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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!
The rod of Asclepius—a serpent coiled around a staff–is a symbol from ancient Greek mythology which represents the physician’s art. Asclepius was a demigod who surpassed all other gods and mortals at the practice of medicine. Because his skills blurred the distinction between mortality and godhood, Asclepius was destroyed by Zeus (an exciting & troubling story which you can find here).
There are several proposed reasons that a staff wrapped by a snake is the symbol of the god of medicine. In some myths, Asclepius received his medical skills from the whispering of serpents (who knew the secrets of healing and revitalization because of their ability to shed their skin and emerge bigger and healthier). Some classicists believe the snake represents the duality of medicine—which can heal or harm depending on the dosage and the circumstance. Yet others see the serpent as an auger from the gods. Whatever the case, the rod of Asclepius is a lovely and distinctive symbol of medicine and has been since ancient times. Temples to Asclepius were constructed across the Greco-Roman world and served as hospitals of a sort. The serpent-twined rod of the great doctor was displayed at these institutions and became a symbol for western doctors who followed.
However there is a painfully apt misunderstanding between the rod of Asclepius and a similar symbol.
Greek mythology featured a separate and entirely distinct symbolic rod wrapped with snakes, the caduceus—which has two snakes and is winged. The caduceus was carried by Hermes/Mercury, the god of merchants, thieves, messengers, and tricksters. Hermes used the rod to beguile mortals or to touch the eyes of the dead and lead them to the underworld.
In the United States the two rods have become confused because of a military mix-up in the early twentieth century (when a stubborn medical officer refused to listen to his subordinates and ordered the caduceus to be adopted as the symbol of the U.S. Medical Corps). Since then the caduceus has been extensively used by healthcare organizations in the United States and has come to replace the staff of Asclepius in the majority of uses. Commercial and for-profit medical organizations are particularly inclined to use the caduceus instead of the rod of Asclepius as the former is more visually arresting (although academic and professional medical organizations tend to use the staff of Asclepius).
To recap: the caduceus, which symbolizes profit-seeking, theft, and death, has replaced the staff of Asclepius, an ancient symbol of healing, throughout the United States. Of course it is up to the reader to decide whether this is a painful misunderstanding, or a wholly appropriate representation of the actual nature of the broken American healthcare system. HMOs, insurance companies, and hospitals, however have started to take note and are moving towards crosses and random computer generated bric-brac for their logos, leaving both ancient symbols behind.
I’m extremely excited that Chinese New Year is here at last! A dozen times I have started to blog about Chinese snake paintings and stopped because I was waiting for the year of the snake—but that finally arrives on Sunday. To celebrate the advent of year 4710—the year of the water snake–next week is devoted to snakes and serpents of all kind (a longstanding favorite topic here at Ferrebeekeeper). Because they are one of the twelve zodiac animals, snakes have long been celebrated in Chinese art. Additionally their sinuous form adapts beautifully to Chinese-style brush and calligraphy work (as is evident in the art works below).
People born in snake years are said to be graceful and reserved. Although they are successful at romance and have an innate intelligence they are also reputed to be materialists with a dark mysterious side. The snake does not suffer the same stigma in China as in the West and the benevolent creator goddess Nuwa was a serpent goddess. Hopefully the year of the water snake will bring you every sort of happiness and success. Tune in next week as we break in the new year with a variety or remarkable snakes and snake-related topics!
Antonio Ligabue (1899-1965) was an outsider artist who lived and worked for most of his life in a primitive hut beside the Po River. He was born in Switzerland to Italian immigrant parents and had a childhood marked by abandonment, disease, death, mental/emotional health problems, and general misery. Perhaps the most traumatic episode from his youth involved the horrible death of his mother and three brothers from food poisoning. Exiled from Switzerland upon adulthood, Ligabue returned to Gualtieri, Italy, despite the fact that he did not know Italian (at least for many years). He lived as an alcoholic vagabond spending time in and out of mental institutions–including a particularly bad period when he was committed for self-mutilation. During the Second World War he worked as an interpreter for the German army but he was sent to a mental asylum (again) after beating a German soldier with a beer bottle. He was known in Italy as “Al Matt” (the fool) or “Al tedesch” (the German).
The subject of Ligabue’s artwork was usually animals–particularly animals crazed by fighting, mating, or hunting (or domestic animals suffering abuse at the hands of humans). His many self-portraits do not seem to stand outside of this thematic canon, as is poignantly made clear by the title of his most famous biography, “Beast in the mirror: the Life of Outsider Artist Antonio Ligabue” written by Karin Kavelin Jones . Ligabue’ s works are vividly expressionistic tableaus of wild conflict. In “Leopard Attacked by Snake” the two combatants are portrayed as a glorious & horrific battle of primal forces. The colors and patterns themselves are at war. Even the surrounding ferns and grasping branches seem to participate in the battle between the snake and the great screaming cat. The pink and red toothed maw of the leopard and its sinuous body are powerfully rendered. The jungle cat is a great engine of appetite literally squeezed into momentary suspension by the green and yellow jungle snake.
Ligabue’s work seems almost like a bizarro world mirror opposite to the paintings of Sir Edwin Landseer, who crafted extremely realistic and precise paintings of animals in emotional extremes. Ligabue’s life was the exact opposite as well. Whereas Landseer was rich and successful his entire life but ended by going insane, Ligabue was insane his entire life but, at the very end, became successful.
Kindly forgive the last few weekdays without a post–I was on a winter solstice vacation from the internet. To cut through the holiday treacle, let’s concentrate on one of my favorite subjects—giant snake monsters! More specifically, after this year of horrible storms, I am writing about the fearsome inkanyamba, a mythical serpent-like being from South Africa. Inkanyambas are said to dwell in the pools beneath waterfalls. They have the bodies of great serpents and horselike heads. Inkanyambas are associated with powerful seasonal storms—particularly tornadoes. Such powerful local cyclones were thought to be caused by male inkanyambas out looking for mates.
The creatures are said to live in the Pietermaritzburg area of KwaZulu-Natal . The Inkanyamba is particularly associated with the 95 meter tall (310 feet) Howick Falls, South Africa. For a while the Inkanyambas of Howick Falls even had a bit of Loch Ness Monster style fame attracting tourists, photojournalists, and cryptozoologists (insomuch as that is a real thing). Lately though, the moster is fading back to the proper realm of myth and art.
Today’s a post concerns Kahausibware, a dark ambiguous serpent-deity whose story is part of the mythology of Makira (which was known as San Cristóbal during the colonial era) an island in Solomon chain. Kahausibware was a Hi’ona—a powerful supernatural being who created the world. Like the Chinese serpent goddess Nüwa, Kahausibware was a demiurge—a primeval creator deity who gave life to humanity, however, Kahausibware was not as benevolent & understanding as gentle Nüwa.
According to myth, Kahausibware created pigs, cocoa-nut trees, and fruit trees. Having created food, she then created animals and humans to use it. Since the world was new, death was unknown. Unfortunately Kahausibware was not patient with her creations and she had no tolerance for annoyances or distractions. One day, a woman (who was an offspring of Kahausibware) requested that the serpent-deity babysit while she (the woman) went to harvest fruit. The human child would not stop screaming and wailing, so Kahausibware wrapped around the infant and suffocated him—thus bringing death into the world. At this fateful moment the woman returned with her fruit. Seeing her child dead, she flew into a rage and began to hack Kahausibware into pieces with an axe.
The snake-being was divine, so her dismembered pieces kept fusing back together, but the pain of the assault was overwhelming. The serpent escaped into the ocean and swam away forever from the island of Makira, but, as she left she withdrew her blessings of abundance and ease. Since that time, life in the Solomon Islands has become difficult. Famines and crop failures became facts of life and death spread everywhere. The islanders still venerate snakes, the mortal embodiment of Kahausibware—but where the amoral creator has gone is a mystery.
Ningishzida was a Mesopotamian deity, worshiped in the city of Gishbanda which lay near Ur in the orchards of the Fertile Crescent. It seems that he was originally a tree god (the name Ningishzida means “lord of the sacred/giving tree” in Sumerian, the first known written language), but he became associated with fertility, the underworld, and the healing force of nature. I wish I could tell you more about Ningishzida, but, remember how I mentioned Sumerian was the first known language? Surviving texts concerning Ningishzida are ancient. The texts were baked into clay tablets and these have become smashed and broken. When translated they look like this (roll over the links along the left side for source identification and click any of the “GI” links for English translations). There is beauty, nature, the underworld, and magic. There are serpents and lions and glowing portals, but the meaning is unclear (to say the least).
Yet if the combination of fertility, a magical tree, the Fertile Crescent, and a serpent do not seem immediately familiar to you, perhaps you should peruse the book which comes free with the hotel room (you don’t even have to read very far). Scholarly tradition asserts that the Pentateuch was written before or during the Babylonian exile of the 6th century. The author/authors seem to have used Mesopotamian sources for the portions which deal with creation and primeval history.
Ningishzida is portrayed as either a serpent with the head of a man, or, more frequently, as a double-headed serpent coiled into a double helix. It is believed that the Greeks also made use of this symbolism in their myth of the caduceus, the wand of Hermes/Mercury which is associates with theft, deception, and death (for Mercury was a psychopomp who led souls to the underworld with his staff). Of course contemporary people are familiar with the double helix as well. We know that DNA, the fundamental blueprint of life is latticed together on a double helix. It is strange that the first use of this symbol is a mysterious Sumerian tree/snake god who apparently also appealed to Jewish scholars during the Babylonian captivity.
Our lives are filled with Greco-Roman symbols and memes which have lasted for thousands of years: Cupids, cornucopias, the bowl of Hygeia, the staff of Asclepius, Justice with her scales, the gorgonian, Mercury’s feet, the centurion’s helmet, the Aegis, the victor’s wreath, the quincunx, Athena’s owl, the lyre, the comic/tragic masks–they all have immediate meanings for us. Thus it comes as a surprise to look at actual classical art and see how many ancient Mediterranean motifs have not survived at all, but have become baffling to everyone except for classical scholars. We now scratch our heads when we realize how many ancient coins and sculptures bear the modius (a grain basket symbolic of the underworld), the lituus (a ritual wand which betokened augury), or the cista mystica—which is the subject of today’s post.
A cista was a little basket/casket which was used to store toiletries, jewels, or other small personal effects. A cista mystica (literally “secret casket”) was a sacred object of the mystery cults which (seems to have) contained a living serpent. The cista mystica was known to be sacred to Bacchus, but similar cult objects were probably also affiliated with Isis (and the perhaps with the Ophites, a Gnostic worship sect). In the Bacchic mysteries the serpent was carried on a bed of grape leaves and was a stand in for the god. The characteristic form of the serpent was an important component of the symbolism and classical sources note it shares its shape with “the forms of men” (which is to say that it directly betokened virility and male fertility).
The Roman mind sometimes was surprisingly literal and several preeminent men were rumored to have been fathered by gods in serpent form. Olympias mother of Alexander the Great was allegedly found sleeping next to a snake before giving birth to Alexander and Phillip of Macedon was said to shun her bed afterwards (Renaissance artists enjoyed painting this episode, but I’ll leave it to you to google the paintings and drawings). It should also be noted that the marriage of Phillip and Olympias was infamously volatile thanks to Phillip’s propensity to take other wives (and everything else). Augustus, the first Roman emperor, was also allegedly the son of a snake and it was said that his mother always bore the mark of the serpent’s embrace after his birth. Any Roman seeing the cista mystica on the coin of the realm would understand the message–not only were serpents fertility symbols which betokened otherworldly wisdom, but they were also proxies of divine mystery and Roman ascendance.
Welcome to Egypt week at Ferrebeekeeper! All of this week’s posts will share an Egyptian theme. To start out Egypt week, we cast our gaze deep into the underworld beneath the Nile and the burning desert. The dark river passages beneath the world are said to be the home of the principle ancient Egyptian god of chaos, the great serpent Apep (AKA Apopis or Apophis).
According to myth, the sun god Ra carried the sun across the heavens on a mystical solar boat every day. Then every evening Ra returned from west to east via an unseen river path through the underworld. As night covered the world and the sun god struggled to return to the farthest point in the east in time for sunrise, the great serpent would appear from the dark waters to attack the boat.
Apep would try with all of his might to devour the sun in the manner than a serpent eats an egg. Some myths maintain that Apep was the sun god before Ra and wanted the sun back out of dynastic bitterness. In other sources the great demon is not ascribed with a back story and is only a huge snake who wants to eat the sun. Sources agree that Apep was not so much worshiped as “worshiped against.” Many prayers and liturgies from ancient Egypt are magical incantations to help the gods stave off attacks by the huge poisonous snake.
Ra was assisted in fighting off the nightly attack by an unlikely figure, the powerful god Set–a fratricidal maniac with the head of an unknown animal (who doubles as the god of evil and the desert). Whatever Set’s other faults might be, lack of vigilance against giant chaos serpents was not among them. In several passages from ancient literature, Set is heard to boast about his prowess and bravery in making sure the sun gets past the serpent in order to rise on time. The spirits of the devout who had passed to the next life could also help out by rowing the beautiful boat. In later Egyptian myth, the battle goddess Bastet would also assist Ra and Set in fighting the demon.
Of course despite the best intentions of the gods, Apep would occasionally get the upper hand and temporarily run off with the sun. Such (rare) days were marked by storm and overcast skies. Additionally the wily snake demon would sometimes leave the underworld and try to devour the sun as it gloriously made its way across the heavens. According to Egyptian superstition, these occasional daytime attacks were responsible for solar eclipses. Fortunately Ra and the other protectors of the sun could always rely on a reservoir of spiritual energy to drive back the snake (helping the gods defeat Apep was one of the purposes of worship in ancient Eypt). Because of the power of prayer, Apep, dreadful demon snake of the underworld, never did succeed in devouring the sun.
In Greek mythology, Apollo was the god of healing (as well as the god of light, poetry, music, and sundry other good things). Yet Apollo was surpassed as a healer by his son the demigod Asclepius. Asclepius should be one of the most exalted figures in classical mythology, yet his story is ambiguous and troubling (which is perhaps a more fitting tribute to the complexity and heartache of the healers’ arts). The mother of Asclepius was a mortal woman, Coronis, who cheated on Apollo with a mortal lover. When a crow reported to Apollo that Coronis was unfaithful, the sun god disbelieved the fowl and he turned all crows from white to black and gave them discordant voices. Yet the story rankled the god’s heart. When he investigated the rumor and found it to be true, Apollo killed Coronis with one of his terrible arrows. As she writhed in death agony, he slit her open to rescue the son she bore (hence Asclepius’ name means “to cut open”). Apollo then granted crows cleverness beyond other birds to make up for his anger.
Like many other demigods, Asclepius was raised and tutored by the centaur Chiron, a matchless teacher. Soon the pupil surpassed the student and it was rumored that snakes licked Asclepius’ ears and taught him secret knowledge (to the Greeks snakes were sacred beings of wisdom, healing, and resurrection). Asclepius bore a rod wreathed with a snake, which became associated with healing. To this day a species of pan-Mediterranean serpent, the Aesculapian Snake (Zamenis longissimus) are named for the demigod.
Being the greatest healer in the world brought wealth and fame to Asclepius, who had many successful children, each of whom was named after some aspect of the medical craft (Hygiene, Panacea, Recuperation, etc…), but his success became his undoing. When he left Chiron, the centaur had given him two vials of blood—one from the left side and one from the right side of a gorgon. The blood from the left side was a fatal poison which caused ultimate agony (as Chiron himself experienced firsthand at his anguished destruction). The blood from the gorgon’s left side was a miraculous elixir which could bring the dead back to life. Asclepius began to accept gold to revive the dead and he drew the baleful attention of Hades. Afraid that the decisions of the gods would cease to hold terror for mortal kind, Hades begged his brother to make a final end of Asclepius. Zeus was in full agreement and he burned Asclepius to a cinder by casting a lightning bolt at him.
Apollo was furious at the death of his son (and the extinction of the apex of medical art). Not daring to strike Zeus, Apollo killed the Cyclops who has fashioned the lightning bolt, an act which led Zeus to banish Apollo to the mortal realm for a year (during which time the god designed the walls of Troy). When his term was served, Apollo joyously rejoined the other Olympians. Different traditions interpret the story’s end differently. In happier versions, Zeus and Hades bring Asclepius’ spirit to Olympus to act as god of healing forever. In other versions Apollo and Zeus hang the image of Asclepius in the heavens as the constellation Opiuchus, “the Snake Bearer” both to remind humankind of the physician’s greatness and to warn them to eschew seeking immortality.