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The most prominent female deity in ancient Mesopotamia was Inanna (also known as Ištar). Monotheistic religions have a way of leaving out women (or making them ancillary characters like Mary). Polytheistic religions often divide their goddesses into fertility goddesses (like Aphrodite) versus power goddesses like Athena or Artemis. Inanna reflects no such omission or dichotomy: as Queen of Heaven, she was both the goddess of sex and the goddess of war. In fact, saying that she was the most prominent female deity of the Babylonian/Akkadian/Sumerian pantheon might be unfair: arguably she was the most prominent god of any sort in that pantheon.
Worship of Inanna seems to have begun in the city state Uruk around 6000 years ago. Her sacred symbols were the eight pointed star and the lioness. She is especially affiliated with the planet Venus (which, obviously, was known instead as “Inanna” to the Mesopotamians), the third brightest object in the sky which, bafflingly, can rise in the East and the West in both the morning and evening (we realize that his is because Venus is our closest neighbor, but to the Babylonians it was uncanny). Inanna was not just the day star but also storm, flood, wrath, and war. Additionally, she was a goddess of fertility and unbridled sensuality. Inanna had many lovers (and was always looking for more) but her actual husband was the beautiful shepherd god, Dumuzi. There are several unabashedly graphic poems about the physical nature of the pair’s marriage (which you can look up on your own).
In addition to personifying forces of nature, Inanna possessed all of the secrets of civilization. She beguiled ancient Enki, the first god, with her charms and made him drunk on beer. Then she convinced him to give her the Mes, clay tablets which represented fundamental truth and all the blueprints for power and civilization. When Enki sobered up, he sent his attendants after Inanna to fetch back the Mes, but it was too late. Uruk blossomed and outshone Enki’s city, Eridu, in glory.
Probably the most famous story about Inanna concerns her trip to the underworld (ruled by Inanna’s sister, the dark and jealous goddess Ereshkigal). One day Inanna left heaven. She abandoned her seven cities and emptied her temples. She donned the seven sacred objects symbolic of her queenhood and set out for the realm from which no traveler returns. Before leaving, however, Inanna left explicit directions with her faithful vassal, Ninshubur, concerning what to do if she (Inanna) did not return in three days.
Arrayed in splendor, Inanna came before the great bronze gate to the underworld and announced herself as “Inanna, Queen of heaven.” She claimed to be visiting the underworld to attend her sister’s husband’s funeral. The doorkeeper of the dead, Neki was amazed and he sought Ereshkigal’s orders. To enter the underworld, Inanna had to give up her crown and, at each subsequent gate she was forced to part with another of her treasures/garments. One by one she set aside her lapis earrings, the double strand of beads about her neck, her breastplate (called, “Come, man, come”), her golden hip girdle, and the lapis measuring rod. She walked on and on through the dreary lands of spirits, ghosts, and wraiths. Whenever she tried to talk to Neti, he answered, “Quiet Inanna, the ways of the Underworld are perfect. They may not be questioned.”
Finally at the last gate she had only her royal breechcloth. Surrendering this last garment she came to the final depths of the realm of the dead naked and stripped of power. As she stepped before the throne of Ereshkigal she was knocked to her knees by the annuna, the monstrous judges of the underworld. They surrounded her and judged her. Here is a translation of the actual Sumerian text:
They passed judgment against her.
Then Ereshkigal fastened on Inanna the eye of death
She spoke against her the word of wrath
She uttered against her the cry of guilt
She struck her.
Inanna was turned into a corpse
A piece of rotting meat
And was hung from a hook on the wall
After three days Inanna did not return. Ninshubur became worried. She was a goddess in her own right who sometimes served as a herald or a messenger for the other gods, but her true devotion was always to Inanna (some myths even describe her as one of Inanna’s lovers). Acting on Inanna’s instructions, Ninshubur went to various deities to ask for help rescuing Inanna.
Inanna’s father and paternal grandfather were unmoved by her death (having warned her against sojourning in the land of the dead). However ancient Enki, still loved her, despite the fact that she had taken the Mes from him. In order to save Inanna from death he summoned kurgarra and the galatur, demon beings, to whom he gave the water of life. Assuming the guise of houseflies, the two demons flew into the underworld and descended to Ereshkigal’s throne room where Inanna was suspended dead and decomposing on a hook. With magical powers they rescued Inanna’s corpse from suspension and poured the water of life upon it. Inanna returned to life and proceeded back through the underworld, gathering her clothes and treasures as she went.
Unfortunately the galla, the demons of the underworld, discovered her as she was leaving. Unable to prevent her egress, they nevertheless demanded a substitute life to take her place and they followed as the goddess made her way back through the underworld and back out into the world of life. As Ninshubur joyfully greeted Inanna, the galla asked for the attendant’s life (which Inanna angrily refused). The underworld demons then asked for Inanna’s sons, Shara and Lulal, and even for Inanna’s beautician Cara as sacrifices to take Inanna’s place. However the goddess was firm: since all of these people were dressed in mourning for her, she refused to let them be touched. However when the Queen goddess came home to her palace, she found her husband, Dumuzi (who was once a shepherd but now lived as a god-king) dressed in rich robes, drinking and feasting merrily. Infuriated, she pointed him out to the galla and the demons sprang at him. Dumuzi appealed to the sun god Utu for help and was transformed into a snake, but the demons were remorseless and they found him in his new form and dragged him away to the depths of the underworld in place of the resurrected Inanna.
The gods cared little about Dumuzi’s fate, but his sister Geshtinanna remained loyal to him. She begged Ereshkigal to take her in her brother’s stead and the death goddess (impressed by such love for a sibling) relented and allowed her to spend half the year as a stand-in for her brother. Their annual place changing was believed to drive the seasons. As for Inanna, she went back to war and sex. Yet something had changed, reborn, she had knowledge of the underworld and the ultimate mysteries.
People love citrus fruit! What could be more delightful than limes, grapefruits, tangerines, kumquats, clementines, blood oranges, and lemons? This line of thought led me to ask where lemons come from, and I was surprised to find that lemons–and many other citrus fruits–were created by humans by hybridizing inedible or unpalatable natural species of trees. Lemons, oranges, and limes are medieval inventions! The original wild citrus fruits were very different from the big sweet juicy fruits you find in today’s supermarkets. All of today’s familiar citrus fruits come from increasingly complicated hybridization (and attendant artificial selection) of citrons, pomelos, mandarins, and papedas. It seems the first of these fruits to be widely cultivated was the citron (Citrus Medicus) which reached the Mediterranean world in the Biblical/Classical era.
The citron superficially resembles a modern lemon, but whereas the lemon has juicy segments beneath the peel, citrons consist only of aromatic pulp (and possibly a tiny wisp of bland liquid). Although it is not much a food source, the pulp and peel of citrus smells incredibly appealing–so much so that the fruit was carried across the world in ancient (or even prehistoric times). Ancient Mediterranean writers believed that the citron had originated in India, but that is only because it traveled through India to reach them. Genetic testing and field botany now seem to indicate that citrons (and the other wild citrus fruits) originated in New Guinea, New Caledonia and Australia.
In ancient times citrons were prized for use in medicine, perfume, and religious ritual. The fruits were purported to combat various pulmonary and gastronomic ills. Citrons are mentioned in the Torah and in the major hadiths of Sunni Muslims. In fact the fruit is used during the Jewish festival of Sukkot (although it is profane to use citrons grown from grafted branches).
Since citron has been domesticated for such a long time, there are many exotic variations of the fruit which have textured peels with nubs, ribs, or bumps: there is even a variety with multiple finger-like appendages (I apologize if that sentence sounded like it came off of a machine in a truck-stop lavatory but the following illustration will demonstrate what I mean).
Citron remains widely used for Citrus zest (the scrapings of the outer skin used as a flavoring ingredient) and the pith is candied and made into succade. In English the word citron is also used to designate a pretty color which is a mixture of green and orange. I have writted about citrons to better explain the domestication of some of my favorite citrus fruits (all of which seem to have citrons as ancestors) but I still haven’t tried the actual thing. I will head over to one of the Jewish quarters of Brooklyn as soon as autumn rolls around (and Sukkot draws near) so I can report to you. In the mean time has anyone out there experienced the first domesticated citrus?
I’m sorry there was no post yesterday–I was busy trimming my holiday tree. Tree worship was a common custom in many ancient cultures from China to Egypt to the Hebrews (and it is an underlying topic of this blog). Pagan Europeans—particularly Scandinavians and Celts also venerated evergreen trees as a symbol of undying life.
To symbolize life, I decorated my tree as a tree of life with all sorts of different animals from different epochs of life. Looking at the detail photos you will notice familiar animals from past Ferrebeekeeper posts. The mollusks are represented by the squid and the octopus. There is a pangolin, a walrus, a rabbit, and a muskox, as well as a variety of other mammals. Best of all, you will notice a tom turkey!
It took a while to gather all the different toy animals and put screw eyes and string on them, but I think you will agree the results were worth it! My Christmas tree actually does represent my feelings about what is sacred and numinous in our world of amazing living things. Hopefully it can get my friends and me through the dark yule/solstice season. Merry Christmas and seasons greetings to everyone out there! I hope you get the gifts you want and spend the season with the people whom you care for.
The most important of Ghana’s crown jewels is not a crown at all but rather the legendary Sika ‘dwa, the Golden Stool which is believed to house the living spirit of all Ashanti people from all time. According to lore, the Stool descended from heaven into the lap of Osei Tutu, the first Ashanti king in 1701. At times struggle for control of the Golden Stool has devolved into war–including the eponymous “War for the Golden Stool” which broke out in 1900 when Sir Frederick Hodgson, governor of the British Gold Coast demanded to be allowed to sit on the Stool (which is a ceremonial object which is not meant to be sat upon—or even to directly touch the ground). Although the conflict left Great Britain in control of Ghana, the Golden Stool was hidden until 1920 when it was discovered and despoiled by a group of laborers who were promptly sentenced to death (although the British administrators commuted the sentence to perpetual banishment).
The stool is 18 inches high, 24 inches long, and 12 inches wide. It is covered with gold ornaments and has bells attached to it to warn the Ashanti tribe if danger is eminent. If you are confused by the above photo of the Golden Stool, that is because it is “lying down” (since it is not made to be sat upon anyway). Below is a picture of another Ashanti stool to give you a better idea of the object’s form. Even a non-royal, non-gold Ashanti stool is imbued with special meaning which edges toward the supernatural.
In 1999, King Otumfuo Osei Tutu II was crowned as the 16th leader of Ghana’s largest ethnic group, the Ashanti (although at this time in history, the king’s role is ceremonial and he is barred from serving in Ghana’s government). The golden stool made a fleeting ceremonial appearance before being returned to the secret location where it is kept. However the royal family has many other crown jewels which are worn on various state occasions—or just in general. On October 12, 2012, King Otumfuo Osei Tutu II was traveling in Oslo, Norway to attend a conference when jewel thieves made off with a bag containing many of the lesser crown jewels of Ghana (which they stole from the lobby of the Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel). It seems like the King of the Ashanti might have lost some of the splendid gold headdresses pictured here.
A couple of years ago I was in a sumptuous private garden outside of San Francisco. The Mediterranean style garden was filled with gorgeous silvery trees bearing strange deep purple fruit. When I earnestly praised the trees to the garden’s owner, he looked surprised and informed me that they were olive trees. I was raised thinking olives were disgusting squishy things that came in jars. Only after moving to New York did I realize how varied and delicious they can be. I ran to the nearest tree and pulled off a ripe black olive and popped it into my mouth…and promptly involuntarily spat it out. The fruit was indescribably bitter and vile. “Oh there’s a process to preparing them for eating,” said the owner nonchalantly.
That was my first experience with a living olive tree (Olea europaea), one of the plants which appears most frequently in Western literature and art. In Greek, Roman, and Biblical writings, the olive has easy primacy over all of the other plants, fruits, trees and flowers (other than the life-giving grains). It is a defining symbol of Mediterranean culture and civilization.
There is a classical Greek myth about the creation of the olive tree. Poseidon and Athena both wished to be the patron deity of Athens. The dispute was becoming heated, but before it came to outright war, Athena proposed a contest: whichever deity could provide the most useful gift (as judged by Cecrops, the snake-bodied founder-king of Athens) would be the city’s special god. Poseidon presented his gift first. He raised his trident and brought it crashing down on the acropolis and a spring of water gushed into the air on the spot where the Erechtheion was later raised. The citizens were delighted—until they tasted the water and found it to be as salty as the ocean. Then Athena struck a great boulder with her lance. The rock split open and a beautiful tree with silver leaves grew in the spot—the first olive. Not only were the olives delicious, the oil was good for illumination, perfume, and cooking. The wood was made into votive statues and other useful things. The tree was drought resistant and tolerated brackish water. As always, Athena was victorious and the city was named in her honor.
Wild olives (oleasters) were used for oil, fuel, and wood for at least 19,000 years. It is unclear when they were first domesticated, but domestication happened in many different times and places (possibly from different wild antecedents). Domesticated olives are propagated through grafting and cloning—since seeds can yield undesirable strains. As I discovered in San Francisco, ripe raw olives are so bitter as to be inedible—they must be treated with salt or lye (!) in order to become acceptable to the human palate (although goats and cattle do not object to untreated olives). The oil obtained from crushed olives was far more important than the fruit itself. Olive oil is almost pure fat and is resistant to spoilage for longer than a year. Not only was it the great preservative of classical society, it was the basis of cuisine, medicine, personal grooming, perfume, and sacred ritual.
The oldest and most revered cult objects of ancient Greece, the mysterious xoana, were constructed of olive wood (although these strange sculptures were known to ancient authors, none have survived into modern times except as stone copies of the originals). In ancient Greece and Rome, victory—in games and in actual war–was denoted by a crown of wild olive leaves (also known as kotinos). Olive oil was equally sacred in the Levant where it played a part in Jewish sacrificial offering and priestly anointment. In the Bible, the olive is the first plant which the dove brings back to Noah as the flood resides—imagery which has become synonymous with peace. Ironically olive is also a dark yellow color (or a drab green) in universal usage by the militaries of the world thanks to the fact that it is not a color readily distinguished by human eyes and thus blends in with many sorts of terrain.
In the modern world olives have spread from the Mediterranean and now live on all continents except for Antarctica. Huge orchards of commercial olives can be found not only in Spain, Italy, Turkey, Greece and Israel, but also in South America, Africa, Australia and Asia (and the West coast of North America, obviously). In their new homes olives can be a nuisance. They are a serious invasive hazard in Australia and certain Pacific Islands. Because of their resistance to drought, they out-compete native plants and create a weedy monoculture. Their high oil content makes them susceptible to fires which burn incredibly hot. Of course not all olive trees are commercial plants, or dangerous weeds. Olive trees can live to immense old age and some revered specimens are at least 2000 years old. Such ancient trees are remarkable for their fabulous gnarled trunks and branches which take on an otherworldly appearance appropriate to their age. Additionally it seems somehow appropriate that the olive tree—which has a reasonable claim to being humankind’s favorite tree–is capable of living through the millennia.
Our lives are filled with Greco-Roman symbols and memes which have lasted for thousands of years: Cupids, cornucopias, the bowl of Hygeia, the staff of Asclepius, Justice with her scales, the gorgonian, Mercury’s feet, the centurion’s helmet, the Aegis, the victor’s wreath, the quincunx, Athena’s owl, the lyre, the comic/tragic masks–they all have immediate meanings for us. Thus it comes as a surprise to look at actual classical art and see how many ancient Mediterranean motifs have not survived at all, but have become baffling to everyone except for classical scholars. We now scratch our heads when we realize how many ancient coins and sculptures bear the modius (a grain basket symbolic of the underworld), the lituus (a ritual wand which betokened augury), or the cista mystica—which is the subject of today’s post.
A cista was a little basket/casket which was used to store toiletries, jewels, or other small personal effects. A cista mystica (literally “secret casket”) was a sacred object of the mystery cults which (seems to have) contained a living serpent. The cista mystica was known to be sacred to Bacchus, but similar cult objects were probably also affiliated with Isis (and the perhaps with the Ophites, a Gnostic worship sect). In the Bacchic mysteries the serpent was carried on a bed of grape leaves and was a stand in for the god. The characteristic form of the serpent was an important component of the symbolism and classical sources note it shares its shape with “the forms of men” (which is to say that it directly betokened virility and male fertility).
The Roman mind sometimes was surprisingly literal and several preeminent men were rumored to have been fathered by gods in serpent form. Olympias mother of Alexander the Great was allegedly found sleeping next to a snake before giving birth to Alexander and Phillip of Macedon was said to shun her bed afterwards (Renaissance artists enjoyed painting this episode, but I’ll leave it to you to google the paintings and drawings). It should also be noted that the marriage of Phillip and Olympias was infamously volatile thanks to Phillip’s propensity to take other wives (and everything else). Augustus, the first Roman emperor, was also allegedly the son of a snake and it was said that his mother always bore the mark of the serpent’s embrace after his birth. Any Roman seeing the cista mystica on the coin of the realm would understand the message–not only were serpents fertility symbols which betokened otherworldly wisdom, but they were also proxies of divine mystery and Roman ascendance.
When I was a boy I was wandering around in my grandfather’s storage shed when I found a ragged hand woven sack filled with mystery blobs. These powdery golden-orange nuggets were hard (albeit slightly gummy) and they had a translucent glow. When I inquired about the alien substance, my grandfather pulled a glowing ember from the fire and set one of the weird nuggets on top of the hot coal. Immediately an aromatic cloud of smoke welled up from the lump and filled the room. The glorious smell was simultaneously like lemon and pine but with deep strange medicinal undertones of cedar and some unidentifiable otherworldly spiciness. It was transfixing. The blobs were frankincense, obtained in Somalia during the fifties (my grandparents and mother and uncle were living there on diplomatic/government business). The unprepossessing amber lumps turned out to be the incense of kings and gods.
Frankincense has been harvested from the arid deserts of Southern Arabia and Northeast Africa since prehistoric times. The hardened resin which is also known as olibanum is the product of tiny scrub trees from the family Boswellia. The sacred frankincense tree Boswellia sacra, produces an especially fine grade (although the same tree can produce different grades of frankincense depending on the time of year).
Frankincense trees are tough trees capable of surviving on misty breezes from the ocean, rocky limestone soil, and little else. Certain species of Boswellia trees are able to produce a disk-like bulb which adheres to sheer rock. The trees can thereby cling to boulders and cliffs in severe windstorms. The incense is harvested by carefully scraping a wound in the tree’s bark and then returning later to harvest the hardened resin (although such mistreatment is said to gradually diminish the trees).
For countless centuries, bags of frankincense and other aromatic resins were the chief trade products of regions of the southern Arabian Peninsula (in what are today Yemen and Oman). These compounds were of tremendous importance to the ancient Egyptians for both cosmetic and funerary purposes. In Biblical times, incense was traded throughout the Middle East and in the classical Greco-Roman world. The fragrant resins even were exported to ancient India and dynastic China where they became part of traditional medicine and ritual.
This incense trade was allegedly centered in the quasi-mythical lost city Iram of the Pillars. In this oasis at the edge of the Rub’ al Khali dunes, the Ubar people dwelled in a beautiful columned city. According to the Quran, the city of Iram met an apocalyptic doom when its ruler, King Shaddad defied the warnings of the prophet Hud . Shaddad’s impiety caused Allah to smite the entire region into the sands. All of this was regarded as mythology until space-based imaging systems (including LandSat, SPOT, and shuttle data) revealed that ancient caravan trails did indeed center on a collapsed oasis. It is speculated that over millennia, the inhabitants had drained the ancient subterranean aquifer, which ultimately caused the ground to collapse—a salutary lesson for the aquifer based cities of Western America! Whatever the cause, the frankincense industry contracted greatly around 300 AD, although plenty of resin still went to medicinal and liturgical buyers.
Frankincense is purported to have many pharmacological uses, particularly as an anti-inflammatory agent, an anti-depressant, and an anti-cancer treatment. Although initial clinical studies of these claims seem encouraging, the safety and efficacy of frankincense is still being tested and reviewed. Sources on the web suggested that a recent study by Johns Hopkins biologists and doctors from Hebrew University in Jerusalem found that inhaling frankincense incense could alleviate anxiety and depression (but again my sources are unclear so don’t run out and start eating frankincense if you are suffering from holiday blues). Even if frankincense does not provide us with a new class of wonder drugs, it remains useful for deterring insects, including the deadly malarial mosquitoes. Additionally, as noted above, frankincese smells wonderful. Maybe you should run to your local caravan and pick some up.
Conches are large sea snails. True conches are from the family Strombidae, but there are a number of other large marine snails which are also colloquially called conches including horse conches (Fasciolariidae), crown conches (Melongenidae), and the “sacred chank” (a member of the Turbinellidae family). These powerful marine snails are fascinating organisms in their own right—but today’s post is not about biology, rather it concerns music. When properly prepared, conches can be made into lovely and powerful wind instruments. Such shell trumpets have been found in use by cultures from around the world and specimens have been found dating back to the Neolithic era (although the musical use of shells might predate even that).
Different cultures obviously use different shells for their trumpets and the instruments also serve varying purposes. The magnificent big pink queen conch (Lobatus gigas) from the Caribbean was used as a trumpet by the Carib, the Arawak and Taíno peoples. In India, the shell of the big predatory sea snail, Turbinella pyrum has long been crafted into the shankha, a religious musical instrument emblematic of the Hindu preserver god Vishnu (who last appeared in Ferrebeekeeper slaying the demon of Lake Lonar). The shankha (also known as the sacred chank in English) can be intricately carved. Though initially used as a charm to ward off the dangers of ocean travel, it long ago came to be associated with Vishnu worship and with nagas—water serpent deities. Buddhists from the subcontinent also esteem the same instrument as one of the eight auspicious symbols of that faith. The Tibetan Buddhists call such a trumpet a “Tung.”
The Triton shell, Charonia tritonis, is used as a wind instrument throughout its Pacific range. In Polynesia the instrument is called a “pu” whereas in Japan the horn is known as the horagai. Likewise the Triton’s shell is a military instrument in traditional Korean music (where it is known as a nagak).
The cultures of the Mediterranean also made extensive use of conch-horns as foghorns and signaling devices and it is through Greek art and literature that conch horns made their way into mainstream Western art of the last two millennia.
There seem to be two major ways of crafting a wind instrument from a large gastropod– both of which essentially involve creating an aperture in the whorl of a large gastropod shell. Mitchell Clark summarizes them with admirable clarity in his excellent article about shell-trumpets writing:
There are two basic places this hole may be placed, and so there are two basic approaches that can be taken for making a conch shell into a shell trumpet. A hole is made either at the apex (the tip of the spire) of the shell, or, alternatively, in one of the whorls to the side of the spire…. In some cases the hole itself forms the mouth hole; in others, a mouthpiece is added.
The sound of such a trumpet is a rich rumbling primal roar—but it is usually only one note in one key. Although pitch can be modified with finger holes or embouchure, such an approach is unusual. But enough talk about shell trumpets! Below is a Youtube video of a um…contest-winner playing one.
Papaver rhoeas is an annual flower which grows across Eurasia and northern Africa. The brilliant vermilion flower is commonly known as the red poppy, the corn poppy, or the field poppy. This plant has an ancient and unmistakable connection to agriculture. The poppy tends to grow in ground which has been broken. It is fairly resistant to non-chemical weed control mechanisms, and it can grow, flower, and then set seed before barley or wheat is harvested. All of this means that field poppies were an inextricable part of early grain fields (where they were sometimes more abundant then the grain).
Even though the wildflowers are weeds, they are very beautiful weeds and the ancient Greeks were quick to give divine significance to the red blossoms. Demeter was the goddess of agriculture who legendarily presented humankind with the secrets to grain-farming (a craft which she first revealed to the demi-god Triptolemus). Her emblem was the red poppy growing among the barley. The flower’s distinctive red with orange undertones gave its name to a color coquelicot (which is the French word for the corn poppy). In English, the word coquelicot has been used to describe that color (which, coincidentally is one of my favorite) since the 18th century.
As noted above, the poppy sprouts up in broken ground. During World War I, artillery bombardment and trench excavation caused tremendous ground disturbance, which caused the poppies to flourish. All throughout the warm months of the conflict the flowers bloomed profusely in no-man’s land and between the trench lines. One of the war’s most famous poems “In Flander’s Field” was a short rhymed poem in the form of a French rondeau which described the poppies blowing among the endless lines of freshly dug graves.
The armistice which ended World War I and silenced the big guns took place on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. In the years after the war, veterans from the Allied forces were honored (and the dead remembered) by the wearing of real or artificial poppies on Armistice Day. In the United States, Congress changed the name of Armistice Day into Veterans Day on 1954 in order to honor all veterans (although, naturally, in other Allied nations today remains Armistice Day or Remembrance Day). The wearing of red poppies (which apparently started in America) has been largely supplanted by other national symbols like the yellow ribbon and Old Glory. None-the-less this is still a day we share with our allies.
This is a particularly sad and touching Veterans’ Day both because of the wars we are currently fighting in Central Asia and because, earlier in 2011 the last few field veterans of the Great War died. There is now no one left alive who fought in World War I and saw the red poppies flowering among the mud and steel and bones of no-man’s land. Years ago it struck me forcefully that the Lost Generation was vanishing when I was in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and saw a sign explaining how the last few Armisitice maples (silver maples planted in great sweeping avenues to commemorate the end of the First World War) were being taken down and replaced with Red Oaks to commemorate September 11th. Even mighty trees wear down. Generations die and are replaced. New tragedies come along. However the soldiers’ vigilance and sacrifice are never over. I would like to thank all of the men and women who have served in the uniform of the United States or its allies. If anybody deserves to have the sacred flower of the goddess of grain repurposed to memorialize their valor, it is surely them.
The Devil’s Hand Tree (Chiranthodendron pentadactylon) is an unusual evergreen tree from the cloud forests of Central America (Guatemala and Mexico). The tree grows up to 12 meters (40 feet) tall and has distinctive oversized leaves with ruddy metallic veins and fuzzy undersides.
Chiranthodendron is Greek for “hand-flowering tree” and pentadactylon means five fingered (which makes this tree sound like a grabby pterosaur or an early fish). There is good reason for the name though—as the common name indicates the distinctive flowers of this tropical tree look like demon hands. The five blood red stamens are shaped like clawed fingers–each of which has a double row of saffron yellow pollen running along it. As the flowers fade they curl into claws.
The pollinators of the tree are nectar sipping bats and perching birds (particularly orioles) which drink sweet nectar from the bowl-like petals beneath the stamen “claw.” Once the flower is fertilized it forms an extremely hard seed.
The tree was apparently revered by the Aztecs who knew it from a single grand specimen which grew alone in Toluca (in the Valley of Mexico). The lone tree was famous and venerated. Healers used parts of it to make medicine, but, despite—or because of—their respect, the Aztecs annually harvested every single flower off the tree to prevent it from germinating and producing others of its kind. However there were rumors about offshoots hidden in royal gardens (and in the private gardens of the tree’s tenders).
Extracts from the Devil’s Hand tree are reputed to have antimicrobial properties and to serve as heart stimulants—but I lack conclusive scientific evidence for these assertions. If you want to stimulate your heart you had probably find some other means of doing so.