The Funeral Maple

excerpts The cosmic tree, whose root, trunk and branches uphold – by dividing yet uniting – the three cosmic levels, is the same as the funeral tree, because, to the folk mentality, the cosmic tree is the only "passageway" to the "other realm" that the soul of the dead person can follow. The funeral hypostases of the prototypical cosmic trees in Romanian tradition – the fir-tree and the apple tree – are well-known. Still, is the maple the exception to the logic of mythic mentality? It seems not. The maple's role as a funeral tree – with its strong cosmic attributes – is also well represented in the mythic folklore of Romania. The most spectacular image of the funeral maple is embodied in the ritual songs for "going with the dead" attested in Banat: Walk, (John,) walk,Keep to the right side,Don't stray to the left. When he came uponIn the middle of the roadA big maple treeIts branches touching the sky,Its foot astride the seas,Its shade spreading round,Its leaves many and small,Under it there wasA bed fastened well,Of spruce planks made.Sitting on this bedThere was the Holy Mother;She was writing a letter,Words on paper she put,And gave it to (John),Sending him to Heaven,To our Lord, Jesus Christ. (John) said a prayer,Christ lent it an ear,And let down a ladder,All made of silver,Down to the ground.(John) climbed on itAnd gave the letter to Christ. When He read it, ChristPut him on a chair,By a well with waters still,And he bid him have a rest.The time is nigh for youTo leave behind and partWith your children dear. In the same region, Bogdan Petriceicu Hasdeu recorded on more variant of a funeral song of "going with the dead one," which has the same well-known motifs: the dead one should beware of walking on the left side where rogues are in waiting, but he should walk on the right side and rest at the well under the maple, where Saint Mary writes down the dead. Two angels let down the ladder and the deceased climbs up to Christ where he is sprinkled with white wine and he forgets about the white world."Needless to say, in the funeral songs analyzed, the image centers on that "big maple tree /Its branches touching the sky, / Its foot astride the seas, / Its shade spreading round, / Its leaves many and small." The whole world arranges itself around it, both horizontally and vertically. It marks the place where the traveler's "pilgrimage" comes to an end and, with it, his state of indeterminacy – neither life nor death. He comes out of the "no man's land" – neither the "white world" nor the "dark world" – where, as in a labyrinth, he must find – and be found worthy of – the only right path leading from one world into the other. Here, at the foot of the maple whose branches touch the sky, Saint Mary is in charge of the last "bureaucratic" formalities: the "pilgrim" is erased from the book of the living and entered in that of the "departed" (in one of the variants Holy Mary even writes a "letter" for him – a laissez-passer for Heaven). Here, too, at the maple, Christ or the angels let down the ladder for the soul to climb to Heaven.There is no need to comment in detail upon the universal symbolic values of the ladder (ascension par excellence), yet we ought to mention that in this case the "ladder-to-the-gods" (Scala Dei) motif is not necessarily of Christian origin. In the Thracian zone, the motif is attested in the pre-Christian period. Polyaenus (2nd century BC) records some facts about a Thracian priest and king (Kosingas), who used to threaten to turn his subjects in to goddess Hera, whose high priest he was, climbing up to her "on a host of long wooden ladders joined end to end" (Stratagemata 7:22). Coming back to the episode in the funeral song analyzed, note that the heavenly ladder plays a role similar to that of the heavenly tree – the two are both analogous and interchangeable motifs with mythic and symbolic significance. As such, the ladder next to the big maple with "branches touching the sky" is superfluous, yet such redundancies are a constant presence in folkloric texts. In the fairy-tales and legends of the world, the hero reaches the sky (Heaven, etc.) by climbing on a miraculous tree (or plant) that grown up to the "handles of the sky." This type of fairy tale is met all over Europe and is well represented in Romania, with plots such as that of The Child, the Shepherd and the Endless Tree (collected by Petre Ispirescu), in which the hero, as he prepares for ascension, demands "nine crusts of holy water, nine glasses of wine and nine axes" – the classic objects needed for a journey to the "other realm." Climbing up the trunk of the tree, the hero transfixes the nine axes one by one into it, thus making a nine-rung (nine-level) ladder (see the cosmic tree, which supports with its branches the seven or nine heavens). In other variants, the tree (or plant) grows "ladder-like" to the sky (see the popular English folk tale Jack and the Beanstalk: "…the creeping stalks were so thick and intertwined that at first glance they could easily be taken for a ladder. Looking up, Jack could not see the end of the stalk, which disappeared into the clouds. He tried the ladder and found it firm and fit for climbing."Why should the ladder motif have appeared and survived together with that of the cosmic-funeral maple in Romanian legends? A first answer to come to hand would be that the maple-as-a-ladder turns into the maple-with-a-ladder. A second answer is suggested by Romanian funeral rites and in particular by the symbolism of the funeral tree. The practices and beliefs recorded by Simeon Florea Marian will spare us a lengthy commentary: "…The tree, which is placed at the head of the dead one, plays the role of a ladder on which the soul will climb to God in Heaven." "In some parts of Transylvania, the meals to give away (laid in the funeral tree) are arranged to resemble a ladder, meaning that it is on this ladder that the dead one's soul will ascend to the skies." "In some villages in Moldavia, the tree is put in a wooden pail or a pot, always full of clean water . Against the tree, a ladder is always leant which is made (baked) from wheat flour, and on one of the branches a water-flask is hung. The ladder is meant for the soul to climb, if its lot be so, onto the trees of Paradise, and the water to quench its thirst in the other realm." This latter combination of ritual objects with funeral symbolism points to almost every epic motif present in the funeral songs for "going with the dead": the cosmic tree amid the waters, the ladder to Heaven, the well with quiet waters.As a rule, the dendromorphous funerary substitutes of the cosmic tree not only do not have "branches touching the sky" (this may go without saying), but are often minute (especially the funerary remembrance tree, normally a mere leafless branch). Yet, in order to maintain the suggestion of infinite ascension, funeral trees were accompanied by such symbols of ascension as the ladder or the soul-bird (which is also frequently depicted on the funerary remembrance tree or on the funeral pillar). A gruesome image emerges in some folk ballads, in which the body of the hero is stuffed and hung in a maple: "His body was skinned, / His skin stuffed with straw, / Rolled through the mud, / And tied to a maple." The ritual treatment was undergone either by a king – Constantin Brancoveanu (Prince of Wallachia 1688-1714, when he was beheaded by the Turks) – or by an army leader. We might be dealing with yet another vestige of the killing (flaying) ritual applied to the prince "at the maple," as was the case in the folk song Three Kings.There would be no reason to emphasize this unusual and somewhat grisly funeral rite (the display of the corpse above the ground), were it not also present in the Transylvanian variants of Mioritza (i.e. ewe-lamb, perhaps the most famous of all Romanian ballads) carols which – most folklorists agree on this – are the repository of the most archaic forms of this theme. The shepherd's testamentary wish, addressed to his own murderers, goes as follows: "Cover me not with earth, / But with my white (holy) hood only, / A flute at my belt."An inventory has been made of 230 versions – Transylvanian, for the most part – of Mioritza (about 20 % of the almost 1200 variants published), in which the display of the body in the open is either overtly or allusively demanded by the shepherd-victim. In many variants, especially in those from Moldavia, the shepherd requires that at his funeral his flute (alphorn) or hood (coat) should be hung from a maple, or his cross be made of a "small maple." Let me also remark that the sole reason behind these demands – which, after all, make up the mytho-poetic message of the "testament" – is explicitly formulated: the shepherd wished to remain "alive," in the midst of the surrounding nature. Commentaries on the funeral aspects listed above have reached the conclusion that they may attest an ancient funeral rite probably practiced by the Carpatho-Danubian populations and "preserved to our days due to the exceptional memory of the Mioritza ballad." I would add that it also owes its preservation to the song of Toader Diaconul (Theodore the Deacon), in which the body of the protagonist is exposed "at a distance from the ground," in a maple "cradle"; to the Wicked Mother fairy-tale, in which the girl's coffin is lifted to "the top of a maple," and so on. All of them bear the mark of an archaic funeral rite, called by German anthropologists and paleo-ethnologists Erhoehte Bestattung, i.e. "burial at a height," on wood platforms, in trees, and so forth. The body to be lifted is wrapped in textiles (sackcloth, etc.) or in animal hides, and sometimes placed in boxes (coffins). It is hard to imagine and, up to this point, to demonstrate that such Paleolithic funeral rites could have survived for so long in the Carpatho-Danubian space, as to be treasured in the "memory" of certain folkloric texts; all the same, the latter include evidence that is difficult to ignore. Karl Meuli has shown that the old practice of lifting the corpse was gradually dislodged by superior civilizations and religions, so that its area of practice was, by necessity, reduced considerably. In the case of more conservative groups, especially among priests or those having died a violent death, it lasted somewhat longer. English version by Mirela ADĂSCĂLIŢEI, revised by Alexander DRACE-FRANCISfrom Cosmos vs. Chaos. Myth and Magic in Romanian Traditional Culture, The Romanian Cultural Foundation Publishing House, 1999

by Andrei Oişteanu