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I hope you enjoyed those three allegories of human destiny.  By the way, the first fable is from the peculiar 2006 film “Apocalypto”.  The movie begins when a rainforest shaman gathers the hunter-gatherers of his village around him and tells them that myth. Then the little society falls under the boot of the Mayan empire and the real fireworks start.  The second story is from the King James Bible (the second and third chapter of Genesis).  I properly attributed the magic flounder story to the Brothers Grimm.

 If I asked what these stories have in common, my ex-girlfriend would be quick to answer “misogyny”: women act selfishly in the second and third stories and don’t even appear in the first one! Who writes this stuff? Mel Gibson, Biblical Patriarchs (or God?), and the Brothers Grimm? Pshaw!  She always had a point about men’s use of language and eagerness to make women take the fall for their actions (and she still does: look at me use her as a straw-man), however, the gender dynamics truly are of secondary importance in these stories.  In each tale, all human protagonists are really “humankind”  and, throughout, it seems we are out for nothing less than godhood.

The idea that human existence is a multi-generational struggle for apotheosis is an appealing concept!  Indeed, that is essentially the linear “upward” narrative that western historians and scientists are always accused of telling.  The march upwards narrative has been useful for us: we need to get back to it… but we have to ask some pointed questions about what exactly “godhood” means in global scale macro context.  Upward to where? The idea of super-powered alien gardeners with ultimate magical power (or, you know, omnipotent flounders) is clearly another symbol.  But a symbol for what?   Could that silly fisherman not ask for a comprehensive explanation of gravity…or, better yet, ask what the flounder wanted?

A very legitimate reading of each of these tales is “You may have everything you want, but don’t aspire to Godhood.” Man’s attempt to master and surpass the abilities of every animal only leads him to want more…to the point of undermining the life-giving ecosystems of earth itself.  This is a familiar story…out the window  in our world of rampant consumerism, crony capitalism, and mass extinction.

In the Eden story, humankind’s attempts to grasp God’s knowledge results in Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise into a world of constant struggle and death.  No longer are we pampered children in a garden of plenty: we have to be farmers, clerks, and soldiers struggling for some venal king or CEO who always wants a bigger palace. Our drive for knowledge and self-mastery is constantly undone by our self-defeating need for social ascendancy.  Yet without social ascendancy we are unable to grapple with problems of planetary scale engineering which we will soon need to stay alive (much less to move onward to other worlds).  This is a paradox.  Look what happened to the United States (in case you are reading this essay on a blackened parchment found in some ruins, we have been shamefully taken over from within by a risible strongman who loves pomp more than the pope himself does).   Trying to grasp the powers of the creator will not work unless we can master ourselves.  Doing so always requires political struggles which supersede the important things (science and engineering…and the underlying creative animus which gives context to fundamental knowledge).

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Although…there are literary critics who argue that the flounder gave the fisherman and his wife what they asked for with the last wish.  When last seen in the Bible (in the New Testament), God had come to Earth as a poor human.  Perhaps the fisherman and his wife are happy enough as ordinary garden-variety humans. We can’t go back to the garden of Eden and live as dumb happy subordinates…or can we?  I sure spend a lot of time arguing with fundamentalist Christians and with utopian left-leaning environmentalists about why we need space colonies.  There are a lot of people who don’t want to move forward anymore.  In their vision, we can put aside some of our gifts and just exist?  I am maybe mischaracterizing this, but it sounds ridiculous to me: we are like a shark.  If we stop moving for any length of time we’ll just die.

So why do we need a space colony anyway?  It is perilously close to the religious vision of heaven: living in the sky in a magical city where everyone exists in perfect harmony.  Did I escape the hegemony of Judeo-Christian hierarchies only to try to recreate that hierarchy with science and engineering (that is a very legitimate reading of contemporary society too).

I don’t have the answers to these questions and I see the plastic detritus and toxic waste of our struggles blotting out the natural world we depend on. Maybe we can hook the flounder one last time and ask for an explanation (that is what my weird art is about, by the way).  Or maybe we must trudge on from Eden as best we can, looking for a paradise which will never be more than a mythical archetype.  Yet I like snakes, and I didn’t see the serpent’s words as inherently untrue.  Also, from a literary perspective, why would God even create such a tree, if we weren’t supposed to eat of it. A divinity that wanted obedient little children forever could have done things very differently.  Growing up is hard and sometimes involves painful disagreements with your parents (and some people can’t do it at all).  But here we are, with the strengths of all of the beasts, and the knowledge of good and evil.  We must throw down our strongmen and false gods (gods are all metaphors, people, for goodness sakes!) and reach farther and think deeper than ever before. Eden is lost, but our arms are growing longer.  We can reach forth from here, to other worlds, or we can squabble like children for petty status objects until we destroy ourselves with the foolish struggle.  Metaphors or no, all individual humans are going back to the mud anyway, but while we are alive we can redeem ourselves: we can save the earth (and all its lovely animals) and we can give our children everything, if we can just ask the right thing…

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What with the holiday crush and the end of the year, I have had less time than I would like for blogging, but I will put up some Christmas posts and year-end thoughts here in the coming days.  For now, here is an illuminated page of William Blake’s 1794 volume “Europe a Prophecy,” a dense symbolic poem about the benighted state of Europe (and humankind) at the end of the 18th century.  I won’t get into the text but suffice it to say the magnificent crowned serpent seems to hold unusual sway over the affairs of men.

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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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Well, it’s past Halloween, but maybe there is still time for one more snake monster.  In Chinese astrology, 2017 is the year of the rooster.  English mythology features a monster which is half-snake and half-rooster:  the fearsome cockatrice.  The cockatrice had the head and torso of a chicken, but with dragonlike wings and a long sinuous serpent tail. It is sometimes conflated with the basilisk (although I think of them as different as, no doubt, do other Harry Potter fans). Various stories describe the cockatrice as being enormously venomous.

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The cockatrice was invented at the end of the 14th century and it experienced an enormous bloom of popularity in the England of the Tudors.  Cockatrices were everywhere.  they crawled all of over heraldry and pub signs.  They were in work of Spenser and Shakespeare. They even crawled/flapped their way into the Bible as the enthusiastic King James translators put the newly-designed creature into the book of Isaiah for the Hebrew “tsepha” (which as far as contemporary scholars can tell was a very venomous fossorial creature, probably a viper).

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Why did the Elizabethans love the cockatrice so much?  Well they were very poetic and imaginative people (if we take Spenser and Shakespeare as typical Elizabethans—and they are certainly the Elizabethans whom I am most familiar with).  Additionally the style of the time was marked by proud swagger and poisonous disputes which stemmed from the great religious disputes of the time where everyone was trying to decide whether to be Catholic or Protestant and whether virtue and/or political advantage lay with one or the other.  The mixed-up, chicken-brained, noisy, poisonous, beautiful, deadly cockatrice was a perfect mascot for such a time.  Indeed, it may need to become make a comeback for our own time!

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Here is a very beautiful painting by Pre-Raphaelite luminary Evelyn de Morgan.  This work is titled The Angel with the Serpent and it was completed between 1870 and 1875. Although the work is a religious allegory, its meaning is surprisingly elusive.  In Judeo-Christian myth, the serpent represents sexuality, subversiveness, knowledge (and evil). These meanings certainly pertain to this work, yet the angel’s tenderness for the snake seems to suggest that God has wrought these aspects of existence too.

Admittedly this painting might depict a world before the fall (the sumptuous flowering bush and the bare lands beyond hint at this possibility).  Is the handsome angel in the red robes Lucifer before he was cast down?  Even if this painting does depict the time of Eden, it still suggests that the snake was always part of God’s plan and is dear to the Divinity and his agents (a forbidden idea which raises numerous troubling questions).

I am presenting the painting not just so you ponder the metaphorical meanings of Genesis (although I hope you are doing so), but also to introduce my Halloween week theme of supernatural snakes.  Ferrebeekeeper is no stranger to snake deities and monsters at all levels, but snakes have always been part of every mythos except for those of the farthest north and so there are plenty more to get to.  Enjoy Evelyn de Morgan’s lovely painting and get used to numinous snakes–we are going to see some amazing scales and forked tongues before next Tuesday!

Serpent d'Océan  (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

Serpent d’Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

Here is an amazing giant sea serpent sculpture by the Franco-Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping. The 130 meter long artwork is made of aluminum and is appropriately titled Serpent d’Océan (“Sea Serpent”). The sculptor completed the piece in 2012 for the Loire “Estuaire” festival. He erected the monumental work at the mouth of the Loire River where the great waterway empties into the Atlantic Ocean–just west of the port city of Nantes.

Serpent d'Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

Serpent d’Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

The head of Serpent d’Océan lies just above the high tide mark and its tail is just below the low tide boundary. Thus, every day the serpent goes from being mostly submerged to mostly on land. At low tide, art enthusiasts can walk around the piece and see it close up like a museum specimen. At high tide it takes on a mythical supernatural character as it appears to writhe through the waves.

Serpent d'Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

Serpent d’Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

The artist Huang Yong Ping designed the serpent to straddle all sorts of boundaries. It is neither at sea nor properly on land. Likewise it lies where river meets ocean and the ecosystem is neither fully marine nor riverine. The serpent is a metal sculpture designed to look like a living skeleton of a mythical creature. The sculptor himself self-identifies as neither entirely Chinese nor French: he used myths from both cultures to inform his sculpture. Indeed the serpent takes on even more facets when considered in the light of world trade (where monsters–real and imagined–abound). Additionally, as a youth, Huang studied with the French master of artistic ambiguity Marcel Duchamp. Most of Huang’s artworks blur the lines between art and non-art (though, like Duchamp, he tries to stick to the former category).

Serpent d'Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

Serpent d’Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

The artist has expressed his hope that, as the sculpture ages, various tidal plants and animals will begin to colonize it and live within—or atop–the metal creation. As seabirds build their nests there and living amphibious beasts hide and feed within the snake, it will stretch across even more boundaries.

36531980Snake coffins! Who hasn’t paused to quip about these ridiculous funerary vessels? There is something inherently amusing about the concept. Perhaps it is the fact that coffins, by nature, are already long and skinny: therefore, making a traditional coffin for an extremely long skinny animal results in something completely risible. Maybe the humor arises from simple schadenfreude at the demise of a hapless reptile. Imagine opening up a pencil box and instead of rulers, pencils, and pens, finding a long, bandaged snake mummy!

Double Snake Coffin (Cairo Antiquities Museum, Late Period (664-332 BC) cast bronze)

Double Snake Coffin (Cairo Antiquities Museum, Late Period (664-332 BC) cast bronze)

Of course somewhere out there a pragmatist is reading this and saying “Wait, what? How common are snake coffins anyway? Has anybody actually ever made such a thing?” Such a query is germane since snakes lack hands and thus cannot build coffins… or any sort of burial container really. Yet snake coffins do exist. The ancient Egyptians built ceremonial coffins for all manner of sacred creatures—including snakes. Such caskets usually date from the New Kingdom and sometimes actually still contain snake mummies!

Snake Coffin with Mummy (Egyptian, Late Period: 664-332 B.C.E., Wood, animal remains, linen)

Snake Coffin with Mummy (Egyptian, Late Period: 664-332 B.C.E., Wood, animal remains, linen)

Snake Coffins

Snake Coffins (Late Period: 664-332 BC, Wood)

Snake Coffin

Snake Coffin (Egyptian, Late Period, Bronze) Note the Sacred Red/White Crown of Lower and Upper Egypt

Cynics will note that nobody since the Ancient Egyptians has made actual snake coffins—but such criticism will not stop me from completing this poorly researched article on time. Even today the association between snakes and coffins remains strong. Numerous artworks and handicrafts feature the two elements together—as can be seen in the following gallery of images.

Cryptic Snake Coffin tattoo

Cryptic Snake Coffin tattoo

Snake Coffin Memory Stick?

Snake Coffin Memory Stick?

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Small coffin made of snake skin

Small coffin made of snake skin

Of course the real association—between reptiles, death, and rebirth–is ancient and compelling. But, as you can tell by the tone of the essay, we are ignoring this larger point. Anyway, in the modern world snakes and death have become decoupled. Unless you are one of my Australian readers, you are about a hundred thousand times more likely to be killed by some healthcare provider’s bureaucratic snafu than by one of the world’s few remaining venomous snakes. So appreciate the art on this page with wry insouciance.

Oh come on!  What is that? MS Paint?

Oh come on! What is that? MS Paint?

 

 

A model dressed as Angitia

A model dressed as Angitia

The Romans borrowed most of their official pantheon from the Greeks–but the Roman canon of gods was large & diverse: other deities great and small sneaked in from a variety of non-Greek cultural traditions (like Charun the blue hammer-wielding Etruscan god of death or mighty Hecate, goddess of witchcraft, night, and the crossroads). Angitia was a goddess of serpents, snake-charming, magic, and healing among the Marsi, a Latin tribe who lived in the mountainous region of Italy which is today known as Abruzzo. The Marsi (whom I keep miswriting as Martians) were integrated into the original Roman alliance early on in Roman history and their language and culture was quickly subsumed by the growing republic, but Angitia survived in her original form through the long centuries of Roman hegemony. A great temple was built for her on the shores of Lake Fucinus (a large lake drained in the 19th century).

A Modern Painting of Angitia (from thaliatook.com)

A Modern Painting of Angitia (from thaliatook.com)

Although there is evidence that Angitia was originally a local goddess, the Romans found was to Hellenize her, and writers identified her as a granddaughter of the sun (and sister of the golden-eyed Cretan sorceresses Medea and Circe). Some later sources even equate her directly to Medea, who after all vanished in a serpent-drawn flying chariot after poisoning her children with Jason and Jason’s younger trophy wife.

Medea--Image from an Ancient Greek Vase  (Lucanian red-figure krater C4th B.C)

Medea–Image from an Ancient Greek Vase (Lucanian red-figure krater C4th B.C)

In classical antiquity, serpents were strongly associated with healing magic—and this became a particular specialty of the serpent-goddess Angitia. She was reputedly able to cure sickness and poisoning—particularly snakebite. Snakes obeyed her whims and she possessed power of life and death over them by merely speaking a word. The lands which had originally been inhabited by the Marsi also acquired a magical reputation and were alleged to be the haunt of witches, sorcerers, and supernatural beings.

San Domenico stands in for Angitia at the modern festival (although he doesn't look super happy about it)

San Domenico stands in for Angitia at the modern festival (although he doesn’t look super happy about it)

Even when the Roman Empire eventually blew apart and was replaced by Christian kingdoms and city-states, the worship of Angitia did not wholly vanish. Throughout the middle ages, Abruzzo was the site of “the Feast of the Serpari” a spring festival dedicated to snakes. Serpent charmers would collect local snakes in order to perform great tricks and shows while healers assuaged pains and illnesses. A statue of San Domenico was draped with snakes and carried through the region in a great procession, after which the snakes were cooked and eaten (although in today’s festival they are replaced with snake-shape confections and sinuous breads).

A digital reconstruction of the Original Serpent Column (Greek, ca. 478 BC, bronze)

A digital reconstruction of the Original Serpent Column (Greek, ca. 478 BC, bronze)

The Serpent Column is a stunning work of ancient Greek sculpture which is two and a half millennia old. It was cast in the early fifth century to commemorate the Greek victories at Plataea and Mycale which effectively ended the threat of Persian annexation.  According to Herodotus, the column was made from the melted bronze armor and weapons of the defeated Persian army. It was set in front of the great oracle at Delphos to forever commemorate the power of Greek arms and to commemorate the 31 Greek city states which joined together to oppose the mighty Persian war machine. In its original form the 8 meter (26 foot tall) column consisted of three mighty snakes coiled together. On top of their bronze heads was a sacrificial tripod made of solid gold. During the Third Sacred War (356 BC–346 BC), the Phocian general, Philomelus, plundered the golden tripod and used the gold to pay for mercenaries (an act which was regarded as deepest sacrilege by the Greeks).

The last known serpent head missing the jaw (Greek, ca. 378 BC, Bronze)

The last known serpent head missing the jaw (Greek, ca. 378 BC, Bronze)

When Constantine the Great declared Christianity to be the state religion of the Empire and moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople, he ordered that the column be removed from Delphos and relocated in the new capital city. The Serpent Column was placed at the center of the city’s great Hippodrome (chariot-racing track) among other famous statues of gods, kings, and heroes. Eventually the column was converted into a magnificent fountain and the missing gold tripod was replaced with a huge golden bowl. During the misbegotten fourth Crusade, when excommunicated French knights sacked Byzantium as they tried to get to Cairo, the gold bowl was carried off.

An Ottoman Miniature Painting of the Column

An Ottoman Miniature Painting of the Column

Sometime in the seventeenth century the three serpent heads which had topped the column for countless centuries fell off. Some sources contend that they were removed by an extremely drunken Polish ambassador, but more reliable Ottoman sources assert that they simply toppled off the statue. One serpent head still remains in existence in a Turkish museum. The column itself is still where it has been since the time of Constantine the Great, although the Hippodrome is largely gone and has been replaced by a square named Sultanahmet Meydani.

The actual Serpent Column as it stands in Istanbul today (with the obelisk of Thutmose III behind)

The actual Serpent Column as it stands in Istanbul today (with the obelisk of Thutmose III behind)

Double-headed Serpent Carving (Aztec, ca. 1500 AD, wood, turquoise, spondylus, and conch)

Double-headed Serpent Carving (Aztec, ca. 1500 AD, wood, turquoise, spondylus, and conch)

In Aztec mythology, snakes are symbolic of rebirth and renewal. Since serpents regularly shed their skins and emerge shining and fresh as though made anew, they seemed to Aztec mystics to transcend the dull cycle of aging. Likewise snakes’ ability to hide in the earth, swim in water, and climb high into the rainforest canopy made them a symbol of transcending physical boundaries: snakes were seen as liaisons of the gods capable of traveling through heaven, earth, and the underworld.  In fact many of the most important Aztec gods were snakes like Xiuhcoatl (the fire serpent), Mixcoatl (the cloud serpent), and Quetzalcoatl himself (the feathered serpent who acts as chief of the gods).

Here then, as a final post of 2013 and a first post of 2014, is an exquisite Aztec artifact:  a double-headed wooden serpent inset with a mosaic of turquoise, spondylus (thorny oyster), and conch shell.  Once upon a time the ornament had eyes (possibly of gold or pyrite which were affixed to the wooden serpent with gluey beeswax) but they disappeared at some point in the five hundred years since the object was made—and their absence might make for a stronger piece. The serpent was probably worn as a pectoral (the opposite side is unadorned and hollow).  It is made from wood from the Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata) a tree with natural termite resistance long-used to make boxes, musical instruments, furniture, and fine carvings (obviously).

(Detail)

(Detail)

Really look at the carving for a moment, it was a sacred treasure of a mighty vanished civilization. It represents the nature of time: mighty and ferocious with unknowable divine attributes, but also regular and cyclical (and beautiful).  The double-headed serpent has no beginning or end. Like an ouroboros, or a figure-eight, it is a symbol of infinity—of time closing in on itself in an unending circle.

The Aztecs of course ended: their realm blew apart in fire, bloodshed, and smallpox.  Their greatest treasures were melted down for inbred Spaniards to wear as chains…or hung up on a wall at the British museum.   But of course the Aztecs are not really gone.  Their descendants are everywhere and their customs live on.  Likewise the living spondylus shell in the ocean is the descendant of countless millions of generations of evolving mollusks—changing color, shape, and temperament over the long eons.

I chose to highlight this this simple object because it unites so many of the topics on this site: snakes, color, art, trees, history, mollusks, bees (because of the wax), the underworld, and the heavens.  The double-headed snake represents the way in which many different ideas are enmeshed with each other and flow together, even as time relentlessly pushes us all onward.  Isn’t that what life is?

Best wishes for a very happy new year and, as always thank you for reading!

(Detail)

(Detail)

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