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The first animal to be domesticated was the wolf (modern humans call domesticated wolves “dogs”).  This happened thousands (or tens of thousands) of years before any other plants or animals were domesticated.  In fact some social scientists have speculated that the dogs actually domesticated humans.  Whatever the case, our dual partnership changed both species immensely.  It was the first and most important of many changes which swept humanity away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and into the agricultural world.

A Han Dynasty Terracotta Statue of a Dog

A Han Dynasty Terracotta Statue of a Dog

Today’s post isn’t really about the actual prehistory behind the agricultural revolution though.  Instead we are looking at an ancient Chinese myth about how humans changed from hunters into farmers.  Appropriately, even in the myth it was dogs who brought about the change.  There are two versions of the story.  In the version told by the Miao people of southern China, the dog once had nine tails.  Seeing the famine which regularly afflicted people (because of seasonal hunting fluctuations) a loyal dog ran into heaven to solve the problem.  The celestial guardians shot off eight of the dog’s tails, but the brave mutt managed to roll in the granaries of heaven and return with precious rice and wheat seeds caught in his fur.  Ever since, in memory of their heroism, dogs have one bushy tail (like a ripe head of wheat) and they are fed first when people are done eating.

dog

A second version of the tale is less heroic, but also revolves around actual canine behavior.  In the golden age, after Nüwa created humans, grain was so plentiful that people wasted it shamefully and squandered the bounty of the Earth.  In anger, the Jade Emperor came down to Earth to repossess all grains and crops.  After the chief heavenly god had gathered all of the world’s cereals, the dog ran up to him and clung piteously to his leg whining and begging.  The creature’s crying moved the god to leave a few grains of each plant stuck to the animal’s fur.  These grains became the basis of all subsequent agriculture.

Han Terracotta in the form of a dog

Han Terracotta in the form of a dog

Even in folklore, we owe our agrarian civilization to the dogs, our first and best friends.

The Flag of the Ashanti (Featuring the Golden Stool)

The most important of Ghana’s crown jewels is not a crown at all but rather the legendary Sika ‘dwa, the Golden Stool which is believed to house the living spirit of all Ashanti people from all time.  According to lore, the Stool descended from heaven into the lap of Osei Tutu, the first Ashanti king in 1701.  At times struggle for control of the Golden Stool has devolved into war–including the eponymous “War for the Golden Stool” which broke out in 1900 when Sir Frederick Hodgson, governor of the British Gold Coast demanded to be allowed to sit on the Stool (which is a ceremonial object which is not meant to be sat upon—or even to directly touch the ground).  Although the conflict left Great Britain in control of Ghana, the Golden Stool was hidden until 1920 when it was discovered and despoiled by a group of laborers who were promptly sentenced to death (although the British administrators commuted the sentence to perpetual banishment).

The Golden Stool of the Ashanti

The stool is 18 inches high, 24 inches long, and 12 inches wide.  It is covered with gold ornaments and has bells attached to it to warn the Ashanti tribe if danger is eminent.  If you are confused by the above photo of the Golden Stool, that is because it is “lying down” (since it is not made to be sat upon anyway).  Below is a picture of another Ashanti stool to give you a better idea of the object’s form.  Even a non-royal, non-gold Ashanti stool is imbued with special meaning which edges toward the supernatural.

A Carved Ashanti Stool (Ghana, mid-20th century)

In 1999, King Otumfuo Osei Tutu II was crowned as the 16th leader of Ghana’s largest ethnic group, the Ashanti (although at this time in history, the king’s role is ceremonial and he is barred from serving in Ghana’s government).   The golden stool made a fleeting ceremonial appearance before being returned to the secret location where it is kept.  However the royal family has many other crown jewels which are worn on various state occasions—or just in general.  On October 12, 2012, King Otumfuo Osei Tutu II was traveling in Oslo, Norway to attend a conference when jewel thieves made off with a bag containing many of the lesser crown jewels of Ghana (which they stole from the lobby of the Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel).  It seems like the King of the Ashanti might have lost some of the splendid gold headdresses pictured here.

Ashanti King Otumfo Osei-Tutu II

Behold a dreadful strangling monster!  This entity cannot be easily killed by conventional means and it reproduces both by asexually spawning duplicates of itself (at first attached to the parent by runners) and by releasing tens of thousands of wind-born flying pods.  When these pods land on something they take root and start to grow—even if it is another tree or a roof or a bit of concrete.  This monster comes from the primeval forests of China, indeed it is mentioned in the most ancient Chinese texts, but today it has spread everywhere.  It eats toxins and is not affected by most pollutants or even by high doses of toxic metals. It produces a poison which kills plants. If you live in a major city there is probably more than one outside your door right now!

Ailanthus altissima, the Tree of Heaven (photo by Cheryl Moorehead)

Thanks to the title at the top of the page, perspicacious readers will probably already have guessed that the monster I am writing about is Ailanthus altissima, aka the tree of heaven.  This is one of the most successful invasive species out there.  People unfamiliar with the plant are probably chortling at my rhetoric, whereas people who do know this tree, especially gardeners, are most likely making murderous gestures and exclaiming wild oaths.  The tree reproduces like crazy and it grows with seemingly supernatural speed.  Anyone who has tried to garden anywhere near a tree of heaven has spent a great deal of their time pulling up saplings or sawing them down only to see them rise again and again like the fearsome horde of hellspawn which they are.  When chopped down the tree grows back with redoubled vigor and produces suckers (basal shoots which grow from the roots and produce independent trees).  The tree of heaven may not be a massive clonal colony like Pando, but fighting the suckers and the seedlings and their many offshoots makes it seem like a single malevolent entity. And it is everywhere—when you see a tree growing on top of an abandoned building or sprouting improbably from sheer concrete, it is most likely the tree of heaven.

So Many Seeds!

The tree was not always despised. Eighteenth century European gardeners (under the spell of Chinese gardens and all things Chinese) were beguiled by its swift growth and elegant looks.  They brought the tree to Europe in the 1740s and to the United States in 1784, but, as soon as the tree was planted, the honeymoon ended.  In formal gardens Ailanthus trees tendency to sucker and set seed became very apparent as did the abominable smell of the male trees which produce a urine-like stench to attract unsavory pollinating insects (European botanists should probably have translated the Chinese name before planting: 臭椿 literally means malodorous tree). The tree’s prettiness though undeniable is not as great as that of other Chinese invasive trees like the lovely Empress tree (which is not nearly as aggressive or malodorous).

Samia cynthia--the Ailanthus Moth (note the lack of a mouth--saturniid moths do not feed in their final adult stage)

Aesthetic concerns were not the sole motivating factor which caused European gardeners to import the fearsome tree.  Although the finest silk comes from the silkworm, Bombyx mori, which feeds only on the mulberry tree, a more durable and coarse silk can be produced from the cocoons of the ailanthus moth  (Samia Cynthia) which, of course, eats ailanthus leaves. Ailanthus silk is distinctly inferior to true silk in that it does not readily take dyes, but it is durable and pretty in its own right.  Unfortunately it proved to be too labor-intensive for western production. Ailanthus moths, the huge saturniid moths, which produce these cocoons also went rogue and are now spreading across North America and Europe in tandem with the trees.

The discerning reader may have apprehended that I am no fan of the tree of heaven.  Even literary allusions to the ailanthus are problematic (it is the tree from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a novel about alcoholism, poverty, cheating, and misery in early twentieth century immigrant life). However, having said that, Ailanthus altissima demands respect as a supremely effective life form.  It is probably the fastest growing tree in North America and is able to grow 2 meters (6 feet) in a year (as I know from cutting down 15 foot tall suckers in my tiny garden). Additionally the tree produces a chemical, ailanthone, which inhibits or prevents the germination of other seeds and is toxic to other trees.  Ailanthus altissima can live in locations that are dry, salty, or toxic and can survive on water as acidic as tomato juice. For these reasons as well as its staggering number of wind-born twirling seeds it can be found in industrial or urban wastelands where nothing else grows.  It is impossible not to feel a bit of awe for a 50 to 90 foot tall weed.

Ailanthus Trees Growing in a City

Not only is the tree is an opportunist which can live by itself in places too dry or poisonous for other trees but its incredible rate of growth allow it to compete with other deciduous trees by quickly growing into unoccupied canopy space (although adult forest trees in healthy woods can probably out-compete it in the long run).  The tree of heaven pays a price for its quick growth and heavy suckering.  Its life is short and specimens rarely live past 50 years.  However one individual tree is not the problem—if you have one tree you already have many.  Like the Lernaean Hydra, the tree of heaven is a exponentially increasing monster, but something so tough must have a use.  Perhaps a future generation of space colonists living in Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s fantasy will spend their time wrinkling their noses and wandering why anyone chose to plant such a thing.

A photo from my nearest train station in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn

The Black Dragon Gong Gong and the Serpent Goddess Nüwa

In Chinese mythology, Gong Gong was a tempestuous and unhappy water spirit of great strength.  He is usually portrayed as a raging black dragon or as a seething water monster.  In an earlier post concerning the Black Mansion—the Chinese underworld—I described how rigorously regimented the Chinese spirit world is (on earth, in heaven, and in hell).  Gong Gong was a spirit who was not happy with the rigid hierarchical order of things.  Despite his raw power, his job in the courts of heaven was to run trivial errands and fill out tedious paperwork.  Growing sick of what he perceived as menial chores, Gong Gong rebelled against the Jade Emperor.  In order to usurp control of heaven, he unleashed terrible floods and allied with a wicked nine-headed demon named Xiangliu.

Gong Gong hurls himself into Mount Buzhou

Together Gong Gong and Xiangliu brought about great destruction in the world.  The tumult they unleashed killed countless people.  But, despite the suffering they caused, the two could not defeat the powers of heaven.  They were opposed by Zhu Rong, the god of fire and ruler of the south, a mighty swordsman who fought mounted on the back of his magic tiger.  Unable to withstand Zhu Rong’s ferocity, the monsters were about to be defeated outright.  Infuriated and unwilling to accept such shame, Gong Gong hurled himself into Mount Buzhou, a mythical mountain which was one of the principal supports of heaven.  Part of the mountain collapsed and a terrible hole appeared in the sky.  The suffering caused by Gong Gong’s earlier actions was nothing compared to the catastrophe caused by this collapse.   Flood and fire swept earth.  Terrible creatures from beyond came through the rip in existence and ravaged the planet. Famine and horror stalked the world and it seemed as though all living things were doomed.

Nüwa Repairs the Breach in Heaven

With the other gods helpless, the creator goddess Nüwa again stepped forward.  She cut the legs off a great turtle and propped the sky back on its axis.  Then she gathered precious stones from a river and cast the breath of her magic into them.  With these multicolored stones she repaired the vault of heaven.  In some versions of the story she slew the black dragon Gong Gong whereas in other versions he sneaked away and still remains at large somewhere in the world.  Whatever the case, Nüwa’s repairs were not perfect.  The sun and moon now flow across the heavens from east to west and the stars were thrown from their position to drift with the seasons.  Even the North star was jarred from true north.

Nüwa Repairs the Breach in Heaven (a modern interpretation)

Strangely enough my favorite Chinese novel (maybe my favorite novel from anywhere) originates from this tumultuous myth.  The Story of the Stone was written by Cao Xueqin in the eighteenth century as the Qing dynasty first began to relentlessly unwind.  It is the story of a great princely house slowly losing its vigor and declining from within.  In a bigger sense it is the story of mortal kind and the ineluctable flux of our little lives. There are 40 major characters and more than four hundred minor ones in a drama that spans the epic breadth of Chinese history and culture (and takes up thousands of pages).  The portrayal of all levels of Chinese society is magnificent…but just beyond the petty intrigues, squabbles, affairs, and misunderstandings that make up the complex plot of The Story of the Stone are hints at an enigmatic divine order underpinning the cosmos.  From time to time, a strange beggar covered with sores and limping on an iron crutch shows up with magic medicines.  The female lead is hauntingly familiar with an otherworldy beauty to her mien.  And the protagonist of the story, Jia Baoyu, is a fey aristocratic adolescent who was born with a magic piece of jade in his mouth.  Although it doesn’t come up often in the novel and it is not obvious to the characters, the hero is the stone.  He was one of the gemstones given magical life by Nüwa in order to repair the breach in heaven–but he was not used because of a flaw.   Frustrated by life at the edge of heaven, he incarnates as a mortal and the book is the story of his human life…indeed of all human life.   I won’t say more about The Story of the Stone other than to apologize for not explaining how impossibly brilliant and ineffable the work is.  I must also offer an attendant caveat: this is the consummate literary masterpiece of China and, as such, it is overwhelmingly and heartbreakingly sad.

The Penguin version as elegantly translated by David Hawke

Many of the greatest medieval artists are anonymous.  Their actual names and personalities have been lost in the swirl of time and only their works remain.  In such cases the unknown masters come to be named after their region, or a distinctive trademark, or (as in this case) one famous painting.  This is how today’s featured gothic artist came to share a title with Lucifer himself.  The trecento Siennese master who painted this panel is known by two surviving works (which are both at the Louvre).  The more influential and dramatic of the pair is The Fall of the Rebel Angels which was painted between 1340 and 1345 AD.  The painter is therefore called the “Master of the Rebel Angels”.  Here is the best digital image I could find of the painting—itself a portion of a long lost poyptych (the other surviving portion is a picture of Saint Martin, the patron saint of France—which suggests the work was made for a French buyer).  This work had a deep influence on French Art and was often copied or imitated—most notably by the Limbourg brothers for the illuminated manuscript Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels (The Master of the Rebel Angels, ca. 1340, tempera and gold on panel)

In a world without quicksilver mirrors, abundant cheap plate glass, or artificial lighting there was only one substance that conveyed divine luster in a lasting manner—actual gold.  The majority of the The Fall of the Rebel Angels is pure elemental gold flattened out into sheets and affixed directly to the panel.  This precious but inhuman metallic background provides a perfect setting for the larger than life metaphysical battle portrayed in the painting. The story behind this artwork is immediately comprehensible to anyone who chafes under rules: the rebel angels come to believe they would be better off running their own affairs instead of submitting to the hegemony of heaven.  God and his hosts of loyal angels learn of their disloyalty and cast them down.  Without the naturalistic conventions of Renaissance art (which would come later) the war in heaven takes on an otherworldly almost science-fiction aspect.  The glowing armored hosts of heaven guard the welkin. Above them are the enthroned ranks of saints.  God towers at the pinnacle of the composition, serene on a living throne of flame-like angel wings.

The rebel angels have lost their heavenly beauty and their effulgence.  Blackened and monstrous, unable to bear their weight on corrupted wings, they fall from the skies and are swallowed by a mysterious drab gray orb. This dull circle represents life and the affairs of the world.  The artist meant us to understand that we too are its inhabitants, fallen like the rebel angels and cut off from what is numinous and ineffable. The painting starkly conveys the hierarchical philosophical outlook of the times, but strangely it also makes the rebel angels sympathetic.  They are the subjects of the work: their mutilation and defeat provides the drama. Christian art reversed the conventions of Greco/Roman art: the victim or acted-upon party is the protagonist (rather than the victorious aggressor).  I can’t imagine the Master of the Rebel Angels intended such a result, but, somehow he painted a work where the monsters are the protagonists and their transformation is the dominant mystery.

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