Greco-Roman

1600 BCE – The Dodona Oracle – Epirus, Greece – a sacred grove of oak trees originally identified with Gaia (Mother Earth) that was later attributed to Zeus/Jupiter (Sky God). The oak trees were seen as oracles who held prophetic information for the future. People interpreted the rustling of their leaves to determine the correct actions to be taken. According to historian Herodotus, the Greeks believed the oracle of Dodona to be the oldest oracle in Greece.

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An Oak tree at the ruins of Dodona. Photo by Andrew Prokos.

By 200 AD this sacred grove was reduced to one oak. Emperors and pilgrims continued to consult the sacred tree until 392AD when Emperor Theodosius cut it down.

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Zeus/Jupiter and the Oaks of Dodona, From Histora Deorum Fatidicorum Copyright of the National Library of Scotland.

The Dodona Oracle was renown throughout ancient Greece and it is mentioned in both the Iliad and the Odyssey. “O thou supreme! high-throned all height above! O great Pelasgic, Dodonaean Jove! Who ‘midst surrounding frosts, and vapours chill, Presid’st on bleak Dodona’s vocal hill: (Whose groves the Selli, race austere! surround, Their feet unwash’d, their slumbers on the ground; Who hear, from rustling oaks, thy dark decrees; And catch the fates, low-whispered in the breeze;)” Homer. The Iliad

800 BCE – Homeric Epics – such as the Iliad and the Odyssey identified a vast pantheon of Gods and Goddesses. Many were adopted from older cultures and renamed. These mythical Gods and Goddess ruled over aspects of humanity and nature. They were often both brother and sister as well as husband and wife creating an intricate and complicated web within their family trees.

The primordial deities – were the first gods and goddesses born from the void of Chaos by Eros (love/unity) who made way for Gaia (earth/female) and Uranus (sky/male). Gaia and Uranus gave birth to the Twelve Titans (representing the twelve aspects of the zodiac).

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Gaia by Peterio – Poland.

The Titans – were immortal giants of old rituals and magic. Gaia and Uranus gave birth to six males and six females. The males were Coeus (God of Intelligence), Cronus (King of the Gods), Crius (God of the Constellations), Hyperion (God of Light), Iapetus (God of Mortality) and Oceanus (God of Oceans – Salt Water) and females were Rhea (Mother of the Gods), Mnemosyne (Goddess of Memory), Phoebe (Goddess of Prophecy), Theia (Goddess of Light – who along with Hyperion gave birth to Helios/Sun, Selene/Moon and Eos/Dawn), Themis (Goddess of Law & Order) and Tethys (Goddess of Fresh Water – her name is the root word for Nurse). They arose to power when Cronus, in a plot with his mother (Gaia) and his brothers, castrated his father Uranus and took the rulership of the Cosmos from him.

The Olympians – were the twelve (sometimes 13-14) descendants of the Titan couple Cronus and Rhea: Zeus (King of Olympia – God of the Sky), Hera (Queen of Olympia – Goddess of Marriage), Poseidon (God of the Seas), Hades (God of the Underworld), Demeter (Goddess of Fertility and Agriculture), Hestia (Goddess of the Home), Athena (Goddess of Wisdom and War), Apollo (God of Healing, Music, Truth and Light), Artemis (Goddess of Hunting and Nature), Ares (God of War), Aphrodite (Goddess of Love), Hephaestus (God of Fire and Craftsmanship), Hermes (The Messenger God), Dionysus (God of Wine).

700 BCE – Hesiod – Greek Poet wrote the poetic manifesto The Works and Days. This work expands on the themes found in the Homeric Epics along with the story of Prometheus and Pandora, and the so-called Myth of Five Ages.

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The Golden Age, by Lucas Cranach – 1530.
  • Golden Age – Created by the immortals who lived on Olympus, these humans were said to live among the gods, and freely mingled with them. Peace and harmony prevailed during this age. Humans did not have to work to feed themselves, for the earth provided food in abundance. They lived to a very old age but with a youthful appearance and eventually died peacefully. Their spirits lived on as the guardians of humans known as daemons/totems (benevolent and wise nature spirits.)
  • Silver Age – They lived for one hundred years under the dominion of their mothers and only a short time as grown adults. After death, humans of this age became “blessed spirits” of the underworld.
  • Bronze AgeZeus created these humans out of the ash tree. Men of the Bronze Age were hardened and tough, as war was their purpose and passion. The men of this Age were undone by their own violent ways and left no named spirit.
  • Heroic Age – Improves upon the bronze age and after death they enter Elysium, which is an earthly paradise.
  • Iron Age – Humans live an existence of toil and misery. Children dishonor their parents, brother fights with brother and the social contract between guest and host. During this age might makes right, and bad men use lies to be thought good. At the height of this age, humans no longer feel shame or indignation at wrongdoing.
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The Dryad by Evelyn De Morgan – 1884-85.

Trees played an important role in the Greek ethos of humanity – Greek writers and poets saw trees as precursors to humans. They felt that trees had spirits that aided humanity.

Hamadryad – mortal tree beings who lived within certain trees. When the tree died, the hamadryad died.

Dryads – immortal tree spirits who watched over groves and forests. Some dryads were named for the trees they were associated with; Ash trees – Meliai, Apples trees – Epimeliad, Walnut trees – Caryatids etc…

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Echo (nymph) and Narcissus – John William Waterhouse – 1903.

Nymphs – nature spirits who dwelled in mountains, forests, lakes and streams. They would never age and could give birth to immortal children if mated to a god.

Apollo and Daphne – is a story from ancient Greek mythology that was retold by Hellenistic and Roman authors such as Ovid. Apollo (God of Beauty and Fertility) is cursed by Eros/Cupid to be continually pursuing Daphne a nymph.

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Apollo and Daphne by Antonio del Pollaiolo – 1470.

Daphne sacrifices her body by transforming into a Laurel Tree to escape the pressures of Apollo’s constant desires. “Let me be free of this man from this moment forward!” “a heavy numbness seizes her limbs; her soft breasts are surrounded by a thin bark, her hair changes into foliage, her forearms change into branches; her foot, just now swift, now clings because of sluggish roots.” In spite of Daphne’s rejection, Apollo vowed to love her forever: “Always my hair will have you, my lyres will have you, my quivers will have you, laurel tree. You will be present to two Latin places, when the happy voice will sing a triumph and they will visit the great ceremonies at the Capitoline Hill.” Apollo also used his powers of eternal youth and immortality to render Daphne ever green. For this reason, the leaves of the Bay Laurel tree do not decay. Apollo takes Daphne’s eternal chastity, crafting himself a wreath out of her laurel branches and turning her symbol of chastity into a cultural symbol of victory.

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Priestess of Delphi (1891) by John Collier, showing the Pythia holding a Laurel branch.

The Oracle of Delphi and the Laurel Tree – In the Homeric Hymn to Apollo the site of the ancient Oracle of Delphi was conquered by Apollo when he killed Gaia’s Python and kept the oracle for himself. From that point on the oracle at Delphi became known as Pythia, in honor of the Python. The Pythia had to ritually prepare herself by chewing laurel/bay leaves, wear a crown of laurel leaves while sitting on a tripod adorned with laurel. She would hold a branch of the Laurel Tree and breath in vapors, released from fissures in the rock beneath her, causing the Pythia to go into a trance-like state.

The Laurel Tree – (Laurus nobilis), or Bay Laurel, was sacred to Apollo. Sprigs were fashioned into a crown symbolizing nobility and victory and honor. The honor of being a poet Laureate or Noble Laureate is directly connected to the Laurel tree.

Adonis (God of Beauty and Fertility) was born from a Myrrh Tree because his mother Smyrna (Myrrha) was cursed by Aphrodite (Goddess of Love), thus causing Myrrha to be impregnated by her father, the Syrian king Theias. Myrrha prayed to the gods to make her invisible, so they turned her into a myrrh tree.

Garzi, Luigi, 1638-1721; The Birth of Adonis and the Transformation of Myrrha
Garzi, Luigi; The Birth of Adonis and the Transformation of Myrrha.

Nine months later, a boar ran into the myrrh tree and cracked the bark open and Adonis was born. Aphrodite, whose curse created Adonis, ironically fell in love with Adonis and took him in as a son and a lover.  This mythical story became symbolic of the death and resurrection of Adonis, which represented the decay of nature every winter and its revival in spring. Annual festivals called Adonia were held to promote the growth of vegetation and the falling of rain. The name Adonis has a Phoenician origin (from ʾadōn, Adonai “lord”).

500 BCE – Athena and the olive tree – a contest between Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, and Poseidon, God of the Sea, determined who would be the protector of Attica in Greece. The city would then be named after the god or goddess who gave the citizens the most precious, useful and divine gift. With his trident, Poseidon struck a rock, creating a spring of salty water, symbolizing his gift of sea power. Athena followed by striking a rock with her spear and produced the olive tree, an offering signifying fruitfulness and peace. The citizens chose the gift of Athena and named the city of Athens after her.

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Athena and Poseidon by Halle Noël 1711-1781.

An olive tree still stands – where this legendary competition is said to have taken place. It is said that all the olive trees in Athens were descended from that first olive tree offered by Athena. The olive tree was associated with athletic competitions held throughout Greece in ancient times.

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Atop the Acropolis of Athens stands an olive tree.

At the Olympic Games, first held in 776 BC in honor of Zeus, athletes were massaged with olive oil in the belief that the wisdom, power and strength of Athena would be bestowed upon them. The winners were awarded olive leaf crowns and olive oil.

509 – 27 BCE – The Roman Republic – Rome’s control expanded from the over the entire Mediterranean world.

356-323 BCE – Alexander the Great – At 20 years old he claimed the Macedonian throne. He established the city of Alexandria in Egypt, became the King of Persia and won battles in India. The Library of Alexandria was his grandest vision. He never saw it come to fruition, but his general Ptolemy stayed in Egypt, became the Pharaoh and made sure the library was built.

323-31 BCE – Hellenistic Period – The death of Alexander the Great ushered in the Hellenistic Period when the Greek and Roman cultures blended with Egyptian influence.

The names of the Greek Gods were changed to Roman Gods: Gaia/Tellus, Cronus/Saturn, Eros/Cupid, Uranus/Zeus/Jupiter, Mnemosyne/Hera/Juno, Oceanus/Poseidon/Neptune, Hades/Pluto, Rhea/Demeter/Ceres, Hestia/Vesta, Athena/Minerva, Apollo/Apollo, Phoebe/Artemis/Diana/Selene, Ares/Mars, Aphrodite/Venus, Hephaestus/Vulcan, Hermes/Mercury, Dionysus/Bacchus.

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Bacchus/Dionysus (God of Wine) holds a fennel staff, tipped with a pine-cone known as a thyrsus. Leonardo Da Vinci. 1510-15.

Greek Titans represented the four corners – of earth as great pillar/poles/trees that held up the heavens. North – (Coeus, God of Intelligence – Polos), East – (Hyperion, God of Light), South – (Crius, God of the Constellations), West – (Lapetus, God of Mortality).

204 BCE – Cybele and Attis. Cybele is the Phrygian Mother Goddess dating to 6000BCE in Phrygian/Turkey. Cybele is also referred to as the Magna Mater or Mountain Mother because she was born from stone. Her name transitioned to Cybele in Greco-Roman culture as she became assimilated with Demeter and Rhea. Attis was born from Nana, who was impregnated by a sacred Almond Tree. She abandoned him among reeds. Cybele helped mother Attis and fell madly in love with him. Ignoring Cybele’s passion, Attis attempted to marry a mortal woman, but Cybele disrupted the wedding and drove Attis into a mad frenzy. He castrated himself and bled to death under a pine tree. The first Violets grew from the ground where he bled.

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Attis changed into a Pine Tree, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Sébastien Le Clerc, 1801

A Pine Tree absorbed the spirit of Attis. Cybele resurrected his body and brought him back to life in Spring. This became an annual Spring festival symbolic of rebirth.

Saturnalia – also known as the Greek Cronus – the Roman God of Harvest and Agriculture. Saturn was  worshiped in a winter festival called Saturnalia, his name inspired the week day Saturday.

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Saturnalia by Antoine Callet, 1783.

Saturnalia festival started on December 17 and lasted for seven days, ending before the Winter Solstice December 25th. It was a celebration marked by carnivals, exchange of gifts, feasting, and a cessation of all public works.

31 BCE – Roman Empire – Octavian, Augustus Ceasar, defeated the rulers of Egypt, Anthony and Cleopatra (the last Pharoah) and ended the Hellenistic Era. The fall of Cleopatra is considered the pivotal moment that defined the end of Ancient Greece and Egypt.

8 AD – Ovid’s Metamorphoses – was written as a single poem of fifteen books with 250 stories linked by the common theme of metamorphosis. Most of his content was inspired by the earlier Homeric Epics.

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Dryope changing into a Black Poplar Tree.

Augustus Caesar exiled Ovid and banned Ovid’s books from the libraries of Rome, who sought to institute moral reform. There was a gradual movement toward the need for a unified Religion as the Roman Empire tried to instill in the minds of their “people” that the Emperors themselves were Gods associated with the Sun. But, the Roman people hung onto their original beliefs which increasingly conflicted with Roman authority.

274 AD – Sol Invictus – Roman emperor Aurelian made Sol Invictus (The Unconquered Sun) the official God of Rome. At that time December 25, was the actual day of the Winter Solstice and was celebrated as the birth of the Sun.

313 AD – Edict of Milan – Constantine, the Western Roman Emperor, and Eastern Roman Emperor Licinius signed the Edict of Milan, which finally ensured religious tolerance for Christians. The agreement granted freedom of worship to all, regardless of deity, and brought an end to the Age of Martyrs (killing of Christians and Jews), which had begun after Jesus’ death.

379-395 AD – Roman Emperor Theodosius – commanded that all “pagan” scrolls, statues, temples etc…be destroyed. Pagan means “country dweller.” All of Rome was dedicated to pagan Gods and Goddesses. His reach went beyond Rome to Greece, Egypt and Jerusalem. The ties between humans and nature were severed, which plummeted humanity into the Dark Ages.

The Renaissance – Age of Enlightenment created an opening for artists to express the ancient trees myths of Greco-Roman culture into their pantings and architecture to help people “remember” again.

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Sandro Botticelli Primavera (Allegory of Spring)

1480 AD – The Allegory of Spring is the largest mythological painting of the Early Renaissance. It was commissioned by the Medici family. It is set in a meadow complete with flowers and trees. It shows nine figures, all based on a mythological text. Mercury is moving the winter clouds so spring can come. Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, is in the center of the picture surrounded a myrtle plant that represents sexual desire, marriage, and child bearing. The orange trees represent the blossoming of spring and birth of children.