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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.

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.  

There is something which I don’t understand at all. Its worldview is completely alien to me. Its language is the ancient, polysyllabic epic tongue of south Asia–high Sanskrit. Its moral philosophy is incomprehensible–weird asceticism and strict non-harm. I am speaking about Jainism–arguably the most ancient of the world’s major religions which are still practiced (although who can even say how old Jainism actually is?). Whenever I try to understand Jainism, my brain slips right off of it, like a crab trying to climb a frictionless diamond stupa.

So why am I even writing about Jainism, if I don’t (and maybe can’t) understand it? Why bring up an abstruse faith which has deflated down till it is only practiced by a thousandth of the world’s human population (if even that)? Well Jainism’s central tenant is breathtakingly sublime. Of all of the religious concepts I have come across, it is the most inhuman and numinous. This concept is known as Ahimsa (non-harm). Since everything I write about it keeps obtaining strange qualifiers and weasel words I will just steal Wikipedia’s excellent description:

The principle of ahimsa (non-violence or non-injury) is a fundamental tenet of Jainism. It holds that one must abandon all violent activity and that without such a commitment to non-violence all religious behavior is worthless. In Jain theology, it does not matter how correct or defensible the violence may be, one must not kill or harm any being, and non-violence is the highest religious duty. Jain texts…state that one must renounce all killing of living beings, whether tiny or large, movable or immovable. Its theology teaches that one must neither kill another living being, nor cause another to kill, nor consent to any killing directly or indirectly. Furthermore, Jainism emphasizes non-violence against all beings not only in action but also in speech and in thought

If you read this and thought about it, and then your brain went “BUT!!!” then congratulations, we are on the same page. I don’t see how Jains can even eat, much less stay alive in a world of ceaseless competition (although in bygone eras Jains have actually known great prosperity as successful bankers and merchants). Yet the doctrine of Ahimsa also strikes me as ineffably beautiful (and not unrelated to the religious principles of noteworthy figures like Jesus and Guan Yin).

Anyway, I am not converting to Jainism or anything, but I dislike the profound ignorance that I have concerning this important faith. I amhttps://ferrebeekeeper.wordpress.com/tag/kwan-yin/ therefore going to try to sneak in a few short studies about what Jainism is and where it comes from. We will also look at Jain mythology (although Jainism also seems to lack the creator deities and dark gods which make other faiths so narratively satisfying). Maybe if we keep working on it, we can figure out what is happening in religious art like this:

Shu Masks (ca. 1050 BC) gold mask in foreground, bronze head in back

Here is a 3000 year old gold mask discovered in the sacrificial pits of Sanxingdu (which are located in Sichuan (Szechuan)) in Southwest China. The mask was not made for humans but was meant to be worn by a bronze head which was also one of the numerous items deliberately interred in the pits by the Shu people back during the time of the Shang Dynasty. Although the Shang Dynasty is sometimes known as China’s first dynasty and is a time when the first definitive Chinese writings emerged (along with many of the typical hallmarks of Han civilization), the Shu kingdom was not part of the Shang civilization centered in Anyang (as explained by this nebulous yet informative map).

Uh, so who were the Shu people and why were they making these gorgeous stylized heads out of gold and bronze only to bury them among burnt offerings? Well that is a really good question which lacks a really good answer (although analogous instances of buried offerings and treasure in other cultures probably prove instructive). Ferrebeekeeper has blogged about the Shu society and artworks before, and this newly discovered gold mask does not add much to that previous account…except for beauty and wonder. Those will have to suffice until somebody digs up a more definitive answer!

Here is a fascinating status object from the deepest Congo. This is a ceremonial knife of the Mangbetu people, a tribe of approximately 1 million people who live in the northeast portion of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Mangbetu people are historically famous for metalworking prowess, beautiful art, and elongated skulls (which were artificially lengthened by skull-binding during infancy). Early visitors were struck by the sophistication of Mangbetu politics, architecture, and crafts as well as by the breadth of their agriculture (which included diverse crop cultivation and cattle herding). These early historical accounts also remark upon the Mangbetu penchant for cannibalism (but such accounts are viewed with skepticism among prevalent schools of modern cultural scholarship).

A picture of the distinctive elongated skull favored by Mangbetu elites (circa early 20th century)

The ethnological history of the Mangbetu tribe is interesting and instructive. The Mangbetu language is Central Sudanic in character (as to a greater extent is Mangbetu culture), yet the people are Bantu and live in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is believed that during the climate crisis of the little ice age, Sudanic climate refugees fleeing south met a larger Bantu community migrating north and the two groups annealed (with the Sudanic people claiming group leadership). This cultural cross-pollination explains the Mangbetu’s political and technological strength relative to the other peoples of their territory (the Mangbetu conquered their lands and displaced or otherwise dealt with the original inhabitants).

Anyway, these knives were not weapons or tools, but rather ceremonial objects denoting power and status which could be exchanged for goods and services (I guess in the modern world we call such things “money”). As greater globalization reached the Mangbetu in the 19th and 20th centuries, they realized that their valuable ceremonial status knives were valuable to other people as well, and they began to mass produce more and more of them for trade. This means that many of these knives exist but that the quality is not always consistent with the refinement and beauty of early pieces.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

I promise I will blog more about the kindly yet strange wild goose, LG, who lives on my parents’ farm (there has been a big change in his life!), but first let’s get to what everyone cares about most–princely secession within the aristocracy of a distant foreign federal republic (where royalty isn’t even an official thing).

“What on earth are you talking about?” you might well be saying. “‘Unofficial aristocrats of a distant federal republic?’ Is this some weird version of the Nigerian Prince scam?” I guess the answer to that rhetorical question is: maybe?

Behold! Here is Omo Oba Utienyinoritsetsola Emiko, the brand new Olu (king) of Warri (a tribal nation of Nigeria’s southern Delta, which was subsumed into greater Nigeria during unification in the 20th century). The new olu was crowned on August 21st, 2021 after the death of his uncle (the previous king). Kings, emirs, and other hereditary aristocrats have no actual authority within the Nigerian constitution, however some such noblefolk still possess substantial cultural and religious clout. Accordingly, King Emiko used his new royal authority to reverse a curse cast by one of his ancestors upon the nation of Nigeria. He also remarked upon the power and importance of women and suggested that Nigeria needs to diversify its economy beyond reliance on oil. It is a promising start by the (American educated) ceremonial king.

Yet King Emiko’s coronation did not proceed without incident. King Emiko’s mother was a Yoruba woman and thus born outside of Warri nobility. Some traditional minded Warri, (including the sons of the previous king) felt that this fact might disqualify Prince Emiko from the throne. Also, just prior to the coronation, the ancient crown of Warri went missing and police were summoned to discuss the matter with the late king’s sons. The crown is said to date back to the time of the first Olu of Warri who ruled from 1625 to 1643 and received the gilded headdress from the king of Portugal in exchange for organizing a port for slavetrading at Warri.

Fortunately, the crown was quickly discovered (just after the police became involved). The coronation day was a day of celebration and happiness. Thus far the new king has evinced a forward looking philosophy and it is hoped that he really can use his cultural capital to dispel some of the curses which linger over Warri. If such is his intention, perhaps his majesty should himself hide that crown: I personally wouldn’t want anything from House Aviz OR House Braganza (the Portuguese throne also changed dynasties during the period between 1625 and 1643). Anyway hopefully this little news bulletin has clarified the original source of royalty in the Delta region of Nigeria and answered some questions about the role of kingship in the modern world.

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.

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).

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