If you search for the Green Man online, the most common image you’ll find is a plaque featuring a man’s face completely surrounded by foliage, often oak leaves. Sometimes the leaves hide most of the face. Sometimes the foliage grows right out of the man’s mouth, nose, or beard.
Plaques like the ones pictured can be found at craft fairs and garden supply stores, on several Amazon vendors, and on artisan sites like Etsy. Pinterest has several boards devoted exclusively to Green Man images These three are typical of the selections you’ll find. They’re described as Green Man, Celtic Forest Spirit, Cernunnos Pagan God, Green Nature Man, Leaf Man, and Solstice Green Man.
So, what exactly is the Green Man? And where did the concept come from?
Cernunnos, the Spirit of the Forest
One of the most common references for the Green Man is Cernunnos, the Celtic and Western European god of the forest. He is often pictured seated, cross-legged, surrounded by forest animals, including deer, wolves, and snakes. He usually has antlers and cloven feet with a human body, hands, and face. He often holds a silver torc, a neck ornament symbolizing power, in his right hand, and a serpent, the symbol of wisdom, in his left.
These images of Cernunnos show the variety of representations:
The concept appears in art as early as 30 BCE in a silver bowl found in Denmark but probably made in Britain or Gaul (section pictured). Here, as in some of the modern versions pictured, Cernunnos holds a silver torc in his right hand and a serpent in his left. Foliage and forest creatures surround him.
However, with the rise of Catholicism, the old spirit symbols were repudiated or repurposed. The horned man, often with cloven feet, became one of the images of the Devil, as did the serpent. These two images are interesting examples. On one side is a particularly nasty-looking Cernunnos and on the other a handsome, recently-fallen Lucifer with budding horns and giant bat wings. The statue, by Guillaume Geefs, is called “La genie du mal,” the Genius of Evil. In Lucifer’s hand is the stripped off crown, the symbol of power. Contrast it with the silver torc.
The stag, on the other hand, was appropriated as a messenger of God.
The story of Saint Hubert best illustrates the change.
Hubert, born in 656 near the border of present day France and Spain, grew up in an aristocratic family and enjoyed stag hunting on horseback. One Good Friday, when presumably he should have been in church instead of hunting, he had a vision of a great stag with a cross or perhaps a crucifix (depending on the version you read) between its antlers. Startled, Hubert dismounted and knelt before the stag who advised him to lead a holy life and to practice ethical hunting: shoot for a clean kill, avoid causing excessive pain, never shoot a female with young by her side, and so on. Deeply moved, Hubert followed the advice given to him by the stag in his vision.
This story became very popular in Medieval Germany and Austria. To this day, in many areas, Saint Hubert is considered the patron saint of hunters and the originator of the principles of ethical hunting. You can find his image on medals, like the one pictured, and church carvings, coats of arms and stained glass windows. The stag in Hubert’s vision appears on every bottle of Jägermeister. The brand name translates from the German as “Master of the Hunt.”
It’s interesting to see the change. The deer/man spirit of the forest has been made into a sinister being, but the deer is elevated, and with it, the human is elevated, for he is now the master of the forest.
The Green Man in the Medieval Church
It’s not surprising, then, that the Green Man, the carry-over from the old forest spirit, does not fare well in Medieval church art. He is reduced to a face being devoured by the forest, usually by the oak tree, the sacred tree of the Druids.
In her lavishly illustrated book The Green Man, Kathleen Basford limits the definition of the Green Man to the carved heads found in European Catholic Churches from the 13th and 14th centuries. In the photos, you find twisted faces overwhelmed by branches that grow out of their mouth, sometimes eyes, cheeks, and hair. In carvings on corbels and archways, the leaves often take up much more space than the face, as in the photos shown, so the human is overtaken by the forest.
Basford calls the figures demons, claiming they function, like gargoyles, as fascinating “deformities” that provide moral lessons. Specifically, wildness is dark, dangerous, and chaotic. The Church provides light and order.
This picture shows the relationship clearly. Mary, the Blessed Mother, holding young Jesus, stands on the Green Man’s head in the same way as she stands on the Serpent/Devil in other images. The Green Man belongs to the lower world of dark spirits that has been replaced by the new order.
At least that was the Church’s view in the 13th and 14th centuries.
And indeed, it was a common view in Medieval art. But it’s hardly the only way to see the Green Man today.
The Green Man All Around
In his book Walking with the Green Man: Father of the Forest, Spirit of Nature, Dr. Bob Curran takes the opposite view from Kathleen Basford. He skips over the Green Man figures in Medieval churches and instead looks to other mythologies, where he finds the Green Man everywhere. The Green Man, to him, is every forest spirit from the Roman satyr and the Islamic djinn to the Nigerian Iroko to the Duk-Duk of the South Pacific to the Forest Spirit in Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke”– a world-wide party of forest spirits spanning centuries. The Green Man image of the face surrounded by foliage is simply the most familiar version.
Today, when many people have come to see the wilderness as beautiful, complicated, and life-giving rather than threatening, the Green Man has reemerged from the darkness. He still has the headful of oak-leaves or other greenery, but he’s no longer seen as evil or damned. Rather, he’s untamed. He represents the power of wild masculine nature.
The Green Man and his many brothers
These days, Green Man festivals in the British Isles and North America feature people painting themselves green and donning garlands of leaves and flowers. There’s drinking, singing, some games, some dancing, and a lot of celebrating.
Many British pubs are named The Green Man, as are several breweries. Again, the association is drinking and good times without too many rules. Curiously, some pub signs use an image of Robin Hood as the Green Man. It seems a bit of a stretch to me, from Cernunnos to the likeable 13th century rogue who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, according to his legend, but I suppose he did dress in green and live in the forest.
A more interesting counterpart is Leshy, a Russian folk hero who bears a striking resemblance to Cernunnos. He is an antlered giant who combines deer and human features. He lives in the forest, unbothered by the rules of civilization. In the dark fantasy computer game named after him, Leshy fights modern humans who are set on destroying the forest.
Curran sees the Green Man in popular culture figures like the Incredible Hulk, the Jolly Green Giant, Swamp Thing, even Johnny Appleseed. For some reason, though, he misses characters like Groot and Baby Groot from “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the Ents from “Lord of the Rings,” as well as the Weirwood Trees in “A Game of Thrones.”
Whether they’re all representatives of the Green Man or simply distant relatives is up to you to decide. But it’s encouraging to see all of these versions thriving today.
Sources and interesting reading:
Basford, Kathleen. The Green Man. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1978. An excellent survey of Green Man sculptures in Medieval churches
Curran, Dr. Bob, Walking with the Green Man: Father of the Forest, Spirit of Nature. Newburyport, Massachusetts, 2007 An interesting book that makes connections between the Green Man and many other cultural figures from Osiris to the Incredible Hulk.
“Knock on wood” is a common expression with a complicated past.
“Jake’s having a great season this year. He’ll set a school record, no problem, knock on wood.”
“In all the years since I got my license, I’ve never been in an accident, knock on wood.”
“Tara hasn’t had any problems with the pregnancy so far. It should be an easy birth, knock on wood.”
This expression serves not only as a wish for continued good luck but also as a protection from a jinx that might result from bragging. It helps the speaker avoid bad luck.
There’s some debate about the number of knocks that you need – Some say two (or any even number) and others say three. In Disney’s “Encanto,” poor Bruno, who’s gotten a little strange from being in hiding so long, enters the passageway backwards while saying “Knock, knock, knock, knock on wood.” Plus he has his fingers crossed and he tosses a handful of salt over his shoulder. He’s a mess, needing all the magical help he can find. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vSpiK1U0iI
In “Casablanca,” Sam (Dooley Wilson) plays a song called “Knock on Wood,” which becomes a way for the refugees in the café to forget their troubles for a moment in a singalong. “Well, smile up then, and knock on wood.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8_f8snT93Bc “Your luck will change if you’ll arrange to knock on wood.”
Eddie Floyd’s version of “Knock on Wood” claims his lover is so wonderful he’s afraid of losing her, so he’s going to knock on wood. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-KWX26Dwv8 “I don’t want to lose you….It’s like thunder, lightning, the way you love me is frightening, so I better knock on wood.” Another famous version of the song is by Amii Stewart.
These examples show the wide range of application for the practice. It’s a form of protection from bad luck, but it’s also a request for better luck.
In England, people say, “Touch wood” instead of “Knock on wood.” Folklorist Steve Roud claims the term came from a children’s game called “Tiggy Touch Wood,” in which children use a piece of wood as a safety, like the can in Kick the Can. While the relationship is interesting, it could just as well prove the opposite view – that the game got its name from the belief, which seems more likely.
Others believe the “wood” refers to the Holy Cross or any representation of it, such as a crucifix. Folk beliefs have as many versions as the people who continue them.
What’s most interesting to me is its universality. Some form of touching wood can be found across the globe, though the particulars of the wording and even the wood differ from place to place. Often, it’s combined with references to the Evil Eye, the idea that others can harm you through dislike and/or envy. For instance, in Iran, the expression “I am knocking on wood to prevent (someone) from being jinxed” invokes the ability of wood to ward off bad energy such as the Evil Eye. In Poland, people knock on unpainted wood when saying something negative to prevent it from happening, or when saying something positive to prevent it from being spoiled.
So where did it come from? The most logical explanation seems to be ancient beliefs in spirits that lived in trees. But even that answer has many versions. One is that people would knock on trees to connect with the spirits inside to gain strength or to avoid bad luck. Greek myths held that dryads – nymphs – inhabited old trees, particularly oak trees. They could grant your wishes or, if angered, ruin your life. So it was a good idea to stay on their good side. This then morphed into knocking on any piece of wood. According to the Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, “traditionally, certain trees, such as the oak, ash, hazel, hawthorn, and willow, had a sacred significance and thus protective powers.”
Other sources point to the Celts’ belief that touching tree trunks was a way of acknowledging the powerful spirits within and asking for their protection. Turks in Central Asia shared the same belief. This also becomes a kind of insurance policy against the wrath of these spirits if you’ve been bragging about your past successes or predicting future ones. If nothing else, maybe the knocking distracts the spirits from your boasting.
Ultimately, knocking on wood has become a social convention rather than a spiritual belief. It shows that you don’t want something bad to happen to someone – or that you’d like to see the current good luck continue. But hidden in that convention is the companion concern that being too sure of your luck invites trouble. You don’t want to “tempt fate.” So, definitely, knock on wood.
If you look up the definition of wampum, you’ll find something like this entry from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “beads of polished shells strung in strands, belts, or sashes and used by North American Indians as money, ceremonial pledges, and ornaments.”
Let’s start with the “polished shells” part. Wampum was traditionally made from quahog clams and whelks native to the New England and New York coastal waters. In order to make the beads, the artist had to break the shell into pieces, remove the outside layer, make a hole in the center with a bow drill, and then polish the edges. This video and others listed in the sources demonstrate the time-consuming process: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=90vyScbrXyQ
The earliest known wampum beads, about 4500 years old, were pierced discs or shells. By the time Europeans recorded seeing them, the most desirable beads were pierced cylinders of uniform color, size, and shape, arranged in strict geometrical patterns. Although small strings or even single beads might be used for ornamentation or private trade, the large weavings marked important events and agreements.
The beads were strung on twine made from deer sinew, milkweed, dogbane, or basswood. The pattern had to be worked out ahead of time and painstakingly produced with the white and purple beads. This video is a nice introduction to beading: https://youtu.be/2frVHKV8bAc
The Six Nations or “Haudenosaunee” – People of the Longhouse
While the dictionary definition says wampum was used by North American Indians, its use originated in New York and New England and later spread to the Great Lakes and Mid-South. Native groups from other geographical areas certainly used shells for adornment and trade, but they were not called wampum until Europeans used the term to describe all Indian trade beads.
The Iroquois Confederacy, also known as The Six Nations, from the Finger Lakes area of New York, included the Mohawk, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, the Oneida, the Seneca, and later the Tuscarora. These tribes created elaborate wampum belts to honor important events in their history.
After seeing the terrible toll intertribal warfare was taking, the Great Peacemaker brokered a peace between the five original tribes. Some sources put this event as far back as 1192. This Great League of Peace united the tribes into the Iroquois Confederacy. Each tribe had its own leadership, but they all agreed that common causes would be decided by the Grand Council of Chiefs. Their constitution was commemorated in a wampum “belt” that included a center tree and four squares. (While “belt is the most common term for these long, intricate weavings, they were seldom worn around the waist.)
Like many wampum belts, this one is a historical record of a treaty. But it’s also a symbol of collective power. Its very presence increases the solemnity and power of an event and the people involved. A messenger holding a wampum belt would be welcomed and respected. A speaker holding a belt would command his audience to listen.
Wampum also symbolized titles, like Clan Chief or Clan Mother. When that person died, the wampum was passed to the new leader.
An early account of a days-long sports gathering among the coastal nations notes the strings of wampum hung from the rafters, waiting to be claimed by the winning team.
This illustration shows Iroquois chiefs from the Six Nations meeting in 1871. They hold a wealth of wampum belts. These are historical records, but they are also markers of individual and collective authority and strength.
The Tadodaho Belt
One of the oldest ceremonial wampum belts is the Tadodaho Belt, marking the successful campaign by the Peacemaker to win over the fourteen chiefs, including those who loved war. The most famous adversary was Tadodaho, a feared Onondaga leader whose mind and body were so twisted, he was said to have snakes writhing in his hair. But the Peacemaker won him over, eventually making Tadodaho the keeper of the council fire for the whole confederacy. The belt marks the time that the Peacemaker “combed the snakes out of Tadodaho’s hair.” Then the fourteen chiefs, marked by diamonds on the belt, could be like branches of a single tree.
The Two-Row Belt
In 1613, the Mohawk noticed strangers coming into their lands uninvited, cutting down trees and clearing land for their homesteads. After much discussion with the Six Nations leaders and the settlers, the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations) and the Dutch agreed to a peace treaty, saying the two groups would live in friendship and peace. The Dutch recorded the treaty on paper and gave silver chains as gifts. The Haudenosaunee gave the Dutch a wampum belt with two rows of purple shells on a white shell background, representing a Dutch ship and a native boat, traveling side by side down the river but not interfering with each other. “Together we will travel in Friendship and in Peace Forever; as long as the grass is green, as long as the water runs downhill, as long as the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, and as long as our Mother Earth will last.”
The George Washington Belt
One of the largest wampum belts was made to commemorate the signing of the Canandaigua Treaty of 1794 between the United States and the Haudenosaunee (The Six Nations). A native leader named Little Turtle was leading fierce resistance to new white settlements in what is now Ohio. Fearing that the Six Nations would join forces with Little Turtle in this struggle, the United States representative Timothy Pickering initiated peace talks to create a boundary line between the United States and the Haudenosaunee. That agreement resulted in a treaty, which was commemorated with the six foot long wampum belt. It shows thirteen figures, representing the thirteen colonies, plus the two representatives and the longhouse in the center. The figures are holding hands, symbolizing peace and cooperation.
While the large ceremonial belts were the most famous use of wampum, trade in individual beads or strings of beads continued as records of agreements for hundreds of years.
When Europeans came to the Americas, they noticed the great value the native people ascribed to wampum. In 1628, Issack de Sasiere, a Dutch trader, wrote to his friend Samuel Blommaert, “In the winter they make an oblong bead from cockle-shells, which they find on the sea-shore, and they consider it as valuable as we do money here, since one can buy with it everything they have; they string it, and wear it around the neck and hands; they also make bands of it, which the women wear on the forehead under the hair, and the men around the body, and they are as particular about the stringing and sorting as we can be here about pearls.”
Clearly, the Dutch and English settlers saw wampum as the equivalent of their money, and with the growth of the fur trade, it became the established medium of exchange, since there was no coinage in use in New Netherland. It was useful “Indian money.” Wampum was actually recognized as legal tender in New England (1637 – 1661) and New York (1637 – 1673). Each region set up an equivalency of so many beads per penny.
But almost immediately the Europeans saw an opportunity to make a lot of money fast, literally. Instead of the traditional labor-intensive hand chipping, drilling, and sanding, the Dutch set up manufacturing facilities using steel tools, and they pressed indebted natives, prisoners, and people in the almshouses into producing cheap wampum.
Englishman John Campbell started a wampum mill in New Jersey in 1775 which turned out over a million beads a year. Eventually, wampum mills flooded the market and the value of wampum beads collapsed.
As European settlers moved farther into Indian lands, native people resisted. In the many battles that followed, earlier treaties were ignored. In 1675, Metacom, a Wampanoag chief, led a revolt against English colonial power in what became known as the First Indian War. He attacked English strongholds in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, which led to a series of battles along the Connecticut River valley. In the end, Metacom was beheaded by the British and the majority of native people in his coalition were killed.
In the dark days during and after the Indian Wars (1675 to 1890), many of the precious wampum belts were taken by the victors as spoils of war. Metacom’s wampum belt was supposedly sent to the King of England, but there is no record it was ever received. Some members of the Wampanoag Confederacy are still searching for it. Many other belts also disappeared without record. Most of the finest wampum belts were later sold to museums or private collectors.
But lately, a few of those lost wampum belts are finding their way home. In 1989, twelve wampum belts in the collection of the New York State Museum in Albany were returned to the Onondaga Nation. Some of the belts had been in the museum’s possession since the 1890’s. A representative of the Onondaga Nation said, “These belts are our archives, that’s why we’ve been trying to get them back. They remind us that we are sitting there as peacemakers for our people and the world.”
In 1990, the passage of the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) required that human remains and cultural artifacts that could be identified by tribe be returned to the rightful owners. However, this applied only to federal collections, leaving private collections unregulated. This left an open pipeline from private collections to museums and vice versa.
In 2009, two wampum belts identified as “early” and ”rare” were listed for sale in a Sotheby’s auction, but several members of the Haudenosaunee standing committee on burial rules and regulations challenged the sale, claiming these were rightfully tribal cultural artifacts. The owners disagreed, claiming the belts were personal rather than tribal property. They said the belts had lost their significance and become merely relics and curiosities. Like many museum curators, they claimed these were part of American history rather than Native American history. “As American as apple pie,” one supporter of the sale claimed.
While the arguments on both sides got louder, the belts were held in a vault, pending a decision on the sale. Sotheby’s agreed to meet with a delegation of tribal leaders and to show them the belts. Charlie Patton, one of the delegates spoke these words over the belts (translated):
“You have been locked away for too long and have spent too much time in darkness….You have great life and spirit and power and it is time for you to use your energy…You have to convince the people around you, who hold you, to let you be free…Clear their eyes, their minds, their throats and ears, and lift the heavy spot that is on their heart, so they understand that your value is not in money, it is in the spirit that you carry.”
After seven years, the original seller passed away and his two brothers, realizing that they had something that did not belong to them, relinquished their ownership rights. In 2017, the belts were formally returned to the Haudenosaunee Council of Chiefs at Onondaga.
In 2012, the Onondaga Historical Association returned a wampum belt and other sacred objects to the Onondaga Nation. The belt had been in their possession since 1919. They also returned ceremonial masks and bones. Tadodaho Sid Hill, accepting the items for the Onondaga Nation, hoped this effort would spur others to return sacred items to their rightful homes.
In this way, piece by piece, the cultural heritage of the Six Nations is being restored. Today, despite the availability of cheap wampum-style beads made in China, some people are reviving the traditional practices, creating new masterpieces in their rows of carefully crafted shell beads. Others are creating copies of very old belts that are too fragile to display. Tribal leaders are trying to reintegrate the use of wampum in ceremonies and other cultural traditions.
In 2021, a brand new wampum belt created by the Wampanoag People was the centerpiece of an exhibition titled “Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America.” It was displayed along with seven historic belts on loan from the British Museum and the Saffron Walden Museum as part of the Mayflower 400 celebration.
While the belt cannot undo the troubled history of these two groups, it can, perhaps, begin to build something better.
Bruchac, Margaret M. ”Chains of Custody: Possessing dispossessing and repossessing Lost Wampum Belts,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 162 (1), 56-105. Retrieved from https://repository.upenn.edu/anthro_papers/179
In October of 2021, a small black mirror added a new chapter to its fascinating story. It’s slightly over 7” in diameter, concave, made from black obsidian (volcanic glass) and polished on both sides. A flange at the top is pierced by a single hole, allowing the mirror to be suspended by a cord.
Mostly we think of mirrors as useful items in our everyday life. They help us check whether we have spinach in our teeth or whether a car is coming up alongside us. They work in cameras, telescopes, lighthouses. They help dentists and surgeons. These are working mirrors.
But the small black mirror that made the news was a magic mirror. We don’t hear about them much, except in stories like “Snow White,” “Through the Looking Glass,” (illustration by John Tenniel shown below) and “Beauty and the Beast,” or the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series. Those are powerful, enchanted mirrors.
A 2021 study published in the journal Antiquity showed that the obsidian “spirit mirror” used by Queen Elizabeth I’s court scientist/astrologer/seer, John Dee, actually had Aztec origins. Researchers had suspected as much, since the mirror was said to belong to Montezuma, but the study proved its source, identifying the particular combination of elements found in the mirror as coming from Pachuca, just northeast of Mexico City.
In 1521, Spanish forces under Hernan Cortes conquered Tenochtitlan (later site of Mexico City). They captured and killed Montezuma, burned the city, and shipped plundered treasures, including gold, silver, jewels, and ceramics back to Spain. Among these treasures were what were considered “curiosities,” exotic bits and pieces that the wealthy could display in curio cabinets. While the fancy ceramics and jewelry found ready homes, the little mirror was passed from one estate to another.
Eventually, John Dee acquired it and added it to his collection of magical objects, using it for “scrying,” looking at the surface of the mirror in an attempt to find visions of the future or answers to questions. Divination was a tradition in the royal court. Henry VII and Henry VIII had seers. Dee started out advising Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth’s cousin and rival. When Mary died (by execution), he went on to advise the new Queen, quite an impressive feat of political juggling.
Queen Elizabeth I, like many others, felt there was little difference between magic and science. Certainly, many of the advancements of the age must have seemed like magic. The refracting telescope showed Galileo Galilei the skies. Anton Van Leeuwenhoek saw and described bacteria. Wilhelm Leibniz invented a calculating machine. Thomas Savery invented a steam pump. Suddenly the world became more complicated and the stakes higher. Elizabeth faced threats from both Spain and the Catholics at home who followed her cousin, Mary. Religious/political wars raged. She needed whatever help science/magic could offer.
The drawing in the photo shows Queen Elizabeth in a group watching John Dee “combine elements.”
Elizabeth looked to Dee for advice on science, technology, and medicine, as well as matters of the spirit. He became a trusted advisor. However, his interest in the occult arts, particularly speaking to ghosts and angels, eventually did him in. After Elizabeth I died, James, son of Mary, Queen of Scots, became King. He hated anything smacking of magic. Dee was excluded from the court and left to find whatever work he could. He died impoverished, even after selling off his collection of ancient books and occult items. Some scientists are now trying to emphasize his contributions to mathematics and astronomy. But he’s mostly remembered as Elizabeth’s seer, who, along with his cohort, Edward Kelley, carried on seances and scrying sessions.
Two interesting questions arise about the mirror:
Why did it have such a dark, dangerous reputation? Notes stored with Dee’s mirror refer to it as “The Devil’s Looking Glass.” When I was reading reviews of one mirror on-line, I came across several warnings about the mirror’s ability to suck one’s soul into Darkness.
(Despite the warnings, I bought a small obsidian mirror and found the images fascinating and somewhat mysterious. Pictured is a model of a knight reflected in my mirror. So far, I’ve not felt my soul being sucked into Darkness.)
How much did Dee know about the mirror’s history or use in pre-Conquest Mesoamerican culture? Was he trying to continue Aztec customs or did he see the mirror as simply an exotic accoutrement of a distant civilization, something useful in a show of magical power?
Mirrors in Mesoamerica
Mirrors have a very long history in what is today called Mexico, often found in Olmec, Maya, and Teotihuacan archaeological sites.(See map) The oldest mirrors discovered predate the Olmec civilization, making them close to 5,000 years old. Many are quite sophisticated, showing extensive knowledge of materials, grinding techniques, and light refraction. But over the centuries, their use and meaning seems to have changed.
Olmecs (2500 – 400 BCE)
Olmec sculptures and burials show both men and women wearing small round mirrors, usually on the chest or in a headdress. The statue in the photo above shows a woman with a chest mirror. Several smaller figurines of women with chest mirrors are on display at the Museo de Antropologia in Mexico City.
In addition to being a striking piece of elite jewelry, the mirror must have been a marker of exceptional power/energy. They often appear in headdresses of living leaders. In burials, round mirrors were placed on the dead person’s head, chest, sometimes back and groin.
While a flat mirror would have been striking, a concave mirror (one that curves inward), which is more time-consuming to make, is found more often. Why? Did these people see them as magic?
Mirrors were often associated with the sun, perhaps because of this fire-starting ability. It would have been particularly impressive if the fire source was the mirror in the headdress.
In addition, a mirror can change the direction of a light source. If you shine a flashlight at a mirror, it will redirect the light depending on how you hold both items. If ancient people were trying to see around a dark corner, a mirror and a torch would be a big help.
It can also play games with perception. A concave mirror can enlarge, shrink, or invert an image. If you look at your reflection in a spoon that’s close up, your reflection looks normal, but if you back away, your reflection looks upside down. Here’s a fun explanation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6n0FAZ_6N8
If otherworld entities – ancestors and supernaturals — were thought to be on the far side of the mirror, the mirror would become a portal to a world that could be seen but not entered.
Take the sculpture of the ruler pictured. He has a mirror in his headdress and holds a larger mirror. With two mirrors, he could create multiple images that seem to recede into infinity.
If he lit a bit of oil in a pot in front of the mirror on his headdress, would he become a human light, a messenger of the sun? A light in the darkness, a “smoking mirror”?
Maya City States (1500 BCE to 200 CE)
The Maya, like the Olmecs, valued mirrors. Hundreds of mirrors have been found in Maya sites. In burials, they were placed near the head, chest, back, groin and feet. The “smoking mirror” image became part of the creator god named Huracan/Hurricane, the Heart of Sky.
“There is also the Heart of Sky. This is the name of the god, as it is spoken. And then came his word, he came here to the Sovereign Plumed Serpent, here in the blackness, in the early dawn… They agreed with each other, they joined their words, their thoughts. Then it was clear, then they reached accord in the light, and then humanity was clear, when they conceived the growth, the generation of trees, of bushes, and the growth of life, of humankind, in the blackness, all because of the Heart of Sky, named Hurricane….” – Quote and illustration from the Popol Vuh, translated by Dennis Tedlock
In this drawing by Karl Taube taken from a ceramic vase, the figure of Heart of Sky is shown with the obsidian mirror in his forehead and the swirls of smoke and flame coming out of it.
The god K’awil, which seems related, is often pictured with an obsidian mirror on his forehead with an axe stuck in it. Typically, he has one serpent leg. The scepter bearing his image is often associated with kings.
Clearly, the obsidian mirror in these cases is associated with great power, the generative power of the gods at the moment of creation. When it is incorporated into a king’s scepter, it becomes a divine justification for his rule.
Teotihuacan (200 BCE – 600 CE)
In the great empire of central Mexico, mirrors were associated with faces, especially eyes. Like the people before them, elite Teotihuacanos wore mirrors as part of their costume, often in headdresses, on belts, and on the chest. Some were hand-held. They were associated with fire and the sun. When they were used for divination, they were considered caves or portals to another world. Sometimes serpents were shown emerging from the mirrors.
Mirrors were also part of battle gear, worn on the chest and on the back, as well as used in shields. It’s interesting to speculate on their purpose. Were the mirrors meant to stun the enemy? Were they worn as protection against supernatural forces or a way to call on their aid? Did the troops have specific maneuvers with the mirror shields that would blind the enemy?
Mirrors are more about military power here. Together, they would have made an intimidating display of might.
Aztec Empire (1200 CE – 1521 CE)
The Aztec deity Tezcatlipoca, “Smoking Mirror,” is the personification of a black obsidian mirror. In paintings, he has black and yellow stripes across his face. One of his feet is usually a mirror. In the image shown, you can see the mirror foot and another mirror in his headdress, with wisps of smoke emerging from each. He is a powerful, dangerous deity. He’s associated with night, hurricanes, hostility, sorcery, temptation, and war. In Aztec mythology, he is famous for tricking his brother and rival, Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, into getting drunk and sleeping with his sister, which so shamed him that he disappeared beyond the eastern horizon.
In many ways, Tezcatlipoca is the later, darker version of the “smoking mirror” figures we’ve seen developing over the course of Mesoamerican history. The similarities with K’awil and Huracan are hard to miss. They too were powerful creator gods marked by their use of black obsidian mirrors. But Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror, was a figure of violent extremes. His spirit animal, the jaguar, was the embodiment of the sun at night. His names included “Night Wind” and “Enemy of Both Sides.” The turquoise mask of Tezcatlipoca (shown), from the British Museum collection, is terrifying. It features a gaping mouth with ragged teeth and strange mirror eyes. It suits a deity to whom thousands were sacrificed.
The mirrors here seem very different from the statue of the Olmec woman with the mirror on her chest.
Montezuma was said to have foreseen his downfall in an obsidian mirror. It was a vision of warriors mounted on deer. In a different version of the story, he saw the image of a brown bird with a mirror on its forehead which showed the night sky. When he looked again, he saw many warriors attacking. These stories probably added to the sense of the mirror being the harbinger of doom.
What did John Dee know about the history of the obsidian mirror in Mesoamerica? Hard to guess. He may have heard some of the stories about Montezuma and his dark visions of defeat. Maybe he read something about Tezcatlipoca and the staggering number of blood sacrifices made to him, but Dee probably knew almost nothing of the earlier history of the obsidian mirror in Mexico. Most of the handwritten records of the Maya and Aztecs were destroyed by the conquerors, the monuments torn down, the people converted, by force if necessary, to the new religion, the old gods replaced with new ones. The bits and pieces left behind turned into legend and rumor.
And so, separated from the culture that gave it meaning, the polished obsidian mirror became only a curiosity, part of a magic show meant to entertain the Queen, and a novelty for the people who glance at it today in its glass case in the British Museum. Interestingly, though, even after all these years it retains a touch of its dark magic, enough to make people post warnings online about its power.
Fields, Virginia M and Dorie Reents-Budet, Lords of Creation: The Origin of Sacred Maya Kingship. Catalog of the Los Angeles County Museum exhibition, first published by Scala, London, 2005, source of images of K’awil, the seated ruled with mirror headdress and divination mirror, and the seated female figure with mirror on her chest
Foster, Lynn V. Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Gosden, Chris, Magic: A History: from Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to The Present. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.
Taube, Karl, “Iconography of mirrors at Teotihuacan,”  2018 In Studies in Ancient Mesoamerican Art and Architecture: Selected Works by Karl Andreas Taube, pp. 204 – 225. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco. Electronic version available: http://www.mesoweb.com/publications/Works
Tedlock, Dennis, translator, Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
Vit, Josef and Michael A. Rappengluck, “Looking through a telescope with an obsidian mirror. Could specialists of ancient cultures have been able to view the night sky using such an instrument?” Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry, Vol 16, no 4 (2016) Open access.
If you look up the history of the traditional wedding cake, a multi-tiered cake with white icing, you’ll read about the cake featured at the wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1840. But the story is more interesting and complicated than that.
Wedding feasts have been around a long time. They show up in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Bible, and The Quran. Jesus performed His first public miracle at a wedding feast, changing water (about 60 gallons) into wine at His mother’s request. So good food and drink were always important elements of the experience.
The painting shown on the left, the Wedding Feast at Cana by Paolo Veronese, takes its inspiration from the Bible story, but being an Italian Renaissance era painting, it features many prominent guests of the time in their Renaissance-era (1500s) finery. Except for Jesus and Mary. While the other guests are clustered in active groups, Jesus and Mary seem removed in both time and place.
A more rollicking view of the wedding feast can be found in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting of the Peasant’s Wedding Feast, on the right. Here, almost everyone is having a good time. The exception is the bride, found under the green banner and looking particularly unenthusiastic. It’s not surprising since marriage at the time had little to do with love or romance. Typically marriage was a financial arrangement. The woman was told who to marry and expected to produce children in order for her husband to have a clear line of succession. Fertility was the focus of the celebration.
One of the aids to fertility was the Bride’s Pie (1685), which contained oysters, rooster combs, lambs’ testicles, and sweetbreads (thymus gland and pancreas). A different recipe called for boiled lamb’s feet plus a pound of beef suet and a pound of apples. In addition to the bride, other women were encouraged to eat a piece of the pie. One lucky woman might get the slice that contained the charm, often a ring, that meant she’d be the next to get married. Along the same lines as the bouquet toss today.
The wedding bread had a similar role in the Medieval wedding feast, being broken apart over the bride’s head in order to ensure her fertility. Guests could scoop up crumbs and eat them or throw them at the bride, in the same way as people used to throw rice – as a wish for fertility and plenty.
There are still Wedding Breads and Pies, some of which are exceptionally beautiful, as well as dozens of other varieties of wedding feast desserts. Those pictured include Ukrainian wedding bread, Korovai, and breaking bread in a Bulgarian wedding.
So then, why is the tiered wedding cake with white icing so ubiquitous? Back to Queen Victoria. Or, more accurately, to sugar.
Before 10,000 BC, honey, some trees’ sap, and fruits provided the sweeteners for human cuisine. Then sugar appeared on the scene. Native to Papua New Guinea, sugar cane reeds were originally chewed to release their sweet syrup. But, with time and trade, its use spread east across Polynesia, north to Asia, and west to India. India recorded the first refining of sugar in a dedicated mill in 100 AD, where the cane was crushed and the juice extracted then boiled and filtered, leaving a light brown gravelly substance, along the lines of what’s sold as unrefined sugar today. By 640 AD, China had developed sugar processing techniques borrowed from India.
Persian and Egyptian experts developed more sophisticated methods of processing sugar into crystals. Additional centrifuging separated out most of the molasses, leaving behind blond to light brown sugar crystals.
Arabs combined it with ground almonds to make marzipan, a moldable sugar paste still popular in cake decorating and candy making today.
Around 650 AD, as Arab kingdoms mastered growing and refining sugar, the religion of Islam expanded significantly under the first four successors of Muhammad. Muslim armies conquered areas from Persia to Egypt and across the Mediterranean.
Alarmed at the loss of territory formerly under the control of the Catholic Church, Pope Urban II called for a “Holy War” against the Muslims, which turned into the First Crusade, in 1095. This coincided with a popular feeling that the end of the world was near so the faithful should meet it in Jerusalem wearing tunics marked with the sign of the cross. These chaotic, nominally religious wars continued off and on for the next 200 years.
What does this carnage have to do with our wedding cake? Sugar. When the Europeans returned home from the Crusades, they brought sugar (and marzipan) and knowledge of their production with them. Venice was an early center of sugar trade between the Arabs and Europeans, but sugar as a commodity was so rare and expensive, it was reserved for the most wealthy and powerful, and often stored in special safes. However, everyone could see the profits from selling it would be extraordinary.
The Spanish established sugar plantations on the Canary Islands, southwest of Spain and northwest of Africa, enslaving the native people to work in the sugar mills. It was the first of many such arrangements. The plants need a warm, moist environment and could not tolerate Europe’s cold winters, so the hunt was on to find promising sugar plantation sites.
When Christopher Columbus made his second voyage, in 1493, he brought sugar cane plants from the Canary Islands with him to Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic).
When Pedro Cabral of Portugal landed in Brazil by accident in 1500, he quickly realized this would be a great place to grow sugarcane. Brazilian sugar eventually dominated the industry. Even today, Brazil is the single largest sugar producer in the world.
However, because sugar production was dirty and dangerous and many of the indigenous peoples were killed off by European diseases after colonization, a huge demand for workers arose, and that drove the trade in enslaved people to work the sugar fields.
Historical note: After the Portuguese monarchy responded to Pope Nicholas V’s call for aid in his battle against the Turks in Constantinople by sending troops, the Pope responded by issuing the papal bull “Dum Diversas” (1452), which authorized the King of Portugal to conquer Saracens and pagans and consign them to a life of “perpetual servitude.” Thus the trade in captive humans to fuel the sugar machine was given the Papal blessing by describing them as infidels captured as part of a holy war. The bull granted Portugal an exclusive right, but that arrangement was soon ignored by other competitors in the sugar trade. The arrangement became known as the Sugar Triangle, transferring captured Africans, selling them into slavery in the Americas, and then transporting sugar, rum, and raw materials from the Americas to Europe. It resulted in unbelievable riches – or suffering, depending on which side of the triangle you were on.
Sugar first appeared in Europe in the 11th century when it was brought back by Crusaders and treated as a medicine and a spice. But later it became a treasure, as valuable as gold. It was not only tasty and valuable, it could also be made into art. Really fancy, prestigious, ultimately edible art that would impress your social peers.
Sugar, when combined with egg whites, gum Arabic, and other ingredients, can be made into pastillage, a sugar paste with a consistency a little like Play-doh that can be pressed into wooden molds or formed by hand into detailed facades and figures. The results, in the hands of an expert, were/are truly extraordinary. They were often the centerpiece of a great feast, including full building facades and carefully sculpted scenes of animals and humans. Or tiny sugar baskets holding sugar fruits, like the ones holding bon-bons served to Marie Antoinette.
(The larger image in the collage is from the Getty Museum’s display of classical sugar art. The top smaller image shows the incredible level of detail possible with pastillage. The bottom drawing shows the sugar art display at a Renaissance feast – perhaps exaggerated slightly in scale.)
Sometimes, at the end of the feast, guests were invited to break off a piece to eat or take home.
In England, King Henry VIII had his own confectioner who was charged with creating sweet desserts. His daughter, Elizabeth I, was impressed by the sugar animals featured at a lunch in her honor and became famous for her sweet tooth.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert
Eventually, the wedding dessert borrowed the idea of sugar art from the feasts and applied it to wedding cakes. The traditional yeast cake or plum cake became fruit cake glazed with royal icing. The whiter the icing the more prestigious it was since white sugar required more refining and was therefore more expensive. The 19th century brought in elaborately decorated wedding cakes, most notably that of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, which was over a foot tall. It was not the first of its kind, but it was certainly the most famous. On the top were sugar figures of the bride and groom dressed as ancient Romans. Joining them were two turtle doves (faithful love), a dog (fidelity), lots of Cupids, and bouquets of white flowers. Clearly, this cake established the pattern still being followed. Victoria also popularized the white gown for brides as a symbol of purity.
Later royals, including Victoria’s children, upped the stakes in the sugar decorations on their wedding cakes. Princess Louise’s wedding cake featured figures from Greek mythology and the Renaissance. But the one that takes the cake, as it were, was the one featured at the wedding of Elizabeth II and Phillip Mountbatten. It was nine feet tall and weighed over 500 pounds (shown in photo).
Prince William and Kate Middleton chose a traditional fruitcake with decorative white icing.
Prince Harry and Megan Markle moved in a slightly different direction with the cake design and decoration. They are part of a growing movement in weddings toward personal choice rather than tradition. Finally breaking from Victoria’s example, wedding cakes can now feature whatever the people getting married would like them to, resulting in some fabulous, whimsical creations. Maybe the dresses will soon follow suit.
When I asked friends about their wedding cake superstitions, many recounted the “put the cake under the pillow” belief, which mainly resulted in a messy cake blotch under the pillow rather than a dream of a future husband. Some said they saved a piece of their wedding cake, or the entire top layer, to eat on their one-year anniversary but found it pretty much inedible twelve months later.
More long-standing is the belief that eating a piece of wedding cake brings good luck. So, if you’re fortunate enough to be invited to a wedding feast, enjoy your part in it and throw a couple of crumbs over the happy couple in a nod to history.
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 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, https://vimeo.com/248140755 , 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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, https://www.pnas.org/content/117/9/4578
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, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/03/180315140733.htm/
Sykes, Rebecca Wragg, KINDRED: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art. London: Bloomsburg Signa: 2020
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.