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The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Weaving as the origin of Literary Titles

I have remarked before on the references to the titles of occasional pieces which Aulus Gellius makes in the introduction to his Attic Nights while he is rationalizing the name of the title of his own work. I have emphasized this topic since these collections of occasional pieces, poikilia (variegated), atakta (jumbled up), summikta (mixed), as they are described, are the forerunners of a myriad such collections expressed in the doxographies, anthologies, florilegia and commonplace books which populated the literary world from classical times through the Renaissance and served as vehicles for the symbolic literature.

In this blog, I focus on the origin of those collections whose names had references to weavings, dress or textiles. The Peplos is one such, the Stromata (tapestry, miscellanies or patchwork) the name of the book by Clement of Alexander (late 2nd Century CE), containing a mixture of Christian dogma and exhortations to the Christian life is another. We have also seen tha the Cento had the same origin, the word deriving from the Greek kentones meaning point and thus needle, therefore needlework and then quilt or patchwork.

Weaving was probably the earliest type of decorative art or craft in primitive Greek societies and indeed in all early societies and is of extraordinarily ancient origin. Although the textiles themselves have not survived from ancient times, evidence of them has, in at least four different ways: impressions of ancient cloth preserved in clay, the physical remains of looms and spindles which date back nearly 10,000 years, depictions of clothing on both pottery and sculpture and, finally, literary references to spinning and weaving. There are numerous occasions when metaphors from the art are used in classical literature. Plato employs the metaphor of the spindle of the universe in the Republic (616c) and refers at length to the weaver king in the Statesman (305e-). Similarly ubiquitous was the metaphor of spun threads or cords to illustrate the Greek obsession with moira or the fate which binds men to their destiny. Even now we use phrases such as 'we are bound to do our duty', an example of the extraordinary resilience of traditional phraseology over the millennia.

Images of a sacred skirt go far back into prehistory. We can note that some of the Venus figurines from Paleolithic times, that is from at least 20,000 years ago, wear girdles or belts and at least one has a incised loin cloth in which the weft and warp and knots of the weaving are accurately depicted. Belts are believed to be the earliest form of weaving since they could be made on a simple narrow hand loom and it is not a coincidence that the earliest Greek word for a piece of clothing was zone or belt. There is evidence that these belts or loin clothes were used not as one might expect to cover the sexual parts of the ancient goddesses depicted in the Venus figures but to emphasise them, thus recognizing and honoring the role played by the female in the propagation and perpetuation of the species. There is an amusing episode in the Iliad (14, 180) where Hera, the wife of Zeus, puts on a tasseled belt over her nakedness in order to win her husband over to her side in the Trojan conflict and then, to make sure of the matter, puts on a second one under her breasts. Needless to say, at the sight of her, Zeus is beside himself and she wins the day.

And we can find even more persuasive evidence of the importance of weaving in Greek religious and mythical tradition. As Xenophanes (570 -489 BCE) tells us in the famous passage: 'Man creates God in his own particular image. The Ethiopians say that their Gods are snub-nosed and black-skinned and the Thracians that theirs are blue-eyed and red-haired. If only oxen and horses had hands and wanted to draw with their hands or to make the works of art that men make, then horses would draw the figures of their Gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and would make their bodies on the model of their own,' and similarly, we can find multiple references that the Greeks envisioned heaven itself and creation as a great weaving.

Thus Eusebius (de Laud. Const. VI 728), 'He crowned the entire sky, as a great peplos with all manner of beautiful images,' Philo (de Somn. I 92) 'the variegated weaving, this very universe,' and Porphyry (de Antro Nympharum c XIV) describes ‘the ancients who have spoken about heaven as the cloak of the heavenly god.' Orpheus himself (Hymns XIX, 12) referring to Calypso goddess of concealment uses this metaphor 'having torn apart, the heavenly chiton, the heavenly veil' and Pherecydes in Fragment 41. 'Zeus makes a beautiful and great cloth and on it he embroiders the earth and ocean and dwellings of ocean.' Here Pherecydes says that the robe was placed over the Tree of the World and this is possibly the origin of the Peplos on the Panathenaic ship which I referred to in an earlier blog. Plato himself (Timaeus 79 F) speaks about the weaving of veins, arteries and nerves which 'we liken to the weaving of a weel.' (this latter is an archaic English word meaning a fishtrap woven in twigs. This is the only context I have seen this word but translators of the Timaeus delight in using it). There are many other similar references including, incidentally, biblical ones such as in Isaiah xli, 22 'who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreadest them out as a tent to dwell in' and Psalms civ, 2 'who coverest thyself with light as with a garment, who stretches out the heavens like a curtain.'

It is not surprising that with such an ancient and central tradition to society and culture, metaphors and symbols of weaving were popular, long-lasting and ubiquitous. And as for books, we need only remember, to emphasize the point, that papyrus was made out of woven reeds and that text and textile have the same root.