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  • Writer's pictureLucy Gallwey

December: Last of the leaves

Updated: Jan 1, 2019

The silver birch tree outside my house

As Christmas approaches and the pressure to buy, consume and love each other intensifies, I am immensely grateful to two genuine givers - the earth and knowledge. There she is, Mother Earth, throwing out massive amounts of creation but we don’t give enough back. Knowledge too, brighter than any Christmas candle, is always there waiting for us and when we light its flame the world can feel illuminated and we can start seeing things again.

I’m learning about the classical world at the moment and I do a lot of that at the British Museum through exploring cases. In room G22, there is an ancient oak wreath. It is made of gold and composed of two branches which have been bent into a circular form presumably so that it could be worn around someones neck or hung in a particular position. From these branches stem 6 smaller branches of fragile oak leaves, 8 acorns, a cicada and a small bee sitting at its centre.

Wreath, Hellenistic, East Greek, Turkey, 350BC-300BC

In ancient Greece and Rome, gold wreaths were made in imitation of leaves, such as oak, olive, ivy, vine, laurel and myrtle and had associations with various deities. Zeus and Hera were known as the oak god and oak goddess and Zeus’s oracle in Dodona, Epirus, was said to be founded when a black dove flew from Thebis in Egypt and settled in an oak tree at Dodona. The oak tree became the centre of the temple there and priests would tell of the god’s assertions and judgements in the rustling of the oat leaves.

What was the function of this wreath? Made in about 300BC, I learn that it is probably from a tomb somewhere on Dardanelles, north west Turkey. The Greek orator Demosthenes tells us that gold wreaths were worn for certain religious ceremonies, and the inventories of Greek temples and sanctuaries also reveal that large numbers of gold wreaths were left as dedications to individuals, men and women, in positions of state or foreign powers, sometimes at the end of a term in office.

Whether at a tomb or left to mark the end of an important persons time in office, I am left thinking about how the ancient world venerated trees and plants, how they were not only integral to belief and custom, but so important that they were actually integrated into architectural structures for there association with creation, endurance and belief. I think back to my first trip to Athens this year, my first visit to the Acropolis and view of the Erectheion which has an olive tree within its structure, said to have sprouted when Athena struck the rock with her spear and won the city in opposition to her rival Poseidon. The supposed burial place of mythical kings, their daughters and heroes, their bones may sit within its structure, given life again through the olive tree and the passage of water from the sky.

There is a silver birch tree outside my house that in the last month has dropped its final leaves for 2018. They scatter beautifully on the street floor, and when I pick them up to bring them inside, I see there are oak leaves on the floor too, blown in from an oak tree on my neighbours side of the street. I pick them up, wash and dry them and paint them gold. When dry they feel and look a bit like metal. I think I might make a wreath with them, or a necklace or a headdress maybe which I’ll wear before the year closes to celebrate the earth and the things I have learnt this year

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