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A sculpture of the Yellow Emperor in the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor in Shaanxi

The Han people claim to be descended from a mythological cultural hero known as the Yellow Thearch, the Yellow Emperor, or as “Huangdi.”  Chinese history is long and complicated and so is the history of Huangdi!  At times the Yellow Emperor was regarded as a real person–the first emperor of China. In other eras he was regarded as a matchless Daoist sorceror or as a great shaman or even as a god of the Earth itself.  Modern scholars argue endlessly about how the myth came into being. The Communists tried to ban the cult during the cultural revolution, but quickly realized that it was a dreadful mistake.  Different eras imagine him differently, but he is always there at the beginning. Imagine if Moses, Aeneas, George Washington, and Merlin the Magician lived five thousand years ago and were somehow one person–that would be the Yellow Emperor.

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Inquiring of the Dao at the Cave of Paradise (Dai Jin, ca. mid 15th century AD) ink on silk

From time to time Ferrebeekeeper refers to the Chinese calendar (this is year 4716, the year of the Earth Pig).  That calendar was putatively started by the Yellow Emperor (which sort of puts a date stamp on him, come to think of it).  An incomplete list of the other accomplishments/inventions/innovations which have been attributed to Huangdi includes:

  • invention of houses
  • domestication of animals
  • first cultivation of grains
  • invention of carts/the wheel
  • invention and successful use of the war chariot
  • invention and popularization of clothing
  • the invention of boats and watercraft
  • discovery of astronomy
  • invention of archery
  • creation of numbers and mathematics
  • the creation of the first diadem
  • the invention of monarchy
  • The invention of writing and the creation of the oracle bone script
  • the invention of the guquin zither

Huangdi did not invent sericulture (the cultivation of silkworms): that was accomplished by his main wife, Leizu.  Yet, as you can see above, he still has a fairly impressive CV.  I haven’t even gotten into his military accomplishments or his physical prowess.  Suffice to say they were very great–like the time he defeated the bronze-headed monster, Chi You, and his 81 horned and four-eyed brothers…or the time he defeated the nightmare sorcerers from the mirror dimension and imprisoned them forever in mirrors (although it is a bit disturbing to think that that figure in the bathroom every morning is a dark magician who is forced to dress like you and act like you and LOOK like you because of the Yellow Emperor’s magic).

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Because Chinese history is so long and so vast it encompasses different cosmologies and pantheons.  Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism have somewhat pushed out the ancient religions of the Han Dynasty (although figures like Nüwa linger on in the background).  Huangdi sort of transcends change itself though and so he is in myths with great primordial Daoists like Guangchengzi and in stories with the now moribund goddess Xuannü, “the mystery lady” who was goddess of war, sex, magic, and longevity (we should maybe look into her backstory at some point).  Also he was maybe a yellow dragon.

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Although there are many stories about the Yellow Emperor’s life and accomplishments (and about his birth, which I will write about some other time), the stories about his death are somewhat exiguous. He met a quilin and a phoenix and moved on from this world. He has two tomb in Shaanxi (including the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor, which is pictured up there at the top of the post), in addition to other tombs in in Henan, Hebei, Gansu, and other places.  Perhaps these stories are unsatisfying by design.  Like King Arthur or Durin, the Yellow Emperor might not be entirely dead, but might be lying low somewhere, waiting for a moment of crisis which requires him.

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Like a currency crisis?

To my point of view, there is no afterlife or magic, but the dead aren’t really gone–they live on in their descendants. This is a satisfying conclusion to me because it means that the Yellow Emperor IS the people of the Han.  He is China the way Uncle Sam is the US (except 4500 years longer). He never really existed yet the Yellow Emperor is 1/6 of humankind…or at least their mascot.

 

 

 

Today’s news has been quite troubling.  The republic rots from within as grifters and fraudsters the treasury secretary and attorney general ignore Congressional oversight and mere national laws and wholeheartedly dedicate themselves to protecting Dear Leader President Trump’s dirty secrets.  Meanwhile, in even more troubling news, the U.N. released a report projecting the imminent extinction of more than a million species of plants and animals due to human activities.  The decline of our republic makes me so furiously angry that I feel like my teeth will break, but that feeling is nothing compared to the bone deep sadness which I feel contemplating the extinction of so many living things for our frivolous and corrupt economic system.

There is no way I could write about either of these things without spending all day at it (and spending a lot of time screaming at the heavens).  Is this what life is going to be like from here on out? Increasingly emotionally devastating headlines as ever more corrupt figures vie for power and the web of life slowly dies? Almost certainly.

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Maha Vajiralongkorn

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I still think the prettiest of all the different crowns we have encountered are the Iranian ones.  This is the Sunburst tiara of Princess Fatimeh, and, although there is not much to say about it (other than a physical description), it is certainly stunningly beautiful.  The centerpiece of the little crown is a 25-carat cushion shaped pink spinel, which is as lovely as any ruby, but you could probably buy the equivalent on ebay for less than a used Jeep. The spinel is surrounded diamond sunbursts which are surmounted by teardrop emeralds (the largest of which is 20 carats).

The dazzling pink, dark green, and white come together perfectly like a magical fountain made of otherworldly spring flowers.  The piece is a real triumph (which is good, since I am afraid this post is largely visual, and sadly devoid of meaningful historical context).

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Please accept my apologies for not publishing the promised Good Friday post when I said I would.  I am afraid I had a spring cold, and was just struggling to get through the day.  Now that it is Easter Sunday, we can put any sort of Jesus-themed artwork we want, though and we don’t have to have a ghastly crucifixion scene.  So behold: this is “Triptych with the Miracles of Christ” by the Master of the Legend of St. Catherine and his (?) workshop.

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The piece is a superb vision of the life and miracles of Jesus…and of day-to-day life in late Medieval Flanders.  It was completed sometime between 1491 and 1495 (and it is worth imagining some team of earnest painters toiling over it at the exact time that Columbus and his crew were making their way across the Atlantic.  There are nearly endless things to see in the picture (like all the endearing and strangely modern pet dogs in the foreground) but I am afraid I could not download a high-res image, so you will have to visit this link if you wish to pore over the composition (and you really should wish for that).  The background is as interesting as the foreground!  Look at this exquisite Flemish city (which also looks strangely modern).

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It is Maundy Thursday–the day before Good Friday (when the Last Supper took place in the Passion of Christ).  To celebrate, I have drawn a picture in the little moleskine sketchbook which I carry with me during my workday).  Based on some comments and feedback, it is not completely clear that everybody sees the plight of my allegorical flounder in the desired light.  Perhaps this tiny spiritual drawing will clarify the symbolic meaning somewhat.

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“Take, eat: this is my body” (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) colored pencil and ink on paper

Jesus was a fisherman too…as were the first four disciples–that is why his first symbol was a fish.  Anyway, Happy Easter! We will be back tomorrow with the annual Good Friday post!

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So…apparently I kind of dropped the ball last year and missed one of the big eye makeup trends of the spring of 2018—crown-themed eye makeup which is designed to make the wearer seem regal!  I guess the theory is that by gluing rhinestones in your eyes, you will resemble the monarchs of yore.   Apparently the trend was first popularized by beauty blogger Marissa Melhorn.  With the right stencil, airbrush, and costume jewelry, anyone can feel like a princess!  I guess princesses don’t wearily rub their eyes as much as I do.

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I feel like this might be one of the things people of the future point out as they sadly shake their heads and point out the undersea ruins of Sephora (assuming there are people of the future and they still utilize heads), but you never know; this is a pretty strange era we are in and I can also imagine this trend catching on (for example if America got pushed into imbecilic monarchy somehow).

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Anyway, enjoy the lustrous glittering royal eyes we have featured here, but if you decide to try this at home and it goes wrong, don’t come crying to me.  Or, if you do that, make sure to capture it on video. It will look like Vogue anime “Hamlet.”

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I have run out of time today, so I am going to put up the tiniest post.  Here is a tiny jeweled charm: a pearl which has been carved into a death’s head.  Best of all, the little novelty skull is wearing a tiny silver crown.  Not only does this succeed in combining two items from the Ferrebeekeeper category list, it also looks like an apprentice’s magical item from a fantasy novel. At first I thought this was a glorious one-off, but it seems like carving pearls into tiny skulls is big business these days.  You could buy a whole necklace and pretend to be Manjushri.  A number of the carvers are Japanese, so I speculate that this art descended from the very similar school of netsuke carving (where skulls are also popular), but I really don’t know.  If anybody has any insights, I am all ears!

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The Euthydikos Kore, ca. 500 BCE

I have been fretting about the post I wrote last week concerning the polos, a minimally-adorned cylindrical crown which was worn by certain goddesses of the Greek pantheon.  One of several mysteries about the polos is how it went from being normal (?) feminine headwear of the Mycenaean world to something worn only by goddesses from the 5th century onward.  Mycenaean civilization was swept away by cataclysm around 1100 BC.  The 5th century occurred in, um, the 5th century BC. So was anybody wearing these things during the intervening 600 years? It is as though one noted that Western women of the early 15th century AD wore hennins but nobody wears them now except for magical fairytale beings (which, come to think of it, is completely true).

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There is no fashion guide of Archaic Greek ladies’ style to answer this question, but we do have a mighty trove of data in the form of korai statues.  The kore was a sort of idealized statue of a perfect Greek maiden wearing heavy draperies and an enigmatic empty smile (“kourai” is the plural of the word “kore” which means “maiden”).  There are many of these statues in existence, since the Greeks apparently presented them to great temples as a sort of religious tribute (and as a status competition between leading citizens).  Additionally the statues were esteemed by collectors of subsequent ages so they didn’t suffer the same level of destruction as some other sorts of statues from two-and-a-half-millenia ago.

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Kore of Lyons (540s BC, Athens)

Unfortunately, contemporary classics and art scholars have some big unanswered questions about the korai statues.  Were they meant to represent goddesses outright?  Some kore statues have garb or items which were later regarded as symbolic of divinity (like the polos, as seen in the “Kore of Lyons” above).   Yet, the statues have a somewhat different tone than votive statues of the proud goddesses of ancient Greece.  They are softer and less assertive than the goddess statues and, even though the korai represent perfect female beauty as construed by an Archaic-era Greek sculptor, the statues are less concerned with fertility and nudity than are goddess statues.  Perhaps they are statues of a transitional goddess such as Persephone or Semele (both of whom had mortal aspects).  Another school of thought holds that they are divine attendants which embody general maidenly ideals–as would a group of priestesses or votaries.  This explains why they sometimes have divine accoutrements but lack more specific iconography or identification.  There is also a school of thought that the statues are simply “maidens” from a time when the more rigorous traditions of the Greco-Roman pantheon were coalescing.

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So I have failed to answer any questions about the polos (maybe there is a reason nobody talks about these things), however we have looked at some lovely statues from a looooong time ago and we have learned something about the figurative sculpture of Archaic Greece in the era leading up to the Golden Age.   This in turn is relevant, because the Kourai (and their male counterparts the kouros/kouroi statues) are arguably the main antecedent to Western figurative sculptural arts.  European Sculptors have lingered for long centuries in the shadow of Ancient Greece.  Whatever these statues are, we are indebted to them.

 

 

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I keep thinking about the great steppes of Central Asia and the magnificent scary hordes which would pour out of the grasslands into Western civilization.  Because I am more familiar with Greco-Roman history and the history of Late Antiquity, I tend to conceptualize these nomads as Scyths, Huns, Avars, the magnificently named Khanate of the Golden Horde, Bulgars, or, above all the Mongols (to name a few).  Yet all the way on the other side of Asia the great steppe ran up against the civilization of China.  On the Eastern edge of the steppe the great Empires of China had a whole different set of nomadic hordes to contend with: Donghu, Yuezhi, Sogdians, Hepthalites,  and, uh, above all the Mongols (to name a few).

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If you read a macro history of China, these guys continuously crash in from the western wastelands and mess everything up on a clockwork basis like giant ants at a picnic that spans the millenia. Isn’t history something?

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One of the greatest Nomadic confederations of the East was the confederation of the Xiongnu which stretched through Siberia, Inner and Outer Mongolia, Gansu and Xinjiang during the era of the warring states and then the Han dynasty (from around the 3rd century BC to the late 1st Century AD).  These tribes had complex relationships with the civilization of China, sometimes bitterly warring with the Empire and other times allied to the Han and intermarrying with everyone from the emperor’s family on downwards.  That’s an artist’s recreation of them right above this paragraph.  They certainly look very splendid and prepossessing in the illustration, but the truth is we know very little about them.  Scholars are still debating whether they were Huns, Iranians, Turkik, Proto-Mongols, Yeniseians, or what.  My guess is that they were a lot of things depending on the time and place.  Historians (and politicians!) get too bogged down by chasing ethnic identities.  But the fact remains that we don’t really know their language or culture…even though they had a long tangled 500 year history with a culture that loves to write everything down and keep it around forever.

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All of which is a long macro-introduction to a beautiful historical artifact from 2200 years ago. Here is the golden crown of a Xiongnu chanyu (tribe/clan leader) which was smithed sometime during the late Warring States Period (475-221 BC).  It features a golden hawk on top of an ornate golden skullcap.  The central elements are encompassed by a braided golden coil with different grassland beasts interspersed.  I would love to tell you all about it…but, like so many other artworks, it must speak for itself. It does seem to betray more than a whiff of the transcendent shamanistic culture which is still such a part of the Siberia, Mongolia, and the Taiga (if you go back far enough, this animal-themed animism informs much of the early civilization of China itself).  It is certainly extremely splendid.  I could look at it for a long time.

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Gosh, we have looked at a lot of crowns, haven’t we?  You would think that, after all of these posts, we would have started to run out of royal headwear, but we haven’t even remotely begun to get to the back of history’s vast royal treasury.  Nothing seems to interest humans quite so much as status, and nothing says status like a gold hat which proclaims “I am better than than those around me”.  Today’s crown however is not meant for a human head: it is a votive crown which is devoted to the idea that there are  aspects of status which fundamentally transcend even our sad status-driven lives.  This idea is maybe at the heart of religion–which is an even more naked manifestation of the human need for hierarchical status and tribal belonging than politics and kingship (although they are all knit together in a disturbing way).

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Enough philosophizing…above is the crown of of Saint Oswald made of gold, silver, pearls, shell, and gemstones.  It seems to date from the late 12th century AD but may be of earlier construction.  Elements of the crown, such as the Roman cameo and the intaglios are definitely ancient pieces which have been repurposed into the saint’s crown (the whole piece may have been donated by a king or prince as a devotional act, but the history is unclear).  The crown is kept at Hildesheim Cathedral in Germany on top of a reliquary statue of Saint Oswald made of gilded wood with disturbing niello eyes.

Oswald is a good illustration of the fungible nature of political and religious power.  He was a 7th century Saxon king who converted to Christianity and annealed the thrones of Bernicia and Deira together into the powerful Kingdom of Northumbria which was a high point in England’s dark age history (this business of putting kingdoms together out of disparate preexisting elements is reflected somewhat in the bricolage nature of  this saint’s crown from 500 years later).  Oswald was a warlord who died in battle, yet he was also a uniter, a spiritual leader, and a saintly king (at least in Bede’s estimation).  He became the focus of a particular cult later in the Middle Ages and there are at least 4 skulls attributed to him in continental Europe alone.

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