Readings for reflection: Flora

William Bradford, History Of Plymouth Plantation
Thomas Morton and the Merry-mount colonists set up a May-pole, drinking and dancing about it many days together, inviting the Indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking together like so many fairies, or furies rather and worse practices. As if they had anew revived & celebrated the feasts of ye Roman Goddess Flora, or ye beastly practices of ye mad Bacchanalians.

Ovid, Fasti 5.183-295
“Come, Mother of Flowers, that we may honour thee with merry games; last month I put off giving thee thy due. Thou dost being in April and passest into the time of May; the one month claims thee as it flies, the other as it comes. Since the borders of the months are thine and appertain to thee, either of the two is a fitting time to sing thy praises. The games of the circus and the victor’s palm, acclaimed by the spectators, fall in this month; let my song run side by side with the shows in the circus. Tell me thyself who thou art; the opinion of men is fallacious; thou wilt be the best voucher of thine own name.”

So I spoke, and the goddess answered my question thus, and while she spoke, her lips breathed vernal roses: “I who now am called Flora was formerly Chloris: a Greek letter of my name is corrupted in the Latin speech. Chloris I was, a nymph of the happy fields where, as you have heard, dwelt fortunate men of old. Modesty shrinks from describing my figure; but it procured the hand of a god for my mother’s daughter. ‘Twas spring, and I was roaming; Zephyr caught sight of me: I retired; he pursued and I fled; but he was the stronger, and Boreas had given his brother full right of rape by daring to carry off the prize from the house of Erechtheus. However, he made amends for his violence by giving me the name of bride, and in my marriage-bed I have naught to complain of. I enjoy perpetual spring; most buxom is the year ever; ever the tree is clothed with leaves, the ground with pasture. In the fields that are my dower, I have a fruitful garden, fanned by the breeze and watered by a spring of running water. This garden my husband filled with noble flowers and said, ‘Goddess, be queen of flowers.’ Oft did I wish to count the colours in the beds, but could not; the number was past counting. Soon as the dewy rime is shaken from the leaves, and the varied foliage is warmed by the sunbeams, the Hours assemble, clad in dappled weeds, and cull my gifts in light baskets. Straightway the Graces draw near, and twine garlands and wreaths to bind their heavenly hair. I was the first to scatter new seeds among the countless peoples; till then the earth had been of but one colour. I was the first to make a flower out of Therapnaean blood, and on its petals the lament remains inscribed. Thou, too, Narcissus, hast a name in the trim gardens, unhappy thou in that thou hadst not a double of thyself. What need to tell of Crocus, and Attis, and the son of Cinyras, from whose wounds by my art doth beauty spring?

Mars, too, was brought to birth my contrivance; perhaps you do not know it, and I pray that Jupiter, who thus far knows it not, may never know it. Holy Juno grieved that Jupiter had not needed her services when Minerva was born without a mother. She went to complain of her husband’s doings to Ocean; tired by the journey, she halted at my door. As soon as I set eyes on her, ‘What brings thee here,’ I said, ‘daughter of Saturn?’ She set forth her journey’s goal, adding its reason. I consoled her with friendly words. ‘My grief,’ quoth she, ‘is not to be assuaged with words. If Jupiter has become a father without the use of a wife, and unites both titles in his single person, why should I despair of becoming a mother without a husband, and of bringing forth without contact with a man, always supposing that I am chaste? I will try all the drugs in the wide world, and I will explore the seas and the depths of Tartarus.’ Her speech would have flowed on, but on my face there was a sudden look of doubt. ‘Thou seemest, nymph,’ said she, ‘the to have some power to help me.’ Thrice did I wish to promise help, but thrice my tongue was tied: the anger of great Jupiter filled me with fear. ‘Help me, I pray,’ she said, ‘the helper’s name will be kept secret, and I will call on the divinity of the Stygian water to be my witness.’ ‘Thy wish,’ quoth I, ‘will be accomplished by a flower that was sent me from the fields of Olenus. It is the only flower of the kind in my garden.’ He who gave it me said, ‘Touch also with this a barren heifer; she will be a mother.’ I touched, and without delay she was a mother. Straightway I plucked with my thumb the clinging flower and touched Juno, and she conceived when it touched her bosom. And now being with child, she passed to Thrace and left the shores of the Propontis; her wish was granted, and Mars was born. In memory of the birth he owed to me, he said, ‘Do thou also have a place in the city of Romulus.’

“Perhaps you may think that I am queen only of dainty garlands; but my divinity has to do also with the tilled fields. If the crops have blossomed well, the threshing-floor will be piled high; if the vines have blossomed well, there will be wine; if the olive-trees have blossomed well, most buxom will be the year; and the fruitage will be according to the time of blossoming. If once the blossom is nipped, the vetches and beans wither, and thy lentils, O Nile that comest from afar, do likewise wither. Wines also bloom, laboriously stored in great cellars, and a scum covers their surface in the jars. Honey is my gift. ‘Tis I who call the winged creatures, which yield honey, to the violet, and the clover, and the grey thyme. ‘Tis I, too, who discharge the same function when in youthful years spirits run riot and bodies are robust.”

I silently admired her as she spoke thus. But she said, “Thou art free to learn the answers to any questions thou mayest put.” “Say, goddess,” I replied, “what is the origin of the games.” Scarce had I ended when she answered me. “The other instruments of luxury were not yet in vogue: the rich man owned either cattle or broad lands; hence came the name for rich, and hence the name for money itself. But already some amassed wealth from unlawful sources: it had become a custom to graze the public pastures, the thing was suffered long, and no penalty was exacted. Common folk had no champion to protect their share in public property; and at last it was deemed the sign of a poor spirit in a man to graze his cattle on his own land. Such licence was brought to the notice of the plebeian aediles, the Publicii; till then men’s hearts had failed them. The case was tried before the people: the guilty were fined: the champions were praised for their public spirit. Part of the fine was given to me; and the winners of the suit instituted new games with great applause. With part of the fine they contracted for making a way up the slope, which then was a steep rock: now it is a serviceable road, and they call it the Publician road.”

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