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The Dream (Henri Rousseau, 1910, oil on canvas)

The Dream (Henri Rousseau, 1910, oil on canvas)

Here is “The Dream,” the last painting completed by Henri Rousseau, the toll collector who became a self-taught artistic genius at the end of his life. The painting shows Rousseau’s mistress Yadwigha (a long-sundered lover from the painter’s youth). She is naked, reclining on a stuffed divan which magically floats through a jungle filled with lions, strange larger-than-life flowers, tropical birds, and a hidden elephant. The other main figure of the composition is the enigmatic snake charmer who reappears from other Rousseau works and seems to represent the beauty and mystery of the world.  As this dark figure plays the recorder he or she casts a mysterious enchantment upon the fulsome flora and fauna. The work seems to suggest that life is a transient dream of surpassing beauty–but a dream in which the meaning remains wild and elusive. What we think we know is ultimately subsumed by nature and the greater forces of the unknown.

Rousseau wrote a poem to explain the painting, but the poem says little which is not obvious (or which the viewer does not already intuit):

Yadwigha dans un beau rêve
S’étant endormie doucement
Entendait les sons d’une musette
Dont jouait un charmeur bien pensant.
Pendant que la lune reflète
Sur les fleuves [or fleurs], les arbres verdoyants,
Les fauves serpents prêtent l’oreille
Aux airs gais de l’instrument.

(Yadwigha in a beautiful dream
Having fallen gently to sleep
Heard the sounds of a reed instrument
Played by a well-intentioned [snake] charmer.
As the moon reflected
On the rivers [or flowers], the verdant trees,
The wild snakes lend an ear
To the joyous tunes of the instrument.)

 

 

Orchis italica

Orchis italica

Today we showcase a humorous-looking orchid–Orchis italica, which (for self-evident reasons) is also known as the naked man orchid, the Italian orchid, or the naked fairy orchid. The orchid grows in the Mediterranean along the coast of Israel, Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, and Spain.  Sometimes it is even found as far west as Portugal.  The plant favors poor soil and mixed shade.  In the summer it produces a remarkable array of blooms which resemble tiny nude lavender men wearing crazy turban-crowns.

Orchis Italica (photo by Ana Retamaro)

Orchis Italica (photo by Ana Retamaro)

During the middle ages, a certain school of natural-history held that the creator had put clues about the pharmacological utility of flora in the very shape of the plants themselves.  This so-called “doctrine of signatures” asserted that plants which looked like the liver were good for the liver and flowers that resembled the skin were good for the skin.   Orchis italica was sought out and crushed down as a virility aid.  The naked fairy orchid was not alone in becoming a part of such decoctions:  other Mediterranean orchids (like Orchis mascula) were also dug up.  The tubers of these plants (which tend to come in pairs and also resemble male anatomy) were crushed into a heavy flour which was used to make salep or salop–a dense sugary beverage which had extensive popularity in Europe and the Ottoman world during the 18th and 19th centuries.  It was sold in coffee houses everywhere and is still sold in Turkey.

Orchis mascula

Orchis mascula

Naked Mole Rat Queen with Offspring

Naked Mole Rat Queen with Offspring

Naked Mole Rats (Heterocephalus glaber) are unique among mammals in that they are eusocial (well actually Damaraland mole rats might be eusocial too, but they are in the same family, the Bathyergidae).  Like bees or ants, mole rats live in a hive society: only one naked mole rat female is fertile and she gives birth to sterile workers who maintain and protect the underground burrows where the colony lives.  A queen breeds with 3 or 4 male naked mole rats and she jealously guards her reproductive monopoly.  If other female naked mole rats begin to produce sexual hormones or behave in a queenlike manner, the queen will viciously attack them.  When the old queen dies, violent battles can break out to become the new queen.  Once a victor emerges, the spaces between her vertebrae expand and she becomes longer and larger. Mole rats breed all year and they can produce a litter of three to twelve pups every 80 days.

Naked Mole Rat (Heterocephalus glaber)

Naked Mole Rat (Heterocephalus glaber)

Naked mole rats live in the arid parts of Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia.  They feed on huge tubers which weigh as much as all the mole rats in a colony.  The mole rats eat the tubers slowly from the inside, which give the roots time to regrow.  Additionally mole rats can efficiently recycle food, so newly weaned mole rats are fed feces (which can also provide sustenance for adults).    Naked mole rats have huge sharp incisors for tunneling.   Their lips close in such a way that the incisors always remain outside their mouth–so the mole rats can tunnel indefinitely without getting dirt in their mouths.   Worker mole rats are 8 to 10 cm (3 to 4 in) long and weigh 30 to 35 grams (1.1 to 1.2 oz), although the queen grows much larger.  Naked mole rats have weak eyes and tiny skinny legs.  In effect they are pale pink wrinkled tubes with a few long sensitive whisker-like hairs sprouting from their bodies.  They move equally quickly forwards and backwards through their elaborate tunnels (which can measure up to 5 kilometers (3 miles) in total length).

06_12_Digging_side

Mole rats are unusual among mammals in other significant ways as well.  Naked mole rats do not maintain same thermal homeostasis as other mammals.  Their body temperatures are much closer to the ambient temperature in their burrows.  If they become unduly cold, they move to the top tunnels of their burrows and huddle together.  If they become hot, the naked mole rats retreat into the bottom levels where the temperatures are cooler.

Oxygen is a precious commodity in the underground tunnels of mole rats, so the fossorial roents have evolved extremely efficient blood and lungs in order to maximize oxygen uptake.   Additionally mole rats have very low metabolic rates compared to other (non-hibernating) mammals.  Their hearts beat slowly:  they breathe shallowly and eat little. In times of drought or famine, they are capable of going into a survival mode where their already slow metabolisms drop another 25 percent.  Naked Mole rats lack a critical neural transmitter which would allow them to feel certain sorts of pain sensations (such as pain caused by acid or hot pepper).  It is believed that the mole rats lost the ability to feel such sensations because the high carbon dioxide levels in their tunnels lead to extremely acidic conditions (mole rats are also surprisingly acid resistant, although I shudder to think of how we know this).

naked-mole-rats

Mole rats live a long time—some captive mole rats are in their early thirties—and they do not age like other mammals but remain young and fit throughout their lives.  Additionally mole rats are untroubled by cancers.  It seems the underlying cause of this remarkable cancer-free long life is a certain hyaluronan (HMW-HA), a gooey peptide which fills up gaps between cells.  The fact that cells do not grow closely together prevents tumors from ever forming.  Hyaluronans exist in all other mammals (and in other animals).  The complex sugars are part of our joints and cartilage.  However the hyaluronan found in naked mole rats is much larger and more complicated.

Thanks to their ant-like colonial life and bizarre appearances, naked mole rats might seem quite alien, but they are near cousins to humans (primates and rodents are close relatives—which will surprise nobody who has ever known a businessperson).  They even come from the same part of Africa as us. The naked mole rats are social animals and they care deeply for one another over their decades of life.  Additionally our kinship with the wrinkly pink rats could provide other benefits.  Humans suffer greatly from aging and cancers.  Mole rats–with their remarkable hyaluronans–could provide workable insights into how to alleviate cancer and aging.

Family Portrait?

Family Portrait?

Title illustration of Johannes Praetorius (writer) (de)' Blocksbergs Verrichtung (1668)

Title illustration of Johannes Praetorius’ (de)’ Blocksbergs Verrichtung (printed 1668)

In Northern and Central Europe, the last day of April is the last day of winter and darkness.   The holiday known to the ancient Gaelic people as Beltane is the opposite of Samhain (aka Halloween): in spring, the forces of darkness and the underworld come out for a last wild dance but are driven away by the burgeoning summer.  The holiday is called “Walpurgisnacht” in German and Dutch, however the Estonians know it as “Volbriöö, (Walpurgi öö)”, the Swedes call it “Valborgsmässoafton” , The Czechs know it as “Valpuržina noc”, and the Finns, bucking the trend, call the celebration “Vappu”. Except in Finland, the festival is named after Saint Walpurga, an English missionary who proselytized among the Franks and Germans in the eight century (and who was canonized on May 1st).

Walpurgis' Night (based on an illustration by Johann Heinrich Ramberg, 1829, steel engraving)

Walpurgis’ Night (based on an illustration by Johann Heinrich Ramberg, 1829, steel engraving)

Walpurgisnacht is one of the ancient touchstones of German art and culture.  Tradition has it that demons, spirits, and naked witches from around Northern Europe come together on that night to dance around bonfires on the Brocken, the highest mountain in Northern Germany (although only a hill compared with the mighty Alps in the south). The climax of Goethe’s Faust takes place on Walpurgisnacht as the witches and spirits attend the devil (although it seems like ancient pagan versions of the holiday were centered around fertility goddesses).  Likewise in The Magic Mountain, Hans Castorp finally talks at length to the bewitching Madame Chauchat on May Eve as the sanatorium erupts into primeval merry-making.

Illustration to Walgurgisnacht by Goethe (Ernst Barlach, ca 1920s, woodblock print)

Illustration to Walpurgisnacht by Goethe (Ernst Barlach, ca 1920s, woodblock print)

To celebrate this strange haunted pagan fertility festival I have included three great images from German art.

Inanna/Astarte/Ishtar

Inanna/Astarte/Ishtar

The most prominent female deity in ancient Mesopotamia was Inanna (also known as Ištar).  Monotheistic religions have a way of leaving out women (or making them ancillary characters like Mary). Polytheistic religions often divide their goddesses into fertility goddesses (like Aphrodite) versus power goddesses like Athena or Artemis.  Inanna reflects no such omission or dichotomy: as Queen of Heaven, she was both the goddess of sex and the goddess of war.   In fact, saying that she was the most prominent female deity of the Babylonian/Akkadian/Sumerian pantheon might be unfair:  arguably she was the most prominent god of any sort in that pantheon.

Inanna as depicted by an ancient Mesopotamian scroll seal

Inanna as depicted by an ancient Mesopotamian scroll seal

Worship of Inanna seems to have begun in the city state Uruk around 6000 years ago.   Her sacred symbols were the eight pointed star and the lioness.  She is especially affiliated with the planet Venus (which, obviously, was known instead as “Inanna” to the Mesopotamians), the third brightest object in the sky which, bafflingly, can rise in the East and the West in both the morning and evening (we realize that his is because Venus is our closest neighbor, but to the Babylonians it was uncanny).  Inanna was not just the day star but also storm, flood, wrath, and war.  Additionally, she was a goddess of fertility and unbridled sensuality. Inanna had many lovers (and was always looking for more) but her actual husband was the beautiful shepherd god, Dumuzi.  There are several unabashedly graphic poems about the physical nature of the pair’s marriage (which you can look up on your own).

Detail of ancient Mesopotamian so-called "Ishtar Vase", terracotta with cut, moulded, and painted decoration, from Larsa, early 2nd millennium BC.

Detail of ancient Mesopotamian so-called “Ishtar Vase”, terracotta with cut, moulded, and painted decoration, from Larsa, early 2nd millennium BC.

In addition to personifying forces of nature, Inanna possessed all of the secrets of civilization. She beguiled ancient Enki, the first god, with her charms and made him drunk on beer.  Then she convinced him to give her the Mes, clay tablets which represented fundamental truth and all the blueprints for power and civilization.  When Enki sobered up, he sent his attendants after Inanna to fetch back the Mes, but it was too late. Uruk blossomed and outshone Enki’s city, Eridu, in glory.

Probably the most famous story about Inanna concerns her trip to the underworld (ruled by Inanna’s sister, the dark and jealous goddess Ereshkigal).  One day Inanna left heaven.  She abandoned her seven cities and emptied her temples.  She donned the seven sacred objects symbolic of her queenhood and set out for the realm from which no traveler returns. Before leaving, however, Inanna left explicit directions with her faithful vassal, Ninshubur, concerning what to do if she (Inanna) did not return in three days.

Arrayed in splendor, Inanna came before the great bronze gate to the underworld and announced herself as “Inanna, Queen of heaven.”  She claimed to be visiting the underworld to attend her sister’s husband’s funeral. The doorkeeper of the dead, Neki was amazed and he sought Ereshkigal’s orders.  To enter the underworld, Inanna had to give up her crown and, at each subsequent gate she was forced to part with another of her treasures/garments.  One by one she set aside her lapis earrings, the double strand of beads about her neck, her breastplate (called, “Come, man, come”), her golden hip girdle, and the lapis measuring rod. She walked on and on through the dreary lands of spirits, ghosts, and wraiths.   Whenever she tried to talk to Neti, he answered, “Quiet Inanna, the ways of the Underworld are perfect.  They may not be questioned.”

Inanna naked (ancient alabaster statue)

Inanna naked (ancient alabaster statue)

Finally at the last gate she had only her royal breechcloth.  Surrendering this last garment she came to the final depths of the realm of the dead naked and stripped of power.  As she stepped before the throne of Ereshkigal she was knocked to her knees by the annuna, the monstrous judges of the underworld.  They surrounded her and judged her.  Here is a translation of the actual Sumerian text:

They passed judgment against her.
Then Ereshkigal fastened on Inanna the eye of death
She spoke against her the word of wrath
She uttered against her the cry of guilt
She struck her.
Inanna was turned into a corpse
A piece of rotting meat
And was hung from a hook on the wall

After three days Inanna did not return.  Ninshubur became worried.  She was a goddess in her own right who sometimes served as a herald or a messenger for the other gods, but her true devotion was always to Inanna (some myths even describe her as one of Inanna’s lovers). Acting on Inanna’s instructions, Ninshubur went to various deities to ask for help rescuing Inanna.

Inanna’s father and paternal grandfather were unmoved by her death (having warned her against sojourning in the land of the dead).  However ancient Enki, still loved her, despite the fact that she had taken the Mes from him.  In order to save Inanna from death he summoned kurgarra and the galatur, demon beings, to whom he gave the water of life.  Assuming the guise of houseflies, the two demons flew into the underworld and descended to Ereshkigal’s throne room where Inanna was suspended dead and decomposing on a hook.  With magical powers they rescued Inanna’s corpse from suspension and poured the water of life upon it.  Inanna returned to life and proceeded back through the underworld, gathering her clothes and treasures as she went.

inannadescent

Unfortunately the galla, the demons of the underworld, discovered her as she was leaving.  Unable to prevent her egress, they nevertheless demanded a substitute life to take her place and they followed as the goddess made her way back through the underworld and back out into the world of life.  As Ninshubur joyfully greeted Inanna, the galla asked for the attendant’s life (which Inanna angrily refused). The underworld demons then asked for Inanna’s sons, Shara and Lulal, and even for Inanna’s beautician Cara as sacrifices to take Inanna’s place.  However the goddess was firm: since all of these people were dressed in mourning for her, she refused to let them be touched.  However when the Queen goddess came home to her palace, she found her husband, Dumuzi (who was once a shepherd but now lived as a god-king) dressed in rich robes, drinking and feasting merrily.  Infuriated, she pointed him out to the galla and the demons sprang at him. Dumuzi appealed to the sun god Utu for help and was transformed into a snake, but the demons were remorseless and they found him in his new form and dragged him away to the depths of the underworld in place of the resurrected Inanna.

 Mesopotamian cylinder seal of Dumuzi feeding sheep. (ca 3200-3000 BC)

Mesopotamian cylinder seal of Dumuzi feeding sheep. (ca 3200-3000 BC)

The gods cared little about Dumuzi’s fate, but his sister Geshtinanna remained loyal to him.  She begged Ereshkigal to take her in her brother’s stead and the death goddess (impressed by such love for a sibling) relented and allowed her to spend half the year as a stand-in for her brother.  Their annual place changing was believed to drive the seasons. As for Inanna, she went back to war and sex.  Yet something had changed, reborn, she had knowledge of the underworld and the ultimate mysteries.

Cast your imagination down to the bottom of the ocean—not at a beach or a bright coral reef just offshore, but the true ocean floor—the abyssal plains which cover much of Earth’s surface.  Here vast flat swaths of mud lie in black silence.  Only the occasional seamount or shipwreck breaks the monotony of plains as big as continents.  Tides do not particularly affect the bottom of the ocean.  The most violent storms do not perturb the waters.  Even humankind’s restless activities, which have so much affected the rest of the planet, mean little here.  At first it seems bleak, but soon enough you realize that life is everywhere here.  There are spiderfish, lizardfish, deep sea octopuses, bizarre roving sea cucumbers, and all sorts of strange creatures, but we are not here for them.  Instead we are concentrating on an inconspicuous worm-like animal.  The tiny cylindrical creatures are only 5 cm (2 inches long) and they shimmer strangely when exposed to light.  It would be reasonable to assume that they were worms or tiny sea cucumbers, but they are not.  The benthic beasts are members of the aplacophora class of mollusks—the naked mollusks.  They are presumed to be similar in appearance and nature to the basal mollusks from which the other classes of mollusks have evolved (although both fossil and molecular evidence is frustratingly exiguous).  To look at aplacophorans is to see back to the Cambrian (540 million years ago) and to glimpse an even earlier era when the ancestors of the mollusks diverged from the annelids.

Two specimens of the aplacophoran Simrothiellidae (photographed by G. Rouse)

The aplacophoran shine because of tiny calcareous spicules embedded in their skin.  There are about 320 known species split between two clades: the caudofoveates and solenogasters.  To quote the University of California Museum of Paleontology website, “Caudofoveates are burrowers that feed on detritus and bottom-dwelling microorganisms, while solenogasters feed on cnidarians. Both groups have a radula and lack true nephridia.”  There is an even more important distinction between the two different clades: whereas solenogasters are hermaphrodites, caudofoveates have two genders, and reproduce by external fertilization.

Epimenia australis (Photo by R. Willen)

The depths of the ocean are known to harbor animals which have vanished from the rest of the Earth long ago, and such is believed to be the case with aplacophorans.  For a half billion years they have gone about their business in a part of the world which is resistant to outside change.  The next time you fly across an ocean, imagine all of the naked mollusks in the muck at the very bottom and think about the vast amount of time they have been there.

Kali (artist unknown)

In Hinduism, Kali is the dark mother goddess who represents the force of change and transformation in the universe. The Devi Mahatmya, a Sanskrit text of the 5th – 6th century AD, relates that Kali was born from the brow of the mother goddess Durga, but it may be that she actually is Durga or vice versa (the mutable forms of divinity in Hinduism are transfigurative and sometimes subsume one another).

In appearance, Kali is one of the most fearsome deities in any pantheon.  Her skin is completely black, like the night sky, or like the oblivion which awaits all living things.  Nude but for certain terrible adornments made of human body parts, Kali wears a skirt made of severed limbs and a necklace of 50 bloody heads, one for each letter of the Sanskrit alphabet.   Her nudity is important as it represents her freedom from maya—the illusory false consciousness in which the mortal world is steeped. Her four hands clutch different ceremonial items: a great sword/cleaver, the severed head of a huge demon, a trident, and a bowl fashioned out of a skull to catch the blood flowing from the head.  Kali’s eyes are red with wrath and she has fangs at the edge of her howling mouth.  Her nude body is spattered with gore and her four long arms bend at improbable angles.

kali (artist unknown)

Many representations of Kali show her in fury, rampaging over the prostrate form of her husband Shiva, the creation god.  There is a story behind the image.  The Devas and Devis (gods and goddesses) of the universe were engaged in a conflict with terrible demons and they were losing the fight when Kali was created.  Her rage and her battle fury were so terrible that no demon could stand against her awful onslaught.  As she slew, she begin to drink demonic blood and grow in strength.  No force could withstand Kali and the universe began to tremble and shake.  But, before she could annihilate all things, Shiva assumed his comeliest form and cast himself like a corpse at the feet of his wife. When Kali realized that she was touching her husband with the soles of her feet (an incredibly disrespectful act within the code of Hindu morality) her rage died.  She stuck out her tongue in distaste and horror and her awful slaughter came to an end.  Other myths pick up the story and tell of how she and Shiva (both nude and heated from carnage and near disaster) began to engender new life, but you will have to look those up on your own.

The familiar tableau certainly suggests that without the power of Kali, great Shiva becomes inert.  This juxtaposition is important and reveals something about Kali. Worshipped on the charnel ground where the bodies of the dead are cremated, Kali is obviously a death goddess, however her divine status transcends that of other chthonic gods.  Terrible though her appearance may be, Kali is one of the most beloved goddesses of India.  She is universally held in reverence by sages and gurus who have begun to see through life’s illusions.  These wise people esteem Kali as the mother of all things because without death there is no possibility for rebirth.  If things are not unmade there is no material with which to create newer finer things.  Thanks to Kali we do not live in a derelict world of disease, rot, and senility.  Instead we march forward and upward and we are replaced as we wear out.

Or at least we seem to stumble forward—whether we are getting anywhere or not is a question for the gods themselves (and to my way of thinking they themselves are just another illusion).

Kali (artist unknown)

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