Tag Archives: Ancient Greece

Norwegian Easter: time for ash and crime

“These yellow flowers are the heralds of spring,” my friend told me in a small road trip in the coastal area of Norway. He pointed to coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) at the side of the road. In his mother tongue it is hestehov

I asked him to stop the car and found myself plucking the yellow wildflowers. I felt back like a child, and it felt right. 

It reminded me also to the ancient-Greek myth of Persephone, whose life really began when she decided to pluck wildflowers. Once she was goddess of vegetation but eventually became the Queen of the Underworld. She was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. Her myths explain the change of the seasons, making her a very important part of Greek culture.

The change of seasons

While she went plucking, she got abducted by Hades, who was madly in love with her. Nobody had seen the kidnapping and a frantic search started. Her mother was madly looking for her, and when she found out the truth that even her husband was behind this abduction, she was furious. There was a terrible fight after this and Demeter threatened to make the entire earth unfertile and doom the entire population to a certain death. It was then that an agreement was made. Persephone would be allowed to leave Hades for half the year and stay with her mother. The remaining half she would stay in the Underworld. This is the explanation for the change of seasons. When the earth becomes barren and cold, Persephone is with Hades and her mother is too distraught to keep up with her duties.

A good crime

My friend knows that I work for years on a novel based on the story of Persephone and Demeter, and it had once the working title “When Persephone disappeared” It is now turning into a mystical eco-thriller. I had to think about my own Persephone story, because in this same road trip, my friend had told me earlier that easter time is the time in Norway to buy and read good crime thrillers and I could see the link with spring. 

 I knew before that Nordic countries export a lot of crime stories to the world, and I know about the christianity’s influence, but I had always thought that Easter was more about (re)birth than death. Later, in a shop, he pointed out also to a advertisement of a list of crime books which was decorated with easter eggs and cute baby chicks.

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It felt so weird to see this combination of death and horror with something cute and innocent as a baby chick.  “Don’t you read crime books or bingewatch crime series in this time in Belgium?” he asked a bit puzzled. “No, not really,” I answered. 

However, I started to grasp when I thought about it more. Death and rebirth are intertwined with each other. In matter of fact, Persephone was also the queen of death and the underworld. Every death is a beginning; and easter time is the ideal time to reflect on that.  

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Evening break after a day working, time for reflection

Ash, connecting death (sacrifice) and rebirth

When I consulted my book about the wheel of the year and the related trees I found this was also the time of the ash. The ash is a tall tree of imposing grace and is known in leggings as the tree of life. It branches stretch far out to the heavens, with the earth at its centre, and its roots reaching own to hell. it also appears in Norse mythology as Yggdrasil, the great ash of Odin who hung from it (yes, he died and got resurrected) in order to gain the secrets of the runes and enlightenment. Do you see the similarity with Jesus at the cross, the event remembered during Easter?

Since the winged fruits of the ash looks like keys, the tree itself symbolises a key to the universal understanding of how all things are linked and connected. Like death and life. 

Now it begins

Some hours later, I put the yellow flowers in a vase in his house and took a seat in his sofa where I continued reading “The Sixteen trees of the Somme” by Lars Mytting, which is a mystery (too) about the love of wood and finding your own self. (I had bought the book some weeks ago, because of the promise I can enjoy reading about the love for birches, carpentry and wood carving, and not so much because it was a mystery). The end of the first chapter resonates perfectly with the Norwegian easter spirit. Someone had died, and the main character thought:

Now it begins. 

Norway Spruce, a story about Shaman Claus, mushrooms and fire

Two weeks ago I attended a Christmas Quiz where I learned that the  Trafalgar Square Christmas tree is a Christmas tree donated to the people of Britain by the city of Oslo in Norway each year since 1947 (as a gratitude for their support during the Second World War). According to wikipedia, it is typically a 50- to 60-year-old Norway spruce, generally over 20 metres tall. The tree is cut in Norway sometime in November during a ceremony attended by the British Ambassador to Norway, Mayor of Oslo, and Lord Mayor of Westminster. One week later I embarked on a journey to the far north, and saw so many spruces in the wild. I also bought a book along the trip, that I read when I was 10 years, and 20 years, and as I am almost turning 30 years old, it was time to repeat the “tradition”. As the north of Norway does not see daylight between November 21st and January 21st, it seemed the right time and place to remind me again from where the idea of the “christmas tree” and also Santa Claus really comes from.

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It all started with Fire

When I did know that Santa Claus, or the Dutch version “Sinterklaas” were not real, my father gave me a book “The Secret of Sinterklaas”. I learned that it was all about fire and trees, and about that we, as humans, try to control nature, but actually will never succeed to control it, as we are not above nature, but part of it. In Japan, Thailand and other countries you see still a lot of tree worshipping, but actually in north and west Europe people still do tree worshipping, but they do not know. Before the 8th century, people in northern and west Europe would burn trees in this time to remind themselves to the sacred gift of fire that our ancestors received ten thousands year ago. The oldest myths in many cultures are about that phase in history where mankind started to use fire, because that was the beginning of the exponential technological progress. By burning trees we remind ourselves humbly to the power of nature. It is a time of the year where we should look in ourselves by gazing at bonfires or candlelight. As Thoreau wrote, electricity kills darkness, but candlelight illuminates it.

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Later, the Roman Catholic Church colonised this practice into a christian one and decided Jesus was born in this time. Before that happened, our ancestors called this period  “Joeltijd”. “Joel” is Dutch for “celebrating”. In other languages people would say Yule or Yulda. It is the time for people coming together; eating, drinking, making babies etc. Many taboos would be broken in these days.  However, in the times of inquisition and witch hunts, any form of pagan practice was hidden. Only after the power of the Church weakened during Napoleon’s reign, the christmas tree was re-introduced, and with the invention of lightbulbs in the 19th century we got the tree we know today.

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Shaman Claus and mushrooms

Another story that I read was about mushrooms. The shamans of the old religions of North and West Europe used Amanita muscaria, also known as the Fly Agaric mushroom, or the the Alice in Wonderland mushroom, or as the house of leprechauns we see in western fairytales.  It was held very sacred by these ancient people, and was used by the shaman and others for ceremonial and spiritual purposes.  They only grow beneath certain types of evergreen trees, and I assume that they also grow under Norwegian Spruces. However, I also heard they were originally from North-America and cultivated in Norway for Christmas, but then I read at the blog of Tree Spirit Wisdom that “In Sweden, scientists have found a living Norway spruce named Old Tjikko, dated to be 9,550 years old. It has achieved this age through self-control and by cloning itself thus regenerating new trunks, branches and roots in the same space.” So, I think my assumption can be right.

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These mushrooms and evergreen trees form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of the tree, the exchange of which allows them to grow.  One of the reported ancient beliefs was that the mushroom was actually the fruit of the tree. These mushrooms can have different colours: from brightly red and white to golden orange and yellow, which reminds me to… the christmas decorations of the christmas tree.

Tree of Birth, the Tree of Not Giving Up

In Greek mythology, the Spruce tree was dedicated to Artemis, the Goddess of the Moon, Hunting, Nature and protector of women. The Greeks suggested that the enduring Spruce tree represented constant, eternal life and was labelled ‘The Tree of Birth’; its scented evergreen needles signifying resilience and strength. This is the reason the tree is so associated with Artemis – as renewal, resilience and resurgence are all qualities which this goddess prized above all others. It’s also no wonder that the spruce is our Christmas tree, as Christians celebrate also the birth of Jesus Christ. As the tree is known for its resilience and renewal, it reminds us that perseverance and patience leads us higher. Sometimes we have to overcome darker periods because these dark times gives us a lot of knowledge and tools. We should not give up! While I was freezing in the dayless days in the Far North, looking for the northern lights, I tapped into the energy of the spruce and also told myself “Be Like a Spruce!”

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Spruce Beer from Native America

Spruce trees are mythologically important plants among Southwestern tribes, where they are symbols of the sky and directional guardians of the north. According to Hopi myth, the spruce tree was once a medicine man, Salavi, who transformed himself into a tree. Besides, Spruce “beer” was first brewed by the indigenous peoples of northern Europe and North America as a medicinal beverage. Depending on the time of year and the type of spruce, the flavour varied. By the 1700s, alcoholic spruce beer was common in colonial America and eastern Canada.

Use of Spruce

Not only the mushroom has special properties. They are known for their resins. Resin incenses are typically the dried sap from trees. According to the blog of Druid Garden, “Norway Spruce is another tree that produces a good amount of incense.  I have found that not all Norway Spruces smell the same.  They all have a skunky/musky smell, which can be pleasant but very different than the pines.”

According to Mercola, “Spruce oil is frequently added in soap, air fresheners and household cleaner formulations to lend its fresh scent and act as a disinfecting agent. Because of its pleasant earthy scent, its calming effects and its ability to ease anxiety and stress, spruce oil is also a favourite in meditation rituals like grounding. ”

And talking about patience

Several authors who I adore, like Elif Shafak, Margaret Atwood, Han Kang, David Mitchell and Sjón (ok, the last one I do not know) buried their next book for almost 100 years in Norwegian forest, as part of Katie Paterson’s Future Library project. According to the Guardian, “Starting in 2014, Paterson has asked a writer a year to contribute a book to her public artwork. Riffing on themes of imagination and time, each work has been seen only by its author and will be printed in 2114, when a patch of 1,000 Norwegian spruce trees planted in 2014 in the forest that surrounds Oslo will be cut down to provide the paper for the texts.” I think using a spruce, the tree of resilience and renewal, was no coincidence…

Please share in comments what you know about the Norwegian spruce – or the Christmas Tree.

Pomegranate: the fruit of Yalda, Yule and Yin

First of all, let me wish you a happy Solstice and Merry Christmas. This week I had experienced several sort of Winter Solstice celebrations. Our yoga tribe did a special “yoga session” with externals introducing us to laughter yoga and some Japanese dance, before we had a Christmas lunch. In the evening of the 20th, I was invited by Iranian friends in Nagoya to join their celebration of Yalda Night. It reminds me to Yule or Christmas celebration. As Aunt Zelda in “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: A Midwinter’s Tale” reminds us, Christmas night comes from Yule or the sabbath celebrated to welcome the winter at Winter Solstice.

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Winter Solstice

I actually like this period of darkness, because it gives me an excuse to do less sport and drink more hot chocolate hehe. I read this text recently on a social media and could only agree:

Life is being drawn into the earth, painlessly descending into the very heart of herself. As we as natural human animals are being called to do the same, the puss to descend into our bodies, into sleep, darkness and the depths of our own inner caves continually tugging at our marrow. But many find the descent into their own body a scary thing indeed, fearing the unmet emotions and past events that have been stored in the dark caves inside themselves. This winter solstice time is no longer celebrated as it once was, with the understanding that this period of descent into our own darkness was so necessary in order to find our light. This is a time of rest and deep reflection, a time to wipe the slate clean as it were and clear out the the old.
A time for the medicine of story, of fire, of nourishment and love. And trying to avoid alcohol, lights, shopping, overworking, over spending, bad food and consumerism.

Yin, the force of passivity, darkness and inner-travel

Some weeks ago I was looking for a title for a proposal for an academic article where I want to shed light on the importance of unlocking or lifting up feminine values in environmental studies. As I reject the essentialist notion that care and connection with nature are inherently part of womanhood, I decided to use the idea of yin and yang. Yin is the dark force, which is connected with the underworld. Or as Stephan Feuchtwang according to wikipedia in 2016 wrote: 

Yin is the receptive and Yang the active principle, seen in all forms of change and difference such as the annual cycle (winter and summer), the landscape (north-facing shade and south-facing brightness), sexual coupling (female and male), the formation of both men and women as characters, and sociopolitical history (disorder and order). 

Pomegranate, a fruit of a new year

In the book “Around the World in 80 trees” the tree for Iran is the pomegranate. I also associate it with the Ancient Greek myth of Persephone, and why winter (and fall) exist. Winter solstice has to be the saddest night for Demeter, goddess of agriculture, because her daughter would be in the underworld. Persephone was abducted by Hades, the god of the Underworld. Eventually, he was persuaded to let her free, but he has still one last trick. It is known in Ancient Greek mythology that if you ate in the Underworld you could never leave. So before she left, he gave her a few pomegranate seeds to eat. You have to know that pomegranate is also the symbol of Hera, goddess of marriage, and Aphrodite, goddess of love and fertility, so you can understand why Hades picked this fruit. Later, in the Great Mysteries of Eleusis, that would be known as the Sacred Marriage, which was celebrated together with the birth of her holy child Iacchias especially during this time. You can guess why we celebrate also the birth of Jesus in this time. Persephone ate six of these pomegranate seeds, and it was then decided she would stay 6 months a year in the Underworld (fall and winter) and the other six months with Demeter (spring and summer).

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Pomegranate, a fruit of feminity

For thousands of years, the pomegranate has also been a fertility symbol. Its blood-red juice and many seeds could easily turn it into a metaphor for the womb. Some scholars with interest for pre-patriarchal traditions in Greece, believed that the colour of this fruit was associated with women’s blood. As feminity is also associated with yin and darkness, I am again not surprised why I was eating pomegranate at the Yalda Night Celebration this week.

Yalda Night

To my delight, I got a Facebook invitation for this Iranian event. Yalda Night reminds me to Midwinter, or Yule (the Celtic name) that my ancestors celebrated. This is how my Iranian friends described it:

Yalda Night (aka Chelleh Night) is an ancient Iranian event on which the longest night of the year —i.e. winter solstice which usually falls on December 20, or 21— is celebrated. Historically, this event dates back to 502 BC when the majority of Iranians were followers of Zoroastrianism.

On this night, families get together and celebrate the arrival of winter by eating pomegranates, watermelons, a variety of nuts, tea with sweets etc (well, eating and drinking seems like a reasonable way of surviving the darkest night of the year, doesn’t it?). They also sing, dance and recite classical poetries especially those by the 14 c. Persian poet Hafez.
They used to sit around a Korsi (a similar item to kotatsu, which many Iranian households don’t have nowadays) and tell stories to defeat the darkness by enjoying each others’ company through the long cold night. 

Hafez (1315-1390), according to ,the Encyclopedia Iranica, was born in the beautiful city of Shiraz, and is the most popular of Persian poets. If a book of poetry is to be found in a Persian home, it is likely to be the Divān (collected poems) of Hafez. Many of his lines have become everyday proverbs, and there are few who cannot recite some of his lyrics, partially or totally, by heart. His Divān is widely used in fāl, i.e. foretelling the future by interpreting a randomly chosen poetry. I also had to pick a poem, which was according to my heart about grieving about what is lost, especially now, and then letting go.

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I felt so in peace when I listened to the poetry. Also during the songs and the drum play. Although I am normally not able to sleep the night before a flight, I slept like a rose for 7-8 hours, before I took a flight during the shortest day of the year, to northern Europe, where I want to recharge and reflect about what I learned and unlearned in the past year.