“I’m just mad about saffron…”*
People are beginning to mention crocuses coming up. I haven’t spotted any yet, but in Colorado these things change suddenly and on a yard-to-yard basis. Always one of the first Spring flowers, insisting its way up through soil and snow, and with that dynamic deep yellow-gold stamen that it so eye-catching. The real business portion of the plant, however, is the stigma, the thready reddish bits dangling between the petals of the true saffron crocus. The picture above shows piles of the little things. This portion of the crocus is laborious to harvest and has been used since antiquity, both good signs of its high value.
Prized as a flavoring and colorant in food, saffron is also a dye for fiber, yielding a yellow rich in both hue and price. Its use as a pigment can be traced back as least 50,000 years; its medicinal uses have about 4000 years of recorded lore. Early saffron-pickers are depicted in a wall painting rediscovered on Thera (aka Santorini), the island whose volcanic eruption decimated Minoan civilization around 1625-1600 BCE. The Saffron-Gatherers, as they are now called, are graceful, elegantly dressed young women, moving across a hilly landscape dotted with crocus-groups, plucking the stigmas and eventually dumping their personal gathering baskets into a large keep.
Citing a Greek tradition of using saffron to treat menstrual pain, writer Elizabeth Wayland Barber views the Thera wall painting as a possible initiation scene, with the youngest girl helping others to pick something she would now have need of. Barber’s book, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, focuses on the fiber arts and their creative development. Barber notes that, to the ancient Greeks, “yellow apparel was considered appropriate for women only, including goddesses…”**
Among little Athenian girls, an ancient rite was the arteia, in which the girls dressed in yellow robes and yellow bear-cub costumes and danced to honor Artemis. Ursa Major (the Big Bear) is Artemis’ former friend Kallisto, and Ursa Minor (the Little Bear) is Kallisto’s son Arcus. ***
What did that arteia-dance look like? Did each girl spin like the sky-Bears, like a little bear-cub-dervish?
* Donovan, “Mellow Yellow,” 1966
** Women’s Work, page. 116
*** More about the arteia and Ursa Major in A Magical Tour of the Night Sky.
The saffron harvest photograph has been placed in the public domain by the artist. See more.