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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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