A Story to Remember the Next Time You Swing, and What My Recent Painting is About

Anyone who has visited Washington-on-the-Brazos, or taken a class on Texas History, will recognize this spooky little hut as Independence Hall, the place where Texas was born in March of 1836. It’s about an hour-and-a-half from Houston, so G and I have made the trip a couple of times to get away from the noise and mess of Boomtown. It’s incredibly peaceful, and I suspect a little bit haunted.

Independence Hall at Washington on the Brazos

Independence Hall at Washington on the Brazos

 

Maybe that’s why it crept into my painting of Erigone and her dog, Maera, which is still simmering on my easel. It’s a tragic story. The Greek god of wine, Dionysus, came to Athens and taught Erigone’s Father how to harvest and ferment grapes into wine. His name was Icarius. He was so excited that he loaded up barrels of wine onto a cart, along with his loyal dog, Maera, to spread the knowledge across the land. The first group he came upon was a few simple shepherds. He gave them a sample and they soon started to feel very unlike themselves. “You’ve poisoned us!” they shouted, and turned on Icarius with their fists and staffs until he was quite dead. Soon after the drink wore off and they realized they were okay, but it was too late. They buried his body under a tree and fled into the night.

 

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons | Mosaic in Cyprus dating back to the Roman Empire

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons | Mosaic in Cyprus dating back to the Roman Empire

Now in the meantime Erigone was back at the homestead wondering what had happened to her father when Maera returned alone, barking wildly. She lead Erigone back down the road, to the field where her father’s broken, lifeless body lay buried beneath the tree. She was overcome with grief; out of despair, she cursed the daughters of those who did this to her father, wishing they die as she did, then hung herself in the branches above his grave. Maera, the ever-faithful hound, stayed beneath her until she died as well.

 

According to one version of the myth, Dionysus was so angry about the murder of Icarius and the suicide of Erigone that he put a magical spell on Athens; all of the virgins went mad and hung themselves. The leaders went to the Oracle at Delphi and learned to stop the suicides, they needed to honor the memory of Erigone by finding the bodies of her and her father. They couldn’t find them in the ground, so they began looking in the air for their spirits. Eventually they appeased the gods through offerings of fruit and hanging an effigy of Erigone from a branch. The tradition continued in a purification ritual that happened around Carnival, called Aiora, where girls swung from swings suspended from the trees.
Zeus felt so sorry for the three that he put them all into the stars:


Erigone as the constellation of Virgo,Maera as Canis Minor, or the Dog Star, Icarius as Boötes

In the anthropologist Sir James George Frazer's book, The Golden Bough, the swinging festival "was regarded by the ancients as an expiation for a suicide or suicides by hanging. This opinion is strongly confirmed by a statement of Varro, that it was unlawful to perform funeral rites in honour of persons who had died by hanging, but that in their case such rites were replaced by a custom of swinging images, as if in imitation of the death they had died. " (p.282 - read it in its entirety here.) He goes onto suggesting that swinging might even serve as a purification act, and "drive away the baleful ghosts."

My painting seems to be morphing into a collection of the experiences I’ve been having over years, from my journey to Japan, my time in Athens, my bicycle rides around Washington on the Brazos. In my version of Erigone, a house has been built around the tree where Erigone hung herself over Icarus’s buried body. It’s like a Jinja- a Shinto sanctuary surrounded by trees, where people (and non-people) suspend little offerings and prayers in the trees. The four dogs visiting Erigone are forest spirits paying tribute with a contribution for the tree shrine. The object in its mouth is not important- it might be a little paper structure, a flower, or some other plant. Its only purpose is to swing.