(Easter Essay 1) The Secret of the Sacred Garden: From Aphrodite’s Vulva to the Resurrection by Harita Meenee

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:

Noli me tangere, fresco by Fra Angelico (1395–1455). Mary Magdalene meets the resurrected Jesus in the garden. He is holding a hoe, showing his symbolic status as a gardener.

Noli me tangere, fresco by Fra Angelico (1395–1455). Mary Magdalene meets the resurrected Jesus in the garden. He is holding a hoe, showing his symbolic status as a gardener.

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 pagan 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 Palestine in 332 BCE. After his death the area became a part of the Hellenistic kingdoms although for about a century 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

We might begin our exploration by asking if there was a Greek god whose burial was associated with gardens. If so, did he 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]

The Death of Adonis by Luca Giordano. Fresco, 1684-1686, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence.

The Death of Adonis by Luca Giordano. Fresco, 1684-1686, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence.

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 god.

A catafalque carrying the Epitaphios, a cloth icon of the dead Jesus. From the St. George Orthodox Church in Adelaide, Australia. © Maggas at en.wikipedia, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

A catafalque carrying the Epitaphios, a cloth icon of the dead Jesus. From the St. George Orthodox Church in Adelaide, Australia. © Maggas at en.wikipedia, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

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 gods 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 Gnostic’s 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.

Women celebrating the Adonia, festival of Adonis. Fragment of an Attic red-figure wedding vase, ca 430-420 BCE, Louvre Museum.

Women celebrating the Adonia, festival of Adonis. Fragment of an Attic red-figure wedding vase, ca 430-420 BCE, Louvre Museum.

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 the young god 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.

[1] John 19:41-42.

[2] Ibid. 20:11-16, New American Standard Bible, 1995.

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

[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 et al.

(To be continued in Part 2)

Read Meet Mago Contributor, Harita Meenee.

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5 thoughts on “(Easter Essay 1) The Secret of the Sacred Garden: From Aphrodite’s Vulva to the Resurrection by Harita Meenee

  1. Wonderful essay. I loved the reference to the garden as being a place to reconcile the opposites of death and regeneration. As a life long gardener I have had the privilege of witnessing birth, maturation, and death every single year but Nature has taught me that there is one continuous thread that links all these processes as one. The Life Death Life Goddess works her magic in every garden, field, and woodland.

    Like

  2. Thank you for a very interesting and well written article. As art comes from art, religion apparently comes from religion. Each era invents what it needs from the shards of a previous tradition.

    Like

  3. Excellent information that needs to be shared. Thank you &
    may Aphrodite & Her Adonis bless you for posting this article.
    Blessings,
    Reverend Donna M. Swindells
    Fellowship of Isis

    Like

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