June 28, 2024

Words of the Month - Every Word in its Humour

         For about 2000 years medicine in Europe and the Middle East was dominated by humorism, which is the theory of four humors (and isn’t funny at all).  The dominant version held that the human body contained four humors, or fluids, that determined characteristics of health and temperament.  When these humors were in proper proportion the body and emotions were healthy, but all kinds of physical and mental illnesses were caused by humors getting out of wack.  Although the theory of humorism was disproven in 1858, the preceding two millenia gave the concepts enough time to make an impact on the English language.  These humors are blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm.  Let’s take a look at how each of them has seeped into the language.
        blood - An ancient word from all the way back in Old English, blood is not the word Greek and Latin doctors and philosophers were using.  The word in Latin is sanguis, which gives us sanguine, meaning “cheerful, hopeful, confident,” because that was the temperament associated with an excess of the humor blood.  (In Greek this humor was haima, which gives us tons of medical words such as hemorrhage, hemoglobin, and anemia, but I can’t think of any that are specifically related to the theory of humorism.)  Blood was thought to be hot and wet in nature, so a cold-blooded person who lacked the emotions that should be associated with blood was clearly unnatural.  On the other hand, the French person with sang-froid , who also has cold blood, is considered admirable.  That might be because in French sang meaning “blood” is a homophone with sens meaning “sense” (and it was often spelled that way in the 17th century), which may have affected the connotations of the phrase into someone who keeps a cool head.
        yellow bile - Bile comes from Latin by way of French, reaching English in the 1660s.  Yellow bile was hot and dry, and associated with a personality that was short-tempered, bitter, and angry.  That’s why bile can mean “anger and bitterness” when people spew bile, and why a bilious disposition is peevish.  Moreover, the Old English word for bile is gall, which is why having a lot of gall originally also meant bitterness or anger.  (The sense of “impudence” is more recent, from about 1882.)  Gall may also be the origin of felon, from Latin, as one who has a lot of gall, or bitterness.  In Greek the humor was xanthe chole, from which we get choleric, meaning “easily angered, hot-tempered” (ca. 1580).  It’s also the root of the disease cholera, thought to be caused by an excess of yellow bile.  Speaking of yellow, we get the word jaundice from Old French for “yellow.”  The condition of jaundice is actually caused by the yellowish pigments of bile, but the theory of four humors is why looking at something with a jaundiced eye means an attitude of bitterness and hostility.
        black bile - Of course this also includes the word “bile,” but in English the metaphoric senses of bile mostly seem to refer to the angry yellow variety.  In Greek, black bile is melaina chole, and you can probably see right away that this gives us (by way of Latin and Old French) melancholy, which is the temperament associated with this cold dry humor.  The spleen was believed to be the source of black bile, and thus the source of melancholy and gloom.  However, this bile word, too, has shifted toward the peevishness of yellow bile, and nowadays if someone “vents their spleen” the implication is anger more than depression.
        phlegm - Medically speaking, the humor phlegm is not the same as the modern medical definition of phlegm, but the metaphoric uses come straight from the humor.  A phlegmatic person is calm, lethargic, and apathetic.  Our word phlegm is from Greek by way of Old French, and it comes from phlegein “to burn,” which is odd, since according to humorism phlegm is cold and wet.
        humor - This word entered English in the 14th century, originally meaning “fluid or juice of an animal or plant.”  (This moistness is related to humid.)  It was the theory of humorism that extended the meaning from “fluid” to “mood, state of mind” by around 1520.  The meaning  “funniness, amusing quality” arrived around 1560 and probably came from the sense of “whim, caprice, brief state of mind” which may also be where we get the verb humor meaning “indulge a whim” (around 1580).  (And by the way, the H was originally silent in English.)
        temperament - The four humors are also often called the four temperaments, from the Latin word for “proper mixture, in correct proportion.”  In other words, your temperament is your mixture of humors.  This comes from the older verb temper “to mix in proper proportions,” from which we also get the noun temper meaning a specifically choleric state of mind (a bad temper) around 1825.
        One other word I came across that English got from humorism is repercussion.  Literally meaning “the act of driving back,” it appeared in English in the early 15th century referring to a medical treatment intended to drive back excess humors.  The metaphoric sense came later.
        If you want to go all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, the root *ghel- meaning “to shine” plus “yellow and green colors” is the ultimate root of many of today’s other words including choler, gall, jaundice, and yellow itself.  Meanwhile, another PIE root *bhel-, which also meant “to shine” led to phlegm (because of the “burning” definition in Greek) and black (being the color of things that have been burned.)
        For today’s illustrations I’ve got five sets of temperaments, which I’ve arranged by humor so you can compare how they’re portrayed.  Sanguine often includes music, goats, and wine.  Choleric includes swords, lions, and fire.  Melancholy is usually portrayed with the head down or resting on the hand, along with miserliness (moneybags) and often tools of scholarship such as books or geometry instruments.  And phlegmatic often includes turtles and water.
From Hippocrates to Ben Johnson and beyond, the idea of the four humors and their effect on people’s personalities and behaviors was a firm fixture of both science and popular culture.  References to the humors and their effects abound in art, literature, and medicine, and recognizing them will help you understand a lot.  As for today, I hope you’re able to stay in a good humor.

[Pictures: Four Humors, wood block prints from Minerva Britanna by Henry Peacham, 1612 (Images from Internet Archive);

Four Humors, hand colored woodcuts from German Calendar, 1498 (Images from National Library of Medicine);

Four Humors, wood block prints from Iconologia by Cesare Ripa, 1603 (Images from Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg);

Four Temperaments, series of 4 engravings by Virgil Solis after Georg Pencz, 1530-62 (Images from The British Museum) ;

Four Humors, hand colored woodcuts pasted into a scrapbook by Gallus Kemli, 15th century (Image from Zentralbibliothek Zürich).]

June 24, 2024

When the Living is Easy

         Here we are just past the summer solstice, and of course I need to share some summery relief block prints!  First up is a summer solstice bonfire, although it’s so rough that you have to look twice to make out the figures gathered in the clearing.  Are they druids?  They may be robed, but there’s a seated audience at the lower left which seems slightly out of keeping with druidic ceremonies.  But whoever the people are, the fire lights up a plume of smoke and sparks rising dramatically in the dark forest.
        Today’s second piece represents a summer forest, although I have to confess I wouldn’t really see that without the title to guide me.  I might think these were two flowers, or if I realized they were trees I might think they were in autumn color.  But to me the most summery thing they evoke is ears of corn, which is one of my favorite things about summer!
        One more nighttime view: these women and children are enjoying the evening coolness along the Sumida River.  This is actually a triptych and you can see the three separate pieces that join to make the scene.  My favorite part of it is the black, white, and grey background with its silhouetted boats and bridge, and all the twinkling lights in the verandas.
        The evening may be cool, but this hot summer day is saturated with sunshine.  Even the river looks warm and lazy, although the bees are no doubt as busy as ever.  Unusually for me, my favorite thing about this piece is the colors.
        In contrast, this next midsummer scene captures a thunderstorm brewing.  The sky is fully black at the top, and you can see the dark shadow of that cloud overtaking you in the foreground.  You might want to run to reach the farmhouse before the storm breaks - but it’s probably too oppressive to run.
        I couldn’t feature summer scenes without the beach, so next up is a view of quite a sophisticated picnic on the beach.  They have a fancy picnic basket and carafe, and even a bouquet to add some class.  Maybe it’s just the way their faces are carved, but I fear they may be quite a snooty bunch!  In any case, the wood engraving with its tiny fine crosshatchings and stippling gives the whole thing lots of fine texture.
        Today’s final piece represents June from a series of the twelve months.  I don’t have badgers in my area, so I don’t particularly think of them as summery, but certainly the selection of flowers are busting out all over.  This one makes me think about what I would choose to put in each piece if I were to do a calendar series.  What do you most associate with June, or with the summer solstice?

[Pictures: Summer Solstice Fire, woodcut by Werner Drewes, 1930 (Image from Smithsonian);

Summer Forest (Natsu no mori), color woodblock print by Shiogoshi Yoshinori, 1957 (Image from Art Institute Chicago);

Enjoying the Evening Cool Along the Sumida River, triptych of woodblock prints by Kitagawa Utamaro, c. 1797-8 (Image from The Cleveland Museum of Art);

Bees Take Flight, woodcut by Nick Wroblewski (Image from NickWroblewski.com);

Midsummer Vermont, wood engraving by Asa Cheffetz, 1936 (Image from Philadelphia Museum of Art);

Summer Day, wood engraving by M. Lois Murphy, ca. 1937 (Image from Smithsonian);

June, linocut by Jenny Portlock (Image from JennyPortlock.art).]

June 19, 2024

Block-Printed Familiars

         Today I have for you two pieces that feature magical women with magical companions.  Both pieces were featured in the Annual Exhibition of the UK Society of Wood Engravers (2022, I think).  The on-line gallery includes only minimal information about each piece, which is too bad, because I’d love to learn the stories behind them, especially for this first one by India Rose Bird.  Entitled “Conversation with a Familiar,” does this refer to a specific story or a specific character?  Or has the artist made up this scenario entirely?  There are all kinds of magical touches in this night scene.  In addition to the woman and the bird, there’s the cauldron with its mysterious vapors, there are two dryads for protection and companionship, and there are symbols making borders along the top and bottom.  It’s the familiar who seems to be doing the talking in this moment, and of course I’d love to know what they’re saying!
        The second piece is less mysterious in that it’s clearly showing Baba Yaga with her chicken-legged house.  I like the touches of mushrooms growing out of the house as well as the ground, and I love that she’s reading a book (as befits an Ex Libris).  As for familiars, this magical woman has plenty.  She seems to be communing not only with a black bird, as in our first block print, but also an owl, a black cat, and a frog down below.
        This is a theme that’s pretty well guaranteed to strike my fancy, which is why it’s interesting that, now that I think of it, I haven’t done exactly this myself.  I have done a fair handful of pieces that include people and creatures in some sort of magical relationship, and I’m always mulling more ideas in this vein.  Although the mood and tone of these two pieces today are quite different, I like them both very much, and they get me thinking once again about what I might imagine next.

[Pictures: Conversation with a Familiar, wood engraving by India Rose Bird, c. 2022;

Ex Libris M. Gashi-Butler, wood engraving by Vladimir Kortovich, c. 2022 (Images from Society of Wood Engravers).]

June 14, 2024

The Brown Dwarf of Rügen

        It’s been quite a while since I featured a fantasy poem, so today we have “The Brown Dwarf of Rügen” by John Greenleaf Whittier.  It was first published in 1888 with a note that the “hint” of the tale came from a German collection of fairy tales in 1816.  I don’t know how much of the detail Whittier made up, but it’s a fairly straightforward theme.  As with many narrative poems of the era, it’s a bit long to include the whole thing, but here’s most of it.

And in the town of Rambin a little boy and maid
Plucked the meadow-flowers together and in the sea-surf played.

Alike were they in beauty if not in their degree:
He was the Amptman’s first-born, the miller’s child was she.

Now of old the isle of Rügen was full of Dwarfs and Trolls,
The brown-faced little Earth-men, the people without souls;

And for every man and woman in Rügen’s island found
Walking in air and sunshine, a Troll was underground.

It chanced the little maiden, one morning, strolled away
Among the haunted Nine Hills, where the elves and goblins play.

She came not back; the search for her in field and wood was vain:
They cried her east, they cried her west, but she came not again.

“She’s down among the Brown Dwarfs,” said the dream-wives wise and old,
And prayers were made, and masses said, and Rambin’s church bell tolled.

Five years her father mourned her; and then John Deitrich said:
“I will find my little playmate, be she alive or dead.”

He watched among the Nine Hills, he heard the Brown Dwarfs sing,
And saw them dance by moonlight merrily in a ring.

And when their gay-robed leader tossed up his cap of red,
Young Deitrich caught it as it fell, and thrust it on his head.

The Troll came crouching at his feet and wept for lack of it.
“Oh, give me back my magic cap, for your great head unfit!”

“Nay,” Deitrich said; “the Dwarf who throws his charmëd cap away,
Must serve its finder at his will, and for his folly pay.

“You stole my pretty Lisbeth, and hid her in the earth;
And you shall ope the door of glass and let me lead her forth.”

“She will not come; she’s one of us; she’s mine!” the Brown Dwarf said;
The day is set, the cake is baked, to-morrow we shall wed.”

The Dwarf obeyed; and youth and Troll down the long stairway passed,
And saw in dim and sunless light a country strange and vast.

Weird, rich, and wonderful, he saw the elfin under-land, —
Its palaces of precious stones, its streets of golden sand.

He came unto a banquet-hall with tables richly spread,
Where a young maiden served to him the red wine and the bread.

He looked; he clasped her in his arms; he knew the long-lost one;
“O Lisbeth! See thy playmate — I am the Amptman’s son!”

She leaned her fair head on his breast, and through her sobs she spoke:
“Oh, take me from this evil place, and from the elfin folk!

But Deitrich said: “For five long years this tender Christian maid
Has served you in your evil world and well must she be paid!

“Haste! — hither bring me precious gems, the richest in your store;
Then when we pass the gate of glass, you’ll take your cap once more.”

No choice was left the baffled Troll, and, murmuring, he obeyed,
And filled the pockets of the youth and apron of the maid.

They left the dreadful under-land and passed the gate of glass;
They felt the sunshine’s warm caress, they trod the soft, green grass.

And when, beneath, they saw the Dwarf stretch up to them his brown
And crooked claw-like fingers, they tossed his red cap down.

And soon from Rambin’s holy church the twain came forth as one,

The Amptman kissed a daughter, the miller blest a son.

        In trying to cut out unnecessary bits for length, I omitted a few of the bits I don’t like as much, such as an unsettling vagueness about age… are these little children or young adults?  (If Lisbeth is to be 16 when she emerges, she must have been 11 when she was stolen, but some of the descriptions make her sound much younger.)  But the elements I like a lot are the descriptions of the magical underground world with its long stairway, dim sunless light, and streets of golden sand.  My favorite image is that the door to this world is made of glass, which seems both odd and improbable, and clearly quite enchanted.  I also cut out the lines where our hero set a cross of stone by that glass door so that the trolls could no longer go in and out through the Nine Hills.
        I wouldn’t call this a masterpiece, either in content or execution, but it is a serviceable entry in the grand encyclopedia of fairy lore, illustrating a number of common elements in mythology and folklore, including the catching of the dwarf's cap, which is a trope I enjoy.
        (Also, a fun note is that at its original publication in children’s magazine St. Nicholas, this poem appeared right next to one of the installments of a serialized story by Frances Hodgson Burnett about a little girl named Sara Crewe!)

[Pictures: A dwarf king seducing a human woman, wood block print from Straßburger Heldenbuch, c. 1480 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Illustrations of “The Brown Dwarf of Rügen” from St. Nicholas, January 1888 (Images from Internet Archive).]

June 10, 2024

The Magic of Trains

       I’m currently working on a short story set on a train, so I’m getting in the mood with some block prints of trains.  First is my own Steam Locomotive, which has always been one of my favorites.  Modern trains are great, but the steam engines are especially magical.  Of course, in my story the magic isn’t just hyperbole, but provides a clean, safe, high-speed power instead of wood, coal, or deisel.  But more on that later…
        My story is set in 1890, but I enjoy this image of “The First Steam Railroad Passenger Train in America.”  This wood block print dates to 1870, but reproduces a painting from 1831.  The development of  trains moved very quickly from when the carriages were designed just like stagecoaches, to larger enclosed cars, to dining and sleeper cars.  But more on that later…
        While that 1831 train is too early for my story, the next train is too late - all the way up to 1936.  No longer a steam train at all, there’s still no shortage of smoke from the industrial buildings towering in the background.  I like the contrast between very bold shapes and very fine textures.  Also, you can see the engineer looking out of the cab, and in my story the engineer plays a key role (though not an enviable one).  But I’m not going to reveal that secret yet.
        I mentioned the dining and sleeping cars above, and my story takes place in something like a Pullman car: a first class luxury carriage which can convert from open seating, to dining tables, to berths.  Here’s a wood engraving showing such a Pullman car, with seats on the right, converted to curtained sleeping compartments on the left.  I’ve always had a fascination with the clever ways people devise to fit all different amenities into restricted spaces.  I have had the experience of travelling on an overnight train with berths, but it was not first class and certainly looked nothing like this!
Next up is a dramatic view of two locomotives by Rockwell Kent.  I love the geometry of it all, with so many bold, straight lines making a dramatic scene of powerful-looking locomotives beneath powerful-looking clouds.  Oddly, there are no tracks visible for the trains in this piece — which
actually serves as a teaser for the magic in my story, in which the train doesn’t run on steel tracks.  But for now I’m keeping my secrets and not telling how it works!
        This next piece is actually the closest to the setting of my story in date, but definitely not in location.  It looks like a rather older train for 1879, but I have no idea about the relative history of trains in Japan compared with America, and that’s a research rabbit hole I really don’t need to jump down right now!  But I do enjoy adding a little variety to today’s collection of train art.  It’s always fun to compare how Japanese-style artists depict things just a little differently from European-style artists.
        Today’s final pieces are two very rough small wood block prints by Lyonel Feininger.  With rough gouges, lack of details, and the whole trains built of mere suggestions of wheels and smokestacks, the characters in my story wouldn’t even know what to make of this modern art!  I think they’re fun, though, and perhaps they appeal to that same fascination as with Pullman cars: how to make a lot out of a little.
        This story of mine is quite long for a modern short story - but not long at all by 1890 standards!  I’m having a lot of fun doing far more research and far more world building than is really justified for a more short story, and I’m very close to pulling the threads all together for a finished first draft.  After that I’ll have to get serious about seeing how well my train is really running!
        And meanwhile, you can revisit a few other block prints of trains that have been featured on this blog in the past:  The Broomstick Train

        The Hogwarts Express

        Railway Alphabets

        Railway Depots

[Pictures: Steam Locomotive, rubber block print by AEGNydam, 2010 (Originals sold out);

The First Steam Railroad Passenger Train in America, wood block print published by Antique Publishing Co, 1870 (Image from Library of Congress);

Locomotive, wood engraving by Salvatore Pinto, c. 1936 (Image from The Cleveland Museum of Art);

Pullman Sleeper Car of the Union Pacific Railway, wood engraving, 1869 (Image from Posterazzi);

Two Locomotives, woodcut by Rockwell Kent, 1930 (Image from Fort Wayne Museum of Art);

Tokyo/Takanawa Steam Railway, triptych of woodblock prints by Utagawa Kuniteru, 1879 (Image from The Met);

Locomotive on the Bridge, woodcut by Lyonel Feininger, (Image from Cleveland Museum of Art);

Letterhead: Little Locomotive, woodcut by Feininger, 1919 (Image from Cleveland Museum of Art).]

June 5, 2024

Schön's Anamorphosis

      Anamorphic art is an image that is distorted so that it looks correct only if viewed from a specific unusual angle, or using a mirror set to reflect in a particular way.  There are many variants and in some sense you could argue that any image with very sharp perspective could be considered anamorphic.  However, the real spirit of it is that the distortion should be extreme enough that the subject is unrecognizable to anyone looking at the picture in a normal way, and only when you view it in the one special way is the secret revealed.  Possibly the most famous example of anamorphic art in the renaissance is The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein, but it enjoyed quite a bit of popularity for including secret images in art, such as sexual, satirical, or dangerous political themes.
        Today I have for you three anamorphic wood block prints by Erhard Schön (Germany, c. 1491-1542), who was one of the earliest German artists to make anamorphic art.  Not surprisingly, these pictures tend to look a little weird, because it isn’t so easy to make a picture that works in both views.  Schön’s strategy tends to be adding a lot of little details in the “straight” view, while the parts of the picture that will resolve into something in the acute view are to be written off as swaths of landscape or sky in the straight view.  The top picture shows Jonah stepping out of the whale’s mouth, by the shore of a rather odd sea.  Sailors in a ship look at an avian sort of sea monster at the upper right, and a goat stands at the lower left.  However, if you look at it from a very acute angle from the lower left, you find yourself treated to the sight of a man squatting and relieving himself.  The words across the bottom say “What do you see?”  I’ve tried to distort these pictures back into shape so that you can see the hidden views, and I’ve posted those at the bottom.  (Definitely imperfect, but at least you get the idea.)
        While the first picture is naughty, the others are presumably political.  They show the heads of various rulers.  The second picture is one large head, while the third picture combines four heads into a series of panels.  The little “straight” pictures seem to show travellers of various sorts: towns, someone on a horse and another walking, a ship, and so on.  I do like the way the anamorphic man’s beard makes a sort of waterfall next to the straight ship, but for the most part it’s quite clear that this is not a normal picture!  I don’t know why these faces were turned into anamorphic pictures: is it satirical or celebratory, or did it just seem cool?
        I’ve shared a couple of other wood block prints by Erhard Schön in previous posts.  His interest in proportion and perspective is clearly on display in this funny view of Five Figures in a Building, while his satirical sensibilities are given free reign in his illustration of topsy-turvy Cockaigne.  As for the anamorphic art, I definitely enjoy it as a novelty and appreciate it as a technical tour de force, but I can’t say these pictures are actually very pleasing!  What do you think?

[Pictures: Jonah and the Whale (and more), woodcut by Erhard Schön, 1538 (Image from the British Museum);

Landscape with the head of King Ferdinand I, woodcut by Schön, c. 1532 (Image from the British Museum);

Landscapes and heads of Charles V, Ferdinand I, Clement VII, and Francis I, 1531-4 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]