Thursday, 10 March 2016

THE MYRTLE - MYRTUS COMMUNIS

“The olive branch has been consecrated to peace, palm branches to victory, the laurel to conquest and poetry, the myrtle to love and pleasure, the cypress to mourning, and the willow to despondency.” - Dorothea Dix

Myrtus, with the common name myrtle, is a genus of flowering plants in the family Myrtaceae, described by Linnaeus in 1753. The Myrtus genus has two species recognised today: Myrtus communis, common myrtle; native to the Mediterranean region in southern Europe and Myrtus nivellei, Saharan myrtle; native to North Africa.

Myrtus communis, the common myrtle or true myrtle, is native across the northern Mediterranean region (especially in the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, where it is locally known by the name of murta). The plant is an evergreen shrub or small tree, growing to 5 metres tall. The leaf is entire, 3–5 cm long, with a fragrant essential oil. The star-like flower has five petals and sepals, and numerous stamens. Petals usually are white. The flower is pollinated by insects. The fruit is a round berry containing several seeds, most commonly blue-black in colour. A variety with yellow-amber berries is also present. The seeds are dispersed by birds that eat the berries.

Myrtle, is used in the islands of Sardinia and Corsica to produce an aromatic liqueur called Mirto by macerating it in alcohol. Mirto is one of the most typical drinks of Sardinia and comes in two varieties: mirto rosso (red) produced by macerating the berries, and mirto bianco (white) produced from the less common yellow berries and sometimes the leaves. Many Mediterranean pork dishes include Myrtle berries, and roast baby pig is often stuffed with myrtle sprigs in the belly cavity, to impart an aromatic flavour to the meat. The berries, whole or ground, have been used as a pepper substitute. They contribute to the distinctive flavour of mortadella sausage and the related American bologna sausage. In Calabria, dried figs are threaded through a myrtle branch and then baked. The figs acquire a pleasant taste from the essential oils of the herb. They are then enjoyed through the winter months.

Myrtle occupies a prominent place in the writings of Hippocrates, Pliny, Dioscorides, Galen, and the Arabian writers on medicine. In several countries, particularly in Europe and China, there has been a tradition for prescribing this substance for sinus infections. A systematic review of herbal medicines used for the treatment of rhinosinusitis concluded that the evidence that any herbal medicines are beneficial in the treatment of rhinosinusitis is limited, and that for Myrtus there is insufficient data to verify the significance of clinical results.

In Greek mythology and ritual the myrtle was sacred to the goddesses Aphrodite and Demeter: Artemidorus asserts that in interpreting dreams “a myrtle garland signifies the same as an olive garland, except that it is especially auspicious for farmers because of Demeter and for women because of Aphrodite. For the plant is sacred to both goddesses.” Pausanias explains that one of the Graces in the sanctuary at Elis holds a myrtle branch because “the rose and the myrtle are sacred to Aphrodite and connected with the story of Adonis, while the Graces are of all deities the nearest related to Aphrodite.” Myrtle is the garland of Iacchus, according to Aristophanes, and of the victors at the Theban Iolaea, held in honour of the Theban hero Iolaus.

An ancient Greek legend tells of how Aphrodite was angered when Myrrha, a Syrian princess boasted that she was more beautiful than the goddess. Aphrodite caused Myrrha to fall in love with her own father and helped her trick him into consummating her passion with him for 12 nights. When Myrrha became pregnant she realised the magnitude of her sin and ashamed she ran into the forest to hide. Aphrodite then took pity on her and transformed her into the myrtle. Later the bark of the tree broke open and a baby was born, which was Adonis, Aphrodite’s lover (see here for that myth).

In Rome, Virgil wrote that “the poplar is most dear to Alcides, the vine to Bacchus, the myrtle to lovely Venus, and his own laurel to Phoebus.” At the Veneralia, women bathed wearing crowns woven of myrtle branches, and myrtle was used in wedding rituals. In the Aeneid, myrtle marks the grave of the murdered Polydorus in Thrace. Aeneas’ attempts to uproot the shrub cause the ground to bleed, and the voice of his dead brother warns him to leave. The spears which impaled Polydorus had been magically transformed into the myrtle which marks his grave. In the Mediterranean, myrtle was symbolic of love and immortality. In their culture the plant was used extensively and was considered an essential plant.

In Jewish liturgy, the myrtle is one of the four sacred plants of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles representing the different types of personality making up the community. The myrtle having fragrance but not pleasant taste, represents those who have good deeds to their credit despite not having knowledge from Torah study. The three branches are lashed or braided together by the worshipers a palm leaf, a willow bough, and a myrtle branch. The etrog or citron is the fruit held in the other hand as part of the lulav wave ritual.

In Jewish mysticism, the myrtle represents the phallic, masculine force at work in the universe. For this reason myrtle branches were sometimes given the bridegroom as he entered the nuptial chamber after a wedding (Tos. Sotah 15:8; Ketubot 17a). Myrtles are both the symbol and scent of Eden (BhM II: 52; Sefer ha-Hezyonot 17). The Hechalot text Merkavah Rabbah requires one to suck on a myrtle leaves as an element of a theurgic ritual. Kabbalists link myrtle to the sefirah of Tiferet and use sprigs in their Shabbat (especially Havdalah) rites to draw down its harmonizing power as the week is initiated (Shab. 33a; Zohar Chadash, SoS, 64d; Sha’ar ha-Kavvanot, 2, pp. 73–76).[19] Myrtle leaves were added to the water in the last (7th) rinsing of the head in the traditional Sephardic tahara manual (teaching the ritual for washing the dead).

An Arabic legend says that when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, Adam took with him three things: A sheaf of wheat, being the chief of all kinds of food, a date palm, being the chief of all fruits, and a branch of myrtle, being the chief of all sweet-scented flowers to remind him of the days of happiness, and the first days of his love for Eve.

In neo-pagan and wicca rituals, myrtle, though not indigenous beyond the Mediterranean Basin, is now commonly associated with and sacred to Beltane (May Day). Myrtle in a wedding bouquet is a general European custom. Crowns of myrtle are used in the Ukrainian wedding ceremony. A sprig of myrtle from Queen Victoria’s wedding bouquet was planted as a slip, and sprigs from it have continually been included in royal wedding bouquets in Britain.

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