Botanical Knowledge and Vegetal Poetics in Archaic and Classical Greek Poetry

  Buccheri, Alessandro. "Botanical Knowledge and Vegetal Poetics in Archaic and Classical Greek Poetry." CHS Research Bulletin 9 (2021).


My current research aims to answer three interrelated questions: (a) What did the botanical knowledge of the archaic and the classical Greek era look like?; (b) how and why did it offer the Greek authors of the time convenient ways of thinking (analogically) about other experiences and realms of speculation, such as society, kinship ties, or the body?; and (c) can the study of the ancient botanical knowledge ultimately help us to understand the cosmologies of archaic and classical Greek texts, in particular, how they conceived of what we now call ‘nature’? Through this research, I engage in the debates currently at the forefront of the study of plants and nature, which have recently gained momentum across academia.

My Fellowship at the Center for Hellenic Studies occasioned exploration of the first of these objectives, namely the positing of the hypothesis that (a) the archaic and classical poetic traditions evince a form of shared botanical knowledge. This research pursued two particular interrelated ideas: (a.1) poets from the archaic and classical era share a precise understanding of plant morphology and physiology; (a.2) this botanical knowledge is one of the backgrounds against which the earliest extant botanical texts should be read. A further opportunity afforded by this Fellowship was the occasion to draft a project related to my third objective, (c). This will address the significance of vegetal life and agriculture – the ‘vegetal poetic’ – in the Hesiodic poems, especially in regard to their understanding of the relations between the natural and social worlds.


I. Introduction

Plants have increasingly been at the forefront of academic debate over the last few decades. Discoveries made by botanists of new and surprising plant features, which challenge basic human concepts such as life, identity, memory, and growth, have promoted something of a revolution amongst biologists and philosophers in the botanical fields, causing them to re-evaluate our existing assumptions around these notions (Hiernaux 2018). At the same time, the humanities and social sciences have also witnessed proliferating interest in the study of the vegetal kingdom as part of a broader movement to reappraise the roles of non-human subjects within human societies and cultures. Literary critics have turned their attentions towards understanding when, how, and why plants are represented in literature (e.g. Nitzke 2020), whilst historians and anthropologists have pursued studies investigating knowledge and practices of both past and current societies in relation to the vegetal world (e.g. Boumediene 2016, Kohn 2013, Rival 1998). Philosophers, too, have attempted to capture the essence of plant life and the relevance of its peculiarities across the different branches of their field, stretching from ethics to metaphysics (Burgat 2020, Coccia 2018, Marder 2013). Collectively, these efforts contribute not only to a better understanding of the botanical realm, but also perspectives of an ethical import that resonates deeply with the current climatic crisis. In particular, they underline the centrality of plants to our material, social, and cultural lives, and, in doing so, prompt an adoption of a more hospitable, less hierarchical, version of our Western ontology, where rights and duties may be more equally distributed among human and non-human subjects (Descola 2014).

It is my belief that, as Classicists, we should intend our contributions to have a bearing more broadly on the main debates of our day, lest our discipline lose its relevance. Interestingly enough, a new wave of interest towards the significance – both literal and metaphorical – of the vegetal world to human life and thought has arisen within the field of Classical studies (with reference to ancient religion, see, e.g., Gartziou-Tatti and Zografou 2019; for plants in Greek philosophy, Repici 2015, 2000 and Macé 2013; for plants in Greek medicine, Holmes 2017; for a re-evaluation of ancient botany, Hardy and Totelin 2016). My current work addresses two interrelated questions that lie at the heart of these ongoing debates: (1) how have people dealt with the difficult task of both characterizing the peculiarities of, and understanding the processes central to, the botanical realm?; and (2) how does the history of botanical knowledge contribute to discourses on the divide between nature and culture (or nature and society), with all its ethical ramifications?

Greek texts provide especially rich and pertinent case studies. On the one hand, understanding the peculiarities of vegetal life was already a concern to ancient Greek philosophers such as Empedocles or Theophrastus, but also – as I claim below – to the poets of the archaic and classical periods, who already held a complex and systematized understanding of vegetal physiology and morphogenesis. On the other, plants provided ancient authors with interesting models to ‘think with’ in relation to several domains, including ontological speculations. The pages that follow briefly enumerate some of the examples relevant to both spheres.

2. Reconstructing the botanical knowledge of archaic and classical poetry

The ‘poetic botany’ I am interested in is the commonly-shared botanical culture between archaic and classical Greek poets, which underpins the peculiarities of their references to the world of plants. With very few exceptions, the archaic and classical poets never spell out the elements out of which this knowledge is composed. As with many other domains – such as ancient ideas about society, economy, or the netherworld – we must reconstruct such knowledge indirectly; working from clues offered through the texts themselves. The peculiarities of their references constitute one such window through which the researcher may glimpse fragments of this shared poetical plant lore.

Of course, the claim that a body of structured knowledge underpins references to the vegetal world in Greek poetry is not entirely new. In the wake of structuralism, influential works by authors such as Marcel Detienne and Claude Calame have amply shown how indigenous classifications of plant species (as hot or cold, dry or wet, wild or domestic) oriented the symbolic and poetic significance they acquired in poetry, mythical narratives, and religion (Detienne 1977; Calame 1999, 153–174). Alternatively, other scholars have focused on investigating the knowledge and beliefs associated with individual plant species (see the synthesis provided by Motte 2019). Works that have analyzed the poetical use of the vegetal lexicon furthermore contribute to our understanding of values commonly aligned with the representation of botanical phenomena in poetry (e.g., for Homer: Brockliss 2019; Nagy 1979, 174–210; for Pindar: Salvador Castillo 1996; Steiner 1986, 28–39). As I hypothesize, however, the archaic and classical Greek traditions further exhibit a particular understanding of the physiology of plants that has influenced subsequent elaborations of philosophers and doctors likewise interested in the botanical realm. One key to reconstructing at least some fragments of this botanical knowledge is the botanical lexicon (on the idea of using the peculiarities of the lexicon as a window onto cultural phenomena, see Bettini and Short 2018a).

In the traditional diction of archaic and classical poetry, the botanical lexicon presents some initially startling features, as a result of its use in contexts in which it appears out of place. The Homeric poets, for instance, regularly use the verb thallō (‘to be in full bloom’) and its cognates to qualify, among other things, tears, porcine fat, or desire (e.g., Homer Iliad 2.266 [tears], 9.208 [fat], Homeric Hymn to Pan 19.33 [desire]). Each is said to be ‘blooming’. In what sense, however, we might ask, do tears and fat ‘bloom’? The word anthos (‘flower’) is also used in reference to a surprising variety of entities, which range from the ‘surface of a metal’, to the ‘froth’ atop the waves at sea (Theognis 1.452, Alcman fr. 26 P = 90 C 2–3). Similarly, words in the family of phuomai, (‘to grow (said of a plant)’), have an unexpectedly intricate linguistic history (the clearest overview being that of Burger 1925).

The wide semantic range of words like thallō, anthos, and phuomai raises the question of what understanding of vegetal life is captured by these Greek words, and how this understanding warrants the use of these words in connection with non-vegetal entities – ‘flower’ and ‘bloom’, for instance, in reference to liquids such as foam or tears, or phuomai (‘to grow’) as a description of the appearance of human beings. My approach is thus markedly different from the lexicographical works of Holwerda 1955, Aitchison 1963, Lowenstam 1979, or Clarke 2005, who sought sufficiently general definitions of the aforementioned terms such that they would be capable of fitting all the possible usages, returning mixed results.

The botanical lexicon of archaic and classical poetry seems to capture two main aspects of vegetal life. On the one hand, words like anthos and thallō describe the life of plants as a continuous process dependent upon, and coextensive with, the presence and transformation of the sap within. Thallō (‘to thrive, to be in full bloom’) describes vegetal growth as the consequence of liquids rising, simmering, and frothing within the vegetal body. Anthos identifies a ‘flower’ as a delicate concretion of sap, no different from a delicate concretion of foam. On the other hand, the verb phuomai describes the ways in which a plant unfolds in space and acquires its outward form and typical silhouette. This double understanding of the life processes of plants underpins the aforementioned surprising use of the lexicon that is deeply entrenched in the poetical traditions of archaic and classical Greece. Moreover, the same understanding of vegetal life is central to the botany of the Hippocratic treatise On generation/On the nature of the child, which contains in its chap. 22-27 the earliest extant botanical text.

The details of my argument on poetic botany have been included in my forthcoming monograph on botanical metaphors in archaic and classical Greek poetry, the completion of which has been one of my primary preoccupations during my year as a Fellow of the CHS (Buccheri 2021). In addition to this, a further forthcoming paper details the relation between poetry and the Hippocratic text On generation/On the nature of the child (Buccheri forthcoming). In the future, I plan to expand upon this analysis of ‘poetic botany’ and its ramifications to the philosophy and medicine of the 5th and the 4th centuries BCE.

3.From botany to cosmology: Plants and nature in ancient Greek poetry

Study of the vegetal lexicon, and of representations of vegetal life in archaic and classical Greek poetry, does not merely provide information about the botanical knowledge of the era; it also opens a window on to ancient ideas regarding what we now call ‘nature’.

The modern concept of ‘Nature’, especially in its capitalized form, is foreign to archaic and classical Greek thought. Ancient conceptions of phusis cannot be readily assimilated to it. However, ancient conceptions of phusis, and, more generally, the ontological and cosmological speculations of ancient Greek authors, may be used as a foil to better understand our own conceptions of nature, and our (often unquestioned) assumptions about the ontology of the worlds we inhabit (with reference to ancient phusis, see Calame 2015; for ancient and modern ontologies, see Lloyd 2012). Recent studies have shown that the world of plants offered convenient models for ancient Greek authors both to think about phusis (analogically), and to envision ontological and cosmological questions (see Macé 2013). Botanical analogies and metaphors underpinning the genealogical usage of the word phusis in tragedy have been at the core of my earlier work (Buccheri 2012). During my residency at the CHS, I drafted a new project aiming to study the ontology of the Hesiodic poems through analysis of their representation of the vegetal world and of their use of the botanical lexicon.

My new project is grounded in two primary observations. First, the botanical lexicon plays an important role in two crucial features of the Theogony (which constitute also, one might argue, two crucial features of ancient polytheism in general – see Belayche et al. 2005): naming the gods and charting the network of their relations. Secondly, the representation of plants, vegetal life, and agriculture is integral to the central themes of both the Theogony and the Works and Days, such as their reflections on justice, on the limits of human action, the characterization of poetry, and, above all, the ordering of the cosmos.

An initial inquiry into this project – which also served as a proof of concept – has concerned the use of words in the thallō family in the context of Hesiodic divine naming. The root thal– appears in theonyms, epithets, and formulae used to describe the gods and their marriages, though some divine powers that are so named or described are not straightforwardly connected to vegetation. The question therefore arises – for what does the ‘bloom’ of the vegetation stand for in the Hesiodic poems? How does it participate in the description of those gods’ powers or modes of intervention? How does it chart their mutual relations? What does its use reveal about the Hesiodic presentation of the cosmos?

Although further investigation is needed to answer these questions, a preliminary analysis suggests that the Hesiodic poems compare and contrast two kinds of ‘blooming’. On the one hand, there is the unbridled, hubristic, and antisocial vegetal fecundity associated with the rule of Ouranos. On the other, there is the ‘blooming’ that takes place under the rule of Zeus. Names and epithets connected with the root thal– mostly concern the divine powers through which Zeus ensures the order and prosperity of the universe in general, and human societies in particular. In this case, the Hesiodic poems seem to depict vegetal life (at least poetically) as coterminous with social, political, and religious life. It is a matter of debate whether or not we should read this as the manifestation of a particularly interconnected ontology – that is, one that sidesteps many of the oppositions structuring its current Western counterpart. Indeed, a recent proposal seems to encourage such a reading (Usher 2020, 39–44). From these initial observations, I intend to expand upon this analysis of the Hesiodic portrayal of plants, vegetal life, and agriculture to produce, what we might call, a study of the ‘vegetal poetics’ of Hesiod, which will offer a full recognition of the botanical world, its poetic values, and their significance to the constitution of the Hesiodic cosmos.


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