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What ancient Greek stories of humans transformed into plants can teach us about fragility and resilience

Marie-Claire Beaulieu, Associate Professor of Classical Studies, Tufts University, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

For me, gardening is the most joyful summer activity, when I can see my hard work rewarded with colorful blooms and lush greenery. Science explains this feeling by recognizing the deep bond between humans and plants. Being in a nurturing relationship with nature supports our physical and mental health.

At the same time, as a scholar of Greek mythology, I also see the close relationship between humans and plants reflected in ancient stories. In fact, Greek literature and poetry often represent human life as plant life.

Just like plant life, human life follows the course of the seasons. Our youth is brief and beautiful like the spring, followed by the full bloom of adulthood in summer and the maturity of middle age, which yields bounty and prosperity like the fall harvest. Finally, in the winter of our life, we wither and die, to be replaced by a new generation, as famously described in the Greek epic “The Iliad”: “Like the generations of leaves are those of men. The wind blows and one year’s leaves are scattered on the ground, but the trees bud and fresh leaves open when spring comes again.”

In this way, Greek mythology spells out that human life, with its beauty and its sufferings, is part of the broader cycle of nature and should be viewed on par with other living creatures, such as plants.

Spring flowers are brightly colored, but they only last a short time, so they reminded the Greeks of the beauty and promise of youth and the tragedy of young lives cut short.

For instance, Greek myths tell the story of Narcissus, a young hunter who was so beautiful that he fell in love with his own image reflected in a pool. He couldn’t tear himself away, so he eventually withered on that spot and gave his name to a pale white and yellow flower, the narcissus, which is called daffodil in English.


Similarly, after the beautiful Adonis, beloved of the goddess Aphrodite, died in a boar hunting accident, the goddess turned his blood into the red anemone flower, the “wind-flower” – Anemone coronoria – named for its fragile stem tossed in the wind.

The hyacinth recalls the beautiful boy Hyacinthus, who was killed while he trained with the discus. His lover, the god Apollo, grew a flower on the spot and inscribed the letters AI on it, representing the Greek exclamation for grief “Ia! Ia!” Other authors say it represents the beginning of Hyacinthus’ name in Greek – Ὑάκινθος.

Scholars believe that this flower is not the hyacinth commonly grown in our gardens – Hyacinthus orientalis. The exact species of the flower, however, is still debated because it is difficult to find a flower that looks like it has letters on it, as the ancient descriptions assert.

The beauty of young women was also associated with ephemeral spring flowers. Violets and roses appear with Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and in love poetry. The ancient rose, unlike our modern heavily hybridized cultivars, only bloomed briefly in the spring and thus was a fitting image for the fleeting beauty of youth.


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