THE QUEST OF SETH FOR THE OIL OF LIFE (1962) – Written by Esther Casier Quinn, this is one of the best and most concise works of comparative mythology that I have ever read. I meant to review this book way back when I started Balladeer’s Blog in 2010 but for various reasons it kept falling by the wayside. The Quest of Seth for the Oil of Life is also known as The Quest of Seth for the Oil of Mercy, The Legend of the Rood and many other titles.
Quinn draws from a multitude of sources to provide several variations of this tale and explores the ways in which the course of history shaped the revisions and embellishments involved in this legend. The Seth of the title is the son of Adam and Eve, the Oil of Life/ Oil of Mercy is often said to represent Jesus Christ, the Rood refers to the cross on which Jesus was crucified and its “legend” details the history and many forms of the tree/ wood that eventually became that cross.
For those not familiar with this particular popular offshoot of the canonical story of Jesus Christ here’s a brief overview:
As Adam the First Man lies near death in his old age he longs for the Oil of Life/ Mercy. He instructs his son Seth to trace the footprints that he and Eve indelibly burned into the ground as they left the Garden of Eden. Since nothing ever again grew from those footprints, Seth can follow them backward to discover Eden, wherein Adam has told him he can find the Oil.
An angel guarding the gate to the Garden prevents Seth from entering, but grants him three visions – of a dry tree, of a serpent (often an adder) entwined in the branches or around the tree’s trunk, and of the baby Jesus at the top of the tree. Jesus is the Oil of Life/ Mercy from this tree, like oil from the oil palms.
Since it is not yet time for Jesus to arrive, the angel gives Seth three seeds (in some versions just one seed) from the Tree of Life. Seth takes those seeds back to Adam, who has passed away while he was on his quest. Seth places the seeds in his dead father’s mouth and buries him at Hebron.
Three trees grow from those seeds and from Adam’s grave – a cedar, a cypress and a pine, symbolizing, among many other things, the three Old Testament patriarchs. Eventually the three trees are cut down by Moses and are carved into his wands.
Those wands are inherited by David and are combined into one staff, which he uses on the Ethiopians and ultimately plants it back into the ground. Another tree grows from the staff. Later, King Solomon tries to use the tree in constructing his temple but no matter how the tree is cut it is either too long or too short to fit. Solomon recognizes the power of the tree and places it inside his temple.
Time passes and one day a woman named Maximilla sits on the tree and reads prophecies from a flame which ignites on the tree. One (in some versions the only) prophecy is that Christ/ the Messiah will die on the wood from this tree. Hearing this, the Jews kill Maximilla and toss the tree into a pit/ hole.
The tree is the site of assorted miracles, so eventually the Jews remove it from the pit and place it over a brook to serve as a bridge. When the Etruscan or Cumae or Tiburtine Sibyl (accounts vary) comes to the bridge she perceives the ultimate destiny of the wood from the tree and refuses to walk on it. Instead, she wades across the stream. Finally, when the day arrives for Jesus to be crucified, his cross happens to be carved from that tree as foretold.
Some versions of the tale include a bit in which, because the constructed cross is preordained to be used in Jesus’ crucifixion, no other condemned prisoners are able to lift it. Only Jesus – who knows the cross for what it is – proves able to carry it.
Around 324 A.D. the Emperor Constantine sends Elene, the future Saint Helena, to find the sepulcher in which Jesus was buried and the cross upon which he died. Saint Helena, performing many good works along the way, at last reaches Jerusalem and scours the city for the sepulcher and the cross.
Through the help of either a commoner or a man named Judas Cyriancus, Helena is led to the objects of her quest. Inside the Holy Sepulcher three crosses are found, presumably one on which Jesus died and the others on which the Two Thieves died. Helena has a leper touch each of the crosses in turn to determine which one held Christ. Nothing happens when the leper touches the first two but when he touches the third he is cured, so Helena knows that is the True Cross.
Quinn’s way of tracing the various influences on the evolving story makes for fascinating reading. She masterfully blends multiple concepts and legends so clearly that what feels like several volumes of material flies by in less than 200 pages.
Tales of Saint Helena and her deeds are reasonably well known but the early stages of this epic story tend to be overlooked to this very day. The Quest of Seth for the Oil of Life is terrific reading material for Eastertime or if you’re a Grail Lore buff looking for similar yet fresh medieval legends.