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A short pictorial post today…but a good one. Behold: baby skunks!

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The world seems to little appreciate skunks and gleeful stories of them being crushed or poisoned were common when I was growing up.  It strikes me as terribly sad, since skunks are mild-mannered, non-confrontational, and eat all sorts of pests.  Also look at them! They are as adorable as kittens, and that is really saying something.

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Anyway, this isn’t really supposed to be a public service announcement (although I do hope you will be kind to skunks (although, like all of us placental mammals they can catch rabies, so avoid any that show up in daytime behaving strangely).  In the mean time, have a good week and stay healthy!

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I’m afraid I don’t have a huge amount of time to write a complicated blog post today, but I thought I would share these endearing photos of a broody chicken nesting on a basket of cute puppies.  Mabel the chicken is a pet chicken who lives on a farm in Shrewsbury, Shropshire.  Her owners saved her from the dining table because of her likeable personality.  The hen looks after the puppies as though they were chicks whenever the puppies’ mother is outside.

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Cista Mystica from a marble funerary altar of the Flavian period (69-96 CE)

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.

 

Roman coin showing cista mystica

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).

 

Frescos from a Roman villa (50-40 BC) showing objects associated with the cult of Bacchus

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.

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