Milan, 12 December 2020

It’s that time of the year again! Time to drink nice hot toddies, time to put up the Christmas tree and other sundry decorations, time to set up the nativity, time to put on the CD of Christmas carols and sing along (in my case, somewhat off-key).

“The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.”

Holly is a nice plant. With its lovely shiny green leaves and strongly red berries, it really does bring a brightness to our lives just when we most need it. I was struck by this most forcefully last December, when my wife and I were hiking through the woods around Lake Maggiore and Lake Como (a pleasure that is currently denied us by the latest round of Covid lockdowns). The trees were all bare and drear, the rustling underfoot as we trod over dead leaves reminding us of the lovely greenery that had covered them just a few months before. Suddenly, we spied a bright cheerful green among the trees. It was a holly tree.

My photo

Quite soon, a few more popped up between the bare trees.

my photo
My photo

No doubt we were traversing a zone where soil and climate conspired to give the holly a competitive advantage.

It was a pleasure to see holly in the wild. Before then, I’d only ever seen holly trees tamed and manicured to within an inch of their lives in a garden, a splash of dark green against the lighter green of lawn


Or used as a well-trained, well-trimmed hedge.


And of course I’d seen holly as part of the wreaths which people hang on their doors at Christmastime.


This connection between Christmas and holly is very old. When you strip away all the layers of religiosity that envelop Christmas, it’s really a feast about the winter solstice, a celebration of when the sun, which has been dying and allowing the days to get ever shorter and nature to die, is reborn, slowly making the days become longer and nature come alive again. In our festivities welcoming the rebirth of the sun, it made perfect sense for us to use plants like holly which are still green at the winter solstice, to remind the sun of the job it had to do to make everything else green again.

Thus we have the Romans decorating their homes with holly during their feast of Saturnalia, a winter solstice feast where there was a lot of gift-giving, feasting and merrymaking (a lot of other things happened during Saturnalia which need not detain us here, but any reader interested in Roman goings on can read about them here).


Funnily enough, when early Christians followed Roman practice and hung holly in their homes and churches, the pagans around them told them not to – I suppose they thought these bloody Christians were desecrating their festival. But at the same time the Church Fathers were also telling them not to, finding this ritual really too pagan for words. Luckily for us, the Christian-on-the- street ignored both the pesky pagans and kill-joy Church Fathers and continued to hang holly in their homes and houses of worship. Which in turn has allowed us to sing over the ages (in my case, somewhat off-key),

“Deck the halls with boughs of holly
Fa la la la la, la la la la
‘Tis the season to be jolly
Fa la la la la, la la la la”

Presumably, as the legions marched outwards from the Roman heartlands they took with them their Saturnalia festival. Holly (at least the species which grows around Rome) is present in just about all the European regions and some of the North African regions which the Romans conquered (the green crosses mean isolated populations, and the orange triangles indicate places where the holly was introduced and became naturalized).


So no doubt halls were also decked with holly in the Roman colonies of western Europe and North Africa. In fact, it is possible that our Christmas love affair with holly in Western Europe has its roots in the Romans’ Saturnalia festival.

Or perhaps not. Because holly was also a special plant for the Celtic tribes of Northern Europe: the map above shows that holly was very much present in their heartlands. They too decked their halls with holly, and for much the same reasons as the Romans: the plant’s evergreen leaves and bright red berries brought cheer to an otherwise dreary time of the year, and they were a reminder that greenery had not disappeared for ever, that it would soon be back, warmed by a re-born and newly vigorous sun.

The Celts saw holly as a symbol of fertility and eternal life, and imparted many magical powers to the plant. Hanging holly in homes was believed to bring good luck. During winter, branches of holly in the house would provide shelter from the cold for fairies, who in return would be kind to those who lived in the dwelling. In the same vein, holly was believed to guard people against evil spirits. So Druids wore holly garlands on their heads, as did chieftains. Holly trees were often planted around homes; because holly was believed to repel lightning this would protect homes from lightning strikes. Just as the oak tree was considered the ruler of summer, so the holly was seen as the ruler of winter, the dark time. As such, holly was associated with dreams and Druids would often invoke the energy of holly to assist them in their dream work and spiritual journeying. Here is one rather fanciful modern depiction of the magical powers of holly.


Holly is not the only evergreen plant which has been caught up in our Christmas celebrations. There’s the Christmas tree, of course.


“O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree
Thy leaves are so unchanging
Not only green when summer’s here
But also when it’s cold and drear”

The custom of using pine trees in Christmas celebrations started in modern-day Estonia and Latvia, by the way, during the Middle Ages and spread out from there. The trees were traditionally decorated with flowers made of colored paper, apples, wafers, tinsel and sweetmeats. I would say that the original idea was to remind us that trees would soon be a-fruiting again.

Then there’s the mistletoe.


“When I close my eyes
It’s just you and I
Here under the mistletoe
Magic fills the air
Standin’ over there
Santa hear my prayer
Hеre under the mistlеtoe”

Our wanting to steal a kiss under the mistletoe is a pale reflection of an ancient belief that mistletoe brought fecundity into a home – its white berries were considered to be the sperm of the oak tree.


Kissing under the mistletoe will never feel the same again now that I’ve read that.

I actually have a sense that just about any evergreen plant was made part of Christmas celebrations in some place and at some time – after all, if the point of having evergreen plants around was to remind us of the newly green world just around the corner, any evergreen plant should surely do the trick. I rather like a Christmas decoration that was once popular and summed up all the ideas around the use of evergreens in a celebration of the re-birth of the sun. This was the Kissing Bough. It was a popular Christmas decoration before the pine tree dethroned it and came to dominate our Christmases. To make one, five wooden hoops were tied together in the shape of a ball (four hoops vertical to form the ball and the fifth horizontal to go around the middle). The hoops were then covered with whatever evergreen plants were at hand: holly, ivy, rosemary, bay, fir or anything else (signifying the vegetation to come). An apple was hung inside the ball (signifying the fruits to come) and a candle was placed inside the ball at the bottom (signifying the re-birth of light). The Bough was finished by hanging a large bunch of mistletoe from the bottom of the ball (signifying the fecundity to come).


Coming back to holly, before we get carried away with all this magical imagery and mystical meanings (and let me tell you, the Internet is awash with reams of magico-mystico stuff on holly), let’s go back even beyond our Celtic and Roman forebears to a time when we were mere hunter-gatherers. Etymologists believe that the word “holly” has its origins in the Old English word hole(ġ)n. This is related to the Old Low Franconian word *hulis, and both are related to Old High German hulis, huls. These Germanic words appear to be related to words for holly in the Celtic languages, such as Welsh celyn, Breton kelen(n) and Irish cuileann. Probably all come from Proto-Indo-European root *kel- “to prick”.

What an eminently sensible lot, the hunter-gatherers were, to give this plant a name which stressed its prickliness! Yes, holly is nice to look at, but get close and you immediately notice something else: its leaves have very sharp spines.


This is not a tree to hide under or climb: something I learned as a child when I was once violently pushed into a holly hedge by another, very nasty, child. Ouch, it bloody hurt!


Mandalay, 3 August 2016

A few weeks ago, I read of the death of an Indian money-lender, murdered by a couple of people to whom he owed money. It was a banal and sordid murder, no different from the hundreds of banal and sordid murders which occur every day the world over. If this particular one was splashed all over the front pages of many newspapers, it was because the unfortunate victim had earlier shot to global fame for purchasing … a shirt made of gold (an idea, I have to say, which I find pretty bling).
Ah, gold! That lovely, soft, malleable metal, which never rusts, which glows yellow like the sun. Which has been lusted after by so many through the ages. It sent the Conquistadors sailing half way round the globe to an unknown world, not to understand it but to rip the gold out of its heart.

It has sent hundred of thousands running to the ends of the world to feverishly pan it out of water or to hack it out of the ground
a gold fever which even today strikes men (but also now women).


But gold has also inspired artisans for at least six thousand years to make beautiful, beautiful objects. It is these lovely creations which I wish to celebrate today, not the ugly side of gold.

Given where this post started, my first inclination was to search on the Internet for examples of powerful potentates from the past who were discovered by archaeologists buried in shirts or tunics of gold. Alas, I found none, whether because my surfing skills are not up to the task or because even kings of old found this idea really too bling, or because archaeologists simply haven’t stumbled across such cases yet. The closest I got to it was jade burial suits used during China’s Han dynasty by members of the royal family; in some cases, the jade pieces of the suit were sewn together with gold wire.
But as I surfed the internet, looking for gold shirts from faraway times, I stumbled across a treasure hoard of ancient gold pieces, some found buried with kings, princes, and their consorts, others buried for safekeeping by their owners who, for some reason, never returned to reclaim them. For instance, I was completely smitten by some of the gold work that archaeologists have found in various Scythian royal tombs in Southern Russia, Ukraine, and the Caucasus region more generally. Look at this pectoral, from the 4th C BC!
Here’s a detail – see how fine the work is!
Or how about these two vessels, also from the 4th C BC. They were apparently a pair, with this one
sitting on top of the other.
Or this bowl, from more or less the same period.
Or this comb, from slightly earlier, late 4th C BC, early 5th C BC.
The articles I’ve read about these pieces suggest that they were not actually made by the Scythians but by Greeks, living perhaps in the Crimean region. Fair enough, but this Scythian deer plaque, from the 7th C BC, was surely locally made
as was this belt buckle from the same period.
Thracian kings, it seems, were also desirous to be surrounded by fine gold objects. Consider, for instance, Bulgaria’s Panagyurishte gold treasure, thought to have been owned by King Seuthes III and buried to hide them from marauding Celts or Macedonians. I show three pieces from the hoard, all from the 3rd or 4th C BC: two rhytons, or drinking horns
and a plate.
Again, the detail on these pieces is exquisite.

Mention of marauding Celts makes me look in the direction of the Northern European lands, where Celts were also known to hurriedly bury hoards of gold objects at the sound of approaching marauders. This beautiful spiral torc from 1st-4th C BC
was part of a cache of torcs found near Stirling in Scotland. This 70 BC torc instead was part of a hoard discovered at Snettisham in Norfolk, England.
This necklace, on the other hand, is a copy of a 6th-7th C BC original that was buried in Lorup, Germany.
I have to say, while I greatly admire the artistry that went into the Thracian and Scythian pieces, I instinctively empathize with the geometric simplicity of these Celtic pieces. “Keep It Simple, Stupid!” has always been my motto.

But that didn’t stop me from whistling when I saw some of the pieces that were made in what is now Iran. Look at this 8th-10th C BC cup, for instance, with its row of wild goats walking primly around it.
This must have been a popular design, because this cup from a later period (4th-5th C BC) has instead lions or tigers walking round it.
This 4th-5th C BC drinking cup holds its own to the two Thracian rhytons I show above
while this 3rd-4th C BC Janus-faced cup is a marvel to behold.

There are many, many other beautiful ancient gold objects out there, but I have to bring this little essay to a close. Let me finish with the oldest gold objects so far found. These are datable to the period 4,200-4,600 BC, and come from a necropolis in Varna, now Bulgaria’s largest city on the Black Sea. Compared to the pieces I show above, the objects in these tombs are quite modest in their design. What caught my attention was this reconstruction of one of the burials in the necropolis.
I suppose the man to whom this skeleton belonged was a grandee, and was laid to rest surrounded by all his worldly riches. But as I gaze at this skeleton, I cannot help but remember the dialogue between Hamlet and Horatio in the graveyard. After musing over Yorick’s skull (“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy …”), Hamlet turns to Horatio.

Hamlet: Prithee, Horatio, tell me one thing.

Horatio: What’s that, my lord?

Hamlet: Dost thou think Alexander looked o’ this fashion i’ the earth?

Horatio: E’en so.

Hamlet: And smelt so? pah!

Puts down the skull

Horatio: E’en so, my lord.

Hamlet: To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may
not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander,
till he find it stopping a bung-hole?

Horatio: ‘Twere to consider too curiously, to consider.

Hamlet: No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with
modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it: as
thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried,
Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of
earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he
was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away;
O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!

India’s “gold man”: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-36804209
“Conquista de Mexico”, Diego Rivera: http://www.abc.es/fotonoticias/fotos-espana/20150428/mural-diego-rivera-sobre-162891744561.html
Gold prospectors, Klondike: http://www.discovery.com/tv-shows/gold-rush/photos/klondike-gold-rush-pictures/
Modern gold prospectors, Colombia: http://www.jansochor.com/photo-blog/gold-mining-colombia
Jade burial suit: https://hu.pinterest.com/pin/454159943647748843/
Scythian pectoral, Ukraine, 4th C BC: http://www.craftycristian.com/tag/artifact/
Scythian pectoral-detail: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scythians
Scythian vessel-top, 4th C BC: http://phys.org/news/2015-06-archeologists-gold-artifacts-scythian-grave.html
Scythian vessel-bottom, 4th C BC: http://www.archaeology.org/issues/220-1607/features/4560-rites-of-the-scythians
Scythian bowl, 2nd half 4th C BC: http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2000/golden-deer/photo-gallery
Scythian gold comb, Ukraine, late 5th-early 4th BC: http://museum-of-artifacts.eu/post/100759193962/scythian-golden-comb-5th-century-bc
Scythian deer, end 7th C BC: http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2000/golden-deer/photo-gallery
Scythian belt buckle, 7th C BC: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scythians#/media/File%3AGold_scythian_belt_title_from_Mingachevir%2C_Azerbaijan.JPG
Thracian drinking horn-goat: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/174444185537354589/
Thracian drinking horn-deer: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/492510909227090261/
Ancient Greek plate (phiale): http://www.artlex.com/ArtLex/g/gold.html
Spiral torc, Scotland, 300-100 BC: http://www.nms.ac.uk/explore/stories/scottish-history-and-archaeology/iron-age-gold-torcs/
Celtic torc, Snettisham hoard: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2395380
Ancient wire necklace (copy), Lorup hoard, Germany, late Bronze Age, 700-600 BC: http://www.ancientwire.com/spiralnecklace.htm
Achaemenid cup-wild goats, 1000-1200 BC: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/325511?high=on&rpp=50&pg=22&rndkey=20120709&ft=*&pos=1095
Achaemenid gold cup, Kalardasht, 800 BC: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gold_cup_kalardasht.jpg
Achaemenid drinking cup: http://www.daftarche.com/تاریخ،-فرهنگ،-همبود-13/persian-mythology-543-چاپ/برگه-3.html
Achaemenid Janus cup: http://www.iransara.info/main-previous%20post.htm
Varna man: http://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2015/07/style/gold/