Mole models in Cervantes

From saviour to saved to savoury: the de-/remystification of bodily imperfection.

Mashup of Tarif and his mole, with apologies to Connie Mason. And to the mole.

Mashup of Tarif and his mole, with apologies to Connie Mason. And to the mole.

Horace Jeffery Hodges’ perambulations in dermatological eschatology have led to several interesting posts, of which this is the latest substantial item and this the announcement of publication at some future stage of his revised conclusions in the journal of the Cervantes Society of America. He is particularly interested in the possibly critical portrayal by Cervantes of Muslim beliefs concerning moles on the right shoulders of Mohammed and the Berber general Tarif ibn Malik.

This post takes a rather different tack and whacks three Cervantine moles (of which the first has been publicly dissected by HJH in search of Mohammedan connections) which signify respectively, and I think in chronological order, that their bearer

  1. is a super-human saviour or prophet;
  2. is to be saved, in a non-heroic, secular sense;
  3. may well possess more traits worth investigating.

Mole # 1: saviour

HJH draws attention to the 18th century scholar John Bowle, who points out that in the following excerpt Cervantes uses Dorotea’s quest for Don Quixote’s mole to parody Miguel de Luna’s account of Tarif’s skin marking. Sez Dorothea:

“His name, my father said, should be, if I forget not, Don Azote [horsewhip], or Don Gigote [mincemeat].”
“An’t please you, forsooth,” quoth Sancho, “you would say Don Quixote, otherwise call’d the knight of the woful figure.”
“You are right,” answer’d Dorothea, “and my father also describ’d him, and said he should be a tall thin fac’d man, and that on his right side, under the left shoulder, or somewhere thereabouts, he should have a tawny mole over-grown with a tuft of-hair, not much unlike that of a horse’s mane.”
With that Don Quixote called for his squire to come to him ; “here,” said he, “Sancho, help me off with my cloaths, for I’m resolv’d to see whether I be the knight of whom the negromantic king has prophesy’d.”
“Pray sir, why would you pull off your cloaths?” cry’d Dorothea.
“To see whether I have such a mole about me as your father mention’d,” reply’d the knight.
“Your worship need not strip to know that,” quoth Sancho; “for to my knowledge, you’ve just such a mark as my lady says, on the small of your back, which betokens you to be a strong-body’d man.”
“That’s enough,” said Dorothea; “friends may believe one another without such a strict examination; and whether it he on the shoulder or on the back-bone, ’tis not very material.”
(trans Motteux cs)

Moles of course also feature in Christian iconography, but I think that the position of the mark indicates that Cervantes is parodying the Muslim mole legend and not its Christian counterpart–pre-Council of Trent southern European Verónicas (holy faces) locate Jesus’ mole on one of his cheeks: sometimes on the right, as in the the panel in the Convent of the Encarnación in Ávila; and sometimes on the left, as in the older icon attributed to Luke the Evangelist and admired in the church of St John Lateran in Rome by the Cordoban traveller, Pero Tafur, in his Andanças e viajes (1457):

Aquí está al un canto de la yglesia una capilla apartada, que llaman Santo Santorum, é está una ymagen de Nuestro Señor de la çinta arriba en una losa pintada. É dizen que Nuestra Señora rogó á Sant Lúcas, que fué gran pintor de la mano, despues de la muerte de su fijo, que le pintase su figura, é Sant Lúcas, teniendo aderesçado para la pintar, fallóla pintada; y çiertamente es cosa de grandíssima devoçion é obra bien propia, como de aquél que tuvo é tiene poder para fazer todo; allí muestra bien la figura de Nuestro Señor é su hedat, é su color, é todo qual era, é un lunar en el carrillo ysquierdo en nuestra humanidat.

A jumble of at least three motives led to the disappearance of moles from public and official art, in particular I think from the mid-16th century:

  1. the campaign associated with the Council of Trent to purify religious art of unorthodoxy, superstition, and fun in general;
  2. the similarly Renaissance desire to a return to an imagined golden age in which actions spoke louder than appearance (think emoticons), with a corresponding disdain for folksy palmists and other conmen;
  3. and a desire to use knowledge accumulated from dissection to portray ideal bodies.

The result of all this was that angels and popes and virgins all acquired the same plastic-perfect looks, as anyone who visited the recent exhibition at Barcelona’s Caixaforum of dreary Mannerist portraiture from the Uffizi.

But change may have been less rapid in less enlightened circles, and I wonder if Sancho and Dorotea’s failure to be awed by Quijote’s providential arsemole doesn’t commemorate a kind of Life of Brian moment for holey moleys. While some people are still going on about moles and meaning, other people are beginning to ask, “And so what if he’s got a pigmented spot?”

Interestingly, Shakespeare also uses a neck mole to indicate the true king, in Cymbeline, but without irony:

CYMBELINE. Guiderius had
Upon his neck a mole, a sanguine star;
It was a mark of wonder.

BELARIUS. This is he,
Who hath upon him still that natural stamp.
It was wise nature’s end in the donation,
To be his evidence now.


Mole # 2: saved

In my second example Cervantes uses moles to indicate the True One, but in a non-mystical sense. The device appears at least twice, in two of the Novelas ejemplares/Exemplary novels: La gitanilla/The little gipsy girl (who has a mole on her left titty) and La española inglesa/The Spanish-English lady (who may have one there too, but is only prepared to admit the one on her neck).

La española inglesa tells how in 1596 the anglocabrones sack Cádiz and an English captain, Clotaldo/Clotald, kidnaps a young girl and takes her home to his family. Time passes, and Clotaldo’s son, Ricaredo/Richard, falls in love with Isabela/Isabella, now a Spanish Englishwoman. Clotald and his missus favour this marriage over one already contracted with a rich Scottish girl, but the Queen of England demands that in order to receive her sanction Ricaredo must take to the seas and prove himself.

He departs, and in battle with the Turks captures another couple who desire nothing more than to return with him to England to look for a daughter abducted in Cádiz. Without revealing his family history, he takes them to London and the presumed parents and daughter are presented to one another:

Isabella raised her eyes to look at persons who she heard were Spaniards, and, above all, from Cadiz, longing to know if perchance they were acquainted with her parents. Her mother first encountered her gaze, and as she looked attentively at her, there rose on her mind some shadowy confused reminiscences that seemed to intimate she had seen that face before. Her father was in the same wavering state of mind, not daring to believe the evidence of his eyes, whilst Richard watched intently the workings of their perplexed and dubious souls.

The queen too noticed the emotion of the two strangers, and also Isabella’s uneasiness, for she saw her often raise her hand to her forehead, which was bedewed with perspiration. Whilst Isabella was longing that the person she imagined to be her mother would speak, thinking that the sound of her voice would resolve her doubts, the queen commanded her to ask the strangers in Spanish what had induced them voluntarily to forego the freedom which Richard had offered them, since freedom was the thing most prized, not only by reasonable creatures, but even by irrational animals.

Isabella put this question to her mother, who, without answering a word, rushed abruptly and almost totteringly to Isabella, and forgetting all respect of place or circumstances, put her hand to her daughter’s right ear, and discovered a dark mole behind it. Assured now beyond all doubt that Isabella was her daughter, she cried out, “Child of my heart! treasure of my soul!” and swooned in her arms. The father, no less tender hearted but with more self-command, gave no other token of his feelings than the tears that streamed down his venerable face and beard. With her lips pressed upon her mother’s, Isabella bent her eyes upon her father, with looks that spoke the gladness of her soul.

And that’s when we realise that we have been tricked: what seemed like a humdrum hostage play is actually a lengthy exposition (there’s a good summary in The crucible concept by ET Aylward if you can’t be bothered with the whole thing).

Shakespeare also uses the breast-mole motif in this sense in Cymbeline:

IACHIMO: If you seek
For further satisfying, under her breast–
Worthy the pressing–lies a mole, right proud
Of that most delicate lodging
: by my life,
I kiss’d it; and it gave me present hunger
To feed again, though full. You do remember
This stain upon her?

POSTHUMUS LEONATUS: Ay, and it doth confirm
Another stain, as big as hell can hold,
Were there no more but it.

Shakespeare took this from story II.9 of Boccaccio’s Decameron:

So the lady suffered the chest to remain in the room; and when the night was so far spent that Bernabò thought she must be asleep, he opened it with some tools with which he had provided himself, and stole softly out. There was a light in the room, so that he was able to form an idea of its situation, to take note of the pictures and everything else of consequence that it contained, and to commit the whole to memory. This done, he approached the bed; and observing that the lady, and a little girl that was with her, were fast asleep, he gently uncovered her, and saw that nude she was not a whit less lovely than when dressed: he looked about for some mark that might serve him as evidence that he had seen her in this state, but found nothing except a mole, which she had under the left breast, and which was fringed with a few fair hairs that shone like gold.

Donald McGrady has shown that Cervantes borrowed from Boccaccio on another occasion, but I guess there were plenty of other serviceable mole motifs of this nature around at the time.

Mole # 3: savoury

As anyone who has whacked moles will appreciate, no sooner have you got rid of a superstition than it pops up again in a different place. My third example shows Cervantes reintroducing vulgar physiogonomy, of which Chaucer was the greatest medieval reporter, and which was shortly to regain respectability (and lose much of its charm) at the hands of pseudo-scientists like Richard Sanders and Thomas Browne. Quixote and his Baldrick are discussing Dulcinea:

‘O ye miscreants!’ cried Sancho, ‘O ye malicious and mischievous enchanters! would to God, I could see you all strung by the gills, like so many haddocks! much you know, much you can, and much more will you still be doing. Was it not enough, ye knaves, to change the pearls of my lady’s eyes into a couple of cork-tree galls, and her hair of sinning gold into the bristles of a red cow’s tail; and, in short, so transmography every feature of her countenance; without your meddling with the sweetness of her breath [which we are told stinks of raw garlic], by which they might have discovered what was concealed beneath that bark of homeliness? Though, to tell the truth, I saw not her homeliness, but beauty, which was exceedingly increased by a mole upon her upper lip, something like a whisker, consisting of seven or right red hairs like threads of gold, as long as my hand.’
‘According to the correspondence which the moles of the face have with those of the body,’ said Don Quixote, ‘Dulcinea must have just such another on the brawney part of her thigh, on the same side; but hairs of such a length are, methinks, rather too long for moles.’

‘I do assure your worship,’ answered Sancho, ‘they seemed as if they had come into the world with her.’
‘I very well believe what you say, my friend,’ replied the knight; ‘for nature hath bestowed nothing on Dulcinea but what is perfectly finished; wherefore, if thou hadst seen an hundred such moles, in her would they be so many moons and resplendent stars.’

Thomas Stackhouse writes that says the Ancient Greeks practised divination by “moles and spots of various kinds”. Things have come a long way since, but our fascination with the prominent facial moles of modern personages–Scarlett Johansson, Madonna, Marilyn Monroe, Robert De Niro, Gwyneth Paltrow, Julia Roberts, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Elizabeth Taylor. (Has Sarah Jessica Parker removed her famous mole?)–still finds us roughly where Cervantes leaves us in this last example.

I wonder if this curious cultural progress of {saviour->saved->savoury} or, if you prefer, {needing->wanting->experiencing overbearing curiosity about}, has been mirrored in the world of bulls. Certainly the first stage was present in the Eastern Mediterranean at the time present-day major religions started looking for ways of identifying the true God. Charles Rollin in The ancient history of the Egyptians, Carthaginians, Assyrians, Babylonians [etc, etc] (ie his Histoire ancienne) describes how the Egyptians went about finding their saviour:

Of all these animals, the bull Apis, called Epaphus by the Greeks, was the most famous. Magnificent temples were erected to him; extraordinary honours were paid him while he lived, and still greater after his death. Egypt went then into a general mourning. His obsequies were solemnized with such a pomp as is hardly credible. In the reign of Ptolemy Lagus, the bull Apis dying of old age, the funeral pomp, besides the ordinary expences, amounted to upwards of fifty thousand French crowns. After the last honours had been paid to the deceased god, the next care was to provide him a successor, and all Egypt was sought thro’ for that purpose. He was known by certain signs, which distinguished him from all other animals of that species; upon his forehead, was to be a white spot, in form of a crescent; on his back, the figure of an eagle; upon his tongue that of a beetle. As soon as he was found, mourning gave place to joy, and nothing was heard, in all parts of Egypt, but festivals and rejoicings. The new god was brought to Memphis, to take possession of his dignity, and there installed with a great number of ceremonies.

I don’t know of any examples of bulls being subsequently identified as saved or savoury because of a mole, presumably because the object of our worship has changed and we are mostly no longer that interested in steak on legs, but several thousand years after the first of the Ptolemies we read in Antonio Díaz-Cañabate’s Historia de una tertulia (1952, on Corde) that the celebrated gypsy bullfighter Rafael Gómez, “El Gallo” would spot a particular mean race of bulls by the mole on their flank:

Una tarde, en Gayano, estaba Rafael en una mesa con el ganadero manchego don Samuel Flores. Naturalmente, hablaban de toros. El día anterior se había lidiado en la feria sevillana la corrida de Miura; una corrida gorda, grande y que salió fácil. Rafael lo había predicho en cuanto vio a los toros en Tablada. “El mejor -sentenció- será ese negro listón.” Y el mejor fue el negro listón. “¿Por qué, Rafael?”, te pregunté yo esa tarde. “Pues porque ese toro era de la reata del lunar; a ese toro le vi yo un lunar en el ijar, y dije, ese es superior”; y para asegurarme más, se lo pregunté al mayoral: “Oye, Miguel, ¿el listón es de la reata del lunar?” “De la reata del lunar es, Rafael.” Y no falla; todos los de esa familia, en la casa de Miura, superiores; como los de la familia del Cigüeño, en Saltillo, azúcar y miel. Toreaba yo, hace muchos años, en Barcelona, una corrida de Miura con Antonio Fuentes, Bombita y Machaquito. A la hora del apartado viene a la fonda el Pollo Posturas, mi banderillero, muy compungido. “Hay un toro grande, basto, destartalado, con el cuello largo y dos pitones, que no hay forma de emparejarlo con ninguno.” Me entró curiosidad, y fui a verlo; en cuanto entré en los corrales, le vi el lunar en el ijar; esto ya me dio buena impresión. Me llevo a un lao a Miguel, el mayoral, y le pregunto: “Miguel, ¿ese toro de la discusión es de la reata del lunar?” “Mire usted, Rafael, el señorito me ha recomendao que no diga nada a nadie de los toros.” “Toma un puro, Miguel, y bueno está; vámonos a tomar café.” Y tomando café, me dijo que aquel toro era de la reata del lunar. Tiro corriendo pa los corrales. Aún seguía la discusión; nadie quería aquel toro; no había forma de hacer los lotes. Entro y le digo al Pollo Posturas: “Se acabó la disputa. Ese toro, pa mí.” “Pero, Rafael, ¿tú estás loco? ,Tú te has fijao en el toro?” “Por eso que me he fijao, ese toro pa mí.” Y hacemos el paseo. La corría de toros salió con una guasa grandísima; miuras tirando cornás, alargando el cuello y andando más pa atrás que pa alante; too el mundo anduvo de cabeza. Y sale el toro de la reata del lunar, y sale superior, como no tenía más remedio que salir, y le corté las dos orejas y el rabo. Y cuando ya cansado de oír aplausos me llego pa los capotes, se me acerca Machaco y me dice: “Rafael, eres brujo.” Y yo no era brujo; era que sabía que aquel toro era de la reata del lunar. En los toros no hay cruzas, ni pastos, ni esto, ni lo otro; en los toros, lo que manda es la sangre y nada más que la sangre.

Gypsy is of course not necessarily the same as Egyptian.

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  1. Comments copy-pasted from previous location.

    1. Horace Jeffery Hodges
      April 9th 2009 20:57

      Fascinating . . . and funny. But also serious. I had no idea that concern with moles was so culturally significant. My own investigation was focused on Muhammad’s mole and its significance for the portrayal of Don Quixote by Cervantes, but by saying more on this subject of moles, you’ve shown that a lot more could still be said.

      Jeffery Hodges

      * * *

    2. A Nun
      April 10th 2009 13:04

      If moles were a good thing pre-Renaissance, how do you explain Piers Plowman “þi best cote, Haukyn, Hath many moles and spottes, it moste ben ywasshe”?

    3. Trevor
      April 10th 2009 13:13

      It must be a question of number and location. Perhaps a mole on your hand is worth two in your bush.

    4. Trevor
      April 10th 2009 13:30

      But away from the mole on your bottom and let’s get to the bottom of the mole. The Shi’ite Abdul-Sâhib Al-Hasani Al-‘âmili, translated by Taher Al-Shemaly, writes in The prophets, their lives and their stories:

      It had been told that when Adam was down from paradise a black mole appeared in his face from the top of it til its feet and so long was his sadness and crying for this, then came Gabriel (PUH) and said to him: why crying Adam? so he (Adam) said: for this mole that occured in me, so then he (Gabriel) told him: get up and pray, it is time for the first prayer, so Adam did that and the mole shrinked to his chest, then he (Gabriel) came again at the time of the second prayer and said to him: get up Adam and pray this is the time for the second prayer and so he did and the mole shrinked to his navel, and then came again at the time of the third prayer and said to him: get up Adam and pray this is the time for the third prayer and so he did and the mole shrinked to his knee, then he came at the time of the fourth prayer and said to him: get up Adam and pray this is the time for the fourth prayer and so he did and the mole shrinked to his legs, then he came at the time of the fifth prayer and Adam did the same and the mole was out of him and he thanked God for this a lot, then Gabriel did say to him: O Adam, your sons in this prayer are like you in this mole, and who would pray from your sons each day and night five prayers he would be out of his sins as you got out of this mole.

      Unfortunately I don’t know anything about this writer or his sources. Re Iranian moles:

      The more optimistic Shi’a believe Imam Mahdi is still tucked up in a cave somewhere, a black mole on his face, waiting to prevail over evil. An Iranian friend says he’ll surely have had cosmetic surgery by now, so identification may prove problematic.

    5. TJ
      May 16th 2009 22:50

      1. I was the translator not a writer. The writer himself gathers folklore and religious contents all together to discuss some matters.

      2. Shiites do not believe that imam Mahdi is in a cave. But alive among us.

    6. Trevor
      May 17th 2009 08:56

      1. I credit you as the translator, not the writer.
      2. Shi’a Muslims believe that the Mahdi is the Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, the Twelfth and last Imam, who was born in 868 AD and was hidden by God at the age of five. He is still alive but has been in occultation “awaiting the time that God has decreed for his return.”

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