Monday, August 01, 2005

life, death and tansy

The tansy's blooming, summer must really be more than half over. (the end of our season was accelerated, I think, by drought.)

Tansy is a strange flower. It looks to me like a bouquet of daisies that have been subjected to endless rounds of 'he loves me, he loves me not' until none of them have any petals. It doesn't smell like a normal flower, either - it's spicy like camphor.

Tansy is associated with both life and death.

Tansy was used to flavor beer (and possibly preserve it) before hops came on the scene. In medieval Europe it was a common culinary spice often used to replace cinnamon or nutmeg, and was brewed to make a bitter (but popular) tea.

It has been used used to preserve fresh meat and as an insect repellant. It was also used, because of these properties, for funeral shrouds and bouquets. It symbolizes immortality because its dried flowers are long lasting.

In Greek mythology Zeus gave Ganymede, the beautiful Trojan prince, a tansy drink after he was carried away to Mt. Olympus - to make him immortal and allow him to continue his job as Zeus' cupbearer forever.

However, tansy can be poisonous. As warns,
"Tansy, and herbal extracts derived from it, can be poisonous and even fatal to humans. For centuries this plant was used medicinally to cause abortions, with sometimes fatal results. The bitter-tasting leaves and stem contain tanacetum, an oil toxic to humans and animals. Sensitivity to a toxin varies with a person’s age, weight, physical condition, and individual susceptibility. Children are most vulnerable because of their curiosity and small size. Toxicity can vary in a plant according to season, the plant’s different parts, and its stage of growth; and plants can absorb toxic substances, such as herbicides, pesticides, and pollutants from the water, air, and soil."

In medieval Europe, cakes flavored with Tansy juice were eaten at the end of Lent as a means of cleansing "bad humours" from the body, and in remembrance of the bitter herbs the Jewish nation ate at the Passover.

The name of Ganymede's tansy beverage was athanasia [a=without, thanatos=death] and this legend is where Tansy got its common name - as well as its Latin name, Tanacetum Vulgare - which means, amusingly, "common immortality."

Death and life. Immortality, and the angel of death passing over the Jewish children because the Israelites stained their doorposts with the lamb's blood. Yes, and funeral wreaths, common teas and cakes, and cleansing bad humors from your body.

Once again, life and death are linked together; immortality is tied together with dying - and the commonplace and the extraordinary are here together in the same plant, along with death and life. Despite all the dangers, I'm very glad to have it at my door.


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