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Peonies are a favorite flower of Chinese gardeners. The flower has been cultivated there since before the dawn of history and it bears the title “huawang”, king of flowers, (as well as the equally lofty name “fùguìhuā” flower of riches and honor). Thriving in Northern China and the Yangtze Valley, the peony is a symbol of love, affection, good fortune, beauty, and riches. The flower’s appeal is extremely broad. In China, the peony is the consummate representative of the season of spring (summer is represented by a lotus; fall by a chrysanthemum; and winter by the wild plum).
Because the peony represents such universally esteemed ideals, it is a symbol which can be found everywhere in Chinese art. As May ends, this year’s peony season is swiftly passing away, but to remember the beautiful king of flowers, here are 3 Ming dynasty platter-bowls which feature peonies which have survived unblemished for centuries. The first two are Wanli Kraaks–pieces which were made in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century–possibly for export. The final piece is older and rarer: it is a Yongle reign platter made at the turn of the 14th & 15th centuries for a domestic patron. Look at how beautiful and elegant the brushstrokes are in comparison with the more hastily produced later work.
Because of the incongruity between lunar and solar calendars (and thanks to the whims of the 12 year Chinese horoscope cycle) Valentine’s Day has ended up in the middle of Ferrebeekeeper’s Snake Week. At first I thought that this was a problem–since there were no snake theme valentines anywhere to be found online. I did not want to break out the magic markers and glitter to create my own valentine to serpents because it has been a busy week (and what would I do with a bunch of snake valentines? What if someone saw a grown-up making such things?). Fortunately I found that there is a medium where snakes and hearts frequently intermingle. Even better many of the designs are extremely gothic and spiky and scary.
Like evil leprechaun tattoos, snake/heart body art is very common. In fact I had some trouble finding catfish tattoos and the internet even ran short of evil leprechaun ink but I had no trouble finding snake/heart tattoos! Apparently an immense number of people have snake tattoos of all sorts. I wonder why serpents are so universally appealing as permanent body art? Do people choose snakes for tattoos because the legless reptiles are ancient symbols of knowledge, wisdom, and fertility, or is wearing a snake an announcement of edginess, moral ambiguity, and toughness? The snake inside the heart seems like it has a double meaning: not only is it an obvious metaphor for corrupted or dangerous love but it provides an outright fertility image (especially since the traditional cardioid-shaped valentine heart look less like an actual heart and more like a shapely asp).
Whatever the meaning these snake/heart tattoos are extremely impressive. Thanks to the brave souls who wear them. Also a very happy valentine’s day to all my readers: I could hiss you all…er kiss you all!
Famous in love stories and movies, the Claddagh ring is a traditional Irish band with elements that go back to Roman times. The ring consists of two hands holding a crowned heart and dates back to the 17th century where the design originated in the village of Claddagh by Galway.
According to tradition, each element of the ring is symbolic. The hands stand for friendship, the heart stands for love, and the crown stands for loyalty. The position of the ring on the hands is also important: when the ring is on the right ring finger with the heart out, it means the wearer is single and seeking love (or some reasonable approximation); when the ring is on the right hand with the heart turned in, it means the wearer is in a relationship, but not engaged. When the Claddagh ring jumps to the left ring finger things have gotten serious: the Claddagh with the heart outward indicates betrothal and when heart is turned inward, the wearer is married. Or at least that is what people say about the tradition. Every ring I have worn ceaselessly turned like a record on my finger. I’m sure all sorts of couples would end up in desperate needless fights if the Claddagh tradition was held too closely.
Although the folklore traditions in the paragraph above seem to be innovations of the nineteenth century, the ring descends (through a long lineage) from Roman “fede” rings which featured clasped or joined hands as symbolic of a sacred vow.
The story of Cupid and Psyche is a breathless tale of hidden identity, subservience, misplaced trust, and true love. It is a favorite theme for western artists, particularly since it features Cupid (the capricious god of love who wreaks so much chaos in mortal life) emotionally caught in a seemingly impossible situation. Each of these three paintings by Edward Burne-Jones depicts the moment, late in the story when Cupid finally forgives Psyche (who has suffered endless woe, pain, and setbacks). Psyche has visited the underworld and returned with a box containing divine beauty. Warned not to open the box, she has decided to steal a pinch so that Cupid will love her despite her mortality. Unsurprisingly the otherworldly box contains poison of infernal sleep. Cupid then intervenes directly and utilizes his divinity to rescue her from the curse.
As a young man Edward Burne-Jones studied theology at Oxford and was anticipating a career as a minister–until his spirit was seduced by ancient poetry (really!). He left the university without a degree and joined a brotherhood of artists and poets. He painted three nearly identical versions of this dramatic scene over the course of several years. The first and finest from around 1867 is a gouache portrait of Maria Zambaco, a Greco-English beauty. In 1866, Maria’s mother had commissioned Burne-Jones to paint Maria (as Psyche no less) for an entirely different picture, and the (married) Burne-Jones fell in love with the (married) Zambaco. Their tempestuous affair destroyed both marriages and nearly led them to suicide before ending in 1869 (although it resulted in a number of gorgeous paintings—which were pilloried by the Victorian art world for portraying female sexual assertiveness in a positive light).
Although outwardly the same, these three paintings are also subtly different. In the last painting, from 1872, Cupid is not red and radiant but gray and diffuse (and he has lost his ever-changing wreath). Psyche’s hair has changed color and her features have been altered. Additionally, the sheer repetition of this same moment of divine intervention suggests that romance is a figure eight: our arguments and passions keep repeating themselves (which is in fact what happens in the tale of Cupid and Psyche). Lovers relive the same moments of longing, confusion, and passion again and again and again even as the world changes like water and our lives wear out.
This is the hundredth post on Ferrebeekeeper! Hooray! Thank you so much for reading! In celebration, today’s topic features a twist: instead of dwelling on the underworld deities who personify evil, death, mystery, and the world beyond (although, admittedly, they have the best stories), I’m going to highlight a deity devoted to joy, happiness, love, and success. Don’t worry though, “deities of the underworld” and all things gothic will be heavily featured here in the run-up to Halloween.
To the uninitiated (i.e. our writers and editorial staff) it has been difficult to make sense of the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the various Afro-Brazilian religions. The Orisha-based faiths of the Yoruba blend together with South American religions like Candomblé, Santería, Lukumi, and Umbanda to such an extent that only a devout practitioner could separate them all apart correctly. One figure however seems to be universally worshiped–although she goes by many names. Naturally that figure is the goddess of love and sex. She is known variously as Oshun, Laketi, Oxum, and Ọṣhun. In addition to fertility, romance and marriage, Oshun is the goddess of wealth, harmony, ecstasy, and fresh water (particularly rivers–which have a special place in Brazilian and Yoruban culture). Oshun’s favorite day is Saturday (my favorite as well!) and her sacred color is yellow. Oshun is portrayed as a beautiful black woman wearing gorgeous golden raiment and jewelry…or nothing at all.
In Yoruba myth Oshun was one of the 16 spirits sent by the enigmatic genderless supreme-being, Olodumare, to create the earth. Of the 16, only she was female (Yoruba culture seems to have had some gender issues). Predictably, the 15 male demiurges proclaimed superior status and placed undue demands upon Oshun, who thereupon withdrew her support from the whole “building the world” project. Creation became impossible. Everything the male orishas tried to make fell away into dust. They had to petition Olodumare and then fervently apologize to Oshun herself before she agreed to bequeath life to plants and animals. A different version of this myth (occurring after the world was populated by men and women) reads like the Lysistrata or the tale of Eros and Psyche: Oshun withdrew desire from the world–and hence the impetus for all rebirth and renewal–until her chauvinistic fellow-deities apologized.
According to various myths and differing faiths, Oshun has many husbands and lovers. Most often however her spouse is Shango, the sky god of thunder and drumming, or Ogun, the god of smithing and warfare. While this seems like a recipe for epic disaster, the Afro-Brazilian religions are not canonical and frequently overlap and contradict each other, so there is not necessarily an insoluble marital problem (also the ways of love goddesses exceed human understanding!).
Although possessed of a temper and vanity, Oshun is renowned for her great kindness. Her alternate name “Laketi” means “she who has ears” for, unlike the other figures of the Afro-Brazilian pantheon, she is portrayed as a compassionate deity who regularly answers prayers. Oshun’s endowments (other than her beauty and obvious womanhood) are peacock feathers, gold ornaments, a mirror, a fan, the color yellow, honey, and water. She is said to be partial to chamomille tea and white chickens. When her followers are taken by trance they dance, flirt, and laugh but then grow solemn–for Oshun knows that the world is not as beautiful as it could be.
This lovely work was painted in 1904 by John William Waterhouse, the last of the Pre-Raphaelite artists. It depicts a critical moment in the love story between Cupid, god of love, and Psyche, a beautiful mortal persecuted by Venus.
I won’t repeat the entire myth, which symbolizes both the nature of love and the nature of the human soul, but I will explain the context of the painting. Psyche was cursed by Venus never to marry. Venus’ beautiful and capricious son Cupid, however, had fallen in love with Psyche and, in protest, refused to shoot his arrows at any living thing–which meant the living world began to age and die, being unable to… renew itself without Eros. Psyche visited the oracle of Apollo who explained her destiny thus, “The virgin is destined for the bride of no mortal lover. Her future husband awaits her on the top of the mountain. He is a monster whom neither gods nor men can resist.”
We know that the monster is the beautiful god of love, but Psyche knows only the oracle’s dire words. She goes to the mountain and, swooning, is carried away by the wind to the palace of Cupid. Waterhouse has painted her as she awakens and enters the garden of the palace of love. Although afraid, she sees the ineffable beauty of the garden and realizes the owner is no mortal. As a gardener, I would like to dwell on the musk roses and cypresses, yet as a painter I am obliged to point you towards the troubled mien of Psyche as she attempts to puzzle out the nature of her monstrous divine consort.
A perennial favorite for artists, the entire myth is told best by its originator, the incomparable Lucius Apuleius who used the story of Cupid and Psyche as a chapter in The Golden Ass, the only complete Milesian tale to survive from ancient Rome. The Golden Ass is arguably the immediate ancestor of the novel and it is every bit as ribald as its name suggests. The chapter about Cupid and Psyche however is dead serious (as is the overall book, which subtly suggested that if Roman aristocrats continued to degrade and oppress everyone else in society, Roman civilization would founder).