The Raven, the Palladium and the White Hill of London February 18th

Shows a photo of a missing Raven at the Tower of London
The Independent January 2021

The Raven – Corvus corax – is hatching. An early nesting bird, and the biggest of the Covids. They were pushed to the west and north by farmers and game keepers but are making a comeback and finding towns convenient for their scavenging habits. So they, again, cover most of the UK except the eastern areas.

Their habits, and their black plumage has made them harbingers of death. In poetry Ravens glut on blood like the warriors whose emblem they are. Here is a very famous quotation from Y Gododdin, a medieval poem but thought to derive from a poem by the great poet Aneirin from the 7th Century

He glutted black ravens on the rampart of the stronghold, though he was no Arthur.’

Aneirin-he-glutted-black-ravens

This is one of the much argued-about references to Arthur in the ‘Was he a real person’ argument.

The Raven was also the symbol of the God-King Bran. Bran was one of the legendary Kings of Britain and his sister, Branwen, was married to the King of Ireland. To cut a long story short, which I hope to tell in further detail on another occasion, Branwen was exiled by her Irish husband to the scullery. She trained a starling to smuggle a message to her brother.

Bran took an army over the Irish Sea to restore her to her rightful state, but the ships were becalmed and so Bran blew the boats across the sea – he was that mighty a man.

Bran was mortality wounded in the battle that followed, having previously given away his cauldron of immortality to the Irish King in recompense for the insults given to the Irish by his brother.

So, the dying Bran, told his companions to cut off his head and take it back to the White Hill in London. His head was as good a companion on the way back as it was on the way out, and the journey home took 90 years.

At last they got to London where he told his men to bury his head on the White Hill, and as long as it were there Britain would be safe from foreign invasion.

This was one of the Three Fortunate Concealments and is found in ‘the Triads of the Island of Britain.’

A raven landing with a brown background
By Sonny Mauricio from Unsplash

But many years later King Arthur saw no need for anybody or anything other than himself to protect the realm so he had the head dug up. Thus the Saxons won the Kingdom from the Britons. This was one of the Three Unfortunate Disclosures.

The White Hill is said to be Tower Hill with its summit at Trinity Gardens, although Primrose Hill is sometimes offered as an alternative. If we want a rational explanation for the story, there is evidence that Celtic cultures venerated the skull, and palladiums play a part in Celtic Tales.

A Palladium is something that keeps a city or country safe, and was named after a wooden statue of Pallas Athene, which protected Troy. Perceiving this Odysseus and Diomedes stole the Palladium from Troy shortly before the Trojan Horse episode. The palladium then went to Italy (I’m guessing with Diomedes who is said to have founded several cities in Italy), and ended up in Rome.

The Romans claimed to be descendents of Trojan exiles led by Aeneas so it was back with its rightful owners. It protected Rome until it was transferred to the new Roman capital at Constantinople, and then disappeared, presumably allowing the Ottoman Turks to conquer the City of Caesar.

So what was Arthur doing destroying the palladium that kept Britain safe? Vanity is the answer the story gives. But, perhaps, it’s a memory of Christian rites taking over from pagan rituals. God, Arthur might have thought, would prefer to protect his people himself rather than they rely on a pagan cult object.

The story of Bran’s head is inevitably linked to the Ravens in the Tower who, it is still said, keep us safe from invasion, and so we clip their wings and get in a tiz when one goes missing.

Sadly, and I am probably more sad about this than most others, Geoffrey Parnell,who is a friend of mine told me that while working at the Tower of London he searched the records assiduously for the story of the ravens and found no evidence of the tale before the 19th Century and concluded that it was most likely a Victorian invention.

The Welsh Triads give a total of three palladiums for Britain.

Three Fortunate Concealments of the Island of Britain;

The Head of Bran the Blessed, son of Llyr, which was concealed in the White Hill in London, with its face towards France. And as long as it was in the position in which it was put there, no Saxon Oppression would ever come to this Island;
The second Fortunate Concealment: the Dragons in Dinas Emrys, which llud son of Beli concealed;
And the third: the Bones of Gwerthefyr the Blessed, in the Chief Ports of this Island. And as long as they remained in that concealment, no Saxon Oppression would ever come to this Island.

All good but then came the three unfortunate disclosures:

And there were the Three Unfortunate Disclosures when these were disclosed.
And Gwrtheyrn the Thin disclosed the bones of Gwerthefyr the Blessed form the love of a woman: that was Ronnwen the pagan woman;
And it was he who disclosed the Dragons;
And Arthur disclosed the head of Bran the Blessed from the White Hill, because it did not seem right to him that this Island should be defended by the strength of anyone, but by his own.

Gwrtheyrn is Vortigen, the leader of the Britons after the fall of the Roman Empire in Britain, one or two leaders before Arthur.

The Dragons were making a terrible noise, causing miscarriages and other misfortunes, and King Ludd, whom legends says gave his name to London (Ludd’s Dun or Ludd’s walled City), had them buried in a cavern in Dinas Emrys in Snowdonia. The Dragons represented the Britons and the Saxons. Vortigern in trying to build a castle in Snowdonia at Dinas Emrys disturbed the Dragons and their disclosure caused the Saxon conquest.

Gwerthefyr is Vortimer, the son of Vortigern, who was keeping the Saxons out, but his father betrayed his own people for the lust of Rowena the daughter of Hengist, the Saxon.

After Vortimer’s death his bones were buried at the chief ports and they kept the country safe.  But they were moved to Billingsgate which allowed the Saxons to land safely on the Kent coast and consolidate their increasing hold over Britain and turning it into Englandw

Written in February 21 revised in February 23 and 24

The Festival of Fools Fornacalia and Fornication February 17th

Mosaic of a man taking a loaf of bread out of a bread oven
Mosaic of Roman Bread Oven France

Fornacalia was a corn festival that took place around February 7th to the 17th. It celebrated the Goddess Fornax who was the Goddess of the Oven – specifically the grain oven for drying grain. The word for oven is also Fornax, from which we derive furnace (probably). So the celebration was to ensure that Rome’s all important grain supply was kept intact. Rome had a population of one million people, free bread was given to the people, and the Roman government took on the responsibility of providing the grain in a system called the Annona. The Annona brought grain from Egypt. Dominic Perring in his recent book on Roman London (Londinium in the Roman Empire) speculates that the fluctuating fortunes of London was depended upon the routing of a northern annona through Londinium.

The Festivals in Rome were organised by the Curio Maximus who was a priest who supervised the curiae. In Rome the citizens were arranged, originally, into the 3 ancient tribes of Rome (founded in the 8th Century BC). The Tribes changed through time until there were 4 urban tribes (Collina, Esquilina, Palatina, Suburana ) and 31 Rural tribes (see this Wikipedia page). The tribes were then divided into 10 curiae each. So there were 30 curiae.

Each Roman was supposed to be assigned to one of the curiae, which had a religious, social and voting function. The members of the curiae were known as curiales. Each curiae had their own priest, or curio, and assistant ‘flamen curialis‘. And they organised the religious ceremonies of the curiae. They met in a meeting place called the curia.

So the Curio Maximus would declare when a festival was to be held, and get the curiae to organise the celebrations at the curia. I hope you are still with me! They would choose a date, for example for the Fornacalia, between about the 7th Feb and the 17th of February. And the citizens would go to their curia where there would be a ceremonial roasting of the grain, and baking into bread which would be in honour of the Goddess Fornax.

Pliny the Elder says it was King Numa Pompilius (753-673 BC), who established Fornacalia, The Feast of Ovens.

Ovid, who wrote his almanac poem on the Roman festivals (Fasti), reveals many of these details and points out that many people didn’t know which curiae they were in, and so they would celebrate on the last day of the Festival, which therefore became known as the Feast of Fools.

Learn too why this day is called the Feast of Fools.
The reason for it is trivial but fitting.
The earth of old was farmed by ignorant men:
Fierce wars weakened their powerful bodies.
There was more glory in the sword than the plough:
And the neglected farm brought its owner little return.
Yet the ancients sowed corn, corn they reaped,
Offering the first fruits of the corn harvest to Ceres.
Taught by practice they parched it in the flames,
And incurred many losses through their own mistakes.
Sometimes they’d sweep up burnt ash and not corn,
Sometimes the flames took their huts themselves:
The oven was made a goddess, Fornax: the farmers
Pleased with her, prayed she’d regulate the grain’s heat.
Now the Curio Maximus, in a set form of words, declares
The shifting date of the Fornacalia, the Feast of Ovens:
And round the Forum hang many tablets,
On which every ward displays its particular sign.
Foolish people don’t know which is their ward,
So they hold the feast on the last possible day.


Book II: February 17 From: Fasti, Book 2. Translated by A.S Kline and available here

For more information: www.vindolanda.com/blog/celebrating-the-fornacalia wikipedia.org/wiki/Fornacalia

Fornication

I was told that the Roman word for someone who looked after a furnace was the fornicator. And as heat was a ’cause’ of lust, fornicators well, they fornicated.

However, others derive the word from the word Fornix, which is an arch, and which, it is said, was where the Brothels were, hence fornicator. Not sure I’m going with that idea that Brothels were always under arches. But here is the online etymology dictionary’s definition which might help you make up your mind:

from Late Latin fornicationem (nominative fornicatio), noun of action from past-participle stem of fornicari “to fornicate,” from Latin fornix (genitive fornicis) “brothel” (Juvenal, Horace), originally “arch, vaulted chamber, a vaulted opening, a covered way,” probably an extension, based on appearance, from a source akin to fornus “brick oven of arched or domed shape” (from PIE root *gwher- “to heat, warm”). Strictly, “voluntary sex between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman;” extended in the Bible to adultery. The sense extension in Latin is perhaps because Roman prostitutes commonly solicited from under the arches of certain buildings.

As you can see it’s a big mix-up of arches, brothels, brick ovens, all quite unconvincing, so I’m sticking with my over-heated stoker theory.

First published February 2023 and revised and republished 17th February 2024

A Vacant Day says Ovid February 16th

OVID 19TH CENTURY ENGRAVING BY j w cOK
OVID 19TH CENTURY ENGRAVING BY J W COOK

Ovid says about the 16th February ‘Next day is vacant.’ This is surprisingly encouraging to me because I have found it hard work finding something to say about some days. You can fill in with generalities, but the specific feels so much better. But. if Ovid can just say nought happened, then that is good enough for me. If you want to read Ovid’s almanac of the year, the ‘Fasti’, for yourself, this is the translation I am using.

Fasti is sadly unfinished because Pūblius Ovidius Nāsō was exiled by the Emperor Augustus when he was halfway through the Fasti. So the last entry is for 30th June where he says: ‘put the last touches to my undertaking’ suggesting he knew he was ending it here.

He was exiled until his death ten years later in Tomis, on the Black Sea. It is not clear exactly why he was exiled, ostensibly it was for the immorality in his book ‘The Art of Love’, but as that was published almost a decade earlier, it seems strange.

Was he involved with a plot against Augustus that saw the Emperor’s own daughter exiled? Her lover was Lullus Antonius, son of Mark Antony. Unlike Julia’s other lovers, he was forced to commit suicide.

But this also happened years before Ovid’s exile, so neither does it make any great sense of the great man’s punishing exile. However, Julia’s daughter was herself exiled closer to the time of Ovid’s exile and her husband, Lucius Aemilius Paullus, was executed for treason. Ovid said the reason for his exile was a ‘poem and a mistake’. The nature of that mistake is not recorded but he said the crime was worse than murder and more harmful than poetry.

Here is one of my favourite Ovid quotations. I quote from my own book which you can buy at the link at the bottom of the page.

‘Ovid, writing in Augustus’ reign, provides our guide to the flesh-pots of a Roman town. Here he recommends how the aspiring male should dress for a night out on the town:

Don’t torture your hair, though, with curling-iron: don’t pumice
Your legs into smoothness. Leave that
To Mother Cybele’s votaries, ululating in chorus
With their Phrygian modes. Real men
Shouldn’t primp their good looks

… Keep pleasantly clean, take exercise, work up an outdoor
Tan; make quite sure that your toga fits
And doesn’t show spots; don’t lace your shoes too tightly,
Or ignore any rusty buckles, or slop
Around in too large a fitting. Don’t let some incompetent barber
Ruin you looks: both hair and beard demand
Expert attention. Keep your nails pared, and dirt-free;
Don’t let those long hairs sprout
In your nostrils, make sure your breath is never offensive.

Avoid the rank male stench
That wrinkles noses. Beyond this is for wanton women –
Or any half-man who wants to attract men.

Ovid, The Art of Love i

The translation is from Green, Peter (Trans) ‘Ovid The Erotic Poems’ Penguin Classics, London 1982‘

Mother Cybele’s votaries were castrati, hence their high pitched voices. Cybele fell in love with Attys, who made her jealous, so Cybele made him mad, whereupon he castrated himself and bled to death. The Mother Goddess had him resurrected body and soul and he enjoyed divine bliss ever after. A Cybelian castration device, dredged out of the Thames, can be seen in the Roman Gallery of the British Museum.’

photo of  Castration Device from the River Thames at London Bridge British Museum Photo kevin flude
British Museum Castration Device from the River Thames at London Bridge Photo: K Flude

It’s quoted in In Their Own Words – A Literary Companion To The Origins Of London‘ D A Horizons, 2009.  Kevin Flude

To buy Kindle version click here.  To buy paperback (for £5.99)  email kpflude AT anddidthosefeet.org.uk

Lupercalia, Parentalia and Februarius February 15th

Romulus and remus suckling from a wolf
Romulus and Remus suckling from a wolf

Lupercalia was a Roman feast of purification, dedicated to the she-wolf who saved Romulus and Remus, the traditional founders of the City of Rome. The centre of the festivities in Rome was a cave called the Lupercal, traditionally the site where the wolf suckled the twin brothers until they were rescued by Faustulus, a shepherd.

The Lupercalia was also called dies Februatus, which seems to be derived from proto-italic word februum for purification by making an offering and from the the purification instruments which were called februa. This is the basis for the Roman month named Februarius and our February.

The deity of the month was Neptune.

We are also in the middle of the Parentalia, which began on the 13th February and lasted nine days. It honoured parents and family ancestors. People would visit the family tombs found along the roadsides outside of the City. Here they would honour the ancestors by making offerings.

There would be a family banquet and offerings made to the Lares – the household deities.  Romans had a household altar for their worship. The Greek Goddess Hestia was the Goddess of the Hearth – the centre of any household, and Vestal was the Roman equivalent. Dickens borrowed the concept of the Household Gods in his Christmas book ‘the Chimes’.

According to Wikipedia the Codex-Calendar of 354, shows that 13 February had become the holiday Virgo Vestalis parentat, a public holiday which by then appears to have replaced the older parentalia .

Turning down Corners

CFDinosaur> - Home

Image borrowed from cfdinosaur.weebly.com

I have a friend with whom I argue about the sanctity of the book. She believes they need to be treated like the priceless spear carriers of culture that they are. While I, read them in the bath; turn down corners to mark my place; underline interesting phrases,  mark paragraphs and commit other forms of libricide. (is there such a word?)

In my defense I note that I used to work at the Freud Museum, where they studied the marginalia in Freud’s Library to gain insight into his thought processes and influences.

I can cite other examples of exquisite marginal drawings found in medieval manuscripts. (see this  excellent article in atlas obscura https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/medieval-marginalia-books-doodles)

But I recently came across the clincher to my ongoing argument in Charles Nicholls’ marvelous book on Shakespeare’s life as a lodger (‘The Lodger’) in Silver St. just down the road from the Guildhall in the City of London.

He quotes Shakespeare’s Cymberline where Iachino finds a book by Imogen’s bed and says:

‘She hath been reading late:
The Tale of Tereus. Here, the leaf’s turn’d down.

I rest my case.

Ash Wednesday February 14th

Ash Wednesday Forehead Ash Cross.  Photo by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash

This is the First Day of Lent, the solemn time which runs up to Easter, and is symbolic of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness.

February means the ‘Month of Purification’ in Latin, and in Anglo Saxon the name for Spring was ‘lencthen’ thought to derive from the idea of lengthening days. So strictly Lent means Spring. In the Romance languages the term used derives from the Latin ‘Quadragesima’ which means the 40 days of Fast. Spanish (Cuaresma), French (Carême), and Italian Quaresima). In German it is the fasting time: fastenzeit. In England, Lent became a specialised word for the fast period, and Spring took over as the name of the season.

A time of fasting, or at least, a time when we are supposed to give something up – a bit like Dry January? Ash Wednesday gets its name as ashes used to be smeared on the heads of worshippers to remind them that we are dust. My footballing friend Andrew, is a Vicar and missed this week’s game as he was in Church marking people’s foreheads with ash crosses. The ashes were traditionally made from palms from Palm Sunday which is indeed what Andrew did.

In the midst of life we are in death, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection.

Thomas Cranmer

On the subject we go to dust on death Joni Mitchell reminds us that:

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Woodstock by Joni Mitchell

Seynt Valentyne’s Day & Magpies February 14th

For this was on Seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,
Of every kinde, that men thynke may;
And that so huge a noyse gan they make,
That erthe and see, and tree, and every lake
So ful was, that unnethe was ther space
For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.
Parliament of Fowls, Geoffrey Chaucer

This is my ‘translation’

For this was St. Valentine’s Day
When every bird came there to chose their mate.
Of every type, that men think may
And that so huge a noise did they make
That earth and sea and tree and every lake
So full was, that hardly was there space
For to stand so full was the place.

This is the first reference to St Valentine’s as a romantic day. St Valentine, is supposed to have been martyred in the 3rd Century (290AD) and for refusing to stop marrying people in the Christian rites. He is the patron Saint of lovers, epileptics, and beekeepers. But until Chaucer, there was no particular link with romance. In fact, there are at least three Saint Valentines who were martyred in the Roman period and their relics are scattered around Europe (have a look at this National Geographic article for the full S.P.), including bones in Glasgow and his heart in Dublin.

Chaucer’s poem suggests one possible route to the link with romance. This is about the time when birds pair off—if they want to have their chicks at optimal time, then they need to get going before spring has really sprung.

When I think of love, I don’t think of birds. Maybe, this is because I live on the Regent’s Canal, and outside my garden I frequently see and hear a Coot chasing his pair across the water before violently mounting her. But then they are fiercely monogamous and defend their nest, fearlessly, against much bigger birds. And swans glide in beautiful family groups. But Magpies are my favourite lovebird because you see one, and then look around, and you very often see the partner. I have adopted an old tradition that you are supposed to say:

‘Hello, Mr Magpie! How’s your wife’?

And it is good luck if you see her and bad luck if you don’t. (Please feel free to assign your own favourite gender!)

‘One for Sorrow’ is a well-known nursery rhyme found in many variations, and is an example of ‘ornithomancy superstition’ whereby the number of Magpies you see determines some aspect of your future. As to the likelihood of seeing thirteen magpies together – they always appear to be in pairs to me, or singletons, and occasionally threes. Magpies normally mate for life, and are not gregarious during the nesting season, but thereafter, they ‘join together in large wintering flocks of more than 20 or so birds.‘. So, perhaps we need another seven lines for the rhyme?

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.
Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten a surprise you should be careful not to miss,
Eleven for health,
Twelve for wealth,
Thirteen beware it’s the devil himself.

Here is another version.

One for sorrow,
Two for mirth
Three for a funeral,
Four for birth
Five for heaven
Six for hell
Seven for the devil, his own self

For details of the history of versions of this poem, click here:

Magpies don’t have a good reputation, traditionally being regarded as thieves and scavengers with untidy nests and eating habits. They are supposed to be attracted to shiny things, but Exeter University did some research and found that they have the normal Corvid’s curiosity for objects, but they are as happy to snatch a dull object as a shiny one. So, we can see they are very intelligent and faithful lovers and, for me, a good-omened bird (as long as I see the two of them).

First Published in February 2023, revised and updated in February 2024

Shrove Tuesday – Pancake Day – Mardi Gras – End of the Carnival February 13th

Les_Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry February (Detail)  The people inside are warming their legs and their hands in front of a roaring fire.
Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry February (Detail) The people inside are warming their legs and their hands in front of a roaring fire.

Today is Shrove Tuesday, this day is the end of the Carnival.

Carnival

1540s, “time of merrymaking before Lent,” from French carnaval, from Italian carnevale “Shrove Tuesday,” from older Italian forms such as Milanese *carnelevale, Old Pisan carnelevare “to remove meat,” literally “raising flesh,” from Latin caro “flesh” (originally “a piece of flesh,” from PIE root *sker- (1) “to cut”) + levare “lighten, raise, remove” (from PIE root *legwh- “not heavy, having little weight”).

Folk etymology has it from Medieval Latin carne vale ” ‘flesh, farewell!’ ” Attested from 1590s in the figurative sense of “feasting or revelry in general.” The meaning “a circus or amusement fair” is attested by 1926 in American English.Related entries & more 

www.etymonline.com

Pancake Day is the day we eat up all our surplus food so that we can begin our lenten fast and turn out mind to repentance. Traditionally, in Britain it is a simple pancake with lemon and sugar (here is a recipe from the BBC) but it can also be a day of excess before the 40 days of restraint. As we saw before on ‘Lardy Thursday’ the Carnival period might be up to a week. Shrovetide was normally three days from the Sunday before Lent to Ash Wednesday the beginning of Lent.

In France, it’s called Mardi Gras which means Fatty Tuesday, in Italy Martedi Grasso. In New Orleans it stretches from Twelfth Night to Shrove Tuesday, in most other places it is a week or three days. In Anglo-Saxon times there was ‘Cheese Week’, ‘Butter Week’, ‘Cheesefare Sunday’ and ‘Collop Monday’.

Shrove Tuesday is the day we should be ‘shriven’ which means to make confession. The point is that the Church has been leading up to Easter since Advent – before Christmas. Easter is the date of the conception and, also, the date of the execution and apotheosis of Jesus Christ. So the pious should confess their sins, then undertake their lenten fast before entering the Holy Week purged and sin-free.

In the Anglo-Saxon Church, there was a custom called ‘locking the Alleluia.’ The Church stopped using the word Alleluia from 70 days before Easter. Alleluia represented the return from exile in Babylon, and with the approach of the death of Christ it was not felt appropriate to be celebratory.

The sombre nature of this block of time was highlighted by Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 955 – c. 1010)

Now a pure and holy time draws near, in which we should atone for our neglect. Every Christian, therefore, should come to his confession and confess his hidden sins, and make amends according to the guidance of his teachers; and let everyone encourage each other to do good by good example.

Ælfric, Catholic Homilies Text Ed. Peter Clemoes quoted in ‘Winters in the World’ Eleanor Parker

Shrove Tuesday was traditional for football games in the days before football had any rules to speak of. It was a wild game in which teams tried to get a bladder from one end of town to the other, or one side of a field to the other. In Chester, the traditional football game on the Roodee island which was held on Shrove Tuesday was so rowdy that the Mayor created the Chester Races specifically to provide a more sedate alterative to the violence of the ‘beautiful game.’

Here is a youtube video of Shrovetide Football.

Royal Asbourne Shrovetide Football

In London, John Stowe quotes Henry Fitzstephen who was a contemporary of Thomas Becket and is writing about London in the late 12th Century:

‘Every year also at Shrove Tuesday, that we may begin with children’s sport, seeing we all have been children, the school boys do bring cocks of the game to their master, and all the forenoon they delight themselves in cockfighting. After dinner all the youths go into the fields to play at the ball. The scholars of every school have their ball, or baston in their hands. The ancient and wealthy men of the City come forth on horseback to see the sport of the young men and to take part of the pleasure in beholding their agility.’

I have just found a video of the pancake race at the Guildhall Yard in the City of London. It is an inter-livery company pancake race competition. The competitors, representing the medieval Guilds, have to run across the Guildhall while holding a frying pan and pancake. There is a zone where they have to toss the pancake. There is also a novelty costume race. Here is a youtube video of the 2023 race.

First published on February 21st, 2023 republished on February 13th 2024

The Great Freeze February 12th 1895

Skating on the Serpentine by Lucien Davis
Antique wood-engraved print. Illustrated London News double page from 2 March 1895 (print owned by K Flude)

London, February 12. There is no abatement of the abnormally cold weather which has prevailed in northern Europe for the last week. The Upper Thames is frozen over, and huge blocks of ice breaking away from the mass are floating down, the river, causing much damage to the smaller shipping craft. Water traffic is consequently at a complete standstill. Many cases of death from cold and exposure are reported, the privation and distress in the east end of the city being particularly severe. The cold is so intense that birds are found frozen to death on the branches of the trees, and thousands are perishing. The severe weather has also directly caused considerable mortality, a number of deaths from exposure having been reported among postmen, omnibus drivers, cabmen, and labourers.

Contemporary Newspaper quotation on February 12th 1895 quoted by Isle of Dogs Life blog

Winter of 1895 Limehouse to left, Tower of London to right. Images from Isle of Dogs blog.

For more details and contemporary newspaper accounts read the Isle of Dogs blog. 1895 was the culmination of a decade of particularly cold winters (and for some the end of the so-called Little Ice Age. On the 11th February the coldest day in British History was recorded at Braemar at −27.2 °C. February 1895 was the second coldest on record, with the lowest minimum temperatures on record. Shipping in the biggest port in the world was stopped. Many workers were laid off, and had to resort to what were then called ‘soup kitchens’ and now ‘food banks’. Winter death rates were said to be doubled, with people dying in the street and in unheated homes.

Record minima were set for these dates in February 1895:

  • 7th: −21.7 °C or −7.1 °F
  • 8th: −25.0 °C or −13.0 °F
  • 9th: −23.9 °C or −11.0 °F
  • 10th: −25.6 °C or −14.1 °F
  • 11th: −27.2 °C or −17.0 °F
  • 12th: −20.6 °C or −5.1 °F
  • 13th: −21.9 °C or −7.4 °F
  • 14th: −21.7 °C or −7.1 °F
  • 16th: −23.9 °C or −11.0 °F
  • 17th: −23.9 °C or −11.0 °F
  • 18th: −23.9 °C or −11.0 °F
  • 19th: −22.2 °C or −8.0 °F

Source Wikipedia.

On the flip side people resorted to ponds around London particularly the Serpentine which had 6 inches of ice and 50,000 skaters, with speed skating competitions.

I have republished my post of the Chinese New Year which you can see here:

Daffodils & the Fabulous Boy February 11th

Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé; Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz — in Wort und Bild für Schule und Haus

In 2023, I saw my first Daffodil in Hackney in a Council Estate on 12 Jan 2023) and see them popping up around and about. Mine were not yet more than green leaves, but they are now coming out. My first daffodil in 2024 was outside my first floor window a week ago, but now Daffodils are appearing in the south-facing front of my house, but not yet in the North facing, canal side garden.

12 Jan 2023. Hackney, London, the first Daffodil.

Their formal name is Narcissus. The Roman natural historian, Pliny tells us that the plant was ‘named Narcissus from narkē not from the fabulous boy.’ Narkē is the Greek word from which we derive the word narcotic, and this is a reference to the narcotic properties of the narcissus. An extract of the bulb when applied to open wounds produced numbness of the whole nervous system and paralysis of the heart. The flowers are also slightly poisonous, which led to their use as an emetic – to bring on vomiting when it was felt necessary that the stomach be emptied. It was used to treat hysteria and epilepsy; treating children with bronchial catarrh; and epidemic dysentery; among Arabian doctors it was used to cure baldness and as an aphrodisiac. (A Modern Herbal by Mrs M Grieve.) Please remember these are not recommendations for use medicinally, but are historic uses and may be dangerous.)

The fabulous boy, mentioned by Pliny, was Narcissus. Narcissus, according to the Roman Poet Ovid, met the nymph Echo, and she fell in love with the beautiful boy. He spurned her, and she faded until all that remained of her was her voice – the echo we hear.

Nemesis, the Goddess of Revenge (the one with the fiery sword) decided on revenge upon the handsome boy. She lured the thirsty youth to a fountain, where he saw an image of a breathtakingly handsome boy and fell in love. It was an image of himself, and he faded from life realising he would always be unfulfilled in his love, He eventually metamorphised into a white and yellow flower which was named after him.

Daffodils are mentioned in a list of Spring Flowers by Shakespeare in the pastoral play The Winter’s Tale:

(Please note that as you read Shakespeare’s words below that Prosperpina is the wife of Pluto, the God of the Underworld, Dis, is another name for him, Cytherea is the Goddess of Beauty and Love. Phoebus is the Sun God. And the Spring Flowers are Daffodils, violets, primroses, oxlips(primula), Crown Imperial (Fritillaria imperialis), Lilies, flower-De-luce (Iris)

Perdita to Camillo

Out, alas!
You’d be so lean that blasts of January
Would blow you through and through.
(To Florizel)
I would I had some flowers o’th’ spring, that might
Become your time of day –
(to the Shepherdesses)
That wear upon your virgin branches yet
Your maidenheads growing. O Proserpina,
For the flowers now that, frighted, thou let’st fall
From Dis’s waggon! Daffodils,
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets, dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes
Or Cytherea’s breath; pale primroses,
That die unmarried ere they can behold
Bright Phoebus in his strength – a malady
Most incident to maids; bold oxlips and
The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds,
The flower-de-luce being one: O, these I lack
To make you garlands of, and my sweet friend
To strew him o’er and o’er!

WT IV.iv.110.2

The reference to Daffodils suggests that for Shakespeare they are around to withstand the March Winds before the Swallows arrive in April. With selective breeding, early flowering species have been developed and now February and even January are within the scope of the glorious bulb. (here is a post on winter flowering varieties)

Below is the text of Ovid’s Echo and NarcissusTranslated by Brookes Moore

NARCISSUS AND ECHO, THE HOUSE OF CADMUS

Once a noisy Nymph, (who never held her tongue when others spoke, who never spoke till others had begun) mocking Echo, spied him as he drove, in his delusive nets, some timid stags.—For Echo was a Nymph, in olden time,—and, more than vapid sound,—possessed a form: and she was then deprived the use of speech, except to babble and repeat the words, once spoken, over and over. Juno confused her silly tongue, because she often held that glorious goddess with her endless tales, till many a hapless Nymph, from Jove’s embrace, had made escape adown a mountain. But for this, the goddess might have caught them. Thus the glorious Juno, when she knew her guile; “Your tongue, so freely wagged at my expense, shall be of little use; your endless voice, much shorter than your tongue.” At once the Nymph was stricken as the goddess had decreed;—and, ever since, she only mocks the sounds of others’ voices, or, perchance, returns their final words.

One day, when she observed Narcissus wandering in the pathless woods, she loved him and she followed him, with soft and stealthy tread.—The more she followed him the hotter did she burn, as when the flame flares upward from the sulphur on the torch. Oh, how she longed to make her passion known! To plead in soft entreaty! to implore his love! But now, till others have begun, a mute of Nature she must be. She cannot choose but wait the moment when his voice may give to her an answer. Presently the youth, by chance divided from his trusted friends, cries loudly, “Who is here?” and Echo, “Here!” Replies. Amazed, he casts his eyes around, and calls with louder voice, “Come here!” “Come here!” She calls the youth who calls.—He turns to see who calls him and, beholding naught exclaims, “Avoid me not!” “Avoid me not!” returns. He tries again, again, and is deceived by this alternate voice, and calls aloud; “Oh let us come together!” Echo cries, “Oh let us come together!” Never sound seemed sweeter to the Nymph, and from the woods she hastens in accordance with her words, and strives to wind her arms around his neck. He flies from her and as he leaves her says, “Take off your hands! you shall not fold your arms around me. Better death than such a one should ever caress me!” Naught she answers save, “Caress me!” Thus rejected she lies hid in the deep woods, hiding her blushing face with the green leaves; and ever after lives concealed in lonely caverns in the hills. But her great love increases with neglect; her miserable body wastes away, wakeful with sorrows; leanness shrivels up her skin, and all her lovely features melt, as if dissolved upon the wafting winds—nothing remains except her bones and voice—her voice continues, in the wilderness; her bones have turned to stone. She lies concealed in the wild woods, nor is she ever seen on lonely mountain range; for, though we hear her calling in the hills, ’tis but a voice, a voice that lives, that lives among the hills.

Thus he deceived the Nymph and many more, sprung from the mountains or the sparkling waves; and thus he slighted many an amorous youth.—and therefore, some one whom he once despised, lifting his hands to Heaven, implored the Gods, “If he should love deny him what he loves!” and as the prayer was uttered it was heard by Nemesis, who granted her assent.

There was a fountain silver-clear and bright, which neither shepherds nor the wild she-goats, that range the hills, nor any cattle’s mouth had touched—its waters were unsullied—birds disturbed it not; nor animals, nor boughs that fall so often from the trees. Around sweet grasses nourished by the stream grew; trees that shaded from the sun let balmy airs temper its waters. Here Narcissus, tired of hunting and the heated noon, lay down, attracted by the peaceful solitudes and by the glassy spring. There as he stooped to quench his thirst another thirst increased. While he is drinking he beholds himself reflected in the mirrored pool—and loves; loves an imagined body which contains no substance, for he deems the mirrored shade a thing of life to love. He cannot move, for so he marvels at himself, and lies with countenance unchanged, as if indeed a statue carved of Parian marble. Long, supine upon the bank, his gaze is fixed on his own eyes, twin stars; his fingers shaped as Bacchus might desire, his flowing hair as glorious as Apollo’s, and his cheeks youthful and smooth; his ivory neck, his mouth dreaming in sweetness, his complexion fair and blushing as the rose in snow-drift white. All that is lovely in himself he loves, and in his witless way he wants himself:—he who approves is equally approved; he seeks, is sought, he burns and he is burnt. And how he kisses the deceitful fount; and how he thrusts his arms to catch the neck that’s pictured in the middle of the stream! Yet never may he wreathe his arms around that image of himself. He knows not what he there beholds, but what he sees inflames his longing, and the error that deceives allures his eyes. But why, O foolish boy, so vainly catching at this flitting form? The cheat that you are seeking has no place. Avert your gaze and you will lose your love, for this that holds your eyes is nothing save the image of yourself reflected back to you. It comes and waits with you; it has no life; it will depart if you will only go.

Nor food nor rest can draw him thence—outstretched upon the overshadowed green, his eyes fixed on the mirrored image never may know their longings satisfied, and by their sight he is himself undone. Raising himself a moment, he extends his arms around, and, beckoning to the murmuring forest; “Oh, ye aisled wood was ever man in love more fatally than I? Your silent paths have sheltered many a one whose love was told, and ye have heard their voices. Ages vast have rolled away since your forgotten birth, but who is he through all those weary years that ever pined away as I? Alas, this fatal image wins my love, as I behold it. But I cannot press my arms around the form I see, the form that gives me joy. What strange mistake has intervened betwixt us and our love? It grieves me more that neither lands nor seas nor mountains, no, nor walls with closed gates deny our loves, but only a little water keeps us far asunder. Surely he desires my love and my embraces, for as oft I strive to kiss him, bending to the limpid stream my lips, so often does he hold his face fondly to me, and vainly struggles up. It seems that I could touch him. ‘Tis a strange delusion that is keeping us apart. Whoever thou art, Come up! Deceive me not! Oh, whither when I fain pursue art thou? Ah, surely I am young and fair, the Nymphs have loved me; and when I behold thy smiles I cannot tell thee what sweet hopes arise. When I extend my loving arms to thee thine also are extended me—thy smiles return my own. When I was weeping, I have seen thy tears, and every sign I make thou cost return; and often thy sweet lips have seemed to move, that, peradventure words, which I have never heard, thou hast returned. No more my shade deceives me, I perceive ‘Tis I in thee—I love myself—the flame arises in my breast and burns my heart—what shall I do? Shall I at once implore? Or should I linger till my love is sought? What is it I implore? The thing that I desire is mine—abundance makes me poor. Oh, I am tortured by a strange desire unknown to me before, for I would fain put off this mortal form; which only means I wish the object of my love away. Grief saps my strength, the sands of life are run, and in my early youth am I cut off; but death is not my bane—it ends my woe.—I would not death for this that is my love, as two united in a single soul would die as one.”

He spoke; and crazed with love, returned to view the same face in the pool; and as he grieved his tears disturbed the stream, and ripples on the surface, glassy clear, defaced his mirrored form. And thus the youth, when he beheld that lovely shadow go; “Ah whither cost thou fly? Oh, I entreat thee leave me not. Alas, thou cruel boy thus to forsake thy lover. Stay with me that I may see thy lovely form, for though I may not touch thee I shall feed my eyes and soothe my wretched pains.” And while he spoke he rent his garment from the upper edge, and beating on his naked breast, all white as marble, every stroke produced a tint as lovely as the apple streaked with red, or as the glowing grape when purple bloom touches the ripening clusters. When as glass again the rippling waters smoothed, and when such beauty in the stream the youth observed, no more could he endure. As in the flame the yellow wax, or as the hoar-frost melts in early morning ‘neath the genial sun; so did he pine away, by love consumed, and slowly wasted by a hidden flame. No vermeil bloom now mingled in the white of his complexion fair; no strength has he, no vigor, nor the comeliness that wrought for love so long: alas, that handsome form by Echo fondly loved may please no more.

But when she saw him in his hapless plight, though angry at his scorn, she only grieved. As often as the love-lore boy complained, “Alas!” “Alas!” her echoing voice returned; and as he struck his hands against his arms, she ever answered with her echoing sounds. And as he gazed upon the mirrored pool he said at last, “Ah, youth beloved in vain!” “In vain, in vain!” the spot returned his words; and when he breathed a sad “farewell!” “Farewell!” sighed Echo too. He laid his wearied head, and rested on the verdant grass; and those bright eyes, which had so loved to gaze, entranced, on their own master’s beauty, sad Night closed. And now although among the nether shades his sad sprite roams, he ever loves to gaze on his reflection in the Stygian wave. His Naiad sisters mourned, and having clipped their shining tresses laid them on his corpse: and all the Dryads mourned: and Echo made lament anew. And these would have upraised his funeral pyre, and waved the flaming torch, and made his bier; but as they turned their eyes where he had been, alas he was not there! And in his body’s place a sweet flower grew, golden and white, the white around the gold.

First published in February 2023, revise and republished in February 2024