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Every year for Saint Patrick’s Day, I have put up a post about Celtic mythology/folklore.  In the past these have been about magical beings like leprechauns, the Leannán Sídhe, or the horrifying Sluagh. Sometimes these posts have been complete stories like the tale of Oisín and the princess from Tír na nÓg, the land of the forever young (shudder).  These myths are metaphors for the beauty and sadness of life.  they focus on the impossible paradoxes of people’s hearts.  Yet lately my personal focus has been on fish-themed art which is symbolic of humankind’s increasingly problematic relationship with nature itself–our never-ending drive to consume the world of life that we are inextricably part of.  What if there were a tale that combined these elements?

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Well…in the most ancient Irish myths there was a figure known as the bradán feasa, “the salmon of knowledge.”  The salmon was an ordinary salmon who ate nine hazelnuts which fell from the tree of knowledge and tumbled into the mortal world.  The fish knew all of the wisdom of nature: it knew the reason the sun shines, the mysteries of the deep ocean, and the secrets of the green forest…it even knew the hidden truths of people’s hearts and why they do what they do. 

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For years and years the great sage Finegas fished the River Boyne trying to catch the salmon so he could devour it and gain its knowledge of all things.  The salmon (obviously) already knew what Finegas was up to, and it was no easy prey, but alas, it also knew the end of the myth and so, one day, it reluctantly succumbed to Finegas’ hook.  Finegas was exultant.  Soon he would know all of the hidden secrets of the world. He gave the fish to his apprentice, Fionn, to cook along with explicit instructions not to eat a single bite of the fish. Dutifully Fionn built a great blaze and set about cooking the enormous fish, but as he repositioned the bronze cooking vessel, he burnt his thumb and he unthinkingly popped his finger into his mouth.  

Fish Chef (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) ink and colored pencil

Fish Cook (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Ink and Colored Pencil

All of the salmon’s knowledge from the divine tree of knowledge flowed through one drop of fish fat into the mind of Fionn.  Awakening from his slumber to partake of his repast, Finegas looked into the eyes of his servant and he knew at once that the divine secrets of the universe were for the next generation not for the aged sage.  That servant boy, Fionn Mac Cumhaill, would become the greatest hero of Ireland, the eponymous figure at the center of the Fenian cycle.  His deeds and his loves were legend and his myth will never die.  Indeed, Fionn himself will never die: he sleeps…elsewhere… beyond the turnings of the world.  One day, in Ireland’s hour of greatest need he will reawaken and bring back the salmon’s knowledge to the dying world. But that is another story…   

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I hope you enjoyed those three allegories of human destiny.  By the way, the first fable is from the peculiar 2006 film “Apocalypto”.  The movie begins when a rainforest shaman gathers the hunter-gatherers of his village around him and tells them that myth. Then the little society falls under the boot of the Mayan empire and the real fireworks start.  The second story is from the King James Bible (the second and third chapter of Genesis).  I properly attributed the magic flounder story to the Brothers Grimm.

 If I asked what these stories have in common, my ex-girlfriend would be quick to answer “misogyny”: women act selfishly in the second and third stories and don’t even appear in the first one! Who writes this stuff? Mel Gibson, Biblical Patriarchs (or God?), and the Brothers Grimm? Pshaw!  She always had a point about men’s use of language and eagerness to make women take the fall for their actions (and she still does: look at me use her as a straw-man), however, the gender dynamics truly are of secondary importance in these stories.  In each tale, all human protagonists are really “humankind”  and, throughout, it seems we are out for nothing less than godhood.

The idea that human existence is a multi-generational struggle for apotheosis is an appealing concept!  Indeed, that is essentially the linear “upward” narrative that western historians and scientists are always accused of telling.  The march upwards narrative has been useful for us: we need to get back to it… but we have to ask some pointed questions about what exactly “godhood” means in global scale macro context.  Upward to where? The idea of super-powered alien gardeners with ultimate magical power (or, you know, omnipotent flounders) is clearly another symbol.  But a symbol for what?   Could that silly fisherman not ask for a comprehensive explanation of gravity…or, better yet, ask what the flounder wanted?

A very legitimate reading of each of these tales is “You may have everything you want, but don’t aspire to Godhood.” Man’s attempt to master and surpass the abilities of every animal only leads him to want more…to the point of undermining the life-giving ecosystems of earth itself.  This is a familiar story…out the window  in our world of rampant consumerism, crony capitalism, and mass extinction.

In the Eden story, humankind’s attempts to grasp God’s knowledge results in Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise into a world of constant struggle and death.  No longer are we pampered children in a garden of plenty: we have to be farmers, clerks, and soldiers struggling for some venal king or CEO who always wants a bigger palace. Our drive for knowledge and self-mastery is constantly undone by our self-defeating need for social ascendancy.  Yet without social ascendancy we are unable to grapple with problems of planetary scale engineering which we will soon need to stay alive (much less to move onward to other worlds).  This is a paradox.  Look what happened to the United States (in case you are reading this essay on a blackened parchment found in some ruins, we have been shamefully taken over from within by a risible strongman who loves pomp more than the pope himself does).   Trying to grasp the powers of the creator will not work unless we can master ourselves.  Doing so always requires political struggles which supersede the important things (science and engineering…and the underlying creative animus which gives context to fundamental knowledge).

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Although…there are literary critics who argue that the flounder gave the fisherman and his wife what they asked for with the last wish.  When last seen in the Bible (in the New Testament), God had come to Earth as a poor human.  Perhaps the fisherman and his wife are happy enough as ordinary garden-variety humans. We can’t go back to the garden of Eden and live as dumb happy subordinates…or can we?  I sure spend a lot of time arguing with fundamentalist Christians and with utopian left-leaning environmentalists about why we need space colonies.  There are a lot of people who don’t want to move forward anymore.  In their vision, we can put aside some of our gifts and just exist?  I am maybe mischaracterizing this, but it sounds ridiculous to me: we are like a shark.  If we stop moving for any length of time we’ll just die.

So why do we need a space colony anyway?  It is perilously close to the religious vision of heaven: living in the sky in a magical city where everyone exists in perfect harmony.  Did I escape the hegemony of Judeo-Christian hierarchies only to try to recreate that hierarchy with science and engineering (that is a very legitimate reading of contemporary society too).

I don’t have the answers to these questions and I see the plastic detritus and toxic waste of our struggles blotting out the natural world we depend on. Maybe we can hook the flounder one last time and ask for an explanation (that is what my weird art is about, by the way).  Or maybe we must trudge on from Eden as best we can, looking for a paradise which will never be more than a mythical archetype.  Yet I like snakes, and I didn’t see the serpent’s words as inherently untrue.  Also, from a literary perspective, why would God even create such a tree, if we weren’t supposed to eat of it. A divinity that wanted obedient little children forever could have done things very differently.  Growing up is hard and sometimes involves painful disagreements with your parents (and some people can’t do it at all).  But here we are, with the strengths of all of the beasts, and the knowledge of good and evil.  We must throw down our strongmen and false gods (gods are all metaphors, people, for goodness’ sake!) and reach farther and think deeper than ever before. Eden is lost, but our arms are growing longer.  We can reach forth from here, to other worlds, or we can squabble like children for petty status objects until we destroy ourselves with the foolish struggle.  Metaphors or no, all individual humans are going back to the mud anyway, but while we are alive we can redeem ourselves: we can save the earth (and all its lovely animals) and we can give our children everything, if we can just ask the right thing…

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Here is a very beautiful painting by Pre-Raphaelite luminary Evelyn de Morgan.  This work is titled The Angel with the Serpent and it was completed between 1870 and 1875. Although the work is a religious allegory, its meaning is surprisingly elusive.  In Judeo-Christian myth, the serpent represents sexuality, subversiveness, knowledge (and evil). These meanings certainly pertain to this work, yet the angel’s tenderness for the snake seems to suggest that God has wrought these aspects of existence too.

Admittedly this painting might depict a world before the fall (the sumptuous flowering bush and the bare lands beyond hint at this possibility).  Is the handsome angel in the red robes Lucifer before he was cast down?  Even if this painting does depict the time of Eden, it still suggests that the snake was always part of God’s plan and is dear to the Divinity and his agents (a forbidden idea which raises numerous troubling questions).

I am presenting the painting not just so you ponder the metaphorical meanings of Genesis (although I hope you are doing so), but also to introduce my Halloween week theme of supernatural snakes.  Ferrebeekeeper is no stranger to snake deities and monsters at all levels, but snakes have always been part of every mythos except for those of the farthest north and so there are plenty more to get to.  Enjoy Evelyn de Morgan’s lovely painting and get used to numinous snakes–we are going to see some amazing scales and forked tongues before next Tuesday!

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