into day-to-day life in the fifteenth century (and get a taste of the larger zeitgeist).
Pride of place among the monsters born of Echidna has to go to Cerberus, the great three headed dog that guards the underworld. As a dutiful pet to Hades, ruler of the dead, Cerberus works hard to keep living beings out of the underworld and prevent deceased souls from returning to the world of life. Getting past Cerberus on the way into and out of the underworld was therefore a chief problem for the heroes who visited the land of the dead. Orpheus charmed his way past the dog with music. Aeneas pragmatically fed the creature drugged honey cakes. Psyche used sweet words and dog biscuits.
Hercules of course used brute strength. In fact the demigod was in the underworld specifically to borrow Cerberus as a twelfth and final bravura labor. Capturing the hellbeast of course required bravery and raw force, but Hercules had become rather savvier by the time of his last labor, and he did some other things right. Before going to the underworld he mastered the Eleusinian Mysteries so that, in case he never returned from the realm of the dead, he could at least enjoy a pleasant afterlife (the cult’s principal benefit). Once he had entered the underworld through the winding subterranean cave Taenarum in Laconia, Hercules sough out Hades and asked permission to borrow his dog. Hades granted it provided Hercules subdue the beast without using any weapons. When Hercules wrestled Cerberus to submission, he took the creature back to Eurystheus who was so frightened he hid in a jar (which is how he is always portrayed) and freed Hercules from any further obligations. Cleansed of his past sins, Hercules was free to pursue his own life.
Dante also described Cerberus. The Italian poet’s version of the monster seems to be having doggy fun. Virgil and Dante witness him tearing apart spirits and they feed him some dirt to play with in the following passage from Inferno:
In the third circle am I of the rain
Eternal, maledict, and cold, and heavy;
Its law and quality are never new.
Huge hail, and water sombre-hued, and snow,
Athwart the tenebrous air pour down amain;
Noisome the earth is, that receiveth this.
Cerberus, monster cruel and uncouth,
With his three gullets like a dog is barking
Over the people that are there submerged.
Red eyes he has, and unctuous beard and black,
And belly large, and armed with claws his hands;
He rends the spirits, flays, and quarters them.
Howl the rain maketh them like unto dogs;
One side they make a shelter for the other;
Oft turn themselves the wretched reprobates.
When Cerberus perceived us, the great worm!
His mouths he opened, and displayed his tusks;
Not a limb had he that was motionless.
And my Conductor, with his spans extended,
Took of the earth, and with his fists well filled,
He threw it into those rapacious gullets.
Such as that dog is, who by barking craves,
And quiet grows soon as his food he gnaws,
For to devour it he but thinks and struggles,
The like became those muzzles filth-begrimed
Of Cerberus the demon, who so thunders
Over the souls that they would fain be deaf.
It is good that there is a family member of Echidna that did not suffer extinction at the hands of some hero. It is pleasant to imagine the three-headed dog enjoying a vigorous and rousing eternity with his master in the halls of hell.
Here is gallery of some images both ancient and modern, high art and low art, of the great monster. Also I would like to give a hearty thanks to all of the creative people whose work is available on the internet. You all are truly the best.
Sorcier (David Teniers)
I wrote yesterday that this would end my series on Echidna’s monstrous offspring–but it occurs to me I forgot the Colchian Dragon. So tune in tomorrow for a special bonus monster!
To celebrate getting through tax day last week, I am writing about Diyu, the Chinese underworld. Although it shares many features with other underworlds (torture, damned souls, and animal headed monstrosities), the “Dark Mansion” is truly hellish because of its sprawling bureaucracy. Featuring baffling rules, repeated performance evaluations, multiple redundant authorities, and numerous different levels with obscure links to one another, Chinese hell will be instantly familiar to all office workers.
Although upright souls can be reborn after death or proceed to paradise (or even find immortality and apotheosize to godhood!), the average sinful person must make their way through the different levels of the afterlife by petitioning officials and serving time in various torture chambers. Fortunately, the authorities of the Chinese afterlife are extremely venal. Influence can be bought (and progress towards rebirth can be earned) for “hell dollars” which are burned by pious relatives on earth.
My favorite Chinese underworld story comes from Journey to the West, an epic poem from the Ming Dynasty. It features Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty, one of China’s most powerful and gifted rulers with his own fascinating (real) history. The mythical story of his journey to the underworld begins when Emperor Taizong falls sick due to a magical illness. This mortal sickness was visited upon the Emperor by the ghost of a powerful river dragon who nursed a grievance. Fortunately one of Emperor Taizong’s courtiers was friends with an underworld official Cui Jue. When Emperor Taizang died from the ghost dragon’s curse, the courtier sent a letter to the underworld official who in turn used his influence to allow Emperor Taizong to make a tour of hell and then return to the world of the living. As a result of his trip, which brought spiritual and karmic debts, Emperor Taizang was forced to commission the “journey to the west” undertaken by a virtuous monk and his 4 disciples which is of course the true subject of the epic. The Emperor’s journey and a more complete recounting of the events surrounding it can be found at this wonderful site.
The Chinese deities of Hell are like the powerful people of this world, trading favors for political and financial gain. A devout Chinese Taoist who has lived a less than blameless life can expect to be the plaything of officialdom throughout this life and for many, many lifetimes to come.
*Forgive me for simplifying the tangled mythological/political web of eastern beliefs and for mangling the Chinese words and names in this article.