Thursday, 18 March 2010

The saliva of Cerberus

Nige in his typically observant and appreciative way notes the wood anemones are in flower. There don't seem to be any anemones in the woods around our place in the Cotswolds. This may be due to chance. However, I think I recall reading in Oliver Rackham's Woodland that such plants form part of the mycorrhizal-supported ecology that, uniquely, sits on the floor of ancient woodland (I've lent out my copy so can't check). Rather depressingly, I also recall learning it's not possible to recreate this habitat within a time-frame that can be encompassed by a human lifetime.

I suspect the beech woods and hazel and ash coppices of this area are relatively new creations. In any event, they do accommodate the occasional gorgeous, golden spread of winter-flowering aconites (they're probably still fully in flower, given how cold it's been this year).

Never having looked into the aconite, so to speak, I thought I'd google it. If Wikipedia is to be believed it has the most intriguing mythic origin - as well as characteristics that are more sinister than one would guess from its sunny aspect:
In Greek and Roman mythology, Medea tried to kill Theseus by poisoning him by putting aconite in his wine, in that culture thought to be the saliva of Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guarded the Underworld. Hercules dragged Cerberus up from the Underworld, while the dog turned his face away from the light, barking and depositing saliva along the path. The saliva hardened in the soil and produced its lethal poison in the plants that grew from the soil. Because it was formed and grew on hard stones, farmers called it 'aconite' (from the Greek akone, meaning 'whetstone').

The whetstone, being dull, grey and blunt seems a most unlikely origin for the name of such a bright, aurulent and delicate flower. Or did the sharpness of the plant - its poison - somehow chime with its sitting on a sharpening stone?

The otherworldly associations don't stop there. Aconites are also known as wolfbane, superstitiously (and confusingly) reckoned to both induce and cure lycanthropy. The etymology suggests this arises from some Anglo-Saxon folklore. I'm sure some trawling around the internet - sorry, research - would produce more of this. It seems to be a plant that's had a magnetic influence on uncanny associations.

A mythic assassination, a demonic dog, a chthonic poison, the fodder of a werewolf, and more: all lying at the bitter root of one small, yellow, woodland flower!

6 comments:

worm said...

nice! Its fascinating how much of our ancient past is entwined with plants and flowers, and a shame that these days the only people who regard flowers with any kind of mystique are those of the Prince Charles persuasion

I think i've yet to see a single interesting flower so far this year - I must get out more

jonathan law said...

Gaw, I think I'm right in saying that the winter aconite -- the lemon-yellow flower now zingingly in bloom -- is quite distinct from the wolfsbane/ monkshood of sinister reputation, also confusingly known as aconite. The latter is bluey purple, very different in shape, and flowers in late summer, as reflected in that jingle from the old Lon Chaney films:

"Even those who are pure of heart, And say their prayers at night,
Can become a wolf, when the wolfsbane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright."

And since I know you like flower poetry, and I've got important work to put off, here's a bit of March, from John Clare's The Shepherd's Calendar:

"The insect world now sunbeams higher climb
Oft dream of spring and wake before their time
Blue flyes from straw stacks crawling scarce alive
And bees peep out on slabs before the hive
Stroaking their little legs across their wings
And venturing short flight where the snow drop hings
Its silver bell-and winter aconite
Wi buttercup like flowers that shut at night
And green leaf frilling round their cups of gold
Like tender maiden muffld from the cold
They sip and find their honey dreams are vain
And feebly hasten to their hives again."

Brit said...

It's funny the way we all have to qualify Wiki 'facts' with "If Wikipedia is to be believed..." and similar. And yet Wikipedia is, let's face it, still the source of most of our facts these days.

I wonder if this has broader implications for our grasp of reality and sense of certainty?

Gaw said...

Worm: Get yourself outside and skip around saying Hello sky! Hello flowers! like a gurl.

Jonathan: That's very kind. I enjoyed that poem and shall do so again.

It seems they're both from the buttercup family. I wonder which one was used by Medea? Wiki suggests both!

Brit: See above and beware! Regarding our grasp of reality and sense of certainty I refer you to my other post of today.

worm said...

Brit: exactly - I wonder if anybody now has a slightly skewed image of Black Lace since their revised life history went up on wikipedia for a few days??? There could be somebody out there still looking in vain for their first album 'Burnt Norton' (1974)

Brit said...

Worm - yes or Homage to Homage to Sextus Propertius... Mind you anyone with a keen interest in Black Lace is going to be pretty skewed anyway...