Spring Ephemerals

Spring Ephemerals

12 April 2013

The nights may still be going down to 28 degrees Fahrenheit and it may be pouring outside right now, but spring will not be denied. Crocuses (croci? See my previous post on the issue of Greek roots and fourth-declension nouns), anemones, Siberian iris, and winter aconite all seized the relative balm of a 60 degree day to assert that spring is finally here.

<i>Anemone</i>
Anemone

What is perhaps most striking (and arguably unsurprising) about all these plants is how they are all associated with myths of dying and resurrection, which reflect the uncertainty of the season as well as the plants' ephemeral nature. The most obvious example of these, of course, is the anemone. According to Book X of Ovid's Metamorphoses, the anemone sprang from the blood of the beautiful youth Adonis was killed by a wild boar and died in the arms of Aphrodite. The Greek word anemone can be translated as "daughter of the wind" or, more commonly "windflower," a name that reflects both the transience of the legendary youth's life as well as the quintessential fragility of a flower that is well-known for wilting almost as soon as it is picked.

<i>Crocus</i>
Crocus

The Greek legend of the Crocus is also rooted in death. According to Ovid, this harbinger of spring was born when a beautiful youth named Crocus who was driven to suicide by his forbidden love for the nymph Smilax. Both youth and nymph were transformed into plants: Crocus into his eponymous flower, while Smilax was transformed into either a vine or a yew. However, in another, more murkily-attested legend, the Crocus flower sprang from the blood of Hermes' favorite Crocus, who was accidentally struck by the god while the two were playing with quoits or discs.

<i>Siberian Iris</i>
Siberian Iris

The latter legend is very similar to that of the hyacinth, in which the jealous West Wind seizes the quoit Apollo cast, and turned it on Apollo's favorite Hyanthus instead, impelling the grief-stricken god to summon from the dead youth's blood a flower that "all shall love." The Greeks called this purple, lily-shaped blossom the hyacinth, but it is in fact the flower that we now call the iris.

<i>Winter Aconite</i>
Winter Aconite

One last spring ephemeral is the winter aconite. In Greco-Roman mythology, winter aconite was formed from the hardened spittle of Cerberus, the fearsome three-headed dog who guarded the gates of the Underworld. According to the legend, Cerberus was dragged to the upper world by Hercules. In reaction to the sunlight, he frothed at the mouth. Where his saliva touched the earth, winter aconite sprouted - as well as providing the poison with which Medea sought to murder Theseus.

Regardless of the details, what is clear is that all these myths reflect the crucial importance of the transition from winter to spring in an agricultural society - an interpretation that is reinforced by the mysterious, but obvious, importance of the crocus in the death/rebirth ceremonies of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Little is known about these rites beyond the fact that they were closely tied to agriculture and the promise of bountiful crops. But multiple sources attest to the fact that, during the Eleusinian Procession, which happened during the Fifth Day of the Mysteries, initiates were subjected to the ritual of the "krokosis," which involved tying a saffron-colored ribbon around the initiate's right hand and left leg. No-one knows the exact significance of that part of the ritual, but it is inarguable that the Greeks saw all these unassuming flowers as y powerful symbols of the yearly cycle of death and rebirth.

© - Erica Obey
Photos © - George Baird