Here are some more paintings from the second wave Pre-Raphaelite, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope. The painting below is taken from the story of Psyche. She had unintentionally aroused the ire of Aphrodite when men, aroused by her beauty, had turned from worshiping the goddess in favor of her. Later on in her story, she becomes Aphrodite’s servant and is sent on a series of impossible tasks, one of which is to venture into Hades. She is one of the relatively few characters in Greek mythology to make it back alive from the place of the dead. Charon was the pilot who ushered the dead across the river Styx and into Hades.
This next painting is a personification, another example of allegorical art.
Here is Venus, another mythological subject…
… and, from Greek mythology, a depiction of Andromeda, the maiden who was rescued by the demigod Perseus from the sea serpent Cetus when she was chained to a rock.
I will end my discussion of this artist with his portrayal (on two panels) of an event from the New Testament: that of the angel appearing to Mary.
In his book, The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton makes the statement that although philosophers examine patterns when analyzing reality, Christianity is a story. I will add that so are all of the major myths from various cultures. Later in that same book, there is perhaps the most interesting and unique discussion about comparative religion which I have ever read. Whether you believe them or not, Christianity, Judaism, Greek mythology, Roman mythology, and Norse mythology (not to mention too many additional myths and religions to include in this post) are stories, and they address a fundamental need of the human condition. I remember being a college student in the 1970s. It was a time when these things could be discussed more freely than they are today. People weren’t nearly as prickly when challenged by ideas with which they disagreed.
Returning back to my opening statement, the recognition and analysis of patterns is extremely useful to the understanding of how nature works. My formal training in molecular biology taught me to do just that. Without the context of a story, however, patterns become disembodied, bland, and hollow. A widespread problem in modern society is the awareness that our weeks are like sentences which lack punctuation, especially that period or exclamation point at the end. Too often, it seems that nothing significant happens, something that adds definition to our existence. This extends into the fear that our lives have no story line and no underlying theme. Social approval only goes so far in filling this need. We long, often while resisting it, for a sense of belonging to something greater than individuals or groups.
I’ve often wondered if this at least partly underlies our cultural fascination with fantasy, science fiction, or even horror. Especially in the case of the latter, do we jangle our nerves so that we will at least feel something? Lest you think I’m being overly critical, please understand that I love various literary and cinematic works of fantasy, science fiction, and mythology. The exercise of our imaginations can be extremely beneficial when it encourages us to conceive better things.
May I suggest also taking a look at the hard stuff? Read the great works of epic and mythical poetry, including The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf, The Divine Comedy, and The Poetic Edda. While you’re at it, you could certainly do a lot worse than reading works like, Confessions and The City of God by Augustine, The Bible, and the works of Plato and Aristotle. You won’t understand or agree with everything you read. I certainly didn’t, but I learned not only something of their content but also the pleasure of engaging in deep thinking. The driving can be difficult, but the ride is worth it.
We are by nature rebellious, so let’s rebel and begin to fill the hollow universe that has been left to us by materialistic thinking. I must add one more thing before closing. Learning is not enough by itself. Our lives become better stories when we apply what we learn by doing something, by adding quality to ourselves and our communities.
In an earlier post from this category of Mythological Beasts and Spirits, I mentioned that the Lindorm was sometimes described as a sea serpent, sometimes not. Sea serpents appear in multiple myths and legends. The Midgard Serpent in Norse mythology might be regarded as a sea serpent since Thor went fishing for it in one account within TheProse Edda. This concept for a monster is evidently very resonant in the human mind, and I wanted to develop it for my fabricated myth, The Fear of a Farmer.
The following image is apparently taken from a book, and its caption indicates that this sketch by W. D. Munro was of an alleged sea serpent that washed ashore in Hungary Bay, Bermuda, in 1860. From the appearance of the creature, it is obviously an oarfish.
The following illustration is by Tamplier Painter and takes an approach common to modern fantasy art: the employment of frills and fins. The profile of the head resembles that of a Tyrannosaurus rex.
Older illustrations often did little more than depict sea serpents as over-sized snakes with minimal embellishment.
For the picture at the top of this post, I chose to use a similar approach by eliminating fins and other appendages. That made coming up with an interesting head shape important. You’ll be the judge as to whether or not I succeeded. I combined the features of a T. rex (mainly the line of the upper jaw), an alligator (eyes, snout, and hinge of lower jaw), certain snakes ( body and enlarged ear opening), and some lizards (dewlap or throat pouch). To these, I added a bulging pate and rather prominent ridges above the eyes, ears, and nostrils. I’m a biologist as well as a monster aficionado from way back, so this was a fun project for my inner ten-year-old. Below is the initial profile of the head on which I have based all of my other drawings of the sea serpent in my story.
I’ll end this with a painting by Edward Burne-Jones depicting a story from Greek mythology. It shows Perseus rescuing Andromeda from Cetus, the sea serpent to which she was being sacrificed… by her parents!
Next week, I will cover one more creature whose description defies illustration. Nonetheless, that has not dissuaded some artists (or me) from trying.
Let us turn now to Celtic mythology (more specifically, Scottish legend) for another mythological creature: the Water Horse. Sometimes considered synonymous with a Kelpie, sometmes considered distinct from it, this entity appears to be part creature and part aquatic spirit.
It is a changeling (shape shifter) that appears in various versions as a woman, a man, a horse, or combinations of these. Whichever version you run across, it is usually a very deceptive and dangerous thing to encounter. In at least one Scottish legend, it lures people into mounting it for a ride, whereupon they become fastened to its back and unable to get off. It then plunges into the water and drowns them. In other accounts, it kills by devouring or crushing its victims. Regardless of the method used, it sometimes does this when it is in human form. This last possibility renders the following painting by Herbert James Draper particularly chilling.
The artistic portrayals I have seen are in three main categories. It can be human (usually female) as seen above. Secondly, it may simply be shown as a horse or a horse in the water. The following picture apparently combines the first two approaches.
Finally, it is sometimes depicted as a hybrid between a horse and a fish or eel of some kind. This is more typical of modern fantasy art. The rather gruesome example below is oddly accentuated by the presence of the heron.
I like the bold, clean lines of this next one. The style is more graphic.
I also like the following blend of Celtic and Greek mythology.
In the picture with which I began this post, I chose the hybrid approach. If you look closely, you can see that I adapted it from Ming Dynasty sculptures of horses. I substituted simple fins for the hair of the mane, chin, and tail. I also extended and pointed the ears. I will end with a profile of the head which I drew to enhance the visual character of this creature for my story.
But wait! There will be another mythical creature next week…
Norse mythology strikes me as being visually literal. What I mean by this is that spirits and creatures look like humans and animals – sometimes exaggerated in size, sometimes not – but they typically are not hybrids or chimeras of different species. Serpents look like serpents, gods like men, goddesses like women, etc. Sleipnir, Odin’s horse, is an exception to this rule due to his eight legs, but I think it largely holds true. Of course, the gods are able to change form, sometimes into those of animals, but they tend to look like ordinary animals, albeit sometimes exaggerated in size.
So what does this have to do with Valkyries? Well, they look like women – fierce, war-like women, but women, nonetheless. I wanted to illustrate a Valkyrie named Anni for my story poem, The Fear of a Farmer, but I didn’t have enough confidence in my artistic ability to make her look sufficiently impressive, so I added wings. In this sense, she looks a bit like the stereotypical imagery from a Wagnerian opera.
So what are Valkyries? That’s a good question. I can tell you what they do in Norse mythology, but it’s a bit harder to explain what they are with complete clarity. Much of what we know of them comes from The Prose Edda by Snori Sturluson and other works such as The Saga of the Volsungs.
Valkyries are females who fly over battlefields to choose the best of the slain for entrance into Valhalla, the great hall of Odin. Are they otherwise normal women who aspire to or are chosen for this calling, or are they spirits who can take on physical form? One scholarly opinion I read favors the former, but I don’t know the overall consensus since it is outside my field of expertise (molecular biology). Either way, they are a blend of the natural and the supernatural. This is often the case with Norse mythology and Greek mythology. Valkyries could interact with the living and even marry them. In The Saga of the Volsungs, a Valkyrie named Brynhild is betrothed to Sigurd, the main hero.
Valkyries are not normally portrayed with wings, so portraying them impressively is all about presentation. By this, I mean picture composition. I have chosen some examples which for various reasons have impressed me. Valkyries are often shown as wearing armor and/or riding horses, but there are some other tricks that can be used as well.
Okay, this might be cheating a little. The Valkyrie doesn’t have wings, but her horse does. Of course, I’m no purist in creative matters like this. Based on the kinds of stories I like to write, I think it’s cool when artists and writers borrow different elements from different mythologies. Pegasus quickly comes to mind from Greek mythology.
In this example, the expressions, postures, and poses of the Valkyries and their horses make for an interesting composition which is heightened by the artistic style and choice of color. This really drew my eye.
Here is a more abstract approach which blends them with elements of nature – in this case, clouds. Note how the sense of scale, the dark birds, and the windblown trees accentuate the effect.
In the next two examples, we again see interesting and dynamic poses combined with a sense of context as Valkyries are shown riding in the air. Winged helmets serve as further suggestions of their power of flight. For reasons of personal taste, I especially liked the second of these. Look at the eyes of the horse on the left.
This next one might be my favorite. Has the Valkyrie merely taken off her implements while keeping dutiful watch, or is she awaiting the return of the warrior she loves? I think art is really doing its job when it encourages us to imagine and speculate.
I might as well end with another selection from my copyrighted but currently unpublished story poem, The Fear of a Farmer. I don’t want to spoil the plot, so I’ll just say it shows a farmer named Einar being born aloft by Anni, the Valkyrie.
Now for an analysis of the actual movie. Although the majority of the critiques I have read are effusive in their praise, there is an undercurrent of criticism. One is that the Wonder Woman movie (Warner Brothers) has nothing new to offer. I am reminded of how fickle critics can be. Make a movie that’s too different, and you have “a poor sense of genre.” Make it too formulaic, and it’s “more of the same.” I honestly thought that this cinematic effort struck a good balance between the extremes and that it actually was an original treatment.
Keep this in mind: it’s a superhero movie, for crying out loud. Their will always be similarities such as a backstory element, the conferring or possession of superpowers, and external as well as internal conflicts. One review I read accused this movie of being too much like Captain America, down to the wartime settings and unorthodox support teams. While there are similarities, I really felt that this was its own story. The test I apply is that I could not predict what would happen as I watched the plot unfold. I will also add that Wonder Woman is at least comparable to Captain America (which I own and have enjoyed repeatedly) in terms of quality. Both are nice period pieces with fanciful embellishment. This is the first effort by the DCEU which I would consider comparable to the output from Disney Marvel. They still have a long way to go in developing their extended universe, but this was a definite step in the right direction.
The combination of a World War I setting with themes adapted from Greek mythology invoked the neoclassicism of the early twentieth century. It was certainly one of the better applications of this that I have seen, and the special effects seemed appropriate to the plot, purpose, and themes of the story. Unlike a few reviewers, I was not put off by the CGI during the climactic battle. For once, I found the imagery of a DC film visually satisfying and easy to follow. This film also established a distinctive style of graphic art that I hope will persist in the DCEU.
I found the mythological concepts enjoyable, particularly the reveal of Ares. He was admirably portrayed with nuance and depth. Although many already know who played him, I will refrain from mentioning the actor to avoid spoiling anything for those who don’t know and who have not seen the movie.
The action sequences were good. The portrayal of trench warfare and civilian and military casualties was realistic enough to make me wince, and there were subtle touches of humor at the right times. An amusing sequence where Wonder Woman as Diana Prince attempts to make sense of women’s fashion is a nice contrast to the battle scenes and depictions of devastation.
In my opinion, this film is worthy of a theater viewing. I thought it was entertaining, and I appreciated the respectful treatment given to this iconic character. Initially short on experience, she is also portrayed as informed and intelligent, and the state this movie leaves her in by the end begs for more stories to develop her possibilities. If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend that you do, whether in the theater or as a rental, depending on availability.
It is difficult to see Maria Zambaco as a victim of exploitation when one gets a hint of how headstrong she seems to have been. That combined with her wealth and her skill as an artist push me toward believing that her life may have been more about psychology and morals than it was about sociology and the treatment of women. That she fit in with the trends of the times, however, seems rather obvious to me.
The willful participation of women in a system that limits the roles and portrayals of women becomes more nuanced when it is done to increase their individual power. Or is it really power if it plays to male fantasies? And what about the rest of women who must deal with the fallout of disagreeable male attitudes that have been catered to and encouraged?
This week, I will present a series of paintings by Edward Burne-Jones with Maria as the featured model. This particular series is referred to as the Pygmalion cycle. Click on the image to enlarge the pictures of all four paintings.
This is yet another adaptation of a story from The Metamorphoses by Ovid. As is typically the case with Roman mythology, it is based on an earlier tale from Greek mythology. A sculptor falls in love with the statue he has created, and Venus, the goddess of love, brings the sculpture in question to life for him. Maria appears to be the model for each of the characters in these paintings: Pygmalion, Venus, and the statue/woman.
I have thought about how many of my gender may have a good bit of Pygmalion in them. A man may fall in love, not with a woman as she really is, but as he has imagined her. His imaginative fantasies use her as a blank canvas or un-carved block of marble on which he can create a person who doesn’t really exist. The obvious shame of this is that the poor woman must often deal with the fallout of such false expectations, but I see as the greatest shame the fact that a man fails to experience and appreciate the many dimensions or facets that a real woman can give to a relationship. I say this as a married man whose wife of 37 years never ceases to surprise and amaze him.
Next week: another series of paintings featuring Maria.
Dryads are among my favorite characters from mythology and folklore. From Greek mythology to modern times, their interpretations in art and literature are varied. They are tree spirits, certain versions of which can emerge from their arboreal homes as human beings. Most of the representations I have found are female.
In other versions, they are so bound to their homes that they die if their trees are cut down. I wish I could credit the following painting, but I could find no information on the artist. If anyone knows and can tell me, I will gladly update this post (artist: Emile Jean-Baptiste Philippe Bin – many thanks to Colin Smith for the information). I was intrigued by the idea of a dryad emerging to prevent a woodsman from cutting down her tree. The painting implies a story.
In this painting by Edward Burne-Jones, the female figure is not a Dryad proper, but rather a woman temporarily transformed into a tree. She transforms back when the lover who neglected her repents of his actions. Though I haven not yet read the story, I think it comes from The Metamorphoses by Ovid. Still, the painting is reminiscent of the original concept of tree spirits.
They are sometimes portrayed as males. For The Staff in the Tree, I envisioned them as giant warriors, spirits that can emerge from their trees and take on solid form. This gave me good imagery around which to work some verses. In the story, the Dryads are forest guardians who are shrewd, severe, and entirely not to be messed with. I must cop to being influenced by J. R. R. Tolkien’s portrayal of the Ents in his Ring trilogy.
Juvenile though my drawing at the top of this entry may seem, it was a hard one for me to make with my limited technique. It certainly pales against the other images I have shown. I will end with a painting relevant to this post and last week’s as well.
This is another spiritual being from mythology and folklore which makes my imagination run. So much has been and can be done with Naiads. In Greek mythology, they were water nymphs who were particularly associated with bodies of freshwater such as rivers and streams. Certain of them were among the various classes of nymphs and sprites who were courted or raped by some of the male gods.
Their behavior toward humans is described as variable in various legends. These feminine spirits could be helpful, frivolous, or jealous. They could also be dangerous. They have sometimes been shown as abducting…
… or even drowning men. The pictures below take two different and compelling approaches. In The Kelpie by Herbert James Draper, we see a type of “before” picture. For me, the strength of this painting is in the combination of its title and the relaxed posture and facial expression of its subject. A subtle intensity smolders in her eyes, and the relative peace of the composition suggests her lethal capability.
This next painting is of the “during” variety. The posture of the Naiad is submissive save for the grip of her hands on a fisherman’s arms. This contrast is poignant, and the poor man is doomed while still alive.
A question I have asked myself is whether or not the representations of women as being helpless or dangerous might have arisen as a result of attitudes which limit their roles in society. In such cases, are those who cannot be controlled regarded as threatening? I’ve gotten on my high horse before. Now I’ll beat my dead one by saying again that I think there is tremendous room for creativity in the way that female characters of many kinds can be portrayed in the mythologies we create for our entertainment and instruction. In my own poem, I have tried to use the Naiads’ combination of perceived vulnerability and lethal capability in portraying them as something which I hope is different.
As I said near the top of this post, Naiads are usually described as being freshwater nymphs or spirits. I will end with the creative approach in the painting below by Gustave Dore in which these mysterious creatures are shown in a different setting. They almost seem to be part of the rocks in this seascape.
Also called the Hellhound and a Warg, the Freybug is something of a demonic canine from medieval English folklore. Perhaps the most famous Hellhound is Cerberus from Greek mythology. This is the three-headed dog who stands as the keeper to the gates of Hell. Milton even included him in his epic poem, Paradise Lost, which I recommend reading if you have the patience.
The twelfth labor of Heracles was to bring back Cerberus. Here are two selections which portray this.
On a more personal note, my oldest daughter owns a rescue dog whom she named Cerberus (Cerbie for short). Despite her large size and ominous name, she’s actually an amiable pooch.
As a final offering for your viewing pleasure, here is the rendering of a Freybug by William O’ Connor from his Dracopedia: The Bestiary.