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Ghosts and the disquieted dead abound in China and, as elsewhere, these manifold specters hold up a dark mirror to society as a whole.  Chinese folklore features hungry ghosts, hanged ghosts, sexually abused ghosts, and happy, helpful servant ghosts.  There are the wrongfully dead ghosts who were denied justice by merciless bureaucrats and there are drowned ghosts who always lurk in the water grabbing at things.  There are ghost brides, ghost thieves, and ghost hunters.  All of this is in addition to the countless fiends, demons, nature spirits, immortals, monsters, gods, and supernatural animals which make up the endlessly invigorating Chinese pantheon.    Yet out of all the many sorts of ghosts and revenants, one particular category of Chinese apparition stands out as an exemplary type specimen of the undead.   These are the jiāng shī, the hopping reanimated corpses which are analogous to the vampires and mummies of western horror.  In English such undead beings are called hopping ghosts or Chinese vampires.

Here’s a diagram?

Like vampires, jiāng shī feed off of the life energy of the living and command supernatural powers, but there are some big differences.  Jiāng shī are created in many different supernatural ways when the po, an aspect of the soul, is returned to the body (this often involves a shock of yin energy from cats or the moon), but they are essentially of two varieties:  1) recently dead souls who died far from home and literally hop back to where they are from sometimes with the help of a Taoist sorcerers, and sometimes through pure homesickness ; and 2) ancient corpses which have gone so long without decaying that they become reanimated by dark yin magic.  The Chinese name means “stiff corpse” and the undead monsters are literally stiff from rigor mortis.  Because of this handicap, jiāng shī have a hard time with mobility and their movements are often unnatural and erratic—hence they are believed to move by means of hopping (although some of the more powerful and ancient ones are also reputed to fly).   Unfortunately their lack of agility is more than made up for by superhuman strength.

They are not ladies’ men like western vampires and–hey! What’s going on here?

Contemporary hopping ghosts look like contemporary corpses–except for the fact that they are animated and are hopping violently and quickly towards you to suck out your qi energy (oh and they have long sharp fingernails).  Ancient jiāng shī, however, have a very distinctive and operatic look:  they are dressed in Qing dynasty graveclothes and they have pale green skin and white hair (as well as claws and fangs).  Both sorts of hopping ghosts bear an overwhelming smell of putrefaction with them—which is so appalling that it is occasionally fatal.  They feed on qi energy which they strangle/gouge out of their victims, either manually or by hopping on top of the heads of sleepers.

If you are having trouble with hopping ghosts, there are several ways of dealing with them.  The animated corpses are driven off by Taoist mirrors, brooms made with real straw, rice, or fresh chicken blood.  Sometimes applying a yellow and red Chinese death blessing to their forehead will give the jiāng shī peace (although this should be attempted only in extreme circumstances!).  They cannot abide the light of the sun.  In the end though there is only one sovereign remedy to permanently get rid of jiāng shī, and it is the ultimate solution to any undead problems.  If you burn a jiāng shī and all of its accessories (creepy funeral suit, coffin, etc.) you will be permanently rid of the monster.

Good old fire!

Continuing our Halloween theme of undead monsters, we visit the great northern forests of Canada and the Great Lakes.  During winter, these frozen woodlands were said to be the haunt of a terrifying undead spirit of malicious appetite–the dreadful wendigo.    Although the wendigo has become a mainstay of modern horror, legends of the spirit predate Europeans.  The wendigo myth originated among the Algonquian people, who believed it was a manitou (powerful spirit being) associated with hunger, cold, and starvation.    For these hunter-gathering people the monster was shaped out of the greatest fear in their hearts and took the form of the ultimate taboo.

Pre-contact distribution of Algonquian languages

The Algonquian culture consisted of hundreds of heterogeneous tribes stretching in a northern arc from New England, up through the Great Lakes to the eastern Rockies.  Some of the southern tribes cultivated wild rice, pumpkins, corn, and beans, but the northern tribes were hunter gatherers.  Bad hunting seasons could cause terrible winters among the northern people, and whole villages would sometimes starve to death.  The wendigo myth seems to originate from such cold lean times of abject hunger when, in the extremity of desperation, starving people would resort to cannibalism.

Although different tribes had different traditions, most stories describe the primal wendigo as a gaunt humanoid giant with decayed skin and long yellow fangs.  The creature’s eyes glowed in the dark and it was always hungry for human flesh.  These huge monsters could be heard howling in the forest on winter nights and were said to have powerful dark magic, but wild wendigo spirits outside in the wind were only half the story.  If a person broke the ultimate Algonquian taboo, and decided to prefer cannibalism to starvation, he or she would begin to turn into a Wendigo.  After eating human flesh, a person’s humanity would disappear and their heart would become cold.  No food could slake a wendigo’s appetite except for human meat (and even that could not be eaten in sufficient quantity to fill up).  Monsters of unnatural appetite, these transformed wendigos would bring death and ruin to all other people unless they fled into the wilderness or were killed by a medicine person.

It is here that the wendigo myth is most fascinating, but most muddled.  In the wilds of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and central Canada, the frontier authorities of the nineteenth century sometimes ran across wendigo murders.   Most famously a Cree trapper killed and ate his family although he was not far from provisions.  Another shaman was tried and executed for traveling the countryside killing people suspected of being wendigos.  The anthropology community of the day was fascinated by this sort of thing and proclaimed “wendigo psychosis” to be a real thing–although the fact that the “condition” was localized to a particular time and place (and has never more been seen since) makes it seem more like a made-up mental illness for popularizing horrifying stories.

If wendigo psychosis has mercifully gone away, wendigos themselves have gone mainstream.  A wendigo with the power of resurrection was the (terrifying) villain of one of Steven King’s scariest novels and the hungry winter spirits have proliferated ever since in cartoons, movies, and scary literature.  What could be scarier than the empty woods in winter or an empty larder?

Roman sarcophagus of Italian marble (ca. 3rd century AD, Getty Museum, California)

Almost every culture has myths and stories about the undead—supernatural beings trapped between the living world and the underworld.  The majority of such creatures are horrible, monstrous, or sad, yet such is their dark hold on our imagination that they reoccur in the legends of many different places.

An ancient Roman cemetery complex along the Via Latina

This year, in order to celebrate Halloween, that special time between seasons when the veil to the underworld if lifted, Ferrebeekeeper presents some of the undead who are less familiar than Hollywood’s smooth-talking vampires and shambling zombies.  Although undead folklore stretches back to prehistory, an appropriate place to begin with our exploration is in the cemeteries and columbariums of Ancient Rome–which were haunted by several sorts of undead spirits. Roman funereal practice changed back and forth from burial to cremation several times (and some families or individuals preferred to stick with the unfashionable tradition).  Cemeteries and funereal monuments were found by the side of thoroughfares just outside of towns and cities.  One can imagine how spooky these unlighted tombs were at night when filled with footpads, desperate fugitives, wild animals, and pre-industrial darkness (even without the various wandering dead whom the Romans believed in).

Ancient Roman Cemetery from Roman Gaul (today at Alyscamps, Arles, France)

The most common Roman apparitions were two sorts of ghosts: the manes and lemures, which were separated by moral alignment.  Manes, the spirits of deceased loved ones, were basically benevolent– although they still enjoyed drinking blood, which Romans provided for them with animal sacrifices and with gladiatorial games (which were originally intended for funereal purposes).  Wealthy Romans held sumptuous feasts to satiate the manes, and even people of more humble means sacrificed and gave offerings to the spirits of the dearly departed. The lemures, however, were not so benevolent.  These were dark and restless spirits who died bad deaths.  Some lemures were forever lost and could not find the underworld.  Others were tied to this world through foul acts or evil temper.  The lemures were imagined as shapeless black forms of malevolence.  Romans tried to placate the lemures with sacrificial offerings of funereal black (most often black beans, superstitiously cast behind—although other black sacrifices are hinted at).

Colombarium of Pomponius Hylas Within The Park On Via Latina (ca. 1st century AD)

Beyond such ghostly revenants, Romans greatly feared witches and the liminal tricks which they could play with life and death.  Anyone who has read The Golden Ass will recall the indelible first story within a story–wherein the wicked Thessalonian sorceresses Meroë and Panthia kill the narrator’s friend, drain his blood, and rip out his heart which they replace with a sponge.  After an agonizing night of fear, debasement, and suicidal thoughts, the narrator is delighted when dawn breaks and his murdered friend is alive (all the night’s horrors merely a dream).  The two men proceed out of town and stop at a spring to drink, whereupon the sponge in the murder victim’s chest falls out and he falls drained & dead upon the sand (The Golden Ass is an unrivaled work of literature, but not for the faint of heart).

The Romans also feared the Lamiae.  According to myth, Lamia was a beautiful Libyan queen who was loved by Zeus, but something went (badly) awry with their affair and Lamia wound up devouring her only child and pulling out her eyes.  Thereafter she roved the dark on a serpent’s tail looking for other children to devour.  The Romans were fascinated by this horrifying figure, and in later Roman folklore the Lamiae are an entire category of monster rather than one being.  These later Lamiae were able to alter their appearance to become fair.  They would then seduce young men and eat their life essence.  The Romans were not the only ones fascinated by this kind of misogyny mythology and the Lamiae outlived the manes, lemures, and witch-cursed victims, to find a place in 19th century poetry and art.

Lamia (John William Waterhouse, 1905, oil on canvas) note the snakeskin wound around her legs

Have you ever watched a tiny red ant scurrying through the backyard only to be astounded that the ant seems like a giant when it walks by some much smaller black ants?  Such observations have always caused me to wonder how small insects could become.  What are the smallest insects out there and just how tiny are they?   The answer is actually astonishing, and, like most good answers it just brings up more questions.  Most entomologists believe the tiniest living insects are the fairyflies, infinitesimally minute parasitoid wasps which live on or inside the tiny eggs of thrips(well, some fairflies also live inside the brains of other insects, but let’s not think about that right now).  Fairyflies are smaller than many single cell organisms like paramecia, amoebas, and euglenas.    Dicopomorpha echmepterygis,  a wasp from Costa Rica, is an astonishing  .13 millimeters in length.   Although many of these wasps fly, they are so tiny that they don’t have conventional wings:  some of the smaller specimens have long cilia-like hairs which they use to row through the air (the fluid dynamics of which are considerably different for creatures so small).

Fairy wasp with single celled organisms under electron microscope

In fact the wasps are so tiny that the millions of individual cells which make up their tissues and organs have to be very miniscule indeed.  In fact, according to physics, the brains of fairyflies should not work.  Many of the neural axons are smaller than 0.1 micrometre in diameter (and the smallest axons were a mere 0.045 μm).  At such sizes, the electrical action of axons should not work properly.   An article on Newscientist describes the basic problem:

 …according to calculations by Simon Laughlin of the University of Cambridge and colleagues, axons thinner than 0.1 μm simply shouldn’t work. Axons carry messages in waves of electrical activity called action potentials, which are generated when a chemical signal causes a large number of channels in a cell’s outer membrane to open and allow positively charged ions into the axon. At any given moment some of those channels may open spontaneously, but the number involved isn’t enough to accidentally trigger an action potential, says Laughlin – unless the axon is very thin.

So how do the wasps continue to fly around and parasitize the eggs of other creatures if the electrical impulses of their brains do not work?  German researchers speculate that the axons of wasp brains work mechanically rather than electrically.  The tiny axons touch each other physically instead of by means of electrical action.  If this is correct it means the wasps are analogue creatures with little clockwork minds!  If they were any larger or more complex, this would not work, but because of their small size and simple drives, they can manage to operate with slow-moving machine-like brains.

Micrograph of a fairyfly (fairy wasp)

Corona Borealis is a semicircular constellation in the northern sky between Hercules and Boötes.  It is of mild interest to astronomers for containing two interesting variable stars: (1) T Coronae Borealis, the so-called “Blaze Star”, which is a recurring nova binary star; and (2) R Coronae Borealis, a yellow supergiant which periodically dims from magnitude 6 to magnitude 14 and then brightens back up (possibly because it is producing carbon).

The constellation is much more interesting to classical artists since a myth about its creation gives artists their symbol for deification.  Ariadne was the daughter of Minos, king of Crete who became judge of the underworld after his death and Queen Pasiphae (who was herself a daughter of the sun).  The princess fell in love with Theseus, an Athenian hero who was to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, a bull-headed monster who lived in the labrynth beneath the palace.  With the help of the wise artificer, Daedalus, Ariadne rescued Theseus and together they fled from Crete (just barely escaping destruction at the hands of Talos, the giant bronze robot which guarded the island).

Ariadne (John William Waterhouse, 1898, oil on canvas)

Once they had escaped, the faithless Theseus abandoned Ariadne sleeping on the island of Naxos.  The sleeping maiden was spied by Dionysus who chose her as a consort. She was given immortality and godhood as soon as she was married and Dionysus hung her wedding crown of stars in the sky as the constellation Corona Borealis (maybe it has so many variable stars because it was sacred to the god of intoxication).

Bacchus and Ariadne (Roman sarcophagus ca. 170-180 BC)

This seems like a weird narrative and it probably reflects Greek confusion about the proper status of Ariadne (whom some scholars identify as a Cretan serpent goddess from the Mycenaean era).  But irrespective of her origin or how she came by her divinity Ariadne has proven to be a favorite subject of visual artists from classical times onward.  Many artists prefer to portray her beautiful, naked, and asleep (and you can easily find many such paintings and statues on the web) but nearly as many are fascinated by her apotheosis—the moment she receives her godhood and escapes mortality.

Bacchus and Ariadne (Titian, 1523–24, oil on canvas)

Perhaps the finest of these paintings was created by the peerless hand of Titian for the Alabaster Room in the palace of Duke Alfonso d’Este–who specifically commissioned the world’s finest bacchanal paintings for his room (a project so fascinating and strange that the Alabaster Room has been virtually created online).   The painting shows the moment when Dionysus reveals himself to the bewildered Ariadne with all of his divine retinue.  The beautiful god leaps from his leopard-drawn chariot and flies down towards her as maenads and satyrs wildly revel behind him.  If you aren’t too distracted by the naked wild man covered in snakes, or by the dismembered donkey, or by the beautiful columbines and irises which bloom purple beneath the feet of the god’s inebriated followers, you will notice the constellation Corona Borealis glowing in the sky above Ariadne’s head.

Titian’s vision was so splendid and influential that other artists adopted the crown of stars as a symbol of apotheosis.  The crown of immortality appears in other works as heroes step across the threshold of godhood.  It is a reoccurring representation of our desire to step beyond humanity and become deathless divine beings.

Madonna in Glory (Carlo Dolci, 1670, Oil on canvas)

Adult Asian Small-clawed otters (Aonyx cinerea)

Otters (subfamily Lutrinae) are the aquatic branch of the splendid Mustelidae family which includes all sorts of highly successful predators like weasels, ferrets, polecats, otters, fishers, and wolverines.  We have already described the giant river otter of the Amazon, a magnificent apex predator which lives on anacondas and piranhas but there are also 12 other species of otters living throughout the Americas, Eurasia, and North Africa (and in the ocean).

European Otter (Lutra lutra)

All of the otters partake of the tremendous strength (and weakness) of the Mustelidae family.  They are ridiculously fast, powerful, and agile, but in order to keep up their swift lifestyles they have huge metabolic intake.  This means they must eat all of the time, and as predators their life is one endless hectic hunt.  Northern otters are at a particular disadvantage since they live in freezing rivers, lakes, and oceans.  In cold weather, European river otters have to eat 15% of their weight every day, while Sea otters must daily down an incredible 25% of their mass.  Fortunately a fast metabolism brings its own incredible reward: otters (like weasels and ferrets) seem to be effortlessly moving while everything else is standing still.

A group of sea otters (Enhydra lutris)

Otters eat a startling variety of prey.  Although fish is the staple of their diet they also opportunistically eat snakes, frogs, lizards, birds, eggs, small mammals, mollusks, crustaceans, and sundry other invertebrates.  Their need for calories keeps them from being too picky.  Despite their speedy metabolisms, otters live as long as dogs (and can survive even longer in captivity).  Different otters have different levels of sociability—the Oriental small clawed otters and the river otters are quite clannish and live in big playful groups.

Baby Asian Small-clawed otters (Aonyx cinerea)

In addition to being great hunters (and eaters) otters are famous for playing.  Their frolicksome antics are a joy to behold, so I found some video on Youtube, but be warned: the sound on my computer is broken so I have no idea what the narrator/soundtrack/music is like.  It might be slidewhistles or it might be 2 minutes and 56 second of the foulest curse words.  Maybe you should watch it on mute.

 

 

Perhaps because otters seem to appreciate life, people have a reverence for them (not that reverence stopped furriers from nearly driving several species extinct during the course of the past three centuries).  In the  the shapeshifting dwarf Otr prefers to spend his time as an otter until he is killed by the malicious trickster god Loki.  Loki is forced to cover the otter skin with treasure, but one whisker remains uncovered and so Loki was forced to part with his magic ring of power (which went on to wreak havoc, as magic ring inevitably do).  To Zoroastrians, the otter was reckoned to be truly pure–and thus sacred to Ahura Mazda, the uncreated god who represents the apogee of wisdom, light, and goodness in their pantheon.  So if, by bad luck, the evil dragon Ahriman happens to burn his way into this world and begins to destroy existence you might want to go be near some otters.  You know, even without the evil dragon, you should go spend time watching otters.  They’re just great animals.

The North American river otter (Lontra canadensis)

Yesterday’s post concerned smallpox, one of the most dreadful scourges to ever afflict humankind.  I shied away from writing about the physiological aspects of the disease–which is caused by two viruses, Variola major and Variola minor–because the symptoms are absolutely horrible (as I can fervently attest after some internet research involving photographs which were apparently taken in the cruelest depths of hell).  Smallpox was badly named.  It should have been called “deathrash” or “bloodskin” or “face-melt-fever”, but apparently Roman stoicism came to the fore and the Latin name merely means “spotted” or “pimple.”  Not only did smallpox effectively kill off the native population of the new world (and later of Australia, which experienced a similar plague), but for thousands of years it regularly culled a sizable hunk of humanity from Africa, Asia, and Europe.  Like influenza, the smallpox co-evolved in response to our immune reactions to it, so, even in parts of the world where people had inherited some resistance, the pestilence sometimes flared into a full scale pandemic.

Death and the Child (Sebald Beham, woodcut, early 16th century)

But smallpox is gone (almost)!  Humankind joined together and beat one of the most horrible things we have ever faced.  Today the last remaining live smallpox viruses are imprisoned in laboratories in Atlanta and Koltsovo, Novosibirsk Oblast.

In grade school, we were taught that this stunning victory came about when an English physician named Edward Jenner realized that milkmaids who contracted a mild rash called cowpox became immune to smallpox.  By deliberately giving people cowpox, Jenner found a way of protecting them from the fatal smallpox.  Jenner thus invented immunology, one of the most useful and inexpensive forms of medicine.  His great work was taken up by subsequent generations of immunologists and physicians in allied fields who improved upon his findings.  Together they used national and international resources to immunize the world.  Smallpox was officially proclaimed to be eradicated in 1979.

Yet Jenner had antecedents who were not well appreciated because of the preconceptions and prejudices of the day, (also, by necessity, he worked with human subjects whose bravery went unheralded).  Jenner’s greatness is not diminished by looking back at the others who were involved in an epic struggle against history’s greatest killer.  There are descriptions of smallpox avoidance techniques in ancient Sanskrit texts from India dating back to 1000 BC, however scholars do not agree on whether these texts describe inoculation or not.  What is certain is that a medical text from Ming dynasty China does indeed describe an effective inoculation process.  The Douzhen xinfa  published in 1549 was written by Wan Quan, a pediatrician who believed that sunlight and fresh air were good for children (and that overfeeding and overmedicating were bad). Wan Quan described a method of variolation—by which means a healthy person was purposely infected with Variola minor, the less dangerous o the two forms o smallpox.  By the time of the Lonquing Emperor who reigned from 1567–1572 (and was the son of the addled Jiajing emperor) variolation was widespread–powdered smallpox scabs were blown up the noses of healthy children so that they would contract Variola minor.  This was effective in preventing smallpox, but it had a fatality rate of .05% to 2%–a dreadful margin (though nothing like the 30%+ mortality rate of smallpox pandemic).

Variolation gradually spread through the Chinese empire and through the Turkish and Islamic world, but it did not reach the attention of western medicine until the early 18th century.  Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was the wife of the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1716 to 1717 (as well as a sort of feminist pioneer, poet, and adventurer). After losing a brother to smallpox (and being disfigured by the disease) Lady Mary was eager for a means to protect her children from the scourge.  In 1718, the embassy surgeon inoculated her son and, based on the success of this procedure, she arranged for her daughter to be inoculated in 1721 (when the family was back in England).  The procedure attracted the attention of the medical establishment and the royal family.  Although many doctors were aghast at an “Oriental” procedure (which was being popularized by a woman, no less) the royal family intervened directly in the controversy when a smallpox epidemic swept England in the 1720s.  In order to fully test the safety of the inoculation, the King offered a full pardon to six (or seven?) condemned prisoners in exchange for undergoing variolation.  Not surprisingly the condemned prisoners chose an unknown medical procedure instead of the hangman’s rope, and when they survived they were duly freed.  Variolation was also tested on six orphan children–who also survived.  After these human tests, the royal children were inoculated against smallpox.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants (Jean Baptiste Vanmour, ca. 1717, oil on canvas)

Inoculation spread quickly among the rich and powerful of Europe, but it was staunchly opposed by reactionaries and by churchmen (who believed it was contrary to God’s will).  Against such a background, came Jenner’s discovery of a cowpox based vaccine which was vastly safer than using live smallpox.  But even with the much safer vaccine, it was a long time before the immunologists started to win over many ignorant and superstitious people to the life-saving virtues of the vaccine (and nearly two hundred more years before they stomped out the loathsome blight of smallpox).

The second Monday of October is celebrated in America as Columbus Day. The holiday commemorates the day when Columbus’ exploratory fleet first spotted land on October 12, 1492.  Before Columbus, many other people had discovered America in one way or another, but after Columbus arrived, everything changed.  People, animals, diseases, ideas, and art all began to rapidly flow back and forth between the hemispheres in a way which had never before happened.  Today’s post, however, is not about the (always-controversial) Columbus–instead it is about the most terrible new export which the Spanish brought to the new world.

The exploration and colonization of the Americas were made easy for Europeans because big parts of the continents were empty.  Early explorers reported fields that were ready for farming, and orchards filled with fruit but no people.  The reason for this emptiness is sad and deeply troubling.  Smallpox came to the Americas in the early 16th century on Spanish ships and rapidly expanded into a vast pandemic which ravaged the population of the new world.  It outpaced the European explorers in conquering the continents: by the time colonists and explorers reached the hinterlands, great swaths of North and South America were uninhabited: the people who had lived there were dead from the highly contagious virus.  Native Americans had not co-evolved with the disease for millenia (like Europeans, Africans, and Asians had) and the people of the first nations died in droves.  Some estimates put Smallpox mortality in indigenous populations at an astonishing 80% to 95%.   Historians estimate that the original population of the Americas was between 50 and 100 million (approximately the same as Europe).  The conquest of America was not by guns or ships or religions, it was by disease.  The great smallpox plague is one of the more important events in history–yet it is has not been a focus of mainstream popular history both because Europeans did not directly witness the worst ravages (except in rare cases) and because there is an existentially terrifying randomness to the mass death of so many people.

In the old world, smallpox was an ancient scourge dating back to prehistory.   Using genetics, scientists have estimated that the virus originated 10,500 years ago and, indeed, 3,000 year old Egyptian mummies have been found bearing evidence of the disease.  During the 17th century, smallpox killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans per year (and left many survivors blind or hideously scarred). The people of the Americas escaped this scourge entirely by crossing a landbridge from Asia before smallpox evolved.   When the Vikings discovered America, they found a resilient culture which easily shrugged off attempts at colonization.  Crucially none of the Norse explorers or colonists brought any terrible illnesses with them.  But what had been fortunate for the first Americans became a terrible weakness, when smallpox did finally arrive with the Spanish.
The scope of the great dying boggles the imagination.  A Spanish priest traveling with Cortes into the dying Aztec empire described the scene writing “As the Indians did not know the remedy of the disease…they died in heaps, like bedbugs. In many places it happened that everyone in a house died and, as it was impossible to bury the great number of dead, they pulled down the houses over them so that their homes become their tombs.”

Of course the Spanish did not know the remedy for the disease either.  It is a historical fluke that the people of the new world died by the millions in the decades after Columbus rather than the other way around (and wouldn’t that have been a twist?).  In fact syphilis was a new world disease unknown in Europe until adventurers brought it across the Atlantic.  The story of the smallpox plague is a dark and terrible one, but it does have a more positive corollary.  In the 16th century, as the conquistadors unwittingly spread pestilence into North and South America, a solution to the terrible plague had already been perfected on the other side of the world in China.  Thanks to Chinese physicians, Turkish diplomacy, an English nobleman, convicts and… milkmaids (and lots of careful work), the horrible scourge has been all but eradicated from Earth, but I will save that brighter story for tomorrow.

Smallpox among the Aztecs

Vamlingbo Church (mid 13th century, photo by photographer Olivia Wittberg)

Gotland is the largest island in the Baltic Sea.  It is culturally and politically part of Sweden (although it has ancient ties to Denmark, Norway, Germany, Poland, Russia, and lands beyond).  Many historians believe the Goths, the tribe of invaders which sacked Rome, originated from Gotland (a story which will have to wait for another post).  The main town of Gotland is Visby, the city of roses and ruins, which was a principal port of the Hanseatic League.  Gotland is scattered with strange ancient rune stones (some of which are graven with valknuts) and ancient hidden treasure hordes, but todays post concerns the island’s 94 medieval churches.  These buildings executed in the Romanesque and Gothic architectural style are one of the Island’s top tourist draws.

Anga Church (13th Century)

The Romanesque churches of Gotland were built between  1150–1250 AD.  Then the style switched to Gothic from 1250 to 1400 AD (nearly a millennia after the original Goths began to cause unrest in the northern provinces of the Roman empire).   The era of church building was a golden age for Gotland which grew rich from Baltic trade.  Priest, sailors, merchants, bankers, fishermen, architects, monks, and all manner of other folk walked the thriving streets of Visby.   Many of the churches remain (though many have been rebuilt) and their elegant architecture provides a window to the vanished medieval world.  Here is a little gallery of some of the churches of Gotland.  If you are wildly curious about any particular building you can visit this site for a more comprehensive explanation.

Atlingbo Church

Kräklingbo Church

Fårö Church

Garde Church (built originally in the mid-1100s)

Ala Church was originally built in the 12th century

Lärbro Church (Mid 13th Century)

Slanga Church

När Church (photo by Swedish National Tourist Board)

Ruins of St. Nicolai, Visby

Väte Church (14th century)

Träkumla Church

Fröjel Church (photo by Helen Simonsson)

Aren’t they beautiful?  I am sorry that I could not find  the names of a couple of churches, but there is a “find the six differences” aspect to this group of images which I didn’t appreciate at first.  I was hoping to make this an easy Friday post, but I have been trapped at my computer comparing the slants of steeples and the shape of windows.  I’ll leave you with a little picture of the gorgeous cathedral at Visby and let you look for the rest of the churches of Gotland on your own!

Visby Cathedral

Australian Giant Cuttlefish (Sepia apama) by Richard Ling

The Australian giant cuttlefish (Sepia apama) is the world’s largest cuttlefish.  Specimens can measure up to 50 centimeters in length and weigh up to 10 kilograms (23 pounds).  Like other cuttlefish, the giant cuttlefish are masters of color transformation and can use the chromatophores (special transformative muscle cells) in their skin to instantly change the hue, reflectivity, polarization, and even the shape of their skin. They use this ability for hunting, hiding from predators, and for spectacular mating displays.  Indeed, the giant cuttlefish is a remarkable animal in many ways, but, above all, it is notable for its operatic sex life!

Australian Giant Cuttlefish (Sepia apama)

Sepia apama ranges in all coastal habitats from Brisbane on the Pacific to Shark Bay on the Indian Ocean (effectively the entire southern coast of the continent).  Thanks to jet propelled speed, color-transforming ability, sharp eyesight, high intelligence, and lightning fast grab jaws (which are located on two extendable arms), these cuttlefish are terrifyingly effective hunters of fish and crustaceans.  Australian giant cuttlefish from different regions of the coast do not interbreed, even though they are genetically the same species.  Like humans, the giant cuttlefish seem to form different sorts of societies with different mating customs:  for example the giant cuttlefish of the Spenser Gulf region are unique (apparently among all cuttlefish) in that they join together for a spawning aggregation in the waters immediately around Point Lowly.

Unlike humans, there are eleven male cuttlefish for every single female giant cuttlefish!  Large dominant male cuttlefish carve out territories with aggressive posturing and insanely bright flashing color displays.  Smaller males (who do not wish to be ripped apart), distract the alpha male cuttlefish by adapting the color schemes of female cuttlefish and courting him.  They then abruptly change color and pay (rapid) court to the polyandrous females. The female stores sperm packets from several males and she chooses the paternity of her offspring only after she lays her eggs.  Cuttlefish are semelparous—they mate only once, and then they immediately die. The whole beautiful horrifying op-art orgy in the waters around Point Lowly is of paramount importance—and is also reckoned to be one of the unrivaled diving spectacles of the world.

Unfortunately all of the Spenser Gulf cuttlefish tend to be in one place at once.  Since they only reproduce one time, they are very vulnerable to fisherman, who, up until the mid nineties, descended upon the area, captured most of the cuttlefish, and chopped them into bate for snappers.  When one cohort was removed, the next was seriously attenuated!

Fortunately the spawning waters of Spenser Gulf are now a protected refuge, yet hydrological changes, agricultural run-off, and industrial development could still threaten the entire population.  Perhaps the other Australian Giant Cuttlefish (who conduct their romantic affairs in a more disparate manner) are on to something.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

October 2012
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