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The oldest known epic is The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was composed during the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2100 BC). It is regarded as the first great work of literature–a masterpiece which examines humankind’s quest for transcendent meaning in the face of our mortality.

It is a beautiful work about friendship, sorrow, and heroism. I have always meant to write about it here–for the epic’s two greatest scenes take place in a forest and in outer space. The crushing moral denouement is delivered by a water snake. However I have always hesitated because, although it seems outwardly straightforward, The Epic of Gilgamesh defies easy categorization. Suffice to say, humankind reaches out for godhood, yet, though our fingers tantalizingly brush the numinous, apotheosis slips ineluctably away. We are only what we are. Even the greatest human heroes–kings who founded dynasties and pursue mysteries to the ends of the solar system–are still sad and lonely. And everyone must die.

And so it has been for 4 millennia. One does not expect updates to literature written before chickens were domesticated or iron was forged. However this week featured an unexpected gift from the ancient past. Twenty new lines of The Epic of Gilgamesh were discovered!

The story of how scholars in Iraq found the new text is amazing in its own right: the Sulaymaniyah Museum in the Kurdistan region of Iraq has been offering cash compensation for cultural treasures with no strings attached. Since so many antiquities have been displaced by the war and have gone wandering, this Indiana Jones-like scheme is regarded as the best way to protect the ancient heritage of the region. Unknown looters showed up with an cuneiform fragment. The museum director paid them $800.00 for the piece (which would only be chicken scratches to anyone other than a great scholar of Akkadian). As it turns out, the extant version of Gilgamesh comes from an incomplete collection of tablets unearthed at different times and in different places. This clay tablet features 20 entirely new lines from tablet V of the epic.


The best part of this story is that the new fragment is really good! It is an important and meaningful addition to the story. In tablet V, the heroes of the epic Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight and kill Humbaba, the monstrous guardian of the great cedar forest. In the twenty new lines they reflect on the fact that Humbaba was a king, trying to protect his realm. They rue the destruction of the cedar forest (where they encountered monkeys and other exotic creatures) and they realize that they have disturbed the divine order of things and incurred the wrath of Ishtar.

The fragment thus gives the characters a more refined conscience and introduces an environmentalist theme. The idea that humans can injure the planet and permanently destroy irreplaceable life forms is new and alien to many contemporary people. It strikes a powerful chord appearing in the first work of literature. Yet it seems to me that themes of environmental devastation (and consciousness concerning our own destructive nature) are hardly out of place in a story which deals with the creation of civilization and the liminal edges of humanity.

The Avatar Kurma Churns the Ocean of Milk with Help from Devas and Asuras

The Avatar Kurma Churns the Ocean of Milk with Help from Devas and Asuras

Today is World Turtle Day when we celebrate all things chelonian. “That is wonderful, but what does it have to do with the fabulous Hindu tableau above?” you are probably asking. Well, the second avatar of Lord Vishnu, the preserver of all life, (who appears again and again in the world as different incarnations) was the turtle deity Kurma. The story is told above, but here is a streamlined narration to go with the painting.

Vishnu as Kurma

Vishnu as Kurma

The story begins with an elephant mishap: the great sage Durvasa presented a magnificent garland to Indra, king of the gods, who in turn presented the wreath to his magnificent war elephant. Unfortunately the elephant had limited aesthetic appreciation of the gift and trampled it. Deeply offended, Durvasa cursed the gods to lose their strength, radiance, and immortality. Thus cast down, the gods desperately looked for a solution from Vishnu, who advised them to quaff the nectar of immortality. Sadly there was no nectar available and the only way to produce more was to churn the ocean of milk with such force that the sacred milk clarified into the elixir.


To complete the task, the gods allied themselves with the demon Asuras (power-hungry beings of near divinity who frequently fought the gods). The gods took the pillar-like Mount Mandara as a great butter churn and, with help from Vasuki, the king of all snakes, they began to churn the ocean of milk. So great was the force of gods and Asuras combined that Mount Mandara begin to sink into the ocean. Vishnu then transformed himself into the vast turtle Kurma and swam beneath the Mountain. His flippers churned the froth. The gods, demons, and great snake all exerted themselves to their utmost, and the turbulent ocean of milk became refined. Fourteen precious treasures arose from the sea, culminating in the sacred nectar of immortality.


The picture at the top (which you should enlarge!) shows the gods on the left and the Asuras on the right. The king of nagas is acting as a drill rope wrapped around Mount Mandara. Vishnu sits atop the mountain and does not seem especially turtle-like. Fortunately I have included some paintings and drawings of him as a great turtle.

Hopefully you can learn a valuable lesson from this powerful myth! (Do not give treasured wreathes to elephants? Milk is healthy? Be kind to turtles? I don’t know…)

Anyway Happy World Turtle Day!

Maybe the point is that turtles are beautiful and should be considered sacred

Maybe the point is that turtles are beautiful and should be considered sacred

Corona Borealis is a semicircular constellation in the northern sky between Hercules and Boötes.  It is of mild interest to astronomers for containing two interesting variable stars: (1) T Coronae Borealis, the so-called “Blaze Star”, which is a recurring nova binary star; and (2) R Coronae Borealis, a yellow supergiant which periodically dims from magnitude 6 to magnitude 14 and then brightens back up (possibly because it is producing carbon).

The constellation is much more interesting to classical artists since a myth about its creation gives artists their symbol for deification.  Ariadne was the daughter of Minos, king of Crete who became judge of the underworld after his death and Queen Pasiphae (who was herself a daughter of the sun).  The princess fell in love with Theseus, an Athenian hero who was to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, a bull-headed monster who lived in the labrynth beneath the palace.  With the help of the wise artificer, Daedalus, Ariadne rescued Theseus and together they fled from Crete (just barely escaping destruction at the hands of Talos, the giant bronze robot which guarded the island).

Ariadne (John William Waterhouse, 1898, oil on canvas)

Once they had escaped, the faithless Theseus abandoned Ariadne sleeping on the island of Naxos.  The sleeping maiden was spied by Dionysus who chose her as a consort. She was given immortality and godhood as soon as she was married and Dionysus hung her wedding crown of stars in the sky as the constellation Corona Borealis (maybe it has so many variable stars because it was sacred to the god of intoxication).

Bacchus and Ariadne (Roman sarcophagus ca. 170-180 BC)

This seems like a weird narrative and it probably reflects Greek confusion about the proper status of Ariadne (whom some scholars identify as a Cretan serpent goddess from the Mycenaean era).  But irrespective of her origin or how she came by her divinity Ariadne has proven to be a favorite subject of visual artists from classical times onward.  Many artists prefer to portray her beautiful, naked, and asleep (and you can easily find many such paintings and statues on the web) but nearly as many are fascinated by her apotheosis—the moment she receives her godhood and escapes mortality.

Bacchus and Ariadne (Titian, 1523–24, oil on canvas)

Perhaps the finest of these paintings was created by the peerless hand of Titian for the Alabaster Room in the palace of Duke Alfonso d’Este–who specifically commissioned the world’s finest bacchanal paintings for his room (a project so fascinating and strange that the Alabaster Room has been virtually created online).   The painting shows the moment when Dionysus reveals himself to the bewildered Ariadne with all of his divine retinue.  The beautiful god leaps from his leopard-drawn chariot and flies down towards her as maenads and satyrs wildly revel behind him.  If you aren’t too distracted by the naked wild man covered in snakes, or by the dismembered donkey, or by the beautiful columbines and irises which bloom purple beneath the feet of the god’s inebriated followers, you will notice the constellation Corona Borealis glowing in the sky above Ariadne’s head.

Titian’s vision was so splendid and influential that other artists adopted the crown of stars as a symbol of apotheosis.  The crown of immortality appears in other works as heroes step across the threshold of godhood.  It is a reoccurring representation of our desire to step beyond humanity and become deathless divine beings.

Madonna in Glory (Carlo Dolci, 1670, Oil on canvas)

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky on a Soviet Stamp

Born in 1857, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky grew up in a remote province of Tsarist Russia with his 17 brothers and sisters. His father, Edward Ciołkowskia, was a Polish orthodox priest who had been deported deep into the heart of Russia as a result of his political activities.  Edward Russianized his name and married an educated Tartar woman: the two then proceeded to have many children (of whom Konstantin was fifth). When he was 9 years old Konstantin caught scarlet fever and barely survived.  Once he finally recovered, he was deaf or very nearly so.  Because of his hearing problem he was denied admittance to elementary school and he quickly fell behind his peers. His mother died when he was 13 and his family’s poverty prevented him from moving forward in the world.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky on a Soviet Stamp ( I'm sorry that I'm still thinking about stamps even in the midst of this remarkable tale)

This is a very grim and Russian story so far but here is where it becomes extraordinary. Isolated and alone, Konstantin made his way to Moscow.  He was teaching himself at the Chertkovskaya Library where a very strange and brilliant man named Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov was an employee. Fyodorov was a transhumanist philosopher and a futurist who believed that humankind’s path forward leads ultimately to technological transcendence and divinity. He felt that scientific progress would eventually lead to physical immortality and then ultimately to the resurrection of all people who have ever died (Fyodorov liked to think “outside of the box”).  With the tutelage and mentorship of Fyodorov, Tsiolkovsky taught himself math. He took an active interest in Fyodorov’s scientific philosophy and even began to wonder what could be done with all of the immense number of dead humans if and when they returned. The thought led Konstantin Tsiolkovsky to think about outer space and the subject came to dominate the rest of his life.

Inspired by Fyodorov’s wild ideas and by the science fiction of Jules Verne, Tsiolkovsky began to invent the science necessary to carry humans up gravity’s well and beyond this world.  The Encyclopedia of Science summarizes his work as follows:

Tsiolkovsky produced some of the earliest scientific literature on spaceflight, including the classic work Exploration of Space by Means of Reactive Apparatus (1896). In 1898 he derived the basic formula that determines how rockets perform – the rocket equation. This formula was first published in 1903, a few months before the Wright brothers’ historic manned flight. It appeared, together with many other of Tsilokovsky’s seminal ideas on spaceflight, in an article called “Investigating Space with Rocket Devices,” in the Russian journal Nauchnoye Obozreniye (Science Review). Unfortunately, the same issue also ran a political revolutionary piece that led to its confiscation by the Tsarist authorities. Since none of Tsiolkovsky’s subsequent writings were widely circulated at the time (he paid for their publication himself out of his meager teacher’s wage), it was many years before news of his work spread to the West.

No one understood Tsiolkovsky’s work at the time he wrote them.  Today the basic concepts behind space travel—such as multistage rockets, orbital velocity, and compressed liquid fuels–are widely understood [Ed. not according to the comments of any given article about space exploration on CNN] but at the dawn of the twentieth century they were wildly fantastic and incomprehensible to international scientists much less to Tsarist Russians. Tsiolkovsky did not stop at elementary proposals of space travel and the fundamental underpinnings of rocketry.  He also came up with sophisticated ideas such as using graphite rudders for rocket telemetry, cooling combustion nozzles with cryogenic propellants, and pumping fuel from storage tanks into the rocket’s combustion chamber.

Tsiolkovsky's Conception of a Spaceship

His neighbors regarded him as an eccentric outsider—a deaf schoolteacher mumbling gibberish—but Tsiolkovsky kept on coming up with brilliant ideas, some of which are still ahead of their time.  In 1895 he was inspired by the Eiffel Tower to propose the creation of a 35,790 kilometer tall tower surmounted by “a celestial castle” from which objects could be launched directly into space: it was the first conception of a space elevator.   By the twenties, as the scientific minds of the new Soviet Union began to realize how innovative Tsiolkovsky’s ideas were, he was contemplating sustainable space habitats and galactic colonization.

Today Konstantin Tsiolkovsky is considered the father of theoretical astronautics—or more simply the father of spaceflight.  Sputnik was launched on his one hundredth birthday.  Soviet propagandists built many statues and monuments to Tsiolkovsky but the greatest tribute to his legacy (apart of course from humankind’s space programs–which grew from his ideas) has been seen by only a few humans. Tsiolkovsky crater, the most prominent feature on the dark side of the moon is named in his honor.

The Dark Side of the Moon (Tsiolkovsky Crater dominates in the upper left quarter)


The ancient Greeks reserved their most ardent and heartfelt prayers for the gods of the mystery cults.  Among these mysterious deities of the underworld–great gods like Hecate, Cronus, and Persephone–one entity stood out: Triptolemus was not a god at all but a mortal.  Unlike the other heroes and demigods the Greeks worshipped, Triptolemus was neither a warrior nor a doer of great deeds.  He never seduced a goddess or slew a monster. The goddess who favored Triptolemus was not all-conquering Athena, or the dark sorceress Hecate. Yet a trip to an art museum with a good Greek collection will reveal that he was much on the minds of the Greeks: Triptolemus appears more often in actual Greek sacred art than do many figures much more familiar to us today.

Demeter Mourning Persephone (Evelyn De Morgan, 1906)

Triptolemus owed all of his fame and respect to Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, seasons, and growing things (known as Ceres to the Romans). When Demeter’s daughter Persephone was kidnapped by Hades, Demeter aged from a beautiful woman into a horrible crone.  The world lost its fertility as Demeter’s attention wavered away from keeping the world fecund.  She stumbled through a desolate world of famine, death, and cold looking for her lost daughter.  Most people turned away the desperate crone but Triptolemus’ father Ceulis, the King of Eleusis in Attica, was kind to her and asked her to raise his sons Demophon and Triptolemus.  In the midst of the dark season which befell the world, Ceulis remained a charitable and generous host, and Demeter noted his kindness. To reward Ceulis’ family she decided to make his firstborn son Demophon into an immortal god.  Nightly she smeared Demophon with ambrosia, the food of heaven & the balm of the gods, and then she placed him in the fire to burn his mortality away.  One night as she was blowing her divine breath on the glowing child, Demophon’s mother Metanira entered the room.  Horrified by the spectacle before her, the Queen flew into a frenzy and began screaming.  Demeter grew angry at the Queen’s histrionics and decided to withdraw her boon from Demophon–who burst into flames without her divine protection.  She went back out into the ravaged land and resumed her search for Persephone.

Demeter Holding Cereal and Serpents

When Demeter finally found Persephone and orchestrated her annual return from the underworld she still did not forget the kindness of Ceulis’ family.  She saw that the transition from summer’s abundance to winter’s scarcity was difficult for humans and was killing many of them. Demeter taught Ceulis’ younger (still living) son Triptolemus the art of agriculture.  She gave him a flying chariot drawn by magical serpents (who, like Demeter, knew the secrets of the land) and sent him forth to teach the crafts of planting and harvesting grain to the rest of humankind. These lessons made Triptolemus sacred to the Greeks.  Growing grains allowed them to cease their eternal foraging and pursue the fruits of civilization.  Since Triptolemus was so dear to Demeter and Persephone, he became a focus of the Eleusinian Mystery cult, which sought to provide its initiates with an eternal place in the most pleasant fields and gardens of the underworld (which were of course the bailiwick of Persephone).

Triptolemus riding a winged chariot (Athenian red-figure skyphos 5th B.C.)

Triptolemus was portrayed as a beautiful youth with a diadem on his brow. He rode a winged snake-drawn carriage and in his hands were a plate of grain, ears of barley & wheat, and a scepter.  Since Triptolemus’ agricultural outlook was entirely based around sowing and reaping grains,   he recommended a pro-animal point of view somewhat at odds with the herdsmen and hunters of ancient Greece.  According to Porphyry, Triptolemus’ three principles for living a simple godly life were 1) honor one’s parents; 2) honor the gods with grains and malted beverage, and 3) spare the animals.

Mixing Vessel with Triptolemos (Athenian, ca. 470 BC)

The Garden of the Hesperides (Sir Frederic Leighton, 1892)

In the Greek view of the world, there was a tranquil garden of perpetual rosy twilight which was found at the sunset edge of all lands–so far west that the west came to an end.  The garden was inhabited by three nymphs of peerless beauty whose special task was to tend an apple tree in the middle of the garden.  The golden fruit of the tree would confer immortality upon anyone who ate one. But of course there was a catch.

This was the penultimate labor of Hercules: to bring back three of the apples of the Hesperides.  The tree was in the private garden of Hera herself and the apple tree was a wedding gift from Mother Earth to the queen of the gods.  Plucking the apples from the tree would bring instant death to any mortal, but the biggest problem of all was the garden’s true guardian, the dragon Ladon who was coiled around the apple tree.  As you might imagine, Ladon was one of Echidna’s offspring.  He is sometimes shown as a great python, other times as a more traditional dragon, and occasionally as a hundred-headed uber-dragon.

The Garden of Hesperides (Edward Burne-Jones, ca. 1870-1873)

Although dragons abound in Greek mythology, the snake-dragon curled around a sacred tree, seems to have arrived in Greek mythology from another canon altogether.  Scholars believe Ladon’s original form was the Semitic serpent god Lotan, or the Hurrian/Hittite serpent Illuyanka.  In fact, serpents/dragons wound around fruit trees are well-known in the three great monotheistic faiths of the present. In Greek mythology, Ladon only plays an active role in the story of Hercules 11th labor (and even then, the dragon’s role is curiously ambiguous).

Hercules and the Hesperides (Rubert Bunny, 1864 - 1947)

Hercules traveled through the Greek world having adventures, killing giants, and seeking the garden’s location.  It was during his search for the Garden of the Hesperides that he slew the Caucasian Eagle and freed Prometheus (who, in gratitude, told him what to expect at the garden of the Hesperides).  In order to obtain the apples, Hercules solicited the aid of the titan Atlas, who holds up the firmament.  Hercules assumed the burden of the heavens while immortal Atlas collected the apples. When Atlas betrayed Hercules and left the strongman holding the heavens, Hercules pretended to accept his fate–but he asked to adjust his lionskin first.  Once Atlas was holding the heavens again, Hercules picked up the apples and took them back to Eurystheus (who was rightly afraid of them, and gave them to Athena).  The fate of the dragon is a bit unclear.  In some versions Hercules kills him for good measure.  For example, in the story of Jason and the golden fleece, Ladon’s corpse is spotted by the Argonauts—the creature’s body is still heaving and trembling years after death while the heartbroken nymphs sob.  In other stories the dragon survives and, together with the nymphs, continues to look after the tree of life.

Because I can not resist, here are links to a very short and delightful comic strip consisting of a first, second, and third panel. The drawings contain mild nudity (which differs from that found in Lord Leighton’s painting above only in that the strip is contemporary). The creator, M.L. Peters, tried to add a feeling of fin de siècle illustration so as to give the comic punchline a deeper resonance, and I feel he succeeded admirably.  Additionally I love anchovies.

Ming Double-gourd Vase, Jiajing mark and period

The eleventh Emperor of the Ming dynasty, the Jiajing emperor, who (mis)ruled China from 1521 to 1567, was a tremendously devout taoist.  During the Jiajing reign, Taoist symbolism became omnipresent in art and culture–especially near the end of the emperor’s reign when his fanatical search for immortality began to bring ruin to China.  Jiajing porcelain is distinct in that the robust naturalism of earlier Ming blue and white ware is replaced by increasingly fanciful imagery.  Cranes, dragons, phoenixes, immortals, and flaming pearls all float through a dreamlike magical world.  Sorcerers and magicians frolic happily through scerene forests filled with deer, pine, fungi, and bamboo (all of which are symbols of immortality or longevity).  Frilly clouds complete the picture of whimsical abandon.   Even the shape of porcelain became more fanciful: to quote the website Eloge de l’Art par Alain Truong, (which contains many fine photographs of Jiajing porcelain, several of which are used here), “The double-gourd is a popular symbol of longevity and is associated with the Daoist Immortal Li Tiegui, who is depicted holding a double gourd containing the elixir of immortality.”  The vase at the top of the article, which shows a lighthearted scene of people playing in a garden is double gourd shaped. Here are some additional examples of Jiajing porcelain:

Ming Dynasty Vase, Jianjing mark and period

Another lovely blue and white double gourd vase also reflects the Jiajing zeitgeist.  On this vase, an auspicious crane flies throught the clouds above a powerful dragon.

Ming Jar, Jiajing mark and period

This small jar portrays the four Daoist Immortals Li Tieguai, Liu Hai, Hanshan and Shide dancing in a pine forest beneath swirling clouds.

Ming Double-gourd Vase, Jiajing mark and period

‘Shou’ is the symbol for longevity. This double vase presents numerous shou medallions of various sizes embedded in a matrix of clouds and flames.

The insubstantial nature of the arts and crafts of the Jiajing reign was counterpointed by all-too-real deterioration of conditions within China.  Though occasionally wracked by external wars and secession crisises the early Ming dynasty had been a golden age when Chinese power and affluence reached peak levels.  However as the Jiajing emperor turned his back on the world to sip mercury and contemplate the serenity of clouds, fissures started growing between the Empire’s various classes, the treasury became empty, and barbarians and client states around China perceived opportunities to exploit China’s weakness.

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April 2020