Crouching Tiger

February 22, 2010 at 5:08 pm 1 comment

Dragon Rose Bowl parade

Photo A. Carpenter

The title of course is taken from Ang Lee’s Oscar awarded film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” It was a great success when it came out in 2000 mainly because of the fighting scenes up in the air, but also, I think, because of the equality between the great warrior, Master Li, and his love Shu Lien. My Korean friend was very surprised over the success: “This is a wuxia story and not even a good one. I grew up reading them.”  However, not being used to chivalry and equality between a man and a woman especially in fighting we Westerners loved it.

Inside the big happenings there is a smaller love story where an ivory comb plays the alter ego of the aristocratic girl Jen Ju. She is the tiger desperately fighting for her personal freedom in a rigid patriarchal and hierarchal society:

Jen, a Manchu, is traveling from Yinchuan in the West (the Tiger) to Beijing in the East (the Dragon)to be given in marriage to an important functionary at the Han emperor’s court. Bored she plays with an ivory comb when suddenly the bandit Lo and his warriors sweep down at the caravan. Lo snatches the comb from her, but the girl, who in secrecy has been trained in martial arts, grabs a horse and pursues him. Her reason lies as much in her anger – “You took my comb. It is mine”– as in feeling inferior being a Manchu girl among Han men and superior being the aristocrat among robbers.

Of course, Lo and Jen fall in love. She knows that her situation is impossible and the movie ends with her flying down the holy mountain after having left her ivory comb, her alter ego on the pillow beside Lo.

The comb is Jen. Made of ivory, the nearly immortal part of an elephant doomed to die, fragile like the girl, it represents her in the same way as we give the goddess the shape of a young woman. As little as the goddess is a woman, Jen is the comb. My feelings grasp the picture that my intellect refuses. Here is the symbol, the link between two different objects, that are so very much more than mere objects.

Combs of Bone and Ivory

Objects made of ivory are of course more precious than those made of bone, but from a symbolic point of view they belong to the same genre.

Comb from Mureybet, Syria

Comb from Mureybet, Syria, ca. 12 000 years old

If a tree can behave as a human being, then we are like trees. Like the leaves and fruits die, the flesh rots and the bones are still there after thousands of years. Bones carry the symbol of indestructibility.  This is the reason why in the Bible, Elohim makes Eve out of Adam’s rib bone and not out of his perishable flesh.

We find the same thought in the prehistoric cremation tombs where the ashes are never included in the urns. The bones, on the other hand, have been carefully washed and assembled. They survive and symbolically the goddess will gestate them and give the individual to whom they once belonged a new birth.

A similar tradition lived on in Greece to very recently: Nine years after the burial, the family assembled with the priest by the tomb. Here they dug up what was left, washed the bones in wine, and took them home as if they returned the deceased to the family.

Neolithic comb from China

Neolithic comb from China

The image of the ghostly skeleton probably has the same origin, that is, we symbolically continue in our bones. This is also the reason, I think, why white is one of the earliest colors on funerary vases and why in Asia it is used for mourning.

Bone comb from N. Italy.

Bone comb from N. Italy. ca 3 000 years old

The bones carry the symbol of indestructible life to the combs.  It would be interesting to know from which animals the bones have been taken because there is a different energy in the bone coming from an elephant, a tiger, a bear or a cow.

The image still was so powerful in the Middle Ages that an ivory comb was found laying on the breast of St Cuthbert when his tomb was opened in Durham Cathedral.  Many other Medieval combs of ivory exist  such as those belonging to St. Lupus in Sens, France and St. Heribert in Cologne, Germany.

The Comb from Gullrum

Neolithic comb from Gullrum, Gotland, Sweden

Neolithic comb from Gullrum, Gotland, Sweden

Let us for a moment look at the Neolithic comb found in the Swedish Gullrum on the big island of Gotland. (Click here to see the video.)  It has long been regarded as a sacred object. When I first saw it many years ago, I though it represented a helmeted rider and his horse. Much later I discovered how wrong I had been because domesticated horses and this kind of helmets were unknown during the Neolithic Period. The “horse” probably represents a moose that in Scandinavia took the place of the lunar animals, the ibex in Asia, and red deer in Central Europe.

Charcoal drawing of owl in hypogeum outside Parisfigure of owl in amberI don’t believe that the “warrior” is a human portrait, but an owl similar to those that Marija Gimbutas depicts from the Neolithic tombs in W. Lithaunia and outside Paris. Incised on the walls and depicted on the vases the nightly hunter simultaneously shows two images, the negative one of death and fear of dying and the positive one of seeing in darkness. It was always the sacred bird of the goddess Athena, that is, it was the symbol of what Athena stood for, wisdom, life and death. If the owl on the comb is the bird that symbolizes death, the female moose, the lunar image, is the mother that gives birth. Life and death always accompany each other.

Teeth are better preserved than bones, which means that an ivory comb also gives us a glimpse of  life that continues after the perishable parts have been destroyed.

The wood, bone and ivory confer their own special feelings to the combs and this double link–to the flaxen hair of the Goddess made of nettles and to the material of the comb–enriches and enlarges the symbolism more than we can understand with our intellect. This is how symbols work; this is how the combs work on us.

(Upper image: Charcoal drawing of owl in hypogeum outside Paris.  3000 – 2000 BC. After M. Gimbutas, Language of the Goddess, fig 295.

Lower image: Figure of owl in amber from the Baltic Sea, W. Lithuania. Ca. 3000 BC. After Gimbutas, fig 290:3)


Entry filed under: Ang Lee, bone, Combs, Fantasy, Gullrum, ivory, Places.

Combs of Wood: The Cosmic Tree Climate Changes and . . .

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Reza  |  February 24, 2010 at 1:06 am

    I really liked reading your post!. Quallity content.
    thanks for sharing


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