Golden Chamomile بابونج
Least Concern غير مهدد بالإنقراض
SHAPASH شمس / شاباش
Ba’ali Series #2
*Ba’ali series was created following an art installation called ‘Ba’ali,’ which I made for Darat Al Fanun’s “Re-rooting” exhibition curated by Rana Beiruti that runs from March 1st to September 30th, 2022. Each blog post will be a standalone piece, but for those interested in getting a fuller picture of the ‘Ba’ali’ concept I am exploring, each piece can be read as part of a bigger series. I will for sure write about the 3 native and wild plants I used in the exhibition, beyond that we will see. The ‘Ba’ali’ art piece was inspired by a concept we still see in our Levantine culture today: plants and trees that live off rainwater alone. Ba’al also refers to the Canaanite storm god my ancestors revered, and this exploration centers around the Canaanite myth, the Ba’al cycle. Eventually, I will share more on my blog about the actual installation itself. For those in Jordan, be sure to see it in person, as there are many participating artists and organizations whose amazing work and research are on exhibit. https://daratalfunun.org/?event=re-rooting
As a child, I vividly remember my teta (grandmother) making me chamomile tea when I had belly aches. Babonej (chamomile), Yansoon (anise seed), and Meramieh (sage) were the plants I remember my grandmother using the most. These plants carry a kind of nostalgia for me now. Connecting to them brings me back to her wrinkled fingers, the scent of mothballs, whole wheat taboun bread, jasmines, her blue cotton dress, and the way she used to hide keys inside that dress. Keys that unlocked treasures tucked away in closets, like licorice candies, chocolates, expensive jewelry, and bundles of cash.
In a recent plant class, I took with Layla Feghali of River Rose Remembrance, I connected to the shadow side of chamomile. As a flower belonging to the sunflower or aster family, it appears on the grassy hillsides of Jordan sometime in February, before spring peaks. It brings with it the promise of the return of warmth and sunny days. In ancient Egypt, chamomile is linked to the sun.
I decided to ingest this plant by making an oxymel, which is acid (apple cider vinegar) and sweet (honey) infused with plant matter, chamomile. Oxymels have their roots in ancient Egyptian and Persian medicine. In ancient Egypt, they were called Oxalme, hence the name. As an evening tradition, I would take a dropper full of this oxymel before bed for some time. It didn’t help me fall asleep, but it guided me into a deeper sleep. This deep sleep was so restful, but not without the experience of some intense dreams.
In the Canaanite story of the Ba’al Cycle, an allegory for the seasons and farming, Shapash, the goddess who embodies the sun’s energy, helps bring rain, and abundance, back to the land. In many mythologies, the sun makes its way across the sky during the day traversing the horizon to make its way through the underworld, the realm of the god Mot, by night. Like chamomile, Shapash shines her torch, illuminating the underworld, the land of dreams, archetypes, and shadows. But also the unconscious, the forgotten, and the repressed. The world we know can see and touch the underbelly of this world.
In this way, the sun can be seen as a link between night and day, blurring the boundaries between them, making it so that they don’tdon’t fit into a neat binary. Through the holding of these contrasting realities, Shapash was seen as an intermediary between the gods and the people, an arbiter of justice, and the one who lights the way for souls entering the underworld.
One of Shapash’s epithets was “”lamp of the gods””; she was seen as eternal and essential in bringing Ba’al back from the underworld. The story goes that after the god of the underworld, Mot, successfully kills Ba’al, Shapash goes into the underworld with the goddess Anath, the sister and perhaps wife of Ba’al. While there, she cries so many tears that she becomes drunk on them, and the sun ceases to shine.
Yet interestingly, it is in the dry and hot season of summer that she stops shining. The sun was out of balance, perhaps shining too vigorously, too hot, doing the bidding of the god Mot. This somehow also made me think of a solar eclipse. We don’tdon’t usually associate the sun with tears or sadness. Perhaps there are hidden tears and despair in the underbelly of all that heat and sunshine, things we must deal with to soften and moisten the dryness, bringing rain back to the land.
Then El has a prophetic dream and asks Anath to convince Shapash to shine again. Shapash agrees, but only by searching again for Ba’al. She shines her bright torch into the underworld, illuminating this mysterious place. When she finds Ba’als’ corpse, Anath fights Mot, grinding his body like wheat and scattering it across the land. This brings Ba’al back to life, and eventually Mot too. Mot challenges Ba’al to fight again; this time, Shapash convinces Mot that it is not wise. Thus also embodying her role as an intermediary to the gods. So finally, the Ba’al rains come again to water the land.
Learning about the Shapash archetype immediately makes me think of sitting on the beach on a sunny day. The warm rays against my skin, my body quiet and rested in the breeze. Yet it also makes me think of the intensity of a conclusive moment ending a toxic relationship or dynamic, the disgust towards a bad habit that slowly begins to fade out, and the nausea of eating food my body no longer needs. A moment of facing something I can no longer avoid, seeing it entirely in the light of day.
While writing about Shapash, the theme of betrayal came up strongly, as the fear of being betrayed. A fear I inherited from my father, a Palestinian refugee, perhaps the plight of all Palestinians, betrayed by the world in our time of ongoing nakba (catastrophe). With the murder of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the Israeli army saying they will not investigate is no surprise to us. We are used to this. A CNN article that suddenly decides to do a deeper dive, ultimately a good thing, comes about 100 years too late for us; our bodies, livelihoods, homelands, and indigenous practices have already suffered gravely.
Yet the sun’s rays also bring with them the undeniable truth of justice and accountability. The tides are turning, Palestinians are telling our own stories, and despite the world’s desensitization to the violence against brown, black, and indigenous bodies, change, freedom, and justice are inevitable.
Along with the theme of betrayal came the piece of no longer betraying myself. Growing up in an almost all-white town in the U.S. Turtle island, as it is known to the indigenous of that land, was traumatizing, to say the least. I learned very quickly the importance of pleasing people, especially white people, to survive living there. This toxic habit followed me well into adulthood when I was long gone from its need and ready to lay it to rest.
In this process of letting go of internalized white supremacy, a constant unraveling, I can also let go of externalized forms of that in the shape of relationships and experiences. I will no longer be polite, even in the face of textbook white fragility. It is not my job to take care of these emotions or people. It is not my place, and I will not tolerate this violence anymore.
Another theme that came up very strongly was different ways of learning. Recently, I met an elder in Mukawir who made us shrak bread. She sat down with water and a mixture of whole wheat and white flour. Her wrinkled hands kneaded the dough with the gentle strength of a grandmother taking care of her granddaughter, only stopping to add more water. She kneaded and kneaded until the dough was ready to rest. I watched her intently, filming her dancing hands, not wanting to miss a single step in the process.
When I asked her how she knew the dough was ready to rest, she looked at me, wondering how I hadn’t seen it, and said, I just know. She had no words, and at that moment, I realized the knowledge of when to stop was so embodied in her that to articulate it would be somehow to separate herself from this process she knew so intimately.
There is a kind of completion that Shapash and chamomile offer to us. Shapash, in making her way through the day sky, and the underworld at night, travel through the complete circle of life in all its various forms and transitions. She literally holds it all, life, death, rebirth. In researching Shapash, I naturally began researching Canaanite concepts of the underworld and death for my next blog post.
The importance of Shapash’s role in the Canaanite pantheon and as an element of nature is evident, more so than other deities. But the significance of her link to the shadow world interests me more than anything else. Shapash is the ultimate intermediary and judge, ruling with compassion and the discernment of being able to see all sides of a situation.
Similarly, chamomiles’ support in digestion and getting a restful night’s sleep can’t be understated. To digest our food, to integrate life, to then be able to rest, to allow the body to do all the inner healing work it needs in that state of rest, to process through the dreams that might be ailing us, offers us access to emotional completion and wholeness.
The Levant is rich in medicinal plants and herbs; Jordan alone reports to have over 400 species of medicinals. In Jordan, the wild Golden Chamomile that we know has been used traditionally for various ailments, including gastrointestinal issues, and to treat colds and fever. Attractive, as a plant associated with the sun, it has a traditional association with lowering a fever.
I now realize that the treasures my grandmother had tucked away weren’t always pleasurable, such as chocolates and jewelry. They also included things like rage and grief. Something that we stopped placing value on at some point in our culture. And while I didn’t understand it at the time, and perhaps my grandmother also didn’t know how to articulate it, I understand it deeply now and have been working to shift my perspectives on them. Working with this plant, it is clear that the sun also has a shadow side, which we typically only associate with the moon. The sun carries the element of fire. The warmth of it, but also the rage and destructiveness of it.
Chamomile and Shapash offer us gentle access to the treasures we struggle to find value in that are tucked away in the shadows. Shadows can grow so big and out of proportion when they are belittled in these ways. The treasures we associate with pain, grief, rage, and discontent. The places we tend to ignore and repress. This plant and archetype ask us to take another look, to see beyond the surface, to see in a new light, to digest, understand, and cultivate a new relationship with these places inside of us.
A note on references: It’s important to me to reference specific articles and people where this information comes from. It gives people credit and offers readers a chance to do further research on their own, making their own connections and insights. It is also essential to say that knowledge can come in ways other than academic articles and courses. The natural elements have so much to teach us through observation and deep listening. So sometimes, my references are a specific tree, the wind, fire, water, soil, or an animal. Sometimes it is a feeling, an insight, or an intuition. Sometimes it is an experience or a dream.
Many of the references for this article can also be found in my previous article on wild pistachio trees: https://yansoon.ink/2022/04/25/pistacia-atlantica-the-sanctity-of-trees/