The Oaks are our mothers (Zonas of Sardis, AP 9.312, 1st CE)

Text and Translation

     ὦνερ, τᾶν βαλάνων τὰν ματέρα φείδεο κόπτειν,
φείδεο, γηραλέαν δ’ ἐκκεράϊζε πίτυν
ἢ πεύκαν ἢ τάνδε πολυστέλεχον παλίουρον
ἢ πρῖνον γ’ ἢ αὐαλέαν κόμαρον·
τηλόθι δ’ ἴσχε δρυός πέλεκυν· κοκύαι γὰρ ἔλεξαν
ἁμῖν ὡς πρότεραι ματέρες ἐντὶ δρύες

Σ: εἰς δρῦν ἥμερον παραίνεσις μὴ κόπτειν διὰ τὸν μῦθον τὸν φάσκοντα ἀπὸ δρυὸς καὶ πέτρας τὰς τῶν ἀνθρώπων γενέσις.

Man, spare from chopping the mother of the acorns;
  be sparing, but plunder the aged pine
or evergreen or the many-stemmed paliurnus
  or even the holm or courtyard arbutus;
but keep the ax far from the oak; for the ancestors said
  that our first mothers are oaks.

Scholion: to the domesticated oak, an exhortation to not chop [it down] on account of the story that says the origins of humans are from oak and rock.

Source: Palatine Anthology 9.312


The idea that we are from the trees is not often found in Hellenic mythology. Typically we are descended from earth, as Pandora, who was made from clay, like any other vessel (Hesiod, Works and Days, 60-61) or the generation that came about from Pyrrha and Deucalion who threw stones behind them after a world-ending flood (Hesiod, fragments 2-7). I am likewise convinced that an origin from rock is also implied by the herms (statues of Hermes that are essentially a man emerging from a tetragonal rock), about which I’ll have much more to say in the coming months assuming I decide to post my research here.

There are myths aplenty of humanoid beings transforming into trees, most famously the story of Daphne, who escaped Apollo’s advances by (permanently) transforming herself into a Bay tree; yet few are the claims that humans came from trees, or that there is anything joining humans and trees.

But still, there was an idea of descent from earth or trees: it’s mentioned (as a realist’s rejection) in the Odyssey (19.163): ‘Come tell me your lineage,’ says Penelope to the stranger who’s come to her house (but is in fact her long-lost husband in disguise), ‘for you are not from an ancient-speaking oak or a rock’. Many other references deriving from this line can be found in ML West’s commentary on Hesiod’s Theogony, line 35—which is itself a puzzle (‘Why [tell] me these things round oak or rock?’). Also, in the Works and Days, Hesiod makes the third race of humans emerge from ash trees (ek meliân, 145); but they’re a pretty terrible bunch of humans, apparently, so they were… er… exterminated.

The reason, seemingly elusive, for not chopping down an oak tree is given in the first line: they are ‘mother[s] of acorns,’ which can be ground up into flour or otherwise consumed. If not for stable nourishment, the presence of an oak tree could be a guarantee of survival in a bad year.

Kokúai (κοκύαι) is a fairly strange word, found only here and in a late-antique lexicon (the Suda). It appears to mean ‘grandparents,’ or else more broadly ‘ancestors’ (LSJ, s.v.; Bailly, s.v.).

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