Tag Archives: legend

Coquilles St. Jacques

 

The scallop flutters through the water like a fan.  Its shell is dappled with coastlines that ripple with earthly colors – russet, gold, ivory and bronze.  It is pleated with ridges and striped with growth lines that mark its childish development.  The scallop also has the curious attribute of 100 blue eyes that are draped along its mantle like a string of Christmas lights.

The scallop’s muscle is a firm propellant, urging the mollusk on its erratic explorations.   It is also delicious, a dense and tender treat, with a sweetness that is tempered with the bite of the ocean.  It is not surprising therefore, that whenever I discover a scallop shell on the beach’s littered table, it always looks to have been licked clean.   On our own tables, under the moniker of Coquilles St. Jacques, it swims in butter and wine and then, with irony, is returned to the shell so recently vacated.

The literal translation of Coquilles St. Jacques is “St. James’ Shells”.  St. James is the patron saint of Spain, though he was born by the Sea of Galilee – site of miracles, sermons and battles. He was beheaded in 44 AD by Herod Agrippa of Judea, possibly the first apostle to be martyred.

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Legend says that his body was then taken by angels and disciples then placed in a rudderless, untended boat.  Its bleak journey came to an end on a coast thick with rock and shale known by the ancient name of Galicia.  The remains were taken inland for burial in Compostela.

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Centuries later the relics were rediscovered, sometime in the early 9th century.  Compostela became known as Santiago de Compostela (from the Latin ‘Sanctus Iacobus’) and as history progressed, would flinch under attacks from raiders that ranged from the Vikings to Napoleon’s armies.  Despite the danger, The Way of St. James became the most famous route of pilgrimage in the Christian world.

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A tangle of paths, worn smooth by the feet of the devout, circulated through Europe to arrive at the gilded heart off the northern coast of Spain.

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For an assortment of reasons, the scallop became a symbol of the saint as well as the journey.  With every step pilgrims rustled with the shells that were stitched onto the hems of their coarse shirts and caps.  The uprooted mollusks dangled from their walking staffs, their frothy outline was embroidered on their pockets.  The pilgrim would also carry a scallop with him – so that on presenting himself at church or castle, farm or shack, any tenant could fill the shell with food or drink without turning him away, sparing him the shame of declaring poverty.

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Yet why the scallop?  Its pretty lines and patterns appear in both myth and symbolism, and explain the scallop’s status as a sacred metaphor. The grooves in the shell, arching from the blinking mantle to meet at the hinge are emblematic of the various pilgrimages that ultimately meet at a single destination:  the tomb of Santiago de Compostela.

Two closely related stories exist as well:  when James’ body was being shipped towards the Iberian Peninsula, the vessel was clouted with a heavy storm and the body was lost to the tall waves and deep troughs.  However, in time it washed ashore undamaged, covered in a protective cloak of scallops.

In another version, as the ship approached land, a wedding was taking place on shore.  The groom (some stories have dubbed him a knight) was on horseback, and on seeing the ship approaching, the animal spooked, plunging into the sea along with its rider.  But again, both emerged from the sea alive, covered in compassionate scallops.

The seashore is its own pilgrimage.  I follow the row of shells rooted in the sand, the cracked ribbon that continues to unwind for as long as the ocean’s generosity endures.  I am not a pilgrim, but many times at the end of my journey my pockets are rattling with shells, as if the Atlantic breaths of Galicia were sighing just around the corner.

 

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The Stuff Of Dreams

The pearl is my birthstone. I have always been proud of its history, of its oblique beginnings at the bottom of the sea. I have always been proud of its fame: of La Peregrina (“priceless and incomparable in this world”), La Huerfana, Hope, Arco Valley. They’ve done time hanging from the necks of royalty, aristocrats, and criminals. I’ve seen the pearl featured in paintings: resting against the trussed chests of Isabella of Portugal

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and Mary I;

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hanging from a young woman’s ear in astral splendor in “The Girl With A Pearl Earring”.

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Pearls symbolize innocence and decorate the veils of brides; yet they also decorate the chariot of Neptune, raw and swarthy. Pearls have traditionally symbolized the tear drops of the moon: a delightful thought.

On the other hand, I’ve always had pity for the lapis lazuli birthstone. The name is unwieldy and unpronounceable. Uncomfortably foreign, I was never even sure of its color. It is the birthstone of December, and I have since learned that it isn’t even its primary gem – losing to the turquoise and blue topaz in an azure competition. I knew nothing of its meaning, its worth, its use.

But I know now, and I am somewhat ashamed to have held such a noble stone in contempt for so many years.

First, there is the look of it. Its color is a rich, royal blue; it sparkles with pyrite, giving it a look of a twilight sky dazzled with golden stars. Its color was of such intense opulence and rarity, it was mined as far back as the 7th millennium BC to be used as the finest jewelry. Minutely carved scarabs and beads have been found in Neolithic burials in the Caucasus and Mauritania. The Babylonians and Assyrians used it for jewelry as well, for amulets and cylinder seals, the small engraved cylinders used to roll impressions onto clay. Invented around 3500 BC, they have been found in gravesites, to provide good fortune for the dead.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, from the 17th-18th century BC, is recognized as one of the oldest known works of literature. Many times lapis lazuli is mentioned, the first time, many agree, a precious stone has appeared in a narrative:

From the prologue:
“Pick up the tablet of lapis lazuli and read out
the travels of Gilgamesh, all that he went through…”

Ishtar beseeches Gilgamesh:
“Be you my husband, and I will be your wife.
I will have harnessed for you a chariot of lapis lazuli and gold”

Gilgamesh declares in “The Flood Myth”:
“Ye gods, as surely as I shall not forget this lapis lazuli [amulet] around my neck, I shall be mindful of these days and never forget them!”

It was saved for the most exclusive of adornments. Powdered lapis was used as eyeshadow by Cleopatra. It was used to embellish the funeral mask of Tutankhamun.

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Royal and priestly garments were shamelessly dyed with the mystic blue in order to designate their status as gods. Catherine the Great used lapis lazuli to decorate The Lyons Hall of the Catherine Palace, saturating ceiling and furniture with impenetrable majesty.

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By the end of the Middle Ages, lapis lazuli was being ground into the most valuable of all blue pigments, ultramarine “the most perfect of all colors”. It found its way into lush Baroque skies, Renaissance frescoes; it was an exalted color, used for Annunciations and the Virgin’s cloak. It was even used to color the turban the young woman wore, as thick with light as her celestial earring.

So in history, art and literature the lofty excellence of lapis lazuli has played a significant part. But its fame does not stop there; it has one more role to play: the leading one, the force that drives the tangled mythos of alchemy.

Lapis is the Latin word for “stone”. And every transmutation, equation, calculation and alteration that burns in the alchemical retort is for one purpose: to purify the “dark matter” the earthy “chaos” that had putrefied the four elements since the fall of Adam and to elevate them once more towards the celestial belt, the Elysian “lapis”.

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It is the “lapis philosophorum”, the Philosopher’s Stone, the sun and moon tree, the Treasure-house of Wisdom “from there that wisdom rises” (Umail at-Tamimi, 10th century), and described by Hermes Trismegistus in The Emerald Tablet: “the father of it is the Sun, the mother of it is the Moon; the wind carries it in its belly; the nurse thereof is the Earth”.

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Now, it is true that the surname of ‘Lazuli’ does not appear in these obscure teachings, but the lapis lazuli is universally known to represent truth, enlightenment and inner vision – perhaps a nod and a wink to the twisted logic and bizarre mathematics of its alchemic ancestry.

In “The Tempest”, Shakespeare wrote the words, ‘We are such stuff/As dreams are made on’. They were spoken by the magician Prospero, as he reflected on the similarity between the spiritual and the corporeal, the confrontation between the dreaming and waking states. In very different circumstances, a rumpled cynic contemplated the statue of a dark falcon, naming its strange appeal as ‘the stuff that dreams are made of’ – the futility, the greed, the desperation, the hopeless competitive spirit that keeps people reaching for what they can never grasp.

But I still insist that the stuff of dreams are buried in the earth, that they are swimming beneath the waves. They have complexities of color and shape; they shine in the darkness. And they were born out of the most extraordinary circumstances: from the irritation of a grain of sand to the formative power of sediment, rivers and volcanoes.

But it was the caprice of humanity which gave the gemstones added meaning and value – long after they were pulled out of their earthly homes. But we can’t help it. We will always dream.

“Draw Close The Curtaines”

“When thou goest to thy bed… draw close the curtaines to shut out the Moone-light, which is very offensive and hurtfull to the braine, especially to those that sleepe.”

–   A guide to healthy living, 1621

I did not see the blood moon last week, even though I tried to.  Slightly after midnight  I stood outside – night gowned and barefoot – but all I saw was a dark sky blushing orange, as if the moon was too shy to show herself in her red, blatant flesh.

A blood moon carries with it a weight of myth and symbolism.  Such an anthology of legends is so heavy that it is a wonder that a satellite cloaked so stridently has the strength to rise to its proper lunar height.

The scientific explanation is simple enough.  When the earth is in alignment between the moon and sun, it casts a shadow on the moon, a disc-like fragment obscuring its metallic phase.  That is the eclipse.  But on the other side of the earth, the sleepless sun is casting its rays through the earth’s atmosphere.

Obligingly, the blues and violets – the colors of the daytime sky – are filtered out.  But the furnace-cast of reds and oranges travel through this atmosphere, bent through a prism of dust and ash that extends for thousands of miles.  By the time the color reaches the moon, the palette is arranged for her scarlet, saucy profile; for her misplaced sunset.

But before science took the upper hand, men found other explanations for the tarnished shadow floating above them. A moon running red with blood signified the coming of the end times, of the Bible’s terrible prophecies, of dark suns and the “terrible day of the Lord”.

According to the Ecclesiastical tables this bloody moon was a Paschal (Passover) full moon. As it was the first full moon after the vernal equinox – it was also a herald for Easter, the Sunday immediately following the Paschal Full Moon.

A red moon during the harvest was a sign of the huntsman, of his prey run to ground and his bloody catch. It was a time of feverish activity, when forests rattled with hunter, horse and hound, and a successful outing would guarantee a healthy season of food for all.

Priests, shamans, mystics and story-tellers did their best to explain why the moon burned like a flushed sun in the latest corner of the night, at the very height of her languors.  But it was science that discovered that every few years, when earth, moon and sun were aligned in an astral set dance, the moon was able to experience her own sunset:  a rare closing of bronze and tawny curtains as she begins her nightly, silver vigil.

All of this I missed on that soft night. And it was a shame, really, but since that night I have given the moon and her amours a great deal of thought. And I have found that there are times when memory adheres more firmly to matters of reflection than vision. And that no matter how closely the “curtaines” are drawn, the moon and her stellar court will wait on your drifting contemplation.

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Sleeping Dragons

Tintagel Castle is a hothouse of legend and unlikely histories.  With a silvery childlike name, it stands rooted in the Celtic Sea, close to the curving turquoise grottos and the melting veils of salt.  In winter the waves beat across the tumbled granite like fists; in summer they hiss like dragons, asleep in the hidden, subterranean caves.

Water Fall and Flowers

A gray skeleton crumbling into the grass, its wounded remains shiver in the Cornish air…the noble bones of arches and turrets.   Once it crawled up the coast:   a granite community born in the Dark Ages, when priests made forests into sanctuaries, when serpents patrolled the ends of the oceans – looking for the painted, foolish ships.

Many Storied

Ten miles away from his castle, called Terrabil, there was, in the castle Tintagil Igraine of Cornwall, that King Uther liked and loved well, for she was a good and fair lady, and passing wise.”

During the Middle Ages, myth and fact either fought like two caged lions – or they would curl lovingly about each other to create stories that would last forever.  Between the years of 1135-38, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote the “Historia Regum Britanniae”,  which he described as an ‘ancient book in the British language that told in orderly fashion the deeds of all the kings of Britain’.  Included in that pantheon was King Arthur.

Geoffrey wrote of Arthur’s father, King Uther Pendragon – a cruel name that spoke of an antediluvian world of towering men and hidden women – and his love for Igraine.   His desperation drove him to go to war against Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall, and Igraine’s husband.  Before the two armies thundered into each other across the earth that still vibrates with their ferocity, Gorlois placed Igraine within his most secure castle, Tintagel.

Uther was told by a friend that Tintagel was fearless and could not be taken, for ‘it is right by the sea, and surrounded by the sea on all sides; and there is no other way into it, except that provided by a narrow rocky passage–and there, three armed warriors could forbid all entry, even if you took up your stand with the whole of Britain behind you.’ 

The wizard Merlin was summoned to create an alchemy of magic and potions to change Uther’s outward appearance to that of Gorlois’.  Unfairly disguised, he walked up that perilous passage, and ‘in that night was the most famous of men, Arthur, conceived’ – just as Gorlois was killed in the field.

Birth of a Legend

‘Sir,’ said she, ‘the same night my lord was dead, there came into my castle of Tintagel a man like my lord in speech and countenance; and thus, as I shall answer unto God, this child was begotten’.

There is another legend that has filtered through the crushed walls and prehistoric windows:  the complex tragedy of Tristan and Iseult. 

“As King Mark came down to greet Iseult upon the shore, Tristan took her hand and led her to the King and the King took seizin of her, taking her hand. He led her in great pomp to his castle of Tintagel, and as she came in hall amid the vassals her beauty shone so that the walls were lit as they are lit at dawn.”

This story of elixirs, adultery, banishment, blood and beauty weaves through Tintagel like an embroidery of  sorrow.   The castle was the possession of King Mark, the betrothed of Iseult, the Irish princess whose loveliness scintillated the dour walls of his defense by the sea.

But as was the case of many arranged marriages back then, and quite a sensible solution too, actually, a love potion was prepared – to ease the two over the hurdles of pre-nuptial shyness and suspicion.  Mark’s nephew, Tristan, sailed to Ireland to retrieve the future bride.  However, due to circumstances never quite revealed in neither song nor poetry,  Tristan and Iseult accidentally drink the potion and fall dangerously in love.  Their affair ends only when Mark banishes Tristan from Cornwall.

Love Gone Wrong

Some stories say that the two do not meet until Tristan is on his death-bed.  When in Brittany, Tristan suffers a wound that only Iseult, the lady who kept her tonics on ivory shelves laced with ebony, could cure.  But she does not arrive in time; grief-stricken, she collapses by her lover’s side and dies.  Others say that Tristan does return to Cornwall, only to be stabbed in the back by the King when he is found playing a harp outside of Iseult’s bower.   

I visited Tintagel Castle years ago.  I climbed the stairs – 180 steep, panting steps – that Gorlois’ warriors guarded.  I placed my hands on the walls that once blushed at the sight of the most beautiful girl in the world.   I happy tossed the real world over the precipice into the rock-pierced ocean, to be spirited away by the sleeping dragons’ breath.

The Sea On All Sides

Blood And Legend

The unicorns are no longer with us.  They do not graze in chaste splendour in fields glittering with the metallic residue of their golden hooves.  They do not kneel by the sides of maidens, harnessed by their purity and unbound hair.  Their ivory horns, composed from an alchemist’s fantasy of unnamed antidotes and elixirs – the random mysteries of science – have vanished.  Ground into powders that lie forgotten in chemists’ cupboards, or mixed into tinted pastes that still wait on boudoir tables – these symbols of equine mythology are no longer with us.  They have escaped into the elements – blood and legend vanishing into symbols written on a wall:  earth, air, fire and water. 

Beneath our feet, their muscles still ripple – their bones still shape the world.  Continents split as the buried memories grow restless and shake their heads in noble impatience.  The white horses carved into the sides of ancient mountains are paying homage to their improbable ancestors whose nacreous skin once shimmered like a torrent of pearls.  

Curling through the air in vaporous filigrees, thundering down from the clouds in equine gusts, their breath pursues us – tickling our necks, urging us to turn around.  Invisible and companionable, they live in the breezes that circle the earth and gallop above the waves in a salty, ethereal frieze.

They live above the constellations, beyond the moon who rules the sky with her femininity and luminescence.  Prancing above a twilight circus of planets, interstellar dust and clouds of diamante and lavender, they kick with a lunar spirit creating a burst of disturbed, pronged stars.

The Living Sky

Yet as their breathing twists through the air, so do their silhouettes twist in the flames – in the graceful fire that sparks and flashes like hooves on stones.  Their shadows hide in the blaze – their courage and nobility feeds it.  When we stare, hypnotized, into the fires that soar like bronzed wings, it is the unrecognized mythological profile that holds us so tightly.  It is the resting, waiting legend that spellbinds us.    

Long ago, in a perverse reversal of animals escaping from the sea in a triumph of scales and slime, unicorns escaped into the ocean.  They walked through kelp forests, rhythmic inside of turquoise and jade currents, grazing with the fishes in the apricot shadows of coral beds.

But fishing hooks – piercing the water with their unsubtle bait – scarred their skin.  Their legs were caught and broken in the nets that billowed with tremulous danger.  Fishermen pulling up their nets saw the tears and broken bits of horn and thought fabulous thoughts.  And when they returned from the sea, their stories created new legends and fears.

Caught In A Stampede

Within its newest hiding place, the unicorn evolved.  Its legs disappeared; its body became thick and mottled.  Its tail, which was once tended by ladies with diamond and ebony combs, turned into flesh.  Almost unrecognizable, it lives there still.

Surfacing Once More

Mind’s Flight

“Taking off my turban I bound myself securely to it with the linen in the hope that the roc, when it took flight next morning, would bear me away with it from the desolate island. And this was precisely what did happen. As soon as the dawn appeared the bird rose into the air carrying me up and up till I could no longer see the earth…”

–         The Second Voyage of Sinbad

The voyages of Sinbad are now considered separate from the One Thousand and One Nights.  Although no longer associated with Scheherazade’s desparate wit and dancing fingers, Sinbad still traveled the same lands.  He sailed oceans as smooth as melting silk, sparkling with a filigree of fishes. He traveled through countries writhing with serpents – their mouths dripping with steam and blood, their faces veiled with a diamante of jade and diamonds.  He walked on an earth alive with hidden creatures that lived in the twilight skeleton stretching beneath its surface.  The sky he turned his face to was gold and lavender, scarlet and amber, turquoise and pink:  a reflection of the magic from the roaring constellations above and the magnificent world below.

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He rode on the back of a whale, sounding to the bottom of the sea with the water bubbling in his ears.  He discovered jeweled valleys and rivers thick with minerals and color.  He was menaced by water gods, giants and cannibals.

He felt a giant bird’s talons in his scalp and was lifted far above the stunned, revolving earth.  And I think I know how this must have felt.

Sinbad Sails

I was crossing a very unremarkable parking lot, when I felt a pair of tiny claws pulling at my hair.  I heard wings fluttering in admonishment – the courageous reprimand of a small, angry creature.  The tiny, localized pain reminded me of the voyages that happened long ago – or might not have happened at all.  For a blissful, excruciating moment, I closed my eyes.

I closed my eyes, but I still saw – quick blurs and brief vignettes: micro mosaics of quick visions.  Beneath my shoes, I saw the rushing city:  a grid of highways, homes and trees endeavoring to keep up with me.  Colors tangled and twisted, dissolving into an imprecise countryside.

As my tormentor continued its flight, I swayed in the air, a lonely dirigible unseen by the populations below.  The currents in the sky were quick and cold, the clouds were like veils sparkling with frost.  My skin glistened with the icy fabric.

Close to my ears, the wind galloped, harnessed by direction and the compass of the season.  Even now the memory roars in my ears, like the musical ocean that still sings inside a stranded seashell.  The colors of the air darkened as we climbed higher; the sky was smeared with dusk as we approached a ceiling of permanent night.  Starry horizons beckoned, sprinkled with light.

At that point, however, we began our descent back to earth; back to the pocked black top of the parking lot.  When I stood at last on solid ground, it seemed as if I had spent hours journeying through the pale air – but really, barely a second had passed.  When I opened my eyes, I finally saw my pilot.  It was not roc-sized.  It had not a wingspan of acres, talons that curved like sabres or eyes that sparkled like rubies with a thousand facets.

It was a blackbird. 

Friend, Foe, Feathered

Its feathers glistened with dark, iridescent shadows as it stared at me with radiant, amber eyes.  I had not, in fact, traveled anywhere.  I did not look down on a distant city.  I did not feel the clouds’ thaw, the birth of rain.  My feet had remained still and land-locked – the only flight I had gone on was through the endless span of the imagination..

Hearts Of Stone

History is an act of remembering.  Sometimes its memories are mad and unhinged.  Sometimes they are as inscrutable as a face in the mirror.  History has lived through some stirring and shameful times.

Over 700 years ago, when dogs rooted through floors made of straw, when plague was breeding in the streets, when teen-aged brides cradled and sang to their babies…history had the nerve to play the sentimental fool.

"Lady, for your love
I join hands and worship you"

Far away from the cities, the fields were laden with sweet scents and ripened with broad embraces.  Buildings were pulled from the dreaming mind of legend and laid on these carpets of gallantry and romance.  On festival days, staged events were prepared on these delicate battlefields – as pretty and false as affection often is – for an assault on a popular Medieval affectation:  the Castles of Love. 

"A fantastic castle was built and garrisoned with dames and damsels and their waiting women, who, without help of men, defended it with all possible prudence."

These fragile houses were an architectural metaphor, built from a bluprint of cloudy and clouded emotions.  They were created for the daintiest of reasons:  to pretend, to act on a wish.  

The castles themselves were embroidered as thickly as a queenly gown.  Draped across the battlements were gold and silver tissue, lavender velvet, silks the colors of a summer garden, tangles of painted bells and tassels.  Dappled hides and skins – mink, rabbit, sable – hung from the windows like a slaughtered forest.  The portcullis was a latticework of roses – a slow-moving prism, from maidenly white to slatternly red.

The ladies were the only defenders.  Armed with baskets of flowers and jewels, they prepared for the onslaught.  Instead of helmets, they wore diamond crowns, velvet caps, feathers that swirled beneath their chins.  Wrapped in an armor of brocade and pearl, of satin and rubies, of linen and turquoise, these maidens were dressed bravely.

The knights were armed with golden keys (to unlock the lady's heart), and sweet gifts of dates, persimmons, apples and pears.  They held amber phials of rosewater, crushed violets and scented powders.  They carried shields bearing symbols of dedication and loyalty; of hearts offered and secrets accepted. 

They brought "all manner of flowers and spices that are fragrant to smell or fair to see."

But who won these bloodless battles?  The historians are never very clear.  When the ideals flew as high as the birds looking down on these castles built for an afternoon, perhaps both sides lost.

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The Swan’s Song

Today I was writing a press release, and I wanted to include the phrase 'swan song'.  As I wanted to be absolutely sure of its usage I looked it up – online, I'm afraid.  It would have been so much more erudite to resort to the printed page in times of written distress.

Anyway, I looked it up and was reassured.  But I was surprised to see that the phrase had another, older meaning:

"The beautiful legendary song sung only once by a swan in its lifetime, as it is dying."

I of course ignored – some sort of selective, mental editing, no doubt – the word which deserves to be grouped with all the other terms which order one to come back to earth this moment:  'legendary'.  Who hasn't been disappointed by 'imagined', 'pretend', 'made up', 'visualized'?

Regardless, I found this story impossibly pathetic and faintingly lovvely.  Where did it come from?  Who dared express it – either as truth, or as legend?

Well, the story – which has been called 'beautiful nonsense' – began, apparently, with the ancient Greeks.  A myth states that the swan is one of the favored creatures of Apollo.  At their moment of death, it was said, when breath should be weakest and lowest, they sing loudly and with joy "…more sweetly than ever, rejoicing in the thought that they are about to go away to Apollo, whose ministers they are."

These were the words of Plato, in the 4th century BC.  Great thinkers and dreamers – Euripedes, Aristotle, Seneca, Cicero – believed this story of reunnion and wordless gratitude.  In the 'Metamorphoses', the vast poem defining the world's history as played out by gods and goddesses on the fields of love and reason, Ovid wrote:

"There, she poured out her words of grief, tearfully, in faint tones, in harmony with sadness, just as the swan sings once, in dying, its own funeral song."

Pliny the Elder considered this all nonsense – then again, he was a scientist.

Chaucer wrote of the swan's song of farewell and welcome:

"The swane…ageynist his dethe shall singe his penavnse."
(The swan…against his death shall sing his penance.")

More than 200 years later the idea of a song so beautiful it can only be uttered once, and only then in the face of death, still had its romantic hold.  Shakespeare referred to it in 'The Merchant of Venice', in Portia's command:

"Let music sound while he doth make his choice:
Then, if he lose, makes a swan-like end,
Fading in music."

But what makes me stop short and catch my breath – as if it was in danger of being gasped away – was this madrigal composed in 1612 by Orlando Gibbons, Gentleman of the Chapel Royal for the court of James I.  I don't even know what it sounds like; all I know is that it must be gentle and sweeping, and that the words are a dangerous combination of tragedy and beauty:

"The silver swan, who living had no note,
When death approach'd, unlock'd her silent throat;
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
Thus sung her first and last, and sung no more.
Farewell, all joys; O Death, come close mine eyes;
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise."

 

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East of the Sun and West of the Moon

Kay Nielsen was born in Copenhagen in 1886.  The date is significant; as it means that his art reached its lofty heights during the dreamstate that was Europe before World War One.  It was a fairy-ring which surrounded a group of illustrators whose mythic colors and living textures would not be equaled, hard as the unfolding century might try.

His influences were many and varied:  Japanese woodcuts and watercolors, the natural asymmetry of Art Nouveau, the violent shadows and delicate yet immovable lines of Aubrey Beardsley.

But there was another influence at work…he painted frozen stars, snow-drenched landscapes, warm rugs and furs, hair that was thick and braided, with lines as delicate as the filigree cracks in melting ice.  There was a chilly Nordic inspiration running throughout his paintings:  black mountains, white skies, barefoot princesses, Iron Kings – even a pretty lassie's face is reflected in a pale and frigid pool.

In 1914 a selection of Norwegian folktales was published, under the collective name of 'East of the Sun and West of the Moon'.  The title speaks of undisclosed distances and of places beyond the knowledge of the ether, of clouds and planets.  These are stories of magic, blood, violence, love, religion and nature.  Nielsen provided the illustrations.

'The Blue Belt' tells of a beggar boy and his search for his love, the black-eyed princess of Arabia.  During the course of its telling there is transference of power, a morphing of identities, and the merging between man and nature.

This illustration from the story is one of my favorites.  In the princess' tall room, graced with a single jeweled lamp and a rich length of tapestry the lovers embrace, kneeling on a cushion stamped with a pattern of roses and tendrils.  The fabric is hypnotic, like leaning into a jungle of ferns.  Her tiny pink slippers are enticing.  The rich decorative passages are balanced against an unadorned wall of black lines.  The only warmth in the painting is in the bare arms and the young faces pressed against each other.

'The Lassie And Her Godmother' is Christianity's version of Pandora's Box…the Lassie is told by her foster-mother that she must leave but three rooms of her house alone.  But as there is no cure for curiosity, she peeped into each forbidden chamber, and there escaped a Star, the Moon and the Sun.

She was banished.

But she was very lovely, so that when a Prince saw her, he was determined that she would be his queen.

They rode away, their gowns curved and graceful, seeming to grow out of the ground and from the horse's carved musculature.  The forest is stylized:  they literally ride over a carpet of flowers.  The only flesh and blood to be seen is in the prince's shield – the eyes of the bronze face have just flickered open, and it gazes balefully at us, as a warning of the suffering to come.

In the fullness of time, she bears three children; but at each birth, the foster-mother comes to take them from her.

When the parents' dispair could be borne no longer, the foster-mother reappeared with the queen's babies, saying, "Here are your children; now you shall have them again.  I am the Virgin Mary, and so grieved as you have been, so grieved was I when you let out sun, and moon and star."

'The Three Princesses of Whiteland' is a tale populated with talking beasts, birds and fish; with swords, trolls, magic snowshoes and three kidnapped princesses buried up to their necks in the snow.

A brave lad rescues them, and marries the princess of his choice as his reward.  He loses her but finds his way back with the help of the North Wind and a pair of snowshoes which will carry its owner indefatigably in whatever direction the toes are pointed.

Here he is seen striding forcefully against a wind that is unseen, but still implied…the hero's long blond hair is blown back, the yellow filaments blending with the crimson and gold patterned cape that billows behind him.  The wind has piled the snowdrifts high, and his profile is determined, and pale from cold though his brow is dark and unflinching.  On one side he carries his sword clutched in one granite fist, on the other a gold shield rests at his shoulder, looking like a moon making its way to the heights of the evening sky.  His outfit is a madness of lines, circles, swirls – clasping together to form a spectacular embroidery.

Beauty and melancholy.  Cold daylight, Nordic twilight, arctic sunsets, midnight winds.  Creatures of legend and of the earth.  Rich patterns, empty skies, spaces whose emptiness both reveal and accentuate.  A delicate thread of line stitched into impossible textures. 

The decoration and details of these illustrations were created from the observation and love of the natural world; but they were also created from ideas imagined when listening in on the tales spun by the mind's whimsy, whispered on a cold winter's night.

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