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We often hear about people’s bonds with animals (and for good reason: a loving relationship with pets is one of life’s best aspects) but what about their bonds with plants?  Today’s (somewhat sad) story shines a touching light on this intra-kingdom devotion, but it also highlights a sinister new menace in modern society: bonsai bandits!   As enthusiasts of eastern gardens know, bonsai is an art/horticulture form which utilizes careful pruning and husbandry to make miniature trees which have the appearance and proportions of wild trees.  The more ancient a bonsai tree, the more realistic (and valuable) it becomes.

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This is why unknown thieves stole seven tiny trees from a garden in Saitama prefecture near Tokyo.  Among the rustled trees was a “shimpaku” juniper, an increasingly rare mountain conifer which is regarded as the nonpareil tree variety of the bonsai world.  The tree was over four centuries old and was collected in the wild back during the Edo period, when feuding Samurai clans vied for power (it is pictured immediately above).

The (human) victims of the theft were Seiji Iimura, who hales from a long lineage of bonsai keepers stretching back to the Edo period and his wife Fuyumi Iimura who wrote an anguished lament to the internet. “We treated these miniature trees like our children,” she said. “There are no words to describe how we feel. It’s like having your limbs lopped off.”  She then begged the thieves to return her trees, or barring that to water them and tend them with love.  She included complete instructions which I won’t include on the assumption that bonsai thieves don’t read my blog (also, in my world, a bonsai thief is a very small thief who looks just like a larger one because of careful pruning and staking).

theecobeagle

The juniper, with its crazy calligraphic lines and ancient gnarled roots has taken the majority of the international media attention in this heist, but other trees were stolen too including three more shimpakus (of less venerable age) and a trio of miniature pine trees, called “goyomatsus” (there are two unstolen examples in the picture below).  It is somewhat fun to imagine the thieves as little elf-people who made their getaway in a kei car and are now hiding out in a shoebox on a meter tall volcano and what not, but the victims seem legitimately heartbroken.  Theft of living things is a more serious matter than theft of mere valuables.  Why can’t people stick to nicking money and jewels from heavily insured oligarchs and drug kingpins? This is my message for the criminals: give the Iimuras their beloved trees back and grow up!
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EVG5V

Ever since recounting the story of Orpheus, I have been thinking about the lyre. The ancient musical instrument even showed up again last week in a post about an amazing new planetary system–and the mythical harp of the gods somehow stole some of the glory from real worlds formed eleven billion years ago. Perhaps this is appropriate: for the myth of the first lyre is a story of theft.

Hermes stealing the cattle of Apollo (5th century Attic vase)

Hermes stealing the cattle of Apollo (5th century Attic vase)

It is also the origin story of Hermes, who was not just the messenger of the gods, but also the god of tradesmen, herdsmen, and thieves. Hermes was the child of Maia, the daughter of a Titan. After the war between Titans and Olympians, she hid herself away in a stygian cave which twisted down beneath Mount Cyllene, but one day, Zeus spied her and they became lovers. Maia’s cave provided the dallying pair with an excellent hiding place from the jealous eyes of Hera, and in due course Hermes was born. Even as a baby, the obstreperous little god, was too clever and mischievous to be hidden away in some cave. Baby Hermes sneaked out and soon found a herd of exquisite white cattle belonging to Apollo. The tiny god picked out the finest of these splendid sky cattle and rustled them off for himself and his mother, but before leading them away, he put brooms on their tails so they would erase their tracks. He also drove them out of their pasture backwards and disguised his own footprints by wearing branches on his feet. Then he took the white cows to a secret grove and sacrificed the two most beautiful beasts, burning everything but the entrails. These gut strings he attached to a turtle shell to play soothing music—the first lyre!

When Hermes got back to his cave, his mother was frantic with worry, but he quickly beguiled her with honeyed words and a sweet lullaby. In the meantime, Apollo had noticed that his best cattle were missing, and he began to hunt the thief… but it was no easy task. First the golden god could not find any tracks, and when he discovered the footprints, they lead back to the paddock (and there was no evidence of any thief). However Apollo was the god of prophecy and hidden truth, so he drew upon his divine augury to discover who had taken his cattle. In fury he rushed into Maia’s cave to grab the culprit, but, even as an infant, Hermes was swift and he outran the angry sun god. Soon the comic chase lead up to Olympus, where a proud Zeus, made the (half) brothers cease their quarrel.

Claude Lorrain (Mercury Returning the Cattle of Admetus to Apollo, chalk drawing)

Claude Lorrain (Mercury Returning the Cattle of Admetus to Apollo, chalk drawing)

Hermes returned the cattle, but two were still missing! Apollo demanded them back, but to no avail: they were burned up. Hermes pulled out his lyre hoping to lull Apollo as he had Maia, but the lovely music had an altogether different effect on the refined art-lover Apollo. As the god of music and beauty, Apollo was indeed beguiled, but he did not fall asleep. Instead he had to have the beautiful instrument! He begged his little brother, and cajoled, and finally offered him all the white cattle. Hermes drove a hard bargain and he also gained Apollo’s magical wand in the deal. This wand was the fabulous and disturbing caduceus—a winged golden rod wrapped by two snakes. It became the symbol of Hermes, and of commerce itself, but, according to myth it had yet deeper powers—to grant sleep, and death, and resurrection. Hermes touched the eyes of the departed with the caduceus and led them on their last journey. He used it to transcend the thresholds of the world and travel everywhere (although in the modern world it has become meddled with the staff of Asclepius).

Mercury exchanging the lyre for the rod with Apollo

Mercury exchanging the lyre for the rod with Apollo

Apollo received the lyre, and it became his defining symbol (along with his golden bow). In fact Apollo’s lyre became the symbol of all art and music–a role which it still holds. It is funny that the defining objects of the two gods were originally vice-versa (though maybe knowing mothers–and knowing merchants–will not find such a swap entirely unprecedented).

1834 drawing of an ancient Roman painting of Apollo and Mercury from Pompei

1834 drawing of an ancient Roman painting of Apollo and Mercury from Pompei

the-fortune-teller

Ferrebeekeeper has described all sorts of gods and goddesses of the underworld—we have covered deities of plague and of darkness, gods of death and betrayal, and all sorts of dark rulers of the next world, however there were also gods of the criminal underworld.  In the Roman pantheon, the goddess Laverna was the deity of thieves, dishonest tradesmen, cheaters, and frauds.  Although stories about Laverna are scant (since her worshippers did not necessarily want to flaunt their devotion) she is mentioned in the works of Plautus and Horace and her sacred sanctuary was near the Porta Lavernalis (a gate in the Servian walls which opened from the Aventine into a thief-infested grove of trees).  Various unsavory stretches of highway and dangerous urban groves throughout Italy were sacred to Laverna as well.  It has been speculated that she was originally a chthonic goddess of the Etruscans.

laverna

Laverna’s attributes were darkness and secrecy.  Her worshippers are said to have poured out libations to her with their left hands only.   There is a (probably apocryphal) myth about Laverna which illustrates her nature.  She appeared disguised as a beautiful noblewoman to a rich devout man and asked him to grant her lands to establish a temple to some other more mainstream Roman deity.  She earnestly promised the wealthy patron to honestly uphold her duty by swearing an oath upon her body itself.  When she received control of the lands, she robbed them blind, sold everything worth any gold, and then sold the land itself before disappearing with the lucre.  Her patron was distraught and he appealed to the Olympians to bring her to justice (based on the strength of the oath she swore).  The gods heard his prayers and they sought out Laverna to make her pay, but when they caught up with her she was only a head—having used thievish magic to make her body incorporeal.  Having no body (at least temporarily) she was free from the onus of her contract (although she probably looked pretty weird as just a flying head).

Aventine Hill

Aventine Hill

 

The Flag of the Ashanti (Featuring the Golden Stool)

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 Golden Stool of the Ashanti

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.

A Carved Ashanti Stool (Ghana, mid-20th century)

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.

Ashanti King Otumfo Osei-Tutu II

An Artist’s Conception of the Theft

Super villains have struck directly at our happy way of life! In the past week, shocking news of an unprecedented large scale crime has rocked the world of…um…breakfast, I guess.  Thieves in Quebec (so probably French-speaking, mustache-twirling thieves with horizontally striped clothes and skull caps) broke into a warehouse in Saint-Louis-de-Blandford and stole 10 MILLION pounds of maple syrup from the global strategic maple syrup reserve.  The warehouse was locked up tight and under constant video and electronic security surveillance.  The syrup was carefully removed from the large barrels in which it had been contained–so the theft was not initially apparent.  Actually this does not sound like the work of super villains so much as aliens.  What earthly purpose would anyone have with 10 million pounds of maple syrup (unless it happens to be the fuel for, say, stellar travel or wormhole lubrication)?

Sure, whatever [ed.]

In case you are dismissively waving your hand and assuming you can get Vermont syrup or something, you should know that Quebec is the source of up to 80% of the world’s maple syrup.  Maybe this crime was not the work of cat burglars or aliens, but rather an attempt by the all pervasive corn lobby to directly replace lovable maple syrup with the insidious corn syrup which is already in every other American foodstuff (but I refuse to believe that molasses farmers or blueberry growers had anything to do with this heinous act).

Contrasting forest maple with farm corn/maize, which is surely one of the definitive agricultural crops of our time, raises interesting musings concerning the history and nature of food production. The harvesting of maple sap falls into the strange gap between farming and gathering. During the spring thaw, starches stored overwinter in maple roots rise up the trunks of the tree as an energy source for the tree’s rapid budding and flowering.  The sugary sap can be harvested by “tapping” the tree—i.e. cutting a notch in the bark and filling a bucket until the buds form (at which points amino acids in the sap spoil the flavor).  Once harvested, maple sap can be evaporated down into sugary syrup which is edible (or potable?) for long periods of time.  Native Americans living in the natural habitat of the sugar maple tree (Acer saccharum) utilized this technique long before the arrival of the English, French, and Dutch, but the actual beginnings of the process are lost in myth (literally, each different tribe of the Northeast woodlands has its own myth involving culture heroes, trickster gods, or playsome squirrels).

Maple Sugaring (1872, Currier and Ives)

For the people of the first nations, maple was a critical flavoring—something akin to salt or sugar—which worked its way into many dishes.  Maple syrup was the dominant sweetener in Canada and the American mainland colonies (later the nascent United States) during the colonial era, but it was gradually replaced by cane sugar and molasses which were themselves supplanted by corn sweetener.  Nevertheless, maple syrup has staged surprising comebacks throughout American history.  During the years leading up to the civil war, abolitionists used maple syrup instead of slave-produced cane sugar as a sort of embargo.  World War II saw a surge in maple syrup use as sugar was heavily rationed during the conflict.  Maple sap is largely harvested from the sugar maple and the red maple which grow east of the Mississippi from Quebec down into Georgia but invasive European trees (like the monstrous Norway maple located in the garden of my previous rental flat) can also provide sugary sap—although much more is required to make syrup.  Sugar maples also provide a lovely hard pale wood used for baseball bats and pool cues–so sporting people are in debt to the tree as much as breakfast enthusiasts.

Sugar Maple Trees Turning Color in the Fall

I wonder if real maple flavor is as exotic in the tropics as tropical flavors like pineapple, Brazil nut, and vanilla are here?  The maple industry seems to be a uniquely North American phenomenon, but the maple genus itself spread across the Northern hemisphere outward from Northeast Asia (i.e. China).  Does China have a syrup industry?  Is it looking to start one?

The more we look into the great maple syrup heist, the broader the international (and interplanetary?) implications seem to become.  What is certain is that the traditional American breakfast has fallen under threat until these malfactors come to justice.  We must rally together as a people! Only the greedy and desperate would exploit this crime for personal aggrandizement.  Although, now I think of it, if your pancakes are truly dry I have some honey from my grandfather’s bee hives I could sell you, or some sorghum, or elderberry jelly. Plus I’m kind of allergic to maple anyway, and I don’t usually eat breakfast….

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