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Spoon River Anthology is a series of interwoven poems about a fictional cemetery in the fictional town of Spoon River, Illinois (a non-existent hamlet which somehow bears more than a passing resemblance to author Edgar Lee Masters’ home town of Lewistown, Illinois). While actual cemeteries are not especially chilling or haunting (other than for inducing thoughts about the very limited continuity of the things of this world), the fictional cemetery of Spoon River is a truly disquieting place. Masters utilizes the dark harrow of art to plough up flinty truths about human life–and these are the sorts of truths which are so honest as to be forbidden–unspeakable by anyone not already dead. It is one of the more haunting works of American fiction–an epic puzzle about how our lives are marred by our attempts to grasp our dreams and desires–and how the real arc of our destiny is hidden from us by the illusions, lies, and stratagems which come into being as other people strive to to grasp their dreams and desires.

The anthology features the voices of 212 characters speaking from beneath the hill about the true circumstances of their lives and deaths. They speak honestly about loneliness, need, and failure. They speak about belief, knowledge, and love. Although the anthology is entirely written in the unearthly voice of the departed, it is not a series of poem about the afterlife (indeed, I would be stunned if Edgar Lee Masters believed in any such thing), instead the poem is about adultery, ludicrous colonial wars, small-town politics, romance novels, addiction, sadness, and America’s siren song of success at any cost. Much of this involves the constant jostling for social ascendancy which (sigh) is the principle feature of human society. Perhaps it will shock, shock, shock you to learn that most of the wealthy and powerful elite of Spoon River obtained their high standing by standing on top of other people.

Spoon River Anthology was published in 1914–a date when America stood balanced between field and factory, between war and peace, and between innocence and disillusionment. You can (and should) read the whole thing for free anywhere on the internet. In many respects the poems work better today than when they were first written since they are non-linear networked pieces very much suited to hyperlinks and indexes.

Since you can easily read them yourself, I do not need to quote the poems extensively, but, it would be shame not to give you a taste to get you hooked. The metaphor for how to obtain success in the rat race of the capitalist world is to “build a better mousetrap” Here is the poem of Robert Fulton Tanner, one of several feverish inventors in Spoon River. It is a bit uncertain, but it seems like he died of sepsis after being bitten by a rat…

If a man could bite the giant hand
That catches and destroys him,
As I was bitten by a rat
While demonstrating my patent trap,
In my hardware store that day.
But a man can never avenge himself
On the monstrous ogre Life.
You enter the room—that’s being born;
And then you must live—work out your soul,
Aha! the bait that you crave is in view:
A woman with money you want to marry,
Prestige, place, or power in the world.
But there’s work to do and things to conquer—
Oh, yes! the wires that screen the bait.
At last you get in—but you hear a step:
The ogre, Life, comes into the room,
(He was waiting and heard the clang of the spring)
To watch you nibble the wondrous cheese,
And stare with his burning eyes at you,
And scowl and laugh, and mock and curse you,
Running up and down in the trap,
Until your misery bores him.

Do you perhaps feel a pang of sympathy for the poor trapped rat?

I have made Spoon River Anthology sound monstrous…and it is. The poems do not hide national sins of racism (look what happens to the poor Chinese American student), sexism, oppression, and cruelty. The dark work of whitecapping the neighbors, propping up the rotten bank, and putting the fix in for the masters is all there, along with SO much hypocrisy.

Yet Spoon River Anthology is about life and so it is also about love and hope. Luminous transcendent ideals are always present in this work, even among the most debased of the dead. Many of the poems (or maybe most of them) are about loving an idea or another person so much that one’s self is annihilated. Spoon River is filled with places where it is always spring, or where the most transcendent song can be heard, or where someone first found the love of their life. Sometimes such ineffable stuff leads souls to lives of meaning and beauty–in other cases it is the bit of cheese on the spring catch mechanism.

It is impossible to avoid the feeling that if the little cemetery in your hometown were properly cross-referenced and indexed it would be very much like Spoon River. I said cemeteries are not haunted–but I meant Greenwood and Cypress Hill–I might say different things about Pleasant Hill and Blue Knob. But the strange thing about the whispering of the dead is how identical it is to the whispering in our own red hearts.

It has been a long time since this blog has explored the strange and evocative world of mascots, those perplexing symbolic stand-ins who (or “which”?) represent an organization or concept. This year’s Halloween theme is graveyards, and naturally the question arose (snicker) of whether there are gravestone mascots. The world contains Japan–so of COURSE there are (albeit not many). We will get to them shortly, but first let’s philosophize about this subject for a moment. After all a grave itself is already a sort of mascot–a symbolic stand-in which represents an entire life. Even when that life is gone, the idea remains (for what is a person to another person really, but a complicated arrangement of ideas). Oftentimes the idea supersedes the life itself. How many people actually knew Lenin or Colonel Sanders or whatever?

Also, as I “researched” this article I found hundreds of graves of mascots which underlined what a powerful idea both graves and mascots are. I included Colonel Sanders’ grave above because, just as Colonel Sanders was the epitome of mascots, his tomb is the epitome of mascot tombs (in fact, it might be nicer than Philip the Apostle’s tomb at Hierapolis, and the Byzantines had 600 years to spiff that up). Yet most of the bulldogs, homing pigeons, goats, and pigs had pretty nice graves too. There was something particularly moving about the granite memorials of regimental mascots from WWI and WWII–which made it seem like mascots not only bore the honor of their units but also served as much needed emotional surrogates for the soldiers. Symbols are much more powerful than people initially suppose!

We will return to these ideas. The reason I am writing about graves is not (just) because I am a morbid weirdo, but to examine the relationship we have with people of the past–who never knew us, but whose ideas, works, and institutions are the basis of our own lives. Maybe it is also a way of asking what meaning and assistance we can provide for the unknowable people (and suchlike entities) of the future other than useless hunks of rock which narcissistically yet feebly proclaim that we existed. Um…ok…anyway, here are some strange grave mascots I found online:

This Japanese grave is pretty cute actually–I wish I had found a bigger picture (or at least found out where WordPress put the danged “center” button)

More of a coffin–but he does the job
Is this a…warning? an ad?
This guy might straight-up be a sugar cube or a hunk of goat cheese
Tombliboos are tombs, right?
Aww!
The end…for this post anyway

Oh gosh, October is really flying by this year. I guess we might as well jump to this year’s spooky Halloween topic right now so that we will be able to enjoy (?) these posts as we approach Halloween. Topics in previous years have included the undead, the mother of monsters, flaying, and dark clowns. This year we are returning to the classics and writing about cemeteries (but with an eye on the future as well as the past). Arguably this is a repeat of my 2018 “necropolis” series, but I was dissatisfied by how that panned out (even if I am still astonished and troubled by Vietnam’s “City of Ghosts“) so this year we will circle back to explore the emotional, political, and philosophical (and environmental) aspect of cemeteries and take a look at some amazing graveyards as well.

We will do all of that in subsequent posts of this series, but to start with, let’s just check out an amazing ancient cemetery! The ancient city of Hierapolis is located in what is now Turkey, but its “golden age” took place during the Greco-Roman period particularly from Hellenic times to the beginning of the Byzantine era. The true apogee of Hierapolis was during the heyday of the Roman Empire. The location has a famous hot spring with heated bubbling mineral water–and it is hard to imagine anything more appealing to the Roman mind than a giant natural jacuzzi (especially one right beside the Adriatic in the Hellenized heart of Asia Minor). Well-to-do Romans would retire to Hierapolis to enjoy the healing benefits of the baths and the services of doctors/quacks/healers/magicians of all sorts. The location was a sort of medical mecca of the Roman world. You should go look up the wonders of the Hieraplois baths and theater on your own. For the purposes of this article though, the other side of the medical industry is germane. When the ancient doctors could not help patients, the people who moved their seeking succor stayed permanently.

Like other Roman cities, Hierapolis was designed with the market, theater, and forum in the center of town–along with the baths and medical establishments (and a great colonnaded main street). Around the city center were shops, temples and the dwellings of the great. Farther from the center were more modest dwellings and artisan’s shops and workplaces. The city was surrounded with walls and immediately outside these walls, along each thoroughfare, were extensive cemeteries. Just imagine how creepy roman cemeteries were back in the day when all of the outcasts and footpads of town would haunt the dark mausoleums, columbariums, and tumuli! Like us, the ancient Romans also had their own extensive creepy pantheon of demons and monsters, but the Roman spooky realm was haunted by beautiful flesh-eating lamia, and grim owl-like strix (and headlined by dark gods like Dis Pater, Hecate, and Cronus).

Anyway, Hierapolis was wealthy, as were the citizens who came there to spend the remainder of their days, and thus many of the Roman tombs built there were beautiful and solidly built–and they are still there. The Roman elites commissioned lovely gardens of cypress, asphodel, and roses around their graves. Many of the stunningly beautiful carved sarcophagi which you will recognize from Latin textbooks or history articles about Rome are from Hierapolis (the best have been gathered together in a museum). Even if you are a stern, joyless Christian and find little to love about a bunch of pagan graves, Hierapolis is the also the final resting place of Philip the Apostle and it had a long successful turn as a Byzantine spa city as well.

Tomb of Philip the Apostle (or possibly Philip the Evangelical, depending on which Biblical archaeologists you believe)

Jupiter, the speaking oaks, a pigeon, and a mysterious goddess

As I read about the ancient world, one of the place names which keeps reappearing again and again is Dodona–the site of the oldest oracle in Greece. Ferrebeekeeper has already written about the myth of the foundation of Dodona (which reputedly became a place of prophecy when a black dove with the power of human speech landed there). During the Greco-Roman era, the shrine was sacred to Zeus/Jove himself. The priests and priestesses of Dodona would listen to the noises of a grove of sacred oak trees. Not only did the leaves of these trees rustle in the wind but their boughs were hung with resonant bronze vessels (which banged and clanged like wind chimes). Although Dodona was sacred to Zeus in the classical era, it seems like it dates back to at least Mycenaean times (the mysterious palace-building city states of Mycenaean Greece preceded the Greek age by many centuries, and although they apparently shared some cultural and linguistic similarities, the cultures were not the same). It has been argued that the Dodona of Mycenaean times was sacred to the great goddess Gaia. Whatever the ancient traditions of Dodona were, they came to an apocalyptic halt around 1200 BC when disaster and invaders put an end to the palace civilizations. Sacred worship and divination reemerged there later in the new conventions of Archaic Greek religious style (all of which contributed to the Zeus versus Gaia mythology which is such a pivotal conflict in ancient Greek mythology).

The Sphinx in the Carthaginian Charnel Yard (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink and watercolor on paper

Today’s post features a little watercolor from the tiny moleskine sketchbook which I carry around with me all the time—but it is also a teaser for Ferrebeekeeper’s annual Halloween feature topic (previous topics have included the undead, the children of Echidna, flowers of the underworld, evil clowns, and flaying).  Anyway, the painting shows a Carthaginian cemetery with a great sinister oven in the background in the shape of Baal or Tanit.  Some officious Carthaginian priest is running around the monuments with a sinister wavy ceremonial knife and weird shrouded forms writhe in the background.  In the foreground is a disgruntled sphinx wearing the same expression as my housecat before she stalks out of the room or disappears to hide in her undisclosed secure location.   In the extreme foreground is a nightjar hidden among the weeds and wildflowers.   Glowing pink flowers of a numinous character hover in the stormy sky.  It is unclear whether they are ornamental or somehow connected with whatever story is being told.  

Hi everyone! Kindly forgive me for the terrible paucity of posts during the last week. I am back home, visiting my family in the rural fastnesses of old Appalachia/the post-industrial hinterlands of the Ohio Valley. It is so beautiful out here in August, when great cumulus clouds blow up over the soybean fields and oakwoods. Anyway, expect some pictures and posts about country living when I get back to my workstation in Brooklyn. In the meantime here is a drawing from my little moleskine sketchbook to tide you over.

Naumachia (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) watercolor and ink on paper

This is my vision of the fearsome naumachia, the naval gladiatorial combat of the ancient Greco-Roman world. In order to sate the Roman audience’s lust for novelty (and, um, blood, of course), the masters of the ancient games would sometimes flood the amphitheaters and host miniature ship battles on these tiny lakes. In my version there are some sea monsters thrown into the mix (and a saucy sea goddess sitting on the proscenium arch with a eurypterid in one arm and a merbabe in the other). In the upper left a port city carries on the commerce of the time, while the ruins of the even more ancient world can be seen in the upper right. In the lower right corner of the painting, citizens stumble around a peculiar lichyard with a tall mausoleum. Prdictably the pleasure garden in the lower left corner is quite empty. Perhaps it is for exclusive use of the nobles (or maybe I forgot to draw anyone in there). Why didn’t I at least include a peacock or some other ornamental garden beast? Last of all, a group of celebrity heralds, ringmasters, and spokespeople direct the attention of the audience from center stage. They could almost be mistaken for the game masters…and yet there is something curiously pupeetlike about them too, isn’t there? Who is really directing this theater of maritime carnage and for what purpose?

Fortunately this is a fantasy of the ancient world and the maritime devastation, pointless posturing, and savage competition have nothing to do with the way we live now…or DO they? [sinister chord]

On an unrelated note, I will be on vacation a bit longer. I truly apologize for how few blog posts I have posted lately and I solemnly vow to do better when I return from the countryside rested and refreshed. For now, check out my Instagram page, and I will see if I can find a fresh act to throw into the amphitheater for your delectation while I am gone. Perhaps the great science-fiction author, Dan Claymore, can once again tear his vision away from the dark world of the near future and take the helm. Or maybe I can find a skipper…er… author with entirely fresh perspectives (and a different moral compass) to sail Ferrebeekeeper to uncharted realms. So prepare yourself for anything…or for nothing at all.

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!

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