In Ancient Greece from around 500BCE felt caps were worn as the mark of fishermen, sailors and artisans. Odysseus, Charon, Hephaestus and Dsedalus are all portrayed wearing pilleus (plural for pilea). Interestingly the upper classes only wore the caps when travelling.
The felted cap permeates Greek mythology. Castor and Polydeuces, twins born of Zeus and Leda, a swan, were called the Dioscuri meaning “youths of Zeus”. They are portrayed wearing felt caps representing the last of the egg shells from which they were born. In some versions of the myth, Castor is killed, but as Polydeuces is immortal he asks Zeus to share his gift with Castor. Zeus responds by casting both of them to the skies to become Gemini (or the twins) to shine forever in the night sky.
In Ancient Rome the pilleus was a symbol of liberty and freedom. During the festival of Saturnalia, a feast held in honour of the god of seeds and sowing, Saturn, slaves wore the pilleus whilst being served a banquet by their masters. This demonstration of equality was promoted by a desire to restore life to the glory days of simplicity and lost utopia, compared to the highly structured and controlled life of the Romans. During this festival, the normal constraints and etiquette of city life were relaxed and slaves were allowed to roam free of duties for the day.
The cap was also placed on the heads of emancipated slaves as a declaration of their new found freedom.
In 44BCE Brutus issued a coin (Figure 3) commemorating the assassination of Julius Caesar. Brutus claimed to have brought freedom to Rome through the assassination and used the traditional symbol of liberty between the 2 daggers used by himself and Cassius to kill Caesar.
For a humble felt cap, the Pilea has had an incredible journey across two vast continents for many centuries in the Ancient World and we have briefly explored it’s origins and myths surrounding it. From the steppes of Asia to the high society of Rome, the cap has endured and enhanced daily lives through symbolic meaning and functional use.