Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Shepherd Flute-Player in the Nativity Icon

IN THE BOTTOM RIGHT HAND CORNER OF THE ICON - slightly to the left of the shepherds who are listening to the angel, there is a single shepherd, seated and playing a flute. The flock of sheep and goats is grazing or attentive with heads up. This isn't just a pastoral image - the way we tend to sentimentalize the shepherds. Their's was a rough and tumble life. 

But in symbology, the flute is the instrument which is played as a lament for the ancient gods of Greece. Maybe the young shepherd here is playing a kind of dirge or funeral song for those ancient gods who have now, in the birth of Christ, seen their day. These gods were tricksters and trouble-makers, zooming in from Mount Olympus and down to earth to stir up trouble, then to speed back to their dwelling places. The ancient gods didn't edify us - no one ever said, "I want to be like them." 

Cupid for example shot arrows into people, the effect being that the victim fell madly in love with the first person encountered after the love-arrow. The gods all laughed and mocked the love struck humans who fell head over heals in ridiculous love matches. 

But what about today? We all have a panoply of little (or not so little) gods who need to have the flute-dirge played over them in the Birth of Christ: King-Money, nationalism, the radio host whose word is gospel, the opinions for which I"m prepared to put my head on the block, the lies we protect, our vanities, the old resentments I guard and protect...perhaps most idolatrous of all - the nation's love affair with guns.


  1. It is helpful to relate these images to our time and place. We can envision the scene at the time of Christ's birth and then look for the meaning in it for is. Thank you for the explanation of the symbolism in this icon. It has been very helpful as we reflect during the Christmas Octave.

  2. You add such depth to this icon as you peel away layers of understanding with your expertise on this subject. I am learning more each day.

    1. What a wonderful thing to be able to say, "I am learning more each day."

  3. It is wonderful. And I can say the same thing as the above commentor. I look forward to learning from these explanations. Something new to take away after reading.