Divine Essences

Plants, flowers and fruits in the rites and cults of the Greek Taranto

Plants, flowers and fruits therefore have an essential role in the religious symbolism, rituals and myths of all civilizations and the Greeks, from this point of view, are no exception.

Plants were grown and selected for food and pharmaceutical purposes, offered to the deities in sacred ceremonies, integrated into complex economic networks linked to the production and trade of luxury goods such as spices, cosmetics and textiles.

They were taken as a model for the development of the architectural orders, and used to decorate a wide range of artefacts; plants were a constant presence in the Greek mentality and intertwined with the celebration of various divinities from their diverse pantheon.

Pomegranate (6th century BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Pomegranate: the fruit of the Mother Goddesses 

In Mediterranean cultures, the pomegranate fruit has been instinctively connected to the concept of fertility until relatively recently, when there was a tradition for a bride to throw a pomegranate on the ground, wishing fertility and many children.

However, the pomegranate also has a funerary significance: by giving Kore some pomegranate seeds to eat, Hades, the god of the underworld, who kidnapped her to make her his wife, managed to prevent her return to her mother, Demeter.

Depictions of the fruit, an attribute of various female deities who embodied the archetype of the Mother Goddess in the Greek world, often appear on tombs as a symbol of rebirth.

This is clearly illustrated by a beautiful terracotta specimen, dated to the sixth century BC, that was found in the area of ​​the archaic necropolis of Taranto (Contrada Corvisea). The fruit is crowned with the head of a bird of prey.

Volute krater by the Painter of the Birth of Dionysus - front viewMArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Vine and ivy: the plants of Dionysus 

Dionysus is the god of a thousand faces, who wreaks havoc on men and frees them through madness. His complex and contradictory nature is metaphorically summed up by two plants which both have lobed leaves – the vine and the ivy.

While Dionysus’ connection to the vine is widely known, his link to the ivy is less obvious, but equally profound: ivy leaves adorned the ritual garlands that the god and his followers placed on their heads. Kissos, the Greek name of the plant, known for its ability to mitigate the effects of intoxication, was also one of the names of Dionysus.

Darkness, cold, and humidity – characteristics that make ivy a sort of dark twin of the vine – coexist in the multifaceted personality of Dionysus, along with their opposites – heat and dazzling light.

This large volute krater from Ceglie del Campo (Bari), of the Painter of the Birth of Dionysus (early fourth century BC), depicts the extraordinary birth of the god from the thigh of his father, Zeus.

It was this that enabled Hermes to save little Dionysus after he was extracted prematurely from the womb of his mother Semele, a Theban princess, lover of Zeus, until she was incinerated by his her divine lover because she wanted to see his real form.

Dionysus, his head crowned with a wreath of ivy and vines, extends his arms towards an anonymous female figure (Hera or the goddess of childbirth Eileithyia) in the presence of the other Olympian gods.

Volute krater by the Karneia Painter - A sideMArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

On the second Apulian krater from Ceglie del Campo, of the Painter of Carnee (late fifth century BC), the adult Dionysus sits on a rock surrounded by members of his procession (thiasus): the Satyrs, semi-feral creatures with goat’s tails and ears.

And the Maenads, the followers of Dionysus, who, inspired into a state of sacred frenzy by the god, indulge in wild dances in the solitude of the mountains, far from the inhabited places which they have abandoned as they followed his irresistible call.

Dionysus is wearing hunting boots, a ceremonial headdress (mitre) and an ivy wreath. Shoots of this plant also wrap the end of his wand – known as thyrsus, a typical Dionysian attribute – which is held by a Maenad engaged in a whirling dance.

The buds or round flowers that sprout from behind his head likely refer to the wand of Dionysus. It has been proposed that they should be interpreted as opium poppy capsules (Papaver Somniferum), which had been cultivated in Greece since the beginning of the first millennium BC and was already known for its psychotropic properties.

Opium poppy capsules (3rd century BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

The opium poppy: fertility and oblivion 

These votive terracotta models dating to the Hellenistic period and originating from an unknown but Taranto-related context, are models of opium poppy capsules; the poppy fruit contains thousands of seeds that are used in the food sector and like the pomegranate, it symbolises the promise of many children.

This explains its connection, as a symbol of fertility, to various female divinities (Hera, Demeter, Kore, and Aphrodite) concerned with the delicate transition from a sexually mature girl ready for marriage (nymphè) to a married woman and mother (gynè).

Cinerary urn - full viewMArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Myrtle: love and death

Myrtle, an aromatic plant common in Maquis shrubland, had a double value – erotic and funerary – for the Greeks. The first aspect derives from its connection to Aphrodite’s seductive arts.

Initiates to the mystery cults, who were promised a privileged fate in the afterlife, girded their heads with wreaths of myrtle. Such wreaths, rendered in metal or terracotta have also been found in numerous burials in  the Greek Taranto.

Cinerary urn - detailMArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

This chaplet of bronze leaves and terracotta berries, both covered with gold leaf, surrounds the neck of a bronze vase (hydria) that was used as a cinerary urn in a cist tomb uncovered in Via Tirrenia in Taranto (second half of the 4th century BC).

Crown - front viewMArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Oak: the tree of Zeus 

The variety of plants (laurel, olive tree, rosettes) initially represented in the production of funeral crowns made of leaves cut from very thin gold sheets, gave way in the later phase to the absolute preponderance of oak.

Crown - side viewMArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

The oak – king of trees, support of the axis of the world, symbol of both physical and moral strength and vigor – is sacred to Zeus, the god of lightning and father of all the gods. In the oracle of Dodona in Epirus, Zeus made his prophecies under the rustling branches of this tree.

Pinax (4th century BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

The palm of the Dioscuri

The Dioscuri are the twin gods Castor and Pollux: these half-brothers were both born from Leda at the same time but while Castor was the son of her husband, Tyndareus of Sparta, Pollux was the son of Zeus who had seduced her in the guise of a swan.

Often depicted standing alongside horses, the Dioscuri hold palm, a solar symbol of regeneration and victory – to linked the salvific function of these two divinities, who ensure triumph over adversity in moments of extreme danger.

In Christian iconography it will pass as a symbol of the martyrs' victory over death with Saints Medici Cosmas and Damian, veneration still very rooted in Puglia today.

Lekythos with polychromatic relief decoration - A sideMArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

The Gardens of Adonis

This lekythos – a small vase used to contain perfumed ointments – found in a female tomb on Via Terni in Taranto in 1971 provides us with a vivid representation of a ritual intimately linked to the plant world.

This vase, produced in Attica in the 4th century BC using a polychrome relief technique in which relief figurines made in a matrix are applied to the damp surface of the vase, shows some luxuriously dressed women at the annual ceremonies for Adonis.

To celebrate the union of Adonis and Aphrodite, at the peak of summer, Greek women brought miniature gardens, called Gardens of Adonis, to the roofs of their houses.

These gardens were grown from the seeds of fast-germinating plants in terracotta pots: our lekythos depicts a young Eros climbing a ladder carrying a small garden contained in a broken amphora. 

Like the love between Aphrodite and her young but unfortunate lover, the Gardens of Adonis were ephemeral: on the summer heat wave they quickly dried out, amid the weeping and lamentation of women mourning for Adonis’ return to the kingdom of the dead.

Lekythos with polychromatic relief decoration - B sideMArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Female figures immersed in an atmosphere full of sensuality help to reveal the erotic side of the Gardens of Adonis (kepos).

Women wearing jewels and refined dresses with bare breasts, and  intoxicated by the fragrant smoke of a thymiaterion – a censer or incense burner – play harps and eagerly await the sacred union of Adonis and Aphrodite.

Lekythos with polychromatic relief decoration - C sideMArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Next to them the goddess, represented in the form of Aphrodite Pandemos, riding on a ram, ascends to heaven and a star shines above her head. She is the goddess who oversees the most physical and sensual manifestations of love, including mercenary love.

Loutrophoros depicting Pelops and Hippodamia - A sideMArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

The vegetation of the Elysian Fields 

Even the world of the dead, for the Greeks, had its own peculiar flora. On the Apulian red-figure vases of the fourth century BC, this imaginative vegetation often appear bell-shaped flowers, spirals and extravagant inflorescences from acanthus tufts.

Loutrophoros depicting Pelops and Hippodamia - detail A sideMArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Exuberant vegetation sometimes blooms around both female and male human heads, such as the one with a Phrygian cap decorating the shoulder of a loutrophoros of the White Sakkos Painter of the late Apulian period (320–310 BC).

For the origin of these floral motifs, used not only in funerary but also in the decoration of various buildings, we spoke of a "Tarantine manner", whose luck reaches distant regions such as Macedonia.

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