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One theory of aesthetics asserts that every human-manufactured item provides profound insights into its makers and their society.  In college, we had endless fun (or some reasonably proximate substitute) by grabbing random kitschy mass-produced objects and deconstructing them so that all of the peccadillos of wage-capitalism in a mature democracy were starkly revealed. Alone among college endeavors, this proved useful later on, when I worked at the National Museum of American History (where the staff was employed to do more-or-less the same thing). Seemingly any item could provide a window for real understanding of an era.   Thus different aspects of our national character were represented by all sorts of objects: harpoons, sequined boots made in a mental asylum, an old lunch-counter, gilded teacups, or miniature ploughs…even a can of Green Giant asparagus from the 70s [btw, that asparagus caused us real trouble and was a continuing problem for the Smithsonian collection: but we will talk about that later on in an asparagus-themed post]. The objects which were significant were always changing and things regarded as treasures in one era were often relegated to the back of off-site storage facility by curators of the seceding generation, but a shrewd observer could garner a surprisingly deep understanding of society by thinking intelligently about even apparently frivolous or trivial objects.

 

Anyway, all of this is roundabout way of explaining that Ferrebeekeeper is celebrating the Day of the Dead by deconstructing these two skull-themed items.  At the top is a skull-shaped candle holder with a bee on it. At the bottom is a skull shaped lotion-dispenser. One dispenses light while celebrating the eusocial insects at the heart of agriculture; the other dispenses unguents and celebrates the reproductive organs of plants. But of course, when we look at these items more closely, there is more to them than just a decorated lamp and a cosmetics container.

The Día de Muertos skull already represents a syncretic blend of two very opposite cultures: the death-obsessed culture of the Aztecs who built an empire of slavery and sacrifice to make up for dwindling resources at the center of their realm, and the death-obsessed culture of the Spaniards who built an empire of slavery and sacrifice to make up for dwindling resources at the center of their realm.  Um…those two civilizations sounded kind of similar in that last sentence, but, trust me, they were from different sides of an ocean and had very different torture-based religions.

Beyond the obvious cultural/religious history of Mestizo culture, the two skulls have bigger things to say about humankind’s relationship with our crops.  The features of the death’s head have been stylized and “cutened” but even thus aestheticized it provides a stark reminder of human mortality. We burgeon for a while and then pass on. Yet the day of the dead skull is a harvest-time ornament. It is made of sugar or pastry (well not these two…but the original folk objects were) and covered in flowers, grain, and food stuffs. The skulls portray humankind as a product of our agricultural society.    The harvest keeps coming…as do seceding generations of people…just as the old harvest and the old people are used up—yet they are always a part of us like a circle or an ouroboros.  Each generation, a different group of people comes to work the fields, and eat sugar skulls and pass away–then they are remembered with sugar skulls as their grandchildren work the fields etc…

Lately though, things have started to rapidly change. Although agriculture is the “primary” economic sector which allows all of the other disciplines, most of us no longer work in the fields. Instead we partake of secondary sector work: manufacturing things.  In this era we are even more likely to be in the third (or fourth) sector: selling plastic skulls to each other, or writing pointless circular essays about knickknacks.

Marketers have inadvertently built additional poignant juxtapositions into these two skull ornaments. The skull at the bottom is a lotion or soap dispenser. It is meant to squirt out emollients so that people can stay clean and young and supple in a world where old age still has no remedy. The irony is even more sad in the skull on the top which shows a busy bee: the classical symbol of hard work paying off. Yet the bees are dying away victims to the insecticides we use to keep our crops bountiful.  Hardwork has no reward in a world where vast monopolistic forces set prices and machines churn out endless throw-away goods. Indeed, these two objects are not beautiful folk objects…they are mass-produced gewgaws meant to be bought up and thrown away. In the museum of the future will they sit on a shelf with a little note about bees or lotion or crops written next to them, or will they join a vast plastic underworld in a landfill somewhere?

Or maybe they are just endearing skulls and you aren’t supposed to think about them too much.  But if a skull does not make the observer think, then what object ever will?

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We are coming up on the Yule season and that means ornamental conifers!  As I was putting up my traditional tree of many animals, it occurred to me to see if there were any spooky Gothic-themed Christmas trees.  And, oh indeed…there are so many Gothic themed trees and ornaments out there!

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Although at first these dark trees might sit wrongly with traditionally minded revelers, a moment of thought will reveal that Gothic trees are quite appropriate!  Not only is the Christmas tree an ornament for the darkest & hardest time of year (Winter Solstice) it is also an ancient relic of pre-Christian Europe when pagan folk venerated trees.   Furthermore the idea of Christmas trees, like the ancient Goths themselves, originated in Germany and Scandinavia.  For years, pundits have been worrying what happens when marketers put up their Christmas decorations earlier and earlier. Maybe this is what happens: a reversion to druidic darkness.

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Here are some Gothic trees—some are “goth” in the modern punk rock sense, while others are pagan, macabre, ironically twisted, or just winsomely slender.  In case this is making you anxious, it’s all in seasonal fun!  Also I threw in some beautiful Gothic-revival Christmas trees to evoke feelings of Victorian opulence!   Enjoy the gallery and the holiday season (but don’t worry, we’ll have more appropriate seasonal fare next week).

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Eek!  I mean...cool crystal thing!

What a cool crystal thing!

Gothic Revival Christmas!

Gothic Revival Christmas!

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I guess, it's sort of spooky...

I guess, it’s sort of spooky…

This one might be slightly photoshopped--although cats do love Christmas trees!

This one might be slightly photoshopped–although cats do love Christmas trees!

What?

What?

Dammit, there isn't even a tree in this! Is anyone paying attention?

Dammit, there isn’t even a tree in this! Is anyone paying attention?

Traditional Victorian Gothic Revival

Traditional Victorian Gothic Revival

Skinny Christmas Tree

wchristmastree-5tumblr_mxwuwe2NJR1svgz44o3_500And Here’s a really good one for the dramatic conclusion.  It has a touch of the cosmic–and it’s also a shout-out to tree worshipers everywhere).

 

 

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Today features a short but vivid post.  I found the following image of a magnificent Asian crown on the internet but I do not know who crafted it or where it is.  Look at how splendid it is!

Although I don’t know where this crown is from, I do understand what it represents.  This is the crown of Mahākāla, a syncretic deity who is so different throughout Asia, he could almost be different gods.  In India, he is a form of Siva.  In Japan, Mahākāla is an exalted household deity associated with the kitchen and with wealth and luck.  However the most dramatic and fearsome form of Mahākāla is the black multi-armed version which is universally worshipped in Tibetan Buddhism.  The angry Tibetan version of Mahākāla is a dharmapāla–a deity of wrathful justice.  Even though Mahākāla is terrifying, he is still a bodhisattva (like the gentle Kuan Yin) and his righteous anger serves a higher purpose.  His savagery is actually a form of compassion for other enlightened and thinking beings.

 

Mahākāla (Nicholas Roerich)

In his form as a dharmapāla, Mahākāla is depicted with a crown of five skulls to represent the transmutation of the five afflictions into five wisdoms. Each of the five jeweled skulls (thod skam gyi dbu rgyan) symbolizes one of the five Buddhas.  Although Mahākāla somewhat resembles Kali, his mission, form, and purpose are obscure and different in accordance with the various esoteric sects of Tibetan Buddhism.

 

Today, October 27th, 2012, the top news story here on the East Coast is the possible trajectory of Hurricane Sandy, a large tropical cyclone which is projected to make landfall somewhere between southern New Jersey and New England next week.  However the storm itself is not the point of this post.  Instead I am fascinated by the name “Sandy” because–thanks to a coincidence of timing and translation, that name has been much in front of me lately—but not as the name of a human female.  Instead “Sandy” is the name an inhuman water monster from Chinese mythology.  The monster is a horrifying cannibal, true, but also a strangely put-upon functionary, and then later a devout Buddhist.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let me explain.

Shā Wùjìng carrying the luggage

Sandy is one of the main characters of The Journey to the West, which is the most fantastical of China’s four great classical novels  (four epic works of pre-modern fiction, which scholars regard as the most influential works of literature from that great and ancient nation).  The Journey to the West tells the supernatural deeds of four pilgrims traveling from the court of Emperor Taizong in China  to India in order to obtain the  Lotus Sutra (actually there are five pilgrims, but one is a young dragon who has shapeshifted into a horse, and he seldom leaves horse-form).     The main thrust of the story concerns Golden Cicada (a devout Buddhist priest) trying to control Monkey (a primeval trickster god) and Pig (a monstrous animal spirit whose appetite and bumbling antics provide comic relief).  Monkey is nearly omnipotent and exceedingly clever.  The fourth pilgrim, Sandy (or Shā Wùjìng) is a sort of river ogre who acts as the stolid straight man for the antics of monkey and pig.

The Pilgrim Protagonists of Journey to the West

Together these characters face a host of scheming antagonists while trying to work within the baffling framework of the sprawling bureaucracy of China’s pantheon (this list of the book’s characters will give you a sense of the scope of this plot).   The party is aided by Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of compassion who swoops in to extricate them when they really screw up.

One of the first monsters the monk, the monkey, and the pig encounter is Shā Wùjìng, who has a backstory which illustrate the dangers of the celestial court.  Shā Wùjìng was once a general in heaven, where his task was to occasionally lift a special curtain for the Jade Emperor (the ruler of heaven).  Unfortunately, in a fit of clumsiness, the hapless general accidentally broke one of the Jade Emperor’s favorite vases and incurred divine disfavor.  He was flogged with eight hundred lashes and his form was corrupted into that of a hideous monster with indigo skin, a blood red beard and razor teeth.  Then he was exiled to the desert.

Understandably, Shā Wùjìng was upset at this fall from grace.  He began to haunt the Kaidu River which flows through the arid wastes of Xinjiang.  Every day the Jade Emperor would send seven flying swords to flay open the hapless monster’s chest (the chief god was apparently really fond of that broken vase).  To avoid these swords Shā Wùjìng would hide in the sandy river bottom to the extent that he came to identify himself as “Sandy”.  Because the desert was empty of resources, Sandy began to prey on the silk caravans heading west to Central Asia and India.  In the medieval Chinese worldview, merchants are terrible people of no consequence so there were no repercussions for killing and eating them, but one day Shā Wùjìng unwisely ate a party of holy Buddhist monks who were going to India to visit the sacred lands of Shakyamuni.   The skulls of the holy men float on the river, so Sandy fashions them into a necklace which, along with his monk’s spade (a combination of polearm /bludgeon) are his trademark items.

Shā Wùjìng (Sandy) fights Pig (Zhu Bajie)

In the same manner he ate the earlier party of pilgrims, Sandy attempted to eat Golden Cicada, however monkey and pig easily prevented him from doing so (pig even bestirring himself for an epic battle beneath the river).  Thereafter Shā Wùjìng himself took up the burden of pilgrimage and he is one of the most loyal and dependable character in the book (although he is less strong than monkey and pig).  Of the three monster spirits he is by far the most tractable.

Kali (artist unknown)

In Hinduism, Kali is the dark mother goddess who represents the force of change and transformation in the universe. The Devi Mahatmya, a Sanskrit text of the 5th – 6th century AD, relates that Kali was born from the brow of the mother goddess Durga, but it may be that she actually is Durga or vice versa (the mutable forms of divinity in Hinduism are transfigurative and sometimes subsume one another).

In appearance, Kali is one of the most fearsome deities in any pantheon.  Her skin is completely black, like the night sky, or like the oblivion which awaits all living things.  Nude but for certain terrible adornments made of human body parts, Kali wears a skirt made of severed limbs and a necklace of 50 bloody heads, one for each letter of the Sanskrit alphabet.   Her nudity is important as it represents her freedom from maya—the illusory false consciousness in which the mortal world is steeped. Her four hands clutch different ceremonial items: a great sword/cleaver, the severed head of a huge demon, a trident, and a bowl fashioned out of a skull to catch the blood flowing from the head.  Kali’s eyes are red with wrath and she has fangs at the edge of her howling mouth.  Her nude body is spattered with gore and her four long arms bend at improbable angles.

kali (artist unknown)

Many representations of Kali show her in fury, rampaging over the prostrate form of her husband Shiva, the creation god.  There is a story behind the image.  The Devas and Devis (gods and goddesses) of the universe were engaged in a conflict with terrible demons and they were losing the fight when Kali was created.  Her rage and her battle fury were so terrible that no demon could stand against her awful onslaught.  As she slew, she begin to drink demonic blood and grow in strength.  No force could withstand Kali and the universe began to tremble and shake.  But, before she could annihilate all things, Shiva assumed his comeliest form and cast himself like a corpse at the feet of his wife. When Kali realized that she was touching her husband with the soles of her feet (an incredibly disrespectful act within the code of Hindu morality) her rage died.  She stuck out her tongue in distaste and horror and her awful slaughter came to an end.  Other myths pick up the story and tell of how she and Shiva (both nude and heated from carnage and near disaster) began to engender new life, but you will have to look those up on your own.

The familiar tableau certainly suggests that without the power of Kali, great Shiva becomes inert.  This juxtaposition is important and reveals something about Kali. Worshipped on the charnel ground where the bodies of the dead are cremated, Kali is obviously a death goddess, however her divine status transcends that of other chthonic gods.  Terrible though her appearance may be, Kali is one of the most beloved goddesses of India.  She is universally held in reverence by sages and gurus who have begun to see through life’s illusions.  These wise people esteem Kali as the mother of all things because without death there is no possibility for rebirth.  If things are not unmade there is no material with which to create newer finer things.  Thanks to Kali we do not live in a derelict world of disease, rot, and senility.  Instead we march forward and upward and we are replaced as we wear out.

Or at least we seem to stumble forward—whether we are getting anywhere or not is a question for the gods themselves (and to my way of thinking they themselves are just another illusion).

Kali (artist unknown)

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