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The Olympics games continue in Tokyo and I wanted to put up a brief post to honor the festival (before going off to watch some more of the drama on television). This year’s Olympic controversies have featured plenty of questions about appropriate costumes, which strikes me as funny, since the original ancient Greek games were a largely nude affair. However, even in the ancient games there were exceptions. This 5th century Attic vase shows one of the most grueling non-nude events–the hoplitodromos–the race in armor.

A red-figure vase depicting an athlete running the hoplitodromos by “the Berlin Painter”, ca. 480 BC (collection of the Louvre)

Participants wore a heavy bronze helmet, metal greaves, and carried a heavy wooden shield (which was issued by the game organizers so as to prevent cheating). The hoplitodromos was thought to be so fundamentally different from fully nude footracing that no athlete could win at both, however, the greatest Olympic champion of classical antiquity, Leonidas of Rhodes, proved such opinions wrong by winning the premier short races and the hoplitodromos for 4 Olympics in a row.

The point of today’s post is not really to rhapsodize about Leonidas of Rhodes (whose glory remains undiminished after 2200 or so years), and to enjoy this exquisite red-figure vase by “The Berlin painter” an unknown master artist whose work still remains, even if his name has not survived. Of course, the Berlin painter was not really from Berlin (although his work wound up there), but was an Athenian of the golden era. Whatever his story was, he certainly knew how to portray the fatigue and the emotional pressure faced by ancient athletes competing in the armor race (we know that the figure on the vase is an athlete because he has neither sword nor cuirass…nor even a loincloth).

Sometimes when my mind has been hopelessly corrupted by the pointless drudgery of my dayjob (a syndrome which, alas, also impairs efficacious blogging) I like to look at the exquisite golden objects from Indonesia which are on display at the Museum of Fine Art, Houston. Through some strange accident (which almost certainly involved vast fossil fuel wealth) the Houston museum has the finest collection of Indonesian gold outside of Jakarta. We have seen some of these otherworldly status objects here on Ferrebeekeeper before, but today’s golden crown suits my taste even more than previous selections. Unfortunately, the Houston museum’s collection is poorly explained, and the internet simply identifies this as an ancestral gold crown from the Moluccas circa 15th to 17th century. Why are the greatest beauties always so mysterious?

The Moluccas (AKA Maluku) are a pretty mysterious place in their own right, having been continuously inhabited by humans since the first great migration out of Africa 80,000 years ago (dates may be subject to variance!). As Austronesian, Melanesian, and eventually Malay (and then, in historical times, Chinese and European) people traveled through the great ecological and cultural crossroads, all sorts of ideas became mixed together. This headress though is not 100% alien… it has certain similarities to some of the Balinese carvings I have seen–which is to say it comes from a Hindu cultural tradition coming southwards from Malaysia and South East Asia. There are shades of the fantastical headdresses of the apsaras here! Yet I don’t see this piece as completely Hindu or southeast Asian either. The ornament and the figures have a vigorous & sumptuous aspect which strikes me as thoroughly Indonesian. Whatever the case, I could look at this enigmatic crown all day! If anyone out there knows anything about it (or even has any speculative ideas like mine above) I would love to hear from you!

Although crowns are one of our main themes here, Ferrebeekeeper has largely resisted writing about the British crown jewels…until a week or so ago, when we looked at the strange history of a preposterous medieval spoon which is somehow part of the UK royal regalia. The massive popularity of that post has inspired our researchers to probe more deeply into the royal collection, and a shocking truth came to light. The crown which is arguably the most iconic (or at least the second-most-iconic) of all English crowns was not an “official” crown (in that it was a personal piece of jewelry rather than an item owned “by the crown”). Here is the somewhat touching story of Queen Victoria’s iconic “little crown” which is sort of a signature piece of the great monarch.

Queen Victoria was queen of the United Kingdom from 1837 until 1901 (an era which also witnessed the zenith of English wealth, power, and influence around the globe). For much of that time she was married to her first cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (he really was a rather debonair looking fellow when he was young). Sadly, the German prince died in 1861 (after making sure that the United States and the United Kingdom didn’t come to war over some vile confederate traitors who were plucked off of an English flagged vessel a trifle peremptorily–thanks, Albert!). Queen Victoria was devastated. She wore black mourning clothes the rest of her life and never remarried. Her already regal and aloof personality became even more solemn and remote. In 1870, the ministers, courtiers, and suchlike fancy folk who ran England begin to become alarmed at the queen’s prolonged absence from public life (and her noteworthy austerity). They begged her to return to royal duties and ceremonies. Naturally such things would require her best prop–her crown–however the Imperial State Crown (which is really, truly THE crown of the UnitedKingdom) was too heavy for the diminutive fifty something sovereign. (As an aside, Wikipedia tells us exactly how heavy this beeweled monstrosity really was: “It weighed 39.25 troy ounces (43.06 oz; 1,221 g) and was decorated with 1,363 brilliant-cut, 1,273 rose-cut and 147 table-cut diamonds, 277 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, 4 rubies, and the Black Prince’s Ruby (a spinel).” Anyway, Queen Victoria did not want to wear such a thing while doing queenly things, partly so that her head did not fall off, but also because the giant Imperial State Crown would not fit on top of the widow’s cap which she wore until she died. But what is the point of being queen of half of the world if you don’t have a crown?

To solve the dilemma, Queen Victoria turned to the royal jewelers, Garrard & Co. and requested (i.e. commissioned and purchased) a solution. She had them make a tiny crown which would fit on top of her widow’s cap and which would not compress her spine with all sorts of fatuous gold and jewels. The tiny crown was made of plain silver and was a mere 9 cm (3 1⁄2 in) across and 10 cm (4 in) high. It was plainly and frugally fitted with 1,162 brilliant and 138 rose-cut diamonds which the queen had lying around. According to Victorian mourning tradition, white diamonds, (being white) were appropriate for mourning attire. The tiny crown of Queen Victoria was her own. She bought it and paid for it with her own money and it did not belong to the crown (a phrase which strikes me as funny in this instance). During the 30 years she wore it, the crown became part an iconic part of her brand. If we were to summon Terry Gilliam and have him animate queen Victoria, I am 100% certain she would be portrayed with her little crown (although I suspect she would prefer to have her little dog, Turi, a beloved Pomeranian, whose company is what she asked for when she was herself dying).

Queen Victoria willed her little crown to the crown, so it is now somewhere in the glittering stack of ermine, gold, scepters, rubies, emeralds, and er, spoons at the Tower of London. I have always though of Queen Victoria as something akin to the gold statue of Jupiter on Capitoline Hill–an inhuman symbol of inhuman power. The story of her little silver crown (a memento to someone she loved and lost and then mourned for the whole rest of her life) humanized her to a surprising degree. This is funny, because if anyone that I knew commissioned a crown made of 1300 diamonds that they could wear around all of the time it would have exactly the opposite effect. We will keep thinking about this hierarchy business.

“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!

In all of our explorations of crowns and crown jewels, we have barely addressed the most famous crown jewels of all–those of the United Kingdom. Ferrebeekeeper posted about the giant dark spinel in the imperial state crown (aka “the black prince’s ruby“) and about the crown of the Tudor kings–which was destroyed back in the 17th century–and that is about all we have said about the most famous royal regalia. The reason for the paucity of posts is that the crown jewels of the United Kingdom were themselves destroyed in 1649 at the order of Oliver Cromwell, a puritan anti-monarchist who seized control of England and had no use for such things. Interestingly, this was (at least) the second time that all of the crown jewels were lost: in 1216 Bad King John somehow sank all of the previous crown jewels (and most of the treasury) in the Wash River (we will explore that humorous catastrophe in a future post).

Anyway, the real point of all of this is that although Cromwell destroyed all of the golden crowns, jeweled scepters, ancient magic swords and whatnot, he did not quite destroy all of the crown jewels. A single metal item from the ancient medieval royal collection of England survived the meltdown and is now the oldest item in the crown jewels (although the Black Prince’s ruby (which was sold and later returned) is pretty ancient too). The sacred coronation spoon of the ancient kings of England survived the Commonwealth. As the crown jewels were being torn apart and melted by stern religious zealots, there was apparently a spoon enthusiast (?) in the crowd. This Mr. Kynnersley bought the ancient coronation spoon for 16 shillings.

The first mention of the coronation spoon was in 1349, but even then it was said to be “of ancient form” so the true age and origin of the spoon are lost in history (although experts surmise that it is from the 12th century). The coronation spoon is decorated with monster’s heads and ornate medieval scrollwork. It was probably originally used to mix water and wine (a critical component of drinking in ancient times which ensured that the imbiber neither died of dysentery nor blacked out from alcohol poisoning). If you squint a bit, the spoon has quite a lot of resemblance to a modern bartender’s mixing spoon.

As far as I can tell, the spoon is too famous and special to be photographed, but there are many high quality drawings and reproductions of it. I wonder how this spoon will fare during the next 800 years of royal history, or will it fall victim to a new King John or another Cromwell somewhere down the line?

Always stalking around the edges of Ferrebeekeeper we find those enigmatic horselords of the ancient steppe, the Scythians! The classical Scythians were nomadic people (or peoples) who dominated the Pontic steppe between 700 and 300 BC. Since they existed just beyond the outermost fringes of Greek civilization (and since they were charismatic yet completely un-Greek) they loomed large in the ancient Hellenic imagination–and cast their thrall over all of the subsequent scholars who have looked to ancient Greece for inspiration and explanations. Thus we have weird stories of Hercules (the ultimate Greek hero) sleeping with the ultimate monster to beget the Scythians, or tales of how the Scythians were the ancestors of the Scottish (although I guess all human beings are pretty closely related). Anyway, for the Scythians, none of this mattered–what mattered were their beloved horses, which were always at the center of their rituals, trading, fighting, and just about every other part of their lives (indeed it seems like domesticated horses might have come from the part of the world which became Scythia). Thus, today, I wanted to show you a historical recreation of how Scythian horses were arrayed for rituals or for battle (see the image at top). We have found ample Scythian equestrian gear preserved in the old cold barrows which dot the steppe. Recently some Scythian enthusiasts reconstructed how it might have looked with original colors on a steppe horse of yore. Obviously this equipage is not stupendously practical, but it truly is stupendous! I am going to have to look around to see if I can find some more artworks of Scythian horses!

It is Earth Day again. Each year it seems like more humans wake up to the fact that we too are animals living in an enclosed worldwide ecosystem which is quickly deteriorating. A report by the World Wildlife Fund released this past September carefully laid out evidence showing that the world’s population of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals (other than humans and our livestock) have dwindled by 68% percent since the 1970s–and the seventies were not exactly a pre-industrial golden age! That number stays with me. If seventy percent of your friends and family were dead, you would start to wonder whether you were next. Well, seventy percent of our friends and family ARE dead (in the grand scheme of things, all of those vertebrates are pretty close relatives). Additionally the global pandemic has reminded us that maybe we really could be next. What are we going to do about it?

At this point in policy discourse various representatives of the ruling class remind us that balancing the needs of the environment with the needs of business could result in more austere lives, or, if taken far enough, could even cause job losses! In the United States, your food, shelter, and health care are all obtained through a job (unless you are inordinately wealthy). In other words, politicians threaten their constituents with death for being worried about the environment in any way that would inconvenience the oligarchs.

I am overstating this (very slightly) for effect, but if you watch the national discourse, you will see that economic threats made on behalf of the powers-that-be are a very real feature of our broken environmental discourse. The WWF paper which I just cited makes the point in a more productive way stating that a “key problem is the mismatch between the artificial ‘economic grammar’ which drives public and private policy and ‘nature’s syntax’ which determines how the real world operates.”

I wish I could more emphatically highlight that line. It drives me crazy that artificial (which is to say manmade) economic concerns are people’s main concerns and that issues of vastly greater importance are blithely dismissed as unrealistic or ingenuous. We are coming to a point where nature is pushing back harder and harder against our market-oriented global society. Many people pretend that nature simply must capitulate to our way of doing things and it is easy to look at pictures of lions being shot or old-growth trees chopped down and conclude that, yeah society’s dictates are supreme.

Yet it is that perspective which is really jejune and unrealistic. Nature makes threats too. Unlike capitalists, it always enforces its demands and always delivers on its promises (or do you perhaps know somebody who doesn’t have to eat or breath or die?) One of the faults with the way I was taught history was that the environmental calculus was removed from the great story of humankind. When ecological considerations are added back, it suddenly jumps out that Rome was not destroyed by Sulla, the Gracchi brothers, Christianity, Goths, or tax collectors. It died from desertification and agricultural collapse. So did the civilizations of Mound builders, the Ming Dynasty, the Sumerians, the Mayans, the Moshe, and on and on and on. Look afresh at history and the true environmental underpinnings of all human endeavor start to stand out more than all of the emperors, kingpriests, doges, and sultans.

All of which is to say that, in the true spirit of Earth Day, I am going to try to add some of the ecological context back into history’s sweeping story in a series of future posts. Human-made catastrophe is one of history’s only real constants. Now that civilization really has gone global, that lesson is even more unpalatable (and terrifying) than ever. Yet if we wish for a future worth having for ourselves and our descendants and all of of our extended family with fins and fur and feathers we will have to learn from such lessons quickly and well and do oh-so-many things so much better.

Eridu, the first known city, circa present
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.

When I was in secondary school in the 1980s, one of the required classes for every pupil was “Civics”. Civics, which was a broad overview of American law, civil rights, and government (with some small intersections with economic and military affairs) took place right before lunch and involved a great deal of (sometimes heated) discussion between the teacher and the students. It was also a thrilling class because we got to discuss an actual presidential election as it happened–and everyone was extremely excited over whether Michael Dukakis or George Bush (Senior!) would prevail. I also remember my fellow students getting especially worked up about 4th amendment questions, about Larry Flynn, and about how old you had to be to vote (for Bush or Dukakis!) or to run for the Senate. Although I did not notice it at the time, “Civics” at Valley Forge Middle School was taught fairly well and students who emerged with an A in the class also had a decent holistic understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and a simplified but workable macro-understanding of government.

A peripheral side note in civics class was “the filibuster” which was mentioned briefly as an obscure legislative tactic of last resort last used by racist southern politicians during the civil rights era. The filibuster was presented as a desperate measure by which a benighted United States senator could stall legislation by endlessly talking for hours and hours until he (the theoretical senator was a”he” in 1980s civics class) turned blue and keeled over, whereupon the senators could go ahead and vote about pressing national affairs. It was mentioned that the filibuster had an earlier past when it was maybe (?) used for nobler aims than just promoting segregation and Jim Crow. Somebody brought up the Jimmy Stewart movie, and then we moved on. Apparently that was all you needed to know about the filibuster back in 1988!

[actually, I think the teacher might have tried to add some additional information, but the bell rang and we rushed off to hair metal and savage adolescent delights…or at least to lunch.]

I suspect a modern version of civics class would be mostly about the filibuster and would not bother with any of that minutiae concerning the Bill of Rights, separation of Church and State, Article 1 institutions, or the draft…or any of the things which used to seem important in the 80s. The filibuster is why contemporary America is paralyzed with political deadlock and is swiftly becoming a failed state. It is why the Chinese laugh at us as a used-up empire as they build continent-striding super railroads and bribe every dictator in Africa to do their bidding. It is why young adults today shrug sadly about affairs of government and don’t bother to vote. They know that no matter how they vote, nothing will happen and nothing will ever change. The filibuster will kill any reasonable law. It will destroy all reform. It will prevent any change from the status quo of never-ending trench warfare. The filibuster is killing American democracy.

Grim Reaper Standing in the Meadow Credit: Getty

What happened? How did a footnote from civics class (humorously named after Dutch pirates!) rise up to throttle our entire society and destroy our democracy? In 1980s civics class we were taught that the true genius of the Constitution is that it allows reform. When vested interests or revanchists try to thwart the will of the electorate by means of out-of-date antidemocratic rules, the free people of the United States and our elected champions in Washington rise up and fix the system. That is no longer happening in America for a variety of reasons…but almost every one of those reasons directly or tangentially involves the Senate filibuster. Today’s post was a hair raising prequel to another essay about how to fix the rot which is affecting the world and threatening the future. Political problems are at the very heart of what is going wrong. America’s greatest political problem in 2021 is legislative gridlock. The filibuster is the cause of that problem.

I recognize that international audiences are now asleep as they read about obscure chicanery in poorly designed U.S. parliamentary rules. Yet unless the United States gets back to a political system involving good faith deal-making, the waves of nationalism and populism which are buffeting the democratic world will grow into tsunamis. We will talk about how to move forward in tomorrow’s second installment.

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