Palaeontology has revealed that, long before Man’s appearance on the Earth, the European continent was host to a large population of palm trees. However, later glaciations caused their disappearance in all but a series of select areas in which, as a result of either the thermal regulation derived from a close proximity to the sea or -as was the case in Elche- the shelter offered by the foothills of mountain ranges, protection was provided against cold polar winds.
Ancient civilisations fought for a piece of the Mediterranean. When contemplating the sea, they discovered the reflection of palm trees. As a result of the wealth of beneficial properties offered by the palm trees, as well as their similarities to the human species, they soon became the object of worship and religion, and were associated with divinity.
In the Eastern Mediterranean region, the Egyptians adopted the form of palm trees to some of their most magnificent religious buildings, with the incorporation of grandiose palm-shaped columns and capitals decorated with palm leaves and other palm motifs.
Thousands of kilometres away, the Iberians settled in the Western Mediterranean region. Although considerably less culturally-advanced than the Egyptians, their recognition of the value of palm trees can clearly be seen in their religion, ritual ceramics, sculpture and coins.
The first evidence which demonstrates the Iberian's incorporation of the palm tree into their funeral rituals are the fossilized Date Palm seeds on display in the Jerónimo Molina de Jumilla Museum. The seeds were discovered in a mass grave in the depths of the Cueva de los Tiestos, a cave located in the Sierra de las Cabras in the municipality of Jumilla, Murcia (Spain). It is thought that the seeds were buried along with the deceased for use as food in the next life. Through the analysis of their Carbon 14 content, experts have dated the fossils back to 1800 BC, almost 4000 years ago, and one millennium before the Phoenicians set foot on the Iberian Peninsula.
Iberian ritual ceramics offer an abundance of objects containing palm decoration of significant relevance. Major examples include the archaeological remains of Vaso de la Diosa con Palma (Goddess Cup with Palm Tree), La Procesión (The Procession) and the Árbol de la Vida (The Tree of Life), all of which are on display at the La Alcudia Monographic Museum, Elche.
The first of these objects portrays an anthropomorphic representation of the Iberian Goddess clasping a palm leaf in each hand, from which we may deduce that Iberians, who observed a religion based on naturism, understood the palm tree to possess divine attributes. La Procesión portrays a person carrying a braided palm leaf, whilst El Árbol de la Vida is a highly-evocative representation of a palm tree displaying intricate detail in its foliage and foliar scars in its centre. All of these objects date from to the III and IV centuries BC.
The above-mentioned ceramics serve as extremely valuable evidence in the documentation of the role of the palm tree – the Prince of the Plant Kingdom – in the religion of the Princes of Europe, the Iberians.
Nevertheless, the presence of palm trees in Iberian art is not limited to funeral rituals or religious ceramics. Rather, it is also a firm feature in their sculpture, a notable example of which is La Esfinge (The Sphinx), discovered in an archaeological site in El Salobral (Albacete) and now on display in the oriental antiquities section at the Louvre. A finely-sculpted palm leaf lies next to one of the Sphinx’s paws. Another sculpture deserving attention is La Cierva (The Doe), currently on display at the Archaeological Museum of Seville. This piece portrays a deer suckling her fawn beside an impressive Date Palm laden with two splendid clusters of dates.
In spiritual terms, the relationship between divinity and the palm tree is evident in the trees’ portrayal as divine insignia. In material terms, the association with the perennial, economic value held by all cultures, is evident from its representation on Iberian coins. One shining example is the Pre-Roman Iberian coin from 180-150 BC on display in the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid. On the reverse of the coin, an Iberian cavalryman holds a palm leaf as a sign of peace.
In Greece, an abundance of historical testimonies have survived, such as the myth of the birth of Apollo between a palm tree and an olive tree on the island of Delos. This event led to the palm tree also being known as the Tree of Birth. Several millennia later, palm and olive trees continue to be associated with other myths or, more accurately perhaps, versions of the original myths.
Apuleyo’s accounts show that in former times, neophytes participating in the city of Corinth’s Sacred Mysteries initiation ceremonies were crowned with elaborate head-pieces made from palm leaves.
On the banks of the Mediterranean, the city of Elche boasts a magnificent area of vegetation known as El Palmeral de Elche, a rich forest of palm trees originally consisting of several Date Palm orchards dating back to the very first primitive inhabitants and their culture. This palm grove is differentiated from others on the Mediterranean coast and the Middle East by means of its unique character, origin and the characteristic presence of White Palms.
Although Elche is not the only Mediterranean host to White Palms, it is undoubtedly the region’s best example. In addition to above-mentioned Corinth, another city which deserves special mention is Bordiguera, in the Italian region of Liguria. It was here, on the shores of this beautiful part of the Mediterranean called Sea of Liguria, that a remote Ligur settlement was established.
Although there are currently very few Date Palms, White Palm craft work has been discovered in several areas on Corsica, such as Bastia.
There is also a palm grove on Crete and, without having to strain the eye, palm trees can be found in abundance throughout the Mediterranean, the sea that has exerted an attraction over all cultures and in which those that were able to establish themselves discovered palm trees reflected in its waters.
All of this leads enables us to imagine an Ancient Mediterranean Culture of the Palm Tree stretching the whole distance of the Mare Nostrum. However, this culture’s close relationship to the rites of worship and religion restricted its knowledge to the initiated and, thus, its traces were lost with the disappearance of the ancient peoples. We must thus recognise the Palmeral de Elche, as well as other palm gardens such as those in Bordighera and Corsica, as priceless, living relics of this remote Mediterranean Culture of the Palm Tree, the most characteristic example of which is the White Palm. In addition to playing a role in numerous Mediterranean myths, this species has adapted to newer cultures, undergoing a series of fantastic metamorphosis such as can be seen in during the Palm Sunday Processions, the opening act of Easter Week as celebrated on the Mediterranean.