Eggs in Popular Art & Literature – Part V

In marble walls as white as milk,

Lined with a skin as soft as silk;

Within a fountain crystal clear,

A golden apple doth appear.

No doors there are to this stronghold,

Yet thieves break in and steal the gold.

[from an old riddle]

Eggs have featured in folk songs and nursery rhymes, they have influenced book authors and popular songwriters, and they have even been included in historical recipes for stirring up sensual arousal. Eggs truly are fabulous, literally the stuff of fables.

Word Origin

The word “egg” has a fairly short etymological history. Since the mid-14th century, it hasn’t changed much in its permutations through Old Saxon, Middle Dutch, and Old High German. Around the year 1500 the Norse word egge won out over the Middle English eye and eai. These may have developed from the Proto-Indo-European *owyo- or *oyyo-, both meaning “egg”. There is a possibility that the original root word for egg is related to the root word for “bird” which is *awi- .The word “oval” is also derived from “ova”.

There is an old Spanish proverb that goes, “A kiss without a moustache is like an egg without salt,” which not all would appreciate I suppose, although the beardless philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte was said to have added that either was “like Good without Evil” so maybe he liked his eggs unsalted because they were more authentic. The saying is popular enough that award-winning filmmaker Travis Breitenbeck produced a short documentary in 2004 about the cultural history of facial hair, although no one in the film was eating eggs, salted or otherwise.

Was he really an egg?

How long have we assumed that Humpty Dumpty was an egg? His grotesque image as such is featured in Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carrol, but there is nothing in the childhood rhyme to indicate this ovoid depiction, and further, why would the king’s men, let alone their horses, care about a broken egg?

Typically pictured as an anthropomorphic egg, the term “humpty dumpty” was once a derogatory term for a large or clumsy person. Some feel that he was modeled after Charles I of England, who was dethroned by the Puritan majority (the “great fall”); while some believe that H.D. was a cannon used during the English Civil War of 1642. A “Humpty Dumpty” was also the name of a late 17th century beverage of boiled ale and brandy, a bracing hot toddy to welcome one after coming in from a teeming British downpour.

There are no conclusions, however, about the origins of this nursery rhyme, and yet it persists, with themes and variations on games, songs and even decorating activities.

The Earth is a big Green Egg

A well-known neo-pagan periodical called Green Egg has been in publication since 1968, and is the journal of the Church of All Worlds, a legally-recognized earth-based religion in the United States. Although it has been published somewhat sporadically at times, its focus has always been “to evolve a network of information, mythology and experience that provides a context and stimulus for re-awakening Gaea” (from their published manifest). The name of the church is strongly influenced by Robert A. Heinlein’s story Stranger in a Strange Land, which features a man from Mars named Valentine Michael Smith who forms “water brother” alliances with some of the other characters and acolytes in the story, wherein they attempt to “grok” or comprehend God. Although the main character means well, the climax of the story is disturbing and parallels our current events more closely than we can imagine. Neither Green Egg nor Heinlein’s story puts any particular emphasis on eggs, but the name of the magazine evokes the spiritual objective of water brothers honoring the good green Earth and discovering the true meaning of love and life.

How do you like your Green Eggs and Ham?

You either love him or you can’t stand him, but everyone can agree that Dr. Seuss (Theodor “Ted” Geisel) created some of the most memorable stories and rhymes of our childhood, and Green Eggs and Ham is no exception.  The fox, the sox, the mouse, the house… we all know that the tall dude doesn’t want those eggs, no way no how. His red-capped antagonist finally wears him down and Tall-guy takes a bite… only to discover… yes! he will eat green eggs and ham, he’ll eat them with the fox wearing sox and with the mouse in the house. Published in 1960, the illustrations are charming and uncluttered, capturing perfectly recognizable facial expressions, while the easy vocabulary of only 50 words and the cadence of the rhyme keeps the young reader’s material lively and fun.

I do adore that Dr. Seuss, he sure can be a silly goose, and, more than that, I think he’s wise, by looking through a child’s eyes.  

Fabergé eggs, an Exercise in Opulence

The first of these exquisitely decorated art pieces was created in 1883 by the House of Fabergé jewelry firm, under the supervision of Peter Carl Fabergé, in the Russian capital of St. Petersburg. This original piece, known as the Hen Egg, was commissioned by Tsar Alexander III as a gift for his wife; the enameled outer shell opened to reveal a golden yolk, which in turn was hiding a small gold hen (set with rubies), and she held yet another secret… a miniature imperial crown with set with another ruby. As far as is known, the last two pieces are unfortunately missing. The jewelry firm was nationalized during the Bolshevik revolution in 1918, but in between that time and the first creation, eggs numbering a total of sixty-nine were believed to have been made, with fifty-seven eggs still known to exist. Some are in private collections, some are privately owned on public display, and some are owned by museums and other foundations. All polemics aside regarding the harvest of gems and precious metals, the craftsmanship and splendid detail of these pieces are a testament to the creative eye of the artists and their knowledge of metal-working, gem-cutting, and glass melting, amongst many other skills. Of particular beauty are the eggs called “Renaissance”, the shell of which is carved from cloudy agate; the diamond-studded, transparent enameled and laced with gold “Rose Trellis”; and the breathtaking “Lilies of the Valley”, set with diamonds and pearls and featuring a classic Art Nouveau style. These pieces are truly opulent and yet of a timeless beauty.

Lilies of the Valley Faberge Egg, 1898

Folk Songs

Considering that ancient veneration of the Great Mother Goddess is well established and documented in present day Bulgaria, it is no surprise that She has found her way into traditional children’s folk songs. Her creation, the Sun, is especially recognized as a Divine Egg as heard in the lyrics of one Spring song –

Sun, dear Sun, a divine egg! Man is a chicken brooded from you and shown to the world!

According to an article from Radio Bulgaria called “The egg: symbolic meanings and rituals”, another children’s song reminds us that “time is a hen and the stars are the eggs brooded by it”.

One folk song that began appearing around the early 1900’s is called, varyingly, “The Basket of Eggs”, “Eggs in Her Basket”, “Eggs and Bacon”, and sometimes even “The Foundling Baby”. Most of these versions were collected in Norfolk, Suffolk and Sussex counties in England. The song is a tale of how two sailors nicked what they believed was a basket of eggs from a young lady, only to discover there was a baby in the basket and not eggs. Bemoaning their fate later at the pub, one of the sailors offered fifty guineas to any woman who would take the infant off their hands, and who should speak up from a dark corner but the pretty damsel whom the sailors thought they had outwitted. The end of the song has the girl getting paid but the basket being kicked across the floor by the sailor who she recognized as the child’s father, so we can only hope that the baby was not in the basket during this time; folk songs don’t often pretty things up much.

Don’t you remember a-dancing with Nancy,

As long ago as last Easter Day?”

“Oh yes, and I do, and she pleased my fancy,

So now the fiddler I have paid.”

According to Aesop

And then there is the story of the Hen (or Goose) that laid Golden Eggs. Pretty amazing, really, but some people will look a gift-hen in the beak no matter what she lays. In this case, the single egg that said bird produces is apparently not enough to satisfy a greedy husband and wife, so they decide to kill the hen to get at what must be a great hoard of gold inside of her, but no such motherlode. This avaricious couple hoped to get rich quick, but instead they robbed themselves of a slow but steady increase which offered more than they really needed to begin with.

This fable, like all the other fables attributed to Aesop, aims to instruct what amounts to a moral duty to improve one’s conduct. By using animals that speak instead of children or maidens who fall into traps (as in the works of the Brothers Grimm), the reader or listener can get the gist of the lesson without perceiving it as a de-moralizing lecture. The Fables of Aesop were handed down through oral tradition, and Socrates was said to have put some of them into verse while awaiting his execution in prison; they were first collected in writing in Greece around 300 BCE.

Harry Potter and the Dragon’s Egg

Contemporary popular literature and film was made richer for the work of J.K. Rowling and her heroic series of Harry Potter stories. Kids of all ages, all over the world, were seen carrying the giant tomes around with them, perhaps the first upsurge in youth reading activity in decades – kids reading long chapter books! by choice! Focusing on the tumultuous adolescent and teen years of a boy wizard in modern Great Britain, the fourth book in the series – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – has our protagonist unknowingly entered into a sort of geocache contest, but with a wicked and possibly deadly twist. The first task in this treacherous game where “people become changed” is to retrieve a magical Dragon’s egg, which itself contains a clue to the second task. The egg is not an “actual” dragon’s egg, but a golden egg decorated with gems, and it is guarded by a dragon – in Harry’s case, a Hungarian Horntail, with spines along the whole length of its backbone. Even the clue inside the egg takes a bit of puzzle-solving to understand, and is meant to be listened to underwater – who knew? – where the next event in the contest takes place. Lucky for Harry, another contestant clues him in to the secret, and the story moves forward from there. In essence, the promise of the egg can be seen to represent Harry’s confusion about the compulsory mandate of him competing in this age-restricted contest, his infatuation with a very pretty someone for whom he has a special sweetness, and the sorrowful pining for his long-dead parents… unfortunately for Harry, this is one egg he cannot eat to self-medicate his concerns away.

Romancing the Egg

Eggs can be sexy. At least, they can be provocative. Witness the tragic characters in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. The exchange between Jude Fawley and the beautiful train-wreck of a lover Arabella Donne is a coquettish example of prim Victorian seduction as she withdraws from her bosom a rare Cochin’s egg after “unfastening the collar of her gown”. A Cochin is a distinguished-looking breed of chicken originating in China, profusely plumed with long, soft feathers, and somewhat of a sensation in Hardy’s Wessex at the time of the story. Arabella was keeping the egg in a warm, safe place for the required three weeks until which time it was expected to hatch. Jude is more interested in her nest region than the egg, but “… before he could quite reach her she put it back as quickly, laughing at the excitement of her strategy.”

illustration by Nava Atlas, from Vegetariana

Modern writers aside, eggs have been indicated in early erotic literature as an aphrodisiac food. Some texts  mentioning eggs for this objective include the well-known Indian manual on lovemaking, the Kama Sutra, which advise the man to eat a combination of rice with sparrow’s eggs, ghee and honey, and to be “ready to enjoy Many women in an instant”. Another sexy reference to eggs is found in The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight, purportedly written by 15th century sage Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Nafzawi, who said in Chapter XXI that a man eating asparagus with an egg yolk sauce “will grow very strong for the coitus” – and we wonder if that would include hollandaise sauce? Islamic scholar Constantine the African, author of the medieval handbook De Coitu, or “A treatise on Andrology”, once recommended a cake made of, from amongst other ingredients, crushed and pounded lambs’ meat, birds’ brains, roasted onions, and twenty egg yolks, all accompanied by a glass of sweet wine… how romantic!

It is interesting to note that Constantine later became a Benedictine monk. It is also interesting to note that for the most part, these sorts of texts approach sexuality from a male perspective, while, when women are mentioned at all, the recommendations are about fertility rather than pleasure.

The Henhouse and the Man in Black

Considered an intentionally silly song, the “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog” is pretty much a scapegoat for an unknown predator – it could have been a raccoon for all we know – and Johnny Cash immortalized the poor guy in this 1966 song written by Jack Clement. A distant cousin to Ol’ Yeller (“I seen him suck a batch of eggs”), the Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog is:

… not very handsome to look at
Oh he’s shaggy and he eats like a hog
And he’s always killin’ my chickens
That dirty old egg-suckin’ dog

Sad to say, the singer of this song does not have very good intentions for said egg-sucker, with plans to “send him/to that great chicken house in the sky” if he doesn’t change his wicked ways.

Goo Goo G’Joob

It would hardly be fair not to include mention of The Beatles epic song from the 1960’s called “I Am the Walrus”, even if we don’t know for sure who the Egg man really is, or what this outrageous song actually means. The opening line starts out like a Zen koan as singer-songwriter John Lennon states, “I am he as you are he as you are me/And we are all together”, which then goes on to paint the picture of pigs fleeing from a gun; then, with a long face, he sings,

I am the Egg man/They are the Egg men,

I am the Walrus/Goo Goo G’Joob.

The Egg man is rumored to be the front man for early 1960’s rock band The Animals’ Eric Burdon, based on a salacious romp with a sexy Jamaican woman and some raw eggs. Music critics say the song has many parallels to the work of Lewis Carroll, as well as references to Lennon’s own previous work. “I am the Walrus” has been covered by Styx and Bono as well as Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and is even quoted in an episode of The Simpsons. Apparently the Egg man had no small bit of influence on popular culture.

©  Doreen Shababy, excerpted from a work in progress.