Stories of Wax
There’s just one image that may or may not be the poet Sappho, a fresco thought to have been made between 50-79 AD and discovered in the North West corner of Pompeii. Its given title, ‘Woman with wax tablets and stylus’, draws the association between the maybe-poet and the material she’s holding, a comparison which goes deeper than artist and tool. ‘I melt like wax,’ Sappho wrote, or did she? Because all that survives of her are fragments and guesses, we can only really know Sappho in other forms, moulded and shaped by the writers who half-translate, half-imagine what she wrote.
Wax and Women.
'How easy is it for the proper false | In women’s waxen hearts to set their forms' laments Viola in Twelfth Night, in despair because women fall in love too quickly, and with the wrong people. Shakespeare compared women to wax multiple times in his writing, also equating men's minds to marble just to hammer home the gender differences. But while he meant it as a weakness, there's something complimentary about associating women with a substance that holds a form, but re-shapes as something else with little effort. Perhaps the playwright envied women's resilient ability to change. Whether or not Sappho was the woman in the fresco, she would have used a wax tablet to compose her verse, melting the wax to erase finished or unwanted ideas. If she wasn't, the image also teaches us something about the noblewomen of Pompeii, who ran their businesses and managed the accounts of their households on the same wax tablets poets used to write – a surface for malleable creativity but also maintaining power and order.
The Mythology of Wax.
Witches use candles today because of the wax's impressionable qualities – good for imprinting desires and intentions – but ancient witches knew its more pragmatic uses too. When Odysseus befriended the Goddess Circe on the way home from Troy, she saved him from the sirens waiting to lure his ship onto the rocks on the next leg of their journey. 'Plug your ears with beeswax' she told him, 'and their song won't beguile you'.
More mortal than Circe, but more magical in his use of wax, the skilled craftsman Daedalus attempted freedom from imprisonment by building two sets of wings from wax and feathers – one for him and the second for his son Icarus. Though Icarus flew too close to the sun and was betrayed by wax's changeable form, Daedalus flew, heartbroken, to Sicily to start a new life alone.
Wax, Magic and Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egyptians regarded wax as a magical substance. They used it for practical purposes in cosmetics and the dressing of wounds but believed that both wax and honey were the tears of the Sun God Re.
'The god Re wept, and the tears from his eyes fell on the ground and turned into a bee. The bee made his honeycomb and busied himself with the flowers of every plant and so wax was made and also honey out of the tears of Re.'
Possibly because it burned away to practically nothing, wax attracted magical uses in ancient Egyptian society. Its malleable, inflammable nature saw it used to make amulets and effigies, which were sometimes burned to inflict harm on another. Pharaoh Nectanebo II kept secret rooms of wax soldiers and ships representing the armies of his enemies, which he would sink in water to ensure their defeat.
How Do Bees Make Wax?
More fantastical than the actual mythology of wax is the strange process that bees go through to create it. A description found in The Book of Symbols is more beautiful, almost than poetry.
'Comb building bees fill themselves with honey, hook together in long loops and, through a sort of meditative process, turn the honey into wax, which they secrete from their abdomens and sculpt into clusters of intricate hexagonal cells so ingeniously formed than a mere one and a half ounces of wax can hold four pounds of honey, the container and the contained being different manifestations of one and the same substance.' Honeybee from The Book of Symbols.
The Symbolism of Wax.
Wax candles are used in the church to symbolise three facets of Christ, his divine nature (the flame), his soul (the wick) and his body (the wax). Just as Shakespeare used it to symbolise the mind, it also symbolises flesh. Soft, pliant and impermanent. For beeswax, its link to honey adds a note of eroticism to the earthly vessel of flesh. In Greek mythology, the God of Love, Cupid, is also known as the honey thief, because as a baby he stole a honeycomb from a hive and caused the bees to chase him all the way home to his mother Aphrodite. On seeing his pain, she remarked that the bee stings were poetic justice for the emotional anguish his arrows caused to unsuspecting future lovers. Pain and pleasure, wax holds many of these opposite meanings. Wax seals supposedly confirmed the identity of the letter writer, but even according to the Bible, Jezebel stole Ahab's seal to forge letters. In detective novels, duplicitous characters press keys into wax to have them secretly copied. Even the term ’wax impressions’ conjures up an uncertain thing, a fleeting likeness that’s merely a glimpse of the person it wanted to capture.
Just like Sappho with her stylus, the women behind CYRE imprinted their fantasies into wax to create three new narratives – Eros, Monk and Virgin. Choose a story to explore...