The Sisters of Fire and Water

When the Hawaiian sea goddess Namakaokahai met the mighty sorcerer, Aukelenuiaiku, she was impressed by his warrior spirit. Soon, she married him, showed him all her forms and taught him her magical powers.

Unfortunately, after their marriage, Aukelenuiaiku was seduced by another woman. To add insult to injury, that woman was none other than Namakaokahai’s own younger sister, Pele. It is one of the odd mysteries of life that when a man was unfaithful to his wife, the wife would first blame the other woman. Such was the case with Namakaokahai and Pele. Overcomed with rage, Namakaokahai sent high tides and floods to destroy Pele’s home. Pele fled but could not escape her sister’s wrath.


Pele’s help came in the form of her oldest brother Kamohoali’i, the god of the sharks. He gave her a great canoe to escape. Accompanied by her brother and her favorite sister Hi’iaka, she traveled far from home, over the wide expanse of the seas, sailing on this great canoe eventually to find Hawaii. 

Pursued by Namakaokahai, Pele landed first on Kauai. However, every time she thrust her o’o (digging stick) to dig a put for her home, Namakaokahai would flood the pits. Pele moved down the chain of islands until eventually landing on Mauna Loa – the tallest mountain on earth. As even the sea goddess herself could not send the ocean’s waves high enough on Mauna Loa to drown Pele, Pele established her home on its slopes. She pronounced the cliff on nearby Kilauea Mountain as sacred to her eldest brother Kamohoali’i, who saved her life. Kamohoali’i became the keeper of the gourd that held the water of life which gave him the power to revive the dead. Out of respect for Kamohoali’i, to this day Pele never allows clouds of volcanic steam to touch his cliff. Her other brothers who accompanied her on her journey also still appear on the Big Island mountain. Kanehekili appears as thunder, Kapohoikahiola as explosions, Keua’akepo in showers of fire, and Keoahikamakaua in spears of lava that escape from fissures during eruptions.

Pele may not have been on the best of terms with her older sister, but perhaps sometimes it is better to argue with your family instead of being a complete stranger to them. From her new home, Pele engaged in battles with Namakaokahai. To this day, Pele’s eruptions from Hawaii Island’s volcanoes flow thick and hot till they reach the sea — symbolizing the match in strength between the sisters of fire and water.

Image by Adrian Malec from Pixabay

We Used to Look After Each Other: The Ancient Relationship between Nature and Mankind

The Australian bushfire season in 2019–2020 includes a series of bushfires burning across Australia, mainly in the southeast. It has burned an estimated 10.7 million hectares, destroyed over 5,900 buildings and killed 28 people as of January 8, 2020, significantly more intense compared to previous seasons. After record-breaking temperatures and prolonged drought exacerbated bushfires, the New South Wales finally government declared a state of emergency in December 2019. Nearly half a billion reptiles, mammals and birds were estimated to have been affected by the ongoing fires in New South Wales. Other estimates, including animals such as bats, amphibians and invertebrates, put the number of deaths at more than one billion.

To help battle the fires and relieve tired local personnel to New South Wales, reinforcements from all over Australia were called in. Firefighters from New Zealand, Canada and the USA also helped fight the fires.

This tragedy again reminds us that our bond with the world of nature is broken. This is a dangerous thing as nature not only gives us benefits, but for our survival we are obviously dependent on it. And it provides services to the global economy worth an estimated $125 trillion per year by providing clean air, water, food and other resources. We are still depleting and degrading the natural capital of the planet at rhythm. We are losing biodiversity, meaning we are losing nature and wildlife. We have lost two thirds of the world’s wildlife population in our lifetime, and carbon emissions have risen by 90%.

It is strange to watch this unfolding as we as human beings seem to lose our connection to the natural world. We actively harm nature instead of working in harmony with it. And, when nature screams in agony we ignore it and pretend nothing happens. However, it was not always like this.

Nature and a Man’s Heart: The Tale of Two Brothers

Numerous worldwide myths represent a deep-rooted belief in an intimate relationship between a human being and nature. The theme of how a person’s life is so connected to a tree that the person would suffer if the tree washed away or injured, or even the idea of a tree as an external soul of the body of a person is found in the ancient Egyptian Tale of Two Brothers around 1185 BC.

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Sheet from the Tale of Two Brothers, Papyrus D’Orbiney. From Egypt.End of the 19th Dynasty
circa 1185 BC

Two brothers center the story: Anpu and Bata. The brothers are working together to farm land and to raise cattle. One day, the wife of Anpu is trying to seduce Bata. When Bata strongly rejects her advances, the wife tells her husband that when she refused, his brother tried to seduce her and beat her. Hearing this, Anpu then tried to kill Bata, who flees and prays to Ra-Harakhti to save him. The god creates a lake infested with crocodile between the two brothers, through which Bata will eventually talk to his brother and share his side of the events. Bata severs his genitalia to prove his honesty and throws them into the water where they are eaten by a catfish.

Bata says he’s going to the Cedar Valley, where he’s going to put his heart on top of a cedar tree’s blossom, so if the tree is cut down Anpu can find it and let Bata live again. Bata informs Anpu that he should know to search out his brother if he ever gets a jar of beer that froths. Anpu returns home. Meanwhile, Bata is setting up a life in the Cedar Valley, building for himself a new home. Bata comes upon the Ennead, or the nine deities of Egypt, who have compassion on him. Khnum, the god often depicted as having fashioned humans on a potter’s wheel in Egyptian mythology, creates a wife for Bata. Because of her divine creation, the pharaoh is looking for the wife of Bata. When the pharaoh manages to bring her to stay with him, she asks him to cut down the tree in which Bata’s heart has been put. He does that, and Bata is dead.

Anpu then gets a sparkling bottle of beer and leaves for the Cedar Valley. For more than three years he has been searching for the heart of his brother, finding it at the beginning of the fourth year. He follows the instructions given by Bata and places the heart in a cold water bowl. Bata is resurrected.

Mother Nature Sacrificed: Standing on the Body of Nature

The Indonesian goddess Dewi Sri (literally means “Great Goddess”) is the Mother Goddess as well as the goddess of rice and fertility of the Javanese, Sundanese and Balinese pre-Hinduand pre-Islam era. Once, Batara Guru, the supreme god, commanded all gods and goddesses to contribute their power to build a new palace. One of the gods, Antaboga, a Naga god, was very anxious when he heard the command of Batara Guru. He had no arms or legs, and he wasn’t sure how he might be able to do the job. Anta was shaped like a snake and was unable to work. He was seeking advice from Batara Narada, Batara Guru’s younger brother. But sadly, Anta’s bad luck also confused Narada. Anta was very upset and he started crying.

Three of his teardrops fell down on the ground. Miraculously, these teardrops became three beautiful shiny eggs that looked like jewels after touching the ground. Batara Narada advised him to offer the Batara Guru these “jewels” in the hope that the gift would appease him. Anta went to the palace of Batara Guru with the three eggs in his mouth. He was approached on the way there by an eagle who asked him a question. Anta can’t answer the question because he holds the eggs in his mouth. The bird  became furious, so it started attacking Anta. One egg fell to the earth and was shattered as a result. Anta hid in the bushes quickly, but the bird was waiting for him. The second attack left Anta to offer the Batara Guru with only one egg. The two split eggs fell to the ground and became Kalabuat and Budug Basu twin boar.

Anta finally arrived at the palace and offered to the Batara Guru his teardrop in the form of a shiny egg. The offer was kindly accepted and he was asked by the Batara Guru to nest the egg until it hatched. The egg hatched miraculously into a beautiful baby girl. He gave the Batara Guru and his wife to the baby girl.

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an Indonesian stone figure of the rice goddess Dewi Sri with Vitarka Mudra

Her name was Nyai Pohaci Sanghyang Asri, and she grew up as a beautiful princess. Every god who saw her began to feel attracted to her, even her own foster father. Seeing the desire of Batara Guru for his foster daughter, all the gods were so worried. Fearing that this scandal might destroy the heavenly harmony, finally they conspired to separate Nyi Pohaci and Batara Guru.

All the gods arranged for her death to keep the peace in the heavens and secure Nyi Pohaci’s chastity. She was poisoned to death and her body was buried in a remote and unknown location somewhere on earth. Nevertheless, because of the purity and divinity of Sri Pohaci, her grave gave a miraculous sign; for some useful plants grew up at the time of her death, which would support human species forever. From her head there grew coconut; from her nose, lips, and ears there grew various spices and vegetables; from her hair there grew grass and various flowering plants; from her breasts there grew various plants of fruit; from her arms and hands there grew teak; from her thighs there grew various types of bamboo, Different tuber plants grew from her legs, and finally rice grew from her belly button. All the useful plants, essential to human needs and well-being, are considered to come from the residue of the body of Dewi Sri. From that time, she was venerated and revered by the people of Java Island as the benevolent “Rice Goddess” and fertility. She is regarded as the highest goddess and the most important deity for agricultural society in the ancient Sunda Kingdom.

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Figure representing the rice goddess Dewi Sri

Protecting Nature is an Ancient Way of Life

The ancients had a clear understanding on nature’s protection and they found ways to return the favour. Throughout Norse mythology, the three Norns spend most of their time spinning the threads of life at the base of Yggdrasil, an enormous ash tree that is the core of the universe, deciding the fate of all living beings. The Norse Norns are Yggrasil’s caretakers, the tree that houses Norse mythology’s nine realms, only one of which is the human world, Midgard. They take water from the Well of Fates and dump it on Yggdrasil’s branches to prevent it from disappearing. In addition to their loom and tapestry, the Norns carve also runs into Yggdrasil’s trunk. They start every morning by placing a rooster at the top of Yggdrasil. The rooster’s warning acts as a wake-up call to all Asgard’s gods and goddesses.

Date palms have been revered in Mesopotamia as it was an important food source. The ancient Babylonian code of Hammurabi even referred to very specific punishments for individuals who did not pollinate their date palms, even designating special guardians to manually pollinate these trees. Special priests who slept on the ground tended the oak of Dodona in Epirus in northwestern Greece, the oldest Hellenic oracle.

All of the clans in ancient Ireland had their own sacred tree in their territories. Under the sacred tree, chieftains could have been inaugurated, binding them with both the forces heavens and underworld. The trees were thus seen as the representative of the king’s and his tribe’s success. The trees were their province’s guardians, sheltering their people. Therefore, capturing and destroying an enemy’s sacred tree is very likely to have been viewed as a very serious act. The Irish Annals record that Máel Sechnaill, the High King of Ireland, torn down and destroyed the sacred tree of Magh Adhair in Tulla, Co Clare, under which the chieftains of O’Brien were inaugurated, in 981 CE. In 1111 CE, they had to pay a huge ransom of 3000 cattle after the Ulidian army cut down the holy tree of the O’Neils.

So, somewhere along the way, we have lost that love of nature that we have inherited from our ancestors. Now what can we do to get it back?

Reflecting on Floods: Finding Hope and New Beginnings in an Ancient Disaster

On the early hours of 1 January 2020, flash floods took place throughout the Indonesian capital of Jakarta and the metropolitan area. Water levels reached 30-200 cm in many parts of the city, even standing at four meters in some areas. More than 397,000 people were evacuated to higher grounds. Due to landslides, hypothermia, drowning and electrocution, officials reported the death toll at 60 on 4 January 2020.

A significant contributing factor is that a significant part of Jakarta is low-lying, some 24,000 ha (240 km2) of Jakarta’s main part are below sea level. If heavy rain combines with high tides, flooding can become serious. The high tides push water into low-lying areas when this occurs, coinciding with the rain runoff in upland areas flowing down into the Jakarta region.

One of the most famous and recurrent calamities in the ancient world was flooding. People therefore saw the wrath of gods in them and begged for safety.

Hope and Fear: The Annual Flood of Ancient Egypt

The hieroglyph for the Egyptian word renpet (“year”) is a woman wearing a palm shoot over her head, symbolizing time. She was often called the Future Mistress. Fertility, youth and spring were also personified by her. The New Year, Wepet Renpet (“the year’s opening”), was based on the Nile River’s annual flood, an earthly cycle that coincided with a celestial cycle as well. The New Year was also characterized by communal feasts and a combination of hope and fear. As they didn’t know how the flood would affect them, every year was probably the last year for the ancient Egyptians.

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the river nile when it floods

The annual flood left behind rich silt deposits, fertilizing crops to feed the country as a whole. Just the right amount of flooding guaranteed a fruitful harvest – too little means starvation, too much means destruction.

The annual flood festival celebrated Osiris’ death and rebirth and, by extension, the land and people’s rejuvenation and rebirth. The myth behind this celebration was that by drowning him in the water, the god Set and his accomplices assassinated Osiris and dismembered him–scattering his limbs up and down the valley. The death of Osiris culminated in the annual floods giving life to the valley. Osiris was then thought to have arisen from the dead, but he required his devoted followers ‘ persistent supplication to validate his return. The priests mourned his passing, prayed for his return and celebrated with music, singing and festivities at the moment of his resurrection.

Traditionally, as Osiris had drowned, young boys selected for their exceptional beauty were thrown into the Nile to drown as a sacrifice for the benefit of the living. Those who drowned in the Nile were then regarded as gods, especially if the water responded with a flood the following year.

As well as singing and dancing to mark his rebirth, solemn ceremonies relating to Osiris ‘ death were observed. At the beginning, the call-and-answer poem known as Isis and Nephthys ‘ Lamentations was recited to call Osiris to his feast.

The lamentation is when Osiris ‘ soul is called by the two goddess-sisters to join the living. The two sisters ‘ simultaneous entreaties repeated one another in their attempts to revive Osiris symbolically. The best-preserved edition of this work comes from the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323–30 BCE) Berlin Papyrus, although the work itself is much older.

Another ancient view in Egypt is that the New Year’s Day itself was also considered the god Ra-Horakhety’s birthday. The idea was that the sun was resurrected on New Year’s day and became more and more fragile over the last few months of the year. This is another reason why it was considered dangerous at the end of the year. At the end of the year, the sun god was weak and vulnerable to attack from his enemies. If he were to be defeated, the New Year might never arrive.

Therefore, it was a time of great relief when the sun rose on New Year’s day, because the end of the world had been averted. People would then make offerings to Ra-Horakhety at sunrise, pour black ink into the Nile for the goddess Nut and the god Nun as a sign of gratitude, then cleansed themselves by bathing in the Nile. Afterwards, they wore their best clothes and went off to riotous banquets to celebrate their opportunity to see another year.

The Beginning and the End of Times in Hinduism

There were very common floods in ancient India. Plava (floods) and pralaya (deluges) in Hinduism signify the beginning and end of times as well as the changes that occur as a result of the Time cycle, which is another term for the Death god. Since the human settlements developed primarily along the Indian subcontinent’s main rivers, people were acquainted with the problems caused by floods that they attributed to gods’ anger and their own karma. Flood heralds change in the world’s lives and individuals and growth. Therefore, drastic changes in the world’s order and regularity and revolutions are compared to extreme (viplavam) floods.

Nearly every mahayuga (epoch) begins or ends, according to the Puranas, with a great deluge during which gods try to help people and preserve the eternal knowledge for posterity. These can either be induced by God or Nature to cleanse the earth and inaugurate a new era, or to tackle the problem of evil and save people from its power. The city of Dwaraka was sunk in the ocean at the end of Dwapara Yuga, which was then ruled by Lord Krishna as his capital. It also marked the end of his life and the start of a new age.

As a consequence, floods in Hinduism reflect the death and destructive power of God, Nature, a demon, or even an evil asura or rakshasa who wishes to create chaos. We also represent God’s role in persevering in order to maintain their order and regularity among worlds and beings. A flood may also signify the overabundance of anything that can cause the essence and order of things to be imbalanced and require divine intervention. Because of past karma or divine providence, a person may be filled with problems or good things in life.

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puja, a Hindu prayer ritual, performed in the city of Ujjain during the Monsoon on the banks of of the overflooding Shipra river.

Flood Myths

A flood myth or deluge myth is a narrative in which, in an act of divine retribution, a great flood, usually sent by a deity or deities, destroys civilization. Parallels are often drawn between the flood waters of these myths and the primaeval waters contained in certain myths of creation, as the flood waters are portrayed in preparation for rebirth as a measure for the redemption of mankind. Many flood myths also include a hero of religion, who “represents the human desire for life.”

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The Flood” (Deucalion holding aloft his wife) by Paul Mewart (1855 – 1902)

The flood story is present among many cultures as seen in the tales of the Mesopotamian floods, Deucalion and Pyrrha in Greek mythology, the tale of the Genesis flood, Pralaya in Hinduism, the GunYu in Chinese mythology, Belgemir in Northern mythology, the arrival of the first settlers of Ireland with Cessar in Irish mythology, the legend of the people of K’iche and Maya in Mesoamerica, the Lake Cour in Mesoamerica.

Of course, the best-known story of the Great Flood is from the Biblical Book of Genesis 6-9 in which God is incensed with the wickedness of mankind and kills them with a flood, except for the righteous Noah and his son. The biblical work is based on the earlier oral version of the Mesopotamian flood story repeated in the above-mentioned works and which may have also inspired an Egyptian text known as The Book of the Heavenly Cow, part of which dates back to the First Intermediate Period of Egypt (2181-2040 BCE).

The Heavenly Cow’s Book tells how they rebelled against him after the sun god Ra had created humans, and he decided to destroy them. He sent the goddess Hathor to destroy mankind as an extension of himself (known as The Eye of Ra), but he repented of the action after she killed many. He then had massive amounts of red-colored beer to look like blood and ordered it to be placed in the path of Hathor. She drank the bottle, fell asleep, and later woke up as she is generally portrayed as the loving goddess and friend of humanity.

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Sintflutbrunnen (Deluge fountain) (1907)  by Paul Aichele

Atrahasis is not the earliest version of the Mesopotamian flood story and the earlier oral version almost definitely inspired the versions of other cultures, including the Egyptian and Hebrew stories. In the Egyptian version, the revolt of humanity and the grace of Ra leads to a closer relationship with the gods, and the same is implied in the biblical story by the covenant of God with Noah after the waters of the floods have sunk. In the Atrahasis, the gods allow human life to proceed with the stipulation that they will not live forever or multiply as bountifully as before.

The story would have been used to explain human mortality, the misfortunes associated with childbirth, even one’s child’s death. Because overpopulation and the ensuing noise had once brought down the awful deluge that almost killed mankind, it might be easier to bear the loss of one’s child with the understanding that such a loss helped preserve the natural order of things and preserved harmony with the gods. The myth would have served the same basic purpose that such stories always have: the assurance that there is some greater purpose or meaning in individual human suffering and is not just random, senseless pain.

The Atrahasis, like Noah’s Ark’s narrative, is eventually a tale of hope and faith in a deeper sense to the human experience tragedies.

Nature and Emotions

It often happens that nature and weather elements equate feelings and emotions. Here are some examples: I am frozen in my seat. I was flooded with passion etc. Water in our dreams also symbolizes the unconscious, according to Carl Jung. Severe storms, winds and rain often accompany flooding. Also compared to difficult emotions such as frustration, rage, sorrow, disappointment, pain and fear.

Water flooding seems to mimic symptoms of emotional overload. Just like water, when we reject them emotions would find a point where they surface, start flowing out of us and can’t be stopped. They take over our minds and  keep us trapped there until the pouring is over. They then continue to recede naturally, leaving everything soaked or destroyed, allowing reconstruction to finally take place. There then follows a wave of sorrow from our souls. But then, there are also always a flood of people emerging for us in unity, compassion and hope.

Can we then do anything to stop the roaring storm, the rain, or the massive water damage? Probably not. But we can use flooding to reflect, become more conscious and more thankful for the moments when our lives’ waters are calm.

Naupaka: The Legend of the Torn Flower

The beautiful Naupaka flower is one of Hawaii’s most common plants found both along the beach and in the mountains. Its appearance is unique as it looks like a flower that has been torn in half.

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There are different legends about this flower, and they all relate to the story of forbidden love. One of the more famous legends tells us about the princess Naupaka who lived in the mountains. One day while walking along the beach, she met encountered a handsome fisherman named Kaui. When their eyes met, they both smiled – it was love at first sight.

Realizing that she would never be allowed to marry a common fisherman, Princess Naupaka knew that she was prohibited from marrying him. She rushed to one of the Kupunas (elders) in the village. Hearing her story, the Kupuna shook her head sadly as the princess’ marriage is prohibited by Hawaiian custom. However, “all is not lost”, she said, “perhaps you can see the high priest and ask for his permission.”

Thus Naupaka and Kaui travelled for days to search for the high priest. Once they finally found him they told him about their love and asked his permission to marry. The priest was sympathetic, but even he could not turn his back on their custom. “That blessing” , he said “only comes from the gods.” He then suggested that the lovers pray earnestly to them until they have their answer.

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So Naupaka and Kaui prayed. Soon, dark clouds came overhead and a heavy rain fell upon them. A lightning struck near them and Naupaka screamed in shock. She stopped her prayer and the rain soon stopped. Heartbroken, the princess realized that the thunder and lightning was a sign from the gods that she and Kaui were not allowed to be together. She tore the flower from her hair and ripped it in half. She then gave half to Kaui and the two lovers said their goodbyes. Kaui would return to the seas and Naupaka would spend the rest of her life in the mountains.

As Naupaka and Kaui went their separate ways, the flowers around them saw their sadness and mourned to see the heartbroken young lovers. To this day, the flowers near the sea and in the mountains only bloom in halves. The ones growing near the sea are called Naupaka Kahakai, while the ones growing in the mountain is called Naupaka Kauihiwa. Each flowers look like half of a blossom, but when they are placed together, they form a perfect flower. When the flower of the Naupaka Kauihiwi and the Naupaka Kahakai are joined together after they have been picked, the lovers can be reunited, even if it was only for a brief moment.

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Is Life Easier for Beautiful People? Great Men, Evil Women and Standards of Beauty

In Canada in 2014, the rather beautiful Justin Trudeau’s leadership numbers surpassed those of the older, somewhat less Disney prince-like, then-prime minister Stephen Harper with 38 percent of respondents telling Ipsos Reid that Trudeau was the leader they trusted most versus 31 percent weighing in for Harper and 30 percent for Tom Mulcair – this was despite Trudeau’s own lack of experience and sustained political attacks portraying him as feckless and self-absorbed. Sensing trouble, the other political party tried to turn Trudeau’s looks into a negative adding the qualifier “Nice hair, though”. But in doing so, they unwittingly drew attention to a powerful trait that Trudeau had to smooth over voters’ uncertainty. Thanks to this, Trudeau’s physical presentation became his most recognizable feature, setting him apart from his competitors and filling the conversation void left by the absence of reliable information about his experience and trustworthiness. When the time came, Justin Trudeau and the Liberal party won 184 of the 338 seats in the Commons. Shorty after this, he and his also beautiful wife appeared on the pages of Vogue.

As much as our parents like to tell us to not judge a book by its covers (ignoring the fact that most books with ugly covers aren’t flying off the shelves), or “it’s the inside that counts” (as if anyone ever fall in love with a particularly attractive pair of kidneys), we cannot deny that beauty is power. For thousands of years, philosophers and poets marvel at the mysterious power of beautiful people. Each trying to come up with the best way to describe what “beauty” is, giving it numerous other qualities beyond that which we can see such as “a certain something”, “aura”, “sex appeal”, “inner beauty” etc. In the 1960s, a psychological research reveal we tend to persuade ourselves of the greatness of people who we consider as beautiful. We happily project virtues onto the beautiful person without the slightest knowledge of whether or not they possess them. Study after study has shown that we assume beautiful people to be smarter, kinder and more trustworthy even when we have nothing more to go on than pictures of their faces. 

Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, Plato says. But even Plato must have noticed that those beholders have strangely similar tastes relating to facial and body symmetry. He would have realized, then, that agreement on what is “beautiful” is often consistent within nationalities and ethnic groups. For example, women in Egyptian art are often depicted as slim with high waists and narrow hips, ideally with dark black hair and golden skin. In Ancient Greece, however, the ideal woman was light skinned and plump. Plato also tells us tells us the three wishes of every Greek: to be healthy, to be beautiful, and to become rich by honest means. Ancient Greek parents-to-be were so concerned about their offspring’s beauty that they placed statues of Aphrodite or Apollo, the two deities of beautiful physical appearance, in their bedrooms to help them conceive beautiful children.

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Adonis by Rinaldo Rinaldi at Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, by Yair Haklai, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The rules of beauty were all important in ancient Greece especially for the men. This was, of course, fabulous news for men who were buff and pretty. A full-lipped, chiselled man in Ancient Greece understood that his beauty was a gift of the gods and that his perfect exterior hid an inner perfection, he therefore had no qualms in spending more than eight hours at the gym every day to maximize his gifts. For the ancient Greeks, a beautiful body was considered direct evidence of a beautiful mind. 

This did not apply to the ladies. Although being a beautiful man was good news, being a beautiful woman spelt trouble. That charming fellow Hesiod described the first created woman simply as kalon kakon (“the beautiful-evil thing”). The woman was evil because she was beautiful, and beautiful because she was evil. But what is this “evil” that women had? Helen of Troy gives us an example. Her “evil” beauty was considered to stem not from the way she looked, but how she “made” men feel and what she “made” men do. When we first meet Helen in book three of Homer’s Iliad. The old men sing about her “Oh what beauty!”. “Terrible beauty – beauty like that of a goddess” – meaning that Helen has the kind of presence that drives men to distraction. Helen’s beauty, in the ancient world, was a weapon of mass destruction. The “evil” of women’s physical beauty is also emphasised in a famous anecdote about Phyrne. Phyrne was the young mistress of the fourth-century Athenian sculptor Praxitiles. She was also the model for some of his most beautiful works. During a game of follow-the-leader with other courtesans at a feast, Phyrne called for a bowl of water and washed her face. The other women, bound by the rules of the game to follow suit, were then also forced to wash their faces. Young and naturally beautiful, Phyrne of course looked none the worse, but her older companions had to spend an uncomfortable evening with their faces bare of any makeup.

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Phyrne, Walters Art Museum

This “eyes of the beholder” business that Plato talked about is also surprisingly specific and modern. One might remember the awful “thigh gap” fashion which started in 2013. We also have that search for the “perfect nipple” in 2017. Nipples that occupied between 25 and 30 percent of the breast were rated highest in terms of desirability. At the top of customers’ cosmetic surgery wish lists is having a symmetrical pair of nipples, despite the fact that most women have asymmetric nipples to go with their also asymmetric breasts. Second on the wish list is making the size of the nipple and areola (the pigmented area surrounding it) smaller. Those are just two examples of our many modern preoccupation with the “ideal” beauty.

The ancient Greeks also recognized specific characteristics as beautiful: a straight nose or one that fell in a slightly depressed line from its root to the forehead, a low forehead and perfect eyebrows called “eyebrows of grace” that formed a delicate arch just over the brow bone. Particularly appealing were eyebrows that grew together over the nose – a feature which we certainly wouldn’t think much of today as we call it “unibrow”. The mouth admired by the Greeks was naturally reddish, with the lower lip slightly fuller than the upper lip. The perfect Greek chin, round and smooth, should be dimple-free.

The ancient Greek housewives were somewhat exempt from this fuss. As Demonthenes put it, a man married “to have a faithful watchdog in the house. Beauty and gratification of the senses came from the mistress.” The use of makeup of enhance one’s appearance was therefore limited to the hetaera (courtesans) as a plain housewife was preferable.

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The Dahuting Tomb ( 打虎亭汉墓) of the late Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), located in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China

In Asia, in the Han Dynasty of China (c. 206 BC – 220 AD) very slim women with long black hair and red lips were favoured. While the Japanese Heian beauty included pale skin, round and rosy cheeks, and little bow lips. In pre-modern Chinese literature, the ideal man in caizi jiaren romances was said to have “rosy lips, sparkling white teeth” and a “jasper-like face”.

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By Yashima Gakutei (Japan, 1786 -1868)

Despite the obvious perks of being beautiful, Bob Dylan was right when he said that “behind every beautiful thing, there’s some kind of pain.” The public tends to be more scathing and less forgiving when a person perceived to be beautiful made mistakes and show weaknesses as they hold this person to a higher standard. This also works the other way. The world’s most incompetent politicians and worst dictators in history tend to be quite unattractive with hideous haircuts. Although no one really expect people with such serious and demanding jobs to look like supermodels,  these politicians would have had access to the best barbers in their countries – therefore, they really had no excuse to have their hairs looking so ridiculous. One can only assume that they were so miserable to live with that the people in their lives may have let them out of the house looking like that as a form of payback. However, they seemed to enjoy a higher degree of freedom as they tend be held to a much lower standard and able to get away with so much more than their more beautiful counterparts.

 

The Loving Serpent: The Legend of Madam White Snake

Because to Christianity’s prominent influence in Western society, the book of Genesis have left a lingering demonization of snakes in the Western culture. However, serpents act as important symbols in many world cultures and not all of them symbolize evil. In Ancient Greece, nonpoisonous snakes often roamed freely in temples dedicated to Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine as they interpreted snakes’ ability to shed their skin as a type of regeneration and thus a symbol of healing. The Norse god Jormungand, known as the Midgard Serpent, is also considered a cosmic serpent as he circles the world with his body. In the Hindu tradition, Shesha is a cosmic serpent and the king of all Nagas. Shesha holds the universe in his hood. Nagas occur in Buddhist lore too. One story tells of a Naga named Mucalinda sheltering Buddha from a storm as he meditates in a forest.

Chinese mythology is endearing as every story tells us that all things may grow and change. A stone may become a plant. A plant may become an animal. An animal may become a human. A human may become a god. The Legend of Madam White Snake is counted as one of China’s Four Great Folktales, the others being Lady Meng Jiang, Butterfly Lovers and the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl. The Legend of Madam White Snake has expanded all throughout China and many other surrounding countries such as Japan, Korea, Vietnam, even parts of India. In fact, t is easily one of the biggest legends to come from China.

The earliest attempt to fictionalize the story in printed form appears to be The White Maiden Locked for Eternity in the Leifeng Pagoda by Feng Menglong, which was written during the Ming dynasty. The story propelled Lei Feng Pagoda to fame – it continues to be one of the most popular tourist sights in China.

Beijing Opera: “Legend of the White Snake”, 2016

Lu Dongbin, one of the Eight Immortals, disguises himself as a man selling tangyuan at the Broken Bridge near the West Lake in Hangzhou. A boy named Xu Xian buys some tangyuan from Lu Dongbin without knowing that they are actually immortality pills. After eating them, Xu Xian does not feel hungry for the next three days. He therefore goes back to the old man to ask him why. Lu Dongbin laughs. He carries Xu Xian to the bridge where he then  flips him upside down and causes him to vomit the tangyuan into the lake.

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Fragment of relief depicting the Legend of the White Snake in Leifeng Pagoda in Hangzhou

Swimming in the lake is a white snake spirit who has been practicing magical arts for centuries in the hope of becoming an immortal. She eats the pills and gains 500 years’ worth of magical powers. She feels grateful to Xu Xian and, from that moment on, their fates become intertwined. There is also a tortoise spirit training in the lake who did not manage to consume any of the pills. He becomes very jealous of the white snake.

One day, the white snake sees a beggar on the bridge who has caught a green snake to wants to dig out the snake’s gall and sell it. The white snake transforms into a woman and buys the green snake from the beggar, thus saving the green snake’s life. Grateful, the green snake regards the white snake as an elder sister.

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Xu Xiang meeting Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing, Yue Opera, 1952

Eighteen years later, during the Qingming Festival, the white and green snakes transform themselves into two young women called Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing respectively. They meet Xu Xian at the Broken Bridge in Hangzhou. Xu Xian lends them his umbrella because it is raining. Xu Xian and Bai Suzhen fall in love and are eventually married. They move to Zhenjiang, where they open a medicine shop.

In the meantime, the tortoise spirit has accumulated enough powers to take human form, so he transforms into a Buddhist monk called Fahai. Still angry with Bai Suzhen, Fahai plots to break up her relationship with Xu Xian. He approaches Xu Xian and tells him that during the Duanwu Festival his wife should drink realgar wine. As realgar wine is associated with the Duanwu Festival , Xu Xian give the wine to Bai Suzhen who unsuspectingly drinks it and reveals her true form as a large white snake. After seeing that his wife is not human, Xu Xian dies of shock. Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing travel to Mount Emei, where they brave danger to steal a magical herb that restores Xu Xian to life.

After coming back to life, Xu Xian still maintains his love for Bai Suzhen despite knowing her true nature. Fahai tries to separate them again by capturing Xu Xian and imprisoning him in Jinshan Temple. Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing fights Fahai to rescue Xu Xian. Bai Suzhen uses her powers to flood the temple. However, despite drowning many innocent people, she fails to save her husband. Xu Xian later manages to escape from Jinshan Temple and reunite with his wife in Hangzhou, where Bai Suzhen gives birth to their son, Xu Mengjiao. Fahai tracks them down again, defeats Bai Suzhen and imprisons her in Leifeng Pagoda. Xiaoqing flees, vowing vengeance.

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Lifeng Pagoda, Hangzhou, China

Twenty years later, Xu Mengjiao earns the zhuangyuan (top scholar) degree in the imperial examination and returns home to visit his parents. At the same time Xiaoqing, who had spent years refining her powers, goes to Jinshan Temple to confront Fahai and defeats him. Bai Suzhen is freed from Leifeng Pagoda and reunited with her husband and son, while Fahai flees and hides inside the stomach of a crab. However, instead of being reunited with her husband and son, Bai Suzhen attained immortality and ascended to the heavens.

Madam White Snake is commonly interpreted as a reflection of the tension between social norms and individual desires. Xu Xian and Bai Suzhen’s love affair was one that did not conform to social norms at the time and Fahai represents the force that attempts to uphold social hierarchy and maintain social norms. Fahai’s attempts and eventual success in separating them implies the priority of society over individuals. A contrast is provided in the story by Bai Suzhen’s son who emerged as the top scholar in the imperial exams. He represents individuals who are rewarded when they confirm to social norms. As a result, Bai Suzhen was rewarded through her release from the Lei Feng pagoda but the social norms continued to prevail – she was rewarded with immortality but remain separated from her husband and son.

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As is the case for any stories with the kind of legacy that the Legend of Madam White Snake seem to have, where they started to be told orally until they were written down some hundred years later, characters and plot points have been added, altered and erased as the story moved from one culture to another. In a version written by Philostratus in 2nd-century Greece, the White Snake character introduces herself as a common Phoenician woman, while in a version recorded in Kashmir she is the daughter of a Chinese king. Some might consider such narrative inconsistencies and the tale’s unwritten beginnings problematic, especially when trying to locate an authentic text or ascribe artistic value to recorded retellings. But the absence of an authoritative text is perhaps one of the reasons for its perpetual value.


One of the earliest recorded ancestors of the White Snake story found in China appeared in an anthology of classic folk tales published in 981 CE. The story is categorized as a late period Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) romance and  titled “Li Huang” after its main character. In this version, Li is a married man who comes to Chang’an, the Tang capital, to find a job. He meets a “fairylike” lady dressed in white by a vendor cart, buys clothes for her and follows her home for a repayment. He eventually marries and spends three pleasurable days with her. When he returns to his home, Li Huang becomes ill and his body melts into his sheets. His servant leads his family toward the lady in white’s house, but when they arrive, they find only an empty garden with a locust tree bearing checks to repay Li. Locals report that a white serpent was commonly seen by the tree.

The Trickter, the Jester, the Clown: The Brief Mythology and Ancient History of the Harbingers of Laughter and Fear

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Hermes detail in
“La Primavera” by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)

Clown-like characters have been around for thousands of years. Jesters date back at least as far as ancient Egypt. Tracing back the figure of the Jester leads us to the mythological trickster. Tricksters are archetypal characters who appear in the myths of many different cultures. They cross and often break both physical and societal rules, violating principles of social and natural order, playfully disrupting normal life and then re-establishing it on a new basis. They openly question and mock authority and usually fond of breaking rules and playing tricks on both humans and gods. Hermes plays this role in some Greek myths. He is the messenger of the gods, patron of thieves and the inventor of lying, a gift he passed on to his son Autolycus. The trickster is also unconstrained by form or gender. In Norse mythology,  the trickster Loki is also a shape shifter who could move freely between genders. At one point, he even becomes a mare who later gives birth to Odin’s eight-legged horse .

“Loke” by
Peder Henrik Christian (Kristian) Zahrtmann (1843 – 1917)

In later folklore, the trickster is incarnated as a clever man or creature, who defends himself by using trickery to survive the dangers of the world. For example, typical fairy tales have the king who wants to find the best groom for his daughter through ordering trials. No brave and valiant prince or knight manages to win them, until a simple but clever peasant comes. Instead of fighting, the peasant fools the monsters and villains and dangers and win the hand of the princess.

This leads us to the elusive character of the jester. Early jesters were popular in Ancient Egypt, and entertained Egyptian pharaohs. The ancient Romans also had a tradition of professional jesters called Balatrones who moved freely in the company of the wealthy due to the general amusement they afforded. Perhaps the earliest antecedents of the European court jester were the comic actors of ancient Rome. Several Latin terms used in medieval references to jesters such as scurrae, mimi or histriones originally referred either to amusing hangers-on or to the comic actors and entertainers of Rome. If there was no formal professional jester in Rome, the comic actors fulfilled his functions.

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“Touchtone, the Jester” by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917)

In the 11th and 12th centuries, the title minstrel (“little servant”), was the name given to a wide range of entertainers, including singers, musicians, jugglers, tumblers, magicians as well as jesters. Both men and women were employed as minstrels and there is a record of a female jester called Adeline owning land in Hampshire in 1086. In the 12th century, the title of follus or “fool” began to be mentioned in documents, often when these jesters had been rewarded with land as payment for loyal service. A fool named Roland le Pettour was given 30 acres of land by King Henry II when he retired on condition that Roland returned to the royal court every year on Christmas Day to “leap, whistle and fart”.

By the 13th century, some talented jesters were beginning to achieve superstar status. In Europe and India the most eminent jesters were household names, as top-class comedians are today, and stories about their jokes and tricks circulated freely. In India there is even a kind of lentil soup named after Birbal. The star jesters of China may also have enjoyed this celebrity status, as Ban Gu’s biography of Dongfang Shuo suggests that Shuo’s jokes and sallies, his divinations and guesses, shallow and inconsequential though they are, were passed around among the ordinary run of people, and there was no stripling or cowherd who failed to be quite dazzled by them.

An individual court jester in Europe could emerge from a wide range of backgrounds: a university dropout, a monk thrown out of a priory for nun frolics, a jongleur with exceptional verbal or physical dexterity, or the apprentice of a village blacksmith whose fooling amused a passing nobleman. The recruiting of jesters was informal and meritocratic.

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“Landscape with Mandarine Tree”, by
Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo  (1727 – 1804)


A dwarf-jester called Nai Teh (Mr. Little) at the court of King Mongkut of Siam (r. 1851-68), described by Anna Leonowens in Anna and the King of Siam, was similarly recruited: He was discovered by one of the King’s half-brothers on a hunting trip into the north and brought to Bangkok to be trained in athletic and gymnastic tricks. When he had learned these, he was presented to the king as a comedian and a buffoon.

Tenali Rama, one of the three superstar jesters of India, is said to have earned his position as jester by making King Krsnadevaraya laugh. According to one story, he contrived for the king’s guru to carry him around on his shoulders within sight of the king. Outraged at the humiliation of his holy man, the king sent some guards out to beat the man riding on the guru’s shoulders. Tenali Rama, smelling impending danger, jumped down and begged forgiveness of the guru, insisting that to make amends he should carry him on his own shoulders. The guru agreed, and when the guards arrived the guru was duly beaten. The king found the trick amusing enough to appoint Tenali Rama his jester.

Of at least equal importance with his entertainer’s cap was the jester’s function as adviser and critic. The jester everywhere employed the same techniques to carry out this delicate role, and it would take a really obtuse king or emperor not to realize what he was driving at. The Chinese records give us an idea of just how effective a jester could be in tempering the ruler’s excesses, as the occasions when his words of warning were either ignored or punished are heavily outnumbered by those when he was listened to and rewarded.

Perhaps the reason for this is that Jesters are generally of inferior social and political status and are not in a position to pose a power threat. They have little to gain by caution and little to lose by candor—apart from liberty, livelihood, and occasionally even life. They are peripheral to the game of politics, and this can reassure a king that their words are unlikely to be geared to their own advancement. The ruler can be isolated from his courtiers and ministers, who might conspire against him. The jester too can be an isolated and peripheral figure somehow detached from the intrigues of the court, and this enables him to act as a kind of confidant.

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” El bufón del rey ” by
Germán Álvarez Algeciras (1848-1912)

The jester could soften the blow of a critical comment in a way that prevented a dignified personage from losing face. Humor is the great defuser of tense situations. Among the Murngin tribe of Australia, it is the duty of the clown to act outrageously if men begin to quarrel. In making them laugh at him, he distracts their attention from their own fight and dispels their aggression

In the medieval period, being the personal jester of a king or nobleman came with a serious health warning; jesters were often required to go to the battlefield with their masters to carry messages between the leaders of warring armies, demanding that a city surrender to a besieging army or delivering terms for the release of hostages. Unfortunately for the jesters, the enemy did sometimes “kill the messenger” as an act of defiance and some used a catapult to hurl the unfortunate messenger, or his severed head, back into his own camp as a graphic illustration of what they thought of the message.

Jesters also had a vital role to play in the battle themselves. In the early Middle Ages their job was to wage psychological warfare, boosting their army’s morale the night before with songs and stories. When the two armies took up their opposing positions in preparation for battle, the jesters would cavort up and down on foot or horseback between them, calming the nerves of their own men by making them laugh at jokes, singing songs and calling out mocking abuse to their enemies in order to hearten their own soldiers and demoralise the opposition. Some even juggled swords or lances in front of the enemy, taunting and baiting them. With any luck, those in the enemy with the hottest tempers will break ranks and charge prematurely to avenge the insult and kill the fool, which would weaken their own defensive position.

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“Grimaldi and Vegetable” by TM Grimshaw (c. 1816)

Modern clowns are strongly associated with the tradition of the circus clown, which developed out of earlier comedic roles in theatre or Varieté shows during the 19th to mid 20th centuries. Many circus clowns have become well known and are a key circus act in their own right. The first mainstream clown role was portrayed by Joseph Grimaldi (1778 – 1837) who also created the traditional whiteface make-up design.

In the early 20th century, with the disappearance of the rustic simpleton or village idiot character of everyday experience, North American circuses developed characters such as the tramp or hobo. Examples include Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp (1914), and Emmett Kelly’s Weary Willie based on hobos of the Depression era.  Red Skelton’s Dodo the Clown in The Clown (1953), depicts the circus clown as a tragicomic stock character, “a funny man with a drinking problem”.

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Charlie Chaplin The Tramp debuted in 1914

Now the figure of the clown develops into something a little bit more complicated, The 1980s gave rise to the evil clown character, the attraction of clowns for small children being based in their fundamentally threatening or frightening nature. Batman’s the Joker is an evil clown character. He is known by a number of nicknames, including “the Clown Prince of Crime”, “the Harlequin of Hate”, “the Ace of Knaves”, and “the Jester of Genocide”. How did this happen? Tricksters and jesters may act strange and tell a nasty joke or two, but they were never considered evil and children don’t have nightmares about them. Why is the more colorful and child-friendly clown is so feared?


Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

In recent decades, one of the great advances in the social sciences is the concept of evil as an evoked feature of social situations instead of a disposition of certain individuals. Specific situations were found that people engage in behavior that would be considered “evil,” and there are specific situations that facilitate pro-social behavior in others. 

One of the most important factor that seems to predict anti-social behavior is deindividuation, a state in which one’s identity is hidden. For example, if you are online in an anonymous chat room, you and everyone you come in contact with are deindividuated. If you wear a face covering mask and never reveal your identity, you are deindividuated. Researchers have found that deindividuated individuals are more likely to hurt others, cheat, steal, lie, and even kill under such conditions. Although it was not a requirement of the tricksters and jesters (their “victims” always knew who played the trick on them), deindividuation is one of the hallmarks of clowns. They wear funny outfits, crazy wigs and  full make-up with a fake nose. When one is in their clown outfit, their true identity becomes buried in the minds of anyone observing and their behavior is likely to change. From an evolutionary perspective, we can think of deindividuation as a tool individuals have often used during activities such as warfare. In battles across human history, soldiers have worn all kinds of costumes, uniforms and masks. These take away the individuality of any particular soldier, so they all “benefit” from the effects of deindividuation on social behavior, which leads them to be more OK with killing their enemies. When people are in a state of deindividuation, we can expect them to act at their worst.

“Joker” Study by ROOSDY