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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)

Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis) assuming defensive posture (a fearless photo by Stephen Zozaya)

Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis) assuming defensive posture (a fearless photo by Stephen Zozaya)

Ah, lovely Australia…the land down under is famed for its magnificent coral reefs, its dreamlike wastelands, its proud citizens, and, above all, its innumerable toxic animals. Although the hordes of poisonous jellyfish, spiders, snails, centipedes, and octopi are alarming, humankind is particularly hardwired to be afraid of snakes and it is in this reptilian realm that the island continent especial shines.  In fact, the most venomous land snake in the world, the inland taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidotus) lives in Australia.  A single bite from an inland taipan has enough poison to kill up to 250,000 mice!  Yet the inland taipan is far from the most formidable snake in Australia (indeed, it is a very shy and retiring serpent which lives in the inhospitable dry scrubland of central/southeast Australia).  The snake which Australians truly fear is (slightly) less toxic, but vastly more numerous and also far more prone to bite first and ask questions later (insomuch as snakes ever examine their actions).

Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis)

Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis)

Brown snakes (Pseudonaja) constitute an entire genus of venomous elapid snakes which are found throughout almost the entirety of Australia. There are nine different species of brown snakes which vary somewhat from location to location, however almost all brown snakes can be aggressive and they are apt to bite or even attack a much larger animal when provoked (although hopefully they will overlook the occasional fear-mongering blog post).  The eastern brown snake is the second most toxic land snake in Australia (and arguably the world) and, appallingly it lives all sorts of places—scrubland, eucalyptus forests, woodlands, grasslands, and farmlands (though not swamps, rainforests, or true deserts).  Because it is so adaptable, the eastern brown snake easily thrives in gardens, suburban lawns, and even in urban habitats.  Eastern brown snakes live along the highly populated southeast of Australia, up the coast to the York peninsula and into Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.  They also range through the Northern territories to Western Australia.

Speckled Brown Snake (Pseudonaja guttata) from "Reedy's Reptiles"

Speckled Brown Snake (Pseudonaja guttata) from “Reedy’s Reptiles”

The venom of the eastern brown snake is a heady cocktail of neurotoxins and blood coagulants.  Bites begin by causing diarrhea, dizziness, and collapse—which can then develop into convulsions, renal failure, paralysis and cardiac arrest (symptoms which hold true—although to a lesser degree for the other brown snakes). Fortunately all species of brown snakes have tiny fangs and they do not usually deliver much venom per bite.  Additionally, the snakes can control how much venom they inject per bite and they frequently give a venom-free warning bite out of good sportsmanship (although if you are bitten by one of the world’s most toxic snakes, the fact that the snake might not have injected you with a lethal amount of poison will be scant comfort).   A person’s weight matters greatly when it comes to surviving bites—so small children are particularly at risk.

Gwardar (Pseudonaja nuchalis)

Gwardar (Pseudonaja nuchalis)

Brown snakes eat rodents (which were introduced to Australia), small mammals, amphibians, birds, eggs and other reptiles.  They are a helpful (albeit scary) part of the ecosystem, although considering their honed deadliness, they could afford to be a bit more flamboyant.  Also, humans have effective antivenins for all the brown snakes (so if you are bitten by a modestly colored but oddly insouciant snake while you are down under, you should probably contact some health-service providers).

heart_w_snake_tattoo_0033_postcard-p239533042637724632en7lo_216Because of the incongruity between lunar and solar calendars (and thanks to the whims of the 12 year Chinese horoscope cycle) Valentine’s Day has ended up in the middle of Ferrebeekeeper’s Snake Week.  At first I thought that this was a problem–since there were no snake theme valentines anywhere to be found online.  I did not want to break out the magic markers and glitter to create my own valentine to serpents because it has been a busy week (and what would I do with a bunch of snake valentines? What if someone saw a grown-up making such things?).  Fortunately I found that there is a medium where snakes and hearts frequently intermingle.  Even better many of the designs are extremely gothic and spiky and scary.

From tattoosbycarson.com

From tattoosbycarson.com

Like evil leprechaun tattoos, snake/heart body art is very common.  In fact I had some trouble finding catfish tattoos and the internet even ran short of evil leprechaun ink but I had no trouble finding snake/heart tattoos!  Apparently an immense number of people have snake tattoos of all sorts.  I wonder why serpents are so universally appealing as permanent body art?  Do people choose snakes for tattoos because the legless reptiles are ancient symbols of knowledge, wisdom, and fertility, or is wearing a snake an announcement of edginess, moral ambiguity, and toughness?  The snake inside the heart seems like it has a double meaning: not only is it an obvious metaphor for corrupted or dangerous love but it provides an outright fertility image (especially since the traditional cardioid-shaped valentine heart look less like an actual heart and more like a shapely asp).

Wait, is that even a snake?

Wait, is that even a snake?

sacred-heart-snake-tattoo  medusa-heart-tattoo-m

itattooz-heart-snake-tattoo-on-back

Tattoo by Chris Hatch

Tattoo by Chris Hatch

From "The Dungeon Inc."

From “The Dungeon Inc.”


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heart-apple-and-snake-tattoo-on-back  hears_tattoo_design_prev_4 d482

OK, this one seems to be religious and not fertility-themed at all.

OK, this one seems to be religious and not fertility-themed at all.

Alright, I sneaked in a couple of snake & flower tattoos because I thought they were pretty

Alright, I sneaked in a couple of snake & flower tattoos because I thought they were pretty

 

Snake and peonies?

Snake and peonies?

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ScottsSJSnakeHeartDaggerthumbWhatever the meaning these snake/heart tattoos are extremely impressive.  Thanks to the brave souls who wear them.  Also a very happy valentine’s day to all my readers:  I could hiss you all…er kiss you all!

the Rod of Asclepius

the Rod of Asclepius

The rod of Asclepius—a serpent coiled around a staff–is a symbol from ancient Greek mythology which represents the physician’s art. Asclepius was a demigod who surpassed all other gods and mortals at the practice of medicine.  Because his skills blurred the distinction between mortality and godhood, Asclepius was destroyed by Zeus (an exciting & troubling story which you can find here).

Asclepius

Asclepius

There are several proposed reasons that a staff wrapped by a snake is the symbol of the god of medicine.  In some myths, Asclepius received his medical skills from the whispering of serpents (who knew the secrets of healing and revitalization because of their ability to shed their skin and emerge bigger and healthier).  Some classicists believe the snake represents the duality of medicine—which can heal or harm depending on the dosage and the circumstance.  Yet others see the serpent as an auger from the gods. Whatever the case, the rod of Asclepius is a lovely and distinctive symbol of medicine and has been since ancient times. Temples to Asclepius were constructed across the Greco-Roman world and served as hospitals of a sort.  The serpent-twined rod of the great doctor was displayed at these institutions and became a symbol for western doctors who followed.

Logo of the British Medical Association

Logo of the British Medical Association

However there is a painfully apt misunderstanding between the rod of Asclepius and a similar symbol.

Greek mythology featured a separate and entirely distinct symbolic rod wrapped with snakes, the caduceus—which has two snakes and is winged.  The caduceus was carried by Hermes/Mercury, the god of merchants, thieves, messengers, and tricksters.  Hermes used the rod to beguile mortals or to touch the eyes of the dead and lead them to the underworld.

Hermes holding the Caduceus

Hermes holding the Caduceus

In the United States the two rods have become confused because of a military mix-up in the early twentieth century (when a stubborn medical officer refused to listen to his subordinates and ordered the caduceus to be adopted as the symbol of the U.S. Medical Corps).  Since then the caduceus has been extensively used by healthcare organizations in the United States and has come to replace the staff of Asclepius in the majority of uses.  Commercial and for-profit medical organizations are particularly inclined to use the caduceus instead of the rod of Asclepius as the former is more visually arresting (although academic and professional medical organizations tend to use the staff of Asclepius).

The Caduceus

The Caduceus

To recap: the caduceus, which symbolizes profit-seeking, theft, and death, has replaced the staff of Asclepius, an ancient symbol of healing, throughout the United States.  Of course it is up to the reader to decide whether this is a painful misunderstanding, or a wholly appropriate representation of the actual nature of the broken American healthcare system.  HMOs, insurance companies, and hospitals, however have started to take note and are moving towards crosses and random computer generated bric-brac for their logos, leaving both ancient symbols behind.

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by Zhang Da Be (from InkDance Chinese Painting Gallery)

by Zhang Da Be (from InkDance Chinese Painting Gallery)

I’m extremely excited that Chinese New Year is here at last!  A dozen times I have started to blog about Chinese snake paintings and stopped because I was waiting for the year of the snake—but that finally arrives on Sunday.  To celebrate the advent of year 4710—the year of the water snake–next week is devoted to snakes and serpents of all kind (a longstanding favorite topic here at Ferrebeekeeper).  Because they are one of the twelve zodiac animals, snakes have long been celebrated in Chinese art.  Additionally their sinuous form adapts beautifully to Chinese-style brush and calligraphy work (as is evident in the art works below).

Snake (Yang Shanshen, Ink on paper)

Snake (Yang Shanshen,
Ink on paper)

People born in snake years are said to be graceful and reserved.  Although they are successful at romance and have an innate intelligence they are also reputed to be materialists with a dark mysterious side.  The snake does not suffer the same stigma in China as in the West and the benevolent creator goddess Nuwa was a serpent goddess. Hopefully the year of the water snake will bring you every sort of happiness and success.  Tune in next week as we break in the new year with a variety or remarkable snakes and snake-related topics!

Red Snake by Zhang Daqian(1899-1983) from China Guardian

Red Snake by Zhang Daqian(1899-1983) from China Guardian

large_year_of_the_snake_(Medium) 01024005

One Stroke Calligraphy Snake (from Chinese Calligraphy Workshops with Tom Chow)

One Stroke Calligraphy Snake (from Chinese Calligraphy Workshops with Tom Chow)

Painting by Jiang Tao, Painted on:Chinese Rice Paper (from InkDance Chinese Painting Gallery)

Painting by Jiang Tao, Painted on:
Chinese Rice Paper (from InkDance Chinese Painting Gallery)

Chinese Papercut

Chinese Papercut

Vintage Chinese Cloisonne Porcelain Teacup

Vintage Chinese Cloisonne Porcelain Teacup

Zodiac&Snake – Chinese Painting (from Artisoo Chinese Painting Blog)

Zodiac&Snake – Chinese Painting (from Artisoo Chinese Painting Blog)

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Leopard attacked by a Snake (Antonio Ligabue, oil on canvas)

Antonio Ligabue (1899-1965) was an outsider artist who lived and worked for most of his life in a primitive hut beside the Po River.   He was born in Switzerland to Italian immigrant parents and had a childhood marked by abandonment, disease, death, mental/emotional health problems, and general misery.  Perhaps the most traumatic episode from his youth involved the horrible death of his mother and three brothers from food poisoning.  Exiled from Switzerland upon adulthood, Ligabue returned to Gualtieri, Italy, despite the fact that he did not know Italian (at least for many years).  He lived as an alcoholic vagabond spending time in and out of mental institutions–including a particularly bad period when he was committed for self-mutilation.  During the Second World War he worked as an interpreter for the German army but he was sent to a mental asylum (again) after beating a German soldier with a beer bottle.  He was known in Italy as “Al Matt” (the fool) or “Al tedesch” (the German).

The subject of Ligabue’s artwork was usually animals–particularly animals crazed by fighting, mating, or hunting (or domestic animals suffering abuse at the hands of humans).  His many self-portraits do not seem to stand outside of this thematic canon, as is poignantly made clear by the title of his most famous biography, “Beast in the mirror: the Life of Outsider Artist Antonio Ligabue” written by Karin Kavelin Jones .  Ligabue’ s works are vividly expressionistic tableaus of wild conflict. In “Leopard Attacked by Snake” the two combatants are portrayed as a glorious & horrific battle of primal forces.  The colors and patterns themselves are at war.  Even the surrounding ferns and grasping branches seem to participate in the battle between the snake and the great screaming cat.  The pink and red toothed maw of the leopard and its sinuous body are powerfully rendered.   The jungle cat is a great engine of appetite literally squeezed into momentary suspension by the green and yellow jungle snake.

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Self Portrait (Antonio Ligabue, oil on canvas)

Ligabue’s work seems almost like a bizarro world mirror opposite to the paintings of Sir Edwin Landseer, who crafted extremely realistic and precise paintings of animals in emotional extremes.  Ligabue’s life was the exact opposite as well.  Whereas Landseer was rich and successful his entire life but ended by going insane, Ligabue was insane his entire life but, at the very end, became successful.

An Inkanyamba flying prior to a storm (artist unknown)

An Inkanyamba flying prior to a storm (artist unknown)

Kindly forgive the last few weekdays without a post–I was on a winter solstice vacation from the internet.  To cut through the holiday treacle, let’s concentrate on one of my favorite subjects—giant snake monsters!  More specifically, after this year of horrible storms, I am writing about the fearsome inkanyamba, a mythical serpent-like being from South Africa.  Inkanyambas are said to dwell in the pools beneath waterfalls.  They have the bodies of great serpents and horselike heads. Inkanyambas are associated with powerful seasonal storms—particularly tornadoes.   Such powerful local cyclones were thought to be caused by male inkanyambas out looking for mates.

Inkanyamba linocut by Kate Rowland

Inkanyamba linocut by Kate Rowland

The creatures are said to live in the Pietermaritzburg area of KwaZulu-Natal .   The Inkanyamba is particularly associated with the 95 meter tall (310 feet) Howick Falls, South Africa.  For a while the Inkanyambas of Howick Falls even had a bit of Loch Ness Monster style fame attracting tourists, photojournalists, and cryptozoologists  (insomuch as that is a real thing).  Lately though, the moster is fading back to the proper realm of myth and art.

Howick Falls, South Africa

Howick Falls, South Africa

Today’s a post concerns Kahausibware, a dark ambiguous serpent-deity whose story is part of the mythology of Makira (which was known as San Cristóbal during the colonial era) an island in Solomon chain.  Kahausibware was a Hi’ona—a powerful supernatural being who created the world.  Like the Chinese serpent goddess Nüwa, Kahausibware was a demiurge—a primeval creator deity who gave life to humanity, however, Kahausibware was not as benevolent & understanding as gentle Nüwa.

According to myth, Kahausibware created pigs, cocoa-nut trees, and fruit trees.   Having created food, she then created animals and humans to use it.  Since the world was new, death was unknown.  Unfortunately Kahausibware was not patient with her creations and she had no tolerance for annoyances or distractions.  One day, a woman (who was an offspring of Kahausibware) requested that the serpent-deity babysit while she (the woman) went to harvest fruit.  The human child would not stop screaming and wailing, so Kahausibware wrapped around the infant and suffocated him—thus bringing death into the world.   At this fateful moment the woman returned with her fruit.  Seeing her child dead, she flew into a rage and began to hack Kahausibware into pieces with an axe.

Ornamented War Axe, Solomon Islands–19th century (photo by Hughes Dubois)

The snake-being was divine, so her dismembered pieces kept fusing back together, but the pain of the assault was overwhelming.  The serpent escaped into the ocean and swam away forever from the island of Makira, but, as she left she withdrew her blessings of abundance and ease.  Since that time, life in the Solomon Islands has become difficult.  Famines and crop failures became facts of life and death spread everywhere.   The islanders still venerate snakes, the mortal embodiment of Kahausibware—but where the amoral creator has gone is a mystery.

Custom Dancing on Makira (Photo by Bruce Hops)

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