Tag Archives: deities

Guteel

In a Tlingit myth, Guteel was a being who lived on human blood. He was larger than humans, and semi-divine, so in English translations of the myth he is referred to as a “giant” or a “monster.” I found a few different versions of the myth — as you’d expect with an oral tradition — but the central plot remains much the same: Guteel is killing too many humans, so the humans figure out a way to kill him. As they destroy him, he prophesies that they will never kill him completely. The humans burn his body, but the ashes turn into mosquitoes which suck blood from humans, thus rendering Guteel’s prophecy true.

At Sitka National Historical Park, there is a Mosquito Legend Pole carved before 1900, which once belonged to Hattie Wallace of the Kaigani Haida village of Sukkwan. Even though it was in a Haida village, the pole shows the Tlingit Mosquito Legend. The traditional Watchman figure is missing from the top of this pole; so now Guteel sits at the top, a giant with a beak that looks like a mosquito proboscis.

We probably would not include monsters or giants like Guteel in the category of deities. Yet a being like Guteel is in some sense a lesser deity: he is immortal, he is powerful, he is part of the order of existence. Not all deities are benevolent.

More information:

Info about the replica Mosquito Legend Pole at Sitka National Historical Park

Versions of the Tlingit Mosquito Legend: a brief versionversion with photos of old totem poles

Tlingit myths and Texts

A minor deity

Here’s a small figure, probably a deity, from the Ifugao people of the Philippines. This figure sits on top of a small container used for holding agriculatural lime (a misture consisting primarily of calcium carbonate), one of the constituents used in preparing a mild stimulant from betel leaf (Piper betle) and the nut of the areca palm (Areca catechu).

This figure, made sometime in the first half of the twentieth century, is probably an ancestor deity, or a guardian deity — akin, perhaps, to the household gods of Rome, minor deities which have retained a place in the collective memory of the Western tradition.

In the West, we tend to assume that a deity by definition is unitary (or unitary-but-triune), and transcendent. We forget that for much of human history, there were a multiplicity of deities that lived quite close at hand; and we forget that a significant percentage of humans today still live in a world where many deities live close at hand. And perhaps these close-at-hand deities have never really left our collective consciousness; today we keep our glowing smartphones always with us, just as the ancient Romans kept the statues of their Lares or household gods close at hand so that they might consult them constantly, to ensure good fortune.

An Asian Mary

On a recent visit to the Asian Art Museum, I saw a beautiful mixed media sculpture of the Virgin Mary. The body of the sculpture was made of wood, the head and hands of ivory, a crown of stars of metal, and the hair of actual human hair.

When Westerners think of Asian religious art, they tend to think of Buddhas and Ganeshas and Guan Yins, forgetting that Christianity has had a presence in Asia for more than 1900 years. So of course there are Asian Christs and Asian Marys.

This Virgin Mary was made in the Philippines, to whence Christianity was brought by European Christians about five hundred years ago. The sculpture cannot be precisely dated, but was made sometime between 1650 and 1800.

Anyone familiar with European Christian art from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance will recognize the iconography of Mary standing on a crescent moon. But some of the details feel Asian. Mary’s facial features do not look stereotypically European, and according to the wall label next to the sculpture, “Early Spanish reports describe artists of Chinese descent as well as Filipino artists carving these images in the Philippines.” The treatment of the draped fabric feels non-European to me, especially Mary’s blue robe, which takes on a life of its own in a way that European Renaissance sculptures, based on classical models, never do; it feels more like the flowing, moving fabric found on some Chinese sculptures, or even on some Medieval European sculptures. I particularly like the use of human hair, a material that anchors Mary in the human realm, and keeps her from drifting into a realm of inaccessible transcendence.

In short, here is a deity that incorporates European iconography with Asian forms and sculptural traditions; she is a globalized deity who also links the human to the transcendent realms.

Agni

Agni, the ancient Vedic deity of fire, has always appealed to me. But until today, I’d only met Agni through poetry, like this hymn to Agni, the fifth hymn of the third book of the Rig Veda, as translated by Ralph Griffith:

Agni who shines against the Dawns is wakened;
the holy Singer who precedes the sages:
With far-spread luster, kindled by the pious,
the Priest has thrown both gates of darkness open.
Agni has waxed mighty by songs of praise,
to be adored with hymns of those who praise him.
Loving the varied shows of holy Order
at the first flush of dawn, he shines as envoy.
Midst mortal’s homes, Agni has been established,
fulfilling with the Law; Friend, germ of waters.
Loved and adored, the height he has ascended;
the Singer, object of our invocations.

Thus I was pleased to finally see a visual depiction of Agni at the Asian Art Museum this afternoon. He was part of a painting from the Ramayana, protecting Sita during her trial by fire, as imagined by a Balinese artist c. 1850-1900. Since this was a traveling exhibit, photography was not permitted, so I drew a quick sketch of Agni — leaving out Sita, Rama, the army of monkeys, the tongues of fire, and everything else in this detailed painting:

Agni, pencil on paper, 3-1/2x5 in.

Washington, D.C., to West Concord, Mass.

Sometimes, when you’re driving along one of the highways of the Washington-to-Boston megalopolis, you look around and it feels like there’s nothing there but paved highways.

BlogJul0716a

Obviously there’s more to the Great American Megalopolis than highways. On this trip, just a few minutes from the highway, I saw the well-loved green chair and ottoman in a porch where Russell sat next to L.E.W. Smith’s Twelve Poems Reconsidered and looked out at the birds in his garden. Also just a few minutes from the highway, I saw the small garden at E’s house where she picked a squash which she cubed and cooked and mixed with pasta and ricotta cheese.

As we drove along, I thought about the welded steel sculptures made by David Smith that I had seen at the National Gallery. Eight foot high circles on bases that look like feet, with appendages welded on that look like arms, these painted sculptures feel like they’re almost animate, as if they’re going to move at any moment, like some kind of large fanciful animals.

David Smith sculptures, East Wing, National Gallery, US

Actually, maybe they’re more like representations of mid-twentieth century North American deities. Maybe highway signs, also made of brightly painted metal, are close cousins to these sculptures, pragmatic deities that are also akin to ancient Greek cairns in which the god Hermes hid to guide passers-by. Maybe this was what Frank Stella was getting at in his book Working Space. This became a confused train of thought, and I know I dozed off because when Carol said, “Should we stop here for lunch?” I snapped awake.

After lunch, Carol wanted me to read aloud. I finished a book that she had been reading aloud the last time we were driving, The Egyptian News by Scott Steedman, a children’s book with ancient Egyptian “news stories” like an investigative report into Tutankahmen’s death (“Boy King Murdered?”) and an interview with an embalmer. At a rest stop, we bought a copy of the New York Times, and I read aloud the front page news, and several other articles including the very entertaining story about Donald Trump explaining to a crowd how the graphic accompanying his social media post against Hillary Clinton was not anti-Semitic, and how he was mad at his staff for removing it from the Web. I read some chapters from the novel we’ve been reading aloud off and on during this whole trip. My voice finally gave out about thirty minutes before we arrived in West Concord, Massachusetts.

Isis

Isis is a well-known Egyptian goddess who needs little introduction. This beautiful little sculpture of Isis dates from a period when the Romans ruled Egypt; so Isis is wearing an Egyptian headdress, but she’s also wearing Roman clothing.

Isis, c. 100-200 BCE

Above: Isis with sistrum, from Roman Imperial period, c. 100 BCE to 200 CE; bronze. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, accession no. 04.1713.

She is shaking a sistrum, an small percussion instrument that was used almost exclusively by women. Kara Cooney, a professor of Egyptian art and architecture, interprets the sistrum in terms of sexuality: “The sistrum was a kind of rattle — a wooden handle supporting bars of metal, each piercing small rings that clanged together when the instrument was vibrated. The sistrum itself represented human sexuality — round objects penetrated by a phallic rod holding them in place” (1). This interpretation could be accurate, but it could be overly influenced by Freud and Co., and therefore anachronistic.

The archaeologist Joyce Tyldesley offers another interpretation; she says the sistrum, which “was played only by women,” was “a rather large loop-shaped rattle with a long handle, often featuring the head of Hathor [another Egyptian goddess], which had initially represented the papyrus reeds of the Nile Delta where, mythology decreed, Hathor had been forced to hide with her young son. Eventually the sistrum lost all trace of its original meaning and instead started to serve as a religious symbol for life itself. It consequently become absorbed by other deities, and was particularly identified with the cult of Isis at the end of the Dynastic period.” (2) And this sculpture in fact does date from the end of the Dynastic period, the time when Isis had taken over the sistrum form Hathor.

Thus in this sculpture, we see the goddess Isis at the end of some three millennia of change and development. She is wearing the flowing robes of Rome rather than the simple sheath dress of Dynastic Egypt. She wears a headdress that identifies her as Isis, though it is not the older stepped headdress of Isis seen in sculptures from 500 years earlier (see, e.g., the sculpture of Isis below, from c. 685-525 BCE). And she has taken over the sistrum from Hathor and other goddesses.

Although their adherents may say otherwise, art and material culture does not show gods and goddesses as unchanging and fixed; instead, they grow and evolve over time.

Isis, Dynasty 26

Above: Isis mourning Osiris, from Dynasty 26, c. 685-525 BCE; wood. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, accession no. 72.4172.

Notes:

(1) Kara Cooney, The Woman Who Would Be King (New York: Broadway Books, 2014), p. 39.
(2) Joyce Tyldesley, Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt (London: Penguin, 1994), p. 139.

Taweret

Taweret is one of the deities who was a fairly common presence in ancient Egyptian households. Sculptures of Taweret have the head of a hippopotamus and the body of a female human being, and the arms and legs of a lion (note 1); though of course the physical manifestations of ancient Egyptian deities were not thought to adequately represent the actual deity. Sculptures of her “held the attribute of the sa [an ancient Egyptian symbol of magical protection] in her hands and sometimes also the ankh or a torch, the flame of which was supposed to expel typhonic forces” (note 2).

A statue of Taweret would typically stand in a niche in a house, with perhaps an offering table. A Taweret sculpture might also be placed in bedrooms, to prevent sleeping humans from being assaulted by demons or ghosts. According to some accounts, she was married to the god Seth (note 3).

Below is a fine tiny sculpture of Taweret, made of faience sometime in Dynasties 26-30, now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (accession number 64.2252). She is holding the sa, and you can see her hippo head, human body, and lion limbs. She is fearsome enough to give you a measure of assurance that she will indeed protect you, as a household god should; but she also appears friendly enough that I would not mind having her in my household.

Taweret

Notes:

1. Garry J. Shaw, The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends (Thames and Hudson, 2014), p. 155.

2. Manfred Lurker, An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Egypt [Thames and Hudson, 1980/2006], English language edition of Gotter und Symbole der Alten Agypter, rev. and enlarged by Peter A. Clayton, p. 119.

3. Shaw, pp. 152, 158, 55.

Aphrodite

Aprhodite’s nature and deeds are well enough known that they don’t need to be repeated here. This head of Aphrodite, carved between 300 and 300 BCE, is sometimes called the “Bartlett Head.” It was once attached to a complete figure, and likely would have been part of a temple; many Greek sculptures from this era were painted. Now the temple and the rest of the figure are lost, and this isolated head is on display in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It is worth remembering that when we see religious art in museums, what we are seeing has been removed from its original religious setting and purpose, and put into a completely secular context where it has no purpose except to be gazed at for its presumed artistic beauty.

Aphrodite

Ma-ku

Ma-ku is a Taoist deity of longevity. In the image below, she can be identified by her hoe and a basket of the fungus of immortality. This Ching dynasty porcelain presentation dish was made sometime in the eighteenth century, and is now in the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco (accession no. B60P376):

Ma-ku

Today in the West, Ma-ku’s name is sometimes translated as “Hemp Maiden,” which has led a number of Westerners to misappropriate her as the patron deity of pot smokers; you can find plenty of Web sites that state this as an absolute fact. Note, however, the iconography of Ma-ku often shows her, not with marijuana, but with a basket of the fungus of immortality. And so, not surprisingly, other Western writers have jumped to the conclusion that Ma-ku is not the goddess of marijuana, but rather the goddess of psychoactive mushrooms. Obviously, psychoactive mushrooms do not produce longevity, but we Westerners do love to superimpose our own meanings on the gods and goddesses of other times and other cultures.

Rather than imposing Western values on Ma-ku, I’m more interested in learning her role and place in Chinese culture. I found it difficult to locate good solid information about Ma-ku in English. But Mesny’s Chinese Miscellany (1899), though not a scholarly work and probably biased by a colonial outlook, has a useful entry on Ma-ku under the general heading of Gods and Goddesses:

MA KU

Ma Ku: A Taoist immortalised female saint or Hsien Nu; a portrait of Ma Ku is very popular as an emblem of longevity, and is one of the very best presents a person can make to his superiors on the occasion of a birthday feast.

During my stay in Kuei-chou, I received several such presents, in the form of a portrait of Ma Ku with a pilgrim’s staff and a basket of flowers over her shoulder, the whole embroidered in fancy coloured silk floss, on a scarlet satin tablet some 8 or 10 feet long by about 3 feet wide.

Mayers writing of Ma Ku says that she is “One of the female celebrities of Taoist fable. She is said to have been a sister of the immortalized soothsayer Wang Feng-ping (see Wang Yuan), and like him to have been admitted into the ranks of the genii [i.e., the immortals]. It is related that once when Fang-ping revealed himself in the presence of Ts’ai Ching, whom he chose as his disciple and taught, by corporeal sublimation, to free himself from the bonds of death, the genii was accompanied by his sister Ma Ku, who appeared in the semblance of a damsel of eighteen or twenty, arrayed in gorgeous apparel, and who waited on her brother and his pupil with strange viands served in platters of gold and chrysoprase.

“The wife of Ts’ai Ching was newly delivered of a child, seeing which Ma Ku took some grains of rice and threw them on the ground, where they at once became transformed into cinnabar (the magic of the alchemists). Fang-ping seeing this exclaimed with a smile, ‘Sister, do you still indulge in child’s play?’ to which the damsel replied: ‘Since I have been our handmaid, thrice has the eastern sea become fields where the mulberry grows!’…

“Hence the Tsang Sang Chih Pien, signifying the cyclic revolutions of nature and cataclysms occurring upon the earth’s surface such as beings of immeasurable longevity alone are priveleged to witness more than once.” It is on this account that the image or portrait of Ma Ku is so highly prized by the Chinese as an emblem of extreme long life and happiness.

— William Mesny, ed., Mesny’s Chinese Miscellany: A Text Book of Notes on China and the Chinese, vol. III, (Shanghai: Shanghai Mercury, 1899), p. 286.

 

Ho Hsien-ku

Ho Hsien-ku [Pinyin: He Xian’gu] is one of the Eight Taoist Immortals (Pa-hsien, Pinyin Baxian), and the only one who is unambiguously female. Six of the other Eight Immortals are definitely male, though at least one source (W. Perceval Yetts, “Eight Immortals,” p. 805) notes that Lan Ts’ai-ho may be depicted by artists as gender-ambiguous.

These Immortals began as humans, and transcended their humanity to become more than human. They could not be classed as either God or saint in the senses of those words used in the dominant Western religious traditions; but given their immortality and their powers, I would class them as deities. “The Eight Immortals are a group of seven men and one woman who are said to have attained immortality inspired by each other, and who continue to serve humanity by appearing in seances and inspirations” (Livia Kohn, Daoism and Chinese Culture, [Cambridge, Mass.: Three Pines Press, 2004], p. 164).

Below the photograph, I’ll append a brief biographical account of Ho Hsien-ku by W. Perceval Yetts, from “The Eight Immortals,” The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, (London: 1916), pp. 781-783 (endotes are Yetts’ own notes).

Ho Hsien-ku

Above: Ho Hsien-ku with a lotus, an ivory sculpture made between 1850 and 1911 (Ch’ing Dynasty) at the Asian Art Museum (accession no. R2005.71.47).

 

“Ho Hsien-ku,” from “The Eight Immortals by Perceval Yetts:

Ho Hsien-ku is shown as a comely girl sometimes dressed in elaborate robes, but more often wearing over a simple garment the leafy cape and skirt affected by the hsien [English: enlightened one, immortal]. A large ladle is her recognized emblem. Its bowl, made of bamboo basketwork, is often filled with several objects associated with Taoist immortality, e.g., the magic fungus (1) and peach; (2) sprigs of bamboo and of pine; (3) and flowers of the narcissus. (4) The place of the ladle may be taken by the more picturesque long-stalked lotus bloom; and sometimes she holds just a fly-whisk or the basket of wild fruit and herbs gathered for her mother.

Biography from Lieh hsien chuan [Collected Biographies of Immortals by Lieh-hsien chuan], ii, 32, 33:

Ho Hsien-ku was the daughter of Ho T‘ai, of the town of Tsêng-ch‘êng, in the prefecture of Canton. At birth she had six long hairs on the crown of her head. When she was about 14 or 15 a divine personage appeared to her in a dream and instructed her to eat powdered mica, (5) in order that her body might become etherealized and immune from death. So she swallowed it, and also vowed to remain a virgin.

Up hill and down dale she used to flit just like a creature with wings. Every day at dawn she sallied forth, to return at dusk, bringing back mountain fruits she had gathered for her mother. Later on by slow degrees she gave up taking ordinary food. (6)

The Empress Wu (7) dispatched a messenger to summon her to attend at the palace, but on the way thither she [Ho Hsien-ku] disappeared. (8)

In the ching lung period (about A.D. 707) she ascended on high in broad daylight, (9) and became a hsien. In the ninth year of the t‘ien pao period (A.D. 750) Ho Hsien-ku reappeared, standing amidst rainbow clouds over a shrine dedicated to Ma Ku. Again, in the to li period (about A.D. 772) she appeared in the flesh on the Hsiao-shih Tower at Canton.

NOTES

[These are W. Perceval Yetts’s own notes.]

(1) This, the most ubiquitous object in Chinese art, has received various botanical names. (See Bretschneider, “Botanicum Sinicum,” Journal of the Chinese British Royal Asiatic Society, vol. xxv, p. 40, and vol. xxix, p. 418.) Its branches expand into flattened umbilicated extremities with scalloped edges. It is probably largely because of the resistance its wood-like substance offers to decay that it has been adopted as the emblem par excellence of immortality. There are records of its supernatural qualities having been recognized as early as the third century B.C. (see Chavannes, Les Mémoires historiques de Se-ma Ts’ien, vol. ii, p. 176 seq.), and to the present day it is sold by native apothecaries as a drug capable of prolonging life.

(2) Any representation of the magic peach is a covert allusion to that enigmatical figure, Hsi Wang Mu, the Queen of Taoist Fairyland. Among the wonders of her mountain domain was the tree that bore but once in 3,000 years peaches the taste of which gave immortality.

(3) Bamboo and pine, being evergreen, are emblems of longevity.

(4) The name the narcissus bears is sufficient reason why it should be included in this category.

(5) For the meaning of [what is here translated as “mica”]: see note by Dr. Laufer in T‘oung Pao, vol. xvi, p. 192. Perhaps a parallel may be found here between the alchemy of China and the West. Talc, a mineral often confused with mica, figures prominently in the writings of mediaeval alchemists, and as late as 1670 it was advocated as a mysterious preservative of youth and beauty by the Apothecary in Ordinary to the English Royal Honsehold, N. le Febure by name, in his Compleat Body of Chymistry, pt. ii, p. 106 seq.

(6) One of the first steps on the road to hsien-ship. Taoists are often said to have given up the ordinary diet of cereals. Some gradually reduce their food till they die of starvation. So emaciated is their condition that their bodies after death become mummified, and thus they do actually attain a kind of corporeal immortality. Particulars of this aspect of Chinese eschatology are to be found in an article by the writer in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society for July, 1911.

(7) The notorious woman who, through the possession of an extraordinary personality and a genius for intrigue, rose from obscurity to become the supreme ruler of China during the latter part of the seventh century. See Mayers, Chinese Reader’s Manual, pt. i, No. 862; and Giles, Biographical Dictionary, No. 2331.

(8) I.e., Ho Hsien-ku eluded the envoy. Chinese legend abounds in instances of summonses to Court being sent to hermit sages and others who had cut themselves off from worldly affairs. The recipients have almost invariably shown a consistent contempt for mundane honors by refusing to comply, and imperial curiosity as to their reputed wisdom or powers of magic has remained unsatisfied.

(9) The actual period of the day or night when emancipation from earthly ties takes place and the final stage in becoming a hsien is completed is considered in Taoist lore to have a determining influence upon the subsequent career of the hsien. See, for example, the following passage from the Chi hsien lu: “When (after death) the body remains like that of a living man, the condition is that of release from the flesh, shih chieh; when the legs do not become discolored nor the skin wrinkled — that is shih chieh; when the eyes remain bright and unsunken, in no respect differing from those of a living man — that is shih chieh; when resuscitation follows death — that is shih chieh; when the corpse vanishes before it is encoffined, and when the hair falls off before the mortal body soars (to heaven) — both of these are shih chieh. Most perfect is the release that takes place in broad daylight, but less complete is the release that occurs at midnight. When it takes place at dawn or at dusk, then the persons concerned are relegated to a terrestrial abode” (i.e. they will not reach the celestial paradise, but remain in haunts of the hsien on earth, such as the K’un-lun Mountains, the Isles of the Blest, and the Five Sacred Hills).

HeXiangu2

Above: Drawing of Ho Hsien-ku in Yetts, p. 781 (public domain image).