Vegder's Blog

February 18, 2010

Not quite the Zodiac – Part One: The rabbit – usagi – 兎

For a long time I have planned a series of posts or musings on the signs of the zodiac in Japan, China and everywhere else, including outer space. Why set limits on such an expansive topic? In fact, several years ago I had already started exploring the subject in one of the web pages from my commercial site: http://www.printsofjapan.com/Hodo_rabbits.htm. Please take a look. You won’t be disappointed if you enjoy my idle ramblings.

Below is a visual appetizer of what is to come. It  is a detail from a late Meiji print contributed to this site by our great correspondent J. Z. Thanks J. Z.

It was quite by accident that I am picked up on the subject of the zodiac andstarted with the rabbit again. Last night I was reading a scholarly article about the great artist Kano Tan’yu (狩野探幽: 1602-74). There was a passing reference to a chigaidana (違い棚) which is a piece of furniture with staggered shelves. From there I went on to research the chigaidana and found a juicy reference to an important late 19th to early 20th century author, Izumi Kyōka (泉 鏡花: 1873-1939). Like me, he must have been incredibly neurotic and germaphobic although I must say he sounds a lot worse than I am. But that’s not the issue here. I was talking about the staggered shelves of the chigaidana, wasn’t I? In The Similitude of Blossoms: A Critical Biography of Izumi Kyoka (1873-1939), Japanese Novelist and Playwright by Charles Inouye it describes the elements of his study: ” To his right was a long table covered with a dark cloth. On the cloth were two cases that held his ink and writing brushes, a small blue glass vial that contained the water he used to sanctify his manuscript pages, and two crystal rabbits. [The italics here are mine.] Many other rabbit figurines, large and small, sat in front of the staggered shelves (chigaidana) that filled the space next to the alcove. Kyōka was born in the year of the cock, whose opposite sign is the rabbit. Convinced that he would be protected from danger if he collected specimens of the opposite sign, he eventually acquired an impressive number of rabbits.” Proof positive is supplied by Fg2 at commons.wikimedia.org. It shows a statue of Kyōka. Notice what he is holding.

As a personal note: I would enjoyed knowing Fg2, the man who posted so many great photos. He traveled all over Japan taking the pictures I would have taken. He died in 2009, but left us in great appreciation.

In China and Japan

The twelve signs of the zodiac is kōdōjūnikyū (黄道十二宮). Another term for the zodiac is jūtai (獣帯). The 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac are referred to in Japan as the jūnish (十二支).

Traditionally the Chinese operated on a 60 year cycle – adopted by the Japanese. Since there are 12 zodiacal signs each one would appear 5 times in that period. Since it is the rabbit were talking about here here are their birth years: 1915, 1927, 1939, 1951, 1963. 1975, 1987 and 1999. Me? I was born in the year of the boar, but I bet you had figured that out already. Anyway, for those of you who believe such things – and don’t count me among your crowd – the year of one’s birth is significant when it comes to personality traits. Let’s look at the rabbit, for example – and remember I am only quoting one source – Mythological Creatures and the Chinese Zodiac in Origami by John Montroll: “Rabbits are very lucky, especially in terms of money. They make good business people and are very eloquent. The downside of their eloquence is that they like to gossip, but at least they are always tactful. Rabbits have many talents, and are well liked and admired. They are also slow to anger, and they love their family although they seem oddly detached. In general, they are peaceful and conservative, yet not very knowledgeable. Throughout their lives rabbits will stay relatively peaceful if they do not take on anything too big. Rabbits form good marriages with rams and boars but not with roosters.”

Such broad generalizations have always bothered me. They are eloquent, but they gossip while being tactful? How tactful can someone be who is gossiping? Rabbits are very lucky in business and make lots of money? Bill Gates, sometimes calculated as the world’s richest person,  is a ram. Warren Buffet is a horse. President Obama is eloquent and loves his family and he is an ox. Draw your own conclusions.

Arne Røkkum in his Nature, Ritual, and Society in Japan’s Ryukyu Islands cites Wolfram Eberhard: “The ancient Chinese divided the course of the sun into twelve ‘houses,’ similar to the divisions of our zodiac, and believed that each house was ruled by an animal. This custom perhaps had its origin in Central Asia and was observed in China not too long before the beginning of our ear.” Røkkum goes on to note that there is reasonable criticism of an early 20th work by Durkheim and Mauss that hypothesized that zodiacal animals were originally family totems.

There is a word specific to the future personality traits of the newborn – as ascribed in the quote shown above: genethlialogy. Trips off the tongue, doesn’t it? It combines the Greek words for ‘birth’ and ‘discourse’. “The art of calculating nativities by astrology, or predicting the course of a child’s life from the positions of the planets, zodiac, etc., at the instant of birth.”

Another great word which I ran across researching this post is psychopomp – a spirit or guardian angel which guides souls into the afterlife. In many cultures these spirits can be replaced by an animal like the rabbit or the jaguar, et al. In Orpheus, an 1896 book by G. R. S. Mead, the author states that for the Greeks “The presiding deity of rebirth was Hermes, the psychopomp or leader of souls.”

John North in The Norton History of Astronomy and Cosmology notes that: “It is possible that the Chinese in the first millennium BC took from the Mesopotamian culture some of the broad principle of divination using the stars and Moon, but that they interpreted it in accordance with their own patterning of constellations…” later he added: “The Chinese continued to absorb western astrological ideas, but rarely took them over in quite their original forms. In the fourteenth century, we find horoscopes in Chinese sources… remarkable similar in all but outward shape to European horoscopes. The reason is simply that both have a common source, namely in Islamic, and still earlier Greek, astrology. The Chinese in such cases tended to increase greatly the number of alternative interpretations. They did so under the influence of other ancient systems of divination already in place…”

Prior to the cultural invasion from China which included among other things Buddhisms and festivals centered on particular stars the Japanese already had a belief system which told them that their archipelago was the result of the union of a sister with her brother, the sun and the moon. Here, of course, the moon is the male element and the sun the female. The later adoption of the concept of yin yang was not a far stretch in an already established dialectical world. All that it involved was a little tweaking here and there of original traditions and syncretism with everything else. An amalgam.

The Japanese Day – The Hour of the Hare

An early 17th century Jesuit missionary noted that “Both the Chinese and the Japanese count the hours by the names of animals. The artificial day begins at six o’clock in the morning when the sun rises in the middle of their hour of the Hare. Then begins the hour of the Dragon, which begins at seven o’clock and ends at nine.” And so on… Each hour, of course, lasts two of ours, since they were going on the 12 signs of their zodiac.

Water, rabbits, toads, dragons and pearls

Edward Schafer in his 1978 book Pacing the Void: T’ang Approaches to the Stars said “To take the watery nature of the moon as a fact of natural history rather than as metaphysical truth was fatal to some old but persistent myths, such as the belief that among the denizens of the moon were a rabbit and a toad.” Since living creatures were believed to have a watery nature they would naturally be affected by a watery moon which clearly affected tides. Schafer also noted that “Accordingly, the moon’s miniature replica, the coolly white, water-nurtured pearl, was thought to wax and wane in the oyster’s womb… and some pearls of exceptional beauty were styled as ‘luminous moon pearls.’ Indeed luminous ‘pearls’ – including the orbs of some sea creatures to which the name pearl was also given – shone with the same cold light as the nacreous globe in the night sky, sometimes the play thing of dragons.” The Chinese also thought the moon was lit from within. (Below is an embedded, partially formed pearl still attached to its shell. This was posted at commons.wikimedia.org by Manfred Heyde.)

We were received into the elements of the eternal pearl
as water takes light to itself, with no change in its substance.

Dante’s Paradiso (tr. by John Ciardi)

and underneath a bright sea flow’d
Of jasper, or of liquid pearl…

Milton’s Paradise Lost

Pounding the elixir of life – the rabbit and the moon

The rabbit and the moon has been teamed together for thousands of years. A careful study of Chinese and Japanese motifs often shows a rabbit toiling away eternally mixing the elixir of immortality. Every superstitious  and gullible emperor sought this substance. Joseph Needham addressed this subject – along with pretty much everything else – in his massive study Science and Civilisation in China. This passage is from vol. 5 Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 3: Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Historical Survey, from Cinnabar Elixirs to Synthetic Insulin: “The concept of material immortality went back to prehistorical days in Chinese legend. We have earlier referred to Yi [Ch. 羿] the Archer, who obtained the medicine of immortality from Hsi Wang Mu [西王母]. But it was his wife Chhang O [Ch. 嫦娥] who stole and ate the elixir and subsequently became the Lady of the Moon. An ageless story universal in Chinese folklore and art motifs has a jade rabbit (yü thu [玉兎]) on the moon working untiringly mixing and pounding the drugs of immortality.” [Chang O is also referred to as Chang-e.]

   The image to the left is from a book illustration created by Kunichika in 1859.

More about the Jade Rabbit – 玉兎


Here the Jade Rabbit is paired with the wildly rambunctious monkey from the Journey to the West. I’ll deal with him in another post later, but for now lets focus on the rabbit.

Buddhism and the Jade Rabbit were not complete strangers. The monkey shown in the Yoshitoshi print above is the main subject of a Buddhist object lesson. At the caves of Dunhuang (Ch. 敦煌) is a painting of a Buddha who is accompanied by the sun with its symbol the 3-legged bird and the moon with a cinnamon tree and rabbit. In Cave 431 there is another illustration with a rabbit in it. It tells the story of the childless old king who heard that when a certain ascetic would die that man would be reborn as the king’s long wished for heir. Anxious to rush things along the king had the ascetic killed prematurely. Instead of coming back as a prince the soul returned as a white rabbit. Incensed the king drove nails into the rabbit killing it too. Finally his wife bore him a son, but this time the soul brought with it a resentment of its recent murders. As a result the prince grew up to kill his father and imprison his mother. But never fear, she was rescued eventually by Buddha.

Before I leave this story I would like you to think about the comparisons with so many other Western myths and tales. The Greeks have given us several well-known examples: Zeus mutilated his father Kronos, Perseus fulfilled the prophecy of killing his grandfather Acrisius, Oedipus followed the tradition of prediction-precaution-death when he slayed his own father, Laius. There are no rabbits here, but let’s look at the rabbit’s death a little more closely: Nails and a resurrected soul. Sound familiar?

Note: The 3-legged bird mentioned above is a crow, the rabbit’s iconographic counterpart. In China and Japan the character for crow is 烏, but only in China does it also means black. In Japan 烏 is used in combination with other kanji characters to impart the essence of blackness. Needham speculates that the origin of sun-crow was possibly the darkish sunspots. That would make sense especially considering that the crow is black and the rabbit white. Just as a side point: 鴉 is also used in both languages, but strictly meaning crow.

The hare or rabbit as a fashion statement –

Below is a detail from a Kuniyoshi print which is a promised gift of Professor Arthur Miller to the British Museum. It shows Shinozuka Iga-no-kami clearly in a battle mode. It is from a series entitled Japanese Heroes for the 12 Signs.

© Trustees of the British Museum

Kuniyoshi and the comical zodiac – There is a series, the Dōke Jūnishi or ‘The Twelve Comical signs of the Zodiac’ in which each representative creature is presented anthropomorphically and with great wit. Does humor mean that Kuniyoshi is irreverent? Not necessarily, but I am not sure we will ever know for sure. Below is the image of hares standing at a dango or dumpling stand at nights. There is a full moon, a symbol frequently linked to the hare, and the dumplings reiterate the moon’s roundness.

   http://www.mfa.org  This is the left hand part of a sheet displayed at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Below is the whole image.

   http://www.mfa.org

And elsewhere…

Joseph Needham in Trans-Pacific Echoes and Resonances: Listening Once Again points out another remarkable rabbit-moon connection: “…it is fair to say that every sinologist who visits Mexico is amazed that the Aztecs should have had the idea that there was a rabbit in the moon, since this is so characteristically Chinese… The rabbit was associated with the Octli god or gods of pulque, and therefore alcohol-extracts of drug-plants, as also with sex, procreation and licentiousness.”

Below on the left is a detail from an Aztec ceramic piece at Princeton showing a rabbit-scribe and on the right… Well, I think you can figure that one out for yourself. That one was posted on the Internet at commons.wikimedia.org by Kassper.

According to Susan Milbrath in her Star Gods of the Maya: Astronomy in Art, Folklore, and Calendars the Moon Goddess ruled over all things watery including childbirth. Her symbol is not always a rabbit. In fact, it can be anything from a frog to a bird or even a conch shell. But it is the rabbit we are concerned with here. “Precolumbian Maya people visualized the rabbit as an alter ego of the moon, an association that survives today among the Maya people who see an image of the rabbit on the face of the moon…. The silvery color of the rabbit evokes the moon…. The prodigious fertility of rabbits indicates a lunar connection because of the moon’s association with fertility.” Since the rabbit’s gestation period seems to be about a month it draws to mind the cycles of the moon. In the Postclassic Maya period the moon is no longer represented by a rabbit, but the Moon Goddess is said to have owned one as a pet. At the entrance to the so-called “Temple of the Dying Moon” is a carving of a skeletal rabbit head with fangs above the entryway. Below on the left is a photo of that structure posted by Tato Grasso at commons.wikimedia.org. On the right is a photo of the rabbit skull (ウサギの頭蓋骨) sculpture. It is being shown courtesy of LongJaunt at http://bostonglobe.longjaunt.com/photos/2008/01/14/palenque/5/large/. This picture was taken by Thushan Amarasiriwardena and boy I am glad I found it and got permission to reproduce it here. Thanks!

Run away, run away…

At the end of Monty Python and the Holy Grail there is a scene where a innocent looking little bunny rabbit is guarding a cave which is believed to hold the Grail. The ground is strewn with bones. As the knights creep up to the rim of a ledge overlooking the cave they believe they are about to face a horrible monster when the rabbit hops into view. “Too late, there he is” their guide says. “Where?” “There!” “What? Behind the rabbit?” “It is the rabbit” the guide exhorts.  The knights are incredulous. “You silly sod. You got us all worked up.” The guide protests: “That’s no ordinary rabbit. That’s the most foul, cruel and bad tempered rodent you ever set eyes on.” A second knight says: “You tit [or something like that], I soiled my armor I was so scared.” Then the real action takes place and before it is over the knights – or what is left of them – are fleeing screaming run away, run away. The field is littered with decapitated bodies, loads of blood and a completely becalmed (and satisfied) bunny.

The image from Palenque (パレンケ) of the fanged skull of a rabbit reminded me of this scene.

The vengeful rabbit of Kachikachiyama かちかち山

There is an old folk tale of a rabbit, a badger (read tanuki) and an elderly couple. There are so many versions of this story it is difficult to piece out the original or what could be considered the truth. Besides, there is no truth when it comes to folk tales. So, I won’t try to find one. Instead I’ll give you my own version relying on a mixture many different sources.

An old couple are mocked by a badger when they are working in their garden. This becomes so irksome that one day when they broke for lunch they made a thick paste from buckwheat and when they returned to their plot they spread it over the rock where the badger would normally sit. When he took his usual spot he became stuck, the old man captured him and trussed him up in his hut from the roof rafters so they could cook later him for dinner. The husband then went out to do more chores and left his wife there to prepare the meal. Notice the pet rabbit in the cage. This is important.

Now here is where several of the accounts diverge considerably. In one, the old woman took pity on the badger and untied him. In another, the badger offers to help the old woman pound the grain so she releases him and he kills her with the pestle she had been using. In our version the badger (tanuki) clubs her to death, but not with the pestle. Instead he uses his rather massive scrotum (狸の陰嚢). (We have dealt with the tanuki and his prodigious appendage elsewhere. If you are prudish or easily shocked don’t click on the links below. Or, if you aren’t prudish or squeamish then and want to read and view more please go to our two pages devoted to a Yoshiiku print: http://www.printsofjapan.com/Yoshiiku_tanuki_print.htm and http://www.printsofjapan.com/Yoshiiku_tanukis_page_2.htm. We also had a Yoshitoshi print which has sold which features these guys at http://www.printsofjapan.com/Yoshitoshi_tanuki_encounter.htm.)

When the old man had returned the badger had prepared the stew, but this time with the meat of the old woman. He had put on her clothes and fooled the old man into thinking that this was his wife. When served the dish the old man said: “This is tender and sweet.” “Of course,” replied the badger, “It’s your old woman.” With that the badger fled. The old man was distraught.

Remember the pet rabbit? He was there the whole time. Now, transformed the rabbit tries to console the grieving (and, I must say, completely disgusted) widower while planning its revenge.

The badger had bounded away very pleased with himself. The now-transformed rabbit had, as mentioned, vowed revenge and followed after him. Here the versions diverge again. In one the rabbit seemingly comes across the unsuspecting badger, makes small talk and challenges him to a competition of gathering twigs – some say it was grass. In the other the scenario is pretty much the same except for the challenge part. The rabbit meets the badger while the latter is gathering faggots, befriends him, and follows behind the badger as he is carrying his load back to his lair or wherever it is that badgers call home.

While chatting pleasantly the rabbit sets fire to the bundle. The unsuspecting badger is oblivious to the danger. After a while he starts hearing the crackling and asks the rabbit if he knows what that noise is. The rabbit calmly tells him that it is nothing stating that the mountain they are on is known as Kachikachiyama or Crackling Mountain. A little later the badger starts hearing a pop-pop sound and the rabbit reassures him that Crackling Mountain is also known as Pop-pop Mountain. By this time it is too late for the badger to protect himself and he is burned horribly on his backside.

The suffering badger was now in agony and unable to do anything about it. Somewhat later the rabbit showed up feigning compassion. With him he had a special poultice he said he had prepared which would  alleviate the poor animal’s condition. However, the poultice, unbeknownst to the badger was actually made with red hot peppers. Anxious for any kind of relief the badger readily agreed. Up to that point he thought he knew true suffering, but boy was he mistaken.

The endgame – one version: The still clueless badger heals, he builds a boat out of clay, is attacked by the rabbit in his wooden boat and drowns.

The endgame – second version: The still clueless badger hasn’t caught on yet that the rabbit is his mortal enemy. Still believing that the bunny is his friend he gratefully receives the gift from him of a boat made out of clay. The badger goes sailing… drowns.

The endgame – third and up versions: Blah, blah, interminable blah…!!! Drowns.

After the adrenalin rush…

In time the rabbit settled down and became a productive member of the community taking a job ferrying passengers from here to there and back. Actually I just made that part up. The truth is that the image below is from a surimono or New Year’s print by Shinsai and dating from the year of the rabbit 1807. The rabbit is poling a chokibune (猪牙船) or boar’s-tusk-boat, but one can’t help but think of a crescent moon where a rabbit is said to live.

There is another surimono, this one by Hokusai from 1819, that is more explicit in its rabbit-water-boat-moon connection. In that one a female poet is standing on a bridge and seems to be gazing into a watery expanse where a rabbit is rowing a boat, but, in fact, the boat is the crescent moon. The poetess is holding a lacquer container with a block of tofu on it. She makes a poetical allusion to the fact that dried tofu holds its edges while it contracts and curls somewhat taking the shape of a new moon. There are other Japanese references to the bean-curd-crescent-moon analogy. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

Too indelicate for youthful ears!

Some authors say that after the rabbit applied the hot pepper poultice to the burns of the badger he then poured salt in the wounds. As if that weren’t enough the rabbit went on to do more cruel assaults on the already agonized badger. In fact, the things the rabbit did were so unspeakable I don’t even know what they were – not that I would really want to. All I know is that these attacks were so awful that they were bowdlerized right out of the English editions. Maybe someone like Quentin Tarantino can put them back or add his own sadistic touches. Recently I heard him say in an interview that people like that “ooooooooh” factor. Not me.

No story ever really ends – in Japan

Warning: I have completely fabricated this next section so don’t quote me.

Imagine this. The badger, having recovered somewhat from his burns, hears someone pounding away at something and goes to see what it is. The badger sees his old ‘friend’ the rabbit building a boat. The rabbit spots him coming, but pretends not to notice.

Badger: Whatyadoing?
Rabbit: Huh?
Badger: Whatyadoing?
Rabbit: Sorry I can’t hear you over all this pounding.
Louder Badger says: I said, what are you doing?
Rabbit: Building a boat silly.
Badger: I wish I had a boat.
Rabbit: Really? Well, I’ll tell you what buddy, after I finish this one I’ll build one for you, but I am all out of lumber so I will have to build it out of something else… like… clay.
All excited Badger: Great! You are a wonderful friend Rabbit.

The rest you know.

Below is a detail from a surimono – a special type of print made in small editions for and given out, generally, to members of poetry clubs. It is by Kita Busei (1776-1856) and dates from 1831 which just happens to be the “Year of the Rabbit.” Funny thing about those surimonos.

Firebird, Rhebok, Badger and Hare…     and a case of serendipity

Recently I had a disagreement with a friend over the meaning of serendipity. In fact we were on opposite poles when it came to our understanding of the word. For me, it was the complete and fortuitous discovery of something new. For him it was a happy ending even if it had been planned down to the smallest detail. Naturally I think I am right on this one. We often differ on words. Anyway, while doing research for this posting I ran across an awesome image by the British artist Marcus Coates. I had gone to Google and plugged in the search terms ‘badger’ and ‘hare’ as one combination while looking for more information about the Kachikachiyama story discussed above. Much to my surprise and ‘glee’ – yes, I was gleeful – I ran across a Marcus Coates piece – see below – which is so over the top great I can’t get over it. It works on so many different levels. It is amazing. I found it at a Gulbenkian Foundation web site so I wrote them. They directed me to Mr. Coates dealer, the Kate MacGarry Gallery in London so I wrote them to ask for permission to use it. They were kind enough to contact the artist and both he and his agent agreed in the affirmative. Because of that you are in for a real treat. If you have anything like my sense of aesthetics you are going to love this image. If you don’t you are missing out and that’s that.

One more point before you get to the picture and this is totally uncanny: One of my new  and favorite words for this year is ‘psychopomp’.  In fact, I just learned it last month. I even put it in bold print in the middle of a sentence – something I rarely do – further up this page. Now today – and this is the weird part – while researching Marcus Coates it turns out that he had an exhibition open last month, i.e., February 2010, entitled “Psychopomp”. Things can’t get much more coincidental than that. It opened three days before I began this post and closes in the first week of April as I am wrapping things up. There must be something cosmic going on here. If only I was a believer in such things, but still… It does make one pause.

So, without further ado and great gratitude, here it is.


This image is shown courtesy of Marcus Coates and Kate MacGarry, London
Photographer: Joseph Ramirez

Call me obsessed, but here’s some more great stuff about psychopomps – 

In the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics from 1921 it says: “The duty of convoying the souls to the other world is sometimes assigned to animals. The Araucanians believe that Tempulcague, an old woman, appears in the form of a whale and carries off the soul of the dead man. On the Orinoco huge snakes are said to carry off the souls in their belly to a land where they entertain themselves by dancing and other delights. In Brazil the duty was assigned to the humming-bird. Among the Saponas, the soul after an old hag had condemned it, was delivered over to a huge turkey buzzard, which flew away with it to a dark and barren country where it was always winter.”

A not so common thread

The story of the death of Hercules (ヘラクレス) as told by Ovid (オウィディウス) in the Metamorphoses (変身) does not run parallel to the story of Mt. Kachikachi, but it does have some uncanny similarities. 1) There is revenge: that of the dying then dead centaur Nessus (ケンタウルス) on his nemisis Hercules. While all of the particulars differ the still living rabbit takes revenge on the badger for the death of the old woman. 2) There is the gift that seems to keep on giving until the recipient can’t stand it anymore. In both cases the gift involves deception. In the case of the rabbit there is the peppered poultice offered as a soothing salve for the suffering badger and then there is the shirt imbued with the blood of the dead centaur offered to our Greek hero. But more about that one later. 3) There is fire: In the case of the badger the one set by the rabbit to begin his suffering while for Hercules it is a fire set to end his unbearable and unsustainable agony. And finally: 4) There is death – although by different means and having different outcomes for both the badger and Hercules.

The image of the unashamedly naked Hercules below is from an engraving by Goltzius (ホルツィウス: 1558-1617). It was posted at commons.wikimedia.org by Dedden.

But before we get to the (in)exact story of how Hercules died we have to go back a few notches to when he slew the hydra, a creature so venomous that nothing could withstand its assault – that is until Hercules beheaded it. The monster’s blood spewed forth from every one of its necks. All Hercules had to do was dip the tips of his arrows in its blood and from then on everything struck by these weapons were assured a poisonous death. (Below is a Beham engraving of Hercules confronting the hydra. Posted at commons.wikimedia by Yellow Lion.)

Now, if Hercules had lived in the torrid jungles of Central and South America he could have saved himself the trouble of fighting the hydra and could have used the poison-dart frogs which are so aposematic – great word, look it up – they can’t be missed. Little frogs like the Oophagia pamillio shown below are so toxic that they could provide enough material to kill up to ten men. (This image was posted by Pstevendactylus at commons.wikimedia.)

Or, Hercules could have chucked the whole idea of vengeance and sought a more passive role by simply getting high off of licking the skin of the Bufo alvarius. But perhaps the hallucinogenic properties of these toads is just another myth and we wouldn’t want our hero to get caught up in too many of those, would we? (Below is a posting of the Sonoran Desert Toad by Ltshears at where else? Common.wikimedia.org.)

But enough of my musings and back to our story. Hercules dips the arrow tips in the hydra’s blood and ends up killing nearly all of the centaur community. One centaurs who was nice to him accidentally dropped one of the poisoned arrows on his hoof and died from his wound. That left only Nessus and he pretended to let bygones be bygones. That is until the day that Hercules and his wife, Deianeira, came to the river Euenus. Nessus offered to carry them across but only one at a time starting with the woman. Mid-stream it became clear that the centaur had other things in mind and started making lewd comments to Hercules wife and was ostensibly copping a feel at the same time. Deianeira screams alerted Hercules who let go an arrow and that was all she wrote for the last of the centaurs. But before Nessus took his final breath he told Deianeira that all was forgiven and that if she would dip her cloak in his blood she could use it as a philter – another good word – if she ever need to win back her husband were he ever to stray.

Below is the image of Hercules as an archer by Bourdelle (ブールデル: 1861-1929). Supposedly this pre-steroid, testosterone-driven, muscular figure is aiming at birds and not centaurs, but it was too good not to use here. It was posted by Andreas Praefcke at commons.wikimedia.org. Below that is a bronze by Pietro Tacca (ピエトロ・タッカ: 1577-1640) of Nessus abducting Deianeira (デイアネイラ), Hercules wife. Yair Haklai’s photo of this sculpture was posted at commons.wikipedia too.

Years later Hercules had captured another beautiful young woman and appeared to be smitten with her. So, in all innocence Deianeira sent the garment which had been soaked in the hydra-poisoned-blood of the last of the centaurs to win back her husband’s love. Below is an engraving by Beham showing the moment at which Lichas is presenting Hercules with the shirt.  (This print was posted at commons.wikimedia.org by Yellow Lion.)

As soon as he put it on the material adhered to skin like Super Glue but with the added property of the hydra’s venom. His suffering was greater than that of Job. When Hercules tried to remove it all he succeed in doing was ripping it and the flesh of his body off with it. Unable to die Hercules in his fury ripped up whole trees and built his own funeral pyre. Once constructed he begged his friend to light it and the flames extinguished his earthly existence. (See below another Beham print. This one was posted by Yuma at commons.wikimedia.

Last laugh on the badger: After Hercules mortal existence came to an end Zeus brought him to Mt. Olympus, made him a god and gave him the beautiful Hebe as a wife. The badger on the other hand got zilch, zippo, nada. He was just dead.

Question: If the Aztecs, Mayans, Chinese and Japanese see a rabbit when they look at the moon what do rabbits see?

Below is a print by Hiroshige.

In the Konjaku monogatari shū (今昔物語集) from the early 12th century there is a tale of a rabbit, a monkey and a fox who meet together and decide that they must have led evil lives previously to have come back as such lowly creatures. They agreed that this time around they would do things differently, clean up their acts and serve humanity the way they should. Indra saw this and decided to put them to the test. He transformed himself into an impoverished old man who appeared before these three animals and told them he was destitute, homeless and starving. Each decided that this would be their opportunity to do good deeds. The monkey went out and gathered up lots of food for the old man. The fox went to the cemetery and took food left there as offerings and took them back to the old man. But when it came time for the rabbit to find food to feed him there was nothing to be had. So the rabbit asked the monkey to gather wood and the fox to set it alight. They did this, but teased the rabbit mercilessly as they did and said that they rabbit only wanted them to do this so it could warm itself by the fire. But the rabbit said that that wasn’t true. He wanted the fire so he could sacrifice himself to the flames so that the old man would have something to eat. And then he threw himself into the fire and perished. When Indra saw this he resumed his true form, snatched the burned body of the rabbit from the flames and placed it on the moon for everyone to see and be reminded of its selfless act. And “Thus it is that when something like clouds veil the face of the moon, this is smoke from the fire in which the rabbit burned himself.” (This part was added on November 7, 2013 while I was looking for material on monkeys.)

Go ahead and eat it. It’s okay. There, there… The plate will protect you. You have noting to worry about.

The most valuable substance in ancient China was jade and especially light green jade. It is said that when the first glazes developed they were totally accidental. Iron rich ash rose during the firing of ceramics and some of it floated back down onto the unprotected pieces, melted and formed the first glaze. One of the marvels of this is that it gave off a greenish hue likened to precious green jades. Once the Chinese had learned empirically  how to control the process glazing was off and running. In the West this family of glazes came to be known as celadons and during the T’ang and later dynasties they were much sought after in the Middle East and Europe. Applied to porcelains they were even more desirable and only the richest potentates and princes could afford them. Not only that they came with their own superstitions. In the Libellus de notitia orbis (Of Knowledge of the World) of 1402 it states clearly that eating out or off of such dishes or bowls one could not be poisoned: “Porcelain is said to be efficacious against poison, and whatever there may be inside, poison or anything drinkable, it absorbs all the impurities, etc. of the poison and purifies it entirely.”

The Islamic world went one better than the Europeans. Their celadon plates  and bowls would cry out warnings audibly to their users if any poisonous food had come in contact with them. One could not possibly be murdered under such circumstances. They wouldn’t even need a food taster anymore. My belief? Glad you asked. A lot of Muslim rulers must have died from holding such silly beliefs.

Further up the this page I talked about the connection between the rabbit and the moon. Then I pointed out the comparisons of the moon to pearls and how dragons chase after the latter. Now we have gone full circle. The circle in China was symbolic of  the sky. A circle within a circle stood for the entrance to the highest heavens which dragons could transverse easily. Fortunately I was able to find a celadon charger with a dragon chasing a flaming pearl, the pearl of ultimate wisdom, because it had been posted at commons.wikimedia. org by BrokenSphere. Below is a picture of that charger and a close up detail of the dragon and pearl. It is important to remember when looking at these images that this is exactly the type of porcelain which was said to prevent poisonings.

As noted above, the green glaze was reminiscent of the most valued item in ancient China, green jade. However, the Jade Rabbit is generally described as white. White jade, otherwise known as mutton fat jade, usurped the traditional role of green jade but not until the Ch’ing dynasty, which as we all know, provided the last emperors before revolution in the early 20th century brought them low. Is there a connection between the abandonment of ancient traditions and fall of the Ch’ing? I don’t think so, but you can draw your own conclusions.

Cupid’s fiery shaft Quenched in the chaste beams of the wat’ry moon

In Act II, Scene I of A Midsummer Night’s Dream Oberon talks of a wat’ry moon. An interesting reference considering that the ancient Chinese believed that the moon was watery, too. Titania in the same scene refers to the moon as “…the governess of floods, Pale in her anger, washes all the air, That rheumatic diseases do abound…” The moon as governess of the tides and aching bones?

The word ‘zodiac’ – its etymology and other stuff

The ancient Indo-European root source for zodiac is the word for ‘to live’ or, as in the case of ancient Greek, zoe for life. The zodiac comes from the Greek zoidion or a carving of a small animal. The expression zōidiakós kúklos is a ‘circle of carved figures’. This is interesting since the word zoo is a place where animals are kept and zoolatry is the worship of animals. Clearly these words are related as are many more.

The animals/figures adopted in the West and East differ, but not in numbers. Gazing at the skies gave them different perspectives and visions. For instance “…there was a Greek story to the effect that the sentinels at the siege of Troy changed their guard according to the vertical or horizontal positions of the tail of the Great Bear.” (Needham, vol. 3)

The Chinese, as I understand it, based their astronomical and astrological calculations on one fixed point – the north celestial pole. This was something they could always rely upon. And it human terms this fixed point was considered tantamount to the Emperor himself. Was this so different from European concepts? In Shakespeaer’s Julius Caesar (Act 3, Scene 1) Caesar is speaking to Cassius:

… I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumber’d sparks,
They are all fire and every one doth shine,

But there’s but one in all doth hold his place.
So, in the world. ‘Tis furnish’d well with men,
And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive,
Yet in the number I do know but one

That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshak’d of motion: and that I am he…

One of the lesser known definitions of zodiac is a complete circuit or circle, a cyclic course or as a metaphor for girdle. “Great breezes which the motions of the air in great circles, such as are under the girdle of the world, produceth, which do refrigerate.” From The Natural History of Francis Bacon (フランシスコベーコン: 1561-1626).

In an early 7th century Hindu text, the Harṣa-carita Bāṇa, there is one very striking line about a fellow who arrived riding on an elephant “…whose muzzle was bedecked with a zodiac of pearls, even as the lord of night rides the eastern heaven.” Since I can’t read Sanskrit I can only assume that the use of the word zodiac here means girdle or something which encircles.

Useless and hare-brained thoughts

I have written elsewhere about the 18th century hoax where Mary Tofts, an English woman, was said to have given birth to a herd of rabbits in September, 1726. My question: When a rabbit is born in 2010 is it assigned the appropriate sign of the zodiac, the tiger,  and all of the personality traits believed to go with it?  Or, is that only for humans? And, what about rabbits said to have been born of a human mother?  Below is a detail from the print by Hogarth poking fun at the idea of Mary Tofts reported pregnancy.

Clearly Mary Tofts shared something else in common with Izumi Kyōka. Just look at the image below originally posted a commons.wikimedia.org by Parrot of Doom. If the portrait is anywhere near accurate it may answer some of my lingering questions. Maybe yours too.

A primitive and specious mode of superstition

Edward Gibbon (エドワード・ギボン: 1737-1794) wrote in vol. 9 of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (ローマ帝国衰亡史) said: The religion of the Arabs, as well as of the Indians, consisted in the worship of the sun, the moon, and the fixed stars; a primitive and specious mode of superstition.The bright luminaries of the sky display the visible image of a Deity… [which] convey to a philosophic, or even a vulgar, eye, the idea of boundless space: the character of eternity is marked on these solid globes, that seem incapable of corruption or decay… The science of astronomy was cultivated at Babylon; but the school of the Arabs… taught by experience to divide, in twenty-eight parts, the zodiac of the moon… The reign of the heavenly orbs could not be extended beyond the visible sphere; and some metaphysical powers were necessary to sustain the transmigration of souls and the resurrection of bodies…  and the invocation of departed spirits implies that they were still endowed with consciousness and power. I am ignorant, and I am careless, of the blind mythology of the Barbarians; of the local deities, of the stars, the air, and the earth…  Each tribe, each family, each independent warrior, created and changed the rites and the object of his fantastic worship; but the nation, in every age, has bowed to the religion, as well as to the language, of Mecca.” Why 28 parts and not 24?

As with every other post on this site I go where the path leads me. That isn’t very profound – it isn’t meant to be.  Often there are forks in the road – like in the Wizard of Oz – and I just have to swallow or flip a coin or whatever and make a choice. As a young man I traveled in Europe for four months and never once got lost because I never cared where I was going. Everything was an adventure. Working on these entries is the same thing. Or… looking at it somewhat differently: I am always lost.

But I would be remiss… The Easter Bunny!

Hase mit Ostereier as posted by Gerbil at commons.wikimedia.org.

The question: Does anyone know the genuine history of the Easter bunny? I don’t.  If you do please get in touch. I am waiting. I am still waiting. Then there is Peter Cottontail and Beatrix Potter and every other respectable bunny rabbit out there. You, too, deserve your day in the sun.

Back in 1979…

Back in 1979, April 20th to be exact, Jimmy Carter was trying to relax by fishing on one of the four ponds he had on his farm in Georgia. As it was reported by the press he had to fight off an attack from a “killer rabbit”. Recently I heard a local NPR interview with the former president during which he was asked about this event. He laughed and said that the whole story was fabricated by Jody Powell, his press secretary, who liked to have a few drinks in the evening with the local press corps and swap stories. There was a photograph of the President, the boat and the rabbit. Powell ran with it and the press bought it hook line and sinker. President Carter said that the rabbit was being chased by a hound dog and like all wild animals rabbits knew how to swim if they have to.  So to escape his pursuer the rabbit jumped into the pond and was swimming toward the boat. Carter said he used one of his oars to slap the water to get the rabbit to change his course and that was that.

This image of former president Jimmy Carter was posted at commons.wikimedia.org by One Salient Oversight. The one of the President in the boat came from government archives and was posted at the same location by Vints. Note: Are you asking yourself “Why in the hell is this part in here?” Well… Let me tell you – boat, water, rabbit! That’s enough for me.

DISCLAIMER: No actual prints were hurt in the production of this post unless, of course, you consider aesthetics.

1 Comment »

  1. I am researching Xi Wang Mu: Queen mother of the West and also archetypal “Twins” who also guarded fruits of immortality. Thanks.

    Comment by Luanne — November 7, 2010 @ 9:35 am | Reply


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