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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.

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To celebrate, here are some Valentine’s doves from Valentines throughout the ages.

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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!

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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.

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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!

Today is June 21st , which, in the northern hemisphere–where the majority of humankind lives–is the summer solstice.  This is the longest day of the year (and the shortest night).  Rejoice!  Now is the time of light and warmth.

Druid

Druids!

Of course it would hardly be the solstice if we didn’t talk about druids, but here, suddenly things get tricky, because, despite their long-standing popularity, we don’t actually know very much about druids.   There are no writings left to us from actual druids and although we have some archeological finds from Iron-age Western Europe which relate to the religions of the time, we do not have any objects which are directly connected with druids.  Some scholars question whether they ever even existed.

What is known about druids, therefore comes from Roman and Greek writers (including no less a person than Julius Caesar).  Druids were the priestly caste of polytheistic Celtic society.  Druid lore was passed down orally and it was no mean feat to become one of these elite priests:  it could take decades to master the complicated plant lore, ceremonial forms, and other esoteric druid knowledge.

Druids are associated with sacred groves and augury.  Roman writers also believed that druids practiced human sacrifice.  Julius Caesar wrote of druids placing prisoners in huge men made of wicker and then burning the victims to death.   However druid-sympathizers (which is apparently a real thing) dispute this idea and assert that Roman sources were guilty of cultural propaganda.  In fact, an even more extreme faction of scholars asserts that druids were entirely made up by Romans as a sort of fantasy of the other in order to highlight Roman superiority.  To me this seems like an unwarranted assumption: the concept of the hard headed Julius Caesar making up fantastical stories to drive home Roman superiority (which was an indisputable fact to him)  seems suspect, and there is archaeological evidence to support a tradition of human sacrifice, although it too is controversial.

"The Victim" An Illustration by AB Houghton for Tennyson's poem (engraving,1868).

“The Victim” An Illustration by AB Houghton for Tennyson’s poem (engraving,1868).

The only description of a druid ceremony comes from Book XVI of Natural History by Pliny the Elder.  This single highly colorful passage is responsible for most of the popular image of druids.  Pliny describes

“The Druids hold nothing more sacred than mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing … when it [mistletoe] is discovered it is gathered with great ceremony Hailing the moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things,’ they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion. A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and with a golden sickle cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to god to render his gift propitious to those whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren, and that it is an antidote for all poisons.”

Whether he heard about it and thought it sounded neat or just made it up is anyone’s guess.

Neodruids (hahahaha)

Neodruids (hahahaha)

So wait, what does any of this have to do with the solstice?  Why are druids associated to an astronomical event in the way that Santa goes with Christmas?    Druids became greatly popular during the 18th and 19th century Celtic revival.   As romantics and neo-pagans invented rituals they looked towards the Roman sources (and certain Irish Christian sources which set up druids as being the opposite of Christian saints). Druids became associated with the great stone monoliths such as Stonehenge, and, since those ancient constructions are focused on the solar calendar,  it  was logical to assume that druids were too.

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Papaver rhoeas is an annual flower which grows across Eurasia and northern Africa.  The brilliant vermilion flower is commonly known as the red poppy, the corn poppy, or the field poppy.  This plant has an ancient and unmistakable connection to agriculture. The poppy tends to grow in ground which has been broken.  It is fairly resistant to non-chemical weed control mechanisms, and it can grow, flower, and then set seed before barley or wheat is harvested.  All of this means that field poppies were an inextricable part of early grain fields (where they were sometimes more abundant then the grain).

Even though the wildflowers are weeds, they are very beautiful weeds and the ancient Greeks were quick to give divine significance to the red blossoms. Demeter was the goddess of agriculture who legendarily presented humankind with the secrets to grain-farming (a craft which she first revealed to the demi-god Triptolemus).  Her emblem was the red poppy growing among the barley. The flower’s distinctive red with orange undertones gave its name to a color coquelicot (which is the French word for the corn poppy).  In English, the word coquelicot has been used to describe that color (which, coincidentally is one of my favorite) since the 18th century.

As noted above, the poppy sprouts up in broken ground. During World War I, artillery bombardment and trench excavation caused tremendous ground disturbance, which caused the poppies to flourish. All throughout the warm months of the conflict the flowers bloomed profusely in no-man’s land and between the trench lines.  One of the war’s most famous poems “In Flander’s Field” was a short rhymed poem in the form of a French rondeau which described the poppies blowing among the endless lines of freshly dug graves.

The armistice which ended World War I and silenced the big guns took place on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. In the years after the war, veterans from the Allied forces were honored (and the dead remembered) by the wearing of real or artificial poppies on Armistice Day. In the United States, Congress changed the name of Armistice Day into Veterans Day on 1954 in order to honor all veterans (although, naturally, in other Allied nations today remains Armistice Day or Remembrance Day).  The wearing of red poppies (which apparently started in America) has been largely supplanted by other national symbols like the yellow ribbon and Old Glory. None-the-less this is still a day we share with our allies.

This is a particularly sad and touching Veterans’ Day both because of the wars we are currently fighting in Central Asia and because, earlier in 2011 the last few field veterans of the Great War died.  There is now no one left alive who fought in World War I and saw the red poppies flowering among the mud and steel and bones of no-man’s land. Years ago it struck me forcefully that the Lost Generation was vanishing when I was in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and saw a sign explaining how the last few Armisitice maples (silver maples planted in great sweeping avenues to commemorate the end of the First World War) were being taken down and replaced with Red Oaks to commemorate September 11th.  Even mighty trees wear down. Generations die and are replaced.  New tragedies come along. However the soldiers’ vigilance and sacrifice are never over. I would like to thank all of the men and women who have served in the uniform of the United States or its allies.  If anybody deserves to have the sacred flower of the goddess of grain repurposed to memorialize their valor, it is surely them.

Kaali Lake, Estonia

Between 7500 and 2500 years ago, a space object composed of coarse octahedrite fell into Earth’s gravity well and broke into huge flaming pieces.  Although much of the object’s mass and velocity were lost passing through the atmosphere, a number of large pieces (with a total mass estimated to be about eighty tons) struck the Saareemaa island in what is now northern Estonia.  Since these fragments were traveling between 10 and 20 kilometers per second, a substantial amount of kinetic energy was released: the impact probably had approximately the same energy yield as the Hiroshima atomic bomb.  The area was inhabited by Bronze Age humans and those who were not incinerated must have been appalled when a ball of incandescent hellfire swallowed a whole forest with deafening thunder.

The impact formed the Kaali crater field.  Since the impact occurred so recently, the craters are still quite pronounced.  The largest crater has a diameter of 110 meters (330 feet) and contains a freshwater lake at its bottom.  The smallest crater (which I unfortunately could not find a picture of) is only about 10 meters across and a meter deep.

PAnoramic shot of Kaali Lake

As at Lake Lonar and the Great Serpeant Mound Crater, there is sacred architecture affiliated with the Kaali Crater field.  During the Iron Age, unknown masons constructed a 470 meter long stone wall around the lake. Since the body of water is nearly a perfect circle it looks deceptively small but, aas you can see in the picture at the top, the lake is actually large and deep. Kaali Lake has been a sacred lake for a long time and local reverence suggests that it still is. Additionally, numerous domestic animal remains from the area around the lake indicate that the area has been a sacrificial ground for thousands of years.  In fact some animal sacrifices date as recently as the 17th century—it seems that Estonia’s conversion to Christianity did not preclude some surviving pagan traditions.  Certain stories from Finnish mythology seem to relate to the lake: one tale relates how a trickster god stole the sun.  The virgin goddess of the air, trying to make manufacture a second sun let a flaming spark fall down—it drifted  into the forested islands south of  Finland and caused a great fire which humankind saved and used for heating, cooking,  and forging.

One of the most horrible deities of the underworld comes from the violent and frightening cosmology of the Maya civilization of Central America. The Mayan god of darkness, violence and sacrifice was Camazotz a flying bat god who inhabited Xibalba, the Mayan hell. Originally an anthropomorphic bat monster worshipped by the Zapotec Indians of Oaxaca, Camazotz was adopted into the Mayan pantheon as a vampire killer who reveled in slaughter. The deity appears throughout classical Mayan art and sculpture. Camazotz also features in the post-classical compendium of Mayan myths, the Popul Vuh, where he is master of a house of were-bats like himself.  There he (or one of his minions) claws off the heads of one of the story’s twin heroes during their attempt to defeat the lords of Xibalba in a marathon ball tournament.

Classical Mayan sculpture of Camazotz

A Black Turkey, also called the Spanish Black, the Dutch Black, or the Norfolk Black (photo by Mike Walters)

We’ll jump right into this continuation of last week’s two-part post with the the Black Turkey, which was a European variety of domesticated turkey.  The original Spanish conquistadors found that the Aztecs had domesticated a subspecies of wild turkey Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo.  The ravenous Spaniards carried some of these off (along with every single valuable thing they could find) and took them back to Spain. 

Spanish fashion: this is an unusually colorful outfit for Spain during that era.

In accordance with Spanish fashion, the new turkey farmers of the old world selectively bred for all black feathers.  The black turkeys spread first to the Netherlands (then under Spanish control) and ultimately throughout Europe.

A Bronze Standard turkey

When English colonists arrived in the New England, they brought black turkeys with them and crossed the European domestic birds with the wild turkeys they found in the forest.  The resulting variety had beautiful dark brown feathers with green and copper sheen.  These turkeys were called Bronze turkeys and the standard bronze turkey was the most common turkey throughout most of America’s history.

A Buff Turkey in Australia (courtesy of S. Lim)

In their turkey breeding experiments, the colonists also obtained Buff turkeys, one of the original breeds of domestic turkeys in the United States.  It was a medium sized bird with lovely dun/beige colored feathers.  Unfortunately, due to the ascendancy of larger turkeys, the breed went extinct in 1915.  But all was not lost:  to quote The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy “Interest in creating a buff colored turkey returned once again the 1940’s. The New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station at Millville initiated a program to develop a small to medium size market turkey. This is one of the few instances where a new variety was developed in a methodical manner….”

The Bourbon Red Turkey

In the early 1800’s a Kentucky poultry farmer named J. F. Barbee crossed Buff, Bronze, and White Holland Turkeys to obtain a pretty roan colored turkey with white wing and tail feathers and light under-feathers.  Unfortunately Barbee christened his new breed as “Bourbon Butternuts” and the turkeys did not sell at all. Only later when he renamed the bird “Bourbon reds” did they become popular.  Even old-timey Americans were slaves to marketing!  The Bourbon red turkey had fallen from favor but lately the breed has become a mainstay of the organic back-yard turkey movement. 

That concludes my overview of turkey breeds. I’m sorry I told it out of order, but hopefully you have pieced together the strange tale of Aztecs, Spaniards, 19th century showmen, and factory farms.  It is curious how some breeds died out while others burgeoned in accordance to the strange ebb and flow of fashion and taste.  It raises curious moral quandaries about the nature of farming.  Livestock breeds are created by humans for human convenience and whim.  If we don’t eat our farm animals, they vanish (for it is the rare farmer who keeps turkeys purely as a hobby). Isn’t it preferable for these creatures to exist and reproduce even if destiny means that they end their lives as the object of our great annual feast?  Perhaps it is best to return to the mindset of the first turkey farmers, the mighty Aztecs, who understood ceremonial annual sacrifice and made it a cornerstone of their culture.  Look around you this November and see big proud domestic turkeys staring at you from decorations, television shows, brand labels, and cartoons everywhere.  Now think about the red step pyramid, the howling augur, and the flint knife–for you must consume domestic turkeys, the sacred bird of our harvest feast, in order that they may live on.  I, for one, am up to such a task!  And in addition to looking forward to Thursday dinner, I am eager to see what new varieties of domestic turkeys crop up in this coming century…

Ocellated Turkey (photo credit: National Geographic)

Everyone is familiar with the wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, and its domestic descendants.  The wild turkey is a highly successful species which ranges across the United States, Canada, and Mexico. There is however another turkey species, the ocellated turkey, Meleagris ocellata, which is native to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico–where it lives in the dense tropical forests.   The bird looks similar to the familiar wild turkey, but it is half the size or smaller (females range up to 6 pounds, while males weight up to 11 pounds).  The ocellated turkey has brilliant plumage and skin.  Its feathers are iridescent green, shining copper, and grey-blue.  The male turkey sports a pattern of peacock-like eyes on his tail.  Neither gender have “beards” protruding through their breast feathers (a familiar feature in their northern relatives).  Ocellated turkeys also have brilliant yellow, orange, and red nodules on their bright blue heads (!).  Males have a crown of brilliant nodules behind their snood.  They have long red legs to run through the jungle.  Like their northern counterparts they have a variety of magnificent vocalizations.

Close-up of a hen's face

The turkeys are secretive in their tropical jungles and their ecology is not fully understood.  Once upon a time, the ocellated turkey existed in both domesticated and wild forms (just like familiar Meleagris gallopavo exists for us today).  They were farmed by the Maya people of the Yucatan who used them as table fowl and as sacrifices.  Their name in the Maya tongue is “ucutz il chican” which means, um, “ocellated turkey” (maybe my Mayan readers can help me produce a finer translation).  Ancient paintings show that the splendid feathers of the ocellated turkey were a major component of headdresses and high fashion for nobles.  Yet as the Maya empire declined and jungles stole over the great temples, the farmbirds slipped from human control back into the wild.

A Maya mural at San Bartolo from 100 BC shows the maize god spilling an ocellated turkey’s blood on the cosmic tree. Two turkeys are tied behind him. (Photo by Kenneth Garrett © National Geographic)

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