Tuesday, 31 December 2013

A Dino-Lover's Dream - 1853's New Year's Eve Dinner in Crystal Palace Park

31 December 1853, a New Year's Eve dinner, hosted by the future first director of London’s Natural History Museum Sir Richard Owen and the artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, was held inside the mould of a life-sized Iguanodon sculpture in Crystal Palace Park.

“I was at the opening of the palace in 1854; but ere that pageant took place, I dined as a guest of the distinguished comparative anatomist, Mr. Waterhouse Hawkins, in the interior of the model of some gigantic Saurian, on a margin of the lake, where also were to be seen other life-sized models of the former gigantic inhabitants of the earth. I cannot remember whether it was in the stomach of the Iguanodon, or in that of the Malaeotherium, the Anoplotherium, the Plesiosaurus, or the Megatherium, that we feasted; but we did hold a very joyous banquet in an improvised dining-room not much larger than the cabin of a small yacht.“ (George Augustus Sala, “Five P.M. : A Children's Festival at the Crystal Palace“)

A wonderful illustration of the memorable event by an unknown artist found on illustratorpod.co.uk 

The “Age of Reptiles”, as the first half of the 19th century was named under the auspices of the emerging science of paleontology, was rang in when Georges Cuvier dubbed the owner of a giant skull found near Maastricht a Mosasaurus, lizard of the river Meuse. Meanwhile, Mary Anning discovered the marine fossil beds at Lyme Regis in Dorset and Mary Ann Mantell stumbled over the teeth of an Iguanodon during a stroll in Sussex. But it was Sir Richard Owen who coined the name Dinosauria from Greek δεινός (deinos) "terrible, powerful, wondrous" and σαῦρος (sauros) "lizard". Owen, a well-connected and -funded conservator and career scientist with a bit of a reputation of hogging the finds and achievements of others, certainly had a well developed sense of gaining publicity and placing his scientific theories on the market of public interest. When the Crystal Palace was moved to Sydenham Hill in Kent after the Great Exhibition of 1851 ended, Owen and his publications were popular enough for the operating company of the new pleasure park to ask him to cooperate with the natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins to create 33 life-sized concrete dinosaurs that would populate the place.

Waterhouse Hawkin's dinos, nascent in his Sydenham studio

Hawkins’ marketing skills were certainly no less developed than Owen’s. Planning his “Dinosaur Court” along a series of islands in a lake, representing the three stages of development of the giant reptiles, one island for the Paleozoic era, one for the Mesozoic and a third for the Cenozoic, adding a bit of mystery when the sculptures appeared step by step from the lakes’ tidal rise and fall. Owen and Hawkins decided to open “Dinosaur Court” with a bang – one of the two Iguanodons’ moulds would become the venue for a dinner party to celebrate New Year’s Eve of 1853. 21 famous natural scientists were invited to feast on a dinner table set up within the Iguanodon, under a large tent in the park, complete with china, silver, chandeliers and full service. The whimsical idea found not only favour with the invited guests but the press and the public as well. Most London papers covered the story of the dinosaur dinner party and Crystal Palace Park and the “Dinosaur Court” became quite a success, smaller models of the beasties were sold for the proud price of £30 (equivalent to € 3,000 today), but, nevertheless, the production of Hawkins’ dinosaurs proved to be to costly, £13,000 per giant lizard, and in the end only 15 were realised by 1855, when his funding finally got the axe.

 A woodcut from the Illustrated London News from January 7th 1854, commemorating the notable event of scientific gentlemen dining inside an Iguanodon.

Almost everything about the contemporary cognitions of Hawkins’ dinosaurs is obsolete by today’s standards, actually his and Owen’s idea of the famous Iguanodon as a heavy, hippo-like creature, were already questioned by the lizard’s original name giver Gideon Mantell, the naturalist husband of the lady who discovered its first tooth that was so like an iguana’s. By the end of the 19th century, the sculptures were already considered being quite ridiculous. “Dinosaur Court” began to fell into disrepair, even though the “antediluvian monsters” were referred to in various novels as staffage. When the Crystal Palace burned down in 1936, they were largely forgotten and fell into a deep slumber until the site was completely renovated in 2002 and largely restored to its original state of 1855, to be marvelled at as a curious milestone of science history and lovely Victorian folly.

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Monday, 30 December 2013

The Polyphonous "Prophet of British Imperialism” Rudyard Kipling

30 December 1865, the short-story writer, poet and novelist Rudyard Kipling was born in Mumbai (Bombay).
“There will always be plenty in Kipling that I will find difficult to forgive; but there is also enough truth in these stories to make them impossible to ignore.”—Salman Rushdie

John Collier’s (1850 – 1934) portrait of Rudyard Kipling (1891)

When the Widow of Windsor died in 1901 an era ended and things would never be the same again. A sentiment not only developed by historians in hindsight, but already felt by the contemporaries. Accordingly, art historians and literary scholars mark the year as the beginning of Classic Modernism, even though authors expressed themselves at least since the Romantic era under the auspices of the apparently new epoch, with a fragmented world view, changes of narrative perspective and especially the heavy focus on things psychological, insights and perceptions, up to re-telling a stream of consciousness, the transient, the fleeting, the contingent, as Baudelaire put it already in 1862. Nevertheless, a traditional approach on telling a story, eloquent and captivating but without experimental embellishment, was still cherished and writers like Wells, Conrad and Kipling continued the success they had during the last years of the 19th century, but few achieved a literary depth as Kipling without neglecting the story itself.

Kipling on the cover of Time magazine, 1926

To this day Kipling, who saw himself as an Anglo-Indian, is one of the foremost writers of the short-story genre and his children’s books, especially the Just so Stories and the Jungle Books, became true classics. A wanderer between the worlds, east and west, Africa, the Americas and Great Britain, childhood and being adult, mysticism and realism, barrack rooms and nurseries, the colonials and the colonised, Kipling had a wonderfully sharp ear for language as well as tales told and an unrivalled talent to translate the things heard into the writing of stories. Immensely popular before 1914 and the youngest as well as the first English-speaking winner of Nobel Prize for Literature, the Great War was a caesura in Kipling’s life, work and success. His son Jack fell in France in 1915 and few still wanted to hear and read his ambiguous tales and poems from all over the Empire and Kipling became almost silent, besides hating Germans, Fascists and Bolsheviks alike. He died in 1936 at the age of 70, a few years before the outbreak of the next Great War he had dreaded.

The post-colonial dismantling of his ideals as well as his contemporary allegiances, culminating in Orwell’s appraisal of Kipling as being the “prophet of British Imperialism” brought Kipling into international disrepute for several decades. His arguably best known poem "If—" is still read as an expression of the alleged British national virtue of keeping a “stiff upper lip” under every imaginable circumstance while actually praising the colonial anti-hero Leander Starr Jameson. Kipling's infamous poem “The White Man’s Burden” is generally read as a maudlin justification and glorification of Imperialism along with other of his texts apparently not only glorifying the misdeeds of the colonial masters of old but war itself. That Kipling was political conservative is undisputed, his attitude towards Imperialism underwent a closer inspection during the last two decades and it became apparent that his relation with the Empire and Imperialism in general is anything but brazenly glamourising but often ambiguous and self-reflexive, even if it sounds bluntly exalting at first glance, like the fortunately forgotten legacy of his contemporaries and later apologists. Whatever the case may be, beyond being a witness and often mouthpiece of a very controversial period of history, Kipling’s timelessness as excellent narrator, especially of tales for children, is sans reproche.

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Sunday, 29 December 2013

The Apprehension of the “Blood Countess“ Elisabeth Báthory for Mass Murder in 1610

29  December 1610, Castle Csejte (Čachtice), halfway between Brno and Bratislava, is stormed by the men of  the Palatine of Hungary to apprehend the “Blood Countess“ Elisabeth Báthory for mass murder.

“Elizabeth formed the resolution to bathe her face and her whole body in human blood so as to enhance her beauty. Two old women and a certain Fitzko assisted her in her undertaking. This monster used to kill the luckless victim, and the old women caught the blood, in which Elizabeth was wont to bathe at the hour of four in the morning. After the bath she appeared more beautiful than before.“ (Sabine Baring-Gould, “The Book of Were-Wolves“, 1865)

A copy of her portrait, showing Elisabeth Báthory at the age of about 25,
the only existing contemporary likeness – the original disappeared during the 1990s.

The disastrous defeat at Mohács in 1526 that toppled the once proud Kingdom of Hungary, once ruling Eastern Europe from Bratislava almost to the shores of the Black Sea, left the whole region in turmoil. The early conversion of the remaining Hungarian nobility to Protestantism while the remaining Hungarian heartland became part of the Catholic Austrian Empire of the Habsburgs brought Royal Hungary, as the area became known, one step further towards a complete disarray of matters in the multi-ethnic region. The continuous struggle against the Ottoman Turks pushing towards Vienna did not really stabilise the situation either. With the old feudal laws still in place and the Renaissance as well as Humanism beginning to gain grounds in Eastern Central Europe as well, the last decades of the 16th century gave rise to a special breed of semi-independent nobility trying to assert itself between the claim to power of House Habsburg and the Ottoman threat, being highly educated but wielding absolute power over their underlings and treating their peasants, especially those of Slovak origin, with barbarous cruelty and fighting the Turks with equally savage means. One especially picturesque example is Count Ferenc Nádasdy, the “Black Knight of Hungary” along with his dear wife, Erzsébet Báthory, the “Blood Countess”.

Ferenc Nádasdy, looking the part of the “Black Knight of Hungary”

Related to the Voivods of Wallachia as well as the Kings of Poland, young Erzsébet, born in 1560, was not only heiress to vast lands in what is now Slovakia, but grew up learning four languages and was befittingly married to the almost equally illustrious Count Nádasdy at the age of 15. The marriage was apparently happy, produced five children even though Ferenc was more often away to the wars than not – quite successfully, capturing five important castles from the Ottomans and achieving the nickname “Black Knight” for his excessive cruelty against Turkish prisoners – while Mrs Nádasdy at home began to develop the habit of torturing her servants, allegedly to discipline them. Later testimonials from Elisabeth’s trial tell of the happy couple devising new methods of inflicting pain on their household until Ferenc died of a mysterious disease in 1604 while away on the frontlines. And when Habsburg Emperor Matthias II now made his move to seize the vast Protestant Nádasdy- Báthory lands something seemed to have snapped within Elisabeth, now in her mid40s. Residing in her castles of Sárvár and Csejte, legend has it that she perceived a rejuvenating effect on her skin when drops of blood of one of her victims hit her. What followed is not quite clear, but the rumours range from her regularly drinking the blood of her servant girls to taking full baths in their blood, along with ongoing torture and murder.

Dark and forbidding: Castle Čachtice at sunset* 

The complaints against the Countess filed at Vienna since 1602 finally provided the opportunity for Emperor Matthias to send his new Palatine of Hungary, György Thurzó, of an equally influential local family and infamous for his land annexations, to apprehend Elisabeth Báthory. During the following trial, Báthory had no chance to defend herself, but over 300 witnesses were heard of all ranks and the results as well as the finds at Castle Csejte were quite shocking. Up to 650 girls were tortured and she was finally convicted for the murder of 80. Fearing a public scandal, Palatine Thurzó and the emperor decided not to execute her but wall her in at Castle Csejte with no contact to the outside world until her death four years later in 1614. Now considered as one of the most prolific female serial killers in history, the forming of her gory legend already began during her lifetime. The connection with the vampire myth happened relatively late but is today certainly the most popular context while the 18th and 19th century usually indulged in being fascinated by tales of witchcraft as well as  the sadomasochistic and homoerotic subtext of the life and times of Elisabeth Báthory and artistic adaptions quite often were rather trivial erotic novels until the 20th century discovered her as a protagonist and anti-hero of various tales. However, attempts to prove that the charges against her were trumped up and that she was a victim of a Habsburg conspiracy did never fully convince.

(Image found on: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:%C4%8Cachtice_Castle?uselang=de#/media/File:Cachtice_castle_by_night.jpg)

Saturday, 28 December 2013

"Sand, sand, All that is built by the hand of man!” - the Tay Bridge disaster in 1879

28 December 1879, during a storm blowing across the Firth of Tay, the Tay Rail Bridge collapsed while a train was passing over it. All of its 75 passengers and crew died during the Tay Bridge disaster.
“… denn wütender wurde der Winde Spiel, / und jetzt, als ob Feuer vom Himmel fiel, erglüht es in niederschießender Pracht / überm Wasser unten... Und wieder ist Nacht. … Tand, Tand ist das Gebilde von Menschenhand"

(“For with greater violence the winds did lash, / And now, as if fire from the heavens did crash, / A-glow in glory and wedded to hell, / O’er the waters below…..And again darkness fell. … Sand, sand, All that is built by the hand of man!”, Theodor Fontane, "Die Brück' am Tay")

A contemporary illustration showing the first attempt to salvage the wrecked train on the day following the disaster

steel, steam and speed everything seemed possible by the end of the 19th century and the triumph of mankind over nature seemed evident, while a profound belief in a steady progress dictated that everything becoming faster, higher and stronger was not only possible but necessary and the Brunels, Stephensons and Telfords, the elite of Victorian engineering, creating unheard of technological wonders, were the heroes of the day. The railroad and railway bridges played a decisive role in this belief system and the twenty years between the opening of the first British intercity railway from Liverpool to Manchester in 1830 and the 7,000 miles of railway laid in the early 1850s had changed the country forever. Replacing the train ferry across the Firth-of-Tay with a railway bridge to shorten travelling time from Edinburgh to the northeast of Scotland considerably was planned during these years and finally proceeded with in 1871. The concept of a man was chosen by the prime contractor, the Northern British Railway, whose forte was, first and foremost, constructing cheap with an early profitability, one engineer named Thomas Bouch. Over the next six years, the apparent technical masterpiece, a bridge spanning the firth over a length of almost two miles, the longest railway bridge ever, was constructed and finally brought into service in 1877, in time and budget, Thomas Bouch received a knighthood while the rest of the world marvelled at the feat.

J.M.W. Turner: "Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway" (1844)

The express train, the “Mail”, left Edinburgh’s Waverly Station to Dundee on schedule at 4:15 pm on December 28th 1879 and reached the southern end of the bridge at 7:00 pm with its six passenger cars and 75 people on board, among them Bouch’s son-in-law. And while the train proceeded the first 200 yards across the bridge, a storm blew across the Firth with wind speeds of at least 70 mph, nothing very unusual along the North Sea coast, even though one witness compared it to a typhoon he had once experienced in the China Sea. However, sparks were already seen flying from the wheels of the train while it steamed further across the bridge and when it reached the high girders after three minutes, “there was a sudden bright flash of light, and in an instant there was total darkness, the tail lamps of the train, the sparks and the flash of light all ... disappearing at the same instant”. The telegraph connection between the southern and northern signal cabin was lost, the bridge was obviously disconnected and indeed, a short time later it became clear that not only the train was at the bottom of the river Tay but the bridge’s high girders as well as much of the ironwork of the supporting piers. There were no survivors.

Contemporary photograph, taken shortly after the disaster - fallen girders of the Tay Bridge

An inquiry was set up immediately and found enough evidence of sloppiness of a scale that would have been sufficient for at least three railway disasters. Not only was the material used faulty to an almost unbelievable extent and the following maintenance of the bridge superficial – Bouch’s initial design did not allow for the increasing speed of trains from 25 to 70 mph during the time of planning and construction and was based on obsolete weather data to begin with. On top of it, it was built to withstand wind loadings of 20 pounds per square foot only, while a minimum standard of 50 psf already was used elsewhere in France and the US for much shorter but admittedly more expensive bridges. It soon became clear that the train did not jump the rails but a whole section of the bridge was torn off by the storm. Bouch died shortly after the public inquiry was finished and put the blame for the disaster largely on him. The result of the disaster was that belief in progress and feasibility was taken down a peg for a while and safety standards were stepped up everywhere. A second bridge spanning the Firth was commissioned in 1883, finished four years later and is still in use today. The stumps of the piers of Bouch’s original construction are still visible right beside it.

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Theodor Fontane’s poem in English translation quoted above, published only ten days after the event, can be found here:


Friday, 27 December 2013

"The most important event in my life " - Charles Darwin and HMS "Beagle's" Second Voyage

27 December 1831, HMS “Beagle” left Plymouth and set out on her famous “Second Voyage”, a surveying expedition that took her around the world and would be momentous for the foundation of evolutionary biology.
“The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life and has determined my whole career“ (Charles Darwin)

HMS Beagle during survey work off Tierra del Fuego, with native Fuegians hailing her, by Conrad Martens,  around 1832

Brig sloops of “Beagle’s” “Cherokee”-class were first commissioned in 1808 and quickly required a bit of a bad reputation as “coffin ships”. Not entirely without reason. Of the 104 ships of the class, almost one fourth was lost at sea during the three decades they saw active service. It wasn’t that there design was faulty as such, but the 90’ long 237 ton vessels were probably a bit too small for their global missions as packet ships between the continents and on their survey missions across the world. HMS “Beagle” herself saw service since 1820 and was the first warship that sailed under old London Bridge during the naval review to mark the coronation festivities of King George IV during the same year, a couple of years before Rennie’s “New” London Bridge was opened. By then, HMS “Beagle” already had her first voyage to South America completed and was again captained by 26 years old Lieutenant Robert FitzRoy who assumed command after his commanding officer Pringle Stokes committed suicide during the obviously extremely boring first mission off Tierra del Fuego. Against this background and mindful of his uncle, the former British foreign secretary Viscount Castlereagh, who ended his own life in 1822, FitzRoy, who struggled with depressions for all his life himself, insisted on a suitable gentleman companion to come along on the “Beagle’s” long second voyage. Finally, a young theologian with a keen interest in geology was found – Charles Darwin.

A drawing of HMS "Beagle" at anchor, probably off Australia (1841)

“Beagle’s” mission was, again, to survey the South American coastlines and to produce nautical charts, nothing fancy, just showing navigational and sea depth information for the navy as well as commerce. And after three disappointing weeks aboard ship with poor Darwin suffering from seasickness and a landfall in Madeira being cancelled due to an outbreak of Cholera, the twenty-three-year-old aspiring scientist had the first opportunity to observe, collect and study, first on the Cap Verde Islands and then, finally, in South America, where Darwin discovered his first fossils, a complete skeleton and a further skull of a giant ground sloth. And while the “Beagle” surveyed off Patagonia and Chile, Darwin had ample time to explore on his own on land, write his meticulous records and discuss his findings with FitzRoy. The two men shared a cabin for the five years of the “Beagle’s” second voyage that finally took them from Chile to the famed four-weeks’ stay on the Galápagos Islands, via Tahiti to Australia, where Darwin noted that an unbeliever might exclaim another Creator had been at work there, and finally, through the Indian Ocean and along the Cape of Good Hope back home to England, arriving at Falmouth in Cornwall on October 2nd 1836.

Shipboard artist Augustus Earle probably drew this caricature instead of coastlines for once, showing Darwin (the one with the top hat) employing "Beagle's) crew during his work as naturalist in August 1832. 

With the help of the "fiddler & boy to Poop-cabin" Syms Covington, Darwin had assembled 12 catalogues of his collection, 1,529 specimens preserved in ethanol as well as 3,907 hides, furs, bones and plants. His notes on geology were still four times as long as the 368 pages he wrote about zoology. Darwin settled down in London and the busiest time of his life began. He started to establish his reputation in scientific circles and published “The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle” between 1838 and 1843, the third volume “The narrative of the voyages of H.M. Ships Adventure and Beagle“ from 1839 - being still the most read book that Darwin has written. The groundwork for his famous later theory formulated in “The Origin of Species“, released twenty years later in 1859, had been laid. Captain FitzRoy continued his career in the Royal Navy, made his mark in science with a quite advanced theory of weather forecasting, and, obviously undergoing religious conversion during his later life, almost fell into hysterics after Darwin’s publication in 1859 and ended his own life in at the age of 60, like his uncle, by cutting his throat with a razor. H.M. ship “Beagle” left England again after only six months in port for a third voyage, this time for seven years surveying the coasts of Australia, and finished her career being moored mid-river in the River Roach to detain smugglers and finally was broken up in 1870.

And more about "Beagle's" Second Voyage on


Thursday, 26 December 2013

A Heritage of Imagery of the Old West - Frederic Remington

26 December 1909, the American painter, sculptor and author Frederic Remington died in Ridgefield, Connecticut, of chronic appendicitis at the age of 48.

"My drawing is done entirely from memory. I never use a camera now. The interesting never occurs in nature as a whole, but in pieces. It's more what I leave out than what I add." (Frederic Remington)

Frederic Remington “The Flight” (1895)

During the decades following the U.S. Civil War, the vast territories west of the Missouri, the American frontier, rapidly turned from something that soon became known as the “Old West” into organised federal states. The railroad spanned the continent, the telegraph spread information in a blink of an eye, the vast herds of buffalo that once roamed the Great Plains were decimated to a couple of hundred specimens, the last military actions were fought against the Native Americans and the first nations were packed up in reservations and law and order found their way into the region. Accompanying this process was the creation of myths, first in the dime novels of the 1870s, Wild West shows touring the east coast and Europe with a sensational success and writers like Zane Grey and Owen Wister followed the footsteps of James Fenimore Cooper and contributed to lay the foundations of the legends of the “Wild West” while visual artists captured their own vision of the West on canvas along with the apparently impartial images photographers distributed. And while painters like Bodmer and Catlin preserved the West with an eye on ethnography in the antebellum years and Bierstadt and Moran glorified overwhelming nature and insignificance of man, others celebrated the triumph of man and did their own to generate legends with a realistic approach and a strong Romantic flavour, painters like Charles Marion Russell and Frederic Remington.

Frederic Remington: "Shotgun Hospitality" (1908)

in time to see the rest of the West as it was before westernised civilisation completely took over, Remington travelled the region for years, staying for a couple of months and returning with an imagery that became iconic. Born in 1861 in Canton, New York, he took art classes at Yale but found boxing and football rather more interesting, became a businessman in Kansas City and soon used his considerable artistic talent to produce illustrations that appeared in publications like “Collier’s Weekly” and “Harper’s Magazine”, often illustrating the tales of Owen Wister and satisfying the Easterner’s and Europeans hunger for adventures from the frontier. He continued to be iconic as a war correspondent during the Spanish American War of 1898, wrote a couple of novels and when public interest slowly ebbed away from the “Old West” towards even more fantastic tales, Remington moved from the sujets that made him popular all over the world, tried his hand at sculpting, painted impressionistic landscapes and regretted that he could not paint en plein air, since his obesity that had grown immense over the years of living the good life kept him finally studio bound.

Frederic Remington: "Indians Simulating Buffalo" (1908)

Leaving a heritage of imagery behind that became formative for popular imagination of a legendary era like few other artists did, Remington’s style was never naturalistic in the sense of most European artists understood the approach. Even though he fully grasped the stylistic devices of capturing the illusion of perspective, spaciousness and materiality as well as the accuracy of depicting the anatomy of man and beast – he was one of the first American painter who depicted the gait of a galloping horse correctly – his naturalism is determined by his urge to create legends and even if his sujets are thoroughly virile, he walks a narrow line between art and kitsch. Nevertheless, he captured, in his own words “the wild riders and the vacant land were about to vanish forever” and “saw the living, breathing end of three American centuries of smoke and dust and sweat" and transported the perception of what he saw in such a masterful manner that if one thinks of the “Old West” and the image of a cowboy, he probably follows a visual myth created by Remington, at least to a certain degree, even today.

More of his work can be found on:



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Wednesday, 25 December 2013

The Wild Hunt

25 December is the latest date when the Wild Hunt traditionally begins its mad pursuit across the night skies of Europe. 

“… many men both saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting. The huntsmen were black, huge, and hideous, and rode on black horses and on black he-goats, and their hounds were jet black, with eyes like saucers, and horrible. This was seen in the very deer park of the town ofPeterborough, and in all the woods that stretch from that same town to Stamford, and in the night the monks heard them sounding and winding their horns.“ (Henry d'Angely)

Norwegian artist Peter Nicolai Arbo’s (1831-1892) painting "Åsgårdsreien" (1872), a version of the Wild Hunt

scholars wouldn’t argue these days that dating Christ’s birthday on 25 December was a deliberate act that occurred at some time during the 4th century and its more or less common knowledge that Christmas absorbed various pre-Christian festivities around the winter solstice. Yule features quite prominently among these celebrations, allegedly an old Germanic feast featuring the long-bearded god Odin as jólfaðr, Yule father, sometimes referred to as being celebrated during the twelve days following midwinter or on the first full moon after the solstice. There is, however, hardly any evidence of genuine Yule observances or even a worship of Odin before the Germanic tribes came into regular contact with the Roman Empire along the river Rhine during the first centuries after the turn of the eras and Germanic Yule might well be an imitation of the Roman festivals and later Christianity, absorbing older observances themselves. The Wild Hunt though, rumoured to ride across the skies during the twelve nights and led by Odin, is a decidedly archetypical image.

Franz von Stuck (1863 - 1928): "Wilde Jagd" (1899) 

Tacitus’ “Germania”, written around the year 100 CE and quoting Julius Caesar’s “Gallic Wars” from a hundred fifty years earlier, mentions Mercurius as the principal deity of the Germanic tribes. A few decades later consecration stones to “Mercurius Cimbrianus”, Mercury of the Cimbrians, appear, donated by Germans serving in the Roman army, that have been interpreted as being the first evidence for the worship of Odin along with older Scandinavian petroglyphs. As it seems, the ambiguous Allfather of the Gods is a deity that originates from the contact with Rome and slowly displaced old Teiwaz, Tyr, as supreme god of the northern tribes. However, Odin with his vast varieties of responsibilities, from being a god of warriors to watching over fertility and finally a god of learning and a psychopomp, a being escorting the spirits of the dead, absorbs many features of worship that date well back to the days when a Shamanistic approach on the divine was more common. Odin’s role as psychopomp, probably leading Tacitus to identifying the Germanic deity with Mercurius, places him in the lead of the Wild Hunt, a far more primeval affair than the civilised Roman passing.

Johann Wilhelm Cordes (1824 - 1869): "Die Wilde Jagd" (1856/7)

The image of spectral huntsmen riding across the skies in the nights following midwinter is almost universal among the Celtic and Germanic tribes across Europe and echo similar beliefs among most other Indo-European peoples. Generally, Germanic belief was that the huntsmen are dead warriors or, later, the souls of the restless dead who are condemned to eternal walking because they died before their time. During the Rauhnächte, the rough nights, beginning alternatively on December 21th, 23th or 25th and ending on January 2nd, offerings were placed in the windows for the hunters and it meant generally bad cess to see them. One was supposed to throw oneself on the ground when they passed by, or even better, staying at home and praying when the Hunt approached. Those who dared to mock them were generally dragged along to an unpleasant place. Odin himself, whose Hunt once might have been the host of Einherjer, the spirits of the warriors fallen honourably in battle and rewarded with eternal mead, pork roast and fighting, galloping across the skies and showing their prowess to the mortals, degenerated more and more into a mere demonic figure or even a simple undead count over the centuries and the once proud possible counter-draft to monotheistic beliefs became a bugbear to frighten simple folks when the winter storms were howling during the Twelve Nights.

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Tuesday, 24 December 2013

“No European nation of our day has such an epic as Pan Tadeusz" - On Adam Mickiewicz's Birthday in 1798

24 December 1798, 215 years ago, the Polish national poet and author of the national epic “Pan Tadeusz“ Adam Mickiewicz was born in Zavosse, 85 miles southwest of Minsk.

“No European nation of our day has such an epic as Pan Tadeusz. In it Don Quixote has been fused with the Iliad. The poet stood on the border line between a vanishing generation and our own. Before they died, he had seen them; but now they are no more. That is precisely the epic point of view. Mickiewicz has performed his task with a master's hand; he has made immortal a dead generation, which now will never pass away. (...) Pan Tadeusz is a true epic. No more can be said or need be said.“ (Zygmunt Krasiński)

Walenty Wańkowicz’s (1799–1842) portrait of Adam Mickiewicz á la Byron (1828)

When Lord Byron died in Missolonghi in 1824 during the Greek War of Independence, the news spread like wildfire through Europe and the Americas and the rock star poet’s alleged death for freedom caused a chain reaction of artists, poets, composers and painters, emulating him and, during the restoration phase after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, by far not only in his well-known aspects of the tortured individual’s soul, but in his role as freedom fighter. And while most nations sported at least one Romantic haunted and bored Byronic artist on their local Parnassus during these days, especially peoples struggling for their identity and autonomy under the thumb of their own reactionary governments or that of foreign major powers, usually Austria, Russia and Prussia, brought forth a national poet of freedom with a strong Byronic streak. Troubled Poland managed to breed even three of them, Zygmunt Krasiński, 
Juliusz Słowacki and Adam Mickiewicz.

The Three Polish Bards: Zygmunt Krasiński, Juliusz Słowacki and Adam Mickiewicz

The life of the “Three Bards” of Poland mirrors the nation’s continuous struggle for freedom and Mickiewicz’s is no exception. As a member of the szlachta, the gentry with their proud heritage of governing the country during the days of the “Golden Freedom”, Adam received an excellent education and spent most of his live in exile. He worked as a teacher in Russia, befriended Pushkin, was a member of St Petersburg’s literary circles, saw Italy, Switzerland and Germany and, at the age of 32, hurried back to Poland when he heard of the November Uprising against the Russian occupation, joined the great emigration wave to France when the uprising was quelled a year later. Mickiewicz became a teacher again in Paris and organised the Polish Legions in Italy during the March Revolutions of 1848 and finally died in Constantinople in 1855 from the cholera while recruiting Poles and Jews for the French army, the Legion Polski and the Hussars of Israel, to fight the Russians during the Crimean War. And, during all his teaching and organising and propagating Polish independence, Mickiewicz wrote epic and lyrical poetry and plays that rank among the best during a time rich with excellent authors.

Franciszek Kostrzewski (1826 - 1911): "The bear leapt up as, chased by the hounds, leaps a hare, / And it crashed headlong downward" - illustration of Pan Tadeusz”

Considered to be the last great European epic poem, Mickiewicz’ “Pan Tadeusz”, a somewhat lengthy story of a family feud under the auspices of the troublesome days after the Third Partition of Poland and the establishment of Napoleon’s Polish satellite state in the year of 1811 and became Poland’s national epic. “Konrad Wallenrod”, an inspiration for the November Uprising of 1830, an ambiguous tale of leading oppressors to their doom and forming the term of “Wallenrodyzm”, striking a treacherous, possibly suicidal blow against the enemy, and inspiring another Polish writer, Józef Korzeniowski, to his pen name Joseph Conrad, is another example of Mickiewicz’ influence on Polish identity. Even though he is hardly known anymore outside of Poland, Polish circles and Slavist scholars abroad, Adam Mickiewicz left a rich heritage that far surpasses the political history of Central Europe during the 19th century and set a literary milestone not only of high artistic standards but, as the Slavist Roman Koropeckyi put it, he is cherished among "people that dared resist the brutal might of reactionary empires“ and not only in Poland.

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Monday, 23 December 2013

"He has brought back alive the proud and free characters of these chiefs, both their nobility and manliness." - George Catlin

23 December 1872, the American painter and author George Catlin died in Jersey City at the age of 76.
"He has brought back alive the proud and free characters of these chiefs, both their nobility and manliness." (Charles Baudelaire)

Catlin’s portrait of the Kainai (“Blood Tribe”,
 one of the three nations comprising the Blackfoot Confederacy) chief Buffalo Bull’s Back Fat, 1832

Visual arts in the United States, like literature and music, took quite a while to emancipate itself from European paragons or even simple imitations. During the second half of the 18th century, mostly portraits of important personages of the Revolution or worthies of the neighbourhood were produced and landscape painting usually amplified a view on a man’s property. By the 1820s though, during the beginning westward expansion of the young nation, artists discovered that they actually had a whole new range of sujets and motifs in their own backyard, never tackled by other painters before. And, with the same spirit that moved contemporary French artists, members of the emerging Hudson River school went out to have an airing, painted en plein-air and celebrated the wonders of nature in the Hudson River valley or the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains and were at one with the magnificent nature around them, like Thoreau and Emerson. Some, however, took their easels and paints and really trecked west and painted what they saw there, like Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran and George Catlin.

George Catlin: "Grazing Buffalo Bull" (1845)

Raised on the stories of his mother who was abducted by Seneca braves during the Wyoming Massacre in 1778, George Catlin met the first member of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, an Oneida, when he was 9 years old, playing in the woods along the Susquehanna. When the man lifted his hand in friendship, the terrified boy was so moved by his kindness that he never forgot it. Joining General Clark on a diplomatic mission west of St Louis in 1830 after a brief career as a lawyer, Catlin followed his calling, visited 50 of the First Nations of the Great Plains over the next five years, producing over 500 paintings of the people, their lives and times. After his return to the east, Catlin spent the rest of his live marketing his own work, writing books and going to Europe where his “Indian Gallery” became a smashing success, even though his arrangements were quite reminiscent of a travelling circus. And that left him deep in debt after all was said and done. Returning to the United States, he finally found acclaim when Joseph Henry, then first secretary of the Smithsonian, was in desperate need of paintings to exhibit after the devastating fire of 1865, where the “Indian Gallery” remains to this day.

George Catlin's rendition of the Mandan"O-kee-pa Ceremony" (1832)

The men and women whose likenesses Catlin painted reacted quite differently on his work. Blackfoot medicine men cherished to be painted, some Lakota predicted the almost stereotypical consequences for those whose souls were captured on the canvasses or did not follow his perception and criticised Catlin that he painted only half the face, leading to an intertribal conflict, since the model felt quite insulted as well after the critics concluded that he, the Hunkpapa brave Little Bear, must be consequently only half a man. The Mandan though were so delighted by his works that they called him the Medicine White Man and allowed him to live with their people for several months. Catlin’s paintings are, along with those of Karl Bodmer, the last documents of a tribe that was nearly extinguished by a smallpox epidemic along the Missouri in 1837. And while he might objectively easily be rated as a B-artist in regards to his artistic expression, Catlin bequeathed the world with a priceless legacy of documents he painted quite realistic and impartial, depicting a world that was destroyed by the advent of the white settlers only a few years later.

More of Catlin’s works can be found on

http://www.georgecatlin.org/home-1-96-1-0.html and


and more about George Catlin on