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Minthe

Minthe (source unknown)

Aside from the disturbing tale of his coercive romance with Persephone, there aren’t many myths about the underworld god Hades’ love life…but there is one weird love triangle story.  The river Cocytus flows underground for part of its course.  Because of this it was strongly affiliated with the underworld in Classical thought.  There is a story about this—and an origin myth for one of our very favorite garden herbs.

Nymph in green light by W. Szczepanska

Nymph in green light by W. Szczepanska

One of the river nymphs of the Cocytus, Minthe had a peculiar temperament.  Because of the geography of the river, she spent part of her time in the shady realm below, and there the gorgeous river maiden became enamored of Hades. Some mythmakers speculate that her affection was really for his wealth, power, magic, or for his splendid chariot of chthonic jewels, but, whatever the case,  Minthe devoted all of her beauty and wiles to beguiling the god (who usually received scant positive attention).  Minthe would probably have succeeded in seducing the lord of the underworld but his wife Persephone chanced upon the scene.  The goddess may or may not have cared for her dark husband, but she was certainly a jealous queen!

Persephone and Minthe

Persephone and Minthe (an enigmatic unattributed image from Deviantart.com)

Using her own dark magic, Persephone transfigured Minthe into a weed…but the divine beauty, attractiveness, and sweet smell of the naiad stayed with the plant, and thus was mint created.  The story makes even more sense in a Greco-Roman context when mint was used in funerary rites to disguise the scent of decay.  The herb was also a main ingredient in the fermented barley drink called kykeon, which seemingly was the principal potable associated with the Eleusinian mysteries. Based on accounts of the shadowy rights, it seems like this beverage had more than beer and mint in it and included some really strange psychoactive ingredients.  Yet mint itself has some powerful active ingredients, and we are coming to believe it is a more powerful stimulant than initially thought.  Indeed mint has an ancient heritage as a medicine, flavoring, and crop. The beloved plant merits more explanation than just this strange underworld myth—so I will write the second half of this post tomorrow!

Peppermint

Peppermint

rainbow3

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

Celeste Green 1981 Bianchi Super Pista

Celeste Green 1981 Bianchi Super Pista

I love to bicycle! It is the perfect way to get around. Bicycling is fast, environmentally friendly, cheap, and good for you. From the saddle you can see nature and society up close with an intensity which hermetically sealed up car drivers will never know as they vroom past. And this brings us to the one problem with bicycling. I live in America, where laws, culture, and geography conspire to put everyone behind the wheel of a car. Traveling around by means of a giant steel death chariot driven by explosions is a crazy basis for society (the toxic explosive benzene is refined from the fossil leftovers of long-dead ecosystems!). Unless one is a tradesman or lives deep in the country, a car is just a giant lethal status symbol useful only for impressing shallow people and crushing good-hearted bicyclists and pedestrians. It makes one yearn for Europe, where drivers actually get in trouble for hitting bicyclists with their automobiles (in America, whenever you kill someone with your car the authorities give you a high-five and a sparkly sticker—if you collect five you get a free cheeseburger).

Or can we all hybridize and live together safely?

Or can we all hybridize and live together safely?

But today’s post is not really about bicycles or national transportation policy. I have no strong opinions about the abject idiocy of our slavish reliance on evil automobiles. Today’s post is instead about bicycle color! This is “celeste” a pale greenish turquoise color which is instantly identifiable with Bianchi bicycles. Pale greens are among my favorite colors, and celeste is particularly pretty (although, over time, the exact shade has varied according to taste and manufacturing circumstance).

I hope your legs are as good as your taste!

I hope your legs are as good as your taste!

Most trade colors have a story or myth associated with them and celeste is no exception. In fact there are three stories of how it came into being. The name itself (Italian for “celestial”) evokes crystal clear Mediterranean skies. The first story of “celeste” is that it is the color of the skies above Milan. I have never been to Milan, but I find it hard to believe the sky there is quite so green! The second (and best) story is that Edoardo Bianchi built a bicycle for a queen with pale green eyes and he became so enthralled with the color that he subsequently painted all of his bicycles that color. As with the sky story this tale requires a certain suspension of disbelief. I have never met a queen (or any other human being) with mint color eyes! But Eduardo lived in a different time and clearly had a closer relationship with royalty than I do.

"Thank you EDUARDO, but our princess is in another castle..."

“Thank you EDUARDO, but our princess is in another castle…”

The final story is the most believable but least poetic. Early on in the history of Bianchi bikes, they had some green paint and lots of white paint and they mixed them together to paint all of their bicycles the same color. That is certainly a story that anyone who has ever painted something can easily believe!

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Personally I think celeste green was an aesthetic choice from the start. It is an extremely attractive and distinctive color. My only complaint with it is that I have never been able to afford a vintage Bianchi bike!

What? This is a car...were you listening to anything I said?

Hey! This is a car! Were you listening to anything I said? But it really is pretty seductive… Maybe I’ll just take it for a quick spin, you know, for research.

imageEvery year around Saint Patrick’s Day, we delve into Irish folklore to feature alarming mythological beings from the Emerald Isles. Nothing has beaten the frolicsome (yet oddly troubling) leprechauns in terms of popularity, however last year’s post about the sluagh–an airborne host of dark spirits which come from the otherworld–was certainly much creepier. This year gets darker still (well, at least for some of us) as we explore the leannán sídhe, a dark temptress who preys on disaffected writers, artists, and creative folk! Argh! Seriously, did Irish mythmakers have a picture of me on the whiteboard when they came up with this stuff?

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The leannán sídhe was thought of as a woman of the aos sídhe (the otherworld folk) who would assume mortal form as an inhumanly beautiful woman. She would take an artist or poet as a lover and offer them inspiration in exchange for love and devotion. With her wit, intelligence, and affection she would inspire their craft. With her supernatural beauty she would bind them to her and become their muse. Yet the relationship would become more and more oppressive and intense until the artist became consumed with obsession for her. Once the artist was besotted to the point of madness, the leannán sídhe would disappear. The abandoned mortal lover would suffer from intense despair and either pine to death or commit suicide. After the artist was dead, the leannán sídhe would reappear and take make off with the corpse which she would take back to her underground lair. There she would hang the body up from a hook on her ceiling and drain the artist’s blood into a huge red cauldron. This cauldron of blood was the source of her everlasting life, youth, and beauty.

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Once we set aside the casual misogyny which floats atop the surface of this myth, it reveals its deeper meaning: the myth of the leannán sídhe evokes the artist’s primal fear of the contemporary art market where laughing art dealers, gallerists, and corporations drain the artist of their creative vitality and then profit from it. Better to labor away in poverty and anonymity then deal with these terrifying forces.

Argh! God help us!

Argh! God help us!

Wait…ugh… this can’t be right! What is up with these fiendish Irish myths? Maybe next year I had better celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day by writing about something less frightening, bloody, or controversial—maybe Irish politics…

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Crater Lake

Crater Lake

Mount Mazama was a giant volcano located in the Cascades. Around 7700 years ago the volcano erupted so violently that the top mile of the mountain exploded and the remaining cone collapsed. The vast caldera became a deep empty hole—which soon filled up with water and became a beautiful lake—Crater Lake in Oregon.

Crater Lake is indeed very lovely, but it is also disquieting. There are no rivers or streams which empty into it (after all it is located atop what remains of a vast mountain) but the snowfall in the region is so high that the lake easily fills up with extremely clear melt water. The clear water combines with the lake’s great depth to absorb all hues of light other than indigo—so the lake is dark blue. The deepest point is 1,943 feet (592 m) below the surface, which makes it the deepest lake in the United States and the seventh deepest lake (by average) in the world—deeper even than the otherworldly depths of Lake Baikal. Originally the lake had no fish (although they were added by humans in the twentieth century). Its waters are extremely cold and items which fall into it decay slowly.

An antique photo of a Klamath chief

An antique photo of a Klamath chief

The Klamath people, a Native American tribe who have long lived in the region, have a sacred myth which tells about the formation of the lake. Long ago, there were two great spirits, Skell, spirit of the sky, and Llao, the spirit of the underworld. Llao lived beneath Mount Mazama and sometimes he would leave the underworld and venture to the top of the mountain, where he could almost reach Skell’s dwelling. One day, as he was watching the world from the mountain top, Llao saw the beautiful daughter of the chief of the Klamath people. He eagerly paid suit to the lovely maiden, but he was hideous and she spurned his advances.

Mount Shasta

Mount Shasta

In anger Llao began to hurl fire and stones onto the Klamath people, and they begged their greatest benefactor, Skell to help them. Skell came down to the very lowest point of his kingdom–the top of Mount Shasta–and began to battle Llao, who stood at the highest point of his realm—the top of Mount Mazama.   Soon the spirit battle became more tumultuous as other spirits of the sky, the land, and the underworld joined in. The two greatest medicine men of the Klamath saw that the war of so many spirits was destroying the world so they hurled themselves down into the volcano’s caldera as a sacrifice to appease the angry spirits. The lesser spirits of the underworld were indeed appeased and ceased their fighting, but Llao’s wrath at his rejection was not sated. He continued to battle Skell but he was overwhelmed and defeated. Skell hurled vast magic at Llao and the entire mountain exploded.

Mount Mazama at the Height of Its Glory (Paul Rockwood)

Mount Mazama at the Height of Its Glory
(Paul Rockwood)

Llao fled down into the huge hole which was created. Some say he died there from Skell’s magic, whereas other’s believe he lurks somewhere in the underworld (with Gong Gong maybe?) waiting for the right moment to make his return. Whatever the case, Skel disliked the site of the vast pit in the world and he made sure to fill it with water and keep it filled. Looking at aerial pictures of Crater Lake, it is hard not to respect the narrative wisdom of the Klamath story tellers. Few things on Earth look more like an entrance to the underworld, and even the most literal volcanologist would have to concede that volcanic calderas are a place where the world below comes most directly to Earth’s surface.

NASA's Landsat 5 satellite captured this true-color image of Crater Lake National Park in South-Central Oregon last September

NASA’s Landsat 5 satellite captured this true-color image of Crater Lake National Park in South-Central Oregon last September

The Birth of Jesus: Scrovegni Chapel (Giotto di Bondone, ca. 1304-1306, fresco)

The Birth of Jesus: Scrovegni Chapel (Giotto di Bondone, ca. 1304-1306, fresco)

It’s day two of sheep week! Yesterday’s post got pretty involved with practical and useful aspects of sheep, so today we are veering wildly to the opposite extreme—sheep in art. There are lots and lots of sheep in art from cave paintings of ancient prehistory to Babylonian murals, right up to wild abstract rams by Andrew Wyeth and elegant empty sheep skulls by Georgia O’Keefe. It’s hard to choose from so many beautiful works, so we are going to concentrate on a founding legend from the history of art itself. In art history, there is a point when the anonymous artisans of the middle ages give way to the great named masters of the Renaissance. It is the point where the history of western painting usually starts (although obviously, in reality, there were all sorts of ancient Roman, medieval, and Byzantine antecedents). The point when art becomes the discipline we think of today (with genius masters struggling in their Brooklyn garrets when they are not posting little blog articles about sheep) is usually considered to be the career of Giotto. Giotto lived from 1266 (?) to 1337 and popularized many of the bedrock principals and tropes underlying artistic painting from the early Renaissance right up until the First World War (when painting, like humanity, got all messed up). I put one of his nativity murals at the top of this story to show his use of perspective and shaded forms—innovations often attributed to Giotto. The great art historian Vasari grandiloquently summed up the view that painting originates with Giotto by writing, “In my opinion painters owe to Giotto, the Florentine painter, exactly the same debt they owe to nature, which constantly serves them as a model and whose finest and most beautiful aspects they are always striving to imitate and reproduce.” Gosh.

Cimabue observing the Young Giotto (Gaetano Sabatelli, 19th century, oil)

Cimabue observing the Young Giotto (Gaetano Sabatelli, 19th century, oil)

So where did Giotto come from? Vasari provides that story too. One day the great artisan, Cimabue was passing through the farmland of Tuscany when he saw a lively little shepherd boy surrounded by his flock. The child was scratching pictures of the sheep on a rock with the earth, charcoal, and sticks at hand. The pictures were so beautiful and lifelike that Cimabue was stunned. He went immediately to the shepherd’s master and begged for the privilege of taking the boy as apprentice and teaching him painting (which the astonished yokel immediately granted). Giotto’s genius flowered in Cimabue’s shop with the proper materials and subjects at hand.

Giotto and Cimabue (José María Obregón, 1857, oil on canvas)

Giotto and Cimabue (José María Obregón, 1857, oil on canvas)

The story is dramatic and beautiful. It is like a classical myth or miracle from a saint’s life. Sadly, like classical myths and medieval hagiographies, the story of Giotto’s origin is almost certainly false. Most contemporary art historians don’t even think he studied with Cimabue!   But who cares? This is a myth about the founding of painting. It doesn’t have to be real.

Cimabue und der junge Giotto (Clemens von Zimmermann, 1841, oil on canvas)

Cimabue und der junge Giotto (Clemens von Zimmermann, 1841, oil on canvas)

Not surprisingly many painters have painted renditions of this subject. Aside from Giotto’s actual painting of sheep, I have used these works from throughout art history to illustrate this strange little tale (I’m sorry if you were fooled into thinking this post was going to be about Giotto’s, you know, art—I guess we’ll have to address that some other time).

Giotto and Cimabue (T. de Vivo ca. late 1700s early 1800s, oil on canvas)

Giotto and Cimabue (T. de Vivo ca. late 1700s early 1800s, oil on canvas)

So according to Vasari, western painting grew organically from the Tuscan land and sprang fully grown from the Giotto’s raw genius. That it was a shepherd who had this revelation and that his first (known) subjects were sheep also seems to have symbolic significance. Does this equate artists with Jesus (something Vasari clearly felt) or is it a deeper metaphor about humankind transitioning from farming to skilled work? I wonder what this story really says about artists, truth, and innovation. I wonder even more what it says about the tormented relationship between artists and the whims of the herd…

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Ever since recounting the story of Orpheus, I have been thinking about the lyre. The ancient musical instrument even showed up again last week in a post about an amazing new planetary system–and the mythical harp of the gods somehow stole some of the glory from real worlds formed eleven billion years ago. Perhaps this is appropriate: for the myth of the first lyre is a story of theft.

Hermes stealing the cattle of Apollo (5th century Attic vase)

Hermes stealing the cattle of Apollo (5th century Attic vase)

It is also the origin story of Hermes, who was not just the messenger of the gods, but also the god of tradesmen, herdsmen, and thieves. Hermes was the child of Maia, the daughter of a Titan. After the war between Titans and Olympians, she hid herself away in a stygian cave which twisted down beneath Mount Cyllene, but one day, Zeus spied her and they became lovers. Maia’s cave provided the dallying pair with an excellent hiding place from the jealous eyes of Hera, and in due course Hermes was born. Even as a baby, the obstreperous little god, was too clever and mischievous to be hidden away in some cave. Baby Hermes sneaked out and soon found a herd of exquisite white cattle belonging to Apollo. The tiny god picked out the finest of these splendid sky cattle and rustled them off for himself and his mother, but before leading them away, he put brooms on their tails so they would erase their tracks. He also drove them out of their pasture backwards and disguised his own footprints by wearing branches on his feet. Then he took the white cows to a secret grove and sacrificed the two most beautiful beasts, burning everything but the entrails. These gut strings he attached to a turtle shell to play soothing music—the first lyre!

When Hermes got back to his cave, his mother was frantic with worry, but he quickly beguiled her with honeyed words and a sweet lullaby. In the meantime, Apollo had noticed that his best cattle were missing, and he began to hunt the thief… but it was no easy task. First the golden god could not find any tracks, and when he discovered the footprints, they lead back to the paddock (and there was no evidence of any thief). However Apollo was the god of prophecy and hidden truth, so he drew upon his divine augury to discover who had taken his cattle. In fury he rushed into Maia’s cave to grab the culprit, but, even as an infant, Hermes was swift and he outran the angry sun god. Soon the comic chase lead up to Olympus, where a proud Zeus, made the (half) brothers cease their quarrel.

Claude Lorrain (Mercury Returning the Cattle of Admetus to Apollo, chalk drawing)

Claude Lorrain (Mercury Returning the Cattle of Admetus to Apollo, chalk drawing)

Hermes returned the cattle, but two were still missing! Apollo demanded them back, but to no avail: they were burned up. Hermes pulled out his lyre hoping to lull Apollo as he had Maia, but the lovely music had an altogether different effect on the refined art-lover Apollo. As the god of music and beauty, Apollo was indeed beguiled, but he did not fall asleep. Instead he had to have the beautiful instrument! He begged his little brother, and cajoled, and finally offered him all the white cattle. Hermes drove a hard bargain and he also gained Apollo’s magical wand in the deal. This wand was the fabulous and disturbing caduceus—a winged golden rod wrapped by two snakes. It became the symbol of Hermes, and of commerce itself, but, according to myth it had yet deeper powers—to grant sleep, and death, and resurrection. Hermes touched the eyes of the departed with the caduceus and led them on their last journey. He used it to transcend the thresholds of the world and travel everywhere (although in the modern world it has become meddled with the staff of Asclepius).

Mercury exchanging the lyre for the rod with Apollo

Mercury exchanging the lyre for the rod with Apollo

Apollo received the lyre, and it became his defining symbol (along with his golden bow). In fact Apollo’s lyre became the symbol of all art and music–a role which it still holds. It is funny that the defining objects of the two gods were originally vice-versa (though maybe knowing mothers–and knowing merchants–will not find such a swap entirely unprecedented).

1834 drawing of an ancient Roman painting of Apollo and Mercury from Pompei

1834 drawing of an ancient Roman painting of Apollo and Mercury from Pompei

Fallen Angels in Hell (John Martin, ca. 1841, oil on canvas)

Fallen Angels in Hell (John Martin, ca. 1841, oil on canvas)

In the Greco-Roman cosmology, the underworld was a fearsome place not just for mortals, but for the gods themselves. For one thing, only a handful of deities had full freedom of passage to the realm of the dead. Hades reigned there and could come and go as he pleased (though, like a grumpy rich man, he seldom left his dark palace). Persephone’s annual journey to Hades and back defined the seasons. Mysterious Hecate, the goddess of magic and thresholds could go anywhere at all, as could Hermes, the fleet-footed messenger of the gods (and the psychopomp who guided departed spirits to the final door). Nyx, alien goddess of primordial night, existed before the underworld…or anything else…and will exist long after. Although his retirement palace was in Tartaras, the deposed king of the gods Cronus/Saturn seems to have been free to roam the firmament. The Erinyes, spirits of furious retribution could temporarily leave the underworld only in order to goad their charges there…and that is about the full list. There were a lot of deities imprisoned in the underworld and there were lesser deities who worked there…but they were permanently stuck. Feasibly the Olympians, the most powerful gods who ruled heaven, the seas, and earth, could enter the underworld and leave again, but they never deigned to do so. Gaia had the underworld within herself, so she stands beyond the paradigm (and perhaps the abstruse children of Nyx do too…but they were tangential to classical myth).

There is of course an important exception. One Olympian god was the child of a mortal mother. Because of this human origin, and due also to his fundamental gifts and nature, he took the heroes’ journey and went down into the realm of the dead. Here is the myth. I have hesitated to tell it before for personal reasons: this god is one of my two favorite Greek gods but he is also my least favorite—the rewards, delights, and downfalls of worshiping him are all too evident!

Anyway…

Jove and Semele (Sebastiano Ricci, 1695, oil on canvas)

Jove and Semele (Sebastiano Ricci, 1695, oil on canvas)

Semele was a beautiful princess. From heaven Zeus spied her beauty: he courted her and won her heart (without using subterfuge or force), but, unfortunately, his lack of guile allowed jealous Hera to easily discover the affair. The angry queen assumed the guise of an ancient crone and paid a visit on the lovely young princess. The crone flattered the princess and fussed over her whims until Semele was convinced the old woman was a dear friend. Then Hera asked who the father of Semele’s unborn child was (for the princess was just beginning to show her pregnancy).

“The father is none other than mighty Zeus, king of all the gods,” announced the princess.

“Eh, I wonder…” replied the old woman. “All sorts of scoundrels have grandiose pretensions and men will tell any blasphemous lie to seduce a beautiful princess. Zeus? King of all the gods? What nonsense. Back when I was young and beautiful, I used to have a no-good man who told me the same thing. If he really is Zeus, why doesn’t he show himself to you in his full splendor.”

Doubt grew in Semele’s heart. Who was her handsome lover, really? When next he was in her arms, she resolved to find out. Using all of her beauty and wiles she cajoled Zeus and beguiled him and convinced him to promise her a boon. She even made him swear on the River Styx–a sacred oath, binding even upon the gods.

The Death of Semele (Peter Paul Rubens ca. 1640, oil on canvas)

The Death of Semele (Peter Paul Rubens ca. 1640, oil on canvas)

“If you are Zeus, show yourself to me in all of your divine splendor!” she demanded. Zeus equivocated and explained. Finally he outright begged to be free of his promise, but Semele was adamant: he had sworn an unbreakable oath. Sadly Zeus selected his smallest thunderbolt and gathered his most quickly passing squall. For an instant only, the sky father revealed himself as a force of nature with all the power and glory of the heavens, but an instant of such revelation was too much. Semele was burned away and only a pile of ash remained…and a pre-term baby. In horror and sorrow, Zeus grabbed up the little fetus. He hacked a hole in his “thigh” and sewed the tiny demigod into his own body (online classicists have informed me that “thigh” is a euphemism which decorous 19th century myth writers used for gonads). Then he set off for Nysa, a valley at the secluded edge of the world. The king of the gods knew exactly who was responsible for Semele’s death, and he wanted his son to grow up free from Hera’s wrath.

Maenads dance along the rim of a fifth century Greek Drinking Vessel

Maenads dance along the rim of a fifth century Greek Drinking Vessel

When Zeus reached Nysa, he gave birth to Dionysus directly from his “thigh.” Zeus then gave the beautiful infant to the wild nymphs of Nysa–the maenads–to raise. The maenads brought the child up with their own intuition, wildness, and delirium. Leopards and tigers were his playmates. At the eastern edge of the world strange indecipherable noises could sometimes be heard. Grapes grew there too in superabundance, and the child demigod realized how to make them into sweet intoxicating wine. He grew into an inhumanly beautiful adolescent. Then he clad himself in glorious purple robes and began to make his way through the world towards civilization (which, coincidently for this Greek myth, was Greece).

Bacchus and Tiger Quadriga mosaic in Tunisia(Roman Mosaic, circa 3rd century, tile)

Bacchus and Tiger Quadriga mosaic in Tunisia(Roman Mosaic, circa 3rd century, tile)

Everywhere Dionysus went he brought the secret of wine making. Sometimes he rode in a leopard drawn chariot with throngs of naked maenads running before him wildly singing his glory. Other times he revealed his divine nature to humankind differently—more subtly…or more strangely! But the ecstasy, beauty, and power of his gifts of inebriation always became readily apparent. Dionysus grew into the god of art, fertility, drama, and creation, but there is delirium, madness, anti-creation, and an orphan’s violent sadness to him as well.

Bacchus and the Choir of Nymphs (John Reinhard Weguelin, 1888, oil on canvas)

Bacchus and the Choir of Nymphs (John Reinhard Weguelin, 1888, oil on canvas)

In his wild youth as a demigod in the mortal world, Dionysus had many adventures (in fact, we’ll circle back to some of these stories in later posts). Although he was powerful, he was youthful, delicate, graceful, and kind. Clad in purple robes, half-human & half-divine, asking us to drink his wine of revelation…he seems terribly familiar. At the end of his pilgrimage through Greece he came to Olympus and he effortlessly ascended up it to join his father among the other gods. His divinity was obvious to all. Hestia stood up from her throne and offered it to her nephew and went over to take a place at the hearth. Hera gritted her teeth and plotted how to win other battles. Zeus beamed and asked his son if there was anything he wanted as a gift on the special occasion of his apotheosis.

The Triumph of Bacchus (Nicholas Poussin, 1636, oil on canvas)

The Triumph of Bacchus (Nicholas Poussin, 1636, oil on canvas)

For all of his wild delirium, Dionysus was a kind god…and an orphan. He plaintively asked his father if he could see his mother. Zeus readily assented…and then some. He told Dionysus to go get his mother and to bring her back to Olympus. And so it was. Dionysus went to the underworld and took his mother’s spirit away from ignominious death up to the glory of the heavens. The underworld part of this story is an afterthought—a tiny grace note at the very end. However it is worth remembering that Dionysus’ story runs through the world and the underworld. Drink and delirium are also keys to the realm of the dead, as any tragedian or hardened boozer could readily tell you.

Sarcophagus with the Triumph of Dionysos and the Seasons (Roman ca. AD 260–270. Marble)

Sarcophagus with the Triumph of Dionysos and the Seasons (Roman ca. AD 260–270. Marble)

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In writing about dreams and nightmares, I would be remiss not to write about the dominant dream monsters from western mythology—incubus and the succubus. Stories about these dream demons and demonesses originated in ancient Mesopotamia and have been common ever since (actually, considering that writing originated in Mesopotamia, myths about this sort of dream demon probably go back even further). As you have noticed, these demons are very prominently gendered: an incubus is male and a succubus is female (indeed the former is extravagantly male and the latter amply female). This fact explains the enduring popularity of the concept: these beings are sex demons which represent fundamental human drives and fears. According to tradition, they steal into a person’s bedroom at night and lay with him or her. The nocturnal demons are also reckoned to be spirit vampires of a sort—they steal the life force of their victims by sleeping with them.

Lilith (John Collier, 1892, oil on canvas)

Lilith (John Collier, 1892, oil on canvas)

While all sorts of gods, goddesses, demons, monsters, and supernatural entities were curtailed by the spread of monotheism (with its jealous single god), the incubus and succubus effortlessly jumped right into the folklore of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam at the very beginning and have stubbornly remained there ever since. Lilith—the demonic first consort of Adam–came into the Babylonian Talmud directly from Babylon (although some modern Talmudists dispute this and assert that the sexual demons are an eighth century addition to the Talmud). In Islamic folklore, there is a persistant belief in the qarînah (قرينة) which are invisible demons which have relations with humans in dreams (according to superstition they can be seen by some holy/magical folk and frequently hide in animal bodies).

 

The Malleability (artist unknown)

The Malleability (artist unknown)

There is no shortage of supernatural beings analogous to incubi in other parts of the world either. An incomplete list of these demons includes the Tokoloshe of South Africa; the Trauco of Chile (which preys exclusively on unmarried women); the pink botu of the Amazon, a shape-shifting river dolphin which seduces adolescents; the Indian pori (a seductive angel whichleads men towards suicide); and the Turkish Karabasan. The Teutonic mare or mara is a heavy goblin which crouches upon the victim’s chest (straddling the line between sleep apnea and salaciousness)

The Nightmare (Henry Fuseli, 1781, oil on canvas)

The Nightmare (Henry Fuseli, 1781, oil on canvas)

There are very obvious reasons why this myth winds through so many human cultures: the dream demon is a fairly transparent proxy for powerful erotic dreams and feelings (I probably don’t have to explain the specifics of this to anyone who has passed through puberty). I have included some “heavy metal” looking paintings and prints in this article to illustrate the dream demon as a symbol of unbridled adolescent lust and nighttime dreams of forbidden lovemaking.

 

Succubus (by Arsenal21)

Succubus (by Arsenal21)

All of which seems to be a part of growing up. Disturbingly, though the incubus and succubus have a much darker abusive side. In traditional cultures (and therefore probably in ancient ones as well) the incubus was often blamed for pregnancies which should have been impossible (as for young women who were secluded or kept under close chaperone). It is not unreasonable to suppose that the demon was thus as a pretext for incest or sexual abuse at home. This makes the original definition of the monster especially sad and appropriate. For too many people, abuse is indeed a life drinking demon which can not be escaped or even discussed. The happy world of people with upstanding loving families…and indeed the law itself are only beginning to find out about some of these kinds of abuses, so it is no wonder they were originally cloaked in myth. Nevertheless, this illustrates that those sanctimonious people who say stuff like “these things never used to happen in the old days” have a rather shallow grasp of history AND human behavior. Additionally it illustrates that made-up supernatural horrors are no match for actual human abuse.

Woodcut (Erich Heckel, ca. 1925-1930, woodblock print)

Woodcut (Erich Heckel, ca. 1925-1930, woodblock print)

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.

leprechaun3

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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