The Ancient History of Ice Cream

Strawberry Ice Cream, Strawberries

In its journey zigzagging between tradition and geography, ice cream has grown from a dessert for the powerful elite to a street food that everybody enjoys and consumes all year round. Back in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, ice-and snow-drinks were served to the rich and wealthy, and what we can loosely call the first ice cream cup was found in Egypt in a tomb from the Second Dynasty in 2700 BC. The “first ice cream cup” was a kind of mold consisting of two silver cups, one of which contained snow (or crushed ice) and the other cooked fruit. “Icehouses”, where snow was stored and ice deliberately formed, were undoubtedly an extremely ancient invention which led to our modern-day refrigerator. A tablet from c. 1780 BC records the construction of an icehouse by Zimri-Lim, the King of Mari, in the northern Mesopotamian town of Terqa. In China, archaeologists have found remains of ice pits from the 7th century BC, and references suggest that these were in use before 1100 BC. Alexander the Great, who loved snow and ice with honey and nectar, stored snow in pits dug for that purpose around 300 BC. In Rome, in the 3rd century AD, snow was imported from the mountains, stored in straw-covered pits, and sold from snow shops. The ice that formed in the bottom of the pits sold at a higher price than the snow on top. Persian records date back to the 2nd century AD for sweetened chilled drinks with ice created by freezing water in the desert at night.

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Yakh-chal in Yazd province – Iran.
In 400 BC Persian engineers had already mastered the technique of storing ice in the middle of summer in the desert.
The ice could be brought in during the winters from nearby mountains. But they had a wall made along east-west direction close to the Ice Pit (yakhchal).In winter the qanat water was being canalized to north side of the wall. The shadow of the wall makes water freeze more quickly so they could have more ice per each winter day.

Snow was used to cool beverages in Greece around 500 BC, and Hippocrates is known to have blamed chilled beverages for causing “stomach flow” as Snow obtained from the lower slopes of the mountains was unsanitary, and iced drinks were suspected to induce convulsions, colic, and a host of other diseases. Later, the Romans seemed to take note of Hippocrates’ complaint and did not add ice to their beverages because the easily accessible ice on the lower slopes was not sanitary for use in food preparation. However, in the same century, the people of the Persian Empire did the opposite. Instead of putting ice in their drinks, they would spill grape juice concentrate over the snow and eat it in hot summers. A hundred years later, they invented a special ice cream recipe for their royal families which consisted of iced rose water, vermicelli, saffron, berries and other sweet flavours.

In Ancient Rome special wells were used to store ice and snow which slaves brought down from to mountains to luxurious villas. During the Roman Empire, Nero Claudius Caesar (54-86 AD) often sent runners into the mountains for snow, which was then flavored with fruit and honey toppings.. Among the ruins of Pompeii there are traces which lead us to believe that some shops specialized in selling crushed ice from Vesuvius sweetened with honey.

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 Emperor Nintoku (Edo Embroidery Pictures, Comparison of Day and Night). Woodblock print by Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912) 

Gathering ice to preserve food was a practice in Japan where Emperor Nintoku (290 – 399 AD) proclaimed an Ice Day and in China, over a thousand years ago. In the Shih Ching, an ancient collection of odes, mention is made of an ice-gathering festival. King Tang of the Shang Dynasty (c. 1675 – 1646 BC), had 94 ice men who helped to make a dish of buffalo milk, flour and camphor. During the Tang Dynasty an elegant drink was recorded which consisted of goat, cow of buffalo milk cooked with flour and camphor and then placed in iron containers and buried in snow or ice. The Arabs prepared cold drinks with cherries, quinces and pomegranates.

The first “ice cream” on the American continent was the Paila, a tradition in Pre-Columbian Ecuador. The Caranquis (or Caras), before being conquered by the Incas, sent expeditions to bring blocks of ice and snow down from the top of the volcano Imbabura, wrapped in thick layers of straw and frailejòn leaves, for thermal insulation. The ice cream was then made by filling a large cauldron (called a “paila”) with ice, snow and fruit juice (and sometimes milk), and mixing vigorously until the juices and ice froze together. Using this ancestral technique, gradually perfected over centuries, helados de paila are still prepared traditionally today in some places in Ecuador, especially in the modern town of Imbabura.

Ice cream was made possible only by the discovery of the endothermic effect. Previously, the cream could only be chilled so it could not be frozen. The addition of salt reduced the melting point of the ice, which had the effect of removing heat from the cream and allowing it to freeze. The first documented record of this was the Indian poem Pancatantra, dating back to the 4th century AD. The early written description of the method is documented not from culinary sources, but from the writings of Ibn Abu Usaybia concerning medicine in the 13th century. The technique of “freezing” is not known from any European source prior to the 16th century.

Ice, Ice Cream, Ice Cream Sundae, Sweet, Waffle, Fruits

“The Oldest Profession in the World”: Prostitution or Gardening?

Former president of the United States Ronald Reagan (1911 – 2004) allegedly once said, “Someone once said that politics is the second-oldest profession. I’m beginning to think it bears resemblance to the first”, unfavorably comparing politicians to prostitutes.

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“Sorrow” by Vincent Van Gogh (1882), Van Gogh is reported to have encountered Sien Hoornik (the lady posing for this drawing) wandering the streets of The Hague with her five-year-old daughter Maria Wilhelmina in January 1882. She was destitute and pregnant, with addictions to alcohol and tobacco and reportedly working as a prostitute. 

Sex workers are rightly avoiding the term “prostitute” because of what we equate with it (dirty men, sadness, a woman selling her body, etc. Perhaps even its comparison with politicians?). It’s a word filled with a great deal of cultural baggage, and none of it good. Research after research have shown that our damaged view of the “prostitute” is far from real, but we persist in trying to define and classify this figure as such throughout history. Despite the old adage, prostitution is not “the oldest profession in the world”. Anthropologist George Peter Murdock of Yale University found that prostitution did not occur in many so-called primitive cultures, but the medicine man was universal. Mary Breckinridge, an American nurse midwife and the founder of the Frontier Nursing Service, have suggested that midwifery is the oldest profession, “The midwife’s calling is so ancient that the medical and nursing professions, in even their earliest traditions, are parvenus beside it”. I often find myself getting mildly irritated when I hear prostitution being referred to as “the world’s oldest profession”. It is not. I would actually argue that the world’s oldest profession is gardening, but trying to work out what is the “oldest” profession is actually something of a wild goose chase as professions (and money) are recent inventions.

Homo sapiens have been roaming around the world for around 200,000 years, and the earliest evidence of coined money dates back to 640BC in Lydia, Asia Minor. Even the systems of bartering products, rather than currency, rely largely on the domestication of cattle and the cultivation of crops, and this dates back to about 9000 BC. This means that we managed to live quite happily without money for much of human history. Given that money is perhaps the most influential factor on how we live our lives these days, it is sobering to note that the only value that money really has is what we as a society collectively connect to it. At the end of the day, “money” is bits of paper and metal disks, which we have all agreed upon, are unique. We lived perfectly well without it before our ancestors decided that the gold rocks were nicer to look at than the other rocks.

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“Socrates finds his student Alcibiades at heterai” by Henryk Siemiradzki (1843 – 1902)

But let us ignore that for a bit and talk about gardening. The inhabitants of ancient Mesopotamia were already urban and literate around 3000 BC and the evidence for their gardens comes from written documents, pictorial sculpture and archaeology. The 7th century BC Assyrian King Assurbanipal (King of the Neo-Assyrian Empire from the death of his father Esarhaddon in 668 BC to his own death in 631 BC) is seen on a sculpture featuring his wife, sitting on a couch beneath the vineyards, attended by musicians. Trophies of conquest are on view, including the dismembered head of King Elam hanging from a fragrant pine branch. The Babylonian text of the same time is divided into parts, as though it were showing soil beds with names of medicinal, vegetable and herbal plants written in each square.

At Mari on the Middle Euphrates (c. 1800 BC), one of the great courtyards of the palace is crossed by elevated walkways of baked brick; the king and his entourage will dine there. At Ugarit (c. 1400 BC), there was a stone water reservoir, not centrally positioned as in later Persian gardens, since the central feature was probably a tree. On a larger scale, royal hunting parks were set up to house the exotic animals and plants that the king had collected during his international campaigns. King Tiglath-Pileser I (c. 1000 BC) mentions goats, oxen, asses, two-type deer, gazelle and ibex, proudly saying “I numbered them like flocks of sheep.”

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“Morning mood at the lake of Karnak” by Karl Wuttke (1849 – 1927). The sacred lake of the Karnak Temple was dug by Tuthmosis III (1473-1458 BC). It is lined with stone wall and has stairways descending into the water. The lake was used by the priests for ritual washing and ritual navigation.

The history of ancient Egyptian gardens, like all aspects of Egyptian life, relied on the Nile and the network of canals that drew water from it. Water was hoisted from the Nile in leather buckets and carried to the gardens on the shoulders, and later, starting about the 4th century BC, it was raised from the wells by hoists with counter-balancing weights. The early gardens consisted of planting beds divided into squares by earthen walls, so that the water could soak into the soil rather than be lost. The gardens belonged to the temples or to the residences. Secular gardens were situated near the river or canals and were primarily used for growing vegetables. Beginning in the New Kingdom, the gardens were connected to more spacious homes and were often surrounded by walls. Temple gardens were used to grow some vegetables for rituals, Palace Gardens first appeared in Egypt just before the Middle Kingdom (2035–1668). These gardens were very large in size and were arranged in geometric patterns. The ponds in the palace gardens were enormous and numerous. In the second millennium BC, King Snefer ‘s garden pond was wide enough for boats to be rowed by twenty oarsmen. The rulers of ancient Egypt, such as Queen Hatshepsut (1503–1482 BC) and Ramses III (1198–1166 BC), used pots to bring back to Egypt new kinds of trees and flowers found during their conquests in Libya, Syria and Cyrene.

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Pond in a garden. Fragment from the Tomb of Nebamun, 1400 BC

Ancient Indian gardens are listed in several ancient Hindu texts, including Rigveda (1500–1200 BC), Ramayana and Mahabharata. Buddhist accounts mention the bamboo grove that King Bimbisara gave to the Buddha. Digha Nikaya, a Buddhist text, also mentions Buddha living in the mango orchard of the Jivaka monastery, donated by the physician Jivaka. The inscriptions of Emperor Ashoka (304 – 232 BC) mention the establishment of botanical gardens for planting medicinal herbs, plants and trees. They had pools of water, grid patterns, and chattri pavilions.

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A border of trees, palms and herbaceous plants from a Roman garden in the 1st century AD. Coloured photographic reproduction of a wall painting, c. 1891.

Sumerian documents dating back to the c. 2400 BC is the first recorded mention of prostitution as an occupation. They describe the temple-brothel run by Sumerian priests in the town of Uruk. Now, if we want to be a little divisive, we should take holy prostitution into account. Sacred prostitution is a ritual consisting of paid intercourse conducted in the sense of religious worship, probably as a type of ritual of fertility or hieros gamos (“divine marriage”).The Old Near East was home to several shrines, temples or “houses of heaven” dedicated to various gods. The 5th-century BC historian Herodotus’ account and some other testimonies from the Hellenistic era and Late Antiquity indicate that ancient societies fostered the tradition of sacred sexual rites not only in Babylon and Cyprus, but in the Near East. Herodotus writes:

“The foulest Babylonian custom is that which compels every woman of the land to sit in the temple of Aphrodite and have intercourse with some stranger at least once in her life. Many women who are rich and proud and disdain to mingle with the rest, drive to the temple in covered carriages drawn by teams, and stand there with a great retinue of attendants. But most sit down in the sacred plot of Aphrodite, with crowns of cord on their heads; there is a great multitude of women coming and going; passages marked by line run every way through the crowd, by which the men pass and make their choice. Once a woman has taken her place there, she does not go away to her home before some stranger has cast money into her lap, and had intercourse with her outside the temple; but while he casts the money, he must say, “I invite you in the name of Mylitta”. It does not matter what sum the money is; the woman will never refuse, for that would be a sin, the money being by this act made sacred. So she follows the first man who casts it and rejects no one. After their intercourse, having discharged her sacred duty to the goddess, she goes away to her home; and thereafter there is no bribe however great that will get her. So then the women that are fair and tall are soon free to depart, but the uncomely have long to wait because they cannot fulfil the law; for some of them remain for three years, or four. There is a custom like this in some parts of Cyprus.”

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A visit to the hetaeras. Attic red-figure hydria. Dated somewhere between 490 – 480 BC

So how did prostitution become the “oldest profession in the world”?

“The oldest profession in the world” did not start to acquire its association to prostitution until 1889. But, in fairness despite my preference to gardening, there are a lot of other professions that can legitimately claim to be the “oldest” profession such as farmers, horticulturalists, barbers, engineers, gardeners, the military, doctors, nurses, teachers, priests, and even lawyers.

Perhaps the earliest recorded claim to be the world’s oldest profession was made on behalf of tailors. The Song in Praise of the Merchant-Taylors from 1680, which was routinely performed at pageants at the Lord Mayor’s Show if the current mayor of London happened to belong to the tailors’ guild, began:

“Of all the professions that ever were nam’d,
The taylor’s, though slighted, is much to be fam’d’:
For various invention, and antiquity,
No trade with the tayler’s comparèd may be:”

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“Phyrne” by Francesco Barzaghi (1839-1892). Phyrne was (born c. 371 BC) was an ancient Greek courtesan (hetaira), from the fourth century BC. She is best known for her trial for impiety, where she was defended by the orator Hypereides.

After pointing out that Adam and Eve made garments for themselves, and were therefore tailors, it continued:

“Then judge if a tayler was not the first trade.
The oldest profession, and they are but raylers,
Who scoff and deride men that be merchant-taylers.”

(Again. To be fair, I should also note that by that logic Adam was put into the garden of Eden and given the task to tend to it and was therefore a gardener.)

The Irish poet Henry Brooke (1701–1783) declared that humbugging (i.e. scamming) was the oldest profession:

“Of all trades and arts in repute or possession,
Humbugging is held the most ancient profession.”

The phrase began to be associated with prostitution in the last decade of the nineteenth century following Rudyard Kipling’s short story about an Indian prostitute, On the City Wall (1889). Kipling writes: “Lalun is a member of the most ancient profession in the world. Lilith was her very-great-grandmamma, and that was before the days of Eve as every one knows. In the West, people say rude things about Lalun’s profession, and write lectures about it, and distribute the lectures to young persons in order that Morality may be preserved. In the East where the profession is hereditary, descending from mother to daughter, nobody writes lectures or takes any notice; and that is a distinct proof of the inability of the East to manage its own affairs.”

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“Campaspe taking off her clothes in front of Apelles by order of Alexander”, by Auguste Ottin (1811-1890). Campaspe was a supposed mistress of Alexander the Great.

Perhaps due to our tendency to attribute the best qualities to men and believe in the worst qualities in women, this became the one association that sticks, apparently, because five years later, in a scathing article on the morals of the aristocracy in the mass circulation Reynold’s Newspaper, 22 July 1894, the reference was repeated:

“In ancient Rome, under the empire, ladies used to go to baths to meet a certain class of men, while men resorted thither to meet a certain class of ladies. The ladies belonged to what has been called “the oldest profession in the world”, a profession which is carried on in Piccadilly, Regent street, and other parts of London with great energy every night …”

In the same year the Pall Mall Gazette reported a speech in which “Mrs. Ormiston Chant … implored us to stand shoulder to shoulder and destroy what Kipling has called ‘the oldest profession in the world'”.

Going to Hell and Back, Turning Chaos to Opportunity

Joseph Campbell wrote, “a hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Within this concept, the underworld is notable as a place where a hero could descend and prove himself. For the ancient Greeks, the underworld represents a point of no return. However, there are some who managed to descend to the realm of the dead and returned to the land of the living. This journey to the underworld usually provide the hero or upper-world deity with a special object, a loved one, or a heightened knowledge. The ability to enter the realm of the dead while still alive, and to return from it, is considered proof of the hero’s prowess and mastery over himself and the world around him or, in the case of the goddess Persephone’s return from the underworld, the cyclical nature of time and existence.

This is not an exclusively Greek story. The journey to the underworld and the resulting transformation are such an important part of the ancient religions that it influences cultures, rituals and governments of many ancient societies. An ancient Bugis poem called La Galigo is the most coherent account of the introduction of kingship among the Bugis and Makassar people of South Sulawesi, Indonesia. The poem described the earth as being in chaos at the beginning of time. The gods and goddesses then decided to send Batara Guru (“noble lord counselor”) to transform this chaos into a place habitable for man.

We Nyilitimo, the daughter of the god of the underworld, agreed to serve as a wife to Batara Guru on earth. Therefore, as Batara Guru descended to earth from the heaven on a rainbow, We Nyilitimo rose from the underworld on a big wave, earning herself the title Tompo ri busa mpong (“She who rose from the foam of the waves”). The two deities met and began a civilization together. After a period of time, Batara Guru and We Nyilitimo left to return to their respective realms, leaving their children to live on earth. Without their divine parents, mankind began to turn on one another. Batara Guru and We Nyilitimo took pity on them and appointed one of their children to rule over the warring communities. In the Bugis-Makassar kingdoms this being was called the Tu manurung (“the one who descended”), a child of heaven and the underworld whose duty was to lead the people on earth. This legend became the ideal depiction of the origins of rulers that forms the basis of later court writing in Makassar which emphasize the divine ancestry of the royal families. In Bugis-Makassar society, a king was regarded as an essential mediator or link between mankind on earth and the gods in heaven and the underworld, as he was believed to possess the power to move freely between the realms until such time of his death where he would descend to the underworld to join his mother.

The 12th century Epic of King Gesar of Mongolia relates the heroic deeds of the culture hero Gesar, the lord of the legendary kingdom of Ling. His birth was said to be miraculous. One version of his birth is that, like the first king of Bugis-Makassar, he was born from the union between a father, who was simultaneously a sky god and holy mountain, and a mother who was a goddess of the watery underworld. Like the semi-mythical role of the Bugis-Makassar king, King Gesar defended his people against various human and superhuman aggressors. A version of his myth says that he descended to the underworld near the end of his life to rescue his mother from usurpers of the underworld and later, instead of dying a normal death he joined his mother in the underworld from which he may return at some time in the future to save his people from their enemies.

The god Izanagi and his wife, the goddess Izanami, gave birth to the many islands of Japan as well as numerous deities of Shintoism. After Izanami died giving birth to the fire-god Kagu-tsuchi, Izanagi executed the fire god and went to see his wife in Yomi-no-kuni (the underworld) in the hopes of retrieving her. However, like Persephone in Greek mythology, Izanami had eaten the food cooked in the furnace of the underworld, rendering her unable to return. Although he had promised, prior to his descent, to never look upon his wife, Izanagi betrayed this promise only to behold her in her monstrous state. The couple’s relationship turned sour as, angry and ashamed, Izanami took her revenge on Izanagi by dispatching the lightning god Raijin and the hag Yomotsu-shikome to chase after him. In her fury at the escape of Izanagi, the goddess swore to kill a thousand of his people every day. Hearing this, Izanagi retorted that a thousand and five hundred people will be born every day.

The name Guanyin is the short version for Guanshiyin, which means “the one who hears the sound of the world”. In one version of her legend, when Guanyin was executed, a supernatural tiger took her to the realm of the dead. However, instead of being overwhelmed by the darkness like the other spirits of the dead, Guanyin completely surprised the hell guardian by playing music, making flowers bloom around her. Guanyin turned hell into heaven. In Sumerian, the word for ear and wisdom are the same. Therefore, when Inanna “turned her ear to the Great Below”, the implication of this little sentence is that she was seeking wisdom and understanding – this further implies that one descends to the underworld to seek knowledge. When she approached the outer gates of the underworld, she was entering the ordeal of initiation. Inanna shows through her own descent her self-sacrifice for a deep wisdom and atonement. Inanna descended, submitted and died. By descending to the underworld, she opened herself to losing control of her life, facing the very real possibility of never getting out of the underworld, and still kept going. Being acted upon is considered one of the essence of the experience of the human soul faced with the transpersonal. Allowing another to exert their influence upon her is not considered passivity, but an active willingness to receive. `

A main goal of such descents, then, is the letting go of illusions and the old patterns of mundane life. Ereshkigal’s realm is similar to the undiscriminating fires of Kali in the Indian mythology. It combines time and sufferings and killing human distinctions and ego before yielding a new life as well as an acknowledgment that life is cyclical.

The I Ching notes that the symbols for chaos and opportunity are the same. This also relates to the interpretation of a divine descent to the underworld. If the world, society and cherished collective beliefs are being threatened with chaos, I Ching interpret this as the world making its own descent into the underworld prior to its being reborn. If so, then humanity is facing a time of opportunity instead of merely chaos. The world would then shed its illusions before it is empowered.

Death, Courage and Sacrifices upon the Stars: Legends Behind the Zodiacs

Star signs are one of those things which we take for granted. Although we ‘consult’ star signs, we do not usually bother with how they come about. Many of the signs got their names from various Greek legends, but some predate even those.

Horoscope, Astrology, Zodiac, Capricorn

Capricorn

The myth of Capricorn is one of those that predates the Greeks. Capricorn, or the seagoat, was a Babylonian deity named Ea. He has the lower half of a fish and the head and torso of a goat. Ea lived in the ocean and came out every day to watch over the land and went back to the sea every night. However, for the ancient Greeks, Capricorn represents Pan, who had the upper half of a man and the legs of a goat. When Pan’s nymph mother saw her strange baby, she shrieked in fear and ran away. The god Hermes, however, loved his son. He took him to Olympus, where the other gods and goddesses also took a liking to Pan. Pan became the god of shepherds and flocks, taking over the responsibility from his father. He lived among the shady trees in the mountain and amused himself by playing his reed pipes (‘Panpipes’), or by chasing nymphs through the woods.

Aquarius

As water is the bringer and sustainer of life, the force that made water rain down from the heavens was among the most revered by ancient civilizations such as Babylonia, Egypt and Greece. There was always a god known as the “Water Bearer”. In the Greek legend, the Water Bearer was Zeus as one of his most important roles was as the god of storms. However, Zeus was not Aquarius. During the Iron Age, humanity had become more savage than animals. Brother fought against brother, sons killed fathers – no one was safe, and everyone was generally quite nasty to each other. No one would listen to the gods and they never would repent for their sins.

Zeus had noticed a pair of poor husband and wife, Deucalion and Pyrrha, during his last visit to Earth. They lived alone in a simple hut, with almost no food, and definitely no material goods. Despite this, they fed Zeus, gave him shelter for the night and spoke to him kindly, even though they had no idea that he was a god. Zeus then went back to the sky with a bit of faith in humanity. But, the savagery of humanity continued and, one day, Zeus has had enough. He sent a great flood upon the Earth, destroying  all the people in the world. However, he still remembered Deucalion and Pyrrha – the two last godly people on Earth. Zeus allowed them to survive the flood. After it ended, he helped them create a new race of stronger and better people. When Deucalion died, Zeus placed him in the sky as the ‘Water Bearer’ because he lived through the great flood and helped to bring life to a new generation.

Pisces

Pisces is associated with Aphrodite and Eros, her son. They were walking along a river one day when a monster named Typhon suddenly rose up out of the water to destroy them. Typhon was as strong as a Titan, and therefore as strong as the gods. He was as tall as the heavens and his eyes shot flames. Instead of fingers, he had 100 dragon heads sprouting from his hands.

None of the Olympians had the power to destroy Typhon alone. All they could do was run from him. Seeing him, Aphrodite and Eros dove into the river and were rescued by two friendly fish who carried them to safety. The two grateful gods then place the two fish in the sky with their tails intertwined, to commemorate the day when love and beauty were saved.

Aries

Athamas, king of Croneus, had a son Phrixus and a daughter Helle, by his first wife, Nephele. Eventually he got bored of his first wife, sent her away and married Ino, daughter of Cadmus, king of Thebes. Although Ino gave him two sons, she soon grew jealous of Nephele’s children and decided to take over the kingdom for her own sons.

Ino ordered the women of the kingdom to roast the seeds of corn before the men planted them in the field, swearing them to secrecy. Of course, the corn didn’t grow, which was a bit of a bummer for the kingdom, as corn was their number one resource of food, and a good corn harvest could feed the whole kingdom for months. The king decided to consult an oracle to see what he could do to appease the gods and bring back the crops. Being king, he didn’t go to the oracle himself and sent messengers instead. Ino paid off the messengers, bribing them into lying about its advice.

The bribed messenger told the king that Phrixus and Helle were the cause of the famine and they would have to be sacrificed to the gods before the kingdom would have corn again. Although the king was in despair, he did not want to disobey the gods and cause his kingdom to starve, so he decided to follow what he thought was the oracle’s advice.

Luckily, Nephele sent a protector into the castle walls to watch over her children. This protector was a ram with fleece made out of gold. The ram had been given to Nephele as a present from Zeus, and was faithful to the former queen and her children. As the day of the sacrifice dawned, the ram approached the children. It spoke to them, telling them that they must flee the kingdom immediately. It told them to climb on its back, which they did. The ram then sprang into the air and flew away, across the ocean. Helle fell off the Ram’s back and died in the sea. The place where she fell is called Hellesponte.

Phrixus survived, and later married into the royal family of Colchis, thus maintaining his noble status. In thanks to Zeus, he sacrificed the golden ram that had carried out the god’s wishes on Earth. Zeus hung the ram’s likeness in the sky to commemorate its bravery.

Taurus

Zeus loved women – both mortal and immortal. Of course, being a god, having affairs would have been a bit tricky. His wife, Hera, was watching him like a hawk. Therefore, Zeus sometimes needed to be somewhat roundabout in his courting because he was pursuing women that he should have stayed away from anyway, like young virgins or other men’s wives. Zeus’ favored method was to change himself into an animal and get close to the woman of his choice. One day, Zeus’ eye fell on the beautiful Europa, as she was out playing with a group of girls by the seashore. He changed himself into a white bull and  wandered up to Europa. Amazed by the beauty and gentleness of the bull, Europa played with her new pet and forgot about her friends. They gradually moved further away, leaving her alone with the bull who was Zeus. He lay down and she eagerly climbed on the bull’s back.

Zeus then plunged into the sea and swam away with Europa clinging to his back. Europa called to her friends for help, but it was too late. Zeus took her to the island of Crete where he changed back to his true form. He took Europa as his lover and she bore him three sons. To celebrate his success, Zeus placed the image of the bull in the sky to represent love, strength and beauty.

Gemini

Castor and Pollux were twins. Their mother, Leda, was one of Zeus’ many lovers, after which she had four children: Castor, Pollux, Clytemnestra, and Helen of Sparta, who would later be the woman responsible for the fall of Troy. Castor and Pollux were members of the Argonauts, who set off with Jason in pursuit of the Golden Fleece.

When Castor was killed in a struggle with the Leucippidae, Zeus sadly saw his death from Olympus. As the twins were among his favorite mortals, and he did not want to see them both go to Hades, Zeus hurled a thunderbolt at the Leucippidae and killed them. Zeus then placed Pollux in the sky. But Pollux didn’t want to be immortal while his brother was still in Hades. So Zeus brought Castor up and reunite the brothers as Gemini, where they would be together forever.

Cancer

The Crab was originally called Carcinus (“crayfish”). It was big and lived underwater. Meanwhile, Heracles was in the middle of the Twelve Labors, his punishment for his crimes when he was driven insane by Hera. The gods decreed that even though he was not entirely responsible for the crimes he committed in his insanity, Heracles would still need to spend many years atoning for his sins – hence the twelve labors. Heracles was working for his broher, Eurystheus, who was quite happy to give him one impossible job after another. Heracles completed the tasks and in the course of his labors he gained glory and the favor of most of the Olympians, except Hera who decided to send Carcinus to attack him.

When Hera sent Carcinus to him, Heracles was fighting the Lernean Hydra, a giant fire-breathing snake with many heads. Each time Heracles cut off one head, two more would grow back in its place. Hera figured that Heracles would be too busy fighting the Hydra to pay attention to Carcinus, or at least if Carcinus distracted him, the Hydra would have an opportunity to finish him off.

In a bit of an anti-climax, Heracles killed Carcinus as soon as he saw him and, without missing a beat, turned his attention back to the Hydra. Hera, who watched the incident, took Carcinus and placed him in the heavens to show that she was grateful for his efforts.

Leo

Leo is a representative of a mythical monster. He represents the Nemean Lion which terrorized villages, scared young children and was impossible to kill. For one of his twelve labors, Heracles was sent to find the lion in its mountain lair and destroy it before it could completely wipe out the Nemean countryside.  Eurystheus wanted him to bring the lion’s hide back to the city as proof that he had actually killed it.

Heracles tried to kill it with his arrows. The arrows bounced harmlessly off the lion’s behind. Heracles then tried the sword. The sword broke. Then he wrestled the lion, strangling it with his bare hands and skinned it using its own claws. He made a cloak out of the lion’s skin and a helmet out of the head. Pictures of  Heracles almost  always show him clothed in the skin of the Nemean Lion. The spirit of the lion was placed in the sky as Leo.

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Virgo


During the Golden Age the gods and goddesses lived on Earth among men. Things began to change when Zeus became the king of the gods. Zeus may be indiscriminate in his choice of lady friends and would take female human lovers,  but he saw humans as lowly creatures, far beneath immortals, and should be treated as animals.

Prometheus, a Titan, became the protector of men and sided against Zeus. He even went so far as to steal fire from the Olympians and give it to humans. Zeus was outraged and chained Prometheus to the top of Mount Caucasus. Although Prometheus was later set free, Zeus was not finished with him, or the human race, yet. He sent down Pandora.Pandora’s box was filled with demons that torture humanity. After Pandora unleashed these demons, the remaining immortals on Earth quickly left for Olympus. The last one to leave was Astraea who loved earth the most. Although she went to the heavens, she still hopes to return to Earth, and she watches from the sky every night as Virgo waiting for the day when earth will be ready for her to return.

Libra

The legend of Libra originated in Egypt. Anubis, the Egyptian lord of the dead used a scale to weigh the souls of those who had died.

Anubis and his brother Apu-at watched over the two roads that led to the Underworld. Anubis would weigh the souls of the dead to determine their value based on what they had done on Earth and send worthy souls to the kingdom of Osiris, which was the equivalent to heaven. His attribute, the scales, was a symbol of final judgment. The Greeks retained this symbol as Libra.

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Scorpio

The Scorpion was a monster summoned by Artemis. She called the scorpion to destroy a giant named Orion. Orion was strong and handsome, but conceited, and always forget to show proper respect towards the deities. There are a couple of versions of how Orion managed to get Artemis cross. One  version says that he tried to force himself on one of her handmaidens. Another version says that he tried to force himself on Artemis herself who, being the virgin goddess, would have none of it. Another version says that he boasted that he was a better archer than Artemis.

Artemis ordered a giant scorpion to attack Orion. The scorpion stung Orion and killed him. Artemis placed the scorpion in the sky as a reward for doing her bidding. However, she was not finished with Orion. She also placed Orion in the heavens where he continues to run from the scorpion across the night sky for all eternity.

Sagittarius

The popular version of the legend of Sagittarius is that the Archer is Chiron, a centaur. Chiron was known for his wisdom, his caring nature and his ability to teach. The immortal centaur tutored young heroes Achilles and Jason, among others. Although he lived by himself in a cave in the countryside Chiron was renowned among the Greeks for his skills and wisdom.

When he was trying to wipe out some vicious centaurs who were plaguing the countryside, Heracles accidentally shot Chiron with an arrow. Chiron’s wound was incurable as Heracles’ arrows were tipped with the venom of the Lernean Hydra, which killed any victim it touched. However, Chiron was immortal. Although he was in terrible agony, Chiron could not die. Prometheus the Titan saw his plight and made him mortal thus enabling him to die. As he was so beloved by everyone, Chiron was immortalized as a constellation after his death.

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The Maidens and the Stars: Star Legends of Aboriginal Australia

In the Dreamtime, the cluster of stars which we know as the Pleiades were seven beautiful ice maidens. Their parents were a great mountain and an ice-cold stream that flowed from the hills. The seven sisters wandered across the land, their long hair flying behind them like storm clouds. Their beauty was so entrancing that every man who saw them fell in love with them instantly. But the maidens’ affections were cold.

One day a man named Wurrunnah captured two of the maidens and forced them to live with him while their five sisters travelled to their home in the sky. When Wurrunnah discovered that the sisters he had captured were ice maidens, thus could never return his affection, he was disappointed. So he took them to a camp fire to melt the cold crystals from their limbs, hoping to somehow turn them mortal. But as the ice melted, the water quenched the fire, and he succeeded only in dimming their brightness.

Disappointed as he was, Wurrunnah kept the two ice maidens captive and had them help him with chores around the house. The two sisters longed for their home in the clear blue sky. One day, Wurrunnah told them to gather pine-bark in the forest. After a short journey, they came to a great pine tree, and commenced to strip the bark from it. As they did so, the pine tree extended itself to the sky. The maidens climbed home to their sisters. However, they never regained their original brightness, and that is  why there are five bright stars and two dim ones in the group of the Pleiades.

Of all the men who loved the seven sisters, the Berai Berai (two brothers) were the most faithful. When the maidens set out on their long journey to the sky, the Berai Berai were grieved. They laid aside their weapons and mourned for the maidens until the dark shadow of death fell upon them. When they died, the fairies pitied them, and placed them in the sky, where they could hear the sisters singing. On a starry night, people can always see them listening to the song of the seven sisters. We know them as Orion’s Sword and Belt.

Rolla-Mano was the old man of the sea in Australian Aboriginal mythology. He ruled a great kingdom in the depths of the sea filled with shadows and strange forms. One day, Rolla-Mano went to fish in a lonely mangrove swamp close to the sea shore. He noticed two beautiful women approaching him and was determined to capture them. He hid in the branches of the mangrove tree, and, when the women were close to him he threw his net over them. One woman escaped by diving into the water. He was so enraged at her escape that he jumped in after her with a burning fire stick in his hand. As soon as the fire stick touched the water, the sparks hissed and scattered to the sky, where they remain as golden stars to this day.

Rolla-Mano never did caught the woman who dove into the dark waters of the swamp. He returned to the shore in a foul mood after a fruitless search and threw the other woman to the sky to forever separate her from her sister. That woman became the evening star. From her resting place, she gazes with dread through the mists of eternity at the restless sea – the dark, mysterious kingdom of Rolla-Mano, and with longing to the dark waters where her sister disappeared. On a clear summer night, when the sky is studded with golden stars, the people remember that they are the sparks from the fire stick of Rolla-Mano, and the beautiful evening star is the woman he captured in the trees of the mangrove swamp.

Deus Lunus: the Men of the Moon

Due to the influence of the Greek Artemis-Selene and the Latin Diana-Luna, we generally associate the moon with femininity. Among the Germanic nations, the moon is masculine and the sun feminine. It is the daughter of Sol, the Norse Sun-goddess, who in the regenerated world shall ride on her mother’s track when the gods are dead; and it is the god Mani, who at Ragnarok, the Twilight of the gods, shall be devoured by the Wolf of darkness, Managarmr (Moon-swallower), a reduplication of the terrible wolf Fenrir.

In Egypt, Chons is the personification of the moon. In this character, he is called Chonsaah or Chons the moon. His name seems to mean “the chaser,” or “pursuer”. He is said to be personified as the Unicorn who chases the Lion-sun. Another Kamic-lunar personage is Thoth, the weighing and measuring god as well as the lord of knowledge and writing. The crescent is found followed by the figure of Thoth in several hieroglyphic legends, with the phonetic name Aah.

Arabian mythology consider the moon masculine – a belief that survives to this day. In Sanskrit, the most current names for the moon, such as Kandra, Soma, Indu and Vidhu are masculine. The names of the moon are frequently used in the sense of month, and these and other names for month retain the same gender.

Yue Lao (old man under the moon), is a god of marriage and love in Chinese mythology. He is immortal and is said to live either in the moon or in the underworld. He appears at night, and unites with a silken cord all predestined couples, after which nothing can prevent their union.

During the Tang Dynasty, there was a young man named Wei Gu. Once he was passing the city of Songcheng, where he saw an old man leaning on his pack reading a book in the moonlight. Being amazed at it, Wei Gu walked up and asked what he was doing. The old man answered, “I am reading a book of marriage listing for who is going to marry whom. In my pack are red cords for tying the feet of husband and wife.” When Wei Gu and the old man came together to a marketplace, they saw a blind old woman carrying a three-year-old little girl in her arms. The old man said to Wei Gu, “This little girl will be your wife in the future.” Wei Gu was not too impressed by the looks of the little girl and thought this was too strange to believe. He ordered his servant to stab the girl with his knife.

Years later, a high official offered his daughter in marriage to Wei Gu who happily accepted and pleased that he finally found a wife. On the wedding night, he noticed a scar between her eye brows and enquired about it. His new wife told him about an incident where she was stabbed by a man in the City of Song. Wei Gu realized that his wife was that little girl whom he tried to kill – perhaps understandably, he never told his wife that he tried to have her murdered.

The cult of the Moon-god Mên in Asia Minor was widely established in Asia Minor. The Augustan History has the Roman emperor Carcalla (r. 198–217) venerate Lunus at Carrhae. This masculine variant of the feminine Latin noun luna (“Moon”), has been taken as a Latinized name for Mēn. The same source records the local opinion that anyone who believes the deity of the moon to be feminine shall always be subject to women, whereas a man who believes that the moon is masculine will dominate his wife.

Carcalla is also said to have visited the temple of Sin, the Babylonian and Assyrian Moon-god. The expression, “From the origin of the god Sin,” was used by the Assyrians to mark remote antiquity; because as chaos preceded order, so night preceded day, and the enthronement of the moon as the Night-king marks the commencement of the annals of cosmic order.

The Akkadian Moon-god, who corresponds with the Semitic Sin, is Aku, the Seated-father, as chief supporter of kosmic order. Among the Finns, Kuu is the male god of the moon,  and exactly corresponds with Aku. It is singular to find also Kua as a moon-name in Central Africa.

Among the Mbocobis of South America, the moon is a man and the sun his wife. Amongst the Mexicans, Metztli, the Moon, was a hero. According to an Australian legend, Mityan, the Moon, was a native cat [male], who fell in love with some one else’s wife, and was driven away to wander ever since. The Khasias of the Himalaya say that the moon [male] falls monthly in love with his mother-in-law, who throws ashes in his face, which explains the spots we see on the moon.

Sol et Luna: Creation Myths of the Sun and the Moon

A solar creation myth from Japan contains a reference to a floating cloud in the midst of infinite space, before matter had taken any other form. This also nicely describes the original nebula from which scientists say the solar system was evolved. The legend says that when there was no heaven, earth, sun, or moon, there was only the Invisible Lord of the Middle Heaven existing in an infinite space. With him there were two other gods. Between them, they created a floating cloud in the midst of which was a liquid formless and lifeless mass from which the earth was evolved.

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After this, seven generations of gods were born in heaven – the last and most perfect were Izanagi and Izanami who went on to become the parents of the world and all that is in it. After the creation of the world of living things, Izanagi bathed his left eye and sprang Amaterasu, the great Sun-Goddess. Izanagi rejoiced and put a necklace of jewels he around her neck. He said to her, “Rule thou over the Plain of High Heaven.” Thus Amaterasu became the source of all life and light worshipped by mankind. Then Izanagi he bathed his right eye, and there appeared Tsukuyomi,the Moon-God. Izanagi said, “Rule thou over the Dominion of Night.”

In Norse mythology, Odin arranged the periods of daylight and darkness, and the seasons. He placed the sun and moon in the heavens, and regulated their respective courses. Day and Night were considered mortal enemies as light came from above, and darkness from beneath. However, there is another version which says that the sun and moon were formed from the sparks from the fire land of Muspelheim. The father of the two luminaries was Mundilfare, and he named his beautiful boy and girl, Maane (Moon) and Sol (Sun). The gods took his children from him and placed them in the heavens, where they permitted Sol to drive the horses of the sun, and gave over the regulation of the moon’s phases to Maane.

Among the Eskimos of Behring Strait, the creation of the earth and all it contains is attributed to the Raven Father. The Raven Father came from the sky after a great deluge. He made the dry ground and created human and animal life. But mankind threatened the animal life, and this so annoyed the Raven Father that he punished man by taking the sun out of the sky, and hiding it in a bag at his home. The people were frightened at the loss of the sun, and offered rich gifts to the Raven Father to appease him. So he relented somewhat, and would hold the sun up in one hand for a day or two at a time, so that the people could have sufficient light for hunting, and then he would put it back in his bag again. This arrangement, though better than nothing, was not satisfactory to people. The Raven’s brother took pity on them, and thought of a scheme to better human conditions. He faked his death, and after he had been buried and the mourners had gone away, he came forth from the grave, and turned himself into a leaf which floated on the surface of a stream. Later, the Raven’s wife came to the stream for a drink and, dipping up the water, she swallowed with it the leaf. The Raven’s wife soon after gave birth to a boy who cried continuously for the sun. To silence him, his father often gave him the sun to play with. One day, the boy flew away with the sun and placed it in its proper place in the sky. He also regulated its daily course, making day and night, so that the people always have the constant light of the sun to guide them by day.

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The ancient Peruvians believed that the god Viracocha rose out of Lake Titicaca, made the sun, moon and stars, then regulated their courses. The Muyscas, who inhabited the high plains of Bogota, was said to have lived in a state of savagery before the arrival of an old bearded man from the east named Bochica (the Sun) who taught them agriculture and the worship of the gods. However, his wife Huythaca was not pleased with his attentions to mankind and caused a great deluge which drowned most of the inhabitants of the earth. This, of course, angered Bochica. He drove his wife away from the earth by turning her into the Moon. He then dried up the earth, and once more made it habitable for mankind to live in.

According to Mexican tradition, Nexhequiriac was the creator of the world. He sent down the Sun-God and the Moon-God to illuminate the earth, so that mankind could see to perform their daily tasks. The Sun-God went on his way without delay, but the Moon-God, who was hungry, saw a rabbit and started chasing it. This, of course, took some time. After he caught and ate the rabbit, the Moon-God looked up and found his brother, the Sun-God, had outdistanced him. The Sun-God was, in fact, so far ahead, so that thereafter the Moon-God was unable to overtake him. This is also the reason why the sun always appears to be ahead of the moon, and why the sun always looks fresh and red, and the moon sick and pale. Those who gaze intently at the moon can still see the rabbit dangling from his mouth.

According to the Tonga tribe, of the South Pacific Islands, before there was any light upon the earth, Vatea and Tonga-iti argued about which one of them was the parent of a child. Each was confident the child was his and to end the dispute they decided to share it. The infant was then cut in two. Vatea took the upper half as his share, and squeezing it into a ball tossed it up into the sky where it became the sun. Tonga-iti allowed his share, the lower part of the infant, to remain on the ground for a day or two, but seeing the brightness of Vatea’s half, he squeezed his share too, and threw it up into the dark sky when the sun was absent in the underworld, and it became the moon. Thus the sun and the moon were created, and the paleness of the moon is due to the fact that all the blood was drained out of it when it lay on the ground.

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The Comfort of Mystery: In Defense of Mythology

We often hear something being dismissed as “just a myth” to imply that it is not true. In fact, “myth” and “truth” are often seen as opposites. If it is not analysed, written down in reports and be seen or heard, then it is a myth (“pics or it didn’t happen!” as young people like to say). For many, mythology is the study of old, meaningless and untrue stories. Some people, repelled by the myths’ more incredible elements and contradictions, see them as fabrications to be discarded because we like to think that we are too “sophisticated” to believe in something so ridiculous. But mythology’s enduring worth is never in its possible historical or scientific accuracy. When recitals of data and observable facts miss the point completely, some things can be dealt with adequately only in poetry or mythology. Love, hate, empathy, aversion, hunger, greed, altruism and all the other positive and negative aspects of being human are also facts. To ignore them by putting everything into numbers is to treat people as insensate objects and their lives as mechanical conditioned responses. This is a statistical perspective and it is as much a distortion of reality as any other limited point of view.

 Every culture’s pantheon of mythical characters was the family into which every person of that culture was born, as these creatures were as familiar as their parents, grandparents or siblings. Therefore, a myth is also not a simple proposition that can be judged as true or false. Rather, a myth attempts to make sense of our perceptions and feelings within our experience of the world in a narrative format long before art, language or the written word.

Of course, there are certainly many aspects of myths are not literally true. However, we understand the stories about the Greek gods because they share some of our emotions and ambitions – two things we cannot measure even if we tried. The stories of Icarus, for example, resonates with us because we have all experienced within ourselves tendencies to fly too high or to force things only to crash and burn. Although no myth can completely represent all of human experience as human experience is so multidimensional and varied, a myth still captures some important aspects of the domain of human experience which it is meant to represent. It is like a map which captures only important features of the terrain but not every detail of the terrain it represents. Just like looking at maps, we learn through imagination, as we feel and visualize the colorful adventures of the deities or heroes. Although mythology is not a literal description of a culture’s history, we can still use myths to explore the culture itself and address some of our fundamental and difficult questions that human beings ask – who am I, where did I come from, why am I here, how did it all begin?

Truthfully, human beings are never meant to be totally rational. We therefore crave a bit of mystery to counter our apparent understanding and mastery of the world.  To lend this comfort of mystery, humanity have had deities for many aspects of life. The Egyptians had more than 2000 deities while the Hindus have 333 million. The Irish honored both the goddess of rivers (Boann) and the goddess of the Lagan River (Logia). There are deities for cities (such as Athena for Athens), mountains (Gauri-Sankar for Mount Everest), lakes, tribes, plant species, temples, constellations, and many more. Deities governed not only major phenomena such as agriculture, love or the sun, but also such common matters as leisure, the kitchen stove, politics, prostitution, singing, doors, virginity, gambling, drunkenness and the toilet. Deities have governed virtually every possible activity, object and emotion, lending a bit of their magic into what would have been rather mundane and tedious interactions.

Myths also bring out our sense of protectiveness. Mistakes in relating mythological stories may meet with sneers or even anger. Much like a family member being misunderstood or criticized, we stand by our myth because we know that it is our root, the culture from where we came.

Like the lack of sense of family or community, a lack of myths can cause a sense of meaninglessness, estrangement and cold brittleness of a life devoid of reverence and awe. As myths are necessary, and we neglected to preserve most of the ancient ones, our modern society develops its own myths. Now our “modern” myths seem to rest on certain concepts (such as “progress” or “freedom”) and in larger-than-life celebrities. The media enlarges certain people to mythical proportions and we project the “hero” archetype onto other people. We revered Mother Teresa for her compassion and Albert Einstein for his intellect. Marilyn Monroe was a “screen goddess” with the alluring qualities of Aphrodite while Muhammad Ali called on the aggression of Ares when he stepped into the boxing ring. Through all these reverence, we somewhat conveniently leave out the fact that Albert Einstein failed every exams he had ever attempted in his school days, Marilyn Monroe was ultimately a lonely figure and Muhammad Ali was a peaceful man off the ring – in short, they were all human: complicated, vulnerable and fragile. But to understand and relate to them, we amplify aspects of them that are easiest for us to understand.

There is a myth in every group and our mythology changes as our culture changes. We each have our own mythology which we create. We have things and people which are important and valued to us personally. We are heroes in our “mythical journeys” by which we romanticize our various passages through life. The truly satisfying and exciting myths are those which arise from our own passions and our own visions. It just so happens that those myths have existed since the ancient times one way or the other.

Cupid and Psyche: Love Cannot Live where There is No Faith

A beautiful girl, Psyche, is born after two older sisters. People throughout the land worship her beauty so deeply that they forget about Venus, who is supposed to be the most beautiful being ever. Jealous, Venus plots to ruin Psyche. She instructs her son, Cupid, to pierce the girl with an arrow and make her fall in love with the most hideous man alive. But when Cupid sees Psyche, he shoots himself with the arrow instead.

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“Cupid and Psyche” by François Gérard  (1770 – 1837)

Meanwhile, Psyche’s family become worried that she will never find a husband, for although men admire her beauty, they always seem content to marry someone else. Psyche’s father prays to Apollo for help, and Apollo instructs her to go to the top of a hill, where she will marry not a man but a serpent. Although this is not the most appealing offer in the world, Psychefaithfully follows the instructions. She waits until she falls asleep on the hill. When she wakes up, she discovers a stunning mansion. Going inside, she relaxes and enjoys fine food and luxurious treatment. At night, in the dark, she meets and falls in love with her husband.

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” Le ravissement de Psyché ” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 -1905)

After that, she never sees him in the light. But she lives happily with him, until one day he tells her that her sisters have been crying for her. She begs to see them, but her husband replies that it would not be wise to do so. Psyche insists that they visit, and when they do, they become extremely jealous of Psyche’s beautiful mansion and lush quarters. They deduce that Psyche has never seen her husband, and they convince her that she must sneak a look. Confused and conflicted, Psyche turns on a lamp one night as her husband lies next to her.

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“Cupid and Psyche”, by Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1754 – 1829)

When she sees Cupid asleep on her bed, she immediately realizes what she has done.  Cupid awakens and leaves her because Love cannot live where there is no faith.

Celebrating Ancient Valentine: She-Wolf, Politics and Whippings

Valentine’s Day is celebrated annually on February 14. It is recognized as a celebration of romance in many regions around the world.

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This holiday that evolved to what we know as Valentine’s Day today was a very ancient pre-Roman pastoral festival to avert evil spirits and purify the city. According to Plutarch, from February 13th to 15th romantic Roman fellows stripped naked, grabbed some goat-skin whips and whipped consenting young maidens in hopes of increasing their fertility.

This festival was Lupercalia, said to be connected to the ancient Greek festival of the Arcadian Lykaia and the worship of Lycaean Pan, the Greek equivalent to the Roman god Faunus. The Greek word λύκος (lukos) means “wolf”, so does the Latin word lupus. Luperci, Lupercalia, and Lupercal all relate to the Latin word lupus (“wolf”), as do various Latin words connected with brothels. The Latin for she-wolf was also slang for prostitute.

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Conrad Dressler (1856-1940) – Lupercalia (1907)

However, Lupercus was only a part of the celebration. The Lupercalia festival was best known as a celebration in honor of Lupa, the she-wolf who suckled the infant orphans, Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, which explains the name of the festival, Lupercalia (“Wolf Festival”). According to tradition, the legendary twin brothers Romulus and Remus established the Lupercalia with two gentes, one for each brother. Each gens then contributed members to the priestly college that performed the ceremonies, with Jupiter’s priest in charge from at least the time of Emperor Augustus. The priestly college was called the Sodales Luperci and the priests were known as Luperci (“brothers of the wolf”).

The Luperci were divided into two collegia, called Quinctiliani (or Quinctiales) and Fabiani, from the gens Quinctilii, representing Romulus and gens Fabii, representing Remus. The Fabii were almost annihilated in 479 CE at Cremera and the most famous member of the Quinctilii has the distinction of being the Roman leader at the disastrous battle at Teutoberg Forest. In 44 BCE, a third college, the Julii, was instituted in honor of Julius Caesar, the first magister of which was Mark Antony. Antony offered Caesar a crown during the festival – an act that was widely interpreted as a sign that Caesar aspired to make himself king and was gauging the reaction of the crowd.

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The sacrificial feast followed, after which the Luperci cut thongs from the skins of the animals, which were called februa, dressed themselves in the skins of the sacrificed goats and ran round the walls of the old Palatine city, the line of which was marked with stones, with the thongs in their hands in two bands, striking the people who crowded near. Girls and young women would line up on their route to receive lashes from these whips to ensure fertility, prevent sterility in women and ease the pains of childbirth.

Although striking women is thought to have been a fertility measure,  there was also a decidedly sexual component.  Symbolically, if the act was to ensure fertility, it could be that the striking of the women was also to represent penetration. Of course, the husbands would not have wanted the Luperci actually copulating with their wives, but symbolic penetration, broken skin, made by a piece of a fertility symbol (goat), could be effective. The women may have bared their backs to the thongs from the festival’s inception. After 276 BCE, young married women (matronae) were encouraged to bare their bodies. In his time, Augustus ruled out beardless young men from serving as Luperci because of their irresistibility, even though they were probably no longer naked.

The cavorting Sodales Luperci performed an annual purification of the city in the month for purification – February. Since early in Roman history March was the start of the New Year, the period of February was a time to get rid of the old and prepare for the new.

It’s this blend of fun, fertility, and erotic elements, as well as the date, that ties Lupercalia to Valentine’s Day, but Lupercalia is not the direct, legitimate ancestor of the Valentine’s Day holiday. However, the ancient Romans may also be responsible for the name of our modern day of love. Emperor Claudius II executed two men — both named Valentine — on February 14 of different years in the 3rd century CE. Their martyrdom was honored by the Catholic Church with the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day. Later, Pope Gelasius I muddled things in the 5th century by combining St. Valentine’s Day with Lupercalia to expel the pagan rituals. But that didn’t stop it from being a day of fertility and love. Coincidentally, around the same time, the Normans celebrated Galatin’s Day. Galatin meant “lover of women.” This was likely confused with St. Valentine’s Day at some point, in part because they sound similar.

Valentine'S Day, Chocolates, Candy