1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Asphodel

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ASPHODEL (Asphodelus), a genus of the lily order (Liliaceae), containing seven species in the Mediterranean region. The plants are hardy herbaceous perennials with narrow tufted radical leaves and an elongated stem bearing a handsome spike of white or yellow flowers. Asphodelus albus and A. fistulosus have white flowers and grow from 1½ to 2 ft. high; A. ramosus is a larger plant, the large white flowers of which have a reddish-brown line in the middle of each segment. Bog-asphodel (Narthecium ossifragum), a member of the same family, is a small herb common in boggy places in Britain, with rigid narrow radical leaves and a stem bearing a raceme of small golden yellow flowers.

In Greek legend the asphodel is the most famous of the plants connected with the dead and the underworld. Homer describes it as covering the great meadow (ἀσφόδελος λειμών), the haunt of the dead (Od. xi. 539, 573; xxiv. 13). It was planted on graves, and is often connected with Persephone, who appears crowned with a garland of asphodels. Its general connexion with death is due no doubt to the greyish colour of its leaves and its yellowish flowers, which suggest the gloom of the underworld and the pallor of death. The roots were eaten by the poorer Greeks; hence such food was thought good enough for the shades (cf. Hesiod, Works and Days, 41; Pliny, Nat. Hist. xxi. 17 [68]; Lucian, De luctu, 19). The asphodel was also supposed to be a remedy for poisonous snake-bites and a specific against sorcery; it was fatal to mice, but preserved pigs from disease. The Libyan nomads made their huts of asphodel stalks (cf. Herod. iv. 190). No satisfactory derivation of the word is suggested. The English word “daffodil” is a perversion of “asphodel,” formerly written “affodil.” The d may come from the French fleur d’affodille. It is no part of the word philologically.

See Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyclopädie, s.v.; H. O. Lenz, Botanik der alten Griechen und Römer (1859); J. Murr, Die Pflanzenwelt in der griechischen Mythologie (1890).