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Albrecht of Brandenburg as St. Jerome in his Study (Lucas Cranch the Elder, 1527)

In addition to troubling paintings of severed heads and dark allegories of German society, Lucas Cranach the Elder liked to paint animals.  He painted several splendid pictures of Adam and Eve in a paradise teaming with creatures (including human headed parrots and unicorns) and he also frequently portrayed the bloody business of large scale stag-hunts by the aristocracy.  One of my favorite of Cranach’s animal paintings is the one above titled, which was completed in 1527.  A generous supporter of the arts (and personal friend of Erasmus), Albrecht was the Elector and Archbishop of Mainz.  Ironically, to secure this position, Albrecht had taken out an immense loan “to discharge the expenses of his elevation.”  In order to pay this money back he obtained permission from Pope Leo X to sell indulgences.  The agent Albrecht utilized to sell these indulgences, John Tetzel, was so odious and grasping that Luther wrote his 95 theses partly as a direct response to Tetzel. Albrecht was the first to notify the papacy of Luther’s theses (which he suspected might be heretical).

Although dressed as a 16th century cardinal, Albrecht is affecting the style and symbols of Saint Jerome, the 4th century hermit and scholar who had translated the bible into Latin.  Jerome was frequently painted with a tame lion due to an ahistorical medieval legend about how he had removed a thorn from a marauding lion’s paw (and thus gained the creature’s friendship).  Cranach expands on this iconography to fill the painting with animals including not just a pensive lion, but also an industrious beaver, a pheasant, a rabbit, and a stag.  In gothic iconography, the stag represented Christ and here we see a handsome stag beneath a crucifix apparently speaking to Jerome.  The ecclesiastical contemplation and tame animals of the foreground are contrasted starkly with the more realistic background, where aristocratic hunters ride back to their great hall with their hounds while real stags joust with their horns in the forest.

Hecate


When I was young I received a copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, which I loved.  I memorized the characters and stories from the book and suddenly the world of art and poetry opened up to me.  The book remains a delightful mythology primer for any child. However, later when I read actual Greco-Roman literature, I realized that D’Aulaire’s had left out a goddess of great importance to the Greco-Roman world (among other things…).  The omission seems fitting however, for the missing goddess was Hecate, the goddess of magic, poison, night, thresholds, boundaries, and crossroads.  The Oxford Classic Dictionary asserts that Hecate “is more at home on the fringes than in the center of Greek polytheism. Intrinsically ambivalent and polymorphous, she straddles conventional boundaries and eludes definition.”  This seems correct.  Even in classical passages which hold her in high esteem, Hecate seems to be an outsider among the gods.  Her very name means “the distant one”.

Hekate, dressed as a huntress, wielding a pair of Eleusinian torches at Heracles and Cerberus (Attic vase, ca. 310 BC)

Hecate may seem like a strange outsider in the Greek pantheon because she was an outsider in the Greek pantheon.  Some scholars believe she was originally a Thracian moon goddess based, in turn, on an ancient and powerful Anatolian goddess.  Unlike other outsider gods, who frequently worked their way into the Greek canon as animal demons, Hecate struck a chord with the Greeks and became a focus of their mystery cults.  Additionally she had an influential worshipper early on in Greek culture: there are few if any references to Hecate before she appears in the works of Hesiod (a major source of Ionic thought who was active sometime between 750 and 650 BC).  Yet in Hesiod’s Theogeny she is a major force of the universe. Perhaps this is because Hesiod’s father was reputedly from Aeolis (a region of Anatolia).  It could be that Hesiod was honoring a local goddess, and his writings became instrumental to securing her place in the Greek canon (where she nonetheless remains an alien).

Hesiod wrote that Hecate was the only child of two Titans, Asteria (goddess of the stars) and Peres (god of might).  Hesiod seems to have regarded her as beautiful and powerful.  In Theogeny, he wrote,

For to this day, whenever any one of men on earth offers rich
sacrifices and prays for favour according to custom, he calls
upon Hecate.  Great honour comes full easily to him whose prayers
the goddess receives favourably, and she bestows wealth upon him;
for the power surely is with her….
The son of Cronus did her no wrong nor took anything away of all that
was her portion among the former Titan gods: but she holds, as
the division was at the first from the beginning, privilege both
in earth, and in heaven, and in sea.  Also, because she is an
only child, the goddess receives not less honour, but much more
still, for Zeus honours her.

Greek writers of the 5th century, maintained Hesiod’s respect for Hecate but they saw her in a darker light.  Euripides writes about her as the patron deity of the sorceress Medea and quite a few of that baleful witch’s invocations are directly to Hecate.

Whatever Hecate’s origins in the near east and ancient Greece, Hecate had morphed from a moon goddess and protector of the young into underworld queen by the era of Alexander, and that is how she was subsequently worshipped by the Romans (who held her very dear).  In Hellenic times and afterwards, Hecate is pictured as a triple goddess.  Sometimes she has been portrayed with three young beautiful faces, but other times she is depicted as simultaneously being a maiden, a mother, and a crone (which seems to be how her contemporary worshippers see her).  Likewise, in one or more of her six arms she always holds a torch.  The other items vary between serpents, keys, daggers, ropes, herbs, and mystery charms.  Speaking of serpents, she was occasionally portrayed with serpent legs or serpent limbs.

The snake was by no means the only creature affiliated with Hecate. Like many chthonic deities of the Mediterranean, she was associated with dogs (particularly black female dogs).  She is said to have had two demon hounds which did her bidding (although it hardly seems important since she was a sorceress of matchless puissance).  Additonally, dogs were sacrificed to her and eaten in her honor. Snakes, owls and other nocturnal creatures were variously seen as sacred to the goddess as was the red mullet, a blood-colored goatfish (which wealthy Romans kept in salt water pens to pamper and train as pets). In terms of botanical symbolism, all manner of poisons were her bailiwick and she was invoked by poisoner and victim alike.  The yew, with its dark symbolism, was particularly sacred to Hecate, and her worshippers planted them around her temples and mystery cult sites.

Agh! It’s Hecate!

As goddess of thresholds she was called on to help people through the two greatest thresholds. She was worshiped both as a midwife (some say the knife and rope in her hands were for tying umbilical cords) and as a sort of supernatural hospice nurse (some assert that her knife, rope, and herbs could be used to slip into the next realm).  Like Athena and Diana, Hecate was a virgin goddess.

I mentioned Hecate’s contemporary worshipers earlier.  Unlike the other Greek gods, who may still inspire artists, poets, and antiquarians but rarely elicit prayers, Hecate continues to have a worldwide following.  Neopaganism has suited her admirably and she has even appeared in a number of hit TV shows.  Her mysterious protean nature seems to appeal to the diffuse and highly-individualized practitioners of Wicca.  One can only imagine how the surly and chauvinistic Hesiod would feel if told that his beloved Hecate had outlived his beloved Olympian Gods to be worshiped and called on as a feminist icon!

Hecate Trimorphe Triodia Phosphorus (digimagicnb, 2011, digital media)

A Heavy Tank made from a Blueberry carton and an Anchovy Can

I have been working hard on a children’s book about how to construct toy vehicles out of items from the rubbish bin.  Since I am getting close to finishing the 75 items required for the book, I thought I would share a few of my creations with you.  I have been using things I found in the garbage can, plus wooden hobby wheels, dowels, and paint from the craft store (although I think the wheels could be cut out of cardboard, and, in a pinch, straws or chopsticks could stand in for dowels).  Any feedback would be appreciated!

A Drag Racer Made out of a Coat Hanger and some Cardboard

The book is part of the “Green and Groovy Crafts” series from Downtown Bookworks, which has already featured titles such as The Lonely Sock Club: One Sock, Tons of Cool Projects! and Boy-Made: Green & Groovy which are available at those online links and at finer bookstores around the nation.  The theme of my book will be “Things that Go.” If the publishers like it, I am slated to make another one about how to create toy robots out of garbage!

The real shock of the project (other than realizing that 75 is a large number) is coming to terms with how much rubbish a household really produces.  I regard myself as an environmentalist in the sense that I care deeply for the earth, its ecosystems, and the organisms that dwell there (although I feel that a great deal of the contemporary green movement is misguided in its philosophy and its ends).  I don’t buy a lot of consumer goods (because they’re expensive and because many seem unnecessary).  I cook rather than ordering take-out. I don’t even drive an automobile: when I go somewhere I take the train or walk.  So, aside from the mixed-up-animal toys I design and produce (which are referenced in this post) I have always thought I have a fairly small ecological footprint.

A Helicopter made out of Cardboard, a Spool, and a Plastic Pod

Looking at all of the plastic bins, anchovy cans, milk cartons, syrup bottles, ointment jars, cups, rolls, bags, cans, bottles, and so on ad nauseum, that have showed up in my garbage certainly calls that view into question.

Anyway on to the rest of the pictures…. It has been fun to build a little society in miniature and my cat enjoyed stalking around the tiny vehicles and associated playscapes like she was Godzilla (you can see her there in a couple of the pictures).  I’ll try to post some more images closer to when the book is due to come out and, naturally, I’ll tell you when that happens.

A Riverboat made from a Shoebox, a Peanut Can, a Clip box, and a Toilet Paper Roll

A Steam Roller Made of a Coffe Can, an Almond Can, and a Shoebox

A Buggy made from a Detergent Bottle and a Coat Hanger

A Viking Boat Made from Carboard and Chopsticks (notice my cat ready to maraud)

A Regional Jetliner made from Cardboard, Spools, a Clothes Hanger, and a Paper Towel Roll

A Locomotive (Soapbox, Corks, Toilet Paper Roll, and Cut-up Bottle) and Caboose (Shoe Box, Milk Carton, and Toilet Paper Roll)

A Playscape with Hospital and Fire House

An Old-Fashioned Hearse Made From Cardboard

The Sidewalk Beneath the Mulberry Tree on Ditmas Avenue, Brooklyn

Whenever I have walked to or from the subway this last week, a particular patch of pavement stands out because it has been dyed a ghastly blackish purple.  This is where the sidewalk runs beneath a mulberry tree, a medium sized deciduous fruit tree which produces copious quantities of black multiple fruit.  Ten to sixteen species of trees are accepted by botanists as true mulberries. The three most commonly known species are black mulberries (Morus nigra) which were exported in great number from Southwest Asia to Europe, the red mulberries (Morus rubra) which grow wild in Eastern North America, and the white mulberry (Morus alba) which has been domesticated since ancient times in China as food for silkworms. The different species readily hybridize into fertile hybrids so I have no idea which sort I am walking under every day.  The Mulberry trees give their name to the Moraceae, the mulberry family, which includes figs, banyans, breadfruits, and Osage-oranges.

Mulberries

Mulberry foliage is the preferred food for silkworm larvae (although the caterpillars will also tolerate foliage of the Osage-orange and the tree of heaven).  An ancient Chinese legend relates that Lei Zu, the wife of the Yellow Emperor (himself the mythical progenitor of Chinese culture), discovered silkworm cultivation as she was drinking tea beneath a mulberry tree.  A silkworm wrapped up in a cocoon fell into her tea.  She removed the cocoon from her beverage and was amazed at how the fiber unwrapped around her fingers as a lovely thread.

Mulberries on a Tree

Mulberry leaves, sap, and unripe berries contain 1-Deoxynojirimycin, a polyhydroxylated piperidine, which acts an intoxicant and mild hallucinogen (and produces nausea).  However when mulberries ripen they turn black and become edible.  Mura nigra and Mura rubra allegedly have the tastiest fruit which is said to resemble blueberry in taste and appearance when cooked into pies and tarts.  Cooked mulberries are rich in anthocyanins, pigments which are useful as natural food colorings and may have medicinal value.

Mulberry Pie Made By Anita Marks

Mulberry also gives its name to a lovely purple pink which resembles the color of mulberry jams and pies.  The word mulberry has been used to describe that particular shade since the 1770’s.  I remember it fondly as a Crayola crayon which I always used up before the others (although apparently the color was discontinued in 2003–so today’s children will have to make do with less poetic purple pinks).

The Eel-tailed Catfish (Tandanus tandanus)

Last week, I wrote about the great builders of the animal world, the beavers. But of course all sorts of other creatures build things.  The Eel tailed catfish (Tandanus tandanus) lives in the Murray-Darling river basin of Eastern Australia where the creatures’ nest-building habits are costing them dearly.

The eel-tailed catfish is from the family Plotosidae (in fact it is a close relative of the striped eel catfish) and like other family members its most distinctive feature is a continuous fin margin surrounding the posterior half of their bodies—aka an eel tail!  These catfish prefer to live on the gravel or sand at the bottom of lakes or slow-moving rivers.  They eat crayfish, yabbies’, worms, mollusks, insect larva, and other smaller fish.

An eel-tailed catfish nest (the parent is in the middle)

A week or two before spawning, pairs of eel-tailed catfish build nests for their eggs. The fish construct these torus-shaped structures out of sand and pebbles and, once the female lays the eggs, one or both parents stay with the nest to guard it and to aerate the eggs until they hatch.  Unfortunately, because of drought and agriculture, the Murray basin is rapidly drying out and silting up.  As the pebbles and coarse sands which the fish use for nests are smothered with slimy silt, the species has been declining.  Additionally, eel-tailed catfish are being out-competed by invasive carp which were introduced in a hare-brained aquiculture scheme.

Five Shells Mounted on a Slab of Stone (Adriaen Coorte, 1696, oil on paper mounted on wood)

Here are three tiny paintings of seashells by the great Dutch still-life master Adriaen Coorte.  I would love to tell you more about Coorte, but I am unable to do so.  The date of his birth and his death are both unknown.  Aside from his apprenticeship to Melchior d’Hondecoeter (which took place in Amsterdam) it is believed that Coorte spent his entire life in Middelburg, Zeeland.   His signed paintings date from 1683 to 1707 and, according to records, he belonged to the Guild of Saint Luke.

Seashells (Adriaen Coorte, 1696, oil on paper mounted on wood)

Everything else we know about Coorte comes from his beautiful jewel-like paintings–which were also largely unknown until the 1950’s (when a fashionable art-historian publicised them to the world). The compositions are minimalist with dramatic lighting and exquisite object arrangement.  Coorte painted on paper which he then glued to wood (an unusual technique now and even more so during the 17th century).

Still Life with Shells (Adriaen Coorte, 1697 oil on paper on wood panel)

Along with Balthasar van der Ast and Antoine Berjon, Coorte was one of the greatest painters of seashells. He gives an emotional context to the shells while capturing their alien beauty. For example in the painting below, there is something about the spatial relationship between the spiny murex, the tiny red shell, the spiral, and the cowry which transforms the inanimate shells into actors in a tragic play.  The mysterious Coorte seems to know something about the fundamental nature of things that he can only reveal through these tiny charged tableaus, but like Coorte, the message remains a mystery.

Still Life with Shells (Adriaen Coorte,1698, oil on paper on wood panel)

A Dugong and Diver (photograph by Duane Yates)

There are about 120 living species of marine mammals (although that total may tragically become much smaller in the very near future).  Of this number, only one species is herbivorous.  The mighty dugong (Dugong dugon) is the last animal of its kind, a gentle lumbering remnant of the giant herds of sirenian grazers which once graced the world’s oceans. Dugongs are distinct from the three extant species of manatees (the world’s other remaining sirenians) in that they never require fresh water at any point of their lives.  Additionally dugongs possess fluked tails in the manner of dolphins and whales.

Dugong Range

Dugongs live in shallow tropical waters of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.  They range from Madagascar to the Philippines, but are only common along the north coast of Australia (where conservation efforts and a limited human population have allowed them to live in peace).  Dugongs can swim in deep oceans for a limited time, but prefer to stay on continental shelves where they can feed on seagrass and marine algae.  Their all-salad diet does not prevent them from growing to substantial size: some individuals have been known to reach more than 3.5 meters in length (11 feet) and weigh over 950 kilograms (nearly a ton).  Although Dugongs can live more than seventy years, they reproduce extremely slowly.  Females gestate for over a year and then suckle their calf for around 18 months. Calves may stay with their mothers for many years after being weaned and need almost contact with their mothers for security and affection until they are almost grown. Young dugongs swim with their short paddle-like flippers, but adults use their tail for propulsion and only steer with their flippers.

Dugong and Calf

Dugongs have a variety of vocalizations with which they communicate.  Usually they live in small family units.  Great herds are not unknown but  seagrasses do not grow in sufficient quantity to support such numbers together for long.

Like the other sirenians, Dugongs have dense bones with almost no marrow (a feature known as pachyostosis).  It has been speculated that such heavy skeletons help them stay suspended just beneath the water in the manner of ballast.  The lungs of dugongs are extremely elongated, as are their large elaborate kidneys (which must cope with only saltwater).  Additionally, the blood of dugongs clots extremely rapidly.

Dugongs face a number of natural threats, particularly storms, parasites, and illnesses.  Because of their large size they are only preyed upon by alpha predators such as large sharks, killer whales, and salt-water crocodiles.  As with other marine animals, the greatest dangers facing dugongs come from humankind.  For millennia Dugongs have been hunted for meat, oil, and ivory. Traditional medicine from various portions of their range (wrongly) imputes magical properties to parts of their bodies. Worst of all, dugongs are frequent victims of boat collisions or are killed as by-catch by fishermen trying to catch something else.

Close-up of a Dugong (Julien Willem)

Shamash was the Mesopotamian deity of the sun.  To the Akkadians, Assyrians, and the Babylonians he was synonymous with justice, generosity, and salvation.  However there was a second solar deity in the Mesopotamian pantheon, Nergal, who was not associated with such positive aspects of existence.  Nergal was the child of Enlil, god of the wind, who was exiled from earth for raping Ninlin, the goddess of the open fields. Ninlin followed Enlil into exile and gave birth to their son Nergal in the underworld (Sumerian myth-makers should be ashamed of the sexism of this story).  Nergal’s dark origins foreshadowed his nature. Unlike Shamash, who represented the life giving power of the sun and divine justice, Nergal was only associated with certain phases of the sun. To quote Wikipedia “Portrayed in hymns and myths as a god of war and pestilence, Nergal seems to represent the sun of noontime and of the summer solstice that brings destruction, high summer being the dead season in the Mesopotamian annual cycle.”

Akkadian Seal of Nergal with a sickle-sword and a mace with two feline heads (c. 2360–2180 BCE, carved from soapstone)

As a god of plague, drought, fire, and insufferable heat, Nergal quickly came to be associated with death and the underworld. He was portrayed either as a powerful man bearing a sickle-sword and a mace, or as a lion with a man’s head.

Although he was a terrible god of destruction, the main myth we have about Nergal is romantic in nature. Mesopotamian scholars have discovered and translated a poetic epic recounting Nergal’s tempestuous courtship of the dark goddess Ereshkigal (the queen of the underworld, who once gave Ishtar such a wretched time).   After a passionate tryst, Nergal left Ereshkigal, who thereafter was overwhelmed by passionate longing for further intimacy.  Hearing of her unhappiness and realizing how much he in turn missed her, Nergal abandoned his place in the heavens and traveled down through the seven gates of hell to rejoin Ereshkigal.  The two death gods then shared a bed for seven days and seven nights before marrying and jointly sharing rule of the underworld (it’s a happy story!).

A modern painting of Nergal

Despite the felicity of his connubial circumstances, to the people of Mesopotamia, Nergal represented the unpredictability of mortal life and early unnatural death.  He was worshiped, particularly at his chief temple located at Cuthah (a smaller city just northeast of Babylon) but his cult was far from the most popular. Unlike many other Babylonian deities, Nergal was mentioned in the Bible (2 Kings 17:30) and his name has therefore found a place among the demons and boogeymen of Christianity. If you search for “Nergal” on the internet you are likely to find the picture of a heavy metal singer from Poland dressed up in gothic makeup!

Cerise is a vibrant pinkish shade of red. The color is uniquely lovely–particularly as a glowing light against a dark backdrop, and the name has a long history (having been used to describe that particular shade of red since the middle of the 19th century). Unfortunately there isn’t as much to write about cerise as about some other colors.

Cerise means cherry in French and I thought it would be appropriate to write about the color as cherry-picking season arrives. When I was a teenager, my parents dragged me to an orchard to pick cherries around the end of June every year. I was always aggrieved to be rousted from bed first thing on a Saturday morning and I treated the annual event as an ordeal–but now I miss cherry picking and I particularly miss having cherries.  The very beautiful ornamental cherry tree in the back yard of where I live is an ornamental cherry which produces no fruit.  Aside from a few tiny plastic containers of pricey bing cherries, I have to be content with the color.

A National Geographic Painting of the Collision

The name “Cerise” has one other claim to fame.  In 1995, the French military launched a spy satellite of that name from Centre Spatial Guyanais (the ESA spaceport in French Guiana which now includes the infamous former penal colony of Devil’s Island) in order to monitor high frequency radio transmissions.  One year later, Cerise was struck by a fragment of an Ariane rocket.  To quote NASA, “The debris appeared to have impacted the stabilization boom, which extended 6 m from the main body of the spacecraft, at over 14 km/s (31,000 miles/hour).”  It was the first recorded space collision of a space craft with space junk (although not the last). Incredibly, the satellite remained operational however the boom broke off and joined the tens of thousands of other bits of space debris–lethal low hanging fruit whipping through near-Earth orbit.

I once read a science fiction book about nanotechnology and biotechnology so powerful that intelligent materials could mold themselves into fantastical cities in the shape of cyclopean indestructible flowers.  One merely had to plant a special seed and the replicating nanoparticles therein would usurp all nearby matter and form it into a self-sufficient flower city.  It was a terrifying world—if you touched the wrong pillar you could be reconstructed and permanently built into a wall or a huge solar panel that looked like a leaf. On the other hand, it was a world where humanity had stretched out to build flamboyant botanical cities on the moon and beyond.

So far our steps into bioengineering and nanotechnology have been falteringly slow…but I mention the imaginary flower cities for a reason. This week I have been writing about builders of the past and the present, but what about the future?  What lies beyond the mega skyscrapers, experimental fusion labs, and radio telescopes that define the limits of what humankind can build now?  When I was a child I dreamed that I would end up living in a terrarium on a space station or I would bioengineer myself to have gills so I could dwell in a garden made of kelp and coral in a sea-city.  I live instead in a building that was made before I was born (in fact my last ten residences have pre-dated me).  The oceans are becoming waste lands and space exploration is on the back burner. The time of the arcologies and the domed cities is not here yet, but the population is growing so fast that prefabricated suburban sprawls will not be a suitable habitat for our teeming billions within only a few generations.

Builders are working to create structures which fit in harmony with the natural ecosystems of the planet, but it is less easy than it sounds.  I always remember my experience as a volunteer at a synthetic ecosystem built by the Smithsonian–despite immense ingenuity on the part of the designers, the life cycles of the organisms inside the system quickly veered into strange arrhythmic feedback loops. Today’s green movement does not exhibit any such ingenuity and the results are predictably nugatory. So far sustainable buildings and eco-friendly cities have been little more than shams designed to ease the conscience of affluent buyers.  I have a friend who visited Masdar City, an arcology community in the UAE which is designed to be powered entirely by renewable energy. The hereditary nobility who rule Abu Dhabi ordained that Masdar City should be the international showpiece of green living. Unfortunately the solar panels which have been installed do not work because of the dust and wind from the desert.  The other renewable energy sources have not even made an appearance.  The community is currently run on fossil fuel.  The personal transit pods souind intriguing but they don’t seem to have appeared yet either.

Masdar City: The future is...not here yet it would seem.

All of this that could and will change as technology improves (or it could change instantly if energy became inexpensive and clean).   The age of suburbs and slums must give way to a time of more efficient human habitats.  The arcologies are coming (unless of course the world spins into a dark age).  I am pleased that we have not yet seen their shape, but I am anxious that the shape might not be very pleasing.  Imagine the structure that you wish to see most.  Is it a Victorian mansion, an immense metal pylon, or a delicate Faberge egg? Perhaps it is colossal statue, a basalt temple, or a giant space torus?  Really, really look in your heart and ask yourself what you want.  Once you have decided, you should start talking about it with everyone.  Looking at Masdar City makes me realize that the people who design the great human habitats of the next age need more ideas as quickly as possible!

I guess we still have the International Space Station...

 

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