Saturday, February 12, 2011

Spider decorations

I am not a fan of spiders - Mrs. Flattery can testify to that. I recognize the benefits to having them around and I think they are interesting, but try as I might to think rationally about it when I'm confronted by one I still can not get over that innate revulsion that I feel. I invariably feel horrible but it usually ends up becoming a "this-town-ain't-big-enough-for-the-two-of-us" situation, particularly in the winter when it seems even more cruel to toss them outside.

This phobia of mine makes working in historic buildings and museums fairly interesting (one school group was witness to a legendary duel between yours truly armed only with a broom and a gigantic wolf spider armed with olympic speed). But my phobia also made a particular 19th century decoration style catch my attention: that is, the use of spider motifs as house decorations. After seeing it for the first time, I have been noticing more and more depictions of spiders in historic homes (keep your eyes out the next time, maybe the next house you visit will have some of their own). It seems that while a few mythologies and legends do depict spiders as malicious in one way or another, many cultures actually view them as symbols of good luck and good fortune. The more I read about the topic the more myths I find, but it is intriguing how many of them are tied to luck or good fortune. Here are some of the interesting things I've learned through the use of Mrs. Flattery's "School of Google".

First of all, while many people have viewed spiders themselves as good luck, just as common is the belief that killing a house spider (emphasis on house) will bring bad luck to someone (this would certainly explain a lot of things about my life). Most of the rhymes and sayings regarding this seem to focus on the idea that killing spiders, who are industrious and build homes like us, will injure our own homesteads or work ethic. However, one rhyme that I found here at Purdue's website focuses less on the symbolism behind spiders and more on their practicality:

"Kill a spider, bad luck yours will be
Until of flies you've swatted fifty-three."

Certain Native American cultures, for instance some of the Pueblo Nations, believed that "Spider Woman" created the entire Universe. An article at a website called Natural History Mag claimed that ancient Indian texts tell of a very similar story. The Greeks also saw spiders as the weavers of fate and destiny. I know very little about religious stories and texts, but a lot of people online talk about how spiders supposedly spun a web over the entrance to the cave that hid the baby Jesus from Herod; there are similar stories online about David and Muhammad as well. Some people link these myths and religious stories to the beginning of the belief that spiders are good luck, or at least something you should not harm. To me, luck and fortune seem pretty interchangeable with fate and destiny.

The second page of that Natural History Mag article I mentioned also discusses how there are superstitions about spiders and medicine, where they are used as charms for warding off certain illnesses. For example, it was believed that enclosing a spider within two nutshells and wearing it around your neck would help prevent ague. Additionally, some thought that getting spiders to breed and wander around your house as much as possible would prevent gout.

I'll end things on a pretty cute story I read at this website regarding a German tradition of hanging spider webs on the Christmas tree (I'm paraphrasing, the website tells the story better in my opinion). The story goes that traditionally families would let their animals inside the house to see the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, since Jesus himself had been born in a stable. Spiders, however, were not allowed in because wives did not want to clean the cobwebs off of everything. The spiders were always really sad about this, but one evening they were allowed in late at night by Santa Claus (or the Christ Child, according to some versions). They excitedly ran all over the tree looking at the decorations and left behind spider webs wherever they went. In the morning, the housewives found the spiderwebs on the tree but instead of being angry they thought it looked even prettier. Today tinsel is used to imitate the look of spiderwebs.

There is interesting history and symbolism behind even the oddest things.

Edit: (Hopefully to avoid any copyright issues) The spider picture at the top was from Additionally, I found another interesting symbolic meaning to the designs: the intricate webs that spiders make represent our own lives and remind us to be careful about the choices me make every day. Basically, we are constantly "spinning our own webs" in life. Kinda poetic.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Living History as Reality TV

For the past decade or so there has been  a new TV genre known as "historical reality television", where ordinary people are dressed up in period clothing and tossed into a historic setting to see if they can survive the "olden days".  As far as I am aware, it began with the BBC production of "1900 House" back in 1999.  It also aired on PBS here in the U.S. where I watched with rapt attention as the Bowler family tried to survive in middle-class 1900 London.  As soon as it became available on video in my local library I checked it out, and often.

Soon other eras were explored in historical reality television.  I haven't personally seen them all as some aren't available in the United States, and as they aren't all filmed by the same production company I may be totally unaware of their existence.  Regardless, here is my running list, I have seen most but will denote those I have not with a *.

1900 House: 1900, London. (1999)
1940's House: WWII, London. (2001)
Manor House (aka The Edwardian Country House): 1905-1914, Scotland. (2002)
Regency House Party: Regency era, England. (2004) (Half historical reality show, half actual dating reality show.)
Coal House: 1927, Wales. (2007) *
Coal House at War: 1944, Wales. (2008) *
Outback House: 1861, Australia. (2005)
The Colony: 1795-1815, Australia. (2005)*
Frontier House: 1883, Montana. (2002)
Colonial House: 1628, Plymouth Colony. (2004)
Texas Ranch House: 1867, Texas. (2006)

There are more, but I can't find much info on them as they are foreign.  Up to this point the shows all have something in common: the participants could not be reenactors nor professional living historians as not to have a "leg up" on any abilities required to live in the past.  (As both a Civil War reenactor and a professional living historian I must say that despite my background and skill set, I still don't know that I could survive [with my sanity] being cast in one of these shows, let alone living the real thing.)  Most of them have a filming duration of just a few months and it seems that for a lot of the participants, a few months was plenty.

After Texas Ranch House things seemed to be rather quiet on the historical reality television front.  Sure, I would rent and re-rent all the "House" DVDs from the library from time to time, but it frustrated me that no one was producing any new documentaries depicting more time periods.  What about a show set during the Civil War?  Separate the men and have them off living as soldiers would (minus the actual dying in battle/from disease etc. of course) and have the women back at home trying to run the farm and household, waiting to hear if their soldier-husband/father/son/etc. is even alive or not?  I realize I'm being very broad and cliched here, but hey, no one is paying me to actually produce this thing...  Or, set one in the later Colonial period, just prior to the Revolutionary War.  World War One, anyone?  "Biblical" times?  There is a plethora of opportunities for good TV here. Actually, one of the foreign versions (I believe it was from New Zealand) was set in the Stone Ages.  Now that would be pretty neat to see someone from 2011 try and survive.

Finally, this past December a Facebook friend of mine posted a link to a YouTube video that caught my eye.  It was titled "Victorian Farm", and lo-and-behold it was a new (January of 2009) "House" documentary!  This one is set in rural England circa 1870's/1880's (I believe).  I began watching it on my iPhone in between scenes during The Museum's Christmas program.  I made it up to about part 6 and loved it.  There were some really great tidbits in there about laundry, cooking and farming that I really wish I could go back and take notes on, but alas, it seems it has been taken down due to copyright infringement.  I'm pretty sure it's not available in the U.S., which is rather disappointing considering I never got to at least finish watching it on YouTube. 

A key difference I noticed with Victorian Farm was that instead of having your "Average Joe" family donning historical costumes (and as with many of the other "House" documentaries, promptly stripping most of them right back off again, citing discomfort), is that the participants in Victorian Farm actually are historic professionals in one way or another.  The woman, (Ruth) is a domestic historian, and the two men (Alex and Peter) are both archaeologists.  Although one could say they have that previously mentioned "leg up" on things, they still have to put in the work and learn as they go.  Another interesting change was that instead of having the project span only a few months, this time they stayed an entire year.  I liked this concept, since at the end they would actually get to see their farming results instead of speculating if they would have survived or not as done in other shows such as Frontier House.

While looking up information on Victorian Farm just now, I found that there are even more historical reality shows I was unaware of!  One being Victorian Pharmacy, again set in what they describe as mid-19th Century England. They start off portraying  1837 and progress forward to the end of the Victorian era. Ruth, from Victorian Farm, also appears in this version.  And- it's on YouTube!  I'm embedding the first part below, watch it while you can! 

The other documentaries are called Edwardian Farm (guess what that's about?), Tales From the Green Valley (1620's Wales), The Victorian Kitchen Garden, The Victorian Flower Garden, The Victorian Kitchen, and the Wartime Kitchen Garden.  Whew! Again, these are only available in the UK unless you get lucky and find them online.  It seems like I will have to put in some serious YouTube time!

If there are any more of this type of historical reality show that you are aware of but I haven't mentioned, please tell me!  I've been dying for something new since 2006 and am excited to see what else is out there!