According to 1000 Symbols by Rowena and Rupert Shepherd, “Aborigines in the Wessel Islands of Australia’s Arnhem Land regard the squid as a healer. In their ancestral mythology, the female squid is believed to have created all the features of the landscape and the local family clans. The male squid then divides the land among the clans.” I could not find any other information about this myth, but I did discover the beautiful linocut above by Joel Sam–a Torres Strait Islander artist, raised in Bamaga, Cape York. I thought the print captured the spirit of the creator squid.
Two years ago, Ferrebeekeeper featured the crown of the renowned king Henry VIII of England. To my eyes it has been the prettiest crown so far featured here…but it’s fake, of course. All of the real historical medieval crowns from English history were melted down and sold in the aftermath of the English Civil War (which ended in 1651) when Oliver Cromwell and the protectorate took over the United Kingdom and ruled with a puritanical iron fist. Well, technically all of the actual medieval crowns from English history were destroyed…except for two. Above is the finer of the two, the coronet of Margaret of York, who, though never a queen, became duchess of Burgundy, one of the richest and most important ducal territories in all of Europe. This crown survived England’s tumultuous history by the simple expedient of not being in England (which sort of describes Margaret of York as well).
Margaret was born the daughter of England’s most powerful lord, Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, who served as lord protector of England during the madness of Henry VI (the pious but weak king who briefly ruled both France and England). Two of Margaret’s brothers were kings of England– Edward IV and Richard III (famous forever as a Shakespeare villain, whose remains were rediscovered 3 years ago under a parking lot in England). Margaret’s personal history of conniving nobles, kings, wars, alliances, betrothals, marriages, murders, horsing accidents, scurrilous sexual rumors, and complex treaties would make George. R. R. Martin pull out his beard in frustration, although Wikipedia amazingly manages to summarize it all in approximately 3 incomprehensible pages. When Margaret was married to Charles the Bold (whose untimely death precipitated two centuries of major wars) she wore this coronet. Burgundy was known for its wealth and extravagance. During her wedding the city was decorated with ornamental pelicans which spewed wine on the crowds!
Margaret’s coronet is tiny—a mere 12 centimeters (five inches) in diameter and height, but it is richly “ornamented with multi-coloured enamel, pearls, gems set in white roses, a diamond cross, the coats of arms of England and Burgundy, and letters forming the name: margarit(a) de (y)o(r)k. Margaret of York.” The reason the beautiful object has survived history in such good shape is that Margaret visited the Imperial city of Aachen in the summer of 1474 and donated her coronet to the statue of Mary in the great cathedral there. The little crown has remained in the cathedral’s treasury for the ensuing 541 years. It should be noted that the meticulous Germans have also kept the original leather case (which makes the crown more valuable for serious collectors?).
In my many posts about art and painting, I have shamefully slighted the wonderful 18th century. Here is a masterpiece by one of the greatest painters of that era, Jean-Antoine Watteau, whose career was all too brief. Watteau bridged the gap between Baroque and Rococo by bringing the naturalistic color and movement of Correggio to the rigorous classical tradition of great French masters such as Poussin and Lorrain. This beautifully painted oval composition portrays the fertility goddess Ceres shimmering among the lambent clouds in the long pink evenings of summer. Her garb of gold and shell color perfectly suits the joyous abundance of the season. Around her, youths are gathering the precious life-giving wheat while the astrological beasts of the summer sky gambol at her side.
Of course I did not just pull this choice of subjects out of some crazy 18th century hat! As I write this, the NASA spacecraft Dawn is hurtling through the asteroid belt toward the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest body in the asteroid belt. Ceres (the dwarf planet) is located in the strange region between Mars and Jupiter. It is large enough to be spherical due to its own gravity but something seems to have gone horribly wrong there. It appears to be the shattered core of a world which either never quite formed or which was destroyed during the making—a miscarriage four and a half billion years old. Scientists have speculated about what the little world is composed of and how it was created, but telescopes have only revealed so much, and no spacecraft has visited prior to Dawn. This is a time of true exploration like the 18th century! Already Dawn’s cameras have spotted bizarre ultra-bright reflections from Ceres. Are they sheets of ice or metal…something else? We will have to wait till the probe enters orbit in April to find out, but I am excited to learn more about the formation of Ceres (which is to say the formation of the solar system) and to finally solve some of the mysteries of this under-appreciated heavenly neighbor.
Of course I am also heartily sick of this endless disappointing winter. The sooner Ceres (the allegorical figure of abundance and warmth) brings life back to Brooklyn, the happier I will be. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed for exciting news from space and for the return of life and growth here on (the north part of) Earth after a long winter. Also anybody who wishes for the return of classical beauty and allegorical subtlety in the dismal world of ill-conceived & poorly-executed contemporary art will have my heartfelt appreciation and best wishes!
Today we are featuring a small painting by a contemporary painter, Mark Ryden (whose work has showed up on this blog before). This is “Queen Bee” a portrait which stands somewhat in contrast with Ryden’s usual style: although the painting does have the jewel-like illustration quality which constitutes half of his trademark; it notably lacks the dark narrative extravagance of earlier works. The best of Ryden’s oeuvre has the feel of a fairytale which has fallen through a dark hole in the world. “Queen Bee” is more elegiac. The emotionally empty pouting expression on the figure’s doll-like face works as a receptacle for whatever emotion the viewer wishes to project into it.
The glorious golden bee who is desperately assembling a hive from hair, grass, and leaves is the true subject of the work. Of course a single honey bee is an anomaly and a failure—honey bees are social organisms which can only survive and flourish as a hive. So the viewer is left to draw her own conclusions about the thematic meaning of the piece.
Although Ryden paints his own paintings (unlike many artworld superstars who leave lowly creative tasks to underpaid interns, apprentices, and assistants), he does hire Asian artisans to build the remarkable frames to spec. Look at how lovely the gilded hive is! Are these bees in the frame the real workers for the bee in the painting? There might be a subtle sting for the entire concept of fine art buried in that question.
This particular painting was made for charity. Ryden auctioned the piece off in the spring of last year and donated the proceeds to the World Wildlife Fund. While the piece did not fetch the princely multi-million dollar price associated with works by annointed art world insiders, you could certainly buy several houses in West Virginia with the proceeds. It is very good of Ryden to give to such a meaningful cause. One of these days, I’ll have to host a charity auction of my own paintings for the world’s endangered animals (sometime on down the road when I am not one of them).
We live on the threshold of an era of stupendous nanomaterials! In the near future, molecules will be engineered to be harder than diamonds or stronger than steel…yet these miracle materials will also be workable and light.
Well, at least that’s what they keep telling us. In practice our best nano-materials do not seem capable of besting nature in the truly important categories—like hardness, tensile strength, or elasticity (or, if our synthetic materials are superior, they prove difficult to build into structures which fully exploit their strengths). A case in point comes from the lowly yet resilient limpet. Limpets are marine gastropods (snails) which have shells without visible coils. Actually, the name “limpet” is an informal common name—scientists have a very different way of characterizing these mollusks.
Limpets cling tenaciously to rocks at the tidal line by means of a muscular foot designed to create suction. They also produce an adhesive mucus which helps the foot adhere to whatever surface the limpet wishes to cling to. They carefully scour their ocean rocks for nutritious algae with a radula—a tongue-like rasping organ covered with teeth. Limpets have been of note to humans principally as a metaphor for resilience…or as a nuisance. Yet scientists experimenting on a common limpet, Patella vulgata, found that the little snail’s teeth had greater tensile strength than spider silk. Indeed, limpet teeth are the strongest known material in the natural world and approach the tensile strength of our strongest carbon fibers. With these teeth the little snail can (and does!) chew through rocks.
The secret to the limpet’s mighty teeth is a miracle of molecular design in its own right. The cutting portion of the teeth are composed of fibers of goethite (a sort of iron hydroxide named after the great German poet). These fibers are under 60 nanometers in diameter—a size which allows them to be tremendously strong. The teeth are technically a composite–since the tiny goethite fibers are held together by chitin, a natural polymer (which the exoskeletons of insects are made of).
Technically there are human-created carbon fibers stronger than the astonishing teeth of the limpet, but these fibers can only be utilized in certain configurations and fashions–so the limpets’ teeth are of very real practical interest to materials scientists. Engineers are already working on duplicating the little snail’s teeth for mining and cutting equipment…and for human dental uses. Perhaps we really could someday have some of the powers of Jaws, the lovable hulking henchman from seventies James Bond movies. With our synthetic chompers we could bite through rocks and steel cables. Uh, wouldn’t that be wonderful?
Last week was sheep week on Ferrebeekeeper. I was surprised by the extent to which sheep farming and wool production have been woven into humankind’s language, religion, and culture since time immemorial. Unfortunately, I became so impressed with these ancient ties, that I forgot to include my special bonus post—a gallery of silly sheep mascots just for fun…
Hopefully you are still celebrating Chinese New Year, because here, a week late, are the sheep mascots. There are so many, and they represent so many different crazy organizations!
There are ever so many more, in every shape and with every expression… i sort of gave up on making a comprehensive list. I am struck anew by how much people love sheep–even as the symbol of an organization or a product (although maybe its subconsciously appropriate for organizations trying to gain followers?)
Mount Mazama was a giant volcano located in the Cascades. Around 7700 years ago the volcano erupted so violently that the top mile of the mountain exploded and the remaining cone collapsed. The vast caldera became a deep empty hole—which soon filled up with water and became a beautiful lake—Crater Lake in Oregon.
Crater Lake is indeed very lovely, but it is also disquieting. There are no rivers or streams which empty into it (after all it is located atop what remains of a vast mountain) but the snowfall in the region is so high that the lake easily fills up with extremely clear melt water. The clear water combines with the lake’s great depth to absorb all hues of light other than indigo—so the lake is dark blue. The deepest point is 1,943 feet (592 m) below the surface, which makes it the deepest lake in the United States and the seventh deepest lake (by average) in the world—deeper even than the otherworldly depths of Lake Baikal. Originally the lake had no fish (although they were added by humans in the twentieth century). Its waters are extremely cold and items which fall into it decay slowly.
The Klamath people, a Native American tribe who have long lived in the region, have a sacred myth which tells about the formation of the lake. Long ago, there were two great spirits, Skell, spirit of the sky, and Llao, the spirit of the underworld. Llao lived beneath Mount Mazama and sometimes he would leave the underworld and venture to the top of the mountain, where he could almost reach Skell’s dwelling. One day, as he was watching the world from the mountain top, Llao saw the beautiful daughter of the chief of the Klamath people. He eagerly paid suit to the lovely maiden, but he was hideous and she spurned his advances.
In anger Llao began to hurl fire and stones onto the Klamath people, and they begged their greatest benefactor, Skell to help them. Skell came down to the very lowest point of his kingdom–the top of Mount Shasta–and began to battle Llao, who stood at the highest point of his realm—the top of Mount Mazama. Soon the spirit battle became more tumultuous as other spirits of the sky, the land, and the underworld joined in. The two greatest medicine men of the Klamath saw that the war of so many spirits was destroying the world so they hurled themselves down into the volcano’s caldera as a sacrifice to appease the angry spirits. The lesser spirits of the underworld were indeed appeased and ceased their fighting, but Llao’s wrath at his rejection was not sated. He continued to battle Skell but he was overwhelmed and defeated. Skell hurled vast magic at Llao and the entire mountain exploded.
Llao fled down into the huge hole which was created. Some say he died there from Skell’s magic, whereas other’s believe he lurks somewhere in the underworld (with Gong Gong maybe?) waiting for the right moment to make his return. Whatever the case, Skel disliked the site of the vast pit in the world and he made sure to fill it with water and keep it filled. Looking at aerial pictures of Crater Lake, it is hard not to respect the narrative wisdom of the Klamath story tellers. Few things on Earth look more like an entrance to the underworld, and even the most literal volcanologist would have to concede that volcanic calderas are a place where the world below comes most directly to Earth’s surface.
This is the time of year when winter has long outstayed its welcome, but no traces of spring are anywhere to be found. My garden is covered in a sheet of filthy ice and seems likely to stay that way for the conceivable future. The few spots not buried in snow or slush reveal only grim frozen mud. In such circumstances it is difficult to remain cheerful or find any beauty whatsoever in the winter, so instead of writing an actual meaningful post about real things, I have found a bunch of crazy pictures of fantasy winter gardens which do not (and probably could never) exist.
Although admittedly these paintings portray gardens wholly in the grip of winter, the picture gardens are clearly make-believe (a reassuring contrast with the actual all-too real winter just outside). These images are also pretty (which is also in contrast with the actual world).
Let your mind wonder through the whimsical topiary, frozen palaces, and strange icicle bridges of these paintings and be of good cheer. March is nearly here and spring will probably come again, even if that seems utterly impossible at present. In the meantime, I am going to get under the covers and read a book about heroes slaying frost giants and breaking the power of evil ice wizards.
Ancient Egyptian mythology can seem like a baffling tangle of multi-faceted gods who subsume each others’ identities, roles, and symbols. Perhaps the best way to understand the mutable nature of Egyptian deities is to recognize that the pantheon reflected the changing political realities of Ancient Egyptian culture. The drawback with this methodology is that the culture of Ancient Egypt lasted for approximately 3000 years (!), so it is still not easy to summarize Egyptian mythology.
Consider the deity Amun Ra. Amun Ra ended up as the king of the gods of Egypt—the emperor of heaven who created all things. There were times in the New Kingdom, when worship of Amun Ra bordered on monotheism and the other gods were regarded as flickering extensions of Amun Ra. However it did not start this way. Originally Amun and Ra were separate. In the Old Kingdom Amun was a mysterious god of hidden magical breath. The Old Kingdom ended in 2181 BC in a dark age of war and strife which lasted for a century (a time now known as “the First Intermediate Period”). At the end of this period, Amun had grown in importance and become the god of the winds and the patron god of Thebes. The Middle Kingdom was a glorious age for Egyptian civilization, but it too came to an end in stagnation, civil war, and invasion—”the Second Intermediate Period”–which lasted from 1786 BC to 1550 BC. During this Second Intermediate Period, a mysterious group of heterogeneous invaders—the Hyksos—took over Egypt and created their own dynasties. The Hyksos were finally driven from Egypt by nobles from Thebes who founded the 17th dynasty (the first of the New Kingdom). Since Thebes was politically ascendant, the Theban patron god Amun merged with Ra and became ruler of the gods. Before being combined with Amun, the deity Ra had long been worshiped as the sun god.
Ra traveled through the firmament on two solar boats. By day he traveled through the sky on the Mandjet (the Boat of Millions of Years). At night he took on his form as a great ram and traveled through the underworld on the Mesektet (the evening boat). Ferrebeekeeper has touched on the Mesektet before, but we were concentrating on giant evil snake deities back in those days, so ram-headed Ra didn’t really get his due in the earlier post.
Amun Ra had several forms which reflected his diverse origin, but he was most often portrayed as a mighty ram or as a pharaoh with a distinctive towering headdress…or sometimes as a falcon with the sun on his head. When I started writing this article I had hoped for some explanation of why Ra was called “Ram of the Underworld” or why the ram came to prominence over other animals to wind up as the favored animal head for the king of the gods, but if such explanations exist, they have eluded me. You’ll have to be content with the fact that the king of the gods of Egypt was most often a ram. I’m not even sure if I said that right: but I guess I don’t need to worry about literalistic ancient Egyptian priests and worshipers showing up in the comments to berate me (a consideration which crossed my mind when I decided to write about Amun Ra as opposed to other supreme sheep gods whom I could name).
Today is Chinese New Year! Happy Year of the Ram! This is a controversial zodiac year—at least during this era. For one thing, it is unclear whether the ancient Chinese character representing this year’s zodiac sign should be translated as ram, sheep, or goat. Although sheep are herded in the northwestern grasslands of China, they are far less prevalent than goats. Throughout the rest of East Asia the distinction is clearer: Vietnam celebrates the year of the goat; whereas Japan is emphatically in the sheep camp. However in China, the exact animal varies by region. Here at Ferrebeekeeper it is sheep week, so we are going to go with sheep—but we are going to say “ram” (a horned adult male sheep) so that everyone recognizes we are dealing with a horned caprid of some textual ambiguity.
There is an additional problem: in contemporary China the sheep is regarded as one of the worst of all zodiac signs. The virtues associated with a sheep personality are not currently en vogue in venal laissez-faire China. People born in the year of the ram are said to be gentle, compassionate, kind-hearted, and artistic. These were not necessarily considered bad attributes in classical China, but in today’s mercenary world of slippery business deals they are equated with weakness. The newspapers are filled with articles foretelling a dearth of newborns in 2015 as expectant mothers skip having babies to wait for more predatory zodiac creatures.
The trouble has been compounded by the chief executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, an unpopular communist-appointed mandarin who has been attempting to quell the restive island by a wide variety of techniques. His most recent attempt to quash conflicting voices was a New Year’s exhortation to be more like the biddable sheep. Leung stated:
Sheep are widely seen to be mild and gentle animals living peacefully in groups…Last year was no easy ride for Hong Kong. Our society was rife with differences and conflicts. In the coming year I hope that all people in Hong Kong will take inspiration from the sheep’s character and pull together in an accommodating manner to work for Hong Kong’s future.
The phrasing takes on a particularly sinister bent considering that Leung Chun-ying is universally (and completely unofficially!) known as “the wolf”. His new year’s speech was cartoonishly in keeping with this sobriquet.Politics and zodiac nonsense aside, I would like to speak a word for the rams (who must be feeling uncharacteristically disliked as their year begins). Finding joy in beauty self-evidently means a life filled with joy and beauty (abstracts which blunt shiny business people often are incapable of grasping). Likewise loving people have love in their lives. Speaking of which, I have a sneaking suspicion that there will be just as many babies this year as ever! I hope lunar new year finds you eating dumplings and pomelos with your loved ones. May everyone find kindness, beauty, and peace in the Year of the Ram!