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.

Purple prose

Purple is a mysterious shade. Not a colour, properly speaking, but a combination, it can range from a reddish to a blueish hue. It is a matter of supreme injustice that purple escapes the status of colourdom when indigo belongs in the spectrum only because of the mystical beliefs of Isaac Newton. The physicist was obsessed with numerical symbolism and could not accept a spectrum with fewer than seven colours, seven holding particularly rich connotations in many belief systems. Indigo, then, while not being a real colour and simply a shade of blue, usurped its way into the rainbow, entirely out of the prejudices of Newton. As well as possessing a diverse range of variations -from mauve to mulberry- purple is also very difficult for the human eye to discern because it has the shortest spectral range, occurring as it does between red and blue.


Purple has enjoyed very deep veins of meaning throughout history. It has long been associated with royalty, a link that continues to this day as seen in the coronation portrait of the king-emperor George VI in 1937 (above). Roman emperors adopted it in place of red, a use that very likely was related to Alexander the Great’s practice of wearing a purple cloak when acting as emperor; the Romans had a special devotion to this figure, which explains why both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony so readily interacted with Cleopatra from the outset despite her being a queen -monarchs were despised by the Romans and female rulers in particular- since the Ptolemy dynasty claimed blood descent from the military conqueror. Use of purple in the Roman Empire became gradually restricted until only the emperor himself could wear it (not unlike the colour yellow being the regal colour in China and Thailand) under pain of death. Caligula, possibly the most deranged and debauched of all emperors, had the king of Mauritania murdered for having sported robes in this colour. That did not, however, stop Caligula from dressing his favourite horse, Incitatus, in a purple cloak. This horse also benefitted from an indoor manger constructed out of ivory and, while Caligula considered making this animal a senator, he never actually did so.

Musée Bonnat - La découverte de la pourpre - Peter Paul Rubens (ca. 1636)

This all begs the question of why purple, and why not say orange, became linked to grandeur and power. The answer is, as always, a simple one: cost. Purple was sourced from murex, a Mediterranean sea snail that secretes mucous in this striking color. It takes an enormous amount of murex to make even small quantities of the purple secretion needed to dye cloth. Given its noble role in standing for the leader of the Western world, a myth was constructed around the colour, though a rather whimsical and surprisingly human one. It is related that, while walking his dog on the beach at Tyre and distracted by courting a fetching nymph, Hercules noticed that his dog which busied itself through playing at the sea while he was otherwise occupied,  had its mouth dyed purple after devouring some of the sea snails that had been beached in the tide. And thus, Tyrian purple was born. Peter Paul Rubens pictured this scene in the sixteenth century (above).

Courtesy of JYaunTayaban, Flickr

Courtesy of JYaunTayaban, Flickr

It might appear surprising, since it was the colour of prestige, that bishops came to wear purple.  This is a throwback to the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476. In the turbulent aftermath and the successive waves of Barbarian invasions, it fell upon bishops to maintain some sense of order and continuity, since the hierarchy was an organized network that survived the fall of Roman civilization. Monasteries played a crucial role in ensuring the survival of classical culture during the uneasy three centuries that followed. As well as providing stability, Church officials also were literate and played an essential part in maintaining a culture of documentation and writing. It is for this reason that the legal and office term clerk derives from cleric, a member of the clergy. Byzantine emperors always signed their signatures with purple ink, a practice continued after 1453 by the patriarchs of Constantinople, though sadly this tradition fell into abeyance during the course of the twentieth century.

Thus purple, formerly associated with the secular authority, became bound with ecclesiastical authority. It must be added that technically bishops were not allowed to wear purple until the fifteenth century when Pope Paul II allowed cardinals to wear red since purple was becoming too expensive a commodity. Bishops were to wear an inferior indigo-purple colour which, over the centuries, became the particular pinkish episcopal shade that is worn today (as above; the long cloak that the prelate wears is called the cappa magna and originally developed to envelop a bishop riding on horseback). This change has only been partially successful; we still speak of cardinals as taking the Roman purple when they are named, and the pope still wears the former papal preserve of red in all of his accessories (shoes, cloak, hats). On this note, I cannot resist including a very delicious anecdote about the former British foreign secretary George Brown. Mr Brown, who served under Harold Wilson’s government during the 1960s, had a noted and pronounced penchant for alcoholic beverages. Indeed, the BBC coined the expression “tired and emotional” as a euphemism to describe public occasions on which the politician had been, to put it plainly, sozzled. The snippet is quoted by an eyewitness, at a reception held in the Brazilian president’s Palace of the Dawn and is recounted in A. N. Wilson’s Our Times: The Age of Elizabeth II:

“It was really quite beautiful – I think only the Latin Americans still do it that way: all the military officers were in full dress uniform, and the ambassadors were in court dress. Sumptuous is the word, and sparkling. As we entered, George made a beeline for this gorgeously crimson-clad figure, and said “Excuse me, but may I have the pleasure of this dance?” There was a terrible silence for a moment before the guest, who knew who he was, replied, “There are three reasons, Mr Brown, why I will not dance with you. The first, I fear, is that you’ve had a little too much to drink. The second is that this is not, as you seem to suppose, a waltz the orchestra is playing, but the Peruvian national anthem, for which you should be standing to attention. And the third reason why we may not dance, Mr Brown, is that I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima.” (p. 163)

Purple is not only remiscent of pomp since it is linked to mourning in some Asian countries -recent widow’s weeds are this colour in Thailand- and was also the royal colour of mourning in many European monarchies. In spiritual terms, it is the colour of penance (Lent) and of preparation (Advent). For that unhappy section of society which delights in moralizing, purple has often served as the colour of decadence and vanity, for reasons that are obvious.  Its spiritual use might also be related to the fact that the natural dye is surprisingly tenacious and thus remains constant, in a world that sometimes moves and changes too quickly.

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Today’s cufflinks contain the rare mineral Charoite, which is hypnotically entrancing in both its colour and the veined pattern. Far more beautiful than amethyst, traditionally associated with the colour purple, Charoite is only found in certain regions of Russia and was only formally listed as a mineral in 1978. The sterling silver surround is understated and allows the mineral to seduce without overshadowing it in any way. The pair has a maker’s mark that I cannot identify, a type of symbol, but the creator has made his or her mark on the back of the pair, with an attractive embossed pattern, below.

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I particularly like the fact that this mineral remained undiscovered to the wider world until the tail end of the twentieth century. We invest much time seeking happiness and adventures elsewhere, little appreciating the hidden treasures that await our discovery beneath our feet. I think that if Charoite had been known through the centuries, a very different story of purple could have been told.