Saffron and Greek Mythos
The Crocus species (Iridaceae) have been associated with many myths and rituals in a variety of cultures.1 Native to the island of Crete, trade routes carried the plant to India where, before it became synonymous with the robes of Buddhist monks and nuns, the flower was associated with various goddesses, including Khamedenu, Sarasvati, and Gauri.
In the Hellenistic world Krokos, was a Spartan mortal, and fertility daemon, who appears as a lover to both the god Hermes and the nymph Smilax.1,2 In the Hermes myths, the god accidently wounds his lover with a discus or quoit, and Krokos perishes. Where his blood falls, the saffron flower grows with the three red styles containing his blood. Various renditions appear in the myths of Krokos and Smilax, whose name was given to a genus that includes a vining sarsaparilla greenbrier plant. One account tells of Smilax’s pursuit of Krokos, but he is uninterested. Like Echo, Smilax wastes away, with Aphrodite turning her into a greenbrier whose flowers have the scent of carrion and berries are as dark as night. In other versions, Krokos was heartbroken when his beloved Smilax died, and the gods took pity on him, turning him into the saffron flower and Smilax into an evergreen yew tree. Another version has Krokos wasting away spurned in his affections for Smilax and morphing into the flower, while Smilax’s punishment was to be turned into the sarsaparilla vine. Both saffron and the greenbrier sarsaparilla vine have been associated with aphrodisiac tendencies, and the sarsaparilla vine was used to treat venereal diseases.
Crocus flowers were also associated with the Eleusinian mysteries.1,3 Demeter, seeing golden crocuses (possibly C. chrysantus) grew angry that any plant would flourish while her daughter was in the Underworld, to which the crocuses responded, “The maiden is coming.” Thrilled, Demeter adorned herself with a mantle of white crocuses. While many versions of the Persephone myth have her gathering narcissus (Amaryllidaceae) or one of its cousins, according to Homer, the flower in question was a saffron, probably C. cartwrightianus, which blooms in the fall. In the versions where crocus predominates, the crocus flower would symbolize both death (the saffron that is the spice) and rebirth (the golden crocus which harbingers renewal and joy).
Eos, or Aurora, is the Greek goddess most associated with the saffron crocus.1,4 Ovid referred to the goddess of dawn as “the Saffron Mother.” Other writers mentioned her rosy-red (saffron-dyed) fingers. Her golden robes were embroidered with “flowery cloth” according to The Odyssey. The Illiad states that Eos places her saffron robes upon the earth in a protective measure. Eos is a liminal goddess existing in between night and day, so she harmonizes fire (sun) and water (dew). Eos is also a goddess of war, wisdom, and desire, who lustily took many lovers. Patriarchal interpretations portrayed these amorous pursuits as a goddess out of control and a kidnapper of mortal men; however, the aphrodisiac quality of the spice with which she is linked demonstrates the connections between desire, love, and the empowered feminine.
HerbClip™ Managing Editor
1Ancient cultic associations of saffron crocus. Paghat website. Accessed September 23, 2021. http://www.paghat.com/saffronmyth.html.
2Quatermain C. Crocus in Greek mythology. Greek legends and myths website. October 13, 2019. Accessed September 23, 2021. https://www.greeklegendsandmyths.com/crocus.html.
3Abduction of Persephone. Old European Culture website. April 9, 2020. Accessed September 23, 2021. https://oldeuropeanculture.blogspot.com/2020/04/abduction-of-persephone.html.
4Harris E. A tale of two goddesses and saffron. Modern Salt website. August 28, 2016. Accessed September 23, 2021. http://www.modernsalt.co.uk/stories/a-tale-of-two-goddesses-and-saffron.