Garden Mythology differs from garden folklore in as much as on these pages I have endeavoured to describe sacred beliefs and symbolisms within the garden and plants. This historiography is not western-centric and should cover all religions and beliefs from Wiccan and Early Christian, to Bhuddism and ancient Polytheism. It will hopefully over time cover all the continents (save Antaratica for obvious reasons).
The history of plants, planting and the garden and what they have meant to us over the years is an invaluable source of social anthropology. This list is in no way exhuastive and will be added to over time.
For the Love of Flowers: (The meanings of flowers.)
The language we superimpose on flowers and plants is something we should all understand and learn – not because it represents anything tangible, but because it is an important part of social history. For many centuries, man has consciously sought to convey messages secretly. These could range from a simple word to an extended diatribe. In the case of flowers, many things could be ascribed to their presence. For example, to give a rose is to symbolise love. However, if that rose were a Japanese rose, then it would say to your intended; ‘ Beauty is your only attraction’, which can be taken in two ways. The giving of flowers can be a minefield as many men have found out, so before you pop to the local gas station think on. Below is a list of the more unusual. See bibliography for a more in-depth list of sources.
Achillea millefolia: War!
African marigold: Vulgar mind!
Beech Tree : Prosperity
Burdock: Touch me not!
Chrysanthemum: Cheerfulness under adversity
Clover: Be mine
Corn Straw : Agreement
Michaelmas Daisy: Farewell
Valerian: An accommodating disposition
Lychnis: Sunbeaming Eyes
Plum Tree: Fidelity
Peach Blossom: I am your captive
Lettuce: Cold Heartedness
Horse Chestnut: Luxury
Fennel: Worthy of All Praise
The Symbolism and Use of Plants in Art and Architecture.
Plants have always featured quite heavily in our everyday man-made world. From the design ethos of the Greeks and Romans to the distinct style of the Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement. In the Near East and Far East nature and plants have been seen with a purity of vision, whilst the Christian faith has led a creative representational approach. Sometimes a plant could offer the viewer a glimpse of paradise, on other occasions a glimpse of our sin. In paintings it is often the case that a plant can represent a code of conduct to both the subject and the viewer, so beware!
Acanthus. Often the distinguishing feature of the Corinthian capital.
Almond. The symbol of Spring. A Christian symbol of divinity. In China it represents feminity.
Apple. The tree of knowledge from which Eve picked the forbidden fruit. It is a symbol of mans’ fall from grace. To the ancient Greeks an apple symbolised immortality. In China apple blossom denotes femininity.
Bamboo. In the Orient it has many virtues, primarily; courage, strength and reliability.
Carnation. A representation of The Blood of Christ and/or The Virgin Mary. In Renaissance paintings and in the Orient it was often a sign of betrothal.
Cedar. A symbol of Christ according to the Old Testament and also a attribute of the virgin birth. Interestingly in Mesopotamia it was used in rituals to promote fertility.
Cherry. The cherry is the Japanese National emblem, a symbol of Spring. In Christianity a cherry is the ‘fruit of paradise’.
Chrysanthemum. An important flower in both China and Japan. It is often seen as the symbol of Autumn. It is also the National emblem of the Japanese Imperial Family.
Convolvulus. In Christian art it represents humility.
Corn. A staple food crop, corn has many representations. It was of course mentioned heavily in the bible, but in all has numerous deities attributed to it. Images of corn can be found in Egypt, Syria, Greece, Rome, Uruk, Iraq, and Europe. In paintings corn is seen to represent Summer, abundance and in some instance part of the Eucharist.
Daisy. A symbol of Innocence in the Christ Child.
Dandelion. A Christian symbol of grief.
Dates. In Egypt the date was seen as a symbol of fertility.
Fig. Bhudda’s Tree of Enlightenment. (Ficus religiosa). Is sacred to Bhuddists and Brahmins. The child Krishna is also shown on a fig leaf.
Gourd. A symbol of James The Greater, patron saint of pilgrims and also Christ’s resurrection. In Taoism a double gourd is representational of Yin and Yang. It is an attribute also of one the Eight Immortals, Li T’ie-kuai.
Grapes and Vine. In Greco-Roman times the grape represented Bacchus/ Dionysus. In Christianity they represent the Eucharist and the blood of Christ. An odd use of symbolism was two Israelites bearing a large bunch of grapes on a pole between them came to represent Jesus on the cross. Grapes are also Autumn personified.
Umbilifir. Often the symbol of death and treason in French Neoclassical painting– Hemlock of course taken by Socrates.
Holly. Representational of Jesus (thorns and blood red berries). Perhaps seen in paintings of John the Baptist. It was also sacred to Saturn the Roman god of agriculture.
Hyssop. The Christian symbol of penitence.
Ivy. Sacred to Dionysus. A symbol of immortality and paradoxically death as it strangles and starves host trees. It is interesting that in bouquets it also symbolises marriage!
Laurel. The Bay was sacred to the god Apollo. Thought at one time to ward off illness, it features heavily in classical art.
Lemon. A Jewish cult object, seen in many early synagogues. In Christianity it symbolises love and fidelity.
Lettuce. Sacred to Egypt. Believed to be aphrodisiac, it is now known to have chemical compounds that aid sleep.
Lily. The flower of the Virgin Mary. Represents purity, but also death.
Lotus. A sacred plant the world over. Countries ans cultures that have venerated the lotus include: Egypt, India, China, Japan, Phoenecia, Assyrai, Persia, Hinduism, Bhuddism, Shinto, Taoism. Linked to the god-creator, sun god and a symbol of the cosmic womb.
Marigold. A flower of the Virgin Mary. In China is sometimes referred to as the flower of eternal life.
Mistletoe. In Erupoe, this was a symbol of eternal life. Thought to be one of the sacred plants of the Druids. At Christmas it is used at the door of houses, but this practice like Holly, derives from the Roman festival to the god Saturn.
Oak. A sacred tree to Druids as well as other cultures. Often thought to be the abode of the gods of thunder. A symbol in Christianity of the missionaries in Northern Europe who converted the pagan.
Olive. The plant of peace. Sacred in Greece and Rome, it is also highly venerated in the Christian church.In China the flowers are a symbol of Autumn.
Orange. In the west, the flower is a symbol of purity and is often depicted in the hands of Christ. In the orient an orange is often a gift symbolising good fortune.
Palm. An ancient staple food, it was an important symbol of fertility and a sacred tree in the early Middle East. In Rome the palm was a symbol of victory. At Jewish festivals it was important in The Feast of Tabernacles. In Christianity it is an important attribute of the martyrs and of Jesus entering Jerusalem on ‘Palm Sunday’ the Sunday before Easter (See Gods).
Peach. Peaches are a sacred tree in early China, symbolising Spring, eternal renewal and long life. It is also associated with newlyweds and the god of happiness. In Christian art the peach substituted for the apple is a symbol of salvation.
Peony. In China, it is the yang motif for love and feminine beauty. In Japan it is the symbol of Imperial power.
Pine. In China it is a symbol for longevity and friendship. A symbol of immortality in Christian beliefs, in latter centuries it became a symbol of Christmas the festival of the birth of Christ.
Pomegranate. The seeds are a symbol of fertility and abundance in early Mediterranean cultures, Middle East, India and the Orient. Famous in the story of Persephone of Greek myth. A representation of resurrection in Christian painting. In context with the Virgin Mary it represents chastity.
Poppy. Long seen as a symbol of death, by many early cultures to the present day. Worn as a symbol of remembrance in November.
Rice. The ‘Staff of Life’ in the Orient often seen on the gods.
Rose. The rose is often a symbol of the western classical and Christian art. Symbolism is unclear but could represent the goddess Flora or paradise. Became associated with the Virgin Mary. Seen in much UK architecture, stemming from the houses of York and Lancashire (Wars of the Roses) and its subsequent union in the house of Tudor.
Thorn. Thorns are a symbol of both major and minor sins, depending on the plant species. It can be representative of both the Virgin Mary and Christ.
Willow. Often depicted in Eastern or Oriental art. Popular motif in Sung dynasty works, it has endured into modern ceramic art. A Bhuddist symbol of meekness. In Japan it is a symbol of the wife’s subservience to her husband. In the west, the willow is often the plant of mourning, sometimes depicted on gravestones.
Yew. A symbol of grief and mourning. It was grown in Celtic sacred groves, where it symbolised immortality. This was inherited by the Christian church, but is oddly rare in it’s subsequent art.
PLANTS: Their mythology and Meanings.
There is a fabulous book which I cannot recommend highly enough entitled , “Discovering The Folklore of Plants” By Margaret Baker. Shire Publications Ltd. See HERE. In it, the entire list of plants which I could come across in my western garden is undoubtedly the most comprehensive I have found and is worth buying.
Below is a short list of plants to whet your appetite:
Aconite. (Aconitum spp.) Named after the place where Hercules fought the multi-headed dog, Cerebus at the gates of hell. From the hounds saliva sprang Aconite. Otherwise known variously as Thung (an anglo-saxon word meaning poisonous plant), monkshood, wolfsbane, granny’s nightcap and old-wives hood. Being highly toxic it is known as the ‘queen mother of poisons’ and was banned from even being grown in some areas. It was also a part of the witches ‘flying ointment’ if mixed with newborn infant fat and belladonna (another poisonous plant).
Apple. The symbol of fruitfulness, prosperity and rejuvenation. One of the major plants from many religions and mythologies. Fed to the Gods in Viking folklore; famous for Adam and Eve falling from grace; in the Celtic, Chinese, Bhuddist and Islamic paradise.
Coltsfoot. Gipsies say that if Coltsfoot grows above, coal grows below. It was also seen as poor man’s tobacco. (Perhaps the industrious amongst you sees a business opportunity, given the taxing of tobacco…)
Francoa. Not for no good reason was Francoa known as Bridal Wreath, for as long as the plant flourished then the happiness would remain in any newlywed couple.
Gooseberry. Planting as hedges, they were said to protect the household and the farm animals from the devil, especially on May Eve or Walpurgis Night.
Guleder Rose. Both a bringer of luck and a bringer of death, depending where you hail from and when it flowers.
Kniphofia. Known as Red Hot Poker. An autumn blooming portends a family death.
Leek. In 604 King Cadwallader wore leeks in battle against the Saxons. Since that vital success they have forever been an emblem of Wales.
Monkey Puzzle. Chile pine. Although a late arrival to the UK shores from South America, it was quickly assumed to be an unlucky plant. However, if planted near graves, it would entwine the devil in its fierce prickles so could be described I suppose as a help.
Mulberry. Curiously it was always seen as an unlucky plant. The devil it is said blacks his boots with the delicious fruit. If you are to plant a mulberry, you must also plant a quince lest you invite bad luck. Mulberry to the South, Quince to the North.
Willow-herb. Despite being given various names and an example of post-industrial plant propogation – it seed being spread by the railways, it is a bad plant. The plant will cause the death of the mother of any child who picks it.
THE GODS AND ALL THAT.
The gods have always been involved in the garden and horticulture, probably since man first crafted the first stone hoe.I have added a list which hopefully upon reflection, will introduce you to ideas, hopes and fears our ancestors may have had. It is also interesting that those involved in some branches of ‘bio-dynamics’ ask to identify the resident Spirit of the land.
I might also add that it is interesting to note that many disparate beliefs had the earth mother married to or consort of the sky father.
Acacia. In Egyptian mythology, all the gods were said to have been born under the Acacia tree. An incredibly useful tree to the North African Empire, the Acacia was revered.
Adekagagwaa. Iriquouis spirit and personification of Summer. He migrates South in the Autumn, leaving his ‘sleep spirit’ as winter behind.
Aguara. Fox God who gave the Carob tree to mankind.
Aisoyimstan. The ‘cold bringer’ of Blackfeet mythology.
Aktunowihio. Cheyenne. The Soul of the Earth.
Andarta. Celtic goddess of fertility.
Anansi. Africa. (Evolved into Aunt Nancy as part of tribal slavery in USA.) A spider and trickster God similar to the coyote of Native American folklore, he has a multitude of stories associated with him. He is important as a bringer of rain and was responsible for teaching man agriculture.
Asase Ya. Ashanti goddess of the earth and also fertility.
Attis. Venerated in Asia Minor and Greece, he was the god of growth, vegetation and fertility. Known as the consort of Cybele.
Ba. Egyptian god of fertility, mostly Lower Egypt. Much invoked, however seemingly more for human fertility.
Benu. A god of fertility. Depicted as a heron and represented the seasons also.
Brigid. Irish Celtic. Goddess of fertility.
Canotila. Like Dryad of Greece, these were Native American ‘forest dwellers’. Literally translate as “They who live in the trees”.
Chandra. Hindu lunar goddess of fertility.
Chloris. The Greek Goddess of flowers. Her Roman equivalent being Flora.
Cybele. The mother of all the gods. The goddess of wild beasts and bees. Also the Goddess of nature and fertility.
Daphne and Apollo. The story is typical of Greek myths in that the male God chases the fair maiden. In this case Daphne was turned into a Laurel tree for her own protection, the enamored Apollo adorning himself in her leaves. Thus for ever more being a symbol of Apollo.
Demeter. The Goddess of the Earth, the Harvest and Fertility, who brings forth the fruits of the Earth. When her daughter, Persephone was kidnapped she withdrew and all Earth was wasteland.
Deohako. Iroquois. Spirits of plants. Especially those which were essential, such as maize and squash.
Dilga. Australian aboriginal goddess of fertility.
Dryads. In Greek mythology, the Dryads were the spirits of nature who preside over the groves and forests. Each Dryad is born of a tree and is therefore responsible for that. If it dies, she dies.
Eithinoha. North America. The Earth, translates as ‘Our Mother’.
Eschetewuara. North America. Wife of The Great Spirit and bearer of life giving rain.
Freyr. Norse god associated with agriculture and the weather.
Gaia. Mother Earth. A very early goddess, formed out of chaos. The mother of the Titans. She was the primordial element from which everything else derived.
Kokopelli. Hopi Native American goddess of fertility, agriculture and nature.
Nipinoukhe. Montagnais spirit of Spring.
Oestre. (Eastre). Anglo Saxon Goddess of the Spring. According to legend she found a bird with frozen wings because of the late arrival of spring. She turned him into a hare to escape hunters. Because of his life as a bird, this hare could lay coloured eggs, but through misdeed, he was expelled to the heavens at the feet of Orion in the constellation Lepus.
Pachamama. Inca mythology. Mother earth. Goddess of plants and fertility. Also associated with Earthquakes.
Persephone. The beautiful daughter of Demeter. Famously kidnapped by Hades, who upon giving her back, gave her a gift of a pomegranate. When she ate it, she was forced to live a third of the year in the Underworld. This and Demeter’s sorrow gave explanation of the seasons.
Pipounoukhe. Montagnaise spirit of winter.
Renenutet, Egyptian goddess of the harvest and fertility. Married to Sobek, god of the Nile. It is interesting to note here that some archaeologists now think that the annual flood of the Nile was known as the Arqua Noa. (Pronouced Ark – a – Noah.)
The Illuminating Dragon. China. When it opened it’s eyes, it was day. When it went to sleep it was night. Said to bring the four seasons to the Earth.
Xipe Totec. Aztec god of earth, harvest, fertility, disease, agriculture and the east. He was said to flay himself to give food to humanity. Symbolism was held in the way maize must shed its outer skin to reveal the fruit.
Yan Di (Shen Nong). Chinese god of agriculture and herbal medicine. Was said to have introduced the five grains to mankind and taught them how to grow food. His body was see-through, which helped when he was experimenting with the plants to see what was poisonous. He eventually ate the “The Bowel Breaking Weed” which unfortunately killed him.
SAINTS. There are many saints associated with the garden. There is a beautifully written book, translated by Helen Waddell, called ” Beasts and Saints” published by Darton, Longman & Todd, which describes old tales of saints in the gardens of North Africa and beyond. For a list of websites detailing their lives, see bibliography.
St. Francis of Assisi, St. Fiacre, St. Dorothy, St. Ysidro, St. Antonio Abad, St. Andreas, St. Barbara, St Antonio de Padua, St Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Valentine, St Urban, St Jude, St. Adelard, St. Patrick.
THE FAIR FOLK.
Much has been written over the years with regards the idea of secret guardians, watching over the natural world. These have been given many names from Fairies and Pharisees to Elves and Gnomes. It is most important, if you wish not to upset these gentle but vengeful sprites, that you follow strict rituals and habits. For example, Elder is seen as a fairy tree and its misuse is frowned upon. For a more detailed description see http://www.gardenfairy.com/fairygarden/fairylore.htm
Fairy Cheese. It was once thought the flat seeds of Hollyhock and other Althaea relations were fairy food.
SACRED PLANTS OR TREES.
Tree of Life. I have separated this section as my research has led me to the conclusion that most religions have a ‘tree of life’, or indeed a tree depicting the positive virtues of their particular belief structure. If one takes Christianity for example the Tree of Life is left standing in the Garden of Eden, eternally guarded by two cherubs, after the incident with the apple. (The apple tree was given to hold all the knowledge of the world, and would remove innocence from all who ate of her fruit. Of course, Adam and Eve, just had to have a nibble…typical.) If you are interested in EDEN as a concept, this excellent website has pinpointed a supposed location.
Celts. The Celts revered many trees. Principally the Oak, ash and alder. The apple tree as well thorn bushes were also of great importance. Hawthorn especially was seen as the dwelling place of the faeries.
China. Traditionally China has a peach as the tree of life. The arrival of the blossom is said to be sacred as it is a good protector from evil spirits, a syrup or a distilled perfume of which is kept at home.
China. The Shirou. A magic plant with fruits like which looked a livern and could never be depleted. It grew to the north of the great mountain, Kunlun, sharing it’s ‘local’ with the Tree of Immortality, the Grain Tree (forty feet tall and five arm-spans wide), the nine wells with jade enclosures, the sweet spring and the famous Kaiming Beast (who guarded the nine gates). So quite a busy spot by all accounts.
China. Jian Tree. A tree which grew on the Duguang Plain, it had a long thin trunk, with no branches except for the very top. It reached the heavens and was used by the gods as a link between the worlds. It was, according to folklore the located exact centre of heaven and earth, casting no shadow at noon.
Egypt. As already mentioned the Acacia was of great importance.
India. India has many revered trees. Typically the Banyan, Fig and Peepal.
Japan. The Cherry Tree has long been revered in Japan and celebrations are an annual spectacle. There is a tale associated with the Moon God, his child ‘Moonflower’ and moon horses.
Norse. The Vikings and Saxons held the Ash named ‘Yggdrasil’ to be the connection between worlds.
From a mythological standpoint the Devil shouldn’t really exist. Born of older religions he was roundly based on Lucifer (ironically the Roman god of light), the horned deities of the Celts like Herne /Cerne and Anubis – all direct competition with early Christianity so don’t get me started on where the wine and bread comes from!
Notwithstanding, the devil has many connections with the garden. Most famously as the serpent in The Garden of Eden. But he also has some influence over other areas.
Blackberries. I was told by my old head gardener, Brian, that it was bad to eat blackberries after Michaelmas Day. Apparently he ‘pisses’ on them (not the gardener, the devil), as do his consorts the witches. This was of course the day St Michael had the famous battle with Lucifer.
Nuts. There is also an old belief,explained in the excellent book, ‘Folklore of Sussex’ that it was bad to collect nuts on a Sunday.
Hawthorn. Although technically not the devils work, Hawthorn blossom is seen as an unlucky plant to bring in doors or to collect as it is a harbinger of death. It was known as the witches tree and all that negative association holds. (What about white witches?)
Elder. It is said, elder is unlucky and to never burn elder on your fire, else the devil sits upon your chimney bringing death. However, if you are of Scandinavian stock the Elder is still in some parts bowed to or at the very least nodded to in recognition of its special status as a ‘holy’ tree.
Ragwort. It is believed the stems were used by the Devil and his consorts to fly.
Plumera. Commonly known as Frangipani and originating from Central America,in South East Asia this beautiful tree is associated with ghosts, spirits and sometimes demons.