Elatia Harris

This is the second in an open-ended series of articles on four millennia of saffron history and use. Saffron Mother, Part I looks at the culture that produced the famed saffron-harvesting frescoes on the island of Thera, painted 3600 years ago, in the time leading up to the Thera Eruption, the largest geological event in the ancient Mediterranean.

“To possess wings,” writes the classics professor Deborah Tarn Steiner, “is to be deeply implicated in the workings of desire.”  Prof. Steiner was not making specific reference to Eos, the saffron-winged goddess of the dawn in ancient Greece, but among female Olympians driven too far by desire, Eos is peerless.

Above left, we see Eos on an Attic Red Figure-style krater from 440 B.C.E., in the Johns Hopkins Museum of Art. Arms raised for snatching – a typical representation – she chases down Kephalos, a youth with whom she’s besotted.  Beyond the borders of the photo, the slight, wingless mortal boy looks over his shoulder and runs. A hunter, he is unused to being the hunted. But Eos cannot wane, for she is the dawn, and can only increase in light and strength, overtaking whatever she sees. Eos will nab Kephalos, and get from him a son.  Her husband, Tithonos, is so old as to be useless in that way – now. But Tithonos was once a dewy boy, for whom Eos negotiated eternal life, alas forgetting to hold out for eternal youth. So in the rose-filled halls of the dawn at Okeanos, the stream at the edge of the world where she sleeps in a golden bed, Tithonos is withered to a grasshopper, and once more Eos must go forth to hunt for a fresh youth. Orion, Tithonos, Kephalos, Kleitos – oh, there were many such.

Greek goddesses saved seduction for other Olympians; when they desired mortal boys, they simply took them, albeit sometimes rather sweetly. In this company of unapologetic females, Eos is as big a kidnapper as Zeus. (Or a bigger, to judge only from pottery. The seminal catalogue of Attic vases compiled in 1969 by S. Kaempf-Dimitriadou, Die Liebe der Gotter in der attischen Kunst des 5. Jahrhunderts v. Chr., shows 147 scenes of Eos with a consort, Zeus coming in a poor second with only 116.)  Eos labored under a curse from Aphrodite — payback for a bit of amatory poaching –- for her adventures brought her only intense sadness.  Though not remorse.

Holding onto a boy would seem a big part of the problem. In the painting by Poussin below, Cephalus and Aurora (as Eos would later be called by the Romans), the goddess, needy and greedy, her gold and red saffron-dyed garments falling away from her, grasps her young lover around the hips. But he’s clearly had enough of her, not only twisting away but shielding from his sight her seeking and — Hesiod tells us — all-seeing gaze.  She’ll get back at him later by causing the death of his young wife, but here is an iconic image of the fear-tinged sexual distaste that it was Eos’s sad portion to inspire in a boy by the end of every affair. In the mid-1600’s, when Poussin was active, the representation of Eos/Aurora seldom included wings, but these have been transposed to the dawn-facing white steed, one of either two or four that Eos commanded for her daily climb into the sky — Homer’s “rapid horses that bring men light.” Wings, in any case, would detract from the pathos of the scene Poussin envisioned; as a raptor, the goddess would have come across as well able to outmaneuver her prey. While there can be no contest between a boy and a goddess, ever, there can be entire — and cruel — failure of desire on the boy’s part, putting him temporarily in the ascendant.


In Baroque Rome, the Aurora theme was unabashedly a triumphant one, the disinhibited deity dear to Sappho, Homer, Hesiod and countless vase painters almost never represented in terms of the doomed abductions found in the classics. Rosy Aurora was the bringer of day, and she ushered in Apollo — if there is a more resplendent role for a goddess who has outgrown the need to possess boys unable to love her, I am sure I do not know of it. Two masterpieces of ceiling painting, commissioned in the 1620’s for exquisite Roman pleasure domes about a half an hour’s walk from one another, provide an opportunity to assess this new phase of the goddess’s development.

Guido Reni’s Pallavicini Aurora, top below, is of the proud maiden ilk. Winglessly, she flies ahead of Apollo’s quadriga, her saffron peplos and white veil made voluminous by an updraft. She chases not boys but the last sooty clouds of night, powerless before her. Guercino’s Aurora, bottom below, in the Casino Ludovisi is a matron seated in her own conveyance, holding the reins of her fabled roan horses. Rearing to gallop across the sky, the horses’ hindmost hooves improbably find a purchase on cloud cover. The weary cast of the goddess’s expression suggests, at the very least, an appreciation of the day of work ahead, and she is dressed for work in garments of the saffron spectrum, from rich yellow to dark orange red. Girded for her mission to dissolve the night and break the day, she is the star of her own show, for on this ceiling Apollo is nowhere in sight.



Looking closely, one can see that each Aurora handles flowers — roses, to be exact. They are scattered about the head and raised right arm of Guercino’s goddess, and Guido’s Aurora grasps garlands in her hands. This could be, but is not, merely pictorially ornamental. Homer in the Iliad was the first to call Eos “rosy-fingered” (rhododaktylos), and he did this numerous times. In a later day of imperfectly accurate translations, that description was taken quite literally.  Never more so than by the 18th century French painter Fragonard, in his Aurora, below.


Actually, the variously translated references to crimson, rose-red, saffron, gold and yellow associated by poets from Homer to the Byzantine era — over 1000 years — with dawn and Eos tend to lead back to just a few Greek and Greek/Latin words, epithets for Eos all. She is called golden-armed (khrysopakhos), golden-throned (khrysothronon) and golden-sandaled (khrysopedillos), elsewhere rosy-armed (krokopakhos) and saffron-robed (krokopeplos.) To write, as Ovid did, of the saffron wheels of her chariot and of her saffron cheeks, he used adjectives derived from the Greek-based Latin word, crocus. It is Ovid who calls her a “saffron mother [who] arrives to view the widening earth on rosy horses.” Nowhere does the Eos of the ancients hold roses in her hands — how ingratiating and unlike her, when she wants those hands free! The ruddy color of her arms and fingertips is the red of the first light of dawn, the long red dawn of the Mediterranean which can take more than an hour to whiten into day.

The use of krokos to mean saffron should not disappoint anyone looking for word roots, the word “saffron” deriving from an Arabic source and entering the Romance languages via Spain. The Greeks used the same word, krokos, for the plant and for the colors its stigma produced, a radiant palette opulent enough for a goddess and instinctively preferred in matters of dress by mortal women of high standing. The use of saffron as a dye, a medicine, a ritual substance, and in the making of fragrance predated its use as a lavish flavoring for food. At the time of Homer, Hesiod and Sappho, to make a figure of speech involving saffron was to speak of the most precious substance after gold, one known since dynastic Egypt to treat severe medical complaints and create extravagant color — a red as sudden and shocking as the dawn, for instance, or as bright and slippery as blood.

The enormous symbolism of the gold-red saffron palette, which reaches across Eurasia and back into the deep history of its people from India to Ireland, is a subject for a future post. The image furthest to the right under the title is the saffron-robed Ushas, the Vedic dawn goddess, her name the Sanskrit cognomen of Eos. For the moment, however, we’re looking at saffron as a signifier of female sexuality in the ancient world, and as intimately identified with Eos.  Her robes, her throne and her occasionally lonely wedding bed at the world’s end were all made red-gold by it, her fingers and arms stained with it as they streaked the Eastern sky at dawn.

In Eos’s day, saffron was well understood to be an aphrodisiac, to treat female complaints, and to treat what are now called mood disorders. Ingesting too much saffron was known to bring on mania, so then as now, one must be careful of it. And careful Eos was not. The relentless, onrushing goddess who knew only how to increase and engulf and not how to back off is an icon of immoderation; if she were a saint of it too, her attribute would be saffron. For being unrestrained and frightening, she is punished more severely than other transgressive Olympian female deities, and is allied with the much earlier and scarier man-hungry goddesses of Minoan times. The tears springing from her numerous sorrows — the withering of her truest love, the death of her son — are found every morning on the grass and on tender plants. They are the dew.  In the central image under the title, Eos is imagined by Evelyn de Morgan, an English painter who at the threshold of the 20th century pictured the goddess as wan and somber, pouring her teary dew from a black ewer, her red wings at the dark end of the saffron spectrum.

BraurkidEos was not the only Olympian to be associated with saffron, for wherever there were exalted individuals — including gods — there was likely to be saffron, and wherever there was saffron, there was likely to be a sexual allusion. Every five years, high-born Athenian girls between the ages of about 7 and 12 were required to participate in a festival at Brauron, the Arkteia, referenced by Aristophanes in Lysistrata. For this, they were dressed in the krokotis, a saffron gown intended to make them look like ruddy little bears.  The point of playing the bear for Artemis was symbolically to come of age, to go from being a wild little girl to suitably tamed wife/mother material. There were games at the Arkteia, and stripping from the saffron-bear clothes, but at the end the girls were gathered in, transformed – at least, that was the thinking. In Athens, marriage came very early for a girl, with almost every bride a child-bride, often a mother by 14. The Athenians of the 5th century were not unaware that girls pushing 20 were likelier to survive pregnancy, but this knowledge did not alter custom.  Artemis was the great protector of women in childbirth; in her shrine at Brauron, within a stroll of the Aegean Sea, bolts of cloth have been found, offerings to the goddess for a safe childbirth.  Also votive sculpture – effigies of little girls cuddling bunnies, like the one pictured here, bidding for the goddess to protect them when in a few short years they would become mothers or die trying. 

The saffron crocus figures superbly in Book 14 of the Iliad, when Hera beguiles and beds Zeus.  Despite the keen disappointments of their centuries-long courtship, the sky god having pursued with perfect impunity his many dalliances — here a nymph, there a boy, again and again and again – despite Hera’s turning occasionally into a scold, the two gods at the summit of Olympus, brother and sister as well as husband and wife, were capable of convincing and even comic reconciliations.  One day on Trojan War-related business, the story goes, Hera made for Mt. Ida, where she knew Zeus to be hiding out, en route tricking Aphrodite out of a golden sash filled with charms. (“It has sex in it,” Aphrodite tells her.) Ensorcelled, Zeus finds her lovelier than all the competition, and insists that she lie with him in the open air – just like that. Modestly, she would prefer to be indoors, but as James Barry’s painting of the late 18th century, Zeus and Hera on Mt. Ida, suggests, she summoned the mood.  And in a rite going back almost a thousand years before Homer to Hera’s beginnings in Mycenae, the sky father and the nature mother lay down by a river, so furious their coupling that a bed of saffron crocuses sprang from the earth beneath them, the violet petals opening to release a spicy golden dew. Hera needn’t have worried, for of all this, passers by saw nothing but a shimmering red-gold cloud.


COMING: Saffron Mother, Part III — Your Own Saffron, and What to Do with It

Selected Offline Resources

Images in Mind: Statues in Archaic and Classical Greek Literature and Thought, Deborah Tarn Steiner

Die Liebe der Gotter in der attischen Kunst des 5. Jahrhunderts v. Chr., S. Kaempf-Dimitriadou

Studies in Girls’ Transitions: Aspects of the Arkteia and Age Representation in Attic
, Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood

“ ‘Predatory’ Goddesses,” Mary R. Lefkowitz, Hesperia, Vol. 71, No. 4

Selected Online Resources
The Theoi Project, created by Aaron J. Atsma of Auckland, NZ, with helpers in the US, the UK, Greece and Australia, is a compendious and well-illustrated site about Greek mythology, literature and art.
Women and Greek myths – a site maintained by a highly lettered amateur of the subject who is also a blogger.
Materials for the study of women and gender in the ancient world, including a forum, Anahita-L.
“Paghat” is the nom de plume of a gardener who has put up entertaining essays on the history of plants she cultivates, which include the saffron crocus.  No research materials are referenced, however, except glancingly, and one would enjoy knowing how she arrived at her readings.