Friday, October 7, 2011

Saffron (Mercury and Minoans)

“ Your lips drop sweetness like honeycomb, my bride, syrup and milk are under your tongue, and your dress had the scent of Lebanon.
Your cheeks are an orchard of pomegranates,
an orchard full of rare fruits, spikenard and saffron, sweet cane and cinnamon.”
—Song of Solomon

I've been on another chase tonight- watching a show about Crete, Knossos, Thira, and what happened to the Minoans- how and why did they disappear? I've discussed this on the blog previously. I've also posted about sacred bees and their role at Knossos.

While watching this documentary, they showed frescoes from Knossos which depict women harvesting saffron. It's something I remember seeing and later reading about, but I never really thought about it. Saffron is harvested from the stamen of the crocus. It's also sacred to Mercury.
According to Ovid, Krokos was a boy loved by the god Hermes. After his accidental death the god transformed him into the saffron flower. Its red stems were described as his spilt blood.
In the book Plant lore, legends, and lyrics: Embracing the myths, traditions, superstitions and folklore of the plant kingdom  By Richard Folkard, there are many references to saffron and its uses in Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Jewish and Indian cultures. This link takes you to to the precise page with the entry for crocus. It's well worth the brief read, especially since I can't cut and paste the highlights here!

It takes 75,000 blossoms or 225,000 hand-picked stigmas to make a single pound of saffron. No wonder it's the world's most expensive spice! During the Renaissance, Venice stood out as the most important commercial center for saffron. In that period saffron was worth its weight in gold. Saffron was used to scent the baths and public halls of Imperial Rome. It is an important component of many an ayurvedic recipes. From an ayurvedic text:

Saffron is bitter, greasy and it cures head ailments and heals wounds. It is pungent, stops vomiting and gives brightness to the body as well as cures the three ailments. Saffron is bitter, pungent and heaty. It stops phlegm and cures gastric problems. It heals wounds, eye and head ailments. It serves as an anti-venom. It also gives brightness to the body.
This matches up with how Pliny describes the herb. There are still recipes describing the use of saffron, especially for wounds, eye cures, and gastric issues. It's fatal in high doses, so I'd recommend sticking with your favorite Indian restaurant as your primary intake source ;) However, some saffron rice would make a nice offering to Mercury!

From Alchemical Properties of Foods:
Saffron is considered the most perfect of all spices. It comes from the stigma of the stunningly beautiful violet crocus flower. During a two-week period in autumn, three stigmas from each flower are handpicked and dried. It takes 225,000 stigmas from 75,000 flowers to produce just a pound of the herb. Eating saffron dispels depression and eliminates psychological inertia, and it was once thought that you could die of "excessive joy" by eating too much of it. Drinking the tea is said to bestow the gift of clairvoyance and greatly enhance the body’s healing powers. Yellow safflower is often used as a cheaper substitute for saffron, but true saffron has a deep red color and imparts a golden yellow hue to the food to which it is added. The alchemists considered saffron the gold of the plant kingdom and believed it carried the "signature" of the great transmuting agent for which the alchemists spent their lives searching. According to legend, Hermes created saffron when he accidentally wounded his friend Crocus, whose blood dripped to earth and sprouted as the flower that bears his name. Saffron was sacred to the Egyptian supreme god, Amen, and the Egyptians grew it in their sacred gardens at Luxor. Persian priests were said to have controlled the winds with saffron, and Persian women attached balls of saffron to their bellies to facilitate safe pregnancies. Saffron was also sacred to Eos, the Greek god of the morning light, and the spice has been described as the dawn’s light solidified. In the Middle Ages, it was sprinkled over the beds of newlywed nobility to ensure a fruitful marriage. Alchemist Roger Bacon believed that saffron delayed the aging process, and some modern psychics believe its odor and taste release the transcendent essences of childhood.
Saffron-as-medicine is also mentioned in an Assyrian text from around 700 BCE. It was part of the collection of Ashurbanipal's Library (which was long before the one at Alexandria). This is the same collection we have to thank for the Epic of Gilgamesh. Here is a recipe for a salve allegedly made by the royal perfumer for Gilgamesh himself (ancient massage oil?):
"At first light, I gather balsam from the forest, saffron hidden in the dusty grass, flowers from the river's left bank, essential oils of the fir cone, oil from the calamus root, and a young turtle's shell ground up fine. Blessed with balsam's heat, on the altar do the flowers burn, until the heavens hear our plea, then they are crushed and stirred: For seven sunrises and seven sunsets does the mixture purify, and then it is rubbed upon the limbs and while singing praise, as this is proper toward the God."
Speaking of Alexandria, this ties in nicely with last night's post which included Alexander the Great. From the holy wiki:
Persian saffron was heavily used by Alexander the Great and his forces during their Asian campaigns. They mixed saffron into teas and dined on saffron rice. Alexander personally used saffron sprinkled in warm bath water. He believed it would heal his many wounds, and his faith in saffron grew with each treatment. He even recommended saffron baths for the ordinary men under him. The Greek soldiers, taken with saffron's perceived curative properties, continued the practice after they returned to Macedonia

Let's bring it back around tonight with an article from a 2004 published in the New York Times:
Until now, the earliest known use was around 1000 B.C., with visual and written evidence for the myrtle, the lily, the poppy and others. Now, scholars say, the dating of a volcanic eruption and botanically accurate wall paintings indicate that saffron has been a versatile medicine since 3,500 years ago.They base their case on frescoes at Thera, a Greek island in the Aegean, that have been thought to depict a goddess overseeing the production of perfume or spice. Instead, the scholars say, the frescos, from 1500 or 1600 B.C. -- the exact date is a topic of debate -- show the goddess presiding over the manufacture and use of a drug from the saffron flower.

It's believed this flower originated in Crete. I've posted before about Knossos being a city of the dead, where mummification took place and where sacred rites were held. It just occured to me that Hermes is associated with the bee nymphs which are associated with Crete, and with the crocus/saffron, and is a guide of souls. The information tonight might not be new, but my perspective is. I'm off to dream about this!

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