I’m on dog-sitting duty today. Mrs TD has gone into town shopping with our friend M, who’s visiting for the weekend. As usual she’s brought her charming little schnauzer, Caspar. He and I have just returned from our morning walk, and I haven’t finished another book to discuss in this post, so I thought I’d offer a few random thoughts on Caspar.
The name ‘schnauzer’ derives from the German for snout, with the extended colloquial connotation ‘whiskery snout’. As you can see, Caspar has a splendidly whiskery muzzle and eyebrows.
This miniature breed was popular in Germany as ratters; the larger varieties of course tended to be used as guard dogs or in the military. Like most small dogs, Caspar thinks he’s a giant.
I asked M where his name came from. She said the litter he came from all had names to do with magic and magicians. Of course: Caspar was one of the Magi, the Three Wise Men of the epiphany story.
I looked him up: his name comes from Persian or Scandinavian (not sure how that works) and means ‘treasure bearer’. Appropriate for a magus who brought the precious gift of frankincense.
What exactly is frankincense? As its name suggests, it’s an aromatic, but I had to resort to Wikipedia again. It’s aka “Olibanum”, and is based on a resin obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia in the family Burseraceae. So now we know. Our English word derives from the Old French franc encens, glossed as ‘high quality, noble or pure incense’. Folk etymology suggests a connection with the Franks and Frankish Crusaders, who apparently brought the incense back from their travels in the Middle East (which is presumably where the magus Caspar came from).
The resin is collected by a process of slashing or striping the tree’s bark; this sappy resin hardens into what are called ‘tears’. The Roman Catholic church sources most of its frankincense (burnt in censers) from Somalia. It’s also used in perfumes and aromatherapy.
We agreed that Caspar’s association in popular culture with the friendly ghost is also appropriate: he’s a very sociable, equable little chap – though he does take exception to people walking past his window without permission.
Btw, myrrh (ridiculous spelling; it derives from Aramaic for ‘bitter’, and entered English via the Old Testament), one of the other three gifts of the Magi, is another aromatic derived from a tree resin. It was highly prized as an incense in ancient Jewish religious ceremonies.
It’s less valued as incense today, but is an ingredient of a number of medicines like analgesics and antiseptics. It’s used in Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine, and was prized by the ancient Egyptians as an embalming ingredient for preserving mummies.
I just ran all this past Caspar, but he carried on snoozing.