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Ceres with Poppies and Snakes (Roman, ca. 50 BC-50 AD, Stone Bas-relief)

Ceres with Poppies and Snakes (Roman, ca. 50 BC-50 AD, Stone Bas-relief)

I was going to write a post about the dwarf planet Ceres–which is currently being explored by the NASA New Horizons robot probe. The more we learn about the failed planetary fragment, the more enigmatic it becomes (the little exploded world seems to be covered with giant pyramid-shaped mountains and weird super reflective craters). However I decided to wait to write this Ceres post until August when New Horizons dips closer to the dwarf planet and we get some clear answers (or at least some better photos). Fortunately, as I researched the mysteries of Ceres, I came across the above statue of the goddess Ceres, and it immediately became one of my favorite artworks from classical antiquity (which is saying quite a lot).

The statue is Roman from the Augustan period. I assume the figure is Ceres (Demeter) but it is possible that it may be her daughter Proserpine (Persephone). Ceres is portrayed as the gentle and munificent goddess of agriculture who is friend to humankind. She is clad in the flowing raiment of a goddess and she holds the bounty of Earth, but her eyes are sad and full of wisdom. Her hands flow with full heads of wheat, but mixed in are the addictive poppies that soothe pain. Beside her two snakes whisper the secrets of the underworld. Agriculture gave us our knowledge and our power, but it also made our world of masters and slaves, and it looks like the goddess recognizes this in her ancient eyes.

Orpheus with animals. (Roman mosaic ca. 200-250 AD)

Orpheus with animals. (Roman mosaic ca. 200-250 AD)

Orpheus was a Thracian…and a mortal.  His mother was Calliope, Muse of heroic poetry.  Different versions of his story differ as to whether his father was a Thracian king or Morpheus, god of dreams.  Thanks to the tutelage of his parents, or perhaps because of his own astonishing gifts, Orpheus could play music more beautifully than words can express. Wherever he went, people would fall under the spell of the golden notes flowing from his lyre and the unbridled beauty of his divine voice.  Animals were transfixed by his music and even trees would lean in closer to hear his songs. Because of the power of his art, Orpheus had a pleasant life which was largely free of care.  He grew up doted upon by his mother and his many gifted aunts. He met a beautiful woman, Eurydice and the two fell deeply in love.  Their pastoral wedding was an event of unbridled happiness and Orpheus, beside himself with delight, played the most joyous music the world had yet known.

Orpheus And Eurydice (Louis Ducis, 1826, oil on canvas)

Orpheus And Eurydice (Louis Ducis, 1826, oil on canvas)

In merry abandon, the bride danced bare-footed in a meadow and there she stepped on a snake which reared up and stung her.  Eurydice sank to the ground and the guests, not seeing what had transpired, laughed at her intoxication, but Eurydice did not rise.  She was dead.  Her spirit had fled away.

Eurydice Stung by a Serpent  from Les Métamorphoses (Pablo Picasso, 1930, print)

Eurydice Stung by a Serpent from Les Métamorphoses (Pablo Picasso, 1930, print)

Then Orpheus went mad with grief.  He wandered off from his home and trod the gray world as an outcast ever seeking an entrance to the land of the dead.  Finally at the dim edge of the earth he found the entrance to the underworld—the realm where the spirit of his beloved wife was imprisoned.  Summoning all of his passion and all of his talent, he began to sing and play his lyre as he walked into the kingdom of Hades.

Orpheus (Giovanni Bellini, 1515, oil on canvas)

Orpheus (Giovanni Bellini, 1515, oil on canvas)

The breath of life and hope was in the music of Orpheus and, for a shining moment, the denizens of the underworld forgot their pain and sorrow.  Cerberus lay down on his back and frolicked.  Each flickering spirit recalled the warmth and love of living. Tantalus was not tortured by his eternal thirst and the Erinyes, stunned by unknown emotions, set aside their scourges and spiked whips.  The damned knew a moment of blessed respite in their endless torment as Orpheus passed.  Persephone’s haunted garden of poplars and willows burst into bloom as though spring had at last come, and the queen of hell herself wept silent tears.

Orpheus in the Underworld (Ambrosius Francken the Elder, ca. 1600?, oil on canvas)

Orpheus in the Underworld (Ambrosius Francken the Elder, ca. 1600?, oil on canvas)

Even Hades, god of death and the world beyond, was moved by the music of Orpheus. After listening to the remainder of the song and hearing the musician’s desperate entreaties, the dark god agreed to let Eurydice return from death to the land of the living, but with one condition:  Orpheus must not look backward until after he left the underworld.  Eurydice would follow him silently. Only in the sunlight of life could they properly be reunited.

Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld (Jean -Baptise-Camille Corot, 1861, oil on canvas)

Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld (Jean -Baptise-Camille Corot, 1861, oil on canvas)

Tormented by doubt, Orpheus made his laborious way back upwards.  Without his music, the underworld again became dreadful and strange.  In the Stygian gloom, fear gnawed at him.  He worried that the lord of the dead had tricked him and nobody walked behind him. Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime of fear and darkness he spied the sunlight, and then, suddenly he could bear the overwhelming doubt no longer.  As though unconsciously, he turned to see if Eurydice was behind him.  For a moment he saw her ghostly beautiful face, and then she was gone, her spirit dragged back to the underworld.  All that was left was her final whisper, “I love you.”

Orpheus and Eurydice (Antonio Canova, 1776, marble)

Orpheus and Eurydice (Antonio Canova, 1776, marble)

The world held no joy for Orpheus.  Inconsolable he sat down beside a river in the wilderness with nothing left but his music, and that had turned impossibly sad. All he could do was play dirges of surpassing melancholy.  Beasts, men, plants, insects, even stones were overcome by tears.

Orpheus and the Bacchantes (Gregorio Lazzarini, circa 1710, oil on canvas)

Orpheus and the Bacchantes (Gregorio Lazzarini, circa 1710, oil on canvas)

The heavens themselves wept at the laments he sang.  Then a tribe of wild maenads came down from the hills.  The inebriated women were frenzied by wine and orgies.  They beat tumbrels and screamed in drunken ecstasy. Their shrieks of delight and delirium drowned out the dolorous music of Orpheus.  His sadness had no place in their revels, and he likewise wanted no part of their besotted celebration. Offended by his demurral, the Bacchantes ripped him to bloody pieces and cast his head into the river.  Still singing a lament, the severed head drifted out to the sea.

Death of Orpheus (Henri Levy, 1870, oil on canvas)

Death of Orpheus (Henri Levy, 1870, oil on canvas)

So goes the story of Orpheus, which everyone knows.  He is one of a long list of heroes, mystics, and even gods who braved the underworld in order to attain a boon or complete a quest.  Stories of the descent to the realm of death date back to the very beginning of writing (and presumably to fathomless prehistory before that).  The tale of Innana’s descent to the realm of death is one of the first known written things of any sort.  Gilgamesh, Osiris, Dionysus, Psyche, Hercules, Pirithous, Odin, Baldr, Lemminkäinen, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, Obatala, Arthur, Emperor Taizong of Tang, even Jesus Christ…all had to descend to death and go down questing into darkness.  Only some came back again with the secrets of destiny and eternity.

It is the oldest story because it speaks most directly to us. We are all mortal.  Alas, there are no magic herbs, secret songs, or forbidden elixirs (or cryogenic procedures) which can halt our inevitable death. Oblivion awaits all humans.  Only imaginary folks like deities or made-up heroes can die and come back.  Only art can surmount death.

La Mort d'Orphee (Louis Bouquet, ca. 1925-1939, oil on canvas)

La Mort d’Orphee (Louis Bouquet, ca. 1925-1939, oil on canvas)

I have told the story of Orpheus because Orpheus is the avatar of art.  His music stands in for all human imagination and creativity.  His katabasis story is sadder and deeper than the tale of simpler heroes like Hercules (who used divine strength to go down and come back) or Tammuz who was killed but came back to life because he was really a god. The myth of Orpheus is an allegory of the creative arts: it is the mythmaker’s myth about mythology.  Even in the story, Orpheus was a mortal and his quest was a glorious failure.  He had power over all beings only because of the verisimilitude of his music. He made it to hell and back with the emotional strength of his craft but ultimately failed to regain his love.

This is the story of art—a failure, a singing ghost which has no power to truly change anything. Art only makes us feel–it does not give us things. Look at Chardin’s peaches and bread rolls as long as you like. You will never taste them.  The glowing nude goddess wrought in tempera will never embrace you. And yet, and yet, art provides us a reason to go on…an emotional catharsis which contextualizes the multi-generational struggles which make up the true tale of humankind.

Orpheus with a Harp Playing to Pluto and Persephone in the Underworld (Jan Brueghel, 1594, oil on canvas)

Orpheus with a Harp Playing to Pluto and Persephone in the Underworld (Jan Brueghel, 1594, oil on canvas)

There is no underworld.  It is all made up.  There are no deities there (or probably anywhere).  Look around you at the room where you sit reading a computer screen—you are as close to the numinous as you are likely to get.  But these ancient symbols of death and transcendence still hold profound meaning for us.  We have the ability to imagine things–tales of what never was and never can be.  Over the long generations as our skills at science and engineering grow, it is still our creativity which endows life with meaning.   The imagination lends its transfigurative magic to the more concrete disciplines and drives us all forward, even though individually we might perish in the wilderness (torn apart, like Orpheus, by our own demons and tragedies).

Though all paths through the world lead to one place, do not despair. The singing lyre of Orpheus leads us again back to the light…to the pains and the hopes of life.

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Regular readers will have noticed that Ferrebeekeeper’s epic east to west progression across Africa has stalled. We started on the microcontinent of Madagascar, traveled across the straight to Mozambique, moved up the rift valley through Malawi and Tanzania and then cut west onto the lush plains of Zambia. Now we stand at a dramatic crossroads.

The Kalahari Desert of Botswana

The Kalahari Desert of Botswana

To the south is the sparsely populated desert nation of Botswana. It is arguably Africa’s most stable democracy and it contains vast arid wildernesses where the San hunt the arid scrub but nature otherwise holds rule. In fact the Chobe National Park has the world’s largest population of elephants although I hesitate to even write it, lest poachers hear. Yet when poachers show up with their helicopters, machine guns, and poisons, Botswana captures them, tries them in a fair court, and locks them up. It is a well-run country with an educated populace (although it is struggling with the terrible scourge of HIV).

Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, Home of the Endangered Mountain Gorilla

Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, Home of the Endangered Mountain Gorilla

To the north lies an entirely opposite nation—the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a terribly run nation with a history steeped in bloodshed and horror. Whereas Botswana is an empty desert, the Congo is a vast brooding rainforest filled with hundreds of different ethnic groups. The Congo is the second largest nation in Africa by area. It is rich in mineral and natural resources. It has unprecedented amazing biodiversity. Yet it was the sight of the most terrible war of the second half of the twentieth century—a war which left terrible scars in the hearts of the Congolese people (and ushered five million people into an early grave). Even today, shadows of the war lie everywhere on the land, and beneath them are older shadows and scars from the most brutal colonial regime of Africa, and beneath those lie even more ancient hatreds and hurts…but I digress.

Flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Since we are traveling via thought on the internet, I say we head north into the Congo. In fact let’s spend this whole week there among jungles that have never known the axe and in the company of bonobos, okapi, and pygmies, the Congo’s original human inhabitants. In the spirit of this trip, I will start Congo week by describing the flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo which is a sky blue field with a red diagonal stripe with gold edges. In the upper left corner is a yellow five pointed star. According to Wikipedia “The red symbolized the people’s blood; the yellow symbolized prosperity; the blue symbolized hope; and the star represented unity.” Perhaps a more realistic flag would be totally red with an exploded star and all of the yellow locked away in some hidden Swiss bank account. Yet cognoscenti say that for all of its troubles past and present The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most beautiful places of Earth. Its people are creative, diverse, and resilient. Hoist up the blue flag of hope, say a prayer upon the star of unity, and come traveling the Congo River. There are wonders and horrors in the offing as we spend some time in one of the world’s most amazing places.

camp for internally displaced residents in the Democratic Republic of Congo

camp for internally displaced residents in the Democratic Republic of Congo

 

embroidered_celtic_knot_tote_bag_irish_green_circular_motif_b4c3af34The most popular post in Ferrebeekeeper’s history was about leprechauns.  Thanks to popular folklore (and marketing shenanigans), leprechauns are currently imagined as small drunk men in Kelly green frockcoats who sell sweetened cereal. Yet the silly little men come from a deep dark well of legends which reaches far into the pre-Christian era.  The really ancient stories of Irish myth are ineffable and haunting: they stab into the heart like cold bronze knives.

Wicklow Countryside Powerscourt Castle, IrelandOnce there was a hero-bard, Oisín, who performed numerous deeds of valor and fought in many savage battles.  Oisín was mortal and he lived in Ireland long before Christianity came with its doctrine of a blissful fantasy afterlife.  To Oisín’s mind, to die was to cease being forever–except perhaps in songs and ambiguous stories. Yet some things are more important than death, and Oisín was always brave and loyal (although since he was also a poet he did tend to play moving laments upon his harp).

green-harp-irish-flagOne day, as he hunted in the greenwood, Oisín was spied by Niamh.  Some say she was the daughter of the queen of the ocean and others claim she was a fairy princess.  Whatever the case, she was one of the Aes Sidhe, an immortal being who was merely passing through Ireland.   When she saw Oisín, she recognized the endless sadness of mortalkind and the doom all men bear, but she also saw his noble heart, his loyalty, and his courage.  Unlike the deathless men of fairykind his bravery was real. After all, what meaning does bravery have when there are no stakes?

oisin_niamhNiamh revealed herself to Oisín: she was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on.  She had hair like dancing fire and eyes like emeralds and the stain of age was nowhere upon her since she was from a land beyond the shadow of decay. Niamh offered Oisín an apple and then she offered him more. The two fell in love.

Niamh had a white stallion who could gallop upon the waves of the Western Sea. Together the two mounted the horse and they rode upon the whitecaps into the sunset until they came to her homeland, Tír na nÓg, the land of the forever young.  There among the perfumed gardens and unearthly music, the lovers lived forever afterwards in perfect happiness…

vivid-blaskett-sunset_mg_6881-resizedExcept that Oisín was not perfectly happy.  His heart was loyal and even among the wonders of fairyland he began to pine for his family.  For three years he stayed in Niamh’s lovely arms, but more and more he begged her to be allowed one last trip home.  In the thrall of love’s enchantment he had left his family and his knights behind.  He needed to say his farewells so that he could stay forever with Niamh without regrets.

Reluctantly Niamh lent her stallion to Oisín.  As she bathed her lover in kisses, she made him promise that no matter what, he would not step off the horse.  One day only would he tarry ahorse in Ireland to say his valedictions and explain himself, then he would ride the tireless steed back across the sea to Otherland and Niamh.  Oisín rode east, but when he reached Eire, everything was strange: new villages had grown on the coast and peculiar priests passed among the people waving crosses.  His town was alien and he knew no one.  Among a field of hoary lichstones he remembered an ancient myth and realized the terrible truth—for every year he spent Tír na nÓg, a hundred had passed in the mortal realm.  Everyone he knew was dead and gone.  In a fit of horror and grief he tumbled from the white horse.  As he hit the ground he immediately began to wither from the long years.  The village folk were amazed at the howling old man who stumbled crying among them.  As they watched,  Oisín aged before their eyes into a wizened corpse and then into dust which blew away to the sea.

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One of the problems with writing about living things is that there is a lot of troubling news from the natural world.  If one writes about the many sad or perplexing  issues affecting worldwide ecosystems, people get depressed and stop reading, but if one willfully ignores true problems…well, what is the point of observing and thinking about the world?  I remember CNN’s online newspage used to have a Science/Nature header which was so consistently filled with news of species die-offs, ecological disaster, and worldwide blight that the whole science section was canceled.  Now CNN has more room for “news” about Ashton Kutcher’s all fruit diet and a tech section with reviews of “cool gear” you can buy for your Superbowl party.  Sigh….

All of which is a round-about way of apologizing for today’s upsetting (but extremely important) post concerning the mass die-off of North America’s bats.  Wait! Please don’t go to other site to read about “Miley” Cyrus.  Bats are actually really important. They are key organisms in ecosystems across the continent.   If they all die, the rest of us mammals are also going to be in serious trouble

The culprit behind the bat deaths is a fungus, Geomyces destructans, which causes WNS–white nose syndrome.  Despite its cartoonish name, white nose syndrome is a horrible death sentence for most temperate bats in North America.  Geomyces destructans is a low temperature fungus (like the hideous specimens you find in neglected refrigerators).  As the bats hibernate, powdery white fungus builds up on their little wings and faces.  The poor itchy bats are awakened from hibernation and, because of the irritation, they cannot return to a suspended state.  The little animals quickly burn up their energy reserves and die—to then become macabre bat-shaped clumps of fungus.

Little_Brown_Bat_with_White_Nose_Syndrome_(Greeley_Mine,_cropped)

Geomyces destructans seems to have traveled to North America from European caves, probably on the boots or specialized equipment of spelunkers (strange troubled sportspeople who worm deep into the crushing dark of caves).  Now that the fungus is in North America, it appears to be spreading by means of bat to bat contact.  European bats seem to have a native resistance to the fungus, but American bats are unprepared for it and they have died in legion.  Ninety percent of New Jersey’s bats are believed to have already died.  As the plague moves to new colonies similar mortality is expected.  Although the disease started in the middle of New York State, it has quickly spread along the East coast and it is moving west.   Scientists worry that the pestilence could spread from coast to coast (although bats which live in warmer climes might be less susceptible to the low temperature fungus).  Bats reproduce slowly—usually at a rate of one pup (or less) per year, so bat colonies cannot replenish like sardine schools or rodent colonies.  Additionally the spores linger in caves even after all the bats have been killed.

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I personally love bats.  I find them endearing and beautiful (and relatable, since I have my own flighty nocturnal habits).  Western culture has not been so kind and often equates the flying mammals with witchcraft, Satan, demons, and all other manner of underworld fiends (the Chinese, however, see bats as lucky—in fact one of the Eight Taoist immortals began his cycle of incarnation as a bat).  A surprising number of Americans cleave to the old ways and smile at the horrifying curse that jackass cave explorers have unknowingly unleashed on our little chiropteran friends.

This attitude is a big mistake.

Anecdotally, the weather on North America has been worsening.  Great storms pound our coasts, droughts scorch the hinterlands, and mighty cyclones appear everywhere knocking down forests.  Imagine if, to compound these woes, vast plagues of insects descended upon our homes and crops.

Well, without bats, you won’t have to imagine.   Bats are a principal predator of insects—especially nighttime insects like mosquitoes (but also a surprising number of agricultural and forest pests).   Humans, being diurnal, underestimate bats, but insect-eating chiropterans eat 80% to 100% of their body mass in insects per night and they live in vast colonies (especially out west). Without bats we are liable to see great swarms of insects eat our crops and we will experience a resurgence of mosquito born ills.

The pallid bat (Antrozous pallidus) Photography by J. Scott Altenbach

The pallid bat (Antrozous pallidus) Photography by J. Scott Altenbach

An article in Daily Finance outlines some of the potential fall out of the great North American bat die-off (and if cold heartless financiers are worried about the environment, we know that something is really amiss).  So how can we actually help the bats? The Federal government has allocated 1.6 million dollars to study the problem, but this is not a lot of money!  Various agencies and organizations are attempting to curtail cave exploration and keep people from becoming a further vector for spreading the fungus.  Making people aware of the problems bats are facing is also a useful step (which is why I am writing this).  Most of all we need to care for bats before they are gone.  Farmers, bankers, politicians, ecologists, and scientists all need to worry about our beleaguered friends. The mass die-off of honey bees has had a horrible effect on agriculture and forestry:  the effect of a bat die off could be worse.  But even more importantly bats are social mammals—like us.  If suddenly 90% of them are dying off, it is a terrible portent as well as a horrible loss to the planet.

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On the Christian Liturgical calendar, yesterday was Palm Sunday—the day Christ entered Jerusalem for the week of the passion.  Here is one of my favorite religious paintings depicting Jesus saying farewell to his mother before leaving for Jerusalem (and for his death).  The painting was completed by Lorenzo Lotto in 1521 and it reflects what is best about that eccentric northern Italian artist.

In many ways Lotto was a kind of shadowy opposite to Titian, who was the dominant Venetian artist of the era.  Whereas Titian remained in Venice, Lotto studied in the city of canals but then moved restlessly from place to place in Italy.  Titian was the height of artistic fashion throughout the entirety of his life (and, indeed, afterwards) while Lotto fell from popularity at the end of his career and his work then spent long eras in obscurity.  Titian’s figures seem godlike and aloof: Lotto’s are anxious and human, riddled with doubts and fears.

Christ Taking Leave of his Mother (Lorenzo Lotto, 1521, oil on canvas)

Yet there is something profoundly moving in the nervous and unhappy way that Lotto paints.  The jarring acidic colors always seem to highlight the otherworldly nature of the Saints and Apostles.  Everything else, however points to their humanity.  The figures imperceptibly writhe and squirm away from the hallowed norm (and toward mannerism).  Instead of a glowing sky here is a dark roof with a globe-like sphere cut into it.  The perspective lines do not lead to heaven or a glittering temple but rather to an obscure cave-like topiary within a fenced garden.  Only Christ is serene as he bows to his distraught mother, yet he too seems filled with solemn sadness.

A remarkable aspect of this painting is found in the ambiguous animals located in the foreground, midground, and distance.  In the front of the painting a little alien lapdog with hypercephalic forehead watches the drama (from the lap of painting’s donor, richly dressed in Caput Mortuum). A cat made of shadow and glowing eyes moves through the darkened columns of the façade.  Most evocatively of all, two white rabbits are the lone inhabitants of the periphery of the painting.  They scamper off towards the empty ornamental maze.  The animals all seem to have symbolic meaning: the dog stands for loyalty, the cat for pride, and the rabbits for purity–but they also seem like real animals caught in a surreal & gloomy loggia.  The living creatures might be party to a sacred moment but they are also filled with the quotidian concerns of life, just as the apostles and even the virgin seem to be moved by the comprehensible emotional concerns of humanity.   Lotto never gives us Titian’s divine certainty, instead we are left with human doubt and weary perseverance.

Statue of Molly Malone (Jeanne Rynhart, 1988, Bronze)

One of my favorite mawkish songs is “Cockles and Mussels.”  Not only is it a stirring melodramatic ballad concerning the sad death of a young Irishwoman, it is probably the only known song to feature ghost mollusks!  Let’s review the lyrics:

In Dublin’s fair city,
Where the girls are so pretty,
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone,
As she wheeled her wheel-barrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!”
“Alive, alive, oh,
Alive, alive, oh”,
Crying “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh”.
She was a fishmonger,
But sure ’twas no wonder,
For so were her father and mother before,
And they each wheeled their barrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!”
(chorus)
She died of a fever,
And no one could save her,
And that was the end of sweet Molly Malone.
Now her ghost wheels her barrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!

That seems pretty clear—the cockles and mussels travel beyond the grave with Molly and her ghost is left trying to sell their spirits in the variously sized thoroughfares of Ireland’s capital (even to me, that sounds like a futile business plan—who is the projected customer base here?).  The harrowing supernatural drama reminds me that I need to add posts about cockles (which are tiny edible saltwater clams found on sandy beaches worldwide) and mussels to Ferrebeekeeper’s mollusk category.

Beyond her working connection to the vast phylum of mollusks, her sweetness, and her death, little is known concerning Molly Malone.  This is ironic since the longstanding international success of the song has made her an unofficial mascot of Dublin and a mainstay of tourism there.  Various amateur historians have unsuccessfully tried to link the song with a historical personage to no avail.  It seems the ditty was created from imagination by a Scottish balladeer late in the nineteenth century and it was first published in the 1880s in America!

A clean line illustration of Molly for Waltons' Sheet Music to the Song

However the paucity of information has not stopped artists from portraying Molly (as is evident from the pictures dotted through this post).   Even if the song was an invention there is a real sense of futility, heartbreak and loss to it.  And just think of the poor ghostly shellfish spending eternity being hawked in the in-between neverworld of Dublintown.

The cover of "Sweet Molly Malone" by Mel Fisher and Dave Orchard

In Greek mythology, King Oeneus of Calydon was one of the great mortal heroes of his day.  Just as Demeter had taught Triptolemus the secrets of growing grain, Dionysus himself taught Oeneus the secrets of unsurpassed winemaking. The merry monarch brought grape culture and the vintner’s arts to all of Aetolia and he grew rich and beloved because of his teaching and his greatness at making wine.  To this day “oenophiles” are people who love wine.

Oeneus with coat and sceptre, Attic white-ground lekythos, ca. 500 BC

The monarch was even luckier in his family.  He was married to Althea, a granddaughter of the gods who was said to be nearly as beautiful as her sister Leda, who drew the eye of Zeus himself.  He had many sons and daughters:  Deianeira (who wed Heracles), Meleager, Toxeus, Clymenus, Periphas, Agelaus, Thyreus (or Phereus or Pheres), Gorge, Eurymede, Mothone, Perimede and Melanippe.  But of all these Oeneus’ eldest son Meleager stood out as the greatest hero of his era—a peerless spearman and warrior.

Meleager had nearly died in infancy.  His mother Althea was spinning flax when she heard the three fates—the ancient and alien goddesses of all destiny– discussing the baby boy.  Old Atropos had pulled out her scissors and was saying that as soon as the brand burning in the fireplace was consumed, the child’s life would end.  Althea threw away her weaving and grabbed the blazing log out of fire.  She smothered the blaze and hid the log away in a huge locked coffer.  Thus Meleager grew into magnificent manhood.

King Oeneus loved the gods and he sacrificed generously to them, but he loved his wine and he drank generously too. One year as he sacrificed to the Olympians he forgot to sacrifice to Artemis, the goddess of the hunt (who was not foremost on his mind anyway since he was a farmer and a wine maker).  Alas, it was a terrible error.  In her wrath the virgin huntress summoned the Calydonian boar, a descendant of the Crommyonian sow (which in turn was descended from Echidna herself).  The immense boar ravaged the countryside.  His tusks were huge like trees but sharp like razors and he impaled scores of Calydonian farmers along with their wives and children.  He tore up the fields and ate the grape vines.  The Corynthians huddled in their walled city and began to starve to death.

Oeneus sent Meleager out to gather the greatest heroes of the era for an epoch hunt and the spearman returned with the foremost fighting men of Greece.  He also returned with a woman, the virgin Atalanta, who was beloved of Artemis and had been raised by she-bears.  Atalanta could run faster and shoot better than any of her male peers.  Her strength and beauty did not go unnoticed by Meleager, who began to pay court to her.

Calydonian Boar Hunt (Peter Paul Rubens, ca.1611, oil on canvas)

The hunt for the Calydonian boar was terrifying and bloody.  Many heroes died under the creature’s iron hooves or upon its evil tusks.  However, at last Atalanta shot a perfect arrow into a vulnerable spot in its bronze-like hide.  Meleager followed up on the advantage and slew the great pig with his spear.  Later, at the drunken feast, he presented the creature’s hide to Atalanta and he was on the verge of begging for her hand when his uncle and brother started a quarrel.

Meleager and the Calydonian Boar. Marble, Roman copy from the Imperial Era (ca. 150 AD) after a Greek original from the 4th century BC.

Arrogant and drunken, Meleager’s kinmen asserted that no virtuous woman would be hunting with men and that the shot was lucky anyway.  Since everyone was drinking heavily of Oeneus’ fine wine (and since the guests were heavily armed) the quarrel flew out of control and, in the subsequent melee, Meleager slew both his own brother and his mother’s brother.  In fury Althea rushed to her chambers and ripped the charred wood from its coffer.  She ran back to the roaring bonfire where all the hunters and revelers were still stunned and hurled the brand into the fire where it was burned away in a moment leaving Meleander dead.

Thus was Artemis avenged on King Wine Man for slighting her in worship.

Swan of Tuonela (Gabriel de Jongh)

It will probably not surprise you to know that much of the mythology of Finland and Lapland is concerned with impossible quests which ineluctably lead to destruction. Louhi was queen of the bleak realm of Pohjola as well as being a sorceress, a shapeshifter, and possibly a demigoddess.  She possessed several daughters of ineffable loveliness. In order to win the hand of one of these beauties, a hero had to pass a test stipulated by Louhi.  These tasks were always impossible or very nearly so. Additionally if a hero somehow seemed to be on the brink of accomplishing his quest, Louhi would use her sorcery to ensure that he failed.

My favorite of these myths concerns the hero Lemminkäinen, a warrior and shaman who fell in love with one of Louhi’s daughters. Louhi promised the maiden’s hand to Lemminkäinen only if the hero could bring back the lifeless body of the swan of Tuonela.  Tuonela was the Finnish underworld, a magic haunted island ruled over by the dark god Tuoni.  Getting there was no easy task and returning was much harder (several other stories about suitors seeking the daughters of Louhi involve Tuonela and its dreadful snares).  The swan was a transcendent being which swam around the island of the dead singing.

The Swan of Tuonela (Ben Garrison, 2011)

After great travails Lemminkäinen made it to the underworld and he found the magic swan, but as he drew his arms to kill the bird, Louhi’s cruel guile became apparent.  The swan began to sing a haunting song of divine beauty. The golden notes described life’s splendor and its heartache—the wordless music summarizing everything that people long for and care about in their journey from the cradle to the grave. The impossible sadness and magnificence of the song moved Lemminkäinen’s heart and he realized he could not kill the great bird. As Lemminkäinen faltered, he was spotted by the gods of the underworld.  Infuriated that anyone should threaten the great swan, Tuoni’s blind son sent a poisonous watersnake to bite the suitor.  Lemminkäinen tried to sing away the venom with a shaman spell but he knew no words of magic against watersnakes.  The whirlpool of the river of death caught him and his body was ripped into pieces which sank among the underwater boulders.

Lemminkäinen did not return home and his aged mother began to worry about him.  She went through the world seeking him in the dark forests of the south and in the lichen-shrouded wastes of the north.  She spoke to bird and bear and deer and fish looking for her son. She questioned the yellow moon and the silver stars but they were indifferent.  Finally she prostrated herself before the red sun as it set in the west and the sun god gave her the terrible answer that Lemminkäinen was lifeless, cut to bits in the black river of Tuonela. Broken with grief she went to the smith god Ilmarinen and begged him to make a huge dragging rake for her with a copper handle and steel tines. Then she went to the river and laboriously found the many waterlogged fragments of Lemminkäinen’s corpse.   She pieced the shattered bones and torn sinews together and sang the most powerful songs of healing magic to reassemble the body, but still her son remained lifeless.  All of her prayers and supplications and lamentations went unheeded by all gods and creatures save for one.  A little bee landed in front of her and promised to help.

Lemminkäinen’s Mother (Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1897, tempera on canvas)

Furiously buzzing her wings, the tiny insect flew away up into the sky and then farther up to the vault of heaven.  She crossed Orion’s shoulder and flew across the great bear’s tail.  Finally she reached the heavenly abode of of Jumala, the Creator God, where he had crafted the universe.  The bee flew through the immense palace until she found a golden vessel filled with healing honey.  Then the little bee took a drop of the honey and flew down through the stars back to Lemminkäinen’s mother.  Together they placed the honey on his tongue and color came back to his lifeless form.  He struggled and shuddered and then gasped for air, waking from the world of death with its whirlpools and dark waters. But the swan’s haunting song was with him all of his days as was knowledge of what waits in the death’s dream isle at the end of the world.

And that’s how Lemminkäinen learned that Louhi’s daughter was an unsuitable bride.

The Black Dragon Gong Gong and the Serpent Goddess Nüwa

In Chinese mythology, Gong Gong was a tempestuous and unhappy water spirit of great strength.  He is usually portrayed as a raging black dragon or as a seething water monster.  In an earlier post concerning the Black Mansion—the Chinese underworld—I described how rigorously regimented the Chinese spirit world is (on earth, in heaven, and in hell).  Gong Gong was a spirit who was not happy with the rigid hierarchical order of things.  Despite his raw power, his job in the courts of heaven was to run trivial errands and fill out tedious paperwork.  Growing sick of what he perceived as menial chores, Gong Gong rebelled against the Jade Emperor.  In order to usurp control of heaven, he unleashed terrible floods and allied with a wicked nine-headed demon named Xiangliu.

Gong Gong hurls himself into Mount Buzhou

Together Gong Gong and Xiangliu brought about great destruction in the world.  The tumult they unleashed killed countless people.  But, despite the suffering they caused, the two could not defeat the powers of heaven.  They were opposed by Zhu Rong, the god of fire and ruler of the south, a mighty swordsman who fought mounted on the back of his magic tiger.  Unable to withstand Zhu Rong’s ferocity, the monsters were about to be defeated outright.  Infuriated and unwilling to accept such shame, Gong Gong hurled himself into Mount Buzhou, a mythical mountain which was one of the principal supports of heaven.  Part of the mountain collapsed and a terrible hole appeared in the sky.  The suffering caused by Gong Gong’s earlier actions was nothing compared to the catastrophe caused by this collapse.   Flood and fire swept earth.  Terrible creatures from beyond came through the rip in existence and ravaged the planet. Famine and horror stalked the world and it seemed as though all living things were doomed.

Nüwa Repairs the Breach in Heaven

With the other gods helpless, the creator goddess Nüwa again stepped forward.  She cut the legs off a great turtle and propped the sky back on its axis.  Then she gathered precious stones from a river and cast the breath of her magic into them.  With these multicolored stones she repaired the vault of heaven.  In some versions of the story she slew the black dragon Gong Gong whereas in other versions he sneaked away and still remains at large somewhere in the world.  Whatever the case, Nüwa’s repairs were not perfect.  The sun and moon now flow across the heavens from east to west and the stars were thrown from their position to drift with the seasons.  Even the North star was jarred from true north.

Nüwa Repairs the Breach in Heaven (a modern interpretation)

Strangely enough my favorite Chinese novel (maybe my favorite novel from anywhere) originates from this tumultuous myth.  The Story of the Stone was written by Cao Xueqin in the eighteenth century as the Qing dynasty first began to relentlessly unwind.  It is the story of a great princely house slowly losing its vigor and declining from within.  In a bigger sense it is the story of mortal kind and the ineluctable flux of our little lives. There are 40 major characters and more than four hundred minor ones in a drama that spans the epic breadth of Chinese history and culture (and takes up thousands of pages).  The portrayal of all levels of Chinese society is magnificent…but just beyond the petty intrigues, squabbles, affairs, and misunderstandings that make up the complex plot of The Story of the Stone are hints at an enigmatic divine order underpinning the cosmos.  From time to time, a strange beggar covered with sores and limping on an iron crutch shows up with magic medicines.  The female lead is hauntingly familiar with an otherworldy beauty to her mien.  And the protagonist of the story, Jia Baoyu, is a fey aristocratic adolescent who was born with a magic piece of jade in his mouth.  Although it doesn’t come up often in the novel and it is not obvious to the characters, the hero is the stone.  He was one of the gemstones given magical life by Nüwa in order to repair the breach in heaven–but he was not used because of a flaw.   Frustrated by life at the edge of heaven, he incarnates as a mortal and the book is the story of his human life…indeed of all human life.   I won’t say more about The Story of the Stone other than to apologize for not explaining how impossibly brilliant and ineffable the work is.  I must also offer an attendant caveat: this is the consummate literary masterpiece of China and, as such, it is overwhelmingly and heartbreakingly sad.

The Penguin version as elegantly translated by David Hawke

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