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Artist's conception of MESSENGER above Mercury (NASA)

Artist’s conception of MESSENGER above Mercury (NASA)

On Thursday, humankind is deliberately crashing a spaceship into another planet! We could easily be the evil aliens in someone else’s space drama. Well, at least we could be, if there were any remote chance that Mercury, the intended target of our bombardment, were a possible haven for life.  And bombardment is not really the right word: what is actually scheduled is the seemly & rational conclusion to NASA’s MESSENGER mission, a highly successful exploration of the solar system’s mysterious innermost world.  The mission has been ongoing for more than a decade (a decade of our Earth time—or nearly 40 Mercury years).

A portrait of Mercury from MESSENGER

A portrait of Mercury from MESSENGER

The 485-kilogram (1,069 pound) MESSENGER spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral in August 2004. The space probe has an awkward and contrived government acronym, which is why I keep talking about it in all caps—I’m not shouting (although planetary exploration does make me very excited). The craft took some amazing pictures of Venus (a planet which always calls to me) on its way to Mercury.  Then MESSENGER flew by the small planet multiple times before entering orbit on March 18, 2011 (the first human spacecraft to do so).  Since then MESSENGER has extensively scanned and mapped the surface of Mercury—a planet which is surprisingly elusive to astronomers because of its proximity to the sun.  The mission revealed some surprising results which are leading to big new questions.

False Color Maps of Mercury (NASA)

False Color Maps of Mercury (NASA)

Mercury has a small diameter—it is actually smaller in area than some of the moons of Saturn and Jupiter—but it has substantial mass because much of it is made of heavy metals.  The face of the small world is thought to be ancient: scientists speculated that its bland pitted face might date back to the formation of the solar system, but it seems that Mercury does harbor secrets.

The mission featured a big surprise.  Messenger found surface water in the form of ice frozen inside the polar craters of Mercury.  This was not really a shock—astronomers have suspected that ice was present due to radio-telescope readings.  What was surprising was that the ice was coated with tarlike black goo. My poor roommate (who is always wandering the house pointing at films, stains, and accretions in horror) would not be surprised by a black coating on anything, however scientists were taken aback because Mercury was not thought to have any “volatile” compounds.  According to the current models of planetary formation, elements like chlorine, sulfur, potassium and sodium should have boiled away during the cataclysmic high-temperature formation of Mercury…yet there they are, like the scum in my kitchen. The scientific data from MESSENGER is likely to force a rethink of planetary formation (although frankly, considering all of the weird exoplanets that are being discovered, scientists probably need to refine their theories about planetary accretion anyway). The mission also measured subtle planetary flux which should give us a better sense of Mercury’s composition and internal workings.

The yellow patches show areas where water ice is believed to exist. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

The yellow patches show areas where water ice is believed to exist. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

All good things must end, however, and MESSENGER has run out of fuel for maneuvering.  Mission controllers have opted for an operatic exit and they are smashing the craft into the planet’s surface at 8,750 miles per hour (nearly four kilometers per second).  This should create an 18 meter (50 foot) wide crater.  Future scientists will have a known fresh disturbance to use as a benchmark for assessing the ancient craters of Mercury.  Perhaps the plume will reveal some interesting secrets as well.

MESSENGER Crashes into Mercury (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

MESSENGER Crashes into Mercury (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

Unfortunately, it will be a while before we see the results of our destructive acts.  The site of impact is hidden from Earth, and we have no other spacecraft in any proximity to Mercury. A European and Japanese collaboration called BepiColombo is scheduled to launch from Earth in 2017 and arrive at Mercury in 2024.  Perhaps we will have new questions for whatever answers MESSENGER is about to divulge in its unseen but spectacular final act!

Update: Through some grotesque oversight, NASA failed to portray MESSENGER’s final moments through the magic of art. I took the liberty of providing my own interpretation above.  NASA did not return my questions about whether the spacecraft will wail in a plaintive manner as it impacts the surface–so I am forced to assume that it will.  Did I mention that Mercury has no atmosphere?  You should probably ignore that…

imageEvery year around Saint Patrick’s Day, we delve into Irish folklore to feature alarming mythological beings from the Emerald Isles. Nothing has beaten the frolicsome (yet oddly troubling) leprechauns in terms of popularity, however last year’s post about the sluagh–an airborne host of dark spirits which come from the otherworld–was certainly much creepier. This year gets darker still (well, at least for some of us) as we explore the leannán sídhe, a dark temptress who preys on disaffected writers, artists, and creative folk! Argh! Seriously, did Irish mythmakers have a picture of me on the whiteboard when they came up with this stuff?

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The leannán sídhe was thought of as a woman of the aos sídhe (the otherworld folk) who would assume mortal form as an inhumanly beautiful woman. She would take an artist or poet as a lover and offer them inspiration in exchange for love and devotion. With her wit, intelligence, and affection she would inspire their craft. With her supernatural beauty she would bind them to her and become their muse. Yet the relationship would become more and more oppressive and intense until the artist became consumed with obsession for her. Once the artist was besotted to the point of madness, the leannán sídhe would disappear. The abandoned mortal lover would suffer from intense despair and either pine to death or commit suicide. After the artist was dead, the leannán sídhe would reappear and take make off with the corpse which she would take back to her underground lair. There she would hang the body up from a hook on her ceiling and drain the artist’s blood into a huge red cauldron. This cauldron of blood was the source of her everlasting life, youth, and beauty.

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Once we set aside the casual misogyny which floats atop the surface of this myth, it reveals its deeper meaning: the myth of the leannán sídhe evokes the artist’s primal fear of the contemporary art market where laughing art dealers, gallerists, and corporations drain the artist of their creative vitality and then profit from it. Better to labor away in poverty and anonymity then deal with these terrifying forces.

Argh! God help us!

Argh! God help us!

Wait…ugh… this can’t be right! What is up with these fiendish Irish myths? Maybe next year I had better celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day by writing about something less frightening, bloody, or controversial—maybe Irish politics…

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Baphomet, the Templars, and some sort of absurd Victorian Charlatan

Baphomet, the Templars, and some sort of absurd Victorian Charlatan

In 1307, Philip IV of France was deeply in debt to the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon (a military order more commonly known as the Knights Templar).  The Templars had originated during the first crusade as a monastic order dedicated to helping pilgrims reach Jerusalem.  They soon became a powerful military presence in Outremer (the Christian-held lands within the Middle East) and because of an extra-national network of knights, they amassed immense power and wealth around Europe.  Since they had a financial infrastructure which stretched through many different countries, the Templars began acting as bankers (imagine if you deposited gold in England, and then withdrew it in Jerusalem without having to carry it through all the bandit-infested areas between).  They took over and managed the estates of noblemen who took up the cross and went to fight in the crusades, and, as Philip could attest, they leant money.  Some historians regard them as the first multinational corporation of Europe.

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Philip IV really liked money and he hated repaying debts.  In 1306 he had exiled France’s Jews so that he could take over the loans which had been made by them.  When rumors started cropping up about the profane nature of the Templar’s initiation rituals, the French king made sure the rumors spread widely and gained credence.  He used his influence over Pope Clement V (a weak pope who was almost entirely under Philip’s control) to squelch the order.  On October 13th 1307, hundreds of French Templars were rounded up and arrested.  They were then subjected to intense torture in order to find out the truth of their heresies.  Unsurprisingly, under torture, the imprisoned Templars confessed to all sorts of heresies (and other sins).  One of the things which Templars confessed to was worshipping the dark god Baphomet.  Baphomet had originated as a mispronunciation of Mohammed among untutored French soldiers during the First Crusade, however he was about to transcend his roots and become a deity in his own right.

Philip IV contemplates a group of Templars who have been tied to stakes and surrounded with flammable materials for some reason

Philip IV contemplates a group of Templars who have been tied to stakes and surrounded with flammable materials for some reason

With inspiration supplied by torturers the Templars came up with all sorts of examples of how they worshipped Baphomet idols and committed enormities in his name.  Philip’s purpose was to destroy the Templars not to find out truth and the Baphomet story worked very well.  Other imprisoned Templars were questioned about the entity, and when the rack and iron and pinchers were applied, they suddenly confirmed their fellow prisoners’ stories about the dark demon-god.

Baphomet, a hitherto nonexistent deity was literally born from the pain and fear and misinformation of the torture chamber.   During the 19th century, there was a burst of historical interest in the destruction of the Templars (I have left the ghastly details out of this post, but Philip IV was entirely effective in crushing the order for personal gain: the grandmaster of the Templars was burned at the stake in the middle of Paris in 1314).  Various authorities of the occult (which is to say fabulists) became interested in Baphomet and started providing further information about him.  Baphomet came to be pictured as a “Sabbatic Goat” a winged androgynous being with a pair of breasts, a goat’s head, and various evil supernatural accessories and emblems.

Baphomet as imagined by Victorian Occultists

Baphomet as imagined by Victorian Occultists

This image of Baphomet was seized on by Aleister Crowley, the influential English occultist, whose works had such an influence on modern neopaganism.  As a result, Baphomet has become popular.  You can buy devotional books and resin statues of him more easily than you can for almost any deity from my “deities of the underworld” category.   The fact that this deity has always been entirely a fraud, a bowdlerization of the medieval devil, and a complete invention (created under torture) seemingly has little bearing on the deitiy’s popularity.  Indeed it is a good origin story for a dark god and possibly has helped Baphomet to prominence.

  Bap

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

Kali (artist unknown)

In Hinduism, Kali is the dark mother goddess who represents the force of change and transformation in the universe. The Devi Mahatmya, a Sanskrit text of the 5th – 6th century AD, relates that Kali was born from the brow of the mother goddess Durga, but it may be that she actually is Durga or vice versa (the mutable forms of divinity in Hinduism are transfigurative and sometimes subsume one another).

In appearance, Kali is one of the most fearsome deities in any pantheon.  Her skin is completely black, like the night sky, or like the oblivion which awaits all living things.  Nude but for certain terrible adornments made of human body parts, Kali wears a skirt made of severed limbs and a necklace of 50 bloody heads, one for each letter of the Sanskrit alphabet.   Her nudity is important as it represents her freedom from maya—the illusory false consciousness in which the mortal world is steeped. Her four hands clutch different ceremonial items: a great sword/cleaver, the severed head of a huge demon, a trident, and a bowl fashioned out of a skull to catch the blood flowing from the head.  Kali’s eyes are red with wrath and she has fangs at the edge of her howling mouth.  Her nude body is spattered with gore and her four long arms bend at improbable angles.

kali (artist unknown)

Many representations of Kali show her in fury, rampaging over the prostrate form of her husband Shiva, the creation god.  There is a story behind the image.  The Devas and Devis (gods and goddesses) of the universe were engaged in a conflict with terrible demons and they were losing the fight when Kali was created.  Her rage and her battle fury were so terrible that no demon could stand against her awful onslaught.  As she slew, she begin to drink demonic blood and grow in strength.  No force could withstand Kali and the universe began to tremble and shake.  But, before she could annihilate all things, Shiva assumed his comeliest form and cast himself like a corpse at the feet of his wife. When Kali realized that she was touching her husband with the soles of her feet (an incredibly disrespectful act within the code of Hindu morality) her rage died.  She stuck out her tongue in distaste and horror and her awful slaughter came to an end.  Other myths pick up the story and tell of how she and Shiva (both nude and heated from carnage and near disaster) began to engender new life, but you will have to look those up on your own.

The familiar tableau certainly suggests that without the power of Kali, great Shiva becomes inert.  This juxtaposition is important and reveals something about Kali. Worshipped on the charnel ground where the bodies of the dead are cremated, Kali is obviously a death goddess, however her divine status transcends that of other chthonic gods.  Terrible though her appearance may be, Kali is one of the most beloved goddesses of India.  She is universally held in reverence by sages and gurus who have begun to see through life’s illusions.  These wise people esteem Kali as the mother of all things because without death there is no possibility for rebirth.  If things are not unmade there is no material with which to create newer finer things.  Thanks to Kali we do not live in a derelict world of disease, rot, and senility.  Instead we march forward and upward and we are replaced as we wear out.

Or at least we seem to stumble forward—whether we are getting anywhere or not is a question for the gods themselves (and to my way of thinking they themselves are just another illusion).

Kali (artist unknown)

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