“I want to see an elephant hunt down a man for the sole purpose of collecting his teeth, while a chorus of typewriters sings songs that praises the bananas for their wisdom, leadership, and their high levels of potassium.”
—Jarod Kintz, I Want
I am ruminating on teeth, after having three pulled. No tooth fairy has come in the night to pay me for them; I see I’m going to have to find my own recompense. Time off work certainly counts, as do the pleasures of carrot juice and mashed potatoes, not to mention chocolate pudding.
But further, with time to explore the subject, I learn that the tradition of the tooth fairy goes way back. “In northern Europe, there was also a tradition of tann-fé or tooth fee, which was paid when a child lost their first tooth. This tradition is recorded in writings as early as the Eddas, which are the earliest written record of Norse and Northern European traditions.” The Wikipedia article goes on to say that parents tend to view the myth as providing comfort for children in the loss of their tooth. That makes good sense.
Less easy to understand, except viscerally, is the motif in Greek mythology of sowing teeth—dragon’s or alternately serpent’s—and harvesting warriors from them.
“Two batches of Spartoi were sown. The first were those of Thebes, sown by the hero Kadmos [Cadmus, a Phoenician prince] from the teeth of the sacred Drakon of the spring of Ismene. He cast a stone among them as they were emerging from the earth and they fell to fighting. Only five survived the battle, who joined Kadmos in the founding of the city of Thebes.
The second batch was sown by Iason (or Jason) in the fields of Kolkhis on the Black Sea. The task was demanded of him by King Aeetes, from whom he and the Argonauts had come to fetch the Golden Fleece. Like Kadmos he threw a stone among these earth-born warriors and they fell to fighting.”
In a fascinating rumination of the sort I love, Robert K. Temple in The Sirius Mystery attributes this myth to the ancient “sacred game” of punning, of cloaking truths by use of synonyms (perhaps like Cockney rhyming slang?)—in this case, truths connected with the lore of the dog star, Sirius. The name of one of the sown men was Udaeus, “of the earth,” which was closely related to the Greek word meaning “to bite,” and specifically, the biting of dogs. In Egypt, from whence the doctrine of Sirius came, the word for tooth has exactly the same hieroglyph as the word for Earth—which, tilted, is the sign for the dog star.
More directly, the classical legends of Cadmus and Jason have given rise to the phrase "to sow dragon's teeth." This is used as a metaphor to refer to doing something that has the effect of stirring up disputes.
Not surprisingly, teeth have a long history of use in African, European, and African American magic. As in the myths, they’re associated with biting, rending, or obtaining things through forcible means. Some people, it is said, bind a tooth with a personal item of their worst enemy and conjure the foe to lose his teeth.
I like the loss of Winnie the Pooh’s “sweet tooth” in this punning video, Nothing but the Tooth. I especially love it when they try to put the tooth back by tying it on with string.
Off to resume my inner dialog with Saint Apollonia, patroness of dentists since her martyrdom in Alexandria, and to daydreams of crusty deep-dish pizza and toothsome roasts.
image: Saint Apollonia, Rood Screens of East Anglia