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In the Roman pantheon, Janus is the two-faced god of beginnings, limits, doors, gateways, and departure. Unlike the other Greco-Roman deities, Janus was not imported from Greece to Rome. How he arrived in the Roman pantheon is unclear: some scholars believe that he was originally a gatekeeping deity of the near East while others argue he was an original Latin deity who was worshipped in Italy before Rome rose to power. Similarly there are different myths concerning his origin. The most dramatic tale of his creation asserts that he was made by Uranus, god of the primal heavens as a love present for dark Hecate. Janus despised being in the underworld so he escaped from Hecate by diving into the river Styx and swimming to the world above.
After fleeing the underworld, Janus acted as one of the earliest kings of Rome in the golden era when the titans ruled the world, however at the end of the titanomachy—the epic war between titans and Olympians—he made the poor decision to give shelter to Saturn, hated father of Jupiter. Jove was furious at Janus because of this betrayal and he cursed him with immobility and with a second face. Thereafter Janus stood at the threshold of heaven to open and close the gate as Jupiter came and went.
Janus was a popular god for the Romans and they worshipped him whenever they started a new venture or embarked on a trip. January is named after the god and the first day of every month is dedicated to him. The ancient temple of Janus stood in the center of Rome was open during war and closed during times of peace. Since the Romans were a warlike people the temple was rarely closed and sometimes stood open for hundreds of years at a time.
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.
Ferrebeekeeper has had the same group of topics for a long time, so it is time to experiment with some new ones. Today’s topic—ancient ships—is not entirely new on this blog. We have already written about various galleys and longships (including a Greek trireme, an ancient Egyptian reconstruction, and a Viking longboat), however today we concentrate on the greatest warship of the Byzantine navy, the mighty dromon. The dromon was the mainstay of the Byzantine navy for seven centuries from the 5th century AD to the 12th century AD. The galley was based on the ancient Roman liburnian, a sort of small galley used for patrols and raids by the Roman navy. Dromons were different from liburnians in that they abandoned underwater rams (which were in declining use in the Empire) for an above-the-water spur. Additionally dromons featured a full deck, and they were rigged with lateen (triangular) sails by the age of Justinian.
The principal feature of the dromon, as with other ancient Mediterranean warships, were the banks of oars which propelled the ship in battle. Earlier dromons of the sixth century were single-banked (“monoreme”) ships with 25 oars per side, however by the ninth century it seems that dromons were being built with 2 banks of oars divided by a deck. The top bank held 25 rowers per side and the bottom could have had up to 35 which meant the ships were crewed b 120 rowing men.
Dromons were fearsomely outfitted with weapons. In addition to their sharpened spike (which was used to sheer off the oars of rival boats) they had great companies of marines—armored soldiers who boarded enemy vessels to fight their crews by hand. A grand spout on the prow was used to spray Greek fire, a sticky napalm-like flaming liquid which was extremely hard to douse (the exact nature of which has been lost to history). Large dromons had wooden castles at fore and aft from which marksmen could fire bows, crossbows, or scorpions.
Dromons were the principal craft which the Byzantines used in their many wars against barbarian invaders like the Vandals and the Rus and then against successive Muslim dynasties hellbent on taking the empire. These naval battles must have been horrifying and grand to watch. Greek fire gave the Byzantines some advantage (although it was treacherous stuff) but eventually the ships would become entangled. The marines would snatch up their shields from where they hung along the sides of the dromon and together with all the oarsmen (who were not slaves but fighters) would participate in brutal pitched battles.
The cornucopia is an ancient symbol of harvest abundance. It is commonly represented as a woven spiral basket overflowing with fruit, grains, vegetables, and other agricultural products. In America it is one of the symbols of Thanksgiving time (second only to the magnificent turkey). The wicker basket stuffed with fruits has become such a familiar image, that it is easy to overlook the Greco-Roman roots of the horn of plenty.
According to Greek legend, the cornucopia is the horn of Amalthea, the goat which served as foster mother to Zeus. In the benign version of the myth, young Zeus, unaware of his own strength, accidentally broke the horn off of the goat while he was playing with her. In the darker version, he slaughtered the goat when he reached manhood. From her hide he fashioned his impenetrable aegis. He gave her horn to the nymphs who had raised him, and this horn provided a magical eternal abundance of farm-raised food. In memory of her generosity, he set her image in the stars as the constellation Capricorn. There is yet another version of the cornucopia myth which Hercules broke the horn off of a river god and this became the original horn of plenty.
Whatever its origin, the cornucopia remained a part of the classical pantheon. It is most frequently seen in the hands of Ceres/Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and grains. In Roman iconography the cornucopia was sometimes an attribute of Fortuna, the goddess of luck, and of the underworld god Pluto (who controlled the ground and thus was responsible for the gifts of the harvest).
I like the Hercules/river-god myth because it reflects on how important water is to agriculture, but I greatly prefer the myth of Zeus and his foster-mother which seems to embody the moral quandaries (and the promise of civilization) which are inherent in agriculture. The story—like that of Cain and Abel–hints at the replacement of hunting with herding and farming (indeed goats were the original domesticated animal). Some cornucopias are now made of baked goods which makes the symbolic transition even more apparent. The horn of plenty is an admirable symbol of humankind’s fundamental dependency on agriculture–which lies at the root of our civilization and our prosperity. I am glad the cornucopia has kept its relevance for all of these thousands of years and has not been replaced by some tamer symbol.
Almost every culture has myths and stories about the undead—supernatural beings trapped between the living world and the underworld. The majority of such creatures are horrible, monstrous, or sad, yet such is their dark hold on our imagination that they reoccur in the legends of many different places.
This year, in order to celebrate Halloween, that special time between seasons when the veil to the underworld if lifted, Ferrebeekeeper presents some of the undead who are less familiar than Hollywood’s smooth-talking vampires and shambling zombies. Although undead folklore stretches back to prehistory, an appropriate place to begin with our exploration is in the cemeteries and columbariums of Ancient Rome–which were haunted by several sorts of undead spirits. Roman funereal practice changed back and forth from burial to cremation several times (and some families or individuals preferred to stick with the unfashionable tradition). Cemeteries and funereal monuments were found by the side of thoroughfares just outside of towns and cities. One can imagine how spooky these unlighted tombs were at night when filled with footpads, desperate fugitives, wild animals, and pre-industrial darkness (even without the various wondering dead whom the Romans believed in).
The most common Roman apparitions were two sorts of ghosts: the manes and lemures, which were separated by moral alignment. Manes, the spirits of deceased loved ones, were basically benevolent– although they still enjoyed drinking blood, which Romans provided for them with animal sacrifices and with gladiatorial games (which were originally intended for funereal purposes). Wealthy Romans held sumptuous feasts to appreciate the manes, and even people of more humble means sacrificed and gave offerings to the spirits of the dearly departed. The lemures, however, were not so benevolent. These were dark and restless spirits who died bad deaths. Some lemures were forever lost and could not find the underworld. Others were tied to this world through foul acts or evil temper. The lemures were imagined as shapeless black forms of malevolence. Romans tried to placate the lemures with sacrificial offerings of funereal black (most often black beans, superstitiously cast behind—although other black sacrifices are hinted at).
Beyond such ghostly revenants, Romans greatly feared witches and the liminal tricks which they could play with life and death. Anyone who has read The Golden Ass will recall the indelible first story within a story–wherein the wicked Thessalonian sorceresses Meroë and Panthia kill the narrator’s friend, drain his blood, and rip out his heart which they replace with a sponge. After an agonizing night of fear, debasement, and suicidal thoughts, the narrator is delighted when dawn breaks and his murdered friend is alive (all the night’s horrors merely a dream). The two men proceed out of town and stop at a spring to drink, whereupon the sponge in the murder victim’s chest falls out and he falls drained & dead upon the sand (The Golden Ass is an unrivaled work of literature, but not for the faint of heart).
The Romans also feared the Lamiae. According to myth Lamia was a beautiful Libyan queen who was loved by Zeus, but something went (badly) awry with their affair and Lamia wound up devouring her only child and pulling out her eyes. Thereafter she roved the dark on a serpent’s tail looking for other children to devour. The Romans were fascinated by this horrifying figure, and in later Roman folklore the Lamiae are an entire category of monster rather than one being. These later Lamiae were able to alter their appearance to become fair. They would then seduce young men and eat their life essence. The Romans were not the only ones fascinated by this kind of misogyny mythology and the Lamiae outlived the manes, lemures, and witch-cursed victims, to find a place in 19th century poetry and art.
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.
The ancient Romans were devotees of all sorts of gardens. As classical Mediterranean culture reached its apogee during the eras of the Roman Republic and the Roman Principate, Roman gardeners combined the best aspects of garden styles from Greece, Persia, and Egypt to create their own tranquil refuges from stress, strife, and crowds. Some of these gardens were sprawling temple gardens built to honor various deities (while also granting beauty and serenity to the worshippers), or large pleasure gardens which combined orchards with ornate terraces, but the classical Roman garden which everyone thinks of today was the peristyle garden at the center of the Roman urban household. This was designed to be one of the two centers of the Roman home. The other center, the atria was symbolic and formal—it related to ancestors, religion, and the past, but the garden was meant to be lived in and enjoyed.
A peristyle garden was located in an open courtyard of a domus and was generally surrounded by colonnades. Various ornamental plants and statues could be found in the garden. If the family was especially prosperous, there might also be fountains, pools, murals, and running water. However even humbler houses would have an opening in the ceiling and some potted herbs and flowers.
For security reasons Roman urban houses did not usually have windows facing the street, so the garden (and the formal atrium at the front of the house) became the source of fresh air as well as water. Fragrant, herbs, shrubs and flowers were carefully cultivated amidst complementary artworks. We have paintings of these gardens, and literary descriptions, but, best of all, we have examples of the gardens themselves from Pompeii. Although the actual plants from Pompeian villas emerged worse for the wear after being entombed for centuries beneath volcanic ash, the statues and decorations remained. This post contains photos of how some of these actual Roman gardens look when replanted and tended.
The old-fashioned Roman domus began to vanish in the 6th century AD as Christianity became universal, but the peristyle did not vanish. The peristyle garden evolved into the atrium of the Basillica–and then the concept became even more removed from the mundane world as it changed into the monastic cloister.
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.
In ancient Greece, one of the most universally popular symbols was the gorgoneion, a symbolized head of a repulsive female figure with snakes for hair. Gorgoneion medallions and ornaments have been discovered from as far back as the 8th century BC (and some archaeologists even assert that the design dates back to 15 century Minoan Crete). The earliest Greek gorgoneions seem to have been apotropaic in nature—grotesque faces meant to ward off evil and malign influence. Homer makes several references to the gorgon’s head (in fact he only writes about the severed head—never about the whole gorgon). My favorite lines concerning the gruesome visage appear in the Odyssey, when Odysseus becomes overwhelmed by the horrors of the underworld and flees back to the world of life:
And I should have seen still other of them that are gone before, whom I would fain have seen- Theseus and Pirithous glorious children of the gods, but so many thousands of ghosts came round me and uttered such appalling cries, that I was panic stricken lest Proserpine should send up from the house of Hades the head of that awful monster Gorgon.
In Greco-Roman mythology the gorgon’s head (attached to a gorgon or not) could turn those looking at it into stone. The story of Perseus and Medusa (which we’ll cover in a different post) explains the gorgon’s origins and relates the circumstances of her beheading. When Perseus had won the princess, he presented the head to his father and Athena as a gift—thus the gorgon’s head was a symbol of divine magical power. Both Zeus and Athena were frequently portrayed wearing the ghastly head on their breastplates.
Although the motif began in Greece, it spread with Hellenic culture. Gorgon imagery was found on temples, clothing, statues, dishes, weapons, armor, and coins found across the Mediterranean region from Etruscan Italy all the way to the Black Sea coast. As Hellenic culture was subsumed by Rome, the image became even more popular–although the gorgon’s visage gradually changed into a more lovely shape as classical antiquity wore on.
In wealthy Roman households a gorgoneion was usually depicted next to the threshold to help guard the house against evil. The wild snake-wreathed faces are frequently found painted as murals or built into floors as mosaics.
Not only was the wild magical head a mainstay of classical decoration–the motif was subsequently adapted by Renaissance artists hoping to recapture the spirit of the classical world. Gilded gorgoneions appeared at Versailles and in the palaces and mansions of elite European aristocrats of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Even contemporary designers and businesses make use of the image. The symbol of the Versace fashion house is a gorgon’s head.
Famous in love stories and movies, the Claddagh ring is a traditional Irish band with elements that go back to Roman times. The ring consists of two hands holding a crowned heart and dates back to the 17th century where the design originated in the village of Claddagh by Galway.
According to tradition, each element of the ring is symbolic. The hands stand for friendship, the heart stands for love, and the crown stands for loyalty. The position of the ring on the hands is also important: when the ring is on the right ring finger with the heart out, it means the wearer is single and seeking love (or some reasonable approximation); when the ring is on the right hand with the heart turned in, it means the wearer is in a relationship, but not engaged. When the Claddagh ring jumps to the left ring finger things have gotten serious: the Claddagh with the heart outward indicates betrothal and when heart is turned inward, the wearer is married. Or at least that is what people say about the tradition. Every ring I have worn ceaselessly turned like a record on my finger. I’m sure all sorts of couples would end up in desperate needless fights if the Claddagh tradition was held too closely.
Although the folklore traditions in the paragraph above seem to be innovations of the nineteenth century, the ring descends (through a long lineage) from Roman “fede” rings which featured clasped or joined hands as symbolic of a sacred vow.