MARCH: Silphion and narthex

There are two conspicuous herbaceous perennials of the Mediterranean and western Asia that impress with their enormous resurgence each year from dormant rootstocks and thus function as symbols of reactivation and perseverance. Silphion and narthex develop with tall inflorescences over large tufts of finely divided leaves. Little wonder they became symbols of the Goddess Aphrodite.

Biology

The names silphion and narthex denote tall umbelliferous plants (Apiaceae) from the Mediterranean and Asia where they played an important role in economy and symbolism in antiquity. Narthex (also called the stick-plant or giant fennel) can be defined today, while silphion is extinct which raises questions about its species. Both of them have a typical, strongly furrowed stem and branched inflorescence of many umbels. Most probably, silphion was a species of the genus Ferula (for some authors also a local variety of Thapsia garganica). Ferula communis (Fig. 1) appears to be the narthex of antiquity and its inflorescence grows taller than a man, reaching up to 4 or 5 metres. F. asa-foetida, the most probable successor of the ancient silphion, grows up to 3.5 m with stem diameters as much as 10 cm.

Fig. 1.

Ferula communis with inflorescence, narthex of antiquity, Priene, Greece (Kandeler).

Fig. 1.

Ferula communis with inflorescence, narthex of antiquity, Priene, Greece (Kandeler).

Silphion, in antiquity, was a universal remedy and was certainly used as an aphrodisiac. It grew only on the Cyrenaica peninsula in eastern Libya and was so highly valued that its trade became the basis of wealth for the town of Cyrene (Ziegler, 1979). The depictions of the plant on coins from Cyrene indicate its great size (Franke and Hirmer, 1972; Baumann, 2000). Unlike the depictions on signet rings, coins show the stem with leaves and young inflorescences, probably the stage in which the plants were harvested for shipping (Fig. 2). In the early Roman imperial period this trade declined for unknown reasons; the last specimen was reportedly sent to the Roman emperor Nero (about AD 50). The plant could not be cultivated and seems to have been extinct since that time (Hegi, 1926). According to the scientists who worked on this question, the silphion trade must have been replaced by trade with F. asa-foetida L., the stinking asant (Fig. 3) or a related species, which also has very thick and tall stems (Ziegler, 1979). Nowadays, F. asa-foetida occurs between Iran and Afghanistan to Central Asia and is used as a vegetable, a spice, a pharmaceutical drug, and an aphrodisiac (Rätsch, 1995).

Fig. 2.

Silphion on tetradrachmon coins from Cyrene. Left: c. 520–480 BC. Right: c. 323–305 BC. (Franke and Hirmer, 1972).

Fig. 2.

Silphion on tetradrachmon coins from Cyrene. Left: c. 520–480 BC. Right: c. 323–305 BC. (Franke and Hirmer, 1972).

Fig. 3.

Ferula asa-foetida, stinking asant, in midsummer, dead above-ground parts. Kara-kum desert near Buchara, Uzbekistan (Ullrich).

Fig. 3.

Ferula asa-foetida, stinking asant, in midsummer, dead above-ground parts. Kara-kum desert near Buchara, Uzbekistan (Ullrich).

The ancient authors mention the young leaves and stems of the original silphion being used as a vegetable and a fruit, and that the latex was used as a spice and remedy against manifold ailments (Ziegler, 1979). To obtain the drug, asafoetida, ‘the devil's dung’, the upper parts of the plant are cut off or incised at the ground. The latex, which readily oozes out from the thick perennial roots condenses within three days to a gummy, resin-like mass which can be harvested in lumps (up to 1 kg) and releases a pungent, unpleasant smell due to its sulphide compounds. The lumps are still pulverized and either used as a powder (spice) or dissolved in water or wine and used as a natural remedy for many diseases, for contraception, and for abortion. Externally applied, the material was used as an ointment or a paste for healing wounds, abscesses, and even snakebites.

Symbolism

The common narthex (Ferula communis) is described in mythology as the plant Prometheus used to bring fire secretly from Hephaistos’ forge to humans because, when set on fire, its stem pith will smoulder for a long time. Narthex was also used by the Menades and the other attendants of Dionysos, the god of wine and fertility, as a festive sceptre and recognition mark in the shape of an ivy-decorated Thyrsos-staff. Dionysos was the grandson of Aphrodite, the goddess of love in Greek mythology (Venus for the Romans).

Narthex and silphion as emblems of Aphrodite

There are closer relationships between silphion and Aphrodite. On an unusually large golden Mycenaean signet ring (Fig. 4) found by Drossinos in 1877, a tall, tree-like plant with a furrowed stem can be seen in a detailed scene. The focus of the whole presentation is the young woman sitting under this plant. Simon (1985) interpreted the seated figure as Aphrodite. On the left side behind the ‘tree’, there is a little girl, from the right-hand-side three female figures are approaching the seated woman and handing over gifts of plants. The tree-like plant behind her is apparently associated with her. To the eyes of a botanist, it is the stylized reproduction of an umbellifer. At its base there are huge lumps, some of them drop-shaped. The biggest of these lumps is the woman's seat. According to the facts mentioned above, this plant was most likely silphion for its use was apparently known in the Mycenaean period (16th–12th century BC) and Cyrene has been documented as a Mycenaean colony (Kontorlis, 1985). Thus, in the Mycenaean era, silphion from Cyrene was already in use as a cult plant, its latex was a stimulating drug, and it played an important role in the veneration of Aphrodite.

Fig. 4.

Plate of a golden signet ring, Mycenae (diameter 3.4 cm maximum). Aphrodite under a silphion plant, three goddesses bringing gifts of plants to her (Kontorlis, 1985).

Fig. 4.

Plate of a golden signet ring, Mycenae (diameter 3.4 cm maximum). Aphrodite under a silphion plant, three goddesses bringing gifts of plants to her (Kontorlis, 1985).

On another golden ring from a chamber grave in Mycenae (Kontorlis, 1985) the stem at the top bears five very close-standing umbels or partial umbels, in which the small flowers are not only placed in a circle at the edge, but also on the exposed side of the ball-shaped inflorescences. This plant is standing on an altar and seems to be bent forward by a male figure. Marinatos (1986) and other authors interpret the whole scene as the sacred uprooting of the holy tree. But the ceremony, the rite of the autumnal death of vegetation, would make more sense with a cult plant of which the above-ground parts die in autumn, rather than with a tree. Silphion and narthex as two strong, tall herbaceous plants were the most appropriate candidates to symbolize the annual fate of the vegetation.

References

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