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In myth and in legend there are those who rise from the dead. Most of these entities are forsaken monsters and vampires who dwell in darkness and unending hunger. This past Halloween, we visited some of these undead creatures (namely lamiae, draugar, and hopping vampires). However, not all of the undead are ghouls or fiends: a few of the entities that shook off the prison of mortality are transcendent beings—saints, saviors, benefactors, & gods.
In the third century AD, Nikolaos of Myra was born in the city of Patara, which is now Turkey but was, at the time, a long-standing part of the Eastern Roman empire. His parents were wealthy Greeks who died of a plague when he was a small child. Little Nikolaos had no brothers or sisters, but his uncle was the bishop of Patara, and the bishop took in the orphan. Nikolaos proved to be a devout and ardent Christian. Under his uncle’s tutelage, he quickly rose through the church ranks, first being tonsured as a reader, then ordained as a priest, and finally consecrated as bishop of Myra, a port town in Asia Minor (in fact, some sources claim he was elected as bishop before being raised to the priesthood–a very rare career leap).
In 325 AD Emperor Constantine the great, “the thirteenth apostle”, convened all members of the episcopacy from across Christendom to attend the Council of Nicaea. The Christian church in the early fourth century was being torn apart by competing ideas about the fundamental nature of divinity. Followers of the theologian Athanasius believed that the son was begotten by the Heavenly Father from His own divine essence. Followers of the popular presbyter Arius believed that Jesus was created from nothing—as were animals, spirits, and humans. The church aristocracy convened to decide which of these opinions was dogma and which was heresy (and to settle certain other central affairs and credos of the universal Christian church).
Bishop Nikolaos was not one for learned theological argument. Early in the counsel he stormed up to Arius and slapped (or maybe “punched”) him in the face—and Nikolaos was promptly expelled from the proceedings. After weeks and weeks of harrowing canonical debate, the church fathers decided exactly the same thing as Nikolaos. Arius was excommunicated and his ideas were found to be heretical. The Arians either changed their opinions or went into exile. Nikolaos became a folk hero for his rash actions which seemed to take on the quality of foresight considering how the counsel ended.
Nikolaos returned to Myra as a famous figure, but he was troubled by the great temple to Artemis which was there. Myra was sacred to Artemis and her temple in the town was reputed to be the most stunningly beautiful and magnificent construction in the entire part of the world. Nikolaos used his newfound influence to have the structure destroyed and to forcibly convert the remaining pantheists into belief in his one stern god.
He died as a revered figure in 343 AD. Symeon the Metaphrast movingly describes the death of Nikolaos in the following florid manner:
Now after he had long lived in this manner, renowned for his virtuous conduct, he asperged the metropolis of Myra with sweet and lovely unction distilled from the blossoms of divine Grace. When he came to the very advance age, full of days both heavenly and earthly, he need must comply with the common law of nature, as is man’s lot. He was ill but a short time. In the grip of that illness, while rendering those lauds and thanksgivings to God which are said in death, he happily yielded up his spirit [for while he desired to remain in the flesh, Nicholas equally desired to be unyoked from it]. He left this brief and transitory life to cross over to that blessed everlasting life where he rejoices with the angels while more clearly and openly contemplating the light of Truth. But his previous body, borne by the holy hands of bishops and all the clergy with torches and with lights, was rested in the crypt which is at Myra.
Such is the story of the life of Nikolaos of Myra, orphan, acolyte, then orthodox churchman. But for Nikolaos, life was only the beginning. After death Nikolaos, or “Nicholas” to use the Anglicization of his Greek name came back stranger and stronger. His shadowy figure appeared throughout the land and stories began to circulate of miracles and transfigurations performed by the Saint. His post-life supernatural journey would take him across thousands of years and see him transformed from being a (dead) ascetic bishop in the Levant into one of the most beloved religious figures in all of the world. Tune in tomorrow for part two of the strange odyssey of Saint Nicholas, the symbol of generosity, compassion, and Christmastime.
When I was growing up, the Thanksgiving story was simpler. It revolved around the pilgrims landing in Plymouth and nearly dying of famine and sickness. They were saved when a helpful native named Squanto taught them how to fish and plant maize (and convinced the Wampanoag tribe to ally with the puritans instead of destroying them). It never really occurred to me to ask how such a helpful Native-American happened to be on the scene–speaking English, no less. Where did he learn that? It turns out that Squanto’s travels to arrive at Plymouth (which was originally his birthplace of Patuxet) were far more epic and heart-rending than those undertaken by the pilgrims.
Squanto’s original name was Tisquantum and he was born in the Patuxet tribe, probably in the 1580’s or 1590’s (there are lots of approximate dates and words like “probably” in Squanto’s biography). Many historians believe that Tisquantum was taken from North America to England in 1605 by George, Weymouth and then, after spending his youth being “kept” by Sir Ferdinando Gorges, returned with explorer John Smith in 1614. It is possible that Squanto was separated from a wife and child when he was coerced to Europe, and it is also possible that he had an English wife and children. What is certain is that Tisquantum was one of a group of 27 Native Americans kidnapped by Captain Thomas Hunt in 1614. A devious and cruel slaver, Hunt intended to sell the North Americans for £20 apiece in Malaga, Spain. Tisquantum escaped–possibly thanks to help from Spanish Friars with whom he lived until 1618. The friars tried to convert Tisquantum during the time that he lived with them, but his heart yearned for home, and, when the opportunity to travel back to the New World came, he shipped back across the ocean to assist in setting up the Newfoundland colony at Cuper’s Cove (a fur-trading colony set up in 1610).
Recognized by former associates, Tisquantum/Squanto was enlisted to map and explore the New England coast with Thomas Derner. Finally, in 1619 Tisquantum made it back to his village at Patuxet. But when he got there he was in for a horrific surprise. The village had been wiped out by plague (either smallpox or viral hepatitis) and everyone he knew was dead. Bleached skeletons lay among the fruit bushes and tumbled-down shelters. Less than a tenth of the original inhabitants of the region survived and what was once a thriving society lay empty and desolate.
As the last of the Patuxets, Squanto moved in with the remnants of a neighboring tribe, the Wampanoags. Tisquantum told them of the power and strength of the English. When the pilgrims showed up in 1620, he was under house arrest but he was quickly enlisted to translate the negotiations. Thanks to his accounts of English power, the settlers came to a favorable arrangement with the Wampanoags (although it was obvious that the English were in ragged shape since many had died and the remainder had been reduced to grave robbing from the dead Patuxets).
Squanto was released by the Wampanoags and moved in with the pilgrims. He taught them to properly fertilize their grain so it would grow in New England’s sandy soil. He showed them how to plant maize and fish for local fish and eels. He helped them hunt and negotiate with the Wampanoags. Yet he remained an outsider in the Pilgrim community. Through abusive threats he earned the enmity of the Wampanoags who became convinced he was trying to usurp the chieftan’s place. They demanded the pilgrims hand him over for execution but he was saved by the unexpected arrival of the ship Fortune, which provided the pilgrims with a pretext for ignoring the Wampanoag demands. By the end of his life he was in an ambiguous position—considered an outsider by both groups dwelling in what had been his home. During a treaty meeting with the Wampanoag he came down with “Indian fever” and began bleeding through his nose (some historians speculate that he was poisoned by the angry Wampanoags). Squanto was buried in an unmarked grave—after crossing the ocean many times and moving back and forth between different cultures he was at last united with his tribe.
The second Monday of October is celebrated in America as Columbus Day. The holiday commemorates the day when Columbus’ exploratory fleet first spotted land on October 12, 1492. Before Columbus, many other people had discovered America in one way or another, but after Columbus arrived, everything changed. People, animals, diseases, ideas, and art all began to rapidly flow back and forth between the hemispheres in a way which had never before happened. Today’s post, however, is not about the (always-controversial) Columbus–instead it is about the most terrible new export which the Spanish brought to the new world.
The exploration and colonization of the Americas were made easy for Europeans because big parts of the continents were empty. Early explorers reported fields that were ready for farming, and orchards filled with fruit but no people. The reason for this emptiness is sad and deeply troubling. Smallpox came to the Americas in the early 16th century on Spanish ships and rapidly expanded into a vast pandemic which ravaged the population of the new world. It outpaced the European explorers in conquering the continents: by the time colonists and explorers reached the hinterlands, great swaths of North and South America were uninhabited: the people who had lived there were dead from the highly contagious virus. Native Americans had not co-evolved with the disease for millenia (like Europeans, Africans, and Asians had) and the people of the first nations died in droves. Some estimates put Smallpox mortality in indigenous populations at an astonishing 80% to 95%. Historians estimate that the original population of the Americas was between 50 and 100 million (approximately the same as Europe). The conquest of America was not by guns or ships or religions, it was by disease. The great smallpox plague is one of the more important events in history–yet it is has not been a focus of mainstream popular history both because Europeans did not directly witness the worst ravages (except in rare cases) and because there is an existentially terrifying randomness to the mass death of so many people.
In the old world, smallpox was an ancient scourge dating back to prehistory. Using genetics, scientists have estimated that the virus originated 10,500 years ago and, indeed, 3,000 year old Egyptian mummies have been found bearing evidence of the disease. During the 17th century, smallpox killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans per year (and left many survivors blind or hideously scarred). The people of the Americas escaped this scourge entirely by crossing a landbridge from Asia before smallpox evolved. When the Vikings discovered America, they found a resilient culture which easily shrugged off attempts at colonization. Crucially none of the Norse explorers or colonists brought any terrible illnesses with them. But what had been fortunate for the first Americans became a terrible weakness, when smallpox did finally arrive with the Spanish.
The scope of the great dying boggles the imagination. A Spanish priest traveling with Cortes into the dying Aztec empire described the scene writing “As the Indians did not know the remedy of the disease…they died in heaps, like bedbugs. In many places it happened that everyone in a house died and, as it was impossible to bury the great number of dead, they pulled down the houses over them so that their homes become their tombs.”
Of course the Spanish did not know the remedy for the disease either. It is a historical fluke that the people of the new world died by the millions in the decades after Columbus rather than the other way around (and wouldn’t that have been a twist?). In fact syphilis was a new world disease unknown in Europe until adventurers brought it across the Atlantic. The story of the smallpox plague is a dark and terrible one, but it does have a more positive corollary. In the 16th century, as the conquistadors unwittingly spread pestilence into North and South America, a solution to the terrible plague had already been perfected on the other side of the world in China. Thanks to Chinese physicians, Turkish diplomacy, an English nobleman, convicts and… milkmaids (and lots of careful work), the horrible scourge has been all but eradicated from Earth, but I will save that brighter story for tomorrow.
In our ongoing exploration of underworld gods, we have come across all sorts of animal divinities. The ultra-modern Japanese still venerate Namazu a vast chthonic catfish god. Contemporary Inuits worship Sedna, walrus/cetacean goddess of the cold depths. The rational Greeks imagined a great three-headed dog guarding Tartarus. There are so many giant serpents from different cultures that they create an entire subset of underworld gods: some of these snake beings are bigger than the world and longer than the oceans. They range from kind creators like Nuwa to monsters like the Midgard serpent to indescribable cosmic forces like the rainbow serpent. There are dark swans and mystery animals, but where in this worldwide pantheon/bestiary are my favorite birds? Where are the turkey gods?
Well, turkeys are from the Americas, they were sacred to the original inhabitants (and have been discovered buried alongside humans with ceremonial pomp–or even by themselves on altars). However the Americas were swept by a great wave of diseases which was followed by waves of European colonizers. When the Native Americans were killed by plague or assimilated by Europeans, many of their deities vanished. The Spaniards were delighted to find domesticated turkeys in the ruins of the Aztec empire and they shipped them off to Spain as farm animals (whereas it seems they may have been originally domesticated for their feathers).
However even now we know a little bit about important Aztec turkey deities. Chalchiuhtotolin, “Precious Night Turkey” was a god of plague who ruled thirteen days of the Aztec calendar from 1 Water to 13 Crocodile (the thirteen preceding days were in fact ruled by Xolotl, hapless god of misfortune, who was instrumental in the creation of humankind). Little is known concerning Chalchiuhtotolin, except that he was magnificent and terrible to behold. As a plague god he holds a somewhat ironic place in Aztec cosmology (since the Aztecs were defeated and destroyed more directly by smallpox then by Cortes). It is theorized that Chalchiuhtotolin was an animal aspect of Tezcatlipoca, one of the central gods of Aztec mythology (who was more famous in his ferocious manifestation as a jaguar). Tezcatlipoca was one of the four cardinal gods of direction, ruling the North (which was a realm of darkness and sorcery to the Mesoamericans). Tezcatlipoca was based on earlier Mayan and Olmec divinities. One of his legs was missing, since he sacrificed it to the crocodilian earthmonster called Cipactli in order to fashion the world. A god of night, wind, obsidian, warriors, and slaves, Tezcatlipoca was eternally opposed by the Mayan hero god Quetzalcoatl, “the Feathered Serpent”, a sky god, and lord of the West. A great deal of Aztec mythology including the story of the creation of this world (not to mention the creation and destruction of many others) involves the fractious push-and-pull rivalry between Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl.
In Australia, rabbits are a curse. The long-eared infestation started in 1859 when Thomas Austin, an estate owner, imported a mixture of wild and domestic rabbits from Europe to release on his large farm. He hoped to recreate the hunting conditions of England where he had enjoyed shooting rabbits when younger. He is famously quoted as saying ”The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.”
Thus began the greatest population explosion of mammals known in human history. Within a decade, rabbits had overrun Southern Australia. Two million of the animals were harvested annually with no effect whatsoever on the larger population. A combination of mild winters, no predators, and light scrub vegetation allowed the creatures to breed year round and increase their numbers exponentially with no natural resistance. They ate away whole ecosystems of scrub vegetation and outcompeted the little marsupial herbivores that lived there into extinction. By gnawing down saplings they killed entire forests within the lifespan of the trees therein. By digging warrens and denuding the vegetation they caused widespread erosion. It was an ecological disaster of the first order–a mass extinction caused by bunnies(!)–and only humans were there to fight the fleet-footed enemy.
Australians responded gradually at first and then with increased alacrity and fury. Shooting and trapping gave way to mass poisonings, ploughing, blasting, and fumigation. Tens of thousands of miles of rabbit proof fence were strung across the continent. Wicked old world predators like rabbits and foxes were imported to stem the flood of rabbits (and naturally the predators first concentrated on eliminating remaining species of Marsupials).
Australians have gradually learned to make use of the rabbits. In times of distress, depression, or famine they have provided a ready source of food for humans and farm animals (ground up rabbits were once a major source of chicken food for example). The fur from so many rabbits created a fur industry and a felt industry. But make no mistake, the Australians still hate the invasive creatures. The twentieth century has seen a new campaign of biological war against the rabbits. In the 1950s an introduced strain of Myxoma virus wiped out an estimated half a billion rabbits. Then in the early 1990s a calicivirus escaped a secure biological research facility (where scientists were engineering the disease to kill rabbits) and quickly spread through wild and domestic populations. Yet despite all of the measures taken to kill the creatures they have endured and thrived. Rabbits are still there, still causing havoc. It is one of the more vivid lessons in human history about the difficulties of controlling ecosystems.
Kindly accept my apologies for the lack of posts on Thanksgiving week: I was hunting and feasting in wild forested hills far away from the city (and my computer).
When writing about mythology, this blog traditionally concentrates on stories of the underworld and the dark beings and divinities which exist beyond the mortal veil. However to celebrate the wild joys of the forest, I am dedicating this week to Artemis/Diana–goddess of the hunt and protector of animals. Even though Artemis was primarily a virgin goddess of unspoiled wilderness, wild creatures, and of hunters and hunted, she had a dark underworld aspect as well. In stark opposition to her role as protector of children and women in childbirth she was a plague goddess who killed swiftly with afflictions which struck like divine arrows.
Artemis was the twin sister of glorious Apollo. Both siblings were the children of Zeus and Leto (a daughter of obscure Titans). Hera/Juno was angry about Zeus’ philandering and tried to prevent the birth of the twins by cursing the land they were born in, but Leto found a floating Island, Delos, which escaped Hera’s wrath by being unmoored. After the birth of the twins, Delos was cemented to the seafloor and became a sacred location.
Artemis was the elder twin. Although Leto bore Artemis quickly and painlessly, Apollo’s birth was a terrible ordeal of prolonged painful labor which lasted nine days and nights. By the end of this time, Artemis had grown into a full goddess and she helped her mother bring her twin into the world—hence her connection with childbirth. Thereafter Artemis was identified with the moon and the wilderness while Apollo has always been a sun god associated with civilization and society. When Artemis met Zeus she asked to always remain a virgin and a loner, a request which the king of the gods quickly granted to his lovely daughter.
Artemis had several attributes: a bow and a quiver full of arrows, a knee-length tunic, and packs of attendant hounds and nymphs. The sacred animal of Artemis is the deer, and she is often portrayed caressing a deer, being carried in a chariot drawn by deer with golden antlers, or hunting stags in the forest. One of Hercules’ most challenging labors was to capture a golden-antlered hind sacred to the goddess. The magical deer could outrun arrows (and anyways Heracles knew that shooting it would bring him the disfavor of the goddess and disaster). For a year he unsuccessfully pursued the deer on foot and he only succeeded in catching the doe when he fell down in desperation and groveled before the goddess (who transferred her wrath to Eurystheus). Another myth involving deer and Artemis does not end so well for the mortal protagonist. Once when she was bathing–nude, chaste, and beautiful—she was accidentally spotted by the unlucky Theban hunter Actaeon. In fury that a mortal had espied her loveliness, she transformed the hunter into a stag, whereupon he was torn to shreds by his own dogs–which did not recognize their master or know the anguished voice trying to call them off with the tongue of a deer. For some reason this scene is a timeless favorite of artists!
This last story hints at Artemis’ dark aspects. When wronged, Artemis was a fearsome being and her wild vengeance rivals that of any underworld deity. Several of the more troubling stories from classical myth involve her wrath. For example, her anger led directly to the Caledonian boar hunt, the defining heroic event of the era just prior to the Trojan War. One year King Oeneus of Calydon disastrously forgot to include Artemis in his annual sacrifices. To punish the King, she sent a monstrous male pig, a scion of the primal monster Echidna to ravage the countryside. This in turn brought the greatest hunters and heroes of Greece together with sad consequences. In other tales Artemis was even more direct with her vengeance. She visited plague upon Kondylea until the citizens adjusted their worship of her. She famously slew the many daughters of Niobe with painless arrows and turned their mother into a weeping stone.
Artemis is a self-contradicting figure–a virgin who was the goddess of childbirth; a protector of wild animals who was also goddess of the hunt; and a friend to maidens, mothers, and children who wielded the plague to smite down mortals. Her temples were frequently on the edge of civilization—at the end of the croplands where the forest began or at the edge of useable land where terra firma gave way to swamps and morasses. This highlights the main fact about Artemis—she was a nature goddess. wildness and inconsistency were parts of her. Worshiping Artemis was how the Greeks venerated and sanctified the savage beauty and random gore of the greenwood.
Shamash was the Mesopotamian deity of the sun. To the Akkadians, Assyrians, and the Babylonians he was synonymous with justice, generosity, and salvation. However there was a second solar deity in the Mesopotamian pantheon, Nergal, who was not associated with such positive aspects of existence. Nergal was the child of Enlil, god of the wind, who was exiled from earth for raping Ninlin, the goddess of the open fields. Ninlin followed Enlil into exile and gave birth to their son Nergal in the underworld (Sumerian myth-makers should be ashamed of the sexism of this story). Nergal’s dark origins foreshadowed his nature. Unlike Shamash, who represented the life giving power of the sun and divine justice, Nergal was only associated with certain phases of the sun. To quote Wikipedia “Portrayed in hymns and myths as a god of war and pestilence, Nergal seems to represent the sun of noontime and of the summer solstice that brings destruction, high summer being the dead season in the Mesopotamian annual cycle.”
As a god of plague, drought, fire, and insufferable heat, Nergal quickly came to be associated with death and the underworld. He was portrayed either as a powerful man bearing a sickle-sword and a mace, or as a lion with a man’s head.
Although he was a terrible god of destruction, the main myth we have about Nergal is romantic in nature. Mesopotamian scholars have discovered and translated a poetic epic recounting Nergal’s tempestuous courtship of the dark goddess Ereshkigal (the queen of the underworld, who once gave Ishtar such a wretched time). After a passionate tryst, Nergal left Ereshkigal, who thereafter was overwhelmed by passionate longing for further intimacy. Hearing of her unhappiness and realizing how much he in turn missed her, Nergal abandoned his place in the heavens and traveled down through the seven gates of hell to rejoin Ereshkigal. The two death gods then shared a bed for seven days and seven nights before marrying and jointly sharing rule of the underworld (it’s a happy story!).
Despite the felicity of his connubial circumstances, to the people of Mesopotamia, Nergal represented the unpredictability of mortal life and early unnatural death. He was worshiped, particularly at his chief temple located at Cuthah (a smaller city just northeast of Babylon) but his cult was far from the most popular. Unlike many other Babylonian deities, Nergal was mentioned in the Bible (2 Kings 17:30) and his name has therefore found a place among the demons and boogeymen of Christianity. If you search for “Nergal” on the internet you are likely to find the picture of a heavy metal singer from Poland dressed up in gothic makeup!