Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Helmut Baumann, Flora mythologica: griechische Pflanzenwelt in der Antike (Vollständig überarbeite Ausgabe). Akanthus crescens; 8. Kilchberg: Akanthus, 2007. Pp. 173. ISBN 9783905083248. €40.50 (pb).
Reviewed by Nassos Papalexandrou, The University of Texas at Austin

There is no scarcity of recent publications on the vegetal world in life, thought, and art of the Greeks, the Romans and their neighbors.1 Archaeobotanical and ethnobotanical studies are quintessential components of the archaeological method even as paleoenviromentalists have devised sophisticated ways of shedding light on the fluctuating floras of the past.2 The book under review here is the most recent edition of a seminal book of 1982,3 which was elegantly translated into English in 1993 by William T. Stern and Eldwyth Ruth Stern.4 The 2007 edition, occasioned by a photographic exhibition in Germany, is the most evolved version of this valuable book. Despite the fact that this edition targets a non specialist German-reading audience, its scholarship and the unprecedented quality of the production make it a useful companion for classical scholars. The wonderful 287 color illustrations speak volumes about the plants and flowers of the Greeks and their place in the Greek mythological imagination. Equally valuable is the encyclopaedic content of the book, especially for those interested in studying the flora of contemporary Greece vis-à-vis that of classical antiquity. However, in this respect, the previous German editions and the English translation of 1993 are still indispensable, especially for audiences in the English reading world.

The major differences between the 2007 and the previous editions of this book have to do less with content and organization than with formatting and selection of images. The structure and text are more or less that of the German editions and the 1982 translation. On the other hand, in this edition the number of images has been substantially reduced, especially by minimizing the number of black and white photos (a total of 287 illustrations versus 482 of the original German and the translation in English). As a result the text is much better coordinated with its accompanying illustrations than before and is thus easier to read. Nevertheless, one sadly discovers that the elided illustrations often include ancient monuments with depictions of plants discussed in the text. Equally notable is the occasional reduction of text in the legends of illustrations.

The supporting apparatus has been slightly reworked as well. The latest entry in the bibliography dates to 2005. The index follows the division of the original German edition in plants, ancient names, and geographical location. This will be of use only for those with a solid command of German and the scientific names of plants. Yet, I found it lacking, especially in its omission of the ancient names of plants or similar terms. For example, the discussion of Diktamus (Origanum dictamnus) mentions the alternate name "artemidion" for the same plant but there is no equivalent entry in the index (p. 80). Likewise, in the discussion of Muscari comosum there is mention of the word "volvoi" in Theocritus for the same plant (p. 95). If one comes across this word in Theocritus and wishes to find more about it, the index will not be immediately helpful. In this respect, equally disappointing is the frequent omission in the text of ancient names of plants or those used in modern Greek. For example, the discussion of what is known in German as Zaunwinde (Calystegia sylvatica, "Large Bindweed" in English) omits reference to the ancient name of the plant or, in case this is not known, the reader does not learn about this (p. 123). These observations may sound trite but readers will sympathize with the unavoidable frustrations generated by our need to fully understand what we know exactly about ancient categories and terms used for them in the surviving literature and art.

These quibbles, however, should not detract from the fact that the book is excellent throughout. It is an all encompassing overview of the role of all types of plants and flowers in the daily life of Greeks but also in myth, cult, and ritual. Although English speaking readers will still have to rely on the English translation of 1993, the 2007 edition will be a necessary acquisition for libraries even in this time of crisis and deplorable budget cuts in the humanities.


1.   For example, two publications stand out in the last few years alone: Nikolaus Himmelmann, Grundlagen der griechischen Pflanzendarstellung (2005) [recently reviewed in BMCR, see BMCR 2009.03.27]; Peter Bernhardt, Gods and Goddesses in the Garden: Greco-Roman Mythology and the Scientific names of plants (2008); Erika Kunze-Götte, Myrte als Attribut und Ornament auf attischen Vasen (2006).
2.   Oliver Rackham and Jennifer Moody, The Making of the Cretan Landscape (1996).
3.   H. Baumann, Die griechische Pflanzenwelt in Mythos, Kunst und Literatur (1982).
4.   H. Baumann, The Greek Plant World in Myth, Art and Literature, translated and augmented by William T. Stearn and Eldwyth Ruth Stearn (1993).

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