May the Bees be with you! May 5th

Swarm of Bees, Hackney (Photo Kevin Flude 30th May 2018)

Tusser’s ‘Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry’ published 1573 suggests we should:

take heed to thy Bees, that are ready to swarm, the loss thereof now, is a crown’s worth of harm.’ The loss was particularly hard in May or June as the country verse tells us:

A swarm in May
Is worth a load of hay
A swarm in June
Is worth a silver spoon
A swarm in July
Is not worth a fly.

In 2018, on 30th May, I was perturbed to find a swarm of Bees hanging outside my front door. Frightened of leaving my house, I rang a local Bee Keeper who came around to take possession of the Bees and take them to a new home.

Swarm of Bees having moved 20 yards to a new home, being 'rescued' by a bee keeper.
Swarm of Bees, having moved 20 yards to a second perch, being ‘rescued’ by a bee keeper. You can see the swarm above his head

According to Hillman’s ‘Tusser Redivus’ of 1710, swarming in May produces particularly good honey, and he advises following the bees to retrieve them. He says:

You are entitled by custom to follow them over anyone’s land and claim them … but only so long as you ‘ting-tang’ as you go, by beating some metal utensil – the sound whereof is also said to make your bees stop.’

Much of the above is from The Perpetual Almanac of Folklore by Charles Kightly.

Bees swarm when a new Queen Bee takes a proportion of the worker bees to form a new colony. They will latch unto a branch or a shrub, even a car’s wing mirror, while sending bees out searching for a suitable new home, such as a hollow tree. There may be hundreds or even thousands in the new colony, and this may be very alarming, as I found, as I could not go out without walking through a cloud of bees. But, at this point, they will not be aggressive as they do not have a hive to protect. Look here for more information on swarming.

An average hive will produce 25 lbs of honey, and the bees will fly 1,375,000 miles to produce it, which is flying 55 times around the world (according to the British beekeepers Association (and my maths)) https://www.bbka.org.uk/honey

Bees are still having a hard time as their habitats are diminishing and threats increasing. In July, DEFRA hosts ‘Bees Needs Week’ which aims to increase public awareness of the importance of pollinators.

They suggest we can help by these 5 simple actions

  1. Grow more nectar rich flowers, shrubs and trees. Using window or balcony boxes are good options if you don’t have a garden.
  2. Let patches of garden and land grow wild.
  3. Cut grass less often.
  4. Do not disturb insect nests and hibernation spots.
  5. Think carefully about whether to use pesticides.

For more above Bees Needs Week look here:

As Mad as a March Hare March 28th

Hares Boxing in Yorkshire by yorkshireroestalking

The expression ‘Mad as a March Hare’ comes from the displays of hare boxing that takes place as the Hare mating season begins. And no, it’s not male hares fighting in the spirit of romantic rivalry, but the female hares fighting off unwanted attention from the males. Hares are solitary creatures, and the mating season is, perhaps, particularly difficult for them. The Country File website has more on the subject. www.countryfile.com

There are also March Kittens and March Chickens. Edward Topsell in his ‘History of Four-footed Beasts‘ 1607 says the best Kittens to keep are those born in March. ‘The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Opened‘ 1669 says: ‘Keep a black cock hatched in March as a protection against evil spirits: his crowing terrifies them.’ He also give a recipe for Cock Ale:

Eight gallons of Ale, a boiled March Cock, four pounds of stoned Raisins, half a pound of dates, nutmegs, mace. Beat the ingredients in a mortar, add to two quarts of Sherry. Add to the ale. Stop it in a container for 6 or 7 days. Bottle it, drink after a month.

Very weird. I challenge my readers to try it and let me know how it goes?

The hare is a sacred animal, it was sacred to Aphrodite:

‘For you know, I imagine, what is said of the hare, that it possesses the gift of Aphrodite to an unusual degree. At any rate it is said of the female that while she suckles the young she has borne, she bears another litter to share the same milk; forthwith she conceives again, nor is there any time at all when she is not carrying young.’

Classical Texts Library. Philostratus the Elder, ‘Imagines’ Book 1.1-15 c 3rd Century AD. Translated by Arthur Fairbanks.

Research reported by Exeter University suggests that hares were worshipped in pre-Roman Britain. Julius Caesar wrote:

The Britons consider it contrary to divine law to eat the hare, the chicken, or the goose.”

‘The Battle for Gaul’ Translation by Wiseman, Anne, Wiseman, T. P. Published by Penguin Random House, 1980 ISBN 10: 0701125047 (TP Wiseman is my professor for Classical Studies at Leicester University)

In Neolithic Ireland hares were found buried with human remains at the Neolithic court tomb at Parknabinnia.

illustration of a hare from 1873 fom the London Illustrated Almanac
The Hare

Hares are thought to be the original Easter Bunny although finding good evidence before Germany in the early modern period is difficult. There is a tradition that witches can be scared away at Easter. Exactly, how this works is not clear, but it has been said that witches could take on the form of a hare, and so Hare Pie and hare meat was eaten at Easter to rid the land of the witches. Or you could have a jugged hare. Jugging is cooking a whole animal in a container over water. Here is a recipe for jugged wild hare. Remember, you are not allowed to shot or trap them on a Sunday or on Christmas Day! For a discussion of hares and folklore, click here:

A jointed hare’s foot was considered very lucky and a remedy against gout, stomach pains and insomnia. (The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore by Charles Kightly, which I have used several times in this piece.) You can buy one on eBay. (Don’t click the links, it’s not an advert but a picture of an advert). I remember friends having rabbit feet which they carried around with them often on key rings?

Advert for a hare's foot from ebay
Advert for a hare’s foot from ebay

First published in 2023 and revised March 28th 2024

Peak Cherry Blossom? March 19th

Photos by Natalie Tobert (to see her fantastic sculptures, look here:)

Peak cherry blossom is sometime between late March and early April, but this year has been warm, so this weekend might be the best time to see cherry blossom.  There are many suggested places, and I enclose a couple of web links with more details.  But my friend, Natalie Tobert, posted today about Japanese people queuing up to photo cherry blossom in Swiss Cottage.

Here is an Instagram video of the blossom in Swiss Cottage, near Hampstead, London.

For the Japanese Cherry Blossom represents both the beauty of life and its brevity. Sakura are honoured by the Samurai, and were on the badges of KamiKazi Pilots in World War 2. The Japanese begin their blossom time with Plum Blossom, which can be difficult to tell apart from Cherry but it is much more fragrant.

Cherry trees consist of 430 species in the genus Prunus. Wild Cherry and Bird Cherry are native to the UK.  Normal blossom time is April, but in mild winters and sheltered places like London they can blossom as soon as February.  The flowers are known as Satura in Japan, and viewing them is ‘Hanami’.  Bird Cherry usually flowers in May.  Recent blossoming is over 7 days earlier than the average for the previous 1,200 years.

Here is the Natural History Museum discover cherry-trees website which has more information and suggested places to see blossom.

And here the londonist.com Sakura-in-london-where&when

The Woodland Trust has a great web page about blossom in general and I include their useful table of blossom time, below.

www.woodlandtrust.org.uk

They also have a ‘nature’s calendar’ with which you can participate in ‘Citizen Science’ projects to track the progress of the sessions in nature.

https://naturescalendar.woodlandtrust.org.uk.

Nettles and the Grecian Spring March 10th

Image of web site for Hesiod's works and days, showing pandora's box an illustration by William Blake

In the early modern almanacs there is much weather and horticultural advice to be had (Weather Lore. Richard Inwards).

March damp and warm
Will do farmer much  harm

or

‘In March much snow
to plants and trees much woe

The store cupboards are getting denuded of the fruits, nuts, preserves, pickles, salted and dried foods saved from the summer and autumnal abundance. Of course this is alleviated by the reduced consumption of the Lenten fast.  (I’m currently giving up, giving up things for Lent). But nettles are budding. I’ve recently taken to a regular cup of nettle tea provided by the excellent Cowan’s tea emporium in the Covered Market in Oxford. But I’m running out and not due to visit Oxford for a month or two. So Charles Kightley in his Perpetual Almanac tells me that young stinging nettles are appearing, and perhaps, I might change up the tea for a nettle beer:

Take a gallon measure of freshly gathered young nettles washed well dried and well packed down. Boil them in a gallon of water for at least a quarter of an hour. Then strain them, press them and put the juice in an earthenware pot with a pound of brown sugar and the juice and grated skin of a lemon. Stir well, and before it grows cool put in an ounce of yeast dissolved in some of the liquid. Cover with a cloth and leave in a warm place for four or five days and strain again and bottle it, stopping the bottles well.  It’ll be ready after a week, but better if left longer.

A more sinister use is provided by William Coles who gives a method of detecting virginity.

Nettle tops are usually boiled in pottage in the Springtime, to consume the Phlegmatic superfluities in the body of man, that the coldness and moistness of the winter have left behind. And it is said that if the juice of the roots of nettles be mixed with ale and beer, and given to one that suspected to have lost her maidenhood, if it remain with her, she is a maid, But if she’s spews forth, she is not.

William Cole’s Adam in Eden 1657.

Mrs Greaves in her ‘A Modern Herbal’ tells us that William Camden relates that Roman soldiers used nettles to heat up their legs in the cold of a British winter.  The 18th century poet Thomas Campbell is quoted on the virtues of nettles:

“I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The young and tender nettle is an excellent potherb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other linen.”

Greaves tells us that when the German and Austrians had a shortage of cotton during the blockade of World War 2 they turned to nettles to replace cotton production believing it to be the only effective substitute.  It was also substituted for sugar, starch, protein, paper and ethyl alcohol. 

Pepys ate Nettle Pudding in February 1661 and pronounced it ‘very good’.  Nettles were added to horse feed to make their coats shine, and as a hair tonic for humans.  Nettle Beer was used for old people against ‘gouty and rheumatic pains’, and flogging with nettles was a cure for rheumatism and the loss of muscle power!

I can see I’m going to have to get out there and carefully pick myself some nettles! ( For Folklore of nettles look here). But this post was conceived as a piece on Spring starting with Hesiod!

The Works and Days is a farmer’s Almanac written for Hesiod’s brother. It has a mixture of seasonal good advice and moralising. He is, one of the first great poets of the western world, and near contemporary with Homer. He is an important source for important Greek Myths, and, for example, tells us that the story of Prometheus and Pandora is the reason the Gods cannot give us a simple wholesome life. He also talks about the ages of humanity which are: Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age, Heroic Age, and our own decadent Iron age. This system was borrowed by C. J. Thomsen at the National Museum of Denmark in the early 19th Century to create out modern Three Age System of Stone, Bronze and Iron Age. Our system is more optimistic with a progressive trend while the Greek system degenerates through successive eras..

Hesiod sees Spring as a time to begin trading by sea but he warns us not to put all our eggs in one vessel as Spring can bring nasty nautical surprises.

In Rome early March is taken up much with celebrations of the Great God Mars, the one who enabled the Romans to conquer most of the known world. For the Anglo Saxon their poetry saw Spring as a great release when the ‘fetters of frost’ fall off and allow a welcome return to sailing on the high seas .

The Seafarer

The woods take on blossoms, towns become fair,
meadows grow beautiful the world hastens on;
all these things urge the eager mind,
the spirit to the journey, in one who thinks to travel
far on the paths of the sea.
….

So now my spirit soars out of the confines of the heart,
my mind over the sea flood;
it wheels wide over the whale’s home,

Poem from the Exeter Book known as the Seafarer, quoted in Eleanor Parker’s ‘Winters in the World a journey through the Anglo Saxon year’.

Hesiod ‘Works & Days’

‘Spring too grants the chance to sail.
When first some leaves are seen
On fig-tree-tops, as tiny as the mark
A raven leaves, the sea becomes serene
For sailing. Though spring bids you to embark,
I’ll not praise it – it does not gladden me.
It’s hazardous, for you’ll avoid distress
With difficulty thus. Imprudently
Do men sail at that time – covetousness
Is their whole life, the wretches. For the seas
To take your life is dire. Listen to me:
Don’t place aboard all your commodities –
Leave most behind, place a small quantity
Aboard. To tax your cart too much and break
An axle, losing all, will bring distress.
Be moderate, for everyone should take
An apt approach. When you’re in readiness,
Get married. Thirty years, or very near,
Is apt for marriage. Now, past puberty
Your bride should go four years: in the fifth year
Wed her. That you may teach her modesty
Marry a maid. The best would be one who
Lives near you, but you must with care look round
Lest neighbours make a laughingstock of you.
A better choice for men cannot be found
Than a good woman,’

HESIOD’S WORKS AND DAYS Translated by Chris Kelk

By the way none of this is good advice to follow!

I have more on Hesiod:

Leap Day & and the Roman Calendar February 29th

Druids at All Hallows, by the Tower
Druids at All Hallows, by the Tower

I have just come back from my very first Leap Year Walk, which I gave tonight for London Walks. It was one of a series of my walks, which are about the year through London’s History. So far, I have done, a New Year Walk, an Imbolc Walk (1 February, St Brigid’s Day), a Spring Equinox Walk, a May Day Walk, a Summer Solstice Walk, an Autumn Equinox Walk, a Halloween Walk, and a Winter Solstice Walk. All, at their core, have the subject of the year, how it is arranged, and celebrated in different cultures and different times in London.

I hoped to get this post done, today, but on arrival at home my burglar alarm was ringing, so had to get an emergency electrician out to pacify my neighbours, and tracking down the fault meant turning my house upside down. I rushed it out, with many bad proof reading errors and ommissions, And have now, on the dawn of a new month, and a new Season, updated it. Probably, knowing me, it still has a far few errors! Now, I am rushing to look after my Grandson!

So, the reason there is a leap year, is that the Sun and the Moon have different cycles, which cannot be easily aligned. And secondly, the solar year is not a fixed number, it is not 365 days, but 365 days and a bit.

Originally though, probably, most cultures lived their lives with time keeping controlled by time markers from their everyday environment, days and nights, the waning and waxing of the moon, the seasons, and the changes in the rising and setting of the Sun. Budding nature would have provided other markers as to when to sow, to harvest, to prune, to slaughter, to worship and marry.

The months were given by the cycle of the Moon, which also gave us tides and menstrual cycles. The months were given names, which were often associated with the weather. The trouble was that the Solar year did not align with the Moon, soon the months would get out of kilter with the seasons. So over time, the society would find it was winter in June, or summer in December. (which is OK if you live in Australia).

Society dealt with this in a number of ways. It could be ignored, why shouldn’t it be cold in June, why should June always be in Summer? Another way was to add in extra days, or months, every so often to make sure June remained in the Summer. This is what Egypt, the early Romans and the Celts did. They kept their months aligned to the actual movements of the Moon, and aligned their Solar Year with it by the addition of extra days or a month or two. or a combination of both.

I reported on this in my post on the Terminalia for February 23rd. As I wrote:

Terminus was an old ancient God who was the God of the boundary, the border, the edge, the liminal God. February was the last month of the original Roman year, but the rulers of Rome added an intercalary month every so often, called Mercedonius in an attempt to keep the Solar year in tune with the seasons. And when the intercalary month was added, the last five days of February were given to Mercedonius and the resulting leap year was either 377 or 378 days long.. So, in those years, the 23rd of February was the Terminus of the year. (For more on Terminalia look at my post for February 23rd on Terminalia-god-of-the-boundary)

Now, as the Roman Republic became more sophisticated, the intercalary months were added at the direction of the Pontiffs, supposedly every two and sometimes every three years. But the Pontiffs were often swayed by political advantage, and by the time of Julius Caesar the seasons had got wildly out of sync with the calendar year. The Dictator, therefore, instituted ‘the Year of Confusion’ which was over 400 days long and brought in the Julian Calendar which realigned the calendar back in line with the seasons.

Caesar spent time with Egyptian Astronomers, trying to understand their solution to the problem. They identified that the year was not 365 days long but 356.25 days, so JC ‘fixed’the issue with a leap day every four years. Based on the almost correct calculation of a solar year being 365.25 days. The new calendar was inaugurated on the Kalends of Januarius 709 AUC, or as we would call it I January 45 BC. It became, in time, something the Romans were very proud of – rationalising, measuring, time itself. Romans counted their dates from the time their City was founded by Romulus in what we call 753 BC or 753 BCE. So, 45 BCE in our reckoning is 709 ab urbe condita (AUC ‘from the founding of the City) as the Romans saw it.

I prefer not to use BCE because it seems ‘dishonest’ to me. The idea of AD BC was made up based on a guess as to when Jesus was born. Changing BC to BCE may rid the date of an explicit Christian identification but masks the fact that there is no such thing as the ‘Common Era. What the Common Era is, is the idea made up in the Late Roman period guessing when Jesus was born/ So I think call a spade a spade, even if it’s a broken meaningless spade that is not fit for purpose, either replace it with something rational, or real or call it what it is.

The interesting thing is that Caesar put the leap year in on the 24th February. Why? Because February, being the month of death, was the end of the year. March 25th was originally the beginning of the Roman year (Caesar moved it to January 1st). Why March 25th? Because it was the Spring Equinox. If you look at my post for March 25th you will find out it is the date of the creation of Humanity, the Birthday of Adam, the conception of Jesus, and until 1752, the day the year number changed in Britain.

The other strange thing about the new leap day was that it was not called February 25th. It was not given a number. Rather, February 24th was two days long. This continued in Britain until the date February 29th started appearing in calendars in the 15th Century, although the legendary Lawyer, Edward Coke (1552 – 1634), refers to the two days of February 24th, but the two day 24th was completely replaced by February 29th in the 16th Century.

One slight complication to the story of February 29th was that February 29th did exist before the Julian reforms. When February was not interrupted by the intercalary month, as described above, it was 29 days long. Julius Caesar made the months alternate 30 and 31 except for February which was 29 days long. When the Senate gave Julius the honour of having the 7th Month named after him, things were OK, but then Augustus wanted the same thing. The Senate duly gave him the next month, which became known as August, but it only had 30 days. This could not be allowed! So they made it up to 31 and stole the 29th from February and made February only 28 days long. This change also meant that there were now three 31 days months in a row, so they reduced September from 31 to 30, boosted October to 31, reduced November to 30 and boosted December to 31,

Hence, we can no longer remember Caesar rational allotment of days in the month, and we need to hum to ourselves:

Thirty days have September
April, June, and November
February has twenty-eight alone.
All the rest have thirty-one.
Excepting leap year – that’s the time
When February’s days are twenty-nine.

But Caesar had not solved the problem of the shifting year, he had just minimised it. By the Council of Nicea in the early 4th Century (and not yet called AD!) the small error had changed the date of the Spring Equinox, from March 25th to March 21st. So, when Constantine convened the Council to bang the heads together of the Church leaders to unify their religion, particularly in regard to the date of Easter, and whether Jesus was equal to God. They fudged the complex issue of the date of Christ’s death, and used March 21st as the foundation of their calculation on the moon-based festival of Easter (more of which at Easter!)

It wasn’t until the 16th Century that Pope Gregory, solved the problem of the inaccuracy of Caesar’s solution. They resynced the days to the seasons by removing days from the Calendar. And they stopped the drift by fine-tuning the leap year system, by not having a leap year in those centurial years which were not divisible by 400. So 2000 was a leap year, but 2100 is not. This allowed the systems to align correctly to this day. (although there is of course a little more to it than this). But for that level of detail, you will love ‘The Calendar’ by David Ewing Duncan, or just look it up on Wikipedia or wait for me to compile various references to the Gregorian Calendar into a unified post on the subject.

Of course, Britain refused to join a Catholic innovation for nearly 200 years but, religious prejudice at last gave way to reason, when we adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1752. In the process we lost 11 days, much to the horror of the London mob, who rioted against their loss.

See the following posts for the Roman Year:

Romulus’s 10 month year here

Roman Months here and more on the Ides of March here

John Evelyn’s Death 27th February 1706

27th February, 1661. Ash Wednesday. Preached before the King the Bishop of London (Dr. Sheldon) on Matthew xviii. 25, concerning charity and forgiveness.

John Evelyn’s Diary from https://www.gutenberg.org/

John Evelyn is, with Pepys and Wren, one of the great figures of 17th Century London.  Unlike Pepys he was an avowed Royalist who hated Oliver Cromwell and all he stood for.  He went into exile with his King and gives a great description of Paris (see below).  Dr Sheldon, the Bishop of London mentioned above, went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury, and being a friend of Wren’s Father, commissioned Wren to build the Sheldonian Theatre, in Oxford.

Like Pepys, he was a diarist and a writer. And they, like Wren, were alumni of the Royal Society, one of the great scientific societies. John Evelyn was a founding fellow. It was innovative in that it employed an experimenter, Robert Hooke – one of the great early Scientists and it encouraged scientists to write up, for peer review, their theories. This is the foundation of western Science, and a bedrock of the Enlightenment.

Frontispiece of ‘the History of the Royal-Society of London by Thomas Sprat

Evelyn was a prolific traveller and a polymath. He wrote on the need to improve London’s architecture and air in Fumifugium (or The Inconveniencie of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated). And was an expert on trees writing: Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees (1664). He lived at Sayes Court in Depford near Greenwich, which he ill-advisedly rented to Peter the Great of Russia. Letting to Peter was a bit like inviting a 1960s Rock Band to trash your mansion.

Here is an extract from his Furmifugium. It has a place in my history because, in the 1980’s I worked on a project to create an interactive history of London, financed by Warner Brothers, and in cooperation with something called the ‘BBC Interactive TV Unit’. One part of it was a Literary Tour of London, and this is where I came across John Evelyn using several of the quotations on this page.

That this Glorious and Antient City, which from Wood might be rendred Brick, and (like another Rome) from Brick made Stone and Marble; which commands the Proud Ocean to the Indies, and reaches to the farthest Antipo­des, should wrap her stately head in Clowds of Smoake and Sulphur, so full of Stink and Dark­nesse, I deplore with just Indignation.

That the Buildings should be compos’d of such a Congestion of mishapen and extravagant Houses; That the Streets should be so narrow and incommodious in the very Center, and busiest places of Intercourse: That there should be so ill and uneasie a form of Paving under foot, so troublesome and malicious a disposure of the Spouts and Gutters overhead, are particulars worthy of Reproof and Reforma­tion; because it is hereby rendred a Labyrinth in its principal passages, and a continual Wet-day after the Storm is over.

Here is a taste of Evelyn’s time as an Exile, this is a short extract from a long entry on the splendid Palaces in and around Paris.

27th February, 1644. Accompanied with some English gentlemen, we took horse to see St. Germains-en-Laye, a stately country house of the King, some five leagues from Paris. By the way, we alighted at St. Cloud, where, on an eminence near the river, the Archbishop of Paris has a garden, for the house is not very considerable, rarely watered and furnished with fountains, statues,[and groves; the walks are very fair; the fountain of Laocoon is in a large square pool, throwing the water near forty feet high, and having about it a multitude of statues and basins, and is a surprising object. But nothing is more esteemed than the cascade falling from the great steps into the lowest and longest walk from the Mount Parnassus, which consists of a grotto, or shell-house, on the summit of the hill, wherein are divers waterworks and contrivances to wet the spectators; this is covered with a fair cupola, the walls painted with the Muses, and statues placed thick about it, whereof some are antique and good. In the upper walks are two perspectives, seeming to enlarge the alleys, and in this garden are many other ingenious contrivances.

John Evelyn’s Diary from https://www.gutenberg.org/

When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, this is Evelyn’s reaction:

May 29th 1660:

This day came in his Majestie Charles the 2d to London after a sad, and long exile… this was also his birthday, and with a Triumph of above 20,000 horse and foote, brandishing their swords and shouting with unexpressable joy; the wayes strawed with flowers, the bells ringing, the streets hung with Tapisry, fountains running with wine: ‘

‘The mayor, Aldermen, all the companies in their liveries, chaines of gold, banners, Lords and nobles, cloth of Silver, gold and velvet every body clad in, the windows and balconies all set with Ladys, Trumpetes, Musik, and myriads of people … All this without one drop of bloud …it was the Lords doing…

For Evelyn’s opinion of Cromwell have a look at this post of mine:

Terminalia God of the Boundary February 23rd

Hans Holbein the Younger Design for a Stained Glass Window with Terminus. Pen and ink and brush, grey wash, watercolour, over preliminary chalk drawing, 31.5 × 25 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel.
‘Terminus is often pictured as a bust on a boundary stone,

Today is ‘Terminalia, the Roman day for setting land boundaries.

Terminus was an old ancient God who was the God of the boundary, the border, the edge, the liminal God. Ovid says that when King Tarquinus swept away the old Gods on the Capital Hill and Jupiter became the Great God, all the old temples were taken down except for that of Terminus. Jupiter’s Temple was built around it. It had a hole in the roof because Terminus had to be worshipped in the open air.

Terminus’s motto was “concedo nulli” which means “I yield to no one”. This was adopted by Erasmus as his personal motto in 1509.

The Terminalia was celebrated on the last day of the old Roman year. February was the last month of the year, but the rulers of Rome added an intercalary month called Mercedonius in an attempt to keep the Solar year in tune with the seasons. And when the intercalary month was added, the last five days of February were given to Mercedonius and the resulting leap year was either 377 or 378 days long.. So, in those years the 23rd of February was the Terminus of the year..

The intercalary months were added at the direction of the Pontiffs, supposedly every two and sometimes every three years. But the Pontiffs were often swayed by political advantage and by the time of Julius Caesar the seasons had got wildly out of sync with the calendar year. The Dictator, therefore, instituted ‘the Year of Confusion’ which was over 400 days long and brought in the Julian Calendar which realigned the calendar back in line with the seasons. It fixed the problem with a leap day every four years, based on the almost correct calculation of a solar year being 365.25 days. It was another 1500 years before that inaccuracy was corrected with the introduction of the Gregorian Year, by which time the year was another 11 days out of kilter.

The festival of Terminus was a pastoral outdoor festival marking the boundaries of towns and villages. It resembles the Beating of the Bounds tradition that we have in Britain, which is recorded from anglo-saxon times, and still continues in some parishes. I will talk about this on Ascension Day in May!

Here is what Ovid, in ‘Fasti’ says about Terminalis

Book II: February 23: The Terminalia
When night has passed, let the god be celebrated
With customary honour, who separates the fields with his
sign.
Terminus, whether a stone or a stump buried in the earth,
You have been a god since ancient times.
You are crowned from either side by two landowners,
Who bring two garlands and two cakes in offering.
An altar’s made: here the farmer’s wife herself
Brings coals from the warm hearth on a broken pot.
The old man cuts wood and piles the logs with skill,
And works at setting branches in the solid earth.
Then he nurses the first flames with dry bark,
While a boy stands by and holds the wide basket.
When he’s thrown grain three times into the fire
The little daughter offers the sliced honeycombs.
Others carry wine: part of each is offered to the flames:
The crowd, dressed in white, watch silently.
Terminus, at the boundary, is sprinkled with lamb’s blood,
And doesn’t grumble when a sucking pig is granted him.
Neighbours gather sincerely, and hold a feast,
And sing your praises, sacred Terminus:
You set bounds to peoples, cities, great kingdoms:
Without you every field would be disputed.
You curry no favour: you aren’t bribed with gold,
Guarding the land entrusted to you in good faith.
If you’d once marked the bounds of Thyrean lands,
Three hundred men would not have died,
Nor Othryadesí name be seen on the pile of weapons.
O how he made his fatherland bleed!
What happened when the new Capitol was built?
The whole throng of gods yielded to Jupiter and made
room:
But as the ancients tell, Terminus remained in the shrine
Where he was found, and shares the temple with great
Jupiter.
Even now there’s a small hole in the temple roof,
So he can see nothing above him but stars.
Since then, Terminus, you’ve not been free to wander:
Stay there, in the place where you’ve been put,
And yield not an inch to your neighbour’s prayers,
Lest you seem to set men above Jupiter:
And whether they beat you with rakes, or ploughshares,
Call out: This is your field, and that is his!
There’s a track that takes people to the Laurentine fields,
The kingdom once sought by Aeneas, the Trojan leader:
The sixth milestone from the City, there, bears witness
To the sacrifice of a sheep’s entrails to you, Terminus.
The lands of other races have fixed boundaries:
The extent of the City of Rome and the world is one

Translated by A. S. Kline copyright 2004

Metamorphosis, Crocus and Saffron February 19th

Snowdrop, Crocus, violet and Silver Birch circle in Haggerston Park. (Photo Kevin Flude, 2022)

Violets and crocuses are coming out. Apparently, in the UK 63% say crocuses and 37% use the correct Latin plural which is croci. And last year I used the incorrect crocii. Incidently, an earth shaking decision has been made at the Financial Times who have just updated their style guide to make the plural word data (datum is the singular form) take the singular form. So it is no longer ‘data are’ but ‘data is’. For example, it was ‘the data are showing us that most British speakers use crocuses as the plural’ but now ‘the data is showing us that 37% of British people prefer the correct Latin form of croci’. In 2018 they changed it to an option, but now it is mandatory to make data singular.

The crocus represents many things but because they often come out for St Valentine’s Day they are associated with Love ‘White croci usually represented truth, innocence and purity. The purple variety imply success, pride and dignity. The yellow type is joy.’ according to www.icysedgwick.com/, which gives a fairly comprehensive look at the Crocus.

Ovid tells the story of Crocus and Smilax in the Metamorphoses. This poem is one of the most famous in the world, written in about 6 AD it influenced Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats, Bernard Shaw and was translated anew by Seamus Hughes.

The mechanicals in ‘The Midsummers Night Dream’ perform Ovid’s story of Pyramus and Thisbe, Titian painted ‘Diana and Actaeon’. Shaw wrote about Pygmalion, and we all know the story of Arachne, claiming to be better than Athene at weaving and then being turned into a spider.

The stories are all about metamorphosis, mostly changes happening because of love. But it is also an epic as it tells the classical story of the universe from creation to Julius Caesar. It is about love, beauty, change and is largely an arcadian/rural poem in contrast to Ovid’s ‘Art of Love’ which I have long used for illustrations of life in a Roman town.

He tells us ‘Crocus and his beloved Smilax were changed into tiny flowers.’ But he chooses to pass by this and other stories. So we have to look elsewhere for more details. There are various version. In the first Crocus is a handsome mortal youth, beloved of the God Hermes. They are playing with a discus which hits Crocus on the head and kills him. Hermes, distraught, turns the youth into a beautiful flower, and three drops of his blood form the stigma of the flower.  In other versions, love hits Crocus and the nymph Smilax, and they are rewarded by immortality as a flower. In one version, Smilax is turned into the Bindweed, which perhaps suggests that she is either punished for spurning him, or that she smothered him with love.

Photo Mohammad Amiri from unsplash. Notice the crimson stigma and styles, called threads

The autumn-flowering perennial plant Crocus sativus, is the one whose stigma gives us saffron. This was spread across Europe by the Romans, and was used for medicine, as a dye, a perfume. It was much sought after as a protection against the plague. It was extensively grown in the UK and Saffron Walden was a particularly important production area in the 16th and 17th Centuries.

It was grown in the Bishop of Ely’s beautiful Gardens in the area remembered by Saffron Hill (home to the fictional Scrooge). This area became the London Home of Christopher Hatton, the favourite of Queen Elizabeth 1. It is on the west bank of the River Fleet, in London EC1, in the area now know as Hatton Garden. The placename Croydon (on the outskirts of London), means crocus valley.

But I did find out more about Saffron from listening to BBC Radio 4’s Gardener’s Question time and James Wong.

The placename Croydon (on the outskirts of London), means crocus valley. a place where Saffron was grown. The Saffron crops in Britain failed eventually because of the cost of harvesting, and it became cheaper to import it. It is now grown in Spain, Iran and India amongst other places. But attempts over the last 5 years have been made to reintroduce it, This is happening in Norfolk, Suffolk, Kent and Sussex – the hot and dry counties. It likes a South facing aspect, and needs to be protected from squirrels and sparrows who love it.

Saffron Photo by Vera De on Unsplash
Morning Glory or Field Bindweed photo Leslie Saunders unsplash

Bindweed is from the Convolvulus family, and I have grown one very successfully in a pot for many years. But they have long roots and according to the RHS ‘Bindweed‘ refers to two similar trumpet-flowered weeds, both of which twine around other plant stems, smothering them in the process. They are not easy to remove.’ Medically, Mrs Grieve’s Modern Herbal says all the bindweeds have strong purgative virtues.

Viola odorata CC BY-SA 2.5 Wikipedia

Violets have been used as cosmetics by the Celts, to moderate anger by the Athenians, for insomnia and loved because of their beauty and fragrant. They have been symbols of death for the young, and used as garlands, nosegays posies which Gerard says are ‘delightful’.

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

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