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“Once upon a time in a distant land, but not that far away, lived…” So opens fairy tales fraught with cosmic clashes between good and evil, useful for today’s conflict resolution if properly studied in depth; and so opens listeners’ imaginations, hungry for worlds mirroring their own. Life has always been hard, and still is.

So how did these fairy tales as we know them come about?

In nineteenth-century Germany the spread of literacy and the improvement of indoor illumination began usurping the role of itinerant storytellers carrying tales of mystery from village to village. Such had been their practice for hundreds of years. Into this changing world came Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, both philologists, who recorded and first published their tales in 1812; their volume fire-stormed collectors from other countries, worldwide, to do likewise.

It would be interesting to track the accretions to the fairy tale “The Two Brothers,” before the Grimm’s Brothers recorded it. Twenty pages long, it contains the classic elements found in fairy tales: good/evil, golden egg-laying bird, a King, a Princess, their castle, talking animals, a fire-spitting seven-headed dragon, a witch, an enchanted forest, magic potions, contests, and trickery—Even the use of numbering to facilitate the memory of the storyteller. This fairy tale could have ended in several places, but seamlessly, it continued on and satisfied its listeners, and still does.

Unlike the integrity of the Grimm’s Brothers cherished tales, our collectors of stories—journalists—play havoc with truth, their intent to rouse fear and manipulate imaginations, rather than ennoble them. I wonder which version of the spin-doctors’ palaver, if any, will be remembered one hundred years from now.

 

Last Friday’s tornado skirted our neighborhood, savaging ten feet from the top of the juniper tree, planted in my backyard, decades ago, by previous owners. Lower branches cradled the jagged trunk until a crew later dismembered it, then hauled it away. What remained was still pleasing to the eye, its upper branches enfolding the sheared top.

Damaged Juniper

All this gave me pause. Other than pruning ivy at the base of this columnar-shaped tree, other than wondering who had placed a wooden cardinal on a limb beyond my reach, I had paid little notice. The juniper was always there – for five seasons, offering its fragrance, shade, blue berries for birds.

Wood Cardinal

In the aftermath of this unexpected loss, I recalled classical references to junipers that enlarged this experience, that removed it from the here and now. The ancient poetry of Ugarit (Modern Syria), contains references to the Phoenician Goddess, Astarte, remarkable for her fertility, her beauty, her war, and her love. Her cult spawned the construction of temples and the development of cults in Ancient Levant that included rituals of purification. For this purpose, the highly aromatic smoke from junipers was used.

Plutarch, a first century A.D. Greek biographer, historian, and essayist, recorded the Osiris myth in Part V of the Moralia, the story of this Egyptian God-King of the Underworld and the Afterlife. Seth, his envious brother, ordered the construction of a magnificent chest made of cedar (juniper), adorned with ivory and ebony, its interior painted with fantastic birds and animals and celestial images; it later served as Osiris’s sarcophagus, until he was resurrected.

Another reference to a juniper tree is found in the Hebrew scripture, I Kings 19: 4, also translated as a solitary broom tree or a furze tree. Fleeing from the furious Queen Jezebel, the prophet Elijah tore into the wilderness outside of Beersheba, and dispirited, fell asleep under a juniper tree. He was sick of being a prophet; it was too costly. However an angel of the Lord roused him, fed him a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water, then command him to go to Horeb, the mount of God. There, another revelation awaited him.

Still another story of a juniper tree comes to mind, this time from one of the apocryphal books of the New Testament, the Syriac Infancy Gospel of Jesus written in the sixth century, A.D. The second part recounts miracles accompanying the infant Jesus, his parents, Mary and Joseph, as they fled from Herod’s soldiers, ordered to kill all male infants under the age of two years. A juniper tree shielded them.

And closer to our time, the Grimms Brothers included a fairy tale, “The Juniper Tree,” number 47, in their 1812 collected works, Tales of Children and the Home — a grim story of an evil stepmother who decapitates the head of her stepson leaning into a chest for an apple, who blames Marlinchen, her daughter, for the deed, then folds his remains into “a great dish of black pudding” she later serves her husband. The grieving daughter plants her stepbrother’s bones beneath the juniper tree, outside their home, where, after a series of marvels, he comes back to life and has a great millstone crush his stepmother to death. Then he rejoined his father, and Marlinchen for a joyous supper.

Book cover

Interesting that the juniper, admittedly in its countless species all over the world, found a significant place in the imaginations of storytellers, as well as in the passion of authors who recorded these storied worlds, within and around them. Certainly, I am in a different place having explored the wider implications of the juniper over the centuries. Outside my study window, my juniper, although maimed, warms in the sun.

Perhaps this essay will engender one of your own? All we have to do is allow an image to seize us, then go from there.

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