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December 2006

December 2006 - Angels

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  • Healthy Green Artists:
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  • Wombat Droppings:
    The S Word
  • Behind the Art:
    Action and Interaction in Illustrations
  • Myths and Symbols:
    A Friend in Winter
  • EMG News:
    News for December!

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  • Fiction: Scapegoat

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  • A Friend in Winter
    Myths and Symbols
    by Marina Bonomi

    The pine family (pinaceae in scientific Latin) is the largest of the Conifer families, including pines, cedars, firs, spruces, hemlocks, and larches, and totalling between two hundred and twenty and two hundred and fifty species (depending on the taxonomist’s opinion). (1)

    It is also the second largest family for geographical extension, living in most of the Northern Hemisphere, in climates that range from sub-arctic to tropical.

    It is no surprise that such adaptable and ever-present trees play a part in myths and legends of many cultures.

    In many countries both firs and pines grow and in ancient legends often the two are not clearly separated. For this reason both trees will be treated together in this month’s column.

    In China the pine, plum, and bamboo are collectively known as "the three friends of winter" for their natural ability to withstand, and even flourish, in harsh weather and environments.

    In Chinese thought the pine tree, reaching toward the sky, fragrant and green even in the dead of winter, came to be seen as a metaphor for the upright man imbued with virtue and strength derived from experience.

    This imposing evergreen was planted near graveyards, as it was supposedly disliked by the wang xiang, a mythical creature which was believed to devour the brains of the dead (2).

    As an emblem of longevity the pine tree is often represented in Chinese traditional paintings, often together with other long-life symbols like the crane and the fu ling mushroom. The old pines of the Yellow Mountains are gnarled and contorted, almost dragon-like, and their age and shape have been celebrated for centuries in painting and poetry.

    In Taoist tradition the needles, nuts, and resin of the pine are the food of the immortals, and it is because of the properties of these foods that the immortals are able to fly. The pine and the cypress, in Eastern Asia, have become a by-word for friends constant in adverse times.

    In ancient Greece the fir and the pine both were sacred to the god Pan; the fir was believed to have been a nymph with which the god had fallen in love. In one version of the legend the nymph was changed into a fir tree while trying to escape from Pan’s unwanted attentions, in another version of the same legend the nymph had chosen Pan over her other suitor, the god of the north wind, Boreas.

    Boreas, never a graceful loser, blew so strongly that the nymph Pity (3) fell over a cliff and died. Later Pan found her broken body and changed it into a fir tree. Ever since, it is said, when the north wind blows the fir cries resinous tears.

    Dionysus, the ivy-crowned god of wine, was often portrayed holding a pine or fir cone, a symbol of fertility and life-force. The same was true of Bacchus, Dionysus' counterpart in the Roman pantheon.

    In Rome, though, the strongest connection to the pine (or fir) tree was that of another cult: the one of the Phrygian mother-goddess Cybele whose worship was introduced in the city in 205 B.C. during the Second Punic War, in accordance with a prophecy (4).

    In the main ritual of Cybele’s cult, each year on March 22 a pine tree was ritually cut down and brought to the goddess’ temple on the Palatine by the brotherhood of the dendrophores (the tree-bearers). The tree, bound with woollen wraps and wreathed with violets represented the body of Atys, the goddess’ son and consort, killed by a boar and later brought back to life. It was believed that when Atys died under a pine tree his soul had found refuge in the tree itself and his blood spilled on the ground had caused violets to bloom around his body.

    Nowadays in the western world the most common image that comes to people’s minds in association with pine or fir trees is probably the Christmas tree, although that is a fairly recent habit. Even though in many ancient traditions (as we have seen also in other issues of EMG-Zine) sacred trees play an important role and tree branches (or whole trees) were carried and ornamented to celebrate different festivities, there is no historical proof of direct descent of the Christmas practice from any of those.

    The city of Riga, in Latvia, claims to be the birthplace of the modern tradition, giving 1510 as the year in which the first Christmas tree was put up.

    Ingeborg Weber-Keller (professor of European ethnology in Marburg) identified the earliest written reference to the custom in a Bremen guild chronicle of 1570 that reports how a small fir tree was decorated with paper flowers, pretzels, and fruits and put in the guild-house for the enjoyment of the members’ children, another early reference is from Basel (1597).

    During the seventeenth century the custom entered family homes, and a century later it had become common in the towns of the upper Rhine area to which it remained limited for quite a long time (the mainly Catholic population of the lower Rhineland considering it a Protestant practice).

    In the early nineteenth century the custom became popular among European nobility and spread far and wide. In Britain it was introduced by the German wife of King George III, Queen Charlotte, but the practice remained mostly confined to the royal family until after the marriage of Queen Victoria with the German Prince Albert.

    In the U.S.A., the town of Windsor Locks, Connecticut, claims to be the home of the first Christmas tree in New England, one that was allegedly put up in 1777 by a Hessian soldier held prisoner at Noden-Reed House. This claim is challenged at least by Eason, Pennsylvania, where a group of German settlers is believed to have erected a Christmas tree in 1816.

    Theological or historical disputes notwithstanding, the Christmas tree is one of the most widespread and recognized symbols of the season (sometimes with little or no reference to the Christian holiday), and it is my pleasure to 'use' it to wish you all a wonderful and happy holiday season.

    Notes

    (1) In the case you, like me, are utterly confused by the word, a taxonomist is ‘one who classifies’, namely in biology.

    (2) Mentioned in: Werner, E.T.C. Myths and Legends of China, 1922 the Mattews’ Chinese - English Dictionary refers to the wang xiang as an ‘imaginary monster of the waters’.

    (3) Not the English word, ‘Pity’ is a transcription of the Greek name of the nymph.

    (4) The prophecy found in the Sybilline Books and the ritual transportation of the statue of the Great Mother from Pessinos to Rome is narrated by Livy in his History of Rome.

    Illustration credits

    Self portrait of Zhang Dai-chien in the Yellow Mountains from Fu, Shen C.Y. - Stuart Jan, Challenging the Past: the Paintings of Chang Dai-chien, Washington D.C., Arthur M. Sackler Gallery 1991

    The biggest Christmas tree in the world is built of lights arranged on the slope of Mount Ingino, above the town of Gubbio, in Central Italy.

    Marina Bonomi
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