Gardens of Myth and Legend

by Linda Robbins

In the beginning…

Beautiful gardens have been part of human experience from very early times and in many cultures the creation stories involve gardens. It seems that early man not only asked questions about how things were made but also wondered why men had to die? The myths endeavor to explain these questions and it is staggering how the myriad different stories of this nature have so much in common even though they originate from different regions of the world. It should also be remembered that from the outset mankind was confronted with experiences in his surroundings which would have been awe inspiring , terrifying and life threatening as well as amazingly beautiful.

Gardens are generally understood to be boundaried and relatively safe places in human experience. Yet it is interesting that in the early myths it is through trickery that these beautiful paradises are compromised by behaviour inspired by emotions such as greed, envy, and jealousy.

One of the oldest myths, predating that of Adam and Eve, comes from the region of Kenya where the first humans are thought to have originated. This myth of the Djaga people of Kenya says that the Creator God, Ruwa, made human beings and planted a beautiful paradise garden for them to live in. He gave them immortality on the condition that they did not pick or eat one plant in the garden. This was a yam called Ukaho. Ruwa sent an angel in the morning and in the evening to check up on them. All was well until one day the angel smelt yam cooking when he came to earth. It was the forbidden yam. The humans explained that in the afternoon Death had come to the garden and persuaded them that Ruwa had made an exception and that they were allowed to prepare the Ukaho yam just for him. For him alone.The myth says that the angel took the yam in the cooking pot back to Ruwa. In Heaven the Ukaho yam was reconstituted and then kept in Heaven just for the immortals ( Gods ). The humans were left with their garden but ever after they were prey to death.

The notion of produce from the garden being eaten, and this leading to the loss of immortality, is a common theme.

In Chinese mythology it is the peach tree and peaches which are thought of in this way. The Garden of the Immortal Peaches was the mythical garden belonging to the Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu). Here, every 6000 years, ( some writers say 3000 years) she would hold a great feast in which the immortals would partake of the peaches in order to renew their immortality. There is a story that Monkey was given the job of looking after this garden. However as he had behaved badly he was not invited to the feast, and despite having already eaten most of the peaches he then drank the gourds containing the elixir of immortality. Realizing the enormity of his sin Monkey went to hide in his old mountain home. The Gods could not kill him because he had consumed so much immortality giving food. Monkey tried to outwit the Buddha but eventually has to go through many trials in order to redeem himself. Monkey is still celebrated today as his mischievous antics are still enjoyed as they have been over the centuries. Peach trees are still a present given to celebrate birthdays in China.

The story of the Garden of Eden follows a similar vein to that of the legend from Kenya. It has a prominent role in both Jewish and Christian thinking. The original biblical description places the garden in the physical world, whereas in later rabbinical tradition Eden becomes seen as the abode of souls both before and after entry into the physical world.

Nevertheless, as in the Bible it says that four rivers flow from the garden and identifies two of them as the Tigris and the Euphrates, it is believed that this garden was located at the head of the Persian Gulf.

Eden is thought of as a beautiful paradise garden. Sumerian mythology believed it was the abode of the Gods and placed it at Dilmon which is believed to be in now what is called Bahrain.

In later generations in the Jewish tradition it was believed that in imagination the Garden of Eden stood for a sort of Golden Age of mankind. We see that again there were things that were prohibited i.e. Adam and Eve were not to eat from two trees. These were the Tree of Life which would confer Immortality and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil which conveyed knowledge in general. This tradition thought that when man obtained knowledge it made him like God and so inevitably he had to be driven out of Eden before he could eat from the fruit of the Tree of Life which would confer Immortality. It is interesting that, although the Bible does not state what fruit was eaten, popular opinion always insists on the apple. However, the rabbinical tradition suggests that the ‘apple of Paradise’ was a citrus fruit which is used in the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles. Some seem to think that the fruit would have been grapes as the Gods were supposed to drink wine and others favor the Fig because Adam and Eve covered themselves to hide their nakedness with fig leaves. We will never know but two things do stand out. The first is that it is only in the Jewish/ Christian tradition that the notion of shame is linked to these creation stories in this way. Secondly we do know that the idea of the apple being the fruit of Immortality is linked with other traditions.

The Hawaiian Adam, Kumu Honna, is said to have picked one of the apples of immortality and was driven out before he could even bite it.

In the Greek tradition, the Garden of Hesperides was the orchard at the world’s end, where the daughters of Atlas guard the rich and golden apples which were given to Zeus by Hera at their wedding. There was a dragon called Ladon which was coiled round the apple tree to guard the fruit. This garden was linked with the Goddess Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love. Her son was the God Priapus who seems to have had responsibility for gardens. Images of him show him to be both small and ugly but with enormous genitals and he carries a sickle or pruning knife. Later in Roman times he seems to become a scarecrow!

In Celtic myth, Avalon was the Island of the blessed where the apples of Immortality grew. This apple garden is where King Arthur went to heal his wounds when he had to withdraw from the mortal world. Avalon is seen as existing outside mortal space and time.

It is clear that the beauty of the garden and its links with the sensual/sexual pleasures and temptations of human existence are inextricably linked in human experience with feelings of vulnerability, rejection, loss and mourning as a result of behaviours set in motion by the more negative human emotions.

John Milton starts his epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’ with the words:

” Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit

Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste

Brought Death into the World, and all our woe. “

The Garden, while being lauded as Paradise, was the setting in which the explanation for the frailty of humankind was played out in the oral and later written traditions of many of the worlds cultures. It is no wonder that gardens have fascinated us over the centuries.

References:

  • The Bible
  • Encyclopedia of Ancient Myths and Culture. Published Eagle Editions Ltd 2003
  • Goldstein D. Library of the World’s Myths and Legends. Jewish Legends Chancellor Press.1980.
  • Larousse. Encyclopedia of Mythology. Published Hamlyn 1959
  • McLeish. K. Myths and Legends of the World. The Complete Companion to all Traditions. Pub Blitz 1996
  • Thacker.C. The History of Gardens. Published Croom Helm Ltd 1979

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