Leto and the Myrtle

As I was saying before, I have been reading Nulton’s book “The Sanctuary of Apollo Hypoakraios and Imperial Athens,” and one question that the author raises, that does not seem to be sufficiently answered is why the achron inscriptions depicting a wreath of myrtles rather than the laurel which is sacred to Apollon. The author suggests that this is because achrons were also leading figures in the Eleusinian mysteries where the myrtle crown was worn.

I would argue another reason, and that would be the probable association of Leto with myrtle based from vase paintings. Although Delphi has myrtle groves, Nulton is quite right in saying that there is no known instance where the god is connected with the plant…at least not one I have come across. And yet there is a heavy presence too of the bush surrounding his cult. I propose that this is because, like Aphrodite and the mystery goddesses, Leto was associated with the myrtle. In many instances of vase paintings of the goddess we find her holding a smaller multi-leafed branch, similar but unlike, the laurel. Whereas occasionally the laurel is depicted, as held by Apollon, in its fruiting phase. It is more common for myrtle to be depicted bearing its berries, which often seems to be the case for the plant Leto carries, as well as the plant having smaller leaflets than that of the laurel carried by her son in the same scene.

If Leto’s association with Persephone was common in Hellas, and particularly understood in the mystery program, it would seem reasonable that oath inscriptions by the achrons in the temple would bear the myrtle of Leto, the mother of the god, in place of the laurel. The sacredness of this plant was associated as one of Aphrodite as a plant that graces brides. In such a case the mysta wearing the garlands may have been thought to resemble the bridal attire of Persephone in her adjournment into the next world. The association of Leto with the myrtle plant can easily be seen then in the context of her relationship with Zeus, as an early chthonic wife, an appropriate association then with Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, and chthonic Zeus or Dionysos. Even the legend of the origin of the myrtle speaks of a daughter attempting to seduce her father and transforming into the myrtle while fleeing the wrath of her father. the birth of Adonis is comparable to alternate versions in which the boy was born from the myrrh, and in turn may have some parallel relationship to the likeness of Adonis in representation to Apollon.

In a sense, whereas the laurel of Apollon represents the purification towards the ends of initiation, the myrtle carried by his mother would represent the bridal initiates of the mysteries. therefore the laurel carried by the twins is the preliminary to the myrtle carried by Leto.

But it is just a thought…


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