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Behind the Screen at a Wayang Performance

Behind the Screen at a Wayang Performance

Wayang theatre—Indonesian shadow puppet theatre–is the traditional art form by which epic drama is presented in Indonesia. Years ago I had the immense fortune to watch a wayang drama presented by a master puppeteer at the University of Chicago and the experience was quite extraordinary. In wayang theatre there are many layers of verisimilitude built into the varying levels of theatrical artifice (and into the elaborate & hypnotic music). The shadow puppet stage can be approached from both sides. On the shadow side (which faces the audience) is the cinematic drama of nations, heroes, monsters, maidens, and wise-cracking dwarves. On the other side, behind the screen is the puppeteer himself moving sticks, pulling strings, voicing dozens of characters, and directly animating the whole enterprise. Viewers are encouraged to view both sides since the shifting perspective enhances the enjoyment of the drama. Not only are the puppets beautifully painted and the gamelan orchestra instruments (and musicians) ornate, but thinking about the machinations behind the art provides larger lesson about politics, human affairs, and life.

 

A Niwatakawaca Shadow puppet

A Niwatakawaca Shadow puppet

The master puppeteer was a wizened Javanese sage. He took one look at the audience of American lay-people who were unfamiliar with the George R. R. Martin-esque backstories behind Indonesian epics (to say nothing of 6 syllable Sanskrit names) and his face fell. Nonetheless with a flourish of cymbals and gongs he leapt to his craft. In a mere 5 hours he had explained an incredibly elaborate story, cracked a number of hilarious topical jokes, staged a vast battle, and wrapped everything up in a happy ending (traditional performances can go on for days). Unfortunately he had to take some shortcuts so that we didn’t become hopelessly lost. One of these was the name of the main antagonist. In the Arjunawiwāha, the principle antagonist is an asura (demon) named Niwatakawaca. This nomenclature was clearly not going to fly with the Chicago audience, so the puppeteer made Niwatakawaca into “the flower ogre”.

Niwatakawaca harasses Apsaras in his pleasure garden

Niwatakawaca harasses Apsaras in his pleasure garden

Niwatakawaca (aka the flower ogre) is a powerful wicked spirit who disturbs the cosmic harmony and shamefully harasses the pulchritudinous apsaras. As you can see from the above pictures he is a very hedonistic demon (although not without his own love of refinement and aesthetics). I particularly like the picture above which makes him seem exactly like an ogre who loves flowers and beautiful gardens. I suspect the flower ogre represents a lack of self-discipline–but since that is my personal demon as well, I am going to pretend he is just a supernatural monster. In the end of the epic Arjuna, the archer hero must fight the flower ogre in a great epic battle. When I saw the Arjunawiwāha performed, the battle was extraordinary (particularly considering it was all deft puppetry by one man). Flights of arrows were launched. Forests burned and great hosts were slain. Finally Arjuna gained the upper hand. The hero bodily grabbed the recalcitrant demon and hurled him out of the universe. Since this was puppet theatre, it meant that the ogre wayang flew completely out from behind the screen and flipped end over end into the lap of a startled Asian civilization professor. It was one of the best finales I have ever seen in anything anywhere and provided a very fitting end to the flower ogre.

Gamelan Orchestra

Gamelan Orchestra

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According to astronomers, on Tuesday April 15th 2014 the heavens over North America will feature a rare and magnificent spectacle—a blood moon! The term “blood moon” refers to a full lunar eclipse in which the earth’s umbral shadow completely covers the surface of the full moon. The lunar surface will actually look red because of refracted light from around the earth’s edges. I’m not sure how the term “blood moon” has come to eclipse the more scientific sounding “full lunar eclipse” (probably through internet click-baiting, like everything else) but you have to admit it sounds cool and scary. The phenomena will be visible from the western hemisphere from 1:58 AM EST into the wee hours (peaking between 3:00 AM and 4:00 AM) .

Blood-Moon

This is a pretty time of year and I am looking forward to sitting in the garden with some plum wine and honey cakes during the eclipse (assuming spring clouds do not intervene). Unfortunately some people have really gotten riled up by the “blood moon’s” dramatic Steven King rebranding. Pastor John Hagee of the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas has written a book about how tonight’s lunar eclipse (the first of a series of consecutive total lunar eclipses known as a “tetrad) will usher in the biblical end times. Dragons and apocalyptic horsemen will roam the world’s strip malls and Jesus will run around biting people and gouging out eyes…or something like that (I might have sort have glossed over the Book of Revelations after slogging through all those tedious Paul chapters of the New Testament).

John Hagee...well, he certainly looks trustworthy...

John Hagee…well, he certainly looks trustworthy…

Some things get old and wear away, but charlatans trying to scare people with bargain basement eschatology never go out of style. However if you still want some mythology to go along your astronomy (but you aren’t quite ready for the last judgment) there is a Mayan heroine whose name was Xquic, which means “Blood Moon”.  She was the daughter of one of the lords of Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, which was filled with tenebrous monsters and cannibal gods. Xquic fell in love with the severed head of a human hero and gave birth to the hero twins whose exploits changed the nature of the Mayan cosmos. Perhaps you could spare lovely Xquic a thought as you watch the moon darken and turn incarnadine—but maybe you’ll be to busy eating honey cakes… or fighting with the mounted incarnation of pestilence!

Oh man, Tuesday is going to be a long day...

Oh man, Tuesday is going to be a long day…

China’s "Moon Rabbit" lunar rover separates from Chang’e moon lander (image from Beijing Aerospace Control Center)

China’s “Moon Rabbit” lunar rover separates from Chang’e moon lander (image from Beijing Aerospace Control Center)

It is time to congratulate the Chinese space agency for landing a probe and rover on the moon. The landing was the first “soft landing” (where no equipment is damaged) on the lunar surface in 37 years—so I am also happy that humankind is back on its nearest neighbor.  The Chang’e lunar lander touched down on the Bay of Rainbows on Saturday Morning, December 14th (at least in EST).  The Jade Rabbit rover successfully drove out onto the arid dust of the flat “bay” a few hours later.  Hopefully the Chinese mission will continue to go successfully and the Chinese Space Agency will continue to launch ambitious space missions.  With a command economy and authoritarian government, the People’s Republic could pour money into aerospace science and quickly push space exploration forward–much in the way that the Soviet Union did back in the glory days of the space race.  Such a challenge would be good for international science, and it would be good to remind our worthless legislators here in the United States to work together to properly fund science, research, and development.

Chang'e

Chang’e

Chang’e is named after the goddess of the moon in classical Chinese myth, but her story is sad and ambiguous.  It is a tale open to several different interpretations (which I will write about, but not now). The moon rabbit, also known as the jade rabbit was originally a pet of the lonely moon goddess, however because his story is far less tragic than hers (and because he is a lovable trickster-rabbit), he has become a figure of immense popularity.  According to myth he is an apothecary who grinds medicines, spells, and immortality elixirs on behalf of the gods (and for himself–because what trickster doesn’t skim a little?).

jade-rabbit-mortar

The jade rabbit shows up everywhere in Chinese myth and culture.  He even pops in for cameos in some of the great works of Chinese literature (for example, he is the final antagonist in “Journey to the West” wherein the heroes discover him masquerading as the princess of India!).  More importantly, in East Asia, it is believed that the stains of the moon are the image of the jade rabbit. Although I have never been able to see the “man on the moon”, the jade rabbit is always there on a bright full moon.  I am glad the Chinese space agency named their space probe after this master apothecary and superb trickster!

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The Groundhog, Marmota monax (photo by Bill Smith)

Happy Groundhog Day!  Preliminary reports coming in seem to indicate that the nation’s most eminent groundhog oracles are not seeing their shadows today (what with the continent bestriding blizzard and all).  Oddly, this is interpreted as a sign that spring will arrive early this year.  However I tend to think those groundhogs on TV are media personalities who have forgotten their rural roots.  When I lived on a farm, the concept behind the holiday was more straightforward:  if you saw an actual groundhog on Groundhog Day, then winter might indeed end early, but if you didn’t (and I never did) winter would not be over for six more weeks.  Today most non-celebrity groundhogs did not stir from their deep hibernation chambers.  We probably still have plenty of winter left.

Groundhog Day is observed on or around Candelmas, which ostensibly celebrates the presentation of Baby Jesus to the temple:   Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Kohens & Levites to perform the redemption of the firstborn and ceremonially purchase their firstborn son’s life back from the priests (I’m not sure Jesus ever really escaped the priesthood or the temple of Solomon so maybe his parents should have gotten their money back–but that’s a different story).  Candelmas was elided with pre-Christian holidays involving the prediction of the weather by animal augury.  The holiday’s roots in America are from the Pennsylvania Germans.  Apparently in pagan Germany, the original animal weather prophets were badgers or bears.  Imagine how exciting this holiday would be if we stuffed our pompous civic officials together with a disgruntled bear who had just been prodded awake from hibernation so people could take flash photographs!

At any rate we have gotten rather far afield of the day’s celebrated weather oracle, the groundhog or woodchuck (Marmota monax) which is actually a rodent of the marmot family, Sciuridae. Marmots are large solitary ground squirrels which, like pikas, generally live in the mountains of Asia, Europe, and North America.  The groundhog is an exception among the marmots since it prefers to live on open ground or at the edge of woodlands.  The deforestation of North America for farms and subdivisions has caused groundhog population to rise.  Although groundhogs are omnivores, the bulk of their diet is vegetation such as grasses, berries, and crops.  They are gifted diggers who construct a deep burrow with multiple exits.  This burrow serves as their chief living quarters and refuge from predators.  Since groundhogs enter true hibernation, they usually also maintain a separate winter burrow (with a chamber beneath the frost line) for the sole purpose of their months-long suspended animation.

A Groundhog Enjoying a Garden

Groundhogs, however, have a deeper utility to modern humankind than as primitive weather gods.  Devoted readers will know my fascination with liver research, and groundhogs are the principal research animal used in studies of Hepatitis B and liver cancer.  Since groundhogs are prone to a similar virus in the wild, they always develop liver cancer when infected with hepatitis B.  Laboratory groundhogs have thus been responsible for many advances in understanding liver disease and pathology–including the discovery of a vaccine for Hepatitis B and the realization that immunizing against hepatitis B virus can prevent liver cancer.  Currently 350 million people around the world are suspected to have hepatitis B.  Forty percent of those infected will develop chronic liver damage or cancer.  According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 600,000 people die every year from complications related to the infection (which is more than the total number of United States citizens killed in World War I and World War II combined).  Perhaps the Groundhog should be thought of as a profound benefactor to humankind thanks to its utility as a laboratory animal.

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