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Ebony label depicting the pharaoh Den, found in his tomb in Abydos, circa 3000 BC

Ebony label depicting the pharaoh Den, found in his tomb in Abydos, circa 3000 BC

The English word “ebony” comes from the Ancient Egyptian word “hbny” (well, that is actually an approximation: I cannot find the vulture, asp, or little man characters on my keyboard). An obsession with the dense sable wood has clearly been a long-standing feature of human culture. The Greek word for the trees is “Diospyros” which apparently means something like “God’s wheat” or “fruit of Zeus” (since the Greeks first encountered ebonies in the form of Caucasian Persimmon trees). There are over 700 separate species in the Diospyros Genus—many of these are weird little shrubs or deciduous persimmon trees–but some are evergreen tropical giants.

 

Gabon Ebony for Carving

Gabon Ebony for Carving

Arguably the most famous of all these ebony/persimmon trees is the Gabon ebony (Diospyros crassiflora) which produces a close-grained black wood so dense that it sinks in water. This precious wood is beautiful for carving and cabinet making, but the magnificence of the timber has been the sad downfall of the actual living tree. Diospyros crassiflora lives in West Africa from Nigeria, Cameroon, and Gabon down through the Central African Republic and through the two Congo Republics.

 

Ebony and Ivory Chess Set--East Africa (early 2oth century)

Ebony and Ivory Chess Set–East Africa (early 2oth century)

The tree grows very slowly and to great age. It tends to be solitary—but mature trees can grow to 20 meters (60 feet) in height. Sadly most of the large specimens have been cut down for the exotic timber trade and the tree is now listed as endangered.  Infuriatingly I can’t even find a picture of the living tree–it’s like I wanted to show you a bull, but could only find pictures of hamburger.

 

A polished shell of Pāua Abalone (Haliotis iris)

A polished shell of Pāua Abalone (Haliotis iris)

The blackfoot paua (Haliotis iris) is a species of abalone found in the cool coastal waters around New Zealand (and nearby islands such as Stewart Island and the Chatham Islands).  Coincidentally, the word “Haliotis” derives from Ancient Greek and means sea ear—because abalones superficially resemble human ears.  Abalones are large marine gastropods (sea snails) which have long been prized by humans for having delicious meat and gorgeous shells.  The blackfoot paua is no exception—not only is it fished for its flesh, but the Māori people, who are indigenous to New Zealand, esteem it as a treasure to be used in culturally significant works of art. To quote thefeaturedcreature.com, “Typically, the blackfoot abalone is used in Māori carvings to represent eyes; these eyes are associated with the stars or whetū, the symbolic eyes of ancestors that gaze down from the night sky.”

Iwi Le Comte Maori Carving with mount (2011, Totara wood and Paua shell)

Iwi Le Comte Maori Carving with mount (2011, Totara wood and Paua shell)

The shells of blackfoot paua are not naturally iridescent: craft workers expend a great deal of energy grinding away the inconspicuous neutral colored exterior so that the brilliant whirls and swirling colors of the nacre are revealed.  In addition to its lovely shell and tasty flesh the blackfoot paua can also produce scintillating blue-green pearls which are known as blue eyris pearls.

Blue Eyris Pearls next to a polished Pāua abalone shell

Blue Eyris Pearls next to a polished Pāua abalone shell

Like the giant triton, the blackfoot paua is suffering for its beauty.  New Zealand has many sensible regulations to prohibit overfishing the paua: divers must free dive for the mollusks, and fisherfolk can only collect a limited number of specimens of a certain size. Unfortunately even a first-world nation only has so many resources to devote to conservation, and marine experts expect that the blackfoot paua is suffering from overharvest.  Hopefully humankind can find a way to balance the demands of traditional carving with the needs of conservation:  Māori carving is very beautiful, but so too are the living shellfish…

Maori wood carving of Tawhiri, god of storms (at the Arataki Visitor Centre, Auckland, New Zealand)

Maori wood carving of Tawhiri, god of storms (at the Arataki Visitor Centre, Auckland, New Zealand)

It has been a while since I have done a post concerning all things gothic.  To this end, I was researching images of the magnificent ruined Melrose Abbey in Scotland when I stumbled across the following picture of a gargoyle from Melrose’s ruined walls.

A gargoyle/sculpture on Melrose Abbey

An older photo of the same sculpture

It’s a pig playing a bagpipe!  And it isn’t alone.  Apparently this was a very popular image in the medieval Celtic world.  Pigs with bagpipes show up again and again in carvings and illuminations from Ireland, Scotland, and North England–and nobody is sure why.

Another carving of a pig piper from an ancient misericord in the cathedral city of Ripon in Yorkshire

In an article concerning the history of the bagpipe, distinguished Scottish historian (and piper), Hugh Cheape, speculates about the reason:

Strong visual imagery is a consistent and important element in medieval art and sculpture, and the bagpipe is found being symbolically played by pigs and angels. There are intriguingly different ways of explaining the pig pipers of the medieval period. On the one hand, by giving the bagpipe to a pig, it emphatically lowers the status of the instrument but associates it with the animal which could provide an airtight reservoir for the pipe bag. On the other hand it was said that pigs were lovers of music and were often shown in art as musicians, especially in ‘Bestiaries’ which were a popular type of book in the medieval period describing animals in a sort of ‘natural history’ but placing them in an ‘unnatural history’ of allegorical narrative.

How delightful!  I am a big fan of pigs and I probably ought to write about the bagpipe, that strange shrieking instrument, which is believed to have an ancient history dipped in war and magic.

Oh, and I should not neglect my original purpose of showing Melrose Abbey, the epitome of Gothic architecture in Scotland.  Constructed in 1136 by Cistercian brothers, Melrose Abbey replaced an ancient monastery to Saint Aiden which had been founded in the 7th century. The new Melrose Abbey was burned by Richard II in 1385 but rebuilt. In 1544, English armies again burned the rebuilt Abbey as part of their effort to coerce the Mary, Queen of Scots to marry the child son of Henry VIII.  After this the Abbey was not rebuilt, but its beautiful ruins are a major tourist destination in their own right.

The ruins of Melrose Abbey

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