Waxing lyrical and the mind

Woodcut of a jester. Hans Hanberg. Germany (1568)
Woodcut of a jester. Hans Hanberg. Germany (1568)

Ancient philosophers wondered about the nature of memory and the retention of knowledge. They knew a good memory aided a person’s intelligence and learning ability and was not linked to either looks or social standing. They postulated various explanations as to why we remembered things and what memory was. One theory dominated all others. It likened the mind and memory to a block of wax.

Although this now seems like an odd idea, ear wax was believed to come from a sort of wax inside the head itself. Ideas on human biology were paralleled with those of plants and ear wax was thought of in similar kind of way as plant sap, only thicker. It moved slowly and it gently seeped out into the ear canal. Incidentally, hair and fingernails were also thought of in the same way as the leaves of a plant. They too grew from the inside out. In any case, some people had vigorous, robust growth whilst others didn’t and these ideas are likely to be the origin of this ancient theory of memory.

Even today we know just as the ancients did, that too much wax in the ears dulls our sense of hearing, particularly if the wax is very hard. It makes it difficult to hear or take things in. This affects our comprehension and understanding of what others are saying and communication becomes impaired. This affects how we relate to others.

It was believed that the information we received was imprinted or impressed upon the wax inside our head and this was the mechanism of memory retention. Remnants of this idea remain to the present day for we still talk about making a good impression and we can even be impressed by someone. The fact is, first impressions count and indicate that a baseline impression is stamped into our mind. It is very difficult to alter no matter how hard we try. That these verbal metaphors have endured is no surprise for wax continues to be the most popular and best material to use when making an impression of a figure.

The general rule was that the higher the quality of the wax an individual possessed the higher the quality of the mind. The ‘wax of the mind’ could be hard or soft, pure or mediocre in quality but a refined and soft wax was generally regarded to be the most suitable for learning. It allowed an impression to be formed quickly and sharply leading to a well defined, deep and crisp image, free of smudges. The memory was retained which led to a clarity of the mind and a good memory retention free from confusion or the clouding of memory. But any defects or impurities in this head wax affected our memory retention and had knock on effects on our intelligence and thought processes.

A soft wax gave an initial good impression but the outlines of the memory shapes would soon begin to fade and become indistinct as the wax slowly reverted to its original shape. This led to a loss of information and forgetfulness. People who were simple minded were thought to have very soft wax inside their head, hence the expression soft in the head. The term empty headed meant that one had little or no wax in the first place.

A hard wax meant that an impression was more difficult to obtain in the first place. This made learning a slow process and required greater effort. One had to think much harder, going over the same thing several times until the information was retained. It was believed that this is what led to someone having a rigid and inflexible mind.

Very hard wax was considered even worse for it made it extremely difficult to get an image at all and this ultimately led to an individual who lacked any depth of thought or understanding.

It was believed in ancient Greece that between the age of four and fourteen was the best time for moulding the mind and shaping it via education. This period of life was ruled by the planet mercury which is the natural significator and governor of our rational mind and intellect.

Ultimately how our mind works affect our intelligence. The way we use it is described as our Wit. Wit can refer to many things that require a good mind. What they all have in common is the expression of intelligence. We all know that someone can live off their wits and calling someone witty or a wit implies an intelligent person, imbibed with a good intellect with an adept mind who can demonstrate mental ability and agility.

Mercury ruled the tongue, the organ responsible for speech and the instrument through which we communicate our understanding. If we are mentally at a loss, finding ourselves exasperated, we can become tongue tied or even be at our at our wit’s end. The terms ‘nit-wit’ and ‘half-wit’ still remain in common parlance, continuing to be used as derogatory terms.

Memory and memory problems are traditionally ruled by mercury.