One of the first cultivated plants of the ancient world, perhaps the first cultivated fruit, figs have a rich entanglement in the history of humanity, both as a food staple and as a plant associated with many mythological creatures, deities and religious beliefs.
First known to have been cultivated in Mesopotamia, the fig is probably one of the most widespread and used fruits of ancient civilization. It’s fruit both fresh and dried was a constant staple in ancient man’s diet, many varieties have bark that can be used to make a type of bark cloth for clothing and wine was first created from its fermented fruit. It’s wood is fragrant when burned and can be used for long lasting fire fuel and is strong enough that it has been used in the building of many sacred buildings and temples in the ancient world.
The fig tree holds a prominent place in Jewish, Islamic and Christian folk lore. Tradition holds that the fig produced the final piece of wood needed for Salomon to finish his great temple in Jeruselum. This piece of wood was later placed near the alter of the Lord and adorned with silver rings. The rings are reported to be the pieces of silver given to Judas when he betrayed Christ to the soldiers in the garden before he was arrested and crucified.
Probably the most common myth associated with the fig is the belief that the fig was in fact the forbidden fruit of the tree of wisdom which the first man and woman ate from and were thus cursed to a life of hard labor. Biblical tradition also holds that Adam and Eve covered their nakedness with the leaves of the fig tree. Christian tradition also states that when the virgin Mary was traveling with the infant Jesus, she hid within a fig tree to elude Herod troops which were searching for the infant. It is also the type of tree in which Zacchus the tax collector is said to have climbed into in order to see Jesus, as he was too short to see through the crowd. Zacchus was later saved and redeemed by Jesus for his sins of persecuting the poor.
Biblical tradition isn’t the only association with wisdom and divinity the fig is given in the ancient world. It is also associated with the Greek god Dionysis, the god of wine, debauchery, and strangely enough, secret wisdom. It was also associated with Priapus, a woodland satyr and demigod which represented the incarnation of sexual knowledge and desire. Thus perhaps the more modern inference that the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the biblical story of Adam and Eve was actually a hidden metaphor for human kinds discovery of sexuality and their indulgence in sexual intercourse.
Many myths throughout the ancient Mediterranean and Asian world associate the fig with divinity. The Roman’s believed the fig tree to be sacred as they believed the she wolf which suckled the twin founders of Rome Remus and Romulus was found sitting under a fig tree, having been secretly sent to protect them by the powers of divinity which watched over them. Following in this mode of thought, Romans would give each other presents of figs on the first day of their new year.
Followers of Buddhist tradition hold the fig tree sacred as it is believed that Buddha achieved enlightenment while sitting under a Bodhi tree which is a type of fig tree. The tree is still perceived as a tree of enlightenment and the granter of greater knowledge to those who would meditate with an open spirit beneath them. They are quite popular in Asia and adorn the steps and gardens of many monasteries throughout the region.
Hindus believe that the fig tree is the representation of eternal life due to its ever expanding growth and constant renewal of good fruits. It is held sacred in the Hindu tradition to the god Shiva who is nearly always depicted in human form as meditating beneath the fig tree. The tree is known as the wish fulfilling divine tree as Shiva contemplates on the mysteries of the universe beneath its leaves and is granted divine knowledge which it contains in its roots and whispers into his ears through its fronds as they brush against his face during his meditations.
Cultivation of the fig tree in Greek tradition is credited to a man whom gave the Goddess Diameter shelter as she searched for her lost daughter Persephone. The knowledge of tending the fig tree and proper cultivation of it was given to him as a reward for his kindness by the goddess of agriculture and fertility.
Ancient Egyptians associated the fig with fertility , believing that eating the dried fig fruit would facilitate female conception. Even today in parts of the Arab world, the fig is considered a powerful aphrodisiac. The ancient Greeks believed the fig helped cure male impotency.
In the Philippines, the banyan, a type of fig tree indigenous to the region is believed to be the home of a wide variety of spirits as well as demons, gnomes and dwarfs. Tradition teaches young children not to point at the trees lest the offend the spirits which reside within. Likewise, in Guam, the tree is believed to be inhabited by guardian spirits which protect the trees.
The fig is commonly used in folk medicine throughout Asia, the middle east and parts of Africa to treat anything from uterine cancer to head colds. Modern science has proven that the natural chemicals found in the fig are actually quite helpful for many of the ailments it is applied to, especially bronchial ailments such as bronchitis, asthma, sugar related illnesses and constipation. The ancient Greeks believed the fig held special powers of health and Greek athletes incorporated a large amount of fig’s into their daily diet. This is partial true as the fig is very abundant in protein as well as natural sugars which is good for the growth of muscles as well as helping to give the athlete extra energy during sports performances.
Modern medicine agrees that the fig plant can be used to help relieve digestive ailments. Dried figs are good for relieving gastric ulcers and heartburn. It can also be used as a natural laxitive to relieve constipation. It can be used to treat hemorrhoids and even dysentery. Figs can be used to relieve toothpain by rubbing a fresh fig on the gum. It can be used to treat cold and flu symptoms like dry cough, excess mucus and sore throats and can also be used in the treatment of asthma.