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Mimas (Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA)

Mimas is a moon of Saturn.  Discovered late in the 18th century by the astonishing Sir William Herschel, Mimas is the smallest (known) astronomical body which is spherical from self-gravitation (here is an explanation of what that means).  The moon’s most noteworthy feature is an enormous impact crater named Herschel which is 130 kilometres (81 mi) across–about the same as the distance between New York and Philadelphia. Wikipedia gives some additional dimensions of the crater:

Herschel’s diameter is almost a third of [Mimas’] diameter; its walls are approximately 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) high, parts of its floor measure 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) deep, and its central peak rises 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) above the crater floor.

If you were standing in the crater (which you should not do!) it would be a great broken plain surrounded by cliffs thirteen times taller than the Empire State Building.  In the middle you could see a huge mountain slightly shorter than the tallest mountain in North America.  Jagged craters and valleys as deep as Lake Baikal would lie around you.

Mimas orbits above Saturn. The dark lines are shadows cast by the rings (Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA)

A great series of impact cracks on the opposite side of the moon would seem to indicate that the collision which created Herschel nearly shattered Mimas (which is composed principally of ice).

The moon’s name might be of passing interest to followers of my Deities of the Underworld category. In Greek mythology, Mimas was one of the monstrous sons of Gaia.  He was born with snakes for legs and he was clad in full armor.  In the Aeneid, Virgil tells the story of how Hephaestus imprisoned Mimas under Vesuvius during Gaia’s great rebellion against the Olympian gods.  As the imprisoned giant shakes so to does the area around the Bay of Naples.

Mimas--Yikes! (Also, what happened to his armor?)

As I was researching this article, I was struck by how many moons Saturn has! As a special bonus feature, here is an alphabetic list of Saturn’s named moons (several more remain anonymous): Aegaeon, Aegir, Albiorix, Anthe, Atlas, Bebhionn, Bergelmir, Bestla, Calypso, Daphnis, Dione, Enceladus, Epimetheus, Erriapus, Farbauti, Fenrir, Fornjot, Greip, Hati, Helene, Hyperion, Hyrrokkin, Iapetus, Ijiraq, Janus, Jarnsaxa, Kari, Kiviuq, Loge, Methone, Mimas, Mundilfari, Narvi, Paaliaq, Pallene, Pan, Pandora, Phoebe, Polydeuces, Prometheus, Rhea, Siarnaq, Skadi, Skoll, Surtur, Suttung, Tarqeq, Tarvos, Telesto, Tethys, Thrym, Titan and Ymir.

Mekong Giant Catfish

The largest freshwater fish currently alive is the endangered Mekong Giant Catfish Pangasianodon gigas (there are sturgeons which are much heavier and longer, however they are classified as anadromous—they breed in freshwater but live in the sea).  The largest Mekong catfish on record have measured up to 3.2 meters (10 feet) with a mass greater than 300 kilograms (660 pounds).  Ichthyologists know little about the life patterns and spawning habits of the enigmatic Mekong catfish.  Juvenile catfish undergo an omnivorous stage when they eat insect larvae, zooplankton, and other small fish (including smaller juvenile Mekong catfish).  As soon as they reach their adult stage the catfish lose their barbels (the “whiskers” from which catfish derive their common English name) as well as their teeth to adapt a vegetarian diet of algae. The adult fish are silver or gray with yellowish bellies.

Giant catfish once lived throughout South East Asia in the waterways of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar and Yunnan. But today, overfishing, dam-building and industrialization have taken a heavy toll: the Mekong Giant Catfish can only be found in Mekong River and its tributaries in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.


Because of their giant size and their mysterious habits, the catfish have a place in the mythology and folklore of South East Asia.  The fish feature in many tales of Buddhist monks, najas, and water spirits. Miranda Leitsinger, who wrote an article about the fish, even relates a story of ritual human sacrifice, “In Laos, legend has it that four centuries ago, the king used to sacrifice a man and woman each year to cave spirits to get their permission to catch the giant catfish.”  Apparently the cave and water spirits are not the force they once were, because today the Mekong giant catfish is rapidly becoming a legend itself.

Prehistoric cave paintings of fishermen throwing nets at the catfish (upper left) from Pha Taem National Park. The paintings are possibly 3,000 years old or older.

This is the Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire.  The story of the crown’s creation has been lost in myth but it was most likely constructed by a jewelsmith somewhere in Western Germany during the late 10th century (probably during the reign of Otto I).   The Imperial Crown, was kept in Nuremberg from 1424–1796.  In 1796, Napoleon was marching on Nuremberg.  The crown was moved first to Regensberg before Franz II, the last Holy Roman Emperor, had the crown “temporarily” removed to Vienna.  After Napoleon’s crushing victory at the battle of Austerlitz, Franz dissolved the Holy Roman Empire (but held onto the crown, which became a historical relic).  The crown was returned to Nuremberg by Nazis after the Anschluss of 1938.  When American forces took Nuremberg, the U.S. graciously returned the crown to Austria (although it would probably look very nice in the Smithsonian).   At present the Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire is with the Austrian Crown Jewels which are kept under guard at the Hofburg in Vienna, “until there is again a Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation”.

The crown is constructed from eight plates of 22 carat gold (which is why the metal never tarnishes and glisters with an otherwordly buttery glow).  It is ornamented with 144 precious stones—sapphires, emeralds, and amethysts en cabochon (faceting was unknown in the tenth century) as well as more than one hundred pearls.  The twelve largest gemstones on the front represent the twelve apostles. There are four cloisonné enamel pictures executed in the Byzantine style which show scenes from the bible (three plates portray Old Testament kings and the fourth pictures Jesus with two angels).  To quote a Czech website, the crown is indeed “a unique artistic masterpiece of the Romanesque era.”

North Sentinel Island

North Sentinel Island is a small island in the Bay of Bengal.  It consists of 72 km2 of dense tropical forest surrounded on all sides by a coral reef.  It is part of the Andaman Island chain—a group of islands held by India.  North Sentinel Island’s legal status is complicated but general consensus holds that it is a sovereign entity under Indian protection.  Although North Sentinel Island is inhabited by humans, we only know a handful of things about the Sentinelese because their contact with the modern world has been extremely minimal. The indigenous people do not like outsiders and they have never talked or otherwise communicated with anyone from the modern world.  So far the only way they have interacted with visitors is by shooting arrows at them (and once by copulating en masse in front a shocked ethnographic expedition which had become stranded on the reef flats).

Here they are pointing their weapons at a helicopter.

Agriculture is completely unknown on North Sentinel Island. The Sentinelese are hunter-gatherers, subsisting on fruits, seeds, tubers, fish, shellfish, honey, feral pigs, and the eggs of turtles and seabirds. The inhabitants go naked except during hunting expeditions when they wear belts/loincloths.  The language, religion, and customs of the Sentinelese are unknown (although they are presumed to speak a language in the Andamanese family).

The tips of their weapons are steel and iron which have been scavenged and shaped through cold-smithing (in the late 1980s two international container ships ran aground on the island’s external coral reefs).  The islanders manufacture baskets, pounding stones, nets, and adzes.  They also build canoes–however they have not been known to venture beyond the reefs of their island.

For a time the outside world attempted to initiate contact with the Sentinelese by presenting gifts such as coconuts, buckets, dolls, pigs and metal pots before (quickly!) retreating to a distance out of arrowshot.  The pigs and dolls were shot and buried.  The pots and coconuts were eagerly accepted.  The Sentinelese took the red buckets but left the green ones behind.  Despite these overtures, the Sentinelese maintained their skepticism towards visitors (“skepticism” in this context means “aggressively shooting arrows at”), and such attempts to communicate have since been curtailed.  In 2006 the islanders killed two trespassers who were poaching fish from the island reef and these bodies have not been recovered.  That incident marks the last time anyone had any dealings with the islanders.  The modern world seems content to leave the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island alone and that seems to be exactly what they want.

One of the goals of the visual artist is to evoke senses other than sight (which of course is involved outright).  Modern artists can accomplish this by producing multimedia creations that emit smells, play music, shriek, or even reach out to tickle or grope the gallery-goer. The thoughtful artist, however, realizes that these gimmicks will probably soon be relegated to the scrap heap.  Like the poet, the painter must rely on imagery to entice his viewer’s senses.  Wondering though a gallery of masterpieces, a visitor hungers for banquets laid out centuries ago: he longs to smell eternally blooming roses and yearns to reach through the ages to cosset a spaniel or stroke a silky cat.  These non-visual cues not only heighten the verisimilitude of art, but provide overall meaning and context.

All of which brings us back to the hurdy-gurdy from yesterday’s post. Although musical instruments are fascinating to look at in their own right, when they are included in a painting it adds an additional sensory dimension to the work. Music plays in the viewer’s head even though the gallery is silent.  I hope you listened to some hurdy-gurdy samples so that you can imagine its plangent voice while looking at these pictures.

As the hurdy-gurdy traveled from the monastery to the fashionable dancing rooms of the Renaissance, to troubadours’ gear, and into the hands of beggars, its symbolic meaning changed as well.

Illumination from the Cantigas de Santa Maria Manuscripts (Mid Thirteenth Century)

A detail from “The Garden of Earhtly Delights” (Hieronymus Bosch, late Fifteenth Century)

A Beggar and a Hurdy-Gurdy Player (print by Jacques Callot circa 1620s)

The Hurdy-Gurdy Player (Georges de la Tour, circa 1631-1636)

A Hurdy-Gurdy Player and other Musicians before a Cottage (Joost Cornelisz Droochsloot, 1659)

The Hurdy-Gurdy Girl (Jules Richomme, 1879)

[I included only a detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s magnificent triptych because the work is incredibly detailed and I intend to blog about it in greater detail in the future.]

A Renaissance-style Hurdy-Gurdy made by Olympic Musical Instruments

The hurdy-gurdy or “wheel fiddle” is an ancient stringed instrument from Europe.  It operates by means of a hand-cranked wheel covered with pine resin which rubs over the strings (much like a violinist’s bow).  The hurdy-gurdy has “chanter” strings which continuously hum a single note (much like bagpipe chanters) and it has a keyboard by means of which the modulating frequency of strings can be altered to change their pitch–so that a melody can be played.  Because of the vagaries of the English language the phrase “hurdy-gurdy” was also once used for cheap barrel organs (which played a predetermined tune–like a music box) which proliferated in the hands of the most dégoûtant buskers and street performers.  The hurdy-gurdy addressed in this article is a wheel-fiddle–which requires considerable musical skill.

When played properly the instrument combines the haunting qualities of bagpipes with the lyrical voice of the violin.  Here is a movie of hurdy-gurdy player Neil Brook playing an Italian Renaissance era dance melody “Amoroso” from 1451.  For additional fun, here is a link to Chuck Norris playing a winsome tune on the hurdy-gurdy (actually that might just be a Chuck Norris doppelganger).

Two Musicians Play an Organistrum!

The instrument and its antecedents have a long history.    Medieval musicians developed a large fiddle with a hand-crank wheel called the organistrum based on rebecs and medieval fiddles.  The organistrum was played by two musicians (one to play the melody and one to turn the wheel and adjust the strings) for the purpose of accompanying liturgical chants.  By the twelfth century the organistrum had evolved into a one player instrument sometimes called the symphonia which can be thought of as the first hurdy-gurdy.

A Symphonia--an early Hurdy-Gurdy

In the late Middle Ages and throughout the early Renaissance, the hurdy-gurdy was popular for dances, pageants, and chamber music.  It became a favorite instrument for troubadours and wondering minstrels.  Its fortunes declined as chamber music grew more complex and polyphonic. At the same time, the upheavals shaking Europe produced more and more maimed, blind, and impoverished itinerants (who came to be associated with the instrument).  By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the hurdy-gurdy came to be regarded as a rustic instrument for farmers, bumpkins, and beggars.  This was fortunate in France where the upper-classes became obsessed with pastoralism and Arcadian fantasies.  The hurdy-gurdy or vielle à roué” underwent a major revival in France where it has remained an esteemed national instrument.

France: Circa present

Minstrels and other travelers had also carried the instrument to Central and Eastern Europe where it developed deep roots.  Hungary, like France, esteems the hurdy-gurdy where it is known as the tekerőlan. In Poland, the Baltic States, and Ukraine the tradition of the blind hurdy-gurdy players persisted into the twentieth century.  This ancient tradition came to an abrupt and dismal end in the Ukraine where the instrument was called the lira and the players called lirnyky. In the 1930s, the Soviet authorities invited (or coerced) the entire population of lirnyky musicians to an “ethnographic conference” and then executed them all for compromising a “socially undesirable element”.

Aside from France and Hungary (which, as mentioned, maintain a vital hurdy-gurdy tradition) the instrument remains popular at folk festivals and Renaissance fairs.  It even gained some broader traction during the sixties thanks to Donovan!  Period movies and costume dramas frequently use the hurdy-gurdy for dance and festival scenes.  The hurdy-gurdy also has an extremely interesting place in visual art–which is the subject of my next post.

Leedsichthys problematicus (in the background) being harrassed by a plesiosaur; painting by Dmitry Bogdanov

Leedsichthys (Leedsichthys problematicus) was the largest known bony fish.  It lived during the middle Jurassic (155 million years ago), feeding on algae, plankton, and small shrimp & fish—much like a modern whale shark or baleen whale.  Leedsichthys had over 40,000 teeth with which to skim its meal from the water.  Although most of these huge fish were around 12 meters (approximately 40 feet) or smaller in length, many scientists believe that Leedsichthys was capable of growing much larger.  Fragmentary specimens suggest they attained lengths greater than 17 meters (about 55 feet) and even larger individuals might be found.

Painting by Dmitry Bogdanov

Leedsichthys is named after Alfred Nicholson Leeds, who discovered its fossilized remains in 1886 in England.  He had so much trouble piecing the bones together that he gave the fish the species name of “problematicus”.  Leedsicthys was most likely a global species with a presence in all of the open oceans of the Jurassic world.  It is unclear why the species went extinct, but paleontologists have speculated that it was out-competed by the teleosts–the modern bony fish–which lay vastly more eggs than pachycormids like Leedsichthys.

The world 155 million years ago. No Atlantic Ocean!

A Wild Mangrove

My first job was an unpaid internship at the Smithsonian Institution’s Marine Systems Laboratory in Washington DC during the summer of 1993.  The Smithsonian was operating and monitoring a partially closed synthetic ecosystem within a large greenhouse—in effect they had built a huge terrarium.  This ecosystem was built to mimic a tidal mangrove swamp: tiny locks allowed small amounts of saltwater to flow out of a central “ocean” and back into a multi-staged brackish mangrove swamp in imitation of natural tidal flux.  The highest part of the system was a reservoir of fresh water.  This was allowed to continuously trickle down a creekbed through a little deciduous freshwater forest.  There were then several multiple stages of mangroves varying from true mangroves, which practically had their roots in the “ocean”, to brackish trees, to trees which were only exposed to a tiny amount of saltwater on the highest Proxigean Spring Tide (the system of locks was ingeniously constructed to mimic these rare occurrences ), to the sweetwater trees around the “creek”.

I can’t find any pictures but here is a tiny mangrove tank at the Oklahoma Aquarium

The system had been in operation for many years and a lot of strange things had happened.  All of the egg laying fish in the ocean (actually a large deep saltwater pool) had died out except for a couple of strong-willed sea bass who acted as apex predators.  The fish which remained were all small live-bearing fish which reproduced viviparously and did not require vasty oceans for their eggs to hatch and for their fry to grow up in.  The Florida lizards, turtles, and insects had all vanished (although there were unconfirmed lizard sightings).  The animals which did flourish were tiny sea anemones, tube worms, sponges, and hydras.  These little invertebrates could be found sticking to everything in the ocean and the brackish pools.   The biologists assured me that an even greater number of microscopic invertebrates were reproducing themselves.  Two large rock crabs were still on the scene dominating the oyster shell beach.  I believe there were a handful of mollusks left but I never found out.

The habitat was not closed.  Scientists added water when necessary and the greenhouse windows were opened albeit screened.  Additionally, human visitors–including the wacky bio grad students who ran the place–had free access.  This meant that a whole host of invasive species had showed up.  The most dangerous outsiders were scale insects which came from the giant greenhouses next door (where the immense national orchid collection was housed).  Occasionally sparrows would get in.  Somebody had put some African cichlids in the fresh water reservoir–where they were thriving.

My favorite job at the mangrove was to impersonate tropical storms.  I would run around and squirt everything with a high-pressure hose and kick and shake the plants (it was discovered that the trees and plants started having troubles if not routinely abused).  I would spend whole afternoons pulling up sawgrass and plucking scales from mangrove trees.  More prosaically, I cleaned up algae from the ocean and freshwater filters—which basically consisted of water running over large beds of algae.  It was a fun job with fun people but it was tinged with sadness to record an ecosystem slowly and gradually declining.

What was the purpose of the giant terrarium you might ask?  It was built to observe the small flora and microfauna of a tropical mangrove ecosystem.  It was also a precursor and prototype to Biosphere 2 (the principal scientist/engineer behind the Smithsonian synthetic mangrove pulled out of Biosphere 2 when it was revealed that the oceans would not be built of limestone!).  The whole system was an early attempt at creating a large scale contained ecosystem.  Ecologists hoped to better understand the wildly complicated nature of real ecosystems through looking at these controlled microcosms.  Closed ecosystems were also coming to the attention of NASA and space scientists who were starting to think about building synthetic ecologies for space stations (or even other worlds).   The complexity, scope, and failures of that miniature mangrove swamp were a first taste of how complicated such a project truly is.

Torus Space Colony! It, um, might take a while though…

Perseus Rescuing Andromeda (oil on canvas, 1513, Uffizi)

The ascetic & eccentric master artist Piero di Cosimo finished this painting of Perseus rescuing Andromeda in 1513.  It is one of my very favorite paintings.  Piero combined wild inventiveness with subtle refined craftsmanship to obtain an absolutely stunning drama.  Just look at the otherworldy musical instruments which the spectators are playing as the beast meets his demise!  The painting speaks for itself, but, as a little bonus, here is what art biographer Giorgio Vasari said about the work:

Piero painted, for the elder Filippo Strozzi, a picture with little figures of Perseus delivering Andromeda from the Monster, in which are some very beautiful things. It is now in the house of Signor Sforza Almeni, First Chamberlain to Duke Cosimo, having been presented to him by Messer Giovanni Battista, the son of Lorenzo Strozzi, who knew how much that nobleman delighted in painting and sculpture; and he holds it in great account, for Piero never made a more lovely or more highly finished picture than this one, seeing that it is not possible to find a more bizarre or more fantastic sea-monster than that which Piero imagined and painted, or a fiercer attitude than that of Perseus, who is raising his sword in the air to smite the beast. In it, trembling between fear and hope, Andromeda is seen bound, most beautiful in countenance ; and in the foreground are many people in various strange costumes, playing instruments and singing; among whom are some heads, smiling and rejoicing at seeing the deliverance of Andromeda, that are divine. The landscape is very beautiful, and the coloring sweet and full of grace. In short, with regard to the harmony and gradation of the colors, he executed this work with the greatest possible diligence.

Yesterday’s post concerning the Yuan dynasty was in preparation for today’s post about Yuan dynasty porcelain.  The blue and white cobalt porcelain which has become famously emblematic of Chinese ceramics (to such an extent that “China” became the name of the country and the product in England) was first manufactured in the Middle Kingdom during the Yuan dynasty. The blue and white vases and plates from the Yuan dynasty are more robust and bold then the famous Ming blue and white ware which succeeded them, but the lovely pure aestheticism of great Chinese porcelain is fully there.  The best pieces feature a lovely syncretism of cultural motifs and forms which come together around a central symbol.

Yuan Blue and White "Fish" jar sold by Chistie's (12¼ in. (31 cm.) high; 13 3/8 in. (34 cm.) diam.)

My favorite works of Yuan porcelain are those with aquatic themes like this lovely rare fish jar from the middle of the fourteenth century.  On the vase, four intricately painted fish swim gracefully through water poppy, duck weed, water clover, eel grass, and hornwort.  The neck features waves lapping above a peony border while the base shows flaming pearls.  With unerring skill the master painter who made this jar has noted the details of the natural world.  The fish seem alive.  Their expressions reflect the different personalities of the different species. To explain the complicated symbolic/poetic wordplay which underlies this vase (and many of the images featured in classic Chinese art) I will rely on the Christie’s auction website, where the vase was described prior to sale:

The fish on the current jar provide a…complex rebus, since they appear to be qing black carp (mylopharyngodon piceus); (hongqi) bai predatory carp or redfin culter (culter erythropterus); lian silver carp (hypopthalmichthys molitrix); and gui or jue Chinese perch or mandarin fish (siniperca chuatsi). The names of these fish combine to provide rebuses which suggest either qing bai lian gui ‘of good descent, modest and honourable’ or qingbai lianjie ‘of honourable descent and incorruptible’.

Plate, mid-14th century China: Porcelain with underglaze blue decoration (Diam. 18 in.)

A fish, in this case a sea perch, is also the subject of this magnificent plate from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The perch gapes open his mouth to leer at visitors from a bed of eelgrass.  Around the central scene is a particularly vivid cavetto of lotus blossoms.  Archaeological discoveries indicate that the plate was manufactured at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province.  Fish were a popular motif of Yuan porcelain because of a well-known Taoist maxim which compared people who had found their place in the flux of Tao to fish perfectly suited to living in their watery realm.  The Han literati of the Yuan era had been displaced by Mongol elite and they frequently yearned for a more serene and central place in their world, an attitude quietly reflected by splendid aquatic porcelain.

Guan jar: Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province

The final jar (also made in Jingdezhen in Jiangxi during the mid fourteenth century) shows not a fish but a vigorous fish-eating duck.  His feathers are standing up in a fierce crest and he has a wild look in his eye.  A pair of mandarin ducks is the ancient Chinese symbol for love, trust, and happiness in marriage–however this is not a pair of mandarin ducks but a carnivorous merganser hunting alone among the water weeds (although it seems there might be another one on the other side of the jar).   It’s hard not to wonder whether this unusual duck unconsciously represents the Han’s unhappiness in their marriage to their fierce Mongol overlords.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

June 2010