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grave

Sigh, as 2012 winds down, it is time for the annual obituary list.  As in 2010 and 2011, this list is not at all comprehensive:  I have left off many famous entertainment personalities (who are amply celebrated elsewhere) and concentrated on scientists, artists, writers, puppeteers, and people whom I knew personally.  Even so, I have missed or omitted all sorts of names (sorry, Gore Vidal and Robert Bork).  The list is elegiac and personal: an obituary not just for people but for eras of time and aspects of life which are ineluctably passed:

H. Norman Schwartzkopf (Bob Daugherty/AP)

H. Norman Schwartzkopf (Bob Daugherty/AP)

H. Norman Schwarzkopf, (August 22, 1934 – December 27, 2012) was a United States Army officer. Schwarzkopf was most famous for his role as commander of coalition forces in the Gulf War, but he had a long infantryman’s pedigree including two tours of duty in Vietnam, where he was awarded three silver stars (along with numerous other awards for valor).  “Stormin’” Norman was famous not just for his logistical and tactical savvy but for his ability to deftly manipulate the press corps. I remember seeing him marching at the head of a mechanized infantry column during a victory parade in 1991 in Washington (an event which now seems almost as remote to present times as a Roman triumph).

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Norman Joseph Woodland (September 6, 1921 – December 9, 2012) was the co-creator of the barcode.  After fighting for his patent and his idea in the rough-and-tumble world of American business he ultimately became an important cog in IBM’s vast corporate machine.  The first consumer product with a UPC was scanned in 1974!

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Neil Alden Armstrong (August 5, 1930 – August 25, 2012) After flying combat missions for the US Navy in the Korean war Neil Armstrong spent years as a test pilot.  He left the military to pursue a career as an aerospace engineer, but as the space race quickened, he applied to NASA Astronaut Corps and was accepted as one of two civilian astronauts (the other was killed in a training accident).  In 1965, Armstrong was the pilot of Gemini 8–and thus piloted one of the two first spacecraft to dock with each other in outer space.  He returned to space in July of 1969 as mission commander of Apollo 11.  He was the first human to walk on the moon—the first person of any of us to step on a different celestial body.   After the moon landing, Armstrong taught engineering, farmed, raised his family and ignored his international fame, however as the current crop of useless politicians continue to slash away at research programs and at the space program itself, he joined together with his fellow astronauts to issue a public statement that “For The United States, the leading space faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature.”

count jerry nelson

Jerry L. Nelson (July 10, 1934 – August 23, 2012) was a puppeteer, best known for his work on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. Although not a towering hero who will be remembered for as long as humanity endures (like, oh, say, the first man on the moon) he was the puppeteer who gave voice and life to Mr. Snuffleupagus and Count Von Count (among many others).

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Isaac “Doc” Ferrebee (May 27, 1928 – August 15, 2012) was a family member.  He was a Staff Sergeant in the Army, a veteran of the Korean War, and worked at (the same!) metal plant for 40 years.  When I knew him, Doc was a tireless gardener and a great beekeeper.  I will always think of him at the edge of his sweet corn and potatoes carefully looking after his beautiful hives of honey bees.

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Ray Douglas Bradbury (August 22, 1920 – June 5, 2012) was a pioneering science-fiction/fantasy writer who wrote strange moral allegories and fantasies concerning the possible future of humankind.  After a childhood epiphany in 1932, Bradbury wrote every single day for 69 years: his epiphany occured  when a carnival performer named Mr. Electrico touched his nose with an electrified sword (which caused young Bradbury’s hair to stand on end) and yelled “Live forever!”

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Sally Kristen Ride (May 26, 1951 – July 23, 2012) was the first American woman in space.  Trained as a physicist she joined NASA in 1978 and traveled to low Earth orbit in 1983 upon the space shuttle Challenger.  In addition to being the youngest American astronaut to travel into space (she was 32 at the time of her flight) she also co-authored five children’s science books with her life partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy.

Illustration for "Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present" (Maurice Sendak, ca. 1977)

Illustration for “Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present” (Maurice Sendak, ca. 1977)

Maurice Bernard Sendak  (June 10, 1928 – May 8, 2012) was probably the foremost children’s book illustrator of the 20th century.  His work is famous for combining the dark wild passions of opera with the whimsical inventiveness of central European folklore.  Somehow Sendak took these elements and created his own unmistakable visual style of great beauty and depth.

The West Coast of Ireland

The West Coast of Ireland

Emmet Larkin (1927- March 19, 2012) was a tenured professor of history at the University of Chicago (in fact he was my favorite professor).  He studied and wrote about Irish history—most particularly the transformative role of the Roman Catholic Church in19th and early 20th century Ireland.  His most widely read book was “The Historical Dimensions of Irish Catholicism”.  In undergraduate school, I took his Irish history class and his class on Victorian England, both of which were great favorites thanks to vivid lectures and lively discussion.  To quote one of Larkin’s colleagues, Walter Kaegi “He was a good teacher of both graduates and undergraduates…He was lively, animated and very good with Ph.D. candidates. He had definite academic standards and maintained them.”  I will miss Larkin greatly because I enjoyed talking with him in class or at his office hours.  Additionally he appreciated my writings and ideas and served as a last link to the glorious world of the ivory tower.

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Janice “Jan” Berenstain (née Grant; July 26, 1923 – February 24, 2012) worked with her late husband Stan Berenstain to create the “Berenstain bears” a fictional family of (strangely simian) middle-class bears. The bear family worked together to face the trials and tribulations of family life in a series of fairly blunt moral lessons (spread through a diverse entertainment portfolio of books, animations, andgames).  Since the Berenstain bears were hitting the apogee of their fame just as I was entering elementary school, I recall lots of Berenstain stories from those years.  Although many of those stories no doubt featured healthy lessons about patience and not throwing tantrums, what I remember most was their visit to a haunted house filled with bats and animated suits of armor.  That was amazing!

Good-Bye to All That

Good-Bye to All That

Florence Green (February 19, 1901 – February 4, 2012) was the last person to serve in World War I (as a waitress on an air base in England).  With her death, that terrible conflict takes another step deeper into the history books and away from the living experience of humankind.

Gosh, there were some famous astronauts there.  It almost seems like our heroic future in space is rapidly becoming a mythicized past.

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A Black Smoker Geothermal Vent

A Black Smoker Geothermal Vent

The African Plate and the Indo-Australian Plate meet together deep beneath the surface of the Indian Ocean in a long line of tectonic divergence known as the Central Indian Ridge (CIR).  As new seafloor is created hydrothermal vents pour out molten hot fluids rich with minerals and an alien landscape is formed.  The hot minerals precipitate to form high cylindrical chimneys called smokers and strange communities of life form along these structures.  This ecosystem is entirely based upon chemosynthetic archaea (ancient one-celled life forms which take energy directly from the oxidation of inorganic compounds).  Great communities of eyeless shrimp, giant tubeworms, and annelids support themselves on the archaea.  Among the strange creatures is a very weird gastropod mollusk, the scaly-foot snail (Crysomallon squamiferum), which is different from every other mollusk (and indeed every other animal) because of the material it uses for its bizarre scale-mail armor.

The Scaly Foot Gastropod (Crysomallon squamiferum)

The Scaly Foot Gastropod (Crysomallon squamiferum)

The scaly foot gastropod has an armored foot which is covered in little scales made of iron sulfides.  Additionally the deep-sea snail has a triple layer shell.  The outermost shell layer is composed of iron sulfides, the middle is a thick protein coat, and the inner shell layer is composed of aragonite (a calcium carbonate).

I wish I could tell you more about the habits of this snail but since it is found in super heated water at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, it has not been extensively studied.  However, The US military is interested in the creature as a possible inspiration for next generation composite military armor so maybe we will all learn more about the scaly foot snail.

Detail of the Foot Armor of Crysomallon squamiferum

Detail of the Foot Armor of Crysomallon squamiferum

An Inkanyamba flying prior to a storm (artist unknown)

An Inkanyamba flying prior to a storm (artist unknown)

Kindly forgive the last few weekdays without a post–I was on a winter solstice vacation from the internet.  To cut through the holiday treacle, let’s concentrate on one of my favorite subjects—giant snake monsters!  More specifically, after this year of horrible storms, I am writing about the fearsome inkanyamba, a mythical serpent-like being from South Africa.  Inkanyambas are said to dwell in the pools beneath waterfalls.  They have the bodies of great serpents and horselike heads. Inkanyambas are associated with powerful seasonal storms—particularly tornadoes.   Such powerful local cyclones were thought to be caused by male inkanyambas out looking for mates.

Inkanyamba linocut by Kate Rowland

Inkanyamba linocut by Kate Rowland

The creatures are said to live in the Pietermaritzburg area of KwaZulu-Natal .   The Inkanyamba is particularly associated with the 95 meter tall (310 feet) Howick Falls, South Africa.  For a while the Inkanyambas of Howick Falls even had a bit of Loch Ness Monster style fame attracting tourists, photojournalists, and cryptozoologists  (insomuch as that is a real thing).  Lately though, the moster is fading back to the proper realm of myth and art.

Howick Falls, South Africa

Howick Falls, South Africa

Pshh ha ha ha! I mean, um, the planet Nibiru collides with Earth (artist's conception)

Pshh…ha ha ha! I mean, um, the planet Nibiru collides with Earth (artist’s conception)

According to wild-eyed (& hare-brained) eschatologists the world is supposed to end tomorrow (December 21st, 2012) as the Mesoamerican long-count calendar runs out.  The methodology of destruction is a bit unclear, but a general consensus (of stupid crackpots) seems to hold that the nonexistent mystery planet Nibiru will slam into the Earth and everything will disintegrate in fire.  Volcanoes and solar storms are also somehow featured in some versions of the narrative.

Super bitchin' Mayan Calendar

Super bitchin’ Mesoamerican Calendar

All of this sounds very exciting—and it would certainly prove immensely fascinating to astronomers who keep a close watch on the local solar system with telescopes and spacecraft–and have never seen any hint of the apocalyptic space phenomena made up by crazy people. Yet I think we are overlooking a big part of the fun.  The long count calendar is a 5,125-year reckoning of time created by the ancient Mayans.  Since tomorrow’s apocalypse is therefore Mayan, one would certainly expect the lords of Xibalba (the Mayan gods of the underworld) to show up to harrow the Earth–or, you know, at least to assist Nibiru in finishing off the job.   Dedicated readers will recall that we have already met the gods of Xibalba in this dramatic post concerning the great heroic quest at the center of Mayan mythology.  To summarize, the sun and the moon went down into the dark torture city of Xibalba to free their father’s spirit and release the living world from slavery to the gods below.  After an epic magical battle, the story ended Hollywood-style with the twins burning and hacking all of the underworld gods to pieces.  The heroes then apotheosizing into the familiar celestial bodies we know and love.

I really love this picture

I really love this picture

This would not seem to bode well for the lords of Xibalba (what with the being killed and all), yet underworld deities are wily and treacherous–so we should not count them out of the picture despite the fact that they were chopped up and fricasseed.  So that you can more fully appreciate the Mayan apocalypse (or if it goes badly, so you will know whom you are talking with in the afterlife) here is a comprehensive listing of the Lords of Xibalba.  These characters operate in themed pairs–which is why each entry contains two gods):

Ahalmez (Sweepings Demon) and Ahaltocob (Stabbing Demon): are gods for the obsessively cleanly.  They hide in dirty or unswept areas of peoples’ houses and, when the filth is too much, leap out to kill the slovenly inhabitants.

Xiquiripat (Flying Scab) & Cuchumaquic (Gathered Blood) are both blood-themed gods who cause septicemia/blood poisoning

Ahalpuh (Pus Demon) and Ahalgana (Jaundice Demon), are tumor gods who cause people’s bodies to swell up with poison dropsy;

Chamiabac (Bone Staff) and Chamiaholom (Skull Staff), are bone demons who turn dead bodies into skeletons.

Xic (Wing) and Patan (Packstrap), are gods of pneumonia and lung disorder who cause travelers to choke to death from pneuma disorders.

Most importantly One Death and Seven Death were the two rulers of the underworld.  They were synonymous with death itself (although I have no idea what their jersey numbers stand for).

The Lords of Xibalba

The Lords of Xibalba

Hmm, all right, that is a pretty scary list and these guys certainly sound like bad news (although none of them seem to be particularly affiliated with planetary collision).  I guess we will keep our eyes peeled for stabby glowing characters in loincloths jumping out from behind the refrigerator.

Of course if the end of the days truly has you down, it is worth listening to David Morrison, an astronomer at Nasa, who has gone on record to say, “At least once a week I get a message from a young person, as young as 11, who says they are ill and/or contemplating suicide because of the coming doomsday. I think it’s evil for people to propagate rumours on the internet to frighten children.”

That seems like a pretty direct slap in the face to the lords of Xibalba (assuming any of them survived the rampage of Hunahpu and Xbalanque).   I guess we’ll watch the heavens tomorrow with interest.  If anyone is incredibly scared, you can come over to my place for chocolate pie, hot peppers, and tequila.

A still image from the extremely logical and coherent movie "The Fountain"

A still image from the extremely logical and coherent movie “The Fountain”

Happy solstice!

Italian plums

Italian plums

Some colors are more subtle than others.  In fact some colors are so subtle that they are wholly ancillary to others.  Fine artists are attuned to all manner of delicate films, coatings, glazes, and washes which are added to a deeper color in order to produce a sense of depth or the illusion of texture. Subtle color-words—those which describe a texture, a mood, or a translucent quality are deeply appreciated.  Today’s color describes a secondary color which was known deep into classical antiquity and earlier.  The word glaucous derives from the Latin “glaucus” which in turn derives from the Greek “glaukos” (all of which mean the same thing)–a waxy, shiny gray/green/blue neutral color such as the blush found on fresh grapes.  If you have ever eaten fresh grapes or plums you will be familiar with this color as the delicate coating on purple plums and grapes (and if you have not eaten fresh grapes and plums, who are you? Live better!).

Grapes

Grapes

Certain plants also have a glaucous coatings—such as cacti and other succulents.  Ornithologists, ever in a bind to come up with Latin and Greek words to describe the numerous species of bird have also taken to the word.  Birds which have waxy neutral gray-blue feathers often have “glaucus” in their binomial names (just as yellowish birds are often known as fulvous).  The glaucous-winged gull (Larus glaucescens) of the Pacific Northwest is a fine example.  The birds’ grey wings look as though they were glazed on by a gifted confectioner.

Glaucous Winged Gull (gull (Larus glaucescens)

Glaucous Winged Gull (gull (Larus glaucescens)

I like the word because I like plums, cacti, and birds (obviously in different ways) but I also appreciate the concept of a pale color which is always delicately brushed across something else.  With a poke of the finger or a good washing in the kitchen sink, the color glaucous would vanish.

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A Composite Image of M104--The Sombrero Galaxy--taken from the Hubble Space Teelscope in Summer of 2003

A Composite Image of M104–The Sombrero Galaxy–taken from the Hubble Space Teelscope in Summer of 2003 (click on the image for a full-sized version)

Today I am posting some pictures of what I think is the most beautiful deep space object.  The Sombrero Galaxy (M104) is a nearby galaxy which is visible edge-on in the constellation of Virgo.  Actually, calling it an object might be a bit misleading since M104 consists of more than 400 billion stars–not to mention numerous associated globular clusters, innumerable planets, immense clouds of gas & gas, and a supermassive black hole which lies in the center.  The black hole in the center of M104 isn’t a mild mannered & quiescent black hole like the one in the center of the Milky Way either.  Based on the speed of revolution of the stars near the middle of M104, astronomers calculate that the central black hole has a billion times the mass of the sun.

An Infrared false-color image of the Sombrero Galaxy

An Infrared false-color image of the Sombrero Galaxy

In cosmic terms, the Sombrero galaxy is nearby—which is to say it is merely 28-odd million light years away.  The galaxy was discovered in the late eighteenth century by Pierre Méchain . Other prominent 18th century astronomers subsequently observed and studied M104, including Charles Messier (which is the reason the galaxy is included in the “Messier” catalog and has a M-designation) and the redoubtable William Herschel who noted a “dark-stratum” bounding the luminous central bulge.  We now know that this ring around M104 is a toroid dust lane of vast proportions which halos the galaxy.   Astronomers initially thought that the Sombrero Galaxy was an unbarred spiral galaxy, but thanks to observations from NASA’s Spitzer space telescope (an infrared scope orbiting Earth), the scientific community has revised their estimation of its size upward.  It lies somewhere between a spiral galaxy and an elliptical galaxy.   In other words, when you look at the Sombrero Galaxy, you are looking at something vast beyond human comprehension—a galaxy bigger than our own filled with who knows what things we will never know.  And yet if you expand the Hubble photo at the top of this post, you will see that all of the little stars shining around M104 are other galaxies farther away.

Olé!

Olé!

 

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I’m afraid I don’t have a huge amount of time to write a complicated blog post today, but I thought I would share these endearing photos of a broody chicken nesting on a basket of cute puppies.  Mabel the chicken is a pet chicken who lives on a farm in Shrewsbury, Shropshire.  Her owners saved her from the dining table because of her likeable personality.  The hen looks after the puppies as though they were chicks whenever the puppies’ mother is outside.

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Today Santa Claus, an undead cleric from the early Byzantine Empire, is one of the most popular and beloved figures in the world.  In the Christian canon, only God, Jesus, and Mary are more recognizable than the jolly fat man (sorry, Holy Ghost).  As discussed in yesterday’s post, there were many different portrayals of Saint Nicholas/Santa/Sinterklaas/Father Christmas in different parts of Europe during the late middle ages and the early modern era.  As industrialization and mass media became more prevalent, these images became amalgamated into the contemporary image of Santa, a compassionate old man with a red and white suit who tends to portliness.   Much of this picture comes from Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”.  Additionally a series of illustrations by German-born American caricaturist Thomas Nast filled out the vernacular picture of Santa (Nast also popularized the Republican elephant, the democratic donkey, the figure of Columbia, and Uncle Sam).  Coca-Cola did not first provide his signature red outfit–but they made it famous.  Breakthroughs in communication have further consolidated this modern identity.

The Coming of Santa Clause (Thomas Nast, 1872)

The Coming of Santa Clause (Thomas Nast, 1872)

The mass-produced, mass-media portrayals of the gift-giving saint show a compassionate globalized executive who runs his supernatural empire from the geographic North Pole.  All the dark edges have been smoothed away from Santa:  he does not whip bad children or give them fossilized hydrocarbons nor does he subcontract such punishments to devils like Krampus.  Like me, Santa is a toymaker, but, unlike me, he has a tremendous grasp of worldwide logistics.  A huge team of competent elves run his modernized factories and provide him with support.

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Even more shockingly, after one and a half thousand years of celibacy, the devout bishop suddenly obtained a wife.  Mrs. Claus is usually pictured as a matronly but vivacious partner: a kind of polar first lady who frets about child-welfare, PR, and housekeeping –unless Santa is indisposed, whereupon she seamlessly takes over the reins for her demi-god husband (or am I the only one who saw that Christmas special?).

“For entirely personal reasons, I would like to announce that I am immediately resigning my position as bishop” -Santa

“For entirely personal reasons, I would like to announce that I am immediately resigning from my office as bishop” -Santa

Santa can be omnipresent, traveling everywhere on Earth in one night with help from deathless flying reindeer and a bottomless bag of holding.   He hears and sees all. This globalized Santa no longer performs flashy individual miracles (like resurrecting chopped-up children from barrels of salt).  Instead he has become a polished politician—relying on vast support networks to change the emotional frame of reference for the masses.

A typical contemporary movie might show Santa simultaneously helping a sad little girl connect with her estranged business-executive father, reuniting lovers sundered by mischance, saving a shelter puppy about to be put down, and finding homes for a plucky group of orphans (maybe even trying to help a lost toymaker/blogger/artist).  Santa always accomplishes everything with a deft touch so that the plots all interweave and everyone discovers the goodness was always in their hearts.  The solutions—kindness, generosity, love–were always obvious and Santa didn’t need to be there at all…or did he?

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Santa’s tale is one of the strangest but strongest story arcs imaginable.   Over millennia, Bishop Nicholas, a thin, ascetic church prelate from fourth century Anatolia has changed into a globally recognized god of generosity.   The orphan child has apotheosized into the spirit of giving: A Christmas miracle indeed.

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This post is the third installment of a series concerning the astonishing 1600 year backstory of Santa Claus (you should start here with part 1, if you want things in chronological order).  At the conclusion of yesterday’s post, Saint Nicholas was a beloved saint from Greek-speaking Anatolia who was the focus of miracle stories about fighting demons, helping the poor, and raising the dead.  Many lesser-known saints have similar stories (although few miracles are as impressive as the story of Saint Nicholas resurrecting the murdered boys).  So how did Saint Nicholas transition from an ascetic Mediterranean wonder-worker to de-facto god of the winter solstice?

Pagan-Yule-spirit

The answer involves the multi-century conversion of northern and central Europe to Christianity.  In order to facilitate the widespread conversion of Germanic and Scandinavian tribes into the Christian fold, churchmen drew on preexisting traditions and customs.  Many pagan deities thus became conflated with traditional saints (a cultural syncretism not dissimilar from what we wrote about in this post about Afro-Caribbean voodoo loa) and many pagan customs worked their way into Christianity.   Saint Nicholas was a stern bearded figure whose feast day occurred near Yule (winter solstice).  Additionally he had a history of giving gifts, punching people, and performing strange resurrection miracles.  Because of these traits Saint Nicholas became identified with Wotan (or Odin), the otherworldly wandering king of Germanic gods.

Wotan

Wotan

At Yuletime, Wotan would hunt through the sky on his flying eight-legged horse Sleipnir.   Many of Wotan’s old names and characteristics are those of a wizard-like winter king.  He had a long white beard and his epithet “Jólnir” meant “Yuletime god”.  He held suzerainty over tribe of magical gnomes/dwarves who acted as his smiths and crafted wonderful weapon for him.  If a youth was worthy, Wotan would bring him a shiny knife or axe (which was slipped into a shoe or under the bed).  If a youth was unworthy, then the hapless dullard was in for a round of physical punishment or was simply dragged away by trolls and demons.   Wotan knew who was worthy and who was not because he had two black ravens “Thought” and “Memory” who traveled through the world taking note of mortal proclivities.  Speaking of animal helpers, at Yuletime it was characteristic to leave apples and carrots for Sleipnir (the flying horse) just in case Wotan decided to visit.

Santa?

Santa?

Stepping into these big northern shoes was a heady transition for an orthodox Mediterranean saint.  Additionally, northern Europe was not culturally homogenous.  Saint Nicholas took on different names and characteristics in different parts of Europe.  In Germany he was known variously Weihnachtsmann, Nickel, Klaus, Boozenickel, Hans Trapp, or Pelznickel. Sometimes he was served by bestial underlings like Knecht Ruprecht or Krampus.  In other regions he worked alone or opposed these winter demons.  In the north Sant Nick’s dwarvish smiths morphed into a tribe of elves but in Switzerland they morphed into Moors.  Wotan’s ravens turned into the famous naughty/nice list.

Nikolaus & Krampus

Nikolaus & Krampus

Later, in Holland, Saint Nicholas became Sinterklaas, a magical gift-giving bishop who traveled by means of flying sled—and who kept a captured Surinamese servant to help out (you can read about the eyebrow-raising modern interpretations of Zwarte Piet in this article by my friend Jessica).  For some reason Sinterklaas was thought to live in Spain during his off-season. England (with its mix of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and French culture) had its own traditions of Father Christmas—a nature god clothed in green.  Children from France waited for Père Noël to bring them gifts on his magic donkey (and don’t even ask about Ded Moroz, the Slavic Frost King who travels around Russia with Snegurochka).

Sinterklaas & Associates (A drawing from a picture book by Rie Cramer)

Sinterklaas & Associates (A drawing from a picture book by Rie Cramer)

In other words Saint Nicholas became more interesting and diverse as he was adopted by different folklore traditions.  However he also became confusing and strange to the point of unrecognizability.  Yet by the 18th and 19th centuries, new trends of globalization and industrialization were sweeping Europe—and the globe.  Santa was ready to put on his red suit and drive his reindeer to his toy factory.  You can read up to where his story meets the present (the temporal present!) in tomorrow’s post.

What is even going on here?

What is even going on here?

Life and Miracles of Saint Nicholas, by Alexander Boguslawski, Professor of Russian Studies, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida. Professor Boguslawski's dissertation (1982), "The Vitae of St. Nicholas and His Hagiographical Icons in Russia," provided the background for the painting

Life and Miracles of Saint Nicholas (Alexander Boguslawski, 1982, “The Vitae of St. Nicholas and His Hagiographical Icons in Russia,” provided the background for the painting)

Yesterday’s post concerning Saint Nicholas ended on a somber note as the saint, well…he died and was buried in a spooky sarcophagus within a basilica in Asia Minor.  Ordinarily such an ending represents a comprehensive conclusion to a biography. Yet in the centuries that followed the death of Nicholas, stories began to spread that he was up and about, busily performing miracles.  The miraculous tales of Saint Nicholas are from the Byzantine era and they possess that era’s powerful (and unnerving) combination of classical Roman mythography and medieval hagiography.  Some of these tales were post-dated to involve the living Nicholas—like the stories where he healed a woman’s withered hand when he was a child, fought with pirates as a young man (yeah!), or cast a group of demons out of a funereal cypress tree.  However other miracles performed by Saint Nicholas seem to take place in a timeless setting where the Saint acquired the ability to teleport, control the weather, and possessed full powers over human affairs, including life and death.

St Nicholas of Bari Rebuking the Storm (Bicci di Lorenzo, ca. 1430s)

St Nicholas of Bari Rebuking the Storm (Bicci di Lorenzo, ca. 1430s)

Saint Nicholas so often ended up fighting pirates, storms, and the capricious ocean that some scholars think that his hagiographers might have borrowed their stories from Neptune myths. In one story he teleported a Greek sailor out of the middle of a storm raging in the Black Sea.  In a different tale he rescued a mariner by means of a helpful whale.  Sometimes he manumitted slaves by whisking them across oceans away from the hands of cruel emirs.  Indeed, even today Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors.  Yet an even more important aspect of his nature was coming to the fore: in more and more stories he gave away gifts to those in need (frequently under cover of anonymity) or looked after children in peril.

Patron Saint of Sailors, Travelers, and Seafarers

Patron Saint of Sailors, Travelers, and Seafarers

The two myths which have the most impact on his future career—as a gift-giver and benefactor to children are intensely harrowing and awful. They both have the surreal panic of dark fairytales or vivid nightmares (or Byzantine history!).  So if you are a child (in which case, what are you doing here?) or easily impressionable you might want to relax with some fluffy creatures and skip the rest of this post.

St. Nicholas and the Three Gold Balls, From the predella of the Quaratesi triptych from San Niccolo (Gentile da Fabriano, AD 1425, tempera on panel)

St. Nicholas and the Three Gold Balls, From the predella of the Quaratesi triptych from San Niccolo (Gentile da Fabriano, AD 1425, tempera on panel)

Three girls of an impoverished noble family were left orphaned when their father died.  Since the father expired in the middle of uncertain business affairs, they were left destitute and without dowries.  The only way for the distraught maidens to make ends meet was to find recourse in the oldest profession.  As they wept and prepared to enter a life of prostitution, a glowing hand appeared in the window and cast three balls of gold into the house.  It was Saint Nicholas giving away princely sums of gold in order to prevent the little girls from being turned out.

St. Nicholas Resuscitating Three Youths (Bicci di Lorenzo, ca.  1430s, tempera)

St. Nicholas Resuscitating Three Youths (Bicci di Lorenzo, ca. 1430s, tempera)

The most intense miracle performed by Saint Nicholas has curious parallels with the story of the three girls.  Three wealthy little boys were traveling through the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor.  They came to an inn with a treacherous and avaricious owner.  In the middle of the night the innkeeper stabbed the children to death and stole their money and clothes.  Then he butchered the bodies and put the severed pieces in salt so he could sell the children as hams (thus simultaneously turning a profit and disposing of the corpses).  For several nights it seemed he had gotten away with his horrifying act, but then with a crack of thunder, Saint Nicholas appeared in the inn.  The Saint summarily dispensed with the innkeeper who was heard from no more.  Hastening to the curing house, Nicholas opened up the salt casks and tenderly reassembled the pickled pieces of the unlucky boys into whole bodies.  Lifting his arms he summoned divine power to reanimate the murdered children and send them on their way (unscathed, I guess, although one would imagine that being dismembered and brined would leave some post-traumatic stress).

Patron Saint of travelers and Seafarers

Patron Saint of travelers and Seafarers

These intense miracle-stories traveled through the near east and beyond. Nicholas became one of the most famous saints—one of the very special dead who serve as divine intermediaries to the numinous in medieval Christianity (and up to this very day in Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity).  As proselytizing clerics made their way into pagan Germany, Scandinavia, and Slavic lands, they spread tales of the wonder-working bishop who gave gifts and healed children.  After hundreds of years of performing miracles in the middle east it would not seem like things could get stranger for Saint Nicholas, but in the German forests and Alpine mountains he was due to transform again.  You can read all about it in tomorrow’s post!

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