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Photo by Guido Mocafico

Photo by Guido Mocafico

Today is world snake day: maybe you should run out and do something nice for our scaly limbless friends (though don’t hug them—they don’t like that)! Sadly though, many people do not appreciate snakes. Not only are serpents taboo in the Abrahamic faiths (since, according to the creation myth, a snake convinced the original people to disobey the creator deity for the first time), humankind also seems to have an instinctual inbred panic reaction to them. Perhaps this is an evolutionary leftover from when our just-out-of-the-trees ancestors shared East Africa with a bevy of aggressive venomous snakes like the formidable black mamba (or whatever the mamba’s just-out-of-the-trees ancestor was). This human antipathy towards the Ophidia is a shame. Not only are snakes inimical to the rodents and bugs which spell true problems for modern agricultural humans, they are critical to most non-pelagic, non-Arctic ecosystems in numerous ways. Additionally, snakes are very beautiful. They are more colorful than most other creatures and they have a hypnotic sculptural beauty all their own. Just look at the lovely art photo by  Guido Mocafico at the top of the page.

 

Adam and Eve (Albrecht Durer, 1504, engraving)

Adam and Eve (Albrecht Durer, 1504, engraving)

Other ancient religions were not as opposed to snakes as the Canaanites and Israelites (who, were, after all, herding people who lived in a dust colored-desert filled with poisonous dust-colored reptiles). Hindus respect the powerful nagas and worship Vasuki, the cobra-king of all snakes. Buddha was sheltered by a hooded cobra. The Chinese creation myth centers on Nüwa, the serpent-goddess who first gave life to animals and humans. In ancient Greece, snakes represented the secrets of the underworld, the healing power of medicine, and the foresight of divine augury. The pre-Greek Cretan culture worshiped a sinuous bare-breasted snake goddess who held a serpent in each hand as she danced. Sadly we know little about this compelling deity other than what is revealed by sculpture.

Minoan Snake Goddess (Crete, ca. 1600BC)

Minoan Snake Goddess (Crete, ca. 1600BC)

Going back even farther, the oldest written story humankind currently possesses features a snake as a villain: after all of his trials, Gilgamesh loses the herb of immortality when it is stolen by a water snake. People from the Fertile Crescent really seem to dislike snakes…although that presumes that the Biblical serpent actually was the villain. Maybe the snake was the real hero of Genesis (after all, it is never demonstrated that the tree of knowledge does not perform as advertised). Don’t we long to become as Gods? Isn’t wisdom our greatest collective treasure? What is so great about obedience? After all, did we really want to live forever as naked childlike near-beasts? Perhaps the snake is a pivotal figure in imagining our transition from hunter-gatherers to agricultural folk–which is to say from nature to civilization.

The Serpent Steals the Herb of Immortality from Gilgamesh (illustration by Ludmila Zeman)

The Serpent Steals the Herb of Immortality from Gilgamesh (illustration by Ludmila Zeman)

If the snake does represent our coming of age it is ironic: the majority of city-dwelling modern humans probably never see wild snakes in our monstrous concrete cities. This strikes me as a shame. For good or for ill, there really is something sacred about the snake.

Honduran Milksnake

Honduran Milksnake

o-BEER-facebook

April 7th is national beer day. While this blog would certainly never popularize an intoxicating beverage (even if that beverage were delicious, omnipresent, and held in universal esteem), it is our scholarly duty to note the importance which beer held in the ancient Mesopotamian world. Around seven thousand years ago the first known human civilizations sprang up between the Tigris and the Euphrates river valleys.  These civilizations  were beholden to beer as an economic and cultural staple. Indeed, many archaeologists and anthropologists speculate that beer is the fundamental reason that agriculture and cities were invented to begin with: the hunter gatherer lifestyle offered greater freedom and greater leisure, but civilization offered beer (albeit at the terrible price of always having grotty kingpriests and bureaucrats yelling at you—a trend which continues to this day).

Agriculture in Ancient Mesopotamia (from http://www.preceden.com)

Agriculture in Ancient Mesopotamia (from http://www.preceden.com)

Of course agriculture brought other benefits as well—famine became less of a problem, populations could grow larger, and humans were able to settle in one place. Yet the fundamental importance which the inhabitants of Eridu, Ur, and Sumer placed on beer can be seen by looking at the pantheon of ancient Mesopotamian deities. The most important child or Eridu, the lord of the watery abzu and grand old man of the gods was Ninkasi, the goddess of beer also known as “the lady who fills the mouth” (which seems to support the archaeologists who believe that the invention of beer and agriculture were related).

Image from an ancient Sumerian cylinder seal

Image from an ancient Sumerian cylinder seal

The worship of Ninkasi will seem familiar to anyone who has ever read a beer can. She was born in “pure sparkling water” and her sigil was the barley spade. Worshippers and supplicants would beg her to “satisfy the desire” and “sate the heart”. During a divine ordeal her father Enki the ancient received eight terrible wounds, and it was Ninkasi who cured the most painful one. In Eridu and Sumer, beer was stored in great earthenware vessels and sipped with long ornamental drinking straws. Many ancient artworks depict this activity, and I always wonder if Ninkasi is the woman behind the drinker concerned about how her brew came out.  Sadly there are no known images of Ninkasi from ancient sources (although I am half tempted to get out my brushes and paint her as an act of devotion, um I mean educational interest).

Ceremonial drinking scene on a seal found in the "Great Death Pit" in the Royal Cemetery at Ur.

Ceremonial drinking scene on a seal found in the “Great Death Pit” in the Royal Cemetery at Ur.

Among the earliest human writings is a beautiful hymn to Ninkasi which was written in Sumerian in the nineteenth century BC. It is a lovely panegyric to agriculture, civilization, and the benign blessings of loving gods, but it is also a recipe. Warning: attempting to mimic the actions described in this ancient religious tablet may result in an alcoholic beverage! Beer makers of the modern world were inspired by the ancient recipe and set out to create an ancient Sumerian beer. The beer, made with date honey and thick loaves of an ancient multi-grain bread was less alcoholic than most modern beers (having an alcohol content of 3.5 percent—as opposed to Bud Light which has an alcohol content of 4.2) but it was apparently quite potable.

Time to celebrate spring!

Time to celebrate spring!

The Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

The Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

This strange work “The Union of the Crowns” is by the consummate painter’s painter, Peter Paul Rubens. It shows the symbolic joining of the crowns of England and Scotland, an event which occurred upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I on March 24, 1603. When Elizabeth Tudor died without an heir, the crown of England passed from her to her first cousin twice removed— James VI, King of Scots (thereafter also James I of England & Ireland). The United Kindom did not formally become one imperial kingdom until the Acts of Union of 1707, but once a single sovereign held both thrones, the way was certainly paved for the merger. This mighty canvas hangs in the banqueting hall at Whitehall and it shows James I attentively watching as Juno and Venus hold the two crowns over a regal chubby naked baby (who may be Great Britain or may be an infant Charles I–back when he still had a head).  Minerva joins the crowns together as flying putti hold the conjoined shield aloft among a suffusion of roses.

England and Scotland with Minerva and Love (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

England and Scotland with Minerva and Love (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

Rubens knew exactly how to pander to aristocratic tastes…and how to bang out lucrative political allegories with help from his extensive studio. There are several other slightly different versions of “The Union of the Crowns” by the master (& co.) located around England at the estates of various noblemen who stood to gain from the union. As Scotland nears a fateful electoral choice later this year, one wonders if a painter will be called upon to paint the division of the crowns by strife, nationalism, and vested interest…

Union of England & Scotland, Peter Paul Rubens, 1630, oil on panel)

Union of England & Scotland, Peter Paul Rubens, 1630, oil on panel)

Khonso Em Heb, his wife, and offspring are shown in ritualistic paintings with underworld deities (ca. 1100-1200 BC)

Khonso Em Heb, his wife, and offspring are shown in ritualistic paintings with underworld deities (ca. 1100-1200 BC)

It is thirsty work being a deity of the underworld (what with all of the legions of the dead, the dark serpent gods, and whatnot)!  That is why today we are celebrating the Ancient Egyptian brewer for the gods of the afterworld.  The eminently respectable Mr. Khonso Im-Heb who lived (and died) during the Ramesside period of Egypt’s New Kingdom (ca. 1,292–1,069 BC) was the head of granaries and chief of brewing for the vulture goddess Mut.   We know all of this because a team of Japanese archaeologists working in the Thebes necropolis (in the Egyptian city of Luxor) just discovered the beautifully preserved tomb of Khonso Im-Heb as they were working on the tomb of an 18th-dynasty royal official.

Khonso Em Heb and his wife receive offeings from their son

Khonso Em Heb and his wife receive offerings from their son

An article on CNN described the excitement the tomb’s discovery has engendered among archaeologists and officials:

Egypt’s antiquities minister Mohamed Ibrahim described Khonso Em Heb as the chief “maker of beer for gods of the dead” adding that the tomb’s chambers contain “fabulous designs and colors, reflecting details of daily life… along with their religious rituals.”

The antiquities ministry has put tight security on the tomb (political tumult in Egypt has proven dangerous for the country’s cultural heritage) so archaeologists are looking forward to carefully and methodically studying the beautifully preserved site and discovering more about the life and times of Khonso Im-Heb.  So far, only photographs of the tomb’s painted walls have been released to the public, but the vibrant paintings of daily life are astonishing.

The Goddess Mut

The Goddess Mut

It should be mentioned that in Ancient Egypt, beer was immensely popular with all classes of people, but it was not exactly the crisp tasty concoction of today.  Ancient Egyptian beer was a crude barley or millet-based fermented beverage which was drunk with a long straw (in order to bypass the dense scum which floated to the top of the beverage).  Presumably the vulture goddess liked it that way!  It seems like Khonso Em Heb died as a very successful man.

 

Detail from "Medicine" (Gustav Klimt, 1901)

Detail from “Medicine” (Gustav Klimt, 1901)

Earlier this month we featured a post about Robert William’s painting “In the Pavillion of the Red Clown” an enigmatic artwork which showed a sinister red-garbed clown using a golden snake to menace a pretty showgirl.  It’s a powerful painting and it provoked some enthusiastic and thoughtful comments, but it is also a painting with some real gender issues (particularly considering the clown’s menacing attitude and the showgirl’s scanty garb). To rectify the situation and even up the scales, here is an even more beautiful painting by the Vienna Secession master, Gustav Klimt.  Actually this is a detail photograph of a part of the larger painting “Medicine” which Klimt painted in 1901.  Sadly the original painting was destroyed by the S.S. in 1945, but photos and sketches of the original still exist.  The woman in red is the goddess Hygeia, one of the daughters of Asclepius.  Worshiped by Romans as the personification of health, cleanliness, and sanitation, she holds a sacred golden snake, the ancient symbol of healing and looks haughtily down at the viewer.  Her strange lovely red and gold garb highlights her divinity and otherworldliness. Likewise the golden swirls on her dress and the red ribbons in her elaborately coiffed hair suggest a hidden world of medical secrets.

venussymbolThe astronomical symbol for the planet Venus, a circle with an attached dorsal cross, is the same symbol which is used in biology to represent the female gender.  With the exception of Mother Earth (which understandably goes by many names), Venus is the only planet in this solar system named after a goddess.  Even in other languages and cultures, Venus is often imagined as feminine: to the Persians she was Anahita; the Babylonians called her Ishtar or Inanna; and the Australian Aborigines called her Barnumbirr (we will say nothing about the Theosophists because everything is much better that way).

venus-goddess-of-loveConsidering the long association between Venus and goddesses, it is appropriate that international astronomic convention asserts that surface features of Venus should be named after women (or mythological women).  Only a handful of features on the planet have male names (most notably the Maxwell Montes which are named after James Clerk Maxwell) and these masculine oddballs were grandfathered (grandmothered?) in before the female naming convention was adopted.  Hopefully the future floating cities of Venus will also sport lovely female names as well…

-venus-b

 

the-fortune-teller

Ferrebeekeeper has described all sorts of gods and goddesses of the underworld—we have covered deities of plague and of darkness, gods of death and betrayal, and all sorts of dark rulers of the next world, however there were also gods of the criminal underworld.  In the Roman pantheon, the goddess Laverna was the deity of thieves, dishonest tradesmen, cheaters, and frauds.  Although stories about Laverna are scant (since her worshippers did not necessarily want to flaunt their devotion) she is mentioned in the works of Plautus and Horace and her sacred sanctuary was near the Porta Lavernalis (a gate in the Servian walls which opened from the Aventine into a thief-infested grove of trees).  Various unsavory stretches of highway and dangerous urban groves throughout Italy were sacred to Laverna as well.  It has been speculated that she was originally a chthonic goddess of the Etruscans.

laverna

Laverna’s attributes were darkness and secrecy.  Her worshippers are said to have poured out libations to her with their left hands only.   There is a (probably apocryphal) myth about Laverna which illustrates her nature.  She appeared disguised as a beautiful noblewoman to a rich devout man and asked him to grant her lands to establish a temple to some other more mainstream Roman deity.  She earnestly promised the wealthy patron to honestly uphold her duty by swearing an oath upon her body itself.  When she received control of the lands, she robbed them blind, sold everything worth any gold, and then sold the land itself before disappearing with the lucre.  Her patron was distraught and he appealed to the Olympians to bring her to justice (based on the strength of the oath she swore).  The gods heard his prayers and they sought out Laverna to make her pay, but when they caught up with her she was only a head—having used thievish magic to make her body incorporeal.  Having no body (at least temporarily) she was free from the onus of her contract (although she probably looked pretty weird as just a flying head).

Aventine Hill

Aventine Hill

 

Acoma Pueblo, the most famous Keresan pueblo and the oldest inhabited town in the USA

Acoma Pueblo, the most famous Keresan pueblo and the oldest inhabited town in the USA

When the Spanish arrived in what is now New Mexico and Arizona they found the Pueblo people farming corn, squash, and beans on the dry land.  These native people built villages made up of interconnected multi-storied adobe buildings.  Although different Pueblo groups shared cultural affinity in terms of lifestyle, the languages of different groups and the religious beliefs–were so dissimilar that the Pueblos probably came from diverse backgrounds.

"Corn Dawn Mother" by Marti Fenton

“Corn Dawn Mother” by Marti Fenton

One group, the Keresan Puebloes, believed that all people come originally from Shipap, a realm beneath the ground ruled by the benevolent goddess Iyatiku, who is an underworld goddess, a mother goddess, and a corn goddess all at once.  People emerge from this structured underworld when they are born and they then make their way through the hard arid world.  To help her children through mortal life, Iyatiku annually rips out her own heart and tears it into four pieces which she scatters to the north, south, east, and west where the fragments grow into maize.  Despite Iyatiku’s sacrifice and her care, people do not last in this world: they are murdered or starved or broken.  They grow old and die.  When this happens, they return once more to Iyatiku’s arms in the Shipap, the realm beneath the world where they wait to someday be born again.  
Peruvian_corn

 

Inanna/Astarte/Ishtar

Inanna/Astarte/Ishtar

The most prominent female deity in ancient Mesopotamia was Inanna (also known as Ištar).  Monotheistic religions have a way of leaving out women (or making them ancillary characters like Mary). Polytheistic religions often divide their goddesses into fertility goddesses (like Aphrodite) versus power goddesses like Athena or Artemis.  Inanna reflects no such omission or dichotomy: as Queen of Heaven, she was both the goddess of sex and the goddess of war.   In fact, saying that she was the most prominent female deity of the Babylonian/Akkadian/Sumerian pantheon might be unfair:  arguably she was the most prominent god of any sort in that pantheon.

Inanna as depicted by an ancient Mesopotamian scroll seal

Inanna as depicted by an ancient Mesopotamian scroll seal

Worship of Inanna seems to have begun in the city state Uruk around 6000 years ago.   Her sacred symbols were the eight pointed star and the lioness.  She is especially affiliated with the planet Venus (which, obviously, was known instead as “Inanna” to the Mesopotamians), the third brightest object in the sky which, bafflingly, can rise in the East and the West in both the morning and evening (we realize that his is because Venus is our closest neighbor, but to the Babylonians it was uncanny).  Inanna was not just the day star but also storm, flood, wrath, and war.  Additionally, she was a goddess of fertility and unbridled sensuality. Inanna had many lovers (and was always looking for more) but her actual husband was the beautiful shepherd god, Dumuzi.  There are several unabashedly graphic poems about the physical nature of the pair’s marriage (which you can look up on your own).

Detail of ancient Mesopotamian so-called "Ishtar Vase", terracotta with cut, moulded, and painted decoration, from Larsa, early 2nd millennium BC.

Detail of ancient Mesopotamian so-called “Ishtar Vase”, terracotta with cut, moulded, and painted decoration, from Larsa, early 2nd millennium BC.

In addition to personifying forces of nature, Inanna possessed all of the secrets of civilization. She beguiled ancient Enki, the first god, with her charms and made him drunk on beer.  Then she convinced him to give her the Mes, clay tablets which represented fundamental truth and all the blueprints for power and civilization.  When Enki sobered up, he sent his attendants after Inanna to fetch back the Mes, but it was too late. Uruk blossomed and outshone Enki’s city, Eridu, in glory.

Probably the most famous story about Inanna concerns her trip to the underworld (ruled by Inanna’s sister, the dark and jealous goddess Ereshkigal).  One day Inanna left heaven.  She abandoned her seven cities and emptied her temples.  She donned the seven sacred objects symbolic of her queenhood and set out for the realm from which no traveler returns. Before leaving, however, Inanna left explicit directions with her faithful vassal, Ninshubur, concerning what to do if she (Inanna) did not return in three days.

Arrayed in splendor, Inanna came before the great bronze gate to the underworld and announced herself as “Inanna, Queen of heaven.”  She claimed to be visiting the underworld to attend her sister’s husband’s funeral. The doorkeeper of the dead, Neki was amazed and he sought Ereshkigal’s orders.  To enter the underworld, Inanna had to give up her crown and, at each subsequent gate she was forced to part with another of her treasures/garments.  One by one she set aside her lapis earrings, the double strand of beads about her neck, her breastplate (called, “Come, man, come”), her golden hip girdle, and the lapis measuring rod. She walked on and on through the dreary lands of spirits, ghosts, and wraiths.   Whenever she tried to talk to Neti, he answered, “Quiet Inanna, the ways of the Underworld are perfect.  They may not be questioned.”

Inanna naked (ancient alabaster statue)

Inanna naked (ancient alabaster statue)

Finally at the last gate she had only her royal breechcloth.  Surrendering this last garment she came to the final depths of the realm of the dead naked and stripped of power.  As she stepped before the throne of Ereshkigal she was knocked to her knees by the annuna, the monstrous judges of the underworld.  They surrounded her and judged her.  Here is a translation of the actual Sumerian text:

They passed judgment against her.
Then Ereshkigal fastened on Inanna the eye of death
She spoke against her the word of wrath
She uttered against her the cry of guilt
She struck her.
Inanna was turned into a corpse
A piece of rotting meat
And was hung from a hook on the wall

After three days Inanna did not return.  Ninshubur became worried.  She was a goddess in her own right who sometimes served as a herald or a messenger for the other gods, but her true devotion was always to Inanna (some myths even describe her as one of Inanna’s lovers). Acting on Inanna’s instructions, Ninshubur went to various deities to ask for help rescuing Inanna.

Inanna’s father and paternal grandfather were unmoved by her death (having warned her against sojourning in the land of the dead).  However ancient Enki, still loved her, despite the fact that she had taken the Mes from him.  In order to save Inanna from death he summoned kurgarra and the galatur, demon beings, to whom he gave the water of life.  Assuming the guise of houseflies, the two demons flew into the underworld and descended to Ereshkigal’s throne room where Inanna was suspended dead and decomposing on a hook.  With magical powers they rescued Inanna’s corpse from suspension and poured the water of life upon it.  Inanna returned to life and proceeded back through the underworld, gathering her clothes and treasures as she went.

inannadescent

Unfortunately the galla, the demons of the underworld, discovered her as she was leaving.  Unable to prevent her egress, they nevertheless demanded a substitute life to take her place and they followed as the goddess made her way back through the underworld and back out into the world of life.  As Ninshubur joyfully greeted Inanna, the galla asked for the attendant’s life (which Inanna angrily refused). The underworld demons then asked for Inanna’s sons, Shara and Lulal, and even for Inanna’s beautician Cara as sacrifices to take Inanna’s place.  However the goddess was firm: since all of these people were dressed in mourning for her, she refused to let them be touched.  However when the Queen goddess came home to her palace, she found her husband, Dumuzi (who was once a shepherd but now lived as a god-king) dressed in rich robes, drinking and feasting merrily.  Infuriated, she pointed him out to the galla and the demons sprang at him. Dumuzi appealed to the sun god Utu for help and was transformed into a snake, but the demons were remorseless and they found him in his new form and dragged him away to the depths of the underworld in place of the resurrected Inanna.

 Mesopotamian cylinder seal of Dumuzi feeding sheep. (ca 3200-3000 BC)

Mesopotamian cylinder seal of Dumuzi feeding sheep. (ca 3200-3000 BC)

The gods cared little about Dumuzi’s fate, but his sister Geshtinanna remained loyal to him.  She begged Ereshkigal to take her in her brother’s stead and the death goddess (impressed by such love for a sibling) relented and allowed her to spend half the year as a stand-in for her brother.  Their annual place changing was believed to drive the seasons. As for Inanna, she went back to war and sex.  Yet something had changed, reborn, she had knowledge of the underworld and the ultimate mysteries.

Norse mythology featured two possible versions of the afterlife. Odin, the chief of the Æsir, needed heroes to fight beside the gods during Ragnarök, the final battle. Thus whenever heroic warriors died in battle, Valkyries carried their spirits to Valhalla to enjoy fighting, feasting, and quaffing among the company of gods and heroes. The majority of souls did not have such a glorious end though.  The dark goddess Hel gathered up the spirits of non-heroes and held them forever in a cold realm named after herself.  Of the many gods and goddesses of the underworld, Hel is one of the most chthonic and horrible.

Hel

Hel was the child of Loki who (like Echidna in the Greek canon) spawned many of the worst monsters in the Norse pantheon.  Hel’s dismal kingdom was located in the frozen realm of Niflheim, the deepest and oldest part of creation where ancient monsters and primordial gods gnaw at the roots of existence.  A dismal and unhappy goddess, Hel is portrayed as half beautiful maiden and half-rotten corpse.  Contemporary artists tend to show this split as a left/right juxtaposition, but older sources portray her with a hag’s living head and torso—and as a filthy rotting corpse from the waist down.

Hermod before Hel (John Charles Dollman, 1909, print)

In temperament Hel was indifferent, and quiet.  She sat in haughty silence on a raised dais in the immense cold hall of the dead.  Stretched in ranks beneath her were all the souls who died of sickness, old age, misadventure, and murder.  Whenever Hel appears in myths she is implacable and stern–not evil, so much as beyond the concerns of morality and heroism.  In the troubling tale of Balder (which describes how the god of happiness was killed) she ends the story by imprisoning the dead god in her gray kingdom with the statement “Hel holds what she has.”

Goddess Helby (digital art by *Scitza on deviantart)

Loki’s other monstrous offspring, the Midgard Serpent and Fenris wolf, are Hel’s half-siblings.  During Armageddon, all three entities play a part in destroying the world. The last battle will commence when Loki escapes the dungeon where he was confined for his role in Balder’s death.  After countless centuries of frozen emptiness, Hel will lead all of her subjects to the field of Vígríðr, where she will join forces to fight for her father Loki. The Midgard serpent will eat the sun, but be killed by Thor (who will himself take a mortal wound).  The Fenris wolf will break free and kill Odin only to fall before his sons. Amidst the unimaginable slaughter of the apocalypse all of the spirits of all the dead will finally fall in furious battle. At the end, Hel herself will perish along with the world and all things in Surtr’s fire.

The children of Loki ( Willy Pogany, 1920)

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