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Today we feature a special treat from the ancient world. This is the Arimaspi Calathos, a gold headdress for a priestess of Demeter, goddess of grain, agriculture, and fecundity. It was crafted in the second half of the 4th century BC by master Greek goldsmiths out of thirty sheets of fine gold plate hammered into shape and cunningly joined together (plus some enamel and other bits). The headdress is commonly known as “the fighting griffins calathos” for the magnificent eagle-headed mythical beasts on it. The central griffin is proudly uninterested in fighting, but its two companions rip into Greek women who are sinking to the ground beneath the onslaught. I can’t find any images of the remaining crown, but it looks like it is probably similarly violent and enigmatic. Greek jewelry was beautiful, dark, and interesting: you never see celebrities these days wearing anything featuring griffins killing lots of people.

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The piece was found during excavations of the Bolshaya Bliznitsa burial mound, a funerary complex for the ancient Greek city of Phanagoria. Phanagoria was the largest city of the Greek colony on the Taman Peninsula, which separates the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea. The Greeks founded a trade colony there in 543 BC in order to trade with the Scythians and the Sindi (and perhaps with people from much farther to the east as well. Judging by the hats worn by their priestesses, it was a good place to trade, although the imagery of the votive crown suggests that it was also a life of robust competition and fearsome struggle.

Gold Headdress-The Arimaspi Fighting Griffins Calathos -Greek work-Second half of the 4th century BC

Saint George and the Dragon (Vittore Carpaccio, 1507 AD, tempera on panel)

Saint George and the Dragon (Vittore Carpaccio, 1507 AD, tempera on panel)

 

Vittore Carpaccio was born around 1465 in either Venice or in Capodistria (a port in Istria which had been taken over by the Republic of Venice in the 14th century). His father was a glovemaker who was most likely from Albania. Carpaccio is one of the masters of early Venetian art, but he is not as famous as his contemporaries Bellini and Giorgione. This is because of Carpaccio’s style inclined toward the conservative and Gothic rather than towards the humanistic Renaissance style which was coming into vogue, but it is also because he did not have the same caliber of successful students as his two peers (who taught Titian).

Here is Carpaccio’s 1507 work Saint George and the Dragon which is painted in tempera on a panel and is housed in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. The Scuolo was a confraternity—a sort of early version of a corporation—which commissioned the work in the first years of the sixteenth century and it has been there ever since.

When I was a child I always wanted to go to the Medieval section of the museum to look at knights–and I was always disappointed by all the self tormenting Saints and Jesuses (which took me a while to properly appreciate). Here, however, is a painting I would have loved! The splendidly armed and armored knight is depicted at the exact moment he drives a beaked lance through the monster’s head! This incendiary action is framed by a meticulously detailed world of dizzying beauty and horror. The dragon is surrounded by the dreadful remains of his many victims. You should blow up the digital photo of the painting to get a good view of all the snakes, skulls, toads, and seashells scattered on the round around the dragon’s lair (not to mention the naked half-eaten maiden whose remains are being scavenged by a lizard). In the near background a Libyan princess in exotic Eastern headwear clasps her hands in horror. Although her vivid attire is meant to represent the exotic East, she seems like a fragment of Carpaccio’s imagination. Likewise, the fantasy city in the background is meant to be Silene of Libya, yet the trade ships of the Middle Ages and all of the Romanesque and Gothic castles, keeps, and villas in the background put one firmly in mind of the Adriatic.

All the major lines of the painting (the dragon’s head, the lance, the ocean, and the horse’s back legs) point straight at the glittering red and black knight who dominates the composition. Resplendent on his destrier, clad in sable armor, with his blond curly hair cascading behind him he is perfectly at home in his world of religion and ultraviolence. The knight is the perfect representation of the troubled world of early sixteenth century Venice (increasingly at odds with the Ottoman Empire). It was a time and place which called for violent men of action.

The most fell of undead warriors was the mighty draugr from Scandinavian epics (the singular is “draugr” and the plural is “draugar”).   Draugar were the reanimated corpses of warriors, chieftains, and other people of great strength.  Unlike many other undead beings, draugar remained in possession of human intelligence, emotions, and memory–albeit horribly distorted and corrupted by the grave.  Simultaneously fascinated and enraged by the living world, draugar lusted for treasure and hungered for flesh–but they did so in perverse and alien ways.  The draugr will seem familiar to anyone who has read fantasy literature:  Tolkien based wholesale swaths of his universe on Scandinavian and Germanic (and Anglo Saxon) epics.  Subsequent books, films, and games are filled with lichs, deathknights, wights, and wraiths which ultimately descend from the original medieval sources.

Burial Mound

In Scandinavian epic literature, the various undead beings manifest in slightly different ways but they share common powers such as the ability to shapeshift into monstrous animals, to turn into smoke, to see dark parts of the future, and to greatly increase in size, heaviness, and strength.  Draugar seem to delight in causing suffering to the world of the living.  They are able to curse lesser animals to death and they cause fear, despair, and madness to larger creatures (and, indeed, to humans).   Sometimes they would eat or otherwise ravage living things. They are connected with winter darkness. Most tales concerning the monsters take place at Yuletide, Christmas, or the winter solstice when Scandinavian nights lasted almost an entire 24 hours. Disturbingly, some draugar were said to be able to enter the dreams of their victims.

Grettir’s Saga, which recounts the tragic life of Iceland’s greatest outlaw, contains two draugar, Kar the Old and Glam. The saga gives us limited background concerning Kar, a dead Norwegian nobleman who came back to life to guard his lands and his barrow filled with treasure.  A minor character describes the situation thus, “On the headland stands a grave mound.  In it was laid Kar the old…after Kar died he returned from the dead and started walking, so much so that in the end he drove away all those farmers who owned lands here.”  When Grettir breaks into the mound he finds a huge cold warrior sitting dead upon a throne with treasure at his feet and horse skeletons scattered around him.  As Grettir begins to remove the treasure, a cold & inhumanly powerful hand grabs his foot and the fight begins in earnest.  When Grettir finally triumphs, he despoils Kar’s hoard (which includes the fiersome sax that Grettir always wore thereafter).

Viking Hoard

We learn even more about the second draugr in the epic. While working as a shepherd, Glam, a giant surly Swedish slave was killed in a battle with an unknown monster on Christmas Eve.  Glam’s body is described as “Black as Hel and swollen as fat as a bull.” Ominously the corpse had become so heavy as to be immoveable–so the locals built a cairn over it without moving the body.  After this mysterious death, Glam returned every winter to haunt the farm.  The draugr is described riding the roof of the longhouse as though it was a steed, damaging the walls by driving his feet into them.  More ominously, Glam killed the sheep, the workmen, and eventually molested the farmer’s daughter to death (she seems to have been his favorite target).  After dispatching several lesser heroes, Glam inevitably fights with Grettir.  In the moral and emotional climax of the epic, Grettir outwrestles the horrible corpse but is transfixed by Glam’s otherworldly dead eyes.  In this moment of truth, the draugr lays a curse of doom upon Grettir saying,

 “I will not take from you the strength you have already acquired.  But it is in my power to decide you will never become stronger than you are now—yet you are strong enough as many will find out.  You have become famous because of your accomplishments, but from now on you will fall into outlawry and killings.  Most of what you do will now turn against you, bringing bad luck and no joy.  You will be made an outlaw, forced always to live in the wilds and to live alone.  And further I lay this curse upon you: these eyes will always be within your sight, and you will find it difficult to be alone.  This will drag you to your death.”

Today in Iceland there is still a word for this curse “Glẚmsskyggn”—Glam’s sight –which is to walk always alone and unhappy with dead eyes staring at you.

There were different ways that heroes or ordinary folk could deal with draugar.  Although not explicitly stated, the draugar always avoid Christian churches and sanctified things.  Observing the proper burial practices was also helpful.  When circumstances permitted, dead bodies were carried out of houses and into tombs through doors which were then built over or bricked in (since the walking dead had to return through the same doors they originally used).

The real way to cope with this problem however was Grettir’s way—by means of physical violence.   To defeat a draugr, a hero had to wrestle it into submission through sheer physical strength and then cut off its head (which was then placed on top of the corpse’s backside).   The corpse could then be burned into ash and thrown into the sea.

As the heroic age passed from Scandinavia, draugar changed somewhat and became more associated with drowned sailors than with barrow dwelling Vikings.  Then even these undead sailors began to fade away.  Occasionally in modern Iceland, Norway, and Denmark there are wild reports of strange walking dead (which come from wholly unreliable sources) but the monsters have largely faded from legend.   Even in the movies, draugar are scarce. The undead Nazis of the Norwegian horror film “Dead Snow” behave like draugar–which is a problem for the human protagonists who have been raised on American zombie films and don’t know how to fight traditional Norse undead.  However it is in computer games and fantasy books where the draugar from epic tradition have the greatest following today.  The internet and online games are filled with accursed giants in dark armor with corpse-blue skin and glowing eyes.   These guys are always mumbling runic curses, piling up digital treasure, or harassing virtual villagers.   More than any other undead, draugar have seamlessly made the jump to the digital world:  in fact they have done a better job transitioning to the web than many living people and contemporary industries. Glam’s eyes still shine brightly through the halls of countless internet dungeons and software modules of damned cities.

The Restless Draugr from “Skyrim” (Bethesda Softworks)

In an effort to boost ratings I am writing about sports! Specifically I am looking at the most grueling sporting event in the world, the Tour de France.

Everyone is familiar with the contemporary Tour de France: teams of mighty Spaniards and Germans on futuristic carbon bikes exchange thinly-veiled insults about steroids with each other and with Lance Armstrong.  The most exciting Tour de France, however, was the second, which took place in 1904.

The entire 1904 race was bedeviled by over-the-top scandals and cheating.  During the first stage, Maurice Garin and Lucien Pothier were attacked by four masked desperados driving a motor coach. The second phase took the riders through the birthplace of Antoine Fauré, where a mob of 200 Fauré supporters attempted to stop the remainder of the cyclists with brute force.  The riot was only dispersed by race officials firing pistols into the air!  Unfortunately, several riders were wounded in the melee.  In Nimes, the local supporters of Ferdinand Payan dropped stones down onto the riders. And on the final stage, the riders themselves (as well as various partisan miscreants) threw nails and glass on the road.  Henri Cornet was obliged to ride the last 40 kilometers with two flat tires and came in fifth.

Violence, riots, and booby traps were not the only way of cheating, several of the riders were found to have utilized motor cars to advance, none more flamboyantly than Hippolyte Aucouturier.  Hyppolyte had lost the first Tour de France in 1903 because someone spiked his water bottle (perhaps that race’s winner, a chain-smoking chimney sweep).  So determined was Hyppolyte not to lose the second race, that he enlisted an accomplice in a car to tow him up the steepest parts of the race.  To accomplish this Hyppolite used a long wire tied to a cork which he then gripped with his teeth.  Other riders, such as Ferdinand Payan, simply waited till dark and held onto car bumpers or climbed inside and rode.  During the evenings riders would deaden the pain from riding and fighting by drinking copious quantities of wine and huffing ether.

Hippolyte Aucouturier

At the conclusion of the race, 29 riders were disqualified, including Hyppolyte and all four of the other top-placed racers.  The fifth placed rider, Henri Comet won the 1904 Tour de France either through moral steadfastness or because he cheated more subtly than everyone else.

Wow, bicycle racing used to be amazing!

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