Thursday, October 29, 2009
There's no escaping the signs of the season. The ever-shortening days seem to alternate imperceptably from crisp to damp, and the trees only recently celebrated for their blasts of color seem to be surrendering their leaves en masse. Which is fine by me. Fall is a great time of year. When I was in school I used to look forward to the season that brought with it an October birthday, followed at neat intervals by Halloween, Thanksgiving and the start of the Christmas vacation. Autumn also signalled the end of the long, hot, languid Summers in Texas, and though I live in a more temperate region now I still welcome the cool respite. The English word Autumn comes to us by way of the Old French autompne (modern French automne) and on to the ancient Romans, and then at least as far back as the Etruscans. Autumnus was just one of the several guises assumed by the god of change, seasons and the maturation of plant life, Vertumnus (Etruscan Voltumna). Vertumnus was in love with the goddess of fruit, Pomona, but each time he approached her she ran away in fear. So Vertumnus cleverly assumed the form of an old woman and got close enough to Pomona to quietly approach and tell her the allegory of the elm and the grapevine. Without the grapevine the elm is just a tree and conversely the grapevine needs the tree for support. He then removed his disguise, and as he stood naked before her she realized at last that she needed him just as he needed her. In retrospect it seems kind of obvious that the god of seasons and the goddess of fruit would inevitably get together, but Ovid being the great story-teller that he was, he made it seem suspenseful to the end. Below, a pair of Autumns from Giuseppe Arcimboldo. The top one, painted in 1573, can be seen at the Louvre in Paris.