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Allusionary Assembly

The Writing of Kerry E.B. Black

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A Witch for Epiphany

Written by Kerry E.B. Black

In Italy, presents are delivered to children on the eve of 5 January, Epiphany (also known as Three Kings Day) by a benevolent crone named La Befana. Children tidied up their rooms and hung socks from their bedposts, hoping to earn little gifts from the Christmas Witch. For the well-behaved, La Befana left figs, honey, dates, candy, and other small gifts, but for the naughty, she left onions, garlic, coal, or a switch. Although families left a glass of wine and a plate of food for the hag, any who dared spy on her work received a thump on the head from her ever-present broom. If feeling generous, La Befana sweeps the abodes, as though sweeping away the previous years’ troubles.

Some historians theorize La Befana derives from the Roman goddess Strenia. Strenia presided over the distribution of New Year’s gifts of fruits and sweets in ancient Roman households.

La BefanaAnother legend places her in Bethlehem when Mary bore Jesus. The magi stopped at her house to ask if she knew where to find the new-born king. She did not know of Jesus’ whereabouts, but she offered hospitality to the travelers. La Befana’s reputation for excellent housekeeping saw her rise early to begin chores. The grateful magi asked La Befana to join them in their quest. “Alas, I am too busy,” she replied, and they proceeded following the Star to find Jesus. Later in the day, La Befana reconsidered and sought the magi, but she could not find them or the King.

The tradition states that La Befana regretted missing meeting the holy family, and so on the night of the magi, Epiphany, she travels in search of him. She leaves presents for good children because in them she sees the spirit of God. She hope to warn the wicked from their bad courses with her messages.

Hanging stockings for La Befana

Old lady puppets resembling La Befana often are cast into fires on the night after the New Year in Italy, as though representing the old year’s leaving.

Though since WWII Santa delivers presents to the kids in Italy on Christmas Eve, the witch remains in favor. Throughout Italy and in places with dense Italian populations, parades and performances celebrate the crone. As far away as Toronto finds La Befana choirs singing the praises of the popular Christmas witch.

*First published at Halloween Forevermore

N is for Narcissus

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N is for Narcissus

Written by Kerry E.B. Black

A vain man named Narcissus mistreated an enamored young woman named Echo until she became no more than a haunting voice repeating his words, or so relates one version of the Greek myth. The gods grew angry and cursed the youth to fall in love with his own reflection. He spotted himself in a clear, deep pool and leapt into his reflected outstretched arms. The water accepted his embrace and pulled Narcissus to a watery death. (From this myth comes the name for the psychological disorder Narcissism.) Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, mourned the loss of the comely young man and transformed him into a proud flower sometimes called a jonquil, daffodil, daffadowndilly, or lent lily.

Ancient cultures cultivated narcissus flowers, whose name derives from the Greek for intoxicated (narcotic). Pliny pointed to the plant’s fragrance as the reason for its name. Theophrastus mentioned the flower in his writings dating somewhere around 300 BC. The poet Virgil wrote of the flower in his fifth Eclogue. Carl Linnaeus in his 1753 “Species Plantarum” described the flower which is a part of the Amaryllidaceae family. The prophet Mohammed enjoyed daffodils and wrote of them in the 6th century. Theophrastus, Dioscorides, and Pliny the Elder examined narcissus for its medicinal properties, and their writings influenced botanists and herbalists until the Renaissance. Matthias de l’Obel, Clusius, Albert Magnus, and William Turner wrote of the plant. Europeans planted narcissus with enthusiasm by the 16th century, and by the late 19th century, it became an important commercial crop for the Netherlands. According to legend, Sir Geoffrey de Fynderne brought the flower to England when he returned from the crusades, but historians believe the plant arrived with the Romans who believed sap from the plant possessed healing powers. (In fact, narcissus sap contains skin irritating crystals.)

Since it blooms early, narcissus symbolizes spring and rebirth. When the flowers, with their six petal-like tepals surrounding a trumpet-shaped corona or cup, open, many festivals around the world commence with gusto. Many people decorate loved ones’ graves with the plant.

Narcissi mean anything from egotism and death to chivalry, friendship, and prosperity. Given singly, a daffodil bloom brings misfortune, but presented in a bunch, and this birth flower for march, which also represents tenth wedding anniversaries, ensures happiness. It has associations with the Greek Underworld since it was the flower Persephone gathered when Hades abducted her. In William Shakespeare’s “Winter’s Tale,” daffodil is twice mentioned. “O Prosperpina, for the flowers now, that frightened thou let’st fall from Dis’s wagon! Daffodil, that come before the swallow dares, and take the winds of March with beauty.”

The plucky perennial inspires writers and poets. In “Personal Helicon,” Seaumus Heaney says, “…to stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring is beneath all adult dignity.” J.K. Rowling names Draco Malfoy (Harry Potter’s nemesis in the series that bear’s his name) Narcissa Malfoy. William Wordsworth wrote “The Daffodils.” “I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills, when all at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden daffodils…” A.A. Milne of “Winnie the Pooh” fame wrote this: “She turned to the sunlight and shook her yellow head and whispered to her neighbor, ‘Winter is dead.’” Robert Herricks wrote “To Daffodils,” saying, “Fair daffodils, we weep to see you haste away so soon…”

Today, the over fifty species of narcissi come in a stunning array of sizes and colors. It naturalizes, and its bulbs live long, perhaps because their natural poison deters deer and squirrels from eating it. Some sources say eating two narcissus bulbs kills an average human. Wales adopted the daffodil as its national flower, and a folk belief there says people who spot the first daffodil of the season are blessed with good fortune for the year. In China, people force daffodil blooms for the New Year to ensure good luck. The cheerful yellow bloom serves as a symbol for cancer charities around the world. In March in Ireland, people wear the flower to support those afflicted with cancer.

Modern medicine produces galantamine from the daffodil which is used for the treatment of Alzheimer’s and Dementia. France and the Netherlands cultivate the Narcissus Poeticus and other varieties for essential oil.

Eat Your Heart Out

Eat Your Heart Out

Written by Kerry E.B. Black

 With the approach of St. Valentine’s Day, stylized hearts appear everywhere. In the United States, we celebrate the saint’s feast by glutting ourselves with romance and gifts, be it chocolates encased in heart-shaped boxes, folded paper proclaiming sentiments, or flowers whose price increased in anticipation of the holiday.

Yet throughout history, the heart has always held a special fascination, and not merely at this time of year. The heart is the center and the core of the body, the essence of the matter. This organ which keeps our blood circulating is said to hold the key to our emotions. We “listen to our hearts” and allow them to guide us.

However, the focus of this article is not the metaphor, but instead the literal interpretation of “eat your heart out.” Instead of alluding to mere jealousy, we’ll briefly explore the physical heart through a precursory glance at folklore, legend, literature, myth, and modern culture.

For example, as proof of her demise, the Queen demanded her huntsman bring her stepdaughter Snow White’s heart. The huntsman could not harm the innocent princess, though, and urged the girl to flee deep into the forest and away from the Queen’s wrath. To preserve his life and liberty, though, he slaughtered a pig and took its heart to the Queen and claimed it belonged to Snow White. The Queen ate the heart, contented until she discovered the truth through magical means.

Indeed, fairy tales value hearts and their special magic. In Tam Lin, the Fairy Queen attempted to remove the hero’s eyes and heart and replace them with wood. A witch locks away a girl’s heart in “A Heartless Princess.” In Hans Christian Anderson’s “Little Mermaid,” stabbing the Prince with an enchanted blade through the heart would restore the sad creature to her former shape. In “The Snow Queen” by the same author, young Gerda battles the damaging magic of splinters from troll’s magic mirror that pierced and froze her friend Kai’s heart.

The Woodman of L. Frank Baum’s Oz longed to replace his heart. Guilt and an imagined heartbeat from an offending organ betrayed the “not insane” narrator from Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tell Tale Heart.” In Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” season four’s “Hush,” eerie Gentlemen float through Sunnydale to collect hearts from magically silenced victims.

Films like the early 2000’s “Candy Stripers” and “Midnight Meat Train” depicted heart removal with brutality, whereas in ABC’s television show “Once Upon a Time,” Regina and other magical practitioners remove a jewel-like heart from their prey, thereby controlling them.

Some magicians purposefully skived off part of themselves, including their hearts, to lock away for protection, such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter antagonist, Voldemort. As part of a ritual, the ancient Aztecs removed still-beating human hearts, and for mummification, ancient Egyptian priests placed the heart of their pharaohs into Coptic vessels. The hearts of Boyar shaman are believed to possess the ability to heal illnesses and restore life to the recently deceased. In Eastern Europe, folk exhumed suspected vampires’ hearts, burned them, and fed the ashes to the victims of their vampiric attentions.

An 18th century tale relates the story of a girl who received an unmarked package from overseas. Within the box she found powder she misinterpreted as an exotic tea. By this mistake, she steeped her lover’s heart and consumed his essence. In an 19th century story, an angry spouse fed his adulterous wife a pie containing her lover’s heart. When she realized the truth, the wife swore to never eat again and died shortly thereafter. Another tale follows a foolish man seeking wisdom. To be granted such, he’s advised to bring the heart of the creature he loved the most in the world. The lad returned with his mother’s heart, but when he received his wisdom, he realized the evil he’d perpetrated.

As stated earlier, this article presents a mere glance at the power of the heart throughout society. Although its use as a metaphor and literary devise persists, the heart beats its own brutal rhythm throughout history, speaking to man’s fear of vulnerability.

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