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Happy Valentine’s Day! The three traditional symbols of this holiday are (1) a voluptuous heart-shape, (2) Cupid, and (3) a pair of doves. The first of these—the shapely heart–is a medieval symbol, but the other two holiday symbols are much older and trace their way back to the ancient Greco-Roman world. The mischievous archer Cupid was the god of infatuation and besottment—with his phallic arrow, he is so ouvert that he is barely a symbol. In the world of Christian iconography, doves represent peace, divine revelation, and the holy spirit, however in the classical world they were the bird of Aprodite/Venus. Valentine’s Day is really Lupercalia—the fertility festival to Lupercus (Pan). In the modern world it (barely) masquerades as an acceptable holiday, but its wild roots are never far away. I get the sense these doves are really the amorous doves of Venus and not representations of peace.
To celebrate, here are some Valentine’s doves from Valentines throughout the ages.
Doves pulled the chariot of Venus and they nearly always attended to her. Their tenderness with each other and their ability to rapidly proliferate made them abiding symbols of love. Additionally, doves are uniquely beautiful and otherworldly and yet also commonplace. They can fly to the heights of heaven and yet consist on meager scraps in wastelands. Maybe doves really are a good symbol of love!
Ferrebeekeeper has long served Athena, the virgin goddess of truth and wisdom (although she is never the most popular goddess, she is certainly the BEST and is always is victorious in the end), and, in my time, I have also served Dionysus. All American are compelled to serve Hera for 8 hours every workday (except the super-rich, who serve her constantly). Yet Aphrodite has almost always eluded me. Springs come and go and the long decades pass, but love is elusive. Maybe some sacred doves will please coy Aphrodite.
In the meantime, Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone. I hope you find the love you are looking for in your life. Or at least I hope you enjoy these doves and maybe some chocolate!
A popular luxury item of the ancient Mediterranean world was the unguentarium–a little glass container which contained perfume, salve, balm, or suchlike precious unguents (the purpose is right there in the name, people). Today we would probably keep such cosmetics or medicines in a hermetically sealed plastic containers vacuum sealed by machines with metal or foil tops, but the Romans did not have such materials or technology. In order to keep their basalms fresh, they used the glassblower’s art. The jalop was put in the container during manufacture and the glassmaker sealed it in.
In order to use such a material, the buyer would snap the glass and break the seal (and alas, the vessel). Dove-shaped unguentariums (or whatever the English plural of that word is) were particularly popular because the shape was beautiful and effective. A user could break the beak for getting small amounts or snap off the tail if she wanted to use all of her lotion at once. Additionally, doves were sacred to Venus–a particular favorite goddess of the Romans. I wonder what sort of lubricious lotions and potions were in these lovely glass doves. In some cases we could perhaps find out. Some of these were never broken by the people they were made for, now dead for more than a thousand years. We could break them and find out what the contents were with our machines…but after so long it seems like an unimaginable shame.
Here is a little gallery of drawings and paintings of the Mauritius blue pigeon ((Alectroenas nitidissimus) a charming blue fructivore of the beautiful island of Mauritius (which is in the Indian Ocean, to the east of Madagascar). You may notice that there are only artworks of the blue pigeon with the yeti ruff and naked smiling vulture head. That is because the poor pigeon went extinct in the 1830s, a victim if drastic deforestation on the island. The pigeon went extinct when the fruit trees it relied on for food were cut down. It looks funny and personable and sad.
It’s been a while since we wrote about pigeons (after all, turkeys take up most of the national bird bandwidth in November). Let’s get back to the subject with a brief examination of the fanciest of all fancy pigeons–the beautiful fantail pigeons!
Whereas wild pigeons have about a dozen feathers in their tail, fantail pigeons have thirty to forty feathers in their tail. As indicated in their name, they can fan these ornamental feathers up in a magnificent ornamental crest–like that of a peacock or a turkey.
Darwin mentioned fantail pigeons in the first chapter of “On the Origin of Species” as an example of the rapid changes which artificial selection could render to an organism. Even though fantail pigeons seem to be a human creation, they look like they take a great and justified pride in their splendid appearance. I think the fantail which is the normal pigeon color of grey with iridescent trim is particularly spectacular!
This artist needs no introduction. Gustave Doré was the preeminent illustrator of the 19th century. Although he became rich and successful, he was a workaholic, who took joy in his work rather than riches. He never married and lived with his mother until he died unexpectedly of a brief severe illness.
Doré illustrated everything from the Bible, to Nursery Rhymes, to Dante (one of my friends decided to become an artist upon looking at Doré’s version of Dante’s hell). Likewise he provided images for the great poetry and novels of his time. We could write a whole novel about Doré’s life (well we could if it wasn’t entirely spent sitting at a drafting table creating astonishing visual wonderment), but let’s concentrate instead on three especially dark images from his great oeuvre. First, at the top is an image of the end of the crusades. Every paladin and holy knight lies dead in a colossal heap. Collectively they grasp a great cross with their dead limbs as a glowing dove surrounded by a ring of stars ascends upward from the carnage. It is a powerful image of religious war–made all the more sinister by Doré’s apparent approval (and by the fact that it looks oddly like an allegory of the present state of the EU.
Next we come to a picture from European fairy tales: a traveler bedecked in sumptuous raiment stands surrounded on all sides by writhing corpses trapped inside their caskets by bars. The coffins rise high above the lone man in an apparently endless architecture of death. Strange tricky spirits dance at the edges of his sight as he takes in his ghastly location. This is clearly an image of…I…uh…I have no idea…what the hell sort of nightmare fairy tale is this? How did Doré think of this stuff?
Here finally, from Revelations, the final book of the New Testament, is an image of Death himself leading forth the horsemen of the apocalypse and the dark angels. This disturbing posse is descending from the sky to harrow the world of all living things and usher in a static and eternal era of divine singularity (which is the upsetting and unexpected end to a book about a kindly young rabbi who teaches people to be compassionate). Look at Death’s proud cold mien, which alone is composed and immutable in a desperate jagged composition of moving wings, scrabbling claws, ragged clouds, and blades of every sort.
OK, here is the closest living relative of the Dodo—the Nicobar pigeon (Caloenas nicobarica). This splendidly fashionable tropical pigeon lives on the Nicobar and Andoman Islands and along the coast of Myanmar Thailand Malaysia, Solomon Islands, Palau and on other forested Indo Pacific islands between Sumatra and the Philippines. The bird makes full use of its wings, spending days browsing seeds, fruit, and grains of tropical forests and farms and then flying out to uninhabited offshore islets where there are no predators. They also tend to build their nests on these same heavily forested offshore islets.
Wikipedia describes the pigeon’s appearance succinctly: “It is a large pigeon, measuring 40 cm (16 in) in length. The head is grey, like the upper neck plumage, which turns into green and copper hackles. The tail is very short and pure white. The rest of its plumage is metallic green. The cere of the dark bill forms a small blackish knob; the strong legs and feet are dull red. The irides are dark.” This rote description however does not do justice to the pigeon’s magnificent long grey neck feathers which jut out prettily over iridescent orange green body feathers. The bird somehow contrives to look like an exotic tropical fowl and like a plain old pigeon all at once.
August is probably my favorite month! To start it out on a jaunty note, I wanted to find the most colorful pigeon out of all the many Columbidae. Now, as it turns out, there are a lot of beautiful tropical doves with tutti-fruity plumage, but one special candidate seemed like the clear winner. Allow me to present the rose-crowned fruit dove (Ptilinopus regina), a green dove with an orange belly, saffron eyes, a white-gray head and thorax, and a beautiful magenta crown (edged with yellow). Wow!
The rose-crowned fruit dove is a gentle fructivore which lives in lowland rainforests of northeast Australia, and various tropical islands of southern Indonesia. The female lays a single white egg in a nest hidden in the dense canopy and both parents look after it. Nestlings are solid green and do not develop the brilliant splashes of color until they reach adulthood.
Rose-crowned fruit dove (Ptilinopus regina) from arovingiwillgo.wordpress.com (photo by Joy)
I sort of hoped to tell some amazing anecdote about this lovely animal, but I could not find any. Apparently the bird’s brilliant plumage seamlessly blends into the vine and flower filled jungles where it lives. People rarely see it at all and are most familiar with the bird from its cries or from the noise it makes when it fumbles and drops a delicious fig. Just based on looks alone, though, it was still worth writing about!
Is there such a thing as a Gothic pigeon? There are a lot of different breeds of pigeond, however the most Medieval-looking member of the Columbidae family was never shaped by human selection. The Luzon bleeding heart pigeon (Gallicolumba luzonica) is a delicate shy bird which lives in tropical forests of Luzon, the largest island of the Philippines. The birds eat berries and grubs of the forest floor, which they almost never leave except when they are nesting. They are a mixture of barred gray above and cream color below, except for their distinguishing feature, which sets them apart from all other birds.
Bleeding heart pigeons have a group of scarlet feathers at the center of their breast which make it look as though they have a terrible bleeding hole in their chest. In female birds this feature is somewhat subdued, however in males it glows incarnadine like a lurid painting of a Christian martyr. Male birds even appear to have droplets of blood running down from the terrible heart wound.
The first time I encountered this bird was not in a book (or on a random blog written by some weirdo), but in the Bronx zoo. I saw a glimpse of a male bird at the back of an aviary and I got all afraid that he had been horribly hurt. Only when I saw the picture on the exhibit were my fears assuaged. All of this leads up to the question of why these animals look like they have been shot through the heart. There are lots of folklore explanations (of the dogwood religious just-so story variety), but the real answer is that nobody knows. It is a shockingly metal look for such an unassuming and modest bird.
Sadly the bleeding heart pigeon is growing scarce as its forest home is cut down and made into plywood. Additionally, people capture and sell the birds into the pet and aviary trade. Like the planet Jupiter, it is valued for its lovely and unnerving red spot. With its mild nature, endangered status, and religious martyr good looks, perhaps the bleeding heart dove is a perfect mascot of the terrible plight of animals in our over-burdened Anthropocene world.