You are currently browsing the monthly archive for June 2011.

By its very nature building involves limits. The great cathedrals of Medieval Europe were the apogee of technology during their time—the peak accomplishment of the architects, masons, and artisans of the day.  As the centuries passed, the mighty churches became larger and more ambitious—the buildings soared ever higher on increasingly lofty flying buttresses until finally the builders reached the limits of stone and iron and mortar.

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais

This happened at the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais (hereafter Beauvais Cathedral) an incomplete cathedral which many people regard as the most daring achievement of Gothic architecture. Work was commenced on the cathedral in 1225.  From the very beginning the building was designed to be the tallest and most splendid church in the world.  This magnificence was probably partially intended as an act of defiance by France’s northern barons, who were allied with the episcopacy in a struggle with the French throne–a struggle for power which culminated when the northern lords revolted against Louis VIII and attempted to kidnap his son Louis IX (who escaped the plot to ascend first to the throne and later to sainthood, and after whom Saint Louis, Missouri is named).  Unfortunately the grandiose architectural plans were hampered by funding problems and by structural flaws.

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais from the west

Although Beauvais Cathedral was intended to be taller than other cathedrals, the original planners also designed the flying buttresses to be thinner. This was both to allow them to soar higher (since they weighed less!) and to allow maximum light into the stained glass windows of the building. Unfortunately the design did not work out. The cathedral collapsed in 1284 (well, actually only part of the choir vault collapsed, along with multiple flying buttresses). Contemporary structural engineers believe that the failure was the result of resonant vibrations—an unhappy mixture of spindly buttresses which were just the wrong length to cope with the region’s high winds. The cathedral was built and rebuilt off and on throughout the following centuries, with mixed results. In 1573 the structure suffered another major setback when the 153 meter tall central tower collapsed.

The Plan of Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais (the black is extant, the gray is missing)

Today only the transept and choir remain, but they are indeed magnificent. Unfortunately, the structure is still in peril. In the sixties, the cathedral’s caretakers removed iron bars which were laterally connecting the buttresses in hopes of making the cathedral look even more graceful.  Unsurprisingly, this action caused the transept to separate from the choir. Steel rods were quickly added, but, being more rigid than iron, they seem to have increased the rate of fissure. A wide number of sundry modern braces were added throughout the eighties and nineties, and in 2001 a team of architects from Columbia University scanned the entire edifice. They hope to use their comprehensive imaging resources to design less unwieldy solutions to the cathedral’s many problems, but, at present, the world’s most ambitious gothic edifice remains a masterpiece of beauty but a failure of function.

Inside Beauvais Cathedral

In the impact crater of a giant meteor, an unknown ancient race built the largest snake effigy on the planet… Is this the beginning of a lurid sci-fi fantasy novel? No, it’s the description of an actual place.  This haunting structure which was built for unknown reasons by a mystery race can be found in deepest…um…Ohio!

The Great Serpent Mound is an ancient earthwork located in Adams County, Ohio.  Shaped like a snake devouring an egg, the mound is 410 meters (1,330 feet long) and a meter tall (3 feet).  The undulating form of the snake has been tied to astronomical phenomena but it is unclear why it was built or what purposes (if any) it served. It reminds me somewhat of the Rainbow Serpent, Wadjet, Nüwa, and other snake deities, but since there is no historical or ethnological record of its purpose, such connections are only airy speculation.

Possible Astronomical Significance of the Great Serpent Mound

An even greater mystery of the structure is who built it. Over the years scholars and archaeologists have variously posited that it was created by the Adena culture (1000 to 200 BC), or by tribes from the Hopewell tradition (200 BC to 500 AD), or by the Fort Ancient culture (1000 AD-1750 AD).  Of course the mound was known long before its “discovery” by European settlers. Unfortunately, the Native Americans of the region seemed just as confused about its provenance as anyone. For what it is worth, Native Americans of the Lenni Lenape (later Delaware) nation told missionaries that the mound was built by the Allegheny or Allegewi People, (who were also sometimes called the Tallegewi), a possibly mythical progenitor race who lived in the Ohio Valley in ancient times before 1200 BC.

The Great Serpent Mound from the Air

It is obvious that a date is thoroughly confused when it varies by as much as 3,000 years! Fortunately there are a few pieces of actual evidence associated with the mound. Adena graves were found and excavated near the Serpent Mound (Adena people were culturally and physically distinct from other peoples of the Ohio valley). Other Adena sites have revealed that these peoples built elaborate circular and winding earthworks and had a fascination with astronomical phenomena. The few pieces of Aedena art even seem to bear an aesthetic connection.

A Serpent Carved from Micah by the Adena or Hopewell

Frustratingly, carbon dating of charcoal taken from within the mound seems to indicate that it was built (or at least refurbished) long after the Adena culture declined and vanished. Conducted in the nineteen nineties, these tests indicated that parts (or all) of the Serpent Mound was built around 1070 AD.  The mound would thus have been made by people of the Fort Ancient Culture–but the Fort Ancient people do not seem to have evinced the same artistic and cosmological sensibilities as are reflected in the mound.  Additionally the mound was uncharacteristic of Fort Ancient culture in its lack of buried valuables.

A painting of Fort Ancient Civilization

Charcoal fragments are easily displaced by bioturbation and burrowing animals, so the carbon dating stands in question. The Fort Ancient people are known to have had contact with the intense pyramid building, city-dwelling (serpent worshipping) Mississippian cultures which were flourishing from Illinois down to the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps outside cultural influences lead to the mound’s construction. Furthermore the Fort Ancient people got their name from the fact that they lived on huge earthworks built by the vanished Hopewell people (who are also potential builders of the Great Serpent Mound). Perhaps the Fort Ancient tribes also renovated and re-purposed the Great Serpent Mound from older Adena or Hopewell builders.  We simply are not certain about who crafted the Great Serpent Mound–but it is to be hoped that further evidence will clarify the issue.

By now space enthusiast readers are probably chaffing at all of this human history: in the first paragraph I mentioned that the Great Serpent Mound is located in a meteor impact crater. Waymarking.com relates how the crater was discovered by scholars studying the Great Serpent Mound:

After the mound was discovered it was noticed that the geology of the surrounding area differed greatly from that found elsewhere in Ohio. John Locke, who explored the area in the 1830’s noted that “a region of no small extent had sunk down several hundred feet, producing faults, dislocations and upturnings of the layers of the rocks.” At the time he thought the he had discovered a “sunken mountain.” Some of the areas look like they have slid straight down while others have risen almost 1,000 feet straight up. Over time more evidence has been found. Eventually in the 1970’s, core samples were taken from the crater area. Scientists have found iridium at levels up to 10 times that normally found in the Earth’s crust, soot from what may be scorched limestone, deformed grains of sand, and quartz with microscopic fractures. In addition “shatter cones” have been found from the surface down similar to those found in Nevada at nuclear weapon test sites.  

Such features are the smoking gun evidence of meteor strikes and scientists have since concluded that the crater is about 250 million years old (which was approximately the same era the Paleozoic came to an end). Over a quarter of a billion years the crater has deformed greatly, to such an extent that it is not immediately recognizable (unlike more contemporary strike sites such as Lake Lonar).

From time to time, Ferrebeeekeeper indulges in a theme week.  Last Halloween featured Greek Monster Week, which highlighted the mythical spawn of Echidna, the great serpent mother of classical mythology.  Other theme weeks have included Tree Week and Small Furry Animals Week (which described the groundhog, the pika, the hyrax, the rabbit, and the wombat).  In order to combat malaise in the world construction markets, Ferrebeekeeper now presents Builders Week, five posts dedicated to great builders and the edifices they have created.  To start off the week, this post is dedicated to the beaver, the most accomplished and tireless builder of the animal kingdom–save perhaps for corals, termites, and humans.  Not only is the busy building beaver a keystone species to ecosystems around the Northern hemisphere, the furry rodent holds a key place in American history.

Eurasian Beavers (Castor fiber) photo by zooadmin

There are two species of beaver, the North American beaver (Castor Canadensis) and the Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber).  Although similar in appearance and habit, the two species are not genetically compatible and, when mated, do not produce living offspring.  Like the other giant rodents (capybara, nutrias, etc) beavers are semi aquatic and spend nearly as much time in the water as on land. In order to get around on land and water, beavers have webbed clawed feet and a flat, hairless paddle-like tail.  Their ears and nostrils clamp shut under water and a special membrane snaps over their eyes.  In order to keep warm in harsh northern winters, beavers have a layer of subcutaneous fat as well as a dense coat which they waterproof with oily castoreum (produced from a scent gland).  To round out their special features, beavers possess formidable upper and lower incisors with which they gnaw down trees. Adult beavers can weigh up to 30 Kilograms (about 60 pounds) and attain lengths of 1.3 meters (about 4 feet).

North American Beaver (Castor canadensis)

Beavers are intelligent animals which form close family bonds. According to the website Beaver: Wetlands and Wildlife:

Wildlife rehabilitators find beavers to be gentle, reasoning beings who enjoy playing practical jokes…. Beavers mate for life during their third year. Both parents care for the kits (usually one to four) that are born in the spring. The youngsters normally stay with their parents for two years, and the yearlings become babysitters for the new litter. After weaning, their favorite foods include water lily tubers, apples and the leaves and green bark (cambium) from aspen and other fast-growing trees.

Above all, the beaver is a masterful builder capable of cutting down large trees and moving them into place to serve as the foundation of a dam.  Reinforced with mud, and “planted” with living green shoots (which grow into the structures and thus add stability), beaver dams curve backwards against the current and are capable of holding immense volumes of water. Not only do beavers fell trees and create timberworks and earthworks, the creatures also excavate canals to provide a quick escape into the artificial lakes produced by their dam building. Within these lakes the beavers build lodges as escape shelters and winter homes.

Cross-section of a Beaver Lodge (DEA Picture Library/De Agostini Picture Library)

Such lodges can only be entered through hidden underwater entrances.  Crafted in sprawling mounds from logs, branches, and mud, the structures contain rooms for dying off and rooms for habitation.  Before winter the beavers coat their lodges with mud which freezes into a hard coat which makes the structures impervious to bears and wolverines. Beavers harvest tender shoots from their favorite softwoods and embed them deep in the mud of the coldest deepest part of their lakes.  In winter when the top of the lake is frozen, the animals can dive down and retrieve food from their underwater refrigerator.

The Largest Known Beaver Dam Photographed from Space

Beavers are ambitious in their work. To date the largest beaver dam discovered was over 850 meters in length (2,790 feet)–more than twice the width of Hoover Dam. Located in the forests of Alberta in Canada the huge dam was spotted from space via Google Earth.

The flooded lands formed by these dams provide a habitat for waterfowl, turtles, frogs, and other aquatic creatures (as well as protected nurseries for salmon fry). Additionally the dams alleviate flooding, allow the water table to recharge, and act as filters which soak up nitrogen and chemicals.  Some writers have (poetically?) described beaver dams and related lakes as the kidneys of a watershed. Since beaver dams are depositional environments, they silt up into rich bottom land when abandoned by their builders. This process is vital to forests and rivers in North America and Europe, where soft quick growing trees have evolved to deal with beavers’ appetite and industry. However beavers have caused disastrous flooding and environmental mayhem when furriers introduced them to areas (like Tierra del Fuega) where trees do not coppice.

The Fur Trade

Furriers have a long dark history with the beaver. Eurasian beavers were over-harvested to the point of near extinction by medieval trappers for their lustrous coats.  When the New World was being conquered and colonized by European nations, the valuable fur of North American beavers was one of the first economic incentives for exploration.  Trappers, traders, and runners-of-the-woods traveled deep into North America for the pelts of all manner of creatures: but they sought beaver hides foremost.  The dense fur was ideal for making the fashionable flamboyant hats of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (additionally beavers were classified as fish by the Catholic church and their flesh had special allure for hungry devout French trappers during Friday fasts). Competition between French and English fur traders for the pelts from the territory between the Alleghany Mountains and the Mississippi combined with long brewing national conflict to start the French and Indian War which in turn determined the course of civilization in North America.

Coppicing

Yesterday I wrote about beheading as a theme in gothic art.  It’s a chilling subject because if a person (or other vertebrate) is so fundamentally cut apart…well that’s pretty much it for him or her except for obsequies and obituaries. However this weakness is not universal among organisms.  Many invertebrates like worms, jellyfish, and sponges can be cut apart and continue to thrive. The animal world is not really the direct subject of today’s post though. Certain plants are particularly good at regenerating despite trauma.  A large number of common forest trees can be entirely cut down and still regrow from the stump. This fact formed the basis for coppicing, a practice of woodland management which involved harvesting certain trees by cutting them down for firewood or timber and then waiting for the living stump (which foresters call a stool) to regrow.

This method of forest harvesting/maintenance was most effective when different parts of a wooded land were kept at varying stages of regrowth.  Certain areas of trees would be cut back to ground level.  Other trees would be back to full mature size.  Most trees were somewhere in between.  The cycle depended on the location and the sort of trees being harvested but it was apparently a favorite way for communities to have their woods and burn them too.   Chestnut, hazel, hornbeam, beech, ash and oak were all frequently coppiced.  The process was extremely common during medieval times but seems to have fallen away as mercantilism (with its emphasis on shipbuilding) and industrialization took hold.

This is a shame because coppicing was not as environmentally devastating as clear cutting. To quote an online article at The Great Escape Treehouse Company:

Coppice management favours a wide range of wildlife, often of species adapted to open woodland. After cutting, the increased light allows existing woodland-floor vegetation such as bluebell, anemone and primrose to grow vigorously. Often brambles also grow around the stools. Woodpiles (if left in the coppice) encourage insects, such as beetles to come into an area. The open area is then colonised by many different animals such as nightingale, nightjar and fritillary butterflies. As the coup grows up, the canopy closes and it becomes unsuitable for these animals again but, in an actively managed coppice, there is always another recently cut coup nearby, and the populations therefore move around, following the coppice management.

Forests that can survive and thrive despite coppicing probably evolved to do so in conjunction with animals.  Beaver are infamous for cutting down forests both as food and as building materials.  Deer and related artiodactyls are also hard on forests (though not like elephants—African and Indian trees must be hardy indeed).

Woods which never had to deal with any of these animals are susceptible to vanishing when tree-cutting invaders appear.  When beavers were introduced to Patagonia they caused an ecological crisis, both from flooding caused by their dams and from cutting down trees with their teeth.   The local trees could not survive coppicing and quickly vanished before the onslaught of the industrious rodents.

The Feast of Herod (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1533. Oil on limewood)

Every artist has favorite themes which they revisit again and again throughout their life.  Rembrandt painted and repainted his own face as he went from young student to successful portraitist to sad old man. Watteau’s works often feature lovers in the lingering twilight.  Picasso was drawn again and again to the Minotaur whom he painted variously as a beast, a poet, a sensualist, a murderer, and a murder victim.  To some degree each artist can be swiftly summarized by his or her favorite images.  These artistic leitmotifs are the touchstone to an artist’s life and work.  When looking over an artist’s entire canon, one can watch certain themes wax and wane or see how the artist’s favorite subjects overlap each other.  It is rather like the category cloud to the left: except played out over a lifetime and with images only (indeed, when I finally launch my art website you can compare how my blog’s categories match those of my painting).

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1515, oil on canvas)

My favorite gothic painter, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), had several recurrent themes. Cranach’s preferred subject was sumptuous young maidens with triangular faces who are wearing nothing but a few pieces of jewelry and the occasional wreath or transparent veil (beautiful naked people top nearly every artist’s topic list: but each artist brings his or her own unique twist!). Cranach also enjoyed painting Adam and Eve and their fall from paradise.  Like me, he loved to paint animals and his works are a veritable menagerie (only a handful of his canvases lack creatures, most notably paintings in which…well we’ll get to it below). On a darker note he painted women stabbing themselves: there are several “Lucretia” paintings in his oeuvre.  Cranach was from Saxony and the Saxon landscape of vivid forests punctuated by fortresses perched on crags is another major component of his work.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes (Lucas Cranach the Elder, c.1530, Oil on wood)

Most disturbing to modern sentiments, Cranach loved to paint beheadings or, more commonly, pretty women carrying severed heads. There are so many paintings like this by Cranach that it is hard to keep them separate (so please forgive any mistakes or misattributions in the following grisly gallery).

It is unclear why Cranach loved this subject so much.  Many painters have portrayed the subject of Judith and Holofernes–which speaks to nationalism, bravery, and feminism.  Even more artists are captivated by the death of John the Baptist with its martyred religious hero and its wanton villainess (whose incest-tinged struggle so strangely mirrors the travails of the goddess Ishtar).   A fair number of medieval artists painted beheadings (which were after all much more common events back then) and Théodore Géricault sometimes painted heads fresh from the guillotine.

Salome (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530, Oil on Wood)

But nobody that I know of carried this obsession as far as Cranach. Perhaps he is evoking the ancient theme of death and the maiden: the beautiful young women in their finery with their unknowable expressions certainly contrast dramatically with the slack ruined horror of the dead heads.  Cranach lived in a dark era when terrible deeds were common: these beheading paintings, like his symbolic masterpiece Melancholia might speak to the grim state of Europe as it plunged towards all-out religious war. Or maybe Cranach had a dark and troubled side. Was he afraid of women? Did he revel in the charnel house? Art provides a funhouse mirror of the human soul and who knows what monstrous yearnings can be spotted wriggling in that mysterious edifice?

Salome with the Head of St John the Baptist (Lucas Cranach the Elder, ca.1530s)

Judith with the Head of Holofernes and a Servant (Lucas Cranach the Elder)

Judith with the Head of Holofernes, (Lucas Cranach the Elder, c.1530)

Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist (Lucas Cranach the Elder, oil on wood)

Judith with the Head of Holofernes (Lucas Cranach the Elder, ca.1520-1537, oil on wood)

Judith With The Head Of Holofernes (Lucas Cranach, 1530)

Maybe a better question is why I am posting about this facet of Cranach’s art.  Hmm, well for one thing I love Cranach’s painting and, even after writing about Melancholia earlier,  I wanted to address his work further.  Also despite their ghastly subject, these strange paintings are singularly beautiful and dramtic: I wanted to draw your attention into their haunted depths.  The fact that an incredibly talented painter spent nearly a decade painting nothing but pretty young women holding severed heads is worth remarking on for its own right(also I have also always thought that Freud might have something with his theories of Eros and Thanatos). At a more primitive level, I hoped some sixteenth century violence and horror might drum up ratings during the summer doldrums.  Most of all I want to use the paintings as memento mori (and I believe this was Cranach’s most pronounced intention also). Cranach and John the Baptist are long dead and turned to dust. Such is the fate of all flesh, but you are still alive and it’s a lovely June day.  Stop looking at troubling art and go revel in the sunshine!

Obdurodon--A Miocene Platypus which flourished 15 to 20 million years ago

Ferrebeekeeper has an abiding interest in monotremes including both the poisonous platypus and the enigmatic echidnas (with their advanced frontal cortex).  But sadly that is about it as far as it goes for the extant egg-laying mammals: there are only two living families of monotremes (with a scanty total of five species split between them).  To learn more about these animals one must turn to paleontology.  Unfortunately even in the fossil record, monotremes are extremely rare.

Based on genetic evidence, biologists believe that the first monotremes made their advent in the history of life about 220 million years ago during the Triassic era; however the earliest known fossil monotreme so far discovered was a fossil jaw from the early Cretacious era about 120 million years ago.  The bones belonged to Steropodon galmani, which seems to have been a beaked swimmer about 50 cm (20 inches) long which lived in Australia.  Steropodon was apparently a giant among Cretacious mammals–most of which seem to have been shrew-sized (so as to better avoid attention from their contemporaries, the dinosaurs). Reconstructions of Steropodon all seem to resemble the platypus, and most paleantologists would probably concede that it was a sort of platypus—as apparently were other Mesozoic fossil monotremes such as  Kollikodon and Teinolophos (platypuses and these platypus-like forbears are called the Ornithorhynchida).  During the Cretaceous era, the land which is now Australia was in the South Polar regions of the world (approximately where Antarctica is today).  Although temperatures were much warmer during the Cretaceous, monotremes must still have been able to deal with terrible cold: it is believed that the extremely efficient temperature control and the deep hibernation mechanism which these animals continue to display first evolved during that time.

An artist's reconstruction of Steropodon

The only monotreme fossil which was not found in Australia was from another platypus-like creature named Monotrematus sudamericanum.  The creature’s remains were found in a Patagonian rock formation from the Paleocene era (the era just after the fall of the dinosaurs). Monotremes probably flourished across South America and Antarctica, as well as on Australia, but evidence is still scarce. There are most likely many interesting monotreme fossils throughout Antarctica, but, for some reason, paleontologists have not yet discovered them. Additionally, unlike the marsupials (which still quietly flourish throughout South America), the poor monotremes were wiped out on that continent.

Another artist's vision of Steropodon galmani--Notice how peeved the poor creature looks!

Last week I wrote about the Eocene era and the great proliferation of mammalian types which took place during that warm and fecund time.  Although most families of mammals alive today first appeared on the scene during the Eocene, obviously the monotremes were already incredibly ancient.  The Eocene does however seem to have been significant time for the monotreme order: the aquatic platypuses were apparently the ancestral monotremes, and echidnas (the Tachyglossidae) probably split off from them during the Eocene.  Unfortunately we have no Eocene monotreme fossils so this conclusion is based on genetic evidence and on the suffusion of Miocene monotremes which include representatives of both Ornithorhynchida and  Tachyglossidae.  Some of these latter creatures are spectacular, like Zaglossus hacketti the giant echidna from the Pleistocene which was about the size of a ram! As Australia dried up so did the monotremes and now there is only one species of platypus left…

The Giant Echidna (Zaglossus hacketti) which lived until 20,000 years ago...

Well, that’s a cursory history of the monotremes based on what we know.  I wish I could tell you more but unfortunately there is no fossil evidence concerning the first half of the order.  Sometimes I like to imagine the first monotremes—which were probably clunky, furry platypus-looking characters with an extra hint of iguana thrown in. These creatures fished in the alien rivers of the Triassic world in a time when dinosaurs and pterosaurs were also still evolving.

The White Crown and Red Crown of Ancient Egypt

The White Crown of Upper Egypt, known as the Hedjet, traces its roots deep into prehistory.  The first representations of the tapered bulb-shaped headdress occur in Nubia around 3500–3200 BC.  It is unclear how the White Crown subsequently became the preferred headdress of Egyptian (as opposed to Nubian) rulers–perhaps Nubians conquered Upper Egypt or vice versa early in prehistory–but the crown appears frequently in predynastic iconography from Upper Egypt.  The white crown was an emblem of Hedjet, the white vulture goddess of Upper Egypt and she is sometimes portrayed wearing it.  Osiris, lord of the underworld is also frequently portrayed in the white crown (albeit in a special priestly version adorned with feathers).

King Narmer wearing the White Crown (busy smiting) from the Narmer Palette (ca. 31st century BC)

It is unclear when the Red Crown of Lower Egypt (the Deshret) first came into use but it seems to have been a familiar device by the era of the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt around the 31st century BC and it is entirely possible that it traces its origin to some point centuries before that.  It is unfortunate that we don’t know more about the origin of the Red Crown because its form is meant to mimic that of a honey bee with the strange red wire curl representing the bee’s proboscis.  A bee’s sting was nothing compared with the Red Crown’s other animal association: Wadjet the cobra goddess of Lower Egypt is often portrayed wearing the red crown (which looks very fetching on her hooded head).

King Narmer wearing the Red Crown (pictured with his eponymous catfish and chisel) from the Narmer Palette ca. 31st century BC

The two crowns are first seen together on the Narmer palette (from the 31st century BC) which commemorates the unification of Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt under King Narmer of Upper Egypt. Subsequent to the unification of the two lands, the two crowns are also sometimes shown unified as the  Pschent, the Double Crown of Egypt.

Thee Pschent, the Double Crown of Egypt, revered as the symbol of absolute kingship for 3000 years

Although both the White Crown and the Red Crown are well known images which reoccur throughout ancient Egypt’s 3000 year history, archaeologists and excavators have never found a single example of either one.  We don’t even know how they were made.  It has been speculated that the original white crown may have been woven of green papyrus and the original red crown may have been made of copper, but this is only speculation.  They may have been constructed of felt or leather or something else entirely.

The Apostate Pharaoh Akhenaten wearing the Blue Battle Crown ca. 1340 BC

There was a third crown worn by pharaohs, the Blue Crown known as Khepresh.  The Blue Crown was originally a battle crown and may have actually doubled as a helmet.  It was blue leather or cloth with gold disks. The first pharaoh depicted wearing the blue crown was Amenhotep III of the XVIII dynasty (who ruled from 1380’s to the 1360’s).  The Blue Crown became popular during Egypt’s age of empire when some pharaohs were always depicted with the battle crown, but it fell from favor after the conquest of Egypt by Cushites during the XXV dynasty.

Ancient Egypt was divided into two parts: 1) the black lands which compromised the fertile valley of the Nile where almost every Egyptian lived and; 2) the red lands–the burning deserts on both sides of the Nile which were virtually uninhabited but which provided gold, copper, stone, and other precious raw materials vital to Egypt’s interest.  The red lands were divided into the Arabian Desert which stretched away east of the Nile to the Red Sea and the Libyan Desert which lay westward and into the trackless Sahara.  The black lands were also divided in two: Lower Egypt consisted of the lush green swamps of the Delta in the north (this territory runs from the 30th parallel to the Mediterranean); Upper Egypt, stretched from Lower Egypt up through the Nile valley into the higher altitudes (hence the name) and terminated at the southern cataracts where the lands of Nubia began.

Egyptian goddess Wadjet (painting from the tomb of Nefertari, ca 1270 BC)

This is important background information for today’s post which concerns the cobra goddess Wadjet and tomorrow’s post about the three crowns of Egypt.  As you may recall from previous posts about the rainbow serpent and Nuwa, I have an abiding affection for snake gods.   Egypt actually had several snake deities but the most important was Wadjet, the ancient cobra goddess who served as protector and patron deity of Lower Egypt.  Originally Wadjet was a local deity of Per-Wadjet, a venerable city on the Sebennytic arm of the Nile (one of several branches which the Nile takes through the Delta).  Per-Wadjet developed from a truly ancient pre-dynastic city of Deb (which in turn came from a Paleolithic settlement over ten thousand years old) and was the sight of a famous oracle renowned throughout Lower Egypt. The Greeks later christened the city as “Buto” and it has been surmised that Wadjet’s oracle may have played some role in the Greek worship of serpent oracles.

Wadjet

When Menes (whom modern scholars increasingly identify as Narmer, the catfish king) united Upper Egypt with Lower Egypt to become the first pharaoh, the culture of the Lower Egypt was largely subsumed, but Wadjet’s role expanded greatly. Wadjet came to represent all of Lower Egypt.  In such a guise she was one of the deities who protected the monarchy and the pharaoh. The symbol of Wadjet was the uraeus, the stylized upright spitting cobra which Pharaohs wore on their brow. But despite her royal trappings, Wadjet also remained the goddess of women in childbirth, who were under her direct protection.

Amenhotep II wearing the Uraeus (painting, ca. 1400 BC)

Wadjet literally means “the papyrus colored one” or “the green one” which was an appropriate designation for the goddess of the Nile Delta.  Our picture of ancient Egypt is often built around the desert, but the Nile Delta is a wet region today and it was even more so during the age of the pharaohs. Great shallow wetlands were filled with papyrus and reeds, which in turn hosted countless fish and waterfowl.  Crocodiles and hippos flourished there in ancient times (as did poisonous snakes).  As with most Egyptian deities, Wadjet’s form was depicted in many different ways:  sometimes she was a cobra or a snake with a woman’s torso.  Other times she appeared as a woman with a snake’s head, a two-headed snake, or a woman wearing the uraeus.  Wadjet was associated with the Milky Way–the primal serpent.  In later dynasties she was elided with sundry other gods and goddesses most notably the goddess Bast.  Wadjet-Bast was a very fearsome deity combining the attributes of a lion and a cobra!

Wadjet as a lion goddess (Carving, ca. 8th century BC)

Wadjet was not merely a deity of this world. The ancient Egyptians were profoundly interested in their place in the afterlife and Wadjet was of critical importance there. To quote webcalf.com, “In the Book of the Dead, Wadjet protects the souls of the deceased by destroying their enemies in the Underworld.”  An ancient myth about Wadjet shows her foremost as a divine protector. Her sacred city Per Wadjet was the location where Isis gave birth to Horus. Set, the evil god of the red desert sought to destroy mother and child, but Wadjet wove stalks of papyrus into a screen and hid the pair beneath this blind deep in her marshes.

A gold amulet of Wadjet (from Tutankhamun's tomb, ca 1320 BC)

Wadjet had a twin sister, the vulture goddess Nekhbet who was the protector and patron of Upper Egypt and was shown as a white vulture. White vultures were symbolic of purity because ancient Egyptians (incorrectly) believed they were all female and reproduced without males. Nekbeht is a fascinating figure in her own right (but I am writing about snake gods—you can go start your own vulture god blog). The two sister goddesses were symbolic of all of Egypt and they frequently appear together and were worshiped as the “two ladies.” Additionally Wadjet was goddess of the red crown of Lower Egypt and Nekhbet was the goddess of the white crown, but that is a subject for tomorrow.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

June 2011
M T W T F S S
 12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
27282930