7 June 2015

Non Sum Qualis Eram

natural dye artichoke

This post is a cautionary tale travelling from the heights of Mount Olympus via some impassioned Decadent poetry, with a detour to the Deep South of the American Civil War, to end ignobly with a snarling dog.

It begins mundanely with a bored housewife picking snails off the leaves of a globe artichoke. I wonder, she muses, if these leaves can produce a dye. Within a couple of hours she had the answer: yes, they can, an impressively deep yellow.

In her little world this is an exciting discovery. She looks up the scientific name of the artichoke to see if it belongs to a family of other plants who may be similarly generous.

Cynara scolymus
Digging deeper she finds a tragic legend attached to the Cynara family.
"According to Greek myth" - and here the cautionary bit of the tale begins - Cynara was a beautiful maiden living on the island of Zinari.  Zeus, who was visiting his brother Poseidon,  saw her and fell in love. He made her a goddess [the Jungians and feminists amongst us will no doubt have words to say on this story] and brought her up to Olympus. However, sensible woman, she missed mortal earth and would sneak back down when he wasn't looking. When he found this out he got cross and turned her into an artichoke. Not one of his most imaginative efforts, I'd say. Not his usual swans, willows, or fawns, but there you go.
This story is repeated whenever someone writes about artichokes. Go see for yourself ...
Sniffing out a possible blog post the housewife searched online for the original Greek telling of the tale, but couldn't find it. No matter, maybe it is not important enough to appear in the first few pages of a Google search. What did turn up was the Roman poet Horace bewailing someone called Cynara.

After a long cessation, O Venus, again are you stirring up tumults? Spare me, I beseech you, I beseech you. I am not the man I was under the dominion of good-natured Cynara. Forbear, O cruel mother of soft desires, to bend one bordering upon fifty, now too hardened for soft commands:

The gist is he has seen an attractive young man, and felt  'tumults' stirring, but at nearly fifty thinks he hasn't the energy to pursue them, since he is not the same as when he knew good-natured Cynara.

Ask Me No More by Alma Tadema

Who was Cynara? Did she resemble an artichoke in any way?

Who knows.

Two thousand years later Horace's lament inspired another male poet to muse on the nature of love. Ernest Dowson, a Decadent poet, wrote 'Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae'. The title translates as 'I am not as I was in the reign of good Cynara'.  The gist is he is with a red-lipped woman and suddenly remembers lily white Cynara.

But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
    When I awoke and found the dawn was grey:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion
Maybe being associated with a vegetable is not such a bad thing. That's three men with fond memories of Cynara.
At this stage in the cautionary tale a web of romance has woven around our Artichoke.

To weave another thread we can take a detour to Vivien Leigh's heaving bossom.

The title of the book Gone With The Wind was taken from a line in Dowson's poem:
I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind
The author Margaret Mitchell was touched by the "far away, faintly sad sound" of the line.

But this has nothing to do with Artichokes.

Back to the scientific name Cynara scolymus

And here the romance comes to a juddering end.

'Cynara' is an amalgam of the Latin word for canine and the Old Greek word for dog, 'kyon'. The 'scolymus' element relates to words such as spiny and thistle.  These descriptive words are referencing the dogs tooth like spines on the stem of the plant.

Dog Tooth Spines on Artichoke
Plus Pesky Snails

So we seem to have been led down the wrong path. Artichokes are not associated with a mistreated woman, but sharp dog teeth.  Our English word artichoke probably comes from its original Roman (latin) name for cardoon, a similar vegetable.

The caution here is to beware what you read. If something gets repeated enough it becomes fact. 'According to Greek myth' is a phrase best taken with a pinch of salt.