Saffron : the Green Gold
My fools for senses,
It is always such a joy to write for you and to journey with you upon this marvellous road, that of perfumes and symbols. We wrote our last Critic –here, in case you would have missed it- about Cuir Cavalier, Nathalie Feisthauer’s last creation for the house MDCI, a saffroney rose or rather a saffron with metallic hues of rose and hot like liquid gold. Naturally, today’s Overview shall thus be about : saffron.
Already prized by the Ancient Greeks, red gold harvested from Kashmir to Tuscan hills, saffron and its aphrodisiac vertues unleashed passions and waged wars. However we tried to understand what lay hidden behind its fiery pistils. What made its colour so enviable ? Why did realms fight over it ? What is it whispering in the secret of its blue cove ? Together, my fools, let us discover together the secrets of Saffron, the Green Gold.
We started our research by a simple state of facts : albeit being common to many a different culture and religion, saffron always held the same place. Whoever tries to investigate this subject will soon realise that saffron is always closely linked to the idea of royalty, as was purple during the Roman Empire –and later in the Roman Church. Let us quote as an example, this excerpt from Aeschylus’ Persians : « Shah, great Shah, Lord king of past times, come, draw near, appear ! Go to the high prowl of your tomb, make yourself known, showing signs of your kingship, your saffron-tinted slippers ».
On the other side of the Levant, saffron is mentioned twenty times in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh sacred scriptures. The first one, it is said : « If I had a palace made of pearls, inlaid with jewels, scented with musk, saffron and sandalwood ». Legend even says that saffron was sprinkled on the streets of Rome when Nero entered it.
This link between saffron and royalty is even clearer upon reading the Shahmaneh, an epic poem written by Ferdowsi. Here he says : « The citizens all did him reverence, showered gems and saffron, mingled ambergris with musk and wove the sound of harps and song » or « His sisters and the slaves pour emeralds and saffron over him »
One swiftly understands that Persians knew and mastered the harvesting of saffron ever since the beginnings of their history. The Bundahishn, a zoroastrian encyclopedia, does list saffron as a plant created for dyeing.
We thus asked ourselves : did saffron become so precious due to the importance of its colour or has the colour got its symbolic from the rarity of the spice itself ?
And what symbolic would that be ?
In Hinduism as well as Buddhism or Sikhism, saffron has always been a symbol of renunciation and humility. The Sri Guru Granth Sahib, if it opens on a verse singing saffron as a symbol of material riches does the exact opposite soon after : « Other wear saffron robes and become hermits » ; « He dyes his robes with saffron dyes and wearing these robes he goes out begging » ; « A yogi or a wandering hermit wearing saffron-coloured robes ».
In Buddhism, it’s Amitabha, the Light or Life Infinite, whom wears saffron-coloured robes. And that is precisely what it’s about : life and light.
We could hardly speak about saffron without having a few words about Hinduism of which it is the most hallowed colour. Saffron, as the union of yellow and red, is the colour of Agni, of the sacred and cleansing fire, that which consumes our ego and ignites the entire being of its divine light. It’s the fire of renunciation, that which burns all, the rich and the poor ; the fire of the sacrifice lit up before the Gods. The heartwarming, the enlightening and vivifying fire.
Saffron is the colour of He whom it is said in the first verse of the Rig-Veda : « O Agni, I adore Thee, O priest, O divine minister Who officiates at the divine Sacrifice, Who is also the invoker, the Summoner, Who most bestows the divine wealth upon us. » Agni, the Fire, is both the priest, the sacrificator and the offering himself. He is the flame rising up and carrying the smoke of the sacrifice to the highest but he is also the flame descending from Heavens, charged with divine light, to kindle the heart of the faithful.
Through him, saffron becomes the symbol of the cleansing fire and the purity it brings but it is also the colour of the flame of light divine and its innate life. Hermits, when they take upon their saffron-coloured robes, signify that their whole being is become an offering to the Light of Knowledge.
So as to dig deeper in our study, let us dwell upon the etymology of the word « saffron ». Unsurprisingly, the word comes from Persian « zar-faran », from zar « gold » and por « full ». If the root zar- probably comes from the Sanskrit « hiranya » it is worth noting that some scholars believe it to descend from a proto-indo-european which gave us words such as « khloros » in Greek or « helvus » in Latin both meaning… green.
If many definitions evolve over time, we pondered about this peculiar link between the proto-indo-european « green » and the « gold » of zarfaran. In terms of etymology, could we thus say that saffron is no longer filled with « zar », with gold, but with green ? Surprising considering we are talking about a red spice…
What then would be the green Indo-Europeans and Persians first talked about ?
Let us now explain that if such proto-indo-european root meant the colour green, it also meant green as anything that is still young and new and fresh – it’s the green of fresh spring leaves and sprigs as they sprout from the earth and also –allow us this leap in time and space- the green of the trees that fill Russian churches during the feast of Pentecost so as to symbolise renewing… Life.
Could it be that saffron is in fact the sprig of life ? Greek mythology comes to ou raid in that matter. It tales indeed of Hermes killing one of his lovers, Crocus, during a game of discus. Unable to bear the sadness, Hermes called upon Chronis who decided to revive Crocus in the form of a blue flower with red pistils, like the blood which had been spilled.
Be it red or gold ; be it Sikh or Buddhist ; be it Hindu or be it green, saffron, ever since the begginings of time, has always been as the spice of dawn, of renewal, of fresh mornings, of young mornings, of green mornings. This precious and delicate pistil, with its hues of ochre and red, is the incarnation on this Earth of a flame of light divine, of a purifying and swarming light. Like a twig of dried sunshine, its colour and perfume became those of royalty and humility ; of those haloed and kindled.
It turns us into living offerings of light, for the fire, always, dances.
« Your Name is the saffron which I take and sprinkle in offering to You »