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What with the holiday crush and the end of the year, I have had less time than I would like for blogging, but I will put up some Christmas posts and year-end thoughts here in the coming days.  For now, here is an illuminated page of William Blake’s 1794 volume “Europe a Prophecy,” a dense symbolic poem about the benighted state of Europe (and humankind) at the end of the 18th century.  I won’t get into the text but suffice it to say the magnificent crowned serpent seems to hold unusual sway over the affairs of men.

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This year for Halloween we featured a list of amazing snake monsters from around the world…and yet the world is a big place and snakes are widely feared and revered.  Therefor we are looping back to Africa for a final amazing snake deity.  This is Nyami Nyami, god of the Zambezi river and one of the masters of the entrance to the underworld.  Nyami Nyami has the body of a fish and the head of a snake (he sounds kind of like a giant catfish to me).  Nyami Nyami was sacred to the Batonga people who lived beside the Zambezi in what is today Zambia.  His particular home was said to be the Kariba rock, a great mid river escarpment located in a narrow gorge.  Here Nyami Nyami could slide between worlds in order to explore the watery realms of the afterlife or he could come back to Earth to visit his equally aquatic onster wife who lives in the lower Zambezi where it empties into the Indian Ocean…or he could travel to the upper upper river (since other tribemen claim he dwells in the realm of foam and thunder beneath Victoria Falls).

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At any rate, in the mid-1950s the Kariba Gorge was chosen as the location for a huge hydroelectric dam.  Nyami Nyami’s worshipers among the Batonga were sure the dam would not happen because of the god’s wrath and indeed a freak cyclone (and the attendant flood) nearly scuppered the project, but the dam was built and the Kariba rock is beneath the water.  Some say the Nyami Nyami is angered because he is separated from his spouse.  Others think he has fled from this world to leave humans to their own devices.  Yet worship of Nyami Nyami continues unabated and he has become an even more popular deity and symbol of the region (staffs carved in his likeness are sold to tourists or given to revered guests). Perhaps the great snake god still watches the river to the same extent he ever did, just waiting for the dam to silt up and be brought down.  Let me know if you are ever heading to the Zambezi, it sounds like a beautiful river.  Maybe you will catch a glimpse of the huge serpentine god in the watery depts. Or in the shadows beneath Victoria Falls.

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Well, it’s past Halloween, but maybe there is still time for one more snake monster.  In Chinese astrology, 2017 is the year of the rooster.  English mythology features a monster which is half-snake and half-rooster:  the fearsome cockatrice.  The cockatrice had the head and torso of a chicken, but with dragonlike wings and a long sinuous serpent tail. It is sometimes conflated with the basilisk (although I think of them as different as, no doubt, do other Harry Potter fans). Various stories describe the cockatrice as being enormously venomous.

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The cockatrice was invented at the end of the 14th century and it experienced an enormous bloom of popularity in the England of the Tudors.  Cockatrices were everywhere.  they crawled all of over heraldry and pub signs.  They were in work of Spenser and Shakespeare. They even crawled/flapped their way into the Bible as the enthusiastic King James translators put the newly-designed creature into the book of Isaiah for the Hebrew “tsepha” (which as far as contemporary scholars can tell was a very venomous fossorial creature, probably a viper).

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Why did the Elizabethans love the cockatrice so much?  Well they were very poetic and imaginative people (if we take Spenser and Shakespeare as typical Elizabethans—and they are certainly the Elizabethans whom I am most familiar with).  Additionally the style of the time was marked by proud swagger and poisonous disputes which stemmed from the great religious disputes of the time where everyone was trying to decide whether to be Catholic or Protestant and whether virtue and/or political advantage lay with one or the other.  The mixed-up, chicken-brained, noisy, poisonous, beautiful, deadly cockatrice was a perfect mascot for such a time.  Indeed, it may need to become make a comeback for our own time!

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Happy Halloween! I am celebrating by taking the day off and presenting nothing other than a gallery of amazing old prints of epic snake monsters!  Be sssssafe and have fun!

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Happy Halloween! Here at Ferrebeekeeper we continue working through a list of snake monsters from around the world.  Today’s monster is from South African lore—but it is a little unclear what tradition it hales from.  Maybe, as in the case of, say, Bigfoot, the legends of indigenous people got mashed together with the aspirations and fears of European explorers, miners, and settlers to create an unsettling hybrid being…At any rate, this creature, the Grootslang, is said to be a colossal hybrid of an elephant and a serpent left over from the primordial building of the world.  The gods created a creature of enormous size, colossal intellect, dark cunning, and insatiable greed…oh and bendiness.  Grootslangs were soon destroying the newly created world, and the gods realized they had made a terrible mistake.  They separated the beings into different categories, giving size & intellect to the great elephants and supple cunning and greed to snakes.

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Yet some (or one?) Grootslang escaped and lived on to trouble humankind.  Myths assert that the Grootslang was even more avaricious, parsimonious, and cunning than diamond prospectors and Dutch colonial merchants (so obviously the stories are fake).  The Grootslang    is said to live in a cave filled with infinite diamonds somewhere in the Richtersveld of South Africa.  It is enormously wealthy and delights in cruelly torturing unwary prospectors to death, however its greed is it weakness and victims can prolong their life by offering it treasure and deals.  Alas, the Grootslang kept not just the cruelty strength and wealth of the ancient gods it also had their unearthly acumen and cunning, so deals made with it tended to go horribly wrong, in the manner of dragon curses from medieval tales.  So, if you run into the Grootslang you can potentially save yourself by offering it diamonds, but probably everything will come apart and you will be in a worse situation than you were originally.

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Hmm, maybe this thing is actually a metaphor for DeBeers…

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In Hindu mythology there was an entire class of intelligent beings who were snakes—the nāgas (a male is a nāga: a female is a nāgī or nāgiṇī). In contemporary Hinduism the nagas are regarded as the protectors of springs, wells, streams, and rivers.  Sometimes nagas assume human form (with all of the abilities, appurtenances, and liabilities) but largely they are huge beautiful king cobras. The nagas tend to live in their own realm, Pātāla, the seventh of the nether kingdoms, yet they appear in other places too and interact with gods, mortals, demons, and animals.  Neither evil nor entirely good, the nagas have their own enmities, problems, and tales (although these intersect sometimes with the human protagonists of Hinduism’s great epics and myths).

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A particular problem of the nagas is the swift and terrible eagle god Garuda, who is an enemy to the serpent people. He despises them because once he was their slave (through a complex family geas which you will have to look up on your own).  Garuda escaped this servitude by bringing the potion of immortality to the nagas, but, as soon as he presented it to them and escaped his servitude, he spilled the potion upon the sword grass.  The nagas desperately licked up the remnants from the razor grass…but it is a bit unclear whether they attained immortality or not—the grasss certainly cut their tongues most cruelly and nagas (and snakes) have forked tongues up to this day.

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The world itself rests on the head of a naga. The naga prince Shesha practiced such astringent asceticism that Brahma became amazed by him.  Shesha’s body (which was already that of a snake) became so knotted and powerful and slender that he slipped downward into a hole which lead all the way to the bottom of the world.  There Brahma entrusted him with the sacred burden of holding the entire planet and all of us.

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With this in mind, it is unsurprising that in certain parts of India, Bali, and Nepal, the naga are worshiped.  Nag stones are a particular object of cultic reverence. Cobras likewise are venerated.

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My grandfather grew up in West Virginia (where snakes are taboo in accordance with longstanding Judeo-Christian cultic practice) but his work took him around the world–which was not quite so homogeneous in the 40s, 50s, and 60s! When I was a child he used to tell me stories of the nagas and their struggles.  He also told me that one of the defining moments of strangeness in his life was when he was passing through South India and saw a woman put out a saucer for (what grandpa assumed was) a pet.  He was surprised when she squeezed some breast milk into it, but stunned when a huge glistening cobra crawled out of a wall and lapped up the milk.

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OK! Today’s serpent monster is from Zambia from stories told by the Lozi people.  This manufactured supernatural snake is called the llomba (in no way to be confused with a llama) and, according to lore, it can be constructed by a powerful witch doctor from his (or her?) own fingernails, skin and blood.  When these disgusting ingredients are properly mixed with magical herbs a baby llomba is born.  The witch doctor must feed the serpent with eggs and porridge until the monster’s fangs develop, whereupon the sorcerer can sic the creature upon their enemies.  To disinterested third parties, the llomba merely looks like a giant terrifying snake, however it appears as a snake version of the witch doctor to the designated target (and to the witch doctor himself).  When the llomba finds its prey, it consumes their soul in an orgy of primal serpentine terror! Woah!

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So far all of this sounds great (uh, insomuch as black magic homicide goes), yet there are drawbacks for the witch doctor as well.  The llomba stays hungry and must constantly be fed. Once it has tasted human souls, eggs and porridge and Zambian breakfast foods no longer do the job.  If the witch doctor lets it starve, he dies too.  If the witch doctor gets weary of constantly feeding souls to a giant snake which looks like a snake version of himself, he can kill it through magic, but then he will be forever haunted by the llomba’s victims (not that this would necessarily bother someone killing people with evil power).  Also, you may want to take this talk of magic snakes made of fingernails and dark wizardry with a grain of salt: my sources identified the llomba as a sea snake and Zambia is extremely landlocked.

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Here is a very beautiful painting by Pre-Raphaelite luminary Evelyn de Morgan.  This work is titled The Angel with the Serpent and it was completed between 1870 and 1875. Although the work is a religious allegory, its meaning is surprisingly elusive.  In Judeo-Christian myth, the serpent represents sexuality, subversiveness, knowledge (and evil). These meanings certainly pertain to this work, yet the angel’s tenderness for the snake seems to suggest that God has wrought these aspects of existence too.

Admittedly this painting might depict a world before the fall (the sumptuous flowering bush and the bare lands beyond hint at this possibility).  Is the handsome angel in the red robes Lucifer before he was cast down?  Even if this painting does depict the time of Eden, it still suggests that the snake was always part of God’s plan and is dear to the Divinity and his agents (a forbidden idea which raises numerous troubling questions).

I am presenting the painting not just so you ponder the metaphorical meanings of Genesis (although I hope you are doing so), but also to introduce my Halloween week theme of supernatural snakes.  Ferrebeekeeper is no stranger to snake deities and monsters at all levels, but snakes have always been part of every mythos except for those of the farthest north and so there are plenty more to get to.  Enjoy Evelyn de Morgan’s lovely painting and get used to numinous snakes–we are going to see some amazing scales and forked tongues before next Tuesday!

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Has anyone noticed the rash of giant snake attacks in Indonesia?  These alarming stories of giant snakes  follow a very ancient (and horrifying) narrative pattern: a lone villager or traveler chances across an enormous predatory reptile from 20 to 30 feet in length.  Mayhem ensues.  Usually the human survives and fights off the monster with a machete (or with aid from a torch wielding mob), but sometimes the human vanishes…only to be found being slowly digested inside a reticulated python.

Taken from an individual human perspective, it is hard not to think of the pythons as the insatiable villains of such stories, but the real narrative is more complicated.    Palm oil is made from fruit of the palm oil plant, a tropical generalist. Not only is this oil a lucrative (and delicious) additive to desserts and other processed foodstuffs, it is also extensively used in cosmetics, shampoo, and soaps.  Indonesia has the third largest rainforest in the world, but palm oil growers are destroying these forests at an unprecedented rate. Indonesia’s tropical rainforests are vanishing even more quickly than the rainforests in Brazil or the Congo.  These forests are cut down and replaced with palm oil plantations, enormous monocultures where most traditional rainforest animals cannot live, however rats can and do live there on the oily palm fruit.  The pythons are hunting rats in these plantations because their forests were destroyed.

 

Humankind the great hive organism is swallowing these forests whole (in the form of delicious candy and aromatic toiletries).  The animals which live there are likewise being eradicated. Indeed the most recent giant python to attack a villager who molested it was literally cut into pieces, fried, and devoured by hungry villagers.  It makes one wonder if the Saint George and the Dragon pictures were not so much about humankind surmounting evil as about the tragedy of deforestation in medieval England.

Flounder Show

Hey everyone, my amazing new roommate works at an art gallery in the city’s hottest art district, the Lower East Side. The famous gallerist who runs the place has embarked on an artistic quest…to Tanzania, but she has generously allowed me to use the space for an evening. I hope you will accept my invitation (above) to a show of my flounder artworks which explore the big-fish-eats-little-fish dialectic of history against a backdrop of larger biological themes.

Because of time constraints, the opening IS the show–we are like a beautiful exotic mushroom which pops-up for a single glorious night–but during that one night there will be glowing multi-media delights to satisfy all aesthetic longings! Since you read this blog, I know you have the most refined and intelligent tastes: I hope you can join me then and there.

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