From Sassari in the north, we make our way by bus toward Cagliari on the the island’s southern tip. It’s springtime in Sardinia as we cross the brambly inland countryside. Sheep graze, wild poppies bloom and the brush country is lush with hearty herbs and gnarled trees shaped by the wind: heather, rosemary, juniper and myrtle.
Myrtle is especially prized by the Sardinians, not only as a helpful hunter’s blind and aromatic culinary flavoring, but also as a sacred symbol of love and renewal. The introduction of myrtle into the Sardinian ecosystem is credited to a mythological Chris Dennis type named Aristaeus. The story goes something like this:
Apollo is touring the European countryside with a lady friend on the ancient Greek mythological equivalent of a Vespa. They stop off for a drink at a romantic spot. Aphrodite is there, as well as a bunch of diaphanously clad myrtle nymphs, everyone is in a good mood and, long story short, several liters of wine and nine months later Aristaeus is born. The myrtle nymphs take an active interest in the boy’s upbringing, raising him on nectar and ambrosia, and teaching him how to make cheese, graft olives, build beehives, raise livestock, perform first aid and generally make himself useful. As he grows older, the nymphs encourage Aristaeus to travel and further diversify his resumé. On the road he picks up fortune telling, shepherding, meteorology and altar constructing, and he proves especially adept at corralling and calming angry swarms of bees. (Handy, right? Trust me, ladies; this is exactly the kind of guy you want with you when you are extended traveling on a budget.)
Aristaeus is unlucky, however, when it comes to love. I won’t dwell here but let’s just say that he accidentally kills his first flame by wooing her into the path of a poisonous snake. A big, fat, Greek courtroom drama ensues, and the gods ultimately pardon Aristaeus.
After the ordeal, Aristaeus decides to relocate and make a fresh start. Sensitive man of science and agriculture that he is, Aristaeus cuts some lengthy flowering branches of myrtle to symbolize the ending of one life chapter and the beginning of another, secures a ship, brings the myrtle on board and sets sail across the Mediterranean to find himself. Taken with Sardinia’s wild beauty and remote location, Aristaeus settles down, cultivates the land, improves everyone’s standard of living with honey, olives and elaborate lamb preparations, and is ultimately promoted from mortal to minor god status for his positive contributions to society. Later he is named the patron god of cattle.
In the last twenty-four hours myrtle has entered my bloodstream as the secret ingredient in a Sardinian chocolate bar, and via a generous pour of mirto, a local myrtle digestif served at the end of a rustic meal consumed at a boisterous Sassari trattoria. No wonder I’ve grown enamored with this fair-tempered and self-sufficient island so quickly.
Blogging under the influence,
References: My newfound knowledge on the Sardinian myrtle myth is informed by a guidebook I found on the bookshelf of our Sassari B&B, Enjoying Sardinia, Demetra Publishing House, 1999, and supplemented by Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aristaeus