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The origin of this artifact so common and special at the same time is uncertain and is lost in time. It could be said that it is found in prehistoric times, when man discovers fire and to fan the embers he resorts to stir the air with any object as a fan.
Suppositions aside, we are aware that the fans were employed by Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans, thanks to the appearance of this instrument in the artistic representations of these peoples.
From Egypt, the earliest known representation is at the head of a ceremonial mace found at the Asmolean Museum in Oxford. It belonged to Narmer, that around the year 3000 a.C. unified for the first time the Upper and Lower Egypt, and represents a royal procession in which appear two slaves with fans.
The Egyptian fans were large, fixed, semicircular, feathers and long mangoes. Their function was twofold: on the one hand they served to give air and, on the other, they frightened the insects.
With the passage of time the fan became an ornamental object indicative of power.
Other Egyptian representations in which fans appear are found in the tombs of Beni-Hasan, from the 12th dynasty (1791-1796 BC), the lower reliefs of the Rameseo (dynasty XIX) and the frescoes of Medinet-Habu (dynasty XX ).
Greeks and Romans used fans, and proof of this are the literary quotations of various classical authors. Thus, for example, Euripides in his tragedy Helena speaks of an eunuch who fancied Menelaus’s wife while sleeping, so that insects do not disturb his dream; Menandro also mentioning this instrument in his Eunuco, and Plauto, Marcial, Ovidio, Tibulo and Propercio in his works. The Greeks had fans of various kinds: the miosoba, the ripis and the psigma; constituting for the Athenian women the scepter of beauty.
For its part, the Romans denominated flabelo, receiving the name of muscaria those that were used to frighten the flies.
In China the tradition of the fan is millenarian, going back to times of the emperor Hsien Yuan, around 2697 a. C. A legend attributes his invention to the daughter of Mandarin Kan-Si, who during a masquerade ball and to mitigate the heat, waved his mask very close to the face to give himself air, doing this operation very quickly to not let see his face to the men present, a gesture that was imitated by other women attending the event.
Some authors claim that the earliest archaeological record goes back to the eighth century BC for the fixed fan in China and the ninth century (877 AD) for the folding fan in Japan.
In the West, during the Middle Ages, the fan or “flabelum” becomes part of the Christian liturgy, being used in the consecration to protect the Eucharist from insects and refresh the celebrant. After the 14th century, the flabellus fell into disuse in the Roman church (reserved only for solemn masses and papal processions until its definitive demise after the Second Vatican Council), but was preserved in the Greek and Armenian churches where it is called “rhipidion “.
The fan was also known by Incas and Aztecs, since among the present of Moctezuma to Hernán Cortes they contained six fans of feathers.
In Spain, the first references of the fan appear in the Chronicle of Pedro IV of Aragon (century XIV), in which it is quoted as office of the nobles who accompanied the king “the one that takes the fan”. There is also reference of this utensil in the inventories of goods of the painter Bartolomé Abella (1429), the one of the Prince of Viana and the one of the Queen Dª Juana (Juana the Crazy one), the last realized in 1565. It is necessary to say that these fans were rigid and rounded, generally using materials such as palm (in the case of Abella), straw, silk and peacock feathers.
Among Columbus’ s gifts to Isabel la Católica on his return from his first trip to America, there was a range of feathers, material in which were also made the five commissioned by Germana de Foix (second wife of Ferdinand the Catholic) in 1514.