This article was accepted for publication Goddess Collective Magazine before it ceased publication. All rights are available.
Many surveys have verified the fact: Gardening is the number one pastime in North America, probably the favorite, most widely-practiced activity in the world. Gardening is defined by the Encyclopedia Americana as cultivating plants in and around the home. Although the elements of garden design differ by location and individual, people have gardened throughout history for the same reasons: to produce food, medicine, beauty, and a sense of connection to the Earth and to nature.
According to the Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, plant cultivation began around 9000 B.C. in the Middle East. The first gardeners were probably pharmacists and physicians and the first gardens probably contained medicinal herbs. By the time Hippocrates, the Greek physician who became the father of modern medicine, practiced in the 4th century B.C., herbal medicine was already an established art around the globe.(1) Egyptian hieroglyphics show that aromatic plants and oils were routinely used for medicinal and religious purposes.(2) Archeologists have even uncovered medicinal herb and flower pollens with the bodies of Neanderthals who lived 60,000 or more years ago.(2)
The Bible tells us that God, the Creator, was the first gardener: "Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed." (Genesis 2:7-8) The word Eden has come to mean a place of peace, comfort, beauty and plenty, a paradise.
Greek, Roman and other ancient mythologies devote special attention to plants and nature. It is no wonder that some of the most powerful, venerated goddesses were "Earth Mothers" who gave birth to the world and became the keepers of earth's gardens. The chief Aegean deity in early Greece was the Great Goddess or Universal Mother (her name is in debate, but some call her Rhea) who gave birth to all planets, animals, plants and humans and offered protection, abundance, and guidance. All the other goddesses and gods were produced by and subordinate to her. Eventually, she became the earth goddess, Gaea, who nourished the universe. Goddesses of love and sexuality, such as the Greek Aphrodite/Roman Venus, the Egyptian Isis, and the Norse Freyja, were also goddesses of fertility and cultivated crops. Usually lustily promiscuous, not unlike bees in a garden, these goddesses were always depicted as great beauties, adorned with flowers.
The Greek corn goddess Demeter (Roman name Ceres) was responsible for the harvest of crops, flowers, and other plants. When her daughter, Persephone, was kidnapped by Hades and taken to the Underworld, Demeter was so distraught that she would not allow anything to grow on earth. Zeus eventually struck a deal with Hades that allowed Persephone to spend part of the year with her mother (when it would become Spring and Summer) and part of the year with her husband, Hades (when it is Winter on earth).
Flora, the Roman goddess of budding springtime, fruit and flowers was celebrated each spring between April 28 and May 3. Her springtime rituals, Floralia, continue today as May Day. Flora was assisted by (and often confused with) Feronia, also a goddess who watched over spring flowers and vegetation; Diana, the goddess of light, mountains, and forests; and Pomona, the goddess of fruits, particularly those on trees.
Amaterasu, the Japanese Shinto sun goddess, played a crucial role in the earth's ultimate fertility. Legend tells that she hid in a cave and all the crops withered until she was lured out by the other gods and goddesses to save the world.
One of the better-known Greek garden legends surrounds the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the world. One version says they were built by the vain Assyrian Queen Semiramis (about 800 BC); the other says the gardener was Nebuchadnezzar II (c.605-562 BC) who built the gardens for his wife, to remind her of her former home in the mountains.
The Babylonian moon goddess, Ishtar, called The Green One, was the patron of farmers who believed she sent rain to the desert lands. Her movements through the sky as the Moon also told them when to plant seeds and when to harvest crops, beginning the connection of astrology and plant cultivation. Old-time gardeners in Appalachia said this about moon planting: "Corn planted in Leo will have a hard, round stalk and small ears. Root flower cuttings, limbs, vines, and set out flower bushes and trees in December and January when the signs are in knees (Capricorn) and feet (Pisces). Never transplant in the heart (Leo) or head (Aires), as both these signs are 'death signs.' If you want a large vine and stalk with little fruit, plant in Virgo. Don't plant potatoes in the feet (Pisces). If you do, they will develop little nubs like toes all over the main potato."
The Aztecs of Mexico were an agricultural nation and and they had several goddesses who protected the cultivation of earth products. Similarly, North American Native Americans paid special homage to those deities in charge of cultivated crops.
Early Oriental gardeners, particularly in China and Japan, generally tried to recreate nature in a miniature form for enjoyment and meditation. Balance and serenity are reflected in the spiritual influences of Taoism, Shinto, and Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism.
Specific plants, especially flowers, have their own folklore. For example, in Greek legend, the Aster (which means star) was created out of star dust when Virgo wept from the heavens. And many know the familiar story of the Narcissus which grew when the god by the same name fell in love with his own image in a pond and died of a broken heart. The violet, a favorite of Shakespeare and valued by the Greeks for its medicinal and culinary virtues, was born when the Greek god Zeus changed the tears of the nymph Io into flowers (Io in Greek means violet).(6)
Western gardens today tend to reflect the influences of both Eastern and Western traditions, particularly formal European designs and informal English cottage styles. However, our thinking is beginning to come full circle, back to that of the ancient gardeners who believed that plants had souls, intelligence and healing power beyond the physical level, but on the emotional and spiritual levels as well.(4)
The Findhorn Community in Scotland, founded by Peter and Eileen Caddy, became famous for growing huge vegetables and flowers in sand. They claimed to achieve their results by meditating with the nature spirits, "devas," of each plant.(4) Like the Druids, Greeks, and Egyptians before them, the Findhorn gardeners gave their cultivated plants respect and honor instead of treating them as inanimate property or interior decorations.
If we learn nothing else from the legends and myths of the garden, let us learn the lessons personified by the Findhorn Community. The plants are here with us on earth to nourish, entertain, heal, and guide. Gardening is a magical, enchanting partnership; approach it with love, respect and gratitude.
General mythology references: