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Do you know the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal?  It is in the Bible in the First Book of Kings Chapter 18.  Israel was then ruled by King Ahab who was unduly influenced by his fancy Phoenician wife, Jezebel, (a Baal worshiper!).  Because of the royal couple’s idolatry and persecution of God’s chosen prophets, the land suffered three years of drought and was turning into a desert.  The great prophet Elijah had been in hiding during this time, but, as the drought changed the political climate (in addition to the real climate), he revealed himself for a dramatic supernatural face-off with the 450 prophets of Baal atop Mount Carmel.

The terms of the contest were thus: the prophets of Baal and Elijah would each sacrifice a bull and cut it to pieces and lay it on their respective altar (repairing the neglected altar of Yahweh is a big part of this story…but I will leave the altar-repair instructions out).  Neither camp would light the burnt offerings themselves:  instead they would pray to the respective deities for fire.

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The prophets of Baal went first (which sounds optimal, but think of how this always goes in the Olympics).  They prayed all day–indeed Elijah mocks them at noon suggesting their god must be busy thinking or important doing divine things or just couldn’t hear them.  At the end of the day, at sacrifice time, their bull was unconsumed by divine fire.

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Elijah then sacrificed his bull and laid it out upon the altar.  He then soaked the sacrifice with four barrels of water, which filled up a shallow trench he had dug around the altar. When these preparations were complete, Elijah called upon the God of Israel as described in the Bible

36 And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word.

37 Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again.38 Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.39 And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God.40 And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.41 And Elijah said unto Ahab, Get thee up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of abundance of rain.42 So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; and he cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees…

So why am I telling this story? Is it a parable about wicked leaders and their foreign consorts? Is this a story about divine wrath concerning a king’s corruption and God’s complete control of the weather?  Is this about how even the most revered religious traditions sometimes need to be tested by evidence-based criteria? Am I perhaps somehow suggesting that our own land has been given over metaphorically (or maybe literally) to Baal and his charlatan acolytes?

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No! Of course not! Our very own evangelical leaders have assured us from their private jets and mega-churches that our national leadership is exactly as it should be. This post is just an excuse to show some crazy art concerning prophetic contests!  Look at these wild pictures!  I particularly like the Baal worshipers–it is a shame what happened to them, but, after all, this is only a story. I, for one, certainly don’t believe in Biblical literalism.

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(Speaking of pictures, WordPress has made it impossible for me to properly label images without causing them to go off-center such that they are half obscured, but this last picture is by Lucas Cranach, about whom I have written much).

 

 

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In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, we are all worried about the residents of Houston and the Galveston Gulf Coast. Hurricanes and flooding are a deadly serious matter and my heart goes out to everyone dealing with loss or damage caused by the disaster. As Houston residents and first responders worked together to survive and mitigate the floodwaters with boats, pumps, sandbags, and evacuations, they were treated to the (horrible) spectacle of a very different group of social animals responding to the crisis with a different group strategy.

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Red fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) are a tough species of stinging fire ants from South America. Like humankind they are invasive generalists which can survive anything and have quickly spread worldwide because of their hardy resilience and various ingenious group strategies. I have been meaning to blog about them because they are a sort of alien red mirror of humanity (and I have been trying to get back to writing about superorganisms and the question of what constitutes an organism anyway). Because of the hurricane, the fire ants have injected themselves into the news cycle, so I am going to mention their flood strategy now and we can return to write about their other interesting behaviors.
Fire ant bodies are waxy and light. They float! But they would all be drowned or swept apart in a serious flooding event (and a single ant separated from the group is effectively dead). Thus when the fire ants sense rising waters they group together in a ball and tightly cling to each other. These living rafts of clamped together ants can float for many days.
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If you are in a flooded area and a ball of furious stinging ants floats by you, entomologists and fire ant experts recommend that you not molest it. Like Voltron, the ants can break apart into autonomous fighting units before reforming. Ants do not breathe like people and they drown sort of gradually. We will leave the ants alone and concentrate on human group strategies for getting through crises.

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Cockerel Cycle and French Cruller (Wayne Ferrebee, 2014, oil on panel)

It’s National Doughnut Day!  To celebrate, here are two paintings from my Microcosmic Doughnut Series.  Topologists and astrophysicists posit that our universe has a toroid shape—so I have combined my disparate background in history, toymaking, natural history, and Flemish-style painting to craft doughnut-shaped microcosms. Within these intricate cosmological confections, people and animals from throughout time converge in a never-ending circle—in the manner of the water cycle, the Krebs diagram, or an ouroboros.  Thus the individual elements in these paintings not only have metaphorical significance, they are also part of a dynamic larger picture.  Each landscape of dynamically intertwined symbols represents the cycles within individual life, history, or biology.   Each little doughnut painting is its own self-contained world; yet, taken in aggregate, the individual stories of predators and prey, metabolism, historicism, world trade, or biorhythms of organisms signify even larger cycles of creation and destruction not readily discernible from the fixed perspective of an individual life.  For example, the one above is about a classical French bon-vivant…or maybe it is about frogs or about cocks or chicken eggs.  There is also a fertility aspect to it (not to mention a French cruller in the middle).

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Furnace Doughnut (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, oil on panel)

This second painting is less easily explained.  A variety of brightly colored synthetic organisms fly up out of a baker’s furnace.  Above the mysterious swarm, a humanoid figure in an asbestos suit and a blue-hot dragon spray fire on a salamander which basks in the radiant pure energy.  Blue-black gothic stoves dance around beneath the centerpiece of the composition: a glowing lava doughnut congealing out of the primal kitchen…or is it just a delicious glazed doughnut with chocolate icing and an orange squiggle?  The whole scene makes me hungry for cheap baked pastries…and for raw creation.  Now I’m off to paint some more.  Let me know what you think (and enjoy Doughnut Day with your loved ones).

 

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Happy Chinese New Year! It is year 4713! The Year of the Fire Monkey. Monkeys are intelligent and clever but mercurial and swift. Our in-house oracle thus prognosticates that this year will be intense and intellectual…yet scattered and jumpy (and, it goes without saying, that it will rush by swiftly). 2016…er….4713 is therefore a good year for fresh starts and running leaps. However scrying is not really this blog’s metier: let’s talk about monkeys!

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One of Ferrebeekeeper’s favorite and best topics is mammals, however I have (largely) avoided writing about primates. This is not because I dislike primates (although some species of monkeys and apes dwell in the uncanny valley where they are simultaneously so human and yet inhuman that the effect is deeply disconcerting), but because primates are very difficult to write about. Not only are they generalists who make their living through a wide range of complex behaviors, they also have elaborate social lives which require attention, sympathy and discernment to understand and present. Even primate taxonomy is complicated. There is a great divide between prosimians and anthropoids (which is now being reconceived as a divide between wet-nosed primates (non-tarsier prosimians) and the dry-nosed primates). There is a great geographic divide between New World and Old World Primates. There are 72 genera and hundreds of species–and that is only the ones that are extant—I am leaving out the extinct fossils.

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Primates have a similarly complex place in society, art, and mythology. Just look at Sun Wukong AKA Monkey King, the trickster god of classical Chinese mythology who is simultaneously Buddhist and animist, wicked and saintly, immense and infinitesimally miniscule. The Indian monkey god Hanuman is similarly protean and complex. And these are only the two monkey gods…the nimble arboreal creatures are found everywhere in religion, literature, and art.

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Finally, and above all, we..the readers and the writer…are primates. When the silverback from marketing comes by and harasses the trapped office women before displaying his dominance by making me move his stupid credenza around, I tell myself it is just the world economy. That may be true, but it is really all stupid monkeyshines. History is an intricate tapestry of primates desperately contending for privileged status. Here in America we are seeing lots of primate behavior—after all, it is an election year, and primates are ferociously hierarchical and tribal. Primates are also stupendously aggressive. Sometimes this trait combines with that big brain to make for horrendous violence. We are going to start unpacking some of this throughout the remainder of this week, which I dub “Primate Week” in honor of the fire monkey.

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The largest body of fresh water in China is Lake Poyang in Jianxi Province.  The size of the lake fluctuates tremendously between the wet season when the lake’s surface area is 4400 square kilometers and the dry season when it shrinks down to 1000 square kilometers.  So every year Lake Poyang shrinks from being the size of Utah’s Great Salk Lake into being the size of Lake Champlain.  Lake Poyang is the southern wintering ground of a huge number of migratory birds.  It is also the site of what was reputedly the world’s largest naval battle.   The north side of the lake is treacherous to navigate and it is said that more than 100 ships have vanished there in the past hundred years.   There is a temple on the northern shore of the lake named Laoye Miao (temple of the Old Fellow) and locals call the waters near the temple the “death area” and the “demon horns” because so many ships are lost in that area.

Laoye Miao Temple

Lake Poyang did not always exist.  In 400 AD it was an inhabited plain along the Gan River, however when the Yangtze River switched courses the entire plain flooded.  Located halfway along the Yangtze, the lake has great strategic importance.

In the middle of the fourteenth century, the Yuan dynasty had lost control of China.  Various groups of rebels fought each other to seize the throne of heaven.  By summer of 1363 AD there were two main contenders for control of China, Zhu Yuanzhang, the charismatic but ugly leader of the red turbans, and Chen Youliang, the king of Duhan which controlled the most powerful fleet on the Yantze.  The former had a smaller force of maneuverable ships while the latter had greater numbers of men (Chen’s navy was believed to have had more than 600,000 men) and a large number of huge tower boats—literal floating fortresses.    The total number of combatants on the lake is reckoned to have numbered  over 850,000 men.

Artist’s Conception of the Battle of Lake Poyang

Unfortunately for Chen Youliang, the battle started as the lake began to dry out.  To prevent the dauntless troops of Zhu Yuanzhang from scaling the tower boats with hooks and ladders, Chen ordered his boats to hold close formation, but this turned out to be ruinous since Zhu launched fire boats into the consolidated line.   Hundreds of thousands of sailors died in the horrible fiery battle, and Zhu Yuangzhang went on to found the Ming dynasty, one of China’s greatest dynasties.

Over the centuries, the lake itself kept claiming ships at an astonishing rate.  Some of the stories are quite colorful. In 1945 a Japanese ship loaded with plundered treasure sank almost instantly, drowning all 200 sailors and a large treasure.  A team of Japanese divers attempted to salvage the wreck but all the divers drowned except for the expedition leader who went permanently insane. After the war, several members of an American team also drowned.   On just one day, August 3rd, 1985, thirteen ships foundered or sank.

Some people have tried to ascertain what makes the lake so treacherous.  Some experts believe that a huge sunken sandbank tends to cause whirlpools and unexpected currents.  Local legend is more inventive.  According to myth, an immense capricious turtle lives beneath the lake.  Although the turtle often sinks ships, he can also be benevolent.  The story of how the Laoye Miao temple came to be built is that the turtle intervened in the great naval battle of 1368 by directly rescuing Zhu Yuangzhang.  When Zhu took the title of Hongwu emperor he returned and built the temple to the ancient turtle.

Lake Poyang is drying out.

Although boats are still vanishing today, it is a less bigger problem than the vanishing of the lake itself.  The migratory birds are relentlessly poached and the river fish are going extinct from overfishing and industrial waste.  A more direct threat comes from the great three gorges dam upstream on the Yangtze.  Because of the immense dam the lake appears to be drying out, and in January of 2012 it only had a surface area of 200 square kilometers.   If the situation continues, the enigmatic and treacherous lake may go back to being a dry plain like it was in 400 AD.

Lake Poyang

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)

Brackenbury Stove

Winter is a season when it is best to be reading a book beside a hot stove.  Not only are stoves appealing because they are hot–most wood stoves and fire places are also designed to look good. Wood-burning stoves made of cast-iron are among the last devices regularly manufactured in classic gothic-revival shapes (perhaps because the industry is small and specialized enough to charge premium prices for elegance).  Many of these stoves appear as though they loaded fuel into themselves and then walked out of the nineteenth century on little cast-iron legs.

To get through the winter (while simultaneously adding to Ferrebeekeeper’s “Gothic” category), here is a gallery of attractive gothic stoves.  Some of these are classic stoves from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but a surprising number are on sale now.

Four o'clock stove (ca. 1840-1860)

Gothic Fire Basket

Carron Gothic Revival Cast Fireplace

Handmade green gothic chimenea

Little Cottage Stove by Country Kiln

Dimplex Compact Electric Stove

Dimplex Rectory Fire Stove

Gothic Revival Mantle from Strawberry Hill Manor

GM Iron Antique Stove

Jotul F100 multifuel stove

Lady Gay Parlor Stove (ca. 1870s)

Panadero Gothic 400 Stove

Red Wolsey Stove

Warmland Gothic Multifuel

There is something surprisingly comforting about these stoves.  Just looking at them makes one think of warmth, shelter, and relaxation. But, with their stern arches, angular faces, and red flames, they also seem hungry, sinister, and hot.  This odd juxtaposition must go back a long way for humans who have bedded down beside wood fires for thousands of generations as we crept further into lands too cold for our tropical blood.

These pictures are good for showing the sculptural/architectural beauty of these various stoves, but they are not quite as good at evoking the proper feeling of warmth and security.  To get that sense you should imagine a dark shadowy study with the warm orange glow of embers cast across the room.  Outside the wind howls over frozen forests and fields of ice but you don’t have to go out there.

Jøtul F 500 Oslo non-catalytic clean burn woodstove

Of course you might be reading this from some southern clime, in which case you don’t need to worry about winter’s chill at all. Have a big tropical drink and go to the beach.  You can sit in the sun and reflect on how much I envy you.

Shamash was the Mesopotamian deity of the sun.  To the Akkadians, Assyrians, and the Babylonians he was synonymous with justice, generosity, and salvation.  However there was a second solar deity in the Mesopotamian pantheon, Nergal, who was not associated with such positive aspects of existence.  Nergal was the child of Enlil, god of the wind, who was exiled from earth for raping Ninlin, the goddess of the open fields. Ninlin followed Enlil into exile and gave birth to their son Nergal in the underworld (Sumerian myth-makers should be ashamed of the sexism of this story).  Nergal’s dark origins foreshadowed his nature. Unlike Shamash, who represented the life giving power of the sun and divine justice, Nergal was only associated with certain phases of the sun. To quote Wikipedia “Portrayed in hymns and myths as a god of war and pestilence, Nergal seems to represent the sun of noontime and of the summer solstice that brings destruction, high summer being the dead season in the Mesopotamian annual cycle.”

Akkadian Seal of Nergal with a sickle-sword and a mace with two feline heads (c. 2360–2180 BCE, carved from soapstone)

As a god of plague, drought, fire, and insufferable heat, Nergal quickly came to be associated with death and the underworld. He was portrayed either as a powerful man bearing a sickle-sword and a mace, or as a lion with a man’s head.

Although he was a terrible god of destruction, the main myth we have about Nergal is romantic in nature. Mesopotamian scholars have discovered and translated a poetic epic recounting Nergal’s tempestuous courtship of the dark goddess Ereshkigal (the queen of the underworld, who once gave Ishtar such a wretched time).   After a passionate tryst, Nergal left Ereshkigal, who thereafter was overwhelmed by passionate longing for further intimacy.  Hearing of her unhappiness and realizing how much he in turn missed her, Nergal abandoned his place in the heavens and traveled down through the seven gates of hell to rejoin Ereshkigal.  The two death gods then shared a bed for seven days and seven nights before marrying and jointly sharing rule of the underworld (it’s a happy story!).

A modern painting of Nergal

Despite the felicity of his connubial circumstances, to the people of Mesopotamia, Nergal represented the unpredictability of mortal life and early unnatural death.  He was worshiped, particularly at his chief temple located at Cuthah (a smaller city just northeast of Babylon) but his cult was far from the most popular. Unlike many other Babylonian deities, Nergal was mentioned in the Bible (2 Kings 17:30) and his name has therefore found a place among the demons and boogeymen of Christianity. If you search for “Nergal” on the internet you are likely to find the picture of a heavy metal singer from Poland dressed up in gothic makeup!

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