Eagle eyed

Along with owls, eagles are easily the most recognizable of all birds. One might confuse a crow with a blackbird with a raven, but an eagle is not to be missed or mistaken. It occupies the highest place in the avian food chain exemplified in the curious fact that it alone, out of all the range of birds of prey, does not cast a backward look before swooping down on its victim. Quite simply, it doesn’t have to exercise any such caution. Unfortunately, in a terrible metaphor for the destructive force that is humanity, its threat is humankind in the form of the elimination of its habitat or  via poisonous chemicals which have been unleashed into the environment. Added to this in the UK is egg collectors indulging in their eccentric and illegal pursuit of oology. It’s a bizarre hobby that could only exist in the UK and was the subject of an excellent article in the New Yorker a few months back.

The different aquiline species eat a range of animals from snakes to sheep and there have been reports of dogs being carried off. In parts of southern Europe, some breeds enjoy turtles, dropping the unfortunate creatures from great heights onto rocks in order to shatter their shells. This enterprising habit led to one of the most unusual alleged deaths in history, that of the Greek playwright Aeschylus in 455 BC, when an eagle mistook his bald head for a rock -an entirely natural and understandable error- and released a turtle aimed at his skull. Not content with this quirky demise, fate had another twist in store: the turtle survived unscathed and with its shell intact. There is a helpful illustration of the episode below, from the fifteenth-century Florentine Picture Chronicle by Maso Finguerra. It still doesn’t overshadow the death of the Greek scholar and writer Philitas of Cos, who was so obsessed with erroneous word usage that he forgot to eat during his research and wasted away in around 285 BC. This confirms what many of us have long suspected: pedantry is a health risk. Philitas would have been the ultimate Internet troll.

ImageThe eagle has a venerable tradition of symbolizing nations and deities, featuring on countless coats of arms, flags, and standards from Poland to Mexico. It was the beacon of imperial Rome and the emblem of Jupiter, a fitting sign of colonial aggression being an accomplished predator. Jupiter adopted several animal disguises to come from Olympus and copulate with attractive humans: with Europa he assumed the form of a bull; with Lyda, he was a swan; perhaps the most peculiar is in the form of golden rain which impregnated Danaë, locked in a tower by her husband. There is something quite fitting about carnal lust being literally incarnated in bestial form, but little wonder that the Romans would ultimately reject the seedy and sadistic violence of mythology for the audacious religion of peace and compassion which would flow through its networks like a virus. It was, paradoxically, that great persecutor of Christians, Diocletian, who perhaps did more to facilitate the end of paganism. Diocletian, who ruled as master of the West from 284 to 305, had two radical methods of power: he delegated, ruling with a co-emperor, Maximian named Augustus, and then also two junior emperors, or Caesars; then, he relinquished power in 305, with no coercion to do so, spending his last years tending his garden. It was Diocletian’s unexpected approach which led to the accession of one of the two Caesars, Constantius, to follow him in an uncontested and uncontroversial succession. While Constantius only lived for a few months, this relatively internal stability led to his son to succeed him. This named heir, Constantine, would turn the world on his head with his conversion to Christianity. The eagle would be supplanted by the dove.

ImageJupiter’s tastes were not confined to women and his closest love, exemplified in the fact that he was transported to the heavens and made immortal, alone out of all the god’s lovers, was a beautiful youth named Ganymede. The homoerotic subtext of the myth is not as important as its stress on the homosocial nature of patriarchy; Rome was built on the concept of patria potestas, that every father in society, from the head of the familial unit to the leader of the gods, had authority of life and death over the women and children in his household. Michel Foucault reminds us that this notion evolved directly into the western subordination of women which remains a feature of societies today, albeit subtler than in times past. Rubens’s visually stunning representation of the Rape of Ganymede (1611) -rape here in the old sense of abduction- does not shy away from same-sex sensuality in the close and affectionate grasp of the young man on to the eagle, the quiver of arrows possessing a prominent phallic suggestion. Ganymede, here, seems like a nervous bride before her wedding night rather than the unwillingly kidnap victim of some visual and textual versions. Take the stark counterpoint in Rembrandt’s interpretation of the scene in 1634, below.

ImageNot only is the boy completely unwilling in this painting but his extreme youth -he is a toddler- firmly desexualizes the legend. At the same time, the somber, dark colors evoke menace, as does the evil-looking eagle. The most disturbing element in the painting is to be found in the child’s real distress, for he does more than cry: he actually urinates himself out of fear. Rembrandt’s picture is certainly closer to the savage nature of classical mythology, which took few prisoners over the millennia which it held humans captive to its institutionalized threats.

ImageThe eagle’s reputation has certainly come far since its Roman synonym for dominance. We stand in awe of the size and plumage of this beautiful bird, and the founders of the American Republic adopted the North American bald eagle, above, as the fledgling state’s national emblem in 1782. In doing so, their intention was undoubtedly to create a link with imperial Rome but they unwittingly forged one with Native-American tribes which had venerated this bird as a spiritual messenger between humans and the divine.

ImageToday’s cufflinks are from Taxco, Mexico, a country whose official flag and coat of arms feature an eagle. They’re made out of sterling silver and bear the maker’s mark of Jaimes. They feature a stylized four eagle heads and are rather distinctive, though their age is difficult to estimate since they could date from the 1950s to the 1980s. A reminder, perhaps, that the eagle is timeless. Unless, that is, humans don’t succeed in making it extinct.

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Thistly icon

When I was aged 18 years old, not that very long ago, I spent a year in Paris where I learnt French at the Alliance Française (with a wonderfully imperious teacher called Madame Giani) and lived and worked in a church called Saint-Nicolas du Chardonnet, rendered Saint Nicholas of the Thistlefield in English, chardon being thistle. This name did not derive from any hagiographical legend involving miraculous occurrences with thistles, somewhat sadly, but referred to the area having once been populated with thistles before Paris’s urban sprawl devoured it. Today, still the feast of St Andrew as I write this, is an apposite date on which to contemplate the thistle, for just as St Andrew is the patron saint and protector of Scotland so is the thistle its national symbol.

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The thistle is a curious choice as a national symbol for it is not particularly beautiful and it not only grows wild but is also often deemed to be a weed. There is a charming legend about its selection as the Scots’ emblem which relates that, at the Battle of Largs in 1263, the Norse invaders planned a surprise nocturnal attack on the camp of the Scots, while the latter were asleep. The Norsemen were barefoot to aid in their covert and sneaky strategy when one unfortunate soldier stepped on a thistle and cried out in pain, his shrieks awakening the Scots who successfully repulsed and defeated the Norse troops. The King of the Scots at this battle and who subsequently adopted the plant for his nation, Alexander III, met a less romantic end in 1286: he accidentally rode his horse over a cliff in the fog, breaking his neck.

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The thistle is ubiquitous in Scotland and may be found everywhere, from sporting-club logos to items of jewellery. My maternal grandmother, who was half Scottish, had a gorgeous silver brooch in the form of a thistle with an amethyst for the flower. Scotland’s highest honour is the Order of the Thistle, and the photograph above shows the Duke of Cambridge being installed as an officer in the Order this summer, pictured with his aunt, the Princess Royal. The thistle also possesses religious iconography; along with many other plants with spines, it stands for Christ’s crucifixion, with the beautiful flower being an allegory for the salvation obtained by His pains and death.

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Albrecht Dürer painted himself in 1493, aged 22 years old, holding some thistles in his hands (above; currently in the Louvre). Art historians believe this to be an engagement pose with the thistles symbolizing marital fidelity. This is most likely because of the same reason for which they are associated with longevity in China, namely that they retain their shape even if dried out, the recognizable and unique form that they have.

Personally, I am very fond of the thistle. Part of this is subjective, for I was brought up in the north of England only 12 miles from the border with Scotland, and I have loved my many explorations of this beautiful nation, particularly the Hebrides. Yet there are also more solid factors underpinning my penchant for this prickly plant. Firstly, the green and purple combination is a very visually stunning one. Secondly, and more importantly, is the classification of the thistle as a weed. As every botanist knows, what separates a plant from a weed is the 3 Ps: plant, place, perception. It is deemed to be a weed because it grows where it is unwanted, among cultivated plants. And what a rich metaphor that is. This plant is the very symbol of independence, having developed thorns to protect itself yet displaying a unique-shaped deep purple flower, and, most of all, resisting human efforts to control and domesticate it. After all, how many weeds function as royal, national, artistic, and religious symbols?

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The curves of today’s cufflinks very much evoke the thistle to me. This pair has a shadowbox-style construction and is made out of sterling silver, which has produced a very interesting matted oxidization over seven or eight decades giving a varied grey hue. They hail from Mexico and bear the maker’s mark of “C. MOLINA”, a silversmith who worked in Guadalajara and whose other cufflinks involve similarly elaborate patterns. Much of this artist’s work was produced during the 1930s and 1940s and the martyrdom symbolism of the thistle might not therefore be a random choice, for Catholics faced heavy persecution and there were thousands of deaths at the hands of the Mexican authorities during this period. Once again, this humble weed rears its subversive head.