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Chinese mythology features numerous animal-spirits with magical powers. One of the most bizarre is a shen—a giant clam/mollusk monster capable of creating illusory landscapes and cities. Classical Chinese texts use the word “shen” to describe large bivalve mollusks such as oysters, clams, or mussels; and, indeed, such shells seem to have had an (unknown) magical usage in funerals and sacrifices. Later texts emphasized the Shen as a mythical giant oyster/clam which was the source of huge magical pearls. By the middle ages the shen had evolved into its current manifestation—an immense clam-like spirit creature which could blow bubbles from its tubes which gave the illusion of towering cities and fantastical fairylands.
I wish I could write more about the shen—where it came from, what it wants, and so forth, but there isn’t much information on the beast. Some sources seem to suggest that it is affiliated with dragons (the protean universal mythological being of Chinese culture) or with nāgas—magical serpent people. When gifted with magical powers of illusion these beings are imagined to hide themselves as big green clams (from which base they weave fairy-like illusions for unknown purposes). Slightly more practical individuals have explained the illusory cities supposedly produced by the shen as the Fata Morgana, an optic illusion caused by thermal inversion which distorts ships, islands, and detritus at the edge of the offing into weird grotesque towers and blobs. If anybody knows anything else about the mysterious shen I would love to hear it!
In Norse mythology, the world is ruled by glorious glowing gods, the Aesir, who are the magnificent (yet all-too-human) protagonists of Viking cosmology. Arrayed against the Aesir are a wide range of antagonists. Some of these enemies are vast beyond reckoning like the mighty Midregard serpent, which rings the oceans, or Níðhöggr, the giant snake that chews the world tree. Others are largely unknown–like the dark elves of Svartálfaheim (the hidden realm) or the fire beings of molten Muspellheim. However, by far the most common antagonists in Norse mythology are the jǫtnar–the frost giants. The giants (also known as trolls) are portrayed as huge powerful ice-beings whose behavior is even more unruly than that of the gods: symbolically they are the embodiments of chaos and nature. In fact the first living being in the Norse pantheon was a titanic progenitor jötunn named Ymir. He was killed and dismembered by the Aesir, who then made the world from his body (which suggests that the jǫtnar may harbor a legitimate grudge against the Aesir).
Although the primeval frost-giants are usually portrayed as the enemies of the gods, the relationship between the groups is actually more complicated. many Aesir gods have jǫtnar spouses or lovers. Although the frost giants show up from time to time in Valhalla to work mischief, their real home is Jotunheim, a wilderness land of ice, mountains, and frozen firs with no human population (much like contemporary Canada). Some giants are portrayed as monsters with multiple heads, animal features, or grotesque traits but others were comely.
The list of jotnar who featured in important myths is numerous. Loki the trickster deity who sometimes saved the gods and other times worked to destroy them was a jötunn as was his daughter Hel, ruler of the land of the dead. Other notable frost giants include Fornjot the Destroyer (a storm giant who fathered the wind), Skrymir, the master of illusions, and Hrungnir–a stone-headed giant of matchless strength. Although many of these giants were horrible and feature in stories of epic battle, other giants were more fair and took part in more subtle contests.
The jötunn Gunnlöð was said to be exquisitely beautiful. Gunnlöð guarded the mead of poetry, which was made from the fermented blood of Kvasir, god of wisdom. According to the Prose Edda, poetry is a gift from Odin who seduced Gunnlöð and bargained three nights of passion for three sips of the mead. The king of the gods tricked her– he took the poetry and gave it to humankind but broke his promise and left Gunnlöð unfulfilled. Other poets however tell the story differently and suggest that Odin fell in love with Gunnlöð and the two were happy to drink and sleep together. Finally, it has been hinted that Gunnlöð tricked Odin and took what she wanted of his godhood in exchange for fake mead and false poetry. The true mead of verse–the blood of Kvasir himself–never made it to earth. All poetry we have is sour and ersatz. Yet, strangely, most bards and epic poets are quiet concerning that last interpretation…
Today is the first day of the Chinese New Year! Happy Lunar New Year to everyone! It’s time for dumplings and fireworks! This is the year of the Water Dragon—an auspicious year (if astrologers are to be believed). Since being born in the year of the dragon is regarded as fortunate, Chinese demographers are projecting a larger than normal number of births this year. If you are looking to have children maybe you should hold off on the partying and go work on that right now.
The dragon is the de facto symbol of China (and has been so for a long, long time). The mythical creatures appear everywhere in art, architecture, clothing, advertising, and even drawn indelibly on people (as above). Snarky political cartoons about currency manipulation represent China as a dragon in the same way that the United States is always shown as Uncle Sam or an eagle. Five clawed dragons symbolized imperial authority during the era of the emperors. Even in pre-dynastic China the dragon was a central symbol. Dragon statues have been discovered from the Yangshao culture (seven millennia ago).
Although symbolic of power, strength, and good luck, Chinese dragons are also inextricably linked to water sources. In various myths, dragons represent control over oceans, rivers, lakes, and ponds. They are also linked with stormclouds, rainfall, floods, and rainbows. Some scholars and folklorists believe that the concept of dragons was originally based around actual aquatic animals like saltwater crocodiles (which ranged along the Chinese coast in ancient times), large snakes, and huge catfish.
Because they are composed of features from various real animals, Chinese Dragons perfectly suit the themes of this blog (which has a history of admiring chimerical creatures). Dragons have the body of a serpent, the claws of an eagle, the legs of a tiger, the whiskers of a catfish, the antlers of a deer and the scales of a fish. According to legend, back in the depths of time, the Yellow Emperor, a semi-divine magician, unified China and became the first emperor. The Yellow Emperor’s standard was a golden snake, but whenever he conquered another fiefdom he would add the features of their heraldic animal to his own. As the emperor’s army conquered more and more of China, the snake acquired antlers, talons, fish scales, and barbels.
People born in the year of the dragon are supposed to embody a mosaic of noble traits. Dragons are said to possess intelligence, energy, self assurance, passion, and courageousness. Allegedly water dragons combine these virtues with patience and understanding. I’m not sure how much faith I put in astrology, but I certainly hope this year combines some of these good things.
Gung hay fat choy!
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.
Ferrebeekeeper is celebrating the Halloween season by exploring the greatest family of monsters in all of mythology—the offspring of Echidna! Today’s monster takes us on a dark but fascinating path: those of you with sensitive natures might wish to avert your eyes…Is everyone still here? Excellent! Today we are talking about the ultimate divine torture–which took the form of the terrible Caucasian eagle.
Allow me to backtrack…
The son of Themis, Prometheus, was the titan with the power of prophecy and the curse of conscience. He is one of the most intriguing characters in mythology since his story involves the Greek conception of humankind’s creation and ultimate destiny (all of which probably deserves a longer post elsewhere). To summarize, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and presented it to mankind, setting the latter on a path towards ever greater technical savvy and ultimate godhood. He was severely punished for the crime. Zeus bound Prometheus to a mountain peak on Mount Kaukasos with unbreakable chains and sent a terrible eagle to daily feast upon the titan’s liver. As Prometheus was immortal, his liver regenerated and he was forced to suffer the hideous torment over and over and over. The eagle, with insatiable appetite and razor claws, was one of Echidna’s offspring. This dreadful scene has frequently been painted by great artists.
Speaking of artists, the liver is a sensitive and frightening subject to some people. Thinking about all the delicate little hepatocytes being exposed to daily wear and tear is enought to make anyone anxious (to say nothing about the massive trauma inflicted by a quasi-divine eagle monster). Carbohydrate metabolism and protein synthesis both require the liver. Fully understanding these processes seems nearly impossible, and just thinking about how many things could go wrong is agonizing. However we must set aside our qualms and push on, for not only is the liver completely and absolutely vital to life (which can be said of other organs), its cellular makeup is unique. Certain hepatocytes are capable of leaving G0 quiescence and re-entering the cell division cycle. Evidence also points to the existence of multipotent progenitor cells in certain parts of the adult liver. This is why the liver is the only internal human organ capable of naturally regenerating itself–as little as twenty-five percent of a liver can regenerate back into a whole organ. The liver is thus a major focus of gene therapy research and stem cell study. Prometheus’ regenerating liver was not unique (though surviving such abdominal trauma certainly would be).
Prometheus was ultimately saved from his terrible fate when Heracles took pity on him. After shooting the eagle from the sky with his great bow, the hero snapped the unbreakable chains and freed the titan. Aeschylus hints that such was the will of Zeus—for Prometheus had divulged a critical secret about Thetis who was fated to…well never mind. That also is a story for another day. Prometheus was free. The Caucasian eagle was dead (though Zeus took care to memorialize it in the heavens as the constellation Aquila). Humankind remains free to keep stumbling forward with fire and a tragic thirst to find how things work. Right now, somewhere in a laboratory filled with axolotls and stem cells, we are fashioning technologies which will provide complete liver regeneration–perhaps even the growth of artificial livers. We must find this out: it is fundamental biotechnical knowledge necessary to truly understand living things. Comprehending and mastering the liver’s ability to regenerate is another step along our road to apotheosis.
Writing about the ancient Egyptian gods of the underworld brings a dilemma: unlike the Greeks or the Chinese, the Egyptians loved the gods of the dead. They believed the afterlife would be a delightful paradise where virtuous souls would be free to pursue their favorite pastimes with friends and family for eternity [coincidentally, does this sound familiar to anyone?]. The ruler of the underworld, Osiris, was one of the most cherished Egyptian gods and he has some claims to primacy within their pantheon. As god of agriculture, Osiris made grain grow after it was planted and he annually brought life to the Nile (upon his death, he gave his fertility to the river—see the story below). After being killed, he came back to uncanny magical life with even greater power and he offers a doorway to the glories of the next realm.
To the Egyptians, the god of evil and chaos was the slayer of Osiris—his brother Set, the Lord of the Red Desert. Set was god of the lands beyond the fertile Nile river bed. He ruled the scorpion-haunted wastes where no crops would grow, where sand storms and flash floods materialized swiftly out of the baking land. Like many Egyptian gods, Set has the head of an animal, yet scholars are unsure what that animal is: Egyptologists simply refer to it as the Set animal.
He sometimes also appears as a black pig, a crocodile, or a hippopotamus.
Set slew his brother Osiris in order to gain sovereignty over Egypt. He then cut the body into pieces which he cast far and wide. Osiris’ dutiful wife, Isis, gathered the pieces (except for one critical piece which had been thrown into the Nile and eaten by a catfish) and magically reassembled them. Thoth and Anubis then embalmed Osiris who became the deathless ruler of the next realm. Osiris’ son, the falcon-headed Horus, took vengeance for his father by reclaiming his throne and castrating Set. Set was exiled into the desert to become the evil god of drought, dryness, and sandstorm.
Of course all of this is stereotyping—the civilization of ancient Egypt has a long history. Osiris and Set were venerated by dynasties and political factions which were very different from each other during their 3,600 year run. All sorts of changes, hybridization, and confusing paradox crept into their tale. Archeology seems to indicate that Set was the principal deity of the desert people of Upper Egypt (the dry southern uplands). When these desert warriors conquered all of Egypt, they adapted the gods of fertile Lower Egypt and made their own deity an outcast. Nevertheless, worship of Set endured throughout dynastic history. Set was feared by all and held in particular esteem by the desert folk living at the boundaries of agricultural society.
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.
Phobos was the Greek god of panic and terror. He lacked the high profile of his parents, Aphrodite and Ares, but sources indicate that people worshiped him (Greeks tended to be quiet about their prayers to chthonic deities because such wishes were usually… of a private nature). It seems his followers sacrificed to him and called upon him to instill fear in others. Here is a wonderfully bloody quote describing the worship of Phobos from Aeschylus’ play Seven Against Thebes (he is invoked as “Terror” in this translation):
Seven warriors yonder, doughty chiefs of might,
Into the crimsoned concave of a shield
Have shed a bull’s blood, and, with hands immersed
Into the gore of sacrifice, have sworn
By Ares, lord of fight, and by thy name,
Blood-lapping Terror, Let our oath be heard-
Either to raze the walls, make void the hold
Of Cadmus-strive his children as they may-
Or, dying here, to make the foemen’s land
With blood impasted.
Hercules encountered (and slew) another Phobos worshiper, Kyknos, who was killing passersby in order to build some sort of crazy terror temple from their skulls. As a part of his psychological campaign, Alexander the Great publicly and ostentatiously sacrificed to Phobos the night before the Battle of Gaugamela. Fear was a useful tool for Alexander both on the battlefield and off–so he played up his connection with its deity.
So why am I thinking about worshipers of Phobus? For one thing I have an abiding interest in underworld deities [expect to see more of them here as an ongoing post category]. They have vivid dramatic flare and they make magnificent metaphors for the darker passions. Also I have been thinking about the broader meaning of fear and its ramifications for our society. It seems appropriate to start that examination with an ancient god and an Aeschylus quote.