The human relationship to plants involves not just the practical needs of foods, medicines, and materials but also the realm of attitudes and beliefs. It is not possible to discover what our distant ancestors thought, felt and believed about plants without visiting the world of mythology.
The mythology of the ancient Greeks stands out for its detail and depth of intelligent insight into human nature as its world of creators, gods, demigods, spirits, monsters, heroes, adventurers, sorcerers, enchanters and prophets engage us in an exploration of wonder, madness, cruelty, wonder, love and hate – the full range of human experience in all its beauty and horror. These are tales whose meaning is apparent to all, communicated not by precept but by the power of entertainment and allusion. They were stories familiar to all Greeks in their daily lives and reinforced at festivals as an oral poetic tradition told through the media of song and ritual.
This article can only set the general scene as needed for its special consideration of plants. For those wanting to follow Greek mythology in more detail there are references given at the end, including a recent easily-digested account by educated entertainer Stephen Fry, and a recommendation to visit the web site www.theoi.com.
Several articles address the question of changes in plant meaning over time. The article on plant lore introduces the world of animistic beliefs of prehistory, Natura, when humans as hunter-gatherers were a part of nature itself, existing within nature, essentially as they had evolved from it. As communities grew, human environments were more man-made, hierarchies developed, writing emerged, and culture began to dominate nature – so the narratives of belief changed. Former animistic beliefs were now married to accounts of deities that populated spiritual but more human-like worlds, the deities, heroic sagas, and legends of Agraria. This system of belief reached its zenith in the rich recorded narrative of Greek mythology, outlined in a separate article for its insights into the changing human experience of plants. As cities expanded, the spirits of animism were lost, replaced by a polytheistic world of many gods, and eventually the monotheism of the Abrahamic religions.
Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed. The living images become only remote facts of a distant time or sky . . . it is never difficult to demonstrate that as science and history, mythology is absurd. When a civilization begins to reinterpret its mythology in this way, the life goes out of it, temples become museums, and the link between the two perspectives becomes dissolved.
Joseph Campbell, 1993
Myth and religion invert this method of reasoning as a way of explaining existence: they exploit our humanity to the full by using anthropomorphized and personified spiritual forces to explain the great mysteries of our existence: the origin of the universe, life, humans, races, religions, and belief systems . . . the source of suffering, good and evil, codes of behaviour, birth and death . . . and our connection to ancestors and the afterlife. In short, the meaning of human existence.
Human and spiritual agents are drawn into the world of universal human needs, desires, fears, and proclivities as every possible psychological device is harnessed for maximum dramatic effect.
Science, Reality, and Wonder
As urbanites, most of us know the names of only a few trees, common garden and food plants, and some weeds. We have hardly noticed the historical passing of a rich legacy of plant mythology, folklore, and symbolism . . . the ritual and meaning that was once so much a part of our association with plants. Echoes of this past come to those living in the West through, for example, the numerous references to plants in the works of Shakespeare, the Bible, and traditional poetry, the ‘doctrine of signatures’, and ‘language of flowers’ as well as the plant awareness that was so much a part of religious ritual like the harvest festival, May Day, and the deep sense of nature’s seasonal cycles; all embedded in the culture passed from one generation to the next. If the plants described here are a guide, then we know that most ancient Greeks would have been familiar with at least 65 different kinds of plants.
Todays ‘. . . useful flowers’ are devoid of even the 19th century ‘ . . . sentiment, morality, snobbery, and controversy’ . We have unwittingly exorcised old cultural meanings and associations, rejecting them as superstition, imaginative over-indulgence, and tales for children. Challenged by evidence-based science, they have fallen out of favour. We find it of little consequence that our word ‘flora’ referred originally to a Roman goddess, or that the annoying Latinised names of plants are a brilliant distillation of the history of botany and our association with plants down the ages, a binomial narrative taking us on a fascinating journey from antiquity to the present.
Why have we turned away from all this?
Many traditional medicines, materials and natural products have been replaced by synthetics – like the hyper-real plastic plants now pervasive in offices and shopping malls. Mass production and artificial environments have won the day. Plants are no longer charged with social meaning as objects of wonder. We are not entranced or impressed, like our 19th century predecessors, by the thought of plant novelty, or the countries and peoples where unfamiliar plants are found.
Nostalgia or not . . . as sources of inspiration for our creative imagination, plants are on the decline, becoming buried among all the commodities of our daily lives – the globally dispersed systems of manufacture and trade, food production and technology – so that their significance becomes obscure, difficult to assess, and therefore overlooked. Most of us neither know nor care, for example, how our vegetables and fruits are grown, where they were sourced, their genetic and social history, or the resources required for their cultivation and distribution (for a contrary view see ).
Perhaps biological science, as the detached study of nature, has resulted in a diminished desire to use nature as a stimulus for our creative imagination. Few of us today have any interest in superstitions and fantasies, the mythological epics and sagas of past generations, because we know they are untrue and therefore best put behind us. We know better now. We have climbed on the shoulders of our ancestors and seen further . . . but that would be to miss so much.
Greek mythology provides us with an imaginative world that blends nature into a narrative that explains, entertains, and binds us together in our common humanity. It decorates our sense of wonder with narratives that are rich in purpose and meaning.
Modern scientific education would be greatly enhanced by trying to capture, like mythology, the true wonder, mystery and excitement of its discoveries concerning our origin and creation, humanity and meaning.
Origin of Greek Mythology
Greek mythology is often dated back to Mycenaean times around 1500 BCE, ending with the Age of Heroes and Trojan War. However, students of myth have noted that there is much in common with the themes of the ancient Indian Mahabharata. This could point towards a commonality in Indo-European language and culture in an area north of the Black Sea and its subsequent diffusion both west and east as early as 3500 BCE.
The earlier inhabitants of the Balkan Peninsula were an agricultural people who, using animism, assigned a spirit to every aspect of nature. Eventually, these vague spirits assumed human forms and entered the local mythology as gods.
The impact of humans on the landscape was already evident to the citizens of Hellas, the forests depleted for building, shipping and fuel. Plato complained bitterly about the degeneration of land and soil ‘ . . . what remains now . . . is like the skeleton of a sick man, all the fat and soft earth having wasted away, only the bare framework of the land being left . . . there are some mountains which now have nothing but food for bees, but they had trees not very long ago, and the rafters from those felled, and used to roof the largest buildings, are still sound’ (Plato, Critias 4.,111).
Mythology was at the heart of everyday life in Ancient Greece, regarded as a part of their history. It was a source of pride to be able to trace the descent of one’s leaders from a mythological hero or god. Few ever doubted that there was truth behind the account of the Trojan War in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as the myths were repeated again and again at home and also narrated and sung by poets during the many religious festivals.
Homer, who mentions 80 different plants in his works, was the core text of Greek education. During the rationalism in the late 5th century BCE myth and mythological genealogies began to exclude the supernatural. While poets and dramatists were reworking the myths, Greek historians and philosophers were beginning to criticize them
The Greeks considered immortality the distinctive characteristic of their gods, combined with that unfading youth that was assured by constantly imbibing nectar and ambrosia.
The Greek mastery of folklore which contains within it engaging accounts of the origin and the nature of the world and the Greeks themselves, their rituals and ceremonies, the lives and activities of deities, heroes, and mythological creatures, and the origins and significance of the ancient Greeks’ own cult and ritual practices.
Modern scholars study the myths in an attempt to shed light on the religious and political institutions of ancient Greece and its civilization, and to gain understanding of the nature of myth-making itself.
The Greek myths are told in many ways, and with many interpretations.
So far as we can tell, mythologies as supernatural explanations of existence, were present in all prehistoric cultures as human existence was woven into a narrative of supernatural spirits and gods and their relationship to ancestors and the afterlife. The written accounts represent the remains of long oral traditions passing back into deep prehistory.
Many of the early written sources of Greek myths have been lost, so some of what has come to us is from later secondary, mainly Latin, sources.
Greek myths began as an oral-poetic or bardic tradition, that probably dates back to Minoan Crete and the Mycenaean singers of a Lyric Age around the 18th century BCE.
Within this tradition are 33 anonymous ‘Homeric Hymns’ celebrating individual gods: ‘Homeric’ only insofar as they deploy the same epic form as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey — the dactylic hexameter – so these are major literary works too, the pair of works including 60 different plants. These two epics describing the heroes of the Trojan War were known by everyone. Two poems by Homer’s near contemporary, the historian and poet Hesiod, the Theogony and the Works and Days, contain accounts of the genesis of the world, the succession of divine rulers, the succession of human ages, the origin of human woes, and the origin of sacrificial practices. His works mention about 12 different plants. Later, the historian-philosopher Xenophon in his account of the Persian wars, mentions about 20 different plants while the Sicilian bucolic poet Theocritus (c. 300-260+ BCE) cites 107 plants in his Idylls.
Myths are also preserved in the dramatic works of the great Greek tragedies (by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides) and comedies (Aristophanes) of the Greek theatre that flourished in the fifth century BCE and the later writings of scholars and poets of the Hellenistic Age.
Mainly literary authors of the Roman Empire included Plutarch and Pausanias, Historians Herodotus (who provides details of 63 medicinal plant species encountered on his travels from Asia Minor to the Black Sea via Babylon and Upper Egypt) and Diodorus Siculus, and geographer-travellers Pausanias (fl. c. 160 CE) and Strabo. It also includes the Roman poets Ovid (the Metamorphoses is a rich source of myths), Statius, Valerius Flaccus, Seneca, and Virgil (with Servius’s commentary), the Greek poets of the Late Antique period: Nonnus, Antoninus Liberalis, and Quintus Smyrnaeus.
From the Hellenistic period: Apollonius of Rhodes, Callimachus, Pseudo-Eratosthenes, and Parthenius.
Prose writers of these periods who incorporate myths are Apuleius, Petronius, Lollianus, and Heliodorus, the Fabulae and Astronomica of the Roman writer styled as Pseudo-Hyginus, the Imagines of Philostratus the Elder and Philostratus the Younger, and the Descriptions of Callistratus.
The Greek rhetorician under Roman rule, Athenaeus of Naucritis (170-230 CE), in his Learned Banquet (Deipnosophistae) describes a hypothetical banquet of 23 learned men displaying their knowledge, and it includes many plant descriptions and references to lost botanical works. Further plant information comes from Galen (129-199 CE) imperial physician at Pergamon who had treated gladiators in Rome.Byzantine Greek writers who include information from now lost works include: Arnobius, Hesychius, the author of the Suda, John Tzetzes, and Eustathius. They often treat mythology from a Christian moralizing perspective.
The major sources are:
• Aeschylus, The Persians, Prometheus Bound.
• Apollodorus, Library and Epitome, Argonautica, Book I.
• Cicero, De Divinatione. Tusculanae resons.
• Herodotus, The Histories, I.
• Hesiod, Works and Days, Theogony.
• Homer, Iliad, Homeric Hymns to Aphrodite, Demeter. and Hermes.
• Ovid, Metamorphoses.
• Pausanias. Descriptions of Greece. Transl. Jones, W. H. S. and Omerod, H. A. Loeb Classical Library Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1918
• Pindar, Pythian Odes, Pythian 4: For Arcesilas of Cyrene Chariot Race 462 BCE.
• Plato, Apology, Theaetetus.
The Greek myths are set within a three-generation succession in which personified primordial forces are overcome by a generation of gods called the Titans, led by Cronus, who seizes power from his father Uranus. Then, in a ten year war known as the Titanomachy, Cronus and the Titans are, in turn, defeated and replaced by a new generation of gods, the Olympians, led by Zeus.
Gods & spirits
Greek mythology is populated by hundreds of deities and spirits that are woven into every aspect of peoples’ lives.
These are organized into a three-layered genealogy. First came the primal creative forces of nature at the beginning of the world. Two of these forces, Gaia (Mother Earth) and Uranus (Father Sky) – produced a second generation of deities, the Titans.
The Titans were the original gods, led by Cronus, overthrown as part of the Greek succession myth, by a third generation that comprised Zeus and the 12 gods of Olympus.
which told how Cronus seized power from his father Uranus, and ruled the cosmos with the Titans as his subordinates, and how Cronus and the Titans were in turn defeated and replaced as the ruling pantheon of gods, by Zeus and the Olympians, in a ten-year war called the Titanomachy. As a result of this war of the gods, Cronus and the vanquished Titans were banished from the upper world, being held imprisoned, under guard in Tartarus, although apparently, some of the Titans were allowed to remain free.Mythological events fall into two major phases: first there is the age of Titans who were the first primordial beings. This is followed by the age of the human-like gods of Olympus led by Zeus.
Each god descends from his or her own genealogy, pursues its own interests, has a particular expertise, symbols, and unique personality.
The accounts we have of the Titans, Gods and their adventures follow this broad pattern but there are a multiplicity of archaic local variants, which do not always agree with one another.
Writers like Hesiod attempted to put order into the diverse narratives. What is described here is my attempt to provide the reader with a frameworks of the main ideas, especially as they relate to nature and plants.
For the excitement and variety of the original accounts, and a much wider range of personalities, the reader is directed to the many books and on-line sources.
Chaos – Void
Erebus – Darkness
Nyx – Night
Aetha – Heavenly air
Hemera – Light on Earth
Eros – Love
Gaia – Mother Earth
Uranus – Father Sky
Cyclopes – 3 1-eyed monsters
Hecatoncheires – 3 100 arms
Cronus – Titan Olympian father
Coeus – intelligence
Crius – domestic animals
Iapetus – mortality
Hyperion – life & Sun
Oceanus – waters & seas
Mnemosyne – memory
Phoebe – brilliance & the moon
Rhea – mother of Olympians
Theia – sight
Themis – law, justice, order
Tethys – wetness & oceans
From Cronus & Rhea
Zeus – Supreme God
Hera – marriage, women
Poseidon – sea, storms
Demeter – harvest, agriculture
From Zeus X sister Hera
Ares – war
Hephaestus – metalwork
From Zeus X goddesses
Athena – wisdom, skill, war
Artemis – hunt, moon
Persephone – qu’n Underworld
Hermes – messenger, trade
Apollo – Sun, light, music
From Uranus’ genitals in sea
Aphrodite – love, beauty
ZEUS X MORTAL WOMEN
Dionysus – wine, ecstasy, peace
Perseus – founder of Mycenae
Heracles – human protector
Echidna X Typhone
Cerberus – 3-head dog
Dragon – fleece guard
Chimera – lion/goat/snake
Hydra – serpent-head
Sphinx – lion/woman/bird
Orthrus – 2-head dog
Harpies – winged thieves
Sirens – maritime temptresses
Scylla – sea monster
Gorgon – snake-head monster
Graeae – three witches
Iris – rainbow goddess
Erebus X Nyx
Charon – Ferryman
Moros – doom
Ker – vengeance
Thanatos – death
Hypnos – sleep
Oneiroi – dream spirits
Chart Courtesy UsefulCharts – Matt Baker – 2013
According (mostly) to Hesiod’s account of the origin of godly powers, the Theogony, all things arose from primal beings – primordial raw forces of nature out of which the the world, gods, and humanity emerged.
In the beginning, there was Chaos, a yawning nothingness or empty void, sometimes described as a formless mass. It was the attractive forces of Eros (Love) that brought order in the form of earthly light, Ourea (mountains), Gaia (Mother Earth), and Uranus (the sky god) while Aether, the heavenly sphere, and his sister Hemera, the goddess of the day and earthly light, were born out of the union of Erebus (god of silent darkness), and Nyx (goddess of empty night). From Nyx came the objects of human fear: doom, fate, death, sleep, dreams, and nemesis (vengeance). The union of Gaia and Tartarus created the fire-breathing, 100-headed Typhon.
From Gaia also came the fatherless divinities Ourea (the 10 mountains known to the Greeks at this time), and Pontus (the sea).
Two other abstract beings forces are sometimes mentioned: Chronus (time) and Ananke (destiny).
Without impregnation Gaia gave birth to the sky god Uranus, supreme being of the heavens. Then, embraced by sky and his starry coat, Gaia gave birth to the Titans, godly giants who personified nature: three one-eyed Cyclops (Brontes, Steropes, and Arges); three Hecatoncheires (Cottus, Briareus, and Gyges) who were monstrous giants of enormous strength, with fifty heads and one hundred arms (they helped Zeus and the Olympians overthrow the Titans); and 12 Titans — six males: Coeus, Crius, Cronus, Hyperion, Lapetus, and Oceanus — and six females: Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Rhea, Theia, Themis, and Tethys.
Uranus, fearing a Titan challenge to his authority, imprisoned them in Tartarus, the womb of Gaia. After the birth of Cronus, Gaia and Uranus agreed that no more Titans were to be born, so when the one-eyed Cyclops and hundred-armed Hecatonchires were born, Uranus imprisoned them in Tartarus, her womb, which was the darkest corner of the Earth.
Gaia, infuriated by this action, provided Cronus, the ‘wily, youngest and most terrible of her children’ with a scythe to castrate Uranus, his father. Having, with the aid of Gaia, ambushed his father and, with his task completed, Cronus threw his father’s genitals into the sea. From the ensuing foam sprang Aphrodite (Roman Venus), goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, passion and procreation whose symbols included myrtles, roses, doves, sparrows, and swans. From the blood of Uranus that spilled on the Earth sprang the Giants, the Ash tree, and the Erinyes (Furies).
Cronus then took his elder sister Rhea as wife and became ruler of the Titans who now comprised his celestial court.
Gaia, resisting the tyranny of Uranus, managed to free her most ambitious son, Kronos, giving him a diamond-studded scythe. Kronos attacked Uranus in his heavenly palace, slicing off his genitals and throwing them into the sea.
Kronos celebrates the new freedom by inviting his siblings to a feast where the spectre of Uranus appears, warning Kronos that he will share the fate of his father.
Kronos, now a tyrant like his father, and fearing his children, devoured each of them whole at birth. His wife, the goddess Rhea, determined to elude him, came down to earth where, in Crete, she gave birth to a son Zeus in a cave, leaving him in the care of the forest nymphs who breast-fed him from the goat ?Amalthea. Later, to outwit Uranus she wrapped a rock in baby clothes and this he swallowed in one gulp without realizing what he had done.
The reign of Titan Cronus was a Golden Age for humans who lived in a perpetual springtime of peace, harmony, and abundance while the lives of the gods were marred by conflict.
The Olympians were the major deities in ancient Greece. It was they who, after overthrowing the Titans, resided on Mt Olympus from where they ruled the Cosmos.
Zeus was educated by an enchanted eagle that told him what was happening around the world.
Zeus married his sister Hera, this marriage producing Ares and Hephaestus but his affairs with other goddesses resulted in Athena, Artemis, Persephone, Hermes, and Apollo while with mortal women he fathered Dionysus and the heroes Perseus and Heracles.
Zeus, in disguise, persuaded Kronos to drink a potion that would make him vomit the children he had eaten providing Zeus with warriors that would, under his command, claim the world.
Thus began the war of the Titans (Titanomachy) beween Kronos and Zeus, with Zeus and his Titan siblings on Mount Olympus and Kronus under his General, Atlas, on Mt Otherus.
Zeus gained the assistance of the Cyclopes from the Tartarus – a one-eyed people who manufactured weapons, including helmets, bidents, and tridents. The clash of Titanic forces unleashed volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, thunder, hurricanes, and the lightening bolts that were Zeus’s special power. In addition, Zeus unleashed the Hekatonkeries, each with 100 arms and 50 heads. Stunning Kronos with a lightning bolt Zeus was able to confine the opposing forces in the Tartarus and condemn Atlas to an eternity bearing the Earth on his back. In victory he acknowledged and honoured all his warriors. While he continued to control the skies, he divided his power, awarding the command of the seas to Poseidon and of the Underworld, the Kingdom of the Dead, to Hades.
Gaia, whose children were incarcerated in the by Zeus in the Tartarus, plotted revenge, conceiving Typhon, a horrendous beast, to defeat Zeus and the gods of Olympus, the latter fleeing to Egypt where they took the form of animals worshipped as gods. Only Zeus remained to fight the monster Typhon who he found semi-conscious, drugged by Imore and easily overcome with a bolt to the head. Typhon was then imprisoned in Mt Etna which spewed molten larva generated from Typhan’s caged anger, but now leaving the gods to rule the world.
Personification of natural events placed responsibility for natural events in the lap of the gods. The sun rose and set as Phoebus Apollo drove his glittering sun-chariot on its fiery course across the sky after Eos (goddess of the dawn, who rose each morning from her home at the edge of Oceanus, the river that encircled the earth) had sprinkled morning dew from her vase. Spring began when Persephone, the goddess of grains, rose from the underworld to live with her mother Demeter the goddess of corn. Poseidon, god of the sea, would stir up storms and tranquil seas, while Zeus could light the sky with the brilliance of either lightning or a rainbow.
Hades, the eldest son of Cronus and Rhea, was the last son regurgitated by his father. He and his brothers, Zeus and Poseidon, defeated their father’s generation of gods, the Titans, to rule the cosmos. Hades received the underworld, Zeus the sky, and Poseidon the sea. Earth, the province of Gaia, was now ruled by these three. Hades is often accompanied by his three-headed guard dog Cerberus.
In addition to these mighty forces of Earth, Sea, and Sky there were the nature spirits or nymphs. Nymphs presided over various natural phenomena–from springs, to clouds, trees, caverns, meadows, and beaches. They were responsible for the care of the plants and animals of their domain and as such were closely associated with the Olympian gods of nature such as Hermes, Dionysus, Artemis, Poseidon and Demeter.
These spirits are often divided into groups depending on their domain: Nymphs (spirits of rivers), Naiads (who dwelled in springs), Dryads (trees), Nereids (sea), Erinyes, or Furies (underworld). To this list can be added river gods, Satyrs like the god Pan, and others.
Dryads were minor goddesses of nature, the caretakers of forests and trees in general of which there were several sub-groups:
Oreiades – were nymphs of the mountains
Alseides – of the sacred groves
Aulonides – of glens
Napaiai – of vales.
They were believed to die together with the trees which had been their abode, and with which they had come into existence. They were called Dryades, Hamadryades or Hadryades, from drys, which often referred to the oak, but also any wild-growing lofty tree.
Nymphs of fruit trees were called Mêlides, Mêliades, Epimêlides, or Hamamêlides. They are probably of Arcadian origin and never appear together with any of the great gods.
These were tree nymphs who, when born, were bonded to and inhabited a particular kind of tree, such as riverside or lofty trees in a particular forest, or one in a sacred grove of the gods. While the tree flourished, so did its resident nymph, but when it died she passed away.
Oreads – were Dryads of mountain pines
Meliae – were dryads of ash-trees
Meliades – those of fruit-trees
Daphnaie – those of the laurels.
Each had their own history.
The Oreiades (Oreads) were nymphs of the mountain conifers. The eldest of these were daughters of the five Daktyloi (Dactyls) and five Hekaterides (Hecaterides). Subsequent generations were descended from these elder Oreiades and their brother Satyroi (Satyrs). In ancient Greece most of the forests were located on the slopes of the rugged hills and mountains since the majority of the lowland forest had been cleared for farming. It was therefore natural for the Greeks to think of Dryades as mountain-dwellers.
The Meliai (Meliae) were nymphs of the ash-trees. They were born when Gaia (Gaea, the Earth) was impregnated by the blood of the castrated Ouranos (Uranus, the Sky). They were wed by the men of the Silver Age–in the time before the first woman was created–and from them mankind was descended.
The Maliades, Meliades or Epimelides were nymphs of apple and other fruit trees and the protectors of sheep. The Greek word melas–from which their name derives–means both apple and sheep.
The Daphnaie were nymphs of the laurel trees, one of a class of rarer tree-specific Dryad.
Ptelea was a hamadryad of the elm; Morea a hamadryad of the mulberry; Kraneia of the cherry; Karya (Carya) of the hazel or chestnut; Balanis the acorn tree, or ilex; Aigeiros of the black poplar; Ampelos of the wild grape vine. Others included the Nymphai Aigeiroi (of black poplars), Ampeloi (of grape vines), Balanis (of the ilex), Karyai (of the hazel-nut), Kraneiai (of cherry-trees), Moreai (of the mulberry), Pteleai (of elm trees), and Sykei (of fig trees).
The Hesperides (Hesperids) were three guardians of the golden apples, sometimes regarded as hamadryads or Hamameliad (apple-tree) nymphs. Dryope was a hamadryad nymph of Mount Othrys in Malis, princess of the Dryopes who was transformed into a poplar-tree nymph by her hamadryad sister-in-laws. Byblis was a girl of Miletos in Karia (Caria) who was transformed into a hamadryad.
Tradition held that 12 gods resided on Mount Olympus. Greek historian Thucydides (c. 460- c. 400 BCE) records that an altar to these Olympian Gods was erected in the Agora (the market place on the Acropolis) by arcon (magistrate) Pisistratus c. 522 BCE. There is, however, no definitive list of these gods and the number varies according to the source of information.
King of the Gods, the skies, and destiny: the supreme Olympian god and moral leader. Originally the celestial god of weather – especially thunder and rain, noted for his use of lightning thunderbolts. Wife the goddess Hera but many offspring by other goddesses and mortal women. Father of the goddess Athena. He maintained order, organize festivals, and make prophesies.
Primary symbol: lightning bolt (also bull, sceptre, and eagle).
Sacred plants: oak and olive trees
Patroness and protectress of married women, marriage, the family, and childbirth. As sister and wife of Zeus she is queen of the gods, daughter of the Titans Cronus and Rhea. She is a jealous and vengeful resistor of Zeus’ numerous lovers and illegitimate offspring. Portrayed as majestic and solemn, often enthroned, and crowned with the polos, a high cylindrical crown worn by several of the Great Goddesses.
Primary symbol: Animals considered sacred include the cow, lion and peacock.
Sacred plants: sometimes holds a pomegranate as symbol of fertile blood and a substitute for the narcotic capsule of the opium poppy
Son of Titans Cronus and Rhea. God of the seas, oceans, floods, earthquakes, horses and storms. He was the moody god of sailors who lived on the bed of the sea in a pace of coral and gems. He had many affairs including a marriage with nymph Amphitrite that produced Triton, half human half fish, also with the Gorgon Medusa who conceived Chrysaor and Pegasus the flying horse. The rape of Aethra resulted in Theseus. Chasing his sister Demeter she turned herself into a mare only to find he had turned himself into a stallion. He is also supposed to have competed with Athena for the city of Athens. Throwing his spear into the ground he produced as spring at the base of the Acropolis but Athena won the day by giving the people an olive tree.
Primary symbols: trident and dolphin.
Sacred plants: wild celery and pine trees
Son of Zeus and the mortal Leto (banished by jealous Hera to the island of Delos for the birth at a time when the island was circled by swans), and the younger twin of Artemis. Delos became the site of a major sanctuary for Apollo. God of music, poetry, songs, prophecy and oracles, archery and healing, learning, herds and flocks, destroyer of rats and locusts. He was also known as Phoebus (radiant or beaming and identified with the Sun god Helios). He rid Delphi of the serpent Python but to make amends to Gaia, the serpent’s mother, he bestowed divine powers on the priestess Pythia who, chewing laurel leaves and inhaling hallucinating volcanic vapour from a fissure in the rock, was gifted with prophesy, becoming the famed oracle in Apollo’s sanctuary at Delphi.
He is renowned for his relationship with the nymph Daphne who turned into a laurel tree to avoid his attentions. There were many other affairs.
Primary symbol: lyre (cithara), less so the swan
Sacred plants: laurel wreathes, cypress, and larkspur.
Son of Titans Cronus and Rhea. God of the dead and the Underworld, while his brother Zeus ruled the upperworld and Poseidon ruled the sea. For a while his rule was shared with Persephone (the daughter of Demeter) who he abducted from the upperworld to be his wife. By giving her six pomegranate seeds to eat, he bound her to the underworld for six months each year, the winter months of the upperworld. Then he returned her to the upperworld in his black-horsed chariot to join her mother Demeter, the pair launching the new year’s fruitful spring. He had several demonic assistants including the ferryman Charon, who carried the souls of the dead across the river Acheron (Styx) from the world of the living to the world of the dead, and a three-headed hound Cerberus.
Primary symbols: royal sceptre, Cerberus, his three-headed dog, bident two-pronged weapon, ebony throne, cornucopia (the horn of plenty). He had a dark chariot drawn by four black horses. Charon, his ferryman, carried the soul of the dead from the world of the living to the underworld. A helmet given to him by the cyclopes and which could make him invisible.
Sacred plants: narcissus, cypress, asphodel.
Son of Zeus and Hera. God of war and courage. A bloody and merciless avenger and destroyer disliked by the other gods and with few temples. However, he succumbed to Aphrodite, his consort. As the Roman god Mars, Ares was given much greater acclaim.
Primary symbol: helmets (also spears, shields, chariots, boars, dogs and vultures).
Sacred plants: none
Son of Zeus and the nymph Maia, daughter of Atlas and one of the Pleiades. God of trade, messengers, thievery, athletics, weights & measures, literature, and herds. Messenger of Gods renowned for his cunning. Worshipped throughout Greece in festivals called Hermaea. Born in a cave on Mt Cyllene in Arcadia. Using the intestines of a cow stolen from Apollo, and a hollowed tortoise shell, he made he first lyre. Apollo, enchanted by Hermes’s music, forgave him the theft in exchange for the lyre, an instrument that would be come Apollo’s sacred symbol. Hermes is also credited with the invention of pan pipes (syrinx) made from reeds, and also the flute.
Primary symbol: The Caduceus, a winged staff with two serpents wrapped around it., not to be confused with the symbol of medicine, the rod of Asclepius. (Also turtles & tortoises, goats, roosters, hares, rams, hawks and winged sandals).
Sacred plants: palm trees, strawberry trees, crocus
Born in Thebes as the son of Zeus and mortal princess Semele. God of wine, fertility, pleasure, festivity, madness, and religious ecstasy. Also of agriculture and fertility on the one hand and the stage on the other. Euripides in his Bachae gives a destructive account of him. It was believed that he was the only god who did not live on Olympus, but travelled the world with Satyrs (goat-like forest spirits with small horns, bristling hair, goats ears, and hooves) and Maenads (women under the ecstatic spell of Dionysus) attempting to fine the secrets of wine-making.
Primary symbol: thyrsus, a fennel staff topped with a pine cone and wrapped with ivy. (Also kantharos, the Greek drinking cup, serpents, panthers and bulls).
Plant symbols: ivies (he is often depicted with an ivy wreath on his head), grapes and grapevines, bindweeds
Son of Titans Lapetus and Themis. Champion of mankind and Titan god of fire and forethought. The word “Prometheus” actually does mean “forethought”. Fire was stolen from the gods by Promethius and given to humans.
Primary symbol: torches and fire
Sacred plants: none
God of forges, metalworking, sculpture, stone masonry, fire and smiths
Primary symbol: hammers, tongs and anvils, fire and volcanoes (donkeys, cranes and guard-dogs).
Sacred plant: fennel
Son of Zeus and the mortal Alcmene. A demigod and hero known for the Twelve Labors.
Symbols include: wooden clubs, bows and arrows and the Nemean lion, which he had to kill as one of his twelve labors
Son of Apollo and princess Coronis. God of medicine and doctors.
Primary symbol: the Rod or staff of Asclepius with a serpent wrapped around it. (Also bowls, dogs, snakes, and roosters).
Plant symbol: pineapple
God of love and sexual desire.
Primary symbol: bows and arrows (also candles, lyres, and hares).
Son of Hermes and Penelope. God of shepherds, meadows, mountain forests and hunters.
Primary symbol: pan-flute (panpipes or syrinx). (Also goats).
Plant symbols: water-reeds, Corsican pines
An annotated checklist of the vascular flora of Greece has recently been released which includes a brief history of botanical exploration in Greece. In April 2020, this vascular flora comprised 5885 species and 2000 subspecies (native and naturalized), representing 6760 taxa, belonging to 1087 genera and 184 families.
As with many modern floras the majority of plants in this list are naturalized introductions rather than native species which probably number about 600. The rare and extremely beautifully crafted Flora Graeca attributed to Sibthorpe is the best known botanical account, but for most people it is the 1977 account by Huxley and Taylor that serves as a vade mecum with references to plantas mentioned by Theophrastus, while Baumann’s account, translated by the Stearns, relates specifically to ancient times and literature.
The account below draws on these sources and, especially the excellent ‘Plants in Greek Myth’ web site, which itemizes individual myths, and to which the reader is directed.
Greek : Akoniton (without dirt) because it grows on rocky ground, and lykoktonon (wolf-slaying) because the toxic leaves and roots were used as a poison applied to arrows when hunting wolves.
Myth 1 : Spittle of Kerberos. Herakles was sent to fetch Kerberos forth from the underworld as one of his twelve labours. The spittle of the beast dripped upon the earth, and from it sprang the first aconite plant. (Ovid)
Myth 2 : Poison of Medea. Theseus once travelled to Athens to present himself to his long lost father King Aegeas. The king’s wife Medea, recognised the youth, and persuaded Aegeas to let her offer him a cup of wine laced with deadly aconite. However, just in time, Aegeas caught sight of the sword which he had left Theseus to be a mark of his paternity, and dashed the cup from his hands. (Ovid, Plutarch)
Greek : Amugdalea
Myth 1: Birth of Attis. In Phrygia there was born an hermaphroditic deity named Agdistis. The gods were fearful and castrated it creating the goddess Kybele. The genitals were cast upon the earth where they sprouted and grew into an almond tree. Once when the nymph Nana was sitting beneath its branches a nut fell into her lap and impregnated her. The child conceived was Attis, who grew up to became the consort of the Kybele. (Pausanias)
Greek : Anemônê (from anemos, the wind).
Sacred to : Aphrodite (probably planted in the “Adonis-gardens”)
Myth 1 : Death of Adonis. Adonis was a handsome youth loved by the goddess Aphrodite. When he was slain by a wild boar, the goddess created the red anemone flower from his blood. (Ovid)
Greek : Mêlon
The apple was an important orchard fruit of ancient Greece. It was associated with love and marriage, and therefore to Hera (weddings), and Aphrodite (love).
Myth 1 : Wedding of Hera. The earth-goddess Gaia produced first apple-tree as a wedding-present for the goddess Hera. This tree of the golden apples was guarded by the three goddess Hesperides. (Apollodorus, Hyginus)
Myth 2 : Judgment of Paris. At the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, Eris the goddess of strife, cast a golden apple addressed to the fairest amongst the goddesses. Aphrodite, Hera and Athene all laid claim to the prize. They were referred by Zeus to the shepherd prince Paris, who awarded the apple to Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty. (Stasinus, Apollodorus)
Myth 3 : Melanion & Atalanta. The beautiful-princess Atalanta was reluctant to wed, and insisted that her suitors best her in a race. Those who failed the contest would be put to death by her father. The youth Melanion (meaning he of the apples) prayed to Aphrodite for help, and the goddess presented him with three golden apples. These he cast before the princess in the race, slowing her down as she stooped to retrieve them and so won the race. (Source: Hesiod, Apollodorus, Ovid)
Myth 4 : Nymphai Epimelides. The nymph-protectors of apple-orchards.
Greek : Melia
A deciduous tree that secretes a sweet sap known as manna that was harvested and believed closely related to honey (the word for both was meli in Greek). The tree first sprung from the blood of heaven, and its manna was the sky-fallen juice of the stars. The stem of the young ash was used for spear-shafts.
Sacred to : Zeus (manna juice), Kouretes & Ares (ash-spears)
Myth 1 : Nymphai Meliai. The Meliai were the Nymphs of the manna ash-tree who were born from the blood of the castrated Ouranos which splattered upon the earth. They were entrusted with the raising of the infant Zeus whom they fed on the honey and the milk of the goat Amaltheia. The Meliai were also the ancestresses of mankind. (Hesiod, Apollodorus, Callimachus, et al)
Myth 2 : Pelian Ash Spear. The spear of Akhilleus, the great hero of the Trojan War, was crafted by the centaur Kheiron for his father Peleus from an ash growing on Mount Pelion. (Homer, Apollodorus, et al.)
Greek : Asphodelos
A perennial with edible tubers.
Sacred to : Hades (asphodel planted around tombs), Persephone & Hekate (statues of these goddesses were adorned with asphodel on the island of Rhodes)
Myth 1 : Asphodel Plains: this ghostly grey plant was believed to dominate the fields of the land of the dead. It was regarded as the food of the dead. (Homer)
Greek : Krithê
The second-most important cereal in the ancient word after wheat.
Sacred to : Demeter (her Eleusinian drink was made of barley, honey and mint)
Myth 1 : When Demeter was searching for her daughter Persephone, she stopped to rest at a farmer’s cottage, quenching her thirst with a sweet barley drink. A boy named Askalabos mocked her hunger and in anger the goddess threw the drink over him, transforming him into a lizard. The flecks of barley became the creature’s spots. (Ovid)
Greek : Kyamos
A major garden plant of ancient Greece but beans were a prohibited food in the mystery-cult of Demeter.
Myth 1 : Kyamites, the demi-god of beans, is connected with the Eleusinian mysteries. (Pausanias)
Greek : Smilax
Sacred to : Dionysos (garlands of bindweed were worn in the orgies of the god)
Myth 1 : The Nymph Smilax was slighted by the boy Krokos and transformed into the vine. (Ovid, Pliny)
Wild Celery, Parsley
Apium graveolens and Petroselinum sativum
Greek : Selinon
The Greeks did not distinguish between parsley and celery. Wreaths of wild celery or parsley were worn by mourners at funerals and hung in tombs.
Sacred to : Zeus (victors of his Nemean Games were crowned with wild celery), Poseidon (victors of his Isthmian Games were later also crowned with celery, replacing the pine wreath)
Myth 1 : Death of Opheltes. The nurse of the infant prince Opheltes lay him in a bed of wild celery as she gave directions to the heroes of the Seven Against Thebes. A serpent came forth and killed the baby. The warriors then founded the Nemean Games in his honour with a victor’s wreath made from his celery death-bed. (Apollodorus, et al.)
Greek : Lygos, agnos
A large shrub with hemp-like leaves and branched clusters of purple flowers with stems used to make wicker items. Believed to stem sexual desire and used as a female medicine.
Sacred to : Hera (assoc. with marital chastity, sacred tree in her Samian temple), Hestia (virgin priestesses carried chaste-tree stems), Artemis (Spartan statue bound in withy stems), Demeter (matrons strew their beds with flowers of the tree during the Thesmophoria festival)
Myth 1 : Birth of Hera. The goddess Hera was born and nursed beneath a sacred chaste-tree on the island of Samos. (Pausanias)
Cherry tree, European cornel
Greek : Kraneia
Small, deciduous tree with yellow flowers and red edible but acidic fruit. Used by the ancients as as pig food.
Myth 1 : Hamadryas Kraneia. The Hamadryad nymph of the Cornelian cherry tree. (Athenaeus)
Greek : Krokos
A late-summer and autumn bulb whose yellow stigmas are the source of saffron as a condiment and yellow dye.
Sacred to : Hermes
Myth 1 : A boy loved by the god Hermes. After his accidental death the god transformed him into the saffron flower. Its red stems were desribed as his spilt blood. According to others Krokos was metamorphosed into the flower following the death of his love, the Nymph Smilax. (Ovid, Pliny, et al.)
Myth 2 : Bouquet of Persephone. The goddess Persephone and her companion Nymphs were gathering rose, crocus, violet, iris, lily and larkspur blooms in a springtime meadow when she was abducted by the god Haides. (Homeric Hymns)
Myth 3 : Seduction of Europa. Zeus spied the Phoenician princess Europa gathering flowers in a spring-time meadow. He transformed himself into a bull and breathed a crocus from his mouth to drawn her near and so carry her away. (Hesiod)
Greek : Kyparissos
Cypress was well-known for its strength and durability and the capacity to polish well. Theophrastus recalls the temple at Ephesus whose doors were stored for four generations. It was also used for ships, houses, and sculpture. Dioscorides suggests many medicinal uses. This evergreen pencil-shaped and statuesque conifer tree with knobbly cones.
Sacred to : Apollo (sacred cypress grove at Ortygia), Artemis (sacred cypress groves), Asklepios (his staff was made of cypress)
Myth 1 : A young prince of the island of Keos loved by the god Apollon. When he killed himself following the death of his beloved pet stag the god transformed him into the cypress tree. (Ovid)
Myth 2 : Birth of Apollon. The god Apollon was born and raised in the sacred Ortygian cypress grove in Lykia. There he was nursed by the Nymph Ortygia and guarded by shield-clashing Kouretes. (Strabo)
Dittany of Crete
The Cretan dictamnus was known to the ancient Greeks as Artemidion, after Artemis. Eaten by goats, its miraculous powers wererecorded by many writers. It is now endemic to Crete, where it is threatened with extinction. The plant was used by Hippocrates in Kos for many medicinal purposes and by Dioscorides to heal spear wounds and more.
Myth 1 : A story is told by Aristotle of Cretan goats excreting the poisonous arrows of their hunters, this story repeated by his student Theophrastus (Baumann).
Greek : Ptelea
Deciduous tree with large oval rough-faced leaves.
Sacred to : Dionysos (elm and plane saplings were used for the trellacing of vines) ; Haides (the tree was associated with graves of the dead)
Myth 1 : Tree of Dreams. The Oneiroi, spirits of dreams, roosted on the branches an elm tree near the entrance of Haides. (Virgil)
Myth 2 : Barrow of Eetion. The Nymphs planted elms on the barrow of Eetion, the king of Trojan Thebes, who was slain by Akhilleus. (Homer)
Myth 3 : Metamorphosis Hesperides. When Orpheus and the Argonauts encountered the Hesperides in their garden, the three nymphs transformed themselves into trees: Erytheia became an elm (ptelea), Hesperiea poplar (aigeiros), and Aigle a willow tree (itea). (Apollonius Rhodius)
Myth 4 : Hamadryas Ptelea. The Hamadryad nymph of the elm tree. (Athenaeus)
Helichrysum siculum, Helichrysum orientale
Greek : Amarantos, helikhruson, khrysokomê
A grey-leaved creeper with small, bright yellow flowers that keep their colour when dried. The Greek named the flower amarantos, the unfading, helikhryson, turning gold, and khrysokomê, the golden-haired.
Sacred to : the Gods (dried everlastings were used to decorate the temples of the gods)
Greek : Narthêx
A yellow-flowering perennial with a slow-burning pith making it an effective torch. Travellers and sailors also used it to transport fire.
Sacred to : Prometheus (fennel-stalk torches were used in Promethean torch-race festival), Dionysos (his thyrsos staff was a pine-cone tipped fennel stalk)
Myth 1 : Fire of Prometheus. The Titan Prometheus stole fire from heaven for man, hiding the flame inside a fennel stalk. As punishment for the crime Zeus had him chained to a mountain and set an eagle to peck out his liver. (Hesiod)
Greek : Sykea
An orchard tree in ancient Greece, the figs eaten either fresh, or dried for out of season consumption.
Sacred to : Demeter, Dionysos.
Myth 1 : Metamorphosis Sykeus. One of the Titanes who fled from Zeus and was transformed by his mother Gaia into a fig-tree. (Athenaeus)
Myth 2 : Hospitality of Phytalos. A man who hospitably received the goddess Demeter when she was searching for her lost daughter Persephone. She rewarded him with the creation of the cultivated fig tree. (Pausanias)
Myth 3 : Hamadryas Syke. The Hamadryad nymph of the fig-tree. (Athenaeus)
Silver Fir, Greek Fir, Trojan Fir
Abies cephalonica (Greek Fir), A. alba (Silver Fir), A. nordmanniana, A. equi-trojani (Trojan Fir)
Greek : Elatê
Theophrastus mentions Silver Firs as providing light, durable timber for shipbuilding, being long and straight, thus also used for yard-arms and masts. Also especially useful for housing where glues were needed. The famed columns of the Palace of Knossos were likely inverted trunks of the Greek Fir. Firs are montane pyrmaidal-shaped conifers. The silver fir grows to a height of 100 to 150 feet and the Grecian fir around 80. Their tall cones ripen around October. The juice of the silver fir (a turpentine-like oil) was mixed by the Greeks with new wine to make it keep. Fir wood was used for building.
Sacred to : Dionysos (his devotees wielded fir-cone tipped staffs), Kybele (a sacred silver fir was decorated at the centre of her mountain orgies), Eileithyia (the gum of the silver fir called the menses of Eileithyia, perhaps with a medicinal use in childbirth)
Myth 1 : Thyrsos of Dionysos. The thyrsos of Dionysos was a fir- (or pine) cone tipped staff. The fir-cone was a symbol of the god’s phallus.
Myth 2 : Metamorphosis Attis. Attis was a handsome youth loved by the goddess Kybele. However when she discovered that he had been unfaithful, she forced him to castrate himself and transformed him into a silver fir. The tree was decorated at the centre of her orgiastic rituals, its phallic cone representing the castrated members of her lover. (Pausanias, Ovid)
Myth 3 : Nymphai Oreiades. At the birth of a mountain Nymph a lofty silver fir or holm oak sprung up from the earth and withered when she died. (Homeric Hymns)
Greek : Libanos
Tree with aromatic gum was imported into Greece as an incense for use in religious ceremonies.
Sacred to : Helios
Myth 1 : Metamorphosis Leukothoe. A Persian princess who was loved by the sun-god Helios. When her father learned of the affair, he buried her beneath the sands. Helios then transformed her body into the frankincense tree. (Ovid)
Greek : Ampelos
The grape was widely cultivated in ancient Greece for the production of wine.
Sacred to : Dionysos (god of wine and viticulture)
Myth 1 : Dionysos & Viticulture. The god Dionysos discovered or created the first grapevine and instructed mankind the arts of viticulture and winemaking. (various)
Myth 2 : Metamorphosis Ampelos. A Satyr youth loved by the god Dionysos. After he was slain by a wild bull the god transformed him into a grape vine. (Nonnus)
Myth 3 : Metamorphosis Ambrosia. One of the Mainas nurses of Dionysos. When she was slain by the impious Lykourgos, the god transformed her into a vine.
Myth 4 : Hamadryas Ampelos. The Hamadryad nymph of the wild grape vine. (Athenaeus)
HAZELNUT – See Walnut (both were named karya in Greek)
Heliotropium europaeum, H. hirsutissimum, H. supinum
Greek : Hêliotropion
A summer-blooming herb whose flowers turn to face the sun.
Sacred to : Helios
Myth 1 : Metamorphosis Klytie. Klytie was a Nymphe loved by the sun-god Helios. When he left her for another, she wasted away and was transformed into a sun-gazing heliotrope. (Ovid)
Black hellebore, lenten rose
Helleborus cyclophyllus (also H. orientalis and Veratrum album)
Greek : Helleboros
An herbaceous perennial with leathery leaves and winter-blooming yellowish-green flowers. The plant is toxic but was used by the ancients as a treatment for madness and certain other illnesses.
Myth 1 : Cure of the Proitides. The daughters of King Proitos of Argos were driven mad by the god Dionysos as punishment for scorning his worship. The seer Melampos, in response to the pleas of the king, found the girls wandering in the mountains and cured them with hellebore. (Apollodorus, Pliny the Elder)
Greek : Kôneion
In ancient Athens drinking hemlock was the traditional method of death for criminals, the most famous example being Socrates. Ancient writers frequently associate hemlock with the magic of necromancers and witches, along with aconite.
Greek : Pharmakon (singular), pharmaka (plural)
In ancient Greek, the word pharmakeia referred to the use of herbal drugs, potions and charms. It included not only the physician’s art, but also magic (i.e. the use of superstitious charms and spells by the average man), witchcraft (the harmful use of magic) and the concoction of poisons. The Greek word for witch was pharmakis. The ancient pharmacological writer Dioscurides describes the medicinal properties of herbs and other plants in great detail. Witchcraft is mentioned in passing by many poets, but the most descriptive account is surely to be found in the Golden Ass of Apuleius.
Sacred to : Asklepios (god of medicine); Hekate (goddess of witchcraft)
Myth 1 : Emetic of Kronos. The Titan Kronos devoured each of his children as soon as they were born, except Zeus, who was safely hidden away by his mother Rheia. When the god was grown he sought the aid of the goddess Metis or Gaia who served Kronos an herbal emetic which caused the Titan to disgorge his divine sibligns: Poseidon, Haides, Hera, Demeter and Hestia. (Hesiod, Apollodorus, et al.)
Myth 2 : Herb of the Gigantes. The Gigantes were monstrous sons of Gaia the earth who once made war on the gods of Olympos. Gaia had heard from an oracle that her sons were destined to be destroyed and so searched the world for a magical herb which would grant them immortality. Zeus, however, forbade the Sun, Moon and Dawn to shine, and found the drug before her. (Apollodorus)
Myth 3 : Herb of Glaukos. Glaukos was a fisherman from the Boiotian town of Anthedon who found a magical herb growing near the shore. He ate it and was transformed into a fish-tailed sea-god. (Pausanias, Ovid, Nonnus)
Myth 4 : Medicines of Kheiron. Kheiron was a learned centaur who made his home on Magnesian Mount Pelion. He was the first to discover the use of medicinal herbs and instructed many heroes in the craft, including the famous Asklepios. (Homer, Pindar, Apollodorus, Aelian, et al.)
Myth 5 : Medicines of Asklepios. Asklepios was the mythical founder of medicine. As a youth he was instructed by the centaur Kheiron in the use of herbal remedies, but went on to perfect the art. He became so skilled that he could even bring the dead back to life. The ancient guild of doctors, who were known as the Asklepiades, claimed descent from him. (Homer, Pindar, Apollodorus, Aelian, et al.)
Myth 6 : Herb of Polyidos. Polyidos was a seer summoned to the court of King Minos of Krete to find his missing son Glaukos. He found the boy drowned in a vat of honey, and was then locked by the king in a cell with the body and commanded to bring him back to life. When a serpent crawled toward the corpse, Polyidos killed it, and watched as its mate appeared with a magical herb and restored it to life. Using this plant he then revived the Glaukos and was freed. (Apollodorus, Hyginus, et al.)
Myth 7 : Herb of Moria. Moria was a Lydian nymph whose brother Tylos was killed by a giant serpent. The hero Damasen killed the beast, but afterwards, as Moria was watching, its mate appeared and restored it to life with a magical herb. She then used the same to revive her own dead brother. (Nonnus)
Myth 8 : Witchcraft of Kirke. The witch Kirke was titled polypharmakos (of the many herbs) by Homer. She was said to have been the first to devise magical herbal potions, and used these magical concoctions to transform men into beasts, including the comrades of Odysseus, the Italian youth Pikos, and the nymph Skylla. (Homer, Ovid, et al.)
Myth 9 : Witchcraft of Medea. The witch Medea was skilled in the use of magical herbs. She made a fire-resistant salve for the hero Jason when he was forced to face the fire-breathing bulls of king Aeetes ; she put the serpent guardian of the Golden Fleece to sleep with a potion ; restored Jason’s father and also the Hyades to youth by boiling them in a cauldron with magical herbs ; and various other magical wonders. Medea was said to have left her basket of Kolkhian herbs on Mount Pelion where they sprouted for the use of later Thessalian withces. She also later tried to kill the hero Theseus with poison aconite. (Apollonius Rhodius, Valerius Flaccus, et al.)
See also : Aconite, Dittany, Hellebore, Hemlock, Mint and Moly (separate entries).
Dwarf Iris, Sweet Iris
Iris attica, I. pallida
Greek : agallis, iris
A spring bulb with purple, blue or mauve blooms.
Myth 1 : Bouquet of Persephone. The goddess Persephone and her companion Nymphs were gathering rose, crocus, violet, dwarf iris (agallis), lily and larkspur blooms in a springtime meadow when she was abducted by the god Haides. (Homeric Hymns)
Myth 2 : Goddess Iris. The sweet iris was named by the Greeks after the goddess of the rainbow.
Greek : kissos
A creeping perennial withblack berries ripen in late winter.
Sacred to : Dionysos (ivy garlands were worn by celebrants of the god’s orgies and ivy was used to decorate their thyrsos-staffs)
Myth 1 : Nursing of Dionysos. After the birth of Dionysos his jealous stepmother Hera sought to destroy him. So his nurses, the Nymphai Nysiades, screened his crib with ivy-leaves to keep him safely hidden. Kisseis (the lady of the ivy) was the name of one of these Nymphs. (Ovid)
Myth 2 : Korymbos. The son of one of the nurses of Dionysos. He was the god of the fruit of the ivy (in Greek korymbos). (Nonnus)
Greek : Kedros
A durable timber used by sculptors in antiquity. A diminutive tree with needle leaves. The berries ripen to an orange-red. The tree is prized for its wood. The famous Phoenician Cedar, J. phoenicea, also found in Crete, is another species grown in Greece and used for housing in ancient times.
Sacred to : Artemis (there was a sanctuary of Artemis Kedreatis, Lady of the Cedar, near Orkhomenos where the cult image was set in the tree)
Greek : Hyakinthos
The flower we now call hyacinth is not the same as the Greek hyakinthos, the Greeks using this name for the larkspur, a late season flowering perennial with tall stems of blue flowers.
Sacred to : Apollo (the plant was probably used in the god’s Hyakinthia festival held near Sparta in early summer)
Myth 1 : Metamorphosis Hyakinthos. Hyakinthos was a handsome, young Spartan prince loved by the gods Apollon and Zephyros. Zephyros grew jealous and one day when Apollon was playing quoits with the boy he caught up the disc with his windy breath and struck him in the head. As Hyakinthos lay dying, Apollon caused the larkspur or iris flower to spring forth from his blood, inscribing it with the Greek words “ai ai”, alas, alas. (Ovid, Philostratus, Pausanias, et al)
Myth 2 : Death of Aias. Aias (or Ajax) was a Greek hero of the Trojan war. After the armour of Akhilleus was awarded to Odysseus he went mad and threw himself upon his own sword. The larkspur flower sprang from his blood, its petals inscribed with the “ai” of his name. (Ovid)
Myth 3 : Bouquet of Persephone. The goddess Persephone and her companion Nymphs were gathering rose, crocus, violet, iris, lily and larkspur blooms in a springtime meadow when she was abducted by the god Haides. (Homeric Hymns)
Greek : Daphnê
A tree flowering in late spring and produces purplish black berries in the fall. The aromatic leaves of the bay are edible and are / were used in cooking.
Sacred to : Apollo (the god and victors of his Phthian Games were crowned with wreaths of laurel ; he was titled Daphnaios) ; Artemis (she had sacred laurel groves and was titled Daphnaia)
Myth 1 : Metamorphosis Daphne. Daphne was an Arkadian Nymphe loved by the god Apollo. When he pursued her, she fled and transformed herself into a laurel tree to escape him. The plant was ever after sacred to the god. (Pausanias, Ovid, Hyginus)
Greek : Thridax
The ancient Greeks cultivated the wild prickly lettuce. The plant has tall stalks with elongated leaves, yellow flowers and feathery seeds. The ball-shaped lettuce of today, Lactuca sativa and its cultivars, is a derivative species.
Sacred to : Aphrodite (the plant was associated with impotency)
Myth 1 : Death of Adonis. Adonis was a handsome youth loved by the goddess Aphrodite. He was slain by a wild boar in a bed of lettuce, or was laid out amongst the plants by the goddess following his death. The lettuce was therefore regarded as the plant of the death of love, and so of impotency. Others say that the baby Adonis was hidden in a lettuce bed by the goddess following his birth from the trunk of the tree Myrrha. (Athenaeus)
Greek : Leirion, krinon
A white-flowered spring perennial which grows to a height of up to 1.2 metres.
Myth 1 : Bouquet of Persephone. The goddess Persephone and her companion Nymphs were gathering rose, crocus, violet, dwarf iris, lily (leirion) and larkspur blooms in a springtime meadow when she was abducted by the god Haides. (Homeric Hymns)
Greek : Philyra
A deciduous tree which grows to a height of 60 to 80 feet. The linden blooms with fragrant yellowish-white flowers in mid-summer.
Sacred to : Perhaps Aphrodite
Myth 1 : Metamorphosis Philyre. Philyra was a Thessalian Nymphe loved by the Titan Kronos. When his wife Rhea interrupted their rendeavous he transformed himself into a horse and fled. Philyra was later so ashamed at having given birth to the half-horse Kheiron that she begged Zeus to change her form. He agreed, transforming her into a linden tree. (Hyginus)
Myth 2 : Metamorphosis Baukis. Philemon and Baukis were a pious couple who hospitably received the gods Zeus and Hermes when they were travelling amongst mankind in disguise. The gods destroyed those who had turned them away and rewarded the couple by making them priests of the temple and transforming them into a pair of entwined trees at death: Baukis a linden, and Philemon an oak. (Ovid)
Greek : Lotos
A small deciduous tree which flowers in mid-summer. Its sweet red fruit ripens in late autumn.
Sacred to : Priapos
Myth 1 : Metamorphosis Lotis. Lotis was a Dryopian Nymphe who was transformed into a lotus-tree to escape the lustful pursuit of the god Priapos. (Ovid)
Myth 2 : Tribe of the Lotus-Eaters. The Lotus-Eaters (Greek Lotophagoi) were a tribe of men addicted to the honey-sweet fruit of the lotus tree.Tthe hero Odysseus encountered them during his travels. When some of his men tasted the fruit, they lost the desire to leave and had to be dragged, bound, back to the ship. (Homer)
Mentha spicata, M. viridis
Greek : Minthê
An herbaceous perennial with aromatic leaves.
Sacred to : Demeter and Persephone (the sacred barley-drink of the Eleusinian Mysteries was flavoured with mint), Haides (aromatic mint was perhaps used on the bodies of the dead)
Myth 1 : Metamorphosis Minthe. Minthe was a Nymph loved by the god Haides. When she boasted that she was superior to his queen Persephone, the goddess, or her mother Demeter, transformed her into the mint plant. (Strabo, Ovid, Oppian)
Greek : Moron
A small deciduous tree or bush native to western Asia. It is cultivated for its juicy, dark-red berries.
Myth 1 : Death of Pyramos & Thisbe. Pyramos and Thisbe were a pair of ill-fated lovers from the Assyrian city of Babylon. Their parents forbade their romance and the pair agreed to meet secretly beneath a white-berried mulberry tree outside the city limits. When Pyramos arrived he found Thisbe’s shawl in the jaws of a lion and believing her killed plunged a sword through his breast. The girl upon discovering her dead lover also killed herself. The mulberry tree soaked up the lovers’ blood and its berries were turned from white to black-red. (Ovid)
Myth 2 : Hamadryas Morea. The Hamadryad nymph of the mulberry-tree. (Athenaeus)
Agaricus campestris and other kinds
Greek : Mukês
Mushrooms were regarded as a delicacy in the ancient world and were harvested from the wild.
Myth 1 : Origin of Ephyraian Men. After the Great Deluge the Isthmos was repopulated by men grown from mushrooms. (Ovid)
Greek : Smyrna, myrra
A small, spiny desert tree native to Arabia and the horn of Africa. Its valuable, aromatic gum resin was harvested and burnt as an incense in ancient religious shrines.
Sacred to : Aphrodite (festal myrrh incense).
Myth 1 : Metamorphosis Smyrna. Smyrna (or Myrrha) was a Cyprian, Lebanese or Assyrian princess whose mother dared to compare her in beauty to the goddess Aphrodite. The offended divinity caused the girl to fall in love with her own father as punishment. When the King discovered his daughter had seduced him in disguise, he pursued her with an axe, but the goddess mercifully intervened by transforming Smyrna into a myrrh tree. Adonis was later born of the incestuous union from the tree’s trunk and entrusted to the care of Nymphs. The tears of the girl formed the aromatic gum of myrrh. A similar story was told of Myrrha and the myrtle tree. (Apollodorus, Antoninus Liberalis, Plutarch, Hyginus, Ovid)
Greek : Myrsinê, myrrinê, myrtos
A small evergreen tree or shrub with aromatic, spicy-tasting leaves. It blooms with sweet-scented, white flowers in spring and summer, and produces edible blue-black berries.
Sacred to : Aphrodite (brides wore myrtle-garlands and bathed in myrtle-scented water on their wedding day)
Myth 1 : Metamorphosis Myrrha. Myrrha was a Cyprian princess who fell in love with her father and conspired to seduce him in disguise. When he learned of her crime, she fled his wrath and was transformed into a myrtle tree. The boy Adonis was later born from her trunk. The same story was told of Myrrha or Smyrna and the myrrh tree. (Pausanias)
Daffodil, Poet’s Narcissus, Pheasant’s Eye Daffodil, Late Daffodil
Narcissus tazetta, N. poeticus, N. serotinus
Greek : Narkissos, leirion
Plutarch believed the plant was named for the numbing effect (narkê) of the ingested bulb.
Myth 1 : Metamorphosis Narkissos. Narkissos was a hubristic youth who callously scorned all those who sought to court him. The goddess Nemesis exacted revenge by causing him to fall in love with his own reflection. The boy became obsessed with the image and slowly wasting away was transformed into a narcissus flower. ( Ovid)
Myth 2 : Leiriope. Leiriope was a Phokian Nymph, and the mother of the hubristic boy Narkissos (above). Her name means “narcissus-face” suggesting that she, like her son, may have been transformed into a daffodil flower. (Ovid)
Myth 3 : Rape of Persephone. The goddess Persephone and her companion Nymphs were gathering rose, crocus, violet, iris, lily and larkspur blooms in a springtime meadow when she was lured away by a cluster of bright narcissus flowers produced by Gaia the Earth. When she went to pluck them, the god Haides seized and carried her off to the underworld to be his bride. (Homeric Hymns)
Holm Oak, Valonia Oak, Evergreen Oak, Prickly-cupped Oak and Ilex (alternative names for Holm Oak)
Quercus ilex, Q. ithaburensis, Q. macrolepis, Q. aegilops
Greek : Drys
The oak was the dominant tree of the ancient Greek landscape. In fact the ancient Greek word for oak, ‘drys’, was also the word for tree. The two main commonly found in the region are the evergreen holm oak and the deciduous Valonian. Both range in size from thick low shrub (forming the basis of the modern-day Meditteranean scrub forests) to large trees. They were valued for their wood and for the autumn-ripening acorns. Tanin was also extracted from the acorn cups of the Valonian oak. This substance was a vital component employed in the tanning of leather hides. In Greek lore, the primitive, pre-agrarian tribes of Arkadia were said to have lived on a stable diet of acorns. In classical times it was a food only of last resort consumed in times of famine. Usually acorns were reserved for animal feed.
Sacred to : Zeus (gave his oracles from the sacred oaks of Dodona)
Myth 1 : Nymphai Dryades. Dryads or Hamadryads were Nymphs whose life force was irrevocably bound up with that of a tree, usually a mighty oak. At their birth, a symbiotic plant sprang up fully grown from the earth and when they died it withered away. The premature felling of the tree also brought about the death of the Nymph. (Various)
Myth 2 : Metamorphosis Byblis. Byblis was a Miletian princess who fell in love with her own brother. When the boy rejected her advances, she fled in shame, and cast herself off a mountainside. The Nymphs pitied her fate and transformed Byblis into a holm oak Dryad. Her tears became a spring which rose from the tree’s roots. (Antoninus Liberalis, Ovid)
Myth 3 : Metamorphosis Philemon. Philemon and Baukis were a pious couple who hospitably received the gods Zeus and Hermes when they were travelling amongst mankind in disguise. The gods destroyed those who had turned them away and rewarded the couple by making them priests of the temple and transforming them into a pair of entwined trees at death: Baukis a linden, and Philemon an oak. (Ovid)
Myth 4 : The Golden Fleece. The golden fleece was nailed to the branches of an oak tree in the sacred grove of Ares at Kolkhis. The god sent a giant serpent (drakon) to guard it. (Apollodorus, Apollonius Rhodius, Valerius Flaccus)
Myth 5 : Sacrilege of Erysikthon. See Poplar, black.
Myth 6 : Hamadryas Balanos. The Hamadryad nymph of the acorn. (Athenaeus)
Greek : Elaia, moria
The olive was the most important tree of ancient Greek horticulture. The fruit was used as a relish with bread, and its oil employed in cooking, lamps for light, and as a, sometimes perfumed, lotion for the skin and hair.
Sacred to : Athene (the most sacred olive tree grew in her sanctuary on the Acropolis of Athens) ; Zeus (victors at the Olympian Games were crowned with wild olive)
Myth 1 : Contest for Athens. Athene and Poseidon once engaged in a contest for dominion of Athens. Zeus agreed to award the city to the god who produced the best gift for man. Athene then created the first olive tree which she caused to spring forth from the rock of the Akropolis, whilst Poseidon produced a horse. The gods judged Athene’s the better gift and awarded her the city. (Apollodorus, Pausanias, Hyginus, Ovid)
Myth 2 : Metamorphosis Moria. Moria was an Athenian maiden dear to the goddess Athena. At her death the goddess transformed her into a sacred olive tree (moria).
Greek : Phoinix
A medium sized tree. Its edible dates are harvested.
Sacred to : Apollon and Leto (the sacred palm tree of Apollon’s birth grew in his sanctuary on the island of Delos); Nike (the goddess of victory held a palm branch as an attribute).
Myth 1 : Birth of Apollo. The goddess Leto gave birth to Apollon on the island of Delos whilst clinging to a palm tree beside the Inopos River. (Homeric Hymns, Callimachus, et al.)
Greek : Onkhnê, apios
The pear was one of the mainstays of the ancient Greek orchard, alongside the apple, pomegranate, fig and olive. Despite its prominence the tree is curiously absent from myth. The travel writer Pausanias mentions an old cult statue or two crafted out of pear-wood.
“But without the courtyard, hard by the door, is a great orchard of four acres, and a hedge runs about it on either side. Therein grow trees, tall and luxuriant, pears and pomegranates and apple-trees with their bright fruit, and sweet figs, and luxuriant olives.” Homer’s Odyssey 7.112
Aleppo Pine, Turkish Pine
Pinus halepensis & P. brutia
Greek : Peukê, pitys
Aleppo Pine is known today for its resin used to flavour the wine retsina and originally done to prevent it turning sour. Ancient Greeks used the wood for shipbuilding, housing, and fuel, Theophrastus recording its use for mallets and its use for ‘ . . . almost more purposes than any other wood . . . including painters’ tablets’. Dioscorides listed many medical uses.
The Aleppo is a coastal pine which grows to a height of 15 to 25 metres. The Turkish pine is another coastal pine, somewhat larger at 20 to 35 metres, with edible seeds. Pine wood was commonly used by the ancients for shipbuilding and also for torches.
Sacred to : Poseidon (victors at the god’s Isthmian games were crowned with wreaths of pine; he had sacred pine groves at Korinthos and Onkhestos) ; Dionysus (his devotees wielded pine or fir-cone tipped thrysoi staffs). Also sacred to Cybele, Attis, and Pan.
Myth 1 : Banditry of Sinis. Sinis Pityokamptes (the Pine-Bender) was a Korinthian bandit, and a son of the god Poseidon, who waylayed travellers passing through the Isthmos. He bound his victims to the tops of curbed pine-trees and let spring up to tear the men asunder. Sinis was slain by Theseus in the same manner. Afterwards the hero instituted the Isthmian Games to appease the ghost of Sinis and his father Poseidon. (Apollodorus, Plutarch et al.)
Corsican Pine, Stone Pine
Pinus nigra subsp. laricio, Pinus pinea
Greek : Pitys, peukê
The Corsican pine is a mountain growing tree which reaches a height of 20 to 55 metres. It is a subspecies of the European black pine. The stone pine is smaller, at 15 to 25 metres, has umbrella-shaped crown and produces the edible pine nut.
Sacred to : Pan (the god had sacred pine groves on Mount Mainalos) ; Dionysos (as per the Aleppo pine)
Myth 1 : Metamorphosis Pitys. Pitys was a nymph loved by the god Pan. She fled his advances and was transformed into a pine tree. (Source: Lucian, Nonnus)
Myth 2 : Nymphai Oreiades. The Oreiades were nymphs of the mountain peaks who were born and who died with their native pines. (Source: Homeric Hymns)
Myth 3 : Metamorphosis Oikhaliai. When the Oikhalian princess Dryope had departed to join the nymphs, maidens of the village spread the rumour that she had been abducted. The nymphs were angered by this and transformed the girls into pine trees. (Source: Antoninus Liberalis)
Greek : Platanos
Description : A wide-spreading deciduous tree usually found growing in river plains. The tree produces round, burr-like fruits in autumn. Many Greek cities, including Athens, planted plane trees for shade. Plane and elm tree saplings were also used for vine trellacing.
Sacred to : Helene (at Sparta, girls celebrated her wedding by pouring libations of oil and hanging garlands on her sacred plane tree)
Myth 1 : Sacrifice at Aulis. When the Greek fleet was gathered at Aulis in preparation for the departure to Troy, Agamemnon and the other leaders made sacrifices to the gods beneath the sacred plane tree. Zeus then sent an omen: a speckled serpent devoured a nest of birds in the tree, eight chicks with their mother, and was afterwards turned to stone. The seer Kalkhas interpreted this to mean that the Trojan War would last nine years with Troy finally falling in the tenth. (Homer)
Myth 2 : Death of Helene. After the death of her husband Menelaus, Helene sought refuge with Queen Polyxo of Rhodes. The woman nursed a grudge for the death of her husband in the Trojan War, and with her handmaidens, dressed themselves up as Erinyes and hung Helene from a plane tree. She was afterwards worshipped as Helene Dendrytis (of the Tree). (Pausanias)
Like Artemisia absinthium and Melilot officinalis
Greek : Psalakantha
According to ancient sources the plany resembled or was a type of absinth wormwood (aka armoise), a herbaceous perennial with silvery green leaves and pale yellow flowers. It was also likened to melilot (yellow sweet clover).
Sacred to : Dionysos & Ariadne (a wreath of the plant was probably worn at their Naxian and Ikarian festivals)
Myth 1 : Metamorphosis Psalakantha. Psalakantha was an Ikarian who Dionysos sought to assist him in the wooing of Ariadne. She, however, developed a passion for the god and, when he refused her tried, to dissuade Ariadne from the union. The god in anger transformed her into a plany plant, but afterwards, feeling remorse set her plant in the crown of his wife. (Ptolemy Hephaestion)
Greek : Rhoa, sidê
Cultivated in ancient orchards alongside the apple, pear, fig, and olive.
Sacred to : Hera (the fruit was her attribute as goddess of marriage – the bloody red seeds representing female fertility), Aphrodite (for similar reasons)
Prohibitions : Demeter and Persephone (the fruit was one of the foods prohibited in the Mystery initiations)
Myth 1 : Metamorphosis Side. Side was the wife of the giant Orion who boasted to be more beautiful than the goddess Hera. In anger the goddess sent her to Haides. Presumably this was accompanied by a metamorphosis into her namesake fruit tree, the pomegranate. (Source: Apollodorus)
Myth 2 : Rape of Persephone. Haides the king of the underworld abducted Persephone for his wife. She refused to eat while she remained with him, until he tempted her with the seed of the pomegranate. She tasted these and in so doing was condemned to spend a portion of each year in the underworld. (Source: Homeric Hymns, et. al.)
Myth 3 : Orchadist Askalaphos. The keeper of the pomegranate orchards of Haides reported to his master that Persephone had tasted of the seed. As punishment for this Demeter turned him into a screech owl. (Apollodorus, Ovid)
Greek : Aigeiros
A tall, columnar tree which grows along the banks of rivers.
Sacred to : Helios (the trees as sources of amber), Persephone (Homer describes her sacred poplar and willow tree grove near the entrance of Hades)
Myth 1 : Metamorphosis Heliades. The Heliades were nymph daughters of the sun-god Helios. After the death of their brother Phaethon, who had fallen from the chariot of the sun, the sisters gathered on the banks of the northern river Eridanos in ceaseless mourning and were transformed into amber-teared poplar trees.
Myth 2 : Metamorphosis Sperkheides. The Sperkheides were nymphs of the river Sperkheios in Malis. While Poseidon was seducing their sister Diopatre, he transformed them into poplar trees. (Antoninus Liberalis)
Myth 3 : Metamorphosis Dryope. Dryope was a princess of Oikhalia loved by the god Apollon. When their son was grown, she departed with the Hamadryad nymphs (her aunts) who transformed her into a sacred poplar in the god’s sanctuary. Others say this occurred after she plucked the flower of the metamorphosed nymph Lotis. (Antoninus Liberalis, Ovid)
Myth 4 : Metamorphosis Hesperides. When Orpheus and the Argonauts encountered the Hesperides in their garden, the three nymphs transformed themselves into trees: Erytheia became an elm (ptelea), Hesperiea poplar (aigeiros), and Aigle a willow tree (itea). (Apollonius Rhodius)
Myth 5 : Sacrilege of Erysikhthon. The Thessalian king Erysikhthon felled the holy poplars or oak tree in the sacred grove of the goddess Demeter, in order to build a roof for his feast-hall. The Dryad nymphs cried out in pain, and as punishment the goddess inflicted him with an unquenchable hunger. (Callimachus, Ovid)
Myth 5 : Hamadryas Aigeiros. The Hamadryad nymph of the black poplar tree. (Athenaeus)
Greek : Leukê
A deciduous tree which grows to a height of 15 to 25 metres. Its has smooth, grey-white bark, and leaves which are green on top with white undersides. New leaves are covered in a whitish-grey down.
Sacred to : Haides (white poplars grew abundantly around the river Akheron in Thesprotia where the god had his oracle of the dead); Zeus and Herakles (the tree was established at Olympia by Herakles when he founded the games; the Eleians also used its wood for the sacrificial fires of Zeus and titled him Leukaios, god of the white poplar)
Myth 1 : Metamorphosis Leuke. Leuke was a nymph who was carried off by the god Haides. After her death she was transformed into a white poplar in Elysium. (Source: Servius).
Myth 2 : Herakles & the Olympics. When Herakles established the Olympic games at Olympia he introduced the white poplar from Thesprotia for its shade. (Pindar, Pausanias, et al.)
Corn Poppy, Opium Poppy
Papaver rhoeus and Papaver somniferum
Greek : Mêkôn
A red spring and summer flowing perennial. The ancients apparently planted it in their crop rotations to revitalise the soil. It was also naturally found growing amongst the wheat fields. Opiates were extracted from the seed of the opium poppy variety.
Sacred to : Demeter (poppy flowers were used for festive adornment, and a cake baked with poppy-seeds featured in her mysteries; opiates may also have been used in some of her Mystery cults), Hypnos (the god of sleep dripped poppy juice, i.e. opium, from his wand)
Myth 1 : Metamorphosis Mekon. Mekon was a youth loved by the goddess Demeter. Following his premature death she transformed him into a poppy flower. (Servius)
Sweet Flag, Calamus
Greek : Kalamos
A perennial wetland reed with scented leaves. Its seed spikes grow on tall stalks. The rustic panpipe of the ancients was made from the hollowed out stalks of the plant..
Sacred to : Pan (his famous panpipes were crafted from its hollow stalks, and the spikes were a phallic symbol) ; Dionysos (the rhizome was a wine additive, and the spike a phallic symbol)
Myth 1 : Metamorphosis Syrinx. Syrinx was a nymph loved by the god Pan. She fled his advances and reaching the banks of hte river Ladon transformed into a stand of reeds to escape him. The god made his panpipes from her stalks. (Ovid, Nonnus)
Myth 2 : Metamorphosis Kalamos. Kalamos was a son of the Karian river Maiandros. When his beloved Karpos (fruit) drowned, the grievingKalamos was transformed into a stand of reeds. (Nonnus)
Greek : Kisthos
A low growing perennial shrub with large, delicate, pink or yellow flowers.
Sacred to : Poseidon (perhaps)
Myth 1 : Seduction of Medusa. The Gorgon Medusa was seduced by Poseidon in a meadow of rock roses on the island of Kisthene. The isle was named Kisthene for the flower kisthos.
Greek : Rhodon
A deciduous thorny shrub with bright pink flowers. The rose was cultivated by the Greeks and Romans.
Sacred to : Aphrodite (symbol of love)
Myth 1 : Death of Adonis. The flower was said to have sprung or been coloured by the blood of Aphrodite’s dying love Adonis.
Myth 2 : Bouquet of Persephone The goddess Persephone and her companion Nymphs were gathering rose, crocus, violet, iris, lily and larkspur blooms in a springtime meadow when she was abducted by the god Hades. (Homeric Hymns)
Arbutus andrachne, Arbutus unedo
Greek : Andrakhnos, komaros
An evergreen tree or shrub which grows to a height of 5 to 10 metres. It produces bell shaped flowers in spring, and red berries in the autumn. The fruit is edible but bland.
Sacred to : Hermes (a sacred strawberry tree stood in his sanctuary at Tanagra).
Myth 1 : Birth of Hermes. The infant god was nursed beneath a strawberry tree. (Pausanias)
Greek : Ion
Sacred to : ?Apollo
Myth 1 : Birth of Iamos. Iamos was a son of Apollon and the nymph Euadne. He was abandoned by his mother at birth. She left him lying in the Arkadian wilds on a bed of violets where he was fed honey by serpents. Eventually he was discovered by passing shepherds who named him Iamos after the violet (ion) bed. (Pindar)
Myth 2 : Bouquet of Persephone The goddess Persephone and her companion Nymphs were gathering rose, crocus, violet, iris, lily and larkspur blooms in a springtime meadow when she was abducted by the god Haides. (Homeric Hymns)
English Walnut, Hazelnut, Sweet Chestnut
Juglans regia, Coryllus avellana, Castanea vesca
Greek : Karya
Sacred to : Artemis (had a sacred grove of sacred walnut or hazelnut trees at Karyai in Lakonia; the priestesses were named Karyatides, the ‘ladies of the nut tree’)
Myth 1 : Metamorphosis Karya. Karya was a Lakonian maiden loved by the god Dionysos. When her two sisters tried to prevent the liaison, the pair were driven mad and having gone to Mount Taygetos were transformed into stones. Karya meanwhile died and was changed into a nut tree. The goddess Artemis informed her father Dion of the affair and commanded he found a sanctuary in honour of Artemis Karyatis. (Servius)
Myth 2 : Hamadryas Karya. The Hamadryad nymph of the nut-tree. (Athenaeus)
Greek : Pyros
Sacred to : Demeter and Persephone (goddesses of the grain)
Myth 1 : Demeter Bestows Grain. After the return of Persephone from the underworld, Demeter bestowed the art of agriculture upon mankind. (Homeric Hymns, et al.)
Myth 2 : Instruction of Triptolemos. The Eleusinian hero Triptolemos was given a chariot drawn by flying serpents by the goddess Demeter and sent to instruct the whole of mankind in the art of agriculture. (Source: Homeric Hymns, et al.)
Greek : Itea
Sacred to : Persephone (Homer describes her sacred grove of willows and black poplars near the entrance of Hades)
Myth 1 : Metamorphosis Hesperides. When Orpheus and the Argonauts encountered the Hesperides in their garden, the three nymphs transformed themselves into trees: Erytheia became an elm (ptelea), Hesperiea poplar (aigeiros), and Aigle a willow tree (itea). (Apollonius Rhodius)
Common Yew, English Yew
Greek : Smilos, milos, taxos
A common tree throughout Europe, known for its extremely hard wood. A palaeolithic spear made out of yew, is possibly the oldest known wooden artefact. Used as a symbol of death in classical times with an associated fear of sitting or sleeping beneath. A denizen of old European churchyards and cemeteries.
Sacred to : The Erinyes (a yew branch was one of their attributes, used to drip purifying drops of water, and as a flaming torch).
Here is a brief summery of Greek places and mythological characters celebrated in plant names. Many of the Greek names, and their roots, that we use today come down to us from the Materia Medica of Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides (c. 40-90 CE), which was copied slavishly again and again in the herbals of the Middle Ages and which, itself, had used the names of Theophrastus and Hippocrates.
Our store of scientific plant names has, along with our knowledge of plants themselves, accumulated over time with a legacy of about 1000 scientific names coming to us from antiquity and the Middle Ages. These names are now controlled by thhe International Code of Nomenclature for Algae, Fungi, and Plants which take as an internationally agreed starting point, Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum (1753). Though derived from many sources and many languages these are all now expressed in a Latinized form. Latinization can be an unappealing aspect of plant names, but with minimal effort it can also open up a world of history and meaning.
Binomials, two-word names, are a brilliant way of designating an object of our experience. The first word, the genus name (like Narcissus or Eucalyptus) is like a surname that expresses membership of a broad group, while the second word, the specific epithet (like tazetta or maculata is an adjective (describing mostly people, places, parts and properties) and denoting a particular individual within that group. In this way the two words cleverly express both similarity and difference at the same time.
Greek genus names were an early classical foundation for a western system of plant nomenclature long before Linnaeus contrived a universally-acceptable system of plant inventory in the 18th century. These Greek names capture the vivid world of Greek mythology, superimposing a layer of drama and excitement into an exercise that, in different circumstances, would be a dry exercise in memorization.
Many ancient Greek words and their parts, like prefixes and suffixes, occur in botanical names. For example the orchid name Aceras is derived from the ancient Greek a – without, and kera – horn, referring to the flowers, which do not possess a spur – or Agapanthus from agape – love, and anthos – flower.
Botanists will recognize many of the names that appear in the descriptions below but few, today, will have more than an inkling of their origins since education in classical subjects has fallen by the wayside.
The following names are restricted to characters and places that are found in Greek mythology. A few names given to plants by the ancient Greeks have also been added. However, most of the Greek that appears in words, prefixes and suffixes has been given by botanists in the last two or three hundred years:
Achillea – Achilles, the hero who first used the plant in medicine
Adonis – Adonis was one of Venus’s lovers. His blood stained the petals of Pheasant Eye, Adonis autumnalis
Alsine – alsos a grove
Alsophila – alsos a grove, phileo to love, hence shade-loving, appropriate for this tree fern
Amaryllis – a shepherdess mentioned by Greek and Latin poets Theocritus and Virgil
Andromeda – from a princess who was bound to a rock and rescued by the hero Perseus
Anemone – anemos – wind, mone a place or habitat: referring to tsome species that are found in windy places
Anthemis – original Greek name for Chamomile
Artemisia – from Artemis (Diana), daughter of Zeus and Leto and twin sister of Apollo,, goddess of wild animals, the hunt, vegetation, chastity, and childbirth
Asclepias – from Aesculapius, ancient Greek physician
Atropa – one of the Three Fates from which there was no escape (hence its application to a highly poisonous plant)
Baccharis – from Bacchus the god of wine. A spicy extract of some species has been used to flavour wine
Buplerum – ancient Greek name for an umbelliferous plant
Cactus – a name used by Theophrastus for an unknown prickly plant
Callirhoe – an ancient Greek divinity
Calypso – ancient Greek goddess
Cassandra – Greek mythological name
Cassiope – queen of Ethiopia, mother of Andromeda
Castanea – after Kastana, a district of Thessaly the region of Mt Olympus
Catananche – an incentive, used as a love potion by the ancient Greeks
Ceanothus – a name used by Theophrastus for an unknown plant
Cedrus – ancient Greek name for the cedar, possibly derived from Kedron a river in Judaea
Centaurea – from the classical name of a plant said to have healed a wound in the foot of the Centaur Chiron
Cercis – ancient name applied by Theophrastus
Cissus – from Gr. kissos ivy
Cistus – ancient Greek name for the rock rose
Cladrastis – ancient Greek name
Clethra – ancient Greek name for the Alder
Coix – Theophrastus’s name for a reed-like plant
Cupressus – classical Greek name from kuo to produce, parisos equal – see the symmetrical form of the Italian Cypress
Cycas – from kykas, ancient Greek name for the palm tree
Cydonia – ancient Greek name for the quince which grew in abundance in Cydon, Crete
Endymion – a handsome Aeolian shepherd, hunter, or king who was said to rule and live at Olympia in Elis. He was also venerated and said to reside on Mount Latmus in Caria, on the west coast of Asia Minor.
Eryngium – original Greek name for a thistle
Euonymus – after Euonyme, mother of the Furies
Eupatorium – commemorating Mithridates Eupator (r. 120-63 BCE), last King of Pontus who discovered one species was a poison antidote
Exacum – classical name
Faba – classical name for the bean
Fagus – Latin name for the Beech from Gr. phago – to eat, the seeds being edible
Ferula – name given to Giant Fennel by Roman Pliny
Ficus – classical Latin name probably derived from he Hebrew name fag
Fraxinus – Latin name for the Ash probably derived from the Greek phrasso
Gazania – from either the Latin gaza meaning treasure or riches – or in commemoration of Theodore of Gaza (d. 1478) who translated the works of Theophrastus into Latin
Gentiana – after Gentius (r. 181–168 BCE) last ruler of the Illyrian kingdom (a region in the western part of the Balkan Peninsula under the Labeatan dynasty) who first used the plant as a medicine
Gnidia – commemorating a town in Crete
Hedysarum – old name used by Theophrastus
Helenium – probably commemorating Helen of Try
Heliconia – referring to a hill in Greece
Helleborus – classical name
Heracleum – after Hercules who is said to have discovered the medicinal properties
Hibiscus – ancient name used by Virgil for a mallow-like plant
Hieracium – Gr. hieraxhawk, name used by Pliny
Hyacinthus – named after Hyakinthos a beautiful Spartan who was accidentally killed by Apollo, the hyacinth plants growing from the ground where Hyakinthos’s blood was shed
Hyssopus – ancient Greek name probably of Hebrew origin
Isatis – classical name for a healing herb
Ismene – commemorating the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta in Greek legend
Itea – the ancient Greek name for the willow
Jasione – ancient name
Laelia – the name of one of the vestal virgins
Lasthenia – the name of a female pupil of Plato from Mantinea an ancient city in Arcadia, in the Peloponnese. She studied in the Academy dressed as a man.
Leucothoe – named after the daughter of a Babylonian king in Greek mythology who, when buried alive by her father, was transformed into a shrub by Apollo
Lycaste – named after a Sicilian beauty, possibly a maenad in the retinue of Dionysus although several Lycastes occur in Greek mythology
Lycium – from Gk. Lykion a plant of Lycia in Asia Minor
Lycoris – may apply to various figures in Greek mythology but probably Lycoreus or Lycorus, son of Apollo and the nymph Corycia. After him a city was named Lycoreia (later Delphi, after Delphus, great-grandson of Lycorus): father of Hyamus.
Lysimachus – uncertain origin, possibly after Lysimachus, King of Thrace in 306 BCE who discovered the plant’s medicinal properties
Maianthemum – Gr. Maia mother of Mercury after whom the month of May was named, and anthemon flower
Medeola – after Medea a Greek sorceress
Medicago – from Medea, the country where alfalfa was said to originate
Narcissus – the classical name used by Theophrastus
Nemophila – from nemos a grove and phileo to love, referring to the shady natural habitat of these plants
Nepenthes – meaning ‘without care’referring to the reference in Homer’s Odyssey to the wine, drugged by Helen of Troy, that freed its drinkers from grief and care
Nepeta – probably commemorating the city of Nepete in Etruria (formerly a region of Central Italy, located in an area that covered part of what is now Tuscany, Lazio, and Umbria)
Nerine – after a mythological princess of the Nereids
Nicandra – after Nicander, a Greek physician and plant author
Nymphaea – from Gr. Nymphe a water nymph or goddess of springs
Ocimum – old Greek name
Olea – classical name
Onopordum – old Greek name possibly from onos ass and perdo to eat, referring to this thistle eaten by asses
Ornus – ancient Greek and Latin name for the Ash
Orontium – ancient Greek name for a plant that grew on the banks of the river Orontes
Paliurus – Gr. Name used by Theophrastus
Parnassia – named after Mt Parnassus, sacred mountains where these water planrs were said to originate
Peucedanium – Greek name used by Hippocrates
Phaseolus – ancient name
Philadelphus – celebrating King Ptolemy Philadelphus
Phoenix – Greek name for the Date Palm used by Theophrastus
Phyllodoce – name of a sea nymph
Pieris –from either Pierus, the eponym of Pieria, son of Makednos and father of the Pierides, or Pierus, son of Thessalian Magnes and father of Hyacinth
Pinus – classical name for the pine
Piper – ancient name for pepper
Pisum – classical name for the pea
Platanus – old Greek name for the Plane Tree from platus broad, in relation to the leaves or canopy
Pleione – mother of the Pleides
Prunus – classical name for the plum
Psidium – from psidion the ancient Greek name for the pomegranate
Ptelea – Greek name for the elm
Pyrethrum – from Gr. pyr fire, since in ancient times it was used to control fevers
Pyrus – classical name for the pear
Punica – from Malum punicum Apple of Carthage, an ancient name for the pomegranate
Ruta – ancient name for Rue
Saccharum – old Greek name for sugar
Sagina – ancient name for Spurrey
Satyrium – from Gr. Satyrus, satyr
Scilla – ancient name
Scolymus – name used by Hesiod from Gr. skolos thorn
Silphium – ancient name, referring to the milky sap
Sisyrinchium – ancient name used for another plant
Spartium – from Gr. spartos the ancient name
Spiraea – Gr. speira wreath
Styrax – ancient Gk name derived from Arabic and probably referring to Styrax officinale the source of the resin storax
Tanacetum – from Gk. athanatos, immortal, in reference to the long-lasting flowers
Teucrium – from Teucher, a Trojan prince who first used one of the species as a medicine
Theobroma – Gr. theos god, and broma food – celestial food for the gods, referring to the cocoa and chocolate that is obtained from the nut
Thlaspi – from thlaspis old Greek name for a cress
Thuja – from Gk. thuia name for a resin-bearing tree, or thuon, a sacrifice, when the resin would be burned as incense
Titanopsis – Gr. titan the sun, opsis like, refrring to the round yellow flowers
Tydaea – after Tydaea, son of Oeneus, King of Caledon
Veronica – possibly from the Latin form of the Greek word Beronike
Zephyranthes – from Gk. zephyr the west wind, and anthos flower
Zizania – old Gr. zizanion, ancient Greek name for a ‘tare’ or weed
In coming to terms with the history of plants and people it is vital to know about general ancient attitudes and beliefs, as well as the range of scientific knowledge – the number of plants known and described in written sources including their properties.
Assuming the plants of the Greek myths, those listed here, were known to most Greek citizens then these numbered about 65.
Viewed from today one single characteristic is common to all myths is that their currency is the supernatural. But how, then, are we to differentiate the various shades and siblings of myth – the fairytales, legends, sagas, fables, parables, Bible, Quran, and Torah? Is it anathema to suggest the equivalence of myth and religion?
We are inclined to ‘reduce’ the content of myth as though we have moved on, that we are now exist over and above them, treating them, perhaps, as childrens’ tales. So perhaps they are rudimentary science, primordial philosophy, or clever psychoanalytic devices that plumb the depths of our universal human psyche? Maybe they are all these things, as well as ripping yarns that have been honed over many years to eke out the greatest possible meaning and dramatic effect.
At one extreme they may be taken literally, as many ancient Greeks no doubt did, assuming them to record the factual origins of their spiritual and physical world, and the history of their nation. At the other extreme – and here is their power – they are allusions, allegories, parodies, and metaphors; symbolic rather than literal – stories that spark our creative imagination and teach us about the world in an ostensive way that is both captivating and entertaining. They make us do the work of understanding without us realizing that they have done so; they show rather than command and therefore respect our dignity. In this sense they are timeless and irreducible.
In the course of human history, the human relationship to plants has changed in two major and related ways. First, there are the changing circumstances consequent on our increase in knowledge, the way that science and technology have played an increasing role in the incorporation of plants into local and global economies and daily life. These changes have been accompanied by a decrease in the religious and spiritual significance of plants that has dominated attitudes and beliefs, but which has decreased in the last 250 years or so.
World-wide it seems that the world of nomadic hunter-gatherers was one of animistic belief with both animate and inanimate objects, and natural phenomena, populated and controlled by souls or spirits. With the advent of large settled communities and cities in the Bronze and Iron Ages, this spirit world took on the character of organized religion.
The mythology of ancient Greece captures what is probably a rich transitional phase between animism, polytheism, and the monotheistic religions that dominate the world today. This was a sophisticated culture with a highly developed literature, philosophy, and art – and a progressive medicine and science. It is from the written records of this culture that we glimpse the changing beliefs as life transitions from an existence within and totally dependent on nature to one that is more communal, social – based increasingly on human-created environments of fields, pastures, and houses. It is from Greek mythology, or plant lore, that we gain a privileged glimpse of the human relationship to plants that existed over 2000 years ago.
Plants and features of the natural environment were linked to tales about a parallel spiritual world of interrelated spirits and divinities, each emphasizing facets of existence. were a colourful form of education, providing not only accounts but also indirect moral education through highly memorable tales describing the follies, foibles, and heroic adventures that had occurred in this parallel human-like realm of supernatural beings. A walk through a forest, along the coast, or in the mountains would prompt recollections of these tales and their telling with all the associations and symbolism and meaning.
GREEK – ROMAN
– – –
Zeus – Jupiter
Hera – Juno
Aphrodite – Venus
Hephaestus – Vulcan
Poseidon – Neptune
Hermes – Mercury
Ares – Mars
Dionysus – Bacchus
Demeter – Ceres
Artemis – Diana
Hades – Pluto
Eos – Aurora
– – –
Herakles – Hercules
Odysseus – Ulysses
Indo-European expansion 4000–1000 BCE following the Kurgan hypothesis
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Dbachmann – Accessed 26 September 2020
Greek Mythology Stories: The Essential – The Origins,The War and Rise of the Gods of Olympus
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Greek Mythology Explained
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Greek Mythology Family Tree: Primordials, Titans & Olympians
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