Hidden Worlds : A Line to the Heart - The Caledonian-Record - St. Johnsbury, VT
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home : features : science and nature October 13, 2015

Hidden Worlds : A Line to the Heart

I once asked Catherine why the third finger on her left hand traditionally signified engagement and marriage (in all our years together I'd never concentrated on this). She told me that legend says the "ring finger" has a direct connection to the heart.

Since our conversation anticipated that year's Valentine's Day, her remark got me thinking. Celebration of the day, the heart, a specific finger, cupids, hearts and arrows, Valentine himself, monogamy in humans and animals swirled in my mind.

First, the heart. Cro-Magnons in Europe showed it recognizably in cave drawings in much the form it is depicted today, although no one knows how they regarded it. Maybe it was the thing to aim at when spearing a mammoth. Maybe something more?

The Egyptians and Greeks venerated the heart, although in different ways: the former believed it was the seat of the soul; the latter thought it was the single most vital organ. Early Americans in Mexico recognized it was the spiritual force of life as they ripped it from sacrificial victims atop high stone temples. In the Middle Ages our ancestors found the heart's warmth and vitality intimately tied to affection and fidelity, and so it remains to this day.

As for Cupid, that little winged cherub holding a bow and pointing an arrow at somebody's heart, he first of all was a love-child of the Roman goddess Venus. In Greece, he was Aphrodite's son Eros, hence our borrowing his name to create an adjective signifying passion.

What about fingers, especially the third one on the left hand? The early Greeks equated fingers with Dactyls, the goddess Athena's tiny offspring. Dactyls were important little magicians and workmen, probably a lot like Irish leprechauns and Hawaiian menehune. Their name is still with us today, "polydactylism" meaning more than five fingers or toes.

Rings used as finger ornamentation go far back in history and by the time the Egyptians came along, not only were rings intricately beautiful, they possessed enormous symbolism, and probably decorated specific fingers.

It was the Romans who started what we follow to this day. Around 400 AD the philosopher Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius explained, "The man gave the woman a ring by way of pledge, and the woman put it on the third finger of her left hand, because it was believed that a nerve ran from that finger to the heart."

So the tradition extends straight from Macrobius to Catherine.

Then there is Valentine's Day that combines vestiges of ancient Roman celebrations with Christian tradition. Who was Valentine himself? The Catholic Church recognizes three different saints with that name, but the one that appeals most was an unfortunate fellow who had been imprisoned. Just before his death, he sent a farewell note to his jailer's daughter, with whom he had fallen in love. He signed it, "your Valentine."

Whoever the original Valentine may have been, by the Middle Ages he was one of the most popular saints. Valentine's Day began being celebrated in Europe in the 17th Century, with tokens of affection exchanged in the next century.

For most of us, there is monogamy. This is not to say that polygamy and polygyny aren't also present in the world, both among animals and from time to time among those peoples whose creeds encourage it.

The essentials of monogamy are best understood (and misunderstood) among animals where it occurs in varying degrees. Much has been made of Emperor Penguins in a recent film, supposedly showing how they are faithfully monogamous. Yes, they are -- but only for a single year during just one breeding season, after which each of the loosened pair looks around for another partner. That's monogamy? Yes: there is a name for it, "serial monogamy." (Do repetitive brief Hollywood relationships fit this?)

Actually there are more monogamous birds than any other group of animals, because with their peripatetic ways, traveling far and wide in search of food and nesting materials, there must be mutual dependence between mates to recognize one another without delay. Each has an almost equal investment in rearing their young -- for many species both are involved in nest-building, feeding the young, defense and encouraging fledglings to take to the air. Monogamy, temporary or not, helps explain why courtship among some birds is such a complicated affair, wherein a female inspects her many suitors with great care before selecting one with outstanding attributes. Courtship ranges from exhibitions of physical traits (blue feet in boobies, red throat balloons in frigate birds, a peacock's tail), to ostentatious displays of prowess (strutting prairie chickens, posturing ostriches), to amazing acrobatics (manakins in their leks, skylarks' aerial singing), and extraordinary artistry (the painted, decorated woven constructions of bowerbirds). Of course, once mating is over and chicks are raised and fledged, all future bets are off for many kinds of birds -- but not all.

The foremost among these competing males is also likely to be the best provider and protector of a family.

Well-known monogamous birds include bald eagles that mate for life. Mallards, ravens, most parrots, and swans are generally, or almost entirely monogamous. When a Canada goose is shot out of the sky, its mate is likely to remain solitary the rest of its life. Monogamy in the secretive cave-dwelling oilbird, a strange nocturnal creature I photographed in Trinidad, is due to its deep, cold habitat, where the female must continually brood her eggs to keep them warm, leaving food-gathering entirely to the male.

There are even monogamous invertebrates, such as snapping shrimp and certain isopod crustaceans that live in restricted habitats under conditions that impose a limiting effect upon their bonding.

In our kind of creature monogamy is so uncommon among mammals it is surprising to find it even in a few species. Its absence in most cases is because males are usually not involved with parental care. You do find such care among wolves and hyenas, but they're not monogamous.

Among the few monogamous mammals are orcas, or killer whales, and Southeast Asian gibbons, the smallest of the apes. Chimpanzees (our closest cousins) and gorillas are not at all inclined to monogamy, and most certainly not the smaller bonobos whose almost hourly passion occurs between anyone and everyone in the clan. Bonobos are so busy with this they have a peaceful nature and do not look upon others as competitors or rivals.

The most telling study of monogamy, and its lack, is found in two species of voles. The prairie vole is completely monogamous, while its cousin, the montane vole, is utterly promiscuous and leaves the scene after impregnating a female. Researchers studying these little rodents have found that a pituitary hormone affecting the pleasure center in the brain is continually released in the prairie vole, making a couple "addicted" to one another -- a natural high. The montane vole doesn't have this effect, so is continually searching for satisfaction.

Where do we fit in the scheme of things? I have no idea. I can attest that a single beloved wife is a long life's greatest reward. Whether that's due to pituitary hormones or compatibility in all (well, most) things, or an intimate relationship's utter comfort, is unworthy of deep introspection. All I can say is, it works.

Happy Valentine's Day.

©2013 William H. Amos

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