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Orpheus was a Thracian…and a mortal. His mother was Calliope, Muse of heroic poetry. Different versions of his story differ as to whether his father was a Thracian king or Morpheus, god of dreams. Thanks to the tutelage of his parents, or perhaps because of his own astonishing gifts, Orpheus could play music more beautifully than words can express. Wherever he went, people would fall under the spell of the golden notes flowing from his lyre and the unbridled beauty of his divine voice. Animals were transfixed by his music and even trees would lean in closer to hear his songs. Because of the power of his art, Orpheus had a pleasant life which was largely free of care. He grew up doted upon by his mother and his many gifted aunts. He met a beautiful woman, Eurydice and the two fell deeply in love. Their pastoral wedding was an event of unbridled happiness and Orpheus, beside himself with delight, played the most joyous music the world had yet known.
In merry abandon, the bride danced bare-footed in a meadow and there she stepped on a snake which reared up and stung her. Eurydice sank to the ground and the guests, not seeing what had transpired, laughed at her intoxication, but Eurydice did not rise. She was dead. Her spirit had fled away.
Then Orpheus went mad with grief. He wandered off from his home and trod the gray world as an outcast ever seeking an entrance to the land of the dead. Finally at the dim edge of the earth he found the entrance to the underworld—the realm where the spirit of his beloved wife was imprisoned. Summoning all of his passion and all of his talent, he began to sing and play his lyre as he walked into the kingdom of Hades.
The breath of life and hope was in the music of Orpheus and, for a shining moment, the denizens of the underworld forgot their pain and sorrow. Cerberus lay down on his back and frolicked. Each flickering spirit recalled the warmth and love of living. Tantalus was not tortured by his eternal thirst and the Erinyes, stunned by unknown emotions, set aside their scourges and spiked whips. The damned knew a moment of blessed respite in their endless torment as Orpheus passed. Persephone’s haunted garden of poplars and willows burst into bloom as though spring had at last come, and the queen of hell herself wept silent tears.
Even Hades, god of death and the world beyond, was moved by the music of Orpheus. After listening to the remainder of the song and hearing the musician’s desperate entreaties, the dark god agreed to let Eurydice return from death to the land of the living, but with one condition: Orpheus must not look backward until after he left the underworld. Eurydice would follow him silently. Only in the sunlight of life could they properly be reunited.
Tormented by doubt, Orpheus made his laborious way back upwards. Without his music, the underworld again became dreadful and strange. In the Stygian gloom, fear gnawed at him. He worried that the lord of the dead had tricked him and nobody walked behind him. Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime of fear and darkness he spied the sunlight, and then, suddenly he could bear the overwhelming doubt no longer. As though unconsciously, he turned to see if Eurydice was behind him. For a moment he saw her ghostly beautiful face, and then she was gone, her spirit dragged back to the underworld. All that was left was her final whisper, “I love you.”
The world held no joy for Orpheus. Inconsolable he sat down beside a river in the wilderness with nothing left but his music, and that had turned impossibly sad. All he could do was play dirges of surpassing melancholy. Beasts, men, plants, insects, even stones were overcome by tears.
The heavens themselves wept at the laments he sang. Then a tribe of wild maenads came down from the hills. The inebriated women were frenzied by wine and orgies. They beat tumbrels and screamed in drunken ecstasy. Their shrieks of delight and delirium drowned out the dolorous music of Orpheus. His sadness had no place in their revels, and he likewise wanted no part of their besotted celebration. Offended by his demurral, the Bacchantes ripped him to bloody pieces and cast his head into the river. Still singing a lament, the severed head drifted out to the sea.
So goes the story of Orpheus, which everyone knows. He is one of a long list of heroes, mystics, and even gods who braved the underworld in order to attain a boon or complete a quest. Stories of the descent to the realm of death date back to the very beginning of writing (and presumably to fathomless prehistory before that). The tale of Innana’s descent to the realm of death is one of the first known written things of any sort. Gilgamesh, Osiris, Dionysus, Psyche, Hercules, Pirithous, Odin, Baldr, Lemminkäinen, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, Obatala, Arthur, Emperor Taizong of Tang, even Jesus Christ…all had to descend to death and go down questing into darkness. Only some came back again with the secrets of destiny and eternity.
It is the oldest story because it speaks most directly to us. We are all mortal. Alas, there are no magic herbs, secret songs, or forbidden elixirs (or cryogenic procedures) which can halt our inevitable death. Oblivion awaits all humans. Only imaginary folks like deities or made-up heroes can die and come back. Only art can surmount death.
I have told the story of Orpheus because Orpheus is the avatar of art. His music stands in for all human imagination and creativity. His katabasis story is sadder and deeper than the tale of simpler heroes like Hercules (who used divine strength to go down and come back) or Tammuz who was killed but came back to life because he was really a god. The myth of Orpheus is an allegory of the creative arts: it is the mythmaker’s myth about mythology. Even in the story, Orpheus was a mortal and his quest was a glorious failure. He had power over all beings only because of the verisimilitude of his music. He made it to hell and back with the emotional strength of his craft but ultimately failed to regain his love.
This is the story of art—a failure, a singing ghost which has no power to truly change anything. Art only makes us feel–it does not give us things. Look at Chardin’s peaches and bread rolls as long as you like. You will never taste them. The glowing nude goddess wrought in tempera will never embrace you. And yet, and yet, art provides us a reason to go on…an emotional catharsis which contextualizes the multi-generational struggles which make up the true tale of humankind.
There is no underworld. It is all made up. There are no deities there (or probably anywhere). Look around you at the room where you sit reading a computer screen—you are as close to the numinous as you are likely to get. But these ancient symbols of death and transcendence still hold profound meaning for us. We have the ability to imagine things–tales of what never was and never can be. Over the long generations as our skills at science and engineering grow, it is still our creativity which endows life with meaning. The imagination lends its transfigurative magic to the more concrete disciplines and drives us all forward, even though individually we might perish in the wilderness (torn apart, like Orpheus, by our own demons and tragedies).
Though all paths through the world lead to one place, do not despair. The singing lyre of Orpheus leads us again back to the light…to the pains and the hopes of life.
This blog has always been dedicated to the dark ones beneath the earth—the beautiful and horrible deities of the underworld! So today we will look at Etruscan gods of death and the afterlife. Sadly most of Etruscan literature and mythology has been lost, so in some cases all we have is obscure names. In the spirit of religion and mythology, I will try to make up for the lack of textual evidence with lurid pictures, extravagant adjectives, and outright supposition.
Much of Etruscan myth was strongly influenced by (or outright based on) Greek mythology. Aita was the equivalent of Hades who ruled over a similar underworld of spirits, monsters, and fallen gods. Aita’s wife “Phersipnai” was the unchanged analog of Greek Persephone. There were unique figures of the Etruscan cosmology who continued to have a hold on Roman practices and beliefs: like the “manes” which were the spirits of the dead which lingered near tombs and gravesites. There were also entities like Charun who were extremely unlike their Greco-Roman counterparts. Etruscan mythology as a whole has a bestial and naturalistic undertone of animal-human deities, human sacrifice, and violence.
To make this more straightforward (and to make this a coherent article—since data is scarce about some of these deities), here is an alphabetical list:
Aita: The Lord of the underworld: equivalent to the Greek Hades.
Calu: A mysterious savage underworld being who is a hybrid of wolf and man.
Charun: A blue skinned demon covered with snakes and carrying a hammer, Charun guided deceased spirits to their final home in the underworld. He is sometimes also depicted with boar’s tusks, a vulture’s beak, a huge black beard, and/or giant black wings. Charun was essentially the Etruscan spirit of death.
Culsu (AKA Cul): Pictured with scissors and a torch, Culsu was a female chthonic demon of gateways.
Letham (Lethns, Letha, Lethms, Leta) An Etruscan infernal goddess about whom little else is known. Worship her at your peril!
Mania: Reported to be the mother of the Lares and Manes, Mania was a dark goddess of the dead and the undead. According to ancient traditions and Roman legends about Etruria in the era of the pre-Roman kings, Mania was the central figure of the Laralia festival on May 1st when children were sacrificed to her. Mania was quietly worshipped in Roman times and had a position in medieval and modern Tuscan folklore as a goddess of nightmares and demons.
Phersipnai (Phersipnei, Proserpnai): The wife of Aita and queen of the underworld; a figure nearly identical to the Greek Persephone and Roman Proserpina.
Vanth: A winged goddess of the underworld who together with Charun acted as a psychopomp. She is usually portrayed with a kindly face and with bare breasts crossed by straps. She sometimes holds a key, a light, or a scroll and she tends to dress in a chiton. I wonder if her imagery didn’t skip over classical Rome, because (aside from her toplessness) she could easily be a Christian angel on the payroll of Saint Peter.
I have done the best I could describing the underworld deities of Etruria. Of course, since everything about Etruscan society seems to involve ancient disputes, scholarly misunderstanding, and Roman fabrication, I have probably messed up substantially and I beg your understanding and forgiveness (particularly if you happen to be some terrifying fanged Etruscan death god). There is also a final mysterious category of Etruscan deities which should be mentioned—the Dii Involuti, “the hidden gods” who acted as a final arbiter of affairs both human and divine. These guys sound extremely scary and powerful and belong on any list of underworld deities. Unfortunately, in complete accordance with their name, I could not find out anything about them!
One of the biggest problems in writing about deities of the underworld is their unseemly tendency to morph into each other. For example take the Incan deity Supay. Supay started out strong, as the god of death for all Incan people. Not only did he personify the terrifying enigma of mortality, he was also the supreme ruler of the Ukhu Pacha, the afterlife/underworld—plus, as a special bonus, he ruled a race of demons. Yes, things were looking pretty good for old Supay, until suddenly in the sixteenth century, Francisco Pizarro showed up. As smallpox and the Spaniards destroyed the Incan empire (and left the landscape littered with piles of corpses) Supay the death god had one last magnificent fling–but within a few short decades, Spanish control over Peru was absolute.
This could have been the end of Supay—gods often die out when the cultures that created them are assimilated. Yet Supay lived on in the daily lives of indigenous Peruvians. As the Catholic Church became the dominant religious institution of Peru, Supay became entwined with the Devil. Supay’s horns, claws, and demon hordes already greatly resembled the Christian idea of how Satan should look. Supay’s underworld realm, Uku Pacha, had been closely associated with agrarian customs of breaking new ground and tilling the earth to plant potatoes, The Spaniards brought intensive underground mining—and Supay’s rituals became associated with the dangers of tunneling and delving. Catholic missionaries encouraged the conflation of Supay and Satan in order to consolidate their hold on Native Americans and Mestizos.
If anyone else suddenly, you know, merged into Satan, it would probably be a big problem! Yet Supay has made the transition with aplomb. Even today, the Peruvian image of Satan owes a great deal to the older underworld god, and Supay worship is still alive and well among miners and excavators!
In the middle of the nineteenth century, oil and gas lamps replaced candles as the main source of indoor illumination. At the same time, chemists and industrialists were rapidly bringing numerous new dyes and pigments to market. Because of these innovations there was a great change in interior decorating: gone was the era when walls had to be pale-colored to keep rooms from being gloomy. There was a tremendous revolution in color! Paints, dyes, and wallpapers became available in shades never seen before. Thanks to the nineteenth century British love of green, few colors were more popular than Scheele’s green, a beautiful yellow green which became the color de rigueur for fashionable bedrooms, studies, and dining rooms during the 1850s and 1860s. The color was unimaginatively named after Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a Swedish chemist who discovered the pigment in 1775.
Unfortunately, the compound which lent the distinctive and vivid color to Scheele’s green was an acidic copper arsenite (which contains the highly poisonous heavy metal arsenic). Soon rich and modish people throughout Great Britain were falling sick of headaches, nausea, tremors, and other symptoms of arsenic poisoning. Numerous children died outright (particularly since sick people were confined to their poisonous rooms by medical norms of the day). In addition to being poisonous, arsenic is a potent carcinogen so wallpaper which did not kill a person outright (or was replaced by newer fashions) might still shorten its owner’s life by decades.
Cheap wallpaper released toxic powder, but even expensive well-made wallpaper could be colonized by various fungi when the paper became damp. As the fungi metabolized the Scheele’s green dye, arsine gasses were produced. In case you are not alarmed enough at the idea of people coating their walls with arsenic, Scheele’s green was also used as a food color for candies and sweets (and as a potent insecticide).
Perhaps the most disturbing part of the story is the lengths to which merchants and manufacturers went in order to prove that Scheele’s green was perfectly safe. Craftsmen and wallpaper sellers would earnestly lick the walls and vigorously swear that nothing was wrong with the color. Even when the link between Scheele’s green and morbid toxicity was firmly established, some artists and artisans were difficult to constrain. To quote suttonplacedesign.com, “The famous artist and designer, William Morris,only removed green arsenic pigments from his wallpapers under protest, writing in 1885: ‘….it is hardly possible to imagine….a greater folly…than the arsenic scare.’” To celebrate Morris’ strong feelings, I have illustrated this post about a horrible toxin entirely with his beautiful designs.
In our era, there is a pervasive sentiment that the stuff in our walls, food, and air is gradually killing us. At least we can take comfort we do not live in the Victorian era when the word “gradually” was not a part of that sentence!
Wyandottes are a classic American breed of chicken which first appeared in Wisconsin in the years following the Civil War. They are known for their winter hardy nature (thanks to short rose combs), their brown eggs, and their showy feathers. They are a dual purpose breed farmed both for meat and eggs.
Wyandottes are supposed to be a docile breed, but things don’t always go as planned. My parents obtained a straight batch of silver lace Wyandotte chickens via post, in order to restock their farm with chickens (“straight batch” means that the gender of the chicks was not determined by a trained chicken sexer—a highly experienced but deeply unlucky professional who determines whether chicks are male or female by, um, squeezing them). Because of the luck of the draw my parents obtained a surfeit of male chicken, which, in the course of adolescence, turned into roosters and set out to fight each other for absolute dominance. For a while, the farmyard became a miniature reenactment of ‘Highlander” with desperate roosters fighting to the death everywhere. In the meantime the inexperienced adolescent Wyandottes became the favorite prey for foxes, owls, hawks, and weasels which infiltrated the poultry yard from the surrounding forests and grabbed the distracted fowl.
The Wyandottes had beautiful plumage, but by the time a single rooster emerged as the sole male survivor of their insane battle rayale, the flock was sadly attenuated. Worse yet, the rooster (whom my parents whimsically named “Rooster Cogburn” after the movie character) had been rendered insane by PTSD and dark memories of dueling. It was only a short while until Rooster Cogburn brutally slashed my mother (either to protect his hens, or, more likely, because he was unable to differentiate other living things from rival roosters). This in turn aggrieved my father who grabbed a pair of electric shears and snipped the rooster’s fighting spurs. Rooster Cogburn vanished shortly afterwards, presumably a victim of the many creatures with glowing eyes who live in the woods.
I would have to say that Wyandotte chickens are very pretty (and good at egg laying) but they are not always the ideal chickens for southeastern Ohio. My parents switched over to buff Orpington chickens (large delicious-looking yellow-orange chickens from Southeastern London) which are bigger, prettier, and have a gentler temprament, and the state of affairs in the poultry yard has greatly improved.
In Hawaiian mythology the most important deity was the beneficent creator god Kāne, the deity of the sun, the dawn, and the fertile forests where people liked to dwell. Yet there was also a deity in opposition to Kāne—an evil god of the dark depths of the ocean, and darkness, and the death of all things. This underworld deity was known as Kanaloa and was sometimes envisioned as a black, poisonous squid or octopus.
The Hawaiian myth of creation involves an art contest of sorts between Kāne and Kanaloa: both deities carved human beings out of basalt but only Kane’s man and woman came to life. Kanaloa’s people remained dark stone. In anger, Kanaloa seduced the first man’s wife and brought enmity between the sexes. The dark deity then invented poison and thus caused many fish, plants, and animals to be injurious to the new humans. Still not satisfied he crafted death so that men and women would have only a short time in the world.
Because of his mischief, Kanaloa was banished to the depths of the ocean, but he retained his power and godhood. Sailors and fishermen pray to Kanaloa so as to remain safe when crossing his watery domain. Likewise he is worshipped as the foremost god of magic. I wish I had some good stories about Kanaloa doing interesting things while in his octopus form, but sadly stories of the dark god are rare. Some ethnologists even suggest that his role was altered and stories about the deity were changed so that he would fit more coherently into missionaries’ stories about God and the Devil.
In 1837, the American financial system melted down and took the United States into a horrible economic death spiral. In the same year, on the other side of the world, an obscure Chinese peasant named Hong Huoxiu had a nervous breakdown because he failed to pass the imperial civil service examinations (which only one out of a hundred test-takers passed anyway). Strangely enough, Hong’s private meltdown ultimately proved far more damaging to humanity than the collapse of the entire U.S. banking system. The ramifications of Hong’s actions are still being felt (and still being interpreted), but what is certain is that he was directly responsible for the deaths of 20 to 30 million people.
Hong Huoxiu was born the third son of a poor Hakka farmer in Guangzhou, Guangdong in 1814. He proved to be an apt scholar who had a way with words and concepts and, more importantly, an ability to memorize the Confucian classics which were the subject of the all-important imperial exams (which determined one’s status in life). His family tried to support him in his studies, and he came in first at the local preliminary civil service examinations, however he failed the actual imperial examinations four times (the exams at the time were very difficult, but they were also corrupt—and many people passed thanks to gold rather than correct answers). After failing for the fourth time, Hong fell into a serious illness and was tormented by bizarre dreams in which he traveled to the sky to meet a wise father figure and a powerful elder-brother dressed in a black dragon robe. Because of this dream epiphany, Hong changed his name to Hong Xiuquan (at the behest of the figures in his dreams). He stopped studying for the exam and became a tutor.
For six years thereafter, Hong scraped by, trying to understand the strange figures and portents from his delirium. He read and reread some tracts which had been given to him by Christian missionaries, and suddenly everything came clear to him in a startling revelation: the authority figure from his dreams was the Judeo-Christian god and the respected elder brother was Jesus. Hong realized that he was Jesus’ younger Chinese brother. Armed with this knowledge, he began to gather disciples and converts among the poor Hakka charcoal burners of Guanxi. In 1847, he made a formal study of Christianity and the Old Testament (which, not surprisingly, cemented his belief in his own divinity). Hong preached a strange mixture of communal sharing, Christian evangelism, and fiery rebellion. He had two immense symbolic swords forged (for the purpose of sweeping corruption and heresy out of China) and he burned Taoist and Budhhist books wherever he went.
In most other times, nobody would have paid attention to Hong (or the secret police would have noted him and dealt with him in a peremptory fashion), however in mid nineteenth century China the situation was ripe for millenarian craziness and fraudulent prophets. The corrupt Qing dynasty was floundering badly as crooked ministers feuded with each other and robbed the treasury. Famine and disaster stalked the land while bandits and rebellions popped up everywhere. The Western powers were openly squabbled over zones of influence within China. Opium addiction, religious extremism, and nihilism were popular panaceas. Against this horrible backdrop, the imperial government did not notice Hong until he had gathered 30,000 followers. In 1850, they dispatched a small army to dispense his followers, but by then it was too late. The imperial army was defeated and Hong’s forces executed the Manchu commander. The rebellion had begun in earnest: on January 11, 1851, Hong proclaimed the founding of the “Heavenly Kingdom of Transcendent Peace”. He assembled armies which he put in command of family and favorites and began conquering southern China in the name of a communal theocratic state.
The subsequent Taiping rebellion—a civil war between the Qing dynasty and the Heavenly Kingdom of Transcendent Peace—was one of the most destructive conflicts in history. At the height of the movement the Taiping rebels controlled 30 million subjects. As huge armies clashed, tens of millions of people were uprooted. Famine and disease became universal and the great cities of southern China were repeatedly besieged and burned.
The increasingly unstable Hong Xiuquan was a distant and hypocritical king to his strange and mismanaged kingdom. By 1853 he had withdrawn from day-to-day control of his kingdom’s policies and administration. He became an isolated quasi-divine figurehead who ruled through written proclamations and strange religious pronouncements (while being carried from palace to palace in a sedan chair born by beautiful concubines). For eleven years, his generals, prophets, and revolutionary figureheads fought an internecine war with imperial China, which only came to an end when the United Kingdom became involved and sent gunboats and British officers to assist the Emperor (most famously, Charles Gordon, a British military adventurer who went on to have one of the nineteenth century’s most colorful and infamous careers). Lead and organized by Gordon and by General Tso (who is forever memorialized as a sweet-sour chicken dish), the imperial forces who were ironically renamed “the ever-victorious army” finally crushed the Taiping rebellion in 1864.
Reclining amongst his dozens of wives and hundreds of concubines, Hong is said to have taken poison (or perhaps he died of eating noxious weeds—in accordance with a religious vision). Whatever the case, the Taiping rebellion was at an end. Thanks to a decade and a half of brutal fighting, southern China was devastated: huge piles of rotting corpses were littered throughout the Yangtze valley. Jesus’ Chinese brother, a nobody with a messiah complex, was directly responsible for one of the most violent and senseless incidents in history. By some accounts, he personally outdid the destruction caused by World War I.
Today is World Elephant Day—a one-year old holiday dedicated to the preservation of the world’s two remaining species of proboscideans (a great and ancient order of mammals which over tens of millions of years has included 161 different species that we know of including elephants, mammoths, mastodons, stegodons, deinotheres, moeritheriums, and all sorts of other amazing animals–which we will talk about later). To mark this day and do my part for elephants (which are quickly vanishing from Earth due to insatiable Chinese lust for ivory) , I have spent hours and hours writing the beginnings of various essays about elephant cognition, their importance as a keystone species wherever they live, and their history and attributes.
I have abandoned each of these essays because they have lacked visceral power which I want to bring to the subject of my favorite animal. Instead of providing a laundry list of astonishing things which elephants share with humankind (things like altruism, awareness of death, grieving, knowledge of medicine, tool-use, comprehension of music and the arts, and the ability to mine salt and clay) I have decided to instead present an anecdote about actual elephants which I have taken from Cynthia Moss, a researcher who has spent her life observing elephants and researching their family structure.
Since 1973, Moss has watched the family of one matriarch, Echo, an elephant living in Kenya. The story of Echo’s extended family reads like Russian literature in complexity and richness (although the reading is much sadder since elephants seem to be living through the agonizing death of all their kind). Elephants live human-length lives and have intricate social bonds in their own herds and with the herds they encounter. They bond deeply with their families over the decades they share together and they help each other out even at the risk of death or terrible injury.
One day a group of poachers ambushed Echo’s herd. After killing several elephants outright (including a cow who charged straight into the guns in an attempt to save her calf), the gunmen shot a 13-year old cow named Tina in the lung. Tina’s mother Teresia and her sisters helped her escape, but she was mortally injured. Moss describes Tina’s death in the book “Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family”
[Tina’s] knees started to buckle and she began to go down, but Teresia got on one side of her and Trista on the other and they both leaned in and held her up. Soon, however, she had no strength and she slipped beneath them and fell onto her side. More blood gushed from her mouth and with a shudder she died.
Teresia and Trista became frantic and knelt down and tried to lift her up. They worked their tusks under her back and under her head. At one point they succeeded in lifting her into a sitting position but her body flopped back down. Her family tried everything to rouse her…and Tallulah even went off and collected a trunkful of grass and tried to stuff it in her mouth. Finally Teresia got around behind her again, knelt down, and worked her tusks in under her shoulder and then, straining with all her strength, she began to lift her. When she got to a standing position with the full weight of Tina’s head and front quarters on her tusk, there was a sharp cracking sound and Teresia dropped the carcass as her right tusk fell to the ground. She had broken it a few inches from the lip and well into the nerve cavity…
Elephant use their tusks for everything (and tusks certainly do not grow back). Just as most people tend to favor one arm, elephants favor one tusk over the other–usually the right. Moss goes on to describe how Teresia and Tina’s sisters spent the night with Tina’s body, tenderly covering their fallen family member with sticks and dirt. In the morning the other elephants reluctantly left, but Teresia was unwilling to depart and kept gently touching her daughter’s body with her foot. Only when the other elephants repeatedly rumbled to her did she finally move on.
You can find the entirety of Moss’ book online here, but be warned, it is tremendously sad—like an elephant version of “The Road” except with more likeable characters.
King Ludwig II of Bavaria reigned from 1864 to 1886—a period which saw the kingdom of Bavaria integrated into Bismarck’s unified Germany. Ludwig ascended the throne at the age of 18 after his father Maximilian II died unexpectedly of an illness. He was a strange figure as a king. Although introverted and shy he was also an extravagant aesthete with little taste for governing (although he enjoyed touring the countryside and conversing with everyday Bavarian farmers and workers). At first he was admired for being a romantic and tragic young figure, but ominous rumors piled up around the reluctant king and fate had dark plans for him.
Ludwig’s uncle was Wilhelm I of Prussia—destined to become the Kaiser of the German Empire. At first Ludwig tried to pull away from Prussian integration by siding with Austria, but he was easily outmaneuvered during the Seven Weeks War of 1866 and ended up allied with (and subordinate to) Prussia during the Franco-Prussian War. Ludwig II was initially helped out in his kingship by his grandfather Ludwig I (an infamously bad poet who had abdicated the kingship amidst a spectacular scandal concerning the Irish dancer/courtesan Lola Montez) but the former king died in 1868, leaving Ludwig II to capitulate to Prussian Imperial hegemony. As Ludwig II grew disinterested in affairs of state, he began to follow an increasingly inward and eccentric path.
The personal diaries and letters of Ludwig II reveal that he struggled to restrain his romantic feelings for other men and behave in accordance with the strict Catholic faith of Bavaria. He was engaged to a famous & beautiful duchess but he repeatedly postponed the engagement and finally called the wedding off altogether (apparently to spare his fiancée from a loveless marriage). The king was an ardent patron of Richard Wagner and he spent huge amounts of personal time with the spendthrift composer.
Ludwig II is most famous as an eccentric and maniacal builder. Calling on the Teutonic fantasies of Wagner and the absolutist opulence of Louis XIV, Ludwig commissioned multiple palace/castles. The greatest and strangest of his projects was Schloss Neuschwanstein, or “New Swan on the Rock castle”, a dramatic Gothic fortress with soaring fairytale towers, however he also commissioned Herrenchiemsee, a smaller scale replica of Versaille, and Linderhof Palace a chateau in neo-French Rococo style. Linderhof Palace was the only one of Ludwig’s palaces completed in his lifetime. It had novelty gardens of unrivaled opulence where Ludwig enjoyed being rowed around the fancifully lit grottoes of his water garden in a golden swan-boat. Lost in extravagant fantasies of being a swan knight, Ludwig became more a recluse and indulged in ever more solipsistic behavior.
All of this building cost phenomenal amounts of money and Ludwig’s indulgence in personal fantasies left him little time to deal with his ministers and courtiers. Despite the indignation of Ludwig’s court, his buildings were constructed with funds from the King’s purse rather than from the kingdom’s coffers (an important distinction). Strangely, the buildings served the traditional purpose of follies in Ireland and England and many peasants, builders, and artisans were employed in the construction projects.
Ludwig’s brother and heir Otto was ostentatiously and deeply insane. Bavaria’s courtiers and aristocrats began to wonder if it would not be best to have both brothers declared mad and locked away while a capable regent took over the important minutiae of integration and industrialization (and colonial empire—which Germany was beginning to dabble in). In the finest tradition of Gothic story-telling, the plotters turned to alienists, the psychiatric professionals of the day. By accumulating sordid (possibly fictional) tales, personal letters, and servants’ testimony, the aristocrats built up a case against Ludwig II as a dangerous madman. The ever-pragmatic Bismarck regarded the affair as a transparent frame-up, but neither he nor the Bavarian Diet nor the German Parliament acted to save Ludwig II from conspirators who proclaimed him insane and unfit to rule.
On the 12th of June 1886, Ludwig was detained (after an unsuccessful attempt at fleeing). He was placed in confinement at Berg Castle on the shores of Lake Starnberg, under thee care of the mental doctor Doctor Bernhard von Gudden. The next day, the two men embarked on a walk together through the Schloß Berg parkland beside the lake (both the king and the alienist declined attendants). Neither man returned alive. What transpired will never be known, but that evening a powerful storm swept the area. Desperate parties went out to search the lake and the surrounding forests for the two missing men. Just prior to midnight the searchers found the bodies of the doctor and Ludwig II floating in the lake. The king’s death was immediately ruled to be a suicide by drowning although the autopsy revealed no water in his lungs. Unreliable eyewitnesses (i.e. skulking royalists involved in various dodgy plots) reported that shots were fired however there is considerable disagreement about whether there were bullet wounds to the king’s corpse (which would indeed be suspicious). Gudden was beaten and strangled—presumably by the (mad?) king.
The whole affair was entirely mysterious and grim, but with the king gone, the people who had deposed him were free to carry out their agenda (within a larger context of German nationhood, of course). Work stopped on Ludwig’s castles. His mad brother Otto became king–but their uncle Luitpold held the true kingly authority (such as it was).
The world is different than it seems to be. Aristocrats and ministers of Ludwig’s time viewed him as a miserable failure as a king (if not an outright lunatic). Yet somehow he has emerged from the ruins of the German Empire with a higher reputation than the gifted statesmen who were his contemporaries. The castles which Ludwig created, which were seen as ruinous follies, have proven to be spectacularly lucrative as tourist destinations. His patronage of the arts has left a cultural stamp on Bavaria which is widely believed to have contributed to that state’s wealth (it is today the most prosperous German state). Bavarians speak of him fondly even today. Perhaps a bizarre closeted life of secretly dressing as a swan and a terrible violent end in a German lake were the inevitable fate of someone who, from the beginning decided to live in a world of dreams.