Greek Mythology and Taxonomy

Copyright Richard Stoney, 2006, 2008, 2009.
Index Page.
Was Sanskrit Tampered With?

Originally, the scope of this treatise was to suggest that Carolus Linnaeus chose the word Sambucus to represent taxonomically the elder tree because he wanted to do some sort of ethnobotanical wordplay. Further research has shown this to be totally erroneous since Martin Blochwitz wrote Anatomia Sambuci: Anatomie of the Elder 50-plus years before the birth of Linnaeus. Yet, I may be the one who creates the wordplay, or, perhaps the etymology of the word Sambucus will be furthered beyond the currently-accepted Greek and Latin. Only time will tell. In any case, the scope of this treatise will still involve the elder and lilac working together as a pair.

First, I will show a relationship between lilacs and elders, using ethnobotany plus Greek mythology and Greek and Latin words to show and reinforce this relationship. The genus name Syringa refers to the lilac in modern times, derives from Greek SYRINX/SURINX, which originally referred to reeds in general and has various meanings:

1) SYRINX/SURINX also means "Hollow tube; tubular shape". Although not hollow, lilac twigs can be easily drilled out to make flutes and pipestems. It is also used by Greek doctors to inject medication--like a SYRINGE.

2) "Shepherd's pipe". It is especially associated with Pan, its inventor. There is the story of the amorous Pan's chasing after the nymph Syrinx. When he embraces her near Ladon river, she asks for the assistance of the nymphs present, who turn her into a reed. The frustrated Pan suddenly realizes he is holding nothing but reeds. His sighs and the wind made melodious sounds from the reeds. Pan then bound, per Apollo's suggestion, seven reeds of different lengths together to make the first pan-pipes, which he called Syrinx in her honor. And, in a similar vein, there is another myth in which Apollo was chasing after a nymph named Daphne. To escape his amorous pursuits, she called for help to her father Peneus, the river-god, who then transformed her into a laurel tree. Apollo then took it and made it his sacred tree, which is synonymous with victory.

Now we come to the part involving Apollo's suggestion that Pan should create his pipes. There is the tale of a musical contest between the goat-god Pan and Apollo (both of which are gods of shepherds and music). The latter wanted to punish Pan for his arrogance, while overlooking his own wel-known conceit. Pan, known for his ugliness, started by playing wild music on his pipes. Birds hopped from the trees to get closer, squirrels ran from their holes in the ground. fawns laughed, and trees swayed as if dancing. After Pan had finished, the attractive Apollo followed with his stringed lyre, of which he is the Greek god while Artemis is the goddess of the lyre as well. In the musical contest, all the animals stood still and the trees' leaves stopped rustling. When the more-refined Apollo was done, Tmolos declared him the winner. Everyone agreed with the decision, except Midas, who had come with Pan. It was then that Apollo touched the ears of Midas, which turned into those of an ass.

Of relevance is the fact that Pliny the Elder (elder...get it?) wrote about how country folk believed that the shrillest pipes and sonorous horns were made of elder wood.

Now we come to the elder. It is sacred to Diana/Artemis/Phoebe, the twin sister of Apollo/Phoebus. According to one myth, Apollo and Artemis were both born at the exact same time and are treated as if they are the same because they have many identical attributes and are considered to be tightly bound to each other. For example, "the name Apollo might have been derived from a pre-Hellenic compound apo-ollon likely related to an archaic verb apo-ell-, literally meaning "he who elbows off", and thus "The Dispelling One". Indeed he seems to have personified the power to dispell and ward off evil." Apollo has the epithets Alexikkos/Alezikakos (SP?), "restrainer of evil"; plus Apotropaeus and Averruncus, both "averter of evil". As for Artemis, her name may translate as "safe and sound". Again, both elder and laurel were believed to protect against withches and evil. However, Graves suggests that his name comes from apollunai, "destroyer" or root abol, "apple" because he was also known as the Celtic Apple-man. Perhaps all words are valid, and Apollo is a composite of sorts.

Apollo and Artemis associated with healing while the elder is one of humanity's oldest plant sources of medicine. The beneficial aspects of the elder make it a veritable medicine chest in itself. Its plant parts such as leaves, flowers, berries, roots, and bark have been used medicinally as diaphoretics, diuretics, emetics, external emollients, purgatives, laxatives, anti-catarrhals, carminatives, expectorants, stomach stimulants, and febrifuges. As a vulnerary. it is an astringent to arrest bleeding and condense skin tissue while also fighting sunburn and bruises. It helps reduce headaches, sinusitis and hayfever, fight tumors and strenghten respiration and mucuous membranes, and promote better sleep, Its antiseptic properties can fight colds and the flu. It is sometimes used in conjunction with other helpful plants. It has been used to lure birds away from fruit trees and as a spray against caterpillars and mildew. If a leaf is bruised and applied to the skin, flies will stay away. It can be turned into wine, pies, jellies, fritters or teas and makes a soothing bath solution. It supplies vitamin C and makes a good dye.

Another positive attribute associate with both deities is the well-being of people. Apollo protects males while Artemis does the same for females. Yet both are also associated with the deaths of their respective genders. And despite its beneficial medical properties, the elder has been associated with death. It contain a poisonous hydrocyanic glycoside, and experts advise the prudent use of elder.

At some point in history, the death of a laurel tree was considered a bad omen, and the elder was associated with death. Cutting down an elder would result in being haunted by the Elder-Mother. Even cutting an elder's branches was considered bad luck. If the tree bled, it indicatd the presence of a witch. Use of the wood for furniture or cradles was considered inauspicious. If collected on the last day of April and put on doors and window, elder wood would ward off witches, yet the plant itself was to be avoided after dark, apparently because of witches who occupied it.

There are beliefs that elder wood can be used to kill snakes. Accoding to myths, Apollo killed the dragon Python.

The stems of the young elders have been used for blowing up a fire; the soft pith pushes out easily, and the tubes thus formed were used as pipes--hence it was often called Pipe-tree or Bore-Tree.

Classification-wise, elders are part of the taxonomic family Caprifoliaceae, which translates as "goat-leaf-like". It is a reference to the plants of he Caprifolia genus which was eaten by goats or because the leaves were shaped like goats' ears. Pan is a goat. And one of the characteristics of the flowers (=sexual organs) of Sambucus is that its flowers are bisexual, just like Apollo who has sex with beautiful women and the male Hyacinthus. On the other hand, Artemis is an eternal virgin. The flowers are also described as being actinomorphic or zygomorphic:
--actinomorphic: "divisible vertically through two planes into similar halves".
--zygomorphic: "bilaterally symmetrical so as to be capable of being symmetrically divided only along a single longfitudinal plane", used of organisms, and related to zygote, "the cell formed by the union of two gametes".

Regarding the use of Sambucus to represent taxonomically the elder, ethnobotanist Don Ugent sent me an email. He stated that, according to Gray's Manual of Botany, Sambucus derives from Latin name sambuca, a type of harp, and Greek sambuke, an ancient stringed instrument of unknown construction. An email from Diana Horton of University of Iowa reflects basically he same information, quoting Stearn's Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners and The Naturalist's Lexicon by R.S. Woods. However, this latter source did state that the stringed instrument was triangular. All of these sources most likely repeated info from Pliny the Elder, who said that the sambuke was made perhaps of elderwood. It is possible, I suppose, that in Pliny's day, they used elderwood for stringed instruments (as in the case of Apollo's lyre?). But that is not the case today, according to Dusty Strings, a maker of harps. Instead, the hollow bark tubes and wood are used for wind instruments (such as Pan's) like flutes and whistles.

Now we come to some German words:

1) The word flieder refers to the elder tree, while (spanische) flieder is the common lilac.

2) An elder is also called a holunder, while the lilac is a spanischer holunder. The word holunder comes from holuntar, which means "hole (i.e., hollow) bush/tree".

3) Then there is holder/holderbusch, a reference to elder wood.

4) Now we come to hold and one of its forms holder (as in holder Friede), "favorable, propitious, kind". And while it may appear to be unrelated to the word holder mentioned above, its definition carries with it certain characteristics related to the elder and its positive, ethnobotanical uses. In summary what is stressed here is the idea of a beneficial and hollow plant.

Now we come to the crux of this treatise: Etymology of the word Sambucus and two Sanskrit words. Keep in mind that Latin and Greek do not have the sound of sh in their words and that bh and kh represent transliterations of single Sanskrit letters:
--shambhu, "kind, existing for the welfare of, benevolent, beneficent, helpful";
kha/khe, "a hollow".

shambhu kha/khe, "beneficial hollowness".

The matter at hand is perhaps a bisexual/dualistic one. For example, why do the mythologies about Apollo and Artemis involve the harp (sambuke) and the similar-sounding shambhu-kha/khe(the elder)? The possible answer may be found in "sambuke" wordplay from Sanskrit:

--sama, "same, similar";
--bukk, "sound";
--buka, "laughter".
Cf. Skt. puNDarika, lotus-flower (esp, a white lotus), expressive of beauty; sacred to S'ikhin, one of the Buddhas".

Also, when Pliny said that the sambuke was (perhaps) "made of/equal to" elder, did he really mean "similar to" elder (shambhu-khe)?

Here are more ideas on this etymolgical matter: Latin sambuca is a feminine noun, while Italian sambuco ("elder") is masculine (I have no further etymological info on the Italian word at this time). When Blochwitz wrote Anatomia Sambuci: Anatomie of the Elder circa 1650, he must have been referring to sambuco. If, instead, he was referring to sambuca, he would/should have written "Anatomia Sambucae", but he did not. Did he make a grammatical error? Probably not since he wrote an alternate, knowledgeable edition of the book in Latin.

Another idea associated with this whole thing is whether the word was formed in the area of the greater Indian subcontinent. Who knows? Sambucus grows in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Taiwan, China, Japan and Europe. But for some reason, the Sanskit computer banks at Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon at University of University at Cologne do not contain the words and Syringa, although it does contain the scientific names of numerous other plants. To see how some Sanskritish language sneaks its way into English starting around 1200 a.d., go to this webpage.

Things to do? Do research on the town of Sambuco, Italy, 100 km southwest of Torino (Ciao, Torino!)

Also, do other languages have words which refer to the elder as the "beneficial-hollow"?

Work on this article was originally started in 2006. In December, 2008, I decided to do additional work on it. On December 26, 2008 I got curious and decided to consider the possible influence of Sanskrit on this matter, with amazing results. The idea that this could be a matter of coincidence or convergence is pure hogwash. I am good at what I do, as evidenced by the rest of my website.


This list is incomplete because I did not realize originally that this treatise would "balloon out" to what it has become. Most of those sources dealt with Greek mythology.
American Heritage Dictionary, The, second edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985.
Kurt Bamert, Andy Modrovich, Cornelia Neumann (German); Maria, George Tzathas (Greek). Email from
Breul, Karl. A German and English Dictionary.>/i>, enlarged. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1906.
Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon,
Dusty Strings. Email.
Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths, complete edition. London: Pemnguin Books, 1960.
Hoffmann, David. The New Holistic Herbal. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1990.
Hylton, William H., ed. The Rodale Herb Book. Emmaus: Rodale Press Book Division, 1974.
Horton, Diana. Email.
Kowalchik, Clair and Hylton, William H. Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs. Emmaus, Rodale Press, 1987. (nursery rhymes).
Monier-Williams, Monier. A Sanskrit-English Dictionary. Oxford/Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1938.
Oxford English Dictionary. second edition.
Smith, James Payne, Jr. Vascular Plant Families. 1977: Mad River Press, Eureka. (Greek mythology).
Ugent, Don. Email.

USDA, ARS, National Genetic Resources Program. Germplasm Rsources Information Network. [Online Database] National Germplasm Resources Laboratory, [14 January, 2010].
Wichmann, K. Taschenworterbuch der Deutschen und Englischen Sprachen. Philadelphia: David McKay Company, 1946.