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I’m sorry I haven’t yet said anything about the horrible Friday 13th mass slayings in Paris.  I love France and I love the French so I was too angry to write anything sensible.  My heart goes out to the victims and their families.  Vive la France! I would wish that the terrorist perpetrators from the so-called Islamic State were in hell–but based on what I see in the news–they are actively trying to build hell here on earth.  It is what the IS aspires to. It is hard to know how to properly curse such people: they already eagerly bear a more terrible malediction than any I could invoke.

Insigne de La Brigade des Forces Spéciales Terre

Insigne de La Brigade des Forces Spéciales Terre

Anyway, they have messed with the wrong folk.  The French are not just superb philosophers, bon vivants, aesthetes, and scientists, they are also extremely gifted warriors with one of the world’s finest armies.  Not only do they have similar high-precision weaponry to ours, they also have fearsome (albeit shadowy) special force squadrons who are battle hardened with field experience in Francophone North Africa.  The French are less keen on media-based warfare than we are.  A lot of times, their enemies just disappear without lots of splashy headlines.

But we will see how this unfolds in the real world in years to come.  In the meantime, to show solidarity with the French people, Ferrebeekeeper is going to spend this week writing about French subjects (which is something we should do every year anyway—perhaps around Bastille Day).

The Great Seal of France

The Great Seal of France

Let’s start with the Great Seal of France, the official seal of the French Republic.  Seals are an ancient cultural tradition in France dating back to the first Frankish kings, and before that to the ancient Romans. This particular seal was first adopted by the short-lived Second Republic of France (1848-1851) to replace both the royal seals of the Ancien Régime and the attainted seals of the First Revolution.  The great engraver Jean-Jacques Barre created the design which features the goddess liberty (or possibly Juno dressed as liberty) holding a fasces and leaning on a ship’s tiler with a Gallic cock upon it.  The goddess is wearing a seven arched crown with rays emanating from it—the same headdress which Bartholdi chose for the Statue of Liberty forty years later.

Around the goddess are symbols of knowledge, art, and power.  To quote Wikipedia:

At her feet is a vase with the letters “SU” (“Suffrage Universel“, “Universal suffrage”). At her right, in the background, are symbols of the arts (painter’s tools), architecture (Ionic order), education (burning lamp), agriculture (a sheaf of wheat) and industry (a cog wheel). The scene is surrounded by the legend “RÉPUBLIQUE FRANÇAISE, DÉMOCRATIQUE, UNE ET INDIVISIBLE” (“French Republic, democratic, one and undividable”) and “24 FEV.1848” (24 February 1848) at the bottom.

The reverse bears the words “AU NOM DU PEUPLE FRANÇAIS” (“in the name of the French people”) surrounded by a crown of oak (symbol of perennity) and laurel (symbol of glory) leaves tied together with wheat and grapes (agriculture and wealth), with the circular national motto “LIBERTÉ, ÉGALITÉ, FRATERNITÉ“.

The Great Seal is kept by the Minister of Justice, who is also the Keeper of the Seals.  It is used only for sealing the Constitution and Constitutional amendments—which are sealed with yellow or green wax on tricolour ribbons.

Sceau_de_la_République

A Crabeater Seal on an Iceberg (photo by Rob Wilson)

A Crabeater Seal on an Iceberg (photo by Rob Wilson)

The crabeater seal (Lobodon carcinophagus) is a pale-colored seal which lives on the pack ice around Antarctica.   Adult crabeater seals have an average length of 2.3 meters (7 and-a-half feet) and weigh around 200 kg (440 pounds) however the largest male crabeater seals can weigh up to 300 kg (660 lb).  The seals’ mass alters considerably over the course of a season as they gorge themselves in preparation for lean times (or—in the case of mothers—for nursing).  Like other Antarctica seals, crabeater seals have slender bodies and long snouts.  They are gifted swimmers—a talent which allows them to escape their two main predators, killer whales and leopard seals.  They infrequently venture beyond the continental shelves of Antarctica (although very rarely one is spotted at New Zealand, Patagonia, or South Africa).  They hunt along the pack ice and travel far inland to give birth.   The seals give birth to one pup annually and they can live up to 40 years.

A Crabeater Seal (Lobodon carcinophagus)

A Crabeater Seal (Lobodon carcinophagus)

Crabeater seals can slither over land fairly well and they range farther onto continental Antarctica than any other indigenous mammal.  Crabeater seal carcasses have been found up to 100 kilometers from the coast. So crabeater seals have whole swaths Antarctica to themselves (well aside from big weird penguins, lichens, and Norwegian explorers).   Although they may theoretically eat a crab every now and then, the seals are misnamed.  Their main prey is Antarctic krill, which they eat in huge quantities (as an aside, Antarctic krill is believed to have the greatest biomass of any single species on Earth).  Although they do not have baleen like the great rorquals, crabeater seals have specialized krill-filtering cusps on their teeth which trap the krill and allow water to escape.  When krill are not available, the seals can also feed on fish and squid.

Crabeater Seal Teeth

Crabeater Seal Teeth

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about crabeater seals is their sheer numbers.  Other than humans (and our livestock) they are the most numerous large mammals on the planet.  Caribou and wildebeests exist in herds of hundreds of thousands, but the crabeater seal population numbers in the millions.  The full population of crabeater seals is unknown.  Estimates range from 7 million to 70 million.  Since they are pale colored seals darting between the crushing pack ice of an uninhabited continent we have a population estimate which is off by a factor of ten.  The fact that so few people have seen them might explain why they are still so successful.

A Crabeater Seal enjoys sunbathing on a southern beach.

A Crabeater Seal enjoys sunbathing on a southern beach.

Sedna Statue (from GTA Inuit Art Marketing)

Like the Arctic landscape, Inuit mythology is austere, cruel, strange, and beautiful. Just as the dialects of the Inuit language differ based on geography, so too many of the sacred stories of the Inuit share the same elements yet also vary from one region to the next. One such story is the myth of Sedna—the goddess of marine mammals, the frozen depths of the sea, and of the spirit’s realm below.  There are many versions of the tale.  Here is my favorite.

Sedna was a beautiful giantess.  Her great size was a hardship for her father, who had to spend most of his time hunting in order to feed himself and his daughter. However, because she was so lovely, she had many suitors.  Sedna was proud of her looks and her strength, so she rejected every suitor as unworthy of her.

One day a well-dressed stranger came to visit Sedna’s father.  Though the visitor’s clothes were opulent and his language was cultured, he kept his hood pulled down so that his face remained in darkness. The stranger talked of his great wealth and the life of ease which Sedna would enjoy if she were his wife.  Then he appealed to the father’s greed with gifts of fish, animal skins, and precious materials. Since hunting was bad and his stores were running out, Sedna’s father felt he had little choice but to comply–so he drugged his daughter and presented her to the stranger.  As soon as she was loaded on his kayak the elegant stranger paddled off into the frozen ocean with unnatural speed.

When Sedna came around to consciousness, she was in a great nest on top of a cliff.  The only furnishings were dark feathers, fish bones, and a few clumps of skin and fur.  The elegant stranger cackled and threw back his hood.  He was none other than Raven, the capricious trickster deity who had arrived second in the world, soon after the creator had shaped it.  Raven kept his beautiful stolen wife trapped in his nest and he fed her on fish (although she kept her ears open and listened to his magic words).

In the mean time, Sedna’s father became unhappy with the bargain he had struck.  He set out on his kayak to find his daughter and rescue her from the mysterious suitor.  Night and day he paddled, till finally he heard her cries for help intermingled with the howling winds.

Sedna’s father arrived while raven was off pursuing his other ventures, and Sedna quickly climbed down to his kayak so they could start back to the mainland.  They paddled hard, but before they could reach land, Sedna spotted a distant pair of black wings in the sky.  Raven had returned home to his nest and found his bride was missing.  In anger at being cheated, Raven called out magic words of anger to the sea spirits.  The winds rose to a gale and huge waves pounded the kayak.

Sedna's Bounty (Mayoreak Ashoona, 1993, lithograph)

Lost in terror, Sedna’s father cast his daughter into the ocean to placate Raven and the water spirits.  Despite the storm and her father’s imprecations, she clung to the gunwale of the kayak.  Then, in fury, her father pulled out his flint knife and hacked at her fingers.  Sedna’s first finger came off and, amidst blood and saltwater, was transformed into narwhals and belugas. Her father hacked off her second finger which transformed into fur seals and ringed seals.  Finally the knife cut through her third finger which transformed into the great walruses.  Unable to grip the kayak with her maimed hand, Sedna fell into the sea. Rather than submit to her raven husband or her greedy father, she let herself sink beneath the waves down to the icy bottom of the ocean.

The Legend of Sedna (Sraiya, ca. 2010, pen and ink)

Beneath the waves she found Adlivun, the Inuit underworld where spirits are purified before they wander on to other worlds.  With the help of her powerful new children she made herself ruler there.  Her legs gradually changed into a mighty tail.  Her humankind ebbed from her and was replaced by divine power and wrath. Sedna is still worshiped as the underworld god by Inuit peoples.  She hates hunters both because of the wrongs she suffered at the hands of her father and because they continue to kill so many of her children—the seals, whales, and walruses.  From time to time she raises a terrible storm to drown seafarers, or she gathers together all of the marine mammals within her long beautiful hair where the hunters can never find them.  It is at such times that the shaman must travel down into Adlivun to beg with her and to praise her beauty and strength. Only then will she reluctantly let the storms abate and allow all of the marine mammals to go back to the coasts–where they are again in danger from Inuit spears.

Playful Sedna by artist Kakulu Sagiatok

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