Page images

The Tree of the Sun

Best known of all trees was the Tree of the Sun. This grew in Persia, and Maundeville says of it: “Within those Deserts were the Trees of the Sun and of the Moon, that spoke to King Alexander and warned him of his Death. And Men say that the Folk that keep those Trees, and eat of the Fruit and of the Balm that groweth there live well four hundred Year or five hundred Year, by virtue of the Fruit and of the Balm.” Sir John said he would have gone toward the trees “full gladly," but because of the wild beasts, serpents, and dragons “I trow that one hundred thousand Men of Arms might not pass the Deserts safely.” However, Marco Polo passed them safely, and gives one of his terse descriptions of the tree “called the tree of the sun and by Christians arbo secco, the dry or fruitless tree.” It looked like the chestnut, but its husks contained no fruit, and probably it was the Oriental plane tree. Here Alexander fought Darius. Wonder-working Trees

Ctesias has a characteristic traveler's account of the parebon, an Indian tree about the size of the olive, but with neither flowers nor fruit. It has, however, fifteen thick roots, which, like the diviner's rod, will attract the precious metals. If a cubit's length of root be taken, says the Cnidian, “it attracts lambs and birds, and with this root most kinds of birds are caught.” If you cast it into wine, it solidifies the liquor so that it can be held in your hand like a piece of wax.

The ancients had much to say of the properties of other trees and plants. It was thought that the laurel or bay tree was never struck by lightning, and so the peasants of the Pyrenees hold to this day; the Emperor Tiberius wore a laurel wreath during thunderstorms. The oak, planted near the walnut, would perish. The shadow of the walnut was injurious to men and productive of headache. The shadow of the elm was refreshing. The olive, if so much as licked by a she-goat, became barren. There was a moral feud between the vine and the cabbage, and between the vine and the radish, so that the latter was prescribed for drunkenness. The virtue of the mistletoe, says Pliny, was to resist all poisons and make fruitful any that used it. The cocoanut and the betel nut were powerful aphrodisiacs. The gum of the camphor tree bred impotency. The smell of the basil begat scorpions in the brains of men. Moly would neutralize sorcery. There was a plant called the eriphia with a hollow stem, inside of which was a beetle which kept ascending and descending its narrow home the while it bleated like a kid; this plant was beneficial to the voice.

The fable of the deadly upas, or poison tree of Macassar, Erasmus Darwin's “hydra tree of death,” is modern. According to tradition, a putrid stream flows from the roots of the tree, which grows in Java, and the vapors thereof kill. Foersch, a Dutch physician who published a book in 1783, is mainly responsible for the ill repute of this tree. He declares that “not a tree nor blade of grass is to be found in the valley or surrounding mountains. Not a bird or beast, reptile or living thing lives in the vicinity.” He even asserts that “on one occasion sixteen hundred refugees encamped within fourteen miles of it, and all but three hundred died within two months.' Investigation has disproved all of this. The tree grows in a region where vegetation is luxuriant, men make a garment of its fiber and walk under its branches, and there birds roost. The venom known as Macassar poison with which Malays tip their arrows is, however, made from its gum.

There grows on the island of Hierro in the Canaries a remarkable tree, if one may credit Richard Hakluyt and others of his time. Hierro is six leagues in circuit and produces ample foodstuffs for its inhabitants and their flocks of goats, although no rain falls and no springs gush. There is, however, a great stone cistern standing at the foot of a tree with leaves like the olive's. Clouds hover over the tree “and by means thereof,” says Hakluyt, “the leaves of the sayd tree continually drop water, very sweet, into the sayd cisterne, which cometh to the sayd tree from the clouds by attraction."

The rain tree of Peru is described as tall, rich in leaves, and possessed of “the power of collecting the dampness of the atmosphere and condensing it into a continuous and copious supply of rain.” “In the dry season,” says a Spanish newspaper quoted in Walsh's Handy Book of Curious Information, “when the rivers are low and heat great, the trees' power of condensing seems at the highest and water falls in abundance from the leaves and oozes from the trunks. The water spreads around in veritable rivers. These rivers are canalized so as to regulate the course of the water.” This singular statement closes with an estimate that a Peruvian rain tree will yield nine gallons of water a day, and that 10,000 trees producing daily 385,000 liters of water can be grown on a square kilometer.

The Weather Bureau at Washington examined (1905) the facts as to the rain tree, and declared that such a tree never existed. The American consul-general at Callao reported (1911) that he could find no rain trees in Peru. Then the Department of Agriculture made a statement that the rain-tree legend was centuries old, but had no basis. In partial explanation thereof an English botanist said that cicada-swarms, settling upon trees, tap their juices, which fall on the ground.

Australia has planted many so-called rain trees.

Ulloa, the Spanish astronomer, brought back to Europe a related story in 1736. He found at Quito, he said, a species of cane from thirty-five to fifty feet high and half a foot thick. Until the canes reach full size most of the tubes contain a quantity of water, and this rises and falls and is clear or turbid, according to the phases of the moon. The Mandrake Myth

Legends of the mandrake are perhaps a legacy of the ancient lark white race whose gloomy imaginings and orgiastic practices survived to color the brighter religions of Greece and Rome, and emerged again in the witch-burnings of the Middle Ages. These legends are widespread, uniformly sinister, often obscene. Their basis may be in homeopathic magic—the belief that like cures like, and also may kill like; or it may be in the sea, where affinities with the pearl myth have been noted. It is possible that the mandrake of forbidding fable is just a stranded cowry, the shell which has been called the first deity.

The mandrake is a member of the potato family growing in Mediterranean countries. It is an emetic, a purgative, a narcotic poison. Usually its flesh-colored roots are forked, so that, like a transplanted carrot or parsnip, it resembles a miniature human figure. On this resemblance, and on its sleep-producing properties, men have thought that the legends were based, and in China, ginseng, which also has man-like roots, has inherited them. The possessor of the mandrake could win good luck for himself, bring bad luck to others, sway the passions, and even in some measure command the elements.

Hence the popular notions that the mandrake was an aphrodisiac, that it relieved barrenness and promoted pregnancy, as in the triangular episode in Genesis in which Jacob, Rachel, and Leah figured; it was known as the love-apple, and Venus was called Mandragorotis, while the Emperor Julian wrote Calixenes that he drank its juices as a love potion. Hence, also, the belief that it dripped blood when pulled from the earth and, as Homer says, emitted a deathly shriek fatal to the man who heard it; according to Josephus it was the custom in a certain Jewish village to use a dog to pull up the roots, the dog being killed by the shrieks that followed. Grimm describes this process, which consisted in Germany of loosening the soil about the root, tying the root to the dog's tail, retreating to a safe distance down the wind, and then decoying the dog with a piece of bread. The dead canine was buried on the spot with religious honors, and the root “washed with wine, wrapped in silk, laid in a casket, bathed every Friday, and clothed in a little new white smock every new moon. If thus considerately treated, it acts as a familiar spirit, and every piece of coin laid by it at night doubles in the morning.”

Thus the mandrake legend entered its mediæval phase of devil worship. The root was used as a charm against nightmare, and against robbers, and to locate buried treasure. supposed to be a living creature “engendered,” as Thomas Newton says, “under the earth of the seed of some dead person put to death for murder," or, as Grimm says, “growing up beneath the gallows from which a thief is suspended.” Heads were carved on the mandrakes and these elaborated images went by the names of manikin and erdman, or earth-man. As much as twenty-five ducats in gold was paid for them. They were often carried on the person in bottles, and bottle imps were credited with the magic powers of homunculi. But if a man

It was


died with one of these upon his person, the devil owned him forthwith. Joan of Arc was charged with carrying such an image about with her, but replied that she did not know what a mandrake was. Margaret Bouchey was hanged near Orléans in 1603 on the ground that she kept a living mandrake fiend, in form of a female ape.

Mandrake manikins were counterfeited from the root of a yam-like plant, which had been manipulated into a complete likeness of the human body. Sir Thomas Browne describes the process: “The roots which are carried about by imposters to deceive unfruitful women are made of the roots of canes, briony, and other plants; for in these, yet fresh and virent, they carve out the figures of men and women, first sticking therein the grains of barley or millet where they intend the hair should grow; then bury them in sand until the grains shoot forth their roots, which, at the longest, will happen in twenty days; they afterward clip and trim those tender strings in the fashion of beards and other hairy teguments. All which, like other impostures, once discovered, is easily effected, and in the root of white briony may be practiced every spring.”

A century ago mandrake images were still seen in French seaport towns, but now mandragora has lost its vogue even as a medicine. In Africa and the East, however, it is still used as a narcotic and anti-spasmodic, while ginseng, which is a surrogate, maintains its spell in China, where as much as four hundred dollars has been paid for an ounce of it. Precious Stones

Among minerals jade held a place as distinct as that of the mandrake among plants, but its associations were all auspicious. Its place is the highest among the precious stones, although it is not a precious stone at all. It is a substance to which heliolithic culture attached magical power and which it carried quite around the world before history began, Aryans, Kanakas, and red Indians holding it in equal regard. Axes and hatchets of jade or jadeite have been uncovered in the burial grounds of neolithic Europe, and there are jade celts, cylinders, and amulets bearing Greek, Babylonian, and Egyptian inscriptions. In a sense the civilization of China has been built up around this

« PreviousContinue »