Last year, for instance, while walking through the backstreets of Bellerive, Tasmania, my family and I spotted a fine coral tree standing in front of a 19th century house, and on the street corner.
Nowadays, in my part of the world, the tree is listed as a weed by authorities, labelled as a potential hazard because it takes root easily, and thrives along waterways and floodplains, quickly taking over.
Yet, in its land of origin, the coral tree is an icon and revered by some as an ancestor. Called El Ceibo, the tree’s flower is the national symbol of Argentina. On the argentine delta of the Paraná, a tribe belonging to the Guaraní, an indigenous group united by a common language, recite stories about how their ancestor, Anahí, became the tree after the Spanish arrival in the 16th century. The story goes something like this:
Anahí was the queen of a tribe that lived on the Paraná River, the watery vein that runs through Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. She was a gifted singer and knew how to communicate with nature through song. When the conquistadores arrived, they captured her and when she tried to escape, they tied her to a tree and set her alight. As flames engulfed her, she sang to her people and the land. After her death, her capturers discovered, much to their dismay, that in the place of her ashes was a flowering Ceibo tree.
While Anahí’s story speaks to us of a significant historical event, it is far more complex, as myth and legends often are, because multiple threads of cultural knowledge are woven into it. At one level, it seems that Anahí’s story maps out a pathway of courage, of which the coral tree is an important symbol. It also touches on indigenous beliefs about the interconnection of all things and the continuity of life after death.
Now, back in Australia, when I met the coral-ceibo tree, I think of Anahí and find myself silently paying my respects to the South American queen.
You can read more about the Erythrina crista-galli in Australia
Meanwhile, you can also read and watch Argentinean poetry and songs inspired by the story of Anahí and Anahí – Y la leyenda de la Flor del Ceibo
Do you have a favourite myth or legend? If you do, we would love to share them with us.