"That's a great deal to make one word mean," Alice said in a thoughtful tone. "When I make a word do a lot of work like that," said Humpty Dumpty, "I always pay it extra."

Friday, 6 November 2009

Bisciones and Snakes in the Grass

A snake in the grass is someone you trusted who then let you down or turned on you.

I love quizzes like Eggheads - one learns a lot (and forgets ten times as much). One of the recent questions was "Which car manufacturer has a badge depicting a snake eating a man?" It gave three options - Maserati, Alfa Romeo and a manufacturer of which I had never heard. I thought I could picture the first two so I chose the latter. But, hey presto, it is Alfa Romeo.

The Alfa Romeo badge looks quite classy and heraldic but upon examination it does have a giant snake eating a man? Apparently the owners of Alfa Romeo - the Lombard Automobile Factory - wanted a logo that was associated with their home city of Milan, so they used symbols that Milan had used since the Crusades. The red cross is a typical Christian symbol of medieval heraldry and was used extensively throughout the Crusades. In those days seeing a load of chaps with red crosses painted on them didn’t mean “medic”, it meant: rampaging, sword-weilding nutters of dubious origin - run for your life.

The man in the serpent's mouth is even more controversial. It’s a symbol called a biscione (Italian for a large grass snake) - Yes, I've eventually got around the the word of the day. In a biscione the man in the image is the traditional Crusader's enemy, the Saracen or Moor (in other words a Muslim). So the whole serpent motif is all about the Christians Crusaders’ defeat of the 'infidels'.

Alfa obviously doesn’t like people to call attention to this but I find it fascinating and have to wonder how many rich Arabian Sheiks are innocently parading this symbol around the Middle East. I guess you could say anyone doing so was a snake in the grass.

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