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Flowers and Greek Mythology

Ancient Greek mythology is some of the most interesting and intricate stuff you could ever read. You’ve probably heard of Zeus, Athena, Hermes and a few of the other head honchos at Olympus, but there are over four hundred known gods, goddesses and spirits involved in Grecian myth, governing over everything imaginable, from hunger to old age to flour mills.

Why am I telling you this? Well, flowers feature in a lot of Greek myths- so much so that they’re the origin of some fairly famous flower names! The prime example here is the Narcissus: supposedly sprouting from the body of the conceited hunter with the same name, now a springtime sensation with dozens of variations. The story of Narcissus falling for (and falling into) his reflection in a lake is well-known, but oddly enough, it isn’t the only example of a flower that Ancient Greek mythology claims to originate from a fellow obsessed with his reflection! The Bellflower is also sometimes called Venus’ Looking Glass, as it originates from a tale where Venus misplaces her magic mirror and it ends up in the hands of a shepherd boy who refuses to return it after becoming enamoured with his enchanted reflection- the mirror shattered in Venus’ attempts to retrieve it, with bellflowers blooming wherever the shards landed.

Meanwhile, some myths aren’t so well-known as to make it into a name or nickname, but get a subtle nod in their lesser-known scientific names. Take, for instance, the cornflower, aka Centaurea cyanus. The centaur is a famous mythological creature with the top half of a man and the bottom half of a horse- in this case, the centaur in question is likely Chiron, a wise centaur and mentor to legendary warrior Achilles, and once used these blue blossoms to heal the latter’s battle-wounds.

Yarrow is another plant in the (obviously very common!) category of plants named for their ability to heal Achilles in battle; though the name of the Achillea millefolium is perhaps a little more on-the-nose about this. Achilles must’ve known his stuff: outside of mythology, yarrow is known for its medicinal uses, including reducing bleeding!

Some flowers are said to have been created by the gods to fulfil a specific purpose: The poppy is associated with both Morpheus, a god of sleep, and Demeter, a goddess of agriculture; as fitting for a flower containing a chemical often used to treat pain and insomnia, it’s said the latter created the flower to help her to sleep, and the former was asleep in a cave of poppy seeds as he shaped dreams for humans.

Then there’s the violet, a flower with a frankly ridiculous number of stories suggesting potential origins, namesakes and uses: it may have been created by Zeus as a gift to Io, his most recent mortal fling; but it’s also suggested they were once a group of girls transformed by Aphrodite in a jealous rage; they may have nestled an abandoned child by the riverbank, or perhaps they were a gift of goodwill to the founder of Athens- hence why ancient Athenians considered violets their symbol.

It all sounds a bit convoluted, but you must understand that these are stories from an old civilisation, meant to explain the world and entertain the masses, with dozens of people across generations adding and subtracting details. Personally, I just think it’s neat!