Hercules - Herakles

Ancient Greek literature is riddled with references to certain species of tree known to form a symbiotic mycorrhizal ("fungus-root") relationship with the Amanita muscaria fungus, but one surprising ommission, at least in English translations, is the silver birch (betula sp.).

Silver Birch
Streams of Silver Birch

The birch is an exceedingly useful tree, whose easily-worked wood, pliant withes, paper-thin white bark, tasteless tar, effective tannins and refreshing syrup have been used for myriad purposes across Eurasia for countless millennia. Adding to its usefulness are some of the fungi it contracts, with the amadou (Fomes fomentarius) bracket fungus collected to make fire, the scabby black chaga (Inonotus obliquus) and the birch conk (Piptoporus betulinus) employed as medicine, and the brilliantly coloured Amanita muscaria mushroom reserved for shamanic practices. When the body of the long-distance traveller Otzi the Iceman (ca.3300 BCE) was recovered from the Tyrolean Alps along the Italian-Austrian border, numerous items of birch were found in his possession, including a small cylindrical container fashioned from birch bark, birch bark tar as glue on the haft of his copper axe, sizeable chunks of Fomes fomentarius stitched onto his clothing, and traces of Piptoporus betulinus in his stomach. From its usefulness and pleasant appearance, silver birch certainly deserves a place in heaven.

As the continental ice sheets of the last ice-age began to retreat around 10,000 BCE, newly exposed ground across the Eurasian landmass was rapidly colonised by fast-growing species of birch as far north as the arctic circle, but as the climate continued to trend warmer and drier, and other species of tree began to compete for space, the southern extents of moisture-loving birch also began to retreat northwards. Presently, silver birch is seldom found further south than latitude 40°, except at higher altitudes, and although resident in Spain, Italy and Anatolia, is almost entirely absent from the Greek peninsula. Nevertheless, birch pollen is regularly found in lacustrine deposits across Greece, including the Peloponnese and several surrounding islands, as well as on Krete, up until the mid-Holocene (ca. 5000 BCE), after which time the level of incidence rapidly diminishes, and becomes almost negligible following the advent of the Bronze Age (ca. 3000 BCE).

The etymology of "birch" is traced from Old Germanic birka through to Proto-Indo-European bherəg meaning "white, bright, shining", where the tree was no doubt named after its glistening white bark, but of which ancient Greek appears to have no cognate, despite its Indo-European origins. However, closely related to PIE bherəg is the PIE stem arg-, also meaning "white, shining", from which derive ancient Greek argos ("white, shining, flashing") and arguros ("silver metal"). The multiple associations of whiteness with the Greek goddess Ere (Hera), that includes the many renderings of argos, and particularly the Omeric epithet leukolenos ("white-armed" sic), suggest that Ere was intimately linked with silver birch (Russian bereza), as much as Dios (Zeus) was with oak. As birch and oak both support the Amanita muscaria, the name Erakleos, usually translated as "Glory" (kleos) of "Hera", may instead be rendered as "Birch-Glory", a title also befitting the Amanita muscaria mushroom. Indeed, this "mushroom" (mukes) may have inspired the earliest arias to the mighty muscle-man.

The modern botanical name for birch, betula, comes to us as a direct borrowing of Latin betula, where betula alba ("white birch") was given to silver birch, but once again, despite the pervasiveness of ancient Greek amongst the Romans, there appears no direct cognate of betula in ancient Greek. Unless, of course, the feminine ending of betula, -ula, derives from ancient Greek ule (hyle), that has since Omeric times been applied to various woodlands, from vast forests to small copses, as well as diverse materials obtained therefrom, such as firewood (Yule) and "timber" (xuline). This being the case, Latin betula may convey a meaning of "house-tree", to denote the manifold uses of birch around the house. But if the -ules ending of Hercules, the Latin equivalent of Erakleos, also traces from ancient Greek ule, then the name Hercules may translate directly as "Glory-Birch" - the inverse of "Birch-Glory".

There is reason to believe that the silver birch and its northerly retreat were known to the ancient Greeks, as suggested by their myths concerning the relationship between Ere and Dios, and their legendary accounts of forays into the Black Sea region, that includes Argonautika ("Voyage of Argo"), labours of Erakleos, return of the Erakleidai ("sons of Erakleos", aka Dorian invasion), and the Iliad and Odyssey. Although the ancient Greeks are deemed not to have commenced their colonisation of the Black Sea region earlier than the 8th century BCE, considerable archaeological evidence (eg amber, copper, horses) indicates continual Aegean-Euxine interactions from at least the fourth millennium BCE. At the Late Neolithic (ca. 5000 BCE) coastal site of Makriyalos, west of Thessaloniki in northern Greece, birch bark tar was used to seal the interior of ceramic pots and also to glue together broken pottery. Without the tree, birch bark tar could have been obtained by trade.

In the Argonautika penned by Apollonios Rhodios in the 3rd century BCE, two characters intimately associated with Erakleos have names similar to ule. The first, a brave lad named Ulas (Hylas), whom Erakleos raised after having slain his father for illegal farming at Druopis ("oak-forest"), carried the mighty bow and toxic arrows of Erakleos as they both journeyed north from Mukenai in Argos to join the crew of the good ship Argo yet to sail from Iolkos. Ulas would later disappear in the land of the Musians (northwest Anatollia) upon encountering a love-smitten nymph at the "spring" Pegas, an incident that "confused" (amexanos) even Aphrodite, and resulted in Erakleos, yet to complete all of his labours for Eurustheos ("Fungus-God") at Mukenai ("Mushrooms"), being abandoned by the Argonauts to wander around "bellowing" (mukema) in distress over the loss of his dear companion.

The second character, Ullon (Hyllen), king of Ulleon (Hyllean), was deemed a son of Erakleos by the water-nymph Melite, daughter of the river Aigaios (Aegaeus) in the land of the Phaiekons ("Shining-Bright"). However, upon arriving at Ulleon, the Argonauts discovered that Ullon had recently been killed by the Mentores whilst defending his cattle "in the field" (agrauloisin). With the city of Ulleon situated somewhere along the Danube or other river that flows into the Black Sea, it would have lain, without doubt, within silver birch territory. However, unless Erakleos had another son named Ullon, Apollonios appears to have contradicted his predecessors who recalled that Ullon was killed at the Isthmus by the Arkadian warrior Exemos in a dual to decide whether the Erakleidai would be allowed to re-enter the Peloponnesos.

Writing in the 5th century BCE, Erodotus mentions at length a woodland named Ulaia (Hylaea), situated north of the Black Sea and east of the river Borusthenes ("from the north", modern Dneiper) in the land of the Skuthians. Within this woodland, a fortress-city named Gelonos (possibly that found near Belsk) was built by ancient Greeks entirely of "wood" (xuline), that included temples to certain Greek gods, but which was burnt to the ground by the invading Persians under Darius (ca. 500 BCE). In Skuthian myth, Gelonos, founder of Gelonos, was deemed one of three sons born to Erakleos by the snake-woman deity of the "woodland" Ulaia.

Black Sea northern rivers.
The Borusthenes connects the lakes.

In the Iliad, Omeros mentions a city named Ulen (Hyle) in Boiotia, perhaps located beside a river, marsh or lake, as well as a major tributory of the river Ermaios in northwest Anatolia called Ullou (Hyllus). And in the Odussei, Odusseus pretends to be one Kastor, son of Ulax (Hylax), who was honoured as a god amongst the Kretans for his good estate and wealth. In ancient times, the northern slopes of the snow-capped mountainous divide of Krete may have supported the birch, thus perhaps marking a southern Aegean extent of the tree.

The site of Olumpia, original home of the Olympic games, is located in the northwest Peloponnesean district of Eleia (Elis), about 20km inland from the Gulf of Kuparissia ("Cypresses"), where the Kladeos (Cladeus) discharges into the mighty river Alpheios ("White"). Situated at the foot of the magical Arkadian mountains, but at an elevation of only 33m above sea level, the sacred precinct is isolated from the low-lying coastal plain (eleio = "marsh") by a small hill, that also hinders the escape of floodwater from the Kladeos valley. Being well-watered, yet well-drained through sandy soils, the site may have well-suited moisture-loving birch.

In the founding myth of the Olympic games, Erakleos is said to have introduced a tree from the land of the Uperboreon (Hyperboreans = "beyond the North Wind"), the branches of which were subsequently used to crown victors in the games. The story of the crowning tree was included in the labour of Erakleos involving the kerunitin elaphos ("horned hind") with golden "horns" (keros), that had to be captured and brought back alive to Eurustheos at Mukenai. To complete this task, Erakleos chased the deer for an entire year and upon reaching the land beyond the North Wind, discovered trees so amazing that he determined to plant them at Olumpia. The portrayal of the golden hind corresponds closely with reindeer, the only species of deer whose females, like the males, sprout antlers, that are sheathed in a golden velvet-like skin several shades lighter than the tawny hide of their flanks. Reindeer are also renowned amongst land mammals for the great distances travelled in their annual migrations. The fondness of reindeer for Amanita muscaria mushrooms, both of which thrive throughout the northern birch forests, makes them relatively easy to catch, and potentially lead by "carrot and stick". For untold millennia, shamen across Eurasia were depicted wearing antlers of reindeer upon their heads, to which office Eurustheos may have aspired.

Erakleos, reindeer, tree and Artemis
Erakleos, reindeer and tree

Following the re-inauguration of the games in 776 BCE, the crowning tree was variously reported as elais ("olive tree"), agrielais ("wild-olive"), kotinos ("wild-olive"), axerois ("poplar") and leuke ("white poplar"), which suggests the identity of the crowning tree was either too secret to publicly declare, or was already lost and open to speculation, like so many other aspects of the games.

As the olive had been cultivated at numerous locations around the Mediterranean, including the Aegean, for several thousand years prior to the advent of the Mycenaean era, it beggars belief that Erakleos had to chase an elaphos a great distance north to discover the elais. Even the "wild-olive", which is deemed to represent the numerous varieties of olea used as rootstock for the edible olive, had long been native to the Aegean. Olive and olea both prefer a warm, dry, slightly saline environment, and have long demonstrated their disdain for cold and damp conditions prevalent upon high mountains and in the far north. The presence of age-old olive groves in the relatively dry Crimean peninsula appears less natural and more to do with ancient Mediterranean colonists finding the climate suitable for olive cultivation.

Since the games were reportedly founded in the Mycenaean era and the Linear B script of the Mycenaeans did not possess Greek lamda ("L"), the Mycenaean word for the olive e-ra-wa was written, and probably pronounced, very similar to the name of the goddess Ere, e-ra. Yet, unlike Athene, there are no ancient accounts linking Ere to the introduction of the edible olive into Greece. Following the adoption of the Phoinikian alphabet, by which the Greeks obtained lamda, the original name of the crowning tree became confused, especially since ancient Greek had other plant words commencing e-l-vowel-, including some that share several features in common with birch.

The Arkadians, most ancient of Greek peoples, called the crack willow (Salix fragilis), elike, from which derives Latin salix and the pain-relieving salicin of aspirin, although willows were more commonly known throughout Greece as itea. Like birch, willows thrive in cool moist conditions, produce catkins and develop long pendulous branches that were widely used in all manner of wickerwork. White willow (Salix alba) was named after the pale undersides of its leaves, but the bark of its trunk and branches, as with most willows, is a relatively dark grey-brown. Although willow wood is of pale appearance and is deemed to make the best cricket bats, it is unlikely that Erakleos fashioned his mighty club from same. In watery Boiotia, Elikon (Mt Helicon), far-famed mountainous abode of the Mousai (Muses) and of the poet Esiodos (Hesiod), was named after the willow, which may have grown beside the river Termesos that flows 3/4 of the way around Elikon before terminating in a land-locked swamp. Also from Elikon came elleboros (hellebore), said to cure madness, but which the ancient Arkadians called eleates. Another variety of willow that grew around lake Kopais in Boiotia was called elaiagnos (Salix caprea = goat willow).

The stately silver fir elate (Abies alba) was mentioned by Omeros in conjunction with ule, and was regularly used in ship-building, especially to make oars, but came to be associated more with Dionuxos (Dionysus). Its ancient name may refer to the towering height often attained by the tree, while more modern names refer to the glistening appearance of its needle-like leaves rather than the greyness of its trunk and branches. The elaterion ("squirting cucumber" sic), possibly a fungus growing on or around silver fir, was celebrated for its medicinal properties. However, although willow and silver fir had both penetrated the far north following the retreat of the ice-sheets and were also subject to fluctuating extents, they remained endemic all round the Aegean.

The word elix (helix) was generally applied to spirals, coils and other twisted shapes, such as the tendrils of grape vines (elinon), woven wreathes and curling smoke, but was also given to ivy (Hedera helix), probably because of its spiraling manner of growth.

At Nemea, situated along the disputed border between Argos and Arkadia, eleioselinon ("marsh-celery" sic) was used to crown victors in their games.

Of the many plant names beginning e-r-vowel-, none refer to trees that also occur in the far north or display substantial amounts of whiteness. Instead, the majority seem to refer to a redness, as with ereuthedanon (madder, whose root yields a red dye), ereika (erica, red heather) and erusiban (wheat-rust, ergot fungus), whereby the name Ere may also allude to redness, as often associated with anger and embarrassment. Contrast the PIE roots al-, el- and ol-, which are all thought to signify redness, while many ancient Greek words of similar beginning convey whiteness.

The absence of lamda in Mycenaean scripts also complicates the etymologies of Olumpia and Olumpos, but where these also derive from ule, then perhaps the meaning of Alsos ("Sacred Grove"), given to the sacred precinct at Olumpia, was to add emphasis to a shiny white grove of trees strategically planted within the otherwise "dark" (erebodes) forest surrounding Olumpia.

The name kotinos may therefore derive from kotos ("grudge, ill-will, resentment") to reflect the interminable wranglings of Ere, and especially the on-going discord between Ere and Dios, that only a whip might settle. The introduction (or perhaps re-introduction) of the silver birch into territory hitherto won by oak, as at Olumpia, possibly Argos and other locations wherever Ere was granted sanctuary, may have raised a squabble comparable to environmentalists rallying against an invasive species, despite the intrinsic worth or beneficence of the species, and despite themselves also being relative newcomers. In his fifth century BCE play titled Ornithes ("Birds"), Aristophanes twice mentions the kotinos in conjunction with the red-fruited komarois ("strawberry tree"), as well as certain cereal grains (but not white barley alphiton), but who may have been alluding to a bird-pecked white-spotted red-capped Amanita muscaria mushroom growing beneath a silver birch.

In the Iliad, the repeated mention of axerois ("poplar" sic) in conjunction with drus ("oak") and pitus ("pine") may have been to group together the three main species of tree known to support the Amanita muscaria mushroom, especially if the intended meaning of axerois as "river-tree" (from axeron = "river") signalled the prevalence of silver birch growing alongside northern waterways. More often in the Iliad and elsewhere, aigeiros was used for "poplar". In later times at Olumpia, only the wood of axerion ("poplar" sic) was permitted in sacrifices to Dios Leukaios ("Zeus of the White Poplar" sic), and only persons authorised by the priesthood of Dios were permitted to supply the sacred fuel, perhaps because the silver birch was already endangered at Olumpia, or there was another tree of very similar appearance growing about the sacred site. The white-trunked trees currently shading Olumpia (if not destroyed in the 2008 fires) are Canadian varieties of white poplar, that were introduced relatively recently, possibly to reconcile or lend substance to the leukolenos ("white-armed") epithet given to Ere by Omeros.

Poplars at Olumpia. Note dark lower trunks.
Poplar close-up.

However, if the crowning tree was known in northern lands simply as "tree", because it was the most significant tree thereabouts (just as our word tree is thought to derive from ancient Greek drus meaning "oak"), then this may explain how ule became a general Greek word for woodland. A crowning wreath woven from gold-flecked crimson-purple withes of birch, that were also used as whips and fasces, compares with the purple or scarlet garments, richly embroidered with gold, that were awarded to victors in the games, a colour scheme that also matches the livery of Amanita muscaria mushrooms. The award may have also included meals and ointments specially prepared from the sacred mushroom to further inspire the victors. The Roman triumph award appears to have been based upon the Olumpic award.

The Olumpic site appears to have been originally dedicated to Ere, then shared between Ere and Dios, and finally dominated by Dios. Evidence for this observation can be found in the two Doric temples erected for these deities within Alsos, the most sacred precinct of Olumpia. The older temple, that of Ere, was believed to have first been built within a generation or two following the return of the Erakleidai (ca.1100 BCE) to the Peloponnese, although foundation deposits suggest a date no earlier than the turn of the eight century BCE, just in time for the re-inauguration of the Olumpic games in 776 BCE. However, variations in the remains of this temple are so great as to suggest that it was entirely rebuilt and progressively refurbished many times over a period approaching a millennia, as one might expect of a structure initially built of timber and subsequently replaced by stone. With the oldest stone elements dating from 640 BCE, this may mark the period when the temple was shared with Dios. But when the temple of Dios Leukaios was constructed in 450 BCE, almost two centuries later, the new temple was not shared with Ere. While the two temples would co-exist side by side forever more, it seems that only the temple of Dios Leukaios was adorned with scenes depicting the exploits of Erakleos, whose twelve canonical labours were carved in relief upon the metopes installed immediately above the doorways within the front and rear porches. The external metopes of both temples were left unadorned, covered only with a fine white stucco (tempered with milk tinted by saffron), until the Roman general Mummius (ca.146 BCE) fixed gilded shields to the external porch metopes of the temple of Dios. Having already shown how the Doric temple resembles an Amanita muscaria mushroom, the association of silver birch with Ere may explain why the Doric style, however plainly adorned initially, was adopted by Ere before all other deities.

Plan of Olumpia

Our galaxy, "The Milky Way", derives its name from Ere having squirted "milk" (galaktos) across the vault of heaven whilst breast-feeding the infant Erakleos - a scene perhaps befitting of a metope in a temple of Ere. The same myth could have been applied to the latex-like white spots, remnants of the universal veil, that be-speckle the domed pileus of Amanita muscaria mushrooms.

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