Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Mythology strikes back

I'm keen on mythology and folklore for my own reasons. Sometimes, knowledge of legends do more than than just tell stories.

Case in point: In the 18th century there was an architect called John Woods, who built a lot of Georgian Bath. His two most famous areas are The Royal Crescent and The Circus. There's some more pictures of Bath; note that if you're not big on sandy bathstone Georgian buildings, you might not get too excited about it. Anyway, there was a belief that there was a temple to the moon nearby, which is echoed by the Crescent; the Circus (which is big and round and, thanks to the trees in the middle, has an atrocious joke associated with it) echoes a temple to the sun. But which temple of the sun?

Well, it seems that about 840 BC (or so John Wood believed) there was one Prince Bladud, who was heir to the throne[1]. Unfortunately Bladud caught leprosy[2]. This disqualified him from his current job as heir, and in fact from every job except swineherd.

Bladud's misfortunes continued; it seems his pigs caught leprosy too. Then, one morning, he discovers that his herd of pigs have all gone into a slough (a swamp) and refuse to come out.

Bladud lures them out with their favourite food, acorns. Here we get the first echo on John Wood's buildings; see what's on top of the facade of the houses in the Circus. He washes them off in the spring that feeds the slough, and their leprosy is cured! He washes himself off and his leprosy is cured as well. Bladud goes home and gets to be heir to the throne once more.

But Bladud isn't finished. He returns to the spring, which is obviously sent by the gods (for a start it's hot - how mad is that?) and builds a shrine and a town, a town that the Romans later call Aqua Sulis, and we call Bath.

Bladud, now a keen builder, heads south onto Salisbury Plain, where he discovers a bunch of stones lying around[3]. He goes ahead and has them erected into a temple of the sun, which we know by the name of Stonehenge.

Do those blocks of stone remind you of anything? What? All of classical architecture? Well done! It seems that after this, Bladud visited Italy and Greece, where he taught them about putting stones on top of each other, and also the classical architectual values of balance, symmetry and proportion. Thus, as we can see, classical architecture had it's birthplace in Bath. Not entirely by coincidence, John Woods built in the Georgian Neo-classical style which held up balance, symmetry and proportion to be the principle virtues of architecture.

Now this would all just be an interesting story, except that John Wood really believed this stuff. He believed in it so much that if you picked up Stonehenge and put it down in the Circus in Bath, it would exactly fit; the acorns, an unusual feature, were another nod to Bladud, but also a declaration - after all, what's more English than an oak? The Circus is certainly his way of saying that this was the birthplace of architecture.

Of course, all those Old Testament and Freemasonry symbols on the frieze give it an entirely different meaning, but that's another story.

[1] Bladud later had a son, Lear, who had a play written about him.
[2] Although in the 18th century, the term leprosy covered a whole host of skin diseases; thus the miraculous recoveries to come in the story become merely unlikely.
[3] Note that this is a myth - the best evidence suggests that the following sequence of events is very wrong.
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