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One of my favorite living artists is not interested in the fatuous self-absorption and navel gazing which characterizes most contemporary artwork. Instead of falling in love with himself, Ray Troll fell in love with aquatic animals—and his art is a pun-filled paean to the astonishing diversity and complexity of life in Earth’s rivers, lakes, and oceans both in this epoch and in past geological ages. Although Troll’s vibrant biology themed art is humorous and fantastic, it also resonates at a deeper level. Themes of ecological devastation and the broad exploitation of the oceans are unflinchingly explored, as is the true nature of humankind. Troll (correctly) regards people as a sort of terrestrial fish descendant who still have the same aggressive territoriality, unending hunger, and crude drives that propelled our distant piscine forbears. This sounds deterministic and grim until one comprehends the high esteem which Troll holds for fish of all sorts. After looking at the beauty, grace, and power of his fish art, one feels honored to be included in the larger family (along with all the mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians which trace their roots back to fish-like tetrapod ancestors).
Troll is a favorite artist because he endeavors to understand paleontology, ecology, and biology and synthesize these extraordinary disciplines with broader human experience. The result is a whimsical and surreal mixture of creatures and concepts from different times and places rubbing elbows as though Hieronymous Bosch were having a happy daydream. Troll is a “popular” artist in that he makes a living by selling books, tee-shirts, and posters rather than swindling billionaire bankers into multi-million dollar single purchases, so you should check out his website. In keeping with the themes of Ferrebeekeeper, I have added a small gallery of his mollusk and catfish themed artwork (although such creatures are only featured in some of his paintings and drawings). Unfortunately the online sample images are rather small. If you want to see full resolution images you will have to buy his books and artwork (which is a worthwhile thing to do).
The Encante is a paradisiacal underwater realm where shapeshifting river dolphins lure humans. The aquatic creatures are able to be themselves in this realm of magic and dance. Not only does Troll’s work feature the beauty of the Amazon and the otherworldly magical river dolphins, there are also a host of amazing catfish, including several armored catfish, and a giant bottomfeeder which has apparently developed an unfortunate taste for human flesh.
Here are a handful of Troll’s pun-themed tee-shirt drawings involving amazing cephalopods. I like to imagine the populist octopus in battle with the fearsome vampire squid which is so emblematic of Goldman Sachs.
Finally, here is a naturalistic portrayal of how the ancient ammonites most likely came together to spawn on moonlit nights of the Paleozoic (such behavior is characteristic of the squids and cuttlefish alive today). The long-extinct cephalopods are portrayed with life and personality as though their quest to exist has immediate relevance to us today. Indeed–that might is Troll’s overarching artistic and philosophical point: life is a vividly complex web of relationships which knit together in the past, present, and the future.
Today Santa Claus, an undead cleric from the early Byzantine Empire, is one of the most popular and beloved figures in the world. In the Christian canon, only God, Jesus, and Mary are more recognizable than the jolly fat man (sorry, Holy Ghost). As discussed in yesterday’s post, there were many different portrayals of Saint Nicholas/Santa/Sinterklaas/Father Christmas in different parts of Europe during the late middle ages and the early modern era. As industrialization and mass media became more prevalent, these images became amalgamated into the contemporary image of Santa, a compassionate old man with a red and white suit who tends to portliness. Much of this picture comes from Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”. Additionally a series of illustrations by German-born American caricaturist Thomas Nast filled out the vernacular picture of Santa (Nast also popularized the Republican elephant, the democratic donkey, the figure of Columbia, and Uncle Sam). Coca-Cola provided his signature red outfit. Breakthroughs in communication have further consolidated this modern identity.
The mass-produced, mass-media portrayals of the gift-giving saint show a compassionate globalized executive who runs his supernatural empire from the geographic North Pole. All the dark edges have been smoothed away from Santa: he does not whip bad children or give them fossilized hydrocarbons nor does he subcontract such punishments to devils like Krampus. Like me, Santa is a toymaker, but, unlike me, he has a tremendous grasp of worldwide logistics. A huge team of competent elves run his modernized factories and provide him with support.
Even more shockingly, after one and a half thousand years of celibacy, the devout bishop suddenly obtained a wife. Mrs. Claus is usually pictured as a matronly but vivacious partner: a kind of polar first lady who frets about child-welfare, PR, and housekeeping –unless Santa is indisposed, whereupon she seamlessly takes over the reins for her demi-god husband (or am I the only one who saw that Christmas special?).
Santa can be omnipresent, traveling everywhere on Earth in one night with help from deathless flying reindeer and a bottomless bag of holding. He hears and sees all. This globalized Santa no longer performs flashy individual miracles (like resurrecting chopped-up children from barrels of salt). Instead he has become a polished politician—relying on vast support networks to change the emotional frame of reference for the masses.
A typical contemporary movie might show Santa simultaneously helping a sad little girl connect with her estranged business-executive father, reuniting lovers sundered by mischance, saving a shelter puppy about to be put down, and finding homes for a plucky group of orphans (maybe even trying to help a lost toymaker/blogger/artist). Santa always accomplishes everything with a deft touch so that the plots all interweave and everyone discovers the goodness was always in their hearts. The solutions—kindness, generosity, love– were always obvious and Santa didn’t need to be there at all…or did he?
Santa’s tale is one of the strangest but strongest story arcs imaginable. Over millennia, Bishop Nicholas, a thin, ascetic church prelate from fourth century Anatolia has changed into a globally recognized god of generosity. The orphan child has apotheosized into the spirit of giving.
The historical roots of agriculture are a common topic of this blog–which has featured posts about the ancient domestication of pumpkins, pigs, olives, goats, and turkeys. However not all agricultural goods have such long tangled pedigrees which stretch into prehistory. Today we are celebrating a fruit which was first cultivated in 1816 by an American revolutionary veteran named Henry Hall. The deep ruby-pink berries were originally known as a fenberries because the wild plants grow in acidic marshes and bogs, however something about that name struck early pioneers as unpoetic and they started calling the fruit “craneberries”—which was shortened to cranberry.
Cranberries are low shrubs and vines of the subgenus Oxycoccus (of the genus Vaccinium, which includes other northern berries like bilberries and blueberries). The evergreen cranberries flourish throughout cold bogs around the northern hemisphere. Because cranberries grow in such poor acidic soil (which is also low in nitrogen) they are heavily dependent on the mycorrhizal fungi with which they are symbiotic.
The berries become ripe from September through the first part of November. There is a long history of cranberries being hand-harvested by hunter-gatherers as a valuable source of food and dye, however modern methods involve flooding the cranberry bogs and agitating the berries from the vine (at which point they float up and can be corralled en masse). As a food cranberries are extremely tart and contain an imposing mixture of vitamins, dietary minerals, fiber and antioxidants which make them a favorite health food. The cranberry is heavily associated with Thanksgiving and Christmas, when rich cranberry sauses, jellies, and aspics are a big part of end-of-year feasting. They also have an association with the American Navy, which in bygone days used the vitamin C rich fruits to stave off scurvy on long voyages. Just as sailors in the Royal Navy were limeys, American seamen were “cranberries” (there is no word on how offensive this is, so you might not want to run into a bar and start shouting this at drunk sailors).
Every year at the banquet table, I am fascinated by how beautiful the color of cranberries is. The berries themselves—and even more so their sauce–produce a sensuous deep crimson pink. Endless decorators and fashion houses have adopted this color for dresses, lipsticks, walls, and what have you, but they were not the first to appreciate the color. The people of the first nations and later colonial Americans made use of the cranberry directly as a fiber dye. Yarns, threads, and fabrics dyed with cranberries take on a delicate lovely pink color—a direct contradiction to the idea that everything the pilgrims owned was black and white.
Yesterday’s post concerned smallpox, one of the most dreadful scourges to ever afflict humankind. I shied away from writing about the physiological aspects of the disease–which is caused by two viruses, Variola major and Variola minor–because the symptoms are absolutely horrible (as I can fervently attest after some internet research involving photographs which were apparently taken in the cruelest depths of hell). Smallpox was badly named. It should have been called “deathrash” or “bloodskin” or “face-melt-fever”, but apparently Roman stoicism came to the fore and the Latin name merely means “spotted” or “pimple.” Not only did smallpox effectively kill off the native population of the new world (and later of Australia, which experienced a similar plague), but for thousands of years it regularly culled a sizable hunk of humanity from Africa, Asia, and Europe. Like influenza, the smallpox co-evolved in response to our immune reactions to it, so, even in parts of the world where people had inherited some resistance, the pestilence sometimes flared into a full scale pandemic.
But smallpox is gone (almost)! Humankind joined together and beat one of the most horrible things we have ever faced. Today the last remaining live smallpox viruses are imprisoned in laboratories in Atlanta and Koltsovo, Novosibirsk Oblast.
In grade school, we were taught that this stunning victory came about when an English physician named Edward Jenner realized that milkmaids who contracted a mild rash called cowpox became immune to smallpox. By deliberately giving people cowpox, Jenner found a way of protecting them from the fatal smallpox. Jenner thus invented immunology, one of the most useful and inexpensive forms of medicine. His great work was taken up by subsequent generations of immunologists and physicians in allied fields who improved upon his findings. Together they used national and international resources to immunize the world. Smallpox was officially proclaimed to be eradicated in 1979.
Yet Jenner had antecedents who were not well appreciated because of the preconceptions and prejudices of the day, (also, by necessity, he worked with human subjects whose bravery went unheralded). Jenner’s greatness is not diminished by looking back at the others who were involved in an epic struggle against history’s greatest killer. There are descriptions of smallpox avoidance techniques in ancient Sanskrit texts from India dating back to 1000 BC, however scholars do not agree on whether these texts describe inoculation or not. What is certain is that a medical text from Ming dynasty China does indeed describe an effective inoculation process. The Douzhen xinfa published in 1549 was written by Wan Quan, a pediatrician who believed that sunlight and fresh air were good for children (and that overfeeding and overmedicating were bad). Wan Quan described a method of variolation—by which means a healthy person was purposely infected with Variola minor, the less dangerous o the two forms o smallpox. By the time of the Lonquing Emperor who reigned from 1567–1572 (and was the son of the addled Jiajing emperor) variolation was widespread–powdered smallpox scabs were blown up the noses of healthy children so that they would contract Variola minor. This was effective in preventing smallpox, but it had a fatality rate of .05% to 2%–a dreadful margin (though nothing like the 30%+ mortality rate of smallpox pandemic).
Variolation gradually spread through the Chinese empire and through the Turkish and Islamic world, but it did not reach the attention of western medicine until the early 18th century. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was the wife of the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1716 to 1717 (as well as a sort of feminist pioneer, poet, and adventurer). After losing a brother to smallpox (and being disfigured by the disease) Lady Mary was eager for a means to protect her children from the scourge. In 1718, the embassy surgeon inoculated her son and, based on the success of this procedure, she arranged for her daughter to be inoculated in 1721 (when the family was back in England). The procedure attracted the attention of the medical establishment and the royal family. Although many doctors were aghast at an “Oriental” procedure (which was being popularized by a woman, no less) the royal family intervened directly in the controversy when a smallpox epidemic swept England in the 1720s. In order to fully test the safety of the inoculation, the King offered a full pardon to six (or seven?) condemned prisoners in exchange for undergoing variolation. Not surprisingly the condemned prisoners chose an unknown medical procedure instead of the hangman’s rope, and when they survived they were duly freed. Variolation was also tested on six orphan children–who also survived. After these human tests, the royal children were inoculated against smallpox.
Inoculation spread quickly among the rich and powerful of Europe, but it was staunchly opposed by reactionaries and by churchmen (who believed it was contrary to God’s will). Against such a background, came Jenner’s discovery of a cowpox based vaccine which was vastly safer than using live smallpox. But even with the much safer vaccine, it was a long time before the immunologists started to win over many ignorant and superstitious people to the life-saving virtues of the vaccine (and nearly two hundred more years before they stomped out the loathsome blight of smallpox).
Kindly accept my apologies for not writing a post last Friday: the sad exigencies of the world prevented me from finishing my week-long overview of ornamental knot designs (which included the valknut, knot gardens, the Saint Jame’s arms, and the endless knot). Today I am returning to the theme for a final post concerning Celtic knotted designs– which represent the beautiful apogee of decorative knots (with the possible exception of certain gorgeous Islamic calligraphy and artwork).
Like leprechauns and shamrocks, ornate knot designs are an iconic and instantly recognizable aspect of Gaelic culture. Yet the history of how these designs came to be synonymous with all things Hibernian is far from clear. Interlace patterns have been found in mosaics and tile work from many different parts of the Roman Empire during the fifth and sixth centuries. It has been speculated that these designs may have originated from Coptic Egyptian manuscripts, but whatever the case, the sinuous interconnected ribbons with animal heads certainly appealed to the people of Northern Europe in the waning days of Roman hegemony.
During the so-called Migration period (the period from 400 AD to 800 AD) waves of Germanic, Slavic, Mediterranean, and Steppe peoples intermingled and pushed into each other’s territory. As these peoples intermingled (and battled), looped, braided, and geometric styles of decoration grew in popularity throughout what had been the Western Roman Empire. Frequently these designs were elaborate knotted ribbons which terminated in interlocking animal heads.
By 700 AD, the style was becoming less prominent on continental Europe, however it continued to evolve in Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia. The insular art of Irish monasteries produced unrivaled treasures such as numerous ancient stone crosses and the world famous Book of Kells, an illuminated Vulgate gospel from around 800 AD, which defies belief due to the microcosmic intricacy of its knotwork men, animals, and sacred figures.
Although the Book of Kells marks an apogee of lacework illumination, geometrical knots continued to be popular in Ireland thereafter. Right on down until today, intricate ornamental knots are a hallmark of Irish culture. For your enjoyment here is a little gallery of Celtic knots, ancient and modern.
The 2012 London Olympics are passing into history. Congratulations to all of the athletes and planners (and to the British in general). Now the world is becoming curious about what’s going to happen in the next summer Olympics in Brazil. Will that nation continue its meteoric rise from underperforming “developing” economy into a major international powerhouse? Will municipal authorities clean up street crime in Rio de Janeiro? Will Cariocas continue to disdain all but the skimpiest of garments—even with the eyes of the world upon them? These answers will only be known in four years: it is impossible to see into the future. But maybe it’s worthwhile to take another look back at the past. The first modern Olympic games were held in Athens in 1896 thanks to a late nineteenth century obsession with fitness, the hard work of Pierre de Coubertin, and a widespread interest in the classical Olympics (the roots of which are lost in history, but which are mythically believed to have been initiated by Hercules). Yet there were earlier modern Olympic-style contests which preceded the 1896 Olympics. The Wenlock Olympic games, an annual local gaming festival which originated in the 1850’s in Shropshire, England, have been much discussed by the English during the run-up to the 2012 Olympics (in fact one of the awful mascots takes his name from the venerable tradition), however an even older modern Olympics festival was celebrated in much stranger circumstances.
On September 11, 1796 (also known as “1er vendémiaire, an IV” under the crazy Republican calendar) the “First Olympiad of the Republic” took place in Paris at the Champ de Mars. As many as 300,000 spectators watched some part of the contests. The opening ceremony was dedicated to “peace and fertility” and then teams of competitors participated in various sporting events modeled on those of classical antiquity. The first event, a foot race, was a tie between a student named Jean-Joseph Cosme and a “pomegranate” named Villemereux [I had to break out the French-English dictionary to determine that Villemereux was (probably) a grenadier instead some sort of seedy fruit]. The Olympiad also features horse and chariot racing. The victors were crowned with laurel and rode in a chariot of victory. The event ended with fireworks and an all-night drinking holiday. The event was very popular with the public and the press.
There were two more Olympiads of the Republic, in 1797 and 1798. The 1797 Olympiad was modeled closely on the 1796 event, however the 1798 Olympiad took additional inspiration from the classical Olympics and from the Enlightenment ideals of science and reason. Wrestling was added to the contests and the games featured the first ever use of the metric system in sports. However in 1798, the ominous shadows lengthening over Europe were apparent at the games. As the athletes marched onto the field, they passed in front of effigies which represented all of the original French provinces, but they also passed before effigies which represented the newly conquered provinces from the Netherlands, Switzerland, and northern Italy. The armies of the French Republic were surging through Europe. As the Directory gave way to the Consulate the games were subsumed by more serious martial conflict, and the first consul—soon known as Emperor Napoleon, apparently saw no reason to bring them back.
The ancient Romans were devotees of all sorts of gardens. As classical Mediterranean culture reached its apogee during the eras of the Roman Republic and the Roman Principate, Roman gardeners combined the best aspects of garden styles from Greece, Persia, and Egypt to create their own tranquil refuges from stress, strife, and crowds. Some of these gardens were sprawling temple gardens built to honor various deities (while also granting beauty and serenity to the worshippers), or large pleasure gardens which combined orchards with ornate terraces, but the classical Roman garden which everyone thinks of today was the peristyle garden at the center of the Roman urban household. This was designed to be one of the two centers of the Roman home. The other center, the atria was symbolic and formal—it related to ancestors, religion, and the past, but the garden was meant to be lived in and enjoyed.
A peristyle garden was located in an open courtyard of a domus and was generally surrounded by colonnades. Various ornamental plants and statues could be found in the garden. If the family was especially prosperous, there might also be fountains, pools, murals, and running water. However even humbler houses would have an opening in the ceiling and some potted herbs and flowers.
For security reasons Roman urban houses did not usually have windows facing the street, so the garden (and the formal atrium at the front of the house) became the source of fresh air as well as water. Fragrant, herbs, shrubs and flowers were carefully cultivated amidst complementary artworks. We have paintings of these gardens, and literary descriptions, but, best of all, we have examples of the gardens themselves from Pompeii. Although the actual plants from Pompeian villas emerged worse for the wear after being entombed for centuries beneath volcanic ash, the statues and decorations remained. This post contains photos of how some of these actual Roman gardens look when replanted and tended.
The old-fashioned Roman domus began to vanish in the 6th century AD as Christianity became universal, but the peristyle did not vanish. The peristyle garden evolved into the atrium of the Basillica–and then the concept became even more removed from the mundane world as it changed into the monastic cloister.
It is spring again and the huge ornamental cherry tree which lives in my back yard is blooming (weeks earlier than it bloomed last year). Frequent readers know my fondness for both trees and flower gardens; and the Japanese cherry tree magnificently combines both things. It is a stately and elegant mid-sized tree of great vigor, which for one week (or less) is covered in clouds of gorgeous pale pink flowers. When it is fully in bloom, the tree is unrivaled in its beauty. Even the most lovely orchids and roses do not put on a display so simultaneously delicate and ostentatious.
Last year I wrote about the Hanami festival, which has steadily grown more important in Japanese society since its beginnings a thousand years ago during the Nara period. The flower appreciation festival now grips Japan as a national fervor which dominates the spring season and monopolizes the news. Hanami however is merely an outward expression of a much larger cultural concept, “Mono no aware” (物の哀れ) which translates approximately as “”the pathos of things” or “sensitivity to ephemera.”
Mono no aware involves a gentle wistful sadness for the impermanence of all things. The cherry blossoms come back year after year, yet childhood fades away before one even knows. Lovers with whom we dallied under the pink branches move out and drift away. The mayflies die. Our pets die. We die. Life runs by so quickly that we might as well be cherry blossoms ourselves, here for a beautiful fleeting moment before being shaken away into oblivion by some gust of wind or random happenstance. The idea of life’s beautiful brevity grows out of the flinty Buddhism for which Japan is famous and it gives rise to many famous tropes of Japanese culture (like the stoic samurai prepared to throw away his life in a lightning quick duel, or the suicidal lover, or the moth in the flame). There is an undercurrent of cupio dissolvi running through humankind and it seems particularly pronounced in the Japanese psyche.
However I like to imagine Mono no aware (and the cherry tree, and all trees, and all living things) less in terms of Japan’s Buddhism and more in terms of the animistic nature-based religions of East Asia like Shinto or Daoism. Look at the cherry blossoms more closely over many generations and you will see that they themselves change. Today’s blossoms are big showy gaudy things engineered by untold generations of nurserymen to appeal most directly to human taste. If you look long enough you will see that blossoms themselves are an innovation—a design leap by which plants appeal to animals to help out with the critical work of reproduction (and it works tremendously well! There is a cherry tree from Japan in my back yard in Brooklyn). The seasons themselves change, as demonstrated by this year’s unseasonable warmth (to say nothing of the warmth of the Eocene). The oceans rise and fall. Animals burgeon and fall into extinction. The world is made of clouds and storms and water rather than unchanging stone. In fact that metaphor doesn’t even hold up– geologists look at mountain faces and see the eons of erosion and shift with uncanny clarity. The stones themselves dance and shift and change as much as the fickle water (albeit so slowly that we can not clearly see them do so).
Year after year the blossoms come and go. It is beautiful and sad. But it would be sadder if they never opened up, or even sadder yet if, having bloomed, the pink petals never fell but hung forever as though in some fairy land. Change is a critical part of living things. Children grow up for a reason. Lovers quarrel and part because they did not belong together. The samurais and warriors and noblemen of yesteryear have been replaced by kinder smarter better people, and it is to be hoped that we will likewise be replaced. As you sit drinking beneath the flowers and the stars, don’t be overwhelmed by the fact that spring flashes by so fast. Be appreciative of the beauty and meaning you have today and start dreaming of how to make the next spring even better.
The winter is gradually passing away into spring–which should be an exultant season for flower gardeners. Yet the results in my back yard are extremely discouraging because the ferocious squirrels of Brooklyn have eaten all of my crocuses! Despite planting an immense number of the hardy little flowers, I am still bereft of spring color. I guess I should have expected something like this after the infernal bushy-tailed rodents ate all the glass bulbs from the Christmas lights…
As it turns out, squirrels are not the only ones who love crocus flavor. One of the world’s most precious spices is made from the little flowers. The gourmet spice saffron literally consists of the harvested stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus). The saffron crocus plant has been domesticated since antiquity to provide the costly spice and the plant literally owes its existence to human appetite for the powdery threads. Crocus sativus is a descendant of Crocus cartwrightianus, a wild crocus from the rocky skree of southwest Asia. As humankind selectively planted the plants with the longest stigmas (and hence the most delicious saffron) the little crocus developed into a completely different—and completely dependent—species. Crocus sativus now has magnificent spiraling stigma covered in deep yellow pollen, but the artificial selection came at a terrible cost. The plant is a male sterile triploid, incapable of sexual reproduction thanks to its extra chromosome. Saffron crocuses can only reproduce asexually and they require human assistance to prosper. The spice is still prohibitively expensive since the little plants must be planted and harvested by hand.
Saffron is known to recorded history as early as the 7th century BC (when it was mentioned in a Assyrian botanical treatise) however archeological and genetic evidence suggest that saffron has been harvested for at least 4 millenia! Since saffron contains over 150 volatile and aroma-yielding compounds, I am not going to try to describe it to you—you’ll just have to get some yourself. My favorite dish which uses the yellow pollen is mussels, saffron, vermouth, and cream!
Of course I am cheating a little bit by writing this article in the spring–the saffron crocus is really an autumn flowering plant. However I felt like my slaughtered crocuses deserved some sort of memorial tribute. Of course if I really wanted to commemorate the slain flowers I could turn to my paint box. In addition to being a spice, saffron is also a color—a deep orangey gold reminiscent of foods prepared with the spice. Strangely, for a color so steeped in the sensory joys of living, saffron has also come to represent worldly renunciation. Buddhist monks wear robes of deep saffron and the top bar of the Indian flag is the same rich orange-yellow. The flag’s designers hoped that the color would inspire India’s leaders to set aside material gains and dedicate themselves to the welfare of the people, but, alas, in all societies such selfless dedication is even rarer than the rarest spice.
Just kidding—aside from zoos and the pet trade, Ireland actually famously has no snakes. It is one the few snake-free large islands on Earth joined only by New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland, and Antarctica (well—everywhere far enough north or south is snake-free: the reptiles don’t really thrive in places where there is permafrost or truly cold winters). Legend has it that it was Saint Patrick who drove the snakes out of Ireland. Standing on a great hill he lifted up his crosier and focused divine energy upon the unlucky reptiles which then writhed en masse into the sea and never returned to the emerald island.
It has always been a bit unclear to me why Saint Patrick would do such a thing. Ecoystems which undergo such catastrophic changes tend to go haywire with great alacrity! Fortunately the story is entirely a myth. If snakes ever lived in Ireland (and it doesn’t seem like they did), they were long gone by the time the first Christians showed up. The real reason is even more interesting than the dramatic Moses-like power of Saint Patrick, but as with most actual answers it is also more complex.
Evidence suggests that snakes evolved 130 million years ago during the Cretaceous. At the time Ireland was, um, underwater at the bottom of a warm chalky sea. Early snakes slithered their way across landbridges, rafted to islands on washed away logs, and swam (like the sea snakes) from island to island but, during the Mesozoic, there was no Ireland for them to go to.
When the Mesozoic era ended in the great ball of fire, the continents again shifted. Snakes went through a substantial evolutionary period during the Miocene and the original python-like snakes evolved into many different forms. These new varieties of snakes slithered into grasslands, deserts, forests, and oceans around the world, but they still could not get to Ireland (now above the waves) because a cold ocean was in their way. Then the end of the Miocene brought an ice age. To quote the National Zoo’s essay on “Why Ireland Has No Snakes”:
The most recent ice age began about three million years ago and continues into the present. Between warm periods like the current climate, glaciers have advanced and retreated more than 20 times, often completely blanketing Ireland with ice. Snakes, being cold-blooded animals, simply aren’t able to survive in areas where the ground is frozen year round. Ireland thawed out for the last time only 15,000 years ago.
So Ireland remains snake-free because of the world’s temperamental geology. The island was underwater or covered by ice during certain eras when the snakes might have arrived–geography has conspired against serpents coming to Eire and setting up shop. The age of humans however has been marked by numerous introduced species cropping up everywhere. I wonder how long Ireland will be snake free when a pet shop accident or crazy hobbyist could unleash a plague of serpents on the green island. The fact that such a thing has yet to happen seems almost as miraculous as the original myth.