The Orange, Tree and Neroli
My fools for senses,
Our last Review spoke of a remarkable perfume, childlike, an acidulous gem worked around a plush orange blossom, almond and aniseed accord. Thus, it seemed most fair to dedicate this week’s Overview, not to one material but to a little array without which none of our perfumes would exist.
Indeed, we mean to talk about the orange tree, its flowers and fruits for if their taste and smell and colour are known, we lack their real flavour. That of knowledge. Together, my dear fools, let us embark upon a journey which will take us to the very roots of the Tree of Life.
Our story began as we read a Moorish poem from the 12th century written by Al-Asamm where he praises the beauty of an Unripe Orange : « Little daugther of the grove, whom the rainbow leaned to kiss (…) Wondrous spectacle to view, hither shining purest gold, thither brightest emerald (…) Moses, God’s Apostle, lit here a flame (…) Khadir of the mystic green, there laid his hand over it ». What a strange reading, what a strange testimony, what a peculiar ode from a theologian to a fruit still unripe.
The orange invaded Andalucian cities when the Moors did and it had ever since been considered a symbol of love and fertility. Most of their poems laud its perfume or its taste, like Ibn Sara when he compared then to « balls of agate » and said : « Now I kiss them, now inhale, thus my senses I regale, with their cheeks’ so tender bloom, and the sweets of their perfume »
Upon reading Al Asamm’s verses for whom orange lies under the patronage of two mighty muslim figures, we wondered what was the hidden meaning behind such fruit. Far from being a simple symbol of fertility as many traditions and articles do, or of purity –when it comes to the blossoms, orange might in fact be the key to a deeper, esoteric, alchemical understanding of life.
We shall speak of this later however as our trip now takes us to the 10th century Sicily, flourishing under the enlightened rule of Roger II whose barbarian origins made him nostalgic of a Byzantine Empire he never truly witnessed. Such man who would have rather been the apostolic legate in Magna Graecia –as was called the part of Italy under Byzantine rule- surrounded himself with great minds of his time, be they Jews or Saracens. One of them, Abd-ar-Rahman of Trepani said : « The oranges of the island are like blazing fire among emerald boughs » mentioning, two centuries before the Andalucian, the presence of orange trees in Great Greece.
For indeed, that is where our voyage will take us to and there will the plot thicken. Amongst the many myths, there is one most renowned : that of the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. Although many have glossed about the nature of such « apples » Greeks and mediaeval commentators as well believed they were naught but oranges. One might ask what was so special about them…
Greek mythology tales the wedding of Hera and Zeus and how all the gods might and low came bearing presents. Amongst them was Gaea who gifted them a branch on which hang three golden apples. Utterly ravished, Hera wanted the apples to be harvested in her grove and it fell upon the Hesperides, the nymphes of dusk, to guard them. But Gaea was no mere goddess, she was the primordial one, the Mother Earth sometimes identified to Cybele, the Magna Mater – the Great Mother and matrix of all life.
These golden apples will indirectly cause the Trojan Wars when Eris, the goddess of Discord, furious upon learning the gods had organised a banquet without inviting her, took one and wrote « To the fairest » on it before throwing it into the hall. Hera, Athena and Aphrodite thus competed for the title of fairest goddess, each trying to persuade Paris in her ways. Hera offered him royalty, Athena offered him wisdom and Aphrodite promised him the hand of the most beautiful woman on Earth : Helen of Sparta. Paris chose Helen for whom he would later lose his city, his throne, his brother and herself.
A tradition says that as Hera was the goddess of chastity and faithfulness, she was less enticing than Aphrodite, whom, being the goddess of sexuality, seduced the young prince using her many…charms.
We see here the paradox that is the orange tree. On the one hand, its flower is a symbol of chastity and innocence and on the other, its fruit is a synonym of fertility and carnal pleasure. Duality of flesh and spirit, of red and green, of Moses and Khadir.
Allow us a quick digression and a jump into mediaeval Europe again to better grasp the symbolic meaning of the orange tree. Amongst all esoteric works of the Middle Ages there is one in which the golden apples are woven : the Unicorn Tapestries. This work of art portrays a woman trying to tame her five senses. The sixth tapestry, called « To my sole desire » is surely the most enigmatic of all in which no senses are pictured although we can see an orange tree right by the unicorn. Many have said that this cycle of tapestries are an allegoric tale of taming one’s passion, of staying chaste in body and mind so as to the reach the « sole desire ». But again, what is it ? And how is this relevant in our matter ?
We will see it as we reach the last part of our trip.
It leads us towards China, the land where oranges first grew. As we dug deeper, we read a rather obscure legend which somehow felt familiar. It is the story of a young man named Liu Yi who, as he was travelling, met with a young woman, the daugther of the Dragon-King. She told him how her husband had forsaken her and that Liu Yi needed to join her father’s palace with great haste to deliver him the news of her solitude. So he did and for months he walked alone until he reached the place she indicated : a still lake in the middle of which grew a sacred orange-tree. As instructed, he crossed the waters, knocked thrice on the tree and he found himself sucked into the abyssal realm of the Dragon King. In China, Dragon-King are godly creatures reigning over all watery plans, over rivers and lakes and snows and seas and rains. Liu Yi found the king arguing with a priest. It was later explained to him that the Dragons wielded water whereas Men wielded fire and the two were only trying to find a way to harmonise their opposing powers. The King then saw Liu Yi and asked him : « Are you from the worlds of Men » to which he replied : « I am ». He then proceeded to tell the King about his daughter.
After many adventures, it came to be that Liu Yi met again with the princess who promised him to be as good to him as he to her. However, when the King’s brother tried to forcefully unite the two, Liu Yi refused and left. He headed back to the world of Men and there became a rich man. Twice wed, he was also twice widowed until a third woman came into his life. Grand was his solitude at the time and there was something in this new wife that reminded him of the god’s daughter he once met. That is when the woman revealed who she really was : the Dragon King’s daughter and she kept her promise and granted Liu Yi the gift of gifts.
The symbolic richness of this tale is beyond reason. Let us only speak of the lake in that it is key to understanding this entire article. The ba gua, a fondamental concept of antic Chinese taoism, draws a link between lakes and knowledge, profound wisdom ; to life and peace. Fire however is a symbol of mundane glory. Moreover, Dragon Kings have always been associated with the Yang energy : energy of light and life and generation.
What about the orange tree you ask ? And the orange ? And the blossom ?
Why, we understand that the orange tree is indeed the Tree of Life. It is the path descending into the profoundness of the soul as Liu Yi descended into the lake. It is the Tree giving a fruit of Life, the immortality that can only be ceased through the forsaking of vain glory, through the fight between fire and water, flesh and mind. It is the fruit we can only taste as we understand the sweet scent of its blossom : that of innocence as humility of heart ; chastity as the silence of all passions. It is, at last, the red fruit of Moses like the fire of the Burning Bush, that fireless fire of Love and it is also the red fruit of Khadir the Green.
For Khadir is an image of Melkisedek, the Prince of Peace, whom lived motherless, fatherless and with no origins. The green fruit, the unripe fruit of the Tree of Life, is the pilgrim. It is he who goes through life. With no origins meaning with no ties to the world ; motherless, fatherless, meaning with no emotional burden. It is the image of Liu Yi, himself a personnification of jianghui, a philosophical concept so dear to Chinese classic literature it can only be translated as « lakes and rivers » ; an echo to all those heroes whose wisdom comes only from their journey, their encounters and their wandering.
The orange tree is the Tree of Life on which grow the sweet orange of Immortality which can only ripen along with the neroli of Innocence. Such tree grows in rivers and in lakes, rooted in the uprooted ones , attached to the detached ones. To they who seek out peace.
For the true immortality, my brothers, has never been about living longer but living freer.
In the water.
I come for thee.