Photo by C.A. Sowa
Evergreens and oaks
Trees are sacred in many religions. Evergreens, especially in our northern climate, are cherished for their green needles that remain, with their message of survival, when all else is bare and snow-covered. The "Christmas Tree" of Christians is a continuation of the old custom. (By the way, the German "O Tannenbaum" does NOT mean "O Christmas Tree" but "O Fir Tree." English, unfortunately, does not have a two-syllable word for "fir" or "pine" to translate the German Tanne. The words O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,/ wie treu sind deine Blätter!/ Du grünst nicht nur zur Sommerzeit,/ Nein auch im Winter, wenn es schneit are correctly translated "O fir tree, O fir tree/ how true are your leaves!/ You are green not only in summertime,/ no, also in winter, although it snows.") The majestic, mysterious fir tree is aptly associated with Christmas, one of many festivals that occur at the time of the Winter Solstice. It is a bringer of hope at the time of the shortest day, when the sun and its warmth seem farthest away. The birth of a baby under harsh circumstances, as Jesus' birth is depicted, is likewise a hopeful sign. A similar optimistic message in conveyed by the festival of Hanukkah, celebrating the miraculously burning lights, which, with only enough oil to last one day, burned for eight days. Even the much-maligned "commercialism" of the holiday season is a sign of optimism and energy -- and for merchants and vendors, a chance to make up for a dismal year. Mercury, god of commerce and communication, flourishes.
Oak trees have also been revered, and many myths have grown around them. In Dodona in Greece, the grove of oaks sacred to Zeus was consulted as an oracle. The oaks spoke, and Zeus made his will known through the whisperings of their leaves.
Horace dedicates a pine tree to Diana
In our quotation of the month, the Roman poet Horace dedicates a pine tree at his Sabine farm to Diana, with the promise of a yearly sacrifice of a boar (the Roman version of our holiday pork roast!). He celebrates Diana as the protector of young women in childbirth, and calls her triformis, "triple-formed" -- Diana on earth, Luna in the sky, and Hecate in the Underworld. Below is his poem, in the original Latin and in translation.
Montium custos nemorumque, Virgo,
Photo by C.A. Sowa.
Toy church and skeleton girl for the Dia de los Muertos
(purchased in Olvera Street, Los Angeles), photo by C.A. Sowa.
Fall welcomes both ghosts and harvests
November is bracketed by two holidays, Halloween and Thanksgiving. While in their modern form they are distinctly American, both have roots that go back to old festivals of the dead and of the harvest. Halloween, among other origins, can be traced to the Celtic festival of Samhain, celebrating the return of the herds from pasture, but involving the return of the dead to revisit their homes. It also included rites of harvest and the reaping of the last sheaf, as well as rituals connected with fire and divination. In Mexico and in Mexican communities in the U.S., November 1 and 2 (All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day) are celebrated as the Dia de los Muertos ("Day of the Dead"), which combine Catholic, Aztec, and other Mexican Native customs, celebrated with pastries, candies, and little toy scenes in the shape of skeletons disporting themselves. Family members hold picnics at the cemetery, so that dead family members can enjoy them, too.
The ancient Roman world was peopled with many kinds of ghosts, appeased at various festivals. The Parentalia (13-21 February) honored the dead of each family. The Lares were also, apparently, spirits of dead family members, associated with crossroads, honored at the festival of the Compitalia, but a Lar familiaris also had a shrine with the Penates, or gods of the pantry, within each house. Larvae (spectres) were scarier, as were Lemures (ghosts). The Lemuria (9, 11, 13 May), a ritual for feeding and propiating the angry and sinister lemures, is described by Ovid, in the passage translated below.
Illustration from Rodolfo Lanciani, Ancient Rome in the Light of
Recent Discoveries, 1898.
A ritual of the Lemuria is described by Ovid in the Fasti ("The Yearly Calendar," in which, unfortunately, only the first six months are described). Black beans are thrown behind the back for the ghosts to pick up.
After that, when Hesperus has thrice revealed his lovely face,
For Thanksgiving, I reproduce the cover and three other pages from a delightful antique souvenir book, Souvenir of Dakota: The Artesian Wells, by Mrs. A.J. Dickinson, illustrated by Nelle B. Lockwood, both of Chamberlain, South Dakota, 1898. The text begins: On the dim silent prairie where brown grasses shiver, /And loneliness broods like a mystical spell, /There bursts on our vision a beautiful river, /Thrown up from the depths of a wonderful well. These words are illustrated by a wraithlike fountain spurting from the plain. The narrative includes such verses as Oh water, bright water, we see through thy prism /A vast panorama surpassingly grand: /We see the fulfillment of hopes and of wishes, /Good tidings of joy to this beautiful land. /We see through thy prism the gleaming and glancing /Of acres on acres of ripening wheat; /And we hear in thy music the songs of the reapers, /Who gather the food that the multitudes eat.
Photos by C.A. Sowa.
The perils of navigation
In October (traditionally on October 12, but now on the closest Monday), we celebrate the voyage of Columbus and the pride of the Italian people. While the journey, as with most historic events, was ambiguous in its results and meaning, and Columbus, of course, didn't "discover" the New World at all (it had already been discovered, and people were living in it), the skill and bravery of Columbus and his men and of all the early explorers, and of all who voyage upon the sea, is undeniable.
This month's quotation is translated from an ode by Horace dedicated to his friend the poet Vergil, who was about to embark on a trip to Greece. The distance between Greece and Italy seems short by today's standards, but storms can come up suddenly on the Mediterranean. Although one leaves port on a deceptively calm day, as I can attest from personal experience, one's small ship can be suddenly be tossed about by seemingly capricious gods. At such a time, passengers once prayed to Zeus or Jupiter; now they pray to the Virgin Mary.
(Explanation of names (some of which are Greek, although the poem itself is in Latin): African: the "south-west" wind; Aquilonian: the "north" wind; Hyades (Greek: "the Rainy Ones"): a cluster of stars in the constellation Taurus, thought to bring rain at the season of their morning setting (in November); Notus: the "south" wind; Acroceraunia (Greek: "Thunder Heights"): a rocky promontory in Epirus, Greece, jutting into the Ionian Sea.)
Codrus, the poor man who lost everything, owned a little statuette
of a centaur, like the bronze one pictured above.
In a disaster, the poor man is homeless while the rich man's friends rebuild his house
As we watched Hurricane Katrina and the breaking of the levees, and the subsequent agony of New Orleans and the Gulf coast, once again we saw how the poor are left to drown but the wealthy are enriched even beyond their previous lifestyle. President Bush gleefully described the opportunity afforded his crony, Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, by the destruction of (one of his) houses:
"Out of the rubble of Trent Lott's house - he's lost his entire house - there's going to be a fantastic house. And I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch."
A quotation springs to mind from the Roman satirist Juvenal (Decimus Junius Juvenalis, ca. 60-140 A.D.). In his Third Satire, Juvenal describes a chaotic urban world of fires, muggings, building collapses, and corrupt leaders that could just as well be today's news. In the excerpt translated below, the disaster is a pair of fires that consume a tenement and a mansion. The poor man, Codrus, loses "all the nothing that he owned," but the wealthy Persicus has rich friends who rush to rebuild his house. Persicus is represented as "childless," that is, without heirs, so his hangers-on hope to be named in his will. Just so, today's rich and powerful trade favors with each other.
...Codrus had a bed too short even for the dwarf Procula, and six little jugs,
In summer, women are sexy and men are weak
Sirius, the Dog Star, shines over the sweltering heat of summer, giving its name to the Dog Days of July and August. Hesiod (ca. 750 B.C.), the Old Curmudgeon of Greek epic poetry, thought the hot summer weather made women sexy and men weak. In his Works and Days, an excerpt of which appears below in translation, he recommends that a man enjoy his lunch and a jug of wine behind a shady rock, presumably to get away from those sex-crazed women.
When the artichoke blooms and the shrill cicada,
Cincinnatus called from the fields to become dictator of Rome
The Founding Fathers, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, et al. are our models for conducting our American Republic. The Founding Fathers, of course, not having themselves to look to as examples, turned to ancient Rome as their model. In particular, they were impressed by Cincinnatus, whom legend said was called from his farm to lead his nation in war, and who, after victory, returned to his simple life.
In the early days of the Roman Republic, Rome was still consolidating her power against the surrounding tribes. Among the most important rivals were the Sabines, the Aequi, and the Volsci. In about 460 B.C., a Roman force under the consul Lucius Minucius was cut off and surrounded by the Aequian enemy on Mount Algidus. Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a former consul, was called out of semi-retirement to assume the title of dictator and to lead a relief force. Under Cincinnatus' leadership, the Romans, in a short but decisive battle, rescued their brethern and defeated the Aequi. After the battle, Cincinnatus laid down his dictatorship and returned to private life.
The story of Cincinnatus was embroidered and expanded by the Roman annalists, so that it is sometimes difficult to disentangle fact from fiction (for example, he may or may not have held a second dictatorship). He is an ambiguous role model for American democracy for another reason: As a member of the patrician class, which held a stranglehold on wealth and power in Rome, he strongly opposed any measure that would extend power to the rising plebeian class!
George Washington, who was called out of retirement to become president, and, after serving two terms, retired again, was called an American Cincinnatus. The Society of the Cincinnati was founded by officers of the American Revolutionary army in 1783, and the city of Cincinnati, Ohio, was named for the Society of the Cincinnati. For the record, the original name of Cincinnati was also (semi-)classical; it was called Losantiville, for "town opposite the mouth of the Licking River!"
Below is the account of Cincinnatus (in Latin and English) as given in the Roman histories of Livy (59 B.C.-17 A.D.):
Vacation is a time to be silly
June brings the end of the school year. For some, this means graduation and the start of a first full-time job. For others, it brings summer school or a summer job. For many, it means a vacation, whether long or short, a respite from the tedium of winter. This month's quotation is a translation of the first and last verses of an ode by the Latin poet Horace (65-8 B.C.). It is addressed to a "Vergilius," who may have been Horace's famous contemporary, the poet Vergil. In it, he invites his friend to share a drink of wine and forget, if for a little while, the cares of life.
Zephyr breezes, companions of spring that calm the sea,
Illustration: horse with frog jockey; this drawing and the one
below by Christine Cooper Angier, ca. 1980 (for Mother's Day, I offer
a couple of my Mom's animal pictures)
A winning horse at the Olympics
The ancient Olympic Games included not just track and field events, but also horse racing and chariot racing. (The modern Olympics, too, have some equestrian sports). Yet it is only a little exaggeration to call the Kentucky Derby (run this year on May 7) the true Olympics of horse racing. Then, as now, kings, princes, and wealthy aristocrats entered horses in the contest.
Pindar (518-438 B.C) composed victory odes for many Olympic winners in various events, as well as for the victors in other athletic festivals less well-remembered today -- the Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian games. The musical accompaniment to these odes is, of course, now lost, but we still have Pindar's glorious, ringing words. Here, in translation, are the opening lines of his Olympian Ode I, composed for King Hieron of Syracuse, whose horse Pherenikos ("Bringer of Victory") won the horse race in 476 B.C., as he was "speeding, unspurred" along the banks of the Alpheus River at Olympia (also called "Pisa" in this poem, for the surrounding district).
Water is the noblest element, and gold shines
Pindar, Olympian Ode I, lines 1-23
Wealth is best when won by healthy competition
April is tax month. Once again, our attention is called to the fact that while some people collect much ill-gotten wealth while doing little work, those who work the hardest often seem to gain the least. Our quotation of the month comes from Hesiod's Works and Days. Hesiod was approximately contemporary with Homer (ca. 750 B.C.), but his home, far removed from the heroic world of the Iliad and Odyssey, was the hardscrabble farmland of Ascra, in Boeotia. Hesiod addressed his homilies on farming and hard work and other folk wisdom to his ne'er-do-well brother Perses, who had cheated Hesiod by bribing the corrupt local lords to give him the larger share of their inheritance, then wasted his share.
Hesiod describes the Two Strifes. One kind of strife is bad, and leads to war. The other is good, and is the healthy competition that leads men to earn honest wealth.
Indeed, there was not just one kind of Strife, but upon the earth
Hesiod,Works and Days lines 11-26
And again, Hesiod says,
If your heart within you desires wealth,
In primis venerare deos, atque annua magnae
Animals and fertility in spring celebrations
This is the time of Easter, of the first day of spring--the Vernal Equinox--and of St. Patrick's Day. Pale Male and Lola, the red-tailed hawks whose acrobatics have for several years enchanted New Yorkers, once again are caring for eggs in their nest on a twelfth-floor cornice high above Fifth Avenue, across from Central Park. Pale Male, always the gentleman, brings offerings of pigeons to his lady-love. The exuberant limestone acanthus carvings surrounding the birds' home echoes the arrival of greenery and new life.
In ancient Roman times, this was the season of the rustic celebration of the Ambarvalia, when animals to be sacrificed were led around the boundaries of each farm, to ensure the fertility of the fields. This is the ritual referred to by Vergil in the quotation from the First Georgic quoted above.
Walter Pater, Victorian essayist and critic, wrote his novel Marius the Epicurean as a fictional recreation of the life of a young Roman. At the beginning of the novel, Marius is celebrating the Ambarvalia on his ancestral estate (by the end of the novel, however, he has become a Christian). In the first chapter, Pater, quoting Tibullus (ca. 55-19 B.C). evokes the mystery of a natural world alive with inhabiting spirits. (The translation from Tibullus is mine; Pater gave only the Latin.)
SEX AND THE MOUNTAIN: Aphrodite, goddess of sexual desire and fertility, hastening to seduce Anchises on Mount Ida, causes the wild forest animals to mate as she passes them
In the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite (a poem dating from perhaps shortly after Homer himself), Aphrodite, the "golden goddess" (polychrusos) makes everyone, including gods, mortals, and all the creatures of the land and sea, fall in love. Only the goddesses Athena, Artemis, and Hestia are immune to her snares. Even Zeus, king of the gods, has been led astray by her many times. But Aphrodite herself has never been in love. Zeus takes revenge by making her fall in love with the Trojan prince Anchises, whom she seduces as he tends cattle on a mountain top. Shamed by loss of the power which she had wielded by remaining above the fray, she nevertheless becomes the mother of a mighty son, the hero Aeneas. He, in turn, was to become even more famous in Roman times, as the founder of Rome in Vergil's Aeneid.
[Zeus] put sweet desire for Anchises in her heart;
Winter is for celebrating -- and for doing indoor work!
The Saturnalia, the ancient festival of Saturn, was celebrated in Rome on December 17. Presents were exchanged, slaves were treated as equals of their masters, and freedom and jollity prevailed.
Saturnalibus, optimo dierum!
Another, more wintry view (in attitude as well as season) of this time of year is presented by the Boeotian Hesiod, who cautions the good farmer to use the indoor time well in taking care of household matters.
Pass by the seat at the bronze-smith's forge and the warm lodging-house
(-Hesiod,Works and Days, vv. 493-514)
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