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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, September 29, 2006

an old-time lovebird

I feel somehow like an invalid recuperating from a long illness. I need to relearn the habit and method of making blog posts. I'll do one more for this week, and will return to it on Monday--I can start taking weekends off. We'll see how that goes.

Today I got off to a slow start, and returned again to my researches into imagery and symbols. I made some headway, I think.

I became involved with looking into partridges. According to Robert Graves in The Greek Myths, the partridge, sacred to Aphrodite, was linked to the smith-god Hephaestus, who was her husband. Hephaestus, like his Roman counterpart Vulcan, was lame (the result of being thrown off Mount Olympus for the second time--not the first!), but of surpassing skill in his craft. (He even made a number of metal women to work in his shop--the forerunners of Austin Powers's fembots.) This lameness is one of the links to the partridge, which, according to Graves, practices a hobbled love-dance, keeping one heel raised to strike at rivals.

According to J. E. Cirlot in his Dictionary of Symbols, the partridge was remarked on by many ancient and medieval authors, who all pointed to the fact that its young do not follow their parents when they hatch. Thus the partridge became for Christian writers an image of the rich man whose wealth does not follow him beyond the grave.

I suspect though that this is a later overlay on an older symbolism. Searching online, I found material on the gray partridge (in French, darn it--I had to read with a French-English dictionary). When mating they are very affectionate and amorous, male and female rubbing their necks, bills, and faces together. This will be one reason that they were held sacred to Aphrodite. Another will be the fact that in season, both sexes flush to a vivid rust-brown color on their faces and necks--a sign of their erotic excitement and readiness.

But I became interested in the image of the abandoned young (and I'm not sure that's true). What is the significance, the symbolism, of that?

A couple of thoughts: one is that the partridges are lovers rather than parents. This strengthens their association with eroticism. But another is that the young partridge must find its own way in life, without parental guidance. So the young partridge is on its own, equipped only with its instincts, and whatever it can learn. It has been not orphaned but abandoned--a significant difference, for it speaks to the relationship with the parents. Who among us might not identify in some ways with such a creature?

Incidentally, the Christmas carol "A Partridge in a Pear Tree", which I didn't find any reference to (except a quick parenthesis that partridges would never be found in trees), seems quite clear--at least, as far as the partridge goes. Sacred to Aphrodite, it's a true lovebird, and there being only one, the implication is that it stands for the singer, and he (or she) has just got a big hint from his or her true love...

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