English, Uncategorized

The Resurrection and Aphrodite’s Sacred Gardens

Vasnetsov_Maria_Magdalene
Mary Magdalene by Viktor Mikhaylovich Vasnetsov, 1899

What possible connection could there be between the sacred gardens of Aphrodite and the resurrection of Jesus? Interestingly, according to the Gospel of John, his burial occurred in a garden, not far from the place of his crucifixion.[1] When Mary Magdalene reached his tomb, she found it empty, to her great sorrow: 

But Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping; and so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying. And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means, Teacher).[2]

The garden appears several times in the Bible, the most famous example being of course the Garden of Eden. Even God himself is at times portrayed as a gardener or viticulturist![3] It is worth wondering if there is a special significance in the location where the most important scene of the Christian drama takes place. Strange as it seems, it might be helpful to turn to Greek and Roman traditions in order to find out.

The Jewish people had been in contact with the Hellenic civilization for centuries, since Alexander (yes, the one called “the Great”) conquered Judea in 332 BCE. After his death the area became a part of the Hellenistic kingdoms although for about a century (164 – 63 BCE) a Jewish autonomous state was established.

In 63 BCE the legions of Pompey arrived; yet the Romans brought with them a lot more than their military might. A wealth of Greek cultural elements, which they had enthusiastically adopted, always followed the expansion of the empire. With the Hellenic civilization spread far and wide, it is certainly not a coincidence that the New Testament was written in Greek. Thus, it probably wouldn’t be far-fetched to look to the Graeco-Roman tradition for a potential symbolic meaning of Jesus’ alleged burial in a garden.

A SENSUAL PLACE OF REBIRTH

Copy (2) of Adonis
The Death of Adonis by Luca Giordano, 1684-1686

We might begin our exploration by asking if there was a Greek figure whose burial was associated with gardens. If so, did they also die and return to life? Those familiar with classical myth and religion will easily come up with an answer: Adonis, the handsome young lover of Aphrodite, spent his days partly on earth and partly in the underworld. In the festival of Adonia women lamented his death, but also celebrated, anticipating his resurrection. In the famous city of Alexandria, in Hellenistic Egypt, his Sacred Marriage with the love goddess was symbolically re-enacted.[4]

During the Athens festival, “graves” were made in which Adonis’ effigy lay and his funeral was re-enacted.[5] This custom bears an interesting similarity to the ritual held on Good Friday by the Greek Orthodox Church: the Epitaphios, a cloth icon of the dead Jesus, sometimes accompanied by the Magdalene and other disciples, is carried in a wooden canopied catafalque lavishly decorated with flowers, representing the Tomb of Christ. One wonders if the flowers might perhaps represent a dim memory of the garden.

Back in Classical Athens, a special symbol was associated with Adonia: women offered to the handsome youth the “gardens of Adonis,” consisting of various plants sown a few days before the festival in shards of vases and pots.[6] The first day the celebrants brought these objects on the house roofs while the next they carried them down in order to accompany the deceased. Since the young sprouts grew and withered fast, this was sometimes considered a metaphor for the premature loss of the young lover.

Yet in nature death is followed by rebirth, as seasons change and new plants emerge from the soil, celebrating the power of the life force. The garden seems to be an apt metaphor reconciling the opposites—death and regeneration—as flowers and grass wither and trees lose their leaves, only to regain their previous splendor as the cycle of the year turns. It may not be surprising then to discover that some dying and resurrected figures were linked to the garden.

But wait, there is more! As we saw, in the burial site of Jesus there is also another significant presence: a woman who has the exceptional honor of being the first witness to his resurrection—one who was intimately connected to him if we believe some of the Gnostics’ comments! Similarly, there is a powerful female figure that was closely associated with both Adonis and the garden: Aphrodite.

The Greek Goddess of Love was worshipped as “Aphrodite in Gardens” in Athens, at the northern side of the Acropolis.[7] In Cyprus a special place was dedicated to her named Hierokepis or Hierokepia, “Sacred Garden.” The lush vegetation carried with it connotations of sexuality and fertility, concepts related to the Sacred Marriage. Besides, the Greek work kepos (garden) was sometimes used metaphorically to mean “vulva[8]—not surprisingly as the female body was frequently likened to the earth.

Curiously, some modern scholars have tried hard to connect the garden, especially the gardens of Adonis, to notions of infertility, impotence, even anti-agriculture! Yet, to the extent that such ideas can be traced in ancient Greek writers, they probably reflect male fears and patriarchal biases as Joseph D. Reed has shown in a thorough and well-documented essay.[9] In stark contrast to the “infertility” argument, certain writers of the Roman Era liken Adonis to the ripe fruits of the earth.[10] But even in classical times, the Greek work kepos (garden) also meant “orchard” and was metaphorically used to refer to a land rich in agricultural products.

To trace the connection between the gardens of Aphrodite and Adonis on the one hand and the garden of the Resurrection on the other, we have to examine if the cult of Adonis was ever prevalent in Judea. Although he is known as a Hellenic deity, it seems that his worship was imported to Greece in the 7th c. BCE from the Middle East. His name is linked to the Semitic Adon, which means “Lord.” In some ways he is similar to Tammuz (or Dumuzi), honored by women from Mesopotamia to Syro-Palestine, across languages and cultures. As Reed points out, the Greek celebrants of the Adonia “had their counterparts in the women of Jerusalem weeping for Tammuz at the north gate of the temple, excoriated in Ezekiel, 8:14-15.”

INANNA AND THE SONG OF SONGS

The Judean prophet Ezekiel wrote during the early 6th c. BCE, but Tammuz/Dumuzi comes from a much older era. He was the consort of Ishtar/Inanna, an Eastern version of Aphrodite, who also happened to be associated with a “holy” and “luxuriant” garden, as reported in the epic of Gilgamesh. Furthermore, when she sings her song of love to Dumuzi, she calls him “my desirable apple garden,” “my fruitful garden of meš trees,” and “my shaded garden of the desert.”[11]

Yet Inanna was not the only one to use such metaphors for her beloved. Scholars from the first part of the 20th century have noted a number of similarities between Sumerian poetry and the Song of Songs; contemporary authors emphasize the close connection between this unusual biblical text and Egyptian love poems.[12] No matter where the famous Song originated, it is fascinating to notice how it uses the symbol of the garden: the latter is simultaneously portrayed as the Bride herself (“a garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse…”), as her home, and naturally as a place of pleasure. Finally, the orchard, filled with vegetation and beauty, becomes the site where the erotic union will come to completion as the heroine promises to her beloved.[13]

Jesus Magdalene
Christ and Mary Magdalene (Noli Me Tangere) by Gustave Moreau, 1889

It is intriguing that certain Early Christian writers as well as early medieval theologians, identified the Bridegroom of the Song of Songs with Jesus and his Bride with Mary Magdalene.[14] Even nowadays in the Roman Catholic churches, a passage from this sensual collection of poems is read in her honor on her feast day, July 22.

If the Song of Songs associates the garden with love, the book of Genesis turns it into a place of birth since the first woman was created (i.e., born) in the Garden of Eden. Eve, whose name in Hebrew means “life,” is appropriately called in the Bible “the mother of all living.”[15] If we read the text closely, sexual connotations become apparent, as well: “And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.”[16]

THE WOMB AND THE VIRGIN

Interestingly, in Eastern Christianity, the Garden of Eden and Heaven, the afterlife home of the virtuous, are one and the same. In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), as well as in the New Testament, they are both called paradeisos, where paradise comes from.[17] This is a word of Persian origin meaning “walled garden,” yet for some Gnostic Christians apparently it also had another meaning: a work attributed to Simon the Magus identified paradeisos with the womb![18]

Thus, the garden becomes a multi-dimensional element, which encompasses death and rebirth, sexuality and fertility, feminine and masculine. Although the associations of a symbol can shift and change, depending on the social and religious context, often multiple meanings coexist, complementing each other.

Yet how can we ever know which meaning – if any – was originally attached to the garden in John’s story of the resurrected Jesus and his appearance to Mary Magdalene? It is even hard to tell if this narration is accurate to begin with, in the absence of any real evidence.[19] In fact, it is debatable whether Jesus actually existed as a historical figure.

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

Today most of these connotations have been lost although the concept of the Sacred Garden has not entirely disappeared. Just like gardens were once dedicated to Aphrodite, today the monastic state of Mt. Athos in Northern Greece is considered the “Orchard of the Virgin Mary.” Tradition claims that she visited the place during her lifetime although this is most probably a myth. Ironically, women are strictly excluded from her “orchard” as medieval laws still hold sway.

Yet not very far from Mt. Athos, in the city of Serres, women remembered until recent times the old custom of the gardens of Adonis. A few days before the Good Friday they used to place seeds of barley, lentil or corn in a plate or pot, letting them sprout. At the time of the procession of the Epitaphios, when an icon of the dead Jesus is solemnly carried in his flower-laden “coffin,” sometimes accompanied by his beloved Magdalene, they place the vessels in front of their house doors, along with candles, an incense holder and an icon of the Crucifixion.[20]

As with many other archetypal elements, it has turned out easier to Christianize the motif of the garden rather than try to entirely uproot it. Whether we celebrate Easter or not, it gives us a great opportunity to reflect upon the deeper meaning of the garden’s power and magic. It is up to us decide if we want to see it as a symbol of love, sexuality, and/or resurrection. We can perhaps best perceive it as a metaphor of our own rebirth in the rich soil of a luscious place filled with sacredness, sensuality and beauty.

NOTES

[1] John 19:41-42.

[2] John 20:11-16, New American Standard Bible.

[3] Genesis 2:8; Isaiah 5:7.

[4] Theokritos, Syrakosiai or Adoniazousai 111 and on.

[5] Plutarch, Alkibiades 18.3.

[6] Theophrastos, History of Physics 6.7.3; Alkiphron 4.14.8.

[7] Pausanias 1. 19, 2; 1. 27, 3.

[8] Diogenes Laertios 2. 116.

[9] Joseph D. Reed, “The Sexuality of Adonis,” Classical Antiquity 14, no 2 (1995): 323-27, 333.

[10] George Pilitsis. “The Gardens of Adonis in Serres Today.” Journal of Modern Greek Studies 3.2 (1985): 145-166. Project MUSE, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_modern_greek_studies/summary/v003/3.2.pilitsis.html.

[11] “Gilgameš, Enkidu and the Nether World,” Version A, 27-35 et al., ETCSL translation: t.1.8.1.4, http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.1.8.1.4&display=Crit&charenc=&lineid=t1814.p8#t1814.p8. “A Balbale to Inana (Dumuzid-Inana B),” 27-32, ETCSL translation: t.4.08.02, http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.4.08.02&display=Crit&charenc=&lineid=t40802.p1#t40802.p1; “The Song of the Lettuce: A Balbale to Inana (Dumuzid-Inana E),” 1-4, ETCSL translation: t.4.08.05, http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.4.08.05&display=Crit&charenc=&lineid=t40805.p1#t40805.p1.

[12] Theophile James Meek, “Babylonian Parallels to the Song of Songs,” Journal of Biblical Literature 43, no. 3/4 (1924): 245-52, http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0021-9231%281924%2943%3A3%2F4%3C245%3ABPTTSO%3E2.0.CO%3B2-A; Martti Nissinen, “Song of Songs and the Sacred Marriage” in Martti Nissinen and Risto Uro (eds), Sacred Marriages: The Divine-Human Sexual Metaphor from Sumer to Early Christianity (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008), 173-218.

[13] Song of Songs 4:12; 8:13; 5:1; 7:11-12.

[14] E. Ann Matter, The Voice of My Beloved: The Song of Songs in Western Medieval Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990), 167; Ann W. Astell, The Song of Songs in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 174-175.

[15] “Mother of all living” (im kol-chai): Genesis 3:20. For the meaning of the name Eve see The Old Testament (Athens: Hellenic Biblical Society, 1997), footnote 8, p. 12.

[16] Genesis 2:23-25, King James Version.

[17] Luke 23:43; 2 Corinthians 12:4; Revelation 2:7.

[18] Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, 6.14, quoted in Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, trans. into Greek by Theodora Darviri (Athens: Enalios, 2005), 113.

[19] For the history of the tradition about the garden‑burial see Robert M. Price, “Jesus’ Burial in a Garden: The Strange Growth of the Tradition,” Theological Publications, 2006, http://www.robertmprice.mindvendor.com/burial.htm.

[20] George Pilitsis. “The Gardens of Adonis in Serres Today.” Journal of Modern Greek Studies 3.2 (1985): 145-166. Project MUSE, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_modern_greek_studies/summary/v003/3.2.pilitsis.html.

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