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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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Plague Doctor Turbot (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019), Ink and Colored Pencil

To celebrate this day of pestilence, world economic collapse, and political discord, here is a plague doctor meticulously sewing a poor maimed flounder back together.  In the background a stitched together heart glows red with life above a lady’s slipper orchid (although a cold frozen heart and a fly also hint that other outcomes are possible, if we don’t get our act together).

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Crown from the Akan people of Ghana | Velvet, wood and gold leaf | Early to mid 1900

The Akan people are a matrilineal culture of west Africa who have dominated the Gold Coast (present Day Ghana) sine the 11th century AD.  It is believed that they migrated from the Sahara and the Sahel due to desertification and famine.  Akan political hierarchy has the same sort of feudal layering familiar from medieval Europe.  Powerful emperors and kings ruled over lesser local kings who in turn demanded liege homage from war chieftains and local chiefs.  As in medieval Europe, all of these tiers of kings, leaders, chiefs, and aristocrats involved plenty of materialistic status objects.  The Gold Coast derives its name not in a Greenland/Iceland style misdirection campaign, or from the Gold Family, or because of the glittering yellow sunsets.  It is called that because large quantities of gold were found there in historical times.  All of which leads us to today’s crown, which was crafted for an important chief or a lesser king of the the Akan sometime in the 19th century.  The dominant (and delightful) feature of the headdress are geometric charms crafted of wood and covered with gold leaf.  Against the black velvet background they look a bit like the starry nighttime sky. The charms undoubtedly have indivdual symbolic meanings which are beyond me, but the larger meaning–that the wearer is an important person with wealth and important connections–are instantly obvious.  One symbol though is quite recognizable: the crown is surmounted by star and crescent symbol of Islam which was brought to the Akan early on by caravan traders from the north.  For centuries Islam has existed alongside the ancient traditional mythology (which involves a spider sky god!) and Christianity.

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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.

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Portrait of Kubaba (8th century B.C.) Carved Basalt

Kubaba of Kish is the only woman ruler listed on the Sumerian King List (which is exactly what it sounds like– a list of ancient kings of Mesopotamian city states).  According to the king list she ruled Kish in the Third Dynasty period (ca. 2500-2330 BC) and was originally a brewer/tavern keeper.  One wonders how she rose from alewife to queen, but politics has always featured surprising vicissitudes, and beer had a central sacred place in ancient Mesopotamia anyway.

We know all too little about the history of Kubaba the ruler (although surprising new texts from the dawn of civilization sometimes come to light), however we know slightly more about Kubaba the goddess!  Apparently she was successful enough that shrines to her began spreading throughout the fertile crescent and, by the late Hurrian/early Hittite period, worship of Kubaba became widespread (this is the era which that splendid basalt sculpture above is from).

Kubaba the Goddess wears a a cylindrical headdress like the polos (albeit with some fancy flowers, braids, and strange hooks).  She holds a pod which scandalized Victorian anthropologists sometimes identified as a pomegranate, but which we can probably safely say is an opium poppy. Some strange fertility and astrological signs drift around her head, but she maintains the stern clear-eyed visage which one might expect from a true pioneer of women in power (or from a hard-headed tavern keeper).

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One of Ferrebeekeeper’s most popular posts of all time was a short essay on the kingly crowns of ancient Egypt: the hedjet, the ancient white (vulture) crown of upper Egypt; the deshret, the red (bumblebee) crown of fertile lower Egypt; and the khepresh, the blue battle crown worn by the pharaoh when he mounted his war chariot to smite the kingdom’s enemies in person!  Immediately below are some little refresher pictures to show these three crowns (plus, if you want to know more about them, you could always read the original article).

This is already a lot of crowns, especially considering that the three were combined in various ways (and mixed with various other royal regalia) for sundry ceremonial purposes–and yet there were other crowns in ancient Egypt worn by beings even more important than the pharaoh.  Today’s post concerns a prime example–the “atef”, the ostrich crown of Osiris.  In the mythology of ancient Egypt, Osiris played a central role as the first pharaoh, the king of the underworld and the lord of death, rebirth, agriculture, and mummification.   His all-important story (death at the hands of his wicked brother and reincarnation thanks to his loving wife) was the central myth of ancient Egypt, which informed people about the afterlife.  As a pharaoh and the eternal ruler of the underworld, Osiris wore a kingly crown, but the underworld is neither upper nor lower Egypt (nor is it a battle as such) and so the atef crown of Osiris is a whole different crown–a knobbed version of the white hedjet of upper Egypt with symbolic rainbow ostrich feathers rising around it.  There is a schematic digital representation of the atef at the top of the post, and here is a 3300 year old painting of it:

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Osiris portrayed on a wall frieze from the tomb of Nefertari (c. 1295-1255 B.C.)

The two ostrich feathers respectively symbolized truth and justice (the nearly identical feather of Maat is one of the most important religious symbols of Egypt–with a nearly identical meaning).  The bulbous central crown was sometimes pictured as a classic white hedjet (as in the image from Nefertari’s tomb above) and sometimes portrayed as a rainbow hedjet surmounted by an astrological-looking cardioid of gold and midnight blue (as in the crown Osiris wears below).

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“Wow” you are probably thinking.  “There were so many crowns in ancient Egypt! Were there still more?”  Of course there were!  However the answers start getting murkier as we move to other rulers (and other crowns).  Come back to Ferrebeekeeper to find out more (or, you know, Google it, and find out all you can bear to know.

 

 

 

 

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The medieval architecture of France includes many of the most renowned examples of Gothic architecture. Thus you are probably asking  yourself, “Were the French a part of the Gothic revival architecture movement of the 19th century?”

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The answer is Oui! Boy were they ever! This is the Chapelle royale de Dreux, the burial place of important members of the House of Bourbon-Orléans (the royal family of France after the revolution).  Its story is interesting.  During the French Revolution, an enraged mob burst desecrated the family chapel of the Duke of Orléans and threw all of the corpses which had been therein interred into a common mass grave at the the Chanoines cemetery of the Collégiale Saint Étienne.  After the revolution was over, the Duke’s daughter arranged for a grand chapel to be built over this new burial site.  Later on, when her son Louis Philippe became King of France, he added substantially to the grand new building which was built to mimic the great ancient structures lost to the revolution.  As a bonus, Alexandre Brogniart, the director of manufacturing for Sèvres porcelain, used his resources to produce huge fired enamel paintings on large panes of glass to go in the chapel.

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Pseudoscience, quackery, “magic”, and deceptive supernatural practices meant to defraud people (often including the practitioner…for our need to believe in things is deep and desperate indeed) are as old as humankind, but I doubt that many schools of augury are quite as outwardly preposterous as myomancy, divination by means of rats and mice.

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The Romans were into augury of every sort, but they seem to have had a particular fondness for myomancy, and Pliny the Elder refers to it directly several times in his histories (although, in the end, all that study of rat augury doesn’t seem to have kept him safe from unexpected volcanic eruptions).  Myomancy could be “practiced” by freeing rats or mice and seeing which way they fled, by watching the rodents navigate mazes/pictograms, or by simply observing their lives in the wild.

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This last “wild” myomancy was perhaps the most highly regarded, yet it was also the most rare and spontaneous.  Mice and rats were sometimes thought to scream out before a disaster…or to just run away before a calamity.   If rats suddenly fled a house or community, it was thought to be bad luck of the most astonishing sort. Likewise. if a huge number of rats or mice simply appeared, it betokened a coming war or illness.  If rodents were spotted gnawing clothing (or, worse, armor or military equipment) it was regarded as a sign of incipient defeat.

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Now, animals perhaps don’t have occult connections to the forces of fate and divinity, but they have extreme sensory acuity (or sometimes they have entire senses we lack!).  Modern scientists have noticed that animals, particularly rats and mice, can predict earthquakes or extreme weather events.  Rats and mice are sensitive to air changes which betoken fire, pollution, or anoxygenic conditions.  Additionally, if a bunch of rats suddenly appear seemingly out of nowhere it is a pretty dire sign that something has gone very wrong with some fundamental link in an ecosystem.  Famine or pestilence may indeed be on the way.  The link between rats and bubonic plague is direct and (now) well known.  If rats start stumbling out of the woodwork and dying, collect all of your strongest antibiotics and RUN.

So I started this post by belittling myomancy, which certainly sounds less august than reading the stars or speaking to the dead or what have you.  However, on closer examination, it seems like myomancy might provide some real and useful information, which other schools of augury lack entirely.  This is not because myomancy is magical, but instead because rats and mice are clever and sensitive and must stay hyper-alert to survive in a world of poisons, predators, giants, and catastrophes.  Pliny the Elder was one of the forefathers of the natural sciences–perhaps we can still learn some things from him (see more next week), so keep an eye out for mysterious rodent happenings.  You never know what they will tell you! If Pliny hadn’t gotten distracted by the giant mushroom cloud above Vesuvius, he probably would have noticed rats running the other way as fast as they could.

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Two Rats (Masatami. Late 19th century), ivory netsuke

My favorite rat artworks are not from China (nor from the canon of Western Art–where rats tend to be depicted as vile little monsters), but from another East Asian culture which keeps the same lunar calendar and recognizes some of the same symbolic associations.   Here is a small gallery of endearing and playful rat pictures from Japan.

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Treasure Boat with Three Rats (Kubo Shunman, 1816, (year of the rat)), woodblock print

I wish I could explain all of the puns, allusions, and anthropomorphized fables behind these images, but, alas, I cannot.  You will have to enjoy the rats relatively free of context (although I note that the ratties seem to be hungry adventurers…and several of the artworks come from rat years which occurred hundreds of years ago).

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Three Rats (Kono Bairei,1889 (Year of the Rat)) Diptych woodblock print in pastel shades

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Man and Huge Rat (Kunisada, ca. 19th century) woodblock print

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Figures from ” Chingan sodate gusa ” published in 1787

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Rats and fish (Kyosai Kawanabe, 1881) woodblock print

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One thing that does jump out is that the Japanese found reasons to be charmed and pleased by the curiosity, bravery, and altruism of rats.  Even in the twentieth century, when American cultural influences weigh more heavily on the Japanese canon, there is still an independent likability to these rats.  Do you see it? Do you have any favorite Japanese rat images of your own?

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Toy Rat (Japanese, 20th Century) Plastic

When I was a teenager I became fascinated by the art of Honoré Daumier (1808-1879).  Daumier is now famous for his sensitive pictures of day-to-day life for marginal people in French society, however, during his lifetime, he was known as a caustic social critic who created biting caricatures of the corrupt politicians who flourished during the chaotic yet reactionary period of French politics which followed Napoleon. During his life, Daumier witnessed the fall of Napoleon, the Bourbon restoration, the July monarchy, the Second Republic, the Second Empire, and the Third Republic.  For some reason he was cynical about the motives and abilities of the French political class.

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The Legislative Belly (Honore Daumier, 1834) lithograph

Here is one of his satirical masterpieces, “The Legislative Belly” a lithograph from 1834, which depicts the members of the Chamber of Deputies. The Chamber of Deputies was an elected assembly, but only those who paid hefty taxes were eligible to vote, so exceedingly rich merchants and bankers chose the Deputies from among their own ranks. The title at the bottom reads “aspect of the ministerial benches of the improvised chamber of 1834.”

Looking up the individual deputies reveals that Daumier has pictured the deputies mostly as they actually looked.  These caricatures would have been easily recognizable to anyone following French politics in the year 1834:  Daumier did not melt or distort these features all that much…and yet the cumulative effect is horrifying.  The deputies look like monsters.  They have the appearance of doddering inbreds, vultures, cannibals, and fools.  The deputies drew Daumier’s wrath for their reactionary policies which enormously favored the wealthy and for their fractious and pettifogging habits when in session.

If Louis Philippe’s legislators were anything like they looked to be (and history sadly indicates that they were), it is astonishing that the July Monarchy lasted until 1848 when it was swept away by revolution.  Still there are many lessons about politics to be gleaned from this lithograph…and from reactionary French politics of the 19th century! One of these lessons is that even extremely non-representational legislative bodies are subject to popular opinion…eventually.

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