Romancing the Lachryphage
One of the supreme pleasures of that giddy delirium called human consciousness is an unsuppressable proclivity for filtering each extant instant and event, all objects, and every possible thing through the highly sensitive prism of emotion. The result is, put simply, poetry. We look at things around us, purposeful things, functional things, simple, straight forward things, and create out of them, through pattern recognition, anthropomorphism, and analogy a baroque emotional landscape positively rife with the touching, the gut-wrenching, and the glorious. Though the universe does not know it or care, we look around and we shudder at the significance of it all.
What am I rambling on about? Well, how about, for example, lachryphagy?
Can there be a more poetically potent act than that of drinking, and literally drawing sustenance from, another creatures tears?! Drinking tears for christ sake! Really, in human terms, it does not get much more poetically evocative than that, unless of course there is an animal lurking out there in the underbrush who subsists exclusively on the torn-out hearts of pregnant war widows.
For the animals who engage in this behavior, mainly a few species of moth, nothing could be more straight forward. Tears are as good a source of water and salt as any other (not to mention those delicious trace-levels of protein! Yum.) and hell, if no one else is gonna make use of it… Mommy didn’t raise no dummy-larva!
Even so, as a human it would seem nearly impossibly to explain lachryphagy without at least tacitly acknowledging the crazy, unintentional drama the whole undertaking is fraught with from our emotional and symbol-ridden point of view.
Quote: “Some species of moth engage in an almost romantic kissing of the eyes. Mara elephantophila, for example, which drinks the tears of elephants, is among the smallest of such moths. A shy, delicate creature, its tiny size allows it to steal a tear without elephants seemingly noticing.
The highly specialized Lobocraspis griseifusa Does not wait for an animal’s eyes to moisten. When it has landed, it sweeps its proboscis across the eye of its unfortunate host, irritating the eyeball, encouraging it to produce tears. It can even insert its proboscis between the eyelids, ensuring it can feed even while its host is sleeping. Whereas a moth of the genus Poncetia goes to the opposite extreme. It’s proboscis is so short it must cling to the eyeball itself to drink. But it must be careful. If its weeping host blinks, the moth is often crushed to death.” -Matt Walker, from Fish That Fake Orgasms: And Other Zoological Curiosities.
I literally can’t read that without my brain just shivering in delight.
“Delight?” you ask. Well, yeah, I mean, we’re talking about insects drinking animal tears. As with Love and War, all’s fair in Nature baby, that’s just plain good times. If, on the other hand, moths were dunking those proboscises (who knows where they’ve been!?) and greedily guzzling the wine of human sadness, well…
Quote: “I was observing zoophilous moths in a herd of zebu. One C. ludovicae took tears from a zebu at 1840 h. Shortly afterwards the specimen flew onto my wrist where it sucked perspiration for 10 minutes before it flew onto my naked leg and back onto the front of my head where it continued to take sweat. It flew off and back to my cheek, climbed towards my right eye. finally settling near its lower edge. The perception I now felt was unpleasant and was comparable the that of a particularly edgy grain of sand being rubbed between eye and lid. the source of th epain is revealed in a flash photograph (pictured above) I took 1.5 minutes after the moth settled: the right fore tarsus was hooked onto the delicate conjunctiva of the lid near the eyeball, while the the tear sucking proboscis applied to the eyeball caused less disturbance. Unfortunately the flash scared the moth away which did not return.” - Hans Biinziger, from the paper Remarkable New Cases of Moths Drinking Human Tears In Thailand. (pdf)
That moth got away and its tear-fattened progeny are almost surely licking a human eyeball somewhere in Thailand at this very moment! Not to mention these guys…
Yeesh. See, now my brain is shuddering in repulsion, and rather than the sensitive and knowing Emersonian verse which had been growing in the back of my mind, I find poorly written scripts for low-budget horror flicks scrolling across my mind’s eye… Hey! Stay away from my mind’s eye, you damn pesky tear-burglars.
Anyhow, thinking it over, I cant help but get to wondering. Were it not for all the wailing and gnashing of teeth scaring them away, would moths prefer the hormone and painkiller-rich vintage of “psychic tears” (i.e. the type created by stress, suffering, or pain induced weeping) over the run-of-the-mill “reflex’ brand? And for that matter would, say, a toddler’s skinned-knee tears be more or less delicious than a 17 year old’s “we’re both going off to different schools and will want to see other people” tears? Are the tears of a Cubs’ fan in September any good? And what about crocodile tears or the tears of a clown?
Your average elephant or water buffalo doesn’t care much about such things, they just make a loud noise and shake their head about to scare off the moths and then get back to their business, but as I said in the beginning, such is the joy of being a deliriously “aware” human. It is our purview, and ours alone, to get wrapped up in the poetry and metaphorical emotional payload inherent to the survival strategy of an insect, who given the chance, will fly directly into an open flame.
The image which began this post, of a deer’s eye surrounded by tear bandits, is a fabrication. I concocted it to resemble a very low resolution image I found showing a similar gathering around a water buffalo’s eye. As much as it pains me to admit it- the deer is stuffed, the eye is glass, and the moths are, well… I don’t know what they are.
How is this even remotely relevant to the discussion at hand you ask? Well, coincidentally (or not), in seeking to create the illustration I found that, for a layman at least, the act of searching out images of specific moths, armed with nothing but the maddeningly complex knot of Latin genus/subgenus/family/sub-family/tribe/ names also happens to induce lacrymation, rather quickly and angrily I might add, and I half expected my face to be swarmed with fluttery little wings terminating in thirsty barbed probosci.
In the year 2048, after the fall of western civilization, when an individual’s knowledge and skill-set no longer qualify he or she for well paying jobs but rather automatically initiate them into vicious, roving, cannibalistic street gangs, murderous and vengeful lepidopterologists (and Nabokov scholars) will appropriate the image of the lachryphage, potent and poetic as it is, and use it in the following manner-
And this tattoo will strike fear into the hearts of their enemies.
Hope you enjoyed.
Related from New Scientist:
Moths with a taste for tears
Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds
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The Jimsonweed Junkies
Are you familiar with the Federal Writer’s Folklore and Life Histories project? It was a subsection of the larger FWP (itself a New Deal arts program) undertaken to support writers during the great depression. The Folklore Project, in particular, has fascinated me for years because at bottom it is simply a collection of the musings of ordinary people walking the 1930’s streets; and largely anonymous ordinary people at that. For example, the typewritten text above is all we are given by way of biographical information on the man who dictated a piece I came across today, and wanted to share. See below for I’m a Might-Have-Been, recorded in New York circa 1938.
I’M A MIGHT-HAVE-BEEN
I admit it, I’m a hog. In other words human. I enjoy women and a pair of doughnuts like anybody else. Say tomorrer I wake up I’m covered in communism, say I can go and get what I want by asking - I want six wives. You maybe want 24 suits and him, they gotta give him twelve yachts, - otherwise he’s miserable. We’re nuts, we’re all deprived so long we went nuts. Plain hogs. It’s chemical, you can’t do nothing. We’re 90% water, H20, and 10% other things - sodium helium oxygen hydrogen potassium phosphorus calcium and so forth. At the same time in this kinda world 2 plus 2 makes 5.
Now. Look at me. I look like a dirt monkey. True? I’m among the world of missing men. I’m so insignificant if they sent out a radio call for me a hundred years nobody would find me. Economically I’m collapsed, I could write my whole will on a postage stamp, not a single coin of the realm you’ll find in my pocket, I ain’t got enough real estate to put in a flower pot. Tell me, then, why should I sing my country tis of thee or welcome sweet springtime I greet you in song? And yet, my friend, you can never tell the way you stand by the way you’re sitting down. Listen to what I’m gonna say to you now, carefully - the bacteriologist of today was himself a bacteria in primeval times. Sh! Don’t talk. Think that over…
Myself, I’m a might-have-been. I could tell you something else - I’m a genius and so forth, after all, you’re a stranger tome. But it ain’t what you call yourself, you can say you’re Jesus and you ain’t even St. Patrick. True? Well, I got lost inside a sweat shop like a fly in winter time. You go into it a man and you come out cockeyed hunchbacked knockneed pigeontoed flatchested - you’re a washrag and a walking prospect for the undertaker. You gotta put a mark on your feet to know right from left. The gray matter and the different parts of cerebellum are deflated. So I was fired. The boss said he gotta take sacrifices and he started with me. Before, I was lost, after I was still worse. I had bicycles in my brain. I was asking myself always: am I coming from or going to? Here I was free, the whole day in the air, in the sun, but still I was groping, the park was the same as the shop.
One swallow don’t make a summer. When you’re alone you can bark at the moon like a boogie dog, you can go sit down on the ground and open up your mouth you’ll catch mosquitoes, that’s all. A chain is strong like its weakest link and that was me. I don’t say I didn’t let off a lotta hot air in them trying times, it’s a free country. I lived by my own oxygen. But also - we got a check and balance system here, there ain’t no dictatorship, nobody gets away with murder, you can manifest yourself, true, you can express yourself, but the other guy can check up on you if he wants to.
Well, I got plenty checking up but in the end I was a citizen of the world. I didn’t bow down to the dollar, I was international, a progressive. I followed the head, you understand, the others followed the rear end, they were retro-gressive. You find some people in this day and age they like to be both. If they’re down in the Battery they’re up in the Bronx too, these budweisers, these political fakers. They claim if you’re in a steam room at the highest temperature you’re freezing and if you go into a frigidaire you’re hot. Why does ice smoke? They tell you: because it went crazy with frost. They’re always arguing: if it’s hot as it’s warm while it’s freezing it should be cold you think it’s gonna be hot? Bah! I wouldn’t stoop myself so low. The average man should think twice before he speaks and then - shut up.
Which reminds me - ain’t it time for me too? Here I’m riding a whole cavalry of ideas and I ain’t got enough to buy doughnuts. If I had my live to live over again I’d choose an existence of plenty. But, for the present, it’s my opinion the government should take us over, otherwise it’s better for us to shut our eyes, the undertaker downtown got a special this week.
Which means this, this whole spiel. It’s an explosion, I mean an explanation, of one thing - I got cursed with a social consciousness and how much I would like to do something about it I can’t. Brain I got plenty, but the will power of a Chinese Eskimo.
I would offer you the link to the original typewritten pages but the Library of Congress site, where it is hosted, to my constant frustration does not allow for such modern conveniences as direct linking. In any case… terrific no? Expect some more highlights from this collections in future.
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Can you begin to imagine the amount of time spent by the human race in pursuit of magic? I am not speaking metaphorically here. I mean can you imagine the sum total man-hours devoted to actively invoking, incanting, intoning, beseeching, divining, scrying, summoning, chanting, conjuring, and casting? And though, so far as we know, not a single minute of all that feverish sorcery yielded the intentional result with greater efficiency than chance, magic continues, and will continue, probably forever. And do you know why? Well, setting aside the fact that the whole endeavor is damn poetic specifically because of its futility, fascinating because of its baroquely fanciful trappings, pathos-packed because of its provenance, and let’s face it, pretty hilarious on the whole, there is another, simpler reason; one which I believe will be self-evident if you take a gander at what I’ve set out for you below…
1: A photographic reconstruction of various stages in a complex medieval spell to preserve the chastity of a high-born maiden while her betrothed is away at the wars.
The magician fills in one of the 12 signs of the Zodiac on the magic circle that he has drawn on the floor.
A censer is waved over the circle by the magician.
The veiled girl enters carrying in her left hand a rose (symbolizing human love) and in her right hand a lily (symbolizing the mortality of man).
The girl, directed by the magician, lays her flowers in front of the skull in homage to the magical power that is about to be invoked.
Having removed the girl’s veil, the magician starts to wave his wand and to intone incantations in dog Latin.
The girl holds the herbs rosemary and verbena next to her heart.
The magician hangs a small box of herbs around the girl’s neck, while she kneels before him.
2: A meeting of a coven of white witches in Hertfordshire, England, in June 1964.
The high priestess is lighting an incense burner and consecrating salt and water.
She is drawing a magic circle with her knife (athame), which she then “purifies” by swinging an incense burner over it.
The witches, holding their knives above their heads, recite an invocation before entering the magic circle.
During an initiation ceremony, the ritual sword is pointed at a blindfolded initiate.
After prayers and incantations addressed to the Mother Goddess, the witches begin to dance.
As you can see the simple answer is- Because its fun! I mean come on! In what other context do sad old dudes get to prance about waving wands over nubile flower-carrying virgins, flanked with skulls and incense and sheer fabrics? At what other point in their lives do most older women get to heft daggers and dance around naked together and point longswords at blindfolded initiates? The occult is just too damned fun to disapear. Not so much for the goats and chickens, granted, but for humans? A really swell time.
Seriously, you just try taking it away from desperate middle-aged naked people with swords, I dare you.
All images and accompanying text from the book The Supernatural by Douglas Hill and Pat Williams, published in 1965.
Hope you enjoyed.
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Subjectivity and the Subjugated
Feathers and beak but not a bird, not quite. It is roughly man-shaped; and though the head tilts and the arms outstretch like a midnight stranger, without a face and without hands it is not a man either, not quite. It is Man-but-not-Man, that most ancient mold for the manufacture of disquiet, never failing to lend a nightmarish quality to the unknown. The light is cluttered with hard shadows and the mind, unsure, is forced toward interpretation. You are a child and it is a swooping, enveloping horror. You are a hunter and it’s an avenger. You are a Freudian and it is your mother hovering, unreachable, in the middle-distance. You are a seer and it is an omen. You are a vaudevillian and it is a punch-line delivered into silence. You are a captain of industry and it is an accusatory night-sweat. On and on for each. At bottom its simple: you are a you and it is not, which is enough. Its “otherness” provokes an aggressive subjectivity.
The figure in the image is actually a Kwakiutl tribesman dressed as a Thunderbird. It’s a detail of a photograph shot by Edward S. Curtis, published in 1914. If you’ve never heard of Curtis he was a portrait photographer, living in Seattle, who decided sometime around 1900 to begin documenting the Native American tribes living in the Pacific Northwest. This project, with eventual interest of Theodore Roosevelt and resultant funding by J.P. Morgan, evolved into a 20 volume ethnographic opus called The North American Indian. The first volume was published in 1907, the last in 1930, at which point Curtis had shot about 45,000 photographs of over 80 separate tribes. Impressive though those numbers are, and expansive though the project was Curtis died in 1952, broke, and with his life’s work forgotten.
“They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.” So said Karl Marx. Were that representation pictorial and cultural rather than political, the sentiment might well be characterized as the driving force behind The North American Indian project. Curtis was a strong adherent to the prevailing sense that the American Indian was a “vanishing race” with no hope of maintaining any identity as Indian, and that it was the duty of the dominant culture to record the existence of the one being absorbed.
It was this conviction that lead him, in the course of his documentations, to go so far as to stage photographs depicting tribal traditions which had gone out of popular practice 50 years prior to his arrival with camera in hand. He paid tribes to undertake ceremonies out of season and reestablish ceremonies no longer practiced. He brought with him props, wigs, shirts, and other accouterments to “reenact” scenes, and was careful to remove “modern” items already adopted by tribes from the frame before shooting. His interest was in the “traditional” Indian, regardless of whether those traditions had already evolved away from the preconceptions of white america.
It’s because of this subjective tampering that Curtis’ photographs, even after their rediscovery and popularization in the 1970’s, remain somewhat controversial. On the one hand there are charges that his photographs, to large degree, simply reenforced the condescending stereotype of the “noble savage.” On the other hand it is unarguable that much of the material in The North American Indian does, in fact, represent unique ethnographic data recorded nowhere else. The prevailing attitude toward the project seems to be that though it is most assuredly “of its time,” harboring all manner of preconception, it is none the less invaluable for what it did manage to record.
In any case as regards Curtis’ life work I think it’s important to mention two things:
1) Even without intervention or the use of props or staging, photographs of this kind, framing a conquered culture through the conqueror’s lens and produced specifically for the conqueror’s consumption, will inherently deal in presuppositions. That seems inescapable. They will reinforce stereotypes to the exact degree to which the viewer, or framer, holds them dear.
2) Regardless of exactly the nature of what his photographs evoke, they are evocative, and very often beautiful, which is possibly the best one can say about a photograph from the artist’s standpoint. Not from a documentarian’s, or an ethnologist’s standpoint certainly, but from an artist’s.
Now to the photographs themselves…
Let me be the first to admit that when you have a collection as large as Curtis’ to draw from, you can gather together a group of pieces that illustrate damn-near any point of view you wish to support. For my part, I don’t want to drive home any particular point about Curtis’ outlook or the experience of the Native American’s he photographed.
I chose 18 images, drawn mainly from his time spent with the Kwakiutl and Navajo tribes, and exclusively of men obscured by ceremonial dress, their humanity left only as a vague outline, because I find them to be, as a group, a particularly potent illustration of the subjectivity inherent to viewing not only photographs of other cultures, images of the “Other,” and images of the unknown, but images of the past in general. These photographs are of men without men’s faces, without eyes to search, without familiar situations to read into, and so you are left to your own perceptual devices.
Quote: “It is a truism that to visitors of a new land – certainly to settlers – the original inhabitants were profoundly Other: The settlers may have had to struggle physically with the indigenous people for possession of the land, and in the process the original inhabitants became that which the settlers defined themselves against. It was virtually inevitable that the representations… would incorporate, reflect, or respond to, perhaps justify, the assumptions of the dominant (whites). ...The representations produced by the project tend to conform, in other words, to the lineaments of “the white man’s Indian.” ...Members of a dominant group, no matter how “intimate” their sense of their involvement with the people concerned, will represent nothing but the assumptions of their own kind.” – From the introduction to Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian by Mick Gidley.
Quote: “If the modes of seeing in different communities are at least in some respect irreconcilable because they reflect incommensurable presuppositions about the human situation, how can such communities understand one another? Or are cultures windowless monads– communally solipsistic entities in which only those who share the same conventions can make sense of one another, with everything outside the cultures walls either ignored or relegated to the status of error? Can one culture use its own terms to say something about another culture without engaging in a hostile act of appropriation or simply reflecting itself and not encountering the otherness of the Other? –From Chapter 2 of Play and the Politics of Reading: The Social Uses of the Modernist Form by Paul B. Armstrong.
Quote: “When the last Red Men shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the white man, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone.” -Attributed to Cheif Seath in an address surrendering the Puget Sound region to Governor Isaac Stevens in 1854, but which is almost certainly a fanciful recreation set down by some unknown author many years later. Coincidentally, it was Seath’s daughter, Princess Angeline, who was Curtis’ first Native American subject.
Personally I find this group of photos, in the almost total disembodiment of their actual subjects, really compelling. Their historical accuracy makes no difference. I can’t help but imbue them with a host of disparate, sometimes totally contrary emotions. My mind draws all kinds of corollaries and branches out into all kinds of narratives. Most likely you, yourself, draw a whole other set of conclusions…
Anyhow, though Curtis didn’t live to see it, his work is now widely written about and very well represented on the internet. Curtis’ story is a fairly interesting one, the debate over and reactions to his work even more so, and there is a whole lot of it to be seen out there if your so inclined-
Nortwestern University Collection
Library of Congress Collection
Edward S. Curtis in Context
Selling the North American Indian
Flurry & Company Ltd.
Video excerpts from Coming To Light
PBS American Masters
Prayer to the Great Mystery
The Imperfect Eye of Edward Curtis.
Etc, Etc, Etc.
Hope you enjoyed.
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A spring day. A holiday. A beautiful day for origins laid bare. The question arises from within and without, from mischievous children and coots embittered by a lifetime in minority, “what do bunnies and eggs have to do with anything?” And there might be a squirm, and their might be a laugh, and there might even be an answer which deigns to include the word “Goddess” or “fertility” or “birth.” It’s a beautiful day for the survival of annexed symbols and the bright light of incongruousness that they shine. There is an implicit acknowledgment of lineage in those symbols that a hundred generations of voices crying “ultimate Truth” can’t drown out; a moon which won’t be eclipsed.
Across the northern hemisphere bodies are goaded and throb, independent of mind and careless of culture, as they always have. Biology, the great uniter, offering every animal their undeniable cues. Today, in the spring light, warm and feminine in its promise of fecundity, we’re presented a beautiful day for clarity. Feeling that light on our face, its winks and hints at comfort, we might ask, “Why should this light be refracted through a lens of bloody beatings and spear tips and torture? What has this light to do with the adventures of a murdered man’s corpse?” Or, “Have we moved the movable feast too far?” Perhaps today is the best day in the year to feel plainly the qualitative difference between healthy biological realities and the dark, gnarled festoons and embellishments of human abstraction.
Note: The image is a detail of Hans Baldung Grien’s Death and the Woman c.1517.
So here is an image and with it, I’ll assume, a good deal of blank faces. Possibly a small percentage understand the insinuation straight away, but they aren’t much amused. The rest perhaps sigh their askance, “Ho-hum, so what’s this then?” Let’s parse it shall we? There is text. It reads, “An then yer arse fell aff.” This is Scottish vernacular; A phrase employed to call out the tell-tale wafting of bullshit particles into a nasal cavity. Below the text we have a kilt. Taking into consideration the inclusion of legs and socks, surely purposeful, we could assume that the focus is not the kilt specifically but rather the tartan pattern itself. A good assumption, making an ass of no one. So what are we left with then? Why, a calling-out of the incredible hokum which is the “ancient Scottish clan tartan.” That’s what.
Minds the world over, when compelled to conjure a Scotsman without the benefit of personal experience, likely create a burly, bearded fellow, with scotch on his breath, rectum pressured by haggis gas, bagpipes at the ready, his wind-tightened balls just out of sight behind a kilt which is itself woven in his ancient clan’s proud, traditional tartan…
Our minds are complete ignoramuses, obviously, but we who navigate them over the shoals of stereotype can’t bear all the blame. This image, or some slight variation of it, forms in our feeble minds for a good reason: because it sells, and has for a long time, and is consequently perpetuated. Oh yes, as any representative of the Scottish tourism board will tell you under condition of strict anonymity– “it’s all aboot the Sterling Laddie!!” If you could get a Hollywood exec to stop sniffing coke through his rolled-up Braveheart residual-check for a second he’d likely tell you the same.
Depiction of various clans and their dress from La Costume Historique, 1888
This oversimplification of Scottish culture down into a few Highland-specific customs is such a widespread phenomenon that there is actually a term for it– Tartanry.
The fact is that the “small kilt” is not ancient at all. As for the “clan tartans” they bare, overwhelmingly these are not of ancient origin either. The whole kilt/tartan business, in the cohesive, romanticized form it’s celebrated today, is less than 300 years old, and is so willfully mixed-up it’s hard in many cases to separate the facts from the folklore and finance.
Crest of the Skene Clan
The kilt and that’s what the belted plaid basically was.
Old man of the clan Furquharson. Plaid, kilt and stockings of the clan breacan. Detail from La Costume Hhistorique, 1888.
Quote: “The kilt was a traveling tent… The garment itself was a length of woolen cloth, two yards by six yards… At night the clansman wrapped himself in it and slept. In the morning he laid a belt on the ground and then carefully pleated the great lump of stuff on top of the belt. And then he lay down on top of the lot, brought the ends of the belt up, and buckled it round his waist. He was now enclosed in a tube of cloth, reaching from his knees to right over his head.” –Clifford Hanley.
That the kilt has come to symbolize all of Scotland can, ironically, in large part be attributed to three kings George.
King George II imposed the Act of Proscription on the Scots in 1746. Among its many provisions, created to try and assimilate the “rebellious” Highlanders, was the Dress Act which made the wearing of tartan or kilts illegal. The logic was that by criminalizing the cultural signifiers of the clan system they could eventually break down the system itself.
Quote: “The Highlanders had been wearing their outlandish tartan suits, and since the Highlanders were weird beasts anyway, in the eyes of authority, the tartan was taken to be a very big juju. heap strong totem, like Sioux war bonnets. The government realized it could shear the Scotsman of his courage by abolishing the stuff altogether. Later that year a law was passed forbidding the wearing of multicolored cloths in the Highlands. Penalty for the first offense was six months in jail; for a second offense, seven years’ transportation to the Colonies. A few rash Highlanders were actually nabbed for this fiendish crime.” –Clifford Hanley.
Crest of the Macfarlane Clan
The Act was repealed in 1782 by King George III and soon Highland dress became all the rage as fashion among all classes of Scottish society, the vast majority of whom had never worn a kilt or tartan in their lives, and in fact, as Lord Macaulay put it in the 1850’s, was previously “considered by nine Scotchmen out of ten as the dress of a theif.”
Quote: “...the kilt had fallen out of use as an item of ordinary dress, allowing for the romantic rehabilitation of Highland dress… No longer the threat from the north, the image of the Highlands could represent this wilderness within the bustling economy of the “new” Britain. Rather than dangerous, barelegged barbarians, the Highlanders became admirable, a kilted version of the “noble savage.”
This romantic fascination reached its peak in 1822 when another George, King George IV, staged a lavish visit to Edinburgh wearing the full Highland regalia.
Quote: “This publicity stunt promoted the kilt as fashionable wear among the Scottish nobility and, in so doing, helped establish the kilt as the national dress of Scotland. However, the king’s clothes, like those worn by Scottish noblemen, were far removed from those worn by the Highlanders of the previous century. Given the fact that they were largely designed for the levée, assembly, and ballroom, the emphasis was on the dramatic and spectacular… ‘Highland dress’ turned into ‘tartan costume.’”-Andrew Bolton, From The Kilt, a Metropolitan Museum of Art thematic essay.
Which brings us to the “clan tartan” itself. This is where outside historical forces and the natural flow of fashion give way to straight-up sham and flim-flam, of which the Scots are, themselves, complicit.
Contrary to popular belief, and to clarify the “lies by omission” offered by hundreds of websites offering family patterns to genealogically obsessed consumers, specific tartans almost never trace their roots in a straight line back to antiquity, nor in a curvy, jagged, or meandering line for that matter.
Crest of the Macgillivray Clan
Quote: “...the Highlanders wore any tartan that came up their backs. They had never heard of the idea of an official clan design, and if they had, they would have dodged it because in those days advertising your name could easily get you a dirk between the ribs.” –Clifford Hanley.
Or as C.C.P. Lawson put it in his History of the Uniforms of the British Army “Remembering the continuous clan feuds and the consequent state of more or less perpetual hostilities, a recognizable clan plaid would have been a positive danger to the wearer outside his own territory.”
The truth is that the fashion craze for all things Highlander that began with the repeal of the Dress Act directly leads into the Clan Tartan craze of modern times. The growing excitement paired with a consuming desire by Scots, both of highland and indeed lowland and border dwelling descent, to claim some ancient clannish birth-rank of their very own, rendered reality and actual tradition of negligible importance.
Around this time two clever con-men saw which way the wind was blowing and got to work cashing in.
These con-men were the Brothers Allen, better known today under the aliases John Sobieski Stewart and Charles Edward Stuart. Where they spent their early years before arriving in Edinburgh and what they did prior to this episode is unknown, as is much about them.
Quote: “All that we can say of them is that they were both talented artists in many fields. They wrote romantic poems… they were learned, though evidently self-taught, in many languages; they were skillful draughtsmen, wood-carvers, furniture makers. They had persuasive manners and great social charm, which enabled them to move at ease in the best society. Whatever they did, they did thoroughly and with flair.” — From The Invention of Tradition, by Eric J. Hobsbawm.
All you need know about the brothers in context of Clan Tartans is that in 1829 they revealed to a patron that they had in their possession a Latin manuscript dating back to at least 1571, of noble provenance, titled Vestiarum Scoticum or The Garde-robe of Scotland. This manuscript “just happened” to directly feed into the Highlander craze while simultaneously validating the tartan’s ancient origins.
In 1842 the Vestiarum Scoticum was published in limited edition, and billed as a reproduction, with color illustrations , of the original Latin manuscript setting forth, unequivicably, the ancient origins of 75 tartans and their clan associations.
Though it didn’t take long for the experts of the time to dismiss the Vestiarum Scoticum as a hoax, and its creators as charlatans, the book was a huge success anyway. In that it offered validation to not only Highlanders but Scots from the lowlands and border-clans as well, people seemed willing to overlook the little matter of it being total bullshit. So long as no one spoke up, it simultaneously offered them a solution to their desire and salve for their conscience.
As Clifford Hanley puts it, “Everybody, of course, wanted to be in on the act. Families who hadn’t even had a pair of knees now discovered they had a tartan, all to themselves.”
Man of the clan Colquhoun, 18th century; long plaid, flat cap and the emblem of the clan. Detail from La Costume Hhistorique, 1888.
Two years later the brothers published an even more lavish book titled The Costume of the Clans which expanded their portfolio of fictional tartans and traced their origins back even further. Not long afterward their claims of royal blood caught up with them and forced them to leave Scotland, but this little nudge from two dubious brothers, in the form of two books, was essentially all that it took to kick-start an extremely lucrative industry; one that just happens to depend on the indefinite extension and continual elaboration of a con.
What interests me here is not that an industry would prop-up a line of bullshit to make cash, obviously, but that an entire population would so willingly abandon reality and not only adopt the bullshit in its stead but perpetuate it for generations… well, it leaves you kind of speechless.
It makes modern complaints of “tartantry” seem altogether more amusing. More than that knowing the truth transforms the burly, bagpiping, kilted figure that your mind conjures at the mention of “Scottish” into an entirely more complex figure. Where as initially you might have felt vaguely embarrassed or guilty at your mind’s involuntary employment of such stereotypical imagery, now you almost have to laugh.
I mean, think about it… who the hell is that guy anyway? An “ignorant oversimplification” of a fictional romantic character amalgamated from various traditions and conceits who himself is masquerading as an historical figure? A caricature of a false historical ideal who none the less reflects, on some level, the actual modern figures who have adopted the fiction as a fact and by their action made him real? How do you even begin to approach a creature like this emotionally or philosophically?
Truth is I haven’t the faintest idea. I just think the whole thing fascinating. But then I am a Morrison lad after all, and whatever else he is, that burly, farting, bagpiping, kilted figure with his balls exposed to the Scottish wind is quite possibly me coosin!
Anyhow, crazily longwinded though this post was , I hope at least a few among you soldiered through and enjoyed.
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Or: Libra, Steelyards, Symbols, and Justice.
Being born in October I have been, for most of my life, obliged to take notice of the balance. I am a Libra you see, and whatever else that does or does not portend for me as an individual, and whether or not that designation holds any meaning whatsoever for me personally, one result, impossible to deny, is that my brain has been conditioned from an early age to give special consideration, be it particular depth of thought or even a single extra second’s worth of attention, to scales.
When, as children, we first catch wind of the existence of astrological symbols we are at a point in our lives when anything which might help solidify our identities by differentiation is something deserving of our attention. Most of us, I would venture to guess, take hold of our symbol for some short interval as children, and wring whatever meaning we can out of it, drawing corollaries between ourselves and others who shared the same sign, taking heart in character traits supposedly attached, bolstering, through mythical means, our sense of ourselves. When later in our lives we reject astrology as fanciful and amusing hokum it hardly matters. Our signs are still there as the tiniest footnote at the bottom of our appraisals-of-self. We will always see in them the faintest reflection.
An analogy might be that of the lapsed Catholic, who was brought up going to church, but who on adulthood rejected religion outright. Catholicism was something born-into, something outside oneself, something not chosen but inherited. Even after a definitive choice is made to reject it, however, the symbol of a cross will always manage to successfully travel that guarded pathway to our interiors. Whatever judgement the brain passes that symbol will still hold sway with the eyes.
When I was in art school I was obliged, as all hopeful image-makers are, to re-examine the personal symbology of my life. Did any of the tired old symbols carry any weight or meaning? Could any of them be used, adapted, perverted? It dawned on me around that time that though I was fond of “The Balance” as a symbol , the equal-armed beam balance which is universally used seemed not quite right. This scale with its symmetry and elegance and precision could simply never be an accurate symbol for me, my mind, or the life that I lived. It was altogether too platonic.
A few years later while working, for a short time, as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art an alternative symbol presented itself. During a shift I was stationed in one of those wonderful, dimly-lit, and comparatively empty areas of the museum , beside some long glass cases containing Roman artifacts. There were small functional and decorative objects of all kinds inside —vessels and tools and little statues and amulets all jostling together like a the contents of Romulus’ hall closet.
Amongst all of this iron and bronze a single object seemed to demand further scrutiny. It was asymmetrical and brutal looking, with its dangling chains each terminating in a hook. I had no guess as to its function or purpose. Torture device? Weapon? Brutish tool of animal husbandry? Looking at its little placard I discovered it was called a “Roman Balance” or “Steelyard” and that it was in fact a scale. I marveled for a moment at the coincidence. Of all the objects to draw my eye and interest it had to be a scale. I knew immediately that I’d found an object I could get behind, an object which resonated with me somehow. I’d found a proper Libran symbol for myself.
A bit of background information:
The Roman balance (or statera as it was originally known) is so called because no instance has been found of its existence prior to the Roman era. A similar principle was used in ancient Egyptian balances, however, and independently created examples have been found in China. Some evidence seems to exist that this type of scale was actually in use among Greek craftsmen in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries B.C.E. before Hellenistic mathematicians like Archimedes ever formally demonstrated the theoretic basis for their workings.
The Romans brought these scales to Britain around 55 B.C.E. and the English word ‘steelyard’ by which they are referred today is thought to be a mistranslation of the German ‘Stael-hof’ , which was itself the name of the base of the Hanseatic merchants of the Middle Ages, who used the Roman balance extensively in their businesses.
Functionally steelyards differ from the balance because they have unequal arms and employ a counterpoise, rather than a series of fixed-mass weights, which is shifted along the long arm in relation the the fulcrum. At the place where the counterpoise keeps the beam exactly horizontal, the weight of the object is indicated on an engraved scale on the long arm.
Though steelyards are less precise for weighing small objects like coins or jewels they have the benefit of employing a single weight for a wide range of loads. They were particularly useful for weighing heavy objects like vehicles, sides of beef, and humans. Additionally they had the benefit of cheap manufacture and portability. In as much they were used as industrial scales straight through the eighteenth century and remain in use in markets all throughout Asia and and the Middle East today.
I happen to find them, with their precarious asymmetry, their hooks and chains and their myriad forms of sculpted counterweights quite compelling, and beautiful.
Visually, viscerally, the steelyard seems to embody some aspect of balance, or perhaps the personal quest for it, which the equal-arm balance does not. After having discovered it there at the Met I visited it often. It didn’t take me long to realize that this object had symbolic potential far beyond the whimsical introspection it might supply for the comparatively small group of us who were born under the sign of Libra.
What, after all, do the scales symbolize for the rest of humanity?
Thinking of the equal-arm balance, alone, in silhouette, or held aloft by the left hand of Themis / Justitia / Lady Justice, notions undoubtedly come to mind. They are precise and unambiguously immediate, aspirational and inspirational, they are resplendent and exalted, they are incorruptible and pure. In other words they have no relation whatsoever to the realities of human justice as it is experienced and met out.
Now look at the steelyard. It is hard-looking and vaguely menacing, all hooks and chains and lengths of metal. It has a brutality to it somehow. You can imagine wielding it like a club or a flail and imagine the damage it might do were it wielded against you. Then there’s its asymmetry, which on first glance seems so counterintuitive to achieve any kind of balance. By design its sides are unequal, set against one another at cross-purposes. One side only holds the weight while the other only passes judgement, and a not quite precise judgement at that.
It’s a strange, hard, dangerous looking object, all angles and points set against a shifting bluntness, and one could imagine that were you to hand one to a child she’d be just as likely to smash in a skull as to balance anything whatsoever.
Though functionally the steelyard can achieve the same aims as our aspirational equal-arm scale, visually it suggests a complexity and precariousness and menace entirely more human, and I’d argue entirely more appropriate, symbolically, for our notions of crime and punishment, corporeal or otherwise. If a pound of flesh needs weighing this is the scale for the job.
Add to this to the forms which the steelyard’s counterweight took, and could take, and all sorts of explicit symbolic relationships emerge. In the past these “poises” as they are sometimes called were often fashioned in the shape of gods, men, women or animals. One could easily imagine a slab of beef on the hooks counterbalanced by golden McDonald’s arches for instance, or an emaciated corpse counterbalanced by an Iron Cross, a knife counterbalanced by a black glove, a smoldering retarded child counterbalanced by a weight in the shape of Texas, a boot stamping on a human face, forever, counterbalanced by a giant silver dollar, or… well… whatever delightful image strikes your fancy!
The steelyard can do it all.
Anyhow, since happening upon that Roman balance about 12 years ago I’ve adopted it in my mind. When I think Libra I think steelyard, and so, conversely when I think steelyard I think, in some small way, of myself.
When I see a statue or etching of Lady Justice my mind reflexively erases that flimsy equal-arm balance with its impossible precision and imaginary exaltation and replaces it with its hard, practical, rough and ready, asymmetrical cousin.
The Histoire Naturelle des Indes, created sometime in the 1590’s, is one of the earliest illustrated records of European contact with the America. Also know it by its informal title The Drake Manuscript it was donated to the the Pierpont Morgan Library in 1983, who after many years of study graciously produced a full color facsimile. I happen to have said facsimile, which was published in 1996, right here in front of me. Shall we take a gander?
First a few words on the manuscript’s origins and possibly misleading title.
The Drake Manuscript is named for Sir Francis Drake, the famed English privateer, navigator, slave trader, politician, and pirate of the Elizabethan era, whose travels it is thought to illustrate. Though Drake was himself something of an artist , the images in Histoire Naturelle des Indes were not created by his hand. Nothing of his artwork survives as it turns out.
Truth be told there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that Drake had anything to do with the manuscript, let alone that it ought to be informally named after him. Such are the gears of history- grinding the anonymous down to invisibility and raising the famed higher… for a while at least.
The best guess as to the manuscripts origins are something along these lines-
The naive drawings show signs of being created by several separate hands. Context reveals that these were likely the hands of Huguenots. Drake is known to have employed not only Huguenots on his voyages but artists as well. A “considerable number” of the images correspond to ports of call familiar to Drake, in some cases associated directly with his voyages, and Drake is mentioned by name, twice, in the manuscript itself. Hence, with a nice pile of circumstantial evidence to stand on, and no other clues, we have The Drake Manuscript.
Anyhow, whether this is simply an instance of a famous name capturing otherwise anonymous historical debris with its considerable gravitational pull or simply an instance of fine deduction on the part of historians doesn’t matter much. What matters are the 199 fascinating images and accompanying captions.
Taken as a whole the images are an interesting mixture. The drawings of plants and animals are presented in a sort of cold practical manner, removed from their natural surroundings, with captions that read almost like a sales catalog, listing the virtues and drawbacks of each. The drawings of the indigenous peoples themselves on the other hand are altogether warmer and seem to serve no greater purpose than curiosity.
The styles of the images are an interesting mixture as well-
Quote, “Some drawings are well rendered, others mere daubs, but most have a kind of buoyantly piquant vision of their subjects. Some are true to life, some–particularly the fishes with doglike snouts and ears–arise from an almost medieval fancy, and some may reflect a knowledge of printed sources.” - Verlyn Klinkenborg.
I’ve reproduced a group of the images below for your scrutiny. Some were chosen because I particularly liked the drawing, some because I was amused by the caption, and some because the ghost of Drake, boarding the deck of my apartment and holding me at sword-point, compelled me to. Have a look for yourself.
“A special herb which the Indians use for food as well as an extremely beneficial medicine; when they are sick, they breathe in the smoke by mouth with a straw; soon the ill humour escapes by vomiting. They often pulverize it and, putting it in their noses, it distills several drops of water from the brain to discharge it. It is also found very helpful for toothache…”
“This fish is very large and no less vicious. When the negroes dive in the sea for pearls it jumps on them to make them drown and afterward eats them.”
“This animal is the size of a greyhound. When it sees people in the woods it breaks off branches and throws them at them…”
“These are small flies which are so small one cannot see them, they are very dangerous. When there is no wind and the weather is calm, they come in droves attacking people, stinging them in such a manner that one would take them for lepers…”
(Woman of the Indies)
“This woman chases the flies away with a little bell hanging from a tree branch, afraid that when they bite their children, they will cry, for seeing their children cry makes them sad, having visions that at that time the devil is in their body…”
“A very piusonous tree, so that if a person looks up to it, he will be blinded for three hours afterwards. The Indians hide their arrows in this tree when they are at war in order to make them poisonous.”
“A very poisonous beast. It feeds in places where there is wine and vinegar. It only moves around at night. A person who has been bitten by this animal lives only for twenty-four hours afterwards. It finds the Indians in their beds in order to kill them.”
(Tiger and Anteater)
“Savage beast. However, whenever this small animal called anteater encounters a tiger looking for prey it turns on its back and throws itself on the tiger’s neck and pierces its throat with its snout and claws and does not release him until he is dead on that spot.”
CHILIRATI, PECHE ESPADE (Sawfish), and CAPPE (Eel)
(Island called “Fougue” or Fire Island)
“During the day one always sees smoke on top and when the sun has set and night has come, one likewise sees a great fiery blaze because on the island and on the summit, the earth produces sulfur and there is thunder and lightening which cause the continuous fire…”
HINDE DE LA TRENITE
(Indian of Trinidad)
“Tha manner of catching parrots is this: if they are large, they make a trap with string attached to it. In this trap they put a parrot with his feet tied and next to him a small animal called a catille which plucks him. When the parrot cries and the other parrots, hearing his voice, come to his rescue, freely joining him in the trap, the Indian seeing this pulls the string and the parrots are instantly trapped.”
PIOVCHE DE MER
“This is as valuable as a louse.”
“This is a very agile beast. The Indians cannot tame it or feed it for they die of grief and do not eat in captivity. They have a face like a human and are very mischievous and rebellious and throw themselves against people mainly in their faces and eyes.”
“The nature of this animal is so to climb with its belly uppermost and, climbing this way, it moves faster than a man could on foot. The skin of this animal is very excellent for people suffering from falling sickness [epilepsy]. The head of the afflicted is covered with it then one realizes how effective the skin is.”
HINDES DE IHONA
(Indiands of Ihona)
“When the Indians have defeated their enemies, they make them lie down on the ground, then pound on them, and after that, give them a blow on the head with their sword. When the blood starts flowing, they hold it back promptly, thinking that by this means the body will make a better roast for a solemn feast, calling this a deed of prowess.”
PORC DE MONTENNE
“This animal is called a mountain pig because it lives in the mountains. It is adroit at climbing. It has a navel on its back. “
PORC EPIC SAVVAGE (Wild Porcupine), SAGOVAI (Monkey), and CRABLE SAVVAGE (Scorpion)
AVILANNES BLANCHES GOMITES
(White Physic Nut)
“They may well be called white nuts… They don’t make one vomit at all.” This is as opposed to the black Physic Nut which has quite different effects. “When a person has eaten them, he will throw out everything in his body above and below.” The Indians evidently ate the black nuts when they felt they’d been poisoned as a way of expelling the poison from the mouth and from “below.”
“This fish is very viscious in the sea so that when a sailor throws himself into the water for some reason this fish turns on his back and tears out a leg or an arm and eats it.”
COMES LES YNDIENS ONT ORDINAIRM[ENT] DES JLLUSIONS DU MALING ESPRIT
(How the Indians Usually Have Visions of the Evil Spirit)
“The Indians are much tormented at night by visions of the Evil Spirit whom they call in their language “Athoua.” They do not dare leave their houses at night–only when light has come–and this is because they have no belief nor education and do not worship anything…”
I find these fascinating, and believe me when I say I had trouble choosing from the 199 plates reproduced in the excellent facsimile.
Concerning the images themselves it amazes me to look at them in the artistic context of their time, because though I undoubtedly find them beautiful, when I remind myself that they were created in the 1590’s, and that at that same moment El Greco, Rubens, and Caravaggio were all active… well it’s surprising. Thought of in those terms it’s a wonder these weren’t made by the “Indians” themselves.
I think today, with television and advertising and graphic design having made the shared “visual language” so pervasive, we have a tendency to regard varying levels of visual sophistication simply as styles which homogeneously blanket entire eras, permeating everything from high art to life’s daily banalities. It may be true, to some degree, as far back as the 19th century, but images like those in the Drake Manuscript are, for me, a useful reminder that if you travel further back, our conceptions begin to break down and become little more than assumptions, based on the retrofitted categorizations art historians have coined for us.
The captions fascinate and amuse me for a similar reason. There is something comical to me about contemporaries of Shakespeare, Giordano Bruno, Cervantes, and Galileo traveling to these “savage” lands, filled with a blustery and inalienable sense of their own superiority over the ignorant inhabitants, who upon arrival and lengthy inspection proceed to relay information as goofy and superstitious and folkloric as their dark-age ancestors might have believed.
Of course, as not to fall into the same trap of egoistic presumption, and lest snide ephemera hunters of the 3000’s stumble upon this blog (attributing it, of course, to Markos Moulitsas or Xeni Jardin whilst my anonymous bones decay in quietude) and scoff at the wrong-mindedness of it all, I’ll shut my mouth right there.
For a bit more on the manuscript see-
The Morgan Library page
Histoire naturelle des Indes on Google books.
This pdf from the National Humanities Center.
I’ll only say this in closing, I enjoyed these and I hope you did as well.
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The new year approaches and as it draws nearer arms will begin to raise, and in each hand will be a glass, and in each glass a libation. As the midnight hour approaches more and more glasses will raise until, were the millions of libations allowed to flow into one another, and were gravity to join in the festivities and relax a little, a veritable river of spirits would form there just above our heads, flowing from hand to hand and from time-zone to time-zone, chasing the sun as it endlessly sets over the world.
And what sound will accompany this river of spirits as it’s bailed, glass by glass, into the air? Why the same sound that accompanies us everywhere, in all of our endeavors, great and small– the gush and tumble of words. Yes, my friends the toasting hour approaches, so before it catches us and our mouths inexorably up in its ebullient current let’s have a slightly closer look at this toasting business shall we? Glasses at the ready.
First, a few words on origins–
Drink as “offering” has been a documented aspect of prayer ceremony from the dawn of history in both Pagan and Judeo-Christian traditions.
Quote: “An early Greek custom called for a pledge of three cups-one to Mercury, one to the Graces, and one to Zeus. In Rome, drinking to another’s health became so important, the Senate decreed that all diners must drink to Augustus at every meal. Fabius Maximus declared that no man should eat or drink before he had prayed for him and drank to his health.” -Paul Dickson.
The term “toast” itself is thought to have come from the Romans, who evidently found themselves drinking a lot of sub-par wine. They’d drop a piece of burnt bread into wine, the charcoal of which would reduce the drinks acidity, making it more palatable. This toast may have also been included with the wine as a token bit of nourishment. The term stuck even after the practice of including the burnt bread died out. It mutated even further when, in the golden age of toasting, the act of drinking a toast to women admired but not present spawned the phrase “toast of the town.”
Meanwhile there is a connected custom, the clinking of glasses, to consider. There are three theories as to its origin. The first is attributed again to the Greeks’ proclivity for poison. It’s thought that the hearty thud of wine vessels against one another might facilitate an exchange of liquid from one vessel to another, thus ensuring any poison would be imbibed by all. A second theory attributes the clinking of glasses to the Christian era. It was thought that the bell-like clink of glasses would banish the Devil, who was thought to literally inhabit liquor (and be the cause of the ill behavior of the drunken), and who was repelled by the sound of bells. The third theory, which sounds entirely more modern to me, is that all five senses had to come into play to get the greatest pleasure from drink, the sight, the smell, the touch, the taste, and with the clink… the sound.
In truth the species of speach which we moderns refer to as “a toast,” meaning the one word salutations, often in a phonetically-sounded foreign tongue, the literal meaning of which we rarely know, is only the dimmest shadow of a once grand and formal tradition of dinner speaking. Today, for the average person not serving as an ambassador on distant soil, that tradition is relegated almost exclusively to the dreaded wedding toast, in which a bitter and terrified “best man” stumbles his way through those few words which represent the final hurdle in his race to the open bar.
In the heyday of toasting the whole affair was elaborate enough that scores of books were published to help people navigate the treacherous rules of etiquette involved for both toast-giver and audience, and no drink could be drunk without “a few words” of praise to someone. To drink without offering a toast was simply an affront to everyone in the room, and this imperative evidently protracted even casual occasions into 8 or 10 hour binges.
Today it would just be impossible. Imagine heading over to your local Tex-Mex place for a few 6 dollar Coronas after a crappy day in your shabby cubicle, only to realize you were a “best man,” in a room full of nothing but other “best men,” obliged to speak and listen before every… single… round; for 10 hours. Didn’t Sartre write a play about that?
In any case, as I said at the beginning, the “hour of the toast” is fast approaching, and though I don’t expect many of you will want to wax eloquent, at length, in iambic pentameter, about how much you love your mother, or country, or best mates, you may still wish to surprise everyone with something a bit more imaginative than the expected, “May you rock out with yer cock out and jam out with yer clam out! Down the hatch!”
With that in mind I am including below a small sampling of toasts (mostly culled from the 1927 volume, The Big Toast-Book, by Carleton B. Case, pictured above) so antiquated sounding that they might be just the thing to… oh, I don’t know… persuade your mightily disappointed and old-fashioned father that he ought not disown you just yet, or convince your significant other’s parents that you’re more than the coarse, dead-eyed, lout you appear to be, or induce premature nostril-vomiting in your rivals, or embarrass the hell out of your sweetheart. Who knows? Maybe they’ll just inspire you to come up with a decent toast yourself and revive in some small way the time honored tradition.
For the Romantics:
Here’s to the one and only one,
And may that one be she
Who loves but one and only one,
And may that one be me.
Here’s to love, The only fire against which there is no insurance.
God made women both beautiful and foolish–
Beautiful, that man might love her;
Foolish, that she might love him.
Here’s to everything old! Old friends, old times, old books, and old wine.
Flow wine, smile woman, and the universe is consoled. -Beranger
For the Bachelors:
Love is the wine of life
And marriage is the morning after.
I would advise a young man to pause
Before he takes a wife;
In fact I see no earthly cause
Why he should not pause for life.
Here’s to the woman! –ah that we could fall into her arms
Without falling into her hands! -Bierce
A pipe, a book, a fire, a friend,
A stein that’s always full,
Here’s to the joys of a bachelor’s life,
A life that’s never dull.
For the Married:
To Home! The place where you are treated best and grumble most.
He is not worthy of the honeycomb
That shuns the hive because the bees have stings. -Shakespeare
Let the man who does not wish to be idle, fall in love. -Ovid
Laugh and the world laughs with you; snore, and you sleep alone.
For the Naughty:
Here’s head first, to a foaming glass!
Here’s head first, to a lively lass!
Here’s head first, for a bit of kissing,
For the good don’t know the fun they are missing!
Here’s to the ships of our navy,
Here’s to the ladies of our land,
May the former be well rigged,
And the latter be well manned.
Here’s to the lasses we’ve loved, my lad,
Here’s to the lips we’ve pressed.
For of kisses and lasses,
Like liquor in glasses,
The last is always the best.
For the Bitter:
Here’s to the woman with face so fair,
Framed in a wreath of beautiful hair;
Pretty red lips as soft as a rose–
How many have kissed them God only Knows.
Here’s to the love that lies in a woman’s eyes,
And lies, and lies, and lies.
For the Old Sots:
Which is the properest day to drink–
Saturday, Sunday, Monday?
Each is the properest day I think,
Why should I name but one day?
Here’s to the heart that fills as the bottle empties.
Man being reasonable must get drunk;
The best of life is but intoxication;
Glory, the grape, love, gold– in these are sunk
The hopes of all men and of every nation. -Byron
God made man frail as a bubble;
God made love, love made trouble;
God made the vine– was it a sin
That man made wine to drown trouble in?
Grasp the bowl; in nectar sinking
Man of sorrow, drown thy thinking!
For the Ladies:
If kissing were the only joy of bed,
One woman would another woman wed.
(followed by winking and giggling)
The more one sees of men the more one likes dogs.
For the Men:
You shall and you shan’t,
You will and you wont,
You’re condemned if you do,
And you’re damned if you don’t
Go back to bed!
I know it’s loud it’s grown-up time.
No you can’t have any of my grape juice,
Just go back to bed please.
Honey, you have to go back to bed
Because the monster is on his way
And he likes to eat children.
Yes he eats them
And chews up their bones.
He ate one of the neighbor kids last night.
Yes, he’s on his way here right now…
Wait, I think I hear him on the steps!
You better get to bed quick. RUN!
Yesterday’s yesterday while today’s here,
Today is today till tomorrow appear,
Tomorrow’s tomorrow until today’s past,
And kisses are kisses as long as they last.
May you live all the days of your life. -Swift
Weep and you are called a baby,
Laugh and you are called a fool,
Yield and you’re called a coward,
Stand and your called a mule,
Smile and they’ll call you silly,
Frown and they’ll call you gruff,
Put on a front like a millionaire,
And somebody calls your bluff.
May bad luck follow you all the days of your life,
And never overtake you.
At ten, a child; at twenty, wild;
At thirty tame, if ever;
At forty wise; at fifty, rich;
At sixty, good or never!
While we live, let’s live in clover,
For when we’re dead, we’re dead all over.
And finally, here’s one especially for me to make:
May the people who dance on your grave get cramps in their legs!
Lastly I would just like to mention how strikingly perfect the symbolism of holding up a full glass, especially on New Years Eve, seems to me. We hold it there, brimming, shining and untouched. So much optimism for everything which is to come, for the fun yet to be had, for the possibilities which await! We take that first delicious and refreshing sip with bright eyes. But of course, by the end of the night it’s a different story though isn’t it? The glass lays toppled, used-up, cracked, empty and we… we are nauseous, disheveled, most likely embarrassed and full of some vague regret, having yet again failed to learn anything from the previous time we held up a glass, confidently swearing that things would be different.
For more on the history and art of toasting see the following:
The History & Ritual of the Toast
Toastbook by Paul Dickson
Drinkingsongs.net which offers many toasts as well as a terrific bibliography
Wine, Women, and Song published 1884
In Praise of Ale published 1888
Toasts published 1895
The Banquet Book Published 1902
400 Laughs, or Fun without Vulgarity published 1902
Rare Bits of Humor published 1906
Irish Toasts published 1908
A Tankard of Ale, an Anthology of Drinking Songs published 1920
More Toasts published 1922
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Happy New Year all and sundry! 2008 will be different! I swear!