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It’s Friday night right before Pride weekend—just after a landmark Supreme Court ruling making equal marriage rights into national law throughout the United States.  I just realized I am painting a rainbow mantis shrimp (as a part of one of my weird paintings).  Tomorrow I am going to a children’s birthday party to paint faces.  It occurs to me that maybe I should write about rainbows—the quintessential manifestation of color, joie de vivre, and liberation (political, sexual, spiritual, and otherwise).

Landscape with Rainbow (Joseph Anton Koch, 1824, oil on canvas)

Landscape with Rainbow (Joseph Anton Koch, 1824, oil on canvas)

Of course rainbows are really a meteorological/optic phenomenon which can be seen whenever there are water drops suspended in the atmosphere with sunlight shining through (from behind the observer) at a particular angle. The light is refracted into a prismatic range of visible wavelengths.  This rote description however does scarce justice to the great beauty of the effect which has a transcendent glowing loveliness.

Iris, Goddess of the Rainbow

Iris, Goddess of the Rainbow

Thanks to this otherworldly beauty, the rainbow has many mythological associations in different pantheons: divine messengers use it as a bridge in Greek and Norse mythology, while the rainbow serpent rides it throughout the multiverse in aboriginal myth!  In the Judeo-Christian Bible, the rainbow represents God’s covenant not to destroy all life ever again…by means of flood (a binding promise which always struck me as dangerously undermined by the appended clause).   The leprechauns’ gold is hidden at the end of the rainbow—which is a place which can never be reached since the colors are an effect of light and not a real object (which makes it a perfect hiding place for the fantasy gold of mythical beings).

US World War I Victory Medal

US World War I Victory Medal

Rainbows have a long history as political symbols as well. The rainbow was the logo of the Cooperative movement during the German Peasant’s War of the 16th century (a profoundly unhappy social lesson which I will write about in detail as soon as I get some of that leprechaun gold). It has been used as a general symbol of peace after the World Wars (and even longer in Italy) and of racial cooperation in the sixties and, more especially, in post-Apartheid South Africa.  Since the seventies, the rainbow has been the symbol of gay pride and the LGBT social movement—progressive trends which have made astounding transfigurative leaps within my own lifetime. The original pride flag was designed by San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker in 1978 for the first Pride parade (which took place of June 25th of that year).

The original 8-color Pride Flag

The original 8-color Pride Flag

Baker’s original eight stripe LGBT rainbow has been gradually pared down to six colors by marketers in their obsessive bid to make things more simple and iconic (a broader sales philosophy which seems to me to strip the beauty and meaning from many aspects of the world).  Hopefully the rainbow—symbolic or real–won’t be further compromised by such dodgy principles!  In the meantime have a delightful midsummer weekend and celebrate.  Here in New York, it is supposed to rain and be beautiful at the same time, so perhaps we will get a real rainbow to compare with all of the flags and ornaments.

Today's Pride Flag

Today’s Pride Flag

number-1aOK! Here we go…The number one post of all time on this blog involved…leprechauns!   It seems people can not get enough of the wee little men in green frock coats. Of course there is a huge problem with writing non-fiction essays about leprechauns—namely, leprechauns are entirely fictional (although the inhabitants of Ireland and Portland (and Randy Quaid) might feel otherwise). I can write about the literary sources that leprechaun myths stem from and I can muse about what the wee fairy tricksters really symbolize, but, in the end, there is only so much that can be written before I am making stuff up for Ice Cube and Jennifer Anniston to star in.

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I classified leprechauns under the “Deities of the Underworld category, because the diminutive cobblers are said come from a mythical underworld beneath the stone burial cairns of Ireland. Additionally, there is a darkness and otherworldly viciousness to original stories of the leprechauns…a glimmer of the haunting madness which pervades all stories of Fairyland. Originally they were supernatural monsters rather than endearing imps.  Perhaps they remain popular because some of their edginess is still there no matter how many boxes of breakfast cereal and lottery tickets they sell in their contemporary guise as Irish stereotype/corporate shill.

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One aspect of leprechauns which classical and modern myths seem to agree upon is that the little green-coated men are greedy hoarders and they have a touch of obsessive compulsive disorder. This is entirely in keeping with the fundamental nature of contemporary society—which is run by little old men who likewise are profoundly greedy and have more than a touch of obsession with numbers…all of which is my way of segueing to data analytics (which I hate, but which the world’s masters seemingly can not get enough of).

Here are the top ten Ferrebeekeeper posts and their subjects

  1. Leprechaun Mascots (Gods of the Underworld, Mascots, Color, Literature)
  2. The Wombat (Mammals)
  3. The White, Red, and Blue Crown of Egypt (Crowns, History, Color, Hymenopterans, History)
  4. Velvet Ants (Hymenopterans, Color, Invaders, Poison)
  5. Sensitive Siluriforms (Catfish)
  6. Cerberus (Gods of the Underworld)
  7. Poisonous Platypus (Mammals, Poison)
  8. Krampus (Gods of the Underworld, History)
  9. The Green Vine Snake of the Subcontinent (Snakes, Color)
  10. Cheetah Cubs (Mammals)

A breakdown of topics by popularity therefore looks like this:

Color (4)
Gods of the Underworld (3)
Mammals (3)
Snakes (2)
Hymenopterans (2)
Poison (2)
History (2)
Catfish (1)
Crowns (1)
Literature (1)
Mascots (1)

So, what have we learned here? Well, infuriatingly, neither mollusks, nor trees, nor turkeys even made it to the final top ten list! I love writing about these subjects—mollusks particularly since they are an ancient astonishing phylum of life omnipresent on Earth since the development of the earliest animals. How could people turn their back on colossal squid, the giant orthocone, or the delicious oyster?

Even more surprisingly, space did not crack the top ten! Not only is this topic filled with treasure supernovae, white dwarfs, and space colonies, it also encompasses all that exists! Obviously I need to write more eloquently!

Wanted: Publicist

Wanted: Publicist

In terms of what actually was in the top ten list, color was the most popular topic—but it was really a secondary category in “Leprechauns”, “Velvet Ants”, and “The Green Vine Snake”. Only in the article about color-coded crowns of Ancient Egypt did it share top billing with crowns.

Did someone say "color crowns"?

Did someone say “color crowns”?

The real number one topic of Ferrebeekeeper is thus “Deities of the Underworld”! People apparently love dark gods—the evil violent beings which dwell down in the depths of our hearts where they mutter constantly of ruin, bloodshed, death, and night. Having lived for these long years in New York City, I should be unsurprised that underworld gods are people’s favorite topic among my various themes…yet it still provides a frisson of shock. Even as you read this, what secret altars are people kneeling in front of?

Yeesh...but I guess it's my blog and i should have seen this coming...

Yeesh…but I guess it’s my blog and I should have seen this coming…

At any rate, the readers have spoken with numbers… and I  listen. The dark prayers of the internet ask for more chthonic gods–for ghosts and gloom and strife! Tomorrow will be the thousandth post on Ferrebeekeeper and I will write again about Deities of the Underworld.

In the mean time, may the dark gods beneath the Earth smile upon you gentle readers and grant you a safe and easy night. Prithee peace!

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By far the most popular post on Ferrebeekeeper involves leprechauns.   Because of this fact, the sporadic generic tips I receive from WordPress usually include advice like “maybe you should consider writing more about this topic.”  This involves a conundrum, because leprechauns are totally made up.   What else is there to be said about the little green fairy-folk without reviewing weird B movies or randomly posting leprechaun tattoos?

Mill Ends Park (with human being added for scale)

Mill Ends Park (with human being added for scale)

Fortunately today’s news has come to my aid.  Apparently the world’s smallest park, Mill Ends Park, in Portland, Oregon was victimized by tree-rustlers who stole 100% of the park’s forest.  This seems like grim news, but Mill Ends Park is very small indeed: the entire (perfectly circular) park measures 2 feet in diameter.  Because of its dinky 452 square inch area, Mill Ends Park only contained one small tree.  A drunkard might have fallen on it (the park is located on a traffic island in the midst of a busy intersection) or pranksters might have taken it away to a container garden.  Maybe a German industrialist now has the little tree in some weird freaky terrarium…

Mill Ends Park with Dick Fagan

Mill Ends Park with Dick Fagan

Anyway, you are probably wondering why Portland has a park which is smaller than a large pizza and what exactly this has to do with imaginary fairy cobblers from Ireland.  It turns out that Mill Ends Park was the literary confabulation of journalist Dick Fagan.  After returning from World War II, Fagan began writing a blog (except they were called “newspaper columns” back then, and people were actually paid for them).  In 1948, the city of Portland had dug a hole to install a street light on the median of SW Naito Parkway, but due to the exigencies of the world, the light never materialized.  Fagan became obsessed with the pathetic little mud pit and began planting flowers in it and rhapsodizing about fantasy beings who lived there (whom only he could see).   Fagan’s story of the park’s creation is a classic leprechaun tale.  While Fagan was writing in his office, he saw a leprechaun, Scott O’Toole, digging the original hole (presumably to bury treasure or access a burial mound or accomplish some such leprechaun errand).  Fagan ran out of the building and apprehended the little man and thus earned a wish.  As mentioned, Fagan was a writer, so obviously gold was not his prime motivation.  He (Fagan) asked the leprechaun (Scott O’Toole) to be granted his very own park.  Since the journalist failed to specify the size of the park, the leprechaun granted him the tiny hole.

Documentary Photo of the Park's Founding (AP)

Documentary Photo of the Park’s Founding (AP)

Fagan continued to write about the “park” and its resident leprechaun colony for the next two decades using it as a metaphor for various urban issues or just as a convenient frippery when he couldn’t think of anything to write about (a purpose which the park still serves for contemporary writers).  In 1976, the city posthumously honored the writer by officially making the tiny space a city park.  The little park frequently features in various frivolous japes such as protests by pipe-cleaner people, the delivery of a post-it sized Ferris wheel by a full-sized crane, and overblown marching band festivities out of scale with the microcosm.

Mill Ends Park at the height of the Occupy Wall Street Movement

Mill Ends Park at the height of the Occupy Wall Street Movement

True to form, the Portland Park Department was appalled at the recent deforestation and sprang into action by planting a Douglas fir sapling in Mill End Park.  Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) are the second tallest conifers on Earth, and grow to a whopping  60–75 meters (200–246 ft) in height so it is unclear how this situation will play out over time, but presumably Patrick O’Toole and his extended Irish American family will be on hand to ensure that everything turns out OK.

A Douglas Fir with human for scale (photographed by zoopenguinwatcher)

A Douglas Fir with human for scale (photographed by zoopenguinwatcher)

Last year’s Saint Patrick’s Day post regarding leprechauns explored the folklore behind these whimsical tricksters and then delved (somewhat playfully) into the commercially appealing leprechaun mascots adopted by cereals and sports teams.  But leprechauns have a darker side as well.  The original leprechauns from old Irish myth were less like comic gnomes playing tricks and more like anguished demons trying to injure humankind by appealing to our base instincts.

Knowth Passage Grave, c.2500 BC, Boyne Valley, Co. Meath

Leprechauns were minor folk among the aes sídhe—quasi-divine beings from a parallel world, who sometimes came into the mortal realm from across the oceans or from an underworld deep beneath the ancient burial mounds dotting Ireland.  The aes sídhe were colloquially known as the “fair folk” not because they were always just or always beautiful, but as flattery to prevent their terrible anger. Many of the stories of the fair folk’s interactions with humankind are haunting stories of madness and tragedy: maidens seduced away from earthly pursuits who fast to death; heroes dragged into bogs and drowned; lonely people who think they see a dead loved one and walk into the ocean desperate for one last embrace…that sort of thing.

Leprechauns, the lower class of the Celtic fairy world, were not so subtle and refined in their attempts to cozen humankind.  Even in the popular imagination the little people are associated with thirst for liquor, greed for gold, and naked lechery. I wondered if I could find a gallery of leprechauns as accursed evil tricksters and it was not hard.  However, to my surprise, most of these dark leprechauns were not painted on canvas–instead they were carved into human flesh with the sickly greens and blacks of nightmares.  Do you doubt me gentle reader?  Then behold, as a run-up to Saint Patrick’s Day, here is an alarming gallery of evil leprechaun tattoos!

Art by Brian Gallagher

Of course a lot of these tattoos are meant for the basic reason most tattoos exist–to make the wearer seem like a badass–and a lot of them do just that.  It also seems like some of them are the sort applied with a pen and markers which wash off after all the green beer has been quaffed. A few of them however, struck me as surprisingly true to the old stories.  These green sprites have not come from the spirit world to haunt us: instead they emerge from our own desires.  Written on our heart, they peek out from inside our skins, beguiling us with thirst that can never be quenched and greed that can never be sated.

Or maybe I am thinking about it too hard and they are just comical little green men beckoning us to enjoy life while we can.  Perhaps a beer would settle my mind…. Slàinte, readers—may you grasp the world’s pot of gold without it turning to caustic dust.  May you drink the joys of life and not have them drink you.

It has been a while since I wrote a post concerning mascots.  That’s because…well, frankly there is something a bit grotesque and disorienting about the entire topic.  The bilious cartoony figures speak of the snake oil which lubricates our consumer culture.  And most of the characters are teetering right at the edge of nineteenth-century jingoism and ethnic stereotypes.  If Aunt Jemima, Chief Wahoo, Uncle Ben, the Gordon Fisherman, and Ole’ Miss don’t make you a bit anxious, then they aren’t doing their jobs.

All of which is why this subject is entirely perfect for Saint Patrick’s Day!  This holiday has long since dismissed any semblance of reasoned discourse. The downtown of every major city in the United States fills up before noon with intoxicated teens garbed crown-to-toe in Kelly green and red-faced, red-haired firemen wielding bagpipes!    So bring on the leprechaun mascots.

Traditionally leprechauns were members of the aes sídhe, supernatural beings who dwell in a mythical land beyond human kin. This unseen realm may be across the western sea, or in an invisible world parallel to ours, or in an underground kingdom accessible only through the pre-Christian burial mounds and barrows lying throughout Scotland, Ireland, and the ancient places of Western Europe.  The aes sídhe tended to be impossible beautiful and strange in such a way that they could only be apprehended by dying people, insane people, or William Butler Yeats.  Leprechauns were the money-grubbing cobblers and grabby tricksters among the lofty fairy folk.  The first mention of leprechauns is found in a medieval epic: the hero recovers consciousness from a dreadful wound only to discover that he is being dragged into the sea by leprechauns.  Yeats writes of the leprechaun “Many treasure-crocks, buried of old in war-time, has he now for his own.” In folklore Leprechauns originally wore red coats.

In America today all of this has been somewhat bowdlerized: leprechauns are small bellicose Irishman garbed completely in green. They ride on rainbows, possess pots of gold, and never quite grant wishes.  Anyone who says otherwise is liable to get punched in the mouth by an electrician from Jersey City.

Lucky the leprechaun, the spokesbeing for Lucky Charms cereal since 1964,  is probably the most famous of these contemporary leprechauns.  His ancient bog sorcery has been condensed into the trademark phrase “magically delicious” and six talisman-like marshmallow shapes calculated to best please the discerning six-year old palate.

Sports teams also like leprechauns.  The most famous sports-leprechauns are the pugnacious fighting Irish leprechaun of Notre Dame and the slippery dandy leprechaun of the Boston Celtics.

However an alarming range of other leprechaun mascots exist.  They have different waistcoats from various historical eras, sundry prankish expressions, and wear a rainbow of different greens but they are all instantly recognizable.

I don’t know…I was going to be more cynical, but just look at them up there, drinking and hoarding and dancing away.  There is something appealing about the wee folk.  Shameless stereotype or not, t’is all in good fun.  There’s a bit of a March hare in all of, longing to run wild after the long winter.  If our culture chooses to exemplify this spring atavism through images of a little irrepressible green man, then so be it.  Sláinte, dear readers! Have a happy Saint Patrick’s Day, a merry March, and a glorious spring.

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