Origins of the Bullfight

In Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises (1926), several American ex-pats, damaged and disillusioned by their experiences in World War I, attempt to distract themselves by fishing, drinking, fighting, and watching the running of the bulls and the bullfights that were part of the San Fermin festival in Spain.  After re-reading the novel, I was disappointed to find the whole group pretty unlikeable, but I was struck by Hemingway’s hunger to understand bullfighting.  In particular, the matador and his relationship to the bull he interacts with and eventually kills.

Hemingway subsequently wrote Death in the Afternoon (1932), a non-fiction description of the traditions of Spanish bullfighting and a passionate defense of its virtues.

Both books introduced American audiences to bullfighting in general and Hemingway’s interpretation in particular.  He talks knowingly about the famous matadors of the day because he studies their careers, eats at their favorite restaurants, and stays at their favorite hotels.  He makes a point of identifying himself as an aficionado, an expert who understands and appreciates the complexity of the bullfight, different from and far superior to the mere tourist.

He glorifies the Spanish fighting bull as a semi-wild fighting machine, bred for aggression and strength, yet he adds, “In the old days, the bulls were usually bigger than they are now, they were fiercer, more uncertain, heavier, and older.”  This introduces a common theme in works about bullfighting: the past was far more glorious than the present. The bulls were fiercer, the matadors braver, the whole spectacle more meaningful.

That’s an interesting thought.  Today, bullfighting is losing some of its appeal even in Spain, especially for younger audiences.  Many would rather watch football (soccer).  Somewhere in the past, however, this combination of flashy spectacle and gore was not only meaningful but central to a culture.

Bullfighting basics

Bullfighting is something of a misnomer, in that no man (or woman – Yes, there are a few female matadors) actually fights a bull, at least not the way boxers fight, more or less as equals,  The Spanish fighting bull is bred to be aggressive and weighs about ten times more than the matador.  So a more accurate term is the corrida, which can mean the running of the bulls or the bullfight itself.

In the corrida, there are different sections, each with strictly enforced rules. The toreros (bullfighters) are divided into three categories:

matadors, the stars of the show,

picadors, who ride horses and carry lances,

and banderilleros, helpers on foot who show the matador how the bull moves to the cape before he faces it.  They also step in to help if the matador is injured.

The corrida has three parts:

Suit of Lights

The first section features  the parade of participants and recognition of the presiding official, with the participants in colorful costumes that continue designs from the 17th century.  The matador wears the traditional “suit of lights,” highly decorated and embroidered in silver or gold.

A recognized bullfight features three matadors who will face two bulls each in separate fights.  The selection of bulls and order of go is decided ahead of time.

When the first bull enters, the matador observes as the banderillos show how it moves to the cape.

Then the matador moves out with a gold and magenta cape and does several passes, demonstrating his skill and learning the individual quirks of the bull.

Next the picadors, mounted on horses, jab the bull in the thick muscle where the neck meets the top of the shoulders with their lances, weakening it so that later the matador can stab it there.

The second section involves the planting of the banderillas, sharp sticks with colorful paper decorations into the bull’s neck and shoulders.  These also weaken the bull.

The third section belongs to the matador alone.  He must face the wounded bull, working closer and closer to it with each pass of his small red cape.  At the moment of truth, the matador approaches the bull from the front and stabs it between the shoulder blades, killing it.  The judges and audience then react to how well the matador has performed throughout the fight. This section, though the most famous, takes only about fifteen minutes from start to finish.

So how did this celebration of death all dressed in flamboyant colors come to be?  Is it a spectacle?  A competition?  A sport? A sacrifice?  It seems to have multiple threads tying the parts together, including agrarian games of skill and daring, Cretan bull leaping, Moorish mounted hunters, Celtic-Iberian bull cults, public spectacles and circuses, Mithraic bull sacrifice, and assorted mythological and religious elements.

The Bull

Among those who work with cattle for a living, competition might turn into bull-riding, bull leaping, bull-fighting, steer wrestling, cowboy bull fighting, bull running, or bull-jumping.  The images shown here include bull-riding in American rodeos, cowboy bull fighting, traditional Tamil (India) bull taming, bull-jumping (La Course Landaise, France) with the jumper’s feet encased in his cap, and bull fighting (Spain, Mexico, and Peru).  The rodeo games are competitions, judged on form and time.  The running of the bulls is a different kind of dangerous game, still wildly popular despite dozens of injuries participants suffer every year.  But only traditional bull-fighting involves a public, ritualized execution of a bull.


It’s hard to think of a time in European ancient history where the bull didn’t play an important role.  Shown here are paintings of a bull at Niaux Cave, France (13,000 years old) with barbed arrows piercing its side, one of the bulls from Altamira Cave, Spain (40,000 years old), and a strange panel of bull/man hybrids from Covaciella Cave, Spain (14,000 years old). In the last one, the panel seems to show a progression from wild bull to hybrid bull/man. 

Minotaur and Theseus

The same combination appears in Greek mythology, where the bull plays a major part in a twisted tale of deception and revenge. King Minos’s mother, Europa, was seduced by Zeus in the form of a bull, resulting in the birth of Minos and two brothers whom Minos defeated so he could be king. One day Minos asked Poseidon, god of the sea, to send a bull from the depths of the waters, which he would then sacrifice to the god.  However, when the bull appeared, Minos kept it for himself and sacrificed a lesser one.  Angry at the lack of respect, Poseidon (or maybe Venus/Aphrodite, depending on the version you’re reading) made Minos’s wife, Pasiphae, fall in love with a bull.  She then gave birth to the hideous Minotaur, part man and part bull. Because he was so vicious, he was confined to the Labyrinth.  There, Theseus finally killed him.  Perhaps the original matador and bull.

The famous bull-leaping fresco from the palace of Knossos, in Crete, Greece, shows a young athlete doing a flip along the back of a bull while two helpers look on.  It’s from 3500 years ago.  A bronze sculpture from about the same period shows another acrobat somersaulting over a bull’s horns.  Ceramics, seals, rings, and figurines repeat the theme. It also appears in Egyptian art of the period and Syrian seals from a century earlier. Some archaeologists claim the practice was more symbolic than real, but Sir Arthur Evans, who excavated at Knossos, thought the acrobat pictured could vault over the bull by grabbing the horns, as shown in the diagram.

The Knossos bull-leap seems entirely possible to me, though the dimensions of the bull may have been enlarged for greater visual impact. Certainly, the new “bull fighting only” events in American rodeos regularly feature cowboys leaping or somersaulting over the backs of bulls. (See videos in Sources.) The practice would have been very dangerous, just as it is now, but that’s an important part of all of these spectacles.  Some scholars feel the number of young people who died in the course of bull-vaulting displays added to the myth of children being sacrificed to the Minotaur in the Labyrinth.


Unfortunately, we don’t know the significance of the bull-leaping events at Knossos because we can’t read Linear A, their written language, and their civilization disappeared after a volcanic eruption on Crete.  But along with the bull-leaping scenes, Knossos contained many images of bull sacrifice, so the bull-leaping may well have been part of a larger ceremony that ended with the bull being killed.  In that case, it would have served a very different purpose from bull competitions and games.

Animal sacrifice meant to please or appease the gods was common at least as far back as 6,500 years ago, with extant records from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, and Greece.

In the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, (2100 BCE), the hero-king of Uruk refused the advances of the goddess Ishtar, daughter of the Sky-God Anu, so she demanded her father send the Bull of Heaven down to exact revenge.  The Bull brought droughts and plagues, but with the help of powerful spirits, Gilgamesh killed the Bull of Heaven and restored harmony, at least temporarily. “The Bull seemed indestructible. For hours they fought, till Gilgamesh, dancing in front of the Bull, lured it with his tunic and bright weapons, and Enkidu thrust his sword deep into the Bull’s neck, and killed it.”

Animal sacrifices to Zeus and other deities were ways for ancient Greeks to ask the help of the gods.  They led the animal to the altar and poured water on its head.  When it moved its head down from the water falling on it, on-lookers interpreted the gesture as a nod of agreement.  The liver and entrails were examined after the animal died.  If the reading was positive, indicating the gods had accepted the offering, the sacrificed animal became the centerpiece of a great feast.

The sculptural relief image in the photo shows a sacrificial procession in front of the Roman temple of Magna Mater (Great Mother of the Gods), sometimes called Cybele (600 BCE) and compared with the goddess Astarte.  The bull’s spilled blood conferred upon the recipients the blessings of the goddess: purification, preservation, and well-being.

In the Greek vase pictured, a bull is led to the altar of Athena, who stands to the right (545 BCE).  Often, the sacrifice of a bull was connected to a request for fertility and plenty.  Sometimes it was a plea for rain after a drought. 

One of the most important rites in Ancient Rome was the suovetaurillia, the sacrifice of a pig, a sheep, and a bull to the god Mars, so that the land would be blessed and purified.  This ceremony preceded a public festival.  In effect, the sacrifice was the reason for the fiesta that followed.

In Mithraism, popularized and spread by the Roman army throughout the Empire, the central image is Mithra, the god of light, kneeling on a bull as he stabs it.  Blood pouring out of the bull fertilizes the Earth, and grain, flowers, and plants sprout from the spot.  Life grows out of death.

Curiously, the Roman arena at Merida, Spain, which is still used for bullfights today, is built over a much older site of Celtic-Iberian bull sacrifice, so bulls have been ritually killed on that ground for well over 2000 years.

Between 160 and 300 CE, the taurobolium, the Roman sacrifice of a bull, changed from a communal offering to a personal one.  The person being purified lay in a pit with a perforated board placed over it.  The blood of the slaughtered bull ran down through the holes, so the person in the pit bathed in the purifying blood.

The Bible

Animal sacrifice is often mentioned in the Bible as a way to recognize God’s blessings and atone for sins. 

The first section of the book of Leviticus says:

            The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.  He said,

“Speak to the Israelites and say to them, ‘When any of you brings an offering to the Lord, bring as your offering an animal from either the herd or the flock.  If the offering is a burnt   offering from the herd, he is to offer a male without defect.  He must present it at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting so that it will be acceptable to the Lord.  He is to lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him.  He is to slaughter the young bull before the Lord, and then Aaron’s sons, the priests shall bring the blood and sprinkle it against the altar on all sides    (Leviticus: 1 – 3)

And again in Leviticus 4:1:

            If the priest sins, bringing guilt on the people, he must bring to the Lord a young bull without defect as an offering, sacrifice it, then dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle blood on the altar and base.

In the New Testament, Jesus, the Lamb of God, becomes the ultimate sacrifice, the one whose blood  is capable of washing away all sins.  Echoes of the taurobolium remain today in gospel songs like “Have You Bathed in the Blood of the Lamb?”

In all of these examples, the bull is sacrificed for a reason –recognizing the power of the gods, righting a wrong, submitting a request for divine intervention, or ensuring that life can flourish.

In Medieval Spain, a different kind of bull ritual involved a betrothed couple darting a bull so that some of its blood fell on both of them, thus insuring fertility in the marriage to come.

The Horse

In the bullfight, the picadors, mounted on horses, stab the bull at the top of the shoulder with their lances in order to weaken it before the matador finishes it.

While they are now considered secondary players in the drama, at one time mounted bullfighters were the stars.  When the Moors from North Africa conquered the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) in 711, they brought their fine horses with them.  Over their 700-year reign, mounted hunting challenges were a favored pastime of the aristocracy, early predecessors of the jousting tournaments favored in Medieval Europe.  Among other animals, the Moors hunted wild bulls from horseback, using lances.  It was a competition and a display of courage and horsemanship.

After the Christians drove the Moors out of Spain in 1492, Christian aristocrats continued the Moorish practice of hunting on horseback with spears.  Bull-lancing tournaments became an important part of public celebrations.  Even when Pope Pius V banned the practice in 1567 and threatened anyone who participated in it with excommunication, it continued.  Finally, the Church settled for changing the rules, including limiting it to one bull in the arena at a time.

However, it wasn’t until the 1930s that the picadors’ horses were given thick padding to protect them from the bulls’ horns, preventing some of the goring deaths that were once quite common.  While the picador horses may once have been exceptionally well-trained mounts of the Moorish aristocracy, the padded, blindfolded horses in use in the bullring today seem more like tragic participants in the spectacle.

The Man

When the aristocratic, mounted bullfighters of old were using an arena, they often employed peasants on foot to help out.  These men flapped skins or capes at the beasts to distract them if the rider was in trouble.  Occasionally, a man on foot would show such skill and bravery against the bull that he would become the star, despite his low social status.  Gradually, the aristocrats abandoned bull-lancing as entertainment, and the common people embraced bullfighting as their own. Then and now, a matador can rise from poverty to riches if he has what it takes to be a superstar matador.

Matadors often lead short lives. Joselito and Manolete, two of the most famous bullfighters of the 20th century, were killed by bulls.  Joselito died at 25, Manolete at 30.  The young matador pictured, Victor Barrio, was killed in 2016, gored by a bull while he was still trying to break into the big time. 

Part of the appeal of bullfighting, for both participants and spectators, is its inherent danger and presence of death.  Some describe bullfighting as less a sport than a modern sacrifice.  Hemingway called it a performing art and a tragedy.  The matador featured in the Journeyman video listed in the Sources says, ”We create art with a fierce beast.  It’s a ritual.  It’s a liturgy.”  One of the reporters described the relationship between the bullfighter and the bull as a “wonderful dance.”

Other matadors talk of the love they have for the bulls they kill, the intensity of the relationship between them in the last moments. “I love them and I kill them,” one explained.

Many of these descriptions include references to art, dance, and spirituality.  Perhaps that’s part of what sets bullfighting apart.  It’s also the only public spectacle where death is a welcomed participant.  It’s interesting that bullfighting, with all its flash and style, speaks so loudly to certain people because it’s so clearly about death and dying.  Or more accurately, the style of dying.  A matador must be more than brave enough to face a fighting bull in a public arena.  He must have a dancer’s grace in how he stands, how he moves, how he works the cape.  And in the end, he must be “a good killer of bulls,” as Hemingway said, knowing how to approach the bull from the front, making sure its head is low and its front feet squared up, so the sword can go straight down between the shoulder blades.  A botched coup de grace is a disgrace, no matter how skilled the cape work was that preceded it.


Although the modern bullfight is clearly the relic of thousands of years of ritual sacrifice and competition involving bulls, it lacks the underlying sacrifice necessary to justify it. There’s no divinity whose favor is being sought through this fight and death.  It’s become a contest between men and beast, but the outcome is predetermined.  Only the style of death remains to be proven.

Having killed animals for food (chickens and fish), I understand that the meat we buy wrapped in plastic comes from an animal that was slaughtered by someone. (About 31 million cows are killed for meat in the United States each year.)  We just didn’t see it so we don’t have to think about it.  The bullfight makes us uncomfortable because it’s clearly all about the style of death.  The bull’s, sometimes the horse’s or the matador’s, and ultimately ours.  It’s serious and intense.

A lot of anti-bullfight sentiment comes from animal rights groups that claim the bullfight is animal torture.  I agree some parts are disturbing.  I’ll probably never watch a live bullfight.  But I find some of the criticism leveled against it unwarranted. One commentator from the BBC called Spanish bullfighting the “sole survivor of the games at the Colosseum, the Theater of Death.”  After 70 CE, the Romans added Iberian bulls to the long list of exotic animals they imported to their arenas, including the Colosseum in Rome, where animals and humans were killed for the entertainment of Roman citizens.  It was a reminder of the brutal power of the Empire – terror in the service of politics, hardly the first or last group to use the tactic.  But the numbers of people and animals slaughtered in the Colosseum were staggering, especially for the time. Emperor Augustus bragged that more than 3500 wild beasts were killed in the arena during his reign.  That record soon fell.  Historian Cassius Dio estimated over 9,000 beasts were killed over a 100-day celebration. In addition to having the animals fight each other, they were often turned loose on people considered enemies of the state: criminals, prisoners of war, poor people, slaves, Christians, political rivals, undesirables.  Occasionally, even the emperor got involved in the killing, though he was protected from any real harm.  Emperor Commodus bragged he had slaughtered thousands of beasts and had himself depicted as the Greek god Hercules, complete with a lion’s pelt and club.

Though many sources cite the Roman spectacles in the Colosseum as the origin of the Spanish bullfight, the only connection I can see is the use of the circular arena, which spread with the Roman Empire.  The Colosseum fights were meant to instill fear of the government.  Most sports events today reinforce tribal/regional loyalty – Us vs Them.  But the bullfight is neither of those.  It’s a living anachronism.  At its best, it’s a study of intense light and dark, life and death.  It’s what remains of a sacrifice to the gods.

Sources and interesting reading:

Becker, Jeffrey, “Preparations for a Sacrifice (interpretation of the Roman frieze 100 CE, now at the Louvre Museum, Paris), Khan Academy,

Belmonte, Juan – Spanish Bullfighter,” Britannica,

“Bullfighting: spectacle,” Britannica.

“Bullfighting – History,” Britannica.

“Bullfighting,” Scholastic.

“Bullfighting in Spain – Origins and History,” Spanish Unlimited, 22 February 2012,

“Bull-leaping,” Wikipedia,

Clottes, Jean.  Cave Art. London: Phaidon Press, 2008.

Collon, Dominique, “Bull-leaping in Syria,” Egypt and the Levant 4:81-88 (1994)

“Course Landaise,” Wikipedia,

“Cretan Bull, Wikipedia,

Gray, Geoffrey, “A Bullfighter’s Sacrifice,” New York Magazine, 10 July 2016,

“Great Mother of the Gods,” Britannica,

Harrison, Richard, “Inside the Ancient Bull Cult” History Today, 10 July 2019,

Hemingway, Ernest.  Death in the Afternoon.  New York:  Scribner’s Sons, 1932.

Hemingway, Ernest.  The Sun Also Rises.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1926.

The Holy Bible, New International Version. Zonderan Publishing House, 1984.

Kennedy, A. L.  On Bullfighting. New York: Anchor Books, 2001.

Lorca, Federico Garcia, “Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias,”  World Literature. (Donna Rosenberg, ed) New York: McGraw Hill, 2004

McInerney, Jeremy, “Bull and Bull-Leaping in the Minoan World,” Penn Museum magazine, 42:3, 2011.

“Moors in Spain” By Alfonso X(Life time: 1221-1284) – Original publication: Cantigas de Santa Maria

“Minoan Bull-leaper,” (photo of sculpture) Wikimedia Commons,

PETA on bullfighting

“Picador on Horseback,” Spanish, 19th century, anonymous, Metropolitan Museum of Art,

Sherwood, Lyn, “Reflections on the Last ‘Golden Age’ and a Lament for the Current ‘Bronze Age’” Bullfight World, La Prensa San Diego, 30 April 2004

“Spanish-style bullfighting,” Wikipedia,

“Taurobolium” Britannica,


“Gore and Glory: The Art of Bullfighting”  (2002)  Journeyman TV

Bull leaping

Bull leaping video

Bull riding

“Bulls After Dark”  Bullfighting at the Calvary Stampede,

Steer Wrestling

Vaulting video


The Odyssey, written by the Greek poet Homer in the 8th century BC, is one of the world’s best- known epic tales.  It describes Ulysses’ long, difficult voyage home after the Trojan War ended.  It involves monsters, gods, terrible storms, trickery, sex, murder, drugs, drinking, and feasting.  No wonder it’s been popular for over two thousand years.

One famous scene concerns Ulysses (Odysseus to the Greeks) and the Sirens. The sorceress Circe tells Ulysses that the sirens will pose a deadly threat.  Their song is so enchanting that sailors forget everything else when they hear it, so their ships crash on the rocks. “If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens,” Circe warns, “his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for the sirens sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song.  There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them.  Therefore pass these Sirens by….”

Heeding Circe’s warning, Ulysses orders his men to plug their ears with wax so they won’t hear the wondrous song, but he wants to hear it, so he has himself tied to the mast and orders his men not to release him no matter how hard he begs.  And he does beg when he hears the sirens’ beautiful song promising him “ripe wisdom and a quickening of the spirit,” but the men ignore his pleas, tightening the bonds holding him to the mast instead.

This scene, with the sirens enticing sailors to their doom with their beautiful song, has inspired artists for centuries, with wildly different results, reflecting the beliefs of their times.

Most people I asked thought of sirens as beautiful young women (sometimes mermaids) tempting the sailors, seductive creatures who wait for their next victim, combing back their long hair and singing an irresistible song.  Paintings like this one by Herbert James Draper (1909) follow the standard pattern. 

But seeing Ulysses tied to the mast so he can avoid the lure of the girls in this painting seems sort of ridiculous to me.  It’s inspired some great parodies, though, including a Saturday Night Live sketch, , and a Simpsons’ “Island of Sirens” song, sung to the tune of Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana.”  The two sirens, named Patty and Selma (shown), sing “On the island, island of sirens, our hot sex will leave you perspirin’.”

As it turns out, though, that sexy siren/mermaid image isn’t just goofy.  It’s wrong.

Homer did not give the sirens any specific physical description, probably because his audience was already familiar with the concept.  When the story was young, listeners would have pictured a creature with the body of a bird and the head of a human female.

Figures like these have often been found in burials, and the sirens have generally been interpreted as protective guides leading the dead into the afterlife.

This idea probably came from the Near East, especially what are today Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the winged goddesses Inanna, Astarte, and Ishtar were worshipped (Note the wings and bird feet on the image of Astarte, pictured), and before that from ancient Egypt, where mixed human/animal representations of spirits, including female/bird figures, were common. The human-headed figure shown represented the “ba” or soul of the deceased.

The Egyptian goddess Isis (pictured with wings, from a carving on a pharaoh’s sarcophagus) was associated with both death and rebirth, including the annual flooding of the Nile.  First mentioned in the Old Kingdom texts, about 2600 BC, her cult later flourished and spread.  She appears as both a mourner and a protector of the dead, a guide for the dead to the afterlife, and a promise of rebirth. When Rome conquered Egypt, she was merged with Aphrodite.

The figures on the Siren Vase (photo), from 480 BC, now housed in the British Museum, show Ulysses tied to the mast while one siren flies in front of him and two perch on clouds off to the side.  These spirits, represented as birds with the faces of human females, are larger and far more powerful than Ulysses.  This image is not about sexual temptation.  It shows the boldness and courage of a human daring to stand up to powerful spirits that could easily kill him the way they have others.  It shows what the Greeks called metis, a combination of wisdom and cunning.  Ulysses wants to have knowledge beyond the human world without having to pay with his life.

Over time, however, the image of the sirens in this scene changes.

Bird legs and prostitutes

In the mosaic pictured, from the 2nd century AD, the sirens are winged human women with bird legs and feet.  While they hold instruments, they’re hardly alluring.  The bird legs seem to be included to make sure the viewer knows these figures are something weird.

By the 4th century AD, Christianity discouraged belief in the old gods and goddesses.  Isidore’s Etymologiae dismissed the sirens in the tale as prostitutes:  “The Greeks imagine that there were three Sirens, part virgins, part birds, with wings and claws.  One of them sang, another played the flute, the third the lyre.  They drew sailors, decoyed by song, to shipwreck.  According to the truth, however, they were prostitutes who led travelers down to poverty and were said to impose shipwreck on them.  They had wings and claws because Love flies and wounds.”

By the Renaissance, female court musicians were seen as immoral creatures who could control a man’s passions by the beauty of their music.  Under their spell the poor men lost their way.  In the 17th century, Cornelious a Lapide, a Jesuit priest, described women as having “a siren’s voice. With her voice she enchants, with her beauty she deprives of reason – voice and sight alike deal destruction and death.”

Paintings from the 18th and 19th century usually depict sirens as naked human females.

The N. C. Wyeth version of the tale focuses on the strength it takes Ulysses to resist the sirens’ power.  He looks more like Prometheus struggling against his bonds than Ulysses, who instructed his men to tie him up.

Eventually, in the mind of the public, sirens merged with female sea-creatures of folk tales, usually half human, half-fish, like mermaids, or human on land and fish in the sea, like selkies and others.  The Lorelei was based on a German tale about a woman who threw herself into the sea after being jilted by her lover.  Then she became transformed into an avenging woman/sea creature who lured fishermen to their death with her enchanting song.

Asher Elbein wrote an interesting article for Audubon magazine, titled, “Sirens of Greek Myth Were Bird-Women, Not Mermaids.”  The main idea is that the sirens’ seductive power lies in their otherworldly, avian knowledge, not their physical beauty. Birds in European folklore often represent powerful spirits.  Think storks and babies, owls and death, birds of prey and kingship. Combining a human face with the body and wings of a bird is a symbol of that power.  Making the sirens of the Odyssey merely sexy young women takes away much of that power.  As Elbein notes at the end of the article, “ Water-temptresses are a dime a dozen; the Sirens offer wisdom.”

Sources and interesting reading:

Elbein, Asher, “Sirens of Greek Myth Were Bird-Women, Not Mermaids,” Audubon, 6 April 2018,

Funerary siren from Miryna, 1st century BC, public domain,

Funerary statue of a siren, Athens, 379 BC.  The siren laments the dead, wings folded, playing on a tortoiseshell lyre,

Hamilton, Edith.  Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. New York: Mentor Books, 1942.

Herbert James Draper, “Ulysses and the Sirens,” (painting, 1909), Wikimedia Commons,

“Ishtar, Babylonia, 1800 BC,” known as the Burney Relief, or The Queen of the Night, Wikipedia,

“Isis, sarcophagus of Ramesses III, 12th century BC,” Wikimedia.

“Island of Sirens,” Simpsons Wiki, parody, public domain, lyrics by Andrew Kreisberg,

“Lorelei,” Encyclopedia Britannica,

“Metis (mythology),” Wikipedia,

“Odysseus and the Sirens mosaic” Bardo Museum, public domain,

“Odysseus and The Sirens (NAM, Athens, 1130),” World History Encyclopedia,

“Siren Greek hydria vase,” British Museum,

“Siren, Greek mythology,” Encyclopedia Britannica,

“Siren (mythology)” Wikipedia,

Siren on miniature terracotta oil flask, 5th century BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art

“The Siren – Legendary Creature of Greek Mythology – Do you know the difference between a siren and a mermaid?” Greeker Than the Greeks, 2016,

“The Sirens and Ulysses,” oil painting by William Etty (1837), Wikipedia,

“Ulysses and the Sirens,” painting by Thomas Moran, 1912, print available from Thomas Moran: The Complete Works,

Vase in the shape of a siren, 540 BC, Walters Museum, public domain,

Wigington, Patti, “Who is the Egyptian Goddess Isis?” Learn Religions, 25 September 2019,

Horseshoes and other protective charms

When I was growing up, I’d often see a horseshoe nailed up over a barn door for good luck.  The bars of the shoe had to be facing up, “to keep the luck in,” my grandmother said.

Today it’s rare to spot horseshoes over barn doors.  More likely, they’ll be found in pieces of hardware, jewelry, wall ornaments, or greeting cards.  But they’re still connected to good luck. You can find hundreds of varieties for sale online, including painted horseshoes decorated with gemstones and ribbons, like the ones in the photos.

Blacksmith putting a hot shoe on a horse

What makes the horseshoe a good luck symbol? If you look up the origin of the lucky horseshoe over the barn door, you’ll come across a cute but odd story about Saint Dunstan, an Irish blacksmith in the 10th century. One day the devil stopped by, asking for a shoe for himself.  There’s the first problem.  Is the devil a horse?  If he’s a man, why would he need a horseshoe?  If he’s a horse, does he talk? If he’s a man with goat legs, a standard horseshoe wouldn’t fit his cloven feet.  In any case, according to the story, Saint Dunstan nailed a red-hot horseshoe to the devil’s foot.  In terrible pain, the devil asked Dunstan to remove the shoe, and the saint agreed, but only if the devil promised never to enter a place where a horseshoe was hung. 

If you’ve ever watched a farrier nail a shoe to a horse’s foot, you know it’s a long process.  After the shoe is placed on the bottom of the horse’s foot, each nail must be set and then pounded in.  Why would the devil just stand there with a red-hot shoe on his foot while Dunstan pounded in the nails?

Granted, we shouldn’t argue with folktales.  They’re not meant to be historical fact.  But the Saint Dunstan explanation is annoying because it’s a distraction, a way of avoiding the issue, like telling children babies come from the cabbage patch.  The horseshoe originally was a protective charm, in effect an anti-bad luck charm. Much later it morphed into what we know today – a promise of good fortune.

Protection from evil forces

So what was the horseshoe protecting people from?  Dark, dangerous spirits  – and people.

Long before the rise of the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, people in Europe and the Middle East believed in powerful spirits that drew their strength from nature: the sun, moon, and stars, bodies of water, the sky, mountains, particularly dangerous places, strange rock formations, magic springs.  Spirits were all around.  Some were benevolent but others weren’t.  Some could be one way one day and another the next.  Some became important figures connected to specific natural phenomena. 



The Greek goddess Artemis is one example.  As the goddess of the moon, she was later conflated with Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt.  Diana herself was derived from earlier powerful goddess figures like Tanit, the Carthaginian goddess of the moon and the hunt, whose symbol was the crescent moon.

Worship of Diana or her older forms was common throughout the Mediterranean regions.  Cicero noted that Romans saw Diana and the moon as one and the same, as did the Greeks.  She is often shown with a crescent moon on her head or a crescent crown.  Last summer I was lucky enough to see the 4th Century BC bust of Diana, pictured above, with her striking silver eyes and crescent moon crown, on the island of Vis, in Croatia, just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy.

Believers often wore crescent moon charms and put them on their valuable livestock to invoke her protection.  In the  Middle East, the head, neck, and body of camels might be decorated.. This practice is referenced in the Old Testament, when Gideon killed his enemies and took the “crescent ornaments which were on their camels’ necks” (Judges 8: 20 – 22).

In the Aeneid, Virgil notes horses’ harnesses having similar golden forms. Roman senators often wore silver crescents on their sandals.

These people invoked Diana/Artemis/Tanit to protect them from attack, accident, and illness, which were ever-present threats. It’s interesting that the modern camel charm also includes not one but five “lucky” Evil Eye charms, which are believed to ward off negative influence. The same charm appears on a Turkish airplane.

Northern Europe

Some spirits, like the faeries of Celtic lore, purposely caused trouble because they used to be the lords of the land until humans replaced them.  Then their jealousy drove them to spiteful acts ranging from lost socks to fatal accidents.  Other spirits resided in particular natural features, like the sky or the sea, capable of bringing down death and destruction as well as blessings.  (This belief survives as Mother Nature today.)

And some people had special powers, like the spirits. They could cause bad luck simply by wishing it on someone.

After the rise of Christianity, since God was considered all good, these dark agents were often folded into the mix under the guise of witches and demons who got their power from Satan.

Witches being hanged

Unfortunately, in the Old World and the New World, people with knowledge of healing herbs, often women, were sometimes accused of being witches, their magical powers supposedly gained after becoming followers of the devil. In the 11th century, in Germany, Bishop Burchard warned that some wicked women, after turning to Satan, believed that in the night they rode on certain animals with the pagan moon goddess Diana. This was in addition to tales of secret gatherings that involved orgies, killing babies, and devil worship.

By the end of the 15th century, the common view was that most witches were female since, given their temperament, they were more likely to be turned to the devil than men (!). Between 1484 and 1750, some 60,000 to 200,000 witches were tortured, burned, or hanged in Western Europe. (Estimates vary widely.) Of those, about 80% were women.  Many were accused of bearing “witch marks” or using the Evil Eye curse.  After being tortured, they confessed to a variety of crimes from luring men to have sex with them to causing the death of a relative.

The early settlers in the New World brought these beliefs with them. New England was, in the words of Cotton Mather, “a country extraordinarily alarum’d by the wrath of the Devil.” People lived in daily fear of dark forces at work around them.

At that point, the she-witches were more likely to be shown riding on broomsticks than on demon horses. This led to the image of the “witch” flying on a broomstick that is a common Halloween staple today.

Charms to the rescue

Although the settlers felt evil was a constant threat, they believed it could be repelled by incorporating protective charms into their dwellings.  Since malevolent forces had easiest access through doors, windows, chimneys, and wells, those were the most important portals to protect.

Recent archaeological studies show how common these protective items were in the American colonies.  The John Howard homestead in Kingston, Massachusetts, built in 1675, had various iron objects embedded around the hearth, main entrance, and doors.  These included iron hinges, a horseshoe, and copper pins.

Iron was believed to have supernatural power because it could be shaped and reshaped into different forms. This respect went back to the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, who felt iron objects had the strength to repel and/or confuse evil beings.  So could forked objects, like antlers, which were often mounted over doorways.

Protective charms were sometimes carved or embedded in the doors themselves.  The protective mark in the photo was from Niemala Tenant Farm, now part of a museum in Finland. The 1664 Chadwick House in Maine had a metal coin buried under the threshold and protective circles etched into the door latch.

modern “witch brooms”

According to archaeologist Christopher Fennell, of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne, some people tacked up a broom with many bristles by the door on the theory that the witch would have to count all the bristles before entering. 

Contents of the Essington Witch Bottle

The same confusion principle applied to a glass “witch ball,” which would be shiny (distracting) and incorporate sharp metal pins (repelling).  The Essington Witch Bottle, which was found in Pennsylvania and dated to 1740, was buried near the base of a chimney and contained six brass pins.

A Civil-War era witch bottle containing nails was recently found in a dig near I-64 in Virginia.

Over 200 examples of witch bottles have been excavated in England. Typically they contain six metal pins, sometimes arranged in a star, piercing a piece of felt, and bird bones.

You can buy modern versions on Etsy if you’re in the market.

Daisy Wheel

The six-petalled daisy wheel, or “hexafoil,” is an extremely old symbol, appearing at least as far back as ancient Carthage, where it appeared on a stela honoring the goddess Tanit.  It became popular in the medieval period in western Europe and survived well into the nineteenth century as a protective sign.  After that, it became more custom than belief.

This same six-sided star pattern is typical of the colorful “hex signs” that adorn Pennsylvania Dutch/Deutch (German) barns and some old barns in Switzerland.

The common daisy-wheel figure was often carved into doors, next to windows or fireplaces, or even on smaller wooden pieces like butter churns, in the belief that witches would get caught up in following the pattern around and around and be unable to escape.

Horse Brasses

Decorative metal charms sewn into horse harness became popular in Europe during the Middle Ages and still appear, especially on draft horses used in shows and parades.  Interestingly, the “brasses” these horses carry contain many of the same designs as the protective charms carved by the early settlers in New England: daisy wheels, horseshoes, crescents, and stars. 

Now people hang them on their door or next to their fireplace.  It’s fitting.

Once these charms had a specific purpose: to deflect evil.  Later, they may have been used simply because of tradition or lingering superstition.  Or as a way to show off wealth.

In the sense of deflecting evil, the horseshoe, like the rabbit’s foot, was an anti-bad luck charm.  We throw salt over our left shoulder to blind the devil.  Putting a line of salt by a doorway or a circle of salt around yourself is apparently also useful in repelling vampires.

I once met a British woman who kept a bag of onions nailed up in one corner of her horse barn.  When I asked her why, she struggled to explain. “They collect bad air,” she said, finally. “When they’re full, I replace them.”  Does she believe the onions are keeping out evil or is it just a habit?  Maybe a little of both.  Same with the horseshoe over the door.  Or the lucky charm in your pocket.

When visiting New Orleans, my daughter noticed that several cab drivers had chicken feet on the dashboard.  When she asked about them, one driver laughed and said, “Oh, they ward off parking tickets.”  More likely, they’re an echo of a common Hoodoo protective charm, believed to scratch away negative energy.

Does this mean that every horseshoe or daisy wheel or crescent moon is a protective charm invoking some ancient moon goddess to ward off evil spirits or ill fortune?  Of course not.  Over time, these signs have morphed from anti-bad luck symbols to good luck talismans.  Or just familiar designs.  But that whiff of dangerous history is part of their appeal.

Sources and interesting reading:

Adams, Kathy, “How to Hang a Horseshoe,” Hunker, 4 December 2018,

“Apotropaic magic,” Wikipedia,

Also source for protective sign on Finnish farm

Apotropaic sign, by Ethan Doyle White at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Becker, Marshall J. “An American Witch Bottle: Evidence for the practice of white witchcraft in colonial Pennsylvania”  Archaeology magazine, 2009,

Castelow, Ellen, “The History of Witches in Britain,” Historic UK,

Chicken foot charm, Etsy 

“Chiiirp’s Chicken Feet : Why I Work with them as a Witch,”

Decorated camel photo from “Take a camel ride,” Ikaki, 23 April 2020,

Decorated horseshoe, Rustic Creations from the Ranch, available on Etsy and featured on Pinterest,

Decorated horseshoes

“Diana (mythology),” Wikipedia,   an excellent source

Drawing of witches being hanged, By Unknown author – Published in A New History of Witchcraft by Brooks and Alexander (2007), page 69., Public Domain,

Farrell, Jennifer, “The evolution of the medieval witch – and why she’s usually a woman,” The Conversation, 19 October 2018,

“Fairy,” Wikipedia, https//

Hall, Rachael, “Witch Marks?  These Marks,”  National Trust (England), Daisy Wheel,

Hex signs,

“History of Witches,”, updated 20 October 2020,’Malleus%20Maleficarum’,-Witch%20hysteria%20really&text=Between%20the%20years%201500%20and,Devil%20and%20filled%20with%20lust.

The Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Bible Publishers,1988.

Horse Brass,

Horse Brass Society photo,

“Horseshoe,” Wikipedia,

“Iron in Folklore,” Wikipedia,

“Ironworking,” Regia Anglorum – Anglo-Saxon and Viking Crafts,

Kovach, Kristin and Candice Wade, “Show Some Brass: A Closer Look at Horse Brass,” Horse Nation, 19 January 2016,

Keck, Gayle, “Spells, Charms, Curses, and Concealments,” American Archaeology, Fall 2020, 12-17.

Laskow, Sarah, “Australian Settlers Used Magic Signs to Keep Evil Away,” Atlas Obscura, 24 February 2017,

Lawrence, Robert M. “The Folk-Lore of the Horseshoe.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 9, no. 35, 1896, pp. 288–292. JSTOR, Accessed 25 Sept. 2020.

Illustration of devil and horseshoe  Artwork by George Cruikshank for The True Legend of St. Dunstan and the Devil

“The Legend of the Horseshoe,” The Kentucky Derby Museum, 11 March 2014,

“Magic in Anglo-Saxon England,” Wikipedia,

Marshall, Melissa, “Folk Magic” The Hex Signs of Pennsylvania” Atlas Obscura, 12 November 2013,

“Massachusetts Magic Ways: The Puritan Obsession with Witchcraft,” Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, 1989, https://erenownet.common/fourbritishfolkwaysinamerica1989/23.php

Melina, Remy, “Why are Horseshoes Considered Lucky?” Live Science, 15 March 2011,

“Metallic Lucky Rhinestone Horseshoe Wall Décor in Gold or Silver,” Pinterest;My618E

Pennsylvania Dutch sun and moon hex sign

Photo of horseshoe on wood nailed to door for good luck, Photo taken by Man vyi 26/6/2005

Photo of Phoenician funeral stele from Carthage Moon-Goddess Tanit with sun and moon above her, Bardo National Museum, photo attributed to petrus.agricola on flickr 


Ronca, Debra, “Why are horseshoes considered to be lucky?” How Stuff Works, 18 August 2015.

“Six Ways to Stop a Vampire,” National Geographic Newsroom blog, 22 February 2010,

“Tanit,” Wikipedia,

Trio of Crows hex sign, available on Etsy,

“Verse-by-Verse Bible Commentary, Judges 8:20 and 8:22,” by Adam Clarke, John Giff, George Haydock, and Peter Pett,

“What Are Witches’ Marks?” Historic England 2020,

Witch ball, Etsy

Witch brooms, Etsy

Throwing Coins in a Fountain

A while ago, before the COVID 19 pandemic, I started researching the custom of throwing coins in fountains. Back then, it was a common practice.  Coins covered the bottom of water features in shopping centers, restaurants, even office buildings.  It was so popular that business owners sometimes put up signs asking people not to throw coins in the water, often because there were fish in the basin or the coins clogged the drain.  But people did it anyway.  Why?

Trevi Fountain 

If you look up the origin of the practice, you’ll find many references to the 1954 movie Three Coins in a Fountain, in which three American secretaries on holiday in Rome throw their coins into the famous Trevi Fountain, hoping for love and marriage. The same fountain appears in La Dolce Vita (1960) and Roman Holiday (1953). 

According to the travel brochures, if you stand with your back to the Trevi fountain and toss three coins in, you’ll be guaranteed a return trip to Rome, as well as love and marriage.  The practice became so popular that the fountain used to take in about 3,000 euros ($3284) each day!

 With the current ban on crowds, however, the Trevi Fountain looks very different. One haunting image shows a lone couple kissing in front of the fountain while wearing their protective masks.

I hope it will return to its former popularity when the pandemic is over.  In the meantime, you can watch it in its eerie solitude on the Trevi Fountain webcam listed in the Sources.  

Mixed History

While the custom of tossing coins or other treasure into a fountain or pool did not originate with the Trevi Fountain as some sources claim, it’s a good place to start our investigation.

The fountain was built on the spot where three roads meet and the Via Virgo, one of the ancient Roman aqueducts that brought potable water into the city, ended, presumably in a public pool. The aqueduct was constructed in 19 BC by Agrippa, son-in-law of Emperor Augustus, during the Golden Age of the Roman Empire. Legend has it that Roman soldiers were sent out to find a fresh water source, since water from local pools and the Tiber River was often polluted.  With the help of a local woman, they found a suitable spring 23 miles (21 km) from the city. The aqueduct, one of eleven that supplied the city, was a wonder of engineering, taking advantage of a gradual slope to carry the water to its destination.  While aqueducts had been built by Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians long before the rise of the Roman Empire, the Romans elevated the concept to an art form.  Many sections of Roman aqueduct are still standing.  A few still carry water, over 2000 years later.

But the glory days of Ancient Rome did not last as long as the aqueducts. Although Emperor Constantine stopped the persecution of Christians in 313 AD and made Rome the center of the new Catholic Church, by 500 AD the city had gone into serious decline.

However, during the Renaissance (1300 – 1600 AD), all things classical, especially ancient Greek or Roman, were popular again.  Having a huge inventory of classical art and sculpture, the Catholic Church in Rome sought to increase its prestige by repurposing pieces from the old Roman Empire and creating new ones that imitated the old style.

Pope Urban VIII wanted a showier fountain at Trevi, so in 1629 he commissioned  the famous sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini to design a large, dramatic fountain featuring Greco-Roman mythological figures.  Unfortunately, the  Pope died soon after and the project was abandoned until Pope Clement XII awarded the task to Nicola Salvi, who ended up incorporating some of Bernini’s ideas, particularly the tritons.  After Salvi died, Giuseppe Pannini and four sculptors finished the ambitious project. 

Although it was commissioned by the Catholic Church, it draws its strength from pre-Christian mythological and allegorical figures. Only the placement of Pope Clement’s coat of arms at the very top of the fountain and his name above the center figure claims the entire piece for the Catholic Church, as if symbolically absorbing the power and prestige of the ancient gods.

Oceanus with Pope Clement’s name inscribed above

At the center of the fountain stands Oceanus, the ancient Greek Titan, originally described as a powerful god of the great earth-encircling river of fresh water, source of all lakes, rivers, and springs. Later, he was portrayed as a sea-god or the sea itself. He’s usually pictured with bull or crab-claw horns on his head, a human torso, and a fish or eel tail.  His wife, Tethys, the Nurse and Healer, is usually shown with a snake in her hand, the symbol of wisdom and healing. Interestingly, the female figure in the niche to the right of Oceanus , identified as Health, holds a cup from which a snake drinks. 

In front and below Oceanus are two tritons, a carry-over from Bernini’s designs.  It’s a little confusing, in that tritons were the sons of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, not Oceanus, who was a much earlier deity.  The tritons were mermen, with human torsos and fish tails.  They might travel in a chariot drawn by seahorses, carry a trident, like their father Poseidon (also the Little Mermaid’s father), or blow on conch shells, creating the sound of the sea. In the Trevi sculptures, they lead two hippocamps, sea horses, one wild and one tame, reflecting the moods of the sea. These are presented as horses with fish tails and wings.

What are we meant to see in this mix of mythological figures?  Ancient spirits embodying power, beauty, and abundance. Water as the gift from the ancient gods, now under the auspices of the new order.  The coins in the fountain, then, would make sense as an offering to the gods, perhaps the old gods as well as the new ones.  Homage to the spirit of water itself.

And yet, the fountain, at the height of its popularity as a tourist attraction, seemed less than that.  It was something tourists had to visit in Rome because it’s big and beautiful – and famous.  They threw their coins, made their wishes, and moved on to the next stop.

The Lions Fountain and Flaminio Obelisk

Power symbols the Romans took from earlier eras also included ancient Egyptian sculptures, especially lions, sphinxes, and obelisks.

In Ancient Egypt, lions were considered guardians of the rising sun and symbols of the pharaoh’s power and prestige. Hybrid figures of humans and lions became markers of supernatural beings. Sekmet, daughter of Ra and goddess of both destruction and healing, was pictured with a woman’s body and a lion’s head.  Tefnut, goddess of dew and rain, also had a woman’s body and lion’s head. 

The sphinx, which went through several design changes over the centuries, could combine the body of a lion, the head of a human, and sometimes the wings of a bird.

By 30 BC, the Roman army had taken total control of Egypt, and Roman emperors, impressed by the splendor of the ancient Egyptian cities, often thought of themselves as modern pharaohs.  A stone carving in an Egyptian temple depicts the Roman Emperor Claudius, who reigned from 41 to 54 AD, as the Son of Ra, the Egyptian sun god.

Emperor Diocletian was so enamored of Egyptian sphinxes that he collected eight of them. Rome has the greatest collection of Egyptian obelisks outside of Egypt, including eight monumental spires covered with hieroglyphs.  The tallest, the Lateran Obelisk, is 104’ (32 meters) tall and weighs 340 tons.  Imagine trying to transport that from Egypt to Rome in 30 BC!

The obelisk at the center of the Lions Fountain in the Plazza del Popolo in Rome once belonged to Ramses II, the most powerful pharaoh of Egypt’s New Kingdom. It’s more than 3000 years old. Octavian Augustus, first emperor of the Roman Empire (27 BC) ordered it removed and taken to Circus Maximus, the largest stadium in Ancient Rome and venue for chariot racing and religious festivals.  There, this wonder of ancient Egypt helped reinforce the prestige of the Roman Empire.

Yet, over time, the Egyptian artifacts displayed in Rome lost their appeal.  By the Middle Ages, many were considered too pagan to be displayed, especially the obelisks.  The Lateran obelisk was thought to bring bad luck, so it was toppled and buried.  The Flaminio obelisk was broken and lost, only re-discovered in 1589.

On the orders of Pope Sixtus V, it was patched together and erected as the centerpiece of a fountain on Popolo Square, the start of the Via Flaminia, an important road traveled by merchants and pilgrims entering Rome.  Four Egyptian lions surrounded the obelisk. While Guiseppe Valadier, the designer of the piazza, originally planned a place of trees and gardens as well as the obelisk, the site remained treeless.  For a while, it was used as a place of public executions, then later a parking area. It is currently a public space, closed to cars, but it seems oddly empty. 

In 1839, Pope Gregory XVI had the original lion statues moved to the Vatican and copies installed in their place.  The four copies were fitted with pipes so they could spout water (and occasionally wine) into stone bowls. 

While some people toss coins into the bowls, the fountain is far less popular than Trevi.  Few visitors seem awed by the antiquity of the obelisk and the lions. There’s little of the grandeur of the old empires left in the stolen, patched obelisk and refitted lions.

Interestingly, though, thanks to the Roman fascination with Egyptian lions, lions have become connected with fountains in our mind.  Today it doesn’t seem unusual at all to find lions spouting into basins.  In fact, you can probably find an inexpensive lionhead fountain at your local home improvement store.

Perhaps the real appeal of these Roman fountains, which we didn’t notice before, wasn’t “borrowed” antiquities.  It was simply providing a beautiful, perhaps exotic public space where people could meet and mingle, maybe make a wish or fall in love, listen to music, or argue, or dance. It made a great backdrop to the ordinary dramas of life.  In today’s world, that seems like a gift.

Wishing Wells, Sacred Springs, and Offerings

While some sources claim that all fountains in which visitors toss coins were inspired by the Trevi legend, the act of throwing offerings into the water is actually far older and more universal.  In fact, all over the world, people have given valuables to bodies of water. 


Cenote near Chichen Itza, Mexico

For the Mesoamericans, it meant throwing their most precious possessions, including jewelry, ceramics, and even sacrificed humans into rivers or cenotes (sink holes holding water) as offerings to the rain god.  Water was necessary for life.  When prolonged droughts hit, the people increased their offerings to the rain gods. It was a deadly serious business.

If you visit the Actun Tunichil Muknal wet cave in Belize, (See earlier post Trying to Buy Time) you’ll see hundreds of ceramic offerings and the skeletons of fourteen people the Maya sacrificed to Chaac, the rain god, during a period of prolonged drought.  A cache of similar and contemporary offerings to Chaac was discovered in the Chichen Itza complex, in Mexico.


Many rivers, lakes, and springs were known for their magical properties.  Villagers threw their treasures into a sacred lake near Toulouse to stop a plague. Victorious Germanic soldiers dropped their enemies’ swords and armor into special pools to give thanks for their win.

Odin approaching Mimir’s Well

In Nordic myths, Mimir’s Well was considered the Source of Wisdom.  In order to ask for this knowledge, the pilgrim would have to sacrifice something of great importance.  For Odin, it was his right eye.

Certain springs and wells developed a reputation for health benefits, drawing people from a wide area to drink the water and leave offerings.  This trend continues today with religious sites like the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in France.


Mami Wata (Mother Water) is an African water spirit with a woman’s torso and the tail of a fish or serpent.  She often has a serpent wrapped around her.  In many ways, she is a female version of Oceanus. In parts of West, Central, and South Africa, her followers engage in intense dancing that leads to a trance state.  They also leave gifts, including jewelry, incense, alcohol, and food, in the hopes that these gifts will ensure healing, fertility, and protection from harm, especially in the water.

These are only a few examples.  There are many more.

Not many people today believe in water spirits and their powers.  If they matter at all, it’s often as curiosities from an earlier age. Throwing a coin in a fountain or a pool today is payment for a wish we want granted, not recognition of the power and importance of water and the spirits that control it.  And the wishing well is often merely a constantly circulating fountain in a shopping center. Still, it’s an interesting echo.

Sources and Interesting Reading:

“Abundantia, Roman Goddess of Abundance,”

Aqueduct photo,, Illis photo,

“Capitoline Egyptian Lion Fountains,” A Tourist in Rome,

“Children’s skulls encircled Bronze Age villages to ward off flooding,” Science Tech blog,

“Hippocamps (Hippokampoi) – Fish-tailed Horses of Greek Mythology,”

“History of Rome,” Rome Info,

Katz, Brigit, “Rome’s Mayor Says Coins Tossed Into Trevi Fountain Will Still Go to Poor,” Smithsonian Magazine, 15 January 2019,

Krause, Rhonda, “Trevi Fountain – Everything you’ve wanted to know,” Travel? Yes Please!

“Lady of the Lake,”,

Lion fountain Rome copyright 1996

Lion sculpture fountain in Italy, photo,

“Lions Fountain and Flaminio Obelisk in Piazza de Popolo, Rome”

Leafloor, Liz. “Ring of Skulls: Ancient and Modern Sacrifices to the Water Gods,” Ancient Origins, 17 July 2014,

“List of Water Deities,” Wikipedia,

“Mami Wata,” Wikipedia,

Obelisk Flaminio  by User Maus-Trauden on de.wikipedia – Originally from de.wikipedia; Public Domain,

“Oceanus (Okeanos) Greek Titan God of the Ocean, Stream and Fresh Water,”

Panorama of Trevi Fountain photo By Livioandronico2013 – CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo of coins in Trevi Fountain by Getty Images/ Stefano Montesi-Corbis/Contributor, as shown in the Smithsonian article by Brigit Katz

Photo of Trevi Fountain during lockdown by Baris Seckins, from “Italy Locked Down – in Pictures,” Business News, CNBC

Photo of couple kissing while masked, by Yara Nardi for Reuters, from “Coronavirus: Number of Covid-19 cases in Italy soars to over 21,000”, 14 March 2020,

“Roman Aqueduct,” Wikipedia,

Saint Kenye’s Holy Well, photo by Graham Clutton, CC BY-SA 2.0,

“Tefnut,” Wikipedia,

Three Coins in a Fountain, 1954 movie distributed by 20th Century Fox

“Trevi Fountain (Fontana de Trevi): A View on Cities: Sites and Attractions of the World’s Greatest Cities”

“Trevi Fountain: Why and how you toss your coin,” 2020, Grand European Travel, Lake Oswego, Oregon

 “Trevi Fountain,” Wikipedia,

Trevi Fountain webcam,

“Triton (mythology)” Wikipedia,

Upton, Emily, “Why We Throw Coins,” Today I Found Out: Feed Your Brain, 10 March 2014,[hp/2014/03/throw-coins-fountains/

“The Water Goddess,”,

“Where do the Coins in the Trevi Fountain Go?” Fodors,

“Wishing Well,” Wikipedia,

“Why do we throw coins into Fountains?” Golden Eagle Coins, 14 November 2014,

Wogan, Peter, “Why Do We Throw Coins in Fountains?” Mind and Body, Greater Good,

Stealing Symbols

On my way across the parking lot at my local supermarket, I noticed a truck with an unusual tailgate decoration and window decal.

The window decal contains the words “Protected by Thor” and the tailgate image seems to be Thor’s hammer. However, the most popular use of Thor’s hammer these days is in the Avengers and Thor movies.  Being a fan, I know what Thor’s hammer looks like in those movies: 

The image on the left is from Thor: The Dark World, the one on the right from Thor: Ragnarok, just before Hela destroys the hammer. 

Here is a close-up of the image on the hammer from the movies:

While the borders seem to be decorative squiggles, the image engraved on the middle front is a triquetra – three intertwined elements.  Though Christians use it to refer to the Holy Trinity, its use predates Christianity by thousands of years.  It appears in passage tombs in Ireland, where it is often interpreted as the combination of life, death, and rebirth.

It’s been used repeatedly in popular culture.  It appeared on a Led Zeppelin album, in the TV show “Charmed,” and in the TV series “The Walking Dead.”

However, the symbol on the truck doesn’t seem to be referencing those TV shows or the Marvel movies. 

Neo-Pagan Symbol

The simplified version of this symbol is currently used by Asatru believers and Neo-Odinists, as well as other contemporary pagan/heathen groups. Many of these people believe in the old Norse gods, including Odin/Woden and Thor.  It’s even accepted now as a religious affiliation symbol that can be placed on the tombstone of a deceased member of the US military, like the Christian cross, the Star of David, or the Crescent Moon and Star.  For modern Pagans, it’s a public badge of belief.  Presumably, you could put this on your car in the same way Christians might put a fish symbol.

Again, though, it’s not exactly the image on the truck.  And the truck image is not exactly like the amulets featuring Thor’s hammer found in ancient burial sites. Most of those have an animal face in the top section and a relatively simple swirl pattern below. 

The gold-plated silver Mjolnir pendant now housed in the Swedish Museum of National Antiquities is more complex in its decoration, but it still has the eyes and nose of a face at the top and more complex designs in the middle and bottom.

The image on the truck

The image on the truck matches a badge sold on a website offering a variety of  biker symbols, movie symbols, and other patches, all featuring strong, male images.   Some examples seem like fan wear – a John Wick badge, a Tyrell Replicants owl badge, (a reference to the film Bladerunner), a crew patch from The Martian, and a royal crest patch from the Legend of Zelda game.  Other patches have a darker side – a Confederate flag, a Hydra symbol from Captain America, lots of skulls, serpents, and pro-gun images, including a take-off on the North Face logo with the words “Aim for the Face,” and right-wing statements like ”Build That Wall” and the CNN logo with the words “Fake News.”

 The few that reference women have a rape context, like “Duct tape: turning ‘No, no, no’ into ‘Mmm, Mmm, Mmm.’”

Distrust is a common theme.  One patch features the Masonic Eye of Providence familiar from the dollar bill, but with “Trust No One” written under it.

Another has a heart shape with the words “All You Need Is Hate” inside it.

Clearly, there’s a range of opinions here.  That same mix muddies the meaning of the symbols.  Is “Protected by Thor” on the back of a truck a statement of a neo-pagan religion such as Asatru – just as “God is my co-pilot” might be for others – or is it a hate symbol?  Today, it’s hard to tell.  The Anti-Defamation League lists Thor’s Hammer as a symbol currently used by both hate groups and legitimate neo-Norse religious groups.  They note that white supremacists often include other racist designs into Thor’s hammer, such as a swastika (which was an ancient symbol originating in India and used in many cultures worldwide before Hitler got hold of it).

Celtic and Norse 

The symbol on the truck combines a Norse symbol with Celtic designs, a curious mix.  The Celts originated in the Middle East as early as 10,000 years ago, then moved north and west, eventually reaching Eastern and Western Europe.  The strongest remaining Celtic areas are shown in dark green on the map below.

A DNA study of a 5,200 year-old skeleton in Northern Ireland told an interesting story.  She had black hair and brown eyes. Some of her ancestors came from what is today Syria and Iraq. Others came from what is now Basque Country in northern Spain.

Scandinavian settlement was delayed because glaciers covered the land during the Ice Age.  When the ice retreated, people moved in.  According to DNA studies on seven individuals living between 9,500 and 6,000 years ago, they came from two separate groups.  The people from the south had blue eyes and dark skin.  The people from the northeast had pale skin and a range of eye color.  Later migrations into the area added new genetic material.

“The purity of the blood”

White Supremacist and Neo-Nazi groups have taken over many Celtic and Nordic symbols, including the Celtic sun (left), the valknut, various Icelandic runes, and Odin’s ravens, under the assumption that these are “White” cultures and therefore suitably “pure.”

But to be human is to be a hybrid, from the beginning.  All people of Western European descent carry some Neanderthal DNA.  Those of Eastern European descent carry either Neanderthal or Denisovan DNA – or both.  A skeleton found in Russia in 2012 revealed a startling ancestry: one parent was Neanderthal and the other Denisovan with some Neanderthal. The Neanderthal genes resembled those found in a skeleton in Eastern Europe, which suggests multiple migrations between Europe and Siberia. 

Over the centuries, waves of immigrants and conquerors swept through Europe, each one bringing its own culture and language.  Over time, the warriors settled down with the local girls, and the cultures blended. 

An interesting example of that blending is a bone sculpture of an Egyptian sphinx with a face carved of amber from the Baltic, discovered in the 500 BC burial of a Celtic chieftain in what is now Germany (pictured).

We use that heritage every day.  In English, four of our days of the week are of Norse origin (Tiu’s Day, Woden’s Day, Thor’s Day, Freya’s Day) but three are English translations of Latin names (Day of the Sun and Day of the Moon, Saturn’s Day). Our month names come from Roman gods and emperors (Juno, Janus, Mars, Julius, Augustus,) or Latin numbers (Septem, Octo, Novem, Decem) plus two Greek goddesses, Maia and Aphrodite.  It seems to work pretty well.

But certain groups deny that heritage, history, and science.  And they pervert ancient symbols to their own ends.

Is the design on the truck a hate symbol?  Probably.  But other groups are actively fighting back against the attempt to coopt these symbols.  Heathens United Against Racism joined over a hundred other groups taking a stand against the theft of Nordic and Celtic symbols.  In one standoff, White Supremacists bearing the Odin’s Raven flag (right) faced far greater numbers of counter protesters also carrying Odin’s Raven flags.  Perhaps that’s the best answer. 

Jaan Calderon, a Norwegian American and director of the Ravens of Odin Reenactment group, proudly wears a Thor’s Hammer amulet.  He was shocked to see it used by “skinheads, racists, and Nazis to propagate their racist message” in Charlottesville, but he adds, “Earthly hate groups will come and go, but Thor and his gang will live on, keeping the evil ones at bay.”

Let’s hope so.

Sources and interesting reading:

“Available Emblems of Belief for Placement on Government Headstones and Markers,” National Cemetery Administration,  U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs,

Apel, Jan, Lund University, “Ancient DNA sheds light on the mysterious origins of the first Scandinavians,” 10 January 2018, The Conversation,

Badges from Titan One,

Bray, Dan, “Hammer in the North: Mjolnir in Medieval Scandinavia,” Sydney Studies in Religion, Sydney University, 1997,

“Calendar Origins – Names of Days,”

“Calendar Origins – Names of Months,”

Calloway, Ewen, “Europe’s first humans: what scientists do and don’t know: DNA studies are uprooting our understand of prehistoric times,” Nature, 22 June 2015,

Claddagh Design, “The Meaning of Celtic Knots,” History, Ireland, 20 June 2019,

Drawing of gilded Thor’s Hammer amulet,

Geraghty, Jim, “What Do You Do When Hate Groups Decide to Adopt One of Your Symbols?” National Review, 21 August 2017,

“Hate on Display: Hate Symbols Database,” Anti-Defamation League, General Hate Symbols, Hate Group Symbols/Logos, Neo-Nazi Symbols, Ku Klux Klan Symbols,[146]=146&cat_id148=148&cat_id[150]=150&cat_id[151]=151&cat_id[0]=1467page=1

McKeown, Marie, “Blood of the Irish: What DNA Tells Us Abut the Ancestry of People in Ireland,” Owlcation, 19 August 2018, Owlcation,

“Mjolnir,” Wikipedia,

“Odinism and Asatru: Basic Facts,”,

Photo of carved sphinx, one of two found in a Celtic chieftain’s burial site in Germany, from “Fantastic Beasts: The Sphinx and other hybrid creatures in Iron Age European Art,” blog post,

Radford, Tim. “Irish DNA originated in Middle East and Eastern Europe,” The Guardian, 28 December 2015,

Samuel, Sigal, “What To Do When Racists Try To Hijack Your Religion: White supremacists are coopting Norse heathen symbols.  Should the heathens ignore them? Protest them? Create a new theology?” The Atlantic, 2 November 2017,

Semley, John, “Thor: Ragnarok’ is a hammer in the face to the alt-right” 4 November 2017,

“The Triquetra or The Trinity Knot – Meaning, Appearances And History,” Irish Around the World, 22 August 2018,

“Thor’s Hammer,” ADL Hate on Display: Hate Symbols Database, ADL,

“Valknut,” Wikipedia,

 “Viking symbols ‘stolen’ by racists,” The Norwegian American, 2 November 2017,

Vogel, Gretchen, “This ancient bone belonged to a child of two extinct human species,” Science magazine, 22 August 2018,

Shell Beads and Red Ochre

In 2004, Christopher Henshilwood and Francesco d’Errico’s team shocked the archaeological world with their latest finds from Blombos Cave in South Africa. These included 41 small shell beads, each pierced in the same spot and rubbed with red ochre. The sea snails, Nassarius kraussianus, discovered clustered in groups of the same size and shade, proved to be over 75,000 years old.  Wear patterns around the holes suggest they had been strung on cordage or sinew (pictured).

This assemblage is often referred to as a necklace although we don’t know how it was worn or used.  It might have been worn around the neck, the wrist, the waist, or included in a headdress or other item of clothing.  It could have indicated social status or spiritual power, celebrated a particular event, or been a funerary offering.  Or dozens of other possibilities.

Around the world, shells have been used as a form of wealth.  Cowries, especially, became so closely associated with wealth that the original Chinese symbol for money was a pictograph of a cowrie shell.

In certain parts of Africa, cowries are prized as charms, said to promise sexual pleasure, fecundity, and good luck.  For the Mende people of West Africa, the cowries symbolize womanhood, fertility, and wealth.  On the Fiji Islands, the golden cowrie shell was drilled and worn on a string around the neck to mark high rank. The shells can have spiritual significance as well, such as representing Lakshmi, Hindu goddess of wealth, fertility, power, and beauty. 

Photos: top row: ancient pierced shells, shell divination board, Lakshmi shells, shell neclaces; bottom row: Ahsta chama board with cowrie dice, shells in trade, beading with shells, and shell bead strings

Interestingly, snail shells were also widely used in gaming.  A group or string of shells would be thrown, like dice, with the open (“female”) sides counting toward the score. This may help explain the personification of luck as female (“Lady Luck”).

Like dice, the shells could also be used for divination.  A string of shells would be thrown and a “reader” would interpret the resulting combination of shells landing up or down, much like someone reading Tarot cards or tea leaves.

It’s impossible to know whether the people who first pierced these shells in Blombos Cave saw them in these ways, but the examples introduce some common themes to consider. 

Red Ochre

A block of red ochre was found with the beads in Blombos Cave.  Red ochre, a reddish mineral containing iron oxide, occurs in any environment where iron minerals have pooled and solidified.  If you handle it, it stains your hands and clothes. If you have “hard” water, the iron turns your bathtub orange.

The Engraved Block

More than 8,000 pieces of red ochre were recovered from Blombos Cave’s Middle Stone Age levels.  Many show use-wear marks, but the block discovered with the beads proved to be much more interesting because it was purposely engraved.  The marks include three horizontal lines, one near the top, one near the bottom, and one in the middle.  Across those lines are multiple diagonal lines that form a diamond pattern.  Comparable designs were found on an engraved bone fragment.  These, plus others examples from the region and the engraved ostrich eggshells from Diepkloof, are generally recognized as some of the earliest examples of intentional abstract design, a mark of modern human behavior.

Some years after the shell finds, Henshilwood’s team discovered a red ochre “tool kit” for processing red dye in the same cave.  It included a shell mixing bowl, remains of a mixture of red ochre clay, fat, silica, and some liquid, plus a stirring stick.  The kit is over 100,000 years old. 

Red ochre had many uses in the ancient and modern world, including sunblock, insect repellent, leather treatment, mastic, body odor masker (particularly useful for hunters), hair treatment, teeth cleaner, and body paint.  The latter is still common in many parts of the world, from war paint to markings used in ritual celebrations.  In some cases it has specific meanings, like sexual maturity or clan allegiance. The photo shows a Himba woman with traditional red ochre body and hair decoration. In your local drugstore, you can find dozens of products using red ochre. Iron oxide compounds are one of the leading ingredients in make-up “blusher.” 

Red ochre is associated with intensity: life, death, blood, power, and sexuality.  It’s often found in ancient grave sites, laid down under the body and/or sprinkled on top.   Mixed with a binder such as blood, urine, or egg, it could be daubed onto walls with fingers or sticks,  painted on hands to make prints on walls, brushed onto hides, or blown over an outstretched hand to make a negative handprint.  These are found all over the world.

“Sudden Advancement”

The Blombos shells and ochre finds were shocking because they challenged the Sudden Advancement theory of human history. After 1858, when Darwin published his theories about how humans evolved from the great apes by a process of natural selection, people simplified his work into a “survival of the fittest” model, which assumes that the current model is the best simply because it has outlasted its rivals. Later scholars amended this theory to something closer to Survival of the Luckiest, but the earlier version proved too appealing to certain groups to yield to change.

Western academics applied this model to recent human history as well, maintaining that while Homo sapiens arose in Africa about 200,000 years ago, culturally modern humans appeared only about 40,000 years ago, in Europe.  Their arrival coincided with a period of accelerated advancement in social and cognitive behavior.  That explained the great discoveries in Europe, the vulture bone flute (35,000 years old, Germany), the lion-headed figurine (40,000 years old, Germany), and the fabulous cave paintings of Chauvet (30,000 years ago, France) and Altamira (35,000 years ago, Spain).  (All  dates are simplifications of a whole range.)  These humans were seen as the end product of a long series of advancements in the Darwinian sense.  They stood at the front of the line in the March of Progress chart (shown).  Implied is a linear sequence, showing the figure in front, the White male, as the culmination of advancement that began with the distant ancestors in Africa.

Except that new finds have challenged that progression. We now know that the oldest examples of cave paintings featuring animal forms are in Indonesia, not Europe, and the oldest known graphic engraving was a zigzag pattern carved on a shell found in Java, also part of Indonesia, and dating to 500,000 years ago.

The oldest cave paintings in Europe may be the work of Neanderthals, not Homo sapiens.  Or perhaps the meeting of the two lines spurred competition and creativity on both sides.

Neanderthals were described as stupid and inferior in the Sudden Advancement theory, but that’s proving to be increasingly untrue.  The famous eagle-talon “necklace” discovered in Krapina, Croatia, is 130,000 years old, the work of the Neanderthals whose remains were found in the same level of the rock shelter.  Each talon was pierced and smoothed, and bits of cordage remain on one, suggesting they were strung together. Red and yellow minerals were identified on the fiber and one of the talons. According to Davorka Radovcic and other authors of the PLOS paper on the talons, “These remains clearly show that the Krapina Neandertals made jewelry well before the appearance of modern humans in Europe, extending ornament production and symbolic activity early into the European Mousterian period.” (The Mousterian or Middle Paleolithic Era was from 160,000 to 40,000 before the present.)

While it was once thought that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals could not interbreed, we now know that they could and did, multiple times, and the offspring were at least sometimes viable.  That’s why Neanderthals contributed between 1% and 4% of our genome.  Curiously, Neanderthals also mated with Denisovans in East Asia, and these hybrids mated with Homo sapiens.  There seem to be other, less well-defined populations also involved in the mix.

The Sudden Advancement/March of Progress model, now sagging under the weight of new evidence, isn’t just inaccurate.  It perpetuates a certain brand of toxic regionalism and White supremacy. 

The Mystery

Several years after the original Blombos Cave discoveries, researchers found a closely related species of shells: Nassarius gibbosulus, each one pierced and covered with red ochre, dated to 100,000 years old.  But these were in what is now Skhul, Israel, thousands of miles from the Blombos site.

In Oued Djebbana, a site in Algeria dating to at least 100,000 years ago, researchers found shells of the same sea snail, Nassarius gibbosulus, each one pierced through the back.  The site is 190 kilometers (118 miles) from the sea, so the shells had to be collected and transported to the site, suggesting they had great value.  Francesco d’Errico, of Blombos fame, studied them.  He found that, like the shells at Blombos, these tiny sea snails were carefully pierced in the same place. D’Errico found them to be a physical demonstration of the makers’ sophisticated language, another marker of modern human behavior.  “Personal ornaments are a powerful tool of communication,” D’Errico said.  “They can indicate social or marital status, for example.  But you need to have a complex system of language behind that.  To me [these beads] are very powerful archaeological evidence that these people were able to speak like us.” (South Africa and Algeria shown on map, right)

Why did folks at these three sites happen to process these shells in this particular way – at approximately the same time in the distant past?  It’s possible that it’s simply coincidence: that the three groups valued and processed these tiny shells in the exact same way in such far-flung locales. But it seems unlikely.

If it isn’t coincidence, it indicates either a vast trade network that ranged from the bottom of Africa to the Mediterranean, at least 4,200 miles (6890 kilometers), a formidable distance – or exposure to the practice by an even earlier group. There is evidence that ancient groups in East Africa had, by 320,000 years ago, begun trading with others some distance away, using color pigments like manganese and ochre, and manufacturing more sophisticated tools, including obsidian blades sourced from sites up to 50 miles away.  However, there’s no clear evidence that this network extended as far as the southern tip of Africa or to the Mediterranean Sea.

That leaves the possibility of a yet-undiscovered network or the idea that an older group passed along the practice.  If migration of groups was a gradual process rather than a one-time event, it makes sense that others, like Neanderthals, would have passed through these sites in northern Africa.

Recent discoveries at the Maastricht-Belvedere site in The Netherlands push Neanderthal use of red ochre back to at least 200,000 years ago.  Maybe Neanderthals gave Homo sapiens the idea.

It’s an interesting possibility. They had a long history, from about 400,000 years ago to about 40,000 years ago. They spread from Africa into Europe and East Asia.  Along the way, they developed ways to survive and thrive in various environments. They controlled fire, made clothing and cordage, lived in shelters, had a range of stone knapping techniques, painted marks on cave walls, and made symbolic/ornamental objects, such as the eagle talon necklace.  They buried their dead, sometimes with red ochre and flowers. We have evidence of Neanderthals using boats to cross the Mediterranean Sea more than 100,000 years ago to Crete and several islands off the coast of Greece. We know they valued certain items that were hard to procure and used red ochre extensively. 

The Work of Even Older Groups

But even if Neanderthals brought the idea of red ochre and shells to other groups on the shores of the Mediterranean, the practice probably didn’t begin with them either. It appears that each group picked up ideas from their predecessors, then embellished them.  If that’s true, the group putting red ochre dye on shells in Blombos Cave and the groups doing the same thing on far-flung sites on the Mediterranean coast had already been exposed to the practice for generations. That’s not to say it meant exactly the same thing to all three groups, but it was very probably familiar.

It’s seems clear that we are hybrids who learned from those who came before us and then put our own spin on it.  We are the Shell Beads and Red Ochre People, with a long, complicated, and fascinating history.

Sources and interesting reading:

Bar-Yosef Mayer, Daniella, et al, “Shells and Ochre in Middle Paleolithic Qafzeh Cave, Israel: Indications for modern behavior” Journal of Human Evolution, 56 (2009) 307-314, available at Science Direct

“Blombos Cave,” Wikipedia,

CNRS. “Oldest pigment factory dates back 100,000 years,” Science Daily, 19 October 2011,

“Cowrie-shell divination,” Wikipedia,

D’Errico and others, “Early evidence of San material culture represented by organic artifact from Border Cave, South Africa,” PNAS, 14 August 2014, 109 (33): 13214-13218,

Duarte, Carlos, “Red ochre and shells: clues to human evolution,” Trends in Ecology & Evolution, October 2014,

Geggel, Laura, “Ochre: The World’s First Red Paint,” Live Science, 20 November 2018,

Glausiusz, “Were Neanderthals More Than Cousins to Homo Sapiens?” Sapiens, 29 January 2020,

Gosline, Anna, “Ancient beads imply culture older than we thought,” New Scientist, 22 June 2006,

Hodgskiss, Tammy and Lyn Wadley, “How people used ochre at Rose Cottage Cave, South Africa: Sixty thousand years of evidence from the Middle Stone Age,”PLoS One, 26 April 2017,

Hublin, Jean-Jacques, and others, “New fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco and the pan-African origin of Homo sapiens,” Nature, 2017; 546 (7657):289

“Hunting for Ochre,” Yenbena Marrinbidja, YouTube,

Kimball, Kathleen, “Red-handed: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Prehistoric Red Ochre Handprints,” World History Connected, Vol 9, No. 2,

Lesso, Rosie,  “Red Ochre: The Color of Survival,” The Thread (blog), 28 April 2020,

Livni, Ephrat, “The world’s oldest visual tale was just dated – and it already faces oblivion,” Quartz, 14 December 2019,

“Making Red Ochre Stain,” YouTube,

Marshall, Michael, “Neanderthals were ancient mariners,” New Scientist, 29 February 2012,

Muir, Hazel, “Ancient shell jewelry hints at language,” New Scientist, 16 April 2004,

“Nassarius gibbosulus,” Wikipedia,

“Ochre and the Indigenous Culture” Australia,

O’Grady, Cathleen, “Humans aren’t so special after all: The fuzzy evolutionary boundaries of Homo sapiens,” Ars Technica, 9 September 2015,

“Orisha,” Wikipedia,

Photo of carved ochre blocks and designs from South Africa:

Kristian Tylén, Riccardo Fusaroli, Sergio Rojo, Katrin Heimann, Nicolas Fay, Niels N. Johannsen, Felix Riede, Marlize Lombard, “The evolution of early symbolic behavior in Homo sapiens” PNAS, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Mar 2020, 117 (9) 4578-4584; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1910880117,

Radovcic, Davorka, and others, “Evidence for Neandertal Jewelry: Modified White-Tailed Eagle Claws at Krapina,” PLOS, 11 March 2015,

Roebroeks, Wil and others, “Use of red ochre by early Neandertals,” PNAS, 7 February 2012,

Sarchet, Penny, “Red Lady cave burial reveals Stone Age secrets,” New Scientist, 18 March 2015,

Smithsonian. “Scientists discover evidence of early human innovation, pushing back evolutionary timeline: Evidence of innovation dates to a period when humans faced an unpredictable and uncertain environment, according to three new studies.” Science Daily, 15 Marcy 2018,

Sykes, Rebecca Wragg, KINDRED: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art.  London: Bloomsburg Signa: 2020

“Shell  Beads from South African Cave Show Modern Human Behavior 75,000 Years Ago, National Science Foundation New Release 04-048,

Nassarius shells photos: Christopher Henshilwood and Francesco d’Errico

Tarlach, Genna, “What the Ancient Pigment Ochre Tells Us About the Human Mind,” Discover, 15 March 2018,

Whitehouse, David, “Cave colours reveal mental leap,” BBC News, 11 December 2003.

 Wreschner, Ernst, and others, “Red Ochre and Human Evolution: A Case for Discussion {and Comments and Reply] Current Anthropology, The University of Chicago Press, Vol. 21, No. 5

The Peace Dove

One of the familiar images of the winter holidays is the peace dove.  Take this example, from the UNICEF catalog – a festive image of a plump red dove holding an olive branch, painted on a ceramic mug by Mexican artist Eufrosia Pantaleon.  On the opposite side of the mug is the word “Peace.” It’s both cheery and hopeful.  I liked it so much I ordered one.  On the Christmas card featuring the same image, the words “Peace on Earth” appear under the dove.  Inside, it reads, “Let the world welcome this season of peace.”

In the same catalog, another dove image shows up, but this one is green, has no olive branch, and sits atop a tree filled with “peace” in other languages, a map of the world, a tree symbol, and circle designs.  The message inside is, “A season of goodness and peace to you.”  

A different card features yet another dove  –  a red, green and white one surrounded by “peace” in different languages. 

A “herald of peace” card presents a light blue dove on a white background with gold star accents.  The sentiment inside the card is “Peace to you and to our world.”

Finally, a folk art dove with an olive branch decorates a tree ornament with the message “Peace – in every heart, to every home, for all the world.”

Clearly, the dove, usually presented in profile, facing to the right, with or without the olive branch, is associated with peace.  Why?

Perhaps the question should really be broken into two:

Why is the olive branch a symbol of peace?

Why is the dove a symbol of peace?

The Olive Tree

Olive tree of Vouves

Let’s start with the olive branch, which might be the older part of the image.  Fossilized remains of olive trees indicate the trees were growing around the Mediterranean basin as early as 30,000 years ago. (Some sources offer a date twice that old.) It probably originated in what is now Turkey, Iran, and Syria and spread with traders. It’s one of the oldest known cultivated trees in the world.

The olive tree can live 300 – 600 years, though a few are said to be 3,000 years old.  Many people felt its longevity and fecundity were signs of spiritual power. An ancient Egyptian panel now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows the pharaoh Akhenaton offering the sun god an olive branch (right).  The ancient Greeks held the olive tree in such high esteem that the punishment for felling one was execution.  Through Greek and Phoenician traders, olive oil and the planting of olive trees spread to settlements around the Mediterranean.

According to Greek legends, the goddess Athena planted the first olive tree. (Silver coin featuring Athena, an owl, and an olive branch, right)  So brides wore olive wreaths in her honor. 

Yet Mars, the god of war, also had a role. In his personification as the god of peace, known as Mars Pacifier, he carried an olive branch, which he extended to the foe.  If accepted, it was a sign of compromise/victory that brought the end of war.  In other words, peace.  But peace built on power.  That balance of threat of war and promise of peace was the heart of the Pax Romana, which lasted over two hundred years.  The coin pictured, with the words “Pax Augusti,” shows the figure holding up an olive branch, indicating the desire to end conflict.  But everyone knew there was a sword in his other hand, even if it wasn’t visible. 

The same balance shows up in the great seal of the United States, with the eagle holding a handful of arrows on one side and an olive branch on the other.  The eagle is looking toward the olive branch, but the arrows are still there.

The Dove

The first explanation many sources provide for the white dove as a peace symbol is that the dove is cute and sweet and therefore admirable. Turtledoves are famous as lovebirds, often pairing for life.  They show up in the “Twelve Days of Christmas” gift list as the second day’s offering. 

But actually doves can be as aggressive as other birds, they’re scientifically equivalent to pigeons (The rock dove is a pigeon.), and they’re not naturally white.  The white ones are specially bred as pets and as symbols of purity that can be released at weddings and other ceremonies. 

So – why doves?.  Aren’t loons cute too – especially the babies?  And what about bluebirds – or robins?  Don’t they need some love?

The most common reason for the dove as a peace symbol is the bible story about Noah and the ark (Genesis 8:11).  After floating on the waters for over a year, Noah sent out a dove and it came back with an olive leaf, signaling land nearby.  Actually, according to the story, Noah sent out a raven first, but it only flew back and forth.  Many ancient seafarers kept captive birds to release when out of sight of land.  A land-roosting bird would head for land, and the sailors could follow it.  If it came back, it meant the bird couldn’t find land.  The dove, when released, also could not find land, so it returned to the ark.  A week later, Noah released the dove again. (Apparently the raven was not given a second chance.) This time the dove returned with an olive leaf in its beak.  A week later, Noah tried again, and the bird never returned, a sign that land was available.  It’s not clear how the olive leaf survived the flood.

 (It’s interesting that in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim, the Mesopotamian equivalent of Noah in the flood story, releases a dove and a raven to find land, but in this case, it’s the dove that just circles and returns.  The raven, when sent out, does not return, indicating it found land.  The version in the Quran does not mention either dove or raven.)

In the bible story, when God told Noah to leave the ark and release the captive animals, Noah kept some of the “clean” birds to sacrifice to God.  One of the most common sacrificial animals for the ancient Jews was the dove, so it’s reasonable to assume that a dove was one of those offered to God.

God found the sacrifice pleasing and promised Noah that he would never again destroy all living creatures through flood, but the symbol of that promise was the rainbow – not the dove.

So that doesn’t really explain the dove’s significance as a peace symbol.  More likely, the dove’s connection to peace comes from its use as a sacrificial animal.  In giving its life, it helped to restore God’s blessing. 

The Dove representing the Holy Spirit

The other answer to why the white dove is a symbol of peace is that it represents the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Christian Holy Trinity, along with the God the Father and God the Son, Jesus. It’s interesting that if you Google the dove as the symbol of the Holy Spirit, you will find many of the same images of the dove as you’d find if you searched for the symbol of peace.  A few include the dove head down (pictured), or with wings spread, or with a halo around the head, but many look exactly the same.  Some even hold the olive branch.

As it turns out, the dove was a common Christian symbol, especially during the early years, along with the fish, the Chi-Ro, the anchor, the phoenix, the peacock, and the grape vine.  It wasn’t until the 5th century AD that the cross became the most popular symbol for Christians.

Several carvings of doves attributed to early Christians have been found in the Roman catacombs.  One has the word “peace” near it.  However, it’s not clear whether these images referred to the Holy Spirit, to personal or general peace, to victory over death, or to martyrs interred there as sacrifices (doves), or if they had a completely different personal or communal meaning.  Before the advent of Christianity, Roman catacombs were known as columbaria, from the Latin word columba (dove/pigeon).  The little compartments used to store funerary remains were similar to housing designed for captive birds.  And doves, especially white doves, were often sacrificed to the Roman goddess Venus.  So it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact meaning of the dove carving.

The Baptism of Christ by Pierro della Francesa

The dove as symbol of the Holy Spirit first appears at the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. “And lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he was the Spirit of God descending as a dove and coming upon him.” (Mathew 3:16)

“And the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased (Luke 3:22)

For many Christians, these passages are the main reason the dove is considered a symbol of the Holy Spirit. 

The Dove Goddess

Here’s where it gets interesting – and controversial.  In the original Aramaic, the word for spirit is “rukha,” which is feminine.  The Hebrew word for the Holy Spirit is “Ruach Ha Kadosh,” with a feminine modifier.  Thus the pronoun used to describe the Holy Spirit in the early versions was  she. It wasn’t until the gospels were translated into Greek that the masculine pronoun – he – was substituted to refer to the Holy Spirit. Seeing the dove/Holy Spirit as feminine seems like a radical idea but it has many precedents in the culture of the time.

In the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean world, the dove was the symbol of several powerful goddesses.  For the Sumerians, it was Ishtar.  For the Canaanites, Asherah. For the Phoenicians, it was Astarte and Tanit.  For the Greeks, Aphrodite (pictured with doves drawing her chariot).  For the Romans, Venus.  All were pictured with or represented by doves.

In Minoan belief, doves could be seen as the embodiment of a divinity, a goddess in bird form, or as a particular manifestation of a deity.

The Divine Feminine

Skekinah, the manifestation of the Divine Presence, or the light or spark of the Divine in each person, is recognized in Jewish and Christian mythology.  In Kabbalism, it is seen as a divine feminine aspect.  

Some see the Holy Spirit dove as the missing female element in the Trinity: Father, Mother, and Son. While this would be a satisfying continuation of the female divinity so common in the eastern Mediterranean region, the argument loses ground when you consider the other personification of the Holy Spirit: the tongue of fire, a very different image.  Still, the dove possibilities, especially in comparison to the goddesses like Astarte, Ishtar, Tanit, and Asherah, are fascinating.

Pablo Picasso and the dove symbol

The final and most important piece of the peace dove puzzle was provided by Pablo Picasso.  Deeply moved by the bloodshed of the Spanish Civil War, Picasso painted “Guernica” in 1937, a visual description of the pain and terror following the bombing of the Basque village of Guernica. Previously apolitical, he became an outspoken Communist, anti-fascist, and peace activist.

Dove 1949 Pablo Picasso

The dove image that began the famous series of paintings and lithographs was actually a drawing of Henri Matisse’s bird. The former rivals became good friends as they got older. When Matisse had to get rid of his birds and plants in order to work on his final project, Picasso took them in and used them as models. 

After the end of World War II, his “Dove” lithograph was used as the symbol of the Paris Peace Conference of 1949 (pictured, right).

From that first image, Picasso moved to simpler line drawings of doves, most of which carried the olive branch (pictured above).  Those images were copied and spread worldwide as symbols of peace that represented a wish for a better future, not just a cessation of war.

Today, that peace dove is part of the general symbolic lexicon.  While it certainly has roots in spiritual beliefs both pre-Christian and Christian, the symbol as it appears now is not overtly religious. That’s why all people, regardless of specific beliefs, can share its message of peace. 

Over time, Picasso made many variations on the dove theme.  The most popular feature the loose line drawing of the dove with either colored flowers or the suggestion of the olive branch.  But there are others as well, including several drawings of the dove incorporated into the head of a female, as if it’s a continuation of the face (pictured above), as well as the woman’s face incorporated into the body of the dove.  These haunting images seem to reflect a far older concept, of a goddess represented by the dove.  It’s an interesting possibility, at least.


Sources and interesting reading:

“Ancient Greek Marble Relief of a Girl with Doves,” Metropolitan Museum of Art,…

Boven, Jos P. V. “Female Holy Spirit in the Bible,” paper shared on,

Chou, Peter Y, “Dove Symbolism in Art, Myth, and Religion,” Wisdom Portal,

“Columbarium,” Wikipedia,

“Doves as symbols,” Wikipedia,

“Dove of Peace, 1949” (Original title “La Colombe”) lithograph, 1949, The Tate,

“Dove of Peace, 1949 by Pablo Picasso,” image courtesy of

“Dove Symbolism,” Pure Spirit,

“Dove with Olive Branch as a Symbol of Peace,” Great,

Ferber, Michael, “The Story of the Olive Branch,” 25 January 2017,

Holy Bible: New International Version, Zondervan Bible Publishers, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1988.

Klimczak, Natalia, “A Symbol of Peace, Victory, and Abundance: The Millennia-Old History of the Olive Tree,” Ancient Origins, 16 January 2017,

Lewis, Richard, “The Dove: Picasso and Matisse,” Lewis Art Café, 9 March 2014,

Miller, Iona, “Dove Goddess Sophia, Shekinah,” Ancestor and Archetypes, 2017,

“Oldest Olive Tree in the world located in Crete, Its age is estimated over 3,000 years old, Greece High Definition, 5 February 2019,

“Olive Branch,” Wikipedia,

Patane, Dhanashree, “This is the Story of Why the Dove is a Symbol of Peace and Love,” Spiritual Ray, 23 February 2018,

Santini, Steve, “The Pauline Usage of the Feminine Holy Spirit in Romans Chapter One: Addendum of The Feminine Gender of the Holy Spirit,” February 2018,

“Shekinah,” definition, US Dictionary,

“The Story of the Olive Branch,” Ferbers Blog, 25 January 2017,

Images of cards and mugs from the UNICEF catalog, Fall Collection 2019,

Wilson, Ralph F.  “Early Christian Symbols in the Catacombs,” Early Christian Symbols,


Great Seal of the US by Andrew B. Graham – from illustration facing page 400 of The Eagle and the Shield by Richard Patterson and Richardson Dougall, 1978., Public Domain,

Dove tomb carving: By Dnalor 01 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Dove silver piece – Marie-Lan Nguyen (User:Jastrow), 2008-04-04, Public Domain,

Silver piece with Athena, owl and olive branch source; By Exekias – Flickr: An Exceptional and Important Greek Silver Tetradrachm of Athens (Attica), Among the Finest Known Late Archaic Athenian Tetradrachms, CC BY 2.0,

Living with History: Thoughts on Visiting Croatia, Part I

Croatia is the crescent-shaped country shown in green on the map, across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. It used to be part of Yugoslavia. 

Today, Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast is a trending holiday location, famous for its picturesque islands with good harbors, clear water, and gentle weather. Boats pull up daily along the riva and disgorge young adults ready to party. There’s lots of music and good wine. 

But up the hill from the bustling tourist shops sits a fortress built long ago, like the one pictured at Hvar, when that harbor had to be defended from marauders.  It’s a curiosity now, a place you can rent for a reception.  It’s also a reminder of the region’s history that’s so long and complex it’s shocking to people who are used to thinking of 1776 as a long time ago.  I found it fascinating.


When Davoka Radovcic was appointed as the new director of the Croatian Natural History Museum, she reviewed the collection of artifacts held in storage.  Among them, she noticed eight white-tailed eagle talons that had been excavated from Krapina, a Neanderthal site in northern Croatia, back in 1899. 

  The white-tailed eagle is a large, powerful raptor with a wing-span of over six feet (1.8 meters). When Radovcic examined the talons, she noticed most of them had a hole pierced through the top and burnishing marks along the edges.  Clearly, they’d been modified.

She showed the talons to David Frayer, a paleoanthropologist friend who said later, “I was shaking when I saw them…I knew how important they were.”  After extensive study of the talons, Radovcic and Frayer became lead authors of a 2015 paper about them in PLoS One. They concluded that the talons, collected from three different birds, had been purposely pierced and strung together, possibly into a power necklace.  The assemblage was dated to 130,000 years ago, at least 50,000 years before Homo sapiens are thought to have arrived in the area.  The necklace is now considered the oldest known Neanderthal jewelry. 

Yet this extraordinary assemblage lay forgotten, tucked away in a drawer for a hundred years.  If not for Radovcic’s sharp eye, they might still be there.


Neanderthals may have been the earliest hominins in the region, but waves of Homo sapiens, known collectively as Illyrians. followed.  The ancient Greeks referred to the area as Illyria, so all the groups living there before the Greeks arrived were called Illyrians, in the same way that all native tribes in the Americas were called Indians. Very little is known about these people, partly because their history is buried under cities constructed by more recent and more famous residents, including Greeks, Romans, Venetians, Turks, Austrians, French, and British. As each new wave conquered an earlier one, people re-purposed stone blocks, roads, foundations, tools, and artwork.  In Poreč, for example, the famous Euphrasian Basilica is the third Catholic church to be built on the site.  It incorporates Greek colonnades, a Roman floor mosaic, a Venetian decorated canopy, and wall mosaics by Byzantine artists, plus repairs and changes made after fires and an earthquake.

Diocletian’s Palace

Perhaps the most famous example of mixed histories is what’s called Diocletian’s Palace.  It was actually a fortress rather than a palace, built for the Roman Emperor over an earlier settlement in what is now the city of Split, on the coast.  Oddly enough, the city has grown up in and around the ruins, including many additions/modifications made to them through the centuries.  It’s become the Old City, home to shops, restaurants, churches, schools, and an open-air market. Its gates, once fiercely guarded, now stand open to all.

Emperor Diocletian was born nearby, in the Roman city of Salona. After a successful military career, he rose to the rank of Emperor.  During his reign (284 – 305 AD), he instituted changes in regional rule, coinage, trade, and taxation.  He attacked and conquered the Persian Empire, a long-standing foe.  But mostly he’s known for escalating the persecution of Christians.

Even more than previous Roman leaders, he saw their religion as a threat.  Christians did not participate in state-sanctioned festivals or make offerings to the official gods. They didn’t believe in the Imperial Cult, which held that Emperors were divinely appointed.  Diocletian felt he had to unite an ethnically diverse empire through a standard series of laws and practices, which included a return to the Olympian gods.  In this way, he thought the Empire could return to the glory of Old Rome.  Sort of “Make the Empire Great Again.”

So he instituted the last and most extensive program of persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, beginning in 303.  While the image of Christians being eaten by lions in the Colosseum is disturbing, Diocletian’s purges turned out to be a colossal failure as a deterrent.  Instead of driving people away, they made the new religion more popular.  Those tortured and killed rose to the ranks of martyrs and saints.  Even some Roman rulers became uncomfortable with the practice.

Disheartened and in poor health, Diocletian abdicated his position in 305 and returned to his homeland. The drawing shows what his “palace” looked like when completed.  The fortified city covered 30,000 square meters (about 323,000 square feet). It included room for an army garrison, private quarters, gardens, public squares, and several temples.

But he found little peace there.  He was keenly disappointed to see his system of regional governance fall apart after he abdicated.  One of his co-leaders, Maximian, tried to take over as Emperor, but he was defeated and subsequently disgraced in a Roman doctrine known as Damnatio memoriae: condemnation of memory.  His statues and portraits were destroyed, his image removed from buildings  He killed himself in what some sources call a “forced suicide.”

Diocletian, too, probably killed himself.  Afterwards, the palace remained an imperial possession of the Roman Empire and sheltered Diocletian’s family and other Roman nobles in the area.

When Constantine became Emperor in 324, he converted to Christianity and made it the official religion of the Empire, reversing all of Diocletian’s punitive measures. 

In the 7th century, when the area was under attack by the Slavs, local people moved into the palace for protection. 

The aerial photo shows what it looks like today.

 Over time, Diocletian’s presence was gradually if not quite erased then seriously over-written. A bust of him remains (but resides in the basement), as well as the basic layout of the fortress, some columns and arches, a few sections of the outer walls.  And one of the sphinxes out of the eight  he collected from Egypt.  The rest were beheaded after his death. The whole one, which once belonged to King Thutmose, mighty ruler of Egypt who was crowned in 1526 BC, now watches throngs of tourists walk through the courtyard that Roman soldiers used to guard.

After the city of Salona (Split) fell to Charlemagne, King of Franks and Emperor of Romans, in 800 AD, Diocletian’s sarcophagus was destroyed and his mausoleum remade into a Catholic church, now called the Cathedral of Saint Domnius. The new builders combined Diocletian’s Corinthian columns, which he took from the ancient Greeks, with elaborate carved and gilded altarpieces.  New statues portrayed Christian saints in Roman-style robes.  Elaborate stone carvings decorated the walls, altar, and pulpit. Relics of Saint Domnius in a silver reliquary join the ranks of the dead entombed in the church.

In a deliberate rebranding, the place that held the remains of the Emperor was claimed for the new ruler and new faith.  Over the centuries, this relatively small church became the seat of the diocese.

Yet today, it’s a curiosity to most visitors rather than a place of spiritual power.  It bothered me that people talked and laughed, checked their phones, took photos of friends in front of the gilded altar.  It seemed disrespectful. It’s a church. One with a complicated history, but still a place of worship.

Diocletian isn’t much of a hero in the eyes of history.  His division of power is partly blamed for the collapse of the Roman Empire. Over 3000 Christians were killed by his order. Over 2000 slaves died in the construction of his palace.

And that was neither the beginning nor the end of sectarian violence.  Because Croatia and the other countries of the former Yugoslavia sit on the line between the Muslim East and the Christian West, religion has played a role in many conflicts involving Western Christians, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Jews that have resulted in well over a million deaths.

As recently as 1991 – 2001, the Yugoslav Wars accounted for over 140,000 deaths.

Blood permeates the stones in this church and everywhere else in the country.  The sheer weight of history the place carries is overwhelming.  At the same time, the workmanship of all sections is incredible.  It has a beauty and intensity that deserve recognition.

Balancing old and new

In the vestibule (Peristyle) of the Palace, I listened to a klapa group, traditional a cappella singers.  The place has wonderful sound that resonates all the way to the open ceiling two stories up.  Several videos of klapa groups are listed in the sources.  Clearly, the all-male group has roots in church music, particularly Gregorian chant.  It still has a deep, solemn feel.

 Later, though, we heard a klapa group that used guitar, mandolin, and accordion for accompaniment and included more folk tunes and party music. Like everything else in the area, it seems to be in flux, part old and part new.

Game of Thrones

The most surprising discovery of my tour of Diocletian’s Palace was the number of tourists who were there only to see locations used in filming Game of Thrones.  Special tours showed avid followers the basement of the palace (shown) where Daenerys kept her dragons in the show.  Fans could have their picture taken on a replica Iron Throne, take selfies in the narrow stone streets.  For many, the fictional world of Game of Thrones seemed more real and more immediate than the actual history. Granted, the site’s intensity and bloody past make it a perfect backdrop for a series featuring both.  But the dramas that played out in these halls were real.

More on Croatia, especially the island of Vis, will appear in Part II.

Sources and Interesting Reading

Bust of Diocletian, in Diocletian’s Palace, from Intrepid Berkeley Explorer,

Calloway, Ewen, “Neanderthals wore eagle talons as jewelry,” Nature, 11 March 2015,

Croatia Adriatic map by Norman Einstein, May 20, 2005

“Diocletian’s Palace,” Croatian National Tourism Board,

“Diocletian’s Palace,” Wikipedia,

Diocletian’s Palace drawing  By Ernest Hébrard (recoloured by DIREKTOR) –, Public Domain,

Diocletian’s Palace peristyle today  By Bengt Nyman from Vaxholm, Sweden – Split D81_3080, CC BY 2.0,

Diocletian’s Palace today  By Beyond silence – Own work, Public Domain,

Photo of walls of Diocletian’s Palace in Split  By Beyond silence – Own work, Public Domain,

Diocletian’s Palace today, from the air By Ballota (crop by DIREKTOR) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

 “Diocletian Persecution,” Wikipedia,

“Euphrasian Basilica,” Wikipedia,

“History of Croatia,” Lonely Planet Travel Information,

“History of Dalmatia,” Wikipedia,

“Illyria,” Wikipedia.

“Illyrians,” Wikipedia, httos:/

Klapa singers in Diocletian’s Palace

Klapa singers, another video

Klapa singers photo The Lady Travels blog

“Krapina remains: fossil Neanderthal remains, Croatia,” Encyclopedia Britannica,

Kubilius, Kerry, “Traveling to and around Croatia,” TripSavvy, 4 June 2019,

“Neanderthal: First Discoveries,” Britannica Online Encyclopedia,

Peristyle of Diocletian’s Palace photo      By Ballota – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Rubin, Alissa, “Religious Identity at the Heart of Balkan War,” Los Angeles Times, 18 April 1999,

Steves, Rick and Cameron Hewitt,  Rick Steves Croatia and Slovenia, Sixth Edition. Avalon Travel, and imprint of Perseus Books, June, 2016

“World War II in Yugoslavia,” Wikipedia,

“The Yugoslav Wars,” Wikipedia,

Zorich, Zach, “Neanderthal Necklace,” Archaeology magazine, July-August 2015,

Trying to Buy Time

In February, I visited the Actun Tunichil Muknal wet cave in central Belize. To get into the most important area, visitors must swim across a river, then wade through flooded sections of the cave, climb rock falls, crawl through openings, and navigate tight spaces between rocks while in neck-high water.  Licensed guides provide hard hats and headlamps, as well as advice on handling the difficult sections. The trek takes 4 – 5 hours. 

The highlight of the visit is the “Cathedral,” a section deep in the cave where people left offerings, mostly between 700 and 900 AD.  Here, visitors must remove their shoes and stay in marked areas so they don’t accidentally step on any of hundreds of ceramic bowls that are more than a thousand years old  – or skeletons of sacrificed humans.  Excavations by Thomas Miller in 1986 identified remains of 14 humans.  As of 2019, three more have been found.  The bones of the “Crystal Maiden” and other victims are now coated with a thick layer of minerals left behind by the river, making them sparkle in the light of a headlamp.

After a careless tourist dropped a camera on a skeleton, breaking the skull, recording devices of any kind were banned from the cave.  It’s just as well.  A camera would only separate the viewer from the scene.  And a selfie with the skeleton of a sacrificed victim is a terrible idea on multiple levels.

The cave has no interpretive signs, no visitor center, and no information about the people who left these offerings in the cave or their reasons for doing so.  They left no symbols carved on the walls or paintings on the pots. But we know that the time the offerings were placed in the cave coincides with the last phase of the occupation of the area by the Maya.  Between 800 and 900 AD, most of the great Maya cities in what is now Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras were abandoned due to a fatal combination of deforestation, drought, famine, political instability, and warfare.  A few squatters set up huts in the empty squares of the great cities, but most of the surviving Maya scattered, going anywhere conditions were more favorable.  

If a written record of the cave’s use survived, it would probably have been burned along with other Maya texts when the Spanish “converted” the Maya to Catholicism, often by torture.  On July 12, 1562, Bishop Diego de Landa began a program of purging Maya artifacts and hand-written books by burning over 5000 objects that day alone.  This church policy of destroying “idols” continued for 150 years.  By the 20th century, so little was known of those who built the great cities that people decided the huge stone temples and ornate carved slabs were the work of aliens, a belief that persists, unfortunately, even today.

But four of the hand-painted Maya books, originally sent to Europe as curiosities for the monarchs, survived, providing essential information about Mayan language, history, astronomy, mathematics, and religion.  Plus the glyphs carved in stone remained, and gradually experts teased out their meaning.  Over the last forty years, archaeologists have been able to piece together much of the story of the dynasties that rose and fell in the Maya world.  But the deciphering process is on-going, partly because the Maya, like the ancient Egyptians, used a complex combination of object symbols and sound symbols in their writing, and that combination could vary at the whim of the scribe.

Given all this, we can put together some of the background on the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave and the people who used it over a thousand years ago.


Modern Americans tend to think of time as an object apart from themselves.  A possession.  We have time or we don’t have time.  We spend time, like money.  We run out of time the way we might run out of gas.  We use clocks to mark off little segments of each day so we can be at appointments when expected.  But we don’t have any involvement in the creation or continuation of time.  We don’t have to earn time.  We feel no personal responsibility to make time continue, to make the sun move, the rain fall, or the seasons change.

But the ancient Maya did. In their city-states, from about 1800 BC to about 800 AD, they built monuments to honor the passage of time.  They marked the moment of the solstices and equinoxes with special rituals and offerings.  (Diagram of the E-group at Uaxactun, Guatemala, below.)  These functioned much the same way as various stone and wood henges in other parts of the world, with a viewing point and markers for the solstices and equinoxes.

Maya E-group at Uaxactun

They maintained complex calendars that tracked the solar year, the lunar year, and the number of days since the beginning of the Fourth Creation, what we would call August 11, 3114 BC.  At that moment, the Hero Twins, through their courage, resourcefulness, and magical abilities, were able to make time start again.  Many Maya monuments note the units of time passed since that day, in the same way many western calendars count years from the birth of Jesus.

The Maya divided time into units using a base 20 system:

Kin = one day

Winal = 20 kins

Tun = 20 winals or 360 kins

Katun = 20 tuns or 7200 kins (19.7 years)

Baktun = 20 katuns or 144,000 kins (394.26 years)

Great Cycle = 13 baktuns (5,128 years)

The calendars were exact, but time itself was always uncertain, especially at the end of a cycle, a little like the anxiety people felt at the approach of Y2K. 

To help make time continue, the Maya gave offerings to the gods.  If they didn’t, they believed time would stop.  The motion of the sun across the day’s sky, the turn of the seasons, the coming of the rains, the seasons of planting and harvest – all these required offerings. For the same gods who brought rain could withhold it – or bring so much that the land was flooded.  The sun god that drew the seedling out of the ground could also kill it.

Blood sacrifice

Drawing of bloodletting scene from Yaxchilan

Blood was the most precious offering.  Ritual blood-letting by the city’s rulers, considered priest-kings, is recorded in paintings and monuments of many Maya city-states.  The king and other aristocratic men would be expected to pierce themselves with stingray spines.  The queen and other royal women would have to draw a rope studded with thorns or obsidian blades through their tongues, as shown in the drawing of a panel from Yaxchilan.  Drops of their blood fell on special cloth that was offered to the gods.  The dream-trance that accompanied this act, pictured as a vision serpent, allowed the leaders to communicate with their ancestors and the gods. 

The glyph for bloodletting/conjure, known as the “fish in hand” sign, appears in the upper left hand group in the next panel from Yaxchilan,  Here, a kneeling queen, wearing the blood-spattered cloth from her bloodletting to tie up her hair, sees the vision serpent rising from the blood-spattered cloth in the bowl at the bottom left.  Out of serpent’s mouth emerges the head of the ancestor/god. 

A blood sacrifice was thought to open up a channel of communication with the gods. According to the Maya creation story, the gods created people by sprinkling their own blood on maize dough.  They wanted creatures who could honor them and nourish them through sacrifice.  The rulers’ blood offering released the essence of the gods to regenerate the world.

Caves and cenotes

Even those who did not participate in public bloodletting were expected to give offerings to the gods. These included any items of great value: fine ceramics, exotic shells, masks, and precious stones, especially greenstone.  These gifts were often set in caves or thrown into rivers or cenotes (sink-holes containing water) to honor the powerful rain god, Chaac. 

La Ventana cave, Guatemala

Ordinary people offered the best they had, ritually sacrificing these items by burning them, drilling a hole, or breaking off a section.

(The practice of leaving offerings in caves continues today in parts of Guatemala, where local people place flowers, candles, and incense in caves to seek favors from the gods, now combined with Catholic figures of Jesus, Mary, especially Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the saints as shown in the photo.)

Early triumphs

For a long time, the Maya system seemed to be a great success. Their engineering feats rivaled the Romans’. Their art and architecture still amaze viewers. During what are called The Pre-Classic and Classic eras, lasting from 1000 BC to 250 AD, the Maya built the most sophisticated cities in the Western Hemisphere.  El Mirador’s La Danta Temple, at 236’ tall, was the tallest building in the world when finished.  Today it’s hard to see (photo) because the forest has reclaimed it.  The site included water management systems and wide roadways that connected it to other cities.  The UNESCO artist’s rendering provides an idea of what the city looked like at its peak.

Tikal, another powerful city-state, is still impressive, even though only ruins of the largest structures remain.  (Photo shows one of the twin temples in the  main square)

The political and religious system that had powered the growth of this empire continued despite warnings that the rulers’ practices were not sustainable.  Deforestation in rainforests left the soil too weak to be productive.  Research indicates that El Mirador failed for this reason. But there were other places, and the kings simply moved their empires or their allegiance and built again.


Then, between 650 and 800 AD, the rains began to fail across the Maya World, especially in what is now the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, Belize, and the Petén area of Guatemala.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), several periods of intense drought, each one lasting decades, coincided with the collapse of the Classic Maya cities.

Desperation offerings

New cave finds at Balamku cave

The rulers apparently decided that Tlaloc/Chaac, the rain god, needed more offerings.  The recent discovery of ritual offerings at the Balamku cave system at Chichen Itza (Mexico) this year shows many similarities to the findings at Actun Tunichil Muknal cave in nearby Belize.  A team of explorers funded by National Geographic pulled themselves through tight passages in the cave for hours before finding an undisturbed collection of offerings left by the residents a thousand years earlier.  They included vases, decorated plates, braziers, and bowls.  The difference here is that the offerings were clearly marked for the rain god.

The goggle-eyed figure on the pots is Tlaloc, the rain god.

 So it seems reasonable to say the offerings in Actun Tunichil Muknal served the same purpose – a plea for rain that would save the people and their community.  If the old beliefs were true, then the gods needed more offerings, better offerings.  And, perhaps, for a while, the offerings seemed to work.  The drought would loosen its grip and the rains would start.  But the change didn’t last.

Imagine the confusion the people felt.  The same system that had sustained them so brilliantly for so long wasn’t working.  So they offered more, ritually “killing” the pots by breaking off a section or drilling a hole in the bottom.  Today, pots lie piled inside other pots, often six or seven deep, all over the upper section of the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave. 

When that still wasn’t enough, they turned to the most precious gift of all: blood.  Evidence shows the victims were killed inside the cave.  Many still have the killing stone lying next to them.  Some were teenagers.  Some were children.  Four were infants.

What drove the people to these murders?  There are many theories, including the slaughter of people suspected of being witches bringing down bad luck.  But given the Maya attitude toward offerings to the gods, especially blood offerings, it seems more likely it was an extreme response to a terrible situation. Perhaps it seemed the only way they might buy more time from the gods.

Today, the skeletons lie scattered where floodwaters have taken them.  With their thick mineral coating, they’re gradually becoming part of the flowstone.  But they’re still powerful.

And desperation still hangs in the air of the cave.

Sources and interesting reading:

“Actun Tunichil Muknal,” Wikipedia,

Coe, Michael and Mark Van Stone. Reading the Maya Glyphs.  London: Thames and Hudson, 2001.

“Diego de Landa: Spanish Bishop, Encyclopedia Britannica

“Drought and the Ancient Maya Civilization,” NOAA,

“El Mirador,” Wikipedia,

Foer, Joshua, Dyland Thuras and Ella Morton.  Atlas Obscura. New York: Workman Publishing, 2018

Foster, Lynn V.  Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Jarus, Owen, “The Maya: History, Culture & Religion,” Live Science, 22 August 2017,

Longhena, Maria.  Maya Script: A Civilization and its Writing.  New York: Abbeville Press, 2000.

Martin, Simon and Nikolai Grube. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. London: Thames and Hudson, 2000.


“Maya Religion,”

“Maya Ruins of Belize,” Wikipedia,

Miller, Mary Ellen.  Maya Art and Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson, 1999.

Monteferrante, Sandra, “Maya Cycles of Time,” originally published in Convergence in March 2007,

Montgomery, John. Dictionary of Maya Hieroglyphs.  New York: Hippocrene Books, 2006.

Schele, Linda and Mary Ellen Miller.  The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art.  New York: George Braziller Inc., 1986.

Steffens, Gena, “Maya ritual cave ‘untouched’ for 1,000 years stuns archaeologists,” National Geographic, 4 March 2019,

Spector, Brandon, “Lost Cave of Jaguar God Rediscovered Below Mayan Ruins – and It’s Full of Treasure,” Live Science, 5 March 2019,

Stone, Andrea and Marc Zender.  Reading Maya Art.  London: Thames & Hudson, 2011.

“Treasure trove of hundred of Mayan artifacts discovered beneath Chichen Itza,” Mexico News Daily, 5 March 2019,

“Uaxactun,” Wikipedia,

“Yaxchilan bloodletting scene,” Lintel 17, drawing by Ian Graham courtesy of the Harvard University collection, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, 2004. Digital file #101240031.

“Yaxchilan Lintels,” The British Museum,

“Yaxchilan Lintel 24,” Wikipedia,

Zraick, Karen, “The Place Is Extraordinary: Well-Preserved Artifacts Are Found Under Mayan Ruins,” The New York Times, 6 March 2019,

Photos of Tikal and La Ventana cave by the author

The stork, the baby, and the water lily

The jar of Vlasic pickles I found on the grocery store shelf sports a cartoon image of a stork on the front label and the top lid.  The stork has a bow tie, a deliveryman’s cap, and eye glasses sitting partway down its long beak.  It seems to be male.  He’s holding the pickle like a cigar.  In Vlasic TV commercials, the stork has a deep voice reminiscent of Groucho Marx. The tag line is “That’s the tastiest crunch I’ve ever heard,” with the last word sounding like “hoid,” imitating a stereotypical New York City accent. 

According to the Vlasic story, the stork image was introduced in 1974, in an attempt to combine traditional ideas about the stork delivering babies and pregnant women’s supposed craving for pickles. In an early ad, the stork delivered a baby in a bundle. Hence the delivery man cap.  But in more recent ads, the stork has kept the cap and bow tie but lost the baby bundle and all reference to pregnancy and childbirth. The snappy patter simply extols the virtues of a crunchy pickle.  The change was probably a good way to expand their market for pickles, but the  new image has almost nothing in common with the stork’s mythical predecessors.  

The stork and the baby

In contemporary images of the stork/baby concept, a few show only the stork in flight, but most show the stork delivering a baby in a bundle.  It’s become a graphic shorthand for pregnancy and childbirth, commonly found on baby shower invitations and birth announcements.  The image on the Pampers diaper box is quite simple, but it still conveys the message.

Contemporary images of the stork and the baby

Historical antecedents

Even more interesting are the older images of the stork delivering babies, especially those from the early 1900’s.  In some of those pictured here, the stork is a female, dressed in a bonnet or babushka and pushing a baby carriage.  In others, the stork appears male, dressed in a deliveryman’s cap and bow tie, much like the modern Vlasic stork.  In both cases, they wear human clothes, as if they are stork/human hybrids.

In one interesting vintage card, the stork prepares to drop the baby down the chimney, sort of like Santa Claus and his gifts.

Several cards show the storks plucking the babies out of the marsh, sometimes out of  pond lily flowers.

Where did these ideas come from?  Some people dismiss the whole story about the stork bringing the baby as simply a way for adults to avoid telling children about sex and babies, like saying the baby was found in the cabbage patch (the idea behind the Cabbage Patch Kids dolls) or under a blackberry bush.  But there’s much more to the image.  Storks became associated with pregnancy and childbirth because of folk tales that perpetuated ancient beliefs.

“The Storks”

Hans Christian Andersen took the traditional stork beliefs he knew as the inspiration for his story “The Storks,” published in 1838.  After a stork couple sets up a nest, and their eggs hatch, local boys taunt the chicks with a song about how the babies will be hanged and roasted.  One boy, Peter, tells the others they shouldn’t make fun of animals, but most of the boys ignore him.  Seeing that the song makes the babies nervous, the mother stork tells them it’ll be all right because they’ll all fly away to Egypt when they get older, while those boys will be stuck in the cold.  When the babies grow up and the family flies away, they ask if they can have their revenge on the cruel boys.

The mother stork says, “I know the pond where all the little children lie, waiting till the storks come to take them to their parents.  The prettiest little babies lie there dreaming more sweetly than they will ever dream in the time to come.  All parents are glad to have a little child, and children are so pleased with a little brother or sister.  Now we will fly to the pond and fetch a little baby for each of the children who did not sing that naughty song to make fun of the storks.” 

The young storks ask what will happen to the ringleader who taunted them.

“There lies in the pond a little dead baby who has dreamed itself to death,” said the mother. “We will take it to the naughty boy, and he will cry because we have brought him a little dead brother.”

It’s a considerably more complex version of the stork and baby than the cute, bland image we see on the diaper box.  Here the storks not only deliver babies, they also make moral choices about who should have one and who shouldn’t. The story also implies that humans have a clear moral responsibility toward animals in general and storks in particular, and they will be punished for failure to meet it.  Plus, it endows the storks with great powers.  They’re more spirit than bird.

Origins of the myths

Hans Christian Andersen borrowed heavily from Germanic and Slavic folk tales for his stories.  In these tales, animal spirits, animal-human hybrids, magic, and shape-shifting were common.  

In Slavic mythology, storks carried souls from Vyraj to Earth.  Vyraj was a kind of paradise, located in the crown of the Cosmic Tree, far beyond the sea.  Long ago, people saw the storks fly away in the fall to some unknown land and return in the spring. They believed the birds flew to Vyraj and brought spring back with them.  When people died, their souls went to Vyraj with the migrating storks.  After some time, they were returned to earth and were delivered to loving homes by a stork which found the unborn babies waiting in a dream-state, in a marsh.

Lotus and Water Lily

The other important element of the stork spirit and the babies in the marsh picture is the waterlily, which is an overwhelmingly positive, generative symbol. Photos: white pond lily (left) and lotus flower (right)

Fossils of what is now considered the “mother of all flowering plants” 125 million years old, were discovered in China.  This plant apparently thrived in shallow pools and lakes, with its flowers extending above the surface.  Scientists believe it is the ancestor of both the lotus and the water lily. Though the modern lotus and water lily are separate species, their appearance, environment, and mythical importance are quite similar.

Birth and Rebirth

The lotus, native to North Africa, India, Asia, and parts of the Middle East, is considered a mystic flower, a source of life.

Ancient Egyptians saw the blue lotus, actually a water lily, as a part of the cycle of birth and death.  In creation stories, it is often the first life to grow out of the watery chaos. The creator god Nefertum, whose name means Beautiful Beginning, is often shown emerging from the lotus flower as Khepri, the scarab beetle that carries the sun, then as a small child. 

In the illustration shown below, winged Isis, the most famous Egyptian goddess, wife of Osiris, mother of Horus, is shown rising from the Nile on a lotus flower.

A statue found in King Tut’s burial chamber shows the boy-king’s head emerging from a blue lotus, a promise of his later rebirth.

(Interestingly, sniffing or eating the lotus flower apparently can produce a feeling of euphoria, , though some people say the claim results from confusion of the lotus and the poppy.  But it does make those illustrations of people sniffing lotus flowers more interesting.)

According to legend, lotus flowers sprang up at the birth of the Buddha, symbolizing the ability to rise from the mud to sacred purity. The photo on the left shows the Buddha emerging from a lotus flower.

For Hindus, the lotus represented cosmic renewal.  Pictured (right) is the goddess Lakshmi standing on a lotus flower and holding two more.

On the other side of the world, the Mother Goddess of ancient Teotihuacan, in central Mexico, was pictured as a bird-faced water spirit, the source of life.  Water drips from her hands while vines ending in lotus flowers grow out of her.  All around her, plants, animals, and humans thrive. (Pictured below)

The Great Goddess mural at Teotihuacan

In all of these, we have the lotus/water lily as a generative cradle of spirits and humans, and water as a powerful place that serves as a portal between worlds.  Its presence in the stork/baby picture helps to create a positive outlook.  The babies are plucked from the water lilies, the source of life.

Why do storks bring the babies?

Ancient people saw the storks fly away in the fall, into the unknown.  Later, the birds returned, bringing spring with them. Today we greet the return of the first migratory birds as a welcome sign that winter’s grip is failing.  It’s not much of a leap from there to seeing the birds as the agents causing the change, carrying spring on their wings, plucking new life from the magic flowers floating on still waters.

So the stork on the diaper box is a faint reflection of a rich mythological past.  And the Vlasic stork, probably changed from its original form in order to update the company’s image and widen the appeal of its products, is now hardly recognizable as part of the stork/baby/water lily story.  But other customs keep the concept alive.  A friend’s daughter was born with a birthmark on her neck, which her parents refer to as a “stork bite.”

Sources and interesting reading:

Andersen, Hans Christian, “The Marsh King’s Daughter,”

Andersen, Hans Christian, “The Storks,”

“Birds in Creation,”  Birds in Mythology,

Bryce, Emma, “What’s Behind the Myth That Storks Deliver Babies?” Live Science 13 June 2018,

Cieslik, Anna, “Cabinet of Curiosities: Why We Tell Kids That the Stork Brought Their Baby Sibling,” Daily Break, 10 January 2018,

 “Flowers of July: Lotus and Water Lily,” Living in Season,

Glynn, Amelia, “Where did the “delivery stork” myth originate? Tails of the City, 08 May 2011,

Iles, Linda,“The Lotus in Ancient Egypt,” Isis, Lotus of Alexandria Lyceum,

Inman, Jung, “A Lotus Flower Appeared at Each Step the Baby Buddha Took, Buddha’s Birth and the Lotus,” 17 April 2016,

“Lotus Flower Meaning and Symbolism,”

“Nefertem” Wikipedia,

“Padma (attribute),” Wikipedia,

Statue of young Buddha emerging from the lotus flower, courtesy of the National Museum of Vietnamese History

Taylor-Brown, Alison, “Storch Myths and Legends,

“Were-storks and the Origins of Storks’ Baby Carrying,” Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog, 26 October 2013,

“Vlasic Pickles,” Wikipedia,

“Vyraj,” Wikipedia,

“White Stork,” Wikipedia,

“Zhiva, West Slavic goddess of life and fertility, with swan,” Paintings by Igor Ogiganov,

Images of the stork/baby/marsh:

Twins in basket, stork with bandana

Babies in swamp with storks

Stork with glasses and baby

Stork chimney delivery

Stork in bonnet with two babies

Baby on bird

Lotus and water lily photos by the author