Well, it’s been a very long time! I needed a little time off public writing in order to concentrate on other projects. But here I am.
Last week, I went to Marburg in Germany for a great conference on Greek biology in the Roman empire. Marburg is a lovely university town in Hesse. Imagine a medieval town, complete with its castle on the hill and its two Christmas markets, and you won’t be far off. Let’s not dwell on the fact that most houses were built in the nineteenth century in a neo-medieval style. Or perhaps the pseudo-medieval feel makes sense when we learn that the Brothers Grimm studied in Marburg. I was certainly enchanted, especially when the snow started to fall.
My conference paper was on botanical passages in the writings of Aelian. Aelian (Claudius Aelianus) is a third century author who wrote in a Greek genre known as poikilia, that is, a collection of variegated anecdotes, woven together without much overarching structure. The chair for my panel drew an analogy between poikilia and blogging when she kindly introduced me. And what a wonderful analogy!
One of my favourite stories in Aelian’s works is that of the Persian King Xerxes the Great (486-465 BCE), who fell in love with a plane tree:
The famous Xerxes was laughable, if indeed he treated with contempt sea and land, the artwork of Jupiter, and manufactured for himself novel roads and abnormal sea-ways, and yet enslaved himself to a plane tree, which he admired. In Lydia, they say, he saw a large plane tree specimen, and he stayed there for the day without wanting for anything. He used the wilderness around the plane tree as his camp. He also hung costly ornaments on to her, honouring her branches with necklaces and bracelets. He left a guardian for her, as if a guardian and protector for a beloved woman. But what good did that do to the tree? For the ornaments it had gained, which were entirely inappropriate, hung there, adding nothing to its appearance. For the beauty of a tree resides in its noble branches, thick foliage, strong trunk, roots reaching deep, pliant in the winds, its wide-reaching shade, the changing seasons, and nourishing water brought by channels and rains. But Xerxes’ robes, barbarian gold, and other gifts did not ennoble the plane tree or any other tree. [Aelian, Varia Historia 2.14]
The story of Xerxes and the plane tree was first told in Greek by Herodotus in the fifth century BCE (Histories 7.31). There are no references there to Xerxes’ love for the tree: Herodotus simply notes that the king chose to adorn the tree and have it guarded because of its beauty. Aelian (or one of his sources) imagines Xerxes falling in love with the plane tree, and treating it like a beautiful woman. One is reminded of stories of metamorphoses, such as those recorded by Ovid.
Aelian deems tree veneration ridiculous, and it is very easy to laugh with him. However, before we do so, we may wish to pause a minute and think of our own traditions. Every year, around the beginning of December, we go to buy a fir tree, which we decorate with baubles, tinsel and other ornaments. The decorated tree has pride of place in our living room. It is at the bottom of the tree that presents will be left for us to open on Christmas day. None of these ornaments adds to the beauty of the tree; in fact the garish tree is far less attractive (in my opinion) than it would be in a forest, standing tall, swaying in the wind. But such are our traditions. What would the sharp-tongued Aelian say?
Merry Christmas everyone!