A Flora and Fauna of Symi

A personal guide to the wildlife of Symi and beyond

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Mythology Archive

Mythology & Meanings

Golden Samphire

Limbarda crithmoides or golden samphire is found all over the Mediterranean and in the UK where in Essex it is at its most northerly range.

The other name is Inula crithmoides and is connected with Helen of Troy who, it is said, held a bunch of Inula helenium when she was abducted by Paris. Helen of Troy had a large armful of these flowers when Paris stole her from her husband Menelaus that started the Trojan war that lasted ten years. When Paris was killed Helen returned to Menelaus and they traveled to Sparta where they lived happily ever after. "Inula" is thought to be a corruption of Helenula or "Little Helen".

The Holy Orchid

The Holy Orchid or Orchis Sancta covers the eastern Mediterranean from Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey to Cyprus, Crete and the Aegean. Described in 1759 from Haifa and named "sacred" because it grows in the  area of the Holy Land of Christianity. In Greece it is relatively rare in Crete and Karpathos, forming large populations in Rhodes, Amorgos and other islands and is generally common in the islands of the Cyclades, the Dodecanese and the large islands of the Eastern Aegean Ikaria, Samos, Chios and Lesvos. 

In Greek mythology, Orchis was the son of a nymph and a satyr. During a celebratory feast for Bacchus, Orchis committed the sacrilege of attempting to rape a priestess, resulting in his being torn apart by wild beasts, then metamorphosing into a slender and modest plant.

Theophrastus was the first of the Western authors to mention orchids. It was he who first applied the name Orchis scientifically, echoing the myth of Orchis and reflecting the resemblance of the double root tubers to the male genitalia that got old Orchis in trouble in the first place. Greek women thought they could control the sex of their unborn children with Orchid roots. If the father ate large, new tubers, the child would be male; if the mother ate small tubers, the child would be female.

Stymphalian Birds

It occured  to me after doing some research into an earlier post on tesserae  in Kos that the mosaics surrounding the main floor may well be depicting the 12 labours of Heracles. The man on horse back pursuing a large bird could be a Stymphalian bird and Heracles's sixth labour. The information board was bare. The Stymphalian birds were also known as the ornithes areos. They were a flock of arrow-shooting birds which guarded the sacred Amazonian shrine of the god Ares in the Black Sea. They were encountered by the Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece.

This is how Apollonius Rhodius tells the story in Argonautica 2. from the 3rd centuary BC.

"[King Phineus tells the Argonauts of the obstacles they will face on their voyage across the Black Sea:] ‘When you have left these behind [the Mossynoekoi tribe on the southern shore of the Black Sea], you must beach your ship on a low-lying island, though not before you find some means of driving off the innumerable birds that haunt the lonely shore and pay no deference to man. Her the Queens of the Amazones, Otrere and Antiope, built a marble shrine for Ares when they were going to war. And here I advise you--and you know I am your friend--to stay a little while; for a godsend will come to you out of the bitter brine."

"They [the Argonauts] left these [the tribe called Mossynoekoi] behind them. And now a day of rowing (since the light wind dropped in the night) had brought them almost abreast of Ares’ Isle, when they suddenly beheld the War-God’s birds, which haunt the island, darting through the air. Flapping its wings over the moving ship it dropped a pointed feather down upon her. The plume struck the left shoulder of noble Oileus, who let his oar fall at the sudden blow, while the rest looked in amazement at the winged dart. But Eribotes, whose seat was next to his, pulled the feather out, took off the band on which his scabbard hung, and bound up the wound. Then, as though one bird had not sufficed, they saw another swooping in. but this time the lord Klytios son of Eurytos was ready with his bow bent. He let fly an arrow, struck the bird, and brought it spinning down beside the gallant ship. Whereupon Amphidamas son of Aleus [who was from Stymphalos in Arkadia] was moved to address his friends. `We are close,’ he said, `to the island of Ares. You can tell by these birds. But as I see it, arrows will not help us much when we try to disembark. If you mean to land, we must remember Phineus’ warning and think of some better plan. Why, Herakles himself, when he came to Arkadia, was unable with bow and arrow to drive away the birds that swam on the Stymphalian Lake. I saw the thing myself. What he did was to take his stand on a height and make a din by shaking a bronze rattle; and the astounded birds flew off into the distance screeching for fear. We must take our cue from him. I myself have had an idea which I should like to put to you. I suggest that you should all set your crested helmets on your heads and take it in turns, one half to row, the others to protect the ship with their polished spears and shields. Then the whole company must raise a most terrific shout, so that the birds may be scared away by a noise that will be new to them, as well as by the nodding crests and above them your uplifted spears. When we reach the island, if we make it, you can raise a tremendous racket by banging on your shields.’
His sensible suggestion pleased them all, and they put their helmets on their heads; the glinting bronze and the purple crests waving on top were enough to frighten anyone. Then half the crew rowed in turn while the others covered up the ship with their spears and shields. Locking the shields together, they roofed her over, as a man roofs his house with firmly fitted overlapping tiles, both to add to its beauty and keep out the rain. And the shout that went up from the ship was like the roar that comes from battling armies when the lines charge and meet. However, they did not see a single bird till they reached the island and banged on their shields. Then the birds in their thousands rose into the air and after fluttering about in panic, discharged a heavy shower of feathery darts at the ship as they beat a hasty retreat over the sea towards the mainland hills. But the Argonauts sat there in comfort, like people in a town on which the Son of Kronos [Zeus] has discharged a hail-storm from the clouds. They hear the hail-stones rattle on their roofs, but they do not worry."

Sea Squill

This plant is the sea squill or Urginea  maritima. Although typical of the region, despite its name, I found this specimen on one of the highest peaks on Symi, just below Stavros Polemou.

This plant is one of the few to flower in the late summer before the Autumn rains. Its leaves have long gone and the tall spike of flowers shoots directly from a large bulb that sits below the surface of the very dry soil. The bulb can weigh up to two kilograms and is very poisonous. The sea squill avoids competition with other flowers and is often covered in pollinating bees and although I did look around to see if there were others I think this was a solitary plant.

This species has been used as a medicinal plant since ancient times. It is noted in the Ebers Papyrus of the 16th century BC, one of the oldest medical texts of ancient Egypt. Pythagoras wrote about it in the 6th century BC and Hippocrates used it to treat jaundice, convulsions, and asthma. Theophrastus was also familiar with it. Its primary medicinal use was as a treatment for edema, then called dropsy, because of its diuretic properties. A solution of sea squill and vinegar was a common remedy for centuries. The plant is also used as a laxative and an expectorant.

The plant has also been used as a poison. It is very bitter, so most animals avoid it. Rats, however, eat it readily, and then succumb to the toxic scilliroside. This has made the plant a popular rodenticide for nearly as long as it has been in use as a medicine. The bulbs are dried and cut into chips, which can then be powdered and mixed with rat bait. The plant was introduced as an experimental agricultural crop in the 20th century primarily to develop high-toxicity varieties for use as rat poison. It has also been tested as an insecticide against pests such as the red flour beetle (Tribolium castaneum).

Pythagoras and Dioscorides hung the bulbs with sprouted leaves outside the door in spring as protection against evil spirits.

In Israel the sea squill has gained an almost iconic status and is popularly known as the ‘harbinger of autumn’ due to the fact that the flowers pop out all over the country at the end of the dry summer, some time before the first rains. During the New Year celebrations, here on Symi, people hang the bulbs of the sea squill in the house or on fences as part of a fertility rite and to keep their property safe.

Chaste Tree

Vitex, its name in Pliny the Elder, is derived from the Latin vieo, meaning to weave or to tie up, a reference to the use of Vitex agnus-castus in basketry.  It's macaronic specific name repeats "chaste" in both Greek and Latin.

Vitex, also a traditional plant in Africa, is a little-known fruit plant that has potential to improve nutrition, boost food security, foster rural development and support sustainable landcare.

The leaves and tender stem growth of the upper 10 cm (4 inches), along with the flowers and ripening seeds, are harvested for alternative medicinal purposes. The berries are harvested by gently rubbing the berries loose from the stem. The leaves, flowers, and/or berries may be consumed as a decoction, traditional tincture, cider vinegar tincture, syrup, elixir, or simply eaten straight off the plant as an alternative medicinal food.  A popular way of taking Vitex is on awakening as a simple 1:1 fluid extract, which is said to interact with hormonal circadian rhythms most effectively.

In alternative medicine, it is believed the berries are a tonic herb for both the male and female reproductive systems. The leaves are believed to have the same effect but to a lesser degree.

In ancient times it was believed to be an anaphrodisiac, hence the name chaste tree. Pliny, in his Historia Naturalis, reports the use of stems and leaves of this plant by women as bedding "to cool the heat of lust" during the time of the Thesmophoria, when Athenian women left their husbands' beds to remain ritually chaste. At the end of the thirteenth century John Trevisa reports of it "the herbe agnus-castus is always grene, and the flowre therof is namly callyd Agnus Castus, for wyth smel and vse it maketh men chaste as a lombe". Chaucer, in "The Flower and the Leaf," refers to it as an attribute of the chaste Diana, and in the 16th century the English herbalist William Turner reports the same anaphrodisiac properties of the seed, both fried and not fried. More recently, this plant has been called monk's pepper in the thought that it was used as anti-libido medicine by monks to aid their attempts to remain chaste. There are disputed accounts regarding its actual action on libido, with some claims that it is anaphrodisiac and others that it is aphrodisiac. Because of the complex mechanism of action it can be probably both, depending on concentration of the extract and physiologic variables.

According to the Mayo Clinic’s ‘Book of Alternative Medicine’, 2010, second edition, ch.3 pg. 51: under ‘Chasteberry’ it says: “There’s no evidence it reduces sexual desire.” 

Turtle Dove

Perhaps because of Biblical references (especially the well-known verse from the Song of Songs), its mournful voice, and the fact that it forms strong pair bonds, European Turtle Doves have become emblems of devoted love. In the New Testament, two turtle doves are mentioned to have been sacrificed for the Birth of Jesus. In Renaissance Europe, the European Turtle Dove was envisaged as the devoted partner of the Phoenix. Robert Chester's poem Love's Martyr is a sustained exploration of this symbolism. It was published along with other poems on the subject, including William Shakespeare's poem "The Phoenix and the Turtle" (where "turtle" refers to the turtle dove).

The Turtle Dove is featured in a number of folk songs about love and loss. One of these is a setting by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Turtle Doves also are featured in the song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas", as the gift "my true love gives to me" on the second day of Christmas. If added cumulatively, by the end of the song, the recipient has been given 22.

Turtle doves appear in the title and lyrics of a spiritual from the Georgia Sea Islands.

In the Shaker hymn "In Yonder Valley", it is seen as a good omen and sign of growth that "The Turtledove is in our land".

The Little Owl

In Greek mythology, Athene, the Goddess of Wisdom was so impressed by the great eyes and solemn appearance of the little owl that she honoured the bird by making him her favourite among feathered creatures. In the great Acropolis in Athens the bird was protected and bred in large numbers. It was believed that an inner light gave the owl magical properties to see in the dark. As a symbol of Athene the owl was a protector, accompanying Greek armies to war, and providing ornamental inspiration for their daily lives. If an owl flew over the soldiers before a battle it was a good omen and was taken as a sign of impending victory. The little owl was often found on the reverse of coins where it kept a watchful eye on trade and commerce in Athens.


The House Leek

The following is an excerpt by Gwen Drews from a web site called “North Star Herbals” (with permission).

“The House Leek, most commonly known as “Hens and Chickens”, may look like a humble little ground cover plant but its appearance betrays it’s rather noble history. The Greeks believed it was a gift from the god Jupiter to protect against lightning, thunder, fire, and curses. As far back as the 4th century B.C. it was recorded as a common feature on the roofs and walls of dwellings by the Greek botanist, Theophrastus.

During the dark ages in Europe, the use of herbal medicine was driven underground by papal edict. The official stand of the Pope was that disease was caused by evil spirits and could only be cured by the church. The natural world was considered corrupt and separate from the sacred. This belief, prevalent from the 5th to the 8th century A.D., finally eased in the 9th century A.D.

In the 9thcentury A.D., the medieval emperor of Europe, Charlemagne, assisted with the resurgence of the use of plants to ease suffering and illness. His castles were scattered over Europe and he ordered each to contain a medicinal herb garden. This may have served Charlemagne well, as he lived to the age of 72 during a time period when life expectancy was in the 40’s. Monasteries during this time period also planted their own medicinal gardens, and the knowledge that was driven underground slowly resurfaced.

It is unknown exactly how Charlemagne became aware of the Greek belief in the power of the House Leek. What is known is that he ordered that it be grown on every roof in his vast empire as a form of insurance against house fires and lightning strikes. Centuries later, when the pilgrims and immigrants came to the "New World" they brought the house leek with them and planted them on or near their houses, believing them to bring good luck. The mythology surrounding the plant faded into history. As a succulent, the hardy and compact little plant travelled the oceans well on their way to the "New World“, needing little by way of water or soil.

The historic medicinal uses of the plant are very similar to the more familiar Aloe Vera plant of the tropics. The House Leek was mashed, the mucilage (moist, gelatinous substance within the leaf) could be applied directly to burns, skin irritations, scrapes, and open wounds to ease the pain and promote the growth of new skin. It was also rumoured to cure warts. The mashed leaf soothed sore throats and sore gum tissue in the mouth when made into an infusion. As to its actual effects on lightning; we may never know but it certainly gave people a safe excuse to have this handy little first aid plant around when critics of the healing powers of the natural world came around to snoop in the gardens of peasants and emperors alike. Modern herbalists also know that this should not be taken internally in large amounts or undiluted by water as it may cause diarrhoea when used in excess. No other precautions are known about the use of this little plant with such an interesting story.”


Mandrake, Mandragora, Cattle killer, Satan's Apple, love apple, Circe's plant, Dudaim, Ladykins, Mannikin, Racoon, Berry or Bryony roots date back to the Bible. The Ancients, including greeks, romans and celts considered it an anodyne and soporific. The fresh root operates very powerfully as an emetic and purgative. The dried bark of the root was used also as a rough emetic.

Mandrake was used in Pliny's days as an anaesthetic for operations, a piece of the root being given to the patient to chew before undergoing the operation. Mandragora becomes the most popular anaesthetic during the Middle Ages and in the Elizabethan Age it was still being used as a narcotic.

In the Grete Herball (printed by Peter Treveris in 1526) we find the first avowal of disbelief in the supposed powers of the Mandrake. Gerard also pours scorn on the Mandrake legend.

“There have been,' he says, 'many ridiculous tales brought up of this plant, whether of old wives or runnegate surgeons or phisick mongers, I know not, all which dreames and old wives tales you shall from henceforth cast out your bookes of memorie.'”

Quote from Genesis 30:14-17   “And Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them unto his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, "Give me, I pray thee, of thy son's mandrakes." And she said unto her, "Is it a small matter that thou hast taken my husband? And wouldst thou take away my son's mandrakes also?" And Rachel said, "Therefore he shall lie with thee tonight for thy son's mandrakes." And Jacob came out of the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him, and said, "Thou must come in unto me; for surely I have hired thee with my son's mandrakes." And he lay with her that night. And God harkened unto Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob the fifth son."