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In years past, Ferrebeekeeper has celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day with a series of short essays about Irish folklore. We started with leprechauns and worked our way through the doom of Oisin (who could have had eternal youth and endless love), the Sluagh (evil spirits who ride the clouds), the Leannán Sídhe, the Fear Gorta, and the great Gaelic flounder (which is not even a thing, but which should be). You should read that story about Oisin–it’s really plaintive!

Anyway, this year we are going to take a break from the disquieting beauty of Irish folklore to showcase a category of obscene Medieval sculpture, the “Sheela na gig”, a sort of stylized stone hag who is portrayed holding open her legs and her cavernous womanhood (a word which I am primly using as a euphemism for “vagina”). These grotesque female figures appear throughout Northwest Europe, but are most prevalent in Ireland. Nobody knows who carved them or why. Their name doesn’t even have a coherent meaning in Gaelic. Yet they are clearly connected to fertility and to the great mother goddess of the Earth. As you can imagine, they are the focus of furious speculation by religious and cultural mavens of all sorts. However no definitive answer about the nature of the figures has ever been found…nor is such an answer ever likely to be forthcoming.

Sheela na gigs were mostly carved between the 9th and 12th centuries (AD) and seem to be affiliated with churches, portals, and Romanesque structures. Although they are located throughout central and western Europe, the greatest number of Sheela na gig figurines are located across Ireland (101 locations) and Britain (45 locations). To the prudish Victorian mind they were regarded as symbols for warding off devils (which would be affrighted by such naked womanhood?), however more modern interpretations empower the sculptures with feminist trappings of matriarchy, self-awareness, sexual strength, and shame-free corporeality. Perhaps the stuffy Victorian misogynists were the devils who needed to be scared off! Other scholars think of the Sheela na gig figurines in the vein of the pig with the bagpipes or the “Cista Mystica“–which is to say a once widespread figure which had a well-understood meaning which has become lost in the mists of long centuries (it is easy to imagine future generations looking at Hawaiian punch man, Bazooka Joe, or the Starbucks logo with similar bafflement).


Some scholars have theorized a connection with Normans–and hence with Vikings–but I see little of Freya in the images (which seem more connected to prehistoric “Venus” statues).

It is probably ill-advised to opine about such a controversial figure, but if I were forced to guess, I would suspect that the Sheela na gig is a symbol of the generative power of Mother Nature (or the godess Gaia) which is so overt as to barely be a symbol. All humans were born through bloody expulsion. We do not come into the world through a magic emerald cabbage or a portal of light. Whatever else the Sheela na gig betokens, it is a reminder of this shared heritage (which you would think would be impossible to forget…until you talk to some of the people out there).



What with the holiday crush and the end of the year, I have had less time than I would like for blogging, but I will put up some Christmas posts and year-end thoughts here in the coming days.  For now, here is an illuminated page of William Blake’s 1794 volume “Europe a Prophecy,” a dense symbolic poem about the benighted state of Europe (and humankind) at the end of the 18th century.  I won’t get into the text but suffice it to say the magnificent crowned serpent seems to hold unusual sway over the affairs of men.

In America, the last Friday of April is traditionally Arbor Day, a day for planting and conserving trees. I probably should have written about the cherry tree today…but the blossoms have already largely fallen off so I am going to choose a different blossoming tree to concentrate on—the common hawthorn Crataegus monogyna. The Hawthorn is another of the most beautiful flowering trees of the northern hemisphere. Like cherry trees, hawthorns are members of the rose family. They are small to medium sized trees of great beauty which have thorns and grey-brown bark with orange fissures. Hawthorns bear red pome fruit which is said to taste like overripe apples (the fruit of North American species of Hawthorns was a major food source for North America peoples before familiar Eurasian fruit arrived). The common hawthorn tree was originally native to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia.
flowering bonsai (15).jpg

The Hawthorn is known for beautiful glistening blossoms which appear in May or June and resemble five petaled roses (although the vase-shaped tree is lovely year-round. More prosaically, the trees have been used as hedges because of their dense growth, hard wood, and thorns.

The tree features prominently in the folklore of Europe and western Asia. The Greeks esteemed it enormously—it was the symbol of hope and blossoming boughs were carried in wedding processions. In Northern Europe, the Hawthorn was identified with ancient gods. For a long time, even after Europe was Christianized, hawthorn trees were reckoned to be found near entrances to the otherworld—the realm of elves, fairies, and magical folk. It was allegedly bad luck to kill—or even cut a hawthorn tree, and the misfortunes of Delorean motor company are said to have started when they cut down a grove to build their factory.
flowering bonsai (16)

In Christian mythology, the crown of thorns of Jesus was putatively made from hawthorn wood. Despite this, Christians, apparently stayed fond of Hawthorn and there were medieval legends connecting it with various Saints and miracles. Hawthorn is certainly a miraculously beautiful tree. I would totally plant one for Arbor Day…if I had a sapling…or a place to plant it.

Spring Snowflakes (Leucojum vernum)

Spring Snowflakes (Leucojum vernum)

Although it is the first week of March, it is still deep winter here in Brooklyn…but the days are starting to grow longer and there is a certain fresh new quality to the sunlight.  The birds in the backyard are getting feistier as they stake out territories & mates.  Also, this year, like every year, the squirrels have eaten all of the Christmas lights (which they do as their winter provisions run out).  Nature is taking a deep breath as it prepares for the coming spring (although I would hardly be surprised if there are a few more blizzards in the hopper this year).

My old enemies have at least survived the killing snows and ice

My old enemies have at least survived the killing snows and ice

Every year at this time I begin looking around desperately for the first blossoms and blooms of the coming spring…and every year there is nothing for many more weeks (or months).   The plants are not fooled and know to keep underground until the season is warmer, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking about the first flowers and trees to bloom.  In years past I have blogged about crocuses, redbuds, hellebores, and primroses.  To start out my garden topic for 2014, I will blog about a tiny inconspicuous flower I have not yet tried to grow, the spring snowflake (Leucojum vernum).


Spring snowflakes originally come from central and southern Europe.  Their natural range starts in the Pyrenees and stretches east to Romania and Russia.  Spring snowflakes sprout in March about a week or two after snowdrops (which are unrelated, despite the common name).  They grow 15-20 cm tall (6-8 in) tall and sport a lovely white bell-shaped flowers which have tiny green or yellow spots at the end of each tepal.  Spring snowflakes can naturalize in great drifts–which makes them popular to gardeners and they have been brought from Europe to other similar temperate regions (like the east coast of America).

Drifts of spring snowflakes

Drifts of spring snowflakes

In the wild, however they live in deep fairytale forests of Germany and central Europe where the wistful beauty of the tiny bells has given them a place in art and folklore.  Although the flowers are tiny and fragile, they contain the highly toxic alkaloids lycorine and galantamine—so they are not exactly unprotected among the witches, wild boars, and mad princes of their native range.  I can hardly wait for the crucial juncture when actual spring snowflakes are replaced by the botanical variety!  I hope you will join me in keeping your eyes on the ground as the winter slowly loosens its grip.

Diadem with Deesis (Unknown Goldsmith & artist, Kiev, 12th century AD, Gold with cloisonné enamel)

Diadem with Deesis (Unknown Goldsmith & artist, Kiev, 12th century AD, Gold with cloisonné enamel)

A diadem is a headband made of precious metal (frequently ornamented with jewels or designs) which betokens royal sovereignty.  Diadems trace their origins deep into antiquity—the form probably originating in Mycenae and Persia.  The diadem soon became associated with classical Greece culture and thus the concept survived for a long, long time.  Here is a Byzantine-era diadem discovered in Kiev during an archeological excavation in 1889.  It is composed of gold plaques with enamel paintings.  The central three plaques show the Virgin and St. John the Baptist supplicating Christ on behalf of humankind.  Around them are the archangels Michael and Gabriel as well as the apostles Peter and Paul.  According to the Louvre website concerning Russian sacred art, “The presence of Cyrillic letters would seem to confirm the diadem’s attribution to a workshop in the principality of Kiev, home to both Greek and Russian goldsmiths.”  Byzantine cultural and political influence reached deep into central Europe during the 12th century when this regal headdress was manufactured: it is easy to see the piece as a bridge between the Eastern Roman empire and the burgeoning Greek-Orthodox kingdoms and principalities of Russia, Kiev, and the Ukraine.

Aurochs Fighting Wolves (Heinrich Harder)

About 8,000 years ago, Neolithic people in India, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa first domesticated cattle. Although the domestication of goats and swine occurred earlier, cattle have a more central role in human history—they were sacred to many of the first civilizations in a way which goats and pigs were not.  Cows and cattle are still highly esteemed today.  In India cows are sacrosanct and not to be harmed, but, in herding societies like Texas or Argentina, the creatures are arguably even more important. There are estimated to be 1.3 billion head of cattle grazing the green earth today.  They collectively outweigh all of the humans on the planet.  Of that immense herd, what percentage would you guess are actual wild cattle–forest dwelling primogenitors from which the domestic cattle descended?

Domestic Cattle

That number would be none.  The aurochs, (Bos primigenius primigenius) the ancestral cow, went extinct in Poland in 1627. It was the second recorded extinction of an animal (after the hapless dodo).  The aurochs were not defenseless dodos: the animals were magnificently muscled giants with wickedly sharp lyre-shaped horns.  An adult male aurochs would have stood nearly 2 meters (six feet) tall at the withers and weighed over a ton.  Living in swampy and wet wooded areas which they grazed for grass and the occasional fruit, aurochs shared some of their range with the wisent, the Eurasian bison. Aurochs were domesticated in various different parts of the world around the approximate same time.  Unfortunately for the wild species, they soon found themselves competing for land and resources with domesticated cattle while still being hunted by human hunters.

Aurochs Cave Painting (ca. 15000 BC)

Julius Caesar evocatively described aurochs and their hunters in the 6th chapter of The Gallic Wars writing “These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied. These the Germans take with much pains in pits and kill them. The young men harden themselves with this exercise, and practice themselves in this sort of hunting, and those who have slain the greatest number of them, having produced the horns in public, to serve as evidence, receive great praise.” Aurochs feature in some of humankind’s most stirring early artworks showing up in cave paintings throughout Europe and on the Ishtar gate of Babylon (where they share company with ceramic lions and dragons).  For all the respect that people had for aurochs, the herds began to fail fast, and populations winked out one by one in the wild redoubts of Asia, Africa, and Europe as civilization and agriculture spread.

Aurochs Mosaic on the Ishtar Gate of Babylon (ca. 575 BC)

The last aurochs lived in Poland, which was remarkable for the remote and untouched wildness of some of its forests and for the game loving policies of certain Polish kings, who tried to keep aurochs and wisents alive in order have formidable trophies to hunt.  Unfortunately disease and parasites from domestic cattle had weakened the last herd beyond saving.  Even with the royal threat of a death sentence for anyone killing an aurochs and with gamekeepers to look after the last individuals, the last female slipped away from natural causes in the mid-17th century.  Her remains were reverentially kept by the royal house but they were stolen by Swedes during the havoc of the Swedish deluge.  In one respect it was a sad end to a mighty animal.  In a more real respect, cattle, the direct descendants of aurochs are everywhere and are doing great!  They outweigh any other single species on the planet except perhaps for krill.

RIP Aurochs

The Zebra Mussel (Dreissena polymorpha)

Since 2011 is already shaping up rather grimly as the year of mass animal die-offs, it is time to revile the black-hearted invasive species which caused some of the the worst mass bird die-off in recent history.  I’m talking about the detested zebra mussel  an inch-long filter feeding bivalve mollusk with a pattern of brown zigzags on its shell.  The freshwater zebra mussel isn’t really that closely related to the marine mussels but shares many features with the Venus clams.

I am not too surprised if you feel ripped off that this dangerous invasive animal is a tiny shellfish.  But don’t dismiss the zebra mussel because of its diminutive size.  Zebra mussels are believed to be the source of deadly avian botulism poisoning that has killed immense numbers of birds in the Great Lakes since the late 1990s.  Additionally US powerplants and boat owners spend half a billion dollars a year scraping the creatures off water intakes for power plants and other underwater equipment.  The mollusks are also rather sharp and can injure wader’s feet–which necessitates wearing shoes in affected waterways.

Originally natives of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, Zebra mussels spread via canal to the rest of continental Europe and then stowed away in fresh-water ballast and on anchor chains of ocean going boats to travel across the ocean to Great Britain, Ireland, Canada and the United States. The Great Lakes are being hit especially hard by them.  Whenever they spread to a new location the native freshwater mollusks are gravely impacted.

Zebra mussels on a Lake Erie beach (photo from Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab).

Of course the mussels’ impact is not entirely negative.  To quote the National Atlas of the United States (which, by-the-way is an interesting geography resource):

Zebra mussels do have a positive impact on some native species. Many native fish, birds, and other animals eat young and adult zebra mussels. Migratory ducks have changed their flight patterns in response to zebra mussel colonies. Lake sturgeon feed heavily on zebra mussels, as do yellow perch, freshwater drum, catfish, and sunfish. The increase in aquatic plants due to increased water clarity provides excellent nursery areas for young fish and other animals, leading to increases in smallmouth bass populations in Lake St. Clair and the Huron River. However, these native species do not feed heavily enough on zebra mussels to keep the populations under control.

We might as well enjoy the smallmouth bass and the clear water.  Nothing people have done has halted or even impacted the spread of the zebra mussels so it looks like we’ll have to learn to live with them.

The Eastern Hemisphere in 1100 AD

Wow look at this lovely map!  It was made by the incredibly gifted and generous Thomas Lessman (Source Website

1100 AD was near the end of the era when huge sophisticated civilizations existed side by side without knowledge of one another. The crusades started one year before 1099.  The coming Islamic conquest of India, China’s maritime expansion, the Mongol invasions, and the European age of exploration were about to mix all of these folks together in a big madcap chemistry experiment which we are still living through.  In 1100 AD, however, a knowledgeable English nobleman could somehow wear a Chinese silk robe with no knowledge of where it came from or how it got to him.

The Song Dynasty–in effect the real center of the world–was busy perfecting gunpowder, moveable type, and navigation while its scholars wrote treatises on medicine, botany, zoology, metallurgy and geology.  Bulwarked behind Byzantium, Christendom looked a bit stagnant although the crusades and the Renaissance were about to jolt Medieval society awake.  Look at Venice, the rapacious little worm on the bottom of the Holy Roman Empire.  The Dar al-Islam (countries in green) stretched from Rajasthan to Spain–with two little specks plucked temporarily away from the Fatimids by the brazen adventurers of the First Crusade. At the edges of the map are the unbreached expanses of Sub-Saharan Africa, the mysterious continent of Australia, and the realm of the sea-faring Polynesians (a second wave of people was invading Hawaii after it had been isolated for centuries).

Finally, on the other side of the planet, wholly unknown to every civilization on this map (except possibly for a handful of Icelandic Vikings) were the peoples of the Americas.  On the Yucatan, Maya’s splendor was fading. The Zapotecs were beginning their domination of Oaxaca.  The Mississippi culture was spreading across North America as forgotten peoples speaking lost tongues built huge earthwork cities in Illinois!

Kincaid sight: Illinois in the 12th century as painted by Heironymous Rowe

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

May 2023