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The first animal to be domesticated was the wolf (modern humans call domesticated wolves “dogs”).  This happened thousands (or tens of thousands) of years before any other plants or animals were domesticated.  In fact some social scientists have speculated that the dogs actually domesticated humans.  Whatever the case, our dual partnership changed both species immensely.  It was the first and most important of many changes which swept humanity away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and into the agricultural world.

A Han Dynasty Terracotta Statue of a Dog

A Han Dynasty Terracotta Statue of a Dog

Today’s post isn’t really about the actual prehistory behind the agricultural revolution though.  Instead we are looking at an ancient Chinese myth about how humans changed from hunters into farmers.  Appropriately, even in the myth it was dogs who brought about the change.  There are two versions of the story.  In the version told by the Miao people of southern China, the dog once had nine tails.  Seeing the famine which regularly afflicted people (because of seasonal hunting fluctuations) a loyal dog ran into heaven to solve the problem.  The celestial guardians shot off eight of the dog’s tails, but the brave mutt managed to roll in the granaries of heaven and return with precious rice and wheat seeds caught in his fur.  Ever since, in memory of their heroism, dogs have one bushy tail (like a ripe head of wheat) and they are fed first when people are done eating.

dog

A second version of the tale is less heroic, but also revolves around actual canine behavior.  In the golden age, after Nüwa created humans, grain was so plentiful that people wasted it shamefully and squandered the bounty of the Earth.  In anger, the Jade Emperor came down to Earth to repossess all grains and crops.  After the chief heavenly god had gathered all of the world’s cereals, the dog ran up to him and clung piteously to his leg whining and begging.  The creature’s crying moved the god to leave a few grains of each plant stuck to the animal’s fur.  These grains became the basis of all subsequent agriculture.

Han Terracotta in the form of a dog

Han Terracotta in the form of a dog

Even in folklore, we owe our agrarian civilization to the dogs, our first and best friends.

The cornucopia is an ancient symbol of harvest abundance.  It is commonly represented as a woven spiral basket overflowing with fruit, grains, vegetables, and other agricultural products.   In America it is one of the symbols of Thanksgiving time (second only to the magnificent turkey).  The wicker basket stuffed with fruits has become such a familiar image, that it is easy to overlook the Greco-Roman roots of the horn of plenty.

According to Greek legend, the cornucopia is the horn of Amalthea, the goat which served as foster mother to Zeus.   In the benign version of the myth, young Zeus, unaware of his own strength, accidentally broke the horn off of the goat while he was playing with her.   In the darker version, he slaughtered the goat when he reached manhood.  From her hide he fashioned his impenetrable aegis.  He gave her horn to the nymphs who had raised him, and this horn provided a magical eternal abundance of farm-raised food.  In memory of her generosity, he set her image in the stars as the constellation Capricorn.  There is yet another version of the cornucopia myth which Hercules broke the horn off of a river god and this became the original horn of plenty.

Infant Jupiter Fed by the Goat Amalthea (Jacob Jordaens, print)

Whatever its origin, the cornucopia remained a part of the classical pantheon.  It is most frequently seen in the hands of Ceres/Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and grains.  In Roman iconography the cornucopia was sometimes an attribute of Fortuna, the goddess of luck, and of the underworld god Pluto (who controlled the ground and thus was responsible for the gifts of the harvest).

Demeter holding a Cornucopia

I like the Hercules/river-god myth because it reflects on how important water is to agriculture, but I greatly prefer the myth of Zeus and his foster-mother which seems to embody the moral quandaries (and the promise of civilization) which are inherent in agriculture. The story—like that of Cain and Abel–hints at the replacement of hunting with herding and farming (indeed goats were the original domesticated animal).  Some cornucopias are now made of baked goods which makes the symbolic transition even more apparent.  The horn of plenty is an admirable symbol of humankind’s fundamental dependency on agriculture–which lies at the root of our civilization and our prosperity.  I am glad the cornucopia has kept its relevance for all of these thousands of years and has not been replaced by some tamer symbol.

The ancient Greeks reserved their most ardent and heartfelt prayers for the gods of the mystery cults.  Among these mysterious deities of the underworld–great gods like Hecate, Cronus, and Persephone–one entity stood out: Triptolemus was not a god at all but a mortal.  Unlike the other heroes and demigods the Greeks worshipped, Triptolemus was neither a warrior nor a doer of great deeds.  He never seduced a goddess or slew a monster. The goddess who favored Triptolemus was not all-conquering Athena, or the dark sorceress Hecate. Yet a trip to an art museum with a good Greek collection will reveal that he was much on the minds of the Greeks: Triptolemus appears more often in actual Greek sacred art than do many figures much more familiar to us today.

Demeter Mourning Persephone (Evelyn De Morgan, 1906)

Triptolemus owed all of his fame and respect to Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, seasons, and growing things (known as Ceres to the Romans). When Demeter’s daughter Persephone was kidnapped by Hades, Demeter aged from a beautiful woman into a horrible crone.  The world lost its fertility as Demeter’s attention wavered away from keeping the world fecund.  She stumbled through a desolate world of famine, death, and cold looking for her lost daughter.  Most people turned away the desperate crone but Triptolemus’ father Ceulis, the King of Eleusis in Attica, was kind to her and asked her to raise his sons Demophon and Triptolemus.  In the midst of the dark season which befell the world, Ceulis remained a charitable and generous host, and Demeter noted his kindness. To reward Ceulis’ family she decided to make his firstborn son Demophon into an immortal god.  Nightly she smeared Demophon with ambrosia, the food of heaven & the balm of the gods, and then she placed him in the fire to burn his mortality away.  One night as she was blowing her divine breath on the glowing child, Demophon’s mother Metanira entered the room.  Horrified by the spectacle before her, the Queen flew into a frenzy and began screaming.  Demeter grew angry at the Queen’s histrionics and decided to withdraw her boon from Demophon–who burst into flames without her divine protection.  She went back out into the ravaged land and resumed her search for Persephone.

Demeter Holding Cereal and Serpents

When Demeter finally found Persephone and orchestrated her annual return from the underworld she still did not forget the kindness of Ceulis’ family.  She saw that the transition from summer’s abundance to winter’s scarcity was difficult for humans and was killing many of them. Demeter taught Ceulis’ younger (still living) son Triptolemus the art of agriculture.  She gave him a flying chariot drawn by magical serpents (who, like Demeter, knew the secrets of the land) and sent him forth to teach the crafts of planting and harvesting grain to the rest of humankind. These lessons made Triptolemus sacred to the Greeks.  Growing grains allowed them to cease their eternal foraging and pursue the fruits of civilization.  Since Triptolemus was so dear to Demeter and Persephone, he became a focus of the Eleusinian Mystery cult, which sought to provide its initiates with an eternal place in the most pleasant fields and gardens of the underworld (which were of course the bailiwick of Persephone).

Triptolemus riding a winged chariot (Athenian red-figure skyphos 5th B.C.)

Triptolemus was portrayed as a beautiful youth with a diadem on his brow. He rode a winged snake-drawn carriage and in his hands were a plate of grain, ears of barley & wheat, and a scepter.  Since Triptolemus’ agricultural outlook was entirely based around sowing and reaping grains,   he recommended a pro-animal point of view somewhat at odds with the herdsmen and hunters of ancient Greece.  According to Porphyry, Triptolemus’ three principles for living a simple godly life were 1) honor one’s parents; 2) honor the gods with grains and malted beverage, and 3) spare the animals.

Mixing Vessel with Triptolemos (Athenian, ca. 470 BC)

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