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

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Did you grow up playing adventure games and reading fantasy literature (a la “Dragonlance”, “Lord of the Rings”, and “Harry Potter”)?  Well if so, you are familiar with a standardized stable of fantasy creatures from medieval lore–familiar mythical beasts such as Manticores, griffins, dragons, and trolls.  The creatures which didn’t come from classical mythology originated in bestiaries–medieval fieldguides of astonishing creatures.  These treatises didn’t just have made-up monsters they also had a moralizing flavor…and hopefully some illustrations!

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However there were some beasts in the bestiaries that didn’t make it past the red pencil of Tolkien and Gygax–like the unhappy subject of today’s post, the bonnacon.  The Bonnacon comes down to us from no less a source than Pliny the Elder (who thought it lived in Paeonia (which is modern Macedonia/Bulgaria).  The bonnacon was the comic relief monster in medieval bestiaries.  The medieval manuscript writers loved it because of its scatalogical hijinks, however the mythical animal’s means of defending itself was so uncouth that the prim myth-makers of the present left it out of the worlds which they built.

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I will leave it to the Aberdeen Bestiary to describe the creature to you in its own words.  I have stolen the translation from Wikipedia, but the page is immediately above this paragraph, if you want to translate the Latin yourself.

In Asia an animal is found which men call bonnacon. It has the head of a bull, and thereafter its whole body is of the size of a bull’s with the maned neck of a horse. Its horns are convoluted, curling back on themselves in such a way that if anyone comes up against it, he is not harmed. But the protection which its forehead denies this monster is furnished by its bowels. For when it turns to flee, it discharges fumes from the excrement of its belly over a distance of three acres, the heat of which sets fire to anything it touches. In this way, it drives off its pursuers with its harmful excrement.

The poor bonnacon thus seems like a beast which ate too much spicy Taco Bell.   This was obviously a source of much glee to the illuminators and scribes of yore, but it was too much for J.K. Rowling.  Even fantasy beasts have to get with the times and so the bonnacon has been left behind in the dark ages.  Even if it didn’t make it into adventure books and golden tales of magical enchantment, I wonder if there isn’t a place for the monster in contemporary music or modern stand-up.  This thing might fit right into Andrew Dice Clay’s act and who can doubt that it would naturalize instantly into Eminem’s lyrics.

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Hey remember last week when NASA’s robot spacecraft visited a remote double snowball in the farthest reaches of the solar system?  Well that was amazing, but there was an attendant nomenclature problem.  Internet space enthusiasts and NASA worked together to choose a proposed name for the flying space snowman, and they came up with “Ultima Thule”, which was the Roman name for the inaccessible frozen lands of the farthest north (inaccessible to Romans anyway).  This name, however, doesn’t become official until sanctioned by the International Astronomical Union, which faces a conundrum, since apparently Nazis stupidly believed (or stupidly claimed to believe) that the Aryan race came from a mythical wonderland called Thule.

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This is clearly one of those stories that illustrate the dizzying heights of grandeur and terrifying depths of folly which accompany the human condition.  It is also an opportunity for a Ferrebeekeeper post about color since Thulian is also the English name for pink. “Thulian pink” is a striking pale pink with lavender highlights which will be instantly familiar to anyone who has gone down the girl’s toy aisle at a big box store.  Apparently the first recorded usage of this color name was in 1912, which was before the terrible events of the twenties and thirties swept a white nationalist autocracy to power in Germany.  Thulian pink doesn’t seem to have any white nationalist undertones that I can fathom (although I guess ruddy complexioned Caucasian people like me could theoretically turn the color of a Barbie Dream house if we received esoteric radiation burns or drank something toxic). Words are funny…(also I wonder if we sometimes invest them with too much power as we try to protect people from the ignorance and meanness of other people).  Anyway Thulian pink is also named after the fantastic lands to the far north, which makes me wonder what the association was for the people who first coined the name?  Is this the pink of the northern lands under the midnight sun at high summer or is it just regarded as an otherworldly color or ARE there unknown horrible racist associations? What is going on?

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Anyway, apparently this hue was rechristened as “First Lady” in 1948 as the interior decorators of the 50s started using it for everything.  I have always called in “Pepto-Bismol” pink.  Whatever it is called, I have always like the color, although it gets a trifle overused in the gendered marketing scheme of today’s toy world.

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Well, it’s past Halloween, but maybe there is still time for one more snake monster.  In Chinese astrology, 2017 is the year of the rooster.  English mythology features a monster which is half-snake and half-rooster:  the fearsome cockatrice.  The cockatrice had the head and torso of a chicken, but with dragonlike wings and a long sinuous serpent tail. It is sometimes conflated with the basilisk (although I think of them as different as, no doubt, do other Harry Potter fans). Various stories describe the cockatrice as being enormously venomous.

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The cockatrice was invented at the end of the 14th century and it experienced an enormous bloom of popularity in the England of the Tudors.  Cockatrices were everywhere.  they crawled all of over heraldry and pub signs.  They were in work of Spenser and Shakespeare. They even crawled/flapped their way into the Bible as the enthusiastic King James translators put the newly-designed creature into the book of Isaiah for the Hebrew “tsepha” (which as far as contemporary scholars can tell was a very venomous fossorial creature, probably a viper).

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Why did the Elizabethans love the cockatrice so much?  Well they were very poetic and imaginative people (if we take Spenser and Shakespeare as typical Elizabethans—and they are certainly the Elizabethans whom I am most familiar with).  Additionally the style of the time was marked by proud swagger and poisonous disputes which stemmed from the great religious disputes of the time where everyone was trying to decide whether to be Catholic or Protestant and whether virtue and/or political advantage lay with one or the other.  The mixed-up, chicken-brained, noisy, poisonous, beautiful, deadly cockatrice was a perfect mascot for such a time.  Indeed, it may need to become make a comeback for our own time!

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Serpent d'Océan  (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

Serpent d’Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

Here is an amazing giant sea serpent sculpture by the Franco-Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping. The 130 meter long artwork is made of aluminum and is appropriately titled Serpent d’Océan (“Sea Serpent”). The sculptor completed the piece in 2012 for the Loire “Estuaire” festival. He erected the monumental work at the mouth of the Loire River where the great waterway empties into the Atlantic Ocean–just west of the port city of Nantes.

Serpent d'Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

Serpent d’Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

The head of Serpent d’Océan lies just above the high tide mark and its tail is just below the low tide boundary. Thus, every day the serpent goes from being mostly submerged to mostly on land. At low tide, art enthusiasts can walk around the piece and see it close up like a museum specimen. At high tide it takes on a mythical supernatural character as it appears to writhe through the waves.

Serpent d'Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

Serpent d’Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

The artist Huang Yong Ping designed the serpent to straddle all sorts of boundaries. It is neither at sea nor properly on land. Likewise it lies where river meets ocean and the ecosystem is neither fully marine nor riverine. The serpent is a metal sculpture designed to look like a living skeleton of a mythical creature. The sculptor himself self-identifies as neither entirely Chinese nor French: he used myths from both cultures to inform his sculpture. Indeed the serpent takes on even more facets when considered in the light of world trade (where monsters–real and imagined–abound). Additionally, as a youth, Huang studied with the French master of artistic ambiguity Marcel Duchamp. Most of Huang’s artworks blur the lines between art and non-art (though, like Duchamp, he tries to stick to the former category).

Serpent d'Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

Serpent d’Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

The artist has expressed his hope that, as the sculpture ages, various tidal plants and animals will begin to colonize it and live within—or atop–the metal creation. As seabirds build their nests there and living amphibious beasts hide and feed within the snake, it will stretch across even more boundaries.

The mythological monster, Cerastes

The mythological monster, Cerastes

Cerastes was a monster from Greek legend with the body of a snake and horns like a bull or ram. According to legend, the monster would bury itself in the sand except for its horns, which protruded from the ground.  Other creatures would approach the mysterious horns to see if a carcass was nearby, whereupon the Cerastes would emerge from the earth and devour the victim. Although the creature sounds fanciful to the point of absurdity, it found a home in many medieval bestiaries, and no less a person than Leonardo da Vinci wrote about it.

The Horned Desert Viper

The Horned Desert Viper

The legend however, does have a kernel of truth. The North African horned desert viper has small horn-like appendages above its eyes and it hides in sand to stalk its prey (plus the snake already blends in with the desert due to camouflage coloration). The desert viper only measures 60 centimeters (about a foot) in length, so it is hardly swallowing large beasts like the mythical cerastes! Yet the desert viper is also acutely toxic—not to mention, real– and a mere 40 ml of venom are enough to kill a person. Fortunately the desert viper is a good-tempered snake and tends to warn victims before striking by rubbing its scaly coils together to make a hissing/sawing noise. The resemblance was enough however that taxonomists gave the little viper the scientific name Cerastes cerastes.

The Horned Desert Viper (Cerastes cerastes)

The Horned Desert Viper (Cerastes cerastes)

cockatrice
It’s been a while since Ferrebeekeeper featured a Gothic post–so here is one of my favorite sculptural details from world famous Notre Dame cathedral in the heart of Paris.  An intense bearded man with a hand axe is pursuing a cockatrice (a poisonous two-legged rooster-dragon) along the top of a wall.  The cockatrice was reputed to have the ability to turn people to stone so the particular realism of the axeman takes on an added dimension–but the monster is frozen as well (as it has been for the long centuries).

An Inkanyamba flying prior to a storm (artist unknown)

An Inkanyamba flying prior to a storm (artist unknown)

Kindly forgive the last few weekdays without a post–I was on a winter solstice vacation from the internet.  To cut through the holiday treacle, let’s concentrate on one of my favorite subjects—giant snake monsters!  More specifically, after this year of horrible storms, I am writing about the fearsome inkanyamba, a mythical serpent-like being from South Africa.  Inkanyambas are said to dwell in the pools beneath waterfalls.  They have the bodies of great serpents and horselike heads. Inkanyambas are associated with powerful seasonal storms—particularly tornadoes.   Such powerful local cyclones were thought to be caused by male inkanyambas out looking for mates.

Inkanyamba linocut by Kate Rowland

Inkanyamba linocut by Kate Rowland

The creatures are said to live in the Pietermaritzburg area of KwaZulu-Natal .   The Inkanyamba is particularly associated with the 95 meter tall (310 feet) Howick Falls, South Africa.  For a while the Inkanyambas of Howick Falls even had a bit of Loch Ness Monster style fame attracting tourists, photojournalists, and cryptozoologists  (insomuch as that is a real thing).  Lately though, the moster is fading back to the proper realm of myth and art.

Howick Falls, South Africa

Howick Falls, South Africa

Drawing of Wan Hu and his space vehicle

Ferrebeekeeper has looked at true space pioneers such as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the father of theoretical astronautics, and Yuri Gagarin, the first person to actually visit space.  However there are apocryphal tales concerning earlier space-explorers and aerospace pioneers. One of the shortest and silliest legends concerns Wan Hu, a (most-likely-fictional) petty government official in Medieval China who was reputedly the first astronaut.  Wan Hu’s problematic story is set in 15th century China during the 19th year of the reign of the Chenghua Emperor (the 8th emperor of the Ming Dynasty who ruled from 1464 to 1487).

Wan Hu Launches Off (Illustration courtesy of US Civil Air Patrol)

Wan Hu was obsessed with the heavens and he decided to travel to outer space by means of Ming dynasty technology (or possibly he was trying to catch a cartoon roadrunner). He assembled a “spacecraft/flying machine” from 47 powerful fireworks rockets, two large kites, and an armchair.  The rockets were tiered into two stages to give the chair an added burst of power.  When he gave the word, numerous attendants darted forward with torches and simultaneously lit the fireworks.  Wan’s chair leapt into the sky and then exploded in a giant ball of flame.  When the smoke cleared Wan and his flying machine were entirely gone.  Even if he did not make it to space, he certainly succeeded in exiting this mortal plane!

Not only does the story contain implausible elements (!) but the first known version of Wan Hu’s heroic but doomed flight comes from an issue of Scientific American published in the October 2nd, 1909 issue of Scientific American (although the hero of that story was named “Wang Tu”).  Subsequent retellings of the story (first in English and then in Chinese) changed the name to Wan Hoo and then finally to Wan Hu. Despite Wan’s nonexistent nature, the Soviets named a lunar crater after him in 1966.  In 1970 the  International Astronomical Union accepted the name—so an ancient crater which measures 5km deep and 52km wide on the dark side of the moon permanently bears the name of the imaginary adventurer.  Surprisingly the Chinese have embraced Wan (choosing hopefully to admire his courage and foresight rather than his safety protocols) and there is a statue of him at Xichang Satellite Launch Centre.

Statue of Wan Hu reportedly located at Xichang Satellite Launch Centre

An Ogham Stone at Derrynane

Saint Patrick’s Day spirit is beginning to pervade the land and the mind turns to all things Hibernian.  Last week, Ferrebeekeeper investigated Leprechaun tattoos and, though visually interesting, that subject quickly turned dark and scary.  This week, we plunge into the green forests of ancient Celtic Ireland to pursue the roots of Ogham, the mysterious tree alphabet of the Druids.  Get out your golden sickles and put on your mistletoe haloes, the nature and origin of Ogham are shadowed by primeval mystery and this whole journey could easily veer off into the fantastic realms of pre-Christian myth.

To begin with the basics, Ogham was a runic alphabet from early medieval times which was in use throughout the lands ringing the Irish Sea, but which seems to have been most prevalent in Munster (Southern Ireland).  Ancient objects inscribed in Ogham are most commonly found in Kerry, Cork, and Waterford, but are also known in Wales, Scotland, the Orkney Isles, the Isle of Man, and the Devon coast.  Stone monuments inscribed in Ogham are usually written in Old Irish or an unknown Brythonic tongue—probably Pictish.  The alphabet seems to have been primarily used from the 4th century AD to the 8th century AD (although correct dates are a subject of contention).

Um, Ogham, I guess....

There are many historical theories explaining the origin of Ogham, but none are conclusive.  Some scholars hold that the script originated during the Roman conquest of Britain as a sort of non-Roman code language used between Celtic people.  Others assert that the language grew up as a means for denoting Celtic sounds—which the Roman alphabet is not well suited for—and became more complex and complete only as Christian scholars set up communities in Ireland. Wilder theories involve ancient primitive peoples as diverse as Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, the lost tribes of Israel, and the mysterious Sea People who destroyed Minoan palace civilization in the Mediterranean (please, please don’t tell my Irish history professor that I let you know about any of these hare-brained ideas).  My favorite mythical (as in “not-real”) story of the origin of Ogham involves the legendary Scythian king, Fenius Farsa, who invented the Gaelic language and then crafted Ogham out of scraps recovered from the fallen Tower of Babel (there’s more than a soupçon of world-famous Irish blarney in this folktale).

Brueghel's "Tower of Babel" (I never noticed the workmen wearing green eating potatoes in the left corner)

Whatever the actual origins of Ogham were, a large number of inscribed stones have been found in what were once Celtic lands.  Most of these were territorial markers and memorials—the oldest of which come from Ireland (although it is believed there was a heritage of inscribing the lines on sticks and bark which predated stone inscriptions).  Some scholars believe the Welsh, Manx, Scotish, British, and Orkadian Ogham stones date from Post-Roman Irish incursion/invasions.  Ancient tradition assigns the names of trees or shrubs to each of the letters of Ogham (although such a naming convention may only date from the tenth century).  A comprehensive glossary of letter names can be found here along with a translation of an ascetic Ogham joke (of sorts).

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