In my work on the Bronze Age mummies of Eastern Central Asia (ECA), one of the attributes that has struck me perhaps more powerfully than any other is their stupendous felt hats. Here's a photograph of some of them:
For this part of the world, the Bronze Age means roughly the second millennium and first half of the first millennium BC.
When I first started noticing these hats more than two decades ago, but especially since around the year 2005, when many magnificent specimens were unearthed from Small River Cemetery No. 5 in the northeastern corner of the Tarim Basin near Lop Nor and Loulan ( || Uyghur Krorän < Prakrit Kroraina) and from the Northern Cemetery approximately 600 km to the west, I could not help but think of Alpine hats such as those worn in the Tyrol. Both the Bronze Age hats from ECA and the Tyrolean Alpine hats:
- are peaked
- have cords wrapped around them
- have feathers stuck in the side
- are made of felt
Now, felt is a product of pastoral and nomadic herding peoples. The first archeologically attested felt was found in Beyce-Sultan in Anatolia, coming in off the steppes at around 2600 BC.
I also had in mind Norman Rockwell's fantastic "Yankee Doodle" mural from the 1930s in the Nassau Inn, at Princeton. With the image of Yankee Doodle Dandy clearly in mind, then the song would fill my head:
Yankee Doodle went to town
Riding on a pony;
He stuck a feather in his hat,
And called it macaroni.
When I was a little boy, I thought that Yankee Doodle was being silly calling the feather in his hat "macaroni". I know better now and interpret the "it" as referring to the foppish 18th-century English style (apparently inspired by European fashions of the time) that he was affecting.
I don't know if Alpine hats ever have anything analogous to another feature of the ECA Bronze Age hats, one that few people notice, but which intrigues me mightily, viz., a weasel mummy wrapped around the base of the crown. Somewhat in the vein of "Yankee Doodle", when I contemplated the weasels on the Bronze Age hats from ECA, I couldn't help but think, "Pop! goes the weasel!" Again, when I was a wee lad and sang our local Ohio version of that mid-19th century nursery rhyme, I was oblivious to all of the scholarship on the meaning of "pop", and just took it to be a sound (onomatopoeia) expressing the quick movement of the little weasel jumping out at the monkey that was chasing it.
Now, faced with the Bronze Age inhabitants of the Tarim Basin ornamenting their fancy hats with weasel pelts, it occasioned much deeper reflection on the symbolism of the weasel.
Back a few years ago when we were having the big Silk Road exhibition at the Penn Museum, I wrote an article for Orientations (see Bibliography below; pdf available on request) about the amazing felt hats worn by many of the Bronze Age Tarim Basin mummies. Clearly, this sleek, little animal had great symbolic significance for the Bronze Age inhabitants of the Tarim Basin. In my own mind, I assumed that it had something to do with the great hunting skills and the almost magical slithering, slinking abilities of the weasel. We all know what it means to call a person a weasel. We don't exactly admire them, but we are impressed with their great, powerful skills, despite their diminutive size. If we can capture one of these slinky, slippery, sneaky fellows and put it on our hat as a decoration, that shows we are pretty capable too, and the presence of the weasel on our hat might impart to us some of its awesome potency.
I didn't write much about the meaning of the weasel back then, but I definitely had those thoughts in the back of my mind. Now we have even more of those spectacular hats, and, as I prepare a lecture for the opening of a major mummy exhibition on the West Coast next week, I want to devote a special section to the weasels on the peaked felt hats. I feel compelled to dig deeper into the comparative folklore of the least weasel. Already I have found some fascinating materials, which I here share with you in a preliminary way. Be sure to read the last quoted paragraph, from the Wikipedia entry for "least weasel".
The Ancient Macedonians believed that to see a least weasel was a good omen. In some districts of Macedon, women who suffered from headaches after having washed their heads in water drawn overnight would assume that a weasel had previously used the water as a mirror, but they would refrain from mentioning the animal's name for fear that it would destroy their clothes. Similarly, a popular superstition in southern Greece had it that the least weasel had previously been a bride, who was transformed into a bitter animal which would destroy the wedding dresses of other brides out of jealousy. According to Pliny the Elder, the least weasel is the only animal capable of killing the basilisk;
To this dreadful monster the effluvium of the weasel is fatal, a thing that has been tried with success, for kings have often desired to see its body when killed; so true is it that it has pleased Nature that there should be nothing without its antidote. The animal is thrown into the hole of the basilisk, which is easily known from the soil around it being infected. The weasel destroys the basilisk by its odour, but dies itself in this struggle of nature against its own self.
The Chippewa believed that the least weasel could kill the dreaded wendigo giant by rushing up its anus. In Inuit mythology, the least weasel is credited with both great wisdom and courage, and whenever a mythical Inuit hero wished to accomplish a valorous task, he would generally change himself into a least weasel. According to Matthew Hopkins, a witch hunter general during the English Civil War, least weasels were the familiars of witches.
I'm really curious to know what it is about the weasel that would generate those notions that they would destroy women's clothing, especially their wedding dresses.
Correspondent TKM writes:
There don't seem to be so many weasels around nowadays. Perhaps there were more in pre-dense-urban times, and they may have scratched women or eaten human stores, much like how the later plague of rats did in mid-2nd millennium.
BTW, the Chinese name of the weasel — yòushǔ 鼬鼠 — classifies it as a kind of "rat" (shǔ 鼠, i.e., rodent), but it actually belongs to the mammalian genus Mustela (rodents are also mammals, but belong to a separate order). Fortunately, the Chinese name for the least weasel (língyòu 伶鼬) omits the designation (shǔ 鼠, i.e., rodent).
Ermine, of course, is one of the most luxurious furs of historical times, and the pure white color of ermine is simply the winter coat of the stoat, or short-tailed weasel, which is distinguished from the least weasel by its larger size. Perhaps the Bronze Age inhabitants of the Tarim Basin were similarly fascinated by the fine fur of the least weasel.
Fashion is not just for beauty. It also comes with deep meaning and immense power. Remember the indomitable "Miss Lin" in this viral video and our intense discussion on Christian Dior's "Quiproquo" cocktail dress?
Mair, Victor H. “The Rediscovery and Complete Excavation of Ördek’s Necropolis.” The Journal of Indo-European Studies, 34.3-4 (Fall / Winter, 2006), 273-318.
_____. “Stylish Hats and Sumptuous Garments from Bronze Age and Iron Age Eastern Central Asia,” Orientations, 41.4 (May, 2010), 69-72.
_____, ed. Secrets of the Silk Road. Santa Ana, California: Bowers Museum, 2010.
_____ and Jane Hickman, ed. Reconfiguring the Silk Road: New Research on East-West Exchange in Antiquity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (published by the University of Pennsylvania Press), 2014.
Williams, Amelia. "Ancient Felt Hats of the Eurasian Steppe". In Victor H. Mair, ed., "The 'Silk Roads' in Time and Space: Migrations, Motifs, and Materials". Sino-Platonic Papers, 228 (July 2012), 66-93.
[Thanks to E. J. W. Barber, Heather Pringle, Adam Smith, Fangyi Cheng, John Hill, Julie Wei, and Thomas K. Mair]