From wild violets to giant phallic cake decorations....
Viola Oderata, or sweet violet. The connection with magic, giant penises and ancient Greece:
I first posted about wild violets when I lived in Lismore, a beautiful town nestled at the foot of the Knockmealdown mountains in county Waterford. I had found them growing by the banks of the river Blackwater on the edge of ancient woodland. This was a place I had quickly fallen in love with. When I moved up to county Clare it was a long time before I found wild violets again, this time on a cliff walk, on the sheltered side of a grassy bank.
This is the post I wrote on my facebook page, explaining the unexpected link with giant penises and ancient Greece:
I was delighted to find sweet violet today and experience the ephemeral floral scent. Locally I usually find dog violets so this was a real treat. The scent seems to come and go. First you experience a sweet, floral, woody aroma, but in a moment it is gone again. Then it's back. This is due to the effect of beta Ionone, a chemical compound that temporarily blocks your sense of smell. (Beta ionone takes its name from the ancient Greek name for the flower.. 'ions'.) Its easy to see why this plant was associated with magic! As a sidenote, genetic research now suggests that the reason some people experience a more pungent smell associated with beta Ionone rather than freesia/floral is due to their genetic makeup, and we may all actually experience smells differently...but that's another matter!
For this post, I will explain the connection with the aforementioned giant penises: Sweet violet is often associated with romance and perfumery, but a lesser known association is with the Greek God Priapus, son of Aphrodite. Priapus predates ancient Greece, but was revered in this sense for being a protector of gardens and fertility. He is associated with beehives and honey, horticulture and viticulture. Statues of Priapus guarded vineyards and gardens.
Undoubtably though, he is best known for having a giant, permanently erect penis.
Stories include Priapus using his giant penis to scare away intruders to the garden, weigh vegetables and even hit a donkey around the head!
It is actually Priapus and his erection that gave name to the medical condition priapism, a fascinating subject in itself.
Interestingly, Priapus' giant penis represents more than just fertility. In classical times the penis was sometimes seen as a separate entity to the person, almost with a mind of it's own. It represented ownership, territory and territorial marking. This explains why Priapus was also important to navigation, with merchant ships carrying a terracotta phallus to protect them, and the use of phallus shaped marker buoys to guide ships through channels.
Perhaps the sweet violet was the flower of Priapus and of Aphrodite because its scent denoted sex, perhaps there was another reason.
Today sweet violets are often candied and used to decorate cakes, or used in perfume making. And this beautiful flower is not quite as common as it once was in the british isles.. perhaps due to habitat destruction, perhaps over picking. The woodland trust UK suggests growing your own sweet violets to use in the kitchen, and that's a rewarding endeavour. Perhaps I might use something else to decorate my cakes with though.. a phallic icing centre piece perhaps?!