This week I’ve been much occupied with wondering about Special Hats.
In part, this was prompted by Easter, and by the contrast between this year’s Easter and the Easters we used to celebrate when I was a kid. My Gran was a big believer in Easter with all the trimmings: hot cross buns and eggs and marching and Easter outfits and everything else. Here’s an old photo of my Gran, coasting to victory in an Easter Bonnet competition.
So I had silly hats on my mind.
Then I was flicking through one of my nineteenth century illustrated books in search of something simple to draw, and came across a chap with a really silly hat. And the more I started looking, the more peculiar it became.
For a start, this guy is thought to be King Perseus of Macedon, ‘disguised’ (in the figure description in my little book) as the mythical Perseus with his winged helmet donated by Hermes, and with his curved sword over his shoulder. Frankly, that’s not much of a disguise; it’s like disguising your moustache with another moustache.
But clearly the association with the mythical Perseus had significance both for King Perseus and for his family: you don’t borrow the name of a mythical hero without a serious attachment to the story. So the winged helmet and the sword seemed entirely reasonable accoutrements to me.
What fascinated me, though, was the way that our non-mythical Perseus didn’t stop there. Wings were clearly not enough. To make a really good helmet, he needed a bird’s head on the top.
I was struggling with this from the outset. I’ve seen Labyrinth.
The book I was looking at (published in 1869, only a couple of years after this particular stone was acquired by the British Museum – and that’s an interesting story which I won’t go into here) describes this as an eagle’s head, indicating a connection with Zeus. That seemed fair enough. After all, once I started looking, a lot of Perseus’ coins are notable for the large eagle on the reverse. So an eagle helmet would be understandable – even if I had my doubts about how well it would fit with the wings on either side (with the rounded helmet in between, the whole thing might have looked rather ostrich-like).
Then I looked this particular engraving up on the British Museum website, and that made everything worse.
Once I started looking closely at the stone itself rather than at the nice, tidy engraving by my lovely 19th century illustrator, I had to admit that, yes, the bird in question did look fairly chicken-like – and a rather grumpy cartoon chicken too.
So by this point I’d come full-circle, back to Gran’s Easter bonnet. She would have been delighted by a winged helmet with a chicken on the top: that’d be a proper bobby dazzler.
Then, when I went back to the coin types, they threw up a third possibility: sometimes our boy Perseus liked to mix it up by wearing a griffin head on his helmet. So many hats… so little time…
However, I admit that I’m starting to feel a bit guilty for interrogating this little blue stone in the first place. You see, it’s a sealstone, and in real life it only measures a tiny 1.7 by 1.6cm. It’s smaller than my fingernail, and a fair bit smaller than most coins. The level of detail is absolutely stunning. So the fact that I’m getting worked up over the type of bird that’s being represented in an area so small that you can barely see it with the naked eye… well, that feels ever so slightly insulting to the poor sealstone artist, who probably gave himself all kinds of eyesight problems by working on such a ridiculously tiny scale. If he opted for a generic-bird-hat to make life easier, I can certainly forgive him.
So my verdict, for what it’s worth, is that – contrary to the British Museum’s description – this is probably supposed to be an eagle. But I can’t help but hope that – just maybe – I’m wrong, and that King Perseus of Macedon might have been famous for his special hat. Maybe, back in the 170s BC, somebody would mention Perseus to a friend in casual conversation, and then have to specify ‘No, not the Medusa guy: the Perseus with the chicken on his head’.
I haven’t just been thinking about silly hats over the last couple of weeks though – honest! I got my first dose of vaccine, which is why there was no Weekend Reading post last week (I was trying and failing to stay awake!). I was invited to join the exciting ACCLAIM Network: you can find my bio and a photo of me as a child with my very large cat Daisy on the Network website. I wrote a piece about Autism Awareness Month for the Council of University Classics Departments EDI blog. I celebrated a year of Comfort Classics interviews (the celebrations were very low-key, and mostly involved me drinking tea while being tired and a bit frazzled). I attended, via the magic of the internet, the Classical Association Conference, and applauded the winners of the inaugural teaching awards, including two lovely Comfort Classics contributors, Francesca Grilli and Stephen Jenkin. I marked so many essays over the Easter weekend that I gave myself pretty bad eye strain and now I can’t see a thing without my glasses. And having survived all of that I have earned a few days off – yes, actually away from a computer screen! – to spend with my son, doing things which have no useful purpose whatsoever.
I hope you’re able to have a bit of a break this Easter too!
This week from around the classical internet
Ancient history podcasts – The Guardian
Sudden Minotaur mural – Times Union
New excavations – Vindolanda Blog
‘Lost golden city’ discovered – The Guardian
Comment and opinion
A brilliant and breath-taking poem – The Classical Astronomer
Female philosophers – The Conversation
Women and clothing in Roman taverns – History From Below
Serapis and Isis – The Collector
Virtual tour of Baalbek’s temples – Smithsonian Magazine
Ceding Greece to the Ancient Greeks – Antigone
Big gods don’t cry – Antigone
A Showman’s Odyssey – Antigone
Homer on paying attention – Antigone
Antigone competition – Antigone
And for 1st April: The New Naso – Antigone
Podcasts, video and other media
Disability in ancient Greece – The Partial Historians
The First Clash – Casting through Ancient Greece
Classics, museums and diversity – Edith Hall
Persia – The Rest is History
Conference videos – What Have the Ancients Ever Done For Us?