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.

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Burning like a silver flame: The Mother of Rome and the Patroness of ancient Wine Festivals

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A medallion painting from the House of Marcus Fabius Rufus in Pompeii, Italy, depicting the Greco-Roman goddess Venus; it is dated to the 1st century BC.

Originally the early Latin goddess of vegetation, a patroness of vineyards and gardens, Venus became deliberately associated with the Greek Goddess Aphrodite and assumed many of her aspects. The name of Venus then became interchangeable with Aphrodite as most of the tales of these two goddesses are identical. However, like every Roman gods with their Greek counterparts, there were differences. Venus arguably became more popular in ancient Rome, and became more ingrained in the city life. She took on the aspect of a gracious Mother Goddess full of pure love as well as assuming the divine responsibility for domestic bliss and procreation.

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” Venus and Mars Bathing “, by Giulio Romano  (1499 – 1546)
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“Venus Genitrix”, Roman Imperial copy (late first-early second century AD)

Venus was also the ancestress of the Julian family of Rome which included great men such as Julius and Augustus Caesar. Anchises, a prince from Dardania and ally to Troy, was seduced by Venus who disguised herself as a Phrygian princess, only revealing her divine identity nine months later as she presented Anchises with their son Aeneas. Guided by his divine mother, Aeneas was fated to found Rome. Aeneas’ son Ascanius was credited as the ancestor of the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus along with the Julian family.

In 217 BCE, the Sibyline oracle suggested that if Rome, which at that time was losing the Second Punic War, could persuade Venus Eyrcina (Venus of Eryx) to change her allegiance from the Carthagian Silician allies to the Romans, the war would be won. Rome then laid siege to Eryx, offered the goddess a magnificent temple and took her image back to Rome. It was this foreign image that eventually became Rome’s Venus Genetrix (Venus the Mother).

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” Triumph of Venus “, by Francesco del Cossa (1436 – 1477)

At the end of the Roman Republic, some Romans laid claim to Venus’ favor and competed for it. Sulla adopted the name Felix (“lucky”) and accredited Venus Felix to his divine favor, Pompey dedicated a temple to Venus Victris (“Venus of Victory”) in 55 BCE  and Hadrian dedicated a temple to Venus in 139 CE, making her the protective mother of the Roman state.

Roman theology presents Venus as the yielding, watery female principle which is essential to the generation and balance of life. Balanced by the more active and fiery Vulcan and Mars, Venus absorbs and tempers the male essence, thus uniting the opposites of male and female in mutual affection. She embraces several otherwise quite disparate functions such as military victory, sexual prowess, good fortune and general prosperity.

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“Juno Borrowing the Girdle of Venus”, by Guy Head painted c.1771

In April 1, Veneralia was held in honour of Venus Verticordia (“Venus the Changer of Hearts”) and Fortuna Virilis (Virile Good Fortune) whose cult was probably by far the older of the two. Venus Verticordia was invented in 220 BC, in response to advice from a Sibylline oracle during Rome’s Punic Wars when a series of prodigies was taken to signify divine displeasure at sexual offenses among Romans of every category and class, including several men and three Vestal Virgins. Her statue was dedicated by a young woman, chosen as the most pudica (sexually pure) in Rome by a committee of Roman matrons. At first, this statue was probably housed in the temple of Fortuna Virilis, perhaps as divine reinforcement against the perceived moral and religious failings of its cult. Venus Verticordia was given her own temple in 114 BCE. She was meant to persuade Romans of both sexes and every class, whether married or unmarried, to cherish the traditional sexual proprieties and morality known to please the gods and benefit the State. During her rites, her image was taken from her temple to the men’s baths, where it was undressed and washed in warm water by her female attendants, then garlanded with myrtle. Women and men asked Venus Verticordia’s help in affairs of the heart, sex, betrothal and marriage.

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A little of what is left from the temple of Venus, Pompei 2015

In April 23, the ancient Romans celebrated vinalia urbana, a wine festival shared by Venus and Jupiter, the king of the gods himself. While Venus was patron of “profane” wine, for everyday human use. Jupiter was patron of the strongest, purest, sacrificial grade wine, and controlled the weather on which the autumn grape-harvest would depend. At this festival, men and women alike drank the new vintage of ordinary, non-sacral wine in honour of Venus, whose powers had provided humankind with this gift. Upper-class women gathered at Venus’s Capitoline temple, where a libation of the previous year’s vintage, sacred to Jupiter, was poured into a nearby ditch. Common girls (vulgares puellae) and prostitutes gathered at Venus’ temple just outside the Colline gate, where they offered her myrtle, mint, and rushes concealed in rose-bunches and asked her for “beauty and popular favour”, and to be made “charming and witty”.

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The Forum of Caesar (built near the Forum Romanum in Rome in 46 BC) and the Temple of Venus Genetrix, Imperial Forums, Rome

In August 19, they celebrated another wine festival called vinalia rustica,  a rustic Latin festival of wine, vegetable growth and fertility. This was almost certainly Venus’ oldest festival and was associated with her earliest known form, Venus Obsequens. Kitchen and market-gardens, as well as vineyards were dedicated to her. 

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The circular temple dedicated to the Venus of Cnidus, Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli 

A festival of Venus Genetrix (September 26) was held under state auspices from 46 BCE at her temple in the Forum of Caesar in fulfillment of a vow by Julius Caesar who claimed her personal favour as his divine patron and ancestral goddess of the Julian clan. Caesar dedicated the temple during his  quadruple triumph. At the same time, he was pontifex maximus and Rome’s senior magistrate; the festival is thought to mark the unprecedented promotion of a personal, family cult to one of the Roman state. Caesar’s heir, Augustus, made much of these personal and family associations with Venus as an Imperial deity. 

Baubo Bookshop: A Little Labour of Love

I am sure it is not a secret by now that I am passionate about mythology and ancient history. However, it has also been a long standing dream of mine to have a little bookshop that deals especially with these subjects where I can choose stories, books and artworks that I like to then repackage and reproduce them to a wider audience.

That dream has now come true and I am the curator of this little online bookshop called Baubo Bookshop. The story behind the name comes from a now forgotten legend which says that when the world was dying as Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, was desperately looking for her lost daughter, she met a woman named Baubo. Baubo told her a secret, made Demeter laugh and the world was saved as Demeter gained the strength to continue her search. What little we know about this story are remnants of ancient ritual of being together, sharing our hearts, laughing ourselves silly until we feel alive again to go and share this energy with the rest of the world.

That is the whole philosophy of this bookshop. We would like to give our readers the space to go back to the ancient legends whether it is to learn, to relate or simply to enjoy the stories that have given learning and entertainment to our ancestors for thousands of years.

One of my favorites, “Sirens” by ROOSDY

The artist responsible for the artworks you see on the Baubo Bookshop website is ROOSDY, a specialist of concept art, digital painting and commercial storyboarding. He takes inspiration from such classical painters as William Adolphe Bouguereau, Jean-Leon Verso, Edmund Leighton, Paul Delaroche and Frank Dicksee, and hopes to bring classical realism to modern commercial art and literary adaptations. His artwork is everywhere so do visit his pages sometime.

We add two affordable books on a monthly basis and we always add to our art page. For now, you can find our artworks and merchandise at Society6.

As an introduction to our new endeavour, “Forgotten Magic: A Collection of Mythological Essays” by Martini Fisher and R. K. Fisher is now available exclusively on Baubo Bookshop. This book is a compilation of blogs by me and notes by R.K. Fisher ranging from such serious topics such as the power of laughter and the philosophy of tickling. Also included in the book are writings from R.K. Fisher on topics such as the analysis of Santa Claus and the myth of chivalrous knights.

Those three women you see on the cover are the Moriae (the three Fates). They controlled the mother thread of life of every mortal from birth to death. They were independent, at the helm of necessity, directed fate, and watched that the fate assigned to every being by eternal laws might take its course without obstruction. The three Moirae sing in unison with the music of  the Sirens. Lachesis sings about the things that were, Clotho sings about the things that are, and Atropos sings about the things that are to be.

The artwork for this cover is also available in our Society6 store.

Join in the fun and get the book this month. It’s on a discount for the whole of April.

Charm of the Ancient Enchantress: Calypso and the Magic of Good Housekeeping

“Calypso” by ROOSDY

From Calypso, the solitary enchantress of the Odyssey, we learn the power of creating a beautiful environment. Calypso was the goddess-nymph of the mythical island of Ogygia and a daughter of the Titan Atlas. She “detained” Odysseus for many years in the course of his wanderings after the fall of Troy but was eventually commanded by Zeus to release him.

Odysseus’ ship was destroyed by the whirlpool of Charybdis and he escaped on floating wreckage. Odysseus drifted for nine days until the gods led him to the island of Ogygja where Calypso lives. Odysseus describes her as “the goddess of braided hair and of strange powers and of human speech; she welcomed me and tended me.”

While Odysseus was being mended, the gods assembled in divine council, and Athena began to recount to them the many distresses of Odysseus that again had come before her mind, “He is pent up in an island now,” she says, “overwhelmed with misery; he is in the domains of the Nymph Calypso, who is keeping him with her there perforce and thwarting return to his own country.” Thus to escape from a lone woman, the hero needs the gods to step in.

Zeus send Hermes over to Calypso’s place, and from Homer’s description of her home one can see why it takes Odysseus so long to leave. One may imagine Calypso to have some sort of supernatural power, but she is a nymph. Her powers, although she has some, are limited. So what could have stopped the powerful Odysseus from leaving? “… when he (Hermes) had reached that far-off island he left the violet ocean and took to the land until he came to a great cavern; in this the Nymph of the braided tresses had made her home, and inside this he found her now. On the hearth a great fire was burning, and far and wide over the island was wafted the smell of burning wood, cloven cedar and juniper.” Cozy, isn’t it? If one has a choice between a really long, tedious, uncomfortable and dangerous journey by sea or stay in a warm cavern smelling of burning wood, cloven cedar and juniper, what option would one take?

The vision continues, “In the space within was the goddess herself, singing with a lovely voice, moving to and fro at her loom and weaving with a shuttle of gold. Around the entrance a wood rose up in abundant growth–alder and aspen and fragrant cypress. Birds with long wings roosted there, owls and falcons and long-tongued sea-crows that have their business upon the waters. Trailing over the cavern’s arch was a garden vine that throve and clustered; and here four springs began near each other, then in due order ran four ways with their crystal waters. Grassy meadows on either side stood thick with violet and wild parsley.” – Calypso the enchantress is a fabulous homemaker. She makes sure that her environment is as beautiful as she is. This is important as a person’s home reflects them. By stepping into someone’s house, room or apartment, one can get some general idea of what kind of person is the master or mistress of the house.

And it is not just the home. We can do this with the simple things. We tend to associate certain pleasant feelings with people – from perfumes, flowers to good food. My family associate me with the smell of brownies as I would make a big batch of them every weekend and, to this day, I cannot walk past a landscape painting without thinking of my grandfather as he himself was a painter. You own your space not by “manspreading” as young people call it, but by understanding your own taste and what makes you special – this inspires confidence and confidence is irresistable even for the most virtuous heroes. So even by bringing a bit of sense of warmth and pleasant feeling with you when you walk into a room will make people feel that something is missing when you are gone. This has nothing to do with “catching” a man or a woman. It is about making you comfortable in your own world before sharing it with other people.

Now back to the brave hero. Where is he in Calypso’s magnificent home? In Homer’s words “bold Odysseus was not to be found within; as his custom was, he was sitting on the shore and weeping, breaking his heart with tears and sighs and sorrows.” So Odysseus, after days of drifting aimlessly at sea, almost dying with no food or shelter, is “forced” to stay in this heaven. And now he is crying because he doesn’t want food, shelter and a gentle woman caring for him. Of course, Odysseus sleeps with Calypo at night but, Homer assures us, “this was against his will; she was loving and he unloving.” How awful it must be to have to sleep with a beautiful woman every night to wake up in a lovely home and delicious food.

Odysseus’ reasons for crying is, I’m sure, heroic. However, by owning her space, Calypso also put herself in charge of the narrative. She’s the queen of the castle, Odysseus is just a guest – and a rather tedious guest at that. From Calypso’s point of view, she is a catch. She is beautiful, powerful and capable of giving Odysseus anything he asks. Clearly, she has a lot to give a man. But Odysseus is no match for her as he can do very little but cry and be miserable until he has to ask his friends (the gods) to break up with her on his behalf.

As it turns out, this is exactly what Calypso does. When Hermes tells her the purpose of his visit is to free Odysseus from her clutches, Calypso is understandably offended. “I saved him when he was all alone and astride his keel, when Zeus with his flashing thunderbolt had shattered and shivered his rapid vessel in the midst of wine-dark ocean. All his brave comrades perished then; he alone was borne on to this place by wind and wave. I welcomed him and tended him; I offered him immortality and eternal youth.” In short, Odysseus almost died in the ocean because of Zeus’ thunderbolt only to be saved and tended to by Calypso who was doing just fine living in her own little heaven until he comes along.

Calypso is much too secure in her own power to cry over this. She says to Hermes, handling the break up with class, “so let the man go–if such is the word and behest of Zeus–go where he will over the barren sea. I cannot help him to depart; I have no ships or oars or crew to speed him over the sea’s expanse; but gladly enough, without concealment, I will counsel him how best to reach his own land unscathed.”

Charm of the Ancient Enchantress: Sirens and the Art of Romance

sirens002 “Siren” by ROOSDY

Enchantresses of the ancient world are  commonly vilified and blamed for the hero’s misery. However, they are fascinating figures. The hero is usually a big, strong, manly man who has seen his share of war and violence. As he is perfectly capable to remove himself from the clutches of violent men, he would certainly be capable to get away from a delicate woman. The enchantress is usually depicted as a woman (the “weaker sex”) – delicate, sweet-voiced, fair. In short, she is hardly the type to force the physically strong hero to stay with her if he doesn’t want to do so. She must then attract the hero’s mind, will or heart somehow. Because we don’t want to ever think that the great Heracles, Aeneas or Odysseus are anything but virtuous, we prefer not to think of them as understandably weary warriors with a lot of demands being put on their shoulders looking for refuge from their difficult journeys. Instead, the enchantress must have had some special tricks or supernatural powers to attract these men, trapped them in her island against his will and stop them from continuing their travels. In the case of the Odyssey, the enchantresses never even leave their islands. It was Odysseus who comes to them.

Mythology is not all magic and incredible beings. There are perfectly reasonable explanations to the charms of the enchantress – most of which are still used today. The charms of the ancient enchantress is what I want to look at this month. Illustrator ROOSDY is going to help me with the visuals. For more of his work, you can find him on Instagram @roosdy01 . His paintings as well as merchandise for this series will be available on society6

 

We often hear that femme fatales such as Cleopatra, who managed to entrance not one but two Roman generals, was not beautiful. In fact, she was apparently quite homely in her appearance. However, she was powerful, intelligent and well-read – well-positioned to seduce a thinking man such as a scholar, a senator or an emperor.

The sirens in ancient Greek mythology were no supermodels either. In early Greek art, they were represented as birds with large women’s heads, bird feathers and scaly feet. Later, they were represented as female figures with the legs of birds, with or without wings, playing a variety of musical instruments. The tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia Suda says that from their chests up, the sirens were little birds with women’s faces. 

Their reputation also doesn’t help. “They sit in a meadow; men’s corpses lie heaped up all round them, mouldering upon the bones as the skin decays.” Circe warns Odysseus. As later painters depicted sirens as beautiful naked women instead of scary singing bird ladies, we then assume that they seduce the travellers with their magnificent beauty. If they’re not physically beautiful, well then they must have really divine voices.

To put this simply, what Cleopatra and the Sirens offered the men are romance. A quick google search for the definition of Romance will give you this result: a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement, and remoteness from everyday life. Romance is synonymous with the words mystery, glamour,  excitement, mystique. The sirens do more than just sing the travellers to their deaths. They promise romance. They promise something different, an escape for the weary and, at this point, very bored travellers who have been stuck on their ship after being at war for 10 years. For a long time, the lives of these men would have been as far as they could be from anything comfortable, beautiful or artistic. They would have had to find their way home to wives who may have remarried and families who may have moved on and forgotten all about them. In short, whatever journey they experienced were far from over. The sirens provide them respite, with music and the arts. Perhaps their voices are divine, but it is their artistic intelligence that enchants the travellers. As Pausanias says, “Down to the present day men are wont to liken to a Seiren (Siren) whatever is charming in both poetry and prose.”

Mythical Creatures as a Reflection of Cultural Fears

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Myths and folklore are very interesting parts of every culture. We can see their reflection on so many things: books, paintings, sculptures, music – basically all kinds of art! In some countries they dominate more than in others, but still their presence, even in daily life, cannot be ignored.

One of the strongest human emotions is fear. Our fears are numerous, and they change through the life. However, the fear of nature in many cases doesn’t go away – it transforms, but never completely goes away. This is why nature related myths are so popular even though they are centuries and thousands years old.

From the childhood years we all remember the fear of being lost in the woods, and fear of wild animals. Children talk to the trees and believe that those respond. The good thing of this all is that from the early ages we learn to respect nature and take good care of it, so that those little creatures around the world get some help!

Infographic by AvasFlowers.net

 

Martini

Now on Kindle: “Introduction to Mahabharata: Lessons on Life and Businesses”

Following the successful launch of the online course by the same name, “Introduction to Mahabharata: Lessons on Life and Businesses” is now available in eBook form.

We seldom look at mythology as something that has practical lessons to make our life easier. Yet, it is closer to real life than we imagine. The Five Pandava Brothers of the ancient Hindu Epic Mahabharata represents many facets of ancient and modern lives from imperfections to ideal business leaders.

Martini Fisher introduces a different way to look at the Ancient Epic Indian Literature that is Mahabharata and presents its practical lessons for the modern audience.