I’ve just finished reading a book called Milton’s Teeth and Ovid’s Umbrella, a history of everyday artefacts, and what they can tell us about life in times past. It’s really easy to read, full of quirky facts and interesting insights, including chapters on taxes, toothbrushes, football, chess, tools and lawns. Here’s an extract from his chapter on umbrellas:
“Umbrella comes from the Latin umbra, meaning shadow, and the diminutive suffix –ulum, meaning little. The resulting umbraculum or “little shadow” signified a sunshade or parasol.
Ovid said that Hercules held a golden umbraculum to keep the sun off his beloved Omphale, the princess of Lydia. And the epigrammatist Martial elevated the umbrella to a work of art in one of his bright two-liners. He saw the umbraculum as Everyman’s personal awning, even when the wind was up. Which only goes to show that Martial never tried to manoeuvre one through a city downpour...
In Egyptian art the pharaoh’s umbrella is common, and both Assyrian and Persian bas-relief sculptures from Ninevah and Persepolis show the monarch protected by an umbrella. Again the common sunlight that falls on us all must not descend on royalty as well.
So umbrellas had to do with power. No wonder they came to be the essential accoutrement of the British power broker, the businessman. And even as his empire waned, his symbols- brolly and bowler- remained.
But this was nothing new, even for earlier empires. The Roman emperor Heliogabalus adopted the umbrella as the symbol of his reign (A.D. 218-222). Indeed there is plenty of evidence that he identified himself with the sun god, hence the helios in his name. On his coins and in his art, the point of umbrella was that he too radiated power.”