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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

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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.

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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.

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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!
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