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Consulting the Oracle (John William Waterhouse, 1884) oil on canvas

It is the last month of a largely disappointing year. It is time to start looking forward in time and thinking about how we can maybe redeem next year from the failures and idiocies which have bedeviled this era. But it also the beginning of the holiday season, so as an early holiday treat, here is a very famous and beautiful painting from 1884 (it was very famous in 1884–perhaps less so now, but its troubling beauty endures). But why is this painting troubling? What is it even about?

This is Consulting the Oracle, by the matchless John Williams Waterhouse, one of the greatest of English painters from England’s greatest era. Like Waterhouse’s foreboding and challenging work Psyche Entering Cupid’s Garden, this is a work that, at first glimpse, seems to be an overly realistic Victorian fantasy of decorative charm, exotic setting, sumptuous color, and feminine beauty without much larger import. As with the Psyche painting, this initial impression is quite far from the truth, but, to understand the painting one must research the subject.

According to Waterhouse (who must have been a very strange and learned man) “Consulting the Oracle” is about a group of young Jewish women consulting a teraph to learn the future. Teraphim appear in the Pentateuch–but the text makes their nature extremely problematic and mysterious, or, to say that a different way, teraphim are baffling forbidden items in the Bible. Hebrew scholars have lost the original meaning of the word and now just translate it as “disgraceful things.” Apparently they were household or ancestral deities, not unlike the Roman Penates. For example, In Genesis, when Jacob (the father of Israel) is finally escaping his conniving father-in-law, Laban, Jacob’s wife Rachel steals the family teraphim. Laban is suspicious about what she is sitting on (for she refuses to rise from her camel saddle), but she tells him she is menstruating and thus succeeds in making off with the items. Various disputed Talmudic sources (which I guess that Waterhouse was reading?) suggest that the teraphim were the ancestors, or to quote the Jewish Encyclopedia, that “Teraphim were made from the heads of slaughtered first-born male adult humans. The heads were shaved, salted, spiced, with a golden plate placed under the tongue, and magic words engraved upon the plate.” According to Kabbalistic tradition, such objects could foretell the future if hung upon the wall and properly invoked. Modern archaeology has discovered many ceremonially plastered and mounted skulls kept inside the house as sacred ancestral totems in the ancient early cities and settlements of Palestine and the Levant. Also the sacrifice of all first born male mammals is indeed an ancient Middle Eastern tradition.

So what Waterhouse has actually given us is a peak into a ritual which casts a great deal of doubt onto just what the Old Testament is really about (in fact if you look around the room, you might notice that the torah is there, peaking out of its cupboard beneath the blue bottle at far right). Also notice that in this composition, a seat has been prepared for you the viewer to take part in this dark ritual of prophecy. You get to hear what this sacrificed mummified human head has to say. In fact the head is there too, whispering to the quack priestess who commands the audience with her stagecraft–it is just so leathery, brown, and unexpected that you probably missed it. Jeepers Creepers!

So what is this painting about? To my mind it is a warning about the false promises of magic and divination (or “religion” as we call such things). These excited young women have fallen under the dark thrall of the teraph’s interpreter. She is using the “disgraceful thing” to work everyone up and gain a hold upon them. A cursory look at Waterhouse’s full oeuvre reveal him to be obsessed with exactly such stories of sacrifice, judgement, and faith gone horribly awry. Another interpretation is that it is a painting which takes a thread from the Bible, the teraphim, and pulls at it to see what unwinds, rather in the manner Kierkegaard did with “Fear and Trembling” (or Rembrandt did with Abraham and Isaac). But this is an evil version of Fear and Trembling, for it opens a curtain into a world where God’s chosen are, well, murderers and idolators, apparently. This, of course, lays open a possible interpretation that this is an anti-Semitic work, although I personally doubt this since because, like Waterhouse’s Arthurian and Roman women, these Jewish ladies really look like Victorian/Edwardian English ladies to me. Whatever Waterhouse is saying, he is probably saying it about all people for all time.

Another interpretation is that this really is a work about augury. The teraph’s words are terrible and forbidden, but who could resist hearing them? The audience’s body language of open mouthed astonishment, horror, or outright weeping suggest that the teraph might indeed have some bad things to say (maybe about the Great War and how Waterhouse would die just before it ended of a horrible, painful cancer). In a way, the painting reminds me most of the poem “Goblin Market” (another profound work of art by another Pre-Raphaelite) it approaches forbidden and the transgressive as a legitimate source of transcendent knowledge about ourselves. So sit down, right there, in the the seat Waterhouse has prepared for you and tell me what you hear.

Jupiter, the speaking oaks, a pigeon, and a mysterious goddess

As I read about the ancient world, one of the place names which keeps reappearing again and again is Dodona–the site of the oldest oracle in Greece. Ferrebeekeeper has already written about the myth of the foundation of Dodona (which reputedly became a place of prophecy when a black dove with the power of human speech landed there). During the Greco-Roman era, the shrine was sacred to Zeus/Jove himself. The priests and priestesses of Dodona would listen to the noises of a grove of sacred oak trees. Not only did the leaves of these trees rustle in the wind but their boughs were hung with resonant bronze vessels (which banged and clanged like wind chimes). Although Dodona was sacred to Zeus in the classical era, it seems like it dates back to at least Mycenaean times (the mysterious palace-building city states of Mycenaean Greece preceded the Greek age by many centuries, and although they apparently shared some cultural and linguistic similarities, the cultures were not the same). It has been argued that the Dodona of Mycenaean times was sacred to the great goddess Gaia. Whatever the ancient traditions of Dodona were, they came to an apocalyptic halt around 1200 BC when disaster and invaders put an end to the palace civilizations. Sacred worship and divination reemerged there later in the new conventions of Archaic Greek religious style (all of which contributed to the Zeus versus Gaia mythology which is such a pivotal conflict in ancient Greek mythology).

“Pythia – the priestess at Delphi – making oracles at the new moon” (Emile Bayard, 1886) engraving

Here is a beautiful nineteenth century engraving which illustrates how Second Empire French artists imagined the pythia of Apollo. This image is particularly dramatic since the pythia is not only hopped up on divination fumes but is also wrestling with some rather alarming serpents (they don’t quite seem to be pythons, but I suppose when giant hissing snakes are wrapped around you, it is pointless to quibble about herpetology). Although the light falling on the pythia makes her pop out from the rest of the work to such an extent that, at first, she almost seems alone, my favorite part of the print are the interpreters/querents in the shadowy background who are pursing their lips and furrowing their brows as they try to parse out the divine meaning of the oracle’s presentation. This print was created by the master illustrator Émile Bayard who is still famous for his heart-wrenching image of Cosette from “Les Miserables.” Additionally, Bayard was one of the first-ever science fiction artists: he attempted to portray Jules Verne’s space travel novels based on scientific and natural sources (as opposed to basing heavenly imagery on myth and religion–as had been the norm up until the end of the 19th century).

Today is tax day here in America, so perhaps some readers may also feel as though they are wrestling with wrathful serpents of unnatural creation. Alternately some readers may feel that they need to ask a mystical oracle for special clarification (ed’s note: Don’t do any such thing! If you have tax-based questions, please consult a tax professional or contact the IRS). Although it has been a while since I refreshed the answers, you can always head over to The Great Flounder, to ask the piscine sage for secrets of the dark underwater depths! Good luck!

Oh wow! Finally a whole new year! And it certainly couldn’t come fast enough! Every new year brings big questions, and, after the struggle and strife of the past year, 2021 features even more questions than usual.

That is why, as part of a long-promised rebranding effort, we here at Ferrebeekeeper are re-introducing and relaunching some projects which have thus far only existed in beta version! Most significantly, we would like to introduce….

[lights go out]

[Nereids rattle sistrums]

[Balding Nereus slowly beats enormous drum atoll as a mermaid’s keening song pervades the salty air]

[the world goes completely silent and then fireworks explode like enormous magenta and aqua jellyfish. Triton blows a blast on his conch as Poseidon strikes a huge gong]

Behold! The Great Flounder reborn!

Uh, here is the link!

If you follow that link, you will arrive at the new site of The Great Flounder Oracle, an online oracle who knows all of the secrets of the primordial depths! Merely write down the innermost queries of your secret heart and the ancient behemoth of the briny depths will answer with terrifying truths of the watery abyss*

And not only can the Great Flounder provide access to otherwise unknowable wisdom, if you follow the link at the bottom you can visit my online web gallery, and ultimately reach a greater trove of ancient wisdom…this very blog! (kudos to you, by the way, for getting in on the ground floor). Ferrebeekeeper is attempting to amalgamate the various creative and journalistic endeavor closer together into an amalgamated media portfolio (is this a concept? probably?) Expect to see more artwork here in the near future (yesterday’s large drawing was a start in that direction). Or, if you follow my Instagram or Twitter profiles expect to see more references to eclectic multidisciplinary knowledge!

Too be honest, my mind tends to wander off down apparently random pathways which are revealed to be part of a much larger universal picture only in the fullness of time. Hopefully trying to anneal my creative efforts together, will make that picture larger and brighter rather than occluding it beneath the seafloor sands!

Whatever the case, I need all of your help to make this web community even better and so please, please provide your comments and ideas in the space below. Every year my new year’s resolution is to reply faster and more comprehensively to comments (which are the life’s blood to a writer) and every year I fall short of my desires, but not this year! This year I really will make it happen! Let me know what you think about the new Great Flounder and this site too! [more contests? more free downloads? more disquieting political commentary). YOU be the judge!

And, speaking of you, I wanted to again thank you for coming back here again and again. You really are the best reader I could ever hope for! Best wishes for a safe and happy new year! Together we can piece it all together and finally launch off to a glorious and magnificent future worth having!

Happy 2021! I will see you here again on Monday and we can start sorting out the direction of this terrifying albeit promising new calendar.

[*or the closest approximation which computer programming and hack fortune writing can provide.]

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Imagine that you are sitting in a great baroque theater filled with fashionable and cosmopolitan people from around the world.  A hush falls upon the crowd and the house lights go out, plunging you into darkness.  There is a palpable intake of breath from the audience, and then trumpets, oboes, French horns, violas, and that haunting musical saw (which is played like a violin but sounds like a warbling ghost) all launch into a dazzling overture which reminds you of the ocean.  The music deepens and becomes more ominous and yet more lovely too: it is as though you were sinking down into the briny deep to the nacreous halls of Poseidon. The spotlight shines on the shimmering blue velvet curtain which lifts and behold!

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Today, after a long development period I present the Great Flounder!  In your mind’s eye you can see the fish–a great behemoth lying on the bottom of the world ocean.  Its body is pockmarked like an ancient asteroid.  Its great fins are oddly transparent and yet occasionally they flicker to remind you the great sage is alive. Its eyes are huge glabrous pearls glistening in the watery depths—they are blank, yet they see all of the secrets of the ocean deep.   If you dared, you could ask the fish a question about the past…about the present…lo verily, about the future itself—that unknowable realm which mortals cannot kin.

Great Flounder

Or actually you don’t have to imagine this at all. Together with my friends (a team of brilliant computer programmers) and some books of forbidden lore (lure?) I have built this online oracle for you!  Now all of your questions will be answered! Now you will truly know all the secrets of the deep!*

[Timpani pound out a thunderous melody and a cymbal crashes at the crescendo!]

Of course, long-time readers will know that I am a humanist and a rational thinker, so it is possible that this great oracular fish is really a toy, like the magic eight ball, the Ouija board, or the oracle bones.  The Mermaid Parade on Saturday was the official launch (the parade was a huge success by the way).  I always liked the magical eight ball, fortune cookies, and the fortune telling machine that gives out cards, but their answers were never quite what I wanted to hear.  Instead of a bland platitude wouldn’t you prefer an enigmatic yet deep riddle of the sort one encounters in classical drama?  For a long time, I sought until I found an oracle which gives such answers.  Now you can ask all of your questions too.

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This is Great Flounder 1.0 so please, please let me know what you think in the comments below.  Perhaps, if your comment is trenchant enough, the great sagacious fish will magically change to be more like what you want! You know you want to click the link! Go on! It is destiny! [fading laughter]

*for novelty purposes only. Void where prohibited. Flounder is not affiliated with that stupid sidekick from “The Little Mermaid” or with the portly naif from “Animal House”

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Regular visitors know that my alter-ego/spirit animal is the flounder (or, at any rate, the flatfish is definitely the leitmotif of this period of my ecology/history themed art).  During lunchbreak or on the train I work on little “lesser” flounder drawings.  In the near future I plan to put them all on a little internet store…along with some of the prints of the intricate flounder I have been drawing.  Also there will be an interactive online flounder…it will all be the glorious artistic unveiling I have been hinting at for a while.  You are going to love it!…erm…hopefully. In the mean time though, here are three of the most recent small flounder drawings I do during my busy Midtown days to keep from going crazy.  The one at the top is some sort or oracle emerging from the underworld depths of the flounder itself.  I don’t know what secrets this augur has…or even what gender they are, but they have brought unfathomable mysteries to light from the cave depths. A vile chef-beast lurks to the right roaring of appetites which can never be sated, while, at left a young mother nurses an infant: the next generation arises to take a place within the great weal, yet always there is appetite.

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Speaking of which, this second flounder is meant to evoke the ifrits which always pop out of of ancient middle eastern oil lamps. A mysterious world of gauzy spirits, mystery beasts, and apparitions swirl around the lit lamp, but whether any of these blue spirits offer helpful advice or magical munificence is unclear.

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Finally, I made a flounder which represents the bloodstream (my very first readers will recall that I had a childhood epiphany about the nature of living things based on blood).  The cells stream forth to build the organism and carry out needed maintenance, but strange viruses swirl within the plasma.  most ominously a parasitic tapeworm stares in hunger at the feast of little lives.  It is unclear whether the aristocratic woman is a parasite or whether she is the host.  This is a whole little ecosystem with the long-suffering flounder in the middle.

I will add all of these flounder to my Instagram feed (which you should follow), but you can see them here first, and read the perplexing explanations I have offered.

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A quick artistic post today: this is “Ein Augur erklärt Numa Pompilius nach dem Orakel des Vogelfluges zum König” by Bernhard Rode. It is an engraving made between 1768-69. Look at how beautifully it evokes the mystery of the classical world and reflects the Rococo German fascination with lovely melancholy classical ruins. Also notice the augur’s trademark lituus.

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Here is a new flounder series picture I made called “The Lure of Tragedy.” It is meant to evoke Greco-Roman tragic theater, the heroic fish confronts a test of character to which it is inexorably drawn. the chorus sings in the background trying to contextualize the fish’s plight while the great jeweled fishhook of the summer sky indicates the portentous and universal nature of the flounder’s choices.

The work is made on ink and it is designed to fit my tragic Marsyas theater. The poor fish seems awfully familiar somehow.

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Everyone knows about the Oracle at Delphi—one of the most important sacred places of the classical world. Delphi was sacred to Apollo and it is where (in mythology) he slew the ancient giant python which vexed he and Artemis and donned the mantle of god of prophecy. However there was a much older oracle sight in the classical world. According to Herodotus it dated back to the second millennium BCE and Aristotle regarded it as the birthplace of the Hellenes (which is to say the origin point of the Greeks). It was arguably the second most important place of prophecy in the ancient Greek world. This was the great oracle at Dodona in Epirus. Archaeologists indeed date cult activity at the site back to the Mycenaean age. I found pictures of the great theater at Dodona (above) which is certainly awe-inspiring, and of the council house, where affairs of state were adjudicated, however I could not find pictures of the oracle. Perhaps it was a victim of Christian zeal, or maybe it just doesn’t photograph so well after 4000 years.
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The prophetesses of Dodona were known as peleiades (“doves) and they were priestesses of Zeus. Herodotus relates the myth of how their cult originated in the ancient depths of time:
“…two black doves [came] flying from Thebes in Egypt, one to Libya and one to Dodona; the latter settled on an oak tree, and there uttered human speech, declaring that a place of divination from Zeus must be made there; the people of Dodona understood that the message was divine, and therefore established the oracular shrine. The dove which came to Libya told the Libyans (they say) to make an oracle of Ammon; this also is sacred to Zeus. Such was the story told by the Dodonaean priestesses, the eldest of whom was Promeneia and the next Timarete and the youngest Nicandra; and the rest of the servants of the temple at Dodona similarly held it true.”

Long-time readers know I am interested in dove iconography: it is one of the shared aspects of Hellenic pantheism and Judeo-Christian imagery (sharp-eyed readers will also note that a sacred oak appears into the story). I wish I could have found an ancient vase with the Dodona story on it–but maybe it just didn’t translate into pottery. At any rate we will keep featuring these prophetic stories–they are leading up to an exciting surprise at the end of summer!
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Thanks for bearing with me during last week when I took a much-needed break from blogging. Sadly, it does not seem like misinformation, social manipulation, distortion, and outright fabrication took a break during Ferrebeekeeper’s absence…they are more popular than ever! So I have decided to get with the program and add a new topic much in keeping with this trend. Well I say “new”, but this subject is profoundly ancient and originated before cities or even agriculture. This ancient practice has always given people exactly what they want…often to their terrible detriment. If one is looking for chicanery, mendacity, wish fulfillment, and showmanship untethered from life’s hard truths (and a cursory look at bet-sellers, infomercials, politics, and society itself indicate that a lot of people want exactly that) then here is a subject I predict will suit perfectly: I am speaking of the ancient and manipulative art of PROPHECY!
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Consulting the Oracle (John William Waterhouse, 1884, oil on canvas)

A prophecy is a sort of supernatural prediction about what will happen in the future (or a pretense of access to some otherwise inaccessible truth). The trappings of prophecy are many—entrails, crystals, special numbers, magical talismans, star signs, geomancy, demons, ghosts, gods and goddesses, etcetera etcetera. I hardly need to tell you that empiricists have never found any statistically meaningful evidence that such things work beyond the level of general platitudes (discounting inside knowledge and deception). Yet magical predictions endure and flourish in all societies. From the rudest hunter gatherer tribe, to the greatest globe-spanning empire, this “magic” has been present. Throughout history, oracles, scryers, prophets, augers, diviners, and astrologers have proliferated like, well, like human wishes.
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So why am I writing about this? Why do we need to look again at (sigh) astronomy and “The Secret” [spits] and at the ridiculous chickens of Publius Claudius Pulcher? First of all, as Freud knew, our wishes reveal so much about us—they provide a true dark mirror where we can see who we are with terrible clarity if we have the courage to really look. If prophecy does not necessarily have empirical merit, it often possesses immense artistic value. The essential dramatic truth of literature or scripture is frequently revealed in augury. The witch of Endor, the Delphic oracle, John the Baptist, and the witches in Macbeth set the action going (while at the same time foreshadowing/explaining how things will ultimately work out).
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But beyond the artistic merit of oracular truth, augury is related to prediction—the ability to think abstractly about the future and to shape outcomes by making intelligent choices based of guesses. I said that prophecy predated cities or agriculture (a breezy claim for which I naturally have no written evidence…although there are plenty of artifacts that are probably scrying tools and enormous amounts of similar circumstantial evidence): perhaps prophecy was a necessary step on the way to those things. Without being able to imagine the future, there is no need for seed corn or brickyards. The seeds to real inquiry can often be found in fantasy inquiry. Looking back across the breadth of history we see how religion became philosophy; geomancy became geology; astrology graduated to astonomy; even psychics and physicists have something in common. So follow along in this new topic. I confidently predict you will be surprised and delighted (and even if I am wrong we will at least have learned something).
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