Academic Minute Podcast

Marie-Claire Beaulieu, Tufts University – Greek Mythology in the Garden

Next time you’re in your garden, think Greek.

Marie-Claire Beaulieu, associate professor of classical studies at Tufts University, explores the mythology present in this space.

Marie-Claire Beaulieu studies the human experience of the natural world in Greek and Roman mythology, religion, and culture. She makes extensive use of computational methods in her work and has engaged in large infrastructure-building initiatives in the digital humanities, designing collaborative editing and annotation software for the Perseids Project (https://perseids.org/). Her current project, in collaboration with a team of experts from the humanities, computer science, and the biological sciences, is a digital edition of D’Arcy Thompson’s Glossary of Greek Birds. The project aims to explore the overlap between classical studies and ornithology in analyzing the perception of birds in Greek mythology (https://sites.tufts.edu/ancientbirds/).

Greek Mythology in the Garden

The ancient Greeks were aware of the deep bond between humans and plants. In fact, Greek mythology often represents humans as plants altogether.

Spring flowers are colorful, but they don’t last long. This reminded the Greeks of beautiful young men who die too soon, like Narcissus. He fell in love with his own image and wasted away on the spot. He became the narcissus flower, which we call daffodil.

For young girls, spring flowers represent the discovery of sexuality. For instance, Persephone was picking a bouquet of lilies, violets, and daffodils when she was abducted by Hades, the king of the Underworld.

The fruit that comes in the summer and fall represent the consummation of sexuality. Once Persephone is in the Underworld, she accepts a pomegranate from Hades. She then becomes his wife and she has to stay with him in the Underworld for a part of each year.

Finally, when the fall turns to winter, plants wither and die. The Greeks imagined that the Underworld was full of white plants, like white poplar, willow, and asphodel, because they thought white was the color of ghosts.

But some plants remain evergreen in the winter, like ivy. This plant was sacred to Dionysus and represented joy, and freedom, and eternal life. For this reason, still today ivy is often found on tombstones and in bridal bouquets.

In this way, Greek mythology expresses that human life is part of the universal cycle of nature. Some famous lines from the Iliad read: “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.”

Read More:

Beaulieu, Marie-Claire. The Sea in the Greek Imagination. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

https://www.pennpress.org/9780812291964/the-sea-in-the-greek-imagination/

Beaulieu, Marie-Claire (ed). A Cultural History of the Sea in Antiquity. Bloomsbury, 2021.

https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/cultural-history-of-the-sea-in-antiquity-9781474299015/

Prof. Beaulieu’s current research project on birds in ancient mythology: https://sites.tufts.edu/ancientbirds/

The Perseids Platform:

https://perseids.org/

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