Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Dent de Lion

SUBTITLE: Mouth of the Lion (read on)
As I was leaving campus yesterday, I spotted one of the earliest and most tenacious spring flowers, though not necessarily anyone's favorite: the dandelion.

These perennials (isn't that ironic) are among the hardiest of plants, as any gardener knows who has tried to groom a dandelion-free yard. They are also much loved by children who love to grab the puff balls and blow them to the winds. Skilled photographers have captured dandelion seeds mid-scatter.

What fascinates me is the origin of the name dandelion. It comes from old French dent de lion (literally lion's tooth) derived from the shape of the leaves. Imagine--deep within human experience is this association between the shape of a plant leaf and the tooth of a feared animal, the lion.

The image of the lion's mouth figures in various ways in Biblical literature, particularly in the Psalms. Portions of the traditional Requiem Mass use a phrase from Psalm 21 which, in Latin, says--Salva me ex ore leonis (Translation: Save me from the mouth of the lion). In the mass it becomes Libera eas de ore leonis, ne absorbeat eas tartarus, ne cadant in obscurum. (Translation: Deliver them from the mouth of the lion, lest the abyss swallow them up, lest they fall into the darkness).

I always loved singing that particular portion, whether Mozart's Requiem, or Fauré's or Durufle's Requiems. Each composer has a different musical interpretation of the section, and for the singer it is great fun to see how text translates to music.

photo of lion from

I suspect one of the reasons the mouth of the lion has such power for me, if not people in general, is the terrifying prospect of being swallowed up by a lion. That may seem fanciful to you, and perhaps you even think me prone to exaggeration. But it is an image with which I grew up. One of the earliest stories I recall hearing was of a missionary who was, in fact, mauled to death by a lion. In brief, he had gone out to track a lion that had been preying on villages in what was then Northern Rhodesia. All this happened in 1931 (more than a decade before I was born), but my grandfather, who had been a missionary, and two co-authors wrote about this event:

"The lion charged. Myron Taylor (the missionary) shot but the bullet missed. The rifle jammed and the beast was upon him, mauling his right ankle and right hand and biting his left forearm. All the people who had accompanied him fled up trees for safety. The missionary was left helpless. The beast sat quietly by him for possibly fifteen minutes. . .then it ambled off into the bush."

Myron Taylor was carried to the mission station, and even though he received medical help, he died after two days. An interesting additional detail is that he was then buried at Sikalongo Mission, and when my sister died 17 years after his death, she was buried next to him.

I have no recollection of ever seeing a lion in the bush during my childhood, but such a vivid story imprinted itself full well on my brain. Oh, I am not at all fearful of dandelions (please!) but I find most fascinating the degree to which lion imagery rouses something deep within the human psyche.

To remove the image of the mouth of the lion, here's a smattering of spring flowers much more loved than dandelions.


Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

I am pleased you called the dandelion a flower. So many call it a weed. I like dandelions they are a wonderful source of food: flower, leaves and root can be used as food. I often pick your dandelion greens to add to a salad.

I always enjoy your African recollections.

Anvilcloud said...

I like the story and the spring flowers but not the you know what.

I can imagine Pebbles picking your dandelion greens for his salad. It makes me laugh.

LauraHinNJ said...

I'd never read the history behind the dandy-lion's name - thanks. Pretty pictures, too!

Elaine Cougler Author said...

What interesting stories you tell, kgmom! I linked to your sister story and was mesmerized. I think some fine day I am going to have to delve back into all of your old posts. Keep writing!

Beverly said...

I love the flowers, even the dandelion. As one commenter already expressed, I, too, enjoy yur stories about Africa, although it is hard to read about someone who lost his life to injuries from a lion.

KGMom said...

Philip--well, they are flowers. Weeds is a human designation for what we'd rather not have growing. My grandmother picked dandelions and made salad with hot bacon dressing.

AC--LOL. Better than him saying "I drink your milkshake" (the line from There Will Be Blood that has gotten so much play!).

Laura--we were on the same wave length, both choosing dandelions as blog subject.

Elaine--you need to spend your time on a new grandchild, right?

Beverly--I think the reason the lion story riveted me as a child wasw that it seemed like an awful way to die (and I am sure it was).

dguzman said...

Niblet LOVES dandies!

Ruth said...

What an interesting story and connection to your family. I like dandelions. I occasionally buy the greens at the grocery store.

denverdoc said...

I love the way you write, we start with dandelions, on to lions and the story of the missionary, and then back to spring flowers. I've commented before and will comment again, your father's story about his wild drive as a 17 year old with a car full of sleeping family is one of the best I've ever read. I guess you come on your skills from nature as well as your years of nurturing.

Tim said...

Some recent pictures of Sikalongo for you.