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plants, sacred


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Plants are associated with particular gods by virtue of their special properties of purification and healing (see pharmacology), or because of their symbolic value usually connected with fertility and growth. Thus corn is sacred to Demeter who taught its cultivation to man. Similarly the vine belongs to Dionysus as the god of wine. The sexual symbolism of the pomegranate as the attribute of Persephone and Hera, goddess of women and marriage, is well known. In ritual, plants symbolized the annual death and rebirth of vegetation, as in the pre‐Greek cult of Hyacinthus.

Corn also symbolized the recurring cycle of vegetation in the Eleusinian mysteries (see eleusis) but acquired moral and political overtones after 600 bc under Orphic influence (see orphism) and after the annexation of Eleusis by Athens. Plants had magical and medicinal properties: the withy (Gk. lygos; Lat., agnus castus) bound the image of Artemis Orthia in Sparta. The use of the lygos in Demeter's Thesmophoria was intended to reduce the sexual drive of the women worshippers. But it is doubtful if such plants were intrinsically sacred, any more than the wild olive awarded to the Olympic victor (see olympic games), the bay leaves of the Pythian Games or the wild celery of the Nemean Games.

Roman interest in herbal medicine produced some specialist, also much superstitious and unscientific, literature in the early empire. Pliny the Elder wrote extensively on healing and magic plants.

Subjects: Classical Studies.


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