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Behold the moderately exciting crown of João VI! Crafted in 1817, the crown served as the sole royal crown of Portugal until a revolution in 1910 transformed that nation into a republic. Made by the Portuguese royal jeweler, the crown lacks gemstones and if crafted wholly of gold, silver, iron, and velvet. Eight half arches (which somewhat resemble octopus arms) meet at a monde (a globe like ball) surmounted by a cross. Although the crown may not be as exciting as more ancient or ostentatious royal regalia, it forms the central decoration of the Portuguese royal coat of arms (below) which is very exciting and strange. Two frowning spear-tongued wyverns hold up a shield (which is inexplicably wearing a crucifix necklace). Upon the shield are seven castles and five smaller shields–each with a quincunx (five spots in an ancient Roman pattern). The whole thing is like some weird royalist arithmetic question.
In Hellenic culture, Tyche was the sacred goddess of a city’s destiny. Confusingly, each different city worshipped a different tutelary version of the goddess, however Tychewas always the same goddess–a daughter of Aphrodite by Hermes (or possibly a daughter of an Oceanic titan by Zeus). Tyche represented the fortunes of a city in a time when cities were frequently destroyed by famine, war, or disaster—so she was regarded as a fickle goddess. Her emblem was a crown in the shape of a city’s walls and parapets. In time she evolved into the Roman goddess of Fortuna—a goddess of luck and chance (whom many poets reviled as a fickle harlot). Even after the decline of the Roman principate in the west, Fortuna was a common theme of medieval literature and song.
Tyche’s crown—otherwise known as the mural crown–went on to acquire a different (though related) significance. As the Romans swept through the Mediterranean world conquering city after city and state after state, the Roman army was often put in the position of besieging walled or fortified cities. This was a profoundly dangerous task, as the defending army had the upper hand until the walls were stormed or breached. The first Roman soldier to climb the wall of an enemy city and place the Roman standard atop it was rewarded with the mural crown (“corona muralis”). The corona muralis was the ultimate reward for bravery (and fortune) and was regarded as second in martial honor only to the grass crown presented to a general who had saved an entire army. Unlike the grass crown, which was made of, well, grass, (or the laurel crown presented to a victorious general) the mural crown was made of solid gold and thus had an immediate practical value as well as being a symbol of tremendous bravery.
Yesterday’s post concerning Saint Nicholas ended on a somber note as the saint, well, he died and was buried in a spooky sarcophagus in a basilica in Asia Minor. Ordinarily such an ending represents a comprehensive conclusion to a biography. Yet in the centuries that followed his death, stories began to spread that Saint Nicholas was up and about, performing miracles. The miraculous tales of Saint Nicholas are from the Byzantine era and they possess that era’s powerful (and unnerving) combination of classical Roman mythography and medieval hagiography. Some of these tales were post-dated to involve the living Nicholas—like the stories where he healed a woman’s withered hand when he was a child, fought with pirates as a young man, or cast a group of demons out of a funereal cypress tree. However other miracles performed by Saint Nicholas seem to take place in a timeless setting where the Saint acquired the ability to teleport and possessed full powers over human affairs, including life and death.
Saint Nicholas so often ended up fighting pirates, storms, and the capricious ocean that some scholars think that his hagiographers might have borrowed their stories from Neptune myths. In one story he teleported a Greek sailor out of the middle of a storm raging in the Black Sea. In a different tale he rescued a mariner by means of a helpful whale. Sometimes he manumitted slaves by whisking them across oceans away from the hands of cruel emirs. Indeed, even today Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors. Yet an even more important aspect of his nature was coming to the fore: in more and more stories he gave away gifts to those in need (frequently under cover of anonymity) or looked after children in peril.
The two myths which have the most impact on his future career—as a gift-giver and benefactor to children are intensely harrowing and awful. They both have the surreal panic of dark fairytales or vivid nightmares (or Byzantine history!). So if you are a child (in which case, what are you doing here?) or easily impressionable you might want to relax with some fluffy creatures and skip the rest of this post.
Three girls of an impoverished noble family were left orphaned when their father died. Since the father expired in the middle of uncertain business affairs, they were left destitute and without dowries. The only way for the distraught maidens to make ends meet was to find recourse in the oldest profession. As they wept and prepared to enter a life of prostitution, a glowing hand appeared in the window and cast three balls of gold into the house. It was Saint Nicholas giving away princely sums of gold in order to prevent three little girls from being turned out.
The most intense miracle performed by Saint Nicholas has curious parallels with the story of the three girls. Three wealthy little boys were traveling through the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor. They came to an inn with a treacherous and avaricious owner. In the middle of the night the innkeeper stabbed the children to death and stole their money and clothes. Then he butchered the bodies and put the severed pieces in salt so he could sell the children as hams (thus simultaneously turning a profit and disposing of the corpses). For several nights it seemed he had gotten away with his horrifying act, but then with a crack of thunder, Saint Nicholas appeared in the inn. The Saint dispensed with the innkeeper who was heard from no more. Hastening to the curing house, Nicholas opened up the salt casks and tenderly reassembled the pickled pieces of the unlucky boys into whole bodies. Lifting his arms he summoned divine power to reanimate the murdered children and send them on their way (unscathed, I guess, although one would imagine that being dismembered and brined would leave some post-traumatic stress).
These intense miracle-stories traveled through the near east and beyond. Nicholas became one of the most famous saints—one of the very special dead who serve as divine intermediaries to the numinous in medieval Christianity (and up to this very day in Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity). As proselytizing clerics made their way into pagan Germany, Scandinavia, and Slavic lands, they spread tales of the wonder-working bishop who gave gifts and healed children. After hundreds of years of performing miracles in the middle east it would not seem like things could get stranger for Saint Nicholas, but in the German forests and Alpine mountains he was due to transform again.
The most important of Ghana’s crown jewels is not a crown at all but rather the legendary Sika ‘dwa, the Golden Stool which is believed to house the living spirit of all Ashanti people from all time. According to lore, the Stool descended from heaven into the lap of Osei Tutu, the first Ashanti king in 1701. At times struggle for control of the Golden Stool has devolved into war–including the eponymous “War for the Golden Stool” which broke out in 1900 when Sir Frederick Hodgson, governor of the British Gold Coast demanded to be allowed to sit on the Stool (which is a ceremonial object which is not meant to be sat upon—or even to directly touch the ground). Although the conflict left Great Britain in control of Ghana, the Golden Stool was hidden until 1920 when it was discovered and despoiled by a group of laborers who were promptly sentenced to death (although the British administrators commuted the sentence to perpetual banishment).
The stool is 18 inches high, 24 inches long, and 12 inches wide. It is covered with gold ornaments and has bells attached to it to warn the Ashanti tribe if danger is eminent. If you are confused by the above photo of the Golden Stool, that is because it is “lying down” (since it is not made to be sat upon anyway). Below is a picture of another Ashanti stool to give you a better idea of the object’s form. Even a non-royal, non-gold Ashanti stool is imbued with special meaning which edges toward the supernatural.
In 1999, King Otumfuo Osei Tutu II was crowned as the 16th leader of Ghana’s largest ethnic group, the Ashanti (although at this time in history, the king’s role is ceremonial and he is barred from serving in Ghana’s government). The golden stool made a fleeting ceremonial appearance before being returned to the secret location where it is kept. However the royal family has many other crown jewels which are worn on various state occasions—or just in general. On October 12, 2012, King Otumfuo Osei Tutu II was traveling in Oslo, Norway to attend a conference when jewel thieves made off with a bag containing many of the lesser crown jewels of Ghana (which they stole from the lobby of the Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel). It seems like the King of the Ashanti might have lost some of the splendid gold headdresses pictured here.
The Olympics is continually remade to reflect contemporary taste. Sports which were once important are gradually abandoned. Exciting new sports which appeal to younger audiences (or boring old sports which appeal to wealthier audiences) are tried out. For example, the 2016 Olympics in Rio will feature two new sports—rugby sevens and golf (which has repeatedly been part of the Olympics in the past—and has repeatedly been dropped because it is an unwatchable festival of abject tedium). The extent to which things have gradually changed becomes apparent when one looks back at the canceled sports of yesteryear, many of which are so anachronistic they seem like Monty Python gags. The Economist illustrates the point with this delightful chart which features live pigeon shooting, javelin free style, and pistol dueling for teams (!?). One of the discontinued sports which sounded most exciting to me was club swinging which conjures heady images of hirsute cavepersons belaboring each other with wooden cudgels. Was this the original sport?
Alas, my research into club swinging has revealed that the sport was not the Neanderthal free-for-all for which I was hoping (nor even some sort of amoral 70’s party event). Apparently the “clubs” are those weird elongated bowling pin things that jugglers use. The club swinger would take these objects and whirl them about his head and trunk in a discipline which combined saber-dancing, juggling, gymnastics, and just plain looking ridiculous. The sport had such a circus appearance that it gave rise to rumors that juggling was once an Olympics sport (which it never was). Club swinging was also known as Indian club swinging because gifted participants apparently looked like they were taking part in some intricately choreographed Native American ritual. In the fullness of time club swinging devolved into rhythmic gymnastics, that strange pseudo sport where a young Bulgarian dances and tumbles with a ribbon on a stick (which always makes my poor father apoplectic when he sees it on TV).
Club swinging was only a medal event at two Olympics festivals—the Saint Louis Olympics of 1904 and the Los Angeles Olympics of 1932. Both of these Olympics were dominated by Americans because, in the age before cheap jet travel, the Olympics were not nearly as International as they now are.
The 1932 Olympics took place at the high point (or low point?) of the Great Depression and underlines the sad exigencies of those times. The gold medalist in club swinging was George Roth, an unemployed gymnast who was hit particularly hard by that economic catastrophe (in fact the Guardian reports that he once went 15 days without eating—so he probably looked like today’s gymnasts). Roth embodied Baron de Coubertin’s ideal of unpaid amateur sports to an unwholesome degree: as soon as he was awarded with his gold medal he left the stadium and sadly hitchhiked home.
The concept of crowns—ceremonial headdresses which indicate leadership–is ancient. If contemporary tribal society is any indication, the concept of providing kings, chiefs, and high priests with fancy hats to mark their status predates civilization. But whether that is the case or not we conclusively know that the concept goes back to the very beginning of civilization because we have textual evidence, and, more importantly, we have magnificent physical evidence! Here is the headdress of Puabi, an important noblewoman in the city of Ur, during the Ur’s First Dynasty (ca. 2600 BC).
It is not clear whether Puabi was a queen or a high priestess: her title “nin” or “eresh” was applied to queens, high priestesses, and goddesses. Perhaps the distinction was not meaningful to her Sumerian subjects. Puabi is also known as Shubad in Sumerian (although evidence indicates that she was Akkadian/Semitic). She lived at a time when Ur was one of the largest cities on earth.
The crown of Puabi was discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley in 1928 (when the great archeologist was half way through a 12 year series of excavations in Ur’s “Royal Cemetery”). The tomb had never been discovered by looters and it contained a treasure trove of precious grave goods including a chariot, a variety of jewelry, a set of golden tableware, and the remains of two golden lyres.
Puabi did not merely take riches with her to the next world. Her tomb also contained the remains of several oxen and 26 human attendants (most likely sent along with the Nim by means of poison). Most of these attendants were discovered in a central chamber of the tomb structure (which Woolley colorfully, and aptly, called a “death pit”). The queen was buried in state a sumptuous treasure chamber with only three other retainers. The Oriental Institute website provides a more complete description of Puabi’s dead attendants:
Puabi’s death pit contained the remains of more than a dozen retainers, most of whom were women. The approach to the pit appeared to have been guarded like that of the king [whose looted grave was found nearby], in this case by five men with copper daggers. The vehicle here was a sled, pulled by two oxen, and accompanied by four grooms. Other attendants within Puabi’s pit included ten women, all wearing elaborate headdresses, positioned in two rows “facing” one another and accompanied by musical instruments
The Oriental Institute goes to pains to point out that human sacrifice and mass suicide remain speculative and that “scholars have failed to come to any consensus concerning the exact beliefs and practices behind the royal tombs at Ur.” I am going to ignore those august words and rely on the (heavy) circumstantial evidence of all those extra corpses to say “human sacrifice”.
Puabi herself was about 40 years old when she died and she only stood 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall. Although she may have been tiny, the stature of her city-state was rapidly rising at the time. Ur was located near the mouth of the Euphrates and its location allowed it to grow wealthy from trade. At the time of Puabi, it was beginning to rival Uruk (its predecessor) and it had long eclipsed ancient Eridu, the first of the Mesopotamian city-states.
Today is Mardi Gras, the hedonistic final day of the carnival season! Tomorrow, practicing Catholics take up the austere self-privations of the Lent, but today is given over to parties and spectacle.
Every year, I vow to go down to New Orleans and look for exiguously clad replacements to the smoldering Delta flame of yesteryear, but every year I end up in some gray northern office celebrating with nothing more than an unhealthy sandwich and a stack of paperwork. This year…well the same thing happened, but at least I can celebrate the flamboyant colors of Mardi Gras–green, gold, and purple.
The official colors of Mardi Gras go back a long way. It has been claimed that the colors were chosen in 1872 by Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovitch Romanov, a naval officer who was on a goodwill tour of America–although it is possible that the Grand Duke, a famous bon vivant, was instead trying to describe and order a cocktail made of lemon, lime, and purple bitters (a reliable history of carnival is obscured by the mists of time and a generous fog of alcohol). In 1892, Rex, the ceremonial king of carnival, ascribed a symbolic virtue to each color and equated them with Christian holy days. Purple represents Justice (and Lent). Gold stands for power (and Easter). Green is symbolic of faith (and Epiphany).
Since those days the colors have become more and more pervasive and now they can be found festooned everywhere. The beads, toys, and false coins thrown from parade floats are frequently green, gold, and purple, as are many masks, costumes, decorations, and promotional materials/goods. The lurid colors allude obliquely to royalty and many Mardi Gras objects are additionally decorated with crowns and fleurs de lis.
Whatever the historical or symbolic significance of the colors, I can’t help but notice their similarity to the colors of spring’s first crocuses which begin to pop up at the end of winter (especially during warm winters like this). Like the bright Kelly green of Saint Patrick’s day, the gold, purple, and green of Mardi Gras always remind me that the seasons are changing for the better and the verdancy and fecundity of spring is right around the corner.
The quince (Cydonia oblonga) is a flowering tree of the rose family which bears an edible golden fruit. Quinces are rare in America due to their susceptibility to fireblight disease (a bacterial infection caused by Erwinia amylovora). Because the fruit are unusual here and because, without cooking or other treatment, they are very sour and bitter, quinces are regarded as a sort of poor relation to apples and pears (both of which are indeed very close relations within the rose family), but probably it should be the other way around. Not only does the quince occupy an exalted place in literature and the arts, but the tree is believed to hold a treasure trove of medically useful compounds in its leaves, bark, and fruit.
Quince trees are small trees which, in spring, bear many large single blossoms of bright pink. The flowers are hermaphrodites, able to fertilize themselves. When fertilized the blossoms develop into chartreuse-colored pubescent fruit which then further ripen into a bright golden yellow in autumn (when also the tiny fuzzy hairs fall off). The knobbly pear-like fruit are exceptionally tart but become sweet if treated with salt, bletted (left on the tree to decompose slightly), or cooked. The quince is exceptional for baking, for making sweet wines and liquors, and for jams and sauces. Additionally quinces have long been a feature of traditional medicine and a host of recent studiessuggest that different parts of the plant might have a number of therapeutic properties including lipid lowering effects, antidiabetic activity, and antiallergic properties among others (in addition to being a healthy nutrition and fiber source).
The quince originated in the Caucasus region between the Caspian and the Black Sea (a region where wild quince trees can still be found). Cultivation of the little tree began in Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. If that sounds like a familiar location, it should, for it was there that human hands created the first cities. From the cradle of civilization, the quince spread to the Levant and the Mediterranean long before the apple or the pear. For this reason the fruit is a favorite candidate (along with the fig) as the forbidden fruit of Genesis. Additionally, anytime an apple appears in ancient Greek literature or myth, it can reasonably be assumed to be a quince–which means the infamous golden apple of Eriswhich caused the Trojan War was actually a golden quince. Indeed quinces are gold colored and have been a traditional feature of classical Greek nuptial ceremonies since records exist. The quince lingered on as a symbol of Aphrodite and is one of the trees sacred to the love goddess. A number of fertility myths and superstitions remain attached to the quince in the Balkans and in Turkey.
Beyond the Mediterranean world, the quince has an active artistic life as well. The knobby glowing fruits have been a source of inspiration to artists for a long time, but perhaps they are even more celebrated in literature. Peter Quince is the rustic craftsman and playwright from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Wallace Stevens later borrowed the character to narrate Peter Quince at the Clavier, an examination of desire, music, and thought. Tennyson, Browning, and Keats all alluded to the fruit or flowers of the quince which feature frequently in Victorian poesy. In fact The golden fruits are the second fruit mentioned in the poem The Goblin Market (which must surely rank as the greatest fruit-themed poem ever written). Finally, the fruit features prominently in The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, a work of literature familiar to everyone which surely deserves mention here, involving as it does farm animals, mammals, a turkey, and the moon which was (and remains) in outer space.
‘Dear pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?’ Said the Piggy, ‘I will.’
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
A large number of the medieval crowns from Central Europe have gone missing over the years. These objects get snatched up and melted down by Prussians–like the crown of Bolesław–or they surreptitiously vanish from history forever like the beautiful crown of Zvonimir. Even the pieces that survive, such as the famous crown of St. Stephen, tend to go on strange adventures and end up in the hands of Jimmy Carter.
Not so the ancient crown of Saint Wenceslas, which was used in the coronation ceremonies for the kings of Bohemia. That crown is locked up tight in a secret chamber in a secret chapel in the huge cathedral of Saint Vitus. Seven Czech high officials possess keys—all of which must be used together. Perhaps it is well that the crown is locked up so tightly—it is said to lie under a magic curse.
The crown was made in 1347 for the eleventh king of Bohemia (and Holy Roman Emperor) Charles IV. It is wrought of extremely pure gold and decorated with 19 sapphires, 44 spinels, 1 ruby, 30 emeralds and 20 pearls. Charles dedicated the crown to Saint Wenceslas, the patron saint of Bohemia, and it is believed the Saint cannot abide any usurper to wear the crown (Saint Wenceslas was presumed to harbor a grudge about usurpers, having been murdered for a crown by his own brother). Allegedly the Saint will smite down any unworthy soul who dons the crown within a year after he puts it on (the usurper that is—not Saint Wenceslas).It is rumored that Reinhard Heydrich, AKA “The Hangman”, the ruthless Nazi official in charge of the annexed portions of Czechoslovakia (which included St. Vitus Cathedral) could not risk the allure of the crown and secretly placed it on his head during a conqueror’s tour of St. Wenceslas Chapel. Heydrich was a favorite of Hitler’s who was heard to remark “We will Germanize the Czech vermin.” But he didn’t have much of a chance for Germanizing anyone–he was mortally wounded by British-trained Czech commandos in the awesomely named “Operation Anthropoid” less than a year after his tour of St. Vitus—a colorful and lurid tale for a colorful and lurid treasure.
It has been a while since I wrote a post concerning mascots. That’s because…well, frankly there is something a bit grotesque and disorienting about the entire topic. The bilious cartoony figures speak of the snake oil which lubricates our consumer culture. And most of the characters are teetering right at the edge of nineteenth-century jingoism and ethnic stereotypes. If Aunt Jemima, Chief Wahoo, Uncle Ben, the Gordon Fisherman, and Ole’ Miss don’t make you a bit anxious, then they aren’t doing their jobs.
All of which is why this subject is entirely perfect for Saint Patrick’s Day! This holiday has long since dismissed any semblance of reasoned discourse. The downtown of every major city in the United States fills up before noon with intoxicated teens garbed crown-to-toe in Kelly green and red-faced, red-haired firemen wielding bagpipes! So bring on the leprechaun mascots.
Traditionally leprechauns were members of the aes sídhe, supernatural beings who dwell in a mythical land beyond human kin. This unseen realm may be across the western sea, or in an invisible world parallel to ours, or in an underground kingdom accessible only through the pre-Christian burial mounds and barrows lying throughout Scotland, Ireland, and the ancient places of Western Europe. The aes sídhe tended to be impossible beautiful and strange in such a way that they could only be apprehended by dying people, insane people, or William Butler Yeats. Leprechauns were the money-grubbing cobblers and grabby tricksters among the lofty fairy folk. The first mention of leprechauns is found in a medieval epic: the hero recovers consciousness from a dreadful wound only to discover that he is being dragged into the sea by leprechauns. Yeats writes of the leprechaun “Many treasure-crocks, buried of old in war-time, has he now for his own.” In folklore Leprechauns originally wore red coats.
In America today all of this has been somewhat bowdlerized: leprechauns are small bellicose Irishman garbed completely in green. They ride on rainbows, possess pots of gold, and never quite grant wishes. Anyone who says otherwise is liable to get punched in the mouth by an electrician from Jersey City.
Lucky the leprechaun, the spokesbeing for Lucky Charms cereal since 1964, is probably the most famous of these contemporary leprechauns. His ancient bog sorcery has been condensed into the trademark phrase “magically delicious” and six talisman-like marshmallow shapes calculated to best please the discerning six-year old palate.
Sports teams also like leprechauns. The most famous sports-leprechauns are the pugnacious fighting Irish leprechaun of Notre Dame and the slippery dandy leprechaun of the Boston Celtics.
However an alarming range of other leprechaun mascots exist. They have different waistcoats from various historical eras, sundry prankish expressions, and wear a rainbow of different greens but they are all instantly recognizable.
I don’t know…I was going to be more cynical, but just look at them up there, drinking and hoarding and dancing away. There is something appealing about the wee folk. Shameless stereotype or not, t’is all in good fun. There’s a bit of a March hare in all of, longing to run wild after the long winter. If our culture chooses to exemplify this spring atavism through images of a little irrepressible green man, then so be it. Sláinte, dear readers! Have a happy Saint Patrick’s Day, a merry March, and a glorious spring.