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November 2006

November 2006: Ghosts

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    A Goddess's Gift
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  • A Goddess's Gift
    Myths and Symbols
    by Marina Bonomi

    It was a beautiful day on the Acropolis, but neither the weather nor the landscape were the reason for the people’s excitement.

    The citizens were proud, and justly so: their homes were so beautiful and promising that two of the gods had quarrelled, both of them wanting to become the patron deity of the newly built city. Today the mortals would sit judgement over the immortals.

    Slowly they came, majestic and imposing. The god in the flower of maturity, bearded, muscular, carrying his weapon of choice, the trident, in his right hand, the ground shook slightly under his feet. The goddess, tall and stately, her blue eyes sharper than her spear, fully armed, her shield bearing Medusa’s head, an owl perched on her shoulder.

    Their own king, Cecrops the earth-born, half-man, half-snake, escorted the gods; with deep, resonant voice he announced the rules of the challenge: each of the two deities would present a gift to the city. The one who, according to the people, had provided the best gift would become the city’s patron.

    The god was the first: his trident struck the rock of the Acropolis and water gushed out, filling the hole. The citizens went to drink from the newly formed well, but smiles changed to grimaces: instead of sweet the water was salty (1).

    Then it was the goddess’ turn: she gestured and a tree sprouted from the rock. The trunk was twisted and gnarled, the leaves small and of a dusty green, and its branches bore small purplish black fruits.

    An unhappy murmur went through the crowd.

    The goddess spoke then, her voice clear and pleasant: “To you I give this tree, his looks might not be much but its needs are few, it will flourish in your rocky, dry soil. Its fruits and the juice you will press out of them have the power to provide nourishment, heal many ailments and illuminate the darkness”.

    Thus, according to Greek legend, was the olive tree born. The goddess Athena was judged the winner of the contest and became the patroness of the city that took its name from her: Athens.

    Olives, together with grape and grain, are part of the so-called Mediterranean Triad, comprising the three foods that were fundamental for life in the Mediterranean. The slow-growing olive tree is very long-lived and fruitful even in its old age, and its hard, fine-grained wood is sought after by carvers and makers of furniture. Originating probably on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, olive-growing began sometime in the third millennium B.C., as proved by the existence of the names of the tree and of olive oil in Linear A and Linear B (2), and became widespread by the second millennium B.C.

    Not only were olives one of the staple foods in ancient Greece and Rome, olive oil was used in almost every aspect of life. From food conservation (not only vegetables but also cheese and sausages were, and are, traditionally preserved under olive oil), to illumination, perfume-making (olive oil was the base to be scented with herbs, flowers, and other substances), and medicine. It is no wonder that the olive tree features prominently in legends and traditions of the whole area.

    In ancient Greece, as we have seen, the olive tree was sacred to Athena, but also linked to other deities and spirits.

    In the Olympic Games a wreath of oleaster (wild olive tree) was the prize for winning athletes. According myth the tradition went back to Herakles, one of the Kourites(3), who started the games and planted the first oleaster tree in Olympia, thus the strength and power of the tree was transferred to the one wearing the wreath.

    The demi-god Heracles, Zeus’ son, was sometimes confused with the above-mentioned deity of the same name and so, at times, was credited with introducing olive cultivation in Greece.

    Heracles signature weapon, though, his club, was made out an oleaster branch (or trunk, according to other sources), possibly indicating a very early identification of the two figures.

    The Bible often mentions both the olive tree and its by-products. The most popular reference is probably the narrative of the Flood in the book of Genesis.

    Looking for a sign that the wrath of God had subsided and the waters were retreating, Noah freed a raven. When, after some days, it failed to return, he freed a dove, which returned to him bearing an olive branch, meaning God’s peace with humanity.

    A Christian legend has that olive trees were originally tall and straight, until the day some carpenters were sent to look for a trunk suitable to build a cross. Unwilling to be an instrument of Jesus’ death the trees twisted and bent themselves, acquiring the distinctive shape they have today. Olive branches are commonly used in Italy and other countries as substitutes for palm leaves in the rites of Palm Sunday. They are blessed in church and carried in procession; the branches are then brought home and kept till the following year.

    Old blessed leaves are never thrown away. In the Italian countryside they were (and are still) ritually burned during thunderstorms as a mean of protecting harvest against hail. In the Catholic Church olive oil is used in the making of sacramental chrism and it is burned in the perpetual lamp that is near the tabernacle.

    This is one of the reasons why the church has always encouraged the planting of olive groves, a practice often sustained by the states as well. Solon’s constitution, in ancient Athens, prohibited the maiming or cutting down of olive trees. The same does a law put into effect in 1945 and still valid (if not strictly enforced) in Italy.

    In the symbolism of Islamic traditions the olive tree has an even more important role: it is the ‘center’ tree, the world axis, symbol of the Prophet. It is also the blessed tree, strongly associated with light, since its oil is burned in lamps.

    In Ishmaelite esoteric thought the olive tree on the Sinai is an image of the imam, and at the same time the axis, the source of light, and the figure of the universal man.

    The olive tree is also interpreted as a symbol for Abraham and his hospitality; the abrahamitic tree of the blessed mentioned in a famous hadith (4) is also identified with the olive tree.

    Notes

    (1) According to another version of the myth, Poseidon’s gift to man was the horse.

    (2) Linear A and Linear B are two ancient writing systems used in Crete. Linear A is the oldest and the ‘ancestor’ of Linear B. The two systems appear to be syllabic, rather than alphabetic, each symbol representing a syllable. Linear A is still, for the greater part, un-deciphered, the language underlying the script unknown, while Linear B writings are the earliest known occurrence of the Minoan dialect.

    (3) Kourites were divine, Earth-generated beings living on Crete’s mountains, according to legend they cared for baby Zeus, hidden on Crete by his mother to protect him from his father, Cronos.

    (4) Hadith are (originally oral) traditions relating the actions and costumes of the Prophet, they were later collected in written form.

    Illustration credits

    Ancient olives near lame (traditional stone houses in Southern Italy) from www.cicloamici.it/ulivi.htm

    Olives in various stages of ripening from www.uni-graz.at/~katzer/engl/Olea_eur.html

    Centuries old olive tree from www.masseriailfrantoio.it/ulivi%20secolari.htm ,

    Marina Bonomi
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