Heraldry Before Heraldry

In addition to the post below on medieval heraldry, I have also collected numerous examples of “heraldry” before it came into existence. For your pleasure:

• Herodotus, The Histories, book I: “The Greeks are indebted to [the Carians] for three inventions: fitting crests on helmets, painting devices on shields, and making shields with handles.”

• Numbers 2:1-2: “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: ‘The Israelites are to camp around the tent of meeting some distance from it, each of them under their standard and holding the banners of their family.'”

• Vegetius, De Re Militari, II:18: “To prevent soldiers straying from their comrades at any time in the confusion of battle, they painted different signs for different cohorts on their shields, digmata, as they call them themselves, and it is customary to do this even now. Also the name of each soldier was inscribed in letters on the face of his shield, with a note of which cohort or century he was from.”

• Tacitus, Germania, ch. 6: “There is nothing ostentatious about [the Germans’] equipment: only their shields are picked out in the colours of their choice…. To throw away one’s shield is a supreme disgrace, and the man who has thus dishonoured himself is disbarred from attendance at sacrifice or assembly.”

• Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum: “Constantine was directed in a dream to cause the heavenly sign to be delineated on the shields of his soldiers, and so to proceed to battle. He did as he had been commanded, and he marked on their shields the letter X, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round thus at the top, being the cipher of Christ.”

• Beowulf (lines 331-37). Beowulf arrives at Heorot:

A high-mannered chieftain
then inquired after the ancestry of the warriors.
“From whence do you bring these embellished shields,
grey mail-shirts, masked helmets,
this stack of spears? I am spokesman here,
herald to Hrothgar; I have not seen
a body of strangers bear themselves more proudly.”

• Homer, Iliad, bk. 18. Hephaestus makes a shield for Achilles:

First of all he forged a shield that was huge and heavy,
Elaborating it about, and threw around it a shining
triple rim that glittered, and the shield strap was cast of silver.
There were five folds composing the shield itself, and upon it
he elaborated many things in his skill and craftsmanship.

(This passage is followed by 124 lines describing all those things, including the earth, the sky, the sea, the sun and moon, two cities [one celebrating a wedding feast, the other at war], a field, a vineyard, a farmyard, and a dancing floor, making it the earliest recorded blazon, and surely the longest.)

Thoughts I have had while lecturing

I. An interesting shift: at one point African-American slaves took inspiration from Moses leading the Hebrew slaves out of bondage from Egypt, hence the spiritual:

When Israel was in Egypt’s land, Let My people go!
Oppressed so hard they could not stand, Let My people go!
Go down, Moses, Way down in Egypt’s land;
Tell old Pharaoh To let My people go!

But of course Egypt is African, or judged to be representative of Africa, so starting in the twentieth century African-Americans began to look back with admiration on ancient Egypt, partly as a riposte to the European idealization of Ancient Greece (this is where the Afrocentric charge that the latter “stole” everything from the former comes from). Thus, for example, Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation’s first black fraternity, founded at Cornell in 1906 and which:

utilizes motifs from Ancient Egypt and uses images and songs depicting the Her-em-akhet (Great Sphinx of Giza), pharaohs, and other Egyptian artifacts to represent the organization…. This is in contrast to other fraternities that traditionally echo themes from the golden age of Ancient Greece. Alpha’s constant reference to Ethiopia in hymns and poems are further examples of Alpha’s mission to imbue itself with an African cultural heritage.

(This despite the fact that they use Greek letters to identify themselves – why not a couple of hieroglyphs?)

I suppose the fall of slavery in the United States lessened the appeal of the ancient Hebrews, allowing the shift toward sympathizing with the Egyptians.

II. One of my favorite records when I was in college features the novelty song “Istanbul (not Constantinople),” which dates from the 1950s and is (I suppose) a celebration of the rise of nationalist Turkey. By way of explaining the name change of that county’s most famous city, the song points out a parallel situation:

Even old New York, was once New Amsterdam.
Why they changed it I can’t say, people just liked it better that way.

But perhaps a more accurate assessment of this name change is that the British defeated their continental rivals the Dutch and took possession of the New Netherlands in 1664, and promptly changed the names of New Amsterdam and Fort Orange to New York and Albany respectively, after the Duke of York and Albany, the future King James II. Fort Orange was so called, of course, on account of “Orange” being the name of the ruling house of the Netherlands.

What’s ironic is that James II was a Catholic, and didn’t have the good sense to keep it to himself, and provoked the Glorious Revolution of 1688, whereby Parliament invited his daughter Mary Stuart to become queen, and her husband to become king… that husband being none other than William of Orange, king of the Netherlands. These two reigned as co-monarchs, hence the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.

So an Orange was replaced by an Albany, who was replaced by another Orange (who opened up Ireland for Protestant settlement, hence the Orange Order, and Orangeman’s Day).