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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.

“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!

April is Poetry Month!  To celebrate the occasion, I decided to take to the internet and repost the first flounder theme poem I could find.  Without thinking about it, I assumed that the flounderists of the poetry world would share my (zoology/ecology) perspective on flatfish.  How mistaken I was! The first poem I discovered was “Flounder” by Natasha Trethewey, the story of a mixed-race girl going fishing with her aunt. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the secrets of the deep, the worldwide ecological crisis, or the way that the taxonomical diversity of the pleuronectiformes represents the interrelated family structure of all life (or does it?).  The poem does not even have to with floundering, camouflaging oneself, or being baited (or does it?). What we have instead is a poem about racial identity and the way the facile categories of the world permeate our self-identity and all other aspects of existence to a granular level (we don’t even see the poor dual-natured flatfish taken off to the frying pan…although it is somewhat implied).

The lovely poem does however illustrate what is wonderful about poetry—how black and white words become a doorway which allows us to slip into another person’s skin and take an unfiltered sip of their weltanschauung.  The evanescent phenomena of a fishing trip become a search for something deeper.  Yet successfully catching a flounder only provides additional muddled categories.  Hooking the juxtaposed fish leads to more beautiful ambiguity…

Flounder

BY NATASHA TRETHEWEY

Here, she said, put this on your head.
She handed me a hat.
You ’bout as white as your dad,
and you gone stay like that.

Aunt Sugar rolled her nylons down
around each bony ankle,
and I rolled down my white knee socks
letting my thin legs dangle,

circling them just above water
and silver backs of minnows
flitting here then there between
the sun spots and the shadows.

This is how you hold the pole
to cast the line out straight.
Now put that worm on your hook,
throw it out and wait.

She sat spitting tobacco juice
into a coffee cup.
Hunkered down when she felt the bite,
jerked the pole straight up

reeling and tugging hard at the fish
that wriggled and tried to fight back.
A flounder, she said, and you can tell
’cause one of its sides is black.

The other side is white, she said.
It landed with a thump.
I stood there watching that fish flip-flop,
switch sides with every jump.

Yuan Jie (ca. 720 AD to 772 AD) was a poet, scholar, and politician of the Tang Dynasty. His intellectual and literary gifts allowed him to score high marks on the imperial exam which, in turn, allowed him to rise to high office. He helped finally suppress the An Lushan Rebellion (a dark era of insurrection and strife which left society in tatters). Although he rose to the rank of governor, Yuan Jie disliked his office and felt uneasy with his rank (and with the shallow fragile nature of society). As soon as his mother died, he resigned his rank. According to the sinologist Arthur Waley (who translated the following poem by Yuan Jie) the Chinese scholarly opinion of Yuan Jie at the end of the Ching dynasty was that “His subjects were always original, but his poems are seldom worth quoting.” Here is one of his poems (as translated to English by Waley) so that you may judge for yourself:

Stone Fish Lake

I loved you dearly, Stone Fish Lake,

With your rock-island shaped like a swimming fish!

On the fish’s back is the Wine-cup Hollow

And round the fish,—the flowing waters of the Lake.

The boys on the shore sent little wooden ships,

Each made to carry a single cup of wine.

The island-drinkers emptied the liquor-boats

And set their sails and sent them back for more.

On the shores of the Lake were jutting slabs of rock

And under the rocks there flowed an icy stream.

Heated with wine, to rinse our mouths and hands

In those cold waters was a joy beyond compare!


Of gold and jewels I have not any need;

For Caps and Coaches I do not care at all.

But I wish I could sit on the rocky banks of the Lake

For ever and ever staring at the Stone Fish.

Thank you to everyone who played our celebratory contest! I hope you had fun looking at the images and thinking about what they are or where they are.  We will quickly go through the correct answers–or at least we will list my best understanding of what is correct.  At the end I will announce the proud winner of these exquisite mint-condition Zoomorphs toys and we can start to fumble towards the logistics of getting you your toys, hooftales…er I mean “mysterious contest winner”.

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Wherever possible, I have linked back to original articles and posts, so, if you have a moment and are curious about these strange places and things, why not click all of the links and continue voyaging through vast realms of life, time, and art!

OK, here we go with the answers:

THINGS:

1.

1

A Song Dynasty (or ‘Sung” Dynasty…if that is how you Anglicize ) ewer not wholly unlike this one or these later Mongol ewers.

2.

two

A parasitoid fairy wasp (Mymaridae family) upon a human hand

3.

3

A Melo Pearl, the world’s rarest and most expensive type of pearl!

4.

4

Whoah! It’s an ancient Visigoth votive crown from the fabled treasure of Guarrazar!

5.

5

A Chiton, the armored mollusk

6.

6

Aww! It’s an adorable school of tiny little glass catfish.

7.

7

Roses, tulips, irises and other flowers in a wicker basket, with fruit and insects on a ledge (Balthasar van der Ast, ca 1614-1619) oil on panel.  (Here is a Ferrebeekeeper post about Van der Ast).

8.

8

The Cap of Monomach, a treasure of the early tsars.  I still think Putin wears it sometimes. Hell, he’s probably wearing it right now!

9.

9

It is the brain of an Etruscan shrew, arguably the smallest mammal.  The arrows point to the trigeminal nerve (black arrows) and optic nerve (blue arrows).

10.

10

Hahahaha! These are Polish chicken chicks. Look at that expression!  The poor li’l guy does look a bit down.

11.

11

A lituus, a mysterious Roman divination device.

12.

12

The underworld deity Xolotl, the scrofulous salamander deity of Aztec mythology’s weird death realm.

13.

13

The “Borghese Vase” a colossal Ancient Roman Urn which was one of the treasures of the Garden of Sallust

PLACES:

1.

ONE

The Faroe Islands (Photo by Tom Glancz)

2.2

A Masai giraffe walking by Lake Manyara Tanzania

3.

Three

Standard Poodles in the Ohio Valley

4.

four

 

5.

five

A welwitschia plant in the Namib Desert

6.

Six

The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda of Xi’an, Shaanxi.  I need to write a post about this one in the future!

7.

seven

Ovid Among the Scythians (Eugène Delacroix, 1862) Oil on Canvas

I find it strange that this fantasy piece about Scythians (and poets) was painted during the American Civil War.

8.eight

Dar es-Salaam, Tanzania

9.nine

The world’s largest potash fertilizer plant at Lop Nur, China

10.

ten

The Planet Venus, sans clouds. Sigh…someday

11.

eleven

The Armenian cemetery in Julfa, Azerbaijan…desecrated and bulldozed in the 1990s

12.

dozen

A colossal snake swimming in the Trans-Saharan Seaway of Mali during the Eocene

13.

t

The Site of Eridu, humankind’s first known city.

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I can’t believe how well our contestants did! I am not sure I could have identified any of these…and I have written about most of them!  There were a few humorous stray answers, but even the answers which weren’t a hundred percent right were still clever and well thought out.  Our Ferrebeekeeper mental Olympics thus ends with the following champions:

Gold: hooftales

Silver: Vicki

Bronze: eekee

Everyone is a winner (although Hooftales gets the zoomorphs and the national anthem of the hooftales homeland is currently playing as we wipe away proud tears).  I enjoyed putting this together and revisiting these concepts! Should we do another one at some point? Should the images be harder or easier or what?  Talk to me below (Hooftales, we will figure out how to get you your prize) and thanks again for playing and, above all, for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

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Happy Bloomsday!  The entirety of James Joyce’s great magnum opus Ulysses takes place on one day, June 16th, 1904.  Thus June 16th is forever celebrated as sacred to Joyce enthusiasts (and to those who esteem the English language and the Irish people).

If you have ever tried to write about Ulysses, you will recognize that it is problematic to grapple with the great tome since it touches deeply on most aspects of Western history, art, science, culture, law, and letters (to say nothing of the fundamental social and existential dilemmas which lie at the heart of both the novel and human endeavors).  As in life, these themes are tangled together in such a way that pulling at any thread disgorges a mass of seemingly disconnected narrative and philosophical threads which are actually a single thread…which is everything. Good luck writing a pithy blog post about THAT.

Fortunately there is a miniature odyssey within the greater book which we can concentrate on.  It is even appropriate to this year of desperate washing…and the tiny story does indeed echo the novel’s great theme of pleasure (and human beings’ secret lifetime pursuit thereof…even as they desperately and performatively pretend to be engaged in loftier pursuits).

In Chapter 5 (“Lotus Eaters”) The book’s hero Bloom is killing time before a funeral.  He reads an amorous letter from a secret correspondent, ducks into a church to listen to a bit of Catholic mass, and stops at the chemist’s to order some lotion for his wife.  While at the shop he spontaneously purchases a bar of lemon soap while he thinks about drugs, baths, and flesh.

The clunky bar of lemon soap goes with Bloom the rest of the day (and it is some day!).  He wraps it in a newspaper. He sits on it uncomfortably at the funeral.  He moves it from his hip pocket to his handkerchief pocket as he escapes the underworld the cemetery.  At lunch he fumbles through his pocket and comes across it and moves it to another pocket. Later, at the tavern, it becomes wet (from sweat or potables?) and he is concerned that he smells like lemons.  At sunset, after his…episode… on the beach Bloom worries about his failure to go back and collect his wife’s lotion and pay the four pence he owes for the soap.

At the novel’s climax in the “Circe” chapter, the soap exploits the crazed magical transmogrifications of the bordello to temporarily gain the power of speech. It ascends to the apex of heaven as the sun (complete with the freckled visage of the pharmacist):

BLOOM: I was just going back for that lotion whitewax, orangeflower water. Shop closes early on Thursday. But the first thing in the morning. (He pats divers pockets.) This moving kidney. Ah!

(He points to the south, then to the east. A cake of new clean lemon soap arises, diffusing light and perfume.)

THE SOAP:

We’re a capital couple are Bloom and I.
He brightens the earth. I polish the sky.

(The freckled face of Sweny, the druggist, appears in the disc of the soapsun.)

The soap even gets opened and used for handwashing in Bloom’s elegiac penultimate chapter which explains everything with diagrammatic clinical precision (indeed we learn that this is ” a partially consumed tablet of Barrington’s lemonflavoured soap, to which paper still adhered, (bought thirteen hours previously for fourpence and still unpaid for).” Molly even thinks about soap in her own chapter (as a young woman, she had her own trademark Albion milk and sulphur soap which Bloom had used to wash ink off his hands as a courting pretext.

That’s some journey for a little bar of soap! But why am I writing about this? Why did Joyce write about this?  As you can imagine critics have come up with various answers.

Marxist literary critics even assigned a central role to the bar of soap. In their telling, capitalist society fetishizes commodities in such a way that  take on a meaning greater than human life.  They might be on to something: if you look this soap up on the internet, you will find many opportunities to buy a bar for yourself long before you find essays like this one which discuss what the soap’s journey means.

Yet in obsessing about the cruel goad which we have made for ourselves with labor, the Marxists miss the beguiling carrot which draws us onwards.  The soap is a little pleasure.  It was purchased because of its delightful smell, and even though it is always in the way, Bloom keeps it with him, moving it from pocket to pocket and worrying about it.

Bloom’s perspectives about his little bar of soap are always changing.  He worries about how it makes others perceive him. He worries about paying for it.  It is uncomfortable at points…and yet

…the soap has a use value.  It dissolves in order to make you clean. It speaks to the sacred and transformative pleasure of bathing (which is as central a theme in The Odyssey as it is in Ulysses). More to the point, the soap represents an idea of private & luxurious pleasure (Bloom fantasizes about the perfect bath as he buys it at the chemist’s shop).  Ulysses privileges us with a glimpse into peoples’ secret hidden minds, and although we find lofty questions of being and non-being there, we also find lots of little private side quests for self-gratification and secret fantasies which can, for a moment shine like the sun in the firmament before being moved to another pocket, or forgotten, or occasioning very slight social anxiety.  The quest for the truth of people’s hearts is slippery and convoluted!

 

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April is poetry month! It is also the birth-month of the bard, William Shakespeare, who was born 456 years ago.  Although the exact day of his entrance upon the scene is a bit unclear, Shakespeare enthusiasts have assigned today’s date, April 23rd, as the most likely day and thus it is celebrated! Happy Birthday to the Bard!  However, as you may have guessed, that is not why we are here.

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The other day, I wrote that poets don’t seem to write poems about plagues (although this could well be a misapprehension born out of writers’ fondness for disguising their actual subject by appearing to write about something completely different).  This is true of Shakespeare too, and yet he certainly had ample experience with pestilence since the Black Death struck London in 1592, 1603, and 1606.  In fact, three of his greatest tragedies, including King Lear, were (probably) written during quarantine.

Indeed, squinting anew at the language of these plays reveals a fascination with darkness, lesions, pathology, and contagion hiding behind the mask of purity which could be (and undoubtedly has been) the subject of many works of literary criticism and scholarship.

Yet to my ears, the most pure plague poem from Shakespeare is really a poem which is unabashedly about death and how it brings an end to all want, anxiety, political strife, pain and anxiety (even as it ends all pleasure, learning, longing, and love).  The poem was (probably) written a half decade after the 1606 outbreak in London [I apologize for all of these words like “seems” and “probably” but we don’t have a lot of certainties about Shakespeare’s human life].  It takes the form of a valedictory song in Cymbeline, that strange and impossible-to-characterize late work which dates from Shakespeare’s final years as a writer.  After reading Cymbeline, Lytton Strachey opined that it is “difficult to resist the conclusion that [Shakespeare] was getting bored himself. Bored with people, bored with real life, bored with drama, bored, in fact, with everything except poetry and poetical dreams.”

Perhaps there is truth in this analysis, for the song is very melancholy and yet also very beautifully poetic.  We are including it here as a tribute to poetry month, and a tribute to Shakespeare, and a tribute to all of the dead. Yet it is is imperative that you not let the lugubrious gloom get you down (not from the poem nor from the situation we are in).

But enough of my blather, from Cymbeline Act IV Scene 2 here is Shakespeare’s sad song.

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The scepter, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.
Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.
No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!

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April is poetry month! Since this is a downright peculiar April, I was hoping to reach back through history to 542 AD, 1350 AD, or 1666 AD in order feature some monumental poems about pandemics and how to get through these harrowing eras of fear….

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Yikes! I guess things could be going worse…

Uh, that effort is still ongoing…  Whereas visual artists address pestilence head-on by painting landscapes filled with grim reapers, corpse wagons, Catherine wheels, walking nightmares, undead armies, and whatnot, apparently famous poets address plague by writing about something else entirely.  I guess professional writers know that one of the secrets to living off of your art is to write about things people want to read about (speaking of which, this post should probably be about Miley Cyrus instead of worldwide plague (insomuch as there is a difference)).

Anyway, while we continue to comb the anthologies for the perfect poem from yesteryear, for today’s post, here is a poem from today.  As noted, poets shy away from this theme, so we had to bring in a visual artist, the indelible Yayoi Kusama, world renowned grand master of polka dot art, in order to get a Coronavirus poem.

Here is what she writes

Though it glistens just out of reach, I continue to pray for hope to shine through
Its glimmer lighting our way
This long awaited great cosmic glow
Now that we find ourselves on the dark side of the world
The gods will be there to strengthen the hope we have spread throughout the universe
For those left behind, each person’s story and that of their loved ones
It is time to seek a hymn of love for our souls
In the midst of this historic menace, a brief burst of light points to the future
Let us joyfully sing this song of a splendid future
Let’s go
Embraced in deep love and the efforts of people all over the world
Now is the time to overcome, to bring peace
We gathered for love and I hope to fulfil that desire
The time has come to fight and overcome our unhappiness
To COVID-19 that stands in our way
I say Disappear from this earth
We shall fight
We shall fight this terrible monster
Now is the time for people all over the world to stand up
My deep gratitude goes to all those who are already fighting.
Revolutionist of the world by the Art
From Yayoi Kusama
Although from a pure literary perspective, this poem is perhaps a bit spotty (hehehe), what it lacks in allusion, symbolism, or meter is more than made for with earnest goodwill and sincerity.  Kusama also does not want for temerity, directly adjuring the virus to disappear from Earth (an idea which is about as lovely as any I have come upon recently).
Perhaps the poem’s greatest weakness is that it speaks so guilelessly for itself that there is little to say about it.  Thus to round off the post, here is one of Kusama’s lovely polka dot artworks.  I surmise that her choice of themes–vines, corals,  or mushrooms (which are the fruiting bodies of much larger hidden underground networks of mycelium)  is really about how nodes form much larger networks.  Maybe she will paint some rangeomorphs!

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Mushrooms (Yayoi Kusama, 2005) acrylic on canvas

It is worth further noting that, Kusama’s great lifetime retrospective at the New York Botanic Garden was interrupted by the pandemic. If/when this quarantine lifts we can look forward to seeing that show in person and writing more about networks and nodes.  For now though it is back to Facebook and Zoom.  We’ll talk more next week!

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Today is, uhhhh…World Health Day, which commemorates the founding of the World Health Organization.  This “day of observance” was designed “to draw the attention of the world to the health of global human populations and the diseases that may impact these populations.”  Since this is also Holy Week, I decided to bundle World Health Day together with the Biblical theme post I had already selected. Perhaps we can work together at the end of the post (and in the comments below) in order to reconcile the two themes!

OK, back to our Bibles!  Today’s chapter is Numbers 21 which describes another episode during the long Jewish exodus from bondage in Egypt to conquest of Israel.  Although not necessarily well-versed at understanding natural phenomena, the writers of the Pentateuch were extremely keen students of human nature!   Whenever things turn difficult (spoiler: things are always difficult) or if Moses is not constantly micromanaging them, the Israelites hare off and start worshiping golden calves or sleeping with Moabite hussies or whining so very aggressively that it annoys God himself (as happens in this instance).  Here is how it is described in Numbers 21:

4 And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.

5 And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.

6 And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.

7 Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.

8 And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.

9 And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.

Wow! God instructs Moses to build what would, in any other circumstance, be an extremely idolatrous metal serpent to heal the bites of poisonous fire serpents?  What is going on in this passage?

For one thing, paleoethnographers who have studied the deepest history of Semitic tribes surmise that El, the sky shepherd god who, in time would become develop into Yweh and thence into God as we know him was perhaps not the original center of Jewish worship!  It seems like the wandering tribe might have adopted El from Canaanite/Syrian sources they encountered in the Sinai. The oldest religious objects archaeologists have associated with bronze age Canaanite sites like Megiddo,  Gezer,  Hazor, and Shechem seem to be snake cult objects!  It is intriguing to surmise that the chosen people were originally snake worshipers, and this shameful pre-literary heritage is preserved in the Bible in the form of Moses’ brass effigy (as well as one or two other critical moments of that text).

But the baffling interplay of religious syncretism in Asia-Minor, Mesopotamia, and the Levant five thousand years ago (which gave rise to monotheism) is a topic for a greater and more ponderous work of scholarship!  I just wanted to explain to you the origin of this brass serpent icon in the Bible.  The Jewish call such a thing a Nehushtan ((נחשתן and it kept making controversial appearances in ancient Israel.  Later on King Hezekiah would institute a reform banning the popular religious totem and rabbis still argue about it to this day.

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The Brazen Serpent (James Tissot The Brazen Serpent, ca.1896–1902) watercolor on paper

Here is a Nehushtan painted by a 19th/20th century Christian artist and it is pretty shocking! Not only does the Brazen Serpent resemble Christian iconography,  it is more or less identical to the Rod of Asclepius and the Caduceus of Hermes (if you haven’t read about Asclepius, please do so, his story is profoundly thought-provoking).

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Wow! This is a lot to take in.  Before the Aztecs show up with Quetzalcoatl and this post melts completely, it is worth asking if there is a bigger point to all of this?  The answer is YES: today is World Health Day! I am honoring the world’s brave and compassionate (and hard-working) health care workers by talking about their ridiculously ancient symbol, a snake on a stick.  The fact that it comes not just from the GrecoRoman canon but from JudeoChristian mythology as well only highlights its importance (Frankly I didn’t expect to find intimations that Jews worshiped this thing before they worshiped their one God! Yet perhaps some of New York’s most eminent physicians would secretly smile). Modern people are apt to think of religion as an ancient political/ethical rubric which holds society together and regard medicine as a science.  Yet plagues and crises remind us what Moses knew.  There is more overlap in caring for the sick and providing stories which explain existence than we might initially suppose!  Thank you doctors and nurses for working so hard (and for holding up the world during this pandemic!  We appreciate what you are doing more than we can say (even if we can only express these feelings in the form of strange biblical blog posts).  You truly are the children of Apollo and we all love you no matter what happens (although would it kill you to drive the profane and wicked MBAs out of your profession and reclaim its sacred compassion for everyone?)

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Balaam and the Angel (Gustav Jaeger, 1836), oil on canvas

Do you know the story of Balaam from the Old Testament?  Balaam was the greatest magician and prophet of the Moabites, who were the enemies of the Israelites (who were nearing the end of their exile in the desert under the leadership of the dying Moses).  In brief, Balaam was main villain of the final stage of the Exodus: sort of an anti-Moses.   If things were written from the point-of-view of the Moabites, Balaam would have been the hero! In fact, we even get POV episodes in the Bible which follow him on perilous magical missions…which are thwarted by the terrible power of God.

In the most (in)famous of these episodes, Balaam is riding off to commit some nefarious act when the donkey he is riding balks.  The donkey can see that there is a sword-wielding angel in the path in front of them.  In anger, Balaam savagely beats the donkey, which starts to speak!  Here is the episode as set forth in the King James Bible (Numbers 22):

And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff.

28 And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?

29 And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.

30 And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? and he said, Nay.

31 Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.

32 And the angel of the Lord said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me:

33 And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive.

34 And Balaam said unto the angel of the Lord, I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me: now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again.

So what is the point of this story?  I suppose a rabbi or a Catholic priest would tell you it is about how it is futile to withstand the command of YWEH or some kind of hegemonic orthodox lesson of that sort (indeed, Balaam is frequently stuck in situations where he can perceive that his actions will not alter what is to come). Fortunately, we don’t actually believe in a giant omniscient space wizard in the sky, so we can look at the passage with a more literary eye.

And, it makes for an intriguing metaphor about humankind’s relationship with the natural world! Balaam’s donkey is perfectly capable of seeing the angel and she tries to save her human rider, who pays her back by intemperately beating her (despite her leal service) . Poor wicked Balaam is unable to figure out what is going on (even with the donkey telling him) until the angel sighs heavily and expositions the whole thing for him.  His desire for power and status are so great that he ignores what the long-suffering animal ass tells him, first with her actions, and then when she speaks with the very voice of God.

Of course the real world does not benefit from invisible angels or talking donkeys, so here we have something more like Raskolnikov’s dark dream from Crime and Punishment (where a drunk peasant beats his suffering old horse to death for failing to pull a load which he (the peasant) had loaded too heavily).  Everywhere we look we see that animals are dying from our crazy desperate actions.  Do we pause to heed this horrible lesson? Do we ask whether a dark angel of doom stands invisible yet implacable immediately before us?  No! We curse the oceans for not having enough fish. We execrate the bats for harboring coronavirus.  We shoot the polar bears for starving to death in a desolation we have created.

Of course Balaam is hardly a free agent.  He has a king who commands him to act as he does. He has a nation of people to save from invaders. He has to buy provender for his donkey and altar accessories and who knows what else.  We would probably feel sorely used if we were in his sandals.  Indeed, that is part of what makes me think we ARE Balaam. Right now the donkey we are riding is starting to fall down.  Are we asking the right questions about our own actions or are we reaching for the rod?

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