Sketchbook Page 55: S is for Selkie

May 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

Phoca sapiens

Phoca sapiens

Bones from a Bestiary part 19: S is for Selkie

This is the nineteenth in a series of chimerical creatures; the aim is to create an alphabet of fabulous beasts over the coming months.

With recent advances in genetic engineering it should be possible to manufacture such creatures in the laboratory; although the results will not always be practical (or, indeed, humane) …

Selkies (also spelled silkiesselchies; Irish/Scottish Gaelic: selchidh, Scots: selkie fowk) are mythological creatures found in Scottish,Irish, and Faroese folklore. Similar creatures are described in the Icelandic traditions. The word derives from earlier Scots selich, (from Old English seolh meaning seal).  Selkies are said to live as seals in the sea but shed their skin to become human on land. The legend is apparently most common in Orkney and Shetland and is very similar to those of swan maidens.

Male selkies are described as being very handsome in their human form, and having great seductive powers over human women. They typically seek those who are dissatisfied with their life, such as married women waiting for their fishermen husbands. If a woman wishes to make contact with a selkie male, she must shed seven tears into the sea. If a man steals a female selkie’s skin she is in his power and is forced to become his wife. Female selkies are sometimes willing to accept this role, but because their true home is the sea, they will often be seen gazing longingly at the ocean. If she finds her skin she will immediately return to her true home, and sometimes to her selkie husband, in the sea. Sometimes, a selkie maiden is taken as a wife by a human man and will have several children by him. In these stories, it is one of her children who discovers her sealskin (often unwitting of its significance) and she soon returns to the sea. The selkie woman usually avoids seeing her human husband again but is sometimes shown visiting her children and playing with them in the waves.

Stories concerning selkies are generally romantic tragedies. Sometimes the human will not know that their lover is a selkie, and wakes to find them gone. In other stories the human will hide the selkie’s skin, thus preventing it from returning to its seal form. A selkie can only make contact with one human for a short amount of time before they must return to the sea. They are unable to make contact with that human again for seven years, unless the human steals their selkie skin and hides it or burns it.

In the Faroe Islands there are two versions of the story of the Selkie or Seal Wife. A young farmer from the town of Mikladalur on Kalsoy island goes to the beach to watch the selkies dance. He hides the skin of a beautiful selkie maid, so she cannot go back to sea, and forces her to marry him. He keeps her skin in a chest, and keeps the key with him both day and night. One day when out fishing, he discovers that he has forgotten to bring his key. When he returns home, the selkie wife has escaped back to sea, leaving their children behind. Later, when the farmer is out on a hunt, he kills both her selkie husband and two selkie sons, and she promises to take revenge upon the men of Mikladalur. Some shall be drowned, some shall fall from cliffs and slopes, and this shall continue, until so many men have been lost that they will be able to link arms around the whole island of Kalsoy.

Selkies are not always faithless lovers. Peter Cagan and the Wind by Gordon Bok tells of the fisherman Cagan who married a seal-woman. Against his wife’s wishes he set sail dangerously late in the year, and was trapped battling a terrible storm, unable to return home. His wife shifted to her seal form and saved him, even though this meant she could never return to her human body and hence her happy home.

Some stories from Shetland have selkies luring islanders into the sea at midsummer, the lovelorn humans never returning to dry land.

A legend similar to that of the selkie is also told in Wales, but in a slightly different form. The selkies are humans who have returned to the sea. Dylan (Dylan ail Don) the firstborn of Arianrhod, was variously a merman or sea spirit, who in some versions of the story escapes to the sea immediately after birth.

Seal shapeshifters similar to the selkie exist in the folklore of many cultures. A corresponding creature existed in Swedish legend, and the Chinook people of North America have a similar tale of a boy who changes into a seal.

Before the advent of modern medicine many physiological conditions were untreatable and when children were born with abnormalities it was common to blame the fairies. The MacCodrum clan of the Outer Hebrides became known as the “MacCodrums of the seals” as they claimed to be descended from a union between a fisherman and a selkie as an explanation for the hereditary horny growth between their fingers that made their hands resemble flippers. Scottish folklorist and antiquarian, David MacRitchie believed that early settlers in Scotland probably encountered, and even married, Finnish and Saami women who were misidentified as selkies because of their sealskin kayaks and clothing. Others have suggested that the traditions concerning the selkies may have been due to misinterpreted sightings of the Saami people. The Saami wore clothes and used kayaks, both made of animal skins. Both the clothes and kayaks would lose buoyancy when saturated and would need to be dried out. It is thought that sightings of Saami divesting themselves of their clothing or lying next to the skins on the rocks could have led to the belief in their ability to change from a seal to a man.

Another belief is that shipwrecked Spaniards were washed ashore and their jet black hair resembled seals. As the anthropologist A. Asbjorn Jon has recognised though, there is a strong body of lore that indicates that selkies “are said to be supernaturally formed from the souls of drowned people”.

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Sketchbook Page 54: R is for Ratatoskr

March 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

Ratatoskr

Ratatoskr

Bones from a Bestiary part 18: R is for Ratatoskr

This is the eighteenth in a series of chimerical creatures; the aim is to create an alphabet of fabulous beasts over the coming months.

With recent advances in genetic engineering it should be possible to manufacture such creatures in the laboratory; although the results will not always be practical (or, indeed, humane) …

In Norse mythology, Ratatoskr (Old Norse, generally considered to mean “drill-tooth”or “bore-tooth”) is a squirrel who runs up and down the world tree Yggdrasil to carry messages between the eagle Hræsvelgr, perched atop Yggdrasil, and the wyrm Níðhöggr, who dwells beneath one of the three roots of the tree. Sometimes pictured with a horn on his head, Ratatoskr is attested in the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources, and the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson. Scholars have proposed theories about the implications of the squirrel.

Ratatoskr climbing Yggdrasill. The text by the animal reads "Rata / tøskur / ber øf / undar / ord my / llū arnr / og nyd / hoggs". From a 17th century Icelandic manuscript now in the care of the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland.

Ratatoskr climbing Yggdrasil. The text by the animal reads “Rata / tøskur / ber øf / undar / ord my / llū arnr / og nyd / hoggs”. From a 17th century Icelandic manuscript now in the care of the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland.

The name Ratatoskr contains two elements: rata- and -toskr. The element toskr is generally held to mean “tusk”. Guðbrandur Vigfússon theorized that the rati- element means “the traveller”. He says that the name of the legendary drill Rati may feature the same term. According to Vigfússon, Ratatoskr means “tusk the traveller” or “the climber tusk.”

Sophus Bugge theorised that the name Ratatoskr is a loan from Old English meaning “Rat-tooth.” Bugge’s hypothesis hinges on the fact that the -toskr element of the compound does not appear anywhere else in Old Norse. Bugge proposed that the -toskr element is a reformation of the Old English word tūsc (Old Frisian tusk) and, in turn, that the element Rata- represents Old English ræt (“rat”). According to Albert Sturtevant, “[as] far as the element Rata- is concerned, Bugge’s hypothesis has no valid foundation in view of the fact that the [Old Norse] word Rata (gen. form of Rati) is used in Háv[amál] (106, 1) to signify the instrument which Odin employed for boring his way through the rocks in quest of the poet’s mead […]” and that “Rati must then be considered a native [Old Norse] word meaning “The Borer, Gnawer” […]”. Sturtevant says that Bugge’s theory regarding the element -toskr may appear to be supported by the fact that the word does not appear elsewhere in Old Norse. Sturtevant, however, disagrees. Sturtevant says that the Old Norse proper name Tunne (derived from Proto-Norse Tunþē) refers to “a person who is characterized as having some peculiar sort of tooth” and theorizes a Proto-Germanic form of -toskr. Sturtevant concludes that “the fact that the [Old Norse] word occurs only in the name Rata-toskr is no valid evidence against this assumption, for there are many [Old Norse] hapax legomena of native origin, as is attested by the equivalents in the Mod[ern]

In the Poetic Edda poem Grímnismál, the god Odin (disguised as Grímnir) says that Ratatoskr runs up and down Yggdrasil bringing messages between the eagle perched atop it and Níðhöggr below it.

Henry Adams Bellows’ translation reads thus:

Ratatosk is the squirrel who there shall run
On the ash-tree Yggdrasil;
From above the words of the eagle he bears,
And tells them to Nithhogg beneath.

Ratatoskr is described in the Prose Edda’s Gylfaginning’s chapter 16, in which High (a pseudonym for Odin) states that:

‘An eagle sits at the top of the ash, and it has knowledge of many things. Between its eyes sits the hawk called Vedrfolnir […]. The squirrel called Ratatosk […] runs up and down the ash. He tells slanderous gossip, provoking the eagle and Nidhogg.’

According to Rudolf Simek, “the squirrel probably only represents an embellishing detail to the mythological picture of the world-ash in Grímnismál.” Hilda Ellis Davidson, describing the world tree, states the squirrel is said to gnaw at it — furthering a continual destruction and re-growth cycle, and posits the tree symbolizes ever-changing existence. John Lindow points out that Yggdrasil is described as rotting on one side and as being chewed on by four harts and Níðhöggr, and that, according to the account in Gylfaginning, it also bears verbal hostility in the fauna it supports. Lindow adds that “in the sagas, a person who helps stir up or keep feuds alive by ferrying words of malice between the participants is seldom one of high status, which may explain the assignment of this role in the mythology to a relatively insignificant animal.”

Richard W. Thorington Jr. and Katie Ferrell theorize that “the role of Ratatosk probably derived from the habit of European tree squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) to give a scolding alarm call in response to danger. It takes little imagination for you to think that the squirrel is saying nasty things about you.” Modern scholars have accepted this etymology, listing the name Ratatoskr as meaning “drill-tooth” (Jesse Byock, Andy Orchard, Rudolf Simek) or “bore-tooth” (John Lindow).

Sketchbook Page 53: Q is for Quinotaur

February 2, 2014 § 2 Comments

Quinotaur skeleton

Quinotaur skeleton

Bones from a Bestiary part 17: Q is for Quinotaur

This is the seventeenth in a series of chimerical creatures; the aim is to create an alphabet of fabulous beasts over the coming months.

With recent advances in genetic engineering it should be possible to manufacture such creatures in the laboratory; although the results will not always be practical (or, indeed, humane) …

The Quinotaur (Lat. Quinotaurus) is a mythical sea creature mentioned in the 7th century Frankish Chronicle of Fredegar. Referred to as “bestea Neptuni Quinotauri similes“, (the beast of Neptune which resembles a Quinotaur) it was held to have fathered Meroveus by attacking the wife of the Frankish king Chlodio and thus to have sired the line of Merovingian kings.

The name translates from Latin as “bull with five horns”, whose attributes have commonly been interpreted as the incorporated symbols of the sea-god Neptune with his trident, and the horns of a mythical bull or Minotaur.

Quinotaur

It is not known whether the legend merged both elements by itself or whether this merger should be attributed to the Christian author. The clerical Latinity of the name does not indicate whether it is a translation of some genuine Frankish creature or a coining.

The mythological assault, and subsequent family relation, of this monster attributed to Frankish mythology correspond to both the Indo-European etymology of Neptune (from PIE ‘*nepots’, “grandson” or “nephew”, compare also the Indo-Aryan ‘Apam Napat’, “grandson/nephew of the water”) and to bull-related fertility myths in Greek mythology, where for example the Phoenician princess Europa was abducted by the god Zeus, in the form of a white bull, that swam her away to Crete.

Sketchbook Page 52: P is for Piasa

December 31, 2013 § 1 Comment

Piasa skull

Piasa skull

Bones from a Bestiary part 16: P is for Piasa

This is the sixteenth in a series of chimerical creatures; the aim is to create an alphabet of fabulous beasts over the coming months.

With recent advances in genetic engineering it should be possible to manufacture such creatures in the laboratory; although the results will not always be practical (or, indeed, humane) …

The Piasa (/ˈpaɪ.əsɔː/ py-ə-saw) or Piasa Bird is a Native American dragon depicted in one of two murals painted by Native Americans on bluffs (cliffsides) above the Mississippi River. Its original location was at the end of a chain of limestone bluffs in Madison County, Illinois at present-day Alton, Illinois. The original Piasa illustration no longer exists; a newer 20th century version, based partly on 19th-century sketches and lithographs, has been placed on a bluff in Alton, Illinois, several hundred yards upstream from its origin. The limestone rock quality on the new site is unsuited for holding an image, and the painting must be regularly restored. The original site of the painting was a high-quality (6–8 foot thick) layer of lithographic limestone, which was predominantly quarried away in the late 1870s by the Mississippi Lime Company.

A modern reproduction of the "Piasa Bird", on the bluffs of the Mississippi River in Alton. Wings were not described in Marquette's 1673 account.

A modern reproduction of the “Piasa Bird”,
on the bluffs of the Mississippi River in Alton.
Wings were not described in Marquette’s 1673 account.

The ancient mural was created prior to the arrival of any European explorers in the region, and possibly before 1200 CE. It may have been an older iconograph from the large Mississippian culture city of Cahokia, which began developing about 900 CE. The location of the image was at a river-bluff terminus of the American Bottoms floodplain, the site of the Cahokians, the largest prehistoric city north of Mexico and a major chiefdom. Cahokia was at its peak about 1200 CE, with 20,000 to 30,000 residents. Icons and animal pictographs, such as falcons, thunder-birds, bird men, and monstrous snakes were common motifs of the Cahokia culture. The Piasa creature may have been painted as a graphic symbol to warn strangers traveling down the Mississippi River that they were entering Cahokian territory.

An Alton Evening Telegraph newspaper article of May 27, 1921 stated that seven smaller painted images, believed to be of archaic American Indian origin, were found in the early 20th Century approx. 1.5 miles upriver from the ancient “Piasa” creature’s location. These pictures were carved and painted in rocks located in the “Levis Bluffs” area by George Dickson and William Turk in 1905. Four of the these paintings were of “an owl, a sun circle, a squirrel, and a piece showing two birds or some kind of animals in a contest”, the other 3 paintings were of “a great animal, perhaps a lion, and another an animal about as large as a dog”. These paintings were photographed by Prof. William McAdams and were to be placed in his book “Records of Ancient Races in the Mississippi Valley: being an account of some of the pictographs, sculptured hieroglyphs, symbolic devices, emblems and traditions of the prehistoric races of America, with some suggestions as to their origin” William McAdams, C. R. Barns Publishing Co., 1887. These seven archaic American Indian paintings have been lost in recorded annals as they were to have been in transit to the Missouri Historical Society circa 1922. Other Native American carved petroglyphs of a similar time period and region as the Piasa monster are carved into the rocks at Washington State Park, De Soto, Missouri (approx. 60 miles southwest of the current Piasa image).

The name Piasa may also have been derived from the Native American Miami-Illinois word páyiihsa (cf. Anishinaabe: apa’iins(ag), “little people(s)”).This was their name for small, supernatural dwarves said to attack travelers. Local claims that the word “Piasa” meant “the bird that devours men” or “bird of the evil spirit” are not accurate nor based in the Illinois language.

In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette saw the painting on a limestone bluff overlooking the Mississippi River while exploring the area. He recorded the following description:

“While Skirting some rocks, which by Their height and length inspired awe, We saw upon one of them two painted monsters which at first made Us afraid, and upon Which the boldest savages dare not Long rest their eyes. They are as large As a calf; they have Horns on their heads Like those of a deer, a horrible look, red eyes, a beard Like a tiger’s, a face somewhat like a man’s, a body Covered with scales, and so Long A tail that it winds all around the Body, passing above the head and going back between the legs, ending in a Fish’s tail. Green, red, and black are the three Colors composing the Picture. Moreover, these 2 monsters are so well painted that we cannot believe that any savage is their author; for good painters in France would find it difficult to reach that place Conveniently to paint them. Here is approximately The shape of these monsters, As we have faithfully Copied It.”

Later French explorers, like St. Cosme, reported that by 1699 the series of images were badly worn due to the habits of the local Indians to “discharge their weapons” at the images as they passed. Author A.D. Jones, in his book ” Illinois and the West” c.1838, also describes the ravages of weapons (firearms) upon the images, and further refers to the paintings as being named “Piasua”.

The monster depicted in the mural was first referred to as the “Piasa Bird” in an article published circa 1836 by John Russell of Bluffdale, Illinois. John Russell was an imaginative professor of Greek and Latin at Shurtleff College, Upper Alton, Illinois. The article was entitled “The Tradition of The Piasa” and Russell claimed the origin of the word to be from a nearby stream : “This stream is the Piasa. Its name is Indian, and signifies, in the Illini, “The Bird That Devours Men”.” [note: The original “Piasa Creek” ran thru the main ravine in downtown Alton, and was completely covered by huge drainage pipes circa 1912.] According to the story published by Russell, the creature depicted by the painting was a huge bird that lived in the cliffs. Russell claimed that this creature attacked and devoured people in nearby Indian villages shortly after the corpses of a war gave it a taste for human flesh. The legend claims that a local Indian chief, named Chief Ouatoga, managed to slay the monster using a plan given to him in a dream from the Great Spirit. The Chief ordered his bravest warriors to hide near the entrance of the Piasa Bird’s cave, which Russell also claimed to have explored. Ouatoga then acted as bait to lure the creature out into the open. As the monster flew down toward the Indian Chief, his warriors slew it with a volley of poisoned arrows. Russell claimed that the mural was painted by the Indians as a commemoration of this heroic event.

Some sources report that this account was simply a story created by John Russell. In the book “Records of Ancient Races in the Mississippi Valley…” Chapter 2, 1887 by W. McAdams, the author says he contacted John Russell and Russell admitted the story was “somewhat illustrated”. The bird imagery is not reported in Father Marquette’s description, which makes no mention of wings. It is also possible that Marquette’s description and Russell’s account were both accurate for their respective times. The image may have been repainted at some point between 1673 and 1836 to revise its appearance and iconography.

When contemporary historians, folklorists, and tourism promoters are looking for a narrative description of the story behind the Piasa “Bird”, they often rely on Russell’s account. This colorful version of the tale can be adapted to allow a wide range of interpretation and allow other cities and counties to claim promotional rights to the legend.

Sketchbook Page 51: O is for Ouroboros

November 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

Ouroboros (fossilised remains)

Ouroboros (fossilised remains)


Bones from a Bestiary part 15: O is for Ouroboros

This is the fifteenth in a series of chimerical creatures; the aim is to create an alphabet of fabulous beasts over the coming months.

With recent advances in genetic engineering it should be possible to manufacture such creatures in the laboratory; although the results will not always be practical (or, indeed, humane) …

The Ouroboros or Uroboros (/jʊərɵˈbɒrəs/; /ɔːˈrɒbɔrəs/, from οὐροβόρος ὄφις tail-devouring snake) is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail.

Drawing by Theodoros Pelecanos, in the alchemical tract Synosius (1478).

Drawing by Theodoros Pelecanos, in the alchemical tract Synosius (1478).

The Ouroboros often symbolises self-reflexivity or cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself, the eternal return, and other things such as the phoenix which operate in cycles that begin anew as soon as they end. It can also represent the idea of primordial unity related to something existing in or persisting from the beginning with such force or qualities meaning that it cannot be extinguished. While first emerging in Ancient Egypt, the Ouroboros has been important in religious and mythological symbolism, but it has also been frequently used in alchemical illustrations, where it symbolizes the circular nature of the alchemist’s opus. It is also often associated with Gnosticism and Hermeticism.

Carl Jung interpreted the Ouroboros as having an archetypal significance to the human psyche. The Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann writes of it as a representation of the pre-ego “dawn state”, depicting the undifferentiated infancy experience of both mankind and the individual child.

The first known appearance of the ouroboros motif is in the Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld, an ancient Egyptian funerary text from KV62, the tomb of Tutankhamun, written in the 14th century BC. The text concerns the actions of the god Ra and his union with Osiris in the underworld. In an illustration from this text, two serpents, holding their tails in their mouths, coil around the head and feet of an enormous god, who may represent the unified Ra-Osiris. Both serpents are manifestations of the deity Mehen, who in other funerary texts protects Ra in his underworld journey. The whole divine figure represents the beginning and the end of time.

The ouroboros appears elsewhere in Egyptian sources, where, like many Egyptian serpent deities, it represents the formless disorder that surrounds the orderly world and is involved in that world’s periodic renewal. The symbol persisted in Egypt into Roman times, when it frequently appeared on magical talismans, sometimes in combination with other magical emblems. The 4th-century AD Latin commentator Servius was aware of the Egyptian use of the symbol, noting that the image of a snake biting its tail represents the cyclical nature of the year.

Plato described a self-eating, circular being as the first living thing – representing the universe as an immortal, mythologically constructed entity.

The living being had no need of eyes because there was nothing outside of him to be seen; nor of ears because there was nothing to be heard; and there was no surrounding atmosphere to be breathed; nor would there have been any use of organs by the help of which he might receive his food or get rid of what he had already digested, since there was nothing which went from him or came into him: for there was nothing beside him. Of design he created thus; his own waste providing his own food, and all that he did or suffered taking place in and by himself. For the Creator conceived that a being which was self-sufficient would be far more excellent than one which lacked anything; and, as he had no need to take anything or defend himself against any one, the Creator did not think it necessary to bestow upon him hands: nor had he any need of feet, nor of the whole apparatus of walking; but the movement suited to his spherical form which was designed by him, being of all the seven that which is most appropriate to mind and intelligence; and he was made to move in the same manner and on the same spot, within his own limits revolving in a circle. All the other six motions were taken away from him, and he was made not to partake of their deviations. And as this circular movement required no feet, the universe was created without legs and without feet.

In Gnosticism, this serpent symbolized eternity and the soul of the world. The Gnostic text Pistis Sophia describes the disc of the sun as a 12-part dragon with his tail in his mouth.

The Ouroboros symbol appears in both 14th–15th century Albigensian printing watermarks and is also worked into the pip cards of many early (14th–15th century) playing cards, including Tarot cards. Watermarks similar to those used by the Albigensians appear in early printed playing cards, suggesting that the Albigenses might have had contact with the early authors of tarot decks. The symbol commonly used as the ace of cups in early decks, which is one of the symbols frequently circled with an ouroboros, also frequently appears among Albigensian watermarks.  It is conceivable that this is the source of some of the urban legends associating this symbol with secret societies, because the Albigenses were closely associated with the humanist movement and the inquisition it sparked. Because the Albigenses came from Armenia, where Zoroastrianism and Mithra worship were common, it may be that the symbol entered their iconography via the Zoroastrian Faravahar symbol, which in some versions clearly features an ouroboros at the waist instead of a vague disc-shape. In Mithran mystery cults the figure of Mithra being reborn (one of the things he is famous for) is sometimes seen wrapped with an ouroboros, indicating his eternal and cyclic nature, and even references which do not mention the ouroboros refer to this circular shape as symbolizing the immortality of the soul or the cyclic nature of Karma, suggesting that the circle retains its meaning even when the details of the image are obscured.

In Norse mythology, it appears as the serpent Jörmungandr, one of the three children of Loki and Angrboda, who grew so large that it could encircle the world and grasp its tail in its teeth. In the legends of Ragnar Lodbrok, such as Ragnarssona þáttr, the Geatish king Herraud gives a small lindworm as a gift to his daughter Þóra Town-Hart after which it grows into a large serpent which encircles the girl’s bower and bites itself in the tail. The serpent is slain by Ragnar Lodbrok who marries Þóra. Ragnar later has a son with another woman named Kráka and this son is born with the image of a white snake in one eye. This snake encircled the iris and bit itself in the tail, and the son was named Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye.

In alchemy, the Ouroboros is a sigil. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung saw the Ouroboros as an archetype and the basic mandala of alchemy. Jung also defined the relationship of the Ouroboros to alchemy:

The alchemists, who in their own way knew more about the nature of the individuation process than we moderns do, expressed this paradox through the symbol of the Ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail. The Ouroboros has been said to have a meaning of infinity or wholeness. In the age-old image of the Ouroboros lies the thought of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima materia of the art was man himself. The Ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow. This ‘feed-back’ process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the Ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself. He symbolizes the One, who proceeds from the clash of opposites, and he therefore constitutes the secret of the prima materia which […] unquestionably stems from man’s unconscious.

The famous Ouroboros drawing from the early alchemical text The Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra dating to 2nd century Alexandria encloses the words hen to pan, “one is the all”. Its black and white halves represent the Gnostic duality of existence. As such, the Ouroboros could be interpreted as the Western equivalent of the Taoist Yin-Yang symbol.

The Chrysopoeia Ouroboros of Cleopatra the Alchemist is one of the oldest images of the Ouroboros to be linked with the legendary opus of the Alchemists, the Philosopher’s Stone.

As a symbol of the eternal unity of all things, the cycle of birth and death from which the alchemist sought release and liberation, it was familiar to the alchemist/physician Sir Thomas Browne. In his A Letter to a Friend, a medical treatise full of case-histories and witty speculations upon the human condition, he wrote of it:

[…] that the first day should make the last, that the Tail of the Snake should return into its Mouth precisely at that time, and they should wind up upon the day of their Nativity, is indeed a remarkable Coincidence,

In Hindu philosophy Ouroboros symbolism has been used to describe Kundalini energy. According to the second century Yoga Kundalini Upanishad, “The divine power, Kundalini, shines like the stem of a young lotus; like a snake, coiled round upon herself she holds her tail in her mouth and lies resting half asleep as the base of the body”. Another interpretation is that Kundalini equates to the entwined serpents of the caduceus, the entwined serpents representing medicine in the west or, esoterically, human DNA.

Sketchbook Page 50: N is for Nurarihyon

October 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

Nurarihyon

Nurarihyon skull

Bones from a Bestiary part 14: N is for Nurarihyon 

This is the fourteenth in a series of chimerical creatures; the aim is to create an alphabet of fabulous beasts over the coming months.

With recent advances in genetic engineering it should be possible to manufacture such creatures in the laboratory; although the results will not always be practical (or, indeed, humane) …

Nurarihyon (ぬらりひょん?), or Nūrihyon (ぬうりひょん?), is a Japanese yōkai (a supernatural creature in folklore) said to originate from Wakayama Prefecture. It is also sometimes believed to be descended from the Umibōzu of Okayama Prefecture.

The Nurarihyon is usually depicted as an old man with a gourd-shaped head and wearing a kesa (a buddhist robe stitched together to form three rectangular pieces of cloth). He is sometimes said to be leader of the yōkai.

Suuhi_Nurarihyon

Nurarihyon by Sawaki Sūshi (佐脇嵩之, Japanese, *1707, †1772)

The Nurarihyon will sneak into someone’s house while they are away, drink their tea, and act as if it is their own house. Because it looks human, anyone who sees him will mistake him for the owner of the house, making it very hard to expel him.

Nurarihyon is called the leader of the Hyakki Yakō.

Sketchbook Page 49: M is for Mermaid II (The Siren)

September 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

Mermaid II (The Siren)

Mermaid II (The Siren)

Bones from a Bestiary part 13: M is for Mermaid

This is the thirteenth in a series of chimerical creatures; the aim is to create an alphabet of fabulous beasts over the coming months.

With recent advances in genetic engineering it should be possible to manufacture such creatures in the laboratory; although the results will not always be practical (or, indeed, humane) …

I am indebted to Bruce L Manzano from the University of Kentucky for the following comment:

Although the fish side to mermaids is frequently shown by the scales in drawings – which makes one use fish-like bones for the tail and finds, I believe you would be more accurate by showing the skeletal elements below the waist if they were aligned with something closer to seals.  This would fit an evolutionary format for the upper portions of Mermaids as well as some of the folklore from the northern areas (Ireland & Scotland?) where mermaids and seals are tied in oral traditions.

On the basis of this advice I have made a second sketch (see above) representing a mermaid burial (see also Sketchbook Page 49: M is for Mermaid); this drawing is perhaps slightly less fanciful in that I have made it from a fusion of human and seal skeletal parts …

The word mermaid is a compound of the Old English mere (sea), and maid (a girl or young woman). The equivalent term in Old English was merewif. They are conventionally depicted as beautiful with long flowing hair. They are sometimes equated with the sirens of Greek mythology (especially the Odyssey), half-bird femme fatales whose enchanting voices would lure soon-to-be-shipwrecked sailors to nearby rocks, sandbars or shoals.

Sirenia is an order of fully aquatic, herbivorous mammals that inhabit rivers, estuaries, coastal marine waters, swamps and marine wetlands. Sirenians, including manatees and dugongs, possess major aquatic adaptations: arms used for steering, a paddle used for propulsion, and remnants of hind limbs (legs) in the form of two small bones floating deep in the muscle. They look ponderous and clumsy but are actually fusiform, hydrodynamic and highly muscular, and mariners before the mid-nineteenth century referred to them as mermaids.

Please note that, following Bruce’s advice, the lower half of the body in the burial above is based on seal (i.e. pinniped) rather than sirenian remains.

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