Temptation

This Week’s Prompt: 119. Art note—fantastick daemons of Salvator Rosa or Fuseli (trunk-proboscis).

The Resulting Story: The Empty Windows Part 2

This week from Lovecraft we receive one of our most precise and artistic visions—with a bit of effort I was able to track down the exact painting by Salvator Rosa that inspired this prompt, and while Fuseli proved more difficult I found plenty of monstrous art there. I’ll give my commentary on his work towards the end, since it deals with material we are already familiar with in this society.

Rosa’s Elephantine Demon

The image in question, above, is of the Temptation of Saint Anthony. Saint Anthony has two instances of temptation, one on ground and one in the air, and both are regularly represented in fantastic and surrealistic art. His first temptation began when he was young and set about the monastic path—arguably the first such monk in Christendom. The devil, envying such behavior, set about his temptation in the usual way at first. He whispered of the riches of the world, of the love of women, of the importance of family, of the difficulty of the task, of the infirmity of the body—but these trusty weapons failed. So instead, he assaulted him by day and night. So vicious were these assaults that they were visible to all who watched. But the constant attacks, even when the Devil came as a woman, were not enough. And this shamed the Devil’s pride, that he who claimed to be greater than god was rebuked by a simple man. After all of this, the devil confessed defeat, appearing as a small boy.

Later in life, Anthony sought further to conquer himself. He went out to live among the tombs near his village in Egypt, and settled there for the night. He asked that his friend bring him bread in the morning, but otherwise not disturb him. The Devil, already alarmed by the discipline of the man,  was afraid he would bring discipline to the desert. So he assaulted the saint with an army of demons and cut him to ribbons, such that his friend assumed him dead when he came to deliver the bread.  He was carried back home and there was a funeral—but he was merely sleeping. He awoke and asked his companion to return him. His wounds were real, however, and he could not stand. So he prayed as he laid on the ground.

The demons, frustrated, shook the earth and attacked the tomb from all four walls in the shape of many beasts and crawling things. But Anthony mocks them, for both relying on such great numbers and such dreadful forms. And as they gnash at him, the roof opens up and he is healed by a golden light. (As an aside, I can’t help but notice that the demons come from the four directions, but the divine aid comes from above. The symbolism to me reads as the demons being the entirety of the world here…but more on that later).

Next he takes residence in an abandoned fortress—the mere arrival of St.Anthony drives out all the reptiles. With six loaves of bread, each lasting a month, and water from the well.  Here, demons assailed him and cried out for him to leave what was theirs. His acquaintances, who came to visit, heard the sounds of violence and were afraid—but St. Anthony was unafraid and told his friends to make the sign of the cross and nothing shall harm them.

Much later in life, he ventured to a new mountain—called the inner mountain in my texts. Here he remained, and began to farm so that those who guided him there would not exert much effort in order to help him.  And here again demons assaulted him—those beyond heard the crashing of arms and saw that the mountain was full of wild beasts. First hyenas were sent, but they were repulsed. Then a beast like a man, with the legs and feet of an ass came and assaulted him. And he was repulsed.

Saint Anthony preformed other acts of healing and exorcism through out his life—leading to the promotion of monasticism through out the land. There was incident that I couldn’t find in my copy of the Life of St. Anthony, but is recorded in the art of Micahelangelo—here demons assault him again, but this time as he is carried through the air by angels instead of when he is in the desert or fortress or other place of desolation.  The story is the same as the variants above, for the most part.

Saint Anthony’s stories reflect a number of folkloric truths about wicked spirits—that they often take the forms of beasts, they dwell in places of the dead or forgotten places where nothing grows. And they have no power of men protected by the Divine. The artistic imagery of the demons is more fantastic, as the images I’ve included no doubt shows—the lives I have includes at best “the crawling things” and the man with the legs of a donkey. Still, invisible and angry demons serves as fruitful ground.

The story also calls to mind stories from India of Sidhartha’s last meditation. Here we encounter not the Devil but Mara, who attempts to dissuade Sidhartha from meditation and enlightment.  He sends three or five daughters to attempt to seduce him—but he remains mediating. Mara dispatches vast storms of rain and stone, frightening away the gods that had gathered around the Buddha—but this was to no avail either. Then Mara dispatches a great host to destroy him, and he remains untouched. Mara then called out that Buddha’s seat belong to Mara—and his whole host agreed with his claim. When asked for his witness the Buddha touched the earth—and the Earth cried out that she bore him witness. And Mara and his hosts vanished.

While this is the most famous text, it is not the only story of Mara attempting to seduce the Buddha. We find Mara in one text exhorts Sidhartha to go and live, to gain merit, for he is gravely thin. His path is too difficult, too rough to bear. And so he is rebuked by the Buddha for being what he is—and the Buddha counts and numbers his ten hosts that stand before him. Other texts have Mara attempting to lure Buddha away from preaching, either to keep it to himself or to abandon the path of preaching. One amusing temptation has Mara bringing letters from the Buddha’s princes, supposedly, that demand he give up preaching.

The similarities of these stories lead me to wonder if there was some influence on St. Anthony’s story from India. They aren’t the only temptations stories—there is the famous Temptation of Christ, where the devil came to Jesus in the desert, and offered him food and power and proof of his divinity. He rejects these temptations and resumes his preaching with citations from scripture. The idea, however, of being assaulted by demons does not feature in the Gospel story. Only in the stories of Anthony and Sidhartha. And the fantastic creatures are also missing. Given that what drew Lovecraft to this narrative was the image of a elephantine creature, I think the idea of a terrorizing demon serves best.

I think it’s also worth noting that the symbolism in Anthony and Buddha’s narratives paint the evils as deeply rooted in the entirety of the world–while they dwell in places of wilderness, the demons that attack Saint Anthony come from all quarters. They take the form of “baser” things–beasts, not men or scholars or intellectually cunning angels. Likewise, the daughters that approach the buddha are named for temptations, and Mara’s callings point to worldly responsibilities. One divergence I noticed is that, while both appeal to how hard the monastic life is, Mara appeals to the Buddha’s royal obligation, while Anthony has no such appeal that I could find. Perhaps because he never held any office?

Artistically, both works cited by Lovecraft have very physical, monstrous, and bodily feelings. They aren’t as abstract as Dali, but rather concrete and monstrous and menacing things. The piece by Fuseli I could find that closest fit what we have here is this one, of a snake devouring a rider. A consumptive, monstrous thing that was very much made of flesh, not dreams.

Before discussing where I intend to take this, I thought it’d be wise to mention that this is another story where the “result” is easily found in Lovecraft’s own work. Well, not his work. Chaugnar Faugn is a creature that resembles an elephant with a trunk that ends in a leech like mouth. A repulsive creature imprisoned in a statue form, or perhaps hibernating, it arrived and shaped life on this planet millions of years ago. When awake, it drains the blood of those that draw near. I haven’t read his original story—Lovecraft featured him in the Horror in the Museum, as an aside, but he comes from  Frank Belknap Long. Reading a summary the story is…bizzare, featuring strange rays that send creatures back in time, hidden cults, inorganic life, and the brothers of Chaugnar Faugn.

Our own story will of course be picking up from last time, with our artist having found the final hidden window. There are a number of strange things that might occur—the demon perhaps is literal, descending on this lonely and isolated man form the empty plains. Or perhaps it will crawl from the new window—or merely observe. Something tangible, devouring, and menacing–something there “in the flesh”. Let us see what lonely and fantastic horror awaits, next time!

Bibliography

Athanasius, St., and Robert T. Mayer. St. Athanasius: the Life of St. Anthony. Newman, 1978.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Māra.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 20 May 2013, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Mara-Buddhist-demon.

“The Buddha’s Encounters with Mara the Tempter: Their Representation in Literature and Art”, by Ananda W.P. Guruge. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/guruge/wheel419.html .

There Is Nought But Chaos

This Week’s Prompt: 80. Shapeless living thing forming nucleus of ancient building.

The Resulting Story: The Shifting Temple

This week we are given a topic that we have, in the past, covered with some detail. The notion of a living core of an ancient structure bares a resemblance to notions of shapeless forces we discussed regarding Azathoth—we will be re-discussing some of those here, with greater detail and focus, as well as some other forms of living structures.

There are two parts to this prompt, each worth review in equal part—the shapeless and the center. That is, there are creatures and stories of things who’s shape cannot be known, and of things that support buildings and worlds. Both will be discussed—particularly when they overlap at the end.

Kraken.png

First we will discuss the most fantastic—the shapes at sea that support entire camps, and resemble islands from afar. This is actually the origin of the Kraken, a creature recorded in biology texts from the eighteenth century. There is another such creature in Norse tales, the hafgufa. Recorded as a giant whale, the hafgufa resembles an island from afar—in some tales, its nose is so massive that it suffices for an island!–and it is noted both for its taste in ships and men, and its peculiar means of attracting prey. The hafgufa is a species of two in some texts—and both are infertile, otherwise the ocean would be over run by false islands. In some texts, the hafgufa is also called the Kraken—albeit a whale not a squid. You can find more of it here.

Medieval Bestiaries produce another whale like creature—or sometimes turtle—who is so big, it’s back ridge has trees growing on it and valleys form around it. The aspidochelone is sometimes more sinister however—its appearance of false life and safety are an allegory in one text for the Devil and demons, who seduce the desperate.

St. Brendan.png

In Ireland, the stories of Saint Brendan the Navigator tell of a strange beast that appeared as an island and breached his boat. The Saint here is safe—the whale sinks after a fire is lit on it’s skin, much to the shock of the crew but little harm.

In Chile, there are stories of a similar creature—although it is more commonly in lakes, the Cuero is a danger to sailors who draw near it’s lure. Sometimes the shape is like a cow hide, sometimes an octopus, sometimes a stingray. Here is a more in depth article on not only the legend, but histories of it’s recordings

World Turtle.png

Then there are those supports that are much wider and vaster then a mere ship. The World Turtle, for instance, carries…well, the world on its back. Sometimes this is a literal and direct holding. Kurma, for instance, supports the world directly in Hindu stories. Other stories, such as when Nuwa repaired the sky, have the turtle shell as a form of architecture somewhat removed. Turtle Island refers to this imagery as well—the notion that the Americas are on the back of a great mythological turtle. Other stories—the most obvious being Discworld—suggest the world is on the back of four great elephants, and then on the back of a turtle.

Bahamut is another supporter of the world, albeit a fish with a great bull on its back. Found in Arabic sources, Bahamut is more terrifying then others. The bull on its back has a hundred legs and horns, and Bahamut itself is so vast all the worlds oceans would fit into its nostrils like a mustard seed. It is also the farthest removed of all the great beasts—on its back, the bull; on the bulls back, a ruby; on the rubys back, an angel; on the angel’s shoulder, the world.

arabic world map

The map of the world here is rotated on it’s side–Bahamut is the fish

Of course, there are also non-sentient living supports. The World Tree can be found in cultures around the world. The famous Norse Tree Yggdrasil holds the nine worlds in it’s branches—and is echoed in the Volsung saga, were the house of the Volsung’s has a great tree holding up its roof–the tree is called Barnstokkr. There Odin—well, a stranger who resembles him greatly—places a legendary sword, that begins their undoing. Further south, we can find the world tree in Zorastrian stories. The Gaokerna is one of many great trees—its fruit is immortality, and will be key to the recreation of the universe. Beside it grows the Tree of Many Seeds, where all plants have their origin.

Not far away from the Zorastrian myth, we have the world tree of Kabbalah—a tree that, I have heard at least, is often depicted upside down. The Tree of Life here holds many worlds, as the light of divinity is refined downward from the undivided Ein Soif into this world. Kabbalah as a tradition is rich in symbolism and complexity, and should have more of an article at some point. The interesting point to me, however, is the suggestion of a reverse tree–a Tree of Death, that runs counter to the virtues of the Tree of Life and is made of the shattered remains of an earlier world. 

pakal tomb

The top portion of the World Tree found on Pakal the Great’s tomb.

Maya world trees are commonly depicted in artwork—the tree runs from the underworld into the heavens. Like the tortoise shell of Nuwa, the tree was constructed after a flood—the destruction of Seven Macaw and the end of the wood people—and like stories of Ymir and others, it is fed by the blood of gods. Some link it’s form to the visible Milky Way in the sky

All of this brings us slowly round to the most literal form of the shapeless center—Chaos, Khaos. Beginning with the most literal, the Greek conception of Chaos is the source eventually of all things. The form or force that precedes all the rest of existence, Chaos is gloomy and far away—and not terribly relevant to most stories. Chaos is the origin directly of Night and Darkness, and sometimes the foundation of reality itself.

Chaos is not the only strange and shapeless originator in Greece are concerned. There was the strange shape in Demophon’s casket, which was the first topic we discussed discussed (and which was rewritten on our Patreon here). Chaos in other cases contains all elements. When Milton depicted King Chaos in Paradise Lost, he maintained this for the realm of Limbo, where elements fly about.

Biblical starts of Genesis refer to an abyss of water from which the world was made—using the terminology that neighbors used for Tiamat, a vast sea monster that was also eventually the root of all things and truly varied in shape. What this abyss was is a topic of much debate, especially in esoteric circles.

Chaos can be joined by Hundun. Hundun is a Chinese character, a faceless wanderer that is the originating chaos of the world. I recall best a story of Hundun from the Taoist, Chuang Tzu: The Emperor of the North Sea and the Emperor of the South Sea once met with Hundun. Grateful for his generosity as a host, they offered to repay him by giving him the seven holes all men have (eyes, nose, ears, mouth). Each day the bore another hole in Hundun’s face.

On the last day Hundun died.

Hundun has other comparable descriptions, often like a lump of clay and making a sound like thunder. It is malleable, sudden, and terrible perhaps. Or just hard to see, touch, or discern except by its overwhelming presence.

Taoist notions of a shapeless root of the world are common in Chuang Tzu’s writing. We can consider the story of the Shaman and Hu Tzu. Hu Tzu, a sage, changes his complexion and diagnosis at every meeting, culminating in this one:

The next day the two came to see Hu Tzu again, but before the shaman had even come to a halt before Hu Tzu, his wits left him and he fled.

“Run after him!” said Hu Tzu, but though Lieh Tzu ran after him, he could not catch up. Returning, he reported to Hu Tzu, “He’s vanished! He’s disappeared! I couldn’t catch up with him.”

Hu Tzu said, “Just now I appeared to him as Not Yet Emerged from My Source. I came at him empty, wriggling and turning, not knowing anything about `who’ or `what,’ now dipping and bending, now flowing in waves – that’s why he ran away.”

That the ultimate origin of reality is shapeless and indeed perhaps unable to be shaped is not unique to these presentations: Ein Sof, the infinite roots of the Tree of Life, is beyond definition as a being. The Prima Materia is less sentient, but the raw potential of creation that can—in theory—be shaped into just about anything that’s desired. These forces of chaos are also vitality—they are shapeless and thus support all shaped things. They are the raw stuff at the very core of life in the world.

michael_maier_atalanta_fugiens_emblem_36

I couldn’t figure out how to cut this properly, so enjoy the image of the Prima Materia or alchemical mercury–the cubes are the mercury.

This I think could be the source of our horror story—instead of merely discovering a shapeless core at the center of the world, we could present a story where that shapelessness is vital to the world and its movements. And if that shapelessness collapses—if like Hundun, it dies on contact with the five senses—then there is a tragedy at play too. By discovering the truth of the world, something about the world’s vitality is lost. I could go on about how defining something restrains it, and so on and so on, but I’ll leave that for the musings of the story.

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