Since time immemorial, we have sought to make sense of the world, and feel a little less alone in it, often by trying to find essentially human qualities in the other denizens of nature.
Over time this gave rise to animism, shamanism, and the naming of the constellations. Some of the first subjects of art and language revolved around the idea of finding a soul within the natural world to which we could relate.
It’s no surprise then that this tradition has continued in basically every human culture since and clues to the endurance of these myths can be found in many of the plants that we still cultivate today.
As such, we’ve decided to take a journey into the past to explore the plants that have featured most prominently in the iconic tales of the ancient world, and today we’re starting with Greece.
The Gods Living Among Us
Two important features of Greek and Roman mythology, as distinct from say Christianity, are that there are many gods and they are not so different to human beings in their fickleness, self-interest, and ability to hold a grudge.
Rather than being viewed as paragons of morality to aspire towards, the pantheons of these two empires represented the extreme expression of different aspects of human nature.
The Greek canon is awash with stories that show the very human failings of immortal or divine beings, and many of the names of the flowers we plant today were born in these myths.
The nymph that became a goddess
We begin with the goddess of spring herself, Chloris, she began as a nymph in the Elysian Fields – a beatific paradise to which the gods sent their greatest heroes to enjoy their immortality – and was then promoted later by Zephyrus of the west wind.
It is believed that Chloris’ name was changed to Flora when she was later appropriated along with many other Greek figures for the ancient Roman pantheon.
Chloris is also thought to be responsible for transforming other characters like Adonis, Attis, Crocus, Hyacinthus, and Narcissus into flowers as well, giving rise to their popular names today.
The tears of Astraea
Astraea was the Greek goddess of justice who, when the world was new, walked on the earth among mortals and dispensed cosmic balance among them, she was the last of immortals to live with us.
However, as the golden age of Greece moved into the bronze age, increasing lawlessness forced her to abandon humankind and Zeus placed her in the night sky as the constellation Virgo.
Astraea lamented that there were so few stars in the heavens and wept for their absence, her tears fell to earth and became the first of the Aster flowers that now populate our gardens in shades of red, orange, purple and white.
One failed hunt
First appearing in Greek literature around 2,000 years ago, the Dianthus is known as the flower of Zeus, king of the Greek gods and its name literally translates to ‘Flowers of the Gods’.
Although it is closely associated with Zeus, it is possible that the flower’s name originates with Hermes – otherwise known as Diana – the goddes of the hunt.
As the story goes, Diana was returning from an unsuccessful hunting trip and came upon a shepherd playing his flute in a glade, she immediately assumed that his music had driven away her quarry and, as punishment, gouged out his eyes.
When the eyes fell to the ground, red carnations with a mild smell of cloves sprung up in their place as a symbol of the spilt blood of the innocent and Diana’s bitter remorse at what she had done and these are the Dianthus that we know today.
So we come to the end of our journey through ancient Greek mythology and its impact on modern gardening, as always thanks for reading and we’ll see you next time.