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Happy Earth Day!  Today, to celebrate our lovely planet, we write about the largest tree (by canopy area) on Earth, Thimmamma Marrimanu, a Banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis) which lives in Andhra Pradesh, India.  Banyan trees are fig trees which propagate from aerial dispersal—birds eat the fig seeds and (in due course) drop them on trees, rocks, or buildings.  The roots grow downward as aerial roots and then become tree trunks–so the tree is known to cover buildings or strangle other trees.  Banyans also reproduce by vegetative, “branching” propagation.  A whole twisted interwoven grove of banyan trees is often actually one tree.

Thimmamma Marrimanu (one tree with many trunks)

Thimmamma Marrimanu (one tree with many trunks)

Such is the case with Thimmamma Marrimanu which has spread out over eight acres and is at least 200 years old (though, as with clonal colonies like Pando, it can be difficult to ascertain the true age of Banyan trees).  Thimmamma Marrimanu is named after a devoted wife who was married to a Bala Veerayya (whatever that is).  When her husband died in 1434, Thimmamma committed sati and immolated herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.  A temple to the grieving (but misguided!) widow was built on the spot—then the tree sprouted from the temple.

A Banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis) growing over a temple

A Banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis) growing over a temple

Banyan trees are the national tree of India and they have become worked into the religions of South Asia. In Hinduism it is said that the leaf of the banyan tree is the resting place for the avatar Krishna. The fact that the Banyan tree forms a huge group of trunks and branches which seem heterogeneous but are actually a single entity is believed to have spiritual significance and underline greater truths about the interconnected nature of all living things.


The cornucopia is an ancient symbol of harvest abundance.  It is commonly represented as a woven spiral basket overflowing with fruit, grains, vegetables, and other agricultural products.   In America it is one of the symbols of Thanksgiving time (second only to the magnificent turkey).  The wicker basket stuffed with fruits has become such a familiar image, that it is easy to overlook the Greco-Roman roots of the horn of plenty.

According to Greek legend, the cornucopia is the horn of Amalthea, the goat which served as foster mother to Zeus.   In the benign version of the myth, young Zeus, unaware of his own strength, accidentally broke the horn off of the goat while he was playing with her.   In the darker version, he slaughtered the goat when he reached manhood.  From her hide he fashioned his impenetrable aegis.  He gave her horn to the nymphs who had raised him, and this horn provided a magical eternal abundance of farm-raised food.  In memory of her generosity, he set her image in the stars as the constellation Capricorn.  There is yet another version of the cornucopia myth which Hercules broke the horn off of a river god and this became the original horn of plenty.

Infant Jupiter Fed by the Goat Amalthea (Jacob Jordaens, print)

Whatever its origin, the cornucopia remained a part of the classical pantheon.  It is most frequently seen in the hands of Ceres/Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and grains.  In Roman iconography the cornucopia was sometimes an attribute of Fortuna, the goddess of luck, and of the underworld god Pluto (who controlled the ground and thus was responsible for the gifts of the harvest).

Demeter holding a Cornucopia

I like the Hercules/river-god myth because it reflects on how important water is to agriculture, but I greatly prefer the myth of Zeus and his foster-mother which seems to embody the moral quandaries (and the promise of civilization) which are inherent in agriculture. The story—like that of Cain and Abel–hints at the replacement of hunting with herding and farming (indeed goats were the original domesticated animal).  Some cornucopias are now made of baked goods which makes the symbolic transition even more apparent.  The horn of plenty is an admirable symbol of humankind’s fundamental dependency on agriculture–which lies at the root of our civilization and our prosperity.  I am glad the cornucopia has kept its relevance for all of these thousands of years and has not been replaced by some tamer symbol.

Mohammed Visiting Jahannam

The Islamic conception of hell is similar to the Christian conception of hell:  Muslim hell is called Jahannam and it is a place of fire and torture.  Deceased sinners enter through one of seven gates, according to the nature of their sins, and are given clothing made of fire (which sounds like it would be hard to dry-clean).  The souls are mercilessly burned until they become black like charcoal.  Nineteen angels oversee the administration of fire-based torture.

But Jahannam does have a special garden feature lacking from Christian hell. In the middle of the fiery realm is a great malevolent tree named Zaqqum with roots that snake down into the raging fires beneath the world.  Zaqqum has fruits which are shaped like devil’s heads.  The hungry spirits trapped in hell eat these fruits, which are the only foodstuff to be had, but the fruits only intensify the suffering of the damned.  The Quran directly mentions the pain caused by eating Zaqqum’s fruit:

[44.43] Indeed, the tree of zaqqum

[44.44] Is food for the sinful.

[44.45] Like murky oil, it boils within bellies

[44.46] Like the boiling of scalding water.

Other references compare eating the fruit of Zuqqum to swallowing boiling brass, or relate how consuming the fruit is so painful that it causes the eaters’ faces to fall off!

There are no known allusions to Zuqqum before Mohammed.  The concept originated with his revelations. Since the writing of the Quran, a number of thorny, poisonous, or bitter trees from Muslim lands have derived their common name from Zuqqum the great misery tree of Jahannam which feeds directly on the fires of hell.

The Tree of Zaqqum (Homa, 2012, Ink and watercolor on canvas)

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

July 2020