You are currently browsing the monthly archive for October 2011.

This blog has examined and analyzed many Deities of the Underworld, but we have always shied away from the principle dark deity of the three Abrahamic faiths, namely the Devil (aka Lucifer, Iblis, Shaitan, The Antagonist, The Prince of Lies, etc.). However if there were ever a day to cast an inquisitive eye on the Lord of Hell, it is surely Halloween, that strange day when paganism and Christianity mix and the veil between this world and the next is thin.

Actually, one of the reasons I have avoided writing about this dark deity is because even though the devil might be a familiar figure in the popular imagination, he is only a sketchy presence in actual scripture.  In the Masoretic Text, the holy book of Judaism (which roughly equates with the Old Testament), the Devil never appears by name–although the books do contain a cunning serpent (in Genesis), a fallen star, and an adversary.  The New Testament Gospels feature a more familiar devil–who tempts Jesus, promotes evil, and lays waste to the world–but the books never describe this anti-savior except as a tempter, a dragon, a dark prince, or an ancient snake. In the Quran, Allah created the evil jinn Iblis out of smokeless fire to cast evil suggestions into the heart of men.  Hmm, this is theologically interesting–but where does the fallen angel with the red skin, the horns, the barbed tail, the dapper van dyke beard, and the goat’s hooves come from?

The apocryphal scriptures, those strange half-holy books which were omitted from the Bible, provide more of the story.  The Book of Enoch gives us the story of the rebellion and the fall of Heave’s brightest and most beautiful angel.   This is the source of Milton’s Satan, however the text does little to describe the appearance of Lucifer.

The Devil Sowing Mushrooms (Jacob de Gehyn II, 1565-1629)

Gothic paintings from the middle age shows us demons and dark winged beings (you can find old posts about such hellspawn here and here).  Sometimes the devil appears as a winged monstrosity or a sort of dark bat-like angel, but he does not appear in the guise which is so popularly known now–the red man with the horns, the trident, and the hooves.

In fact the familiar portrayal of the red devil is comparatively recent—perhaps even modern–but the imagery used is based on the ancient Greco-Roman deity of Pan.  Pan, the horned half-goat shepherd was a god of nature, fertility, and goat-herding in the classical world.  Because of his licentiousness, bestial appearance, and paganism he was a longstanding target of the Christian church.  In the nineteenth and twentieth century Pan became a focus of neopagan art and letters.  Christian reaction to Pan’s resurgence resulted in his image being translated to that of Satan.  The red color seems to have been thrown in for good measure.

Also a Corporate Shill

It’s clear the devil is a complicated figure whose attributes, appearance, and meaning have changed greatly depending on the time and the place.  We’ll get back to him–the underworld god of the world’s great monotheistic faiths–but right now it’s time to leave theorizing about devils, demons, and spirits behind and to go out and join them.
Happy Halloween!

Dactylanthus taylorii

In grade school biology class we learned that plants use photosynthesis to manufacture their own food from light, water, and air.  In almost every familiar ecosystem, the plants are somewhere down there at the bottom, dutifully turning out food for every herbivore (and thereby ultimately for everything).  It makes the green kingdom seems so virtuous. The plants I wrote about this week as “underworld plants” are no exception–they provide us with nutrition, beauty, drugs, a way to get rid of lackluster emperors, even natural-looking color for unusually pallid shrimps! And it all comes from air, water, and sun.

However the grade school biology explanation does not provide a full picture.  There are indeed plants out there that do not pull their full weight.  Like a big dirty city, the plant kingdom has its own underworld filled with creepers and stranglers and suckers—and at the very bottom there are outright parasites.  Some plants do not “make their own food” and indeed do not contain chlorophyll at all.  They leach nourishment out of other vegetation.  One of the strangest and darkest of these parasitic plants is Dactylanthus taylorii, the Hades flower, which comes from the forest undergrowth of New Zealand.  Naming it after Hades might be unduly generous—the plant should probably be called the cancer flower.

Dactylanthus taylorii: close-up of male flowers (Photo by Helen Jonas)

Dactylanthus taylorii is the only species in the genus Dactylanthus and the taxonomical relationships of that family to other plants are anything but clear.  The Hades plant grows on the roots of various indigenous trees.  It has not roots and no leaves but is connected to its host via a stem.  The tree tissue where this stem attaches to the host becomes horribly distorted into a weird burl-like structure.  Plants can be male or female and they are most often pollinated by the lesser short-tailed bat, (Mystacina tuberculata) (a strange and evocative creature which the native Maori call by the name of “Pekapeka-tou-poto”).  The flowers produce a nectar which smells like mammalian sweat–which apparently attracts the bats which then carry pollen between male and female plants.

The Lesser Short-tailed Bat pollinating Dactylanthus taylorii

Like many parasites, the Hades flower is cryptic—it makes itself difficult to find.  Because of this characteristic, there are aspects of the flower’s life and lineage which remain unknown.  However the modern world does not seem to suit Dactylanthus taylorii : botanists estimate there are only a few thousand left in the wild.  The plant’s decline is exacerbated by the fact that collector’s value the freaky wooden excrescences which they create.  In the future the hades flower may indeed exist only in the hereafter.

Mictlancihuatl devouring the living

The Aztec goddess of death was Mictecacihuatl.  According to myth she was once alive countless ages ago—a member of an ancient pre-human race of beings who lived when the world was new.  But her time in the living world was short since she was sacrificed to the underworld as an infant. After her death, she grew to adulthood as a magical skeleton deity of immense power.  She has lived through countless cycles as a goddess of bones and death and the dead, rising ultimately to become queen of the underworld.  One of her foremost duties as the ruler of the dark realm is to guard the skeletal remains of extinct earlier races.  In the past Mictecacihuatl failed in her duties and Xolotl, god of sickness and lightning, stole one of the sacred corpses of those who lived long before–which the gods of the sky then fashioned into living modern human beings.  Now Mictecacihuatl must also guard the bones of dead humans, for she believes that our remains could be used by capricious sky gods to build an even more ruthless group of alien new beings.

altar de muertos

Wow! Aztec religion really does not hold back on the bizarre, the macabre, and the unfathomable–but what does all this have to do with flowers of the underworld?  Well, it turns out that Mictecacihuatl has a weakness for flowers.  The brilliant yellow cempasúchil–today known as flor de muertos–was sacred to her, and Aztecs believed the smell of the blossoms could wake the souls of the dead and bring them temporarily back to earth for the great autumn festival in their honor.  Huge altars laden with food were erected and festooned with the flowers.  It was one of the most important traditions of the Aztecs, and even after the Spanish conquest, the tradition continued. Despite the long efforts of the Spanish church to eradicate the festival of the dead it  lingers to this day (though now as a church holiday), celebrated on November 2nd as Dia De los Muertos, or “day of the dead”.  The graveyards are filled with yellow cempasúchils which for a time reign supreme among flower markets throughout Mexico.  Along with candy, jaunty toy skeletons, and liquor, the flor de muertosare an inextricable part of this festive time.

And what sort of flower is the cempasúchil, which has so much power over the spirits of the dead and Mictecacihuatl, goddess of the underworld herself?  The botanists call it Tagetes erecta, one of about 75 members of the marigold family– those omnipresent orange and yellow flowers known to every American schoolchild!  The English name for the flower of the dead is the Mexican marigold.  The plants grow wild in a belt running across central Mexico.

(Photo credit should read Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

In the preconquest Meso-American world, the flowers were valuable and were used as a dye, an antibacterial, a foodstuff, and a skin-wash/cosmetic. Additionally, when planted with maize crops, marigolds in general (and the cempasúchil specifically) prevent nematode damage.  Even today, there are industrial uses for the cempasúchils and they are also used as ingredients in perfumes, salads, and as food colorings.  In agriculture, extracts of the plant are added to chicken feed (to give the yolks their yellow color) and are used to enhance the color of shrimp and other edible crustaceans. The other fascinating plants we have examined this week—the asphodel, the devil’s hand (another plant sacred to the Aztecs!), and the deadly aconites are not grown or produced in any quantities remotely approaching the enormous annual cempasúchil harvest. Cempasúchils have benefited from their association with the dead–they are a huge success.  The little yellow Mexican marigold is one of the most popular flowers in the world.

The Common Monkshood (Aconitum napellus)

This week’s theme on Ferrebeekeeper is “Flowers of the Underworld.” So far we have featured a ghostly-looking flower which is actually edible and a demonic looking flower which is actually medicinal—hardly plants from the depths of hell.  Today therefore we are proceeding in a scarier direction and featuring a flower of delicate beauty…which is profoundly poisonous.  Aconitum is a genus of about 300 flowers belonging to the buttercup family (a family of flowering plants, notable for the number of toxic plants therein, which has been extant since the Cretaceous). The aconites are hardy perennial flowers which grow throughout the Northern Hemisphere but largely prefer mountain meadows and rich cool forests.  The plants have many common names which range from whimsical to hair-raising: “blue rocket”, “monkshood”, “wolfsbane”, “woman’s bane”, “devil’s helmet”, “mourning bride”, “Hecateis herba” (which means “the herb of Hecate”, to whom the aconites are sacred) and so on.  All aconite plants are extremely toxic.  You should not eat them, touch them, or even write about them without taking precautions. Seriously—Pliny the Elder (absurdly) wrote that the smell of aconite could kill a mouse from a substantial distance! When something is so toxic that it hoodwinked the greatest naturalist of the Roman era, you know it is really a fraught topic (although, frankly, Pliny made some other errors as well).

Aconite plants have dark green leaves in a spiral pattern and a radish-like root.  In the wild they live in rich soils, preferring those which are moist but well drained, however they can be cultivated easily in a variety of locations.  The real glories of aconites are their flowers, which are lovely but difficult to describe–the tall upright stems support numerous blossoms each of which has five sepals.  The posterior sepal is in the shape of a cylindrical helmet or hood from classical antiquity (the source of many of the aconites’ common names).  The most common aconite in Europe is the common monkshood (Aconitum napellus) which is known from its brilliant blue-purple flowers and from endless mystery novels, but other species look somewhat different.  For example, the yellow wolfsbane (Aconitum anthora) lives in the Alps and bears pretty yellow blossoms.

The Yellow Wolfbane (Aconitum anthora)

Since I am an avid flower gardener and do not have children, dogs, or livestock, I decided to plant monkshood in my old garden.  Unfortunately, for all of their reputed hardiness, the flowers were no match for the toxic soil and the dreadful machinations of the Norway maple.  Perhaps their failure was a good thing.  Because aconites are so toxic, I became prey to paranoid thoughts that agile children would somehow steal into my (walled) garden and eat the (unappealing tasting) plants.

The flower I planted--Bicolor Monkshood (Aconitum x cammarum, var. Eleanor & Stainless Steel)

My paranoia was not groundless–aconites contain virulent neurotoxins. Inchem.org describes the mechanism of aconite poisoning in the typically bland language of pharmacology stating, “Aconite alkaloids activate the sodium channel and have widespread effects on the excitable membranes of cardiac, neural and muscle tissue.” In translation this means that alkaloid compounds found in all parts of the plant (but particularly the root) are potent neurotoxins which disrupt neural and nerve-to-muscle signals and usually prove fatal by stopping the heart. Because it is so dangerous, aconite has a substantial place in history.  Chinese soldiers used the poison for their arrows and Greeks poured it into water supplies as an early form of bio-warfare. The roots were most infamous as a gastronomically administered stealth poison. Emperor Claudius was probably killed by aconite poisoning, as too was Emperor John I Tzimisces.  These emperors were joined over the years by numerous other victims from all walks of life.  Aconite has also been used as a medicine (and still is part of Chinese traditional homeopathy), but since it is so easy to kill patients with a slight overdose, Western doctors abandoned compounds derived from the plant as soon as other subtler neurological drugs were found.

Aconitum ferox (Dr. J. Bhunia)

Aconite flowers have an equally dramatic place in myth and literature.  According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, aconite plants first came into the world when Hercules dragged Cerberus, the monstrous canine offspring of Echidna, up from the underworld into the world of life.   The poison drool–or “lip-froth” as it is written in my translation–fell from the hellhound’s three gnashing mouths, landed on the ground in Scythia, and transformed into aconite flowers. Ovid recounts the tale as an aside while recounting how the poison was a particular favorite of Medea (the citation is Ovid, Metamorphoses 7. 412 if you want to read the dramatic passage for yourself).

Medea (Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys, painted 1866-68)

It was not just classical poets who wrote of the plant.  In Ulysses, Bloom’s father died from a (deliberate?) overdose of aconite which he was self-administering as a homeopathic remedy for neuralsia/depression.  Presumably the character failed to heed the counsel of Keats, who prominently alluded to aconite in the first stanza of his Ode on Melacholy which, in the second stanza, counsels the reader how to avoid despair through appreciation of the natural world, study of classical values, and delight in love.  On the other hand, the third and last stanza of the poem seems to indicate that sadness is a requisite part of mortality which allows us to savor beauty, love, and joy—indeed by counter-example melancholy guides us towards these transcendent (but transient) feelings.  Keat’s complex message steps far beyond thoughts of flowers and the underworld so I will leave you to read the entire poem on your own.  Here, however is the first stanza, entreating you away from aconite (and from other forms of self harm).  It goes without saying, gentle reader, that I am entirely of a mind with Keats:

NO, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist

Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;

Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kist

By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;

Make not your rosary of yew-berries,

Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be

Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl

A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;

For shade to shade will come too drowsily,

And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.

The Flower of Chiranthodendron pentadactylon

The Devil’s Hand Tree (Chiranthodendron pentadactylon) is an unusual evergreen tree from the cloud forests of Central America (Guatemala and Mexico).  The tree grows up to 12 meters (40 feet) tall and has distinctive oversized leaves with ruddy metallic veins and fuzzy undersides.

Chiranthodendron is Greek for “hand-flowering tree” and pentadactylon means five fingered (which makes this tree sound like a grabby pterosaur or an early fish).  There is good reason for the name though—as the common name indicates the distinctive flowers of this tropical tree look like demon hands.  The five blood red stamens are shaped like clawed fingers–each of which has a double row of saffron yellow pollen running along it. As the flowers fade they curl into claws.

The pollinators of the tree are nectar sipping bats and perching birds (particularly orioles) which drink sweet nectar from the bowl-like petals beneath the stamen “claw.”  Once the flower is fertilized it forms an extremely hard seed.

The tree was apparently revered by the Aztecs who knew it from a single grand specimen which grew alone in Toluca (in the Valley of Mexico).  The lone tree was famous and venerated.  Healers used parts of it to make medicine, but, despite—or because of—their respect, the Aztecs annually harvested every single flower off the tree to prevent it from germinating and producing others of its kind. However there were rumors about offshoots hidden in royal gardens (and in the private gardens of the tree’s tenders).

Extracts from the Devil’s Hand tree are reputed to have antimicrobial properties and to serve as heart stimulants—but I lack conclusive scientific evidence for these assertions.  If you want to stimulate your heart you had probably find some other means of doing so.

Wild Asphodels (photo by Paul & Pam Markwell)

Asphodels are a genus (Asphodelus) of small to mid-size herbaceous perennial flowers.   Originally native to southern and central Europe, the flowers now grow in other temperate parts of the world thanks to flower gardeners who planted them for their white to off-white to yellow flowers and their eerie grayish leaves.  These leaves have long been used to wrap burrata, a fresh Italian cheese made of cow’s milk, rennet and cream—when the asphodel leaves dried out the cheese was known to be past its prime.  The bulblike roots of asphodel are edible and were eaten by the poor during classical antiquity and the middle ages until the potato was introduced to Europe and supplanted asphodel completely.

Asphodel tenufolius

This somewhat pedestrian wildflower is one of the most famous plants connected to the Greco-Roman underworld.  Homer is the first poet (whose works still survive) to give a lengthy description of the realm of Hades and the asphodel is mentioned growing everwhere in a great field in the middle of the underworld.  To quote the University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology website:

Largely a grey and shadowy place, the Underworld was divided into three parts. Most souls went to the “Plains of Asphodel,” an endless stretch of twilit fields covered with grey and ghostly asphodel flowers, which the dead ate. A very few chosen by the gods spent their afterlife in the “Fields of Elysium,” a happier place of breezy meadows. But if the deceased had committed a crime against society, his/her soul went to Tartarus to be punished by the vengeful Furies until his debt to society was paid, whereupon he/she was released to the Plains of Asphodel…. Souls of the dead were only a pale reflection of their former personality, often portrayed as twittering, bat-like ghosts, physically diaphanous and insubstantial.

The gray and ghostlike nature of the asphodel plant and its wistful off-white flower may have suggested something funereal to the ancient Greeks.  Or possibly the plant’s connection with the afterlife was a hand-me-down from an earlier culture.  In fact here is a learned and comprehensive scholarly essay which posits that the asphodel had pre-Greek religious significance.

Whatever its history, the Greeks also regarded the plant as sacred to Persephone/Proserpine, who is frequently portrayed wearing it or picking it, as well as to other chthonic deities.  Greeks and Romans planted asphodel on tombs both for its melancholy beauty and as a sort of food offering to the dead.  So the cemeteries of classical antiquity were lugubrious but pretty places filled with ghostly flowers.

In western literature and art asphodel remains a symbol of mourning, death, and loss.  William Carlos Williams made the plant the central focus of his poem “Asphodel, the Greeny Flower” which agonizes over the ambiguities of the next world (which seems to be a land of oblivion) juxtaposed with the burning regrets of this life.  Here is a poignant fragment:

Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
		like a buttercup
			upon its branching stem-
save that it's green and wooden-
		I come, my sweet,
			to sing to you.
We lived long together
		a life filled,
			if you will,
with flowers.  So that
		I was cheered
			when I came first to know
that there were flowers also
		in hell.
			Today
I'm filled with the fading memory of those flowers
		that we both loved,
				even to this poor
colorless thing-
		I saw it
			when I was a child-
little prized among the living
		but the dead see,
			asking among themselves:
What do I remember
		that was shaped
			as this thing is shaped?
while our eyes fill
		with tears.
			Of love, abiding love
it will be telling
		though too weak a wash of crimson
				colors it
to make it wholly credible.
		There is something
				something urgent
I have to say to you
		and you alone
			but it must wait
while I drink in
		the joy of your approach,
				perhaps for the last time.

The Triumph of Death (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1562, oil on panel)

Next week, as a lead-up to Halloween, Ferrebeekeeper will feature a week’s worth of dark harrowing spooky posts about…um, flowers.  However, just in case botany, herblore, and gardening are not terrifying enough for you, today’s disturbing subject should provide ample horror to fill up your Halloween nightmares [He isn’t kidding, this is a grim subject and squeamish readers should go look at kitten pictures-ed].  I first encountered this subject when I was looking at The Triumph of Death, an epic painting by Pieter Bruegel which portrays an army of skeletons erasing all life from a sweeping sixteenth century landscape.  The painting is a bravura combination of surrealist fantasy and extreme harrowing realism: the abstract and alien wave of death is sweeping away the realistically painted living humans .  Among Bruegel’s most nightmarish inventions are the high torture wheels dotted around the landscape which feature tiny sad carcasses suspended and spinning in the sky–except it turns out this was not some invention of Bruegel’s dark imagination.  The Catherine wheel or breaking wheel was in fact a common form of capital punishment from late antiquity up through the early modern era.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1598, oil on canvas)

The Catherine wheel was named after Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a beautiful (and probably fictional) martyr who spurned the courtship of Emperor Maximinus and was then sentenced to die on the wheel. Fortunately Jesus intervened on her behalf. As soon as Catherine touched the wheel it broke to apart and the Romans were forced to merely behead her (sometimes I wonder if divine intervention could be more wholehearted in these sorts of stories).

The college shield of St. Catharine's College, Cambridge. Is a torture wheel their mascot?

Catherine’s wheel appears on a great many heraldic devices including the crest of Catharine’s College Cambridge and the coat of arms of Goa.  With its metal spikes and hooks it looks rather different from the wagon wheels in Bruegel’s artworks and it seems like it might be a more fanciful interpretation of the actual torture device.  Additionally Catherine’s wheel has given its name to a jaunty spinning firework!

Weeee!

The breaking wheel as historically known was a rather crude implement of torture.  It was reserved for the lowest and most debased criminals—commoners who had killed their families, committed murder during the course of theft, betrayed their lords, or otherwise outraged the community with excessive crimes.  The condemned prisoner was lashed to a large stout wagon wheel (or to a sturdy restraint if the available wagon wheel looked fragile) and then an executioner broke all of the prisoner’s limbs and joints with a cudgel or metal bar. Then the broken limbs were secured to (or threaded through) the spokes of the wheel and the prisoner was hoisted into the sky atop a pole. If the criminal was a gifted briber or a likeable person, the executioner would make sure the beating was fatal. If however the victim was despised or came upon a particularly sadistic torturer (what are the odds of that?) he would probably end up hopelessly maimed but still alive to contend with dehydration and birds. In fact there is an unhelpful looking bird perching on the wheel in the corner of that Bruegel painting (see the detail below).

This grisly punishment was popular throughout Northern Europe during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and early eighteenth centuries (although apparently Russian overuse of the practice during the Great Northern War rather turned people off of it). The breaking wheel lingered for long enough in continental Europe that it dark left shadows lying across many different languages.  To quote Wikipedia:

In Dutch, there is the expression opgroeien voor galg en rad, “to grow up for the gallows and wheel,” meaning to come to no good. It is also mentioned in the Chilean expression morir en la rueda, “to die at the wheel,” meaning to keep silent about something. The Dutch phrases ik ben geradbraakt, literally “I have been broken on the wheel,” the German expression sich gerädert fühlen, “to feel wheeled,” and the Swedish verb rådbråka (from German radbrechen), “to break on the wheel,” all carry a meaning of exhaustion or mental exertion.

Additionally the word roué, a French word which has made it into English as a borrow word, originally indicated someone so dissipated that they were destined to end up executed on the wheel.

"Remember me as an obscure idiom!"

Ugh enough of that.  The moral of this story is to be thankful for the Eighth Amendment. Next week—the flowers of the underworld!

This past weekend was Open House New York.  For a weekend the whole city was an elementary school field trip as cultural, architectural, and industrial institutions throughout the burroughs opened their doors to the public for a sneak peek behind the scenes.  There were a lot of tempting choices, but, in keeping with ferrebeekeeper’s long obsession with all things gothic, some friends and I visited Brooklyn’s Green-Wood cemetery to look inside the catacombs and palatial mausoleums of nineteenth century elite. Green-Wood cemetery consists of 478 acres of lovingly tended forests and gardens where more than 600,000 individuals are buried. The cemetery is sprawled over the terminal moraine left by the Wisconsin ice sheet when it retreated back to Canada about 18,000 years ago.  As the thousand foot tall wall of ice melted it dropped its burden of pebbles, boulders, and topsoil into rolling hills which now form the bulk of Long Island.  The tallest hill on Brooklyn is Battle Hill in Green-Wood where one can stand in the middle of a field of obelisks and look down at the harbor, the Narrows, and lower Manhattan.

 

The Main Gate of Green-Wood Cemetery

A Monk Parakeet at Greenwood

The main gates of Greenwood are a gothic revival masterpiece created by Richard M. Upjohn in 1861 (the cemetery itself dates back to 1838).  Back in the 1960s a shipment of monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) being flown from Argentina to Idlewild somehow escaped and the renegade birds set up nesting sites first in the cemetery gate.  Later, as the colony expanded, the birds also occupied the coEdison transformer station next to the cemetery.  So, as you walk into the park, you are greeted by raucous screeches and streaks of chartreuse among the trees.  And what trees!  Since the cemetery is old and is protected by a spiked fence, armed guards, and fierce dogs (along with who knows what sort of malevolent chthonic agencies), the trees have grown to maturity unmolested and the grounds feature numerous huge field oaks, mighty beeches, giant metasequoias and every other ornamental or native specimen which grows in these parts.

It is difficult to convey the scope of the cemetery. Visitors wander through different landscapes going up and down hills, into dark forests, across garden glades, and beside lakes—and everywhere there are tombs of every sort.  There are thin limestone headstones where the text is fading, tall granite plinths with statues, squat obsidian cubes, Egyptian pyramids, and elegant urns.  Sometimes you also pass huge haunting circles of graves which evoke feelings of barrows and ancient standing stones. During the open house my friends and I visited the spooky Greek revival mausoleums of a heartless railroad baron and of a rich tobacconist who turned to spiritualism after the mysterious death of one of his (demi-mondaine?) female employees. We also visited the underground catacombs where workers installed a creepy underground network of burial chambers in the excavation left over from a pebble mine.

Inside the catacombs (lit by bore holes drilled from above)

The princely grave of the stingy Whitney

The largest mausoleum inhumes the remains of Stephen Whitney, one of the richest and most parsimonious merchants of the nineteenth century who eschewed philanthropy. As one might imagine he was not well loved and when he died, the famous social commentator George Templeton Strong remarked that “his last act was characteristic and fitting.  He locked up his checkbook and died.” Although Whitney’s grave was magnificent and the cemetery’s great mourning chapel (pictured below) was even more so, to me the most interesting mausoleums and graves were the smaller gothic ones which I have pictured throughout this post.  We’re getting closer to Halloween (and to peak foliage)—why not take a constitutional through a nearby cemetery and contemplate the ephemeral nature of things amidst a beautiful vista?

The Chapel at Green-Wood Cemetery

A few weeks ago Ferrebeekeeper featured an introductory post concerning the power which population demographics exert over the affairs of people and nations.  I would like to follow up on those ideas with a post concerning demographic cohorts in the United States (and in Western Europe, where history and shared culture have produced similar chronological categories).  A cohort consists of a group of contemporaries, born together in a 15-25 year period, who have shared certain coming-of-age experiences and crises together. According to conventional thinking there are seven age-based cohorts still marching in the great parade of life here in the western democracies:

  1. The Lost Generation (born 1883 to 1900): Honestly only a few last representatives of the World War I generation remain alive, and they are now so old as to seem fabulously unbelievable–like unicorns or manticores. They earned their name in a horrible way.  A whole generation of young men were conscripted to fight in the trenches of France–and they never came back from the mud beneath the big guns. Even in America, which entered the war late, a huge part of this generation was lost to Spanish flu. The last man to fight in the trenches died earlier this year.  Soon everyone who ever lived in the shadow of the monstrous debacle that was World War I will be dead and the generation will truly be lost–but for now a few ancient grandmothers still survive. 
  2. The Greatest Generation (born 1901 to 1924): This generation also came by its name through fighting in a World War.  The abject awfulness of the Nazi and Japanese war machines gave Allied soldiers a moral clarity and purpose which other generations have lacked. Also this generation first mastered the atom, first ventured into space, and then presided over a time of unprecedented plenty and economic success.
  3. The Silent Generation (born 1924-1945): The oldest members of the Silent Generation participated in World War II along with the greatest generation and now pretend to be part of that cohort, but largely this was the generation slightly too young to go to war.  They grew up in the depression–and they carry some of the hardheaded skinflint pragmatism of that time with them always.
  4. The Baby Boom (born 1945-1965): When the Second World War was won, the world lay in smoking ruins–except for America which was at the peak of its productive capacity.  The brave soldiers came home, started businesses, and married the strong capable women working in the hospitals and factories.  Then together they engendered a huge demographic bulge of newborns. The demographic weight of the boomers (combined with a certain self-absorbed focus on their special destiny) has put them much in the center of national affairs. They were the hippy generation who protested during the summer of love.  They were the hard-charging yuppies of the eighties.  They are the bulk of the government now.  However the boomers are beginning to retire and this massive flux is going to upend everything in our nation.
  5. Generation X (born 1965-1981): Also called the thirteenth generation, this is my generation. We were born in the post-sixties hangover, when recession and malaise stalked the nation and then we came of age in the booming eighties and nineties as communication technology underwent unprecedented breakthroughs (and brought an unprecedented boom in productivity). My generation has always seemed a bit lost—a rain shadow cast by the demographic mountain of baby boomers.  The conventional wisdom is that generation x is lackadaisical, cynical, and apathetic. We certainly do not have any moon landings or atomic bombs to our credit but we did have a hand in creating the new information age.  Also our entire generational ethos has not been finalized. Our greatest masterpieces have not yet been painted.
  6. The Millennial Generation (born 1981-2002): This group is also known as the shadow boom or mini-boom because they are the children of baby boomers (and therefor have their own demographic power). The majority of our active duty service members are from this generation.  They grew up surrounded by pagers, faxes, emails, and texts and they have the mentality to make sense of our networked world. When I was visiting my alma-mater a few years ago, I noticed that the students looked a lot happier and better-dressed than they did when I was a student.  The bars and bathrooms were not covered in graffiti and everyone’s hair was neat.  I think this generation really does have a different and more optimistic mentality then the two preceding it.  Coming into the workforce during a crippling recession might jar the polite businesslike smiles of the millennial generation a bit, but based on their battlefield aplomb and their personal rectitude, we can expect great things.
  7. The New As-Yet-Unnamed Generation (2002-present): No golden-tongued wag has yet given a name to the generation who are currently children.  Whenever I see this group featured in the mainstream media, it seems to be a pejorative article about how video games and environmental mercury are making them dull, but on an anecdotal level I have not found this to be true at all.  The children I have met have all the grace, swiftness, brilliance, and innocence of children.  They are bright and shiny as new-struck coins and I think it is appropriate that nobody has given them a name yet.

Of this list, I obviously have a preference for the first two generations and the last two generations. The lost generation and the greatest generation were badasses who came of age killing Germans with bayonets while building superweapons at home.  The two most recent generations are good-looking kids who are polite, hard-working, socially conscious, and still possess nimble minds. Naysayers who complain about the bad pop music and bad attitudes of “kids these days” are out-of-touch curmudgeons who are not paying close attention to reality [well, popular music actually is pretty bad—ed.].  The millennials are alright and the unnamed generation are better than alright—they are adorable kids who could grow up to be anything.

Sadly, the three generations in the middle—the generations who are at their economic peak and are running the country–are a greedy, fumbling mess.  It is popular to blame Chinese manufacturers, world trade, and globalization for the current economic turmoil, but there is a simpler reason for these bad times.  The inability of government to work and the excesses of our financial sector reflect a deeper division in our society. A huge number of Americans are beginning to retire, and, as large swaths of the population change from productive members of society to retired (but politically active and materially successful) seniors, the nation’s economic timbre is sure to be diminished.

A quick look at the halls of congress or the directorship of large companies will reveal that the silent generation and the baby boomers may be retiring, but they have not given up the true reigns of authority. The great political movements of the past few years—the tea party and the “occupy Wall Street” protests snap into a much sharper focus if you look at the age of the respective participants.  Wrestling control of the faltering nation from the hands of hard-bitten silent generation plutocrats and from a huge number of retiring boomers (who have always had things their way) falls to the indolent hands of generation x—people who would rather write blogs or paint weird paintings.  I, for one, am looking forward to when the millennial generation can also rise to the halls of power. I also worry that demographic stalemate might mean we have to wait until then to enjoy a united and prosperous nation.

Ceres (optimized image from the Hubble Space telescope)

Today’s post topic is located in the depths of space far far away from the bats, pumpkins, and haunted deserts I have been writing about for October. The dwarf planet Ceres is located in the midst of the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars.  The only dwarf planet in the inner solar system, Ceres is only 950 km (590 miles) in diameter, but it is sufficiently large to have become spherical from its own gravity (and it is by far the largest asteroid). Named after Ceres (Demeter), the mythological goddess of growing things whose daughter was abducted by Hades and who gave the secrets of agriculture to humankind through the farmer Triptolemus, the dwarf planet was discovered in 1801 by Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi, a Roman Catholic priest of the Theatine order.  Ceres was the first asteroid to be discovered and it comprises a third of the asteroid belt’s total mass.

A comparison of the sizes of the Earth, Moon, and Ceres

The nebular hypothesis proposes that the solar system formed as a great cloud of space dust and gas coalesced into a disk which then further coagulated into small clumps, then into planetesimals, then into moon-sized planetary embryos, and finally into planets. Ceres is one of the few (or maybe the only) planetary embryos which formed four and a half billion years ago but somehow did not get smushed together with other like bodies to form a planet or hurled off into deep space. The dwarf planet probably consists of a rocky core surrounded with an icy mantle of frozen water.  Ceres is believed to contains 200 million cubic kilometers of water–more fresh water than in all the lakes, rivers, clouds, swamps, ponds (and everything else) on Earth. The Hubble telescope has photographed several mysterious surface features on Ceres including a dark spot believed to be a crater (now informally named after Piazzi) and several bright spots, the nature of which is unknown.

Image of the bright spots on Ceres (taken by the Hubble Space telescope)

Astronomers are profoundly curious about Ceres and hope to better understand the history of the solar system by examining this surviving planetary embryo.  Additionally, the chemical makeup of Ceres is similar to that of Earth. Scientists seeking extraterrestrial life have concentrated on Europa and Mars, but Ceres is next on their short list.

Astronomers will soon have some of their answers about Ceres.  The asteroid probe Dawn is currently orbiting the asteroid Vesta–but its mission there is scheduled to end in July of 2012.  At that point Dawn will power up its ion thrusters and fly to Ceres. In February of 2015 Dawn will enter permanent orbit around the little planet and we will finally have some of our answers.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

October 2011
M T W T F S S
 12
3456789
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930
31