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A European Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)

A European Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)

Because of their tendency to tear up my tulips, eat my Christmas lights, and bore into the side of my dwelling, squirrels are not my favorite animal. But the indignities which I bear from these bushy-tailed arboreal rodents are nothing compared to the animosity roused by Ratatoskr, the squirrel of Norse mythology who dwells on the trunk of Yggdrasil, the universe tree (which is described in this previous post).

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At the apex of Yggdrasil is perched the mighty eagle Hræsvelgr who causes the winds to blow through the world by flapping his wings. At the base of the tree, curled around the roots is Níðhöggr, the underworld dragon who eats away at the roots of Yggdrasil and thus undermines all of creation. Compared to giant eagles and chthonic dragons, squirrels are low-status monsters, yet Ratatoskr managed to stir up plenty of trouble. He would run up and down the tree between the dragon and the eagle telling each creature gossip about the other. At first, Ratatoskr made up slanders to tell the two monsters, but, in no time, the two haughty beings really were cursing each other (which made Ratatoskr even happier). To quote IO9, “Ratatosk has no grand scheme, and the eagle and the dragon aren’t prophesied to fight or do anything. Ratatosk is spending his free time perpetuating an animosity for no reason whatsoever.” As though this were not bad enough, the irrepressible squirrel is also reputed to gnaw at the great tree itself.

Ratatoskr on Yggdrasil (source unknown)

Ratatoskr on Yggdrasil (Art by Daniel Lieske http://daniellieske.com )

The Vikings regarded gossip as a low and churlish form of skullduggery reserved for thralls, slaves, churls and other such hoi-polloi. It seems appropriate that the embodiment of gossip and slander in their mythology was an annoying chattering squirrel.

The 1988 Jamaican Bobsled Team

In high-low poker the person with the best hand of cards splits the cash pot with the person with the very worst hand.  I mention this because, in addition to spotlighting the world’s best athletes, every Olympics seems to feature an athlete or a team who wins the hearts of the fans because they are in way over their head.  The 1988 Olympics in Calgary, which marked the apogee of this trend, featured several different underdogs who became more famous than the actual winners.  The Jamaican bobsled team came from a nation which doesn’t have ice except in tropical drinks.  Their story is actually an inspiring tale of Olympic fraternity: other bobsledders lent them equipment (including bobsleds!) and helped them out with coaching and advice.  Although they did not officially finish in 1988, they showed great improvement and returned in subsequent winter Olympics (and were canonized in a not-entirely-accurate John Candy comedy).  Here’s a video of them zig-zagging down the track and crashing (it isn’t a practice run either).

Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards at Calgary

The 1988 Olympics also featured my favorite Olympic story—Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards, a far-sighted, big-chinned amateur British ski-jumper.  When I say “far-sighted” I don’t mean he looked deep into the future of the sport, I mean his vision was seriously impaired and he had to wear heavy glasses at all time.  These spectacles would fog up during his jumps which caused all sorts of problems (and you really don’t want any problems on a ski jump).  Eddie ran out of funds, so he trained with ski boots many sizes too large and lived rent-free in a Finnish mental hospital (ostensibly as a low rent boarder rather than as a patient).  On each of his jumps Eddie skirted dangerously close to death or contusion, yet he always provided an immensely entertaining spectacle.  The audience was a bit baffled by the flying-squirrel-like physiques and esoteric gliding skills of the winning ski jumpers, but bonded instantly with a lunatic everyman sliding off an immense ice-ramp for reasons of obdurate pride.

1998 Japanese Women’s Hockey Team

In the 1998 winter Olympics, the Japanese women’s hockey team (which was made up of miniscule, hyper-polite athletes) earned an automatic invitation to the tournament because Japan was hosting the Olympics.  I seem to remember watching a match where they were playing against craggy-faced giants from some icebound northern country and every single Japanese player fell down at the same time. Some of them didn’t (or couldn’t) make it upright for a while.

Eric “The Eel” Moussambani

In 2000 Eric Moussambani Malonga (aka “Eric the Eel”), a swimmer from Equatorial Guinea, stunned the world by taking longer to complete the 100 meter freestyle than competitors from other nations took to swim the 200 meter freestyle. “The Eel” who had been training for only eight months in a tiny hotel pool, had qualified for the Olympics when the two other swimmers in his heat were disqualified.  He swam his heat by himself—and won (even though he appeared to be sinking at the end).

Hamadou Djibo Issaka

Of course I would not mention these famously…tenacious…Olympians of yesteryear if the 2012 games did not already feature an athlete notable for his gallant but ineffectual effort.  An optimistic (albeit small-framed) sculler has already made a name for himself by, well, by not rowing as quickly as his competitors.    Hamadou Djibo Issaka was working as a gardener in the landlocked desert nation of Niger until he received a wild card spot (which nbcolympics.com explains are issued “to ensure all 204 National Olympic Committees can take part even if no athletes have qualified.”)  Although Djibo Issaka only practiced rowing a single scull for 3 months prior to the Olympics he demonstrated his spirit and determination by competing against the finest rowers in the world.  Yesterday, he gamely rowed a 2000 meter course in front of 20,000 cheering spectators.  Although he finished 300 meters behind his closest competitor in the heat, he was pleased not to have fallen out of his boat (which is what happened the first time he got in a scull in a two-week camp last November) and he is enthusiastic about Niger’s future rowing opportunities once they actually get sculls to practice with.

Hamadou Djibo Issaka rowing at the 2012 Olympics

Although he is now known as “the sculling sloth” the 35 year old Djibo Issaka was undaunted by his last place finish.  He will be rowing again on Friday and is looking forward to 2016.  I am glad that the Olympics include all sorts of athletes!  It makes the entire spectacle more exciting and unpredictable.   The gold medal champions embody the Olympics motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” (“faster, higher, stronger”), but the amateurs who refuse to give up embody the Olympics creed.   To quote Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

The principle national symbols for the United States of America are the stars and stripes of old glory and our national animal, the irascible and awesome bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)–but this was not always so. Our search for national icons initially took us in different directions.  To celebrate the upcoming Fourth of July, I would like to write about some of these early national symbols.  Some of our founding fathers thought like me, and we could have had a tree, a poisonous serpent, or a turkey!

Throughout the eighteenth century, New England merchant vessels flew a pine tree standard (which showed a pine tree on a white background).  This long-standing imagery fit together well with the sons of liberty movement whose members adopted the elm tree under which they first convened as an emblem.  The early American navy from the New England area thus flew tree flags with the words “An Appeal to Heaven” or “An Appeal to God.”  There was a drawback, trees, though very stately, do not make for immense dynamism.  the nation needed a livelier national emblem, preferably an animal.

The Gadsden Flag

Hence, an even more popular early American flag was the famous/infamous Gadsden flag which showed a rattlesnake coiled up and ready to strike on a yellow background.   Despite the fact that it is the same yellow as signs used for check cashing establishments and liquor stores with lots of bulletproof glass, I really like the Gadsden flag.  That rattlesnake is not kidding around.  It is unclear whether she is a timber rattler, Crotalus horridus, or an eastern diamondback, Crotalus adamanteus (which seems more likely, since the flag’s champion, Christopher Gadsden was a congressman from South Carolina) but whatever the case she is a beautiful snake and she is posed very evocatively. The rattlesnake had been an American emblem for a long time. An early cartoon shows how the colonies must join together or risk being like a chopped up snake.  Rattlesnakes carried a powerful fascination for people of the time, in fact, Benjamin Franklin was a huge fan of rattlesnakes and he wrote about them with perfervid admiration.  Here’s an excerpt from an essay he wrote about rattlers in 1775:

I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids—She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.—As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shewn and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal:—Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her.—Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?

Franklin did not succeed in making the rattlesnake the national emblem but the rattlesnake still remain a national emblem.  In fact today the rattlesnake-themed first navy jack is the flag flown by active duty United States Warships.  The timber rattlesnake is also the official state reptile of my home state, West Virginia.

The First Navy Jack Flying on the USS Kitty Hawk

After independence was declared, congress argued for six years about the image which would adorn the great seal.  In June 20, 1782, they finally chose the eagle, which became the official national bird five years later.  Franklin famously did not care for the eagle.  Smarting from the rejection of the rattlesnake, he penned a sarcastic response to the bald eagle seal (which other detractors claimed looked like a turkey):

For my own part I wish the Eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead tree near the river, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to his nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

With all this injustice, he is never in good case but like those among men who live by sharping & robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our country…

I am on this account not displeased that the figure is not known as a Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the truth the Turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.

This is a grim assassination of the eagle’s character. I think Ben may have been a little too hard on bald eagles which can be fearsome hunters and are certainly magnificent animals, but I do love the idea of a turkey as the national bird and now wish he had pushed harder.   on this sight we have already showed that they are brave, freedom-loving fowl (and capable of virgin birth to boot).

Despite my love of turkeys, I think the national animal needs to be truly magnificent and intimidating.  Therefore, for my own part, I think we should have chosen the killer whale as a national emblem.  These creatures live in all of the world’s oceans and range from pole to pole.  Since they are really giant dolphins, they possess tremendous acute intelligence. They live a long time and form close family bonds, however their strength and ferocity are unparalleled in the animal kingdom (also we wouldn’t be duplicating the Romans who used eagles as their battle standards).

Orcinus orca

Perhaps the truest manifestation of patriotism is to choose all of the above.  There is no reason the eagle can’t share glory with rattlesnakes, trees, and orcas!  It suits the national character to have all sorts of magnificent creatures under one big crazy tent [editor’s note: no, no, no…do not put these animals together in a big tent]. On that note, I hope you enjoy Independence Day. Drink whiskey play with fireworks and pet an eagle to show you love America! [editor’s note: Do not play with fireworks while drinking whiskey. Do not pet eagles!]  Happy Fourth!

Do not pet this animal.

Ferrebeekeeper is celebrating the Halloween season by exploring the greatest family of monsters in all of mythology—the offspring of Echidna! Today’s monster takes us on a dark but fascinating path: those of you with sensitive natures might wish to avert your eyes…Is everyone still here? Excellent! Today we are talking about the ultimate divine torture–which took the form of the terrible Caucasian eagle.

Allow me to backtrack…

The son of Themis, Prometheus, was the titan with the power of prophecy and the curse of conscience. He is one of the most intriguing characters in mythology since his story involves the Greek conception of humankind’s creation and ultimate destiny (all of which probably deserves a longer post elsewhere). To summarize, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and presented it to mankind, setting the latter on a path towards ever greater technical savvy and ultimate godhood. He was severely punished for the crime. Zeus bound Prometheus to a mountain peak on Mount Kaukasos with unbreakable chains and sent a terrible eagle to daily feast upon the titan’s liver. As Prometheus was immortal, his liver regenerated and he was forced to suffer the hideous torment over and over and over. The eagle, with insatiable appetite and razor claws, was one of Echidna’s offspring. This dreadful scene has frequently been painted by great artists.

Der gefesselte Prometheus (Jacob Jordaens, circa 1640)

Speaking of artists, the liver is a sensitive and frightening subject to some people. Thinking about all the delicate little hepatocytes being exposed to daily wear and tear is enought to make anyone anxious (to say nothing about the massive trauma inflicted by a quasi-divine eagle monster). Carbohydrate metabolism and protein synthesis both require the liver. Fully understanding these processes seems nearly impossible, and just thinking about how many things could go wrong is agonizing. However we must set aside our qualms and push on, for not only is the liver completely and absolutely vital to life (which can be said of other organs), its cellular makeup is unique. Certain hepatocytes are capable of leaving G0 quiescence and re-entering the cell division cycle. Evidence also points to the existence of multipotent progenitor cells in certain parts of the adult liver. This is why the liver is the only internal human organ capable of naturally regenerating itself–as little as twenty-five percent of a liver can regenerate back into a whole organ. The liver is thus a major focus of gene therapy research and stem cell study. Prometheus’ regenerating liver was not unique (though surviving such abdominal trauma certainly would be).

Prometheus Being Rescued by Hercules (Christian Griepenkerl, 1839-1912)

Prometheus was ultimately saved from his terrible fate when Heracles took pity on him. After shooting the eagle from the sky with his great bow, the hero snapped the unbreakable chains and freed the titan. Aeschylus hints that such was the will of Zeus—for Prometheus had divulged a critical secret about Thetis who was fated to…well never mind. That also is a story for another day. Prometheus was free. The Caucasian eagle was dead (though Zeus took care to memorialize it in the heavens as the constellation Aquila). Humankind remains free to keep stumbling forward with fire and a tragic thirst to find how things work. Right now, somewhere in a laboratory filled with axolotls and stem cells, we are fashioning technologies which will provide complete liver regeneration–perhaps even the growth of artificial livers. We must find this out: it is fundamental biotechnical knowledge necessary to truly understand living things. Comprehending and mastering the liver’s ability to regenerate is another step along our road to apotheosis.

The Constellation Aquila

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