You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Aphrodite’ tag.

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Figure of Ceres with a Polos on her head (2nd century A.D, Roman)bronze

Greco-Roman civilization featured many objects and icons which are instantly familiar to us today.  We know all about cornucopias, tridents, and the fasces (Hey! Why are those on the official seal of the U.S. Senate, anyway?).  Yet other common symbols from that world are perplexing to us today–like the lituus which represented augury in classical mythology.  Today’s post features a symbol which may or may not have made sense to the Greeks and Romans, but which was instantly understood in the context of their religion—the polos.  The polos was a cylindrical crown worn by goddesses of supreme importance: Rhea, Hera, Demeter, Aphrodite, and Artemis (though not Athena, apparently), however it was seemingly not worn by queens or high status women in the real world after the 5th century.   We know what it looked like, but we are perplexed as to what it was made of (insomuch as it was an object of the physical world at all).

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Archaeological finds from the Mycenaean era (1600BC-1200BC) indicate that living women of the ancient palace kingdoms of Greece and Crete once wore these headdresses. You can see a polos above on a Mycenaean figure—yet by the classical Greek era, these do not seem to be worn in the real world.

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Examples from statues of Cybele and Rhea make it seem almost as though it was woven or carved out of some organic material.  Perhaps the Polos was a symbol of fertility and abundance (which would expliain why the virginal Artemis of Ephesus wears such a thing yet the virginal Athena does not.

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Artemis of Ephesus. Statue from the Amphitheater of Lepcis Magna

It is possible that the polos was a cultural object which came into Greece from the near east (there are certainly equivalent crowns in Mesopotamian and Persian art) and existed in religion but not in common culture (Christianity is filled with such symbols, when you think about it).  However it seems more likely to me that the polos was important to the Greeks because it was ancient and mysterious.  It had the same place in their culture that their gods and symbols do in ours—a venerable symbol of otherworldly power

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Seated Aphrodite wearing a high polos (4th century B.C.) terracotta

Common Myrtle (Myrtus Communis)

Common Myrtle (Myrtus Communis)

The common myrtle (Myrtus communis) is a small evergreen tree from the Mediterranean which grows up to 5 meters (16 feet) tall (although it is usually smaller).  Myrtle has little white star-like flowers which turn into blue-gray glaucous berries.  The small leaves produce an essential oil with a distinctive odor.  Myrtles are elegant small plants which can be clipped into handsome topiaries for the mild weather garden.  Some of you Californians may recognize it, if you aren’t too busy surfing, or auditioning for movies, or joining cults.   Herbalists attribute various medicinal properties to the plant, but medical science has never confirmed any utility of any part of the plant as a drug.

Aphrodite rides on the back of the swan, accompanied by a pair of winged Erotes (love-gods) holding myrtle wreaths. (drawing after fifth century Greek vase)

Aphrodite rides on the back of the swan, accompanied by a pair of winged Erotes (love-gods) holding myrtle wreaths. (drawing after fifth century Greek vase)

Myrtle is primarily worthy of mention because the Greeks and Romans loved it and regarded it as a sacred plant of love and immortality.  The plant was the signature flower of Aphriodite/Venus (though it was also apparently sacred to Demeter, albeit to a lesser degree).  Since it is symbolic of Venus, myrtle punches far above its weight in the canon of Western art.  Visitors to art museums are probably perplexed to notice the non-descript little topiary in the background of bodacious paintings of the gorgeous nude goddess (assuming they notice at all).  Venus’ other attributes are well known: swans, roses, nudity, little men with bows and arrows, nudity, shells, Cyprus, nudity, and sparrows, however the poor myrtle seems somewhat overshadowed by the charisma and charms of the love goddess.

Venus D'Urbino (Titian, 1538, Oil on Canvas) Note the pot of topiary myrtle in the pot by the column!

Venus D’Urbino (Titian, 1538, Oil on Canvas) Note the pot of topiary myrtle in the pot by the column!

A Quince Tree with Ripe Quinces

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).

Detail of Eve (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1528)

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.

Quinces and Medlars on a Table Ledge (Jan Jansz van de Velde, mid 17th Century)

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,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

Detail of Two Quinces (Eliot Hodgkin, 1951)

 

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