Tag Archives: roots

Heaven on earth: the ancient roots of your backyard garden

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The connection between the gardens of Versailles, and your backyard garden, are closer than you might think.

Eva Anagnostou-Laoutides, Macquarie University

You don’t have to be an avid gardener or know all the Latin names of plants to appreciate the opportunity for reflection that a stroll in the garden can afford us. The explosion of colours, shapes, and textures in the garden, the tenacity and ingenuity of the plants, so determined to claim their right to life and beauty, can suspend for us the troubling aspects of everyday life.

But gardens are also bound to their political and religious history, traces of which can be found in our ongoing cultural obsession with them. The connection between the famous gardens of Versailles, once the coveted possession of Louis XIV, and our humble back garden is deeper than we might imagine.

Read more:
Friday essay: what is it about Versailles?

In the book of Genesis, our creation begins in Eden, the “garden of God” which our ancestors, Adam and Eve, failed to appreciate. Having lost our privileged access to this divine garden because of their sin, we perpetually try to re-create it – in our homes, in our cities, in our heads. The earthly garden as a reflection of the paradise we can hope to experience after death is also a central motif in the Qur’an, a promise delivered by Allah himself.

Adam and Eve Chased out of the Terrestrial Paradise. Jean Achille Benouville, 1841.

Gods and kings

In the ancient Near East, in whose fertile soil the Biblical traditions took shape, kings (who often assumed priestly duties) were believed to have the monopoly of communicating with the gods in the royal garden. This was seen as a microcosm of the divine garden.

In the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh (from around 2000 BCE), the hero-king Gilgamesh travels to the wondrous garden of the sun-god, where flowers boast precious gems instead of leaves, in a quest to claim immortality. Although immortality eludes Gilgamesh, the divine garden offers him wisdom. Thus equipped, he returns to his city, Uruk, also known as “the garden of Gilgamesh,” and builds magnificent walls which will etch his name into the memory of mankind.

Read more:
Guide to the classics: the Epic of Gilgamesh

In another story, despite his uneasy relationship with the fertility goddess Inanna, whose advances he eventually rejects, Gilgamesh poses as her dedicated gardener. He carves a throne and a bed for Inanna from the Huluppu tree while she makes him a magical drum and drumstick from it to summon warriors to battle. When Inanna’s favourite tree is threatened by a serpent nesting at its roots, only Gilgamesh and his companions rush to her aid.

Throughout the Near East, the garden was a place where gods confirmed the legitimacy of kings. Sargon I (1920-1881 BCE), the founder of the Akkadian-Sumerian empire, poses in the epic The Legend of Sargon as a humble gardener, and was hand-picked by the goddess to become the king.

Ancient Near Eastern kings invested exorbitant sums of money in building magnificent royal gardens, architectural marvels which crystallised in people’s minds their unique communion with the gods. Sennacherib (704-681 BCE) likely commissioned the famous hanging gardens to be built near his capital Nineveh, although we still commonly refer to them as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

‘Garden party of Aššurbanipal’ relief, reproduced with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum. Found in Nineveh, Iraq, dated circa 645 BCE.
British Museum

The notion was also known to the Israelite king Solomon (circa 970-931 BCE), who proudly announced his construction of lavish, well-irrigated gardens and groves, and was widely used by the Achaemenids (a Persian dynasty). Indeed the Persian word for an enclosed garden, pairi-daêza, was introduced into Greek as paradeisos (“paradise”) by the historian Xenophon.

A possible image of Prince Mirza Hindal in a Garden from Los Angeles County Museum of Arts (public domain). India, Mughal, 1600-1610.

In his biography of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, the Xenophon notes with admiration the king’s impeccable gardening skills which matched his royal virtue. Seleucus I, Alexander the Great’s general who came to rule Babylon, also embraced the profile of the king as gardener. His famous garden at Daphne, outside Antioch, renowned for its abundance of shady laurel trees, tall cypresses, and perennial fountains, was closely associated with the foundation of the Seleucid dynasty and Apollo, their divine patron. In the east the tradition never lost its appeal.

From the Middle East to the world

The Romans, who inherited the kingdoms of Alexander’s successors, adopted the ideology of gardens with renewed zeal, transplanting it in Europe. The Roman Empire withered, but generations of aspiring aristocrats and rulers, including Charlemagne, Count Robert II of Artois (1250-1302), Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464), and Henri II (1519-1559) never forgot the sense of grandeur and superhuman aura that exotic, exclusive gardens could afford them.

Dating from the Middle Ages, the Vatican Gardens, owned by the Pope, continue to evoke the political and religious dimensions of the garden, which were especially celebrated in Britain with the ascension of Henry VIII in 1509. European colonization of the Middle East saw the idea of the garden reintroduced in the places of its origin, but, also imported in the New World. Gardens such as the Victoria gardens in Mumbai showed off the legitimacy of British rule.

Read more:
The science is in: gardening is good for you

The Vatican evokes the political and religious dimensions of gardens.

The connection of the garden with politics remains strong. Community gardens are cast as an epitome of democratic values, and the Royal Gardens in all major Australian cities advocate inclusiveness, despite their monarchical titles. Gardens surrounded ancient temples to bring worshippers closer to god; gardens surround war memorials inviting us to reflect on life lost and life gained.

So next time you’re wandering around your own garden, reflect on the fact that you’re walking in the footsteps of the kings and queens of yesteryear, in your own slice of paradise.The Conversation

Eva Anagnostou-Laoutides, Associate Professor in Ancient History, Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Austerity’s enduring appeal has ancient roots in asceticism

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British Library

Sarah Macmillan, University of Birmingham

The recent easing of the public sector pay cap suggests that the government is beginning to respond to widespread concerns about the social and economic costs of austerity. Yet despite this turn, the proposed rises remain below real-terms inflation. Plus, the need for continued austerity is justified in terms of being “fair” to those who must pay for wage increases as well to as those who will receive them.

Despite increasing opposition, austerity remains a potent force in politics today. This should not surprise us. The modern narrative of austerity has a long cultural history, which we can trace from medieval religious writers to 20th century philosophers.

Part of austerity’s appeal is that it justifies present suffering through the promise of future prosperity. No matter what the arguments against austerity, from past and present economists, the huge cost for public services is somehow seen as a price worth paying. Philip Hammond, chancellor of the exchequer, insists that “we must hold our nerve … and maintain our focus resolutely on the prizes that are so nearly within reach”.

After seven years of austerity, ministers have signalled they will slightly lift the public sector pay cap for police officers.

This language is telling. It is part of an ongoing narrative about how restraint and self-denial are good for you. This perceived moral value is not without precedent. Historically, there have been numerous cultural manifestations of austerity that shed light on its enduring appeal and the rhetoric associated with it.

Morally correct

Austerity is closely related to the ancient concept of asceticism, the art of abstinence practiced by Greek and Roman philosophers, continued by medieval religious writers, and made famous by the theorist Max Weber in his 1922 book Economy and Society. Asceticism has many definitions, usually equating a simple life to a moral one. It is often seen as religious, an ideology based on the fact that present self-denial will enable future liberation from want.

Biblical scholar Richard Valantasis puts this in very positive terms, calling asceticism the “dream of being a better person” in his book on the subject, The Making of the Self. But Weber extends the religious and philosophical dimensions of asceticism to economics when he argues that capitalism is inherently ascetic, suggesting that it thrives through self-restraint and hard work.

Weber equates asceticism and rationality; austerity, he says, is both sensible and logical, and it provides the individual with inward fulfilment. Thus, when governments pursue austerity policies and accuse their opponents of being selfish and wasteful, they draw on a cultural narrative that views self-denial as ethically, morally, and even spiritually, correct.

This is certainly the language that former chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne, used in June 2010 when austerity was first introduced in the UK. His emergency budget valorised austerity as moral:

It pays for the past. And it plans for the future. It supports a strong enterprise-led recovery. It rewards work … Yes, it is tough; but it is also fair.

Promise and purpose

The idea that austerity is “tough” but good for you echoes ascetic ideals clearly. Asceticism is a formative process as it shapes an individual through hard work (in Weber’s view) and gruelling self-denial (in the view of medieval writers). The fourth-century bishop Athanasius of Alexandria – a father of the Christian church – characterised the moral life as one of renunciation and suffering. He also praised discipline and labour as virtues that will lead to pleasing God, and ultimately to the rewards of heaven.

Iconic: Athanasius of Alexandria.

The story of present suffering leading to future prosperity therefore weaves concerns about one’s current struggles into a grander narrative of purpose. It gives an unstable life meaning through discipline, and according to the cultural critic Geoffrey Galt Harpham, leads to understanding of oneself, one’s community, and one’s place in the world.

These ascetic ideals remain imbued in Western cultural thinking and suggest why the narrative of modern economic austerity has stuck for so long. Austerity provides a sense of purpose, of striving for achievement, and of self-control. This is evident in the way that austerity is sold to the public – hence Hammond’s comment:

After seven long and tough years, the high-wage, high-growth economy for which we strive is tantalisingly close to being within our grasp. It would be easy to take our foot off the pedal. But instead we must hold our nerve.

By using the language of shared experience, shared struggle, and shared results, austerians attempt to construct a collective identity that unites people in their vision. The fact that austerity affects people in drastically different ways is secondary to creating the sense that we are striving for a common good. In the Middle Ages it was promoted to give spiritual meaning to physical deprivation. Today it does the same for economic hardship.

There is nothing wrong with the ideals of asceticism per se. Self-control and self-restraint are admirable qualities and have been praised throughout history. The problem is when these qualities are evoked on a national scale to justify economic self-harm.

The Conservatives’ loss of their majority in the most recent election suggests that those experiencing austerity might be beginning to turn against it. But those for whom austerity provides a powerful sense of rational order, a coherent narrative that makes constancy out of instability, and an economic purpose with the allure of morality, are unwilling to abandon it.

The ConversationThe narrative of austerity resonates strongly because of its history. We now require a powerful counter-narrative to promote the positive benefits of investing in public services and communities.

Sarah Macmillan, Teaching Fellow in Medieval Literature, University of Birmingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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