The Landscape Guide

Sacred groves

In Homer the sacred grove is mentioned much oftener than the garden. We must look upon it as the headquarters of religious worship, for the service in temples, though often spoken of in epic poetry, is far less important. Whether the grove was always enclosed and therefore a τερτνοσ, is uncertain, as it is generally called αλσος, but it is the fact that its altar was surrounded by shady trees, for the epithets given to the groves are “ rich in trees “ and “ shadow-spreading.” Generally a spring is mentioned, but the names of the trees are hardly ever given : in distinction from the garden they are always non-fruit-bearing forest trees.

Often a sacred tree stands between the spring and the altar, as for example the tall towering palm which comes into Odysseus’ mind when he meets Nausicaa. And the Achæans also make sacrifice at an altar beside a spring which rises out of a beautiful lofty plane-tree. Most renowned of all was the oak at Dodona, from whose top Odysseus heard the voice of the Thunderer. Very common among Cretan and Mycenæan monuments are pictures of sacred trees in small precincts or enclosures of stone. Their reverence for trees the Greeks shared with the Orientais. It lasted longer than the Hellenistic period, and was inherited by the Romans.

There is no lack of records to prove that the spots sacred to the gods were carefully and skillfully adorned. There is the grove of Athene at Scheria on the road to Alcinous’ estate; the altar stands in a meadow wherein flows a stream ; shading it there are black poplar-trees. The sanctuary of nymphs at Ithaca is even more charmingly depicted. Odysseus is strolling up to the town with the swineherd when they come to a cunningly enclosed basin, which lies open to the cool streams foaming down from the rock. All round in a circle are planted the water-loving poplars, and high above stands the altar where travellers are wont to offer sacrifice to the nymphs. This picture was the work of three townsmen of Ithaca, whose names are explicitly stated by the poet, so attractive does the sanctuary seem to him. This, our first picture of a nymphæum, gives us a clear idea of the sites that the artists of a later antiquity, and still more those of Renaissance days, could adapt in the happiest manner to horticultural uses.

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A scene (from Herculaneum),
thought to show a shrine in a
grove dedicated to the Egyptian
goddess Isis, who had a cult
following in Greece and Rome.

In all these pictures we are concerned with the works of man; but in the grotto of Calypso it is somewhat different, for here we have a pretty natural scene. There is no grove, but merely a wood with alders and poplars and sweet-smelling cypresses, in whose boughs are nesting hawks, tree-owls, and loud-cawing sea-crows that know the trade of the waters. A vine, heavy with grapes, stands at the entrance of the grotto. Four streams rise near by, and meander hither and thither about a meadow-land teeming with violets and wild parsley. This is a picture that even an immortal stays lingering to behold.

Thus we see in the Homeric age germs many and diverse of the garden of the future; they will develop very differently in different social conditions. We know that until the fifth century the Greek lived happily on his land, and that not even the devastations of the Persian wars prevented him from rebuilding his home in the time of peace that followed. But the land was now split up into small properties proportionally divided. The rich had accumulated fine collections of furnishings for the house, but in their gardens they still had only useful produce, just as in the days of Odysseus. When Cimon had the boundaries of his garden removed, so that everyone should have free access to it, he was not abandoning a pleasure-ground, it was only that now foodstuff was procurable by all. It is possible—unluckily we lack information about this period—that people had by now begun to grow flowers, for the fashion of wearing wreaths, quite unknown to Homer, begins from the sixth century to be more and more prevalent. Every religious ceremony was performed by persons who were crowned with wreaths, every victim was wreathed, and though a symposium began with rites of religion, the guests were also crowned.