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The definitive evil clown is the shape-shifting monster in Stephen King’s “It” (unless we are talking about John Wayne Gacy, and, frankly, I think the State of Illinois said all that needs to be said concerning that guy with a stiff dose of potassium chloride).  I hungrily read “It” when I was approximately the same age as the pre-teen protagonists (although the book alternates between their lives as kids in 1958 and successful early-middle aged adults in 1985).  It made an indelible impression on 12-year old me: I have been mulling over this magnum opus among penny dreadfuls for 33 years. Its hold on my imagination has outlasted much finer books. Since I have thought about it so long and since I am writing about killer clowns, I guess I should write about it…er “It” (the book I mean…the movies were terrible). [Also, beware: spoilers (and killer clowns) ahead.]

What is truly horrifying about Stephen King novels is never really the rubber monster who is ostensibly the villain.  Shape-shifting predatory clown spiders from outer space almost surely don’t exist (or if they do, we have neither evidence nor any possible chains of epistemological logic which could lead us to such an astonishing conclusion).  The monster is therefor a stand-in–a metaphor for our real fears.  Since the book is gigantic and contains many, many murderous attacks by the eponymous shape-shifting monster (and also, revealingly, violent episodes from other entities which we will address shortly), King has a clever way to touch on all sorts of different phobias like fear of blood, fear of the dark, fear of getting lost, fear of germs, fear of madness, fear of heights, fear of drowning, fear of guns, fear of being eaten etc…etc…

Yet it is not these episodes which give the book its uncanny terror.  As we bounce between the lives of the 11 year olds living in 1958 (who have discovered that a monstrous predator living in the sewer is murdering their peers) and the lives of 1985 yuppies who realize the monster has returned to kill again, there are interludes where the author’s proxy, the wise town librarian, tells us about previous cycles of murders going back every 27 years until before there were humans in Maine.  These are the best parts of the book–painted with bravura strokes of dark imagination from all of the eras of American history.  There was a trapping post which vanished without trace into the brooding northwoods,  a hideous industrial accident on Easter which killed all of the town’s children who were hunting Easter Eggs, and an extra-judicial killing of some 30s gangsters which got out of hand. Worst of all, there was arson at a mixed-race nightclub, when white supremacists burned a lot of unsuspecting people to death.

The reader comes to recognize that it is the social compact underlying Derry which is horrifying.  The librarian-narrator hints at what King never explicitly says:  Derry prospers because it successfully turns its back on these nightmarish outbursts and then sweeps them into the sewer.  Ghastly human sacrifice lies beneath the Victorian cottages, the Standpipe, the five-and-dime, the Paul Bunyan statue, and the war memorial; yet people get back to selling VCRs, cheap whiskey, car insurance, and forestry products to each other without even noticing.

I worked for a year at the Smithsonian–“the nation’s attic”–and the things which are not on display there are so much more powerful and revealing than the Star Spangled Banner, Dorothy’s ruby slippers, the first lady’s gowns, and Archy Bunker’s chair (although those things do tell a story, don’t they?).  The Smithsonian has room after room of evil machines which destroyed their operators, it has boxes of cowboy boots made with human skin, it has the triangle shirt-waist factory door with scratches in the charred metal.  It has the Enola Gay!  Looking at the collection behind the scenes in aggregate reveals how many of the stories of history we just sort of forget.  Such a survey also painfully contextualizes the tiny span of our lives within a vastly larger story (which is a horror born of absolute certainty which looms larger than any shapeshifting predatory clown).

Like Hop Frog’s murder within a prank, or Pagliacci’s murder within a play within an opera, there are layers of verisimilitude in King’s book. There are truths which only pre-adults can savvy.  The monster in the sewer beneath the town shows up in tales within tales within the larger canon of history (which is, of course all within a big novel).  The onion-like levels of false reality are disconcerting, but necessary to make us realize that the setting of this work is not Derry but America.

The real monster in the room in “It” is, of course, the good people of Derry. If you really peel off the clown mask you don’t find a space spider, you find Americans who believe they are absolutely right in giving their daughter a shiner when she comes home late, or cutting some corners to keep the factory open, or in doing what it takes to “protect” their town from gangsters and immoral night clubs.  Likewise all of the child abuse, molestation, and neglect is as real as rainwater (and similarly un-noteworthy).  You don’t have to buy a Steven King novel to find that sort of thing: you can read much more shocking examples in today’s news.

So the novel “It” gains some of its strength from evoking childhood fears and common phobias (like the fear of clowns or spiders) but it draws its real nightmare strength by holding up a dark mirror to America and revealing how our social structures are riddled with ominous failures and horribly unjust interludes…which we simply pretend don’t exist.

Clowns themselves are not real.  They are just people wearing makeup and costumes.  People though are too real and, in case you don’t follow the news, there is nothing scarier than us.  The small town folk of the novel are addicted to a meretricious idea of success.  They will ignore unspeakable things to uphold this self-image. The killer clown is like one of Shakespeare’s jesters trying to whisper this unpalatable truth in our ears as we grind through days at the retail shop, the dying factory, and the office.

IdolatrousFlounderingWooden

Idolatrous Floundering (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Wood with polymer figures and panel paintings

The art of the middle ages was meant to be viewed the way motion pictures are in the modern world. By painstakingly combining different disciplines (sculpting, painting, jewelsmithing, architecture, and calligraphy), medieval artists created emotionally fraught works which told an ever-changing story. The hidden figures, complex allusions, and frame-by-frame narrative progression invited extended contemplation.

IdolatrousFlounderingWm.jpg

Idolatrous Floundering (detail)

The sculpture “Idolatrous Floundering” is crafted to mimic these epic devotional artworks. Yet, whereas medieval art was meant to highlight the centrality of hierarchical religion in people’s lives, this sculpture apes such forms in order to examine the ways in which society uses emotional hooks to manipulate people for political or economic reasons. There is no sacred miracle at the heart of the hooked fish, just a dangerous trap. The strange addled worshipers and the natural world itself all stand in peril from this deadly devotion to false idols.

IdolatrousFm

Idolatrous Flounder (detail)

Like the artisans of yesteryear, I carefully sawed, carved, sanded, and engraved the elaborate frame (and using a lathe to turn the finials). Then I painted the panels and hand-sculpted (and baked) all of the little polymer figures. Hopefully the jewel-like work possesses some of the troubling power of devotional artwork, but I also hope it won’t serve as a reliquary for a world ruined and used up by desperate adulation of coercive seductions.

Etruscan sarcophagus from the Tarquinian tombs (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)

Etruscan sarcophagus from the Tarquinian tombs (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)

This blog has always been dedicated to the dark ones beneath the earth—the beautiful and horrible deities of the underworld! So today we will look at Etruscan gods of death and the afterlife. Sadly most of Etruscan literature and mythology has been lost, so in some cases all we have is obscure names. In the spirit of religion and mythology, I will try to make up for the lack of textual evidence with lurid pictures, extravagant adjectives, and outright supposition.

Charun (Death) with his hammer used to separate people from their lives

Charun (Death) with his hammer used to separate people from their lives

Much of Etruscan myth was strongly influenced by (or outright based on) Greek mythology. Aita was the equivalent of Hades who ruled over a similar underworld of spirits, monsters, and fallen gods. Aita’s wife “Phersipnai” was the unchanged analog of Greek Persephone. There were unique figures of the Etruscan cosmology who continued to have a hold on Roman practices and beliefs: like the “manes” which were the spirits of the dead which lingered near tombs and gravesites. There were also entities like Charun who were extremely unlike their Greco-Roman counterparts. Etruscan mythology as a whole has a bestial and naturalistic undertone of animal-human deities, human sacrifice, and violence.

To make this more straightforward (and to make this a coherent article—since data is scarce about some of these deities), here is an alphabetical list:

Aita Conjuring.  A relief carved on a 2nd c BC ash urn from Perugia, in the Museo Etrusco Romano at Perugia. Drawing from Otto Volcano, Die Etrusker.

Aita Conjuring. A relief carved on a 2nd c BC ash urn from Perugia, in the Museo Etrusco Romano at Perugia. Drawing from Otto Volcano, Die Etrusker.

Aita: The Lord of the underworld: equivalent to the Greek Hades.

Calu: A mysterious savage underworld being who is a hybrid of wolf and man.

Charun: A blue skinned demon covered with snakes and carrying a hammer, Charun guided deceased spirits to their final home in the underworld. He is sometimes also depicted with boar’s tusks, a vulture’s beak, a huge black beard, and/or giant black wings. Charun was essentially the Etruscan spirit of death.

Culsu (AKA Cul): Pictured with scissors and a torch, Culsu was a female chthonic demon of gateways.

Letham (Lethns, Letha, Lethms, Leta) An Etruscan infernal goddess about whom little else is known. Worship her at your peril!

Mania: Reported to be the mother of the Lares and Manes, Mania was a dark goddess of the dead and the undead. According to ancient traditions and Roman legends about Etruria in the era of the pre-Roman kings, Mania was the central figure of the Laralia festival on May 1st when children were sacrificed to her. Mania was quietly worshipped in Roman times and had a position in medieval and modern Tuscan folklore as a goddess of nightmares and demons.

Phersipnai (Phersipnei, Proserpnai): The wife of Aita and queen of the underworld; a figure nearly identical to the Greek Persephone and Roman Proserpina.

Vanth: A winged goddess of the underworld who together with Charun acted as a psychopomp. She is usually portrayed with a kindly face and with bare breasts crossed by straps. She sometimes holds a key, a light, or a scroll and she tends to dress in a chiton. I wonder if her imagery didn’t skip over classical Rome, because (aside from her toplessness) she could easily be a Christian angel on the payroll of Saint Peter.

Charun and Vanth from the Tomb of the Anina Family. (ca. 300 BC)

Charun and Vanth from the Tomb of the Anina Family. (ca. 300 BC)

I have done the best I could describing the underworld deities of Etruria. Of course, since everything about Etruscan society seems to involve ancient disputes, scholarly misunderstanding, and Roman fabrication, I have probably messed up substantially and I beg your understanding and forgiveness (particularly if you happen to be some terrifying fanged Etruscan death god). There is also a final mysterious category of Etruscan deities which should be mentioned—the Dii Involuti, “the hidden gods” who acted as a final arbiter of affairs both human and divine. These guys sound extremely scary and powerful and belong on any list of underworld deities. Unfortunately, in complete accordance with their name, I could not find out anything about them!

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Unicursal form of Valknut–the Triquetra Knot

 

Tricursal form of Valknut–the Borromian Rings

 

The Valknut is an ancient Viking design (although the word itself is new).  A Valknut consists of three interlinking triangles.  Classic Viking valknuts as seen in ancient stone carvings are one of two topological forms: the unicursal form or “triquetra” and the tricursal form, which consists of three linked triangles (also known as Borromean rings). The triquetra valknut has been found, for example, on the 7th century Tängelgårda stone (which stands on the island of Gotland, Sweden).  The tricursal valknut is found on a different ancient Gottland monument–the Lärbro stones.

A relief carving of human sacrifice from the Stora Hammars stones of Lärbro (circa 8th to 11th century)

Above is one of the carvings from the Lärbro stones (also known as the Stora Hammar rune stones).  The violent relief carving is filled with symbols of Odin:  a warrior holds a captive facedown and flays open his back with a spear as two ravens (or eagles) fly overhead.  To the right a troop of armored warriors look upon the sacrifice while at the left another victim hangs from a tree.  The valknut is in the center of the composition just above the spearman killing the supine figure.  Scholars suspect that it is a symbol of Odin, the allfather in his dark manifestation as god of battle death and human sacrifice.  Other scholars have speculated that the points of the three interlinked triangles may represent the nine realms linked together through Yggdrasil.  In contemporary times, the valknut has been used by neopagans as a symbol of their devotion to Norse gods, but it also has darker connotations and is sometimes adapted into the symbols of Scandinavian white supremacists and hate groups.  Because of its antiquity and its strong ties to Swedish history the Valknut is also used by many corporations, sports teams, and individuals who are in no way neopagans or white supremacists!

The valknut as closed 3-link chain–a modern topological configuration not used by Vikings

The concept of crowns—ceremonial headdresses which indicate leadership–is ancient.  If contemporary tribal society is any indication, the concept of providing kings, chiefs, and high priests with fancy hats to mark their status predates civilization.  But whether that is the case or not we conclusively know that the concept goes back to the very beginning of civilization because we have textual evidence, and, more importantly, we have magnificent physical evidence!  Here is the headdress of Puabi, an important noblewoman in the city of Ur, during the Ur’s First Dynasty (ca. 2600 BC).

The Headdress of Puabi (ca. 2600 BC, gold)

It is not clear whether Puabi was a queen or a high priestess: her title “nin” or “eresh” was applied to queens, high priestesses, and goddesses.  Perhaps the distinction was not meaningful to her Sumerian subjects.  Puabi is also known as Shubad in Sumerian (although evidence indicates that she was Akkadian/Semitic).  She lived at a time when Ur was one of the largest cities on earth. 

A picture of Puabi's crown/headdress as it was probably worn (i.e. over a thick wig)

The crown of Puabi was discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley in 1928 (when the great archeologist was half way through a 12 year series of excavations in Ur’s “Royal Cemetery”).  The tomb had never been discovered by looters and it contained a treasure trove of precious grave goods including a chariot, a variety of jewelry, a set of golden tableware, and the remains of two golden lyres.

A reconstruction of the lyre (made with original pieces) from the British Museum

Puabi did not merely take riches with her to the next world. Her tomb also contained the remains of several oxen and 26 human attendants (most likely sent along with the Nim by means of poison). Most of these attendants were discovered in a central chamber of the tomb structure (which Woolley colorfully, and aptly, called a “death pit”).  The queen was buried in state a sumptuous treasure chamber with only three other retainers.  The Oriental Institute website provides a more complete description of Puabi’s dead attendants:

Puabi’s death pit contained the remains of more than a dozen retainers, most of whom were women. The approach to the pit appeared to have been guarded like that of the king [whose looted grave was found nearby], in this case by five men with copper daggers. The vehicle here was a sled, pulled by two oxen, and accompanied by four grooms. Other attendants within Puabi’s pit included ten women, all wearing elaborate headdresses, positioned in two rows “facing” one another and accompanied by musical instruments

The Oriental Institute goes to pains to point out that human sacrifice and mass suicide remain speculative and that “scholars have failed to come to any consensus concerning the exact beliefs and practices behind the royal tombs at Ur.”  I am going to ignore those august words and rely on the (heavy) circumstantial evidence of all those extra corpses to say “human sacrifice”.

Woolley's Diagram of the Tomb of Puabi

Puabi herself was about 40 years old when she died and she only stood 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall.  Although she may have been tiny, the stature of her city-state was rapidly rising at the time.  Ur was located near the mouth of the Euphrates and its location allowed it to grow wealthy from trade.  At the time of Puabi, it was beginning to rival Uruk (its predecessor) and it had long eclipsed ancient Eridu, the first of the Mesopotamian city-states.

An artist's reconstruction of the city-state of Ur

A Gold Moche Headdress portraying a Sea Goddess

The Moche civilization was a culture which flourished between 100 and 800 AD in northern Peru.  Although the Moche had sophisticated agricultural know-how and created elaborate irrigation canals to water their crops, their religious iconographs shows that their hearts belonged to the ocean. This seems to be literally true, their greatest god, Ai Apaec (AKA “the decapitator”) was a horrifying aquatic deity with the arms of a crab or an octopus [I desperately wanted to feature this deity in my Gods of the Underworld Category, but there is not much hard information about him. I’m still tagging this post to that category because…well, just look at him]. Ai Apaec thirsted for human blood and Moche religious ceremonies seem to have been based around human sacrifice.  There is substantial archaeological evidence available about the Moche people and their civilization.  Several large structures remain extant in the dry climate of Northern Peru.  From these temples and graves, we can get a sense of Moche society.

A Sculpture of Ai Apaec, the Decapitator (Gold, copper, and polished stone)

One of the most important Moche sites is the Huaca del Sol (Shrine of the Sun) an adobe brick temple pyramid which is believed to have functioned as a royal palace, royal tombs, and as a temple.  Although a substantial portion of the complex was destroyed by the Spanish, who mined it for gold, enough remained to provide archaeologists with a picture of Moche life.  Additionally an untouched smaller temple the Huaco del Luna was discovered nearby. The conclusions drawn from studying these compounds were dramatic and horrifying.  Archaeology magazine describes two excavations and their grisly discoveries:

Bourget and his team uncovered a sacrificial plaza with the remains of at least 70 individuals–representing several sacrifice events–embedded in the mud of the plaza, accompanied by almost as many ceramic statuettes of captives. It is the first archaeological evidence of large-scale sacrifice found at a Moche site and just one of many discoveries made in the last decade at the site.

In 1999, Verano began his own excavations of a plaza near that investigated by Bourget. He found two layers of human remains, one dating to A.D. 150 to 250 and the other to A.D. 500. In both deposits, as with Bourget’s, the individuals were young men at the time of death. They had multiple healed fractures to their ribs, shoulder blades, and arms suggesting regular participation in combat. They also had cut marks on their neck vertebrae indicating their throats had been slit. The remains Verano found differed from those in the sacrificial plaza found by Bourget in one important aspect: they appeared to have been deliberately defleshed, a ritual act possibly conducted so the cleaned bones could be hung from the pyramid as trophies–a familiar theme depicted in Moche art.

A view of the Huaca de la Luna, with Cerro Blanco in the background.

In 2006, Archaeologists were fortunate enough to discover an extremely well-preserved Moche mummy.  Peru This Week outlined the discovery, writing, “The mummy, herself 1,500 years old, is of a woman in her 20s, believed to be an elite member of the Moche tribe. The skeleton of an adolescent girl offered in sacrifice was found with a rope still around its neck. The archaeologists from Peru and the US found the mummy at a site called El Brujo on the north coast near Trujillo. They have dated the mummy to about 450 AD.”

We know a great deal about Moche culture not merely from such rich archaeological finds but also from the vivid artistic skills of the Moche themselves.  Not only were they accomplished painters, the Moche were among the world’s great ceramics makers.  They crafted vessels which beautifully portrayed deer, birds, mollusks (like the spiny oyster), and other sea creatures.  They also made many ceramic art objects portraying war, agriculture, economic activities, and copulation.  Many of these Moche ceramics grace the world’s great museums: the expressive grace of the crafting speaks to a society which understood and revered beauty.

A Frog-shaped Moche Vessel (Ceramic with earth glaze)

The decline and failure of Moche civilization is something of a mystery.  The civilization reached an apogee early in the 6th century.  Then the great communities of that era appear to have been wiped out by the climate change which affected civilizations worldwide.  It seems like the horrible weather events of 535–536 played particular havoc with Moche society.  However the Moche survived these upheavels and settlements have been discovered from the middle of the seventh century onward to 800 AD.  The character of these latter communities is different from that of the golden age Moche civilizations.  Fortifications were much in evidence and the trade and agricultural underpinnings of civilization seem to have been much reduced.  Perhaps the Moche were involved in a series of internal battles among varying factions and elites.

Ximen Bao was an engineer and a rationalist who lived during the warring states period in China.  He served as a magistrate for the Marquis Wen, who ruled the territory of Wei from 445 BC-396 BC.  During that time, the province of Ye (in what is now Hebei) began to decline and falter.  The Marquis sent Ximen Bao to find out what was wrong.

China 400 BCE: The Warring States (Thomas Lessman–Source Website http://www.WorldHistoryMaps.info)

Ximen Bao visited the main town of Ye on the river Zhang.  He was dismayed to find the fertile countryside depopulated.  Whole families were fleeing productive farms and leaving the rich land fallow.  The peasants feared the capricious god of the river, who could cause flooding and death (or alternately draught and starvation), but they feared the crushing taxes imposed upon them by the regional governor even more.  Most of all, they feared a local witch who selected a maidens from the area as a “brides” for the river.  Chosen girls were dressed in finery and tightly bound to sumptuously decorated floating platforms–which were then sunk.  These human sacrifice extravaganzas were the purported cause of the high taxes as well.  The governor levied annual taxes for the ceremony and then kept a majority of the proceeds for himself and his cronies.  People who complained discovered that their daughters were chosen as brides.

Upon finding this out, Ximen Bao arrived at one of the marriage “celebrations” with a troop of Wei soldiers.  As the ceremony started, he proclaimed the girl unworthy of the river god.  He commanded the witch to go down to the river bed and ask the river god whether the previous brides had been satisfactory.  When she began to equivocate, the soldiers threw her into the river (where she quickly sank beneath the current).  When the witch didn’t return, Ximen asked the governor’s cronies to see what was taking her so long.  The soldiers then threw them in the river to drown as well.

Ximen Bao Sends the Witch to Visit the River God

Ximen Bao sarcastically suggested that the witch and the officials were having lunch with the river god.  He was about to send the regional governor to fetch them, when the governor fell to his knees and begged forgiveness for the scheme. Ximen Bao stripped the governor of position and holdings (and then probably tortured him to death–as was customary at the time).  He used the proscribed wealth to build a series of dams and irrigation canals to bring the unruly river under control.   Ximen Bao is still revered for being the first Chinese official to tame a river by means of civil engineering, cunning administration, and, above all, the ability to see that religion was a con trick.

In China, famous generals, courtiers, and scholars have a tendency to undergo apotheosis: their lives and deeds become integrated into religion and folklore as they gradually come to be venerated as gods and immortals (in the way Yuchi Jingde became a door god).   Today Ximen Bao is venerated in China not as a supernatural being but rather as something much more rare and useful–an honest and clear-headed official.

Mekong Giant Catfish

The largest freshwater fish currently alive is the endangered Mekong Giant Catfish Pangasianodon gigas (there are sturgeons which are much heavier and longer, however they are classified as anadromous—they breed in freshwater but live in the sea).  The largest Mekong catfish on record have measured up to 3.2 meters (10 feet) with a mass greater than 300 kilograms (660 pounds).  Ichthyologists know little about the life patterns and spawning habits of the enigmatic Mekong catfish.  Juvenile catfish undergo an omnivorous stage when they eat insect larvae, zooplankton, and other small fish (including smaller juvenile Mekong catfish).  As soon as they reach their adult stage the catfish lose their barbels (the “whiskers” from which catfish derive their common English name) as well as their teeth to adapt a vegetarian diet of algae. The adult fish are silver or gray with yellowish bellies.

Giant catfish once lived throughout South East Asia in the waterways of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar and Yunnan. But today, overfishing, dam-building and industrialization have taken a heavy toll: the Mekong Giant Catfish can only be found in Mekong River and its tributaries in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.

 

Because of their giant size and their mysterious habits, the catfish have a place in the mythology and folklore of South East Asia.  The fish feature in many tales of Buddhist monks, najas, and water spirits. Miranda Leitsinger, who wrote an article about the fish, even relates a story of ritual human sacrifice, “In Laos, legend has it that four centuries ago, the king used to sacrifice a man and woman each year to cave spirits to get their permission to catch the giant catfish.”  Apparently the cave and water spirits are not the force they once were, because today the Mekong giant catfish is rapidly becoming a legend itself.

Prehistoric cave paintings of fishermen throwing nets at the catfish (upper left) from Pha Taem National Park. The paintings are possibly 3,000 years old or older.

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