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Edmund Spenser, oil painting by an unknown artist; in the collection of Pembroke College, Cambridge, England.

Edmund Spenser, oil painting by an unknown artist; in the collection of Pembroke College, Cambridge, England.

April is poetry month! For years I have shared my home and/or my heart with various poets—so I was going to feature some colorful and enigmatic contemporary poetry. Unfortunately none of my (living) poet friends has yet come to my aid with any relevant works. It therefore looks like I am going to have to rely on one of the great canonical poets of classical English literature to celebrate the beautiful discipline of poetry.

I wanted to feature a poem which combined three aspects: 1) the poem should have classical Greco-Roman flair; 2) it should be about bees or crowns (or maybe both); and 3) it should be really suggestive (because, let’s face it, we are talking about poetry—if you are reading this, you are old enough for adult things). The poem I found is actually a series of connected short poems by the great Edmund Spenser who was born around 1552 and died in 1599. Spenser is best known for The Faerie Queen, one of the most important and beautiful epic poems in English, but the work I selected by him has no formal title. I found a scholarly note which reads “These four short poems immediately follow Spenser’s “Amoretti” and precede his “Epithalamion”. Nothing seems known of their history. Editors have usually styled them “Poem I. Poem II.” &c. but they have no titles in any of the old impressions. We so continue them.”

The lack of title or history is appropriate. The work seems self-explanatory—an allegory concerning the pain of love written in the vein of both Catullus and Chaucer.  However just as Roman and Medieval poetry had unsettling edges and disconcerting depths, so to does Spenser’s poem about Cupid and the bee.

 

Detail of "Cupid Complaining to Venus" (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526, oil on canvas)

Detail of “Cupid Complaining to Venus” (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526, oil on canvas)

IN youth before I waxed old.
The blynd boy Venus baby,
For want of cunning made me bold,
In bitter byue to grope for honny.
But when he saw me stung and cry,
He tooke his wings and away did fly.
As Diane hunted on a day,
She chaunst to come where Cupid lay,
his quiuer by his head:
One of his shafts she stole away,
And one of hers did close conuay,
into the others stead:
With that loue wounded my loues hart,
but Diane beasts with Cupids dart.

I Saw in secret to my Dame,
How little Cupid humbly came:
and sayd to her All hayle my mother.
But when he saw me laugh, for shame:
His face with bashfull blood did flame,
not knowing Venus from the other,
Then neuer blush Cupid (quoth I)
for many haue err’d in this beauty.

VPon a day as loue lay sweetly slumbring,
all in his mothers lap:
A gentle Bee with his loud trumpet murm’ring,
about him flew by hap.
Whereof when he was wakened with the noyse,
and saw the beast so small:
Whats this (quoth he) that giues so great a voyce,
that wakens men withall.
In angry wize he flyes about,
and threatens all with corage stout.

TO whom his mother closely smiling sayd,
twixt earnest and twixt game:
See thou thy selfe likewise art lyttle made,
if thou regard the same.
And yet thou suffrest neyther gods in sky,
nor men in earth to rest:
But when thou art disposed cruelly,
theyr sleepe thou doost molest.
Then eyther change thy cruelty,
or giue lyke leaue vnto the fly.

NAthlesse the cruell boy not so content,
would needs the fly pursue:
And in his hand with heedlesse hardiment,
him caught for to subdue.
But when on it he hasty hand did lay,
the Bee him stung therefore:
Now out alasse (he cryde) and welaway,
I wounded am full sore:
The fly that I so much did scorne,
hath hurt me with his little horne.

VNto his mother straight he weeping came,
and of his griefe complayned:
Who could not chose but laugh at his fond game,
though sad to see him pained.
Think now (quod she) my sonne how great the smart
of those whom thou dost wound:
Full many thou hast pricked to the hart,
that pitty neuer found:
Therefore henceforth some pitty take,
when thou doest spoyle of louers make.

SHe tooke him streight full pitiously lamenting,
and wrapt him in her smock:
She wrapt him softly, all the while repenting,
that he the fly did mock.
She drest his wound and it embaulmed wel
with salue of soueraigne might:
And then she bath’d him in a dainty well
the well of deare delight.
Who would not oft be stung as this,
to be so bath’d in Venus blis.

THe wanton boy was shortly wel recured,
of that his malady:
But he soone after fresh againe enured,
his former cruelty.
And since that time he wounded hath my selfe
with his sharpe dart of loue:
And now forgets the cruell carelesse elfe,
his mothers heast to proue.
So now I languish till he please,
my pining anguish to appease.

embroidered_celtic_knot_tote_bag_irish_green_circular_motif_b4c3af34The most popular post in Ferrebeekeeper’s history was about leprechauns.  Thanks to popular folklore (and marketing shenanigans), leprechauns are currently imagined as small drunk men in Kelly green frockcoats who sell sweetened cereal. Yet the silly little men come from a deep dark well of legends which reaches far into the pre-Christian era.  The really ancient stories of Irish myth are ineffable and haunting: they stab into the heart like cold bronze knives.

Wicklow Countryside Powerscourt Castle, IrelandOnce there was a hero-bard, Oisín, who performed numerous deeds of valor and fought in many savage battles.  Oisín was mortal and he lived in Ireland long before Christianity came with its doctrine of a blissful fantasy afterlife.  To Oisín’s mind, to die was to cease being forever–except perhaps in songs and ambiguous stories. Yet some things are more important than death, and Oisín was always brave and loyal (although since he was also a poet he did tend to play moving laments upon his harp).

green-harp-irish-flagOne day, as he hunted in the greenwood, Oisín was spied by Niamh.  Some say she was the daughter of the queen of the ocean and others claim she was a fairy princess.  Whatever the case, she was one of the Aes Sidhe, an immortal being who was merely passing through Ireland.   When she saw Oisín, she recognized the endless sadness of mortalkind and the doom all men bear, but she also saw his noble heart, his loyalty, and his courage.  Unlike the deathless men of fairykind his bravery was real. After all, what meaning does bravery have when there are no stakes?

oisin_niamhNiamh revealed herself to Oisín: she was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on.  She had hair like dancing fire and eyes like emeralds and the stain of age was nowhere upon her since she was from a land beyond the shadow of decay. Niamh offered Oisín an apple and then she offered him more. The two fell in love.

Niamh had a white stallion who could gallop upon the waves of the Western Sea. Together the two mounted the horse and they rode upon the whitecaps into the sunset until they came to her homeland, Tír na nÓg, the land of the forever young.  There among the perfumed gardens and unearthly music, the lovers lived forever afterwards in perfect happiness…

vivid-blaskett-sunset_mg_6881-resizedExcept that Oisín was not perfectly happy.  His heart was loyal and even among the wonders of fairyland he began to pine for his family.  For three years he stayed in Niamh’s lovely arms, but more and more he begged her to be allowed one last trip home.  In the thrall of love’s enchantment he had left his family and his knights behind.  He needed to say his farewells so that he could stay forever with Niamh without regrets.

Reluctantly Niamh lent her stallion to Oisín.  As she bathed her lover in kisses, she made him promise that no matter what, he would not step off the horse.  One day only would he tarry ahorse in Ireland to say his valedictions and explain himself, then he would ride the tireless steed back across the sea to Otherland and Niamh.  Oisín rode east, but when he reached Eire, everything was strange: new villages had grown on the coast and peculiar priests passed among the people waving crosses.  His town was alien and he knew no one.  Among a field of hoary lichstones he remembered an ancient myth and realized the terrible truth—for every year he spent Tír na nÓg, a hundred had passed in the mortal realm.  Everyone he knew was dead and gone.  In a fit of horror and grief he tumbled from the white horse.  As he hit the ground he immediately began to wither from the long years.  The village folk were amazed at the howling old man who stumbled crying among them.  As they watched,  Oisín aged before their eyes into a wizened corpse and then into dust which blew away to the sea.

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African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) with calf

African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) with calf

Today is World Elephant Day—a one-year old holiday dedicated to the preservation of the world’s two remaining species of proboscideans (a great and ancient order of mammals which over tens of millions of years has included 161 different species that we know of including elephants, mammoths, mastodons, stegodons, deinotheres, moeritheriums, and all sorts of other amazing animals–which we will talk about later).   To mark this day and do my part for elephants (which are quickly vanishing from Earth due to insatiable Chinese lust for ivory) , I have spent hours and hours writing the beginnings of various essays about elephant cognition, their importance as a keystone species wherever they live, and their history and attributes.

I have abandoned each of these essays because they have lacked visceral power which I want to bring to the subject of my favorite animal.  Instead of providing a laundry list of astonishing things which elephants share with humankind (things like altruism, awareness of death, grieving, knowledge of medicine, tool-use, comprehension of music and the arts, and the ability to mine salt and clay) I have decided to instead present an anecdote about actual elephants which I have taken from Cynthia Moss, a researcher who has spent her life observing elephants and researching their family structure.

Since 1973, Moss has watched the family of one matriarch, Echo, an elephant living in Kenya. The story of Echo’s extended family reads like Russian literature in complexity and richness (although the reading is much sadder since elephants seem to be living through the agonizing death of all their kind).  Elephants live human-length lives and have intricate social bonds in their own herds and with the herds they encounter.  They bond deeply with their families over the decades they share together and they help each other out even at the risk of death or terrible injury.

elephant_hnp-1752ss

One day a group of poachers ambushed Echo’s herd.  After killing several elephants outright (including a cow who charged straight into the guns in an attempt to save her calf), the gunmen shot a 13-year old cow named Tina in the lung.  Tina’s mother Teresia and her sisters helped her escape, but she was mortally injured.  Moss describes Tina’s death in the book “Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family”

[Tina’s] knees started to buckle and she began to go down, but Teresia got on one side of her and Trista on the other and they both leaned in and held her up.  Soon, however, she had no strength and she slipped beneath them and fell onto her side.  More blood gushed from her mouth and with a shudder she died.

Teresia and Trista became frantic and knelt down and tried to lift her up.  They worked their tusks under her back and under her head.  At one point they succeeded in lifting her into a sitting position but her body flopped back down.  Her family tried everything to rouse her…and Tallulah even went off and collected a trunkful of grass and tried to stuff it in her mouth.  Finally Teresia got around behind her again, knelt down, and worked her tusks in under her shoulder and then, straining with all her strength, she began to lift her.  When she got to a standing position with the full weight of Tina’s head and front quarters on her tusk, there was a sharp cracking sound and Teresia dropped the carcass as her right tusk fell to the ground.  She had broken it a few inches from the lip and well into the nerve cavity…

Elephant use their tusks for everything (and tusks certainly do not grow back).  Just as most people tend to favor one arm,  elephants favor one tusk over the other–usually the right.  Moss goes on to describe how Teresia and Tina’s sisters spent the night with Tina’s body, tenderly covering their fallen family member with sticks and dirt.  In the morning the other elephants reluctantly left, but Teresia was unwilling to depart and kept gently touching her daughter’s body with her foot.  Only when the other elephants repeatedly rumbled to her did she finally move on.

You can find the entirety of Moss’ book online here, but be warned, it is tremendously sad—like an elephant version of “The Road” except with more likeable characters.

Elephant Mother & Calf (photo by Douglas Aja)

Elephant Mother & Calf (photo by Douglas Aja)

Chinese blue and white kraak dish, Wanli (1573-1619), flying birds and flowering peonies in a rocky landscape with  border roundels of peach and misc flowers.

Chinese blue and white kraak dish, Wanli (1573-1619), flying birds and flowering peonies in a rocky landscape with border roundels of peach and misc flowers.

Peonies are a favorite flower of Chinese gardeners.  The flower has been cultivated there since before the dawn of history and it bears the title “huawang”, king of flowers, (as well as the equally lofty name “fùguìhuā” flower of riches and honor).  Thriving in Northern China and the Yangtze Valley, the peony is a symbol of love, affection, good fortune, beauty, and riches. The flower’s appeal is extremely broad.  In China, the peony is the consummate representative of the season of spring (summer is represented by a lotus; fall by a chrysanthemum; and winter by the wild plum).

Chinese blue and white kraak, Wanli (1573-1619), a peony emerging from rockwork

Chinese blue and white kraak, Wanli (1573-1619), a peony emerging from rockwork

Because the peony represents such universally esteemed ideals, it is a symbol which can be found everywhere in Chinese art.  As May ends, this year’s peony season is swiftly passing away, but to remember the beautiful king of flowers, here are 3 Ming dynasty platter-bowls which feature peonies which have survived unblemished for centuries.  The first two are Wanli Kraaks–pieces which were made in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century–possibly for export.  The final piece is older and rarer: it is a Yongle reign platter made at the turn of the 14th & 15th centuries for a domestic patron.  Look at how beautiful and elegant the brushstrokes are in comparison with the more hastily produced later work.

Charger with two Peony Blossoms Early 15th century (Yongle Reign)

Charger with two Peony Blossoms Early 15th century (Yongle Reign)

heart_w_snake_tattoo_0033_postcard-p239533042637724632en7lo_216Because of the incongruity between lunar and solar calendars (and thanks to the whims of the 12 year Chinese horoscope cycle) Valentine’s Day has ended up in the middle of Ferrebeekeeper’s Snake Week.  At first I thought that this was a problem–since there were no snake theme valentines anywhere to be found online.  I did not want to break out the magic markers and glitter to create my own valentine to serpents because it has been a busy week (and what would I do with a bunch of snake valentines? What if someone saw a grown-up making such things?).  Fortunately I found that there is a medium where snakes and hearts frequently intermingle.  Even better many of the designs are extremely gothic and spiky and scary.

From tattoosbycarson.com

From tattoosbycarson.com

Like evil leprechaun tattoos, snake/heart body art is very common.  In fact I had some trouble finding catfish tattoos and the internet even ran short of evil leprechaun ink but I had no trouble finding snake/heart tattoos!  Apparently an immense number of people have snake tattoos of all sorts.  I wonder why serpents are so universally appealing as permanent body art?  Do people choose snakes for tattoos because the legless reptiles are ancient symbols of knowledge, wisdom, and fertility, or is wearing a snake an announcement of edginess, moral ambiguity, and toughness?  The snake inside the heart seems like it has a double meaning: not only is it an obvious metaphor for corrupted or dangerous love but it provides an outright fertility image (especially since the traditional cardioid-shaped valentine heart look less like an actual heart and more like a shapely asp).

Wait, is that even a snake?

Wait, is that even a snake?

sacred-heart-snake-tattoo  medusa-heart-tattoo-m

itattooz-heart-snake-tattoo-on-back

Tattoo by Chris Hatch

Tattoo by Chris Hatch

From "The Dungeon Inc."

From “The Dungeon Inc.”


images

 

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heart-apple-and-snake-tattoo-on-back  hears_tattoo_design_prev_4 d482

OK, this one seems to be religious and not fertility-themed at all.

OK, this one seems to be religious and not fertility-themed at all.

Alright, I sneaked in a couple of snake & flower tattoos because I thought they were pretty

Alright, I sneaked in a couple of snake & flower tattoos because I thought they were pretty

 

Snake and peonies?

Snake and peonies?

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ScottsSJSnakeHeartDaggerthumbWhatever the meaning these snake/heart tattoos are extremely impressive.  Thanks to the brave souls who wear them.  Also a very happy valentine’s day to all my readers:  I could hiss you all…er kiss you all!

Famous in love stories and movies, the Claddagh ring is a traditional Irish band with elements that go back to Roman times.  The ring consists of two hands holding a crowned heart and dates back to the 17th century where the design originated in the village of Claddagh by Galway.

According to tradition, each element of the ring is symbolic.  The hands stand for friendship, the heart stands for love, and the crown stands for loyalty.  The position of the ring on the hands is also important:  when the ring is on the right ring finger with the heart out, it means the wearer is single and seeking love (or some reasonable approximation); when the ring is on the right hand with the heart turned in, it means the wearer is in a relationship, but not engaged.  When the Claddagh ring jumps to the left ring finger things have gotten serious:  the Claddagh with the heart outward indicates betrothal and when heart is turned inward, the wearer is married.  Or at least that is what people say about the tradition.  Every ring I have worn ceaselessly turned like a record on my finger.  I’m sure all sorts of couples would end up in desperate needless fights if the Claddagh tradition was held too closely.

Although the folklore traditions in the paragraph above seem to be innovations of the nineteenth century, the ring descends (through a long lineage) from Roman “fede” rings which featured clasped or joined hands as symbolic of a sacred vow.

Roman Bronze Wedding Ring with Clasped Hands (2nd century AD)

Cupid Delivering Psyche (Sir Edward Burne-Jones, ca. 1867, gouache on paper)

The story of Cupid and Psyche is a breathless tale of hidden identity, subservience, misplaced trust, and true love.  It is a favorite theme for western artists, particularly since it features Cupid (the capricious god of love who wreaks so much chaos in mortal life) emotionally caught in a seemingly impossible situation. Each of these three paintings by Edward Burne-Jones depicts the moment, late in the story when Cupid finally forgives Psyche (who has suffered endless woe, pain, and setbacks).  Psyche has visited the underworld and returned with a box containing divine beauty.  Warned not to open the box, she has decided to steal a pinch so that Cupid will love her despite her mortality.  Unsurprisingly the otherworldly box contains poison of infernal sleep. Cupid then intervenes directly and utilizes his divinity to rescue her from the curse.

Cupid Delivering Psyche (Sir Edward Burne-Jones, 1867, mixed media)

As a young man Edward Burne-Jones studied theology at Oxford and was anticipating a career as a minister–until his spirit was seduced by ancient poetry (really!).  He left the university without a degree and joined a brotherhood of artists and poets. He painted three nearly identical versions of this dramatic scene over the course of several years.  The first and finest from around 1867 is a gouache portrait of Maria Zambaco, a Greco-English beauty.  In 1866, Maria’s mother had commissioned Burne-Jones to paint Maria (as Psyche no less) for an entirely different picture, and the (married) Burne-Jones fell in love with the (married) Zambaco.  Their tempestuous affair destroyed both marriages and nearly led them to suicide before ending in 1869 (although it resulted in a number of gorgeous paintings—which were pilloried by the Victorian art world for portraying female sexual assertiveness in a positive light).

Cupid Delivering Psyche (Sir Edward Burne-Jones, 1871, watercolor and pastel on paper?)

Although outwardly the same, these three paintings are also subtly different.  In the last painting, from 1872, Cupid is not red and radiant but gray and diffuse (and he has lost his ever-changing wreath).  Psyche’s hair has changed color and her features have been altered.  Additionally, the sheer repetition of this same moment of divine intervention suggests that romance is a figure eight:  our arguments and passions keep repeating themselves (which is in fact what happens in the tale of Cupid and Psyche).  Lovers  relive the same moments of longing, confusion, and passion again and again and again even as the world changes like water and our lives wear out.

This is the hundredth post on Ferrebeekeeper! Hooray!  Thank you so much for reading!  In celebration, today’s topic features a twist: instead of dwelling on the underworld deities who personify evil, death, mystery, and the world beyond (although, admittedly, they have the best stories), I’m going to highlight a deity devoted to joy, happiness, love, and success.  Don’t worry though, “deities of the underworld” and all things gothic will be heavily featured here in the run-up to Halloween.

To the uninitiated (i.e. our writers and editorial staff) it has been difficult to make sense of the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the various Afro-Brazilian religions. The Orisha-based faiths of the Yoruba blend together with South American religions like Candomblé, Santería, Lukumi, and Umbanda to such an extent that only a devout practitioner could separate them all apart correctly.  One figure however seems to be universally worshiped–although she goes by many names. Naturally that figure is the goddess of love and sex. She is known variously as Oshun, Laketi, Oxum, and Ọṣhun.  In addition to fertility, romance and marriage, Oshun is the goddess of wealth, harmony, ecstasy, and fresh water (particularly rivers–which have a special place in Brazilian and Yoruban culture). Oshun’s favorite day is Saturday (my favorite as well!) and her sacred color is yellow. Oshun is portrayed as a beautiful black woman wearing gorgeous golden raiment and jewelry…or nothing at all. 

Oshun, as beautifully painted by Carla Nickerson

In Yoruba myth Oshun was one of the 16 spirits sent by the enigmatic genderless supreme-being, Olodumare, to create the earth.  Of the 16, only she was female (Yoruba culture seems to have had some gender issues).  Predictably, the 15 male demiurges proclaimed superior status and placed undue demands upon Oshun, who thereupon withdrew her support from the whole “building the world” project.  Creation became impossible.  Everything the male orishas tried to make fell away into dust. They had to petition Olodumare and then fervently apologize to Oshun herself before she agreed to bequeath life to plants and animals.  A different version of this myth (occurring after the world was populated by men and women) reads like the Lysistrata or the tale of Eros and Psyche: Oshun withdrew desire from the world–and hence the impetus for all rebirth and renewal–until her chauvinistic fellow-deities apologized.

According to various myths and differing faiths, Oshun has many husbands and lovers.  Most often however her spouse is Shango, the sky god of thunder and drumming, or Ogun, the god of smithing and warfare.  While this seems like a recipe for epic disaster, the Afro-Brazilian religions are not canonical and frequently overlap and contradict each other, so there is not necessarily an insoluble marital problem (also the ways of love goddesses exceed human understanding!).

Although possessed of a temper and vanity, Oshun is renowned for her great kindness.  Her alternate name “Laketi” means “she who has ears” for, unlike the other figures of the Afro-Brazilian pantheon, she is portrayed as a compassionate deity who regularly answers prayers.  Oshun’s endowments (other than her beauty and obvious womanhood) are peacock feathers, gold ornaments, a mirror, a fan, the color yellow, honey, and water.  She is said to be partial to chamomille tea and white chickens. When her followers are taken by trance they dance, flirt, and laugh but then grow solemn–for Oshun knows that the world is not as beautiful as it could be.

This lovely work was painted in 1904 by John William Waterhouse, the last of the Pre-Raphaelite artists.  It depicts a critical moment in the love story between Cupid, god of love, and Psyche, a beautiful mortal persecuted by Venus.

Psyche Entering Cupid's Garden (oil on canvas by John William Waterhouse, c.1904.)

I won’t repeat the entire myth, which symbolizes both the nature of love and the nature of the human soul, but I will explain the context of the painting.  Psyche was cursed by Venus never to marry.  Venus’ beautiful and capricious son Cupid, however, had fallen in love with Psyche and, in protest, refused to shoot his arrows at any living thing–which meant the living world began to age and die, being unable to… renew itself without Eros.  Psyche visited the oracle of Apollo who explained her destiny thus, “The virgin is destined for the bride of no mortal lover. Her future husband awaits her on the top of the mountain. He is a monster whom neither gods nor men can resist.”

We know that the monster is the beautiful god of love, but Psyche knows only the oracle’s dire words.  She goes to the mountain and, swooning, is carried away by the wind to the palace of Cupid.  Waterhouse has painted her as she awakens and enters the garden of the palace of love.  Although afraid, she sees the ineffable beauty of the garden and realizes the owner is no mortal.  As a gardener, I would like to dwell on the musk roses and cypresses, yet as a painter I am obliged to point you towards the troubled mien of Psyche as she attempts to puzzle out the nature of her monstrous divine consort.

A perennial favorite for artists, the entire myth is told best by its originator, the incomparable Lucius Apuleius who used the story of Cupid and Psyche as a chapter in The Golden Ass, the only complete Milesian tale to survive from ancient Rome.  The Golden Ass is arguably the immediate ancestor of the novel and it is every bit as ribald as its name suggests.  The chapter about Cupid and Psyche however is dead serious (as is the overall book, which subtly suggested that if Roman aristocrats continued to degrade and oppress everyone else in society, Roman civilization would founder).

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