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The Digressions of dr sanscravat

My Cynara

Once, in a Food & Culture class, I gave a little lecture on sex and eating and the slang that the two activities share. Afterwards, several students told me about the legend of Zeus and Cynara. The story’s general drift was that Zeus fell deeply in lust with a mortal (familiar story, yes?) who, after various plot twists, is turned into an artichoke by the big lecher. This intrigued me because, while I consider myself somewhat knowledgeable about Classical mythology, I was unfamiliar with the tale. While puzzling over the myth, the recollection of my first encounter with an artichoke took over my thoughts.

I was, perhaps, nineteen or twenty or so, and like Zeus, deeply in lust with a beautiful young mortal. Alas, like Zeus, all my efforts had been rejected. However, I persevered, and finally, one lovely autumn afternoon she invited me to her apartment, “to play.”

Her very words.

I was, you can be sure, ready to play.

When I arrived, I was somewhat dismayed to find all of her roommates in attendance. We sat around in the kitchen, making the sort of small talk one makes while devoutly wishing to be getting on with something better. The beautiful young mortal asked me if I had ever eaten an artichoke.

I wasn’t exactly sure what an artichoke WAS, but would have tried ANYTHING she might offer. She placed a steaming, grayish olive, spiny-looking thing before me, and slyly slipped a bowl of melted butter across the table.

Sensing my utter cluelessness, she peeled off a leaf by its thorned tip, swirled it in the butter, her fingers describing lazy figure-eights in the golden fluid, then raised it to her lips. She hesitated for a second, then looked me in the eye as the tip of her tongue caught a dangling drop of butter. Still holding the tip, she laid the base of the leaf on her tongue. Biting, ever so gently, down on the leaf, her lips slightly parted, she slowly pulled it across her teeth, removing every trace of the tender pulp.

The eating scene that followed, involving hands and faces covered with slippery butter, accompanied by ecstatic moans of gustatory pleasure, was worthy of Tom Jones.

But I digress.

My student’s comments intrigued me, so I decided to look into the matter.

It turns out there is no mention of such a myth in any of the usual references. The story is strangely complete for a Greek myth, and its lingering attention to Zeus’ pleasure seems more decadently modern, at least Latinate. However, it is not mentioned in Ovid’s Metamophoses (and Ovid would never have been able to pass THIS one up). Nor does it appear in Catullus, Procopius or Sextus Propertius, all of whom seemed likely enthusiasts for such a tale.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica says that the artichoke as we know it (e.g., the edible flower) is first mentioned “in Italy about 1400.” There is even some speculation that “cynara,” the Latin word for “thistle,” did not originally refer to artichokes, but to cardoons which makes sense, since the leaves of both were eaten the same way. So it’s very unlikely that any kind of Classical connection exists.

The source of this story seems to be the book quoted at the artichoke PR website (which no longer exists): Cynara Erotica. The site did not list an author, but a contact company (A. C. Castelli Associates, NYC, NY). The book is not listed in the Library of Congress, and I couldn’t find the company, using regular Web resources. Assuming that it is nothing but an advertising ploy, was it completely original, or was there an earlier source of the story? I have discovered several appearances of “Cynara” that are probably newer (erotic literature and episodes of Xena, Warrior Princess)—not exactly the kinds of references I needed.

One of my correspondents suggested the work of nineteenth century poet, Christopher Ernest Dowson.

Looking him up, I found that he was a member of the Rhymer's Club (AKA “The Decadents”), and that his friends included William Butler Yeats and Aubrey Beardsley. His idols included Poe, Baudelaire and Verlaine. He influenced both Yeats and Rupert Brooke (who claimed to have committed most of Dowson’s work to memory). In 1891, Dowson wrote his best-known poem, “Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae.” Published in 1896, it was written for the poet’s unrequited love, a twelve-year-old waitress named Adelaide. The poem describes how, while the poet led a thoroughly dissolute life, his “Cynara” was never out of his thoughts.

Dowson does not mention Zeus or suggest any Classical allusion. I suspect he chose the name solely because it implied tender bliss surrounded by the sort of spiny exterior that is designed to repel unworthy suitors. Apparently, Dowson was one of those unworthy suitors—certainly, his poem was unlikely to melt the heart of a young girl who probably expected a lover to be more traditionally faithful. She married someone else in 1897. Dowson had TB—but died three years later (in the best Romantic tradition), of poverty and absinthe addiction. He was thirty-two.

You were wondering what ever became of MY Cynara, the beautiful young mortal who introduced me to the artichoke? I never saw her again. I was young and impatient and stupid, and never realized that I wasn’t the seducer in the story.

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