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Corona Borealis is a semicircular constellation in the northern sky between Hercules and Boötes. It is of mild interest to astronomers for containing two interesting variable stars: (1) T Coronae Borealis, the so-called “Blaze Star”, which is a recurring nova binary star; and (2) R Coronae Borealis, a yellow supergiant which periodically dims from magnitude 6 to magnitude 14 and then brightens back up (possibly because it is producing carbon).
The constellation is much more interesting to classical artists since a myth about its creation gives artists their symbol for deification. Ariadne was the daughter of Minos, king of Crete who became judge of the underworld after his death and Queen Pasiphae (who was herself a daughter of the sun). The princess fell in love with Theseus, an Athenian hero who was to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, a bull-headed monster who lived in the labrynth beneath the palace. With the help of the wise artificer, Daedalus, Ariadne rescued Theseus and together they fled from Crete (just barely escaping destruction at the hands of Talos, the giant bronze robot which guarded the island).
Once they had escaped, the faithless Theseus abandoned Ariadne sleeping on the island of Naxos. The sleeping maiden was spied by Dionysus who chose her as a consort. She was given immortality and godhood as soon as she was married and Dionysus hung her wedding crown of stars in the sky as the constellation Corona Borealis (maybe it has so many variable stars because it was sacred to the god of intoxication).
This seems like a weird narrative and it probably reflects Greek confusion about the proper status of Ariadne (whom some scholars identify as a Cretan serpent goddess from the Mycenaean era). But irrespective of her origin or how she came by her divinity Ariadne has proven to be a favorite subject of visual artists from classical times onward. Many artists prefer to portray her beautiful, naked, and asleep (and you can easily find many such paintings and statues on the web) but nearly as many are fascinated by her apotheosis—the moment she receives her godhood and escapes mortality.
Perhaps the finest of these paintings was created by the peerless hand of Titian for the Alabaster Room in the palace of Duke Alfonso d’Este–who specifically commissioned the world’s finest bacchanal paintings for his room (a project so fascinating and strange that the Alabaster Room has been virtually created online). The painting shows the moment when Dionysus reveals himself to the bewildered Ariadne with all of his divine retinue. The beautiful god leaps from his leopard-drawn chariot and flies down towards her as maenads and satyrs wildly revel behind him. If you aren’t too distracted by the naked wild man covered in snakes, or by the dismembered donkey, or by the beautiful columbines and irises which bloom purple beneath the feet of the god’s inebriated followers, you will notice the constellation Corona Borealis glowing in the sky above Ariadne’s head.
Titian’s vision was so splendid and influential that other artists adopted the crown of stars as a symbol of apotheosis. The crown of immortality appears in other works as heroes step across the threshold of godhood. It is a reoccurring representation of our desire to step beyond humanity and become deathless divine beings.
Our lives are filled with Greco-Roman symbols and memes which have lasted for thousands of years: Cupids, cornucopias, the bowl of Hygeia, the staff of Asclepius, Justice with her scales, the gorgonian, Mercury’s feet, the centurion’s helmet, the Aegis, the victor’s wreath, the quincunx, Athena’s owl, the lyre, the comic/tragic masks–they all have immediate meanings for us. Thus it comes as a surprise to look at actual classical art and see how many ancient Mediterranean motifs have not survived at all, but have become baffling to everyone except for classical scholars. We now scratch our heads when we realize how many ancient coins and sculptures bear the modius (a grain basket symbolic of the underworld), the lituus (a ritual wand which betokened augury), or the cista mystica—which is the subject of today’s post.
A cista was a little basket/casket which was used to store toiletries, jewels, or other small personal effects. A cista mystica (literally “secret casket”) was a sacred object of the mystery cults which (seems to have) contained a living serpent. The cista mystica was known to be sacred to Bacchus, but similar cult objects were probably also affiliated with Isis (and the perhaps with the Ophites, a Gnostic worship sect). In the Bacchic mysteries the serpent was carried on a bed of grape leaves and was a stand in for the god. The characteristic form of the serpent was an important component of the symbolism and classical sources note it shares its shape with “the forms of men” (which is to say that it directly betokened virility and male fertility).
The Roman mind sometimes was surprisingly literal and several preeminent men were rumored to have been fathered by gods in serpent form. Olympias mother of Alexander the Great was allegedly found sleeping next to a snake before giving birth to Alexander and Phillip of Macedon was said to shun her bed afterwards (Renaissance artists enjoyed painting this episode, but I’ll leave it to you to google the paintings and drawings). It should also be noted that the marriage of Phillip and Olympias was infamously volatile thanks to Phillip’s propensity to take other wives (and everything else). Augustus, the first Roman emperor, was also allegedly the son of a snake and it was said that his mother always bore the mark of the serpent’s embrace after his birth. Any Roman seeing the cista mystica on the coin of the realm would understand the message–not only were serpents fertility symbols which betokened otherworldly wisdom, but they were also proxies of divine mystery and Roman ascendance.
…they say that Bacchus discovered honey.
He was travelling from sandy Hebrus, accompanied
By Satyrs, (my tale contains a not-unpleasant jest)
And he’d come to Mount Rhodope, and flowering Pangaeus:
With the cymbals clashing in his companions’ hands.
Behold unknown winged things gather to the jangling,
Bees, that follow after the echoing bronze.
Liber gathered the swarm and shut it in a hollow tree,
And was rewarded with the prize of discovering honey.
Once the Satyrs, and old bald-headed Silenus, had tasted it,
They searched for the yellow combs in every tree.
(Excerpt from “The Fasti” by Publius Ovidius Naso, known as Ovid)
As you have probably apprehended, there is a theme to my posts this week about the ambiguous line between the wild and the domestic–a tension which forever pulses within all human thought and endeavor. Humans are animals. We came from nature and can never ever leave it. We continuously long for the natural world in our aesthetic and moral tastes—our very idea of paradise is a garden of plants and animals. Yet the social and technological forms humans create often seem entirely at odds with the natural world. Our fishing fleets destroy the life within the oceans as they provide us with the wild fish we long for. Our cities poison and strangle the beautiful estuaries where we build them. As our hands reach toward the divine and the celestial, our feet break apart the earth we sprang from.
I’ll write further about that point (indeed I don’t believe I have ever left off examining it), but for right now I would like to discuss The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus, a painting which symbolically explores the juxtaposition between wild and domestic. The work was created by that consummate oddball visionary, Piero de Cosimo, who disliked wielding fire and refused to clip the trees in his orchard because he felt that doing so contravened the will of nature. Vasari relates that de Cosimo would sometimes abandon himself to the wilderness and was more beast than man (also the artist seems to have suffered from emotional illness). Yet, within this painting de Cosimo presents that moment when bees were first gathered from the wild and kept for the purpose of honey production. It was a step away from an imagined era of wildness towards an agricultural era when sweetness and plenty became available to all.
In The Discovery of Honey, a group of satyrs have found a hive of bees swarming within a strangely human stump. Together with Silenus, a bumptious fertility god, they are beating eccentric implements to gather the swarm so it can be collected. On the right side of the painting Bacchus and his coterie stand amidst forests and ravines beneath a glowering monadnock. A satyr carries a woman away into the wild while savage beast-men tear apart a carcass and climb off into the trees. On the left side of the painting, people and fauns bearing iron and pottery march towards the stump from a surprisingly sophisticated town with an elegant campanile. In the center the bees swarm into a knot as a human-hybrid child pops out of the yonic rift within the torso shaped stump.
What is going on here? This painting has remained an enigma to scholars since its creation. Many critics have opined that the right side of the work represents wilderness and the works of the gods while the right side represents society and the works of humans. Wilderness and civilization meet at the point where the bees are captured and honey is discovered. This interpretation is undercut by the half-human status of the characters on both sides. Another interpretation holds that the painting represents the symbolic discovery of fertility—metaphorically represented by honey. The painting’s composition certainly supports this concept: the nursing faun, the baby satyr in the center of the painting, and the satyr spontaneously offering onions (a fertility offering of Greco-Roman society) are all fertility symbols, as our numerous other more overt figures within the painting!
Both of those interpretations are right, but there is more to the painting than that. The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus represents de Cosimo’s homage to the animal spirit within humankind. Artists paint themselves–and most of the characters in this work are part animal! Such is our dichotomy. We are animals exploiting other animals and yet we have too a touch of the divine–Bacchus and the wild Arcadian gods are taking part. The urge to capture and recreate wild organisms is part of human nature. We may have domesticated bees (along with grains, cattle, turkeys, pistachios, and catfish) but we ourselves are not fully domesticated. The church, the nobles, the city—they never fully civilized Piero de Cosimo, crazy Renaissance artist, who was at his best—his most divine–when living as a beast. As you watch the diners walking through a strip mall eating honey-glazed turkey sandwiches it may be hard to recognize the same faun-like aspect to them, but look closely in a mirror and you will see another wild beast-person–undomesticated, troubled, rudely great…