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Do plant symbols, myths and rituals still have any point?

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  • jahopley
    Dear PFAF group members, I have attached, below, a copy of the speech given by Prof. Marcel De Cleene (co-author) at the recent UK launch of the Compendium of
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 24, 2003
      Dear PFAF group members,

      I have attached, below, a copy of the speech given by Prof. Marcel
      De Cleene (co-author) at the recent UK launch of the 'Compendium of
      Symbolic and Ritual Plants in Europe', which I hope you will find of

      This extraordinary publication is a unique reference source
      containing more than 1500 pages in two volumes, covering the ritual
      use of trees, shrubs and herbs throughout Europe. I hope this text
      whets your appetite and you wish to delve further. I have included a
      link to the Compendium web site, where an order form can be found.

      Do plant symbols, myths and rituals still have any point?
      Marcel DE CLEENE

      It is a great honour and a true privilege to be here at this
      fascinating historical Physic Garden. The Garden was founded in 1673
      by the Worshipful Society of the Apothecaries of London to allow
      medical students to study the plants then used in healing. Hence the
      name `physic', the old term for the art of healing. One of the
      Garden's present aims is to demonstrate to all its visitors the
      numerous uses of plants, including those in medicine. We are
      therefore delighted to be able to launch the Compendium of Symbolic
      and Ritual Plants in Europe in this remarkable location. This
      Compendium deals with popular medicine, magical healing and many
      other common beliefs, plant legends and agricultural and industrial
      uses. And of course, as the title suggests, it deals with plant
      rituals, plant myths and plant symbolism.

      What do we mean by ritual plants? The concept of ritual plants
      covers all those trees, shrubs and herbs that have played or still
      play a part in man's religious life. Western man is probably
      baffled by this use of plants in religion, as he is no longer aware
      of the crucial part Nature played in pre-Christian religions.
      Nonetheless, the ancient magical reputation of such plants still
      lingers on in present-day popular beliefs and medicine, in
      traditions, and even in certain common expressions. However, we
      hardly ever give this a moment's thought, as we are no longer aware
      of its origin.

      - Why do red roses symbolise passionate love?
      - Why are the ceilings of old houses decorated with plaster roses?
      - Why is it that, in Western Europe, twigs of willow, yew, holly, or
      box are consecrated on Palm Sunday and taken home to protect the
      house and stables?
      - Why was a wreath of Rosemary laid before the altar at the memorial
      service for the 1987 `Herald of Free Enterprise'disaster at
      Zeebrugge in Belgium?
      - Why do we still use sticks to knock walnuts off trees?
      - What is the significance of Poppy capsules on a grave?
      - Why did Princess Anne's wedding bouquet include a sprig of Myrtle?
      - Why is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil portrayed as an
      Apple Tree in Western iconography, and as a Fig Tree in Greek-
      Orthodox iconography?
      - Why is incense burned in churches?
      - Why is a maypole set up at the beginning of May?
      - Why do we say `touch wood', and knock on `wood'?
      - Why do we hang garments of invalids and the ill on a rag tree?
      - Why are war memorials decorated with laurel wreaths?
      - Why are grains of Rice thrown at weddings?
      - Why are the Mandrake plant and its fruits so popular in European
      folk belief and medicine?

      Numerous other examples of present-day plant rituals and symbolism
      can be linked with old heathen beliefs, in which Nature played a
      central role. Ancient peoples saw life differently. They sought
      emotional stability and a feeling of security in their profound
      respect for nature and the gods and spirits connected with it. They
      offered sacrifices to trees, springs, stones and rivers. They
      attached great importance to mythological stories and their
      associated natural symbolism. In all their fear and misery it gave
      them the sense that they had a greater say in those things that
      were `beyond words', and their feelings were certainly
      reflected in a wide variety of stories or beliefs. Nowadays many
      believe that symbols belong to a long-vanished world of ancient
      peoples, or to certain so-called `primitive' tribes that have
      survived until the present day, but that they no longer have the
      slightest relevance to that rational and complex species, the modern
      human being. The fertility rites of Neolithic and present-day
      Melanesian man are seen as nothing more than archaic superstition.
      People no longer see any link between the myths of the Ancient
      Greeks or the folk-tales of the American Indians and their own
      behaviour and reactions to the `heroes' of our own age. And yet
      there definitely is a connection.

      It is unfortunate that modern man is so little aware of the
      transcendent value of primeval symbols, which so many people have
      for centuries understood to be a source of wisdom. Symbols represent
      this connection and see to it that man's great universal myths
      and rituals continue to be handed down. They still bear a message
      that is relevant to the hectic life of modern, supposedly
      `rational' man.

      Symbols can bring greater restfulness, stability and harmony, since
      they offer us an insight into the immutable underlying values of
      everyday reality.

      The great virtue of such eminent academics as the religious
      historians Eugène Goblet d'Alviella (1845-1925), Sir James
      Frazer (1854-1941), Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) and Mircea Eliade
      (1907-1986) lay in their collection of universal myths and symbols,
      reassessing them and making them acceptable as objects of academic
      study. The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1875-1961) considered that
      the fundamental issues of mankind have remained unchanged over time,
      and that the subconscious plays an essential part in dreams,
      fantasies and myths. He regarded symbols and myths as the bridges
      that return man to the primal unity: the Earthly Paradise, the Lost
      Word, the Elysian Fields, Avalon and so on. Symbols and myths make
      people aware that they live in a fundamental duality, taking the
      form of good & evil, man & woman, life & death, finite & infinite,
      and so on.

      In themselves they have no magical powers of expression. It is the
      contemplation and understanding of symbols and myths that give man
      greater insight. Everyone works in their own way and at their own
      pace. They do so in the solitude of their deepest self, yet with no
      feeling of exclusion, since they can count on the warmth and
      tenderness of their fellow beings, and on rituals and symbols that
      generate a feeling of solidarity. This feeling is of tremendous
      value to modern man, who no longer experiences the doubts and
      uncertainties of the past, but now faces other, more existential

      We therefore believe that psychologists and sociologists would, more
      than ever, benefit from a close study of ancient rituals and their
      symbols, as they have a fascinating story to tell about man's
      innermost feelings, a story which man himself would probably never
      be able or dare to tell.

      In the way it deals with ancient and modern plant symbolism, myths
      and rituals as they are known in Europe, in the attention it pays to
      legends, to folk beliefs, to magical healing, to popular medicine,
      and the many other uses of ritual plants, the Compendium does not
      claim to be complete. It covers a range of academic disciplines,
      each of which is in itself extremely broad and sometimes less
      accessible or even obscure. In addition, there are still a great
      many missing links.

      However, we have tried to provide an academically sound survey of
      the current knowledge of ritual plants down the centuries, seen in a
      broad perspective but also with a critical look at the accuracy of
      the naming of plant species mentioned in literature. We have
      attempted to present all this in comprehensible language, and have
      added about 12,000 references for those who wish to explore the
      field further. The thread running through this compendium is
      man's innate fear of losing his grip on his own environment and his
      consequent escape into a world of ill-conceived spiritual and
      magical powers. This fear probably always existed, but it can now be
      clearly felt in these turbulent and uncertain transitional times.

      Moreover, at a time of major environmental pollution, it is
      appropriate to reflect on the age-old bond between man and nature,
      and the plant kingdom in particular, and to recognise its deeper
      symbolism. The major motivation for the publication of this
      Compendium is the hope that this understanding may in some way
      contribute to a recovery of Man's lost harmony with Nature.

      (Chelsea Physic Garden, Oct 23 2003)

      Link to Compendium web site: http://www.smk.be/compendium
      Further information can be obtained from Alpha Publishing in the UK,
      at info@..., tel: 01293 881166
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