I love this little bird. hirundo rustica. So full of energy, life, and song. And she seems to be in perfect balance. She was painted over three thousand years ago - in a beautiful fresco discovered on the Greek island of Santorini.
Santorini, the most southern island in the Cyclades, gives us spectacular sunrises and sunsets, whitewashed homes and churches, tall cypresses and colourful bougainvillea, views over the darkest Homeric depth of sea, sloping terraces with their patchworks of vines, all protected by an overarching blue sky.
But the wine-dark sea in that famous postcard view from Fira, the main tourist destination on the island, is in fact the caldera of a volcano. A constant reminder of the destruction and devastation that struck sometime between 1700-1500 BC. This is one of the largest eruptions in recorded history. The most famous single event in the Aegean area before the fall of Troy. There may even be a connection with Plato's Atlantis. It may have been the catalyst to the decline of the highly sophisticated Minoan civilisation.
Imagine how Spyridon Marinatos felt, one day in the late 1960s, as he and his team of archaeologists were continuing the excavation at ancient Akrotiri, on the south-western tip of the island. They had been working on a building which they had named Delta.
A tiny room on the ground floor had been holding its breath for centuries. It was smaller than the other rooms and had thicker walls too. But what amazed them most of all was that the three walls of this little, almost holy, space were covered by a glorious fresco. Marinatos called it the Spring Fresco. Delta 2 became his Room of Lilies.
No wonder he called it the Spring Fresco. A vibrant and animated springtime landscape comes alive with the darting, plummeting, dancing swallows as they weave among the nodding lilies.
The composition breathes new life, exudes fresh energy, and celebrates joyful transformation.
The swallows, whether alone or in pairs, represent the cycle of life: there are parents, new chicks being fed, and fully fledged youngsters in search for mates.
The red lilies also show the full cycle of life in six stages: closed buds, opening buds, half-open flowers, fully grown flowers, wilting lilies with re-curved petals, even remnants of flowers that have lived.
The stylised rocks with their vertically painted bands in blue, red, and yellow, together with the nodding lilies, provide a backdrop of stillness and permanence.
This is more than a Spring Fresco: it is a metaphor for the cycle of life. It’s almost as though we are being given an imperative: To live. To thrive. To soar. Abundant and unconstrained. Whoever created this gorgeous work of art is inviting us to accept and celebrate that we too are part of this cycle.
No photograph can possibly do justice to those three walls. Seeing them in the flesh for the first time took my breath away. Decades later, I still feel that same awe and exhilaration. And I so love this little bird. This wonderful symbol of energy, harmony, balance, hope, and renewal.
The Cyclades (Greek 'Kyklades') are so called because they are enclosed in an imaginary circle (Greek: kyklos). Other famous members of the group include Delos (birthplace of Apollo and his twin sister Artemis), Mykonos (home of windmills and parties), Naxos (where lovely marble was hewn - in fact, there is an archaic male Kouros in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens which was carved in Naxian marble but found at Ancient Thera!)
hirundo rustica is her lovely Latin name. To the French she is une hirondelle. La golondrina in Spain. La rondine to the Italians. In Welsh, gwennol. From my childhood, I remember the proverb 'un wennol ni wna wanwyn' - which translates as 'A single swallow does not mean spring has arrived'.
Greeks have a special affection for swallows - Χελιδόνια ( helidonia) - as harbingers of spring, reminders that we can always look forward to better things. On March 1st (St David's Day too!) children celebrate the arrival of the swallows and the coming of spring with the Helidonismata, a ritual whereby they make paper swallows and take them around the neighbourhood.
In ancient Greece, the swallow was associated with Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty. Aristotle noticed them around 363BC. Ovid in his Metamorphoses VI (424-674-ish) describes the transformation of Procne into a swallow.
Santorini is recognised as a Greek wine region in its own right. Gorgeous volcanic soil has given us the gorgeous dessert wine Vinsanto/Visanto (not Vin Santo as its Tuscan counterpart is called) as well as wines from the local Assyrtiko grape...