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In Australia, rabbits are a curse.  The long-eared infestation started in 1859 when Thomas Austin, an estate owner, imported a mixture of wild and domestic rabbits from Europe to release on his large farm.  He hoped to recreate the hunting conditions of England where he had enjoyed shooting rabbits when younger.  He is famously quoted as saying  “The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.”

Rabbits in the Arid Australian Countryside

Thus began the greatest population explosion of mammals known in human history.  Within a decade, rabbits had overrun Southern Australia. Two million of the animals were harvested annually with no effect whatsoever on the larger population.  A combination of mild winters, no predators, and light scrub vegetation allowed the creatures to breed year round and increase their numbers exponentially with no natural resistance. They ate away whole ecosystems of scrub vegetation and outcompeted the little marsupial herbivores that lived there into extinction.  By gnawing down saplings they killed entire forests within the lifespan of the trees therein.  By digging warrens and denuding the vegetation they caused widespread erosion.  It was an ecological disaster of the first order–a mass extinction caused by bunnies(!)–and only humans were there to fight the fleet-footed enemy.

Australians responded gradually at first and then with increased alacrity and fury.  Shooting and trapping gave way to mass poisonings, ploughing, blasting, and fumigation. Tens of thousands of miles of rabbit proof fence were strung across the continent.  Wicked old world predators like rabbits and foxes were imported to stem the flood of rabbits (and naturally the predators first concentrated on eliminating remaining species of Marsupials).

Rabbits around a waterhole on Wardang Island (1930s)

Australians have gradually learned to make use of the rabbits.  In times of distress, depression, or famine they have provided a ready source of food for humans and farm animals (ground up rabbits were once a major source of chicken food for example).  The fur from so many rabbits created a fur industry and a felt industry.  But make no mistake, the Australians still hate the invasive creatures.   The twentieth century has seen a new campaign of biological war against the rabbits.  In the 1950s an introduced strain of Myxoma virus wiped out an estimated half a billion rabbits.  Then in the early 1990s a calicivirus escaped a secure biological research facility (where scientists were engineering the disease to kill rabbits) and quickly spread through wild and domestic populations.   Yet despite all of the measures taken to kill the creatures they have endured and thrived.  Rabbits are still there, still causing havoc.  It is one of the more vivid lessons in human history about the difficulties of controlling ecosystems.

Kindly accept my apologies for the lack of posts on Thanksgiving week: I was hunting and feasting in wild forested hills far away from the city (and my computer).

Diana of Versailles, a Roman copy of a Greek sculpture by Leochares (Louvre Museum)

When writing about mythology, this blog traditionally concentrates on stories of the underworld and the dark beings and divinities which exist beyond the mortal veil.  However to celebrate the wild joys of the forest, I am dedicating this week to Artemis/Diana–goddess of the hunt and protector of animals. Even though Artemis was primarily a virgin goddess of unspoiled wilderness, wild creatures, and of hunters and hunted, she had a dark underworld aspect as well. In stark opposition to her role as protector of children and women in childbirth she was a plague goddess who killed swiftly with afflictions which struck like divine arrows.

Artemis was the twin sister of glorious Apollo. Both siblings were the children of Zeus and Leto (a daughter of obscure Titans).  Hera/Juno was angry about Zeus’ philandering and tried to prevent the birth of the twins by cursing the land they were born in, but Leto found a floating Island, Delos, which escaped Hera’s wrath by being unmoored.  After the birth of the twins, Delos was cemented to the seafloor and became a sacred location.

Artemis was the elder twin.  Although Leto bore Artemis quickly and painlessly, Apollo’s birth was a terrible ordeal of prolonged painful labor which lasted nine days and nights. By the end of this time, Artemis had grown into a full goddess and she helped her mother bring her twin into the world—hence her connection with childbirth. Thereafter Artemis was identified with the moon and the wilderness while Apollo has always been a sun god associated with civilization and society. When Artemis met Zeus she asked to always remain a virgin and a loner, a request which the king of the gods quickly granted to his lovely daughter.

The Hind of Keryneia (Ceryneia), cup 480 BC

Artemis had several attributes: a bow and a quiver full of arrows, a knee-length tunic, and packs of attendant hounds and nymphs. The sacred animal of Artemis is the deer, and she is often portrayed caressing a deer, being carried in a chariot drawn by deer with golden antlers, or hunting stags in the forest.  One of Hercules’ most challenging labors was to capture a golden-antlered hind sacred to the goddess.  The magical deer could outrun arrows (and anyways Heracles knew that shooting it would bring him the disfavor of the goddess and disaster).  For a year he unsuccessfully pursued the deer on foot and he only succeeded in catching the doe when he fell down in desperation and groveled before the goddess (who transferred her wrath to Eurystheus). Another myth involving deer and Artemis does not end so well for the mortal protagonist. Once when she was bathing–nude, chaste, and beautiful—she was accidentally spotted by the unlucky Theban hunter Actaeon.  In fury that a mortal had espied her loveliness, she transformed the hunter into a stag, whereupon he was torn to shreds by his own dogs–which did not recognize their master or know the anguished voice trying to call them off with the tongue of a deer. For some reason this scene is a timeless favorite of artists!

This last story hints at Artemis’ dark aspects. When wronged, Artemis was a fearsome being and her wild vengeance rivals that of any underworld deity.  Several of the more troubling stories from classical myth involve her wrath.  For example, her anger led directly to the Caledonian boar hunt, the defining heroic event of the era just prior to the Trojan War.  One year King Oeneus of Calydon disastrously forgot to include Artemis in his annual sacrifices.  To punish the King, she sent a monstrous male pig, a scion of the primal monster Echidna to ravage the countryside.  This in turn brought the greatest hunters and heroes of Greece together with sad consequences.  In other tales Artemis was even more direct with her vengeance.  She visited plague upon Kondylea until the citizens adjusted their worship of her.  She famously slew the many daughters of Niobe with painless arrows and turned their mother into a weeping stone.

Artemis is a self-contradicting figure–a virgin who was the goddess of childbirth; a protector of wild animals who was also goddess of the hunt; and a friend to maidens, mothers, and children who wielded the plague to smite down mortals.  Her temples were frequently on the edge of civilization—at the end of the croplands where the forest began or at the edge of useable land where terra firma gave way to swamps and morasses.   This highlights the main fact about Artemis—she was a nature goddess.  wildness and inconsistency were parts of her.  Worshiping Artemis was how the Greeks venerated and sanctified the savage beauty and random gore of the greenwood.

Fountaine de Diane (Artist Unknown, mid 16th century)

Shamash was the Mesopotamian deity of the sun.  To the Akkadians, Assyrians, and the Babylonians he was synonymous with justice, generosity, and salvation.  However there was a second solar deity in the Mesopotamian pantheon, Nergal, who was not associated with such positive aspects of existence.  Nergal was the child of Enlil, god of the wind, who was exiled from earth for raping Ninlin, the goddess of the open fields. Ninlin followed Enlil into exile and gave birth to their son Nergal in the underworld (Sumerian myth-makers should be ashamed of the sexism of this story).  Nergal’s dark origins foreshadowed his nature. Unlike Shamash, who represented the life giving power of the sun and divine justice, Nergal was only associated with certain phases of the sun. To quote Wikipedia “Portrayed in hymns and myths as a god of war and pestilence, Nergal seems to represent the sun of noontime and of the summer solstice that brings destruction, high summer being the dead season in the Mesopotamian annual cycle.”

Akkadian Seal of Nergal with a sickle-sword and a mace with two feline heads (c. 2360–2180 BCE, carved from soapstone)

As a god of plague, drought, fire, and insufferable heat, Nergal quickly came to be associated with death and the underworld. He was portrayed either as a powerful man bearing a sickle-sword and a mace, or as a lion with a man’s head.

Although he was a terrible god of destruction, the main myth we have about Nergal is romantic in nature. Mesopotamian scholars have discovered and translated a poetic epic recounting Nergal’s tempestuous courtship of the dark goddess Ereshkigal (the queen of the underworld, who once gave Ishtar such a wretched time).   After a passionate tryst, Nergal left Ereshkigal, who thereafter was overwhelmed by passionate longing for further intimacy.  Hearing of her unhappiness and realizing how much he in turn missed her, Nergal abandoned his place in the heavens and traveled down through the seven gates of hell to rejoin Ereshkigal.  The two death gods then shared a bed for seven days and seven nights before marrying and jointly sharing rule of the underworld (it’s a happy story!).

A modern painting of Nergal

Despite the felicity of his connubial circumstances, to the people of Mesopotamia, Nergal represented the unpredictability of mortal life and early unnatural death.  He was worshiped, particularly at his chief temple located at Cuthah (a smaller city just northeast of Babylon) but his cult was far from the most popular. Unlike many other Babylonian deities, Nergal was mentioned in the Bible (2 Kings 17:30) and his name has therefore found a place among the demons and boogeymen of Christianity. If you search for “Nergal” on the internet you are likely to find the picture of a heavy metal singer from Poland dressed up in gothic makeup!

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