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Supay Harvesting Souls (Oliver Akuin, ca. 2000-2010, ink on paper)

Supay Harvesting Souls (Oliver Akuin, ca. 2000-2010, ink on paper)

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.

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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.

A Peruvian Miner with A Supay Votive Statue

A Bolivian Miner with A Supay Votive Statue

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!

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19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

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.

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

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.

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

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).

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

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.

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

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!

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

Silver Laced Wyandotte Hen

Silver Laced Wyandotte Hen

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.

Endearing Silver Laced Wyandotte chicks

Endearing Silver Laced Wyandotte chicks

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.

A magnificent (but probably angry) Silver Laced Wyandotte Rooster

A magnificent (but probably angry) Silver Laced Wyandotte Rooster

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.

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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.

A Buff Orpington Chicken

A Buff Orpington Chicken

kanaloa-god-of-the-ocean-jim-lee

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Xiuquan (drawing from circa 1860)

Hong Xiuquan (drawing from circa 1860)

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.

Hong Xiuquan and followers destroying Kan-wang-ye Idol in 1844

Hong Xiuquan and followers destroying Kan-wang-ye Idol in 1844

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.

Scroll painting from "Ten scenes recording the retreat and defeat of the Taiping Northern Expeditionary Forces,February 1854-March 1855."

Scroll painting from “Ten scenes recording the retreat and defeat of the Taiping Northern Expeditionary Forces,February 1854-March 1855.”

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.

The Fall of Nanjing in 1864

The Fall of Nanjing 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.

African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) with calf

African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) with calf

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.

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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.

Elephant Mother & Calf (photo by Douglas Aja)

Elephant Mother & Calf (photo by Douglas Aja)

Coronation Portrait of Ludwig II (Ferdinand von Piloty, 1865, oil on canvas)

Coronation Portrait of Ludwig II (Ferdinand von Piloty, 1865, oil on canvas)

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.

Linderhof Palace

Linderhof Palace

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 and Wagner

Ludwig II and Wagner

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.

Schloss Neuschwanstein o

Schloss Neuschwanstein o

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.

Great Hall of Herrenchiemsee

Great Hall of Herrenchiemsee

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.

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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.

These things happen...

These things happen…

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).

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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.

 

Thanatos, God of Death, sculpted from marble in the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos. Circa 325 BC

Thanatos, God of Death, sculpted from marble in the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos. Circa 325 BC

In ancient Greece, there were two incarnations of death.   The more well-known Greek personification of Death was Thanatos, the child of Nyx and brother of Hypnos (Sleep).  Thanatos represented natural death and was portrayed as a gentle being.  He was represented either as a kind handsome bearded man with wings or as a beautiful winged child.  Thantos is sometimes portrayed carrying a butterfly, a wreath, or an inverted torch.  Thanatos is frequently represented on funerary stele and on vases—a peaceful figure who led souls away after they had lived full lives.

Thanatos Takes Alkestis (Attic Red Figure Vase,  Attributed to the Amphitrite Painter)

Thanatos Takes Alkestis (Attic Red Figure Vase, Attributed to the Amphitrite Painter)

However Thanatos had a flock of hellish sisters, the Keres, dark flying beings with sharp teeth and an insatiable taste for blood.  The Keres represented violent senseless death.  They flew in the thousands above battlefields and hung over plague ravaged cities.  The Keres were associated with  the apparatus of violent death–famine, madness, agony, hate, and violence, yet classical authors also sometimes treat them as oddly personal—like a bullet with a soldier’s name on it.  Keres were portrayed like harpies or demons—cruel women with fangs and talons dressed in bloody ripped garments.  When they found a wounded or sick person the Keres would descend to feast on blood.  Hesiod’s harrowing poem, The Shield of Heracles describes them in such a manner:

The black Keres, clashing their white teeth,
Grim faced, shaggy, blood-bespattered, dread,
Kept struggling for the fallen. They all wanted
To drink black blood. Whom first they caught.
Lying or fallen newkly wounded, around him
They threw their might talosns, and the shade to Hades
Went, in icy Tartarus. Their hearts were glutted
With human blood: they threw away the corpse
And back to the tumult and fighting rushed, in new desire
(verses 248-257)

Hesiod also indirectly indicates that the Keres were among the horrible fates which flew out of Pandora’s box and have subsequently plagued mankind.  The Romans also believed in these cruel & deadly incarnations of fat.  The Roman name for the entities was tenebrae—“darknesses”

Ker or Poena (Lucanian red-figure kraterca. 4th century B.C.)

Ker or Poena (Lucanian red-figure krater
ca. 4th century B.C.)

The Keres do not fit neatly into the larger Greco-Roman pantheon.  Perhaps, like Nyx herself, they were outsider gods left over from some earlier tradition.  Throughout the course of classical history, their portrayal and their fatalistic meaning changed.  However they were a part of classical thought.  It is important to mention them when writing about the Greek underworld.  The dark realm below was haunted by these cruel children of night—they would fly forth when disaster struck humankind.keres

Pshh ha ha ha! I mean, um, the planet Nibiru collides with Earth (artist's conception)

Pshh…ha ha ha! I mean, um, the planet Nibiru collides with Earth (artist’s conception)

According to wild-eyed (& hare-brained) eschatologists the world is supposed to end tomorrow (December 21st, 2012) as the Mesoamerican long-count calendar runs out.  The methodology of destruction is a bit unclear, but a general consensus (of stupid crackpots) seems to hold that the nonexistent mystery planet Nibiru will slam into the Earth and everything will disintegrate in fire.  Volcanoes and solar storms are also somehow featured in some versions of the narrative.

Super bitchin' Mayan Calendar

Super bitchin’ Mesoamerican Calendar

All of this sounds very exciting—and it would certainly prove immensely fascinating to astronomers who keep a close watch on the local solar system with telescopes and spacecraft–and have never seen any hint of the apocalyptic space phenomena made up by crazy people. Yet I think we are overlooking a big part of the fun.  The long count calendar is a 5,125-year reckoning of time created by the ancient Mayans.  Since tomorrow’s apocalypse is therefore Mayan, one would certainly expect the lords of Xibalba (the Mayan gods of the underworld) to show up to harrow the Earth–or, you know, at least to assist Nibiru in finishing off the job.   Dedicated readers will recall that we have already met the gods of Xibalba in this dramatic post concerning the great heroic quest at the center of Mayan mythology.  To summarize, the sun and the moon went down into the dark torture city of Xibalba to free their father’s spirit and release the living world from slavery to the gods below.  After an epic magical battle, the story ended Hollywood-style with the twins burning and hacking all of the underworld gods to pieces.  The heroes then apotheosizing into the familiar celestial bodies we know and love.

I really love this picture

I really love this picture

This would not seem to bode well for the lords of Xibalba (what with the being killed and all), yet underworld deities are wily and treacherous–so we should not count them out of the picture despite the fact that they were chopped up and fricasseed.  So that you can more fully appreciate the Mayan apocalypse (or if it goes badly, so you will know whom you are talking with in the afterlife) here is a comprehensive listing of the Lords of Xibalba.  These characters operate in themed pairs–which is why each entry contains two gods):

Ahalmez (Sweepings Demon) and Ahaltocob (Stabbing Demon): are gods for the obsessively cleanly.  They hide in dirty or unswept areas of peoples’ houses and, when the filth is too much, leap out to kill the slovenly inhabitants.

Xiquiripat (Flying Scab) & Cuchumaquic (Gathered Blood) are both blood-themed gods who cause septicemia/blood poisoning

Ahalpuh (Pus Demon) and Ahalgana (Jaundice Demon), are tumor gods who cause people’s bodies to swell up with poison dropsy;

Chamiabac (Bone Staff) and Chamiaholom (Skull Staff), are bone demons who turn dead bodies into skeletons.

Xic (Wing) and Patan (Packstrap), are gods of pneumonia and lung disorder who cause travelers to choke to death from pneuma disorders.

Most importantly One Death and Seven Death were the two rulers of the underworld.  They were synonymous with death itself (although I have no idea what their jersey numbers stand for).

The Lords of Xibalba

The Lords of Xibalba

Hmm, all right, that is a pretty scary list and these guys certainly sound like bad news (although none of them seem to be particularly affiliated with planetary collision).  I guess we will keep our eyes peeled for stabby glowing characters in loincloths jumping out from behind the refrigerator.

Of course if the end of the days truly has you down, it is worth listening to David Morrison, an astronomer at Nasa, who has gone on record to say, “At least once a week I get a message from a young person, as young as 11, who says they are ill and/or contemplating suicide because of the coming doomsday. I think it’s evil for people to propagate rumours on the internet to frighten children.”

That seems like a pretty direct slap in the face to the lords of Xibalba (assuming any of them survived the rampage of Hunahpu and Xbalanque).   I guess we’ll watch the heavens tomorrow with interest.  If anyone is incredibly scared, you can come over to my place for chocolate pie, hot peppers, and tequila.

A still image from the extremely logical and coherent movie "The Fountain"

A still image from the extremely logical and coherent movie “The Fountain”

Happy solstice!

nicholas

In myth and in legend there are those who rise from the dead.  Most of these entities are forsaken monsters and vampires who dwell in darkness and unending hunger.  This past Halloween, we visited some of these undead creatures (namely lamiae, draugar, and hopping vampires).  However, not all of the undead are ghouls or fiends: a few of the entities that shook off the prison of mortality are transcendent beings—saints, saviors, benefactors, & gods.

In the third century AD, Nikolaos of Myra was born in the city of Patara, which is now Turkey but was, at the time, a long-standing part of the Eastern Roman empire.  His parents were wealthy Greeks who died of a plague when he was a small child. Little Nikolaos had no brothers or sisters, but his uncle was the bishop of Patara, and the bishop took in the orphan.  Nikolaos proved to be a devout and ardent Christian.  Under his uncle’s tutelage, he quickly rose through the church ranks, first being tonsured as a reader, then ordained as a priest, and finally consecrated as bishop of Myra, a port town in Asia Minor (in fact, some sources claim he was elected as bishop before being raised to the priesthood–a very rare career leap).

Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas

In 325 AD Emperor Constantine the great, “the thirteenth apostle”, convened all members of the episcopacy from across Christendom to attend the Council of Nicaea.  The Christian church in the early fourth century was being torn apart by competing ideas about the fundamental nature of divinity.  Followers of the theologian Athanasius believed that the son was begotten by the Heavenly Father from His own divine essence.  Followers of the popular presbyter Arius believed that Jesus was created from nothing—as were animals, spirits, and humans.  The church aristocracy convened to decide which of these opinions was dogma and which was heresy (and to settle certain other central affairs and credos of the universal Christian church).

Nikolaos Striking Arius

Nikolaos Striking Arius

Bishop Nikolaos was not one for learned theological argument.  Early in the counsel he stormed up to Arius and slapped (or maybe “punched”) him in the face—and Nikolaos was promptly expelled from the proceedings.  After weeks and weeks of harrowing canonical debate, the church fathers decided exactly the same thing as Nikolaos.  Arius was excommunicated and his ideas were found to be heretical. The Arians either changed their opinions or went into exile.  Nikolaos became a folk hero for his rash actions which seemed to take on the quality of foresight considering how the counsel ended.

A Roman Coin depicting the Temple of Artemis at Myra

A Roman Coin depicting the Temple of Artemis at Myra

Nikolaos returned to Myra as a famous figure, but he was troubled by the great temple to Artemis which was there.  Myra was sacred to Artemis and her temple in the town was reputed to be the most stunningly beautiful and magnificent construction in the entire part of the world.  Nikolaos used his newfound influence to have the structure destroyed and to forcibly convert the remaining pantheists into belief in his one stern god.

The Death of Nikolaos

The Death of Nikolaos

He died as a revered figure in 343 AD.  Symeon the Metaphrast movingly describes the death of Nikolaos in the following florid manner:

Now after he had long lived in this manner, renowned for his virtuous conduct, he asperged the metropolis of Myra with sweet and lovely unction distilled from the blossoms of divine Grace. When he came to the very advance age, full of days both heavenly and earthly, he need must comply with the common law of nature, as is man’s lot. He was ill but a short time. In the grip of that illness, while rendering those lauds and thanksgivings to God which are said in death, he happily yielded up his spirit [for while he desired to remain in the flesh, Nicholas equally desired to be unyoked from it]. He left this brief and transitory life to cross over to that blessed everlasting life where he rejoices with the angels while more clearly and openly contemplating the light of Truth. But his previous body, borne by the holy hands of bishops and all the clergy with torches and with lights, was rested in the crypt which is at Myra.

Such is the story of the life of Nikolaos of Myra, orphan, acolyte, then orthodox churchman.  But for Nikolaos, life was only the beginning.  After death Nikolaos, or “Nicholas” to use the Anglicization of his Greek name came back stranger and stronger. His shadowy figure appeared throughout the land and stories began to circulate of miracles and transfigurations performed by the Saint.  His post-life supernatural journey would take him across thousands of years and see him transformed from being a (dead) ascetic bishop in the Levant into one of the most beloved religious figures in all of the world.  Tune in tomorrow for part two of the strange odyssey of Saint Nicholas, the symbol of generosity, compassion, and Christmastime.

The Tomb of Nikolaos

The Tomb of Nikolaos

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