Milan, 27 June 2020

This post was going to be about the oleander, but as often happens when I surf the web I disappeared down some fascinating rabbit holes along the way. So while I will discuss the oleander I will also throw in a couple of disparate facts linked more or less tenuously to the oleander.

First the oleander. The walks which my wife and I have been taking recently on the Ligurian coast have led us past many an example of this fine plant, whose showy red and pink flowers have lit up our way, especially when we have been traversing urban sections of our walks.

various sources

As usual, after quietly enjoying at this display from Nature, I looked to the plant’s history, to see where it had originally come from (not believing for a minute that it could be native to Liguria). What I found was, I suppose, a testimony to its enduring attraction to humans as well as to its toughness and endurance: enduring attraction to humans because it’s been domesticated for such a long time that no-one can make out its original home – South to South-West Asia seems to the best guess; toughness and endurance because even when taken out of its native habitat it has survived and thrived and created new homes for itself – here is a picture of oleander which has gone native in northern Israel, growing along the side of streams.


It has gone similarly native in many places, from Portugal and Morocco in the west to Yunnan in China in the east.

Its toughness and endurance has made it a popular plant to use in unforgiving environments, like the median strips of highways: you can’t get much tougher than that – poor, stony soil, little water, fumes from the passing cars, collection point for all the rubbish that people throw out of their cars, or that drop off their cars. As a bonus, it almost makes highways look pretty.


One of the first things that struck me when I went to Sicily was the oleander bushes along the highways there, the flowers turning what was really a very sterile environment into a pleasure to look at as the car whizzed down the highway.

The only other thing to note about oleander is its poisonous effects on humans and other animals. Every part of the plant is poisonous: in a word, beautiful but deadly. A couple of books have had as plot devices the murder of someone with oleander. For me, the best is Dragonwyck, not so much for the book as for the 1946 film made from the book. It has Vincent Price, a slimy smoothie if there ever was one, who does in his wife with oleander. We have him here staring broodingly at the fatal oleander plant.


Actually, oleander’s deadliness has been exaggerated. It’s not really that bad. Very few people have certifiably died from ingesting oleander. The worst that normally happens is that you feel horribly sick, you vomit, you get diarrhea … I’m sure I don’t have to spell it out, readers get the picture.

And that’s it, really, for the oleander. Now I can turn to the rabbit holes I fell down!

The first is related to the plant’s effects on humans. But I must start with a little bit of context. I want to take my readers to Delphi, in Greece.


Now the place is just a mass of romantic ruins, but in its heyday, from about 600 BCE to about 200 CE, it was really famous in the Ancient World, a place to go to if you wanted divine advice about something important to you: should our city go to war with our neighbour? should we start a new colony? or, on a more personal level, should I marry her? The temple there was dedicated to the god Apollo, and one of the temple’s priestesses, the Pythia, would answer your question. After offering a splendid goat for sacrifice and paying a suitable tribute (there’s no such thing as a free lunch), supplicants would be led down into the inner sanctum of the temple, this dark small room, where they would find the Pythia sitting on a tripod and flanked by a couple of priests. The tripod was placed across a cleft in the floor through which vapours or fumes would be rising and enveloping the Pythia. She would be holding a branch of laurel in one hand (the laurel was sacred to Apollo) and a small basin of clear water from a nearby sacred stream in the other. Rustling the laurel branch and gazing into the basin of water, she would answer your question. Here is the scene depicted on the bottom of an ancient Greek drinking cup, the supplicant to the right, the Pythia to the left.


Now, this was not like having a pleasant conversation with someone. The Pythia would be pretty agitated: “her hair stood on end, her complexion changed, her heart beat hard, her bosom swelled, and her voice became seemingly more than human”. Here is a much more satisfyingly dramatic rendering, painted by a certain John Collier in 1891, of what the Pythia might have looked like.


The whole experience must have been quite unnerving and overpowering for the supplicants. On top of it, the answer they got was often quite cryptic, leaving the supplicants scratching their heads trying to understand the true meaning of what Apollo had told them through the Pythia.

Why am I recounting all this? Because there has been considerable discussion about how the Pythia got herself all worked up. What was she eating, drinking, or smoking to get herself into that state? Some of the ancient sources say that the Pythia was chewing laurel leaves. But as we all know – bay leaves, which are actually laurel leaves, being used in cooking – laurel leaves don’t have any effect on someone who eats them. Which is where oleander comes in. The Greeks were rather slipshod in their use of the name “laurel”, using it to denote several plants including the oleander (the leaves of the oleander and the laurel do look quite similar). So one clever chap has suggested that the Pythia was actually chewing oleander leaves, which could indeed give you all the symptoms the Pythias exhibited.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the vapours and fumes emanating from the cleft under the Pythia’s seat (and which are very evident in the painting by John Collier). Some have argued that it could have been these that (also) set the Pythia off. Given that Delphi sits on two geological faults which cross each other, it is thought in certain circles that the cleft which the Pythia sat astride was a natural opening into the bowels of the Earth. There has therefore been much discussion about what naturally formed fumes and vapors could have been seeping out from the Earth’s interior and been having this effect on the Pythia – ethylene? benzene? something else? – but it’s all been quite inconclusive. The above-mentioned clever chap suggests what seems to me a much simpler solution, that maybe under the room where the Pythia sat was another room, connected to the former through the cleft, and in which a priest was burning oleander leaves. By inhaling these fumes the Pythia was adding to the effects from chewing the leaves.

That’s one interesting rabbit hole connected to the oleander.

The other involves Hiroshima. As I would hope everyone knows, the first atom bomb ever dropped came down on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Here is a picture of the dreaded mushroom cloud which formed over the city.


The city was totally devastated. Here are a few pictures of what the city looked like in the days and months after the dropping of the bomb.


The city’s botanical gardens were not spared. So bad was the destruction that the garden’s directors thought that nothing would grow there again for decades. Yet lo and behold, the year after the bomb was dropped the oleanders in the gardens grew out from their blasted roots and flowered! The oleanders became a symbol of hope for Hiroshima’s citizens, convincing them that the city could be reborn even after this terrible catastrophe – as indeed it has. Ever since, the oleander has been the city’s official flower.


I’ve become a bit of a cynic in my old age, but this little story does warm the cockles of my heart.


Mandalay, 3 August 2016

A few weeks ago, I read of the death of an Indian money-lender, murdered by a couple of people to whom he owed money. It was a banal and sordid murder, no different from the hundreds of banal and sordid murders which occur every day the world over. If this particular one was splashed all over the front pages of many newspapers, it was because the unfortunate victim had earlier shot to global fame for purchasing … a shirt made of gold (an idea, I have to say, which I find pretty bling).
Ah, gold! That lovely, soft, malleable metal, which never rusts, which glows yellow like the sun. Which has been lusted after by so many through the ages. It sent the Conquistadors sailing half way round the globe to an unknown world, not to understand it but to rip the gold out of its heart.

It has sent hundred of thousands running to the ends of the world to feverishly pan it out of water or to hack it out of the ground
a gold fever which even today strikes men (but also now women).


But gold has also inspired artisans for at least six thousand years to make beautiful, beautiful objects. It is these lovely creations which I wish to celebrate today, not the ugly side of gold.

Given where this post started, my first inclination was to search on the Internet for examples of powerful potentates from the past who were discovered by archaeologists buried in shirts or tunics of gold. Alas, I found none, whether because my surfing skills are not up to the task or because even kings of old found this idea really too bling, or because archaeologists simply haven’t stumbled across such cases yet. The closest I got to it was jade burial suits used during China’s Han dynasty by members of the royal family; in some cases, the jade pieces of the suit were sewn together with gold wire.
But as I surfed the internet, looking for gold shirts from faraway times, I stumbled across a treasure hoard of ancient gold pieces, some found buried with kings, princes, and their consorts, others buried for safekeeping by their owners who, for some reason, never returned to reclaim them. For instance, I was completely smitten by some of the gold work that archaeologists have found in various Scythian royal tombs in Southern Russia, Ukraine, and the Caucasus region more generally. Look at this pectoral, from the 4th C BC!
Here’s a detail – see how fine the work is!
Or how about these two vessels, also from the 4th C BC. They were apparently a pair, with this one
sitting on top of the other.
Or this bowl, from more or less the same period.
Or this comb, from slightly earlier, late 4th C BC, early 5th C BC.
The articles I’ve read about these pieces suggest that they were not actually made by the Scythians but by Greeks, living perhaps in the Crimean region. Fair enough, but this Scythian deer plaque, from the 7th C BC, was surely locally made
as was this belt buckle from the same period.
Thracian kings, it seems, were also desirous to be surrounded by fine gold objects. Consider, for instance, Bulgaria’s Panagyurishte gold treasure, thought to have been owned by King Seuthes III and buried to hide them from marauding Celts or Macedonians. I show three pieces from the hoard, all from the 3rd or 4th C BC: two rhytons, or drinking horns
and a plate.
Again, the detail on these pieces is exquisite.

Mention of marauding Celts makes me look in the direction of the Northern European lands, where Celts were also known to hurriedly bury hoards of gold objects at the sound of approaching marauders. This beautiful spiral torc from 1st-4th C BC
was part of a cache of torcs found near Stirling in Scotland. This 70 BC torc instead was part of a hoard discovered at Snettisham in Norfolk, England.
This necklace, on the other hand, is a copy of a 6th-7th C BC original that was buried in Lorup, Germany.
I have to say, while I greatly admire the artistry that went into the Thracian and Scythian pieces, I instinctively empathize with the geometric simplicity of these Celtic pieces. “Keep It Simple, Stupid!” has always been my motto.

But that didn’t stop me from whistling when I saw some of the pieces that were made in what is now Iran. Look at this 8th-10th C BC cup, for instance, with its row of wild goats walking primly around it.
This must have been a popular design, because this cup from a later period (4th-5th C BC) has instead lions or tigers walking round it.
This 4th-5th C BC drinking cup holds its own to the two Thracian rhytons I show above
while this 3rd-4th C BC Janus-faced cup is a marvel to behold.

There are many, many other beautiful ancient gold objects out there, but I have to bring this little essay to a close. Let me finish with the oldest gold objects so far found. These are datable to the period 4,200-4,600 BC, and come from a necropolis in Varna, now Bulgaria’s largest city on the Black Sea. Compared to the pieces I show above, the objects in these tombs are quite modest in their design. What caught my attention was this reconstruction of one of the burials in the necropolis.
I suppose the man to whom this skeleton belonged was a grandee, and was laid to rest surrounded by all his worldly riches. But as I gaze at this skeleton, I cannot help but remember the dialogue between Hamlet and Horatio in the graveyard. After musing over Yorick’s skull (“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy …”), Hamlet turns to Horatio.

Hamlet: Prithee, Horatio, tell me one thing.

Horatio: What’s that, my lord?

Hamlet: Dost thou think Alexander looked o’ this fashion i’ the earth?

Horatio: E’en so.

Hamlet: And smelt so? pah!

Puts down the skull

Horatio: E’en so, my lord.

Hamlet: To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may
not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander,
till he find it stopping a bung-hole?

Horatio: ‘Twere to consider too curiously, to consider.

Hamlet: No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with
modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it: as
thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried,
Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of
earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he
was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away;
O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!

India’s “gold man”: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-36804209
“Conquista de Mexico”, Diego Rivera: http://www.abc.es/fotonoticias/fotos-espana/20150428/mural-diego-rivera-sobre-162891744561.html
Gold prospectors, Klondike: http://www.discovery.com/tv-shows/gold-rush/photos/klondike-gold-rush-pictures/
Modern gold prospectors, Colombia: http://www.jansochor.com/photo-blog/gold-mining-colombia
Jade burial suit: https://hu.pinterest.com/pin/454159943647748843/
Scythian pectoral, Ukraine, 4th C BC: http://www.craftycristian.com/tag/artifact/
Scythian pectoral-detail: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scythians
Scythian vessel-top, 4th C BC: http://phys.org/news/2015-06-archeologists-gold-artifacts-scythian-grave.html
Scythian vessel-bottom, 4th C BC: http://www.archaeology.org/issues/220-1607/features/4560-rites-of-the-scythians
Scythian bowl, 2nd half 4th C BC: http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2000/golden-deer/photo-gallery
Scythian gold comb, Ukraine, late 5th-early 4th BC: http://museum-of-artifacts.eu/post/100759193962/scythian-golden-comb-5th-century-bc
Scythian deer, end 7th C BC: http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2000/golden-deer/photo-gallery
Scythian belt buckle, 7th C BC: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scythians#/media/File%3AGold_scythian_belt_title_from_Mingachevir%2C_Azerbaijan.JPG
Thracian drinking horn-goat: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/174444185537354589/
Thracian drinking horn-deer: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/492510909227090261/
Ancient Greek plate (phiale): http://www.artlex.com/ArtLex/g/gold.html
Spiral torc, Scotland, 300-100 BC: http://www.nms.ac.uk/explore/stories/scottish-history-and-archaeology/iron-age-gold-torcs/
Celtic torc, Snettisham hoard: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2395380
Ancient wire necklace (copy), Lorup hoard, Germany, late Bronze Age, 700-600 BC: http://www.ancientwire.com/spiralnecklace.htm
Achaemenid cup-wild goats, 1000-1200 BC: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/325511?high=on&rpp=50&pg=22&rndkey=20120709&ft=*&pos=1095
Achaemenid gold cup, Kalardasht, 800 BC: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gold_cup_kalardasht.jpg
Achaemenid drinking cup: http://www.daftarche.com/تاریخ،-فرهنگ،-همبود-13/persian-mythology-543-چاپ/برگه-3.html
Achaemenid Janus cup: http://www.iransara.info/main-previous%20post.htm
Varna man: http://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2015/07/style/gold/