August 30, 2016

Words of the Month - Back to School

        Tomorrow is the first day of school for P and T, and in the spirit thereof, here are a few school-related words with interesting histories.

school - The original Greek root skhole meant “spare time, leisure, idleness.”  So how did we get from “leisure” to its apparent opposite on this, the last day of summer vacation for my children?  Thank the Romans, for whom the right and proper use of free time was philosophical debate, lecture, and learned conversation.  From there we get the gathering of pupils and teacher, and the place of instruction.  Considered in light of the history of child labor, getting to attend school is indeed an intermission from work.

anthology - This staple of literature textbooks has a lovely etymology.  It comes from Greek for “gathering of flowers.”  Originally describing a collection of poetry, the ancient Greeks thought of the poems as lovely flowers - a poetic name for a poetic book.  The term was borrowed into Latin, and eventually into English in the 1630s.

plagiarism - A serious intellectual crime, but one that teachers are always needing to educate against because, sadly, so many students (and speech-writers) seem to feel the temptation.  If you don’t see why plagiarism is so bad, consider the etymology: in Latin a plagiarius was a “kidnapper, rapist, or plunderer.”  The word was first used to describe literary theft by Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis, Roman, c 40-c 103 CE).  It entered English in the 1620s, when printing was exploding throughout Europe, and thus unauthorized copies of books were also exploding throughout Europe.  (Early laws all tended to focus on the rights of the printers, rather than the rights of the authors, however.)

school of fish - It kind of makes sense to call a group of fish a school, gathered together as they are like students all following a particular lesson plan… But that’s not the real etymology at all.  In fact, it seems that fish swim in schools nowadays only because back in the days of impressionistic spelling, school could be written the same as shoal, “a large number.”  So it was simply misreading that gave us scholarly fish — insufficient schooling leading to an extra meaning of school?

[Pictures: Teacher and students, woodcut from Epitome de sanctis by Georg Witzel, 1551 (Image from UPenn Libraries);
Circular Fish, woodcut by M.C. Escher, 1956 (Image from Wikiart).]

August 26, 2016

Two Boats

        Earlier this summer we saw these two color wood block prints displayed together at the RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) Museum.  They are, roughly speaking, the same subject matter, even largely the same composition, and the same technique.  But they have a wholly different feel from each other.
        First, a cool, foggy morning in the Inland Sea in southern Japan.  The swirling fibers of the paper add to the mistiness, and the subtle variations in color are a far cry from the stark black and white of a traditional European woodcut.  I love the faint hint of other shapes in the distance, and the watery ripples of the reflections.  Yoshida Hiroshi (Japan, 1876-1950) has made an image so soft it’s hard to believe it comes from the force of a press on hard, carved wood.
        The exhibit in which these pieces appeared was showing how students of Arthur Wesley Dow (USA, 1857-1922) explored the history and practice of traditional Japanese color woodblock printing, and how it influenced their work.  In this case, however, the American
boat, by Margaret Patterson (USA, 1867-1950) is actually the earlier of the two.  Right away the difference in color is obvious.  We’ve travelled to full, sultry sunlight in Italy, and Patterson’s piece has intense, saturated colors and high contrast.  It’s less detailed, more stylized, with the focus on bold shapes.  You can also see the embossing of the paper, so that you really get the feel of intense pressure on hard blocks.
        I really love both these pieces, and love that they’re so different despite all their similarities.

[Pictures: Hansen, kiri (Sailboats, Fog), polychrome woodblock print by Yoshida Hiroshi, 1926 (Image from RISD Museum);
Torcello, polychrome woodblock print by Margaret Jordan Patterson, 1919.]

August 23, 2016

Strasbourg Astronomical Clock

        Here’s a cool wood block print of a cool thing: the second astronomical clock in the cathedral in Strasbourg, France.  (The present clock is the third, but appears to replicate this design.)  This woodcut is about 15x22.5 inches, and was printed from two blocks - you can see the line where the two sheets of paper are joined across the middle.  That means that each of the two blocks was just a little smaller than the largest block I’ve ever carved.  The artist, Tobias Stimmer (Swiss, 1539-1584) was one of the artists who made the actual clock.  I don’t think he was involved in the clock’s design, but he painted elaborate scenes to decorate it, particularly the three panels down the left tower, and other decorative elements.  (Keep in mind that Stimmer would have drawn the design for this woodcut, but not carved the block or printed it himself.  The printer was Johann Fischart, but the Formschneider (carver) was not named.)  I love the range of details, from the dials and measurements of the clock itself, to the gratuitous putti and curlicues sprinkled about, and even lions and a rooster perched here and there.
        The artist who actually designed the clock, Conrad Dasypodius (Swiss, 1532-1600), wrote a short book about mechanics, and decorated its title page with his own diagram of the Strasbourg clock.   The numbers on this picture are all explained later in the book.  This image is a good deal smaller and rougher than Stimmer’s, as befits its role as an illustrative diagram rather than a glamour shot.  Dasypodius claimed that his clock presented a complete and absolute description of time, including minutes, quarter-hours, hours, days, weeks, months, seasons, years, a century, and the beginning and end of the world with Final Judgement and redemption.  A work of art, indeed!

[Pictures: Eigentliche Fürbildung und Beschreibung deß newen Künstlichen Astronomischen Urwecks zu Straßburg, woodcut by Tobias Stimmer, 1574 (Image from The Met);
Title page of Heron mechanicus by Conradus Dasypodius, 1580 (Image from University of Cambridge).]

August 19, 2016

Mythical Z

        This is it, the final letter in the alphabet of mythical creatures!  Many thanks to the Slavic languages for so many of these Z creatures, although we’ve also got creatures from Hebrew, Arabic, and Haitian.  Anything beginning with Z automatically sounds rather exotic in English.

ziz - A bird so huge that its wingspan can block out the sun.  It’s the avian counterpart of leviathan and behemoth.  Standing in the deepest ocean, the water reaches only up to the ziz’s ankles.  Some sources describe it as being like a griffin, while others say it’s like a giant rooster.  I’ve chosen to show it in the gallinaceous style.  (Jewish)

zburător - Something like an incubus, this spirit is a ghostly, handsome young man who visits women in the night for indecent purposes.  He especially favors recently married women.  (Romanian)

zitiron- A sort of merperson with the upper body of a knight in full armor.  (medieval European)

zilant - This wyvern-like dragonoid is the symbol of Kazan, Russia.  (Tatar/Russian)

zmey/zmiy/zmaj/zmij/zmej - Slavic dragons, sometimes representing evil, but sometimes extremely wise, magical, and respected.  (Slavic)
     Zmey Gorynych is a green, three-headed dragon that walks on its hind legs and has small front limbs (like a T. Rex?), and breathes fire.  (Russian, Ukranian)
     Zmeu is an anthropomorphic dragonoid that can shapeshift, make and use tools and weapons, and has a magical shining stone on its head.  It has a predilection for stealing precious objects ranging from golden apples to the sun and moon, and with a particular yen for beautiful maidens.  (Romanian)

Zlatorog - A white chamois or mountain goat with magical golden horns that can lead to a treasure hidden in the highest peak of the Slovenian Alps.  (Slovenian, Alpine)

zubat - I felt that I should include a pokémon in my alphabet.  The zubat is certainly not the most interesting of pokémon, but having got to Z, I was out of better options.  (Japanese, universal)

zaratan - another name for aspidochelone, especially prevalent in the Middle East

zombie - A reanimated dead human, previously mentioned here.  (originally Haitian, now universal)

     At one point after beginning this mythical alphabet, I had fantasies of ending with a grand launch of a Kickstarter campaign for my own bestiary project… but then I decided it was all futile anyway!  So perhaps someday you’ll hear more about this scheme, but for now, this is the end of the series.  But don’t worry, I’m sure there will be plenty more mythical creatures to come.

[Pictures: Ziz Eclipse, rubber block print by AEGN, 2016;
Zitiron, hand-colored wood block print from Hortus sanitatis, 1499 Strasbourg edition (Image from Boston Public Library);
Zubat, from Pokémon Go;
Disarmed Zombie, block print by Pete Mitchell (Image from his Etsy shop daspetey).]

August 12, 2016

The Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

        One of William Butler Yeats’s more famous fantasy poems, The Song of Wandering Aengus was published in 1899.  Aengus is one of the Tuatha De Danann, a god of love, youth, and beauty.  This poem doesn’t tell one of the traditional myths about Aengus, but there is a story that Aengus fell in love with a woman he saw in a dream, and it took three years of searching to find her.  She was the goddess of sleep and dreams.  So you can see here how Yeats lets ideas from Celtic myth inspire him, and weaves something new and mysterious from them.  I especially love the moth-like stars.

[Pictures: Songs for Wandering Aengus, woodcut by Matthew Zappala (Image from roll magazine);
Wherever Angus went a number of white birds flew with him, illustration by Beatrice Elvery from Heroes of the Dawn by Violet Russell, 1914 (Image from Internet Archive).]

August 5, 2016

Background and Foreground

        Last week I taught my annual summer printmaking class, and I want to share a project the kids did.  I introduced it for the first time this year, and I’m really pleased with the results.  The project was inspired by some of Escher’s work that I shared here previously, and my artists (this year all kids going into 6th and 7th grade) were to make two blocks to be printed together: one background block and one foreground block.  I showed them Escher’s pieces, plus a few others by way of explanation.  The kids had to stretch themselves a little, but got the concept well.  They made a real effort to use texture, too, which is often something kids neglect.
        I pointed out that the main focus of their piece could be the foreground block with the background block as, well, just background.  That’s what most of them did.  But another way to do it was to make the main focus the background block, with the foreground block as framing, and one student went about the project that way instead.  Finally, there was one student who made foreground and background more equal, with her tropical sunset and palm trees.
        One of the things I liked about this project was that it seemed to inspire lots of experimentation.  Most of the students tried printing with a variety of color combinations, and one made a series worthy of Monet in making color combos for every time of day.  One decided in the end that she liked one of her blocks better on its own, while another decided to carve a second background as another option to put behind her foreground block.  It was a lot of fun for the kids, and a lot of fun for me to see everything they came up with.  Several of the students asked where they could get supplies to do more printmaking at home, so I hope at least a few of them will keep with it!
        This is another of those projects that I’ve been wanting to do myself for quite a while, but haven’t yet got around to.  I have a couple of ideas marinating in my mind, and I hope to get something down on rubber before the end of the summer.

[Pictures: Elephant, rubber block print by CL, 2016;
Barn, rubber block print by NR, 2016;
Tropical Paradise, rubber block print by RB, 2016;
Desert, rubber block print by KW, 2016.]

August 2, 2016

Mythical Y

        We’re almost to the end now, and it might seem that we’re scraping the bottom of the mythical barrel.  (Not that one should keep mythical creatures in barrels, with the exception of slimes and extoplasms, of course.)  But Y turns out to host some grade A creatures, many little-known and a couple of classics.

yale - A sort of antelope with horns that can independently swivel 360°, the yale was first described by Pliny the Elder but became particularly well-known in the middle ages through the renaissance.  Its most famous feature is the very long horns which can be turned to face a threat from any direction, or to spare someone, as the yale deems appropriate.  In battle it sometimes holds one horn out of the way to keep in reserve in case the first is broken.  It may even be able to roll the horns up when not in use.  In addition yales have tusks in their lower jaws.  There’s some diversity in body type, from Pliny’s description of a body like a hippopotamus to very slender, goat-like varieties.  Coloration ranges from black to white, but many are spotted.  One of the more common species is white spotted with pure gold, while some have multi-colored spots.  There is also a species of yale with straight horns, although most of them are curved.  (European)

ypotryll - Another creature of heraldry, the ypotryll has the head of a boar complete with tusks, the body of a camel complete with humps, the legs of an ox or goat complete with hooves, and the tail of a serpent.  I have no idea what it’s good for, but it looks absolutely fabulous (in all senses of the word.)  (European)

Yara-ma-yha-who - This looks like a little red man with a big head, big toothless mouth, and suckers on its hands and feet.  It lurks in a fig tree until a human stops to rest in the shade.  Then it drops down on the victim and drains their blood through its suckers.  It then eats the human, but after taking a nap, it spits the person back up.  The human is now a little shorter and redder than before, and if this happens repeatedly to one person, they become a Yara-ma-yha-who themselves.  The best way to protect oneself is to play dead during the day, since the Yara-ma-yha-who hunts only during the day and only living prey.  (Australian Aboriginal)

yacumama - A water-monster some 150 feet long that lives at the mouth of the Amazon.  It is generally thought to be serpentine, can slurp up anything within 100 paces, may have horns, and can squirt a jet of water at prey.  Recently there have been claims that this is a genuine scientific species of giant snake or caecilian, but as always in cryptozoology, the evidence remains inconclusive.  (Brazilian indigenous people)

yowie - Australia’s Bigfoot, the yowie is also sometimes called yahoo (which word I suspect must be related to the yha-who of the other Australian creature above).  It’s a tall, hairy, ape-like biped with long arms and irregular feet and toes.  It can be as tall as 12 feet, and is usually shy but sometimes accused of mauling pets or livestock.  Like many hominoid cryptids, it's often reported as having a strong, foul stench.  (Australian)

yeti - The Himalayan Bigfoot, this cryptid has widely varying descriptions.  It’s generally portrayed with white fur, which makes it look more at home in the mountain snows, but earlier descriptions often give it dark or orangish fur.  Its height seems to have wide variations, too.  Like many hominoid cryptids, it may have backwards-facing feet, to prevent being tracked by its tracks.  Previously mentioned here.  (Himalayan)

yeren - China’s Bigfoot, the yeren is usually reddish but occasionally albino, and lives in Hubei province.  It seems a little more prone than most Bigfoot-kin to eating humans.  (Chinese)
        What’s the mystical connection between the letter Y and giant ape-men?  That’s yet one more mystery to add to all the others.

[Pictures: Beaufort yale, by Torric inn Björn from Heraldic Templates, 1992 (Image from  Hrynkiw and Braidwood);
Extremely happy ypotryll, without artist, date, source, or other helpful info (Image from Heraldic Clipart);
A Description of a wonderful large wild man, or monstrous giant, brought from Botany-Bay, woodcut from a broadside, c 1788 (Image from New South Wales State Library);
Illustration of yowie seen by Charles Harper, 1912 (Image from Unsolved Mysteries In The World);
Yeti in winter, woodcut by Joshua Norton (Image from Etsy shop woodcutposters).]