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Look-majestic-crown

My apologies for all of the visual posts this week!  I got caught up in the Christmas crush, and had less time than I wanted to write a ringing denunciation of Russian sleeper agents and dupes in the executive and legislative branches of government, but, speaking of Russia, I decided to look for images of crowned swans (in vague memory of a disturbing folktale from the Volga).   I never found the crowned swan I was looking for, but instead I found…this thing pictured here…the king of all pool floaties.   I guess if you and your 7 friends want to enjoy some swim beverages and a foot bath while cavorting inside a 17 foot monster plastic folktale about the ephemeral nature of beauty, well, now you know how to do that!  We will return to regularly scheduled programming tomorrow. In the mean time here are some more photos of the majestic pool toy. Good grief, it is incredible!  I wonder if it would fit on my parents’ goose pond…

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Swan Ice Sculpture

Swan Ice Sculpture

Hopefully the long winter is coming to a close (although I wouldn’t be surprised if 2014 still has a few mean tricks left).  Before the season of ice and snow ends, let’s give in to winter and celebrate frozen water itself with a gallery of exquisite ice sculptures.

ice sculpture swans2

The quintessential ice sculpture should feature elegance, sinuous curves, strength, and, well, iciness.  Of course nothing combines these qualities quite like swans.  The massive waterfowl are thematically and stylistically perfect for the medium.  Additionally, since swans form monogamous pair bonds which can last for years–or even for life—paired swans are the perfect symbol for weddings, romantic events, and, um… mergers I guess (hey, you try figuring out why swans are so omnipresent as ice sculptures).

An ice swan swimming on a bed of strawberries  (by Tampa Ice Sculpture)

An ice swan swimming on a bed of strawberries (by Tampa Ice Sculpture)

You can't have a fancy fund raiser without an ice swan!  (photo by: Barbara Nelson)

You can’t have a fancy fund raiser without an ice swan! (photo by: Barbara Nelson)

Hey! That's a digital image of a painting of a sculpture of a swan!  How ersatz can this blog get?

Hey! That’s a digital image of a painting of a sculpture of a swan! How ersatz can this blog get?

Bartender stands between two giant ice swan statues at the ice bar at Damenti's Restaurant

Bartender stands between two giant ice swan statues at the ice bar at Damenti’s Restaurant

Ok, maybe I wanted to write a quick waterfowl/winter theme blog post and was out of good ideas.  Yet ephemeral ice sculptures DO seem to represent the disposable decadence of our times. Who knows when global climate change, world economic meltdown, or zombie attack will sweep away our world of endless energy and leisure?  But in the mean time enjoy the flock of swan sculptures.  You can even buy an inexpensive plastic mold online if you want to have a brand new (but perfectly identical) swan statue for every meal.

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This one is filled with fruit!

This one is filled with fruit!

And this one is even better!

And this one is even better!

Coronation Portrait of Ludwig II (Ferdinand von Piloty, 1865, oil on canvas)

Coronation Portrait of Ludwig II (Ferdinand von Piloty, 1865, oil on canvas)

King Ludwig II of Bavaria reigned from 1864 to 1886—a period which saw the kingdom of Bavaria integrated into Bismarck’s unified Germany.  Ludwig ascended the throne at the age of 18 after his father Maximilian II died unexpectedly of an illness.  He was a strange figure as a king.   Although introverted and shy he was also an extravagant aesthete with little taste for governing (although he enjoyed touring the countryside and conversing with everyday Bavarian farmers and workers).  At first he was admired for being a romantic and tragic young figure, but ominous rumors piled up around the reluctant king and fate had dark plans for him.

Ludwig’s uncle was Wilhelm I of Prussia—destined to become the Kaiser of the German Empire.  At first Ludwig tried to pull away from Prussian integration by siding with Austria, but he was easily outmaneuvered during the Seven Weeks War of 1866 and ended up allied with (and subordinate to) Prussia during the Franco-Prussian War.  Ludwig II was initially helped out in his kingship by his grandfather Ludwig I (an infamously bad poet who had abdicated the kingship amidst a spectacular scandal concerning the Irish dancer/courtesan Lola Montez) but the former king died in 1868, leaving Ludwig II to capitulate to Prussian Imperial hegemony. As Ludwig II grew disinterested in affairs of state, he began to follow an increasingly inward and eccentric path.

Linderhof Palace

Linderhof Palace

The personal diaries and letters of Ludwig II reveal that he struggled to restrain his romantic feelings for other men and behave in accordance with the strict Catholic faith of Bavaria.  He was engaged to a famous & beautiful duchess but he repeatedly postponed the engagement and finally called the wedding off altogether (apparently to spare his fiancée from a loveless marriage).   The king was an ardent patron of Richard Wagner and he spent huge amounts of personal time with the spendthrift composer.

Ludwig II and Wagner

Ludwig II and Wagner

Ludwig II is most famous as an eccentric and maniacal builder. Calling on the Teutonic fantasies of Wagner and the absolutist opulence of Louis XIV, Ludwig commissioned multiple palace/castles.  The greatest and strangest of his projects was Schloss Neuschwanstein, or “New Swan on the Rock castle”, a dramatic Gothic fortress with soaring fairytale towers, however he also commissioned Herrenchiemsee, a smaller scale replica of Versaille, and Linderhof Palace a chateau in neo-French Rococo style.  Linderhof Palace was the only one of Ludwig’s palaces completed in his lifetime.  It had novelty gardens of unrivaled opulence where Ludwig enjoyed being rowed around the fancifully lit grottoes of his water garden in a golden swan-boat.  Lost in extravagant fantasies of being a swan knight, Ludwig became more a recluse and indulged in ever more solipsistic behavior.

Schloss Neuschwanstein o

Schloss Neuschwanstein o

All of this building cost phenomenal amounts of money and Ludwig’s indulgence in personal fantasies left him little time to deal with his ministers and courtiers.  Despite the indignation of Ludwig’s court, his buildings were constructed with funds from the King’s purse rather than from the kingdom’s coffers (an important distinction).  Strangely, the buildings served the traditional purpose of follies in Ireland and England and many peasants, builders, and artisans were employed in the construction projects.

Great Hall of Herrenchiemsee

Great Hall of Herrenchiemsee

Ludwig’s brother and heir Otto was ostentatiously and deeply insane.  Bavaria’s courtiers and aristocrats began to wonder if it would not be best to have both brothers declared mad and locked away while a capable regent took over the important minutiae of integration and industrialization (and colonial empire—which Germany was beginning to dabble in).  In the finest tradition of Gothic story-telling, the plotters turned to alienists, the psychiatric professionals of the day.  By accumulating sordid (possibly fictional) tales, personal letters, and servants’ testimony, the aristocrats built up a case against Ludwig II as a dangerous madman.  The ever-pragmatic Bismarck regarded the affair as a transparent frame-up, but neither he nor the Bavarian Diet nor the German Parliament acted to save Ludwig II from conspirators who proclaimed him insane and unfit to rule.

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On the 12th of June 1886, Ludwig was detained (after an unsuccessful attempt at fleeing).  He was placed in confinement at Berg Castle on the shores of Lake Starnberg, under thee care of the mental doctor Doctor Bernhard von Gudden.  The next day, the two men embarked on a walk together through the Schloß Berg parkland beside the lake (both the king and the alienist declined attendants).  Neither man returned alive. What transpired will never be known, but that evening a powerful storm swept the area. Desperate parties went out to search the lake and the surrounding forests for the two missing men.  Just prior to midnight the searchers found the bodies of the doctor and Ludwig II floating in the lake.  The king’s death was immediately ruled to be a suicide by drowning although the autopsy revealed no water in his lungs. Unreliable eyewitnesses (i.e. skulking royalists involved in various dodgy plots) reported that shots were fired however there is considerable disagreement about whether there were bullet wounds to the king’s corpse (which would indeed be suspicious).  Gudden was beaten and strangled—presumably by the (mad?) king.

These things happen...

These things happen…

The whole affair was entirely mysterious and grim, but with the king gone, the people who had deposed him were free to carry out their agenda (within a larger context of German nationhood, of course).  Work stopped on Ludwig’s castles.  His mad brother Otto became king–but their uncle Luitpold held the true kingly authority (such as it was).

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The world is different than it seems to be.  Aristocrats and ministers of Ludwig’s time viewed him as a miserable failure as a king (if not an outright lunatic).  Yet somehow he has emerged from the ruins of the German Empire with a higher reputation than the gifted statesmen who were his contemporaries. The castles which Ludwig created, which were seen as ruinous follies, have proven to be spectacularly lucrative as tourist destinations.  His patronage of the arts has left a cultural stamp on Bavaria which is widely believed to have contributed to that state’s wealth (it is today the most prosperous German state).   Bavarians speak of him fondly even today.  Perhaps a bizarre closeted life of secretly dressing as a swan and a terrible violent end in a German lake were the inevitable fate of someone who, from the beginning decided to live in a world of dreams.

 

The Black-necked Swan (Cygnus melancoryphus)

The Black-necked Swan (Cygnus melancoryphus)

The Black-necked Swan (Cygnus melancoryphus) weighs from 3.5 to 6.7 kg (7.7 to 15 pounds) and can have a wingspan of up to  135 to 177 cm (53 to 70 in). The swans mainly eat vegetation but they supplement their diet with small arthropods and little aquatic vertebrates. They are the smallest species of swan, but the largest waterfowl of South America (where they ranges from southern Brazil to the Falkland Islands).  Wonderfully, the black-necked swan is not on the edge of extinction or even threatened, but is commonplace.  The black-necked swan like freshwater lakes and marshes.  In winter the birds fly to the north of their range, whereas they spends summer in Patagonia and Chile.  The species can be easily recognized by the distinctive black head with red knobs near the base of the bill and white stripe behind eye.  Like mute swans of Europe and Black Swans of Australia, they are almost always silent.

The Black-necked Swan (Cygnus melancoryphus)

The Black-necked Swan (Cygnus melancoryphus)

Once my parents and I were at the Central Park zoo where there was a pair of these magnificent birds swimming in a pool surrounded by glass.  My father was wearing athletic shoes which were red, black, white, and gray.  The male swan took great umbrage with these shoes, presumably thinking they were the infuriating face of a rival swan.  He would make magnificent and terrifying aquatic attacks upon the glass behind which my father was standing until finally we were driven off and he had his sweetie all to himself (with no romantic threats coming from footwear).

Argh! No shoes please!

Argh! No shoes please!

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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