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classical frieze of Aphrodite and Adonis

Terracotta altar relief depicting the annual reunion of Aphrodite and Adonis. From the Greek city of Taras in South Italy, 400-375 BCE.
(Getty Villa, photo © the author)

The Sacred Garden
A Sensual Place of Rebirth

Perhaps it's best to admit that the purpose of religion is not necessarily to convey historical truths; rather, it reflects and influences people's perceptions by using powerful archetypal images. These speak not only to the conscious mind but also, largely, to the unconscious. The garden appears to be one of these archetypal images. Despite its associations with male deities, it remains deeply feminine: it is the "vulva," the "womb," the sacred place of Aphrodite and Inanna, as well as the lovely Bride of the Song of Songs.

Today most of these connotations have been lost, although the concept of the Sacred Garden has not entirely disappeared. Just as gardens were once dedicated to Aphrodite, today the monastic state of Mt. Athos in Northern Greece is considered the "Orchard of the Virgin Mary." Ironically, women are strictly excluded from it, as medieval laws still hold sway!

The Gardens of Adonis
Aphrodite's handsome young lover, Adonis, spent his days partly on earth and partly in the underworld. In the festival of Adonia women lamented his death, but also celebrated, anticipating his resurrection. In the famous city of Alexandria, in Hellenistic Egypt, his Sacred Marriage with the love goddess was symbolically re-enacted.[1]

During the Athens festival, "graves" were made in which Adonis' effigy lay and his funeral was re-enacted.[2] This custom bears an interesting similarity to the ritual held on Good Friday by the Greek Orthodox Church: the Epitaphios, a cloth icon of the dead Jesus, sometimes accompanied by the Magdalene and other disciples, is carried in a wooden canopied catafalque lavishly decorated with flowers, representing the Tomb of Christ. Could the flowers perhaps represent a dim memory of the garden?

Catafalque: a raised bier or platform, often movable, that is used to support the casket, coffin, or body of the deceased during a funeral or memorial service.

Back in Classical Athens, a special symbol was associated with Adonia: women offered to the handsome youth the "gardens of Adonis," consisting of various plants sown a few days before the festival in shards of vases and pots.[3] The first day, the celebrants brought these objects to the house roofs, while the next they carried them down in order to accompany the deceased. Since the young sprouts grew and withered fast, this was sometimes considered a metaphor for the premature loss of the young god.

Not very far from Mt. Athos, in the city of Serres, women still remember the old custom of the gardens of Adonis. A few days before Good Friday they place seeds of barley, lentil or corn in a plate or pot, letting them sprout. At the time of the procession of the Epitaphios, when the dead Jesus is solemnly carried in his flower-laden "coffin," sometimes accompanied by his beloved Magdalene, they place the vessels in front of their house doors, along with candles, an incense holder and an icon of the Resurrection…[4]


Terracotta altar relief depicting three women or Nymphs playing music and dancing, celebrating the annual reunion of Aphrodite and Adonis. From the Greek city of Taras in South Italy, 400-375 BCE.
(Getty Villa, photo © the author)

In nature, death is followed by rebirth, as seasons change and new plants emerge from the soil, celebrating the power of the life force. The garden metaphor reconciles the opposites (death and regeneration), as flowers and grass wither and trees lose their leaves, only to regain their previous splendor as the cycle of the year turns.

Just as Aphrodite was the powerful female figure closely associated with both the garden and Adonis, Mary Magdalene was the woman who sought Jesus' grave (in a garden) and witnessed his resurrection. If the Gnostics are right, Mary, like Aphrodite, was the lover of a dead and resurrected god.

The Greek goddess of love was worshipped as "Aphrodite in Gardens" in Athens, at the northern side of the Acropolis.[5] In Cyprus a special place was dedicated to her, named Hierokepis or Hierokepia, "Sacred Garden". The lush vegetation carried with it connotations of sexuality and fertility, concepts related to the Sacred Marriage. Besides, the Greek work kepos (garden) was sometimes used metaphorically to mean "vulva"[6] — not surprising, as the female body was frequently likened to the earth.

Curiously, some modern scholars have tried hard to connect the garden, especially the gardens of Adonis, to notions of infertility, impotence, even anti-agriculture! Yet, to the extent that such ideas can be traced in ancient Greek writers, they probably reflect male fears and patriarchal biases, as Joseph D. Reed has shown in a thorough and well-documented essay.[7] In stark contrast to the "infertility" argument, certain writers of the Roman Era liken the young god to the ripe fruits of the earth.[8]

"A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse…"

Was the cult of Aphrodite and Adonis ever prevalent in Israel, the place where the story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene unfolds? Although Adonis is known as a Hellenic deity, his worship was imported to Greece in the 7th c. BCE from the Middle East. His name comes from the Semitic Adon, which means "Lord." He was honored by women as Tammuz (or Dumuzi) from Mesopotamia to Syro-Palestine, across languages and cultures. As Reed points out, the Greek celebrants of the Adonia "had their counterparts in the women of Jerusalem weeping for Tammuz at the north gate of the temple, excoriated in Ezekiel, 8:14-15."

The Jewish prophet Ezekiel wrote during the early 6th c. BCE, but the god's worship comes from a much older era. He was the consort of Inanna/Ishtar, an Eastern version of Aphrodite, who also happened to be associated with a "holy garden," a "luxuriant garden," as reported in the epic of Gilgamesh. Furthermore, when she sings her song of love to Dumuzi she calls him "my desirable apple garden," "my fruitful garden of meš trees," "my shaded garden of the desert."[9]

Her songs are filled with deliciously sensual imagery, yet she is not the only one to call her beloved a "garden." Scholars from the first part of the 20th century have noted a number of similarities between Babylonian poetry and the Song of Songs.[10] There, the garden is simultaneously portrayed as the Bride herself ("a garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse…"), as her home, and naturally as a place of pleasures. Finally, the orchard, filled with vegetation and beauty, becomes the site where the erotic union will come into completion, as the heroine promises to her beloved.[11]

Surprisingly, certain church fathers, as well as early medieval theologians, identified the Bridegroom of the Song of Songs with Jesus and his Bride with Mary Magdalene.[12] Even nowadays in the Roman Catholic churches a passage from this sensual collection of poems is read in the Magdalene's honor on the day of her festival.


Incense holder and plants at the window of a traditional Greek house.
(Photo © the author)

If the Song of Songs associates the garden with love, the book of Genesis turns it into a place of birth, since the first woman was created ("born") in the Garden of Eden. Eve, whose name in Hebrew means "life," is appropriately called in the Bible "the mother of all humanity."[13] If we read the text closely, sexual connotations become apparent, as well: "And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed."[14]

Interestingly, in Eastern Christianity the Garden of Eden is the same as Heaven, the afterlife home of the virtuous. They are both called paradeisos (paradise) in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), as well as in the New Testament.[15] Paradeisos is a word of Persian origin meaning "walled garden," yet for some Gnostic Christians apparently it also had another meaning: a work attributed to Simon the Magus identified paradeisos with the womb![16]

Thus, the garden becomes a multi-dimensional element, which encompasses death and rebirth, sexuality and fertility, feminine and masculine. Although the associations of a symbol can shift and change, depending on the social and religious context, often multiple meanings coexist, complementing each other. It is true that there is no historical evidence about Jesus' resurrection in a garden, just as there is no proof that the Virgin Mary ever visited Mt. Athos, as tradition claims. Yet despite (or maybe because of) this lack of evidence, one can easily see the old, pagan motif of the Sacred Garden coming alive once again, this time under the guise of a new religion.

Notes

  1. Theokritos, Syrakosiai or Adoniazousai 111 and on.
  2. Plutarch, Alkibiades 18.3.
  3. Theophrastos, History of Physics 6.7.3; Alkiphron 4.14.8.
  4. M. Alexiadis and St. Imellos, "Adonis," Encyclopedia Papyros Larousse Britannica.
  5. Pausanias 1. 19, 2; 1. 27, 3.
  6. Diogenes Laertios 2. 116.
  7. Joseph D. Reed, "The Sexuality of Adonis," Classical Antiquity 14, no 2 (1995): 323-27, 333 et al.
  8. Sallustius, De deis 4.3; Porphyry in Eusebius, Praeparatio evangelica 3.11.9.
  9. "GilgameŇ°, Enkidu and the Nether World," Version A, 27-35 et al., ETCSL translation: t.1.8.1.4, <http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.1.8.1.4&display=Crit&charenc=&lineid=t1814.p8#t1814.p8.> "A Balbale to Inana (Dumuzid-Inana B)," 27-32, ETCSL translation: t.4.08.02, <http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.4.08.02&display=Crit&charenc=&lineid=t40802.p1#t40802.p1>; "The Song of the Lettuce: A Balbale to Inana (Dumuzid-Inana E)," 1-4, ETCSL translation: t.4.08.05, <http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.4.08.05&display=Crit&charenc=&lineid=t40805.p1#t40805.p1.>
  10. Theophile James Meek, "Babylonian Parallels to the Song of Songs," Journal of Biblical Literature 43, no. 3/4 (1924): 245-52, http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0021-9231%281924%2943%3A3%2F4%3C245%3ABPTTSO%3E2.0.CO%3B2-A.
  11. Song of Songs 4:12; 8:13; 5:1; 7:11-12.
  12. E. Ann Matter, The Voice of My Beloved: The Song of Songs in Western Medieval Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990), 167; Ann W. Astell, The Song of Songs in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 174-175.
  13. "Mother of all humanity": Genesis 3:20. For the meaning of the name Eve see The Old Testament (Athens: Hellenic Biblical Society, 1997), footnote 8, p. 12.
  14. Genesis 2:23-25, King James Bible.
  15. Luke 23:43; II Cor 12:4; Rev 2:7.
  16. Hippolytus, Refutation of all Heresies, 6.14, quoted in Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, trans. into Greek by Theodora Darviri (Enalios: Athens, 2005), 113.

Graphics Credits

  • terra cotta altar reliefs and window garden, photos © 2006 Harita Meenee. All rights reserved.
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