Today, as in the time of Pliny and Columella, the hyacinth flourishes in Wales, the periwinkle in Illyria, the daisy on the ruins of Numantia; while around them cities have changed their masters and their names, collided and smashed, disappeared into nothingness, their peaceful generations have crossed down the ages as fresh and smiling as on the days of battle.
— Edgar Quinet (1803–1875), French poet, historian
For millennia, people have known that flowers were not only connected to our survival, as they are needed for the eventual success of the harvest, but that they carry magic in and of themselves. As writer Claire Nahmad so eloquently points out, “A garden is a holy place. From the concept of the Garden of Eden as humanity’s mystic point of origin to the idea of paradise as a garden which represents the realm of final homecoming to which we strive and aspire, gardens seem to be enshrined in our consciousness as the alpha and omega of spiritual experience.”
In honor of Maia and Flora, and all the other Green Growing Powers of Springtime, for the next few days, I’ll be sharing some ideas about weaving magic with the help of our allies in the garden.
Throughout history, gardens have been portals of power and magic. Few subjects in the ancient world are so richly documented in literary and archaeological records as are the history of the garden, and the ways they evolved into havens for meditation, teaching, reflection, and magical/scientific experimentation.
In Western cultures, the seven wonders of the ancient world included the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. They were possibly first built by the famous Mesopotamian king, Hammurabi, some 2500 years ago. Then again, some believe the gardens predated Hammurabi by about 100 years. Other sources argue they came much later, about 500 B.C.E., under Nebuchadnezzar II, who built them for his Median wife.
All agree, however, that their beauty was legendary, even into the classical Greek era, when Diodorus Siculus wrote, “The approach to the Garden sloped like a hillside and the several parts of the structure rose from one another tier on tier… On all this, the earth had been piled… and was thickly planted with trees of every kind that, by their great size and other charm, gave pleasure to the beholder.”
Located some fifty kilometers south of present-day Baghdad, Babylon’s fruits and flowers, waterfalls, terraced arbors, and exotic animals made such a powerful impression that the legend lives on today. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon echo as the image of paradise to many people who still live in that area’s arid, harsh region. What a contrast it must have been to the dust, ferocious sandstorms, and extreme temperatures in the regions surrounding it!
It is now believed that the gardens did not actually hang, exactly, but, due to some confusion in the translations, they were being described as overhangings. That is, they may have been rooftop gardens, whose lush vines spilled over the edges, stacked row upon row on the hillsides. They were watered with a very sophisticated pumping system from the Euphrates River.
While the art of gardening is far older than the Babylonian gardens, perhaps one of the most innovative characteristics that astonished visitors was that they were not primarily utilitarian in purpose. While certainly they produced fruits and vegetables that served the physical needs of their owners, they may have been primarily ornamental. What luxury this must have seemed – growing things, using precious water, and laboring in the ferocious heat, for the main purpose of creating beauty!
This concept was so impressive that the gardens inspired tales of wonder across the centuries. These stories spread throughout the ancient world, particularly returning to Greece with Alexander the Great, and becoming the foundation for the Hellenic model of cultivating, co-existing with, and honoring the beauty of Nature.