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Today, to remind you to enjoy yourself on the long Labor Day weekend (and to take whatever joy you can from the dying summer) here are two images of maenads with snakes. I’m sorry they are such small images and that they are distorted from being glazed on non-three-dimensional surfaces of fifth century Greek vases. Still they are very beautiful. The maenads were attendants of Dionysus, god of wine, tragedy, and delirium. The constant drinking drove maenads to euphoric madness and they were quite dangerous (unless you could stay as messed-up as them).  Each of the dancers holds a thyrsus—an sacred symbol of Dionysus which we’ll write about next week.

Cheers! To life, fulfillment, and fecundity!

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Peridot Tiara

Peridot Tiara

Peridot is the birthstone of fiery August so I thought it would be fitting to feature a crown made from the yellow-green stones. Unfortunately chartreuse does not seem to be the go-to color for royal headwear, but with some searching I found the splendid tiara pictured above. The piece was apparently made for Princess Henrietta of Nassau-Weilburg by Kochert, the court jeweler to the Habsburg family, sometime in the 1820s. It is most associated with Princess Isabella of Croÿ (1856-1931), who married Archduke Friedrich, grandson of Henrietta.

Peridot Parure Set

Peridot Parure Set

The tiara is a transformer—it has a matching peridot necklace which can be disassembled and attached to little crown as standing pendants. There is also a large peridot brooch for anyone bold enough to wear it. This sort of matching morphing jewelry set is known as a parure and was especially popular in the nineteenth century. Of course times change and tastes shift. In 1937, the peridot parure was sold to another noble, Count Johannes Coudenhove-Kalergi (1893-1965). The counts daughter chose to live in the United States and dispense with the trappings of nobility—so the tiara set in a safety deposit box until her death in 2000, when a Hollywood jeweler purchased it from her estate. They loaned it to celebrities until they could find a private buyer. Here is a picture of Joan Rivers wearing the peridot necklace at the 2004 Golden Globes ceremony… _peridot4Good grief!

 

A Toad Lily blossom

A Toad Lily blossom

Time for a short flower post to highlight the joys of the late summer garden! Toad lilies are delicately beautiful woodland flowers with a somewhat awkward English common name. The genus name “Tricyrtis” is not very euphonic either, but the pretty little spotted members of the lily family are a real highlight of temperate gardens at the end of August and into the still-warm fall months.

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Toad lilies are natives of Asia where various species range from the Himalayas east across China and all the way out to Japan and the Philippines. The flowers are various soft shades of blue, purple, mauve, and brown with little dark animal-like spots (which give them their English name). They are perennials which sprout from a creeping rhizome and they are hardy enough to resist extremes of both heat and cold. In their native habitat they grow at the edges of forests and bamboo groves—which makes them shade tolerant. Look at how pretty they are!

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The mighty Tibetan mastiff!

The mighty Tibetan mastiff!

High on the Tibetan plateau life is hard. Roving bands of marauders have been lurking in the mountains and skree for millennia. Wolves, snow leopards, eagles, and high-altitude jumping spiders are always leaping out from behind glaciers to gobble up unwary travelers and/or their domestic animals. In this adversarial alpine world of unending peril, the herdsmen, weak-boned monks, and goodhearted family folk have only one consta\

Picture of Cangni--a Tibetan Mastiff (Giuseppe Castiglione, Ching Dynasty, ink and watercolor on silk)

Picture of Cangni–a Tibetan Mastiff (Giuseppe Castiglione, Ching Dynasty, ink and watercolor on silk)

The Tibetan mastiff is a huge furry guard dog noted for great power and constant vigilance (although it is not really a mastiff but a large spitz-type dog that reminded European explorers of mastiffs back home). The dogs weigh between 45–68 kg (100-160 pounds) although “mastiffs” at the upper extremes of these sizes are from Chinese and Western kennels. The historical Tibetan mastiff was somewhat smaller so that its nomadic owners could keep it fed. Unlike many large dogs, Tibetan mastiffs have comparatively lon lives of up to 14 years. The breed is considered a “primitive breed” which means it has fewer genetic differences from wolves then most modern dogs and its ancestors were presumably thus among the first domestic dog breeds (although geneticists dispute when and how the Tibetan mastiff came into being). To survive in the inclement Himalayan weather mastiffs have double coats of coarse weatherproof outer hair which protect down-like inner hair. These magnificent heavy coats come in many colors, including black, black and tan, gold, orange, red, and bluish-gray. Additionally many of the dogs have white markings on their coats.

Tibetan Mastiff with Owner

Tibetan Mastiff with Owner

Tibetan mastiffs are meant to be fearless guardians of flocks, camps, villages, and monasteries. Although they have the size and strength to fight wolves, leopards, and varlets, they mostly just bark, growl, and mark their territory in traditional canine fashion to ward off interlopers. The big furry guards are famous for lazily sleeping all day so that they can be awake and alert at night when danger is on the prowl. The dog came briefly into popularity in England in the early nineteenth century when George IV owned a pair. Today they are back in popularity—but this time in booming China, where they are the status symbol du jour for the nouveau riche. Of course buyers need to be alert in the wild wild east where there are frequently shenanigans afoot. Rich Chinese will pay millions (or tens of millions) of yuan for show quality Tibetan mastiffs. When they get home and wash their new furry friends, the dye in the dog hair washes out to reve3al sub-optimum colors! Even worse, the Tibetan mastiffs are sometimes revealed to have hair extensions so they look more like lions! Oh, the duplicity!

What the...? Are Tibetan mastiffs masters of disguise?

What the…? Are Tibetan mastiffs masters of disguise?

Saint George and the Dragon (Vittore Carpaccio, 1507 AD, tempera on panel)

Saint George and the Dragon (Vittore Carpaccio, 1507 AD, tempera on panel)

 

Vittore Carpaccio was born around 1465 in either Venice or in Capodistria (a port in Istria which had been taken over by the Republic of Venice in the 14th century). His father was a glovemaker who was most likely from Albania. Carpaccio is one of the masters of early Venetian art, but he is not as famous as his contemporaries Bellini and Giorgione. This is because of Carpaccio’s style inclined toward the conservative and Gothic rather than towards the humanistic Renaissance style which was coming into vogue, but it is also because he did not have the same caliber of successful students as his two peers (who taught Titian).

Here is Carpaccio’s 1507 work Saint George and the Dragon which is painted in tempera on a panel and is housed in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. The Scuolo was a confraternity—a sort of early version of a corporation—which commissioned the work in the first years of the sixteenth century and it has been there ever since.

When I was a child I always wanted to go to the Medieval section of the museum to look at knights–and I was always disappointed by all the self tormenting Saints and Jesuses (which took me a while to properly appreciate). Here, however, is a painting I would have loved! The splendidly armed and armored knight is depicted at the exact moment he drives a beaked lance through the monster’s head! This incendiary action is framed by a meticulously detailed world of dizzying beauty and horror. The dragon is surrounded by the dreadful remains of his many victims. You should blow up the digital photo of the painting to get a good view of all the snakes, skulls, toads, and seashells scattered on the round around the dragon’s lair (not to mention the naked half-eaten maiden whose remains are being scavenged by a lizard). In the near background a Libyan princess in exotic Eastern headwear clasps her hands in horror. Although her vivid attire is meant to represent the exotic East, she seems like a fragment of Carpaccio’s imagination. Likewise, the fantasy city in the background is meant to be Silene of Libya, yet the trade ships of the Middle Ages and all of the Romanesque and Gothic castles, keeps, and villas in the background put one firmly in mind of the Adriatic.

All the major lines of the painting (the dragon’s head, the lance, the ocean, and the horse’s back legs) point straight at the glittering red and black knight who dominates the composition. Resplendent on his destrier, clad in sable armor, with his blond curly hair cascading behind him he is perfectly at home in his world of religion and ultraviolence. The knight is the perfect representation of the troubled world of early sixteenth century Venice (increasingly at odds with the Ottoman Empire). It was a time and place which called for violent men of action.

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Since I am not much of a mathematician, I don’t generally write about numbers. I am afraid that if I do so, there will be a loud band and a flash and one of my disgruntled arithmetic teachers from secondary school will appear with a red pen to berate me (also numbers sort of squirm around like little spiders on the page in a deeply unsettling way). Nevertheless, today, for entirely obscure reasons, I thought I might dedicate a post to the natural number forty (40), a number which seemingly has great spiritual significance within the three Abrahamic faiths.

"No, we are not stopping for directions!"

“No, we are not stopping for directions!”

In the Old Testament forty crops up again and again. The flood which rained out the sinful people off the world (which Noah escaped via zoological ark) lasted forty days and forty nights. Not only did Moses and the Hebrew people live in the Sinai desert for forty years, but most famous Israelite kings also had forty year reigns (examples include Eli (1 Samuel 4:18), Saul (Acts 13:21), David (2 Samuel 5:4), and Solomon (1 Kings 11:42)). The giant Goliath challenged the Israelites two times a day for forty days before they finally found a champion to defeat him.

The principal figures o Christianity with 40 holy virgins

The principal figures o Christianity with 40 holy virgins

Christ was a Jew and Christianity kept up the fascination with forty. Jesus fasted for forty days and night in the desert before he was tempted by the devil. When he returned from death, he lingered for forty days in the world before ascending bodily to heaven and the great beyond. Lent lasts for forty days before Easter.

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Islam has even more references to forty (although unfortunately I am not nearly as familiar with Muslim traditions or theology). Mohammed was forty years old when he received his divine revelations. The evil false prophet Al-Masih ad-Dajjal roams (or will roam) the world for 40 day (40 year?) increments. The mourning period for devout Moslems is forty days. Perhaps most famously, righteous men will be rewarded in the afterlie with forty houri—beautiful black-eyed virgins who cater to every whim: although this tradition is riddled with textual difficulties—the number may be seventy-two instead of forty and houri may actually be a mistranslation or raisins. These are important distinctions and it would be good to sort them out, but, sadly, faith does not easily trade in ironclad certainties…

Seriously? Forty raisins?

Seriously? Forty raisins?

So what is behind this obsession with forty? Is there some divine numerological secret which underlies the three great Monotheistic religions? Do the Pentateuch, the Bible, and the Koran all hint at profound number magic which would put endless power in our hands? Well, actually, scholars suggest that forty was such a large number that it just meant “a whole bunch” to the original authors Genesis. Additionally a forty year period was reckoned to be the Subsequent religious writers seemingly used the number to lend ancient gravitas to their own texts. Of course numbers sometimes confuse me (as does monotheism), so maybe I am missing something here. I anyone has a better idea, I am all ears.

Pilgrim Geese

Pilgrim Geese!

I’m sorry for the lack of posts for the last week: I was out of the city on a family visit in the bosky hills Appalachia. It was wonderful to get out of the city and spend some time on the farm recharging my mental and emotional batteries! One of the highlights of the trip was interacting with my parents’ flock of pilgrim geese–a heritage breed of medium sized geese noted for their mild manners and gender-selected colors: pilgrim ganders are white (with maybe a few dark tail feathers) whereas the female geese are medium gray with white bellies.

Argh! Back up a little bit...

Argh! Back up a little bit…

Pilgrim geese obtained their name because they allegedly came to America with the protestant refugees who founded New England—the pilgrims–but that dramatic historically interesting story may be an invention. The Live Stock Conservancy describes the various possible origins of the breed on its website:

[A poultry researcher] found numerous references to auto-sexing geese in colonial America, western England and Normandy, France, but the breed was never referred to by a name. According to some authorities, the Pilgrim goose is related to the now rare West of England goose, another auto-sexing breed, which could possibly have arrived with early colonists…But Oscar Grow, a leading authority on waterfowl in the 1900s, claims to have developed the breed in Iowa, and that his wife named them in memory of their relocation – or pilgrimage – to Missouri during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Authorities agree that the breed was first documented by the name “Pilgrim” in 1935, corresponding with the Grow family’s pilgrimage. The Pilgrim was admitted into the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection in 1939.

Pilgrim geese are able to fly short distances and they have a long lifespan (of up to 40 years—not that such an age is particularly old for humans!). They are friendly birds and intelligence shines in their round gray eyes. Goose society is very lively with lots of political squabbling and jockeying for prime mates and nesting sites. Like other domestic geese they largely subsist on grass and green shoots which they avidly graze with their serrated beaks, but they are hungry, hungry birds and they love special treats. In order to socialize her goose flock, my mother gives the birds some corn and mash in the morning and in the evening. The geese all crowd around the galvanized bin where their food is kept and inquisitively nibble on the pockets of the goose tenders. If the food does not appear rapidly enough they will point their beaks upward toward their human keepers and open them wide hoping perhaps that we might funnel grain directly down their gullet. They are extremely hilarious standing around with their bills open like big feathery ridiculous Venus flytraps!

The author with pilgrim goslings (who needed to be gathered up and put in a shed to protect them from predators)

The author with pilgrim goslings (who needed to be gathered up and put in a shed to protect them from predators)

A digital reconstruction of the Original Serpent Column (Greek, ca. 478 BC, bronze)

A digital reconstruction of the Original Serpent Column (Greek, ca. 478 BC, bronze)

The Serpent Column is a stunning work of ancient Greek sculpture which is two and a half millennia old. It was cast in the early fifth century to commemorate the Greek victories at Plataea and Mycale which effectively ended the threat of Persian annexation.  According to Herodotus, the column was made from the melted bronze armor and weapons of the defeated Persian army. It was set in front of the great oracle at Delphos to forever commemorate the power of Greek arms and to commemorate the 31 Greek city states which joined together to oppose the mighty Persian war machine. In its original form the 8 meter (26 foot tall) column consisted of three mighty snakes coiled together. On top of their bronze heads was a sacrificial tripod made of solid gold. During the Third Sacred War (356 BC–346 BC), the Phocian general, Philomelus, plundered the golden tripod and used the gold to pay for mercenaries (an act which was regarded as deepest sacrilege by the Greeks).

The last known serpent head missing the jaw (Greek, ca. 378 BC, Bronze)

The last known serpent head missing the jaw (Greek, ca. 378 BC, Bronze)

When Constantine the Great declared Christianity to be the state religion of the Empire and moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople, he ordered that the column be removed from Delphos and relocated in the new capital city. The Serpent Column was placed at the center of the city’s great Hippodrome (chariot-racing track) among other famous statues of gods, kings, and heroes. Eventually the column was converted into a magnificent fountain and the missing gold tripod was replaced with a huge golden bowl. During the misbegotten fourth Crusade, when excommunicated French knights sacked Byzantium as they tried to get to Cairo, the gold bowl was carried off.

An Ottoman Miniature Painting of the Column

An Ottoman Miniature Painting of the Column

Sometime in the seventeenth century the three serpent heads which had topped the column for countless centuries fell off. Some sources contend that they were removed by an extremely drunken Polish ambassador, but more reliable Ottoman sources assert that they simply toppled off the statue. One serpent head still remains in existence in a Turkish museum. The column itself is still where it has been since the time of Constantine the Great, although the Hippodrome is largely gone and has been replaced by a square named Sultanahmet Meydani.

The actual Serpent Column as it stands in Istanbul today (with the obelisk of Thutmose III behind)

The actual Serpent Column as it stands in Istanbul today (with the obelisk of Thutmose III behind)

An Illustrated Haiku from the strange depths of the Internet

An Illustrated Haiku from the strange depths of the Internet

Today (August 8) is International Cat Day, a holiday which honors our beloved feline friends. The domestic cat descended from the African Wild Desert Cat in the depths of prehistory and has been revered (though not universally) ever since. Cats have been portrayed both as gods and as monsters by artists. They represent beauty, grace, friendship, happiness, and love. They represent bad luck, witchcraft, endless hunger, and cruelty. Humans cannot get enough of our bewhiskered predatory friends and their odd dual natures. Additionally, cats dominate the worldwide web–the hive mind conglomerate which has become so central to human activity (and upon which you are presumably reading this post).

Old Fashioned Catfish Charm from eBay

Old Fashioned Catfish Charm from eBay

I am personally celebrating International Cat Day with a rabbit fur mouse for Sepia Cat–my beloved middle aged tabby who sleeps purring on my legs (when she is not committing war crimes against mice). To celebrate on this blog, however, I am giving you a whimsical gallery of cat/fish hybrids which artists draw as puns to represent the siluridae. When I was a child I loved these kinds of endearing mixed animal cartoons (and they deeply influenced the Zoomorphs—a line of mix-and-match animal toys I designed). I hope you enjoy the chimerical fun—but more than that, I hope you are especially nice to your catfriends on this, their special day!

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Cartoon Catfish by Steven Wallet

Cartoon Catfish by Steven Wallet

Stock Illustration by RobinOlimb

Stock Illustration by RobinOlimb

 

Tabby Sabertooth Catfish by Kennon9 (Deviantart)

Tabby Sabertooth Catfish by Kennon9 (Deviantart)

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Felix the Catfish

Felix the Catfish

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A Catfish Aisha from Neopets

A Catfish Aisha from Neopets

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The carrot (Daucus carota sativus) has been in cultivation at least since classical antiquity (although Roman sources sometimes seemingly confuse the root vegetable with its close cousin, the parsnip). However don’t imagine toga-clad Romans walking around the Forum chewing on bright orange carrots like Bugs Bunny! In Classical antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages, carrots were purple or white. It was not until the 16th century that far-sighted Dutch farmers stumbled upon a mutant orange carrot and hybridized it with other varieties to begin the now-familiar tradition of all orange carrots. It is said that the orange carrots were chosen not just for their patriotic Netherlandish color (the princely Dutch House of Orange was leading a revolt against the Spanish) but also because they were sweeter and milder than the ancient white and purple cultivars.

 

A rainbow of heritage carrots from Burpee seeds

A rainbow of heritage carrots from Burpee seeds

Apparently all humans (with our tastes skewed toward a primate color palate) like the color orange better. Despite the fact that other colors of the tasty root dominated the market for two thousand years, orange carrots have now thoroughly supplanted the old varieties. Even in diverse New York, you would have to go to an esoteric farmer’s market or a specialty shop like Dean & Deluca to maybe dredge up some purple carrots. However seed catalogs still sell them–so if you want to eat like a healthy Roman grandee (assuming grandees even ate carrots), you can always grow your own.  Additionally, it looks like health food aficionados have become convinced that purple carrots contain anti-oxidants, so maybe the color pendulum is about to swing back the other direction…

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