Plutarch on Pitch and Pine Trees (and Chaplets)

From Philemon Holland's (1603) translation of Plutarch's Quaestiones Conviviales [Symposiacks, Book V, Question 3], in the Moralia, pp. 717-719.


What is the cause that the pitch-tree is held consecrated unto Neptune and Bacchus: And that in the beginning the victours at Isthmian games were crowned with a garland of pine-tree branches, but afterwards with a chaplet of smallage or parsley, and now of late with the foresaid pitch-tree?*

THERE was a question propounded upon a time: Why the manner was to crowne those with pine or pitch-tree branches, who gained the prize at the Isthmick games? For so it was, that during the said festivall solemnity, Lucanius the high priest made a supper at Corinth, at his owne house, and feasted us: where Praxiteles the geometrician, a great discourser, told us a poeticall tale, and namely; that the body of Melicerta was found cast up, & driven upon the body of a pine-tree, by the sea at a full tide; for that there was a place not farre from Megara, named Cales Dromos, that is to say, the race of the faire lady; whereas the Megarians doe report, that dame Ino carrying her yoong babe within her armes, ranne and cast her-selfe headlong into the sea: But it is a common received opinion (quoth he) that the pine is appropriat for the making of coronets, in the honour of Neptune: whereupon when as Lucanius the high priest added moreover and said: That the said tree being consecrated unto Bacchus, it was no marvell nor absurditie if it were dedicated also to the honour of Melicerta. Occasion was taken to search into the cause; wherefore the auncients in old time held the said tree sacred unto Bacchus and Neptune both? For mine owne part I saw no incongruitie therein; for that these two gods be lords and rulers over one generall principle, or element, to wit, humidity or moisture, considering also that they generally in manner all, sacrifice unto Neptune, under the surname φυτάλμιος, as one would say, protectour of plants; and unto Bacchus likewise, by the name or addition Δενδρίτης, that is to say, the president over trees: and yet it may be said, that the pine mor particularly apperteineth not to Neptune; not as Apollodorus is of opinion, because it is a tree that loveth to grow by the sea-side, or for that it delighteth in the windes as the sea doth: (for some there be of this minde) but especially in this regard; that it affoordeth good timber, and other stuffe for building of ships; for both it, and also other trees, which for their affinitie may goe for her sisters, to wit, pitch-trees, larike-trees, and cone-trees, furnish us with their wood, most proper to flote upon the sea, and with their rosin also and pitch, to calke and calfret; without which composition, be the joints never so good and close, they are to no purpose in the sea: as for Bacchus they consecrated the pitch-tree unto him, for that pitch doth give a pleasant seasoning unto wine: for looke where these trees doe naturally grow, the vine there by report yeeldeth pleasant wine; which Theophrastus imputeth to the heat of the soile; for commonly the pitch tree groweth in places of marle or white clay, which by nature is hot, and so by consequence helpeth the concoction of wine; like as such kinde of clay yeeldeth water, of all others most light and sweet: besides, if the same be blended with wheat, it maketh the greater heape, for that the heat thereof doth cause it to swell, and become more full and tender: moreover the vine receiveth many commodities and pleasures more from the pitch tree, for that it, with those things which be, is good & necessarie, both to commend and also to preserve wines; for it is an ordinary thing with all men, to pitch those vessels into which they put up their wines, yea, and some there be who put rosin even into the wine: as for example, those of Eubæa in Greece, and Italy, the inhabitants by the Po side; and that which more is, from out of Gaule by Vienna, there is brought a certeine pitch-wine, called Pißites, which the Romanes set much store by, because it giveth not onely a delectable sent, but also a better strength, takin from it in a small time the newnesse and the watery substance thereof, by the meanes of a milde and kinde heat. This being saied, there was an oratour there, a man of great reading, a singular scholar, and an excellent humanitarian, who cried out in this manner: And is it so indeed? as who would say, it were not very lately, and but the other day, that the pine tree yeelded garlands and chaplets at the Isthmian games? for heeretofore the victors there, were crowned with wreathes and coronets made of smalach leaves: and this appeereth by that which we may heare out of a certeine comedie, a covetous miser speake in this wise:

These Isthmique games I gladly would part fro,
For price that smallach wreaths in market go.

And Timæus the historiographer writeth; that when the Corinthians marched in battell ray under the conduct of Timoleon against the Carthaginians, for the defence of Sicily, they encountered in the way certeine folk, who carried bunches of smallach: now when many of the souldiors tooke this occurrence for an ill presage (because smallach is taken to be an unluckie herbe; insomuch as when we see one lie extreame sicke, & in danger of death, we say: That he hath need of nothing else but smallach) Timoleon willed them to be of good cheere, and put them in minde of the victorious chaplets of smallach t the Isthmian games, wherewith the Corinthians crowned the winners. Moreover the admirall galley of king Antigonus was called Isthura,1 for that without any sowing or setting, there grew smallach of it selfe about the poupe thereof: and this obscure & ænigmaticall epigram under darke and covert words, signifieth plainly, earthen vessels stuffed and stopped with smallach: and in this manner it goeth:

This Argive earth which ere while was full soft,
Now baked hard with fire, the bloud deepe-red
Of Bacchus hides within, but loe aloft,
It Istmick branches beares in mouth and head.

Certes, they have not read this much, who vaunt so greatly of the Pitch-tree chaplet, as if it were not a moderne stranger and new commer, but the ancient, proper, and naturall garland, belonging to the Isthmian games. Which words of his, mooved the yoonger sort not a little, as being delivered by a man who had seene and read much; and Lucanius the high-priest himselfe, casting his eie upon me, and smiling withall: Now by Neptune (quoth he) I sweare, what a deale of learning is heere! howbeit, others there were, who bearing themselves (as it should seeme) upon mine ignorance and want of reading, were perswaded of the contrary, and avouched, that the Pitch-tree branches were the ancient garlands in the Isthmicke solemnitie, as naturall unto that countrey; and on the other side, the coronet of Smallach was a meere stranger, brought from Nemea thither upon an emulation, in regard of Hercules, whereby it had indeed the name, for a time; insomuch as it supplanted the other, and woon the credit from it, as being counted a sacred herbe, and ordeined for this purpose; but afterwards, the Pine-garland flourished againe and recovered the ancient reputation, so at this day it is in as great honoour, as ever it was. Heereupon I suffered my selfe to be perswaded, and gave so good eare, that many testimonies for confirmation of this opinion I learned, yea, and some of them I bare away and remembred; and namely, that out of them, Euphorion the poet, who spake of Melicerta, much after this manner:

The yoong man dead, they did bewaile
   and then his corps they laid
Upon greene branches of Pine-tree,
   whereof the crownes were said
To have been made, those to adorne
   with honour glorious,
Who at the sacred Isthmicke games
   were deem'd victorious:
For why? as yet the murdering hand,
   sir Charon had not slaine,
The soone of Neme, wofull dame,
   where as with streame amaine
Asopus runnes: since when, began
   the wreathe of Smalach greene.
To binde the head of champions,
   all bravely to be seene.

Also out of Callimachus, who hath expressed this matter more plainly, where he bringeth Hercules in, speaking after this maner:

And it, though much inferiour,
   and more terrestrial,
Employ they shall in Isthmicke games,
   when in memoriall
Of god Aegæon they with crownes,
   the victours brave do decke,
According to Nemeæan rites,
   and thereby give the checke
To chaplets made of Pine-tree faire,
   wherewith the champion
For victorie, sometime was dight
   at games Corinthian.

Over and besides, if I be not deceived, I have light upon a certeine commentarie of Procles, writing of the Isthmian solemnitie; namely, that at the very first institution thereof, ordeined it was: That the victorious coronet should be made of Pitch-tree branches; but afterwards, when these games were accounted sacred, they translated thither from the Nemæan solemnities, the chaplet of Smallach: now this Procles was one of the scholars in the Academie, what time as Xenocrates taught and flourished.


*. πίτυς. Some take it for the pine: and in truth the word πίτυς agreeth to both neither mattereth it, it shall thus be understood of the pine.

1. Isthura: sc. Isthmian

James Eason.