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imageEvery year around Saint Patrick’s Day, we delve into Irish folklore to feature alarming mythological beings from the Emerald Isles. Nothing has beaten the frolicsome (yet oddly troubling) leprechauns in terms of popularity, however last year’s post about the sluagh–an airborne host of dark spirits which come from the otherworld–was certainly much creepier. This year gets darker still (well, at least for some of us) as we explore the leannán sídhe, a dark temptress who preys on disaffected writers, artists, and creative folk! Argh! Seriously, did Irish mythmakers have a picture of me on the whiteboard when they came up with this stuff?

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The leannán sídhe was thought of as a woman of the aos sídhe (the otherworld folk) who would assume mortal form as an inhumanly beautiful woman. She would take an artist or poet as a lover and offer them inspiration in exchange for love and devotion. With her wit, intelligence, and affection she would inspire their craft. With her supernatural beauty she would bind them to her and become their muse. Yet the relationship would become more and more oppressive and intense until the artist became consumed with obsession for her. Once the artist was besotted to the point of madness, the leannán sídhe would disappear. The abandoned mortal lover would suffer from intense despair and either pine to death or commit suicide. After the artist was dead, the leannán sídhe would reappear and take make off with the corpse which she would take back to her underground lair. There she would hang the body up from a hook on her ceiling and drain the artist’s blood into a huge red cauldron. This cauldron of blood was the source of her everlasting life, youth, and beauty.

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Once we set aside the casual misogyny which floats atop the surface of this myth, it reveals its deeper meaning: the myth of the leannán sídhe evokes the artist’s primal fear of the contemporary art market where laughing art dealers, gallerists, and corporations drain the artist of their creative vitality and then profit from it. Better to labor away in poverty and anonymity then deal with these terrifying forces.

Argh! God help us!

Argh! God help us!

Wait…ugh… this can’t be right! What is up with these fiendish Irish myths? Maybe next year I had better celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day by writing about something less frightening, bloody, or controversial—maybe Irish politics…

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In writing about dreams and nightmares, I would be remiss not to write about the dominant dream monsters from western mythology—incubus and the succubus. Stories about these dream demons and demonesses originated in ancient Mesopotamia and have been common ever since (actually, considering that writing originated in Mesopotamia, myths about this sort of dream demon probably go back even further). As you have noticed, these demons are very prominently gendered: an incubus is male and a succubus is female (indeed the former is extravagantly male and the latter amply female). This fact explains the enduring popularity of the concept: these beings are sex demons which represent fundamental human drives and fears. According to tradition, they steal into a person’s bedroom at night and lay with him or her. The nocturnal demons are also reckoned to be spirit vampires of a sort—they steal the life force of their victims by sleeping with them.

Lilith (John Collier, 1892, oil on canvas)

Lilith (John Collier, 1892, oil on canvas)

While all sorts of gods, goddesses, demons, monsters, and supernatural entities were curtailed by the spread of monotheism (with its jealous single god), the incubus and succubus effortlessly jumped right into the folklore of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam at the very beginning and have stubbornly remained there ever since. Lilith—the demonic first consort of Adam–came into the Babylonian Talmud directly from Babylon (although some modern Talmudists dispute this and assert that the sexual demons are an eighth century addition to the Talmud). In Islamic folklore, there is a persistant belief in the qarînah (قرينة) which are invisible demons which have relations with humans in dreams (according to superstition they can be seen by some holy/magical folk and frequently hide in animal bodies).

 

The Malleability (artist unknown)

The Malleability (artist unknown)

There is no shortage of supernatural beings analogous to incubi in other parts of the world either. An incomplete list of these demons includes the Tokoloshe of South Africa; the Trauco of Chile (which preys exclusively on unmarried women); the pink botu of the Amazon, a shape-shifting river dolphin which seduces adolescents; the Indian pori (a seductive angel whichleads men towards suicide); and the Turkish Karabasan. The Teutonic mare or mara is a heavy goblin which crouches upon the victim’s chest (straddling the line between sleep apnea and salaciousness)

The Nightmare (Henry Fuseli, 1781, oil on canvas)

The Nightmare (Henry Fuseli, 1781, oil on canvas)

There are very obvious reasons why this myth winds through so many human cultures: the dream demon is a fairly transparent proxy for powerful erotic dreams and feelings (I probably don’t have to explain the specifics of this to anyone who has passed through puberty). I have included some “heavy metal” looking paintings and prints in this article to illustrate the dream demon as a symbol of unbridled adolescent lust and nighttime dreams of forbidden lovemaking.

 

Succubus (by Arsenal21)

Succubus (by Arsenal21)

All of which seems to be a part of growing up. Disturbingly, though the incubus and succubus have a much darker abusive side. In traditional cultures (and therefore probably in ancient ones as well) the incubus was often blamed for pregnancies which should have been impossible (as for young women who were secluded or kept under close chaperone). It is not unreasonable to suppose that the demon was thus as a pretext for incest or sexual abuse at home. This makes the original definition of the monster especially sad and appropriate. For too many people, abuse is indeed a life drinking demon which can not be escaped or even discussed. The happy world of people with upstanding loving families…and indeed the law itself are only beginning to find out about some of these kinds of abuses, so it is no wonder they were originally cloaked in myth. Nevertheless, this illustrates that those sanctimonious people who say stuff like “these things never used to happen in the old days” have a rather shallow grasp of history AND human behavior. Additionally it illustrates that made-up supernatural horrors are no match for actual human abuse.

Woodcut (Erich Heckel, ca. 1925-1930, woodblock print)

Woodcut (Erich Heckel, ca. 1925-1930, woodblock print)

Tylosaurus and the 108 Outlaws (Mu Pan, 2013)

Tylosaurus and the 108 Outlaws (Mu Pan, 2013)

Here is a large painting by contemporary Brooklyn artist Mu Pan.  Pan mixes Chinese and western styles to tell allegorical stories about the fight against authoritarian hegemony.  His complex pictures are filled with characters and objects from wildly different cultures and eras.

The 108 outlaws shown in the painting are the outlaws from Liangshan Marsh—the main characters of “Water Margins” a Ming dynasty era epic which is one of the four great classics of Chinese literature.  The outlaws of “Water Margin” are reincarnated versions of heavenly spirits who as humans are unfairly persecuted by the corrupt officials of an incompetent emperor.  Together they form an unbeatable army of martial artists which opposes the crooked government (although due to their leader Song Jiang’s loyal feelings for the throne of heaven, they never overthrow the system).

Detail

Detail

In this painting the outlaws have joined forces with sharks, rays, mermen, kalpas, porpoises, and other water creatures to fight with an immense deathless tylosaurus (a sort of giant mosasaur which lived during the Cretaceous). The writhing dinosaur clearly represents the great leviathan of Chinese central authority. The painting is alive with fantastic details and martial energy, but its title and subject also indicate that it is an unmistakable allusion to China’s most famous book about fighting against an inhumane and broken system. You can check out Mu Pan’s other amazing works (and buy prints) at his online gallery.

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