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The Meijiang River is located in Hunan Province just to the northwest of Lianyuan City.  The river features the classic picturesque landscape of China: karst gorges with vertical limestone mounts, mysterious cliffs, and ancient caves.  The caverns and cwms of the region are home to many locally important spots with names which would not be out of place in “Journey to the West”:  “Immortal Village”, “Avalokitesvara Precipice”, “Sutra Cave”, “Immortal’s Residence”, and “Incense Burner Mountain”.

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The scenic valley would be an ideal vacation spot for landscape painters (if they could ever escape their dead end jobs), but it is hardly as famous as some of China’s other Karst landscapes like the vast South China Karst or the Li River.  So why have I picked out this sleepy river to dream about as winter wears on?

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Well it has been a while since we have featured a mascot post (although you shouldn’t forget that the 2020 Olympics are getting closer and closer).  I don’t want to write about pig mascots (even if that would be perfect for Lunar New Year), but there is a different gluttonous animal which jumps instantly to mind when I think of China: a sort of feathered pig which features heavily here on Ferrebeekeeper.

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I am of course talking about geese and the Meijiang River has a special mascot: a ten meter (30 foot) tall white inflatable goose!  Here are some pictures of the giant floating toy, which obviously owes a debt to Florentijn Hofman’s famous inflatable ducks.

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I guess there isn’t really much more to this post than the visual dynamism of the giant goose (which I like better than the huge bath ducks).  It is a really good mascot though! How do you top that (especially as a small provincial river)?

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This year for Halloween we featured a list of amazing snake monsters from around the world…and yet the world is a big place and snakes are widely feared and revered.  Therefor we are looping back to Africa for a final amazing snake deity.  This is Nyami Nyami, god of the Zambezi river and one of the masters of the entrance to the underworld.  Nyami Nyami has the body of a fish and the head of a snake (he sounds kind of like a giant catfish to me).  Nyami Nyami was sacred to the Batonga people who lived beside the Zambezi in what is today Zambia.  His particular home was said to be the Kariba rock, a great mid river escarpment located in a narrow gorge.  Here Nyami Nyami could slide between worlds in order to explore the watery realms of the afterlife or he could come back to Earth to visit his equally aquatic onster wife who lives in the lower Zambezi where it empties into the Indian Ocean…or he could travel to the upper upper river (since other tribemen claim he dwells in the realm of foam and thunder beneath Victoria Falls).

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At any rate, in the mid-1950s the Kariba Gorge was chosen as the location for a huge hydroelectric dam.  Nyami Nyami’s worshipers among the Batonga were sure the dam would not happen because of the god’s wrath and indeed a freak cyclone (and the attendant flood) nearly scuppered the project, but the dam was built and the Kariba rock is beneath the water.  Some say the Nyami Nyami is angered because he is separated from his spouse.  Others think he has fled from this world to leave humans to their own devices.  Yet worship of Nyami Nyami continues unabated and he has become an even more popular deity and symbol of the region (staffs carved in his likeness are sold to tourists or given to revered guests). Perhaps the great snake god still watches the river to the same extent he ever did, just waiting for the dam to silt up and be brought down.  Let me know if you are ever heading to the Zambezi, it sounds like a beautiful river.  Maybe you will catch a glimpse of the huge serpentine god in the watery depts. Or in the shadows beneath Victoria Falls.

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Minthe

Minthe (source unknown)

Aside from the disturbing tale of his coercive romance with Persephone, there aren’t many myths about the underworld god Hades’ love life…but there is one weird love triangle story.  The river Cocytus flows underground for part of its course.  Because of this it was strongly affiliated with the underworld in Classical thought.  There is a story about this—and an origin myth for one of our very favorite garden herbs.

Nymph in green light by W. Szczepanska

Nymph in green light by W. Szczepanska

One of the river nymphs of the Cocytus, Minthe had a peculiar temperament.  Because of the geography of the river, she spent part of her time in the shady realm below, and there the gorgeous river maiden became enamored of Hades. Some mythmakers speculate that her affection was really for his wealth, power, magic, or for his splendid chariot of chthonic jewels, but, whatever the case,  Minthe devoted all of her beauty and wiles to beguiling the god (who usually received scant positive attention).  Minthe would probably have succeeded in seducing the lord of the underworld but his wife Persephone chanced upon the scene.  The goddess may or may not have cared for her dark husband, but she was certainly a jealous queen!

Persephone and Minthe

Persephone and Minthe (an enigmatic unattributed image from Deviantart.com)

Using her own dark magic, Persephone transfigured Minthe into a weed…but the divine beauty, attractiveness, and sweet smell of the naiad stayed with the plant, and thus was mint created.  The story makes even more sense in a Greco-Roman context when mint was used in funerary rites to disguise the scent of decay.  The herb was also a main ingredient in the fermented barley drink called kykeon, which seemingly was the principal potable associated with the Eleusinian mysteries. Based on accounts of the shadowy rights, it seems like this beverage had more than beer and mint in it and included some really strange psychoactive ingredients.  Yet mint itself has some powerful active ingredients, and we are coming to believe it is a more powerful stimulant than initially thought.  Indeed mint has an ancient heritage as a medicine, flavoring, and crop. The beloved plant merits more explanation than just this strange underworld myth—so I will write the second half of this post tomorrow!

Peppermint

Peppermint

Altair (bottom left) and Deneb (middle right)

Altair (bottom left) and Deneb (middle right)

Vega is the second brightest star visible from the northern hemisphere. It is more than twice the size of the sun and it is “only” 25 light years away. Altair is the head of the eagle constellation Aquila—it is the twelfth brightest star visible from Earth. In the West, the two brilliant stars form two of the vertices of the summer triangle. In China, these stars are known by different names—Vega is Zhinü, the weaver girl, and Altair is known as Niulang, the cowherd. They are the subjects of a sad love story which is at least 2600 years old.

The Celestial Weavergirl Zhinü

The Celestial Weavergirl Zhinü

Zhinü was a beautiful celestial maiden tasked with weaving the flowing colored clouds of heaven. This chore was onerous to the vivacious young goddess so she ran away to earth to look for fun. There she found a handsome young mortal Niulang, a hard-working orphan who made his living as a cowherd. The two fell madly in love and were married in secret. The mixed marriage was very happy: Zhinü was a good wife and Niulang was a doting husband. They had two children and the family loved each other deeply. Unfortunately, the Queen Mother of Western Heaven—a principal sky deity—noticed that her celestial abode did not have nearly enough elaborately ornate clouds. Upon looking into the matter, the Queen Mother was utterly scandalized that a celestial being was married to a mortal—and a mere cowherd, no less. The sky queen used her divine power to lift Zhinü back into the heavens where the lesser goddess was sent back to her cloud weaving.

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Niulang was devastated that his wife had vanished. He searched high and low, but could find her nowhere on Earth. Finally the cows he had tended so dutifully took pity on him. His finest ox, a magic spirit beast, said “The Queen Mother of the West has taken Zhinü to heaven. Kill me and put my hide around yourself and your children. Then you may ascend to heaven to look for your dear wife.” Weeping, Niulang slew his faithful ox. When he wrapped the hide of the loyal animal around himself and his children, they transcended earth and flew up into the stars. The family was again united and Zhinü and Niulang covered each other in kisses.

Queen Mother of the Western Heaven by artist Liang Yuanjiang

Queen Mother of the Western Heaven by artist Liang Yuanjiang

When she heard about mortals entering heaven, the Queen Mother of Western Heaven became even more infuriated. She hurled the couple apart from each other, and used her long sharp nails to gouge out a river in the middle of the night sky—the Milky Way (which is known as “the Celestial River” in China). Love be damned–social stratification and rigid hierarchy is the iron will of the gods of China!

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Yet, once again, animals took pity on the couple. Every year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, all of the magpies in China fly up into heaven and form a bridge across the Milky Way so that the lovers can be together. For one day, Zhinü gets to see her beloved husband and her children (who are the stars Auilae β and γ–or Hè Gu 1 and Hè Gu 3, to use their Chinese names). Lovers and couples across all of China celebrate the day with the Qixi festival–a Chinese version of Valentine’s Day (or maybe I should say that the other way around, since Qixi is older, better and makes more sense). The holiday is celebrating with festoons, weaving, and needlework competitions. Romantic gifts are given. Maidens and newly-wed women offer face powder and cosmetics to Zhinü by throwing them up on the roof. In the evening, there is much romantic star-gazing at Vega and Altair and of course there is canoodling and physical intimacy. This year, the year of the horse, the seventh day of the seventh lunar month corresponds to August 2nd–tomorrow! Dear readers, may the stars shine bright on your romances. May you savor summer with someone special and never know the enmity of the gods! Happy Qixi Festival!

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The Congo River is the world’s second largest river by volume of water discharged (which seems like the most worthwhile measure of a river). Portions of its watershed are both north and south of the equator—which ensures that some part will always be experiencing a rainy season. The Congo River flows through the world’s second largest rainforest, and, as you would expect, the waterway teems with exquisite animals of multitudinous variety. There are aquatic mammals, many different sorts of crocodilians, turtles, frogs, snakes, mollusks, insects, crustaceans, and there are fish fish fish! The piscine variety is staggering: stingrays, carp, cichlids, pufferfish, African tetras, and the highly predatory giant tigerfish. There are also some bizarre blind deep water fish—because the Congo is the world’s deepest river (with depths of at least 220 m (720 ft)).

A few Congo River Fish

A few Congo River Fish

Ferrebeekeeper has always been devoted to catfish which thrive everywhere other than the deep ocean or the arctic. Indeed there are all sorts of catfish in the Congo River—particularly squeakers (AKA upside-down catfish). However, as a special treat, let’s take a break from catfish and talk about an entirely different fish—the freshwater elephant fish (the Mormyridae family from the order Osteoglossiformes). According to the World Wildlife Fund, Elephant fish are the dominant fish fauna in the Congo River. And they are downright strange in so many ways.

Campylomormyrus rhynchophorus

Campylomormyrus rhynchophorus

As you might surmise, elephant fishes earned their common name from their long trunk-like mouths (although this feature is certainly not universal among the 200 plus different varieties). Different species vary greatly in size: the smallest elephant fish are only 5 cm (2 inch) when they reach adulthood whereas the largest grow to 1.9 meters (4.5 feet) in length. Like the electrical catfish and ghost knife fish of the Amazon, the elephant fish have electroreceptive sensory organs. These generate an electrical field and “read” the field so the fish can sense the world (and especially other living things) very clearly even in the murkiest waters and in complete darkness.

 (Image: Carl Hopkin)

(Image: Carl Hopkin)

Elephant fish are extremely intelligent fish with a greatly enlarged cerebellum. In fact the fish have a brain body ratio which is approximately the same as humans (although it seems that they use much of their mental power to operate their electrical sensory organs and interpret the electrical data). In humans, the cerebellum controls movement, motor control, and language so it is speculated that elephant fish may have greater abilities to communicate with each other than we currently understand.

Campylomormyrus alces (from aquaria2.ru)

Campylomormyrus alces (from aquaria2.ru)

Oh, also the elephant fish (and their closest relatives the African knife fish) are unique in that their sperm lack flagellums. Of all vertebrates—from turkey to megabat to axolotl–these strange African fish are the only chordates not to have motile sperm. I wish I could tell you more about that business, but I cannot (and researching it on Google has not made me happier or wiser).

 

Genyomyrus donnyi (George Albert Boulenger)

Genyomyrus donnyi (George Albert Boulenger)

I have tried to show some elephant fish which are endemic to the Congo River, but, alas, I am not an ichthyologist (although that might have been a good career choice) so I may have messed up. Hopefully these photos at least provide some small overview of this incredible family. Humankind needs to learn more about these splendid clever African fish which are so prevalent in the turbid waters of the great tropical river.

Mormyrops anguilloides

Mormyrops anguilloides

This story is from yesterday and the exiguous details, alas, mean that it will be brief–yet it is too remarkable not to mention (especially considering our longstanding love of catfish here at Ferrebeekeeper). Yesterday (June 17th, 2014) an Italian fisherman, Dino Ferrari, caught a huge Wels catfish (Silurus glanis) in the River Po. The great fish weighed 118 kilograms (260 pounds) and measured 2.6 meters (8.6 feet) in length.

 

Dino Ferrari proudly displays the 260 pound fish he caught

Dino Ferrari proudly displays the 260 pound fish he caught

Although Wels catfish are no match in size and substance to the extraordinary giant Mekong catfish, they are clearly large fish. They also live in a huge swath of Eurasia from England to Kazakhstan where they prey on everything from tiny gastropods to big waterfowl like ducks (although they also eat carrion). The Wells catfish was originally native to central Europe, but thanks to introduction programs by misguided human anglers it has spread both east and west. I wonder what Mr. Ferrari baited his hook with to catch this monster—a piglet?

Adult Asian Small-clawed otters (Aonyx cinerea)

Otters (subfamily Lutrinae) are the aquatic branch of the splendid Mustelidae family which includes all sorts of highly successful predators like weasels, ferrets, polecats, otters, fishers, and wolverines.  We have already described the giant river otter of the Amazon, a magnificent apex predator which lives on anacondas and piranhas but there are also 12 other species of otters living throughout the Americas, Eurasia, and North Africa (and in the ocean).

European Otter (Lutra lutra)

All of the otters partake of the tremendous strength (and weakness) of the Mustelidae family.  They are ridiculously fast, powerful, and agile, but in order to keep up their swift lifestyles they have huge metabolic intake.  This means they must eat all of the time, and as predators their life is one endless hectic hunt.  Northern otters are at a particular disadvantage since they live in freezing rivers, lakes, and oceans.  In cold weather, European river otters have to eat 15% of their weight every day, while Sea otters must daily down an incredible 25% of their mass.  Fortunately a fast metabolism brings its own incredible reward: otters (like weasels and ferrets) seem to be effortlessly moving while everything else is standing still.

A group of sea otters (Enhydra lutris)

Otters eat a startling variety of prey.  Although fish is the staple of their diet they also opportunistically eat snakes, frogs, lizards, birds, eggs, small mammals, mollusks, crustaceans, and sundry other invertebrates.  Their need for calories keeps them from being too picky.  Despite their speedy metabolisms, otters live as long as dogs (and can survive even longer in captivity).  Different otters have different levels of sociability—the Oriental small clawed otters and the river otters are quite clannish and live in big playful groups.

Baby Asian Small-clawed otters (Aonyx cinerea)

In addition to being great hunters (and eaters) otters are famous for playing.  Their frolicksome antics are a joy to behold, so I found some video on Youtube, but be warned: the sound on my computer is broken so I have no idea what the narrator/soundtrack/music is like.  It might be slidewhistles or it might be 2 minutes and 56 second of the foulest curse words.  Maybe you should watch it on mute.

 

 

Perhaps because otters seem to appreciate life, people have a reverence for them (not that reverence stopped furriers from nearly driving several species extinct during the course of the past three centuries).  In the  the shapeshifting dwarf Otr prefers to spend his time as an otter until he is killed by the malicious trickster god Loki.  Loki is forced to cover the otter skin with treasure, but one whisker remains uncovered and so Loki was forced to part with his magic ring of power (which went on to wreak havoc, as magic ring inevitably do).  To Zoroastrians, the otter was reckoned to be truly pure–and thus sacred to Ahura Mazda, the uncreated god who represents the apogee of wisdom, light, and goodness in their pantheon.  So if, by bad luck, the evil dragon Ahriman happens to burn his way into this world and begins to destroy existence you might want to go be near some otters.  You know, even without the evil dragon, you should go spend time watching otters.  They’re just great animals.

The North American river otter (Lontra canadensis)

Weary Hecules (Roman, Imperial Period, mid‑ to late 2nd century A.D. Marble)

This blog has often referenced the heroic deeds of Hercules, particularly since the demigod single-handedly killed a shocking number of the titanic monsters born of Echidna (not to mention the fact that he allegedly knew something of Echidna herself).  Yet one of Hercules greatest deeds gets mentioned least often–even though it might have been the most remarkable.  Additionally, according to myth, this prodigious feat was critical to the founding of the Olympic Games!  With the summer Olympics coming up later this year in London, it is time to tell the amazing (and disgusting) tale.

In order to atone for murdering his family while under a divine curse, Hercules was sentenced to complete a list of mighty labors.  Eurystheus, the sniveling king who chose the tasks, selected deeds presumed to be impossible (and fatal)–but Hercules completed the first four with ease.  Eurystheus therefore decided to think of something demeaning and disgusting for Hercules’ fifth task.  Augeas, king of Elis, had the greatest herds and flocks of livestock in all of Greece.  By day his many horses, cows, goats, pigs, and sheep would graze and forage.  At night herdsmen would round up the animals and return them to Augeas’ immense stables.  All of these animals left quite a mess behind them and the stables had never been cleaned.  Eurystheus decided that mucking out endless tons of dung would win no glory for Hercules.  The petty king demanded that Hercules accomplish the task within a year–an impossibly short time for the horrible chore.

Ancient Roman Mosaic of Hercules cleaning the Augean Stables (Apologies for the graphic nudity)

Hercules however had a plan.  He presented himself to King Augeas and promised to clean the stables within a single day–provided the King would recompense him with one tenth of his livestock.  Augeas laughingly acceded to the crazy offer knowing that no man could clean the stables in years.  Hercules however was not merely a man.  He punched giant holes in opposite walls of the stables and then diverted a mighty river through the breach.  The ordure was rinsed from the stables in less than a day.

King Augeas was not rich because of his generosity or fairness.  He proclaimed that the river had done the work and denied payment to Hercules.  When Hercules returned to Eurystheus, the latter decreed that the labors were not meant for profit and Hercules would not receive credit for cleaning the Augean stables (there is probably a lesson about dealing with powerful people in there).  The heroic labor was a wash–literally and figuratively. Hercules kept the incident in the back of his head though as he slogged his way to the edge of the Earth and down into the underworld.  When the twelve labors were complete he returned to Augeas’ kingdom to make war on the greedy king.  Hercules first killed Augeas’s twin nephews, Cteatus and Eurytus, demigods born of Molione (Augeas’ sister) and Poseidon.  He dragged the warrior twins from a chariot and smashed them to death.  Then Hercules’ soldiers (the Tirtynthians) sacked Augeas’s city and put the inhabitants to death.  Finally Hercules ripped Augeas to pieces (there is probably another lesson about dealing with powerful people in that grim postscript).

To celebrate the victory and the completion of his labors, Hercules instituted a peaceful athletic contest which grew into the Olympic games (although some classical sources state the Olympics were started by Zeus after his victory over the titan Cronus).  Irrespective, it is worth relating the story whenever the Olympics roll around (especially if you have already grown tired of the stupid London Olympics mascots).  I also find myself envious of Hercules’ easy ability to clean up messes whenever I find myself facing a daunting pile of…tasks.

Ancient Greek Amphora depicting a foot race.

Anyway as a bonus for those who are inclined to literature, here is a section of Ode X of the ancient Greek poet Pindar’s Olympic Odes.  Pindar here describes Hercule’s violent war on Augeas (the remainder of the ode can be read here).

Conquests by toil unearn’d to few belong:
Action’s the sovereign good, the light of life.
But me Jove’s Hallow’d Rites the athletic strife
And matchless Games in solemn song
Bid blazon; which the potent Hercules
Stablish’d by Pelops’ ancient tomb;
What time the godlike Cteatus to his doom
He sent, though sprung from him that rules the seas,

Him with bold Eurytus, the largess due
Thus from reluctant Augeas to compel.
Them on their journey in Cleones’s dell
Th’avenging chief from ambush slew.
Just retribution! His Tirtynthian host,
Surprised in Elis’ close defiles,
Molione’s o’erwheening sons by wiles
Had crush’d; and all of his choicest chiefs were lost.

That guest-beguiling king the wrath of Heaven
Soon reach’d.  He saw the sceptre of his sway,
To sword and flame his wealth and country given,
Saw his Epeian kingdom pass away,
Sunk in Destruction’s gulf! ‘Tis hard indeed
The conflict with a mightier foe to close;
And wit forsakes whom Fate hath doom’d to bleed.
Himself a captive thus, the last of those
Whose loyalty his fault and fortune shared,
‘Scaped not the dire revenge Herculean rage prepared.

A citizen interacts with "Catfish Rodeo" (Francis Moxley Zinder, and Susan Elizabeth Breining, 2003, mixed media sculpture)

In October 2003 the city of Nashville Tennessee decided to celebrate National Catfish Month (August) by asking local artists and craftspeople to make 51 catfish sculptures which were positioned around the city.  The sculptures went on display in June and were auctioned off in October.  Sponsored by the Cumberland River Compact, Greenways for Nashville, and the Parthenon Patrons Foundation, the show was meant to raise awareness concerning water quality in the Cumberland River.

Bat Cat (Dan Goostree and Paige Easter, 2003, mixed media sculpture) photo by Jan Duke

Catfish are a major theme here at Ferrebeekeeper and I am delighted at the extent to which “Catfish out of Water” captured the amazing variety and hardiness of the Siluriformes.  The name even evokes the amazing ability of the walking catfish to survive out of water (although that formidable invasive fish has fortunately not made it to Tennessee). I have only put in photos of a tiny number of the original sculptures here in order to encourage you to visit the complete gallery of catfish sculptures lovingly photographed by Jan Duke and carefully displayed and enumerated at About.com.

Cafe Catfish (Andee Rudloff and Stacey Irvin, 2003, mixed media sculpture) photo by Jan Duke

 

Herring: A Tribute to Keith Haring (Dennis Greenwell, 2003, mixed media sculpture) photo by Jan Duke

Flying Catfish (Rosemary Lab Walters, 2003, mixed media sculpture) photo by Jan Duke

Catsup (Sensored.com, 2003, mixed media sculpture)

Hooray for catfish!  May the Cumberland River always run clean and pure (except maybe for some tasty rotting food scraps for the bewhiskered critters to snack on).

Striper (Bryan Roberson, 2003, mixed media sculpture)

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