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This year’s Halloween theme (both in Ferrebeekeeper and our benighted democracy) is “Evil Clowns”.  Clowns date back to dynastic Egypt and they have always been liminal figures who have straddled lines between wisdom and foolishness, outcast and insider, living person and weird effigy, and even between good and evil.  Evil clowns really got up and running as a meme in the 19th century with stories like “Hop Frog” by Edgar Allan Poe, yet there is a critical precursor which I overlooked.  Back when I was young and innocent, I started a toy company with a mysterious & dodgy business person I met.  For some reason, running an international business proved impossible, but I loved making toys and I also enjoyed looking back through the history of toys which combines cultural, technological, and art history (and which stretches to before Eridu rose from the mud).  Evil clowns turn out to have a very direct link with one of the most successful and powerful toy concepts of the last thousand years.

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In the early 16th century, a German clock-maker known as Claus built the first known example of what we would call a “Jack in the Box” for a local princeling.  Claus built a wooden box which popped open when the user turned the crank.  Except it wasn’t a clown that popped out, it was a devil!  The French name for this toy is “diable en boîte” (devil in a box) which hearkens back to the first generation jack-in-the-boxes which were all devils.   Some toy historians speculate that all of this was related to a 14th century English prelate named Sir John Schorne who was said to possess a boot with a devil inside it (for reasons which are obscure).

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Fairly on, jack-in-the-box toys diversified from being just devils, but a lot of these clowns maintained a sort of Krampus-like demonic aspect to them.  Here are some photos I stole at random from around the web and I think they illustrate how alarming Jack in the boxes are (although people with sensitive and anxious temperaments could already tell you that–this is after all a toy meant to startle you)

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Gah! Just look at these puppies…and they were made for children.  Jack-in-the-boxes are already bad enough, but imagine if one of these things popped out.  The depraved marketers for the movie “It” made a jack-in-the-box featuring Pennywise, the evil clown from that movie (see below) but frankly Pennywise looks like he would be mugged by any of these older anonymous jack-in-the-box clowns.  It is hard to say anything with certainty when we are talking about nebulous and ancient cultural concepts, but I wonder if the idea of clowns as terrifying bogey-men didn’t come as much from generations of jack-in-the-box scarred children as from literary lions like King and Poe.

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Mohammed Visiting Jahannam

The Islamic conception of hell is similar to the Christian conception of hell:  Muslim hell is called Jahannam and it is a place of fire and torture.  Deceased sinners enter through one of seven gates, according to the nature of their sins, and are given clothing made of fire (which sounds like it would be hard to dry-clean).  The souls are mercilessly burned until they become black like charcoal.  Nineteen angels oversee the administration of fire-based torture.

But Jahannam does have a special garden feature lacking from Christian hell. In the middle of the fiery realm is a great malevolent tree named Zaqqum with roots that snake down into the raging fires beneath the world.  Zaqqum has fruits which are shaped like devil’s heads.  The hungry spirits trapped in hell eat these fruits, which are the only foodstuff to be had, but the fruits only intensify the suffering of the damned.  The Quran directly mentions the pain caused by eating Zaqqum’s fruit:

[44.43] Indeed, the tree of zaqqum

[44.44] Is food for the sinful.

[44.45] Like murky oil, it boils within bellies

[44.46] Like the boiling of scalding water.

Other references compare eating the fruit of Zuqqum to swallowing boiling brass, or relate how consuming the fruit is so painful that it causes the eaters’ faces to fall off!

There are no known allusions to Zuqqum before Mohammed.  The concept originated with his revelations. Since the writing of the Quran, a number of thorny, poisonous, or bitter trees from Muslim lands have derived their common name from Zuqqum the great misery tree of Jahannam which feeds directly on the fires of hell.

The Tree of Zaqqum (Homa, 2012, Ink and watercolor on canvas)

The Flower of Chiranthodendron pentadactylon

The Devil’s Hand Tree (Chiranthodendron pentadactylon) is an unusual evergreen tree from the cloud forests of Central America (Guatemala and Mexico).  The tree grows up to 12 meters (40 feet) tall and has distinctive oversized leaves with ruddy metallic veins and fuzzy undersides.

Chiranthodendron is Greek for “hand-flowering tree” and pentadactylon means five fingered (which makes this tree sound like a grabby pterosaur or an early fish).  There is good reason for the name though—as the common name indicates the distinctive flowers of this tropical tree look like demon hands.  The five blood red stamens are shaped like clawed fingers–each of which has a double row of saffron yellow pollen running along it. As the flowers fade they curl into claws.

The pollinators of the tree are nectar sipping bats and perching birds (particularly orioles) which drink sweet nectar from the bowl-like petals beneath the stamen “claw.”  Once the flower is fertilized it forms an extremely hard seed.

The tree was apparently revered by the Aztecs who knew it from a single grand specimen which grew alone in Toluca (in the Valley of Mexico).  The lone tree was famous and venerated.  Healers used parts of it to make medicine, but, despite—or because of—their respect, the Aztecs annually harvested every single flower off the tree to prevent it from germinating and producing others of its kind. However there were rumors about offshoots hidden in royal gardens (and in the private gardens of the tree’s tenders).

Extracts from the Devil’s Hand tree are reputed to have antimicrobial properties and to serve as heart stimulants—but I lack conclusive scientific evidence for these assertions.  If you want to stimulate your heart you had probably find some other means of doing so.

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