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According to ancient Chinese mythology, humankind was created by the benevolent snake-goddess Nüwa (who is one of my very favorite divinities in any pantheon, by the way). But keen readers wonder: where did Nüwa come from?  Whence came the ocean and the earth and the sea and the winds and the heavens.  Oh, there is a story behind that too, but it is strange and troubling—sad and incomplete and beautiful like so much of Chinese mythology and folklore.

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In the beginning there was nothing except for the universe egg—a vast perfect egg which contained everything.  Within the universe egg, yin and yang energies were mixed together so completely and perfectly that they were indistinguishable.  Then, through some unknown means, the egg changed—mayhap it became fertilized—and a being began to grow within it.  This was P’an Ku, the great primordial entity.  The yin and yang energy began to separate and build complex forms.  P’an Ku slowly grew and grew.  He started as something infinitely small but gradually he became larger and larger until eventually his vast arms came up against the sides of the everything egg.  The little embryo became a vast god. The walls of the egg became a prison.

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Then P’an Ku grabbed an axe (which appeared from who knows where).  Using all of his gargantuan might, he smashed a great blow through the shell of the egg, which exploded. He was born—as was the universe.  Beside him, in the gushing yolk, the primordial magical beings came into being—the dragon, the tortoise, the phoenix, and the quilin. These special creatures helped the first deity as he began to separate chaos into order.  P’an Ku split the yin into darkness and the yang into light. He laid the foundation stones of the vault of the everlasting sky and filled the ocean with the waters of creation dripping from the shattered egg shell.

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But as he built, a strange thing happened (though maybe not so strange to my fellow artists who can never quite craft their dreams into their works). The world he made became inimical to him. He aged. He suffered.  His creation was unfinished…and he died.  His breath became the clouds and the wind.  His body became the mountains and the plains of China. His eyes became the sun and the moon. The hair of his body and head became the plants and trees.

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It was in this corpse-world that the creator deities moved: Nüwa, a child born of P’an Ku’s genitals…or an alien outsider? Who knows? Who can say? What is important is that eggs are important. In Chinese myth they are the source of everything.  The beginning of the universe.

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Chinese mythology does not dwell on the end of the world quite the way other cosmologies do.  Our world is sad and broken enough that we don’t need to think about its ending. But there are ethereal hints from before the Chin emperor’s great purges which suggest that time is circular like an egg. Somehow, as we all began, so we will end back there again in the homogenized grey yolk of chaos.

 

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…

The Citron Fruit (Citron Medica)

The Citron Fruit (Citron Medica)

People love citrus fruit!  What could be more delightful than limes, grapefruits, tangerines, kumquats, clementines, blood oranges, and lemons?   This line of thought led me to ask where lemons come from, and I was surprised to find that lemons–and many other citrus fruits–were created by humans by hybridizing inedible or unpalatable natural species of trees.  Lemons, oranges, and limes are medieval inventions!  The original wild citrus fruits were very different from the big sweet juicy fruits you find in today’s supermarkets.  All of today’s familiar citrus fruits come from increasingly complicated hybridization (and attendant artificial selection) of citrons, pomelos, mandarins, and papedas.  It seems the first of these fruits to be widely cultivated was the citron (Citrus Medicus) which reached the Mediterranean world in the Biblical/Classical era.

Large Citron in a Landscape (Bartolomeo Bimbi, ca. 1690s, oil on canvas)

Large Citron in a Landscape (Bartolomeo Bimbi, ca. 1690s, oil on canvas)

The citron superficially resembles a modern lemon, but whereas the lemon has juicy segments beneath the peel, citrons consist only of aromatic pulp (and possibly a tiny wisp of bland liquid).  Although it is not much a food source, the pulp and peel of citrus smells incredibly appealing–so much so that the fruit was carried across the world in ancient (or even prehistoric times).  Ancient Mediterranean writers believed that the citron had originated in India, but that is only because it traveled through India to reach them.  Genetic testing and field botany now seem to indicate that citrons (and the other wild citrus fruits) originated in New Guinea, New Caledonia and Australia.

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In ancient times citrons were prized for use in medicine, perfume, and religious ritual.  The fruits were purported to combat various pulmonary and gastronomic ills.  Citrons are mentioned in the Torah and in the major hadiths of Sunni Muslims.  In fact the fruit is used during the Jewish festival of Sukkot (although it is profane to use citrons grown from grafted branches).

"Um, how do you tell if this has been grafted?" (Image from Abir Sultan / EPA)

“Um, how do you tell if this has been grafted?” (Image from Abir Sultan / EPA)

Since citron has been domesticated for such a long time, there are many exotic variations of the fruit which have textured peels with nubs, ribs, or bumps: there is even a variety with multiple finger-like appendages (I apologize if that sentence sounded like it came off of a machine in a truck-stop lavatory but the following illustration will demonstrate what I mean).

Varieties of Citron Fruit

Varieties of Citron Fruit

Citron remains widely used for Citrus zest (the scrapings of the outer skin used as a flavoring ingredient) and the pith is candied and made into succade.  In English the word citron is also used to designate a pretty color which is a mixture of green and orange.  I have writted about citrons to better explain the domestication of some of my favorite citrus fruits (all of which seem to have citrons as ancestors) but I still haven’t tried the actual thing.  I will head over to one of the Jewish quarters of Brooklyn as soon as autumn rolls around (and Sukkot draws near) so I can report to you.  In the mean time has anyone out there experienced the first domesticated citrus?

The color citron

The color citron

This blog has examined and analyzed many Deities of the Underworld, but we have always shied away from the principle dark deity of the three Abrahamic faiths, namely the Devil (aka Lucifer, Iblis, Shaitan, The Antagonist, The Prince of Lies, etc.). However if there were ever a day to cast an inquisitive eye on the Lord of Hell, it is surely Halloween, that strange day when paganism and Christianity mix and the veil between this world and the next is thin.

Actually, one of the reasons I have avoided writing about this dark deity is because even though the devil might be a familiar figure in the popular imagination, he is only a sketchy presence in actual scripture.  In the Masoretic Text, the holy book of Judaism (which roughly equates with the Old Testament), the Devil never appears by name–although the books do contain a cunning serpent (in Genesis), a fallen star, and an adversary.  The New Testament Gospels feature a more familiar devil–who tempts Jesus, promotes evil, and lays waste to the world–but the books never describe this anti-savior except as a tempter, a dragon, a dark prince, or an ancient snake. In the Quran, Allah created the evil jinn Iblis out of smokeless fire to cast evil suggestions into the heart of men.  Hmm, this is theologically interesting–but where does the fallen angel with the red skin, the horns, the barbed tail, the dapper van dyke beard, and the goat’s hooves come from?

The apocryphal scriptures, those strange half-holy books which were omitted from the Bible, provide more of the story.  The Book of Enoch gives us the story of the rebellion and the fall of Heave’s brightest and most beautiful angel.   This is the source of Milton’s Satan, however the text does little to describe the appearance of Lucifer.

The Devil Sowing Mushrooms (Jacob de Gehyn II, 1565-1629)

Gothic paintings from the middle age shows us demons and dark winged beings (you can find old posts about such hellspawn here and here).  Sometimes the devil appears as a winged monstrosity or a sort of dark bat-like angel, but he does not appear in the guise which is so popularly known now–the red man with the horns, the trident, and the hooves.

In fact the familiar portrayal of the red devil is comparatively recent—perhaps even modern–but the imagery used is based on the ancient Greco-Roman deity of Pan.  Pan, the horned half-goat shepherd was a god of nature, fertility, and goat-herding in the classical world.  Because of his licentiousness, bestial appearance, and paganism he was a longstanding target of the Christian church.  In the nineteenth and twentieth century Pan became a focus of neopagan art and letters.  Christian reaction to Pan’s resurgence resulted in his image being translated to that of Satan.  The red color seems to have been thrown in for good measure.

Also a Corporate Shill

It’s clear the devil is a complicated figure whose attributes, appearance, and meaning have changed greatly depending on the time and the place.  We’ll get back to him–the underworld god of the world’s great monotheistic faiths–but right now it’s time to leave theorizing about devils, demons, and spirits behind and to go out and join them.
Happy Halloween!

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