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Greek Gods and Goddesses and Herbs, Oh My!

Herbs are the quiet powerhouses of the food world. They are vibrant, adding color and delicate flavor to a variety of dishes, and yet they are often overlooked in favor of other flavors or they are written off as garnish. This is devastatingly unfair to flavors that once were associated with both the Gods and Goddesses of Greek Mythology. The myths surrounding herbs and their associated God or Goddess are called etiological myths. These are myths which give reason as to why things are the way they are. Some of these myths may be familiar to you, but you might find that you learn something new about your favorite herb below!

The Tale of Daphne, or The Bay Leaf

The Greek Gods and Goddesses were famous for punishing anyone who offended them in any way. Usually the other Gods and Goddesses would avoid insulting or offending the other immortals in any way, but that wasn't the case with Apollo. He was quite full of himself and believed he was better than a lot of other Gods in many ways.

One day, Apollo decided he would tease Eros about his arching skills. They were both incredibly skilled archers, but Apollo thought he was better than Eros, and so he demeaned him by citing his short stature and inability to shoot arrows properly. Eros took this to heart and launched two arrows- one tipped in gold and another in lead. The golden arrow pierced Apollo's skin and gave him an insatiable lust for the first person he saw. This person was Daphne.

Daphne was a beautiful girl, the daughter of the river god Peneus. The lead arrow unfortunately struck her, giving her a strong hatred for all things romantic. Apollos sudden advance on her was sickening to her, she was completely turned off by his advances. Apollo continued to chase her until she became exhausted and begged her father for help. He quickly transformed her into a laurel tree and her legs grew into the ground like roots while her head and arms sprouted leaves. These leaves are what we know of today as the bay leaf. Apollo, ever enchanted by Daphne, plucked some of her leaves and adorned himself with them, all while weeping for his loss. The laurel tree has since been the symbol of the God Apollo, and also a symbol for poets, for whom Apollo dedicated the laurel tree.

Parsley and Persephone

Originally associated with Archemorous, also known as the hero God Ophletes, parsley became associated with Persephone when he died and where his blood was shed, the herb popped up. It seemed like Persephone had come to collect Archemorous's spirit in the form of parsley, and so the association stuck. Persephone helped guide the souls of the dead to the underworld, so tombstones and memorials were decorated with parsley in the hopes of pleasing the Goddess. As legend has it, parsley must visit with Hades, Persephone's husband and the God of the Underworld, nine times before it will germinate. In works of art, Persephone is often depicted as carrying a bouquet of parsley.

Aphrodite, Oregano, and Marjoram

Aphrodite was the goddess of two herbs, oregano and marjoram. Oregano was designed by her hand to represent joy. She planted the herb in her garden on Mt. Olympus to show the humans below a physical representation of what happiness looks like. Marjoram on the other hand was made to have the scent of Aphrodite on it. This meant any mortal could smell and connect with Aphrodite whenever they pleased.

Since Aphrodite, the Goddess of all things love, adored her plants so much, the herbs themselves grew to be associated with marriage and love. Couples would wear garlands or crowns made of oregano and marjoram on their wedding nights in the hopes of having a long, happy marriage. It is also said that if marjoram grows on the grave of a deceased person, that person is having a happy afterlife.

Adonis, Aphrodite, and Fennel

Adonis and Aphrodite were a unique couple because Adonis was a mortal and Aphrodite was immortal. Adonis was born from a tree and as a newborn found by Aphrodite and given to Persephone, queen of the Underworld, to raise. He grew into a beautiful young man who Persephone and Aphrodite fought over, eventually causing Zeus to step in and declare that Adonis would spend a third of his year with each one, his final third being spent with the Goddess of his choosing. He chose Aphrodite and with their extended time spent together, they fell in love. Unfortunately, Adonis was killed by a wild boar while he was on a hunting trip. He died in Aphrodite's arms while she wept. Her tears mixed with his blood and hit the ground and the anemone flower sprouted where the mixture fell.

The connection to fennel comes with the celebration of Adonia, a festival exclusively celebrated by women to mourn Aphrodite's loss of Adonis. During the festival, which may have taken place in spring or summer, women would tend to quick growing plants and let them die in the sun on their roofs. Most of the time, the plants would die because they were planted in shallow soil on top of broken terracotta pots, not necessarily because they were exposed to too much sun. After the plants died, the women wailed openly, tearing at their clothes and beating on their own chests for emphasis of their sorrow. Fennel was a popular choice and has often been called "the plant of Adonis" in reference to this festival.

During the Adonia festival, women take their dead plants through town on a path down to the water, as a mock funeral procession for their beloved, dead Adonis. The dead fennel was thrown into the water at the water's edge.

Hades and Minthe the Nymph

Hades, the god of the Underworld, was a very powerful God. He had a lover named Minthe, a river nymph that happened to live in the river Styx, or the river that separates the Earth from the Underworld. Eventually Hades became tired of Minthe and decided to seek out another woman, but this time his sights were set on Persephone. Through an elaborate scheme that he planned out with Zeus, Hades was able to abduct Persephone while she was out in a field picking flowers. Already annoyed with being abducted, Persephone discovered that Hades already had a girlfriend and became so enraged she began stomping on Minthe. Minthe transformed into the mint plant we know today, but only because Hades felt a semblance of pity for the nymph and used his powers to "save" her in some way.

Each of these stories highlights an origin story for some of the most fragrant, flavorful herbs on the planet. These myths are sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes lighthearted, but either way it gives the herbs a little bit of personality. Next time you reach for some mint, take a moment to think about the poor, stomped out Minthe. Then offer Persephone some parsley as an apology for sympathizing with the water nymph for that brief moment in time.

Read More

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Herbs in Mythology

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