You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘magical’ tag.

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Thanks for bearing with me during last week when I took a much-needed break from blogging. Sadly, it does not seem like misinformation, social manipulation, distortion, and outright fabrication took a break during Ferrebeekeeper’s absence…they are more popular than ever! So I have decided to get with the program and add a new topic much in keeping with this trend. Well I say “new”, but this subject is profoundly ancient and originated before cities or even agriculture. This ancient practice has always given people exactly what they want…often to their terrible detriment. If one is looking for chicanery, mendacity, wish fulfillment, and showmanship untethered from life’s hard truths (and a cursory look at bet-sellers, infomercials, politics, and society itself indicate that a lot of people want exactly that) then here is a subject I predict will suit perfectly: I am speaking of the ancient and manipulative art of PROPHECY!
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Consulting the Oracle (John William Waterhouse, 1884, oil on canvas)

A prophecy is a sort of supernatural prediction about what will happen in the future (or a pretense of access to some otherwise inaccessible truth). The trappings of prophecy are many—entrails, crystals, special numbers, magical talismans, star signs, geomancy, demons, ghosts, gods and goddesses, etcetera etcetera. I hardly need to tell you that empiricists have never found any statistically meaningful evidence that such things work beyond the level of general platitudes (discounting inside knowledge and deception). Yet magical predictions endure and flourish in all societies. From the rudest hunter gatherer tribe, to the greatest globe-spanning empire, this “magic” has been present. Throughout history, oracles, scryers, prophets, augers, diviners, and astrologers have proliferated like, well, like human wishes.
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So why am I writing about this? Why do we need to look again at (sigh) astronomy and “The Secret” [spits] and at the ridiculous chickens of Publius Claudius Pulcher? First of all, as Freud knew, our wishes reveal so much about us—they provide a true dark mirror where we can see who we are with terrible clarity if we have the courage to really look. If prophecy does not necessarily have empirical merit, it often possesses immense artistic value. The essential dramatic truth of literature or scripture is frequently revealed in augury. The witch of Endor, the Delphic oracle, John the Baptist, and the witches in Macbeth set the action going (while at the same time foreshadowing/explaining how things will ultimately work out).
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But beyond the artistic merit of oracular truth, augury is related to prediction—the ability to think abstractly about the future and to shape outcomes by making intelligent choices based of guesses. I said that prophecy predated cities or agriculture (a breezy claim for which I naturally have no written evidence…although there are plenty of artifacts that are probably scrying tools and enormous amounts of similar circumstantial evidence): perhaps prophecy was a necessary step on the way to those things. Without being able to imagine the future, there is no need for seed corn or brickyards. The seeds to real inquiry can often be found in fantasy inquiry. Looking back across the breadth of history we see how religion became philosophy; geomancy became geology; astrology graduated to astonomy; even psychics and physicists have something in common. So follow along in this new topic. I confidently predict you will be surprised and delighted (and even if I am wrong we will at least have learned something).
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In America, the last Friday of April is traditionally Arbor Day, a day for planting and conserving trees. I probably should have written about the cherry tree today…but the blossoms have already largely fallen off so I am going to choose a different blossoming tree to concentrate on—the common hawthorn Crataegus monogyna. The Hawthorn is another of the most beautiful flowering trees of the northern hemisphere. Like cherry trees, hawthorns are members of the rose family. They are small to medium sized trees of great beauty which have thorns and grey-brown bark with orange fissures. Hawthorns bear red pome fruit which is said to taste like overripe apples (the fruit of North American species of Hawthorns was a major food source for North America peoples before familiar Eurasian fruit arrived). The common hawthorn tree was originally native to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia.
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The Hawthorn is known for beautiful glistening blossoms which appear in May or June and resemble five petaled roses (although the vase-shaped tree is lovely year-round. More prosaically, the trees have been used as hedges because of their dense growth, hard wood, and thorns.
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The tree features prominently in the folklore of Europe and western Asia. The Greeks esteemed it enormously—it was the symbol of hope and blossoming boughs were carried in wedding processions. In Northern Europe, the Hawthorn was identified with ancient gods. For a long time, even after Europe was Christianized, hawthorn trees were reckoned to be found near entrances to the otherworld—the realm of elves, fairies, and magical folk. It was allegedly bad luck to kill—or even cut a hawthorn tree, and the misfortunes of Delorean motor company are said to have started when they cut down a grove to build their factory.
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In Christian mythology, the crown of thorns of Jesus was putatively made from hawthorn wood. Despite this, Christians, apparently stayed fond of Hawthorn and there were medieval legends connecting it with various Saints and miracles. Hawthorn is certainly a miraculously beautiful tree. I would totally plant one for Arbor Day…if I had a sapling…or a place to plant it.
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One of the most popular and instantly recognized symbols of classical antiquity did not make it through the millennia.  The lituus was a spiral wand which looked a bit like a bishops crozier which was the symbol of augurs, diviners, and oracles in the Roman world.  If you waved one around today, people would think it was an obscure prop from PeeWee’s Playhouse or a messed-up art student’s idea of a fern frond.  Yet the lituus was everywhere in ancient Rome—it was on murals, and carved in statuary, and on the money.  Musicians even developed a great brass trumpet to look like the sacred symbol (or possibly it was the other way around—the Etruscans had a war-trumpet which looked a great deal like the littuus and possibly gave its name to the scrying instrument).

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Whatever the history and etymology, the Romans of the Republic and the Empire loved the lituus–and the whole world of divination, magical prophecies, and mystical portents which it represented.  The littuus itself was seemingly used to mark a section of the sky to the eye of the interpreter of signs.  Whatever birds flew through this quadrant represented what was to come.  Obviously, there was just as much fraud, skullduggery, and flimflam in Roman divination as there is in modern tealeaves, horoscopes, tarot, and other such bollocks—but at least the Roman art had the grace of the natural worlds (as well as the raw violence which was stock and trade of all aspects of society in the ancient world).

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Of course, it could be argued that the lituus isn’t quite as fully vanished as I have made it out to be.  Scholars of comparative religion see the same shape in the Bishop’s curling crozier (bishops seem to have stolen the hats of Egyptian priests as well).  To my eye the shape looks like a question mark, and has a similar meaning.  I wonder where question marks came from.

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(Crozier from Northern Italy in the early 14th century, bone and paint)

Musicians also owe fealty to the lituus, both as a symbol of otherworldly arcane spirit-knowledge and as a sort of ancient brass instrument.  Modern horns evolved, to a degree, from the lituus and I wonder if it found its way into the “fiddle heads of rebecs and violins (although I am not going to research those connections today).  Whatever the case, it is a lovely and interesting symbol for a branch of magical thought which the Romans held extremely dear and it is worth knowing by site if you plan on casting an eye on the ancient Mediterranean world.

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I apologize: I got sort of a late jump on writing my blog post today (it is already 2:00 AM tomorrow), so it is going to be predominantly visual…but that’s ok.  Explaining this business wouldn’t help anyway.  These are “magical” prophetic teacups.  Apparently as the querant (?) drinks his or her tea (or whatever mystical brew they favor) bits are left by atop the various symbols.  Gifted diviners (snicker) can use these portents to peer into the murky future.

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I’m, uh, not so sure about all of that, but the cups are beautiful in their own right and I really can’t stop looking at all the magnificent little animals and daggers and what have you.  Somebody should make a contemporary version…or, then again, maybe not…it would probably be little robots and carbon atoms and mushroom clouds and corporate brands.  Better to stick with snakes and spinning wheels.

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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

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