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Double-headed Serpent Carving (Aztec, ca. 1500 AD, wood, turquoise, spondylus, and conch)

Double-headed Serpent Carving (Aztec, ca. 1500 AD, wood, turquoise, spondylus, and conch)

In Aztec mythology, snakes are symbolic of rebirth and renewal. Since serpents regularly shed their skins and emerge shining and fresh as though made anew, they seemed to Aztec mystics to transcend the dull cycle of aging. Likewise snakes’ ability to hide in the earth, swim in water, and climb high into the rainforest canopy made them a symbol of transcending physical boundaries: snakes were seen as liaisons of the gods capable of traveling through heaven, earth, and the underworld.  In fact many of the most important Aztec gods were snakes like Xiuhcoatl (the fire serpent), Mixcoatl (the cloud serpent), and Quetzalcoatl himself (the feathered serpent who acts as chief of the gods).

Here then, as a final post of 2013 and a first post of 2014, is an exquisite Aztec artifact:  a double-headed wooden serpent inset with a mosaic of turquoise, spondylus (thorny oyster), and conch shell.  Once upon a time the ornament had eyes (possibly of gold or pyrite which were affixed to the wooden serpent with gluey beeswax) but they disappeared at some point in the five hundred years since the object was made—and their absence might make for a stronger piece. The serpent was probably worn as a pectoral (the opposite side is unadorned and hollow).  It is made from wood from the Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata) a tree with natural termite resistance long-used to make boxes, musical instruments, furniture, and fine carvings (obviously).

(Detail)

(Detail)

Really look at the carving for a moment, it was a sacred treasure of a mighty vanished civilization. It represents the nature of time: mighty and ferocious with unknowable divine attributes, but also regular and cyclical (and beautiful).  The double-headed serpent has no beginning or end. Like an ouroboros, or a figure-eight, it is a symbol of infinity—of time closing in on itself in an unending circle.

The Aztecs of course ended: their realm blew apart in fire, bloodshed, and smallpox.  Their greatest treasures were melted down for inbred Spaniards to wear as chains…or hung up on a wall at the British museum.   But of course the Aztecs are not really gone.  Their descendants are everywhere and their customs live on.  Likewise the living spondylus shell in the ocean is the descendant of countless millions of generations of evolving mollusks—changing color, shape, and temperament over the long eons.

I chose to highlight this this simple object because it unites so many of the topics on this site: snakes, color, art, trees, history, mollusks, bees (because of the wax), the underworld, and the heavens.  The double-headed snake represents the way in which many different ideas are enmeshed with each other and flow together, even as time relentlessly pushes us all onward.  Isn’t that what life is?

Best wishes for a very happy new year and, as always thank you for reading!

(Detail)

(Detail)

Years ago, when I first moved to New York and was a bright optimistic young person, I would travel around the city via subway.  Every day I entered and left the same entrance to the same underground train stop.  One day somebody dropped a bag of cheap glitter stars right by the exit.  These stars were different colors and different shapes.  They started as a glittering clump at the top of the stairs but thanks to foot traffic and weather, they quickly got everywhere.   Blocks away one would come upon glistening stars dotted along the sidewalk.

Then the stars began to fade and deteriorate.  Their shininess wore off in the rain. Their arms broke as people walked on them, but every once in a while you would see one that had caught in a protected location and survived.  Eventually there were no glitter stars left at all, but I suppose that the stuff they are made out of—bits of plastic and metal foil—is still out there in a landfill, or running down through drains into the ocean, or just blowing in the wind.

I mention all of this because it is a poignant metaphor for the currently projected fate of the expanding universe.  The ultimate destiny of the universe was once a problem relegated to theologians and mystics (and crazy people).  However, when cosmologists fathomed how the universe began–with the big bang 13 plus billion years ago–the question of how the universe would end became a legitimate scientific topic.   Edwin Hubble’s discovery that the universe was expanding provided an ominous hint as to the ending.

The way the universe will end is contingent on whether the momentum of the universe’s expansion is greater than the force of gravity (which in turn depends on the amount of matter in the universe and the density of that matter).  The current scientific consensus–based on carefully considered estimates of the universe’s mass density and on the most recently observed rate of cosmic expansion—is that the universe will continue to expand indefinitely.

Physicists, astronomers, and cosmologists therefore now project a rather glum fate for everything that exists. The death of the universe is divided into 4 stages summarized below:

Stelliferous: (Now to 100 trillion years into the future) This is an era teaming with stars: great masses of matter coalesce together into stellar masses and begin fusing together and releasing all sorts of energy as they do so.  Bit by bit though the brightest stars will wink out and only long-lived red dwarfs will remain.

Degenerate (100 trillion to 1037 years in the future) After even the red dwarfs fade into darkness, most of the universe’s mass will remain in the dying husks of stars, or in the remains of more exotic stellar death (black holes left by the destruction of super massive stars,  neutron stars, and white dwarfs). Electromagnetic energy in the Degenerate era will be generated by particle annihilation and proton decay rather than stellar fusion.

Black Hole Era (1038 to 10100 years into the future) After protons all decay away from the universe, the only large objects creating energy will be black holes which will themselves slowly evaporate into exotic matter over a vast expanse of empty time.

Dark Era (10100 years into the future to eternity) Protons and black holes will be gone and only the effluvia radiation from their passing will still exists in the universe.  All that remains will be photons of immense wavelength, neutrinos, positrons, and electrons–sad burned-out remnants which lack any order or meaning.  The universe will be incredibly vast, a horrible dark cold broken thing and it will remain that way forever.

So there you have it.  The fate of the universe is to slowly freeze and decay over trillions and trillions of years and then dissipate away into dark nothingness over eternity.

Of course 10100 years is a very long time indeed.  There is still plenty of time for beach parties and flower gardening, but this is not the end I would have wanted for anything I esteem as much as the universe. There isn’t much I can do about it though, except to hope that some unknown aspect of the cosmos provides a more spectacular and fiery end or that Vishnu intervenes.  Or maybe there is a multiverse in which our cosmos floats like an abstract bubble:  in the past, every time we thought we understood the universe it turned out that we were only looking at a small part of a greater whole.  It wouldn’t surprise me if something still eludes us.

"Vishnu, you out there buddy? Some help?"

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