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Resurrection (Christopher Ulrich, circa 2005 to 2011, oil on canvas)

Resurrection (Christopher Ulrich, circa 2005 to 2011, oil on canvas)

As we drift towards the darkest night of the year, it is an ideal time to check out some dark and troubling artwork.  This is a painting by the contemporary artist Christopher Ulrich, a painter who creates fractured fables out of traditional religious iconography.  In this work “Resurrection”, the world is entering the final apocalypse.  A heavenly paladin fights the great dragon in the background as vast mythical beasts fill up the sky.  Lightning crackles from their eyes as the world is remade.  Naturally, the end of times is when the devout are resurrected in the flesh, and the savior passes through the world granting bodies to the devout.  In the midst of terrible chaos, he stands beneath a proud lighthouse and dispenses miraculous rebirth while a lambent mother goddess stands at his side and helps him in his task.  Of course the end of the world offers some surprises for everyone, and the deity of resurrection does look a trifle different than one might imagine, but coming back to physical life after the body has disintegrated (as the world tumbles down, no less) has always been a chancy proposition anyway.

Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism are venerable faiths, but Chinese culture is so ancient that there are much older religious beliefs which are still part of the social framework. Some of these gods and legends have become part of the newer religions of East Asia (particularly of Taoism, with its mystic animist bent); other figures endure in popular culture and folklore—like Chang‘e, goddess of the moon; and some of the truly old legends have become hopelessly confused. Such a figure is Hundun, an ancient featureless chaos god, whose blandness and confused nature have made his name a synonym for a hopeless muddle.

There are several conflicting myths about Hundun, but the most ancient is the most powerful. It serves as a troubling warning to do-gooders everywhere. The story was told in the Zhuangzi, a collection of writings made around 370 BC during the tumultuous warring states period. The Oxford handbook of Chinese mythology describes how the story “portrays Hundun as the god of the central region who has not a single aperture. Shu (literally meaning ‘fast’) was god of the south sea while Hu (‘swift’) was the god of the north sea. They often met each other at the central region reigned by Hundun. Hundun treated them very well so Shu and Hu hoped to pay a debt of gratitude to him.” The two gods decided that a being who did not have any orifices would certainly want a mouth for eating and ears with which to hear and nose for breathing and so forth. The gods surprised their quiet friend by chiseling a new orifice for him every day for a week. Unfortunately on the seventh day Hundun died from the massive trauma. It’s a gory and effective version of the “physician, do no harm” injunction!

However, this is not the only story about the being:  other versions of Hundun, just as confusing and disturbing, have sprung up over the years. In another myth Hundun was a sort of earless, eyeless beardog with a mouth but without internal organs. This disquieting entity would run up against the virtuous and slam against them–however it was fawning towards the wicked. Yet another story describes Hundun as a yellow bag with six vermilion feet and four cinnabar wings. This red-yellow being (again lacking a head and face) knew how to dance and sing, but seems to have few other characteristics.

The real nature of the original deity behind Hundun is thus rather obscure. What is obvious from the similarities of all three versions is that Hundun was a faceless deity unguided by conventional (or even recognizable) sensory input. Today in China “hundun” refers to something or someone which is muddleheaded (or to a sort of shrimp dumpling/wonton). I find the legend compelling because it relates to the types of life I write about. Humankind often thinks of mollusks as beings devoid of higher senses or of neural functions (neither characterization is always correct at all). The idea that someone (or something) which perceives differently from us lacks perception is commonplace but often inaccurate. Hu and Wu’s accidental murder of Hundun is also disturbing. It seems like an excellent metaphor for destroying something before understanding it (which humans excel at).

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

September 2020