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nicholas

In myth and in legend there are those who rise from the dead.  Most of these entities are forsaken monsters and vampires who dwell in darkness and unending hunger.  This past Halloween, we visited some of these undead creatures (namely lamiae, draugar, and hopping vampires).  However, not all of the undead are ghouls or fiends: a few of the entities that shook off the prison of mortality are transcendent beings—saints, saviors, benefactors, & gods.

In the third century AD, Nikolaos of Myra was born in the city of Patara, which is now Turkey but was, at the time, a long-standing part of the Eastern Roman empire.  His parents were wealthy Greeks who died of a plague when he was a small child. Little Nikolaos had no brothers or sisters, but his uncle was the bishop of Patara, and the bishop took in the orphan.  Nikolaos proved to be a devout and ardent Christian.  Under his uncle’s tutelage, he quickly rose through the church ranks, first being tonsured as a reader, then ordained as a priest, and finally consecrated as bishop of Myra, a port town in Asia Minor (in fact, some sources claim he was elected as bishop before being raised to the priesthood–a very rare career leap).

Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas

In 325 AD Emperor Constantine the great, “the thirteenth apostle”, convened all members of the episcopacy from across Christendom to attend the Council of Nicaea.  The Christian church in the early fourth century was being torn apart by competing ideas about the fundamental nature of divinity.  Followers of the theologian Athanasius believed that the son was begotten by the Heavenly Father from His own divine essence.  Followers of the popular presbyter Arius believed that Jesus was created from nothing—as were animals, spirits, and humans.  The church aristocracy convened to decide which of these opinions was dogma and which was heresy (and to settle certain other central affairs and credos of the universal Christian church).

Nikolaos Striking Arius

Nikolaos Striking Arius

Bishop Nikolaos was not one for learned theological argument.  Early in the counsel he stormed up to Arius and slapped (or maybe “punched”) him in the face—and Nikolaos was promptly expelled from the proceedings.  After weeks and weeks of harrowing canonical debate, the church fathers decided exactly the same thing as Nikolaos.  Arius was excommunicated and his ideas were found to be heretical. The Arians either changed their opinions or went into exile.  Nikolaos became a folk hero for his rash actions which seemed to take on the quality of foresight considering how the counsel ended.

A Roman Coin depicting the Temple of Artemis at Myra

A Roman Coin depicting the Temple of Artemis at Myra

Nikolaos returned to Myra as a famous figure, but he was troubled by the great temple to Artemis which was there.  Myra was sacred to Artemis and her temple in the town was reputed to be the most stunningly beautiful and magnificent construction in the entire part of the world.  Nikolaos used his newfound influence to have the structure destroyed and to forcibly convert the remaining pantheists into belief in his one stern god.

The Death of Nikolaos

The Death of Nikolaos

He died as a revered figure in 343 AD.  Symeon the Metaphrast movingly describes the death of Nikolaos in the following florid manner:

Now after he had long lived in this manner, renowned for his virtuous conduct, he asperged the metropolis of Myra with sweet and lovely unction distilled from the blossoms of divine Grace. When he came to the very advance age, full of days both heavenly and earthly, he need must comply with the common law of nature, as is man’s lot. He was ill but a short time. In the grip of that illness, while rendering those lauds and thanksgivings to God which are said in death, he happily yielded up his spirit [for while he desired to remain in the flesh, Nicholas equally desired to be unyoked from it]. He left this brief and transitory life to cross over to that blessed everlasting life where he rejoices with the angels while more clearly and openly contemplating the light of Truth. But his previous body, borne by the holy hands of bishops and all the clergy with torches and with lights, was rested in the crypt which is at Myra.

Such is the story of the life of Nikolaos of Myra, orphan, acolyte, then orthodox churchman.  But for Nikolaos, life was only the beginning.  After death Nikolaos, or “Nicholas” to use the Anglicization of his Greek name came back stranger and stronger. His shadowy figure appeared throughout the land and stories began to circulate of miracles and transfigurations performed by the Saint.  His post-life supernatural journey would take him across thousands of years and see him transformed from being a (dead) ascetic bishop in the Levant into one of the most beloved religious figures in all of the world.  Tune in tomorrow for part two of the strange odyssey of Saint Nicholas, the symbol of generosity, compassion, and Christmastime.

The Tomb of Nikolaos

The Tomb of Nikolaos

DSC07154I’m sorry there was no post yesterday–I was busy trimming my holiday tree.  Tree worship was a common custom in many ancient cultures from China to Egypt to the Hebrews (and it is an underlying topic of this blog).  Pagan Europeans—particularly Scandinavians and Celts also venerated evergreen trees as a symbol of undying life.

DSC07186To symbolize life, I decorated my tree as a tree of life with all sorts of different animals from different epochs of life.  Looking at the detail photos you will notice familiar animals from past Ferrebeekeeper posts.  The mollusks are represented by the squid and the octopus.  There is a pangolin, a walrus, a rabbit, and a muskox, as well as a variety of other mammals. Best of all, you will notice a tom turkey!

DSC07157It took a while to gather all the different toy animals and put screw eyes and string on them, but I think you will agree the results were worth it!  My Christmas tree actually does represent my feelings about what is sacred and numinous in our world of amazing living things.  Hopefully it can get my friends and me through the dark yule/solstice season.  Merry Christmas and seasons greetings to everyone out there!  I hope you get the gifts you want and spend the season with the people whom you care for.

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My favorite mammals are the mighty proboscideans—elephants, mammoths, mastodons, gomphotheres, moeritheriums, and so on.  I have not written about them more because the only proboscideans we know a lot about are the elephants–and elephants are complicated—they are smart and they have human length lives of great social complexity, all of which makes them hard to write about.  Additionally elephants are tragic—their populations keep shrinking away as humankind grasps for ever more land and poachers kill the great sentient giants for their ivory.  Yet elephants still have a perilous chance to keep on living. What is even sadder than the senseless slaughter of the magnificent elephants are the other proboscideans, which have vanished one by one from earth.  Everyone knows about the woolly mammoth and Cuvieronius, the new world gomphothere, but the last non-elephant proboscideans to have died out were even more contemporary.

Stegodon2

The stegodons (from the extinct subfamily Stegodontinae) evolved in Southeast Asia approximately eleven and half million years ago.  They lived in large swaths of Asia throughout the Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs and they survived in Indonesia deep into the Holocene epoch. Radio-carbon dating has dated the last living stegodons to 2,150 BC.  The giants died after the pyramids were built at Giza and great cities had begun to sprout up in Mesopotamia and along the Indus valley.

Stegodons looked much like elephants—a resemblance which has caused much taxonomical confusion. Paleontologists once believed elephants descended from stegondons but It seems now that both stegodons and modern elephants descended from Gomphotheriidae (a sister group to the mammoths).   Stegodons had different molars and their tusks were so close together that their long trunks draped over the sides. There were many species of stegodons, the largest of which were among the largest of proboscideans, far more immense than today’s two elephant species.  The biggest stegodont were 4 m (13 ft) high at the shoulders and had a body length of 8 m (26 ft) which does not even count their 3 meter (10 foot) tusks!

 

800px-Elephantidae-scale.svg

 

Modern humans reached Southeast Asia 50,000 years ago so we lived in proximity with the stegodons for some time before they vanished.   Certain species of stegodons reached isolated Indonesian islands where, over generations, they shrank into dwarf forms.  These tiny stegodons were hunted by Homo floresiensis, which seems to have been a dwarf species of human (although the scientific community has not reached consensus concerning the nature of Homo floresiensis).  Imagining tiny versions of humans hunting tiny versions of huge elephant-like creatures boggles the mind!  I am profoundly sorry the stegodons dwarf, giant, or otherwise could not have held on for a few more millennia.  I would love to have seen them—or by 4000 years ago were they already as the Saola is now—ever retreating from a world that did not seem to fit them?

800px-Stegodon_ganesa

Hainan Partridge (Arborophila ardens)

Hainan Partridge (Arborophila ardens)

To refresh Ferrebeekeeper I am planning to expand the “Turkey” category to also include gamefowl and waterfowl (which together are scientifically known as the clade Galloanserae and constitute most of the farmbirds raised by humans).  Today though I am addressing the stories and allusions about a wild bird—the partridge.

partridge

Partridges are famous for being the first gift in the terrifyingly redundant seasonal carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (so the singer ends each of the many refrains singing about a partridge in a pear tree). I have always liked partridges–perhaps because of this association with the Yule season or maybe because of their distinctive comical prettiness. One of the most modest and attractive game fowl, partridges are part of the pheasant family.  Midway in size between pheasants and quail, they dwell on the ground (where they are adept at hiding) and forage for seeds.

Seriously, How crazy is this song?
Seriously, How crazy is this song?

In addition to their anchor position in a famous Christmas carol, partridges play a part in one of the great myths of classical antiquity—the Theseus/Cretan cycle which gave us stories of the Minotaur, Ariadne, Minos, Pasiphae, Icarus, and Daedalus.  Throughout the story, the inventor Daedalus is always curiously off to the side—creating the labyrinth, solving it, and flying away on wax wings. Although the story of the death of his son Icarus hints at his character, it is the story of his most talented apprentice which truly reveals Daedalus’ unpleasant nature.

Daedalus’ apprentice was his nephew Perdix.  Under his uncle’s tutelage, Perdix was quickly becoming a brilliant inventor/artificer in his own right.  One day, while walking on the shore, he saw the spine of a fish.  The shape gave him an idea and he crafted a notched copy of the bone in iron—thus was the first saw created. Later he invented the drafting compass by riveting two sharpened iron spikes together.

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Daedalus was envious of his nephew’s innovation and he was jealous of rivals.  One day as they were walking together on a high place the wily old inventor dropped an ingenious mechanical toy by the ledge.  As Perdix knelt to snatch up the device, Daedalus pushed him over the edge to his death.  However cunning Athena admired the craft and intellect of Perdix, so she did not let him die. As he fell through the air, the gray-eyed goddess transformed the boy into the partridge—known as perdix in Greek.  Thereafter the partridge has shunned roosting on high places or flying too high—in memory of the betrayal of Daedalus.

myth-image

The gods also remembered Daedalus’ cowardly murderous act and they branded him with a partridge so that he could not escape the deed.  The elderly inventor was banished to barbarian lands where his genius was not appreciated and ultimately died in obscurity.

Carnival-colored Honey (Photograph by Vincent Kessler, Reuters)

Carnival-colored Honey (Photograph by Vincent Kessler, Reuters)

In October of 2012, Beekeepers in Ribeauville (a town in the Alsace region of France) were shocked to find that bees were producing vivid green and blue honey.  The hard-working insects were not mutants or abstract expressionists.  They had apparently found a source of colorful sugars which they pragmatically incorporated into their preparations for winter.

It works surprisingly well as a vivid abstract work made with mixed media.

It works surprisingly well as a vivid abstract work made with mixed media.

Shocked by the unnatural shades of the sweet honey, the town’s apiarists combed the local countryside until they found the apparent source—M&M candy fragments.   A local biogas plant (a sort of industrial recycling plant) was processing candy fragments from a nearby Mars Candy plant.  The adaptable bees discovered barrels filled with the sugary waste and began converting it to honey and stocking up their honeycomb.  French law however is stern concerning what constitutes saleable honey (honey must be transparent to brown & produced from plant products) so the wacky carnival honey will never see market.  Additionally workers at the biogas plant have enclosed all the candy dust so that the industrious insects don’t take over their jobs.

Artist's Impression

Artist’s Impression

 

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