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Ferrebeekeeper is celebrating the Halloween season by exploring the greatest family of monsters in all of mythology—the offspring of Echidna! Today’s monster takes us on a dark but fascinating path: those of you with sensitive natures might wish to avert your eyes…Is everyone still here? Excellent! Today we are talking about the ultimate divine torture–which took the form of the terrible Caucasian eagle.

Allow me to backtrack…

The son of Themis, Prometheus, was the titan with the power of prophecy and the curse of conscience. He is one of the most intriguing characters in mythology since his story involves the Greek conception of humankind’s creation and ultimate destiny (all of which probably deserves a longer post elsewhere). To summarize, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and presented it to mankind, setting the latter on a path towards ever greater technical savvy and ultimate godhood. He was severely punished for the crime. Zeus bound Prometheus to a mountain peak on Mount Kaukasos with unbreakable chains and sent a terrible eagle to daily feast upon the titan’s liver. As Prometheus was immortal, his liver regenerated and he was forced to suffer the hideous torment over and over and over. The eagle, with insatiable appetite and razor claws, was one of Echidna’s offspring. This dreadful scene has frequently been painted by great artists.

Der gefesselte Prometheus (Jacob Jordaens, circa 1640)

Speaking of artists, the liver is a sensitive and frightening subject to some people. Thinking about all the delicate little hepatocytes being exposed to daily wear and tear is enought to make anyone anxious (to say nothing about the massive trauma inflicted by a quasi-divine eagle monster). Carbohydrate metabolism and protein synthesis both require the liver. Fully understanding these processes seems nearly impossible, and just thinking about how many things could go wrong is agonizing. However we must set aside our qualms and push on, for not only is the liver completely and absolutely vital to life (which can be said of other organs), its cellular makeup is unique. Certain hepatocytes are capable of leaving G0 quiescence and re-entering the cell division cycle. Evidence also points to the existence of multipotent progenitor cells in certain parts of the adult liver. This is why the liver is the only internal human organ capable of naturally regenerating itself–as little as twenty-five percent of a liver can regenerate back into a whole organ. The liver is thus a major focus of gene therapy research and stem cell study. Prometheus’ regenerating liver was not unique (though surviving such abdominal trauma certainly would be).

Prometheus Being Rescued by Hercules (Christian Griepenkerl, 1839-1912)

Prometheus was ultimately saved from his terrible fate when Heracles took pity on him. After shooting the eagle from the sky with his great bow, the hero snapped the unbreakable chains and freed the titan. Aeschylus hints that such was the will of Zeus—for Prometheus had divulged a critical secret about Thetis who was fated to…well never mind. That also is a story for another day. Prometheus was free. The Caucasian eagle was dead (though Zeus took care to memorialize it in the heavens as the constellation Aquila). Humankind remains free to keep stumbling forward with fire and a tragic thirst to find how things work. Right now, somewhere in a laboratory filled with axolotls and stem cells, we are fashioning technologies which will provide complete liver regeneration–perhaps even the growth of artificial livers. We must find this out: it is fundamental biotechnical knowledge necessary to truly understand living things. Comprehending and mastering the liver’s ability to regenerate is another step along our road to apotheosis.

The Constellation Aquila

Hercules Strangling the Nemean lion (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1639, Fogg Art Museum)

Classical mythology ascribes no particular order of birth to the offspring of Echidna and Typhon.  I’m going to just jump in and start big with the Nemean Lion. This immense mythical lion possessed an invulnerable hide and claws sharp enough to cut through any substance. He seemed happiest when terrorizing the hills around Nemea, a lovely village in Corinth.

At the same time, elsewhere, the greatest of classical heroes, Heracles was living contentedly with his wife Megara and their children.  Alas, it was not to be: Hera, the ever-envious queen of the gods, afflicted Heracles with madness and, in benighted fury, the strongman dashed his wife and children to death.  Awaking from his lunacy, Heracles desperately petitioned the gods for help.  His half-brother, the god Apollo intervened and sent Heracles to perform penance by serving the weak and venal King Eurystheus of Mycenae.  Afraid for his throne and person, Eurystheus chose a task he was sure Heracles would not return from and set the hero out to kill the Nemean Lion.

Hercules and the Nemean Lion (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1615, private collection, Brussels)

Heracles was unable to pierce the lion’s skin with his great bow, but he trapped the beast in a cave, stunned it with his club and strangled it with brute force.  Thus did Heracles accomplish the first of his twelve labors and he wore the lion’s impenetrable hide thereafter (somewhat pathetically, he was at first unable to skin the beast with his knives or swords, and he made no headway until Athena reminded him that the lion’s claws could cut through anything). Above is my favorite painting of the fight, by Peter Paul Ruben. In addition to liking big robust figures, Rubens had a zest for hunting.  In Rubens’ painting, Heracles has apparently killed a leopard bystander in order to warm up for the great lion. 

I always rather pitied the Nemean Lion, who seemed like a victim of circumstance more than anyone else in the story (except for Megara and her children and maybe the leopard up there in the Rubens’ painting).  Apparently others have felt the same way, because the lion takes an important position in the summer sky whereas Heracles is rather hard to find.

Painting by Fantalov

Halloween is approaching and, in the spirit of the season, I would like to present some great artworks of magnificent monsters from classical mythology (an exercise which should also help flesh out the deities of the underworld category).  Leading up to October 31st I am going to highlight paintings of the different offspring of Echidna, the “mother of monsters,” whose brood cast a long, many-headed shadow over Greek mythology. But we come to an immediate problem: Echidna herself is under-represented in art (indeed her whole story is shrouded in uncertainty).  Likewise, Typhon, Echidna’s husband and the “father of monsters,” is not as familiar to artists or poets as his dark progeny.

Echidna was an offspring of Ceto and Phorcys, primordial sea gods who ruled the ocean before the Olympian gods seized power.  Possessing the body of a snake and the torso of a woman, Echidna was a fearsome creature in her own right. When Gaia, the great Earth mother, gave birth to her last and greatest child, the monstrous giant, Typhon, Echidna wed him and joined his rebellion against the Olympian Gods.  This was a very bold romantic choice because Typhon was no Adonis.  The giant has been described as being as tall as the stars with a hundred snakes in lieu of each arm.  His legs were two enormous viper coils.  His beard was a monstrous mop of ragged hair–which was presumably fire proof since flame flashed from his eyes.  Typhon’s body was covered with wings and his voice was an unearthly combination of beast noises.

Typhon

For a while it looked as though Tiphon would overthrow the Olympians: the great monster tore off Zeus’ muscles and kept them hidden in a cave. Only with the wily intervention of the trickster gods Pan and Hermes did Zeus recover his strength.  In a final conflict of power, the King of the Gods hurled the mountain Etna upon Typhon, imprisoning the giant beneath the great mass.  To this day the volcano heaves and belches flame. Echidna escaped (to rear her children sired by Typhon) and Zeus allowed her to do so in order that the monsters would provide a future challenge to heroes and demi-gods.  The offspring she had are as follows:

I think you will like the family pictures from this group!

Echidna Nursing her Brood (from D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths)

In some stories Echidna preyed on mortals until finally the hundred eyed giant Argus put an end to her (I wish someone painted that fight!).  In other tales she escaped to a lair deep beneath the earth where she bides her time, waiting to avenge her husband and her children. As a last peculiar note, that lovable and peaceful monotreme the echidna is named after her, not because of its ferocity, but because it was so strange and alarming to European taxonomists…

Pursuant to yesterday’s post about the many-eyed giant Argus, here are some animals which have “argus” in their names (I have counted both common names and proper binomial scientific names).  What a magnificent gallery of variegated creatures!  I guess biologists and taxonomists also find the story of argus compelling (or maybe they get tired of describing lovely stippled and variegated creatures with the pedestrian word “spotted”).
Bodhadschia argus is a sea cucumber. When threatened or irritated it ejects sticky toxic threads called Cuvierian tubules from…the rear orifice of its digestive system.

Caribbean Spiny Lobster (Panulirus argus)

The chocolate argus (Junonia hedonia) a butterfly of Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and Australia.

The Argus moray (Muraena argus) is apparently covered with white spots, but this charismatic facial portrait by Scott McGee was the best I could find.

A handsome Argus monitor (Varanus panoptes). It looks like he is ready for bathtime!

The Northern Snakehead (Channa argus) aka "the Frankenfish" is a vicious and succesful fish from China, Siberia, and the Koreas. I should probably feature it as an invasive animal which is "on-the-make" around the world.

I mentioned the great argus (Argusianus argus) yesterday. Here a female bird checks out a male's display.

Cyprae argus is a beautiful member of the cowry family from the waters of southeast Africa.The Blue-spotted Grouper (Cephalopholis argus) is a splendid lurking fish from coral reefs of the Indo-Pacific.

The spotted scat (Scatophagus argus) is a pugnacious little fish from brackish waters of Japan, New Guinea and Southeastern Australia. Don't pet them! Those spines are toxic!

Paphiopedilum argus is a lovely lady-slipper orchid from high limestone ridges of the Philippines.

The Brown argus butterfly (Aricia agestis) is gradually moving its habitat northwards in Great Britain.

The list keeps going!  There are too many arguses in nature.  I’m going to call it quits and enjoy my weekend….

In Greek mythology, Argus Panoptes was a giant with a hundred eyes.  He was a perfect guard because, even when some of his eyes drifted off to sleep, others would open up and continue his vigil.  According to the poems of Apollodorus, Argus slew Echidna, the fearsome half-woman, half-snake, who gave birth to most of the monsters in the Greek pantheon (although more eminent writers have described Echidna as an eternal being).  Whatever his status as a monster-slayer, Argus was singularly unfortunate in that he served Hera, whose henchmen always got bumped off horribly (like the villain’s dim-witted flunkies in a James Bond movie).

Argus’ end was singularly pathetic. Hera assigned him to guard a beautiful heifer.  This comely cow was in reality Io, once a lovely priestess to Hera.  Zeus had “fallen in love with” Io, but, just as the king of the gods had begun his courtship in earnest, the couple was accosted by Hera.  To disguise what he was up to, Zeus transformed Io into a heifer (and himself into a cloud).  Hera was not fooled and she tethered Io to a sacred olive tree in her grove and set Argus as a guard.

Hermes and Argus. Painting by Jan Both and Nikolaus Knüpfer (ca 1640s)

Guarding a cow was dull work for the giant.  After a while, the trickster Hermes came into the grove.  Hermes told long dull circular stories until Argus was completely enervated, then the messenger god pulled out his pipes and began to play a repetitive lullaby.  One by one, Argus’ eyes were lulled to sleep by the magically soporific music.  When Argus’ every eye was shut, Hermes murdered the sleeping shepherd with a rock and freed Io (from the tether, not from being a cow).  Hera sent a gadfly to pursue the bovine Io, whose desperate attempt to escape the cruel insect took her eventually to Egypt and to other adventures.

The Argus Pheasant or Great Argus (Argusianus argus)

Hera regretted losing Argus, however to make sure he was not forgotten, she set his eyes on the tail of her favorite bird, the peacock.  Thus ends the tale of a hapless lackey, casually crushed by the capricious affairs of his betters. Even his end was bad–he was essentially bored to death.  I can never help think of the poor giant on days at the office when there just isn’t enough coffee. Fortunately the peacocks and allied members of the pheasant family are spectacular.  Beyond the familiar Indian peafowl, there is even an Argus pheasant (or “great argus”), whose color is less spectacular, but whose feather “eyes” are even more beautiful.   Hopefully everyone out there, being lured to sleep (and crushed) by the stupid affairs of our superiors can take some comfort in this splendid fowl as well as in the peacock at the top of the post.  For additional visual interest here is a very splendid painting by Jacopo Amigoni which shows Hermes helping Hera to pull the eyes from Argus’ dead head in order to set them in the peacock’s tail.

Juno Receiving the Head of Argos by Jacopo Amigoni (painted 1730-32)

Dueling was a major conundrum for gentlemen of the nineteenth century.  Since dueling was against the law, engaging in contests of honor could endanger one’s career and prospects.  To refuse a duel however was inconceivable: it meant forfeiting one’s honor and manhood–it meant being a coward, in an era where that was the most despicable thing one could be.

The field of honor, was therefore a great crucible for true character. Some men were indeed revealed to be cowards or cheats.  Some people did not deign to fight but fired their bullets in the air and waited to see if their opponent would shoot them in cold blood. Other men fought it out and wound up as killers or as corpses.  The man who solved the problem with the greatest panache was Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator, who found a completely satisfactory way out of the terrible conundrum (although it was a close thing).

The oldest-known photograph of Lincoln, about 1847

In 1842, Lincoln, then an Illinois state legislator, allegedly wrote a series of anonymous letters criticizing a hot-headed Democrat named James Shields, the state auditor.  The national financial crisis of the preceding years had left the state coffers in disarray and had infuriated the electorate–circumstances which left the auditor ripe for mockery.  It is unclear how many of the letters, Lincoln authored himself—his future wife Mary Todd probably was much more culpable (although Lincoln was courting her at the time and was trying to both impress her with his wit and gallantry as well as shield her from any scandal).  Unfortunately the anonymous letters acquired a life of their own as other writers added to the canon. Ultimately the letters hinted tauntingly at Shield’s cowardice and…inadequacy as a man.  The irate Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel.

Lincoln realized that he had gone too far and tried to apologize to Shields, however the latter was not appeased by any words. Since he had been challenged, Lincoln was allowed to choose the location and the weapons.  A cunning lawyer, Lincoln chose Bloody Island as the battleground:  this spit of land on the Missouri side of the Mississippi was disputed between the states (and by the flooding river).  The island’s actual legal location was therefore unclear (a useful subterfuge for possible legal tangles).  James Shield had a reputation as a crack shot and a fearless fighter, but he was small, whereas, at 6’4” Lincoln towered above his compatriots and was known for immense physical strength.  Lincoln also excelled at championship submission wrestling–as a younger man he had frequently grappled against all challengers on the frontier and he was only thrown twice.

Lincoln Wrestling (by Harold von Schmidt)

For the dueling weapons, Lincoln chose the heaviest & longest cavalry swords, which gave maximum advantage to his height and strength (and possessed the added advantage of being terrifying).  The future president showed up at Bloody Island early and dug a fighting pit which, in the event of a sword fight, would prevent Shields from escaping or circling away.  When Shields and his entourage arrived they were dismayed by these provisions and preparations, however the bold Shields continued to demand satisfaction.  It was only when he witnessed Lincoln hack off a large willow branch far above the ground, that Shields finally was swayed by Lincoln’s apologies.   The two men settled their differences and remained friends and political allies for the rest of their careers. During the civil war Lincoln appointed James Shields as a Brigadier General.

What Shields and Lincoln both saw in their nightmares

Lincoln was personally ashamed of the whole incident and did not refer to it often.  ‘I did not want to kill Shields and felt sure I could disarm him…,’ he later wrote, adding, ‘I didn’t want the d—-d fellow to kill me, which I think he would have done if we had selected pistols.’  According to one of Mary Todd Lincoln’s letters an officer once asked President Lincoln if it was true that he had nearly fought a swordfight for his wife’s honor.  Lincoln responded, “I do not deny it, but if you desire my friendship, you will never mention it again.” Perhaps the near disaster taught him to keep his sarcastic humor more in check (although his letters and quips reveal this always remained difficult for him). It also taught him to create allies through self-deprecation, sincerity, and–failing that–intimidation. I think Lincoln may have been embarrassed because the whole affair revealed that, if everything else failed, he maintained a cunning ability to win at any cost—a steely strength which lay within the genteel and amiable man.

East Asia in 400 AD (Author: Thomas Lessman, Source Website: http://www.WorldHistoryMaps.info)

The Korean kingdom of Baekje was founded in 18 BC by King Onjo, a third son from the royal dynasty of the neighboring Goguryeo kingdom.  At the height of its power around 375 AD, Baekje was a powerful force in eastern Asia with colonies in parts of China, substantial sea power, and a strong alliance with Japanese rulers of the Kofun period.  The Baekje kingdom’s territory stretched from the southern tip of Korea as far north as Pyongyang and included most of western Korea (ironically Korea was once divided along east/west lines).  The state flourished until 660 AD when it fell to an alliance between the Tang Dynasty Chinese and the Korean Kindom of Silla (a conquest orchestrated by Emperor Gaozong, the son of our old friend Lǐ Shìmín).

The Geumjegwansik, Diadems of the Monarchs of Baekje

I mention all of this, to explain the Geumjegwansik, a pair of two gold ornaments that were worn as a crown by King Muryeong, ruler of Baekje from AD 501 to AD 523. They were recovered in 1971 where they were discovered neatly stacked beside the dead king’s head inside his coffin. Today the two diadems are housed in Gongju National Museum (along with an identical pair found in the Queen’s coffin during the same excavation). They are cut out of plate gold a mere two millimeters in thickness and were attached to either side of a black silk cap like the one shown in the picture below. Resembling a mass of honeysuckle vines shaped into wings of flame, it is believed the diadems possessed a shamanistic magical significance.  It is also possible they were influenced by Buddhist visual tradition which portrayed bodhisattvas with golden halos.

The pieces were probably worn this way as a royal cap.

The crown is a pure example of Baekje craft, however the kingdom was famous for adopting many Chinese literary and artisitic influences which became melded into a unique creative tradition.  The extremely close ties which the Kingdom of Baekje also maintained with Kofun Japan (during the era when the Japanese Imperial bloodlines and tradition were coming into being) has provided a continuing source of controversy.  Baekje royalty resided in the Japanese royal court and, after the final collapse, emigrated to Japan.  Speculation is rampant that a few Baekje bloodlines slipped into the composition of the Chrisanthemum throne.

The Rainbow Serpent (artwork by Kinjaii)

The Australian Aboriginal people believe there is a world or era which exists beyond this world, the Dreamtime.  In that timeless transcendent realm, totemic forces and mighty spirit beings perpetually shape the earth.  One of the most important of these spirits was the great rainbow serpent, an immense magical snake which lives simultaneously in the watercourses, deep billabongs, and underground springs of Australia, in the rain, and, of course, in the eternal Dreamtime. 

According to myth, the rainbow serpent created the rivers and mountains of Australia in the course of his or her travels.   Serpent stories vary from tribe to tribe.  Different groups even call the spirit serpent by various names, but the concept is pan-Australian.  Aboriginal tribes which live in the monsoon regions of Australia tell stories about the serpent’s interaction with the sun and the wind to bring the seasonal rains.  Tribes from the deep desert tell about its underground travels through the underworld between the permanent waterholes.

Painting by Susanne Iles

The serpent can appear in the sky as a rainbow, however its true nature is as fickle as ever-changing water.  To some people, the serpent brings healing, knowledge, and fertility while he gulps down others, drowns them, or visits sickness upon them. The voice of the rainbow serpent is the sound of a didgeridoo.  George Chaloupka, an expert on folklore and rock art describes the Rainbow Serpent as follows:

“The belief in the Rainbow Snake, a personification of fertility, increase (richness in propoagation of plants and animals) and rain, is common throughout Australia. It is a creator of human beings, having life-giving powers that send conception spirits to all the waterholes. It is responsible for regenerating rains, and also for storms and floods when it acts as an agent of punishment against those who transgress the law or upset it in any way. It swallows people in great floods and regurgitates their bones, which turn into stone, thus documenting such events. Rainbow snakes can also enter a man and endow him with magical powers, or leave ‘little rainbows’, their progeny, within his body which will make him ail and die. As the regenerative and reproductive power in nature and human beings, it is the main character in the region’s major rituals.”

The first humans whose titanic existence marked the dreamtime, who brought flora to the world were said to have been swallowed up by the rainbow serpent. Although timeless and nigh omnipotent, the rainbow serpent did come from somewhere. Aborigines believe that it was an offspring of the vast cosmological serpent, visible as the dark streak in the Milky Way.

Good grief! It does look like a serpent...

Far to the west of the North American continent, a team of scientists in a state-of-the-art nuclear facility have crafted the most powerful laser ever.  Using a crazy disco apparatus they plan to concentrate the energy of this super weapon against a miniscule capsule of exotic material.  By doing so, they hope to ignite a nuclear fusion reaction–the colossal source of energy which powers the stars themselves. These bold men and women are on a quest to leash the fires of heaven.  

Am I making all this up to boost ratings?  Not at all: it’s the mission statement of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) run by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore California.  Being level-headed scientists, they have stated their agenda more prosaically (although only slightly).  Here’s the explanatory statement from their (really cool) website:

NIF, a program of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), will focus the intense energy of 192 giant laser beams on a BB-sized target filled with hydrogen fuel, fusing the hydrogen atoms’ nuclei and releasing many times more energy than it took to initiate the fusion reaction. NIF is capable of creating temperatures and pressures similar to those that exist only in the cores of stars and giant planets and inside nuclear weapons.  Achieving nuclear fusion in the laboratory is at the heart of the directorate’s three complementary missions:

  • Helping ensure the nation’s security without nuclear weapons testing (see National Security)
  • Blazing the path to a safe, virtually unlimited, carbon-free energy future (see Energy for the Future)
  • Achieving breakthroughs in a wide variety of scientific disciplines, including astrophysics, materials science, the use of lasers in medicine, radioactive and hazardous waste treatment, particle physics and X-ray and neutron science (see Understanding the Universe).

So they certainly have lofty goals and they also possess a facility that looks like science fiction.

To approximate the heat and pressure of stars and hydrogen bombs, the scientists use an ultraviolet laser, which for about 20 billionths of a second can generate 500 trillion watts. They will blast a pea sized gold cylinder containing the hydrogen fuel.  According to a press release from two days ago, the system is now operational.  The first test experiments are going well. To quote the facility director, Ed Moses, concerning the first integrated experiments,  “From both a system integration and from a physics point of view, this experiment was outstanding. This is a great moment in the 50-year history of inertial confinement fusion. It represents significant progress in our ability to field complex experiments in support of our NNSA Stockpile Stewardship, Department of Defense, fundamental science and energy missions.”

The NIF scientists will now begin a series of experiments which will hopefully culminate in nuclear fusion later this fall.

Unfortunately if the scientists don't wear bell-bottoms and play the Bee Gees all the time, the system goes off line.

Jamaica Bay (Photo: Kathy Willens/Associated Press)

New York City is fortunate to have a thriving wetland inside the city. Visitors who have flown in or out of JFK have seen the huge intertidal salt marsh known as Jamaica Bay which lies along the boder of Brooklyn and Queens.  Unfortunately the wetland has been eroding away into the Atlantic Ocean.  This is partly because the east coast is a receding coastline and partly because of overdevelopment: there are numerous large sewage treatment facilities around the bay.  The City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been trying to clean up the bay and prevent the loss of a uniquely beautiful wilderness.  To do so they will need allies…little gray faceless allies. 

Jamaica Bay is there at the bottom right

Jamaica Bay is still host to 120 species of bird and 48 species of fish, however one particular keystone life form has gone missing. During the last 5 decades the Eastern Oyster (Crassostrea virginica) has vanished entirely from Jamaica Bay. The mollusks used to be so plentiful as to be a hindrance to navigation, but they gradually fell victim to overfishing and the pollution caused by 8 million pushy, pushy New Yorkers. 

All of this was true until two days ago (October 5, 2010) when the city laid down huge beds of oyster shells and reseeded Jamaica bay with endearing baby oysters.  The DEP has spent hundreds of millions of dollars modernizing and improving the water treatment plants around the bay to shrink nitrogen levels and give the oysters a fighting chance.

Artist's Conception of Jamaica Bay at present

Hopefully the young oysters will thrive and again become a backbone of the recovering bay ecosystem.  There are terrible perils out there facing the stalwart bivalves.  Stressed oysters are susceptible to two horrid diseases known as “Dermo and “MSX“, both virulent pathogens with the names of German industrial bands.  If the little mollusks can establish a foothold, filter feeding oysters are an immense boon to water quality.  One large adult can clean up to 48 gallons of water in 24 hours.  I’m rooting enthusiastically for the new neighbors. 

"They never asked to be heroes."

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