The Landscape Guide

Homeric garden descriptions

The heroic poetry of Homer throws a somewhat clearer light on the scene. Here we see mirrored the mode of life of a noble race who were perhaps inclined, in those intervals of leisure that wars allowed, to busy themselves with gardening. Homer’s poetry gives good instances of this, though the ways of life were simpler than in the palace at Knossos.

It may have been through grief at the loss of his son Odysseus that Laertes was driven to his fields, there in a servant’s dress to do menial work, but toiling with his hands in a garden was no new task for him. In early life he had trained Odysseus to it, giving the lad a row of fruit trees and vines to stimulate his zeal. We might call the place a farm-garden, where Odysseus, returning from his travels, made himself known to his grief-stricken father : he found nicely arranged rows of fruit-trees and vine espaliers ringed by a fence of thorn-bush, and beside it the humble dwelling shared by the field servants and their master (Odyssey XXIV.). We may regard the property of Alcinous, with the lovely fruit-garden, a stone’s-throw from the town and close to the grove of Pallas Athene, in a similar way. It was here that Odysseus had to wait till Nausicaa and her maidens reached her father’s house.

But Alcinous owned another large and magnificent garden in the town of Scheria: it was close to the palace (Odyssey  VII. 112 ff.), and the poet praises it as having every imaginable beauty and charm. Yet if we examine it closely, it is only a garden for utility, and is not very different from Laertes’ farm-garden. Odysseus looks over it before he crosses the lofty threshold of the Phæacian palace : it is outside the court, near the door. This front court is enclosed with walls, and perhaps, like the palaces at Mycenæ, with buildings also. Round the chief entrance extends the large garden (of four hides), also walled-in. Next to the court is the orchard, with apples, pears, figs, and olives, the same as in Laertes’ farm-garden, except that pomegranates are not mentioned there. Next comes the vineyard; and finally, in the last section, are the beds of vegetables, planted according to the different kinds. By this triple division, which excludes such ornamental plants as are not immediately useful, the Phæacian garden looks just the same as the others.

If the poet, describing the very best of his time, can see nothing more than this, we are justified in assuming that only the simplest kind of cultivation was known, and that in this respect the Greek could not vie with the Egyptian or with any Oriental.

If a poet would produce a picture of fairy-like charm within these simple limits, he must adopt quite another method. His garden is to remain the whole year through full of blossom and fruit, unhurt by any failure or any mishap. Pear after pear, fig after fig ripens, fanned by gentle zephyrs. Such descriptions are found everywhere, and especially about vineyards, where the grape is shown from the blossom to the winepress, and all at the same time. No doubt the rhapsodist has in his mind the mythical gardens of the Hesperides. The fairy-tale character is given by this timeless mating of flower and fruit; for always and everywhere there has naturally been a demand that in a good garden something or other shall bloom at every. season. Now the favoured climate of Greece could more easily fulfil this demand than more northerly latitudes; yet Bacon himself claims it for a garden in England.

Of the proper care of flowers in this fairy garden we hear nothing, for the "fair ordered beds" are only vegetable beds. How else would the poet, who can paint in such rich colouring the pastures of the wild, be silent about the wonderful beauty in a garden? It seems clear that nobody had as yet hit upon the idea of transferring wild flowers to the garden, the lovely children of the meadow. Only at a later date was the vegetable plot embellished with flowers, so that from the garden-for-use the garden-for-beauty arose.

The absence of floriculture in Homeric times appears again in the fact that flowers are not much used to adorn houses or clothes. It is true that very often Homer's goblets are described as adorned with flowers, but the word “flowery” may point only to floral ornamentation, for the goblets are not vases in which flowers are placed (in Egyptian and Oriental fashion), but sacrificial cups for holy waters, or possibly mixing vessels.

There is a beautiful example of the Homeric goblet in a silver cup from Mycenae (Fig 48). It is a vessel representing a flower-pot in three tiers, with a flower design on it. This kind of object may or may not have been due to Egyptian influence, for such pots were common in the houses; but the ornamentation by itself is not enough to prove that there was an extensive cultivation of flowers at Mycenæ, although some writers have held that it does prove this.

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Odysseus standing at the threshold of the house looks over the whole garden. If we take  the poet’s words literally, there must have been rising ground in front of him; and this is consistent with the disposition of the water-supply.  “There are two streams,” we are told, “one of them traversing the whole garden, the other passing below the threshold of  the court to the great house.” From this stream the townspeople took their water.

In the Iliad Homer gives an explicit account of the ingenious water system used in gardens. We hear of a wonderful controller of the water whose function it was to conduct the streams over garden and plants. There were evidently canals where the water remained dammed up till it was wanted: then the overseer took away the obstructions and out poured the water with a rush, to stream over the land. This kind of water system, to which the Phæacian garden also owed its fertility, needs a rising ground. And so can be best explained the division into two streams. If one stream is dammed up, it cannot be used for purposes that need running water. So the second stream should lead straight through into the court, where it can be drawn off by the townspeople; and it must have an exit beyond the outer wall.

One further detail in Homer’s description throws some doubt upon the situation. About the grapes in the vineyard we are told that some of them were getting withered in the sun on the level ground of the drying-floor. If this "drying-floor" is in the garden itself we shall have to imagine (since it belongs to the middle section) not only our rising ground, but terraces as well. We are also told in this fairy-tale account that the grapes are cut in one place and pressed in another, so the drying-floor may just as well have been where the winepress was, at the farm outhouses.

Because of its fertile fancy this description of the garden of Alcinous, supported by the poet’s authority, has put into words the highest and noblest feelings of generations of men who belonged to the ancient world. And when the art had attained to heights unimagined by Homer, there remained the enchanting ideal for poets, floating before their minds like their dreams of the Isles of the Blest.

Though the garden of Alcinous was conspicuous for its prolific abundance, it is not likely that a palace garden was an exceptional thing. Probably every man of importance in Homer’s time had a garden of this sort at his palace, in order to provide his tables with necessaries. In the home of Odysseus such a one is plainly indicated. Penelope says that as a wedding gift her father gave her the experienced Dolios, so that he might take charge of the fine tree-garden (Odyssey IV. 737) [ed: see note on garden weddings]. Dolios lived at this time on Laertes’ land, but we must think of Penelope’s garden as close to the palace, and under her own special supervision. Already in those days it had become the custom for the garden to be the particular property of the mistress of the house, as it had to provide fruits and vegetables for the kitchen. In similar social conditions we find exactly the same thing all through the Middle Ages.

In the open courts of the palaces, which were to play so striking a part in the future development of horticulture, there was no attempt at gardening either at Mycenæ or in the Homeric age. The front court was always paved ; this was where the altar stood, and very often there was also a well beautifully encased in marble, an ornament to the place. Still, even in Homer’s time there were some courts with plants, as is proved by the tale of Odysseus about the secret erection of his cunning bedstead. Round about a shady olive-tree in one of the lower courts Odysseus built himself a bedchamber. He used the trunk of the tree to support the bed, which he firmly attached to the ground.

It seems as though the courts in the women’s quarters were planted with trees, but for the most part front courts were paved even at a later date than this. Ludan describes a House of Aphrodite: the front court, he says, was not paved “ in the usual way,” but adorned, as was suitable to the lady of the house, with noble shady trees, flowers, and arbours.