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Fang Ding (ca. 1100-1000 BC, cast bronze)

Fang Ding (ca. 1100-1000 BC, cast bronze)

Here is a bronze ceremonial vessel called a fang ding from China’s Western Zhou period.  The vessel dates from the eleventh or tenth century BC—so it is probably from Shanxi or Shaanxi (which are the modern provinces located where the Zhou culture began). The ding was used for ceremonial food offerings, but it was also a status object which represented power and authority over the land.  It is covered with an enigmatic pattern known as a taotie, the true nature of which has perplexed and intrigued experts in Chinese art for centuries (or even millennia).  Most scholars believe that the markings are a stylized face—possibly the countenance of strange spirit beings encountered on shamanistic spirit journeys.  According to anthropologists there are extant hunter-gathering cultures which participate in such transcendental rituals—and craft similarly stylized faces (so I’m not making all this up—however anthropologists might be). The Chinese term for the decorative faces (or whatever they are)  is 饕餮 which apparently translates as “glutinous ogre” which seems like a very poetic and apt name for the weird powerful designs.

A different view of the same ding

A different view of the same ding

During the Shang dynasty (which preceded the Zhou period) the analogous ceremonial vessel was a wine container, but the founding king of Zhou was a strict moralist who believed the Shang had declined due to drunkenness and inebriation. Perhaps some of the shamanistic overtones of the bronze vessels vanished as the authorities reinvented dings as a symbol of authority rather than a portal to an altered state!

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia

Estonian mythology all seems strangely familiar and yet jarringly bizarre—like songs you hear in dreams or children’s books read in unknown languages.  The stories have Greek parallels (and owe much to Finnish mythology) but the narrative is off-putting. A cunning blacksmith makes a beautiful woman out of gold but is unable to give her a soul or a mind. Beings from the land of the dead come back through a sacred grove to seduce maidens in the evening. Forests grow tired of human greed and get up and move away.

duAtfTO

Perhaps the most familiar-yet-strange figure in Estonian myth is Vanatühi, the god of the underworld.  Vanatühi means “old empty one” and the deity is famed for being stupid–nearly to the point of being inert.  Whereas other underworld gods are always up to some malevolent scheme, Vanatühi is a big dumb farmer with crude ogre features.  Because of his stupidity, Vanatühi is always being outwitted by Kaval Ants (“Crafty Hans”), the cunning trickster of Estonian myth (who usually starts out as a farmhand working for Vanatühi.

Vanatühi has two mythological items of great power, the stranger of which is küüntest kübar, a magical crown made of fingernails (yuck!) which renders the wearer invisible.  The other mystical item he has is a whistle which he stole from Pikne, the god of lightning, however the whistle never seems to come into play.  Maybe Vanatühi swallowed it?

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