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In Hindu mythology there was an entire class of intelligent beings who were snakes—the nāgas (a male is a nāga: a female is a nāgī or nāgiṇī). In contemporary Hinduism the nagas are regarded as the protectors of springs, wells, streams, and rivers.  Sometimes nagas assume human form (with all of the abilities, appurtenances, and liabilities) but largely they are huge beautiful king cobras. The nagas tend to live in their own realm, Pātāla, the seventh of the nether kingdoms, yet they appear in other places too and interact with gods, mortals, demons, and animals.  Neither evil nor entirely good, the nagas have their own enmities, problems, and tales (although these intersect sometimes with the human protagonists of Hinduism’s great epics and myths).

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A particular problem of the nagas is the swift and terrible eagle god Garuda, who is an enemy to the serpent people. He despises them because once he was their slave (through a complex family geas which you will have to look up on your own).  Garuda escaped this servitude by bringing the potion of immortality to the nagas, but, as soon as he presented it to them and escaped his servitude, he spilled the potion upon the sword grass.  The nagas desperately licked up the remnants from the razor grass…but it is a bit unclear whether they attained immortality or not—the grasss certainly cut their tongues most cruelly and nagas (and snakes) have forked tongues up to this day.

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The world itself rests on the head of a naga. The naga prince Shesha practiced such astringent asceticism that Brahma became amazed by him.  Shesha’s body (which was already that of a snake) became so knotted and powerful and slender that he slipped downward into a hole which lead all the way to the bottom of the world.  There Brahma entrusted him with the sacred burden of holding the entire planet and all of us.

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With this in mind, it is unsurprising that in certain parts of India, Bali, and Nepal, the naga are worshiped.  Nag stones are a particular object of cultic reverence. Cobras likewise are venerated.

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My grandfather grew up in West Virginia (where snakes are taboo in accordance with longstanding Judeo-Christian cultic practice) but his work took him around the world–which was not quite so homogeneous in the 40s, 50s, and 60s! When I was a child he used to tell me stories of the nagas and their struggles.  He also told me that one of the defining moments of strangeness in his life was when he was passing through South India and saw a woman put out a saucer for (what grandpa assumed was) a pet.  He was surprised when she squeezed some breast milk into it, but stunned when a huge glistening cobra crawled out of a wall and lapped up the milk.

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Robin Dunbar is an anthropologist/primatologist who discovered a correlation between the size of a primate’s brain (or really its neocortex) and the size of that animal’s social network. For example, clever chimpanzees tend to live in groups of 60 or so individuals, who maintain complex intimate social relations (yet chimpanzees don’t really care about outsiders without elaborate introductions). Howler monkeys tend to live in groups of 6 or 7. Dunbar studied primate brains until he believed he found the correlation index… then he applied it to human beings based on our own neocortices (is that the right word?). The number he arrived at was around 150. He posited that this is the average number of stable meaningful social relationships we can have at once. Here is a humorous (yet oddly serious) article which explains the concept elegantly (albeit with some fairly salty language and preachy talk).

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When one starts looking for the number 150, it crops up all over the place. Hunter gatherer tribes were (and still are) limited to about that number. Military companies of all sorts of different armies throughout history have been that size. Business consultants say that this is an ideal size for companies (come to think of it there are 150 people at the company where I work) or for departments of companies.

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But of course the 150 people I work with are not the entirety of my social interactions. I have 500 or so Facebook friends and not a one of them is from work….and the people I am closest to are not always on Facebook. And there are people I know about but have never (and will never) meet (like Susanna Hoffs, the emir of Qatar, and…Robin Dunbar). High functioning individuals like Presidents, CEOs, and world famous artists probably know many thousands of people—or at least know the one or two key pieces of information which makes each contact useful.

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So there are lots of troubles and quibbles with Dunbar’s number…yet if you really write out everyone you have a true worthwhile meaningful relationship with you will probably come up with about 150 (if you are a gregarious adult with a full life in a big city—you can have many fewer close relations and there is nothing wrong with that…it doesn’t mean you are a capuchin monkey or something).

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(Not that there is anything wrong with that either)

There is a line we draw around our tribe. Within this line are people we care about and need, outside it are… others—people we may care about in the abstract, or because they share a language, or a characteristic, or a nationality with us…but who are not dear to our heart in the same way as our intimate associates. The writer I linked to in the first paragraph up there asks us to imagine having a beloved pet…or two beloved pets…or six, or 23. How long would it be before our love and our attention were so diluted that we only cared about them in the most general abstract terms (or just outright despised them as a furry horde)? Whether you accept the premise of Dunbar’s number or not, it is a worthwhile question. If our brains are built by evolution in such a way as to make an “us” and a “them” what does it mean for all of us?

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Ferrebeekeeper used to address American politics sometimes, but I got so disgusted by the deadlock and regulatory capture in the current iteration that I stopped. However it’s already 2016 and it’s going to be a looooooong year (it’s already been long, and we are not even out of January). I am going to have to go back to writing about politics, not because I have stopped being disgusted, but because I am now also afraid and angry.

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The big new topic of politics in this cycle, of course, is Trump. Although Donald Trump is a narcissistic plutocrat with fascist tendencies who wishes to steer America (and maybe humanity) towards disaster, he is a godsend for writers, because anything written about him garners views. In the 50s horror film “The Blob” everything that people do to fight the all-consuming blob from outer space just makes it stronger and bigger. So too is the media’s relationship with Trump. When people write polemics against him or describe his appalling views or ridiculous history it just makes him stronger. More people click on it, which means more people must keep writing about it…and so on. Plus, every writer or producer wants the hits associated with Trump articles, even if focusing on him gives him more of the attention he craves.
I have solved this moral quandary by not writing about Trump…so far. I care about views a lot, but, in the end, this site is not about making money or garnering fame. Yet, the Blob has started to cover the horizon for me too. I assumed that the Trump feedback bubble would break before the primaries started in earnest. That has not happened.
It is a real problem, Cruz, while fully as despicable as Trump, is unable to pivot to the middle the same way (Trump has no shame: if he wins the Republican primary, he will just start saying whatever he thinks the greatest number of all voters want to hear). I think it is time to stop thinking of the Donald as a joke and to treat him as the dark manipulative artist he is.

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Behind all of this is a bigger social problem: the idea that shock, bluster, and naked attention-seeking outweigh meaning, hard-work, and thoughtful analysis is not new. The art world fell prey to Trumps decades ago and has never escaped (although we call such men Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, and Jeff Koons). Once a culture enters a realm where shock and celebrity are the only currency, it becomes perilously difficult to return to meaningful themes. The feedback loop means that only a bigger shock or a more flagrant celebrity will be picked up by the media (they are already half-bankrupt and cannot afford to concentrate on anything else).

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The Celebrity Apprentice

Art and politics are not so very far apart. They are both about manipulating groups of people with symbols. The crowds of people who sniff at the empty ugly game which art has become need to wake up. Contemporary art is not irrelevant: it is still a dark mirror for what is happening in society as a whole…and if the art world is nothing but vast sums of money, and shock-value pieces with no beauty, it should be seen as a warning that the Trumps are coming everywhere else.

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Donald Trump – Pop Art Print (Andy Warhol’s Che Guevara Style) 60 x 50 x 1.8 cm Deep Box Canvas by Paintedicons

Of course, I don’t really think that Trump will actually win anything…not this time. But just being forced to contend with his style is going to usher in a new era unless we stop it. And the only way to prevent this is to ignore him. So don’t read this post—and don’t read any other essays about Trump or his ilk either (stop reading about stupid Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons for that matter). Viewers (and voters) can only win if we stop paying attention to these frauds. Beauty is still in the eye of the beholder, not the hand of the artist. Meaning comes from the crowd’s attention not the mouth of the demagogue. So let’s all just look elsewhere before things get spoiled….although if we fail at that maybe I’ll at least get a bunch of hits for finally writing about goddamned Trump…

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As in years past, here is a short list of diverse people who died in 2015. Their lives reveal how miscellaneous and diverse…how dark and amazing the human condition is.

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King Abdullah (August, 1924 – January, 2015): arguably the world’s most powerful hereditary monarch: a troubling U.S. ally who utilized Islam to maintain near-absolute power over Saudi Arabia.

Carl Djerassi (October 29, 1923 – January, 2015):  An Austrian-born Bulgarian-American bio chemist institutional in the development of the modern birth control pill (among other breakthroughs).

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Leonard Nimoy (March, 1931 – February, 2015): an actor famous for presenting a compelling fantasy of alien intellect and spiritual excellence.

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Terry Pratchett (April, 1948 – March, 2015): a fantasy author, humorist, and humanist.

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Lee Kuan Yew (September 1923 – March, 2015): the architect of the meteoric rise of the city-state of Singapore.

Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, who received this year's Peace Prize from the Association of Publishe..

Chinua Achebe (November, 1930 – March, 2013: a giant of contemporary African literature.

Helmut Schmidt (December, 1918 – November, 2015): the West German Chancellor who guided the nation through the 1970s (and the cold depths of the Cold War).

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Gunter Grass (October 1927 – April, 2015): a great German prose stylist who looked deep into the darkness of life with his unflinching surreal literature of World War II Germany.

Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey (July, 1914 – August, 2015): a heroic physician and bureaucrat who stood up to the pharmaceutical industry to prevent the thalidomide crisis from being far worse.  She subsequently worked to craft and institute intelligent drug regulations.

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Ellsworth Kelly (May, 1923 – December, 2015): a minimalist artist fascinated with color.  His hard edged 3 dimensional paintings blurred the lines between painting, sculpture, and pure concept.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liberty Enlightens the World (Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, dedicated 1886, copper and steel)

Liberty Enlightens the World (Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, dedicated 1886, copper and steel)

As everyone knows, the Statue of Liberty (which is actually properly titled “Liberty Enlightening the World”) is a colossal neoclassical sculpture which stands in the harbor of my beloved home city, New York, New York. This is the 130th anniversary of the statue arriving in New York from France. The 93 meter tall statue was a lavish gift from the French people, who obviously know how to give astonishing amazing beautiful presents!  I won’t get into the elaborate political, engineering, and fundraising history behind the statue’s conception, fabrication, and construction: suffice to say, it has a very complicated story (as one would expect in a monumental joint artistic venture between two of Earth’s greatest nations).

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I will note that the statue has greatly overshadowed its creator, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi—which seems inconceivable today when most art is an afterthought to the virulent self-aggrandizement of art world personalities.  If something similar were attempted now we would probably end up with a 90 meter tall statue of Jeff Koons…or of some part of his anatomy (though I shudder to write that down, lest I give him any ideas).

A Statue by Bartholdi of Bartholdi with the Bartholdi statue that made him famous (OK, maybe he did have SOME self reflective self-promotional flair)

A Statue by Bartholdi of Bartholdi with the Bartholdi statue that made him famous (OK, maybe he did have SOME self reflective self-promotional flair)

Bartholdi was an Alsatian and a freemason.  He studied architecture and then served in the disastrous Franco-Prussian War (a conflict when the excesses of the Second Empire came back to haunt France—and a war which provided dark foreshadowing for the great industrial wars of the twentieth century).  Bartholdi conceived of the statue as a tribute to democracy and freedom just after the American Civil War—when France was under the dictatorial regime of Napoleon III.  Because of the authoritarianism and inequality of the time, the idea was shelved until after the Prussians drove this second Napoleon into exile and ushered in the third republic.

Although before Lady Liberty he designed a colossal statue for the entrance to the Suez Canal...

Although before Lady Liberty he designed a colossal statue for the entrance to the Suez Canal…

The Statue of Liberty is so universally iconic that it is hard to look at as a work of art—which is a shame because it is very lovely.  The fluid Roman robes belie the practical architecture beneath.  Atop the statue is a glowing crown of radiant beams—the neoclassical symbol for divinity. The enigmatic face is simultaneously stern and compassionate (though it is said that Bartholdi based it on his mother which might explain these juxtaposed emotions—and the very human tenderness with which the artist wrought the giant metal face).

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It is frustratingly difficult to find pictures of other Bartholdi sculptures.  I see here that he created a work titled “Genius in the Grasp of Misery” which sounds incredibly relevant and germane as I scrabble piteously for rent, but sadly I can’t find any photos of it.  He designed a fountain “The Little Vintner of Colmar” which features a handsome youth drinking a never-ending stream of wine.  The statue is as delightful as its description and was a gift from the city of Colmar to the city of Princeton New Jersey…What was going on in the nineteenth century that cities were all giving art to each other? It seems like an amazing trend which has passed.

The Little Vintner of Colmar (Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, 1869, bronze)

The Little Vintner of Colmar (Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, 1869, bronze)

Speaking of which, it occurs to me, that I have never thanked the French people for their far-sighted generosity.  Allow me to do so now!  Everyone here loves the statue and we deeply love our beautiful exasperating intelligent friends across the Atlantic (even if it sometimes seems like we are at odds).  Vive la France et merci pour le cadeau magnifique!

A quarter scale model of the Statue of Liber...Liberty Enlightens the World in Paris France--it's even on a miniature island.

A quarter scale model of the Statue of Liber…Liberty Enlightens the World in Paris France–it’s even on a miniature island.

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The Sarmatians were a confederation of warlike steppe nomads who flourished on the Pontic-Caspian steppe between the 5th century BC and the 4th century AD (the Pontic-Caspian steppe stretches from the northern shores of the Black Sea to the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea). Archaeologists believe the Sarmatians were an Iranian people who worshipped gods of fire–a cosmology somewhat akin to that of the ancient Persian Zoroastrians.

An artist's reconstruction of what late Sarmatian Warriors might have looked like

An artist’s reconstruction of what late Sarmatian Warriors might have looked like

Perhaps you will notice that I have given Sarmatian culture a somewhat loose date range of about a thousand years, and placed them in a vague—but vast–geographic region approximately the size of North America’s Great Plains. This is because the Sarmatians are indeed mysterious. What is known about them comes from unreliable historical accounts from classical antiquity or from excavations of their kurgans (burial chambers covered with earthen mounds).

Sarmatian Kurgan 4th century BC, Fillipovka, South Urals, Russia.

Sarmatian Kurgan 4th century BC, Fillipovka, South Urals, Russia.

Though built around an ancient Persian kernel, Sarmatian culture seems to have picked up elements from the diverse societies around the Pontic Caspian steppe. Sarmatian artifacts recovered from excavations betray influences from Scythian, Hellenistic, Roman, Siberian, and even Chinese sources. It is quite possible that the Sarmatians did not just pick up ideas from these cultures but assimilated people from them as well. Historians and archaeologists have been arguing about whether the Sarmatians were even a distinct culture at all, or whether it was many different peoples with different histories (hence the use of the word “confederation” in the original description up there at the top). What seems certain is that they were fierce horse-warriors. Some of them raided and traded whereas others settled down and picked up agriculture. Their ways of life endured—as did their political hegemony—until the great upheavals and migrations of the 4th century when they were wiped out/dispersed/intermingled by Ostragoth and Hun hordes.

Sarmatian Diadem found in the burial mound at Khoklach

Sarmatian Diadem found in the burial mound at Khoklach

I am going to leave the ins-and-outs of defining culture to anthropologists and instead show you a magnificent Sarmatian artifact which directly illustrates the remarkable syncretism of their world. Here is a Sarmatian diadem which was discovered at the Khokhlach kurgan (which was excavated near the modern town of Novocherkassk). The crown is a principle treasure of the Hermitage Museum–which does not lack for great treasures–but some of the details of its modern provenance have seemingly been muddled by the upheavals of modern Russian history (which seems appropriate).

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The golden headdress presents magnificent deer and ibex gathering around a central tree of life. A Hellenic-looking head carved of semi-precious stone has been incorporated as a centerpiece. The piece is studded with pearls and cabochons of amber and garnet. Ornate golden leaves hang down from it as pendants.

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The diadem is exquisite, but at first glimpse it seems to exist outside of human culture—like it came from some strange fantasy realm. Only by carefully studying its individual components does it suddenly take on a coherent historical identity of its own. I wish we knew more about the Sarmatians from written sources, but I feel we know a great deal about them, just by looking at this beautiful blended crown.

Oba Adémuwagun Adésida II ( photo taken in 1959)

Oba Adémuwagun Adésida II ( photo taken in 1959)

Hey! Have you in any way been affiliated with or interacted with the internet in the last two decades? If so, you have probably received a heartfelt plea for assistance from a deposed/dispossessed/dispirited Nigerian prince.  This famous email scam requested a small amount of money upfront in exchange for a big chunk of the royal treasury once the hapless royal heir ascended to his (grammatically shaky) throne.  Since Nigeria is a federated republic (and since this was, to reiterate, a scam), nobody ever received the royal payola.  However there is a kernel of historical truth within the confidence trick: Nigeria was once an assortment of kingdoms, emirates, and tribal lands which was annealed together by the British.  Each of these principalities (or state-like entities) had a ruler, and, although they were stripped of legal power during the colonial era, the various eclectic potentates have held onto ceremonial, spiritual, and cultural authority.

Yoruba Ade

Yoruba Ade

All of which is to say, there are no Nigerian princes, but there are prince-like beings, each of whom has a different set of royal regalia.   These “crown jewels” take the form of thrones, statues, “magical” items, and royal outfits…including sacred headdresses.  The Yoruba people (who constitute the majority of Nigeria’s ever-increasing population) vested particular authority in ceremonial “crowns” known as ades.  An ade is a conical beaded cap usually decorated with beads and faces.  The kings of the Yoruba people styled themselves as “obas” (an oba being a sort of combination of king, high priest, and chief).  The symbol of the oba’s authority was his ade—his crown (or for a high obas–the “adenla” which means “great crown”).

Beaded Crown "Ade" (ca. 20th Century; Glass beads, cloth, thread, and basketry)

Beaded Crown “Ade”
(ca. 20th Century; Glass beads, cloth, thread, and basketry)

Obas were the powerful rulers of the Yoruba and their ades were the ceremonial font of their authority.  This power was connected to the numinous world of spirits, gods, and orishas (which this blog has glanced upon in talking about voodoo—the syncretic new world religion based on Yoruba spiritual concepts). To quote the British Museum’s culturally suspect (but nicely written) website:

Beaded and veiled crowns…are traditionally worn by those kings who could trace their ancestry to Ododua, the mythic founder and first king of the Yoruba people. The crown is called an orisha, a deity, and is placed upon the king’s head by his female attendant. Powerful medicines are placed at the top of the crown to protect the king’s head and thus his future. The veil that covers the king’s face hides his individuality and increases attention on the crown itself, the real centre of power. The birds decorating the crown represent the royal bird, okin.

Originally ades had long beaded veils to conceal the faces of their wearers, but European ideas about royal headwear influenced the makers, and many more recent examples of the craft resemble European crowns.  The beautiful beadwork and impressive otherworldly artistry of ades has made them popular—so some of these examples may be constructed for the tourist trade.  Nevertheless, the Yoruba ade is a very impressive sort of crown.  Here is a little gallery of online images of ades.

Yoruba Ade Oba (by ÌMÒ DÁRA)

Yoruba Ade Oba (by ÌMÒ DÁRA)

Yoruba Beaded Ade (Oba's Crown) from Southwest Nigeria (Barakat Gallery)

Yoruba Beaded Ade (Oba’s Crown) from Southwest Nigeria (Barakat Gallery)

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Ade Olójúmérìndilógún, (with 16 faces) from Formação da Cultura Yoruba

Ade Olójúmérìndilógún, (with 16 faces) from Formação da Cultura Yoruba

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Chief's hat from the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria (ca. 1940)

Chief’s hat from the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria (ca. 1940)

 

Mask, Boa, Late 19th/early 20th c., wood, kaolin, and pigment, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mask, Boa, Late 19th/early 20th c., wood, kaolin, and pigment, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Boa people (AKA Baboa, Bwa, Ababua) live in the northern savannah region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Today, as in the past, the majority of Boa make a living by hunting, fishing, and subsistence farming. They speak a Bantu language which shares the same name(s) as their tribe. The Boa once had a reputation as fearsome warriors. When Azande spearmen from southern Sudan invaded Boa lands during the nineteenth century, the Boa successfully repelled the invasion. Subsequently, in 1903 the Boa rebelled against Belgian colonial occupation. Even though they were woefully underequipped and poorly armed, the warriors stood up to the industrialized Belgian forces for seven years. After the rebellion, extensive missionary proselytizing caused the tribe to convert to Christianity.

Boa Mask (carved wood, contemporary)

Boa Mask (carved wood, paint, contemporary)

The Boa are internationally famous for making exquisite wood carvings—particularly eerily beautiful masks and harps with human faces. Original carvings from the pre-Christian era are especially rare and precious. These works usually portray ferocious faces painted with black and white checkerboard patterns. Sadly, the ritual meaning of such masks is now unclear–presumably they were sacred to secret societies or used in the magical/religious ceremonies of warrior cults. Since the original religious cultural context is lost, we are forced to regard these masks solely as art objects—and what spectacular art they are! The mysterious black and white patterns, the feral mouths, and the delicately carved owl-like faces all point to a syncretism between humankind and the wider living world. The animistic masks symbolize not just the spiritual forces of the living animals and plants but also the forces of the night, the river, the weather, the ancestors, and the underworld. To put on such a mask would be to subsume oneself in a vast spiritual totality—to convene with vast forces beyond the purview of a single human life…maybe…or maybe they had an entirely different meaning to their makers. They are a beautiful dark enigma.

Mask, Boa, Late 19th/early 20th c., wood, kaolin, and pigment, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mask, Boa, Late 19th/early 20th c., wood, kaolin, and pigment, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

 

Etruscan Ladies Performing a Dance (painting from a tomb ca. 500 BC)

Etruscan Ladies Performing a Dance (painting from a tomb ca. 500 BC)

This week is Etruscan week here at Ferrebeekeeper—a week dedicated to blogging about the ancient people who lived in Tuscany, Umbria, and Latium from 800 BC until the rise of the Romans in 300 BC (indeed, the Romans may have been Etruscan descendants). Happy Etruscan Week! The Etruscans were known for their sophisticated civilization which produced advanced art, architecture, and engineering. In an age of war and empires, they were, by necessity, gifted warriors who fought with the Greeks, Carthaginians, and Gauls. They won wars, captured slaves, and built important fortified cities on top of hills. The Etruscan league burgeoned for a while until Etruria was weakened by a series of setbacks in warfare which occurred from the fifth century BC onward until eventually the entire society was swallowed by Rome.

A Map of Etruscan Culture through time

A Map of Etruscan Culture through time

 

Despite the fact that the Etruscans were the most important pre-Roman civilization of Italy (which left a cultural stamp on almost all Roman institutions) they remain surprisingly enigmatic. Although Greek and Roman authors speculated about the Etruscans, such writings tend to be…fanciful. The Greek historian Herodotus (alternately known as “the father of history” or “the father of lies” wrote that the Etruscans originated from Lydia (which was on the Western coast of Anatolia), but he certainly provides no evidence.  Etruscan government was initially based around tribal units but the Etruscan states eventually evolved into theocratic republics–much like the later Roman Republic. The Etruscans worshipped a large pantheon of strange pantheistic gods. The Etruscans produced extremely magnificent tombs which were used by seceding generations of families.

 

Etruscan "Tomb of the Lioness" (ca.520 BC)

Etruscan “Tomb of the Lioness” (ca.520 BC)

It is through their tombs that we have truly come to know about the real Etruscans. The burial complexes are repositories of art and artifacts which reveal the day-to-day life of the people (well, at least the noble ones who could afford sumptuous tombs). Perhaps, more importantly, the actual Etruscans are also there, albeit in a somewhat deteriorated and passive state. With the advent of advanced genetic knowledge and tests, scientists and anthropologists have been able to conduct mitochondrial DNA studies on Etruscan remains. Such studies suggest that the Etruscans were from…Tuscany, Umbria, and Latium. They were most likely descendents of the Villanovan people—an early Iron Age people of Italy who in turn descended from the Urnfield culture.

 

A sample of the Etruscan Language

A sample of the Etruscan Language

This idea tends to conform with what linguists believe concerning the language of the Etruscans—which turns out to be a non-Indo-European isolate with no close language relations. Etruscan was initially an oral language only and it was only after cultural interchange with the Greeks that it acquired a written form (based around a derivation of the Greek alphabet). A few Roman scholars knew Etruscan (among them the emperor Claudius) but knowledge of the language was lost during the early days of the Empire. Today only a handful of inscriptions, epitaphs, and one untranslated book survive. We are left with a people who had unparalleled influence on Rome, yet are only known through inconclusive Greco-Roman accounts and through a tremendous heritage of art and artifacts. These latter are immensely beautiful and precious and form the basis of our knowledge of these mysterious early Italians.

Etruscan vessel in the shape of a bent leg (ca. 550-500BC)

Etruscan vessel in the shape of a bent leg (ca. 550-500BC)

Nüwa

Nüwa was a serpent deity from ancient Chinese mythology. Sometimes she is pictured as a gorgeous woman, other times she is shown possessing a woman’s head but the body of a powerful snake. Nüwa was the creator of humankind and remained a powerful benefactor to people and all living creatures (many of which were also her handiwork).

When the world was new, Nüwa walked through empty plains and valleys.  Perceiving that creation was very desolate and lonely she began to craft living creatures in order to fill the waste.  On the first day she made chickens and sent them clucking through creation.  On the second day she fashioned dogs to run through the forest. On the third day she created sheep to graze the plains. On the fourth day she crafted pigs to root through the earth.  On the fifth day she made gentle cows and truculent bulls. On the sixth day she was inspired and crafted horses.  On the seventh day she was walking near a river and she saw her beautiful reflection.  She knelt down in the yellow clay and began to hand sculpt figures similar to herself.  As she set the lovely little forms down, they came to life and began to call out to her as mother.  All day Nüwa built more and more of the little people, after her long labors, her energy was waning.  To finish the job she picked up a strand of ivy and dipped in the fecund mud.  Then she flicked the mud across the lands.  Everywhere the little blobs fell, people sprung up, coarser and less lovely then the hand-made folk, but perfectly serviceable.  Thus did Nüwa create humankind, separating from the very beginning the rich and noble people from the commoners by means of her crafting methods.

Fuxi and Nüwa, an ancient painting from Xinjiang

Nüwa loved her creations and she continued to look after them quietly (for she was modest and disliked effusive worship).  She took Fuxi, the first of the three sovereigns of ancient China as her spouse.  Fuxi was a hero in his own right and is said to have invented fishing and trapping.  There are many ancient pictures and representations of the happy couple entwined as huge loving snake people.  However one day the great black water dragon Gong Gong put her marriage and all of her work in peril.  The story of what happened subsequently is of great interest (and bears directly on my favorite work of Chinese literature) so I will tell it completely tomorrow.

Nüwa in serpent guise

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