October 31, 2023

The Fabled Fig

Figs tell a complex and symbolic story in culinary history. Native to the Mediterranean and western Asia, the edible fig may be one of the first plants humans cultivated. Archeologists identified fossilized figs dating to about 9400–9200 BC in an early Neolithic village in the Jordan Valley, near Jericho. The find precedes the domestication of wheat, barley, and legumes, and some researchers believe it is the first known instance of agriculture. The kind of figs they found suggests they were planted and cultivated intentionally, one thousand years before the next crops, wheat, and rye, were domesticated.

Fig trees featured in origin stories from across the world, revered as a life-giving sacred plant of enlightenment and peace in many ancient cultures. The Babylonian goddess Ishtar took the form of the divine fig tree, and the fig symbolically represented female sexuality and the yoni.

According to Rami Sajdi from www.acacialand.com, the fig tree was associated with Hathor, the cow-headed goddess who protected womanhood in ancient Egypt. Goddess of love, tombs, drunkenness, music, and dance, the Pharaohs were said to feed on Hathor’s milk just as the Babylonian kings had fed on the milk of Ishtar. Hathor was the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, and also the Nabatean or Arabian goddess Al Uzza. As Mistress of Inebriation, she had a sacred connection with milk-giving plants such as the fig tree, which were medicinal and may have induced altered states of consciousness.
Sajdi suggests shepherds must have felt a divine presence in the wilderness of the desert, spending their days stalking camels and goats, which grazed on the medicinal and narcotic plants in the area; the shepherds drank the alkaloidal-rich milk and ate wild, intoxicating fruits. At night, they gazed upon the stars, in front of fires created from the desert trees’ wood, and inhaled the narcotic fumes.

The leaves of one fig tree clothed Adam and Eve. According to Jewish texts, the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden was not an apple but a fig. The Book of Deuteronomy specifies the fig as one of the Seven Species (Deuteronomy 8:7-8), describing the fertility of the land of Canaan. The biblical quote “each man under his own vine and fig tree” (Micah 4:4) has been used to denote peace and prosperity.

Ancient Olympians earned figs for their athletic prowess, and Pliny the Elder extolled the fruit’s restorative powers. A fig tree’s roots protected the twin babies Romulus and Remus, future founders of Rome, from drowning in the River Tiber as a she-wolf suckled the boys.
For Kenya’s Kikuyu people, one communicates with God through offerings at the sacred fig tree. In India, the Kuttia Kondh people say their goddess Nirantali created the first people’s tongues from the fluttering leaves of one fig species (Ficus religiosa), and another fig species provided the people’s first shelter and food. No plant is more important for Buddhists than the Bodhi fig tree beneath which the Buddha attained enlightenment. The prophet Mohammed reportedly identified the fig as the one fruit he would most wish to see in paradise.
It isn’t hard to understand why this fruit was so revered in ancient times. They sweetened all types of dessert before the widespread use of sugar. As a fruit valued for medicinal purposes as a diuretic and laxative, figs are high in potassium, iron, fiber, and plant calcium.
The deciduous fig tree can live as long as 100 years and grow to 50 feet tall, though they more typically stay between 10 to 30 feet. The twisty branches spread more expansive than the tree height. Figs flourish in hot, dry climates, and the fruit requires the all-day sun to ripen.
Botanically, the fig isn’t a fruit but a syconium. It’s a portion of the stem that expanded into a sac containing flowers that grow internally. The common fig has only female flowers and propagates without pollination, whereas other cultivars require pollination.
By the 15th century, figs were being grown in areas including Northern Europe and the New World. Spanish missionaries brought the first figs to California. This variety is familiar and known as mission figs.