U is for Umbrellas
How did the umbrella get its name?
The term ‘Umbrella' was borrowed from the Italian word 'ombrella,' a modification of the Latin 'umbella' which came from 'umbra' meaning shade or shadow.
The history of the umbrella as protection
Early umbrellas, or as they were known then as ‘parasols’, are thought to have been designed by the Egyptians around 1000 B.C. and were initially made simply from feathers or lotus leaves, attached to a stick. They were created to protect nobility and royalty from sunlight and help them maintain a pale skin.
The Ancient Egyptians believed that the goddess Nut formed the sky’s canopy as she stretched across the earth forming a massive dome. Nut’s brother, Geb, was considered the god of the earth and their father, Shu, stood between them with two hands reaching up to Nut. Together, they resembled an umbrella, so when the Egypt rulers were shaded, it was thought that they were demonstrating their mastery of the sun.
Egyptians had no reason to waterproof their parasols and create umbrellas so it was not until the 11th century BC when the parasol had spread to China, that the first leather umbrellas started being sold but were still only used by nobility and royalty.
Despite becoming popular in China, the trend did not reach Europe until steady trade routes were established in the early part of the years 1000 to 2000 AD. and even then initially they were used almost exclusively by wealthy females as men resolutely stuck to coats and hats.
This tradition of umbrellas being a female accessory continued to be enforced until the middle of 18th century until a famous Englishman Jonas Hanway, a philanthropist and traveller, insisted in carrying a sturdy and male oriented umbrella wherever he went.
Some of the most important inventions in the field of umbrellas happened in 20th century. The development of e.g. the classic, pocket, folding, automatic, bubble (clear plastic) and high wind (storm) umbrella (capable of withstanding winds of 90km per hour plus!)
Nowadays we recognise an umbrella as a useful tool, regardless of gender or social standing, that is used to give us some form of partial protection from the elements that cause us discomfort to our bodies e.g. rain, light sleet/snow or heat. They afford little protection however in strong winds unless we can afford a storm umbrella so we have to be sensible and know when it is appropriate to use them.
A lot of symbolism and metaphorical meaning has developed around umbrellas. The qualities associated with a metaphorical umbrella are similar to the traits of it’s namesake; they gather things under a common protective shield. There are times when this makes sense and is helpful, yet there are other times when it’s not.
Umbrellas can also be cumbersome and awkward, and we can cause others harm by inadvertently poking them. They are also easy to forget and leave them places because they are not a part of our daily routine. Just as umbrellas can become lost, we too, can sometimes lose our sense of peace and can feel lost but by intentionally returning under the protective canopy of friends or family members around us, or taking the time to sit and calm our soul then our sense of well being can return.
“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning how to dance in the rain” Vivian Greene
Life doesn’t always go smoothly. There will always be problems to negotiate along life’s journey. It is impossible to avoid the vicissitudes of life by ‘waiting for the storm to pass’ so it is better to start learning how to ‘dance in the rain.’
“Umbrellas can’t stop rain but can make us stand in the rain. Confidence may not bring success but it gives us the power to face any challenge.” Anonymous
We don’t need to avoid and stay out of the rain, (metaphorically choose to stay inside and live in fear) we can take our umbrellas (and/or raincoat) and protect ourselves from getting really soaked when go outside the door (Though we can choose to go outside and deliberately allow ourselves to be soaked and enjoy the sensation too!)
“Rain is nature’s art; umbrella is man’s art. When you walk with your umbrella in a rainy day, you walk with a super art which is a combination of two different arts!” Mehmet Murat ildan
As we learn to use our umbrellas (our strengths) as a shield against unpredictable ‘weather’ we learn to live alongside the ‘rainy days’ that we didn't ask for. The rain (problems we encounter) doesn’t usually hurt us, what can cause us unnecessary distress are our continuing unhelpful thoughts about a scenario. What gives us hope is that storms always pass.
“Worrying is stupid. it’s like walking around with an umbrella waiting for it to rain.”
“Any fool carries an umbrella on a wet day, but the wise man carries it every day.”
Although we may laugh at the proverb, in a metaphorical sense if we only drag out our skills when we need them they will be rusty and are not going to be honed but if we protect ourselves by developing good habits and routines on a regular basis then we will have confidence that they will be there, ready at our fingertips when we need them.
Umbrellas and relationships
“No relationship is all sunshine, but two people can share one umbrella and survive the storm together.” Anonymous
Sometimes umbrellas don’t open properly. They can become jammed due to frequent opening or closing or contrarily because we haven’t used them for a long time and they get stuck/rusty. Similarly, our relationships can become jammed too through differences of opinion and people can end up not talking to their friends and family for weeks or more. Just as we would oil an umbrella, or seek to repair so it can be functional again, we need to oil our relationships with love and affection, kindness, time and clear communication.
“When two men share an umbrella, both of them get wet.” Michael Isenberg
Continuing a previous metaphor, this quote could be interpreted as if two people rely on one person to do all the hard work in a relationship or life then although it might look as if one person’s life is easier and only one suffers in fact both suffer as one is not reaching their full potential and the other is having their energy drained and are not having a chance to flourish.
The duality of umbrellas
Well known for representing protection, umbrellas have also been linked to bad luck; particularly if you open an umbrella indoors. In practical terms, if you open an umbrella inside you have a greater chance of knocking something over or breaking something as your vision is often obscured.
There is another superstition that says that opening an umbrella indoors isn’t a problem per se, it is only a problem if the umbrella is black.
The superstition about opening an umbrella indoors, however, can be traced back to the ancient Egyptian era when Egypt worshipped the sun god. It was believed that the act of opening an umbrella indoors would displease their god, and so this was avoided at all costs.
Another dual aspect of umbrellas is that they protect us from rain (which we consider bad for us) but they also protect us from the sunlight which is supposed to be good for us. This is where the wisdom of knowing when to use an umbrella would come into play.. ie use it to protect ourselves from strong direct sunlight but not use it e.g. if the sunshine is gentle so our bodies can absorb Vit D
Umbrellas and religion
Umbrellas have played a symbolic role across different religions and throughout the ages.
The umbraculum which translates as 'big umbrella' is a symbol of the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope. Also known as conopaeum, the big umbrella is a historic part of the pope's regalia, and was once used on a daily basis to shade him from the sun.
In Buddhism, the umbrella is linked to the image of the Bodhi Tree. In the Buddhist art, the umbrella symbolize the enlightenment, gaining wisdom, i.e. a knowledge that will protect us from suffering.
“According to mainstream Buddhism, the Umbrella or Parasol is a symbol of protection from illness, obstacles, harmful energies and suffering experienced in the three lower realms of existence…..The shaft of the umbrella is a representation of the human spine. Around the vertebrae are three energy channels, known in Sanskrit as Ida, Pingala and Sushumna.” mastermindcontent.co.uk
The importance of umbrellas in different cultures
"Culture is an umbrella term, which encompasses the social behaviour and norms found in human societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities and habits of the individuals in these groups.” Wikipedia
The attitude towards and importance of umbrellas varies according to different cultures. In some countries it is just an ordinary object, i.e. simply a means of protection against the elements just like a hat, raincoat etc whereas in other cultures it is more revered and is a symbol of dignity and power and prosperity.
“In Thailand, umbrellas are an important symbol of royalty. Thai monarchs sit on thrones under nine-tiered umbrellas, with the tiers representing the eight points of the compass and the Buddhist concept of protection from suffering and harm.
Thai umbrellas were said to have originated from a monk called Phra Intha, who travelled to Myanmar and discovered people making oiled umbrellas using mulberry bark, which kept people dry as well as cool. Impressed, the monk took samples back to his home of Bo Sang village and taught the villagers how to make them. The people then added artistic flourishes to the umbrellas – painting typical Thai symbols like elephants and rice fields –
and the industry grew as umbrella-making provided people with a source of income during the rainy season.” ( www.asiangeo.com)
In ancient China, the use of umbrellas was also strongly hierarchical and became a symbol of social identity. Because of their scarcity and high cost, umbrellas quickly became a symbol of power in China and surrounding Asian countries. To differentiate themselves from the rest of population, Chinese royal members carried only red or yellow umbrellas, while the rest of the population used blue ones.
Umbrellas are widely used by traditional Chinese and Japanese weddings as part of their festivities. The matron of honour holds a red umbrella (representing joy) over the bride to ward off evil spirits. The Chinese characters of ‘Umbrella’ are composed of many people so it becomes a blessing for many descendants
Umbrellas play an important part in Japanese culture and the majority of people have an umbrella. In practically every establishment, there is a special rack for umbrellas, many of which are equipped with special locks so that the umbrellas cannot be stolen.
A completely different attitude to America apparently where
“The American people never carry an umbrella. They prepare to walk in eternal sunshine.”
In West Africa, only chiefs had the right to have umbrellas, which were carried by their slaves. These giant umbrellas or Bamkyim (an Akan word for a very large umbrella ) measured five to 10 feet across, and were held up on poles that were six to 10 feet high. The Bamkyim were made of silk and other rich fabrics and used to shade the chief. The size of the canopy meant that it could be seen from afar that a chief was approaching or sitting in state. The umbrellas were a crucial part of celebrations and processions, and they were twisted and turned and bobbed up and down to the music as the crowd moved along.
In London, in the finance district, umbrellas and bowler hats were de rigour; Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1937 to 1940, was nicknamed ‘Umbrella Man’ because he often carried an umbrella in public and was invariably depicted with it in cartoons - sometimes even drawn as an umbrella.
Umbrellas and politics
“Under the big political umbrella, a man is just like a leaf in the ocean, with no control of his destiny and does not have any choice.” Zhang Yimou
Talking of politics, umbrellas have also been used as symbols by ordinary people wishing to express their political opinions.
In the past in ancient China, the umbrella reflected a good relationship between officials and the people e.g; When an official took office and the local people felt pleased with him, they sent him a “Universal Umbrella” to sign the names of the people as a souvenir to express gratitude.
In modern society, however, the role played by the umbrella has changed direction and has become a prop to protest against the government. When the crowd wants to express different opinions on a certain government resolution, they hold black umbrellas and gather together; this phenomenon is known as the “black umbrella movement.”
This has also been the case in Hong Kong where the umbrella has been used to shield against the pepper spray and tear gas of the police, thus has become a political symbol of resistance.
Art is often held to be an integral part of activism. For the students involved in the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, their art was a primary vehicle of expression and a method of documenting what occurs.
The Art of the Umbrella movement refers to the artistic works created as part of the Umbrella movement in Hong Kong which demanded democracy during the election of the territory's top leader. Most of the physical works of art are located within the three main protest sites of Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok.
In 2014, for example, the sculpture ‘Umbrella Man’ a 3 m high wooden statue by the Hong Kong artist known as Milk was set up at a pro-democracy protest site next to the central government offices. The inspiration for the woodblock statue, symbolising freedom and peace, was a photograph of a suffragist holding an umbrella over a police officer to shield him from the rain and is made of plywood on a metal frame, with the blocks making up the face; white, symbolising pepper spray used by the police on the suffragists; the umbrella is yellow.
The red umbrella has become an icon and international emblem of sex workers' rights around the world. It symbolises protection from the abuse and intolerance faced by sex workers, and stands for strength and resistance
Alternative uses of the umbrella
There are many cases when the umbrella is put to a use other than it was originally intended. Sometimes it is used as a walking stick, at others it serves as an item for self-defence as is seen in various tv series or films.
Umbrellas, have naturally made their way into fiction because they can turn up in all sorts of unexpected places, easily getting lost, borrowed, or stolen. As well as serving as weapons, shields, metaphors etc they have been used for magic.
Umbrellas can be a central focus of attention in films, but conversely and equally they can also be used for the opposite purpose to provide cover from the sight of others. (See Books, films, series etc that feature umbrellas post)
The Umbrella has also been effectively used in interpretative dance. In China, many regions and nations have their own unique umbrella dance. People use umbrellas as props to sing and dance and express their feelings.
Expressions with the word umbrella:
The word umbrella pops up in all sorts of contexts.
In insurance terms, an ‘umbrella policy’ is an additional policy beyond the basic policy to cover the unusual and the unpredictable in a loss or damage incident.
An umbrella can also be used to describe something that groups similar things, for example, an ‘umbrella organization’ protects and serves many smaller organizations, an umbrella agency brings together other smaller and related agencies etc.
The autism umbrella - Autism is an umbrella term for a wide spectrum of disorders referred to as Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD) or Austism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)
On the whole umbrellas are seen as positive and encouraging with quotes like:
“The roof of your positive life is like an umbrella—protecting you from the rain but not obscuring where you are going.” Maureen Hagan
“Open your umbrella of creativity when glaring heat of adversity hits you unaware.”
“An umbrella with many holes is better than no umbrella!” Mehmet Murat ildan
With my favourite being “The human mind is like an umbrella – it functions best when open” Walter Gropius
There are some quotes, however, that portray it in a negative sense:
“Compromise makes a good umbrella but a poor roof” James Russel Lowell
“Going around under an umbrella interferes with one’s looking up at the sky.”
Finally a few quotes about umbrellas and life:
“Umbrella is comfort, rain is life! You must often leave comfort to touch the life!”
Mehmet Murat Ildan
“Success is like an umbrella. It has wires in it called faith. It has no meaning if there is no rain and storm called ebbs and flows of life.” Vikramn
“All is in flux, life ways are in transition, or, as the Indians say, the world has been turned inside out like an umbrella in the wind.” Northeast Indian Quarterly
“Illusions are like umbrellas, you no sooner get them than you lose them, and the loss always leaves a little painful wound.” W. Somerset Maugham