Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Star of Bethlehem ~ For All Who Are Lost in the Dark

Star of Bethlehem at the 1,000 year church, April 2017

It's said that the Star of Bethlehem first appeared on the night of Christ's birth to guide the Wise Men, whose journey was made complicated by their maps and charts, to the child. When its work ended it burst into thousands of brilliant fragments and fell to earth. Where it came to ground a blanket of milk-white flowers grew.

Beautifully, I first discovered the existence of this lovely flower amongst a tangle of primroses, nettles, and almost-flowering bluebells, in the churchyard of the 1,000 year church where I while away many happy moments and discover many wonders. You will know that you have found Star of Bethlehem when you see a flower with six white petals surrounding six stamens, each with a yellow anther. They bloom in the spring from early March until late May or early June. The flowers open in the early morning and are usually closed by noon revealing a beautiful green stripe on their underside, hence some of their common names; sleepydick, nap-at-noon, star-at-noon, johnny-go-to-bed-at-noon, and eleven o'clock ladies. When the flowers have died a three-celled seed capsule forms containing several black seeds.

Revealing their beautiful green stripes during a noon day nap (Image: Wiki Commons)

Her genus name, 'ornithogalum', comes from the Greek words 'ornis' for 'bird' and 'gala', meaning 'milk', and was named and described by Dioscorides (40 to 90CE) in his 'De Materia Medica' due to her abundance of white flowers that 'when opened look a lot like milk'. It is less clear why Carl Linnaeus, in his 'Species Plantarum' of 1753, names her 'dove's dung', although under this name she may be mentioned in the Bible; 

'And there was a great famine in Samaria; and behold, they besieged it until an ass’s head was sold for fourscore pieces of silver, and the fourth part of a kab of dove’s dung for five pieces of silver.' (2 Kings 6:25). 

Whether the 'dove's dung' mentioned here is indeed Star of Bethlehem is unclear, but she does have the other common names of 'pigeon's dung' and 'sparrow's dung'. Alternative, perhaps more obviously lovely, names for her are starflower, summer snowflake, summer snowdrop, grass lily, and wonder flower.

As suggested by her 'grass lily' name, Star of Bethlehem is a member of the lily family, although she is often mistaken for wild garlic, especially as her bulbs resemble small onions. Her common name was once 'dog onion'. Although these bulbs are harmless in small doses they contain the toxin, colchichine, which has been used in gout medicine but can cause shortness of breath in adults if too many are ingested. Nevertheless, in the 15th Century she became associated with the journeys of pilgrims to the Holy Land, both because they found her starry flowers growing on the hills around Bethlehem and because her bulbs were sometimes used by them as emergency rations when food was scarce. Because of her association with Christ's birth she is one of the plants often planted in 'Mary Gardens' and was taken to North America by immigrants to be planted as a reminder of home. So wild has her growth been there that she is now considered an 'invasive weed', having escaped from gardens. There really is no containing a fallen star.

Credit: E. Kolmhofer, H. Raab; Johannes Kepler-Observatory, Linz  ~ hale bopp, Wiki Commons

In herbal healing she is known as the 'comforter' and is one of the plants used in Bach's Crisis Remedy for the “after-effects of shock, such as caused by unexpected bad news or any unexpected or unwelcome event. Also for shocks received many years ago, even in childhood”; perhaps she does indeed carry a spark of the perfect Christ child. Dr Edward Bach wrote of her in his 'The Twelve Healers and Other Remedies' that she was, “for those in great distress under conditions which for a time produce great unhappiness. The shock of serious news, the loss of someone dear, the fright following and accident, and such like. For those who for a time refuse to be consoled this remedy brings comfort.” Her medicine is also said to be helpful for “the sense of emptiness and loss that occurs when a loved one dies or moves away.” One practitioner describes here as the 'Guardian of Grieving'. She has been used in the treatment of those who are suffering from suicidal depression, shock, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, offering a light to lead the afflicted out of the darkness. Indeed, she does that work for us all, blooming at the beginning of spring and reminding us of the need to come into the light after the dark winter months. She is the way-shower, a guide for the lost, just as she guided the Wise Men through the vast silence of the desert. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in his essay, 'The Kingdom of the Simple' in the book of his collected sermons, 'Choose Life', notes that the Wise Men were late in coming to the Christ child, having undertaken a “laborious journey, taking sights and calculating, where the shepherds ran barefoot.” It is so easy to get lost, sometimes especially if we think ourselves 'wise'.

Harper's Magazine cover, Christmas 1898 (cropped), Wiki Commons

When I learned about the meaning of my new green companion I thought I might write about how touching I found the image of the Star of Bethlehem shattering into fragments and falling to earth as flowers. I saw her then as a symbol of it being possible for us to follow diverse spiritual paths, whilst still being part of one wild and beautiful truth. This felt so personal to my own journey as I begin to again explore my childhood faith of Christianity, having for so many years followed a Goddess-centred path. The Goddess is very much still with me I hasten to add. If anything my understanding of, connection to, and love for, Her has only deepened through following this old-new thread. 

But then the world, or the one close to me at least, did seem to shatter into thousands of pieces; the terrorist attacks in Manchester, and in London at London Bridge and the Finsbury Park Mosque, the Grenfell Tower fire; so many lost, so much needing to mend, and that is without all that is unfolding in the rest of the world; in Syria, in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia. If the world isn't shattered into a thousand sharp and ragged pieces then I have no doubt that many of us feel that our hearts are. And it feels that it is to these shattered hearts that Star of Bethlehem speaks,certainly we are badly in need of her comfort now. Much that is transpiring seems to have religion at its core, and more specifically the Abrahamic religions of the desert, together with the separation of poor from rich, the 'simple' from the 'wise' (or perhaps the 'complicated'). So much separation. We have such a drive to define ourselves by what, and who, we 'are not' and perhaps it is time for that way of being to end; not to lose our differences or our diversity; that's what makes us wonder-ful, but in understanding that differences of belief are no threat to our own; that we are all fragments of a Star of Wonder fallen to earth. In her myriad mirrored fragments, her many white petals, her brilliance of being, Star of Bethlehem reflects them all. There is no 'other', just broken parts of one great beating heart. This is perhaps why she is sometimes called the 'Reconciliation Star', the star of at-one-ment. And it does feel that there is much to reconcile, and to atone for. But we are after all literally 'made of stars'. We are more wonderful than we could ever imagine. Let's seek out the stars in ourselves, and in one another, and mend.

I will end with a poem that came as I sat down to write this. Because of recent events, and just because, I am trying to make connection with my local mosque, to offer solidarity in this difficult-to-be-different place, and tomorrow I am beginning training as a mediator for neighbours who are struggling with one another and for children who are lost in this spinning world we have created. I don't know where that will lead but I hope that Star of Bethlehem would be proud of my small offerings to the huge work of mending all that is shattered. I pray that she will be astounded by the work that we have done when she returns to open her milk-white petals next spring. 

Star of Bethlehem is tired
of dragging around the baggage
that we try to hide,
divisions that won't be reconciled,
the willful non-seeing of the so-called wise.
Wakes bright with morning,
asleep by noon,
offers guidance with maps and tea;
pours milk, leaves not bags, her best bone china
slips from her exhausted hands,
smashes into a thousand shards of stars
on her kitchen floor,
reads the auguries in their constellations.
Weeps for the weight of what she sees
swept under the carpet.

Star of Bethlehem carries diversity
as a prayer in her shopping bag,
walks with Jah, Allah, Shekinah
wearing goose feathers in her hair
in the stews of the Liberty,
Keeps a torch by the back door,
shines a light on intruders ~
Guantanamo, Yemen, Syria, the housing of the poor,
a nail bomb on Electric Avenue,
knows that she can't take much more.
No amount of bleach in her bucket
will make this pure,
No amount of soap will scrub this whole,
And her batteries are running out.
She may have to brave the dark.

Star of Bethlehem hangs her head in the churchyard
closes in on herself at shadow fall,
offers her flesh for the breaking of bread,
ties her scarf more tightly round her head.
Tuber or tumour, hate or hope.
The murder of the innocents,
child radicalised, drowned on the refugee boat,
finding belonging in the EDL,
bleeding out in the stairwell in Peckham Rye.
Herod turns his head, shuts his eyes,
she opens her petals wide.
And she is growing wild,
escaping the confines of the flower bed.
Sinking her roots into holy ground,
gathering up the pieces that she let slip,
knows it's time to get a grip.

She weeps for mercy, grieves for grace,
what we might have been, what we are.
Yet still she loves the pilgrim soul in us,
the spark that journeyed from the furthest star
and fell to earth forged in fire.
She puts the kettle on.

(Jacqueline Durban, 20th June 2017)

Star of Bethlehem at the 1,000 year church, April 2017


How 40,000 Tons of Cosmic Dust Falling to Earth Affects You and Me, Simon Worral, January 2015, National Geographic ~

'Choose Life: Christmas and Esater Sermons in Canterbury Cathedral', Rowan Williams, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013.


  1. Oh, this is lovely! The poem, especially, is a gem. I believe I'll see if I can find Star of Bethlehem growing anywhere nearby -- if it can survive Palestine, surely it can survive New Mexico!

    1. Thank you so much, Kate. I do hope that you find some close by. And yes, what a tender thing to think of it blooming on the hills of Palestine. And in New Mexico too. Beautiful. Have you ever read 'The Wood Wife' by Terri Windling? It's based in New Mexico and it's marvellous!

    2. Oohh, no, I haven't, but I clearly need to!

    3. You DO need to!!!! It's one of my favourite books and I have a friend who reads it once a year!


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