The Curiously Affirming Female Figurines of Ancient Europe

Trigger warning: statue of a naked fat lady

This post is the second in a series of posts based on chapters from this book:

The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age by Richard Rudgley, Touchstone, 2000.

As Rudgley writes in the Introduction:

In this book I will show … how great is the debt of historical societies to their prehistoric counterparts in all spheres of cultural life; and how civilised in many respects were those human cultures that have been reviled as savage.

Ibid, p. 1

What do you mean, “Stone Age”?

“Stone Age,” of course, sounds very ancient, and that is by design. But when Rudgley talks about the Stone Age, often the dates involved are “only” about 12,000 to 10,000 years ago (approximately the time we think that people were crossing the Land Bridge). This falls before the beginning of recorded history — we think — unless we are willing to accept local origin myths worldwide as inevitably garbled historical records. After the small amount of study I have done about the historicity of myths, of Genesis, and of the many amazing prehistoric engineering feats, I no longer think of Stone Age people as “cave men,” but rather as fully modern humans, certainly our intellectual equals and probably our superiors. For my disclaimer about the dating of archaeological sites and prehistoric events, see my last post about Rudgley, here.

The “Venuses” of Eurasia

Chapter 14 of Rudgley (pp 184 – 200) discusses the large number of small female figurines which have been found all over Europe and as far east as Siberia. These are called “Venuses,” though of course they would not have been called that by the original artists. They were being produced (if we take the dating at face value) over a period of many thousands of years.

The oldest one, according to Rudgley, dates to the Aurignacian age, about 31,000 years ago: “the Venus of Galgenburg [Austria].” It is 7 mm tall, made of a soft green stone, and is artistically sophisticated. The figure is posed as if dancing. She is bearing her weight on her left leg. The right leg is carved free of the left and braces on the base of the figure. The right arm is carved free of the body, with the hand bracing on the knee. Clearly the sculptor knew what he or she was doing when it came to posing the figure, carving free limbs that would not break off, and piercing through the material without breaking it. Since this is (by hypothesis) the oldest such figure that we have, it’s clear that we don’t have a case of an artistic tradition that started out crude and later became more advanced. (pp 192 – 194)

Probably the best-known of these figures is the Venus of Willendorf (also found in Austria).

When I was first exposed (pun not intended) to this little figurine, it was introduced to me simply as “the mother goddess.” Although shocking to modern eyes, it is certainly a work of art. As you can see, it has no face, but it has a considerable amount of detail in odd places such as the knees, private parts, and hairdo. The hair looks a bit like corn rows to me, but could also be braids wrapped around the head or even styled curls a la the Babylonian kings. “Alexander Marshack believes the coiffure of the Willendorf figurine may be one of the symbols of a mature and fertile woman” (198).

Not all of the Stone Age Venuses are fat or naked.

Bednarik is very skeptical about the usefulness of lumping all female figurines of the period together, noting that they are extremely diverse in numerous ways. Some are naked; others partly or fully clothed. Some are in pregnant condition; others are not. Some are fat to the point of obesity, whilst others are very slender. Beyond the fact that they all depict females and most come from the same period of the Upper Palaeolithic, they appear to have little in common.

Ibid, p. 197

The Meaning of the Venuses

Figures like the Willendorf Venus are very intriguing to some people, for obvious reasons. The explanation most ready to hand is that they are artifacts of some kind of fertility religion. This explanation is the more intuitive because of what we know about the importance that fertility often plays in pagan religions worldwide.

Marija Gimbutas has taken these figures and other evidence to posit a wide-ranging “civilization of the goddess” in Old Europe. (She published a book with that title in 1991.) She deduces (or speculates) quite a lot about this religion from Venus artifacts and from other sources. Her thesis is that the gentle, goddess-worshipping Old Europeans were overrun by warlike worshippers of a sky god coming from the Eurasian steppes (i.e. the Indo-Europeans). Gimbutas’ work had quite a strong influence on one of my high school literature teachers, who emphasized to us that worshipers of a male sky god “always” come to rape, pillage and plunder, steal, kill, and destroy. (At this point, the neo-pagans in the class would give the Christians the side eye.) We will deal with Gimbutas in another post, probably later this year.

In Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear books, the venuses are definitely symbols of a goddess of fertility and sexuality. Her male lead Jondalar comes from a matriarchal society in western Europe where the figurines are referred to as doni. Jondalar, when distressed, will even exclaim, “Oh, Doni!” The female lead Ayla, meanwhile, was raised by Neanderthals, who in Auel’s books severely oppress their women (because, of course, they fear their procreative power).

Moving even farther along the continuum of being obsessed with sex, Rudgley’s chapter includes a hilarious discussion of how some archaeologists have gotten over-excited and begun to interpret nearly all Palaeolithic art as porn.

It has been suggested that another important aspect of Aurignacian art was their liberal and frequent use of sexual imagery, particularly … female genitalia. This theory was first developed by l’Abbe Breuil … The idea soon caught on among French prehistorians and became something of a dogma, and various shapes engraved in stone … that looked vaguely like a vulva were automatically perceived as such by scholars eager to discover further proof of the prehistoric obsession with sexual matters. … Perhaps the most absurd example of all is a description of a simple straight line as a representation of the vaginal opening.

Ibid, pp. 194 – 195

It just cracks me up that these were French prehistorians. Of course they were. Of course.

Rudgley sums up in a way that I think is quite reasonable and balanced:

[T]he fact that the figurines are found across a huge geographical area and a period of thousands and thousands of years means that it would be ridiculous to think that they all symbolised the same thing to their extremely diverse makers. It is quite apparent that the female body was used to express numerous concerns in Palaeolithic times. [198]

We can now see how any crude explanation of the Willendorf figurine as simply a fertility figure or an object of sexual desire is entirely inadequate. The representation of the female body during the Upper Palaeolithic period … was a symbol of cosmological significance that was able to express all aspects of Palaeolithic human concerns. [199]

If the female body was one of the most widespread and elaborate images of the Old Stone Age, and a symbol for the various forces of nature and the various aspects of culture, would it really be so far from the mark to believe that the figurines actually embody aspects of the Palaeolithic worship of a goddess? [200]

Rudgley, Lost Civilizations, chapter 14

… So, Why Are They Affirming Again?

Well, obviously, on the most superficial level, the Willendorf Venus is an implied affirmation to any modern woman who is pregnant, aging, or concerned about her weight. Somebody worked very hard to portray this lady.

On a slightly deeper level, our modern culture is one that really hates the idea of motherhood. We don’t like the idea that potential motherhood is a defining characteristic of being a woman, or that it might be a worthy or even glorious goal. Unfortunately for our tidy little minds, though, motherhood (besides being a kind of superpower) is in fact a built-in goal in the design of women. Which means that knocking it as a role and calling is pretty hard on women, even those who don’t realize it, because we, as a culture, are constantly asking them, in a thousand ways large and small, if for the sake of decency they could please not exist.

In this kind of environment, it’s a tonic to know that it was not always thus. There could exist – there apparently did exist – a culture that greatly valued, perhaps even worshiped, mothers. You don’t have to be an acolyte of the goddess to appreciate the boost this gives women.

Worshiping a good thing, rather than its creator, is idolatry and idols always turn on their followers. Thus, a religion of motherhood certainly would have come with its own distortions and injustices (such as devaluing infertile women, as we see in the Old Testament). But still … it’s nice to know that at one time a mature, even obese woman was considered a thing so good that she could possibly be worshiped.

I am dealing with this topic not because I feel a particular affinity for it. I don’t enjoy looking at the Venus of Willendorf, and despite the paragraph above I would not want to look like her. I tackled these figurines because my area of interest is prehistory, and durned if they don’t show up in it. Finding out how affirming they are to women was just an unexpected bonus. And if they do feel really weird even as they are affirming, I think the weirdness comes because they are from such a different culture.

I'd Like to Say You're Gonna Make It … Children

I’d like to say that everything will be all right

from the time you’re startin’ out in the mornin’

to the time you fall asleep in the sweet moonlight.

I’d like to say that the world is fair,

that you can face it from an easy chair.

I’d like to say it, but it’s just not true.

You do your best, but it’s not always up to you.

So hand it over to hands that are stronger.

His hand is on you if you’ll hand it over.

On My Complete Failure to Find the Kachina Bridge Dinosaur

Sometimes you want to see something with your own eyes.

My Dinosaurs in History post includes a link to a web site that discusses an Anasazi petroglyph that looks an awful lot like a dinosaur. Even on the web site, you can tell that the original petroglyph is very, very faint.

from the Defending Genesis web site
from Defending Genesis again

It’s on Kachina Bridge, which is in Natural Bridges National Park in southern Utah. So when I learned I would be passing through southern Utah, I thought I had better go and look at the thing myself. Do my due diligence. How could I live near this thing, drive right by it, and not try to get a glimpse?

Getting to Kachina Bridge

Here’s how to get to Kachina Bridge. First you drive to Natural Bridges National Park, which is about 35 miles from the main highway. The road is very good, but it is so twisty, with so much climbing, that the 35 mile drive took us about an hour.

We checked in at the Visitors’ Center and showed our national parks pass. From there, you drive your car around a one-way loop that takes you past all the major overlooks in the park. From the loop, you can park your car and access the trail heads. Kachina Bridge is down in a rocky canyon. The trail is about 1.5 miles round trip, but it’s basically vertical. It’s a combination of stone steps, scrambling over red rock following a trail marked by little cairns, scrambling down red rock faces aided by handrails the park has installed, and, in one case, a short climb down a wooden ladder.

It’s a beautiful hike, but despite what the Defending Genesis web site says, this trail would not be easy to navigate while carrying something bulky such as a ladder. In our case, it was made more beautiful and more perilous by the presence of snow and icy patches.

(By the way, could I just pause here and express how grateful I am for our national parks. Someone has created and maintained a fantastic road to get out to this place, then a driving loop and parking places, and then a trail with carved steps, handholds, etc. Because of all this, I (and even my kids!) are able to access this remote and beautiful spot. Without all this, we would have no reason to go there, no way to get there, and probably no idea that the place existed.)

Anyway, finally we were on the canyon bottom. We followed a gravel path beside a stream, and eventually we emerged and – ta-da! – there was the bridge before us.

Sneaky Petroglyphs

When you first get to the bridge, your natural instinct is to approach it and then walk under it. Consequently, I at first walked right past all the petroglyphs without even noticing them. Or actually, I walked right under them.

The biggest group of petroglyphs is on the side of Kachina Bridge that faces you as you approach it. They are on a relatively flat, vertical strip of canyon wall, about 10 or 15 feet up, with a ledge protruding below them. To get a close look at them, you would need to scale the ledge using rock climbing equipment or a ladder. If you stand right underneath them, the ledge partially blocks your view. So if, like me, all you have is a stupid cell phone camera, you have to back way up and then use the zoom to get grainy “close ups” of the petroglyphs.

Showing the ledge. What looks like a tiny pueblo under it is eroded red clay. The glyphs we’ll be looking at in a moment are farther along to the left of this group.

Some of these petroglyphs are really famous, but some of the most famous ones are the hardest to see. They are made up of dibbles in the rock which itself has an irregular surface. I imagine that the best time to photograph them would be morning or evening when the slanting light would help pick them out. (We were there at noon.) And to use a professional camera with a good zoom lens maybe.

For example, can you see three human figures, zigzags, and spirals in this photograph?
Here I’ve used Paint to enhance the ones I could see … which did not include the second man’s head. There is also a turtle-like something I did not enhance because I wasn’t sure of it.

Me, Trying to Photograph Them Anyway

So I wandered around in the snow and took about a million photos of the different sections of the wall with my cell phone, hoping that I might photograph the dinosaur by accident and be able to find it later. There were so many petroglyphs, and many of them overlapping each other, and I had no idea where in this composite mural the supposed dinosaur might be.

I also took some photographs of the whole scene from a distance to give a sense of context of the petroglyphs.

As I stumped around in the frozen red mud, I thought to myself. These are so hard to get to and photograph. How hard must they have been to make? What would motivate anyone to make all this art (or language) in this hard-to-get-to spot? It’s a similar question to cave paintings. Of course, there is lots of good information out there about what these spirals and zigzags and blocky figures tell us about probable Anasazi cosmology. The only thing I could undeniably tell that the original artists must have been saying, though, was,

“We were here!”

I Did Photograph It! But You Can’t See It

When I got home, I tracked down the web site and tried to identify which section of the wall the dino petroglyph occupied. Turns out I did photograph that section of wall! Here it is.

It’s actually just to the right of the spirals, zigzags, and people I had to enhance.

Of course, you can’t see the dino at all. So I cannot verify that the thing is there. Certainly you can’t see it with the naked eye, from a distance, at noon on a winter day. But then, that goes for many of the petroglyphs.

In this picture, you can see the spiral that is to the right of the dinosaur’s head but not the dinosaur itself.

Further evidence that the dino glyph is actually there: Senter and Cole went out of their way to analyze it and disprove it. They seem to be able to see it, I guess. Enough that it bothers them.

My Kids Trying to Help Me Find the Dinosaur

Sometimes another pair of eyes helps, so before we left I asked my kids (who had spent the previous hour scrambling over red boulders and breaking ice in the stream) to see if they could spot any dinosaur.

They didn’t spot the dinosaur, but they did point out a number of glyphs that could have been dinosaurs (or, from that distance, anything).

Here are some clearer ones on the other side of Kachina Bridge. I don’t know what the situation was like when these were first made, but now, they are on a sheer wall that looms directly over the deepest part of the icy stream.

This one, which a dispassionate observer has called “Chicken Man,” could be a large bird. Or (just a thought here), it could be a T-Rex if we are assuming there are multiple glyphs of dinosaurs. At any rate, the 3-toed, bird-like foot, long neck, and fat body on 2 legs are clearly visible.

This one, which my son suggested as a possible dino, looks more like a giraffe to me, but who knows. Or it could be pure symbol, not meant to represent an animal at all. As you can see, it’s near the giant chicken.

Lesson Learned

So that’s my fail. I can tell you that there is not, on Kachina Bridge, a dinosaur petroglyph that you can’t miss and that unmistakably leaps out at the lay person.

I can tell you that there are many interesting symbols which are hard to discern and need to be (and have been) photographed and analyzed by experts who are familiar with Southwestern archeaology and anthropology.

And that, like everything having to do with ancient man and with dinosaurs, the process of interpretation is more art than science and is hugely influenced by our assumptions.

OK, American Southwest, You Win

I was always sort of attracted to you. My husband and I camped our way through you right after we got married, and it was interesting, but I didn’t commit myself because I didn’t think I’d be back. I thought the two of us were going to move to Indonesia. And indeed we did, and we learned its languages (a few of them) and explored its tropical, Southeast Asian landscapes and cultures, a world away from your deserts. But we didn’t, as I had expected, end up raising our kids there. Ultimately we ended up coming back to North America. American Southwest, I was getting pulled into your orbit.

Betataki cliff dwelling at the Navajo National Monument

Things only got worse when I discovered Thunderhead by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and then the Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee novels of Tony Hillerman. (The first Hillerman novel I read was so sad, I swore I’d never read him again. But eventually, inevitably, I picked up another one, and then it was all over for me.)

Bought at the Navajo Cultural Center gift shop in Tuba City, AZ. They had many of Hillerman’s novels and I’d have bought them all if I could.

Yes, I know there is plenty of terrific nonfiction about you. But I always tend to reach for fiction.

Petroglyphs on Kachina Bridge, Natural Bridges National Park, Southern Utah

And then, the final blow: We moved to the Intermountain West. Within driving distance of … you. And this last week, I got the opportunity to explore you with my children by my side. I got to drive through Navajo country, Dinetah, the land of my book friends Chee and Leaphorn, seeing the places and hearing the language that I had read about in their adventures. I can’t describe how this felt. It was like getting to visit Middle Earth or something.

Dinosaur prints near Tuba City, AZ

So, after this trip, you win, American Southwest. You have conquered me. I am hooked. It is not possible to learn everything about you … not even in one lifetime, and I am getting started late. But whenever possible, I will be back. I promise you that.

Kachina Bridge

I know I’m not the first outsider to fall for you. In fact, that’s another thing that I sort of like about the tourist and transplant culture surrounding you: you seem to attract people who are into art. I look forward to doing some paintings of you that are exactly like the bajillions of other paintings done by your other adoring fans.

Paintings of landscapes like this one.

And I promise, I won’t steal or “acquire” any priceless artifacts. I don’t want your relics or your pots, American Southwest. They wouldn’t look good in my house. They look best exactly where they belong: right in the middle of you.

The other side of Kachina Bridge. Can you spot the petroglyphs?

The 1600s: A Fun Century to Illustrate

Pilgrim’s family climb over the stile to call him back. From Dangerous Journey.

This is why I love home schooling. I learn so much.

I can’t say the 1600s (also known as the Seventeenth Century) were covered very well in my own education. I heard, dimly, of one or two events, like the First Thanksgiving and the Salem Witch Trials (which took place near the end of the century, 1692). I was exposed to a kids’ version of Pilgrim’s Progress. In other contexts, unconnected from history lessons, I heard the names of a few notables from the century such as Bach, and saw a picture of a Cavalier or two. But all these things were floating around without any context. I had no idea of how they were connected to each other, or even that they were happening around the same time. They were, frankly, all mixed up with things from the following century.

Now, studying it in chronological order with my kids, I have to say that I like learning about the 1600s. A lot of really horrible things happened, like the beginnings of colonization and of the Atlantic slave trade. (That’s extremely hard to read about.) But many really interesting things were happening too. Some of them, like the English Civil War, I had barely heard of. Also, this was an amazing century for music and art.

And the clothes. My goodness, the clothes! Long curly wigs, big white collars, hundreds of buttons! They must have been extremely inconvenient to wear (and to wash. Especially in brackish water. After you’d been on the Mayflower and hadn’t washed for three months). But they look so cool, so dignified, in illustrations! And there is the contrast between the colorful, swashbuckling Cavalier look and the restrained, clean-lined, monochromatic Puritan Sunday best.

The pictures in this post are taken from Alan Parry’s 1985 illustrations of Pilgrim’s Progress in the children’s book Dangerous Journey. I love the 17th-century clothing and the way that the illustrations suggest etchings, which were being done in the 17th century by the likes of Rembrandt.

Pilgrim, still wearing the burden on his back, meets Mr. Worldly Wise.

A few highlights of the 17th Century:

  • The founding of Jamestown, Virginia (1607). Jamestown was first run along communist lines, and it was a disaster. In order to get the ne’er-do-wells there to actually build a fort, grow their own food, etc., they needed John Smith to whip them into shape, plus a boatload of mail-order brides (really!), plus allowing private property.
  • The founding of Plymouth, Massachusetts (1620). Interestingly, the Massachusetts colony also tried communism. Their contract with the London Company stipulated that for seven years, the products of the colony were to be put in a common fund to be shared by all the colonists. But after only three years they had to stop this arrangement and give each family their own plot of farm land.
  • The English Civil War (1642 – 1651). Cavaliers (Royalists) vs. Roundheads (Parliamentarians). The English got rid of their tyrant (Charles I), only to have him replaced by an ideologue (Oliver Cromwell). When Cromwell died, they were relieved to go back to just a regular tyrant (Charles II).
  • John Bunyan (1628 – 1688). Bunyan was a traveling tinker, yet he wrote one of the world’s top best sellers, Pilgrim’s Progress. He also wrote his spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. (Is that a great title for an autobiography, or what?)
  • The Great Fire of London (1666). It burned for three days. Four-fifths of London burned down. “Hundreds of people fled to St. Paul’s Cathedral. But the flames swept up the walls, burning timbers and melting the lead in the roof until it ran down toward the river like molten lava. The stones in the walls themselves began to explode from the heat!” (Wise Bauer 126).
  • Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 – 1669). Art!
  • Vivaldi (1678 – 1741), Bach (1685 – 1750), and Handel (1685 – 1759). I might be sort of cheating, including Bach and Handel in this century, since they were only 15 when it closed. But both these geniuses were born and educated during the 1600s.

Sources

Bauer, Susan Wise. The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child, vol. 3: Early Modern Times: from Elizabeth the First to the Forty-Niners. Well-Trained Mind Press, 2004.

Demar, Gary, et. al. Building a City on a Hill. American Vision, 1997, 2005.

Hannula, Richard. Trial and Triumph: Stories from Church History. Canon Press, 1999. “Chapter 30: John Bunyan,” p. 181 ff.

Hunkin, Oliver, ed., & Alan Parry, illustrator. Dangerous Journey. Text copyright 1985 Yorkshire Television Ltd.. Worldwide coedition by Lion Hudson plc, Mayfield House, Oxford. US edition by Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 2012.

Stebbing, Barry. God & the History of Art I. How Great Thou ART Publications. “Rembrandt van Rijn: A Man of Sorrows,” p. 65 ff.

The Perfect Book Tag

I was tagged for this by my favorite literate primate. How could I let her down?

n.b. “Perfect,” as I will use it below, doesn’t always mean perfect but rather perfect in its context or else merely “really terrific.” Especially when used of actual, historical people. As we all know, perfection isn’t perfect, right?

The Perfect Genre

“Pick a book that perfectly represents its genre.”

The Rise and Fall of Ben Gizzard is the perfect Western.

“Ben Gizzard would die on the day he saw a white mountain upside down and a black bird talked to him, but not before. An old Indian he cheated out of some furs told him this.

“This was good news to a man as mean and crafty as Ben Gizzard. He settled in treeless, birdless Depression Gulch and cheated, robbed, and killed his way to riches. How his life seemed charmed in that place where there were neither mountains nor birds!

“But one day a young artist arrived in town with a large black bird sitting on his shoulder. Oh, Ben Gizzard!

“Our slithering villain comes to his end when he least expects it, and the world is a better place without him, and a better place for the telling of his story, which is both funny and awesome.”

The Perfect Setting

“Pick a book that takes place in a perfect place.”

Gosh, there are so many books that I love for their setting. There is Pearl Buck’s Pavilion of Women (an aristocratic household in pre-Mao China), Susan Cooper’s The Grey King (Wales, with magic), and Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series (modern-day Botswana).

But my top pick would have to be Treasures of the Snow by Patricia St. John. It takes place in a beautiful, sensuously described version of Switzerland (example: the children picking fresh strawberries and eating them with cream for lunch) and, of course, the fact that everything is so mountainous is crucial to the plot.

The Perfect Main Character

“Pick the perfect main character.”

I’m gonna have to go with Bilbo Baggins here. His combination of humility and spunk cannot be beat.

The Perfect Best Friend

“Loyal and supportive, pick a character that you think is the best friend ever.”

Sam Gamgee would be an obvious choice, but there are class issues there, so instead, let me name Mr. Tumnus from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Reason: Tumnus just met Lucy an hour or two ago and she has not done anything special for him … and yet he’s ready to put his own life on the line to protect her from the Witch’s secret police. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.”

The Perfect Love Interest

“Pick a character you think would be an amazing romantic partner.”

Playing “mad dog” with his children.

Charles Ingalls from the Little House series.

On the down side, he will drag you and your children across the American frontier, where you will almost lose your lives in every. single. chapter.

But on the plus side! The man can build a livable house, single-handed, in a few weeks. He can dig a well, provide food, and make friends with the Indians. He’s never met a stranger. He is gentle and kind with Caroline and his daughters, and he is unflaggingly cheerful, even when starving. (Read The Long Winter and watch him effusively praise the dehydrated cod gravy that Caroline breaks out to put some variety in the family’s totally inadequate diet.) And he can fiddle, sing, and dance! What more could you ask for?

This guy is a ball of energy and good cheer. There would be no better person to have by your side in the hairy situations that he will surely get you into.

The Perfect Villain

“Pick a character with the most sinister mind.”

“Amazing Amy” from Gone Girl. I don’t think it will be too much of a spoiler, by now, to tell you that she fakes her own death and frames her husband for it, then fantasizes about “him getting butt-raped in jail.” It’s never clear what Nick did to deserve such a fate, other than fail to think she is sufficiently amazing. And that trick she pulls at the end of the book … well …!

The Perfect Family

“Pick a perfect bookish family.”

Photo by Kata Pal on Pexels.com

Since I was a little hard on the Dutch on Friday, let me rehabilitate them a bit. My “perfect bookish family” is a Dutch family, and they actually lived: the ten Boom family of Haarlem, circa 1935.

Corrie ten Boom’s book The Hiding Place describes how the family took in Jews during the occupation until they were turned in and went to concentration camps themselves. Even though the book is about the Holocaust, it is heartwarming and includes many laugh-out-loud moments. The heartwarming part is Corrie’s description of the family’s life in their tiny, ramshackle house/watch shop. The laughing out loud comes mostly from the personality of her father, Casper ten Boom, a true character and an amazing man of God whom I look forward to meeting some day. Corrie’s mom was also amazing, and I think it was her warm personality (and Casper’s) that offset the natural sternness of the Dutch of that time, making the ten Booms … the perfect bookish family.

The Perfect Animal or Pet

“Pick a pet or fantastic animal that you need to see on a book.”

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The humble chicken.

There are a few books with a chicken protagonist. The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin, Jr., is one. There is also a Russian fairy tale where a rooster saves two poor children:

“I, the cock, have a crimson comb / And the wicked czar has nothing like it! / He took away their fortune / from two poor little orphans / And he dines in style / while they go hungry!”

The Perfect Plot Twist

“Pick a book with the best plot twist.”

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Stern Men by Elizabeth Gilbert.

(Yes … it’s about lobstermen.)

Though it takes place on a tiny island in Maine, this book features a Jane Austen-worthy plot twist near the end.

The Perfect Trope

“Pick a trope that you would add to your own book without thinking.”

Photo by Luis Quintero on Pexels.com

Spiritual transformation of a main character.

Not only would I add this without thinking, I actually wouldn’t think of writing a novel where it did not happen. To me, spiritual transformation is a critical part of a novel.

(Not that I don’t enjoy books where this trope doesn’t take place. Mystery series, particularly, do well if the detective MCs are fairly static.)

There are a few novels where the transformation is almost the only thing that happens. I give you The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, and all the Church of England novels by Susan Howatch. But much more commonly, the MC’s spiritual transformation happens as a result of a lot of other action in the plot, as in The Hobbit (fantasy), Identity Man by Andrew Klavan (crime thriller), and many, many others.

The Perfect Cover

“Pick the cover that you would easily put on your own book.”

My book is not St. George and the Dragon, but this is the artist I would have wanted to do my covers: Trina Schart Hyman. She’s gone now, but her art lives on. I have been trying my whole life to draw and paint like she did. I’ll bet she would have made the ruined Tower of Babel look amazing.

The Perfect Ending

“Pick a book that has the perfect ending.”

Photo by Public Domain Pictures on Pexels.com

A Christmas Carol.

It’s the ultimate happy ending. We feel Scrooge’s childlike joy when he realizes he is being given another chance at life. Also, Tiny Tim is not dead after all and Scrooge has a chance to save him. “The spirits did it all in one night!” There is a strong sense of death and re-birth, not just of Scrooge but of his entire world.

I realize that everyone knows how the book ends and you might think of it as a cliche at this point, but really, if you read the entire book, hanging in there through Scrooge’s sad childhood, slow hardening, the horrific descriptions of poverty, etc., and then you get to the end and it doesn’t move you, well, I don’t know what to do for you, really.

Dutch Curly Hair

I am Dutch-American. What I got out of it was good bone structure, “Kraklen” cookies (so good!), a fondness for black licorice, a few mild swear words such as swatakat (translation: “black cat”), curly hair (more on that later), and the phrase, “If you’re not Dutch, you’re not much.”

That last one is tongue-in-cheek, of course. After all, we are Dutch American. But if you look at history, it does neatly encapsulate the national attitude.

One Cheer for the Dutch

The Dutch had their national moment, as it were, during the seventeenth century (1600s). They provided a refuge of religious freedom for the Pilgrims, mostly because at that time the Dutch didn’t care about separatism nearly as much as King James did.

In North America, they set up a trading post at New Amsterdam (Manhattan Island), but made the mistake of fixing upon a feudal-style system where only Dutch West India Company members could own land, and their serfs were forbidden by law from leaving. This did not encourage growth, and the place struggled until the English conquered it, re-named it New York, and allowed English things like local control of government, free immigration and trade, and land ownership for everyone. After that it really took off, and … well, you see it today.

Meanwhile, the Dutch East India Company was distinguishing itself in Indonesia, where in order to ensure its own access to spices, it would eventually become a harsh colonial power and rule for centuries, until its grip was weakened by Japan (on-site) and Hitler (back home).

While in Indonesia, the Dutch did manage to get a monkey named after them. The Indonesians called the proboscis monkey kera Belanda, i.e. “Dutch monkey,” because of its big nose and reddish skin.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
Good bone structure!

I don’t think the Dutch sent their nicest people to Indonesia. Or to Manhattan. But, during this same period, Holland did have some amazing citizens. For example, they had Rembrandt.

Rembrandt van Rijn

Photo by Aaron Burden on Pexels.com

“Rembrandt van Rijn was born in Leyden, Holland [the same city where the Pilgrims took refuge] in 1606. He was one of nine children and the son of a miller [and so they probably had a windmill!]. His family was Calvinist by faith … Rembrandt married Saskia, a Dutch woman whom he dearly loved. For a short period they enjoyed a life of happiness and prosperity and many were acclaiming him to be the greatest artist of the century. But Rembrandt never displayed an exalted opinion of himself… During the early years of success, he obtained a studio in the ghetto where he spent much of his time painting the impoverished people of Amsterdam. The ghetto was where he found his characters for biblical paintings, such as Abraham, Isaac, and many of the old prophets. Meanwhile, Saskia enjoyed the luxury that came with her husband’s success. Unfortunately, all this was short lived.

“They would have two daughters who died during infancy. Then, there was good news as they gave birth to a healthy son whom they named Titus. Shortly thereafter, Saskia fell ill and died. Rembrandt was greatly grieved by these family losses, and never remarried. It wasn’t long after these tragedies that he had to declare bankruptcy, losing everything he owned, including his great art collection. All that was spared him were his paints and brushes. Then, one year before his own death, the only remaining member of his family, Titus, died at the age of 27.

“Truly Rembrandt was a man of sorrows. But none of his emotions or energy went for naught, as he continued to paint with all the fervor of his youth. During his deep moments of suffering, he would always revert back to doing paintings of Jesus Christ. These biblical stories were done more for his own satisfaction [than for sale], as there were over seventy biblical paintings in his possession just a few years before his death.” (God & the History of Art, pp. 65 – 68)

Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits

Rembrandt did approximately 100 self-portraits, which brings me to what this Dutch-American blogger has in common with him besides the national origin and, of course, the crazy talent. If you want to see a few of them (and they are delightful), follow this link to the Human Pages site.

Of course there are so many things to love about these portraits, especially the Impressionist-looking one where an aged Rembrandt is smiling at the camera. (That must have been fun to paint.) But one thing that struck me about them was the curly hair. Look at that curly hair! In the very young self-portrait, it shades his face in a hood of frizz. Perhaps he had just washed it.

I have hair of about the same texture. When treated well (i.e. not washed for while), it settles into loose curls. When treated poorly, it frizzes. I got this curly hair from my Dutch American grandfather. Never got to see it on his head, because he went bald before I was born, so I didn’t know what was coming. But the hair lives on in me and in several other members of my family. It wasn’t until I saw these self-portraits of Rembrandt that I realized these are genuine, trademark Dutch curls.

Every nationality has things to be ashamed of and things to be proud of. I am proud of Rembrandt (though I can’t take any credit for him), and I am happy to share, if nothing else, his hair.

Sources

DeMar, Gary, et. al. Building a City on a Hill. American Vision, Inc., 1997, rev. ed. 2005. Chapter 25: “New Netherland Becomes New York,” p. 289 ff.

Stebbing, Barry. God & the History of Art I, 2nd ed. How Great Thou ART publications, 2001.