Friday essay: the legend of Ishtar, first goddess of love and war

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Ishtar (on right) comes to Sargon, who would later become one of the great kings of Mesopotamia.
Edwin J. Prittie, The story of the greatest nations, 1913

Louise Pryke, Macquarie University

As singer Pat Benatar once noted, love is a battlefield. Such use of military words to express intimate, affectionate emotions is likely related to love’s capacity to bruise and confuse.

Ishtar holding a symbol of leadership. Terracotta relief, early 2nd millennium BC. From Eshnunna. Held in the Louvre.
Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC BY

So it was with the world’s first goddess of love and war, Ishtar, and her lover Tammuz. In ancient Mesopotamia – roughly corresponding to modern Iraq, parts of Iran, Syria, Kuwait and Turkey – love was a powerful force, capable of upending earthly order and producing sharp changes in status.

From Aphrodite to Wonder Woman, we continue to be fascinated by powerful female protagonists, an interest that can be traced back to our earliest written records. Ishtar (the word comes from the Akkadian language; she was known as Inanna in Sumerian) was the first deity for which we have written evidence. She was closely related to romantic love, but also familial love, the loving bonds between communities, and sexual love.

She was also a warrior deity with a potent capacity for vengeance, as her lover would find out. These seemingly opposing personalities have raised scholarly eyebrows both ancient and modern. Ishtar is a love deity who is terrifying on the battlefield. Her beauty is the subject of love poetry, and her rage likened to a destructive storm. But in her capacity to shape destinies and fortunes, they are two sides of the same coin.

Playing with fate

The earliest poems to Ishtar were written by Enheduanna — the world’s first individually identified author. Enheduanna (circa 2300 BCE) is generally considered to have been an historical figure living in Ur, one of the world’s oldest urban centres. She was a priestess to the moon god and the daughter of Sargon of Akkad (“Sargon the Great”), the first ruler to unite northern and southern Mesopotamia and found the powerful Akkadian empire.

The sources for Enheduanna’s life and career are historical, literary and archaeological: she commissioned an alabaster relief, the Disk of Enheduanna, which is inscribed with her dedication.

The Disk of Enheduanna.
Object B16665. Courtesy of the Penn Museum.

In her poetry, Enheduanna reveals the diversity of Ishtar, including her superlative capacity for armed conflict and her ability to bring about abrupt changes in status and fortune. This ability was well suited to a goddess of love and war — both areas where swift reversals can take place, utterly changing the state of play.

On the battlefield, the goddess’s ability to fix fates ensured victory. In love magic, Ishtar’s power could alter romantic fortunes. In ancient love charms, her influence was invoked to win, or indeed, capture, the heart (and other body parts) of a desired lover.

Dressed for success

Ishtar is described (by herself in love poems, and by others) as a beautiful, young woman. Her lover, Tammuz, compliments her on the beauty of her eyes, a seemingly timeless form of flattery, with a literary history stretching back to around 2100 BCE. Ishtar and Tammuz are the protagonists of one of the world’s first love stories. In love poetry telling of their courtship, the two have a very affectionate relationship. But like many great love stories, their union ends tragically.

Ishtar’s Midnight Courtship, from Ishtar and Izdubar, the epic of Babylon, 1884.
The British Library/flickr

The most famous account of this myth is Ishtar’s Descent to the Underworld, author unknown. This ancient narrative, surviving in Sumerian and Akkadian versions (both written in cuneiform),
was only deciphered in the 19th Century. It begins with Ishtar’s decision to visit the realm of her sister, Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld.

Ostensibly, she is visiting her sister to mourn the death of her brother-in-law, possibly the Bull of Heaven who appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh. But the other gods in the story view the move as an attempt at a hostile takeover. Ishtar was known for being extremely ambitious; in another myth she storms the heavens and stages a divine coup.

Any questions over Ishtar’s motives are settled by the description of her preparation for her journey. She carefully applies make-up and jewellery, and wraps herself in beautiful clothing. Ishtar is frequently described applying cosmetics and enhancing her appearance before undertaking battle, or before meeting a lover. Much as a male warrior may put on a breast plate before a fight, Ishtar lines her eyes with mascara. She’s the original power-dresser: her enrichment of her beauty and her choice of clothes accentuate her potency.

Next, in a humorous scene brimming with irony, the goddess instructs her faithful handmaiden, Ninshubur, on how to behave if Ishtar becomes trapped in the netherworld. First, Ninshubur must clothe herself in correct mourning attire, such as sackcloth, and create a dishevelled appearance. Then, she must go to the temples of the great gods and ask for help to rescue her mistress. Ishtar’s instructions that her handmaiden dress in appropriately sombre mourning-wear are a stark contrast to her own flashy attire.

‘No one comes back from the underworld unmarked’

But when Ereshkigal learns that Ishtar is dressed so well, she realises she has come to conquer the underworld. So she devises a plan to literally strip Ishtar of her power.

Once arriving at Ereshkigal’s home, Ishtar descends through the seven gates of the underworld. At each gate she is instructed to remove an item of clothing. When she arrives before her sister, Ishtar is naked, and Ereshkigal kills her at once.

Her death has terrible consequences, involving the cessation of all earthly sexual intimacy and fertility. So on the advice of Ishtar’s handmaiden, Ea – the god of wisdom – facilitates a plot to revive Ishtar and return her to the upper world. His plot suceeds, but there is an ancient Mesopotamian saying:

No one comes back from the underworld unmarked.

Once a space had been created in the underworld, it was thought that it couldn’t be left empty. Ishtar is instructed to ascend with a band of demons to the upper world, and find her own replacement.

In the world above, Ishtar sees Tammuz dressed regally and relaxing on a throne, apparently unaffected by her death. Enraged, she instructs the demons to take him away with them.

The Ishtar Gate to the city of Babylon, was dedicated to the Mesopotamian goddess. Reconstruction in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin.
Daniel Mennerich/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

A goddess scorned

Ishtar’s role in her husband’s demise has earned her a reputation as being somewhat fickle. But this assessment does not capture the complexity of the goddess’s role. Ishtar is portrayed in the myth of her Descent and elsewhere as capable of intense faithfulness: rather than being fickle, her role in her husband’s death shows her vengeful nature.

Women and vengeance proved a popular combination in the myths of ancient Greece and Rome, where powerful women such as Electra, Clytemnestra and Medea brought terrible consequences on those who they perceived as having wronged them. This theme has continued to fascinate audiences to the present day.

The concept is encapsulated by the line, often misattributed to Shakespeare, from William Congreve’s The Mourning Bride:

Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.

Before she sees her husband relaxing after her death, Ishtar first encounters her handmaiden Ninshubur, and her two sons. One son is described as the goddess’s manicurist and hairdresser, and the other is a warrior. All three are spared by the goddess due to their faithful service and their overt expressions of grief over Ishtar’s death — they are each described lying in the dust, dressed in rags.

Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, depicting the Roman goddess of love.

The diligent behaviour of Ishtar’s attendants is juxtaposed against the actions of Tammuz, a damning contrast that demonstrates his lack of appropriate mourning behaviour. Loyalty is the main criteria Ishtar uses to choose who will replace her in the underworld. This hardly makes her faithless.

Ishtar’s pursuit of revenge in ancient myths is an extension of her close connection to the dispensation of justice, and the maintenance of universal order. Love and war are both forces with the potential to create chaos and confusion, and the deity associated with them needed to be able to restore order as well as to disrupt it.

Still, love in Mesopotamia could survive death. Even for Tammuz, love was salvation and protection: the faithful love of his sister, Geshtinanna, allowed for his eventual return from the underworld. Love, as they say, never dies — but in the rare cases where it might momentarily expire, it’s best to mourn appropriately.

Ishtar’s legacy

Ishtar was one of the most popular deities of the Mesopotamian pantheon, yet in the modern day she has slipped into almost total anonymity. Ishtar’s legacy is most clearly seen through her influence on later cultural archetypes, with her image contributing to the development of the most famous love goddess of them all, Aphrodite.

There are intriguing similarities between Ishtar and Wonder Woman.
Atlas Entertainment

Ishtar turns up in science fiction, notably as a beautiful yet self-destructive stripper in Neil Gaiman’s comic The Sandman: Brief Lives. Gaiman’s exceptional command of Mesopotamian myth suggests the “stripping” of Ishtar may involve a wink to the ancient narrative tradition of her Descent.

She is not directly referenced in the 1987 film that carries her name (received poorly but now something of a cult classic), although the lead female character Shirra, shows some similarities to the goddess.

In the graphic novel tradition, Aphrodite is credited with shaping the image of Wonder Woman, and Aphrodite’s own image was influenced by Ishtar. This connection may partially explain the intriguing similarities between Ishtar and the modern superhero: both figures are represented as warriors who grace the battlefield wearing bracelets and a tiara, brandishing a rope weapon, and demonstrating love, loyalty and a fierce commitment to justice.

Ishtar, like other love goddesses, has been linked to in ancient sexual and fertility rituals, although the evidence for this is up for debate, and frequently overshadows the deity’s many other fascinating qualities.

Exploring the image of the world’s first goddess provides an insight into Mesopotamian culture, and the enduring power of love through the ages. In the modern day, love is said to conquer all, and in the ancient world, Ishtar did just that.


The ConversationThe author’s book, Ishtar, will be published this month by Routledge.

Louise Pryke, Lecturer, Languages and Literature of Ancient Israel, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Writing is Love, and Love is Hell

Quote of the Day, via Terrible Minds blog by the amazing Robyn Bennis (read it)

Pretty much sums up how I feel about my current WIP…

“Love Is Hell

I love to write. A lot of you love to write, I bet. But, as with any love, there are days you hate it. Some days, writing feels like endless toil. There are days when writing acts distant for no apparent reason, because writing can be a passive-aggressive jerk. Writing is the sort of lover who breaks up with you, then slinks in naked while you’re taking a shower, like nothing happened. You’ll stay up all night with writing and regret it when you have to go to work in the morning. There’ll even be times when you’re trying to focus on something else, but writing won’t stop talking to you no matter how politely you ask.

Simply put, writing is an asshole. Writing steals your money and spends it on stupid things, like another gimmicky book on how to write better, and then it acts like it bought that book for both of you. Writing will take you to heaven and back all day long, but the next morning it’ll be gone without even leaving a note.

Because writing is love, and love is hell.”

Guide to the classics: the Epic of Gilgamesh

Guide to the classics: the Epic of Gilgamesh

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Gilgamesh explores what it means to be human, and questions the meaning of life and love. Wikimedia Commons

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article

Louise Pryke, Macquarie University

“Forget death and seek life!” With these encouraging words, Gilgamesh, the star of the eponymous 4000-year-old epic poem, coins the world’s first heroic catchphrase. The Conversation

At the same time, the young king encapsulates the considerations of mortality and humanity that lie at the heart of the world’s most ancient epic. While much has changed since, the epic’s themes are still remarkably relevant to modern readers.

Depending upon your point of view, Gilgamesh may be considered a myth-making biography of a legendary king, a love story, a comedy, a tragedy, a cracking adventure, or perhaps an anthology of origin stories.

All these elements are present in the narrative, and the diversity of the text is only matched by its literary sophistication. Perhaps surprisingly, given the extreme antiquity of the material, the epic is a masterful blending of complex existential queries, rich imagery and dynamic characters.

The narrative begins with Gilgamesh ruling over the city of Uruk as a tyrant. To keep him occupied, the Mesopotamian deities create a companion for him, the hairy wild man Enkidu.

Gilgamesh in his lion-strangling mode.
TangLung, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Gilgamesh sets about civilising Enkidu, a feat achieved through the novel means of a week of sex with the wise priestess, Shamhat (whose very name in Akkadian suggests both beauty and voluptuousness).

Gilgamesh and Enkidu become inseparable, and embark on a quest for lasting fame and glory. The heroes’ actions upset the gods, leading to Enkidu’s early death.

The death of Enkidu is a pivotal point in the narrative. The love between Gilgamesh and Enkidu transforms the royal protagonist, and Enkidu’s death leaves Gilgamesh bereft and terrified of his own mortality.

The hero dresses himself in the skin of a lion, and travels to find a long-lived great flood survivor, Utanapishtim (often compared with the biblical Noah). After a perilous journey over the waters of death, Gilgamesh finally meets Utanapishtim and asks for the secret to immortality.

In one of the earliest literary anti-climaxes, Utanapishtim tells him that he doesn’t have it. The story ends with Gilgamesh returning home to the city of Uruk.

Mesopotamian mindfulness

Gilgamesh and his adventures can only be described in superlative terms: during his legendary journeys, the hero battles deities and monsters, finds (and loses) the secret to eternal youth, travels to the very edge of the world — and beyond.

Despite the fantastical elements of the narrative and its protagonist, Gilgamesh remains a very human character, one who experiences the same heartbreaks, limitations and simple pleasures that shape the universal quality of the human condition.

Gilgamesh explores the nature and meaning of being human, and asks the questions that continue to be debated in the modern day: what is the meaning of life and love? What is life really — and am I doing it right? How do we cope with life’s brevity and uncertainty, and how do we deal with loss?

The text provides multiple answers, allowing the reader to wrestle with these ideas alongside the hero. Some of the clearest advice is provided by the beer deity, Siduri (yes, a goddess of beer), who suggests Gilgamesh set his mind less resolvedly on extending his life.

Instead, she urges him to enjoy life’s simple pleasures, such as the company of loved ones, good food and clean clothes — perhaps giving an example of a kind of Mesopotamian mindfulness.

The king-hero Gilgamesh battling the ‘Bull of Heaven’.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

The epic also provides the reader with a useful case study in what not to do if one is in the exceptional circumstance of reigning over the ancient city of Uruk. In ancient Mesopotamia, the correct behaviour of the king was necessary for maintaining earthly and heavenly order.

Despite the gravity of this royal duty, Gilgamesh seems to do everything wrong. He kills the divinely-protected environmental guardian, Humbaba, and ransacks his precious Cedar Forest. He insults the beauteous goddess of love, Ishtar, and slays the mighty Bull of Heaven.

He finds the key to eternal youth, but then loses it just as quickly to a passing snake (in the process explaining the snake’s “renewal” after shedding its skin). Through these misadventures, Gilgamesh strives for fame and immortality, but instead finds love with his companion, Enkidu, and a deeper understanding of the limits of humanity and the importance of community.

Reception and recovery

The Epic of Gilgamesh was wildly famous in antiquity, with its impact traceable to the later literary worlds of the Homeric epics and the Hebrew Bible. Yet, in the modern day, even the most erudite readers of ancient literature might struggle to outline its plot, or name its protagonists.

A statue of Gilgamesh at the University of Sydney.
Gwil5083, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

To what might we owe this modern-day cultural amnesia surrounding one of the world’s greatest works of ancient literature?

The answer lies in the history of the narrative’s reception. While many of the great literary works of ancient Greece and Rome were studied continuously throughout the development of Western culture, the Epic of Gilgamesh comes from a forgotten age.

The story originates in Mesopotamia, an area of the Ancient Near East thought to roughly correspond with modern-day Iraq, Kuwait and parts of Syria, Iran and Turkey, and frequently noted as “the cradle of civilisation” for its early agriculture and cities.

Gilgamesh was written in cuneiform script, the world’s oldest known form of writing. The earliest strands of Gilgamesh’s narrative can be found in five Sumerian poems, and other versions include those written in Elamite, Hittite and Hurrian. The best-known version is the Standard Babylonian Version, written in Akkadian (a language written in cuneiform that functioned as the language of diplomacy in the second millennium BCE).

The disappearance of the cuneiform writing system around the time of the 1st century CE accelerated Gilgamesh’s sharp slide into anonymity.

For almost two millennia, clay tablets containing stories of Gilgamesh and his companions lay lost and buried, alongside many tens of thousands of other cuneiform texts, beneath the remnants of the great Library of Ashurbanipal.

Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, Wikimedia Commons

The modern rediscovery of the epic was a watershed moment in the understanding of the Ancient Near East. The eleventh tablet of the Epic was first translated by self-taught cuneiform scholar George Smith of the British Museum in 1872. Smith discovered the presence of an ancient Babylonian flood narrative in the text with striking parallels to the biblical flood story of the Book of Genesis.

The story is often repeated (although it may be apocryphal) that when Smith began to decipher the tablet, he became so excited that he began to remove all his clothing. From these beginnings in the mid-19th century, the process of recovering the cuneiform literary catalogue continues today.

In 2015, the publication of a new fragment of Tablet V by Andrew George and Farouk Al-Rawi made international news. The fragment’s discovery coincided with increased global sensitivity to the destruction of antiquities in the Middle East in the same year. The Washington Post juxtaposed the “heart-warming story” of the find against the destruction and looting in Syria and Iraq.

Ancient ecology

The new section of Tablet V contains ecological aspects that resonate with modern day concerns over environmental destruction. Of course, there are potential anachronisms in projecting environmental concerns on an ancient text composed thousands of years prior to the industrial revolution.

Yet, the undeniable sensitivity in the epic’s presentation of the wilderness is illuminating, considering the long history of humanity’s interaction with our environment and its animal inhabitants.

A cedar forest in Turkey.
Zeynel Cebeci, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

In Gilgamesh, the wilderness is a place of beauty and purity, as well as home to a wild abundance. The splendour and grandeur of the Cedar Forest is described poetically in Tablet V:

They (Gilgamesh and Enkidu) stood marvelling at the forest,

Observing the height of the cedars …

They were gazing at the Cedar Mountain, the dwelling of the gods, the throne-dais of the goddesses …

Sweet was its shade, full of delight.

While the heroes pause to admire the forest’s beauty, their interest is not purely aesthetic. Gilgamesh and Enkidu are aware of the economic value of the cedars, and the text provides a clear picture of competing commercial and ecological interests.

Where to read Gilgamesh

Since Gilgamesh’s reappearance into popular awareness in the last hundred years, the Standard Babylonian Version of the epic has become accessible in numerous translations. This version was originally compiled by the priest, scribe and exorcist, Sin-leqi-uninni, around 1100 BCE.

The scholarly standard among modern translations is Andrew George’s The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts (2003).

Despite its all-around excellence, the two-volume work is decidedly unwieldly, and the less muscle-bound reader would be well directed to The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation (1999), by the same author. Most readable among modern treatments is David Ferry’s Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse (1992), which gives a potent, poetic interpretation of the material.

Like the snake that steals Gilgamesh’s rejuvenation plant, the Epic of Gilgamesh has aged well. Its themes – exploring the tension between the natural and civilised worlds, the potency of true love, and the question of what makes a good life – are as relevant today as they were 4,000 years ago.

Note: Translations are sourced from Andrew R. George 2003. The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts, Volume 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Louise Pryke, Lecturer, Languages and Literature of Ancient Israel, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Origins of WYLT : The Blood Lake Chronicles

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Wylt’s launch is one week away! Thank you to all of the lovely ARC readers who have given me feedback in time for me to fix a few formatting mistakes so the finished copy is perfect.

This blog is going to be as spoiler free as possible but I wanted to share with you how Wylt came into being. Like many of the more interesting things I’ve done it started with a dare.

My best friend and I go through ‘Monster Porn’ stages where life and study becomes so full on that the only books we can consume are romance. Usually with monsters, sometimes with time travelling knights and aliens with questionable anatomy.

The below video by the wonderful Rachel Hollis is a pretty accurate representation of every conversation we have during our romance binge phases:

We were going through such a phase which included me complaining about how disappointing I’d found a top selling vampire romance when the bestie said, ‘You should write one.’ I laughed hard. I have romance elements in my stories but write a full-blown romance? That was a completely different genre. Then she said the magic words ‘I dare you.’ And I agreed to give it a shot.

Writing romance is a strange and wonderful experience. I recommend that every writer try it at least once. There is a definite formula to it but the things you can do within that formula are fantastic. Structurally it has a different beat to every other book I’ve written and I cannot thank JamiGold and her wonderful Beat Sheet Guides for keeping me from wandering off.

I knew I wanted to have a classic gothic feel but with a modern setting, I wanted vampires but a new take on them (I hope you like my new origin story) and I wanted an older female hero that was no nonsense. I was tired of reading stories of 20 something innocent (or highly damaged) girls that you find so often in such novels. I wanted someone real thrown into a world that she thought she knew and then slowly flip it on its head.

Removing all the fantasy elements from the story, the focus has a lot to do with family and the way they interact with each other, the roles that siblings and ourselves fall into. The deep obligations that transcend blood  and that bind people together.

I am a really big nerd when it comes to faerie and a character that had always haunted me was The Autumn Queen. She made her first appearance in a nightmare that I turned into a short story called The Red Shoes that you can find here. She’s never removed her claws from my imagination and I’d always intended to explore her story line. WYLT gave me the perfect opportunity to do that. It’s also given the chance to really explore Celtic themes (and in later books a few Arthurian) that I’ve always loved and wanted to write mash-ups of.

Music always plays a big role in my writing and helps give me a feel for the world in which I am playing in. I’ve released my WYLT playlist on Spotify for anyone who wants a soundtrack while they are reading the story. Its a pretty good mix of modern and classical (including a few waltzs that are mentioned in the novel) and is good at capturing many of my themes.

Pictures and art are also great at feeding my imagination for world building so I also have a massive Pinterest board that is covering all three of The Blood Lake Chronicles if you want to check it out.

My cover has been designed by the incredible Fiona Jayde who was extremely patient with my descriptions of what I was chasing.. ‘You know like old horror movies with the woman running away with a mansion in the background!’ She knew exactly what I wanted and has rendered it beautifully.

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WYLT is a mix of familiar and the new…there is a definite Jane Eyre and Beauty and the Beast vibe going on…but with enough new to keep it interesting.

To quote Rachel Hollis ‘You can pre-order the crap out of it‘ right here.

I hope you like it,

Love Amy and Duke (who does not understand Bookstagramming AT ALL.)

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The real-life origins of the legendary Kraken

Original article on The Conversation by Rodrigo Brincalepe Salvador –PhD student in Paleontology, University of Tubingen

The Kraken is perhaps the largest monster ever imagined by mankind. In Nordic folklore, it was said to haunt the seas from Norway through Iceland and all the way to Greenland. The Kraken had a knack for harassing ships and many pseudoscientific reports (including official naval ones) said it would attack vessels with its strong arms. If this strategy failed, the beast would start swimming in circles around the ship, creating a fierce maelstrom to drag the vessel down.

Of course, to be worth its salt, a monster needs to have a taste for human flesh. Legends say that the Kraken could devour a ship’s entire crew at once. But despite its fearsome reputation, the monster could also bring benefits: it swam accompanied by huge schools of fish that cascaded down its back when it emerged from the water. Brave fishermen could thus risk going near the beast to secure a bounteous catch.

The history of the Kraken goes back to an account written in 1180 by King Sverre of Norway. As with many legends, the Kraken started with something real, based on sightings of a real animal, the giant squid. For the ancient navigators, the sea was treacherous and dangerous, hiding a horde of monsters in its inconceivable depths. Any encounter with an unknown animal could gain a mythological edge from sailors’ stories. After all, the tale grows in the telling.

Scientific legend

Giant squid found in Ranheim, Norway, measured by Professors Erling Sivertsen and Svein Haftorn. NTNU Museum of Natural History and Archaeology, 1954

The strength of the myth became so strong that the Kraken could still be found in Europe’s first modern scientific surveys of the natural world in the 18th century. Not even Carl Linnaeus – father of modern biological classification – could avoid it and he included the Kraken among the cephalopod mollusks in the first edition of his groundbreaking Systema Naturae (1735).

But when, in 1853, a giant cephalopod was found stranded on a Danish beach, Norwegian naturalist Japetus Steenstrup recovered the animal’s beak and used it to scientifically describe the giant squid, Architeuthis dux. And so what had become legend officially entered the annals of science, returning our image of the Kraken to the animal that originated the myths.

After 150 years of research into the giant squid that inhabits all the world’s oceans, there is still much debate as to whether they represent a single species or as many as 20. The largest Architeuthis recorded reaches 18 metres in length, including the very long pair of tentacles, but the vast majority of specimens are much smaller. The giant squid’s eyes are the largest in the animal kingdom and are crucial in the dark depths it inhabits (up to 1,100 metres deep, perhaps reaching 2,000 metres).

Like some other squid species, Architeuthis has pockets in its muscles containing an ammonium solution that is less dense than sea water. This allows the animal to float underwater, meaning that it can keep itself steady without actively swimming. The presence of unpalatable ammonium in their muscles is also probably the reason why giant squid have not yet been fished to near extinction.

Hunter or prey?

For many years, scientists debated whether the giant squid was a swift and agile hunter like the powerful predator of legends or an ambush hunter. After decades of discussion, a welcome answer came in 2005 with the unprecedented film footage from Japanese researchers T. Kubodera and K. Mori. They filmed a live Architeuthis in its natural habitat, 900m deep in the North Pacific, showing that it is in fact a fast and powerful swimmer, using its tentacles to capture prey.

Reconstruction of an epic battle between a giant squid and its nemesis, the sperm whale. American Museum of Natural History.

Despite its size and speed, Architeuthis has a predator: the sperm whale. The battles between these titans must be frequent, since it is common to find scars on whales’ skins left by the squids’ tentacles and arms, which have suckers lined with sharp chitinous tooth-like structures. But Architeuthis doesn’t have the muscles in its tentacles to use them to constrict prey and it can never overcome a sperm whale in a “duel”. Its only option is to flee, covering its escape with the usual cephalopod ink cloud.

Although we now know it is not just a legend, the giant squid remains perhaps the most elusive large animal in the world, which has greatly contributed to its aura of mystery. Many people today are still surprised in learning that it really exists. After all, even after so much scientific research, the Kraken is still alive in popular imagination thanks to films, books and computer games, even if it sometimes turns up in the wrong mythology, such as the 1981 (and 2010) ancient Greek epic Clash of the Titans. These representations have come to define it in the public mind: a beast lurking in sunken ships waiting for reckless divers

Sibelius, I Love You

  
I love Sibelius, in fact I probably listen to more of his incredibly visual music when I write than any other classical composer. I spent yesterday afternoon streaming a wonderful piece by ABC Classic FM about the great man in celebration of his 150th Anniversary of his birth and his later years at his house Ainola. If you aren’t familiar with his work he drew much of his inspiration from the Kalevala epic and the forests and lakes of Finland.

Apart from anecdotes like Churchill sending him cigars for his birthday and Hitler sending him a medal and personal note there was also other things that really resonated with me like the fact he worked on his 8th Symphony for thirty years and then tossed it into the fireplace because he felt it would diminish his earlier works, he just didn’t think it was good enough. That is…rough. As an artist I get it. I don’t think I know one writer who hasn’t wanted to burn it all at some point.

Sibelius’ music has a way of twisting into your heart and pulling roughly on the emotional strings. If you’re eyes don’t well once while you really sit there and listen then I would be very surprised (King Christian II Incidental Op.27 I. Nocturne gets me EVERY time). He’s a composer, yes, but he’s also a story teller. He paints images and stories in your mind with notes, so it didn’t surprise me to learn he used to associate different musical notes with colors. I’m sure if he had wanted to he could’ve written a song based on the colours used on any painting of his good friend, the great Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela. They both loved the Kalevala and drew heavily from it, they understood the power of story telling. 

   
When I was in Helsinki last I went to his beautiful monument (it actually features in Rise of the Firebird aswell) and could really SEE his music as I travelled through the country. To my mind he captured the heart and beauty and something inherently Finnish in his music. He never compromised his art, never wrote in a style because he thought it would be popular and make him money, was unflinching focused on the music his heart wanted to create. There’s a lesson for everyone there.

If you like classical, take the time. You won’t be disappointed.