Monthly Archives: July 2012

Behind the Olive Branch

Early Athenian coin. Goddess has olive wreath. Reverse side has sprig of olive above owl. 6th century b.c.e. Photo Ancient Art.


The Greeks ascribed the source of the olive to Athena, although the tree was first cultivated outside of Greece. The olive has been cultivated for at least 7,000 years, rather significant when you consider that the tree requires a fair amount of knowledge and care to obtain a usable product. The wild olive, native to the eastern Mediterranean, including Greece, produces a long narrow seed with meager flesh, and the tree must be grafted to produce what we would call a true olive. Pruning keeps the tree from growing too large and scraggly over the ten years or more that it takes to begin yielding a significant amount of fruit. Olives off the branch have to be processed, usually fermented in brine, to become edible. Large quantities of olives are crushed, pressed and filtered to produce oil. Whether done with modern or Stone Age methods, it’s a multi-step process that requires time, patience, equipment and collective effort.

Athena is an agricultural goddess who invented the plow along with other technology necessary for a settled farming community, such as oxen yokes, pottery, spinning wheels and looms. Her animals are the owl and the snake, both of whom control rodent populations, the scourge of all grain based economies.

Greek owl and snake goddess, 7th century b.c.e.



To create the plow Athena had to invent metallurgy, and she became the patron goddess of metal workers. Eventually metals became used not only to fashion farm and household implements, religious objects, and jewelry, but to create swords, breastplates, and helmets. Athena at this point became a goddess of war. A later myth says she was birthed fully armed from the god Zeus’ head, but Athena is actually a pre-Indo-European goddess and her rein in Greece pre-dates that of Zeus.

Even after her warrior goddess reputation was established, Athena remained a goddess of mediation and upholder of law, with a marked reluctance for armed conflict. Agrarian communities need peace in order to thrive.

The Erechtheum. Photo LevineDS.



An early temple of Athena on the Acropolis honored the place where she was believed to have planted the first olive tree. The remains of a later temple, the Erechtheum, still stand. This temple was named for Athena’s foster son Erechtheus, who was a snake child born of earth goddess Gaia. The god Poseidon tried to claim the temple site for himself by striking his trident against a rock, spewing forth a salt water spring. Athena would have battled Poseidon for possession, if Zeus had not intervened, imploring the two to accept the judgment of a special council. As instigator of the panel, Zeus had to recuse himself, and the verdict was divided along sexual lines, with all the goddesses favoring Athena and all the gods voting for Poseidon. With one vote to spare, Athena won. Both her tree and Poseidon’s spring were incorporated into the temple complex.

Cosmetic bottle from Greece in shape of an owl. 7th century b.c.e. Photo Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Athena and Poseidon’s conflict mirrors the rivalry along the coast between land and sea, where the sea tries to reclaim the land at every turn through storms, tsunamis and the erosion of relentless tides. The appearance of a salty spring on the high rocky outcrop of the Acropolis was a particularly bold invasion. Still, the Greeks must have seen a complementarity between the two deities, because they believed the olive tree could not grow far from the sea. This widespread belief has been verified somewhat; the olive tree thrives in dry, slightly alkaline, calciferous soils common to Mediterranean coastal areas, though it can also be grown in inland areas with similar temperature and soil compositions.

Olive oil not only revolutionized dietary and cooking practices in the eastern Mediterranean, it produced a cleaner fuel for lighting and a more stable base for cosmetics. The olive branch became a symbol of prosperity and accomplishment for the Greeks and a symbol of peace for the Romans. Athena was worshipped not just in Athens but along the Italian, Greek and Anatolian coasts as the the goddess of technology, best illustrated by her gift of the olive tree and the knowledge of how to grow and utilize it.


Roman mosaic from Tunisia, 300. Photo Getty Museum.

Sources

Grimbutas, Marija. The Living Goddesses. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1960.

Quennell, Marjorie and C.H.B. Everyday Things in Ancient Greece. London: B.T. Batsford, 1954.

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The Woman Who Walks With the Wolves

This week’s tree post will be about Athena and the Olive. I’m working on it now–it’ll be up later today or tomorrow. Instead of writing blogs today, I got a chance to play with some real wolves. This is Cree. He’s about five years old and very shy.

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The Linden Prophesy


The tree goddess this week is the Latvian Laima (pronounced like the first word in “lima bean”). Her Lithuanian name is Laime. Be careful not to get her confused with the fairy goddess Lauma or the Greek Lamia.

Laima is associated with many trees, but especially the linden; many birds, but especially the cuckoo; and many animals, but especially the cow. Laima is the goddess of birth, fertility, fate and prosperity — goddess qualities that seem to go together. Laima measures the length of the day, the length of a lifespan, the length of a spell of good luck. I have a mental picture of her flying around with a wooden ruler measuring things. (“Baby girl, you are going to be this tall.”)

Large-leaved Linden Tree. Photo by Willow.

The linden is the tree more commonly known as the basswood in the United States and the lime in England. It has soft wood used for musical instruments and a pliable bark used for basket weaving. It is a choice wood for carving. The sweet smelling flowers of the linden are brewed for respiratory and urinary infections. The flowers attract insects, particularly bees, which produce a honey prized for flavor and medicinal qualities. The insects in turn attract birds, as does the linden fruit.

The bird Laima favors is the cuckoo. The reappearance of the Common Cuckoo from her African migration marks the beginning of spring in Europe, and the cuckoo is said to prophesy by her number of calls. According to Marija Gimbutas, “Another folk belief relates that the tree on which the cuckoo sits becomes sacred and imbued with the powers of the goddess. If a person peels a piece of bark or breaks a branch of this tree, he or she will know the cuckoo’s prophesies.”

The cow is the special animal of Laima, also associated with the linden tree. Laima presides over the birth of calves, usually by appearing in the stall as a black snake or a black hen or even a black bug. In one song she appears in the cow stall as a linden tree:

A branchy linden tree grew
In my cattle stall.
This was not a linden tree,
This was Laima of my cows.

Laima produces goats and sheep from her other trees:

All roadsides were covered with Laima’s trees:
From a birch a ewe was born,
From an aspen-tree, a little goat.

It is common in Euro-shamanism for land animals to have a bird form. Here we have sheep and goats with tree forms.

Of course Laima also measures the length of a woman’s pregnancy and presides at the birth of children. She governs the bathhouse and sauna where Latvian women traditionally gave birth. In this role she takes the form of a woman with braided hair bearing linden branches.

Why so swift Mother Laima
With linden twigs in your hand?
To still the tears of a young bride
Who came last year to our land.

Laima can appear as one goddess, three goddesses, or as many as seven. In various aspects she may be given different titles, such as “Cow Laima” or “Fate Laima.” This is interesting in the context of the linden tree, because its trunk often looks like it has multiple trunks fused together. The American Basswood has several distinct trunks rising from a single base. The linden tree exemplifies the idea of the goddess who is many and one.

American Basswood




Sources:

Evans, Erv. “Scientific name Tilia Americana.” North Carolina State University Cooperative Extention.

Forler, Scott. “Linden-Lime-Basswood Honey” The Honey Traveler, 2011.

Gimbutas, Marija. The Living Goddesses. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.

Motz, Lotte. The Faces of the Goddess. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Nix, Steve. “American Basswood, A Common Tree in North America.” About.com.

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Check out the Mago Blog

Helen Hwang’s blog focusing on cross-cultural goddess studies is up now. I have a guest post there this week on the bear goddess Mielikki.

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Lady of the Sycamore

Continuing our exploration of the sacred trees of the goddess, we turn this week to the Egyptian goddess we know by the Greek name of Hathor. I had research to do for this, because I did not know why Hathor carries the title “Lady of the Sycamore” or why she had a shrine of sycamores in her city along the Nile. My first step was to learn more about the sycamore tree, and I quickly discovered that the tree known as “sycamore” in northern climates is unrelated to the sycamore of Africa and the southern Mediterranean. Hathor’s sycamore is the sycamore-fig, the earliest cultivated fig tree. Its fruit is orange-red, rounder than the common fig, and slightly less sweet. The milky juice of the unripened fruit is used medicinally for skin conditions. The fruit and the wasps pollinating the fruit attract a variety of birds. The tree is long-lived and grows along riverbanks to a height of about sixty feet, much larger than the common fig. The sycamore is a generous tree, offering its fruit year round.

Hathor 1400 b.c.e.

The association of the fig with Hathor evokes the idea of fig wine, as Hathor is a goddess of intoxication. Her new year rites were revels of dancing, music and wine, drawing large numbers of participants. Her priestess cult was an ecstatic one, with a strong emphasis on music. As Patricia Monaghan describes her,

…she was the patron of bodily pleasures: the pleasures of sound, in music and song; the joys of the eye, in art, cosmetics, the waving of garlands; the delight of motion in dance and in love; and in all the pleasures of touch.

As her cult spread, Hathor assumed a variety of attributes, even becoming merged with the lion goddess Sekhmet, but she was usually portrayed as a cow, a cow-headed woman, or a woman with cow-horns and moon disk, sometimes suckling her son Ihys (himself a complex deity).

As is sometimes the case with life sustaining goddesses, Hathor is also guardian of the dead. Hathor does not seem to have a “death aspect” or twin, but is the same generous, nourishing goddess in life and death. The spirits of the dead hang on her sycamore trees, and she wanders through the groves offering them fresh water. Sycamore was the preferred wood for sarcophagi, and one tomb painting depicts a sycamore tree with singing birds.

Even before Hathor’s cult became assimilated with others, her mysteries were probably far more complex than we can fathom from this distance. Clive Barrett conjectures:

The association of joy and intoxication on one hand and death and the underworld on the other suggests that her rituals involved some kind of shamanic practices. Divine madness freed her priests or followers from the mundane world, and with the correct training they were able to move onto other planes and walk with the gods.

Deceased king suckling the udder of Hathor.
1200 b.c.e.

Whether the sycamore-fig was ever fermented for Hathor’s rites I was unable to discover through my books and an Internet search. I found that this fig is indeed sometimes fermented into wine, but that it has a vinegary taste that makes it more suitable for medicine than enjoyment. The common fig and the grape, both more suitable for winemaking, had been introduced to Egypt by at least 3000 b.c.e., and there are extensive written records on the production of grape wine. Still, according to Meir Lubetski “The pairing of the sycamore fig and wine was firmly anchored in the cultic practices and in the prevalent landscape of the ancient Egyptians.” He also says that in one funerary ritual the newly deceased king would be fed figs and wine.

The sweeter common fig never supplanted the sycamore-fig as an important staple in the Egyptian diet. Hathor’s cult likewise, though it widened and changed, remained popular long into historical times. We generally think of death goddesses as unyielding of temperament like the Sumerian Ereshkigal, frightening in appearance like the Hindu Kali Ma, or stern and scary like the northern European crone goddesses. The worshipers of Hathor had a beautiful, happy lady with them in death. Small wonder the cult of Hathor was one of the most tenacious the world has seen.


Sources

Barrett, Clive. The Egyptian Gods and Goddesses: The Mythology and Beliefs of Ancient Egypt. London: Aquarian Press, 1992.

Iziko Museums, Figweb.

Lubetski, Meir. “Lot’s Choice: Paradise or Purgatory?” in Biblical, Rabbinical and Medieval Studies, Judit Targarona Borras and Angel Saenz-Badilles, eds. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Academic, 1999.

Monaghan, Patricia. The Book of Goddesses and Heroines. St Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1990.

Ray’s Figs website.

Wilson, Hilary. Egyptian Food and Drink. Buckinghamshire, UK: Shire Publications, 2008.

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The World Tree

At the axis of the worlds there is a tree linking the underworld, the word we live in, and the the ethereal realm of gods and fallen heroes. This is Yggdrasil (IGG-draw-sill), the divine ash tree. The serpent Nidhogg (NEED-hog) nibbles at its roots while an eagle nests in its high branches. The eagle and Nidhogg are sworn enemies, and the squirrel Ratatosk scampers up and down the trunk carrying insults from one to another. Four stags nibble at the lower branches, pruning foliage so Yggdrasil does not grow out of control. At the base of the trunk, on the ground, sit the Norns, the sisters Urd (oord), Verdandi (VAIR-dawn-dee) and Skuld (schooled). They water the roots each day from a pool of white water. Urd is the oldest of the sisters, and some even say the other two are aspects of herself. From her name come the words “earth” and “weird,” which originally meant fate. The Norns set the fate of each child at birth, carving the details in runes on a wooden plank. Those who consult the runes address the Norns before each divination.

From Edith Hamilton’s Mythology:

Beside this root was a well of white water, URDA’S WELL, so holy that none might drink of it. The three NORNS guarded it, who “Allot their lives to the sons of men/And assign to them their fate.” The three were URDA (the Past), VERDANDI (the Present), and SKULD (the Future). Here each day the gods came, passing over the quivering rainbow bridge to sit beside the well and pass judgment on the deeds of men.

The Three Witches from Shakespeares Macbeth, by Daniel Gardner, 1775. They were called “the weyard sisters” in the play, an allusion to the Norns. (Weird at that time meant fate.)

Hamilton is conflating Germanic and Greek myth a bit here. The three fates (Moirae) of the Greeks are spinners in charge of past, present and future. The names of the Norns translate closer to “fate,” “being” and “necessity.” Hamilton does not make it explicit that the gods sit at Urd’s well because they need the authority of the Norns to pass judgment.

The god Odin (OH-dinn) is also associated with the ash, because he hung upside down from Yggdrasil for nine days and nine nights in order to receive the eighteen runes. From a medieval text quoted in D. Jason Cooper, Using the Runes:


I hung from a windswept tree,
I hung there for nine days and nights,
I was gashed, pierced with a spear,
I was an offering made to Odin.
Offered, myself to myself,
On that tree which no man knows,
Or where its roots still run.

The wood of the White Ash is very hard, and so it is often used for tool handles, including magical tools. Recall from previous posts that ash is the preferred wood for the witch’s broom handle.

The ash is also important in Celtic magic, and it’s tempting to delve into the copious amount of material on this tree. I am limiting myself to the connection between the ash and the Norns, however. If there’s anything you want to share about the ash, even if it’s not related to Germanic lore, feel free to leave a comment.


Sources

Cooper, D. Jason. Using the Runes.Wellborough, England: The Aquarian Press, 1986.

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. (Reprint) New York: Mentor, 1979.

Littleton, C. Scott (ed). Mythology: The Illustrated Anthology of World Myth and Storytelling. London: Duncan Baird Publishers, 2002.

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