It’s that time of year again, the darkest, dankest time of year, when we need a little uplift to see us through to spring. What better way than to ponder love, and its symbols? In the process of making our special Valentine “Love Mug” we’ve been giving this much thought. There are so many wonderful possibilities, and so many that are rooted in Irish folklore and tradition.
The national emblem of Ireland, the harp, whilst most commonly seen on the side of a glass of our national drink, symbolises love through its ability to connect the physical with the spiritual world. It does this not only with sweet music but with the very strings themselves, that form a ladder to higher states of being. I love this image. The Claddagh Ring – with its crowned heart held by two hands, that form an echoing heart shape in themselves – represents hope, loyalty and friendship, through the legendary story of how it came to be made: a kidnapped lover made the first ring from small pieces of gold he stole as he waited to find a way to escape and return to his long lost lover back in Galway.
Many animals symbolise love, particularly those that stay together for life: barn owls, magpies, doves, albatrosses …. we could have given mug space to some romantic animals from the neighbourhood, such as the loyal-for-life swans that paddle about near the Mill on the River Nore, their heads and long necks bowing together into a heart shape. Maybe next year.
During our deliberations about our Valentine’s design, less conventional symbols of love cropped up. They didn’t however, quite lend themselves to appearing on a piece of pottery. I’m thinking of a wonderful poem ‘Valentine’ by Scottish poet Carol Ann Duffy, where an onion is given as a romantic gift, its traits bearing unlikely comparison with elements of a relationship:
Not a red rose or a satin heart.
I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love….
… I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding ring,
if you like.
We didn’t develop an onion design this year (and probably won’t next year either). But after much more pondering we came back to the heart…
We couldn’t help it. The heart is both an odd and perfect shape in many ways. Symmetrical, yet irregular with its curves and points. But so removed from the appearance of a real-life beating heart. How the heart shape actually evolved into what we so readily recognise now, and as the symbol of romantic love, is something of much conjecture. Ancient philosophers did describe the heart’s structure as having chambers with a dent, so it could be rooted in anatomy. The symbol’s origin is also mooted to be related to the seed shape of an ancient plant that was possibly used as an aphrodisiac or a contraceptive. In early painting the heart was often depicted as a pear. Today’s heart symbol isn’t so far from two over-lapping upside-down pears. In some other cultures the focus is on the stomach rather than the heart, as the organ where the most intense machinations of love work themselves out. Though like the onion, or a real-life beating heart, this is not such an easy subject to present on the side of earthenware.
Looking back to traditional imagery, our new “love mug” is a gentle nod to our Celtic forebears and their intricate knotwork designs. While the beautifully simple two-tone pattern of interlocking hearts wraps neatly round each mug into an eternal chain.
“She loves me, she loves me not, she loves me…”
Nearly each and every flower found in many of our ‘non-heart’, (I dare not say ‘heartless’!) designs has more subtle romantic connotations. Our Clover pattern combine the good luck of the green leaves with the blue aster flower - a supposed talisman of love. Cast your mind back to those fortune-telling games, where you’d pluck the petals of a flower head, pulling off the thin petals one by one, to reveal whether your true love loved you or not. Fuschias, with their profusion of dangling bell-like blooms speak of intoxicating love in abundance; and for cherished memories in love, pick Forget-me-not. And of course there is the Old Rose. So much to choose from.