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We haven’t had much of a winter so far…which is fine with me. I dislike the cold part of the year and I was happy today when it was unexpectedly sixty and I got to bike in to work. And yet there is supposed to be a blizzard tomorrow!
So, to celebrate the season of snow and ice here is a little gallery of crowns which are meant to resemble snow and ice. Some of them are really pretty—especially the ones which are actually made of icicles (which I have always loves for their otherworldly frightful beauty).
I wish that more of them looked like snowflakes though—they really have their own disturbing alien allure. Anyway, I hope you are inside enjoying a bog mug of your favorite hot beverage and nestled by a fire. And for my tropical and southern hemisphere readers, why do you guys never invite me to come visit?
Happy blizzard. I’ll see you all tomorrow.
Here in America many of our Christmas habits descend from English…and Old English…and pre-English traditions. Yet among the mistletoe and fruitcake and holly boughs, one key element of English gifts is clearly lacking: explosive gifts.
The people of the UK have this gift-style thing called “a cracker.” Now in America, a cracker is either a flat disk of inedible starch meant to be fed to a parrot or a racial insult aimed at poor southern whites, yet in England it is something rather more magical and surreal. The cracker, or more properly the “bon-bon”, is a paper or cardboard tube painted with a low-lever explosive like silver fulminate (!) and covered in a twisted wrapper of festive paper. The end-result looks rather like a giant fake tootsie roll (insomuch as tootsie rolls have any valid realness of their own). Two holiday celebrants grasp the respective ends of the cracker and pull, whereupon the silver fulminate detonates with a pop. like a wishbone, the cracker splits unevenly and one party is left with the gift, whereas the other has nothing. So not only does this thing sound dangerous, it also sounds like it would cause lots of friendship-ending fights.
However the purpose of this blog post is not to judge the British for their toys (indeed, this cracker business is starting to reveal where some of the cantankerous, alarming, or over-the-top elements of America’s national character come from). Instead we wish to concentrate on a particular aspect of the gifts inside the cracker. In addition to candies and little toys, crackers traditionally contain tissue paper crowns which are worn during holiday feasts. I have no idea what the symbolism of this is (at Christmas, everyone is king for a moment), but I really like the hats! I wish there were some real vulture hats like in Harry Potter–that would be even more magical!
The other day I rashly promised a post about Juno—or I will call her “Hera” since the Greeks invented her (?) and their name is more euphonic. Immediately though it became obvious that writing about the queen of the gods is not as simple as it seems. Hera plays the villain in many myths—particularly those of Heracles (indeed, her name is his name: Heracles means “Hera’s man”). She is a great and terrible antagonist–even more so than giant sentient animals, or super dragons, or the dark monstrous deities of the underworld. But why is that? How can a regal woman be so much worse than the gods of charnel darkness and stygian torture?
Hera is the eldest daughter of Rhea and Cronus. She was devoured by her father at infancy, but escaped (via mustard emetic) and joined her brothers and sisters fighting against the titans for world domination. Once the battle was won, she initially rebuffed the romantic overtures of her youngest and strongest brother, Zeus. The king of the gods then took the form of a bedraggled cuckoo and cunningly played upon her sympathy for small injured creatures in order to win her heart and her hand. After their marriage, however, Hera played the cuckoo in their relationship as Zeus dallied with goddesses, nymphs, and comely mortals of all sorts. Classical mythology is pervaded by a sense that Zeus, king of the gods and lord of creation who fears nothing (except for being replaced by a strong son) is extremely afraid of Hera. She is often portrayed as jealously lashing out at Zeus’ paramours and their offspring…or otherwise punishing those who act against her will or fail to pay her sufficient respect.
Hera’s animals are the lion, the cow, and the peacock (she put the hundred eyes of her dead servant Argus on the bird’s tail to give it even greater beauty). Her emblems are the throne, the chariot, the scepter, and the crown. She is sometimes portrayed wearing a strange cylindrical crown of archaic pre-Greek shape (which may indicate that she was a goddess of power borrowed from a pre-Greek society).
Hera tends to be portrayed as a rich powerful woman of a higher class who barely deigns to notice her inferiors. She is the goddess of women, marriage, wealth, success, and (above all) power. Her children are Ares, Hephaestus, Eileithyia (the goddess of childbirth), cruel Eris, and beautiful Hebe, the goddess of youth who married Hercules after his apotheosis.
Have you read “The Three Musketeers”? After spending the entire book struggling against the machinations of Cardinal Richelieu, the hero prevails and join forces with…Cardinal Richelieu. Power is like that, and so is Hera. She can’t effectively be fought against. The world is hers. She can only be appeased or beguiled… or served outright.
The way upwards is not through deeds of merit, or valorous acts, or fighting monsters—it is through political wiles, networking, and figuring out how to please extremely rich powerful people who are impossible to please and implacably oppose regarding you as any sort of equal.
I started to do some research on beautiful and esoteric crowns of the world, but I was tragically distracted by hunger. Somehow the two extremely different impetuses fused into one peculiar quest and I wound up looking at a bunch of beautiful cakes shaped like crowns.
I guess crowns and cakes do share a few characteristics. A cake after all is a high status food for fancy occasions. Many cakes are cylindrical. Cakes tend to be highly decorated and they are often given over to the person of the hour in the manner of Roman crowns and garlands. Yet on a more fundamental level, crowns and cakes are quite dissimilar—one is a fancy hat betokening authority over others, whereas the other is a tasty dessert.
Yet there are so many crown cakes—many of them quite lovely. Is this because of the cylindrical shape, or is it because more people like crowns than you might expect? Is it part of “princess culture”–that formidable marketing confection which affects so many little girls? Maybe it has something to do with king cake or some other traditionalist throwback to customs of yesteryear. Whatever the reason, I really enjoy looking at these extraordinary confections. Also, thanks to the gifted royalist bakers of the internet, I have managed to throw together an airy yet still quasi-relevant post at the very end of a long day. I promise I will address weightier concerns tomorrow…
Now if only I had one of these delicious cakes! Maybe there is something to this princess business.
The roots of our third most popular topic go back 5500 years to pre-dynastic Ancient Egypt! In those times, the upper kingdom of Egypt (which spread along the Nile banks in the arid highlands to the south) was an entirely separate civilization from the fertile lower kingdom in the north. Sometime around 3100 the kingdoms were united under one ruler—the first pharaoh. The extremely silly yet very beautiful white crown of Upper Egypt—which looked like a narrow white flower bulb–was combined with the even sillier and even more beautiful red crown of Lower Egypt which looked like a flared cylinder with a spiral bee proboscis sticking out of it. The white crown was (and is?) the sacred emblem of the white vulture goddess Hedjet whereas the red crown was connected with Wadjet the pretty cobra goddess. Together these crowns became the emblem of the god king pharaoh for 3000 years.
You can read all about the crowns and their symbolism in the original post, but perhaps you are asking why I write so much about crowns anyway (my mom, a stalwart free American citizen always wonders about it). I find it fascinating that humans endow so much status and power in individuals. The crowns of emperors, pharaohs, kings, princes, and sundry other royal conquerors/hucksters are the absolute embodiment of this tendency to invest mythical potency and authority in other people. Crowns are ancient storied jeweled symbols of the fact that we think other people are better than us. The sacred headdresses accumulate astonishing histories: yet, in and of themselves, they are also remarkably absurd. It boggles the mind that people will do anything just because someone is wearing a cylinder of metal with squiggles or shiny stones upon their head.
Thanks to metal mines which provided iron and copper to buyers all around the Mediterranean, the Etruscans were very wealthy. The murals from Etruscan tombs make it abundantly clear that they also liked to enjoy all the luxuries which wealth makes possible. This love of opulence combined with their mastery of art in an unrivaled tradition of goldsmithing. The Etruscans were master jewelers (and the unique beauty of their pieces regularly spawns modern Etruscan jewelry revivals).
Among the pieces frequently discovered are beautiful gold crowns and diadems in the shape of leaves, berries, acorns, waves, and geometric patterns. The Romans were well known for their love of crowns and golden wreaths–which marked various triumphs, victories, or successes. It seems likely that the Romans took this trait from the Etruscans (although the Etruscans may have copied these crowns from Greek or Middle Eastern antecedents). I found these photos of beautiful gold headdresses around the internet. Since the pieces are in such fine repair (and so numerous) I suspect they are from Etruscan tombs. Look at how subtle and elegant the goldsmithing is on some of these crowns. Etruscan craftsmen were famous for their mastery of various stamping, hammering, molding, and filigree techniques (which are very much in evidence here).
In the years after the Etruscan tribes developed into sophisticated states (but before they became crude republics) political power fell into the hands of various kings and tyrants. These strongmen may have marked their political ascendency with crowns and tiaras. It also seems likely that Etruscan nobles wore such adornments for sacred occasions…and to show off their wealth and status.
Not all crowns are meant to be worn by monarchs and princes. These are reliquary crowns from northern Europe—the opulent gems and precious metals exist purely in a supporting role to add gravity and ornament to the truly important sacred objects allegedly within. These sacred relics were usually pieces of the bones of Saints or splinters of the true cross—somewhat common sacred artifacts in the medieval world where bones and splinters were plentiful and provenance was dodgy. The crown at the top is in St. Aubin Cathedral in Namur, Belgium, and it is said to contain a splinter of the true cross. The very lovely crown below is the reliquary crown of Henry II, the Holy Roman Emperor from 1014 AD until his death in 1024 AD. Henry II worked ceaselessly during his reign as king and later as emperor to minimize the power of greedy nobles by making bishops more influential. The Catholic Church greatly appreciated this support and Henry II was canonized in 1146 AD by Pope Eugene III. Presumably the crown, (which is today kept at the Cathedral of Bamberg in Bavaria) contains some piece of Henry II—although there is an outside chance it was his actual crown. It is worth enlarging the photo of Henry’s reliquary crown to better see all of the strange little details such as the antique cameos, the fleur-de-lis, and the angels standing on acanthus leaves.
This strange work “The Union of the Crowns” is by the consummate painter’s painter, Peter Paul Rubens. It shows the symbolic joining of the crowns of England and Scotland, an event which occurred upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I on March 24, 1603. When Elizabeth Tudor died without an heir, the crown of England passed from her to her first cousin twice removed— James VI, King of Scots (thereafter also James I of England & Ireland). The United Kindom did not formally become one imperial kingdom until the Acts of Union of 1707, but once a single sovereign held both thrones, the way was certainly paved for the merger. This mighty canvas hangs in the banqueting hall at Whitehall and it shows James I attentively watching as Juno and Venus hold the two crowns over a regal chubby naked baby (who may be Great Britain or may be an infant Charles I–back when he still had a head). Minerva joins the crowns together as flying putti hold the conjoined shield aloft among a suffusion of roses.
Rubens knew exactly how to pander to aristocratic tastes…and how to bang out lucrative political allegories with help from his extensive studio. There are several other slightly different versions of “The Union of the Crowns” by the master (& co.) located around England at the estates of various noblemen who stood to gain from the union. As Scotland nears a fateful electoral choice later this year, one wonders if a painter will be called upon to paint the division of the crowns by strife, nationalism, and vested interest…
The mighty lion is clearly the king of beasts…or is he? For your holiday pleasure, here is a gallery of octopuses wearing crowns. Octopuses have short lives and they do not grow to immense sizes, but they are extremely intelligent. All of the regal tentacles below put me in mind of the Ordovician, a geological age when mollusks (in the form of giant cephalopods) truly were the kings of the animal world.
A coronet is a small crown which is worn by a nobleman or noblewoman. In the European tradition coronets differ from kingly crowns in that they lack arches—they are instead simple rings with ornaments attached. Different ranks of nobility wear different coronets. For example, in England the various ranks are denoted as follows:
If you bothered counting the “pearls” and strawberry leaves on the above illustrations, you will recognize that certain adornments have been left out (which is to simplify the heraldic representation of coronets). I wish I knew what the strawberry leaves represent! If I was a sinister & bloodthirsty nobleman, that is not the sort of decoration I would choose for my fancy fancy hat, but maybe I am not thinking like a peer. Other western European nations have differently shaped coronets with different ornaments, but the same sort of rank-by-decoration pertains.
Coronets are largely symbolic—many nobles do not even have them made. By tradition they are worn only at the coronation of a monarch. Coronets are important however in heraldry, and the peerage rank of a noble house can easily be determined by looking at the little crown drawn on their shield.