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This week’s theme on Ferrebeekeeper is “Flowers of the Underworld.” So far we have featured a ghostly-looking flower which is actually edible and a demonic looking flower which is actually medicinal—hardly plants from the depths of hell. Today therefore we are proceeding in a scarier direction and featuring a flower of delicate beauty…which is profoundly poisonous. Aconitum is a genus of about 300 flowers belonging to the buttercup family (a family of flowering plants, notable for the number of toxic plants therein, which has been extant since the Cretaceous). The aconites are hardy perennial flowers which grow throughout the Northern Hemisphere but largely prefer mountain meadows and rich cool forests. The plants have many common names which range from whimsical to hair-raising: “blue rocket”, “monkshood”, “wolfsbane”, “woman’s bane”, “devil’s helmet”, “mourning bride”, “Hecateis herba” (which means “the herb of Hecate”, to whom the aconites are sacred) and so on. All aconite plants are extremely toxic. You should not eat them, touch them, or even write about them without taking precautions. Seriously—Pliny the Elder (absurdly) wrote that the smell of aconite could kill a mouse from a substantial distance! When something is so toxic that it hoodwinked the greatest naturalist of the Roman era, you know it is really a fraught topic (although, frankly, Pliny made some other errors as well).
Aconite plants have dark green leaves in a spiral pattern and a radish-like root. In the wild they live in rich soils, preferring those which are moist but well drained, however they can be cultivated easily in a variety of locations. The real glories of aconites are their flowers, which are lovely but difficult to describe–the tall upright stems support numerous blossoms each of which has five sepals. The posterior sepal is in the shape of a cylindrical helmet or hood from classical antiquity (the source of many of the aconites’ common names). The most common aconite in Europe is the common monkshood (Aconitum napellus) which is known from its brilliant blue-purple flowers and from endless mystery novels, but other species look somewhat different. For example, the yellow wolfsbane (Aconitum anthora) lives in the Alps and bears pretty yellow blossoms.
Since I am an avid flower gardener and do not have children, dogs, or livestock, I decided to plant monkshood in my old garden. Unfortunately, for all of their reputed hardiness, the flowers were no match for the toxic soil and the dreadful machinations of the Norway maple. Perhaps their failure was a good thing. Because aconites are so toxic, I became prey to paranoid thoughts that agile children would somehow steal into my (walled) garden and eat the (unappealing tasting) plants.
My paranoia was not groundless–aconites contain virulent neurotoxins. Inchem.org describes the mechanism of aconite poisoning in the typically bland language of pharmacology stating, “Aconite alkaloids activate the sodium channel and have widespread effects on the excitable membranes of cardiac, neural and muscle tissue.” In translation this means that alkaloid compounds found in all parts of the plant (but particularly the root) are potent neurotoxins which disrupt neural and nerve-to-muscle signals and usually prove fatal by stopping the heart. Because it is so dangerous, aconite has a substantial place in history. Chinese soldiers used the poison for their arrows and Greeks poured it into water supplies as an early form of bio-warfare. The roots were most infamous as a gastronomically administered stealth poison. Emperor Claudius was probably killed by aconite poisoning, as too was Emperor John I Tzimisces. These emperors were joined over the years by numerous other victims from all walks of life. Aconite has also been used as a medicine (and still is part of Chinese traditional homeopathy), but since it is so easy to kill patients with a slight overdose, Western doctors abandoned compounds derived from the plant as soon as other subtler neurological drugs were found.
Aconite flowers have an equally dramatic place in myth and literature. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, aconite plants first came into the world when Hercules dragged Cerberus, the monstrous canine offspring of Echidna, up from the underworld into the world of life. The poison drool–or “lip-froth” as it is written in my translation–fell from the hellhound’s three gnashing mouths, landed on the ground in Scythia, and transformed into aconite flowers. Ovid recounts the tale as an aside while recounting how the poison was a particular favorite of Medea (the citation is Ovid, Metamorphoses 7. 412 if you want to read the dramatic passage for yourself).
It was not just classical poets who wrote of the plant. In Ulysses, Bloom’s father died from a (deliberate?) overdose of aconite which he was self-administering as a homeopathic remedy for neuralsia/depression. Presumably the character failed to heed the counsel of Keats, who prominently alluded to aconite in the first stanza of his Ode on Melacholy which, in the second stanza, counsels the reader how to avoid despair through appreciation of the natural world, study of classical values, and delight in love. On the other hand, the third and last stanza of the poem seems to indicate that sadness is a requisite part of mortality which allows us to savor beauty, love, and joy—indeed by counter-example melancholy guides us towards these transcendent (but transient) feelings. Keat’s complex message steps far beyond thoughts of flowers and the underworld so I will leave you to read the entire poem on your own. Here, however is the first stanza, entreating you away from aconite (and from other forms of self harm). It goes without saying, gentle reader, that I am entirely of a mind with Keats:
NO, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kist
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.
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.
The Geats are the protagonists of the epic poem Beowulf (in fact, the titular character Beowulf himself was a Geat). The poem gives us a picture of a society of northern Germanic warriors who lived near the coast. They spent the summer accomplishing feats of valor–raiding and fighting through the lands around the Baltic and the North Sea–and then they returned home to pass the winter in their mead halls drinking and telling great tales.
It is a compelling picture and such a tribe did indeed exist. Historiae Francorum by Gregory of Tours recounts a raid against Frisia by the Geatish king, Hygelac, which took place in 516 AD. The Geats inhabited what is now Götaland (“land of the Geats”) in Sweden. Their lands were bounded by the Baltic Sea to the South and the haunted forest of Tiveden to the North. In the great Norse Sagas they are referred to as the “Gautar”. It seems they lived much in the manner suggested by Beowulf and the Sagas–albeit with fewer mythical monsters and less political unity. Wikipedia somewhat blandly informs us that, “The Geats were traditionally divided into several petty kingdoms, or districts, which had their own things (popular assemblies) and laws.” Ultimately the Geats were integrated into the Kingdom of Sweden. This annexation was more a matter of political expediency than via conquest: the Swedes and the Geats shared many cultural similarities and they shared a terrible enemy—the Danes. In fact many Swedish rulers and elite were Geats.
All of this has a larger context: looking further back into ancient history, one discovers that the Geats are the presumed Goths. Jordanes, a sixth century Roman bureaucrat who wrote The History and Deeds of the Goths decided that the ancestral home of the Goths was the southern edge of Scandinavia–which he describes as a great island named Scandza. Here is how Jordanes explains the origin of the Goths:
Now from this island of Scandza, as from a hive of races or a womb of nations, the Goths are said to have come forth long ago under their king, Berig by name. As soon as they disembarked from their ships and set foot on the land, they straightway gave their name to the place. And even to-day it is said to be called Gothiscandza…But when the number of the people increased greatly and Filimer, son of Gadaric, reigned as king–about the fifth since Berig–he decided that the army of the Goths with their families should move from that region. In search of suitable homes and pleasant places they came to the land of Scythia, called Oium in that tongue.
Many historians have questioned Jordanes’ accurac–not least because he wrote a century or more after the events described had taken place. In fact some scholars have written off The History and Deeds of the Goths as utter mythology. Other writers, however, accord Jordanes greater respect for his primary source of information was Cassiodorus, a Roman statesman who served under the king of the Ostrogoths at the end of the fifth century. Many of Cassiodorus’ works are lost, but Jordanes had access to them. Archaeological and linguistic evidence has indeed tied the Wielbark Culture to the Geats. The Wielbark culture in turn gave rise to the Gothic kingdom of Oium, a part of the Chernyakhiv culture. Um, hopefully the following map will make this more clear.
If you have been following my topic thread concerning all things Gothic, you will know that I am baffled and delighted by this inpenetrable muddle. The origin of the Goths seems to flow into the north in the distant past and dissolve into myth. Yet somehow these ancient barbarians have lent their name to lovely Northern Flemish art, horror fiction, the sack of Rome, medieval architecture, and an entire contemporary youth movement. With this in mind, it seems completely appropriate that the original Goths were Geats (or their progenitors). The violent and exquisite Anglo Saxon Poetry of Beowulf seems as appropriate a place to find the Goths as anywhere. I like the idea that the Goths did not vanish forever in the sands of northern Africa. Some of them stayed home and became the Vikings. The Swedes like the idea as well and the name “Goth” is to be found everywhere in southern Sweden. Indeed until 1973 the King of Sweden was also styled as the King of the Goths. But can any of that explain why kids in black still identify as goths?
At the end of the year it is common to list the important people who died during that year along with a list of their honors and accomplishments. Looking at some of these lists for 2010 frustrated me because most of the obituaries were for actors, musicians, hyper-rich maniacs, and politicians rather than for people whom I actually admire. I have therefore compiled the obituaries of various eminent people whose deaths did not necessarily make a big splash on CNN or similar mass media news outlets. You may never have heard of some of these people until now, but their lives and works were moving to me (and in some cases, such as those of Mandelbrot, Nirenberg, and Black—truly important to a great many people). I only wrote a very brief biography for each but I included Wikipedia links if you want more information.
Farewell to the following souls. May they rest in peace and may their ideas live on:
January 11 – Éric Rohmer was the last French new wave director. His flirtatious movies combined knowledge of our secret longings with everyday cheerfulness (always expressed in a very Gallic fashion). His last work Romance of Astree and Celadon was a screen adaptation of 17th century pastoral play by Honoré d’Urfé.
January 15 – Marshall Warren Nirenberg was a biologist who won the Nobel Prize (and many other scientific prizes) for ascertaining how genetic instructions are translated from nucleic acids into protein synthesis.
March 22 – Sir James Whyte Black was a Scottish doctor and pharmacologist who developed a beta blocker used for the treatment of heart disease. The Texas Journal of Cardiology described this innovation as “one of the most important contributions to clinical medicine and pharmacology of the 20th century.”
May 10 – Frank Frazetta was a groundbreaking commercial illustrator whose work has influenced the genres of fantasy and science fiction.
June 18 – José Saramago was a Portuguese novelist. A communist, atheist, and pessimist Saramago wrote metaphorical novels about the human condition in an increasingly crowded & mechanized world. His most successful work is Blindness a novel about a plague of blindness sweeping through modern society. The novel is simultaneously a soaring literary allegory and a harrowing horror story.
August 23 – Satoshi Kon was a director of visionary animated movies. Although his films didn’t always soar to the emotional heights reached by his countryman Miazaki, they were awesomely innovative and greatly forwarded the medium (which in Japan has been moving from children’s entertainment towards literature and art).
October 14 – Benoît Mandelbrot was a Franco-American mathematician (born in Poland) who is best known as the father of fractal geometry. His intuition and imagination allowed him to perceive self-similar mathematical underpinnings behind all manner of natural structures. From galaxies, to coastlines, to blood vessals , to biorhythms–the entire universe is increasingly recognizable as interlocking fractals thanks to his insights.
October 28 – Akiko Hoshino was a gifted pastel artist who I knew from the Art Students’ League. She was just beginning to make progress in the art world with her luminous realistic pastel drawings when she was struck and killed by a careless driver who was driving backwards.
November 28 – Leslie Nielsen was a hilarious comic straight man whose deadpan acting carried the great parody films Airplane and The Naked Gun (as well as innumerable derivative spoofs). As an enduring testament to his greatness, my friends are still stealing his jokes. Surely he was one of a kind.