It probably will not come as a surprise to anyone that the chrysanthemum is the birth flower for November. Chrysanthemums have a long symbolic history with meanings including longevity, fidelity, joy, and rebirth. Chrysanthemums were used for medicinal purposes in China during the 15th Century BCE. Their roots were boiled and the tea was drunk to relieve headaches, and their sprouts and petals were eaten in salads. A sweet tea made from the flower was used to treat the common cold, dizziness, and high cholesterol. Mum wine is drunk on the ninth day of the ninth month to preserve peace, health, and old age. Mums were celebrated in paintings and poetry. Qu Yuan (340-278 BCE), in his poem Li Sao wrote, “Drink dew from the magnolia in the morning and take autumn chrysanthemum’s falling petals as food for the evening.”
The Chinese word for chrysanthemum, ju, means “gathering together” and “Autum flower.” Mums bloom in cool weather, forecast the coming of winter, and because they survive in the cold, they are symbolic of surviving hardship. “Chrysanthemum” (1598-1625) (12”x10.5”) is a painting made by Chen Hongshou after a work by an ancient Chinese master of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The perfect alignment of the mum petals seen in the painting became a symbol for nobility, and the flower became the property of the nobility only.
Buddhist monks took the mum to Japan in 400 CE. “Kiku,” the Japanese name for the mum, quickly became the emperors crest and the Imperial Seal of Japan. The precise order of petals, 16 in front and 16 in the second row, was revered for its beauty and its precision. The tradition of the Chrysanthemum Throne, decorated with mums, began in the early 5th Century by Emperor Sima Jin (266-420 CE). The highest military order is the Order of the Chrysanthemum. National Chrysanthemum Day on September 9 is a yearly holiday that began in 910 CE at the first garden show of mums.
The image “Chrysanthemum and River” (1856) (wood cut), by the famous Japanese ukiyo-e artist Hiroshige, is on a fan. The red mums are symbolic of love, passion, and respect. The white mums represent loyalty and honesty. White mum blossoms are used in funerals, and to decorate graves. Hiroshige’s composition combines the beautiful mums and the dark blue water to create a striking image.
The mum was brought to Europe in the 17th Century. Karl Linnaeus (1701-1778), the father of modern taxonomy, gave the flower the name chrysanthemum. Chrysos is the Greek word for gold, and anthos means flower. “Chrysanthemums in a Chinese Vase” (1873) (19.7”x 24”) is by the French Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro. Pissarro mixes his bouquet of red, white, and yellow mums and places it in a Chinese vase. It is unlikely Pissarro realized the significance of the Chinese vase, but he used it effectively in the composition. The white mums form a triangle, some at the top of the bouquet and others sloping down to create a casual arrangement. The colors of the mums, red, white, and yellow, are repeated in the vase, along with the dark blue and green colors of the leaves. Red, white, and green books are placed next to the vase on the wood table. The suggested pattern of mums in the vertical stripes of the wall paper balances the strong horizontal lines of the table and books.
For those born between November 22 and December 21, the Native American totem animal is the owl. The symbolism of the owl extends far into the past. The Greek goddess of war and wisdom was often depicted with an owl. “Athena and her Owl” (490-480 BCE) is a Greek red-figure lekythos (oil container) painted by the Brygos Painter. The owl represents Athena’s great wisdom since it can see in the day and the night. Athena sees and hears what others cannot. The owl flies silently and far, and it brings Athena news from many places. In this image Athena, as goddess of war, is represented by her spear and helmet. The head of Medusa and the snakes ringing Athena’s gown, add to her power as goddess of war. The meander pattern appears in pairs across the rim of the vase, the unbroken line forming each square symbolizes eternity, unity, and infinity.
Owls are important symbols for Native American tribes. Their esteem for owls is similar to the Greeks. The owls’ power to see in the dark, their great hearing, their silent flight, and their aggressive nature are signs of great power. Their screeches, hoots, and barks signal specific warnings. Some tribes believe the presence of an owl is a dire warning of death; other tribes believe they are great medicine, possess magic powers, and are important protectors.
“Great Horned Owl” (1827-1838) (Plate 39, Audubon’s Birds of America) (10.25’’x6’5’) is a depiction of one of the most common owls found in North America. The Choctaw, Ojibway, Cherokee, and Cheyenne tribes believe the great horned owl to be the most dangerous. Its ear-like tufts were evidence of great hearing, its large yellow eyes stare with intensity, and its deep hoots echo through the landscape. The owls were great hunters who captured and killed prey larger than themselves, their long claws providing the necessary weapon. They were considered great warriors.
The owl is a popular subject in Native American art. The owl is often placed at the top of the totem pole that celebrates the life of the carver and his family. The first white man to see a totem pole probably was Captain James Cook in 1778. The word totem is from the Ojibwe word odooem (his kinship group). Native American artists frequently use the image of the owl on jewelry, pottery, and numerous wood carvings, including totem poles. “Heehee Owl” (Great Horned Owl) (2004) (sumac wood) (10’’) was carved by Wilmer Nadjiwon (1922-2018) (Cape Crocker, Canada) who was Ojibway and Chippewa. Using the unique growing patterns of sumac wood, he has created a simple and effective sculpture of the great horns and piercing eyes of the owl.
Nadjiwon was a survivor of being forced into a Indian residential school, a signalman and gunner in WWII, Chief of the Chippawa, a supporter of Indian causes, and a writer. His book Neither Wolf, Nor Dog: An Ojibway Elder’s Tales of Residential School, Wartime Service, First Nations Politics, and Some Experiences with the Great Spirit (2012) provides an honest appraisal of his early life and abuse in the school. “I have been many things in my life: a fisherman, a trapper, a hunter, a construction worker, a student, an activist, a politician, an Indian chief. I have worked in logging camps and factories. I have walked the steel, painted houses, picked fruit, gathered cedar brush, and tried to start businesses; some failed, some succeeded.” (Interview, Sun Times, Ontario (2012).
Since owls mostly are active at night, ancient superstitions considered seeing an owl in the daytime to be bad luck. Owls were thought to be the companions of witches and wizards. Fans of Harry Potter know his owl Hedwig faithfully carried messages and packages, a great comfort to Harry who needed the assurance that his messages would get through. When asked about the owl, author J.K. Rowlings said she had always loved owls, perhaps because her mother made her an toy owl when she was a little girl. She chose a Snowy Owl for Harry because it is white and is a symbol of innocence. Apparently, owl fanciers have told her that she made a mistake making Hedwig a Snowy Owl, because it flies in the daylight, it does not chirp or hoot, and it does not eat bacon.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.