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The time of winter darkness is upon us, and we should begin to think about how to celebrate Yule/winter solstice this year (especially during this year, 2020 when we are all locked inside).  Now I have always celebrated with Santa, the jocose and generous saint/winter god from Anglo-Saxon tradition who dispenses presents from his reindeer sleigh.  Beyond the supernatural extravagance of his mythology, Santa has a pretty wild history in the real world (he wasn’t always so Anglo-German but instead started out as—as a living human being—as Nicholas of Myra, a hardline bishop in what is now Syria/Turley!).  Thanks to globalization, Santa has begun to hegemonically overshadow the more eclectic and miscellaneous Yule traditions from other places, but they are still out there, lurking around the cold problematic edges.  Although I still intend to address my Christmas petitions to Santa, it is worth looking at some of these other traditions just to help us recognize that 2020 has not been the only hard Christmas.

For example, Iceland is so far north that they are neighbors with Santa (ahem, wink).  The winter solstice is an altogether different matter when it means the day is 4 hours or watery sunlight, and Icelandic Yuletide lore reflects this (and likewise reflects the pre-Christian legends of the Norse folk who colonized the uninhabited land). 

In Iceland, the principal Yule figure is (or was) Gryla, a grotesque giantess in the mold of Krampus.  Gryla devours naughty or disobedient children (she particularly enjoys cooking them as a stew) and she has a layabout husband named Leppaludi who loafs around their cave all day.  A child-eating giantess and a slob are not quite enough fantasy to get through the short days of December and so the heavy lifting is done by the Yule Lads, thirteen mischievous pranksters who begin to arrive one by one, thirteen nights before Christmas.  After Christmas, the Yule lads then depart in the same order, so that each elvish prankster is around the mortal world for 13 days each year.  They leave little gifts in the shoes of good children, but they leave potatoes (or worse) for bad kids.  The Yule lads are the sons of Gryla and Leppaludi, and, although they do not have their mother’s murderous hunger, they are plenty hungry enough!  This table, taken in its entirety from Wikipedia (which, by-the-way, you should support with small monetary gifts), lists the Yule Lads by name and characteristic.  I think even a cursory glimpse will give you a hair-raising, belt tightening picture of life in pre-modern Iceland:

Icelandic nameEnglish translationDescription[16]Arrival[16]Departure
StekkjarstaurSheep-Cote ClodHarasses sheep, but is impaired by his stiff peg-legs.12 December25 December
GiljagaurGully GawkHides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk.13 December26 December
StúfurStubbyAbnormally short. Steals pans to eat the crust left on them.14 December27 December
ÞvörusleikirSpoon-LickerSteals and licks wooden spoons. Is extremely thin due to malnutrition.15 December28 December
PottaskefillPot-ScraperSteals leftovers from pots.16 December29 December
AskasleikirBowl-LickerHides under beds waiting for someone to put down their “askur” (a type of bowl with a lid used instead of dishes), which he then steals.17 December30 December
HurðaskellirDoor-SlammerLikes to slam doors, especially during the night, waking people up.18 December31 December
SkyrgámurSkyr-GobblerA Yule Lad with a great affinity for skyr (similar to yogurt).19 December1 January
BjúgnakrækirSausage-SwiperHides in the rafters and snatches sausages that are being smoked.20 December2 January
GluggagægirWindow-PeeperA snoop who looks through windows in search of things to steal.21 December3 January
GáttaþefurDoorway-SnifferHas an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate leaf bread (laufabrauð).22 December4 January
KetkrókurMeat-HookUses a hook to steal meat.23 December5 January
KertasníkirCandle-StealerFollows children in order to steal their candles (which were once made of tallow and thus edible).24 December6 January

Gah! In addition to highlighting the similarities between Icelandic and English (apparently Icelandic and Old English are extremely similar, and, although the former is more grammatically complicated the tongues share a mutually comprehensible vocabulary) this table reveals the deprivation of northern winters in times past.  It is unclear if the Yule lads belong with Santa in the east (apparently the strapping lads dress like him) or with the nightmarish Wendigo in the west.

Whatever the case, the Yule lads seem to have been softening up a bit in a world of cheap shipping and factory farming (looking at that table again gives me new respect for both of those problematic things).  The modern versions are more like cute elves in the department store and less like, uh, hellacious monsters. But I am not giving up Santa (whose milk and cookies and walrus girth have been recontextualized in light of this Yule lad business). In fact I am going to order some sweets online and go have some ham and skyr…I mean yogurt.  I am also going to work hard to enjoy this Christmas season no matter what is going on outside and I am going to keep this Christmas legend in the back of my head as I think about agricultural policy and economics. Gleðileg jól!

Hey, remember that flounder artwork which I worked on for arduous months and months, and then published here on Earthday 2019? Nobody commented on it and then it sank into obscurity!

Well, anyway…I was tightening it up a little bit and polishing up some of the edges, when I noticed that it has a tiny turkey in it! Since it is already almost midnight here in New York, I thought maybe I would share another detail from the larger drawing in anticipation of Thanksgiving.

I better get back to work cleaning up this drawing. Let me know if you think of anything I left out and we will talk tomorrow!

As longtime reader know well, Ferrebeekeeper has always been impressed by the great, beautiful, sacrificial bird of the Americas–the turkey! Although these days, the United States seems to lead the world in turkey fixation (we have an entire month dedicated to the creature), turkeys were actually domesticated 2000 years ago in in central Mesoamerica.

Are there some contemporary Central American art objects that depict the noble bird in all of its majesty, pathos, and silliness (preferably with lots of eye-popping colors)? I am so glad you asked! The southern Mexican state of Oaxaca is renowned for its brilliantly colored hand-carved animals made of wood (among many other extraordinary creative traditions). Among the glowing menagerie, turkeys have a special place.

Here are some pictures of lovely Oaxaca turkeys shamelessly lifted from various places around the web. I hope they will lift your spirits and start to get you in the mood for the great feast. I also hope they will remind you of the long heritage of turkey cultivation and worship in western hemisphere. Enjoy the gorgeous carvings and I will start to think up an appropriate turkey theme long post for this long year.

I still can’t get over fancy pigeons. Not because of what their outlandish appearance reveals about selective breeding or about pigeons, but because of what it reveals about us humans. People purposely select some pigeon feature and then spend decades (or whole human lifetimes) emphasizing it to the point of absurdity in generation after generation after generation of bird.

We have already looked at shortface pigeons and black Indian fantail pigeons, but I think today’s fancy pigeon might be even more remarkable. The Jacobin pigeon is an Indian breed of pigeon noted for huge feathery collars which nearly obscure the birds’ faces.

I initially thought that I was misspelling the name of these birds and they were “Jacobean” pigeons (like the huge stiff lacy collar which was in fashion in Jacobean England), but that is completely wrong. These are truly Jacobin pigeons–not because they want to tear down kingship and guillotine a bunch of feckless aristocrats, but instead because they are named after the Jacobin order of monks (which must have had very noteworthy collars and cowls).

Just look at the poor birds! They really look like haughy 5th avenue matrons!

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Goose/Duck figurine (Han Dynasty, ca. 200 AD) Terra Cotta

In predynastic China, when an important person died, they were well provisioned for the next life in a straightforward fashion: whatever they would need in the next world was placed in the tomb with them.  Since it would be unthinkable to live without servants, concubines, beasts of burden, and delicious animals for roasting, this meant that important funerals in ancient China were also the occasion of human and animal sacrifice!  By the time the Han Dynasty had rolled around however, the wasteful extravagance of walling up servants and throwing away food, had given way to more symbolic (and humane) customs.  Vassals and livestock were allowed to stay in this world: in their place, little terra cotta figurines were placed inside the tomb.  Here is a very pretty example of such a funerary sculpture–a lovely Chinese goose/duck.  Although the figure is rendered with bravura simplicity (it was going into a tomb after all), it is also an expressive and lovely work of art.  It is not too much of a stretch to imagine the bird craning its neck down to gobble delicious grain and bugs off the ground or whipping its head around to hiss at the viewer.  Perfect for imagining an eternity of feasting in the next realm!

Today is World Elephant Day.  I love and esteem our great gray friends with all of my heart. Not only are they exceedingly intelligent, they also have human length lives and humanlike webs of lifelong social connections (to say nothing of their deeply heartfelt and entirely relatable emotional depth).  The conclusion that elephants are our peers and worthy of personhood (a strange word which has only existed since the 1950s, but which implies autonomy and legal rights) should be inescapable.  Yet a shocking number of people are incapable of seeing how much we share with our non-human fellow Earth organisms. Such folk draw a shining line around people (or certain categories of people!) which no counter-argument or evidence can ever seem to breach.  Perhaps this state of affairs was tolerable in the past when there were never-ending herds of elephants and humankind was trying to eke out a precarious existence–yet that is not the way of things today.  With our overpopulation, infinite appetite, and our grotesque battle for status in the eyes of other humans (which is how resources and hierarchy are allocated) we are causing the extinction of elephants.  We talk so much about seeking intelligent life in the universe, but we are killing off the intelligent life which is already right here on order to make ivory fripperies and unproductive farmland (which will all be desert in five years).

Worst of all, the remedies for this malady lie beyond the reach of people of conscience.  We cannot force people to stop trying to feed their families. We can’t allocate the affairs of impoverishes nations whose kleptocrat leaders are happy to trade away all of the elephants for predatory Chinese loans.  I don’t know what the solution is (although my private heart whispers that the proper home for tomorrow’s humans lies far beyond the beautiful fragile world which gave us life).  Yet world elephant day asks us to think about the problem before it stops being a soluble one and the elephants are gone forever.  I suspect that if we allow such a thing to happen, we will follow the giants in to the abyss not very long afterwards (if you doubt me, take a hard look around you).  Think about the problem as you gaze out at Venus and write down your ideas in the comments below.  In the meantime, to make up for this troubling post, here is a charming Chinese painting of a little elephant family together in the forest.  Look at how happy the little elephant is!

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Nothing irreversible has happened yet…at least on a planetary scale… but fixing the problems caused by humankind’s prolonged adolescent growth spurt is going to take self-discipline, cooperation, and imagination on an elephantine scale.

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Every year on Saint Patrick’s Day, Ferrebeekeeper features an otherworldly creature or legend from Irish Folklore.  From lovable (?) leprechauns, to the malevolent Sluagh, to heartbreaking romances between mortal and faerie, these mythical tales from Eire are written in the indelible colors of fever dreams and ancient appetite. And, speaking of appetite, this year’s Hibernian apparition is animated entirely by hunger: the fear gorta or “man of hunger” is a famine spirit. 

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These spectral entities are said to take the form of impossibly emaciated corpses begging for alms or food.  Although seeing a fear gorta wandering around in the human world was regarded as a harbinger of famine, interacting with them on an individual level was not necessarily thought of as a bad thing (like say getting caught up with a Leannán Sídhe).  In accordance with ancient fairytale rules, treating a fear gorta respectfully or offering them food, compassion, or alms could be pathway to unexpected good fortune.

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The origins of the fear gorta were shrouded in supernatural mystery.  Although an obvious interpretation was that the specters were the ghosts of famine victims or hapless starved wretches, other sources spoke of them rising autochthonously from eldritch patches of “hungry grass.”

As you might imagine, the fear gorta has a special place in the mythology of a nation whose defining crisis was the great potato famine of 1845 to 1849 (“an Gorta Mórin Gaelic ).  The failure of the potato crops during those years was caused by the potato blight, Phytophthora infestans, which is an oomycete that attacks plants of the  nightshade family (oomycetes are eukaryotic microorganism which straddles the facile taxonomical divide between the great kingdoms of life).    

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Whatever the biological causes of the crop failure, the Irish blamed the resultant famine on the stern new laissez faire capitalism of the United Kingdom’s Whig masters.  “God caused the blight, but the English caused the famine!” was a popular rallying cry.  We need to talk more about blights, famines, and pestilences—both within human history and within the paleontological record of life (it is hard to understand the place that viruses, bacteria, and pathogens hold in the microhistory of living things, since they are so fugitive in the fossil record, but we have critical clues).  For the moment though, I wish you a happy Saint Patrick’s Day.  I really hope you don’t see any fear gortas out there in the plague-haunted mist (although, given our own misadministration from the top, it would hardly surprise me), but if you do, please make sure to be super friendly and offer them some of your provisions.  A big pot of gold never hurt anybody…well, except for the Rath of Armagh…but that is a story for another St. Patrick’s Day.  In the meantime, celebrate the quarantine with some beer and potatoes and take care of yourself. Sláinte! We will get through all of this and build a better world!

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Mustang Sole (Wayne Ferrebee, 2017) Wood and Mixed Media

I got wrapped up working on a strange allegorical fish sculpture and failed to write a post today, so here is a sculpture which I built a few years ago which captures the wild freedom of the west (in, um, the form of a sleek predatory pleuronectiform).  The wheels, the running horse, and the fish all connote mobility and streamlined speed.  The mustang is emblematic of North America, but horses were actually introduced to the continent by Spaniards in the early 16th century.  Equids actually originated in the Americas (back in the Eocene, of course) but through the vicissitudes of continental drift, land bridges, speciation, and extinction they died out here and became quintessential Eurasian animals (we’re not even going to talk about zebras).  My favorite parts of this sculpture are the bend wooden components (which were a pain to steam and glue) and the 1970s rainbow of caramel, cream, and gold colors.  it is one of my favorite fish sculptures…but I am still trying to figure out exactly what it means.

Screenshot_2019-11-28 Wayne Mack Ferrebee ( greatflounder) • Instagram photos and videos(1)

Best wishes for a happy Thanksgiving from Sumi and me!

Screenshot_2019-11-28 Wayne Mack Ferrebee ( greatflounder) • Instagram photos and videos

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The Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt was the first great flowering of Egyptian civilization when the architectural and cultural trends which we regard as characteristic of Ancient Egypt became all pervasive.  It was also a glorious golden era of ancient human culture and the accomplishments (and some of the individual figures) of the era are still well known.   Although the Fourth Dynasty  (2613 to 2494 BC) is perhaps the most famous period of the Old Kingdom thanks to the enormous pyramid shaped tombs which were built then, the subsequent Fifth Dynasty (2494 BC–ca. 2345 BC) was also an era of enormous wealth and success which witnessed a great expansion of trade and cultural connections (thanks to the development of large ocean-going boats).

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A painting in Khuwy’s tomb displaying the graceful boats and gifted sailors of the 5th Dynasty (Ministry of Culture of Egypt)

All of this is back story to this amazing archaeological discovery which opened to the public earlier this year.  This is the tomb of Khuwy, a Fifth Dynasty nobleman who seemingly had some sort of close connection to Djedkare Isesi, the penultimate pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty.  The tomb was discovered near Saqqara, a vast necropolis just south of Cairo in early spring of this year (2019 AD).  Since the tomb was undisturbed for all of those centuries, the colors of the paint upon the wall are particularly fresh and vibrant (especially the reds greens and yellows).

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Seated Khuwy accepting offerings

The L shaped tomb consists of a passageway to an antechamber. Beyond the antechamber lies the main chamber which features a painting of the seated Khuwy accepting offerings (above) such as the tasty cuts of beef which cattle farmers are cutting off of a slaughtered spotted cow in this vivid painting from 4300 years ago (below).  The mummified Khuwy was present as well, along with canopic jars containing several of his favorite internal organs, however the jars and the mummy were broken.

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So who exactly was Khuwy and how was he related to Pharaoh? Why are the paintings in this tomb executed in a fashion (and with fancy pigments) usually reserved for royalty?  What happened to Khuwy’s mummy and why isn’t there a picture of that wrapped-up spooky fellow in this October blog post?  The answers are not known yet but archaeologists (and others) are working on solving these ancient mysteries and Ferrebeekeeper will be sure to report if and when the secrets are revealed.

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