Monday, December 19, 2011

Book Review: The Gardens of Adonis: Spices in Greek Mythology by Marcel Detienne

Marcel Detienne’s The Gardens of Adonis: Spices in Greek Mythology was one of the first books I put on my list for the Read-A-Myth Challenge, because it seemed to combine three things I love to read about: food, history, and mythology. And it definitely did that. But despite the title, the emphasis of the book is more on the way the evolution of the myth of Adonis – a myth affirming the renewing cycle of birth and death that symbolizes the calendar year – reveals prevailing societal attitudes and beliefs in classical society.

For those of you who, like me, stowed your copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in a box in your parents’ basement after college with a promise to retrieve it “once you had the room for it,” only to have said box’s decaying contents hauled to a local used book seller when the parents finally retired and moved to Florida many years later, a refresher of the Adonis myth might be in order. In what is arguably the most famous version of the myth, Myrrha is cursed by the Furies to fall in love with her father. Her nurse helps her seduce him during the harvest festival of Ceres. When he realizes of whom he’s had carnal knowledge, he vows to kill his daughter. Myrrha flees Cyprus for Arabia (the place where spices come from) and wanders for nine months. She finally begs the gods to have mercy on her, and they grant her wish by turning her into a myrrh tree, (because after all, what could be more merciful than losing your body and gaining some foliage?). Realizing that Myrrha is pregnant, Lucina, the goddess of childbirth, goes and touches the myrrh tree and it splits open to spew forth Adonis*. Myrrha continues to cry sappy, scented tears for her lost son that are the basis for the perfume trade.

The young Adonis is so beautiful that Venus falls in love with him while he is still a child, but for some reason has Proserpina foster him in the Underworld. Once he becomes the most gorgeous man on the planet, both of the goddesses want him for their own, so Jupiter intervenes, and decides Venus can have him for a third of the year, Proserpina for another third, and that Adonis can choose for the last third. Like Paris, Adonis chooses beauty (Venus) over power (Proserpina), to predictably bad results – Proserpina sends a wild boar to kill him while he’s waiting around in a lettuce patch for Venus, providing a one-way tour of the Underworld for Adonis. Venus cries foul, and Jupiter intervenes by declaring Adonis dead only part-time, giving him to Venus for half the year (spring and summer) and to Proserpina for half the year (fall and winter).

So where do the spices of the title come in? According to Detienne, the true significance of the Adonis myth is its ability to link the botanical, classical world with the exoticism of the East, the place where spices, so significant for the culinary, ritual and sexual lives of the Greeks and later Romans, originate. But more than that, the Adonis myth provides a powerful reminder of the dangers of unbridled emotion in women, who are linked alternatively to both virtue (through Demeter, motherhood and the harvest) and licentiousness (through Venus, carnal love and spices) throughout the mythological cycle.

In fact, the title refers to gardens that were planted by the secret Adonis cults, groups of women who came together to mourn the death of Adonis by planting quick growing seeds, like herbs, that would sprout during the festival and quickly die, leaving behind their scent. This, of course, made Greek men like Plato very uncomfortable, because women were getting together without men – and you know how much trouble those women could get into when there wasn’t a man around to control things! (Who knew planting a terrarium could become a means of subverting hegemonic masculinity?)

In contrast to a festival such as the Thesmophoria which was celebrated in public and in very official manner, the Adonia took place in private, in some private house where women would meet together, each the confidant of the other’s secret love affairs, for a fleeting moment rejecting, in a way, a social order noted for its public and masculine character. pp. 129-130

This is a short book, especially by scholarly standards, but Detienne has a rambling style, shifting between myths and Greek sects with no introduction or explanation. I didn’t find it an easy read, but that may be a matter of style more than substance – I found myself having to put it down and pick it back up multiple times. It may just be a cultural thing – the book is translated from French, and it’s entirely possible that French readers do not crave the organization that an American reader would. But I certainly learned a lot, and I think those interested in ancient cultures, food history and feminist history will all find something to enjoy with this book.

This is my fifth book for the Read-A-Myth Challenge hosted by JoV and Bina (only one more to go!), and the last of the titles I committed to for the Dewey Decimal Challenge (even though I wound up reading a bunch of additional non-fiction for that challenge) hosted by Jen at The Introverted Reader. So thanks to all of you for hosting!

*I included a kind of creepy rendering of that moment from Franchesi. The screaming tree reminds me of the ones from The Wizard of Oz!


  1. What a cool concept for a book!

  2. Oh, wow -- the premise sounds great -- I love the idea of it -- but I think I would get a little lost. I'm not so good with slightly academic-ish non-fiction -- I just don't concentrate enough/don't have the smarts. But I love the intersection of myth/real life in unusual ways (I've got a book in my queue for the spring on women, gardening, and...I think the emotional or political implications of gardening style, something like that.)

  3. Egads! First, how did I miss the Read a Myth challenge? And second, I actually think I might like this book. I might have to root it out when next in the bookshop :)

  4. @Amused -- I think it is a cool idea. It was very informative.

    @Audra -- It is a bit on the nerdy side, I'll admit that. But I think the reason it was hard to follow was really more about the writing style, which was kind of disorganized. Bottom line, I think this book represents a great idea in need of a great editor!

    @Natalie -- I have no idea how you missed it. It was a great idea, but I'm not sure if JoV and Bina are going to host it again!

  5. I do love books that explain the origins of myths and tie them into modern-day events or rituals of sorts. In spite of the lack of organization, I must say I am intrigued.

  6. Hmm, it sounds like the title is a little misleading- I thought there would be a lot about ancient spices and how they made their way into cultural lore, bu it looks like the focus is only on one myth, and perhaps only one spice?

  7. Not for me, but I very much appreciate your review of it. I just do not know enough about the myths and the gods to ever remember who is who and whatnot.

  8. @Michelle -- There is definitely a lot going on. I think it's the kind of book you could read over again and find more and more in it, if you were so inclined.

    @Aarti -- The focus is on the Adonis myth, but lots of others are also discussed. There's plenty of information about how various spices were used in food and rituals. But it's really what society construes the meaning of the spices to be.

    @Care -- It was definitely a stretch for me, but it was very interesting.

  9. This Sounds like a fascinating read. I like books that would work well with the likes of Robert Graves book on the Greek Myths.

  10. I don't think I have the focus to read something like this on my own! Congratulations on completing the Dewey Decimal Challenge!


I absolutely love comments. Thanks for taking the time to share! Col