Paisley and Pride
I was talking to an Iranian friend of mine some time ago, and the conversation turned to paisley. This textile pattern, often called “Persian pickles” due to its Iranian origins, has been an international favorite for centuries and I was curious about its appeal. It is a rather weird design; what are those tadpole shapes supposed to be, anyway?
He said they were heavily stylized representations of trees, probably either cypress or pine, since both of those trees are revered in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. I objected that they looked nothing like trees, but he said they are hook-shaped because the tree is bent over. Why would anyone want bent over trees on their clothes? I asked. He said it was an expression of humility. A pine tree is like an important man, but when his head is bowed he is humble. So I understood that the paisley pattern is a kind of momento mori. It reminded people that to live a balanced life you should never get to self-assured or arrogant.
Of course it isn’t just fabric patterns that travel the world. Our ideas and our stories travel too, and it never surprises me to encounter a similar idiosyncratic idea appear worlds and cultures apart.
I was reading the book Ozark Magic and Folklore by Vance Randolph not long after I had that conversation with my friend. Randolph collected his folklore in the early 20th century when the rural Ozark country of the Midwestern United States was still culturally isolated. The people who lived in those areas had a blended heritage of mostly Scottish, Irish, and Cherokee.
Randolph made the obscure observation that when someone in the Ozarks has been murdered, the family of the victim finds a nearby sapling cedar tree, bends down the top to the ground, and secures it with a stone. The tree must remain bent over like that until the murderer is found. After that, the stone is removed and the tree allowed to assume its natural straight form. If that isn’t done another murder will occur before long.
Randolph provides no background or explanation for this strange custom, so I will attempt to fill in the gaps. The cedar tree is a natural antiseptic and aromatic tree. It is used worldwide for cleaning and purifying, and is impervious to rot. It also grows tall and straight which makes good building lumber. Because of these qualities it has a strong association with the benevolence of a king or a god. The original Temple of Solomon, for example, was built of cedar.
So it appears these Ozark folk were making a supplication for justice to a god. They were asking the god to find and punish a murderer. Possibly bending the tree to the ground was a literal attempt to get the god to pay attention to what was going on with the people on earth. But I think what is even more likely is that the god was being denied adoration or homage from his followers until he rectified the situation. He was being humbled, maybe even for failing to protect the person who was murdered. Even today people shame their leaders to make them take action when action is needed.
But to keep all things in life fair and in balance, the people released the cedar from its shame as soon as the murderer was caught; to continue to shame him was to invite punishment in the form of another murder.
Now I’m sure the people of the Ozarks were not really aware of all this. They were merely following a custom that had long ago atrophied into mere superstition. But I do wonder, if their ancestors who came from British Isles, whose ancestors in turn came from Germany and Scandinavia, and whose ancestors in turn came from Anatolia and areas around the Balkans and the Caspian Sea, if they were the originators of an idea that eventually emerged in another form as paisley.