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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

Snake-handling

Snake week continues with a dramatic return to my native Appalachia.  Up in the mountains, devout Christianity has taken on a great many colorful forms, but arguably none are quite as exciting as the rites celebrated by the Pentecostal Snake-handlers.  Snake-handling in Appalachia is said to have a long history rooted in 19th century revivals and tent-show evangelism, but its documented history starts with an illiterate but charismatic Pentecostal minister named George Went Hensley.  Around 1910 Hensley had a religious revelation based on two specific New Testament Bible verses.  Couched in the flinty vaguely apocalyptic language of the Gospels, the two verses which obsessed Hensley read as follows:

And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.  Mark 16: 17-18

And he said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven. Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. (Luke 10: 18-19)

While many believers might chose to understand these lines as a general affirmation of Christ’s devotion to his flock, Hensley was very much a literalist (and a showman).  Believing that the New Testament commanded the faithful to handle venomous snakes, he set about obtaining a number of poisonous snakes and incorporating them into his ministry.  The practice quickly spread along the spine of the mountains and beyond.  Even today the Church of God with Signs Following (aka the snake handlers) numbers believers in the thousands.

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A service at the Church of God with Signs Following includes standard Pentecostal practices such as faith healing,  testimony of miracles, and speaking in tongues (along with much boisterous jumping and testifying), however what sets the ceremony apart are the live poisonous snakes which are located in a special area behind the alter located at the front of the church.  Throughout the service, worshipers can come forward and pick up the serpents and even let the snakes crawl over their bodies.  Native pit vipers such as copperheads, timber rattlers, and water moccasins are most commonly used in the ceremonies but exotic poisonous snakes like cobras are sometimes included.   The snakes act as a proxy for devils and demons.  Handling the reptiles is believed to demonstrate power over these underworld forces.  If a congregant is bitten (which has happened often), it is usually regarded as an individual or group failure of faith.  Upon being bitten devout snake-handlers generally refuse treatment, regarding this as part of their sacrament.

snake handlers 1

Not only do snake handlers handle snakes they also sometimes drink strychnine to prove their devotion. Additionally (although less alarmingly) they adhere to a conservative dress code of ankle-length dresses, long hair, and no make-up for women, and short hair and oxford shirts for men.  Tobacco and alcohol are regarded as sinful.

Snake handling has a long and twisty relationship with state laws.  In Georgia, in 1941, state legislators passed a bill which made Pentecostal snake handling into a felony and mandated the death penalty for participants, however the law was so extreme that juries refused to enforce it and it was eventually repealed.  A number of states still have old laws clearly designed to curtail the practice of the faith (often these were instituted after particularly controversial deaths, particularly those of children).

George Went Hensley

George Went Hensley

The founder of snake handling, George Went Hensley, also had a twisty serpentine course through life.  After founding and popularizing the church during the World War I era, he strayed somewhat from the life of a minister.  During the 20’s he had substantial problems in his home life caused by drinking and moonshining.  After being arrested for the latter, Hensley was sentenced to work on a chain gang but he beguiled the guards into other duties with his likability and, on an errand to fetch water, he escaped and fled from Tennessee.   He worked various occupations including miner, moonshiner, and faith healer and married various women before returning to his ministry in the mid-thirties.   During the next decades, Hensley led a vivid life involving a multi-state ministry (which was the subject of a miniature media circus), various drunken fits and conflicts, multiple marriages, and lots of poisonous snakes.  The odds caught up to him in Altha, Florida in 1955 when he was bitten on the wrist by a venomous snake which he had removed from a lard can and rubbed on his face.  After becoming visibly ill from the bite, he refused treatment (and is said to have rebuked his congregation for their lack of faith) before dying of snakebite.  When he died he had been married 4 times and fathered 13 known children. He also had claimed to have been bitten over 400 times by various snakes.

Contemporary Snake-Handlers (photo by Lauren Pond for the Wall Street Journal)

Contemporary Snake-Handlers (photo by Lauren Pond for the Wall Street Journal)

Hensley always asserted that he was not the father of snake-handling, however he certainly popularized the movement.  Even today, Christians of a certain mindset can prove their faith by harassing toxic reptiles (although the religion’s legality is disputed in many states where it is practiced).

As noted in several previous blog posts, the Chinese underworld, Diyu, is simultaneously a place of vicious physical tortures AND a particularly nasty and intractable bureaucracy. King Yama presides over this hellish realm assisted by the merciless judge Qin-Guang-Wang who determines how long damned souls must suffer in order to pay off their karmic debts.  Yet, in addition to these big names, there are also many other lesser bailiffs, beadles, demons, ghouls, guards, and torturers who work for the system.  Perhaps the most recognizable of these henchmen (or henchbeings) are the animal-headed duo of Horse Face and Ox Head.  Known together as the Niútóumǎmiàn, Horse Face and Ox Head are the principle bailiffs at the first room of Diyu–the dreadful Hall of Retribution, where initial judgement is meted out to newly dead souls.

Horse Face and Ox Head in the Hall of Retribution

Like Cerberus in Greek mythology, these two immortal demons are the first & worst jailors of the dark realm and act as heavies on behalf of the rulers of the underworld.  Their tasks include  manhandling intractable souls before Diyu’s bench, throwing combative souls into deeper pits of torment, and pursuing would-be escapees.  Horse Face and Ox Head lack human compunctions and mercies, but, crucially, they also lack human guile and can thus be tricked.

I guess it is good to enjoy your work.

In The Journey to the West, the most abstruse and fantastical of the Four Great Classical Epics of Chinese Literature, Horse Face and Ox Head (or legions of Horse Faces and Ox Heads) are outwitted by Sun Wukong, the beloved monkey trickster deity, who then erases his own name and the names of all of his monkey subjects from the annals of death.  Having thus ensured immortality for himself and his simian followers, Sun Wukong proceeds onward to wreak chaos elsewhere.

Most of the visitors to Diyu were not so fortunate, strong, and clever as the Monkey King and were easily dealt with by the formidable doormen of Diyu.  In Japan the duo are known as Gozu-Mezu.  They are also part of the afterworld in various cultures around China like Singapore and Thailand.  For all of their popularity in visual art, there is remarkably little information about the lore and backstory of Horse Face and Ox Head.  It seems that nobody really pays much attention to bailiffs, even when they are immortal animal-headed demons guarding hell itself!

Aww…poor little guys…

Mathis Grünewald

Temptation of Saint Anthony from the Isenheim Altarpiece (Mathis Grünewald, ca. 1515, oil on panel)

Here is another portrayal of Saint Anthony tormented by demons—and what demons!  One is some sort of ambulatory stomach lined with teeth.  Another is a cross between a turkey and a mudpuppy.  A ghastly leprous frogman clutches at Saint Anthony while beings with stumps and fungi for heads lurch up out of the darkness.  High in the sky a glowing entity watches.  Is it God seen through a fog of pain or is it an ancient demon made of diaphanous glowing lunch meat?  The very forces of madness and hell are physically pulling Anthony apart.

Wow! What is this painting and what’s the story behind its hellishly vivid imagery?

This is one frame of a massive polyptych painted by Mathis Grünewald for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim near Colmar.  Grünewald painted the altarpiece between 1505 and 1515 and the completed work is difficult to describe because it has two sets of folding wings as well as a folding predella.

Wikipedia describes the altarpiece’s elaborate construction and its sad history:

The first view shows a Crucifixion scene, flanked by images of Saint Anthony and Saint Sebastian. There is a predella with a Lamentation of Christ, which remains in the second view also. When the outermost wings are opened, the second view shows scenes of the Annunciation, the original subject of Mary bathing Jesus to the accompaniment of an Angelic choir (or various other titles), and the Resurrection. The innermost view shows the Temptation of Saint Anthony and the Meeting of Saint Anthony and the Hermit Paul to the sides, and a pre-existing carved gilt-wood altarpiece by Nicolas Hagenau of about 1490. Now the altarpiece has been dis-assembled (and sawn through) so that all the views can be seen separately, except that the original sculpted altarpiece is no longer flanked by the panels of the third view, which are instead shown together. Carved wood elements at the top and bottom of the composition were lost in the French Revolution, when the whole painting survived nearly being destroyed.

The world is fortunate indeed that the mad iconoclasts of the French Revolution did not destroy the altarpiece because it is one of the foremost works of Gothic religious art.

Isenheim Altarpiece (Mathis Grünewald, ca. 1515, oil on panel)

Isenheim Altarpiece (Mathis Grünewald, ca. 1515, oil on panel)

Isenheim Altarpiece (Mathis Grünewald, ca. 1515, oil on panel)

The Monastery at Isenheim was a healing facility: the Antonine monks who lived and worked there specialized in the treatment of skin diseases.  A prevalent malady the brothers saw among their patiets was ergotism—a poisoning caused by fungus growing on wet rye (in fact during the Middle Ages the affliction was known as “Saint Anthony’s Fire” because the Antonine Monks were so gifted at treating it).  Alkaloid compounds in ergot constricted sufferers’ blood vessels and brought on dry gangrene. In the altarpiece Christ himself is afflicted by the skin condition as he hangs on the cross in the central panel. Various secondary characters throughout the work also seem to be suffering from the skin disease.

Besides suppurating lesions and gangrene, two other effects of ergotism were convulsions and terrible vivid hallucinations.  The ergot alkaloid ergotamine shares many structural similarities with LSD.  It is poignant to imagine the sick and injured patients at Isenheim desperately praying before the altarpiece for relief from an ailment which was unhinging their minds and literally causing them to rot away.  When they looked up at Saint Anthony’s torment, the intended viewers knew exactly how he felt.

Many of the greatest medieval artists are anonymous.  Their actual names and personalities have been lost in the swirl of time and only their works remain.  In such cases the unknown masters come to be named after their region, or a distinctive trademark, or (as in this case) one famous painting.  This is how today’s featured gothic artist came to share a title with Lucifer himself.  The trecento Siennese master who painted this panel is known by two surviving works (which are both at the Louvre).  The more influential and dramatic of the pair is The Fall of the Rebel Angels which was painted between 1340 and 1345 AD.  The painter is therefore called the “Master of the Rebel Angels”.  Here is the best digital image I could find of the painting—itself a portion of a long lost poyptych (the other surviving portion is a picture of Saint Martin, the patron saint of France—which suggests the work was made for a French buyer).  This work had a deep influence on French Art and was often copied or imitated—most notably by the Limbourg brothers for the illuminated manuscript Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels (The Master of the Rebel Angels, ca. 1340, tempera and gold on panel)

In a world without quicksilver mirrors, abundant cheap plate glass, or artificial lighting there was only one substance that conveyed divine luster in a lasting manner—actual gold.  The majority of the The Fall of the Rebel Angels is pure elemental gold flattened out into sheets and affixed directly to the panel.  This precious but inhuman metallic background provides a perfect setting for the larger than life metaphysical battle portrayed in the painting. The story behind this artwork is immediately comprehensible to anyone who chafes under rules: the rebel angels come to believe they would be better off running their own affairs instead of submitting to the hegemony of heaven.  God and his hosts of loyal angels learn of their disloyalty and cast them down.  Without the naturalistic conventions of Renaissance art (which would come later) the war in heaven takes on an otherworldly almost science-fiction aspect.  The glowing armored hosts of heaven guard the welkin. Above them are the enthroned ranks of saints.  God towers at the pinnacle of the composition, serene on a living throne of flame-like angel wings.

The rebel angels have lost their heavenly beauty and their effulgence.  Blackened and monstrous, unable to bear their weight on corrupted wings, they fall from the skies and are swallowed by a mysterious drab gray orb. This dull circle represents life and the affairs of the world.  The artist meant us to understand that we too are its inhabitants, fallen like the rebel angels and cut off from what is numinous and ineffable. The painting starkly conveys the hierarchical philosophical outlook of the times, but strangely it also makes the rebel angels sympathetic.  They are the subjects of the work: their mutilation and defeat provides the drama. Christian art reversed the conventions of Greco/Roman art: the victim or acted-upon party is the protagonist (rather than the victorious aggressor).  I can’t imagine the Master of the Rebel Angels intended such a result, but, somehow he painted a work where the monsters are the protagonists and their transformation is the dominant mystery.

I am uncertain as to whether I should include demons and fallen angels in my “Deities of the Underworld” topic category.  They certainly seem to be immortal chthonic gods (or at least demigods) who are based in a land of torment and perdition beneath the ground, but, ever since the revelation at Sinai, monotheists get very touchy when one starts bandying about the G-word.  Irrespective, I think I will brave the scorn of the Abrahamic peoples and include this post in that thread.

Such a question is relevant because today, tomorrow, and Friday, I will feature three masterpieces of Gothic painting which portray demons!  Get out your asbestos gloves and put aside your squeamishness concerning scales, claws, talons, and horns because the great gothic painters lived in the medieval world where demons were taken very seriously

Bottom panel in an altarpiece, Polyptych with Coronation of the Virgin & Saints (Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni, ca. 1390, tempera on panel)

This first work is by Florentine artist Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni (1369 – 1415). Almost nothing is known of Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni, but it is believed he was originally a manuscript illuminator who made the jump to panel painter.  Whatever his background was, he has certainly given us a vivid demon painting. This is the bottom panel in an altarpiece, Polyptych with Coronation of the Virgin & Saints painted around 1390.  It depicts the temptation of Saint Anthony and what a temptation!  A bevy of rainbow colored demons, each wielding a unique implement of torture, torment the prostrate saint in order to convince him to renounce his faith.  Not for Cenni di Francesco the nubile lovelies who characteristically tempt the ascetic Anthony—this Saint is tempted by putting an end his pain!  On a deeper level the fiends may represent the privations and hardships of Anthony’s anchoretic life in Egypt’s eastern desert. These animal hybrid demons have particularly animated features and distinct personalities.  I wonder if Maurice Sendak happened across this image because his wild things bear a passing resemblance to Anthony’s tormentors.

Polyptych with Coronation of the Virgin & Saints (Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni, ca. 1390, Tempera on panel)

This is a tiny portion of a magnificent edifice of individual paintings. Cenni di Francesco’s works all come together in a towering gothic structure dedicated to the glory of the saints and their faith. The work is so large and all-encompassing that the torments of a few demons seem almost like a minor matter–which is perhaps part of the artwork’s meaning.  The entire alterpiece is today located at the Getty Museum, so if you are around Los Angeles, you can drop in and look at the actual artwork.

Tomorrow…fallen angels….

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