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According to ancient Chinese mythology, humankind was created by the benevolent snake-goddess Nüwa (who is one of my very favorite divinities in any pantheon, by the way). But keen readers wonder: where did Nüwa come from? Whence came the ocean and the earth and the sea and the winds and the heavens. Oh, there is a story behind that too, but it is strange and troubling—sad and incomplete and beautiful like so much of Chinese mythology and folklore.
In the beginning there was nothing except for the universe egg—a vast perfect egg which contained everything. Within the universe egg, yin and yang energies were mixed together so completely and perfectly that they were indistinguishable. Then, through some unknown means, the egg changed—mayhap it became fertilized—and a being began to grow within it. This was P’an Ku, the great primordial entity. The yin and yang energy began to separate and build complex forms. P’an Ku slowly grew and grew. He started as something infinitely small but gradually he became larger and larger until eventually his vast arms came up against the sides of the everything egg. The little embryo became a vast god. The walls of the egg became a prison.
Then P’an Ku grabbed an axe (which appeared from who knows where). Using all of his gargantuan might, he smashed a great blow through the shell of the egg, which exploded. He was born—as was the universe. Beside him, in the gushing yolk, the primordial magical beings came into being—the dragon, the tortoise, the phoenix, and the quilin. These special creatures helped the first deity as he began to separate chaos into order. P’an Ku split the yin into darkness and the yang into light. He laid the foundation stones of the vault of the everlasting sky and filled the ocean with the waters of creation dripping from the shattered egg shell.
But as he built, a strange thing happened (though maybe not so strange to my fellow artists who can never quite craft their dreams into their works). The world he made became inimical to him. He aged. He suffered. His creation was unfinished…and he died. His breath became the clouds and the wind. His body became the mountains and the plains of China. His eyes became the sun and the moon. The hair of his body and head became the plants and trees.
It was in this corpse-world that the creator deities moved: Nüwa, a child born of P’an Ku’s genitals…or an alien outsider? Who knows? Who can say? What is important is that eggs are important. In Chinese myth they are the source of everything. The beginning of the universe.
Chinese mythology does not dwell on the end of the world quite the way other cosmologies do. Our world is sad and broken enough that we don’t need to think about its ending. But there are ethereal hints from before the Chin emperor’s great purges which suggest that time is circular like an egg. Somehow, as we all began, so we will end back there again in the homogenized grey yolk of chaos.
It’s time for a belated Valentine’s Day Post (or maybe this is actually an outright Lupercalia post). The Seattle Aquarium has an unusual annual Valentines’ Day tradition of sponsoring blind dates for their resident octopuses. Sometimes the octopuses ignore each other or even quarrel, but other times throwing octopus strangers of opposite genders into a tank together results in multi-armed passion—a special treat for the aquarium visitors (to say nothing of the octopuses) This year the aquarium has (or had) a large mature male Pacific giant octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) affectionately nicknamed “Kong” who weighs about 70 pounds. Divers set out looking for potential girlfriends for Kong for Valentine’s Day, but the largest females they could find (um, capture) were all under 40 pounds.
This was a problem. It was widely feared that Kong might react badly to these undersized females and just straight out eat them. Mating is the final act for giant Pacific octopuses. They are semelparous (their lives end after a single reproductive event). After mating, females lay between 20,000 and 100,000 eggs which they tenderly nurture and care for as they starve to death. Males develop white lesions on their body and wander absent-mindedly into the open where they are swiftly devoured by predators.
Pacific giant octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) with human diver
Kong is approaching this final stage of his life, but his keepers could not find a worthy adult female octopus for him to consummate his life with…so they let him go. He went back to the ocean to look for love and death on his own. Good luck out there Kong, you handsome devilfish! Let’s hope it was all worth it.
Saint Bartholomew was one of the twelve apostles of Christ… Yet, considering the exalted company he kept, we do not know very much about Bartholomew. Bartholomew means “son of the furrows” in Aramaic, which suggests he was possiblya ploughman…or at least descended from farmers (it is also funny to think that Bart Simpson’s name is originally Aramaic). Bartholomew shows up by name in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the “Synoptic” gospels, which give roughly the same account of events) but he is replaced by Nathaniel in the enigmaticand iconoclastic gospel of John.
Whatever the case, sources (such as they are) place Bartholomew at the Ascension–the Greek-myth style apotheosis of Christ, when the risen savior ascended bodily into heaven to assimilate with the divine. Bartholomew’s story gets a lot more interesting thereafter. While other apostles went west and north to spread Christianity to the Roman Empire, Bartholomew headed East, right out of the boundaries of the known world. Along with Saint Thomas, he is credited with bringing Christianity to India. Along the way he is alleged (by varying sources) to have stopped to spread the faith in Mesopotamia, Parthia, and Lycaonia.
However Bartholomew is most affiliated with Armenian Christianity. Along with his fellow apostle, Saint Jude, he is credited with bringing the faith to Armenia in the 1st Century and the two are the Co-founders of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Armenia was also the site of his thrilling martyrdom. According to popular tradition,Bartholomew converted Polymius, the king of Armenia, to Christianity. This infuritated the king’s brother Astyages, a devout pagan who thought that getting rid of the proslytizer would get rid of the faith. Astyages had Bartholomew seized, crucified and flayed alive–which seems like overkill. In some accounts the holy man was drowned or beheaded (maybe Astyages feared a Rasputin type situation and had Bartholomew crucified, flayed, drowned, and beheaded). Armenia is not necessarily the center of the world in contemporary times, but it was a thriving society in the early medieval world. There were huge cities filled with great cathedrals to Saint Bartholomew Whatever the case of the real Bartholomew, popular imagination seized on the flaying aspect of this tale. This death of Saint Bartholomew became favorite theme of artists Michaelangelo even painted himself as Saint Bartholomew’s nightmarish skin in the last judgement. There he is between heaven and hell in the saint’s flayed hand. Will he be cast down and discarded of ascend as a saint?
Some scolars have noted a deliberate similarity between Bartholomew and the Greco-Roman demigod Hercules. Churches to the saint were often located on former sites of cult centers to the strongman. Additionally the two shared iconongraphy: Bartholomew frequently holds of wears his skin like Hercules wears the Nemean lion’s skin. There are even certainly weird parallels between the figures. Hercules transcended death through physical strength: excellence at fighting and a divine pedigree allowed him to rise to heaven. Saint Bartholomew a normal man–a farmer–transcended mortality by spiritual strength–he shrugged off the most terrible death possible and joined Jesus in heaven (and in working miracles here on Earth). Barthomew and Hercules even shared a doom caused throught the skin. Barthomew was flayed, while Hercules was poisoned intracutaneously and ripped his own skin off. It is a good theory, but it overlooks the even more straightforward Christian message of Bartholomew. He transcended his mortality through his association with Jesus. He shrugged off his human flesh and became part of the divine. The raw power of the tale is instantly recognizable in the beautiful & horrible art.
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.