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A Close-up photo of a Foxglove from "Ledge and Gardens"

The garden at my new residence contains a variety of beautiful old trees (like the cherry tree which I wrote about this spring).  While the trees are delightful and are clearly the best features of the garden, they do make flower gardening a challenge.  Fortunately there is a very beautiful plant that thrives in the dappled shade—the foxglove.  I just planted two mature specimens which I obtained from the nursery and I am delighted with them!  I thought I should feature a picture of them here before their flower spikes get broken.

Foxgloves in my Brooklyn Garden

Because they are so tall and elegant, foxgloves have been a garden mainstay for an extremely long time.  About twenty species of wild foxgloves (the genus in named “digitalis”) are indigenous to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia.  The plants are biennials and they produce foliage in a low basal clump.  During the plant’s second year, a tall rosette rises from the leaves and produces a series of purple, white, or pink tube-shaped flowers.  The throats of these flowers are mottled with lovely speckles.

A Second Photo from the Garden

Foxgloves have long been associated with magic and myth.  In Roman mythology, the goddess Juno was angered that Jupiter had given birth to Minerva without a mother.  Juno aired this grievance to Flora, the goddess of flowers, who then lightly touched the queen of gods on her breasts and belly with a foxglove.  Juno was impregnated and gave birth to the war god Mars, who, in the Roman canon has no father (like certain turkeys!). The Scandinavians call the plant “fox bells” a name which references an ancient fairy tale about how foxes magically ring the flowers when hunters are coming (so as to warn their kind of peril).  On her botanical folklore website, Allison Cox wrote “In Wales, foxglove was called Goblin’s Gloves and was said to attract the hobgoblins who wore the long bells on their fingers as gloves that imparted magical properties.”

A Patch of Foxgloves

Unfortunately, the plant has a very real dark side. All parts of the foxglove are toxic.  Mammals that have ingested digitalis suffer tremors and nerve disorders (particularly xanthopsia, a visual impairment in which the world becomes suffused with yellow and haloes appear around lights).  Even a small amount of the poison is enough to cause deadly disturbances of the heart.

Because of its ability to affect the heart, digitalis was one of the very first cardiac medicines. The biochemistry website “Molecule of the Month” relates that, “Digitalis is an example of a cardio-active or cardiotonic drug, in other words a steroid which has the ability to exert a specific and powerful action on the cardiac muscle in animals, and has been used in the treatment of heart conditions ever since its discovery in 1775.”  The site has a very entertaining anecdote about how William Withering, the proper English doctor who made this discovery was forced to prowl the forgotten byways of Shropshire and bargain with a gypsy sorceress to find out which compound had healed a patient with a fatal heart problem.

Because foxglove was actually useful for certain heart problems, it was also prescribed (or self-administered) to people suffering from palsies and nervous disorders. There were very few effective neurological drugs available at the time and it was believed that digitalis might somehow help (an unfortunate fallacy). Legend relates that Van Gogh used foxglove to treat his epilepsy.  If true it might explain the yellow hue of his late paintings. Digitalis poisoning is known to cause xanthopsia, but whether Van Gogh was truly inspired by the poison flower or just loved yellow will probably forever remain unknown.

Le Café de Nuit (Vincent van Gogh, 1888, oil on canvas)

 

Saul with his Servants at the Fortune-teller of Endor (Rembrandt van Rijn, 1657, bistre ink on paper)

I wrote earlier about sepia ink, the beautiful drawing and writing medium used in the Mediterranean for thousands of years which was obtained from the ink sacks of cuttlefish.  Was sepia ink also used by the great northern masters for their sketches? Not at all: there was an altogether different source of the beautiful smoky brown inks used by Brueghel, Durer, Lorraine, and Rembrandt (as well as most other German, French, Flemish, Dutch, and English artists) when they sketched from life. The name of the transparent shadowy brown pigment with yellow undertones was bistre and its source was not a mollusk but rather a tree.  Bistre was made with the soot left over from burning beechwood.  The beechwood ash was boiled with water to produce a cheap and superior drawing pigment. Although steel and copper nibs certainly existed, most masters probably sketched with simple reed pens or goose quills (waterfowl were generally agreed to provide the best drawing quills and geese were most readily available).

Since I have a great fondness for both beech trees, reeds, and geese, it cheers me to think that the great drawings of the old masters were produced with such humble materials. Unfortunately there is no way to set out any sort of comprehensive collection of bistre drawings: the medium was more universally used then anything other than carbon black.  Even a little sampler would involve a wildly eclectic mixture of works from all sorts of drafstmen from wildly different ages and schools. So, instead I am showing three little Rembrandt drawings to represent bistre. I don’t write as much about Rembrandt as I do about other lesser artists (i.e. the rest) because my feelings about his ineffable works are hard to characterize.  The “Lines and Color” blogs summarizes the scope of Rembrandt’s drawings:

Over 1,400 of his drawings survive, conservatively estimated at less than half of what he produced. (For most great artists we’re lucky to have a few dozen. For Vermeer and Franz Hals we have none.) Also unlike most of the great masters, the majority of Rembrandt’s drawings were not done as preparation for paintings, and very few were signed as pieces to be presented to friends or patrons. Most of his enormous outpouring of drawings were apparently done for himself, as visual record of his life and experience or simply for the joy in the act of drawing.

The multitude of subjects encompassed in 1,400 drawings provides a comprehensive overview of life in seventeenth century Holland (which was one of the focal points of the first wave of true globalism).  Out of the murky brown ink washes emerge an endless parade of long-vanished people, places, and things. The figures work, play, and struggle in cities manufactured of hasty brown lines under brown clouds beside an ink wash ocean (over which inky ships carried the spices of the old world and the furs from the new). Magicians scheme, children squall, and captive lions recline.  It is my favorite alchemy. Rembrandt gives us an entire world crafted out of water and beechwood ash.

Lion Resting, Turned to the Left (Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1650-52, ink on paper)

The Eocene (Illustration by Bob Hynes for the Smithsonian Institution)

The Eocene epoch (which lasted from 56 million ago to 34 million years ago) was hot!  Temperate forests ran all the way to the poles.  Steamy tropical jungles grew in the latitude where Maine is now and the equatorial regions of earth were (probably) sweltering. Tropical reefs formed in the coastal waters around a heavily forested and ice-free Antarctica. Since there was not year-round ice at each pole, the sea levels were much higher.

A Global Map of the Early Eocene (map by Dr. Ron Blakey)

The Eocene was a time when most of the contemporary mammalian orders first appeared.  The earliest artiodactyls, perissodactyls, rodents, bats, probiscideans, sirenians, and primates all originated during this time.  Of course mammals were not the only story: the Eocene was also a time of great diversification for birds and many familiar orders of avians developed then.  Reptiles begin to put the setbacks which marked the end of the Cretaceous behind them and several giant new species emerged including an immense tropical ur-python and a host of crocodiles and turtles. It is harrowing to think that the first wee dawn horses and cute little early atiodactyls were forced to contend with a 13 meter long super snakes and giant crocodilians (which flourished in the great hot swamps of Alaska), but such is the case.

Titanboa with Ancient Crocodilian (painting by Jason Bourque)

The high temperatures of the Eocene are perplexing to scientists.  By contrast, the temperatures of the Paleocene (which was the first era of the Cenezoic and had directly preceded the Eocene) were much more temperate. In fact the temperature spike of 56 million years ago seems to have ended the Paleocene and brought about the diversification of Eocene life.  The rapid warming is known as the Palaeocene-Eocene thermal maximum and scientists have been vigorously debating what caused the climate change.  An immense amount of carbon seems to have entered the atmosphere at this time, which in turn led to greenhouse warming.  It remains controversial as to how such a large quantity of carbon got into the atmosphere.  Comet/meteorite impact, massive peat fires, and volcanic activity have been suggested as triggers, however supporting evidence is lacking.  The release of globally significant quantities of hydrocarbons–which had been trapped in undersea clathrates seems like a more feasible hypothesis, as does the idea that the earth’s orbit brought the planet closer to the sun for a time.

Phenacodus, a goat-sized grazer of the Eocene era (painting by Heinrich Harder)

The end of the Eocene was also linked to the carbon cycle.  Reduced carbon dioxide in the atmosphere seems to have led to global cooling and newly evolved varieties of grasses began to invade large swaths of the world.  Additionally two massive meteor strikes in Siberia and Maryland combined with substantial volcanic activity to finish off the long hot summer. But during the Oligocene, the era which followed the Eocene, the world was a much more familiar place inhabited by orders of animals which are still here with us today (or are us–since primates first evolved during the Eocene).

Pink Fairy Armadillo (Chlamyphorus truncates)

There are twenty extant species of armadillos–new world placental mammals covered with armored plates. The smallest of these armored creatures is the Pink Fairy Armadillo (Chlamyphorus truncates) which is only 9-12 centimeters in total length (about 4 or 5 inches).  The diminutive creature weighs slightly more than 100 grams when mature and inhabits the central drylands of Argentina.  It has multiple hard ring-like plates of delicate pink which it can close into a box form for protection (although its first defensive strategy is to dig into the ground).  The animal has tiny eyes and a torpedo-like head for pushing into the sand. The portions of the Pink Fairy Armadillo not covered with plates are covered in dense white fur. Like the golden mole of Namibia, the pink fairy armadillo is a sand swimmer:  the little animal agitates the fine, dry sand with its powerful claws and literally swims through the turbulence with its hard bullet shaped body.  The armadillos are also like the golden mole in that they can lower their metabolism to levels unheard of among other placental mammals.  However armadillos are not closely related to the golden mole—or indeed to any other placental mammals other than fellow Xenarthra (the sloths, armadillos, and anteaters).  South America spent a long portion of geological time as an island and the mammals there had a long time to develop on their own.  It is still not known whether Xenarthrans like the Pink Fairy Armadillo are truly Eutherians or whether they are the descendants of the ancestors of the Eutherians (sorry: the language of cladistics does not lend itself to eloquent explanations and all of the names sound like they come from a far-away planet—for example “Xenarthrans”).

I would like to tell you more about the Pink Fairy Armadillo, but I am unable to do so.  Since it lives underground, the animal is rarely seen in the wild.  It is even more unusual in captivity where it does not long survive the shocks and stresses of zoo living (additionally it seems unable to live on anything other than local invertebrates). This is unfortunate as it is believed that the Pink Fairy Armadillo is struggling in the wild.  It is presumed to be declining in numbers–a victim to habitat loss from human activity.  I used wiggle words like “believed” and “presumed” because nobody really has any idea about the actual populations of Pink Fairy Armadillos.

In the absence of real information here is a little gallery of Pink Fairy Armadillo artwork.  Enjoy these pictures, it is profoundly unlikely you will ever see a real Pink Fairy Armadillo in the real world (which is sad because I find them curiously endearing). I particularly like the cartoon of the Pink Fairy Armadillo dreaming of transcendence into a mythical fairy being.

Drawing by Frohickey

Digital Artwork by Loba Feroz

Art by Guertelmaus

Sculpture by Michelle de Bruin

Cartoon by Blade Zulah

Last night my roommate told me about bitcoins, a digital currency created two years ago by Satoshi Nakamoto, a shadowy entity who may be a financier, a programmer, or an anarchist (or he/she/it may not even be a person at all).  The name “bitcoins” also refers to the software and built-in encryption features which allow the “coins” to be anonymously transferred while still retaining whatever “realness” they have.  The concept initially filled me with unreasoning anger, but thinking about bitcoins has caused me to reflect more deeply on the notional nature of all money.  Most dollars are no more real than bitcoins: only a tiny fraction of American legal tender exists in the real world (as the paper scraps or metal disks found in cash registers, laundry machines, money clips, dancers’ garters, underground hoards, piggy banks and what have you).  The majority of money is ones and zeros zipping through huge servers run by large financial institutions–not really that different from bitcoins (although the dollar is backed by lots of important guys in suits and by a huge military rather than by the personal assurances of a Japanese cyberpunk shadowspawn).

Stone Money of Yap

Instead of thinking about today’s national currencies I like to reflect on currencies based on real objects but still not pegged to any use value.  The rather beautiful giant stone coins of Yap are probably the most well-known example of such money, however, a more interesting and widespread example is provided by mollusk shells–which have been used as a medium of exchange by different societies worldwide throughout history.  Over three thousand years ago the Chinese were using cowry shells as currency. It is said that the classical Chinese character for money was the same as for cowry (I am going to leave Chinese scholars to argue over the actual characters—trying to follow the vagaries of Chinese etymology left my head spinning).  In Thailand the “bia” was a unit worth 1⁄6400 Baht and was literally a cowry (which was also a common counter used in gambling).  On the East Cost of the United States, Iroquois and Algonquian tribesmen utilized “wampum” belts manufactured from littleneck clams to solidify treaties or as exchange for personal transactions.  Tribes of the Pacific Northwest utilized tusk shells or scaphopods for their shell money.  Different tribes of Australian aboriginal people utilized different shells as money and often regarded the money shells from other tribes as worthless.  Other examples of shell currency are numerous and come from all parts of the world, but one is particularly instructive.

A living Being--the Egg Cowry (Calpurnus verrucosus)

The most infamous use of shell currency may also have been the most complicated and lucrative. In the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries competing Dutch, Portuguese, English, and French slave traders utilized cowry shells as a common medium of exchange (among several others) to buy slaves along the African coast.  The slaves were sold by local rulers who obtained them in internecine tribal wars or by Arab merchants who specialized in mass kidnappings. The cowrie shells used in such transactions originated from the Maldives and later from Zanzibar.  They were carried to the Mediterranean and to the Sahara by Arab traders and to Europe by merchants from the miscellaneous colonial powers. The potential “mark-up” on such shells was tremendous since one could obtain then easily from living snails in the Indian Ocean and then exchange them for living people in the Bight of Benin.

Cowry Shells being used as Money by an Arab Trader ( Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, 1845, print)

My personal feelings about international trade are not as negative as this grim historical example would seem to indicate (I feel that today global trade is, on balance, more likely to deliver people from slavery than into it). However I feel that this example is a good metaphor for the central mystery of money.  Cowry shells are pretty and have been used for rituals, games, and adornments for a long time–but their value does not seem intrinsic in any special way–except maybe to living cowries.  Indeed the monetized mystique such shells had in the eighteenth century is long gone: I found many web sites which will sell you barrels of money cowrie shells for next to nothing. What is the magic that makes shells worth a human life in one era and a quasi-worthless novelty in another?  I have no answer other than to point at the strange epic that is history.  I suspect that the smug Federal Reserve Board members discontentedly shaking their heads at the tone of this article do not have one either.  Money is a fairly obvious illusion…and yet you will never live your life outside its thrall.

Money Cowry Shells (Shells of Monetaria moneta)

A Gold Moche Headdress portraying a Sea Goddess

The Moche civilization was a culture which flourished between 100 and 800 AD in northern Peru.  Although the Moche had sophisticated agricultural know-how and created elaborate irrigation canals to water their crops, their religious iconographs shows that their hearts belonged to the ocean. This seems to be literally true, their greatest god, Ai Apaec (AKA “the decapitator”) was a horrifying aquatic deity with the arms of a crab or an octopus [I desperately wanted to feature this deity in my Gods of the Underworld Category, but there is not much hard information about him. I’m still tagging this post to that category because…well, just look at him]. Ai Apaec thirsted for human blood and Moche religious ceremonies seem to have been based around human sacrifice.  There is substantial archaeological evidence available about the Moche people and their civilization.  Several large structures remain extant in the dry climate of Northern Peru.  From these temples and graves, we can get a sense of Moche society.

A Sculpture of Ai Apaec, the Decapitator (Gold, copper, and polished stone)

One of the most important Moche sites is the Huaca del Sol (Shrine of the Sun) an adobe brick temple pyramid which is believed to have functioned as a royal palace, royal tombs, and as a temple.  Although a substantial portion of the complex was destroyed by the Spanish, who mined it for gold, enough remained to provide archaeologists with a picture of Moche life.  Additionally an untouched smaller temple the Huaco del Luna was discovered nearby. The conclusions drawn from studying these compounds were dramatic and horrifying.  Archaeology magazine describes two excavations and their grisly discoveries:

Bourget and his team uncovered a sacrificial plaza with the remains of at least 70 individuals–representing several sacrifice events–embedded in the mud of the plaza, accompanied by almost as many ceramic statuettes of captives. It is the first archaeological evidence of large-scale sacrifice found at a Moche site and just one of many discoveries made in the last decade at the site.

In 1999, Verano began his own excavations of a plaza near that investigated by Bourget. He found two layers of human remains, one dating to A.D. 150 to 250 and the other to A.D. 500. In both deposits, as with Bourget’s, the individuals were young men at the time of death. They had multiple healed fractures to their ribs, shoulder blades, and arms suggesting regular participation in combat. They also had cut marks on their neck vertebrae indicating their throats had been slit. The remains Verano found differed from those in the sacrificial plaza found by Bourget in one important aspect: they appeared to have been deliberately defleshed, a ritual act possibly conducted so the cleaned bones could be hung from the pyramid as trophies–a familiar theme depicted in Moche art.

A view of the Huaca de la Luna, with Cerro Blanco in the background.

In 2006, Archaeologists were fortunate enough to discover an extremely well-preserved Moche mummy.  Peru This Week outlined the discovery, writing, “The mummy, herself 1,500 years old, is of a woman in her 20s, believed to be an elite member of the Moche tribe. The skeleton of an adolescent girl offered in sacrifice was found with a rope still around its neck. The archaeologists from Peru and the US found the mummy at a site called El Brujo on the north coast near Trujillo. They have dated the mummy to about 450 AD.”

We know a great deal about Moche culture not merely from such rich archaeological finds but also from the vivid artistic skills of the Moche themselves.  Not only were they accomplished painters, the Moche were among the world’s great ceramics makers.  They crafted vessels which beautifully portrayed deer, birds, mollusks (like the spiny oyster), and other sea creatures.  They also made many ceramic art objects portraying war, agriculture, economic activities, and copulation.  Many of these Moche ceramics grace the world’s great museums: the expressive grace of the crafting speaks to a society which understood and revered beauty.

A Frog-shaped Moche Vessel (Ceramic with earth glaze)

The decline and failure of Moche civilization is something of a mystery.  The civilization reached an apogee early in the 6th century.  Then the great communities of that era appear to have been wiped out by the climate change which affected civilizations worldwide.  It seems like the horrible weather events of 535–536 played particular havoc with Moche society.  However the Moche survived these upheavels and settlements have been discovered from the middle of the seventh century onward to 800 AD.  The character of these latter communities is different from that of the golden age Moche civilizations.  Fortifications were much in evidence and the trade and agricultural underpinnings of civilization seem to have been much reduced.  Perhaps the Moche were involved in a series of internal battles among varying factions and elites.

I have a book deal!  Well sort of anyway… I have been contracted to create 75 craft projects out of recycled materials (aka common household rubbish).  These projects are themed around “things that go” and will ultimately be incorporated by gifted editors into a project book for dexterous and clever children (and others).  I’ll keep you updated on the publishing progress of this project.  Wish me luck with my crafting!

In the real world what this means is that I have been spending a lot of time affixing cardboard and wooden wheels to myself with a hot glue gun (I suspect the dexterous children will be deft enough to avoid such burns and the clever ones will use a less molten adhesive).  It also means I have been spending a great deal of time looking at illustrations of cars and other vehicles.  When I was making some classic racecar models, I noticed that older racecars are almost always certain colors.  I have noticed some of these relevant colors before on color lists which I have been consulting for my color topic: British racing green and bleu de France are particularly lovely colors that I contemplated writing about in the past.

Bugatti Type 35C Grand Prix Racing Car (Color: Bleu de France)

As you could probably tell from the names, it turns out that these are national racing colors.  In the era before commercial sponsorship completely took over every facet of automobile racing, national competition was a big part of the sport.  In that era, which lasted from the 1900s up to the early 1970s, the nationality of the car or driver was denoted by standardized colors.  The obvious colors which even casual racing fanciers know are British racing green for United Kingdom competitors, bleu de France for French competitors, rosso corsa (“racing red”) for Italian racers, white or silver for Germans, white with a red sun for the Japanese,  and white with blue Cunningham stripes for Americans.  Bleu de France was a traditional color for the livery of the kings of France since as early as the 12th century.   Emperor Mommu used a flag of a red sun in his court in 701—hence the Japanese motif.  Silver accurately reflects the German national character: although they originally used all white and maintained the rights to that scheme, an engineer realized that the car would weigh less with no paint and thereafter they left the shiny aluminum metalwork unpainted.

1937 Mercedes w125 (Color: Silver Arrow)

1954 Ferrari 375Plus1 (Color: Rosso Corsa)

Italy apparently got to choose first–since bright red is a splendid color (also the Italian accounts of how this color was chosen are so…demonstrative…that I can’t figure out the truth).

Jaguar c-type (Color: British Racing Green)

The other colors are a bit more obscure and mysterious in origin.  It turns out that British racing green—that quintessential elegant dark green which is eponymous with British-ness—came from a quirk of English law.  The winner of the Gordon Bennet Cup, a prestigious early race named for a crazed industrialist, was expected to host the next year’s race.  An English automobile had won the 1902 race from Paris to Innsbruck, but automobile racing was forbidden in England proper.  The 1903 race was held in Ireland, and out of respect for this Irish surrogate, the English team chose a bright green.  The color stuck, even though it darkened into a near black over the years.

Cunningham C5R (Color: Cunningham Racing Stripes)

The United States had two color schemes: white with blue racing stripes or blue with white racing stripes.  This tradition was begun comparatively late by Briggs Cunningham, a racing aficionado (and evidently a lover of stripes) who wanted America to win the Le Mans race—an effort which proved to be a gallant failure.

Naturally the other nations of the world had their own racing colors as well (even if these did not always become as storied as rosso corsa or British racing green).  The Cubans had an insectoid color combination of yellow with a black hood.  The Hungarians raced cars which were white in front and green in back with red bonnets.  Polish cars were the same as Polish flags: the top half was white and the bottom was red. Mexican cars were gold.  Dutch cars were orange.  A few nations which arrived late were stuck with very odd racing colors: like the Egyptians who raced in pale violet and the Brazilians who were stuck in pale yellow cars with green wheels.  Here is a complete list of nations and colors.

Ironically, in the future, most cars will probably come from India and China–which never had racing colors and still seem to have none.

The Black Dragon Gong Gong and the Serpent Goddess Nüwa

In Chinese mythology, Gong Gong was a tempestuous and unhappy water spirit of great strength.  He is usually portrayed as a raging black dragon or as a seething water monster.  In an earlier post concerning the Black Mansion—the Chinese underworld—I described how rigorously regimented the Chinese spirit world is (on earth, in heaven, and in hell).  Gong Gong was a spirit who was not happy with the rigid hierarchical order of things.  Despite his raw power, his job in the courts of heaven was to run trivial errands and fill out tedious paperwork.  Growing sick of what he perceived as menial chores, Gong Gong rebelled against the Jade Emperor.  In order to usurp control of heaven, he unleashed terrible floods and allied with a wicked nine-headed demon named Xiangliu.

Gong Gong hurls himself into Mount Buzhou

Together Gong Gong and Xiangliu brought about great destruction in the world.  The tumult they unleashed killed countless people.  But, despite the suffering they caused, the two could not defeat the powers of heaven.  They were opposed by Zhu Rong, the god of fire and ruler of the south, a mighty swordsman who fought mounted on the back of his magic tiger.  Unable to withstand Zhu Rong’s ferocity, the monsters were about to be defeated outright.  Infuriated and unwilling to accept such shame, Gong Gong hurled himself into Mount Buzhou, a mythical mountain which was one of the principal supports of heaven.  Part of the mountain collapsed and a terrible hole appeared in the sky.  The suffering caused by Gong Gong’s earlier actions was nothing compared to the catastrophe caused by this collapse.   Flood and fire swept earth.  Terrible creatures from beyond came through the rip in existence and ravaged the planet. Famine and horror stalked the world and it seemed as though all living things were doomed.

Nüwa Repairs the Breach in Heaven

With the other gods helpless, the creator goddess Nüwa again stepped forward.  She cut the legs off a great turtle and propped the sky back on its axis.  Then she gathered precious stones from a river and cast the breath of her magic into them.  With these multicolored stones she repaired the vault of heaven.  In some versions of the story she slew the black dragon Gong Gong whereas in other versions he sneaked away and still remains at large somewhere in the world.  Whatever the case, Nüwa’s repairs were not perfect.  The sun and moon now flow across the heavens from east to west and the stars were thrown from their position to drift with the seasons.  Even the North star was jarred from true north.

Nüwa Repairs the Breach in Heaven (a modern interpretation)

Strangely enough my favorite Chinese novel (maybe my favorite novel from anywhere) originates from this tumultuous myth.  The Story of the Stone was written by Cao Xueqin in the eighteenth century as the Qing dynasty first began to relentlessly unwind.  It is the story of a great princely house slowly losing its vigor and declining from within.  In a bigger sense it is the story of mortal kind and the ineluctable flux of our little lives. There are 40 major characters and more than four hundred minor ones in a drama that spans the epic breadth of Chinese history and culture (and takes up thousands of pages).  The portrayal of all levels of Chinese society is magnificent…but just beyond the petty intrigues, squabbles, affairs, and misunderstandings that make up the complex plot of The Story of the Stone are hints at an enigmatic divine order underpinning the cosmos.  From time to time, a strange beggar covered with sores and limping on an iron crutch shows up with magic medicines.  The female lead is hauntingly familiar with an otherworldy beauty to her mien.  And the protagonist of the story, Jia Baoyu, is a fey aristocratic adolescent who was born with a magic piece of jade in his mouth.  Although it doesn’t come up often in the novel and it is not obvious to the characters, the hero is the stone.  He was one of the gemstones given magical life by Nüwa in order to repair the breach in heaven–but he was not used because of a flaw.   Frustrated by life at the edge of heaven, he incarnates as a mortal and the book is the story of his human life…indeed of all human life.   I won’t say more about The Story of the Stone other than to apologize for not explaining how impossibly brilliant and ineffable the work is.  I must also offer an attendant caveat: this is the consummate literary masterpiece of China and, as such, it is overwhelmingly and heartbreakingly sad.

The Penguin version as elegantly translated by David Hawke

Nüwa

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.

Fuxi and Nüwa, an ancient painting from Xinjiang

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.

Nüwa in serpent guise

The Crown of Eric XIV (before a twentieth century refurbishment)

The crown of the King of Sweden was manufactured in Stockholm in 1561 by a Flemish goldsmith named Cornelius ver Welden for the Swedish King Eric XIV.  Despite its antiquity, Eric XIV’s crown was not used for many years.  Swedish monarchs from three successive families, the House of Palatinate-Zweibrücken, the House of Hesse, and the House of Holstein-Gottorp (which successively controlled the Swedish throne between 1654 and 1818) preferred to be crowned with the crown of Queen Christina. However the House of Bernadotte, which has ruled Sweden since 1818, used the crown of Eric XIV for coronations…at least until 1907 which was the last time anyone wore any of the Swedish crown jewels at all.  The crown (along with Queen Christina’s crown and the other royal regalia) is now permanently on display in the vaults of the Royal Treasury, underneath the Royal Palace in Stockholm. Extensive changes were made to the crown of Eric XIV during the nineteenth century. These involved larger sparkly gems and the addition of a blue orb however the changes were undone when the crown was restored in the early twentieth century.

The Crown of Eric XIV today

The additions of the nineteenth century and their later removal may be of interest to jewelers, however the earliest changes made to the crown of Eric XIV are much more dramatic and merit explanation.  Originally the crown of the King of Sweden bore four pairs of the letter ‘E’ and ‘R’ in green enamel which were initials for “Ericus Rex.” These letters were all covered with cartouches set with pearl (which give the crown an ungainly look) after Eric XIV was deposed by John III.

Eric XIV lost the throne to John III (who was his brother) for good reasons.  Eric was an intelligent, handsome, and well-liked prince.  He romantically pursued Princess Elizabeth Tudor of England (later Queen Elizabeth I) for many years until his father’s death caused him to return from England and assume the throne of Sweden. He vigorously prosecuted the Livonian War by conquering Estonia and repelling Danish invasions.  But his reign fell under the dark shadow of mental illness–for the young king is believed to have suffered from schizophrenia.  He began to treat the Swedish nobility with increasing paranoia and highhandedness and he persecuted his brother John (who was the ruler of Finland and married to a powerful Polish princess). The king ultimately had his brother John incarcerated and removed nobles from his privy council. In 1567 he arrested five noblemen from the powerful Sture family.

Eric XIV of Sweden (Steven Van der Meulen ca. 1543-1561)

All of this seems familiar enough for kings, but Eric’s subsequent behavior leapt into the realm of madness.  Unable to convince the riksdag (a sort of noble parliament) of the Stures’ guilt for any crime, the king broke down completely before the assembled members.  The king then visited the Stures in prison and informed them of his intent to pardon them. Then, deciding that they could never forgive him, Eric flew into a frenzy, drew his dagger and stabbed Nils Sture.  Together with his guards he murdered the remaining Stures.  Then in extreme agitation, the king fled the castle.  His aging tutor found him and tried to soothe him, but the king commanded his tutor’s death (an order which the guards carried out) and then fled madly into the forest.  For days he could not be found and only eventually was he discovered in a nearby village dressed as a peasant. The king remained insane for half a year, but upon his recovery he resumed his duties.  When Eric began to exhibit traces of his malady again in 1568 (stabbing his secretary to death with a household object), his brother and the nobles joined together to overthrow him.  He spent the rest of his life imprisoned going in and out of insane fits.  In 1577, he died from arsenic which was probably concealed in his pea porridge by order of his brother John III.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

May 2011
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