A Winter’s Tale & the Mythology of Plants
The recently passed winter solstice marks the shortest day – the real beginning of winter, as well as the return of lengthening days. Even at the solstice, winter is hardly all-pervasive – signifiers of autumn persist and harbingers of spring appear. Whether we really notice these signals in cities where our livelihoods are (curiously) seen as independent of the seasonal cycle is likely moot. Where we do notice, our conversation focuses on our gardens and our observations of seasonal or unseasonal plant behaviour – and these signals are largely interpreted through science. A narrative describing another relationship that sees plants intimately involved in every element of our lives – transcending bland description, utility and even beauty – is remarkably no longer a part of our culture.
Our relationship with plants describes our lives – the miracle of light transforming to life through the agency of chlorophyll provides the chemical energy in our food that allows our hearts to beat. The centrality of this relationship is apparent in our historic cultural referencing of plants – a relationship now largely forgotten. The ancient narratives that describe our relationship with plants are important then in understanding what our relationship with plants has been, and perhaps, what it can and even should be.
Of course this isn’t to say that we resurrect ancient lore – it is to say that a respectful relationship with plants might require a new narrative as powerful and resonant as the ancient. Such a new narrative is especially challenging in a secular society that reduces narrative to framing. However, understanding of the nexus between plants, people and culture and the challenges of developing a new overarching narrative begins with excavation of the past.
The origins of Western culture in Greek and Roman mythology are reasonable places to begin our excavation. A wonderful starting point is Annette Giesecke’s The mythology of plants: botanical lore from ancient Greece and Rome just published by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Giesecke is a classical scholar and professor at the University of Delaware and has the advantages of extensive fieldwork in the ancient world, classical languages and a deep love of plants and gardens. The mythology of plants is beautifully crafted to allow access to the myths associated with plants that are generally mired in encyclopaedic collections or missing altogether from works anchored in heroes, fantastical voyages and beasts.
Giesecke has wisely moored her work to Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and utilised her own translations to ensure fidelity in the context of The mythology of plants. The illustrations from the ancient world, Renaissance and botanical art provide marvellous support for the text, or alternately you might choose to take a walk in Ovid’s botanical garden. Here, in the midst of winter the pomegranate and the narcissus are fine vignettes to see a different relationship with plants redolent with respect and meaning.
The mythology of the pomegranate, whose luscious fruits continue to show their beauty and fecundity through winter (when I always intend to add a plant to our own garden), tells the story of Persephone, the daughter of Ceres, the goddess of grain and the harvest. While gathering violets and lilies in a woodland of perpetual spring close to Enna in Sicily, Persephone was abducted by Pluto and taken as his wife to the Underworld. Ceres search and entreaties to Jupiter finally resulted in agreement on Persephone’s return with the proviso, “that no food has crossed her lips there in the lower world, for thus it is decreed by the law of the Fates”. The Fates did not allow her return as Persephone had taken seven seeds from the pale rind of a ruby fruit – the pomegranate. A negotiated settlement saw Persephone spend equal time with her husband and her mother. Spring of course marks Ceres’ joy at Persephone’s return to the earthly realm following her winter of despair.
The mythology of the narcissus – generally identified as the poet’s daffodil, Narcissus poeticus – does connect to Persephone’s abduction in some traditions. However, the better known story is of Echo and Narcissus – of Narcissus’s beauty, and of his disdain for his suitors including the nymph Echo until enchanted by his own reflection in a woodland pool. “But when he tried to slake his thirst another thirst grew: as he drank he was captivated by the handsome face he saw. Mistaking water for substance, he fed his desire with incorporeal hope … thus did Narcissus melt, wasted away through love and consumed by hidden fire.” At the end, “His body was nowhere. In its place they found a flower, white petals circling a saffron-yellow centre.”
Such narratives are significant in connecting people and plants. In our society, contemporary garden writing is powerful but hardly mainstream. Perhaps new narratives will build around food – Jamie Oliver’s campaigns and Michael Pollan’s writing provide some indication of currents pushing against the tide. However, the past still remains a rich resource – Adelaide’s Philip Clarke’s works on Australian Aboriginal people and plants and Annette Giesecke’s work on classical plant mythology provide important and accessible foundations.
Annette Giesecke, The mythology of plants: botanical lore from ancient Greece and Rome, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (2014), 144 pp
Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 16 July 2014.