Stone of Destiny on display in Perth March 30th

Old Photograph of the Stone of Destiny beneath the Coronation Chair.
Old Photograph of the Stone of Destiny beneath the Coronation Chair.

The Stone of Destiny is, today, on display again at the reopening of the redeveloped Perth Museum, in Scotland. This is near to its ‘original’ home at the Palace of Scone.

The Museums Association reports that it is a ‘£27m development project ….funded by £10m UK government investment from the £700m Tay Cities Deal and by Perth & Kinross Council, the museum is a transformation of Perth’s former city hall by architects Mecanoo.’

As well as the Stone of Destiny, the Museum has Bonnie Prince Charlie’s sword and a rare Jacobite wine glass, which are on public display for the first time. This is the first time the sword has been in Scotland since it was made in Perth in 1739. https://perthmuseum.co.uk/the-stone-of-destiny/

Webpage of the Perth Museum show a photo of the Stone of Destiny
Webpage of the Perth Museum show a photo of the Stone of Destiny

Before Perth, the Stone was in London under the Coronation Chair for the Coronation of King Charles III (6 May 2023) . Before that, it was on display at Edinburgh Castle after being sent back to Scotland by Blair’s Labour Government as a symbol of the devolution of power from Westminster to the restored Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh in November 1996. Before that, it was under the Coronation Chair from the time Edward I stole it (1296) from Scone as part of his attempted subjection of Scotland in the late 13th Century. So, virtual every English and British King has been crowned upon the Stone of Scone.

However, the Stone had a brief holiday in Scotland in 1950/51 after four Scottish students removed it from Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1950. After thee months, it turned up at the high altar of Arbroath Abbey. It was briefly in a Prison Cell, then returned to Westminster for the Coronation of Elizabeth II.

I’m guessing the-would-be liberators of the Stone, thought Arbroath was suitable, as the Declaration of Arbroath is the supreme declaration of Scottish Independence from England. Following the Battle of Bannockburn, and Robert Bruce’s leadership, the Scots wrote to the Pope of their commitment to Scotland as an independent nation. They said:

“As long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself”

The Pope agreed and Scotland remained independent until voluntarily joining England in the United Kingdom in 1714.

Poor photograph of a press cutting on display at the Palace of Scone (Photo by me!)
Poor photograph of a press cutting on display at the Palace of Scone (Photo by me!)

Before Edward 1 stole the Stone, it was at Scone Palace, upon which the Kings of Scotland were crowned, including Macbeth (August 14, 1040).

Moot or Boot Hill where Scottish Kings were crowned. Palace of Scone Photo Kevin Flude)
Moot or Boot Hill where Scottish Kings were crowned. Palace of Scone Photo Kevin Flude)

Those who attended the coronation traditionally shook their feet of all the earth they had brought from their homelands, and this over the centuries grew into Boot Hill, aka Moot Hill. So the mound represents the sacred land of Scotland. 42 Kings were crowned upon its soil on its Stone.

Before Scone, it was, possibly, in Argyllshire where the Gaelic Kings were crowned, Their most famous King was Kenneth MacAlpine and he united the Scots, Gaelic people originally from Ireland, the Picts, and the British into a new Kingdom which was called Alba, which became Scotland.

MacAlpine was the first king to be crowned on the Stone at Scone in 841 or so. He made Scone the capital of his new Kingdom because it was a famous Monastery associated with the Culdees who followed St Columba to Scotland. MacAlpine brought sacred relics from Iona to sanctify the new capital. And Scottish Kings were by tradition crowned at Scone and buried on the holy Island of Iona.

Before that, legend has it that the Scots bought the Stone from Ireland when they began to settle in Western Scotland (c500AD). The Scots, it is said, got the Stone from the Holy Land where Jacob lay his head on it and had a dream of Angels ascending and descending a ladder to Heaven. Jacob used the stone as a memorial, which was called Jacob’s Pillow (c1652 years BC).

But, questions about the Stone remain. Firstly, an angry Edward 1 failing to conquer the Scots makes a spiteful raid on Scone, but would the Monks meekly hand over the stone, or do they hide it and give him a fake?

Secondly, was the Stone brought to Scone from Western Scotland in the 9th Century?

These questions of doubt are based on the assumption that the Stone is made of the local Scone sandstone. If it were brought to Scone from somewhere else, it would be in a different type of stone, surely? So, either it was made in Scone, possibly for MacAlpine’s Coronation or the Monks fooled the English into taking a copy. So the English would then have been crowning their Monarchs on a forgery.

Ha! Silly English but then the Scots have spent £27m on the same forgery.

Historic Environment Scotland have recently undertaken a new analysis of the stone, which confirms: ‘the Stone as being indistinguishable from sandstones of the Scone Sandstone Formation, which outcrop in the area around Scone Palace, near Perth‘. It also found that different stone workers had worked on the stone in the past; that it bore traces of a plaster cast being made; that it had markings which have not yet been deciphered and had copper staining suggesting something copper or bronze was put on the top of it at some point in its history.

So it seems the Stone of Destiny was made in Scone.

 

The Beginning of the Universe as We Know It; Birthdays of Adam, Lilith, & Eve; Conception of Jesus, Start of the Year March 25th

Lilith is shown coming her hair and looking in a mirror
Study for Lady Lilith, by Rossetti. 1866, in red chalk. Now in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Wikipedia
Study for Lady Lilith, by Rossetti. 1866, in red chalk. Now in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Wikipedia)

March 25th is the Annunciation—the day that the Archangel Gabriel tells Mary she is pregnant. (to see some very fine paintings of this meeting, look at my other March 25th post here)

March 25th is also the anniversary of the birth of Adam and Eve (and presumably Lilith); the death of Jesus Christ; the anniversary of the Immolation of Isaac; the Parting of the Red Sea; the Fall of Lucifer; and, (until 1752 in the UK) the beginning of the Year.

Of course, it isn’t or to put it another way, no one can, or ever could, prove any of these dates except the last one. So what they speak to is the way the Church saw the world as logically structured by God. Christian thinking about the year, the world, the universe, creation, developed over many years and took influences from many cultures. It is also very complicated to work out the sequence, so I’m going to summarise from what I know (or at least what I think I know).

Christians chose Christmas Day as the Birthdate of Jesus probably because it was a prominent birthday already shared with several Gods, but particularly Mithras and Saturn. It was approximately at Solstice, the beginning of the Solar Year, and close to one of the main festivals of the Roman World, the Saturnalia. December 25th might have been chosen by the pagan religions because it is the time when the Sun begins to rise, to the naked eye, further north each day, lengthening the day, increasing light and the promise of warmer weather.

So, Jesus was born on/or around the Solstice, so he must have been conceived approx. 9 months earlier, which would be around the Spring Equinox. I have always thought that the 4 or 5 days difference between the Solstice, the Equinox and the Christian festivals was down to the fact that the Calendars were not well coordinated with the actual movements of the Sun (because the Sun does not circle the earth in 365 days, or in 365 and a quarter days, but 365 days, 6 hours, 9 minutes which makes Calendars hard to align with the Sun). But I have just realised the importance of something I discovered yesterday when preparing my two posts on March 25th. And since writing that sentence I have had another revelation. But be patient.

So, God sends his Son to save the human race. God is a logical being, so she would send the Son at an appropriate time. If the Child is born at or near the Solstice, which is an appropriate time for the Son of the Creator, then 9 months earlier, March 25th, is near the Equinox, which is the beginning of Spring. For many people, Spring is a new beginning, for example, the Anglo-Saxons saw Winter as the death of the year, and Spring as the young Year.

So to the Creation. God, having a free choice, would have created the world at the beginning of Spring. In fact, if you think about it, God creates everything necessary for life at the creation in 6 days, and it is going to immediately spring into new life, and the first season must, therefore, be Spring? Right? So March 25th.

This gives a nice symmetry with Jesus’s Life. Conceived on March 25th, born December 25th, and died 30-40 years later, according to the Church, on March 25th. (the only other famous person I know born and died on the same day is William Shakespeare).

Easter, when Jesus is martyred, isn’t March 25th I hear you saying. But remember, Easter is a lunar festival, so its date varies each year. Births and deaths, on the other hand, are fixed to the Solar Calendar and the Church chooses March 25th as the most appropriate day to pin the death of Jesus, on the anniversary of his conception and the anniversary of the creation of the Earth, and I am guessing that this is also the preferred date for the Day of Judgement.

It is also the Birthday of Adam, and his first wife Lilith (or so some say), and Eve. More about Lilith below. I thought this date was just one of the parallels that the Church liked, Jesus and Adam born on the same day but, I have just worked out why Adam is born on March 25th, and why these dates are not the Equinox, March 20th but March 25th, which has been bugging me.

Let’s go back to the Beginning of Creation. According to the Anno Munda‘s arrangement of the Year, the world was created 5500 years plus 2023 years ago so 7523 Before the Present. And it was supposed to have ended in 600AD, 6000 years after the Creation. So, they got that wrong.

The Creation, as described in Genesis, has the following sequence of Seven Days. As the Creation began at the Equinox March 20th. I have added dates to the 6/7 day sequence of Creation:

  • Day 1: Light – March 20th
  • Day 2: Atmosphere / Firmament – March 21st
  • Day 3: Dry ground & plants – March 22nd
  • Day 4: Sun, moon & stars – March 23rd
  • Day 5: Birds & sea creatures – March 24th
  • Day 6: Land animals & humans – March 25th
  • Day 7: The Sabbath of rest – March 26th
  • For more information www.bibleinfo.com

So there you have it! Adam, Lilith, and Eve were created on Day 6 with the Land Animals – March 25th. Jesus conceived, also on this date, and so 9 months later is born on December 25th. It all makes sense, and aligns the Christian year fully with the Solar Year.

And that, dear Reader, is the very first time anyone has been able to explain to me why Christmas is not at the Solstice, and why the Annunciation was not at the Equinox. Maybe you all know this, but it is very exciting to work this out for myself. And believe me, I have done a lot of reading about calendars and not spotted an explanation.

So that was yesterday’s revelation. What about the revelation I had about 45 minutes ago? (now about 5 hours). When writing items like this, there are numerous things that are interconnected, and I begin writing them before realising I am interrupting the story I am trying to tell. This is often to the detriment of the story arc, or to understanding (although often, I think, adds to the joy of this blog – after all ChatGBT couldn’t write this stuff – could it?).

So I began to write about Dionysius Exiguus and his invention of the AD/BC system and about eras, cycles, and ages. (He replaced the Anno Mundo year with the AD/BC system in the 6th Century AD).

I was thinking about the beginning of the year. The Celts chose October 31st, Julius Caesar chose January 1st, other cultures have other dates, and the Spring Equinox is another choice sometimes made. The Church and Dionysius Exiguus choose March 25th, although secular society also recognised the claims of January 1st. Britain kept to March 25th until 1752 when we adopted the Gregorian Calendar. But people like Samuel Pepys celebrated New Year’s Eve on 31st December. So January 1st was the New Year, but the year number did not change until March 25th. So King Charles I thought his head was being cut off on January 30th 1648; while history books will tell you it was cut off on January 30th 1649. Same day, different reckonings.

December 31st/January 1st is essentially a Solstice New Year Festival. And I have, previously, used the difficulty of keeping calendars as to why these days has slipped out of alignment with the Solstice. But, today I realised that it is as likely that the reason is the Solar/Lunar nature of our time keeping. The year, and its festivals, is largely arranged around the Solar Cycle. But our weekly and monthly cycles are derived from the Moon. So, I think that January 1st (or the Kalends of January as the Romans would have called it) would originally have been the First New Moon after the Winter Solstice. Keeping the Moon months and the Sun years in sync is very, very difficult, and so Roman and Christian cultures gave up and fixed the moon months, completely abandoning any attempt to keep the months to the actual lunar cycle. This is our current system, in which only Easter remains a true to the moon festival, much to our perennial confusion.

Maybe you all know this, but I’ve learnt a lot in writing these two posts.

Lilith

The April 2023 Issue of ‘History Today’ has a short piece called ‘The Liberation of Lilith’ which suggests that the story of Lilith, a figure from Jewish Folklore, is first attested in a Medieval satirical text called ‘The Alphabet of Ben Sira’. The story goes that Lilith is created using the same clay as Adam. Adam then demands she lies below him during sex. She refuses, saying that they are both made from the same stuff and, therefore, equal. Adam refuses to accept this, and so Lilith leaves the Garden of Eden. So the story goes.

The story of Lilith, Sarah Clegg suggests, is one of a series of similar stories found around Europe and Asia. And Clegg assumes that it is gradually modified to make Lilith a demon who will kill babies unless the names of three angels are spoken out loud. So, the story survives as a charm to keep babies safe, and perhaps to remind people of equality among the sexes. But this causes problems for, OK, let’s call them out, the Patriarchy. Lilith cannot be equal to Adam so she becomes a monster, not made from the same clay as Adam but from the scum and waste left over from Adam’s creation. I imagine the story then went on to propose that God creates Eve from Adam’s rib, and so she is created from Adam, and is, therefore nor equal, but subservient to him. Lilith is now a significant figure in feminist folklore circles.

I wrote about more about eras and ages in my post which you can see her: Greater Cycles and the Six or Seven Ages

Attached to the watercolour of Lilith by Rossetti (at the top of the page), was a label with a verse from Goethe‘s Faust as translated by Shelley. (Wikipedia)

“Beware of her fair hair, for she excells
All women in the magic of her locks,
And when she twines them round a young man’s neck
she will not ever set him free again.”

The model is Fanny Cornforth, Rossetti’s mistress. He painted another version a few years later, but the model in that is Alexa Wilding. His models are arguably more interesting than the man himself and include: Elizabeth Siddall, Jane Morris and Fanny Cornforth. Christina Rossetti, his poet sister, modelled for Rossetti’s painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini which you can see here.

I think I might have enough material to begin my own Cult.

For more on the Annunciation, look at my other March 25th post here.

Yew Sunday Palm Sunday March 24

Giotto. Entry into Jerusalem from the Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padova (sent to me by Lucia Granatella)

Yew Sunday (Domhnach an Iúir in Irish) is the medieval name for Palm Sunday – this is the day that Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph on a donkey, with palm leaves being laid in front of him. It has always been very curious to me this so-short-lived triumph preceding such heavy and heart breaking tragedy. It is the Sunday before the Betrayal, which leads to the Crucifixion on Good Friday and the Resurrection on Sunday. A busy week for the Church.

Palm Sunday can be celebrated by making crosses out of palms, or with processions bearing palm branches or eating special cakes (there is always room in any ritual for cakes). But in the North where do you get your Palms from? So, it was often substituted by Box, or Olive or Willow and particularly, in Britain and Ireland, by Yew. Yew is evergreen and is so long lived as to be a symbol of everlasting life (I wrote more about the Yew here).

Giotto Bondone was a Florentine painter of the 14th Century of whom Giorgio Vasari, in his essential guide to the artists of the Renaissance, ‘The Lives of the Artists‘ said of the 10 year old:

One day Cimabue, going on business from Florence to Vespignano, found Giotto, while his sheep were feeding, drawing a sheep from nature upon a smooth and solid rock with a pointed stone, having never learnt from any one but nature. Cimabue, marvelling at him, stopped and asked him if he would go and be with him. And the boy answered that if his father were content he would gladly go. Then Cimabue asked Bondone for him, and he gave him up to him, and was content that he should take him to Florence.

There in a little time, by the aid of nature and the teaching of Cimabue, the boy not only equalled his master, but freed himself from the rude manner of the Greeks, and brought back to life the true art of painting, introducing the drawing from nature of living persons, which had not been practised for two hundred years; or at least if some had tried it, they had not succeeded very happily.

Written in 1550.

If you look at the painting, you will see, even more than his contemporary Duccio, the faces of the people are rounded and, and at least somewhat, individual. The crowd scene, particularly, to the right, has some depth and the people further away seem to recede from the viewer, rather than, as they often do in Byzantine style paintings, either float or seem to stand on or support themselves on each other’s shoulders. The Gate into Jerusalem has been rendered by someone who has seen something that he believes has the key to realistic scenes. One day it will be rediscovered, and named single-point perspective. Yes, Giotto doesn’t know the secret but he is working to find out what the trick is. The people in the trees are also in the distance. These are the giant strides that Vasari is referring to in the quotation above. Realistic people, in spaces with depth. The donkey is quite sweet too! Cimabue was particularly good at painting Crucifix scenes.

The Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padova is a World Heritage Site and Giotto and his team covered all the walls and ceiling with frescos, depicting the Life of Jesus, the Life of Mary, and the Last Judgement.

Giotto, The Last Judgement. Cappella degli Scrovegni, In Padova. Wikipedia

Here is a real Digital Heritage treat – a 360 Degree tour of the Chapel! Follow the link below. If it seems to be taking a long time to load there is an information button which, once pressed will allow the panorama to load immediately.

https://www.haltadefinizione.com/en/image-bank/giotto-di-bondone-scrovegni-chapel-360-view/

Aries, the Nose and the King’s Evil March 22nd

aries star sign

We have just entered Aries. Now according to astrology, Aries is associated with health issues of the face. This, according to ‘Skin and Astrology Signs‘ is because of the “level of heat in their bodies” they tend to have problems such as “flushing, heat rashes, skin eruptions, and rosacea,” And suggest using chilled cucumber for the eyes and forehead, and using beauty products with soothing aloe vera in them.

Charles Kightly in his Perpetual Almanac enjoins us to ‘Observe the features of the face which are ruled by Aries and seek cures for ills of the nose’.

He gives two examples. The first is from John Aubrey and relates to the fact that people believed that Scrofula, or the King’s Evil (tuberculous cervical lymphadenitis) could be cured by touching the Monarch. So, the King or Queen would make herself, very reluctantly, available for his sick public to touch her. I will say more about the subject below. Aubrey tells us this slightly revolting tale:

Arise Evans had a fungous Nose and said, it was revealed to him, that the king’s hand would cure him At the first coming of Charles II into St James Park he kissed the king’s hand and rubbed his nose with it: which disturbed the king, but cured him.

John Aubrey Miscellanies 1695.

An 18th Century publication gives us an idea how to understand people by studying their noses.

Nose round with a sharpness at the end signifies one to be wavering of mind; the nose wholly crooked, to be sure unshamefaced and unstable; crooked like an eagle’s beak, to be bold. The nose flat, to be lecherous and hasty in wrath; the nostrils large, to be ireful.’

The Shepherd’s Prognostication 1729

It was only the French and the English who believed the King’s touch could cure people. The French claimed it began with Philip 1 in the 11th Century, while the English claimed Edward the Confessor as the first. The French denied this saying that the French King of England, Henry 1 was the first to use the King’s Touch to cure people. The practice lasted until George 1 resolutely refused to have anything to do with it.

It took place in the winter, between Michaelmas and Easter, when cold weather provoked the disease. The lucky few who were allowed the Touch, would be touched or stroked by the King or Queen, on the face or neck, then a special gold coin, touched by the Monarch was put around their neck. Readings from the bible and prayer finished the ceremony. Before Queen Elizabeth, the Touch was said to cure many diseases such as Rheutmatism, culvsions, fever and blindness, but after it was reserved for Scrofula.

Sketch of Dr Johnson from a portrait.
Sketch of Dr Johnson from a portrait.

Dr Samuel Johnson suffered from Scofula and received the “royal touch” from Queen Anne on 30 March 1712 at St James’s Palace. He was given a ribbon, which he wore around his neck for the rest of his life. But it did not cure the disease, and he had to have an operation.

Mothering Sunday & Simnel Cake March 10th

Strangely, very little to do with Mothers! Mothering Sunday is the 4th Sunday in Lent and is a day in which we are enjoined to visit our Mother Churches. It, therefore, became a day when people made processions to their Churches, and when servants and workers could go to their home parishes, and not only go to the Mother Church but also to say hello to their mothers. It was called Mothering Sunday when I was little but since then has morphed into the Americanism that is Mother’s Day.

In Church the Reading is often Isaiah 66:10–11

‘Rejoice ye with Jerusalem; and be ye glad for her, all ye that delight in her: exult and sing for joy with her, all ye that in sadness mourn for her; that ye may suck, and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolations.

Jerusalem is personified. here, as the Mother. Further associations with motherhood came from the Gospel for the day which is John 6:1–14, the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, which led to associations with the bounty of Mother Earth.

In the medieval period visits to the Mother Church seem to have become fiercely competitive. The Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste decreed:

In each and every church you should strictly prohibit one parish from fighting with another over whose banners should come first in processions at the time of the annual visitation and veneration of the mother church. […] Those who dishonour their spiritual mother should not at all escape punishment, when those who dishonour their fleshly mothers are, in accordance with God’s law, cursed and punished with death.

(Letter 22.7 – Wikipedia)

Simnel Cake

It was also the Sunday in the fasting period of Lent in which the restrictions were relaxed, so you could eat what is called Simnel Cake.

I’ll to thee a Simnel bring
‘Gainst thou goest a-Mothering
So that, when she blesseth thee
Half that blessing thou’lt give me.

Herrick Hesperides 1647

Photo: James Petts from London, England – Simnel cake (wikipedia
Easter 2012

The Simnel cake is a fine flour light fruit cake (Latin simila, fine flour), with layers of marzipan in it. It often has 11 balls of marzipan on the top, representing the 11 (not Judas) apostles. The cake is first boiled for two hours and then baked.

Now, I know 95% of my American readers hate fruit cake, but believe me when I tell you – you are completely wrong! Its delicious, and here is the BBC’s recipe for you to try:

https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/easter-simnel-cake

And I’m beginning to see that cake is an emerging theme of this Almanac of the Past.

Written in March 23, slightly revised in March 24

The Month of New Life March 1st

The Kalendar of Shepherds – French 15th Century

This is the beginning of Spring, metrologically speaking. There is nothing magical about this day that makes it in any sense actually the start of Spring. It is a convenience determined by meteorologists, who divide the year up into 4 blocks of three months based on average temperature. It could be the 2nd March.  Or the 1st of February as the Celts favoured.

There is nothing that says we have to have 4 seasons. Egypt had three seasons for example. Plants have been blooming, sprouting and budding since January, and some will wait until later in the year. Lambs have been born since January. But scientists and society find it easiest to keep statistics on a monthly basis so March 1st it is.

Astronomically, the seasons are more rationally divided by the movement of the Sun, So Spring begins on the spring equinox, usually 21st of March.

March the 1st was the beginning of the Roman year in Rome’s early days. (see extract from Ovid’s Fasti below).  Ovid says thr year started on the Kalends of March

I discuss the strange way the Romans divided the month in another post, but he is what Britannica says about the system:

‘In a 31-day month such as March, the Kalends was day 1, with days 2–6 being counted as simply “before the Nones.” The Nones fell on day 7, with days 8–14 “before the Ides” and the 15th as the Ides. Afterward the days were counted as “before the Kalends” of the next month’.

The Month was named after Mars, the God of War, as Mars was the patron God of the City. March was also the beginning of the campaign season, and the army was prepared, and ceremonies held to Mars. The Salii, twelve youths dressed in archaic fighting costumes led a procession singing the Carmen Saliare. Ovid reports in his poem Fasti (3.259–392).

In Welsh the month is called Mawrth, (derived it is thought from the Latin Martius). Gaelic Mart or Earrach Geamraidth – which means the ‘winter spring’. In Anglo-Saxon ‘Hrethamonath’ the month of the Goddess Hretha. The evidence for the name comes from the Venerable Bede in his ‘The Reckoning of Time, written in 725 AD. Nothing else is known about her. Her name is Latinised to Rheda. J R. R. Tolkein used the Anglo-Saxon calendar as the calendar for the Shire where the third month is called Rethe.

For the Anglo-Saxon spring was looked forward to with great joy after the bleakness of winter. Christian Anglo-Saxons also saw this as the pivotal month in the year. It was in March that the world was created, and the Messiah conceived, revealed, executed, and ascended to heaven.

The illustration, from the Kalendar of Shepherds, shows that in Pisces and early Ares preparation was still the main order of the farming day, clearing out the moats, and preparing the fruit trees. Lambing is also increasing in number.

It is also the Feast of St David, the patron saint of Wales, who lived in the sixth century AD. Little that is known about him is contemporary but he was an abbot-bishop and important for the independence of the Welsh Christian tradition.

Kalendar of Shepherds.

Ovid Fasti Book 3

At the beginning of this book Ovid provides the story of Rome’s foundation, and how Mars took Silvia the Vestal while she slept. She later gave birth to Romulus and Remus. He also gives details of how Rome was organised and in the piece of the long text I have chosen below he discusses the arrangement of the year as Romulus decided upon. It is a year that began on the 1st March, and had only 10 months which is the number of digits we have and the length of pregnancy (so Ovid says). I wrote about Caesar’s reforms of the Roman year, yesterday.  See here

Ovid wrote:

So, untaught and lacking in science, each five-year lustre
That they calculated was short by two whole months.
A year was when the moon returned to full for the tenth
time:
And that was a number that was held in high honour:
Because it’s the number of fingers we usually count with,
Or because a woman produces in ten months,
Or because the numerals ascend from one to ten,
And from that point we begin a fresh interval.
So Romulus divided the hundred Senators into ten groups,
And instituted ten companies of men with spears,
And as many front-rank and javelin men,
And also those who officially merited horses.
He even divided the tribes the same way, the Titienses,
The Ramnes, as they are called, and the Luceres.
And so he reserved the same number for his year,
It ís the time for which the sad widow mourns her man.
If you doubt that the Kalends of March began the year,
You can refer to the following evidence.
The priest’s laurel branch that remained all year,
Was removed then, and fresh leaves honoured.
Then the king’s door is green with Phoebus’ bough,
Set there, and at your doors too, ancient wards.
And the withered laurel is taken from the Trojan hearth,
So Vesta may be brightly dressed with new leaves.
Also, it’s said, a new fire is lit at her secret shrine,
And the rekindled flame acquires new strength.
And to me it’s no less a sign that past years began so,
That in this month worship of Anna Perenna begins.
Then too it’s recorded public offices commenced,
Until the time of your wars, faithless Carthaginian.
Lastly Quintilis is the fifth (TXLQWXV) month from March,
And begins those that take their names from numerals.
Numa Pompilius, led to Rome from the lands of olives,
Was the first to realise the year lacked two months,
Learning it from Pythagoras of Samos, who believed
We could be reborn, or was taught it by his own Egeria.
But the calendar was still erratic down to the time
When Caesar took it, and many other things, in hand.
That god, the founder of a mighty house, did not
Regard the matter as beneath his attention,
And wished to have prescience of those heavens
Promised him, not be an unknown god entering a strange
house.
He is said to have drawn up an exact table
Of the periods in which the sun returns to its previous
signs.
He added sixty-five days to three hundred,
And then added a fifth part of a whole day.
That’s the measure of the year: one day
The sum of the five part-days is added to each lustre.

Translated by A. S. Kline online here:

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 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

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.

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