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.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. SourcesGraves, 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.
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:
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. SourcesApollodorus. 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.
In pagan imagery, the broom is not just a symbol of witches, but of wives. The Celtic goddess Brigid has among her many functions the charge of housekeeping, and her followers report that they often see her with broom in hand. Women used to leave their broom outside the front door when they left the house, as a signal to visitors that they were not at home. The ordinary broom used for household chores, as opposed to the witch’s ritual broom, is married to the house; when a family moves it is customary for the broom to remain at the house rather than being brought along to the new location.Many people are familiar with the phrase “to jump the broom,” which means to get married, and this custom relates to the broom as symbol of housekeeping and mature womanhood. The custom of jumping the broom was common on the American frontier when ordained ministers were scarce. A couple might be awaiting their second child before their marriage became official within their church, and the broom served to sanction their union until then. Broomstick weddings were also common among African American slaves, who were denied “real” marriage by slaveholders and Christian authorities. The association of brooms and marriage has antecedents in so many cultures that it is impossible to trace the origin of the custom, other than to say that it almost certainly did not originate in America.In many pagan weddings today, it is the jumping of the broom, rather than the exchange of rings or the words “I do,” that is the core part of the ceremony. The couple, holding hands or with hands fastened by ribbons, jumps over a broom lying horizontal on the ground. While in the air the spirits of the couple become joined, and when they hit the ground that union becomes sealed in the physical world. Superstitions about broom handles touching the ground suggest that in the older ceremonies the jumping broom might have been elevated or propped against something.
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 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.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. 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.SourcesBlount, 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”.