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The Green Man, Venus and Their Place in Modern Life
Tannhäuser and Venus – Still Showstoppers
Tannhäuser’s revival recently completed at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin broke all madness records, but it’s the production we’ll remember. Was it the 40 hospital beds on stage for the exhausted returning pilgrims, or the 20 armors that were randomly raised and lowered, throughout the 3 hours – sometimes replaced by a set of demons? Stupid theater can be so powerful!
During the opening, Tannhäuser, (played by a stuntman) is lowered about 50 feet from the top of the stage, waving his arms and legs around. It takes several minutes to descend into a sea of female flesh, albeit with artificial breasts. I guess there can’t be such a well-endowed women’s choir without a wavering in sight. I wondered what women would do with Tannhäuser’s full armor once he was under the sea of limbs. I was not deceived. During the brass crescendo, pieces of armor were thrown from the depths, and then the real Tannhäuser appeared, exhausted, ready for his household with Venus.
Why is Venus important to us in 2017, or why was it important in 12th century Christian Germany or 19th century Paris? Why is she a key figure in Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser? I believe it is because it is a good vehicle for the artist to express their creativity and challenge popular ideas. This is the role of the artist.
The pagans helped us to Christianity
We can understand why Wagner uses Venus as a dramatic vehicle, but why does St. Chad’s Church at Harpswell have William Harrington, (rector, died 1350), resting on a superb Green Man? Würzburg Cathedral has a green man towering over God. The churches of Nicosia have several green men. 13th century minstrels were fascinated by Venus.
Is there a link? Is there an explanation?
Waldemar Januszczak has an offer that I would like to test. In his fascinating BBC4 program on the Dark Ages, he pointed out that early depictions of Christ gave him a feminine, or at least very childlike, face. It was only later, with the cult of Mary well established in Christianity, that representations of Jesus evolved into the heroic face of Jupiter. Waldemar explains it this way. Early Christianity had an image problem – how to attract the 50% of the population, who were women. To circumvent this, artists often opted for an androgynous Jesus. The later, post-cult version of Mary, of Jesus with the face of Jupiter, was designed to bring pagans on board, without detaching them from their old religion.
Once you start looking, Waldemar’s argument holds up in many scenarios.
The feminine side of St. George is beautifully depicted in a number of early 15th century sculptures by Bernd Notke. The Katherine Church in Lübeck has copies in plaster. One of them cannot be a mistake. George is more feminine than the princess waiting to be rescued from the dragon. Is the woman George another example of the childlike Jesus?
It didn’t happen in a day.
In early Christianity there were still pockets of pagan sympathy, and belief in gods such as Venus was a step between pagans and full Christians. Venus helped keep new Christians in their old comfort zone. Minstrels and poets used it to express sides of their characters, which were no longer acceptable as medieval Christian dinner speech. Was an androgynous St. George a useful comforter for both sexes? Why did Venus reappear so many years after her disappearance as a Roman goddess?
The theory is that the Middle Ages were not as Christian as our history lessons lead us to believe. For example, the Slavic King Jaczo ruled over the area we now call Berlin Brandenburg. He passed to Christianity in 1154. It was then that, his horse sinking exhausted into the Havel, he made a few trial prayers to various deities. Things got better after he summoned Christ and his horse was helped to the river bank. He decided to become a follower, but did he immediately renounce his three-headed pagan god Triglav? Probably not. We all need islands of safety in our vision, before we can take the leap.
Wagner and Venus
It’s time to apply Waldemar’s theory to Wagner’s Tannäuser. Wagner merged two medieval sagas for his opera. That aside, it has remained (almost) true to the original threads.
Venus lived in the Venusberg, somewhere in present-day Thuringia. Tannhäuser told Venus that he wanted to leave her, because he missed the sky and the birdsong. The Venusberg was underground, in a mountain rather than on it, and hidden from mortals. Hold that thought. The protruding bone, which supports female pubic hair, is called the Mons Venéris in anatomy – Latin for Mount of Venus. In the saga, the men who entered the Venusberg accepted perdition.
Suppose Venus and Tannhäuser were in a vast cavern, served by as much voluptuous flesh as a man could care to gaze at and taste. You can have too much of a good thing – apparently. Tannhäuser, after an hour of lamentations, cries and operatic accusations, leaves Venus and returns to the Wartburg. This medieval castle sits on a mountain in Thuringia and is where the rest of the operatic action takes place. The room can still be visited. In the Wartburg, he rediscovers his love for Elizabeth, symbol of Christian feminine purity. She waits to be taken and dominated by an honorable knight. Tannhäuser, knight and minstrel, had been his dream man, before going to taste Venusberg without a wallet.
Tannhäuser embarks on a singing contest on the theme of true love. Elizabeth’s hand is the winner’s prize. Tannhäuser’s friend Wolfram dutifully sings of pure love – not lust. Tannhäuser puffs a joint and tells them that a little lust after the flesh never hurt anyone. Elizabeth is enthusiastic about the idea. Tannhäuser loses his temper and admits having stayed at the Venusberg. He is sent back to the castle and told to join the pilgrims on their way to Rome to see if such a sin can ever be forgiven.
Elizabeth’s libido, in her dreams
Today, the same soprano sings Venus and Elisabeth, in the same costume and the same make-up. We have to ask ourselves – was the Venusberg the fruit of Tannhäuser’s erotic fantasy? Did he fantasize about Elizabeth’s female libido? Is Elizabeth ready to show the lewd part of her femininity? Was it a match made in Venusberg rather than in heaven? We’ll never know. Tannhäuser leaves a distraught Elizabeth wondering what could have been. She agrees that her husband must be presentable and accepts that he must go to Rome. She prays for the Pope’s forgiveness.
Tannhäuser returns from Rome and reports the words of Pope Urban IV. He’s as likely to be forgiven for such a heinous sin as the Urban staff, sprouting leaves. Elizabeth falls exhausted to the ground. Wolfram covers her with a shroud. Tannhäuser wants to return to the Venusberg, Elizabeth gets up from under the shroud. Now she is Venus and tries to seduce him. Wolfram restrains Tannhäuser and prevents him from approaching Venus. Tannhäuser dies, as the pilgrims enter to declare that the staff sprouted from the leaves – Tannhäuser is forgiven and can join Elizabeth in Heaven.
In 19th century Europe, many men believed that if women had a libido, they were whores. No one asked the question, was Tannhäuser without guilt, when he and Venus engaged in the so-called sins of the flesh. Did the stick sprout, because there was no sin to forgive? In the medieval version of the saga, Tannhäuser What is return to the Venusberg, and the staff still cabbage. Were these poets and minstrels trying to tell us that lustful sex is not a sin? Is that why we still love those old stories?
We know what Wagner thought. He celebrated female libido on stage, most notably in Tristan and Isolde, though he let the love potion take the blame for Isolde’s gratuitous behavior. No one is fooled these days. We know Tristan and Isolde have a crush on each other long before the love potion was administered.
Why did Wagner opt for the soft ending in his version of Tannhäuser? These operas divide society. Tannhäuser’s Paris premiere (1861) was a disaster and wiped out by public protest, as the dancing was in the wrong place and disrupted eating habits. Perhaps, with such an audience, the medieval end was unthinkable. The lovers had to go to heaven, not to the Venusberg!
Jean Shinoda Bolen, in his Jungian analysis of the role of goddesses in our lives, defines Venus as the woman with a serious libido. I left my copy of Bolen’s “Goddesses in All Women” in a prominent place in my house. No visitor has managed to pass the book without stopping and taking a look. We all need a little paganism!
Venus goes somewhere else
Tannhäuser’s story has inspired many works of art, literature and occasionally a film (Blade Runner). Aubrey Beardsley added to the genre in the 1890s, with his slim volume, The story of Venus and Tannhäuser. It wasn’t printed in full until the 1960s, because no one had the guts to. Beardsley died before completion. It describes Tannhäuser’s entry into the Venusberg and the high moments that followed. It’s pure smut and great fun. Another reason we need Venus – to remind us that life is to be enjoyed and you never know what you might like until you try it.
I couldn’t resist Venus and Tannhäuser either. The lovers, in my novel Goddesses, role play on Beardsley’s ideas. The complete novel should be published this year, provided that my courage does not abandon me.
The goddesses set us free
Gods and Goddesses are there to let us down. They allow us to play a bit of our character, which otherwise would not find an outlet. They appeal to the non-Christian part of us today, as they did to the early Christians 1000 years ago. Waldemar is right. They let us get away with it, but in doing so they kept us on our toes. Let off steam sometimes, that is the message. A little of what you like, it does you good.
Bolen defines women as character types, using goddesses. If that sounds trivial, read his book.
And the Green Man?
We all love a mystery and the Green Man remains one. We have no idea of its symbolic meaning in pre-Christian society. Why was it so popular with Gothic church builders? Most mysterious is its enduring popularity as a garden ornament. What place in our character does he personify? We don’t know, but we all like to be a little mysterious. It is also a character trait.
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