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Qianlong marked blue white peach bat flower vase (ca. late 18th century)

The Chinese word for bat, “fu” (蝠) is the same as the Chinese word “fu” (福) for good fortune. Because the words are homonyms (indeed the characters are rather similar as well), Chinese art is absolutely filled with bats which nearly always represent best wishes for good fortune (although Zhang Guo Lao, the oldest and most eccentric of the 8 immortals, was said to have begun his existence as a primordial white bat of chaos).

At any rate, once you know what to look for, you start seeing bats everywhere in Chinese art and ornament. A particularly common motif is the wu fu, which features five bats representative of the five blessings: health, wealth, longevity, love of virtue, and a peaceful death. Various famous rebuses pair the wu fu with other geometric good luck symbols, and so we have the rebus of “Wu Fu Peng Shou” (five bats surrounding the symbol for longevity) or the Rebus of Wu Fu He He, which involves yet another complicated homonym (“he” means little round box, but “He He” was a goddess/fairy of nuptial felicity). When you see five bats surrounding a round geometric device (and now that you are looking for it, you WILL see it) you have chanced upon a rebus of Wu Fu He He.

Dear reader, I hope all of these fu symbols heap blessings upon you. May you know vigor, prosperity, old age, the love of virtue, and abundant benisons of all sorts! But I also hope that some of this fu transfers over to real bats. They are close cousins to us grasping, cunning primates, but the world we are making is bringing the chiroptera all sorts of problems! We will talk about that more in subsequent posts, but to finish this post, here is a peach fu vase of surpassing summery loveliness.

Qing Dynasty Porcelain Doucai Vase.

An octopus or squid theme jar from the Knossos Palace in Crete (ca. 1500 BC)

Since the last two posts concerning mollusks have also involved the classical Mediterranean world (where cuttlefish ink was used for writing/drawing and murex mucous was employed as a costly dye), I am going to continue the theme by presenting a gallery of octopus vessels from ancient Greece.

A Mycenaean Octopus Vase (from beyondbooks.com)

Most of these vessels are from the Minoan culture which flourished from 2700 BC -1500 BC or from the Mycenaean city states which were most successful between 2000 BC and 1100 BC (when an incursion of mysterious aggressive “sea people” apparently destroyed the great palace kingdoms). Such vases and jars were made by trained craftsmen and were prized throughout the Levant.

Stirrup jar with octopus, (ca. 1200–1100 b.c.; Late Helladic IIIC, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Vase of the Late Minoan I Period (about 1600-1100 B. C.) found on Gournia, Crete Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art."

Minoan "Palace style," vessel (ca. 15th century BCE, Athens National Museum)

Because we only know tantalizing fragments about life in ancient Crete or in the Mycenaean palace states, the artifacts from that age have been subject to much conjecture and speculation.  These lovely octopus vases have led some thinkers into believing that Minoans worshipped the sea and the creatures therein.  Other scholars have conjectured that the ancient Cretans looked to octopus tentacles as inspiration for that characteristic Minoan architectural conceit, the labyrinth.  The real symbolic or ritual purpose of the octopus motif remains unclear and probably always will.  What is certain is that the vases, drinking vessels, and jars are quite lovely.  The octopus motif originated around 1500 BC and by the Minoan period the so-called “marine style” of decorating pottery had become even more prevalent and diverse.  Some ceramics were covered with fish, octopuses, dolphins, and crabs.  In fact there was even a vessel covered with murexes. Perhaps these people simply liked octopuses and sea creatures. I can certainly understand that motivation!

Terracotta rhyton painted in "Marine Style" with murexes (Zakros, Late Minoan IB, ca. 1525/1500-1450 B.C.) (Courtesy Onassis Public Benefit Foundation)

Rhyton, drinking vessel with painted octopus (From the Aegean, found in Ugarit "Minet-el-Beida", Syria. Late Bronze. Terracotta)

Minoan Amphora w Octopus Motif , New Palace Period , Knossos , Crete

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