The Mythology of Plants by Annette Giesecke

Book Review by Viggen

Annette Giesecke is Professor of Classics at the University of Delaware. Her research interests include the history and meaning of gardens in ancient Greece and Rome, urbanism and ethics of land use in classical antiquity, as well as expressions of the utopian impulse in classical art, literature, and architecture. With that background you would expect a well researched and informative work and indeed it is. However, it must be stressed that the book focuses only on plants that appear in Ovid`s Metamorphoses.

The book starts with a brief overview of gardens, plants and plant lore of ancient Greece and Rome. This is quite useful as it gives enough background to appreciate what follows next. In the introduction, the author highlights the fact that the history of ancient gardens was also a history of the Roman villa. It helps the reader understand how the ancient Roman garden went from an afterthought at the back of the house to a focal point and highlight. Next comes the mythological aspect. Although one could find an eclectic mixture of gods and mythical creatures from all over the Empire in garden art, there were some favorites like Venus, Cupid and Bacchus.

Following a short biography of Ovid and introduction of his work Metamorphoses as well as a brief overview of the historical setting Ovid lived in, we go straight to the core of this book: the plants. It is cleverly structured in sections grouped by according to a theme. Each “chapter” then starts with a beautiful botanical illustration by David Blair (1852-1925), and each plant is ascribed an English name followed by its Latin equivalent. We are then presented with information about its mythological significance, historical anecdotes and references, and a variety of pictures and images of the plant in context taken from archaeological pieces like vases, jewelry, paintings and frescos by various artists from ancient to modern. Each chapter is concluded with a passage of the Metamorphoses in which the plant is featured.

The first section, entitled Gods in Love features important gods like Daphne, Apollo and Venus and the accompanying plants including Bay Laurel, Pomegranate and Hyacinth. The following section is called Hubris and Human Excess (about Bacchus, Narcissus, amongst others), followed by Piety and Devotion, and Mortals in Love. The last section is entitled A Guided Walk through Ovid`s Garden and is a bit different from the previous ones. Here, plants are described in a much shorter way with no images and only a brief mention of how it fits within Ovid`s Metamorphoses. Nevertheless, I did appreciate this part as a nice addition to the other "major" plants referred to in previous chapters. This is followed by notes, two maps and a very useful glossary and ends with a further reading suggestion list.

The whole book reflects quality in its literal and figurative sense: the paper, the images, the binding, everything comes across as valuable, and so is the content. Even though I am not particularly interested in mythology or plants, I was actually quite surprised by how much fun it was to read this book and how many interesting tidbits I could find. Dr. Giesecke manages to write for a wide audience, ranging from people interested in archaeology, classical literature to, of course, garden enthusiasts. Highly recommended!

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