Curiosity Nearly Killed the Elephant

Elepahnt squirting water Drawing the dm collection

Elephants are weird-looking Creatures. Like the giraffe, hippopotamus and rhinoceros they kind of stand alone in their unique appearance.
Early depictions of Elephants are fantasy like, this is because back in the middle ages Europeans wouldn’t have had access to the real thing, and with no first hand experience elephants were depicted like horses with trumpet-like trunks and tusks like a boar, and sometimes with hooves.

It wasn’t until the Ancient Romans, who kept the animals in captivity, that anatomically accurate elephants were depicted. There are examples in mosaics in Tunisia and Sicily. As more elephants began to be sent to European kings as gifts during the 15th century, depictions of them became more accurate.

Maybe its because of their strange appearance that they have been revered by many cultures throughout history.
In Buddhist, Hindu, Islam and Christian cultures, the elephant symbolises positive things like wisdom, peace and learning.

The most curious thing about the elephant is obviously it’s trunk, there’s little else like the elephants trunk on earth. Part snorkel, part fingers, part nose.

So how did the Elephant get it’s truck? Well according to Rudyard Kipling, in his “Just So” story, “The Elephant Child” got his truck because of his curiosity of what the crocodile has for dinner. In fact the elephants curiosity nearly kills him. He finds out that the Crocodile has “elephant child” for diner! The crocodile bites him on the nose and in his struggle to get free the elephant stretches his nose into a trunk. So long and so handy does it become for swatting flies and flicking cooking water over its body that every elephant ever since has had one!

The”Elephant Childs” near-fatal adventures serve as a reminder not to let our questioning minds rule us. The Elephant Child comes face to face with death because he desperately wants to know what the crocodile eats for supper. All the other animals have warned him not to ask. But he didn’t listen.
It would suggest that although curiosity could have fatale consequences, it may also empower you. I think the sentiment is be brave, be curious and expect the unexpected!
Elephnat squirting water by Daniel Mackie
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Image © Daniel Mackie

Goldfinch – Salvation, Freedom and Wealth

Goldfinches  by Daniel Mackie- Water colour artist
The goldfinch is rich in symbolism, it has been featured in hundreds of Renaissance paintings. In Paintings of the Madona and child the bird if often perched or nesting in Mary’s or the christ childs hands. So what is the weighty symbolism that places the goldfinch in the centre of, for example Raphaels painting, Madonna del cardellino? Its symbolic meaning stems form its elaborate plumage and its feeding habits. Goldfinchs have red checks and in the medieval mindset, these were acquired while the bird was trying to remove christs crown of thorns in an act of mercy. Goldfinches also eat thistle seeds and together these two things associate the bird with Christ’s Passion and his crown of thorns.

Another layer of meaning has been attributed to the eating of thistle seeds, In europe they were used as a medicinal ingredient to combat the plague. So through this association the Goldfinch also became a good luck charm. Bestowing good heath and warding off disease from those who either saw a goldfinch or owned one (more on that later).

So with the warding off of disease and vibrant health associated with it, the Goldfinch also came to be a symbol of endurance.. This symbolic combination when rendered in Renaissance painting of the Madonna and child came to be an extend metaphor of the salvation christ would bring through his sacrifice. Hallelujah!

Goldfinches in water colour By Daniel Mackie

So all of the Christian symbolism is symbolism enough for any bird you might think! But, no! there is more! Freedom! Freedom Freedom!

The Goldfinch is very dextrous. Because it feeds on thistle seeds it has become a deft touch with its feet and beak and can be trained to perform tricks. Known as a Draw bird, it has the ability to pull up a weight (a thimble if water) attached to a thread, by looping each length under it’s foot. The Gofdfinch has been a popular choice as a cage bird in Europe for ceuntries. Carel Fabritius 1654 painting, Shows a The Goldfinch tethered to it’s pearch by a delicate chain.
You might say, if you were a cynic, that the Goldfinch has brought this upon on itself, showing off with its fine singing voice, beautiful plumage and deft touch with its feet and beak.

The Caged Goldfinch comes up as a reference to freedom in two poems by Thomas Hardy, “The Caged Goldfich” and, “The Blinded bird” both communicate the same outrage of having freedom taken.
In fact a number of other poets have used the Goldfinch in their work. Russinan poet Osip Mandelstam knew a thing or to about freedom, he was was excelled by Joseph Stalin’s government during the repression of the 1930’s, his poem “The cage” illustrates freedom withheld.

When the goldfinch like rising dough
suddenly moves, as a heart throbs,
anger peppers its clever cloak
and its nightcap blackens with rage.

The cage is a hundred bars of lies
the perch and little plank are slanderous.
Everything in the world is inside out,
and there is the Salamanca forest
for disobedient, clever birds.

Finally, show me the money! “Gold”-finch. Across the Ceuntries there has been the assumption that what is brightly coloured must be a symbol of wealth. For example, this is woven into ryme in The courtship, marriage of Cock Robin and Jenny Wren,

“Who gives this Maid away?
I do says the goldfinch
and her fortune I will pay”

So for a small bird, the Goldfinch has been loaded with a lot of symbolic bagagge.

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Image © Daniel Mackie

White Hart – More than just a Pub Name.

White Hart  Watercolour painting By Daniel
Heraldic badges of royalty have given rise to many of the most common pub names in the UK, The White Hart is one of them.

The White Hart was King Richard II’s heraldic badge.

When Richard II was crowned King of England in 1377, he was just 10 years old. He adopted the White Hart as his emblem. Why? Well, it is complicated. It has a lot to do with piety, alchemy, mythology and two colours – red and white.

A bit of background. Richard II’s grandfather (Edward III) was a warrior king whose overriding interest was war. In particular, war with France. His heir to the throne was his son, the Black Prince, who was a chip off the old block you might say. He too loved war. Sadly he died before his father, but not as you might think with a french sword though the belly but of amoebic dysentery, which sounds a nasty way to go! The next in line to the throne was the little boy, Richard, who was the Black Prince’s son.

Bearing in mind Richard’s warmongering family background, lets have a look at the medieval cerebal landscape back in 1377, in particular the meaning of colours, white. No surprises represents purity, innocence and virtue, Red. representing, you guessed it power and passion. This is still true today, but in the 14th century these two colours were also woven into mythology and alchemy. In Mythology one of the best examples is the Arthurian legend of Joseph d’Arimathie. Joseph brought with him to Britain vessels containing the (Red) blood and (White) sweat of Christ. The “vessels”, were the Holy Grail. Potent stuff! In Christian alchemy there are three elements, Sulphur, Salt, and Mercury, that together make up the “Holy Trinity”. Sulphor (Red) Represnts the centre of the Universe, or “our father who art in heaven”. Salt is the Earth , or ” salt of the earth”. and Mercury (White) is the messenger, or, “The Holy spirit”

The purpose of alchemy is to purify the “earth” enough to allow Mercury and Sulphor to interact correctly. (The soul is reformed and relation to God purified) Since Christian alchemy is based upon the concept that the human soul was split during the Fall, Mercury and Sulphor were seen as coming from the same original substance and so should be united again.

Still with me?

So Richard is keen to distance himself from his warmongering father, He wanted a pious ideal of kingship. What better animal to adopt as an emblem than the white hart. Why? Well for a start its white, and by the time richard had become king in 1377 Christianity had already kidnapped the white hart from earlier mythology for its own purposes: the white stag had come to symbolise Christ and his presence on earth. In 1128 the story of David I, King of Scotland and his close shave with a stag cemented this symbolism. A stag charged him, he begged god to save him, The stag vanished into thin air leaving behind a cross where it’s alters had been! This married with the alchemic observation that white (Mercury) represents the holy spirit and legends like the the one of Joseph d’Arimathie made the white hart a potent symbol of not only purity but of divinity.

So next time you are in your local White Hart pub raise a glass to King Ricard II.

Image © Daniel Mackie

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The Frog

Fog By Daniel Mackie
I have been meaning to add a frog to the collection for a long time, but it took me a while to get a simple enough composition. Unusually for me the creatures environment is not entirely within it, the frog is in the water!

Frogs feature a lot in folklore and mythology, The Battle of Frogs and Mice is a fable attributed to Homer about the futility of war. There is of course the frog prince, a spoiled princess reluctantly befriends a frog, kisses it (in Grimm’s fairy tales she throws it against a wall!) and it turns in to a handsome prince.

I Like this fable from Aesop, The Frogs that Desired a King. Unlike a lot of the other fables by Aesop, this one drawers a number of different conclusions. The conclusion I reached after reading it was not the same as a number of historical analysts, notably Martin Luther, a German 16th century monk and Roger L’Estrange, a 17th century English royalist. I was in agreement with William Caxton, a 15th century English merchant who was responsible for introducing the printing press to Britain .

So what do you make of the fable?

There is a group of frogs and the ask Zeus for a king. Zeus throws a log into their pond, initially the frogs are frightened by the splash, but soon get bolder and venture over to the log, they climb onto it, then they start to make fun of it. They then ask Zeus for a “real king”. This time Zeus gives them a water snake, who promptly starts eating the frogs. The frogs immediately appeal to Zeus, but this time Zeus says that the frogs must live with the consequence of their request.

In later versions it is a stork that eats the frogs not a water snake.

So….Martin Luther, concluded that as a result of human wickedness there is a shortage of good rulers and humanity deserves the rulers it gets, concluding, the frogs must have their storks.

Roger L’Estrange concluded that the mob (the frogs) are never satisfied with what they have, a king or no king, a government of no government, they will always shift opinion and are restless.

William Caxton concluded that, he that has liberty should keep it well, for there is nothing better than liberty.

Watercolour painting of a frog by Daniel Mackie, in progress
Above painting in progress.

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Image © Daniel Mackie

Warming his five wits…..

Water colour paint of a long-eared owl

Long eared owl

I have been meaning to do this long eared owl for a long time. I have practically have a sketch book full of variations on this design.

In Roman and celtic mythology owls are associated with wisdom. But they are also associated with the darker aspects of our psyche, This is probably because the are nocturnal. The hoot of an owl late at night in a deep dark wood in 100 B.C would probably send a shiver down your spine. However, the owl is was often seen a guide to and through the Underworld. Owls were also able to reveal to you those who would deceive. Handy!

Lord Tennyson’s poem, The Owl (1830) re-enforces the owls ancient association with wisdom and it’s sinister nocturnal activities.
Tennyson describes the owl as having,”five wits”
Not only having them but,”warming” them!

“Alone and warming his five wits The white owl in the belfry sits”

The poem is a description of an owl watching over events in a rural landscape. The suggestion is that from its vantage point in the bell tower (This is an interesting position! In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, lady Macbeth says, hark! Peace! It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman)
The owl is indifferent and superior to all the goings on in the countryside. The five wits suggest an extra sensory perception!

In the 1500’s there were commonly thought to be five senses and five wits. The inward and outward wits were the product of many centuries of philosophical and psychological thought.The concept of five outward wits(senses, taste smell, etc) and five inward wits(“common wit”, “imagination”, “fantasy”, “estimation”, and “memory”.) came to medieval thinking from Classical philosophy. but in Early Modern English, “wit” and “sense” overlapped in meaning. Both could mean a faculty of perception.
So for the owl in Tennyson’s poem to have five wits; it would suggest it was in position of considerable mental agility!

(above) in progress.

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Who’s calling me Grumpy!

Watercolour paiting of a badger by Daniel Mackie
Good badger, Bad Badger. In literature, the badger falls into either one of these two camps. “Good badger” like Kenneth Grahame’s Mr Badger and, “bad Badger” like Beatrix Potter’s Tommy Brock, the rabbit kidnapper in, “The tale of Mr Todd”.

However the good/bad badger portrayal is relatively recent, only really becoming apparent in the 20th century. Stories about badgers stretch right back to the 11th century, an Anglo-Saxon poem from this time, shows a noble creature defending its family from attack.

Storey tellers have placed human characteristics upon badgers that have come to inform our overall perception of the animal. They are wise, courageous and persistent? Also because they are nocturnal, they are seen as mysterious. This nocturnal aspect of their nature has in turn had an influence of their portrayal in literature, badgers are often, alone, grumpy or gruff!

In European folklore the badger character is intimately associated with the bear and is considered a forecaster of the arrival of spring, as populations of bears in Europe dwindled the badgers significance in folklore increased.

Image © Daniel Mackie

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The West Wind.

Horse card The DM Collection

I have been meaning to add a horse to my collection for a while. if you were to look at my sketch book you’d see page after page of horse sketch. I finally settled on a greek theme. I nearly went with the The Trojan Horse, But I changed my mind!

The Siege of Troy.
In a nut shell the story goes like this, Paris, a trojan, steels Helen from her husband Menelaus king of Sparta. Why did he do it? The poor lad was manipulated by the powers above! It started with a vanity-fueled dispute among three goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite sparked by another Goddess, Eris (strife), Eris inscribed an apple,”to the fairest” and tossed it umogst the festivities at a wedding sparking the quarrel between the 3 goddesses about who indeed the fairest. Zeus (king of the gods) wanted to settle the dispute and so sent the three goddesses to Paris to settle the argument. Who was the fairest? well,each Goddess tried to bribe him, the most tempting bribe to Paris was Aphrodite’s who offered Paris the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta, wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. Oh dear!

Menelaus and Agamemnon (his brother) led a greek expedition to Troy to retrieve Helen from Paris. This was the start of the Trojan war which was a 10 year siege on Troy

The war terminated with the scam of the Trojan Horse. The Greeks built a wooden horse and hid an elite group of soldiers in it, they wrote an inscription on it,”For their return home, the Greeks dedicate this offering to Athena” (the goddess of wisdom) and left by boat back to Greece. (well they appeared too!) The Trojans despite a warning from Laocoon, Helen and Cassandra that it was a bad idea, pulled the horse into the city.

The elite force inside the horse now attacked, as did the greek army that had not sailed back to Greece but had just laid in wait. Troy fell, game over. Goodnight Vienna!

Spring is in the Air

But war and con tricks don’t really fit with my theme of Animals in there natural habitat! Fortunately there are a lot of horses in greek mythology.

The Anemoi were the four wind gods, They were often depicted as horses, each ascribed a cardinal direction from which their respective winds came. Zephyrus was the west wind, the gentlest of the winds, known as the messenger of spring.

Zephyrus is most commonly depicted as a winged youth, the most famous myth about him is his rivalry with Apollo (greek sun god) for the love of Hyakinthos. Hyakinthos chose Apollo and this drove Zephyrus mad with jealousy, yeah you guessed it, It’s a greek myth, it’s going to end badly, and it does! Zephyrus saw Apollo and Hyacinth playing quoits in a meadow, Zephyrus insane with jealousy struck the quoit with a gust of wind which struck Hyakinthos on the head and killed him. Very sad! In his grief Apollo created the hyacinth flower from his blood.

Zephyrus’ Roman equivalent was Favonius, who held dominion over plants and flowers

Below you can see the watercolour in progress.

Horse painting by Danel Mackie in progress

Horse painting teh DM Collection Detail

Horse painting on progress, the DM Collection

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