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Thanks for bearing with me during last week when I took a much-needed break from blogging. Sadly, it does not seem like misinformation, social manipulation, distortion, and outright fabrication took a break during Ferrebeekeeper’s absence…they are more popular than ever! So I have decided to get with the program and add a new topic much in keeping with this trend. Well I say “new”, but this subject is profoundly ancient and originated before cities or even agriculture. This ancient practice has always given people exactly what they want…often to their terrible detriment. If one is looking for chicanery, mendacity, wish fulfillment, and showmanship untethered from life’s hard truths (and a cursory look at bet-sellers, infomercials, politics, and society itself indicate that a lot of people want exactly that) then here is a subject I predict will suit perfectly: I am speaking of the ancient and manipulative art of PROPHECY!
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Consulting the Oracle (John William Waterhouse, 1884, oil on canvas)

A prophecy is a sort of supernatural prediction about what will happen in the future (or a pretense of access to some otherwise inaccessible truth). The trappings of prophecy are many—entrails, crystals, special numbers, magical talismans, star signs, geomancy, demons, ghosts, gods and goddesses, etcetera etcetera. I hardly need to tell you that empiricists have never found any statistically meaningful evidence that such things work beyond the level of general platitudes (discounting inside knowledge and deception). Yet magical predictions endure and flourish in all societies. From the rudest hunter gatherer tribe, to the greatest globe-spanning empire, this “magic” has been present. Throughout history, oracles, scryers, prophets, augers, diviners, and astrologers have proliferated like, well, like human wishes.
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So why am I writing about this? Why do we need to look again at (sigh) astronomy and “The Secret” [spits] and at the ridiculous chickens of Publius Claudius Pulcher? First of all, as Freud knew, our wishes reveal so much about us—they provide a true dark mirror where we can see who we are with terrible clarity if we have the courage to really look. If prophecy does not necessarily have empirical merit, it often possesses immense artistic value. The essential dramatic truth of literature or scripture is frequently revealed in augury. The witch of Endor, the Delphic oracle, John the Baptist, and the witches in Macbeth set the action going (while at the same time foreshadowing/explaining how things will ultimately work out).
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But beyond the artistic merit of oracular truth, augury is related to prediction—the ability to think abstractly about the future and to shape outcomes by making intelligent choices based of guesses. I said that prophecy predated cities or agriculture (a breezy claim for which I naturally have no written evidence…although there are plenty of artifacts that are probably scrying tools and enormous amounts of similar circumstantial evidence): perhaps prophecy was a necessary step on the way to those things. Without being able to imagine the future, there is no need for seed corn or brickyards. The seeds to real inquiry can often be found in fantasy inquiry. Looking back across the breadth of history we see how religion became philosophy; geomancy became geology; astrology graduated to astonomy; even psychics and physicists have something in common. So follow along in this new topic. I confidently predict you will be surprised and delighted (and even if I am wrong we will at least have learned something).
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Spring Soccer (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil and ink)

Spring Soccer (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil and ink)

OK…today features two more wacky sketches from my little book.  I promise I will have a different topic tomorrow and not keep putting up these oddities!  Here is a children’s soccer game which I drew in a park in Chinatown in spring.  I wish I had captured the NY Chinatown flavor of the afternoon better—there was a very strange older lady loudly singing idiosyncratic songs in Chinese and passing out leaflets while two older gentlemen accompanied her on traditional musical instruments. However whenever I chanced to look in their direction, they certainly noticed, and sketching them was out of the question. Don’t worry, I gave them a few coins for the serenade and they seemed delighted!

Inner Shamanism (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil and ink)

Inner Shamanism (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil and ink)

I also drew the peculiar chemical factory innards of a mysterious shamanistic beast.  Unfortunately I don’t really know what else to say about the surreal little pastiche…but it certainly features a jaunty-looking squid (although my favorite part is the magenta sky filled with ephemera).

We’ll get back to history, crowns, and/or furry beasts tomorrow!

Fang Ding (ca. 1100-1000 BC, cast bronze)

Fang Ding (ca. 1100-1000 BC, cast bronze)

Here is a bronze ceremonial vessel called a fang ding from China’s Western Zhou period.  The vessel dates from the eleventh or tenth century BC—so it is probably from Shanxi or Shaanxi (which are the modern provinces located where the Zhou culture began). The ding was used for ceremonial food offerings, but it was also a status object which represented power and authority over the land.  It is covered with an enigmatic pattern known as a taotie, the true nature of which has perplexed and intrigued experts in Chinese art for centuries (or even millennia).  Most scholars believe that the markings are a stylized face—possibly the countenance of strange spirit beings encountered on shamanistic spirit journeys.  According to anthropologists there are extant hunter-gathering cultures which participate in such transcendental rituals—and craft similarly stylized faces (so I’m not making all this up—however anthropologists might be). The Chinese term for the decorative faces (or whatever they are)  is 饕餮 which apparently translates as “glutinous ogre” which seems like a very poetic and apt name for the weird powerful designs.

A different view of the same ding

A different view of the same ding

During the Shang dynasty (which preceded the Zhou period) the analogous ceremonial vessel was a wine container, but the founding king of Zhou was a strict moralist who believed the Shang had declined due to drunkenness and inebriation. Perhaps some of the shamanistic overtones of the bronze vessels vanished as the authorities reinvented dings as a symbol of authority rather than a portal to an altered state!

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

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.

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