You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Deities of the Underworld’ category.

Today we feature something completely new for Ferrebeekeeper–a contest!  This challenge will test your acumen, breadth of knowledge, and grasp of cultural and biological material.  And this is not just for bragging rights (although those are certainly to be had); there is an actual prize–a good one.  Hopefully this contest will also simulate the joys of travel and the delight of discovery in this sad & locked-down era.

Here are the rules:  below are 13 images of things and 13 images of places.  Whoever is first to identify these images most correctly will win the prize–an original, unopened mint-condition box of “Safarimorphs” mix-and-match animal toys which I made when I was a foolish young person who believed that success could be had in America without selling out to a huge monopolistic corporation an entrepreneur.   Zoomorphs the company died a hideous death…but not because the toys lacked quality.  Even to this day, strangers still hunt me down on the internet trying to find if there are any toys left.  [Sean Connery voice] This is one of the very last boxes in existence so think carefully about your answers!

zoomorphs-safarimorphs_1_8884ec1b83b19a1d35c2dabe0b4640cc

Unfortunately there are some problems with web contests, like Google’s search-by-means-of-image feature (which is for losers, but will probably work).  Worst of all, I can’t imagine where to put the answers (my email sometimes plays havoc with unknown incoming messages) so we are going to have to put them in the comments below.  If you don’t see your answers at first, don’t worry, I will approve them in the order they come in (assuming you don’t cuss TOO much), but it does mean that other contestants can see your answers too, so consider carefully before posting!  Also, there could be multiple right answers–a featureless arid plain could be “The silk road”, or “Kazakhstan” or “a desert” or “The Northern Hemisphere” all of which are right, but some of which are more right. Our highly qualified and morally unimpeachable judges will determine the MOST right answers by means of secret deliberation to which there is no appeal.

The contest ends next Tuesday when I will announce the winner and give my own answers.  The number refers to the image immediately below it. Good luck and thank you for playing (and thank you even more for reading).  Speaking of reading, there are some hints for a lot of these in Ferrebeekeeper…somewhere in those 2000 posts before last week, so maybe you should browse the archives. OK! Here are the images:

THINGS:

1.

1

2.

two

3.

3

4.

4

5.

5

6.

6

7.

7

8.

8

9.

9

10.

10

11.

11

12.

12

13.

13

PLACES:

1.

ONE

2.2

3.

Three

4.

four

5.

five

6.

Six

7.

seven

8.eight

9.nine

10.

ten

11.

eleven

12.

dozen

13.

t

 

You probably know them all already…but at least the images look quite strange and impressive with this white box gallery format.  Post you answers below and good luck! Let me know if you have questions and thank you so much for everything.

gozzoli_magi

Ok! We (finally) had our 2000th post yesterday, and the great Ferrebeekeeper jubilee continues apace. I promised give-aways, special posts, contests, and…pageantry.  Now I have plenty of weird art and cool toys to give away (provided I can think up a contest), but what do we do for Gothic pageantry (it’s Gothic because, well, what other sort would we feature?)?

Alas, my plans to hire great troops of pipers, marchers, ornate festival birds, and dancers have come undone because of coronavirus concerns (although hopefully you are all enjoying the very special fireworks displays which I orchestrated throughout the nation).  Thus, due to, uh, the constraints of this era, our pageant will have to come together in our imagination rather than in the real world.  We can list out the elements here though and fantasize them coming together as a sort of parade!

When I thought about what sort of Gothic pageant we would want, my first question was whether those splendid glistening white peacocks are available in Gothic black.  It turns out that they very much are (although such peafowl are quite rare)

ac0971c4c9d77fab1890cb05f4b55ac8

ffe21cf34cfac63df0b7d21ed81a8f79

Next I wanted pipers, and when I looked up “gothic pipers” I was taken straight to Ferrebeekeeper’s own long forgotten post concerning pig bagpipers (which were a popular medieval ornament for reasons which are now subject to debate).  Obviously these musical pigs are perfect, so after the sable peacocks lets have some of them.

Following the peacocks, pigs, and pipers, it would be good to have some soldiers (who esteem pageantry on a supreme level that only the most flamboyant showfolks can ever hope to match).  I have taken a page from the pope’s book here: my favorite soldiers (for decorative novelty use only, of course) are late medieval/early Renaissance billmen with ridiculous heraldic garb.  The pope’s own Swiss Guard are instructive here, although of course pipers in our procession would be wearing magenta, vermilion, and  icterine.

Garde_suisse_(Vatican)_(5994412883)

I think a legion of such characters would be extremely impressive (especially coming immediately after the black peacocks and the musical pigs).

Next we would need fashion mavens dressed in resplendent gowns covered with lace appliques and dark ribbons.  I couldn’t find the right picture on line (and I started to get scared/alarmed by how many dress pictures there are), but this sort of thing should do.

discount vintage 2019 gothic black and white wedding dresses cheap off shoulder julie long sleeves appliqued lace organza victorian bridal gowns Black And White Lace Wedding Dresses

Finally, we would need a parade float to serve as centerpiece.  My favorite underrated artist, the matchless Piero di Cosimo, was famous in his time for designing parade spectacles and, although the actual originals are, of course, long gone,  I imagine that his floats would be much like the monster in his masterpiece, Perseus Rescuing Andromeda.  I would have a similar float to Perseus and the monster, except it would be Cronus mounted upon an enormous flounder.

1557137181410196-29-piero-di-cosimo

Sadly, this is how my brain works and I could go on and on like this forever…creating ridiculous fantastical processions which the world will never see, but I think we had better wrap up by putting the entire extravaganza in a great pleasure garden with a Gothic folly tower in the middle.

st-_annes_church_exterior_3_vilnius_lithuania_-_diliffThe The real world example which best suits my taste is St. Anne’s Church in Vilnius, Lithuania (pictured above) which I think is the prettiest building ever, however the master illuminators of Belgium also loved such structures and they drew them without any real world constraints which bedevil architects.

5expulsi

Imagine all of those strange magical animals and people and frogfish passing in front of this, and I think you have imagined the Ferrebeekeeper parade we would have staged…if only we could fully assemble outside right now (and if I were an impossibly rich archduke of fairyland).

The fun of this exercise is really imagining what sort of procession you would craft if you were a grand parade master and could do anything.  Tell me your ideas below! Maybe we can incorporate some of your plans into my next parade…as soon as I finish teaching these pigs to play the pipes and sewing all of these orange and purple striped tights for mercenaries.

f5edcada6e817bbffc51e43d44a356117de1ef4a

Happy Bloomsday!  The entirety of James Joyce’s great magnum opus Ulysses takes place on one day, June 16th, 1904.  Thus June 16th is forever celebrated as sacred to Joyce enthusiasts (and to those who esteem the English language and the Irish people).

If you have ever tried to write about Ulysses, you will recognize that it is problematic to grapple with the great tome since it touches deeply on most aspects of Western history, art, science, culture, law, and letters (to say nothing of the fundamental social and existential dilemmas which lie at the heart of both the novel and human endeavors).  As in life, these themes are tangled together in such a way that pulling at any thread disgorges a mass of seemingly disconnected narrative and philosophical threads which are actually a single thread…which is everything. Good luck writing a pithy blog post about THAT.

Fortunately there is a miniature odyssey within the greater book which we can concentrate on.  It is even appropriate to this year of desperate washing…and the tiny story does indeed echo the novel’s great theme of pleasure (and human beings’ secret lifetime pursuit thereof…even as they desperately and performatively pretend to be engaged in loftier pursuits).

In Chapter 5 (“Lotus Eaters”) The book’s hero Bloom is killing time before a funeral.  He reads an amorous letter from a secret correspondent, ducks into a church to listen to a bit of Catholic mass, and stops at the chemist’s to order some lotion for his wife.  While at the shop he spontaneously purchases a bar of lemon soap while he thinks about drugs, baths, and flesh.

The clunky bar of lemon soap goes with Bloom the rest of the day (and it is some day!).  He wraps it in a newspaper. He sits on it uncomfortably at the funeral.  He moves it from his hip pocket to his handkerchief pocket as he escapes the underworld the cemetery.  At lunch he fumbles through his pocket and comes across it and moves it to another pocket. Later, at the tavern, it becomes wet (from sweat or potables?) and he is concerned that he smells like lemons.  At sunset, after his…episode… on the beach Bloom worries about his failure to go back and collect his wife’s lotion and pay the four pence he owes for the soap.

At the novel’s climax in the “Circe” chapter, the soap exploits the crazed magical transmogrifications of the bordello to temporarily gain the power of speech. It ascends to the apex of heaven as the sun (complete with the freckled visage of the pharmacist):

BLOOM: I was just going back for that lotion whitewax, orangeflower water. Shop closes early on Thursday. But the first thing in the morning. (He pats divers pockets.) This moving kidney. Ah!

(He points to the south, then to the east. A cake of new clean lemon soap arises, diffusing light and perfume.)

THE SOAP:

We’re a capital couple are Bloom and I.
He brightens the earth. I polish the sky.

(The freckled face of Sweny, the druggist, appears in the disc of the soapsun.)

The soap even gets opened and used for handwashing in Bloom’s elegiac penultimate chapter which explains everything with diagrammatic clinical precision (indeed we learn that this is ” a partially consumed tablet of Barrington’s lemonflavoured soap, to which paper still adhered, (bought thirteen hours previously for fourpence and still unpaid for).” Molly even thinks about soap in her own chapter (as a young woman, she had her own trademark Albion milk and sulphur soap which Bloom had used to wash ink off his hands as a courting pretext.

That’s some journey for a little bar of soap! But why am I writing about this? Why did Joyce write about this?  As you can imagine critics have come up with various answers.

Marxist literary critics even assigned a central role to the bar of soap. In their telling, capitalist society fetishizes commodities in such a way that  take on a meaning greater than human life.  They might be on to something: if you look this soap up on the internet, you will find many opportunities to buy a bar for yourself long before you find essays like this one which discuss what the soap’s journey means.

Yet in obsessing about the cruel goad which we have made for ourselves with labor, the Marxists miss the beguiling carrot which draws us onwards.  The soap is a little pleasure.  It was purchased because of its delightful smell, and even though it is always in the way, Bloom keeps it with him, moving it from pocket to pocket and worrying about it.

Bloom’s perspectives about his little bar of soap are always changing.  He worries about how it makes others perceive him. He worries about paying for it.  It is uncomfortable at points…and yet

…the soap has a use value.  It dissolves in order to make you clean. It speaks to the sacred and transformative pleasure of bathing (which is as central a theme in The Odyssey as it is in Ulysses). More to the point, the soap represents an idea of private & luxurious pleasure (Bloom fantasizes about the perfect bath as he buys it at the chemist’s shop).  Ulysses privileges us with a glimpse into peoples’ secret hidden minds, and although we find lofty questions of being and non-being there, we also find lots of little private side quests for self-gratification and secret fantasies which can, for a moment shine like the sun in the firmament before being moved to another pocket, or forgotten, or occasioning very slight social anxiety.  The quest for the truth of people’s hearts is slippery and convoluted!

 

Let’s get back to talking about New York City’s enormous sad potter’s field at Hart Island (hey, why are all of  my readers leaving?) Well anyway, when we left off, we had explained that the island is rich in poignant, important-to-remember narratives.  For example, the island’s history strongly contextualizes mistakes made early in the 1980s HIV crisis (not that we’ll ever have another viral pandemic hideously mismanaged by pro-big business apparatchiks in national government).  How can we draw attention to this history and properly memorialize the souls whose mortal remains are interred there?

As an artistic exercise, I thought about what sort of memorial would fit a small coastal island next to one of the world’s busiest ports.  Despite advocacy by the Hart Island Project, a nonprofit organization (which also helps family members locate graves and works to beautify the site) , it is still difficult to visit the island, so the monument needs to be visible from the water or the coast. However, New York is already a chaotic place! We don’t need any more giant light beacons or 100 meter tall green ladies (although if you know of a friend for Lady Liberty, maybe let me know in the comments).

There is a sort of building from the past which fits all of these criteria perfectly: a lighthouse! Most of New York’s original lighthouses have been retired or are now cultural sites/tourist spots instead of working maritime devices.  I am sure we could fit a memorial sculpture in (in fact my favorite New York memorial is exactly such a thing), but how would we make it obvious that it is a monument to victims of HIV?

As a preliminary attempt, I designed this lighthouse  in the shape of a virus.  I painted it a cheerful pink to make it pop-out from the muted coastline colors of Hart Island, and of course to call attention to the unhappy stigmatization of queer communities which made the ravages of AIDS so much worse than what should have been.

lighthouse

Model for Hart Island AIDS Cemetery Memorial (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019)

Let me back up slightly and explain this somewhat peculiar model. The base is largely irrelevant (it is meant to illustrate that the lighthouse/sculpture needs to be landscaped into an appropriate vantage point on the old AIDS cemetery on Hart Island).  There is, however, one important landscape feature which doesn’t read very well in this little diorama: I hoped that the pathway from the main path over to the memorial plaque at the base of the lighthouse/sculpture might be a site where mourners and interested entities could place mementos.  I thought if these were all the same color (a chromatic convergence easily accomplished with an inexpensive vat of enamel) it would make the overall presentation more powerful and emotional. I chose pink since it is a sacred color to the LGBTQ community (I also thought the light beacon might be pink as well), however there are other virtues to pink.  It is visually bold and highly visual, however it conveys renewal, joy, and beauty. It is an unusual memorial color for an unusual memorial. But it is just an idea (pink is also one of my favorite colors). Black, white, or rainbow would all work too and each of those options also have many strong supporting reasons.

A virologist might point out that this actually a bacteriophage (or actually an abstracted  symbolic likeness of one).  That is entirely correct.  I wanted this to be a symbolic likeness so as to not have people’s final resting place overshadowed by an overly realistic version of the disease which killed them.  in the past, such a memorial would probably have had robed allegorical deities and subdued personifications of Death and suchlike figures (in the manner of the extremely beautiful USS Maine monument at Columbus Circle), however in the modern world I don’t think we have many (or any) sculptors capable of such exquisite figurative work, plus such a sculpture would fail to feature the component of hard-won medical knowledge which needs to be central to this monument.

lighthouse 2

Speaking of which, why have a monument at all? I am sure there are readers thinking this is all “too much” or something we don’t need in a world of monetary woes and immediate problems.  I am more sympathetic with such a point of view than you might expect from someone designing abstruse neoteric memorials! However I think we really DO need pandemic memorials.  Consider the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. We swept it under the rug and moved on with jazz age excess as fast as possible.  In doing so we forgot about the critical lessons of the Spanish Flu (to say nothing of its victims and its stringent hardships), and that was obviously a terrible mistake.  There are, of course, even more victims of Spanish flu than there are AIDS victims right there at Hart Island.  Maybe we actually need a comprehensive viral pandemic monument to honor them and the AIDS victims, and the souls who have suffered and perished in the continuing coronavirus pandemic.  That final post of this three-part series will have to wait though (since I need to get back to my studio).

In the mean time, please take care of yourself. Be safe and be of stout heart.  Hart Island reminds us that these terrible times have happened before (how could we have forgotten??) but it also reminds us that the pain and loss and suffering have all been endured before and that we grieved and kept moving forward.  Perhaps that is the real secret to navigating treacherous passages which are memorialized in funeral monuments.

lighthouse 3

Oh, one more thing. Please leave your comments and opinions below.  The more points of view presented, the better that memorials are able to represent all sorts of different viewpoints!

hart-island

Do you know about Hart Island?  It is a small island, approximately 100-130 acres in size, which lies just off the coast of the Bronx (or actually just off the coast of the larger City Island, which is just off of the coast of Pelham Bay Park).  Since the late 1860s, New York City has utilized Hart Island as a potter’s field (and sometime plague burial site). There are (probably) more than a million people buried on the island, most of them nameless and forgotten indigents whose pursuit of New York dreams ultimately led them to this place of oblivion.  Comprehensive burial records were destroyed by arson in 1977, so the exact number of bodies on the island is now beyond human ken.

potters1

As you might imagine, the history of Hart Island is a cold, sad mirror of the history of New York City (although there are some strange diversions–for example there were underground silos of surface-to-air missiles there during the early Cold War).  The public cemetery started out as a small part of the island but, during times of particular crisis or illness, the grave-trenches grew and the other functions receded til ultimately the whole island became a cemetery.  At present the island is jointly managed by some unfathomable partnership between the Department of Corrections (whose inmates conduct burials and tend the island) and the Department of Parks which was saddled with administrative control of Hart Island by recent legislation (but which lacks the funds & inclination to make it a proper “park”).

image-1-740x415

In the island’s recent history, it was utilized as a cemetery for AIDS victims during the first phases of that crisis. In the early eighties, people were afraid and unsure of HIV’s nature and so these AIDS graves are said to be twice as deep as normal.

06-hart-island

The inmates who tend Hart Island are solicitous of their solemn charge (a friend of mine who works as a mouthpiece for the Department of Corrections told me that only the most dependable and responsible prisoners are chosen–and they are actually paid for gravedigging and site maintenance).  To mark the AIDS cemetery the inmates erected a tiny albeit touchingly earnest peace monument, however they have opined that something more fitting should go there.

eeert

That was meant to be the  introduction to my idea, however it took me longer to describe New York’s secret “borough of the dead” than I expected (and I never even got to the part about how the island is slowly eroding away leaving a coastline of human bones).  Thus, come back next time for part two, where we talk about Hart Island’s future.

im-94781

 

59c2370ee39c0

April is poetry month! It is also the birth-month of the bard, William Shakespeare, who was born 456 years ago.  Although the exact day of his entrance upon the scene is a bit unclear, Shakespeare enthusiasts have assigned today’s date, April 23rd, as the most likely day and thus it is celebrated! Happy Birthday to the Bard!  However, as you may have guessed, that is not why we are here.

danse_macabre_by_michael_wolgemut_edit

The other day, I wrote that poets don’t seem to write poems about plagues (although this could well be a misapprehension born out of writers’ fondness for disguising their actual subject by appearing to write about something completely different).  This is true of Shakespeare too, and yet he certainly had ample experience with pestilence since the Black Death struck London in 1592, 1603, and 1606.  In fact, three of his greatest tragedies, including King Lear, were (probably) written during quarantine.

Indeed, squinting anew at the language of these plays reveals a fascination with darkness, lesions, pathology, and contagion hiding behind the mask of purity which could be (and undoubtedly has been) the subject of many works of literary criticism and scholarship.

Yet to my ears, the most pure plague poem from Shakespeare is really a poem which is unabashedly about death and how it brings an end to all want, anxiety, political strife, pain and anxiety (even as it ends all pleasure, learning, longing, and love).  The poem was (probably) written a half decade after the 1606 outbreak in London [I apologize for all of these words like “seems” and “probably” but we don’t have a lot of certainties about Shakespeare’s human life].  It takes the form of a valedictory song in Cymbeline, that strange and impossible-to-characterize late work which dates from Shakespeare’s final years as a writer.  After reading Cymbeline, Lytton Strachey opined that it is “difficult to resist the conclusion that [Shakespeare] was getting bored himself. Bored with people, bored with real life, bored with drama, bored, in fact, with everything except poetry and poetical dreams.”

Perhaps there is truth in this analysis, for the song is very melancholy and yet also very beautifully poetic.  We are including it here as a tribute to poetry month, and a tribute to Shakespeare, and a tribute to all of the dead. Yet it is is imperative that you not let the lugubrious gloom get you down (not from the poem nor from the situation we are in).

But enough of my blather, from Cymbeline Act IV Scene 2 here is Shakespeare’s sad song.

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The scepter, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.
Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.
No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!

download

April is poetry month! Since this is a downright peculiar April, I was hoping to reach back through history to 542 AD, 1350 AD, or 1666 AD in order feature some monumental poems about pandemics and how to get through these harrowing eras of fear….

the_triumph_of_death_pieter_bruegel

Yikes! I guess things could be going worse…

Uh, that effort is still ongoing…  Whereas visual artists address pestilence head-on by painting landscapes filled with grim reapers, corpse wagons, Catherine wheels, walking nightmares, undead armies, and whatnot, apparently famous poets address plague by writing about something else entirely.  I guess professional writers know that one of the secrets to living off of your art is to write about things people want to read about (speaking of which, this post should probably be about Miley Cyrus instead of worldwide plague (insomuch as there is a difference)).

Anyway, while we continue to comb the anthologies for the perfect poem from yesteryear, for today’s post, here is a poem from today.  As noted, poets shy away from this theme, so we had to bring in a visual artist, the indelible Yayoi Kusama, world renowned grand master of polka dot art, in order to get a Coronavirus poem.

Here is what she writes

Though it glistens just out of reach, I continue to pray for hope to shine through
Its glimmer lighting our way
This long awaited great cosmic glow
Now that we find ourselves on the dark side of the world
The gods will be there to strengthen the hope we have spread throughout the universe
For those left behind, each person’s story and that of their loved ones
It is time to seek a hymn of love for our souls
In the midst of this historic menace, a brief burst of light points to the future
Let us joyfully sing this song of a splendid future
Let’s go
Embraced in deep love and the efforts of people all over the world
Now is the time to overcome, to bring peace
We gathered for love and I hope to fulfil that desire
The time has come to fight and overcome our unhappiness
To COVID-19 that stands in our way
I say Disappear from this earth
We shall fight
We shall fight this terrible monster
Now is the time for people all over the world to stand up
My deep gratitude goes to all those who are already fighting.
Revolutionist of the world by the Art
From Yayoi Kusama
Although from a pure literary perspective, this poem is perhaps a bit spotty (hehehe), what it lacks in allusion, symbolism, or meter is more than made for with earnest goodwill and sincerity.  Kusama also does not want for temerity, directly adjuring the virus to disappear from Earth (an idea which is about as lovely as any I have come upon recently).
Perhaps the poem’s greatest weakness is that it speaks so guilelessly for itself that there is little to say about it.  Thus to round off the post, here is one of Kusama’s lovely polka dot artworks.  I surmise that her choice of themes–vines, corals,  or mushrooms (which are the fruiting bodies of much larger hidden underground networks of mycelium)  is really about how nodes form much larger networks.  Maybe she will paint some rangeomorphs!
FE07-620

Mushrooms (Yayoi Kusama, 2005) acrylic on canvas

It is worth further noting that, Kusama’s great lifetime retrospective at the New York Botanic Garden was interrupted by the pandemic. If/when this quarantine lifts we can look forward to seeing that show in person and writing more about networks and nodes.  For now though it is back to Facebook and Zoom.  We’ll talk more next week!

4c1aeb64cc61163ec6f3a5c19748dd51--goddesses-bible

The Moabites, ancient antagonists of Israel, have showed up in the last couple of posts about ancient magic, pestilence, and idols.  You are probably wondering if the Moabites, who controlled the territory on the East of the Sea of the Dead Sea (in what is now Jordan), had their own angry deity.  Oh boy did they ever!  The Moabite God was named Chemosh,  a name which seems to mean “destroyer,” “subduer,” or, more intriguingly, “fish god.”  

mesha_stele

The Mesha Stela (now in the Louvre)

Frustratingly though, we don’t know much about Chemosh.  The only good sources we have are the Hebrew Bible and the Mesha Stela which was erected in 840 BCE by King Mesha of Moab.  The black basalt stela explains how the faithlessness of the Moabites caused Chemosh to become angry and turn away from his people which allowed the Israelites to take advantage of Moab (before King Mesha came along and put things back in good order).   The Bible tells this story from the Israelite perspective (Numbers 22 and 23) and then there is subsequent angry mention of Chemosh in the 2nd Book of Kings in the context of some of Solomon’s wives (Solomon allowed worship of Chemosh in order to keep his Moabite wives happy).

81361148_3375311885877451_6273512773627312375_n

The God of Israel, of course, made it big and went global.  Because of this, some of his early small-time adversaries are now portrayed as demons or dark gods.   Whereas the Chemosh of the Moabites was a serene and powerful old man who was perhaps not unlike Ptah (or Yweh!), the Chemosh portrayed by Christians is a hellish monster of darkness, cruelty, and disease (you can see him up there at the very top in an illustration which looks like it could have come from a Sunday School book from Palmer Methodist).  Also, I seem to recall that some of the Dungeons & Dragons books which I read while growing up featured a God named Chemosh who was the deity of plague!  So it goes for history’s losers, I guess.  Maybe Balaam needed to try harder (although, in fairness, the D&D plague-themed Chemosh does look pretty metal)!

Untitled

 

 

 

e3520f49872c93d8ebd9b237eb4247d4

Today is, uhhhh…World Health Day, which commemorates the founding of the World Health Organization.  This “day of observance” was designed “to draw the attention of the world to the health of global human populations and the diseases that may impact these populations.”  Since this is also Holy Week, I decided to bundle World Health Day together with the Biblical theme post I had already selected. Perhaps we can work together at the end of the post (and in the comments below) in order to reconcile the two themes!

OK, back to our Bibles!  Today’s chapter is Numbers 21 which describes another episode during the long Jewish exodus from bondage in Egypt to conquest of Israel.  Although not necessarily well-versed at understanding natural phenomena, the writers of the Pentateuch were extremely keen students of human nature!   Whenever things turn difficult (spoiler: things are always difficult) or if Moses is not constantly micromanaging them, the Israelites hare off and start worshiping golden calves or sleeping with Moabite hussies or whining so very aggressively that it annoys God himself (as happens in this instance).  Here is how it is described in Numbers 21:

4 And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.

5 And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.

6 And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.

7 Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.

8 And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.

9 And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.

Wow! God instructs Moses to build what would, in any other circumstance, be an extremely idolatrous metal serpent to heal the bites of poisonous fire serpents?  What is going on in this passage?

For one thing, paleoethnographers who have studied the deepest history of Semitic tribes surmise that El, the sky shepherd god who, in time would become develop into Yweh and thence into God as we know him was perhaps not the original center of Jewish worship!  It seems like the wandering tribe might have adopted El from Canaanite/Syrian sources they encountered in the Sinai. The oldest religious objects archaeologists have associated with bronze age Canaanite sites like Megiddo,  Gezer,  Hazor, and Shechem seem to be snake cult objects!  It is intriguing to surmise that the chosen people were originally snake worshipers, and this shameful pre-literary heritage is preserved in the Bible in the form of Moses’ brass effigy (as well as one or two other critical moments of that text).

But the baffling interplay of religious syncretism in Asia-Minor, Mesopotamia, and the Levant five thousand years ago (which gave rise to monotheism) is a topic for a greater and more ponderous work of scholarship!  I just wanted to explain to you the origin of this brass serpent icon in the Bible.  The Jewish call such a thing a Nehushtan ((נחשתן and it kept making controversial appearances in ancient Israel.  Later on King Hezekiah would institute a reform banning the popular religious totem and rabbis still argue about it to this day.

nehushtan2

The Brazen Serpent (James Tissot The Brazen Serpent, ca.1896–1902) watercolor on paper

Here is a Nehushtan painted by a 19th/20th century Christian artist and it is pretty shocking! Not only does the Brazen Serpent resemble Christian iconography,  it is more or less identical to the Rod of Asclepius and the Caduceus of Hermes (if you haven’t read about Asclepius, please do so, his story is profoundly thought-provoking).

2c34dbc3b1c283b41fda82c54bf4dbdc

Wow! This is a lot to take in.  Before the Aztecs show up with Quetzalcoatl and this post melts completely, it is worth asking if there is a bigger point to all of this?  The answer is YES: today is World Health Day! I am honoring the world’s brave and compassionate (and hard-working) health care workers by talking about their ridiculously ancient symbol, a snake on a stick.  The fact that it comes not just from the GrecoRoman canon but from JudeoChristian mythology as well only highlights its importance (Frankly I didn’t expect to find intimations that Jews worshiped this thing before they worshiped their one God! Yet perhaps some of New York’s most eminent physicians would secretly smile). Modern people are apt to think of religion as an ancient political/ethical rubric which holds society together and regard medicine as a science.  Yet plagues and crises remind us what Moses knew.  There is more overlap in caring for the sick and providing stories which explain existence than we might initially suppose!  Thank you doctors and nurses for working so hard (and for holding up the world during this pandemic!  We appreciate what you are doing more than we can say (even if we can only express these feelings in the form of strange biblical blog posts).  You truly are the children of Apollo and we all love you no matter what happens (although would it kill you to drive the profane and wicked MBAs out of your profession and reclaim its sacred compassion for everyone?)

nehustan_by_phosphorus_sulphur_d9rp4v5-fullview

Gustav_Jaeger_Bileam_Engel

Balaam and the Angel (Gustav Jaeger, 1836), oil on canvas

Do you know the story of Balaam from the Old Testament?  Balaam was the greatest magician and prophet of the Moabites, who were the enemies of the Israelites (who were nearing the end of their exile in the desert under the leadership of the dying Moses).  In brief, Balaam was main villain of the final stage of the Exodus: sort of an anti-Moses.   If things were written from the point-of-view of the Moabites, Balaam would have been the hero! In fact, we even get POV episodes in the Bible which follow him on perilous magical missions…which are thwarted by the terrible power of God.

In the most (in)famous of these episodes, Balaam is riding off to commit some nefarious act when the donkey he is riding balks.  The donkey can see that there is a sword-wielding angel in the path in front of them.  In anger, Balaam savagely beats the donkey, which starts to speak!  Here is the episode as set forth in the King James Bible (Numbers 22):

And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff.

28 And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?

29 And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.

30 And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? and he said, Nay.

31 Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.

32 And the angel of the Lord said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me:

33 And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive.

34 And Balaam said unto the angel of the Lord, I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me: now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again.

So what is the point of this story?  I suppose a rabbi or a Catholic priest would tell you it is about how it is futile to withstand the command of YWEH or some kind of hegemonic orthodox lesson of that sort (indeed, Balaam is frequently stuck in situations where he can perceive that his actions will not alter what is to come). Fortunately, we don’t actually believe in a giant omniscient space wizard in the sky, so we can look at the passage with a more literary eye.

And, it makes for an intriguing metaphor about humankind’s relationship with the natural world! Balaam’s donkey is perfectly capable of seeing the angel and she tries to save her human rider, who pays her back by intemperately beating her (despite her leal service) . Poor wicked Balaam is unable to figure out what is going on (even with the donkey telling him) until the angel sighs heavily and expositions the whole thing for him.  His desire for power and status are so great that he ignores what the long-suffering animal ass tells him, first with her actions, and then when she speaks with the very voice of God.

Of course the real world does not benefit from invisible angels or talking donkeys, so here we have something more like Raskolnikov’s dark dream from Crime and Punishment (where a drunk peasant beats his suffering old horse to death for failing to pull a load which he (the peasant) had loaded too heavily).  Everywhere we look we see that animals are dying from our crazy desperate actions.  Do we pause to heed this horrible lesson? Do we ask whether a dark angel of doom stands invisible yet implacable immediately before us?  No! We curse the oceans for not having enough fish. We execrate the bats for harboring coronavirus.  We shoot the polar bears for starving to death in a desolation we have created.

Of course Balaam is hardly a free agent.  He has a king who commands him to act as he does. He has a nation of people to save from invaders. He has to buy provender for his donkey and altar accessories and who knows what else.  We would probably feel sorely used if we were in his sandals.  Indeed, that is part of what makes me think we ARE Balaam. Right now the donkey we are riding is starting to fall down.  Are we asking the right questions about our own actions or are we reaching for the rod?

img_0965

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

July 2020
M T W T F S S
 12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
2728293031