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Every year when the month of March rolls around, Ferrebeekeeper writes about Irish mythology. It is a dark cauldron to sip from, but the taste has proven to be all-too addictive.  We have explained leprechauns (and returned to the subject to ruminate about what the little imps really portend).  We have written about the sluagh–a haunted swarm of damned spirits in the sky.  I have unflinchingly described the Leannán Sídhe, a beautiful woman who drains the blood of artists into a big red cauldron and takes their very souls (which should be scary—but the immortal nightmarish wraith who eats the hearts of artists and bathes in their blood is an amateur at tormenting creative people when compared with the title insurance office where I work during the day), and we have read the sad story of Oisín the bard, who lived for three gorgeous years in Tír na nÓg with the matchless Niamh…ah, but then…

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Hey, speaking of Ireland and bards what is with that big harp which appears on everything Irish?  Is it just…a harp? Well, I am glad you asked.  There are some who say that the harp of Ireland is indeed just a harp, albeit a harp which represents the proud and ancient tradition of bardic lore passed down from the pre-Christian Celts.  There are others though who claim it IS the harp of Oisín, which was lost somewhere in his sad story (set aside in a in a spring grove as he leapt onto the white horse behind Niamh maybe, or left across the sea in Tír na nÓg…or dropped from withering hands beside an ancient churchyard…or safely hidden forever in the hearts of the Irish people ).  But there is an entirely different myth too.

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Some people say the heraldic harp of Ireland was originally the Daghda’s harp.  Daghda was a warrior demigod (or maybe just an outright god) famous for his prowess, his appetite, his thirst…and apparently also for his amazing music.  His harp could enchant people to brave deeds in battle…or to sleep in accordance with the Daghda’s mood.  But once, before the Battle of Moytura, his harp was stolen by Formorian warriors who hoped to thereby steal the magic confidence, esprit, and bravery which the harp gave to the Tuatha de Dannan.

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Daghda was a different man without his harp, and so he searched long and wide to find the secret stronghold where the Formorians had it hung upon the wall.  He managed to sneak into the castle, but before he could get away, he was discovered and the entire Formorian army advanced on him.

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Ah, but the Daghda had his harp back.  First he played a song so hilarious that the entire host of his enemies stopped advancing on him to howl with mirth, however, as soo as he stopped playing, they stopped laughing and made for him. Immediately Daghda started playing a song of terrible sadness, and the Formorians’ eyes filled with tears and they began to wail inconsolably.  This held them a bit longer, but alas, when he stopped playing, they stopped crying.  The great multitude almost had him, when he decided to play a lullaby–shades of Hermes and Argus!  Daghda did not sing the formorian warriors to their death, as soon as they were properly asleep he stole off, but the trick of fighting with art and music instead of swords has stayed in the irish heart—to the extent that it had become the national seal.

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The harp has changed in this story—and it has changed on the coat of arms too.  Once, in the time of the Irish Kingdom it was a winsome bare-breasted woman-harp, but today it is a meticulous historical recreation of an ancient medieval Irish harp.  I wonder what it will look like in the future?

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There are four great masterpieces of classical Chinese literature (or possibly five, if you count erotic fiction…but that is a story for another day). The most fantastical and supernatural of these four masterpieces is The Journey to the West…and the indelible hero of The Journey to the West is a monkey, Sun Wukong AKA the Great Sage equal to Heaven AKA Pilgrim Sun AKA the Monkey King (classical Chinese literature has a lot of sobriquets).

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At the beginning of the story a vast round stone boulder sits atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (a paradisiacal mountain island off the coast of China). Warmed by the sun and caressed by the wind since the beginning of time, the granite egg cracks open and Sun Wukong emerges, a fierce clever monkey made of obdurate stone. Immediately after emerging from this egg, golden beams shoot from his eyes which are visible throughout the firmament (a harbinger of the monkey’s future).

Sun devotes himself to mastering Taoist magic (eating sacred fruits, drinking elixers, collecting magical items and learning spells). He becomes king of the monkeys and starts to participate in the wider affairs of the world…but as a demonic monster who eats people and kills for fun. When he learns of the splendors of heaven and the power of the Jade Emperor (the Celestial monarch at the center of a vast spiritual bureaucracy) he decides to make himself into a deity and hilarious, horrifying chaos ensues.

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But all of that is backstory. In the story proper, Sun has grown up. His attempt to overthrow the cosmic order is behind him…mostly…and he has devoted himself to self-mastery. With a bit of (coercive) help from Kuan Yin he has transformed his personality. The chaotic animal demon who killed innumerable people with dark magic has become an ascetic Buddhist monk and he has a difficult assignment: take care of a pathetic weakling (human) monk in a seemingly endless journey across monster-haunted wilds of mythical Asia. Along the way the monk (the spirit) and the monkey (the mind) are joined by a pig god (the appetites) and Sandy, a river monster (???). It’s like a twisted cross between Kung Fu, Pixa, and Homer.

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That is a sort of book-report blurb about an epic which is really an allegory of Buddhist virtues. The monkey king’s Taoist powers mirror the intellect: he has godlike powers of transformation, apprehension, and trickery, but these are of no use without more subtle virtues. The search for these elusive strengths is the real Journey to the West. The story has shaped Chinese cosmology and mythology ever since the book came out in the Ming Dynasty. Since then Monkey has been kind of an actual religious figure…but one who has moments where he is more like Bugs Bunny or Charlie Chaplin than like Jesus or Kuan Yin.

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This all sounds ridiculous—and it is. The juxtaposition of high-minded religious philosophy and low comic hijinks has made the Monkey King universally known in China. There is a deeper reason for this popularity: reality itself is a ridiculous mix of cerebral, noble, and profane elements. The monkey king is a fine mirror for our own madcap primate attempts to reconcile these incompatible impulses.

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Actors Ichikawa Danjûrô VIII as Jiraiya and Iwai Kumesaburô III as Inaka musume Otsuna (Utagawa Kunisada, 1852, woodblock print)

Actors Ichikawa Danjûrô VIII as Jiraiya and Iwai Kumesaburô III as Inaka musume Otsuna (Utagawa Kunisada, 1852, woodblock print)

One of the classics of Japanese folklore is Jiraiya Gōketsu Monogatari, the tale of a gallant shape-shifting ninja who can become a giant toad or summon a different giant toad to ride.  The work has been adapted into a series of 19th century novels, a kabuki drama, numerous prints and paintings, several films and a manga series—it is clearly a staple of Japanese culture (even if the fundamental conceit sounds a trifle peculiar to western ears).

Tsunade by HaneChan

Tsunade by HaneChan

As awesome as a ninja who becomes a toad or rides a toad sounds, it is not what concerns us here.  Instead this post is dedicated to the wife of the protagonist, the beautiful maiden Tsunade (綱手) who is a master of slug magic!  She was able to summon a giant slug or become a slug.

Slug Princess Tsunade by Orcagirl2001

Slug Princess Tsunade by Orcagirl2001

I wish I could explain this better but I haven’t (yet) read Jiraiya Gōketsu Monogatari.  Perhaps these woodblock and manga images from various incarnations of the work will speak for themselve. At the top of this entry is a picture of the ninja with toad magic (right) along with his wife the slug magician (left), but the rest of the prints and cartoons are pictures of Tsunade.   Based on the contemporary cartoon here below, and on some of the Edo-era prints, it seems like there may be an erotic component to this tale of heroic magical slugs and toads.

Tsunade from Naruto (?)

Tsunade from Naruto (?)

If western mythmakers and storytellers could think like this, maybe sitcoms would not be so agonizing.  This is some weird and lovely stuff.  We have made next to no headway understanding Japanese culture, but we have certainly looked at some weird slug girl art!

Imagine working deep inside a mine in medieval Cornwall.  Darkness is all around you, barely broken by the hot sputtering oil lamp.  Breathing poisonous air, you have carved deep into an underworld of granite using simple handtools and brute strength.  You are seeking precious ore for some greedy lord when suddenly an unearthly knocking sound starts to come from the walls and ceilings and the whole mine starts to shudder.  It’s the knockers, the spirits of the mine!

The Works of an Abandoned Cornish Mine

Cornwall is a peninsula of ancient rock which juts out from the southern tip of Great Britain.  When the continent Laurussia slammed into Gondwana during the Devonian and Carboniferous periods, the complicated geology of colliding plates caused a massive intrusion of magma to push up into the native rocks.  This magma cooled into huge swaths of granite which underwent extensive metamorphism and mineralisation during subsequent ages—a process which left the area which rich seams of various metals. Mining began in Cornwall by at least 2150 BC–when tin was critical to bronze making– and it continued until 1998 AD (and it could restart at any time in accordance with the schizophrenic dictates of the world economy).  Various periods have seem particular flurries of mining activity—particularly the middle ages and the Industrial revolution, but the vocation has always been an underlying part of the Cornish character.  The myth of the knockers is a major part of that tradition.

The Knockers (unknown artist, woodblock print?)

The knockers were conceived of as a fairytale race of hard-working dwarf-like miners.  The height of children, the hardscrabble little men possessed the clothes and tools of underground laborers and the work ethic of supernatural beings.  Although they existed slightly beyond human kin, the knockers could be occasionally apprehended at the edges of perception–where the light faded in the depths of the pit, or just around a braced corner.  The knockers were thought to be pranksters.  They would steal tools or put out lights.  To some miners, the knockers were evil beings who would knock down the supports holding up the shaft.  The majority of miners however  thought were benevolent imps or even the spirits of miners who dug too deep and died crushed in the blackness.  When the mine walls started to groan and pop, it was the knockers trying to warn the miners of imminent collapse.

An illustration of Knockers (who are unaccountably hanging out with a fossil ichthyosaur)

There idea of magical miners was widespread in Europe.  The Germans talked about the kobald–the goblin miners who poisoned the deep shafts.  The Scandinavians believed in different races of dwarves.   The tunnels beneath the burial mounds of Ireland were thought to be the haunt of leprechauns hoarding pots of gold.  Yet of all these underground folks, the knockers seem to play the biggest part in the life of the Cornish miners.  The men demanded that mine bosses propitiate the knockers in various ways.  Individual miners took care to throw the last bite of their famous Cornish pasties to the knockers.

Knockers dress differently but share a thirst with Leprechauns.

As the world changed the mining industry changed: Cornish miners emigrated to other lands to share their expertise (and to share the profits of new strikes).  They played a substantial part in America’s mining boom and they brought their traditions with them to the mines of the new world.  The knockers morphed into the tommyknockers, but otherwise changed very little in the copper, silver, and gold mines of the old west.  As a remarkable post script to the age of Cornish-American mining, when a huge California metal mine closed in 1956 and sealed the entrance, the former workers petitioned the owners to reopen the door, so the tommyknockers could leave and seek new jobs– a request which was granted.

The Giant Ground Pangolin of Africa (Manis gigantea)

The pangolin is one of the most unusual and fascinating mammals of Africa and Asia.  The magnificent creatures have unique strengths and gifts, but because of unhappy superstition (and gustatory whim) they are facing an uncertain future.

A climbing tree pangolin

Despite a superficial resemblance to anteaters and armadillos, pangolins are most closely related to the carnivora family (cats, dogs, weasels, seals, and so forth).  The relationship is not unduly close: pangolins make up their own order of which there is one extant family (Manidae) and one genus (Manis). There are eight species of pangolins, each of which is sheathed in a virtually impregnable suit of keratin scales which act as armor.  All pangolins can roll into pinecone-like balls leaving only the razor sharp edges of their scales to confront predators. Not only does the pangolin possess armor, every adult has formidable claws with which to burrow into termite mounds and root insects out of bark (or to utilize as a defensive weapon) as well as a gland capable of spraying a foul acid onto would-be predators.  Additionally, while they may lack the uniquely acute mental equipment of the gnome-like echidna, pangolins are considered quite clever.  They are gifted at avoiding traps and seem to evince real creativity in seeking out and consuming bugs, particularly ants and termites, which compromise a large portion of their diets. Many pangolins are adept climbers, capable of taking to the trees both to hunt and to escape danger. Tree pangolins even have prehensile tails with which they can dangle from branches. Other pangolins are great burrowers. In fact  in Chinese myth they travel everywhere in a great underground network and their Cantonese name “Chun-shua-cap” means the creature that bores through the mountain.

A lion ineffectively tries to eat a balled-up pangolin (photo by Mark Sheridan-Johnson)

Alas, Chinese legends are not all so kind to chun-shua-cap. Although pangolins are gifted with impregnable armor, mighty claws, keen intelligence, skunk-like acid spray, dexterity, as well as great digging, swimming, and hiding skills, they have a relentless enemy more implacable than any lion or plague. South China’s burgeoning middle class hungers for them with insatiable rapacity. Ancient custom dictates that ingesting their scales somehow magically aids nursing mothers (which, aside from the placebo effect, is a complete fallacy). Additionally pangolins are a prestige food for the newly moneyed millions who do not know what to do with wealth and, like the Very Reverend William Buckland, desire to consume everything that lives. China has eaten its own pangolins and is quickly driving the remaining pangolins of South East Asia, Indonesia, and South Asia to extinction. Additionally, as Africa’s troubled nations become vassals to Chinese cash and commodities-grubbing (and as Africa’s tin-pot dictators abase themselves before China’s moral equivocation) the pangolin trade is starting to gobble-up Africa’s pangolins, which were already facing pressure from the bush-meat trade and deforestation. Pangolins reproduce slowly.  Because of their diet and lifestyle they can’t be farmed. If China’s ever-growing demand for them is not curbed they will vanish from Earth forever.

A smuggled pangolin rescued by police

Chinese police, customs officers, and wildlife officials (and their counterparts in neighboring nations) have begun to strike back at the illegal trade in pangolins and other endangered species.  But as long as Chinese high officialdom turns a (very) blind eye on consumption, the problem will linger.  Come on China! You are always clamoring to be regarded as a truly great world power.  I will acknowledge you as such as soon as you rescue the world’s pangolins (and maybe the rhinos, bears, elephants, and tigers while you are at it). Everyone has these wacky superstitions which get in the way of real greatness (just look at America’s checkered history) but saving the pangolins should be possible for a nation whose government possesses such absolute authority. Or will China’s rise merely present a list of needless extinctions and tacky plastic cities as its heritage to posterity?

A baby pangolin sheltering with its mother

Although everyone is familiar with the dragon and the phoenix, there are many other fantastical creatures in the Chinese mythological bestiary.  The Quilin or Ch’i-lin (AKA the “Chinese unicorn”) was believed to be indigenous to the realms of heaven.  Seldom seen on earth because of its goodness, purity and nobility, the appearance of a quilin before mortal eyes heralded prodigious good fortune.  Quilins reputedly only visit earth to presage the birth of the greatest sages and rulers or to signal the advent of a prodigious leap forward.

Like many other mythical animals, the quilin is a wild hybridization of other creatures: it traditionally has a wolf’s head with a single horn (although sometimes it is portrayed with antlers), a multicolored deer’s body covered with fish scales, the hooves of a horse, and the tail of an ox.  Its voice sounds like lovely bells.  The quilin is most notable for its gentleness and kindness.  It refuses to harm any living thing and it does not even bend the grass when it walks.  Nevertheless, the quilin could be ferocious in its defense of the righteous or innocent and it is sometimes shown covered in magical flames.  Genghis Khan is said to have witnessed a quilin just as he was about to conquer India.  Although the creature bowed politely to the great conqueror, its message was clear and Genghis Khan cancelled his plans for subjugating the subcontinent.

It’s a bit unclear how auspicious Genghis Khan was for the world (although he certainly had a magnificent run of good fortune after seeing the quilin). Some other supposed quilin sightings make more sense.  A quilin is said to have appeared to the yellow emperor, a legendary wizard-monarch who unified China under one throne in 2697 (that we have an exact date for a fictional person is a fun eccentricity of Chinese history).  The quilin emerged from the water of the yellow river bearing a pictogram of China which the yellow emperor used to fashion Chinese writing.

Buddhists call it the dragon horse and revere it for the belief that it carries Buddha’s book of law on its back.  Confucianists believe a quilin appeared to the sage’s mother just before he was born and spoke a line of holy prophecy to her.  Under the command of the eunuch Zheng He, the treasure fleet of the Yongle Emperor visited the east coast of Africa and was presented with a giraffe.  The animal fit the description of a quilin fairly closely and was brought before the Yongle Emperor as such.  He dismissed the possibility by wryly saying he was no sage–however he treasured the giraffe and kept the creature in his bestiary.

The Giraffe as painted by artists of the Ming Court

I’m afraid there haven’t been many quilin sightings reported recently.  Some religiously-minded Chinese devout believe that this is because the world has become entirely debased (although even for fictional creatures, quilins have always been rare).  Perhaps a quilin is ready to appear again in some unlikely place to some wise soul and the world will lurch forward into a new golden era.  At any rate, here is a good picture of the creature.  Hopefully just looking at the likeness of the quilin will bring you the greatest of good fortune!

The Quilin

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.

Here we are at the end of tree week—an event which isn’t real anywhere but on this blog and which I didn’t even realize was happening until now.  But don’t worry, I’ll be writing more about trees in the future.  I really like them. Anyway, to close out this special week I’m going to write about one of my very favorite trees, the yew.

Yews are a family (Taxaceae) of conifers. The most famous member of the family is Taxus baccata, the common yew, a tree sacred to the ancient tribal people of Britain and Ireland.  Although their strange animist religion was replaced by Christianity, a cursory look at the literature and history of the English, Irish, and Scottish will reveal that the yew has remained sacred to them–albeit under other guises.  The common yew is a small to medium sized conifer with flat, dark green needles.  It grows naturally across Europe, North Africa, and Southwest Asia but the English have planted it everywhere they went (so pretty much everywhere on Earth).  Yews are entirely poisonous except for the sweet pink berry-like aril which surrounds their bitter toxic cone.  The arils are gelatinous and sweet.

The Fortingall Yew in Scotland

Yews grow very slowly, but they don’t stop growing and they can live a very long time.  This means that some specimens are ancient and huge.  The Fortingall yew which grows in a churchyard in Scotland had a girth of 16 meters (or 52 feet) in 1769.  According to local legend Pontius Pilate played under it when he was a boy.  This is only a legend: Pilate was not in Britain during his youth.  The Fortingall yew however was indeed around back in the Bronze Age long before the Romans came to England.  The oldest living thing in Europe, the yew is at least 2000 years old.  According to some estimates it is may be thousands of years older than that.  It was killed by lackwits, souvenir hunters, and incompetent builders in the early nineteenth century…except actually it wasn’t.  The tree merely went dormant for a century (!) before regrowing to its present, substantial girth.  It is one of the 50 notable trees of Great Britain designated by the Exalted Tree Council of the United Kingdom to celebrate their revered monarch’s Golden Jubilee.

The Llangernyw yew tree in Llangernyw Village, Conwy, Wales

As noted, the people of the British Isles loved yews but they loved their horses and livestock even more and objected to having them drop dead from eating the toxic plant.  This means that they planted the tree in their cemeteries and churchyards (or, indeed, built their churches around ancient sacred groves).  According to pre-Christian lore, a spirit requires a bough of yew in order to find the next realm.  Many English poems about death and the underworld incorporate the yew tree as a symbol, a subject, or, indeed as a character.  Aristocrats also had a fondness for yew because it could be sculpted into magnificent dark green topiary for their formal gardens.

Yews as topiary in the formal garden of Levens, Cumbria

The substantial military prowess of the English during the middle ages depended on longbows made of yew.   A good bow needed to be made from a stave cut from the center of the tree so that the inelastic heartwood was next to the springy outer wood.  This meant that yews in England were badly overharvested and the English had to continually buy yew from Europe. To quote Wikipedia “In 1562, the Bavarian government sent a long plea to the Holy Roman Emperor asking him to stop the cutting of yew, and outlining the damage done to the forests by its selective extraction, which broke the canopy and allowed wind to destroy neighboring trees.”

Like many toxic plants, the poisonous yew has substantial medical value.  The extraordinary Persian polymath Abū ‘Alī al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Abd Allāh ibn Sīnā’  (who is known in English as Avicenna) used yew to treat heart conditions in the early eleventh century—this represented the first known use of a calcium channel blocker drugs which finally came into widespread use during the 1960’s.  Today chemotherapy drugs Paclitaxel and Docetaxel are manufactured from compounds taken from yews.  It is believed that the yew’s fundamental cellular nature might yield clues about aging and cellular life cycles (since the yew, like the bristlecone pine, apparently does not undergo deterioration of meristem function).  In other words, Yews do not grow old like other living things.

A final personal note: I naturally put a yew tree in my walled garden in Park Slope.  It’s the only tree I have planted in New York. It grows very slowly but it is indifferent to drought, cold, or the large angry trees around it. It will probably be the only plant I have planted to survive if I abandon my garden.

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