How do plants come to have such meaning for us? I am still under the influence of these flowers which I saw some weeks ago (and were photographed by Chaiselongue), and I’m still stirred and moved. Is this where the French Presidential election excitement comes in? No, that connection will be later on. It is just that these flowers have such . . . presence. They are members of the Liliaceae family, and therefore among the ‘lilies of the field’ which exceeded Solomon’s glory.
Perhaps the late spring here after a bitterly cold February has meant that plants grow or geminate late and have benefitted from more daylight and warmth than usual. Certainly the flower displays seem more stunning and numerous this year, and none more spectacular than the asphodels which appeared in wide drifts on the hillsides rather than small groups. It’s a plant of high, dry ground, often where it is grazed or trampled, because it’s not eaten by beasts and its basal rosette of tough leaves resists feet and even tyres. They are sustained by underground tuberous roots, which can be eaten, though they have also been used to make glue, so my taste buds are not thrilling at the thought. On a trip south to Pyrenées-Orientales we saw only the shorter A. fistulosus, which we rarely see here – I don’t know why.
But back to the majesty of these metre-tall flower spikes, which seem to say ‘We were here before you. We observe you. We will be here when you have gone’. They have always seemed to me like white ghosts. They bring you up short. They make you think.
So it was no surprise that Geoffrey Grigson* should write that they are ‘the flower of the Elysian Fields, the “asphodel meadow” inhabited by the souls of the dead, according to Homer’. More prosaically he tells us that Tudor botanists used the name ‘affodil’ – from which the more common daffodil gets its name.
Here we go back more than 3, 000 years, because the idea of Elysium, an ‘Island of the Blessed’ for dead heroes in the afterlife, is a relic of Minoan, pre-Greek civilsation. The Isles were located in the far west – i.e. beyond the then known world, but were gradually assimilated into the idea of the Underworld (Hades )– a drearier place for ordinary folk who were waiting for reincarnation. Homer is supposed to have written the Odyssey in the 8th centuryBCE, and describes Elysium like this:
Men lead there an easier life than any where else in the world, for in Elysium there falls not rain, nor hail, nor snow, but Oceanus breathes ever with a West wind that sings softly from the sea, and gives fresh life to all men….”
(Homer, Odyssey, bookIII)
How do the asphodels grow without rain? Anyway, in the Odyssey, Odysseus is sent by Circe to the far west, to Oceanus (the Atlantic beyond Gibraltar?) to bring back a prophecy. Landing on the island, he digs a hole a cubit square, and surrounds it with a libation of honey, sweet wine, water and barley-meal before sacrificing sheep into the pit. Sitting beside this portal to the Underworld he is beset by many hungry souls of the dead. Among them is ‘swift-footed’ Achilles, his comrade from the Trojan campaign, recently killed by Paris. After a conversation, Achilles departs ‘with long strides across the field of asphodel’, his heel evidently much recovered.**
Virgil’s Aeneid also uses the setting of the Elysian fields, now relocated patriotically to Italy and set in Hades rather like a bit of parkland is set in the centre of a city. He says of the ‘happy souls’: ‘In groves we live, and lie on mossy beds’.
In Book VI Aeneas descends to the Underworld and meets his dead father, Anchises, who shows him visions of a glorious Roman future by calling up souls of great people-to-be. These days, if you look for the Elysian Fields, say on a French search engine, you’ll get this vision, which I’d call infernal.
So, we’re now in Paris and today François Hollande moves into the Elysée Palace, formal home of the President of France, backing on to the Champs Elysées (Elysian Fields), but before time has yet established whether he is going to be a hero or not. The palace, incidentally, was given its name by a pre-revolutionary aristocrat, the Duchess of Bourbon, who bought it in 1787 for 1,300,000 livres. She didn’t have long to enjoy it.
I don’t envy this new Elysian either– I’d rather have a patch of garrigue any day.
What music can be a reminder of Greece (a big issue for Hollande), of its long history, of the illustrious dead? The Charles Lloyd Quartet, their Athens Concert with Maria Farantouri in 2010, and the song ‘Requiem’, by Agathi Dimitrouka, a song as dignified as the flowers.
to be loved
to bloom and be resurrected
in light and love.
And to finish with the austerity pact too, I should imagine.
* Geoffrey Grigson, A dictionary of English plant names
**Homer, The Odyssey book XI, The land of the dead