King Triton’s Conch Shell Actually Has Rich History

     

    In ancient Greek mythology, Zeus’ daughter Athena had already discussed Odysseus’ fate with her royal father just at the time when Odysseus’ enemy, nautical god Poseidon, was absent from Mount Olympus. Undercover, Athena visits Telemachus (Odysseus’ son) in Ithaca, an island located in the Ionian Sea, to urge him to search for news of his father. 

    Telemachus offers hospitality, but she can’t enjoy the company of rowdy suitors enjoying their cups of wine, anticipating bedding Odysseus’ wife (Telemachus’ mother) Penelope. “Return from Troy” was the bardic entertainment scheduled for that evening. Penelope remonstrates — because it reminds her of her missing husband — but Telemachus overrules her. The next morning, Telemachus calls an assembly of citizens of Ithaca to discuss what should be done with Penelope’s suitors. 

    This sets up Odysseus’ return from 20 years of absence to slay the suitors. Athena’s weapon is not a conch shell but her shield, “Aegis.” And that shield has a Gorgon’s head on it, so that anyone who attacks her is inviting “a galloping case of rigor mortis.”

    In 1621, Marie de Medicis, widow of Henri IV of France and queen mother of King Louis XIII, invited Peter Paul Rubens to Paris. As a result, the galleries of the new Palais de Luxembourg have 24 monumental paintings commemorating episodes in the lives of herself and her former husband. Ruben’s encyclopedic knowledge of classical mythology was exploited to the full in transforming the queen’s entire career into a series of operatic moments. Metamorphosing life into myth, Rubens freely mingled historical personages with the gods of Olympus. His international fame came to rest on his success with this formidable commission (which was completed in only three years). Ruben’s solution was to populate his compositions with nude goddesses, pagan gods and mischievous tritons. In the huge canvas, “Maria de Medici Landing in Marseilles,” for example, Charonia tritonis seashells are featured.

    It also has Captain Robert Fitzroy of the HMS Beagle: “The disagreeable practice alluded to has been permitted in most ships, because sanctioned by time; and though many condemn it as an absurd and dangerous piece of folly, it has also many advocates. [The conch shell’s] effects on the minds of those engaged in preparing for its mummeries, who enjoy it at the time, and talk of it long after wards, cannot easily be judged of without being an eyewitness.”

    Additionally, according to Otto von Kotzebue on Oct. 11,1823, “We crossed the Equator. Having saluted the Southern hemisphere by the firing of guns, our crew proceeded to enact the usual ceremonies. An old man appeared as Neptune. He and his consort were attired in an imposing manner … seated on a gun-carriage instead of a shell … drawn by our crew substituting for Tritons.”

    — Richard Thompson
    Alumnus 83

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