Category Archives: Trees

Neith and the Acacia Tree

Acacia trees in Morocco. Photo L. Mahin.


Our tree goddess this week is the goddess Neith (Neit), and her tree is the acacia. The acacia is a small scrawny tree with tiny leaves and pronounced thorns. It has a long fibrous seedpod that is attractive to animals and is often used as fodder for cattle. There are over a thousand trees with the common name acacia, and they grow all over the world in arid climates. One species in northern Africa, probably the tree of Neith, is the Vachellia nilotica, also called the Egyptian thorn or the gum arabic tree. The ancient Egyptians used the very hard wood of this acacia for making tools. The sap, called gum arabic in its powdered form, was used for incense, perfume, cosmetics, glue, pigment binder, and embalming. Gum arabic from a related acacia native to sub Sahara Africa is still used for a variety of commercial purposes, especially the manufacture of candy.

Probably the most important quality of the acacia is its globular, fragrant yellow flowers, which draw quantities of bees. Honey has been a vital food going back to the hunter/gatherer tribes of Paleolithic times. When Egypt adopted a grain-based diet, honey remained important not only as a food of pleasure but as a catalyst in bread rising and fermentation. In the complex Egyptian economy that nonetheless had not developed a metal currency, honey was a medium for paying taxes. Not only was it valuable, but it kept well. Honey was a staple food offering to the gods.

Parakeet feeding on acacia pod. Hyderbad, India. Photo J.M. Garg.



The symbol for Neith is the bee, and the bee hieroglyph can mean Neith, Lower (northern) Egypt, or the ruler of Lower Egypt, depending on the context. Neith is the oldest of the Egyptian gods, the mother of all the gods. It was she who emerged first from the amorphous primeval waters, and she who created the first mound of earth to rest upon. The round yellow flowers on her sacred tree reflect her position as mother of the sun, as does the sun-loving bee. Like many sun goddesses, she is the goddess of weaving, which is why the Greeks associated her with Athena. Neith gave the Egyptians the bandages used to wrap the deceased, and gum from her tree was the adhesive holding the bandages. Acacia resin was one of many substances used as an embalming preservative.

Aegis of Neith. 600 BCE. Photo Rama.

Unlike many creator gods, Neith did not create the world and retreat, but could be relied upon for continued gifts and sustenance. The gods drew on her wisdom in times of crisis, appealing to her for counsel through written messages, which Neith responded to with letters of her own.

In historical times Neith gained prominence as her city Sais rose in influence during the seventh century BCE, but Neith was probably worshiped in Lower Egypt long before dynasties or agriculture, when people still hunted for food. The crossed arrows on her crown probably originated as a hunting emblem, and may also relate to the defensive stinger of the bee and the defensive thorns on the acacia.

Primarily Neith is a goddess of sustenance, engaged in the perpetual creation of life. Out of just one tree she created incense, perfume, wood for implements, seedpods for cattle, pigment binder for ink and paint, materials for embalming and food for bees, not to mention welcome shade in a hot dry climate.


Sources

Barrett, Clive. The Egyptian Gods and Goddesses: The mythology and beliefs of ancient Egypt. London: Diamond Books, 1996.

Clark, R.T. Rundle. Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt. London: Thames and Hudson, 1959.

Acacia flowers. Photo Phillipe Birnbaum.



Jay, Lisa and Nessi Domizlaff. Ancient Egyptian Art: The Relationships Among Binders, Pigments and Surfaces, 2005.

Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry, Vol. 11, No. 2. REVIEW ON THE MATERIALS USED DURING MUMMIFICATION PROCESSES IN ANCIENT EGYPT, 2011.

Wilson, Hilary. Egyptian Food and Drink. Buckinghamshire, UK: Shire Egyptology, 2001.

Comments Off on Neith and the Acacia Tree

Moving & Changing: A Tree Collage

Moving & Changing: A Tree Collage from Hearth Rising on Vimeo.

2 Comments

Aphrodite and the Myrtle Tree

Myrtle in flower. Photo Giancarlodessi.


Our tree this week is the myrtle, sacred to Aphrodite. Myrtle trees were planted in Aphrodite’s temple gardens and shrines, and she is often depicted with a myrtle crown, sprig or wreath. Most people are familiar with Aphrodite as the Greek goddess of love, beauty and sex. Aphrodite is guardian of the gates of birth and death, symbolized by the vagina. As poets well know, myrtle rhymes with girdle, and Aphrodite has a very famous and coveted girdle that she sometimes lends to other goddesses. This is not the modern girdle that restricts breathing; this is a belt tied around the waist that makes the wearer sexually irresistible.

Aphrodite’s myrtle is the Common Myrtle, a small, leafy evergreen native to Asia minor and southern Europe that grows well in dry, slightly alkaline soil. It is not closely related to the Crêpe Myrtle, a tree native to India that was planted in the Carolinas and escaped into the wild, nor is it related to the Honey Myrtle or Lemon Myrtle, both of Australia, which are becoming increasingly important in herbal medicine.

With any tree sacred to a goddess it is important to examine whether it has a special relationship to the bee. Bees were highly regarded by ancient peoples, not only because they provide honey and pollination, but because like humans they live in highly organized communities. Goddesses of love and beauty are likely to be linked with bees, and Aphrodite is no exception. Aphrodite’s myrtle nymphs raised the God Aesacus, god of beekeeping and other cottage industries like olive curing and cheesemaking. Bees flock to the myrtle tree, and as a late blooming tree it is important in honey production. Pollen collected in the spring is used for the hive’s immediate needs, while pollen collected late in the year becomes surplus honey for the dormant period. A portion of this honey is harvested by the beekeeper. Myrtle honey, once important for food and medicinal uses, is an uncommon commercial honey today.

Gold funerary wreath. Greece, 4th century BCE.



You would expect the flowers of the myrtle to be odoriferous, considering its attractiveness to bees, but the leaves and the bark are also highly fragrant. The tree was used in ancient times to make perfume. The leaves and the ripe berries have a strong taste, reportedly similar to allspice, and they were used as a seasoning. This is significant because Aphrodite – like that other love god, Krishna – disapproves of garlic, and other seasonings must be substituted to flavor dishes at her festivals.

The myrtle’s association with Aphrodite made sprigs an important component in bridal bouquets in Victorian times. In some Ukrainian weddings, myrtle wreaths are held above the heads of the bride and groom. In Greece myrtle boughs were used in funerary ceremonies, and the myrtle wreath had a place in the Eleusinian rites, which were an exploration of the mysteries of death and rebirth.

Varieties of myrtle are usually planted as ornamental trees and shrubs, prized for their attractiveness and fragrance. The Common Myrtle is seldom used medicinally today, but classical texts indicate that it was once a standard treatment for a number of conditions. Myrtle is no longer a popular girls’ name, but it was well favored in the 1800’s, probably by mothers with a romantic nature. Apparently parents abandoned the name because the Myrtle girls were subjected to too much rhyming. (Fertile Myrtle has a turtle; jumps the hurdle in her girdle.)

Though the myrtle is not the popular tree it once was, any well-stocked occult store will carry the essential oil or the leaf. Be sure not to confuse true myrtle (Myrtus communis) with oil of Honey Myrtle or Lemon Myrtle, which are different trees.


Aphrodite riding goose, with son Eros holding myrtle wreaths. Date unknown. (Click on thumbnail for larger picture.)

Sources

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penquin Books, 1960.

Plants for a Future. Myrtus communis – L.

Powell, Cornelia. Queen Victoria’s Wedding Bouquet and the Legend of the Royal Myrtles.

Theoi. Flora 2: Plants of Greek Myth.

Weddings at Soyuzivka. Ukrainian Wedding Traditions.

1 Comment

The Sacred Fruit of Persephone


The autumn equinox coincides with the start of the major ceremonies of the Eleusinian mysteries. These ceremonies, which in Greco-Roman times attracted a huge number of attendees from all over the Mediterranean, guide participants into a deeper understanding of Persephone’s descent into the underworld.

There are several versions of the myth of Persephone, which is too long to explain in detail here. The gist of it is that Persephone as a maiden goddess or “Kore” is painting flowers in a meadow when the earth opens up and the death god Hades abducts her. He demands that she stay in the underworld with him as his wife and queen and refuses to let her leave. Persephone’s mother Demeter is inconsolable and neglects her duties as mother of vegetation, leaving crops to wither from lack of rain. As the earth becomes more and more parched, the gods become alarmed, and finally the chief god Zeus orders Hades to relinquish his captive. Unfortunately Persephone has eaten a pomegranate seed while in the underworld, and the laws there decree that no one who takes food in the land of the dead may return to the living. Given the urgency of the situation, a compromise is nevertheless reached: Persephone will spend four months of every year in the underworld with Hades and will spend the rest of her time on earth with her mother Demeter. From Apollodorus:

Persephone. Painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1874.

When Zeus commanded Pluto [Hades] to send Core [Kore] back up, Pluto gave her a pomegranate seed to eat, as assurance that she would not remain long with her mother. With no foreknowledge of the outcome of her act, she consumed it… Persephone was obliged to spend a third of each year with Pluto, and the remainder of the year among the gods.

Persephone’s return to the upper world in February coincides with the lesser ceremonies of Eleusis.

In addition to explaining the fallow period of the agricultural year, Persephone’s myth is believed to be an account of the merger of the Hellenic (Indo-European) pantheon with a much older one. The rape motif in the story underscores that the Hellenic takeover was a violent one that wrested power from women. In the words of Robert Graves, “It refers to male usurpation of the female agricultural mysteries in primitive times.”

The pre-patriarchal Persephone was probably a triple goddess, with the maiden Kore her manifestation in early spring, the mother Demeter her mature aspect, and the queen of the underworld her death aspect. Note that Mediterranean goddesses were rarely depicted as hags or crones, even in their death aspect.

Persephone’s symbols are many, but we are confining our attention here to the pomegranate. This tree, which is native to Afghanistan and surrounding regions, has been cultivated for at least 5000 years. It is probable that the fruit was traded even earlier, since pomegranates keep well and their flavor is enhanced during storage. Pomegranate trees grow easily from seed. They thrive in hot, semi-arid conditions, even in poor soil. After the pomegranate flowers, the burgeoning fruit has a pronounced crown. The fleshy red seeds are sectioned by membranes that are cavernous in appearance. The cave is a symbol of both the underworld and the womb. Red is the color of blood, the womb, and birth. Many ancient people in the Mediterranean and elsewhere painted dead bodies with the red mineral ocher to symbolize rebirth. Of course, seeds also symbolize birth, and the plethora of seeds inside the pomegranate make it an emblem of fertility.

Provocative symbolism aside, the pomegranate is a useful fruit. The seeds have a pleasant, astringent taste that is not overly sweet. The seeds have long been used to treat tapeworms, and the rind can sooth irritated skin. The rind is also used to dye cloth yellow. The sacred trees of major goddesses usually have a long history of generosity to humans.

Illustration by Pierre Jean Francois Turpin, 1835.




Sources

Apollodorus. The Library of Greek Mythology. Keith Aldrich, trans. Lawrence, KS: Coronado Press, 1975.

California Rare Fruit Growers. Pomegranate.

Durdin-Robertson, Lawrence. The Year of the Goddess: A Perpetual Calender of Festivals. Northamptonshire, England: Aquarian Press, 1990.

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

Lust, John B. The Herb Book. New York: Bantam Books, 1974.






From now until January 1st many people will be using pomegranate seeds in their rituals. The following video shows how to easily seed a pomegranate.


Comments Off on The Sacred Fruit of Persephone

Frigga and the Birch

White Birch tree. Photo Willow.


The birch was discussed a few months ago in the series on the witch’s broom, but a whole book could be written about this magical tree. This week we turn to the relationship between the birch tree and the Germanic goddess Frigga.

Trees going by the common name of “birch” belong to the family betula, which abounds in northern climates, though the various species differ in appearance, habitat, and other characteristics. The two species prevalent in North America are the Paper Birch, which produces the material for the lightweight birch bark canoes that were once the predominant mode of travel in the north, and the Yellow Birch, which is known for its highly aromatic leaf buds. Neither of these characteristics are shared by the White Birch or Silver Birch, the two species Germanic sacred lore is based upon. The White Birch is the most northern growing Eurasian hardwood and the only tree found in Iceland. The Silver Birch has the whitest bark of any betula. In some cases it is impossible to distinguish which tree is being referenced, but fortunately the two are very similar, their chief difference being growing habitat. The following discussion will apply to the White and Silver Birch, but one or more of the magical characteristics of these trees can be found in other birches native to North America.

The birch is an attractive tree, often quite tall, that buds early in spring. Deer are dependent on birch twigs during periods of heavy snow, and the inner bark of the tree is edible for humans as well. Birch produces abundant sap that was once used for sweetening beverages. Twigs are traditional material for thatching houses or weaving baskets, and the bark is used for smoking meat or tanning hides. The fragrant wood burns even when wet. Birch is the preferred wood for constructing drums due to its resonance.

The rune Boerc.



The birch tree is believed to dispel evil, which is why participants leaving the traditional Nordic sauna are gently flogged with birch twigs. The household broom was once constructed with birch twigs and witches still prefer birch for their brooms. In Germanic provinces in medieval times, young men would decorate birch trees for the May rites in homage to their lady love. Birch was the favored wood for the Maypole.

Birch bark was often a medium for runic script, and the rune Boerc corresponds to the birch tree. D. Jason Cooper calls this rune one of “healing, regeneration, and the atonement of past deeds” and it is used magically for increasing fertility and aiding childbirth. In divination, Boerc means abundance, possible marriage, stability, and purification.

Boerc is Frigga’s rune. The prose Edda says of Frigga that “she knows the fates of all men, though she speaks no prophecy.” Frigga is known for her propensity for silence, which is another way of saying that she holds the mystery, mistress of truths that are hard to penetrate. She rules the hidden realms, including the realm of the dead.

Silver Birch. Photo Speifensender.



In Germanic lore the most popular death scenario is that half the heroes slain in battle go to Valhalla, the hall of the god Odin, while the other half go to the hall of the goddess Frejya, all feasting in merriment while awaiting the final battle. Those who die of sickness, old age, or other inglorious means, on the other hand, go to the cold inhospitable realms of the goddess Hel. In a competing and less celebrated scenario, the dead go to Fensalir, the hall of Frigga located on a distant sea-island, where they feast in abundance and harmony forever. Frigga is a pre-patriarchal, pre-Indo-European goddess whose inevitable marriage to the chief Teutonic god Odin reflects not only her power and high status, but her rulership of the death realms that Odin penetrated to achieve his status as a shamanic deity.

Cooper asserts that “Little is positively known of Frigga’s worship in pagan times, since the Christians were harder on the goddesses than the gods of the north.” What little has been positively discerned has been pieced together from fleeting references in the many texts penned in Christian times. Other things can be inferred about Frigga, however, from her association with gold, spinning and weaving, and the birch tree. Being goddess of death and goddess of sustenance seems contradictory, but it mirrors the generosity of the birch in winter and summer. The spinning wheel is a common metaphor for the cyclic nature of the seasons, and spinning goddesses are almost invariably spider, snake, or sun goddesses. The gold thread that Frigga spins and the golden tears she cries suggests she is linked to the sun. The qualities of the birch, taken together, are also reflective of the sun. Birch leaves turn striking gold (Silver Birch) or a dark red (White Birch) in fall, and the white branches of the tree are awakened early by the rays of the sun. Remember, too, that birch wood burns unseasoned and when wet, suggesting that the tree stores or contains the sun’s fire.

Silver Birch. Photo Alexey Novitsky.



Frigga ia an important goddess, one that deserves more attention, and every reference to her, tangential as it may be, is filled with messages. I have limited discussion of her here to the places her story intersects with the birch, but feel free to add more in the comments.


Sources

Blount, Martin. “Lady of the Woods – The Birch.” White Dragon.

Cooper, D. Jason. Using the Runes. Wellingborough, UK: The Aquarian Press, 1986.

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

The Gylfaginning at Sacred Texts.

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1940.

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

Sacred Earth. “Birch (betula sp.) – History and Uses”.

Comments Off on Frigga and the Birch

Good for Nothing But Luck and Friendship

Photo H. Zell.


In the spirit of tree worship that this blog has lately become, I thought I’d give a shout out to my alma mater and motherland, The Buckeye State. Perhaps you have to spend some time in Ohio’s capital city to recognize the frenzied devotion to this tree. It’s more than football fever, although the Buckeye is the sacred tree of sports and the mascot of The Ohio State University sports teams. If you’re born in Ohio, you’re a Buckeye. If you grow up in Ohio, you’re taught apocryphal Buckeye legends masquerading as Ohio History. If you go to Ohio State, you’re a Buckeye. If you root for the Buckeyes, you’re a Buckeye. And if you’re a Buckeye, your heart beats a little faster when you think of the nut of the Buckeye Tree, also called a Buckeye. People carry them around for good luck. I had a whole shoebox of them as a kid, one of my prized possessions.

Photo H. Zell.



What’s so special about the Buckeye Tree? I really don’t know. Unlike most sacred trees, it has no real economic value. The flowers are not showy, the tree is not particularly handsome or tall. I wouldn’t know what the wood is good for. The nut is poisonous, though it has some obscure medicinal uses. The nut is handsome, though, at least to a Buckeye. I honestly thought there was nothing strange about the Ohio State mascot being a person dressed like a nut until I heard some non-Buckeyes snickering about it.

Photo H. Zell.



Don’t believe me that Ohioans worship the Buckeye? You’ll have to go there, and feast your eyes on the most beautiful nuts in the world.

Comments Off on Good for Nothing But Luck and Friendship

The Isle of Apples

Apple blossom with bee. Photo by Simon Eugster.

Sweet apple-tree of delicate bloom
That grows in concealment in the woods,…
While my reason had not strayed, I rested by its side
With a fair gleeful maiden of perfect slender form.
Black Book of Caermarthen XVII

These words, attributed to Merlin, are part of a spell invoking the aid of the apple tree in defense against a Saxon invasion. The “gleeful maid” refers to the womanly aspect of Nimue (NEE-way), who appears in Welsh romances as Merlin’s apprentice and sometime nemesis. Nimue is the white goddess of the Otherworld who brings sweetness and sometimes death. The apple tree is not so much her symbol as her manifestation. The Celts of the British Isles envisioned the afterlife as an island covered with apple trees in perpetual bloom.

The flowers of the apple tree have a heady, pervasive fragrance that attracts legions of bees. The ripe fruit, which also has a strong pleasant odor, is fermented with honey to make traditional mead, the intoxicating gift of this lovely goddess. Trees which attract bees are usually associated with an important goddess, while goddesses associated with sweet-smelling flowers are often death goddesses. (The decaying corpse has a sweet odor.) Goddesses (and gods) associated with death are often revered by the shaman, because divination and magic require moving into incorporeal space. Intoxicating substances are sometimes used as tools for shamanic visioning, and this visioning is compared to a state of intoxication even when substances are not used. Small wonder that Nimue permeates the legends of the great magician Merlin!

The apple tree, which is a member of the rose family, originated in central Asia but was cultivated widely in the early agricultural societies. The tree must be grafted to produce a reliable fruit; most apples grown from seed are sour or bitter. It is not known when the first apple was cultivated in Wales. Many assume the apple tree came with the Roman occupation, but this does not appear to be supported. A white flowering crabapple is native to the British Isles, so the legends may have originally grown around this tree. How long apple (or crabapple) trees have been worshiped in the region also cannot be known. The romances were penned by Christians in the seventh through the eleventh centuries, and the Celts absorbed a great deal from pre-Celtic cultures in their settlement areas. The hawthorn might also have been a precursor or stand-in for the apple. In one story Nimue imprisons Merlin in a tower of hawthorn bushes. The hawthorn is closely related to the wild crabapple: both are members of the rose family, both have white flowers, both bear small fruit, and both have thorns.

The apple remains an important ingredient of modern witchcraft, especially prominent in Halloween rituals. The fruit is cut through its equator and placed on the altar flesh side up, so the five-pointed star in the center can be seen. This is the source of the sacred pentagram.


Sources

Matthew, Caitlin and John. Ladies of the Lake. London: Thorsons, 1992.

Meyer, Kuno, trans. Voyage of Bran. From sacred-texts.com. Originally published 1895.

Scudder, Vida Dunn. Le Morte d’Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory and Its Sources. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1921.

Skene, William F., trans. The Four Ancient Books of Wales. From sacred-texts.com. Originally published 1868.

University of Illinois Extension. Apple Facts.

Comments Off on The Isle of Apples

The Cedar Forest

Ishtar


They stood at the edge of the Cedar Forest,
marveling at the great height of the trees.
They could see, before them, a well marked trail
beaten by Humbaba as he came and went.
Far off they saw the Cedar Mountain,
sacred to Ishtar, where the gods dwell,
the slopes of it steep, and rich in cedars
with their sharp fragrance and pleasant shade.
Gilgamesh, Stephen Mitchell, trans.

Extensive cedar forests once covered Lebanon, Western Syria and parts of Turkey. Cedars in this region are known as Lebanon Cedars and are not closely related to the many other trees around the world called cedar, such as the White Cedar, which is a cypress, or the Red Cedar, which is a juniper. What trees bestowed with the name cedar seem to have in common is an aromatic wood resistant to insects and to rot. They may also have a fine resin; the Lebanon Cedar resin was exported to Ancient Egypt for embalming.

Cedar forest in Lebanon. Photo by Jerzy Strzelecki.



It was to the great cedar forests west of Mesopotamia that the hero Gilgamesh and his partner Enkidu journeyed on what was essentially a timber raid. In order to take the trees, the giant tree guardian Humbaba, servant of the god Enlil, had to be vanquished. Humbaba is a protective deity whose image is displayed in Mesopotamian seals and wall plaques. Gilgamesh relished the thought of slaying Humbaba, at least at the onset of the journey. He did have attacks of cowardice as the confrontation grew near, yet he overcame his terror and killed the giant.

Humbaba. Circa 1700 b.c.e.



With Humbaba out of the way, the heroes cut choice trees from the forest, binding the logs together to make a raft. They decided to set aside the best cedar for a giant door in Enlil’s temple — a good move, since Enlil was displeased about the slaying of his servant. Interestingly, the deity who did not seem miffed with the lumber thieves and giant murderers was Ishtar, the one whose forest had been plundered. When Gilgamesh returned to his city, she asked him to be her lover, offering him jewels, a chariot and a large cedar house.

Ishtar is the Mesopotamian deity who brought prosperity, technology, music, dancing, writing and many other gifts to humanity. She is a generous goddess, unlike her father Enlil who can sometimes be stingy or destructive. She delights in helping civilization to flourish. Ishtar is usually categorized as a fertility goddess, or a goddess or sexual love, which is certainly true, but it does not capture her complete essence. She is like cedar wood, a pervasive fragrance instinctively drawn in. With her concern for providing well for her cities, she would have naturally choosen to bestow a tree with a long lasting wood ideal for building.

Cones of Lebanon Cedar. Photo by Line1.




Sources

Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1992.

George, Andrew, trans. The Epic of Gilgamesh. London: Penguin Books, 1999.

Jewell, Eleanor. Facts About Cedar Trees.

Ketchledge, E.H. Forests and Trees of the Adirondack High Peaks Region. Lake George, NY: Adirondack Mountain Club, 1996.

Mitchell, Stephen, trans. Gilgamesh: A New English Version. New York: Free Press, 2004.

World Biomes. Lebanon Cedar.

Comments Off on The Cedar Forest

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.

Comments Off on Behind the Olive Branch

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.

Comments Off on The Linden Prophesy