I believe that the first era of sensitive men didn’t invent gods as they were aware enough of the true spirits of nature as it was, aware of the senses of the animals and of the plants, becoming true shamans with a deep knowledge of living nature and its spirits.
These men, labelled now as Palaeolithic, were the first ones who created artistic teachings for us as prayers to the spirits of nature. Even if we tend to overlook the engravings and meanings of them, they knew that man was not strong enough or didn’t have enough power or wasn’t yet evolved enough to reach certain targets. A wolf always had more sense of smell than us. An eagle always had better vision than us. After engraving and representing the deer or rhino they wanted to hunt on the walls of the cave, they knew that invoking the spirits of other animals to be part of their own selves as hunters, they would turn better, more powerful, with better senses, or with more ability to hunt their prey. Representing as self-portrait of the community, the main hunter with a wolf’s head, the other with antennas on their heads, another with other parts of other animals, to bring to them the spirit of the chosen animal to help them in the hunting. This not only resulted in the first representation of hybrids half human half animals, but brings us also the knowledge of their rituals, beliefs and awareness of pure nature, respecting them as they are.
In fact, except the way of representing them artistically, and the future need of creating gods more powerful than men, this notion of a hybrid or need of hybridization to give men more power to become gods themselves, didn’t change much. The purity and true shamanism might have disappeared with time, but even today we tend to say that a politic is being a fox or has lion’s complex for example, to give the person an animal attribute.
We all know that the need of gods in Egypt and then in ancient Rome and Greece, kept alive and gave new shapes and powers to these hybrid-gods, created by men with the need of having something superior as an aim to be reached often as perfection that would keep men knowing it would be impossible though.
The Anubis, half man half jackal, became the Egyptian god of death, once jackals were considered animals that used to wonder around cemeteries. Horus, “The One Far Above”, is another god, half man half hawk, who became protector of Egypt, and they would believe that the Pharaoh was the god on earth or the living Horus. Thoth, a man’s body with the head of an Ibis, was the god of writings. Khnum was a creator-god, moulding people on a potter’s wheel, with his head of a curly-horned ram. Sekhmet, is represented with a lion’s head, god of destruction.
In Rome and Greece we have another set of hybrid gods and semi-gods, beings of power, like the powerful Minotaur, a man with a bull’s head that gave him the powerful body it had, or the most destructive monster, the Typhon, represented with an upper man’s body with thousands of wings, from his neck hundred heads of dragons fire flashing from his eyes, with viper’s tails as legs.
If we go east, we also have representations of gods and monsters to be feared, being Ganesh, the Hindu god with an elephant head one of them, or Garuda, still the symbol of Thailand, iconic in Hinduism and Buddhism, represented by a man with a mythical bird head and wings, kind of phoenix, another mythological being full of power. But while Garuda has rapine talons in its man’s body, Phoenix has lion’s legs and paws.
All these representations were still used to bring the power of the animals to men to fear, as gods or monsters, beings of good or of evil. They were also given importance and it was believed that they were responsible for the storms or natural accidents when they didn’t have the knowledge yet to explain them… or if so, it was better to keep ordinary people under fear, as it always happened and still happens with all religions or manipulators of gods and monsters.
Nowadays, even the football teams are represented by a lion, an eagle, a dragon, animals that can give the sense of power. These animals have been also used by nobility if we see the medieval heraldry, the coat of arms of noble families or even Christian high priests.
But it’s curious that with the arrival of Christianity, the concept of the pure shamanism connected to the spirits of nature, changed in its representation, maybe even hiding the main concept from the mass. The symbolic use of powerful animal became a privilege of wealthy and powerful families. For the ordinary people were given the new beasts…
Much like the actual play that kids are used to, called “Le Secret Arabe” in French or the political correct “the broken phone” which was originally “The Chinese Whispers”, played in many countries. The game is often played by children and is often invoked as a metaphor for cumulative error, especially the inaccuracies as rumours or gossip spread, or, more generally, for the unreliability of human recollection. The now called “Lost in Translation”.
A European country sends boats to discover the world, and upon landing, one man describe to another that he saw a new monster that no one had ever seen in Europe: “it was a massive huge beast which ate the first 5 men who arrived, with teeth like sabers and a giant body, a bull’s tail and eagle’s talons covered in hair.” The monster was created, now after the second man described his own perception of the lion to another, who by his turn had a new and zoomed perception described to another, and another, and another, till the most awkward and amplified version reached an artist who decided to draw it… here we have the origin of the “broken phone game”, and also the origin of the creative medieval bestiary: lions with eagle’s talons and viper’s tails are now tormenting the people, creating fears in them by the new beast’s power which I heard, someone captured one and brought it in the boat and it escaped being now wild and free on our lands waiting to attack in a massive killing… if we don’t pay the tax to the church.
A new sense of morality came, even if Leda kept getting pregnant by the swan, depicted by all and one more artist or the beautiful hybrids like the mermaids who had the power of enchantment, singing and calling the men leading the ships to drown them all.
Men in its evolution created an unconscious separation between them and nature, as we had with shamans. The religions start having the need of using these powerful beings and forces to show the rules of morality, bringing the hybrids to show what was Good and what was Bad. Bringing new fears and new sense of guilt, so they could easily control the masses. And it was so intense that even today that though we’re considered intelligent, most of people keep living like sheep, in flocks, following the one who rules. Another metaphor. Always with animals, to upgrade or degrade humanity.
Dragons though are to be fought and killed by human heroes. Every time that a leader considers it a bad dragon. Or just untamed by him.
Since the very beginning of my own needs of creating, I’ve been fascinated by these “Imaginary Beings”, as they were called by Jorge Luis Borges as title of his book “Los Seres Imaginarios” in its original. With a father who was a master in heraldry always drawing these hybrids like the Harpy, (an eagle with female breasts and head); and a great-grand-father well known naturalistic who drew the engravings for the Histoire Naturelle, Encyclopaedia by Denis Diderot (18th century), I grew up with a strong empathy to all nature (flora and fauna), aware of the shamanism and the power of it.
As a 10yo, I had collected already a full big trunk of images, magazine cuts and all related to Amazon and its fauna. At 12 I was spending my spare time at the zoo observing and drawing the animals. At 13, I did an exhibition of collages of photographs with hybrids half human half animals, over math’s papers, at an important art gallery in Lisbon. Along with my education, I was disciple of several masters of fine arts, including a sculptor, and all the works I did, at the time in clay and afterwards in heated bronze boards, were my own imaginary beings.
Later on, the series Oneness, was my first approach to the subject using photography as a means for creativity, representing not only some shamanic rituals and rites, but also interacting or creating a more empathic connection with animals, nature and its own spirits.
Today, science fiction movies make the space ships look like cockroaches with wings of dragonflies, taking people with fish windpipes, snake skins and many other forms and shapes from animals, creating a perfect being for the conditions where they live in. So even today, and it seems never ending, mankind will always try to reach perfection by adding new complements to our own body. Like the palaeolithics, engraving their bodies with wolf’s heads to bring them the spirit of the animal and their senses.
My aim with this exhibition is to illustrate in photography the description made by Jorge Luis Borges in his book “The Imaginary Beings”, which by his turn, following the kids game “The Broken Phone”, described some hybrids and other beasts by what he heard and read, making my own bestiary like many other artists did, from renaissance till now.
This new series of photography will show some new hybrids, half human half animals, bringing men new awareness of himself, getting new powers and skills even if only in its own mind.
The medieval dragons will always be in our imaginary worlds.
As if they wouldn’t exist.
But while part of the bestiary is a collection of imaginary beings mostly animals, or mixing different parts of animals creating new ones, other part is bringing the animals to men himself, fulfilling our wish to reach perfection, giving us more power and skills, like wings to fly as we always dreamed of. However, even the beasts not human were created to have more power and skills than the existent ones, giving again wings to lions, or talons to vipers.
They usually don’t fit in our sense of aesthetic, as we’re not used to them, or at least, not in zoos. In Natural History Museums we can see cases of deformations though or rare cases, for example unicorn Impalas, 2 headed foxes or 4 arms’ monkeys that could also serve as inspiration for some of these imaginary beings.
Totem is an ongoing series in which we learn how to listen and learn with our own nature. Our own culture. A come back to our own roots, like the Old Wise Shamans we are.
Totem is, by definition, a being or object representing an animal or plant, believed by a particular society to have spiritual significance. It’s usually a sacred symbol of veneration, cult and tribute for protection. It’s often related to old Shamanism.
Totem beliefs have been historically present in societies throughout much of the world, including Africa, America, Arabia, Asia, Australia, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and the Arctic polar region. In modern times, some people, not otherwise involved in the practice of a tribal religion, have chosen to adopt a personal spirit animal helper, which has special meaning to them, and may refer to this as a totem. Almost as continuation of the Oneness series, here I used the 4 elements bringing the Fire as part of a living being as life itself; Earth, in the clay, mud and skin; Air and Water in the sky and clouds.
See the 3 series of the exhibition:
Animals, inspired in the book Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges;
Hybrids, half human half animals, inspired in the classic murals;
Totem, self-portraits as Totem and Shaman, the connections between Human and Divine.
Text and photographs by Gonzalo Bénard, visual artist and author of The Sacred Book of G. Purchase The Sacred Book of G directly from the publisher, Amazon, Barnes & Noble or WaterStones.
on twitter: @GBenard
When I’m not blogging on 2HeadS about photography, I’m doing photography, walking, cooking, reading or thinking how can I get to the roof to be naked up there counting the clouds or even watering the plants while fighting with dragons to feel myself a hero. Or just guiding my tutees. All these while writing a new book and preparing new exhibitions and developing new projects.