(Easter Essay 2) The Secret of the Sacred Garden: The Garden of Eden and the Orchard of the Virgin by Harita Meenee

Ishtar/Inanna, winged and wearing a horned cap or tiara of divinity. Detail of an ancient Mesopotamian vase from Larsa, early 2nd millennium BC. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5
Ishtar/Inanna, winged and wearing a horned cap or tiara of divinity. Detail of an ancient Mesopotamian vase from Larsa, early 2nd millennium BC. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5

To trace the connection between the gardens of Aphrodite and Adonis on the one hand and the garden of the Resurrection on the other, we have to examine if the cult of Adonis was ever prevalent in Palestine. Although he is known as a Hellenic deity, it seems that his worship was imported to Greece in the 7th c. BCE from the Middle East. His name is linked to the Semitic Adon, which means “Lord.” In some ways he is similar to Tammuz (or Dumuzi), honored by women from Mesopotamia to Syro-Palestine, across languages and cultures. As Reed points out, the Greek celebrants of the Adonia “had their counterparts in the women of Jerusalem weeping for Tammuz at the north gate of the temple, excoriated in Ezekiel, 8:14-15.”

Inanna and the Song of Songs

The Jewish prophet Ezekiel wrote during the early 6th c. BCE, but Tammuz/Dumuzi comes from a much older era. He was the consort of Ishtar/Inanna, an Eastern version of Aphrodite, who also happened to be associated with a “holy” and “luxuriant” garden, as reported in the epic of Gilgamesh. Furthermore, when she sings her song of love to Dumuzi, she calls him “my desirable apple garden,” “my fruitful garden of meš trees,” and “my shaded garden of the desert.”[1]

Yet Inanna was not the only one to use such metaphors for her beloved. Scholars from the first part of the 20th century have noted a number of similarities between Sumerian poetry and the Song of Songs; contemporary authors emphasize the close connection between this unusual biblical text and Egyptian love poems.[2] No matter where the famous Song originated, it is fascinating to notice how it uses the symbol of the garden: the latter is simultaneously portrayed as the Bride herself (“a garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse…”), as her home, and naturally as a place of pleasure. Finally, the orchard, filled with vegetation and beauty, becomes the site where the erotic union will come to completion as the heroine promises to her beloved.[3]

It is intriguing that certain Church Fathers, as well as early medieval theologians, identified the Bridegroom of the Song of Songs with Jesus and his Bride with Mary Magdalene.[4] Even nowadays in the Roman Catholic churches, a passage from this sensual collection of poems is read in her honor on the day of her festival.

Eve and Adam in the Garden of Eden, ca 1525, area of Nardon Pénicaud. Museum of Applied Arts, Frankfurt.
Eve and Adam in the Garden of Eden, ca 1525, area of Nardon Pénicaud. Museum of Applied Arts, Frankfurt.

If the Song of Songs associates the garden with love, the book of Genesis turns it into a place of birth since the first woman was created (i.e. born) in the Garden of Eden. Eve, whose name in Hebrew means “life,” is appropriately called in the Bible “the mother of all humanity.”[5] If we read the text closely, sexual connotations become apparent, as well: “And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.”[6]

The Womb and the Virgin

Interestingly, in Eastern Christianity, the Garden of Eden and Heaven, the afterlife home of the virtuous, are one and the same. In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), as well as in the New Testament, they are both called paradeisos, where paradise comes from.[7] This is a word of Persian origin meaning “walled garden,” yet for some Gnostic Christians apparently it also had another meaning: a work attributed to Simon the Magus identified paradeisos with the womb![8]

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (ca 1480-1490) reveals the erotic dimension of the garden.
The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (ca 1480-1490) reveals the erotic dimension of the garden.

Thus, the garden becomes a multi-dimensional element, which encompasses death and rebirth, sexuality and fertility, feminine and masculine. Although the associations of a symbol can shift and change, depending on the social and religious context, often multiple meanings coexist, complementing each other.

Yet how can we ever know which meaning—if any—was originally attached to the garden in John’s story of the resurrected Jesus and his appearance to Mary Magdalene? It is even hard to tell if this narration is accurate to begin with, in the absence of any real evidence.[9] In fact, it is debatable whether Jesus actually existed as a historical figure as many Bible critics have pointed out.

Mary Magdalene in the garden with the resurrected Jesus. Eastern Christian icon in the Byzantine style.

Perhaps it might be better to admit that the purpose of religion is not necessarily to convey historical truths; rather, it reflects and influences people’s perceptions by using powerful archetypal images. These speak not only to the conscious mind but also, largely, to the unconscious. From what we have seen so far, the garden appears to be one of these archetypal images. Despite its associations with male deities, it remains deeply feminine: it is the “vulva,” the “womb,” the lovely Bride of the Song of Songs, as well as the sacred place of Aphrodite and Inanna.

Today most of these connotations have been lost although the concept of the Sacred Garden has not entirely disappeared. Just like gardens were once dedicated to Aphrodite, today the monastic state of Mt. Athos in Northern Greece is considered the “Orchard of the Virgin Mary.” Tradition claims that she visited the place during her lifetime although this is most probably a myth. Ironically, women are strictly excluded from her “orchard” as medieval laws still hold sway.

Yet not very far from Mt. Athos, in the city of Serres, women still remember the old custom of the gardens of Adonis. A few days before the Good Friday they place seeds of barley, lentil or corn in a plate or pot, letting them sprout. At the time of the procession of the Epitaphios, when an icon of the dead Jesus is solemnly carried in his flower-laden “coffin,” sometimes accompanied by his beloved Magdalene, they place the vessels in front of their house doors, along with candles, an incense holder and an icon of the Crucifixion.[10]

As with many other Pagan elements, it has turned out easier to Christianize the motif of the garden rather than try to entirely uproot it. With Easter approaching, we have a great opportunity to reflect upon the deeper meaning of the garden’s power and magic. It is up to us decide if we want to see it as a symbol of love, sexuality, or resurrection. We can perhaps best perceive it as a metaphor of our own rebirth in the rich soil of a luscious place filled with sacredness, sensuality and beauty.

[1] “Gilgameš, Enkidu and the Nether World,” Version A, 27-35 et al., ETCSL translation: t., http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t. “A Balbale to Inana (Dumuzid-Inana B),” 27-32, ETCSL translation: t.4.08.02, http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.4.08.02&display=Crit&charenc=&lineid=t40802.p1#t40802.p1; “The Song of the Lettuce: A Balbale to Inana (Dumuzid-Inana E),” 1-4, ETCSL translation: t.4.08.05, http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.4.08.05&display=Crit&charenc=&lineid=t40805.p1#t40805.p1.

[2] Theophile James Meek, “Babylonian Parallels to the Song of Songs,” Journal of Biblical Literature 43, no. 3/4 (1924): 245-52, http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0021-9231%281924%2943%3A3%2F4%3C245%3ABPTTSO%3E2.0.CO%3B2-A; Martti Nissinen, “Song of Songs and the Sacred Marriage” in Martti Nissinen and Risto Uro (eds), Sacred Marriages: The Divine-Human Sexual Metaphor from Sumer to Early Christianity (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008).

[3] Song of Songs 4:12; 8:13; 5:1; 7:11-12.

[4] E. Ann Matter, The Voice of My Beloved: The Song of Songs in Western Medieval Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990), 167; Ann W. Astell, The Song of Songs in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 174-175.

[5] “Mother of all humanity”: Genesis 3:20. For the meaning of the name Eve see The Old Testament (Athens: Hellenic Biblical Society, 1997), footnote 8, p. 12.

[6] Genesis 2:23-25, King James Bible.

[7]Luke 23:43;IICor 12:4;Rev 2:7.

[8] Hippolytus, Refutation of all Heresies, 6.14, quoted in Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, trans. into Greek by Theodora Darviri (Athens: Enalios, 2005), 113.

[9] For the history of the tradition about the garden‑burial see Robert M. Price, “Jesus’ Burial in a Garden: The Strange Growth of the Tradition,” Theological Publications, 2006, http://www.robertmprice.mindvendor.com/burial.htm.

[10]George Pilitsis. “The Gardens of Adonis in Serres Today.” Journal of Modern Greek Studies 3.2 (1985): 145-166. Project MUSE, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_modern_greek_studies/summary/v003/3.2.pilitsis.html.

(See Part I here.)

Read Meet Mago Contributor, Harita Meenee.

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