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Some colors are very beautiful yet lack beautiful names. Such is the case with icterine, which sounds like a particularly nasty fruit, but turns out to be a lovely pale yellow. Although the bright spring color is pretty enough, the roots of its ghastly name are also ugly. The name is derived from the ancient Greek word “ikteros” which means jaundice. The color icterine is used by ornithologists to describe birds with pale yellow feathers and there are several birds with icterine in their common or scientific name. The color is not limited to birds: searching through internet images, one discovers various garments, iphone covers, and other consumer goods in shades of icterine, but it seems to be more popular in Europe than in the Americas.
Many reptiles and amphibians are beautifully colored, particularly the poisonous ones. When I was growing up, I had a set of field guides of the creatures of North America. Of all the land animals of North America, the animals which I thought were most beautifully colored were the coral snakes. Coral snakes constitute four genera of snakes within the family of elapid snakes (cobras, mambas, sea snakes, kraits, and other poisonous snakes from warm climates). Many coral snakes live in South America and the old world (where some coral snake species are evolving into sea snakes), but I’m going to stick to writing about the gorgeous red, yellow, and black coral snakes of North America. These snakes are brightly colored to warn potential predators that they are extremely venomous. This strategy has failed somewhat when it comes to intimidating humans, who have a collective fascination with pretty colors.
There are three coral snakes which live in the United States. The eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius) ranges from North Carolina to Texas (including Florida and the Gulf Coast swamps). The Texas coral Snake (Micrurus tener) ranges from northeast Mexico up through Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. The Arizona coral snake (Micruroides euryxanthus) lives in the Sonoran desert through Southern New Mexico, Arizona, and Sinaloa. All species of coral snakes in the United States can be identified by the fact that their red bands touch the yellow bands (which is in marked opposition to mimics like king snakes and milk snakes). Coral snakes from Central/South America and from Asia do not always follow this rule: the black bands can sometimes touch the red bands, or the bands can be colors other than red, yellow, and black–or there might be no bands at all!
Coral Snakes are fossorial predators which spend most of their life just beneath the leaf litter or loose topsoil where they hunt lizards, frogs, insects, and smaller snakes. Baby snakes are 18 centimeters (7 inches long) when they hatch from their eggs. Adult snakes can grow to 0.6 meters (2 feet) in length. Coral snakes can live up to seven years in captivity.
Coral Snakes are extremely poisonous, but they are also shy and retiring. Instead of hanging around biting, they would prefer to escape as quickly as possible. This makes sense from the snake’s perspective, since their fangs are very tiny and they have to chew directly on their prey in order to inject a fatal dose. Since they have tiny mouths, it is not necessarily easy for them to score a direct bite on humans. Additionally their venom acts slowly—at first there is only a mild tingling associated with the bite. Lethargy, disorientation, and nausea set in hours later. In extreme cases, coral snake bites can cause respiratory arrest. Fatal bites are extremely rare: most sources state that nobody has been killed by a coral snake in the US since antivenin was released in 1967 (although I also found allusions to a 2009 case where a man laughed off a bite only to die hours later).
Coral Snake antivenin was solely manufactured by one US drug company, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals (now a wholly owned subsidy of Pfizer Inc.). In 2003 Wyeth ceased manufacturing coral snake antivenin since too few people were bitten to make the product profitable. There is still a small supply left on hand (although the expiration date has been extended twice), but Pfizer does not seem to have any intention of pursuing a microscopic niche market when it has more profitable businesses to pursue. Foreign pharmaceutical companies continue to produce coral snake antivenin, but they do not sell it in the United States because of prohibitive licensing and regulatory costs (hooray! the United States health care system is unsolving problems which were figured out 40 years ago!).
*Don’t be this guy.
Fulvous is a color which is very prevalent in the natural world. It is a dull mixture of yellow and brown with hints of red. The name comes from the Latin word “fulvus” which translates as “a dull yellow-brown color with a hint of red” (sometimes etymology is easy). Since “fulvus” is a Latin word there are a shocking number of animal species which have the color incorporated in their binomial scientific name. There are also quite a few creatures (particularly birds) known as the fulvous such-and-such in English. Here is a little gallery of fulvous/fulvus beasties.
The winter is gradually passing away into spring–which should be an exultant season for flower gardeners. Yet the results in my back yard are extremely discouraging because the ferocious squirrels of Brooklyn have eaten all of my crocuses! Despite planting an immense number of the hardy little flowers, I am still bereft of spring color. I guess I should have expected something like this after the infernal bushy-tailed rodents ate all the glass bulbs from the Christmas lights…
As it turns out, squirrels are not the only ones who love crocus flavor. One of the world’s most precious spices is made from the little flowers. The gourmet spice saffron literally consists of the harvested stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus). The saffron crocus plant has been domesticated since antiquity to provide the costly spice and the plant literally owes its existence to human appetite for the powdery threads. Crocus sativus is a descendant of Crocus cartwrightianus, a wild crocus from the rocky skree of southwest Asia. As humankind selectively planted the plants with the longest stigmas (and hence the most delicious saffron) the little crocus developed into a completely different—and completely dependent—species. Crocus sativus now has magnificent spiraling stigma covered in deep yellow pollen, but the artificial selection came at a terrible cost. The plant is a male sterile triploid, incapable of sexual reproduction thanks to its extra chromosome. Saffron crocuses can only reproduce asexually and they require human assistance to prosper. The spice is still prohibitively expensive since the little plants must be planted and harvested by hand.
Saffron is known to recorded history as early as the 7th century BC (when it was mentioned in a Assyrian botanical treatise) however archeological and genetic evidence suggest that saffron has been harvested for at least 4 millenia! Since saffron contains over 150 volatile and aroma-yielding compounds, I am not going to try to describe it to you—you’ll just have to get some yourself. My favorite dish which uses the yellow pollen is mussels, saffron, vermouth, and cream!
Of course I am cheating a little bit by writing this article in the spring–the saffron crocus is really an autumn flowering plant. However I felt like my slaughtered crocuses deserved some sort of memorial tribute. Of course if I really wanted to commemorate the slain flowers I could turn to my paint box. In addition to being a spice, saffron is also a color—a deep orangey gold reminiscent of foods prepared with the spice. Strangely, for a color so steeped in the sensory joys of living, saffron has also come to represent worldly renunciation. Buddhist monks wear robes of deep saffron and the top bar of the Indian flag is the same rich orange-yellow. The flag’s designers hoped that the color would inspire India’s leaders to set aside material gains and dedicate themselves to the welfare of the people, but, alas, in all societies such selfless dedication is even rarer than the rarest spice.
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!
As I write this, astronomers know of about 700 planets which lie beyond the solar system. Yet in just 16 months, NASA’s Kepler mission has discovered an additional 2,326 potential new planets. This figure is hitting the mainstream news today thanks to NASA’s announcement that the Kepler space observatory has confirmed the existence of Kepler-22b, a planet which exists within the so-called habitable zone of a yellow G-class star about 600 light years from here. Kepler-22b orbits its star every 290 Earth days and is reckoned to have an average temperature of about 22 degrees Celsius (approximately 72 degrees Fahrenheit). Although closer in size to Earth than most exoplanets, the new world still has a radius which is more than twice that of our planet(which means that Kepler-22b’s mass is immensely greater). Scientists have no idea what Kepler-22b is made of, but because of its high gravity, its atmosphere is likely to be a heavier, sludgier affair than that of Earth.
The discovery of new worlds is becoming progressively more common–which means that new planets are more difficult to write about (I can testify to this because I have been trying to think of novel and exciting things to say about this new exoplanet). The top google search result for Kepler-22b is currently a smug caricature of the foibles of earthlings. Within a few days the sparse prose of Wikipedia’s equally scanty entry will probably be the top search result—and that is likely the way that things will remain for a long time (or forever). We are beginning to compile a massive database of different worlds. As the numbers add up, the true stories will be within the statistical understanding of new planets–unless of course a habitable zone planet leaps out of the news with electromagnetic signatures characteristic of life and intelligence. That result becomes progressively likely as we begin to learn where to point our telescopes. Out of the thousands of planets the Kepler mission is finding, Kepler-22b is the first habitable zone world of dozens–or of hundreds.
[Alien clipart by Elizabeth Aragon at www.sweetclipart.com]
The Aztec goddess of death was Mictecacihuatl. According to myth she was once alive countless ages ago—a member of an ancient pre-human race of beings who lived when the world was new. But her time in the living world was short since she was sacrificed to the underworld as an infant. After her death, she grew to adulthood as a magical skeleton deity of immense power. She has lived through countless cycles as a goddess of bones and death and the dead, rising ultimately to become queen of the underworld. One of her foremost duties as the ruler of the dark realm is to guard the skeletal remains of extinct earlier races. In the past Mictecacihuatl failed in her duties and Xolotl, god of sickness and lightning, stole one of the sacred corpses of those who lived long before–which the gods of the sky then fashioned into living modern human beings. Now Mictecacihuatl must also guard the bones of dead humans, for she believes that our remains could be used by capricious sky gods to build an even more ruthless group of alien new beings.
Wow! Aztec religion really does not hold back on the bizarre, the macabre, and the unfathomable–but what does all this have to do with flowers of the underworld? Well, it turns out that Mictecacihuatl has a weakness for flowers. The brilliant yellow cempasúchil–today known as flor de muertos–was sacred to her, and Aztecs believed the smell of the blossoms could wake the souls of the dead and bring them temporarily back to earth for the great autumn festival in their honor. Huge altars laden with food were erected and festooned with the flowers. It was one of the most important traditions of the Aztecs, and even after the Spanish conquest, the tradition continued. Despite the long efforts of the Spanish church to eradicate the festival of the dead it lingers to this day (though now as a church holiday), celebrated on November 2nd as Dia De los Muertos, or “day of the dead”. The graveyards are filled with yellow cempasúchils which for a time reign supreme among flower markets throughout Mexico. Along with candy, jaunty toy skeletons, and liquor, the flor de muertosare an inextricable part of this festive time.
And what sort of flower is the cempasúchil, which has so much power over the spirits of the dead and Mictecacihuatl, goddess of the underworld herself? The botanists call it Tagetes erecta, one of about 75 members of the marigold family– those omnipresent orange and yellow flowers known to every American schoolchild! The English name for the flower of the dead is the Mexican marigold. The plants grow wild in a belt running across central Mexico.
In the preconquest Meso-American world, the flowers were valuable and were used as a dye, an antibacterial, a foodstuff, and a skin-wash/cosmetic. Additionally, when planted with maize crops, marigolds in general (and the cempasúchil specifically) prevent nematode damage. Even today, there are industrial uses for the cempasúchils which are an ingredient in perfumes, salads, and as food colorings. In agriculture, extracts of the plant are added to chicken feed (to give the yolks their yellow color) and are used to enhance the color of shrimp and other edible crustaceans. The other fascinating plants we have examined this week—the asphodel, the devil’s hand (another plant sacred to the Aztecs!), and the deadly aconites are not grown or produced in any quantities remotely approaching the enormous annual cempasúchil harvest. Cempasúchils have benefited from their association with the dead–they are a huge success. The little yellow Mexican marigold is one of the most popular flowers in the world.
Nüwa was a serpent deity from ancient Chinese mythology. Sometimes she is pictured as a gorgeous woman, other times she is shown possessing a woman’s head but the body of a powerful snake. Nüwa was the creator of humankind and remained a powerful benefactor to people and all living creatures (many of which were also her handiwork).
When the world was new, Nüwa walked through empty plains and valleys. Perceiving that creation was very desolate and lonely she began to craft living creatures in order to fill the waste. On the first day she made chickens and sent them clucking through creation. On the second day she fashioned dogs to run through the forest. On the third day she created sheep to graze the plains. On the fourth day she crafted pigs to root through the earth. On the fifth day she made gentle cows and truculent bulls. On the sixth day she was inspired and crafted horses. On the seventh day she was walking near a river and she saw her beautiful reflection. She knelt down in the yellow clay and began to hand sculpt figures similar to herself. As she set the lovely little forms down, they came to life and began to call out to her as mother. All day Nüwa built more and more of the little people, after her long labors, her energy was waning. To finish the job she picked up a strand of ivy and dipped in the fecund mud. Then she flicked the mud across the lands. Everywhere the little blobs fell, people sprung up, coarser and less lovely then the hand-made folk, but perfectly serviceable. Thus did Nüwa create humankind, separating from the very beginning the rich and noble people from the commoners by means of her crafting methods.
Nüwa loved her creations and she continued to look after them quietly (for she was modest and disliked effusive worship). She took Fuxi, the first of the three sovereigns of ancient China as her spouse. Fuxi was a hero in his own right and is said to have invented fishing and trapping. There are many ancient pictures and representations of the happy couple entwined as huge loving snake people. However one day the great black water dragon Gong Gong put her marriage and all of her work in peril. The story of what happened subsequently is of great interest (and bears directly on my favorite work of Chinese literature) so I will tell it completely tomorrow.
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.