Unicorns: A True Story

Over the past five years or so, unicorns have gained sudden popularity in the Western world. It is almost impossible to go shopping without seeing one of the mythical creatures, whether it be on a t-shirt, a card, a toy, a cake or even chicken nuggets. In popular culture, unicorns are a pretty, make-believe character with which many children (and even adults) are fascinated. This commercial unicorn, however, has its roots in ancient mythology. For hundreds, if not thousands of years unicorns have been described in natural histories and folktales.

Unicorns are the stuff of legends and, as many people agree, probably never existed. Yet, who came up with the idea of the unicorn? How did a horse with a horn on its head become a thing? Ancient accounts of natural history include the unicorn, so perhaps they did exist, or at least something similar to our modern idea of the unicorn.

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The gentle and pensive maiden has the power to tame the unicorn, fresco by Domenichino, c. 1604–05

Whether real or not, unicorns are recognised from a single horn protruding from their forehead. The horn, known as an alicorn, is the source of their magical power, usually used for purification and healing. Typically, they resemble a white horse and have been used as a symbol of purity and grace. Despite their elegance, they are wild, woodland creatures and, according to some legends, only a virgin could tame them.

The earliest written description of a unicorn comes from a book written in the 5th century BC. Indica or Indika contains a mix of dubious stories and myths about the East, possibly India, compiled by the Greek physician and historian Ctesias the Cnidian. Ctesias was the physician to the king of the Achaemenid Empire, Artaxerxes II (c435-358 BC). As part of his role, Ctesias accompanied the king on various expeditions and battles and, therefore, became well acquainted with the neighbouring lands. This allowed the physician to pen treatises on rivers and lands, including Persia and India. Some of the information is based on first-hand experience, however, the rest was pieced together through various stories told by travellers.

Indica, which only remains in fragments, is generally considered to be pure fantasy. It contains many of the strange beliefs the Persians had about India, including that the country was full of riches and gold, artisans, philosophers, god-like people and, of course, unicorns.

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Unicorn IV (Ctesias)- Cecilia Caride

Ctesias’ unicorn is described as a white horse with a purple head and blue eyes. The horn projecting from the forehead was approximately 27 inches long and coloured white at the base, black in the middle and red at the point. As well as being the first person to describe a unicorn, Ctesias was the first to attribute magic to a unicorn’s horn.

“No creature, neither the horse or any other, could overtake it.”
– Ctesias

It is now thought Ctesias’ unicorn may have resulted from a mixture of animal descriptions, such as the Indian rhinoceros and an ass. Alternatively, there is the smallest of chances it may have been real, however, the other creatures described in Indica suggest otherwise, for example, people with one leg and feet so big they could be used as umbrellas, and manticores – red creatures with human faces, three rows of teeth, and scorpion tails. On the other hand, some of the information proved to be true, for instance, Indian elephants, monkeys, Indian customs, a large population and the Indus river.

Indica remained the main source of information about India for people in the Mediterranean until the 2nd century AD when the book was satirised by Lucian of Samosata (c125-c180). Lucian claimed Ctesias to be a liar and depicted him as being condemned to a special part of hell to pay for his sins.

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Although Ctesias may have provided the earliest written description of the unicorn, evidence that the creatures may have “existed” long before then has been discovered in South Asia. Several seals depicting what looks like a unicorn have been unearthed in the land once belonging to the Indus Valley Civilisation. They date back to the Bronze Age, which lasted from 3300 BC until 1200 BC.

These seals are thought to have belonged to people of high social rank, however, little else can be gleaned from them. There is also the argument the creature on the seal was not intended to be a unicorn but an auroch. Now extinct, aurochs were a species of large cattle that inhabited areas of Europe, Asia and Africa. Skeletons of the creatures reveal they had two horns, one on either side of their head. Always drawn in profile, the creatures on the seals could have been an auroch with one horn hidden from view by the other.

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Despite the theories that the seals were not unicorns and Ctesias was a fraud, many other ancient texts mention the unicorn. De natura animalium (On the Nature of Animals) was a collection of seventeen books about natural history compiled by Aelian (Claudius Aelianus, 175-235 AD). Aelian was a Roman author and teacher of rhetoric (persuasion, grammar and logic) who was also fluent in the Greek language. The majority of the anecdotes in the collection were taken from other sources, including Ctesias. Aelian stated India produced one-horned horses known as the monoceros. Another name for the monoceros was cartazonos, however, this may be the Greek form of the Arabic word karkadann, which means “rhinoceros.”

Aelian also quotes Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), who wrote the encyclopedia Naturalis Historia (Natural History). Pliny wrote about about “a very fierce animal called the monoceros which has the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits [900 mm, 35 inches] in length.” He also claimed the oryx antelope and Indian ox were one-horned creatures, as did Aristotle (384-322 BC) centuries beforehand. The Greek philosopher Strabo (64 BC-AD 24) also mentioned one-horned horses with stag-like heads.

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In the 16th century, Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner (1516-65) produced a Latin translation of Aelian’s work titled Historia Animalium. Although he attempted to sort fact from fiction, Gessner still included the unicorn, which he had only heard about from medieval bestiaries. Gessner made it clear that he doubted some of the information, however, included it anyway since he believed it could teach moral lessons and divine truths. He went into as much detail into mythological creatures as he did about real animals. Mythological creatures that featured in the book included unicorns, mermaids, sea bishops and ichthyocentaur – creatures with the upper body of a human, the front legs of a horse and the tail of a fish.

As early as the 6th century, theories were expressed as to why unicorns were rarely seen. Cosmas Indicopleustes, a 6th-century Greek merchant from Alexandria of Egypt reported, “it is impossible to take this ferocious beast alive; and that all its strength lies in its horn. When it finds itself pursued and in danger of capture, it throws itself from a precipice, and turns so aptly in falling, that it receives all the shock upon the horn, and so escapes safe and sound.” Cosmos also wrote a series of books about scientific geography known collectively as Christian Topography. Cosmas aimed to convince people of his theory that the earth was modelled on the tabernacle described to Moses by God in the Book of Exodus. His view was the earth was flat and the heavens formed the shape of a box with a curved lid.

Cosmas was not the only Christian writer to describe the legendary unicorn. Many authors of bestiaries (books about beasts), including the aforementioned Conrad Gessner, relied on the Christian text Physiologus, which was compiled in Greece during the 2nd Century AD. Although the unknown author introduces each creature by saying “the naturalist says” or something similar, each chapter is told more like a story than a statement of fact. Many of these stories relate in some way to the Bible, particularly the resurrection of Christ, for example, the phoenix, which burns itself to death but rises from the ashes three days later.

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Physiologus devotes entire chapters to individual creatures, some real and some mythological, beginning with the lion and ending with the eel. Other creatures include hedgehogs, ostriches, panthers, elephants, doves, serpents, pelicans, phoenixes and, rather strangely, Amos the Prophet. The unicorn is found in chapter 36 and is the source of the legend that only a maiden can tame the unicorn. This allegory refers to the Virgin Mary upon whose lap the unicorn laid its head and slept.

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Virgin Mary holding the unicorn (c. 1480), detail of the Annunciation with the Unicorn Polyptych

Many religious artworks concerning the Inception of the Virgin Mary are inspired by the story in Physiologus. In some interpretations, the unicorn represents Christ and his relationship with the Virgin, his mother. Secular writers have developed this story into myths about chaste love and faithful marriage. Even the polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) explored the tale of the unicorn, stating in one of his notebooks, “The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it.”

The Italian explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324) also alluded to the myths about unicorns, however, he also called them ugly, brutes, and reported they “spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime.” It appears he may have mistaken a rhinoceros for a unicorn.

The secular take on the myth of the unicorn and the virgin, as noted by Da Vinci, led to the story The Hunt of the Unicorn. The tale involves a group of hunters who are struggling to capture a unicorn until a young maiden offers her assistance. Since virgins can tame unicorns, the creature came and rested its head upon her lap, allowing the hunters to capture it.

The Hunt of the Unicorn was first recorded on a series of tapestries in Paris at the turn of the 16th century. It is speculated they were commissioned by Anne of Brittany (1477-1541) to celebrate her marriage to Louis XII (1462-1515). Each tapestry, seven in total, tells a different part of the story:

  1. The Start of the Hunt
  2. The Unicorn at the Fountain
  3. The Unicorn Attacked
  4. The Unicorn Defending Himself
  5. The Unicorn Is Captured by the Virgin
  6. The Unicorn Killed and Brought to the Castle
  7. The Unicorn in Captivity

Despite being based on a pagan story, scholars have identified Christian symbolism in the tapestries. The unicorn is Christ and its death is the crucifixion. As you will notice from the order of the seven tapestries, the unicorn’s death is not the final stage. In scene seven, despite remaining in captivity, the unicorn has returned to life, similar to Christ’s resurrection.

Another tapestry involving a unicorn is La Dame à la licorne (The Lady and the Unicorn), which was produced in Flanders in the 16th century. Five of the six tapestries depict one of the five senses: taste, hearing, sight, smell, and touch; with À mon seul désir being the title of the sixth. The latter translates as “my only desire” and has left many wondering its true meaning. A possible interpretation is the desire for love or understanding.

La Dame à la licorne does not tell a sequential story like The Hunt of the Unicorn, instead, it presents a meditation on earthly pleasures demonstrated through the five senses. Touch is demonstrated by the lady holding a banner in one hand and touching the unicorn’s horn with the other. Sweets represent taste, flowers for smell, a portative organ for hearing, and a mirror for sight.

The sixth tapestry shows the woman placing her pendant in a box. Some suggest this is an acknowledgement of the passions aroused by the other senses and free will. Others have put forward the idea that it represents a sixth sense: understanding. There is also the argument that there is no way of telling if the woman is putting the pendant in the box or retrieving it. It has been noticed, however, that this is the only tapestry in which the woman smiles.

La Dame à la licorne does not only feature a unicorn but also a lion. Both these creatures are used in heraldry to symbolise a country. The most famous use of these animals are for Scotland (unicorn) and England (lion). One legend claimed the unicorn was the natural enemy of the lion and would rather die than be captured. This represented Scotland’s desire to remain sovereign and unconquered. Of course, this all changed with the 1707 union of Scotland and England.

It is not certain where the idea that lions and unicorns were enemies originated, however, the legend is recorded in a nursery rhyme.

The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown
The lion beat the unicorn
All around the town.
Some gave them white bread,
And some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum cake
and drummed them out of town.

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This rhyme featured in Lewis Carroll‘s (1832-98) 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass, a sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. A unicorn and a lion are seen fighting over the crown belonging to the White King. For comedic effect, Carroll alters the traditional characteristics of the animals, making the lion slow and stupid and the unicorn monstrous. When producing illustrations for the book, Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914) made caricatures of Benjamin Disraeli (1804-88) as the unicorn and William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98) as the lion in reference to their frequent parliamentary battles.

There are two common jokes about why unicorns may no longer exist. The first is the unicorns did not get on Noah’s ark in time (see video at the end of this article) and the second that they did get on the ark, but they were both males. Incidentally, unicorns are traditionally believed to be male and none of the myths, legends or bestiaries shed light on how they reproduce. The only claim about their nature is they are solitary creatures and can live for hundreds of years.

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Unicorn mosaic on a 1213 church floor in Ravenna, Italy

So, unicorns may not have been on Noah’s Ark, however, they are mentioned in the Bible. The Hebrew Bible mentions an animal called the re’em, an untamable animal of great strength and agility, with a horn. Unfortunately, it is generally believed the description was based upon the seals belonging to the Indus Valley Civilisation, which are now thought to be aurochs. Nonetheless, the King James Version of the Bible, first published in 1611, translates the word re’em as “unicorn”.

There are eight references to unicorns in the Old Testament. They are as follows:

  • “God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.” – Numbers 23:22
  • “God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.” – Numbers 24:8
  • “His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth.” – Deuteronomy 33:17
  • “Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee? Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him? Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?” – Job 39:9–12
  • “Save me from the lion’s mouth; for thou hast heard me from the horns of unicorns.” – Psalms 22:21
  • “He maketh them [the cedars of Lebanon] also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.” – Psalms 29:6
  • “But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of the unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.” – Psalms 92:10
  • “And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with their bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness.” – Isaiah 34:7

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Real or not, what makes a unicorn so interesting is the horn protruding from its forehead. The existence of unicorns was supposedly disproved in 1825 by Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), a French naturalist and zoologist, the father of palaeontology. Cuvier declared it was impossible for any animal with a split hoof, such as a horse, to have a horn on top of its head. Before this claim, unicorn horns were a much sought but rare commodity.

Ancient writers such as Ctesias and Aelian recorded that a unicorn’s horn, made from a substance called alicorn, could be made into a vessel that when drunk from would protect against diseases and poisons. Other parts of the body of a unicorn were also considered to have medicinal properties. The 12th century Abbess Saint Hildegard of Bingen wrote a recipe for an ointment to cure leprosy. The ingredients included egg yolk and foie de licorne, also known as unicorn liver.

In Physiologus, the unicorn is said to be able to purify water with its horn. The book tells the story of a lake poisoned by a snake. None of the animals dared to go near the water to drink, however, when the unicorn appeared, it went straight to the water. With its horn, it made the sign of the cross in the water (remember Physiologus was a Christian text) and the poison was rendered harmless.

Over time, the horn of the unicorn was assigned many medicinal properties. These included cures for rubella, measles, fever, pain and plague (perhaps it could cure COVID-19). Apothecaries across Europe boasted they could sell unicorn horns and elixirs made from ground alicorn. Also for sale were belts made from unicorn leather to protect the wearer from harm.

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Royalty was often given alicorns as gifts. Elizabeth I was said to own a unicorn horn and the Throne Chair of Denmark was said to be made from many horns. Commissioned by King Frederick III (1609-70) in 1662, the throne was made by Bendix Grodtschilling (1620-90) to resemble the Biblical Throne of King Solomon described in 1 Kings 10. The throne was used at coronations until 1849 when the Danish monarchy was replaced by a constitutional monarchy. The unicorn horns, however, have since been proved to be narwhal tusks.

As early as 1638, alleged alicorns were being identified as narwhal tusks. Danish physician Ole Worm (1588-1654) was the first to start making this connection with the medium-sized toothed whales that live in the Arctic waters around Greenland, Canada, and Russia.

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Ole Worm’s beliefs were studied at length by Sir Thomas Brown (1605-1682) in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica, more commonly known as Vulgar Truths. Brown was a polymath and author of a variety of subjects, including science, religion, medicine and the natural world. Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Enquiries into very many received tenets and commonly presumed truths, to give its full name, challenges the common errors and superstitions of the 17th century. Although Brown tried to be scientifically accurate, he included subtle elements of humour. Of the alleged alicorns, Brown said:

“False alicorn powder, made from the tusks of narwhals or horns of various animals, has been sold in Europe for medicinal purposes as late as 1741. The alicorn was thought to cure many diseases and have the ability to detect poisons, and many physicians would make “cures” and sell them. Cups were made from alicorn for kings and given as a gift; these were usually made of ivory or walrus ivory. Entire horns were very precious in the Middle Ages and were often really the tusks of narwhals.”

Despite, arguments against the existence of unicorns, they have “existed” throughout many cultures and periods. The European unicorn is traditionally believed to have the body of a horse with a pearly white coat and a long, white spiralled horn. In Asia, on the other hand, unicorns are depicted as a scaly, colourful deer-like creature with a flesh coloured horn.

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An Asian legend claims the Mongol Emperor Genghis Khan (AD 1162- 1227) was prevented from invading India by a unicorn. The creature is said to have gazed into the leader’s eyes, which Genghis Khan took to be a sign from heaven and ordered his army to retreat.

The Chinese unicorn, also known as the qilin looks less like traditional descriptions of the magical creatures and more like a chimaera. Although it had a single horn, some sources say it had the body of a deer, the head of a lion, and green scales. Other sources claim it had the head of a dragon. According to legend, the qilin first appeared in 2697 BC during the reign of the legendary Yellow Emperor. The Chinese unicorn’s rare appearances were believed to foretell the birth or death of a wise ruler. Rumour says the qilin appeared to the pregnant mother of Confucius (551- 479 BC) in the 6th century BC and once more shortly before his death. Confucius is also said to be the last person to have seen the unicorn.

“A wise man never plays leapfrog with a unicorn.”
– Tibetan proverb

Most of the original myths about unicorns have been forgotten and yet, unicorns have never been more popular than they are today. Social media has spread the unicorn fad across the world, with tips about throwing unicorn parties, making unicorn art and so much more.

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Every July, the Festa dell’Unicorno (Unicorn Festival) is held in the Italian town of Vinci (where Leonardo was born). Dressed as fairies, elves or characters from fantasy films, visitors can attend three days of magical shows, concerts, competitions and a medieval market.

The unicorn has been rising in popularity since 2015, helped along with companies, such as Starbucks with their unicorn frappuccino, Kellogg’s Unicorn Fruitloops and Unicorn Snot glitter gel. They also feature in recent films, TV shows and books. It has become a symbol of benevolence and happiness, shunning the harsh realities of today.

Although the unicorn craze belongs to the 21st century, unicorns have featured in famous literature of the past. Shakespeare (1564-1616) mentioned unicorns in his plays Julius Caesar, The Tempest and Timon of Athens. The most famous work of fiction involving the magical creatures is, of course, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (b.1939). First published in 1968, the book has sold millions of copies worldwide and has been translated into 20 languages. The story follows a unicorn, who believes she is the last of her kind, on a quest to discover what happened to the rest of her species.

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Detail from James Thurber’s original illustration

Another story is The Unicorn in the Garden by James Thurber (1894-1961). The short, humorous tale is about a man who sees a unicorn in the garden but when he tells his wife, she does not believe him. The more the man insists, the more adamant his wife becomes that unicorns do not exist. In the end, the wife has become so obsessed with proving her husband wrong that she is mistaken for the “loony” one.

This, of course, was only a humorous story but would anyone believe you today if you saw a unicorn in your garden? Are unicorns real? Whilst science puts forward evidence to suggest they are not, mystery still abounds, making the answer inconclusive. The stories and legends told throughout time suggest that it is highly unlikely to spot or capture a unicorn, therefore, if they do exist, we may never know.

Whether or not you believe in unicorns, they are fascinating creatures to research. There are so many different beliefs, myths and legends that it is impossible to fully comprehend the legendary creature. Nonetheless, their presence in popular culture is adding a bit of sparkle to the world. So, to paraphrase the Festa dell’Unicorno, enjoy your life, have fun, anything goes, so long as you do not betray the “spirit of the unicorn.”

“The unicorn is noble,
He knows his gentle birth,
He knows that God has chosen him
Above all beasts of earth.”
– German Folk Song

Troy: Myth and Reality

Until 8th March, the British Museum is celebrating the legend of Troy, which has endured for over 3000 years. With ancient artefacts and more recent artworks, the museum tells the story of the Trojan War from its beginning to its end, followed by the fateful journey home of one of the Greek heroes. Whilst this story may be purely mythical, the British Museum also explores the true existence of Troy, which was discovered during the 19th century.

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Bust of Homer

Many people know some of the stories surrounding the Trojan War, which have been told for over 3000 years. Initially spread by word of mouth, it is generally believed the story was put together by the Greek poet Homer as early as the 8th century BC. There are some arguments that Homer never existed and the stories were compiled by several authors, however, the final result had been published under Homer’s name in two volumes, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Written in a dactylic hexameter – a form of poetry – the Iliad spans approximately fifty-one days of the ten-year Trojan War on the coast of Anatolia, now known as northwestern Turkey. The city of Troy was under siege by a coalition of Greek states as revenge for the abduction of Helen of Sparta.

The war began shortly after the wedding of the sea-goddess Thetis and Peleus, the king of Thessaly. All the Greek gods and goddesses were invited to the ceremony except for Eris, the goddess of discord. Angry at being left out, Eris turned up unannounced and threw a golden apple into the crowd of party-goers. The apple bore the inscription “to the most beautiful” and three goddesses: Aphrodite, Athena and Hera, believed it was intended for them.

The goddesses appealed to Zeus, the king of the gods, to decide who was the most beautiful. Reluctant to get involved, Zeus instructed Paris, the visiting Trojan prince, to make the decision. Paris’ judgement was by no means fair because, before he could make a decision, Aphrodite the goddess of love, promised Paris the love of the most beautiful woman on earth if he chose her as the winner of the competition. Naturally, Paris chose Aphrodite.

After the wedding, Paris visited the Greek state of Sparta where he met Helen, the woman Aphrodite promised him. Unfortunately, Helen was already married to King Menelaus, so when Paris returned to Troy with Helen, Menelaus was determined to get his wife back. Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae called together a huge fleet of Greek heroes to sail across the Aegean Sea in support of his brother Menelaus. Thus, the Trojan War began.

The Iliad begins in the middle of the plot after the Greeks have been attempting to breach the strong walls of the city of Troy for nine years. Although they had not managed to enter the main city, the Greeks had raided surrounding towns belonging to Troy and taken many inhabitants as prisoners. Amongst these prisoners was a young woman named Briseis who was given as a prize of honour to the Greek Hero Achilles, son of Thetis.

King Agamemnon’s prisoner was Chryseis, the daughter of a Trojan priest of Apollo. The Trojan’s offered money in return for the girl, however, Agamemnon refused. So, the priest prayed to Apollo who sent a plague over the Greek army until they returned Chryseis to her father. In retaliation, Agamemnon took Briseis from Achilles, causing the Greek hero to, quite simply, have a huge sulk.

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The Death of Patroclus

Furious with Agamemnon, Achilles refused to fight in the war and asked his mother, Thetis, to make the Greeks realise how much they needed Achilles on their side. In the fighting that followed, the Trojans began to get the upper hand. In desperation, Achilles’ friend and potential lover Patroclus entered the battle disguised as Achilles in an attempt to raise the morale of the Greek soldiers. It worked; both the Greeks and the Trojans believed Patroclus was Achilles, however, this put him in mortal danger when he was targetted by the Trojan prince Hector.

When Achilles heard that Hector had killed Patroclus, he fell into a state of grief-stricken rage. Despite knowing the prophecy that stated if Hector died, Achilles would soon follow, the Greek hero returned to the battle site clad in new armour forged by the god Hephaestus. In a blind rage, Achilles killed Hector, tied the corpse to the back of a chariot, and proceeded to desecrate the body by dragging it around the battlefield for several days. Taking pity on Hector’s family, the gods protected Hector’s body from damage until Achilles could be persuaded to hand the corpse over to King Priam for a traditional Trojan funeral.

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Achilles killing the Amazons

This is where the Iliad finished, however, the war was by no means over. Troy called upon its allies for support, but the Amazons and Ethiopians were no match for Achilles’ strength. Whilst Achilles continued to fight, he knew as a result of Hector’s death, he was destined to die soon.

When Achilles was a baby, his mother dipped him into the waters of the River Styx to make him invulnerable to injury. Unfortunately, the ankle from which she dangled him did not enter the water, therefore, Achilles was vulnerable in this area. It was in this precise spot that an arrow shot by Paris hit Achilles, fatally wounding the Greek Hero. Despite their best warrior dead, the Greeks continued to fight.

The Greeks won the war thanks to an ingenious invention by Odysseus, the king of Ithaca. He encouraged the Greek army to build an enormous wooden horse, which they placed outside the walls of Troy as a decoy peace offering. Believing the Greeks had given up the fight, the Trojan’s accepted the gift and brought it into the city, unaware that it housed some of the best Greek fighters. Once through the walls, the Greeks crept out of the horse and attacked the city from within, eventually destroying Troy and killing King Priam and Hector’s son, Astyanax. Only one member of the royal family survived, Aeneas, the son of King Priam’s cousin, whose survival story is told in the Aeneid by Publius Vergilius Maro (Virgil).

Troy fell, the war ended and Helen was reunited with her husband, however, this was not the end of the story for the Greeks. The gods were angry at the sacrilegious atrocities committed by the Greeks during the war and decided to teach them a lesson by making their journey home rather difficult. No one’s journey was as bad as Odysseus whose ten-year attempt to return home is recorded in Homer’s Odyssey.

“Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me about how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy …”
Odyssey, Homer, 700 AD

Initially, twelve ships, including one belonging to Odysseus, were driven off course by the storms caused by the angry gods. As a result, Odysseus and his men sheltered in the land of the Lotus-Eaters. These were a race of people whose primary food source was the lotus fruits, which had a narcotic effect on foreigners. Naturally, Odysseus’ men accepted food and hospitality from the peaceful natives and forgot that they were on their way home from Troy. It was only through physical force that Odysseus managed to get his men back onto the ships.

Since it was impossible to bring an endless supply of food on a ship, Odysseus soon had to make another stop. On an uninhabited island – or so they thought, Odysseus and his men discovered a cave full of meat and cheese. Before they could return to the ship, the cave’s owner, a cyclops named Polyphemus, arrived and sealed the entrance to the cave. Trapped inside, Odysseus had to think quickly and introduced himself to the cyclops as Nobody. Odysseus persuaded Polyphemus to drink excessive amounts of wine until the cyclops fell asleep. Taking the opportunity, Odysseus used a wooden stake to blind the one-eyed creature, who woke up with a shout. Other cyclopes arrived on the scene to find out what the fuss was about but soon went away when Polyphemus told them “Nobody attacked me.”

Hiding under the underbellies of Polyphemus’ sheep, Odysseus and his men escaped the cave when the cyclops unsealed the entrance in the morning. They could easily have sailed away and gone straight home, however, Odysseus foolishly boasted about defeating the cyclops, revealing his name in the process. Polyphemus prayed to his father, Poseidon the god of the sea, to curse Odysseus to wander the seas for ten years, losing all his men in the process.

Odysseus’ next stop was the island of Aeolia where Aeolus, the keeper of the winds resided. He gave Odysseus a leather bag containing all the winds except for the one that would blow their boat home. With instructions not to open the bag, Odysseus and his men set off towards Ithaca, however, whilst Odysseus was asleep, his men fell to temptation and opened the bag, releasing all the winds. As a result, the boat was blown off course, taking them even further away from home.

Following this, Odysseus and his men met with several disasters. The first occurred on the Laestrygonians’ Island where cannibalistic giants feasted on the majority of the men. The survivors sailed on to the island of Aeaea, where a witch-goddess Circe, daughter of the sun-god Helios turned all but Odysseus into pigs. Although Odysseus forced Circe to return his men to human form, her charm caused him to remain on the island for an entire year.

Odysseus managed to avoid disaster as they passed the land of the Sirens. The Sirens were dangerous creatures who lured sailors to their deaths with their beautiful songs. Odysseus instructed his men to plug their ears, however, he wished to hear the music. Odysseus tied himself to a post so that he could not be tempted to follow the sounds of the Sirens’ voices. Whilst no incident occurred with the Sirens, there was danger just around the corner. The ship had to pass between two creatures: Scylla, a six-headed monster, and Charybdis, a whirlpool. Although they successfully avoided Charybdis, Scylla managed to snatch up six men.

The next island Odysseus and his remaining men visited was Thrinacia. Due to a storm, they were unable to leave the island for several days, causing them to use up all their provisions. Hungry, Odysseus prayed to the gods, however, his desperate starving men hunted down some cattle to feast upon. These cattle, however, turned out to be the sacred cattle of Helios, the god of the sun. As a punishment, the next time Odysseus and his men took to the sea, the gods caused a shipwreck, which only Odysseus survived.

With no means of getting home, Odysseus found himself washed up on the island of Ogygia, where he was kept captive by the nymph Calypso. After seven years of homesickness, Zeus compelled Calypso to release Odysseus so he could eventually return home.

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Penelope mournfully waiting for her long-absent husband

For ten years, Odysseus’ wife Penelope waited patiently for her husband’s return. Believing him to be dead, many suitors tried to worm their way into the household. Penelope fended them off by saying she would only marry one of them after she had finished her weaving. Each day, she sat weaving and every night she undid the progress she had made, thus the work would never be finished.

On returning home, Odysseus found his home had been taken over by 108 young men. Disguised as a beggar, Odysseus killed the leader of the suitors and revealed himself to his wife. Finally, the Trojan War got its happy ending.

It is not certain whether there ever was a Trojan War and Odysseus’ journey home seems even less probable. For hundreds of years, people assumed it was a myth, a story for entertainment purposes. Nonetheless, this did not stop people from trying to locate the city of Troy. Believed to be situated in Anatolia – northwest modern-day Turkey – pilgrims visited the area, believing they were travelling the paths of their ancient heroes.

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Heinrich Schliemann by Sidney Hodges

An English expatriate, Frank Calvert (1828-1908) believed he had located the site of Troy on a mound at Hisarlik, the remains of an ancient city near Çanakkale in Turkey. Seven years later, when Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890), a German pioneer of archaeology, arrived, Calvert quickly persuaded him to investigate the area. What they discovered was the remains of the mythical city of Troy. Although Calvert helped with the excavation, it was Schliemann who took the accolades.

Between 1870 and 1890, Schliemann’s excavations revealed more and more about the real city of Troy. It is estimated people first settled in the area around 3000 BC during the Early Bronze Age. For around four thousand years, people lived in Troy until it was abandoned in 600 AD. Schliemann’s findings and those of archaeology teams that followed him record how people lived during this lengthy period.

Life in Troy has been categorised into nine phases with Troy I being the earliest and Troy IX the last. Troy I was only a small village but by the time Troy II was established between 2500 and 2300 BC, the city had strong walls encircling a citadel, although still rather small. Being on the Dardanelles strait, Troy would have been in prime position for trading, which may explain its gradually increasing size.

By the Late Bronze Age (1750–1180 BC) Troy had a larger citadel with stronger, sloping walls, some of which can still be seen today. As well as access to the trade route, surrounding Troy was agricultural land, which was used to keep animals, particularly sheep and grow crops. Evidence of horses in the area have also been unearthed, which links to the Trojan prince Hector in the Iliad, who was described as a horse-tamer.

Troy was destroyed at the end of the Bronze Age (1180 BC), which some have attributed to the Trojan War. Other cities in the Mediterranean, however, were also destroyed for reasons unknown, which puts the specific Trojan War into question. Homer did not live, if he ever existed, until the 8th or 7th century BC, by which time Troy had been rebuilt and renamed Ilion, which is the name Homer uses in the Iliad.

Troy, or Ilion, flourished once more. Although it was not as important as other cities in the ancient world, it was a populous city for hundreds of years. It seems strange that a large city could ever be “lost”, however, by the 6th century AD, the population had dwindled and unused buildings crumbled away. Any evidence of Troy’s existence was eventually covered by debris until all that remained was the hill-shaped mound now known as Hisarlik.

Schliemann was convinced Troy II was the ancient Troy or Ilion mentioned by Homer and, therefore, the site of the Trojan War. Archaeologists today, who are still excavating the area, date Troy II to the Early Bronze Age, which is too early for the war, nor does it contain any physical evidence of combat.

Although the mythical Troy has yet to be proven or disproven, life in the city has been discovered and documented, beginning with the 100 or so items Schliemann brought to England for an exhibition at London’s South Kensington Museum (V&A) in 1877. Amongst the items were “face pots” that appeared to have eyes and may have, as Schliemann believed, been idols of the goddess Athena. Many other pots were also in the collection, some with three “legs” and one big enough to store enough grain to feed a small family for a year.

Rather than ending the exhibition here with the half-successful search for the site of the Trojan War, the British Museum returned to the myths with a selection of artworks that explore how artists have interpreted the stories over the past millennium. Authors have also used the Trojan myths as the basis of their stories, for instance, William Shakespeare‘s Troilus and Cressida and Edward Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590): “For noble Britons sprang/from Trojans bold,/And Troynovant was built/of old Troy’s ashes cold.”

Even though artists have chosen to depict the same scenes, for instance, the sirens, their outcomes are very different. Take, for example, African-American artist Romare Bearden’s (1911-88) The Siren’s Song, which shows Odysseus tied to the mast of his ship in the background. In the foreground, the sirens are dancing in human form, attempting to lure Odysseus to his death. In Greek mythology, sirens were represented as part human and part bird, however, Bearden portrayed them as fully human.

Herbert Draper (1863-1920) is another artist who altered the appearance of the sirens. In Ulysses and the Sirens – Ulysses being the Roman name for Odysseus – Odysseus is once again tied to the mast, however, sirens in the form of mermaids are attempting to climb onto the ship. Mermaids are half-human, half-fish and may have been inspired by the Greek sirens. In folklore, mermaids also lure sailors to their deaths.

Whilst heroes tend to be portrayed during their prime, a few artworks at the British Museum reveal the vulnerable side of the great men. Hector was one of Troy’s best fighters and it was a great loss when he was killed in battle by Achilles. British artist of Huguenot descent Briton Rivière (1840-1920) painted Hector lying dead, face-down in the sand. As the Iliad tells us, Achilles dragged Hector’s body around the battlefield for several days, however, the gods protected the corpse from damage. In Rivière’s painting, Hector’s muscular body looks as pure as it would had he been alive.

Achilles heel is usually regarded as his only vulnerability, however, his emotions also get the better of him. Firstly, his anger causes him to stubbornly refuse to fight but when Patroclus is killed, his anger turns to grief followed by rage, which causes him to join the battle and go after Hector. The Swiss painter Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) produced a quick sketch of Achilles lamenting the death of his best friend. Achilles collapses over the body of Patroclus, which is an action that many would deem unmanly. Fuseli, on the other hand, admired Achilles and the other Greek heroes for their authentic emotions.

Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world, was a popular topic for artists. Since no one knows what Helen looked like, artists have portrayed their own perceptions of beauty. William Morris (1834-96) drew Helen as the Flamma Troiae (Flame of Troy) with long, flowing blonde hair. Although she supposedly ignites passion in men, she demurely looks down as though innocent of the effects of her beauty.

Evelyn De Morgan’s (1855-1919) version of Helen, however, is much more enticing. Aware of her beauty, golden-haired Helen looks into a hand mirror, absorbed with her own appearance. The contours of her dress reveal her slender legs and her bare arms are something women of the past would not have dreamed of showing in public.

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Helen’s Tears – Edward Burne-Jones

Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98), on the other hand, took a different approach to Helen. Rather than focus on her beauty, Burne-Jones thought about how the war would have affected her. In his tiny watercolour, Burne-Jones shows Helen consumed by guilt about the destruction of Troy. Wearing dark clothing, she holds her hands to her face whilst Troy burns around her. Although the war was not her fault, she is taking the blame for the outcome, for it is for her that the Greeks came to destroy the city. The crown atop her head indicates Helen’s importance in the story. She is not just a beautiful woman, she is a queen. Paris may have taken Helen because she was the most beautiful woman in the world but the Greeks want her back because she belongs to them as the wife of Menelaus.

Contemporary artist Eleanor Antin (b.1935) recreated the Judgement of Paris in a humorous, modern, photographic manner. The male models represent Zeus and Paris who are looking at the three goddesses whilst trying to decide which of them is the most beautiful. Athena, the goddess of warfare amongst other things, holds her rifle aloft, whilst Aphrodite in magenta and purple strikes a tempting pose. Presumably, the winged child hugging Aphrodite is Eros, known as Cupid in Roman mythology. The most humorous depiction of a goddess is Hera, goddess of the home, who dressed as a 1950s housewife, holds a vacuum cleaner in one hand. Helen, who is dark-haired in this version, sits to the side, thoroughly annoyed that she is being treated as a possession rather than a human being.

William Blake’s (1757-1827) The Judgement of Paris is more in keeping with other artists’ version of the scene. The three goddesses, all of them naked, stand in front of Paris as he hands the apple to Aphrodite. In the sky above, a demonic figure, possibly Eris the goddess of discord, indicates the destruction that is yet to come.

The exhibition ends with two shields. Since Roman times, people have attempted to recreate Achilles’ shield, which as no one knows what it looked like, has been a virtually impossible task. According to Homer, the shield was forged by the god Hephaestus and, therefore, was better than any man-made shield. In 1822, John Flaxman (1755-1826) designed a shield that took inspiration from ancient works of art. Using clay to make a model, Flaxman included scenes from the Trojan War on the shield, which was eventually gilded in silver.

The other shield is a contemporary installation by Spencer Finch (b.1962). Made from fluorescent lamps positioned in a radiating circle, Finch created this shield after visiting Troy and feeling moved by the mythical stories. Whilst this particular shield would be useless in battle, it shows the story of the Trojan War is still fresh and popular in the 21st century. Whether myth or reality, the story continues to live on.

Troy: Myth and Reality is on display at the British Museum until 8th March 2020. Tickets are £20, however, under 16s can attend for free when accompanied by a paying adult.

Jews, Money, Myth

In 1933, the Oxford English Dictionary listed the definition of “Jew” as “to cheat or overreach”. For centuries, myths and harmful stereotypes have formed that link Jews and money, the majority of which are untrue. In an attempt to disperse these tropes, the Jewish Museum London has staged an exhibition that explores the role of money in Jewish life, which over 2000 years has led to gross misconception. Jews, Money, Myth combines art, literature, culture and politics in a bid to challenge these false impressions and explore how they took shape in the first place.

Godines, Benjamin Senior; Triptych

Scenes from the life of Isaac – Benjamin Senior Godines, late 17th century.

Today, the OED’s definition of the word “Jew” is “a member of the people and cultural community whose traditional religion is Judaism and who trace their origins through the ancient Hebrew people of Israel to Abraham.” Ultimately, being Jewish is about religious faith and this is where the exhibition starts.

“Charity is equivalent to all the other commandments combined.”
– Talmud Bava Batra 9a

For Jews, charity or Tzedakah is a vital part of their faith. Tzedakah is a Hebrew word that literally translates into English as “justice” or “righteousness” but is more commonly associated with charity. This form of charity, however, is a different concept to the general Western perception of charity, which is typically seen as a spontaneous act of goodwill. In Judaism, Tzedakah is an ethical obligation and can be achieved by giving money to the poor, to health-care institutions, to synagogues and so forth.

“For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.'”
– Deuteronomy 15:11

Many of the Jewish commandments involve Tzedakah in some shape or form and, although they are not obliged to give Tzedakah on a daily basis, there are two festivals where giving is customary: Yom Kippur and Purim. The exhibition includes a couple of examples of Purim plates on which Jews can place their donations.

The Jewish celebrate Purim in the early spring, in memory of the survival of the Jews in Persia during the 5th-century BCE. As told in the Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish queen of the same name saved her people from the king’s advisor, Haman, who intended to kill all the Jews. During the celebration, the Book of Esther is read aloud after which everyone places three coins on the Purim plates for charity. Tradition states that each coin should be the denomination of half the standard currency in that country (e.g. half a shekel, half a dollar, half a pound).

“Every firstborn of man among your sons, you shall redeem.”
– Exodus 13:13

Another Jewish custom involving money is Pidyon haben or redemption of the first-born son. According to the Code of Jewish Law, the firstborn son is destined to become a priest, however, this fate can be “redeemed” for five silver coins.

Ironically, the exhibition moves on to scenes recorded in the New Testament, which is not part of the Jewish Bible. Nonetheless, certain events in the Gospels have played a major role in establishing the negative connection between Jews and money.

Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.”
– Matthew 26:14-16 (NIV)

Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, has become the archetypal traitor and personification of the Jews. The Passion of Christ or the Easter story is well-known by the majority of the Western world regardless of religion. Judas’ involvement in the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion is perhaps not as recognised, however, his actions have permanently associated him with treachery and greed – something that managed to cast a shadow over the way Jews are perceived.

In exchange for thirty silver coins, Judas Iscariot agreed to hand Jesus over to the Romans, thus allowing God’s plan to come to fruition. Despite being a small part in a much bigger story, Judas is often the man blamed for Jesus’ death. Depicted in artworks with red hair and wearing yellow, these colours have become icons of evil and deceit.

The fact that the other Disciples were Jewish but had not betrayed Jesus is overshadowed by Judas’ treachery. A snap conclusion has been drawn that because Judas took the money and he was a Jew, then all Jews must be greedy. Whilst that statement can be seen as ridiculous, it managed to create an almost permanent judgment about Jews.

In many artworks, Judas is portrayed with a money bag tied to his belt, suggesting his love of money, however, Rembrandt (1606-69) avoided this stereotypical imagery in his painting Judas Returning Thirty Pieces of Silver (1629).

“Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders”
– Matthew 27:3

Rembrandt’s painting shows the moment Judas attempts to return the money after he realises the extent of his actions. Judas kneels pleadingly on the floor, the thirty coins scattered at the feet of the priests and elders, who refuse to take the money back. Whilst his remorse is stronger than his desire to keep the money, some people point out that Rembrandt has painted Judas with his head turned towards the coins on the ground as though he still craves the money. Nevertheless, Judas, full of guilt and shame, hanged himself.

“For I did dream of money bags tonight.”
– Shylock, The Merchant of Venice

The Jewish stereotype that stemmed from Judas was enhanced by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) in his play The Merchant of Venice. The play’s antagonist Shylock, is a Venetian Jewish moneylender who lends money to his Christian rival Antonio, setting the security at a pound of Antonio’s flesh. When Antonio cannot pay back the loan, Shylock demands his flesh.

Throughout the play, Shylock’s appearance is stereotypical of the perception of Jews during the Elizabethan era. Jews had been expelled from England in 1290 and were not allowed to resettle in the country until Oliver Cromwell’s (1599-1658) rule, however, there were plenty of Jews in other countries, for instance, Venice, where the play is set.

During the 16th and 17th century, Jews were often presented as a hideous caricature, usually with a hooked nose and bright red wig. Completing their costume, of course, was their ever-present money bag. Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity at the end of the play is supposedly a happy ending, “saving” him from his unbelief and desire to kill Antonio. Overall, the play is typical of the antisemitic trends in Elizabethan England.

To counteract the antisemitic views expressed in The Merchant of Venice, Roee Rosen (b1963), an Israeli multidisciplinary artist, writer and filmmaker, produced a retelling of the story told from Shylock’s point of view. As the title The Blind Merchant suggests, Shylock is blind in this version. The “parasitical” text written by Rosen is interspersed between the original text of Shakespeare’s play, offering alternative ways of interpreting the action. Alongside the text are black and white illustrations, many of which the author/artist produced while blindfolded. Through this book, Rosen proves there is more than one way of viewing a situation, thus emphasising the prejudices in Shakespeare’s version.

The exhibition moves on from the middle ages, introducing visitors to names of notable Jewish businessmen who, due to their wealthy lifestyle, unintentionally created the tropes that “all Jews are rich” and “Jews get rich at the expense of others.” During the Commonwealth, Jews sought permission from Cromwell to return to England. Although nothing official was signed, Cromwell conceded and the Jewish population began to grow once again. Sephardi merchants from Spain presented annual gifts to the Lord Mayor to ensure their protection. Many of these Jews were involved with international trade, for instance, the East India Company, whereas others were seen as pedlars or beggars.

As is the norm, it is the rich Jews whose names are recorded and a handful of these people are responsible for the development of banks and trade during the 18th and 19th century. One famous name is Sir Moses Haim Montefiore, 1st Baronet (1784-1885), a British financier, banker and later Sheriff of London. Coming from an Italian-Jewish background, Montefiore distributed generous amounts of money to help establish industries, businesses, economies, schools and health resources among the Jewish community in the Levant. He also served as President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which had been established in 1760 to safeguard the interests of British Jews as a religious community, both in the British Isles and the colonies.

Montefiore’s brother-in-law, however, was just as, if not more, famous, becoming the richest man in the world during his lifetime. Nathan Mayer, Freiherr von Rothschild (1777-1836) was born in Germany to the Jewish banker who founded the Rothschild banking dynasty. The Rothschild brothers, of which there were five, moved to different cities where they established a new branch of the Rothschild bank. Nathan moved to England in 1798 as a textile merchant, however, he eventually set up his banking business in 1811. N. M. Rothschild and Sons was founded at New Court in St Swithin’s Lane in the City of London, where it still operates today.

Rothschild was also involved with supplying funds for the British army during the Peninsular War (1807-14), and founding the Alliance Assurance Company (now Royal & SunAlliance) with his brother-in-law. Furthermore, Nathan Mayer Rothschild played a key role in the abolition of the slave trade, helping to finance the British government’s buyout of the plantation industry’s slaves.

The Rothschild family, in general, was renowned throughout a large part of the world. Lionel Nathan Freiherr de Rothschild (1808-79), Nathan’s son, became the first practising Jew to sit as a Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom. As well as being a politician, he was responsible for raising large sums for the government, which aided the Crimean War (1853-6) in particular. His most famous contribution, however, was financing the government’s purchase of the Suez Canal shares from Egypt for £4 million.

Not all the rich Jews stemmed from the Rothschild family; Sir Albert Abdullah David Sassoon, 1st Baronet (1818 – 96) was a British Indian businessman who was a major benefactor to the city of Bombay. He made many philanthropic donations throughout his life, including 60,000 rupees towards the construction of the David Sassoon Library and Reading Room and made a significant contribution towards the erection of a large equestrian statue of the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward (1841-1910), commemorating his visit to India in 1875.

Unfortunately, the wealthy Jews were not received favourably by everyone and many satirical illustrations began cropping up in publications. The biggest target was Nathan Mayer Rothschild who was accused of numerous allegations. Some saw the Rothschild’s as people obsessed with material possessions, only parting with money if it would benefit themselves. Despite Nathan’s involvement with the abolishment of slavery, the Rothschilds are accused of colonialism and globalisation as a result of their trade with less wealthy countries.

Nathan Mayer Rothschild became the personification of greed. Many caricatures portrayed him as a rotund man sitting on piles of money. Rather than working for that money himself, it was claimed others were doing the hard work for him. One illustration from Die Karikatur der europaischen Volker vom Altertum bis zur Neuzeit by Eduard Fuchs titled Die Generalpumpe (The General Pump) suggests Rothschild was controlling everyone around him. He was also portrayed as a demonic, evil creature, for example, Jean-Pierre Dantan’s (1800-69) grotesque sculpture.

Not all Jews were “filthy rich”, however, with that stereotype firmly in place, the less affluent Jews were not looked upon favourably. When Jews first returned to England, many earned a living by peddling their goods on the streets. An illustration titled “Rhubarb!” shows a turbaned Jew selling the plant from a box around his neck. In one hand is a scale to weigh his money – an icon that became synonymous with Jews.

The Charles Dickens’ character Fagin from his acclaimed novel Oliver Twist, gradually became a visual representation of the less wealthy Jew. Yet, Jews were never considered to be poor; their second-hand clothing businesses and the like were considered to be ways of making money rather than a living. Whilst they may not have appeared wealthy in their pre-owned clothing, the prejudiced believed they had lots of money stashed away, just like Fagin and his ill-gotten gains. In 1830, an illustration of a Fagin-esque character was published in a periodical, alluding to a supposed 11th Commandment that the Jews closely followed: “Get all you can, keep what you get, give nothing away.”

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Antisemitic propaganda

Whilst the Rothschild’s helped to found things, such as the London Underground, their personal lives were under scrutiny. They supposedly married their cousins in order to retain control over their assets, which led people to believe they aimed to control the world. Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) was particularly concerned that the Jews aimed to destroy Germany. He also associated the Jews with communism – another thing he wished to eradicate. We all know the result of Hitler’s incorrect thinking and prejudice, and while thousands of Jews were able to escape his clutches by migrating to England, many more died as a result of the Holocaust.

Throughout the Second World War, antisemitic propaganda was spread throughout Europe claiming that not only were Jews aiming to destroy Germany, but they also sought world domination. One poster from Serbia in 1941 shows a man in traditional Jewish clothing holding a scale. On one side sits a pile of money and on the other, a rather irate Adolf Hitler. The text reads: “Who will be heaviest? [Who will overcome?] No one because the Jew is holding the scale.”

Fortunately, some Jews were able to find safety in England where Poor Jews Temporary Shelters were set up to help them get back on their feet. Gradually the strong prejudices established by the Nazi Party began to disperse and Jews became accepted in society.

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Żydki, “Little Jews”

Unfortunately, antisemitism has not been completely eradicated from the world and the age-old stereotypes still exist. In Poland, Żydki or “Little Jews” are figurines that are sold in marketplaces as good luck charms. The superstitious believe that having one in the house brings wealth to the family. The figurines come in all sorts of styles, however, they all have the stereotypical features that have existed for centuries. Whilst the Żydki are not deliberately making a mockery of the Jews, some find them derogative and a source of controversy.

A 17-minute film at the end of the exhibition reveals the prejudices that are still in the world today. These clips feature Donald Trump addressing a Jewish society, carnivals where people are dressed similarly to the Żydki sold in Poland, and protests against Jewish billionaires who are supposedly controlling the media. One hand-made banner encouraged people to “Google Jewish Billionaires” – I did, approximately only 8% of the world’s billionaires are Jewish.

Jews, Money, Myth is an educational and eye-opening exhibition. Most people are aware of Jewish stereotypes and nearly everyone has learnt about the Holocaust, however, it is interesting to discover where and how these myths came about. Ultimately, the exhibition is challenging two particular tropes: “All Jews are rich,” and they “get rich at the expense of others.” Both statements are proved wrong and are only based upon a handful of Jews, for instance, the Rothschilds.

Some aspects of the exhibition are shocking and uncomfortable as they drag up old propaganda and illustrations that would never be allowed in print today. Yet, we cannot ignore that these things happened, that people had these opinions and that certain events followed. In order to educate the current generation, the past must not be forgotten but learned from. The Jewish Museum London has done an excellent, if not brave, job putting the exhibition together.

The exhibition Jews, Money, Myth is open until 7th July 2019 and is included in the entry ticket to the museum. Tickets are £8.50 for adults, £6.50 concessions and £4.50 for children under 16. These prices include a £1 voluntary donation. The ticket grants visitors entry to the temporary exhibitions and permanent displays.

The Metamorphosis of Narcissus

Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937 by Salvador Dal? 1904-1989

Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937 Salvador Dalí

Eighty years ago on 19th July 1938, two of the most significant and influential figures of the 20th century met for the first and only time. These were Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the father of psychoanalysis and Salvador Dalí (1904-89), a prominent Spanish surrealist painter. In order to mark the anniversary of this event, the Freud Museum in London held an exhibition to explore the connection between the two personalities, particularly Freud’s influence on Dalí and the Surrealist movement in general. The central focus of the exhibition was Dalí’s painting The Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937), which he brought with him to discuss with his idol.

On 27th September 1938, Freud moved into “20 Maresfield Gardens … our last address on this planet” with his wife Martha (1861-1951), sister-in-law Minna Bernays (1865-1941), youngest daughter Anna (1895-1982) and his housekeeper Paula Fichtl (1902-89). Whilst the home was predominantly Anna’s, who lived there for the rest of her life, it has become the Freud Museum as per the wishes of his daughter. Although this is not the house where the meeting between Freud and Dalí took place, it is an appropriate location for the exhibition since it is the place the neurologist moved into shortly after.

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Sigmund Freud by Max Halberstadt

Sigismund Schlomo Freud was born on 6th May 1856 to Galician Jewish parents in the town of Freiberg, which at the time was a part of the Austrian Empire (now the Czech Republic). He studied for a doctorate at the University of Vienna and went on to develop a set of theories and therapeutic techniques known as psychoanalysis. Unfortunately, the rise of Nazism in Germany was to put Freud’s life and his work at severe risk.

In Germany, the works of Freud and other psychoanalysts were publically burned along with any book that contained radical thinking or was written by a Jew. As a result, members of the psychoanalytical community, the majority of whom were Jewish, fled to other countries in an attempt to escape the wrath of Hitler. Freud, on the other hand, was determined to stay in his home country, however, when the country was annexed by Germany in 1938, the harassment he received from the Nazis prompted him to flee to London via Paris.

On arrival in London, Freud moved into rented accommodation in Hampstead Village, which is where he was living when Dalí visited him. Later, on 27th September, Freud and his family moved into the house in Maresfield Gardens, in which, with the help of his son Ernst (1892-1970), he recreated an identical working environment using the same furniture he had brought with him from Austria.

Sadly, the final 16 years of Freud’s life was affected by mouth cancer. Although he continued to work, write and see a number of patients, the pain eventually became too much for him. A year after moving in, on 23rd September 1939, Freud’s doctor at his patient’s insistence, increased the doses of morphine until, finally, Freud breathed his last.

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Dalí photographed by Carl Van Vechten

Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech, 1st Marquis of Dalí de Púbol, known professionally as Salvador Dalí, was born on 11th May 1904 in Catalonia, Spain. Dalí attended drawing school as a child and later discovered modern painting, for instance, Cubism. It was not until 1929 that Dalí began to experiment with surrealist art forms.

Dalí became a fan of Freud after he read the latter’s book The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) while an art student in Madrid in the early 1920s. The book, which introduced the idea of unconscious desire and self-interpretation, inspired Dalí to try to interpret “not only of my dreams but of everything that happened to me.” These new ideas began to have a strong impact on Dalí’s artwork and way of thinking.

Not only were Dalí’s paintings affected by the revelation, but he also began to write. In 1933, he wrote a “psycho-analytical essay” called The Tragic Myth of Millet’s ‘Angelus’ in which he explored his obsession with the painting The Angelus by Jean-François Millet (1814-75). This essay, along with The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, Dalí took to his eventual meeting with Freud.

Dalí was determined to meet and talk with his hero, however, three attempts to meet in Vienna were unsuccessful. Shortly after he finished painting The Metamorphosis of Narcissus in 1937, Dalí tried once more to arrange a meeting with Freud. Rather than contacting the psychoanalyst directly, Dalí wrote a letter to the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), a close friend of Freud’s, asking him for an introduction. Zweig acquiesced, although warned Dalí that Freud was in poor health.

Zweig persuaded Freud to meet Dalí by convincing him of the importance of this meeting. According to Zweig, Dalí was the only genius among contemporary painters, “the only one who will last … the most faithful, the most grateful of the disciples you have among the artists.” So, finally, a meeting took place on 19th July 1938 in which Dalí’s wife and Edward James (1907-84), the owner of the painting, were also present.

Dalí’s painting of The Metamorphosis of Narcissus is based upon a story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses called Echo and Narcissus. Echo is a mountain nymph who falls in love with the beautiful Narcissus, a hunter from Greece. Narcissus, however, spurns her advances causing her to pine away until she is little more than an echo.

In order to teach Narcissus a lesson for the way he treated Echo, the goddess Aphrodite causes him to become obsessively enamoured by beautiful things. After luring Narcissus to a pool of water, Aphrodite leaves him peering at his reflection. Unaware that the image is of himself, Narcissus falls in love with the handsome youth he sees in the water. Unable to leave the alluring image, Narcissus stays there burning with desire until he too, like Echo, fades away. All that remained was a white flower.

Dalí’s oil painting shows Narcissus sitting in a pool looking down at his reflection. A striking landscape resembles the Cap de Creus, a headland located northeast of Catalonia where Dalí was born. The mountains in the far distance, however, also alludes to the Austrian Alps that Dalí saw in Zürs where he painted the canvas.

As well as painting The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, Dalí wrote a poem of the same name. The verse begins with the melting of the snow god, “his dazzling head bent over the dizzy space of reflections starts melting with desire.” This imagery could also be another reason Dalí included the melting snow caps in the distance. The phrase itself, of course, foretells the fate of Narcissus.

Two forms dominate the foreground of the painting. The easiest to see is the stone-like bony hand on the right-hand side of the canvas. On the top of the thin fingers balances a fragile egg or bulb from which an individual white narcissus flower blooms. This is another indication of the fate of Narcissus.

The form on the left, not as easy to make out the first time, is the crouching figure of the golden youth Narcissus. His head is bowed and hidden from the audience by the placement of his knee, however, it is clear from his stature that he is solely focused on what he can see in the reflection of the pool.

The more the two figures are compared, the more obvious it becomes that they share identical contours and structures despite depicting entirely different objects. The index finger on the hand is the same shape and dimension as Narcissus’ left arm. The thumb replaces Narcissus’ left leg on the opposite figure and the egg clearly represents his head.

The Metamorphosis of Narcissus is a show of Dalí’s dexterous skill in being able to employ the use of trompe l’oeil, which literally translates into English as “eye-fooling.” The hand, which appears almost three-dimensional as though it could be physically felt, is more predominant than the figure of Narcissus. The image of the Greek youth is set slightly further back than the hand, resulting in the eye noticing the egg and flower before seeing the main character of the story.

In a clever yet subtle way, Dalí has managed to make the myth of Narcissus play out before the viewers’ very eyes. Being slightly less strong in colour than the hand, the brain begins to dismiss the figure of Narcissus, focusing on the more precise object. Thus, Narcissus appears to fade away.

“If one looks for some time, from a slight distance and with a certain ‘distant fixedness’ at the hypnotically immobile figure of Narcissus, it gradually disappears until at last it is completely invisible. The metamorphosis of the myth takes place at that precise moment, for the image of Narcissus is suddenly transformed into the image of a hand which rises out of his own reflection …”
– Dalí, in the preface to his poem

Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937 by Salvador Dal? 1904-1989

Although the figure of Narcissus may appear to fade away, the more the painting is looked at, the more the eye sees. Relating back to the Greek myth, Dalí has included a group of naked bodies – both male and female – in the background who, like Echo, have also fallen in love with Narcissus. By parading their bodies around, they are attempting in vain to draw Narcissus’ attention away from his reflection in the pool.

The reason Dalí was eager to show this particular painting to Freud was that he had found inspiration from Freud’s own work. The Metamorphosis of Narcissus echoes Freud’s theory of narcissism, which he wrote about in his Introduction to Psychoanalysis. Freud defines narcissism as “the displacement of an individual’s libido towards that individual’s own body, towards the ‘ego’ of the subject.” This, in turn, sums up what has happened to Narcissus through his obsession with his own reflection.

The much-anticipated meeting with Freud was a bit of a let down for Dalí. Prepared to show himself as an example of “universal intellectualism”, Dalí was unnerved by Freud’s passive silence throughout the encounter. Rather than having a two-way conversation, Dalí attempted to talk to Freud whilst Freud, in turn, stared mutely at the artist. Dalí had hoped the psychoanalyst’s interest in narcissim would spark a discussion about his painting, yet nothing of the sort occurred. Similarly, Dalí brought with him a copy of the surrealist journal Minotaure, featuring the essay he had written about The Angelus for Freud to read, however, Freud, “continued to stare at me without paying the slightest attention to my magazine.”

From Dalí’s account of the meeting, Freud appears to be rather rude, causing Dalí to involuntarily raise his voice and become more insistent, practically begging Freud to read his work or even respond to his questions. Reportedly, the first thing Freud said during the encounter after staring at Dalí for some time, was directed at Stefan Zweig, who was also present: “I have never seen a more complete example of a Spaniard. What a fanatic!

Eventually, Freud did engage Dalí in some form of communication, although whether Dalí was satisfied with this, it cannot be certain. Freud told Dalí: “It is not the unconscious I seek in your pictures but the conscious.” Comparing Dalí’s work to the famous masters, i.e. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-19), who Freud wasted no time announcing he preferred, Freud explained that usually an unconscious idea is hidden in a painting, however, Dalí’s work is a mechanism to discover unconscious ideas.

Despite Freud’s behaviour at the time, it appears from written correspondence to Zweig after the event that he was pleased to have made Dalí’s acquaintance and was particularly interested in some of the ideas the painter had attempted to discuss.

“I really have reason to thank you for the introduction … I was inclined to look upon surrealists – who have apparently chosen me for their patron saint – as absolute (let us say 95 per cent, like alcohol) cranks. The young Spaniard, however … has made me reconsider my opinion.”
– Freud in a letter to Zweig

dali-sigmund-freud-from-secret-life-1939

Sigmund Freud by Dalí

Since nothing overly significant happened as a result of the meeting, there were very little directly related resources the Freud Museum could use for their exhibition – other than the painting of The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, of course, which was lent by the Tate Collection for the occasion. Dalí did, however, sketch a portrait of Freud during the meeting, which permanently hangs in the first-floor landing at 20 Maresfield Gardens.

In display cases around the exhibition room were items related to both Dalí, Freud, narcissism and the myth of Narcissus. This included books and essays written by both men, handwritten letters and a couple of intriguing objects. Unbeknownst to Dalí at the time of painting, Freud owned a small bronze figure of a hand holding an egg, not dissimilar to the hand in Dalí’s painting. Since it is a Roman figurine from the 1st or 2nd century AD, it is thought that Dalí may have discovered another version elsewhere from which he took inspiration.

The exhibition Freud, Dalí and the Metamorphosis has now finished, however, the Freud Museum continues to welcome visitors to see the house. Although Freud only lived in the house for a year, the open rooms pay homage to his life, his work and his legacies. Anna Freud is also remembered through some of the furniture, photographs and paraphernalia that belonged to her. The Metamorphosis of Narcissus will return to the Tate Collection where it may be viewable by the public.

The Freud Museum is open on Wednesday – Saturday from 12pm until 5pm. Admission fees are £9 per adult, £5 per 12-16 year old and free for under 12s. Other concessions apply. Tickets are valid for a year and everyone is encouraged to come back more than once.