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Kings and Queens wear crowns. Great Lords wear coronets. Emperors wear diadems. Princesses, of course, wear tiaras. Ferrebeekeeper could not let princess week pass without featuring a beautiful historical head-dress worn by a princess. The Iranian crown jewels (which are too-my eyes the most stylish) did not quite suit the theme and so I chose to look to Great Britain. Princess Margaret, late sister to the Queen of England was simultaneously a classic princess and a scandalous modern one. This is her signature tiara, which she wore on her wedding to a photographer, or in the bathtub (to impress on people that she was a classical princess and a scandalous modern one too).
Although the Poltimore tiara is emblematic of the nineteen sixties because of princess Margaret and her jet-setting (but slightly sad) lifestyle, the Poltimore tiara is actually Victorian crown. It was originally made by Garrard for Florence for Lady Poltimore, wife of Baron Poltimore, in the 1870s. Because of the jeweler’s ingenuity, it can be broken apart into brooches and a necklace, and the full tiara set also includes a little screwdriver. Aside from the screwdriver, which I perhaps should not have mentioned first, the tiara is all diamonds set in gold and silver floral scrollwork patterns.
Of course this history doesn’t really get us closer to answering the question of why princesses wear tiaras to begin with. Since the dawn of time, a glistening hat has betokened status, but why? The ancients believed that the form of a crown—rays emanating from the head denoted celestial importance—divinity and the Christians likewise elided the form with the halo of saints and angels, however it is possible there is an earthlier answer.
After her death, Princess Margaret’s heirs auctioned off the Poltimore tiara for more than a million pounds. Nothing shows off status like being able to wear decades worth of a person’s income to a party, and aside from its obvious prettiness (and the fame of its most famous owner), the Poltimore tiara wasn’t even really a valuable tiara….
Today is International Women’s Day, although, to my mind, one unofficial holiday in the doldrums of March doesn’t really capture the contributions of, oh, let’s see, more than half of humankind (and the good half, by-in-large). Anyway, Ferrebeekeeper is celebrating the event with “Princess Week”, a week of musing on gender, politics, power, and roles. Instead of featuring some made-up princesses invented to sell toys or strange movies, today’s post tells the story of a particularly magnificent real princess, Princess Zhao of Pingyang.
Zhao was the daughter of Li Yuan the hereditary Duke of Tang during the Sui Dynasty–a politically weak and troubled dynasty which lasted from 581 to 618, when it was supplanted by the glorious, uh, Tang dynasty (I am maybe giving some things away). Zhao was was Li’s third daughter, but, his other daughters were the children of concubines, whereas she was the only daughter of his wife Duchess Dou (who gave birth to Li’s heirs, Li Jiancheng, Li Shimin, Li Xuanba, and Li Yuanji whose fratricidal conflict is one of the great stories of Chinese history). Zhao was fully as cunning and martial as her brothers, which is saying something since one of her brothers was Li Shimin (one of the preeminent figures of world history–arguably the most capable Chinese Emperor).
Zhao and her husband were living in the capital Chang’an when the Duke (who had been at loggerheads with the Sui Emperor) sent secret word that he planned to rebel. Zhao’s husband slipped out of the city, but Zhao stayed behind long enough to sell her estate. She used the money to enlist an army of rebels. She then persuaded the famous rebel farmer He Panren to join her. As she conquered cities adjacent to Chang-an, other great bandits and rebel leaders bent their knee to her and became captains in “The Army of the Lady” which swelled up to a force of 70,000 soldiers as the civil war entered its definitive phase. Peasants rushed out to offer food and supplies to Zhao’s army which was famous for its discipline (and for the fact that its soldiers did not pillage the lands they took or rape their captives).
She defeated an army of the Emperor’s men and finally joined Li Shimin’s army as one of his co-generals. When li Shimin’s stratagems won the war, Zhao’s father became the first Emperor of the Tang Dynasty and she was elevated to the rank of Princess.
Unfortunately Zhao died only two years after the dynasty was founded at the age of 23. She did not see the Tang Dynasty grow to become the most powerful empire on Earth during the 7th century (although she also missed seeing her brothers kill each other). When she died she was given a great general’s honors, and over the centuries her legend has taken on a life of its own in China and beyond.
Today, as we continue through “princess week”, Ferrebeekeeper introduces a whole new feature: movie reviews! For our inaugural cinematic post, we are writing about a mediocre fairy-tale movie made thirteen years ago for little girls. “Ella Enchanted” stars Anne Hathaway, Cary Elwes (as the evil prince!), Eric Idol, and a whole bunch of people I have never heard of.
Featuring jarring joke anachronisms, weird pacing, strange scenery, and some pretty hammy acting, “Ella Enchanted” is not “Citizen Kane”. Yet the protagonist Ella is played by a young Anne Hathaway who brings her full emotive talents to the role and gives real poignancy to the nightmarish plight of central character. And, even though this a children’s movie, the central problem is horrifying.
The movie’s magical fairy godmother is a mercurial entity who uses her magic capriciously. When presented with infant Ella, this fay sorceress is revolted by the chaotic nature of babies. She uses her power to endow Ella with a terrible gift: absolute obedience. Ella must promptly do whatever she is told by anyone. Ella’s loving family shields her throughout childhood by home-schooling her, keeping her away from outsiders, and avoiding idioms & imperatives as much as possible, yet adulthood and the world inevitably intervene.
In the wider world, obedience is a terrible curse. Malicious and malevolent forces abuse Ella and make her into a pawn. Any stranger can kill her with a careless word or cause her to do the most terrible things imaginable. At one point, she gets in a cooking pot while ogres light the fire.
Ella falls in love with the handsome prince (who seems quite taken with her beauty, wit, and seemingly impulsive character, however the realm’s other political players swiftly recognize and exploit her curse. Acting under the direction of the wicked regent, she must kill the handsome prince at midnight… Does she murder her true love, or can she find a way to break the compulsion of obedience laid upon her in her infancy?
Now I don’t want to ruin Ella Enchanted for you…so I won’t. You can go watch this thing if you want to find out the ending (if you can’t already guess how it turns out). I am writing about it because I can’t stop thinking about it. The malevolent fascination of ineluctable obedience gives the movie far deeper resonance than it perhaps merits. Watching someone trapped under a terrible compulsion do what others desire is enthralling. There is fear and horror shining in Ella’s eyes as she goes around hurting people and destroying herself at the whim of others. And yet, dare I say it, it all seems…familiar.
Society is built like “Ella Enchanted” and most people are acting under compulsion to do things they don’t care to do. A great many of these things are self-evidently stupid and pernicious. We live in a world where you have to drive or else be run over. If you answer your mail wrong you could go to jail. Social compulsion makes even the most powerful people into puppets. And if you balk very much at all, you go out on the street to freeze and starve.
And there is an even darker other half to “Ella Enchanted’ which we could think of as ‘Everyone Else, Entitled.” In the movie, most people are perfectly happy to take advantage of Ella (just as most of us don’t care how we get out iphones and chicken dinners). People very quickly come to think “Now you work for me. I own you and control you and tell you how you must feel and must act.” Such ideas apparently just come naturally. Exploitation seems to be a built-in price for society—fore REAL society, not just this stupid movie.
Yet, to leave the real world and return to Ella and princesses. The entities who control Ella never control how she feels about things. A princess has autonomy even if, sometimes under duress, she can only use it in the smallest ways.
Ella figures out the secret to breaking her enchantment and winds up a princess (oops, did I spoil the movie?). In fact, she was always the hero (that handsome prince was a bit of a stuffed-shirt, if you ask me). The real question is whether we can learn this lesson? Can we find the right touch to make use of use little moments and fleeing opportunities in a life filled with compulsion? Is there a way to escape, or at least partially master society’s oppressive burden of obedience? Can we ever really be autonomous and star for a moment as the hero in our own life? It is a big question, and the answers are not as certain as a princess’ storybook ending.
Let’s talk about princesses! In the toy industry where I used to work, emphasizing princesses is a way to sell pink plastic drek directly to little girls–and it works really well for that! So much so that a lot of the world’s best entertainment and toy properties are princesses. Yet, I always thought the idea was poorly explored—both its roots and its ramifications. Walt Disney, Charles Perrault, and all of the world’s toy executives just sort of decided that half of the world should share the same alter-ego protagonist and everybody blandly agreed with them. And things have stood thus for multiple generations.
This week, Ferrebeekeeper is going to talk about princesses because the concept is so extraordinarily powerful that we should all think about it and learn from it. At its heart the idea of princesshood is an exquisite and complicated fantasy juxtaposition. A princess represents near absolute power…but so seamlessly wrapped in the trappings of compassion, courtesy, and elegant refinement that the power is virtually invisible. The concept is a socio-political fantasy about the very best way to interact with other people: imagine if almost everyone was your social subordinate (!), but you were really kind and generous to them to such an extent that they didn’t mind. I would totally want to live that way—as a powerful person so lovable that I never had to exert my power! It makes you wonder why boys would ever want to be vampires, Godzilla, or Han Solo (although each of those entities also sort of embodies the same fantasy of being powerful without lots of lawyers, contracts, hired goons, and painful calls about money).
If you listen to NPR and read the New Yorker or suchlike journals, you might recall the “death of men” concept which was en vogue just before the disastrous 2016 election. This idea posited that women are actually more adept at today’s society than men. Nobody is mining things or fighting lions or hosting WWI style events–venues where men allegedly excel (when not being crushed, eaten, or blown up). Whereas women have the sort of soft but firm power which big offices desperately crave. Women are going to university at higher rates than men and rising higher in a society which is based on voluminous rules and carefully crafted double talk.
Nobody has been talking about that “Death of Men” idea lately for some reason. However, reactionary national politics aside, I thought there was something to the idea. Success in today’s world is indeed about PR and plotting rather that discovery and daring. I wonder if princess stories and dolls have something to do with this.
In reality, princesses were not always so genteel or compassionate…nor were they necessarily powerful, in some instances they were closer to the misogynist ideal of a submissive beautiful brood mare in gorgeous gems and finery. And, additionally, a princess who really rules is not an idealized fantasy figure. Somehow queens remain resolutely distant and scary (if not outright crazy and malevolent).
Of course there is another darker side to this. Little girls aren’t really being sold on becoming actual princesses (who are always beheading people and tricking inbred nobles) instead they are sold on being like fairytale princesses who spend lots of money on appearances, luxury goods, and dreams, while always being safely polite and waiting for a prince to come sweep them off their feet. Snow White was so passive that it was a miracle she wasn’t eaten by rabbits! That terrifying evil queen would totally have cut out her heart in the real world!
At any rate it is obvious that the concept of princesshood is absolutely jam packed with all sorts of insane cultural context and we are selling this to whole generations of little girls (and others) who will grow up to inherit the world, not because we have examined or thought about it, but because it sells. Let’s examine some of those stories and myths with a fresh eye and see what we can learn. I was a big fan of the idea that power comes from goodness (which is the moral wellspring of these myths). Come to think of it, I still am a fan of that concept. Maybe by thinking about this we can reawaken the good princess in everyone else’s heart too.
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.
One of the classics of Japanese folklore is Jiraiya Gōketsu Monogatari, the tale of a gallant shape-shifting ninja who can become a giant toad or summon a different giant toad to ride. The work has been adapted into a series of 19th century novels, a kabuki drama, numerous prints and paintings, several films and a manga series—it is clearly a staple of Japanese culture (even if the fundamental conceit sounds a trifle peculiar to western ears).
As awesome as a ninja who becomes a toad or rides a toad sounds, it is not what concerns us here. Instead this post is dedicated to the wife of the protagonist, the beautiful maiden Tsunade (綱手) who is a master of slug magic! She was able to summon a giant slug or become a slug.
I wish I could explain this better but I haven’t (yet) read Jiraiya Gōketsu Monogatari. Perhaps these woodblock and manga images from various incarnations of the work will speak for themselve. At the top of this entry is a picture of the ninja with toad magic (right) along with his wife the slug magician (left), but the rest of the prints and cartoons are pictures of Tsunade. Based on the contemporary cartoon here below, and on some of the Edo-era prints, it seems like there may be an erotic component to this tale of heroic magical slugs and toads.
If western mythmakers and storytellers could think like this, maybe sitcoms would not be so agonizing. This is some weird and lovely stuff. We have made next to no headway understanding Japanese culture, but we have certainly looked at some weird slug girl art!
So, I wish I could explain this better, but here are the crowns of the princes and princesses of Sweden. These images come from the amazing website Official and Historic Crowns of the World and Their Locations which is an amazing resource for all things crown related. Evidently each Swedish prince and princess had their own crown made based on a standardized template. The effect of all these nearly identical and yet subtly different crowns is rather remarkable–like a beautiful treasure-based version of one of those “spot the difference” games which one sees in the comics pages. Yet somehow it all seems excessive: couldn’t they just have reused one crown (is the one on the top an original?) and spent all of that sweet crown money on weapons research and mentally-ill Strindberg plays? Hmm, now that I say that aloud it occurs to me that actually redundant pointy princely crowns might have been the right way to go…
Here’s another strange painting from contemporary master of surrealism, Mark Ryden. The subject is the “tree of life” a subject which comes up in religion, philosophy, science, and art. A tree of life from Greek myth even found its way onto this blog several Octobers ago. In Ryden’s interpretation, a princess with a bouquet and a baby sits suspended in a sentient tree. Hidden among the boughs are the seven platonic solids. Beneath her a bear and a monarch symbolize some unknown dualism.Somehow this painting combines Crivelli’s creepy diagram-like realism with half of the topics from Ferrebeekeeper. Seriously there are hymenopterans, crowns, trees, mammals, a snake, and garden flowers (not to mention all of the colorsfrom a master’s palate). The only things missing are a Chinese spaceship and an underworld god (and even the latter is hinted at by the death’s head and the tree’s occult eye).
As always I am moved by Ryden’s realism and by his eerie milieu, but I am at a loss as to the cohesive meaning. Perhaps there isn’t one and the piece is meant to convey atmospheric mystery and sacredness of a renowned tree which does not actually exist anymore than does platonic perfection.
Archery seems to have been invented at the end of the late Paleolithic period. Thereafter the use of bows and arrows for hunting and combat was widespread throughout most human societies up until the invention of firearms. Subsequent to the popularization of guns, archery was (and still is) practiced as a recreational activity, but sometimes it is more fashionable than other times. Right now there is a craze for archery in America thanks largely to the best selling dystopian fantasy novel, The Hunger Games, which features an Appalachian heroine who is forced to use her bow-hunting skills to prevail in an epic gladiatorial contest (that’s her up there at the top of the post as portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence in the blockbuster film). However archery has become popular as a pastime in other eras and other places thanks to similar fads and crazes. For example, in the 18th century, big swaths of the European aristocracy became obsessed with pastoral fantasy—the idea of living as milkmaids, shepherds, and rustic hunters. To celebrate recreational archery (which just finished a star turn at the Olympics), here is a mini gallery of three 18th century masterpieces concerning archery and pastoral ideas of beauty.
Longhi was famous for painting scintillating little scenes of private life in 18th century Venice. Usually his paintings abound with lovely blushing courtesans, lecherous lords, bumbling servants, and sly procuresses (those paintings are a treat and you should go check them out). Here a foppish lord is duck hunting in a red jacket with gold embroidery! The boatmen all seem to be staring at him with mixed expressions of disbelief, contempt, and envy. Despite his graying hair and outlandish looks, the nobleman seems pretty proficient with his longbow and has already shot three ducks.
Jean-Marc Nettier mostly painted the royal family of France. Here he has portrayed Princess Marie Adelaide, the sixth child of Louis XV pretending to be the goddess Diana. The guise proved to be prophetic, for the princess was never married (there were no eligible bachelors of her station alive in Europe). Dressed in leopardskin and silk the princess/goddess stares haughtily down from the canvas as she fingers her arrows. It is as though she is deciding whether it is worth her effort to shoot the viewer.
Pompeo Batoni made his living painting wealthy European lords who were visiting Rome. Although he was a superb portrait painter he did not paint any first order masterpieces–except for this very beautiful painting of Diana tormenting Cupid. The virgin goddess has taken Cupid’s bow away from him and she playfully holds it out of his reach as he clambers (arrow in hand!) across her lap. The work features superbly rendered hunting dogs, magnificently opulent scarlet and pink drapery, and a gorgeous triangle composition. All elements point toward the goddess’ exquisitely painted face which bears a strange intense expression of wry amusement with a hint of wistfulness. This painting is currently owned by the Metropolitan Museum in New York and you should look for it if you are ever there. Because of its beautiful execution, its luminous color, and its superb condition it is one of those paintings that seem like an actual portal where you could step through into a world of nude goddesses and eternally verdant forests.
Vanilla is easily the most popular flavoring on the market. Not only does vanilla outsell all other ice cream flavors, it is the principle flavor in innumerable cakes, cookies, candies, fillings, icings, and drinks. It is also the dominant scent in many perfumes, cosmetics, and scent-based products. Vanilla (and fake vanilla) is so popular that the word has acquired a second definition as an adjective meaning “commonplace, boring, or lacking any special features.” The second definition seems tremendously incongruous with vanilla’s fundamental nature. True vanilla extract is derived from a beautiful and exotic tropical orchid. For a long time it was one of the rarest and most precious ingredients available. The plant’s cultivation history involves subjugation, genocide, stingless bees, slaves, and the fate of nations. Many many things in this life are dull and unexciting but certainly not vanilla.
Vanilla is derived from tropical orchids of the genus Vanilla. These plants are epiphytic vines which climb trees or other similar structures. Vanilla vines produce white, yellow and green flowers which look like narrow cattleyas. Although the Vanilla genus consists of more than 110 species of plant, almost all vanilla extract comes from one Mexican species, Vanilla planifolia–the flat leafed vanilla–or from cultivars derived from V. planifolia. According to Orchid Flower HQ, “The name vanilla comes from the Spanish word vainilla, a diminutive form of the word vaina which means sheath. The word vaina is in turn derived from the Latin word vagina, which means ‘sheath’ or ‘scabbard’.” As you might imagine from such an etymology, the long narrow annealed lips of a vanilla flower do indeed resemble a sheath.
Once they are fertilized, vanilla flowers produce fruits in the form of long black pods. Totonac people—pre-Colombian Mesoamericans who were indigenous to mountainous regions along the eastern coast of Mexico—were the first people to realize the food potential of these pods. Although initially inedible, the pods produce the sweet heady smell and taste of vanilla when sun-ripened for several weeks. The Totonacs had a myth that the vanilla flower originated when Xanat, a princess and priestess to the goddess of the crops, eloped into the jungle with a handsome lover whom she was forbidden to marry. When the pair were discovered hiding in the forest, they were beheaded. Where the lovers’ blood mingled on the jungle floor, the first vanilla vine first sprouted.
The Totonac people did not get to enjoy their vanilla unmolested for very long. From the mid 15th century up until the Spanish conquest, the Aztecs subjugated the Totonacs and forced them to pay stiff tributes–which included vanilla pods. Not only did the Aztecs use vanilla for medicine and as an aphrodisiac, they added it to their sacred drink xocolatl—a bitter beverage made of cacao which they had learned about from the Mayans. When Cortés marched to conquer the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, he met the Totonacs along the way and they joined the conquistador as allies. Totonac support was instrumental to Cortés’ conquest of the Aztecs. It was Cortés himself who introduced vanilla to the courts of Europe.
Vanilla was initially used only as a chocolate additive in Europe, but it soon became popular as a pricey stand-alone ingredient. Like the Aztecs, jaded European aristocrats regarded it as an aphrodisiac and a sensual aid. It was also found to be perfect for baking and producing confections. Colonial powers rushed to plant the vine in Africa, Polynesia, Madagascar, and other suitable climates, but there was a problem: although the vines flourished, there were no pods. It was not until 1836, that Charles Morren, a Belgian horticulturist unlocked vanilla’s secret. The vanilla flower (Vanilla planifolia) can not be pollinated by any insect other than the stingless Melipone bee.
Unfortunately the method of artificial pollination devised by Morren proved too expensive and difficult to be commercially viable. It was only when Edmond Albius, an orphaned slave sent to serve a horticulturist on the island of Reunion, discovered a quick easy method to pollinate vanilla by hand that vanilla plantations became viable beyond Mexico. When slavery was abolished in the French colonies, Albius was freed, but he did not see any recompense for his discovery. He ended up imprisoned for jewelry theft and died in poverty.
Fortunately Albius’ discovery made plentiful inexpensive vanilla internationally available. The flavoring rose to dominance because it is almost universally pleasing to humans (although vanillin acts as a trigger for a small minority of migraine sufferers). During the twentieth century, organic chemists discovered how to synthesize vanillin (a phenolic aldehyde predominant in vanilla extract) from wood pulp bi-products. Compared to natural vanilla extract (a mixture of several hundred different compounds) it tastest quite vile: anyone who has compared real vanilla extract with synthetic vanillin could easily expound on the superiority of the former. Real vanilla has a taste of orchids, Central-American jungles, and divinely transfigured princess which synthetic compounds can never capture.
And that is why home-made cookies are so much better.