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heart_w_snake_tattoo_0033_postcard-p239533042637724632en7lo_216Because of the incongruity between lunar and solar calendars (and thanks to the whims of the 12 year Chinese horoscope cycle) Valentine’s Day has ended up in the middle of Ferrebeekeeper’s Snake Week.  At first I thought that this was a problem–since there were no snake theme valentines anywhere to be found online.  I did not want to break out the magic markers and glitter to create my own valentine to serpents because it has been a busy week (and what would I do with a bunch of snake valentines? What if someone saw a grown-up making such things?).  Fortunately I found that there is a medium where snakes and hearts frequently intermingle.  Even better many of the designs are extremely gothic and spiky and scary.

From tattoosbycarson.com

From tattoosbycarson.com

Like evil leprechaun tattoos, snake/heart body art is very common.  In fact I had some trouble finding catfish tattoos and the internet even ran short of evil leprechaun ink but I had no trouble finding snake/heart tattoos!  Apparently an immense number of people have snake tattoos of all sorts.  I wonder why serpents are so universally appealing as permanent body art?  Do people choose snakes for tattoos because the legless reptiles are ancient symbols of knowledge, wisdom, and fertility, or is wearing a snake an announcement of edginess, moral ambiguity, and toughness?  The snake inside the heart seems like it has a double meaning: not only is it an obvious metaphor for corrupted or dangerous love but it provides an outright fertility image (especially since the traditional cardioid-shaped valentine heart look less like an actual heart and more like a shapely asp).

Wait, is that even a snake?

Wait, is that even a snake?

sacred-heart-snake-tattoo  medusa-heart-tattoo-m

itattooz-heart-snake-tattoo-on-back

Tattoo by Chris Hatch

Tattoo by Chris Hatch

From "The Dungeon Inc."

From “The Dungeon Inc.”


images

 

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heart-apple-and-snake-tattoo-on-back  hears_tattoo_design_prev_4 d482

OK, this one seems to be religious and not fertility-themed at all.

OK, this one seems to be religious and not fertility-themed at all.

Alright, I sneaked in a couple of snake & flower tattoos because I thought they were pretty

Alright, I sneaked in a couple of snake & flower tattoos because I thought they were pretty

 

Snake and peonies?

Snake and peonies?

d482

ScottsSJSnakeHeartDaggerthumbWhatever the meaning these snake/heart tattoos are extremely impressive.  Thanks to the brave souls who wear them.  Also a very happy valentine’s day to all my readers:  I could hiss you all…er kiss you all!

…they say that Bacchus discovered honey.
He was travelling from sandy Hebrus, accompanied
By Satyrs, (my tale contains a not-unpleasant jest)
And he’d come to Mount Rhodope, and flowering Pangaeus:
With the cymbals clashing in his companions’ hands.
Behold unknown winged things gather to the jangling,
Bees, that follow after the echoing bronze.
Liber gathered the swarm and shut it in a hollow tree,
And was rewarded with the prize of discovering honey.
Once the Satyrs, and old bald-headed Silenus, had tasted it,
They searched for the yellow combs in every tree.
(Excerpt from “The Fasti” by Publius Ovidius Naso, known as Ovid)

As you have probably apprehended, there is a theme to my posts this week about the ambiguous line between the wild and the domestic–a tension which forever pulses within all human thought and endeavor.  Humans are animals. We came from nature and can never ever leave it.  We continuously long for the natural world in our aesthetic and moral tastes—our very idea of paradise is a garden of plants and animals.  Yet the social and technological forms humans create often seem entirely at odds with the natural world.  Our fishing fleets destroy the life within the oceans as they provide us with the wild fish we long for.  Our cities poison and strangle the beautiful estuaries where we build them. As our hands reach toward the divine and the celestial, our feet break apart the earth we sprang from.

The Discovery of Honey bu Bacchus (Piero de Cosimo, ca. 1499, oil on panel)

I’ll write further about that point (indeed I don’t believe I have ever left off examining it), but for right now I would like to discuss The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus, a painting which symbolically explores the juxtaposition between wild and domestic. The work was created by that consummate oddball visionary, Piero de Cosimo, who disliked wielding fire and refused to clip the trees in his orchard because he felt that doing so contravened the will of nature.  Vasari relates that de Cosimo would sometimes abandon himself to the wilderness and was more beast than man (also the artist seems to have suffered from emotional illness). Yet, within this painting de Cosimo presents that moment when bees were first gathered from the wild and kept for the purpose of honey production.  It was a step away from an imagined era of wildness towards an agricultural era when sweetness and plenty became available to all.

In The Discovery of Honey, a group of satyrs have found a hive of bees swarming within a strangely human stump. Together with Silenus, a bumptious fertility god, they are beating eccentric implements to gather the swarm so it can be collected. On the right side of the painting Bacchus and his coterie stand amidst forests and ravines beneath a glowering monadnock. A satyr carries a woman away into the wild while savage beast-men tear apart a carcass and climb off into the trees. On the left side of the painting, people and fauns bearing iron and pottery march towards the stump from a surprisingly sophisticated town with an elegant campanile.  In the center the bees swarm into a knot as a human-hybrid child pops out of the yonic rift within the torso shaped stump.

The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus (Detail)

What is going on here?  This painting has remained an enigma to scholars since its creation.  Many critics have opined that the right side of the work represents wilderness and the works of the gods while the right side represents society and the works of humans.  Wilderness and civilization meet at the point where the bees are captured and honey is discovered. This interpretation is undercut by the half-human status of the characters on both sides.  Another interpretation holds that the painting represents the symbolic discovery of fertility—metaphorically represented by honey.  The painting’s composition certainly supports this concept: the nursing faun, the baby satyr in the center of the painting, and the satyr spontaneously offering onions (a fertility offering of Greco-Roman society) are all fertility symbols, as our numerous other more overt figures within the painting!

The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus (detail)

Both of those interpretations are right, but there is more to the painting than that.  The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus represents de Cosimo’s homage to the animal spirit within humankind.  Artists paint themselves–and most of the characters in this work are part animal!  Such is our dichotomy. We are animals exploiting other animals and yet we have too a touch of the divine–Bacchus and the wild Arcadian gods are taking part. The urge to capture and recreate wild organisms is part of human nature.  We may have domesticated bees (along with grains, cattle, turkeys, pistachios, and catfish) but we ourselves are not fully domesticated.  The church, the nobles, the city—they never fully civilized Piero de Cosimo, crazy Renaissance artist, who was at his best—his most divine–when living as a beast.  As you watch the diners walking through a strip mall eating honey-glazed turkey sandwiches it may be hard to recognize the same faun-like aspect to them, but look closely in a mirror and you will see another wild beast-person–undomesticated, troubled, rudely great…

Infancy of Jupiter (Giorgio Vasari, 1555-1556)

According to archaeologists, the first agricultural animals were goats, which humankind domesticated 11,000 years ago.  Curiously, the Greek myth concerning the childhood of Zeus, king of the Greek pantheon, reflects this ancient connection. Having tricked Cronus (the rapacious father of Zeus) into swallowing a stone instead of her infant son, Rhea, Zeus’ mother, was naturally unable to raise her child.  She sent the baby into hiding on Crete where he was raised by nymphs and suckled on the milk of the divine goat, Amalthea.

The Infant Jupiter Fed by the Goat Amalthea (Jacob Jordaens, 1630-35)

The Greeks themselves seem puzzled by Amalthea.  While most ancient authors wrote about her as a supernatural goat tended by nymphs, a few seem to think she was herself a nymph/goddess.  Classical mythology contains a few other ambiguous divinities who were simultaneously animals and their magical tenders (the Crommyonian Sow for example is another such figure) and it is not unreasonable to think they might be borrowed deities which came from more ancient religions now lost to us.  Being a goat-based maternal goddess figure from Crete, Amalthea certainly makes sense in this context. Minoan culture predated classical Greek civilization by thousands of years: its religion revolved around fertility goddesses, horned altars, and livestock.

Whatever the case, Zeus was tenderly raised by the magical goat on her supernatural milk and he swiftly grew to mighty adulthood.  Then, when he was ready to begin his war on the titans, he killed Amalthea, skinned her, and fashioned her hide into his impregnable aegis–a symbol of his omnipotent authority second only to the lightning bolt.  He broke off Amalthea’s magic horn and made it into the cornucopia (which forever provides an endless bounty of food) and gave it to the nymphs.  He then hung his foster mother among the stars as the constellation Capra and set off to make war on the titans.

The story sits jarringly with modern conscience but I suspect it resonated with herdspeople, who must sometimes take an unsentimental view of their livestock.  With our endless supply of meat and milk from factory agriculture and all of our leather luxury goods we might be a bit presumptuous to judge Zeus (whose carnal appetite, jealous persona, and rages have always struck me as an oversized portrait of human temperament anyway).

Zeus Wielding his Goatskin Aegis and a Lightning Bolt

Indeed, I am telling this story just before Earthday, that most uncomfortable of holidays, for a reason. It strikes me that humankind is well represented by Zeus in the brutal tale above.  We sprang quickly to whatever uneasy mastery we enjoy thanks to keen and methodical exploitation of the natural world (not least the domesticated animals and plants we rely on).  We ourselves are animals (chordates, mammals, primates, hominids, humans) an undeniable part of nature, but we seem bent on consuming or altering every living system in our mad quest for godhood. The real question we should ask for Earthday is whether this is a worthwhile quest? If so can we pursue it more responsibly? Could we even stop if we chose to? The answers are not necessarily happy or easy ones.

A Goatskin

Lupercalia painted by Domenico Beccafumi

It’s St. Valentine’s Day and many newspapers are filled with complaints about how the occasion is a made-up “Hallmark” holiday.  Valentine’s Day is indeed made up (rather like all holidays) but it wasn’t made up recently and its pedigree stretches back before Hallmark Cards…or English…or Christianity.

The holiday we now celebrate as St. Valentine’s Day is rooted in the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia–one of the most important festivals of the Roman year after Saturnalia.  Lupercalia was a fertility festival which celebrated the coming rebirth of the year in spring.  The day was partly in celebration of Lupa, the mythical quasi-divine she-wolf who nurtured Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome.   But it was more actually in celebration of Faunus, the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Pan.  The festival was overseen by the Luperci, priests of the sacred cave where Romulus and Remus were said to have been nursed.  The Luperci sacrificed two goats and a dog (the flamen dialis) to the gods of the grotto.  After a feast, the priests flayed the animals into long bloody strips. Then, clad in goatskins (or, more traditionally, in nothing), the young men among the luperci would dash about the city lashing young women with the bloody strips of skin.  This custom was believed to bring fertility and to prevent pain and difficulty during pregnancy and birth.

The most dramatic part of the holiday is described online at stvalentinesday.org:

Another unique custom of Feast of Lupercalia was the pairing of young boys and girls who otherwise lived a strictly separated lives. During the evening, all the young marriageable girls used to place a chit of their name in a big urn. Each young man used to draw out a name of a girl from the urn and became paired with that girl for the rest of the year. Quite often, the paired couple would fall in love and marry.

So Valentine’s Day has a very ancient tradition of matchmaking and romance–but with an entirely Roman nature which would make eharmony blush.

This is the hundredth post on Ferrebeekeeper! Hooray!  Thank you so much for reading!  In celebration, today’s topic features a twist: instead of dwelling on the underworld deities who personify evil, death, mystery, and the world beyond (although, admittedly, they have the best stories), I’m going to highlight a deity devoted to joy, happiness, love, and success.  Don’t worry though, “deities of the underworld” and all things gothic will be heavily featured here in the run-up to Halloween.

To the uninitiated (i.e. our writers and editorial staff) it has been difficult to make sense of the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the various Afro-Brazilian religions. The Orisha-based faiths of the Yoruba blend together with South American religions like Candomblé, Santería, Lukumi, and Umbanda to such an extent that only a devout practitioner could separate them all apart correctly.  One figure however seems to be universally worshiped–although she goes by many names. Naturally that figure is the goddess of love and sex. She is known variously as Oshun, Laketi, Oxum, and Ọṣhun.  In addition to fertility, romance and marriage, Oshun is the goddess of wealth, harmony, ecstasy, and fresh water (particularly rivers–which have a special place in Brazilian and Yoruban culture). Oshun’s favorite day is Saturday (my favorite as well!) and her sacred color is yellow. Oshun is portrayed as a beautiful black woman wearing gorgeous golden raiment and jewelry…or nothing at all. 

Oshun, as beautifully painted by Carla Nickerson

In Yoruba myth Oshun was one of the 16 spirits sent by the enigmatic genderless supreme-being, Olodumare, to create the earth.  Of the 16, only she was female (Yoruba culture seems to have had some gender issues).  Predictably, the 15 male demiurges proclaimed superior status and placed undue demands upon Oshun, who thereupon withdrew her support from the whole “building the world” project.  Creation became impossible.  Everything the male orishas tried to make fell away into dust. They had to petition Olodumare and then fervently apologize to Oshun herself before she agreed to bequeath life to plants and animals.  A different version of this myth (occurring after the world was populated by men and women) reads like the Lysistrata or the tale of Eros and Psyche: Oshun withdrew desire from the world–and hence the impetus for all rebirth and renewal–until her chauvinistic fellow-deities apologized.

According to various myths and differing faiths, Oshun has many husbands and lovers.  Most often however her spouse is Shango, the sky god of thunder and drumming, or Ogun, the god of smithing and warfare.  While this seems like a recipe for epic disaster, the Afro-Brazilian religions are not canonical and frequently overlap and contradict each other, so there is not necessarily an insoluble marital problem (also the ways of love goddesses exceed human understanding!).

Although possessed of a temper and vanity, Oshun is renowned for her great kindness.  Her alternate name “Laketi” means “she who has ears” for, unlike the other figures of the Afro-Brazilian pantheon, she is portrayed as a compassionate deity who regularly answers prayers.  Oshun’s endowments (other than her beauty and obvious womanhood) are peacock feathers, gold ornaments, a mirror, a fan, the color yellow, honey, and water.  She is said to be partial to chamomille tea and white chickens. When her followers are taken by trance they dance, flirt, and laugh but then grow solemn–for Oshun knows that the world is not as beautiful as it could be.

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