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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.
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.
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!
A couple of years ago I was in a sumptuous private garden outside of San Francisco. The Mediterranean style garden was filled with gorgeous silvery trees bearing strange deep purple fruit. When I earnestly praised the trees to the garden’s owner, he looked surprised and informed me that they were olive trees. I was raised thinking olives were disgusting squishy things that came in jars. Only after moving to New York did I realize how varied and delicious they can be. I ran to the nearest tree and pulled off a ripe black olive and popped it into my mouth…and promptly involuntarily spat it out. The fruit was indescribably bitter and vile. “Oh there’s a process to preparing them for eating,” said the owner nonchalantly.
That was my first experience with a living olive tree (Olea europaea), one of the plants which appears most frequently in Western literature and art. In Greek, Roman, and Biblical writings, the olive has easy primacy over all of the other plants, fruits, trees and flowers (other than the life-giving grains). It is a defining symbol of Mediterranean culture and civilization.
There is a classical Greek myth about the creation of the olive tree. Poseidon and Athena both wished to be the patron deity of Athens. The dispute was becoming heated, but before it came to outright war, Athena proposed a contest: whichever deity could provide the most useful gift (as judged by Cecrops, the snake-bodied founder-king of Athens) would be the city’s special god. Poseidon presented his gift first. He raised his trident and brought it crashing down on the acropolis and a spring of water gushed into the air on the spot where the Erechtheion was later raised. The citizens were delighted—until they tasted the water and found it to be as salty as the ocean. Then Athena struck a great boulder with her lance. The rock split open and a beautiful tree with silver leaves grew in the spot—the first olive. Not only were the olives delicious, the oil was good for illumination, perfume, and cooking. The wood was made into votive statues and other useful things. The tree was drought resistant and tolerated brackish water. As always, Athena was victorious and the city was named in her honor.
Wild olives (oleasters) were used for oil, fuel, and wood for at least 19,000 years. It is unclear when they were first domesticated, but domestication happened in many different times and places (possibly from different wild antecedents). Domesticated olives are propagated through grafting and cloning—since seeds can yield undesirable strains. As I discovered in San Francisco, ripe raw olives are so bitter as to be inedible—they must be treated with salt or lye (!) in order to become acceptable to the human palate (although goats and cattle do not object to untreated olives). The oil obtained from crushed olives was far more important than the fruit itself. Olive oil is almost pure fat and is resistant to spoilage for longer than a year. Not only was it the great preservative of classical society, it was the basis of cuisine, medicine, personal grooming, perfume, and sacred ritual.
The oldest and most revered cult objects of ancient Greece, the mysterious xoana, were constructed of olive wood (although these strange sculptures were known to ancient authors, none have survived into modern times except as stone copies of the originals). In ancient Greece and Rome, victory—in games and in actual war–was denoted by a crown of wild olive leaves (also known as kotinos). Olive oil was equally sacred in the Levant where it played a part in Jewish sacrificial offering and priestly anointment. In the Bible, the olive is the first plant which the dove brings back to Noah as the flood resides—imagery which has become synonymous with peace. Ironically olive is also a dark yellow color (or a drab green) in universal usage by the militaries of the world thanks to the fact that it is not a color readily distinguished by human eyes and thus blends in with many sorts of terrain.
In the modern world olives have spread from the Mediterranean and now live on all continents except for Antarctica. Huge orchards of commercial olives can be found not only in Spain, Italy, Turkey, Greece and Israel, but also in South America, Africa, Australia and Asia (and the West coast of North America, obviously). In their new homes olives can be a nuisance. They are a serious invasive hazard in Australia and certain Pacific Islands. Because of their resistance to drought, they out-compete native plants and create a weedy monoculture. Their high oil content makes them susceptible to fires which burn incredibly hot. Of course not all olive trees are commercial plants, or dangerous weeds. Olive trees can live to immense old age and some revered specimens are at least 2000 years old. Such ancient trees are remarkable for their fabulous gnarled trunks and branches which take on an otherworldly appearance appropriate to their age. Additionally it seems somehow appropriate that the olive tree—which has a reasonable claim to being humankind’s favorite tree–is capable of living through the millennia.