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Jupiter and Ganymede (Roman, late 3rd century) mosaic

Yesterday’s post about the solar system’s largest moon, Ganymede, begs for a follow-up post about the myth of Ganymede. Ganymede was an adolescent Trojan prince known for his supreme comeliness. For some reason, the young prince was out slumming as a shepherd (which is a thing princes do in myths but not in real life) and this twinkish coquetry drove all-seeing Zeus into a lather. Overcome by lust, the king of the gods assumed the form of a giant eagle and grabbed the pretty prince up in his talons and carried him off to Olympus (leaving Ganymede’s distraught hound dog baying at the clouds). At Olympus, in the halls of the gods, Ganymede became the cupbearer (and favorite male concubine) of Zeus/Jupiter and was thus granted immortality and a sort of second-rate godhood. The whole tale is a sort of a gigolo apotheosis (although classical artists did not always portray Ganymede as a willing captive).

For various reasons, all sorts of artists have been attracted to the tale over the years. The magnificent sky-god eagle and the beautiful nude prince do indeed make for a really dramatic tableau. Yet my favorite visual representations of the story are Roman, like this gorgeous relief.

Abduction of Ganymede (unknown Greco-Roman sculptor, AD 140-150), marble relief

As slave-owning masters of the world, the Romans knew the ambiguous joys of love-by-command and somehow there is always a wistful hint of coercion and mortal sadness in Roman versions of the tale (perhaps the Greek sculptors forced to carve these pieces had some commentary of their own to add). For example, in the matchless piece above, the beautiful Ganymede wears a Phrygian cap (which was a cap from Phrygia, a conquered Roman province in Greece…but also the universally understood symbol of a manumitted slave). Now, that I come to think of it, Jove’s eagle was the symbol of the Roman Empire.

Ganymede feeding the Eagle (Roman, late first century), Marble

Of course, there is more than a hint of mortal sadness in the tale anyway. We mortals have a name for when the gods snatch away our favorite people and carry them off up to dwell in cloudtop palaces forever. Maybe this is why the Ganymede theme appears again and again in Roman sarcophagi and funerary art.

Here is an example which was carried off by the English at the height of their Empire and placed in the British Museum!
Flemish Flatfish (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016) ink and watercolor on paper

Happy Solstice! I wanted to finish off the ocean theme and celebrate the longest day of the year by coloring one of my large flounder drawings (which I originally designed to be in a huge strange flatfish coloring book). Unfortunately, coloring the image took sooo long that the longest day of the year is now over! (and I am still not happy with the coloring–which turns out to be just as hard as I recall from childhood)

Anyway, here is a sky flounder with a Dutch still life on his/her body swimming over the flat sea by the low countries. Little Flemish details dot the composition (like the clay pipe at the bottom, the bagpiper by the beach, and Audrey Hepburn in a 17th century dress) however the endearing minutiae can not forever distract the viewer from larger themes of sacrifice and the ineluctable passage of time (both of which are fine ideas to contemplate on this druidic holiday).

As always, we will return to these ideas, but for now, happy summer!

“Pythia – the priestess at Delphi – making oracles at the new moon” (Emile Bayard, 1886) engraving

Here is a beautiful nineteenth century engraving which illustrates how Second Empire French artists imagined the pythia of Apollo. This image is particularly dramatic since the pythia is not only hopped up on divination fumes but is also wrestling with some rather alarming serpents (they don’t quite seem to be pythons, but I suppose when giant hissing snakes are wrapped around you, it is pointless to quibble about herpetology). Although the light falling on the pythia makes her pop out from the rest of the work to such an extent that, at first, she almost seems alone, my favorite part of the print are the interpreters/querents in the shadowy background who are pursing their lips and furrowing their brows as they try to parse out the divine meaning of the oracle’s presentation. This print was created by the master illustrator Émile Bayard who is still famous for his heart-wrenching image of Cosette from “Les Miserables.” Additionally, Bayard was one of the first-ever science fiction artists: he attempted to portray Jules Verne’s space travel novels based on scientific and natural sources (as opposed to basing heavenly imagery on myth and religion–as had been the norm up until the end of the 19th century).

Today is tax day here in America, so perhaps some readers may also feel as though they are wrestling with wrathful serpents of unnatural creation. Alternately some readers may feel that they need to ask a mystical oracle for special clarification (ed’s note: Don’t do any such thing! If you have tax-based questions, please consult a tax professional or contact the IRS). Although it has been a while since I refreshed the answers, you can always head over to The Great Flounder, to ask the piscine sage for secrets of the dark underwater depths! Good luck!

It has been a disgracefully long time since this blog featured one of the deities of the underworld (which was one of the first and best topics of Ferrebeekeeper). Lately I have been thinking a great deal about the mysterious thriving civilizations of ancient America which existed prior to the 15th century. So today we feature Pitao Bezelao chief death deity of the Zapotecs, who thrived in what are now the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Guerrero from 700 BC until Aztec (and subsequent Spanish) conquest in the 16th century (AD).

Like other Mesoamerican palace peoples, the Zapotecs reveled in death worship. They loved step pyramids and human and animal sacrifices of every sort. Pitao Bezelao was a very charismatic dark god with all sorts of strange attributes and props…yet, because we have never deciphered Zapotec glyphs, we also don’t know an enormous amount about his myths and worship. Almost all of our sources are post-conquest folklore written down centuries after the apogee of Zapotec civilization. So sadly we don’t have Pitao Bezelao death myths analogous to Orpheus or the Mayan Ball players (although undoubtedly similar stories were out there).

The ancient Zapotecs were excellent farmers, so Pitao Bezelao was not just the god of death but also also the god of masculinity, fortune, good crops, and chickens (just what chickens, old world animals originally from India, were doing in ancient America in Zapotec times is a subject which is probably more interesting than this article…or anything else on the internet). Even among the strange company of death gods, Pitao Bezelao stands out. He is portrayed as having a huge skull with gauged ears (decked out with fancy ornaments of course) and with an obsidian knife for a nose. Like the Moche Decapitator, Pitao Bezelao had giant pincers/claws for hands. He is often portrayed with a human femur in his right, um, claw and another nose…I mean knife…in his left. In religious art, Pitao Bezelao tends to be surrounded by lizards and spiders and he was often portrayed with an enormous phallus.

Speaking of which, as an extraordinarily well-endowed death deity, Pitao Bezelao had two wives. His main wife Xonaxi Quecuya, “Mother Death”, was a traditional death goddess who collected the souls of the departed and recycled their bodies with her signature insects. True to her name, she was always pregnant! Pitao Bezelao’s second spouse Coqui Bezelao is more enigmatic and s/he had both male and female attributes. Perhaps Pitao Bezelao was a deity who changed gender as culture and society changed and myths spread from one land to another (like Guanyin, my favorite deity of compassion who started out as the (masculine) bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara) or maybe they were always transgender–like Lan Caihe.

This would be a great time to share some Pitao Bezelao myths, which I suspect are both horrifying and transcendent…but, thanks to the vicissitudes of history I don’t have any. Instead here is a modern artwork from Oaxaca (where worship of this death god does not seem to have quite died out). If anybody knows anything else about this dark but compelling figure please speak out!

Crucifixion Diptych (Rogier van der Weyden, 1460), oil on panel

I failed to post a beautiful crucifixion painting for Good Friday this year…but don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about the tradition, and I was thinking about the right painting over Easter weekend. Here is Crucifixion Diptych, a late work by Rogier van der Weyden which shows Saint John and Mary on the left panel lamenting Christ’s death which takes place on the right panel. Although the figures are beautifully painted, the colors and composition are unusually stark and the background elements–Golgotha, a stone wall, the night sky–are flattened and simplified. The painting does not suffer from this, but rather the jagged abstract shapes of vivid white, red, and green make it pop out among the other works of its era. I saw it back in the 1980s before a “reverse restoration” returned the sky to night blue (a restoration artist of the 1940s decided the sky should be gold), but even with the colors wrong it demanded attention. The work was painted in 1460, a few years before van der Weyden’s death and the profound stillness of the figures has led some art historians to speculate it was his last painting. Van der Weyden’s son joined the Carthusian monastery (which received gifts of cash and devotional paintings from van der Weyden), and it is possible that the red and white painting may also have been a private Carthusian devotional piece.

Flounder with Kitchen Scissors [Wayne Ferrebee, 2021] Ink and watercolor on paper

It is Vincent Van Gogh’s birthday today (he was born on March 30, 1853). To mark the occasion, it occurred to me that I have an appropriate humorous cartoon in the small moleskine sketchbook which I carry around everywhere.

Van Gogh is pictured in the upper left corner wearing his trademark green coat and ear bandage. Presumably he is exhorting the artists of today to work hard at their precious craft. At the center of the composition is a flounder, a ridiculous-looking fish which everyone agrees is ideal for the table. Probably that is why a hand is reaching down from the heavens with scissors to prepare the silly fish as a delicious banquet. Speaking of hands, a white marble statuary hand is pushing up through the floor of the cinereous wasteland where this tableau takes place. Sadly the hand seems to be a bit broken. A crown-of-thorns starfish restlessly roves the dust and stumps.

I wanted to practice lettering with my steel nib, however I did not want to actually write anything, so I just jotted down some nonsense words in moon language. Sorry for the gibberish! But who cares about language anyway? Some people have suggested that artists are wholly unreliable when it comes to writing about their own work, and you should concentrate on the images themselves.

In years past, Ferrebeekeeper has celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day with a series of short essays about Irish folklore. We started with leprechauns and worked our way through the doom of Oisin (who could have had eternal youth and endless love), the Sluagh (evil spirits who ride the clouds), the Leannán Sídhe, the Fear Gorta, and the great Gaelic flounder (which is not even a thing, but which should be). You should read that story about Oisin–it’s really plaintive!

Anyway, this year we are going to take a break from the disquieting beauty of Irish folklore to showcase a category of obscene Medieval sculpture, the “Sheela na gig”, a sort of stylized stone hag who is portrayed holding open her legs and her cavernous womanhood (a word which I am primly using as a euphemism for “vagina”). These grotesque female figures appear throughout Northwest Europe, but are most prevalent in Ireland. Nobody knows who carved them or why. Their name doesn’t even have a coherent meaning in Gaelic. Yet they are clearly connected to fertility and to the great mother goddess of the Earth. As you can imagine, they are the focus of furious speculation by religious and cultural mavens of all sorts. However no definitive answer about the nature of the figures has ever been found…nor is such an answer ever likely to be forthcoming.

Sheela na gigs were mostly carved between the 9th and 12th centuries (AD) and seem to be affiliated with churches, portals, and Romanesque structures. Although they are located throughout central and western Europe, the greatest number of Sheela na gig figurines are located across Ireland (101 locations) and Britain (45 locations). To the prudish Victorian mind they were regarded as symbols for warding off devils (which would be affrighted by such naked womanhood?), however more modern interpretations empower the sculptures with feminist trappings of matriarchy, self-awareness, sexual strength, and shame-free corporeality. Perhaps the stuffy Victorian misogynists were the devils who needed to be scared off! Other scholars think of the Sheela na gig figurines in the vein of the pig with the bagpipes or the “Cista Mystica“–which is to say a once widespread figure which had a well-understood meaning which has become lost in the mists of long centuries (it is easy to imagine future generations looking at Hawaiian punch man, Bazooka Joe, or the Starbucks logo with similar bafflement).

Hmmm…

Some scholars have theorized a connection with Normans–and hence with Vikings–but I see little of Freya in the images (which seem more connected to prehistoric “Venus” statues).

It is probably ill-advised to opine about such a controversial figure, but if I were forced to guess, I would suspect that the Sheela na gig is a symbol of the generative power of Mother Nature (or the godess Gaia) which is so overt as to barely be a symbol. All humans were born through bloody expulsion. We do not come into the world through a magic emerald cabbage or a portal of light. Whatever else the Sheela na gig betokens, it is a reminder of this shared heritage (which you would think would be impossible to forget…until you talk to some of the people out there).

I guess we have been in society-wide quarantine lockdown for an entire year (at least here in New York City). The grim anniversary at least provides the opportunity to show you the artwork which I made during the spring of 2020 as nature burst into glorious life while humankind cowered at home in the shadow of the crowned plague.

I like to draw in little 3.5 inch by 5.5 inch moleskine sketchbooks (which i fill up pretty regularly). Last spring, due to an ordering error, I purchased a Japanese album (which folds out into one long accordion strip of paper) instead of my usual folio book. Since the pandemic left me stuck in my little Brooklyn garden, I began drawing a Coronavirus journey along a continuous garden path running from my backyard, through the stricken city, to the cemetery and then out to the sea. As spring turned into summer I rode my bike over to Greenwood to work on it. Usually works of this sort are destroyed by giant ink blots, spills, or catastrophic drawing failures (since I drew this freehand with a Hiro Leonardt 41 steel nib), and although there are lots of flaws (sigh), none of them destroyed the drawing outright.

Pandemic Album (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) pen and ink on paper

as you can see, the one factor which made the isolation and anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic bearable to me was the one thing which makes existence bearable–the unlimited power of imagination to go anywhere and make anything happen! Thus we see a Byzantine/Gothic Brooklyn as suited to the plague of Justinian as to Covid 19.

I effectively finished the drawing in June, but I kept frittering at the edges. Plus there was an empty space in the path beneath the fountain (just before the musical garden filled with lyrebirds, siamangs, singing sphinxes, and aulos players). That space stayed blank until November, when I realized that the blank spot in the middle was where the vaccine belonged (you can see it there now just below the fountain).

Unfortunately, I am a better draftsman than a photographer, and it is hard to make out the small details of the little garden plants and bugs which were my original inspiration. Anyway, hopefully you can click on the panels and look at the musicians (C-minor), the plague doctor, the manticore, and the covid party filled with Bushwick Bohemians and sinners! If not, let me know and we will see if I can repost the drawing somehow. Maybe I will post some of the details later on anyway, since the virus pathway is filled with serpents, bats, dark gods, pigeons, bees, trees, and flounder (and other ferrebeekeeper subjects which are always close to my heart).

Speaking of things close to my heart, thanks again for reading this and for being here with me (at least in my writings and thoughts if not in the real world). Dear Reader, you are the absolute best. If the Fates are willing, we are nearing the end of this horrid covid chapter (just as the dark path from the drawing ultimately runs out into the great ocean and vanishes in the waves). I am sorry it took so long to post this little book, but it seems appropriate somehow. As always, let me know what you think, and for my part I will think about what delights to put in the spring album for 2021!

Health and peace to you and your loved ones! We are nearly through this!

To take our minds off of the cabin fever of being stuck at home (in a pandemic…in the snow), today’s post features one of the world’s most extravagant and beautiful buildings. This complex is Wat Rong Khun, the white temple of Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand. Sources inform me that it actually totally exists, right here in the real world (although I find it somewhat difficult to believe such a thing, because, well, just look at it!).

Wat Ron Khun was an extant Buddhist temple (one of thousands throughout Southeast Asia) which, by the end of the twentieth century, had fallen into disrepair. In 1997, Thai visionary artist Chalermchai Kositpipat restored/rebuilt the temple into the fantastical form which you see in these photos. Interestingly Wikipedia now balks at calling Wat Rong Khun a temple and instead describes the complex as “a privately owned art installation” where people can meditate and learn about Buddhist teachings (and which is intended to ingratiate Kositpipat into Buddha’s good graces and ensure immortal life for the artist). Hmm… How is that different from just saying “temple”?

Anyway, the bridges, gates, and buildings of Wat Rong Khun are all white or reflective with one big exception. The building which houses the compound bathrooms are gold. The white/mirror colors reflect the mind and the intellect–colorless, pure, and abstract. The bathroom compound however is gold to contextualize worldly and physical concerns (such as material wealth).

Still, it’s a pretty nice bathroom

Gardens aside, the other non-monochrome portion of the compound is found in the main ubosot, where mind-bendingly strange murals illustrate the human condition. These murals are not as, uh…restrained (?) as the rest of the wat, and I will write about them later when I feel stronger. Suffice it to say that if anything belonged inside this squirming albescent nirvana-cake, it is the paintings which are indeed in there.

Although I suppose I should be comparing Wat Rong Khun with Wat Pa Maha Chedio Kaew (the “temple of a thousand bottles”) what it truly reminds me of is Orvieto Cathedral, another installation/temple which is completely bedazzled with mind-altering religious ornamentation (and which features insane hell frescoes inside). Let’s all get vaccinated so we can go to some of these places in the real world (assuming they can indeed actually be found there).

We closed out 2020 with a dramatic post about rare Vietnamese reptiles. Frankly, I was not expecting to return to that topic any time soon…yet somehow 2021 already features more Vietnamese reptile news.

Arguably the rarest turtle in the world is the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei). Back in 2019, there were three known living specimens (two in a zoo in China and one in a Vietnamese lake). The female in the Chinese zoo was the only known female and she died in 2019 after an unsuccessful artificial insemination attempt (the male in the Chinese zoo suffers from a heavily damaged external reproductive organ and is unable to procreate without extraordinary assistance from a team of Chinese scientists).

You have probably already gathered that these turtles have lives which would make a soap opera producer say “That is just too far-fetched!” But their romantic lives are not even the more astonishing thing about them. Swinhoe’s softshell turtles are potentially the largest freshwater turtles in the world and used to regularly weigh in at more than 100 kilograms (220 pounds). The largest recorded Swinhoe’s softshell turtle tipped the scales at 247.5 kg (545 pounds). The turtles used to be widespread from the Yangtze river across South China and south to the Red River of Vietnam, but habitat loss, hunting, and collection for traditional medicine all took their toll. The turtles can live for longer than 100 years…possibly much, much longer, but nobody really knows what the upper limit might be. The turtles are capable of staying submerged deep under water for long stretches of time and only rarely come up for breath. It is also worth noting their extraordinary appearance: the head of a Swinshoe softshell turtle resembles the face of a pink/brown earless mutant pig with a an alien map tattooed on it.

As you might imagine, this enormous fairytale monster has been the focus of much lore. In Vietnamese mythology, this turtle holds approximately the same place as the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian mythology. Back in the 15th century, Vietnam’s hero-king, Le Loi, saved Vietnam by defeating the ravening armies of the Ming dynasty. According to legend, Le Loi accomplished this feat by means of a magical sword and, when the battle was over, the king gave the sword to a turtle god who lived in Hoan Kiem lake in the middle of Hanoi. To the Vietnamese these turtles are known not as Swinhoe’s softshell turtle, but rather as “Hoan Kiem” turtle— “returned sword” turtles. It makes you wonder if Arthur maybe somehow gave Excalibur to a snapping turtle. The sacred (and nationalistic!) nature of this story means that turtles in Lake Hoan Kiem were looked after dotingly. But the story is also a double edged sword (as it were), because when the last turtle in Lake Hoan Kiem died it was regarded as a ominous disaster–as if the ravens at the Tower of London had perished.

Like saolas, iridescent underworld snakes, and preposterously gigantic Mekong catfish (not to mention the vanished Stegodon, the ineffable baiji, and this extinct gibbon…sigh), Swinhoe’s softshell turtle seems to belong to an ancient otherworldly ecosystem which is swiftly departing forever from Earth. However at the beginning of this article, I said there was news about the species and there really is! The third turtle, which was alleged to exist in a Vietnamese lake, has been discovered to be quite real and she is a female turtle! Vietnamese conservationists are faced with a conundrum. Do they hope that there are other turtles out there in secret pools of the remote jungle and do nothing or are they going to have to try to capture the last known wild turtle and then negotiate with the hated Chinese government for rare turtle sperm? I do not feel qualified to opine on this question, but I do hope that somehow the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle escapes extinction. The world would be a poorer place without this ancient giant.

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