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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!
One of the best things about the Greek mythological pantheon is that it contains gods who ruled before the Olympians but have passed into obscurity…as well as weird outsiders who hardly seem to belong in the story at all. Some of these deities were once central to things but have been broken, defeated and deposed (like Cronus), whereas others are otherworldly and cling to the darkest most shadowy edges of mythical realm (like Nyx, the goddess of primeval night). I bring this up to introduce the Erinyes, the goddesses of savage unending vengeance, who are sometimes known in English by the heavy-metal name “the Furies”.
The Erinyes are mentioned in the oldest surviving Greek texts which we can translate. They punished the most terrible criminals who had violated the fundamental moral order of ancient Greece (a slave society where murder was a part of everyday life). Those who felt the endless wrath of the furies were guilty of crimes such as violating oaths, abusing guests, committing incest, or murdering kinfolk. The Erinyes’ dwelled in the underworld, but if a malefactor brought their wrath upon himself, they would pursue him across the land, the seas, and beyond till they could rip him apart. Death brought no release from their tortures–since they carried their victims’ spirits to the depths of Tartarus to punish forever with snakes, flails, burning brands, and brass-studded whips. The Erinyes took the form of horrible angels: they had huge dark wings and the bodies of twisted hags (although occasionally they could take on a terrible beauty). Some poets asserted there were three furies—Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone–but in other sources they seem numberless and lacking individuality.
Erinyes show up in the most horrible myths of murder, savagery, and everything gone appallingly wrong. They therefore make appearances in some great works of literature and art…like The Eumenides, the final play of the Oresteia. In fact the name The Euminides (meaning “the kindly ones”) refers to the dreadful Erinyes—for like Hades (or Voldemort) it was thought unwise to refer to them except via euphemism. There are different versions of how the ancient goddesses came into being. According to Hesiod they were born when the Titan Cronus castrated his father the sky god Uranus, and threw his genitalia into the sea (an event which also precipitated the birth of Aphrodite). Other poets, however assert that they are even older and descend directly from the outsider goddess Nyx, who predates the other gods.
The rod of Asclepius—a serpent coiled around a staff–is a symbol from ancient Greek mythology which represents the physician’s art. Asclepius was a demigod who surpassed all other gods and mortals at the practice of medicine. Because his skills blurred the distinction between mortality and godhood, Asclepius was destroyed by Zeus (an exciting & troubling story which you can find here).
There are several proposed reasons that a staff wrapped by a snake is the symbol of the god of medicine. In some myths, Asclepius received his medical skills from the whispering of serpents (who knew the secrets of healing and revitalization because of their ability to shed their skin and emerge bigger and healthier). Some classicists believe the snake represents the duality of medicine—which can heal or harm depending on the dosage and the circumstance. Yet others see the serpent as an auger from the gods. Whatever the case, the rod of Asclepius is a lovely and distinctive symbol of medicine and has been since ancient times. Temples to Asclepius were constructed across the Greco-Roman world and served as hospitals of a sort. The serpent-twined rod of the great doctor was displayed at these institutions and became a symbol for western doctors who followed.
However there is a painfully apt misunderstanding between the rod of Asclepius and a similar symbol.
Greek mythology featured a separate and entirely distinct symbolic rod wrapped with snakes, the caduceus—which has two snakes and is winged. The caduceus was carried by Hermes/Mercury, the god of merchants, thieves, messengers, and tricksters. Hermes used the rod to beguile mortals or to touch the eyes of the dead and lead them to the underworld.
In the United States the two rods have become confused because of a military mix-up in the early twentieth century (when a stubborn medical officer refused to listen to his subordinates and ordered the caduceus to be adopted as the symbol of the U.S. Medical Corps). Since then the caduceus has been extensively used by healthcare organizations in the United States and has come to replace the staff of Asclepius in the majority of uses. Commercial and for-profit medical organizations are particularly inclined to use the caduceus instead of the rod of Asclepius as the former is more visually arresting (although academic and professional medical organizations tend to use the staff of Asclepius).
To recap: the caduceus, which symbolizes profit-seeking, theft, and death, has replaced the staff of Asclepius, an ancient symbol of healing, throughout the United States. Of course it is up to the reader to decide whether this is a painful misunderstanding, or a wholly appropriate representation of the actual nature of the broken American healthcare system. HMOs, insurance companies, and hospitals, however have started to take note and are moving towards crosses and random computer generated bric-brac for their logos, leaving both ancient symbols behind.
Dioscorea alata is a naturally occurring species of yam from tropical Asia. Yams are perennial vines which are widely cultivated for their starchy tubers—a dietary staple in great swaths of Africa. Dioscorea alata is different from the African yams in that it is principally used as a dessert or a dessert flavoring. The yam, which goes by other names such as “water yam”, “winged yam,” “ratalu”, “purple yam” or, perhaps most characteristically as “ube” (in the Phillipines, where it is highly esteemed) is also different from virtually every other food stuff in that it is a shocking shade of bright lavender.
Although Ube is valued for its high starch content and esteemed as a folk remedy for various ailments, it is principally a foodstuff and has the highest distribution of any yam—being the principle yam of South Asia, Indochina, and the Pacific. Even in Africa, it is the second most popular yam. Although sometimes cooks stir fry it as chips or cook it as a curry, ube is most famous for its sweet flavor and is a main flavor and ingredient of all sorts of pastries, ice creams, cakes, jams, and confections.
I am blogging about ube because of the striking color—and indeed ube has given its name to a bright hue of lavender. I would love to describe the flavor, but I have never had ube anything—a particular shock since one of the most critically lauded restaurants in my neighborhood is named “The Purple Yam”. Perusing the online menu makes me particularly regretful that I have never dined there since the menu is filled with deep fried pork belly, mussels in curry, duck, goat, and shrimp in addition to pomelos, jackfruits and, of course, purple yam themed sweets.
Some artists sign their works with a symbol instead of with their written name. My favorite of all these artist’s symbols was the one employed by the great German gothic painter Lucas Cranach. Ferrebeekeeper has already written about Lucas Cranach’s troubling allegory Melancholy, his fascination with severed heads and femme fatales, and his magnificent depiction of animals. Cranach usually signed his works with a black winged serpent holding a ruby ring in its jaws and wearing a crown. It fills me with frustration that I didn’t think of it first—imagine signing the water bill with that!
There are various different versions of the serpent. Cranach changed it around—especially when he signed printed artworks. Elector Frederick the Wise granted the winged serpent with a crown and ruby ring to Cranach as a coat of arms on January 6th, 1508, but nobody is sure what it means. Some art historians have speculated that it is an astrological or alchemical symbol. Others believe it may be a lost pun concerning some aspect of Cranach’s name or have some allegorical meaning too subtle to fathom. The actual explanation seems lost in mystery (which is probably how Cranach would like it). Whenever I see a Cranach painting in a museum, the search for his serpent sigil is part of the fun.