Cultures of the World by Kankana Debnath

Cultures of the World:

An Art & Culture Series by Dr. Kankana Debnath

In this new Series, Kankana looks at different cultures of the world through its deities, and comes up with an artwork for each once every week explaining the cultural context behind it. 

Post 5: Hel, Norse Goddess of Underworld/Death

The Norse goddess Hel was the goddess of the Underworld, one of the places where ancient Norsemen thought dead people went, according to the Norse mythology. This was often called Helheim, which actually meant “the realm of Hel” and it is a cold, lifeless land of the north, under the ground. Her reign was not always depicted in negative terms. Normally people who ended up there were told to keep on with their ordinary lives, the ones they led before dying. Negative portrayals of the Underworld also exist, but they seem to have been influenced by the Christian concept of Hell and have no link with the authentic Norse mythology.

The Norse goddess of Underworld or Death Hell

Norse or Scandinavian mythology of the body of myths of the North Germanic people originating from Norse paganism. These myths revolved around gods and goddesses with fascinating and highly complex characters, such as Odin, Thor, Freya, and Loki.

The Norse goddess Hel was said to be the daughter of the trickster god Loki and of the giantess Angrboda. As such, she would have been the sister of the evil wolf Fenrir and of the monstrous serpent Jormungand, which would have had a crucial role in the Ragnarok. The Norse goddess of death Hel is mentioned many times in the Prose Edda, an Old Norse text. In this book, it is told that the gods, afraid of the evil that could come from Loki’s children, would have sent Hel to the Underworld, of which she would have been put in charge.

However, this illustration is from the popular Hollywood movie Thor: Ragnarok which is the adaptation of the Marvel Comics of the same name. Here, Hela is potrayed to be the daughter of Odin, supreme god and ruler of Asgard, sister to Thor and Loki. She was locked away by her father for her obsession to be the supreme leader of the universe for which she slaughtered many across the realms. She was later killed during the destruction of Asgard by Ragnarok.

Posted on 16th June, 2022


Post 4: Ix Chel, the Mayan Deity

Ix Chel (pronounced Ishchel) is one of the most important deities of the Mayan civilization. According to the archaeological tradition, she is the Moon Goddess, connected to fertility and procreation linked to the earth especially during the cycles of the moon which determine the times of planting and harvest. She was also associated with the rains and the Mayan Rain God Chaac. Normally, she is depicted as a young woman (as a symbol of the waxing moon) or else as an older woman (as a symbol of the waning moon). Here, she is shown as the latter. On her head, she wears a serpent, and the pattern on her skirt is of bones in the form of a cross. Her name, Ix Chel, has been translated as “Lady Rainbow” or as “She of the Pale Face,” an allusion to the moon’s surface. The religion to which she belongs is the Classic and Late Post Classic period Mayan.

Dr. Kankana illustrates Ix Chel, here, as a powerful aged woman identified not just with birth and creation but with death and world destruction.

As a young woman, Ix Chel is represented as a beautiful, youthful wife, and is occasionally associated with references to the lunar crescent and rabbits, a pan-Meso-American reference to the moon (in fact, many cultures see a rabbit in the moon’s face). She often appears with a beak-like appendage protruding from her upper lip. She is associated with weaving in the post-classic period.

The older version (the one illustrated here), on the other hand, is a powerful aged woman identified not just with birth and creation but with death and world destruction. If these are different Goddesses and not aspects of the same Goddess, the second version is most likely to be the Ix Chel, according to the ethnographic reports, and is married to Itzamna (another supreme male Mayan god) and, thus, is one of the two “Creator Gods” of Maya origin myths. She has a raft of phonetic names including Chac Chel (“Red Rainbow” or “Great End”). This version is depicted with a red body earing a skirt marked with crossed bones and other death symbols. She is closely identified with the Mayan Rain God Chaac like the other version and often seen illustrated with pouring water or flood images. In fact, second version of the Goddess is also sometimes associated with weaving, cloth production, water, curing, divination, and destruction; and with making children and childbirth. According to American archaeologist Traci Ardren (2015), the identification of Ix Chel as a single Moon Goddess combining female sexuality and traditional gender roles of fertility comes straight from the minds of the earliest scholars studying her. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the male western scholars brought their own biases about women and their roles in society into their theories about Mayan myths. 

Posted on 18th May, 2022


Post 3: Medusa, the Greek mythological character

For #SaturdayArt today, we have today Medusa, the Greek mythological character.

Medusa is better known as a mythological character than the previous illustrations of deities in this series.  However, there are versions of narrations which state that Medusa was worshipped as a goddess and not a monster that represented the natural cycle of birth, death and rebirth, a perspective on which today’s illustration is sketched. 

Medusa is usually depicted as a woman who has live snakes for hair and a gaze which turns any living being into stone instantly

Portrayed as a ‘monstrous gorgon’ in Greek mythology roughly means ‘a monstrous being’. Medusa is normally featured as a woman who has live snakes for hair and a gaze which turns any living being into stone instantly. She resides in a cave in the far end of the Earth as gorgons in Greek mythology are often depicted as. She is said to have an aggressive nature with a demonized appearance.

Some historical narration records described Medusa to be born along with her two sisters, Stheno and Euryale, to Greek sea deities Phorcys and Ceto. Medusa was born mortal while her two siblings were born immortal and ageless. The three sisters were priestesses in the temple of Athena, Greek goddess of war, handicraft, and practical reasoning. She drew enmity from the Greek god of sea Poseidon over the control of the city of Athens. Sometimes later Poseidon took interest in Medusa and resorted to sexual assault when she resisted him (alternative narrations state that both fell in love and had an affair). This encounter of Poseidon enraged Athena to the point that she blamed Medusa entirely citing that her beauty is the cause and thus cursed her to be a hideous monster with snakes for hair and a vicious gaze which will kill any man who looks at them. She was banished to a cave in the far end of the world. Later, her violence grew so much that the Gods of Olympus sent the demi-god Perseus (son of Zeus and a human princess Danae) to kill her. Armed with weapons from Athena and Hermes (Herald of the Gods of Olympus) he was able to behead her.

However, Medusa was the perfect example of a victim of an extreme patriarchal system where irrespective of the narrations she was held accountable and was punished by her patron who was a woman herself. Accused of being beautiful and in some other lesser known depictions she was also a woman with intelligence and a modern outlook, traits in women which are typically feared by patriarchal society.

Posted on 16th April 2022


Post 2: The Egyptian Sun God Ra

For #SaturdayArt today, Kankana brings to us the Egyptian Sun God Ra.

Ra, usually depicted in human form, has a falcon head that is crowned with a sun disc. This sun disc is encircled by a sacred cobra named Uraeus, which symbolizes royalty, sovereignty and divine authority. The right eye of Ra represents the Sun; while the left eye of Ra represents the moon. He holds a scepter in his left and an ankh (like a cross with a loop at the top which symbolized life in ancient Egypt) in his right.

The Egyptian Sun God Ra who represents represents sunlight, warmth and growth. 

There are several other depictions of Ra where he has been depicted as a man with the head of a beetle and also sometimes with the head of a ram. The ancient Egyptians also depicted Ra in full species form such as a serpent, heron, bull, lion, cat, ram, hawk, beetle, phoenix and others. 

His main symbol, however, is the sun disk. Ra is the god who represents sunlight, warmth and growth. 

Ra created himself from the primordial chaos and it was believed that all humans are created from his tears. Although Ra dates back to the second dynasty of Egyptian civilization history, he is not the oldest of the Egyptian gods. It wasn’t until the fifth dynasty that Ra became closely associated with the pharaoh. As the king and leader of Egypt, the pharaoh was seen as the human manifestation of Horus (the falcon headed god of war and sky), so the two gods became connected. This new deity fusion was then referred to as “Ra-Horakhty”, meaning Ra is Horus of the Horizon. Ra’s relationship with other gods did not stop there. As the powerful creator of mankind and the sun god, he also became associated with Atum to make “Atum-Ra.” Fifth Dynasty and subsequent pharaohs were all known as “The son of Ra ” and Ra became incorporated into every pharaoh’s name from then onward. During the Middle Kingdom, the new deity, Amun-Ra was formed who represented eight elements of creation. 

The ancient Egyptians worshiped Ra to such an extent above other gods that some historians have argued that ancient Egyptian religion was indeed a monotheistic one with Ra as the singular god. However historians believe that the pyramids might represent rays of sunlight, further connecting the pharaohs with Ra, the sun god. Ra’s glory came to an end during the time when the Roman’s conquered Egypt in 30BC.

Posted on: 9th April 2022


Post 01: Quan Yin

Today’s art features one of the deities most frequently seen on altars in East Asian temples (especially in China), Quan Yin (also spelled Kwan Yin, Kuanyin, Guanyin). The name Quan Yin in Sanskrit means Padma-pâni, or “Born of the Lotus.” This is because the Goddess is depicted as standing on a lotus flower as well with a calm and peaceful demeanor.

Quan Yin is the only deity among Buddhist gods who is loved rather than feared. She was originally male until the early part of the 12th century and has evolved since that time from her prototype, Avalokiteshvara, “the merciful lord of utter enlightenment,” an Indian bodhisattva who chose to remain on earth to bring relief to the suffering rather than enjoying for himself the ecstasies of Nirvana. 

One of the several stories surrounding Quan Yin is that she was a Buddhist who through great love and sacrifice during life had earned the right to enter Nirvana after death. However, like Avlokiteshvara, while standing before the gates of Paradise she heard a cry of anguish from the earth below. Turning back to earth, she renounced her reward of bliss eternal but in its place found immortality in the hearts of the suffering. 

In China she has many names whose meanings are known as “great mercy, great pity, salvation from misery, salvation from woe, self-existent, thousand arms and thousand eyes,” etc. In addition she is often referred to as the Goddess of the Southern Sea (Indian Archipelago) and has been often compared to the Virgin Mary. She is one of the San Ta Shih, or the Three Great Beings, renowned for their power over the animal kingdom or the forces of nature. These three Bodhisattvas or P’u Sa as they are known in China, are namely, Manjusri (Skt.) or Wên Shu, Samantabhadra or P’u Hsien, and Avalokitesvara or Quan Yin. 

She is the goddess of fecundity as well as of mercy. Worshiped especially by women, this goddess comforts the troubled, the sick, the lost, the senile and the unfortunate. Her popularity has grown such through the centuries that she is now also regarded as the protector of seafarers, farmers and travelers. She cares for souls in the underworld, and is invoked during post-burial rituals to free the soul of the deceased from the torments of purgatory. She is worshiped on the 19th day of the 2nd, 6th and 9th moons. 

Worshipers pray for sons, wealth, and protection. She believed to bring children, protect people from sorrow, guide seamen and fishermen (the reason she is always seen posing in “crossing the waves”). Her principal temple is on China’s island of Putuoshan, Chusan Archipelago off the Zhejiang coast near Ningbo. It is a major pilgrimage site sacred to the Buddhists, the worship of Quan Yin. 

Posted: 19th March, 2022

Kankana Debnath
Political Writer. Honourary Reporter. Artist

Kankana is a doctorate from Centre for Indo-Pacific studies, JNU. She is a political writer with the Caravan Magazine, Delhi Press (caravanlive.com) and is also an Honourary Reporter with Korea.net, Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Sports, South Korea. Kankana practices art as a hobby (pencil sketch, copicmarker art, gouchae and watercolours), which is a soul-food for her.

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