Sphinxes

The mythical sphinx spans thousands of years around the ancient world. Also, technically, the Great Sphinx of Giza isn’t a “sphinx”.

The sphinx is a human-animal hybrid chimera (except not a literal chimera). At its most basic it is part human part lion with other design options available depending on the culture.

Egypt, the protector sphinx

The first human-lion hybrids come from Egypt. While most Egyptian human-animal hybrids are animal heads on human bodies, the sphinx is the other way around. To borrow from Spinal Tap, “No one knows who they were or what they were doing”no one knows what these creatures were called in Egyptian culture nor is anyone exactly sure what they were meant to do. It’s thought they were created as protectors, defending royal tombs, but nobody is certain. They were frequently carved with the face of whichever pharaoh’s tomb they were beside and as such most Egyptian sphinxes are male.

Egyptian sphinxes are generally male and thought to be protectors of royal tombs but nobody is certain.

As for the largest, oldest, and most famous sphinx of them all, while it was built somewhere between 2600 BCE and 2500 BCE, no one is exactly sure who built the Great Sphinx of Giza or why. It’s thought to have been commissioned by (and is thought to have the face of) the pharaoh Khafre. It’s positioned facing East near the Great Pyramid of Khufu (the tomb of Khafre’s father). Khafre also built himself a pyramid caddy corner to his father’s, just 10 feet shorter. 

The Great Sphinx of Giza is the largest, oldest, and most famous sphinx. He used to have a nose and a beard and was possibly painted, but all three features have been lost over time.

It’s hard to appreciate just how old the Great Sphinx is (and how long sphinxes have been a part of Egyptian culture). The pyramid complex had been built and subsequently abandoned so long ago that the Sphinx was buried in sand up to its shoulders by the time the first excavation attempt took place in 1400 BCE. That means the first excavation was around a 1000 years after the Sphinx was built and that was still around 3400 years ago. Trying to rescue the Great Sphinx from the desert sands has been going on for thousands of years.

The Greek sphinx is one particular sphinx. She is famous for her riddle and her role in the story of Oedipus.

Greece, the monster sphinx

Sphinxes spread counterclockwise around the Mediterranean from Egypt to the Middle East, to Mesopotamia, and into Greece around 1600 BCE – the visual design and meaning changing along the way. In Greek mythology there was a single sphinx (not numerous sphinxes like in Egypt) who was also a human-lion hybrid but was female and she had wings.

The Greek sphinx comes to us through the story of Oedipus. This sphinx is more of a monster than her Egyptian counterparts (she is inline with other Greek female monsters, like the gorgons). As Oedipus is traveling to Thebes he encounters the sphinx. The city of Thebes is at her mercy as she offers a challenge to all who want to enter the city: she will grant safe passage if you can successfully answer a riddle. If you fail she kills you. Oedipus correctly solves the riddle and the sphinx (dramatically) kills herself … and this isn’t even the craziest part of the Oedipus story (paging Dr. Freud).

The word “sphinx” was both the specific name of the sole Greek sphinx as well as a general term the Greeks used for these kinds of creatures (like what we do today). That said, the word “sphinx” is of Greek origin and so technically outside of Greece these creatures aren’t “sphinxes”. While the Greeks may have called the Egyptian creatures “sphinxes” the Egyptians did not. The word “sphinx” didn’t even exist until over 2000 years after the Great Sphinx of Giza, so again what the Egyptians called these things is something else unknown.

The Greek sphinx also influenced South and Southeast Asian cultures where sphinxes are seen as holy guardians at temples and other religious sites. In these places the sphinxes are meant to ward away evil and cleanse the sins of religions devotees.

Sphinxes have appeared in art around world over the centuries but especially during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Egyptomania

Sphinxes (both the male Egyptian kind and the winged female Greek kind) made appearances in European art from the 15th century onward but their greatest surge in popularity was during the 19th century Egyptology and Egyptomania craze. After Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt from 1798-1801 the French brought treasures to France which led to an interest in all things ancient Egypt. Bits of this can still be found in Egyptian Revival architecture which features pyramids, sphinxes, and other Egyptian motifs.

Also, on the topic of the French in Egypt, Napoleon’s troops did not shoot off the Great Sphinx of Giza’s nose. One story is that around 1378 CE a Sufi Muslim named Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr destroyed the nose in an attempt to stop a cult that was making religious offerings to the Great Sphinx. Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr was supposedly executed for defacing the Great Sphinx. The Great Sphinx also had a beard but it most likely fell off from erosion of sitting in the desert for thousands of years.

Added info: Egyptian culture had yet another resurgence in western popularity with the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. Two years later in 1924 H.P. Lovecraft was the ghostwriter of Harry Houdini’s Under the Pyramids, an adventurous tale of Houdini’s kidnapping and imprisonment under the pyramids. The Great Sphinx plays a pivotal role in this supposedly true tale.

Also, the hairless Sphynx cat breed is not from Egypt, but rather is from Toronto, Canada.

Trajan: the man, the column, the typeface

The Roman emperor Trajan’s military victories led to a triumphal column in his honor. The typography of the column led to a font also named in his honor.

Born in 53 CE in the modern day province of Seville Spain, Trajan was the second Roman emperor from the Nerva–Antonine dynasty (which produced the “Five Good Emperors” – including himself). His experience as a Roman general, senator, and governor of upper Germany helped him become emperor Nerva’s choice as his successor.

During his 19 year reign Trajan expanded the Roman Empire to its greatest size to date. As part of this expansion he took the kingdom of Dacia (roughly modern day Romania). One motivation for the conquest was that the Dacian kingdom, unlike other Germanic tribes, was sufficiently organized enough to make alliances with other nations, making it a threat to the Romans. Another motivation was money. After the conquest the Romans took control of the gold and salt mines of Dacia, using the proceeds to pay for public works projects back in Rome.

To celebrate this lucrative victory over Dacia the Roman Senate had a column constructed in Trajan’s honor, which leads to …

Trajan’s victory over the Dacians was commemorated / propagandized with Trajan’s Column.

Trajan’s Column

Completed during Trajan’s lifetime in 113 CE, Trajan’s Column is a 98 foot tall marble column that commemorates / propagandizes Rome’s victory in the Dacian Wars. With an estimated total weight of over 1,000 tons it’s an impressive feat of artistry and engineering. As it spirals upwards it features 2,662 figures (Trajan being 58 of them) and 155 scenes in relief that tell the story of the conquest. National Geographic has an interactive graphic that does an incredible job guiding you up the column but plaster cast recreations of the relief exist in several museums around the world as well.

The column is also a tower – there is a circular staircase inside that takes you to the top. The top of the column used to (logically) have a statue of Trajan, but the statue went missing sometime in the Middle Ages and today St. Peter stands atop the tower.

The column / tower is also a tomb. After Trajan died in 117 CE his ashes were buried in a chamber at the base of the column. The ashes of Trajan’s wife Plotina were added a few years later. On the exterior of the base above the doorway to the burial chamber is an inscription to Trajan. More interesting that what the inscription says is how it says it. The beautiful letter forms of the typography became inspiration for letter artists and designers, which leads to …

The letterforms on Trajan’s Column inspired the font Trajan.

Trajan the Typeface

Trajan the typeface was created in 1989 by Carol Twombly for Adobe. She used the very old lettering on Trajan’s column as inspiration for a very new typeface. The letter forms found on Trajan’s column are known as Roman square capitals which are the basis for our uppercase letters. Roman square capital letters were used primarily for engravings and can be found around ancient Roman sites (the Pantheon, the Arch of Titus, etc).

Trajan has appeared on many many movie posters.
Starting in the early 1990s, Trajan has appeared on many many movie posters.

From its debut in 1989 Trajan quickly became a very popular typeface and particularly for movies. Its first movie poster appearance was 1991’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord. In the early ‘90s it was thee typeface for dramatic films but spread to appearing across genres. Eventually the movie poster/packaging market was so saturated with Trajan that more serious films began to use other typefaces and so Trajan shifted to only really appearing in horror movies, B-movies, and straight-to-video movies. Trajan’s elegant letter forms were being employed to add gravitas to movies that might not be so great.

In less than a decade (less time than Trajan the man ruled the Roman Empire) Trajan the typeface rose and fell in popularity. You still see it from time to time – some new movies use Trajan, some politicians use it much like politicians did a few thousand years ago – but Trajan no longer rules like it once did in the 90s or the 1990s.

A tour to the top of Trajan’s Column.

Learn more about Trajan’s rise & fall of being the serious movie typeface.

Dark Mirrors

Darkened mirrors have been used for the arts as well as the dark arts.

In the late 18th century the growing popular aesthetic movement was Picturesque. Begun in the late Renaissance, the idea of picturesque art gained traction through the writings of English artist & cleric William Gilpin. Picturesque was a balance between the beautiful and the sublime, between the attractive and the dangerous, between the gentle and the powerful. It made artists & audiences reevaluate how they saw nature.

In western art, landscapes had generally been just the background to something else – you could have a landscape but it was being covered by the subject of the painting in the foreground. It wasn’t until the picturesque movement that landscape paintings became celebrated in their own right.

Claude glass

One artist that Gilpin praised for his picturesque work was 17th century French painter Claude Lorrain. The paintings of Lorrain frequently featured landscapes dotted with small people, unfinished/crumbling classical buildings and natural settings. His quality of soft light became of particular interest to the picturesque movement, a movement that took shape nearly a century after Claude’s death in 1682.

To help an artist create landscapes similar to Lorrain, and thereby create a picturesque work of art, one could look to (and at) a Claude glass. A Claude glass (named for Lorrain although there is no indication he ever used anything like it) is a dark convex mirror that can simplify the tonal range of colors of whatever is being reflected in it. Gilpin advocated the use of the Claude glass by saying it would “… give the object of nature a soft, mellow tinge like the colouring of that Master”.

Claude glass got it's name from the soft light landscapes of French painter Claude Lorrain
The Claude glass got its name from the soft light landscapes of French painter Claude Lorrain. It became popular with artists and tourists alike.

The Claude glass was a popular tool among late 18th century landscape painters who would turn their back to the landscape they wanted to paint, open the mirror facing it backwards towards the landscape, and then paint from what they saw in the mirror. The Claude glass was also being used by wealthy tourists of England as a sort of augmented reality tool to filter the world around them.

This led to ridicule as these tourists showed up to take in nature by turning their backs to it and opening a mirror. By the early 19th century the Claude glass largely fell out of fashion but you can still find them here and there. The Desert View Watchtower at the Grand Canyon has a few installed in the tower to view the canyon, and you sometimes find them as art installations in arboretums and nature preserves.

a large Claude glass installed at the Waikereru Ecosanctuary in New Zealand
A large Claude glass installed at the Waikereru Ecosanctuary in New Zealand

Scrying (sung like Roy Orbison’s Crying)

While the darkened surface of the Claude glass allowed a person to look back (literally), in divination a dark mirror allows you to look forward. Scrying is the magical act of gazing into a reflective / luminescent surface (a crystal ball, water, fire, a mirror, etc) with the intention of clairvoyantly gaining knowledge.

Scrying, in various forms, has existed in cultures around the world over thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians had young boys look into vases filled with oil to seek divine knowledge. The Oracle of Delphi would stare into a dish of Kassotis spring water. In Persian mythology the cup of Jamshid was used to see all seven heavens of the universe. John Dee used a crystal ball as well as polished obsidian to try and acquire esoteric knowledge (both objects are now in the British Museum, but of questionable provenance). Even Joseph Smith claimed to look at magical “seer stones” to receive special information from God before founding Mormonism.

Using black mirrors to scry is part of an ancient tradition
Using black mirrors to learn secret knowledge is a part of the ancient tradition of scrying.

Black Mirror

Water scrying was popular before the widespread availability of mirrors. Nostradamus used water scrying to see visions and make predictions about the future. While the accuracy of Nostradamus’s predictions is questionable, nobody can deny he stared at a bowl of water.

Black mirrors are used to see visions instead of reflections. The back of the glass is coated in black instead of an ordinary mirror’s reflective silver. The darkened surface allows one to stare into the mirror while little of the surrounding environment is reflected. That said there is a difference of opinion on whether you should be able to see your face or not. In either case, like someone about to go on a psychedelic drug trip, the set & setting of a scrying experience makes a difference – a darkened room, a candle / candles, maybe some incense, and a way to record your visions. With eyes of soft focus one looks into the black mirror and hopes to gain mystical knowledge.

Like astrology or other forms of divination, scrying has absolutely no merit as a way to learn about the future. Staring at a black mirror is not magical. However, the act of sitting in quiet reflection for an extended period of time (ie. meditation), alone with your thoughts, can prove beneficial psychologically, if not psychically.

QI discusses Claude glass.

Nkisi Nkondi

Religious power sculptures that have nails driven into them to call upon protective spirits.

The Kongo people of central Africa believe that Nzambi Mpungu is the creator of all things. To help us bridge the gap between the spirit world and our physical world a nganga (plural being “banganga”) can serve as a mediator. A nganga is a person who’s a combination of shaman, healer, mediator, and a sort of spiritual notary public.

One of the more remarkable things about a nganga is that, in order to fulfill their role, they do so with the assistance of a nkisi. A nkisi is both a spirit as well as the name of an object that can house the spirit. The physical nkisi object can be any manner of vessels from vases to horns to gourds. Into these vessels the nganga places medicinal substances (bilongo) that, with the aid of the spirits, are intended to help cure both societal as well as physical ills. The nganga will summon the nkisi spirit to go forth from the vessel into our physical world and help someone in need. One particularly aggressive kind of nkisi is the nkisi nkondi, the hunter.

While nkisi nkondi vary in design their being riddled with nails is consistent.

The Hunter

Typically, but not always, nkisi nkondi are carved to look like humans. The medicinal bilongo is frequently placed in the stomach of the figure, like an anthropomorphic monstrance, with glass or a mirror covering the hole (the glass/mirror representing a window into the spirit world). To “charge” the sculpture with a spirit it is typically placed in a graveyard (or other location known to be haunted by spirits) before being brought into the village by the nganga. The most remarkable aspect of the nkisi nkondi however are the nails.

Nkisi Nkondi are riddled with nails. Nails are driven into the figure by the nganga to affirm oaths, to serve as witness to agreements, to stop witches and evil spirits, etc. Before hammering a nail into the figure the nail is licked by all parties involved. If a promise is broken or an injury is inflicted the spirit inside is activated and sets out to hunt down the guilty party and punish them. Nkisi nkondi statues frequently have dozens of nails driven into their torsos, indicating a lifetime of service to the community.

Originally these wooden figures were struck struck together to awaken the spirit inside. When nails became available the figures changed into the form we know today. As enslaved Kongo people were brought to North America nkisi culture and the practice of making nkisi nkondi came with them (albeit hidden from the slaveholders). A human shaped figure with nails in it certainly could have influenced the Western idea of voodoo dolls but it’s more likely that voodoo dolls are a result of thousands of years of poppets in sympathetic magic found in cultures around the world.

Smart History discusses nkisi nkondi.

Crop Circles

Instead of being made by high tech aliens, they’re made by clever humans with low tech tools.

Crop circles, the geometric designs created in fields by flattening vegetables stalks, entered the cultural sphere in 1970s England. Since then over 10,000 circles have been found around the world (although over 90% of them have been within 50 miles of Stonehenge in southern England). While a host of mystical, magical, paranormal theories have been put forth to explain their creation (aliens/UFOs being the most popular theory), the reality is that they’re all hoaxes.

The credit for the crop circle phenomenon largely goes to Doug Bower and Dave Chorley. In 1978, while sitting in a pub in Cheesefoot Head, England, the two thought it would be a bit of fun to create patterns in a field – as if aliens had landed in the night. Their inspiration was a series of stories of circles that Bower had heard while living Australia in 1966. Regarding their first crop circle Chorley said “We enjoyed that first one and had a good giggle about it after.”

Imitation is the highest form of flattery

Bower & Chorley created more than 200 crop circles between 1978 to 1991. Each man used a board with a rope attached that, while holding the arch of rope in their hands, they then used a foot to push the board down to flatten the crop. By 1985 Bower’s wife was suspicious of what he was up to. He told her the full story and to prove it he had her design her own crop circle which he and Chorley later created.

Inspired by the designs of Bower & Chorley imitators began to pop up. One of the most active groups was the Circlemakers who considered their work to be conceptual art. Rob Irving of the group said the power of the art comes from the mystery. Even as they admit they create crop circles the Circlemakers won’t confirm which ones they have made, so as to retain some of the mystery.

Bower & Chorley started the crop circle phenomenon.

The Thrill Is Gone

On September 9, 1991 the mystery of the crop circles came to an end when Bower & Chorley revealed their secret to the newspaper Today. They explained how they did it, offered evidence, and gave a demonstration. Despite this, as happens with most conspiratorial thinking, true believers rejected this evidence and continued to believe in extraordinary explanations. “Croppies” still believe that unproven and unknown forces have created these designs and that any evidence to the contrary can be outright rejected or (paradoxically) used as evidence as a part of some larger conspiracy.

Still, by the 1990s crop circles were popular tourist attractions in southern England bringing tourist dollars to local businesses and to the farmers themselves. One farmer near Stonehenge said he made about £30,000 charging tourists to visit his fields. Like any cultural phenomenon, the popularity of crop circles diminished. As some groups began to be paid to create crop circles as advertisements for major brands (Nike, Pepsi, the BBC. Greenpeace, etc) there was less motivation to spend hours in the fields for free.

A short clip of Bower & Chorley discussing their work.

QI discusses crop circles and the simple tools needed to make them.

Added info: crop circles are not to be confused with circular crop fields. Center-pivot irrigation creates fields of crops that are circular shaped because the massive sprinkler pipes are rotated from a central point.

central-point irrigation of crops create circles, but not "crop circles"
Central-pivot irrigation creates circles of crops, but not “crop circles”.

the Dharmapalas

The scary wrathful Buddhist deities that are, contrary to their appearance, forces for good who are on your side.

Before Buddhism spread to Tibet, Bon was the area’s dominant shamanistic religion. As Buddhism moved in during the 7th to 10th centuries, elements of Bon were incorporated into the religion making Tibetan Buddhism different than other forms.

Part of what makes Tibetan Buddhism different is the story of how Padmasambhava, the 8th century Indian Buddhist mystic who helped bring Buddhism to to Tibet, tamed the local evil spirits & demons. While the exact number of spirits he tamed varies depending on the kind of Buddhism and regional differences, there are at least eight generally agreed upon divine creatures he turned into protectors of Buddhism. These are the Dharmapalas.

the Hateful Eight

Like things out of a horror movie, or a heavy metal album cover, the dharmapalas are typically horrific, fanged, wild-eyed, monstrous creatures. With black, blue or sometimes red skin they are frequently adorned with human skulls. In Tibetan art they are seen in flaming aureoles, visualizations of the energy they emanate. However, despite their appearances, the “Eight Terrible Ones” are on your side. Like monsters with hearts of gold (more or less), the dharmapalas are compassionate defenders of Buddhism and the dharma. Their hideous looks are to drive away evil spirits (not to drive us away).

While each dharmapala is different they all tend to look fearsome and terrifying.
a detail of a Palden Lhamo illustration
A close-up detail of Palden Lhamo, looking more than a little unhappy, with her crown of skulls and a cape of human skin.

Buddhism teaches us that we can’t solve other people’s spiritual problems for them, nor is someone about to solve our problems for us. There is no omnipotent being that’s going to deus ex machina-style swoop in and “save” people. That said, it doesn’t mean we can’t give help or get help. To overcome fear & suffering each one of us must look within ourselves, we must cultivate the potential within ourselves, but external help can show us the way. The dharmapalas remove inner & external obstacles that may be preventing us from achieving spiritual realizations. They don’t walk the path for us, but they help clear the way and help us from ourselves – they have your back in your quest for spiritual enlightenment.

Added info: in general the origins of the dharmapalas vary, as do their personal backstories, but one particularly interesting story is that of Palden Lhamo. The only female dharmapala, Palden Lhamo (“Glorious Goddess”) is the wrathful manifestation of the more peaceful Saraswati / Tara. She was a female demigod married to an evil king. After her attempts to reform her husband failed, and her realization that their son would be the destroyer of Buddhism, she killed her son. What followed is one of the most metal stories ever told.

She ate her son’s flesh, drank his blood using his skull as a cup, and made a horse saddle from his skin. She rides her mule side-saddle across an ocean of blood. After she died she was reborn in the hellish region of Naraka which she fought her way out of, stealing a sword and a bag of diseases along the way. Eventually she was convinced to protect the dharma, and to protect wisdom, which she does to this day. She’s the protector of Buddhist governments including the Tibetan government in exile.

The Elegant Skull

The political cartoon that became a Mexican memento mori.

In 1910, towards the end of General Porfirio Díaz’s rule of Mexico, the country was unknowingly on the verge of civil war. The Porfiriato period enriched a minority elite ruling class (as well as foreign investors), while the majority of Mexicans remained poor rural laborers. In this time of social and economic unrest José Guadalupe Posada used satire for political change.

Calaveras & Memento Mori

José Guadalupe Posada was a 19th and 20th century pro-revolutionary Mexican illustrator & political cartoonist. He produced historical, religious, and satirical illustrations but he’s best remembered for his calaveras (“skulls”) work.

Posada’s calaveras work used skeletons to satirize Mexican society.

Posada’s calaveras are illustrations of Mexican life featuring skeletons in place of living people. They are frequently lively, smiling, skeletons engaged in normal activities. By using skeletons Posada used the idea of memento mori (as well as to some degree Danse Macabre) to remind his audience that, rich or poor, people from all walks of life will die and that there’s a comedic futility to many of the preoccupations of daily life. His most memorable calaveras were his satirizations of the wealthy class, the most famous of which is La Calavera Catrina (“the Elegant Skull”).

La Catrina is Posada’s most famous calavera.

La Catrina is a female skeleton in an elaborate flowery hat. She’s Posada’s commentary on the upper class women of the time who turned their backs on their Mexican heritage in favor of European fashions. She is also reminiscent of Santa Muerte (“Saint Death”), the pre-Catholic deity of death who has a long tradition in Mexican culture.

Over the years La Catrina has become an iconic part of Mexican culture. She is the central figure in Diego Rivera’s 1947 mural Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (“Dream of a Sunday Afternoon at Alameda Central Park”). Today she is seen in the art and costumes of Día de Muertos festivities.

Trader Joe's taco sauce
Posada’s work can be found in a variety of places today, in this case on spicy taco sauce from Trader Joe’s.

Goya’s Black Paintings

The literally & figuratively dark paintings that Francisco de Goya created as he withdrew from the world.

Francisco de Goya was an 18th and 19th century Spanish painter who rose from a rural beginning to become the primary painter for the Spanish royal court. Unfortunately the turbulent events of early 19th century Spain, and his own personal problems, soured Goya’s worldview. The invasion of Spain by France during the Peninsular War, and the bloodshed that came with it, deeply affected Goya. His Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War) series of prints are a dark departure from his bright and hopeful paintings of Spanish courtly life. The Disasters of War depict acts of violence, famine, the corrupt Catholic church, and despair across 82 prints. They also serve as an insight into Goya’s darkening view of humanity.

As Francisco Goya’s worldview darkened, so too did his art.

Fade to Black

Even with the end of the Peninsular War in 1814 the political troubles in Spain continued. The return of the tyrannical Ferdinand VII as king, who rejected forward-thinking Enlightenment ideas, was a step backwards. This was combined with the return of the Catholic church’s Inquisition as a means of controlling the people, which the occupying French had abolished. Goya’s personal life had worsened as well. He was 73 years old, his wife had died, an undiagnosed infection had left him mostly (or completely) deaf, he was under investigation for having worked with for the occupying French forces, and his finances were running out.

Goya’s 1800 painting Charles IV of Spain and His Family reflects the success and stability that being a painter for the Spanish royal family had given him.
Painted 20 or so years later, Two Old Ones Eating Soup from Goya’s Black Paintings period is a world away from his previous, more optimistic, work.

The Black Paintings

Goya withdrew from the world. He was pessimistic, alone, and feared his worsening health. He moved to a farmhouse outside Madrid. From 1819 to 1823 he worked in isolation on what has become known as the Black Paintings. Unlike his previous work, these paintings weren’t commissioned by wealthy patrons or intended to appeal to an audience. These 14 paintings were created for Goya himself, serving both as an outlet and as an exploration – they were pure art. He painted them directly on the walls of the house (which were later removed and transferred to canvas after his death).

Just a few of Goya’s Black Paintings. Themes of violence, madness, and fear run throughout the series.

The Black Paintings are dark in both subject matter and color. They explore themes of loss, hopelessness, madness, fear, and ignorance. Because they were created in isolation we can only guess as to Goya’s thoughts and intentions. He never revealed any possible titles for the paintings so the names we use today were created after his lifetime. All of the paintings are special in their own right but a few stand out.

Saturn Devouring His Son features the Roman Titan Saturn (or the Greek equivalent Cronus) trying to avoid the prophecy that one of his children would overthrow him. Unlike the 1636 painting of Saturn by Peter Paul Rubens, Goya’s Saturn is wild, savage, with blood oozing out of the headless partially eaten child.

Goya’s version of Saturn devouring his son (left) is far more wild, horrifying, and gruesome than Peter Paul Rubens’s version.

Witches’ Sabbath (or The Great He-Goat) features Satan, in the form of a goat-man, sitting before a gathering of witches. Goya had painted this subject matter before in 1789’s Witches’ Sabbath, which actually has more grisly details but lacks the raw emotion of the Black Painting version.

Witches’ Sabbath (The Great He-Goat) is not the first time Goya painted the subject matter of Satan as a goat-man holding court before a coven of witches.
Goya depicted witches and goats numerous times. His 1789 painting Witches’ Sabbath has even more gruesome imagery than the later Black Painting of Witches’ Sabbath, but the later has more raw emotion.

Romanticism to Modernism

As the world changed so did Goya’s style, bridging the gap from the old to the new. Today he is considered the last of the Old Masters and one of the first modern painters. The Black Paintings, as well as some of his other works, were influential in the Expressionist and Surrealist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.

After the farmhouse Goya moved to France in 1824, where he died in 1828. Today his Black Paintings are in a room of their own, isolated, at the Prado Museum in Madrid.

Added info: Saturn Devouring His Son is a much parodied painting, from Cookie Monster to Alf eating a cat.

Saturn devouring his son parodies
From Cookie Monster devouring his cookie, to Alf devouring his cat, Goya’s Saturn painting is a popular subject of parody.

Viking Helmets & Wagner

Viking warriors didn’t wear helmets with horns or wings on them.

There’s no evidence that Viking warriors wore helmets with horns or wings. There are actually very few Viking helmets of any kind in existence and none have been found with horns or wings. Medieval sources show Vikings more commonly wearing simple headgear (perhaps made of leather or iron) while others have nothing on their heads at all. Vikings who wore metal helmets were probably in the minority and all of those helmets were fairly plain.

The Gjermundbu helmet is one of the few Viking helmets in existence. Medieval sources show Vikings wearing simple head coverings or nothing at all. Winged or horned helmets were never used in battle.

South of Scandinavia, Germanic and Celtic tribes did have religious headpieces with horns, antlers, wings, etc. but these were purely ceremonial and never worn in battle. To wear a helmet with large decorative extensions in combat would be impractical.

The paintings of August Malmström and the stage productions of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle set the standard for what we think Viking warriors looked like.

Artistic License

Fast-forward to the early 19th century, the Romanticism movement produced works that turned away from classical Greek & Roman influences and embraced medieval history from other European cultures further north (such as the Germanic and Celtic cultures). Within Romanticism was the Viking Revival in which the Swedish painter August Malmström is believed to have been one of the first to paint Viking warriors with wings on their helmets. In the spirit of the Mark Twain quote, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” there are a variety of historical inaccuracies in Malmström’s paintings and the winged helmets are a big one … but they make for some great paintings. The fact that winged headpieces were purely ceremonial and probably Celtic (and not Viking), seems to have been lost on Malmström.

But perhaps the most influential source of this myth is the composer Richard Wagner. Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) is a German 4 opera cycle by Wagner which tells the tale of a mythical past, a magic ring, and the fall of the Nordic / Germanic gods. For the first Bayreuth production in 1876 Wagner’s costume designer Carl Emil Doepler added wings to the helmets of the female Valkyries (which inspired this feline Brünnhilde) and horns to the helmet of the minor character Hunding, husband of Sieglinde.

What’s Opera, Doc?

Over time the Valkyries’ wings were replaced with horns, giving us the idea of a female opera singer with a horned helmet. This spread across pop culture most notably in the comic strip Hägar the Horrible, the Minnesota Vikings football team logo, Julianne Moore’s character in the Gutterballs dream sequence from The Big Lebowski, and the legendary 1957 Warner Bros. cartoon What’s Opera, Doc? which pulls from several Wagner operas and features Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in winged/horned Wagnerian costumes.

A scene from the 1957 Wagner inspired Warner Bros. cartoon What’s Opera, Doc?.

Drop in to see what condition your condition is in with the Wagner inspired Gutterballs dream sequence from The Big Lebowski.

Salvation Mountain

An outsider art environment in the California desert created as a testament to love.

Sitting in the dusty beige desert of southern California is a vibrant candy-colored art project known as Salvation Mountain. Created by Leonard Knight over a 27 year period it’s a 50ft tall 150ft wide monument to God. The mountain is constructed of bales of hay coated with adobe as well as tires, car parts, logs, and whatever else he could find. Covering it all is an estimated 100,000 gallons of paint (which was donated by supporters over the years).

Salvation Mountain is an example of outsider art – art made by an artist outside of the mainstream art world. Knight was a self-taught marginalized artist (but he never considered himself an artist). He was also a visionary artist in the sense that he had a spiritual / religious imperative. Knight was compelled to create Salvation Mountain (a name applied by others) as a testament to God’s love.

God is Love

Begun in 1984, Knight’s construction process was to work on a section, move to new areas, and return to old ones. The high-heat and dry desert conditions means that parts of the mountain are always in need of repairs. The mountain has an estimated 10-15 coats of paint on it, which adds to the structural stability. As for the subject matter there are numerous biblical passages & prayers painted on the mountain (John 3:16 and the Sinner’s Prayer), as well as painted biblical references such as a large Sea of Galilee at the base of the mountain. There are also trees and flowers painted all around the mountain. While Knight was a nondenominational evangelical Christian, the mountain’s main message is agnostic of any particular faith which is that “God is Love.” This simple message is found all around the mountain.

A bale of hay that is waiting to be coated in adobe clay and painted. Given the conditions of the desert, parts of Salvation Mountain are always in need of repairs.
There are multiple painted vehicles at Salvation Mountain, including the truck Knight lived in.

In 2000 Salvation Mountain was deemed a National Folk Art Site. Knight died / “went to meet his Mentor” in 2014. Today the mountain is cared for by the Salvation Mountain, Inc. nonprofit organization. The mountain continues to be a popular tourist draw.

“Dont overcomplicate love, lets just keep it simple.”

Leonard Knight

This 2013 video from Vice features Knight discussing his mountain and his message.