Scar Removals and Breast Reductions: Graeco-Roman Practices of Plastic Surgery

In the 6th Century BCE, an Indian physician named Sushruta, who was widely regarded in India as the “father of surgery”, wrote one of the world’s earliest works on medicine and surgery. The work included the method of skin grafting, which entail transplanting pieces of skin from one part of the body to another. His treatise also provides the first written record of a forehead flap rhinoplasty, a technique still used today, in which a full-thickness piece of skin from the forehead is used to reconstruct a nose. However, Sushruta was not the first inventor of plastic surgery. The first known record of plastic surgery was in 1213 BCE, when ancient Egyptians tried to preserve the nose of their dead king by surgically inserting bones and seeds into it.

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Inscribed tablet on the wall of the temple of KOM-OMBOS, upper Egypt, built by Ptolemy VII (181-146 BC) Temple date (100 c BC)

For centuries, tribes would stretch their earlobes, bind their feet, file their teeth, as well as tattoo and scar their skin – these practices have not lost their cultural powers. Plastic surgery gained momentum and sophistication during the lifetime of the ancient Roman physician Galen (129-216 CE) due to increased obsession with the human body. Galen himself attempted to cure eyes that squinted and drooped. He also performed aesthetic rhinoplasty on wealthy men and women who simply wanted a new nose. However, after the fall of Rome, many of Galen’s medical texts were lost – only 20 out of his 600 books survive – and the practice of plastic surgery was in decline. In the Middle Ages, despite discussions of proper dental care, surgery in general was deemed to be pagan and sinful because the spilling of blood by a surgeon and the power he held over the body were akin to magic. Plastic surgery, therefore, has always existed and was shrouded in mystery, magic, and eroticism.

Greek legends recount the Graiai, sea god desses who lacked teeth and eyes but successfully passed one of each between them for use. On the utopian island described by Iambulus around 100 BCE were tortoises whose blood had a glue powerful enough to reattach severed body parts. In Apuleius’s circa 160 CE, Latin retelling of the Greek tale The Golden Ass, the hero’s nose and ears are removed by witches and then replaced with wax.

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Edward Burne-Jones, Perseus and the Graiae, 1877-1880

Also in Greek mythology, there is the story of Tantalus, king of Phrygia and son of Zeus. Tantalus was one of the few mortals invited to Mount Olympus. After getting away with some minor infractions, Tantalus thought he was immune from any punishment due to his being the son of Zeus. He then committed a heinous crime by killing his own son, Pelops, and serving him at a banquet to the Olympian gods. Enraged, Zeus hurled Tantalus to Hades to suffer eternal torture of hunger and thirst. Zeus then ordered Hermes to collect all the pieces of Pelops from the dinner table and reconstruct them together. However, the shoulder was missing as Demeter, preoccupied with her daughter Persephone’s disappearance, had accidentally eaten it. Hephaestus reconstructed the shoulder with ivory and Zeus breathed life into him. Legend has it that any one who has a birth mark on the shoulder is a descendant of Pelops.

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Pelops and Hippodamia, eastern pediment of the temple of Zeus, Archaeological Museum of Olympia.

Homer stated “One surgeon was worth an army of men” recognizing the value of a surgeon during frequent wars that raged those days. This illustrates nicely a discovery made in Abdera (Thrace), dating to the middle of the 7th century BCE where the remains of a woman were discovered with what seemed like an injury on the rear of the skull consistent with a lead shot from a sling. This injury looked like it had been successfully operated on and, judging from the recovery growth around the area, it has been estimated that the woman had lived for 20 years or so following the surgery. This gives us us an early look into early treatments to trauma injury and the care it took to cover the subsequent scarring.

By the first century BCE, perhaps prompted by the very public Roman baths, the Romans were also practicing advanced plastic surgery procedures. In a culture that praised the beauty of the naked body in both art and poetry, the ancient Romans viewed any sign of abnormality, particularly around the area of the genitalia, with both suspicion and amusement. Consequently, one of the most popular plastic surgery procedures appeared to be circumcision removal, which is described in a rather detached way by Cornelius Celsus’ text De re medicina during the reign of Tiberius (14-37 CE) where he describes a breast reduction surgery on an obese man whose breasts were “unsightly” and “shameful.”

Roman surgeons would also remove scars, particularly those on the back, which were marks of shame because they suggested that a man had turned his back in battle or, worse, he had been whipped like a slave. The poet Martial (40-104 CE) suggests that some slaves had their brands removed by surgeons during this time. Surgeons would also often operate on gladiators who had noses and ears chopped off and on foreigners who would try to fit into Roman society.

Dewi Sri, Nang Khosop and the Bountiful Body of a Goddess

For centuries, rice has been a staple diet and plays an important role in Asian culture. Although rice farmers have found their lives to become more difficult due to climate change, Bloomberg states in 2016 that 16 million people still farm rice in Thailand alone. Commemorating the beginning of the rice growing season with an annual Royal Plowing Ceremony in the month of May is an ancient tradition for countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Sri Langka among others. Some of the duties of the Emperor of Japan as chief Shinto priest is the ritual planting of the first rice seeds on the grounds of the Tokyo Imperial Palace as well as performing the first harvest ritual. Rice fields in Asia are generally protected by goddesses.

Although these goddesses, as well as their many variations of legends, may be overshadowed by the famous Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest, they exhibit many of the elements of Demeter’s characteristics. They all journeyed to the underworld in one way or another. They also resembles Demeter in their association with snakes, fertility and motherhood. In 1849, German Classicist Eduard Gerhard speculated that the various goddesses found in ancient Greek paganism (including Demeter herself) had been representations of a singular goddess who had been worshipped far further back into prehistory – associating this deity particularly with the concept of Mother Earth. Evidently, the influence of the Mother Goddess reached further than ancient Greece.

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Dewi Sri 36 cm tall bronze statue, Central Java art. Her left hand is holding a rice plant.

The story of Dewi Sri also takes her to the three realms of heaven, earth and the underworld. Dewi Sri is ancient goddess of rice and fertility even before the Hindu and Islamic era of Indonesia. Despite her mythology being native to the island of Java, after the adoption of Hinduism in Java as early as the first century CE, Dewi Sri became associated with the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity.

Dewi Sri and the origin of rice as written in Wawacan Sulanjana (“The Tale of Sulanjana”), which contains Sundanese local wisdom through reverence of rice cultivation in its tradition. Once upon a time in heaven, Batara Guru, the king of the gods, commanded all the gods and goddesses to help build a new palace. Upon hearing this, the naga god Antaboga became anxious as, although he was fiercely loyal to his master, he was a great serpent and did not have arms or legs to help with the building. His anxiety became too much that three teardrops fell from his eyes to the ground where they became three beautiful jewel-like eggs.

With the three eggs in his mouth Anta flew to the heavenly palace to offer them to Batara Guru. On his way there, he was approached by an eagle whom asked him a question. As Antaboga was holding his eggs in his mouth, he had no choice but to keep silent. The eagle, feeling insulted, furiously attacked him – leaving him with only one egg to offer Batara Guru. Batara Guru accepted the egg and asked Antaboga to nest the egg until it hatched. The egg hatched into a beautiful baby girl who he then gave to Batara Guru.

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Statue of Dewi Sri — Ubud, Bali

The girl grew up into a beautiful princess in the heavenly palace, so beautiful that her foster father, Batara Guru, started to feel attracted to her himself. To protect the girl’s chastity, the gods poisoned the girl and buried her body below the earth. However, from her remains grew plants that would forever benefit human kind. Coconut grew from her head, various spices and vegetables grew from her nose, lips, and ears. Grass and flowers grew from her hair, trees grew from her arms and hands and rice grew from her eyes. The girl was then known as Dewi Sri (“Great Goddess”) venerated and revered as the benevolent goddess of rice and fertility.

Dewi Sri was not the only goddess who had to die so that mankind could live. According to the Laotian origin myth in a manuscript in Wat Si Saket (built between 1819-1824 CE), one day after a thousand-year famine, a young hermit caught a golden fish. The king of the fish heard his subject’s cry of agony and asked the hermit to free the golden fish in exchange for a treasure. The treasure was Nang Khosop, a maiden who served as the soul of the rice. The hermit let Nang Khosop live in a rice field where she then nourished humans for many generations. However, one day an unrighteous king brought about a famine on the land by storing the rice that was due to the people to acquire luxury goods for himself. During this famine, an old couple of slaves met the now old hermit in the forest. Seeing that they were famished, the hermit appealed to Nang Khosop to feed them. However, she refused as, unaware that the king had been keeping her rice, she felt that she had given the people sufficient food to survive. The hermit then slaughtered Nang Khosop and cut her into many little pieces. The pieces of Nang Khosop became different varieties of rice. The old couple then went on to teach humans how to cultivate this new rice in small grains.

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Buddha statue located in front of Wat Si Saket in Vientiane.

The Fallen God and the Power of Humility

Semar is probably one of the oldest characters in Indonesian mythology who was not derived from Hindu mythology. He was made famous by performances of Wayang (Shadow Puppets) in the islands of Java and Bali as a rather unattractive, short man with breasts, a great sized behind, and uncontrollable urge for farting. However, underneath his peculiar appearance, Semar plays a major part in the Indonesian creation myth as the elder brother of the supreme god Batara Guru (the Hindu god Shiva).

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The Candi Semar, one of the temples of the Candi Arjuna temple complex at the Dieng Plateau (photo taken in 1864)

The book Purwacarita says that Semar is actually Sang Hyang Ismaya, elder brother of Batara Guru, and father of Batara Surya (the Hindu sun god Surya). He was one of the three powerful warrior gods born from a single divine egg. His brothers are Sang Hyang Antaga and Sang Hyang Manikmaya (who later took on the name Batara Guru). When it was time to decide which one of them was to be the ruler of heaven, Sang Hyang Antaga and Sang Hyang Ismaya quarreled for the position in a battle that went on for forty days. Their father, the ruler of heaven, finally decided to hold a contest. The brother who was able to swallow the heavenly mountain would be crowned as the next ruler of heaven.

As their father looked on sadly, Sang Hyang Antaga tore his lips in his attempt to swallow the mountain. He lost a lot of blood and collapsed on to the earth. Sang Hyang Ismaya choked as the mountain entered his throat and fell unconscious. When the two brothers regained their consciousness, they could no longer recognize each other. The mighty warrior figure of Sang Hyang Antaga had changed; His body now short and bloated, his mouth huge, ripped by his effort to swallow the mountain and forever marked his face. Sang Hyang Ismaya, whose face was fair like the sun, had turned into a little old man with small limbs and sad eyes. His mouth gave a perpetual clownish smile which makes him look rather frightening.

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Shadow puppet representing Semar

Their father banished them both to earth. Sang Hyang Antaga was renamed Togog Wijomantri and was assigned to care for the giants, whose natures were filled with rage. Sang Hyang Ismaya was renamed Semar Bagranaya. He was charged to care for the kings, Brahmins (priests and wisemen) and knights of the world, whose natures were filled with pride. Thus the two brothers bowed their heads and accepted their fates. Semar came down to earth to serve as servants to the kings and warriors. 

According to Babad Tanah Jawi, Semar was a spirit who looked after a small field near Mount Merbabu ten thousand years before there were any other people in the island of Java. His descendants, the spirits of the island, came into conflict with the first people as they cleared fields and populated the island. To end this feud, a powerful Hindu priest provided Semar with a role that allowed him and his descendants to stay. The role is that of a spiritual advisor and divine supporter of the royalty. As this is a hereditary role, his descendants who are willing to protect the humans of Java also remain there.

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Wooden wayang golèk doll, depicting the Semar.

Although he was banished to the human realm, Semar was blessed with eight divine virtues: He would never feel hungry, never feel sleepy, never fall in love, never feel sad, never feel tired, never be sick, never feel heat and never feel cold. Those eight virtues are represented by the eight hairs on his crest. Those eight chest hairs are not the only unusual quality of Semar. In fact, Semar’s very being is full of contradictions. He has a man’s face, but he has a woman’s breasts. He has wrinkles on his face like an old man, but his hair is cut like a child. His lips always smile but his eyes are sad. He is a deity, but he wears kawung motive sarong, as other retainers wear. His outward appearance is considered grotesque, but he has a kind heart.

Semar is the symbol of the duality of life, like yin and yang, where opposites exist side by side in harmony. Any attempt to change his appearance, if it was even possible, would prove disastrous. For example, a forelock is often something that children have, whereas on Semar, an old man, it shows child-like qualities such as honesty and lack of prejudice. If his forelock were cut off, he would lose these qualities and became suspicious and prejudiced like other adults. This symbolizes the importance of balance and acceptance of the good and bad qualities, as one cannot exist without the other.

In every Wayang performance, Semar is the only character who dares to protest to the gods, including Batara Guru and Batari Durga, even compelling them to act or desist. He often represents the realistic view of the world in contrast to the idealistic view held by the heroes. His role is somewhat similar to Shakespeare’s Falstaff in Henry IV as critic of the play’s worldview and antidote to pride.

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 On the play Hanuman Obong, and the army of monkeys helped Anoman semar

The Kitchen in Asian Mythology

In Asian mythology, just before the Lunar New Year, the kitchen gods would go to Heaven to report to the Heavenly Emperor on his family’s activities during the year. In China, the family “send off” their kitchen god to heaven to make their report by burning the paper in which an image of the paper god was drawn that had hung over their stove for the entire year. The smoke rising to the heavens represents his journey to heaven, while fire crackers are lit to speed up the kitchen god’s travel. To ensure a good report before the Heavenly Emperor, honey would be rubbed on the lips of the paper god so that the kitchen god would have only sweet things to say to the Heavenly Emperor, or so that the sticky honey would prevent him from opening his mouth and tells the Heavenly Emperor any bad news.

Every Vietnamese household has a ceremony named Tet Tao Quan (“Kitchen Gods’ Day”). The women of the family would cook delicacies such as steamed sticky rice or plain porridge, altars would be cleaned and decorated with fresh flowers and fruits, and large bowl of water containing live golden carps is kept aside. The carps will be freed into a pond, lake or river after the worshiping ceremonies are finished. The three kitchen gods can only travel up to the heavens with the help of golden carps, as a carp is believed to be heaven’s animal and is a very good swimmer.

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Vietnamese painting of the Kitchen Gods

The most popular story of the Chinese kitchen god dates back to the 2nd Century BCE. The kitchen god was once a mortal on earth named Zhang Lang. Zhang Lang married a virtuous woman, but later left her to be with a younger woman. As a punishment for his adultery, the heavens afflicted Zhang Lang with ill-fortune – Zhang Lang became blind and, not long after, his young lover abandoned him. His misfortunes continued until he had to resort to begging to support himself.

One day, when he was begging for alms, Zhang Lang came upon a simple house of his former wife. As he was blind, he did not recognize the woman he betrayed. However, she recognized him, took pity on him and invited him in. She cooked a meal for Zhang Lang and tended to him kindly. As Zhang Lang told her his life’s story, he began to weep remembering his former wife and his treatment of her. Hearing this, Zhang Lang’s former wife gently told him to open his eyes and his vision was restored.

When he could finally make out the woman sitting in front of him, Zhang Lang recognized her as the wife he abandoned. However, it appeared that bad luck followed him to the end of his life, as Zhang Lang felt such shame that he threw himself into the kitchen hearth without realizing that it was lit. Despite the virtuous woman’s best efforts to save her former husband, she could only salvage one of his legs. To this day, a fire poker is sometimes referred to as Zhāng lǎng de tuǐ(“Zhang Lang’s Leg”).

The devoted wife then created a shrine to Zhang Lang above the fireplace. The Heavenly Emperor took pity on Zhang Lang. He gave Zhang Lang a new name Zao Jun (“Stove Master”) and made him the god of the Kitchen. When his faithful former wife died, the couple was finally reunited.

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From Chinese mythology, the Kitchen God, named Zao Jun (灶君; literally “stove master”) who rewards or punishes each household accordingly…. This pix is in the famous play “12 bà mụ” of Nguyễn Khắc Phục.

To establish a fresh beginning in the New Year, families in Asia are traditionally organized both within their family unit, in their home, and around their yard to clean. This custom of a thorough house cleaning and yard cleaning is another popular custom relating to the Kitchen Gods stemming from the philosophy that they embody. It is believed that in order for the deities to depart to heaven, the family home and “persons” must be cleansed. This ritual continued until after the ceremony where old decorations are taken down and new posters and decorations are put up for the following Spring Festival.

To further illustrate the relationship of the kitchen and family relationships, to this day traditional Independent Chinese families are classified accordingly to the stove they possess. In circumstances of a divided household, kitchens are shared but never the stove. In the case of a fathers death, the sons would divide their fathers household. The eldest son inherits the stove and the younger brothers transfer the coals from the old stove to their own new stoves to invite the kitchen gods to join their newly formed households. This process is called pun chu (“dividing the stove”) which also indicates the division of the “soul” of the family. As the stove is divided, each family members could then keep a part of their family’s “soul” in their new homes.

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The kitchen in the Shikumen Open House Museum, Shanghai, China

Ancient Ladies of War

The vision of heavily armed men has become so heavily associated with the art of war that at this point it has become a cliché. So much so that, despite the many evidence throughout history of many female fighters, strategists and leaders, the association between women and war are still mostly seen as somewhat of a novelty even to this day. Stories of ancient female warriors are relegated to legends and folklores with minimal historical accounts attached to their lives, which leads to doubts on whether these women actually existed. Some of them are so fantastical and unrealistic that one would be forgiven to be inclined to immediately dismiss them. The lives and exploits of notable warrior women in history such as Artemisia I of Caria, Boudicca, or Joan of Arc are mostly considered examples of exceptional personal valor instead of reflections of the societies in which they lived.

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Attic red figure pelike by the Polygnotos Painter, 440-430 BC. A battle between a Greek warrior and an Amazon. The signature of the Painter is above the head of the warrior. Found in Gela, Sicily.

Chronicles of the ancient wars in Japan, much like those of ancient Greece and Rome, present many different kinds of male warriors such as the tragic hero, the warrior-courtier, the traitor, the coward and many others. On the other hand, women’s roles in these tales are slight and set far from the battlefields. There is the tragic heroine, or the loyal wife, who kills herself at the death of her husband or lover, the grieving mother who grooms her son to avenge his father’s death, the merciful woman who encourages a warrior chieftain to empathize, against his better judgment, and dissuade him from slaughtering his enemy’s children who later grow up to kill him, and the seductress who diverts the warrior from his task with her feminine wiles – all intriguing roles, of course, but they are stereotypes which realistically would apply to only very few women.

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Nakano Takeko shrine in Japan

Then there are the “ordinary women” who are either slaughtered or taken by the warriors as spoils of war. The fates of these women were rarely, if ever, mentioned. The likelihood of these women being raped and murdered were considered such a matter of course that frequent references to them would only disturb the flow of the story. The rare female warriors were depicted as superheroines. The life of Empress Jingu of Japan (c. 169-269 CE), as with many ancient female warriors, was shrouded in mystery. Aided by a pair of divine jewels which allowed her to control the tides, Empress Jingu led a successful invasion to Korea without shedding a single drop of blood from the Korean or the Japanese. However, the belief that Korea was invaded during this time is widely rejected historically as the historical evidence of Japanese rule in Korea during this time are somewhat debatable. Her legend became more incredible as her son Ojin was born upon her return to Japan in 203 CE. Ojin remained in the Empress’ womb for three years as he was conceived before she went to battle and was born upon her return. Legend has it that Ojin was actually Hachiman, the god of war, and he remained in her womb for three years to give her the time she needed to conquer Korea.

The descriptions of Tomoe Gozen are also unbelievable. Not only was she described as a woman of great beauty, intellect and battle skills, Tomoe Gozen was also a perfect archer, brilliant horse rider, an expert of the sword and a very competent politician – in short, a perfect war machine with the face of an angel. Nevertheless, she proved herself in combat as, leading only 300 samurais, she fought more than 2000 warriors and survived.

Tomoe Gozen is noted as one of Japan’s rare woman warriors who engaged in offensive battles. However, again, this is not completely true as there was, in fact, a whole class of women who were engaged in offensive battles. The excavation of three battlefield head-mounds from the Battle of Senbon Matsubaru between Takeda Katsuyori and Hojo Ujinao in 1580 CE and DNA tests on 105 bodies revealed that 35 of the warriors were female. Two subsequent excavations elsewhere produced similar results. As none of these findings was a siege situation, this leads to the conclusion that women fought in offensive armies even though their involvement was seldom recorded.

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Replica of the armor worn by female samurai Tachibana Ginchiyo at Siege of Yanagawa in 1600

The ancient women of Japan were only one of the latest in a long history of society-sanctioned female warriors. Herodotus describes steppe nomads named the Sauromatae, descendants of the Scythians, whose women hunted and fought alongside the men on horseback. This description is confirmed by archeological evidences of female warriors in Scythian cultures. Excavations of 44 Sauromatian and Sarmatian kurgan burial mounds along the Khazakstan-Russia border in the 1990s discovered several skeletons of women buried with daggers and bronze tipped arrows.

As many other female skeletons unearthed at the same site were buried only with more typically feminine goods like beads and earrings. Such women of nomadic steppe cultures appear to have been trained in warfare from childhood and would have been proficient in the Scythian practice of mounted archery. In times of war, these women would have ridden alongside the men into battle, shooting at their foes from horseback and occasionally being shot themselves. The wounds found on a few of the excavated female skeletons confirmed this.

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Sculpture of Amazon Female Warrior, Ouidah, Benin

Accounts of the nomadic Cimbri tribe on the European continent by their Roman adversaries provide insight into their martial culture. Plutarch’s record of the life of Roman general Caius Marius during the invasion of the Germanic Cimbri, Teuton, and Ambrone tribes in 103 CE sheds some light on the roles of the Germanic women in combat. Plutarch recorded that Cimbri women accompanied their husbands to the Battle of Vercellae, apparently well trained enough in combat to guard the Cimbri baggages and entrenchments as their men marched onto the field to meet Marius’ army. Upon witnessing the defeat of the Cimbri by the Romans, the women shocked the pursuing Romans by slaying both their fleeing husbands and themselves rather than enduring capture.

Reflecting on the Ancient Power of the Wolf

The wolf’s nature as a predator makes it both a symbol of the warrior and the devil. The popular trope of the ”Big Bad Wolf” is a development of this while the identification of the warrior with the wolf through totemism gave rise to the notion of lycanthropy, the mythical or ritual identification of man and wolf.

In Proto-Indo-European mythology, the wolf was presumed to be associated with the warrior class, who would “transform into wolves” upon their initiation. In some northern European and Native American cultures, wolves were sometimes associated with witchcraft. In Norse mythology the volva (witch) Hyndla and the giantess Hyrrokin are both portrayed as using wolves as mounts, while in Navajo culture, wolves were feared as witches in wolf’s clothing. The Tsilhqot’in believed that contact with wolves could cause mental illness and death.

Norse mythology has at least three prominently malevolent wolves, in particular the giant Fenrir and his children, Sköll and Hati. Fenrir is bound by the gods, but is ultimately destined to grow too large for his bonds and devour Odin during the course of Ragnarok.  Fenrir’s two offspring devour the sun and moon at Ragnarök. The wolves Geri and Freki, Odin’s faithful pets,  were alluded to in the kenning “Vidrir’s hounds” in Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, verse 13, where it is related that they roam the field “greedy for the corpses of those who have fallen in battle”.

The warriors went to the trysting place of swords,

which they had appointed at Logafiöll.

Broken was Frodi’s peace between the foes:

Vidrir’s hounds went about the isle slaughter-greedy.

In Ancient Greece, mount Lykaion is a mountain in Arcadia where an altar of Zeus was located. It was the home of Pelasgus  and his son Lycaon, who founded the ritual of Zeus practiced on its summit. This seems to have involved a human sacrifice, and a feast in which the man who received the portion of a human victim was changed to a wolf, as Lycaon had been after sacrificing a child. The sanctuary of Zeus played host to athletic games held every four years, the Lykaia.

In Rome, the she-wolf that nursed Romulus and Remus is commemorated in the last of the Cyzicene epigrams, and Ion mentions the wolf-hounds which were traditionally, responsible for the death of Euripides. Strato, on a certain disreputable occasion, compares himself to a wolf that finds a lamb standing at the door and waiting for him. As to its voracity, Diphilus, an early comic poet, calls the inhabitants of Argos wolves; Lucilius accuses one Gamus of having the appetite of five wolves.

A Baltic legend says that the establishment of the Lithuanian capital Vilnus began when the grand duke Gediminas dreamt of an iron wolf howling near the hill. Lithuanian goddess Medeina was described as a single, voluptuous and beautiful huntress who was unwilling to get married. She was depicted as a she-wolf with an escort of wolves.

The existence of a ritual that provides one with the ability to turn into a wolf. Such a transformation may be related either to lycantrhopy itself, a widespread phenomenon, but attested especially in the Balkans-Carpathian region, or a ritual imitation of the behavior and appearance of the wolf. Such a ritual was presumably a military initiation, potentially reserved to a secret brotherhood of warriors. To become formidable warriors they would assimilate behavior of the wolf, wearing wolf skins during the ritual. Traces related to wolves as a cult or as totems were found in this area since the Neolithic period, including the Vinča culture artifacts: wolf statues and fairly rudimentary figurines representing dancers with a wolf mask. The items could indicate warrior initiation rites, or ceremonies in which young people put on their seasonal wolf masks. The element of unity of beliefs about werewolves and lycanthropy exists in the magical-religious experience of mystical solidarity with the wolf by whatever means used to obtain it. But all have one original myth, a primary event.

Wolves were generally revered by Aboriginal Canadians that survived by hunting, but were thought little of by those that survived through agriculture. Some Alaska Natives including the Nunamiut of both northern and northwestern Alaska respected the wolf’s hunting skill and tried to emulate the wolf in order to hunt successfully. First Nations such as Naskapi as well as Squamish and Lil’wat view the wolf as a daytime hunting guide. The Naskapis believed that the caribou afterlife is guarded by giant wolves that kill careless hunters who venture too near. The Netsilik Inuit and Takanaluk-arnaluk believed that the sea-woman Nuliayuk’s home was guarded by wolves.

According to the Pawnee creation myth, the wolf was the first creature to experience death. The Wolf Star, enraged at not having been invited to attend a council on how the earth should be made, sent a wolf to steal the whirlwind bag of The storm that comes out of the west, which contained the first humans. Upon being freed from the bag, the humans killed the wolf, thus bringing death into the world. the “birth” and “death” of the Wolf Star (Sirius) was to them a reflection of the wolf’s coming and going down the path of the Milku Way known as Wolf Road.

Sons of the Wolf: The Birth of Romulus and Remus, Founders of Rome

The twins Romulus and Remus were borne by Ilia, daughter of king Numitor, and the war-god Mars. They were condemned by King Amulius, the ruler of Alba, to be cast into the river. The king’s servants took the children and carried them from Alba as far as the Tiber on the Palatine Hill. However, when they tried to descend the hill to the river to carry out the command, they found that the river had risen and they were unable to reach its bed. They therefore thrust the tub which the children slept into the shallow water at the shore.

Wolf, Romulus And Remus, Sculpture, She-Wolf, Statue

The tub floated for a while before the water promptly receded. The tub then knocked against a stone and the screaming infants were thrown into the river mud. They were heard by a she-wolf. She  came and gave her teats to the boys to nurse them and, as they were drinking, she licked them clean with her tongue. A woodpecker flew above them to guard the children and bring them food. These were Mars’ doing as the wolf and the woodpecker are animals consecrated to him

La Louve (she-wolf) at the Grand Palace, Brussels, Belgium - Stierch.jpg

These odd happenings were seen by one of the royal herdsmen who was driving his pigs back to the pasture. Startled, he summoned his friends. They all made a loud noise to scare the wolf away, but the wolf was not afraid. Calmly ignoring the herdsmen, she disappeared into the wilderness of the forest. Meanwhile the men picked up the boys and carried them to the chief swineherd of the king, Faustulus, as they believed that the gods did not wish the children to die. But Faustulus’ wife had just given birth to a dead child and was full of sorrow. Faustulus gave her the twins to nurse and the couple raised the children. They named them them Romulus and Remus.

Evidently, the twin never forgotten the wolf. After Rome had been founded, king Romulus built himself a house not far from the place where his tub had stood. The gully in which the she-wolf had disappeared was renamed as the Lupercal (the Wolf’s Gully). The image of the she-wolf with the twins was subsequently erected at this spot and the she-wolf herself, the Lupa, was worshipped by the Romans as a divinity.

This saga later on underwent manifold transmutations, mutilations, additions, and interpretations. It is best known in the form transmitted by Livy, where we learn something about the fate of the twins: 

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‘Mars and the Vestal Virgin’, oil on canvas painting by Jacques Blanchard, ca. 1630

King Proca bequeaths the royal dignity to his firstborn son, Numitor. But his younger brother, Amulius, pushes him from the throne, and becomes king himself. So that no scion from Numitor’s family may arise, as the avenger, he kills the male descendants of his brother. Rhea Silvia, the daughter, he elects as a vestal, and thus deprives her of the hope of progeny, through perpetual virginity as enjoined upon her under the semblance of a most honorable distinction. But the vestal maiden was overcome by violence, and having brought forth twins, she named Mars as the father of her illegitimate offspring, be it from conviction, or because a god appeared more creditable to her as the perpetrator of the crime. The narrative of the exposure in the Tiber goes on to relate that the floating tub, in which the boys had been exposed, was left on dry land by the receding waters, and that a thirsty wolf, attracted from the neighboring mountains by the children’s cries, offered them her teats. The boys are said to have been found by the chief royal herder, supposedly named Faustulus, who took them to the homestead of his wife, Larentia, where they were raised. Some believe that Larentia was called Lupa (“she-wolf”) by the herders because she offered her body, and that this was the origin of the wonderful saga.

Grown to manhood, the youths Romulus and Remus protect the herds against the attacks of wild animals and robbers. One day Remus is taken prisoner by the robbers, who accuse him of having stolen Numitor’s flocks. But Numitor, to whom he is surrendered for punishment, was touched by his tender age, and when he learned of the twin brothers, he suspected that they might be his exposed grandsons. While he was anxiously pondering the resemblance with the features of his daughter, and the boy’s age as corresponding to the time of the exposure, Faustulus arrived with Romulus, and a conspiracy was hatched when the descent of the boys had been learned from the herders. The youths armed themselves for vengeance, while Numitor took up weapons to defend his claim to the throne he had usurped. After Amulius had been assassinated, Numitor was reinstituted as the ruler, and the youths resolved to found a city in the region where they had been exposed and brought up. A furious dispute arose upon the question of which brother was to be the ruler of the newly erected city, for neither twin was favored by the right of primogeniture, and the outcome of the bird oracle was equally doubtful. The saga relates that Remus jumped over the new wall, to deride his twin, and Romulus became so much enraged that he slew his brother. Romulus then usurped the sole mastery, and the city was named Rome after him.

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Destiny Repeats: The Knight of the Swan and the Son of the Grain

The widely distributed group of sagas that have been woven around the mythical Knight of the Swan (the old French Chevalier au cigne) can be traced back to very ancient Celtic traditions. The following is the story of Lohengrin, the Knight of the Swan, as transmitted by the medieval German epic and briefly retold by the Grimm brothers under the title “Lohengrin in Brabant.” 

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Lohengrin (1886)

The Duke of Brabant and Limburg died, without leaving other heirs than a young daughter, Elsa. On his deathbed, he recommended her to one of his retainers, Friedrich von Telramund. Friedrich, the intrepid warrior, became emboldened to demand the young duchess’ hand in marriage as well as her lands under the false claim that she had promised to marry him. Of course, Elsa refused to do so. Not taking no for an answer, Friedrich then used his connections to complain to Emperor Henry the Fowler (876 – 936). The Emperor decreed that Elsa must defend herself against Friedrich through some proxy hero, in a so-called divine judgment, in which God would accord the victory to the innocent and defeat to the guilty. As no knight was willing to act for her, the young duchess prayed ardently to God to save her.

As Elsa prayed, the sound of the bell was heard far away in distant Montsalvatsch, in the Council of the Grail, showing that there was someone in urgent need of help. The Grail therefore decided to send Lohengrin, the son of Parsifal, as a rescuer. Just as Lohengrin was about to place his foot in the stirrup, a swan came floating down the water drawing a skiff behind him. As soon as Lohengrin set eyes on the swan, he exclaimed, “Take the steed back to the manger; I shall follow this bird wherever he may lead me.” Lohengrin did not take any food with him in the skiff. After they had been afloat five days, the swan dipped his bill in the water, caught a fish, ate one half of it, and gave the other half to Lohengrin to eat.

Meanwhile, Elsa had summoned her chieftains and retainers to a meeting in Antwerp. Precisely on the day of the assembly, a swan was sighted swimming upstream drawing a skiff behind him, in which Lohengrin lay asleep on his shield. The swan came to land at the shore and Lohengrin was joyfully welcomed. Right after he landed, the swan swam away again. Lohengrin heard of the wrong which had been done to the duchess and consented to become her champion.

Elsa then summoned all her subjects and relatives. A place was prepared in Mainz for Lohengrin and Friedrich to fight in the emperor’s presence. The hero of the Grail defeated Friedrich, who confessed having lied to the duchess and was executed. Elsa and Lohengrin became lovers and, within time, marry. However, Lohergin secretly insisted upon Elsa avoiding all questions about his ancestry, or he had come from, otherwise he would have to leave her instantaneously and she would never see him again.

For a time, the couple lived in peace and happiness. Lohengrin was a wise and mighty ruler of his land. He also served his emperor well in his expeditions. However, one day when he was throwing the javelin, Lohengrin knocked the Duke of Cleve from his horse, so that the latter broke an arm. The Duchess of Cleve spoke out amongst the women angrily, “Lohengrin may be brave enough, but what a pity that he is not noble as no one knows whence he has come floating to this land.” These words pierced Elsa’s heart. At night, Elsa wept. Her husband asked her, “What is the matter, Elsa?” She answered, “The Duchess of Cleve has caused me sore pain.” Lohengrin could guess what happened, but he was silent and did not ask any more questions. On the second night, the same thing happened again. On the third night, Elsa could no longer control herself, and she asked, “Lord, do not chide me! I wish to know, for our children’s sake, where you were born, for my heart tells me that you are of high rank.” When the sun rose, Lohengrin made a public declaration about where he had come from, that Parsifal was his father and God had sent him from the Grail. He then asked for his children, kissed them and told them to take good care of his horn and sword which he would leave behind. To his wife, he left a little ring which his mother had given him. Then his friend the swan came. Lohengrin crossed the water, back to the service of the Grail. Elsa sank down in a faint.She wept and mourned the rest of her life for her beloved husband who never came back to her. Remembering Lohengrin’s service to the empire, the empress resolved to keep his son (also named Lohengrin) for his father’s sake, and to bring him up as her own child.

The fate of the younger Lohengrin was similar to his father. The infant Lohengrin floated in a vessel upon the sea and was carried ashore by a swan. After his father left, the empress adopted him as her son. He grew up to become a hero. Having married a noble maiden of the land, he forbade her to ask about his origin. When the command was broken, the younger Lohengrin also revealed his miraculous descent and divine mission, after which the swan carried him back in his skiff to the Grail.

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Beowulf face to face with fire-breathing Dragon

The characteristic features of the Lohengrin saga–the disappearance of the divine hero in the same mysterious fashion in which he has arrived; the transference of mythical motifs from the life of the older hero to a younger one bearing the same name are likewise embodied in the Anglo-Lombard saga of Sceaf, who reappears in the Prelude to the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, the oldest Teutonic epic. Here, he is called Scyld the Scefung (“son of Sceaf”). The older legend says that he received his name because as a very young boy he was cast ashore, as a stranger, asleep in a boat on a sheaf of grain (Anglo-Saxon: sceaf) . The waves of the sea carried him to the coast of the country he was destined to defend. The inhabitants welcomed his arrival as a miracle, raised him, and later on made him their king, considering him a divine emissary. His story also repeated itself in his son, also called Scyld. His body was exposed, as he had ordered before his death, surrounded by kingly splendor, upon a ship without a crew, which is sent out into the sea. Thus he vanished in the same mysterious manner in which his father arrived ashore, this trait being accounted for, in analogy with the Lohengrin saga, by the mythical identity of father and son.

Wheat Field, Wheat, Cereals, Grain, Cornfield, Sunset

Dance for Tlaloc: The Rain God and His People

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Carved basalt mask of Tlaloc (the rain god), Mixtec people, Oaxaca, Mexico, c. 10th-12th century

In a country such as Mexico, where the success or failure of the crops depends entirely upon the rainfall, Tlaloc, the Rain God, was a deity of high importance. He made his home in the mountains which surround the valley of Mexico, as these were the source of the local rainfall, and his popularity is vouched for by the fact that sculptured representations of him occur more often than those of any other of the Mexican deities.

Tlaloc is interesting. He is similar to such deities as the Hurakan of the Kiche of Guatemala, the Pillan of the aborigines of Chile, and Con, the thunder-god of the Collao of Peru. The small difference between Tlaloc and these other gods is that his thunderous powers are not so apparent as his rain-making abilities.

Tlaloc is generally represented in a semi-recumbent attitude. His upper body were raised upon the elbows, and his knees were half drawn up, probably to represent the mountainous character of the country where the rain came from. He was married to Chalchihuitlicue (Emerald Lady), who bore him a numerous children, the Tlalocs (Clouds). Many of the figures which represented him were carved from jade, to typify the colour of water, and in some of these he was shown holding a a serpent of gold to typify the lightning, for water-gods are often closely identified with the thunder, which hangs over the hills and accompanies heavy rains.

Tlaloc manifested himself in three forms, as the lightning-flash, the thunderbolt, and the thunder. Although his image faced the east, where he was supposed to have originated, he was worshipped as inhabiting the four cardinal points and every mountain-top. The colours of the four points of the compass, yellow, green, red, and blue, where the rain-bearing winds come from, entered into the composition of his costume, which was further crossed with streaks of silver, typifying the mountain torrents. A vase containing every description of grain was usually placed in front of his idol, an offering of the growth that, hopefully, he could make more fertile.

Tlaloc lived in a watered paradise called Tlalocan (The Country of Tlaloc), a place of abundance where those who had been drowned or struck by lightning or had died from dropsical diseases enjoyed eternal bliss. The common people who did not die such deaths went to the dark abode of Mictlan, the all-devouring and gloomy Lord of Death.

In manuscripts, Tlaloc is usually portrayed as having a dark complexion, a large round eye, a row of tusks. Over his lips was an angular blue stripe curved downward and rolled up at the ends. The later character is supposed to have been evolved originally from the coils of two snakes, their mouths with long fangs in the upper jaw meeting in the middle of the upper lip. The snake, besides being symbolised by lightning in many American mythologies, is also symbolical of water, which is well typified in its sinuous movements.

The Nahua believed that the constant production of food and rain induced senility in those deities who were providing them. In trying to stave this off, the people offer the gods a period of rest and recuperation. Once in eight years a festival called the Atamalqualiztli (Fast of Porridge-balls and Water) was held, during which every one in the Nahua community returned for the time being to living primitively. Dressed in costumes representing all forms of animal and bird life, and mimicking the sounds made by the various creatures they typified, the people danced round the teocalli of Tlaloc to entertain him after his labours in producing the fertilising rains of the past eight years. A lake was filled with water-snakes and frogs, into which the people plunged, catching the reptiles in their mouths and devouring them alive. The only grain food which could be eaten during this season of rest was thin water-porridge of maize.

Should one of the more prosperous peasants or yeomen felt that a rainfall was necessary for the growth of his crops, or should he fear a drought, he sought out one of the professional makers of dough or paste idols to mould one of Tlaloc. He would then make offerings of maize-porridge and pulque to this image. Throughout the night the farmer and his neighbours danced, shrieking and howling round the figure for the purpose of rousing Tlaloc from his slumbers. Next day was spent in rest after the exertions of the previous night.

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Huitzilopochli: the Birth of a War God

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Aztec Warriors (Eagle Warrior at the left and Jaguar Warrior at the right) brandishing a macuahuitl (a wooden club with sharp obsidian blades). (Florentine Codex)

In the Aztec pantheon, Huitzilopochtli occupied a place similar to that of Mars in the Roman. In ancient Roman religon, Mars was the god of war and a guardian of agriculture – a rather strange combination, but characteristic of early Rome. Second in importance only to Jupiter, Mars was the most prominent of the military gods in the religion of the Roman army. Although origin of Huitzilopochtli is obscure, the myth relating to it is distinctly original in character.

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Statue of Coatlicue displayed in National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City. By Luidger – Luidger, CC BY-SA 3.0

Under the shadow of the mountain of Coatepec, near the Toltec city of Tollan, there dwelt a pious widow called Coatlicue (“skirt of snakes”). She had four hundred sons and a daughter called Coyolxauhqui (“”Painted with Bells”). Every day, she went to a small hill with the intention of offering up prayers to the gods in a penitent spirit of piety. One day, while she was occupied in her devotions, a small ball of brilliantly coloured feathers fell upon her from above. Pleased by the bright variety of its hues, Coatlicue placed it in her breast, intending to offer it up to the sun-god. Some time afterwards she discovered that she was pregnant with another child. Hearing this, her sons rained abuse upon her, incited by their sister Coyolxauhqui.

Coatlicue went about in fear and anxiety, but the spirit of her unborn infant came and spoke to her and gave her words of encouragement, soothing her troubled heart. Her sons, however, were resolved to wipe out what they considered an insult to their race by the death of their mother. They put on their war-gears, and arranged their hair after the manner of warriors going to battle. But one of their number, Quauitlicac, relented, and confessed his brothers’ plan to the still unborn Huitzilopochtli. Huitzilopochtli replied to him: “O brother, hearken attentively to what I have to say to you. I know what is about to happen.” With the intention of slaying their mother, the four hundred sons went in search of her. At their head marched their sister, Coyolxauhqui. They were armed to the teeth and carried bundles of darts with which they intended to kill Coatlicue.

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Huitzilopochtli, from the recto of the folio 5 of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis (16th century).

Quauitlicac climbed the mountain to tell Huitzilopochtli that his brothers were approaching to kill their mother.

“Mark well where they are,” replied the infant god. “To what place have they advanced?”

“To Tzompantitlan,” responded Quauitlicac.

Later on Huitzilopochtli asked: “Where may they be now?”

“At Coaxalco”, was the reply.

Once more Huitzilopochtli asked to what point his enemies had advanced.

“They are now at Petlac,” Quauitlicac replied.

After a little while Quauitlicac informed Huitzilopochtli that the Centzonuitznaua were at hand under the leadership of Coyolxauhqui. At the moment of the enemy’s arrival, Huitzilopochtli was born, flourishing a shield and a blue spear. He was painted, his head was surmounted by a panache, and his left leg was covered with feathers. He shattered Coyolxauhqui with a flash of serpentine lightning, and then chase Centzonuitznaua, whom he pursued four times round the mountain. Many perished in the waters of the adjoining lake, to which they had rushed in their despair. All were slain save a few who escaped to a place called Uitzlampa, where they surrendered to Huitzilopochtli and gave up their arms.

The name Huitzilopochtli means “Humming-bird to the left” as he wore the feathers of the humming-bird, or colibri, on his left leg. From this it has been inferred that he was a humming-bird totem. However, the explanation of Huitzilopochtli’s origin is a little deeper than this. Among the American tribes, especially those of the northern continent, the serpent is regarded with the deepest veneration as the symbol of wisdom and magic. From these sources come success in war. The serpent also typifies the lightning, the symbol of the divine spear and warlike might. Fragments of serpents are regarded as powerful war-physic among many tribes. Atatarho, a mythical wizard-king of the Iroquois, for example, was clothed with living serpents as with a robe, and his myth throws light on one of the names of Huitzilopochtli’s mother, Coatlantona (“Robe of Serpents”). Huitzilopochtli’s image was surrounded by serpents, and rested on serpent-shaped supporters. His sceptre was a single snake, and his great drum was of serpent-skin.

In many mythologies the serpent is closely associated with the bird. Thus the name of the god Quetzalcoatl is translatable as “Feathered Serpent”. Huitzilopochtli is undoubtedly one of these. We may regard him as a god the primary conception of whom arose from the idea of the serpent, the symbol of warlike wisdom and might, the symbol of the warrior’s dart or spear, and the humming-bird, the harbinger of summer, type of the season when the snake or lightning god has power over the crops.

Huitzilopochtli was usually represented as wearing a waving panache or plume of hummingbirds’ feathers on his head. His face and limbs were striped with bars of blue, and in his right hand he carried four spears. His left hand bore his shield, on the surface of which were displayed five tufts of down. The shield was made with reeds, covered with eagle’s down. The spear he brandished was also tipped with tufts of down instead of flint. These weapons were placed in the hands of those who as captives engaged in the sacrificial fight because Hultzilopochtli symbolised the warrior’s death on the gladiatorial stone of combat.

Huitzilopochtli was more than just a war-god. As the serpent-god of lightning he had a connection with summer, the season of lightning, and therefore had dominion to some extent over the crops and fruits of the earth. The Algonquian people of North America believed that the rattlesnake could raise ruinous storms or grant favourable breezes. They see it also as the symbol of life, because the serpent has a phallic significance due of its similarity to the symbol of fertility. With some American tribes also, notably the Pueblo people of Arizona, the serpent has a solar significance, and with its tail in its mouth symbolises the annual round of the sun.

The Nahua believed that Huitzilopochtli could grant them fair weather for their crops, and they placed an image of Tlaloc, the rain-god, near him, so that, if necessary, the war-god could compel the rainmaker to exert his powers or to abstain from the creation of floods. We must, in considering the nature of this deity, bear well in mind the connection in the Nahua consciousness between the pantheon, war, and the food-supply. If war was not waged annually the gods must go without flesh food and perish, and if the gods succumbed the crops would fail, and famine would destroy the race. So it was small wonder that Huitzilopochtli was one of the chief gods of Mexico.

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