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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?

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The Goddess Juno in the House of Dreams (Luis Lopez Piquer ca. early nineteenth century, oil on canvas)

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.

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Juno Discovering Jupiter with Io (Pieter Lastman, 1618, oil on canvas)

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).

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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.

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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.

 

 

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From 600 BC until 146 BC Carthaginian civilization vied with Greco-Roman civilization to control the Mediterranean in a series of increasingly bitter wars.  Ultimately Rome was completely victorious in the great contest: the Carthaginian territories in North Africa and Iberia became Roman territories and the city of Carthage was destroyed and the ground sowed with salt.  Rome sat about effacing Carthaginian language, culture, and art from the world.  To this day nobody can figure out what was actually normal in Carthaginian civilization and what was a crazy bitter smear campaign by the Romans.

Bust of the goddess Tanit found in the necropolis of Puig des Molins. 4th century B.C. Museum of Puig des Molins in Ibiza (Spain

Bust of the goddess Tanit found in the necropolis of Puig des Molins. 4th century B.C. Museum of Puig des Molins in Ibiza (Spain

But no matter how greatly the Romans tried, they could hardly destroy everything left over from a vast ancient civilization, and so we have actual Carthaginian artifacts and artworks today.  In fact there are many of them, and they tend to be very bizarre and beautiful–but it is difficult to find consensus on what they represent and how they were used.

Bust of the goddess Tanit found in the necropolis of Puig des Molins. 4th century B.C. Museum of Puig des Molins in Ibiza (Spain

Bust of the goddess Tanit found in the necropolis of Puig des Molins. 4th century B.C. Museum of Puig des Molins in Ibiza (Spain

That is the loose background for these terracotta statues from the Iberian Peninsula from the 4th and 3rd centuries BC.  Back then, Spain was not just Carthaginian territory–in fact it was the top secret source of most of Carthage’s vast wealth–which came from tin mines (tin was a raw material for the bronze which held classical antiquity together).

"Dama de Ibiza" widely considered to be Tanit (ca. 3rd century BC from Ibiza)

“Dama de Ibiza” widely considered to be Tanit (ca. 3rd century BC from Ibiza)

These statues seem to be the great goddess Tanit, the dark queen of the heavens. Tanit and her ram-god consort, Ba’al-Hamon, were the principal divinities of Carthaginian civilization.   Tanit seems to have evolved from fierce warrior sky goddesses like Astarte (who once was Ishtar at the dawn of civilization) and especially the Ugaritic goddess Anat. Anat was a bloodthirsty and horrifying goddess—myths about her involve all sorts of impaled entities, seven-headed serpents, oceans of blood, fire, grinding up of bodies and such like dark elements (Ugarit was an ancient port in Syria).

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Tanit seems to have been a dark goddess as well and she was probably the focus of Carthaginian child sacrifice, assuming such a thing existed and was not a Roman propaganda invention (scholars are fiercely divided about child sacrifice in Carthaginian culture, although I am inclined to side with the archaeologists who believe that it happened).  You are beginning to see some of the historiographic problems that Carthaginian scholars and art historians face!

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Whatever the case, the sculptures are magnificent and they certainly suit a dark enigmatic sky goddess who thirsts for blood.  Look at Tanit’s crown of celestial vegetation and her almond Babylonian eyes! Sometimes when I fall into a strange humor I look at Carthaginian art online and try to grasp what it meant as I enjoy its sinuous lines, mocking smiles, and leonine power, but it always eludes me and ends up filed in my head as a near-eastern cypher.  I’ll try to feature some more of it—you’ll quickly see what I mean. In the mean time enjoy (?) Tanit, bloodthirsty sky goddess.

Ceres (Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1717-1718, oil on canvas)

Ceres (Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1717-1718, oil on canvas)

In my many posts about art and painting, I have shamefully slighted the wonderful 18th century. Here is a masterpiece by one of the greatest painters of that era, Jean-Antoine Watteau, whose career was all too brief. Watteau bridged the gap between Baroque and Rococo by bringing the naturalistic color and movement of Correggio to the rigorous classical tradition of great French masters such as Poussin and Lorrain. This beautifully painted oval composition portrays the fertility goddess Ceres shimmering among the lambent clouds in the long pink evenings of summer. Her garb of gold and shell color perfectly suits the joyous abundance of the season. Around her, youths are gathering the precious life-giving wheat while the astrological beasts of the summer sky gambol at her side.

Artist's conception of the Dawn spacecraft

Artist’s conception of the Dawn spacecraft

Of course I did not just pull this choice of subjects out of some crazy 18th century hat! As I write this, the NASA spacecraft Dawn is hurtling through the asteroid belt toward the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest body in the asteroid belt. Ceres (the dwarf planet) is located in the strange region between Mars and Jupiter. It is large enough to be spherical due to its own gravity but something seems to have gone horribly wrong there. It appears to be the shattered core of a world which either never quite formed or which was destroyed during the making—a miscarriage four and a half billion years old. Scientists have speculated about what the little world is composed of and how it was created, but telescopes have only revealed so much, and no spacecraft has visited prior to Dawn. This is a time of true exploration like the 18th century! Already Dawn’s cameras have spotted bizarre ultra-bright reflections from Ceres. Are they sheets of ice or metal…something else? We will have to wait till the probe enters orbit in April to find out, but I am excited to learn more about the formation of Ceres (which is to say the formation of the solar system) and to finally solve some of the mysteries of this under-appreciated heavenly neighbor.

This image of Ceres was taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft on Feb. 19 from a distance of nearly 46,000 kilometers (29,000 miles)

This image of Ceres was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on Feb. 19 from a distance of nearly 46,000 kilometers (29,000 miles)

Of course I am also heartily sick of this endless disappointing winter. The sooner Ceres (the allegorical figure of abundance and warmth) brings life back to Brooklyn, the happier I will be. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed for exciting news from space and for the return of life and growth here on (the north part of) Earth after a long winter. Also anybody who wishes for the return of classical beauty and allegorical subtlety in the dismal world of ill-conceived & poorly-executed contemporary art will have my heartfelt appreciation and best wishes!

Ancient Greek stone carving of the goddess Ceres with poppies, shafts of wheat, and snakes

Ancient Greek stone carving of the goddess Ceres with poppies, shafts of wheat, and snakes

Venus and Anchises (William Blake Richmond, 1889/1890, oil on canvas)

Venus and Anchises (William Blake Richmond, 1889/1890, oil on canvas)

In classical mythology Anchises was a prince of Dardania who found lasting fame as the mortal lover of the goddess Aphrodite. One day when he was hunting in the forest, she appeared to him disguised as a Phrygian princess. They made love for two weeks straight (!) whereupon she vanished–much to the distress of the besotted prince. Nine months later she reappeared to him in her full glory as the goddess of love…with a baby, Aeneas, who was fated to survive the fall of Troy and found Rome. Here is a splendid, splendid painting of their meeting which was made by William Blake Richmond in 1889/1890 at the zenith of nineteenth century painterly craft.

In the painting, Venus is not working very hard to conceal her godhood (although, uncharacteristically, she is garbed). Flocks of doves spring up at her feet. Sparrows fly everywhere like confetti and the dead winter woods burst into crocuses as she passes. Glowing hawthorn flowers frame her beauty like a halo of stars and a pair of adult lions bound through the woods in front of her to herald her coming. Yet these peripheral details are clearly lost on the gobsmacked Anchises whose focus is squarely on the goddess. His horn hunting bow has dropped to his side (although the top limb juts out in a not-at-all symbolic manner).

This lovely painting is remarkable for the way it merges seemingly incompatible contrasts. The larger-than-life mythical characters somehow fit in with the hyper realism of the forest in early spring. Likewise the glowing white and gold of Venus’ glowing raiment is starkly juxtaposed with the dark earth tones of the mortal world—yet somehow they go together. Her lambent robes seem to form a swirling nebula. Richmond lavished such effort on the details of this picture. Look at each perfect crocus or the endearing little Phrygian hat. You should blow the painting up and look at it full size—it is an appropriate Valentine’s Day treat.

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 model dressed as Angitia

A model dressed as Angitia

The Romans borrowed most of their official pantheon from the Greeks–but the Roman canon of gods was large & diverse: other deities great and small sneaked in from a variety of non-Greek cultural traditions (like Charun the blue hammer-wielding Etruscan god of death or mighty Hecate, goddess of witchcraft, night, and the crossroads). Angitia was a goddess of serpents, snake-charming, magic, and healing among the Marsi, a Latin tribe who lived in the mountainous region of Italy which is today known as Abruzzo. The Marsi (whom I keep miswriting as Martians) were integrated into the original Roman alliance early on in Roman history and their language and culture was quickly subsumed by the growing republic, but Angitia survived in her original form through the long centuries of Roman hegemony. A great temple was built for her on the shores of Lake Fucinus (a large lake drained in the 19th century).

A Modern Painting of Angitia (from thaliatook.com)

A Modern Painting of Angitia (from thaliatook.com)

Although there is evidence that Angitia was originally a local goddess, the Romans found was to Hellenize her, and writers identified her as a granddaughter of the sun (and sister of the golden-eyed Cretan sorceresses Medea and Circe). Some later sources even equate her directly to Medea, who after all vanished in a serpent-drawn flying chariot after poisoning her children with Jason and Jason’s younger trophy wife.

Medea--Image from an Ancient Greek Vase  (Lucanian red-figure krater C4th B.C)

Medea–Image from an Ancient Greek Vase (Lucanian red-figure krater C4th B.C)

In classical antiquity, serpents were strongly associated with healing magic—and this became a particular specialty of the serpent-goddess Angitia. She was reputedly able to cure sickness and poisoning—particularly snakebite. Snakes obeyed her whims and she possessed power of life and death over them by merely speaking a word. The lands which had originally been inhabited by the Marsi also acquired a magical reputation and were alleged to be the haunt of witches, sorcerers, and supernatural beings.

San Domenico stands in for Angitia at the modern festival (although he doesn't look super happy about it)

San Domenico stands in for Angitia at the modern festival (although he doesn’t look super happy about it)

Even when the Roman Empire eventually blew apart and was replaced by Christian kingdoms and city-states, the worship of Angitia did not wholly vanish. Throughout the middle ages, Abruzzo was the site of “the Feast of the Serpari” a spring festival dedicated to snakes. Serpent charmers would collect local snakes in order to perform great tricks and shows while healers assuaged pains and illnesses. A statue of San Domenico was draped with snakes and carried through the region in a great procession, after which the snakes were cooked and eaten (although in today’s festival they are replaced with snake-shape confections and sinuous breads).

Altair (bottom left) and Deneb (middle right)

Altair (bottom left) and Deneb (middle right)

Vega is the second brightest star visible from the northern hemisphere. It is more than twice the size of the sun and it is “only” 25 light years away. Altair is the head of the eagle constellation Aquila—it is the twelfth brightest star visible from Earth. In the West, the two brilliant stars form two of the vertices of the summer triangle. In China, these stars are known by different names—Vega is Zhinü, the weaver girl, and Altair is known as Niulang, the cowherd. They are the subjects of a sad love story which is at least 2600 years old.

The Celestial Weavergirl Zhinü

The Celestial Weavergirl Zhinü

Zhinü was a beautiful celestial maiden tasked with weaving the flowing colored clouds of heaven. This chore was onerous to the vivacious young goddess so she ran away to earth to look for fun. There she found a handsome young mortal Niulang, a hard-working orphan who made his living as a cowherd. The two fell madly in love and were married in secret. The mixed marriage was very happy: Zhinü was a good wife and Niulang was a doting husband. They had two children and the family loved each other deeply. Unfortunately, the Queen Mother of Western Heaven—a principal sky deity—noticed that her celestial abode did not have nearly enough elaborately ornate clouds. Upon looking into the matter, the Queen Mother was utterly scandalized that a celestial being was married to a mortal—and a mere cowherd, no less. The sky queen used her divine power to lift Zhinü back into the heavens where the lesser goddess was sent back to her cloud weaving.

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Niulang was devastated that his wife had vanished. He searched high and low, but could find her nowhere on Earth. Finally the cows he had tended so dutifully took pity on him. His finest ox, a magic spirit beast, said “The Queen Mother of the West has taken Zhinü to heaven. Kill me and put my hide around yourself and your children. Then you may ascend to heaven to look for your dear wife.” Weeping, Niulang slew his faithful ox. When he wrapped the hide of the loyal animal around himself and his children, they transcended earth and flew up into the stars. The family was again united and Zhinü and Niulang covered each other in kisses.

Queen Mother of the Western Heaven by artist Liang Yuanjiang

Queen Mother of the Western Heaven by artist Liang Yuanjiang

When she heard about mortals entering heaven, the Queen Mother of Western Heaven became even more infuriated. She hurled the couple apart from each other, and used her long sharp nails to gouge out a river in the middle of the night sky—the Milky Way (which is known as “the Celestial River” in China). Love be damned–social stratification and rigid hierarchy is the iron will of the gods of China!

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Yet, once again, animals took pity on the couple. Every year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, all of the magpies in China fly up into heaven and form a bridge across the Milky Way so that the lovers can be together. For one day, Zhinü gets to see her beloved husband and her children (who are the stars Auilae β and γ–or Hè Gu 1 and Hè Gu 3, to use their Chinese names). Lovers and couples across all of China celebrate the day with the Qixi festival–a Chinese version of Valentine’s Day (or maybe I should say that the other way around, since Qixi is older, better and makes more sense). The holiday is celebrating with festoons, weaving, and needlework competitions. Romantic gifts are given. Maidens and newly-wed women offer face powder and cosmetics to Zhinü by throwing them up on the roof. In the evening, there is much romantic star-gazing at Vega and Altair and of course there is canoodling and physical intimacy. This year, the year of the horse, the seventh day of the seventh lunar month corresponds to August 2nd–tomorrow! Dear readers, may the stars shine bright on your romances. May you savor summer with someone special and never know the enmity of the gods! Happy Qixi Festival!

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Photo by Guido Mocafico

Photo by Guido Mocafico

Today is world snake day: maybe you should run out and do something nice for our scaly limbless friends (though don’t hug them—they don’t like that)! Sadly though, many people do not appreciate snakes. Not only are serpents taboo in the Abrahamic faiths (since, according to the creation myth, a snake convinced the original people to disobey the creator deity for the first time), humankind also seems to have an instinctual inbred panic reaction to them. Perhaps this is an evolutionary leftover from when our just-out-of-the-trees ancestors shared East Africa with a bevy of aggressive venomous snakes like the formidable black mamba (or whatever the mamba’s just-out-of-the-trees ancestor was). This human antipathy towards the Ophidia is a shame. Not only are snakes inimical to the rodents and bugs which spell true problems for modern agricultural humans, they are critical to most non-pelagic, non-Arctic ecosystems in numerous ways. Additionally, snakes are very beautiful. They are more colorful than most other creatures and they have a hypnotic sculptural beauty all their own. Just look at the lovely art photo by  Guido Mocafico at the top of the page.

 

Adam and Eve (Albrecht Durer, 1504, engraving)

Adam and Eve (Albrecht Durer, 1504, engraving)

Other ancient religions were not as opposed to snakes as the Canaanites and Israelites (who, were, after all, herding people who lived in a dust colored-desert filled with poisonous dust-colored reptiles). Hindus respect the powerful nagas and worship Vasuki, the cobra-king of all snakes. Buddha was sheltered by a hooded cobra. The Chinese creation myth centers on Nüwa, the serpent-goddess who first gave life to animals and humans. In ancient Greece, snakes represented the secrets of the underworld, the healing power of medicine, and the foresight of divine augury. The pre-Greek Cretan culture worshiped a sinuous bare-breasted snake goddess who held a serpent in each hand as she danced. Sadly we know little about this compelling deity other than what is revealed by sculpture.

Minoan Snake Goddess (Crete, ca. 1600BC)

Minoan Snake Goddess (Crete, ca. 1600BC)

Going back even farther, the oldest written story humankind currently possesses features a snake as a villain: after all of his trials, Gilgamesh loses the herb of immortality when it is stolen by a water snake. People from the Fertile Crescent really seem to dislike snakes…although that presumes that the Biblical serpent actually was the villain. Maybe the snake was the real hero of Genesis (after all, it is never demonstrated that the tree of knowledge does not perform as advertised). Don’t we long to become as Gods? Isn’t wisdom our greatest collective treasure? What is so great about obedience? After all, did we really want to live forever as naked childlike near-beasts? Perhaps the snake is a pivotal figure in imagining our transition from hunter-gatherers to agricultural folk–which is to say from nature to civilization.

The Serpent Steals the Herb of Immortality from Gilgamesh (illustration by Ludmila Zeman)

The Serpent Steals the Herb of Immortality from Gilgamesh (illustration by Ludmila Zeman)

If the snake does represent our coming of age it is ironic: the majority of city-dwelling modern humans probably never see wild snakes in our monstrous concrete cities. This strikes me as a shame. For good or for ill, there really is something sacred about the snake.

Honduran Milksnake

Honduran Milksnake

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April 7th is national beer day. While this blog would certainly never popularize an intoxicating beverage (even if that beverage were delicious, omnipresent, and held in universal esteem), it is our scholarly duty to note the importance which beer held in the ancient Mesopotamian world. Around seven thousand years ago the first known human civilizations sprang up between the Tigris and the Euphrates river valleys.  These civilizations  were beholden to beer as an economic and cultural staple. Indeed, many archaeologists and anthropologists speculate that beer is the fundamental reason that agriculture and cities were invented to begin with: the hunter gatherer lifestyle offered greater freedom and greater leisure, but civilization offered beer (albeit at the terrible price of always having grotty kingpriests and bureaucrats yelling at you—a trend which continues to this day).

Agriculture in Ancient Mesopotamia (from http://www.preceden.com)

Agriculture in Ancient Mesopotamia (from http://www.preceden.com)

Of course agriculture brought other benefits as well—famine became less of a problem, populations could grow larger, and humans were able to settle in one place. Yet the fundamental importance which the inhabitants of Eridu, Ur, and Sumer placed on beer can be seen by looking at the pantheon of ancient Mesopotamian deities. The most important child or Eridu, the lord of the watery abzu and grand old man of the gods was Ninkasi, the goddess of beer also known as “the lady who fills the mouth” (which seems to support the archaeologists who believe that the invention of beer and agriculture were related).

Image from an ancient Sumerian cylinder seal

Image from an ancient Sumerian cylinder seal

The worship of Ninkasi will seem familiar to anyone who has ever read a beer can. She was born in “pure sparkling water” and her sigil was the barley spade. Worshippers and supplicants would beg her to “satisfy the desire” and “sate the heart”. During a divine ordeal her father Enki the ancient received eight terrible wounds, and it was Ninkasi who cured the most painful one. In Eridu and Sumer, beer was stored in great earthenware vessels and sipped with long ornamental drinking straws. Many ancient artworks depict this activity, and I always wonder if Ninkasi is the woman behind the drinker concerned about how her brew came out.  Sadly there are no known images of Ninkasi from ancient sources (although I am half tempted to get out my brushes and paint her as an act of devotion, um I mean educational interest).

Ceremonial drinking scene on a seal found in the "Great Death Pit" in the Royal Cemetery at Ur.

Ceremonial drinking scene on a seal found in the “Great Death Pit” in the Royal Cemetery at Ur.

Among the earliest human writings is a beautiful hymn to Ninkasi which was written in Sumerian in the nineteenth century BC. It is a lovely panegyric to agriculture, civilization, and the benign blessings of loving gods, but it is also a recipe. Warning: attempting to mimic the actions described in this ancient religious tablet may result in an alcoholic beverage! Beer makers of the modern world were inspired by the ancient recipe and set out to create an ancient Sumerian beer. The beer, made with date honey and thick loaves of an ancient multi-grain bread was less alcoholic than most modern beers (having an alcohol content of 3.5 percent—as opposed to Bud Light which has an alcohol content of 4.2) but it was apparently quite potable.

Time to celebrate spring!

Time to celebrate spring!

The Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

The Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

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.

England and Scotland with Minerva and Love (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

England and Scotland with Minerva and Love (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

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…

Union of England & Scotland, Peter Paul Rubens, 1630, oil on panel)

Union of England & Scotland, Peter Paul Rubens, 1630, oil on panel)

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