Upright Rosemary Goddess of the Pillar:
The Mythology of Upright Rosemary


"Rosemary I give run all over my garden walls not only because my bees love it but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance & therefore to friendship, whence a sprig of it hath a dumb language that maketh it the chosen emblem at our funeral wakes & in the burial grounds."

-Thomas More

   

Our four foot tall Upright Rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis) was planted when much smaller in front of an old stand of Lavender. When lavender gets elderly it tends to look pretty scruffy near the bottom, so I put the Rosemary in front of it to deepen the aromatic herb patch & to somewhat hide the dead-looking lower portion of the lavender. Eventually, though, the lavender simply had to be removed. The vastly longer-lived Rosemary had grown dramatically, but I cropped it shorter, dug it up, & moved it backward in the garden to take the lavender's place. It seriously balked at being transplanted & for all appearances died that summer, so I cut the dead limbs to the ground. Fortunately I did not dig up the root to discard, because it wasn't dead after all. The following year it popped up good as new & has been happy ever since.

Like the lavender, Rosemary wants as much bright sun as possible, & not much water. It grows rapidly & needs periodic trimming down, as often as twice a year, depending on how large one wishes it to be.

In its wild Mediterranean habitats it can grow higher than a basketball player, but in temperate gardens is only occasionally so tall. The upright form is the natural form; it has many varieties that twist or crawl, but the only variety I've ever really loved was the original upright.

It is never delighted to get terribly cold, but is hardy to 15 degrees F., so not threatened in the micro-climate of Puget Sound which is rarely as chill as that. The rosemary & the nearly-as-drought-hardy Beauty Berry Bush are in the far back of the garden sheltered by the eaves of the house, where it gets droughty indeed, yet I almost never water them since they get what they need from seep-over from when waterings the Young's weeping birch & sundry other things further out in the garden.

The name Rosemarinus or "dew of the sea" did not originally allude to the Virgin Mary, even though the shrub is now regarded as Mary's. Initially the name indicated Venus or Aphrodite. The rosy "dew" was the blood & semen of castrated Neptune or Poseidon which impregnated the waves, causing Aphrodite to step forth from the ocean onto the Isle of Cypros. She was greeted by naiads who draped her naked body in myrtle, but not surprisingly, in ancient portraits of Aphrodite, rosemary as well as myrtle is worked into the imagery. This is undoubtedly why Rosemary is to this day regarded as an aphrodesiac. Rosemary in relative modern times was traditionally entwined into a bride's head-wreath to encourage couples to remember their wedding vows, but this really does sound like a lingering belief in rosemary as enhancing virility & fertility.

In Greece rosemary shrubs grow to six or seven feet high & have since ancient times been associated with the entrance to the land of the dead, because aromatic herbs were used in funereal rituals to lessen the stench of decay, & rosemary is a preservative spice.

The Titaness Mnemosyne (Memory) was a cthonic goddess of the ancient Greek Maenads & Orphics. She met her worshippers at a dark pool in Tartarus & took back from them all the memories she permitted them in life, so that they would not suffer in the land of shades. This Goddess Memory (& of Unmemory) is essentially a reflex of Black Aphrodite, aka Persephone, a loving & beautiful queen of darkness. And when Shakespeare's equally lovely & deathly Ophelia says, "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance," I seriously doubt the association is concidental to Orphism.

Rosemary is to this day regarded a funeral flower signifying remembrances of the departed. The tradition of tossing rosemary into a grave prior to its filling did not die out in England until the 19th Century, a tradition celebrated in these lines of verse by George Sewell (d.1726):
"All must be left when Death appears,
In spite of wishes, groans, & tears;
Nor one of all thy plants that grow
But rosemary will with thee go."
Not all its associations were so dark, of course. The association of Rosemary with Memory lent to its use among Greek scholars, who wore wreaths about their heads to assist them in their studies. It was also once regarded as essential that brides & grooms each carry a bouquet of rosemary. Robert Hacket in a wedding serman of 1607 stated that wedding-rosemary represented in the groom his wisdom, love, & loyalty to his wife, & the poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) alluded to rosemary's double-meaning "Be't for my bridall, or my buriall." It was also associated with honesty so deep abiding that, according to an instruction in a 14th Century manuscript, a thief when his feet were washed in a basin of water with rosemary would be cured of thievery.

The Latin name may not originally have indicated Mary, but having the name it has, myths of this plant would inevitably shift from from Goddess to Virgin. Rosemary is said to have taken on the bright blue of its small flowers only after the Virgin draped her veil over a rosemary bush, blue being the color most often associated with Mary. In another legend, the Virgin bound rosemary limbs to her garment for protection when she fled with her family into Egypt. Rosemary grows wild in Portugal & Spain where the cult of the Virgin is so important, including the cult of Mary of the Pillar who is the patroness of Spanish warriors, & reflected in the upright stance of Rosemary.

In 1370, the Countess of Hainault wrote to her daughter Queen Philippa, wife of Edward III, & included with the missive cuttings of rosemary. She instructed her daughter to place leaves of the rosemary under her husband's pillow, to ward off evil spirits, but warns the magic will not work if her husband is a sinner, for rosemary is "a holy tree." The belief that rosemary wards off evil was carried over into a belief that it could hold the Black Plague at bay, while in Spain it was regarded as proof against sorcery & hung upon doors & windows to protect all who dwelt within.

Rosemary's association with Mary came late to Europe, & there is some indication that the cult of Mary was to a great extent strongly inspired by that of the Divine Shekhina among the sefardim of Spain. Jews had worshipped "Asherah Who Walks the Sea" in great antiquity as the bride of Yahweh, & scripture mentions Her image was even kept in the Jerusalem Temple [2 Ki 21:3-7; 2 Chr 33:3-7, 19], & the first Yahweh shrine ever built by Abraham was inside an Asherah grove [Gn 21:33]. That Asherah was a Pillar Goddess is obvious from the fact that she was worshipped in the form of a wooden pillar set upright in the midst of her grove.

All of this to the mystically inclined sephardic Jews was never taken to indicate a pagan origin to Judaism but only proof of the Presence, of the Divine Shekhinah, she that is the aspect of God closest to & most motherly toward humanity. So when a Catholic Spanish poet like St John of the Cross wrote of the ecstatic erotic encounter with God in the aspect of a heavenly bride, it is no coincidence that sephardim were afield, & John of the Cross borrowed from them the very imagery that won him persecution from his own church.

Before Queen Isabella cast the sephardim out of Spain, the "Rose of the Sea" likely had its Aphrodite association shifted first from ancient goddesses to the Divine Shekhinah. Just about every pagan myth of the Goddess was coopted by Jewish mystics & the Shekhinah was much more overtly associated with sexuality & fertility than ever was the case with the asexual Virgin Mary. The Shekhinah's feet are imbedded in Sheol (Hell) so she is simultaneously heavenly & cthonic in nature, Queen of All Living, & Queen of All Dead, just as the semitic Sun-mother Shapash ruled the rephaim in the land of the dead by night, but rose up to light the world by day.

In the prophetic passage, "I am El. I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas" [Ezek 28:2], the "seas" is plural because Asherah made her home between two seas that sprang from the base of El's Mount Zaphon, or Asherah was herself this mountain & two seas sprang forth from her breasts to nourish the world. An Ugaritic parallel of Canaanite myth states identically, "I am El, I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas," so there is no question but that Ezekiel was repeating an old verse for Asherah & El.

When El (Mighty) was coopted as a name of Yahweh, it was inevitable that Asherah should be regarded Yahweh's bride; & a Psalm alludes to this when assuming Yahweh's Mount Zion sprang from El's Mount Zaphon, vis, "Mount Zion, in the recesses of Zaphon, is the city of the Great King. God is known in Her palaces" [Ps 48:2-3]. For further associations, the idea that Jerusalem or Mother Zion is a "She" & a bride of God further echoes myths of Asherah & El when we are told "Living waters shall go out from Jerusalem, half of them toward the eastern Sea, & half of them toward the western sea" [Zech 14:8; compare Ezek 47:1]. This again echoes Asherah as two oceans or two rivers that issue forth from Her breasts whether in her house (temple) at the foot of Mount Zaphon or from out of Mount Zion.

The Hebrew original of Mary, Miriam, means bitterness, & again it is hard to imagine Rosemary, the bitter herb of death, came by so many apropos associations by happenstance. The image of Miriam beating her tamborine & dancing in the waves of the Parted Sea shows her affinity for Asherah Who Walks the Sea, or Aphrodite who stepped out from the sea. So too scripture asserts that while in the wilderness there was always water for the Jews until the day Miriam died, & only when Miriam was taken from the people was there no more water [Nm 20:1-2]. Our cultural memory is much older than we usually realize! And so a broad tradition of Miriam's well, & how Moses cleansed its waters of bitterness by sweeping it with herbal branches, has startling origins equally in goddess-worship & in Torah.

The Sabbath is regarded as the best time for mystics to have sex with their wives, because the Sabbath Bride brings news of the world to God on the Sabbath, & they are joined in conubial bliss in the sephirotic realm of Tiphereth (Beauty) who is the emination of God (on the "Pillar" or trunk of the sephiroth tree), Tiphereth being the sephirah most closely associated with Yahweh. After transfer of Aphrodite or Asherah legends to the Shekhinah, as observed among the sephardim, it was inevitable that this association would have leapt to Mary, so that today, both rosemary & myrtle are regarded foremost among Mary's plants. It would appear that ultimately the Divine Shekhinah, Asherah, Aphrodite, Miriam the sister of Moses, & belatedly the Virgin Mary, are the one & the same stellar & ocean divinity with authority over the cycle of Life & Death.

Whew! If you could stand that one, you'll love:
Myths of the Cedar of Lebanon

   



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