Named for a Rapist?

On Language

By Philologos

Published February 24, 2010, issue of March 05, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

An e-mailer signing herself as only “Phyllis” asks, “Why is the flower that we call a pansy known as amnon v’tamar in Hebrew?”

Viola Violation: Pansies are a type of violet also known as ‘kiss- me-at-the-garden-gate.’
Wiki Commons
Viola Violation: Pansies are a type of violet also known as ‘kiss- me-at-the-garden-gate.’

In the Bible, Amnon and Tamar are two names that go together. Chapter 13 of the second Book of Samuel relates how Amnon, a son of King David by one of David’s many wives, falls desperately in love with his half-sister Tamar, tries to seduce her by pretending to be sick and asking her to make his favorite pancakes and bring them to his bedside, and rapes her when she refuses to have sex with him. Tamar’s brother Absalom then kills Amnon in vengeance, leading to subsequent dramas that do not concern us here.

What all this has to do with pansies is not so simple. The flowers get their English name from French pensée — that is, “thought” or “remembrance” — perhaps because they are said to resemble human faces and thus to remind us of those we love or have loved. This supposed resemblance also explains the pansy’s onetime colloquial English name of “three-faces-under-a-hood.” (It was also known in various parts of England as “heartsease,” “love-in-idleness” and “kiss-me-at-the-garden-gate.”)

I myself, I must say, see no faces at all when I look at pansies, which are — especially in their cultivated form — very beautiful garden flowers of the violet family. Yet “three-faces-under-a-hood” is a name that makes sense because the pansy has five petals, two rear ones rising above the three front ones, which are joined at their base. The “hood” and “faces” are often differently colored, the former being commonly blue or purple, the latter white or yellow with dark markings. In some varieties, the “faces,” too, come in two colors, giving the pansy its botanical name of viola tricolor, “the three-colored violet.”

Although classical Hebrew has names for many flowers, nearly all are of wildflowers native to Palestine, which pansies are not. The pansy was thus nameless in Hebrew until the first decade of the 20th century, when the Russian-born Hebrew poet Sha’ul Tchernichovsky coined “Amnon-and-Tamar” for it. He did this in a poem that tells the story not of the biblical Amnon and Tamar, but of a similarly named Jewish brother and sister in medieval Poland who are separated at a young age when Ukrainian Tatars raid their village and take them captive. They are brought back to Ukraine and sold as slaves to different masters, and when they meet again as adults, they fall in love and marry, only to discover, to their dismay, that their relationship is incestuous. Distraught, they run away and wander in the wilderness until God, having pity on them, grants them an Ovidian metamorphosis:

And so Amnon was made a flower, Sky-blue the color of his petals, While Tamar’s were golden-yellow, Sheltering against his breast. Firmly in his arms he held her, Tight he hugged her, his own sister, While with all her love and longing She laid her head upon his chest. The pansy’s three “faces” are now a young woman clinging to her darker and taller brother. But what made Tchernichovsky change the biblical story into an Eastern European one? Although his fondness for pansies may have inclined him to substitute a tale of tragic and romantic love for one of cruel and abusive passion, this is not the main explanation. That, rather, is a Russian folktale to which Tchernichovsky gave a Hebrew form. One name for the pansy in Russian is Ivan-da-Marya, “Ivan-and-Maria” — a brother and sister, according to legend, who, taken from each other in childhood, later met, fell in love, married, found out the truth about themselves and were turned into a flower to allow them to remain together despite the forbidden nature of their relationship. Such pansy lore is not just Russian. Similar stories were common all over Eastern Europe. In Belarus, the pansy is known as brat-sestra (“brother-sister”) or brat-y-syastroyu (“brother-with-a-sister”); in Ukrainian, as bratki, “little brothers”; in Polish, as bratek, “little brother.” Russian ethnographer Valeria Kolosova has speculated that such tales come from the pansy’s association with the midsummer solstice festival of St. John’s Day (Ivan being the Russian form of John). Traditionally, St. John’s Eve was considered an occasion for sexual license (think of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), of which incest is the ultimate form. The pansy is also known in Russian as Anyutini glazki, “Anna’s eyes,” from which comes the Yiddish term for it, Khanales eygelakh. No doubt there is a folktale behind this, too, but I don’t know what it is. Perhaps Tshernichovsky didn’t, either. Thanks to him, in any case, amnon v’tamar is how you say “pansy” in Hebrew, even though few Israelis are acquainted with his poem, and most would, if asked, tell you that the flower gets its name from the story of Amnon and Tamar in the Bible.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.